Meteor Falls was as dark and quiet as the Rustboro beach was loud and bright. The sheer contrast between them made Flannery feel as though she were traveling from one universe to the other, crossing time and space with only a few measured steps. But the sight of Rustboro, in all its urban and metal glory, made her sigh in relief. Traveling by foot was certainly a learning experience, but on the soles of her feet it was merely exhausting.
She decided not to call her friends. It was a risk, as she had learned with Lanette, but Flannery wanted to challenge herself. The idea was to rely less on technology and more on her own abilities: she wanted to enjoy nature at its purest state, without distractions. And that meant no calling people on her PokeNav (except for emergencies, of course).
Since she would most likely be staying at Roxanne's place, Flannery decided to look for her friend first. Her travel pack was growing heavy and her legs were sore. Sightseeing would come later.
There were two places that Roxanne was likely to be at in the afternoon: the Gym or the School. Since the School was closer, Flannery headed there first. Over the tops of apartments and stores, she could spy a tall glass building looming like an impressive giant. Devon Corporation, she thought, remembering Bill's email at Lanette's house. Perhaps Roxanne knew about the situation. She would ask about it later, if she remembered.
The Pokémon Trainer's School was small but pretty, with a plaza and a huge fountain directly in front of it. The building was located in the middle of the bustling city, and Flannery envied Roxanne for having the luxury of such an accommodation. Lavaridge had few children to teach, if any, even if there was a school to teach them in.
Inside, Flannery was greeted by a sweet woman behind the counter, who politely asked her name and business. She had little choice but to reveal her identity, but this made it all the more easier for her to gain access into the school. She was directed to Roxanne's classroom, after obliging the woman an autograph (apparently for her son, who was an ardent fan of Flannery), and soon she found herself peeking into a large classroom.
A familiar brunette was at the front, writing something on the chalkboard, and she didn't notice the newcomer standing at the door. A couple dozen students were busily writing notes at their desks, but they had noticed the stranger and stared at her inquisitively.
Flannery had an idea. She winked at the students and held a finger to her lips. They obeyed, watching her with a mixture of curiosity and hilarity as the young woman crept exaggeratedly towards the teacher, making some girls stifle giggles. As soon as she was close enough, Flannery quickly covered Roxanne's eyes from behind.
To her credit, the brunette didn't jump, though her chalk did jerk slightly. "Is it you, Brian?" Roxanne demanded instantly.
"It's not me!" a boy cried indignantly.
"He's too short," another kid snickered. Loud giggles followed.
Roxanne reached for the hands covering her eyes, playing along good-naturedly. "Hmm, is it Jane? Carol? Shana?"
"It's not us, Miss Roxanne," the girls chorused. "She's much older!"
Flannery mock glared at them, making them erupt into giggles again, and then opened her mouth to speak in a horrible rendition of a man's voice.
Roxanne's hand suddenly reached back to tickle her stomach and the redhead squeaked in dismay as she twisted in escape. The brunette whirled around triumphantly, but her eyes widened when she saw who it was. "Flannery!" And she promptly squeezed her friend.
With a laugh, Flannery hugged her back. "Hey Roxanne. Sorry I didn't call you. Were you surprised?"
"Surprised? I nearly had a heart attack." Roxanne pulled back sharply, eyeing her friend with a critical eye that made Flannery remember her disguise. "You lost weight," she observed. "I'll have to feed you. You're staying at my place, of course?"
"If you don't mind me mooching off you for a night or two…"
"After you came all this way to see me?" The shorter woman shook her head, long dark hair rippling like water. "We have a lot to talk about, my friend. I like your new style, by the way."
Before she could reply, one of the boys—Brian—inquired cheekily, "Miss Roxanne, is school canceled now?"
Flannery cringed, realizing she'd interrupted the class. But Roxanne lifted an eyebrow, fixing her hopeful students an expectant look that brooked no argument. "Nice try," she said. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet your new classmate, Flannery. Can anybody tell me who the Gym Leader of Lavaridge is?"
Several hands shot up. "Flannery!" a small girl answered confidently.
There was a collective gasp as the children connected two and two rather belatedly and stared at Flannery in a new light, amazed. She cracked a smile and waved. Awestruck whispers and squeals filled the room, making her glance at the teacher helplessly.
Roxanne seemed pleased. "Welcome to the class, Flannery."
The redhead smiled. "It's good to be here."
Rustboro at night was very different from Lavaridge at night. Flannery considered herself a modern woman, but as she walked down the crowded streets with Roxanne, she realized how sheltered her life had been. Young teens and couples buzzed in front of the brightly-lit shops, business employees carrying briefcases strode briskly to their destinations and street vendors called out to hungry pedestrians. Restaurants emanated delicious aromas, making her mouth water even though she'd already eaten dinner at Roxanne's house, and the sound of laughter and music filled the crisp autumn air.
"I didn't know Rustboro was so active at night," Flannery remarked as they squeezed past large groups of girls on the street.
Roxanne threw her a surprised glance. "This is nothing compared to Slateport or Lilycove."
After some more touring of the city (Roxanne wanted to stop by a bookstore and Flannery bought a fake pair of glasses—just for fun) the two friends settled in a cozy café between Devon Corp and the Gym. It was small and dusty, like an old bookstore, and Flannery thought it matched Roxanne's character quite well.
As they fell into reminiscent conversation, stirring cups of Berry tea, Flannery leaned back and confessed, "I've gotta be honest. When I first met you, I thought you were kind of scary."
Roxanne looked amused. "Scary?"
"Mm. It was at the Pokémon Association banquet, when I just became a Leader," Flannery explained. "You were with Brawly wearing that black dress, and your hair was up. I was already nervous, but when I saw your unsmiling face, I swore you were glaring straight at me." Roxanne had to laugh and the redhead continued earnestly, "I'm serious. I thought you hated me or something. You were kind of intimidating. Maybe it was the teacher aura."
"You're right," the brunette conceded thoughtfully. "I was a different person back then. Too serious. I thought I'd reached a stage in my life when being relaxed meant being irresponsible."
Flannery smiled ruefully. "I was jealous," she admitted.
"Of you. You were so confident and mature. You looked like a Leader, whereas me…" Flannery shrugged, not noticing her friend's surprised expression. "I felt so awkward and not-Leaderish. I didn't take myself seriously. I always compared myself to you and Winona."
Roxanne shook her head. "I was jealous of you," she said emphatically. "What girl wouldn't be? You were beautiful, friendly, and everybody instantly loved you—the exact opposite of me. I wanted to be more like you."
"Seriously? All this time I thought I was annoying you!"
"And I thought I was boring you."
They stared at each other for a moment. The dozing café owner was startled when the two women burst into ringing laughter.
"I wonder what Winona thought of us," mused Roxanne, leaning on an elbow.
"I was jealous of her too," Flannery sighed.
"Is everyone secretly jealous of their friends in this world?" the teacher asked dryly. "I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side."
"Hmm." This made Flannery remember how she envied Lanette earlier that day. The computer expert seemed to lead an exciting life full of intrigue and adventure. But perhaps Flannery was simply glorifying something that was far from reality. Maybe she was secretly yearning for something better—something beyond her own comfortable and routine life.
Was that why her grandfather sent her on this trip, she wondered. Had he sensed her recent shift in attitude whenever she had to battle in the Gym? Did he recognize the malaise that had been settling over her like a little dark rain cloud?
Of course he did, she mentally snorted. He knew Flannery better than she knew herself.
"Speaking of Winona," began Roxanne with a sly smile, "I heard she and Wallace have been spending a lot of time together." The redhead raised her brows, not really impressed. Everyone knew the two had long reconciled after the Kyogre-Groudon incident. Their positions in the Pokémon world practically demanded a close, professional relationship. "They've been having dinner dates," Roxanne added, "alone."
Now her expression changed. "Are you serious?" Flannery demanded.
"Like how alone?" She leaned closer.
Roxanne leaned in as well. "Like holding hands alone."
"I think it was Winona."
Flannery's eyes widened. "Winona?"
"Then there's still hope," she breathed out.
The poor café owner jerked again when the two women squealed like teenagers and then laughed at themselves.
"Where did you hear this?" Flannery asked curiously. "Don't tell me it was Sapphire." Winona's protégé was infamous within Pokémon circles for her spying and eavesdropping. Her ability to climb almost anything and camouflage herself was practically legendary.
The brunette hesitated. "I actually heard it from Steven."
"Steven Stone?" For some reason, Flannery couldn't imagine the former Hoenn champion and Devon Corp heir freely gossiping about his friend's love life. "Really?" she asked skeptically.
Roxanne smiled wryly. "Alright, so he was talking on his PokeNav and I happened to overhear…"
"Oh Roxanne." Flannery shook her head in mock disappointment. "A teacher eavesdropping on other people's conversations. What is this world coming to?"
"Soon Gym Leaders will be disguising themselves and traveling the region."
"You're telling me."
As they walked home, or rather, to Roxanne's home, they stopped by the Rustboro Gym because Roxanne said she wanted to check something. Flannery waited outside as her friend went into the gym, staring up at the tall glass Devon Corp building just around the block. She remembered the Silph Co. robbery and wondered if Lanette had rechecked the alarms as Bill suggested. Once again, she reminded herself to ask Roxanne if she knew anything about the situation.
The autumn chill was noticeable at night, and Flannery was glad for her hat and scarf. She pulled out her recent purchases and tried on the fake glasses, a part of her wondering if she was taking this disguise thing a little too far.
A particularly strong breeze hit her left side, making her teeth chatter. The streets around the Gym were isolated and dark, heightening Flannery's discomfort. She turned to open the door and wait for Roxanne inside, when a flicker caught her eye.
There was a tiny, wobbling light coming from one of the highest floors in the Devon Corp building. Every other window was dark, so Flannery assumed it was one of the night guards on patrol. But further observation proved her assumption wrong. The tiny light seemed unsteady, waving back and forth in jerky motions, disappearing and reappearing like a wraith. It looked like an erratic code or message from a lighthouse. Certainly not the movements of a night guard doing his patrol.
As Flannery wondered for the third time if the security system was working, the entire Devon Corp building suddenly flashed red lights and a shrill alarm pierced the world. The night sky seemed to glow a disturbing auburn color, as though the clouds were on fire. Lanette definitely checked the alarms, she thought.
Soon, the sirens would join the wailing chorus and people would be drawn to the red lights like curious children. She stared at the scene for a few seconds, strangely mesmerized, before turning to open the gym door and whip out her PokeNav.
That's right. Call for help.
The alarms suddenly sounded like shrill screams. Each scream had words in it, and the words were accusing her, mocking her.
Leave it to the professionals, little girl. So what if you saw the thief climb out the back window? So what if you're a Leader? You didn't do much against Team Aqua, did you? You couldn't help at all. Leave it to Roxanne, little girl. Leave it to the police. You're nothing special. Leave it to the real heroes.
Her bare hands were clenched into numb fists, frozen blocks of ice.
And you were never a Leader. Moore's precious granddaughter. You hide in his shadow and desperately catch the crumbs of glory in your little soot bag...
Flannery turned and ran to Devon Corp.