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The Quest for the Legends (ILCOE)

The Ouen League – Chapter 47: The First Preliminary

The days passed surprisingly rapidly from there: May seemed to think of something new to suggest in the way of practicing or training every day, and for all of Mark’s worries that those weeks before the formal beginning of the League would be very tiring for both him and the Pokémon, there was never a dull moment in all of it. His Pokémon seemed only more energized than usual with all the exercise they were getting, and Mark himself had never enjoyed being a trainer as much as now, when he was focused on training, felt like he was making actual progress, and was talking with his Pokémon every day.

So when one morning May reminded him that this was the day that the preliminary match-ups would be published, the sudden panic he experienced was an all-too-uncomfortable slap back to reality.

“Wait, we’re starting to train separately now?”

“Wasn’t that the idea?” May replied with a shrug between chewing the last few spoonfuls of her cornflakes. “The big screens outside will show us the names of the people we have to battle in the preliminaries, and then we can go to the library to see what they have. After that, we’ll probably have to focus on different things anyway, and we should be getting to specializing and refining our strategies.”

They finished their breakfast and walked outside, where all the trainers who had arrived since they’d gotten there had already gathered in a crowd, craning their necks up towards the enormous screen. It flipped all too slowly through a slideshow, with the photos and names of the competing trainers shown below the date and arena of their match for at least twenty seconds before the next pair was shown. After what seemed like ages, Mark’s name finally came up: first matched with a red-headed, serious-looking boy named Aaron White on arena two on the third of August, and then with Megan Hayfield, the dark brown-haired girl he had recognized from the Cleanwater City Pokémon Center at the beginning of his journey, in the main stadium on the fifth. Aaron White also looked irritatingly familiar, although Mark couldn’t for the life of him put his finger on where he had seen him before. May apparently had a battle on the third as well, and then one on the seventh, the last day of the preliminaries.

They squeezed themselves out of the crowd and headed towards the library, where May showed Mark how to log in to the League database and look up participants (she had gone there on one of the first days to find out exactly what Taylor had), and Mark found himself oddly amused by the grayed-out picture of Gyarados on his own profile, which May had loaded as a sample. After that he checked Aaron White and Megan Hayfield (the former had exactly six, seemingly carefully-chosen Pokémon, while the latter had several pages of what looked like nearly every Pokémon she had ever come across but had still, bizarrely, all been trained to respectable levels), wrote down some notes on them into his sketchbook, and then told May, who was still staring intently at the Pokémon owned by her first opponent, that he would go out to train.

It felt oddly lonely to be going out of the League HQ without her company again, after having gotten so used to her almost-constant presence. In a way it was nice; part of him had missed solitude, and it was somehow relieving to finally find himself nearing the mountain with the chatter of the now quite crowded League area gradually fading into background noise while, closer by, the grunts and growls of battling Pokémon blended in with their trainers’ voices. The relative silence was kind of soothing. At the same time, it felt decidedly like something was just missing when she wasn’t babbling on about battle strategies by his side; it had become such an integral part of being there that the lack of it made him stop there and look dully around, half-expecting her to come after him.

He plucked Charizard’s Pokéball from his belt and released the dragon. Over their stay at the League, his tail flame had grown and brightened and his body turned leaner and more muscular, which had made him look considerably more like the champion Charizard he had seen on TV; the dragon had also confessed that he generally felt far better now, physically, and it had shown in their training. As he yawned and stretched his wings out, Mark could see the powerful muscles flexing under the thick orange hide and felt a twinge of pride on his behalf.

“Morning,” the dragon said. “Where’s May?”

“We’re going to be specializing now,” Mark said. “They published the preliminary match-ups this morning. We have about a week to figure out how to beat the first guy.” He lifted his sketchpad and flipped back to the page where he had written down the information on Aaron White. “Uh, he has a Ditto, a Smeargle, a Ninjask, a Lanturn, a Flygon and a Glalie.”

Charizard tilted his head. “That will be… interesting.”

Two girls had approached, chatting very loudly together, and now began to battle very close by with the accompanying shouts and screams; Mark looked at Charizard.

“Let’s get out of here,” the Pokémon agreed, and Mark climbed onto his back before he took off. After the Volcaryu battle, Mark hadn’t really expected to ever ride on Charizard’s back again; however, as more people had arrived at the League and the general area had become more crowded, they had eventually resorted to flying over to find good spots to train, and although he had been hesitant to do it at first, remembering the general discomfort of his previous flying experience, he had quickly gotten used to it and figured out how to keep himself reasonably balanced during flight.

Generally it was May who picked out locations, and Mark wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for now that he was left alone for the task; they flew wide circles over the mountainous landscape – Mark could only truly appreciate the sheer size of the base of Champ Mountain when he saw it from above – and eventually he recognized a place where he had gone with May at one point, a low, rocky area near a pond, surrounded by higher peaks and roughly the size of a standard Pokémon battle arena. He pointed it out to Charizard and they descended quickly to land by the pond, where Mark got off and sent out his other Pokémon.

The entire group, not just Charizard, was in better shape now. Mark could have sworn Sandslash had physically grown, and the training had seen his speed and reflexes improve considerably. Jolteon had also become even speedier, and he had become quite masterful at dodging attacks, a skill that had emerged in a training session where May was trying to gauge the best talents of each Pokémon. Scyther could hit harder and had learned a few new attacks from TMs that May had recommended and they had bought from the League Pokémart – Aerial Ace, U-turn and, at her insistence that it was a good idea, Brick Break; he had also become quite adept at using Night Slash and Double Hit. Dragonite had become more practised at flying and otherwise managing his movements with every passing day; he had also learned to use attacks such as Fire Punch and Thunderpunch, Outrage and Hyper Beam. Charizard himself could now use Dragon Claw, Shadow Claw and Air Slash as well as having learned Flare Blitz; May had recommended a Swords Dance TM. Letal…

Well, Letal had not evolved.

That, of course, had only made her more quiet and moody; Mark had tried to talk to her a few times, but she generally didn’t answer with anything more than spat monosyllables, although he hoped at least some of his reassurances had gotten across to her. She had become very attached to May since their arrival at the League and naturally been very enthusiastic about training the whole while: she’d become faster, stronger, bigger; her stamina had improved; she’d learned Aerial Ace and Giga Impact from TMs; she’d even picked up Night Slash from Scyther on her own just by watching him perform the move. But none of this had made her evolve, and while Mark and May had never actually mentioned it beyond exchanging occasional glances, he could tell that Letal was slowly realizing that her evolution, if it were ever to happen, was long overdue. And eventually even her determination for battle had faded, replaced with a perpetual resentful bitterness and dull, mindless obedience when they trained that was somehow considerably worse to bear than her frequently brutal original strategies had been.

So now, as Letal lay on the ground a short distance away from his other Pokémon and looked at him with an empty expression, he felt a twinge of guilt and wished he only knew how to help her. He decided he would talk to her that evening, not that he was sure anything would come out of it; for now, all his Pokémon were waiting for him to say something.

“Um,” he said. “The preliminary match-ups were published this morning. On the third of August, I’m battling this guy who has a Ditto, a Smeargle, a Ninjask, a Lanturn, a Flygon and a Glalie. May isn’t going to be with us anymore, so you guys are going to have to help me figure out which three of you would do best against him and how to prepare.” After a moment of thought, he sat down on a rock to face the Pokémon, who looked at one another.

“What types are they again?” Charizard asked.

Mark looked down at his notes. “Well, Ditto transforms, so it’d be whatever is facing it,” he said. “Smeargle’s Normal, but it can learn any attack so it doesn’t count for much. Ninjask is Bug and Flying. Lanturn is Water and Electric. Flygon is… Ground and Dragon. But it flies. And Glalie’s Ice.”

He looked questioningly up at his Pokémon; finally, Sandslash said, “Well, I think Scyther would do well. He can use Aerial Ace against Ninjask or a Ditto transformed into Scyther, he can use Brick Break against Smeargle and Glalie, and he can fly, so Ground attacks from Flygon wouldn’t affect him.”

Mark nodded slowly and looked at Scyther.

“Well, the Ditto could get me just as well with Aerial Ace, and Ninjask could know it,” the mantis said. “Glalie and Lanturn would both be trouble, and as for Smeargle, it probably packs a Rock attack or two. I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“I could beat Ninjask, Flygon and Glalie,” Charizard said. “As long as you have someone for Lanturn…”

“You need someone without a crippling weakness, for Smeargle,” Letal interrupted all of a sudden; Mark jerked his head towards her, but she was still lying disinterestedly where she’d been before, her eyes closed so that if she weren’t talking, he’d almost have thought she was asleep. “Use Sandslash.”

Sandslash looked at her in surprise. “But I… Ninjask and Flygon can both fly, and Lanturn is a Water-type. It can’t be a good…”

“If he is using a Smeargle,” Letal interrupted again, opening one eye in annoyance, “he will have taught it powerful moves of all types, just to exploit people like you whose Pokémon will all fall in one or two hits from the right attack. Use Sandslash. He can maybe take a couple of hits while he brings it down.”

Mark looked at Sandslash and then back at Letal, who had closed her eyes again. “Well,” he said finally, “I guess it would be nice, just to be safe.”

“Then you definitely need something that can handle Ninjask, Flygon and Glalie,” Sandslash said, still a bit unsurely. “So you should use Charizard.”

“And then Lanturn is the biggest problem,” Mark replied, nodding. “Jolteon can maybe…”

“It’ll have Volt Absorb,” Letal put in. “Don’t.”

Mark stared at her again. “Where did you learn all this stuff?”

“I have paid attention to what May has said,” Letal replied, her eyes still closed. “It might do you some good.”

Mark ignored the snide comment. “Uh, so… Dragonite?”

“It’s common for Water Pokémon to know Ice attacks,” Letal pointed out.

“Okay, so…” He looked briefly over his Pokémon, counting them off in his head. “That leaves… you.”

“Apparently.”

“But why are you thinking of this as if he is going to use all six?” Dragonite protested. “Shouldn’t we consider how he will put together his team of three?”

“If we can beat all six, why bother reducing the problem?” Letal said coolly, looking at him. “You will not be any good when three of his Pokémon probably know Ice attacks; he would have to be insane to not use any of them against a trainer with a Dragonite. Jolteon will only be of use against Ninjask, and he has two Earthquake-users and two Electric immunities. Everything Scyther can do, Charizard can do better. He will most likely use Smeargle, and therefore you will need Sandslash. And it is no use considering Ditto, since which fighter wins will then depend on the strategies used. It is plain who should be in this battle. And send me out first.”

She closed her eyes again, laying her head back on her paws as if to sleep, and said nothing more.

Mark looked uselessly around at his Pokémon. “Eh… let’s try to think of some specific strategies to use?”

-------

“Letal has turned into you,” Mark told May at dinner. She just raised an eyebrow, unable to answer verbally while her mouth was stuffed with spaghetti.

“She went all strategic on me, deciding for us who I should use in the first preliminary battle and stuff,” he explained. “Even though she doesn’t act that enthusiastic about actually battling.”

May shrugged, swallowing. “She could just be distracting herself from the evolution thing.”

Mark nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” he said. “Or trying to find another way to prove herself or something.”

“Blaziken learned Flare Blitz today,” May said. “Almost on level with the rest now. Mutark is still a bit behind. She can be damned hard to train.”

Mark was silent. May had released her Quilava a few days after their arrival and caught an energetic, light-hearted Torchic instead; she’d gone on tirades about how much she needed a Fighting-type and how important it was to have finally gotten one. Quilava had more or less not been mentioned since, while she seemed to grab every opportunity to use her new Blaziken, talk about his progress and what a great addition to her team he was, almost as if to convince Mark what a good idea it had been to release her, but he hated hearing about it and didn’t want to encourage it by answering. He sighed.

“I guess it’s a good thing, if it helps Letal deal with it,” he said to change the subject back, and May just shrugged, ending that discussion.

-------

After dinner, he went to his room, sent Letal out and sat down on the bed. She emerged from the ball in a lying position and showed no sign of being awake until Mark cleared his throat and she opened one eye.

“So um… how are you feeling?”

“Feeling?” she asked disdainfully. “Like usual, I suppose.”

At least she seemed a little more talkative than she had been the last time he had tried to talk to her, which could only be considered encouraging. “Well, thanks for the strategic pointers today.”

“I couldn’t let you make idiotic decisions in front of me without commenting.”

“It would be nice to get some peace from people telling me what to do, now that May is off my back,” Mark said, getting a little annoyed. “Especially if you’re going to sit here calling me an idiot. It might make me less inclined to want to help you evolve, you know.”

Letal chuckled. “It’s pointless to threaten me. We both know I’m not going to evolve like this.”

She was right, and this was really not the time to be angry at her. Mark sighed. “I’m sorry. Is it still bothering you, the evolution thing?”

Letal looked at him in a way he took as a yes.

“Is there anything I could do to help that?”

Silence.

“I’ll take that as a no.” He sighed again and rubbed his eyes. “So, well…”

He hesitated. He knew that they would have to come to that subject sooner or later, but he didn’t know how she would react and it was painful to bring back to the front of his mind.

“About your father,” he said finally, stopped and looked at her, waiting for a reaction of some sort. There was none.

“What about him?” Letal said after a few seconds of silence.

“You… still want to…”

“What makes you think I would have changed my mind?”

Mark opened his mouth and closed it again, not sure what to say; an empty feeling of dread was washing over him, and he already regretted having brought it up. “Well, I was just sort of hoping…”

Letal snorted. “It is none of your business. Why are you concerning yourself with it?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, I don’t always see eye to eye with my parents either, but I still love them and wouldn’t want anything… I mean… and I wouldn’t want to kill anyone, even if I hated them,” he finished hopelessly.

Letal looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Good for you.”

“But I mean, couldn’t you just… talk about it or something?” Mark asked lamely; Letal only chuckled at the suggestion.

He couldn’t just try to tell her it was wrong. She obviously didn’t see it that way, and he really didn’t trust himself to be able to explain a concept like that from the ground up, least of all in a way that would make her at all inclined to change her position. All he could really offer was a weak, “Well, could you please try to… think about it before it comes to that?” And when that was met with only a tired glance before Letal closed her eyes again and laid her head back down, he took it as a signal to end the conversation, for which he was, in a way, grateful.

-------

The next days passed quickly; he practiced moves with Letal, Sandslash and Charizard while they collectively considered strategies that could be employed against each individual one of Aaron’s Pokémon and some more general ones that emerged from the discussion. While Letal tended to make many of the largest contributions, Mark felt that he was slowly getting the hang of it as well, and the other Pokémon quickly started to make more comments, particularly on ideas concerning their own abilities.

On the first of August, May dragged him with her to watch one of the first preliminary matches, on a desert-themed arena: the main stadium had been filled with sand and the battlefield had been heated even past the above-average outside temperature. This put its mark very visibly on the battlers during the match: towards the end, all the Pokémon but a Charizard and a Cacturne, both owned by the same trainer, were very visibly exhausted, thanks to the switching that had prolonged the battle considerably and the smouldering heat that lessened their endurance. The trainer with the Charizard and Cacturne naturally won, and by the time it was over, Mark had gotten all too nervous about his own battle, having realized just how much of an effect the environment could have; they had never really considered the arena themes in their plans.

“Whether you win isn’t the most important thing, you know,” May said as they were leaving the stadium. “They know that the themed arenas might give one trainer’s Pokémon more of an advantage by sheer luck. It’s about how well you use the arena anyway. The kid who lost – it’s the guy I’m up against in my second preliminary match. I’ve checked his profile. He has Pokémon that would be better suited to a desert arena, but he just went with what seemed like it had the most immediate offensive advantages against the other guy. You just don’t use a Glaceon on an arena like this. And the other kid did some clever stuff – remember that Flamethrower turning the sand into glass?”

Mark, who had not much thought about the possibility of having to reconsider the three Pokémon he would bring (though it did satisfy him, in an odd way, that neither had Letal), did not feel much better to hear this, but regardless, he spent the rest of the day frantically thinking of possible arena themes and how they might affect their outcome with his Pokémon. Letal grudgingly agreed that depending on the arena it might be necessary to reconsider their strategy, though she made sure to mention that on a desert arena the current team they had been planning would still be the best. The eventual conclusion of the day was mostly that there were too many possibilities and that there was no sense in trying to plan for every possibility when they could find out for sure what their theme was the next day and prepare for it then.

Mark went to bed praying it was something convenient.

-------

“Water?”

Mark’s heart sank as he stared at the giant screen; he really hoped he had misread it somehow, but it definitely said that the theme of arena two on the third of August would be water.

“Why must it be water of all things?” he moaned. “I don’t even have a Water Pokémon anymore! And two of the ones I was going to use are weak to Water!”

May smirked. “You shouldn’t have decided what you wanted to use before learning the theme. You’re supposed to figure out what each of your Pokémon could do against what he has, and then you choose which combination would work best on the arena after you learn what the theme will be.”

“You could have mentioned that before,” Mark muttered, said goodbye and squeezed himself out of the crowd so he could send Charizard out. They went back to their usual training spot by the pond, and Mark sent out the others and explained the situation.

“What is a water arena like, anyway?” Letal asked, irritated, as she paced around; it amused Mark how in the past two days she had completely stopped her habit of lying on the ground and being half-asleep while they discussed strategies. “A bigger pool?”

“Usually the entire arena is filled with water, minus where the trainers stand,” Mark replied, remembering seeing water-themed arenas on television. “Then they have platforms that non-Water Pokémon can stand on, but it’s a lot about knocking the opponent into the water. I think our whole plan is screwed.”

He looked at Sandslash, who took a step backwards. “I’m not coming anywhere near that,” he said, shivering as he shook his head. “I couldn’t even use Earthquake effectively, anyway.”

Letal pawed the ground in agitation, but said nothing. Mark knew that she had really wanted to be in this battle, even if she had tried to act indifferent about it, and though he couldn’t say he knew it for sure, he strongly suspected that Letal couldn’t swim; the armor both weighted her down and somewhat inhibited her movement. Her silence only confirmed this.

“So,” Mark said. “We’ll have to rethink this completely. Jolteon, you’re definitely in – when they’re wet they’ll be hurt more by Electric attacks. Charizard, what do you say?”

The dragon looked at Mark with scepticism, but finally he said, “If I’m needed, I’m in.”

“I’ll participate,” Letal said suddenly, looking back at Mark. “I don’t care if it’s a water arena.”

“Can you swim?”

“No,” she replied, “but I want to take part anyway.”

“Letal,” Sandslash said gently, “if they knock you into the water, you need to be able to get out of it again.”

Letal gave him a glare, but did not respond; at last she laid herself down on the ground again, closed her eyes and muttered, “Fine. Do what you like.”

Mark couldn’t say he particularly wanted to please Letal in this; he’d done enough of doing what she told him already. With a sigh, he decided to ignore her and turned back to his other Pokémon. “Okay, let’s figure this out properly. On a water arena, wouldn’t the guy almost definitely use Lanturn? I mean, especially since two of my Pokémon are weak to electricity and a third is weak to Water attacks. It’s also likely to know an Ice attack, which would be good against Dragonite as well. That’s… Jolteon and Letal left as possibilities to deal with it, pretty much, and…” He gave Letal a glance; she was either asleep or, more likely, pretending to be. “Well, if she can’t swim, she’s pretty much out of the picture. So Jolteon, what could you do against it, if it has Volt Absorb?”

“Not much,” Jolteon muttered. “Just… Pin Missile, I think.”

Mark scratched his forehead, thinking. “Right. Well, we’ll have to do something about that. Now… Smeargle?”

“If I’m on the team,” Scyther said, “I could go for knocking it out before it ever gets to attack me.” He shrugged and looked at Mark.

“Right. Maybe. Or Dragonite. Ditto is just Ditto. Um… how likely is he to use Glalie?”

“I think it’s likely,” Dragonite answered. “He has to figure you won’t use Sandslash, but he might also realize you can’t use Letal, and maybe think you wouldn’t use Charizard either.”

“Well,” Scyther put in, “If I were a trainer and I knew my opponent had a Dragonite, I’d assume he would use it. He’ll bring Glalie.”

Mark nodded. “Right. Well, then it’s best to keep Charizard in, to deal with it.”

“And he can take Ninjask,” Scyther said. “And Flygon.”

“He’s not likely to use Flygon, is he?” Sandslash asked. “It will have the same problems with Earthquake as I would.”

Dragonite shrugged. “It might just use Dragon attacks, or something else.”

Mark rubbed his forehead. “So okay, Jolteon and Charizard are in… and Scyther or Dragonite? Right?”

The Pokémon looked at each other and murmured in agreement.

“Okay, then. I guess we need to figure out what Jolteon can do against Lanturn.”

-------

Mark realized all of a sudden that his eyes were open. His dream, just a muddled haze of vague thoughts floating around in his head, had slipped out of his grasp before he could pinpoint what it was about. It took him a second to remember where he was – and, more importantly, what day it was.

He bolted upright and felt blindly around for his watch on the small bedside table. He grabbed it and pressed the light button, only to find that it was four in the morning – he could have told himself that, he thought dully, too tired to be annoyed, just from how dark it was outside. He replaced the watch and sank back into his bed, and after that he woke up so often during the night that by the time his watch finally said it was seven o’clock, he felt more like he had been waiting awake since four than like he had been half-asleep. He sat groggily up, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and got dressed, too tired to think of much but just that this was not the best way to start the day.

It first occurred to him at breakfast that being so sleep-deprived could adversely affect his battling abilities, but he pushed the thought out of his mind. May had not yet arrived at the breakfast table, but then again not many people had; the first battles wouldn’t start until ten, and he guessed most people would rather let themselves and their Pokémon have some sleep.

After eating, he returned to his room and passed the time with a bit of drawing; he half-intended to try to sleep a little more, but as it ended up he had too much fun sketching up battles and before he knew it, it was already half past nine.

He headed over to the League offices to retrieve his Pokémon from the standard examination and drug trials, but a woman at the counter informed him that he would only be allowed to get his chosen three Pokémon for the battle now. After he had nervously picked out Jolteon, Scyther and Charizard, she accompanied him to the arena and led him through a locked door, up a staircase and to the trainer box, where she left him with a thin smile and a “Good luck.”

The arena was flooded with water up to only a few meters below the level of the floor that he was standing on. The trainer boxes were small and surrounded by a metal railing; he knew there would also be a force field to secure the trainers from the battling Pokémon. Two seemingly solid platforms stuck out of the water fairly near the trainer boxes on either side of the arena, with a third larger one in the very middle; between and behind them, in various patterns snaking around the entire arena, were far more fragile-looking, floating squares of various bright colors that bobbed up and down with the waves. Aaron White had already arrived on the other side and now stood there, leaning against the railing as he eyed Mark across what was to be their battlefield.

Mark thought over his strategies again with a sudden paranoid fear that he might forget them; that at least occupied him until he noticed that the audience stands appeared to have been closed, the big status screens on either side of the arena had lit up with their names and live images from cameras focusing on their faces – his stomach fluttered for a moment as he watched the all-too pale and nervous close-up of himself – and then, finally, a voice on the speakers said, “Trainers, ready Pokéballs.”

He grabbed Jolteon’s ball, made sure that it was Jolteon’s ball, and made sure again for good measure.

“Ready, set…”

His hand gripped the ball tightly as he stared at the large platform ahead of him and blocked out the uncomfortable thought that he might not throw the ball far enough.

“Throw!”

His arm tensed; the air in front of him shimmered vaguely, a sign that the force field had just been turned off. “Go!” he shouted and hurled the ball forward at the same time as a second ball came flying from Aaron’s side. They popped open simultaneously and released the Pokémon in bursts of white light, Jolteon forming on the large platform and Lanturn in the water near it. The force field shimmered back into place just as the ball returned to Mark’s hand.

For a brief moment, he felt oddly impressed that they had correctly predicted Aaron’s first Pokémon, despite that of course they wouldn’t have predicted it if it hadn’t been the likeliest possibility; he didn’t have much time to be impressed, however, and blurted out, “Jolteon, Thunder Wave!”

“Lanturn, Confuse Ray,” Aaron called, and Mark could see him smirk on the status screen: that would have been evidence enough, but he still looked down and watched the wave of electricity surround Lanturn and very evidently fail to harm it. It had Volt Absorb, then – of course that had been likeliest, but it was better to make sure.

Lanturn surfaced and focused, the glowing bait on its forehead bobbing up and down as the light inside it brightened; then a concentrated sphere of light tore itself away from the bait and hovered towards Jolteon.

“Jolteon, use Agility to avoid it!” Mark said quickly, remembering having seen somebody use the move in this way on television.

“Hydro Pump!” Aaron ordered. Jolteon was hesitating, staring at the mesmerizing ghost light that was now floating around him in slow circles; Mark called desperately out to him, but he only looked up just as the Lanturn had surfaced again and fired a high-pressure jet of water from its mouth that hit him head-on. Jolteon was thrown backwards into the water behind him and yelped as he tried to swim while the Confuse Ray still labored to distract him; then he finally closed his eyes in concentration and rocketed out of the water, onto the platform and across the floating path to the middle platform. There he stopped, panted and shook the water out of his fur.

“Swift!” Mark shouted, and Jolteon shot a flurry of sharp, glowing star shapes from his spiked body that sought out and bombarded Lanturn even as it attempted to dive out of the way. It had been a last-minute TM, but it did play on Jolteon’s strengths, and Mark could see Aaron frown on the screen as his Lanturn tried unsuccessfully to evade the merciless stars.

“Lanturn, Stockpile!”

Mark watched the anglerfish take giant gulps of water; his heart pounded in his chest. With this, Lanturn practically had all of its moves used now: first Confuse Ray, then Hydro Pump and now Stockpile, which would almost inevitably lead to Spit Up or Swallow being the last move. If he just got it to use that final attack, it would not be able to use an Electric or Ice attack, meaning Scyther would be free to deal with it with his harder-hitting moves.

Meanwhile, Jolteon had already used three different attacks, and Mark wanted to save the fourth for Thunderbolt for use later in the battle, so he had little choice now. “Swift!” he ordered again.

Now that Lanturn’s sides were bloated out with water, the glowing stars seemed to hurt it less as they smashed into it, and Mark briefly considered switching Jolteon out right away, but figured that then Aaron would change his strategy and use another attack, letting Stockpile just serve its defensive purpose instead.

“Use Hydro Pump, Lanturn!” Aaron called. Lanturn surfaced and blasted a stream of water towards Jolteon, but Jolteon leapt to the side and it only hit the wall of the arena. Mark could see his Pokémon briefly stick his tongue out at Lanturn before he darted across to the platform on Mark’s side of the arena; he smiled.

“Another Swift!” he called. Jolteon wheeled around and shot another flurry of stars towards the fish Pokémon as it swam towards him; it cringed in pain.

“Lanturn, Swallow!” ordered Aaron White.

As Lanturn motioned to swallow the water that it had been storing in its mouth, Mark raised the Pokéball that was still lying in his sweaty palm. “Great job, Jolteon!” he shouted. “Come back!”

Jolteon looked up just as the Pokéball’s beam absorbed him; the force field in front of Mark disappeared as he replaced the ball on his belt.

“Scyther, go!”

The mantis formed on the platform, hissing and flashing his scythes to intimidate the Lanturn. Some of the scratches on its hide had closed, but it was still hurt; Aaron frowned as he looked at Scyther and hesitated.

“Scyther, Swords Dance!”

“Hydro Pump,” Aaron countered quickly.

Scyther spun around in a rhythmical series of movements while sharpening his scythes as the Lanturn surfaced yet again to spray a high-pressure stream of water towards him. Scyther was blasted backwards, which interrupted his concentration, but he had kept it up for long enough, and his wings quickly picked him up again to hover in the air just above the arena.

Aaron paused momentarily; then he took out a Pokéball.

“Lanturn, retu…”

“Pursuit!” Mark yelled as the Pokéball beam zoomed towards Lanturn: May had made very sure that he would not forget how useful two of Scyther’s attacks would be in the preliminaries, and it had been one of the reasons he had decided to go with Scyther rather than Dragonite. Scyther zoomed towards Lanturn, his scythe enveloped in dark energy, and struck the fish Pokémon just as it was absorbed by the Pokéball beam: there was only a garbled cry of pain before Lanturn disappeared entirely into the Pokéball.

Mark saw Aaron bite his lip on the screen as he returned the ball to his belt, and he felt crazily happy about having caught him off guard. The other boy picked another ball without much hesitation and threw it into the field; Mark was not surprised to see Glalie emerge.

“Glalie, Ice Beam!” Aaron shouted.

“U-turn!” Mark yelled: the other useful attack for the preliminaries. Scyther darted towards Glalie as ice crystals began to form in front of its static mouth, tackled it in mid-air and then immediately transformed into a vague form of translucent red that was absorbed into Mark’s Pokéball before Glalie had the chance to execute its counterattack.

“Charizard, go!” Mark called as he threw out the next Pokéball. His first Pokémon emerged in a burst of white light, roaring as he flapped his wings to keep in mid-air. The Glalie fired the Ice Beam, blasting it into Charizard’s face; he was knocked over in the air and his flight wavered, but he pulled himself up again with relative ease.

Aaron was already reaching for Glalie’s Pokéball; it dissolved into red light.

“Lanturn, go!”

As the fish Pokémon began to emerge from the ball that Aaron threw, Mark also recalled Charizard and instead hurled Scyther’s ball back into the arena. Mark looked down at Lanturn; after the Pursuit, it was visibly battered, and its swimming seemed a lot more strained than it had been before, but it glared at Scyther with determination in its eyes anyway as he formed on the platform.

The image of Aaron on the status screen seemed to sigh before he said, “Lanturn, use Hydro Pump.”

“Scyther, Double Hit!”

Scyther zoomed towards the fish Pokémon, readying his scythes, as it began to surface. He hit Lanturn with the blunt edge of his right scythe, but it pushed him back with a blast of high-pressure water before he had managed to strike with his left: perhaps Double Hit hadn’t been the best idea in the situation. Scyther spat out some water as he regained his balance in the air.

“Lanturn, Confuse Ray!” ordered Aaron.

Mark looked at Lanturn as the fish Pokémon came to the surface yet again to let loose a wispy light to distract Scyther with. Its movements were becoming forced and sluggish; it would surely go down with just one more strike.

“Scyther, Pursuit!” he shouted, anticipating that Aaron might switch, but the boy just watched silently as Scyther managed to concentrate and zoom down at Lanturn with dark energy circling his scythe. The fish Pokémon tried to dive deeper into the pool, but was too slow to avoid the attack and was struck by the blunt edge of the blade before it had really managed to turn; it moaned, flopped upside-down and floated lazily to the surface.

Cheering exploded from the audience, startling Mark; he had almost forgotten that the spectators were really watching, and he felt oddly self-conscious to realize that they were actually cheering for him, for the first KO in the battle. He snapped his gaze quickly back towards the status screen, where Aaron White was replacing Lanturn’s Pokéball on his belt, frowning but not hesitating before he picked the next ball.

“Glalie, go!” he shouted as he threw it. “Use an Ice Beam!”

“Scyther, U-turn!” Mark called as the floating form of the Ice Pokémon emerged, already reaching for Scyther’s Pokéball, his heart pounding in his chest. He really was ahead – he was winning.

Scyther darted towards Glalie with a roar and was halfway there when he suddenly stopped. Mark was jolted out of his wild, momentary fantasies of victory and looked sharply down at the arena. Scyther was reaching out with his scythe in an almost childlike manner – towards the bright little ghost light that was still bouncing around his head, whose existence Mark had completely forgotten about. He had no time in this brief moment of panic to recall him: Scyther plunged into the water, having forgotten to flap his wings, and a beam of freezing cold followed him there, turning all the water around him into a huge, solid block of ice within moments.

The iceberg floated up to balance itself on the surface and then bobbed peacefully up and down, the mantis Pokémon’s form dimly visible within it. The audience watched in stunned silence. Mark stared at it in horror – the iceberg might be too opaque for him to even be able to recall Scyther like this – and then, just as he was reaching for the Pokéball anyway, he realized that he wouldn’t have to.

He grinned triumphantly. Aaron White frowned on the status screen, his eyes flicking towards Mark’s screen and then back to the arena. Mark’s mind raced. There was no way Glalie could possibly harm Scyther more like this using Ice attacks, so perhaps he could fish for it to waste another attack to take him down.

“Glalie, Gyro Ball,” Aaron ordered.

The ice demon concentrated, having plenty of time to do so now, and started to spin around at great speed until its rounded, mask-like form became a spherical blur and seemed to attain a metallic sheen; then it shot towards the iceberg like a bullet, cracking it on impact, though it did not break fully and Glalie rebounded backwards from it.

“Try again,” Aaron said patiently, and his Pokémon repeated the endeavour while Mark waited, fondling Scyther’s Pokéball nervously with rapidly sweating fingers. The iceberg’s surface was now covered in a web of fine cracks, though Scyther’s vague form did not seem to stir within it and the mantis wouldn’t have been able to hear a command; he was probably already unconscious, but while he was frozen inside the ice where that couldn’t be confirmed, Mark could not be forced to recall him for the benefit of his opponent, and tiring Glalie was in his best interests for now.

Glalie spun for yet another Gyro Ball, and this time the iceberg shattered as it smashed into it, sending clumps of ice flying all around. Scyther’s body was thrown back into the water, limp as a ragdoll, and started to sink while the audience began to cheer loudly again.

“Return,” Mark said quickly and pointed the Pokéball at the mantis to let the beam absorb him. He placed the ball back on his belt and was already reaching for Charizard’s when he realized that he had yet to see Aaron’s third Pokémon. He paused to think, closing his eyes while his heavy heartbeat drummed in his ears.

Ninjask, Flygon, Ditto or Smeargle.

He had Jolteon and Charizard.

They could both handle Ninjask easily; that wouldn’t be a problem. Flygon, on the other hand, would wipe the floor (or water as it were) with Jolteon, and he didn’t much like the idea of Jolteon, already tired, trying to face a copy of himself in a match that would inevitably come down to Swift – his main strength was his dodging, which wouldn’t help him then. If he sent Charizard out now, Aaron would just switch, and he would end up having to deal with a healthy Glalie with Charizard hurt or possibly fainted. He’d looked Glalie up; he remembered it could learn some Water attack. Did he really want to risk it?

His hand moved to Jolteon’s ball.

“Go!” he yelled, throwing it into the arena. The Electric Pokémon landed on the platform, slightly weary but still well up to a fight, and bristled his fur towards Glalie.

“Thunder Wave it and then be careful!”

“Glalie, Ice Beam!”

Jolteon was faster, and a wave of crackling electricity was thrust towards Glalie while it was still charging its attack. The paralyzing sparks settled into its icy body, causing it to shudder briefly before it fired the countering Ice Beam. Jolteon was ready for it and narrowly darted out of the way; the freezing beam instead hit the edge of the platform Jolteon was on, freezing a large patch of water over and around it.

There was a slow creak as the buoyancy of the ice began to tilt that end of the platform upwards. Jolteon looked back at it, startled, and Aaron grabbed the opportunity to issue another order:

“Water Pulse on the platform, Glalie!”

“Jolteon, get it with a Thunderbolt!” Mark blurted out as a hurried counter without being sure what Aaron was thinking.

Being paralyzed, Glalie was of course no match for Jolteon’s speed even when it got the order first, and so Jolteon managed to fire a bolt of electricity towards it before it had really begun to react. It winced and recoiled in the air as the Thunderbolt struck it and had to blink a couple of times before it could manage the concentration to spit pulses of water towards the large platform on Mark’s side; by that time, Jolteon was already safely situated on one of the small, floating platforms near the side of the arena, and he cocked his head in puzzlement at Glalie’s efforts.

“Blizzard!” Aaron ordered sharply.

“Thunderbolt,” Mark said after a moment of hesitation, and Jolteon fired another attack to strike Glalie before preparing to dodge.

A freezing cold wind rushed across the arena with a flurry of snow. Jolteon ran back towards the larger platform to avoid the most concentrated part of it that was aimed at him, but Mark’s stomach lurched as he realized what Aaron had really been doing: the layer of water on top of the larger platform was now transformed into a deadly sheet of ice that sent Jolteon skidding helplessly across it with a cry of surprise and straight into the rapidly solidifying water on the other side.

“Jolteon, use Agility to get out!” Mark shouted in panic, but it was too late: the merciless Blizzard was already freezing the water all around Jolteon even as he yelped and struggled, and when the wind subsided, he was stuck in a sheet of ice covering the entire arena but for where parts of the platforms stuck out.

What Jolteon had over Scyther now, however, was that he was still conscious, still partly above the surface, and used mainly special attacks.

“One more Thunderbolt!” Mark yelled.

“Finish it with an Ice Beam,” Aaron called.

Jolteon’s fur crackled as he closed his eyes in concentration for his final effort; meanwhile Glalie charged the move that would undoubtedly finish Jolteon off. It was still paralyzed, with sparks flying across its body every now and then, and the effort made it grunt: it was obviously tired.

Jolteon’s Thunderbolt struck it, and it shuddered in pain before delivering a final blast of ice crystals that sent Jolteon slipping into unconsciousness while icicles formed on his fur.

“Great job, Jolteon,” Mark said quietly as he recalled his second Pokémon to a burst of cheering from the audience. Just Charizard left, but Glalie would surely go down with one Flamethrower – they were still relatively even, at least.

“Do it, Charizard!” he shouted as he threw the ball. Charizard formed in the air above the nearest platform, seemingly in good shape, though Mark remembered that he had taken an Ice Beam and would be disadvantaged in that way. “Flamethrower!” Mark ordered.

“Glalie, return,” Aaron said, letting the beam of a Pokéball absorb the Ice Pokémon as Charizard was beginning to inhale. Mark looked at his opponent on the status screen in puzzlement; there was no way that Glalie could be of further use in the battle, being paralyzed, weakened and up against a Fire-type, and yet Aaron was making his next Pokémon take a Flamethrower?

“Go, Ditto! Transform!”

The ball that Aaron threw released a tiny shape on the frost-covered platform on his end, but it almost immediately began to glow white, grow and change as if evolving.

“Quick, before it’s finished!” Mark called, and Charizard seemed to have had the same thought: white-hot flames billowed out of his mouth and caught the Ditto mid-transformation. The Charizardish shape recoiled, but remained standing, and when the flames cleared away, the light faded to reveal a completely identical copy of Charizard that grinned and roared into the sky before lifting off from the ground.

Mark’s mind raced as he watched the two dragons begin to fly wide circles around one another. With the two Pokémon facing off being completely identical and Charizard the more hurt and tired of them if anything, they had nothing to rely on but their wits if they were to have any hope of winning this final duel. He wasn’t sure how much he trusted himself to be able to – but the memory of Charmeleon’s performance in the Pokémon Frenzy Tournament reassured him that Charizard would hopefully know what to do when he didn’t.

“Swords Dance!” he blurted out.

“Scary Face!” Aaron countered.

One of the Charizard stopped and his mouth twisted into a wicked grin which then stretched to something far too disturbingly wide to be an ordinary grin while his eyes rolled backwards in his head. The other recoiled a little backwards, hesitantly, but then began to spin himself around in the air in a complex dance, somehow reminiscent of Scyther’s version of the move despite how different the two Pokémon were.

“Now hit it with a Dragon Pulse!” the other boy ordered.

Mark felt really certain that Charizard did not know that move, but the Ditto flung his neck forward with an ear-splitting roar, and a faintly bluish shockwave rippled through the air, knocking the real Charizard backwards. Mark realized in frantic panic that the Ditto must have practiced all sorts of TM moves that Charizard didn’t know: it wasn’t just an even match for whatever it had transformed into, but in fact had a distinct advantage.

“Charizard, Smokescreen!” he shouted as the first thing he could think of, and then immediately regretted having wasted their third move as Charizard released a cloud of thick, black smoke from his mouth that quickly enveloped most of the arena.

“Another Dragon Pulse, Ditto,” ordered Aaron, and another draconic shockwave found its way through the smoke, but it was aimed too high, and through the dissipated gap that it left in the shroud, Mark saw Charizard manage to dive below it.

“Charizard, try a Dragon Claw!” Mark yelled.

Blue flames flared up around Charizard’s claws as he darted through the smoke, straight towards the Ditto. It quickly turned upwards and shot out of the Smokescreen cover, Charizard following with a growl.

“Ditto, Rock Slide!”

“What?” Mark’s heart skipped a beat as panicked thoughts of all the TMs he had never bothered to remember floated around in his head. “No! Charizard, dodge it! Get back into the smoke! Quick!”

The dragon flattened his wings against his body, plummeted downwards and disappeared into the thickest part of the Smokescreen.

Wait a minute, Mark then thought as he saw the Ditto-Charizard hover in place and close his eyes in concentration. There are no rocks. This is a water arena.

“Charizard, it’ll be ice! Just melt it with Flamethrower!” he shouted.

As he made out the dim silhouette of large clumps of ice tearing out of the ice below and then throwing themselves around in the smoke, he also saw the flicker of bright flames where Charizard was engulfing them one after another in quick bursts of fire that made short work of evaporating them in the air. All this began to clear the smoke partway, and Mark caught a glimpse of Charizard swiftly dodging yet another boulder of ice that came towards him from the back. Aaron White bit his lip on the status screen.

That was four moves, Mark suddenly realized – with Transform, Aaron’s Ditto had used four moves now and couldn’t use any more. Charizard had used four moves too, but at least the Ditto would not surprise him with any more TMs. The thought made his heart beat faster in a spark of hope: Aaron had made his greatest mistake by ordering that failed Rock Slide.

“Ditto, try another Dragon Pulse,” the other trainer ordered at last.

“Charizard, thicken the Smokescreen and then use another Swords Dance!”

The Ditto, still flying above the already thickening cloud of smoke, roared to send another shockwave down towards where it thought Charizard was, but there was no sound to indicate that Charizard had been hurt until a few moments later when he burst out of the cloud of smoke directly below the Ditto, roaring as his claws flared with dragon fire.

The Ditto recoiled, but was surprised enough that Charizard managed to chase after it and rake his claws across its belly while it tried to get away. It snarled and whipped its tail towards Charizard, but though it batted him away, it didn’t appear to hurt him much. Instead, he readied his flaring claws again and made another charge towards his doppelganger.

“Dragon Pulse it now!” Aaron shouted.

The Ditto opened its mouth wide and produced a shockwave that, at such close range, knocked Charizard considerably backwards. He fumbled for balance in the air, the dragon flames on his claws gone, and meanwhile Aaron grabbed the opportunity to issue another command:

“Rock Slide!”

Charizard looked down and was preparing to counter it with Flamethrower even before Mark could make the order. Chunks of ice, now mostly half-melted, flew upwards and were quickly vaporized by a wide cone of bright flames before coming anywhere close to Charizard, the attack pathetically ineffective – suspiciously ineffective.

“Dragon Claw again!” Mark ordered even as he looked at the opposing trainer on the status screen, trying to read his expression; it was inscrutable, but at the same time he was sure there was something there that he was missing. Charizard slashed at the Ditto yet again, his claws shredding a portion of one of its wings, before he was knocked back by another Dragon Pulse. The Ditto faltered in its flight, not used enough to its wings to know instinctively how to balance it, and started fluttering irregularly to try to keep itself in the air; Charizard smirked and his claws flared up for the final blow…

“Ditto, drag him down!”

The Ditto all of a sudden stopped struggling to get away from Charizard’s advance and instead lunged towards him as he was charging. It managed to get on top of his back and dig its claws into him there at first, but Charizard wrestled himself loose even as they were falling and viciously attacked the other dragon from the front with his own claws. Now the Ditto refused to let go, however: it folded its wings back completely, and Charizard’s flailing attempt to support both of them did no visible good.

Mark stared at the other trainer in puzzlement for that fraction of a second: Charizard was on top, so surely, it was Ditto who would hit the –

His eyes widened and he fixed his gaze back on the shape of the two Pokémon as they were falling through the smoke – and then there was a splash.

Mark stared through the smoke cover in horror as the two Pokémon’s forms wrestled desperately with one another even as they sank towards the bottom on the pool, flurries of bubbles rising from their tail flames.

The Ditto hadn’t been trying to win: it was all a reckless suicide tactic.

They both struggled desperately in pain as their tail flames fought to survive, but the Ditto held mercilessly on to Charizard and they sank ever deeper into the water. Aaron’s face on the status screen was pale but determined. Mark’s mind was too numb to be sure what to do.

Then both Pokémon stopped struggling in the water; Ditto glowed white and transformed back into a blob of slime, but Charizard did not rise to the surface. They were both out.

Mark snapped back to reality, fumbled with Charizard’s ball and finally managed to get the Pokéball beam to recall him. He’ll be okay, he reassured himself frantically. His tail flame wasn’t out yet, he’ll be fine…

“The winner is Aaron White.”

He looked up in confusion – he’d been so sure the Ditto had fainted too – only for his eyes to find the status screen, now displaying the results: pictures of the trainers and the six Pokémon that had been used in the battle, all with a red cross over them… except Glalie.

Weakened and paralyzed and barely conscious Glalie had won Aaron White the battle.

Mark stared up at it and felt his face heat up in a mixture of emotions: worry for Charizard; shame at his loss; the wild, insensitive, deafening cheering of the audience; anger at the other boy for pulling such a cheap victory, for having such a reckless and dangerous strategy; anger at himself for not having foreseen it until it was too late, for not having recalled Charizard earlier when he had lost anyway. He looked across the battlefield, where Aaron White stood raising his fist triumphantly into the air, and felt a powerful, bizarre longing to punch him in the face – a feeling so disturbing that it made him stop, look down, rest his hands on the railing, close his eyes and try his best to shut his ears to the audience. There was something wrong. He rubbed his forehead; it was cold and sweaty, veins throbbing in his temples. His head was beginning to ache.

He recognized this feeling, vaguely, from somewhere.

The other time had to do with Charizard too – Scyther – anger and worry –

He saw flashes of strange memories – him screaming obscenities at two people who had just emerged from the walls, silently dumping Scyther and Charizard’s Pokéballs on the counter in the Pokémon Center, sitting down, May waving her hand in front of his face with a puzzled expression.

His blackout after the final battle of the Pokémon Frenzy Tournament.

His mind began to clear as his emotions faded to more familiar levels. Everything seemed a little bit jumbled up still, but he felt like himself again, at least aside from the strange little throbbing somewhere deep inside his head.

There was something prodding at his mind.

He looked sharply up in alarm. There was only one thing he could think of that was here and prone to prodding at people’s minds. His gaze swept across the audience stands, but he already knew it couldn’t really be there: Pokémon couldn’t be brought to the audience stands. Unless he’d hypnotized the guards and everybody sitting near him too, but why?

People were leaving; Aaron White had already disappeared. And somehow, after a second, Mark could just tell that the mind-prod didn’t come from the audience. He turned around; it seemed stronger when he faced the door.

He opened it carefully and walked down the stairs, slowly, focusing on keeping his mind clear. He exited the trainer box and wanted to take Charizard to the Pokémon Center immediately, but hesitated when he realized that the intensity of the throbbing in his brain had changed because he had moved – he could perhaps follow it to the source. Did Taylor know that they were on to him – was he targeting them? And if so, could they actually escape it?

He had to at least try to do something.

He closed his eyes and turned his head slowly, feeling where the throb was strongest, and then took hesitant steps in that direction. It continued to intensify as he walked nervously along the edge of the stadium, to the corner –

He turned around it and stopped to stare.

Taylor was standing there with his back turned, just by the far wall of the arena, with the tall, thin shape of Mewtwo² standing beside him. Short, rhythmical movements of the Pokémon’s bony hands were making several boulders swing obediently back and forth in mid-air over suspiciously similarly-shaped large holes in the ground.

“Try up and down now,” Taylor said. “And then throw them over the fence.”

The Pokémon obeyed unnaturally quickly, wiggling its fingers up and down with almost humorous lack of effort which nonetheless sent the boulders bouncing by several meters. Then it thrust its hand forward, Mark felt a stinging throb in his mind, and the boulders flew over the fence and landed in the distance with an earth-shaking thud.

“Wh-what are you doing?” Mark stammered and Taylor turned around. Mewtwo² remained completely motionless as if it hadn’t noticed him, even the hanging, pendulum-like tip of its long, blue tail remaining completely still. It was very disquieting to look at.

“Training,” Taylor said as if nothing were more natural. “What are you doing?”

Mark wasn’t sure how to respond. “I – you – why has it been messing with my head?” he asked, pointing a finger at Mewtwo²’s back. He could still feel the throb in his brain.

Taylor looked blankly at him before realization seemed to dawn upon him. “Oh, that,” he said. “It happens.”

“Happens,” Mark repeated, his voice oddly squeaky. “What happens?”

“You know, people’s feelings getting stronger. He does that when we train close to people.”

Mark looked blankly at him, feeling almost too utterly confused to speak. “Well, train somewhere else, then!” he managed to say. “I was having a battle over there!”

“Oh,” Taylor said. “Okay.”

He recalled Mewtwo² into a Pokéball and the throbbing abruptly stopped. Mark stared at him as he walked nonchalantly off in the other direction, towards where the gate was.

Mark took a deep breath and exhaled again as his mind slowly unjumbled itself. For a moment he was sure that Taylor was lying, that he was just trying not to be found out, but the more his mind cleared, the more convinced he became that Taylor just really was that careless and naïve and had not actually meant any harm. He shivered at the thought of Mewtwo²’s presence alone causing something like this and hoped that Taylor would train far away from now on.

He turned around and broke into a run towards the Pokémon Center.


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