Chapter 74: Choices

The second group badge challenge takes another week to organize, and Blue is informed the same day he wins his badge that he still won’t be part of the process.

It’s frustrating, but understandable. Even if within the gym everyone trusts Blue and the other newly badged members not to collaborate with Glen’s group, the optics need to remain as clean as possible. People were already picking apart the first match for being too easy… which Blue knows because he spent way too much time the next day poring over all the reactions and feedback online.

+954/-121 Pretty basic, imo, barely any of the battles were team-based, even then only 2v1 at most

+786/-305 Oak should have been disqualified as soon as he found Surge, the first attack against the pidgeotto is fine but what was that warning shot at the ground for? Clear favoritism…

+457/-462 The civilians were too helpful, in a REAL incident they would be too scared to do anything. And leaving that guy in the alley should have definitely counted as a loss!

| +143/-218 Yep. Sure hope I never have to rely on Oak saving me.

|| +49/-15 You think he’s obligated to, even if you would get him or others killed?

|| +9/-0 He saved my life during the storm. What have you done?

Not all the feedback is negative, of course. Most of it even seems positive, or reservedly excited. Other Gym Leaders, in Kanto and beyond, have released statements or commented in press releases to praise Vermilion for exploring new ways to challenge trainers… though most dodge questions concerning any of their own plans to either follow Vermilion’s example, or come up with their own new twists. In every case, the press seems happy to cover the development from every angle they can.

Most of the group seems happy with the limelight, if a bit overwhelmed at times… but Blue should have known that not everyone would.

“I was happy enough just being part of the group,” Taro confides during dinner on the third night after their challenge. “The media showing up at practice made sense, in a way, since we were doing something so new. But I didn’t think my first badge would be so… scrutinized by everyone.”

Blue follows Taro’s glances to see someone at the side of the gym cafeteria holding up their phone to take a picture of everyone. He smiles for the camera, which makes the young girl grin as she taps the screen a few more times. They usually eat at the gym these days, both to save travel time and to avoid extra attention, but they’re not exactly hiding. “It does get annoying, sometimes. But it’ll fade away soon enough.” Until they do something else newsworthy, at least. Which he intends to do sooner rather than later, even if he hasn’t thought of it yet.

“I guess so. But it’s more than annoying, to me. I’m starting to stress over things like my clothes and hair, knowing there might be cameras everywhere I go.”

Blue frowns, reminded of similar conversations with Red. It’s even more surprising coming from Taro, whose goals include gym battling. “Attention is power. You don’t have to use it, but if you ever want what you say to matter to others, or if you need help with something, it’s better to have it than not.”

Taro shrugs, staring down at his food. “I’m starting to think I don’t want power.”

Yep. Definite Red vibes. Blue pushes the thoughts away, trying to focus on the here and now. “Becoming the first sibling Champion pair makes power kind of a requirement. And… you know, the outcome?”

“I guess. I mean… I like being a trainer, and it feels good to finally have a badge… but maybe Championship is more Chie’s passion. I thought I cared about it, but really, I’ve just been along for the ride. I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy traveling. What if it turns out what I’ve really enjoyed was just being a gym member?”

Blue watches him twirl his fork in his noodles, unsure what to say. TaroChie hadn’t followed the four of them the night Zapdos flew by, and he judged them for it at the time. After talking with gramps about his oath, admitting that he wouldn’t go through with it any more… it felt like less of an issue, knowing that they likely wouldn’t be in another Stormbringer attack any time soon even if they traveled with him. They would have time to grow, to get stronger, and maybe when the time was right, when they were all prepared, they would choose differently.

He hoped that was already happening. That getting their badges would give them confidence. It seems that in Taro’s case, it’s doing the opposite.

“What will you do, then?” he asks after a minute. “If your sister decides to keep going?”

“I guess I could just go from gym to gym to learn, and not worry about badges,” Taro says. “Maybe get more experience, then go to academy to be a Ranger.”

Blue is surprised anew, and almost points out that being a Ranger can be more dangerous, then realizes that he’s assuming safety is the main motivation.

He wants to encourage everyone to reach for their dreams, to not give up on them. But he also wants to make sure it’s their dream they’re pursuing, not his.

“Working directly to help people, without worrying about badges, or the spot light,” Blue muses as the alarm goes off on his watch at the same time as Glen’s does. They both stand, trays in hand. “It’s not a bad life.”

The relief on Taro’s face sends a stab of guilt through Blue as the other boy follows him to the garbage cans. “Yeah. Maybe someday… I mean, I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know how Chie feels about it, and I’d feel bad leaving her to journey alone.” He smiles. “Well, without me at least.”

Blue smiles back as he leads the way toward the training rooms. He’s already decided that he would welcome any of the others who want to travel with him after they finish here. Blue looks back over the others as they follow in small groups, talking amongst themselves.

Of those that have already earned their badges, he’s pretty sure Lizzy and MG will want to continue traveling with him, Glen, and Elaine. Chron is the only one that approached him ahead of time to say that he regretfully wouldn’t be coming along after, and Blue assured him that he understood. With Taro potentially bowing out, he’s less sure about Chie’s decision. If Taro is taking for granted that his sister would go on without him, he’s probably underestimating how much she cares about him. Blue knows he does that sometimes, with Daisy.

That leaves those still preparing for their challenge. Bretta is going to go rejoin Slava and Sumi after getting her badge, the latter of whom is still recovering from complications to her absol wound’s treatment. It’s the last three, Vlad, Bolin, and Hitoshi, that he’s most unsure about, since he’s spent the least time with them, compared to everyone else.

Each is the son of a ranger stationed around Saffron, and they grew up together knowing they would start their journey at the same time. He knows they got their starting pokemon last year when Bolin turned thirteen, and arrived in Vermilion just a week before Zapdos flew by. While Blue never encountered them before or during the storm, they gained nearly as much fame as he did by rescuing a couple dozen civilians from a building that got filled with one of the magnemite swarms.

Since then each has proven himself a skilled trainer, and they complement each other well, with Bolin preferring pokemon that can control the battlefield, Vlad focusing on sweepers, and Hitoshi catching and training anything that can stall or tank. Just as importantly, they collectively know a lot about pokemon abilities and habits, both in the wild and for training.

He should check what their plans are after the challenge. Vlad seems most like the leader of the trio; maybe he can talk to him about it first, get a sense for whether they’ve discussed staying at the gym or continuing their journey. Blue lets his steps slow until he’s level with the three of them, who are talking with Bretta and Lizzy about their favorite regional food.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but anyone got any new ideas on how Zephyr recognized that frost-rotom?”

“Actually, yeah,” Vlad says. “I looked into the scouting programs, and it turns out abilities like that don’t work the way we would think. It’s more like training an artificial intelligence. You can’t tell your pokemon how to identify every single other pokemon it might see, and then determine that it’s wild if there’s no trainer standing beside it, because that would still require teaching them what every single pokemon looks like. They instead go off of the same criteria they would use to identify a threat, even one they’re not used to encountering. Do you think your pidgeotto even knows what a fridge is?”

Blue blinks. “Huh. No, I guess he wouldn’t ever have seen one.”

“So he was just playing it safe?” Bolin asks. “Makes sense. Big object moving on its own toward his trainer… no other human around it… turns out it wasn’t even wrong. It doesn’t have to think ‘a rotom is possessing that fridge,’ or whatever bird thoughts would sound like, to think ‘that might be dangerous.'”

“Makes sense,” Blue admits. “I was hoping Zephyr might have had a way to notice that it was a Ghost type, maybe because of surrealism.”

Vlad shrugs. “Had the same thought, but it’s easy to test. My bet is Zephyr would do the same thing if we put a fridge on a dolly and pushed it toward you.”

“Where would we get a dolly?” Hitoshi asks.

Bolin grins. “Forget the dolly, where would we get a fridge? Borrow it from the gym cafeteria?”

“Why not? Bet we could get someone to sign off on it if we explain it’s for training.”

“Vlad,” Blue says. “Do you think wild pokemon would make the same mistake? Or is it something that the scouting program caused?”

Vlad looks skyward thoughtfully, then shrugs. “Nothing in particular that I saw in the program would cause it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Bretta asks. “Decoys?”

He blinks. “No, actually… but now that you mention it…”

“It’s been tried,” Bolin says with a dismissive gesture. “Life-sized, full color pokedolls, with speakers to make the right sounds… they can catch a wild’s attention, but not keep it.”

“Probably the cry that’s the most convincing, but one thing they lacked was motion,” Vlad points out. “That’s how most pokemon hunt and react to danger.”

“No, that’s how some pokemon do, maybe even the largest category, but most go off of colors or scents or sounds—”

Blue listens to them bicker and feels a stab of nostalgia before shaking it off. “In any case,” he interrupts, “It’s worth a try. Not sure how hard it would be to get them to consistently move in a battlefield, but if it draws even a couple attacks from wild pokemon it could be worth a lot.”

“There’s another mystery I’ve been working on,” Lizzy says. “I didn’t realize it until I saw on the video feed that when you first encountered him, Leader Surge’s raichu sent a thundershock at the ground in front of you, after attacking Zephyr.”

The others look at her expectantly, and finally Bretta nods. “Right, it was a warning shot to let him know where the boundary was. What’s the mystery?”

“Well, how could he do that?”

“I don’t follow,” Blue admits. “I had my rubber soles, he knew that, and…”

Lizzy is waving a hand. “It hit the ground in front of you, Blue. You were the tallest thing in your immediate vicinity. It was a massive risk!”

“It’s Leader Surge,” Hitoshi points out. “He’s probably trained that raichu so well it could hit a pokeball midair without shocking its thrower.”

“Right, but how? Did he somehow train his raichu to create an upward streamer that precise?”

The group is silent, glancing at each other. “Is that… would that be hard?” Hitoshi finally asks.

“Yes! Yes it would be hard, we don’t even know how pokemon do that!”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Bretta asks. “You’re a gym member now, and a badged one. You can probably request a brief meeting. Maybe Sabra or Aigerim would know?”

Lizzy blushes slightly, hand smoothing her clothes. “I… yes, I suppose I could do that. I will do that. Soon. When they’re less busy, maybe…”

Blue wants to point out that they’ll be leaving town soon, but Bretta is already talking about Lizzy’s confidence and how to build it up, so he lets it go for later. They reach the training rooms soon after, and unfortunately find the two largest arenas occupied already, one by a group of trainers doing mass target practice, another by what looks like an attempt to mimic their “defend the pokedoll” scenario.

Blue considers asking some of the occupants if they would use other rooms, especially since Glen’s group is challenging for their badge soon. The trainers would probably agree… but some might resent it, a little, or feel pressured to do so. He doesn’t want to get a reputation for using his status to bully others into special treatment.

So they make use of the smaller rooms for the next few hours, doing simple battle matchups in groups of two or four. They get plenty of large scale training done outside during the day, and more battle experience is rarely a waste. Blue knows Bolin and Elaine both have pokemon that are close to evolving, and if they can get them over that cusp before the challenge it would be a huge boost in combat ability. How much that will matter is hard to know without details of the scenario, but it can’t hurt.

Blue seeks out Vlad and suggests they train his swapping speed, which he knows the older boy has been working on. He agrees, and soon Blue’s hands move constantly to throw and catch Maturin, Ion, and Gon’s balls out, forcing Vlad to keep switching his fearow, sandslash, and magnemite out. Before long both have worked up a light sweat, the battle itself largely perfunctory as they focus on speed and accuracy.

For a few minutes they seem evenly matched, but Blue is spending most of his attention watching Vlad’s form. Once he thinks he’s spotted the weakness in technique, he starts speeding up, then adjusting where he throws his pokemon to be released.

Vlad adjusts to the pace well, but as soon as he has to catch an off center throw he starts moving more erratically, until a ball merely grazes his fingers and bounces against the wall. They both call for their pokemon to stop, and he jogs over to pick it up from where it rolled across the floor.

“You should try to use a point on your body as a reference,” Blue says, taking out his water bottle for a drink. “Your reflexes are good, but you’re releasing at a slightly different point each time. It forces you to keep adjusting instead of having a memorized position to catch from.”

“Right,” Vlad says as he reclips the ball to his belt, then wipes sweaty hands on his pants. “Who taught you all this? Your grandfather?”

Blue shrugs. “Yeah, but mostly it came down to practice. Before I got Maturin, getting good at throwing and catching seemed one of the best ways I could prepare for my journey. What about you? Did your parents teach you?”

“Nah, my parents focused on other stuff. It was Hitoshi’s dad that taught us all to throw.” He shakes his head. “Never felt like it stuck, for me, not as much as the others, but I guess I’m improving. Ready?”

“Yep.” They return to the battle, slow at first, then swiftly building back up to the earlier, rapid pace. Blue watches Vlad’s hands as they throw and catch, his own moving automatically, and smiles. “Nice spread!” he shouts between commands. “Much tighter!”

Vlad grins as he catches his sandshrew’s ball even as he summons his fearow again. “Thanks! Now go seriously!”

Blue does so, sinking entirely into his instincts so that he’s not consciously thinking between ordering attacks, predicting swaps, and switching his own to counter them. The sound of pokemon materializing and being sucked away fills the room with overlapping echoes.

It takes another minute for Vlad to miss a catch, and by then both are breathing hard. They stop the battle and summon all their pokemon to rest, then heal them of the few wounds that managed to get through the rapid displacements. Blue decides it’s as good a time as any to ask.

“So, what are your plans, after you all get your badges?”

“Not sure,” Vlad says as he sprays potion over his magnemite’s metal skin, the dent caused by one of Gon’s kicks slowly smoothing back out. “We were talking about maybe sticking around here. Surge does things so different from Celadon… and we’re learning a lot that will be useful for when we join the rangers.”

Blue nods, unable to argue with that. But Vlad isn’t done.

“But at the end of the day, even with these scenarios, we’re still fighting trainers, not wilds. I don’t want to be one of those people who think their pokemon’s strength is all that matters.”

“Ugh, I know what you mean. Trainers that spend months just battling in gyms and trainer houses until they can crush their next couple badge challenges… there are fewer of them here than I saw in Pewter or Cerulean, but there are some around.”

“Yeah. I’d rather do something useful with the time, and get skills beyond just battling.”

“So you’ll continue your journey?”

“Yep. I don’t know how the others feel about it, but personally I’d be happy to tag along with you guys, if you’ve got room in your group.”

Vlad’s tone is casual, and Blue doesn’t think it’s an act. If he hadn’t already decided to invite them along, that casual confidence would do it. “You’re still going to Ranger academy at some point though, yeah?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Was actually planning to ask you to come along if you didn’t,” Blue says, and Vlad grins.

“Cool. I’ll ask the others, after the match.”

A few minutes later they start again, practicing sideways and backwards throws, trying to push themselves to make catches in any circumstance until they’re too tired to continue and go to search the other rooms. They watch the end of Elaine’s battle with Chron, then find Glen in a room with the rest of his team, bouncing ideas off each other for new tactical maneuvers to try tomorrow.

When people start yawning and “resting their eyes,” he dismisses everyone to bed, and the twelve trainers head back outside. Most of them bring out an abra to teleport back to their trainer houses, exchanging goodnights as they go. Blue finds himself walking with Elaine and Glen through the dark gym grounds, and takes a deep breath of the smells of the city muted by mud and rubber and their uniforms. He’s going to miss this place, when they leave.

“You guys can go ahead, if you want,” Blue says. “I might stick around a bit longer.”

“Not tired,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Blue smiles, warmed by their desire to keep him company, and they start walking off the main path, toward the obstacle courses and outdoor targeting ranges.

“Oo, let’s do some laser light practice?” Elaine asks, rummaging through her bag.

“Sure.” He takes the thin laser pointer from her, then unclips Maturin’s ball from his belt as they approach the lined up pokedolls. In a normal battle having a hand taken up by an aiming device could be a huge liability, but in some circumstances, particularly those with low light, it can be a priceless extra form of command and precision.

He aims the laser at the doll in front of him, and Maturin tracks the beam. Two rapid clicks, and a water gun spurts out. Three, and a bubble beam fills the air with rapid pops. Four, and an ice beam flashes into existence, leaving an after-image in Blue’s vision.

The others do the same, Elaine with her golduck and Glen with his dugtrio, the latter without much success; the moles’ vision is notoriously poor, and they have trouble targeting pokedolls in general, as static objects. It makes Blue think of the decoy idea again, and how they could rig an object to best draw attention during battles. Leaf might have some ideas…

“Is it too soon to start talking about after?” Elaine asks as she tries to get her golduck to shoot smaller, quicker streams more accurately.

“Nah, it’s been on my mind lately too. I think Vlad and the others will be joining us.”

“Nice,” Glen says, moving his pointer around to ensure all three heads are tracking it before he clicks a sand-attack command. “But I thought they already had their Saffron badges?”

“Oh, we’re not going to Saffron next,” Blue says. “We’re heading to Celadon. Which reminds me…” He takes out his pokedex and starts tapping at it with one hand. “I need to finally get a growlithe on the way to Erika.” He’s been holding off on buying one online. He’s wanted one since he first laid eyes on the fiery dogs, and he wants to catch one himself, not just have it arrive in his PC without effort.

The other two are silent, and after a moment he glances at them to see surprise and confusion. “What?”

“Why Celadon next?” Glen asks. “Saffron is closer, and then Celadon would be on the way to Fuchsia…”

“Yeah, I know it’s not the fastest route, but Sabrina isn’t in Saffron. She’s been gone for what, two weeks now?”

“And… you think she won’t be back by the time we get there, and finish our challenge matches?”

Blue shrugs. “Maybe, but I already gave up on getting my badges as quickly as possible when I decided to become a member here.” The others are silent again, and Blue frowns at them. “What is it?”

Elaine’s voice is hesitant. “Are you sure that’s the reason, and it’s not to avoid Red?”

“Of course not. He’s learning from Sabrina, but he’s not a gym member.” Blue checked, but they don’t need to know that.

“Well, maybe not, but he’s still at the gym.”

Blue frowns. “What are you talking about?”

“He and one of the other students are doing some experiments at the gym. That’s what people on the Saffron forums are saying, anyway.”

Blue shrugs. “Well, I didn’t know that, so no, that’s not the reason.”

The other two are quiet again, and Blue sighs. “What? Spit it out.”

“Alright,” Glen says, facing the target in front of him as he clicks commands for his pokemon. “We’ve talked a few times, and have been wondering… what really happened, that day?”

Blue releases his laser’s button and turns to them with a frown. “Where is this coming from?”

“We didn’t know Red that well,” Elaine says, and takes a deep breath, turning her own laser off and sitting as she calls her golduck over for treats. “But we saw the way you and he got along before, and can tell from the way you react to him being mentioned now that something’s changed.”

Blue looks away, anger pounding in his temples even as her words ease the sense of betrayal that rises up. After the storm, he just told everyone that Red would be going to train with Sabrina. He thought he did a good job of not showing anything else, but…

“We know it has something to do with Aiko,” Elaine says, and despite the slight hitch in the name, her voice is firm, and when he turns he sees her gaze steady on his. “Leaf was so devastated, and it took me a few days to realize it wasn’t just from her death. When I asked a few days ago, she wouldn’t tell me, just said to ask you or Red. I figured I should ask you first.”

Blue wrestles silently with indecision. There’s still so much anger and frustration roiling in him, pacing circles in his chest and billowing fire through his body when he thinks of what Red did. What he said. Part of him thinks he should just tell them, and just get it over with. Another part worries that it might be too shocking, or demoralizing, to hear. Or that it would set a strange dynamic between them, one where they think he’s judging them if they say or do anything like Red.

But ultimately, it’s the idea of badmouthing his friend that really bothers Blue. He’s the one that made his friend try so hard to be a trainer, he can see that now. All Red ever really wanted to do was research, and if he turned out to actually be pretty good at battling, and seemed to enjoy doing it with Blue and the others in Vermilion, that still doesn’t mean he was cut out to be a trainer.

Spreading the story of what Red did would just undermine him, and the thought of turning people against his friend makes the fire in his chest snuff out, leaving a hollowness in its place. Despite what he did, Blue doesn’t bear him any ill will. There’s no reason to undermine his goals.

“You’re right that I haven’t been honest about it,” Blue says after a minute. “Sorry about that. But… it really is something private, and I’d rather not talk about it. Okay?”

Glen and Elaine look at each other, and Blue feels a stab of guilt. Don’t they deserve to know what really happened with Aiko? He stands and tucks the laser light in his pocket. “I’m heading to bed. See you guys in the morning.”

Elaine looks like she wants to say something further, but after a moment she dips her head. It bothers him a little to see it. Like a slight reversion to the way she was before they all talked her into being more assertive in the tunnels. “Night, Blue.”

“Goodnight.” Glen holds out a fist. “You know we’re here for you, right? If you need us.”

Blue taps his knuckles against the older boy’s. “I do. And I’m grateful, to both of you.”


Blue watches the wall of monitors come on one by one, each corresponding to a different drone camera. His hands are clenched in his lap to resist the urge to grab a pokeball off his belt and spin it… and he doesn’t even have his belt on him. He wondered if he would be as nervous watching the second group badge challenge as he was during his, but he’s definitely not; this is easily five times worse.

The battle is taking place to the east of the city, in a carefully cleared out corridor of open fields around a road between Vermilion and one of the neighboring towns. Blue watches through six airborne cameras as the cars come to a stop, then let the trainers out at the edge of the suburbs, where the highway becomes the only thing dividing the fields of grass that stretch out toward the hills in the distance.

He watches as Glen’s team immediately spreads out to scout the area, and wishes he could hear what they’re saying to each other. They all turn at some audible cue, watching another car approach. From out of it steps… an old lady, with a shuffling gait and a metal walker.

“Yes!” Chie says, fist raised as the others groan and curse. They’re all sitting in a room at the gym, set up specifically for them. There’s even a snack table. It feels like the honor it is, though it’s hard to appreciate fully with Blue’s stomach feeling like a clenched fist. “Pay up, everyone!”

“Hang on,” Chron says, “We don’t know yet if…” He trails off as Leader Surge’s voice comes through the speakers, welcoming the contestants to their badge challenge and praising the hard work they’ve put into their time at the gym before going into the rules themselves. Blue has a quick moment of regret over how this format does away with the back-and-forth between Leader and Challenger, and wonders how that might be fixed before he realizes Surge is describing the details of the challenge itself.

To earn your badges, each trainer must arrive in the town of Eastbay with their civilian and at least one pokemon in fighting shape, as judged upon arrival. The town is about a two hour walk from your current location. Upon crossing the threshold with your civilian, you will not be allowed back in the field. Good luck, challengers.”

“Yep, that’s an escort mission,” Blue says as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket and takes out a bill.

“Damn it,” Taro mutters as everyone hands his smiling sister some money. “Well, it’s straightforward at least. But why do they get two hours?”

“We should be happy for them,” MG says, sitting in her chair with legs raised in front of her. Her murkrow, Nyx, sits on her shoulder, matching the wide black hat she wears over the dark cloak that wraps around her whole body, just a sliver of face peeking out above her collar. Her newly won badge gleams on the rim of her hat. “The time pressure was the worst part of our challenge. For me, anyway.”

“Me too,” Chron says, and Blue nods agreement. “But I’m betting they make the battles harder to balance it out. And I’m not sure about the straightforwardness… what was that last bit, about going back after reaching the finish?”

“They have no reason to split up,” Lizzy says, voice thoughtful. “Maybe that will come later. Maybe the rule is there to keep one trainer from rushing ahead with the civilian to finish the match early? Everyone has to arrive together, or something.”

“Makes sense. But if so, and they all stay together the whole time, they’ll end up facing much different battles than we did.”

The conversation continues as the challenge begins, and they watch the six trainers set up a moving rectangular perimeter around the civilian: Glen takes the front left position with Vlad, Bolin and Bretta are directly to the civilian’s left and right, while Elaine and Hitoshi cover the rear. One of the camera angles shifts as it floats low for a moment, and it becomes clear that the “civilian” is of course a gym member wearing a wig. Blue wonders how much more coaching they might have given her than the last participants. They wouldn’t be recruiting this one to help them out, that’s for sure.

And then, once everyone has summoned their pokemon… they start walking. A fearow and noctowl scout ahead and around them, a dugtrio and sandslash burrow alongside their trainers to sense threats from below ground, and the rear trainers have a tangela and weepinbell entwined with their bags to watch behind them.

A minute passes, then two, and the screens show nothing but the seven figures steadily moving forward. The scenery stays the same, and no danger appears. Five minutes later, the group is still just walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And—

“For Arceus’s sake, someone attack them already!” Taro yells.

The room erupts with the laughter of released nerves. Blue’s hands have gone numb from gripping each other, and he shakes them after relaxing his grip. Lizzy squeaks something about going to use the bathroom before dashing off.

“The tension is probably even worse for them,” MG says matter-of-factly, hands turning her broad, dark hat around and around on her head. “Maybe that’s the challenge.”

“That, and keeping alert,” Chron says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and staring at it. “Shit, I’m sweating and I’m not even there! Wonder what they’re planning.”

“We should be able to figure it out.” Taro takes out a bill and holds it up. “I bet five bucks they’re going to wait for them to rest before striking. This is an attention test. Any takers?”

“Odds?” Chron asks.

“Uh… Five for five.”

“One to one, you mean. You need to make your bets more interesting, or else you’re barely doing more than flipping coins. I’ll bet one to three. My five to your fifteen.”

“That’s a terrible deal!”

“Then I guess you don’t really think it’s an attention test. See? You’re already learning something about yourself.”

“I’ll bet five against it,” Chie says. “And another five that there’s actually some secret objective they don’t know. Any takers?”

“Yeah, I’ll take that,” Blue says as he realizes how strongly he doubts that’s the case, voice thoughtful. “I think they’re just taking things to the opposite extreme.” Blue fiddles with his badges, twisting them around and around in their pins. He wonders how wide the net of gym members going ahead and to the sides of them is to keep wild pokemon from interfering. If one does anyway, would they just have to deal with it?

Do you think they’ll stop to rest at some point?” Taro asks.

“The civilian might force them to,” Chie notes. “There are too many unknowns to guess where the real challenge will come from. Hell, she might have a ‘heart attack’ or something just to introduce another challenge.”

Lizzy dashes back into the room, then stops as she sees them all still walking. Her face is pink as she returns to her seat, hands gripping her knees. Blue resists the urge to joke about how fast that was, remembering a certain tree and hill on the first day of his journey. He wonders if Leaf or Red are watching, then if they watched his own challenge, then realizes he’s being stupid. Leaf doesn’t watch battles if she can help it, and Red isn’t even a trainer anymore. Probably has more important things to do than care about what Blue’s up to…

Same goes for me and him. Blue forces his attention back to the challengers, who are… still walking. He sighs, slouching slightly in his chair as he glances at the time. It’s been almost ten minutes now.

“Wish we could hear what they’re saying,” MG notes. “I bet Elaine is joking about how easy their challenge turned out to be.”

The room chuckles. “Glen is probably reminding everyone to stay sharp,” Blue adds. It’s what he would be afraid of, some sudden attack while their attentions are elsewhere. “Then coming up with ways to do that. Maybe they’re playing spotting games.”

“First person who says something related to ‘grass’ ruins the game,” Taro says, and half the others immediately respond, “Bretta,” then laugh.

“Maybe there’s another objective,” Chron says. “A hidden one, you know?”

Taro turns to Blue. “Would Surge do that?”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t put it past him to set up new win conditions that get announced during the challenge itself. What I can’t figure out is what the purpose of this part would be. You’d think that—”

Everyone on the monitors suddenly stops as they distantly hear Bretta yell something, and Blue notices her dugtrio has emerged from the ground and is freaking out. It’s a split second of warning that changes everything when the ground suddenly erupts around them, kicking a cloud of dirt up as there are suddenly too many things to pay attention to at the same time.

On one monitor Blue watches Elaine hurriedly order her tangela to unwind from her as electricity visibly arcs through the ground in pulses, keeping them from advancing along the road. As Vlad and Bolin withdraw their flying pokemon to send out a gloom and another weepinbell, a flash of light draws his attention to another screen to reveal Glen’s snorlax, which immediately body slams the ground, making Blue’s jaw drop.

“By the Three,” Taro mutters. “What pokemon did Glen just murder? I couldn’t make it out. Rock or steel type?”

“I can’t see any of their attackers,” MG notes.

“Stunfisk,” Blue, Lizzy, and Chron say at the same time. He’d just noticed a yellow and orange patch on the ground that Hitoshi’s sandslash is burrowing into the ground and toward, but he recognized the tactic before that, since it was used on him in the city.

“You were right, Blue,” Lizzy adds with a frown. “They’re still not sticking to natural circumstances.”

“To be fair, they’d have what, a handful of pokemon to pick from if they did?” Chie says. “Only a few of which are electric, if I remember the area’s wilds right. What are the odds they’d run into a pond or muddy stream so the gym has an excuse to pull this on them?”

“Well it kind of ruins the scenario,” Taro disagrees, nervously tapping his foot as he watches Vlad switch to a ranged pokemon, only for his target to burrow underground. “It’s one thing in the city with our challenge. After a Stormbringer or stampede all kinds of pokemon can show up where they normally wouldn’t be. But six… no, eight stunfisk hiding along a road? Why test them in preparing for something that wouldn’t happen? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of these kinds of challenges?”

“No,” Blue says as he watches Glen’s screen, waiting for the inevitable. He knows it’s going to come, but when…? And does Glen? “The purpose of these challenges is measuring not just trainer skill, but teamwork. Preparing trainers for real situations is secondary.” Or maybe tertiary, if what they’re really preparing trainers for are Renegades… but Surge said that wasn’t it… “Come on, Glen, check,” he mutters.

As if hearing him, Blue’s friend finally stops directing the rest of the battle and turns back to his snorlax, ordering him to move. As Blue predicted, there’s nothing beneath the snorlax but an impression of its body against the grass, and a spot of churned earth where the stunfisk burrowed away. Or perhaps it just remained where it was.

Rather than keeping his snorlax tied up with guesswork, Glen brings his gloom out and orders it to cover the area in leech seeds, powders, and spores. Blue checks the others and sees them using a similar strategy, and soon the battle starts to wind down as they neutralize the ring of pokemon.

“Things aren’t starting well,” MG says, only her wide eyes visible as she hunkers in her robes and hat, staring at the screens. “Hitoshi lost two pokemon from that. Did anyone else?”

“Yeah, a few, but it’s okay,” Taro says, letting out a breath and stretching, which makes Blue realize how rigidly he’s sitting. “They’ll be able to heal up… actually, realizing that makes this all much less stressful.”

Chie is shaking her head as they watch a handful of gym trainers wearing grass ghillie suits suddenly sit up from the fields around the group, then move to withdraw their stunfisk. “Don’t you think the gym designed the challenge knowing that? There’s something we’re not getting here, I’m telling you.”

“Agreed,” Lizzy says as the revealed opponents head off in a group, leaving the challengers to deal with the aftermath of the battle. “Even with potions and revives and ether, they’ll get worn down eventually. Especially if they take severe wounds.”

Blue watches Glen and the others start summoning injured pokemon out to check them over and heal them. “They’d know not to keep their pokemon out too long and risk something debilitating… but this first attack took some of them by surprise, and there could already be permanent damage done.”

“Still, they were given their full travel bags,” Chron muses. “Could be a mix of testing for preparation, field care, attrition management…”

Blue is skeptical, but he’s not sure why. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Their challenge certainly wasn’t… in fact this could already be considered more complex when you consider the amount of different skills involved.

When the party eventually starts moving again, they do so far more carefully than before. As the minutes start to tick by again, the viewers start to relax, but the challengers on screen look as hyper-vigilant as ever, sometimes sending their pokemon out to check parts of the grass on either side of the road, or their fliers in wide circles that one of the drones will often track.

They’re going to be burnt out by the end of this. The others have started talking quietly among themselves, attention slipping from the repetitive scenery to speculate about what would come next and grab food and drinks from the snack table. Blue knows they’re covering for their own anxiety, but he can’t join them in the lighthearted banter and betting. He feels a helpless frustration as he imagines the level of strain they must be going through. This sort of test isn’t one they could have reasonably prepared for, and of course there’s nothing he can do now, but it still feels like he’s failing them by not being able to intervene in some way…

A hand touches his shoulder. Blue jumps slightly, then turns to see MG watching him, eyes knowing beneath her wide rimmed hat. “Relax,” she whispers. “Trust them.”

Blue takes in a deep breath, then lets it out. He hadn’t realized he’d been so obvious about it. “Never cared so much about a match I wasn’t in,” he admits. “Been a long time since I felt so useless.”

“I feel like that all the time,” she responds, withdrawing her hand to fold her arm back over her knees. “It’s comforting, knowing that I can’t mess anything up.”

Blue shakes his head. “You’re great, MG. I don’t want to sound like a motivational poster, but you really just have to believe in yourself more.”

“I think I’m getting better at that. But it’s still different from when I’m in battle.”

Blue blinks, then nods. “It is. I hadn’t thought you’d noticed, from the way you act outside it.”

“I’ve been talking to Elaine. She said she had a similar problem.” MG’s hands clasp her legs through her cloak. “I don’t want to distract people into worrying about me. But battles are the only time I feel in control. They make more sense than… other things.”

Blue wants to ask what things, but the room has suddenly gone quiet, and his head whips around to view the monitors, where he sees… nothing. Just that the group has stopped walking.

“What… did we miss something?”

“No, they just all slowed together. They must see something ahead?”

“Definitely. Notice how often they’re all looking forward now, instead of to the sides or behind?”

“Come on, cameras, pan out…”

One of the drones finally does, and the room holds their breath as they see…

…a body. Lying in the road.

Oh…

“Is that…?”

“Shiiit…”

Oh, no…

“There it is,” Chron mutters, shaking his head, but Blue barely hears him, remembering a field of beedrill, the buzzing they made, the sense of impotence as he looked upon a body whose name he can’t even remember…

After a few moments, Elaine summons her golduck and sends him toward the body alone. Blue smiles despite his dread, glad Leaf shared the story of how she caught Joy with them. Everyone on both sides of the screens watches the blue figure approach the body without any obvious reaction, then finally reach it and stand still, probably from another command from Elaine.

A tense thirty seconds pass, and then most of them are running forward while Bretta and Vlad stay with the “old lady.”

Elaine picks a sheet of paper up from the body as Glen checks its pulse, then abruptly stops and looks up at Elaine.

“Five to one the paper says he’s dead,” Chron says. “And describes what wounds he died from.”

“I’ll take that,” Taro says as they watch the group listen to Glen say something, and suddenly four of them are taking out their bike containers and putting on pads and helmets. Bretta and Vlad keep walking with their charge, a bit faster than before. They got it, Blue thinks with relief.

“So,” he says. “Ten dollars to one that they each have to have a civilian to get their badge?”

The room is quiet, until Chie says, “Does that mean someone’s already lost?”

“We don’t know how many there are,” Taro says, sounding more hopeful than reassuring. “Maybe that was a warning. To let them know that speed does matter in some way…”

“Ugh.” Chie stands and starts pacing. “What a dirty trick! Putting those stunfisk there, of course they’d go slower after… wait, does this count as a hidden objective?”

“Nah, it was right there in the opening instructions. They were intentionally vague just so a moment like this could happen, sooner or later, but the last part was a clue after all.”

MG is watching Blue intently, her murkrow eating nuts she’d placed on the brim of her hat. “Odds that someone has already lost their badge?”

Blue shakes his head. “One to four? One to five, maybe? I think that’s exactly the question Surge wants them to be thinking, now. Maybe it was possible to get there faster and help the civ, but either way the real hook is revealed…” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “But maybe I just want to think that. It just seems unfair if they’re penalized for doing what seems safest at the time without even knowing there were other civilians ahead.”

“I’ll take one to your five that there’s more than six civilians in total,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Without comment on whether they could have saved that one.”

“Deal,” Blue says as the four trainers bike ahead in a square, each using flying pokemon to scout around them as they focus on speed. Blue wonders if there’s any chance that the civilians would be off the main road, but surely they wouldn’t make them search through all the fields between Vermilion and Eastbay. They would have to double back and spread out from the road just to be sure…

Two minutes of uninterrupted biking pass, and some of the tension starts to fade again. The others begin betting on what they think the next challenge will be, but Blue just watches the scenery fly by. He wishes they were allowed their phones, so he could keep track of how far Eastbay is now that they’re biking. He keeps glancing at the two screens for the drones that stayed with Bretta and Vlad, waiting for another surprise to come from them. But they seem fine, just steadily walking forward at a moderate pace.

Blue’s continued focus keeps him from being surprised when they abruptly skid their bikes to a stop, and a jolt of adrenaline goes through him as one of the cameras turns to reveal a zebstrika racing across the grass, a trainer on its back. “Guys!”

The challengers scramble off their bikes and call back their pokemon, drones picking up the four sharp notes at four slightly overlapping times. It’s hard to judge distances without a wide angle shot, and at first it seems like they’ll be okay, but zebstrika are fast—Blue’s fingers grip his knees as he watches Bolin’s noctowl and Elaine’s pidgeotto get intercepted on their way back to withdraw range, bolts of electricity dropping them out of the air.

Taro curses as their friends are forced to break rank and rush forward to return their shocked pokemon to their balls. “It’s fine, they’ll heal them after,” he mutters almost to himself. “A single attack wouldn’t hurt them too bad, right? Especially ranged?”

“Zebstrika can’t conduct electricity as well from afar,” Lizzy reluctantly confirms, voice low. “But they’re not terrible at it. They’ll still need serious healing.”

No one offers to make bets on that. Blue tears his eyes from the screens to take in the room. Everyone looks tense and worried, MG nearly hiding her eyes behind her collar. Blue takes a deep breath and forces his body to relax as he looks back at the screens. He needs to appear calm, confident, for their sakes. “They’ll be okay. A single zebstrika won’t be too hard to take down, even if its trainer summons a second pokemon they would still be at a a strong disadvantage…” He quickly checks on Bretta and Vlad to make sure they’re not being ambushed too, but they seem fine.

The zebstrika rider, meanwhile, doesn’t summon a second pokemon. They don’t even get off their first one. They just… ride away, a glowing streak of white against black that one of the cameras follows for a moment, before returning to the group of four, who seem… well, shocked. They’d just finished summoning their new pokemon and arranging themselves in defensive positions, but when it becomes clear that the attacker is not sticking around, Elaine and Bolin bring their injured pokemon out and begin healing them while the others keep careful watch. Once that’s done, they swap once again to faster pokemon, but avoid flying ones as they get back on their bikes and start riding again, slightly slower.

Blue relaxes a little further, glad they’re expecting another attack. He really does need to trust Glen and the others more. The abruptness of the attack is still jarring, and he can tell the others feel the same by how quiet they are, each probably wondering how they would have handled what happened. Or maybe that’s just him.

It’s Chie that breaks it. “Bet five it was Paul. He’s the only one crazy enough to ride into battle on a zebstrika.”

The silence persists a moment longer, then Taro says, “I’ll take that, our gym’s got plenty of crazy to go around,” the words threaded with pride.

“I’ll do three to one that it was Sabra,” Chron adds. “They would want someone with authority doing something so risky.”

“I’ll take that too,” Taro grins. “Sabra wouldn’t just run by as a hazard, she fought against us.”

“Different scenario, different rules,” Chron reminds him. “And they might still fight. Wonder if Surge will fight this ti—yep, there it is.”

The zebstrika is indeed back, and without flying pokemon to target it doesn’t loop around them, simply getting close enough to electrocute Hitoshi’s raticate before racing off. Once again the challengers stop, but this time Hitoshi just swaps his pokemon with a nidorina, and then they’re riding again, heads craning in every direction to keep an eye out for—

Two of them, this time, and spotted in time to swap their pokemon to ground and grass types. Flame Charge, Blue thinks, sucking in a sharp breath, and indeed, the air around the zebstrika begins to shimmer with heat as they barrel toward Elaine’s tangela and Hitoshi’s gloom.

It’s Bolin that rescues them, his sandslash kicking a cloud of dirt up… not at either of the two charging pokemon, but at their targets. Both zebstrika riders veer off rather than risk hitting each other in the cloud, then gallop off into the distance.

The room lets out a collective breath as the trainers quickly swap their pokemon and remount their bikes, clearly intending to keep moving as the zebstrika circle around in wide arcs.

“How are they supposed to fight back with the trainers riding their pokemon?” Lizzy asks, then shakes her head. “That’s the point, isn’t it? They’re not.”

Chie nods. “The goal isn’t to beat them, it’s to slow them down. They might try to win that way if they can, but this is safer, and makes it more challenging for them.”

Blue nods, rubbing his neck as he stretches some of the tension out of his shoulders. What would he do against just constant harassment by pokemon that are so fast they can just keep engaging and disengaging at will? “This really is unlike anything we’d ever face. Wild pokemon don’t act like this, and trainer matches are in arena, have rules that would keep the battle ongoing…”

“It actually kind of reminds me of your match with Surge,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Letting Zephyr stay out of range, trusting in Brave Bird to get into the arena on time…”

“Yeah, good job Blue,” Taro says with a smile. “You inspired an impossible challenge.”

His sister reaches out and flicks his ear. “Don’t be stupid, Surge has seen a lot more battles than we have, particularly in the war. He probably got this tactic from there.”

Blue’s eyes widen, thoughts shifting suddenly in a new direction. He watches the zebstrika appear again, racing after the bikes and swiftly catching up before sending electricity out in broad waves, resorting to attempts to paralyze now.

That’s it. The traps, the pokemon having TM moves, the coordinating enemy tactics… the objectives of each scenario are the sorts of things that trainers might face in incidents or their journeys, but the battles are against pokemon that are explicitly trained with more than winning battles in mind.

The scenarios aren’t trying to prepare them for some lone, crazy renegades. They’re for coordinating against enemy trainers, with their own opposing, tactical goals.

Like in a war.

“…pretty big risk,” Lizzy is saying, and Blue focuses on the conversation again, still a little dazed by the realization and unsure if he should share the thought. He might be wrong… “What if they get hurt?”

“It would be on them, wouldn’t it?” Taro says. “You can’t run into an attack during a battle and then accuse your opponent of being a Renegade.”

“But you also can’t order an attack after your opponent has run into the field,” Chron points out. “Once you can reasonably assume the risk, that puts culpability on you.”

“Then this is ridiculous,” Taro says, throwing his hands up. “Is part of the challenge being legal experts now too?”

“You were talking about crazy,” Chie notes, smiling slightly. “I dunno if it’s true, but it could be valuable… I mean, Blue was in a situation like this, sort of. And Hunters have to walk a fine line themselves, don’t they?”

“In theory.” Chron shrugs. “I heard it’s really rare for them not to get a Kill on Sight order these days, if they’re used at all. Do you know, Blue?”

“No. Never really looked into it.” It’s hard to focus on the conversation, thoughts distracted by a sense of cold that’s creeping through his body. If the scenarios really are meant to train people to be better at fighting other people, whether Renegades or in war… then what did Blue spend all this time helping develop them for? They were meant to be another tool to prepare people for dealing with incidents. For taking down the stormbringers.

He has to talk to Surge about this, after the match. He’s leaving soon, so he knows his opinion won’t matter much… they won’t ever really be a part of shaping the gym’s scenario challenges. But now Blue is thinking that maybe they should be…

“They see something!” Lizzy says, interrupting the conversation and drawing Blue’s gaze from the floor to the screens. The challengers are indeed biking faster, as if trying to outpace attacking zebstrika hadn’t been motivation enough, and the reason becomes clear a moment later as a pair of civilians appears on the screens. One looks like a comedically underprepared-for-travel young Joey, shorts and all, the other a hiker that seems to be injured. The four trainers set up around them, withdrawing their bikes and bringing out their ground and grass pokemon again as the zebstrika approach.

Everyone’s more prepared now: Ground attacks disrupt their opponents’ footing while the Grass pokemon set up hazard zones that would pen the zebstrika in. Their opponents once again choose to flee rather than risk being taken down, and as soon as they’re racing away Glen is kneeling beside the hiker. He opens the man’s bag, probably at his unheard instructions, and releases a container ball. In its box they find a wheeled stretcher, and everyone works together to help the man lie on it.

“Something wrong with his leg that potions can’t fix,” Chron notes. “Ten to one. Just another way to slow everyone down.”

“Forcing them to split up,” Blue adds with a nod, and looks back at Bretta and Vlad. Still walking, their charge still shuffling along with her cane. “Two people escort them back to meet up with the others in case the zebstrika come against them, and the other two move ahead on their own… but it’s a risk without knowing which the zebstrika will go after.”

“What would you do?” Chron asks.

Blue opens his mouth, then closes it, considering. “Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no safe option, they have to just try and minimize their risks… and if was in Glen’s position…” Blue grins as he sees his friend summon his snorlax. “…I’d try to focus it all on me.”

On the screen Glen stands beside his newly summoned snorlax as the other three mount their bikes and start riding away… without the civilians. The Joey was apparently convinced to drag along the hiker’s wheeled stretcher, and the three of them begin to walk… not back toward the others, but forward.

Nice job, Glen. Blue looks at the other screens to confirm, and yes, there’s Vlad summoning his bike and leaving Bretta to hurry toward Glen, drone following overhead.

“He’s going to guard against them alone?” Taro shakes his head, voice admiring. “Lot of crazy going on at this gym.”

The trainers that pedal ahead ride single file, and after they’ve been riding for about a minute the zebstrika return. Glen summons his gloom to help battle them, and they come from both sides, forcing Glen into a battle on two fronts.

Snorlax can’t quite hit his opponent as it shocks him from afar, not without leaving his charges, and the zebstrika could run circles around him anyway. But it can tank the hits and keep it distracted while Glen focuses on the other one, swapping his gloom out as soon as the Flame Charge starts and replacing it with a sandslash.

They should both be coming from the same side, ignoring the snorlax, Blue thinks, but no, even with their speed Glen could easily use his pokemon as a pivot, and they need to be close to hit the gloom (or the civilians, if they were actually planning on doing that).

The battle is more manageable when their focus is where Glen wants it, and the riders aren’t slowing the trainers down much now that the other three are biking forward. They seem to realize this, and eventually turn to ride away…

… just as a “family” of pikachu race toward Bretta, Aigerim trailing behind them, and Vlad suddenly swerves to avoid a jolteon that’s standing in the road, fur glowing with electricity. The three biking trainers soon find their path impeded too, a literal field of mareep and flaafy grazing and occasionally sending sparks between each other.

“This is it, then,” Taro says, face set in a solemn mask as he slowly sits back in his chair. “The real battle finally starts now…”

“Awww,” Lizzy says, leaning forward. “Look at all the fluffers, they’re just so cute!”

The tension breaks, and Blue exchanges grins with the others as Taro mutters, “Yeah, adorable.” Their friends have stopped pedaling and clearly started discussing what to do. Blue spots the trainers that are guiding all the pokemon, and shakes his head when he sees them dressed as ranchers. He wonders what the story is… pokemon that have gotten loose, or grazers walking their flock through a warzone.

The door to the room suddenly opens, and everyone’s surprise turns to shock as they see their Second. Sabra has changed out of her riding gear and into a casual uniform, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a chair in the other.

Everyone stands at attention even as she gestures them back to their seats, smiling. “Just here to watch the match, same as all of you. Mind if we join?” She steps out of the doorway, revealing another gym member behind her that Blue only knows by face.

He carries his own chair and sets it down behind Taro and Lizzy, while Sabra plops hers down next to Blue. “Of course not, but… weren’t you going to participate in the match?”

“Oh, we already did. Who do you think was riding the zebstrika?” She grins.

Blue feels a familiar, dull stab of envy over the advantage that being able to teleport gives, while Taro groans and Chie checks if Paul was the other rider. He was, and Taro sighs as he hands his money over to Chron and his sister.

Sabra takes a long drink from her water bottle, and Blue catches a scent that makes him suddenly revise whether it actually contains water. “Enjoying the show so far?”

“It’s been utterly nerve-wracking,” Blue admits, gaze jumping back to Bretta’s battle. She’s… not battling at all, actually. All the pikachu are in the field nearby while the old lady quickly hobbles forward, Bretta walking beside her and watching the rodents. The pokemon look like they’re… eating? Did she throw food into the grass? Blue grins, glad their trainer had accepted that and commanded his pokemon to eat it, despite it not fitting Blue’s ideas of what the scenario represents. Maybe these in particular are meant to be wild pokemon, which is why it looks like just a family of ‘chu traveling together?

Sabra is beaming at him. “Thanks! Past couple weeks have been good fun.”

Blue snorts, but he’s smiling too. He certainly couldn’t disagree with that, and he can easily imagine how the otherwise serious gym culture enjoyed their task even more than Blue and his friends did. Blue notes that Vlad has chosen to ignore the jolteon, which is racing after him, its trainer now revealed to be on their own bike and commanding it to shock Vlad’s dugtrio, to minimal effect. Still, it’s promising to be a pain for him and Glen when he stops.

“Oo, they reached the mareep field! Ha… of course they’re just going to try and walk through.” Sabra shakes her head.

“Wait, what’s another option?” Taro asks. “Not fight them all, right?”

“Well, it is, if a pretty dumb one. But I’m just here to heckle and watch, not spoil anything. Maybe someone will think of it.”

By the time they get to the other side, Vlad finally reaches Glen, and the two fight off the jolteon, then swap roles. Glen rides ahead, the Joey riding behind him on the bike, while Vlad attaches the hiker’s stretcher to his bike with rope and starts slowly towing him forward.

With no immediate battles in sight, the viewers start to relax again. There’s some relief that they found another civilian in the mareep field, this one actually capable of keeping up with them… or at least not slowing them as much.

That’s four. Just two more… “How much more is left?” Blue asks Sabra as the others chat with Paul. “You can at least share that, right?”

“The mareep field is about two thirds of the way there,” she says between mouthfuls of pretzels.

Blue nods, then asks, “And why are the scenarios training us for war?” He’d lowered his voice, but kept his tone casual, and watches Sabra out of the corner of his eyes as his gaze stays on the screens.

She merely grins at him, no surprise on her face. “What an interesting idea. I wonder what Surge would think of it.”

Blue sighs, but nods. He’ll have to wait to ask him after all.

The next half hour passes without any major shocks, just more obstacles and harassment. Blue feels something in him relax when they find the final two “civilians,” who turn out to be trainers that were under attack and barely fending off a small swarm of magnemite.

Glen has rejoined the other three, and together they save the two trainers, causing a cheer among the observers. With six civilians found, alive, Blue feels like the worst is past.

He checks the others to see Vlad carefully guiding the hiker through the mareep field, while Bretta and her charge bring up the rear slowly but surely. She’s seen the least combat so far, and part of Blue still fears a lingering worry that some twist is waiting for her…

“Yes!” Blue turns to see Taro standing, fists raised, and follows his gaze.

There it is. One of the cameras is pointed forward, where the town’s proximity sensors can be distantly made out, At the edge facing the road, a banner set up, the word “Finish” written across it. The four trainers slow to a stop, and their civilians slow with them, looking back in obvious confusion. The trainers ignore them, however, and start moving back toward Vlad and Bretta. After a moment the civilians follow, apparently unsure whether they’re supposed to go on to safety or not.

“What are they doing?” Paul asks, and the others chuckle, which just seems to confuse him further.

“It’s a silly rule, really,” Blue says. “Not letting them go back after dropping the civilians off. I get that it’s supposed to add a hard choice, but really… you think we’re not going to go back for each other, and all cross the finish line together?”

Sabra is looking at her watch, but the others are already talking about how they’ll celebrate. The challenge does seem like a done deal, now; with all six trainers together, Blue’s expecting one final battle, but he’s confident they can handle it…

“Woah. What’s up with Bretta?”

Blue snaps his gaze to her monitor, two hours of anticipation for the other shoe to drop finally culminating. The older girl has just reached the mareep field, and… they’re moving. Together, a yellow mass dotted with pink, all walking toward the others…

No. Stampeding toward the others, as Bretta summons her pokemon one at a time, almost frantically as the old woman hobbles after the mareep as fast as she can.

“Did she do something?” Lizzy asks, voice worried. “Set off some trap?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it…” Blue feels his heart pounding. “This will push the others out, they can’t try and stop a tide of mareep, nor ride around it to rejoin Bretta on the other side, not with the civilians to protect…”

The others seem to know it, because they suddenly stop, no doubt warned by Bretta. Vlad has just reached them, and he’s arguing with someone as he starts untying the hiker.

“Shit,” Chron says, voice low. “He’s going back for the civilian… through the mareep? Why? Bretta is on the other side…”

“But she’s not facing the mareep,” Lizzy says. “None of them are attacking her. She didn’t summon her pokemon for them, she’s facing… the other way…”

Blue watches as Vlad gets back on his bike, a lightning rod in one hand, and starts pedaling furiously back toward Bretta, the stretcher still attached as the other four trainers stare after him… then quickly start ushering the civilians toward the finish line as the camera pans to show the mareep stampede approaching.

Blue looks at Sabra. “What’s happening?”

The Second looks back at him as she takes another drink, then caps the bottle. “Time’s up.”

“Bretta, come on, go!” Chie mutters. The older girl still where she was… standing guard at the rear, her civilian still hobbling away. “What’s she doing?

“Guarding against something,” MG says, voice quiet. “Something that set off the stampede.”

As Blue watches in numb shock, the mareep flood toward Vlad. He hops off his bike at nearly the last second and plants the lightning rod into the ground just as the stampede flows around it, errant shocks being redirected into the ground.

Lizzy suddenly yelps, a sound of fear that opens the gate to the others’ surprised exclamations, and Blue looks at each screen until he sees…

…a dragonite. Wings stretched out, golden-orange scales gleaming in the sun, the beat of its wings vaguely audible as it approaches the rearmost drone, which is hovering between it and Bretta.

On its back, sitting in its saddle, is the unmistakable figure of Leader Surge.

“That is not an electric pokemon!” Lizzy says, hands gripping her knees. She sounds almost… cheated. “Neither was the blastoise, but is it too much to ask that Surge sticks to—”

A wave of electricity spreads through the dragonite’s scales, lighting its whole body up for the duration of a blink, and then a bolt of electricity connects from its antennae to Bretta’s golbat. It drops, unmoving.

Lizzy sits back in her chair, a guilty fascination flashing across her expression. The rest of them watch in quiet horror as their friend quickly withdraws her golbat while ordering a sleep powder from her weepinbell… which the dragonite scatters to the side with a flap of one wing, then opens its mouth to bathe the weepinbell in fire.

“Oh, come on,” Chron mutters, shifting in his seat, knee bouncing. “What the hell is she supposed to do against that?”

Bretta withdraws her weepinbell and sends out her graveler, but Blue knows what’s coming next. Sure enough, even as her pokemon is preparing to attack, the dragonite opens its mouth again, and a beam of white light covers the graveler in frost, a crack resounding loud enough for the drones to pick up.

The room has gone deathly silent, and Blue feels his nails digging into his palms, barely able to think through his rising anger. Chron is right, this isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

What can I do? I have to do something

It’s a stupid thought. All he can do is watch.

Vlad is through the stampede now, and he leaves the lightning rod in the ground as he rights his bike and starts pedaling again, bringing the gurney to the hobbling civilian. Blue looks to see the others have ushered the other five toward the Finish, but stop at the last meter. They watch the yellow and pink wave approach, but still they wait… for what, Blue isn’t sure. Perhaps a miracle.

Bretta keeps sending out pokemon, trying desperately to keep the dragonite at bay. Blue notices out of the corner of his eye that Sabra isn’t watching the screens anymore, but rather is studying him. He looks back at her, and in her gaze sees something that stokes the spark of heat in his chest: a glimmering, focused interest.

“What is this?” he whispers, anger barely leashed as he also turns away from the screens, from the oncoming, inevitable end. It doesn’t make sense, there’s nothing they can do about this… even if all six of them were together they might not be able to stop a dragonite…

“A test,” she murmurs, voice low enough that only he can hear over the others’ worried chatter. “To see what the rest of your friends will do, if put in a situation similar to the one Red and Aiko were in. That Jack was in.”

Blue’s anger gets doused, a chill spreading through him instead. “What… why?”

“I want to know what kind of trainers you’re shaping, for one thing. But more than that, it’s our first chance to see what trainers will do in situations like this, in a controlled environment. To prepare them.”

He stares at her, trying to process this. It’s… an experiment? “Why them? Why not in our challenge?” Why not when he could do something about it?

“Who do you think decided to fill a building with voltorb?”

Blue gapes, then shuts his mouth as the next pulse of anger chases away the dread, filling his chest with heat again. He could see it… one of his teammates goes in, the voltorb start charging electricity to some unknown timer, Blue has to either go in to start clearing them or let his teammate… “You were trying to force me into the same situation Aiko was in?” he asks, struggling to keep his voice low.

“Not you specifically. This isn’t really about you, and besides, I’m pretty sure I know your answer already.” The Second shrugs, seeming completely unapologetic.

“But then… why didn’t you just put a civilian in there, have them shout for help?” he asks, thinking of the civilian that the rotom was nearby.

“Oh believe me, I wanted to, but Surge vetoed it.” Sabra sighs. “Said it was ‘too difficult a challenge’ to make it necessary for victory, instead of a hazard for a risky choice. Spoilsport.”

The fact that Surge considered anything else too difficult seems absurd given what’s unfolding on the screens. Vlad finishes strapping the civilian onto the stretcher… then turns to Bretta, standing alone against the dragonite, clearly realizing that even with her civilian now having a chance of being rescued, she can’t disengage.

“And you… had higher hopes for us?”

“Oh, no, you would have had to pull off something genius to get everyone out of it alive.” Her eyes gleam as she tips her head back, taking a deep drink from her bottle. “But it would have been interesting to see you try.”

And Blue turns back to the screens a final time to watch Vlad make his choice.

Bretta is down to her second to last pokemon, and her hand shakes slightly as she summons a poliwhirl. Surge waits until it sends out an ice beam, the dragonite flinching for the first time as frost covers its chest and shoulder… and then electricity races across its scales, flashes, and the poliwhirl falls.

And Vlad…

Vlad gets on his bike and rides away, the extra, now-unnecessary civilian still weighing him down. Blue feels something in his heart lurch at the sight of him, face down, shoulders hunched. Body language that radiates a sense of shame, of defeat, even as he pedals as fast as he can to race the civilian away, despite there being an extra civilian already waiting at the finish line for him.

The mareep have reached the town, and the rest of the team has ushered the civilians across the finish line, then set up a defensive wall to protect them. A sharp note sounds, as the front line of mareep approach them, and suddenly the whole flock stops running, and goes back to grazing.

Bretta’s last pokemon falls. One of the extra cameras is holding a close-up of her face, streaked with tears as she stares up at the dragonite and its rider.

Leader Surge salutes her, arm moving in two crisp motions, and then the dragonite is moving past her in a streak as she kneels beside her last pokemon, hands full of medicine, then drops them and withdraws it.

The room isn’t quite silent, as they watch the end. Someone is sniffling. Someone else’s chair creaks as they rock back and forth on it. Blue looks at the others, sees the anger, the despair. He has a moment of clarity, even in his own swirling pain and impotent rage, a reminder that this is just a challenge match. All that’s been lost is a badge, at most. Some time. Some pride. He knows that pain. He survived it, and they will too.

But it feels like more.

He watches as the dragonite effortlessly cuts Vlad off. There are perhaps fifty yards left between him and the mass of mareep, which is rapidly being withdrawn into balls by a small crowd of gym members. Glen and the others watch from afar, a silent line. So close, and yet so far.

Vlad gets off his bike, legs shaking with exhaustion (just exhaustion), and unclips a ball.

“No,” Surge says, voice a shock as it is suddenly heard, once again, through the speakers. “It’s enough.”

Vlad collapses back onto the ground, one hand over his face as he takes deep breaths. Bretta was walking in their direction, and now she breaks into a run as the first civilian unstraps herself from the stretcher and stands. As Bretta reaches them and falls to the ground beside Vlad, arms around his shoulders, the civilian takes off her wig and stretches her back and shoulders before going to stand respectfully by the sitting trainers, hands behind her back and chin up before her Leader.

“What we all just witnessed,” Surge says for all to hear, on the field and off, “is the kind of act that cannot be judged by any other.”

Blue can hear nothing but his heart pounding in his ears, a strange mix of emotions warring in him.

“Not by a judge, interpreting law. Not by a commander, directing a battle. We do not know how we will act in a moment such as this until we have experienced it. We do not know what it will cost us. We do not know the consequences of what could have been, had we chosen differently.

“Everyone on this field today performed bravely, and intelligently, and skillfully. The rules of engagement say only those four that reached the end have earned their badge, and the rules are sacred. But I say to you two here, that you are no less than they. Never think it. The badges we dispense are marks of skill and experience, and poor enough at that. They cannot be confused for marks of character, or potential.”

Vlad is looking up, finally, as is Bretta, the two of them seemingly unafraid of the massive beast in front of them. Their gazes are only for Surge.

“Your challenge matches will be tomorrow night, or the next, if you prefer. I will do my best to make them fair matches, to defeat you both and not cheat you of the sense of accomplishment. But in my mind you have both already earned the mark of mastery from my gym. Your badges will be inscribed with a different date than your team mates’… and that difference should be worn with pride.”


The celebration is muted, given the circumstances. Glen was going to postpone it until the next night, and Blue suggested everyone help Bretta and Vlad prepare for their matches, but Vlad insisted that two (or even three) celebrations are better than one, and Bretta declared that she’s too tired for any training tonight anyway, so they might as well relax and enjoy themselves.

So that’s what they do, or at least, Blue watches the others do so. His thoughts, of course, are still on what happened. On what it meant, if anything. On what it changed, if anything.

What Red did, and what Vlad did, are different. Their situations are different. The results are different.

But when Blue was watching it all unfold… as he watched Vlad decide, between a doomed attempt to save his friend, and a chance to save himself and the civilian…

Blue didn’t feel an answer. He didn’t find a solution. On both sides, there was only pain. And that was true even before Vlad rushed away from the gate, away from the badge he’d earned, to try and save Bretta in the first place.

It was too much like Red choosing to come to Vermilion in the first place, and the comparison made it clear that for Blue it’s never just been a matter of cowardice vs selflessness.

He understands why Gramps came for him during the storm. Of course he does. He doesn’t feel worthy of his grandfather’s life, and the risk is just too high in a way it’s not with Daisy: a certainty rather than a risk, poison rather than a dice roll. But people still face certain death for those they care about, even if the recipient doesn’t want them to. He can both not want Gramps to make that choice for him, and understand why he does.

What he couldn’t forgive was that Red didn’t care for Aiko the way his grandfather cares for him. That he might not care for Blue the way Blue cares for him.

Surge said the act couldn’t be judged, but Blue still feels the hurt, the disappointment. Is that not judgement?

He’s not sure.

But the anger

The anger feels like it’s missing. Like it’s sucked all the air out of the room it was in, leaving an emptiness he doesn’t understand.

As the dinner comes to a close, and the quiet chatter (with occasional bursts of laughter, relieving to hear but still odd to Blue’s ears) starts to fade, he stands in his seat and looks around at the others, who immediately go silent. They’d rented a private room at a restaurant, and in the dim gold light of the room, he sees expressions of anticipation, curiosity, content… and worry. Probably worry over how quiet he’s been. Whether he’s upset.

He’ll have to fix that. To make sure they understand what it means to him, to be part of a journey like this together. What sorts of things he expects of them, to ensure they’re not just willing, but aware.

“I can’t say anything that Surge didn’t, and better,” Blue says, and swallows. “I… agree with it all. But there’s something else I have to share, and you two especially deserve to know. About why this happened.”

Vlad and Bretta look relieved, but also confused. “It happened because we didn’t deal with the mareep flock right,” Bretta says. “We went over it already in the debrief.”

She doesn’t seem to notice any irony in saying “we” when she’s the one person on the team that didn’t actually have a chance to make that mistake. “That’s a lesson we all learned, yeah. But there’s a reason that sort of absolute test was included at all.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Glen and Elaine are watching him with particular intensity, and he meets their gaze briefly before looking back at everyone else. “I trust you all, and want to ask that what I share with you here not leave the room. I won’t make it a request. But hopefully you’ll understand when I’m done.

“It has to do with the night Aiko died…”