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Chapter 1: Friendly Meeting, Friendly Parting New

icomeanon6

That's "I come anon 6"
Location
Northern Virginia
Pronouns
masculine
Author's Notes:
I wrote this story last year with no definite intention of ever posting it anywhere. Even writing it at all was far from a sure thing at first: It began as a programming exercise to calculate on which dates the characters in a hypothetical Pokémon fic would plausibly reach each destination in a travel itinerary. Since I was also at the time reading a bunch of manga by my favorite cartoonist, Mitsuru Adachi, the hypothetical story veered towards the sort of romance that Adachi made me want to be able to write. Whether I succeeded on that front isn't my place to say, but I was happy enough with my program/spreadsheet-driven outlining process to go ahead and write the thing.

Suffice to say, not only is the story already written, the timing of the events in the story constitutes a preposterous house of cards which may preclude me from making many story changes based on reader feedback. Naturally, I still want to hear from people on how/why the story doesn't work for them, but more for my own future improvement rather than for fixing this story as I go, as I would normally try to. The good news is that barring unforeseen changes to my real-life circumstances, I can promise that the last chapter will go up before the end of this year, 2024.

Disclaimer on Content Warnings: I am not well-versed in mental health issues. I have made a good-faith effort to highlight objectionable or potentially disturbing material below, but I wouldn't bet money on my judgment. If you read this and think there should be an addition to these warnings, please message me. If you have questions about the content before reading, whether on your own behalf or on another's behalf, please message me.

Content Warnings (General): Swearing. Violence. Blood. Sensuality. Not recommended for readers below the age of 14.

Content Warnings (Specific, or possible spoilers): Please open this spoiler tag if you require advance notice of certain topics.
Bullying. Emotional manipulation. Animal (Pokémon) abuse.

Table of Contents:





The arrival of the full-fledged “PC” network to Pokémon Centers in 1995 is chiefly celebrated for the public release of the Pokémon Storage System, which afforded unprecedented latitude to roster experimentation. Perhaps underrated in importance, however, is that a PC account came with an inbox.

For the vast majority of trainers, this amounted to their first experience with any kind of electronic messaging. While e-mail and online bulletin boards were not new technologies in 1995, among adolescents they were still limited to the tech-savviest those whose parents could afford a home computer. Now, with the PC network, any journeying trainer could send a message to any other with reasonable hope that it would be noticed in a matter of days, even if the other trainer were clear on the opposite side of the map.

For better or worse, this story stops before the end of 1993.



Just Hold Still



Chapter 1
Friendly Meeting, Friendly Parting

September 4th, 1988

Luke Andersen had just passed a significant milestone: He no longer knew off the top of his head how many weeks it had been since he began his journey. He retraced his path on the map to get an idea. Mahogany to Ecruteak, then to Violet for the “easy” Gym, then to the Ruins of Alph yesterday… about three weeks, he was pretty sure. Hard to believe. He stretched his bare toes, let out a deep breath, and debated whether it was time to change the bandages on his feet. He was getting used to everything about hiking except the blisters.

Zoe, presently out of her Poké Ball, sniffed the air and rose from the base of the tree she’d been lounging against. Her wrinkled trunk led her headlong, which Luke watched with some interest. Although Luke’s Drowzee and only Pokémon was by now perfectly comfortable around him, he couldn’t pretend to know much about what made her tick yet. Before she could get too far away, he pulled his socks and shoes back on to follow. He also took up his camera bag in an automatic motion. His sleeping bag, food, water, etc. occasionally escaped his attention, but it would take a conscious effort to get more than ten feet away from his Camdak SLR-81m.

Luke soon marked the target of Zoe’s purposeful meandering: a heavily laden Berry tree. He wondered how far he could trust her not to give herself a bellyache if he let her pick at her leisure. He also wondered how long it would be until he came across a training question he already knew the answer to. As Zoe inspected the lower branches with a discerning air, however, he suddenly heard a clicking noise from somewhere above.

It was certainly a bug noise, but not one Luke recognized. Knowing without thinking that the window of opportunity may be narrow, he took out his camera even as he scanned the treetops for any unfamiliar sight. He had the strap around his neck and the lens cap removed when he spotted it: a Heracross. He’d never seen one in person, but there was no mistaking Johto’s most famous Bug-type. It clung upside down to the trunk of a tall and spare pine tree, apparently sucking sap. Interesting pose, clear line of sight. Perfect.

Luke put his right eye to the viewfinder and got the Pokémon in focus. The light meter indicated underexposure, which was unsurprising, as his last picture had been taken in direct sunlight. Lowering the shutter speed seemed the correct choice (rather than widening the aperture) since the subject was motionless for now.

He pressed the shutter release. The viewfinder’s image jumped to black and back with a click as the internal mirror lifted to expose the film. Got one.

He flipped the film-advance lever and reconsidered the shutter-speed/aperture tradeoff. Would a narrower depth of field make for a more subject-focused composition? He scolded himself for not knowing the answer instinctively and corrected the settings for the second take. Another click. Got two.

Suddenly, it occurred to him what would be an even better shot. If he could get to the base of the tree without startling the Heracross from its dinner, he might get it looking straight down at the camera. That would really be something. He crept closer, and the subject stayed where it was. He was almost there when a stick snapped underfoot. The Heracross jumped from its spot and labored away through the air with its just-functional-enough wings, as if it had been waiting for an obvious mistake to punish. Luke sighed.

“Aaaaand, there it goes,” came a boy’s voice from behind.

Luke turned in surprise to see three trainers standing uphill: two girls and a boy. The boy clicked his tongue and shook his head, to which the girl in the center laughed. “Oh, relax. It woulda run away if you tried to catch it, too.” Then she waved to Luke. “Hey! Are you a Pokémon photographer?”

“Uh…” Luke struggled with the unexpected question. Did she jump to that conclusion just from his having a camera? Sure, he could use a darkroom, but he barely knew what he was doing when it came to shot-composition, and he couldn’t even keep the properties of different focal lengths straight. Also, a Pokémon photographer? How could anyone his age commit to that level of specialization? Maybe she was kidding. By this point in Luke’s deliberation, she had already jogged down to talk to him, so he went with an answer that felt mostly correct.

“…I’d like to be. Someday.”

The girl’s friends followed behind her, the boy in front at a leisurely pace, and the other girl at a halting one. The boy examined Zoe, now shuffling back to Luke’s vicinity, and whistled, impressed. “Wow, never seen a Drowzee before. Is he your starter?”

“She’s a she,” said Luke, “and yeah, starter.” Zoe, never shy, eyed the strangers with interest in turn. “We just started out a few weeks ago.”

“Cool, so did we!” said the first girl. “I’ve never seen a Drowzee, either. How’d you get her?”

My mom bought her from a breeder because she was worried about my insomnia being a problem on the trail. “From my parents.”

“My dad caught mine when I was seven. Wanna see?” She reached for a side pocket on her pack and took out a Poké Ball. “Oh, what’s your name? Mine’s Wendy, and this is Aaron and Nadine.”

Luke was unsure which question to answer first, but he erred on the side of the most recent. “Luke. Uh, nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said Aaron, smiling, who took out a ball of his own. “So, which one of us you wanna fight first? We’ve all made eye contact.”

Luke’s entire body tensed up, which must have shown because Wendy smiled, rolled her eyes, and said, “He doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to, Aaron.”

“She’s right,” added the theretofore-silent Nadine. “There’s no actual rule about eye contact. That’s an urban legend.”

“I call it manners,” said Aaron with a laugh. “But whatever—no pressure.”

“Oh, even better!” said Wendy. “Can you take a picture of us with our Pokémon?”

This took Luke by surprise. Nobody had ever asked this of him before, and the first thing that came into his head was to point out, “It’d be black and white. Is that okay?”

It felt like he was missing some other, more important question, but it wasn’t coming to him. It didn’t help when Wendy responded, “That’s a black and white camera? Cool! Okay, everybody out!”

Luke was going to say something about how cameras were cameras and that it was black and white film, but while he was trying to think about how to phrase it politely, the three kids each sent out a Pokémon. The figure which emerged at Wendy’s feet in a flash bumped all other thoughts from his mind. He had never expected to see a Clefairy anywhere in Johto, much less so soon after leaving home. The plump, pink creature took one look at Zoe with its soft, cheerful eyes, then turned to jump into Wendy’s arms. The way it moved in the air was mystifyingly airy—as if gravity had less of a hold on it than it should.

Wendy said, “Don’t be shy now, girl,” turning the Clefairy back around. Her shyness wasn’t reflected in her bright expression, rather in how she was content to stick to Wendy. Just to be safe, though, Luke motioned Zoe to step back a few paces. She complied.

It was here that Aaron’s Pokémon, a Cyndaquil, uttered a confident squeak and let its fiery quills flare up. Luke hadn’t even noticed it yet, which went to show how suddenly spoiled he was for seeing rare Pokémon. It and the Clefairy utterly and unfairly overshadowed Nadine’s common Sentret, though Luke did notice this one had an exceptionally bushy tail. All told, it was a singular opportunity to be present to take this group portrait. He looked around for a spot with the light coming in at a better angle, then waved the other trainers to it. “Uh… over there’s good.”

“You’re the boss,” said Aaron.

They lined up with Wendy in the center as before. She still held her Clefairy, as did Nadine her Sentret, but Aaron kept his Cyndaquil at his feet. This gave Luke a little anxiety about the composition, as now he couldn’t shoot from the waist up as seemed best to him.

“When in doubt, get closer,” his dad had told him countless times. “The big mistake every new photographer makes is thinking you need to get everything around the subject in frame. If you’re shooting a scene, shoot a scene—otherwise, shoot a subject.”

He thought maybe he should tell Aaron to pick up his Pokémon too, but the thought of saying something so presumptuous made him awfully nervous, especially since he might actually be completely wrong. Instead, he tried to frame them as they were to the best of his ability.

They were already smiling for the camera, which worried him about leaving them posed for too long. “One sec, I’m almost ready.” He hurried to get them in focus and check his exposure, then finally said, “Okay, say ‘cheese.’”

They all said “cheese,” and the Clefairy even raised her arms and sang a note to match the kids’ voices. That was really good, and Luke felt lucky to get in another shot with her holding that pose. “Great, just a few more. Say ‘cheese’ again.” He quickly turned the shutter-speed nob one step faster than his initial estimate for an insurance shot, then one step slower.

“Okay, that should do it.”

“Awesome, thanks!” said Wendy. She set her Clefairy down and walked up to him, staring intently at the camera. This was bizarre, but after a few seconds of confusion, Luke finally realized what he should have cleared up before even getting them posed.

“Uh… it’s not an instant camera. I need to develop the roll first and then make prints.”

Wendy blinked, then turned a shade of red. “…Ohhh.”

“Yeeaaah…” said Aaron. “I was going to ask what the plan was about getting the picture to us.”

“That’s something you have to do in town, right?” Nadine asked Luke.

“Umm, yes, anywhere there’s a darkroom. Sorry, I should have said something.”

“Nah, dumb on us for not asking,” said Aaron, laughing. “Some of us are usually quicker on the uptake than this.” The girls laughed with him, but Luke noticed some hesitancy in Nadine’s laugh, and she seemed to shrink.

“Well, how ’bout this?” said Wendy. “We’re off to Azalea Town next, and if you’re going the same way, we can stick together so we’re there when you do your cameraman thing!”

Aaron snapped his fingers. “Hey, there’s an idea! You can keep up, right, Luke?”

Luke didn’t know how to answer right away. Despite how people (especially his parents) talked about Pokémon journeying as if teaming up were a matter of course, he had always sort of assumed he’d go it solo—mostly because he had no idea how you were supposed to ask to team up. But then, maybe he was reading too much into what Wendy and Aaron were asking. After all, they had implied nothing about sticking together any farther than Azalea Town. When he looked at it that way, it just made sense, especially if it meant keeping this little photo shoot from having been an embarrassing screw-up.

“Sure,” he said. “That’s where I was going to stop next, anyway.”

“Awesome!” said Wendy, clapping her hands and flashing an infectious smile. “We should get all our Pokémon introduced, then. This here’s Sharpy, the Sentret is Quincy, and…”

*********

June 28th, 1993

The television above the bar showed Aaron’s smug face in a box next to some flattering statistics. The screen held the gaze of much of the bar-and-restaurant’s crowd, which at this time of year was comprised as much of trainers as of adults. Next to Aaron’s headshot, a reporter whom Luke recognized but couldn’t name was speaking.

“…now advancing to the Round of Thirty-two for the first time in his three Tournament appearances. His bio says he’s fourteen, but his birthday is in August, and Mr. Barlow has shown as much poise under pressure as any fifteen-year-old this year. He’ll have just enough eligibility left next year for a rare fourth appearance. Now we’ll take another look at his top-notch Typhlosion, ‘Ace,’ finishing off Wallis Flaherty’s Tauros in their elimination battle earlier this afternoon…”

Luke shook his head and forced his eyes away from the screen. He knew it wasn’t good for him to dwell on that period of his life, so he made every effort to bring his full attention back to the table and his companions. It didn’t help that said companions had moved on from their earlier conversation to watch the Tournament coverage. This was fair enough, as they were in Goldenrod City for the same reason as all the other trainers who had been here since the first day of summer: to follow the Indigo League Championship on any and every available TV. It was the same deal in towns and cities all over Kanto and Johto. An unofficial two-week party. And here was Luke, wishing he’d sprung for a restaurant that was too classy to have anything playing but music.

“Daaaaamn,” said Sundeep at what was undoubtedly some impressive replay footage. “That’s a Flamethrower.”

“This dude could make some noise with a starter like that,” added Parker.

Ignore, thought Luke, refusing to let the topic of Aaron regain a foothold in his head. Ignore, ignore, ignore. He shook his head again and scraped himself another chunk of Goldenrod-pancake from the iron griddle in the middle of the table. Yes, better to just concentrate on the food. He took a bite: delicious. Shrimp was his favorite topping, and he loved that sauce. Goldenrod-style “As-ya-like” cabbage pancakes were the best part of visiting the city, easy.

“You don’t look sold, Luke,” said Ken from his left. “What’s your take on this guy?”

“Huh?” Luke was confused for a moment, then realized that Ken must have figured he’d shaken his head no to what Sundeep and Parker were saying. “Oh, no, I was thinking about something else. …No, he’s the real deal.” He immediately regretted elaborating on this point.

“Wait… do you know him?” asked Ken, perceptive as ever. This got Sundeep’s and Parker’s attention as well.

Luke took a few gulps of his root beer just to give himself a second. “…Yeah. Yeah, we were teamed up for a few years.”

Parker’s eyes went wide, as did Sundeep’s. “Whoa, really?”

Luke’s current traveling companions were all thirteen—not that much younger than him—and they, like he, had traversed every route in the region at least once. This meant it was a tad silly the way they regarded him as this wise, trail-worn sage who had seen and done it all. Still, in this case, he had to admit that this former acquaintance of his was on TV, which lent Luke himself an unavoidable air of experience and in-ness. There was certainly much he could say which the sporting news couldn’t, and which he absolutely did not care to. So, he just nodded.

Ken read him like a book. “Didn’t end well?”

“No.” Without thinking, he rubbed his right shoulder, which didn’t actually hurt anymore. “No, it uh… got ugly.”

“Eh, we don’t gotta talk about it, then,” said Parker. “It’s your night, after all! Right, Zoe?”

Zoe, the lone Pokémon sitting in the booth, made a sustained, gravelly noise in the affirmative. It was never an exact science determining to what degree Zoe grasped human speech at the semantic level versus the emotive, and this instance struck Luke as somewhere in the middle. Either way, she responded to the sentiment of indulgence by reaching for Parker’s plate.

“Uh-uh,” said Luke, pointing to the common plate of octo-fritters instead. “You get these, and just two more.” Zoe lacked in both respect for personal property and in the ability to guess how much physical food her stomach could handle. No one could reasonably expect the former from a Hypno, of course, but that’s why Luke was here. She obeyed with a grunt, dipped one of the fried balls in the thick, savory sauce, then enjoyed it with long, thoughtful chews.

“Obviously, I’m really glad to have finally moved on in the bracket, but that’s not my goal here,” came Aaron’s voice from the television, making Luke stiffen momentarily. They were replaying the post-battle interview, each word faker than the last. “I’m aiming for the whole thing, and I owe it to everyone who got me here to keep going. I’ve had help from lots of people, and I’m so grateful to all of them. My Pokémon and I are stronger thanks to everyone I’ve met.”

The broadcast cut back to the reporter. “Aaron’s next opponent is the favorite in the Johto sub-bracket, Grant Fairbanks. We’ll be taking a break, but stay tuned for…”

“He’s done,” said Sundeep. “Grant’s taking it all this year. Slowking beats Typhlosion, and Meganium beats at least two, maybe three.”

“Sure, sure, change of subject!” said Ken.

“Oh, right—sorry.” Sundeep drummed his fingers against the table, presumably thinking about how to word what he wanted to say next. When he did speak, it was to Luke. “So, you thinking you’ll wait to hit sixteen before you go pro, or are you gonna be ready earlier?”

Finally, a question he didn’t mind answering. “Well, I’m gonna play it by ear, but there’s only so much I can get paid before sixteen. And I’ve got a wish-list for filling out my portfolio, so I’ll see how long that takes me.”

“Too cool,” said Parker. “What magazines should we keep an eye on? We gotta see your professional debut!”

Luke smiled. “Heh, no idea. That’d be a lot of reading, anyway. Can’t say I’d recommend it. It’s not like I’ll have a cover-photo first try, and they print those names small.”

“Well,” said Sundeep, “maybe save us a few copies. You can get ’em to us eventually.”

“If I don’t remember, my folks’ll definitely save a ton. And, y’know, fingers crossed on there being a first-published to save. No guarantees.”

“No way, man,” said Parker. “You ask me, you could start tomorrow. You’re good as in.”

“Thanks,” said Luke, not agreeing but appreciating.

This, in Luke’s mind, was the way farewells were supposed to go: known by each party weeks in advance, no hard feelings, and preceded by a nice dinner. His last two stints with other trainers hadn’t concluded nearly this smoothly, to say nothing of the first one. Ken, Sundeep, and Parker, by contrast, had teamed up with “extras” like Luke before, so they knew the drill. Going it together made things easier and more fun, but when your priorities diverged, you accepted it and moved on.

Luke’s last year on the trail was coming up, and he’d known for a while he was going to focus entirely on his photography to prepare for what came next. This wasn’t compatible with the others’ plans, which included winning the Blackthorn Gym Badge after another try or two, then getting bounced after their first battles at the Indigo Plateau and sticking around to watch the Tournament from the bleachers for free—the usual.

Luke himself had long since dropped every intention of getting even his seventh Badge, and he’d already seen the Tournament up close more than once as a little kid when his dad was shooting it. While it had been fun tagging along with this trio for the last eight months as their consulting trail guide and regular conversation partner, it was time.

Sensing it was time in the more immediate sense, Ken grabbed his soda. “I think a toast is in order.”

Sundeep and Parker raised their glasses with the utmost solemnity. Luke lifted his own with a mix of resignation and amusement.

“To Luke,” said Ken. “Photographer extraordinaire, wisest of counselors… and good friend.”

“To Luke!” cheered Sundeep and Parker, raising their glasses higher and coinciding with a loud “Mraaah!” from Zoe.

Luke stifled a laugh, said, “Cheers, cheers,” and dutifully clinked every glass.

After that, the conversation turned to happy times—places seen and things done together. So it went on until the last Tournament battle of the night began, and the TV again seized the attention of the entire establishment. The seasoned veteran from Vermilion City, Zach Stengel, was facing a newcomer in Saffron’s Natalie Lundqvist, whose hyper-aggressive style clearly gave his team fits. This was all to the liking of the Goldenrod crowd, eager as Johtoans usually were to see a Kanto media-darling get his figurative teeth kicked in.

As the battle reached a critical point for both sides and the noise level in the room rose, Ken got Luke’s attention and spoke in a low voice. “Hey, I need to ask one more time. I’m thrilled to have him, of course, but you’re absolutely sure about leaving Shane with me?”

Shane was a Sandslash: Luke’s third Pokémon caught and second-to-last Pokémon left until this morning. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“Okay,” said Ken. “Cause you know it’s not too late? I haven’t even taken him out yet.”

“Trust me,” said Luke. “I’m not going to be fighting enough Pokémon to match his energy level anymore. And he likes you. He’ll be perfectly happy in a few weeks—I’m positive."

“I suppose you’d know best… Okay. I’ll take good care of him. Promise.”

Luke didn’t doubt it for a second. “Thanks. Glad I can count on you.” And he meant it. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t been scouting all three of these guys to find the right trainer for Shane, and Ken had the insight and patience to click with any Pokémon. Luke didn’t make the decision lightly, and would have opted for release to the wild over the wrong trainer, or even a merely okay one.

He didn’t like it, but it had to be done. He wasn’t going to have the capacity to take good care of two Pokémon for long—and honestly, he’d been pushing it in recent months. All Pokémon needed exercise and attention, and the gung-ho ones needed other Pokémon to rough up now and then. Large teams were for trainers working extra-hard to become competitive, and Luke had no battling ambitions beyond fending off the wild Pokémon he couldn’t avoid entirely.

All this considered, Ken was perfect. And either of Parker or Sundeep would have been excellent. They were great guys—great with people, great with Pokémon. That’s why it made Luke a little ill to know he wasn’t going to miss them at all.

It had been the same story with all the other trainers he’d met and parted ways with over the last two years. He knew he ought to miss them, and how much some of them deserved to be missed, but he didn’t. They were just people he’d known—good people, but not his people. Even when it came to his former Pokémon—whom he’d do anything for—knowing that they were well cared for was enough for him. With each of them, the absence in itself had no hold on him. They left no cavities.

He knew why this was. His brain no longer let him get close enough to anyone for him to truly miss them. The very idea of missing someone ripped his thoughts away from the Shanes, Kens, Sundeeps, and Parkers in his life and fixed them squarely on one person.

On Wendy.

There. He’d gotten through Aaron’s whole stupid television spotlight without thinking about her, but there she was again, daring him to wish he’d never met her. It was easy to wish he’d never met Aaron, but Wendy complicated matters by bringing the second-guessing to the surface. How he might have handled things more maturely. How he and she might have gone separate ways as friends, and maybe not permanently.

How he might not have blown it all to smithereens.

Luke took a deep breath. Then he turned around to watch the battle with everyone else. He had Zoe to consider: It wasn’t good for her dream-diet to have uneasy thoughts swimming about his mind.

Over on the large, flickering screen, Lundqvist’s Raticate cleared twenty yards in a flash and somehow bowled over Stengel’s unready Electabuzz, all but knocking the tournament’s seventh-seeded trainer out of contention. The room exploded. Parker jumped on his seat, Ken and Sundeep started high-fiving everyone in arm’s reach, and Luke decided this should be what set the tone for the rest of the evening.

*********

The sun had yet to climb over the line of trees to his left when Luke looked back at Goldenrod City from the top of a rise on Route 35. The city was too large to be altogether asleep at this hour on a Tuesday morning, but Luke still got the sense of a place that wanted to get as much shut-eye as it could before the early matches began, in anticipation of another late night. Indeed, Ken and company might well have gone back to their sleeping bags after their bleary-eyed, final, official goodbye to him.

Luke himself suffered from no such sleep-deprivation symptoms, and as on near-every morning, he had Zoe to thank for this. She was always amenable to facilitating fast, deceptively dreamless sleep, having a literal appetite for it as she did. It seemed about time for her to walk off whatever last night’s meal had been—Luke, naturally, couldn’t remember—so he opened her Poké Ball and gave her the minute she always wanted to take in her surroundings.

He let out a long sigh, suddenly feeling the length of nearly five years behind him.

“Well, looks like it’s just the two of us, again.”

Zoe looked up at him with an air of mostly-understanding. Though she wasn’t the most sophisticated of conventional mind-readers by Luke’s estimation, she wasn’t the worst at piecing things together, either. Since she knew 1) that she’d been the first, 2) that now all the others were gone, and 3) that Luke had just said something with a hint of melancholy, she probably guessed his meaning correctly. With her right hand still holding steady the string tied to her round, silver pendulum, she extended her left to him, as if to say, “I’m still here. Perhaps she didn’t grasp how the recent departures had been Luke’s own decision, but either way, the gesture put a smile on his face.

“Yup,” he said, giving her hand a few gentle pats—not taking it, since she didn’t like that. “All right. Time to make tracks.”

Zoe wasn’t naturally inclined to exercise, but she stayed in her supportive mood and followed after him with a resolute grunt, pendulum swinging in time with her steps. She couldn’t match his natural stride, so this would be a leisurely mile or two of the day’s trek. He’d keep an eye open for when she got tired and wanted back in her ball. Absent anyone to have conversation with (reciprocal, verbal conversation, anyway), he spent the time thinking about shots he wanted to take.

There was one he already had in mind: a particular view of Violet City’s Sprout Tower, which he was pretty sure he could get from a nearby rooftop. As always, it would take luck in the weather department, but as he had no need to coordinate plans with any friends, he could wait for days to get the perfect conditions. The remaining uncertainties were whether the residents beneath the rooftop would let a stranger borrow their ladder, along with the simple fact that there was no way to know for sure if a picture would really be worth taking until you had your eye to the viewfinder.

He had about five days of walking ahead of him to think of other compositions he might try, or other things he could shoot around Violet City. That timespan was one key difference between now and when he had first left home: walking from Goldenrod to Violet used to take him over ten days, maybe twelve or thirteen. And when he’d get there, he’d be sore and exhausted. Now he barely noticed the trip. It was just a quick blur of routine hiking, camping, and thinking.

Indeed, before he knew it, he was cooking some rice and beans over a tiny camp stove as the sun went down. Zoe was out of her ball again, and was presently inspecting her pendulum for the tiniest of imperfections. She set it swinging as a test. It wasn’t aimed anywhere in particular, but Luke still made sure not to look directly at it, out of habit rather than necessity. As impish and opportunistic as Zoe could be when it came to physical food or unsuspecting Pokémon, she had never once tried to put him to sleep without his asking. They had built this understanding about Hypnosis very early, and it had held all through the journey, even now as things wound down and the end crept into sight.

A few hours later, Luke made ready for bed. He checked the sky, laid out his sleeping bag, changed, and finally checked his own sleep-readiness. On some nights, he was dead-tired but found his thoughts jumping around far too quickly to leave any hope of his falling asleep. On others, his eyes stung too much from fatigue to actually get the sleep they wanted. And on nights like tonight, he was simply wide awake. Any night when natural sleep felt like a remote possibility, he gave it a shot in the interest of perhaps one day getting better at it, but he knew from experience it was usually best to let Zoe do her job. When all was in order, he got her attention. “Zoe.”

She looked at him, nose twitching, which meant she was ready too. “Sleep, please.” This was the single spoken phrase Zoe had the most practice with. She fixed Luke with a stare and let her pendulum swing back and forth. In a matter of moments, Luke’s vision blurred, and he felt a familiar dullness in his other senses. His attention crawled between shadows of people he might have once known wandering in places he might have once been: the vaguest hints of dreams he would soon have but not remember. When he felt the pillow beneath his head and lost track of whether his eyes were open or closed, he mumbled, “G’night, Zoe…”

*********

It was late afternoon when Luke finally reached where the main trail changed from dirt to cobblestones. He came around the last bend and passed the three miniature shrines which marked the western limits of Violet City. From there, it was still a hundred yards until the first scattered, secluded houses, then another quarter mile until the trail widened to a proper street and joined other streets with shops and houses bearing the striking, ornate woodwork of past centuries. Although Violet also had its share of flat, utilitarian, late-twentieth-century buildings, none of them were tall, and they were mercifully distanced from anywhere most people wanted to be.

The Pokémon Center was situated just far enough away from the middle of the city so as to anger neither the locals by its proximity nor the itinerant trainers by its remoteness. Luke hurried since it was almost the golden hour, and the few clouds in the sky had excellent shapes. He wanted to get his trainer-business out of the way and take advantage of the ideal conditions for photography.

Only when the unmistakable red roof and automatic doors came into view did it occur to him that he didn’t really need to stop there. He and Zoe had been accosted by wild Pokémon only once a day since leaving Goldenrod, and each of those encounters had ended nearly as soon as they’d begun and without violence thanks to Zoe’s expert skill at combat hypnotism. She was completely fine, and there were no other trainers’ Pokémon to consider.

Still, Luke was loth to lose a good habit, and it could never hurt to let the machine check up on Zoe. He’d be in and out in five minutes. So, he stepped through the doors and found an unoccupied nurse behind the counter. He handed over Zoe’s ball and his trainer ID as she recited the standard nurse’s spiel that was white noise to all but the newest trainers. She continued speaking as she typed his ID number into the computer, then stopped as something caught her by surprise. “Oh.”

“Something wrong?”

“Oh, no, just says here we’ve got a letter for you.” She pointed at a sticky-note attached to the monitor. This was far more of a surprise than if something had been wrong.

“You sure?”

“It’s the name on the note.” She double-checked his card. “Luke Andersen?”

“Yes.”

“Just a moment, then. Should be dooowwn heeeere…” She disappeared under the counter for a few seconds, rustling through a box by the sound of it. “Ah, here we go.” She popped up again and gave Luke a plain envelope with no stamp—just “Luke Andersen” written on it in a wispy but legible hand. He stared at it for a minute as the nurse resumed her prescribed speech. Then she took Zoe’s ball to the back.

No explanation for this letter immediately came to mind. He’d actually forgotten that Pokémon Centers offered to hold letters addressed to trainers, difficult as it was to estimate when a trainer would next visit his legal residence. But even then, it wasn’t much less difficult to predict when a trainer would visit a given Pokémon Center, so there was little reason to avail oneself of the service unless one had been separated from friends for a few days and was trying to arrange a rendezvous. As nobody besides the three guys Luke had just left in Goldenrod City even knew he’d be coming this way, he was at an absolute loss as to who would have written him here.

He was still pondering this when the nurse came back with Zoe’s ball and the report of a clean bill of health with no procedures performed. He thanked her and left the building, still staring at the envelope in confusion. The next reasonable step seemed to be to read the thing’s contents, so he walked off to find a nice, private-enough place to sit. He settled for a vacant bench in the vicinity of the bridge to Sprout Tower. Though there was plenty of foot-traffic around, everyone was looking at the tower and not at his bench.

He ripped open the envelope—the gracelessness of the tear reminding him of just how unpracticed he was with opening envelopes. Folded inside was a short, hand-written letter. On instinct, his eyes went to the name at the bottom.

They stayed there. Then his mouth fell open.

It took some convincing to get his eyes back to the top of the page.



June 15th, 1993

Dear Luke,

I don’t know if or when you’ll get this, but I wanted to write to ask how things are going with you. If you leave a letter here by mid-July, I’ll probably see it then—can’t promise when I’d see one later or somewhere else. I understand completely if you’d rather just ignore this, and I wouldn’t be offended if you did. But I really would like to hear from you, and I hope you’re doing well, and your Pokémon too, especially Zoe. But no pressure.

Sincerely,
Wendy




Luke’s hands shook. “No pressure,” she said. Incredible. He wondered if she could have written that with a straight face.

This was twice as much pressure as he was prepared to handle. Before he could even think about whether he wanted to write back, questions about the context of the letter bombarded him from all sides. Was she writing him because something was wrong? How would she react to his having mostly disbanded his team? When she said she’d likely be back here later in July, was that for some unrelated reason, or was she going out of her way to check for a reply?

He thought about the timing. Maybe there was some clue there. The letter was dated June 15th, but nothing came to mind that was special about that specific day. Proximity to the Tournament, perhaps? Was she there in person? He didn’t think so—while that could explain her return time, if she’d been here on the 15th, that was too late to reach the Plateau by the 21st. Where could she be now? She was going to be back in Violet in what, two or three weeks? Today was the 2nd… Or no, it was the 3rd…

July 3rd. Today was Wendy’s birthday. For a moment, the thought entered his head that she had planned this—that if he got the letter today, he would feel compelled to write back if only to congratulate her on turning fifteen—and it mortified him that something so ludicrous could even cross his mind. Coincidence, he told himself, stupid coincidence. At the absolute most, maybe the upcoming reminder of the inexorable passage of time and the impermanence of youth had gotten her thinking about days gone by.

Luke found himself cursing birthdays. The outsized influence they held on a trainer’s life almost made him concede credence to the notion of zodiac signs. Of course, the reality was simply that parents of toddlers with roughly proximate birthdays tended to collude to engineer friendships that they hoped would result in the slightly-older kids promising to wait for the youngest to turn ten, so they could all take to the trail together. Safety in numbers. How Luke wished Aaron had been born in the autumn—that Wendy and Nadine would have teamed up with someone else or just themselves. And who knows, maybe that would have Butterfree-effected Nadine into not bailing on training so early, saving her and Wendy even more grief.

He took a deep breath. This was getting a smidge hyperbolic. Yes, the letter was a reminder of the worst day of his life. That didn’t mean he had to let it drive him nuts. This situation called for the maturity he’d sadly lacked on that day. Another deep breath. A look at the clear sky, at the Tower in the fading daylight, and at its reflection in the still water before it. Ten more deep breaths. Then, he was ready to look at this with some perspective.

It wasn’t like he was going to have to step back into the year 1990. This was just a letter from Wendy—not Aaron, just Wendy; who, going by this new evidence, did not hate him. Catching up a little over a letter or two was just the thing to help them shed some baggage before moving on to near-adulthood. Besides, there was no pretending he was uninterested in how she was doing.

After all, he reminded himself, …she was the best friend I ever had.

He stood up, took another look at Sprout Tower, and sighed. It seemed he’d have to forget about catching the golden hour. He wondered which stores would sell envelopes.
 
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Blackjack Gabbiani

Merely a collector
Pronouns
Them
Partners
  1. shaymin
  2. dusknoir
Oh dear, going back to vintage technology. I remember those days. Applying them to a high-tech world like this is going to have interesting consequences.

Going on a journey in days before easy PC usage...goodness that would be quite a lot to handle!

I like Zoe already. Nice way of establishing a bit of her personality in a short time.

I'm going to assume the camera stuff is tech accurate since I don't know enough about cameras for that. But it FEELS like it to an untrained observer at least.

Oh wow, Luke's internal monologue is a good way to establish some of his history. And I like how he overthinks the encounter with the other trainers.

I assume the "one other important question" would be how to get the developed image to them.

Man, I remember polaroids being the height of cool. But I don't think they were a thing in black and white. They could have been idk.

Oh no, a timeskip and Luke is trying to not dwell on "that period of his life"? Friiiick that's ominous.

Goldenrod okinomiyaki I assume? I like the regional flavor. I also like the use of real animals here. It gives it that early-gen flair but also puts us closer to our world and establishes your own sense of the world.

"not agreeing but appreciating" yeah that feels solid.

Aww he cares a lot for Zoe. But I hope it's not at the detriment of his own mental health! And Zoe cares a lot for him too. You do a good job conveying this even with the language and understanding barrier. Reminds me a bit of how my pet parrot displays sympathy.

Oh, are they specifically speaking English? That's a bit surprising in Johto.

You describe the entry to Violet so well!

June 15th, 1993...it's funny, but I can tell you exactly what I was doing the previous day.

There's something bitter about a 15 year old musing on the impermanence of youth, but it also seems to fit very well, especially in a series where kids leave home so early.

Well, I'm curious. I've gotta know what happens next!
 

icomeanon6

That's "I come anon 6"
Location
Northern Virginia
Pronouns
masculine
Oh dear, going back to vintage technology. I remember those days. Applying them to a high-tech world like this is going to have interesting consequences.

Going on a journey in days before easy PC usage...goodness that would be quite a lot to handle!
In hindsight, I'm wondering if that foreword/intro is worth having there. It's only really there to 1) Establish that the characters can't communicate over a distance easily, which is easy enough to infer from the actual story, and 2) Prime the reader to pay attention to how close the story gets to the end of 1993.

I like Zoe already. Nice way of establishing a bit of her personality in a short time.
Thanks! Something I wanted to do better with this story than my last one was give the main characters' Pokemon more personality and presence, so that's encouraging if I'm off to a good start.

I'm going to assume the camera stuff is tech accurate since I don't know enough about cameras for that. But it FEELS like it to an untrained observer at least.
I took a black-and-white photography class in college, so everything to do with cameras is from my memories of that plus any research (googling) I did to fill in the gaps. I feel pretty confident about it.

Oh wow, Luke's internal monologue is a good way to establish some of his history. And I like how he overthinks the encounter with the other trainers.
Thanks! That internal line of Luke's was one of the first ones I knew would be in the story.

I assume the "one other important question" would be how to get the developed image to them.
Lol, good assumption.

Man, I remember polaroids being the height of cool. But I don't think they were a thing in black and white. They could have been idk.
To my knowledge, they weren't. I imagine that Wendy's house only had a Polaroid camera, so she momentarily forgot there are other kinds of cameras.

Actually, now that I think about it, since "Polaroid" is a real-world brand name, I should probably replace the word with "instant."

Oh no, a timeskip and Luke is trying to not dwell on "that period of his life"? Friiiick that's ominous.
Stay tuned for further developments regarding that period of Luke's life.

Goldenrod okinomiyaki I assume? I like the regional flavor. I also like the use of real animals here. It gives it that early-gen flair but also puts us closer to our world and establishes your own sense of the world.
Bingo! Yes, it's okonomiyaki in that scene, and the "octo-fritters" are takoyaki. Both favorites of mine.

As for animals, I try to refer to them only when there's a compelling reason to do so—for example, to let me describe Luke's okonomiyaki as having "shrimp" instead of "Clauncher." For all my commitment to making a "grounded" setting, I've never been able to cross the line of having people eat Pokemon. Since I also don't want the entire world to be vegetarian, that leaves an under-emphasized sub-ecosystem of actual animals in the background. I just try not to call any more attention to them than early-gen Pokemon did because it's best to take every advantage of the actual Pokemon setting.

"not agreeing but appreciating" yeah that feels solid.
I feel like being able to "disagree with but appreciate" a compliment is an early step to getting past Imposter Syndrome.

Aww he cares a lot for Zoe. But I hope it's not at the detriment of his own mental health! And Zoe cares a lot for him too. You do a good job conveying this even with the language and understanding barrier. Reminds me a bit of how my pet parrot displays sympathy.
Stay tuned for further developments regarding Luke's mental health.

Oh, are they specifically speaking English? That's a bit surprising in Johto.
I'm glad you pointed this out, because I forgot to change this before posting. Basically, I've never decided on what to call the language the characters are "actually" speaking. "Japanese" feels wrong because this is PokeJapan, not real-world Japan. "Tohjoan," which I've seen here and there, is the one I'm closest to picking, but I've never pulled the trigger on it. I used "English" as a placeholder here, thinking about its idiomatic usage in the way you might hear a character say "Was that even English?" in an English dub. In my head, this story is the "Americanized" version of what would originally have been a Japanese story, as were the Pokemon media I grew up with (and like how Tolkien always kept up the pretense of being the "translator" of The Lord of the Rings).

Anyway, I edited those passages to avoid the mention of a specific language right after I read your post, so I beg your pardon for making your remark retroactively confusing. :V

You describe the entry to Violet so well!
Thanks! It was important to me to get that right.

June 15th, 1993...it's funny, but I can tell you exactly what I was doing the previous day.
I might have been rolling over by myself in mid-June 1993, but I'd have to ask my mom to be sure. Anyway, I freely admit that this story has way too many specific dates in it, but the story wouldn't be itself if I excised them.

There's something bitter about a 15 year old musing on the impermanence of youth, but it also seems to fit very well, especially in a series where kids leave home so early.
I'm glad if you think it fits, because I don't think this story can work if the reader doesn't buy into the idea of age 16 being the end of childhood by virtue of being when trainers stop journeying.

Well, I'm curious. I've gotta know what happens next!
Great! I'm always a little wary of throwing my fics into something like Review Catnip because I'd hate for someone to be obliged to read it and then come away thinking it was a waste of time. Glad I've got your attention, and thanks for doing Catnip and for reading!
 
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Chapter 2: Stitches New

icomeanon6

That's "I come anon 6"
Location
Northern Virginia
Pronouns
masculine
Chapter 2
Stitches

December 21st, 1990

Wendy Merrick was stacking wood for a campfire, log-cabin style. It was her turn to cook, and she had one of her specialties planned: Trainer’s Cassoulet. This was a simplification of (if not quite an insult to) a traditional, rich, hearty, slow-cooked Kalosian stew. She had the white beans right, but her choice of preserved meat was cheaper and less varied than what Mrs. L’Enfant would use back home. Worse yet, Wendy didn’t have multiple days to devote to its proper simmering. The seasonings, however, she had expertly identified and gathered herself during the spare moments between hiking and training with her friends and team.

When the logs were ready, she looked around for the designated fire-starter, until she remembered that Ace would still be off practicing with Aaron and Luke. Though it wouldn’t be as handy as getting a Typhlosion’s help, she dug through her pack for the flint and steel. Then, something flitted in front of her eyes, and she lifted her head.

Flurries. She smiled. Perhaps it would be a white Christmas this year?

Christmas and cassoulet made her think of Nadine again, which dulled her smile a little. Their families had always visited each other a few days before or after Christmas. In fact, Wendy’s family, along with Aaron’s, may have been at the L’Enfant house that very minute, enjoying some real cassoulet.

She wondered how it felt for Nadine to be home this time of year, with everyone else being either under ten or over fifteen. Not that trainers were never home for the holidays, but when they were, they were supposed to be visiting, not visited. Their aunts and uncles would ask about where they had been, not about whether they were thinking of trying again. A trainer’s most natural place on Christmas (not best, but most characteristic) was standing in line at a payphone with all the other trainers who were miles and miles from home, waiting to pay 20 Pyen to field those questions.

Wendy wanted to call Nadine this year, but she didn’t know if it would do her friend any good. It might be nothing but a reminder of how she had quit. For that matter, Wendy didn’t want to spoil her own Christmas by knowing the call had hurt more than it had helped, especially not when this year’s was going to be so special.

Today, she and the boys were in the vicinity of the Lake of Rage, only a few days’ walk north of Luke’s house in Mahogany Town, where Mr. and Mrs. Andersen had invited them all to stay from Christmas Eve through New Year’s. This was easily the most excited Wendy had been for any holiday since she hit the trail.

She loved talking to Mrs. Andersen, who by all evidence was the sharpest, cleverest person in the world. And while Mr. Andersen kept his cards closer to his chest, she loved being around him too because he was so, so much like Luke in every way from his speech to his appearance to his temperament. It was easy to imagine she was sneaking a peak at Luke himself thirty-five years out.

All that, and staying at the Andersens’ house would be an opportunity to have Luke show her his old photos again. The last time had moved her more than she thought it would, and in ways she had trouble pinning down. She wanted another chance to figure out exactly what it was she felt, and he felt for that matter, if she wasn’t imagining things.

She remembered that she was looking for the flint and steel. Only a few seconds into her resumed search, though, she heard footsteps.

“We’re back!” said Aaron, who came into view a fair deal before Luke did.

“Great timing,” said Wendy. “May I ask Ace if I can borrow him?”

“Have at it.” Aaron lobbed over Ace’s ball, and he emerged a few feet away from her. His quills flared up in their usual, playful way at the sight of an unlit campfire. Then Aaron said, “I’m gonna put up the tent now, in case the snow picks up.”

“Thanks!”

Luke, on the other hand, said nothing. He simply walked over to his camera bag and sat down. This wasn’t unusual for him after a long round of extra practice. Aaron’s training regimen was as demanding of the trainer’s brainpower and mental endurance as it was of the Pokémon’s strength and stamina, which made it all the more impressive how determined Luke was to keep pace. She would have doubted it a year ago, but at the rate he and his team were improving, they just might pose a challenge for her and hers in a few months. And that was all on top of how much of himself he put into his photography. She smiled. He made her want to work twice as hard.

But dinner came first. “Ace, fire please?”

Ace was on the job even as she said “please.” With a single, measured breath, the “log cabin” was ablaze and ready to go. The moment his work was done, he flopped onto his back and stared at her with every expectation of getting a rubbed belly for recompense. She was happy to oblige. “Thank you, sir.” There was nothing like the naturally toasty fur of a Fire-type.

Wendy remarked at Ace’s seemingly boundless energy. All of her own Pokémon were in their balls taking their needed and well-earned rest following the day’s training, but if Ace had limits, Aaron had yet to find them.

This reminded her: Luke seemed tired more often these days. It wasn’t really affecting him yet, and it seemed to her his Pokémon were keeping up just fine, but she did wonder if it would be a good idea to check in with him on his pace. It was important that it stayed fun for him and for his team. She was pretty sure he knew that, but it never hurt to hear it from someone else.

Though, then again, she also didn’t like to highlight the fact that he wasn’t in the same class as her—much less Aaron—when it came to battling, which was why he was working so much harder to catch up. She didn’t want to discourage him by mistake.

It kept coming up: that question of whether to ask about a friend’s choices, or to trust their judgment and give them space. She knew Luke would say the former while Aaron would say the latter, and as far as she could tell, they were both right. Even when Luke was the friend in question this time, the right answer didn’t come easily to her, which meant she would probably err on the side of not asking. Which was fine in this case—she would know when it really mattered, after all.

But then, would she? Nadine still hung over her head as the ultimate counterexample.

She forced her attention back to preparing dinner. That, at least, was one thing she knew she could do right. At the same time, she heard Aaron walk over to where Luke was sitting.

“Hey, Luke,” he said. “You were saying something earlier about our plans for—”

He cut himself off as Wendy heard the shuffling of feet.

“Hey— OW! The fu—!

Wendy jerked her head up. It took a moment to understand what she saw.

Luke was swinging at Aaron’s face, with full force, over and over. Aaron tried to block his punches and hit him back on the side of the head, but it didn’t even slow him down. Luke only went after him harder and harder. Wendy heard the blows, the yelling, the swearing. A splash of blood sprinkled to the ground.

Ace came unfrozen before she did. With a terrible cry, the Typhlosion rushed at Luke in a blur. He collided. The momentum sent boy and Pokémon both tumbling down the opposite ravine. Luke screamed.

Wendy dashed to the brink; heart racing, head swimming. This isn’t happening, she told herself. This isn’t happening.

She looked. Ace had Luke’s shoulder in his jaws and shook like he was trying to tear his arm off. Luke howled in pain. Wendy’s voice caught in her throat, and after an agonizing second, she saw that Luke’s jacket was smoldering.

Fire Fang.

She wheeled to face Aaron. He held his bleeding nose in his hands and stared down at his friend and his Pokémon.

“Call him off!” Wendy finally screamed at him.

But Aaron said nothing. It was like he hadn’t heard her. He just watched.

Desperate, Wendy screeched the order herself. “Ace! Stop it! Ace!

The Typhlosion held his head still. But he didn’t let go. He just growled, visibly bristling at her words.

Wendy looked to Aaron again, silently pleading. Then, he finally said, “Back.” Ace let go. As he began to stalk his way up the slope, Wendy rushed down it, all while Luke continued to wail.

“First aid kit!” she yelled back at Aaron before turning to Luke’s shoulder. The jacket was completely burned through, and the sight underneath nearly made her throw up. In his writhing, Luke almost rolled onto his side and got dirt in the wound, so Wendy held him down. She fumbled for the canteen on her belt, wishing it had started snowing yesterday so she could pack ice onto that sickening mass of bloody, charred flesh.

*********

Three hours later, the adrenaline was gone. Wendy was sitting next to a hospital bed on the outskirts of Mahogany Town when the full weight of what had happened sunk onto her shoulders and stayed there. Somehow, she had contained the bleeding, set off the emergency flare for the search-and-rescue tower to spot, and made it through the ambulance ride without thinking about anything beyond whether Luke would make it through the day alive and with two arms.

But now? Now, she had to contend with the fact that Luke had just tried to beat Aaron well past the point of drawing blood: to seriously hurt him. It defied belief. Her mind couldn’t reconcile what she knew about him with what she had seen him do.

She looked at Luke where he lay. The sling could have been there from any accident, as could have the hospital gown and the outline of the thick bandage underneath, where the nurses had told her he now had twenty stitches. It was the same story with Aaron out in the hallway: A thoroughly bandaged but unbroken nose could have been from anything. It didn’t make what she had seen real.

What made it real was Luke’s face. His jaw had been clamped shut since she entered the room. He glared at the ceiling with eyes that looked like they might never blink again. It was all she could bear to listen to his manic breathing. But she stayed. She needed an answer, or at least an excuse. It was too much to hope for the excuse to be convincing, or even to make sense, but it at least needed to make today feel less like a demented fever-dream.

She was still afraid to ask, though. “They called your parents,” she said. The voice sounded too quiet and shaky to be her own. “They’re on their way now.”

Luke gave no sign he’d even heard her. Wendy’s hands began to shake, but she grabbed her knees to control them. Then, she finally asked it.

“I… I want to know what’s wrong… why you hit Aaron like that.”

Luke breathed in sharp and held it for several seconds. He didn’t answer when he breathed out.

“D… did he deserve it? You didn’t s… stop after his nose started bleeding.”

Again, silence. Wendy struggled to think of another way to ask, but eventually it was Luke who spoke first.

“I’ll apologize to Ace,” he said, clearly straining to keep a level, neutral tone. “It wasn’t his fault. I shouldn’t have spooked him.” The tone broke down. “But if I ever, ever see Aaron’s face again, I’m going to break his teeth.”

Break his teeth. Her own teeth nearly chattered at the words. How could Luke not have had enough? Did he have to see to it that Aaron came off worse than he did? No, all he seemed to care about was that Aaron went away for good, whatever it took. But why?

Wendy’s eyes welled up. “Please… Just tell me what’s wrong.”

“Why.”

Now his voice was full of offense, as if he had taken her plea as a deliberate insult. No matter what she said, it just kept falling apart. “Because I need to know how to fix this!”

He turned his head away. He hadn’t looked at her once since she came in, and now she couldn’t even see his eyes. “There’s no point,” he said. “You wouldn’t even get it. Or you’d be on his side. There’s no point. I’m done.”

On his side? She never knew there were sides to be on. And “done?” Did he mean he was done with her too, part and parcel with Aaron? That no matter what, she was losing him?

Now she recognized the desperation welling up in her stomach. She hadn’t noticed it with her mind stuck on the violence and the medical emergency, but the worst feeling in the world was back. It was all happening again, just like two years ago. She wasn’t ready for it this time, either.

Her heart pounded. She had to find out what she was supposed to say. Right now.

“I’m on both your sides! Just tell me what it is! I won’t blame you!”

His free hand clenched the sheets. “I said I’m done.”

She was already too desperate to think about her words until after she said them. Anything that came into her head, she tried.

“This doesn’t make any sense!”

Unless I missed something.

“You were the best of friends this morning!”

Or I took their normal behavior at face value.

“How can one bad day mean more than all the time you’ve been together?”

Why do I still think it was just about today?

“We said we were going to Indigo, all three of us, and we’re so close!”

It was four of us when we set that goal, and now it’s going to be two.

Luke’s breathing was getting erratic again. He twitched. She knew she was making it worse, but she couldn’t stop. This could not happen again.

“You can’t just give up like this!”

Luke’s back spasmed. Then he exploded. “Get out!

Wendy sprung to her feet in alarm, but was too stunned to step away. She had never heard any noise like this come out of his mouth. She could almost feel his throat tearing itself to ribbons.

Geeettt! Ouuuutt!

She backed away, bumped into a stool, then stumbled into the woman who rushed into the room. The nurse practically shoved her out the door as Luke’s screaming devolved into incoherence.

Wendy could only stagger down the hallway. At first, she had only a mind to get out of earshot. That awful, unrecognizable voice was too much to bear any longer. Soon, either the nurse managed to quiet Luke down, or there were too many walls between them for the sound to reach her.

She needed a friend. Badly. Her thoughts turned to Aaron, who might as well be her only friend in the world, now. She looked up from the floor, and as if he’d known how much she needed him just then, there he was.

He walked toward her. Wendy had every intention of throwing her arms around him and crying her eyes out. But the bandage on his nose gave her pause. She didn’t want to jostle him too much. During that pause, she noticed the harsh look in his eyes, and it stopped her cold.

“You done?” he asked, as if she had committed some offense in taking so long to talk to Luke.

If he had asked the question in other words or in a different voice, she might have said yes. She had no hope of changing Luke’s mind, and Aaron should have been the first one she’d gone to confide in, to escape with. But something told her there could be no commiserating with Aaron as he was now—that any sign she was loth to leave Luke behind wouldn’t be treated kindly.

Instead of answering, she finally asked, “What happened?”

‘What happened?’ He’s a psycho. He snapped. That’s what psychos do. You think I had anything to do with it?”

“I… I never said you…” She clutched her temples and groaned. “He’s not a psycho! That’s why none of this makes sense!”

“Oh, so it’d make sense if it was my fault?”

“No! I said it doesn’t make sense, period!”

A passing nurse glared and shushed them.

Aaron spoke again, quieter this time but with even more acid in his voice. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you what bad news he was. You still don’t want to believe it. I was hoping you’d get the picture when something like this finally happened, so you’d agree we need to get the hell away from this guy.”

Wendy gaped. It was like someone had replaced both him and Luke with imposters while she wasn’t looking. This might have been why the first thing she asked was, “…How long have you thought this?”

“‘Thought?’ That took a few weeks. I’ve known it for at least a year.”

His answer wasn’t just wrong: It was pathetically, obviously wrong. Even if there were some tension she had missed between them, it could not have been like this. It bewildered her that he expected her to believe it over everything she’d experienced for herself all this time. There was no hiding her disappointment.

“You’re lying.”

Wendy had never said those words to anyone. She didn’t know if anyone had ever tried to tell her this plain a falsehood on purpose before. She never imagined Aaron of all people ever would.

“Oh, come on! You saw what he did! Normal people don’t go from zero to sixty over nothing like that!”

That wasn’t the lie Wendy meant, and she had a sick feeling Aaron knew it. “Even if you’re right—even if Luke’s… got problems… and he’s not safe to be around… you couldn’t have known it for a year, or even thought it. You can’t just pretend to be that good of friends with somebody for that long. Nobody can. Nobody should.”

At this, Aaron balked. Wendy went on. “You’re asking me to believe you could lie about being friends with him day-in, day-out for two whole years! I know that’s not you. I can’t even believe you’d want me to think that’s you.”

Aaron remained speechless, however much he tried to start a sentence. He seethed. But she didn’t want him to be angry, and she wasn’t trying to trap him. All she wanted was the truth.

“Just take it back,” she said, hoping against hope he’d grab the rope she was lowering him. “Just say you made it up because you’re mad.” She fought back the tears, but couldn’t keep her voice steady. “I can understand that. I can’t understand this.”

He stared at her with a fixed, bitter expression for what felt like an eternity. This was more than enough to mark his eventual reply as a lie beyond any shadow of a doubt: “I’m not lying.”

In that moment, it was as if something passed out of Wendy, possibly never to return. She had never felt so alone, nor so disgusted by the proximity fellow human beings.

The latter problem was easy enough to solve. “I’m leaving,” she said.

Wendy turned around and walked away. There was no need to debate her plans, since she had no friends to make plans with. They had all been swapped out with strangers that morning, if not earlier. At first, she meant to head straight for the main entrance, but she remembered her pack was still sitting outside the room where one of the imposters was.

When she found it, barely slowing down to sling it over her shoulder, she suddenly heard Aaron from back the way she came. “Look, are you—”

She wheeled on him and screamed, “Don’t follow me! I said I’m leaving!

Then she ran to the lobby, ignoring each nurse she passed who told her to walk. Just as she burst out the front door, she thought she caught Mr. and Mrs. Andersen in her peripheral vision. She didn’t slow down. The urge to cry both returned and overcame her, but she kept running.

She wasn’t fast, but she could go for hours. At each intersection, she took the turn she knew the least, less to keep from being followed than to make it so she couldn’t turn around and easily find her way back. When she realized this was what she was doing, she finally stopped.

Wendy stood at the bottom of a ravine on a deserted Mahogany Town backroad that wasn’t three miles from where she was supposed to have spent Christmas and New Year’s. She fell to her knees, put her head in her hands, and bawled.

*********

July 3, 1993

Wendy lay awake in her sleeping bag, staring at the stars and remembering. Though she had been fifteen for only an hour, age twelve felt farther away than it had the day before. That was how old they had all been on the worst day of her life. The memory of that day hadn’t kept her up all night every night—not even most nights after a month or two—but she knew this wouldn’t be the last time, either. In fact, it had troubled her more the last few weeks than it had in some time, surely because of those letters she’d left for Aaron and Luke.

She knew there wasn’t much hope of their writing back, assuming they got the letters in the first place, and even less of them saying what she wanted to hear: that it was high time to at least see each other, even if only to talk and not to go so far as to bury the hatchet. A mere frank discussion of the hatchet and whether it should stay above ground would be enough.

The question had never stopped vexing her: What on earth had made them so furious at each other? For as clearly as she remembered every agonizing minute of that day—maybe even every word spoken verbatim, it felt like—she’d never come any closer to piecing together the answer. Going by her working hypothesis, there was likely blame to go around, even to herself (though she had no idea how). Regardless, she could still think of nothing to explain such a sudden, violent, irrevocable turn.

As usual, she looked back to older memories of Aaron and Luke to find any clue, however tenuous. And as always, she kept dwelling on ones that were too happy to be of any help, which finally got her to sleep.

When the sun came up, the past gave way to the present again. She rose, stretched, and walked down to the river to wash her face. Amanda was already there to fill her canteen.

“Mornin’, sleepy-head,” said her friend, who in all likelihood had managed to wake up first by a whopping five minutes.

“It’s too early for insubordination.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” said Amanda in her worst joke-voice and with a mock salute.

Wendy was, strictly speaking, not Amanda’s superior. She was merely two years older and had been volunteering for the Johto Conservation Society for longer. While the reason Amanda was with her on this surveying excursion was so Wendy could show her the ropes, neither of them was technically on the org chart at all. After Wendy dunked her head in the water—fresh from Tohjo Falls—she got right into laying out the morning’s work.

The work was testing water quality. Soon, they had out an array of test-tubes, filters, and other instruments. They also let out one Pokémon each: Wendy’s Clefable, Sharpy, and Amanda’s newly caught Doduo, Gemini. Clefable weren’t known to be outgoing with Pokémon outside their own evolutionary line, but Wendy had made a point of socializing Sharpy thoroughly from a young age. Sure enough, Sharpy was already trying to teach Gemini to get his two heads to harmonize on melody she supplied.

“Wow,” said Amanda, taking her eyes from the turbidity test. “She’s really something.”

Wendy smiled. She knew it.

“I know I asked last year, but you said her name’s short for ‘C-Sharp?’”

“Close,” said Wendy, “F-Sharp.”

“Why ‘F?’”

“Cause when my dad caught her, F♯ was the only note she’d sing, and it sounded better than G-Flat. She’s branched out since then.”

Amanda whistled. “That’s some real A-game naming. Do you think Gemini’s too basic?”

“Nah, say it’s an oldie but a goodie,” said Wendy, meaning it. “Besides, you don’t want to go over the top with the name just cause he’s got those green feathers. It’d go to his heads.”

Amanda just smiled and continued to watch her miracle-catch play around with Sharpy. Wendy didn’t mind some mild neglect of the work. The absence of strict deadlines was among the perks of being a trainer-volunteer, and who could blame Amanda for relishing the catch of a lifetime?

It had been when they were out tagging flocks of Do’s -duo and -drio for Society researchers when Wendy was lucky enough to spot the stray green feathers. Luckier still, the flock they subsequently tracked down had several Doduo of rare plumage, so the Society’s rules concerning which rare subjects field surveyors were allowed to catch gave Amanda enough leeway.

As for Wendy, she was done catching new Pokémon. All but her starter had moved on to new families. She couldn’t see herself getting around to that last Gym Badge anymore, and as with most other fifteen-year-olds (even those others who had been fourteen the day before), she was already thinking about the future. Sharpy would always be part of that future, and her eventual job would certainly call for a Pokémon so she could take to the field without worry, but it wouldn’t call for a whole team.

An hour later, they had finished taking their measurements and were on their way back to Route 27, and thence west to Johto proper. They kept within eyesight of the rocky coast, but didn’t battle any of the fishers they passed. Pitched battles (to say nothing of the entire Pokémon League system) were, in Amanda’s words, “totally fascist.”

“So, you’re going to work for JCS full-time when you’re done, right?” asked Amanda.

“I’m undecided,” said Wendy. “It sounds great, but they don’t have a ton of full-timers, and it might make more sense to go to school first. Geology degree, maybe zoology. Whatever I do, I want it to get me outside a lot.”

“I might apply soon as I’m back at HQ,” said Amanda, “so long as they keep me on the trails and away from the desks. I think there’s a real chance to make a difference, here.”

Wendy suspected Amanda may be serious about this plan. “You’ll run into child-employment laws, you know,” she said. “I don’t think they can hire-hire anyone under sixteen.”

“Hey, if they’re serious about healing the world, they’ll lie about my age.”

Wendy laughed. “I think you’d have an easier time passing for eleven.”

“Whatever. If they don’t, I’ll head to Hoenn and see if the Rangers will.”

She would never say it out loud, but Wendy almost hoped the JCS or the Rangers would perform some age fraud on Amanda’s behalf, if only because this way Amanda was more likely to pursue her long-term goal through cleaning trash, monitoring Pokémon populations, etc. instead of bombing power plants.

“Anyway,” said Amanda, “How far do you think it is to New Bark?”

“We could get there around sundown, if you can keep up.”

“Try me!”

Wendy did try her, and they made it in time to spend the night in town. Their next destination was to be Violet City—a six-day walk at Wendy’s usual pace. There they planned to split up again, with Wendy turning south for Ilex Forest, and Amanda continuing counter-clockwise to Goldenrod and JCS headquarters.

Violet City was also where, try as she might to keep her expectations in check, Wendy couldn’t help but wonder if there would be any letters waiting for her at the Pokémon Center.

*********

It was dusk, and Amanda was regaling Wendy with the time she and her Caterpie got a logging company’s machinery completely gummed up with string when they finally reached the eastern outskirts of the city. Wendy’s irrational sense of anticipation got more and more of the better of her as they passed through the familiar lamplit streets leading to the signature red roof. It took repeated internal admonishment to keep her mind under control when it came into view.

It’s only been a month, she told herself. Neither of them has probably even been here. You’ll just have to rewrite the letter and leave it in a few more towns. And if they read it and don’t reply, there’s nothing to do about that. The past is the past.

There’s probably no letter.


“Hey, you good?”

Wendy realized that she had stopped just outside the building and was staring at it. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. Thought I forgot something, that’s all.”

They walked in. Amanda dropped off her Pokémon first, while Wendy tried to both look and feel casual, continuing her mental anti-pep-talk. Then it was her turn, and she finally felt ready for the same utterly rote interaction as always.

But then,

“Oh! There’s a letter here for you.”

Wendy suddenly found difficulty in keeping her feet on the floor.

“Two weeks in a row with letters getting picked up,” said the nurse as she dug below the counter. “I think that’s a record.”

Amanda poked her head across the counter, then asked Wendy, “What’s this about a letter? You in trouble or something?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Know who it’s from?”

“Nope,” which was technically true.

The nurse resurfaced and handed Wendy the envelope. Amanda immediately inspected the handwriting. “Ooooooh, I think it’s from a booooooy!” she said in extremely under-fourteen-years-old fashion.

“Amanda, not now.” Wendy let no irritation into her voice, just the calm, unambiguous message that this letter wasn’t one to joke about. Amanda got on the same page at once.

While the machines checked on their Pokémon, Wendy took a vacant chair in the corner. She examined the handwriting herself, when it occurred to her that she’d never learned to recognize Aaron’s or Luke’s handwriting. Training and hiking didn’t often call for pen and paper. The letters which comprised “Wendy Merrick” sure looked like they were from a boy, and one whose parents made sure he knew cursive before he left home, but that didn’t narrow it down.

“You know…” mumbled Amanda, abashed, “if it is from a boy, I think that’s cool, and I’m happy for you.”

Wendy’s mouth thinned to a frustrated line. She didn’t want to fault Amanda for misunderstanding in an un-joking way after her younger friend had so graciously and obediently pivoted to taking the matter seriously. Since there was no shaking her, Wendy decided it’d be best just to explain. She took and released a deep breath first.

“It should be from one of the guys I first teamed up with. I left each of them a letter here while we were on our way to the Falls cause I wanted to know how they were doing, and… well.”

Amanda sat down opposite her. “That was the… big falling-out, right? I know you said something about it once, but I don’t remember the details.”

Wendy shook her head. “I wouldn’t have told anyone the details.”

“Not asking, not asking,” said Amanda, waving her hands. “I can take your word for it. For one thing, you were right to bail when Genevieve and Emily started getting after each other. Wish I’d stuck with you instead then.”

Wendy turned the envelope in her hands. “Well, that made me one-for-three with these things. And I missed any signs on this one. I still don’t know what they were.”

“That’s rough.”

“Yeah.”

Wendy, along with Amanda, continued to stare at the envelope.

“…You gonna open it?”

Wendy knew she was going to, of course, but she couldn’t bring herself to say so until she decided whom she wanted it to be from.

She definitely worried the most about Luke. He was the one she’d left with a messed-up shoulder and in by far the more distressing emotional state, which she couldn’t deny scared her to think of what he might write. Aaron, at least, she knew was doing well enough to be in the League Tournament, so the worst case for his letter couldn’t be nearly as bad. In the end, she decided it would be better to hope for an end to the worry than to keep putting it off, so she crossed her fingers for Luke.

One more deep breath, fingers still crossed, and Wendy nodded. Then, she worked the seal bit by bit until she had the letter to read.



July 6th, 1993

Dear Wendy,

Thanks for the letter—it was nice of you to write. Happy to say things are all going well on my end. It’s just me and Zoe now, and she’s the picture of health. She’s only gotten smarter, too. Usually seems to have an idea of what I’m thinking, which can be good or bad depending on if she feels cooperative. I spend most of my time now working on my portfolio. Got a good angle of Sprout Tower yesterday, and next I’m off to give the Ruins of Alph and then Ilex Forest another go. Want to have recent pictures for as much of the region as I can by the time I apply for jobs.

Hope things are going well with you, too. If you get this and want to write back, I wouldn’t mind hearing about what you’re up to and how your team’s doing. Say hi to Sharpy and Feldspar for me.

Thanks again, and happy late birthday,
Luke




Wendy leaned back and exhaled in relief.

“Nice letter?” asked Amanda.

“Nice letter,” said Wendy.

She held it out for Amanda to read for herself, feeling this was the best way to assure her junior colleague of the unexciting pleasantness of its contents.

Amanda perused the text with care, then nodded. “Nice letter.” She handed it back. “Is he a painter or something?”

“Photographer. He should be going pro next summer. I’m just way relieved since he was the—” She faltered.

Amanda gave her a moment, but only a moment. “... ‘The?’”

“...He was the one who snapped. It was really, really bad. I can’t tell you how much easier I’ll sleep after how normal that letter was.”

Amanda grinned. “Guess I can still say it, then: ‘I think that’s cool, and I’m happy for you.’”

Wendy smiled back. “Thank you.”

“So, that leaves the other one, then. Is he safe to talk about?”

Wendy considered this for a moment. “Pretty safe, I think, but you wouldn’t like him. He was just in the Tournament.”

Amanda clicked her tongue. “Fascist. Got it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Wendy, with her usual dismissiveness of Amanda’s more idiosyncratic political opinions. “Anyway, I’ve known him much longer—since we were babies, basically. I’m not worried about whether he’s stable, just… it’s still hard.”

“I get that.”

The two sat in silence for some time, letting the normal sounds and conversations of the Pokémon Center fill the air, some pertaining to their own little dramas.

The next day, Wendy would say goodbye to Amanda again, but not permanently, even if it might be for a good while depending on what the Society needed done.

What filled her mind, though, was the fortuitous overlap between her immediate plans and Luke’s. If he spent a good chunk of time exploring the Ruins of Alph, there was a good chance she’d reach Ilex Forest before him, and could be confident he’d find her reply if she left it in Azalea Town. And if her guess was off, then maybe—just maybe—she could be off exactly enough to run into him in town, and see for herself if they were ready to put what happened behind them. Maybe it could even be the two of them extending an olive branch to Aaron together.

She knew she was getting ahead of herself. The most important thing, and the reason she did in fact sleep easily that night, was that she finally knew Luke was okay.
 
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