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Thread: Rocket Red: New Recruit

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Aug 2013


    Chapter 1: The First Day

    Aiya Sinel lay curled in a tight ball with both arms wrapped around her head. The small cot on which she lay was a recent addition to her brother’s room at the Mahogany Town headquarters of Team Rocket. When she had first woken in this room two weeks earlier, the shock of everything that had happened had prevented her from feeling anything. As the days had dragged by, the realization that her beloved older brother was a member of the most powerful criminal organization in Johto had sunk in. At first she had simply felt confusion. Geoff was kind, playful, and extremely passionate about Pokemon. He had begun his Pokemon journey when she was only four years old, and she had waited eagerly to hear about his adventures and about the Pokemon he had encountered.

    Never once over the next six years had he given any indication that he was planning to become a member of Team Rocket. He loved rare and powerful Pokemon, but he was not the type to steal them from other people.

    Aiya sniffed softly and rolled over the cot, keeping her arms over her head. Everything in her world had come unraveled so quickly. The events of two weeks previous…well, compared to that, Geoff becoming a member of Team Rocket was nothing. Still, it was what she chose to focus most of her thoughts on. It was far easier to think about Team Rocket than to think about that. Despite their terrible reputation, Team Rocket was turning out to be not so bad. After all, they were allowing her to stay at the base, eat their food, and had allowed her the chance to join their ranks so that she could stay with her brother until it was safe for her to go out on her own. One of the Rockets, a friend of Geoff’s called Marty, had even agreed to care for Core while she recovered and during her training.

    Core. Some of the tension in her small body seemed to ease when she thought about him. He had been the most solid thing in her life over the last two weeks. It was he who convinced her to get up each day, to eat, and to walk around some. The day before he had even encouraged her to attempt to slip through the forbidden door, the one that marked the edge of where she was allowed to venture inside the base. Of course she had been caught before she could get the door open, and had been scolded by the woman, but it had been the first time that she’d felt any excitement in a long time.

    It occurred to her that Core’s behavior was not what one would expect from such a young Pokemon, and indeed, one who had only met his trainer two weeks ago. However, the bond that had formed between Aiya and Core had been almost instantaneous, and it had strengthened so much in such a short amount of time that the small Pokemon could hardly help but do what he was doing.

    It was as she was thinking this, that there was a scratching at the door. Aiya stayed where she was, her eyes tightly closed. The scratching came again, followed by a high, muffled voice. Aiya gave a small grunt and flipped over onto her stomach. Something hit the door several times, speaking very loudly as it did so. Aiya huffed and sat up, her disheveled, light blue hair falling around her face in a tangled mess. “You know how to open the door! You don’t need me to do it for you!”

    There came a loud snickering and another few thumps on the door. Aiya let out another huff and swung her small legs off the cot. She stumbled irritably to the door and pulled it open. A small green-black Pokemon with red eyes sauntered into the room, walking rather awkwardly on his hind legs. The smaller than average red feathers on his head and back, and the underdeveloped claws on his hands and feet, combined with his small size showed that he was a very young Pokemon. The little Sneasel grinned up at his trainer, revealing rather pointed teeth.

    “It’s six o’clock in the morning,” said the girl, stomping back to the cot. Her bare feet made almost no noise on the thin carpeting. “I’m allowed to still be asleep at six AM.”

    “Sno,” said the Sneasel, leaping onto the cot as well.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” This question was half annoyed, half curious. The sounds her Pokemon made had, at first, sounded exactly as Pokemon sounds always had to her. Grunts, chirps, squeaks, and the distinctive speech patterns that earned most Pokemon their names. As their bond had grown, however, some of the sounds had started to make more sense to her, so that she felt she could understand what Core wanted to communicate. Within the last few days, some of the noises had even started to sound like normal speech.

    “Snea sel, sneas sneas sneasel,” replied Core, raising one small claw to point at the clock on the dresser.

    Aiya looked up, squinting slightly. “Oh,” she said, feeling her face turn red. The hour hand on the clock was pointing at the nine rather than the six, and the minute hand was almost at the thirty mark. “So I overslept a little. It’s still pretty early.”

    Core shook his head, pointing at the neat stack of clothes lying on Geoff’s bed. Aiya looked at them too and for a moment couldn’t understand what her Pokemon was trying to tell her. Then it clicked and she leapt off the cot. “Oh no! I’m going to be late!” She dashed over to the clothes, snatched them up, then sped out the door and down the hall towards the showers. Core let out a chirp of laughter and darted after her.

    By the time he reached the showers, Aiya was already inside, attempting to brush her teeth and wash her hair at the same time. Core shook his head and hopped up on the bench next to the shower door. “Sneasel?”

    “I can’t be late. Geoff had to work really hard to get me accepted for training. He said I only get one shot to make a good impression.” The water clicked off and Aiya jumped out of the shower, nearly slipping on the wet floor. She grabbed the clothes Geoff had laid out for her and pulled them on with one hand, drying her hair with a towel with the other. Once dressed, she turned to Core. “How do I look?”

    Core examined her appearance quickly. She was dressed in a white t-shirt that was slightly too big for her and emblazoned with a large red R. Black shorts and white sneakers completed the outfit. Overall it was fine for the purposes of the day. Her hair, however, was still wet and stuck up at odd angles. Core shook his head, pointing at her head.

    Aiya glanced into a mirror then scampered around the shower room looking for a brush. Core spotted one sitting on the sink and tossed it to her. She pulled it through her hair until Core gave a nod of approval, then tossed it aside and sprinted out of the room.

    The Mahogany Base was located in a thick forest of trees and bushes. Only two stories of the building were actually above ground, with the rest extending under the surface. The training ground for new recruits was located directly behind the base on a clearing spotted with various pieces of equipment. An obstacle course was set up near the edge by the trees. A large group of people had gathered in front of it, all of them at least five years older than Aiya. Team Rocket did not accept new recruits before the age of fifteen, with very few exceptions. Occasionally they would allow a talented fourteen year-old to join, but never in anyone’s memory had a ten year old been allowed the chance to try.

    When some of the teenagers saw Aiya jogging towards them, they broke into raucous laughter, drawing the attention of the rest of the crowd. All but a few clearly senior members of the group were dressed like Aiya, with white t-shirts and black shorts. Some of them looked surprised to see her, others amused, and one or two looked concerned.

    Aiya skidded to a halt, panting, next to two of the younger recruits, probably fifteen or sixteen. The two boys looked down at her as she brushed her damp hair out of her eyes.

    “Hey runt,” said one, grinning, “shouldn’t you be at home with your mommy?” A girl nearby laughed.

    Aiya blushed and looked down at the ground. “I’m here for training,” she said quietly.

    This caused all but one of the people nearby to erupt in laughter again. “Training?” Said the boy nearest her. “This is Team Rocket, we don’t have time to be potty training any babies here.”

    “Yeah,” shrieked a girl, “go back to mommy. I’m sure it’s nap time for you, anyway.”

    Aiya felt tears sting her eyes, but she looked up defiantly at the girl. “Go ahead and laugh, but I’ll show you. I’ll be better than all of you today!” It was a pretty bold statement, but Aiya was determined to do well for her brother.

    The boy and girl laughed again. “Oh, big words for such a little runt,” said the girl, reaching down to give Aiya a shove.

    Aiya would have tried to shove her back, but a young boy with brown hair pulled the girl away. “Lay off her, Mallory. She’s just a kid. If the bosses want to let her dress up and play Team Rocket for a while, who are we to argue?”

    The girl snorted and pulled her arm out of his grip. “Well, whatever, she’ll make a fool of herself today and be gone tomorrow. What do I care?” She turned and marched off towards the front of the crowd.
    Aiya glared after her, her red eyes shining with suppressed tears.

    The brown haired boy laid a hand on her shoulder. “Relax pipsqueak,” he said grinning, “she’s just jealous that you got in so young.”

    “I’m not a pipsqueak,” muttered Aiya grumpily.

    The boy laughed and steered her forward towards the front of the crowd. “You’re definitely a pipsqueak. There’s not one person here who’s not head and shoulders taller than you. But don’t take that the wrong way. Your small size may give you an advantage over everyone else. Remember that.” He winked at her and moved away as an older woman with sharp, blue eyes and pale pink hair stepped forward. She was wearing black cargo pants and a black tank-top stamped with the Rocket R.

    “All right grunts,” she shouted, causing the crowd to go quiet, “my name is Officer Mylla Sand. You will address me as Officer Sand. I am your team commander. This,” she indicated the dark haired man to her right, “is Officer Malcom. He is your physical training leader. He’s the person who will be testing your physical abilities and assessing your progress in that area for the next two months. This,” she now indicated the much older man on her left, “is Officer Jen. He is our strategy specialist and the person who will test your ability to think.” She paused to smile slightly at this remark, then continued, “Both of these men report your progress to me. If at the end of these two months you’ve shown to be capable members of Team Rocket, you will face a final challenge with me. Pass, and you will be initiated into Team Rocket. Now,” she stepped forward and looked around the group, her eyes lingering on Aiya for a few moments longer than the rest, “the first part of today’s training will consist of general physical and mental assessments. You will be split into two groups to complete your training.

    “As you are undoubtedly aware, Team Rocket has several divisions within its ranks. Many of you may be here because you wish to join the Stealth division. I’m here to tell you that most of you will fail miserably in this endeavor. The Stealth division requires a great deal of skill and nerve, and looking around me I can see that most of you do not have either. However,” she raised her voice as some of the people around Aiya started muttering, “all of you have something that will make you well suited for one division or the other. The Strength division, the Analysis division, the Personnel division, and so on. These are all important columns in Team Rocket’s architecture, and each requires dedication and hard work. If you are not willing to give at least that, then you should turn around and go home now.”

    Officer Sand waited, looking around once more. No one moved, so she continued, “Very well. I am going to come around now and place each of you into a group. If, for any reason you do not like the group to which you have been assigned, tough. I’m not here to be your friend and I don’t care if you’re unhappy.”

    Aiya felt a deep sense of foreboding as Officer Sand started assigning people to either group Beta or group Omega. When she reached Aiya, she looked down at her for a few long moments, then instructed her to join the rest of group Omega. Aiya’s sense of foreboding increased when she noticed that Mallory and a few of her cohorts were also Omegas. The kind boy with brown hair was not there. He had been sorted into Beta. She sighed, wishing heartily that Core could have been there with her, but she knew recruits were not allowed to bring their Pokemon to training until week three.

    As she approached, Mallory looked up and smiled rather unpleasantly. Aiya sighed again. This was not going to be a fun day.

    The first half of the day was spent doing push-ups, jumping jacks, jogging, and other types of physical exercise. Aiya was not prepared for such exhaustive exercise, and consequently began to fall behind the others within the first hour. It didn’t help that her legs were so much shorter than those of her teammates. When instructed to run three miles, Aiya was the last to finish and “with the worst time any new recruit has had in five years.” Officer Malcom shook his head in disgust. “Why they even allowed you past security…”

    It was downhill from there. Despite her earlier claims at being top of the class, Aiya was simply not in the best physical shape. She had not led a pampered life before then, but she had not had a difficult life either. She had been doing some general exercise routines in preparation for her Pokemon journey, but two weeks curled up on a cot had sapped most of her physical reserves. By the end of the exercise portion of the day’s training, which lasted nearly four hours, Aiya was covered in sweat and dirt, more exhausted than she had ever been in her life, and so sore she could barely stand.

    On top of that, she had to stand and listen to Officer Malcom praise Mallory for her performance. The older girl looked as if she’d barely broken a sweat and she had come out top of the group. She looked particularly smug as Officer Malcom said he wished he could have ten more recruits just like her.

    “Thank you, sir,” she said, lowering her head in what was supposed to be a gracious gesture. “I’ve already been training for three months. I just wanted to do the best I could do to make Team Rocket proud.” An unpleasant smile spread across her face again. “I just wish everyone could love Team Rocket like I do. Maybe then they’d be able to at least keep up with everyone else,” she stared pointedly at Aiya. Several people laughed and Officer Malcom smiled as he dismissed everyone to their lunch break.

    Aiya walked inside, feeling miserable at her inability to even keep up with the older trainees. How was she ever going to succeed in Team Rocket if she failed at training? Officer Sand had said she had to do well to even be able to take her test, whatever it was. What if she was kicked out of training before she even had the chance to get better? Geoff had risked his reputation to get her accepted for training and she was going to make him look like a fool.

    “Snea snea Aiysa,” a quiet voice from a bush outside the door made her jump. She looked around and spotted two large red eyes grinning at her from between the leaves.

    “Core?” Aiya kept her voice low, glancing around her to make sure no one could hear her. Almost everyone had gone inside the base to eat, and the few stragglers that remained outside were busy talking amongst themselves. She turned back to the bush to see Core’s claw poking through the leaves. He gestured for her to come closer. Aiya glanced around again then slipped into the bush with Core. “Oh Core,” she said, seizing the small Pokemon and pulling him into a hug. “This is horrible. I’m never going to catch up with everyone else.”

    Core patted her gently on the back. “Sneasel snea yes snu sill.”

    Aiya sniffed a few times, trying to hold back tears. “How? Mallory’s already been training for months. How can I possibly catch up with her?”

    Core looked at her quizzically, clearly asking why she had to catch up with the best in the class.

    “Because I have to. I have to do well so that Geoff won’t get in trouble for getting me accepted. And I want to do well so that I won’t get kicked out.” Core tiled his head, the same expression still on his face. “Okay, I also want to beat Mallory. I want her, and everyone, to see that I’m not just some runt.”

    Core held up one short claw, examining it, then looked back up at Aiya. “Sneasel…runt?”

    “No!” said Aiya quickly, rubbing Core’s head. “You’re not a runt. You’re just young and…and you haven’t gotten much training. And I promise that’ll change. I’ll start being a better trainer.”

    Core smiled and looked at his claw, then at her. He reached out and touched her small hand.

    Aiya smiled in spite of herself. “Okay, you’re right, we’re both just young and untrained.” Core nodded, then grinned and stood up straight, tapping himself proudly on the yellow jewel embedded in his chest. “You’ll help me?” Core nodded. “All right, we’ll help each other get stronger. Yeah, then when week three comes, we’ll show them! Together we’ll be so good that it won’t matter how bad I was today.”

    Core nodded enthusiastically. “Sneah!”

    After a quick lunch, the new recruits headed back outside, Beta to start their physical training with Officer Malcom, and Omega to have their first test in strategy from Officer Jen. Aiya passed the kind boy with brown hair as she stumbled along after the rest of Omega. He smiled sympathetically at her.

    “Didn’t exactly come top of the class, did you Pipsqueak?”

    Aiya shifted uncomfortably. “No,” she said quietly.

    “Don’t worry, it takes time for some people to get there. Keep trying and you’ll catch up.” He winked at her again and moved away to join the rest of Beta.

    Training with Officer Jen was significantly better than training with Officer Malcom. For the first hour, Officer Jen started by instructing everyone to sit down and take a paper test about Pokemon. The questions concerned types, advantages and disadvantages, regions, levels, commonality, and more. After that, he tested each trainee’s balance and coordination by having them catch balls while standing on a balance beam. Despite being so sore, Aiya performed reasonably well in this exercise. Then each person was asked to display a various emotion on command. Aiya was asked to display sadness and immediately burst into tears, allowing some of the emotions she had been feeling that day well up.
    “Very convincing,” said Officer Jen in approval before moving on.

    Aiya smiled. It was the first compliment she had received, even if it was for such an easy request. She doubted he would have been so pleased with her performance if he’d asked her to act happy.

    The final two hours were spent listening to Officer Jen lecture about the importance of thinking before doing, observing one’s surroundings, paying attention to people’s behavior, and blending into the background. It was very interesting, but Aiya was so tired by the time he finished that she could hardly keep her eyes open.

    A whistle sounded from somewhere nearby and everyone looked up to see Officer Sand standing in the middle of the clearing motioning for them to join her. Aiya struggled to her feet, feeling a bit off balance as her tired muscles tried to remember how to walk. She had only moved a few paces when someone’s foot caught around her ankle and caused her to fall, knocking the wind out of her. She looked up, gasping, to see Mallory laughing down at her.

    “What happened, runt? Did you get a boo boo?”

    Aiya felt dislike rise up within her. She shoved herself angrily to her feet and marched off towards Officer Sand, fuming. Mallory’s laughter, coupled with that of a few others, trailed after her as she went.

    “All right grunts,” said Officer Sand as they all assembled, “I trust you’ve had a productive first day. For the next six days you will meet here at ten am and gather into your groups. Each day Omega will begin with physical training and Beta will begin with strategy.” Aiya let out the softest of sighs at this news, thinking about how awful physical training was. Unfortunately Officer Sand noticed. She looked at Aiya. “Is there a problem, Sinel?”

    Aiya gulped and shook her head. She hadn’t known that Officer Sand knew her name. The older woman glared down at her for a few moments, then turned her attention to the group as a whole. “I don’t care about your happiness, remember that. And I certainly don’t care how big or small any of you are, I expect you to do the same amount of work. No one is going to slide by in my outfit, no matter how pitiful their story is.” She looked back at Aiya, who stiffened and looked defiantly back at her.

    “I don’t want pity,” she said quietly.

    Officer Sand raised an eyebrow. “Did you say something, Sinel?”

    “I said, I don’t want pity. I’m going to be just as good as everyone else…better. And I’ll get there on my own.” She felt her voice falter on the last few words. Her heart was beating so fast and so loudly that she was surprised she could hear Officer Sand’s next words.

    “You’ve got a big mouth, grunt. I hope your reputation can keep up with it.” Somewhere to her left, Aiya heard Mallory’s unpleasant laugh. Officer Sand gave a half glance in her direction, then addressed the group again. “I will review the reports from your instructors tonight. I expect to hear that all of you are pulling your weight. Dismissed!”

    The crowd dispersed slowly, talking excitedly together. Aiya trudged towards the base alone, fear starting to swell within her. She should have kept her mouth shut. It was one thing to make claims to Mallory, she was just a trainee. It was another to tell her commander that she was going to be a big success. She was getting enough attention because of her size and age as it was.

    Core was no longer hiding in the bush beside the door, nor was he anywhere to be seen as she meandered down hallways and down staircases towards Geoff’s room. She wondered, briefly, how much longer she would be allowed to stay in his room now that she was a trainee. Trainees did not usually get such nice accommodations, so she had been told.

    She reached Geoff’s door and tried to turn the handle, but it was locked. The tugged harder, feeling slightly panicked. Geoff had never locked the door before.

    “Ah, there you are! Sorry kiddo, I was going to come and get you at the training grounds but you were already gone by the time I got there.” Aiya turned to see Marty, Geoff’s tall, red headed friend smiling apologetically down at her.

    “Where is Geoff?”

    “He’s been sent on a mission. I think the bosses wanted to see how you’d do without him. Some of them think his reputation might be the only thing that gets you through training, so they were keen to separate you two for a week or two. Don’t worry,” he said hastily, seeing the look on Aiya’s face, “I’m here to look after you. I swore to Geoff that I’d keep you out of trouble. Though if you’re anything like that darned Sneasel of yours, that’s a pretty big promise.” He grinned.

    Aiya smiled in spite of herself. “Where is Core?”

    Marty shrugged, gesturing for her to follow him. “I have no idea. As soon as we saw that you weren’t at the training grounds, he took off to look for you. That’s the fourth time today he’s slipped away from me. I would have put him in his Pokeball, but I have no idea where that is.”

    “It’s locked in Geoff’s room,” Aiya replied, almost smugly. “He’ll appreciate that.”

    The red-haired man laughed and ruffled Aiya’s dirty hair. “Yeah, I bet he will. By the way, kid, how did it go?”

    Aiya sighed and tugged at the corner of her dirt-stained t-shirt. “I…it was…not so great.”

    Marty chuckled. “I figured as much. You look like hell. I mean that in a nice way,” he added quickly, seeing the hurt look on her face. “The first few days are always the worst. Don’t let it get you down. Ah, here we are.” He stopped beside a room with a picture of a Skitty on the door. "This is Jennifer’s room. Jennifer is a friend of mine and she’s agreed to let you sleep here until the bosses decide where to put you.”

    “Why don’t they put me in the trainee quarters?”

    Marty hesitated, then said gently, “well, most of them think you won’t make it through the first week, and they don’t want to waste a room on you until you prove them wrong.”

    “Sneasel!” came Core’s angry voice from behind them. The young Sneasel marched up to them and poked Marty in the leg with one of his claws.

    “Hey, easy, it wasn’t my decision.”

    “It’s not his fault, Core. I don’t think anyone thinks I’ll make it through. I’m not sure I do…”

    Core turned to her and shook his head vigorously. He pointed at the jewel on his chest, then at her, and Aiya remembered the promise they’d made to each other earlier that day. She sighed and reached out for him. He jumped into her arms and patted her shoulder.

    “He’s a loyal one, for sure. Don’t get so down, kid. I’ll help you out when I can and once Jenny gets a look at you she’ll insist on doing her part. She can’t say no to anything cute and fluffy.” He paused, smiling slightly at the look of annoyance on Aiya’s face, then continued, “but maybe you should get a shower before you turn those big red eyes on her. Off you go. I’ll come and find you for dinner.”

    After a long and wonderful shower, Aiya and Core returned to Jennifer’s room. The woman wasn’t there, but an air mattress had been set out on the floor for her. A soft pink blanket was folded neatly on top of the fluffy pillow Jennifer had set out for her. A note on top of these indicated that she would be back quite late and would meet Aiya in the morning. The small girl felt slightly relieved. She didn’t really feel up to being social at the moment. Instead she sat down on the air mattress, which proved to be very comfortable.

    Core stepped gingerly up next to her, holding his claws at an awkward angle, clearly afraid he might puncture something. Aiya let out a small laugh and pulled him close. Core chirped and touched her stomach.
    “Yeah…but I think I’ll just lie down for ten minutes before I go to dinner, okay?”

    Core rolled his eyes but didn’t object. He sat down on the edge of the mattress, his eyes fixed on the door. He would guard his trainer until he was sure Jennifer was an acceptable roommate. Aiya unfolded the blanket and wrapped it around herself then laid her head on the amazingly soft pillow. She was fast asleep before Core could do anything but shake his head.

    “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2013


    This chapter is again a little slow, but it'll start to pick up from here.

    Chapter 2: Let's Train

    The room was dark…so dark that she couldn’t see anything, and filled with a silence so intense it hurt. She raised her arms, reaching into the darkness for something, anything. She took a few steps forward, her heart racing furiously, and her foot connected with something on the ground. She stumbled and fell. She tried to cry out but no sound emerged from her lips. She struggled to sit up but her hands slipped in something wet on the ground and she fell again.

    She raised one hand, trying to see through the darkness. Then she smelled it. That dank, dark, metallic smell…it was all around her. The wetness on her hands began to spread up her arms, then her legs. The smell became stronger and stronger; she was suffocating in it. Light suddenly flared in the room.

    She lay there, her eyes glassy and blank.

    Aiya screamed. She thrashed around trying to fight her way out from under the blankets that were binding her. Something grabbed at her in the darkness, trying to hold her steady. She screamed again and kicked out at whoever it was. A stinging pain rose up her leg, but she didn’t care. She had to get away, away.

    Light suddenly blazed overhead and a gentle voice spoke to her. Strong hands seized her wrists to prevent her from struggling and a second pair of hands, much rougher and oddly shaped, grabbed hold of her legs.
    “Aiya? Aiya, honey, open your eyes. Look at me.”

    “No! Get away!” Aiya twisted desperately, trying to free herself, but the hands that held her were firm.

    “It’s okay. You’re safe, you’re safe. Open your eyes.”

    Aiya’s thrashing began to ease. Her eyelids fluttered for a moment, then she slowly opened her eyes. Normally a bright, gentle red, they were now a dark crimson and shining with tears. She turned her face to look at the person holding her. Jennifer was older then Geoff, but not much, probably around nineteen or twenty. She had soft brown hair that fell past her shoulders and bright green eyes that blazed with concern. Her face was round and kind, but the rest of her body was well toned and powerful.

    “There now, see,” said the older woman in a soft voice, “everything’s all right. There’s nothing here. Did you have a bad dream?”

    Aiya nodded silently. She pulled her knees up to her chest and noticed suddenly that there was a long scratch down her right leg. Jennifer noticed it, too.

    “You’ve got a lot of fight in you,” she said, smiling slightly. “I thought for a moment that you’d knocked your poor Sneasel unconscious.”

    The girl looked up quickly. “Core? Is he okay?”

    A loud huff came from somewhere in front of her. Aiya turned her head to see Core standing at the foot of her mattress rubbing his head with the back of one claw. “Snea fine,” he grunted, waving his claw airily.

    “Got ya pretty good, though, didn’t he,” Jennifer said, pointing at the scratch.

    “He didn’t mean to,” Aiya muttered, looking at Core. The dark type smiled back at her apologetically. “Yeah, I’m sorry too.”

    Apparently convinced that the small girl had calmed down, Jennifer sat back on her heels and looked up at the clock. Aiya looked too, pushing her light blue hair out of her face. It was three o’clock in the morning. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, glancing up at Jennifer.

    Jennifer’s green eyes were kind and she smiled as she replied, “Don’t worry about it, kid. Marty warned me about your night terrors.” She hesitated for a moment, then asked, “do you want to talk about it?” Aiya shook her head quickly. “You know,” the woman continued gently, “sometimes, when bad things haunt us, talking about them can make them easier to bear.” Aiya shook her head again. Core moved to her side and looked up at Jennifer, his red eyes signaling that she wasn’t to pressure his trainer anymore tonight. “All right,” she said, halfway between a sigh and a yawn, “I won’t push you. When you’re ready to talk, I’ll listen.” She stood up and stretched. “Oh yeah,” she added, looking back down at Aiya and grinning, “I’m Jennifer, by the way. Jennifer Cantrel. Nice to meet you.”

    Aiya smiled and took the proffered hand. “Aiya. Thank you for allowing me to sleep here.”

    “Don’t mention it,” said Jennifer as she walked back over to her bed and sat down. “Your brother’s a good friend of mine. I’m happy to help him and his sister out, especially considering…well, we won’t talk about that right now. You go on back to sleep. Do you want me to leave a light on?”

    “I haven’t needed a night light since I was four,” said Aiya defensively.

    Jennifer laughed. “All right, I get it, you’re a tough little thing.” She reached over and flipped off the light. “But just in case, there’s a lamp on the desk.”

    “Thank you,” said Aiya, lying back down on the mattress. A moment later Core sat down next to her. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Aiya asked him in a whisper.

    “Sneah,” replied the Sneasel. “Are you?”

    “I’m fine,” she replied quietly, reaching up to place a reassuring hand on his head. He patted her hand with one of his claws.

    Aiya lay on the mattress for another hour or so, tossing and turning but not able to get back to sleep. Not only was the dream plaguing her mind, but she was becoming more and more aware of how stiff and sore her muscles were. Every position she tried lie in hurt in one way or another. This was not all together a bad thing as it helped to distract her from the image of the face she had seen in her dream. Every time she thought about it her insides curled up and her heart started to race. More to stop her mind from dwelling on those images than anything else, Aiya turned her thoughts to the training she would be receiving later that day. Her muscles ached at the idea of doing any kind of exercise.

    “Sneas,” said Core. Aiya rolled over and looked in the direction of his voice.

    “Yeah?” she said quietly.

    “Outside,” he replied, patting her leg with his claw.

    “What about it?”


    “Did you say train?”

    “Sneah,” said Core, his voice amused. “Not sleep, so train.”

    Aiya was silent for a few moments. On the one hand, Core was probably right that she wasn’t going to sleep any more tonight. On the other, her whole body ached. However, if she wanted to get better and prove to Officer Sand and everyone else that she was capable of being a Rocket, which she was determined to do, then extra training would definitely help her get there. Now seemed a good a time as any to decide if she was really serious about completing her training.

    After a quick shower and a bite to eat at the cafeteria—which stayed open all day every day due to the odd work shifts some Rockets had—Aiya and Core headed for the gym. They had considered going back outside to the training grounds, but they weren’t sure they were allowed to be out there by themselves. The advantage to training in the gym was that it had equipment for both people and Pokemon. Given that Aiya and Core had not yet had the chance to train together as a trainer and Pokemon should, they were both excited by the time they reached their destination.

    “Okay, what should we do first?” asked Aiya, looking around at the unfamiliar equipment. The uses of some pieces were obvious enough: that one was for sit-ups, that one for lifting, that one for…something to do with legs, perhaps. None of it looked as if it was built for someone her size.

    Core wandered over to some weights on a shelf by the wall. He examined them for a moment, then attempted to pick up one of the larger ones. It didn’t budge. He tugged harder, gripping the ground with his foot claws and grunting with the effort. His claws slipped off the weight and fell on his backside, rumpling some feathers.

    Aiya tried very hard not to laugh, but she couldn’t help it. Core jumped up, growled irritably, and attempted to tackle the entire shelf of weights. He bounced off of the rack and knocked his head against one of the machines nearby. A few of the weights on the rack shifted slightly.

    Aiya was now laughing so hard she felt tears in her eyes. She had not laughed like this since the night before she had received Core, when she and her sister had been running around their room pretending to be Pokemon in the middle of a battle. She had been a Totodile, the Pokemon she had planned to train before Professor Elm’s mix up, and Tya had been a Cyndaquil, her top choice of Pokemon. Having the type advantage, Aiya had insisted that she was the automatic winner…

    “Nuh uh! Type isn’t everything! I’m faster than you, see!” Tya darted over to the bed and seized one of her bright red pillows. “Ember!” she shouted, throwing the pillow at Aiya.

    Aiya ducked, the pillow just missing her. “Speed doesn’t matter if you can’t land a hit!” She grabbed the glass next to her bed and threw the water at her sister shouting, “Water Gun!”

    Tya shrieked and dodged aside just as the door to their room opened and their father poked his head in. The water, intended for Tya, hit their father instead. He stood there, his hair dripping. Both girls were completely silent for a moment, staring up at their father, then together they burst into a fit of laughter.

    “It’s a critical hit!” choked Tya, wiping her eyes.

    “Daddy fainted!” added Aiya, clinging onto the bed stand to support herself.

    Their father simply shook his head and closed the door again.

    Core wandered over to his trainer and tugged at the edge of her t-shirt. She looked down at him and smiled, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Oh, sorry, I had just forgotten…well, everything about her until now, I guess. Every time I try to think about her or mom or dad I just see…” her voice trailed away, a single tear sliding down her cheek. Core reached up and brushed the tear away.

    Aiya smiled at her Pokemon again, then walked over to the weights. “Here, let’s try one of these smaller ones,” she said, picking up a five pound weight. There was a strap on the handle that made the weight easier to hold on to and also allowed Pokemon like Core, who didn’t have thumbs, to use them. Core nodded and took one of the weights for himself.

    They spent the next hour doing various exercises with the weights including basic lifting, push-ups, and even jumping jacks, though that attempt ended in one of the weights flying across the room and hitting a basket of racket balls. Core decided to make a game of the clean up, darting around the floor and batting the balls towards the basket. Most of the balls shot off in the wrong direction.

    “You’re pushing them too far to the left,” said Aiya, her red eyes darting after her Pokemon. “Aim more to the right.”

    Core paused and looked at her, then whacked one of the balls, curving his claw more towards the right. The ball sailed within an inch of the basket.

    “A little more, and hit it a little harder.”

    Core followed her advice and this time the ball landed squarely in the basket. Aiya cheered then ran over and grabbed one of the balls, tossing it towards the basket. She missed by several feet. Core indicated that she shouldn’t throw it so hard.

    Together they managed to get all of the balls back in the basket, each toss improving their aims until they could hit their target every time. They sat together for a little while afterwards, catching their breath and talking about improving their accuracy.

    “There’s a lot more to battling than strength,” said Aiya, swinging her legs on the bench. “Speed, accuracy, and flexibility are equally important. You have to be able to adapt to the situation, whatever it is. I read that in one of the trainer books Dad got me…” there was a moment of hesitation, then she continued, “and size is only as important as what you do with it. You may be small, but that’ll make you harder to hit, so it’s probably important for you to keep moving during a battle. We’ll test that one day…if we ever get to battle together.”

    “You could battle me,” said a familiar voice from somewhere behind them. Aiya turned and saw the kind boy with brown hair leaning against the wall on the other side of the room. He grinned at her as he straightened up. “I bet you’ll do well in strategy training, from the way you talk. At least in the written part; it’s one thing to talk like you know what you’re doing, it’s another to prove it in real life.”

    “I can prove it!” said Aiya, jumping up. Core sprang to his feet at well, raising his claw to point at the boy in a challenging sort of way.

    “So you accept my challenge?” asked the boy, looking amused.

    “We do, right Core?” she said, glancing at the dark type who nodded eagerly.

    “Excellent,” said the boy, walking over. “We’ll go into one of the small arenas. Strictly speaking, trainees aren’t supposed to battle against each other until week three, but who’s going to find out at six in the morning?”

    The small arenas were next door to the gym. The one Aiya and the boy chose for their battle was very simple with a flat arena and stone walls. Neither trainer would have an advantage as far as terrain.

    “All right, a one on one battle, agreed?”

    “Agreed!” said Aiya.

    “Okay, let’s go,” said the boy, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a Pokeball. “Poe you’re up!” He tossed the Pokeball into the air. The ball opened, spilling red light into the arena. The light twisted and swirled, finally solidifying into the form of a rather round Pokemon standing on two sturdy legs. It had two strong arms and round belly with a hypnotic pattern on it.

    “Poliwhirl,” said Aiya to herself, “water type, evolved form of Poliwag. Okay Core, we can beat this one!”

    Core leapt into the arena and swung his short claws menacingly. The Poliwhirl did not look impressed. It raised its arms and punched the air a few times.

    “Water gun!” shouted the boy, catching Aiya off guard. She hadn’t expected the battle to start so abruptly.

    The Poliwhirl shot a powerful jet of water at Core who chirped and dropped to the ground, but didn’t manage to completely avoid the attack.

    “Oh no, uh, Core use Shadow Ball!”

    The little Sneasel looked back at her, confused. His hesitation allowed Poe to score a direct hit with a second jet of water. Core yelped in surprise and pain as he was flipped over by the attack. He scrambled to regain his feet, then glared menacingly at Poe, showing his pointed teeth.

    “Oh good, yes, Leer! And after that try using Fury Swipes!” Core continued to use Leer, waving his claws uncertainly. “I didn’t really study up on Sneasel’s low level moves…umm...umm…oh, dodge!”

    Poe was attacking again, this time attempting a Double Slap. Core attempted to jump over the water type to escape, but was seized around the ankle and slammed into the ground. The brown haired boy shook his head. “Come on, use your head. You can’t just keep calling out attacks and hoping your baby Pokemon knows one of them. Think, or you’re going to lose. Poe, Double Slap again! Hit it before it can get back up!”

    “Put your claws up, Core!” Core rolled onto his back and raised his hand and foot claws, bracing himself for impact. Poe’s hand connected with one of Core’s claws, hard, and it yelped in pain, stumbling backwards. “Yes, now quick, get up and…and do what you were doing when you were picking up the racket balls!” Core flipped onto on all fours and darted away from Poe, then zipped left and right around his opponent, darting in once or twice to swipe at the Poliwhirl with a claw.

    “That’s it, now you’re using your head. Poe use water gun and spin!” Poe began to spin in a surprisingly graceful way. It was such a big and bulky Pokemon that Aiya hadn’t expected it to be very agile.

    She couldn’t think about that for long, however, because the Pokemon started shooting jets of water all around the arena. Core yelped and swerved, leaping and ducking, trying to avoid the deluge. It was lucky that he was so small.

    “How are we going to get around that? Core can barely dodge those attacks, let alone retaliate. We need to…need to…hey…” Aiya looked around the arena. From her vantage point she could see a side of the battle that Core, in the thick of things, could not. All Core could see was water coming at him from every direction. She, however, could see that Poe was beginning to wobble slightly. It was getting dizzy. If its trainer didn’t tell it stop soon, it would become very off balance, and that might just give Core his chance. Poe wobbled again, its attack shooting in the wrong direction. This was their chance. “Core, Tackle is now!”

    Core skidded to a halt, spun round, and launched himself at Poe. The boy called for the Poliwhirl to use Double Slap, but when it stopped spinning it stumbled slightly, off balance just long enough for Core to make contact. Poe grunted but managed to stay on its feet. The little Sneasel simply wasn’t big enough to knock over the larger Pokemon, and worse, the attack had drawn Core in close enough to give Poe the chance to strike. Core was hit twice and fell hard, skidding backwards a few feet from the strength of the blows. For a moment it looked like the battle was over. Core struggled to roll onto his stomach, his chest heaving and his arms shaking.

    “One more time Poe,” called the boy, “Tackle!” The water type took a few steps forward and stumbled. It was still dizzy.

    This is my last chance, thought Aiya desperately, but she couldn’t ask Core to try a head on attack again. If they didn’t manage to knock Poe off its feet this time, the battle was over. She thought quickly, running through her options. Poe was beginning to move faster, raising one hand, its eyes fixed on Core…its eyes. It could only see in front of it unless it turned completely around, and it wouldn’t be easy to do that while it was still so dizzy. “Core, get behind it and aim for its feet with another Tackle!” Panting, Core sprang away from Poe just before the larger Pokemon could strike. He zipped behind it and launched himself at its legs.

    This time the attack worked. Poe fell flat on its back and, being so round, it couldn’t easily regain its feet. This is our chance, we can win! thought Aiya happily. “Core, Scratch!” Core took a few tumbling steps forward, still panting, then he collapsed onto his knees. He tried to get up once more, but was only able to stay on his feet for a few seconds before collapsing again. This was all Poe needed to get back on its feet. The large water type loomed over his smaller opponent, one hand raised. “Stop! I give up!” called Aiya quickly. She dashed into the arena and scooped up her exhausted Pokemon.

    Footsteps told her the boy with brown hair was approaching. She looked up to see him smiling. “Well, I’m impressed. You’re pretty quick on your feet, as is your little Sneasel. If you two had any training at all, and if your little Pokemon had some more stamina, you could have beaten me.” He offered his hand to her. Aiya took it and he pulled both her and Core to their feet. “And you, Pipsqueak, you’re a lot like that one,” he nodded at Core. “Tiny but tough. With enough training you’ll turn out to be pretty strong yourself.”

    Aiya felt her cheeks going red and smiled. “I’ll have the advantage because no one will expect me to be able to put up a fight.”

    “Exactly,” said the boy, winking, “now you get it. I was overconfident, or else I wouldn’t have had my Pokemon use a risky move like spinning. I let my guard down, see, and it gave you the chance you needed.”

    “Wait…did you do that on purpose? Getting your Poliwhirl all dizzy to prove a point?”

    “That would have been very clever of me, wouldn’t it? I should have thought of that, but no, it was a complete accident.” He walked over to his Poliwhirl and patted it on the head. “Outsmarted by a Pipsqueak. I know I feel a little embarrassed. How are you holding up, Poe?” The large water type let out a noise that reminded Aiya of the chirping laugh Core had. To her surprise, Poe held out one hand to Core who shook it in a tired sort of way. “Quite right Poe, we must show sportsmanship.” He offered his hand to Aiya once more.

    Aiya took it and shook. “Oh yeah, good battle…umm…I don’t actually know your name.”

    “Matthew Striker,” said the boy, smiling.

    “Nice to meet you Matthew,” replied Aiya politely, “I’m Aiya Sinel.”

    “Pleasure’s all mine, Aiya Sinel. Now, I bet you’re hungry, and your Sneasel could sure use some nourishment by the look of him. Why don’t we go get some breakfast before you return to your pre-training training?”

    Aiya smiled, feeling her cheeks going slightly red. “Oh, well, we already ate…”

    Matthew looked surprised at this. “Already ate? I admire dedication, Pipsqueak, but you’re taking it a little far, don’t you think?”

    Aiya scowled at the older boy’s continued use of the word “pipsqueak.” Apparently it was a nickname she was going to have to get used to. “It wasn’t just that. I went to bed really early and so I woke up really early. That’s all.”

    Matthew looked at her with some concern. “That’s all, is it?”

    “I could eat again,” the young girl replied quickly, scooping up Core and heading for the door. “Actually, I’m pretty hungry, and I can hear Core’s stomach growling.”

    “Listen kid,” said Matthew, hurrying after her with his Poliwhirl right behind him, “you can talk to me. I’m not after gossip or blackmail. I can tell something’s not right by your expression.”

    “You don’t know me well enough to be able to tell that,” replied Aiya stiffly. Core sighed and poked her hand in disapproval. “Hush you,” she said, not looking at him, “I don’t need lessons in manners.”

    “Do too,” he scoffed, but didn’t push it.

    “You do have a remarkable bond with your Pokemon, especially considering how young both of you are. What is that makes you too so close, do you think?”

    Aiya and Core looked at each other and shrugged. “I don’t know, we both want to be the best…the very best, like no one ever was. Cause, you know, to catch him was my real test and to train him is my cause…hey!” Matthew shoved her playfully.

    “I hate that song,” he said arrogantly, “it’s too upbeat, too happy.”

    “You’re a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

    As Aiya and Matthew left the gym, Officer Sand stepped away from the window on the floor above. Unbeknownst to the two trainers, she had been watching them since Matthew had entered the gym. Her sharp eyes had taken in every detail of their conversation and battle and now she smiled as she considered the small girl with blue hair. "Well Ms. Sinel," she said quietly, crossing her arms, "maybe you will turn out to be something after all. How interesting."

    After a second breakfast during which Aiya discovered that she and Core were indeed still hungry, the young trainer took her Pokemon back down to her room. It was nearly eight o’clock and Jennifer was just waking up when they entered.

    “Morning kid,” she said brightly, “I wondered where’d you gone off to. Been training hard?”

    “Oh, yeah,” said Aiya hesitantly. Seeing Jennifer’s tousled hair and kind green eyes reminded her of the scene she had caused earlier that morning.

    Jennifer seemed to notice her discomfort. “Don’t worry about it, I’ve had far less pleasant nights than that. Anyway, I need some more excitement in my life. I feel I’m getting too tame. I’ll be taking up knitting or something before you know it.” She swung her legs off the bed and stretched. Aiya blinked several times, squinted, then went violently red. She had been too upset earlier to notice that Jennifer apparently slept completely naked. “Oh relax kid, ain’t nothing here you haven’t seen before,” she looked her up and down, “or at least nothing you won’t see one day. Better get used to it.”

    Aiya kept her eyes fixed on the ceiling when she replied, “Yeah.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.

    Jennifer laughed and grabbed a fluffy pink bathrobe from the foot of her bed. “Well, if it bothers you that much,” she said, pulling it on. “There, covered enough for your innocent little eyes?”

    Core laughed and grinned up at his trainer. “What, there’s nothing wrong with modesty. It might not matter to you, you’re not even the same species, but my mom taught me…”

    “Anywhos,” said Jennifer quickly, before AIya could say anymore, “I’m going to go take a shower and get some breakfast. You should get ready for your second day of training. I hope you didn’t work yourself too hard. The second day’s way worse than the first.”

    Aiya felt her heart sink down to her knees. “Thanks,” she replied gloomily, “I needed to hear that.”

    “You’ll be fine,” the older woman said airily, ruffling Aiya’s hair as she passed. “Or you’ll pass out and be trampled on the jogging course. We’ll see.” Laughing she left the room.


    “Yeah,” said Core, grinning, “but I like her.”

    Aiya let out a very dramatic sigh as she tucked Core in under her blanket. She would let him sleep while she went outside for training. The workout she had had that morning had left her tired again and the day had only just started. She sighed again as she headed for the door. It looked like it was going to be another long one.

    “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Aug 2013


    Chapter 3: Evaluation Day

    Aiya’s second day of training was indeed worse than her first, and the third wasn’t much better. Mallory was still top of the Omega group in endurance and she was not shy about sharing this information. She constantly taunted Aiya about her poor performance in physical training and suggested that she must also be doing poorly in strategy training, though no one was really sure how that training was being marked. Officer Jen did not give much feedback and, unlike Officer Malcom, he refused to pick a top trainee.

    Core greeted Aiya each evening when training was over and together they would have dinner then head down to the gyms for battle training. Core had indicated to her that he would practice attacks and do exercises for the same amount of time each day as Aiya. The young girl had appreciated this sentiment. It was easier for her to push herself when she knew her Pokemon was training alongside her. They still had to practice coordination, and so the evening hours were spent studying battle simulations and practicing them in an empty arena.

    While she enjoyed the time she spent with her Pokemon, Aiya knew that she would have to train herself harder than she was being trained now. Officer Sand had hinted on their third day that there would be an evaluation at the end of the first two weeks.

    “Any trainee who is not living up to our standards will not continue with the program,” she had said, her blue eyes blazing as they performed their familiar scan of the group.
    She wasn’t sure how she was measuring up as far as strategy, but she knew it had to be better than in physical training. Officer Malcom shook his head every time he looked at her, and once or twice had used her poor times as an example of what not to do. Aiya had taken the insults without a word and plowed on with whatever exercise they were doing. Still, Officer Malcom was one who would be writing her report, and if she wanted to stay in training, she would have to get better. She therefore started getting up at six o’clock each morning and running laps and lifting weights in the gym for two hours before training.

    That was Aiya’s life for the next two weeks. Get up at daybreak, exercise. Shower and eat breakfast. Go to training. Dinner, then back to the gym with Core. In bed by ten. It did not leave much time for a social life, but as the days wore on she began to receive company during her morning and evening extra training sessions. Jennifer, as Marty had said, was very keen to help Aiya succeed. Some mornings she would join Aiya at the gym. This proved to be very useful as Jennifer knew a lot about training, including which stretches were best to keep the muscles loose and which machines were best for Aiya’s purposes.

    Aiya’s initial impression of Jennifer, that she was a bit eccentric, was proved to be more and more correct the longer she was in her presence. Apart from the older woman’s continued insistence that “clothes are for daylight hours only”, she also had a tendency of saying whatever came to mind, regardless of how odd or out of context it was. She was very intelligent and did not like things to stay the same for too long. She liked to experiment with new ideas and was very good at coming up with creative solutions to whatever problems were in front of her. This made her an ideal match for Team Rocket’s Analysis division.

    “I study the Rocket infrastructure and make sure everything is up to date,” she told Aiya one morning as they jogged around the track together. “We have to have the latest equipment and the best organizational systems; it’s the only way an organization like this can stay in business. Any time something goes wrong, I’m asked to look into it and figure out exactly what happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. We’re a pretty small division. We get a lot of new recruits, but most of them only stick around for a few months before they get moved somewhere else. It’s kind of a pain, but we can only keep people who are good at what we do.”

    Through Jennifer, Aiya learned a lot about the structure of Team Rocket. There was so much more to the organization than sneaking around and stealing Pokemon. This made Aiya happy for reasons she couldn’t quite understand. Core seemed to understand, but the idea was too difficult for him to communicate effectively. His trainer was quickly learning to understand him as though he was speaking her language, but she still had a ways to go before she would understand everything he said.

    Matthew and Marty often joined Aiya during her evening training sessions with Core. It was Marty who introduced Aiya to the battle simulation software and taught her how to use it to read stats and calculate advantages. He was a member of the Strength division, as was Geoff. Aiya was pleased to learn this. Her brother was a trainer, not a thief, even if he did train many stolen Pokemon.

    “Yeah, we joined at about the same time,” said Marty one day, leaning back in his desk chair. “I was still a newbie when he finished his training and was put into Strength. He’s got a real talent for the job, though. Once you’re really experienced you don’t need these simulations. It usually takes years to get there, but he only joined up, I guess it was about a year ago now, and he’s almost there. He can look at a new Pokemon and tell you what level they are, what their weaknesses and strengths are, and how to most effectively train them. Not just with Pokemon that come to the base, mind you, he’s also pretty good at predicting how powerful wild Pokemon are. Recently he’s been working with the Analysis division to decide which parts of the region are best for scouting wild Pokemon. That’s what he’s off doing right now, I think.”

    “You’re brother sounds pretty impressive,” Matthew said, nodding in approval. “I’d like to get into the Strength division, or maybe Analysis. I don’t think I want to be in Stealth; I’m just too klutzy for that. Plus I’m a huge softy. Imagine if they told me to take a Pokemon from someone like you,” he nodded at Aiya. “Nope, I’d hand over my own Pokemon before I did that.”

    “Why does an overgrown teddy bear want to be a member of Team Rocket?” asked Aiya, smirking.

    “Why does a bossy little Pipsqueak?” retorted Matthew.

    “I have my reasons,” she replied loftily.

    “Likewise,” he said, imitating her tone.

    Before Aiya realized it a week had passed. She still wasn’t performing as well as she wanted in physical training, but each day she got a little faster and a little stronger. Officer Malcom continued to scold her, but once or twice she thought she saw him smiling in her direction.

    By the end of the second week Aiya was able to keep up with some of the other trainees during Physical. Mallory scowled when she saw the small girl keeping pace with one of the older girls on the jogging course. When they crossed the line at the end of their three miles she marched over and started yelling at the older girl. Aiya walked away, smiling. The girl was one of the people who had joined Mallory in tormenting Aiya during her first few days as a trainee.

    “What are you smiling about, Runt?” snapped Mallory, swinging her blonde hair as she spun around. “You think keeping up with Kristy is something? She twisted her ankle yesterday, that’s why she was slow today. What’s your excuse? Oh right, you’re a pathetic little runt. It doesn’t matter though,” she smiled nastily, showing her perfectly white teeth, “it’s evaluation time tomorrow. I hope your mommy knows where to pick you up after they kick you out.” She marched away, her hair flowing out behind her.

    “Don’t worry Pipsqueak,” said Matthew. He patted his young friend’s shoulder in a reassuring way. “I heard they never kick anyone out. You’d have to really, really suck to be set loose.”

    “But that’s just it,” said Aiya desperately, “I’m at the bottom of Omega, even with all the extra training and everything; I suck.”

    ‘No,’ said Core, poking her in the chest with one of the claws, ‘you better than the others.’

    “I’m not better than anybody…I’m getting better but…”

    “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Even if Physical isn’t as good as you want it yet, you’ve got your good marks in Strategy to make up for it. Not that it matters what your marks are at this stage.”

    “How do you know I have good marks in Strategy? Jen never tells us how we’re doing.”

    Matthew smiled and ruffled her hair affectionately. “Listen Pipsqueak, I’ve seen the way old Jen looks at you. You’re a star. If you’re not careful he’ll try to adopt you when this is over.”

    “You’re making it up,” snapped Aiya, “I’ve never seen him look like…well, anything.”

    Matthew continued to try to cheer Aiya up as they began their training, but she refused to say anymore and eventually he let her alone. Marty wandered in after about an hour and attempted to wish Aiya good luck on her evaluations, but she refused to speak to him, too.

    “She’s just nervous,” Aiya overheard him telling Matthew towards the end of the session. “Jenny will get her to calm down tonight. Some things take a woman’s touch.”
    “Can’t argue with that,” Matthew replied.

    Jennifer was not there when Aiya returned to her room that evening. A note lay on top of the neatly folded blankets the older woman had stacked at the foot of the air mattress.


    Got called up for a late shift. Won’t be back until late. Good luck at your evaluation tomorrow. Blow ‘em out of the water…figuratively, of course. Violence is not the answer.


    Aiya stared sadly at the words on the pink slip of paper. She had been hoping to see Jennifer before she went to sleep. Despite her quirkiness, the older woman was usually good at cheering Aiya up after a long day.

    ‘Relax,’ said Core, settling himself on Aiya’s mattress. ‘Time for sleep.’

    “Yeah,” sighed his trainer, unfolding the blankets and snuggling underneath two of them. Jennifer seemed to add a new blanket to the pile every night so that Aiya was now sleeping on top of most of them. Core nosed his way under the covers and curled up next to her. Aiya wrapped her arms around him and closed her eyes, but sleep did not come easily. Try as she might, Aiya could not stop thinking about her evaluation the next day. She couldn’t remember being this nervous for a long time. Even the thought of starting her journey as a Pokemon trainer had not worried her so much, perhaps because there was not as much at stake. What if she was thrown out of Team Rocket? Geoff was still away on his mission. How would she find him if she was forced to leave the base?

    “You’re the worse trainee I’ve ever seen!” shouted Officer Sand, waving around an enormous clipboard. “Just look at these notes from your instructors!” She turned the clipboard around to reveal large red words: terrible, failure, pathetic, runt.

    “Please.” Aiya begged, falling to her knees, “please give me another chance. I promise I’ll do better!”

    “Get out!” shrieked Officer Sand in an odd, high pitched voice. “You’re a disgrace to your brother and to this organization! Get out and never come back!” She threw the clipboard at Aiya as the small girl turned and ran.

    “Core, Core! Where are you?”

    ‘I don’t want to be your Pokemon anymore,’ said Core, looking at her in disgust. ‘I want Mallory to train me. She’s a success.’ He walked away.

    Aiya turned and ran into the trees, sobbing. It got darker and darker the farther she ran. Something caught around her ankles and she fell hard onto damp carpet. She looked up. The room was dark except for a few slants of sunlight shining through the curtains on the windows. She couldn’t make anything out.

    Slowly she rose to her feet, slipping slightly on the wetness on the carpet. That smell. A strange dank, metallic smell stung her nose. Panic filled her. Something was wrong. She looked around, took a few steps backward, and stumbled again. There was something on the floor, but she couldn’t make it out. Her hands reached out, felt the wall, felt the switch. She flipped it and light blazed. Aiya screamed.

    “No! No!” Aiya flipped off the mattress, trying to scramble away, but the blankets were wrapped too tightly around her and she couldn’t get away.
    “Aiya?” There were footsteps, then the light flickered on overhead.

    “No!” cried Aiya again, covering her eyes and curling up, “no, turn it off! I don’t want to see! Please…”

    The lights flashed off again, then someone was kneeling beside her. Strong arms lifted her back onto the mattress. “It’s okay,” said Jennifer softly, rocking the small girl, “sshh, I’m here, you’re safe. There’s nothing here.”

    Aiya took several deep breaths, her eyes still tightly closed, then she broke into sobs. “Why?”

    “I don’t know honey,” said Jennifer, running her hand over Aiya’s hair. “I don’t know, but you’re here now. You have me, you have Geoff, Marty, and Matthew. You have Core,” Aiya felt Core press himself against her, “and we’re all here for you.” Aiya didn’t say anything. “Life is very unfair sometimes,” said Jennifer softly, “to some more than most, and to you especially, but you can’t keep holding everything inside. The more you run away, the harder it will be to get away from the things that haunt you.”
    “I can’t,” choked Aiya, pulling on her blankets, “I just can’t.”

    “When you’re ready,” the woman replied kindly. She let Aiya cry herself back to sleep then tucked her in and sat down on the edge of her bed. For a long time she sat in the darkness, gazing at the dark shape that was Aiya. Core stood beside her, refusing to go back to sleep, just in case.

    “All right grunts,” shouted Officer Sand, pacing back and forth in front of the group of trainees. “Today is your first evaluation. Pass and you go on to the next step in your training. Fail and you can get the hell out of this base. I won’t put up with any slackers.” She scanned the group in a menacing sort of way. “You will begin at your usual stations where you will complete a series of tests for your instructors. I will then review those reports during your lunch break and your second set of reviews at the end of training today. I expect you all to stay in the training ground during my review. You will then line up and receive either a pass or a fail in front of the entire group. Don’t like it? Tough, I’m not here to be your friend. Now get moving!”

    “Have a fun last day, Runt,” called Mallory as she pushed past Aiya on her way to the physical training station. Aiya took a deep breath before following her. She would not let Mallory get to her.

    The physical evaluation consisted of a timed run through the obstacle course at the edge of the clearing. There were ten members of Omega and they were to run in pairs of two. Officer Malcom called names from his clipboard two by two and had them start from a line about ten feet from the start of the obstacle course. To complete the course they had to make it past all of the obstacles then run back and cross the same line.

    The first pair finished the course in reasonably good time; the second even faster. Aiya swallowed as each person reemerged from the trees and jogged past the finish line. She wouldn’t do as well, but she could do almost as well if she really pushed herself. The course seemed like it would take about thirty minutes for the average person. She could finish the course in thirty minutes. Definitely…probably.

    “Sinel, Torro, to the line,” barked Officer Malcom.

    Aiya jumped, looking around for her the person she would be running with. Her heart sank to the floor. It was Mallory. When the older girl saw Aiya walking up beside her she smiled.
    “Oh good, I was worried I’d have some competition. I just hope I don’t accidentally step on you.”

    “Like to see you try,” muttered Aiya. Mallory just laughed.

    “Take your marks,” called Officer Malcom, “set…go!”

    Aiya dashed forward, her eyes fixed on the course. Her first obstacle was a high wooden climbing wall. She had almost reached it when Mallory’s foot caught her around the ankles and she fell, hard, skinning both knees and knocking the wind out of her. “Look out, Runt, you might trip,” laughed Mallory as she leapt onto the climbing wall. Aiya heard laughter from the remaining members of Omega as she forced herself to her feet. She snarled and grabbed the first hold on the wall.

    Mallory was already halfway up the wall but Aiya was determined to catch her. With a growl she began climbing, grabbing the highest hold she could reach and pushing up with her legs as much as she could. The wall seemed to be infinitely high, but soon she had reached the top and swung her legs over, preparing to climb down. She paused, looking out at the great expanse of course that still lay before her. Rope swings, tire trails, more climbing walls, and crawl pits…she would have to pace herself. She looked around and saw that Mallory had reached the next obstacle, a second climbing wall. Beyond that was a crawl pit.

    Aiya swung her body around and began to climb down as quickly as she could. She twisted around about halfway down to see Mallory at the top of the second climbing wall. “No you don’t,” she hissed, continuing down. A few feet from the bottom she jumped and landed hard on the packed soil. Gritting her teeth, she ran towards the next wall. This one was not as tall as the first, but the hand holds were spaced further apart, making it harder for Aiya to climb. She slipped once or twice but managed to hang on, pulling herself up and over the wall. The crawl pit lay below her. She swung her legs over the top and started back down. About ten feet from the ground her hands slipped off their hold and she fell backwards. Fortunately the ground below her was soft with grass, but the impact still hurt.

    Gasping, Aiya rolled over and began to crawl underneath the netting that covered the crawl pit. She saw Mallory ahead of her, but she was moving rather awkwardly. Aiya grinned. “Being a runt’s starting to look good now, eh?” she whispered to herself as she continued to crawl towards the exit. Being small was indeed an advantage. Whereas Mallory had to crawl along on her stomach, Aiya was able to move forward on hands and knees and thus progress much more quickly. She caught up to Mallory just as the older girl was fighting her way out of the pit.

    Next up was a swinging rope over a small muddy pond. Mallory reached it first and swung from the first platform to the next with ease. Aiya ran forward and grabbed the rope, propelling herself off the platform. She reached the second and let go, landing on the edge and just barely avoiding a swim. The tire trail was next. Mallory’s longer legs gave her the advantage on this part of the course. After stumbling over the first several tires, Aiya paused and bunny hopped from one hole to other. This was more effective until she missed a hole and fell again. Mallory’s laughter carried back to her from the edge of the course.

    Aiya cleared the tire trail and the climbing wall that followed then plunged headlong into the next section which consisted of large, heavy inflated bags that she had to push through. Again being small was an advantage as she was able to squeeze through the larger gaps with little difficulty. When she had forced past the last bag she saw a long expanse of marsh that had to be run through. Mallory was still ahead of her, splashing through the mud with difficulty, but still progressing quickly. Aiya was about to jump into the mud after her, but she hesitated, remembering something she’d seen from the top of the first wall.

    She turned and ran towards the left edge of the pit where a line of grass grew. This grassy area was not nearly so thick and was much easier to run through than the mud. This advantage put her at the edge of the marsh just ahead of Mallory. Thrilled, she sped up the next wall and saw three swinging ropes. Two swung over solid ground, the third over a second pond. Aiya studied the distance from the top of the climbing wall to the top of the first platform and hesitated, but she could hear Mallory right behind her so decided to risk it and jumped. She landed in the middle of the platform, just as she’d planned, but she landed badly and her ankle twisted underneath her.

    Pain shot up her left leg as she stumbled towards the first rope. She gasped as she jumped for the first rope. She managed to reach the second platform, but the impact jarred her ankle still further. “I will not give up…I will not lose,” she grunted to herself, launching herself off the platform. Tears stung her eyes as she landed on the third. “One to go, just one to go.” She ran to the edge of the platform and jumped, but just as she did so her ankle gave out and she didn’t have enough momentum to carry her across the pond. She kicked out, hoping to add some extra distance, but all this did was swing her around and cause her to lose her grip.

    The water was cold and heavy. With her ankle still throbbing, she had to kick with only one leg and doggy paddle towards the shore. Laughter erupted behind her. “Having a nice swim, Runt?” called Mallory gleefully as she sailed over Aiya.

    Aiya glared at the older girl as she leapt off the last platform and disappeared. She had lost the race, there was no point in denying it, but she would still finish the course. Whether or not she would finish it in good time, well, she couldn’t think about that now. Aiya reached the edge of the pond and fought her way through the reeds and around the platform. She groaned. A climbing wall was ahead. Aiya gritted her teeth and dragged herself forward. Each step upwards caused pain to shoot through her ankle, but she kept going. Halfway there…three-fourths… She reached the top and looked out to see the edge of the course. The whole thing was surrounded by a fence to prevent cheating. The fence ended just after a second crawl pit. After that she would just have to follow it back to the finish line.

    Still panting, Aiya swung her legs over the last wall and climbed down, ignoring the pain in her ankle until she hopped off the last hold onto the hard ground below. She let out a soft cry, but pushed forward, falling onto her hands and knees and dragging herself under the netting. Mallory was nowhere to be seen. She reached the edge of the pit and clambered to her feet. Now it was a flat run back to the line, but could she make it on her injured ankle? She rounded the fence at a quick hobble and began to make her way through the trees.

    ‘Aiya,’ called a high voice from somewhere in the trees.

    “Core?” Aiya stumbled to a halt and looked up, searching for her companion. She spotted him high above her, clinging to a branch. “Core, you shouldn’t be here.”

    The small dark type grinned at her and swung down from his branch. ‘Keep going,’ he said, running out ahead of her.

    “My ankle,” she gasped, hobbling after him.

    ‘Keep going,’ said Core again. ‘Catch me!’ He picked up his pace.

    Tears stung Aiya’s eyes as she picked up her pace, trying to keep up with her Pokemon. Whenever she started to slow down he growled at her and sped up. The trees were thinning. She could hear voices.

    ‘Run,’ said Core, leaping back up into a tree. ‘We don’t give up. Run!’

    Aiya let out a defiant growl, not unlike the sound Core had made, and broke into a loping sprint. We don’t give up! She reached the edge of the trees and saw, not twenty feet away, the finish line. With a great effort, Aiya forced her ankle to hold her as she ran towards the finish line. She could see Officer Malcom watching her, clipboard in one hand, stopwatch in the other. The moment she cleared the line, Aiya collapsed, her ankle refusing to support her any longer.

    “Sinel, twenty-nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Go wash up and get lunch. You are to be back on the training grounds at two o’clock.”

    Aiya looked up stunned. She had finished the course in less than thirty minutes? It couldn’t be true.

    “Are you waiting for me to carry you?” snapped Officer Malcom, scowling at her. “Get going.”

    Aiya hopped to her feet and swayed. Officer Malcom grunted and turned back to his clipboard, jotting down a few more notes. Walking as normally as possible, Aiya made her way back to the base.

    Core was waiting for her at the showers. He leapt into her arms as she entered and gave her a high five. “I did it Core! I even finish in a decent time! I can’t believe it!”

    ‘Course you did,’ said Core happily.

    “Thanks to you,” she said, hugging him tightly. “If I hadn’t had you with me on the final run I don’t think I could have made it.”

    Core grunted in an embarrassed way, wriggling out of her grip. ‘You’re dirty,’ he said simply.

    The second half of her evaluation took place at two o’clock on the grounds. Her ankle was still throbbing angrily, but she had kept a cold compress on it during her two hour break and it was supporting her weight. Officer Jen peered out at them, his face calm but otherwise devoid of expression. He never seemed to think about anything, judging by his expression, and he never spoke more than he felt was necessary. Of Aiya’s three teachers, Jen was her favorite.

    “Your test in strategy,” he began calmly, staring somewhere over their heads, “will be a game of hide and seek.”

    Several of the trainees glanced at one another, unsure if they had heard correctly. “Hide and seek?” asked one of them.

    “Yes Flowers, hide and seek. The rules are quite simple. You will have ten minutes to find a place to hide before my friends come to find you. You are allowed to continue moving after those ten minutes are up, but it is not advisable as my friends have quite remarkable hearing. If one of my friends finds you and, more importantly, if they touch you, you will lose the game and be escorted back to me. The object of the game is of course to not be found, but it is also to not be tagged. The game is only over when I blow my whistle. Does everyone understand?”

    Everyone nodded hesitantly. Aiya put up her hand.

    “You have a question, Sinel?”

    Her fellow trainees looked at her, some rolling their eyes, others with curious expressions on their faces. “Yes, sir, it’s just…there’s no one here but us. Who are your friends who are going to be looking for us?”

    The faintest hint of a smile tugged at Officer Jen’s mouth. “I’m quite glad you asked, Sinel. My friends are here with us, but due to the wonders of technology, you cannot see them.” He reached into his pockets and withdrew five Pokeballs. “These are my friends. To give you the advantage I will not release them until you have had your ten minutes.” He stood there, holding the Pokeballs, looking at the trainees in an expectant way. “Your ten minutes have started,” he said blandly.

    The trainees looked alarmed and scattered in every direction. Aiya moved more slowly than her fellows, giving herself the chance to test her ankle before she picked up any speed. She had to think quickly. How could she choose a good hiding place without knowing what kind of Pokemon she was up against? The only clue she had was that it had good hearing. That attribute matched any number of Pokemon. She would just have to do the best she could.

    She reached the trees quickly enough and paused, looking around for a suitable hiding place. The bushes around her were rustling and she could hear voices from nearby. Some of her fellow trainees had also decided to hide in the trees. The most sensible option would be to climb a tree. She could probably do it, but she would have to find a tree with low branches to reduce the stress on her ankle. She began to scout around, walking from tree base to tree base. Nothing.

    Without warning a series of howls erupted from training grounds. Her ten minutes were up. She looked around frantically. The howling came again, slightly louder. They had started moving, but what were they? The howling was familiar; she had heard it before, but where? A scene surfaced from the recesses of her memory.

    “Want to see the Pokemon I caught recently?” said Geoff gleefully. He had returned home that morning to the excited shrieks of his younger sisters. At thirteen he was still the only one of his siblings old enough to be a Pokemon trainer.

    “Show us Geoff!” cried Tya.

    “You have to promise not to be jealous. This Pokemon is really rare. It took me a whole month to track it down.”

    “I won’t be jealous,” said Aiya, “now show us!”

    Geoff grinned and pushed his dark blue hair out of his face. He unclipped a yellow and black pokeball from his belt and held it up. “I used this Ultraball to catch it. Cost me a lot, but it was worth it. Anyway, here it is!” He tossed the ball into the air. It spun for a few seconds then opened, spilling red light into the room. The light twisted into the shape of a small Pokemon standing on four legs. Bone-like rings encircled its legs and part of its back and a similar material formed a helmet on its head. Aiya recognized the Pokemon at once, but there was something different about it. The Pokemon she had seen in pictures was black, but the one standing before her was bright blue. The dark dog raised its head and howled.

    “Houndour,” whispered Aiya, “mixed type, both dark and fire. Excellent senses of smell and hearing. Tend to travel in packs and communicate with distinctive howls. What do I do, what do I do?” She looked around frantically, searching for somewhere, anywhere. There. There was a bush not far away that was thick enough to conceal her. What was the more, the bush was covered in trailing vines with tiny yellow and white flowers that emitted a sweet aroma; honeysuckle. If she was lucky and if she stayed very still, the Houndour might not be able to find her.

    As silently as she could on her bad ankle, Aiya ran over to the bush, crouched down, and hid herself within its foliage. Howling was coming from all directions now. The Houndour seemed to have split up and were searching the forest in all directions. Aiya sat with her legs pulled up to her chest and both hands over her mouth to prevent her from making a sound. Minutes dragged by like hours. Had any of her teammates been found?

    A howl erupted from somewhere nearby and someone shouted. There was the sound of hurried footsteps as though someone was running, then there was a loud thump and another howl. Whoever it was cursed. It seemed he had been caught. Against her better judgment, Aiya scooted forward a few inches and tried to peer through the leaves of her bush. A dark figure was rising to his feet just beyond the nearest tree. He brushed himself off and started to walk away, his shoulders slumped. A small dog-like Pokemon followed behind him.

    One down, thought Aiya, smiling to herself. She started to shift back into her original position. A Houndour barked, so loudly it had to be right next to her. She froze, eyes wise and hands pressed still more tightly over her mouth. She had leaned forward on her toes to see out of the bush and now she was stuck in that position. Her ankle let out a throb of protest at the strain. Any moment now it was going to give out and she would fall.

    The Houndour was now walking around the bush, sniffing intently. It seemed to know there was something strange about the bush, but the sweet smell of the honeysuckle prevented it from detecting Aiya’s scent. Her ankle was really hurting her now. Her whole leg had started to shake slightly. She fought to control it, but any moment now…there was a rustle from somewhere in a nearby tree. The dark type let out a howl and darted off to investigate.

    Aiya let out a silent breath of relief and slowly sank back into a more natural position. She would have to be more careful from now on.

    She wasn’t sure how long she sat there; it felt like forever. Every now and then a howl would indicate that another person had been found. Aiya wondered briefly what they were going to do if someone had managed to climb a tree. As far as she knew Houndour were earth bound, but perhaps Officer Jen had released more than one type of Pokemon. Her neck and arms were beginning to become stiff and sore from sitting in such a cramped position for so long. Slowly and carefully Aiya lowered her hands and wrapped her arms around her legs. She leaned her forehead against her knees, closing her eyes as she did so.

    She stood in darkness, but it was not the darkness that plagued her nightmares. This was the darkness of the forest on a cloudy day, gentle and forgiving. She looked around, not afraid, exactly, but wary. Someone or something was here.

    ‘Interesting,’ said a calm voice from behind her.

    Aiya spun around but saw only the shadows of trees. “Who’s there?”

    ‘You demand my name when you are the one who has trespassed in my forest,’ said the voice, still in that calm tone. ‘Bold child, very bold.’

    “I’m sorry,” said Aiya, looking all around her. Still she could see nothing. “I just sort of…got here. I didn’t mean to trespass.” There was a moment of silence. “Hello?”
    ‘Interesting. You and I have quite a future ahead of us.’

    “What do you mean? Who are you? Why can’t I see you?”

    ‘Patience Aiya, patience. We will meet soon enough. Until that time, beware the shadow that walks in the light, for he means to destroy you.’

    The voice faded away. As it did so the forest all around her began to disappear. “Wait!” called Aiya, running forward. “What do you mean? What is the shadow in the light? Come back!”

    ‘Beware the shadow…’

    A whistle sounded from the distance. Aiya jerked awake, looking wildly around. She tried to turn but her muscles were so stiff it was hard to move. The whistle sounded again. It’s over, thought Aiya, blinking as her eyes readjusted to dim light in the trees. Slowly she began to unwind her arms from around her legs and crawl out of the bush. She stood, stretching towards the treetops, then limped off towards the edge of the trees.

    The bright light of the afternoon stung her eyes as she emerged. She raised a hand to try and see the people in front of her. Officer Jen stood where she had left him. Around him were the other nine members of Omega. Oh no, I bet I slept through the end of the game. They must have been waiting for me. Oh no, I’m going to be in trouble…

    “Well well,” said Officer Jen, his face still expressionless, “congratulations Sinel, you are the only trainee who managed to stay hidden for the entire game. Where were you hidden?”
    Aiya was speechless for a moment. Had she really been the only person to avoid the Houndour? She glanced quickly around at the rest of the group. A few of them, including Mallory, were glaring at her, but the rest looked impressed by her accomplishment. Three Houndour grinned up at her, their tongues lolling out of their mouths. Beside them were two Pidgeotto. Aiya had been right to suspect Officer Jen would have more than one type of Pokemon.

    “Sinel,” said Officer Jen again.

    “I was in a honeysuckle bush,” she stammered, looking back up at him. “I figured, you know, cause it would hide my smell, and then I could just be quiet.”

    Officer Jen nodded, a faint smiling tugging at the corner of his mouth again. “An effective plan, as we can all see. Now,” he turned to look at the group as a whole, “I will take a few minutes to finish writing my report, then Officer Sand, Officer Malcom, and I will discuss your results. You are to wait by the entrance of the building until we call you.” The group began to walk slowly back towards the base.

    “Good job, Sinel,” said a girl with light purple hair. “That was quick thinking.”

    “Oh,” said Aiya, surprised. No one in the group had ever said anything nice to her before. “Thank you.”

    “Yeah,” added a boy with gray hair and matching eyes, “I wish I’d thought of that. I tried hiding between a couple of trees, but they got me straight away. I’m probably going to get bad marks for that.”

    “You’ll be fine,” said the girl with purple hair. “You had one of the best scores in Physical. No way they kick you out.”

    “Thanks Flowers,” the boy replied, looking more cheerful.

    Unsure what to do while she waited, Aiya found a comfortable looking patch of grass and sat down, stretching her ankle. She looked up to see Mallory scowling at her. The blonde girl mouthed something but Aiya couldn’t tell what it was. Mallory scowled again and looked as if she might walk over, but before she could, Matthew plopped himself down next to Aiya.

    “Hey Pipsqueak,” he said cheerfully, grinning at her from underneath an impressive layer of mud. He clearly had not had time to wash after running the obstacle course. “Word around the yard is you were the only person in Omega to win hide and seek. That’s quite impressive.”

    Aiya blushed but grinned up at him. “Yeah, I couldn’t believe it myself. I still don’t, really.” She glanced down to see him picking dried mud off his shirt. “How’d the obstacle course go?”

    “Oh it was a hoot,” he said, brushing dirt off one arm. “The guy I was running against kept tripping over his own feet. Or wait, maybe that was me. I’m too clumsy for my own good, but I managed to get a decent time so I’m not too worried.”

    They sat in amiable silence for a while, each absorbed with their own thoughts. Aiya allowed her mind to drift back to the honeysuckle bush. Test pressure aside, it had been kind of nice to sit out in the silence of the forest. It had helped to clear her mind…well, except for the weird dream she’d had.

    “Hey Matthew,” she said quietly, looking up at him.

    “Yeah Pipsqueak,” he replied, smiling at her.

    “Have you ever heard of the shadow that walks in the light?”

    The older boy frowned and scratched his head. “The shadow that walks in the light? No, I can’t say that I have. Is it a literary reference? I like to think I’m pretty well read, but it could be something modern.”

    “I don’t know,” said Aiya, looking down at her hands.

    “Well, who’d you hear it from?”

    Aiya looked up and opened her mouth to answer, but just then Officer Sand’s whistle sounded from the other side of the clearing.

    “Results time! Come on Pipsqueak.” He stood and dragged Aiya to her feet. She stumbled slightly causing Matthew to look down at her with concern. “Something wrong?”

    “No, it’s nothing. I just twisted my ankle a little on the obstacle course this morning.”

    “Mortally wounded and still able to come top of the class,” said Matthew, winking at her. “You’re a stubborn one. We’ll get you to the nurse as soon as we have our results, m’kay?”

    “Kay,” Aiya agreed in a tired sort of way.

    They lined up with the other trainees in front of Officer Sand who was holding a clipboard in her hand. Aiya glanced at it, remembering her dream from the night before. It all seemed very silly to her now, at least the first part.

    “I will call out your results alphabetically. Step forward when your name is called. If you receive a pass stay here; if you do not, go pack your things and get out.” She glanced down at the clipboard. “Adams.” A Beta boy with shaggy black hair stepped forward looking anxious. “Pass,” said Officer Sand. The boy let out a sigh of relief and stepped back into line.

    It seemed to take Officer Sand a lifetime to get through the list of names, despite there being only twenty or so trainees. Aiya was starting to fidget by the time she reached the f’s. The girl called Flowers trembled when her name was called, stumbling forward. When Officer Sand declared that she had passed she let out a little yip of happiness and hopped back into position. Officer Sand scowled in disapproval but said nothing.

    At long last it was Aiya’s turn. “Sinel,” called Officer Sand. Several pairs of eyes followed Aiya as she stepped forward, trying to stop her hands from shaking. “Pass,” said Officer Sand, glancing once at the small girl as she smiled and stepped back into line.

    “Striker.” Matthew stepped forward, apparently un-phased. “Pass.” Matthew stepped back into line, winking at Aiya as he did so.

    In the end, all of the trainees received a pass. It seemed Matthew had been right in thinking Team Rocket did not fail people often. “Congratulations, you have all completed the first part of your training and will be moving on to the second phase which will begin on Monday at ten o’clock sharp. You will bring your Pokemon to all training sessions from this point onward. At the end of the month you will join with the members of your group to compete against your rivals. Yes, that means Beta will be competing against Omega, for those of you not bright enough to understand,” she eyed a few people as she spoke.

    “There will be no training tomorrow. I suggest you use that time to prepare yourselves and your Pokemon for stage two. Do not think this means the hard part is over. I promise that by the end of the next two weeks you will miss this stage in your training. Dismissed!”

    Aiya and Matthew walked back towards the base, Matthew supporting the small girl as they walked. “This should be fun, eh, Pipsqueak? You and me competing against each other with our Pokemon.”

    “Yeah, but this time you’ll be the one who loses,” said Aiya cheerfully, grinning up at him.

    “We’ll see,” chuckled the older boy. “For now, though, I think we should focus on our victory today. Once we get you patched up we should find Marty and Core and celebrate!”

    “And Jennifer, too,” chipped in Aiya.

    “Oh yeah, her, too.” He winked at her once more as he helped her over the threshold. Aiya couldn’t help smiling as she limped down the hallway on Matthew’s arm. She had done it! She had passed!

    “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

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