Chapter 66: Interlude XI – Pyre

Sabra is so distracted by the sight of the hospital going through its final immolation that she almost misses the young trainer sitting on the wet ground nearby it.

The top half has already burned itself out, while the smoldering bottom illuminates the boy and the bags sitting next to him. Vermilion Gym’s Third rears her manectric Sheen to a stop, then dismounts so she can approach the trainer as her people fan out to search for other survivors that may still need help. They just finished hunting down and catching the onix that was cracking streets and building foundations, and are working their way back along its path of destruction to help who they can.

The people who evacuated ensured that the fire wouldn’t spread, but few trainers are here now: it’s clear there’s nothing left to save.

The boy is staring at the hospital, gaze distant and body slouched over his knees. There are two bags and various pokeballs and medical equipment sitting next to him, and the sight of them fills Sabra with foreboding as she gets close enough to talk. “Are you alright, trainer?”

He turns to her, and even with his wet hair in his face and the dim light, his expression is one that Sabra has seen a hundred times before, and Arceus permitting will see a hundred times more. That blank, empty look of someone in deep shock.

“I couldn’t stop them,” the boy says, and she suddenly recognizes him by his voice. It’s Red Verres, the trainer that helped catch all those abra and decided to wholesale them, then took a few of her classes at the gym. “I’m sorry.”

“Who?” Sabra asks, and looks at the bags again. One she doesn’t recognize, but the other is Vermilion Gym standard, and the foreboding spreads through her chest. It wasn’t his friends, surely? If it were Oak and Juniper, wouldn’t they have all gone in together? “Who went in there, Verres?”

“Aiko Sakai,” Verres says, voice low, and turns back to the blazing hospital. “And your Second.”

Sabra spins back toward the hospital, denial and horror warring in her as she imagines Jack somewhere in that burning rubble. No one could still be alive in there, not unless… “They could be safe, they could have tunneled under, or—”

“No,” Red says, and Sabra looks back to him. He’s still staring at the fire, voice low and expression blank. “I sensed it, when the floors fell in together. Their pokemon survived, for a bit. Now they’re all gone.”

Pain pierces through her chest as Sabra closes her eyes. Jack, you brave fool. Vermilion’s Third gives herself a moment to grieve, and when she steadies her breathing and opens her eyes again, it’s as its Second. “If you’ll accompany me,” she says voice steady, “We’ll ensure you’re at a safe location while the city re-stabilizes. Leader Surge will want a full debrief, after.”

The young trainer doesn’t even look at her. Just gets to his feet, looks at his friend’s belongings, and starts to gather them up. “I can’t. I have to tell the others.”

Sabra does the same with Jack’s things, strapping his bag to her chest and filling its empty pockets with the pokemon he left behind. “I’m sorry about your friend, Verres.” She vaguely remembers the girl from classes too, usually there with Blue Oak. Short dark hair and an intense concentration, like she was soaking up every word of the lessons. “She was a hero.”

“Yes,” Verres says, still in that flat voice. “Blue will be proud of her.”

“But Surge needs to know—”

“I don’t care. You’ll have to restrain me if you want to stop me.”

Sabra turns to the boy in surprise and sees he’s already walking without her. He’s in shock, she reminds herself to keep from snapping at him in a tone of command, nerves frayed by the long night. Instead she takes a deep breath, immediately regretting it as her nose fills with the scent of ash.

Her quick strides move her in front of him before he gets far, and she lowers herself to one knee so that she can more easily meet his empty gaze, barely feeling the water seep through her pants, which were just starting to dry. He doesn’t move as her hands firmly grip his shoulders, nor when she pulls him into a hug.

It’s awkward, with the extra bags. Their clothes are still damp from the rain, and the boy has an extra pokebelt on, one of its balls pressing uncomfortably against her hip. But she doesn’t let him go, even when he fails to respond.

Surge has always told her that she relies too much on commands to be commanding. That if she loses the ability to connect with people, she’ll forever be someone that can only take the mantle of Leader, rather than being one without it.

“Just because it hurts, doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing,” she murmurs against his ear, eyes closed as her own past feelings of guilt swirl inside her, filling her with pain and nausea, letting it speak her truth and hoping that it resonates with him. “We don’t always get to know.”

It takes a minute for the trainer to thaw, and the boy to return from wherever he went. She holds him as he shakes, tears lost in the dampness of their clothes.

Eventually they part, and Sabra takes his hand to lead him to her patient manectric. She helps him into the passenger saddle, then mounts behind him and turns to look at the hospital. The night after she became Vermilion’s Third, Jack took her out for drinks. Confided the survivor’s guilt he carried, said he had made it a source of strength, pushing him to help others. His biggest worry, he said, was what would happen if he felt he had done enough… and his biggest fear was that he never could. That he would carry it to his grave.

Her hand rises in a final salute, throat tight, then comes down to command Sheen forward.

The boy keeps his gaze down, back bag resting against her front one, and neither of them look back as another part of the building caves in, sending a rush of sparks and smoke up into the cloudless night.

Chapter 65: Fearless

Fear. Deep as her bones, like a weight on her very skin. Compressing her. Making her back hunch, her knees bend. Making her want to be small. To hide.

That’s what the Pressure did to her, when it hit after the aerial wave passed by. Just like before, when she saw a myth float above her in rainbow blaze of heat.

She couldn’t believe how anyone was able to function, under that. The only thing that kept her upright and moving was sheer fear of social condemnation and letting her friends down. Once Zapdos appeared like a blazing incarnation of nature’s fury, she couldn’t even open her mouth to give commands.

Thankfully there was nothing in her section of the wall that needed attacking: she just had to stand there and not collapse until the god had flown past.

And she had. Her knees buckled, but didn’t break. And now… she’s free.

That’s how it felt, as soon as the Pressure ended. Like she was awake and alive and herself in a way that was hard not to feel innervated by. Even walking through the storm-ravaged streets, seeing all the dead pokemon and people, wasn’t enough to completely dispel that relief.

Part of her feels proud that she made it through. But mostly she’s just ashamed of how useless she was, and how she never wants to go through that again. A voice inside is whining that she just wants to go home and crawl into her bed and sleep.

More than anything, what keeps her moving is the need to shut that voice up.

Aiko moves along the street with the others as they make their way between the burning buildings, keeping the right side of the street in her field of vision, but occasionally glancing forward and back to see Jack and Mei Li in those positions. It’s a little surreal for her to be working so close to a Gym Second, but it’s definitely reassuring in a way that being separate from Blue and Glen wouldn’t otherwise have been.

Mei Li is more distracting: her goggled head swivels around to watch the ninety-degree cone behind them while her feet step backward with easy, practiced grace. They trained in this formation at the gym, but only for one class. Aiko wants to ask how long she practiced that backwards walk, but doesn’t want to distract her. There will be plenty of time to ask after, since she’s going to end up joining the gym too, after what Blue did.

Elaine makes up the other side of the formation, which puts her out of Aiko’s field of view. Aiko is waiting for an opportunity to talk to her, but both the situation and their positions makes it difficult.

Instead it’s Jack who initiates conversation, keeping his gaze sweeping forward as he says, “Now that we’re a smaller group, the need for information of each person’s capabilities are magnified. Aiko, Elaine, I’ll need a rundown of your pokemon.”

“Raticate, venonat, sandslash, oddish, krabby,” Aiko says. Eevee is trotting beside her. “And an abra, just for teleporting.” She hasn’t trained it for combat yet, in part because it doesn’t belong to her and in part because she doesn’t keep it on her belt.

“Psyduck, obviously,” Elaine says next as her yellow companion waddles beside her. “Tangela, drowzee, grimer, dugtrio, venomoth.”

“Alright,” the gym’s Second says. “Any special skills, outside of combat?”

“Tracking and pokemon care,” Aiko says.

“That’s it?”

She glances at him before looking back where she’s supposed to. “Uh. Breeding too, in case it’s important for some reason? And I do some training and conditioning programming.” She’s about to add that she can cook too, but realizes it might sound sarcastic.

“After the storm, try to go to at least the third class on leadership,” Jack says, voice empty of admonishment. “It’ll go over why even knowing unrelated skills like that might be important. And Elaine?”

“Um. Navigation and pathfinding, and I took some coordinator classes?”

“Alright. Mei Li’s top four are medical, navigation, rescue, and kiting, just so you’re aware. Mine are containment, medical, coordinator, and habitat.”

Aiko nods, like this is information that will be useful to her. Who knows, maybe it will be. She imagines that Elaine is far happier with all this talk of main skills, and wonders if she’s already classifying them (literally) the way she did her friends. “Sir, if I can ask, why are we staying near the burning buildings?”

“Well, for one they’re going to be beacons for all sorts of pokemon, even as they drive away any with a healthy fear of fire. But I’m hoping trainers with the right pokemon can come and put these buildings out, and maybe they’ll need help with that if so. If not, it’s the most likely area for rescue operations to move through in any case, and if we can hitch a ride with them we’ve got a change in priorities. Priority 1 is still catching wilds we come across, but 2 is being upgraded to 4, while helping civilians stays at 3. Time is our most valuable resource right now, and if I could sacrifice one of each of our pokemon to get there now, I would. Understood?”

Aiko is too shocked by his statement for a moment to realize he expects an answer. It isn’t until Elaine says, “Yes, sir,” that Aiko swallows and echoes her, thinking that there’s no way she’s “sacrificing” a pokemon unless someone’s life is immediately on the line.

“Good. Along those lines, if we reach an area where the road is clearer we can use mounts and bikes to—”

“Incoming from above,” Mei Li cuts in. “Magnemite swarm!”

Aiko almost turns to look, but Jack’s “Inside, this way!” draws her attention to him instead, and she runs after the gym’s Second, feet splashing the small rivers that run along the streets. Aiko keeps her gaze on her quadrant, making sure there aren’t any other pokemon nearby until they reach one of the few unshuttered doors on the street. Jack’s machoke shatters the door, and they pile inside as the cloud of metallic spheres and spinning prongs hovers over the street.

Electricity snaps and crackles between them, catching street lights below and blowing their bulbs as electricity arcs out from them into the various magnemite and magneton.

And then they’re past. It takes Aiko’s eyes time to adjust with the remaining light outside, the flames above giving everything a mild yellow and red tint. The more distant streetlights make it easier to see the outlines of things than any details in all the darkness.

“Well,” Jack says, voice quiet. “Time to find another route.”

“Think that swarm is what’s causing the evac?” Mei Li asks.

“I hope so. If it’s not, there’s something worse, like the hospital being one of the burning buildings.” Jack sighs. “If we could get word to Giovanni, he could probably take them all down himself.”

“Could we… send flares up?” Aiko asks, unsure if suggestions are welcome. “Some kind of signal?”

“Flares bigger than the flaming buildings, you mean?” Mei Li asks, but she’s smiling. It sounds like she’s smiling, at least.

“We don’t have a system of communication worked out through flares anyway,” Jack says. “Though it’s not a bad idea. We’ll be sure to include it in the debrief. Meanwhile, let’s find a route that has more light.”

They make their way out as Jack summons a zebstrika. The white stripes of fur begin to glow as a current of electricity runs along its body, and they shift to a square formation around it so its light spreads between them. Its hooves sound incredibly loud against the pavement as Aiko tries to make out any movement along the streets and between the buildings, the glowing pokemon reflecting in the windows they pass.

Normally this might all be somewhat frightening, but while Aiko feels tense and mildly exhausted, it’s all still nothing compared to the fear that’s behind her. Like the falling rain and occasional thunder that still rolls over the city compared to the previous deluge and constant cacophony, her fear is a muted and weak thing, leaving her feeling incredibly clear minded. She wonders if this is how others feel all the time. Or at least how those like the gym members or Blue feel.

They occasionally spot wild pokemon, but none seem interested in a fight, and rather than waste time chasing them through the streets or into buildings Jack tells them to keep going. Eventually they reach an intersection that crosses out of the corridor of flaming buildings and into a side street where the lights are still on.

When they reach it Mei Li steps forward to scout it with Jack covering her, while Aiko and Elaine step back to back so they can watch the whole street as they wait, and Aiko clears her throat after a moment.

“So. You and Blue, huh?” That kiss seemed to take everyone by surprise. Elaine is usually so… not bashful, exactly, but childish in a way, and sometimes meek, that Aiko expects her to blush and insist it was just a friendly kiss.

Instead, Aiko can hear the smile in her voice as she says, “Well, we’re not secretly dating, if that’s what you’re asking. And maybe he’s not interested. But it’s what I wanted to do, so I just… did it.” Her voice grows more subdued. “We might die here, you know? I just had to try. He’s a great trainer, and a great leader, and a great friend, and really cute. Friends kiss each other on the cheek, right?”

“…Right.” Aiko takes a moment to get over her surprise and keep turning her gaze left and right (and occasionally up). Growing up on the ranch, combined with her goal of traveling as a trainer, Aiko gave little thought to dating or boys, having just assumed she wouldn’t be in a relationship for years. Apparently Elaine disagrees, and Aiko’s not sure how she feels about it. Would it be weird, if she and Blue started… dating? “Well, good luck.”

“Thanks.” Elaine sighs, and after a moment says, “I wish we were all together still. Being split up around the pokemon center was hard enough.”

“Yeah.” Aiko wasn’t near Elaine or any of the others, thankfully. There was no one to see her freeze up the way she did. “Was it hard, for you?”

“The Pressure?” She’s quiet a moment. “Hard to tell, really. Felt like everything was over in a blink. It was scary at first, how fast things were happening, how little time I felt like I was actually… present. But even that didn’t last long, so it wasn’t so bad? It was like I was just jumping ahead, every time I blinked. It all sort of feels like a dream now, to be honest. I barely remember any of it.”

“Oh.” Aiko relaxes slightly, glad that she wasn’t the only one who felt useless.

“Now, though, everything’s slow by comparison. I feel like I can spend a whole minute to decide reactions that are just a second or two.”

Aiko blinks. “That… doesn’t sound right.”

Elaine laughs. “I know. Some weird subjective adjustment going on, I guess. But still, it feels like I can do anything right now. Blue described the calm he feels while he’s in a battle, like he’s just in a state of always knowing what to do next and then just doing it automatically. This isn’t like that, but… I bet he feels this invincible.”

This worries Aiko even more. Whatever perceptual illusion Elaine is having, it might make her overconfident. But hearing her so confident is nice, and Aiko doesn’t want to tear her down without reason.

Soon after they’re on the move again, making their way up a new street with the flaming buildings on just one side and the streetlights still on. Jack keeps his zebstrika out, however, and takes a moment to put its saddle on it so he can switch places with Mei Li and ride it backward, watching behind them as they travel.

By Aiko’s estimation they’re just over halfway to the hospital when they hear the screams for help.

They’re distant, but clearly coming from above. Everyone looks around in the flickering orange light, but no one can see where it’s coming from.

“There,” Mei Li says, pointing up at the burning building ahead with one hand as the other adjusts a lens on her goggle. “About ten stories up.”

Vermilion’s Second doesn’t respond for a series of heartbeats. Aiko looks at him in the dim light, and sees him twisted around in his seat and staring up with a look of intense thought even after they hear whoever it is cry out again.

“ETA?” he finally asks.

“At this rate? Maybe another fifteen minutes out.”

“Then use Tiānkōng.”

Mei Li nods and steps toward a wide open part of the street before she summons a pidgeot. She quickly climbs onto the saddle and straps herself in, then takes off.

“You two, eyes out and keep moving up,” Jack says, and Aiko and Elaine immediately stop looking up after her to form a triangle with their backs, watching for any pokemon that might be approaching as they keep walking. Aiko’s throat is dry, thinking of Jack’s moment of hesitation… surely it was just about the best way to help whoever is up there…

Nothing attacks them while they walk, and soon they hear the beat of wings approaching. The pidgeot glides overhead, then hovers just above the ground, its wingbeats sending gusts of wind around it as it carefully clutches an older woman in its talons, and Jack dismounts to run under it and help her without getting into the path of the huge bird’s gales.

Mei Li gives some command, and the huge bird stops flapping, releases the woman, and lands, all in one practiced movement of its wings to let it glide forward just after letting her go. Aiko has a moment to boggle at the skilled maneuver, then remembers that she’s supposed to be watching for pokemon and scans their surroundings again.

“Thank you… oh, thank you,” the woman says in a trembling voice, and as she looks around Aiko sees Jack carefully help her sit on the wet ground, clearly unable to stand just yet. “Oh gods, I thought…” She starts to cry. “There were… pokemon in the halls…” She clutches at Jack’s arm. “There are others in the building!”

“Where were they?”

“I don’t know… Robert, he lives a floor below me, he said he was staying too… and I heard yelling, when the fire started, and then the pokemon came and people were running…”

“Okay. We’ll do what we can, ma’am,” Jack says, and leads her to Mei Li. “Right now we need to get you to safety.”

Aiko watches through corner glimpses as the pidgeot kneels down, and he helps the woman up onto the saddle behind Mei-Li, who turns to help her strap in.

“Sweep north from here,” he tells her. “Sweet spot is above the light posts to avoid the magnemite, and below the tallest buildings to avoid lightning.”

“Yes, sir. Rendezvous?”

“No, just stay there and help as you can.”

“Right. Good luck, Jack.”

“And you.” He steps back so she can fly off in a gust of wet wind. Once she’s gone, he looks up at the burning building, then turns to them and gestures up the street. “Go ahead, 120 degree sightlines each. I’ll bring up the rear.”

Aiko stares at him a moment in the dim light as the rain falls, then turns to keep their surroundings in view. Understanding creeps through her with cold tendrils, like the rain is seeping through her skin to fill her chest and stomach.

“But,” Elaine says, voice quiet. “She said…”

“We don’t know what pokemon are in the building,” Jack says, and his voice is neutral without being flat, absolute without being cold. “Or how many civilians, and where. Any we found would need to be guarded, and none of us have any pokemon that can carry others. Priority 3 remains assisting with the hospital evacuation. Still, I can’t force you to come with me, and I can travel faster on my own, though it would be safer if we all move together.”

He doesn’t say that they agreed to follow orders, because he doesn’t have to. “But the Pressure is gone,” Aiko says. She’s reaching, and she knows it. “All the pokemon we’ve encountered since have been less hostile.”

“The ones in the building are seeking shelter,” Elaine says, voice low. “They’ll be on edge, especially if they think they’re competing over limited safe space.”

Aiko turns to her in shock. “So you think we should just go?”

Elaine glances at her, then turns back away to keep scanning around them. “Didn’t say that,” she murmurs, and Aiko winces. She thought she was getting better, but her tone was still incredulous and scornful.

“I can assure you we will not lack for people to help,” Jack says before she can apologize. “And choosing to try to help whoever might still be alive in there is choosing to ignore those who are likely still ahead.”

Aiko is back to watching her quadrant (now tridrant?), though her thoughts are still on Elaine, bothered by the other girl’s response. She feels a little resentful, as if she’s being asked to make the decision for both of them.

Aiko shivers in the rain, and takes a deep breath, trying to think through the confusing stew of emotions roiling through her. It’s a hard moral choice, one that she knows there’s likely no right answer to, and she doesn’t want to make it. Feels like she’ll regret it no matter what she chooses. And feels… a bit of resentment, to Elaine. For not siding with her, for forcing her to make this decision, in a way.

But no. Elaine has been working harder to be more assertive, to speak her views even if they might disagree, and she’s been getting better, but she still needs encouragement. That hasn’t changed just because of their circumstances. “What do you think, Elaine? I’m really curious.”

Elaine opens her mouth, closes it, looks at her, then back away. Finally she says, “I think… he’s right?” Before Aiko can respond, she says, “Yeah. Not a question, sorry. I think he’s right.”

Aiko reaches out to take her hand, and squeezes it briefly before she lets it go. It feels like there’s a lump of ice in her chest, like a betrayal to what she’s even doing here… but she can’t ignore the logic of the Second’s words, even if she’s willing to ignore his expertise.

“Alright. Let’s go.” She starts walking, and Elaine moves with her, and Jack follows them both without a word, the low crackle of the distant fire quickly swallowed again by the shushing rain.

Aiko tries to stay focused on watching for dangers while they move, thoughts spinning uselessly over her decision as the minutes pass and they make their way to the hospital again. They pass by a small apartment building that looks like something burst out from underneath and inside it, and at one point there’s the sound of an explosion in the distance, making them all turn toward it as it echoes off the buildings, the sounds muted by the rain. Twice they have to hide as more magnemite swarms float by, forcing them to take alternate routes to still have more light than just Jack’s zebstrika provides. It’s in those brief periods that they’re the most vulnerable, as the only source of light along otherwise dark streets, but Aiko still never feels any real fear, just a sort of distant worry and a tension as she stays alert for what might be coming.

They’ve just reached another area that still has streetlights on when Aiko’s gaze moves over the bodies without registering them for a moment. Then she sucks in a sharp breath and runs forward a few steps before staggering to a stop, remembering protocol. “Bodies!” She turns to the others and points.

“Watch the streets,” Jack says as he dismounts and runs forward, and the girls move to flank him while turning back to back. Anxiety makes Aiko’s weight shift between her feet as she watches for any threats, part of her wondering why this form of fear is somehow fully felt, where the distinction is drawn in her own mental landscape.

“I’ve got pulse,” Jack says after a moment, cutting her anxiety in half. “…Steady breaths. No wounds.” Thunder rolls overhead, and when it ends Jack’s voice comes from another place behind Aiko. “Same here.”

She turns to catch him in her periphery this time when he moves to the third body. He curses as he suddenly lifts the woman up, checks her pulse, then lower her onto the ground face-up and starts performing CPR. Aiko’s heart pounds so loud in her ears that she can barely hear him when he finally speaks, voice flat. “Dead. Her face was in water. Drowned in a goddamn puddle.”

Aiko closes her eyes as anxiety turns to grief and denial, though only for a moment. If they’d been here sooner, they might have saved her… but they made it in time for the other two. And if they had stopped to search that building, they might not have.

It’s just like Jack said. Time is the highest priority.

“The others are okay?” Elaine asks.

“Unconscious, but no visible injuries,” Jack says, and grunts. Aiko turns to see him lifting a big man by his shoulders so that he’s propped against a trash can, well away from the water on the floor, and looks back at her half of the perimeter before he does the same with the younger figure. “I’m guessing mental attack.”

“Could have been plant based,” Aiko suggests, voice dull. “Rain would wash away spores.”

“Right… we’ll administ… er…”

Aiko blinks as Jack trails off, and turns to him just in time to see his body hit the street, the sound of it muffled by the rain. His machoke, however, makes a much louder sound when it falls.

Something that bears only a passing resemblance to fear goes through Aiko, an empty and meaningless sensation compared to what she felt from the Stormbringer’s pressure. “Elaine!”

Elaine turns and sees Jack. She gasps and moves forward… only to stumble.

“Hypnosis,” she says, falling onto her hands and knees, and then mutters something else that Aiko can’t hear before she falls facedown too.

There’s no moment of hesitation, even as Aiko fears her friend drowning too, panics at the sudden sense of exhaustion that makes her eyelids heavy. Her arm moves to grab the awakening on her belt as Jack’s zebstrika falls over, followed by Elaine’s psyduck.

“Eevee,” she mutters as she brings the bottle up to her face, arm heavy. “Track…” She feels herself falling, but even still jams the rubber nozzle into her nose and breathes in as she squeezes the handle. One.

The awakening lights her sinuses on fire, a jolt that knocks her mind reeling out of the beginnings of sleep and makes her heart start pounding again. She catches herself against the ground as her mind clears, looking around as pain jolts up her arm.

Eevee is barking at something, but the sounds are fading as her pokemon sags with exhaustion too. Aiko follows its gaze past Jack and Elaine’s figures to an alley behind them across the street, where something yellow and humanoid standing at the mouth of an alley… four of them, one taller than the others.

Aiko rushes to wake Jack two then his zebstrika three before moving to Elaine. “Drowzee in the alley!” she yells as she pushes the nozzle into Elaine’s nose and presses it. Four.

“Cover your eyes! Zee, Flash!”

Aiko presses her arm over her eyes and covers Elaine’s face with her body just in time for the blinding light to creep in at the edges. When it’s gone, Elaine is stirring against her, and Aiko quickly jumps up to help with the battle.

Jack’s zebstrika is racing at the figures, electricity arcing outward to shock the wild pokemon as they try to recover from the blinding. Its charge suddenly falters from some combined mental attack. Five. “Eevee, Fast!” she yells after her pokemon gets back to its feet, then grasps for her sandslash’s ball and summons it too.

Mental attacks are hard to avoid or protect against, though most rely on something similar to line of sight. As soon as her sandslash is summoned, Aiko points to the drowzee and says, “Dig!”

Her pokemon’s claws move in a blur, ripping up asphalt and burrowing into the wet ground with a full-body shimmy, its scales scraping and churning the ground up as its legs kick it out behind it. Jack has summoned a liepard, and Aiko feels a rush of relief at the sight of the dark pokemon.

As the lean purple feline dashes forward to tear into the group of psychics with claws and teeth, Elaine’s psyduck starts to spray them with water guns while Eevee dashes in and out for tackles, dodging the drowzees’ fists. The three trainers advance on them even as the hypno leaps at Jack’s liepard with a headbutt that sends it sprawling, and Aiko tries to keep up with everything happening.

“Double Edge!” she yells as Eevee is knocked away, then turns in alarm as Jack stumbles to one knee. But he already has an awakening of his own pressed to his nostril while Elaine summons her own drowzee and commands it to hypnotize their opponents as she wakes her psyduck back up.

The hypno has dropped down onto all fours to rush at the liepard again, but leaps away a moment before claws dig out of the ground below it. Before Aiko can give her pokemon another command, the hypno’s eyes glow, and Aiko’s sandslash slumps back into its hole… just as the liepard leaps back onto the hypno, tearing bloody lines down its yellow hide and trying to bite its neck through the thick white fur there.

Eevee went down while she wasn’t looking, hopefully asleep, but before Aiko can summon another pokemon the drowzee break and run, all three racing on their stumpy legs down the alley. “Don’t let them get away!” Jack yells between commands, crouching beside his zebstrika to reawaken it.

Aiko stops moving toward her sandslash and races after the drowzee, free hand going to her pokeball pouch as she keeps the awakening in her other one. It should have two or three more sprays left in it, she can’t remember if she’d used it five times or six, and she knows she used it three times before—

She gets close enough to lock onto the rearmost drowzee and throws just as it and the one ahead turn to her, eyes glowing. Her target disappears in a flash and she presses the nozzle into her nose in anticipation…

…just before getting punched in the stomach.

That’s what it feels like, anyway, despite nothing touching her. She sprawls back on to the wet ground as the breath rushes out of her, confusion and pain making her head spin as Elaine dashes forward and captures the drowzee just as it turns to her.

“Aiko!”

“I’m fine,” she tries to say, and instead just wheezes with pain. She waves her free hand forward instead, toward the last retreating drowzee. Her friend looks at it, then back at her, then takes off at a run.

Aiko leans back onto her bag and pulls a potion out, lifting her shirt over her stomach to spray where the telekinetic hit landed, and sighs as the pain is somewhat numbed. As she lies there and waits to heal, another one of those echoing explosions reverbrates throughout the city.

After a minute or so it’s easier to get full breaths, and she pushes herself to her feet with one hand on the wall until she’s standing. She’s about to start after Elaine when her friend turns the corner back into the ally and jogs over, picking up their captured drowzee along the way.

“You okay?” she asks Aiko.

“Yeah. Go help Jack.”

“Right.” She starts jogging back the way they came, and Aiko hobbles after her. By the time she makes it to the street again, the battle is over.

Aiko uses a flashlight to reach into the hole and awaken her sandslash, then wakes Eevee up and checks her for injuries. The bottle is surely empty now, and she takes a moment to look for a trash can to throw it out in before realizing she can’t find one. She places it carefully on the ground, feeling absurdly guilty, then goes to Jack and Elaine next to the two civilians they saved… and the one they didn’t reach on time.

“You saved us,” Jack says, looking at Aiko and clearly reading her expression. “Which means you saved them too. Focus on that.”

“Elaine figured it out,” Aiko says, though she still feels her spirit raised a little. “If they’d targeted her first instead of you, I wouldn’t have…”

“It was just a guess” Elaine says.

“Good job to both of you, regardless,” Jack says. “With the battle too. If I were traveling alone and came upon them I might have stopped despite my better judgement, and would have paid the price for that.” He sighs and looks down at the bodies. “But now we have another hard choice to make.”

Aiko looks at him, then the civilians. “We’re not going to leave them?” she asks, unable to keep the incredulity from her tone. “Just because we have no transport—”

“We don’t know what condition they’ll wake in,” Jack interrupts.

Aiko gets it just as Elaine covers her mouth, eyes wide. “You think they were fed on.” She slumps against a light post, a weariness that has nothing to do with sleep coming over her. “Of course they were.”

The damage done by “dream eaters” like drowzee and hypno often vary in symptoms from instance to instance; Aiko has heard of people and pokemon who temporarily lose their memories, have trouble with random types of physical movement or coordination, can’t control their emotions, hallucinate, and more… all of which might be permanent if fed on for long enough, until the victim is comatose.

“Even if they weren’t,” Jack says, voice just loud enough to be heard over the rain. “One of them died. If the other two wake… they likely won’t be able to just brush that off.”

“So what do we do?” Elaine asks. “What can we do?”

“My machoke can carry one. I can put the other in Zee’s saddle, and walk beside him to make sure he doesn’t fall off. The third…” He trails off, letting them work it out themselves.

Aiko doesn’t need him to lay the options out for her again. She can see them. “If we work together to carry her in a sling, we slow down a lot. Limit our reaction time. Get tired faster.” She swallows. “And there are more people ahead who may need help, right now, while we stand here waiting.”

“There almost certainly are, at the hospital,” Jack says.

“It feels wrong,” Elaine says. “Leaving her here. But we… saw others. And we left them. This just feels worse because…”

“Because of them,” Aiko finishes, looking at the other two. Whatever condition they wake in, when they regain their senses (assuming they do), they’ll wonder where she is. And know that she was left behind.

“I’ll remember where she is,” Jack says. “And ensure she’s picked up soon.”

It takes a couple minutes to get both of them secured, the young boy cradled in the machoke’s arms, the older man slumped against the zebstrika’s neck. Aiko is still trying to think through ways to bring the woman too, and almost asks if he has any container boxes big enough to fit the woman, but… whatever he would have to empty out to make the room for her might be things they end up needing. She doesn’t ask, but resolves to buy a bigger container ball herself as soon as she can.

Eventually they’re ready to go, and without looking back they start moving again, Jack walking with his hand over the man’s around the pommel and looking over his shoulders as Aiko and Elaine watch in front and to their sides.

They’re almost at the hospital when Eevee alerts them to the coming danger. Aiko sees her shift to a battle stance, large ears turned upward as she barks.

It’s another magnemite swarm, or perhaps one of the earlier ones: it’s hard to tell its size as it spreads and condenses, electricity arcing through it and outward at its surroundings. Once again Aiko’s only reaction is a faint and empty panic, and vaguely wonders if such emotions would ever feel meaningful again, or if the Thunder God’s Pressure broke something in her.

“Shit!” Jack says. “Get ready to run if it turns this way, we’ll head into the—”

A blast of orange light spears through the darkness and hits the ground beneath the swarm and drills into it… and a moment later there’s an eruption as a column of earth soars up and encompasses the magnemite before detonating as well, knocking scores of them to the ground and burying them in rubble.

Aiko’s hands are clapped over her ears from the now-familiar noise, which is far louder from this close up. She watches wide eyed as more beams of light hit the remains of the swarm from different directions, and Aiko follows them to their sources to spot the green, sinuous bodies of the flygon that glide soundlessly overhead.

It takes them less than a minute to blast the remains of the magnemite swarm out of the sky, and then they’re descending, half a dozen of them, to capture as many as are still alive.

“About time,” Jack says, and Aiko turns to see him smiling. “Wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with that myself.”

Aiko turns back in time to see one of the flygon swooping down to land in front of them. Its rider quickly unstraps themself and slides off, then fiddles with their hood as they approach…

…and pulls it off to reveal Giovanni Sakai.

“Leader.” Jack is still smiling as he steps forward to clasp hands with him. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Jack. What’s your objective, here?”

“We’re on our way to evacuate a hospital to the north, which we think may have been in the path of Zapdos’s attack.”

“It was. The hospital is burning.”

Aiko’s stomach sinks at the words, dispelling some of the feeling of being starstruck by her proximity to the ex-Champion and Leader. She turns and sees a similar expression of dismay on Jack’s face. “How bad is it?”

“The top few floors were lost almost immediately. No telling how many died then, but there were a number of trainers there who worked their pokemon ragged to try and stall the fire from going lower, and the evacuation got the next few out before it spread. It’s an ongoing race since then.”

“Shit. They still need help, then?”

“Badly. My men and I have been ensuring no major threats approach as the hospital’s defenders help escort its civilians out. The job is almost done, but the bottleneck is still trainers able to assist in escort. The sooner you arrive, the better… but I see you have wounded. Civilians?”

Is that judgement in the Leader’s tone? Aiko tries to read his expression, but it seems neutral… though intense. He has the same air of focus that he exudes through videos.

“We just picked them up,” Jack says. “Can you assist us in transporting them?”

Giovanni looks at his people a moment, then back to Jack. “Yes, we can take all of you. It’ll only be a couple minutes for us, opposed to another ten for you. Come and help with the captures, and we’ll fly over together.”

Aiko lets her breath out, relief making her almost dizzy. She doesn’t know how much more there’s still to come, but for now at least it feels like the hardest part of the night is over.


It takes five minutes to finish catching all the magnemite that are still alive, and then fly to the hospital. Aiko and Elaine managed to get 4 and 5 respectively, and she can’t help but feel that they, along with the drowzee she caught, are something of a reward for choosing to stay and help… even if some part of her feels disgusted at herself for thinking of pokemon in that way.

Aiko has never ridden on such a smooth ride as a flygon, and the simple lift and forward propulsion created by its sail-like wings allows her to relax for the first time since they left the pokemon center. She takes in the city as best she can on the short ride. There are whole blocks that are dark, and the giant torches of the buildings cast a broader glow from up high, letting her see how little the slice of the city they’ve been struggling through really is. She hopes the others are alright, wherever they are now.

Then she can make out their destination, and squints against the wind and rain to scan the hospital campus. She can see most of the defensive perimeter is still in place, but the area within it has become a mass of people as the flaming building continues to be evacuated. In the handful of seconds before they land, Aiko can make out two processions of people: one thick and bustling mass going to the southwest, likely toward the pokemon center she and the others came from, and one similarly thick one going to the east toward another shelter.

Once they land she discovers there’s a third, much smaller one underway.

Aiko and Elaine rest against one of the barricades, shoulders leaning against each other as their backs lean against their bags. Eevee and Psyduck are resting with them, eating the same nutrient bars they’re munching on.

“How’s your stomach?” Elaine asks after a minute.

“Only hurts when I breathe,” Aiko says, causing Elaine to snort and nudge her shoulder. Aiko nudges her back, smiling. “How you feeling? Still invincible?”

“A little. Mostly tired. Think it’s too early for a victory dance?”

“Probably.” Aiko glances up at the burning building. There’s a wide area around it that’s empty, which makes the rest of the campus perimeter a bit crowded. “We’re definitely doing one before we go to bed tonight, though.”

“Oh, man. I’m excited already. Mostly for the bed part, though.” Elaine turns to her. “We going to do that thing again, too? Where we talk about how we screwed up?”

Aiko blinks. “Yeah, I think so. I will, anyway. You been thinking about that?”

“Uh huh. Been trying to come up with a name for it too. How does Aiko Accountability sound? AA for short.”

Aiko laughs despite herself and nudges Elaine’s shoulder again, harder this time. “No thanks.”

“Heroic Accountability?”

“HA, for short?”

“Hmm.” Elaine munches her bar. “I’ll keep thinking. But yeah, I’ve been considering how I could have dealt with those drowzee better.”

Aiko thinks back to the battle. “I think you did great, but if you have something specific in mind…?”

“I felt like every decision was fully thought out, like I had plenty of time to think things through. But looking back… could have stopped those drowzee more easily if I’d been willing to switch to lethal attacks right away. Just didn’t consider it.”

Aiko did, once the drowzee ran. Jack had said to stop them, and Aiko interpreted that as run after and catch them. If she’d summoned Sneaker or other pokemon, she could have taken them down much easier. But… they were running. She didn’t want to hurt them if they weren’t even trying to fight back, at the time. “Well, I’m definitely not someone who’s going to blame you for that. Not just because I didn’t either, but also because I think people resort to lethal means too easily when dealing with pokemon. And everyone got out okay, right?”

“But maybe we might not have. Couldn’t have known that, at the time.” Elaine sighs. “And it’s not about whether you blame me, is it?”

“No. I guess it’s not.” It’s strange, seeing the thing she created adopted so fully that it’s being applied beyond her own views and boundaries for it. Before she can think on it further, she sees Jack making his way back to them, with another two Vermilion Gym members she vaguely recognizes.

“Aiko, Elaine, this is Sab and Josh, boys, these are the two who I came here with, and likely to be new gym members soon.”

“Good to meet you,” Sab says, and Josh nods.

Aiko nods back while Elaine waves. “Same.” They appear to have gone through their own ordeals tonight: Sab’s pokebelt is half empty, his hand tracing over the spots every so often as if confirming that they’re gone, and Josh’s clothes are covered in soot stains that the rain hasn’t fully washed away. She recognizes the look on their faces every time they glance at Jack: something like relief and trust and hope, that the worst of the night is over.

“The two civvies we brought were folded into the patients that are being transported in groups,” Jack says. “You’ve both done plenty already tonight, but this is what we came here for. If you’re still able, every trainer will help us transport more people faster.”

The girls look at each other, and Elaine speaks first. “Is your dad going to be okay?”

Aiko checks the time and is shocked to see it’s only 9:14 PM. Did it really only take them an hour to travel here from the pokemon center? “I think I’m okay to help a bit longer. I don’t want to leave you here.”

Elaine nods. “Then I’m okay to help more too.”

“Good. Let’s move out, then.” He holds a hand out to each of them, and Aiko smiles as she takes one and gets to her feet with the help of the Gym Second, then tucks the rest of her meal bar away. “Patients are heading out in a procession every few minutes. Anything you need to do before we go? There are working PCs here if you need to swap pokemon or transfer equipment.”

“I’m good,” Aiko says. She has all her strongest pokemon with her already.

“Same.”

“Alright then, let’s go.”

They meet some hospital staff and another three trainers around a small fleet of enclosed transport gurneys meant for outdoor travel. After just a couple minutes of waiting for a hospital orderly and a nurse to arrive with one last patient, they all begin their journey past the perimeter, trainers in a wide eight point star that keeps the patients and hospital staff in the middle. There are flares along the road to indicate the fastest route to the nearest hospital, and by now enough trainers have made the journey that the route is fairly clear, allowing everyone to move at a brisk pace, alternating between quick steps and jogging when they reach long stretches of empty street, the sounds of the gurney wheels nearly thunderous.

Aiko stays alert throughout the trip, waiting for something to go wrong. Occasionally an ambulance passes by in one direction or the other, those headed to the same destination no doubt full of patients, and they also spot other trainers going back the way they came on bikes or riding pokemon, probably having just finished their own escort. Overall the trip feels far safer than the other traveling they’ve done, and after about half an hour of jogging through the rain, they spy the hospital.

The group makes for the guarded gap in the perimeter, and once they’re inside the hospital staff thanks the trainers profusely as they lead their charges either into the building or to some outdoor treatment areas.

“Good job everyone,” Jack says. “Fifteen minute break, then we’re meeting here to head back, but only those of you with bikes or pokemon to ride. The rest should stay here and see if there’s anything you can do that’ll be useful.”

Elaine approaches Aiko as she sets an alarm on her phone, and together they go looking for another spot to rest in. “Let’s try inside,” Aiko says. Her legs ache and she’s sweating under her clothes, but mostly she has to pee.

“Gods, yes. Getting out of the rain for even a minute sounds amazing.”

There are a number of buildings on the grounds, and they head for the nearest one, a squat reception center that looks like it’s mostly for administrative purposes. When they arrive, however, it’s clearly been transformed into another treatment facility, all the furniture inside cleared away for patients to lie down or rest in chairs as tired looking medical staff move from one person to the next while concerned friends or family hover nearby or hold their hands.

There’s no line for the bathroom, thankfully, and when they both emerge they find a bare patch of tile to rest on. It really is nice to be out of the wind and rain for a moment, and Aiko is just wondering if a five minute nap would make her feel better or worse when she spots a familiar red outfit and mop of black hair passing by from the direction of the bathrooms too.

“Red?” she whispers, heart racing, and stands. “Red!”

The boy’s head snaps around, eyes wide, and then they’re running to each other and hugging, and Aiko feels some last bit of tension relaxing inside her. “Are you okay?” they ask at almost the same time, then grin at each other as Elaine approaches, beaming.

“I’m fine,” Aiko says. “We rode out the Thunder God at a pokemon center, then went with Blue and Glen and some gym members to help at a nearby hospital that was set on fire… Elaine and I just got here by helping with the evacuation.”

“Hi Red! It’s great to see you again.”

“Hey Elaine. I’m… really glad to see you guys too.”

“Why are you wearing two pokebelts? And…” Aiko studies his face as her initial joy fades, her smile fading with it. “Red, you look… awful.” Not just exhausted, but also like he’s been crying all night. Dread suddenly fills her stomach. “Wait, where’s Leaf?”

Red’s smile drops, and the dread reaches her heart, freezing it and sending ice through her veins. No, he wouldn’t have smiled at all if she’s…

“She’s here. Alive.”

Aiko feels her heart thaw, but it’s still pounding. “Alive is nice. ‘Great’ is better. I’ll even settle for ‘Fine.'” Red doesn’t smile, and Aiko’s grip on his clothes tightens. “She was injured?” she whispers, and when he nods, she has to swallow against the dryness in her throat to ask, “What happened?”

“We didn’t make it here until after Zapdos left too,” he murmurs. “Got caught in the storm and did our best to help people. We… didn’t get everyone, but… we had to clear out an apartment building and… then there was a nidoqueen…” Red passes a weary hand over his face. “I caught it, but Leaf got hurt. Bad. One of her arms was broken in three places, and some ribs on that side, and her lung…”

“Oh, Leaf,” Elaine whispers, and Aiko hugs him tight again as he trails off, eyes closed as if that will block out the mental image of her friend so badly hurt.

“Where is she now?” she asks after she manages to get herself under control, voice hoarse.

“Here. I carried her to the barricades with the help of someone we saved, and a doctor that saw her started treating her outside. Once she was more stable… there’s not enough room in the main building, with everyone that’s coming here, but they’ve prepared surgery rooms on the third floor.” Red leads them in the direction he was heading before, and they go up some stairs and into an office space turned patient resting center.

The second floor’s atmosphere is more hushed and calm, though not by much. Still, the nurses and doctors moving between beds are doing so with more purpose than the frenetic triage going on downstairs, which is somewhat reassuring. Red leads them to a cot that’s been set up by one of the windowed offices, and they file in to see Leaf lying on one of them.

Aiko feels tears gather in her eyes at the sight of her friend lying on the cot, half her body wrapped up, but to her shock and delight, Leaf is awake, and smiles at them as they walk in.

“Heyoo,” she says, voice low.

Aiko wants to hug her, and settles for clasping her unhurt hand tight to her chest. “Don’t you heyoo me! You were supposed to be safe on a cruise!” One hand rises to wipe at her cheeks. “You should have stayed there!”

“Pretty rich… coming from you. What about… your dad?” It’s clear that it’s hard for her to take deep breaths, each word sounding strained and breathy. She turns her head as Red approaches with a water bottle and a straw, and takes a drink.

“Dad will be fine.” She feels a bit of guilt saying it this time as she glances at the clock. Almost ten. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Nah. I’ll be… fine too.” Leaf turns her head a bit. “Hey, Elaine.”

“Hi Leaf. I’m really glad you guys ended up at this hospital instead of the last one we saw.”

“What’s wrong with… the last one?”

“It’s on fire.”

Leaf winces, and turns to Red, who shrugs. “Haven’t been paying attention to much since we got here,” he says, and Aiko sees something in his face, the way he looks at Leaf.

“The others… okay?” Leaf asks, turning back to them.

“As far as we know, yeah. We split up after Zapdos blasted—”

Her phone alarm goes off. “Fuck,” she whispers, taking it out and turning it off, then checking to see if service is back up so she can send a message to Jack. Still nothing.

“Such language.” Leaf’s voice is more wary than teasing. “What’s up?”

“That would be the burning hospital,” Elaine says. “We’re supposed to head back to help with more evacuation.”

Leaf’s brow rises, and she looks at Red, who immediately starts shaking his head.

“No way. Not leaving you.”

“This isn’t like… the forest,” she says. “I’m safe here. There are others… that need help.”

“Screw others!” Red half shouts, and everyone flinches except Leaf, who just watches him as he takes a deep breath, eyes down and hands gripping the railing of her cot.

A nurse walks by and pauses at the door. “Sir, please keep your voice down or go outside.”

Red’s eyes are closed. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

The nurse looks over them a moment, then walks on. Aiko realizes Leaf is putting some pressure on her hand, trying to tug it back, and reluctantly releases it, watching as her friend rests it on Red’s instead.

“I understand,” Leaf murmurs. “And if you’re… at your limit. I get it. We’ve done enough. But if it’s just that you… don’t want to leave me… I appreciate it. A lot. But they’re going… back out… and they’ll need you… more than I will.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, and nods. Aiko almost says she’s not going back out, she’s with Red on this one, they’ve done enough and just leaving Leaf alone makes her feel terrible—

“I’ll stay.”

Everyone looks at Elaine. “I agree with Red. Leaving you here would be really demoralizing. And I think we can all use a rest. Maybe we switch off? They mostly need warm bodies at this point, so Red and Aiko can go back now for another run, then when they get back Aiko can stay, then Red again. If we’re not done by then.” She turns to Aiko before anyone can respond. “You can stay first instead, if you want. But we can’t keep Jack waiting. He’s going to be our Second soon, too.”

“Wait… what?” Leaf asks, eyes wide.

“Oh, right. I’ll explain it to you while they’re gone. Or Aiko will.”

Everyone looks at her, and she takes a moment to consider how she feels. Okay, overall. And she’ll have to head home eventually tonight… she’d rather give Elaine some rest and then stay with Leaf before teleporting, rather than stay and then leave without giving Elaine a chance to.

“Alright, let’s go before they leave without us.” Aiko leans over and kisses Leaf’s forehead. “Rest up, okay? I don’t care if this hospital catches fire too, no heroics allowed from people with multiple broken bones.” She turns to Elaine. “Take care of her, E.”

Leaf rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Finally.”

Red looks like he wants to kiss Leaf too, but instead he just squeezes her hand. “I’ll be back soon.”

She squeezes back, then lets him go, smiling wider. “I know… you will.”


Aiko and Red hurry back to the perimeter, where Jack is waiting with an impatient look on his face, already mounted on his zebstrika… alone. Whatever he’s about to say gets aborted when he sees Red with her instead of Elaine, however. “What happened?”

“Long story,” Aiko pants as she summons her bike and starts getting her gear out of the box to strap onto her elbows and knees. “Sorry we’re late.”

He’s quiet a moment, then says, “You came. That matters more.”

“Where are the others?” Aiko asks, a brief flare of pride chasing away some of her regrets.

“Sent them ahead when I decided to wait a bit longer. Can take care of themselves, and might be needed to make up another group.” He looks at Red. “Verres, right? Pokemon and special skills?”

Red lists them as he pulls his own gear on, and Jack perks up at the mention of him being psychic. “Alright, it’ll be good to have an extra early warning system, if you’re up for sweeping for wilds?”

Her friend looks as though he’s going to say something, but just nods distractedly as he clasps his helmet on, and gets on his bike. “Sure. Do you want to know if any are in buildings, or just outside? And what about people?”

“Just wilds and people outside. Everyone ready? Let’s go.”

They head out, and soon Aiko’s thighs are burning as she struggles to keep up with Jack’s pace. She’s not sure if he’s trying to reach his people or just in that much of a rush to help with the next escort or both, but she wishes she had put her goggles on too: the rain is annoying enough without it whipping her face as she speeds by. On the plus side, the rain is definitely lighter than it used to be, and she can’t remember when she last heard thunder. The storm seems to finally be ending.

Red rides beside her, quiet and focused on whatever he’s sensing. She wishes they were able to talk, she wants to know more about what happened with him and Leaf, to know why he felt so nearly at the end of his rope… and why he was looking at Leaf that way, as if she couldn’t guess. It’s strange thinking of yet another romance budding around her without her realizing it, though the two did have some time alone together lately. Or maybe it’s just the extreme circumstances.

While racing back to the burning hospital, they pass by two formations of patients and trainers early on, and then no one else. It makes Aiko feel nervous, then hopeful. Maybe there’s no one left to evacuate. Maybe they can just turn around and head back to Leaf…

A vibration runs through the ground, shaking the street beneath her tires and almost spilling her. She hears breaking glass and cracking sounds from the buildings around her, and sees the water on the streets ripple with the vibrations. Aiko glimpses a squad of flygon soaring overhead, probably hunting whatever might be in the area that caused it, and hopes the fight doesn’t take place near the hospital.

When they arrive a couple minutes later, she immediately notices two things: how much more of the building is now on fire, and how much emptier the campus around it is. Jack leads them through the barricade and starts looking for someone in charge to direct them, but the few people still around appear to be preparing to transport the final civilians away from the area. There don’t appear to be any other patients that need escorting, but they eventually find some hospital staff in a cluster nearby, staring at the burning building or recovering from some ordeal. The Gym Second pulls his zebstrika up alongside them.

“Hey! What’s happening?”

“Building too far gone!” one man gasps, clutching at a stitch in his side. “Some pokemon came under and sent a quake through the place, and it started to collapse! Fire’s spreading faster above, and first floor entrances are blocked!” In the dim light Aiko can see tear tracks on his dirty face, and that he’s not wearing black clothing but hospital scrubs, covered in soot. “Some trainers that just arrived went in, but the atrium collapsed! Doesn’t matter who they save, they’re trapped on the floors above!”

Jack is turning his pokemon and riding for the hospital before he even finishes speaking. Aiko stares after him a moment, then follows, legs pedaling furiously.

“Aiko!” Red yells as he bikes beside her. “What are we doing?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t know how to answer, but trusts Jack to have a plan. He rides past the entrance, which she can see is filled with the collapsed ceiling above it, and stops at a spot just past it and along the wall. When she reaches him he’s dismounting from his pokemon and swapping it for his machoke and a blastoise.

“Aiko, Red, you don’t have to follow,” he says without looking at them, pointing instead to the wall and saying, “Brick Break!” His pokemon rush forward and smash through the concrete, forming a wide hole. Beyond it is just more rubble, but his next command is “Brick Break, slope!” and his pokemon keep going, focusing their efforts upward and creating a steadily climbable pile as they toss what they find behind them.

“What are you going to do?” Aiko asks, and still the panic she feels is hollow and empty. It’s a worry, nothing more or less. She can think through it, she can act. She’s not stuck in fear.

“Create an opening, find my people,” he says, and there’s a fierceness in the Unovan’s face that Aiko hasn’t seen all night as he pulls his bag off his shoulders and tosses various medicines off his belt, adding burn heals instead. “Rescue whoever I can.”

“Sir, this isn’t going to work,” Red says, voice strained. “Even with the blastoise, you can’t know what path they took, it might run out of water before you find them. And if the roof comes down on you… there are too many things that can go wrong, we’d need everything to work perfectly…”

“I know the hospital, and I know my people. Might be enough.” Jack pulls an air mask over his head, and just a single raindrop beads the face visor. “You two don’t have to come. I’ll welcome the help, but I don’t expect it. I should have died a long time ago, to my own mistake, but someone came for me when it wasn’t smart. Saved my life. Kept me close after, so I’d rise up with him. Trusted me with command… and I used it to send these trainers here. No one’s fault. But now it’s my turn.”

Red stares at him, then turns to her. “Aiko… we can’t—”

“We’ll be okay, Red.” The thought of just staying out here while the people and pokemon burn inside… she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, would never be able to look Blue or Leaf in the eyes again… The memory of how she froze up when Zapdos appeared shames her all over again. This is my chance.

“We need to think this through, to premortem it! I don’t have any water pokemon, or anything strong enough to help with rubble—”

“Didn’t you catch a nidoqueen?”

“I… yes, but it’s not trained!”

“Doesn’t have to be to push rubble! And I have a sandslash to dig us out too!” She’s doing the same thing Jack did, stripping off everything unimportant. Her only pokemon that will be needed inside are her sandslash and krabby, and maybe Sneaker too. She drops the rest of her pokemon into her bag, then clips more potions and burn heals onto their spots.

Jack’s pokemon have found the stairwells that he clearly knew was there, and Jack whistles sharply, causing them to stop digging. “It’s okay to stay out here,” Jack says to them. “I hereby give you permission. Just tell me one thing, Verres: are there people still alive in there?”

Red’s face twists in anguish, and his mouth opens, closes, opens, jaw trembling.”Y-yes.”

“Where?”

“Spread out, every floor above the first.”

“And my people?”

“I… I don’t… how many?”

“Seven.”

Red closes his eyes tight. “Third floor.” Tears leak down his cheeks. “That side.” He points to the left and rear of the building.

Jack clasps his shoulder. “Good man.” And with that, Jack scrambles up the rubble and into the building.

Aiko turns to Red, her own air mask hanging from her neck. “I’m going.”

“Don’t, Aiko, please, the risk is too high!”

Aiko looks at him a moment, then reaches out to brush a tear from his cheek. He wasn’t there, after the fight with the absol and onix. Maybe it would be unfair to think that he wouldn’t understand, he did come all the way from the cruise to face the Thunder God… But whatever he went through while here, whatever got Leaf injured, it used up what brought him.

And Jack’s already inside. Jack, who twice tonight made hard choices, hard sacrifices, for the greater good, and twice let her make them too. She’s sick of making those kinds of sacrifices, and if he’s going in, she can hardly do less.

“It’s okay,” she says, and on a whim kisses his cheek for luck. “I’ll be back soon.”

Then she slips her mask on and runs after Jack. Red’s shock lasts long enough that she gets a head start, but she feels his hand on the back of her shirt, trying to pull her away from the rubble as she starts to climb. She keeps going until she tears away from his grasp, and by the time she’s in the stairwell, he’s not with her anymore.