Then it was actually time to train.
Callum didn’t know that much about bug-types, so he tried to read up about them first – but most sources emphasised their suitability for new trainers or children because they were hardy, easy to take care of, and evolved quickly. But also karrablast’s evolution was extremely rare and not well understood. Gee, thanks, internet.
He scratched his head just decided to see what they could do with what they had.
Sabriel was standing in for the Gym Leader’s psychic-types. It would also be some good practise for her.
“Okay, Val,” Callum said, “we’re going to focus on dodging! Sabriel, go with some basic confusion attacks.”
Sabriel nodded and Val struck a pose, because he was weird like that. But he was pretty speedy, so this should be easy!
Rayla was having less luck with Earl.
“Can’t you spit any farther?” she asked, disappointed. There were patches of shrivelled, dried grass all around, but none more than a few metres away from Earl.
Earl swivelled from side to side, his version of shaking his head.
Lin gave her a questioning look. She’d been borrowed for Earl’s training because his poison-type acid attacks would’ve been too much for Duster (Duster disagreed and was currently sulking in the corner).
“…We’ll just have to work on manoeuvrability instead,” Rayla decided. She snapped her fingers. “Lin, I want you try dodging Earl’s attacks, aiming to get close enough to hit him—not too hard though, it is just training—” She waited for Lin to nod before continuing. “—and Earl, you try to get her with your acid before she gets too close.”
Earl went clank clank by way of acknowledgement.
Callum watched with interest as Lin darted forward. Earl spat as her as soon as she came within range, but she managed to dodge most of it. She changed her angle of attack, moving around to Earl’s blind spot whilst creeping closer. Earl tried to turn around to follow her, but he had to do little hops to turn on the spot, which made him slow and inaccurate.
In the end, Lin got close to Earl without being hit again, and gently pushed him so he toppled over onto the grass.
Rayla looked at the shelmet in dismay.
“Too aggressive,” Callum said. “Earl is too slow to try constantly attacking like that. You have to bide your time, wear them out, and limit their opportunities to hit you until you can make a decisive move. Like Val!”
“Sure, Callum,” Rayla said dryly, “because that seems to be working out really well for Val.”
He turned to find Val panting on the ground, exhausted, whilst Sabriel watched with concern.
Callum cleared his throat. “But he at least got one good hit on you, right Sabriel?”
She made a questioning nosie and shook her head.
“And you need to be more aggressive,” Rayla said, coming to pat Callum’s shoulder. “You’re never going to win if you just stand there and avoid or take attack after attack – Val doesn’t have the endurance. You have to make your own opportunities instead of waiting… for the right… time…”
They stared at one another. Callum could practically see the lightbulb of an epiphany blinking on above Rayla’s head, because he knew he was having the exact same realisation.
“…So you know what were you saying about limiting opportunities to get a hit on Earl… You got any ideas?” Rayla asked sheepishly.
“Uh, sure,” Callum said, “and if you could give me some advice on how to be proactive and, um, make the hits count, I… uh—”
...At least we’re both idiots together, he decided.
“Callum, you idiot, relax.” Rayla rolled her eyes. “You’re not even the one fighting first. Look, you’ll get to see her in action before you have to actually take a turn, it will be fine.”
Little did she know that Callum’s internal screaming was entirely on her behalf. What if he’d messed up with his advice and Rayla lost, what if what if…
“Yeah!” he said, his voice high-pitched from nerves. “I’m sure it’ll be totally fine!”
She gave him a very unimpressed look, but the judge called her in to the arena so she didn’t have time to argue further. She shook her head. “Oh, just make sure ye get yourself up into the stands! I expect to hear you cheering for me!”
Callum opened his mouth to promise he would, but she was already gone. “I’ll always cheer for you, Rayla.”
The guard gave him a funny look.
Yeah that came out a lot weirder than I intended, I should just… go…
In the stands, Callum was just in time to see the beginning of the match announced. Leader Opeli’s first pokemon was a mime jr., which was a fairy-type as well as a psychic-type… Callum bit his lip, but of course Rayla had decided to lead with Earl rather than with Sally. Because she knew basic typing match-ups and he really needed to stop worrying so much.
Lin, who had wanted to watch even if she couldn’t take part, patted Callum’s knee. When even the pokemon with a critical weakness to psychic- and fairy-types was giving you calm down, dear messages, you knew you were too nervous.
Callum still couldn’t help but cross all of his fingers.
The mime jr opened with a few weak confusion rays, dancing around Earl with nimbleness. There was no cover, just a wide open area, so it would’ve been easy for the little pokemon to avoid Earl’s acid attacks.
Which was probably why Rayla didn’t order him to make any. “Start laying out some spikes!” she called to Earl.
Clank clank was his answer. He closed his metallic shell around him for about ten seconds, and then it burst open, scattering sharp spikes in a circle around him. The mime jr danced away from one at the last minute.
Callum winced. It would’ve been a lucky break to get an injury on it so early. He could see that Rayla was disappointed too from the slump of her shoulders, but she recovered after a minute.
“Stick to the plan!” she said. “Full circle!”
Earl gave her another clank clank to acknowledge, and then started to make his way out of his own field of spikes. He moved with slow, awkward hops, which meant it took some time before he was clear. The mime jr pelted him with minor psychic attacks all the while, but with Earl’s natural defences and type resistance, it didn’t seem to have much effect.
Then Earl closed his shell again. When it stayed closed, the mime jr moved well out of range before any of the spikes could come close to hitting it. Rayla glared at the little thing and he bit his lip, hoping she wasn’t going to be tempted to charge after it.
The most important thing for a defensive strategy, Callum remembered saying, is not to lose your cool. Sometimes you have to change up your plan, but you should try to think straight the whole time.
Callum had chosen not to add that his first Gym battle had mainly considered of him flailing and panicking and not thinking straight at all. As Aunt Amaya and Harrow often said, ‘Do as I say, not as I do. And don’t tell your stepdad/aunt what I did.’
To Callum’s relief, Rayla squared her shoulders and yelled, “Good job! Next load!”
She directed Earl to leave two more spike deposits. By that time, the poor shelmet was starting to look a little worn out from all the attacks it had taken.
But the arena floor was also covered in sharp spikes, leaving the mime jr very little room to manoeuvre at all. The pokemon looked around wildly, seeming kind of confused as to how this had happened.
For the first time, Callum saw Leader Opeli frown.
Rayla grinned. “You know what to do, Earl! Acid!”
Given that this was way less energy intensive than making all those spikes – Rayla had spent an entire day building up Earl’s endurance for just this purpose – Earl was more than willing to sit in the corner and just spit at the mime jr for a while.
As graceful and nimble as ever, the mime jr twirled around the acid attack, but nearly tripped over the metal spikes lying all over the floor. Balancing precariously on one foot, it shrieked with outrage and pain when a second glob of acid struck it square in the face, sending it tumbling onto the spikes.
Callum winced on the little pokemon’s behalf.
Earl paused and looked to Rayla whilst the mime jr pulled itself to its feet. It was bleeding in a few different places. Callum couldn’t see how bad the damage was from up in the stands, but it was enough to make Rayla frown and hold out a hand to Earl, telling him to stop.
“Is the wee thing okay?” she asked.
The mime jr squeaked and turned to Leader Opeli. They stared at each other silently for a pause that stretched out like a rubber band, the small audience in the stands all collectively holding their breath. Callum didn’t know if they were communicating with telepathy or if they just knew what the other was thinking.
Eventually, Leader Opeli let out a deep sigh. “We are not ready to retire just yet,” she said. “Continue.”
Rayla and Earl exchanged a dubious look. “…If you say so. Earl, you know what to do.”
He clanked once and spat another globule of acid at the mime jr. Callum noticed that it was definitely smaller, though, and didn’t travel quite as far as Earl was capable of, falling short of the mime jr. It didn’t seem to be all too happy about this, since it screamed at Earl loud enough for Callum’s ears to ring.
Earl slammed his helmet shut whilst the mime jr shouted at him, opening it a tiny bit when the mime jr paused to take a breath… only to close the helmet again when it promptly continued yelling at him.
Lin stood up on Callum’s knees and shouted something too. Callum clapped his hands over his ears. Ow… “Why did you have to go and do that?”
She only sniffed. Only when Earl went clank clank and the mime jr stopped berating him did she sit down again.
Callum’s ears were still ringing. Considering how quiet she normally was, she had quite a set of lungs on her.
He only realised what the point of the whole thing had been when Earl’s next attack was up to his usual standards, catching the mime jr in the side as it tried to avoid the attack and the spikes… and the tiny pokemon paused to applaud him.
Callum pinched the bridge of his nose when he realised than Lin was clapping too. “Were you and the mime jr yelling at Earl for going easy on it?”
Lin turned to him and tilted her head, squeaking as though to say, What else?
…I know pokemon are supposed to be battle thirsty, but isn’t this taking things a bit far? He sighed. “Well, do me a favour, if any of your opponents decide to go easy on you just, you know… let them.”
Her nostrils flared as she folded her arms and scowled.
“It’s their own fault!” Callum said. “They’ve got to learn to, uh, to… keep their willpower through the whole battle! Right?”
He thought this was a pretty convincing argument himself, but Lin rolled her eyes at him and turned back to watch the match.
Not that the battle with the mime jr lasted much longer, as it was eventually forced to withdraw because of its injuries. It still tried to chew out Leader Opeli when she called it back to its pokeball. Callum would said that something that small and pink shouldn’t be allowed to be so bloodthirsty, but he’d already met Duster, so he’d come to terms with the fact that the world just didn’t work as it should.
Leader Opeli paused with a second pokeball in her hand. “You know that the battlefield cannot be changed between matches,” she said. “So what will you do now?”
Rayla didn’t say a word in response. Instead, she called Earl back and tossed out Sally’s pokeball.
Leader Opeli watched the murkrow fly above the area and smiled. “I see… A strategy that benefited both of your pokemon. Well done. Come, then, let us conclude this match.”
Rayla found Callum in the stands and grinned at him. He hid his face behind Lin’s head so she wouldn’t see him blushing. The spikes strategy had been his idea, even if Rayla had refined it.
‘We’ve totally got this Gym badge in the bag. I just know it.’
Well, Callum’s chance at the badge was still up for debate. But watching Rayla effortlessly cruise to victory with her murkrow against Opeli’s meowstic filled him with happiness anyway. The most important thing was that Rayla had believed in him… and Callum hadn’t let her down.
Lin hopped off his knee and gestured down the aisle.
Callum sighed. “Yeah, I know. Our turn next.”
It would take time to reset the arena, so at least they had some time to congratulate Rayla!
“I did it!” Rayla crowed.
And to Callum’s surprise, she leapt into his arms. He staggered back under her weight and nearly fell over, but he felt a small set of paws give him a push in the small of his back, so he was able to set Rayla down on her feet without dropping her.
“You did it!” Callum agreed, beaming. “But please don’t do that again, I’m really not that strong.”
Rayla didn’t seem to hear him. Her grin was a little bit manic. “I did it, Callum! And it was all thanks to you!”
He held her at arm’s length. “Woah, let’s not go overboard with the praise, now. I think you did most of the work yourself. And you had some good pokemon.”
Sally came to settle on one of Rayla’s horns—proudly back in place—with a loud caw. Callum thought it was supposed to be rather pointed.
“Well, obviously I couldn’t have done it without you,” Rayla said, reaching up to scratch Sally’s chest.
The murkrow preened at the praise.
“But seriously, Callum.” Her smile had relaxed slightly, but it was still nearly blinding to Callum’s eyes. “You were such a big help. Thank you so much.”
“Indeed,” said another voice. “Although expert advice is only useful if it’s heeded.”
Sally let out a squawk of surprise and nearly fell off her perch.
“Uh… hi, Opeli,” Callum said awkwardly. “…That’s not breaking any rules, is it.”
“Advising a friend? Of course not.” She shook her head. “Actually, I thought it had a touch of Harrow about it. You’ve obviously learned from him well. I’m excited to battle you.”
Callum tried to maintain his smile, but he was sure it became somewhat strained. Rayla stepped on his foot. “Uh… yes!” he blurted, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt.
Opeli chuckled. “I must return to supervise the clearing of the arena, but I wanted to ask you something first. Is it true you caught a psychic-type? I believe Amaya said so, but I’m not fluent in sign language…”
“Ah, yeah! A ralts, actually. Sabriel.” Callum scratched the back of his head. “Although it might be more accurate to say she caught me. Uh… or that I bribed her with poffins.”
“A ralts, hm?” Opeli nodded. “I think that pokemon will be a good fit for you. They say artists are very sensitive and ralts, as a rule, appreciate that sort of thing.”
Rayla snickered quietly and raised her eyebrows at him. Callum just thought that whoever said that had probably never met Peanut. He was probably the least sensitive being Callum had ever met—unless you said he wasn’t sensitive enough to be an artist, probably, and then he’d show how sensitive he was to that insult by trying to stab you with a paintbrush.
“I won’t ask if your ralts will be joining us for battle today, but I’ll be hoping to see you both together. I should leave you to your last minute preparation…” There was a shout from behind her, and Opeli sighed. “And it seems I’m required urgently anyway. Good luck with your battle, Callum.”
“Ah, thanks!” Callum called after her. When she was gone, he buried his face in his hands. “She’s going to tell Harrow everything. This will be so embarrassing.”
“Oh, stop that, you.” Rayla nudged him with her foot, and when Callum brought his face out of his hands, she was scowling. “You’re going to do great! Even the Gym Leader thinks so!”
The Gym Leader also thought Callum’s stepdad was the patron saint of psychic-types or something so she was, maybe, just a little bit biased. He suspected that saying as much wouldn’t go down well, though.
Rayla jabbed him in the chest with a finger. “Positive thinking!”
“Yes, sir!” Callum said, saluting.
She rolled her eyes, but there was a small smile hiding at the corners of her mouth. “Seriously, all you have to do is remember your own advice.” She adjusted his scarf, fingers brushing against his neck. “You’ll do great. You’ll see.”
Callum’s face flushed. She said it like it was a fact of the universe. He didn’t know exactly when he’d managed to earn this intense level of faith from her, but the one thing he did know what that he’d do anything not to disappoint her.