By the time Callum stumbled into Evenere City, he probably looked a little bit like he’d been having a dust bath. Or just rolled in some mud and let it dry on him. He’d tried to wipe his clothes off a bit to look more presentable, but that just seemed to grind the dirt in further.
And then he ran his filthy hand through his hair without thinking so now he seemed slightly feral and all hope was lost.
Despite that, he felt okay. Lin and Peanut stared at his smile with concern. It probably looked a little demented. Callum felt a little demented. His feet hurt; he was tired, dirty, and hungry; he had scrapes all over his hands and knees. By now, he was actually looking forward to taking on the Gym and declaring this day over. Even if they lost, how much worse could it get?
“To the Gym!” Callum said, pointing dramatically. He had zero concern about whether it was the right direction. He was making a point, dammit!
Peanut poked him when he didn’t move for several seconds. The smeargle barked gruffly in Lin’s direction.
Lin responded by making a squeak of affirmation, doing a backflip, and then getting into her ready stance.
Peanut shuffled away with his tail pointed at her.
What’s all that about? Callum thought.
But never mind that. Time to end his suffering! After this, he was going to take about six baths in a row. Maybe he would never leave the bath again.
Buoyed by this thought, he grinned down at Peanut. “It’s a poison-type Gym, so we’re counting on you, buddy! Use the psybeam you copied from Harrow’s pokemon, alright?”
His smeargle only learned it because of the pretty rainbow colours and had never used it in battle before, but Callum was willing to do whatever it took to get into that bath at this point.
Peanut looked from Callum to Lin and back again. Then he sighed, shoulder slumping, and nodded.
“That’s the spirit!” Callum said.
They managed to scrape a win. Calum thought it may have had something to do with the way the Gym Leader kept staring at him and stopping to ask if he was sure he was okay.
But whatever! A win was a win. Lin was happy, and, most importantly, Callum was going to get into a bath and then never move again.
The Pokemon Centre and sweet, sweet cleanliness was within sight when Lin suddenly dashed ahead. Callum thought about shouting after her, but he was tired, and that would require effort. Eh… she’s probably fine.
It was only when Lin stopped in front of a vaguely familiar figure and started waving their new Gym badge at them that Callum wondered if he should stop her. What if it accidentally flew out of her hands and they lost it?
Not that Peanut would really care; the Gym badge offended his aesthetic sensibilities and he’d drawn the Leader a new design before they left, despite Callum’s attempts to drag him out without offending anybody.
As they got closer, the figure turned out to be Rayla – she just looked strange because she’d taken her horn-ornaments off.
She grinned at him, but her expression slowly transformed into one of horror.
What’s up with her? Callum wondered.
“What happened?” she said, gaping at him.
“We raced you,” he answered. Was it not obvious? “And won!”
“But you...” She trailed off and waved her hands at him.
“You just gestured to all of me?”
“You look a mess! What did you do?”
“That’s rude.” It was true, but rude. “We walked! Over the mountain. Or some people think it’s a rocky hill. It’s like, a big deal for hikers. I didn’t want to get involved.”
“You walked,” Rayla said slowly, “over the top of the mountain… and went straight to the Gym… so you could beat me?”
Lin waved the Gym badge in Rayla’s direction again. She really liked that badge. Maybe she liked purple because her evolution was purple too? Claudia liked purple and she’d think that was cute, he should text her to say—
...He totally skipped Luminon Cave… no dark-type… oh no, what am I going to tell her!?
“Seriously, you must’ve left Castletown basically right after I did!” Rayla was saying.
“Yeah, I did,” Callum agreed, distracted.
...Wait. I did do that, didn’t I?
Rayla threw up her arms. “It’s such a stupid thing to do just to get ahead of me that it goes all the way round to being impressive again!”
Callum buried his face in his hands. “I’m dead.”
“I’m sure ya are after walking all that way so fast!”
“My aunt’s going to kill me!” he wailed. “I promised I’d call home at Castletown and I totally forgot.”
Rayla rolled her eyes. “Aw, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
He grabbed her shoulders and shook them. “Fine. Fine?! Can you save my kneecaps from my monster aunt, Rayla? Can you?”
She leaned away from him and carefully removed his hands from her shoulders. There were Callum-hand-shaped brown prints when they came away. She raised her brows at him.
“Uh, okay, sorry.” Callum looked at his hands. “...I guess if I’m gonna die, I want to die clean.”
“Bath time!” Callum said.
After the bath, it was actually time to face the wrath of Aunt Amaya. Callum steeled himself for it, only to find that there was a queue for the video phone. His nerves began to fray during the wait, leaving him chewing on the end of his scarf.
She’s gonna be so mad…
“The phones over there are free,” Rayla said.
“Gah!” Callum was so surprised he nearly swallowed his scarf. “Oh, hi, Rayla. Uh, I have to use the video phone.”
Now that he was clean, he was feeling more human, and now he had time to think how monumentally stupid he’d been behaving in front of an up-and-coming new trainer! She was probably going to be a big deal, a Gym Leader even. She had that kind of Amaya-ish-ness about her.
So of course he had to be the most embarrassing version of himself ever. There were still dirt marks on her shoulders. Ugh.
“Oh, your aunt signs, doesn’t she?” Rayla shook her head. “I totally forgot. Hey, doesn’t she use a gong to signal her pokemon in battle? That seems like it would be cool.”
“I mean yeah, she uses the gong now that she doesn’t have to travel.” He looked about and leaned forward, adding in a whisper, “She used to use a triangle.”
Rayla hid a smile behind her hands. She mimed a tiny ting! on an imaginary instrument. “A...”
Callum smiled back. “Well, you know. It had to be portable!”
She laughed at that. “Won’t your aunt be mad at you for telling me that?”
“Nah. She has her Championship triangle framed,” Callum said. “It’s funny seeing everyone’s reactions, though.”
“It must be really amazing, knowing so many fantastic trainers,” Rayla said, sighing. “I mean, I’ve got my uncle, but he’s really specialised. It’s great, but it would be nice to have some variety, you know.” She nudged Callum with her elbow. “Spare a girl a few tips? Since I’m losing to you now.”
“Oh, uh, I’m not really… into… training and stuff.” Callum fiddled with the end of his scarf. This is going to make me look even weirder. “You know, I’m not that good at it. I’m the black sheep of the family, I guess!”
Rayla blinked at him.
Yeah. That sort of disappointed confusion was exactly what he’d expected. “But! You can still totally talk to my aunt if you want, though! And maybe my stepdad too but he’s abroad right now.”
“You think you’re not that good?” Rayla repeated blankly. “Callum, you know it’s been less than twenty-four hours and you already have two Gym badges, right?”
“Well yes, if you put it like that, but that’s not really how it—”
“All yours, pal,” said the guy in front of Callum, finally hanging up the phone.
“Crap! I’m not ready!” But he picked up the phone and started dialling because Ez and his aunt would probably be getting worried by now.
Rayla hovered nearby, still frowning. “You should tell your aunt about your battles. I bet she’ll be proud.”
“Okay, well, I’m going to put in on the agenda after ‘getting yelled at’—heyyy auntie!”
Aunt Amaya’s scowling face looked back at him. “And what time do you call this?” She squinted at the corners of the screen. “Is that even the Castletown Centre? Where are you?”
Callum laughed nervously and scratched his cheek. “Uh… yeah. Funny story about that. You see...”
Her stoic face gave nothing away as he tried to defend himself, but she leaned in closer to the screen when he described the Gym battles. Hopefully a good sign?
“…And so basically the upshot is that Lin’s sad face has great powers of persuasion.”
A smile cracked through Aunt Amaya’s cold exterior. “We couldn’t be having a sad Lin, could we?”
“You still should’ve called!” said Ezran from offscreen. Bait, sitting on top of his head as usual, and the top half of Ez’s face popped up from the bottom of the screen. “Bait was worried.”
Bait licked the screen and then looked disconcerted when Callum didn’t pull a face.
“Sorry, Bait. And Ez!”
Ezran’s head ducked down until only his hair was visible. “I wasn’t worried!” He peeked at the screen again. “But thanks anyway.”
“It would only have taken five minutes to give us a call,” Amaya said.
Still unforgiven. “I promise I won’t forget next time! Cross my heart!”
“Good.” She nodded and finally relaxed. “But really, I’m so proud of you! Two Gym badges in less than a day has to be a family record!”
“I would’ve loved to see the face of that Rayla when she found out,” Amaya added, smirking.
Callum didn’t know Rayla well, but her thought this was a little unfair to her. Also, he didn’t want to set up any expectation in Aunt Amaya that he would keep beating Rayla to milestones. “Actually, I, uh, looked quite a lot like a dirt monster so I think she was more worried than anything.”
“Oh, you made a friend already!” Ezran sighed dramatically. “You’re so lucky.”
He repeated this to Amaya, and after a beat, she gave a rather unconvincing nod. “That’s good too. I guess.”
Aunt Amaya could be a bit weird.
Eventually, the phone call ended with a few more pointed comments about remembering to eat breakfast (Amaya’s way of saying goodbye) and remembering to call home. But Callum’s kneecaps had not been mentioned even once, so he thought he’d actually come out of it quite well!
He ran into Rayla outside the Pokemon Centre. She was training with her murkrow, practising diving manoeuvres. Having a flying-type Gym Leader for an uncle clearly paid off, because the transition from a circling flight into a dive had become virtually seamless. Callum barely noticed the slight twitching of the wing muscles before the murkrow pulled them back to shoot downwards, and he was specifically looking for it!
“Nice work!” he said. “There’s hardly any tell.”
Rayla looked over her shoulder. “Thanks. How did your phone call go?”
“You were right! It was actually okay.” He decided not to mention how invested Aunt Amaya was in seeing him crush Rayla. Metaphorically, although knowing his aunt, maybe also literally. If she tried to buy him some weights for his birthday he would know for sure.
“That’s good.” She frowned at her murkrow. “I don’t see any tell. What am I missing?”
“Well it’s, uh… you know what, it’s easier just to sketch it for you.” Luckily, his sketchbook was about the one thing that he always had on him.
Rayla watched with interest as he opened it. He tried to skip past all the sketches of Claudia was quickly as possible, his face flushing. For some reason it was even more embarrassing for another girl to see them than Ez and Amaya.
“It’s barely a hitch,” he explained, sketching a quick outline of the murkrow’s wing on a blank page, “but it’s just, you can see at the, uh, where the shoulder joint is here, your pokemon...” He paused. “Sorry, what were they called?”
“Her name is Sally.” Callum tried really hard not to act like that was kind of weird, but something must’ve shown in his face, because Rayla sighed and added, “She insisted.”
“Okay.” Well, if she was a happy murkrow, who was he to complain? “Anyway, so you can kind of see, she kind of automatically transitions from circling to hovering before going into the dive? Like an intermediate step?”
Rayla squinted at the drawings. “I… think I see what you mean. Is there a way to eliminate that?”
“I don’t know much about flying-type pokemon, but...” He made a couple more sketches. “Maybe if she can… fold the wings in to her body as she flaps down, instead of when she flaps… up?”
That was definitely not the technical term but Rayla didn’t seem to mind too much. She nodded thoughtfully, peering at the sketches. “I think we can try that. Sally, come here, will you?”
To Callum’s amazement, Rayla spent several minutes guiding Sally through making the right movement with her wings on the ground before encouraging her to try it in the air. All based off his advice! He didn’t think she would take him that seriously.
Unfortunately, once Sally was in the sky, she looked even more ungainly. Callum’s face fell. “It’s more obvious now than ever. I guess it didn’t work.”
“No, that’s just hesitation.” Rayla observed her murkrow with gleaming eyes. “Once she gets used to it, you won’t notice at all. Thanks, Callum. Sally’s going to have no problems with his Gym!”
Oh no. She was training for the Gym? He never would’ve said anything if he’d known that. What if he just ruined all her training?! He scratched his head. “You, uh, you have other pokemon you can use, right?”
“Just the one,” Rayla said. She didn’t catch any in Luminon Cave, then. “And he’s...” Her shoulders slumped. “You better just see for yourself, I guess.”
She tossed a pokeball from her belt. In a moment, a clefairy appeared before them. It seemed way more cutesy than a pokemon he expected Rayla to have, but since it was a fairy-type, he could kind of see why she didn’t want to rely on it at the Gym—
The clefairy spotted him and narrowed his beady eyes.
Suddenly, the clefairy charged forward on his stubby legs, making a kind of low-pitched sound. The pokemon raised one of his stubby fists, glowing with energy, and—
Rayla picked him up with both arms, ignoring his squeals of protest and the frantic kicking of his legs. “Duster, calm down. He’s a friend. I told you that you’re sitting this Gym out already!”
Duster stopped struggling and hung limply in Rayla’s arms, although this didn’t stop him from muttering under his breath and glaring at Callum.
“Is he…” He tried in vain to search for a polite way to say ‘trying to kill me’ or ‘quite okay’.
Rayla sighed. “He’s… he’s just weird. I don’t know.” She scowled at the clefairy and slowly, slowly, put him back down. “Behave! It’s back in your pokeball if you can’t control yourself.”
Duster huffed and fluttered his wings at her. He walked right up to Callum and hopped on top of the sketchbook on his knees so he could square up to Callum’s face.
The clefairy made another dismissive huff and hopped away again.
“I’m sure you think you could take him,” Rayla said dryly, “but he does have more Gym badges than us.”
Duster whirled around and fixed Callum with a stare that would probably have been intimidating if it had come from something less round and pink. The clefairy flexed his arms and puffed himself up as large as he could go.
This was not very large.
Callum was doing his honest-to-goodness best not to laugh, but he may have wheezed a bit.
Rayla rolled her eyes. “Enough of your posturing, mister.”
She poked Duster with her foot and he deflated like a balloon, nearly falling over. The breath of air he let out had sparkle dust in it, making Callum sneeze.
“I didn’t realise that clefairy could be so...” He paused again. “Aggressive?”
“He can be fun if you can convince him not to try fighting everything.” Rayla glared at him. “Except in battle, where he’ll charge in no matter what.”
This seemed to be something of a sore spot for them, because Duster made that low-pitched sound back at her.
“He’s trying to growl,” Rayla explained.
Duster tried to puff himself up again.
“…Right,” Callum said.
Clefairy had a reputation as pokemon built for defence, so Callum would normally have said that it wouldn’t be too bad to use one even if they had a weakness to the opposing pokemon. Except that it seemed like Duster was… not the defensive type.
“Well, I’m sure that Sally will do fine!” Callum said, trying to break the awkward death glare Duster and Rayla were exchanging.
“That’s what I’m counting on!” Rayla replied, more cheerful now.
Duster deflated as soon as she looked away, kicking the floor mutinously with his stubby foot.
“A lot of poison-types have a grass- or bug-typing too, so I think Sally will be okay.”
One of the pokemon Callum had faced at the Gym had been a venipede. It wasn’t very sportsmanlike to tell Rayla that outright, but he nodded. “Yeah, I think she’ll do well.”
Duster flexed at him again.
Callum wondered how long the clefairy would hate him for if he said the flexing just made him look adorable.
On reflection, he’d probably take that grudge to his grave. He seems the type.
There was no particular reason for Callum to stay in town until Rayla had beaten the Gym, but after giving advice that turned out to significantly affect Rayla’s battle plan, he felt compelled to stick around. Lin thought this was a stupid decision and had to be bribed to stay with pokemon-safe ice cream and poffins. Peanut didn’t mind so much, since there was a lot of scenery to paint, and he often became Callum’s companion on his wanders around town.
Sometimes, they’d go out and join Rayla as she trained on the outskirts of town. Duster was usually out of his pokeball too; Callum wasn’t sure if this was to stop Duster from falling behind or just to keep him busy, but the adorable little fluffball sure had a wailmer of a time beating up the local rattata population until they learned to avoid him. Which took about three hours because he was constantly shouting in his squeaky voice.
After that, Duster took to beating up random bushes instead. Poor plants. Their sacrifice was not in vain.
“Do you see what I mean with him?” Rayla said, despairingly. “if I let him fight a poison-type Gym, he’d just hurt himself.”
Callum could see her point. Her point was currently shouting battle cries at a low-hanging branch. The branch remained unmoved. “Actually, I’ve kind of gotten an idea…”
He let Lin out of her pokeball. She was immediately interested in the new surroundings, sniffing the air.
Duster ran at Lin as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him. Lin watched his charge with confusion, blinking at Duster’s squeaky battle cries. He was almost upon her when Lin stuck out a paw and pushed Duster away from her. He bounced twice before coming to a stop.
Rayla looked at Callum with a raised eyebrow.
“Maybe he’ll learn something!” Callum said brightly.
Duster pushed himself to his feet and charged again.
But Duster stopped just before Lin’s paw could touch him. He twirled around it instead – not very gracefully; it looked more like a stumble – and landed a punch to her chest.
Duster let out a victory squeak. Lin blinked at his outstretched paw, clearly having felt nothing.
Then she belted Duster away with her other paw. Duster made a noise like a balloon having the air let out of it.
Callum winced and hid his face behind his hands whilst waiting for Rayla’s reaction.
She just shrugged. “He’s too bouncy too hurt himself, so whatever keeps him occupied. Won’t Lin mind?”
Lin turned to Callum and pointed at Duster, tilting her head.
“He’s uh…” Callum sighed. “He needs a bit of help. I guess?”
Lin considered this and nodded.
The next time Duster came charging at her, she corrected his stance before batting him away. By the sixth attempt Duster was actually taking her corrections into account. This left Rayla free to focus on training Sally, and whilst it left Callum with very little to do except to marvel at Duster’s inexhaustible belligerence, she would occasionally turn and give him a thumbs up when the training was going well.
Callum was pretty sure this counted as making friends, even if it wasn’t the deepest relationship ever. And hey, that means that no matter what, something good came out of this journey!