CHAPTER LIST (direct links)
Prologue: 15 Years Ago
Sammy Stark stared down at the yellow-and-green orb in his hand. The boy had never held an actual pokeball before in his life, he had only seen them used by others: trainers, his dad, his brother Tommy...but never was he allowed to handle one. His father had always been adamant that Sammy would not be allowed to touch a ball until the day he was given his own and sent to catch his first pokemon. Realizing what he'd just thought, Sammy’s freckled cheeks blushed; his dad wouldn’t have approved of that, either, as dad always called them “friends”. Sammy had never previously cared when his dad told stories of acquaintances and co-workers of his who let their own kids use pokemon because dad had been trying to teach him a lesson about maturity and earning a privilege, but all Sammy ever thought about were the other kids in Goldenrod Elementary who got to go out on the weekend and play with their parents’ pokemon. Miah Vanderbelt was the one who always had a new story on Mondays about his dad’s Bellsprout. They either went to the Pokeathalon or they took a trip to Ecruteak together to look for ghosts (Miah always said that they found ghosts together, but Sammy was skeptical) or they just played in river or picked berries. So while his dad tried to impart a message of the rites of growing up, Sammy just imagined how nice it would be if he could take dad’s Sandslash out with Miah for just one weekend and help him look for ghosts.
But that was when he was eight. Sammy was ten now, and felt like he was much more mature. Would he be able to appreciate this moment as much if he’d been allowed to play with dad’s friends when he was younger? Would the ball in his hand feel so heavy? Would his chest feel like it was about to collapse every time he breathed out? He was there in Ilex Forest about to catch his first pokemon; his first friend.
“You can stare at it all day, Sammy. It doesn’t do any tricks until you throw it.”
Of course Sammy hadn’t been sent into the forest by himself. Tommy had been asked by dad to help him not get lost and find a suitable friend. Sammy had not even realized he was still staring at the ball as they walked when he should have been looking towards the trees. He still couldn’t bring himself to take his eyes off of it, though. No matter what he caught today, it would always be his first ever friend. From now on, when Sammy threw this ball, something would emerge. What would it be? Sammy mentally pictured going into fifth grade this fall and showing off a fearsome Noctowl. Man, the look on Miah’s face when Sammy would jump onto Noctowl’s back and fly up to the top of Goldenrod Elementary; he could see it now! He’d be stuck standing there with his mouth open while all the kids asked Sammy if they could have the next ride. Bellsprout and those fake ghosts wouldn’t seem so special then!
“All right, fine. I’m going back home and telling dad you went all catatonic. No friend for you.”
“Noo!” His voice came out with much more whine than he wanted it to, so Sammy swallowed hard and regained himself. “I can do this, Tommy! Don’t tell dad I can’t!” He cursed himself mentally where he knew no one could hear and scold him; he still sounded more whiney than he wanted.
Tommy’s arm locked around his neck, and he felt his older brother start abusing his head with noogies. This stupid buzzcut that dad made him get last week made the attack all the more painful. Noogies aside, Sammy was happy to have Tommy with him. It had been five years since Tommy was ten and allowed to catch a friend of his own, and ever since then, Tommy was the guy that Sammy aspired to be. In his first year of high school, Tommy was Trainer of the Year, beating out kids four years older than himself! Tommy was already almost six feet tall, and his styled, sandy hair would never have to be buzzed down because it always stuck up. When Tommy’s friends came over, they always talked about what girls in Goldenrod High wanted to go out with him that week, but Tommy would just laugh them off. On the weekends when they were at home playing video games while dad was at work, Sammy would ask why he didn’t just go out on a date with one of those girls instead, but Tommy’s answer was always just to laugh and say the same thing. ‘Sammy, you’d burn the house down if I wasn’t here!’.
“Hey, look up in that tree!” The noogies had suddenly stopped, and Tommy was whispering. Sammy craned his neck in his brother’s grip and looked up at the nearest oak tree. Out on the edge of a branch was a tiny Caterpie chewing on a leaf. Even by Caterpie standards, this thing was scrawny. And yet, unlike probably everything else in the forest, it didn’t flee at all the ruckus Sammy and his brother had just made. It simply ignored them as it focused on its leaf. “I think you should catch it.”
Sammy, now fully free of his brother’s grasp, glanced down at the ball in his hand. He was hesitant as he pictured the Noctowl in his fantasy turn into a butterfly that wouldn’t be able to bear his weight. The image of Miah shocked in silence turned to an image of him laughing like a hyena.
“It’s a Nest Ball, Sammy. That’s why dad gave it to you to start. It’s designed to catch weaker pokemon. He wanted you to earn your first friend by proving you wouldn’t blow that ball on something too strong for you to handle.” Tommy looked back up at the Caterpie in the tree. “I’m pretty sure anyone could handle that little bug.”
Sammy noticed the leaf that this Caterpie was eating twitch a bit at those words and couldn’t help but think it must have let out a huff. But that was impossible...right? Regardless, that’s what it came down to: all those years of lectures, and dad knew that Sammy wasn’t ever really listening. He knew Sammy wanted to fit in with everyone else, and so today was his lesson. Sammy knew he had to choose between trying--and possibly failing--to get a friend he could impress the kids at school with or getting one he could grow with. His brain flashed to the image of Miah Vanderbelt laughing at the silly, undersized bug pokemon, then to that of his dad giving him another lecture if he came home with nothing. The two options juggled in his head. Miah, dad. Dad, Miah. Without realizing he was even doing it, his arm thew the ball as if it was making his mind up for him.
The ball split open when it got within catching distance of the tiny Caterpie and released a crackle of red energy. Caterpie dropped its leaf as its body was converted into the same energy and absorbed into the ball. As the ball started dropping to the ground, Sammy saw it struggling in the air. By the time it landed in a bed of oak leaves, the struggle was over. The Caterpie had been caught with barely any resistance. Sammy immediately regretted his action; until he was able to earn some money from dad, this would be the only pokeball he’d ever get, and he just used it to catch a Caterpie. He remembered hearing about the middle school kids who started out with some kind of insect pokemon--they were made fun of and called “Bug Catchers”. Their lockers were broken into, and the other kids put toy bug nets inside. A couple of kids who were less careful would get grabbed in the locker room after gym and have straw hats duct-taped on their heads. Was this really what Sammy had to look forward to until he could get the money to buy a better ball?
Tommy’s outburst of laughter disrupted the thought. “Oh man, you caught a Caterpie. You’re going to be such a bug catcher!” Yes, Sammy thought, that’s apparently what I have to look forward to. “Listen,” Tommy continued, “it’s not so bad. I mean, that little guy wasn’t scared of us, so maybe he knows something we don’t know. But the only way for us to figure that out...”
“A battle?” Sammy cried, having realized where Tommy was going. “But I just caught it! I don’t know anything about it yet!”
“Well how do you think you get to know it? Take it out on a date?”
“I’ll go easy on you. I’ll let you make the first move, and I won’t go all-out. But come on, Sammy. You’ve got to do it eventually.”
Sammy wanted to argue and protest, but he knew that there were moments when Tommy did not take no for an answer, and this was clearly about to be one of them. Without really wanting to, Sammy held out his Nest Ball and squeezed it gently; a splash of red energy emerged with a hum from the outlet on the front of the ball. The energy converted into a Caterpie (‘My Caterpie’, Sammy thought) as fluidly as the reverse had happened just minutes before. The Caterpie turned around to face its new trainer, tilted its head in each direction, and then crawled off towards an oak leaf lying just a few feet to its left. Caterpie continued the lunch that had just been so rudely interrupted. Sammy wanted to say something, but the words were cut off by the sound of another hum. Suddenly on the forest ground sat Tommy’s Vulpix, Vlam.
“Vlam?” Sammy protested. “That’s not fair!”
Tommy shrugged. “I said I wasn’t going to go all-out, don’t worry. Calm it down, kiddo.”
Vlam was Tommy’s first friend, one that he had caught in a Dusk Ball at midnight on his tenth birthday. Dad always had more faith in Tommy than Sammy, the younger brother thought. But beyond that resentment, he realized his little Caterpie was in an impossible battle. Not only had Vlam been training with Tommy for five years, but it had a huge type advantage over bug pokemon, who hate fire.
“I said you’d get the first shot in, so...go for it.”
Sammy shook his head. Vlam had just played a major role in Tommy winning Goldenrod High Trainer of the Year; this was so not fair. Why couldn’t he have used something else? “Caterpie, tackle the Vulpix!” he finally ordered.
Caterpie looked up from his leaf and tilted its neck like it had when it emerged from its Nest Ball.
“You can have a leaf later if you want, I promise! Just...tackle that pokemon!”
The Caterpie twisted its head to the other side, still studying Sammy.
“Oh. Oh no. I get it.”
“What? Get what? What do you get?”
“Sammy, it’s not that it’s not listening to you. It just...,” Tommy stopped and chewed his lower lip, “I don’t think it knows how to tackle.”
Sammy snapped his attention back to Caterpie so quickly, he felt a nerve pinch in his neck, but shook it off. “No, that’s not...come on! What the heck? You just...run at it and throw your body at it, bug! It’s simplest attack in the world!” The Caterpie just continued staring back at him. “Run! You’ve got, like, a dozen little legs!” The creature went back to its leaf, seemingly bored with what the boy was telling it.
“Well, this is embarrassing.”
Sammy wasn’t listening to Tommy. He was thinking of Miah Vanderbelt again. He was still laughing, only this time he was rolling back-and-forth on the ground in an absolute fit of laughter. In the mental picture, the tiny bug sat and ate a leaf while Miah’s friends strapped a straw hat to Sammy’s head.
“Maybe it just needs an example? Vlam, tackle that Caterpie.”
“No, don’t!” Sammy called out, but it was too late, Vlam was charging headlong at his Caterpie. Sammy felt like he wanted to close his eyes, but they were paralyzed open; he couldn’t look away. Vlam was about to make contact...and then it suddenly stopped and backed away. “What?” Sammy mouthed.
“Caterpie release a terrible scent when they are scared. That’s how they keep predators away. I’m assuming it just did that and Vlam got a whiff of it. As far as attacks go, though, I’m not sure it’s optimal.”
“So...that’s what it does? It stinks?” In his head, Miah’s friends were now beating him with plastic bug nets.
Sammy wanted to reply, but all that came out of his mouth was a nonsensical trail of consonants and vowels that didn’t make up so much as a single word.
“Sorry, Sammy. Maybe this thing’s got to learn how to battle the hard way. Vlam, use your ember on it.”
The new trainer wanted to protect his Caterpie, but his mouth and brain were still on separate pages. To his amazement, though, the Caterpie hardly seemed to need his help as it rolled nimbly to its right to avoid the spray of burning ash. Sammy regained his bearings enough to say the only thing he could think of. “String shot the Vulpix!” At the words, Caterpie pulled itself upright and spat a stream of high-speed silk that snared Vlam’s four legs, sending the tiny fox pokemon tumbling to its side.
“That’s some good instinct!” Tommy cheered. Sammy noticed he was also clapping and nodding his head. “I thought you froze up there for a sec, but you thought of an attack pretty quickly and you used enough force in your voice to get Caterpie to listen. Very professional, kiddo.” The elder brother tilted his head down and grinned, “Still, some silly string isn’t about to beat Vlam. Vlam, can you tear that stuff?”
Sammy tried madly to think of something else a Caterpie could do, but nothing was coming to mind. He couldn’t let Vlam just tear itself free, though. “Caterpie, keep pouring on the string shot!”
As Vlam struggled against the silk already there, even more piled on, creating a burgeoning cocoon. Tommy was chuckling. “Not giving me a chance to catch my breath, huh? All right, little brother, let’s put an end to this silliness. Vlam, use ember to burn away the string shot.” Vlam turned her head down to her paws and legs that were now coated in fine Caterpie silk. More burning ash erupted from its mouth. Sammy felt a lump catch in his throat that he couldn’t swallow away as the ash effortlessly disintegrated the string. But then something strange happened: Vlam cried out in agony!
“Vlam! Are you okay? Return!” Tommy held out his Dusk Ball and squeezed it twice. Vlam ceased struggling against the silk as it transformed into its energy form and was sucked back into its portable home.
“What...why did you do that?”
Tommy shook his head. “Vlam was a little careless with the ember, and it burned too fast through the silk. She ended up burning her own paw.”
Sammy gasped, “Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she’ll be fine. We have stuff for that back in Goldenrod, of course.”
Sammy called Caterpie back to its Nest Ball and then caught up with his brother, who was already making his way to the northern path that would lead them back home. Tommy had trained so many days away here in the forest that he could find his way out if he was blindfolded; Sammy’s only hope was to stay close behind him. They walked several yards with neither saying a word. Sammy finally felt an enormous smile paint his face. “So wait. I totally just beat you, right?”
Tommy slowed his pace, but never turned back to face his brother. “I said Vlam was burned. Not out cold.”
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