“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?” 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…