Callum stopped by his house to show off Lin and to reassure Ez that he hadn’t lost his shoes. Aunt Amaya didn’t say much, but Callum noticed the tears in her eyes when she watched Lin trailing after him. Had she known what the pokemon were going to be? Had she been secretly hoping he’d pick the mienfoo all along?
Anyway, she held out a piece of metal like a shield for Lin to kick and they high-fived after Lin made a massive dent in it, so it seemed like they approved of each other.
Saying goodbye the second time was weirdly easy. Maybe that was because he knew he hadn’t forgotten Peanut this time, but having a starter made the whole thing feel real. He was really a trainer and going on a journey, he was totally going to do this!
...He didn’t know exactly what ‘this’ was. Becoming a master trainer seemed out of his reach, but hopefully Lin’s enthusiasm would be able to carry him at least to Aunt Amaya’s Gym because whoo he had seen the hero worship in Lin’s eyes, and yeah, she totally wanted to fight his aunt now. Aunt Amaya was weird and probably thought that was cute.
His family was weird. But… he was going to miss them. He just hoped he wasn’t going to be too much of a disappointment.
On the road out of town, he ran into Rayla again. The murkrow had gone into a pokeball. He knew she couldn’t possibly keep it on those horn things for too long. Although it did look cool...
“Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”
“My name is Callum!” he said. “You know, I’m sure we’ve been over this before.”
Her mouth twitched. Aha! She did have a personality hidden away under all that grouch!
“Callum,” she repeated. Her accent gave it a nice, almost lyrical lilt. “My uncle told me one of the other trainers today would be the son of two Champions. Is that true?”
Uh oh. “I mean. Half true. Harrow is my stepdad.”
“And your ma was Champion Sarai, right?” She looked pointedly at Lin, who was luckily not paying attention. The mienfoo hadn’t reacted when Claudia said his mom had had the same pokemon, but if she found out Callum’s mother was Champion? That was going to raise expectations for sure.
Callum knew he didn’t manage to keep the strain out of his smile this time. “That was… just a coincidence. But um, yeah, she’s… she was my mom.”
Rayla hummed thoughtfully. “So...”
“Please don’t tell anyone!” he blurted.
She frowned. “Why not? Aren’t you proud of them?”
“Of course I am! They’re amazing. And Aunt Amaya.” And probably Ezran when he got old enough to be a trainer. He just always seemed to get pokemon like nobody else. Everyone in the family…
Rayla still didn’t look convinced.
“It’s just… a lot, you know? I don’t want people looking at me and expecting my parents.” Because they’re going to be disappointed. “I want a chance to just be Callum.”
“Oh.” She seemed contrite, not meeting his eyes and fiddling with her fingers. “Okay. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thanks!” He breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m trying to get away from my parents, too,” Rayla said. “It’s not the same, but… you know. I understand.”
Callum was tempted to ask what was up with her parents. He thought it was only fair, since she knew about his family. But she looked so sad that he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he said, “So, who’s your uncle?”
This was a good topic. Rayla beamed. “Runaan!”
Callum blinked. “The Gym Leader from Xadia City?”
“How many other Runaans do you know?”
“Point taken.” He was a flying-type specialist, so… “Is that why you wanted the murkrow?”
“That’s right! I learned all about flying-types from him. He’s amazing.” She nodded to herself. “But I’m going to be better.”
“Oh, cool!” he said, trying to sound sincere. He was still a little bitter about the starter thing. Claudia would’ve been so excited!
Rayla paused. After a moment of silence, she raised an eyebrow.
Callum looked confused. “Was I… supposed to say something else?”
She stared at him blankly, and then shook her head. “Never mind. Anyway, see you around! I’m off.”
“Wait, wait—” Callum caught her shoulder before she could turn her back. Despite the starter-stealing, she wasn’t so bad, and it might be nice to have company on the road. “Aren’t we going the same way? Maybe we could walk together!”
“No way, slowcoach.” She stuck her tongue out at him and, weirdly, started stretching her legs. “I’m going to get a head start and grab that first Gym badge before you do.”
“What? But...” Callum spluttered. “I never agreed to this!”
Rayla only grinned and started running. “Catch me if you can!”
And… wow, she was… actually… really fast. She was out of sight before Callum even processed what was happening.
Did she just rival me? Am I her rival now? That’s not fair! You can’t just… assign someone to be your rival without asking!
Lin made a squeaking noise and a blur of yellow and brown zoomed ahead from Callum’s peripheral vision.
The mienfoo stopped a few moments later when she realised Callum wasn’t following. She jogged on the spot and whined at him.
Callum folded his arms and gave her an unimpressed look. “Yeah, no, I am not running all the way to Castletown.”
Lin drooped so dramatically that his heart sank.
“Don’t worry!” he found himself assuring her, flapping his hands in a panic. When she perked up a little, Callum forced himself to grin. “The first Gym is a rock-type specialist and she’s got a flier. It’ll take her ages to actually earn the Gym badge! We’ve got plenty of time to catch up to her.”
Lin seemed mollified and was content to walk at a normal pace beside him.
This doesn’t mean I reciprocate the rivalry though! No way! He definitely didn’t need that kind of pressure on top of all the other pressure.
...He would just… think of a way to make this clear to Lin without disappointing her… on the road. Yep. Before she had time to get invested. Totally doable.
Callum watched Lin practise kicking rocks into the sky on the road to Castletown, returning to him every few seconds for praise and tips, with a sinking feeling.
“Are you… teaching yourself how to hit flying-types whilst they’re in the air?” he asked.
Lin bounced and squeaked in a way which couldn’t be anything other than affirmative.
...So about that ‘getting invested’ thing…
“I can’t believe I need help already,” Callum muttered, burying his face in his hands.
It would be fine. He just had to call Amaya and Ezran in Castletown and ask for advice on how to reel it back. Even Callum could follow their advice. It would be fine!
Lin hit a tree branch that she must’ve been aiming at, because she began to vibrate with excitement and bounced higher than Callum’s head in celebration.
...She’s gonna be so sad oh no—
Despite Callum’s protests, Lin did manage to guilt trip him into power walking most of the way to Castletown. He managed to make it in record time, but now his feet hurt, and he was glad he’d thought to sneak in a break under the guise of introducing Lin to Peanut. The smeargle was obsessed with art but seemed to have deemed Lin a worthy object of his portraits, because he gave Callum an approving nod.
And then demanded to go back in his pokeball once it was clear there would not be a chance for a sketch break. Callum only wished he had a pokeball he could get carried around in.
It turn out to be pretty lucky they got there so fast, because they had only stopped by the Centre for some lunch when Rayla announced her presence with a dramatic, “Greetings, slowpokes!”
Callum jumped about a foot in the air. “Do you have to sneak up on people like that? And pokemon,” he added hastily, seeing Lin tap her foot and glare at him.
“Sneaking is half the fun of surprises,” Rayla said, grinning.
“Well, congrats. We’re surprised,” Callum replied dryly.
Rayla ignored him, too busy searching for something in her pocket – a small display case a little larger than the length of her hand.
She flipped it open in one smooth motion. It did look super cool. She must’ve practised it; Callum couldn’t do that at all.
He’d been so impressed by the flip that he hadn’t look at—
Rayla’s Gym badge. From the first Gym. Already?!
Lin stomped her foot so hard that she cracked the floor. Callum really hoped he wasn’t going to have to pay for that.
“What—how?! I—ugh.” Callum buried his face in his hands. “You have a flying-type! It shouldn’t be possible to do a rock Gym so fast!”
“That you’ve seen,” Rayla said in a sing-song voice.
Callum raised his face from his hands to see her grinning from ear to ear. “You have another pokemon?”
She flicked his nose and skipped into the Pokemon Centre. “Sure do! If you can guess by the time I’ve beaten the next Gym, I’ll even give you a headstart getting to the third one!”
Sure, because the Gyms are totally what I’m worrying about right now, and not that Lin probably wants to throw me in the sea.
“I’d still win, of course,” she added. “I’m just going to get my pokemon healed and then it’s off to Luminon Cave for me! Bye!”
The doors slid shut behind her before Callum could do more than open his mouth. He grimaced, bracing himself for Lin’s glare, which would probably burn with the power of a thousand… burning… suns—
Instead, Lin was sat on the floor, her head resting on her tiny paws, with her ears folded back. As Callum blinked at her, she sniffed.
She wasn’t furious. It was worse.
She was really sad.
“No!” Callum blurted, before his brain had caught up with his mouth. “We can pull this back! It’s totally fine!”
Lin looked up, blinking at him blearily. Oh god, even her whiskers were drooping.
“We’ll just win at the Gym here real quick, and then we… take a shortcut! To get to the next Gym! Then we can surprise Rayla with a badge!”
Bouncing gently on her feet, Lin looked up at him with shiny eyes, which made it totally impossible for Callum to take back the stupid thing he just said. Just win two Gym badges in rapid succession! No big deal! Why was the power of the sad eyes so strong?!?
But… but Lin looked really excited…
Callum sighed and squared his shoulders. For her sake, he supposed he’d just have to try. “Come on,” he said sternly, projecting a confidence he didn’t feel. “Let’s go find that Gym.”
Lin’s stomach growled.
“…Let’s feed you first,” Callum said. “Then... let’s go find that Gym.”
Lin ate at record speed. Callum ate half a sandwich and felt queasy.
Callum had been hoping that the Gym would be closed, or that there would be a delay, or something, just to give him time to think things through a bit more, but the Gym was open and the Leader was free – so thirty seconds after arriving at the Gym and asking for a battle, Callum found himself facing the Gym Leader across the arena.
Lin bounced on the soles of her feet, tense and ready. The Leader’s graveller pawed at the ground with both sets of arms. Callum tried to keep his screaming strictly internal. And to keep his lunch down.
“Begin!” the referee said.
The graveller charged forward, faster than Callum expected for such a bulky pokemon. Lin shifted into her ready stance and Callum’s mind went blank.
Barrelling onward, the graveller was nearly upon Lin when it began to roll, picking up speed. Lin held her ground.
“Move!” Callum blurted.
Lin leapt over the graveller at the last moment. The arc of the jump wasn’t perfect; she clipped the rocky body as she jumped over, sending her tumbling head over heels with a squeak. Because he was too slow.
The graveller was still moving. Callum stepped to the side to avoid it, but it managed to stop itself a few feet away by sticking all four of its arms out and grabbing onto the rough ground. The Leader glared at Callum, but how was he supposed to know It would be able to stop? At that speed, it would’ve broken both his legs!
Lin seemed smaller and exposed in the middle of the arena. The graveller was obviously gearing up for another run. Mienfoo favoured speed, not endurance – Lin wouldn’t be able to stand up to something so bulky once it got the momentum going. Which Callum knew was the point, Gym battles were supposed to challenge you to think on your feet. Maybe the Leader picked the graveller specifically because Lin was a mienfoo.
So… what could they do?
The graveller started on another roll, even faster this time with more space to pick up speed.
But Callum was also more prepared. “Jump!” he yelled to Lin, and this time she leapt over without a hitch. Again, the graveller rolled on for a while before it was able to stop itself.
The couldn’t keep doing this forever, though. Lin was even looking at him expectantly, as though Callum had any idea what he was doing.
This was such a bad idea, oh no, Lin is gonna be so disappointed, I just—I gotta make this work somehow—
Maybe if… It would probably only work once, so he’d have to think of something new after, but…
Lin had ended up near the boundaries of the arena – it was a rectangular shape, with the Leader and Callum standing at the shortest ends. The trainer sections had more space between where they stood and the ‘allowed’ area for the match, but the lengthways boundaries pretty much went up to the wall.
Well, it was the best shot they were going to get.
“You can’t dodge forever!” the Leader shouted, whilst the graveller started to roll again.
Lin’s shoulders drooped a little – discouraged?
“It’s okay!” Callum called to her. Project confidence. Project confidence. He gave her a double thumbs up. “Just hang in there! I’ve got a plan!”
Lin nodded and tensed as the boulder—pokemon—rolled towards her again. When Callum told her to jump, she was ready.
Just as she was about to land, he yelled, “Force palm, quick!”
Her feet barely touched the ground and she spun, smacking the graveller with all her and might and sending it crashing into the wall. The wall around it crated. Shards of concrete flaked away from it as a crack travelled all the way up to the ceiling.
Lin swiftly jumped clear of the area, but the graveller didn’t move for a long, long moment. Finally, it used all of its limbs to pick itself up – slowly. It tottered, woozy and off-balance. Lin hit it even harder than he thought!
Callum’s stomach was on its own little rollercoaster ride but his heart soared.
I think… we can actually do this!
Callum marvelled at their new shiny badge all the way back to the Pokemon Centre – when he could steal it from an overexcited Lin. Despite fighting a Gym battle all by herself, she’d still found the energy to skip the whole way back.
He had to admit to being pretty excited too. Their first Gym badge! And okay, everyone got the first Gym eventually even if they were really bad, but it was still worth celebrating!
“Hey, shall we go get a treat or something after you get all healed up? I know Castletown has a couple of pokemon-friendly ice cream parlours...”
Lin stopped skipping to frown at him. Callum got the feeling she was exasperated. Maybe she didn’t know what ice cream was? She was still quite a young pokemon, after all.
“Is there… something you want to do instead?”
Lin nodded and pointed to a sign, and then stood on her tiptoes to see over someone’s hedge to locate the mountains on the horizon and gesture at those, too.
...The sign was for the Natural History Museum but Callum thought he got the gist of it.
“You… want to go after Rayla, huh?”
Bouncing on her feet again, Lin nodded, and got into a ready stance as though to show how… ready… she was to take Rayla down.
But by the time they finished buying supplies and healing up, Rayla would have half a day’s head start over them. There was no way to catch up to her, especially if she rushed through Luminon Cave.
Lin twitched her nose at him. He wasn’t sure if it was an attempt to help with the lillipup eyes but it was certainly adorable.
“Well… there can’t be any harm in trying, right?” he said, and was rewarded with Lin leaping up to hug him, knocking him onto his ass. “Gah! Okay, okay, I know you’re excited, but maybe wait for me to pick you up next time...”
Catching up to Rayla by following her route through Luminon Cave, Callum soon learned from the guide maps, would be impossible. The way through the cave was winding to avoid rare pokemon nests, and there were plenty of side paths to get lost down to boot. Callum had once managed to get lost inside his own house (it had been a long day, alright) and so that seemed to be a losing proposition.
The upside was, since Rayla probably wasn’t rushing too hard, maybe she wouldn’t have as big of a lead on them as he thought!
The downside was that the only way to overtake Rayla would be to take the direct route. The route that went over the mountain. It was a small mountain – Callum overheard someone dismissively call it a ‘rocky hill’, which jeez, when did hikers get so cutting and judgemental – but it would still be the largest mountain that Callum had ever climbed.
He tried explaining this to Lin, hoping that she might decide to call it quits, but the idea of scaling a mountain only seemed to rile her up more. Note to self for the future: Lin has no chill.
But he gave in and called ‘retired fire-type breeder w/ hiking trophy’ in the middle of the… were they just called hiking stores? They couldn’t just be for hiking, right? What was their actual name—
“Ah!” Callum jumped and nearly dropped the phone. He scrambled to pick it up before the woman could hang up on him. “Yes hello hi, hi… I, uh, my name is Callum—”
“Oh, Harrow’s boy! He said you might call!”
Did Harrow really tell all these people that Callum might call them for advice? Was there a poor random ‘feebas pokemon contest trainer’ out there just waiting for the phone to ring? Well presumably their phone rang at other times—
Not right now, he told himself. “Yeah, uh. Maybe this sounds a bit weird, but I was wondering what kind of boots I should buy for hiking?”
“...For hiking.” She sounded doubtful.
“My pokemon really, you know, really wanted to try climbing a mountain, and I thought, well, why not?” He laughed, but it just sounded forced and awkward so he quickly stopped.
“Aww, that’s cute. Where are you at, hon?”
“Luminon Cave. We wanted—”
“Oh,” the woman said flatly, cutting him off. Then she made an obviously forced attempt to be cheerful again. “Well, a big, rocky… hilly… mountain—” She sounded a little like she had swallowed a lemon in saying that. Seriously: hikers. Who knew? “—is probably a good call for a newcomer.”
“I totally agree,” Callum said. He was not going to touch that mountain discourse with a ten foot pole. “So I just need a little bit of help with the basics… what kind of boots do you recommend?”
Armed with new boots and some ration bars – the hiker had gotten so excited about them that Callum worried she would ask after his opinion if he had to call her again – Lin led the way to the foot of the mountain-hill.
Callum made Peanut come out of his pokeball with the promise of glorious vistas and a big sketch break at the very top and something about being able to pour your feelings about the landscape into the painting, but really Callum’s feelings were more like: if I have to suffer then so do you.
It became obvious very quickly why people usually preferred to go through Luminon Cave instead of over the top. The sides were made of very loose, rocky soil (maybe it really was a hill?) which meant Callum’s feet kept sliding all over the place despite the extra grip of the mountain boots. Callum’s blue trousers were soon looked like they were made from clay, and he was not a terracotta man.
It was best not to even think about the state of his knees. At first they hurt from falling on them so much, but now he couldn’t feel them at all!
His feet were killing him though. And in weird places. Callum didn’t previously know that the inside of his foot could take such a beating, but now he thought he had a blister developing there. In other places, his blisters had blisters.
Lin and Peanut raced ahead of him and had to stop and wait for him several times. Lighter on their feet, they didn’t disturb the soil so much at all. Callum wished, again, that people could just be carried around in pokeballs too.
As he thought this, he lost his footing again and slid back several inches on his knees. His poor knees.
It was going to be a long hike.