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Two's Company

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“Bag? Supplies? Potions?”



“Che—Ez, how would I forget my shoes?!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ezran said. “Choosing your starter is important step. It’s normal to be nervous.”

His helioptile, Bait, yipped in agreement from on top of Ezran’s head. Callum swore the only reason it sat up there was to steal treats out of his hands. Maybe excessive consumption of jelly tarts was the reason Bait was obnoxiously yellow and blue instead of the usual colours.

“You’re more nervous than I am!” Callum protested. “It’ll be fine. I already have Peanut, anyway!” He paused and looked at his feet. I definitely have shoes, but… “Where is Peanut?”

Your smeargle is painting in the attic again,” Aunt Amaya signed. “I swear he’s going to miss that room more than he’ll miss us.”

Callum laughed awkwardly. He wasn’t sure how to break it to his aunt that this was true. “Aha. Yeah. Uh… anyway, I’ll just… go get him...”

Amaya clapped a hand on his shoulder before he could move, pulling it away again to sign, “One last thing. Did you eat breakfast?”

He sighed. “Yes, Aunt Amaya. And I made sure Peanut had his too.”

Good. It’s the most important meal of the day. Make sure you never skip breakfast and you’ll do well!” She grinned, looking him up and down and nodding decisively. Her fingers moved quickly as she added, “You look like a real Trainer. I know you’ll do us proud. I’m looking forward to fighting you!”

“Thanks, Aunt Amaya.” She was a Gym Leader, of the Steel-type Gym in Katolis City, so it meant a lot to hear that. Even if Callum was pretty sure it would turn out not to be true.

“Call home every once and a while and tell me and Bait how you’re doing!” Ezran said. “I keep telling him the Xadia City Gym isn’t made of real candyfloss, but he won’t listen. You’ll back me up when you get there, won’t you?”

Callum thought about telling him that it was supposed to look like clouds… and then decided it wasn’t worth the argument. Maybe it would never come up! The Xadia City Gym was the eighth in the circuit, after all. He’d probably never get that far—he was useless at battling, and Peanut rarely listened to him, anyway. Really, Professor Viren ought not to give him one of his rare pokemon at all, but… well, that was kind of what happened when he was friends with your stepdad. Who was also the former Champion. …As well as your mom.

Go get them, kid,” Aunt Amaya signed. “If you don’t call home at least once a week, I’ll break your kneecaps.” She paused. “It’s a joke. You’re supposed to laugh.”

“Leave my kneecaps out of this. What did they ever do to you?” Callum said, and then she laughed.

He strode to the door, turning back to look at his family one more time. Harrow couldn’t be there, but seeing Ezran and Aunt Amaya grinning back at him made him feel a bit weepy anyway. It wasn’t like, a forever goodbye, but a trainer journey was still big and important and involved leaving home and maybe realising your family wasn’t as annoying as you thought—

For their sake, Callum wanted to at least try. He took a deep breath, then turned his back on them and put his hand on the doorknob. Here I go…


“I forgot to get Peanut!”

Callum had been around Professor Viren’s lab a lot as a kid, but he still found it to be vaguely creepy. Maybe it was because Professor Viren specialised in studying ghost type pokemon and they were always hanging around the place, giving the air a peculiar chill, or maybe—yeah no it was definitely the ghost type thing. Ugh.

As he walked up the path, trying to ignore the chill running down his spine, a familiar voice called, “Hey, Callum!”

Despite the gloomy atmosphere, Callum’s heart lifted. “Claudia! You came to see me off?”

“You bet I did!” Claudia said, smiling. She’d been a trainer for a few years already and had four Gym Badges, which was really impressive—especially as she was a dark type specialist. “And you know I have to try convincing you to pick my favourite type!”

Callum had been desperate to pick the dark-type ever since Claudia had decided to specialise in them to give him an excuse to ask her questions about raising it. Or, well, he said excuses, but actually he would probably really need those tips. “Uh… maybe!” he said, trying to play it cool. “You know me, always uh… going with the flow…”

“Reeeally?” Claudia gave him a knowing look. “Don’t you always have that diary with you?”

He’d showed her that thing like a dozen times. Dammit. “Well, uh, I sometimes flow… a few months early?”

Claudia laughed. Nailed it, Callum thought, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Dad’s waiting for you inside. Some other trainer is already there too!” She waggled her fingers at him and pretended to scowl. “Choose wisely!”

Callum tried to grin back, even though his stomach was feeling a bit queasy. “See you on the other side!”

...God I hope that didn’t give the ghost pokemon any ideas.

The door to the lab creaked ominously as he opened it, just like Callum always remembered it doing. Viren super didn’t help the creepy atmosphere around this place. Was it too much to simply oil the hinges every now and then?

Inside was Professor Viren – his usual self, one good, swishy cloak away from looking like a mage straight from the pages of the best fantasy novel. He nodded at Callum rather than smiling, because cheer would probably clash with his image or something.

Three pokemon sat at the professor’s feet, fidgeting, but Callum’s attention was drawn to the other trainer, a girl who looked to be around his age. She had pale hair drawn up in a ponytail, dark blue clothes, and… weird head gear that looked like… horns?

The girl examined Callum in turn, and began to scowl when Callum just blinked at her a lot. She folded her arms. “What?

“Uh… nothing.” Don’t say ‘what’s with the horns’, don’t say ‘what’s with the horns’, don’t say… “So, uh, there’s uh… on your head… what’s with the…”

The girl sighed aggressively, a talent she shared with Aunt Amaya. “The name is Rayla, thanks for askin’.”

Yeah okay, horns, bad conversation topic. Time to rescue this! “Nice to meet you, Rayla! I’m Callum.”

“I know who you are,” she said, and sniffed.

…That sounded like an insult. And a threat. Why? How?!

Professor Viren cleared his throat before Callum could do more than scratch his head. “Now that you’ve both… introduced yourselves, it’s time to choose a pokemon. Rayla arrived first, so she’ll have the first pick. I think that’s the fairest way.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for the third person?” Callum asked.

Viren snorted. “I have important research to conduct; I can’t wait around all day for a trainer who is only going to get your leftovers.”

Uh. Ouch. Maybe this was why Aunt Amaya insisted he be on time.

The pokemon all drooped a bit, because it couldn’t be nice to be described as leftovers. Callum already knew he was picking the dark-type, a murkrow, but he gave them all a thumbs up. He was sure the fighting-type mienfoo and the psychic-type baltoy would find good trainers too!

This seemed to cheer them up a bit… although the baltoy didn’t have any expression so it was kinda hard to tell… Callum subtly moved his head to the side and yep, those false eyes really did seem to follow him all around the room. Creepy. But it was probably cute and sweet on the inside! After all, if the inside was hollow, that meant more room for cuteness! And… were baltoy empty on the inside?

...Why did I think that, I just grossed myself out.

Callum was violently torn from this train of thought when Rayla unfolded her arms and said, “I’ll take the murkrow, then.”

Wait, what?

“Wait, what?” Callum gaped at her. “But I was going to pick that one!”

“Where you now.” Rayla bent down to offer the murkrow her hand, making a soft clucking noise at the back of her throat. The murkrow destroyed all of Callum’s hopes and dreams by tilting its head to one side and then hopping onto her hand.

It squawked and then nuzzled Rayla’s hand with its beak. The traitor.

Rayla laughed, lighting up her whole face. It was such an expression of pure delight that Callum itched to draw it – before he remembered that she was an evil dark-type-stealing trainer, obviously. She raised the hand holding her murkrow towards her horns, and it tapped one of them with its beak before hopping onto it and beating its wings. Rayla seemed totally unbothered by her ruffled hair, and only grinned.

...Okay, it was kind of cool if that was what the horns were for, but also, what kind of support did those things have, wouldn’t that be really bad for your neck—

“Callum? It’s your turn to choose,” Viren said.

“But...” Callum looked despairingly at the murkrow perched on Rayla’s head, preening happily. It was hard to feel bad at the sight, but dammit, Callum was trying real hard anyway!

Well, it would… it would be fine. He could just catch a dark type instead, and ask Claudia about that one. Right? Right. Easy-peasy, problem solved…

...Except that he had never thought of what he wanted to pick apart from ‘the dark type’; he didn’t really know that much about psychic type pokemon and only a little more about fighting types. Plus, his mom had been a fighting type trainer, and that was just setting people up for all sorts of expectations and disappointments.

He looked at the two other pokemon, chewing on his lip. Even worse, the fighting type pokemon was a mienfoo—mienshao, its evolved form, had been Mom’s most famous pokemon, her best. Callum had seen videos of her matches, but they were pretty fast and kind of hard to follow. He just had vague memories of Mom’s mienshao, Fu, patting him on his head in the same way that she did, gentle as anything. Fu only lived for a few years after Mom died, but he used to follow Ezran around everywhere as a baby, anxiously watching for threats and sneaking him jelly tarts when Harrow or Amaya weren’t looking.

Callum hadn’t thought about Fu in a long time. It… it might be nice, he supposed, to have something in common with his mom. But it also meant there was a lot to live up to. What if he raised it wrong?

But the baltoy really did give him the heebie-jeebies so… mienfoo it is!

“So, uh...” He looked down at the mienfoo, which was nearly as tall as Callum’s waist. Well, sort of nearly. “Hi there, buddy?”

The mienfoo sniffed and lifted its nose up in the air, but continued watching him carefully.

That meant… a thing. It definitely had at least one meaning. What did mienfoo like? A lot of fighting types were into the stereotypical ‘grr I am strong’ stuff, but Fu hadn’t been like that. His attacks were always nimble and fast, finding split-second openings. Skill over power.

I can sell this. I mean… I gotta sell this.

“I know you might like an expert in fighting types better, but… I’ve got a good eye.” The mienfoo focused its full attention on him, but remained silent. Callum started to sweat. “What I mean is, I, uh, I draw a bit! And well… it’s not a lot but… I know body language… and, uh, movement, and stuff like that! So I can—probably I can help? You know?”

That sounded terrible even to his own ears. Wow, that is the worst pitch.

Even Rayla was staring at him, although he couldn’t quite place if the expression was more incredulous or appalled.

The mienfoo blinked at him for a long moment. Callum tried to remember to breathe. Slowly, it nodded, and made a happy mewling sound.

Callum sagged with relief because whooo, there was setting yourself up for unflattering comparisons with your Champion mother, and then there was just, like, totally failing her on a spiritual level. He patted the mienfoo on the head whilst it looked at him expectantly.

Did it want a name? Oh no. Callum was not prepared for this. All his prepared nicknames were for dark types. The murkrow didn’t put Rayla on the spot like this!

“It’s a female mienfoo, if that helps,” Viren said.

Great, now even the Professor thinks I’m unprepared.

Something short and snappy, definitely. If you were a pokemon that operated on striking quickly, you didn’t want to be called something like ‘Raymond Edmonton the Third’. I mean, no pokemon wants to be called something like that ever, because that’s a silly name, but the point stands.

“Ah… uh… Lin?” Callum offered.

The mienfoo did a twirl, but its—her expression didn’t change much. He had no idea what she was trying to communicate, but he figured it wasn’t, like, actively mad at the name or anything so he gave it a thumbs up and said, “Okay, Lin is good! Lin is great!”

Lin tilted its head to the side and looked at him. Was the double thumbs up overdoing it? Callum put one of his arms down.

“Who… are you?” Rayla asked.

Didn’t they already do this? Did he imagine a whole conversation with her? Man, not again. “I’m Callum,” he said. “Nice to meet you!”

“You already said that.”

He squinted at her. “Then… why would you ask?”

She sighed heavily.

“That’s enough chit chat,” Professor Viren declared, throwing his arms open and shooing them out. His sleeves were of normal width and didn’t billow, but Callum always felt like he’d been billowed at when Viren did this. He really should consider getting that cloak. The aesthetics would be on point. “Out, I have things to do! You have my number in case of serious emergencies, so get going!”

Did Rayla have his number? Callum did, because Harrow had positively filled his contacts list with every adult he knew who knew anything about travelling, pokemon, first aid, or any combination of the above. Most of the people didn’t even have names, they were just saved as things like ‘Neurologist spec. concussions’ and ‘retired fire type breeder w/ hiking trophy’.

Callum didn’t even know what the ‘hiking trophy’ part was supposed to tell him. How did you win trophies for hiking anyway?

The door closed behind him and Rayla. The third trainer was super late. Viren was probably doing to be real mad when they eventually showed up.

He and Rayla blinked at each other for a minute, Rayla frowning as she took her hair out of the ponytail. He felt… studied. Callum wasn’t sure what her problem was, considering she was the starter-stealer. Even if Lin was pretty good too.

Eventually, she shrugged. “See you around,” she said, and walked off.

“Uh… yeah!” Callum called to her retreating back.

The murkrow sitting on her horns turned and squawked at him. He chose to interpret this as a supportive goodbye.

He glanced at his side, where Lin was looking around curiously. “Come on. We should probably get going as well. Hey, I can introduce you to Peanut later! He’s my other pokemon. He’s really good at drawing, so he can help you out too!”

Lin got into some kind of fighting stance – loose, relaxed, defensive, Callum noted automatically – and launched into a series of fast kicks and punches, twirling and twisting around an imaginary opponent.

This went on for about thirty seconds until the mienfoo stopped and looked at him.

There was a pause.

“…Glad you’re excited!” Callum said, giving Lin another thumbs up. Just the one this time; he’d learnt his lesson.

Miraculously, this seemed to have been the right response. Lin jumped and clapped her hands together, making a squeaky noise. It didn’t take a pokemon communications genius (Callum had one of those in his phone contacts too) to realise she was happy.

It was kind of infectious. Callum grinned back at her. Maybe this would actually be really cool! He could look up some of his mom’s old training videos, call Harrow to ask more about…

“Callum!” Claudia called, interrupting his thoughts. “I thought I heard something. Are you okay?”

“Oh, yeah! We were just… talking!”

He didn’t realise she’d been waiting, and jogged to meet her with Lin following at his heels.

“Aw, it’s really cute! Didn’t your mom have one of these?” Claudia bent down and offered Lin her hand to sniff. “I can see why you chose it over a dark type.”

She was trying to be happy, but she still sounded a little disappointed. Callum’s heart sank. He wanted to reassure her that he would’ve picked the dark type if Rayla hadn’t gotten to it first, but it was… kinda mean to keep going on about that when Lin was right there.

He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, I can still go out and catch one later! You make dark types sound really cool!”

“Oh, I can tell you all the best places to find them!” Claudia said, perking up immediately. “Actually, there’s this secret part of Luminon Cave, it looks like just a crack in the wall but behind it there’s a place where loads of sableye hang out!”

Luminon Cave was right after the first Gym. Even Callum could totally get there and catch a dark type. Piece of cake!

Claudia snapped a picture of Lin on her phone. “Soren will be pleased, though. You know how much he loves fighting types. Don’t forget to call him if you need help!”

“Uh… sure!” Callum hoped his smile didn’t look too strained. “I’ll definitely do that!”

Soren was… a good trainer in his own right, absolutely! He’d taught Callum and Ezran a bunch of stuff when they were younger, when Aunt Amaya was the first Gym in the circuit and working all the time. His battle strategies could be, uh, somewhat lacking in finesse, though, and all his pokemon were the big punchy strength grrr fighting-types that was the exact opposite of mienfoo.

...Apart from that sirfetch’d he had, but Callum just found that pokemon… kind of weird. And he hated leeks. The worst vegetable.

Lin made a long, high-pitched sound, and Callum looked down again to find her tilting her head at an angle.

“Yeah, you’re right, we should probably get going. I’ll introduce you to Peanut on the way.”

“Aww,” Claudia said, standing. “Well, Dad wanted to talk to me about something anyway. I’ll see you later, Callum. Don’t forget to message me when you catch a dark type!”

“Will do!” Callum replied, saluting. “Good luck with, uh, with stuff!”

Luminon Cave. Crack that was actually secret cave entrance. After first Gym. He could totally remember that, right? Right…

Chapter Text

Callum stopped by his house to show off Lin and to reassure Ez that he hadn’t lost his shoes. Aunt Amaya didn’t say much, but Callum noticed the tears in her eyes when she watched Lin trailing after him. Had she known what the pokemon were going to be? Had she been secretly hoping he’d pick the mienfoo all along?

Anyway, she held out a piece of metal like a shield for Lin to kick and they high-fived after Lin made a massive dent in it, so it seemed like they approved of each other.

Saying goodbye the second time was weirdly easy. Maybe that was because he knew he hadn’t forgotten Peanut this time, but having a starter made the whole thing feel real. He was really a trainer and going on a journey, he was totally going to do this!

...He didn’t know exactly what ‘this’ was. Becoming a master trainer seemed out of his reach, but hopefully Lin’s enthusiasm would be able to carry him at least to Aunt Amaya’s Gym because whoo he had seen the hero worship in Lin’s eyes, and yeah, she totally wanted to fight his aunt now. Aunt Amaya was weird and probably thought that was cute.

His family was weird. But… he was going to miss them. He just hoped he wasn’t going to be too much of a disappointment.

On the road out of town, he ran into Rayla again. The murkrow had gone into a pokeball. He knew she couldn’t possibly keep it on those horn things for too long. Although it did look cool...

“Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”

“My name is Callum!” he said. “You know, I’m sure we’ve been over this before.”

Her mouth twitched. Aha! She did have a personality hidden away under all that grouch!

“Callum,” she repeated. Her accent gave it a nice, almost lyrical lilt. “My uncle told me one of the other trainers today would be the son of two Champions. Is that true?”

Uh oh. “I mean. Half true. Harrow is my stepdad.”

“And your ma was Champion Sarai, right?” She looked pointedly at Lin, who was luckily not paying attention. The mienfoo hadn’t reacted when Claudia said his mom had had the same pokemon, but if she found out Callum’s mother was Champion? That was going to raise expectations for sure.

Callum knew he didn’t manage to keep the strain out of his smile this time. “That was… just a coincidence. But um, yeah, she’s… she was my mom.”

Rayla hummed thoughtfully. “So...”

“Please don’t tell anyone!” he blurted.

She frowned. “Why not? Aren’t you proud of them?”

“Of course I am! They’re amazing. And Aunt Amaya.” And probably Ezran when he got old enough to be a trainer. He just always seemed to get pokemon like nobody else. Everyone in the family…

Rayla still didn’t look convinced.

“It’s just… a lot, you know? I don’t want people looking at me and expecting my parents.” Because they’re going to be disappointed. “I want a chance to just be Callum.”

“Oh.” She seemed contrite, not meeting his eyes and fiddling with her fingers. “Okay. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thanks!” He breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m trying to get away from my parents, too,” Rayla said. “It’s not the same, but… you know. I understand.”

Callum was tempted to ask what was up with her parents. He thought it was only fair, since she knew about his family. But she looked so sad that he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he said, “So, who’s your uncle?”

This was a good topic. Rayla beamed. “Runaan!”

Callum blinked. “The Gym Leader from Xadia City?”

“How many other Runaans do you know?”

“Point taken.” He was a flying-type specialist, so… “Is that why you wanted the murkrow?”

“That’s right! I learned all about flying-types from him. He’s amazing.” She nodded to herself. “But I’m going to be better.”

“Oh, cool!” he said, trying to sound sincere. He was still a little bitter about the starter thing. Claudia would’ve been so excited!

Rayla paused. After a moment of silence, she raised an eyebrow.

Callum looked confused. “Was I… supposed to say something else?”

She stared at him blankly, and then shook her head. “Never mind. Anyway, see you around! I’m off.”

“Wait, wait—” Callum caught her shoulder before she could turn her back. Despite the starter-stealing, she wasn’t so bad, and it might be nice to have company on the road. “Aren’t we going the same way? Maybe we could walk together!”

“No way, slowcoach.” She stuck her tongue out at him and, weirdly, started stretching her legs. “I’m going to get a head start and grab that first Gym badge before you do.”

“What? But...” Callum spluttered. “I never agreed to this!”

Rayla only grinned and started running. “Catch me if you can!”

And… wow, she was… actually… really fast. She was out of sight before Callum even processed what was happening.

Did she just rival me? Am I her rival now? That’s not fair! You can’t just… assign someone to be your rival without asking!

Lin made a squeaking noise and a blur of yellow and brown zoomed ahead from Callum’s peripheral vision.

The mienfoo stopped a few moments later when she realised Callum wasn’t following. She jogged on the spot and whined at him.

Callum folded his arms and gave her an unimpressed look. “Yeah, no, I am not running all the way to Castletown.”

Lin drooped so dramatically that his heart sank.

“Don’t worry!” he found himself assuring her, flapping his hands in a panic. When she perked up a little, Callum forced himself to grin. “The first Gym is a rock-type specialist and she’s got a flier. It’ll take her ages to actually earn the Gym badge! We’ve got plenty of time to catch up to her.”

Lin seemed mollified and was content to walk at a normal pace beside him.

This doesn’t mean I reciprocate the rivalry though! No way! He definitely didn’t need that kind of pressure on top of all the other pressure.

...He would just… think of a way to make this clear to Lin without disappointing her… on the road. Yep. Before she had time to get invested. Totally doable.

Callum watched Lin practise kicking rocks into the sky on the road to Castletown, returning to him every few seconds for praise and tips, with a sinking feeling.

“Are you… teaching yourself how to hit flying-types whilst they’re in the air?” he asked.

Lin bounced and squeaked in a way which couldn’t be anything other than affirmative.

...So about that ‘getting invested’ thing…

“I can’t believe I need help already,” Callum muttered, burying his face in his hands.

It would be fine. He just had to call Amaya and Ezran in Castletown and ask for advice on how to reel it back. Even Callum could follow their advice. It would be fine!

Lin hit a tree branch that she must’ve been aiming at, because she began to vibrate with excitement and bounced higher than Callum’s head in celebration.

...She’s gonna be so sad oh no—

Despite Callum’s protests, Lin did manage to guilt trip him into power walking most of the way to Castletown. He managed to make it in record time, but now his feet hurt, and he was glad he’d thought to sneak in a break under the guise of introducing Lin to Peanut. The smeargle was obsessed with art but seemed to have deemed Lin a worthy object of his portraits, because he gave Callum an approving nod.

And then demanded to go back in his pokeball once it was clear there would not be a chance for a sketch break. Callum only wished he had a pokeball he could get carried around in.

It turn out to be pretty lucky they got there so fast, because they had only stopped by the Centre for some lunch when Rayla announced her presence with a dramatic, “Greetings, slowpokes!”

Callum jumped about a foot in the air. “Do you have to sneak up on people like that? And pokemon,” he added hastily, seeing Lin tap her foot and glare at him.

“Sneaking is half the fun of surprises,” Rayla said, grinning.

“Well, congrats. We’re surprised,” Callum replied dryly.

Rayla ignored him, too busy searching for something in her pocket – a small display case a little larger than the length of her hand.

She flipped it open in one smooth motion. It did look super cool. She must’ve practised it; Callum couldn’t do that at all.


He’d been so impressed by the flip that he hadn’t look at—

Rayla’s Gym badge. From the first Gym. Already?!

Lin stomped her foot so hard that she cracked the floor. Callum really hoped he wasn’t going to have to pay for that.

“What—how?! I—ugh.” Callum buried his face in his hands. “You have a flying-type! It shouldn’t be possible to do a rock Gym so fast!”

“That you’ve seen,” Rayla said in a sing-song voice.

Callum raised his face from his hands to see her grinning from ear to ear. “You have another pokemon?”

She flicked his nose and skipped into the Pokemon Centre. “Sure do! If you can guess by the time I’ve beaten the next Gym, I’ll even give you a headstart getting to the third one!”

Sure, because the Gyms are totally what I’m worrying about right now, and not that Lin probably wants to throw me in the sea.

“I’d still win, of course,” she added. “I’m just going to get my pokemon healed and then it’s off to Luminon Cave for me! Bye!”

The doors slid shut behind her before Callum could do more than open his mouth. He grimaced, bracing himself for Lin’s glare, which would probably burn with the power of a thousand… burning… suns—

Instead, Lin was sat on the floor, her head resting on her tiny paws, with her ears folded back. As Callum blinked at her, she sniffed.

She wasn’t furious. It was worse.

She was really sad.

“No!” Callum blurted, before his brain had caught up with his mouth. “We can pull this back! It’s totally fine!”

Lin looked up, blinking at him blearily. Oh god, even her whiskers were drooping.

“We’ll just win at the Gym here real quick, and then we… take a shortcut! To get to the next Gym! Then we can surprise Rayla with a badge!”

Bouncing gently on her feet, Lin looked up at him with shiny eyes, which made it totally impossible for Callum to take back the stupid thing he just said. Just win two Gym badges in rapid succession! No big deal! Why was the power of the sad eyes so strong?!?

But… but Lin looked really excited…

Callum sighed and squared his shoulders. For her sake, he supposed he’d just have to try. “Come on,” he said sternly, projecting a confidence he didn’t feel. “Let’s go find that Gym.”

Lin’s stomach growled.

“…Let’s feed you first,” Callum said. “Then... let’s go find that Gym.”

Lin ate at record speed. Callum ate half a sandwich and felt queasy.

Callum had been hoping that the Gym would be closed, or that there would be a delay, or something, just to give him time to think things through a bit more, but the Gym was open and the Leader was free – so thirty seconds after arriving at the Gym and asking for a battle, Callum found himself facing the Gym Leader across the arena.

Lin bounced on the soles of her feet, tense and ready. The Leader’s graveller pawed at the ground with both sets of arms. Callum tried to keep his screaming strictly internal. And to keep his lunch down.

“Begin!” the referee said.

Oh no.

The graveller charged forward, faster than Callum expected for such a bulky pokemon. Lin shifted into her ready stance and Callum’s mind went blank.

Barrelling onward, the graveller was nearly upon Lin when it began to roll, picking up speed. Lin held her ground.

“Move!” Callum blurted.

Lin leapt over the graveller at the last moment. The arc of the jump wasn’t perfect; she clipped the rocky body as she jumped over, sending her tumbling head over heels with a squeak. Because he was too slow.

The graveller was still moving. Callum stepped to the side to avoid it, but it managed to stop itself a few feet away by sticking all four of its arms out and grabbing onto the rough ground. The Leader glared at Callum, but how was he supposed to know It would be able to stop? At that speed, it would’ve broken both his legs!

Lin seemed smaller and exposed in the middle of the arena. The graveller was obviously gearing up for another run. Mienfoo favoured speed, not endurance – Lin wouldn’t be able to stand up to something so bulky once it got the momentum going. Which Callum knew was the point, Gym battles were supposed to challenge you to think on your feet. Maybe the Leader picked the graveller specifically because Lin was a mienfoo.

So… what could they do?

The graveller started on another roll, even faster this time with more space to pick up speed.

But Callum was also more prepared. “Jump!” he yelled to Lin, and this time she leapt over without a hitch. Again, the graveller rolled on for a while before it was able to stop itself.

The couldn’t keep doing this forever, though. Lin was even looking at him expectantly, as though Callum had any idea what he was doing.

This was such a bad idea, oh no, Lin is gonna be so disappointed, I just—I gotta make this work somehow—

Maybe if… It would probably only work once, so he’d have to think of something new after, but…

Lin had ended up near the boundaries of the arena – it was a rectangular shape, with the Leader and Callum standing at the shortest ends. The trainer sections had more space between where they stood and the ‘allowed’ area for the match, but the lengthways boundaries pretty much went up to the wall.

Well, it was the best shot they were going to get.

“You can’t dodge forever!” the Leader shouted, whilst the graveller started to roll again.

Lin’s shoulders drooped a little – discouraged?

“It’s okay!” Callum called to her. Project confidence. Project confidence. He gave her a double thumbs up. “Just hang in there! I’ve got a plan!”

Lin nodded and tensed as the boulder—pokemon—rolled towards her again. When Callum told her to jump, she was ready.

Just as she was about to land, he yelled, “Force palm, quick!”

Her feet barely touched the ground and she spun, smacking the graveller with all her and might and sending it crashing into the wall. The wall around it crated. Shards of concrete flaked away from it as a crack travelled all the way up to the ceiling.

Lin swiftly jumped clear of the area, but the graveller didn’t move for a long, long moment. Finally, it used all of its limbs to pick itself up – slowly. It tottered, woozy and off-balance. Lin hit it even harder than he thought!

Callum’s stomach was on its own little rollercoaster ride but his heart soared.

I think… we can actually do this!

Callum marvelled at their new shiny badge all the way back to the Pokemon Centre – when he could steal it from an overexcited Lin. Despite fighting a Gym battle all by herself, she’d still found the energy to skip the whole way back.

He had to admit to being pretty excited too. Their first Gym badge! And okay, everyone got the first Gym eventually even if they were really bad, but it was still worth celebrating!

“Hey, shall we go get a treat or something after you get all healed up? I know Castletown has a couple of pokemon-friendly ice cream parlours...”

Lin stopped skipping to frown at him. Callum got the feeling she was exasperated. Maybe she didn’t know what ice cream was? She was still quite a young pokemon, after all.

“Is there… something you want to do instead?”

Lin nodded and pointed to a sign, and then stood on her tiptoes to see over someone’s hedge to locate the mountains on the horizon and gesture at those, too.

...The sign was for the Natural History Museum but Callum thought he got the gist of it.

“You… want to go after Rayla, huh?”

Bouncing on her feet again, Lin nodded, and got into a ready stance as though to show how… ready… she was to take Rayla down.

But by the time they finished buying supplies and healing up, Rayla would have half a day’s head start over them. There was no way to catch up to her, especially if she rushed through Luminon Cave.

Lin twitched her nose at him. He wasn’t sure if it was an attempt to help with the lillipup eyes but it was certainly adorable.

“Well… there can’t be any harm in trying, right?” he said, and was rewarded with Lin leaping up to hug him, knocking him onto his ass. “Gah! Okay, okay, I know you’re excited, but maybe wait for me to pick you up next time...”

Catching up to Rayla by following her route through Luminon Cave, Callum soon learned from the guide maps, would be impossible. The way through the cave was winding to avoid rare pokemon nests, and there were plenty of side paths to get lost down to boot. Callum had once managed to get lost inside his own house (it had been a long day, alright) and so that seemed to be a losing proposition.

The upside was, since Rayla probably wasn’t rushing too hard, maybe she wouldn’t have as big of a lead on them as he thought!

The downside was that the only way to overtake Rayla would be to take the direct route. The route that went over the mountain. It was a small mountain – Callum overheard someone dismissively call it a ‘rocky hill’, which jeez, when did hikers get so cutting and judgemental – but it would still be the largest mountain that Callum had ever climbed.

He tried explaining this to Lin, hoping that she might decide to call it quits, but the idea of scaling a mountain only seemed to rile her up more. Note to self for the future: Lin has no chill.

But he gave in and called ‘retired fire-type breeder w/ hiking trophy’ in the middle of the… were they just called hiking stores? They couldn’t just be for hiking, right? What was their actual name—


“Ah!” Callum jumped and nearly dropped the phone. He scrambled to pick it up before the woman could hang up on him. “Yes hello hi, hi… I, uh, my name is Callum—”

Oh, Harrow’s boy! He said you might call!”

Did Harrow really tell all these people that Callum might call them for advice? Was there a poor random ‘feebas pokemon contest trainer’ out there just waiting for the phone to ring? Well presumably their phone rang at other times—

Not right now, he told himself. “Yeah, uh. Maybe this sounds a bit weird, but I was wondering what kind of boots I should buy for hiking?”

...For hiking.” She sounded doubtful.

“My pokemon really, you know, really wanted to try climbing a mountain, and I thought, well, why not?” He laughed, but it just sounded forced and awkward so he quickly stopped.

Aww, that’s cute. Where are you at, hon?”

“Luminon Cave. We wanted—”

Oh,” the woman said flatly, cutting him off. Then she made an obviously forced attempt to be cheerful again. “Well, a big, rocky… hilly… mountain—” She sounded a little like she had swallowed a lemon in saying that. Seriously: hikers. Who knew? “—is probably a good call for a newcomer.”

“I totally agree,” Callum said. He was not going to touch that mountain discourse with a ten foot pole. “So I just need a little bit of help with the basics… what kind of boots do you recommend?”

Armed with new boots and some ration bars – the hiker had gotten so excited about them that Callum worried she would ask after his opinion if he had to call her again – Lin led the way to the foot of the mountain-hill.

Callum made Peanut come out of his pokeball with the promise of glorious vistas and a big sketch break at the very top and something about being able to pour your feelings about the landscape into the painting, but really Callum’s feelings were more like: if I have to suffer then so do you.

It became obvious very quickly why people usually preferred to go through Luminon Cave instead of over the top. The sides were made of very loose, rocky soil (maybe it really was a hill?) which meant Callum’s feet kept sliding all over the place despite the extra grip of the mountain boots. Callum’s blue trousers were soon looked like they were made from clay, and he was not a terracotta man.

It was best not to even think about the state of his knees. At first they hurt from falling on them so much, but now he couldn’t feel them at all!

His feet were killing him though. And in weird places. Callum didn’t previously know that the inside of his foot could take such a beating, but now he thought he had a blister developing there. In other places, his blisters had blisters.

Lin and Peanut raced ahead of him and had to stop and wait for him several times. Lighter on their feet, they didn’t disturb the soil so much at all. Callum wished, again, that people could just be carried around in pokeballs too.

As he thought this, he lost his footing again and slid back several inches on his knees. His poor knees.

It was going to be a long hike.

Chapter Text

By the time Callum stumbled into Evenere City, he probably looked a little bit like he’d been having a dust bath. Or just rolled in some mud and let it dry on him. He’d tried to wipe his clothes off a bit to look more presentable, but that just seemed to grind the dirt in further.

And then he ran his filthy hand through his hair without thinking so now he seemed slightly feral and all hope was lost.

Despite that, he felt okay. Lin and Peanut stared at his smile with concern. It probably looked a little demented. Callum felt a little demented. His feet hurt; he was tired, dirty, and hungry; he had scrapes all over his hands and knees. By now, he was actually looking forward to taking on the Gym and declaring this day over. Even if they lost, how much worse could it get?

“To the Gym!” Callum said, pointing dramatically. He had zero concern about whether it was the right direction. He was making a point, dammit!

Peanut poked him when he didn’t move for several seconds. The smeargle barked gruffly in Lin’s direction.

Lin responded by making a squeak of affirmation, doing a backflip, and then getting into her ready stance.

Peanut shuffled away with his tail pointed at her.

What’s all that about? Callum thought.

But never mind that. Time to end his suffering! After this, he was going to take about six baths in a row. Maybe he would never leave the bath again.

Buoyed by this thought, he grinned down at Peanut. “It’s a poison-type Gym, so we’re counting on you, buddy! Use the psybeam you copied from Harrow’s pokemon, alright?”

His smeargle only learned it because of the pretty rainbow colours and had never used it in battle before, but Callum was willing to do whatever it took to get into that bath at this point.

Peanut looked from Callum to Lin and back again. Then he sighed, shoulder slumping, and nodded.

“That’s the spirit!” Callum said.

They managed to scrape a win. Calum thought it may have had something to do with the way the Gym Leader kept staring at him and stopping to ask if he was sure he was okay.

But whatever! A win was a win. Lin was happy, and, most importantly, Callum was going to get into a bath and then never move again.

The Pokemon Centre and sweet, sweet cleanliness was within sight when Lin suddenly dashed ahead. Callum thought about shouting after her, but he was tired, and that would require effort. Eh… she’s probably fine.

It was only when Lin stopped in front of a vaguely familiar figure and started waving their new Gym badge at them that Callum wondered if he should stop her. What if it accidentally flew out of her hands and they lost it?

Not that Peanut would really care; the Gym badge offended his aesthetic sensibilities and he’d drawn the Leader a new design before they left, despite Callum’s attempts to drag him out without offending anybody.

As they got closer, the figure turned out to be Rayla – she just looked strange because she’d taken her horn-ornaments off.

She grinned at him, but her expression slowly transformed into one of horror.

What’s up with her? Callum wondered.

“What happened?” she said, gaping at him.

“We raced you,” he answered. Was it not obvious? “And won!”

“But you...” She trailed off and waved her hands at him.

“You just gestured to all of me?”

“You look a mess! What did you do?

“That’s rude.” It was true, but rude. “We walked! Over the mountain. Or some people think it’s a rocky hill. It’s like, a big deal for hikers. I didn’t want to get involved.”

“You walked,” Rayla said slowly, “over the top of the mountain… and went straight to the Gym… so you could beat me?”

Lin waved the Gym badge in Rayla’s direction again. She really liked that badge. Maybe she liked purple because her evolution was purple too? Claudia liked purple and she’d think that was cute, he should text her to say—

...He totally skipped Luminon Cave… no dark-type… oh no, what am I going to tell her!?

“Seriously, you must’ve left Castletown basically right after I did!” Rayla was saying.

“Yeah, I did,” Callum agreed, distracted.

...Wait. I did do that, didn’t I?

Rayla threw up her arms. “It’s such a stupid thing to do just to get ahead of me that it goes all the way round to being impressive again!”

Callum buried his face in his hands. “I’m dead.”

“I’m sure ya are after walking all that way so fast!”

“My aunt’s going to kill me!” he wailed. “I promised I’d call home at Castletown and I totally forgot.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. “Aw, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

He grabbed her shoulders and shook them. “Fine. Fine?! Can you save my kneecaps from my monster aunt, Rayla? Can you?

She leaned away from him and carefully removed his hands from her shoulders. There were Callum-hand-shaped brown prints when they came away. She raised her brows at him.

“Uh, okay, sorry.” Callum looked at his hands. “...I guess if I’m gonna die, I want to die clean.”


“Bath time!” Callum said.

After the bath, it was actually time to face the wrath of Aunt Amaya. Callum steeled himself for it, only to find that there was a queue for the video phone. His nerves began to fray during the wait, leaving him chewing on the end of his scarf.

She’s gonna be so mad…

“The phones over there are free,” Rayla said.

Gah!” Callum was so surprised he nearly swallowed his scarf. “Oh, hi, Rayla. Uh, I have to use the video phone.”

Now that he was clean, he was feeling more human, and now he had time to think how monumentally stupid he’d been behaving in front of an up-and-coming new trainer! She was probably going to be a big deal, a Gym Leader even. She had that kind of Amaya-ish-ness about her.

So of course he had to be the most embarrassing version of himself ever. There were still dirt marks on her shoulders. Ugh.

“Oh, your aunt signs, doesn’t she?” Rayla shook her head. “I totally forgot. Hey, doesn’t she use a gong to signal her pokemon in battle? That seems like it would be cool.”

“I mean yeah, she uses the gong now that she doesn’t have to travel.” He looked about and leaned forward, adding in a whisper, “She used to use a triangle.”

Rayla hid a smile behind her hands. She mimed a tiny ting! on an imaginary instrument. “A...”

Callum smiled back. “Well, you know. It had to be portable!”

She laughed at that. “Won’t your aunt be mad at you for telling me that?”

“Nah. She has her Championship triangle framed,” Callum said. “It’s funny seeing everyone’s reactions, though.”

“It must be really amazing, knowing so many fantastic trainers,” Rayla said, sighing. “I mean, I’ve got my uncle, but he’s really specialised. It’s great, but it would be nice to have some variety, you know.” She nudged Callum with her elbow. “Spare a girl a few tips? Since I’m losing to you now.”

“Oh, uh, I’m not really… into… training and stuff.” Callum fiddled with the end of his scarf. This is going to make me look even weirder. “You know, I’m not that good at it. I’m the black sheep of the family, I guess!”

Rayla blinked at him.

Yeah. That sort of disappointed confusion was exactly what he’d expected. “But! You can still totally talk to my aunt if you want, though! And maybe my stepdad too but he’s abroad right now.”

“You think you’re not that good?” Rayla repeated blankly. “Callum, you know it’s been less than twenty-four hours and you already have two Gym badges, right?”

“Well yes, if you put it like that, but that’s not really how it—”

“All yours, pal,” said the guy in front of Callum, finally hanging up the phone.

“Crap! I’m not ready!” But he picked up the phone and started dialling because Ez and his aunt would probably be getting worried by now.

Rayla hovered nearby, still frowning. “You should tell your aunt about your battles. I bet she’ll be proud.”

“Okay, well, I’m going to put in on the agenda after ‘getting yelled at’—heyyy auntie!”

Aunt Amaya’s scowling face looked back at him. “And what time do you call this?” She squinted at the corners of the screen. “Is that even the Castletown Centre? Where are you?”

Callum laughed nervously and scratched his cheek. “Uh… yeah. Funny story about that. You see...”

Her stoic face gave nothing away as he tried to defend himself, but she leaned in closer to the screen when he described the Gym battles. Hopefully a good sign?

“…And so basically the upshot is that Lin’s sad face has great powers of persuasion.”

A smile cracked through Aunt Amaya’s cold exterior. “We couldn’t be having a sad Lin, could we?”

“You still should’ve called!” said Ezran from offscreen. Bait, sitting on top of his head as usual, and the top half of Ez’s face popped up from the bottom of the screen. “Bait was worried.”

Bait licked the screen and then looked disconcerted when Callum didn’t pull a face.

“Sorry, Bait. And Ez!”

Ezran’s head ducked down until only his hair was visible. “I wasn’t worried!” He peeked at the screen again. “But thanks anyway.”

It would only have taken five minutes to give us a call,” Amaya said.

Still unforgiven. “I promise I won’t forget next time! Cross my heart!”

Good.” She nodded and finally relaxed. “But really, I’m so proud of you! Two Gym badges in less than a day has to be a family record!”

“Aha, yeah...”

I would’ve loved to see the face of that Rayla when she found out,” Amaya added, smirking.

Callum didn’t know Rayla well, but her thought this was a little unfair to her. Also, he didn’t want to set up any expectation in Aunt Amaya that he would keep beating Rayla to milestones. “Actually, I, uh, looked quite a lot like a dirt monster so I think she was more worried than anything.”

“Oh, you made a friend already!” Ezran sighed dramatically. “You’re so lucky.”

He repeated this to Amaya, and after a beat, she gave a rather unconvincing nod. “That’s good too. I guess.”

Aunt Amaya could be a bit weird.

Eventually, the phone call ended with a few more pointed comments about remembering to eat breakfast (Amaya’s way of saying goodbye) and remembering to call home. But Callum’s kneecaps had not been mentioned even once, so he thought he’d actually come out of it quite well!

He ran into Rayla outside the Pokemon Centre. She was training with her murkrow, practising diving manoeuvres. Having a flying-type Gym Leader for an uncle clearly paid off, because the transition from a circling flight into a dive had become virtually seamless. Callum barely noticed the slight twitching of the wing muscles before the murkrow pulled them back to shoot downwards, and he was specifically looking for it!

“Nice work!” he said. “There’s hardly any tell.”

Rayla looked over her shoulder. “Thanks. How did your phone call go?”

“You were right! It was actually okay.” He decided not to mention how invested Aunt Amaya was in seeing him crush Rayla. Metaphorically, although knowing his aunt, maybe also literally. If she tried to buy him some weights for his birthday he would know for sure.

“That’s good.” She frowned at her murkrow. “I don’t see any tell. What am I missing?”

“Well it’s, uh… you know what, it’s easier just to sketch it for you.” Luckily, his sketchbook was about the one thing that he always had on him.

Rayla watched with interest as he opened it. He tried to skip past all the sketches of Claudia was quickly as possible, his face flushing. For some reason it was even more embarrassing for another girl to see them than Ez and Amaya.

“It’s barely a hitch,” he explained, sketching a quick outline of the murkrow’s wing on a blank page, “but it’s just, you can see at the, uh, where the shoulder joint is here, your pokemon...” He paused. “Sorry, what were they called?”

“Her name is Sally.” Callum tried really hard not to act like that was kind of weird, but something must’ve shown in his face, because Rayla sighed and added, “She insisted.”

“Okay.” Well, if she was a happy murkrow, who was he to complain? “Anyway, so you can kind of see, she kind of automatically transitions from circling to hovering before going into the dive? Like an intermediate step?”

Rayla squinted at the drawings. “I… think I see what you mean. Is there a way to eliminate that?”

“I don’t know much about flying-type pokemon, but...” He made a couple more sketches. “Maybe if she can… fold the wings in to her body as she flaps down, instead of when she flaps… up?”

That was definitely not the technical term but Rayla didn’t seem to mind too much. She nodded thoughtfully, peering at the sketches. “I think we can try that. Sally, come here, will you?”

To Callum’s amazement, Rayla spent several minutes guiding Sally through making the right movement with her wings on the ground before encouraging her to try it in the air. All based off his advice! He didn’t think she would take him that seriously.

Unfortunately, once Sally was in the sky, she looked even more ungainly. Callum’s face fell. “It’s more obvious now than ever. I guess it didn’t work.”

“No, that’s just hesitation.” Rayla observed her murkrow with gleaming eyes. “Once she gets used to it, you won’t notice at all. Thanks, Callum. Sally’s going to have no problems with his Gym!”

Oh no. She was training for the Gym? He never would’ve said anything if he’d known that. What if he just ruined all her training?! He scratched his head. “You, uh, you have other pokemon you can use, right?”

“Just the one,” Rayla said. She didn’t catch any in Luminon Cave, then. “And he’s...” Her shoulders slumped. “You better just see for yourself, I guess.”

She tossed a pokeball from her belt. In a moment, a clefairy appeared before them. It seemed way more cutesy than a pokemon he expected Rayla to have, but since it was a fairy-type, he could kind of see why she didn’t want to rely on it at the Gym—

The clefairy spotted him and narrowed his beady eyes.


Suddenly, the clefairy charged forward on his stubby legs, making a kind of low-pitched sound. The pokemon raised one of his stubby fists, glowing with energy, and—

Rayla picked him up with both arms, ignoring his squeals of protest and the frantic kicking of his legs. “Duster, calm down. He’s a friend. I told you that you’re sitting this Gym out already!”

Duster stopped struggling and hung limply in Rayla’s arms, although this didn’t stop him from muttering under his breath and glaring at Callum.

“Is he…” He tried in vain to search for a polite way to say ‘trying to kill me’ or ‘quite okay’.

Rayla sighed. “He’s… he’s just weird. I don’t know.” She scowled at the clefairy and slowly, slowly, put him back down. “Behave! It’s back in your pokeball if you can’t control yourself.”

Duster huffed and fluttered his wings at her. He walked right up to Callum and hopped on top of the sketchbook on his knees so he could square up to Callum’s face.


The clefairy made another dismissive huff and hopped away again.

“I’m sure you think you could take him,” Rayla said dryly, “but he does have more Gym badges than us.”

Duster whirled around and fixed Callum with a stare that would probably have been intimidating if it had come from something less round and pink. The clefairy flexed his arms and puffed himself up as large as he could go.

This was not very large.

Callum was doing his honest-to-goodness best not to laugh, but he may have wheezed a bit.

Rayla rolled her eyes. “Enough of your posturing, mister.”

She poked Duster with her foot and he deflated like a balloon, nearly falling over. The breath of air he let out had sparkle dust in it, making Callum sneeze.

“I didn’t realise that clefairy could be so...” He paused again. “Aggressive?”

“He can be fun if you can convince him not to try fighting everything.” Rayla glared at him. “Except in battle, where he’ll charge in no matter what.

This seemed to be something of a sore spot for them, because Duster made that low-pitched sound back at her.

“He’s trying to growl,” Rayla explained.

Duster tried to puff himself up again.

“…Right,” Callum said.

Clefairy had a reputation as pokemon built for defence, so Callum would normally have said that it wouldn’t be too bad to use one even if they had a weakness to the opposing pokemon. Except that it seemed like Duster was… not the defensive type.

“Well, I’m sure that Sally will do fine!” Callum said, trying to break the awkward death glare Duster and Rayla were exchanging.

“That’s what I’m counting on!” Rayla replied, more cheerful now.

Duster deflated as soon as she looked away, kicking the floor mutinously with his stubby foot.

“A lot of poison-types have a grass- or bug-typing too, so I think Sally will be okay.”

One of the pokemon Callum had faced at the Gym had been a venipede. It wasn’t very sportsmanlike to tell Rayla that outright, but he nodded. “Yeah, I think she’ll do well.”

Duster flexed at him again.

Callum wondered how long the clefairy would hate him for if he said the flexing just made him look adorable.

On reflection, he’d probably take that grudge to his grave. He seems the type.

There was no particular reason for Callum to stay in town until Rayla had beaten the Gym, but after giving advice that turned out to significantly affect Rayla’s battle plan, he felt compelled to stick around. Lin thought this was a stupid decision and had to be bribed to stay with pokemon-safe ice cream and poffins. Peanut didn’t mind so much, since there was a lot of scenery to paint, and he often became Callum’s companion on his wanders around town.

Sometimes, they’d go out and join Rayla as she trained on the outskirts of town. Duster was usually out of his pokeball too; Callum wasn’t sure if this was to stop Duster from falling behind or just to keep him busy, but the adorable little fluffball sure had a wailmer of a time beating up the local rattata population until they learned to avoid him. Which took about three hours because he was constantly shouting in his squeaky voice.

After that, Duster took to beating up random bushes instead. Poor plants. Their sacrifice was not in vain.

“Do you see what I mean with him?” Rayla said, despairingly. “if I let him fight a poison-type Gym, he’d just hurt himself.”

Callum could see her point. Her point was currently shouting battle cries at a low-hanging branch. The branch remained unmoved. “Actually, I’ve kind of gotten an idea…”

He let Lin out of her pokeball. She was immediately interested in the new surroundings, sniffing the air.

Duster ran at Lin as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him. Lin watched his charge with confusion, blinking at Duster’s squeaky battle cries. He was almost upon her when Lin stuck out a paw and pushed Duster away from her. He bounced twice before coming to a stop.

Rayla looked at Callum with a raised eyebrow.

“Maybe he’ll learn something!” Callum said brightly.

Duster pushed himself to his feet and charged again.


But Duster stopped just before Lin’s paw could touch him. He twirled around it instead – not very gracefully; it looked more like a stumble – and landed a punch to her chest.

Duster let out a victory squeak. Lin blinked at his outstretched paw, clearly having felt nothing.

Then she belted Duster away with her other paw. Duster made a noise like a balloon having the air let out of it.

Callum winced and hid his face behind his hands whilst waiting for Rayla’s reaction.

She just shrugged. “He’s too bouncy too hurt himself, so whatever keeps him occupied. Won’t Lin mind?”

Lin turned to Callum and pointed at Duster, tilting her head.

“He’s uh…” Callum sighed. “He needs a bit of help. I guess?”

Lin considered this and nodded.

The next time Duster came charging at her, she corrected his stance before batting him away. By the sixth attempt Duster was actually taking her corrections into account. This left Rayla free to focus on training Sally, and whilst it left Callum with very little to do except to marvel at Duster’s inexhaustible belligerence, she would occasionally turn and give him a thumbs up when the training was going well.

Callum was pretty sure this counted as making friends, even if it wasn’t the deepest relationship ever. And hey, that means that no matter what, something good came out of this journey!

Chapter Text

After Rayla finally did manage to beat the Gym, Callum felt… oddly disappointed. He’d gotten kinda used to hanging out with her and talking battle strategy. It was really obvious that Rayla had studied up and knew her stuff. Half of the matches she referenced left Callum blank-faced and blinking – unless she referenced one of Mom’s or Harrow’s famous matches. Then he didn’t exactly follow along with all of the strategy talk, but you know, at least he had seen all of their battles.

Still, it was only polite to clap for her when she showed off the new badge. No one liked a sore… friendship… loser?

“Anyway,” Rayla said, when she’d finally had enough of recounting the battle and put her badge away, “you guys all packed up?”

“Uh?” Callum replied eloquently.

“I mean, I’m not done yet, so it’s fine if you’ve still got some stuff to put away.” She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. “Unless you didn’t think I would win at the Gym today and didn’t bother packing!”

“No, no, of course I knew you would win!” Callum cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, I’m all ready!”

Rayla folded her arms, unimpressed. “You’re a really bad liar.”

“…Okay I’m not even slightly packed but I promise it is for totally unrelated reasons.”

They hadn’t spoken about travelling together when Rayla was done with the Gym. She’d just sort of… assumed that they’d be spending more time together. That Callum was a friend. A friend she wanted to get to know better!

The thought lifted Callum’s spirits and he packed in record time. He and Rayla stepped into the Centre lobby from separate staircases at exactly the same moment.

Rayla looked over at him and laughed, and Callum forgot all about training and Gyms in that moment: he was just excited to be travelling with her.

“You were a big help, you know,” Rayla said.

Callum blinked at her in confusion. They were two hours out of town by this point, and they’d spent most of it walking in silence. It wasn’t a difficult path to the next Gym, but long, winding through countryside and forest for days and days. For people without ride pokemon, one half of the continent was practically cut off from the other.

She glanced at him and caught his expression. “I mean with the Gym. Your tip for Sally was really important for the match! They could never see us comin’. So, thanks.”

Callum brightened. “Oh, well, I’m glad to have helped!”

“I’m just saying because things like that are really important,” Rayla continued, serious and stony-faced. “Not everyone can just… see that stuff, just get it. It’s a great talent to have.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say—”

“You keep doing this!” Rayla snapped, cutting him off mid-sentence. She stopped dead in the middle of the path and there was no escape from her steely gaze. “Keep undermining yourself, saying that you’re no good at training! If you don’t want to be a trainer, okay, that’s one thing, but stop sabotaging yourself before you even start! You’re good! You could be really great if you wanted.”

Callum’s throat was tight and even if he’d known what to say, he wouldn’t have been able to voice it.

Rayla’s intense expression faded in the silence. She deflated. “I think you’re good,” she said quietly. “I get that your parents are a lot to live up to, but you can’t—you can’t hold yourself back because you’re afraid people will compare you to them. You only have to live up to your standards, no one else’s.”

There were tears in her eyes, drawing Callum in even though he wanted to turn his burning face away and laugh the whole thing off. “I don’t…”

He didn’t know how to finish the sentence, or even quite what he wanted to say. They just stood there for a minute, looking at each other.

“It’s not…” Rayla swallowed. “It’s not the same, but my parents… I always worried about being like them, too. They got in a lot of trouble from abetting Team Rocket—it was an accident; they didn’t know they were helping Team Rocket. But they weren’t careful enough about not helping them, either. They were breeders; they sold dozens of pokemon to Team Rocket which got used in experiments.”

Callum sucked in a breath without meaning too.

She gave him a wan smile. “Yeah. It was… pretty terrible. They were never found guilty of breaking any laws but—everyone said they should’ve known better.” The tears in her eyes started to trickle down her cheeks, and Rayla hastily reached up to wipe them away. “But what’s worse is that they listened. They sold their business, left me with Runaan and then they just… ran away.”

He shifted his feet. “Maybe they were trying to protect you?”

“Maybe,” Rayla said darkly, “but it doesn’t solve anythin’. They could’ve tried to make up for what they did but they just ran away. Like cowards.” She spat the last word as though it was poison. “Where I lived, everyone knew who my parents were. I took an interest in pokemon and people just…”

She choked on the last words and Callum had to walk over and put his arm round her. “You’re not your parents.”

“I know,” she said. She scrubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand and took a deep breath. “I didn’t—I couldn’t let them stop me. It wasn’t nice, though.”

Silence fell again. Callum wondered if there was a way to take his arm off her shoulders that wasn’t weird. How long before it stopped being comforting and started being awkward? …He’d probably already passed that point, hadn’t he?

“I know I’m not my parents,” Rayla said, more firmly this time. She stepped away so that she could look Callum dead in the eye, saving him the trouble of worrying about the arm thing. “And you aren’t your parents, either. You need to just concentrate on being yourself… whatever that looks like.”

He wanted to point out that Rayla’s situation wasn’t like his own – everyone loved and admired his parents, and Aunt Amaya. But that would mean pretending to have missed her point, which would’ve been cruel after she’d bared her soul to him like that.

The point wasn’t about positive or negative examples. It was about… not taking on burdens that weren’t yours. What Rayla’s parents did was on them. How awesome Callum’s parents were was on them too. Not on Callum.

“I…” He hadn’t been the one nearly crying, but it kind of felt like it; his throat was all clammed up and painful, and his voice sounded raw when he managed to get the words out. “I’ll try. You’re right!”

Rayla forced a smile. “You know I am!”

Callum didn’t have to force himself to smile back. His lips just kind of turned upwards of their own accord.

After Callum’s hellish quick march from Castletown to Borderlodge City, he found it was pleasant to walk at a leisurely pace with his pokemon.

It was nice to be with Rayla, too. Sometimes they would talk about random things and sometimes they would simply walk in companionable silence. Rayla didn’t seem to mind when Callum and Peanut would stop to draw something, a tree at a weird angle or some beautiful wild flowers or one of the pokemon they passed along the way.

It turned out that big heart-to-hearts could make you really at ease with someone that you didn’t know that well before. Who knew?

The journey to Borderlodge City was supposed to take a week, but Callum thought it would end up taking them longer. He still wasn’t that excited about taking on the Gyms, even if he was going to give it an honest attempt after Rayla’s pep talk, so it didn’t bother him too much, but he wondered if Rayla was itching to be making faster progress.

It was hard to feel too guilty about it when the morning sun cast such lovely shadows through the trees and the flowers were still scattered with dew. Even the early rising pokemon, like pidgeys and combees, passed by without a care in the world, like Callum wasn’t there at all. He would’ve loved to paint it, but he was busy making breakfast for everyone.

Ten minutes later, Rayla crawled out of her tent, still in her pyjamas. “I smell food,” she mumbled, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. “Feed me.”

“Still tired?”

“I don’t know how you get up so early, let alone manage to function around a travel stove. Are you sure you didn’t burn it or anything?” Rayla still happily accepted a bowl of porridge. “Thanks for breakfast, magic morning man.”

Callum laughed. “Ah, don’t worry about it. I’d get in trouble if I didn’t have breakfast every day, so I learned to function at whatever time I got up.”

Rayla frowned. “Get in trouble? For what?”

“Well, you know how in movies and TV and stuff the mom is always like ‘make sure you have clean underwear’?”

“…No, but go on.”

“Well, Aunt Amaya’s thing is breakfast.” He tried his best to mimic his aunt’s deadly serious expression. “It’s the most important meal of the day. You know she actually refused to award someone a Gym badge once because they said they’d skipped breakfast to train? It had to go to the League for an official ruling.”

“No way.” Rayla tried, and failed, to suppress a smile. “So, what did the League say?”

“Aunt Amaya argued that Gym Leaders are supposed to give badges not for just winning battles, but for showing they have important qualities as a trainer. She argued that skipping breakfast showed an inability to prioritise the trainer’s and pokemon’s health and happiness.” He waited until Rayla leaned forward, nearly trailing her loose hair into her porridge. “And they accepted it! The trainer was so mad they had to fight again. Aunt Amaya walked around smug for weeks.”

Rayla laughed. “But now she has the power of the Pokemon League behind her when she tells you you have to eat breakfast?”

“Ugh, don’t I know it. You would not believe how many times she’s used that line.” Callum sighed theatrically. “But I know what’s good for me and my kneecaps.”

“…Kneecaps?” Rayla asked, suddenly looking concerned.

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. “Er, family in joke! So, uh, anyway, I wanted to ask you… are you… really okay with us going slow like this?”

Rayla sat up very straight with wide eyes. “What?”

“I mean, it’s going to take us ages to get to Borderlodge at this rate!” Callum said. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh!” Rayla let out a strange, high-pitched laugh, shaking her head. “That’s what you… No, actually, it’s kind of nice just to travel with someone, you know? And hang out with our pokemon. Even Duster.”

She seemed sincere enough, so Callum was finally able to relax. “You’ve got a point. I promised Lin I’d work with her on her form, but I haven’t had that much chance yet. I think she learned a lot from Duster, though.”

Raya raised an eyebrow.

“Well… at least a bit from Duster.” Callum smiled. “Also, Peanut gets really mad if he doesn’t have chance to paint. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. He gets real petty.”

She chuckled. “Does he? He doesn’t seem the type to me.”

“He doesn’t? Oh boy. Once, Harrow decided to renovate the house, but he forgot to warn Peanut that his favourite painting room would be out of bounds for a while, so Peanut…”

They didn’t end up moving on at all that day. Peanut sketched and totally ignored everyone else, apart from the time Duster ran into him whilst chasing Lin, ruining Peanut’s painting in the process. The smeargle threw such a fit that Duster eventually ran away to hide behind Rayla, who was too bewildered to put up much defence of her pokemon.

“This has never happened before,” she said, blinking at a cowering Duster.

“I told you, he’s a menace when it comes to art,” Callum replied. He grunted, struggling to hold back a furious Peanut. “But, uh, can I get a little help here…?”

Sally seemed to have fun searching out random shiny objects and as many local berries as she could get her talons on. The pile of fruit attracted dozens of local pokemon, which distracted Peanut enough from planning Duster’s demise that he picked up a new painting.

Lin preferred to ignore the berries, going slowly through her favourite moves with Callum. She listened attentively to his suggestions, and peered over his shoulder with interest when he sketched out a few new ideas. Sometimes he couldn’t see the movement clearly until it was on paper. She seemed interested in the idea of sketches, and tried doing a drawing herself, but gave up and went back to her training when her paws proved to be the wrong shape for holding pencils.

Rayla seemed content to spend the day doing stretches, jumps, and backflips.

“I did gymnastics in school,” she explained, the first time she did a cartwheel and Callum was so surprised that he accidentally threw his pencil at her. She picked the pencil back up and, narrowing her eyes, threw it into Callum’s open bag. “Gotta keep in shape.”

“For what?” he asked, confused.

She didn’t seem to think that question deserved an answer. Or maybe she was just too busy keeping her balance whilst walking around on her hands…

They spent the entire day like this until the sun had sunk low in the sky, turning the horizon a rich red colour, and the pile of berries had dwindled to almost nothing. The wild pokemon had long scurried away, but it wasn’t yet late enough for the nocturnal ones to venture out.

Despite having done virtually nothing, it was one of the best days Callum had spent in a long time.

Rayla went to wash up their dinner things, Lin and Duster following her and arguing between each other about something. Callum was just about to move the remaining berries somewhere further from camp to prevent night time visitors, when he spotted something small lurking in the bushes on the edge of their clearing.

When he looked, he caught nothing more than a blur of movement. After a moment, a small green head with red horns peeked out—a ralts! Callum remembered Harrow telling him about them; the so called ‘King of Psychics’ didn’t have one, but he knew about all kinds of psychic-type pokemon. They were supposed to be quite shy. What a treat to see one in the wild!

Callum held out a berry towards it. “Do you want some?”

The ralts shrank back a little, so he gently rolled the berry towards it. It stopped just out of arms reach, and the ralts quickly snatched it up with the aid of a little telekinesis and chowed down.

Aw, it’s so small! It’s pretty cute… I wonder if Rayla would like it.

The ralts quickly finished the berry, and to Callum’s surprise, darted out of hiding to snatch up another one, even though it meant sitting right next to him. He made sure to keep very still. The ralts retreated a little after grabbing the second berry, but it was still within arms reach. Well, he guessed food was an easy way to make friends with… well, with anyone. It was certainly the way into Ez’s good books…

Suddenly, the ralts froze, tilting its head right up so it could see out from under it’s helmet-like head. Then it curled its arms around itself and teleported away, taking the half-eaten berry with it.

Huh. Harrow said it took months for his pokemon to teleport small objects with them. Kinda cool that it learned to do that in the wild by itself…

That just made him think how great a wild pokemon with that sort of potential would’ve done with Rayla as a trainer. He sighed.

“What was that?” came Rayla’s voice.

Callum tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice, but he couldn’t help the little bit that seeped through. “A ralts came to eat our berries.”

“Oh no, did I scare the poor wee thing off?” She sounded nearly as put out as Callum felt.

“I thought you might want to try catching it,” he offered, standing up to help her put everything away. “You said you like fairy-type pokemon.”

“I do!” Rayla brightened. “They’re really strong and so versatile and—wait no I’ve told you all this already haven’t I?”

Callum laughed at her sheepish expression. That topic had come up on at least three different occasions whilst Rayla was training for the poison-type Gym. “Yeah. Kinda.”

Rayla was still grinning, but then she shook her head forcefully. “Anyway, no. I do think fairy-types are really great, but I have Duster already—” The clefairy puffed himself up, even though he was tiredly dragging his feet and following Rayla around like a lost growlithe. “—and I’d like to add more variety to my team. I know it’s a psychic-type too, but Duster is pretty good with those kinds of moves… when he can be bothered.”

Callum’s heart sank a little. It made sense, but it would’ve been nice if he’d gotten a chance to get to know the little ralts better. “Oh.”

“There’s a cave near here that does have a pokemon I’ve been looking for, though!” Rayla added. “It’s pretty rare, so it might take me a while to find it.”

He smiled. “Is that why you don’t mind me and Peanut slowing you down?”

She shrugged. “If I’m going to be slow, you get to be slow too. Fair is fair.”

Callum had been joking but her logic did make sense!

“Have you thought about catching any other pokemon?” Rayla asked.

It was a totally fair question – expected even – but it still caught him off guard. Obviously, he’d been thinking about catching a dark-type to show Claudia. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure of any good places to find them nearby…

“Well, I have this… friend from back home...” Callum’s fingers were twitching nervously for some reason. “Her name is Claudia, and she’s a really great and established trainer already, she’s Professor Viren’s daughter, and she specialises in dark-types and… well…”

“You wanted to get one too?” Rayla hazarded. “So… you guys could talk more? That’s why you wanted Sally at first.”

“Yeah. Yeah!” Callum beamed. She seemed to really get it! “She told me about these dark-type pokemon that live in the back of Luminon Cave but uh… obviously I didn’t go in there.”

Rayla only smiled in response, but it seemed a little thin. Maybe she was just getting tired. Callum had woken her up early this morning with breakfast and now he was keeping her up with random pokemon chat!

“Anyway, it’s getting kinda late, huh? We should probably go to bed.”

She blinked at him for a moment. “Oh… Right. Yeah.”

They had to finish a few last minute chores around camp – Callum still needed to move the berries further away from their tents – and then they said their goodnights.

He was just opening the flap of his tent when Rayla said, “Callum, wait.”


“The cave I wanted to visit isn’t far from here,” she said. “I don’t know very much about dark-types, but there’s bound to be some living in there, right? Maybe we can track one down together.”

It took a moment for this to sink in and then he beamed at her. “Rayla, you’re a genius! That’s such a great idea! I should totally have thought of that. Oh, maybe we could even find some dark-type pokemon there that Claudia hasn’t seen before! Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Sure would,” Rayla said, yawning.

“Aha, sorry, we can talk more about it tomorrow.” Callum waved at her. “Goodnight for real this time!”

He was pretty tired himself, but it took him a while to fall asleep. He kept trying to remember what he knew about dark-types, which admittedly wasn’t a whole lot. When Claudia was talking about them he’d tended to focus so hard on listening to her that he forgot to focus on what she was actually saying. What were dark-types like? Weren’t they supposed to be kind of sneaky? Maybe even like Viren’s ghosts?

I’m sure they’re not that bad, Callum told himself. Claudia is really nice, and she loves dark-types!

She did like to play tricks sometimes, though…

Never anything mean, of course! Claudia never meant it badly! And Callum didn’t mind; he always thought it was funny when she explained the joke! But… Lin was pretty serious. He wasn’t sure if she would really get that those kind of tricks were meant affectionately. And Peanut would absolutely hate tricks that got in the way of his art. Would they be able to get along with a dark-type?

All teams have growing pains. It wouldn’t be weird to have pokemon that don’t get along at first. I’m just overthinking it.

Still, Aunt Amaya said he was a worrier, and worry Callum did until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

They set off early the next morning. Rayla said the cave was large and twisty, so they could spend all day exploring it for her rare pokemon. Not to mention… whatever Callum might run into. A pokemon. Hopefully. And the dark-type would get along with everyone and it would all be fine.

“What pokemon are you looking for, again?” he asked Rayla, trying to distract himself.

“I didn’t say!” she answered. She seemed more cheerful this morning. He supposed she must’ve slept better than he did. “It’s a surprise! I’ll tell you when I catch one.”

“Oh, what a coincidence! My pokemon is a surprise too!”

Rayla laughed, which made Callum feel a bit better. Nothing was ever too bad if you could crack jokes and make people laugh, right? Right.

Rayla set a speedy pace which put the idea of further jokes out of Callum’s mind for the time being. It was lucky they’d started out early, because the higher the sun rose in the sky, the more obvious it became that it was going to be a scorching day. Callum was already looking a bit pink by the time they eventually reached the cave, and it was barely gone 11AM!

“Is this the place?” Callum asked.

Rayla eased her rucksack off her shoulders. “I don’t see any other caves around here, do you?”

Callum squinted. The cave opening was large, tall enough to admit two Aunt Amayas standing on top of one another, but the cave structure itself did not seem that large. It opened into a rocky outcrop, but it wasn’t even as large as an average terraced house – it definitely did not look big enough to house the maze that Rayla had talked about.

She seemed unperturbed though. “Do you want to have an early lunch, or wander around for a bit first?”

Callum shrugged. “I’m a bit hungry, but I don’t mind quickly checking the place out.”

Inside, the cave was pleasantly cool. He quickly realised how the cave could be as big as Rayla said without looking too big from the outside; it would’ve been a steep slope downwards if someone hadn’t carved stairs into the rock. There was a rope that he been fixed as a makeshift bannister, which was lucky, because the steps were narrow and uneven in places. Callum probably would’ve gone head over heels and fallen all the way to the bottom, which was… not an inconsiderable distance.

The steps eventually opened out into a large, low-ceilinged space with a deep pool in the middle and three different tunnels branching off it, all heading further underground. Artificial lights had been installed into the wall, so that it wasn’t bright but it wasn’t too dim either. The rangers had obviously attacked this place with safety regulations.

Yeah I could definitely still get lost in here.

“How are we going to find our way around?” Callum asked.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Rayla said, distractedly looking into the pool. “Hey, this looks really deep. It’s a shame we don’t have a fishing rod or anything. I bet you could pull up some cool pokemon.”

“Maybe if we unravelled string behind us...” he said. Did they have any string? “Or… piles of objects?”

“So a trail of breadcrumbs?”

He shook his head, appalled. “Haven’t you ever read Hansel and Gretel? We’d get lost in here forever just because some pokemon wanted a snack!”

“I meant metaphorically!” Rayla called back. She started down one of the tunnels and Callum had to suddenly scramble to catch up with her. “Hmm… I need somewhere darker...”

“If you fall into one of those cave pools I’m not fishing you out,” Callum said quickly. “I hate the cold. What are you looking for?”

“Somewhere a bit off the beaten track. I think it’ll be too bright for them in here.”

Callum nodded. “Sure, makes sense.” He paused. “Wait, are we talking about your pokemon or mine?”

Rayla also paused. “…I guess both?”

They continued down the tunnel, ignoring some smaller paths that branched off for the sake of not getting lost, until they came to another big cavern. This one was smaller but larger, disappearing up into a dark ceiling, the artificial lights just allowing Callum to make out stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It did feel a bit more like a normal cave in here. Maybe they’d installed less lights on purpose for the pokemon who liked the dark better?

“Doesn’t look like the path goes any further past here,” Callum said. “Let’s head back and have lunch.”

“You go. I think I might camp out here for a bit and see if something shows.” Saying that, Rayla dusted off a rock and sat down, drawing her knees up to her chest.

“Oh. Sure...”

Callum was about to turn to go, when he realised that Rayla was still only wearing a t-shirt. It was kind of chilly in the cave, and he’d been getting steadily colder the longer they’d been in there. It was easy to forget how sunny it was outside.

He unravelled his scarf and took off his jacket, thrusting them in Rayla’s direction. She took them automatically and then sort of blinked at them a bit.

For some reason, Callum felt suddenly embarrassed. “Just in case you get cold okay see you outside inabitbye!” he blurted, and made a run for it before he could see Rayla’s reaction.

Or at least a quick power-walk.

Why was he acting so weird? Sure, the scarf was like, his signature item, but it was just a scarf.

When he emerged out into the bright sunshine, it was easy to put those thoughts aside. Callum was weird and awkward, nothing new there, Rayla wouldn’t think anything of it, et cetera.


He distracted himself by pulling out his phone and discovering that he had some signal. Grinning, he pulled up his messages to Claudia and—

Drew a blank.

Start typing...’ the empty message box said, mockingly. What did he say? It felt a bit weird to tell Claudia about Rayla. ‘Hi, I met this other trainer, and instead of catching a dark-type I beat her to the second Gym and also murdered my feet’? None of it sounded quite right.

Well, maybe he could talk about the cave instead! He had no idea what it was called, but if dark-type pokemon could be found there, he was sure Claudia would know…

He started typing whatever came into his head, but then he looked back over it and frowned. It started normally enough – Hey Claud, hope you’ve been well! – and continued just fine – met a new trainer friend who told me about this cave on Route 4, and – but then rapidly diverted into ‘just kind of weird’ – so I was wondering if you think a dark-type is a good idea for my team, you know what Peanut’s like and I’m not that great at managing pokemon so I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t—

Callum sighed and quickly deleted the message. He’d been more worried than he’d realised…

Why did he even want a dark-type so badly anyway? To impress Claudia? Well, she was hardly going to be impressed if he messed it up. And… it seemed less important now to impress her. He still really wanted to, but he also had to think about Lin, and Peanut, and even Rayla if they were going to be travelling together. Not that Rayla really probably cared about what pokemon Callum was carrying around, but you know…

Sally was really well-behaved. Maybe it was the flying-type? Maybe it would be fine?

Callum rubbed his face tiredly. I… should definitely have thought harder about this. He could just text Claudia and ask which dark-types she recommended for a beginner, but it seemed kinda… lame. To be relying on her all the time.

What did Rayla say? ‘You just need to concentrate on being yourself, whatever that looks like.’ Uh, yeah, whatever does it look like?

He still didn’t know, but maybe it didn’t look like ‘constantly badgering Claudia for tips on how to raise a dark-type’. Rayla thought he was a really good trainer, somehow! He couldn’t ruin that first impression by relying on someone else all the time!

But still, he did kinda promise Claudia…

A small squeak came from nearby. Callum looked up, blinking, up he didn’t see anything. Then the bushes rustled and made a squeaking noise.

Something making such a cute little noise couldn’t possibly be out to get him, so he smiled. “Hi! Do you want to come out?”

A ralts peeked its head out from behind the bush and then pulled it back again.

Was that the same one from yesterday? Did it follow them all this way? “Hey, it’s okay, buddy. I won’t hurt you.”

Another squeak, but the ralts didn’t come out of hiding.

Callum wasn’t sure what that meant until, with a quiet pop of displaced air, the ralts suddenly appeared next to him. It dropped something in his lap and then promptly vanished again before he could say anything.

It was a small, blue berry. Is it trying to pay us back for last night…?

“Aw, thanks little pal, but it’s okay. The berries were for you! You can have this one back!” He offered it out.

The ralts popped out again, teleporting within arms reach of his hand. To Callum’s surprise, it touched his hand to gently push the berry back towards him.

And then squeaked and teleported behind the bush again. There was a rustle of leaves.

“You really want me to have the berry, huh?” Callum peered at it, but it was just an oran berry, which were safe for… for pretty much anything to eat, really. “Okay then.”

He popped it into his mouth. Ooh, it’s a good one! They can be really sour…

At the sound of another soft pop, he glanced down. The ralts was standing just out of arms reach, studying him from under its helmet. When it saw him looking, it opened its arms wide and let out a trill.

“Uhh...” Callum wasn’t sure what it was trying to do. He mimicked the pose back and grinned. “Yay!”

The ralts let out a noise which was unmistakeably a giggle and vanished. It was back a moment later with another oran berry, and this time it stayed next to Callum when it dropped the berry in his lap. It trilled again.

“Are you trying to cheer me up?” Callum asked.

The ralts threw its arms up in the air. That seemed to be a yes?

He smiled. Cute little thing! I forgot how sensitive psychic-types are to emotions. When they’re paying attention. Maybe it really had been following them all day? Poor buddy must be lonely.

“I’m going to eat with my friend when she comes back, so you should have this one,” Callum said to it.

It looked uncertainly at the berry he was offering and tried to push it towards him again.

“Nuh-uh! I insist!”

This time, the ralts accepted the berry and took an enormous bite (for such a small pokemon). Then, for some reason, it giggled again.

Callum grinned. It was impossible not to feel better in the face of such a cute pokemon. “It’s really nice of you to come and cheer me up. Thanks.”

The ralts bobbed its head, nearly overbalancing due to the disproportionate weight. It used a wave of psychic energy to balance and steady itself, causing goosebumps to rise on Callum’s arm. Just like the teleportation with a berry, it took a lot of advanced control for pokemon to use psychic power in small ways without harming anyone like that. The ralts might be nearly ready to evolve!

“Hey, we’ve got some nice pokemon snacks too. Do you want to try one? They’re made from berries.”

Though it perked up on hearing the word ‘berry’, the ralts didn’t seem sure what to do with the poffin. It sniffed it and took the tiniest bite from the edge of the poffin.

And then shoved the whole thing into its mouth so fast that it accidentally bit its own hand.

Relatable, Callum thought. He gently patted the ralts’s head while it whimpered.

Callum reached for a potion spray and had to spend a while trying to explain healing potions to a wild pokemon. The ralts didn’t run away at the sting of the medicine, although it cried a bit more until Callum hand-fed it another poffin.

That may just have been a plot to get more poffins, but the ralts was too cute for Callum to complain about it.

The ralts’s hand was feeling better in no time. It gave Callum a hopeful expression.

“If you want more poffins, you have to meet my other pokemon and share,” he said. “They’re supposed to be their snacks. You can’t have them all.”

It tapped the pokeballs at his belt and threw its arms up in the air again. Maybe it was actually excited to say hi? Other pokemon were probably less scary than people.

But as soon as he released Lin and Peanut from their pokeballs, the ralts vanished again. He slumped his shoulders, disappointed. Reading pokemon was hard, but he’d been so sure...

“Sorry, guys,” he said to a confused Lin and Peanut. “I thought we might have a new friend, but—”

The ralts reappeared again with a small mountain of oran berries in its arms, dropping them at the other pokemon’s feet. It let out a cheerful trill and threw it’s arms up again. Lin happily squeaked back and mimicked the gesture, whilst Peanut just nodded and ate a berry in one gulp.

It… came back.

The ralts picked up another berry and offered it to Callum. There was no other way to describe its expression other than ‘a hopeful smile.’

A psychic-type. He knew about psychic-types, right? At least a bit. And Rayla knew about fairy-types, so she could help him out too—maybe it was because she was there, but it didn’t feel like cheating, like the idea of asking Claudia for help did.

Callum smiled back. “Do you want to stick around for a while with us? I know my friend Rayla scared you last time, but I promise she’s cool. You’ll like her.”

The ralts squeaked and bobbed its head, waving the berry more insistently at Callum.

He laughed. “Okay, okay, I get it!”

He reached out to take the berry only for Peanut to snatch it up before he could grab it. The ralts pouted and threw a berry at Peanut’s head. Callum had to laugh at Peanut’s indignant expression. Seems like they get along just fine.

When Rayla came up from the cave half an hour later, she one look at the ralts, complete with bloated belly from too many snacks, napping in a pile with Lin and Peanut. She gave him a questioning look.

“I think she’s staying,” Callum said.

Even Callum had to admit that the ralts, called Sabriel, very quickly had him wrapped around her little finger. She liked to walk around with them out of her pokeball despite being terribly slow, but he learned that if they just walked at a normal pace she’d eventually use teleport to catch up to them. It was just as well she seemed to like exercise, because Callum’s supply of poffins rapidly depleted.

“That is one spoiled little ralts,” Rayla said. She looked like she was about to shake her head, but then remembered at the last minute that her new noibat, Hercule, was hanging upside down from her horns.

Callum never thought he’d be able to identify the movement of someone about to shake their head but who didn’t actually do it. You learned something new every day!

It had taken Rayla an entire day and a half to find the little pokemon, which was maybe why she’d settled for one that wanted to do nothing more than sleep all the time. I could understand if he was nocturnal, but he’s not! He sleeps then too!

So Callum was not about to complain about Sabriel. Rayla seemed happy with her noibat, but from his perspective, it could’ve been worse. Having Sabriel out and about all the time helped him to refine her teleporting skills too! She was a natural and was quickly able to teleport larger and larger objects, and eventually Lin (Lin did not enjoy this) without trouble at all. Maybe they could work up to people soon! Then he’d only have to catch a flight back home to show her where it was and Sabriel would be able to teleport him for a visit any time!

Maybe then she would steal treats from Ezran instead of from Callum. A guy could dream.

Rayla also managed to train her noibat in the rare moments he was awake. These always seemed to happen when Callum wasn’t watching so he only had her word for it.

They passed the rest of the trip to Borderlodge City training their pokemon along the road. The time seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, even though Callum knew it took them double the normal time to get there.

Aunt Amaya chewed him out at the Pokemon Centre again until he was able to explain that no, they really did just take that long. He was able to use the future promise of Sabriel’s teleporting to get her to forgive him. Callum may or may not have implied that it took so long because he was searching for a ralts like Sabriel, but as long as Rayla didn’t blab, his kneecaps would be safe.

It was nice to eat food that he hadn’t cooked himself and the thought of a proper shower and bed was sheer delight. So he was caught totally off guard when Rayla burst this bubble of euphoria with a serious question:

“What are you going to do about the Gym?”

“…Uh. Yes. The Gym.” Callum had honestly not thought this far ahead. “That thing and the plan I have for it. Which is… a secret.”

Rayla snorted and did not even to call him on this terrible lie, which stung a little. Could she not just pretend it wasn’t so blatantly transparent? For the sake of his ego? “I wasn’t going to mention it because I thought you were going to catch a dark-type, but now you have Sabriel, so...”

And Peanut hadn’t copied any moves super effective against psychic-types, and Lin was a fighting-type. It was going to be an uphill battle for sure. Curse him for not thinking far enough ahead—wait, no, for thinking too far ahead.

“Ah…” He scratched his head. “I know a bit about psychic-type pokemon. I’m sure I can come up with something.”

If he really needed to, he could call Harrow and ask for tips. Harrow had personally taught the Gym Leader here, Opeli, when he was in the Gym Leader circuit, so he must know something about her. But… it felt like cheating. Callum couldn’t help but think of how proud Harrow would be if he beat the psychic Gym all by himself.

“Oh. Okay.” He blushed a little at how Rayla immediately accepted this reasoning and didn’t press. It was a bit strange for someone to have so much faith in him. “Well, would you come try the Bug-Catching Competition with me anyway? It seems like it might be fun.”

“What?” Callum blurted. Rayla pointed and he spun on the spot to be confronted with a massive sign which read Bug-Catching Competition: every Sunday in Banther Park, 3pm! “Oh. Well, that makes life easier.”

Rayla giggled. “Did you really not notice? I assumed you’d seen it and maybe you didn’t like bug-types or something.”

“No, I don’t mind them… I’m just that dense, I guess.”

She elbowed him and glared a bit, which she had started to do a lot lately when he said anything self-deprecating.

“Nuh-uh! You gotta let me have that one! Look at the size of this thing!” He stuck his tongue out at her and she laughed.

“I guess you’ve got a point,” she said. “They did pick a particularly eye-melting shade of green. Dunno how ye missed it.”

“Nights of study in the art of obliviousness,” Callum quipped, and he was rewarded for his wit when Rayla laughed even harder.

He smiled back.

…It was nice to make her happy.

Chapter Text

The rules for the bug-catching competition were pretty simple: hand in all your pokeballs, keep one of your pokemon (below a certain height limit) out with you for protection, go out into the park with the contest balls and prosper! …Uh, catch bug-types. Points were awarded at the end for the rarity, size, and weight of the bug-type, and whoever had the most points at the end won. You could only keep one of your caught pokemon, though, to avoid depopulating the park.

This was totally fine by Callum, who didn’t really want an entire team of bug-type pokemon, but some of the other contestants got weirdly… agitated… about it.

“Who even needs, like, sixteen caterpie?” he asked in an undertone.

“Just ignore ‘em,” Rayla said, distracted and frowning at the clefairy by her feet. She’d reluctantly taken Duster along with her since her flying-type pokemon might scare off the bugs. “And you, behave. No fighting every pokemon we meet.”

Duster flexed his arms and huffed at her.

“I meant it! Any misbehavin’ and I will ban Callum from feeding you poffins for a week.”

The clefairy’s mouth dropped open as he froze. Slowly, he turned to Callum.

Callum nodded solemnly. “I’m gonna make a new batch when we get back to the Pokemon Centre. And you know how much Sabriel likes them. Maybe there won’t be any left by the time you’re allowed them again, huh?”

Duster’s eyes went very wide. He folded his arms across his chest and tried his best, Callum assumed, to look innocent. It was slightly disturbing to see him looking like a normal clefairy.

“There we go!” Rayla bent down to pat his head. “Don’t worry, we’re lookin’ for rare ones to win! So if you see a wee caterpie or weedle or anything, feel free to just punt them away.”

Duster made a punching motion.

Lin gave Callum a worried look.

He raised a finger. “Uh…”

“…Gently. Punt them away gently.

Duster nodded, but he was still practising his punches.

How hard could a clefairy punch, anyway? It would probably be fine. Probably?

“Keep an eye on him, Lin, okay?” Callum whispered. “I don’t want him scaring off all the bug-types.”

Lin saluted.

Callum really wanted to know where she had picked that up from, but then the bell sounded to start and Rayla grabbed his wrist. “Come on! Let’s be the first ones to catch something!”

Oh boy. Who knew Rayla had a competitive streak? Wait. She made a rivalry with me literally an hour after we met. I knew she had a competitive streak!

Lures had been set out around the park to draw wild pokemon in, but only bug-types counted for the challenge. Callum had to remind Rayla of this when she spotted an oddish and immediately chucked a pokeball at it.

“Oh.” She blinked. The oddish broke out of the pokeball and blinked back at her. “Sorry, buddy, got overexcited!”

The oddish shook its leaves at her and continued plodding towards the nearest lure.

“Look, Rayla, over there!” Callum cried, as much to get Duster glaring at the poor oddish as anything else. “A weedle!”

“That’s no good, we need one for both of us.”

He sighed and half-heartedly threw one of his own pokeballs at the weedle. To his surprise, it clicked shut basically immediately, indicating a successful capture.


“What?” Rayla demanded. “That’s not fair.”

“I didn’t mean to actually catch it,” he replied, “but it’s a competition! We’re supposed to be competing. You know… against each other.”

Rayla scowled at him and pulled a pokeball from her belt as though she meant business. “Well, fine then. Prepare to be competed!”

Duster mimicked her pose, snorting.

Lin tugged on Callum’s trouser leg and pointed at a wurmple behind a tree.

Callum brightened. “Oh! Nice spot—”

The wurmple disappeared into a pokeball.

He turned in dismay to find Rayla sticking her tongue out at him.

Ugh. He couldn’t say it wasn’t fair, but he could futilely shake his fist in her direction and pretend like he was actually mad. “I’ll get the next one!”

“Ha, no you won’t!”

Nobody got the next one, a pineco that twirled in the air and smacked both of their pokeballs away before bouncing off into the long grass before they could throw another. After that, there were three different caterpie. Rayla caught two of them but Callum caught the biggest one.

“So? I’ve caught more than you!”

“That doesn’t matter, it only matters how many points it’s worth at the end!”

Rayla frowned. “Oh, crabcakes, that is how they score. Uh… over there! I see a big one!”

Crabcakes? Callum wondered before shaking himself and running after Rayla.

It really was a big one—a pinsir that was a foot taller than either of them. It had obviously seen its fair share of battles, because one of its pinching, toothed horns was missing the tip.

Callum grabbed one of the pokeballs from his belt and threw it… at exactly the same time Rayla threw one of hers. They collided in the air and bounced off each other, disappearing into the tall grass and never coming near the pinsir at all.

It looked at them for a long moment and then pointedly turned its back and began walking away.

“…Well, I didn’t want to catch the judgemental pinsir anyway,” Callum said.

Rayla hastily nodded. “Me neither.”

The centre of the park was starting to get a bit crowded. They moved closer towards the edges of the park, near the forest, where the grass was even longer and made pokemon even more difficult to find, but at least there was less competition.

After about ten minutes, Callum realised why there was less competition. There were no lures set out here, so they hadn’t stumbled across many pokemon at all, never mind any bug-types.

“Do you see anything?” Rayla asked.

“No,” he said. He caught himself. “Not that I would tell you anyway if I did!”

“You’re such a bad liar.”

Callum sighed. I totally am. I totally would tell her.

Lin, as though sensing his thoughts, patted his leg comfortingly.

“Thanks Li…”

He trailed off. Did he just see a flash of yellow in the trees?

There was a paused. “What?” Rayla asked, her voice automatically dropping to a murmur. “Did you see something?”

“I dunno,” he murmured back.

His eyes were still scanning the trees. He was sure he’d seen something, but he wasn’t sure if it was a bug-type pokemon. A bush rustled. His eyes snapped over to it just in time to see it stop shaking. Callum tensed, scanning for more movement. Lin held on to Duster’s tail to stop him running into the tree line.

Rayla grabbed Callum’s arm and pointed to a spot where something filtered through the trees. “Look! There’s something…”

He squinted, but didn’t see anything, until there was a small shift of movement and then he was nearly dazzled by the sunlight glinting off something shiny.

Callum rubbed his eyes. “I saw it, but—”

Suddenly, not one, but two pokemon burst from the bushes. Callum had just a moment to identify the pink, shiny one as a shelmet and the yellow and blue one as a karrablast before they were on the offensive.

The shelmet spat a glob of purple acid at them, whilst the karrablast simply charged forward.

Rayla skipped back to avoid the puddle of acid, but a few spots splashed on her boots as the grass at her feet turned brown and dry. “Oi, watch it!”

The shelmet closed and opened its metallic shell with a clank clank and waited for Duster to put himself between his trainer and the pokemon.

“I think that was a sorry?” Callum said, watching Lin flip the charging karrablast onto its back, using its own momentum against it. Yeah, she seemed fine.

“Apology accepted,” Rayla said.

The shelmet promptly spat another glob of acid in Duster’s direction. Callum turned his head as the karrablast went sailing past in his peripheral vision. It landed in some bushes.

He put his hands on his hips and frowned at Lin. “I thought Duster was the one who needed to be told to punt the pokemon gently? Huh?”

Lin rubbed her paws together and bowed. One of her ears twitched dangerously when the quiet was broken by Duster blowing a raspberry at her.

“Duster, don’t be daft, you’re in the middle of a fight!”

The karrablast charged out of the bushes towards Lin. Callum was struck by a powerful sense of deja vu.

Rayla spared a glance at her watch. “We’ve only got ten minutes before we have to be back at the cabin for judging. Do you reckon we’ve got time to win this one?”

The shelmet and karrablast both stopped dead and looked at each other for a long moment.

Then they both rolled over and lay still. Even Duster was too confused to keep fighting.

“Uh?” Callum asked gracefully. “Are they playing dead?”

Rayla scratched her head. “Should we just… go?”

The karrablast sat up, mimed throwing a pokeball with its tiny hands, and then lay back down again as though nothing had happened.

Callum looked at Rayla. Rayla looked at Callum.

“…It’s not just me who thinks this is weird, right?”

“No,” Rayla said, “but they’re pretty rare so we should have a good chance of winnin’. Let’s just catch them.”

The karrablast gave them a thumbs up before remembering it was supposed to be ‘unconscious’.

This still wasn’t enough to win them the competition. It turned out that someone had managed to catch the monstrous pinsir, and the entire room shrank back a bit when it stood at the front of the room as the trainer celebrated their victory.

“Didn’t want judgemental pinsir anyway,” Callum muttered.

“Shh, he might hear you!”

For lack of anything better, Callum ended up calling the karrablast ‘Val’. He put his hand to his mouth and tilted his head in confusion.

“...You just seem like a Val,” Callum eventually muttered.

Strangely, the karrablast actually seemed to accept this, and clapped his hands together.

“What about you, Rayla?” he asked, leaning back so he could see her.

“Earl!” she said brightly.

“Huh? Why?”

“Because he looks like a knight!” Her smile dimmed somewhat and she scoffed. “Obviously.

Well, an earl was… and knights would probably… but it didn’t really… you know what I have no room to complain about this, let’s just move on.

“Okay, well…” He shrugged. “I guess it’s time for training then.”

Val had run up to talk to the shelmet whilst Callum was distracted, but at this news he did a small dance of joy and the shelmet went clank clank… happily? There wasn’t much of the soft parts to be seen and bug-types could have really weird anatomy, but Callum thought those eye crinkles were from some kind of smile.

Hmm. Making sense of what the shelmet was saying could prove to be a problem. But importantly, that was Rayla’s problem and not his!

“So where do we start?”

Callum thought Rayla was asking a rhetorical question, so he didn’t say anything. But after a few moments the stare she was giving him turned rather flinty, and then slightly more terrifyingly Val and Earl turned their intense gazes on him as well.

…Although they didn’t seem to know why they were staring, because Earl turned to Val and made a noise by tapping his helmet-shell with something, and Val briefly broke his concentration to make a gesture that was clearly a shrug…

Then they both went back to staring at Callum with Rayla.

“Your dad is one of he best trainers in the world and uses psychic-types,” Rayla said, once the silence had had time to become really, really awkward. “You’re the expert here!”

“He’s my stepdad,” he mumbled.

It was true that Harrow was an expert in psychic-type pokemon—he had told Callum and Ezran a bit about them too. But it wasn’t really… it was hardly a lot. And psychic-types were some of the most complex around – they could use a variety of different moves, even ones they seemingly, by all rights, shouldn’t – as well as being amongst the most intelligent of pokemon. It made them very difficult opponents, especially properly trained ones, like, oh, you know… ones trained by a Gym Leader that Harrow personally taught.

How could Callum compete with that?

Rayla sighed. “Callum. Relax.”

He only then realised that he’d hunched over, balling his fists in his scarf until his knuckles had turned white. Slowly, he unclenched his fists, trying to sit up straight and ease some of the tension out of his shoulders.

“I mean—it takes years to master this stuff,” he tried to explain. “I just… I don’t want to give you bad advice, that’s all.”

Rayla came to sit next to him and patted his hands. “We talked about this, remember? You are better than you think you are. And you said you would try to be Callum, not anyone else. If Callum is unsure about a few things and gives me misleading advice… what’s the worst that could happen? We lose and have to try again?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Callum saw when Val blinked and rubbed his eyes, seemingly realising that they were no longer doing the staring thing. Earl didn’t seem to have noticed yet, eyes still boring into Callum’s soul, so Val rapped the top of his metallic shell with a loud clang.

The exchange made Callum snort a bit. It was impossible not to feel more cheerful from watching the pair of them.

Rayla was right. And he did promise.

“Okay. Okay, I’ll… I’ll do my best.”

Rayla grinned so brilliantly that for a moment Callum looked away. His fingers twitched, and he had to suppress the urge to grab his sketchbook and immortalise Rayla’s happy, proud face on the paper—just so he could look at it again when he needed a reminder.

Actually that sounds a bit weird, I probably shouldn’t do that, it would freak her out.

He cleared his throat. Rayla was now giving him an amused, exasperated look instead, and the moment had passed. Which was good because like… weird, right?

Uh, what was I about to say?

Val and Earl had come to join in the lecture and made an attentive circle around Callum. Looking at their eager faces, he remembered what he wanted to say. He cleared his throat again, because it made him sound more official, and Rayla could stop rolling her eyes right now or she wouldn’t be getting any more battle tips from him.

“So, the most important thing to remember about psychic-types,” Callum said, “is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Most psychic-types have weak physical defences, which is the easiest way to beat them… but not all of them. Most of them struggle to learn attacks that target bug- or dark-types because most of those moves are physical types, not special… but not all of them. And unlike most battles, you aren’t only facing a trainer guiding their pokemon. You’re often facing the pokemon’s own strategy as well – and many psychic-types are clever enough to pull that off.”

“Okay.” Rayla nodded. “So expect the unexpected, basically?”

“No!” Callum held up a finger. “This is more like… contingency planning. Because the second most important thing to know about psychic-types… is that they can actually be very predictable.”

Val shook his head rapidly and scrubbed at his ears, like he was afraid he’d misheard something. Wow, real comforting, buddy.

Rayla frowned in turn. “How so?”

“Well, actually, a lot of psychic-types’ greatest strengths are also their greatest weakness. Consider: if they’re facing a dark-type pokemon, and they have learnt a bug-type attack that plays to their strengths, like Signal Beam, what’s the first thing they’re going to do?”

She exchanged a flat look with Earl. The shelmet opened and closed the lid of his shell a few times, not quite closing it all the way, so that it made a squeaking noise.

Rayla sighed. “Use it?”

“Yes!” Callum said. She frowned as though she hadn’t expected him to say this. “Think about what I said about most psychic-types being physically weak. When facing an opponent with a type advantage, they have to take them out as soon as possible, preferably from range. But this also makes it pretty easy to predict what their first step is going to be, so you can prepare yourself for it.”

“I guess that does make sense...” she mumbled. “If they’re not physically weak, though? Some psychic-types do have tough defences, right?”

“Well, yeah.” Callum scratched his head. “That’s a different thing. You have to play the long game. But psychic-types like that are pretty rare, and normally the hardest ones to train as psychic-types…”

He could go into some of the physiology Harrow had explained to him, like that their psychic energy was used to make that physical defence which also meant they could have trouble channeling their power into offence without weakening themselves—

Rayla was already looking kind of confused, though.

“I mean, you’re not that likely to come up against one like that, so don’t worry about it.” He paused. “Until you get to Aunt Amaya’s Gym and then, like, super worry. Her bronzong is really powerful. But anyway! Psychic Gym first. The last thing is about psychic-types coming up with their own strategies.”

“You said they can be pretty clever about it?” she hazarded.

“Not quite what I said. They’re clever enough to do it, which is something that most pokemon struggle with. That’s why a lot of them want to find trainers in the first place.”

Val and Early both nodded fervently at this. Clank clank clank went Earl’s shell.

“The thing is, pokemon mainly operate on instinct.” This didn’t always go so well even against other wild pokemon, which was why a lot of pokemon were obsessed with getting stronger even before finding a trainer—so they could overpower opponents who’d normally be able to beat them. “That’s true for psychic-types too. They’ll come up with their own strategies, and they can come up with them quickly, so without the tip-off of a command from the trainer, you can easily get surprised by things. But they’ll come up with strategies that tend to match their own instincts, so if you know a bit about the pokemon, you can guess what they’re planning to do.”

Rayla snapped her fingers. “And that will clash with the trainer’s plan sometimes too, right?”

“Right! It can derail a whole strategy if the psychic pokemon decides to do their own thing.” One of Harrow’s strongest pokemon now was a delphox who, in Harrow’s own words, thought she was ‘hot shit’ (Callum was not supposed to tell Aunt Amaya he said that) when she was younger. But her arrogance meant she kept ignoring Harrow in fights, trying to do her own thing, and then getting out-thought by the opposing trainer and losing. And then Harrow had to deal with her temper tantrum after.

…He always looked really tired when he talked about training Delsie, for some reason.

“That’s all I got, though,” Callum said sheepishly.

“Are you kidding? This is amazing!” Rayla actually reached over and hugged him, making his face turn bright red. “And you were so thorough! We’ve totally got this Gym badge in the bag. I just know it.”

She had such faith in him. A warm feeling spread through Callum’s chest to match his over-warm cheeks.

Hopefully… he’d be able to live up to her impression of him.

Chapter Text

Then it was actually time to train.

Callum didn’t know that much about bug-types, so he tried to read up about them first – but most sources emphasised their suitability for new trainers or children because they were hardy, easy to take care of, and evolved quickly. But also karrablast’s evolution was extremely rare and not well understood. Gee, thanks, internet.

He scratched his head just decided to see what they could do with what they had.

Sabriel was standing in for the Gym Leader’s psychic-types. It would also be some good practise for her.

“Okay, Val,” Callum said, “we’re going to focus on dodging! Sabriel, go with some basic confusion attacks.”

Sabriel nodded and Val struck a pose, because he was weird like that. But he was pretty speedy, so this should be easy!

Rayla was having less luck with Earl.

“Can’t you spit any farther?” she asked, disappointed. There were patches of shrivelled, dried grass all around, but none more than a few metres away from Earl.

Earl swivelled from side to side, his version of shaking his head.

She frowned.

Lin gave her a questioning look. She’d been borrowed for Earl’s training because his poison-type acid attacks would’ve been too much for Duster (Duster disagreed and was currently sulking in the corner).

“…We’ll just have to work on manoeuvrability instead,” Rayla decided. She snapped her fingers. “Lin, I want you try dodging Earl’s attacks, aiming to get close enough to hit him—not too hard though, it is just training—” She waited for Lin to nod before continuing. “—and Earl, you try to get her with your acid before she gets too close.”

Earl went clank clank by way of acknowledgement.

“Alright, go!”

Callum watched with interest as Lin darted forward. Earl spat as her as soon as she came within range, but she managed to dodge most of it. She changed her angle of attack, moving around to Earl’s blind spot whilst creeping closer. Earl tried to turn around to follow her, but he had to do little hops to turn on the spot, which made him slow and inaccurate.

In the end, Lin got close to Earl without being hit again, and gently pushed him so he toppled over onto the grass.

Rayla looked at the shelmet in dismay.

“Too aggressive,” Callum said. “Earl is too slow to try constantly attacking like that. You have to bide your time, wear them out, and limit their opportunities to hit you until you can make a decisive move. Like Val!”

“Sure, Callum,” Rayla said dryly, “because that seems to be working out really well for Val.”


He turned to find Val panting on the ground, exhausted, whilst Sabriel watched with concern.

Callum cleared his throat. “But he at least got one good hit on you, right Sabriel?”

She made a questioning nosie and shook her head.


“And you need to be more aggressive,” Rayla said, coming to pat Callum’s shoulder. “You’re never going to win if you just stand there and avoid or take attack after attack – Val doesn’t have the endurance. You have to make your own opportunities instead of waiting… for the right… time…”

They stared at one another. Callum could practically see the lightbulb of an epiphany blinking on above Rayla’s head, because he knew he was having the exact same realisation.

“…So you know what were you saying about limiting opportunities to get a hit on Earl… You got any ideas?” Rayla asked sheepishly.

“Uh, sure,” Callum said, “and if you could give me some advice on how to be proactive and, um, make the hits count, I… uh—”


“Yeah. Thanks.”

...At least we’re both idiots together, he decided.

“Callum, you idiot, relax.” Rayla rolled her eyes. “You’re not even the one fighting first. Look, you’ll get to see her in action before you have to actually take a turn, it will be fine.”

Little did she know that Callum’s internal screaming was entirely on her behalf. What if he’d messed up with his advice and Rayla lost, what if what if…

“Yeah!” he said, his voice high-pitched from nerves. “I’m sure it’ll be totally fine!”

She gave him a very unimpressed look, but the judge called her in to the arena so she didn’t have time to argue further. She shook her head. “Oh, just make sure ye get yourself up into the stands! I expect to hear you cheering for me!”

Callum opened his mouth to promise he would, but she was already gone. “I’ll always cheer for you, Rayla.”

The guard gave him a funny look.

Yeah that came out a lot weirder than I intended, I should just… go…

In the stands, Callum was just in time to see the beginning of the match announced. Leader Opeli’s first pokemon was a mime jr., which was a fairy-type as well as a psychic-type… Callum bit his lip, but of course Rayla had decided to lead with Earl rather than with Sally. Because she knew basic typing match-ups and he really needed to stop worrying so much.

Lin, who had wanted to watch even if she couldn’t take part, patted Callum’s knee. When even the pokemon with a critical weakness to psychic- and fairy-types was giving you calm down, dear messages, you knew you were too nervous.

Callum still couldn’t help but cross all of his fingers.

The mime jr opened with a few weak confusion rays, dancing around Earl with nimbleness. There was no cover, just a wide open area, so it would’ve been easy for the little pokemon to avoid Earl’s acid attacks.

Which was probably why Rayla didn’t order him to make any. “Start laying out some spikes!” she called to Earl.

Clank clank was his answer. He closed his metallic shell around him for about ten seconds, and then it burst open, scattering sharp spikes in a circle around him. The mime jr danced away from one at the last minute.

Callum winced. It would’ve been a lucky break to get an injury on it so early. He could see that Rayla was disappointed too from the slump of her shoulders, but she recovered after a minute.

“Stick to the plan!” she said. “Full circle!”

Earl gave her another clank clank to acknowledge, and then started to make his way out of his own field of spikes. He moved with slow, awkward hops, which meant it took some time before he was clear. The mime jr pelted him with minor psychic attacks all the while, but with Earl’s natural defences and type resistance, it didn’t seem to have much effect.

Then Earl closed his shell again. When it stayed closed, the mime jr moved well out of range before any of the spikes could come close to hitting it. Rayla glared at the little thing and he bit his lip, hoping she wasn’t going to be tempted to charge after it.

The most important thing for a defensive strategy, Callum remembered saying, is not to lose your cool. Sometimes you have to change up your plan, but you should try to think straight the whole time.

Callum had chosen not to add that his first Gym battle had mainly considered of him flailing and panicking and not thinking straight at all. As Aunt Amaya and Harrow often said, ‘Do as I say, not as I do. And don’t tell your stepdad/aunt what I did.’

To Callum’s relief, Rayla squared her shoulders and yelled, “Good job! Next load!”

She directed Earl to leave two more spike deposits. By that time, the poor shelmet was starting to look a little worn out from all the attacks it had taken.

But the arena floor was also covered in sharp spikes, leaving the mime jr very little room to manoeuvre at all. The pokemon looked around wildly, seeming kind of confused as to how this had happened.

For the first time, Callum saw Leader Opeli frown.

Rayla grinned. “You know what to do, Earl! Acid!”

Given that this was way less energy intensive than making all those spikes – Rayla had spent an entire day building up Earl’s endurance for just this purpose – Earl was more than willing to sit in the corner and just spit at the mime jr for a while.

As graceful and nimble as ever, the mime jr twirled around the acid attack, but nearly tripped over the metal spikes lying all over the floor. Balancing precariously on one foot, it shrieked with outrage and pain when a second glob of acid struck it square in the face, sending it tumbling onto the spikes.

Callum winced on the little pokemon’s behalf.

Earl paused and looked to Rayla whilst the mime jr pulled itself to its feet. It was bleeding in a few different places. Callum couldn’t see how bad the damage was from up in the stands, but it was enough to make Rayla frown and hold out a hand to Earl, telling him to stop.

“Is the wee thing okay?” she asked.

The mime jr squeaked and turned to Leader Opeli. They stared at each other silently for a pause that stretched out like a rubber band, the small audience in the stands all collectively holding their breath. Callum didn’t know if they were communicating with telepathy or if they just knew what the other was thinking.

Eventually, Leader Opeli let out a deep sigh. “We are not ready to retire just yet,” she said. “Continue.”

Rayla and Earl exchanged a dubious look. “…If you say so. Earl, you know what to do.”

He clanked once and spat another globule of acid at the mime jr. Callum noticed that it was definitely smaller, though, and didn’t travel quite as far as Earl was capable of, falling short of the mime jr. It didn’t seem to be all too happy about this, since it screamed at Earl loud enough for Callum’s ears to ring.

Earl slammed his helmet shut whilst the mime jr shouted at him, opening it a tiny bit when the mime jr paused to take a breath… only to close the helmet again when it promptly continued yelling at him.

Lin stood up on Callum’s knees and shouted something too. Callum clapped his hands over his ears. Ow… “Why did you have to go and do that?”

She only sniffed. Only when Earl went clank clank and the mime jr stopped berating him did she sit down again.

Callum’s ears were still ringing. Considering how quiet she normally was, she had quite a set of lungs on her.

He only realised what the point of the whole thing had been when Earl’s next attack was up to his usual standards, catching the mime jr in the side as it tried to avoid the attack and the spikes… and the tiny pokemon paused to applaud him.

Callum pinched the bridge of his nose when he realised than Lin was clapping too. “Were you and the mime jr yelling at Earl for going easy on it?”

Lin turned to him and tilted her head, squeaking as though to say, What else?

I know pokemon are supposed to be battle thirsty, but isn’t this taking things a bit far? He sighed. “Well, do me a favour, if any of your opponents decide to go easy on you just, you know… let them.”

Her nostrils flared as she folded her arms and scowled.

“It’s their own fault!” Callum said. “They’ve got to learn to, uh, to… keep their willpower through the whole battle! Right?”

He thought this was a pretty convincing argument himself, but Lin rolled her eyes at him and turned back to watch the match.

Not that the battle with the mime jr lasted much longer, as it was eventually forced to withdraw because of its injuries. It still tried to chew out Leader Opeli when she called it back to its pokeball. Callum would said that something that small and pink shouldn’t be allowed to be so bloodthirsty, but he’d already met Duster, so he’d come to terms with the fact that the world just didn’t work as it should.

Leader Opeli paused with a second pokeball in her hand. “You know that the battlefield cannot be changed between matches,” she said. “So what will you do now?”

Rayla didn’t say a word in response. Instead, she called Earl back and tossed out Sally’s pokeball.

Leader Opeli watched the murkrow fly above the area and smiled. “I see… A strategy that benefited both of your pokemon. Well done. Come, then, let us conclude this match.”

Rayla found Callum in the stands and grinned at him. He hid his face behind Lin’s head so she wouldn’t see him blushing. The spikes strategy had been his idea, even if Rayla had refined it.

We’ve totally got this Gym badge in the bag. I just know it.’

Well, Callum’s chance at the badge was still up for debate. But watching Rayla effortlessly cruise to victory with her murkrow against Opeli’s meowstic filled him with happiness anyway. The most important thing was that Rayla had believed in him… and Callum hadn’t let her down.

Lin hopped off his knee and gestured down the aisle.

Callum sighed. “Yeah, I know. Our turn next.”

It would take time to reset the arena, so at least they had some time to congratulate Rayla!

“I did it!” Rayla crowed.

And to Callum’s surprise, she leapt into his arms. He staggered back under her weight and nearly fell over, but he felt a small set of paws give him a push in the small of his back, so he was able to set Rayla down on her feet without dropping her.

“You did it!” Callum agreed, beaming. “But please don’t do that again, I’m really not that strong.”

Rayla didn’t seem to hear him. Her grin was a little bit manic. “I did it, Callum! And it was all thanks to you!”

He held her at arm’s length. “Woah, let’s not go overboard with the praise, now. I think you did most of the work yourself. And you had some good pokemon.”

Sally came to settle on one of Rayla’s horns—proudly back in place—with a loud caw. Callum thought it was supposed to be rather pointed.

“Well, obviously I couldn’t have done it without you,” Rayla said, reaching up to scratch Sally’s chest.

The murkrow preened at the praise.

“But seriously, Callum.” Her smile had relaxed slightly, but it was still nearly blinding to Callum’s eyes. “You were such a big help. Thank you so much.”

“Indeed,” said another voice. “Although expert advice is only useful if it’s heeded.”

Sally let out a squawk of surprise and nearly fell off her perch.

“Uh… hi, Opeli,” Callum said awkwardly. “…That’s not breaking any rules, is it.”

“Advising a friend? Of course not.” She shook her head. “Actually, I thought it had a touch of Harrow about it. You’ve obviously learned from him well. I’m excited to battle you.”

Callum tried to maintain his smile, but he was sure it became somewhat strained. Rayla stepped on his foot. “Uh… yes!” he blurted, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt.

Opeli chuckled. “I must return to supervise the clearing of the arena, but I wanted to ask you something first. Is it true you caught a psychic-type? I believe Amaya said so, but I’m not fluent in sign language…”

“Ah, yeah! A ralts, actually. Sabriel.” Callum scratched the back of his head. “Although it might be more accurate to say she caught me. Uh… or that I bribed her with poffins.”

“A ralts, hm?” Opeli nodded. “I think that pokemon will be a good fit for you. They say artists are very sensitive and ralts, as a rule, appreciate that sort of thing.”

Rayla snickered quietly and raised her eyebrows at him. Callum just thought that whoever said that had probably never met Peanut. He was probably the least sensitive being Callum had ever met—unless you said he wasn’t sensitive enough to be an artist, probably, and then he’d show how sensitive he was to that insult by trying to stab you with a paintbrush.

“I won’t ask if your ralts will be joining us for battle today, but I’ll be hoping to see you both together. I should leave you to your last minute preparation…” There was a shout from behind her, and Opeli sighed. “And it seems I’m required urgently anyway. Good luck with your battle, Callum.”

“Ah, thanks!” Callum called after her. When she was gone, he buried his face in his hands. “She’s going to tell Harrow everything. This will be so embarrassing.”

“Oh, stop that, you.” Rayla nudged him with her foot, and when Callum brought his face out of his hands, she was scowling. “You’re going to do great! Even the Gym Leader thinks so!”

The Gym Leader also thought Callum’s stepdad was the patron saint of psychic-types or something so she was, maybe, just a little bit biased. He suspected that saying as much wouldn’t go down well, though.

Rayla jabbed him in the chest with a finger. “Positive thinking!”

“Yes, sir!” Callum said, saluting.

She rolled her eyes, but there was a small smile hiding at the corners of her mouth. “Seriously, all you have to do is remember your own advice.” She adjusted his scarf, fingers brushing against his neck. “You’ll do great. You’ll see.”

Callum’s face flushed. She said it like it was a fact of the universe. He didn’t know exactly when he’d managed to earn this intense level of faith from her, but the one thing he did know what that he’d do anything not to disappoint her.

Chapter Text

Standing in the cleared arena and facing Leader Opeli, Callum tried to hold on to that certainty. It was hard when his heart was pounding a mile a minute in his chest and he was so filled with nervous energy that he had to hide his fingers inside his pockets so everyone wouldn’t see how fidgety he was. Lin had been allowed to stay and spectate, and she was a calming presence at his side. They’d all placed so much faith in him—his pokemon and Rayla. He couldn’t let them down now.

“Choose your pokemon!” the referee called.

Leader Opeli threw out a pokeball and a slowpoke burst out of it.

Callum paused. He’d been planning to use Peanut for the first part of the battle, although the smeargle didn’t have any particular advantages against psychic-types, but… slowpoke, due to their thick blubber, were one of those unusual psychic-types with better physical defence than special, so maybe…

He probably shouldn’t. Sabriel hadn’t gotten much of an outing in battle yet, and he hadn’t talked any strategies over with her beforehand. Logically, it was better to stick with the original plan. But his instincts were telling him that thinking outside the box a little might work here.

If he was the Callum of a few months ago, he would’ve been too scared to try it. The Callum of now had had Rayla encouraging him the whole way here, and suddenly it didn’t feel so impossible that his instincts might be worth something.

Anyway, he’d promised Rayla he would try being just Callum, and sometimes he guessed that would mean losing as Callum, too.

“Sabriel, let’s give it a go!”

The ralts tilted her head in confusion as she took in the arena around her, making a questioning sound at him.

“Last minute change of plans,” Callum explained. “But you said you wanted to fight a Gym Leader, right?”

Sabriel whirled around to peer at Leader Opeli and her slowpoke. She threw her hands up in celebration and made an excited, high-pitched squeal.

Leader Opeli beamed back at her. “I sense an interesting power from her… Let’s see what you can do together.”

Sabriel looked back at Callum and tried to get him to fist bump with her. She’d been exposed to Duster too much during Val and Earl’s training, a clear sign of neglect on Callum’s part. All the other psychic-types were bound to laugh at her if they found out.

She did this cute little hopeful smile and Callum crouched down to fist bump her anyway.

“Are both trainers ready?” The referee waited for Leader Opeli and Callum to nod. “Then begin!”

“Water gun!” Opeli said.

There was a beat before her slowpoke reacted, which was plenty of time for Sabriel to teleport out of the way, but not enough time for Callum to avoid getting one of his legs wet as he skipped to the side. Jeez, there’s some power behind that water gun. It could’ve hit Sabriel from all the way over here?

Leader Opeli held out a hand as an apology, but most of her focus was reserved for the battlefield. The slowpoke continued to spout off water guns without input from her, which Callum guessed made sense. Slowpoke were… shockingly… slow to respond to commands, so if you could train one to act on its own, it would speed up the process a little bit.

But slowpoke were also not very clever, so it didn’t think to change up the water gun strategy, even when Sabriel continued to teleport around the arena and dodge every one.

“Don’t forget to hit it with disarming voice as much as you can!” Callum said.

Sabriel waved her arms by way of acknowledgement and her next teleport landed her behind the pokemon. It was slow to turn around, and she was able to fire off an attack before it could even get eyes on her. Slowpokes were defensive walls, so it would take a long time to wear it down with fairy-type attacks, but as long as they kept this up, they could definitely do it!

“Interesting…” Leader Opeli said. “Your ralts is exceptionally good at teleporting.”

“Ah, I wish I could claim credit, but she came to me like this,” he replied. Her thoughtful expression gave him a bad feeling…

“Change of plans!” Opeli said. “Let’s try a water pulse!”

Oh no, Callum thought, my feet are going to get soaked.

He didn’t realise what her plan actually was until the slowpoke caught up to her words after a few more blasts of water gun. It stopped, considering. Sabriel teleported by Callum’s feet and gave him a questioning look.

Then the slowpoke opened its mouth wide and a water pulse burst out of it, travelling at surprising speed. Sabriel gasped and teleported away, but the other side of the arena was soon swallowed up by the attack as well. She squeaked as she was bowled over by it, quickly pushing herself upright with an application of telekinesis and spitting out some water.

“Try hanging near the edges!” Callum called. “The effects should be weaker there!”

Belatedly, he realised his feet were not as wet as expected. He looked down. The water seemed to hit an invisible barrier near his feet, lapping at the edges before it slowly drained away. Courtesy of Leader Opeli, no doubt.

Callum swallowed. Unlike Harrow, most psychic-type specialists themselves possessed some level of psychic power. It was a little weird to think that Leader Opeli was probably stronger than the average psychic-type pokemon in her own right.

Not the time to think about that. As the water pulse drained away, Callum called, “Jump in and hit it again!”

Obediently, Sabriel used her teleport, landing behind the slowpoke as before. She paused, gathering the energy for a disarming voice attack—

—And barely had a chance to let the energy loose at the slowpoke before another water pulse attack billowed out of the slowpoke and surrounded it, burying Sabriel nearly up to her neck in water. She squeaked and vanished, appearing again at the very edges of the arena like Callum had suggested.

He bit his lip, trying not to swear in front of the crowd. He’d forgotten that water pulse was not a physical attack and the slowpoke wouldn’t have to take time to direct it in the same way. Slowpoke weren’t as talented at special attacks, but ralts didn’t have very good defences, either… would Sabriel be able to last? Think, think.

Sabriel hung at the edge of the arena, squeaking when the slowpoke released another water pulse attack. She teleported to a different part of the arena, but it was a wave of water. There wasn’t a way to escape from it. She sagged as it faded away, already beginning to look a little tired.

Come on, Callum! You were the one who switched the plan of attack at the last minute, so—

Suddenly, the answer seemed obvious. It was dumb of him not to have thought of it before. They weren’t going to last in a war of attrition. What had Rayla been trying to drill into his head over the last few days? How to be aggressive.

“Sabriel!” he called. “We’re going all out! Don’t worry too much about the water, just hit it with as many strong attacks as you can!”

She let out a chirping sound in response and immediately vanished. Reappearing to the left of the slowpoke, she gathered the energy for another disarming voice – and this time she held her ground when the next water pulse came, tilting her head to keep it above the water and taking a deep breath when it went over her head.

“Move,” Opeli said.

The slowpoke blinked, staring at Sabriel.

Opeli put her face in her hands.

Sabriel released the attack and teleported away before it struck the slowpoke. There was enough force in the attack to make it stagger and almost topple over. Callum’s eyes found Sabriel at the edges of the arena, panting, but her hands raised in celebration.

“Good work!” Callum grinned.

It would be close, but… they just might be able to get through this. If they could do it without calling on Val to finish things, that would give them that much more of a chance against Leader Opeli’s final pokemon.

Sabriel steeled herself, her tiny mouth set in an adorable, determined line. Then she teleported for another attack.

It went on like this for several minutes, Callum directing Sabriel as best he could, telling her when to duck out early, trying to spot parts of the arena where the currents produced by the water-type energy in the attack were weaker.

The slowpoke began to look haggard and tired, but it still refused to go down. It was slow enough already that there was no noticeable difference in its reaction times, whilst Sabriel’s reflexes were beginning to suffer. Even with acting as aggressively as possible, the match had dragged on for ten minutes, which was a long time for a ralts to operate at full power.

Callum watched her panting at the edge of the arena after another attack. He bit his lip. She was having to lean against the wall to support herself. “Hey, Sabriel, let’s leave the rest to—”

She let out a sound that he knew was meant to be a growl, even if it sounded more like a skitty purring. Pushing herself away from the wall, she wobbled a little on her feet, but steadied herself and gave him a defiant glare.

Why are pokemon all stubborn idiots? Callum sighed. “If you take another bad hit, I’m pulling you back no matter what, okay?”

She crossed her arms, still glaring.

After seeing the mime jr. in such a bad state, Callum was having none of it. A Gym badge was not that important. “Okay?”

Sabriel sagged as though disappointed. But after a moment, she nodded, which was all Callum needed to hear… see… whatever.

“You better be ready!” Opeli said.

The slowpoke was readying another water pulse. They’d missed an important chance to attack. Callum clenched his fists. We’ll just have to hang on until the next—

Out of the corner of his eye, Sabriel vanished.

Oh no. What’s she doing?!

When she didn’t appear next to the slowpoke, Callum looked around for her frantically. She was nowhere to be seen, until he heard someone in the crowd shout, “Up there!”

Sabriel was hovering near the ceiling, spamming her teleport to stay up there without falling too far at any one time.

It was a clever idea, but teleporting so many times one after the other was surely eating through her remaining energy. “Sabriel! I hope you have a plan!”

She must have been working on something, because she didn’t even acknowledge him. Her hands were pressed together in front of her, a strange glow surrounding her helmet-like head, unlike anything Callum had ever seen in training.

Green wisps began to appear in the air around her, flickering in and out of existence. Callum squinted, trying to make them out, but the shapes weren’t nearly solid enough to recognise. It must be difficult to prepare whilst teleporting, that was for sure. What kind of attack…?

The shapes became crisper, the green becoming nearly opaque. Callum’s eyes widened. Wait, is that a magical leaf attack? I know ralts can learn it, but Sabriel isn’t—

The slowpoke’s water pulse faded away, and it finally followed the lead of everyone else, looking upward and blinking enormous eyes in confusion.

Sabriel stopped teleporting and let herself drop.

Callum’s stomach dropped with her as she plummeted towards the ground, the leaf-shapes trailing behind her like a storm of arrows. Like razor leaf, the intent of the attack was to target the opponent with a storm of leaves, but because they were made entirely of grass-type energy and weren’t actually real, it was impossible to block them and nearly as difficult to dodge. It was also correspondingly much harder to learn and control, especially for pokemon who weren’t grass types.

I guess she found a way around the need to direct them properly, but…

She fell so fast that Callum could do nothing but watch with his heart in his mouth. He reached his arms towards her automatically, like he had any hope of catching her. Opeli was forced to leap backwards, away from her slowpoke, to get out of the field of the rain of leaves. Any other pokemon probably could have done the same, since Sabriel wasn’t able to direct the leaves after them as she should.

But since it was a slowpoke, Sabriel disappeared the moment before she would’ve crashed into it. With a soft thump, she landed in Callum’s outstretched arms and he had to scramble not to drop her—she wasn’t heavy, but the weight was unexpected.

Even in the brief moment it took her to teleport away, some of the leaves flickered out of existence, but enough of them remained and ploughed directly into the slowpoke, peppering it with cuts and scrapes. It groaned, shuddering with each minute hit until the storm passed.

Sabriel lifted up her head in Callum’s arms, watching the slowpoke. He tiny chest was heaving with the effort of what she’d done, yet the slowpoke hardly seemed to be affected at all—

Then, tortuously slow, it slumped to the ground and closed its eyes. Opeli knelt next to it with a wry smile. “So you finally tired yourself out… a good effort all the same.”

The referee looked from the slowpoke to Sabriel with narrowed eyes. Finally, he raised two flags. “Both pokemon are too injured to battle and must be withdrawn!”

Only Callum heard Sabriel’s weak cry of protest over the ‘Ooooh’ of the crowd. He frowned at her. “I know I technically said I’d pull you out if you took another bad hit, but doing the bad hit to yourself still counts, you know. You scared me half to death!”

Sabriel squeaked and tried to hide her face in the crook of his elbow.

Callum stroked her head. He was smiling despite himself. “You did a good job, though. We’ll work on the magical leaf thing so that you can do it properly next time, alright?”

She peeked up at him cautiously, grinning when she saw that he wasn’t really angry. She had time to raise her arms in a victory celebration before Callum called her back into her pokeball.

He grabbed Val’s next, taking several deep breaths. His heart still felt like it was about to burst out of his chest. We are definitely going to work on that magical leaf attack, if only so I don’t die of fright every time she tries to use it in battle…

“Both trainers, select your next pokemon!”

Callum and Opeli threw their pokeballs out at nearly the same time. She released another meowstic—this one largely covered in white fur in contrast to the mainly blue one that Rayla had faced. So this one must be a female… Callum thought he remembered there being some minor differences between the two sexes of meowstic, but his brain was drawing a complete blank on trying to remember them just then.

Val didn’t seem to be intimidated anyway. He was already chattering away to the meowstic. It hissed at him in return.

Callum buried his face in his hands. “Val, can you not trash talk your opponent before the battle even starts?”

Val looked at him blankly.

The sound of the meowstic grinding its teeth was audible even to Callum. At least I know in advance that the battle won’t be off to a nice, easy start, I guess… I don’t know if my heart can take this.

“Begin!” the referee shouted.

Callum hadn’t even opened his mouth before the meowstic darted forward, catching Val off guard, clapping Val’s face between its paws and dizzying him. A psychic attack of some kind sent Val tumbling away with a cry, although Callum thought it was more out of annoyance than anything else. He resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose and say, ‘I told you so!’

Val got to his feet whilst the meowstic preened its chest fur, purring smugly.

Callum didn’t want to tip it off by saying anything out loud, so he raised his hand, holding it flat and upright, and mimed something crashing into it with the fist of his other hand. Headbutt.

Val’s eyes lit up in understanding.

Leader Opeli gave them a worried look. “Pearl—”

Too late. Val charged at full speed and the meowstic only had time to squeak in alarm before he barrelled into it, head first. The meowstic was sent flying, although it managed to cushion its fall with an application of psychic energy. Val cheered for himself and the crowd soon followed suit.

“Val!” Callum tried to get his attention as the meowstic began to gather psychic energy between its paws, eyes narrowed. “Hey, Val!”

The karrablast was still waving and grinning at the crowd like an idiot.

Val! Jump!”

In a smooth motion, Val leapt into the air just as the meowstic released the attack. It ploughed into the ground, churning up dirt before it dissipated. Val twirled in the air, throwing his arms out in a smooth, circular motion like a dancer… before he landed flat on his face.

The crowd laughed again and Callum sighed. At least he listened to me when I said to move, but… “Stop showing off, dummy!”

Val gave him a thumbs up without picking his face up off the floor. Another chuckle rippled through the crowd and he lifted his face up just a tiny bit, trying to look at them whilst pretending not to look.

Callum sighed. “On your feet, Val…”

The karrablast hopped up, waving his hands, still facing towards the crowd.

He’s a born entertainer. Callum sighed. If only he was a born listener, too… “Remember, we’re trying to get in close!”

Val bobbed his head and rushed towards the meowstic again. It had already started preparing itself for another attack but, startled by the sudden onrush, fired the attack at Val in a panic.

As they’d discussed, Val only moved enough to dodge the worst of it and kept going. The crowd oooh’d in alarm.

The meowstic squeaked. Maybe assuming Val was going for another headbutt, it tensed. When Val was nearly upon it, it dodged to the side, twirling on one of its feet in an elegant, efficient move.

Too bad headbutt wasn’t Val’s plan this time.

“Alright, now that we’re close, time to put our plan into action!”

Val slid to a halt directly in front of the meowstic. When Callum squinted, he was just barely able to make out a pale green glow around him—barely a glow at all, something closer to a heat mirage. He only knew it was there because he was looking for it.

Karrablast didn’t have the scythes or claws that bug-types normally used for the fury cutter attack—an attack centred around multiple strikes, building power. At first that had left Callum scratching his head over how to make it work for a pokemon with stubby paws and feet before he remembered the karrablast’s sharp fangs.

Val leapt onto the meowstic and bit its ear.

The meowstic squealed, loud enough to make Callum wince and cover his ears. “Off now!” he shouted, hoping he’d been loud enough.

To his relief, Val did hop away, and then ratcheted back again whilst the meowstic was still finding its balance, biting down this time on the shoulder. The green glow around him intensified.

Opeli’s eyes widened. She must have recognised the move as the power built up—that was the funny thing about specialist Gym Leaders; they often knew nearly as much about the pokemon their type was weak to as they did about their chosen speciality.

“Get clear!” she cried. “You can’t let it keep landing hits!”

The meowstic was eager to comply, but it wasn’t able to dash away before Val got it again, on one of the paws. The meowstic hissed painfully, scratching at Val with its other paw, but he clung grimly on until Callum shouted for him to back off again.

Fury cutter was able to use the pain of the opponent as a feedback loop to double its power with every successful attack. It was hard to pull off with the greatest degree of accuracy, however, since it relied on meeting a specific rhythm with the attacks. Callum was trying to count beats as well as keep an eye on the flow of battle.

Rayla was much better at it. She was the one who’d seen the potential in the move in the first place—in theory, you could end a match in only a handful of good hits.

“Again!” Callum called.

Val darted in, but the meowstic let out a strange noise that made him stagger, and it was able to hop away before he could get a hit on it. The glow around him faded.

Callum groaned. Val had already taken a few big hits. Getting knocked out of the rhythm was going to make things difficult, especially now that they knew the plan. He needed to think of a way to get in close again, since the meowstic would be doing its best to keep distance between them—and Val is just charging at it again never mind I’ll just panic instead.

The meowstic hopped out of the way, letting Val crash into the wall behind it. There was a sympathetic wince from the crowd as Val wobbled on his feet. Callum was pretty sure he was exaggerating for comic effect, because he was pretty careful about where he was placing his feet, inching himself closer to his opponent.

The deception worked on the meowstic, too: when Val abruptly shifted his weight and launched himself at the meowstic, it squeaked and barely dodged out of the way. The crowd were impressed and let out a mix of cheers and groans as Val’s attack missed.

Callum thought, Great, and now it knows that trick too.

“Get into the middle!” Opeli said.

Skipping backwards rapidly, the meowstic moved into the centre of the arena where it had more room to manoeuvre. Callum winced, but there wasn’t much to be done about it now. Before he could say anything, Val charged directly at the meowstic, using the same level of speed as he had for the headbutt.

“No!” Callum called. “Zigzags! You have to change direction, or else it’s going to—”

The meowstic charged up a disarming voice attack which hit Val head on. The karrablast flipped head over heels and landed face down on the floor again. Callum was pretty sure that this time, he wasn’t putting anything on when it took him a moment to stagger to his feet.

“You can do it,” Callum said to him. “Just remember to zigzag! Make yourself a more difficult target!”

Val’s expression grew determined as his mouth set into a hard line. He nodded.

Hopefully he’s taking it a bit more seriously now…

The karrablast charged forward again. The disarming voice attack was difficult to avoid, since it was, at a basic level, just noise. But it was possible to get out of the main blast of the attack, and make it difficult for the meowstic to focus it’s attacks. Val used his natural gymnastics talent not only to zigzag, but to leap into the air and do forward flips.

It was still a crowd pleaser, but Callum could see that it was making the meowstic get more and more frustrated. Opeli’s frown deepened with every attack her pokemon made, each one sloppily put together, or released before it had built up the proper amount of power, or without proper aim—

Psychic-types relied on their brain power in a far more literal sense than most pokemon, which only increased the errors they made when they were off their game. Callum found himself clenching his fists and leaning into the battle, watching carefully and having to remind himself to breathe. We’ve got a real chance! You can do it, Val!

As Val gained ground, Opeli called, “Fall back!”

The meowstic shuffled back a little bit, but it was so focused on Val that it kept trying to pummel him with attacks, slowing him down.

“No, no,” Opeli said. “Leave it and—”

Too late. “Go for her, Val!”

Val dropped the antics and put on a burst of speed as he charged directly at the meowstic. It was caught off guard and jerked away. Nearly stumbling it couldn’t dodge Val’s bite. As his teeth sunk into its side, Callum started mentally counting beats in his head. The faintly green glow around Val grew brighter.

“Back off!”

Opeli called at nearly the same time, “Away, away now!

Callum blinked and nearly lost his count. Did she figure the timing out? Already?

But the meowstic was exhausted and slow. When it tried to back away, throwing an attack at Val to give it some breathing space, it was a psychic-type attack and not the difficult-to-avoid disarming voice it had been using under Opeli’s guidance. Val simply dodged to the side of it and was ready to leap back on his opponent at Callum’s shout.

“Disarming voice!” Opeli called urgently. “Focus, focus!”

The meowstic shook its head—Callum couldn’t tell if it was a response to Leader Opeli, or an attempt to loosen the grip of the karrablast clinging to its ear. Its struggles were weak, and the attempt to channel energy into a disarming voice attack was cut short when Val kicked off it as he broke free. The energy dissipated from between its paws like a burst of static from a television.

Callum could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Victory was close, so close, which made it all the more important not to lose count. “Wait, wait!” he said, when it looked like Val wanted to charge in early. He circled the meowstic instead, and it wobbled as it turned and tried to widen the gap between them. Getting dizzy from such a simple movement must mean it was close to its limits, but Val must be too—both from all the hits he’d taken and from all his acrobatic activities.

Beat, beat… “Now!” Callum shouted.

Val leapt and tumbled and knocked the meowstic to the ground as he barrelled into its chest. It flailed its arms in a panic, trying to force itself up of the floor before giving up and channelling its energy into a psychic attack instead. It hit Val, but didn’t dislodge him.

Hang in there, hang in there! Val, you can—

Callum saw Leader Opeli winced and gesture to the referee.

“Val, back off!” he shouted, just as the referee raised his flag and declared them the winner.

Val leapt off the meowstic, but pawed the ground and continued to stare hard at it. He let out a squawk of surprise when Leader Opeli strode onto the field and picked it up.

“We won, you dummy!” Callum said.

Val whirled around to face him, his little chest heaving. He blinked and let out a quieter, questioning chitter.

Callum was breathing heavily himself, even though he hadn’t done anything. The end was so abrupt that it was almost dizzying. The clapping and cheers of the audience were like a buzzing in his ears; he couldn’t make sense of them.

His karrablast wasn’t having that kind of difficulty. Val stared at the watching crowd with his mouth hanging open, and then he began to parade around the area, waving to everyone and even blowing kisses as he made a victory lap.

Callum’s laughter may have come out a little hysterical, because Leader Opeli put a hand on his shoulder. He’d barely even been aware of her walking over and jumped.

She smiled and shook her head. “You played to your pokemon’s strengths very well,” she said. “I would ask if your karrablast enjoyed itself, but it looks like I already have my answer…”

Someone in the crowd had gotten the hilarious idea to throw flowers at Val’s feet like he was some kind of movie star. Callum hoped he wasn’t going to expect this kind of treatment at all of their Gym matches.

“Ah, yeah.” Callum scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “He’s, uh, a bit of a performer type… I guess?”

Opeli laughed.

The meowstic was still lying in her arms, its eyes closed. It looked pretty beat up and it was bleeding in a few places. It opened one beady eye and looked at Callum with a questioning mew.

“Uh… you doing okay there, buddy?”

“She’ll be fine when she’s had time to sulk,” Opeli said. “She hates losing.”

Her meowstic hissed and batted at Opeli’s hair with one of its paws. It raised its head and glared in Val’s direction. He was still parading about and admiring the nice pile of gifts the crowd had thrown down to him—a few flowers, a bunch of shiny sweet wrappers, and one empty box of popcorn.

Hissing again, the meowstic sat up in Opeli’s arms and narrowed her eyes. One of Val’s flowers rose up in the air and began to float in her direction. Val let out a squawk of dismay as he abandoned his pile to chase after it. He was concentrating so hard on keeping his eyes on the stray flower that he ran straight into Opeli’s leg and fell flat on his back.

The flower zoomed into the meowstic’s waiting paws and she hugged it to her chest. Snuggling back into Opeli’s arms, she curled up around it and began to purr. She stopped and opened a baleful eye when Val let out another noise of protest. He stood on the very tips of his stubby feet and stretched his little arms as far as they would go, as though he might be able to reach.

Callum nudged him with his foot. “Hey, Opeli’s pokemon fought hard, too. Let her have one of your presents.”

Val deflated and the meowstic began to purr again.

Opeli chuckled. “Besides,” she said, peering down at Val with a smile, “we’ll have to clear out the arena for the next battle soon, so if you want to keep all of your gifts, you’d better move them out of the way.”

One of the Gym’s trainers was already approaching the pile with a large brush. Val’s mouth dropped open and he panicked, running over with flailing arms and unintelligible babble.

“Anyway, I must give you this before you get distracted,” Opeli said. She pressed a Gym Badge into Callum’s hands.

He grinned at it stupidly for several seconds before it occurred to him what she’d said. “…Huh? Distracted how?”

“Callum!” came Rayla’s voice suddenly. “You did it!”

He blinked, surprised to see her—so he was totally unprepared when Rayla jumped into his arms. He let out a strangled yelp and fell right on his tailbone in a tangle of limbs.

“Ow.” Callum coughed, trying to get his breath back. “I told you I wasn’t that strong.”

Rayla laughed. “Sorry, but—you did it! You won!”

“I did!” Even though his voice sounded a little wheezy, he couldn’t help but grin! “I won! Me! I did it!”

There was an indignant squawk and a flower was thrown at the side of Callum’s face.

“Val helped a lot,” he added, without turning around.

Rayla laughed again and got off his knees, hauling Callum to his feet. He always forgot how strong she was. “Yep. You beat the Gym.” She grinned at him, her eyes warm and bright with joy. “I told you you could, didn’t I?”

Callum had had exactly the same thought himself, but for some reason, hearing it from Rayla made his cheeks flush. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I should know better than to doubt you.”

He nearly tripped over his feet when she pulled him into a sudden hug. “You should know better than to doubt yourself, you dummy!”

Callum’s nose was filled with the scent of her hair, the faint whiff of lavender, so it was a moment before he remembered to return the hug. “There’s no reason it can’t be both.”

“Well, I suppose I can accept that,” Rayla said softly.

Chapter Text

“It’s not often we get two trainers willing to face us in a double battle,” said Leader Neha, one of the two leaders of Duren Town’s Gym.

“You can still change your minds if you wish,” Leader Annika, her wife, added. “A double battle takes an extraordinary amount of coordination with your pokemon – never mind introducing another person and their pokemon into the mix.”

From the legendary ‘Queens of Duren’, that wasn’t a warning to take lightly. As the joint Gym Leaders of Duren Town, they were only fourth on the Gym circuit… but they’d been the undisputed Champions of double battles for the last ten years, and with their daughter, Aanya, they were even the current Champions of triple battling.

Callum and Rayla exchanged looks. Not a word needed to be said between them.

“Nah,” he said. “We’re good like this.”

“Oh?” Annika smiled. “Well, if you’re sure, let’s have a good match.”

She nodded to the referee, and he raised his flag. “Begin!”

As befitting of a grass-type Gym, the arena was a grassy field. It had little in the way of cover – just two short hedgerows, one in upper left part of the arena from his perspective, near to Leader Neha opposite Callum, and one near to Rayla, in the lower right – but that was more than they’d had in the last few Gyms.

It was more than enough for Val and Earl to work with.

“Val, give him cover!” Callum called, as Earl slowly hopped over towards the hedgerow nearest to them.

The Leaders had released a petilil and a cottonee. Val moved to intercept whilst Earl got into position, scattering spikes around him, his back to the hedge. Val was faster and more mobile than the petilil and the cottonee, so he managed to jump around their attacks and headbutt them a few times to keep their attention on him.

Earl went clank clank with his helmet, Val’s signal. And just in time—the cottonee let out a high-pitched, melodic sound. The petilil backed away as the cottonee scrunched up its eyes and released a hail of fluff.

“Val, retreat!” Rayla shouted hastily.

It took Callum a moment or two more to place the move – cotton spore, designed to stick to the opponent and hamper their movements. Since Callum had come up with this plan and it relied pretty heavily on Val’s speed and manoeuvrability, it would’ve ruined everything if he’d been caught by it.

He nudged Rayla. “Nice save.”

Earl rattled in welcome as Val hopped, flipped and jumped through the field of spikes. Callum was pretty sure that only half of those flips were necessary at best. He still hadn’t managed to cure the karrablast of his show-off tendencies… but since their battle plan relied as much on Val and Earl knowing each other as it did Callum and Rayla directing them, he decided to let it slide this time.

…Anyway, the way that Val timed the last flip so that he landed on the lip of Earl’s closed helmet, and was then catapulted on to the top of the hedge when Earl flipped it open was genuinely impressive, to the point that Leader Annika laughed and applauded until her wife trod on her foot. Maybe Val and Earl should’ve tried joining the circus instead of a pair of trainers…

The cottonee, with the petilil not far behind it, advanced on Val and Earl’s position, but halted before the spikes. Earl had scattered them in a circle around the hedge—with his back to it, it made approaching the position impossible without great care.

The petilil made an attempt to step carefully through the spikes, but Earl quickly retaliated by shooting a glob of acid at it. The petilil shrieked as the acid wilted the leaves on top of its head. Narrowing its eyes, the cottonee tried to dive between the petilil and another acid spit from Earl, but Val leapt from the top of the hedge and landed on its head before it could get in the way.

“Pull back!” Leader Neha said. “Use distance attacks! There’s no need to get so close.”

“Take out the karrablast,” Annika added. “If the shelmet is on his own, he’ll have to come out of hiding.”

Val tried a fury cutter attack on the cottonee before it and the petilil retreated, but only ended up spitting out a few bits of its fluffy cotton.

“That stuff is surprisingly good protection,” Rayla mumbled.

Callum, meanwhile, saw the air begin to shift around the petilil and his eyes widened. He’d been working on that attack with Sabriel enough that it was impossible for him to miss it now. “Val, it’s a magical leaf attack. Retreat!”

Val seemed like he didn’t quite believe Callum until the vague shapes resolved themselves into translucent leaves, and then he scampered away at top pace. He hopped through the maze of spikes, peppered by small leaves, until he was able to dive directly into Earl’s helmet. It snapped shut around him, leave him completely protect from the leaves—apart from one or two which grazed his feet, still sticking out the end of the shell.

The petilil stopped spitting out the leaves, staring at Val and Earl until the cottonee poked it with one of its leafy limbs.

Callum could understand the confusion at Val and Earl’s… general… existence. I feel ya, little petilil. What’s even worse is that I’m used to it now.

Leader Neha pursed her lips, frowning. “Try razor leaf,” she said.

The cottonee was the one who sent the leaves shooting towards them this time, but that, too, skittered harmlessly off Earl’s helmet. If anything, that did less.

The two pokemon and the two Gym Leaders shared matching thoughtful looks as they examined the situation. Several seconds passed in silence.

Rayla clapped her hands.

Earl’s helmet sprang back open and Val popped out with a cry, flipping head over heels and bouncing off the top of the cottonee’s head to land behind the petilil. It squeaked in alarm, but only managed to turn around before Val knocked it flying with a headbutt, sending it sailing directly into the spikes. The petilil shrieked with pain as it landed at the edge of the spiked area.

Earl set up on it immediately with his acid attack. The petilil shrieked again as it was pelted with small globs of acid, still trying to extricate itself from the spikes. With an alarmed squeak, the cottonee started to fling more sharp leaves at Earl, trying to distract him, but Val crashed into it with his head before it could get out more than a dozen.

Callum and Rayla spared a moment to high five each other. Her timing was always so awesome!

The petilil staggered away from the spikes and the reaches of Earl’s acid spit.

“Watch out for the karrablast!” Leader Annika. “Drive it back!”

The leaves on the petili’s head stood up straight as it saw Val charging at it. Leaves formed in the air around it and shot towards Val, who was forced to divert. He dived back for the safety of Earl’s wall of spikes.

“Now!” Annika said.

“Oh, crud—!” Callum had a feeling Rayla wanted to use a stronger word. “Val, move—dodge—”

Callum’s eyes snapped across the field to the cottonee. He’d forgotten about it for a moment, which was a mistake.

Val looked around in confusion for an attack that wasn’t coming. The cottonee and the petilil weren’t near enough to touch him. Callum wasn’t sure what Rayla had seen.

Then a small seed landed on Val’s head.

Callum’s heart sank. Oh. Leech seed.

Squawking, the karrablast tried to scrap the seed off, even whilst he was being bombarded by the petilil’s magical leaf attack, but it was stuck fast. Then thin vines burst out of it, wrapping around Val’s limbs and squeezing him tight. He fell over with a wheeze and was only able to flop about like a magikarp out of water.

Rayla covered her face with her hands. “Oh no.”

Callum grimaced. There was no way for them to win without Val. Maybe if one of the other pokemon was already down, but…

Val let out a squeal. Earl gave a shrill, answering cry, and started to hop out of his defensive corner.

“Wait, Earl!” Rayla called. “It’s alright, we can just forfeit and then—”

Earl ignored her. He moved faster than Callum had ever seen him go before, bodily throwing himself at the cottonee as it approached Val. The shelmet was immediately pelted with a haze of leaves from both the grass-types. He fired back with acid attacks, swivelling on the spot to hit them as best he could.

“Go for the petilil first, it’s weaker!” Callum said. If Earl didn’t want to give up yet then neither should they. Maybe if they could take out one of the opposing pokemon, even the playing field, they’d still have a chance to…

Rayla frowned, but after a moment she clenched her fists and shouted. “Come on, Earl! You can do it!”

Val let out a weak noise of protest as the barrage of leaves started to make a dent even in Earl’s metallic shell. Several of the leaves snuck through the opening of his helmet to target the squishy body within, but Earl kept going.

Val started to protest more strenuously. Earl took a break from spitting acid to answer him back in a low voice.

“Watch out!” Rayla cried.

The petilil was readying some kind of extra powerful powerful attack, the air around it shimmering as though in a heat mirage. A white ball of energy solidified in front of it.

Earl jumped in fright and shot a glob of acid at it, but the cottonee intercepted the attack. At a signal from the petilil, it drifted away again, leaving a clear path between the energy attack and Earl.

Oh no.

The petilil sent the energy ball directly at Earl. Before it could connect, Val flexed his body and threw himself in the way of the attack. He was blasted back as it connected, crashing directly into Earl.

To Callum’s amazement, they both started to glow.

For a moment, it was like time stood still. The cottonee and petili retreated. The glow swallowed Val and Earl, growing larger and larger…

“No way,” Rayla breathed. “But… but how…”

The light settled into new, strange shapes. When it faded away, the karrablast and the shelmet were no more. In their place, Val the escavalier and Earl the accelgor stood, blinking at one another. The leech seed’s vines had broken around Val’s larger, tougher form. It was hard to imagine that anything could stand against him.

Leader Annika started to clap, and Leader Neha followed her lead soon after.

Proving they were still the same at heart, Val and Earl started to cheer. Val raised his spikes—lances?—and shook them in victory, and Earl used his new speed simply to zoom around him in a circle. Even the cottonee and the petilil shook their leaves along in celebration.

“Uh…” Callum raised his hand awkwardly. “Not that this isn’t really cool, but aren’t we still technically in the middle of a battle?”

Val froze, his lance-spikes still pointing to the ceiling. Earl forgot to change direction and, in the blink of an eye, accidentally ran straight into the wall.

“…Still the dorks we know and love, huh,” Rayla said tiredly.

There wasn’t much of a battle after that. With their evolution giving them renewed energy – even with that minor bit of self-sabotage of Earl running into the wall – Val and Earl were easily able to overpower the tired cottonee and petilil.

Leaders Annika and Neha didn’t seem that mad about it, though.

“Ironically, we would’ve had more chance if your pokemon evolved earlier,” Neha said ruefully. “I could see they were having trouble with their new bodies… make sure you take the time to get them comfortable with themselves before battling again.”

Callum and Rayla nodded.

Leader Annika grinned. “Oh, but what a privilege to see karrablast and shelmet evolve naturally! That’s a really rare phenomenon, you know!”

“…I thought you just evolved them by trading?” Callum said. He and Rayla had been talking about it, but they hadn’t been sure about broaching the subject to their pokemon.

Annika waved her hand dismissively. “It works, but it’s not natural. No, in the wild, shelmet and karrablast only evolve when they’re protecting each other—when they share a bond. It’s perhaps the most extreme example of pokemon symbiosis. And it’s becoming increasingly rare in the wild as the two species evolve further away from cooperation… Aanya would’ve loved to see it. I bet these two came to you as a pair, didn’t they?”

Callum turned to look at the pokemon with a new eye, only to find that they were facing the totally opposite direction, pretending to pay the humans no attention at all. He knew they were trying for nonchalant because Val kept trying to whistle and Earl was humming the same three notes over and over again. He never should’ve let them watch that preschooler show.

“They were probably looking for a pair of trainers who planned to stay together as long as they did,” Neha said, smiling. She opened her hands, revealing a Gym badge siting neatly in each palm. “I hope they have. It’s rare that we get a pair of trainers willing to challenge us in a double battle, and even rarer that they succeed. You two have a great way of working together. It would be nice if you could continue to develop that.”

“Perhaps you could get into double battling more seriously and challenge us for the Championship?” Annika joked. “We’re getting a bit bored.”

Double battling?

Callum hadn’t really thought much about it before. Double battling was still not the most popular style, and its own Championship was relatively new… but it would be a way to excel without worrying about his parents’ ghosts looming over his shoulder. A way to be just Callum.

…And Rayla.

Just the two of them.

Their eyes met and Rayla’s wicked grin was all the answer he needed.

She cracked her knuckles. “Give us a year, and you’ll regret ever asking!”

Even if a year was still a really ambitious timeline. “A year? Were you planning to train instead of sleep?”

“We can sleep in shifts,” Rayla said. Her attempt at a straight face was ruined by the corner of her mouth twitching.

Leader Annika’s eyes gleamed with new interest. “Well, if you’re serious about it…”

“We’ll look forward to battling you again,” Neha finished for her. “And we won’t be holding back this time.”

Rayla scoffed, as confident as ever. “As if that will make a difference! We’ve only just gotten started. Right, Callum?”

If it’s the both of us together, Callum thought, I know we’ll be able to do it.

“Of course,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”