Unlike most of my writing, I'm posting parts of this before it is complete.
Chapter 2a: Mirages
"Turn the knob until the turning stops!"
With its owner's permission shouted against the entry door, Percival entered the Rainier home and found James leaning over his coffee table, sorting through old photographs, binders, and folders. Passing through the house, he then found Joe in the back yard with Grace, who was perched on a survey stake's tip, leaning over its taut ribbon at an impossible angle.
"Hey, are you ready to go?" Percival said from the patio door, but was unheard. He stood next to Joe, still unnoticed. "What is she doing?"
Percival's sudden comment startled Joe and broke Grace's concentration, causing her to fall to the ground below her.
Joe scooped up Grace and held her while he replied to Percival's question. "I noticed it when she would hop off of my bed and kinda float to the floor. It's like she can turn gravity down. We've been playing with it all week and she's gone from floaty jumps to being able to stand on the edge of something with just her toe, like in really old video games."
Percival scratched his head out of cliché conditioning rather than to a genuine need to treat a sudden itchiness. "Neat. Usually their telekinesis doesn't develop fully until they reach the gardevoir form. I guess she's ahead of the curve. Now, put her in her ball, get on your bike, and let's go. Everybody else will be there by now."
Grace and the boys went inside. While Joe went to his room to gather his equipment, Percival dared to disturb James with a forced conversation-starter.
"So, what's with all these old pictures?"
James did not look away from the book of personnel photographs that he was skimming through. "Probably just wasting my free time. Not too different from what you, and now my boy, do with yours."
"I don't think training pokemon is a waste of time, Mr. Rainier. Maybe if you raised one yourself, you would see that they give back a lot more than they take from you, and--"
"What makes you think that I haven't raised one myself?"
Percival had not planned this far ahead and was thankful that Joe was now ready to leave.
They were halfway to Rennin Park when they reached a major thoroughfare and were halted by a traffic signal. Percival began working through a first-timer checklist in his mind for Joe's sake. "I'm curious, Joe. What level is Grace?"
"What do you mean, 'level'?"
Percival turned away so Joe would not see his eyes roll and changed their destination from Rennin Park to Rennin Pokecenter. "Oh, boy. Okay, we need to get her tested, first. I hope there's no line."
There was, but it was thankfully short. While waiting, Percival explained to Joe how pokemon development was related more strongly to adrenaline rushes experienced during combat and after defeating powerful competitors than the growth factors seen in humans and lower animals, and how environmental elements played a part too, sometimes. Ignoring the glazing over of Joe's eyes, Percival was about to begin to explain how a change of trainer could trigger an evolution when Grace's number was called.
Directed into an examination room, Joe sensed an immediate familiarity upon seeing the intern that was handling the center's medical procedures. It was not a memory of his own, but one he had been given. "She saw him; this guy was in on it! Come on, let's--"
The intern interrupted. "Shh! Look, I admit I was getting a kickback to keep things quiet and smooth, but I've never abused a pokemon. If I said anything damning, Chad's other boss would've pulled a couple strings and I would've lost my career. Now, if you will release her onto the table, this won't take but a few minutes."
Reluctantly, Joe released Grace, and she reacted in much the same way that Joe did until Dr. Haskin invited her to scan his mind and verify his true intentions. Honestly, she was not fully convinced, but felt Percival counting the seconds impatiently and submitted to examination.
Three needles injected fluids, two needles withdrew fluids, and tools familiar to a human but slightly modified for use on pokemon gave Grace a typical physical while a machine analyzed the extractions. Dr. Haskin borrowed Joe's trainer device and docked it with a small computer terminal. The machine emitted a few sounds and printed a hard-copy report for both Joe's records.
Dr. Haskin read Grace's report aloud. "Late level 3. Genetics show some evidence of ghost-type on her father's side, so she may have inherited capability for an odd move or two. Physical and blood-work are clear. Your pokemon is hereby certified for registered competition."
Joe picked Grace up off of the examination table. "I thought I was too young for competition in this region."
"Without a professor, league official, or gym leader's approval, you are, but you can still participate in recorded matches against League trainers. It's not a bad idea, really. You'll know what you'll be up against before you hit the road, and any wins your pokemon manage to get will give them a big experience boost. It beats shaking bushes for pidgeys all day."
Percival talked Joe out the door and continued along the ride to Rennin Park. "--the T.D. keeps track of all your matches and estimates your pokemon's development based on other trainers' pokemon's stats and how your fights go. It's not perfect, but with an occasional adjustment if you notice your pokemon react to a level rise before or after the T.D. expected it, you'll know when your pokemon are about to evolve. Wild pokemon can throw it off, but it knows the average stats for wild pokemon everywhere so even then--"
Terrance welcomed Percival and Joe sarcastically after they parked their bicycles and walked to the battle benches. "It's about time you two showed up. We've been getting tired of rematches." At that moment, Solymar's machoke was throwing Terrance's pinsir out of their humble ring.
The battlefield was little more than a patch of heavily-tilled soil within a ring of spray-paint. The paint had not been refreshed any time recently and was both difficult to see and broken in some places.
Joe and Grace sat on a bench with the currently not-participating trainers and watched battle after battle. For Joe, it was a strange experience. He had seen clips of pokemon fights on television, but had never attended such a spectacle as this. For Grace, it was a confusing experience. She had seen pokemon fighting for food, dominance, and survival, but had never attended such a spectacle as this. In the wild, the combatants' minds were filled with anger, fear, desperation, and panic, but she sensed that these pokemons' emotions were playful, inquisitive, confident, and eager. When she expected to shudder as the one with the upper hand should imagine a way to deliver a fatal blow to its victim, instead she felt it calculating a measured attack that would knock its opponent flat but not risk any lasting harm.
These pokemon were fighting, despite knowing each other as friends.
Matthew whined aloud and hung his head. "Sunny-day is such crap." He was upset because Sam was solar-beaming all of his pokemon into the top-soil.
Sam celebrated his victory by pointing at the sun that floated directly overhead and asking, "lunch?"
Percival produced a deck of cards from his backpack and pulled out a differently-valued card for each trainer, shuffled them, and passed them around before shuffling the remainder of his deck and asking Joe to do the honors of cutting the deck and then flipping until revealing a number that was the same as value as someone's card.
As a group, "nope."
Percival huffed and revealed his three of clubs. "That's me, make a pile."
The trainers gathered together the cards, some money, and a few balled pokemon that needed healing beyond the effectiveness of a field spray or revival salt crystal. Pile made, Percival loaded it all into his backpack and rode off to complete his chore.
"No slaw or I'll slug you!" Solymar called out a nagging detail of her desired meal as Percival vanished amidst the nearby buildings. She then crossed her arms and began to slowly lean backwards with her eyes closed. Her machoke ran into position behind her and caught her gently as she began to fall. She stretched her arms and yawned as if she were going to take a nap in the sun. "Someone hasn't gone yet," she said with a musically mocking inverted-turn of pitch.
All eyes fell upon Joe, and then upon Grace. Even Solymar's, after she bothered to re-open them.
Joe surveyed his audience and demurred. "We're just here to watch."
Solymar grinned and called out with a forceful voice. "Eighth rule of Pokemon League. If it's your first time being challenged by a particular trainer, you have to fight."
Terrance simultaneously laughed and sighed at her butchered reference as she leaned forward onto her own feet wearing a sinister grin and snapped her fingers. No longer supporting his mistress, Komo nodded and took position near the tilled circle's center.
Joe's jaw dropped. "No way! He probably weighs twenty times what Grace does, and it's pure muscle!"
Solymar's eyes narrowed as the corner of her mouth twitched and her stance became akimbo. Her tone would slowly transform from feigned consoling to melodramatically taunting as she spoke. "Oooooo-kaaaay, I guess you can just forfeit, pay the standard wager, run home, crawl beneath the covers of your bed with your little friend, and together you can just have a big ol' cry all afternoon long about what a pair of baby chickens you are." She even wiggled her elbows at the end.
Her taunt was effective, but not effective enough to blind Joe's imagination from picturing what Komo could do to Grace. "I don't care what you say. I'm not going to make her fight."
Grace sensed Joe's embarrassment. While his desire to protect her was both strong and genuine, she knew that he was nonetheless feeling ashamed that he could be bullied so easily, and that it was because of her. Because of what she was and how she looked. Because he did not want her to get hurt in a fight. She glanced over at Komo, a pure Fighting-type; his mind seemed like one easily read.
Joe began to pace away from the group, although it wanted to become a run. The first time Grace was in the arms of a running person, she lost her mother. The second time, she thought she had lost Joe, too. This time, both his self-esteem and her pride were on the line. These stakes were much lower than the times previous, and still they would flee? No, she was sick of running. When Joe reached for her ball so he could ride his bicycle home, she squirmed out of his grasp, floated sideways away from him, and darted off once she touched the ground.
He spoke in a heightened and panicked tone. "Grace, what are you--come back, you can't--"
She turned and began to half-jog and half-drift backwards, beckoning him to follow her with a wave and a smile.
Joe was not about to ride home without Grace, and returned to the benches. Solymar chuckled as she watched Grace entering the circle. "How about that. Now we know which of you two have a couple nuggets under your skirts."
The pokemon took their positions in the circle and Matthew signaled their start.
Komo's primary interest was in simply ending the match and led with a low kick. He knew that there was no way that his attack could have missed, yet he did not feel a thing. Levitating freely, Grace rolled in the air twice, stabilized, and landed right where she stood before Komo's foot set her in motion. Massive muscles bulged as he prepared a second attack, intending to do more to her than dismissively punt her out of the ring, but when he moved toward her, she touched her horns and he lost all focus. Komo's control over his body failed him and he collapsed to the ground.
Grace deftly hopped onto his back and slapped her palms against his temples.
Komo struggled to rise but could hardly move. His body felt heavy and sluggish. As the confusion that Grace induced in him cleared away, he looked across the battlefield and realized that he could not see her, which meant that she was behind him. Her efforts to paralyze him could not overcome his willpower, and he managed to thrash his head toward his sides and sling her free.
Solymar crossed her arms. "It's a gnat, Komo. Swat it."
Her machoke got to his feet and stomped toward Grace. He opened his palm wide and reached downward. She darted beneath his legs, but with two steps, Komo turned about and kicked her. This time, he did feel the contact, but just barely.
Grace righted herself in mid-air and halted her lateral motion, guiding her landing near the ring's edge. She could feel Komo's frustration as it swelled. She also felt Solymar's.
Terrance, too, sensed Solymar's annoyance, and decided to exacerbate it. "Matt, put me down for twenty quatloos on the newcomer."
Solymar turned with a jerk and scowled at Terrance. She wanted to point out the impossibility that Grace could win for not losing, but she could not assemble a suitable sentence, and turned her attentions back to the field with a snarl.
Komo stood over Grace and spread his palm again. She quickly flicked her eyes to her right before returning her gaze to his own. A vein pulsed in Komo's brow and a hint of a grin tugged on his lips. He bought it. Komo feigned a swipe with his right palm but swung down hard with his left, expecting her to run directly into it as her tell suggested.
Instead, Grace feigned a dash to her right before gliding backwards and sideways between his legs again while touching her horns to target him with a second confuse-ray. The force of his now-unguided swing twisted his torso around and brought a stumbling mountain of muscle to the ground once again.
Solymar covered her forehead with her left hand's thumb and index finger. "When did you become such a klutz?"
Terrance rose from his bench seat to get a closer look. "He touched the tape."
"What? There is no tape."
"If there was tape, he would've touched it. See the edge of the paint line, there?"
"Komo, pick yourself up off of the ground and do something other than be a screw up, please."
Komo's vision cleared. He lifted his hand and noticed a single painted blade of grass beneath it. Looking up to Solymar, Komo shook his head side to side slowly but meaningfully. Rising to one knee, he offered his bulky hand to Grace, who shook it eagerly, though not at all forcefully.
Grace rushed to Joe's waiting arms with lengthy bounds, gliding through the air as though she were skipping across the moon's surface. She felt strange; both energized and enervated at the same time.
Percival arrived with a bloated plastic sack. Within it, the trainers' orders and food for their pokemon; mostly berries, but a few human-grade foods as well. "Did I miss anything?"
Solymar pushed Terrance out of her way and took her meal from Percival's bag. "Nothing noteworthy. Komo, hold my lunch while I eat it; we're going shopping."
Komo took up the polystyrene carton that contained his mistress's meal and dutifully opened and closed it to both allow her access to her french fries and to maintain as much of their warmth as feasible while they walked to a small mall a few blocks away.
Percival addressed the remainder of his group. "Okay, now I know I missed something."
Terrance was handing out berries to the trainers' pokemon as Matthew released them. "Nah, just a little thing. Grace convinced Komo to touch the tape. That's about it."
Percival blinked twice before responding. "She's a level 3 and she just beat a thirty-something? Joe, is she doing alright?"
Joe approached Percival. "I was about to ask you the same thing. She seemed happy and excited a moment ago, but now she keeps nodding off and jumping awake."
"Math-Matt, level 3 ralts beats an about-thirty trained machoke. That's going to give her a few levels at once, right?"
Matthew wiggled his fingers as he approximated a cube root via logarithms. "At least six, could be lots more since she's so low and Komo's so high in comparison."
Percival thought for a moment. "Joe, I think you should recall her, take her home, get her in bed. She's going to be dizzy for a while."
Joe asked Grace if she wanted to go home and take a nap. She nodded rapidly in affirmation and drifted away again.
Returning home, Joe slowed to pick up the morning's neglected newspaper and, after finding the door now locked and retrieving a hidden key, entered to discover a note on the living room coffee table left by his father declaring his absence for the afternoon and possibly part of the evening. It ended with, "you can do whatever you want, but no friends over." As he cast the newspaper aside onto the couch, Joe smiled. "Carte blanche."
In his bedroom, Joe released Grace, and helped her into her bed after watching her try to get in herself, and stumble, not unlike a confused machoke that Joe saw earlier that afternoon. With Grace finally resting, however unsoundly, Joe went downstairs and raided the fridge. Leftover pizza? Score.
Cycling down his home street after a second sparring session, Percival noticed a nice car parked in his driveway. His uncle must be paying an unexpected call. This excited Percival greatly because his uncle always brought gifts.
Mrs. Finnegan put her foot down as Percival entered his home. "No, Ulysses. The boy's got plenty of pokemon already."
Percival greeted his uncle and released Sam, who greeted Ulysses likewise.
"Your mother is trying to deny you an amazing opportunity. Give her some sad eyes for me."
Delilah looked away and raised her palms as both Percival and Sam obeyed their orders. "Oh no, no you don't; don't even try that stuff. Now, Ulys', if you're done trying to pawn off more of your pokemon, why don't you get 'round back and help with the grill?"
Percival followed his uncle through the back door and inquired about his argument with Delilah.
"I've got a pokemon that needs a home; serious pro-grade, too. A circuit trainer put in an order and we busted our humps to breed one to his demands, and then he changes his mind when we call him to let him know we're ready for him to pick up his order. So, we've got a lot invested in this guy and only the deposit to show for our trouble. I'm sure we could auction him off and make up more than the difference, but all that would do is put him with someone who's got more money than sense. I wanted to give him to you, since it's about time for you to start collecting badges, but your mother seems to need a little convincing."
Percival weighed his options. "What if I gave him to one of my friends?"
Joe was startled slightly by the ring of his trainer's device, and rushed to his room to silence it, hoping that it had not yet disturbed Grace.
"Joe, listen, you need a second pokemon."
"What? I don't think so." Half-awake and looking around in a disoriented fashion, Grace lied down again when Joe waved his hand dismissively at her. "I've already got my hands full with Grace."
"Once you've got one it's not much more work to keep another. Sometimes less if they keep each other company and out of trouble. I'm not kidding, come over and have a look."
Joe checked on Grace to be sure that she was now sleeping calmly. At the Finnegan residence, Joe received a drawn-out explanation about how amazingly well-bred and battle-ready this pokemon was. However, it did not seem to be much to look at.
"All that about this?" Joe picked it up, examined it, and expressed his doubts. "I guess it has to evolve before it becomes the power-house you describe."
The torchic he held squawked at Joe and nipped his hand. His grip loosened, and the torchic wiggled free. It landed softly and attacked Joe's legs until he lost his footing. Its assault continued until Joe was on the floor on his back, with a torchic hopping on his chest and chirping.
Laughing at the incident, Ulysses shooed the torchic aside and helped Joe get up. "I think he likes you, kid."
"How can you tell?"
"Easy. He stopped proving you wrong before he actually hurt you."
The torchic stood beside Joe's feet, looked up, and squawked again. "I guess he can't talk like Sam can."
Ulysses picked up the torchic and handed it to Joe to hold again, which seemed to please the bird somewhat. "Actually, we're not sure. Some pokemon, depending on their developmental stages' physical characteristics, can't speak until after they evolve once or twice. He should have inherited it, but we won't know for sure until you train him. I have the T.M. in my attaché, so if you want to be certain he can speak, that's no problem. The disc won't be free, though; you'll owe me a good performance at the League finals."
Delilah peeked into the living room. "Y'all better get in here and eat this dinner or I'm never cooking for you again. Joe, is your papa feeding you right?"
"Uh, not tonight, actually. He left a note, said he would be out for a while. There was some pizza in the--"
"Pizza? Boy, you better wash up and set yourself a place at the table before I give you and your papa a piece of my mind."
After sharing dinner with the Finnegans, Joe returned home carrying a pokeball and a T.M. disc. His house was as empty as he had left it, and his father's note still lied where it had been before. He took up a pencil and appended at the bottom of the note: "Remember, Dad, you did say 'whatever'."
Grace awoke to the sensation of a familiar presence coming nearby. She hopped up to Joe's bed and found him trying to figure out how to properly confirm his one-sided trade and attach his acquisition onto his account. She approached him as he leaned over toward her so she could seemingly hug his head. Lending her his thoughts was becoming a natural habit.
Their exchange was mutual; he learned how much better she was feeling, both from having recovered from the after-effects of her victory against Komo, and from showing Joe that she was not the vulnerable doll that he had assumed her to be. He also learned that she felt famished, and escorted her to the kitchen, where a couple slices of pizza were lying in wait, wondering why they had been suddenly shoved back into the refrigerator after being prepped for consumption.
Grace sat kneeling on the kitchen table patiently while Joe re-reheated her dinner, and began to chow down as soon as he placed two-thirds of a slice before her. He then prepared a small glass of lemonade with a bending straw for her convenience.
Sitting at the kitchen table for some time, Joe fuddled with his T.D. in an exploratory manner. Near the end of Grace's meal, the T.D. emitted some funny noises, and much to Joe's delight, added a torchic to his roster. A notice appeared reminding Joe to name his new pokemon, but his attention was caught by Grace's entry, indicating a projected level of nineteen. A detailed display of her status noted that she should be level-tested again to verify its estimate, since it placed her on the cusp of evolution, which most trainers would want to check on. Subconsciously, Joe did not much care to think about that. It also showed an expanded list of moves she should be able to now perform.
Two taps against the glass of James' car's passenger-side door preceded a sudden beat of door-lock solenoids. A retired man with a cane slipped inside the vehicle and shut its door behind himself. Neither he nor James spoke a word until they were on the path to Linalool City.
James drove slowly, as wild pokemon sometimes fought in the road, and could be too distracted by each other to notice an automotive threat before it was too late to avoid a collision.
"Explain this for me. A man I haven't had the displeasure of dealing with since I was twenty-three shows up out of nowhere and tries to steal my son's pokemon."
Nigel Biltmore rotated his gold-capped cane. "It's not just any pokemon. You know how much a blue ralts will go for on the black market. Now, put one or two zeroes on the end of that for it being a wild-born shiny and being emotionally virgin."
"I know what they're worth and what people looking to extract that value will do, but why would Simon try to steal her himself like that? He has plenty of men on his payroll. Besides, what is he doing in a second-rate university town like Rennin?"
"What do you think? Looking for a blue ralts. I'm guessing he--or one of his men--saw your kid with her and moved in, hoping to trap her before she got registered. A smart decision, since even that wasn't fast enough. He was after her for a few days before your little run-in. Hell, you should've deduced that from today's paper if you had read between the lines."
"I was a little occupied this morning."
"He set a couple of his thugs out with tracker houndooms to extract that ralts. A few days later, the police are picking through the residential reserve with tweezers and self-sealing evidence bags. The paper carried the story as a typical battle between two trainers and some wild pokemon in an unusual place, but that's because the paper's editor received a briefcase containing a lot of good reasons to not mention that what the detectives found were the remains of one human, shredded clothing of another, two dead houndooms, and a gardevoir that bled-out about fifty feet from the other bodies. Not that you heard about any of that from me, or anybody else."
"What happened to the other goon, then?"
"All I could find out is that he was 'sent home,' so he's probably going to be getting the shit jobs for a while to pay for letting that ralts slip through his fingers."
James pulled into a fast food restaurant to make it look like he and his friend had a reason to be driving the long path of road that wrapped about Lake Muramis. Besides, James had not eaten since breakfast and was not feeling very well.