Yup! We're back, folks! I forgot how much I liked this little story, so I wrote up a new chapter for you guys. In case you need a refresher...
The story so far:
In Which It Ain't Easy Being Green
“There's a magnetic belt in the pack of stuff I bought you,” Kathy told him. “Go ahead and put it on.”
Alvaro dug through his ransacked backpack until he found the paper-wrapped package, which he tore open unceremoniously. Coiled around a number of small bottles and cans was a length of tough black fabric studded with metal discs. Due to its bulk, Alvaro had trouble threading it through his belt loops, but he managed eventually. When he finally got it on and fastened, the six magnetic discs were arrayed around his front, from one hip to the other. It was heavy, but it seemed solid enough as a result.
“It suits you!” Kathy said with a giggle.
Alvaro didn't even bother to dignify her comment with a response, instead taking the newly captured Purrloin's Poké Ball and holding it against the disc immediately to the right of his belt buckle. The ball clicked firmly into place. When he tugged at it, it came free without much effort, but it seemed to be holding firm otherwise.
“All right,” he said, repacking his bag and slinging it over his shoulder. “I'm officially a Pokémon Trainer. Now what?”
“It depends,” Kathy said. “Whichever way you want to go about it, though, we should head for Striaton up north. There's a Gym there which you might want to challenge, but there's also sure to be some other Trainers around to battle. But what we do is really up to you. I'm just tagging along. I'll get where I'm going eventually, so I'm in no hurry. Do you want to try and catch another Pokémon here?”
“Another Pokémon? One's probably all I can handle right now,” Alvaro admitted. “So I guess we head for Striaton straight away. Speaking of such things, can't we just take a bus?”
“Well, we could, but it would kind of defeat the purpose.”
“Which is . . . what, exactly?” Alvaro asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You're still a new Trainer, Al. You and Purrloin are going to need a lot of practice.”
“That's probably true,” Alvaro admitted.
“Shall we go, then?” Kathy suggested, gesturing back towards the road.
Before too long, the main road peeled off west, leaving the footpath to curve gently northwards. The path was only packed earth, as it wasn't really used enough to warrant a proper tarmac coating. The path was hemmed in on both sides by native forest, and smaller pathways darted periodically off into its depths. Occasionally, Alvaro would hear the sounds of battle drifting down one of them: excited shouts of Trainers and the cries of Pokémon.
“This whole area's well-known as being home to a large number of relatively weak Pokémon,” Kathy explained as he peered through the trees at one such juncture. “Rookie Trainers often come here to train their Pokémon. Are you sure you don't want to go and get some practice in?”
“You really think I should?” he asked. “I mean, it seems pretty boring.”
“Hey, you don't get to be a decent Trainer without doing the hard yards.”
“Ugh, what a drag! Fine. Let's go find something to beat up.” When they came across another path a few moments later, he turned and marched down it.
The forest was cool and blessedly quiet, save for the occasional faint trill of a Pidove somewhere in the distance. Pine needles littered the narrow path below his feet, creating a thin carpet of greenery that blended seamlessly with the forest's undergrowth. Alvaro breathed in slowly, feeling himself relax a little for the first time that day. Still, he made sure to keep his eyes fixed firmly ahead; he could tell that Kathy was watching him.
“It's nice down through here, isn't it?” she said at length, quickening her pace slightly so she bobbed along at Alvaro's elbow.
“You're short,” Alvaro said, glancing sideways at her and increasing the length of his own strides, which forced Kathy to jog a little to catch up.
“That's mean,” she pouted. “Couldn't you at least pretend that you want to be doing this?”
“I could,” Alvaro said, “but I don't work that way. I'm already going out of my way to be relatively polite to you, since I owe you so big.”
“Could you take that one step further and just, you know, be . . . friendly?” she asked, a hopeful tone creeping into her voice.
Alvaro cocked his head, considering it briefly. “Nah,” he said at length. “Too much trouble. Look, I'm grateful for your help. It'd be incredibly dickish of me not to be. But we're not friends.”
She shrugged. “Fine, but it doesn't mean I'm going to give up on getting through that thick skull of yours. Hey, could you slow down a-”
“Shh,” Alvaro said suddenly, stopping dead in the middle of the path as an unusual noise caught his ears. He felt Kathy come to a halt next to him, but he ignored her as he strained to hear the sound again. He couldn't have said exactly what it was, but it was definitely something that didn't belong in the forest soundscape.
Picking a direction that the sound might have come from, Alvaro deviated again from the path, picking his way between surprisingly densely-knit trees with a swiftness and ease borne from a decade or more winding his way through the back streets of Accumula, more often than not with somebody bigger and nastier than him on his tail. What was he chasing now? He had no real idea, but it had caught his interest. He could hear Kathy following along behind him – far too loudly for his liking – but he didn't stop to consider her.
All too soon, the trees were gone again. Alvaro brought himself up short in what turned out to be a small clearing. Glancing around, he quickly sized up the situation. There was only one other person in the clearing, staring at him in some surprise. He was a young man just a little older than Alvaro himself, with a shock of slightly untidy green hair tied back into a ponytail under his black baseball cap. He was dressed casually in a white polo and jeans, with an odd-looking item hanging from his belt. A Rubik's cube? He was sitting on a dead log that appeared to have been fallen for some time, and his hands were frozen as if Alvaro had interrupted him in the middle of some articulate gesticulation – which, Alvaro figured, he probably had, even though there was nobody else in sight.
“Uh, hi,” Alvaro said awkwardly as Kathy caught up, looking slightly frazzled. “Sorry to bother you guys. I was just looking for some wild Pokémon to battle, you know. I'll just be, uh, going now.”
The green-haired man smiled genially, as if Alvaro's interruption could not have been more welcome. His eyes were warm and comfortable. “Not at all. Say, would you like to stay a while? I was just thinking about Pokémon. It's fascinating how little some people know about them, despite living in a world full of their magnificence. Would you be interested in hearing what I have to say?” His voice was soft and clipped, devoid of any noticeable accent but full of life. He spoke very fast, but his words were clear and somehow unhurried in spite of this.
Alvaro frowned slightly. He wasn't exactly interested, but something about this man made him want to listen. It was something about the open, unguarded manner that was evident in everything from his relaxed pose to the uncommon genuineness of his smile. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kathy beat him to it.
“Sure!” she said brightly, still slightly short of breath from the quick dash through the trees.
The green-haired man's smile widened a little more, suggesting genuine pleasure at her response. “Well then, take a seat,” he said. “The grass is dry enough, I suppose.”
Alvaro lowered himself to the ground, suddenly inexplicably unsure about what he was doing. The clearing was warm and well-lit despite the early hour, a sharp contrast to the crisp, dark coolness of the woods around it. It was as if they had wandered into another world.
Kathy sat down next to him, drawing her legs under her and beaming slightly too widely at the stranger. “I'm Kathy, and this is Al,” she said brightly. “What's your name?”
“I go by N,” said the green-haired man. “Do you have Pokémon with you? They might want to listen as well.”
Alvaro raised an eyebrow. N? What sort of stupid name is that? Something stopped him from commenting aloud, though. Instead, he glanced down at Purrloin's Poké Ball. Unsure, he tapped the release switch between the two halves of the sphere, letting Purrloin out in a flash of blue light.
“Now that I think of it, this is the first time I've let you out,” he said quietly as he watched the Pokémon prowling curiously around the clearing, seeming slightly confused to find herself so far from home.
“A recent acquisition?” N asked, his face betraying nothing as Purrloin wound her way between his feet, purring amicably. He reached down absently to stroke her, cocking his head as if listening to something nobody else could hear.
“Yes . . . I just started training Pokémon this morning. It's not like I wanted to, though.”
N's face betrayed a hint of interest as he leaned forward, examining Alvaro with his emerald eyes. “You didn't want to? Please, why was that?”
Alvaro frowned, wondering whether or not to be creeped out by this man. So far, he was leaning towards 'definitely'. “I just . . . wasn't really interested, I guess,” he said uncomfortably. “I didn't want to train Pokémon because it would have been a whole lot of trouble, to be honest.”
“But the world of Pokémon is vast and magical,” N said, frowning in turn as if he couldn't understand what Alvaro was talking about. “Why would you ever want to be without them? Pokémon make such good and faithful friends.”
“Friends?” Alvaro repeated uncertainly. He glanced at Purrloin, who had clambered up into N's lap and curled up contentedly, tail flicking lazily from side to side. “I don't know about that. Is it possible to be friends with Pokémon?”
“Of course it is!” N said. “Pokémon are . . . no, I wouldn't expect you to understand. You can't hear, can you?”
“Hear what?” Kathy asked.
N turned to her as if just remembering she was there, a faraway look in his eyes. “You know . . . never mind. I'm just rambling a little, so please forgive me.” Lifting Purrloin off his lap and placing her gently on the log beside him, he stood quickly and gazed off through the trees.
Alvaro raised an eyebrow. This guy was giving off some serious weirdo vibes. “Are you . . . feeling okay?” he asked uncertainly.
N blinked, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “No, I'm fine. But I'm terribly sorry. I have to go now. Somebody will probably come by in a minute to look for me, but please . . . don't tell them you saw me.” With that, he turned and disappeared into the trees.
Alvaro watched him go blankly. “Um . . . what just happened?”
“I have no idea,” Kathy said, “but wasn't he dreamy?”
Alvaro looked at her askance. “Sure, if you like stoners. Frankly, I'm glad he buggered off. He was starting to weird me out.”
Kathy looked indignant, but before she could say anything, they were interrupted by the sound of somebody noisily crashing through the undergrowth from the opposite direction to the one which N had taken.
Alvaro stood quickly as a rather oddly-dressed person burst into the clearing, casting around in apparent panic.
“You there!” she said sharply when she noticed Alvaro, quickly adjusting the pale blue hood which, to be frank, was the least unusual part of her ensemble.
“Can I, uh . . . help you with something?” Alvaro asked, looking her up and down. He had to admit, he was slightly impressed that anybody would have the guts to wear such an odd costume in public. It looked like a stylised partial suit of armour of some kind, with a headpiece, shoulder guards and gauntlets. Alvaro couldn't tell whether it was real armour or some kind of replica, though he was inclined to think the latter. Coupled with an emblazoned tunic, the effect was something similar to a mediaeval knight . . . gone horribly wrong. It was the same uniform that the protestors from earlier had been wearing, he noticed. Unlike the ones before, though, this girl looked as if she had fallen into it rather than put it on. The hood was several sizes too big, and her small form disappeared inside the cavernous tunic. She looked almost on the verge of tears, but she drew herself up to her full – albeit hardly impressive – height and looked him in the eye.
“I've been dispatched to track down a fugitive,” she said self-importantly. “Have you seen a young man pass by here?”
“Uh . . . no,” Alvaro said. “It's just us here. What sort of-”
“Hey!” the girl interrupted, pushing past him and bending over to examine Purrloin. “Is this your Pokémon?”
“Well, yes,” Alvaro said, wondering where this could possibly be going. “I just caught it about an hour ago.”
“That's good,” she said, extending a hand to stroke the Pokémon. “Now release it.”
“Wait, what?” Alvaro said blankly. “You want me to . . . what?”
“Release it!” she ordered, straightening up and glaring at him. “Pokémon should be free, as nature intended! Capturing them and forcing them to fight against their will is barbaric and inhumane!”
“You know, I haven't actually made it battle anyone yet,” Alvaro said. “Actually, never mind that. Where the hell do you get off saying that?” He wasn't exactly sure why he was getting so indignant, but this weird girl's manner pissed him off big time.
“I'll have you know I'm a high-ranking member of Team Plasma!” she snapped, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the fact that she still looked like she was about to cry.
“Team . . . what?” Alvaro said blankly. “Never heard of you. Speaking of such things, weren't you chasing someone?”
A look of complete shock crossed the girl's face. “Ah!” she said loudly. “You're right! I have to go!”
“Then stop preaching and go,” Alvaro snapped.
Sticking her tongue out at him, the girl spun on the spot – almost tripping on her comically long tunic – and marched off into the forest, muffled curses audible as branches cracked and caught.
Alvaro noticed that her bearing was entirely different to the one she had entered the clearing on, but it was still well different to the one N had taken. Without quite knowing why, he breathed a sigh of relief. Despite his eccentricity, the green-haired man had endeared himself to Alvaro slightly with the unfamiliar openness and honesty in his tone.
“What a bunch of kooks,” he grumbled. Purrloin yowled quietly as if in agreement. “Oh, don't give me that. You seemed quite fond of that guy, didn't you? Cheeky little bastard.”
“Why do you think they were chasing him?” Kathy asked anxiously, pulling herself to her feet.
“Well, let's see,” Alvaro said. “From what that whackjob in the too-big uniform was yelling about, I gather that rather than broccoli, they're actually concerned with Pokémon rights. Our kooky friend with the one-letter name, on the other hand . . . I guess he disagreed with them? He seemed to think that people and Pokémon could be really good friends. Maybe he's a Trainer, and they're trying to get him to release his own Pokémon?”
“Sounds reasonable,” Kathy said. “I sure hope they don't catch him, though. Do you think we should tell the police?”
“And tell them what? A couple of teenagers are playing tag in the woods?” Alvaro snorted, absently reaching a hand out to scratch the back of Purrloin's neck as she prowled curiously along the dead log next to him. His Pokémon stretched its neck out appreciatively for a moment, but then – as if at a sudden epiphany – turned up its nose and jumped off the log to examine something on the ground.
“You're right,” Kathy said, though she still sounded concerned. “Do you suppose we'll run into him again, though?”
“Probably. Annoying people like that tend to pop up everywhere. But anyway, we should get back to what we were supposed to be doing.”
“Finding wild Pokémon to battle, you mean?”
“Yeah.” If he was being honest, Alvaro really just wanted some quiet to consider the odd sequence of events that had just transpired. “Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” Kathy said. “Let's get on with it.”
Four hours later, Kathy found herself surprisingly worn out. When training, she usually carried things out at a fairly slow, steady pace, but Al was in favour of a different system entirely, it seemed. He was more inclined to dash about like a mad thing, hunting out any Pokémon he saw and challenging it to battle. She kept quiet through most of the expedition, but she observed Al with a quiet kind of wonder. Despite how strongly he had seemed to be against Pokémon training, he took to it with remarkable alacrity and without complaint. Watching him direct Purrloin in battle with various wild Pokémon, she noticed that he had some natural aptitude for battling: nothing that would cause her to call him a prodigy, but at least he had a good sense for what he was doing.
“Can we please . . . take a break?” she gasped out at length, bending over to try and catch her breath as Al finally came to a halt. She was fit enough from five years trekking around the Unova region, but Al seemed to have limitless reserves of energy that she simply couldn't keep up with. “I think you've done more than enough for today.”
Al shrugged. “If you say so, I guess.” He was very good at that 'supremely indifferent' thing, she noticed with some ire.
“We shouldn't be too far from Striaton right now,” she said, sitting heavily down on the ground and checking the built-in GPS on her C-Gear. “If we take it at a walk, we'll be there within an hour or so. And Al, seriously. You can't just run everywhere like that. At this rate you'll wear me out, and then yourself before too long. The thing about going on long journeys like this is that you have to pace yourself.”
“Pace yourself,” he repeated slowly, as if the term was completely anathema to him. “Fine.” He sat down at the base of a large pine tree and pulled a grain bar out of his bag.
Purrloin, who had been happily following along with Al as he dashed from place to place, trotted over and hopefully nosed his hand.
“Oh, you want some of this, do you?” Alvaro said, raising an eyebrow. “That's right, you tried to steal it before. Here, you can have a bit. But not too much.” He snapped a chunk off the end of the bar and placed it in front of Purrloin before biting into the larger part himself.
Kathy watched with some amusement, electing not to say anything. Despite his scowling and sharp tongue, he seemed to be a good guy after all. I made a good choice, it seems. Al's Purrloin seemed to like him well enough, too, though it was still wary. It had been a little slow to follow orders through their battles, and even now it retreated a few feet to chew on its food, eyeing her and Al cautiously. That was all to be expected, of course. She made a mental note to keep an eye on the little Pokémon – she knew only too well how newly-captured Pokémon could behave, especially with rookie Trainers.
“Have you been to Striaton before?” she asked eventually, unable to bear the silence much longer.
“Once or twice,” he said indifferently, his voice muffled by a mouthful of food. “Mom took me to the botanical gardens there when I was a kid. It was kinda boring, to be honest.”
“It's a great city,” she said, “and the Gym Leaders are really nice. They run the Gym as a cafe, but they're strong battlers as well. Do you know them?”
Al shook his head. “What do you mean, 'they'? There's more than one? I didn't know you could even do that.”
“The three of them are brothers,” she explained, “and each of them use a different type of Pokémon. When you challenge the Gym, you can choose which one to battle.”
“So obviously you'd pick the one where you'd have a type advantage, right?”
“Well, that would be the smart way to do it. But having an advantageous matchup doesn't always guarantee victory. Far from it, in fact. When I first challenged the Gym with my Palpitoad – a Water and Ground type, of course – I naturally decided to go up against Chili, the Leader who uses Fire-types. I was certain I'd win, but I ended up getting soundly beaten.”
Al raised an eyebrow. “Chili? What are his brother's names, then? Salt and Pepper?”
“Cilan and Cress, actually.”
“Same thing,” he grunted. “But okay, I see what you mean. So which one do you think I should challenge?”
“You want to take on the Gym Leader?” Kathy was unable to keep a certain tone of surprise from creeping into her voice. “Are you kidding? These guys have been training for years, and you only started today. You'd have to be stupid to think that you could beat them at your level. Not that I think you're stupid,” she added hastily as she saw a glare flash across Al's face.
“I know that, dumbass,” he said. “It'd be good practice, though. Isn't that what Pokémon training is all about? You're keen, right, Purrloin?”
Purrloin blinked slowly and tilted her head to the side, letting out a slight mrow as she did so.
“I don't know, Al,” Kathy said dubiously. “The Striaton Gym Leaders are really tough. You might just end up getting Purrloin hurt for no reason.”
Al's face twisted slightly with sudden uncertainty, though he quickly tried to hide it. “. . . Fine,” he said quietly. “I'll think about it.”
“We can go and visit them either way, though!” Kathy added brightly, almost as an afterthought. “They know me pretty well after all the times I went back to try and beat them. And besides, you just have to try the cakes they make there! I've never tasted anything like them.”
“I don't really care for sweets,” Al said. “But sure, let's go visit them.” With that, he zipped up his bag and hauled himself to his feet as Purrloin came trotting over to him.
“Now?” Kathy asked incredulously. “You know, I don't remember you being so eager to get moving before.”
Al sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You don't know me very well, Kathy, but that's just what I do. If I decide I'm going to do something – whether I want to or not – I'll get it done. That's how I've lived for sixteen years. I really, really don't want to be here right now, that's true. I'd much rather be in bed, or hanging around town. But the alternative was going back to school, and so far this is looking marginally more interesting. Got it?”
Kathy rolled her eyes and hid a grin. “Got it,” she said.