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Discussion in 'Completed Fics' started by Cutlerine, Jan 30, 2017.

  1. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.


    Something different this time round. Fairly bleak, all things considered, and there might be a few moments of violence or occasional swearing; also a bunch of poor-mental-health-related stuff, including depression, dissociation, and (remembered, undescribed) self-harm. If anything else comes up, I'll warn before the chapter in question, as well as come back and edit it in here, too. Updates every two weeks, time and brain permitting. With that all out of the way, here's a story about making terrible decisions and sticking with them beyond the point of all reason.


    One: Fourteen Days
    Two: Poison
    Three: Auld Lang Syne
    Four: Tourist
    Five: Helen the Destroyer
    Six: The Break
    Seven: Old Scars
    Eight: Nocturne
    Nine: Wounds
    Ten: Vulture
    Eleven: Dogged
    Twelve: Lessons Learned
    Thirteen: Go Home
    Interlude: One For My Baby
    Fourteen: Nika
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2018
  2. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.


    Friday, 9th September

    “Live from Kanto! Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests and all our beloved viewers, this is utterly unprecedented! Earlier today long-time Champion Casey Rigadeau was unseated by hotshot newbie Blue Mercurio – and now, mere hours later, a second trainer reaches the final round of the Indigo League challenge! Presenting, Red Mitchell!”

    Figures moving onscreen. Charizard and venusaur, orange and green.

    “The battle has been postponed slightly to allow the new Champion's pokémon to recover from their previous gruelling match, but we here at IBN will be keeping tabs on the situation and will bring you all the action as it occurs. For now, here's Karen with a few words from Mercurio …”

    IBN, flashes the screen with unnecessary force. International! Battle! Network!

    A noise. Gwyneth mutes the TV and listens. Phone. Okay.


    “Hey, Gwyn, it's Shane.” (It must be Shane.) “How's things?”

    Good question. Gwyneth looks at the room around her. Broken lampshade, split sofa cushion, quietly festering pile of unwashed clothes. Cracked plastic TV showing battles from the other side of the world. How's things? About usual, to be honest.

    “They're okay,” she says. “What's up, Shane?”

    “Oh, nothin', man, nothin' much, really. Listen, have you heard from your mom at all?”

    “What?” Gwyneth sits up. She has not. She has forgotten to give her mother her new number. Forgotten, in the sense that she didn't do it, and then told herself she forgot. “No, why? Something wrong?”

    “Well, no, not really, man, it's just like I just got off the phone with Cheren now, and he says that she says she's been tryin' to get hold of you for months. You never told her you moved, she says, or that you got a different phone. So she's like been callin' everybody up, tryin' to find you.”

    “Okay,” says Gwyneth. She's worried. What is it now? What's happened to make it so important that her mother contact her? “So what's up? Why's she after me?”

    “It's your brother,” says Shane, and Gwyneth holds her breath, mind filling with possibilities: he's hurt, he's sick, he's dead … “He's gettin' married.”

    She starts so hard she nearly falls off the couch.

    “What? What d'you mean, he's getting married?”

    “I mean, Gwyn, he's gettin' married,” he says. “Hell, man, you speak Unovan, don't you? Yeah, he's gettin' married, and you never replied to the weddin' invitation, I'm guessin' 'cause you moved and you never got it, so your mom wanted to tell you that―”


    “Say what?”

    “Who's he marrying?”

    “Oh, right, right.” The casualness of Shane's voice is infuriating. Gwyneth has to consciously stop herself from grinding her teeth. “Yeah, uh, so that's the thing.” He pauses, no longer casual. Gwyneth remembers being a kid, climbing on the rail of the Skyarrow Bridge, just one misplaced foot away from a long drop and a sudden stop. She feels the same way now. She feels vertiginous.

    “Who's he marrying, Shane?” she repeats.

    “It's, uh … well, it's Nika.”

    On the bridge of her mind's eye, she loses her footing and watches silently as the sea rushes up to meet her.

    “Nika,” she says. Her voice comes from a long way outside her.

    “Ye-eah,” confirms Shane slowly. “Nika. Sorry, Gwyn. I figured that would sting.”

    “Thanks for telling me,” she says, still a hundred miles away from the words she speaks.

    “Hey, no problem, man, no problem.” He pauses. “You okay?”

    (Some people get chosen and some do not.)

    “Sure, dude, I'm fine.”

    “Well … okay, man, if you're sure. You know, they'd all probably understand if you didn't―”

    “When is it?”


    “The wedding, Shane. When is it?”

    “Uh, hang on, Cheren told me, I wrote it down … okay, it's the twenty-second.”

    “What?” She stands up. She isn't sure why. “The twenty― Shane, that's in less than two weeks!”

    “Well yeah, Gwyn, like I said, they tried to tell you before, only the invitation never got there. I said you shoulda paid to have stuff forwarded from your old place―”

    “Shane, how … you know what, never mind. Sorry. Didn't mean to snap.”

    “You ain't snappin', Gwyn, s'all cool.” She can hear the concern in his voice, somewhere underneath the cigarette rasp. “Listen, man, I know this is real sudden, and I'm sorry. If you wanna talk …”

    “I – uh – maybe, Shane.” She sighs. The indignant burst of energy is over now. “I got to think about this. Thanks for letting me know.”


    “Yeah, well, I really appreciate it. I bet Mom does too.”

    “Cheren said she asked you to call …”

    “Maybe. We'll see.” It means no, and Shane knows it, and he knows that she knows that he knows it. She won't call her. She hasn't in years. Life leads you in directions you never intended, and sometimes you wind up in places you don't want your parents to follow. Not all of these places can be found on a map. “Anyway, Shane, thanks again. I … I got to go.”

    “Well, okay, man, if you gotta then you gotta.” He doesn't sound convinced. “Catch you later then, Gwyn.”

    “See you, Shane.”

    A click and a thump and the phone's on the cushion again, and Gwyneth stands there in her room watching the images move on the TV screen. It looks like the utterly unprecedented battle has started. Charizard and venusaur. Orange and green. Impossible to say who's winning yet.

    She turns the TV off and stands there, staring.

    Three in the afternoon and it's already been a long damn day.


    She has this dream, often. It goes like this: she'll be standing in some dark room with Professor Juniper, a single spotlight picking out her brow and the slope of her cheekbones, and she suddenly starts interrogating her. What's your name, the professor demands to know. Are you a boy or a girl? And in the dream she freezes up, can't answer; she's a kid again, she thinks, because the professor seems very tall, but she can't feel her body, can't tell what she's wearing or what name she bears. She feels her heart pounding in her throat, right up against the back of her teeth. Boy or girl? Blake or Gwyneth? What's your name? Boy or girl? Who are you? What are you?

    The professor keeps asking, over and over, and she just stands there, helpless, terrified for no reason that she can see, and then in the end her brother steps out of the dark alongside her and he starts answering. Boy. Hilbert. And just like that, the professor forgets her and starts talking to him, and the two of them walk away into the shadows, leaving her alone in the dark with the humiliation and the fear.

    She doesn't tell anyone about this dream. She is afraid of being misunderstood.


    Some people get chosen and some do not. That's how Gwyneth has always thought of it. Hilbert? Hilbert was chosen. She remembers it like it was yesterday.

    In the memory, it's ten years ago, and she's fourteen. She has been Gwyneth for just a couple of months. Blake follows her around still, looking over her shoulder in mirrors, but she is learning to unsee him, to find new ways of mapping the geometries of her face. It's okay. She is okay. But Hilbert is better than okay; Hilbert is exceptional. He's fifteen now, tall and strong and quiet, in the way that very confident people are quiet, and he and his friends have been chosen.

    It's a bright, clear day in spring, and all the trees of Nuvema are in full flower. Every morning at dawn, Gwyneth hears the cooing of the pidove echoing down the chimney that passes by her bedroom wall. They're nesting up there, and it's kind of a bother because they always wake her up, but today she's awake before even they are. She just can't sleep. Today, everything changes.

    When the knock at the door comes, she's the first to answer it, and when she sees Professor Juniper there with the box, she's practically bouncing off the walls.

    “Hi!” she says, eagerly. “Hi, Professor!”

    Juniper smiles indulgently. Gwyneth is a good kid, she thinks; she's only in her late twenties herself, young enough to still have a last few accurate memories of what it's like to be fourteen. She thinks Gwyneth is handling being fourteen better than she did. She thinks Gwyneth is brave and bright and will grow up to be someone special. She never tells Gwyneth any of this, but she thinks it, and some of it is visible in her face as she speaks.

    “Hello, Gwyneth,” she says. “Um, could you just mind out the way a moment? I don't want to drop this.”

    No, that wouldn't do. Gwyneth stands aside, staying perfectly still while Juniper navigates the porch. Can you imagine what a disaster it would be if she dropped the box? The thought makes Gwyneth feel cold inside.

    “Oh, hello, Aurea,” says her mother, coming in. “Let me take that for you.”

    She takes the box. Gwyneth watches it passing between their hands with an intensity of stare usually restricted to birds of prey.

    “Thanks,” says Juniper, one hand on the door behind her. “I'm sorry, I can't stay – I have to pick up Dad from the station – but tell the kids to come find me at the lab later, okay? I should be there all day.”

    “Oh, of course,” replies Gwyneth's mother. “Don't worry about it!”

    “You'll be all right with the pokémon for now?”

    “I was a trainer too once, you know. I'm sure we'll be fine. Besides, I have Gwyn to help me till the kids are back!”

    The two women glance at her and Gwyneth stands up straight, her heart swelling with pride. She's helpful. She's going to be the best at this.

    “Well, in that case I can rest easy,” says Juniper. “I'm leaving them in good hands. Bye now!”

    And she goes, and the box goes upstairs, and then somehow, time crawls forwards until yes, Hilbert and Cheren are back – where were they that day? Gwyneth has never been able to remember that – and then, a little later, Bianca too. And Gwyneth watches them from the corner of the room, wide-eyed and intent, as they pick the poké balls out of the box, as Hilbert and his new snivy, each as laconic as the other, thrash Cheren and Bianca consecutively and comprehensively; and she trails in their wake as they go downstairs and head out for the lab; and then the door closes behind them and the spell breaks and she realises that all her excitement was entirely misplaced. Today isn't the day everything changes. Today is the day that Hilbert changes.

    She hears about him, over the next twelve months. He and Cheren clear out Gyms like it's going out of style, gaining badges left and right. He comes into contact with those Plasma people who've been on the news, and he drives them away from more than one attempt at what they generously term pokémon liberation. She sees Hilbert on the news himself a couple of times, his serperior coiled at his side with hooded eyes, both of them unbearably cool. He's in the trainers' magazine she gets: Meet the Latest Sensation on the Battling Circuit! She looks at the glossy photograph and sees the familiar face looking up at her, made unfamiliar with studio lights and context. Even after reading the article, she can't tell what's going on behind that smile. She wonders if she ever could.

    When she's fifteen (old enough, officially; secure enough, unofficially), Professor Juniper comes back. Gwyneth doesn't have a little group of friends like Hilbert does; there's no ceremony this time, no gift box, no battle in the bedroom. She says she's always looking for more help tracking pokémon in the wild, and the more trainers are out there the more data she gets. Would Gwyneth be willing to help?

    Oh, she would! She's been waiting for this. She's been planning for it, even. On her pinboard is a map of Unova with potential routes scrawled all over it in marker pen, and cuttings from the magazine about spots where trainers congregate and you can get yourself a good battle, and the places where sometimes you find swarms or pokémon with rare abilities. Gwyneth is so ready for this. Juniper takes her to the lab, and as she steps through those glass doors into the radiant white light inside she feels like she could burst with happiness.

    There's no one else. Other kids will be going, obviously, but none of them are friends with Juniper, and they won't be getting their pokémon from her lab. Gwyneth is a little worried; if no one's starting out with her, how is she going to find a rival? She knows already that Hilbert and Cheren chose each other as their rivals, and she had hoped that there'd be someone else here who might choose her. But she's too happy for her misgivings to last, and okay, so the pokémon she's given to choose from aren't as rare as snivy and tepig, but this is still her starter, right? This is the greatest day of her life, right up there with the day she looked in the mirror and realised how far she'd come from her days as Blake. She leaves the lab with her pokédex and her minccino, a wriggly bundle of fluff and high spirits who keeps sweeping Gwyneth's hair with her tail and who apropos of nothing she names Blossom, and she sets off up Route 1 towards Accumula with a sense that her time has come. Hilbert, you'd better watch out!

    It's amazing. It's the best thing she's ever known. Blossom is a quick learner, and Gwyneth isn't too bad herself; they run into some other trainers on the wilderness trail up to Accumula, and the week she spends hiking through the hills with them is unforgettable. Everyone is so excited. There's a girl called Ashley from Kanto who has a nidoran with the cutest little nose, and a boy called Tomás with a timburr that can pick up a whole log all by itself, and one day they stumble across a whole group of patrat all on lookout, and all of them squeak and thump their tails on the ground and attack, but it's fine because there's three of them and they have their pokémon, and later that night around their campfire they laugh and exaggerate to each other. Did you see? There were like fifteen of them, at least! No, more like twenty! And later on, after Ashley and Tomás are asleep, Gwyneth lies on her back in the cool grass amidst the soft crackle of the dying fire and the zithering of the crickets and looks up at the full moon holding court among the stars, and she thinks maybe she should get in her tent and go to sleep but Blossom is snoring next to her, a little puddle of warmth lapping up against her ribs, and the night is so beautiful, and for the longest time she just can't move for the magnificence of it all.

    In Accumula, she finds she sees everything strangely, as if for the first time. The world works differently for kids on a trainer journey; everyone is delighted to see them, everyone has a word of advice or some relic of their own childhood journey to pass on. A woman at the bus stop gives Gwyneth an ultra ball that she found in a box of her old things and has been carrying around in her purse in case she bumps into any trainers. An actual ultra ball! She can't remember exactly how many badges you need before you qualify to buy those in Pokémon Centres, but she knows it's quite a few. Gwyneth grips it tightly in her pocket as she and her new friends make their way through town and out onto the longer trail winding past Route 2 up to Striaton. If she finds a psychic-type, she decides, maybe she'll use it on that. She definitely needs something to cover Blossom's fighting weakness, or she'll never beat Tomás and his timburr.

    She does find one, in Striaton. The old Mind's Eye Industries site, what locals call the Dreamyard, is full of munna, she's heard – in fact, she has the species list pinned up on her board at home – and she catches one, just as planned, although in the end she doesn't use her ultra ball. (What if it didn't work? It's just too precious to be wasted. She'll save it for when she really needs it.) Her new munna is sleepy and tractable, and levitates with surprising force; Blossom soon learns he can keep hovering with her standing on his back, and the two of them orbit Gwyneth's head like a cosmic giant riding a planet around the sun. His name, she decides, is Corbin. Ashley is deliciously jealous – she hasn't been able to find a munna that will partner with her – and with Corbin's psybeam, Gwyneth is finally able to put a stop to Tomás' timburr's swinging fists. Victory! Unova League, here we come.

    That evening, they gather in the Pokémon Centre lobby, talking excitedly about the Gym. Tomás wants to challenge it; Ashley isn't so sure. Gwyneth has read in her magazine that eighty per cent of first-time Gym challengers fail, underestimating the difficulty. She's with Ashley on this: her plan is to keep travelling on, get tougher, and come back later. But Tomás won't be talked down, and Gwyneth has known for some days now that Ashley is nursing a crush on him and doesn't want to split up, so she agrees to stay and cheer him on during his challenge.

    The next day he goes to register. There's a queue: kids, mostly, at various stages of the way through their teenage years, but one or two adults too. Someone in their twenties, a drifblim floating like a tame balloon above their head. An old lady with a fabulously extravagant pair of sunglasses and a mienshao that moves around her with quick, practised motions, watching the crowd for the slightest sign of danger and assiduously passing her a water bottle, her phone, a roll of mints. Gwyneth stares in open fascination. How long have those two been partners? There's grey in the mienshao's fur. She is captivated by the idea that someone could do this forever, could live their whole life on this magical road.

    While she's waiting for Tomás' turn to come, Gwyneth flicks through a magazine from the rack near the reception desk. There's Hilbert's face again, same unreadable smile, and another boy she doesn't recognise, alongside a photo of Dragonspiral Tower. Legendary Dragons Take Wing?!, asks the headline, with what is for once warranted astonishment. It seems like those Plasma people might have some right on their side after all. Their leader has been chosen by one of the legendary twin dragons. Apparently Hilbert was there, although the article seems vague about what exactly happened.

    “Oh, can I have that when you're done?” asks someone, and Gwyneth looks up from the pages to see a girl, tall, olive-skinned, with unfortunate braces and three poké balls hanging from her belt. To Gwyneth, she looks intimidatingly well-travelled.

    “Okay,” she says, slightly tongue-tied. She wishes she had Blossom and Corbin out of their balls, to make her look more experienced. “Um, I was just finishing.”

    “Oh, no need to stop on my account,” says the girl. She sits down next to Gwyneth, smiling her metal-webbed smile. “I really just wanted to see this page,” she admits. “What's that Hilbert guy up to now?”

    It's crushingly weird to find herself talking about her brother as someone else's celebrity. Gwyneth stammers more than she'd like trying to explain.

    “I-it's this thing a-about the l-legendary dragon p-pokémon,” she says. “Um, apparently he was there? It's n-not really about him, anyway.”

    The girl can see her anxiety, and something good in her heart makes her want to put Gwyneth at her ease. She has been hiking across the country for a few months now; she started up in Humilau, made her way southwest with bands of other rookies that changed at every town as people went their separate ways. She's met a lot of anxious kids, homesick kids, and she's made a lot of them feel better, too.

    So she smiles again and asks Gwyneth her name.

    “I'm Gwyneth.”

    “Okay, Gwyneth,” she says. “I'm Nika.”


    And now – what? Now a dead-end address in the wrong part of Aspertia. Now no more pokémon. Now Nika's marrying Hilbert.

    Some people get chosen and some do not.

    Gwyneth sits on her couch and watches the utterly unprecedented battle between Blue Mercurio and Red Mitchell without comprehension. Charizard and venusaur. Orange and green. Flashes of fire and sunlight.

    She feels a choice looming in her immediate future. It weighs on her with the awful pressure of unavoidable responsibility.

    Her brother's wedding. She shouldn't miss it. Should she? No, she shouldn't. There are people who would kill to have an invitation to this wedding. He's world-class good, she knows. Reshiram chose him. He was the Champion, even, and if he hadn't abdicated and left Iris in charge while he went looking for N he probably still would be. At least, Gwyneth can't think of anyone in Unova who realistically stands much of a chance versus him, even without Reshiram.

    So this will be big. It's exclusive. And he's her brother …

    Onscreen, the charizard goes down with a groan. Out comes a pidgeot, crest like a comet's tail.

    He is her brother, Gwyneth reminds herself. Even if they hardly speak. Even if she doesn't know what lies under that smile. Even if he was chosen.

    But then, complicating the whole thing, there's Nika.

    She can't sit still. She paces up and down, casting the occasional irritated glance at the battle on the TV as if it were responsible for this.

    Are they even still friends? Gwyneth doesn't know. She hasn't spoken to Nika for well over a year now. That probably means they aren't. Would Nika want her there? (The other question, pulsing like the offbeat underneath the first: does she want to be there with Nika?) It's hard to say. Nika is a fundamentally good person; this is something Gwyneth believes to be true with every fibre of her being. Perhaps that means forgiveness is on the cards. Perhaps it doesn't.

    The problem, as Gwyneth is starting to see it, is that she herself is not a fundamentally good person. She's spent the last few years of her life proving that. Anyone who poisons so many things just by being near them is not, she imagines, a good person. There's a risk in going to this wedding. Put a person like her at an event like that, and things could go very badly wrong indeed.

    The TV crowd roars. Gwyneth stops and looks; there's the kid Red, a pikachu on his shoulder, looking out at them. Silent. Enigmatic smile.

    “Do they make them in batches or what?” she asks, part bitter, part plaintive, and turns the TV off.


    Gwyneth heads out, past the broken-down elevator and downstairs into the lobby. There's no mail – always that faint sense of dashed expectations, even though she knows that practically no one who'd send her anything knows her address – and she moves on out into the street. It's cold today, the first hint of autumn in the wind. Her breath hangs around her in the air, and she has to tread carefully so as not to lose her footing on the mess of rain-slicked leaves under the oak on the corner. She stuffs her hands into her pockets and picks her way west, past shuttered convenience stores and run-down tenement blocks, ignoring the shabby beige brick all around her. This isn't the part of town you stop to admire. This is the east side, the bit you move through quickly to get to somewhere nicer.

    She isn't sure yet where she's going. There are no shifts at the Centre lined up for her today; she hadn't really planned on going out. Too cold for a walk, and she isn't really much of a walker, anyway. She did it when she was on her trainer journey, sure, but that wasn't the same thing. That was a part of a bigger whole. Walking for its own sake, she feels, is more effort than it's worth. If she's honest, she's not even sure why she went out, other than that being inside by herself suddenly seemed incredibly unappealing.

    The buildings pass her by in an uninspiring line. Bank. Drugstore. Café. Someone inside that one, huddled close around a mug of black coffee. He has the right idea, Gwyneth thinks. It's too cold for this.

    It would be warmer out east.

    She lets the thought sit in her head for a while while the cold eats into the edges of her ears.

    Almost without realising it, she finds, she's wandered down towards the shopping street between Nelson and Bent. That puts her a hundred yards or so away from the video game store. She weighs her options – will Shane be working today? did he sound like he was at home? – and then decides that she doesn't care; it's cold and she'd like to go inside. The worst that can happen is that he isn't there, and then she leaves again. Hardly the most terrible thing in the world.

    Inside, the video game store is just as warm as she was hoping. She takes her fingers out of her pockets, massages her ears for a second, moves past racks of plastic cases to the counter.

    “Hey,” she says to the woman behind it, who she vaguely recognises as being new. “Is Shane in?”

    The woman looks at her, and Gwyneth sees herself doubled in her eyes. It's a long look and a wary one, and Gwyneth knows what it means. She's seeing the ratty old bomber jacket, the scuffed boots, the hair that is the particular shade of rust you only get when purple dye fades badly. That certain something, they're never sure what, but some ethnicity not quite white; the thinness of someone for whom a balanced diet is something that happens to other people; the (not particularly well) pierced eyebrow. A bloodless androgyny that seems in some sense suspicious.

    Gwyneth has seen it all before, the people seeing her. She knows there's no point trying to change their minds. And hell, maybe this woman's just new to this part of town, still nervous of all the rough voices and scruffy loiterers. Either way, she knows better than to say anything. So she stands there while the woman watches, wondering how Shane knows this creep, and waits for her to say:

    “Yeah, I think he's in the back. You want I should get him for you?”

    Gwyneth smiles. It makes a difference. Not much, but it's a difference. The woman's stance towards her softens slightly.

    “Yeah, if you could, please,” says Gwyneth. “Tell him it's Gwyneth.”

    She can see the surprise on the woman's face. A Gwyneth, in that jacket? It seems too classy a name to be standing here with an inexpertly mended tear in its jeans. But okay, Gwyneth it is, and she says all right and sticks her head through the door leading back into the stockroom.

    “Hey, Shane? You're wanted. Someone called Gwyneth?”

    And here's Shane, ambling out (he always ambles; he has only one speed and it is leisurely), gold ring on a thread around his neck. Shaggy dark hair. Purple shirt open at the collar. Shane.

    His is a friendlier view of Gwyneth, at least. The Gwyneth in his eyes is a friend, always tired, always bitter, unreliable and apologetic; someone you can't trust to keep appointments, who treats flaking out as a way of life, but who at least, if you really need her, will always come fight for you, vicious and loyal as a scolipede. Shane thinks that she's a good kid, at heart. It's never occurred to him that she's actually older than he is. It's never occurred to her to tell him.

    “Hey, man,” he says, smiling amiably. “How's it goin'?”

    “I'm okay,” answers Gwyneth. She is beginning to realise that she had a reason for coming here after all. “Listen, dude, I need a favour. Are you doing anything tomorrow morning?”

    “Nah, Gwyn, I'm free. Why, you wanna talk after all?”

    “Um, kinda.” She takes a breath. “Can you give me a ride out of town?”


    Saturday, 10th September

    Half seven in the morning: sodium lamplight yellowing the street outside Shane's place; pidove cooing disconsolately from the rooftops; a single feral purrloin pacing stealthily along a wall. Gwyneth knocks on his door again, blows on her fingers and returns them to her pockets. This damn cold. Well, if she had to pick a time to get out of town …

    She's still not quite sure she believes she's going. Back in the video game store, the words came out almost without her realising, and the decision was made, just like that. In truth, it had been made as soon as she heard the news, she sees that now. This was never going to end any other way than with her kicking up the dust on the long road back east.

    This simplifies things, she supposes. Even so. Is she really doing this? It's a long way to Nuvema, and she has sixty-one dollars to her name. If she disappears for two weeks she's fairly sure there won't be a place for her in the Pokémon Centre when she gets back. She works in the trainer supply shop in its east wing, stacking shelves and staffing the checkout, and the shifts are irregular; it's not like she has a permanent position. She's seen other employees disappear before. There's never any trouble replacing them.

    It's not too late to turn back, she thinks. She's supposed to be working today anyway. All she needs to do is turn around and walk west and open up with Maurice, and put potions on shelves and smile kindly at nervous kids looking for poké balls and buy coffee from the vending machine and put more potions on shelves and load a TM into the machine for a rookie trainer who doesn't know how to work it and clean up after a lillipup knocks over a display and buy another coffee from the machine and put more potions on shelves and go sort the inventory in the back and put more potions on shelves and lock up and go home and eat whatever's left in the fridge and sleep.

    Okay. It's not exactly what she dreamed of as a kid. But some people are chosen and some are not, and there's good work to be done even by those who aren't chosen. All those adults she met on her trainer journey who had presents and kind words and advice? She's one of them now. That's what you are, if you work in the training industry. You are one of the people whose job it is to teach those kids that life, despite appearances, can be kind and joyous. Gwyneth hates her work, hates the kids for still having what she does not, but she does her best to be good to them and that eases her conscience at night. It's okay to not be chosen, she wants to think. You can be the woman with the ultra ball instead.

    And she could still be that woman. All she has to do is turn around and go. What, after all, does she really hope to achieve by going to this wedding anyway? Make herself angry, upset her mother, ruin Nika and Hilbert's big day? What could possibly be worth alienating her entire family and throwing away two weeks of income, two weeks that could be the difference between making rent and being evicted?

    Well, she thinks, there's Nika. But that thought's no good, and thankfully she doesn't have to face up to it because just then Shane finally opens the door to let her in.

    “Whoa! Sorry, man, I hope you weren't waitin' too long. Slept right through the alarm.”

    “No, it's cool,” says Gwyneth, stepping inside gladly. “I just got here.”

    “Great, great.” Shane's apartment isn't much bigger than Gwyneth's, but it's substantially cleaner, and in better repair. Left to his own devices, he'd probably turn it into the same sort of tip as Gwyneth has hers, but he has Casey, of course, and he's not only organised but good at fixing things to boot. Shane raves about him; Gwyneth tries not to be envious, and sometimes succeeds.

    “Sorry to wake you up so early.”

    “Nah, s'all cool, man.” Shane pokes through a bowl on a shelf, looking for keys. “Always happy to help out a friend. And I don't have to work till later, so. Ah. Here we are.”

    He holds up the keys. Now it's out through the cold again, down to Shane's car, parked round the corner in the next street. It's the kind of car that coughs and limps, but it is a car, and that's really what Gwyneth needs right now. She throws her pack on the rear seat and sits next to Shane in the front.

    “Lemme get the heating on,” says Shane, fiddling with the dashboard. “Right, okay, should warm up in a minute.”

    They coast through darkened streets, lit windows gliding past like a shadow-puppet parade. There are lives on the other side of the glass. People at home, waking up, eating breakfast. Quietly getting on with the business of living. It's enough to make Gwyneth homesick, and she thinks for a little while about arriving in Nuvema early in the morning, walking down all the old familiar roads again, street signs glinting in the light of the rising sun.

    “So you got a plan?” asks Shane, as they make their way northwards. “'S a long way to Humilau.”

    “Humilau? What's this about Humilau?” The word tears her mind unwillingly from the dream of home. “Shane, what do you mean, Humilau?”

    “Well, where'd you think the wedding was? It's Nika's hometown, man. She's the bride and all.”

    Gwyneth stares at him, trying not to be angry. Humilau! Okay, Nuvema wasn't going to be easy in two weeks and on her budget – but Humilau? You literally can't get further away from Aspertia without actually leaving the country.

    “I didn't – I was thinking it was Nuvema,” she says. “When were you planning on telling me?”

    “Hey, Gwyn, I thought you knew,” he answers. “Sorry.” He pauses. “I take it you like don't have a plan, then?”

    “Uh, well, no.” Gwyneth looks studiously out of the window, busies her fingers in fiddling with the zip of her jacket. “Not as such.”

    Silence. The engine coughs. It's starting to get lighter out now as the sun peeks out from behind the buildings.

    “Listen,” says Shane kindly, “don't take this the wrong way, Gwyn, but … what's your thinkin' here? What're you tryin' to do?”

    “I don't know. It's my brother's wedding. Isn't that enough?”

    “It's also your ex's.”

    “I'm not planning on trying to break up the wedding, dude.”

    “Didn't say you were. I just wanna make sure you know what you're doin', man.” Red light. Shane stops, looks at her. “'S a long damn way to Humilau, Gwyn.”

    She knows that. Does he think she doesn't know that? No: he knows, he knows, he's just worried. Because he's her friend. Something that she should try harder to remember, she tells herself.

    “Well, it's probably time I saw my folks again anyway,” she says. “It's been a while.”

    Shane lifts his hands from the wheel in mock surrender.

    “Okay, man, okay,” he says. “You don't got to tell me. Hell, maybe you don't even know yet. I only told you yesterday.”

    Green. He looks back at the road and on they go, the city growing shorter all around them as they leave the inner core. There are trees here – bare at this time of year, but still, they're here. Parks, houses, natural light. It's what Nika might call salubrious.

    “I just figure I have to,” says Gwyneth, after a while. “Even if it's Humilau. Can't not.” She looks out of the window at a postal worker making her way around the block, a bagful of catalogues on her back. “Sometimes you got to go, I guess. And if I'm gonna go, I have to go now, or I'll never make it in time.”

    Shane nods.

    “Can't disagree with you there, Gwyn. And, speakin' of that – how are you makin' it there?”

    “Yeah, well, like I said, I don't have a plan.” She sighs. He's not trying to make this difficult, she reminds herself. It's just that it is difficult and he's being realistic. “I've got enough for the bus to Virbank.” Or she thinks she has, anyway. She hasn't checked. Oh, she should have done, she knows that, but she didn't. She was afraid that if she thought about the trip too much she wouldn't go.

    “So what about the ferry?”

    “Not sure.” She shrugs. “I'll figure something out.”

    They drive on in silence for a while. Suburbs come and go, and then they hit the Route 19 highway, curving gently northeast through the woods. Somewhere to the right of here is the trainers' trail, a thin path let into the wilderness that even now at this early hour probably has a few kids hiking up and down its length, heading to and from Aspertia the old-fashioned way. The thought is almost unbearable.

    “I got a friend in Castelia,” says Shane after a while. “Maxine. You'd like her.” (Gwyneth suppresses a grimace. She doesn't like being told she'll like people. It usually proves to be too optimistic an assessment.) “Anyway, I'll call her. See if she's willin' to help out, like as a favour to me.”

    “Hey, dude, you don't have to―”

    “You're gonna have to pass through Castelia one way or another, man,” he says pragmatically. “Lemme do this for you. You never know, maybe she knows someone. If not, hey, maybe you'll have a couch to crash on. Fair enough?”

    Gwyneth sighs.

    “Fair enough,” she agrees. “Thanks, Shane.”

    “Hey, no problem, man, no problem.”

    The forest spreads on either side of the road like black wings. All the traffic is going the other way, into the city, and even then there isn't much of it, not on a Saturday; the car fills up slowly with the eerie calm of early morning, peaceful and lonely. Shane lights a cigarette. Somewhere, birds are singing.

    For the first time in a very long time, Gwyneth feels something unclench inside her, settle down into her bones. She leans back in her seat and shuts her eyes.

    Well. She's going, right? That's something. It's a decision.

    And hell, at least it'll be warm in Humilau.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2017
  3. icomeanon6

    icomeanon6 It's "I Come Anon"

    Here it is, people: the most serious, insightful usage of the "Are you a boy or a girl?" quote in the history of fanfiction. I thought it was a joke for a second before I read the rest of the paragraph. Very clever.

    I really like this first chapter as a beginning. You paint a substantial picture of Gwyneth's past and present condition and still manage to keep things relevant to the start of the main plot. There's a lot of information established, but it works as proper story as opposed to just exposition dump. I'm also a fan of the vivid descriptions of settings and moods; it makes me feel like I have a good understanding of how Gwyneth sees the world around her. The paragraph where she's leaving the apartment is a standout. It's not a good feeling when what should be some of your best years are shaping out more like a nasty September.

    My favorite bit was definitely this little one:
    I wish I didn't do this, but I do sometimes. Very apt and relatable depiction of what I think is common but under-explored behavior.

    Great stuff. Looking forward to seeing more of Gwyneth's story, I assume both past and future.
  4. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    So far, interesting and different! You don't see too many trans-gender characters (in Pokemon fics or otherwise), so this was refreshing. Love how you introduce that aspect with the "Are you a boy or a girl?" quote (especially how you were able to make it like the games by using a dream sequence). Although... I'm kinda not sure about why Gwyneth would feel that kind of pressure from Professor Juniper, since, as we later learn, Juniper is a supportive figure in her life. I guess it makes sense that she'd feel pressure from her to become a great trainer, like, pressured by her hopes for her... But the dream is specifically about gender identity, and I never got the sense that Juniper disapproved (quite the opposite, in fact). I suppose there's a chance that there's a miscommunication, that Gwyneth THINKS Juniper disapproves... But I didn't get the impression from the scene that she did.

    Anyway, it's interesting that the person who seems to have the most difficulty with Gwyneth's gender identity is Hilbert. Usually, in this kind of story, it's the parents who don't like it, and the sibling who's supportive... But relationships between siblings can be complicated. It reminds me of this case where there were identical twin boys, Bruce and Brian. Bruce's circumcision was terribly botched, so this psychologist, a Dr. John Money, asked if the parents would be willing to conduct a little experiment. Money thought that gender identity was completely, 100% socialized, and wanted to test this theory by having Bruce raised as a girl, Brenda. It's a long, tragic story, but the short of it is, "Brenda" never felt like a girl. When the twins were teens, the parents finally told them the truth... and part of the fallout was that it created a rift between Brenda (who soon changed his name to David) and Brian. I got the impression from watching a documentary that Brian felt challenged, as a boy, by the fact that the person he'd always believed was his sister was actually his brother. I wonder if you're familiar with the case? The fact that you wrote this fic this way makes me think maybe you did (especially considering the use of a "B" name, Blake, for Gwyneth's original name). If you're not, you should definitely look into it; it's fascinating, not to mention really important. Anyway, yeah, I can see why a boy would have trouble accepting his brother as a girl. I got the impression that Hilbert was uneasy with it, rather than outwardly critical, and it created distance.

    So Hilbert left with the other kids (are they all siblings? cousins? friends? I wasn't sure), leaving Gwyneth behind, huh? The implication I got is that Gwyneth didn't feel comfortable traveling with the others (especially Hilbert), and that she didn't feel like part of their group. Although she still seems pretty happy at this point. Left out by the other kids, sure, but she feels like she has a role at home, like she's of value to her mother and Dr. Juniper (what's the relationship there? Are they sisters? Or what?) I started to see the first hint of things going wrong there, but... Even so, I'm not sure at this point why Gwyneth didn't just start her journey with another group. She feels the distance between herself and Hilbert at this point, but it seems like she still has confidence in herself (the way she feels proud of herself for helping, the way Juniper thinks of her as brave and bright), and like going on a journey is something she wants to do. Is it because she's a year younger than Hilbert? You might want to clarify that if that's the case, since most fics have the starting age set at 10.

    The fact that Gwyneth's journey started out so well makes me wonder even more why she didn't start at the same time as Hilbert (unless it's the age thing). At this point, she seems like a very curious, optimistic person... Nice details on her group, plus the other trainers she encounters. Nice foreshadowing that Nika's already interested in Hilbert. I'm thinking Gwyneth's relationship with Nika has a lot to do with why Gwyneth became who she is in the present of the story?

    As for the match on TV, it's fine overall, seems to have thematic significance... Only I would make it clear sooner that the people on TV aren't related to Gwyneth. At first I was waiting to see what her connection to them was, and it was a little distracting.

    With the context you just gave, Gwyneth's feelings about her brother's wedding are very sympathetic. Of course she doesn't want to be reminded of how successful her brother's been, when she hasn't really done anything; of course she doesn't want to see him marry someone she was in love with. It's like she's always losing. I can identify with that. Hopefully I'll be able to move forward in life soon, but... When you get to the part where Gwyneth's trying to convince herself that she can be ok just helping out other people on their journeys, that all jobs are important, yeah, I know that thought process.

    Anyway, I like how much you describe Gwyneth's environments, especially in Aspertia. I could really feel how cold and run-down it was. More importantly, the description gave me the sense that Gwyneth is an observer, and a poetic soul, as well, the way things are described. I liked Shane (got a good sense of his personality through the dialogue), and the rapport the two of them have, how he's kind of an older brother figure to her despite the fact that she's older. The dialogue felt realistic.

    Other than that, I had a couple of overall notes. First, I'm not sure how I feel about the perspective jumping around in certain scenes. We get insight into Professor Juniper, Nika, a random worker at the video game store, Shane... You seem committed to Gwyneth's point of view, though, and... I tend to like an all or nothing approach with that kind of thing. Like, I like it to stick to one character, or only the princible ones. I suppose what I'm saying is, when you go into another characters perspective in just one scene, it feels kinda out of place. It's like, why is this character getting so much focus? How important are they to the story? With Juniper and Nika, especially, it felt like, they're important people in Gwyneth's life, so maybe they'll have bigger roles later. But with the girl at the shop... I mean, I see what you're doing: all of these changes in perspective are focused on others' impressions of Gwyneth. I just wonder if there's a better way to show that. Like, Gwyneth seems like a perceptive person when it comes to other peoples' impressions of her-- I love the scene where she sees Hilbert's expression in the mirror. If I were writing this, I would do more of that, look at the others' reactions to her through her perspective. In fact... it seems like you're already leaning toward this in some places. Or maybe it's just the one place:
    That felt weird, because... since we're in Juniper's perspective, it made it feel like she already expects Gwyneth to disappoint her. This line really feels like it's coming more from adult Gwyneth's perspective. I'm not sure if it's really a problem, and you would have to sacrifice some stuff (like Juniper remembering what it's like to be 14), but... That's how I feel about it.

    Second, sometimes you have a tendency to explicate things that could be left implicit. Like here:
    and here:
    I would leave out. Especially the last one of the first quote. Because there's enough context here for the reader to gather why Gwyneth hasn't stayed in contact with her parents, why she wouldn't want to talk about her dream. Even when context isn't enough... I like it when authors reveal things about characters that you understand later, when you learn more about their pasts. Since you are doing a lot of flashbacks here, I think that's something you could easily do. I dunno, my first instinct is to want to tell the reader everything my characters are thinking and feeling... I'm so self-aware that I find it hard to imagine what it's like to not be that way, and as a result, my characters tend toward that same self-awareness. But I fight against it (especially when it comes to non-POV characters), because I really think it's better to let the reader figure it out on their own. That way, they feel like they're discovering the character themselves.

    Third, there were a couple of words that I wasn't sure about. Like... "salubrious." That doesn't sound like a word Gwyneth would use to me. She is very descriptive, and thoughtful, so it does make sense to use a lot of metaphors when writing from her perspective. I wouldn't say it feels wrong to have her use big words where they're appropriate, but... "Salubrious" is kind of a step beyond, the kind of word that people go out of their way to use to sound smart. And Gwyneth doesn't come off that way to me at all. On the plus side, you've developed her voice well enough that I feel like I have a good sense of what she would and wouldn't say, that it feels jarring when I come across something like that.

    Third... Oh, I really like the repetion of "Some are chosen, and some aren't." It really drives home how entrenched Gwyneth is in that point of view, how she uses it to understand her life. It's almost a scape-goat, isn't it? Like, if things have turned out for her like they have because she wasn't "chosen," then it's not really her fault. Plus, she doesn't have to wonder about what her life might be like if she'd made different choices, it was always going to be like that. The fact that it's repeated so often kinda makes me wonder how much she really believes it, and how much she's just trying to believe it. Or... could be she believes it because it's been kind of beaten into her... But still, it's easier than actually having to try, you know? I like that ambiguity there. If it helps, this is exactly the kind of thing I mean when I talk about leaving things implicit. It's a great motif!

    Overall, you have mature, interesting themes and realistic, relatable characters here. Keep up the good work!
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2017
  5. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Well, I'm glad that went over well! I've always wanted to do something with that opening, ever since ORAS quoted the old RSE opening by replaying it on the PokéNav screen as you travel along in the truck and I thought ah, we've had so many of these intros now that even the franchise itself is kind of laughing at them. Anyway, thanks. It is a joke, but not, perhaps, a very funny one, at least not if you're Gwyneth, as is generally the way when jokes happen to actual people. It's not quite as much about gender as it appears, though – as I tried to indicate by suggesting that she doesn't talk about it because she's afraid of being misunderstood. I mean, it kind of is, of course, but I don't think that's the part that really bothers her about it, not at this point. Some people get chosen and some do not: every time you pick a character to start off a new pokémon game, you discard the character you didn't choose. Gwyneth's story, as maybe starts to become clearer as the chapter goes on, is the story of the character not chosen.

    Is that pretentious? Probably, but at least if I obfuscate it in a dream sequence I can pretend it's just a character portrait.

    Thank you! This is a departure from the sort of thing I usually do, in a whole bunch of technical ways as well as in terms of actual content, and I'm glad to hear I'm hitting at least some of the right notes. I wanted to do something that was deliberately sparer and more awkward than what I usually write, kind of a graceless story about graceless people kind of thing. Whether I'm getting that right or not I'm still not sure, after quite a lot of rereading and editing, but hey, if people like it I'm more than happy with that.

    Don't we all. I like writing Gwyneth; I usually write heroes of one kind or another, at least in fanfic, and it's refreshing to write someone so astronomically far from that ideal. She's not nice, she makes all the wrong decisions, and the main plot of Black and White happened entirely without her. I suppose part of the pleasure of playing a pokémon game is that you can be Hilda or Hilbert, Nate or Rosa, Red or Blue; unfortunately, I'm like 95% sure that if I actually were in Unova I'd be a minor NPC. Hence this story, I guess. Ah, well. A girl can dream.

    You assume correct! Thanks for reading, and for responding. It's always nice to know that the story you produced with the intention of communicating and entertaining is, you know, doing its thing.

    Yeah, I don't particularly have an explanation for why it's Juniper in the dream other than the fact that Juniper opens BW2, which this story is obviously about. I guess if I had to come up with an answer, it'd be something like this: the thing about being trans, as with belonging to any minority, is that with the best of intentions people do end up making mistakes in their interactions with you anyway, in some cases constantly, and I don't suppose Juniper is any different to anyone else in that regard. Alternatively, there is the fact that it's a dream and in dreams nice people sometimes do less than nice things. Really, I guess, the reason why it's her is basically thematic, which is a nice way of saying that it doesn't necessarily make as much sense as it might otherwise do. I just figured the benefits of the scene outweighed the costs.

    I'd be interested to know what gave you that impression. I thought I did a pretty good job keeping Hilbert mostly bland and featureless, like player characters in the pokémon games tend to be, and certainly if he came across as having issues with Gwyneth that wasn't my intention. I feel like Gwyneth has a lot of issues with him, but I'm not sure it goes the other way around.

    I know the story, but didn't intend to recall it; I chose Blake because it means 'black', like Gwyneth means 'white', to keep with the theming from the games, and let's be honest, there are probably an awful lot of trans people whose deadnames begin with a 'B'. I can't think of a situation in which I'd actually want to recall that story in anything I write; I'll leave my specific thoughts about it out of this for the sake of brevity, but honestly it says a lot more about cis people to me than anything else, and even then, not anything that I didn't already know. I don't see any connection between it and this story, other than the mere fact that they involve ideas about gender, and that is a charge that you could lay at the doorstep of pretty much any story whatsoever.

    Which is possibly not the response than you were anticipating, for which I apologise. I guess it's something I have Opinions about. Anyway, all I really meant to say is that Gwyneth's transness is mostly just down to the fact that, as you say, there are a lot of stories about cis people and not so many about trans people. But you know, we play Pokémon too! So here I am, writing fanfic starring trans girls.

    I went with game canon; they're all friends. I think I said that when I mentioned that Gwyneth didn't have a group of friends like Hilbert's, somewhere around the point when she went to Juniper's lab. I suppose it could be clearer, though! Thanks for pointing it out.

    That was all it was! The Gen V protagonists are all actually 2-5 years older than those of previous generations, officially. That is definitely something I should make a little clearer though, given the usual conventions, you're absolutely right about that. I'll find a way to make it happen.

    Absolutely it does, yes. They were together, in one way or another, for nine years, which is not an insignificant amount of time. When they split up, you'll be completely unsurprised to learn, Gwyneth did not handle it very well. But Nika isn't everything; there's training, too, a field with which Gwyneth has had a really uneasy relationship, as I hope even this first chapter has indicated. That's got a lot to do with who she is now as well.

    I'm not so sure about this one. Sorry, this is probably me being not very perceptive, but I don't see why a reader would come to this story expecting a connection between Gwyneth and the people on TV other than that she is a person watching them because she has free time right now and a TV in her apartment. Unless that's what you meant? In which case perhaps there is a case to be made for making that clearer, although I guess I still feel like it's the sort of thing a reader can figure out for themself after a little while. Oh, but now I've said that, I don't know. That's something I'll have to have a think about. Thanks for raising it!

    I'm glad it resonates. That's a big part of what I hope for when I write things, honestly. I mean, it would be lovely if everyone reading this felt like their lives were going well enough that they couldn't relate to Gwyneth at all, but, uh, you know, in the absence of universal peace and love I'll settle for telling stories about relatable deadbeats.

    I'm pleased you liked it, and more so that you picked that up about Gwyneth! That's exactly what I was hoping for. She is, as people like her often have to be, always watching and aware of the way that others watch, too. The poetry is, well, probably just me, if I'm honest, but yes, let's totally give Gwyneth all the credit.

    Good point! In raising it, you've made me think about it, and come to the conclusion that really, what's important here isn't so much the fact that Gwyneth is seen as the fact that she is always seeing others seeing her, and that therefore the way to go is probably to do something like edit these moments down a little and cast them as her speculation. It doesn't seem like too difficult an edit to make; I'll have a play around with all this when I get a moment and see if I can figure out some way to make it stick.

    I agree with your first example completely; I rewrote that sentence a whole bunch of times and kept wondering why it seemed inelegant, and now I see that that was because it probably shouldn't have been there at all. So! Thanks for that. I'm less certain about the second one. I wrote the dream in a way that encourages people to interpret it as being entirely about gender – and don't get me wrong, it is about gender, but it's also about more than than just one thing, as dreams often are – so that they would fall into the trap of misinterpretation that Gwyneth is afraid of. I left that last sentence there to suggest that an interpretation of that sort is too hasty and makes too many assumptions. Did it work? Well, I'm not so sure; it's debatable whether or not anyone would actually pick up on it, after all. But I think on balance I'm happier with it there than otherwise.

    As for any other similar inelegances, yeah, they've probably ended up in here because of my trying to make this deliberately kind of awkward in some ways. Which is not to defend them: if they feel like they don't work, then they probably don't, tends to be the way I view things. I'll have a reread of this first chapter through to see if I find anything that stands out particularly in that kind of vein, and bear it in mind when it comes to future chapters. Thanks for letting me know.

    Thanks, that's something I should totally have caught in an earlier edit. You're absolutely right that Gwyneth is not a long words kind of person. I was thinking of changing it to 'It's what Nika might call salubrious', except, I now realise, I never actually went and did it. Well done, me. Good editing there.

    Glad you liked it. Thanks for reading, and most definitely for leaving such a detailed and thought-provoking response! I knew bits of this story were going to kind of miss the mark, it being something of an experiment for me, and I'm glad of the assistance in fixing it up a bit.
  6. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    Ok, some of what I was confused about in this fic has to do with the fact that I'm unfamiliar with the Black/White games. I think it's helpful to have that kind of reader, though, since you usually do want to appeal to a broader audience.

    Ok, I get what you mean. But in fiction... how exactly do I say this? In real life, things often happen for no reason (I mean, other than cause and effect); not everything has thematic weight. Fiction is different, though; you're making choices to convey certain meanings. Dream sequences in particular carry a lot of symbolic weight, say a lot about the characters' subconscious. It's an opportunity to bring to the forefront things the character may not admit or ever be aware of. So thinking about it like that... I think it's obvious that Professor Juniper's opinion matters a lot to Gwyneth. So maybe she secretly fears that Professor Juniper disapproves, even if she has no evidence for that? If so, that could be a little more clear.

    This gives me the impression that he's staring, but he doesn't want her to see. Plus, when you talk about her "learning to unsee him," it implied to me that she was trying to ignore his judgement (or whatever it is). Especially when followed by the part about finding "new ways of mapping the geometry of her face." It feels like she's trying to create her own idenitity without the influence of her brother's opinion. Then add his generally stoic nature (he seemed cold), and her difficult relationship with him later... The dream sequence made me think that Gwyneth did and still does have troubles related to being trans (the fact that you chose to represent that dream about that anxiety above all others implies that it's what's most prominent to her). And the most obvious reason for that would be that her family and/ordidn't take her transition well; since we see that her mother and Professor Juniper were accepting, and the only other prominent person is the distant Hilbert... It's true that in real life, families usually do have some difficulty, even if it's just that it's hard to see the person they've always know differently... so there was that expectation. Now I think I see what you're doing: she's been comparing herself to him, right? That's why we see their faces in the same frame like that.

    Yeah, I didn't mean to generalize... But I still think there's commonality in that, Gwyneth is male (even if her biological sex didn't match her gender), but was raised female. This is set soon after she starts expressing her true gender. Her family situation, sense of self, and general mood are a lot better, but... given that I thought the brother in this story was uncomfortable with the transition... That's what it was.

    I mean, I think that case says a lot about gender identity, period-- how gender is biological (as opposed to purely socialized), how some behavior performance (like playing with dolls) is also biological (although of course culture reinforces and encourages it), how you can have a strong sense of gender identity from a very young age, how even a small child can just know that they're a different gender than the one they're raised as... How it's not a choice, you can't change it, and neither can anyone else. Sorry if I seemed insensitive about it; it's just a prominent story in my mind. I was pretty young myself when I encountered it, and it made a deep impression on me, played a key role in developing my understanding of gender. It's come up a lot for me since then, too; I went to a women's college, so we talked a lot about feminism and gender theory... A lot of the stuff we talked about had a tendency toward socialization theory. It seemed that way to me, at least... My biological sex matches my gender, but I resented being told that my gender identity and performance was mostly socialized. Some, sure, but... I've always felt like a girl, since I can remember, and the girl things that were advertized and given to me always felt like what I wanted to begin with. When talking, or even thinking, about that, I always came back to this story. And again when I hear people say things like, a 5 year old (or even a 12 year old) is too young to be trans. So yeah, it's got a lot of significance to me, and that's why it was the first thing that occured to me.

    Hmm... I think it's got to do with the fact that, coming in, I thought the story was about Red. All the characters have distinct names... I imagined the screen as being a screen at the stadium until it moved back to Gwyn... Gwyn mutes at the commercials, not during the action, and when Shane calls, it's about her brother (who isn't named until later). So, since I was already thinking the characters on screen were more important than they were, I got the idea that Red was her brother, that the event had happened a while ago (or was on delay)... And that this wedding was a big deal because he was champion, or was a prominent trainer? Even when I learned he wasn't her brother... I guess that's the point where I started figuring it out, but because I was already expecting a connection, for a second, I was like, wait, where does Red fit into all this?

    Oh, yeah, it's the same for me. I mean, what's most important to me is that my characters feel real to my readers... and the core of my characters is their thought-processes and emotional realities.

    Hm... characters are a part of the self, after all. I can totally relate to that kind of awareness, too.

    This fic has a cinematic quality to it, and I could see in my mind's eye the way the scene shifted away from Gwyneth to the person looking at her... Given her perceptive nature, it should be easy to change.

    No problem! Well, to me, it came off as almost solely about gender. I mean, it seemed like Gwyneth felt inferior to Hilbert, or at least a lot less poised and confident... But it seemed like for her, that was all rooted in issues of gender identity-- Hilbert is a great trainer, confident, and strong... He fits. And Gwyneth can't be any of these things (or at least, she feels like she can't), because she's trans. It very much felt like her struggles with her gender and other peoples' lack of understanding are the root of her insecurities. So that definitely worked. But when it says she's afraid of being misunderstood, I took it to mean that she doesn't think people will understand her feelings and insecurities, that they'll judge her for that, too. She's also a child, but... That feels like it's important because she felt small and vulnerable then, and still so confused about who she was. I feel like... since the narrative is from Gwyneth's point of view... I assumed that anything important to her would be mentioned. Now that I look at it, I guess there is some ambiguity there, as in, she doesn't know who she is as a person in general... But when it's sandwiched in between all the interrogation about what she is, it feels like it's part of that. With what you're telling me, it feels to me like if the dream is about something else, too, then even Gwyneth doesn't really understand what, or at the very least, she can't put it into words. That you would have to mention for a reader to really get, I think. And if it's something that can be shown, I feel like there need to be more clues. Subtle ones, but ones where you can re-read it, and be like, oh, yeah, I missed that. As for trying to sound awkward at times, yeah, I know about that. My characters are usually younger than me, so their language isn't so sophisticated, and... it's hard.

    No problelm! No story's going to turn out perfect, so... You're doing great so far!
  7. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    I see where you're coming from, and I know what you mean, but I'm still not totally convinced, I'm afraid. I mean, I want the dream to be interpreted as being about gender, for one thing, and I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear; the dream is something I'll be coming back to later in the story, with various different interpretations. If I did make its other preoccupations clearer, I'd be needlessly sacrificing all those future episodes. Clearly Juniper's opinion (among other things) is important: you can get that much just from reading it, even if I don't say as much. I just don't know that I feel it's necessary to make everything explicit right at this point, where all I'm trying to do is just introduce the dream and use it, in this first instance, to let people know that by the way, Gwyneth is trans.

    All of which is woolly and vague and concerned with things that haven't even happened yet (for which you'll have to forgive me), so let's get back to that one line that started it, "She is afraid of being misunderstood", and whether or not it's necessary. I feel like it has a place there at that point in the passage; I don't feel like it's making subtext unnecessarily into text. I've thought about what you've said and what I wanted to do and all and I just think that, on balance, it should stand. Possibly I should've just made myself clearer on that score earlier. Sorry to have got us so side-tracked with trying to explain so many unconnected points; I should really stand back and let the story and its respondents do the talking.

    Oh, I see the confusion here. That sentence says Blake, not Hilbert. She's seeing her past, not her brother.

    It's okay; I didn't get the impression you were intending to be insensitive. But since we're now talking about it, here are my thoughts. I'll keep them brief, since this is not really the proper place for this conversation. Gender as I see it is more of a function of society, in that it is a codification and ritualisation of sets of behaviours, to which are assigned various impulses and inclinations that in themselves clearly have deep roots that can be traced back to multiple sources -- sources that are, as yet, still relatively unclear. (How people negotiate their relationship to these structures is another matter entirely.) This is why Money's experiment was so astonishingly unthinking and pointless. It apparently never occurred to him that he could have dispensed with his experiment just by thinking to himself "hey, don't trans people exist? and intersex people who undergo this sort of involuntary surgery at birth?" All the story says to me is that here, as so often, cis people just didn't get it. There are millions of kids who are forcibly raised in a gender they don't want, or who undergo involuntary surgery at birth or soon after to make them conform to norms of what a sexed body should look like (sex itself being as much an artefact of ideology as gender is, although again this is not the proper place for that conversation). Transness is a very modern way of understanding this kind of thing, but we've always been here, in one form or another, and Money did not need to add to the number of traumatised kids in the world to figure out he was missing a trick. We're not metaphors, symbols, or points in arguments. I hope that makes it clear why I think the whole sorry mess is more a demonstration of cis people acting unthinkingly than of any innate sense of gender.

    I feel like I ought to clarify, gender can also be a choice. Not for everyone, as with all things that have that kind of power over people, but it can be. I chose to be what I am not because I have a deep-rooted conviction that I am really and truly anything -- I'm not the sort of person who believes in Things About Myself -- but because this was what I wanted to be and the alternatives were way less appealing. If I'd never realised I was allowed to make that choice, I could probably have gone through life without making it at all. I suppose I have more to say, but like I said, this is not really the right place for this debate, and certainly not what I'm trying to do with this story. My intention in writing about a trans woman is not to start this conversation, but just to write the sort of story I would like to see in the world. Anyway, I think this has got far enough off topic now that it's time to draw a line under it. This thread is about a fanfic, after all, and that ought to be the focus of my attention here.

    Right, I see! I'm sure I can do something about that.
    Last edited: May 14, 2017
  8. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    I see. In that case, I'd still leave out the part about being afraid of being misunderstood. You said you wanted to make the reader think it was solely about gender, and that works. But could you extend that? Because readers will start to get that they've misunderstood as you reveal more about Gwyneth and the dream, without having to be explicitly told.

    Ooooh! Wow, I totally wasn't paying attention! Or I saw what I expected to see. At any rate, that changes things.

    Very interesting; glad I had the opportunity to read that, even if we're really talking about your fic. That's a great point about there having been trans people for a long time before any of this happened, so there wasn't any need for any of this. Sadly, a lot of people still don't get it. For those, I find that sometimes they'll listen about this because.... I dunno, it feels like those kinds of people are more willing to accept it because he was technically cis... and that reveals that yeah, they do have a bias. Which is also sad, but anything you can do to get to them... I don't want to use the story as just a debate point, but I want them to get it, or at least think about it.

    Well, you didn't choose to not feel strongly one way or the other, or which way appealed to you? That's what I mean-- if you feel like you feel like you're neither, or both, that's not a choice, either. Some people can influence themselves to feel different ways about themselves by thoughts and actions, I'm sure... We all do that, to some degree. But how fluid you are, again, isn't a choice. That's what I mean. Which gender to express is, but... When I say I've always felt like a girl, what I really mean is, how I generally feel about myself matches best with what's generally called "female," that gender expression usually feels good to me. I feel like I have those inclinations naturally rather than by environmental influence. For me, not having strong feeling, feeling differently at different times, feeling like labels don't suit, those would all be Things About Myself. There's no state of being that's quintissentially "me" that I get closer to or get further away from... Whatever I think, feel, or do, that's what "me" is, even those thoughts, feelings, and actions are different under different circumstances, even they it can't be labeled. You know? I have a strong sense of identity, but what I mean by that is that I'm very tuned in to what's going on inside, I know my own patterns. I'll say that I'm x or y kind of person, but it's a generality I use to describe my tendencies. There are even times when I'm not as self-aware.

    Anyway, those were just my final thoughts on the subject.

    Good luck on the writing!
  9. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    It seems to me that neither of us are willing to budge here. I have my reasons for conceiving of this the way I do, as I'm sure you do yours -- and in fact, we don't seem to differ in our views that widely. The points you make here are perfectly valid, and you are right that there are no quintessential selves to retreat into, but I'm not giving up the fact of my choice for a variety of reasons, personal, political and theoretical. Choice is possible, even when our options are limited (and they are not always universally limited, depending on the individual). My inclinations might not be my choice, but what came of them and their interactions with the world is infinitely more complex than those inclinations, and there were many options available to me in the building of a self from those raw materials. But like I said, I'm not planning on going any further into the subject here than I already have, and I certainly don't intend to recite my own history for the sake of this debate.

    Thanks for your criticism, anyway. I have borne and will continue to bear it in mind.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2017
  10. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    Actually, I feel like we're in agreement here. At least, nothing you're saying here is anything I disagree with. Heh, talking about "choice" starts to get a little murky for me after a while, though because while I believe in free will in a sense, I'm a determinist.
  11. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.


    Friday, 9th September

    Here is what Gwyneth packs into her backpack, on Friday night when she is sitting up and worrying about what she is on the verge of doing:

    • two changes of clothes
    • her one good dress
    • her medication
    • her make-up
    • a sturdy sleeping bag (rolled across the top of the pack)
    • a thick woollen blanket (wrapped within the sleeping bag)
    • a bag of toiletries
    • a bottle of water
    • her phone charger
    • a book, Three Nights in Opelucid, by Shauntal Grimes
    • a single ultra ball, polished to a warm shine by years of handling
    This is not an easy trip to pack for. She has no idea where she will be on any given day, what kind of accommodation she'll find, if any. She reluctantly suspects at least one or two nights in what she ironically refers to as the Great Outdoors. It will be okay; she's not proud of herself, but she has done it before, and she has survived. Not for a long time now, and she hopes it won't come to it, but well, if it does, she supposes she does at least have experience to draw upon.

    There are ways to avoid this. One of them would be to call her mother. Hey, mom, I'm trying to get home for the wedding. Can you loan me a couple hundred bucks for a plane ticket? And you never know, it might even work. Maybe, despite all those past loans that never got paid back, she'd get her money, for an occasion like this. How often does your brother get married, after all?

    But if she's honest, it's not going to happen. She can't pick up that phone. She just can't. She'll get to the wedding, one way or another, but she can't pick up the phone. Part of her is astounded at the abyssal depth of her own stubbornness: would she really take the streets over admitting defeat? Yes, apparently. She really would.

    It's kind of a problem, for all sorts of reasons, but she doesn't know what to do about it. So she does nothing, and packs the sleeping bag and blanket. Just in case.

    Gwyneth sits on her bed in the dim yellow light of her bedside lamp, looking at her backpack. This is a terrible idea, she tells herself. You know you'll regret this immediately, right? Go to bed, Gwyneth, and sleep it off. In the morning you'll see this bag and laugh at how serious you were when you packed it.

    In the morning she takes it and she goes to find Shane.


    Saturday, 10th September

    “Well, here we are,” announces Shane, somewhat redundantly. “Told you I'd getcha here.”

    Central Floccesy, bright and quiet in the morning light. Low buildings, grassy spaces, trees, playgrounds, cute little shops. Gwyneth vaguely remembers learning it was set up as some kind of commune ages ago, but then it got bigger and more municipal, and now while a little ranching still goes on around its outskirts most of its residents commute into Aspertia or Virbank. Still, it looks pretty enough. Quiet and prosperous. She supposes it's a refreshing change.

    “Yep,” she agrees. “Thanks again, Shane.”

    “No problem, man.” He drives into the parking lot outside the bus depot and the car chugs to a halt. The two of them get out, and before Gwyneth can reach her pack Shane pulls it out the back and hands it to her. She takes it off him with a force slightly greater than is strictly necessary.

    “Well,” he says, not noticing or pretending not to. “I guess I oughta wish you good luck, Gwyn.”

    “Thanks, dude.” She summons up her energies and smiles. “I think I'm probably going to need it.”

    He grins, shakes his head.

    “Not gonna disagree with you there, Gwyn, 's a crazy damn idea. You really gonna hitchhike all the way to Humilau?”

    She shrugs. Why does he keep asking? She's said she doesn't know what she's going to do. Would it kill him to let the thing drop?

    “If that's what it takes,” she answers, voice level. “We'll have to wait and see.”

    Shane sighs. He does not like this. He understands, or he thinks he understands – would he go to Humilau for Casey? he believes he might – but he does not like it. What he was hoping to do during the trip out here was to blunt the edge of her devotion, make her see what a bad idea this is. He worries. She's a good kid, he thinks, and she doesn't need to go getting herself hurt chasing an ex-lover who's clearly moved on. He doesn't realise that the reason he hasn't succeeded is that she already knows all of this.

    “All right,” he says reluctantly. “Guess I'll see you when you get back, then.”

    “Guess you will.”

    He steps closer, reaches out awkwardly, thinks better of it.

    “Uh … listen, take care of yourself, man,” he says. He's no good at this, he thinks; he can feel his face reddening. “'S a long road. You feel me?”

    The hardness in Gwyneth's chest slackens a little. Shane is really not so bad, is he? Look. He clearly cares. And he drove her all the way out here. The guy can ask questions if he wants.

    “Thanks, dude,” she says again. “I really appreciate this.” A graceless pause. What else is there to say? “I better let you get back. Don't want Casey complaining that I'm stealing you away on your morning off.”

    “Ah, he's cool with it, man, don't worry.” (He's not. There was an argument last night about this, or not about this, really, but about Gwyneth in general, about how many second chances Shane is going to give her, about the fact that Casey's life is not what he imagined it would be, about whether or not Shane is even trying, any more; about everything, really, but on the surface at least about this.) “Still, better get started on the way back,” says Shane cheerfully. “Gotta get lunch before I head on out to the store.”

    “Right. Bye, Shane.”

    “Bye, Gwyn. Tell Nika I said hi.”


    “Yeah, okay, I will.”

    Walking away across the cracked tarmac, cloud of breath in the air. Shane stays watching by his car until Gwyneth disappears through the sliding doors of the bus depot. She never looks back to see him go.


    The buses are irregular on the weekends. Gwyneth has forty minutes to kill before the next one departs for Virbank, according to the electric departures board hanging from the ceiling. She buys a ticket for twenty-two dollars, which she feels is extortionate but what are you gonna do, right, and sits on a steel bench under the >VIRBANK sign to wait.

    After a little while, someone else joins her: a kid, fourteen or fifteen, with a tranquill on his shoulder that keeps rearranging his hair with its beak. She supposes it's trying to preen him, but it's a losing battle. Hair isn't as stiff as feathers.

    She thinks she should say something. He's a trainer, right? You can spot them a mile off. And what you do with trainers is you talk to them, make them feel welcome. She remembers the woman at the bus stop in Accumula, giving her the ultra ball; she remembers a dozen others, with gifts and bits of advice. It's the right thing to do.

    “Hi,” she says, after a while. “You on a trainer journey?”

    He looks up, a little nervous. It's okay. She gets that a lot.

    “Yeah,” he says warily. “I'm going to take on the Virbank Gym.”

    What's that in his eyes? Gwyneth imagines herself at fifteen, seeing herself now. An adult, age indeterminate as it is with everyone on the far side of twenty-two, tired eyes, wild hair. Probably this kid would have crossed the street to avoid her a couple of months ago. But now he's on his pokémon journey, and she just bets he's finding that even the drifters have turned friendly.

    “Neat,” says Gwyneth. Come on. Be inspiring. “Hey, uh, when you do, have your tranquill stay in the air if you can. Roxie will probably have her pokémon scatter toxic spikes all over the floor.”

    He looks astonished. It's been a while since Gwyneth's seen that kind of uncomplicated amazement.

    “Really? Is that a thing?”

    “Oh, yeah.” She knows all about poison. “There's a few moves like that. They call them entry hazards? 'Cause usually people place them so when you send out your pokémon they stumble right into them.”

    “Wow.” The kid takes a minute to consider this. His tranquill twitters despairingly and turns away from his hair in a huff. “I read about this thing called stealth rock,” he says hesitantly, and Gwyneth gives him her very best encouraging nod.

    “Yep, like that,” she says. “That's a pretty good one. It floats, so even if your pokémon can fly it's probably going to get hit by it. But you don't need to worry about that in a poison Gym,” she adds quickly. Inspiring. Encouraging. Make him believe. “How many badges d'you got?”

    “Uh, none,” he admits. “I tried against Cheren, but he's really tough.”

    “Yeah, tell me about it. I mean, I've heard that,” she corrects herself. “I work at the Aspertia Pokémon Centre, so you know, I hear a lot of kids are struggling with him.”

    She does not want to think about Cheren. Neither of them like each other. She doesn't like many of her brother's friends, if she's honest, but Cheren is one of the ones who dislikes her right back.

    He'll be at the wedding, she realises. Well, won't that be fun?

    “Anyway, Roxie's not so bad,” she says. Smile, Gwyneth, smile. Be the woman with the ultra ball. “You just have to watch out and not get poisoned.”

    “Thanks,” replies the kid. “We'll do that! Won't we, Blitz?”

    He raises a knuckle to stroke the side of the tranquill's head, a tender little gesture that cuts Gwyneth up inside and sublimates her resentment into anger, and it leans into his finger, cooing softly.

    “Well,” she says, through gritted teeth. “Happy to help.”

    And maybe it will work out; maybe the kid will look up entry hazards on his phone on the bus, and he'll decide he wants a roggenrola so he can test this out for himself; and maybe, a month or two from now in Castelia, Burgh will hand him his Insect Badge and tell him that that was some damn fine work, that he barely even managed to get his pokémon into the arena through that stealth rock field. And maybe the kid will smile and remember the drifter at the Floccesy bus depot.

    Just goes to show, he might think. You never can judge a book by its cover.

    Or maybe not. Maybe he just wants the weirdo at the bus stop to leave him alone. But Gwyneth has to try, at least. You have to believe in something, and despite it all, she still wants to believe in trainer journeys.

    When the bus finally crawls out of the depot and pulls up at the stop, the kid goes on ahead to the top deck, of course, to sit up there at the front, and Gwyneth breathes out as she takes a seat on the lower level. That's him out of the way. She didn't do too badly, she thinks. Perhaps she could have been nicer. But she could have been much nastier, too, and she wasn't, so she guesses it's all right.

    Outside the window, Floccesy starts moving. Not much; Gwyneth imagines there isn't a lot going on at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning. But there's a couple of people out and about. Old guy and a herdier, sitting on a bench by the clock tower. Woman with a carton of milk in her hand, on the way back from an emergency visit to the convenience store. Girl about her own age, sandwiched between giant red headphones, braids flying as she twitches to the beat. Saturday morning in suburbia.

    She thinks about Cheren, despite herself. He's the one who started this, in a way. Mom called him, he called Shane, Shane called her. That irritates her: Cheren barely even knows Shane – only knows him, in fact, through Gwyneth. She's not particularly pleasant company, she knows that, but is she so bad he can't even call her to say her own brother, his best friend, is getting married?

    But Cheren has always been fastidious. Doesn't like a mess, doesn't like to touch anything that might leave a mark. And Gwyneth has always been a mess, has always left marks. No, she can't blame him. She doesn't like him, but she can't blame him. He's probably too busy to want to worry about dealing with her himself; he's still new to the Pokémon League, and he hasn't got the knack of it yet. That's why people are finding his Gym so hard. The trick with Gym Leadership is to gauge the challenger and pick out the pokémon and strategy that are just on the limits of their capacities, so that the fight is difficult but fair. There is a sense in which Cheren is a victim of his own talent.

    She takes a grim pleasure in this. Some people get chosen and some do not. It doesn't always turn out like you'd expect.


    Cheren was in the news a lot back then, too; he's probably the second most commented-on trainer in Unova, after Hilbert. That's one of the downsides to the rivalry tradition. Second best, second most famous. Honourably mentioned. When you have two rival trainers, unless they're unusually well matched, one of them always ends up stealing the other's thunder.

    He gets his share of attention in the magazines, though. Cheren Boyadzhiev: This Year's Rising Star! The interviewers ask about his strategy, about his encounters with Team Plasma, and then, inevitably, about Hilbert. So we hear you're a long-time friend of his. Tell us, what's he really like? “I'm sure there's nothing I can tell you that you couldn't find out from someone else. Now, if I could just return to your previous point for a second, I wanted to say …” He's always very slick. If he resents Hilbert at all, he knows how to hide it.

    Gwyneth never gets the feeling that he does. But then, she isn't sure of her instincts about him any more. It's been a year since he left Nuvema, and when she sees his face in the magazine photographs now, she can't say what she recognises from before and what only seems familiar from the relentless media coverage. His face is not the face of the boy who lives down the road, but that of a major new force in the world of Unovan pokémon training.

    Gwyneth decides not to worry about it. He's Hilbert's friend, really.

    But Nika keeps bringing it up. It comes out, later on in that conversation in the Striaton Gym, that Gwyneth is Hilbert's sister, and Nika is so excited. So you know Hilbert? And Cheren? And Gwyneth laughs nervously and says yes, she does (even though she doesn't know if that's true, any more), and she wants to get away back to Ashley and Tomás, back to the casual pleasure of anonymity; she gives Nika the magazine and makes awkward excuses, saying she needs to go support her friend when he takes on the Gym Leader.

    And Nika, well; Nika is a little disappointed, because this girl is Hilbert's sister, and because she seems sweet and lost and Nika has something of a weakness for sweet, lost people, but nevertheless she understands and she lets her go.

    “Okay,” she says. “I should probably see if they're ready for me, too. Maybe I'll see you in there!”

    Maybe, replies Gwyneth, and off she goes.

    At the desk, the receptionist says that Tomás has already gone through. Does she want to go in to watch? Yes, Gwyneth would very much like that, and so the receptionist lets her into the main part of the Gym, where the arena and the restaurant are. It looks just like it does in the pictures: the oval stage at the back of the room, ringed with tables and chairs where patrons of the restaurant can sit and watch challengers while they eat. (Gwyneth remembers Cheren talking to Hilbert about it: it's a good racket, you have to give them that. They could serve the worst food in Unova and they'd still be booked up all week with a show like that every day.) Tomás is already up there onstage, opposite Chilan, by the look of things. Striaton's a tricky Gym; there are three leaders, triplets who all field different types and strategies and arrange challenges so that you always end up matched against the one who'll be hardest for you. Chilan uses the grass-type, which doesn't have a straightforward elemental advantage over fighting-types like timburr but which however is disruptive, defensive, enduring; Gwyneth suspects that Tomás will find that Chilan's pokémon can absorb everything he throws at them, heal themselves up and then whittle down timburr's strength with status moves.

    But it's not her place to tell Tomás what he can and can't do. She finds Ashley among the little group of onlookers at Tomás' end of the stage and slips into place next to her, whispering excitedly. Isn't it amazing? Have you ever been in a Gym before? No, this is my first time too― hang on! It's starting! Go, Tomás! You can do it!

    Sadly the cheering is not enough. Tomás cannot, in fact, do it. It's a good battle. All those practice matches against Ashley and Gwyneth do pay off: the trick his timburr learned where he jabs his staff between the opponent's legs and cuts their heels out from under them takes Chilan by surprise, and to rapturous cheering Tomás has his timburr lay the stunned pansage out cold with a swift punch to the jaw. But it's not enough. Neither he nor his timburr have any idea how to deal with a cottonee, into whose fluff blows simply sink without effect, and after a protracted struggle during which he is paralysed no fewer than three times the timburr finally gives in, drops his stick and limps back to Tomás for help, growling indignantly. Match forfeit.

    Tomás is disappointed, but cheers up after Chilan says how well he did to last that long. Eighty per cent of rookies fail, et cetera. Good tactics. Why not round out your team a little further, develop more tricks like the one with the staff? Ashley and Gwyneth loyally inform him how cool he was, and by the time they're back at the Pokémon Centre Tomás has half forgotten that he didn't actually win.

    In the lounge, the TV is showing an interview with Ghetsis Harmonia, one of the Team Plasma activists. He talks about the sacred bond between trainer and pokémon, and how it has to the nation's shame become a thing of the past. He says that the trainer journey is too formalised, that pokémon are just given to people like tools. He says that pokémon must be liberated, that we must return to the old ways, that humans must allow pokémon a new and radical freedom to decide whether they work with them or not.

    Harmonia lost an eye in an industrial accident in his youth. In its place he has one of those new prosthetics, a flashily synthetic machine that clicks and ranges around the room in odd directions when he speaks. Sometimes it focuses directly on the camera, and in those moments Gwyneth feels it staring straight into her heart.

    Someone asks him whether it's true that the legendary dragon pokémon has reawakened at Dragonspiral Tower and chosen the leader of Team Plasma as its champion. He is as slick as Cheren, says he cannot comment at this time, leaves just enough blanks for anyone watching to fill in and come up with an emphatic yes.

    Tomás says he's a liar and a fraud, and of course Ashley falls over herself in her eagerness to agree. Now they want to know, what about you, Gwyneth? What do you think?

    Yeah, she replies. Yeah, he's way off base.

    But she's thinking about Tomás' timburr, blindly swinging at a foe it couldn't beat just because he told it to. She thinks about Blossom and Corbin, who she hasn't let out of their balls at all today. It was too crowded at the Gym, she'd thought. She didn't want them to get lost or hurt. But is that really a good reason? Isn't it more accurate to say she kept them in there because it was more convenient for her?

    On the Castelia Times website the next morning there's a joint interview with Cheren and Hilbert, in Icirrus now to try for their seventh badges. It's remarkable: no one's cleared the Unova League this fast in decades. They didn't even break for winter, and an Unovan January is no joke. Hilbert, as usual, keeps his answers short and unobjectionable, but Cheren takes the chance to respond to Ghetsis' arguments on yesterday's interview.

    “I think Mr. Harmonia's goal is commendable,” he says, in a slippery, icy kind of way that means exactly the opposite. “But if what he truly wants is an overhaul of our relationship with pokémon, he is not going about it in the right way. Certainly there are some pokémon rights issues that both we in Unova and our colleagues overseas desperately need to tackle – trafficking, for instance, which has only got worse in recent years with the increase in Rocket activity in and out of the greater Tohjo region. But mass release is a step too far. What we need is reform, and if Mr. Harmonia continues to insist on total liberation without compromise then I feel we all need to consider what sort of motives lie behind such a baffling refusal to engage in any kind of a debate.”

    Gwyneth thinks he sounds incredibly grown-up. (So, for that matter, does Cheren.) But all his long words and erudite phrasings pale in the face of that electric eye, staring through the camera, through the wires and out the TV into Gwyneth's soul.


    Well, guess who turned out to be right after all? Everyone knows how that story ended. Harmonia broken and beaten in the halls of that freakish castle. That sacred bond he kept going on about wound up being his undoing.

    Cheren. So grown-up, so smug, so right. It makes Gwyneth furious to think of it.

    The bus rumbles around a corner and the town falls away on one side to reveal an apparently endless line of rolling hills, studded with mixed herds of sheep and mareep. Beyond them is the dark line of the northern forests, and above that, the distant shadow of the mountains. Unova, laid out on a plate. How long has it taken? Maybe half an hour. Floccesy is not so big.

    If she keeps going at this pace, getting to Humilau won't be a problem. The issue is that this pace doesn't seem sustainable. She's one third of the way through her bank account after just one bus ticket, and while she hasn't checked the prices of the ferries to Castelia, she has a feeling that they are all substantially more expensive than any provincial bus.

    But there's nothing to be done. She'll be in Virbank in a few hours, and then by tonight she needs to be on a boat. That's just how it has to be. Beg, borrow, steal or straight-up stow away, she has to be on the first boat she can find.

    It will probably be okay, she thinks. She has no particular reason to think it will be, but she thinks it anyway. This is one of those situations where you think it, or you fail.

    The view from the window shifts as Floccesy gives way to Route 20, houses falling away into the rolling hills of the Norna river valley. The highway has been cut through them, leaving crumbling embankments of chalk on either side, faced with wire netting to stave off collapse. Probably it was cheaper to bulldoze the hills than to go around them.

    There isn't much of a view in between them, but occasionally Gwyneth catches a flash of sunlight reflected on water and knows that the river's back there, somewhere. She's never walked that particular trail, but she's seen photographs. There are bridges, stairs cut into the cliffside, stands of long grass sloping down towards the water's edge. In spring there are a multitude of wildflowers that she should be able to name but finds that she cannot. And of course there are kids, making their way from Floccesy to Virbank and vice versa, pokémon leaping at their heels.

    Gwyneth thinks of the kid upstairs, stroking his tranquill. Her fingertips ache with the absence of Blossom's fur.

    She puts in her earphones and gets out her book. It's time to stop looking at the landscape.


    Virbank: an electric dream of a city, equal parts canal, fog and neon – if you can get to it. It's not like Aspertia; it isn't wedged into a gap between the forest and the hills. The terrain changes somewhere along Route 20, and you come out of the maze of embankments into the kingdom of the sprawl. Unova is a big place, a land defined by space as much as history, and its cities like to put their feet up. Gwyneth sits and watches suburbs move past, thicken into small business hubs, and fade back into suburbs again for what seems like an impossibly long time before the buildings get tall and stay that way, packed in around the canals reaching inland from the harbour. This is where the magic happens, say the travel adverts. Virbank: hey, we're not all movie stars. And an image that looks like a regular crowd scene, until you look again and realise you recognise all the faces: Brycen Ellis, Stu Deeoh, Sabrina Whitmarsh, Giulia Santangelo.

    When they first came here, Gwyneth and Nika watched everyone like a hawk, just in case any of them turned out to be celebrities. They didn't – movie people stay up north, in Normandy Heights and Moorview, along with their movie money and their movie mansions – but they didn't care, either. If you travel for the reasons they travelled, the place you actually end up in is not so very important, in the grand scheme of things. They travelled a lot, Gwyneth and Nika, even after first one of them and then the other stopped being trainers and moved on with their lives. Gwyneth thinks there's something about this country that calls out to you, asks you to wander it.

    Well. She's certainly answering now, isn't she.

    There are a lot more stops now, and it's slow going. People from one suburb need to get to other suburbs, or to any of the various pseudo-centres studding the city that the bus route winds through, and seats empty and fill all around her. Humans, pokémon, even on one occasion a double bass whose owner swears constantly, mechanically, with every little movement she has to make to haul the giant instrument towards her destination. Gwyneth watches, hopes she looks unfriendly enough that no one tries to sit next to her. She is not so fortunate. About an hour into the slow drive through Virbank, someone does take the seat, although she is somewhat gratified to notice that he does so with obvious distaste.

    Little victories, she thinks, and takes out one earphone so she can hear when her stop is called.

    It comes, eventually, and the guy sitting next to her is forced to get up to let her out if he doesn't want her backpack clocking him round the head; she wriggles free of the now-too-full bus and pops out of the doors into the cool salt air of coastal Virbank. Behind her, the bus closes up and moves on.

    She heads east, the life flowing back into her cramped legs. The buildings are tall and slick as Cheren or Harmonia, black steel and plate glass mirrored in the canals that cut the streets in two. This is a city of the marvellous, Nika announced, and Gwyneth told her she was being pretentious, but if she's honest, and sometimes she is, she agrees. There is a particular kind of poetry in the reflection of a neon sign in dark water.

    It's less impressive right now, at quarter to two in the afternoon, when all the lights show dimly in the summer sun. The clubs have their doors shuttered; the pedestrians all have the look of people with places to be and things to do. To be expected. It's working hours. For people who have jobs. Which Gwyneth at this point probably does not.

    She doesn't think about it. Instead, she finds a street map on a sign and works out that if she goes straight on and then left at Habergeon and right again at the corner of Wexley and Frost, she should end up at the passenger ferry terminal.

    A few minutes into this new trip, her phone rings.


    “Hey, Gwyn, it's Shane.” (Shane again.) “How's it goin', you in Virbank yet?”

    “Uh huh. Just got off.”

    She steps out of the way of a couple of white-collar workers, moving fast, talking fast, probably on their way back from lunch.

    “Nice. You know what those buses are like, man, I wouldn't've been surprised if you were still stuck in the suburbs.”

    “Tell me about it.”

    She's not being welcoming, she's very aware of it. Sometimes she just can't seem to stop herself. Today, it's down to the fact that there's only one reason Shane will be calling, and that's to tell her about his friend Maxine, who she will, apparently, like.

    “So,” she forces herself to say. “What's up, dude?”

    “Ah, sure, man. Remember I said about my friend Maxine in Castelia?”

    (Crystal clear.)


    “Well, I called her, and she says that there's somethin' up on Route 4, blockin' the whole damn highway and the railway too, if you can believe it.”

    “What?” Gwyneth stops. Someone nearly walks into her, tells her angrily to watch where she's going. She barely hears. “The whole of Route 4?”

    “Yeah, apparently. Some kinda pokémon swarm or somethin'? There's some League G-men up there tryin' to clear it all up, Burgh and his crew, you know, and like it's terrible timin', 'cause the Skyarrow Bridge is closed for inspections―”

    “What? No. No, oh hell, Shane, you got to be kidding me …”

    How is this even possible? The northern and eastern routes into Castelia closed, at the same time? This is Unova: you can drive anywhere, if you can afford the gas. And now the capital is cut off from the whole of the southeast?

    “'Fraid not,” he says, regretfully. “Apparently you can still get through out to the east on the South Bay Bridge, but it's backed up all the way to Sanderlyn, and the trains are screwed up because of the Route 4 blockage, so you're not gettin' out that way either.”

    “So what am I supposed to do?” Gwyneth is working hard to keep the anger out of her voice. Shane is not the problem. Shane is a friend, and he wants to help. “Sorry, I just – seriously? There's no way out to Nacrene or Nimbasa?”

    “Well, like I said, there's the South Bay Bridge, but it's only two levels, you know, like it doesn't have the capacity of Skyarrow. But hey Gwyn, don't panic, I got good news for you.”

    “Yeah? Let's have it, then.”

    “Maxine's got a niece,” he says. “Nice kid, trainer, in town to see her folks. But she's headin' back out tomorrow to this thing in Driftveil, some kinda tournament deal, and since she's gotta be there to make the registration window and she can't go via Nimbasa she's takin' the Relic Passage―”

    “The what?”

    “The Relic Passage, Gwyn. Don't you know? You people built it, didn't you?” (Gwyneth bites her tongue, very hard, tastes blood.) “Part of that old city thing in the desert. Well, you got to ask Maxine if you want the details, I guess, but like, important thing is, it's this cave that goes right under the bay from Castelia to Driftveil. Got pokémon down there and all, right, but Maxine's niece is goin' through anyway, could escort you.”

    There is a silence. Gwyneth is straining against herself to not say the things she wants to say. You people. Whose people?

    She remembers being seven, in elementary school, learning about the first Unovans, how they came here and built prosperous little farms, shared their bounty with the indigenes – still struggling, of course, poor things; they never really recovered after the battle between Zekrom and Reshiram scorched the land. She remembers everyone turning to look at her, and the awful moment when she really truly realised that no, she was not like them at all.

    You people. Okay.

    “Sure, dude,” she says. “That sounds great. Thanks. Seriously, you've saved me, you know that?”

    “Hey, no problem, man,” answers Shane, obliviously happy to be of help. “Wasn't much use me drivin' you to Floccesy if you were just gonna get stuck in Castelia now, was it?”

    “Heh. I guess not.” Gwyneth takes a breath. You people. “So, uh … where does Maxine live?”

    “Oh, right. Sure. Uh, Salmond Street? Like it's near Thaneway, I'll text you the address. Listen, man, I gotta get back to work, but before I go – Maxine's niece is goin' tomorrow at noon. Gotta get to Driftveil in time to register for this tournament thing, you know? So just so you know, Gwyn, you're on a time limit here. She can't wait for you.”

    Of course. Don't be late, Gwyneth, not like you usually are. Not an insult, it's just true. Gwyneth thinks that this probably makes it worse.

    “Sure, dude,” she says. “Thanks for the heads-up.”

    “No problem, Gwyn, happy to help.” (In the alley behind the video game store, Shane is smiling to himself, cigarette dangling from his free hand; he wishes Gwyneth didn't need all this help, seriously, but since she does, he's glad he can give it.) “Anyway, man, I gotta get back to work. Let me know when you get to Maxine's, right?”

    “Right. See you, Shane.”

    “See you, man. And good luck.”

    Click. She stuffs her phone furiously back into her pocket, gets her finger stuck in her haste. You people! Okay, Shane. Us people.

    The thing is (so she claims), she barely notices it herself. It was her father who was Henuun, and he's been gone since she was two; her mother is white, and Gwyneth herself feels so is she, more or less, with her upbringing: what right has she to a name and a history she is so completely alien to? Besides, she takes after her mother. It is important to her that she takes after her mother. Blake was told so many times that he looked like his father, after all.

    But no one else will ever let her forget – not even, it seems, Shane. You people. One of the things Gwyneth is never not aware of and hates with all her soul is that she lives and dies in the eyes of others. You People. Oh, I Never Would Have Known To Look At You. And This Is Your … Friend?

    Anyway. Shane doesn't know, Shane can never know, Shane meant nothing by it. She's been standing still for the last five minutes, chewing her tongue. And isn't she working to a deadline now? Noon tomorrow, or she loses her ticket out of Castelia.

    Okay. She straightens up, runs bitten fingernails through her hair. Forget about it. Shane's better than she deserves, and if she was only willing to talk about any of this she's sure he would listen, and do his best to learn.

    She breathes. She lets Virbank settle around her, cars and sea mist and syncopated music rattling out of a passing biker's radio.

    She adjusts her backpack and she walks east down towards the seafront.


    Friday, 9th September

    Here are the things Gwyneth does not put into her backpack but which she nevertheless carries with her, on her person:

    • her wallet (one debit card, eleven dollars and change, a folded photograph)
    • her phone (password 0517, still, even after eighteen months)
    • a small folding mirror
    • a pair of tweezers
    • a switchblade
    She's never used the knife before, but she understands that one day, Unova being what it is and her being what she is, she might have to. Someone once told her that a weapon you don't know how to use belongs to your opponent. They were probably right.

    Still. In theory, if someone tries to stab her, she can try to stab them right back.

    This is what is referred to as cold comfort.


    Saturday, 10th September

    Inside, the ferry terminal is pleasant, all pale wood and neutral paint. A little hole-in-the-wall café at one end, along with low chairs, tables, magazines. A counter at the other where you can buy your tickets, where a fraught-looking receptionist is trying to deal with a couple of kids.

    Gwyneth looks around. There are fewer people waiting than she'd expected. Has she just missed a ferry? She has a look at the departure board, and stares.


    She keeps staring. This is really happening, isn't it? She is right here in Virbank, trying to catch a ferry that isn't running, to a city blocked to the north by a pokémon swarm and the east by the worst-timed civic engineering work in the history of the world. This is all real. Humilau is getting further and further away, and she just spent most of a day travelling towards it.

    Maybe this is the universe's way of telling her she's wasting her time. And who's to say it isn't right? If she heads back now, she might, might, be able to explain away today to her manager at the Centre. Family emergency, maybe. She could get the next bus home and be back at work in the morning, like nothing had ever happened. She could forget about Nika, as she should have done eighteen months ago. She could …

    But here's the thing: Gwyneth doesn't know what she could do. There is nothing waiting for her in Aspertia. Everything she ever had, she burned. And no, going to Humilau won't change that, but it's something, isn't it? It's a decision, like she told herself this morning in Shane's car, and it has been a long, long time since she made a real decision.

    So, Humilau.

    But. The ferry. The bridge. The swarm.

    She kneads the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger, resisting the urge to swear loudly in the middle of the lobby, and through her silence come the voices of the kids at the desk:

    “But we really need to get to Castelia!”

    “I'm sorry,” the receptionist replies. “The captain―”

    “Don't you have any other boats?”

    “I'm sorry, but we don't at present.” He sounds on the verge of tears. This is one of the longest days of his life. “It's to do with the union disputes – until it's resolved, we can only offer a limited weekend service―”

    “So what about this captain?” The kid is relentless. “Where did they go?”

    “Hugh.” The other kid. Quieter, slower. “Calm down. It's not the end of the world.”

    “I'm sorry,” repeats the receptionist. “We're doing everything we can. It's Jon Palmer, he's just – I mean, we've called his daughter, and she's trying to contact him―”

    “But where is he?” asks Hugh. “Look, I'll go and get him if I have to.”

    “Well,” says the receptionist unhappily. “Well. Apparently he's gone to, uh, PokéStar.”

    “PokéStar?” It's the other kid again. “Kind of weird, huh.”

    “Tell me about it,” says the receptionist, with feeling. “Mid-life crisis or some sh― nonsense like that,” he corrects himself, remembering the kids. “Apparently he's been spending all his spare time hanging around the studios, trying to get in to see Deeoh.”

    “Is he any good?” asks the kid, with interest.

    “Not according to his daughter. Deeoh's guys keep turning him away, and he keeps coming back. I guess they're auditioning today or something.” The receptionist takes a breath, trying to retake control of himself. He shouldn't be saying any of this. Everything is terrible right now and everyone wants to blame him, but still, he shouldn't be saying it. “I'm sorry, it's not my place to say. Um, look, she – his daughter – is trying to get hold of him to sort all this out. If you'd just like to wait …”

    But the kids don't want to wait, or Hugh doesn't, anyway; nor does Gwyneth, because she has to be in Castelia by noon tomorrow or else, and she's thinking – she doesn't know what she's thinking, something desperate and stupid, but she might do it anyway. PokéStar studios. Jon Palmer.

    I'll go and get him if I have to, the kid said …

    What the hell. It's not like she has anything to lose. And if it gets the boat moving again, she might turn out to have everything to gain.

    Gwyneth makes another decision. She thinks she is starting to get the hang of it now.


    Near the coast at least, Virbank is easy enough to walk around. Go west and you run out of sidewalk; stick to the old town and you'll be okay. Dockside to Moorview is just about workable on foot, if you're determined and you have time. It's not easy, but it can be done. Gwyneth is determined (she thinks) and she has time (she thinks); okay, she doesn't like walking, but this is walking for a purpose, walking to save the boat. She can't take herself seriously, even at the very moment she thinks it. Save the boat? Who cares about the damn boat? This is for her.

    It's selfish, but it's powerful. It keeps her moving, one foot in front of the other, even as she starts to wonder when it last was that she ate. (That is a concern for another time, for after she knows when she'll be getting out of this town.) North. Up along the seafront, past the concrete shells and oily stink of the freight dockyards, the giant cranes and bales of steel. Cutting west along Harvard Avenue, all the theatres and their lightbulbs dormant until night like sleeping giants. Through the little alleys of obscure bookshops, specialist stores who advertise in eccentric typefaces EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY JOHTONIAN MEDICINE or 100 YEARS OF THE MODERN KANTAN JOURNEY-NARRATIVE.

    An hour passes. Her backpack grows heavier, a lead ache hanging off her spine. She starts to regret the things she's packed, except that almost all of them were essential, so she regrets instead the book, Three Nights in Opelucid, as one of the only things she didn't actually need. It's a library book, anyway. Probably it's already overdue. She should have dropped it off in the return slot on her way to Shane's earlier this morning.

    She should have done a lot of things, says a small and candidly nasty part of her mind, and Gwyneth decides she would like to think about something else.

    It's not too far to Moorview now, and PokéStar is just on the other side of that. She has no real idea of what she plans to do when she gets there, how she intends to find Jon Palmer or what she's going to say to him when she does. She tries out a few lines to herself as she walks:

    “Please. My brother's getting married.”

    “The city needs you, Mr. Palmer.”

    “I have a knife.”

    The last one makes her lips twitch into something that is almost but not quite a smile. In a very unfunny way, there's something hilarious about the idea of her actually threatening to stab someone.

    But you never know. It might come down to threats, in the end. He must be pretty far gone, if he's actually walked out of his job to sniff around at auditions. Gwyneth tries to imagine a life in which an action like that makes sense, and finds it difficult. She is not always the best at knowing irony when she sees it.

    She stops on a nondescript corner somewhere for a drink, and while she's getting the water bottle out her fingers brush the ultra ball in her bag. Now there's an idea. It's empty, of course, and by this point it must be close to forty years old; it may well not actually work any more. But no one else knows that. And while Gwyneth doesn't exactly look fifteen any more, she is short, and right now she looks like a traveller.

    When you meet a pokémon trainer, you have to be the woman with the ultra ball. Okay: that doesn't hold true for adult trainers, and Gwyneth is never going to look under twenty again. But even so, they get a certain amount of respect. More than random drifters, anyway. More than You People.

    It's dishonest, but so is threatening to stab him, and if she's going to win his affection by lying she'd rather do it the peaceful way. She is not the sort of person who does well out of fights.

    Gwyneth drinks, puts the bottle in her pack and her pack on her back, and starts walking again, rolling the ultra ball between her fingers in her pocket. It feels faintly tacky with sweat and the oils of her skin. It feels like it's always felt.

    She takes her hand out of her pocket and makes a conscious effort to stop thinking about it.

    More walking. The buildings get shorter, the shadows longer. Now there are chic cafés and independent art galleries. Nika's kind of places. She is cultured, Gwyneth always says, or said, with the vague reverence of someone for whom art has always been something for other people, better people, smarter and wealthier people. Nika likes art. She talks about Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat with command and self-assurance. She takes the people she loves to museums and gets excited, tries to explain how to interpret the pictures and sculptures. Sometimes they understand; always, they enjoy her enthusiasm.

    Gwyneth looks in the windows of the galleries and sees a language she does not understand. Students with notepads and cameras. A woman gesticulating wildly, expansively, Nika-ly.

    Gwyneth keeps walking.

    Her stomach growls, but nothing around here looks cheap and anyway, she's almost there. It's half three now and Virbank is getting classier with every street she walks: a fancy restaurant here, an upmarket organic grocery store there. This isn't Normandy Heights, not yet, but this is clearly a part of town with aspirations. Gwyneth starts to feel eyes on her face and a tenseness in her stomach.

    She keeps going. There does not seem to be much of a choice here.

    A little later on she checks her route on her phone again and is irritated to see it recommends her going most of the way around the upcoming block to get to a street on the far side. She refuses to believe that the wide, angular C the map suggests is the most efficient way to get there; and sure enough, if she looks up ahead, there seems to be an alley or something cutting through the block. Okay, then. It's the middle of the afternoon in a good part of town. Probably a safe bet for a shortcut.

    “Stupid phone,” she says, to hear the thought aloud, and crosses the road to get over to the alleyway. It doesn't appear to contain anything beyond a few trash cans and a couple of locked gates leading off into the back yards of various stores. There are whole streets in east Aspertia that look worse. Fine, Gwyneth thinks, and sets off down its length.

    And it is fine, really. It is not a dangerous alley. Except that she sees a trash bag shift slightly as she comes near, and because she's no Virbanker but an Aspertian eastsider, she doesn't pass it off as a purrloin or something but freezes, aware of potential danger; and pinned in her gaze, the creature behind the bag gets uncomfortable; and then it bolts, because running out screeching has always scared people off in the past and it sees no reason why it wouldn't work now; and Gwyneth doesn't get scared off; she sees a flash of many-legged movement heading straight for her and instinctively moves to kick it away; and the creature feels her foot coming and throws itself aside, spitting something ragged and purple into the air; and something rips into the back of Gwyneth's left hand and she swears violently and throws the first thing she can find at the creature.

    And then it is over, and Gwyneth is standing there alone, breathing heavily and looking at the ultra ball wobbling on the cracked black asphalt.

    Nine years. She's been carrying that thing nine years. What if she really needs it, she always thought. Well, here you go, kid. You needed it.


    Gwyneth steps forwards and nudges the ball with one foot, just in case, but it actually seems to have worked. The thing – she has no idea what it was, it all happened so fast, but she has a working theory it was some kind of demon – is caught.

    Nine years. She laughs. It's the kind of laugh that makes people uneasy: could be joy, could be trauma. Nine years. Just like that! She hated that thing, even if she couldn't bring herself to get rid of it. Nothing says missed opportunity like the empty poké ball you still carry round with you at twenty-four.

    Then she looks at the back of her hand and stops laughing. There's a scratch there, bright and red and weeping clear yellowish liquid. It sits in the middle of a fat cushion of swollen flesh.

    Gwyneth blinks. She feels her pulse thumping in her hand, warm and stifling. She feels the blood moving through her veins like sand.

    Gwyneth remembers coming into Nika's study one day in the spring, feeling feverish and asking why the TV wasn't working, except that Nika could hear it was on through the open door and she looked at Gwyneth and Gwyneth asked again and then after the third time she stumbled and it was all a blur until later in the hospital someone finally told her it wasn't a cold, it was pneumonia, and her mother was there, she remembers, and even Hilbert, everyone was there and they brought flowers …

    Gwyneth is trying to get her phone out of her pocket but she can't figure it out. Her jacket is so complicated, she thinks. And it's so tight around the wrist. Is it shrinking?

    Daffodils, she remembers. Hilbert brought her daffodils, because those were always the first flowers that popped up out of Mom's flowerbed in the spring, a wedding gift she had planted and that had become a memorial for Dad, and when she was little she used to say daffing dills, and Hilbert laughed so much that she said it again …

    “Hey? Hey, you! You okay?”

    Gwyneth turns in slow motion through a world like hot glass, thick and plastic. She sees a face swimming in the air like a fish.

    “Hi,” she mumbles. “Where's Nika?”

    “Oh my god, your – what happened to your arm?”

    “Mom? No, she's – already here …”

    She tries to gesture with an arm as fat and stiff as a freshly-cut log and loses her balance. The ground comes up to meet her so softly, so tenderly, and she smiles.

    “Okay then,” she says, and it all goes dark.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2017
  12. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    I lol'd, but yeah, this says a lot about her character already. XD

    I like the tension this little bit adds to the story right off the bat. It'd be easy to fail at making an impact so early on in a story that seems character-focused like this, but you do it well. Also, I guess it's a good thing Skyarrow Bridge ends up being closed later on, huh?

    This hits pretty hard. Nicely written.

    Young Gwyneth sounds incredibly cute. :p I also like the slight change in tone in the flashback that is a bit more childish but still bitter.

    Aw... I guess all trainers think they can be trainers forever, huh? I really like the idea of the story being set in Gwyneth's post-trainer days and how she tries to pass on that information to younger trainers. She doesn't like doing it, but... she feels responsible and I think it helps her feel better about herself, so she does it anyway. It says a lot about her character.

    I actually thought the champion battle going on in the background is fitting. I mean, given her feelings toward her brother and training being portrayed simultaneously, it really feels like it works. The pacing in all this is spot on, too, in my opinion.

    Interesting way to portray what Gwyneth looks like.

    As an avid bird owner, I am a fan of this bit of description. :p

    The present tense flashbooks makes it seem like Gwyneth experiences the past like it was just yesterday, which is interesting. The transition from past and present doesn't feel rushed or forced or weird in any way, either.

    That's how I'd feel about the pokemon world in general. :p

    Heh... You do a good job making Gwyneth a well rounded character. She's interesting, for sure, flaws and all. I enjoyed the story about the ultra ball, and I'm going to guess she caught a venipede since it's a tag in the fan fic catalog. Darn venipedes always poisoning people. My only complaint might be that the actual catch seemed a bit rushed, but I mean, it did happen quickly in real time. Writing-wise, though, the transition caught me a bit off-guard.

    At any rate, looking forward to more, as always.
  13. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    Love the list format here, especially the way you use objects to show what Gwyneth is like. It gives a sence that she's a practical person, and she doesn't fuss oer her appearance too much... One thing that's interesting to me about that is, that while Gwyneth is trans, she's not very girly. Somehow, that gives me the sense that she's... comfortable with her gender? Like she doesn't feel like she has to act it out? Not that being more girly would mean she wasn't like that, but... I dunno, just gives her a kind of earthy feel to me. The use of a book shows that she likes to use her imagination, too. Interesting that she's held onto the ultra ball all this time. Kinda implies that she still hasn't completely given up on being a trainer.

    Like it that she's a survivor. Although... wouldn't she be kinda used to roughing it from her days as a trainer? But yeah, definitely know the feeling of choosing pride over comfort.

    Well, yeah, he's being patronizing. Like her self-assured response, though.

    Still not sure what I think of switching perspectives, but I love the last line there. I know that feeling, how sometimes you have to throw yourself against a wall just to prove to yourself you can't break through it.

    Not sure how I feel about the details about Shane and Casey. Not that it's not interesting... but it feels like a digression from the main story. Like, why is it important in Gwyneth's story? If this relationship is going to be important later in the story, that's fine, but if not...

    Love the scene with Gwyneth talking to the kid. You see very clearly there just how conscientious she is, how she's always thinking of how she's perceived. And I enjoyed the mix of emotion there, how she wants to help the kid out and believe in Pokemon journies... but at the same time, there's resentment, even anger there. I know that feeling. It feels like she's trying to feel useful, like she's trying to fulfill a role to create meaning in her life. Now I'm wondering what happened to her Pokemon... Definitely interested in the relationship with Cheren. In fact... Ikindaautomaticallyshipthat (well, if it goes like I think it'll go, which is to say, I bet they have more in common than they think). There's a kind of honesty there, with Cheren openly disliking Gwyneth back. And also the way she's fair, the way she can't blame him. I'm thinking he's probably the same toward her. Haha, that schadenfraude, though!

    Yeah, given Cheren's relationship with Hilbert, I'm betting there is some resentment and jealousy there, too. I'm interested in his character and looking forward to seeing him in the present. Interesting flashback... Especially the stuff with Team Plasma; wondering how it's going to be relevant. I like it that Gwyneth isn't so sure he's wrong. She seems like the type who'd try to see things objectively. The gym battle was good, too, seemed realistic. Er, that is, it seems like a trainer like Tomas would do well, have a couple of tricks up his sleeve, but still not win. And this really made me laugh:

    Great description of Virbank City! I like how self-aware Gwyneth is here:

    That's something I kind of know about. Wow, that thing Shane said to her! Interesting that Gwyneth is part Indegene, though. And that she thinks of herself as White. Funny that this should come up; when we were talking about gender and sex, I was using race as a comparison to myself, how it's all construct. I mean, yeah, differences in appearance are genetic, but as for who people are personality-wise, there really isn't such a thing as race-linked traits. This fic has a lot to do with identity and self-definition, so it really fits that you're going there. Loved this bit:
    Anyway. Shane doesn't know, Shane can never know, Shane meant nothing by it. She's been standing still for the last five minutes, chewing her tongue. And isn't she working to a deadline now? Noon tomorrow, or she loses her ticket out of Castelia.

    Another thing I can relate to. I generally think a lot more of myself than Gwyneth thinks of herself, but as far as excusing people, saying that they'd listen, feel bad, and try to do better if they hurt my feelings? Saying that it's unfair to blame them when I haven't told them how it affected me? Yeah, that's me all over. Oh, and I love love love this line:

    That seems familiar to me because... while I'm neurotically self-aware, and (unlike Gwyneth) generally forgiving with myself, how I feel about myself can very easily be affected by other people. It's usually only in the moment; I get back to myself with some distance, but... I'm not completely sure you meant it in the same way I interpreted it, but that's how it felt to me. Yeah, it's just a beautiful line, too; wish I'd thought of it.

    This is why Gwyneth seems so realistic to me; her thought patterns are so familiar. It seems to me that you're putting at least something of yourself into her. Because someone who never thinks that way wouldn't be able to write that into a character; it simply wouldn't occur to them. Well, unless someone else described it to them, I guess. But it doesn't feel that way with Gwyneth because it's so consistent. It's interesting to me that you write in third person when you're so familiar with this character. The advantage I'm seeing with that is that, while we know Gwyneth intimately, there's some distance there, we see her more objectively than she sees herself. The feeling is that the narration is less critical of her than she is of herself. Interesting.

    Another good list. One thing I like here is how you create questions with the stuff: what's the photograph of? What does 1705 signify (I'm guessing it's a date)? The knife, too, is a good touch. I'd actually already been kinda concerned about Gwynethsince she's traveling on her own, and where she was living was kinda rough... but since it hadn't been mentioned, I thought maybe that kind of thing wasn't a problem in this world.

    Interesting obstacle. I was wondering if I should know who Jon Palmer is? I mean, I assume he's the captain, but it felt a little weird that he was mentioned by name. Again, I was wondering why we switched to the receptionists POV? This time it wasn't centered on Gwyneth, either... I can tell that you're trying to show what life is like in this city, and for people who work that kind of position... Because Gwyneth's worked in a similar position and has probably been treated that way before. That's why I think it'd be easy to comment on this in a similar way from Gwyneth's perspective.

    It's good to see that Gwyneth has determination to get this done, even though she doesn't do a lot of things she needs to do (I like the little touch about not returning the library book). And I like how you worked in a reference to what Nika was like just through the setting; that was a good detail and felt very natural.

    Funny how she ends up catching a Pokemon. Great scene where she gets poisoned, too, how her mind starts wandering. That was also a good way to slip in details about the past.

    Anyway! That's it until next time!
  14. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Thanks! Also, I'm going to take this opportunity to complain about Gen V's appallingly unimaginative ways of blocking off routes to the player until later in the story. So many of the bridges are closed for inspection -- or like there's one route that's closed because there's a line of people across it who say they're 'dancing for no reason' and that 'one day we'll disappear for no reason'. The crustle swarm blocking Route 4 is okay, because that's got precedent, like all those snorlax or the psyduck on Route 210 in Sinnoh, but seriously, whoever was in charge of blocking off bits of Unova did a terrible job. Which is an issue in a story like this where I try to make Unova make sense, but hopefully my take on it didn't come across as too forced.

    Thanks, all of this is pretty much exactly what I was going for. I've always thought that we get kind of a child's-eye view of the pokémon world in the games, you know? Everyone is so nice and the world is so full of promise. But then in later generations, especially ORAS and the Alola games, you get hints of real-world darkness creeping in at the edges, and that gave me the idea to contrast two images of the world, the child trainer's and the adult's, to investigate that tension in the games.

    Right. Thanks! I've made a tiny edit there, to help smooth things over for anyone who was confused. I don't think it takes anything away from what you've just described, just makes it more clear what's going on slightly earlier.

    Well, as Gwyneth admits in chapter two, someone like her can never be unconscious of the fact that they live and die in the eyes of others. Most of her view of herself is rooted in what she sees others seeing in herself.

    Good to know! I mean, I know a little bit about animals, but most of what I write about them doing is entirely made up, with the intention of sounding, if not realistic, then at least plausible. So, I'm glad that this particular vignette gets the seal of approval from someone who knows birds.

    Yeah, I didn't want to separate out the two times rigidly; I felt like neither the two Unovas nor the two Gwyneths really ought to be entirely partitioned off from each other. Unova is still what Gwyneth remembers it being, after all; it's just that she now knows it's something else as well. And of course she carries all her past selves around with her, too. Selfhood seems to be accumulative like that. Possibly I had another reason for doing it, too, but possibly that reason was just well, it kinda just felt right, so I'm not sure I have anything interesting to say about it.

    It's a pretty amazing place, for sure. This line is, I guess, mostly down to my obsession with modern American cultural mythology, which as someone who has no real connection with America at all beyond the culture it exports I find endlessly fascinating. Which is why I think the place where America and the pokémon world overlap, in Unova, is so interesting. That in turn is another big part of why I decided to write this story, I guess. It's also why I've tried so hard to Americanise my spellings and writing style. I have no idea if it's working, but it's quite fun.

    Good point. I'll have a think about it and see if there's a way I can't file off some of the rougher edges of that scene. Probably there's a good case to be made for breaking up the first part of that big semicolon'd list paragraph into something slightly slower, and then rewriting the rest of it to make it fit. Anyway, thanks for reading, and especially for responding! I hope the venipede's formal introduction lives up to expectations. :p

    Ten years is a long time, more than long enough for the initial agonising anxiety about how you're seen to fade into background aches. And then you factor in Gwyneth's trainer journey and all that, and you can see why it would no longer be constant and immediate. It's something I've been meaning to put into a story like this for a while now; it's always good to know, for people at the start of their transition, that it's possible to get used to this, and that these concerns don't stay sharp and immediate forever, even if they don't stop biting. Given the aims of a story like this, it seemed a fitting message to slot in on the side.

    There's a difference between camping on League-run wilderness trails and sleeping rough in a city, though. Gwyneth, thanks to her terrible decisions, has experience of both, and I wanted to make that clear in this bit.

    Yeah, I've been trying to articulate what it is exactly that drives me to keep putting these bits in, and I think it has something to do with digressions and interestingness in themselves, but I haven't quite got the thought down yet. I'll keep thinking about it and come to a decision one way or another. Possibly it's got something to do with the fact that I don't really see the story as so thoroughly committed to Gwyneth that other details don't have any place in it. It seems to me that the story is really about Unova as a place and Generation V as a series of games. Anyway, like I said, I'll keep thinking about it and see what side of the debate I come down on.

    We'll find out what happened to her pokémon in good time, but you know, I think we can safely say it wasn't good for anyone involved. As for her and Cheren, well. We'll see more of the relationship between them, too, although not for a little while yet, since the next segment of the story is really pushing at a different aspect of Unova and indeed Gwyneth than relates to him.

    Plasma is one of my favourite teams, or it would be if Generation V was a bit better than it was. Since this story is in many ways my attempt to fix some of the flaws in the Unova games, I definitely have more planned for them and their impact on Unova.

    Thanks! It's literally just me attempting to sound like I know what certain parts of America are like, so I'm glad it didn't come across as such.

    Yeah, this is one of the really big flaws with Gen V, in my view. Unova is clearly based on part of America, and it has evidence of a people who lived there before the current population -- and yet the designers banished those people to the distant past (and also make them ancient Egyptians for some reason), just to close off the possibility that we're looking at a colonial society here. Which is ... well, it doesn't sit right with me and it never has, especially since they literally have a pokémon based on the Nazca lines and kachina figures that is supposed to be tied to that native population. You can't have that and then exterminate those people from your world. Of course, you can say there are always problems with picking up bits of other people's culture and turning it into a saleable product (and the Pokémon franchise is far from innocent of this, especially in the Alolan games), and you'd be right to say that, but since this is the source material I have to work with, I thought I had to do at least something to rectify this.

    Hence, the Henuun. I'm not trying to replicate reality by any means, since the canonical ancient civilisation of Unova is so different from anything in real-world America and I am sticking fairly close to canon, but I did want to deliberately undo what Gen V did with regard to pushing its region's indigenous population far into the past. We'll learn more about them as the story goes on, but yeah, they're basically the descendants of the original inhabitants of Unova, the people who made the Relic Castle and all those other Relic artefacts, and who suffered through the initial battle between Reshiram and Zekrom. Gwyneth's ties to them are partly a matter of my own interest in certain types of lived experience, and partly a matter of, like I said, this whole big exploration and rehabilitation of Unova.

    It's something that most people can relate to, I think, and that's the main point of the line. You're right that I meant in quite a specific and almost literal way, because it's representative of the experience of being someone like Gwyneth herself, but I don't feel that that should cut people off from seeing parts of themselves in it. I believe in the particularity of human experience but not its incommensurability; if I have anything like a mission statement when it comes to my writing, that's what it is. Someone like Gwyneth has an entirely different experience of being human to, say, a well-off heterosexual white man who works in the central business district of a large city. But art can help to bridge the gaps and transmit experiences, between like and unlike groups of people. Or I hope it can, anyway. If it can't, I probably ought to give up writing.

    Kinda? There are little bits of me in Gwyneth, I guess, but only really as a starting point. My usual practice with writing is not to write what I know, but to write what I understand. Sharing a few features of my own experience with Gwyneth is a helpful base to start from, but most of her is a case of me sitting down and thinking okay, she's like this in a place like this, so what are the consequences? It's mostly a case of imaginative empathy.

    As for the narration, well, part of it's to do with the fact that I want to describe Gwyneth from a slightly more distant viewpoint, as you say, and part of it's to do with the fact that I just wanted free rein to write better than Gwyneth can write, so that I had space to be clear that she's really not very good with words, even if her thoughts are complex.

    Ah. You've accidentally shown me a problem here. 1705 is how I'd write that date, but I think I'd probably better flip it over so it goes month, then day, to better fit the Unovan setting. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, even if you didn't mean to. :p

    The knife is part of the same old two Unovas kinda thing: the kid trainer's world vs the adult deadbeat's. I don't think anyone would encourage a child to wander around on their own in this Unova -- there's a reason I've put most of the trainers into pairs or trios -- but ironically, it's probably safer for a kid with a pokémon to do that than it is for Gwyneth.

    The name is really only there because it would be weird for Gwyneth to go looking for someone when she doesn't even know his name, honestly. I mean, the whole 'the captain's run off to PokéStar' thing is baffling even in the games, but this was me trying to make it fit a little better in a story whose world makes more sense than the games' Unova.

    As for the perspective thing, yeah, I think I can probably sort that.

    Thanks! Gwyneth's relationship with Nika was long and serious enough that she can't help but see the world differently afterwards, and I suppose that that kind of thing is what I'm trying to capture in something like this. Well, that and shoehorn in all the information about Nika that I can. There's a lot to learn about her and not that much time in which to learn it.

    Yeah, I've always felt that the past is kind of a key that people use to decode the present, I guess, which is why I described poisoning by way of pneumonia. Probably it ties in to some of the other things I was supposed to be doing by writing this story, but I can't for the life of me remember what, exactly.

    Anyway. Thanks for reading, and indeed for responding! Next time: medical bills and aggressive pokémon. Fun for all the family!
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2017
  15. Hakajin

    Hakajin Obsessive Shipper

    Yeah, I've actually read from male to female trans people that, when you first transition, you want to try out all the girl clothes you've never been able to wear. And it makes a lot of sense that you'd want to present as especially feminine so people will see you that way, too. That is a good message!

    Ok, that makes sense.

    Hm... I feel like, though, if it's going to be not completely focused on Gwyneth, we do need to see more of the other characters, see them apart from Gwyneth, get into their own conflicts and journeys. The plot is centered on Gwyneth right now, and I think that's where the issue comes from. Anyway, since you're aware of it and know what I think, I won't mention it anymore.

    Ok, looking forward to it!

    Huh. As I haven't played Black or White, I was not aware of that. That's... unfortunate. Egypt? That decision baffles me. Why would you do that, when there's already a culture there you could reference?And if you are going to depart from real life, why would you reference it? Although... it makes me feel a little better about writing a region based on the fertile crescent area. I needed to set it there because the backstory has to do with the dawn of civilization, and I didn't want to White-wash it. At the same time, there's no way I'm gonna try to get into the socio-political conflicts there. So I'm trying to make it inspired by that region, but still its own thing. I'm still a little worried, but... I'll do my best to be respectful.

    So, what exactly did you mean by it? I'm not saying it's a flaw that it can be interpretted different ways, because it's not; I'm just curious. Exactly! I think of art as communicating your own mind to someone else, and that's incredible! It's easiest for me to connect with others through their writing, and other media, because of that. Because they're showing, rather than telling you, who they are. I mean, it's not an exact thing, but... The really cool thing about that is, you really get an entirely new thing out of it. Like, a written work is a like a blueprint for someone else to build a similar, but different, world, in their own mind. Even with movies, people relate in different ways, they have interpretations that the writer didn't think of... Which are all valid, even if they don't agree with the author's intent, since meaning is something that only exists through people in the first place. ...This is why I love Literature and Literary Theory so much.

    Ok, I think I know what you mean. My main character right now is a lot like me, but more timid and with less self-esteem, and... I use myself as a starting point for pretty much all my characters. In other words, their central trait is something I can identify in myself, I understand their motivations. Because they have different personalities and experiences, they behave in different ways, but there's always a logic to their behavior, because I'm thinking, what would I do if I were them?

    No problem! Yeah, it probably is.

    I don't think it's shoe-horned in if it feels natural. That's how real people think; the world around us is constantly reminding us of our own experiences.

    Oh, absolutely! This reminds me a little of state-dependence, even, the way a similar experience causes Gwyneth to access that memory. Looking forward to it!
  16. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    For someone like Gwyneth, personhood is conditional. She's only ever real because the people who see her permit her to be, because they judge her performance sufficient. Hence, she pretty much literally lives or dies in the eyes of others. You can unmake her as easily as blinking, and you probably would, even if you came at her with the best of intentions, because it's burnt into most people deeper than they know. People like her just aren't allowed to keep control of their own signification. No one is, to a greater or lesser extent, but especially not people like her.

    But like, it's not really for me to say what anything means, exactly; my reading of my own work is just that, a reading, no more or less valid than anyone else's, except insofar as, like, I've probably read it more thoroughly than most other people. Still, this line is important enough to me that I felt I'd gloss it.
  17. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.


    Nine years ago: Gwyneth at fifteen, gawky and inelegant in a bright print dress. And there's Nika too, of course. They never did see each other in the Gym, but they were both staying at the Centre. When Gwyneth and her fellow travellers go to get breakfast in the morning, Nika's sitting right there at one of the tables with a couple of other kids. And when she sees Gwyneth, she waves her over, and Ashley and Tomás look at her, and Gwyneth wishes the ground would swallow her up, but okay, she can't pretend she hasn't seen, she'll have to go sit with her.

    Nika introduces herself, and her friends too, Aimée and Katja. Katja is from Opelucid; Aimée is from Algiers. Katja has been waiting for this trip her whole life. Aimée only found out it was even a thing a few years ago, when her family moved to Opelucid, but she is already loving it. Unova: it's the greatest country in the world, right?

    Now Gwyneth has to introduce Ashley and Tomás, and explain that she met Nika yesterday at the Gym, and all of this goes well, she thinks, even if it is completely weird. She's no fool, not even at that age; she's fairly sure Nika is just interested in her as Hilbert's sister, and she doesn't want to pick friends based on who she's related to. But Ashley and Tomás don't know that, and they get talking, swapping stories of the Gym – Nika actually won, how amazing is that? – and of the road south to Accumula and Nuvema. Katja intends to go down there a little way today, to see what pokémon you can find out there, and Aimée is going with her because these two started their journey at the same time and somewhere along the road to Village Bridge the two of them became friends, and so now they do all their journeying together. Nika wants to move on west, though. She's come here via a strange route, south from Humilau via Undella, detouring west to White Forest by way of Reversal Mountain, and then by train here to Striaton. (Apparently she didn't want to go to Nimbasa yet. There's something there, but no one pushes her to say it; they're all teenagers away from home, they all have secrets.)

    Well, says Ashley, they're all thinking of moving on now, after Tomás' attempt at the Gym. Does she want to tag along?

    And Nika smiles her metallic smile and says great, she'd love to, and Gwyneth smiles too and wonders if she's a bad person for wanting Nika not to come.

    It's another long hike from Striaton to Nacrene, and the terrain is starting to change. The land flattens out and humps up again apparently at random, blanketed in pines that sweep in dark curves down to the shores of Houston Lake. Somewhere to the north there's supposed to be somewhere called Wellspring Cave, where a whole bunch of different pokémon live. Everyone agrees they want to have a look.

    But things are different now to how they were on the road to Striaton. Tomás appears to have finally noticed Ashley, and now the two of them are more of a pair than they were, which leaves Gwyneth with Nika. And Nika is – well, she can't figure her out. She hasn't mentioned Hilbert again, or Cheren. But she does ask a lot of questions, and Gwyneth doesn't know if she's genuinely curious or attempting to get close to her to learn more about Hilbert or just trying to fill the silence. She answers as best she can, without letting her guard down, and Nika just finds more to say.

    It all suddenly seems to have gone wrong. Gwyneth knows she shouldn't complain, that this is an amazing thing she's getting to do, but still, the magic seems to have gone out of it. Her little trio is breaking up. Nika's slithered in through the gaps. She thinks of Hilbert, of Cheren and Bianca, and is confused. This isn't how a trainer journey goes, is it? There's a group of friends and they stick together. Right? She doesn't realise yet, hasn't noticed the transitory nature of all these comings together. Even Hilbert's group, and it is exceptional, as he is, doesn't always remain unified. Bianca falls behind. Sometimes Hilbert or Cheren stop with her; sometimes she travels with others to catch up. Hilbert and Cheren themselves split up a lot, go hunting in woods or caves or cities each on their own.

    She starts to feel very lonely. In the evenings she sits on the hillside hugging Blossom, staring out over the trees to the south as the sky changes colour. And Gwyneth doesn't realise how unhappy she looks, doesn't realise why Nika keeps trying to make conversation, trying to joke and laugh and smile. Because it's not about Hilbert, and it never was, not really. It wasn't the magazine that caught her eye, that day in the Gym. It was the girl reading it.

    There comes one absolutely miserable day when they at last reach Wellspring Cave, following a tiny brook through the woods until they arrive at a cleft in the earth that goes down into a profound darkness; and somehow she gets separated from everyone else, trying to find her way back with her flashlight and the faint purple glow that rises from Corbin's skin, and sometimes she hears voices echoing from other parts of the caves as if they're about to just pop up behind her, and sometimes she hears wild pokémon scuttling around in the shadows beyond the beam of her flashlight, and in the end Gwyneth just can't take it any more, she just folds up like a collapsing house of cards right there in the corner and she starts to cry.

    It's something wrong with her, she thinks. How can she be so ungrateful? Blossom is right now trying to burrow between her arms to press her warm little body against her face, and Corbin is doing his best to beam positive thoughts to her in puffs of psychic smoke. She's a pokémon trainer. She has partners. She's on a trainer journey. All of this was given to her and she still manages to ruin things, still somehow manages to make herself feel so lost and alone.

    And then someone has a hand on her back, crouched beside her.

    “Hey,” says Nika. “I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to lose you like that.”

    It's a watershed moment. Gwyneth could wrench her shoulders away, throw the hand off, turn and shout. Why are you still following me? What do you want from me?

    Or she could turn and lean into Nika's outstretched arm, let herself be held, feel the wrongness ebb inside her in response to the simple truth of present human warmth.

    It is the easiest decision she's ever made.


    Saturday, 10th September

    It's the strangest thing. When Gwyneth wakes, she's on a hospital bed, curtains drawn around her to keep out the hum and bustle of the ward, and for a brief hallucinatory instant, she half believes she's nineteen again and about to learn she has pneumonia. The pain in her hand, however, soon convinces her otherwise.

    “Ow,” she mutters, shifting slightly. “Ah, hell.”

    Now it's coming back to her. God damn it, this was meant to be the nice part of town. What are the odds that she'd stumble into the one feral poison-type in the whole of Moorview?

    She blinks, raises her head. There's a pressure on her finger – one of those pulse monitor things, she thinks, although actually she isn't sure if they really do measure your pulse or not. She just assumed. But the other hand is the real issue. It's wrapped in bandages and hurts like hell, but it's no longer the same size and shape as a turnip, which she supposes is a good thing. The fingers are working again too, she notes, if stiffly.

    What else? A cannula in her wrist, running yellow fluid into her. Some form of antidote, she figures. At least, it's the same colour as the stuff they carry in the Pokémon Centre.

    It's probably also a lot more expensive, she realises, with a sinking feeling in her gut.

    “You're awake,” says someone. “Hey, take it easy now, okay? We just washed six times the lethal dose of venom out of you.”

    Gwyneth looks up, and sees a nurse slipping through the curtains. She looks friendly enough, with strong hands and the scarred cheeks of someone who once had truly terrible acne. Her name tag says TASNIM. Gwyneth wonders briefly what Tasnim sees when she looks at the body laid out along the bed. A patient, hopefully, before anything else.

    “Where am I?” asks Gwyneth. It seems as good a way to start as any.

    “Virbank North General Hospital,” answers Tasnim.

    “Oh. Okay.” Gwyneth doesn't know what sort of answer she was expecting. It's not like she knows anything about Virbank hospitals. Last time she was here, she had other things on her mind.

    “Do you have any other questions?” asks Tasnim. “If you do, I'll answer if I can. Otherwise, I have a few questions for you, if that's okay.”

    (Here we go.)

    “Uh, sure. Sure, I guess.”

    “First of all, can you tell me your name? I'm Tasnim, by the way,” she adds, indicating her badge. “We looked in your wallet, but I'm afraid we couldn't find any ID on you.”

    Everyone's favourite question. Gwyneth sighs and answers.

    “Gwyneth. Gwyneth ze'Haraan.”

    Dad's name. It always feels weird on her Unovan tongue, this relic of someone else's language. She feels like it belongs carved into the ruins in the desert, in the ancient letters Gwyneth cannot read.

    Tasnim pauses.

    “Sorry,” she says. “Can you spell that for me?”

    “Little Z, E, apostrophe, big H, A, R, double A, N.”

    “Okay, thanks … right. Got that down.” Tasnim lowers her clipboard and pen. “Now, I'm not expecting anything here, but I have to ask, can you tell me what happened? It looks like you took a really bad poison sting from a venipede, but we'd like to be clear.”

    “That's pretty much it,” answers Gwyneth. “I went down this alley, and it just … jumped out at me.” She pauses. “Didn't know it was a venipede, though. Never got a clear look at it.”

    “Right. There was a poké ball with you when you were found …”

    “Yeah. Yeah, I had one in my pocket and I guess I just sort of threw it.” Gwyneth shrugs. It's a more painful process than she remembers. “Souvenir from my trainer journey.”

    Tasnim smiles.

    “Lucky you still had a trainer's arm on you, then. That venipede was either super angry or super afraid. It must have more or less emptied out its venom sac trying to get you.”

    Gwyneth shakes her head, not sure what to say. Venomous little monster. Of all the alleys in Virbank …

    “Huh,” she replies, in the end. “Guess my luck hasn't run out after all.”

    “I, uh, guess not,” says Tasnim, the faintest hint of an unasked question in her voice. “Okay, now we've established that, I've just got a few more administrative questions for you. What's your address?”

    It goes on, all the little bits of trivia that make up Gwyneth as a legal citizen of the Democratic Federation of Unova, and then the sixty-four thousand dollar question: does she have insurance? No. No, she does not. There's a pause, because although only Gwyneth knows how much money is in her bank account Tasnim can make an educated guess, and then Tasnim moves on with her questions.

    Gwyneth feels it again inside her, that grinding shame like a millstone working on her gut. Unova. It's the greatest country in the world, right?

    There is another pause, and then something else occurs to her, something even more important than money.

    “Uh, what time is it?” she asks.

    “About a quarter after eight,” says Tasnim, without even looking at the upside-down clock on her breast. “Why?”

    Gwyneth sits up. It hurts, and her head is spinning, but she stays up.

    “I got to go,” she says urgently. “I have to be in Castelia tomorrow morning.”

    “What?” Tasnim lays a hand on her, trying to ease her back down, but Gwyneth refuses to give way. “Ms. ze'Haraan, you really shouldn't be trying to move―”

    “I have to,” insists Gwyneth, trying to focus on Tasnim's face through the dizziness. “You don't understand―”

    “Maybe I didn't make it clear, you were very badly poisoned. You're going to need rest―”

    “My brother's getting married,” pleads Gwyneth, playing her last card. “I have to be in Castelia, I really can't miss the ferry tonight.”

    Tasnim wavers. Gwyneth's vision is settling, and she can see the uncertainty in her eyes.

    “Well,” she begins, and Gwyneth pounces.

    “My family will be there,” she says. “I'm not going to be wandering around alone. I can see a doctor afterwards, I just – I can't miss this. Please.”

    She waits. Tasnim bites her lip.

    “I'll have a word with the doctor,” she says. “But he's not going to like this.”

    “Thank you,” says Gwyneth earnestly. “Seriously. You don't even know how much this means.”

    She's being honest, but she knows it doesn't matter. Whatever the doctor says, she's going. Even if it turns out Jon Palmer's still at PokéStar, she's going; she'll drive the damn boat herself if she has to. She's going. She has no choice.

    Castelia by noon tomorrow. Driftveil what, two days after that. It will be slow to walk, but after that she can speed up, get back on the buses. (Don't think about the money, not now.) Nimbasa, White Forest, Undella – and Humilau.

    Humilau, and Nika.

    She told Shane she wasn't going to break up the wedding. She really hopes she wasn't lying.


    It's dark out now. Gwyneth feels rough, kind of like she has a bad cold and kind of like she just got beaten up, and she can't face the walk back down to the dockside; she caves and takes the bus, for another nine dollars. She'll do the math later; right now, she thinks, she'll collapse halfway if she tries to go on foot. Irritating, but it can't be helped.

    The doctor was reluctant, but Gwyneth was relentless, and that makes people give up, eventually, just so they don't have to talk to her any more. She was only held for an hour or so longer, and then they took the tubes out of her wrist and the sensor off her finger and said she could go.

    By night, Virbank comes into its own. The bus goes south via the coastal route, taking in Harvard Avenue with its theatres and playhouses, and the neon pops in the dark like a galaxy of light. Her eyes ache from looking – the poison, she thinks, or maybe just exhaustion – and she closes them, slumped forward on the pack resting on her lap. What was she thinking, trying to save the ferry? Who does something like that? Not Gwyneth. Some people get chosen and some do not, and Gwyneth is the kind of person who has to wait for the ferry like everyone else. Now she's wasted an afternoon, got herself sick and picked up a medical bill she has no chance in hell of being able to pay. What a perfect day.

    Her fingers trace the edges of her pack, and stop on the pocket. There's a bulge there that she'd almost managed to forget.

    What's she going to do with the damn venipede?

    The hospital staff did give her the ball back, along with a lecture about the dangers of venipede that Gwyneth nodded her way through without listening, her mind full of questions about the ferry. Now that there's nothing to do but wait, the ball and its contents are coming back to her.

    Gwyneth doesn't want it. She is not a pokémon trainer any more, and even if she was, this venipede is clearly not the friendliest of creatures. It wouldn't be anyone's first choice for a partner – or their second choice, in fact, or third, or fourth. She could release it when she gets off the bus, she supposes. Probably that isn't ethical, and she should take it out into the country or something, but once the thing's out of its ball it's not her problem any more. Besides, it was already living in Virbank anyway. It can't do much harm.

    The only issue is whether or not it's going to go for her as soon as she releases it. Gwyneth would like to think it will just run away. After their last encounter, however, she isn't so sure, and she would rather not spend any more time in a hospital tonight.

    By the time the bus pulls up outside the ferry terminal, she's made up her mind. She walks a little way up the street, to a little yard full of trash cans, and tosses the ultra ball behind a garbage bag. A blue light spikes up out of the dark, and she hears the skittering of pointed feet on tarmac. When she is sure she cannot hear them any more, she peeks carefully behind the bag.

    The venipede is still there, a hump of scab-red carapace between two sets of gently waving antennae. It's missing its left eye, but it can clearly see her: it stiffens immediately, clicking its jaws in an insectoid warning.

    “Whoa, there,” says Gwyneth, straightening up hurriedly. “Let's not either of us do anything we regret, huh?”

    It keeps clicking, and Gwyneth takes a few healthy steps away, in the direction of the street.

    “You go on now,” she calls. “I don't want any trouble, you hear me?”

    A sudden scratching. A dark blur between the shadows. Gwyneth throws up a hand in front of her face, but there's no poison sting, no attack of any kind. Maybe it's out of venom, she thinks. It wouldn't surprise her. Or maybe it just wants to get away from her as badly as she wants to get away from it. She can't say she'd blame it. Gwyneth has no idea what it's like in a poké ball, but she wouldn't like to find out.

    She waits a little longer, just to make sure it really has run off, and then looks behind the bag again. Nothing there now except the ultra ball.

    Gwyneth picks it up and pushes its two halves together, hard. A sharp twist, and they separate cleanly with the crisp snap of breaking plastic.

    “So long,” she says, and drops the broken ball in with the rest of the trash.

    Back down the street, the ferry terminal is looking livelier. The waiting area is half full, and the little café is doing a brisk trade, the smell of coffee making Gwyneth's empty stomach turn. For a second in the doorway she loses her balance, has to reach out for the wall to stay upright. Okay. Food is definitely a priority now. Ticket first, though.

    At the desk, a different receptionist is on duty, a woman with dyed hair and a service industry smile.

    “Did they find Jon Palmer?” asks Gwyneth, as she puts her card into the machine and hopes the transaction will clear.

    “Oh, you heard?” The receptionist raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, thank god. Some kid who was in here earlier went up to PokéStar and talked him into coming back.”


    She looks surprised.

    “No, the guy who was with him. Nate, I think his name was. You know them?”

    Gwyneth shakes her head.

    “I bumped into them earlier,” she says. “Seemed … like the kind of people who get things done.”

    CARD APPROVED, says the reader, to Gwyneth's relief, and she takes her ticket and moves on.

    Well, that answers her question, then. Who does a thing like that? Nate does. So everything she did was a waste, then. He got Jon Palmer back and she got poisoned. Gwyneth thinks this is probably the most succinct summary of her life she's ever heard.

    She shakes it off, or tries to, and looks at the departure board. Fifteen minutes to kill until boarding; long enough to get something to eat, preferably from somewhere other than the café here, which she suspects of being overpriced. A grocery store a couple of streets away yields a large and inexpensive sandwich, and Gwyneth washes it down with the last of her water. It's not good food by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is what she usually eats, and if it keeps her upright then she feels she can't complain right now.

    Gwyneth sits in one of the chairs in the waiting area and dumps her bag at her feet. The ache in her hand seems to have got into her blood and been washed right through her, a blunt, all-pervasive pain that pulses inside her like the bass at a concert. She hears the conversations of the other people waiting, the staccato zing and bang of a child's DS, the muffled roar of traffic outside. The lowing of some big pokémon. Laughter. Sirens. All of it is somehow utterly unbearable.

    But there's nowhere to go, so she sits there and bears it until it's time to board.


    Sunday, 11th September

    It's a five-hour ride – closer to six, really, considering how long they have to wait at each stop. There are two before Castelia, at the Liberty Garden and at Unity Tower; apparently there are no express services at weekends, or maybe it's because of the strike. Every time, the ferry stays still for what seems like forever as cars are driven on and off the vehicle deck. Gwyneth doesn't mind. This was cheaper, and the longer it takes the more time she has to sleep.

    She spends most of the trip in the big lounge at the front of the ship, dozing in one of the soft chairs scattered around the room. She dreams fitfully, feverishly, sweating and groaning in a way that keeps the other passengers away from her. When she wakes, she remembers none of it, and the world seems colder and clearer, sharper around the edges. Everything still hurts, but at least she no longer feels like she's about to die.

    In the restroom, she wipes off her foundation and washes the sweat off her face and neck. Someone else comes in then, and she retreats into a cubicle, where with her tweezers and mirror she plucks out the most obvious hairs on her face before quickly running a razor over the rest and hiding its ghost beneath a fresh layer of make-up. She checks the mirror again and nods to herself: okay. Acceptable.

    Back at the sink, she brushes her teeth and refills her water bottle, and heads back out to the lounge, glad to have got all that over with. The actions in themselves no longer bother her, having faded from an emblem of her difference to another part of daily life sometime during the past ten years, but there is always a difference between doing them at home and doing them out here in the wider world. Gwyneth has caught her share of flak. She would do almost anything to stop herself taking any more.

    Standing at the window, she sees hazy spires of light forming in the darkness as Castelia draws near. It barely even looks real, and Gwyneth finds herself wondering, for a few seconds, if it's really there at all, if there is anything outside this bubble of light and glass but black water and the void of the night sky. Can there really be a Humilau out there, waiting for her to arrive? Suddenly it seems so unlikely.

    Someone screams and Gwyneth snaps out of it, turns sharply to see a couple of kids running in through the door at the other end of the room. She can't see what they're fleeing, and she's about to dismiss it as some game they're playing when a man in a chair near the door jumps up, swearing, and something rattles loudly near his feet. Now other people are getting up, some of them even climbing over the chairs in their haste to get away. A lillipup jumps in front of its master, barking ferociously, and then leaps back again, yelping in dismay.

    Everyone's staring now, or trying to retreat, and the chaos is working its way closer and closer, some unseen thing working its way between the chairs and tables. Gwyneth cranes her neck, trying to see the cause of it all, but whatever it is, it's well hidden by the furniture and the people trying to get out of its way. At the bar, a woman jumps up, fumbling for a poké ball, and a lithe green figure materialises at her feet, its hands bunches of thorns and petals. The roselia whistles an eerie tune, sending people as far away as Gwyneth into fits of yawning, but the move doesn't appear to take; the thing keeps moving, and now Gwyneth thinks she sees a flash of colour between a suitcase and a table, and now the man beside her is pushing past her to get away, and now, she realises, it's right here, it's coming right at her―

    “Now!” yells someone, and the thing suddenly rises up into the air, wriggling and hissing in the grip of a giant beige hand. Gwyneth blinks, and her brain catches up with her eyes: here's a conkeldurr, squat and powerful, with a bulbous red nose and a concrete pillar slung over its shoulder. It's barely five foot tall, but at least three of that is arm.

    “Anyone hurt?” asks the conkeldurr's trainer, a tall Latino man in a well-cut suit. There is a general shaking of heads, and a crew member runs up to him, red-faced above his white shirt.

    “Thank you, sir,” he gasps, chest heaving. “Been – chasing that thing – for fifteen minutes now.”

    The creature in question writhes, legs protruding from between the conkeldurr's massive fingers. Gwyneth hears a muffled clicking noise, and freezes.

    “What do you want me to do with it?” asks the man. “Does it belong to anyone, or what?”

    “Don't think so,” replies the crewman. “Crawled out of – a vent. Must've come aboard while – we were docked.”

    Gwyneth is straining to see over the conkeldurr's thumb. Is that an eye in there?

    “Right. Er, I don't suppose anyone has a poké ball? We could release it when we get to Castelia …”

    The creature has worked its head through a gap in the conkeldurr's fist. It surveys the room with a single, malevolent orange eye.

    “Release it?” A woman in a wine-red jacket laughs hollowly. “It's a goddamn menace. Ought to be destroyed.”

    “No!” cries Gwyneth involuntarily, and some small, sane part of her closes its eyes in despair. What is she doing?

    All eyes turn to her, and her insides clench up like a steel trap.

    “Is it yours?” asks the man politely.

    Gwyneth hesitates, and feels the moment stretch out into infinity.

    “Uh, yes,” she says, stepping forwards. “Yeah, it's – it's mine.”

    And she is screaming inside, screaming at herself to forget the venipede, you have enough problems and you don't need any more; and it's just a bug, it's probably going to die in a month anyway as soon as it starts getting properly cold; and the damn thing's dangerous anyway, it nearly killed you; and somehow Gwyneth is still standing here in front of everyone, in front of all of these people and all of their eyes, and the screaming thing inside her keeps screaming and she keeps listening and nothing whatsoever shows on her face.

    “Right,” says the woman in the red jacket, derisive, looking at Gwyneth in that same old way. (Seeing: the jacket, the boots, the hair, the dirt, the androgyny, the ethnic ambiguity.) “Figures.”

    And Gwyneth knows better than to say anything, even though she is tired and sick and angry and her arm hurts like hell. So she says nothing, and stands there as the millstone goes to work again on her gut.

    “That thing is yours?” asks the crewman, surprised. “I'm sorry, ma'am, what I mean is that it, ah, seems sort of wild.”

    “It's a rescue,” invents Gwyneth. “It … it gets nervous.” They're all still looking at her, at the woman fool enough to take responsibility for all that chaos. She burns and hates her pale skin for showing it. “I'm sorry, it must have wandered off when I fell asleep. I'm … I'm very tired. I'm sorry.”

    The crewman scowls.

    “Ma'am, venipede are highly venomous―”

    (Tell me about it.)

    “―and letting it loose like this is highly irresponsible. There are signs up at all the entrances saying that potentially dangerous pokémon must be confined to their balls for the trip―”

    “Doesn't have one,” replies Gwyneth. The screaming thing inside of her has quietened down, is now simply staring wide-eyed as she digs herself deeper and deeper into the hole. She cannot believe she is doing any of this. “It's ex-Plasma. It has a problem with poké balls.”


    “I'm sure there won't be any more trouble,” says the Latino man. “The venipede is back where it belongs now. Right?”

    He looks at her, and Gwyneth feels a surge of gratitude rising in her. God. Everything might have gone to hell, but at least the guy with the three-hundred-pound fighting-type is on her side.

    “Right,” she confirms. “Like I said, I'm sorry. I'll take it from here.”

    She holds out her hands (and wonders if she is really doing this) and the conkeldurr deposits the venipede her arms. It seems to have calmed down since it was caught – resignation, maybe, its little insect brain deciding that its time had finally come. At least, it isn't wriggling any more, and Gwyneth can cradle it in her good arm without much difficulty. All she has to do is not think about the fact that less than twelve hours ago this animal put her in the hospital.

    “Well,” says the crewman. He looks unhappy. He has chased this damn thing around the vehicle deck for fifteen minutes in the middle of the goddamn night, Gwyneth can see it in his eyes; he has got oil stains on his trousers and broken a shoelace. If this were a regular-size centipede, he would have stamped on it by now. But it's a pokémon and that makes things different; his anger turns around, finds a new target in this scruffy punk kid who says it's her partner. Who the hell has a pet venipede? That lady over there is right, the creature is a menace. It probably broke the kid's hand itself, he's thinking. Gwyneth almost smiles at the idea.

    “Well,” he says again, looking at the man with the conkeldurr. The big fighting-type swings its stick of concrete off one shoulder and effortlessly up onto the other. “Okay. I guess, if you promise to keep it under control …”

    “I will,” says Gwyneth earnestly. “Seriously, I'm so sorry. Won't happen again.”

    The venipede twitches in her grip, its legs digging into her chest like blunt knives. She swallows and hopes her discomfort isn't visible.

    “Okay,” says the crewman. “Fine. But I'm keeping an eye on you. Anything like this again, and you'll be barred from our ferries.”

    He turns around to leave, and Gwyneth sags in relief. Everyone can see, but she doesn't care; people are starting to look away now, to go back to their books or tablets or whatever, and this is over, and she isn't being fined or killed by a bug-type, and right now that's all that matters.

    But it's not all done. The Latino man is still here, though, looking at her and grinning in a way that makes her feel uneasy. Gwyneth cannot see anything funny in this situation. She is suspicious of anyone who can.

    “Thanks,” she says, not knowing what else to say. “I think you probably saved me there.”

    He keeps grinning.

    “C'mon,” he says. “Gwyneth? It's me. Don't tell me you've forgotten me already.”

    And then Gwyneth sees it, and she is so deep in astonishment she forgets the poison-type she's holding pressed up against her heart.


    “Hey, you got there in the end,” he says. “Still causing trouble, I see.”

    Gwyneth feels herself reddening.

    “Yeah,” she says, trying to laugh and not succeeding. “Guess I am. But, uh, Tomás, how's it going, dude? I see Rafa's all grown up.”

    The conkeldurr looks up at the sound of his name and sniffs deeply, nose bobbing. Gwyneth vaguely recalls hearing somewhere that that's something like a greeting, for a conkeldurr.

    “Yeah, yeah he is,” says Tomás proudly, looking at him. “Blossom not with you?”

    “Oh,” she says. “Uh, no, not today. She … she's pretty old now, she gets dizzy on boats.”

    “Oh yeah, guess she would be.” Tomás gestures to a chair. “Hey, now all that's over, let's sit down a minute. We have a little while before we hit Castelia.”

    “Okay,” agrees Gwyneth uncertainly, and sits down next to him. Automatically, she releases the venipede into her lap, and for a second is seized by a sudden terror that it will run away again – but it doesn't move, just crouches there like a pint-sized demon. Does it know that she just saved it? She has no idea how smart bug-types are. For now, she's just glad it isn't causing any more trouble.

    “So how've you been?” asks Tomás. His suit is impeccable, Gwyneth notices. She isn't a good judge of this kind of thing, but even she can tell it was not cheap. It fits too well for that.

    “I've been okay,” she answers, resting one hand gingerly on the venipede's carapace. She tells herself that she is doing this in case it runs. She does not believe she will really stop it if it does. “I'm in Aspertia at the moment. Heading back east for my brother's wedding.”

    “Really? That's great news! Wish I had a wedding to go to. Unfortunately, I'm just on my way to a conference in Castelia.”

    As if waking from a trance, the venipede shifts in her lap and turns to bring its eye to bear on Rafa. A rattling sound comes from somewhere deep inside it, and Gwyneth runs her fingers over its shell, hoping it isn't thinking of taking revenge.

    “Yeah? What kind of a conference?”

    “Bridges,” he says. “No, seriously. Structural engineering. I make bridges. Well, I help at least.”

    Unova is split into three by the two huge rivers that come down from the north and empty out into the bays; it's a country with a lot of demand for bridges. Gwyneth doesn't know the first thing about structural engineering, but even she can guess that this is a lucrative business.

    “Neat,” she says. “That must be interesting.”

    Tomás laughs.

    “You may be the first person to ever say that,” he tells her. “I just do simulations, water flow over supports, that kind of thing. Pretty tedious, really, but I like it.”

    “Can't be that bad,” says Gwyneth, because she is still looking at the suit and all the money that went into it, and trying not to be angry. Tomás doesn't deserve it. It wasn't him that put her in the wrong end of Aspertia. That's all on her.

    Besides, he just saved her. She should make an effort to be nice, she thinks.

    “It's weird, bumping into you like this,” she says. “You, uh, still in touch with Ashley?”

    Tomás grins and shows her his hand, a gold band on the ring finger.

    “Sure am,” he says. “We're getting married next year.”

    Gwyneth's smile freezes, turns glass-brittle. Of course.

    The venipede clicks in her lap, and she realises she is starting to squeeze it between her fingers. Probably it's too tough to be hurt like that, but she releases it anyway, and quickly. She's all too aware of what an angry venipede can do.

    “Really?” she says to Tomás, trying to disguise her alarm. “That's … that's amazing. You've been together all this time?”

    “Kind of. We drifted apart a bit when we came back home and went to college, but then we caught up again afterwards and it was like we'd never left.” He smiles. “It's a cliché, I know, marrying the girl you meet on your trainer journey. But hey, if it works, it works.”

    She forces a smile. Yes. The girl you meet on your trainer journey. That old chestnut.

    “That's really great,” she says. “I thought you two were cute together.”

    “Hah! Thanks. What about you, what've you been doing with yourself all this time?”

    Great question. What has she been doing with herself all this time? She realises that she really does not know.

    “Bit of this, bit of that,” she says noncommittally. “Travelled around a lot with my … with a friend. Worked in a few different places.” She gives him her best impression of a smile. “Nothing as fancy as structural engineering, though.”

    Tomás knows this already, or he can guess. Her life is stamped all over her, as his on him. He's not from a well-off family himself; his ascent into the middle class is a perpetual surprise and slight embarrassment to him. He has sat where Gwyneth is sitting, and he does not want to insult her with his pity or his disdain. So he changes the subject, and makes his mistake.

    “It's not all that,” he says. “Hey, by the way, there's something I've been meaning to say to you for the past nine years now.”

    “Yeah? Well, let's have it, then.”

    “How come you never told us who your brother was?”

    The fury in her eyes is there and gone so fast Tomás isn't even sure he saw it. She sees the uncertainty on his face. If it's real, she thinks, he doesn't understand it. Who wouldn't be proud to know Hilbert ze'Haraan?

    “He's … I just figured I could do without the pressure,” says Gwyneth tautly. “Kind of rough for a kid on her trainer journey to have a brother like that.”

    “Oh, right.” Tomás looks embarrassed. “Makes sense. Uh, sorry about that. Ash is always saying I need to think more and talk less.”

    How cute. Gwyneth has no idea what she's supposed to say. Some sort of reassurance, maybe.

    “It's okay,” she tells him. “I'm not a trainer any more. No competition now.”

    “Huh? I thought you were.”

    “What? Why?”

    “Well, you know.” Tomás gestures at the venipede, which flinches and makes Gwyneth's heart skip a beat in panic. “Venipede aren't exactly ideal pet material.”

    “Oh, right.” (Don't attack. Please for the love of god don't attack.) “Uh, sorry, Tomás, but could you, uh, not do that? It's … well, like I said. It's a rescue.” She holds up her bandaged hand. “This is what happened last time someone startled it,” she says, hoping it comes across as a joke.

    It does not. Tomás looks aghast.

    “What, seriously?” He casts a sideways glance at the venipede, uneasy. “Wow.”

    Gwyneth forcibly unclenches her teeth.

    “It's no big deal,” she says, slowly and carefully. “Looks worse than it is. Just, uh, I really don't want to cause any more trouble.”

    “Right,” agrees Tomás. “Sure. Can I ask how someone who isn't a trainer ends up with a rescue venipede, anyway?”

    “You can,” says Gwyneth, trying to think of a plausible lie. “I … well, I just … saw it at the shelter and fell in love. You know.”

    She pats the venipede lovingly on the hump, which is to say that she brings her hand very close to its shell but does not actually touch it.

    “Okay,” says Tomás. “Takes all sorts, I guess. I mean, there's Roxie and Burgh and all.”

    “That's right.” Gwyneth wonders what he's thinking right now. She would be willing to lay money on it not being complimentary. “Anyway, I wouldn't change it for the world.”

    That must have come out especially convincing, because Tomás smiles in the way that people do when they think they see genuine affection.

    “Nice,” he says, and then a bell chimes over the PA system and the voice of Jon Palmer drifts out over the heads of the passengers:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will be arriving Castelia in about five minutes. Would drivers please return to their vehicles, and all passengers ensure they have all their belongings with them ready for disembarking.”

    Tomás stands up, although, Gwyneth notes, not too quickly.

    “Well,” he says. “Guess I'd better get back to my car. Nice catching up with you, Gwyneth.”

    “Yeah,” she says, shaking his hand. “Real nice.”

    He walks off, Rafa slouching after him with the casual pace of a creature unaccustomed to being stopped. Gwyneth watches the two of them until they disappear in the crowd, imagining the car in the deck below, imagining it gliding out into the electric dawn of a Castelia night. She imagines a return to Virbank, Ashley waiting, a knock at a door, a kiss. She imagines Wellspring Cave.

    Gwyneth sighs and looks down at the venipede. It looks back up at her with undisguised venom. She has never seen anything as nakedly acidic that wasn't reflected in a mirror.

    “Well,” she says, uncomfortably. “Guess it's just you and me, then.”

    It hisses at her, jaws clicking. She shrugs and looks out in the direction Tomás took.

    “Yeah, me too, a*shole. Me too.”


    Some people get chosen and some do not. Gwyneth is standing on a broad stone jetty in Castelia at four in the morning, holding a venipede, and she is not sure how any of this came to be.

    At her back is the sea; at her face, a wall of night-dark glass. Castelia doesn't have the space of Virbank. Here, the skyscrapers push right up against the shore, their shadows tumbling out and onto the waves. Gwyneth remembers being eight and coming here for the first time, some school trip or something, and seeing the spires flame in the afternoon sun as the bus came over the Skyarrow Bridge. It doesn't feel that much darker even now. The streetlight, the traffic, the lit-up windows; Gwyneth saw on TV once that dolphins have half their brain sleep at a time, so the other half can keep swimming, and that, she thinks, is Castelia. Half of it sleeps, and half keeps on whirring towards the light.

    The venipede adjusts itself in her arms and she comes back to herself.

    “Okay, dude,” she says. “I saved you, and thanks for not killing me again, I guess. You can go now.”

    She puts it down and starts walking up the pier towards the shore. She stops at the sound of skittering feet.

    Gwyneth turns and sees the venipede squatting at her heels, its evil orange eye glinting in the streetlight.

    “C'mon,” she says. “Give me a break here.”

    The venipede does not move.

    Gwyneth sighs. She's tempted to kick it into the sea, except she knows that even she isn't that cruel, not really. After all, she was a trainer once. Her viciousness is mostly reserved for human beings.

    “This is 'cause I survived your poison, right?”

    No reaction. It's possible the venipede doesn't understand a word she's saying. Bug-types are not known for their intelligence.

    “Look, dude, I know what this is.” She read all about it in those magazines, a lifetime ago. How do you get a pokémon to work with you? You prove your worth. Usually that's a contest of strength; that's what capture is all about. Sometimes it's other things. (She remembers Corbin, who followed her because, she thinks, he liked the shape and texture of her dreams.) “This is about me surviving your poison, right?”

    The venipede threw everything it had at her, and she survived. She's proven her worth, in a grotesquely hardcore kind of way, and now it's impressed. It sees power, and wants to share in it.

    Gwyneth cannot even begin to figure out how to explain what a colossal mistake it has made.

    “I'm not a trainer,” she persists. “Seriously. And I can't afford to feed you, either.”

    It keeps its eye on her. Gwyneth wonders, briefly, what gets close enough to a venipede this aggressive to take out an eye. Then she realises that she has it the wrong way around, that it is probably aggressive because it lost the eye, and all at once she sighs and closes her eyes, aware now that she has lost.

    “Okay,” she says. “Whatever. See if I care.”

    She turns around and walks on towards the city. The venipede pauses for a moment, then follows.

    Except that of course it isn't the venipede, not any more. Now, thinks Gwyneth, it's her venipede.

    The thought sits worse with her than the poison ever did.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  18. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    This is a really cute image, aww.

    I knew it was a venipede! They just seem to cause trouble no matter what fics they're in, huh?

    Like this bit of dialogue. Feels really unique, even for a character that probably won't appear again ever.

  19. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    ... I just realised I got Professor Juniper's name wrong in the first chapter and I am here to tell all of you concerned readers out there that over a month later, this has finally been fixed.

    Anyway, now I'm finished airing my embarrassing lapse of memory, on with this response.

    They absolutely do! I think it has something to do with how they're characterised in the pokédex as belligerent jerks, despite being tiny and adorable. That's a really tempting combination to chuck into a story, I feel.

    Interesting. I was undecided about that line, because I had no idea whether that sort of phrasing is used at all in spoken American English, and in the end I just left it in because I got tired of thinking about it. Possibly this is one of those times when you write good dialogue entirely by accident. Neat.

    I think she's working on the assumption that "well, as time passes wounds heal and diseases run their course, so I guess this will work out somehow, too". Not that that's a particularly good assumption to be making when you're recovering from a severe case of being stabbed with an inch-long poisonous sting, but in all fairness, this is the woman who's decided to walk from Aspertia to Humilau to go to a wedding she doesn't want to go to and at which her presence can only make things incredibly weird. It's probably safe to say 'good assumptions' aren't really her thing.

    Thanks, so did I! Cities at night are always fun to describe. Difficult to say anything original about, but it's fun to try.

    Good catch! That'd be an easy fix, I can whip something up to flesh that out a bit.

    It's the curse of being an NPC, I guess. I've always thought that player characters must be terrifying to the people who inhabit their game worlds. Their persistence, their willingness to do ludicrously dangerous things for pretty much no reward, and, more than that, the fact that they always win in these situations, must make them seem monstrous and strange. Gwyneth's attitude towards the player characters of her own world, Hilbert and Nate, comes out of that train of thought, I guess. People like them aren't supposed to exist.

    Which isn't really a response to what you said, but I suppose it has some bearing on it.

    I think it's safe to say Gwyneth wouldn't appreciate it, but if it was anyone else I'm pretty sure she'd be laughing too.

    I was hoping that came through. Thanks for the confirmation!

    ... it really doesn't feel right to use an exclamation mark about something as grim as that, but I guess I'll trust my initial impulse and let it stand.

    Yeah, I did think of that, but then I figured that the particular reason Gwyneth has no pokémon any more -- and the change in her that that event marked -- might be enough to breathe a bit of life into the cliché. I guess you'll have to be the judge of that when we get there, though. She's definitely someone who finds the past constantly intrudes on the present, for a variety of reasons that will hopefully, if I manage to write well enough to convey them the way I want to, become a bit clearer later on.

    As for whether or not she'll make it out of Castelia, well! All that will be revealed very soon, since the next chapter's close to done now. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks especially for responding!
  20. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.


    Sunday, 11th September

    Gwyneth charged up her phone on the boat. Now, sitting on a bench in Castelia Park and waiting for sunrise, she is reading the Pokémon Index Project webpage for venipede.

    They are common, she reads. Some say pestilentially so. They breed in great numbers because most of the hatchlings die before they reach their second instar. (She googles the word instar, scowls at the definition.) If they evolve, they can live for up to thirty years, unusually long for a bug-type, probably due to the sheer size of a scolipede. In the wild, venipede and whirlipede hibernate during winter; scolipede usually do not, being big enough to keep warm even in the snow. In captivity, if well fed and kept warm, they often do not hibernate at all.

    They are vicious. They kill more than they eat. They defend themselves against predators with powerful toxins and sheer bloody-minded ferocity. Attacks on humans are not unknown; venipede do not attack unprovoked, she reads, but they are very easily provoked. These attacks have become more common in recent years, as they start to live and breed in cities, feeding on trash and coming into dangerously close proximity to humans. The federal government is considering a humane cull, to slow down the population explosion and prevent them from overpredating their prey species.

    Gwyneth looks from her phone to the creature sitting next to her on the bench. It's much less attractive than the one pictured on the website. Its shell is notched and scarred, closer to rust than magenta; the segments behind the hump that are bright green in the picture are sickly and yellowish on the real thing. The hole in its shell through which its left eye once looked is grown over with dark, dirty chitin.

    “Right,” she says, and puts her phone away.

    Around her, the park is slowly starting to lighten, the branches picking up the first of the early sun. It's already warmer than it would have been in Aspertia, Gwyneth thinks. She hasn't even come that far east, really. Nika said Castelia was always warmer, because of all the buildings. Gwyneth never really bothered asking how that worked.

    She supposes it doesn't matter now. She'll be out of here by this afternoon.

    The park is small, hemmed in on all sides by the usual tower blocks. Gwyneth is faintly surprised that there's even enough light in here for all this – a half-acre of trees, flowering shrubs, neat little lawns. Sitting here, she feels like she is trapped in the bottom of a giant tin can, the sky a hole in the dark way up above her head.

    Well, she's never liked central Castelia anyway. All these anonymous towers are dull, and the people that scurry between them with briefcases and oversized smartphones are assholes. Gwyneth likes the west side better, especially Thaneway, with its ageing brownstones and population of starving artists. It's cheaper and dirtier, and therefore less threatening.

    She wonders if it's late enough for her to bother Shane's friend yet. It's six-ish now; by the time she finds the place, it will probably be seven. Today is Sunday, which means that probably isn't acceptable, but she's had enough of the park. Gwyneth wants to be indoors, and now that she's down to four dollars in her bank account and ten in her wallet, buying a coffee doesn't seem like a particularly good idea.

    “We're going,” she tells the venipede, although she isn't sure why she bothers, and gets up. It crawls down the leg of the bench and takes up its usual position by her feet, ready to move. Gwyneth is still not entirely at ease with the way it hangs around just behind her, always just a few inches away from getting tangled in her legs. She imagines stumbling and crushing it with her feet, grey meat and strange fluids spread across the sidewalk, and feels ill. The creature must be sensible enough not to get too close. She is sure of that. And it's probably not as fragile as it looks. But she thinks about it anyway.

    A few yards down the street, she stops and picks the venipede up.

    “Sit on my bag or something,” she tells it, shoving it up on her shoulder. “Just stay out of the way, okay?”

    It opens its jaws and hisses spitefully. This close, she can smell it, a faint rotting scent like decomposing garbage.

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says Gwyneth, turning away from it. “Whatever.”

    Castelia's dolphin-brain is flipping. As she walks, the streets begin to thicken; a new shift of cab drivers take to the road, a wave of tired-looking people emerge from their apartments. Gwyneth looks at their faces, grey in the early morning light, and feels a certain sympathy. These are the people who have to come in early to open up and get the store ready. That's her job, most days, or it was before she started this ridiculous journey. For a moment, she considers what she will do afterwards, but it isn't a thought she can sustain. Her future ends in Humilau, Gwyneth tells herself. There is nothing else. Not yet.

    She keeps walking. Her hand hurts, and at some point, she tells herself, she's going to have to look under the bandages, maybe get the dressings changed, but other than that she feels okay. She could do with something to eat, but it's not urgent; she could use some coffee, but again, not urgent. She's okay. The buildings get taller and taller, and then they start getting shorter. The cars roar and blare their horns. The streets fill up, little by little, and the sun comes up properly, rose-coloured light scattering itself across the windows, and through the barely-contained chaos of the city rousing itself Gwyneth keeps on walking. She's okay.

    She passes a café with all the chairs up on the tables, a man in an apron busily washing its windows and whistling loudly; a seafront bar, cold and unwelcoming in the dawn light; a brace of cyclists, whizzing down the side of the road and raising a symphony of angry car horns. On the corner of Gym Street, she sees two women her own age or younger still in last night's going-out dresses, heels in their hands, weaving back and forth across the pavement on their way home. Gwyneth thinks about dancing, about staying up all night, about drinking too much and laughing and delighting in the last of the summer nights. Autumn is nearly here. The equinox is just around the corner.

    The venipede rattles on her shoulder, breaking into her thoughts. Gwyneth tells it to shut up, but she's glad of the distraction. All the equinox can do is remind her of Nika. She doesn't need any more of that.

    Thaneway comes at last, the mishmash of glass and stone giving way entirely to rows of brownstones, and Gwyneth stares, dismayed. Since when has this place looked so … nice? The railings have all been repainted, the houses done up. Everything is clean and wholesome. She remembers graffiti here that covered whole buildings, a monument to the street artists and their work. Now she only sees whitewash.

    She wanders further down the street, looking for the turning that will take her towards Maxine's place. Lancer Street's still here, despite everything; that makes her feel a little better. The refuge for homeless Henuun kids is still there, although one of the buildings at the end of the road has a skip outside and is clearly in the middle of being renovated. One of these days, thinks Gwyneth, she'll come back and find that Lancer Street's gone too.

    Or maybe she'll never come back again. That would suit her just fine, as well. It is not lost on her that Martin used to live around here, before he was shot.

    The venipede shuffles off her shoulder onto her backpack, clicking irritably to itself.

    “Yeah,” says Gwyneth, staring down the street, trying not to see Martin's ghost. “I feel you, dude.”


    It's divided now, is Thaneway. Gwyneth detects an unmarked border slicing the district in half: money on the east side, dirt on the west. It figures. The city centre is ludicrously expensive, and so is most of the northeast of the city. People must be looking west now. She guesses Brickhead and Salloy are probably moving up-market too.

    Not her place to get upset about it, she tells herself, although she is upset, in a distant kind of way. She's only a tourist, after all. And no one likes a tourist.

    The thought lingers as she at last turns onto Salmond Street, a road lined with what were clearly once tenement blocks and are now dangerously fashionable apartments. Gwyneth can see the ad copy in her head: Mere minutes from the heart of the old bohemian quarter, these two-bedroom apartments are packed with original features …

    She paces down the road, searching for number thirty-one. What kind of person is this Maxine? Gwyneth finds it hard to picture someone who belongs both here and in Shane's circle of acquaintances. She imagines hostility, and then tries to un-imagine it, as somehow disloyal to Shane. You'd like her, he said. And she lives here, in the husk of old Thaneway.

    She doesn't do a very good job of un-imagining it.

    Number thirty-one is like all the others, tall and dark, façade broken up by window-boxes with a last few summer flowers still clinging to life inside them. When she stops, the venipede crawls off her shoulder and begins to make its way down her arm towards the ground, digging its claws in deep to maintain its grip, and Gwyneth swears at the sudden pain, peels it off herself in a hurry.

    Ow, what the hell?” she snaps, looking at the holes in her jacket. “Just ask, a*shole.” She puts it down on the sidewalk, less gently than she might have done, and it clicks its jaws at her angrily. “Yeah, whatever,” she replies. “You're the one who wanted to follow me. You got nobody to blame but yourself.”

    She shoves her way into the building, leaving the door swinging wildly behind her without caring how the venipede will follow, and marches over to the elevator, stabbing the button for the third floor hard enough to make her finger hurt. She shrugs off her backpack, struggles out of her jacket and inspects her arm. Great: the venipede's claws have broken the skin. It's always best to walk into a stranger's apartment visibly bleeding. That sort of thing never fails to leave a fantastic first impression.

    Gwyneth swears again, and then once more, with feeling. She wipes off her arm on her fingers and then dries them as best she can on the leg of her jeans. There actually isn't so much blood, she realises. The cuts are quite shallow.

    The elevator doors open with a ding. Gwyneth drags in her backpack and jacket and, after a moment's hesitation, presses the hold door button for the venipede to follow her. It takes up a position at her feet and waits silently while she pulls on her jacket again, wincing and hoping she doesn't bleed into the lining.

    “Hope you're happy, dude,” she says bitterly. If the venipede feels one way or another about this, it does not show it.

    Ding. Second floor. Gwyneth walks out and stands in front of Apt. 4, composing herself. Okay: Maxine. Shane's friend. You'll like her, apparently. She adjusts her bandages, tweaks her hair into a position, and knocks.

    Footsteps, and it opens, and Gwyneth is speaking:

    “Hi! I'm Gwyneth – Shane's friend? He said that you …”

    She tails off midsentence. She sees Maxine, and sees Maxine seeing her, and knows that right now they are both thinking the exact same thing.

    “Let me guess,” says Maxine, in a quick, dry voice. “He said 'You'd like her', didn't he?”

    Gwyneth's face cracks into an unexpected grin.

    “Yeah,” she admits, rubbing the back of her neck. “God, Shane.”

    Maxine sighs.

    “The guy means well, but he's cis. You know?”

    Oh, she knows. Christ. You'd like her. Seriously, Shane? Couldn't bring yourself to say the damn word?

    “Anyway.” Maxine steps aside and waves a hand. “Come on in, Gwyneth.”

    It's a very nice apartment. Gwyneth is extremely aware of that. It is the kind of place in which pale wood and clean lines feature prominently. She feels like an oily thumbprint just standing here.

    “Nice place,” she begins, but Maxine isn't listening: a dark red blur has just shot between her legs and taken refuge under the coffee table.

    “What the―?”

    “It's okay!” Gwyneth cries, holding out a hand. “It's – it's with me. Sorry, I should've said.”

    Maxine stares at the venipede. It gives as good as it gets, even with only one eye.

    “Yeah, Shane forgot to mention that,” she says.

    “That's 'cause I didn't have it last time we spoke,” explains Gwyneth awkwardly. “It, uh … I've had kind of a weird trip.”

    Maxine gives her a long, appraising look, and now she sees more than just the transness; she sees the dirt and the fatigue, and the bandages too. She herself is white, with immaculate lipstick and eyeliner. Gwyneth wonders who is up and about at half seven on a Sunday morning with perfect make-up, and comes to a natural conclusion: a trans woman nervously expecting a stranger to arrive.

    “Yeah, I can buy that,” she says, glancing back at the venipede. “Is that thing safe?”

    Gwyneth tries very hard not to look at her left hand or right arm.

    “Sure,” she answers. “Totally.”

    Maxine raises her eyebrows and closes the door.

    “Well, okay then,” she says. “I was about to make breakfast. You want some?”

    Something in Gwyneth's chest seems to rise.

    “Yes,” she hears herself saying. “Yeah, I'd love that, thanks.”


    You'd like her. Gwyneth hates being told she'll like people, especially if that's code for 'she's trans like you', but she has to admit that Maxine is not so bad. She's fed her and given her coffee, and she seems to be trying not to be suspicious. Gwyneth can tell that it isn't easy; Maxine almost never looks away from her, always has one eye on the poor Henuun woman tracking dirt into her apartment. It grates. But she's trying, and that counts. It's not ideal, but it's better than the woman in the red leather jacket, and that makes it better than what Gwyneth normally gets.

    “I still can't believe that guy,” says Maxine, stirring sugar into her coffee. “'You'd like her.'” She smiles mirthlessly. “What is with them?”

    “If I knew, I'd tell you,” replies Gwyneth. “He wasn't wrong, though. You're okay.”

    “I'm thrilled you approve,” says Maxine, and Gwyneth can't tell if she's being serious or not. “It's not all about the altruism, honestly. I owed Shane a favour, and this is me paying it.” She takes a sip of coffee. “Have to say, though, it makes it easier. You being you.”

    “I can imagine.”

    She doesn't even need to, not really. Gwyneth is a jerk and she knows it, but even she feels the strength of this obligation. She hates most people, trans women included; still, if Shane called her up saying Maxine needed a place to crash, she would volunteer her couch. It's hard to say why, exactly. Some things, she thinks, you just have to do.

    “So,” says Maxine, after a short pause. “How'd you end up with the venipede?”

    Gwyneth looks at it, squatting in the corner by the fridge. It's calmed down now, and is industriously chewing its way down the length of a raw sausage. She has no idea if this is the right thing to feed it, but given that it's lived as long as it has just eating trash, she doubts it can do it much harm.

    “I caught it in Virbank,” she says. “By accident.”

    Maxine raises one perfectly sculpted eyebrow.

    “And how, pray tell, do you catch something by accident?”

    That irritates her, the pray tell, but Gwyneth suppresses it. She's supposed to be being grateful.

    “Panic, mostly,” she says, instead of telling Maxine she's being pretentious, and explains how she got where she is now: the wedding, the bus, the poison, the ferry. Maxine listens with apparent interest, and Gwyneth does her best not to suspect her of feigning it out of politeness.

    “Humilau's a long way,” she says, when Gwyneth is done. She says it in the kind of way that makes you think she's getting at something.

    “Yeah, it is,” replies Gwyneth.

    There is another short pause.

    “Okay,” says Maxine. “Indulge me a sec. You're going all the way to Humilau to see your ex marry your brother?”

    “Yeah.” Gwyneth has not mentioned who her brother is. She owes Maxine enough to tell her the story, but not enough to put herself through that.

    Maxine laughs, shakes her head.

    “God,” she says. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh, I just … wow. So you're what, planning on objecting? Dramatic eleventh-hour attempt at winning her back?”

    Gwyneth grits her teeth. She regrets saying anything now.

    “I'm planning on attending,” she answers. “She's my friend and he's my brother. That's enough, right?”

    She wishes she hadn't added that. Right? It makes her sound like she isn't sure. And it's true, she isn't sure, but she doesn't want Maxine to know that.

    “Okay, okay.” Maxine looks contrite. “I'm sorry, I – sorry. It just sounds―”

    “I know how it sounds,” Gwyneth cuts in. “I've got this far. I know how it sounds.”

    “Right. I'm sorry.”

    Somewhere deep inside herself, Gwyneth steps back and opens her hands, lets the anger go. Breathe. She's not being serious. She didn't know that you were.

    “It's okay,” she says, after a second. “I … Nika and me, we … I don't know why I'm going. I just am.”

    Maxine nods slowly.

    “Yes,” she says. “I think I see that now.”

    Something changes. Gwyneth can almost taste it in the air, like the smoke left after fireworks. She tenses, but if she's expecting confrontation it doesn't come; Maxine simply finishes her coffee and stands up.

    “Okay, you didn't come here for me to grill you,” she says, so lightly that Gwyneth knows that it has to be deliberate. “Saadiyyah will be here about half ten, eleven, and I have some work to do. So, uh, you know. Make yourself at home. Have a shower, if you like; it'll be a couple days till you get to Driftveil and I'm pretty sure there isn't much in the way of plumbing down in the Passage.”

    Gwyneth relaxes, lets out the breath she has been holding.

    “Thanks,” she says. “And hey, I'm … sorry. I really appreciate this.”

    Maxine smiles. It's beautiful in a way that makes Gwyneth's chest tighten with frustration.

    “Not a problem,” she says. “Like I said. I owe Shane anyway.” She refills her mug and hangs there for a moment, awkward; there's that tension again, the instinct to not leave Gwyneth alone here. It passes, and she goes out into the next room in search of her laptop.

    Gwyneth drains her cup and sits there for a minute, thinking. A second later, the venipede reaches the end of its sausage and spits the tip out halfway across the room, hissing violently.

    She doesn't react. She isn't sure what she would say.


    There is a vulnerability in being naked in a stranger's house, and Gwyneth feels it keenly, but her desire to get clean is stronger than her nerves, and anyway she has to admit that Maxine's shower is much nicer than her own: the water is hot, plentiful and comes out with the proper force, slicking her fading hair deliciously against her scalp. (Black roots very prominent now, she notes.) The experience is only slightly marred by the fact that she has to wrap her left hand in plastic and hold it out of the way to keep the bandages dry, and that the water stings like hell as it passes over the puncture wounds on her right arm.

    Still, she feels better for the experience. After she's done, she adjusts her face again and goes to buy supplies for the next couple of days – a loaf of bread, some apples, things that are both cheap and able to stand being squashed in her bag. She leaves the grocery store with nothing left but pocket change, and chooses not to think about what she will do when she gets to Driftveil.

    The venipede comes with her – even Gwyneth cannot in good conscience inflict its company on Maxine while she's out – and, though initially uneasy under the fluorescent lights, is surprisingly well behaved. Gwyneth wonders if perhaps it was only acting out because it was hungry, but then it starts clicking and rattling at passers-by and she decides that it's probably just a jerk. It's okay. She can understand that.

    Back at the apartment, Maxine has set up at her kitchen table, dividing her attention fairly equally between her laptop and a sheaf of red-annotated documents. Gwyneth hasn't asked what it is she does, and doesn't care enough to want to disturb her; instead, she installs herself on the couch, charges her phone, and sees what's on TV. IBN is playing reruns of the Indigo League Champion challenge from the other day, which she skips through without paying attention; the news has a feature about some weird weather phenomenon going on over Sinnoh. Gwyneth watches a few seconds of an abyssal darkness seeping through the sky from above a mountaintop, then changes the channel. Probably just some ghost-types acting up or something.

    Time passes. The venipede chews a cushion, until Gwyneth swears and drags it away. She looks up guiltily, sees Maxine absorbed in her work, hurriedly arranges the gnawed cushion so it's hidden behind another.

    “I swear to God I'll throw you out of the window,” she hisses, and whether the venipede understands the words or simply the threatening tone it subsides, after a little indignant rattling, and settles for exploring the space under the coffee table instead.

    Daytime TV. Nothing good, even on a Sunday. It's okay. Gwyneth is used to this. She doesn't really do things, any more; you need money to do things, and energy, and motivation, and in the spaces in between the times that she is working she finds she has the first thing rarely and the other two never. She can recite the Sunday morning TV schedule for six channels without missing a beat. It's the sort of skill, she thinks, that you don't boast about.

    Another hour rolls by, and there's a knock at the door. Maxine goes to answer and Gwyneth mutes the TV, looks over her shoulder with a mixture of nerves and resentment. This will be her niece, she assumes. The trainer. Who is going to help her out.

    “Heya, Max,” says a young, fresh voice. “How's it going?”

    “Hi,” replies Maxine. “It's all right. Can you put Steggers in his ball, please? I'm, uh, less than certain that these floorboards were meant to take that kind of weight.”

    “Oh! Yeah, right, of course.” Gwyneth cranes her neck but can't see; all she gets is a flash of light and the creak of tense wood relaxing back into place. Rock-type, she's guessing. Enduring, hard-hitting, implacable. Not that it's any of her business.

    “Come on in,” says Maxine, stepping away, and Gwyneth can see the kid now: young, seventeen at a guess, blue jeans embroidered with flowers, pale hijab, killer cheekbones. Not even a little bit nervous, or if she is, she's hiding it well. Every inch a trainer, thinks Gwyneth, and forces herself to unclench her jaw. “So, this is, uh, this is Gwyneth.”

    “Hi.” Saadiyyah raises a hand briefly. “Nice to meet you.”

    “Likewise,” says Gwyneth.

    “And yeah, this … this is Saadiyyah.” Maxine clasps and unclasps her hands. “Uh, so. Coffee? You're both pretty early, you've got time.”

    “Sure,” says Saadiyyah. “That'd be great, thanks.”

    “Okay.” Maxine looks from Saadiyyah to Gwyneth and back again. “Okay,” she repeats. “I'll go do that. You two … get to know each other, I guess.”

    She goes back into the kitchen and applies herself to the coffeemaker. Saadiyyah takes a seat on the other sofa, eyes on Gwyneth. What's she seeing? Difficult to say, exactly. Gwyneth doesn't know what's going on in the heads of seventeen-year-old trainers. Most kids stick it out till their first winter; a few go back out in the spring; only a very few stay on beyond that. A seventeen-year-old trainer has been around long enough that you don't need to be the woman with the ultra ball. The only problem is that if she isn't that, Gwyneth is not particularly pleasant company.

    Well. Gwyneth knows she can see what she is, anyway, but with Maxine for an aunt that's probably not an issue. Anyway, she thinks, she probably ought to say something.

    “So you're a trainer,” she says. She means it as a question, but gets a little stuck with the inflection.

    “Yes,” says Saadiyyah. “Rock-types, mostly.”

    (Nailed it.)

    “Looking to become a Gym Leader, or …?”

    “No,” she admits. “I just kinda like the challenge.”

    Gwyneth feels the force of Harmonia's electric eye on her. The challenge. Is this a game, then? Is that what this is?

    “That all?” she asks.

    “Oh, I mean, I really like the rock-type,” answers Saadiyyah, looking a little flustered. “I think it's really interesting, the kind of tactics you can build around its endurance and all, but like, it's got a lot of weaknesses. You know? And it's satisfying for me and my partners to overcome that.”

    There it is, in her voice. The love. Harmonia's sacred bond, right there. Fine, then. With an effort, Gwyneth shoves Harmonia's ghost off her back, and smiles.

    “I can tell,” she says, and Saadiyyah looks pleased.

    “Were you a trainer?” she asks, and Gwyneth tries to hide it but it's too late, Saadiyyah can see it on her face, and now the poor kid doesn't know what to say. “Oh. Um, sorry―”

    “It's okay,” says Gwyneth, even though it isn't, not really. Stupid of her. Over eight years now and she's still not over it. Grow up, Gwyneth. “I was, yeah. Didn't end well. I don't know if you remember, you would've been pretty young at the time, but you know about Plasma, right?”

    “Plasma?” Saadiyyah frowns. Gwyneth marvels: it doesn't seem possible that there are kids running around Unova now who've hardly even heard of them. “Um … hang on, were they like a pokémon trafficking racket? Like Team Rocket?”

    “Not … exactly. They stole a lot of pokémon, back when I was on my trainer journey. Ended things pretty quick.”

    It's a lie, mostly, but it's easier than the truth. No one likes to hear the real story. They just look at her with that uncomprehending pity, and then Gwyneth has to stop herself from yelling at them. And Saadiyyah's just a kid, even if she is two years into a trainer journey: she won't understand, and she doesn't deserve to be shouted at. So. The lie, and Saadiyyah's look of shock and pain.

    Better than pity, thinks Gwyneth. Better than condescension.

    “Oh,” she says. “God. I'm sorry.”

    “Don't be.” Gwyneth clears her throat. “Anyway, that was years and years ago. I work at a Pokémon Centre now.”

    “Oh, hey, where? I might've seen you.”


    “Ah, never been there. I guess I might now that they've opened a new Gym.”

    Gwyneth imagines Saadiyyah and her rock-types facing off against Cheren. Now that will be a tough battle, even for him. Good.

    “Well, maybe I'll see you there sometime,” she lies, and is saved from having to make further conversation by Maxine coming in with the coffee. The clink of cups being put down on the table startles the venipede, which shoots out from underneath it and climbs Gwyneth's leg.

    “Huh?” Saadiyah jumps half out of her seat before Gwyneth leans forward, raising calming hands.

    “It's okay,” she says. “Sorry. Should've mentioned it was under there.” She plucks the venipede off her leg and sets it down in her lap. Thankfully, it only seems to have torn denim this time and not skin. “Yeah. You're taking two of us to Driftveil.”

    “Oh.” Saadiyyah looks confused. “I thought you said you weren't a trainer?”

    “I'm not.”

    “She caught it by accident,” says Maxine, sitting down at the extreme opposite end of the sofa, eyeing the venipede distrustfully. “Right?”

    “That's right.” Gwyneth dislikes it when people answer for her, but she swallows her pride and does not comment on it. Not like she has anything left to be proud of, really. “I tried to release it, but it found its way back again.”

    “That's so cool,” says Saadiyyah, staring. It isn't how Gwyneth would describe it, but she knows Saadiyyah is a trainer, and a kid, too. The way she sees the world, a partner pokémon is always and forever a good thing. She has no idea how much of a problem an unwanted pokémon can be. “What's her name?”

    Gwyneth pauses, suddenly ashamed. There was a time when she was like that, she remembers. A time when she cared. Probably some of that went with Blossom and Corbin, but even before that …

    She remembers running into Bianca at the Nimbasa Pokémon Centre that one time, how their munna exchanged greetings in clouds of psychically charged smoke. And Bianca said hi to Gwyneth, and then again to Blossom and Corbin, and Gwyneth felt the same shame as she does now, the awful realisation that the other person is a much better human being than you are.

    Maybe she should have been the woman with the ultra ball after all.

    “It doesn't have one,” she answers, crushing the thought down into the back of her head. “I'm not planning on keeping it.”

    “Oh,” says Saadiyyah uncertainly. “Is there a particular reason for that, or …?”

    Gwyneth is tempted to thrust her bandaged hand in her face, say this, say it put me in the goddamn hospital, but she controls herself. She's just a kid. She believes in the goodness of pokémon.

    “Like I said, I'm not a trainer any more,” she tells her. “This thing joined up with me 'cause it wants to get stronger, but that's not going to happen.” She shrugs. It hurts. “Not doing either of us any favours, you feel me?”

    “Right,” replies Saadiyyah, and although Gwyneth suspects that she does not, in fact, feel her, she lets it lie. “Okay, then. I guess I forget sometimes that not everyone's a trainer.”

    “You can say that again,” says Maxine. “Sometimes I have no idea what you're talking about, all your shrinking defences and rhinoceros manoeuvres. I hope you remember something from your trainer journey, Gwyneth, because otherwise it's going to be a long hike for the both of you.”

    She means it as a joke, but Gwyneth does remember, enough to correct her anyway: the Strunkenwhite Defence and the Reinhardt Manoeuvre, two classic battling tricks that were old even in Gwyneth's day. She could tell Maxine all about both of them, in the kind of detail that only someone who as a child obsessively read and reread all the trainer literature she could find can manage.

    She does not do this. Instead, she laughs.

    “Well, it's been a while, I'm kinda rusty, but you know. I'll see what I can do.”

    “And it's the Strunkenwhite Defence,” adds Saadiyyah, looking more at ease now, and Maxine laughs too, whatever-ing and raising her coffee cup to her lips, and yes, thinks Gwyneth, she's right: it is going to be a long hike. A long damn hike indeed.


    When it's time to leave, Saadiyyah gets a hug and a kiss from Maxine. Gwyneth remembers what that feels like, the warmth of human contact and familial affection, remembers the day when her mom kissed her goodbye ten years ago, and finds she cannot watch. She looks away, at the square of sky visible through the window, the suggestions of distant birds winging their way across it.

    Some people get chosen and some do not, she reminds herself. It's better this way.
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2017

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