All posts by Damon Sasi

Trauma

There’s a danger mode that society has been engaging in for years (decades/centuries/millenia?) that simply denied trauma. It was ignorant of trauma, or acted as if it didn’t exist, or verbally repudiated it. People were expected to tough out bad things that happened to them. Men especially were not allowed to express it, except (eventually) if it occurred as the result of war.

The pendulum has swung somewhat, and I hear rumblings of worry about whether we’re treating trauma too seriously. If we’re over-correcting and making things out to be more traumatic than they “really are,” and to what degree trauma is the result of people being told that something that happens to them is “traumatic” or is made a big deal of. This second failure mode concerning trauma is the worry that someone will fall off their bike, scrape their knee, and be taken to the hospital amidst parental tears and shock, thus cementing a lifelong fear of bikes or intolerance of pain.

While I think this second failure mode is probably true for things like how offended or outraged people get by things, I don’t think it’s in our sight-lines just yet for “actual trauma.” Over protective parents are a thing, always have been. If a kid falls off their bike, they are much more likely to cry if their parent freaks out. And yes, to some degree how society treats a thing will inform how people react to it. There are some people who are sexually molested or emotionally abused and essentially move on from it without ever telling anyone, or seeking professional help. This is particularly something you’ll hear from people who are older, and grew up before modern perspectives on trauma or awareness of abuse or rape was as prevalent as it is. There’s a fairly famous older man who got in some hot water for saying something like “Well, I was raped a number of times at the male boarding school I went to, and it sucked, but that was just a thing that happened. The older boys would do that often to the younger ones. It wasn’t the end of the world.”

People will look at accounts like this and be somewhat reinforced in believing that the response to traumatic events is moderately, or even largely, to blame for how traumatic it is.

But the thing to remember about trauma is that by its nature it is anti-correlated to reports and disclosures. You will hear more from the people who recovered from traumatic events or were not traumatized by bad events more often than you will those who were. This is axiomatic to what it even means to be traumatized by something vs not.

On top of the other points, like how no two situations are alike, and no two people are alike, and so making a general rule out of anecdotes is dangerous, it’s also hard to think of people who are actually traumatized by the response to a thing versus the thing itself. My experience is that Eddie Kaspbraks are really, really rare in real life, even in less stereotypical, absolute incarnations.

What I do run across instead, and quite often, are stereotypical incarnations of people who have spent years, if not decades, bottling up their trauma and appearing to all observers, even close observers, as if they’re okay, or as if the behaviors that they have that are harmful to themselves or others are just the result of who they are, and not what they’ve gone through, until something comes out and sheds light on dark machinery. Part of that just comes with the territory of my field of work, but even outside of it, that seems to be far more common than the inverse situation.

And when people who go through events others might call traumatizing, but who were not traumatized by it by some combination of factors that are so far unknown, see such people, I worry that their conclusion will be that this is proof that trauma is the result of low willpower or resilience or “grit” or whatever.

The pendulum may well be swinging toward society being too sensitive to traumatic fears and causing more harm than it’s preventing in highlighting bad experiences as “traumatic.” But so far I don’t know that I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that for sure, and I hope we get better metrics and tools to determine if that’s in fact what’s happening before we start encouraging a narrative that might make those who suffer from trauma feel in some way as if it’s “all in their head,” like society used to.

On the Same Side

Sometimes I think about people, particularly those I disagree with strongly, in a sense of “but would they be on my side, ultimately?” The group of people likely to fight together with me on something gets smaller as it goes higher on the list, but usually includes everything below it.

(I’m trying to keep these strictly life or death, or else there’s a ton that can go between them, every cause or injustice in the world that people are mostly like “yeah this sucks we should donate to it” but not “this is bad and I would spend my life to end it or die trying”)

Quest to End Death

[Probably some stuff should go here]

US Civil War II (Electric Boogaloo)

Widescale Terrorist Attack

Zombie/Post-Apocalypse Survival

Time Traveling Nazis (who are bad at using time travel)

Super Happy Alien Invasion

Mindless Evil Alien Invasion

Orson Scott Card

Here are three sentences:

Orson Scott Card is a hateful bigot.

Orson Scot Card has bigoted religious beliefs.

Orson Scott Card has aligned himself with bigots.

To some people, they are all different ways of saying the same thing, or just plain indistinguishable, particularly with an eye to consequences. To others, there is an important distinction about each; not just what they say about the shape of the beliefs themselves, their bedrock, but about the man himself, his epistemology and his values.

OSC is easily in the top 3 most influential writers in my life. Not just in regards to my love of reading or writing, in my life. I first read Ender’s Game when I was 12 and cried at the end of the very first chapter. I cried again at the end of the second. This probably says more about me and my life than the book, but the series as a whole has been powerfully moving and inspiring and motivating for me. I identified with Ender, but after I read Speaker for the Dead, I wanted to be one, an essentially made up profession, embodied by his older self. I would often ask myself “What Would Andrew Do?” and would get back answers that made me a kinder and braver and better person.

I first started looking into his beliefs about a decade ago, confused by the stilted and poorly written political commentary underlying Empire. I was shocked and heartbroken, and only read about a dozen articles and blog posts he’d written on various topics before I turned away from what seemed to be either the onset of dementia or a sad example of how people can calcify with old age. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not my usual deep dive into someone I really want to understand the perspective of with the goal of feeling I can reliably predict their stance on common topics. I gave up before then because, frankly, seeing a hero spout such toxic shit (not just about homosexuality) was painful.

I did the deep dive much more recently after being told that he was a respectable conservative thinker, and sadly, I can’t even give him that. But are any of those statements at the top true?

First, let’s define bigotry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll say “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic.”

To be clear, Card has said many times that he believes homosexuals deserve compassion and respect and safety. I have yet to hear him say anything clearly hateful toward gay individuals or people.

But Card has also said that gay sex is sinful and that not just gay marriage but sex should remain illegal, if for nothing else than to strike fear into the hearts of those who might practice it openly and thus “shake the confidence” of the community in its ability to police harmful behaviors. He has pushed the frame that homosexuality is more environmental than genetic, and linked its origins for many to “seduction,” molestation, and rape. He asserted that children need a mother and father rather than two of one, and has even said, as recently as 2008 after judges began ruling gay marriage bans unconstitutional, “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

(No, none of that is made better by context or his justifications. It’s fairly easy to read his own words if you want to find them, and to me the words are clear. If we start to argue that he was being hyperbolic or hypothetical, we’ve stopped arguing about what he actually said and started arguing about what we want him to have meant by his words, and I don’t think that’s a productive line of discussion for someone who is clearly intelligent and articulate, and an accomplished writer who should know better than to be careless with language so repeatedly and in such a consistent pattern.)

((See also, Jordan Peterson))

This presents a seemingly intractable contradiction; how can someone who writes such intelligent and compassionate characters feel so fanatically about something so harmless?

I do not use that word lightly: it is one thing to say that you disagree with gay marriage, it is another to publicly state your position, and then it is yet another entirely to go to the lengths Card has gone to crusade against it. Card is, from a policy perspective, an anti-gay fanatic, shy of actually enacting the violence he insinuated multiple times was justified to “protect families.”

I put that in quotes, by the way, not because I don’t believe that OSC honestly believes that. I know it’s a justification that makes sense in his head. But I don’t think it changes much; if you’ve spoken with bigots at all, they always have justifications for bigotry. It does not transmute “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic” into something else.

Regardless of what he purports to believe about the sinner, he has spent more time and energy fighting this sin specifically than any other I could find save perhaps for Islamic terrorism after 9/11.

That, to me, is indicative of something more than someone holding an honest religious belief and advocating for it. There are, after all, others sins: Card planted his flag on this one, drew a slew of criticism and appeals to his better nature, and kept planting more flags, insisting all the while that he was being maligned and misunderstood.

(Which to some degree he was, but I don’t respect people who only engage with the worst of their critics, and his attitude has repeatedly been one I would characterize as self-righteous bitterness, in much the same way a lot of modern “Intellectual Dark Web” members talk about the “Intolerant Left.” Example: “Faggot” and “Homophobe” are “exactly analogous,” according to Card, and thus anyone who decries one and uses the other is apparently a hypocrite. This by the way is from an article that’s probably Card’s most liberal explanation of his views. Again, context does not help)

So: Why do that? Why accept the role of “villain” to so many without batting an eye? More to the point, why do it specifically to fight homosexuality?

The easy answer is religion, of course. Card would be far from the first bright mind whose rationality seems bizarrely warped by his sincere and unshakable faith, and further, bent to its service. CS Lewis wasn’t just a fiction writer but a prolific Evangelical apologetic who was capable of accepting evolution as a scientific theory, and truly understood what that meant, decades before the Catholic Church could manage to, but still drew a similar line at its implications for human origins. Card has expressed other bizarre beliefs that show a similar warping root, such as his insistence that the Book of Mormon is vanishingly unlikely to be a work of fiction, not by historic or archaeological evidence (fun fact: Card studied archaeology before he gave it up for being “hard work”), but by simple analysis of the text from the lens of one who also writes science fiction.

It’s important to highlight at this point that Card is not what I would consider a particularly rational person. Intelligent, certainly. And he does an amazing job of writing intelligent and rational character in stories.

But the magnitude of the mistake that Card makes in deciding that Mormonism is likely true because he can’t imagine that someone could write the Book of Mormon, structurally and stylistically and in richness of content, as a hoax… is so irrational I would call it hostile to rationality. It’s turning 180 degrees away from not just evidence, but reason as basic as Occam’s Razor and as complex as Bayesian Probability, to bend reality around what he wants to be true.

He shows similar irrationality with things like Anthropogenic Climate Change as recently as 2007, demonstrating not just stark ignorance of the scientific mechanisms and decades of research, but that he takes his news about those he disagrees with by their political enemies: his points were not original, but canned and labeled by conservative pundits and anti-global warming “news” sites. He showed a way of thinking that makes it clear that his epistemology is not grounded in truth seeking, but political considerations. He does not see those sounding the alarm over ACC as honestly mistaken: he sees them as conniving and dishonestly motivated, and writes a narrative that appeases that outcome rather than one that fits the facts or context or history.

So while religion is a tempting answer to Card’s efforts to bend reason over backwards to justify beliefs that primarily disadvantage homosexuals, there are plenty of Mormons and ex-Mormons who rejected such things, and it just doesn’t seem sufficient to answer the question of whether Card is a bigot, or just holds bigoted religious beliefs, or is just pinching his nose while standing aligned with bigots for the sake of strong personal conviction of what’s True and Right.

Still, if you truly believe that your faith is right and you want to act out its tenets, and that those others of your faith who disagree are just misled or hypocritical, then the Good and Brave thing to do is plant your feet and tell the world “No, you move.

Right?

Weeell…

There’s another problem with blaming his religion. I’ve been saying bigotry all this time, both because “homophobic” has other connotations, and I don’t think this question can only be applied to homosexuality, sadly.

Mormonism is historically an explicitly racist religion which barred African Americans from full participation until 1978 (when Card was 27), which is about when God apparently realized that being tax-exempt might be more important than preventing interracial marriage or black priests.

And I can’t for the life of me find where Card came out against that, or talked about the church’s racist views. If someone can find an article on it, please send it to me: it could be a crux for this next part.

Because remember, that’s his justification for being against homosexuality: you “can’t serve two masters.” If God says X, you don’t try to insist that it’s genetic or that the law of the land says it’s okay, you either accept God’s word or you don’t.

So what were Card’s views on black Mormons? What are they now? Because gay marriage is legal now, but in a world where tax-exempt status for religions relied on willingness to perform gay marriages, I wonder if he would accept God’s about-face.

The world may never know. But I surely wonder, because Card’s views on Obama’s presidency reek of a similar and startling fervency to his crusade against gay marriage that makes me uneasy.

I should note first that I find accusations that any criticism of Obama are racist to be tiring and dangerous. There’s a lot you could criticize Obama for: expansion of the spy state, excessive use of drone strikes, not protecting whistleblowers, failing in his promise of transparency, too many executive orders, unwillingness to compromise with Republicans (if you’re conservative), attempting to compromise too much (if you’re liberal), and so on.

But I know racists who criticize Obama, and I know people-I-have-no-reason-to-believe-are-racist who criticize Obama, and there’s a pattern I’ve noticed in the former. While Card doesn’t quite fit that pattern, and breaks from it entirely in some places, he made one that seems to run parallel to it in other places.

In 2012, Card made the rare step of admitting that a politician he disagreed with as fervently as possible, Obama, is a better person than the one whose policies he supported, Gingrich. That’s ridiculously uncommon. He also claimed in 2008 that he voted for Obama in the Primary, though ultimately he ended up supporting McCain because Obama was seen as soft on Islamic Extremism (a view Card continued to hold even after Bin Laden was killed) and his fear of “dictator-judges.”

And then he wrote Unlikely Events, where, in regards to foreign policy, Obama is called “the dumbest president in history” not 5 years after Bush left office. You know, the guy who started the worst military blunder since the Vietnam war with no exit plan and caused massive instability in the region. No, it’s not better that Card named white guys who have never held office as runnerups; somehow it’s still America’s first black president who has that honor.

Do I think he would have said that if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would say that “Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator” if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would “imagine” (all in good fun, of course, haha, it’s just me Card the kooky science fiction writer imagining things that definitely won’t happen the way we science fiction writers do) Obama turning “young out-of-work urban men” into a national police force to maintain his dictatorship if Obama wasn’t black?

Or that he would say “Having been anointed from the start of his career because he was that magical combination — a black man who talks like a white man (that’s what they mean by calling him “articulate” and a “great speaker”) — he has never had to work for a living, and he has never had to struggle to accomplish goals. He despises ordinary people, is hostile to any religion that doesn’t have Obama as its deity, and his contempt for the military is complete.” if not?

…I really don’t think he would. That level of unhinged-from-reality means those false beliefs have to come from somewhere, and maybe he’s just really, really bad at filtering truth from lies and misinformation, like with ACC, and so if Obama was white the general criticism of Obama would be less unhinged and the pundits Card follows and their views of his policies would be less divorced from reality. But also maybe it’s easier for him not to filter unflattering lies about Obama than Bush for some reason.

(Counter-evidence: Card has, thankfully, been a steady critic of Trump, calling him dictatorial as well. But as far as I know, he has not apologized for or amended his views of Obama in light of what the real deal looks like.)

Part of me is asking myself right now, “Hey now, despite insisting he’s a Democrat, he very clearly holds a lot of conservative views. Isn’t extreme and undeserved hatred of Obama just part of standard conservative dogma?”

And another part of me responds, “Yes. And your point is?”

My mom is a racist. I love her, but she is. She’s not often a hateful racist. She has minority friends. I’m pretty sure she voted for Obama.

But she’s still a racist who believes certain ethnicities are intrinsically better or worse at certain things, who is quicker to attribute negative features to someone’s race if they’re not white, and who holds all sorts of prejudices both big and small. It’s a sad cultural feature of many in her generation, and seems even more prevalent for those who are even older… like Card is.
So, just on priors, what are the odds that Card avoided that cultural and generational feature? Would 50% be fair? Just from my observations of my parents’ generation, way too generous. 20% feels closer to right, and still may be generous.

All I know is that his attitude toward Obama, which is wildly out of scope in its criticism compared to the reality of what Obama’s presidency entailed (like most conservatives), strikes me as suspicious in the same way as when my mom told me I couldn’t sleep over my black neighbor’s house when I was 8 because he “lives too far” struck me as suspicious, given that “too far” in this case was a walk of less than a minute within the same gated community.

She was always friendly to him when he was around. I genuinely think she held no hate in her heart toward him. That didn’t change the fact that her perspective is racist, the same way her blatant preference for white residents years later while on the HOA for the community was racist.

So. Do I really think the man who wrote Alvin Maker is a racist? The man who wrote Magic Street?

I don’t think so. Not by most definitions of that word. Again, he has not said anything explicitly racist, and has written against the evils of racism. But there are suspicious underlying failures in thinking, which can collectively be called prejudices, that I can’t ignore. He doesn’t do well based on priors, and together with the way he pattern matches onto people I know who have stronger-than-average prejudice, the underlying irrationality that Card has shown himself more than capable of can include racism.

Alright, let’s look at these again.

Is Card a hateful bigot?

Insofar as that word denotes hatred or disgust, I don’t think so. Being so vociferously anti-gay marriage, like being disproportionately inclined to think the worst of Obama, is mild evidence for hatred or disgust, but not strong evidence.

Does Card hold bigoted religious beliefs?

Undoubtedly. Justifications do not excuse bigotry; the fact that his honest faith tells him that homosexuality is a sin does not absolve him of responsibility for the actions of that belief. Someone who shoots an abortion doctor is still a murderer, no matter how good their intentions or true their belief. Just so, someone who argues for inequality on religious grounds is still espousing bigotry.

Does Card align himself with bigots?

In many ways, yes. He fought the same fight with the same goals. He argued against hatred or violence, but he still worked to deprive gay men and women of equal rights, and stayed in and supported the Mormon church for years despite its racism.

To someone who faces oppression, these questions are academic at best and disingenuous at worst. I understand that from the person getting hit, the intentions don’t matter. I don’t say “most Trump supporters are racist” because I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t nitpick friends who say it because “most Trump supporters don’t care sufficiently about racism to let it influence their vote” looks and feels close enough.

But I think it’s important to note that, while hatred is about values, prejudice is ultimately built on poor thinking. One can be solved by education, another can’t.

Unless, of course, the value of Truth is too low on the hierarchy. There’s a chance that Truth just doesn’t matter overly much to Card. He has too many beliefs that come not just from the land of ignorance but of falsehood. When that includes religion and poorly fact-checked conservative websites, neither of which are particularly known for their tolerance or promotion of real equality, again, it seems hard to care about the difference.

Card is not, ultimately, a simple person who can easily be put into a box. I don’t think he’s an evil person. I think he’s genuinely disgusted by overt or even covert bigotry, and insofar as he was cheering on homophobes fighting gay marriage, he did it with a fervent wish that they would be more compassionate and kind. In my list of grand alliances, I think he ends up pretty high.

But at the end of the day, when I think of what’s more appropriate for a situation, conflict theory vs mistake theory, what I tend to think of is how tractable the disagreement is, and what the consequences of someone’s beliefs and actions are.

For conflict vs mistake theory, Card does not seem simply mistaken. He doesn’t act like he seeks Truth. He acts as though he is fighting a war, to preserve Mormonism, Americanism, Life, Liberty, etc… but sort of in that order? Where each value is colored by the one preceding it, and I can see him holding evidence in his hand that Mormonism was made up or that ACC is true or that Bush lied about WMDs and just tossing it in the trash.

And for consequences, at the end of the day, giving him as much agency as I want others to give me, Card has now spent decades seeing his words hurt people he insisted he held no animosity toward, for no reason and to no gain other than the strength of his conviction and faith… and he stayed the course until the bitter end, moderating his language only when his side lost. He could have put in the hard effort of looking his belief in the eyes and judging, as a being of reason, whether it was justified or just caused pain. He could have “evolved” on homosexuality as many do, like Obama ostensibly did. He chose not to.

I don’t respect that. More importantly, I don’t think it’s what Andrew would have done.

My feelings for Card used to be complicated. Now they’re just a little sad and a lot disappointed. Maybe someday before he dies he’ll recognize his mistakes and not go down in history with such a tarnished legacy. I hope so.

But thankfully, art and man are separate. Thankfully, truth doesn’t belong in a person, and someone can stumble onto it even when a little lost. I can look at the wisdom of many of his books and characters and draw from them, without being bothered by the contradictions and irrationality, if maybe not quite bigotry, in the man himself.

Chapter 68: Internal Family Systems

Pallet Town hasn’t changed in four months. Or at least, not that Red can tell just by biking through it.

Maybe some store has closed and been replaced, or some new homes have gone up. If so, they’re not in his line of sight as he bikes down the main street. The illusion of its stability is only broken by his knowledge that his home is being inhabited by strangers and that Pallet Labs, gleaming in the distance above the town’s skyline, lacks its professor.

But the relative quiet is the same, and is particularly soothing after a month in Saffron City. As is the smell of the ocean on the wind, and the distant sound of wingull crying into the open blue skies.

He reaches his destination and packs his bike and pads away, then goes inside, feeling like he’s stepping back in time. It’s only been four months since he was in Pallet Town, but he hasn’t been to Dr. Seward’s office in years. The waiting room hasn’t changed since he was last here, though the office itself has. The carpet is the same dark green, but there’s a new couch, and the paintings have changed.

Dr. Seward herself is apparently unchanged, however, and her smile is warm as he sits down. “Hello, Red. Glad you could finally make it in person.”

“Me too.” He sinks into the couch and is gratified by how comfortable it is. He’s a little sweaty from the ride, or else he’d lie down.

“You can lie down, if you want.”

Red immediately reinforces his shield, then blinks at her, and smiles. “You know, I’ve been living in a building full of psychics for a month now, and I’ve nearly forgotten how effective simple deduction can be.”

Her eyes glint merrily. “Well, I’m happy to remind you how effective simple observations can be. Plus you always did enjoy lying down. Despite the stereotype, you were my only client young enough to actually do it.”

Red grins, and decides to follow her suggestion. He lets his shoes dangle over the side of the couch and uses the pillows to give his head something to rest against.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” He lets out a breath, feeling himself relax as he stares at the ceiling, her face still in his periphery. After a moment he thinks of the attention he’s still keeping automatically to maintaining his shield. “Do you mind if I bring my mental shield down too?”

“Why would I mind that?”

“I sort of detect minds by reflex, now. It takes concentration not to.”

“Ah.” His therapist considers that. “It’s just the detection of a mind? Not a way to identify people or read thoughts?”

Red hesitates, considering it. “Well, I can’t identify people just by detecting their mind, no. But if I ever detect the same mind elsewhere, I might recognize the feel of it.”

“Might? How reliable is that?”

“The more time I spend with them, the more reliable it is. Ummm…” He thinks back to past experiences. “A couple hours would help me identify someone with something like… 80% accuracy, if I focus on their mental signature?”

“Hmmm.” She taps her fingers on her desk. “You’ll only be here for an hour, so I suppose that’s alright. And thoughts?”

“What? Oh, no. Surface impressions only.”

“Meaning?”

Red shifts, considering an example. “Again, familiarity helps a lot, but eventually I’d be able to recognize if someone is happy or sad or angry with enough exposure. I’m not good enough to tell for total strangers right away.”

Dr. Seward nods. “Alright, I don’t think that would violate any privacy. Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Red lets his shield relax, and is immediately aware of the minds around him. Dr. Seward’s, two people in the room his feet are pointing at, a handful scattered below and above them, and a couple more moving outside around the building.

“So, how has your visit been so far?”

“Good. This is only my second stop, then I’m heading back.”

“Ah. The lab was the other, I take it? Good to see familiar faces?”

“Yeah.” He doesn’t want to talk about how empty it seemed without the Professor, then remembers where he is and lets a breath out. “Missed one, though.”

She nods, and Red notices her mind shift in a way that he finds easy to interpret as concern. “How’s Sam doing? Have you seen him recently?”

“Not since last week. But Daisy says he’s doing better. Walking again, with some help.” Red’s stomach twists briefly at the memory of the Professor lying in the hospital bed. He’s still there at the doctor’s orders instead of at home, because they knew if he was discharged he wouldn’t rest.

“Glad to hear it.” Dr. Seward watches him a moment, and something in her bearing changes. “So. Our first session since the attack on Vermilion, and you wanted it to be in person. I can’t really imagine what you went through, but I’ve been worried about you.”

Red nods, gaze down. “I appreciate it. I just… wasn’t really up to talking about anything, yet.”

“I understand. I’m sure there are a dozen things we could spend the session processing or working on, and I don’t blame you for needing time to process a lot of it on your own.”

Red thinks of that night. The fear from the Pressure and the fights, the grief and frustration over those they couldn’t save, and of course the guilt about not being able to stop Aiko. And the days and nights leading up to it, on the cruise with Leaf. And the aftermath, with her and Blue. “A couple dozen, yeah,” he says as he focuses on his breathing until the twisted knot of pain and anger and sadness and regret slowly fade.

She nods. “How’s the survivor’s guilt?” She says it so matter of factly, and he knows that it must be the most common thing for people who’ve been through a Tier 3 incident.

“Not as bad as it could be, all things considered.”

“Nightmares?”

“Very few, actually.”

“Good. Are you missing Blue and Leaf?”

Anger flashes through him, but also regret, and not just about Leaf. “Some. But there’s nothing I can do about that.” He’d shared basic details of the attack’s aftermath over email, but it was sparse on detail and didn’t include his feelings for Leaf.

“Nothing?”

“We’re all where we need to be, right now. Leaf’s at the Sakai ranch, helping Aiko’s dad and working on a project.” A project she won’t talk about, for some reason, and there’s pain with that thought too.

“And Blue?”

They haven’t spoken since after the funeral, and the only plus side to the “conversation” was Leaf has since stopped trying to get them to talk. At this point, the only thing he wants to hear from Blue is an apology. “Doing gym stuff.”

“I see.” Her mental impression shifts again, though Red lacks the context to understand how. Her face just keeps radiating patient concern. “Not to press too much, but even if it seems like things can’t get better, you might just be too close to the situation to see how. Or maybe just processing how you feel about it can help.”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “Maybe. I get that there’s probably something to unpack in all that, but like I said, we’re all where we need to be right now. And honestly, there’s something more important on my mind.”

“Ah. By all means, then, what can I help you with?”

“My psychic apprenticeship. There are six of us right now, and Leader Sabrina is a big believer in the idea that people learn best through teaching. So all her students spend most of our time giving lessons to each other or gym members.”

“Not exactly what you expected, I take it?”

Red smiles. “I don’t mind that part, actually. I like teaching. But because we’re all at such different levels and have different specialties, and her time is so limited, she decides on individual lessons based on our progress to make sure she’s not going to just be teaching something that someone else can.”

“Ah. I think I see. You haven’t been getting many private lessons from her?”

“Only one, so far,” Red says, voice glum. “There’s always at least another more advanced student around, which means the focus is rarely on what I’m interested in most. I’m learning a lot more control and finesse, and a few new techniques, but mostly I want help improving my connection with pokemon. I decided to practice fully inhabiting every psychic pokemon I can get my hands on to better understand the different psychic experiences, but I’m a long way from the seamless merge that Sabrina can do with her pokemon. I know it’s only been a month, but I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon at this rate.”

Dr. Seward leans back in her seat. “So you need to impress her. Not just once, I’m guessing, but enough to let her know it’s worthwhile to teach you more individually, and more often.”

“Yeah, and the main thing that’s holding me back so far is that I can only spend so much time practicing before the grief shows up. So that’s what I want to focus on.”

His therapist stares at him a moment. “Can I ask, how that feels, internally?”

“How what feels?”

“That decision process, of wanting to deal with your grief because it’s getting in the way of an ambition.”

Red shrugs. “It’s… it just feels—”

“Wait. Not off the cuff. Give it a minute. Really look.”

“Right.” He breathes in and closes his eyes. At first it feels like nothing in particular, but when he imagines things from her perspective, and he recognizes her concern; it’s a bit of a cold-blooded reason to want to get over grief.

But isn’t that right? To want to get over grief as quickly as you can? It’s not like he’s trying to get rid of memories of Aiko or his dad (he knows how to do that, now, though not with much skill yet), he just wants to get over the pain of it. “It just feels pragmatic. I know I don’t have the willpower to just… open myself up to dealing with it for its own sake. The world won’t stop for me. I learned that after Dad. So it’s not an intrinsic motivation, but if I need to get it done anyway, an extrinsic motivation will have to do.”

Dr. Seward nods slowly. “Understandable. But I do remember you mentioning that you’re worried about the way so many psychics seem to be socially hard to interact with. How worried are you that you might become more like that, now that you’ll be entrenched in that life and culture?”

Red had noticed it a few times since he moved to Saffron, but he hadn’t thought of how it might affect him for a while. “Well, I guess I’m worried about it now. Is that something you can keep an eye out for?”

“I’m happy to share observations if any come to mind, but we don’t interact in a day to day setting. Do you think you can ask someone else you see more often?”

“…You mean like the other psychics I’m trying not to become like?”

“Hm. I didn’t realize that would be everyone you interact with. Maybe Leaf?”

Red shifts. Hey Leaf, let me know if I’m acting too cold and aloof, but not because of all the awkwardness about Aiko dying or you siding with Blue. “Sure.”

Her brow rises. “And will you?”

Red sighs, smiling. “Yeah, I will. Promise.”

“Good. Alright, then. Why don’t we start by clarifying how the grief has changed, since your friend died.”

Red shifts, smile fading. The pain of thinking about Aiko in the past tense is a muted thing, both for the month that passed and his partition, but it still makes it hard to think clearly for a moment. He remembers being here after his dad died and having to struggle to even speak through the weight in his chest, the grey curtain dividing him from the world. “I had a dream last week.”

“You don’t normally mention dreams. I assume it’s relevant?”

“I think it might be, yeah…”


Ten minutes.”

A long table in an empty white room, its wood top bare of covers or sheets, its chairs simple and abstract.

To the left sat Red. His hair was wet, clothes dirty and torn. An extra pokebelt hung loose around his stomach, some balls missing from both. His gaze was long, though it ended at the tabletop just in front of him.

Across from him sat Red, looking a few years older and wearing a white lab coat. He looked frustrated, and his leg bounced with nervous energy beneath the table as his arms stayed rigidly locked across his chest.

Between them sat Red, looking more or less as his current self, attention on Past Red.

Ten minutes?”

That’s about how long Aiko kept the Second waiting. About how long his people were in the hospital before we got there. If we were with them, would we have made the same decision 10 minutes earlier?”

We can’t know the answer to that,” Future Red said. “And we shouldn’t even be talking about this to avoid projection or anchoring bias.”

Red shook his head, trying to avoid a fight that he can sense coming. “No one’s asking you to precommit to anything.”

You don’t have to ask me to do it, but I’ll still feel pressured to if we decide ahead of time that we should be more heroic because we’re guilty about Aiko.”

Aren’t we?” Past Red asked, looking up at the other two.

I don’t think so,” Present Red said.

I don’t think so,” Future Red said, more confidently. “But that might change, and if it does I’ll worry about that. Until then, don’t make decisions that might limit my ability to accurately assess a situation.”

You don’t know that you’re able to accurately assess a situation now,” Past Red insisted. “As long as the partition is up, you’re just a faulty model of our future self, and if you assume it’s going to stay up then you’re self-sabotaging.”

Future Red rolled his eyes. “All I care about is what’s best for us long term. If you want to bring down the partition and drown us in misery, if you think that’s what we need to do, then do it, and I’ll change. But you might not like what I turn into.”

We all want what’s best for you,” Red said, holding a hand up toward both of them. “But I don’t want to be drowned in misery, right now. Working with Sabrina is too rare an opportunity to risk to depression. What other suggestions do you have?”

Past Red shrugged, looking too tired to put up much of a fight. “I can only tell you what has and hasn’t worked. Keeping everything locked away wasn’t our choice, but it seemed to work out okay… unless it didn’t. If Blue is right, then we made the decision not to go in because we were scared of dying. Yes, it turned out we were right not to go in that time. But we’re not architects, or firefighters. We didn’t draw on any expertise when we made that decision, that it was too dangerous. Just an intuition, a gut feeling that said it was too dangerous, or it was just tired of rolling the dice after putting ourselves in danger too much already.”

This is backwards,” Future Red said. “You’re supposed to be the conservative one, the one that sticks to what works. Why are you second-guessing what kept us alive?”

Past Red shook his head. “I’m the one that cares what lessons we learned. I’m the one that cares that what I went through wasn’t for nothing, that the best comes from it, so that you each will know the same when it’s your time to be me. Would we have gone in when it was less hopeless?”

Yes,” Present Red said, looking uncertain.

Yes,” Future Red said, and frowned. “I’m only saying that because it’s what we hope is true, given that this worked out well for us. If it hadn’t, I would be saying the opposite… if I was around to say anything at all.”

And if it didn’t work out well in another way?” Past Red asked, looking between them. “What if Blue is right in another way? What if no one trusts us in any life or death situations any more?”

Do we want them to?” Future Red asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Is that something we still want?” A pokebelt appeared around his waist, then disappeared, then reappeared.

“The journey was fun.” Past Red sighed. “But…”

“We can help others in other ways,” Red said. “At least…”

“Until we have more to offer,” Future Red finished, and the belt disappeared. “Something more unique. So stop fixating on what Blue said, and on what happened to Aiko.”

And what about Leaf?” Past Red asked. “Do we still care about what she thinks of us?”

Yes,” Red and Future Red said together.

Then shouldn’t we make sure what we did was right?”

Future Red shakes his head. “Or we find a better way to convince her it was.”

Which we can’t do,” Red said, and closed his eyes. “Not as long as we’re not sure ourselves.”


The office is silent a moment as Red finishes recounting the dream. He shifts on the couch, turning a little as to get a better look at Dr. Seward’s reaction.

“Yes, I can see why that might be a clue of sorts,” she says at last, face thoughtful.

“I paraphrased a lot of it,” Red adds. “But it was very coherent, for a dream, and hasn’t been fading like most.”

“Was it lucid?”

“Partially? No control, just… awareness that I was seeing something unreal.”

“I see. Earlier you said the survivor’s guilt wasn’t as bad as it could be, but that sounds like some part of you internalized Blue blaming you.”

“It’s less about guilt for surviving, more about… the decision process itself. But I don’t feel that way now, it’s only when the partition is down that Past Red is more in control.”

Dr. Seward blinks. “Was that a poetic use of language, or…”

Red sighs. “Not really.”

“Then I think it’s time you explain how your partition works, exactly.”

Red nods and shifts so he can take his notebook out, then begins reading from his notes. “Okay, so first basic assumption is that all thoughts and emotions are just certain neurons activating in certain orders, right? Different sequences and patterns of neurons correspond to certain memories or experiences, so you basically have a ‘map’ of neurons that have to do with a strong memory, and it lights up again each time you think of that memory, and another map for, like, the way you feel when you listen to a certain song.” Red grows more animated as he talks, and shifts on the couch so his neck is more comfortable. “Basically the partition seems to keep certain maps or patterns from firing, but preserves them.”

Dr. Seward is frowning slightly. “Can this be mapped by fMRI or EEG?”

Red smiles. There’s more than one reason he likes Dr. Seward. “Yeah, that’s something I checked just a couple days ago.”

Dr. Seward makes a humming noise, then simply says, “That’s pretty wild.”

He grins. “I know, right? So to use a metaphor, picture your thoughts like a river.”

“This seems familiar,” she says with a wry smile. “Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting. River, done.”

“The main channel is most of what you think and feel day to day, right? It’s what has the most current and carries you in it like a fish. There are streams that feed the river from ‘outside,’ so if you think of something new or are made aware of something it can shift the river’s flow. A partition was like a dam, holding part of the river in check. When it leaked or burst from me using my powers, it altered the whole current.”

“I think I understand. But you’re speaking in past tense?”

“Well, yeah, that’s how it used to be. Now it feels like there’s a separate me behind that partition, and when it weakens enough, he takes over.”

If Dr. Seward is surprised, it doesn’t show on her face or mental impression. He wonders if that’s a trained therapist thing, or just part of the personality type that drew her to the profession. “So you’re really being literal, when you describe it that way.”

Red shrugs. “Like 70%, rounding down to adjust for overconfidence? It really does feel like I become someone else, not just me-but-sad. I have thoughts I don’t normally have, make decisions that I wouldn’t normally make, think about the future totally differently…” Dr. Seward’s lips purse a moment, and he remembers it as her way of hiding a smile, or trying to think of a way to phrase something. “Yes, I know that sounds like the sorts of things that applies to most people when they get sad, but trust me, it’s different.”

“I have no reason to distrust you,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean I understand what you mean, when you say different. To an outside observer, how would they be able to tell it was different?”

Red considers that a moment, then shrugs, embarrassed. “I guess I would be crying more.”

“Well, that sounds…” She stops herself. “I’m sorry, I was about to say that sounds like an improvement. But it probably doesn’t feel like it, I bet?”

Red shakes his head. “It’s not what really bothers me, to be honest. The sadness I’m used to, but it’s like there’s a blizzard of emptiness and confusion around it, now.”

“Alright. So the depression has shifted from primarily sadness to anhedonia?”

“Yeah. But it’s not just that, either.” Red struggles to put it into words, flipping through his notebook before he realizes another thing. “So before, I would also notice how I was feeling and wish the feelings would go away, right? Now…”

“…you get some value from experiencing them?” Dr. Seward guesses, not sounding surprised.

“No, I mean now when it happens I don’t want it to stop, don’t want the partition to come back up. Because it feels like being locked away again, or… worse.”

He was about to be more specific, but Dr. Seward looks concerned, which makes Red feel more concerned.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like being locked away; sometimes it feels like dying. And sometimes the emotion that goes along with that is relief.

It’s such an alien feeling, for him. He’s never wanted to die before, not even at his lowest point after his dad did. He’s been trying not to freak out about this, but seeing his otherwise stoic therapist’s worry says a lot about how weird it all might be.

“So you’re saying you feel like there really is another you, who would lose themself when you return.”

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Give me a moment to think.”

Red nods, trying to ignore his growing nervousness. It was hard to decide to share this with Dr. Seward. What if she judges that he’s just “crazy,” now? What if she’s right?

Eventually he can’t help but reach out for a quick merge to check her mental state, but the emotion that comes over him isn’t what he’d expect if she thought it was something serious. All he feels from her is curiosity, and concern.

“My first reaction,” she finally says, causing him to withdraw, “Is that I feel unsure of how to help address grief the way you experience it. It seems to have shifted from bereavement, however complex, to something similar to dissociative identity disorder. I’ve read up some on the phenomenon of partitions since we began again, and your explanation and analogy felt helpful, but if it’s possible for things like this to happen, it’s clear I don’t really understand it at all.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t change much from this side of things,” Red says, forcing a wry smile. The fact that it’s not called “multiple personality disorder” anymore doesn’t make it feel much less like she is, in fact, suggesting that his brain might be broken.

“I imagine you’ve already looked into it more than I have. Has there ever been an incident like this before, that you’ve found?”

“Sort of? There’s very little research on it, and what’s there is confusing.” Red sighs. “I also don’t understand enough about how brains work to follow most of it myself.” He hates taking what research says second hand from someone else, no matter how well regarded or credible. “But there are studies that showed that someone without the part of the brain that connects their left and right hemispheres—”

“Corpus callosum.”

“Yeah, that, they end up acting like they have two distinct brains, only one of which can talk, and each of which control a different hand, to the point where their hands reach for different things at once.”

Dr. Seward’s brow rises. “Really?”

“Yeah, it gets weirder. If you show something to only their right hemisphere, and ask them what they saw, they’ll say they didn’t see anything… but their right hemisphere will still use its hand to follow directions it’s shown.”

“Hmmm. I’ve never heard of this. You’re usually fairly skeptical, so I’m assuming it was well supported?””

Red smiles. “There’s videos of it, and a number of experiments.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s all nonsense, but… it seemed like it might be relevant.”

“Yes, I can see why. You haven’t noticed yourself doing anything you don’t understand, when the partition is down?”

“Nope.”

“And no lost time, either?”

There’s a scary thought. “No, nothing like that. It doesn’t feel like a break in consciousness, just a transition.”

“Alright. Normally I would say such things belong in fiction, but I feel a little out of my depth, and want to make sure we’re being thorough.” Her fingers drum on the desk a moment, then stop. “Then my main question, at this point, is whether it’s possible a psychic therapist would better serve you, at this point?”

Red blinks. A new therapist? “No, you already know me, my history. And I trust you.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, Red, but it’s not just about rapport.”

“You’re also way cheaper than a psychic therapist.”

Dr. Seward can’t hide her smile this time. “A serious answer, please? Part of my job is to recognize when I’m out of my depth, and I don’t know if I have the expertise to effectively help you.”

So Red spends a moment thinking it over, imagining going to another therapist who could work with him psychically, deal with his partition and the emotions behind it in some more direct way… what had Psychic Narud said? Like doing heart surgery with my fingers. Something like that, and none of the psychics Red has spoken to about it since have made it seem any easier.

And… “I don’t want to treat it as a psychic phenomenon, yet. I know it’s probably being affected by my powers, but… I think it’s still just grief and sadness, at the end of the day. And you’ve helped me a lot, so far, with that. If we hit a wall and stay there a few weeks, I’ll consider seeing someone new, but for now I’d like to continue if you would.”

Dr. Seward considers this, then nods. “That’s fair. And yes, I would. Alright then.” She leans back in her seat, fingers steepling. “There’s a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems. Have you heard of it?”

“No, but the name is pretty evocative.” Red shifts. “It’s not going to be, like… talking to an imagined version of my dad, is it?”

“No, not unless you’d find that helpful. It’s just a frame to help understand our feelings, and better interface with them. Most people find it useful to break the psyche down into subparts, and traditionally this has been things like the ‘id, ego, and superego,’ or ‘conscious and subconscious,’ or just personifying our emotions. Whenever we experience internal conflict in a way that can be described in terms of external conflicts, that’s where Internal Family Systems can be especially helpful. We would use conflict resolution techniques and apply them to the internal parts of ourselves.”

Red blinks. “Um. I might already do that?”

She smiles. “Yes, which is why I mentioned this. Often times, the ‘family’ is literal… people identify parts of themselves that are like an internal child, playful but easily frightened, or a teenager, full of will but often resentful, or a father, protective but judgemental, or a mother, comforting but stressed. These are stereotypes, of course, just labels we put on our internal drives and aspects. But it doesn’t have to be a family, some people imagine friends of theirs or fictional characters, and in your case it seems the ideas of a Past, Present and Future Red are already discrete and… lively.”

“Yeah, no kidding. So, what, you’re going to teach me to be a therapist for my inner selves?”

“That’s one way to do it. But before we go looking for solutions, we need to better understand these parts of yourself. You described them physically, from your dream, but what about their attributes? What do you think they represent, if anything?”

Red considers a minute. His Present self often feels like the Id, but then again it’s also often the Superego… maybe it helps to think of which of them are the most like his inner child? Definitely not his Past self, currently. No, wait, maybe it is, a bit…

No, he’s thinking about this wrong. He can’t just map them onto other ideas, he has to treat each as some emergent part of himself. What do they want? Or maybe to start off, what do they not want?

“Present me is always pain avoidant,” Red says, brow furrowed. “I mean all three are, but Present me is driven by avoiding unpleasant things. It’s the main thing that the others try to negotiate me into. Past me is very… uncertain. He doesn’t like feeling judged, but he’s also self-critical. Future me is the most ambitious. He can be kind of demanding, and he hates reneging on agreements the most.”

“Alright. That’s a good start, I think. So it’s fair to say they have a lot to argue about?”

“Yeah.” Red frowns. “Actually… I’m not sure this works? Those other frames make sense to me, I can understand having different parts that make you up, like a part of you that wants to spend more time with friends and another that wants to do more research, but for Past, Present and Future me… all three of us shift over time. I was Past Red. At some point Future Red will be me. When I talk about my Future self having a different desire, I’m just talking about me at a future time, but that self won’t necessarily have that same desire. How does it make sense to say they have fixed attributes that are distinct from each other? “

“Maybe it doesn’t.” Dr. Seward shrugs. “The only reason to use this frame is if it’s helpful. But now that you’ve recognized and said all that, do you feel like that internal conflict is resolved?”

“…Not really, no.”

She spreads her hands, and Red nods, thinking about it for another minute.

“Okay, so I’m thinking about what they want, now, and Past Red is the part of me that’s focused on making sure I learn from my mistakes. That seems obvious enough. Future Red is the part of me that’s unsure about the future, so he wants security. Plans that are set and detailed and followed. But I don’t know what Present Red represents? It just feels like he desires… all the things I desire.”

“Perhaps Present Red is an arbiter then, serving a similar function to the classic frame of the Ego. It’s for you, as the Present Red in any given moment, to ensure that you understand your past and are prepared for your future. You are the rope being tugged on from both ends. Does that feel like it fits?”

Red feels it out, checking to see if anything seems wrong with that, then slowly nods. “Yeah. That description, of feeling tugged in two different directions, it actually resonated a lot.”

“Alright then. Past you wants you to learn from your mistakes, Future you wants you to plan well and follow through on commitments. It sounds like you’re all on the same side.”

“You’d think that, yeah.”

“But you still feel conflicted?”

“Right now? No, the partition is up.”

“Ah, yes. Would it be alright for you to bring it down and check?”

Red hesitates, then nods and closes his eyes.

It’s not hard, these days. Instead of having to over-exert his mental abilities, he can now feel the partition itself as it suppresses parts of his mental state, keeps certain neurons from firing. One of Sabrina’s students taught him how to notice the shape of it in his mind, the negative space where thoughts should go but don’t.

The fact that he knows what’s missing is what makes it possible to find those faded paths, feel along the edges where they should be. If he wants to give himself amnesia, all he has to do is use his abilities to quarantine a particular memory, then quarantine the memory of doing so to ensure it can’t be accidentally stumbled upon.

It’s a really fascinating set of abilities that he’d love to spend more time experimenting with and studying, but he can’t safely do it himself yet, and he’s still the lowest on the totem pole for determining what he should be taught next… which is why he’s here, so why is he stalling?

Because it’s unpleasant. Because even if it’s necessary and what’s best for Future Red, it’s still painful to go through it each time. But if he can’t live with the consequences to himself of letting Aiko go into that building alone… then maybe Blue was right.

Red lets out his breath, then brings the partition down…

…and is transported into another world.

“Red? Is everything alright?”

“No.” His voice sounds flat and dull to his own ears.

“What’s wr-… ah. Is this… Past Red?”

Red opens his eyes and turns to her, and he can sense her flinch even as her face stays placid and calm. “There is no Past Red. I was just being stupid and melodramatic. This is me.”

“I see. So what would you describe as the difference between how you are now, and how you were just a minute ago?”

Red closes his eyes again and lets out a heavy breath. “I don’t know. Naivety?”

“Hm. Well, I can tell you that from an outside perspective, it seemed like you grew more tense. Your breathing changed. Even lying down, the difference in energy level is notable; you’re completely still now, instead of shifting your feet or fidgeting, And your expression is far less animated. So if I’m able to observe all those things, from the outside, I can’t help but think that maybe there are corresponding changes with how you feel.”

Red almost shakes his head, but it’s too much effort. He realizes that sort of demonstrates her point, but it doesn’t really matter. “It’s not me that’s changed. It’s reality.”

“…Could you clarify that?”

Red sighs again. “Before I was focused on what I need to get over what happened. To move past it. I was living in a reality where it’s that simple, to ignore how much I miss my dad and how guilty I feel about A…” His throat hitches, and he feels heat spread up his throat and behind his eyes.

“I see. I’m sorry, if asking this of you was too much.”

“It’s fine,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. He keeps his eyes closed until he’s sure he won’t cry. “They’re dead, it’s the least I can do to acknowledge that, instead of ignoring it like a… a coward…” The word comes out twisted as his face contorts. The tears are closer to the surface now, and as a sob shakes him they spill down his cheeks.

Red vaguely makes out the sound of Dr. Seward moving the tissue box closer to him, and reaches out blindly for it. There’s a feeling of strong deja vu as he remembers the times he cried in this room over his dad, and as he wipes his face and tries to control his breathing he feels ashamed anew at his earlier selfishness. He hadn’t been afraid to cry over Dad, when he was younger. Now it’s just so inconvenient

“Can I ask how you feel about what we were talking about, before? If you feel up to it.”

Red clears his throat, then wipes at his eyes again. “Sorry, what was the question?”

“Just… do you feel conflicted? How do you relate to your Past and Future selves, now?”

“Conflicted. Yeah.” Dr. Seward is quiet, and after a moment Red realizes she asked about more than that. “It’s just hard to stop thinking about what happened. I know the smart thing to do is just accept that death is part of life, that it’s a risk my dad accepted every day he was working, that Aiko knew she was risking it when she left with us. When she… went into the building.” He swallows, takes a breath. “I know that. But… I can’t.”

Dr. Seward stays quiet again after he stops talking, and Red considers brushing her mind to see what she’s feeling before losing interest. “That all makes perfect sense, to me,” she finally says. “Of course you’re going to keep thinking about it. Of course you’re going to have trouble accepting their loss. That’s a natural part of the grieving process. No matter how inevitable or uncertain, no matter how little the risks were understood or how much, no matter how responsible people were or weren’t, millions of people feel the same things you do right now, Red. As unique as everyone’s grieving process is, at its core it’s based on the same pain and guilt and fear. You shouldn’t expect yourself to just… put it all aside and keep going, if you’re having trouble doing so.”

“Blue can,” Red whispers. “Leaf can. Even Mr. Sakai…” The tears burn again, and he covers his face as the memory sweeps through him.

“You think Mr. Sakai was able to put it aside?”

Red nods, feeling the hot tears soak through the tissues.

“Can you… tell me what makes you think that? Take your time.”

Red focuses on his breaths until they stop hitching, and when he speaks, it’s in a watery whisper. “I went to Saffron the day after Sabrina agreed to teach me. Leaf was stuck in the hospital, and the ranch was close, and he still didn’t know… so I went to tell him.” He swallows the lump in his throat and sighs. “It was the least I could do…”


When Red saw Mr. Sakai, he was moving from pen to pen to feed each pokemon. The sun was hot as it began its downward swing toward the horizon, but at the sight of Aiko’s father, Red felt like there was a chunk of ice in his stomach.

He didn’t want to do it. Selfishly, he wished Leaf would have told him not to come alone. To wait for her. But they both recognized that Mr. Sakai had gone long enough without knowing, and it wouldn’t get any easier with time.

Thankfully, he had his abilities to fall back on. With them he at least could deliver the news without breaking down in tears.

Unfortunately that didn’t help with the other side of things. Any other parent would have called one of them to check where Aiko was. Would have seen about the Stormbringer attack on the news. Would have known, upon seeing Red, unannounced and with a solemn expression, that something was wrong.

Instead Mr. Sakai greeted him warmly, and told him how well the pokemon have been doing, lately, and how he thought the people coming to see them for therapy has been good for them, still moving from pen to pen to withdraw each pokemon and put their ball in the bag he carried with him.

Mr. Sakai,” Red tried, voice steady. “I need to talk to you about Aiko.”

Oh, Aiko’s not here right now. She’s usually back by night, if you want to stick around…”

Red’s throat felt locked, and despite the disconnect he felt from the grief, he had to force the words out, past some other emotion. “No, Mr. Sakai, she’s not coming tonight. Could we… talk inside?”

Oh, but the pokemon need to be fed,” he responded, still moving from pen to pen with a sack of feed in one hand and a scoop in the other. “Aiko’s late sometimes, but she’ll be back soon… she’s a good girl, you know, always takes care of the pokemon…”

Red followed him to the next pen, then the next, trying to talk past Mr. Sakai’s circuitous pattern of speech and thinking, until he lost his patience and simply grabbed Mr. Sakai’s arm before he could move on to the next pen.

Aiko’s father looked down at his hand, and Red removed it, feeling ashamed. But he kept his gaze on Mr. Sakai’s face, and when his eyes met his, Red could see it. He didn’t know what his own face looked like, but he knew what it felt like. His frustration had vanished, and all that he felt was… empty.

No,” Aiko’s father said. Just that one word, but it was enough to batter at Red’s control, enough to take the air from his lungs, so that the next part was even harder than he expected it would be.

She’s dead, Mr. Sakai,” Red whispered, trying to use the opening as best he could, his carefully rehearsed lines forgotten. “Died in Zapdos’s attack on the city. I’m so sorry.”

He stopped there, couldn’t say anything more. He should have been talking about what a hero she was. He’d confirmed it with a tearful Elaine, both for that night and their journey underground. He’d wanted to be able to answer any questions Mr. Sakai might ask, to be able to provide some solace, and on top of that felt like a shield in his mind, one he could raise before him if Mr. Sakai grew angry, cursed him for taking her away in the first place.

But as he watched Mr. Sakai’s puzzled gaze fill at last with understanding, then despair, Red knew it was a paper shield, one that he would toss aside if needed. He wouldn’t accept the blame from Blue, but if a grieving father needed someone to blame…

The older man crumpled backwards to sit on the grass, head hanging as a moan of grief escaped him. Red felt his own rising despite his efforts, and almost cut off all emotion completely.

Instead he sat beside Mr. Sakai as he rocked back and forth and sobbed into his hands. “No, Aiko, not my good girl, my sweet baby… I’m sorry, Ema, I’ve lost her… I’m so sorry…”

Red wept beside him as quietly as he could as he felt his heart rend, unsure of whether he should reach out or not, if his comfort would be welcome. He felt some need to fill the silence, to explain what happened, apologize for not stopping her. But as his insecurity held him back, he realized it was what he needed, not what Mr. Sakai needed, and so he kept quiet.

They were beside an oddish pen, and a small gathering of the oddish and bellsprout within it came up to the wires to stare at their caretaker as he cried before wandering away. Red missed Pikachu badly, and wished he had more pokemon useful for comforting others, like Joy.

After over half an hour, Aiko’s father’s sobs began to trail off into sniffles, and the occasional groan. Red dried his face and braced himself, thinking the questions would come any moment.

Instead Mr. Sakai turned to him and smiled. It was a weak smile, one ready to dissolve back into tears at any moment… but he reached out and took Red’s hand, ignoring his shocked look.

Thank you, Red.” Mr. Sakai’s voice was hoarse, but present. “Thank you for taking my daughter with you. She… wanted to be a trainer so much…” His face contorted, straightened. “Are Blue and Leaf… alright?”

Y-yeah.” Red felt something like horror at the idea of Mr. Sakai thanking him without knowing what happened… but he couldn’t bring it up himself. “Yeah, they’re okay. Leaf is in the hospital, and Blue is helping with the city. I’m sure they’ll come soon.”

Good.” He squeezed Red’s hand, then slowly began to push himself to his feet. “You’re all welcome… anytime…”

Red stared at him, then rose shakily to his feet as well. “Are you…” He cut himself off. How many times was he asked that same absurd question, after Dad died?

Would you please… tell her aunt? I don’t know how long I’ll be able to… ” Mr. Sakai trailed off as he picked up the feed bag. “Excuse me, please. Some pokemon still haven’t eaten.”

And with that he continued walking from pen to pen, feeding the pokemon as tears streamed down his face.


Red wipes his face as he finishes his recount. Dr. Seward stood and walked to the water cooler, then returned with a paper cup for him.

“Thanks,” Red whispers, and drinks the soothing water down before setting the empty cup aside. “Do you mind if I bring Pikachu out?”

“For comfort?”

“Yeah. He won’t shock anything, I promise.”

“Then by all means.”

Red sits up and unclips his pokemon’s ball, then aims it at the empty space beside the couch, bracing his arm. The ball rejects the target area until he aims it at just the right spot and with a flash of light his pokemon is there.

Pikachu looks around the unfamiliar room, back to Red and Dr. Seward until Red reaches out with his thoughts. His pokemon turns to him and leaps onto the couch, then his lap and curls up into a warm twist. Red feels his mood lift slightly as he runs his fingers through his pokemon’s fur. He can feel the scar where the kingler severed his lower spine. It took a week for the pokemon center to heal him, and they said he was lucky to regain full functionality.

“So,” Dr. Seward says as she settles back in her seat. “That was quite an intense experience, so soon after losing your friend. And I don’t mean to dismiss your observations. But from what you told me of Aiko’s father, why are you using him as a normative model of mental health?”

“I thought you might ask that.” Red shrugs, feeling weary. “Not pretending I know what’s in his heart… he cried again at the funeral. But Leaf says he’s carrying on as though it never happened. Like she’s just off on some trip. And whether that’s ‘normal’ or not, he’s still doing better than I am, without my partition. And like I said, Blue and Leaf seem to be fine too.”

His therapist is quiet a moment, then shrugs. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you really are the only one having trouble with her death. There are at least three good reasons I can think of why that’s the case, and I’m sure you can come up with more. But before we do that, you should check to make sure your model of reality is actually true. You haven’t seen Blue in weeks, and Leaf you see, what, twice a week when you go to help at the ranch for a few hours? People are capable of holding themselves together for far longer than that, Red. Don’t be so sure that everything is fine with someone just because they can put up a front. Leaf may be in a lot more pain than you think.”

Red closes his eyes, fingers still in Pikachu’s fur. “That… just makes me feel worse.”

“Why?”

“Because she hasn’t told me. Which means that she doesn’t trust me anymore, or want to talk about Aiko because she blames me, or—”

“What happened to not pretending you know what’s in people’s hearts?” Dr. Seward asks with a raised brow. “Or are you recounting mental impressions you’ve picked up from her.”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

She blinks, then rallies. “But you haven’t spoken to her about it.”

Red sighs. “No.”

“Then that’s your homework assignment. You know that what people feel is often complex, and you’re not in an unbiased frame of mind. You’re grieving your lost friend. You miss your other two friends, both of whom you feel betrayed by on some level. And you’re struggling with the guilt of the decision not to follow Aiko in, or not doing more to stop her.”

“It’s not…” Red sighs. “Nevermind. Yeah, alright.”

Dr. Seward’s brow furrows. “I’m sorry, maybe I misunderstood something. It’s not…?”

“It’s fine. Guilt is close enough.”

She looks like she’s about to argue, then just looks thoughtful a moment before saying, “Are you going to put your partition back up before you go?”

Red’s fingers slow. “You think I’ll tell you if it’s up?”

“Oh, no. I was just curious.”

Red merges with her briefly, and doesn’t sense any guilt or guile. “I wasn’t planning on it, no. Putting it back up is a weakness, a way to hide from reality.”

“Perhaps. It also might be a natural defense mechanism, a coping skill that your powers developed for you. Do you want to die?”

She asks the question so casually that Red answers before he can think about it. “No.”

She nods. “Just checking. What keeps you in this state, normally? You said earlier that you’d… not want the partition to go back up, once it’s down.”

“The partition being up is still my natural state. I’ll lose focus eventually and it’ll come back, or it’ll happen when I sleep next.” Red sighs. “And then I’ll go back to being oblivious to all this and just focused on the future, like a robot.”

“I see. And if I asked you to bring it back up before we end the session, and then you’d bring it back down before leaving, would that be okay?”

Red strokes Pikachu, gaze down. He feels like this is a trick, like she’s trying to talk to the more cheerful and focused version of him, instead of this sad and whiny one. Not that he blames her.

And in truth, there’s some part of him that feels the partition’s minor but constant tug at his attention as a siren song. A call toward peace, where he doesn’t have to think about such painful things. He resists because he knows it’s a lie, because it’s exchanging what he feels for who he is.

But he doesn’t want to subject Dr. Seward to something that makes her feel uncomfortable, or like he’s wasting her time. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

“Would it help to make an agreement with your Future self?”

“…I think it would. Thanks.” He closes his eyes.

Hey Future Red. I’m only putting the partition back up because she asked me to. You’d better bring it back down before we leave, or I’m going to consider that a defection and keep it in mind for the future.

Ugh. Fine. But we’ve got shit to do today, so if you spend it all moping in bed then I’m going to keep that in mind the next time we’re here.

Whatever. He hesitates a moment longer, then mentally relaxes his grip on the partition, feeling it slide back into place and rearrange his thoughts and emotions…

…until he lets out a breath of relief and opens his eyes. “Ugh. Thank you.” He scratches Pikachu between the ears, smiling down at his pokemon as he yawns. “That was unpleasant.”

Dr. Seward is watching him closely. “Can you explain how all that felt, to you?”

Red thinks about it a moment. “Kind of like someone took over my brain for a bit? Except it was a version of me where reality was way darker than it really is, lacking perspective on things or the ability to focus on the future.”

“Fascinating. It really was like talking to a different person, he seemed adamant that you were the fake version, and him the real one.”

Red nods. “It’s been a philosophical question I’ve been grappling with on and off for the past few weeks. If I wasn’t a psychic, then the partition wouldn’t exist, and Past Red would definitely be the ‘real’ me, assuming nothing else about the powers influenced things. But with my powers, this is my default state, so I’m clearly the ‘real’ me that’s not being inundated by negative emotions.”

“He was certainly more willful than I expected, given that, and your account of how he came off during the dream.” She frowns. “It feels strange talking about him as if he’s a different person, and also a bit rude. Particularly since he’s… or you’re… going to remember this once the partition is back down. I’m sorry, I’m going to try to keep that straight so as not to offend either of you, if that’s possible.” She rubs her forehead. “This has certainly been the strangest session I’ve had in quite a few years.”

Red smiles briefly “No problem here, do what you’ve got to do.” He considers telling her that Past Red was probing her mental state for her intentions, then decides against it. She’s been on the level the whole time, and he doesn’t want to make her start thinking in that way and bias things. Also he’s done the same thing once or twice. “Oh, in case you’re wondering, the thing that he almost said before was that it’s not about the guilt itself. We don’t want to be anchored by that feeling without first determining if we actually did the right thing or not. On that, we’re in agreement.”

“And as for how to figure that out…?”

“Yeah, we’re still struggling with that.”

“I see.” Dr. Seward takes a moment to collect her thoughts, then straightens in her seat. “Right. So I’ve got more research to do, apparently, but in the meantime, do try to talk to Leaf soon?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I understand that she probably doesn’t actually blame me as much as he thinks she does.”

“Yes, but the fact that you don’t believe it with the partition down is the problem.”

Red frowns, but nods. “Alright.”

“I understand that it will likely be an uncomfortable conversation, but I think it’s necessary. Whether you have it with the partition up or down is up to you.” She checks the time. “My next appointment should be outside. Same time next week?”

Red nods and nudges Pikachu off his lap and onto his shoulder, then stands. “Thank you, Doctor. I feel a lot more optimistic about all this already.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Have a good week, Red. And don’t forget to take the partition down before you go.”

She says the words lightly, but Red’s hand was already reaching for the doorknob, and he stops. “Right…” He sighs, considers just pretending to do it and being mopey as he leaves, but not seriously. Breaking that commitment might have long reaching consequences that he doesn’t really want to consider now.

It takes just a moment for him to bring the partition back down, and then he’s back in reality. “Bye,” he mutters, and shuffles out of the office and into a day that’s not bright enough to chase away the shadow of death that covers the world.

Chapter 67: Postmortem

In case you missed it, there was a mid-month subchapter, “Pyre,” published two weeks ago.


Blue sits in the uncomfortable hospital chair and stares down at the heavyballs in his hands, morning sun glinting off of each through the window. Aptly named, they’re notably heavier than other kinds, with thicker cases. It reminds him of when he first held a pokeball, fingers too small to comfortably grip the round orb, and he knows he’ll have to train with them soon to make sure his catches and throws aren’t off. A steelix and a snorlax give him more power than he expected to have for months yet, if not years, and chances are he’ll appreciate them more in a few days, when his thoughts don’t drift to less happy thoughts every few seconds.

He can’t quite remember when he fell asleep, but he woke downstairs half an hour ago feeling tired, but not exhausted. The city is in cleanup mode; trainers present for the storm are resting, while others arrive from all over the region to help catch wilds and assist with rescue and repair. Wireless networks are back up, but reserved for official use for now. Occasionally backed up messages and emails come through to Blue’s phone, but none from his friends, who he assumes are still asleep.

Blue needs to find them, needs to make sure everyone’s okay and reconnect his team. He knows Glen is safe, at least, and Elaine and Aiko were with two highly competent gym members, but Red and Leaf…

“Mr. Oak?” Blue looks up and sees the doctor. “He’s awake. I can give you ten minutes, but then he needs to rest.”

Blue clips the balls to his belt and hurries to the room. It seems wrong to hurry in a place like this, at a time like this. Like he should be walking slowly, out of respect. But there are other places he needs to be, and ten minutes won’t go slower just because he does.

When he reaches the doorway, however, he stops and stares, one hand going to the doorframe.

Gramps is lying in the bed without his coat on, dressed in a simple hospital gown like any other patient. Like he’s not a Kanto Champion, and one of the greatest researchers in the world, and just helped save thousands of people.

For once, Professor Oak looks as old as he is. Older, in fact.

He looks like he’s dying.

Blue’s throat is clogged, and he bites down on his lip to keep from making any noise. When he finally walks forward, however, it’s with all the fear and pain and childish shock of seeing a parent brought low.

He has to keep repeating to himself that Gramps will be okay in order to keep from breaking down and clutching at his grandfather’s form as he lies prone, to simply stand beside his bed and take his frail, liver spotted hand. Those faded blue eyes open, unfocused at first, until they lock onto his.

“Hey, Gramps,” Blue whispers.

“Blue.” Professor Oak squeezes his hand back without any strength. “Okay? Daisy?”

Blue nods, and has to clear his throat before he can speak again. “She got you out. And I’m fine.”

Lines of tension ease away, leaving the professor’s face simply wrinkled, his sharp jawline shifting and rounding as his lips part for a sigh. “Good.” His chest rises under the sheets as he breathes in deep. “So. Your first. How was it?”

Blue knows what he’s asking. “Too easy, at the start.” He remembers what felt like hours of staring at a rain-obscured barricade, struggling to keep his feet in place and not rush around to sate his impatience. “Then… harder.”

It took less than a minute for the Oaks working together to pummel the first steelix into submission. As soon as Blue caught it, the end came quickly for the second, and they all stood for a moment in the dwindling rain amid the torn up concrete, catching their breaths and recovering from the adrenaline rush.

And then Gramps collapsed, opening a gash on his cheek as it hit a chip of broken stone.

Daisy and Blue rushed to his side together, and after determining he was alive, Blue helped recall his pokemon while Daisy pulled him onto her pidgeot so she could take him to the nearest hospital. “Stay alive,” Daisy said, hugging him tight and kissing his wet hair before climbing into her saddle. “He came for you.”

Her words echoed in his head as he watched them fly off, and were hard to put aside when he went to help the others. Pokemon were coming out of the rift in the concrete that the steelix made when they burst free, and the entire stadium of civilians had to be moved while the trainers there fended them off.

It was tense a while longer, but with no other truly powerful pokemon around the defenders were able to secure the civilians’ safety with minimal casualties.

Relatively speaking.

Tori was killed by a fissure that opened up under her and a ranger who were defending a group of civilians. No warning, just an almighty crack that could have been thunder but wasn’t, and they were gone. Efforts to rescue them weren’t quick enough before the pokemon beneath the streets reached them.

Blue almost lost Maturin to a tangrowth, then did lose both his ekans and one of his bellsprout to it before he and Glen took it down together. Glen lost a couple of his own pokemon, but luckily nothing too powerful. Less luckily, his leg and hip were broken. Blue spent the rest of the battle keeping him safe while they moved, slowly but surely, along the path of the evacuations.

All told, the exodus from beneath the city lasted almost two hours, and an estimated six hundred people of the roughly seven thousand in the coliseum were killed, with another three hundred wounded. It would have been far worse, without Gramps and Daisy.

Blue never got so much as a scratch.

Once Glen was seen to, Blue could tell that Peter was pissed at him. It was hard to care while worrying about everyone else, and still is. He’s already gotten thanks from other trainers and civilians who saw how he helped stop the steelix and snorlax from coming after them, and he figures any reprimand would likely be done in private. Or maybe Peter would just tell Surge, and leave his judgement to their mutual superior.

Worries for the future. Right now his thoughts are still trying to expand on his answer to the question. Gramps gives him time, knowing that he would eventually.

“Harder, because I couldn’t take on any of the real threats,” Blue finally adds. “I let Aiko and Elaine get sent off, don’t know where Red and Leaf are, and Glen got hurt, and… then you collapsed and I thought you might be dead…”

He trails off, throat tight as he regains control of himself. “I was just one person, by the end, no different from anyone else,” he whispers. “Was all I could do to keep my friend alive.”

“M’sorry,” the professor says, closing his eyes. “Wasn’t there… for you…”

No trick can stop the burning from spilling down Blue’s cheeks now, and he clutches his grandfather’s hand. “You were there. A lot more people would have died without you and Daisy, and I might have been one of them.” He takes a deep breath and wipes his face with his other arm. “And the only thing I did of any real importance was because you were there. Without you… would have been a gap in the story.”

“First time,” Gramps repeats, as if to remind him. “At 12… still impressive.” He sighs. “Not strong enough… for more.”

“I know,” Blue says, letting out a breath. “I need more powerful pokemon, and need to be stronger against the Pressure, and… I need more social power, to do something meaningful next time, but I don’t know what kind would best…” He catches himself before he keeps venting his frustrations, and squeezes his grandfather’s hand. “Sorry. Can talk about that later. Can I get you anything? Or do anything for you?”

His grandfather shakes his head. “Not yet.” He takes a deep breath. “Just let Elm know… long recovery… and leave a message… for Samson…”

“Yeah. Of course.” Blue wonders if his twice-removed cousin would even get the message before he’s back from wherever he’s currently exploring, and his brow furrows as he imagines Gramps in here for day after day. “How long will you be in here?” Surely not more than a week…

“Last time was… almost a month. This time… don’t know.”

Blue stares in horror. “No, that’s… why would you… You can’t do that!” His voice is rising as his heart pounds, guilt and indignation warring within him. “Why didn’t you tell me, it’s bad enough you risked your life, but this is… You can’t just throw your life away, the world needs you—”

Sky blue eyes blaze into Blue’s, and a soft, weathered hand cups his face. “Will always come for you,” his grandfather whispers between labored breaths. “You and Daisy… are my world.”

Blue’s tears scald as they slide down his cheeks, and he clasps his grandfather’s hand against his face as he tries to regain control. It’s not fair, he’s not supposed to have to worry about this, to think that every time he faces them Gramps will…

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“You are who you are… And I have no desire… to bury another child…” His lips twitch upward briefly. “So you see… I’m actually quite…” The next word comes out in a shaking breath. “Selfish…” His eyes slip closed.

Blue doesn’t respond, simply holding his hand tight as his mind races to find a workaround. Zapdos came to him, this time, but if he decides to go into another Stormbringer attack… He would have to disable the tracking on his equipment first… no that would just tip Gramps off. He’d have to leave all his trackable equipment elsewhere, and his companions’ too. But what if he calls…

“Mr. Oak? It’s time.”

Blue glances back at the whispered voice of the doctor, then turns back to the professor, whose eyes stay closed. He gently releases his hand and places it on his chest, then bends to kiss his forehead. “See you later, Gramps.”

He gathers his things and heads down to the lobby. He’s expected at Vermilion Gym to debrief and coordinate with others. He doesn’t know if Surge is waiting for him or not, but he wants to hurry up and do whatever needs to be done there, so he can make sure his friends are okay.


Leaf spent the night after the storm ended in a haze, drifting in and out of sleep as medicine coursed its way through her veins, repairing the damage to her body and draining it of energy so fast that she was given a meal’s worth of calories every three hours. She was faintly aware of Elaine sitting with her as she drifted in and out of sleep, waking only for treatments and bodily necessities, while her dreams were full of dark streets and rain, lightning and danger, all of which seemed more real to her than the hospital room she kept finding herself in.

She’s reliving the battle in the clothing store, but with a far worse ending, when a jolt sends her gasping awake. Daylight streams through the window, and a nurse is preparing to wheel her out for what she fuzzily assumes will be more x-rays and injections.

“Red?” she croaks, looking around and blinking sweat from her eyes.

“Don’t worry about them,” Elaine responds from her seat by the window, bringing a cup of cool water to her lips, which she thirstily gulps down. “Just focus on getting better.” Her voice is thick with worry and exhaustion of her own.

Them? she thinks, then remembers Aiko left with him. She assumes she missed a whole cycle of them changing who stayed with her, which is disappointing. She wanted to talk to Aiko…

There’s a nurse with her when she next wakes, an older woman who smiles upon seeing her eyes open. “Hello there, hon. Happy to say you’re out of the woods, now.”

For a moment Leaf thinks she’s back in the hospital she slept in after Viridian. After a few seconds she recognizes that the stiffness in her arm and side aren’t from an electric shock, and soon she’s remembering the injury and back to full awareness.

“Thank you,” Leaf whispers. She’s starving. Her unbound arm stretches out from under the blanket to drink from the water cup beside her bed. There’s a note beside it. “Where’s Elaine?” she asks as she opens it.

“The girl who was here all night? Left you that.”

Leaf,

Morning! Doctors said you were stable, so I went to put our pokemon in queue at a nearby center. Don’t know when they’ll start accepting them, but they’re going to be backed up for a while, and I thought I should check in case it’s soon, otherwise it might take days. If not I’ll be back as quick as I can!

Hope you feel better when you wake!

Elaine

Leaf smiles. She knows it makes little sense to worry about her injured pokemon while they’re in stasis, but it’ll be nice to have them healthy again as soon as possible. “Am I free to go, then?” she asks as she puts the note back and drains the water cup.

The nurse finishes marking something, eyes on a monitor next to Leaf, then looks at her in surprise. “Go? Well, we can’t stop you, but you really shouldn’t. It’s still a bit of a warzone out there, and your injuries aren’t really healed yet; they just aren’t at risk of getting worse unless you’re too forceful with them.”

“Okay.” Without her pokemon the word warzone had killed her intention anyway. Leaf reaches for her phone and checks for messages, finding no new ones besides those sent on the emergency channels. Leaf tries sending Red one, and watches the indicator beside it spin endlessly for a few seconds before she gets back an unsent error. She sighs and sits back against the pillows again. “Is there anything I can do around here?”

The woman raises a brow. “Do you have any medical training?”

“Not really. Mostly just for pokemon, and basic first aid.”

“No fresh injuries coming in now, thankfully. Not here at least. Just get some rest.”

Leaf makes a frustrated sound. “I’ve been resting for…” She checks the time and blinks. “Thirteen hours? Thirteen hours! I can’t just sit here a whole day while my friends are still out there, I’ll go crazy.”

The nurse pats her leg in a decidedly unsympathetic manner. “From what I heard, you’ve done enough for now. I’m sure your friends will show up soon as they can.” She finishes tapping Leaf’s blood pressure into her tablet, then starts moving to the next bed. “If you want to do something so bad, take a walk around, ask people if they want water. Your legs and other arm are fine, and you can use the exercise.”

So that’s what Leaf does, slowly and carefully getting to her feet, then shuffling around the makeshift hospital. She notices that a lot of the nurses and doctors are different from the ones she remembers, while the familiar ones look exhausted. Probably nearing the ends of their shifts, but with how many people need help it’s possible they have no shifts. She hopes they get rest soon, regardless.

It’s still painful to breathe too deep, and with one arm immobilized she feels unbalanced and clumsy, but for once she’s thankful that she’s left handed. She spends an hour walking each floor of the makeshift treatment center, fetching water or blankets or extra pillows. It’s distracting and repetitive work, which is just what she needs to keep her mind off her worry for the others.

Most of the distraction comes from seeing so many people injured, many of them as bad as Leaf, though anyone worse was likely transported to the actual hospital. She sees a lot of family or friends gathered by bedsides, some having murmured conversation, others asleep, hand in hand. For the first time in what feels like days, Leaf thinks of her mother and grandfather, and wishes they were here.

An hour passes, and in that time the change in her thoughts is subtle. Seeing heartbreak after heartbreak eventually starts to lead her to thoughts about what caused all this, to why she’s worried about the others, which effectively means it stops working as a distraction. It isn’t until she sees one of the survivors from the apartment complex that she and Red saved, sobbing like he’s being torn in two as he sits at the bedside of a little girl missing a leg that Leaf has to take a moment to herself.

She goes to her bed and sits on it, eyes closed and breathing deep as she tries to identify the burgeoning pain.

You’re saying that as sad as a pokemon’s death might be, a person’s death… ripples outward more, and is much more affecting.

This very name you use, ‘pokemon,’ shows how little respect there is… I cannot describe to you what the world was like before such a word existed.

I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him…

“Don’t you?” she whispers, repeating what she told Red that night. How could he not?

How many tragedies are playing out right now, thanks to one pokemon? One pokemon that weaponized thousands of others with no conscious thought, and turned them into murderous, rampaging monsters?

She closes her eyes as a bloody crib flashes through her thoughts, sending a pulse of anger and grief through her. Blue’s ambition is right. This… all of this… once every few years? No wonder so many people are indifferent to pokemon suffering. No wonder they’re considered so much lesser.

Something must be done.

Blue wants to capture or kill the Legendaries, but that might not be possible anytime soon, if at all. It’s audacious…

…but not enough. There are still more deaths from non-Tier 3 events. They all need to stop if people and pokemon will ever coexist.

But how? There’s an idea burgeoning in the back of her mind, but she can’t think of what it is, it’s too vague… something about the Stormbringers, about the stampede of pokemon caused by their Pressure…

She sits frozen for a moment, mind racing over the new idea, feeling it out. Their pokemon are immune to most of the effects of Pressure due to virtual conditioning to prevent any aggressive actions without command.

What if they catch every single wild pokemon in the region, then release them, but with an altered program that only prevents aggressive action against humans or buildings, so they can reintegrate into the wild and maintain an ecosystem? They would still be immune to Pressure in all the ways that matter… and better yet, this would prevent the problems of lower tier incidents as well.

It could work. No more violence by pokemon against people… and then… peace.

She feels something soul-deep clicking into place. A possible path to victory, a purpose she can meaningfully dedicate her life to. She knows that she found it, at long last. Not just getting people to stop eating pokemon, which artificial meat might do, and not just making people treat pokemon better, but eliminating any need for people to feel threatened by pokemon at all. Practically no more need for trainers, which combined with artificial meat… would mean that the vast, vast majority of harm against pokemon would be eliminated.

She wants to stand up and pace, foot bouncing off the floor, and recognizes that she’s getting too excited. Calm down. Someone must have thought of this before, right?

Even if so, just because she hasn’t heard of it doesn’t mean it was dismissed for good reason. Maybe they dismissed it as too difficult, or thought that new pokemon being born would make it too much effort to maintain, especially if no such programs exist yet. She doesn’t want to assume that the only reason this hasn’t already been done is that no one cares enough about pokemon suffering to recognize how it might benefit humans too.

But in any case, all it would take is two things: the right programs, and a way to convince the world to do it, one region at a time.

Leaf smiles. Right. Easy as pie.

She needs to talk to her mom and grandpa about this. And Professor Oak, and Bill if he’s not too mad at her and Red for leaving the cruise, oh and Red of course, and Aiko would probably be all on board…

She checks her phone for messages again. Still nothing.

A meal arrives for her as she tries to send another message, and she eats mechanically before getting up to take a careful sponge bath in the washroom, thoughts turning her new idea from every angle she can until she returns to helping around the makeshift hospital.

Another hour passes before someone shouts in surprise, causing Leaf’s head to snap around toward them. It’s a middle aged man staring at his phone, and after a moment he clambors onto a nearby chair.

“Hey! Everyone! The list is up!” Conversation breaks out in a babble, and he has to raise his voice further to yell, “Front page of CoRRNet, last update was ten minutes ago!” A nurse is trying to reprimand him for yelling while another calls for everyone to be quiet, but most are already checking their phones with intense expressions of worry and hope.

Leaf hurries back to her room as she pulls her own out, then carefully sits on her bed and opens the webpage, heart pounding. She has to try refreshing the page a dozen times before it loads, after which she just stares at categories of names and wonders if she has the courage for this.

There are three categories, and her eye gets stuck on the third one: Confirmed Deceased. The number next to it seems absurdly low given what she experienced that night, but she knows that it’s still early, and that many of those currently counted in the much more populated Missing and In Treatment columns are likely to migrate.

Migrate.” What a pleasant euphemism I’ve created. And now I get to ruminate on that instead of just looking at the names.

Okay. It’s very simple: she’ll just open a search field and type in names, one at a time.

Before she can, a wail of grief erupts from outside, followed by choked sobs. Leaf closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then another. I’m going to start typing as soon as I open my eyes. Three… two… one…

Leaf’s fingers shake only slightly as she starts to tap out Blue Oak, and she lets out a breath of relief as the number beside the field became 0 when she reached the O.

Next comes Red Verres, and a knot forms in her stomach until she reaches the and the number goes to 0 again. She deletes back to just Red to look through the two that popped up. Only one is a first name, the other being part of Redmayne.

She’s still stalling. She swallows and starts tapping again.

Aiko S

Leaf’s fingers stop. The number beside the search window still shows 0, and she feels the last tension relax inside her. There are still other names she wants to search, but if she’s being honest with herself, those were the ones she most cared about.

She quickly searches for Elaine and Glen, and is just about look up Takada when someone says, “It updated!” and she quickly presses refresh and gets an error message.

Leaf curses and lowers her phone. We should just find a big monitor and cast one of their phones to it, reduce the server load… The thought reminds her that she can try sending a message again, and she guiltily does so, even though she knows Red and the others are alright now.

Except she doesn’t know that at all, because new reports are still coming in and the page is constantly updating. She could spend the whole day here just refreshing the page and searching her friends’ names, and she still wouldn’t know if they’re okay until she sees or hears from them, so… really, she should just skip all that and wait until she does.

So resolved, she lowers her phone with what feels like a massive expenditure of will and looks up to see Red standing in the doorway, lowering a pair of bags beside his feet.

Leaf’s eyes widen, and they just stare at each other for a moment. There’s a burning in her throat as sudden relief spreads through her, not just the absence of anxiety but a wave of warm gratitude that makes her smile and finally stagger to her feet and toward him.

He catches her in a careful hug, and Leaf closes her eyes. It hurts a bit, but not enough for her to care. “Swords of Justice, Red, don’t ever scare me like that again.” Her arm wraps carefully around his waist, which is bereft of his pokebelt, for a brief squeeze.

“Sorry,” Red says. His voice is quiet and calm. “You’re… okay?”

“Yeah. Going to take a while to heal, but… okay.” She relaxes her arm, which he takes as a sign to lower his too, and she leans back to look him over. He looks tired, but not as much as before he left with Aiko, and the fact that he’s dry and wearing new clothes probably goes a long way toward her feeling of relief. It wasn’t just his physical health she was concerned about, but somehow the visual observation of him just looking… clean and dry and relatively put-together translates in her mind as him being emotionally better. “Where have you been?”

“The gym. Leaf… can we sit down?”

Something in his voice makes her gaze snap to his, not even registering it as a simple request to rest. There’s an odd hollowness in his eyes that she missed before, or maybe it just wasn’t as strong, but when they meet hers, she sees grief and pain lurking in that emptiness, and her heart freezes.

And then she looks down at the bags, registering the implication of a second one for the first time.

“What happened to Aiko?” She grips his shirt. “Is she here? How bad is it?”

Red pulls away from her to sit on the bed, hand taking hers, and she follows without resistance, barely feeling her body as she lowers herself beside him. He won’t look at her, which scares her more than anything.

Not dead. Just don’t say that, anything else… “Red. Tell me.” It’s hard to breathe, like shallow breaths aren’t enough but if she breathes deeper her side hurts…

“I’m sorry,” Red says, and then

she watches his lips form words that hammer her chest

(no, that’s her heart beating)

vision going white around the edges

Red’s face is panicked and tilting out of view

blood rushes through her ears in a roar

that ends in darkness. Leaf drifts from glimpses of her new friend’s intense gaze, hears harsh words exchanged on rooftops, sees a smile that’s sometimes wry, and sometimes bitter, but often genuine and surprised and warm, like she just couldn’t believe that life had this to offer her, and when Leaf wakes it’s with wet eyes pressed against a damp pillow.

She stays still a moment, recognizing where she is by the feel of the hospital bed and the sounds around her. For a moment she allows herself to think it was all a dream, and she’ll turn to find the nurse beside her, but when she turns her head and opens her eyes a crack, she sees Red sitting beside where Elaine used to, looking about half of how she feels.

“Leaf, are you—”

“How?” Leaf croaks. Her throat is dry, and she shifts herself to sit up. A nurse must have been by, because there’s a pulse monitor around her wrist and a fresh cup of water beside her bed. She sits up and drains the whole cup, then scrubs her face with her sleeve. “How did it happen?”

Red stares at her. “I think you fainted, you shouldn’t—”

“You have to tell me. It won’t be real until you do.” She draws her legs up and wraps her good arm around them, not looking at him as shock settles in around her thoughts again. The tempting denial. “Now, Red. Tell me what happened.”

He’s silent for a minute, and just before she yells at him to just tell her she realizes that she’s not thinking, that it must be hard for him too, maybe even harder, but before she can say anything he starts talking, and she’s transfixed by her need to know.

“We went to one of the hospitals that got hit by Zapdos. It was on fire, being evacuated. An onix was moving through the city, probably trying to avoid…” Red pauses, blinks rapidly, shakes his head. “Sorry. She was inside, and the roof collapsed.”

Leaf stares at him, heart hammering and breath catching in her throat as she tries to speak twice. “Did… you see?” Is it possible you’re wrong?

“No.”

“Then how…” she trails off as Red raises a finger and taps his temple, and Leaf’s last bit of hope fades.

Tears blur her vision and trace new lines down her cheeks, but this time there’s no merciful unconsciousness to divorce her from the rising tide of pain. She imagines Aiko trapped under rubble and bleeding out, mind flinching from more horrible outcomes, and then imagines Red staring at the rubble and knowing that she’s gone… “Gods, Red. I’m so s-sorry…”

She reaches an arm out, and he’s there for her to press her face into his shoulder. As the grief floods through her, she feels and hears his own stifled sobs, and grips him tighter. Even through the pain, she thinks of what he showed her on the cruise; the effect his dad’s loss had on him. And now this…

That thought makes her suddenly think of Aiko’s dad, and the flood feels like it expands into every corner of her thoughts. Gods, what are they going to say to him? He barely seemed to accept her leaving for her journey… the thought of him not accepting that she was gone, just… living on as if she’s coming home at some point…

It feels like her heart is being squeezed into pulp, the pain so great that her muffled keen is as much from the simple physical feeling as the grief.

Have you ever lost a person?… There’s like a crack in your life that doesn’t ever really go away.

She can feel it, already formed. A dark rift into which all the plans and hopes and dreams of her friend have disappeared forever, a fissure that cuts across the future and splits it off forever from what could have been, and the more she contemplates it, the more it feels like it’ll pull her in too, sink her through inky depths that will crush her like an empty soda can.

And she does get pulled in, and she does get crushed, and for a time all the world is reduced to the compact agony.

When the storm finally passes, it does so in stages of awareness. First Leaf becomes more cognizant of the feel of Red’s shirt. Then her own hospital gown. Then the sounds of others in the building. Then some stray thought clutches her leg and drags her back down until she’s ready to try coming back again.

Red is quiet and patient beside her, until the world returns little by little again and stays. She keeps her head where it is, feeling like she’s cried out, for now. Red seems content to stay still too, and what eventually makes her lift her head is a sound of grief from elsewhere in the hospital.

Another tragedy, only tangentially related. Another ended future.

Leaf opens eyes that feel puffy and sore, and notes with only minor surprise that it’s still light out, the bright midday sun shining down on a city full of cracks. There’s even a rainbow in the distance, a testament to the insanity of this new world she’s sidestepped into. In a saner one it would be night already, and raining again.

“How did you stand it?” she eventually murmurs. “With your dad.”

Red shakes his head. “Didn’t, remember? I broke. Took a long time for the pieces to settle, but even then a lot was blocked by my partition.”

Leaf pulls away slightly to search his face. “And did this break you again? Or…”

Red meets her gaze, then slowly shakes his head. “It’s… different.” His voice is quiet, but she can hear the thread of pain under it. “I think I understand how partitions form, now.”

“How?” she asks, because it’s something to talk about, anything, that’s not…

“Sometimes it seems like memories and preferences and perceptions are all we are. Like a messy bundle of data files, sensory equipment, and programmed directives that…” He stops, frowns, shakes his head. “Sorry, that’s not… Anyway, partitions divide your memories. Memories are almost like a person, right? Just… with no access to the senses, or intentions… it’s just a pattern. When I was younger… I didn’t realize I had powers, but they were still developing and working to revert harm through partition.”

“So they formed… what, another person inside you?”

“No. Sorry, I’m butchering it, and I think it’s hard to explain anyway.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “I lived a pretty sheltered life as a kid. My mom and dad were my world, and that world was good. There were things that made me sad, but life still felt… fair. Sensible.”

Leaf’s chest aches. What Red’s describing sounds very much like what life was like for her, before she decided to leave Unova.

“I was practically a baby when Blue lost his parents. Only have vague memories of them, but my dad was… more than a person. He was like an idea given form. A heroic font of wisdom about how to survive, he taught me so much about how to stay safe on my journey…”

“And then he died,” Leaf whispers. “No, not just died. Was killed by pokemon.” Leaf watches Red study her bed, focusing on the sound of his voice and the ideas he’s expressing, to keep herself from dwelling on things that would make her fall apart again.

Red nods. “It was like… if some new mythical pokemon shows up and reverses gravity for a few seconds. Forget the planetary effects, I mean just from the earth’s surface. And everything goes flying up into the air, then comes crashing down. Bunch of people die, probably, and maybe a lot of houses collapse, I don’t know. But the point is you just can’t take it for granted anymore that gravity is constant. That pokemon might do it again at any point, and everyone just… The world is different. You’re different. And you’re less shocked, the second time it happens. But a partition… it holds onto the old mental pattern, or something.” He rubs his face. “Sorry, this analogy is breaking down. I have a lot of questions I need to ask another psychic.”

Leaf worries her lower lip, watching him. “I think it made sense, sort of. So with your partition weak, you were… more prepared, for this?”

“Not prepared,” he murmurs, gaze down. “And I don’t know if the partition being weak mattered. I just… there wasn’t as much, built on some idea that we were all invincible. I think if I wasn’t psychic it would have been the same. It all feels like it’s part of the same pattern now. Maybe that’s why it was easier for me, to not go in the building.”

Leaf stares at him. “What do you mean?”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “I wasn’t with her, Leaf,” he says, voice finally descending into full monotone. “I tried to stop her from going into the hospital, but I let her go in with just Vermilion Gym’s Second. They were going in to rescue his people and others that were still trapped inside and I said not to, I said it was too dangerous, but they went in anyway. No one came out.”

She stares at him, unable to understand what he’s saying for a moment, then unable to accept it. “You didn’t… no, Red, you risked yourself to save strangers, you don’t… how could you not…”

Now he does open his eyes, and they’re wet and angry. “How could I what, Leaf? How could I not throw my life away too? How many times did we almost die last night? I count three for myself, you probably had more. What would it have taken? A command given a second too slow? A trip or slip at just the wrong moment? If that nidoqueen meant to attack you instead of just turning while you were in the wrong place, you’d be dead.” His anger has faded, anguish coming through instead. “Dead, Leaf, just gone, like Ai…” Her name turns into a sob that brings her own tears back, and then they’re holding each other again as the tears flow, and this time Leaf feels like she’s comforting him more than the other way around.

It’s hard to fully grapple with the idea of her own non-existence in any circumstance, let alone through the numbing grief. But she can feel a little bit of the horror at how close she came, through the fear in his voice.

Another endless moment passes as Leaf lets the grief take her away again. There were just so many things she was waiting for… conversations that would never happen now. Talking to Aiko about the diglett caves, and the cruise, and her ranch, and lab grown meat, and cloning… Blue probably has his own list, and Red too, and it all adds up to sorrow that has nowhere to go. A lifetime of pain that may fade, but will persist until each of them are gone.

And all because of what? Leaf finds herself searching for justification in what Red said, for and against, because it still doesn’t make sense to her. Red was so brave all that night, despite all the fear he was dealing with… Could it be that he was using his powers to keep himself steady, and then they ran out? Or maybe…

“Red,” she whispers. “The Pressure was really hard on you. Did it—”

“No.” He sounds so tired, like he’s argued this a hundred times before. Maybe he has, to himself. “Zapdos was gone. If anything I felt less afraid for myself, after that. It was me, Leaf. Just me. I decided the risk was too high and I didn’t go in. That’s all.”

Leaf hears the words, but still… doesn’t believe him. She saw how affected he was by it, even lost in her own nearly hysterical concern for the pokemon around her—

“So it’s true?”

They both jump at Blue’s voice, and Red stands and steps around the chair so Leaf can see him, standing in the doorway like Red was.

“Blue! You’re okay!” The relief is such an unexpected positive thing to feel that she forgets her injuries and tries to get up too. She quickly stops, hissing in pain, and relaxes back into her bed. “How did you find us?”

He doesn’t answer, doesn’t even move further into the room to hug Red. He just stares at Red with an expression of barely leashed anger, and it takes her a moment to remember that he asked a question.

Just when she thinks he won’t answer, his gaze moves to her. “Just came from the gym. Found out where Red was going. You’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” She searches his face, heart sinking at his clipped tone. This isn’t the tearful reunion she imagined, let alone the joyful one. “The others… are they…?”

“Glen was hurt too, but he’s also recovering. Elaine?”

“She’s fine. Went to a pokemon center.”

Some tension leaves Blue at that, and he leans against the wall. “Glad you’re okay.” He opens his mouth, then closes it and turns to Red. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“You didn’t specify,” Red says, and Leaf looks at him in surprise at the leashed anger in his voice too.

Sudden foreboding fills her, and she’s about to speak when Blue answers.

“They told me you were there. When the Second and Aiko died.” Blue’s voice is controlled, but his hands are fists as he crosses them over his chest, and there’s anger under the calm like hints of flames licking an underbrush. “That you let them go into the building alone.”

“Yes,” Red says. Just that. As Leaf looks at him, all traces of the sadness from before are gone.

Blue waits, clearly expecting more of an answer. Blue’s jaw sets, and he shakes his head. “You’re not a coward. You wouldn’t have come if you were. How could you do that?”

“Guys,” Leaf says, forcing herself to speak against the sense of pressure she feels filling the room. “Maybe now isn’t the right time for this. We’re all still exhausted, maybe feeling after effects of the Pressure. Let’s just… let it go, for now. She wouldn’t want us to—”

“Yes, she would,” Blue interrupts, and she sees his fists tighten as the heat enters his voice, now. “You two didn’t know her as well as I did, you weren’t there after the caves, you don’t understand. We all take responsibility for our fuckups. She understood that, started it. Now tell me what the fuck happened, Red!”

A silence of three parts fills the room: Leaf’s shock and dread, Blue’s angry expectation, and Red’s detached hostility. It’s broken not by any of them, but by a nurse who walks by the door.

“Is everything alright in here?” she asks, looking at Leaf.

“No,” she says. “We… lost a friend.”

Blue lets a breath out through his nose and turns to the nurse. “Please excuse my outburst. It won’t happen again.”

She eyes him briefly, then looks back at Leaf, waiting for her confirmation. After a moment, Leaf nods, and the nurse walks away. It’s only after she leaves that Leaf realizes she was probably asking if she was okay, if she wanted them to stay.

As soon as she’s gone, Blue closes the door. When he turns back to Red, the silence returns.

“That’s what you want?” Red asks at last. “You just want me to say I made a mistake?”

“No, that’s not it. But it would be a start.” Blue lets out a breath and rubs his face. “It’s more than that, but just… explain what you did wrong, and why, and we can go from there.”

“If you want a real post mortem, there were three mistakes,” Red says, voice soft and hypnotically monotone. “The first was made by Vermilion’s Second. It wasn’t when he sent his team ahead while waiting for Aiko and me, that made sense. Don’t think they could have reasonably predicted the onix. The mistake came when, after arriving at the clearly unsound and doomed building, he decided to go in at all. It was too high a risk. He should have known that. He did know it, but went anyway. He didn’t make a plan for the roof collapsing, didn’t have a way to deal with that, so he shouldn’t have—”

“Stop,” Blue says, and the anger is back. “You’re not doing it right. You talk about yourself, not what other people did wrong. That’s for them to do, and he’s not here. His friends and gym mates were in the building, and he couldn’t just watch and not go try to save them. Some people can’t live like that.”

“Maybe they can’t,” Red says. “But if that’s true, those people shouldn’t be leaders. Ask Surge, if you disagree,” he quickly says, seeing Blue about to speak again. “But fine, you want me to admit my own mistake? That’s the second one. I should have lied to him. The Second asked me if there were still people alive in the building. Don’t know if he would have believed me if I said no, but… I should have said no.”

They both stare at him, and Leaf can’t keep her silence. “Red, what if someone had made it out? No one would ever trust you…”

“Maybe not. But Aiko might be alive right now.”

“That’s all you care about?” Blue asks. “You would have condemned them all to death, just to save two lives?”

“My dad taught me that risk is something you have to actively manage. It’s not just about having knowledge, it takes time. Effort. Sometimes resources. If you’re not spending anything to manage risk, you’re just rolling dice.” Red shakes his head, and now some emotion enters his voice as he leans back against her bed, gaze down. “Aiko should have known that. That’s the third mistake. She’s… she was… smart, she understood risk, and I wish… I wish I could have just paused time and talked to her about it, I’m sure I could have convinced her, but it all happened so fast…”

Leaf reaches out to put a hand on Red’s arm as he trails off, sounding close to tears again. “Red, you can’t blame yourself for this. It was her choice to come with us, we all tried to get her to come but she’s the one that ultimately chose it, just like she made the choice to go in there.” She turns to Blue. “Tell him.” He bites his lip, staying silent, and anger suddenly sparks in her own chest. “Blue, tell him!”

Blue rubs his eyes, then lets out a breath. “She did it because she chose to. But you’re wrong saying it was a mistake. She followed what she felt was right. She knew it was a risk, and maybe it was the wrong call this time. Your mistake wasn’t that you failed to stop her, Red, it was not going in after her. It’s the same mistake you make in battles, that you could have learned in Pewter if you went for the badge: you’re too hesitant to take risks.”

“This wasn’t just a risk, it was suicide.”

“You didn’t know that ahead of time, you’re saying it now, after the fact!”

“The roof collapsed, Blue, if I’d gone in then I’d be dead too!”

Then you should have died!”

The silence is back, and this time Leaf pushes through her shock. “Blue, you don’t mean that.”

“Would you have done different?” Blue asks, eyes piercing her. “Be honest, Leaf. For her, for him, for me. Would you have stayed outside?”

Leaf’s throat locks. She can’t know what she would have done… she could say that, could try to stand up for Red, but…

Blue reads it on her face, and nods. “That’s what it means to be someone’s friend,” Blue says, looking back at Red now. “That’s what you don’t get, Red. You’re talking about risk and the smart thing to do like it’s a game, like your decisions don’t say things about who you are, how people see you. Forget strangers you’re on a mission with, how could anyone trust you to have their back on a journey, if they know that’s how you see things?”

“Of course that’s what you care about,” Red says, bitterness spilling out with every word. “Your precious fucking persona. Word gets out that one of your journeymates will leave a friend to die and people wonder if you feel that way too, right? That’s what being a hero is, to you, what looks heroic, not what actually saves lives.”

“Shut up,” Blue says, face red and voice deadly calm. “That’s not how it is.”

“No? That mean you’re going to stop pretending that your definition of a hero is the only one?” Red sticks a finger forward. “Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in the back of her head, telling her she had to go in there or she didn’t belong at the great Blue Oak’s side?”

“Get that finger out of my face before I—”

“Stop it, both of you!” Leaf cuts in, heart pounding. Both boys have moved closer to each other, faces flushed, and she forces herself out of the bed to stand between them, looking back and forth. “You’re best friends, you can’t let this change that, Aiko wouldn’t want this, you know she wouldn’t!”

Blue swallows, hands balled into fists at his side as he takes a slow breath. “Just… admit your mistake. Just say it, Red, it’s okay if you were afraid,” Blue’s voice shakes slightly on the word, “You can overcome that, we’ll help you, but you can’t go forward like this, thinking that what you did was right.”

For a moment all Leaf can hear is her heart pounding and their breaths. The world outside the door is oddly quiet, as if the whole building is waiting for Red’s response.

“That’s where you’re demonstrably wrong,” he says at last, and steps around Leaf. Blue’s arms flinch up, but Red just takes his bag from the floor and pulls its straps onto his shoulders.

“Red…” Leaf steps forward, struggling to find the right words, frustration mixing with panic. Say something, if you want to persuade the world to do the right thing then you should at least be able to stop a friend from making a mistake!

He pauses and glances at her. There’s something in his gaze that reminds her of that night on the cruise, and she feels heat go up her neck in the moment it takes for him to look away. “You don’t have to worry about me tarnishing your reputation, Blue. Maybe you’re right, maybe I’m not fit to be a trainer after all. Either way, my journey’s done.”

“Red, don’t,” Leaf says, but he’s already opening the door, and he closes it without looking back.


Red spends the day walking through the city. It’s shocking to see the damage in the daylight; all the bodies seem to have been collected, thankfully, but there are entire blocks that are a wreck. That said, watching the repair efforts that are already underway is soothing, in its own way. It’s a reminder that not everything that happened last night would leave a scar.

Red doesn’t have a specific destination in mind. He mostly just walks to keep himself busy as his thoughts churn, and his emotions ebb and flow. Occasionally he thinks of the conversation that just happened, of Blue’s tone or the look on Leaf’s face, but those pains are minor.

Mostly he just thinks of Aiko, and practices manipulating his partition.

At one point Red reaches the shopping mall that he and Leaf took shelter in, and goes inside to ensure that the group who hid there is okay. A path is cleared through the spike trap they laid, so he assumes they got out okay, at least. Afterward he goes to a pokemon center and puts his pokemon in queue to be healed. It would take a few days before his pokemon are healed, but he waits a couple hours anyway to speak with a doctor who examines Pikachu’s ball, and reports confidence that he would walk again. It doesn’t undo last night or this afternoon, but it’s a small stone off Red’s heart. He misses his pokemon’s weight on his shoulder.

Wireless signal gets fully restored by dinner time, and Red eats a meal bar in a park as he composes a message, then sends it.

He doesn’t call his mom. He would probably have to tell her that he got off the cruise at some point, but right now it seems a better problem for Future Red. He does let Bill know, and apologizes for not seeing the whole convention. He reads updates about the search for Elite Karen, which resolves just as the sun begins to set: she was found in critical condition, but alive, atop her slain pokemon. The death count for the city is up to seven thousand. It’s being cautiously referred to as the least deadly Stormbringer attack on a major city in history. Mass funerals are already being planned, and there’s a speech by the mayor and gym leader tomorrow afternoon.

The sun is setting by the time he gets a response to his message. As he gets up he spies the messages waiting for him from Leaf. Each expresses caution and reassurance that Blue will come around. He sends her a quick response telling her he’s okay and would visit tonight. There are none by Blue.

It’s a forty minute bike ride from the park to the cafe, and by the time he arrives it’s fully dark. He does his best as he packs up his bike and pads to ensure his mental state isn’t too uncomfortable, then walks into the cafe.

Most businesses aren’t re-opened yet, but Sabrina is already there, waiting with a cup of something. Or maybe she’s not waiting: Leader Giovanni sits beside her, along with Leaders Koga and Erika. Their conversation stopped before he even entered, and so he steps into silence as he stares at the four Leaders, his heart pounding in his chest.

“Ah, sorry,” he says, and swallows before bowing. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Not at all, Red,” Sabrina says as Giovanni and Koga nod in greeting, and Erika twiddles her fingers. “I already told them this would only take a moment. In fact, it’s already done.” Her gaze is sympathetic, but warm. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. But your assessment is correct. Your partition is now partially under your control.”

Red’s heart hammers as he feels hope pierce the grief, for a moment. “You’ll take me as your student, then?”

Sabrina sips from her cup, gaze thoughtful, then seems to reach a decision. “I will. When can you start?”


End of Part I

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, and instead of cots the rooms and open spaces are full of hospital beds and equipment that must have been brought over from the main building’s storage. Red leads them to a windowed office that’s been converted into a single patient room, and they file in to see Leaf lying on one of the beds.

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.

Chapter 64: Purpose

From the moment Blue reached the pokemon center, it felt like all control was gone.

Up until then, things were going fine. News of Zapdos’s approach threw him, briefly, but he recovered. Even reeling from his forced decision to join Vermilion Gym and all that implied, he was still able to process the Stormbringer’s arrival, and quickly reached out to everyone so they could coordinate their next steps. Some of the trainers he’d been spending time with were either out of the city or were assigned other groups, but once Surge finished his debrief, Blue managed to get Aiko, Glen, Elaine, Taro, and Chie assigned to the same defense point.

As the six of them biked their way through the mass migration going on throughout the city, constantly slowing down or dodging the crowds of people, his feelings of anticipation and worry felt perfectly balanced. It was easy to stay focused while it felt like every minute a different vital decision mattered.

They were almost at the center when Red called, which only added to Blue’s sense that everything was under control. It humbled him and filled him with pride, that they left the cruise to risk their life for the same purpose as him. With such amazing friends, anything felt possible.

Once they reached the pokemon center it was clear that defense coordination was being handled by a handful of rangers and gym members. One ranger stood on a table with a megaphone, and Blue led the others to the crowd forming around her, so they could report their pokemon and trainer experience.

And it’s there, waiting in line, that he feels the sense of purpose and forward momentum… stall.

He starts checking and rechecking his supplies as the crowd mills around him, only half paying attention to what the others are saying. He shifts from one foot to the other, casting look at the oncoming storm clouds. He just… waits. Waits, in essence, for more important people to decide what to do with him. To decide what to do with his whole group.

“Don’t like that they might split us up,” Glen says as they watch people who arrived together sometimes get sent to opposite areas around the center.

“Maybe we can convince them to keep us together,” Aiko says, and glances at Blue.

“Maybe.” He shuffles forward another step, studying the way a perimeter is set up, trainer by trainer, around the pokemon center. In general, the oldest trainers look like they’re being positioned at the half of the building facing the oncoming storm. “Arguing with the rangers at Golden Hills was different, though. Back in the Viridian Fire I stuck my foot in my mouth pretty hard by trying to argue with an assignment, and that was just a Tier 1.”

“Hey, look,” Taro points as people in the pokemon center’s uniforms start summoning things along the street. “Some kind of barrier?”

That’s exactly what it is. Small walls of concrete in alternating sizes and shapes are being released from storage balls in a loose square around the pokemon center, particular attention being paid to block the gaps between the buildings around it.

“Are all cities here this prepared for Legendaries?” Glen asks.

“No,” Blue says, and starts looking through his bag for the container ball holding his raincoat as the ranger reminds everyone to put on their storm gear. “This is all Surge.”

“You chose a good Gym to join, I guess,” Chie says, her tone making it clear she’s half joking.

Blue snorts. Chose. Like he was left with any choice, after the Leader trapped him with his own criticism. But complications with Red and Leaf aside, Chie is right. When he said he wouldn’t join any gyms, it was before seeing the way Surge operates. The potential in his methods and ideology.

Leader Surge, he reminds himself. Soon to be a title that’s more personal to him than it ever has. The whole thing still feels a little unreal, and probably would until well after the Thunder God is past.

The shortest barriers are still taller than Blue, which means he watches as little by little he’s locked away from the world outside the perimeter. There are gaps left for arrivals to continue to make it in, what looks like a hundred people every minute, carrying bags that are probably full of container balls. Most make their way into Pokemon Center to go down the bunkers below it, but some divert toward the rangers, trainers who seem to decide at the last minute to help with the defense of their loved ones.

Eventually the last barrier is put into place, leaving just a few gaps for late arrivals to keep trickling in. And as Blue watches the ranger ahead split up yet another group, telling them another ranger will give them specific instructions at the locations they’re being sent to, he suddenly feels the claustrophobia of the surrounding walls and people hit.

It’s not like in the diglett tunnels, the feeling of there not being enough room around him. Instead he feels trapped, not by the barriers but by circumstance. Trapped in a place where he won’t be able to do anything of importance, trapped in a place where he won’t be the leader of his own group of trainers, but just another cog in a machine.

He thought he got past this in Viridian Forest. This… entitlement, this feeling of being squandered, of not having his potential recognized, of not doing anything meaningful. But with his first Stormbringer encounter being such an important part of his goals, his future plans, apparently it’s back in force.

Still, he recognizes that it’s a dangerous way to think. What can he really do, against Zapdos right now? What, is he going to risk his friends’ lives just to accomplish something heroic? No. He’s going to be a good trainer, a good Vermilion Gym member, and show that he can do what he’s told when he needs to.

“They’re still not here,” Aiko says, and he follows her gaze to the procession of people that are still arriving.

“They’ll be alright.” He tries to sound confident, but has a hard time suddenly thinking that it matters. Maybe they should have stayed on the cruise after all.

It’s finally their turn, and when the ranger splits Blue and the others up, he doesn’t argue. Instead he just goes to the north-western side of the pokemon center, thankfully not on the complete opposite side of where the storm is coming, and tells the ranger there his lineup so he can be told who he should use (Maturin, obviously) and where he should stand. Turns out he’s close enough to Glen and Taro to see them to his right and left, if he cranes his neck around the random people.

No, not “random people.” He shouldn’t think of them that way. They’re other trainers just like him.

What did Blue Oak do when he first encountered one of his parents’ killers?

He stood around a pokemon center with about fifty other trainers just like him, protected by walls.

Fantastic. Truly inspirational.

He watches lightning arc across the stormfront, the near constant sound of thunder growing louder as it approaches, then looks at his two neighbors. An older woman to his left, tall and thin and standing with a stiffness that Blue interprets as an attempt to control her nervousness, and a girl that looks to be about Aiko’s age to his right, tossing a pokeball from hand to hand. Watching her reminds Blue of all the time he spent practicing tricks with pokeballs. He’s glad he did, for the dexterity he’s trained into his hands, but it would feel like a waste of time, now that every hour of his journey is one that he could be spending training his pokemon or looking up new strategies and ideas for training them or his friends.

“Hey,” he says. “I’m Blue.”

“Katie,” the girl to his right says, still bouncing the ball between her hands.

“Fumiyo,” the older woman says, and holds a hand out for Blue to grip briefly.

“Good to meet you both. Let’s watch out for each other, yeah?” He says the words because he knows they’re the right thing to say, for multiple reasons, but he can’t help but find them hollow. He wonders if they hear it that way too.

But Fumiyo nods, and Katie just says “Yeah,” and then it’s quiet again. He hears the distant chatter from others along the perimeter, all of it with a thread of nerves under it. He wishes he was with the others at least, so he could feel like he has some control over what’s about to happen.

But no, if he does well enough here he could impress others outside of those who already know what he’s capable of. He has to think of this as an opportunity.

Blue fidgets for a while longer, still watching for Red and Leaf every so often, then takes an empty pokeball out and starts mimicking the girl’s hard toss back and forth across his chest. The minutes creep by, and suddenly the apparent speed of the storm feels like it’s growing at an alarming rate, until dark descends on them like a smothering blanket.

They’re not going to make it, Blue realizes with a sudden twist of anxiety as the alert goes out about the aerial wave, rousing everyone into readiness. The rangers and gym leaders have stopped directing people as the last pieces of the perimeter are put into place, the last citizens running as they’re waved inside by rangers at the perimeter. Blue swallows and thinks of calling Red and checking where he is…

But then he hears it: the sound of wings.

“Civilians inside, now!” the ranger with the megaphone yells. “Trainers, prepare for contact and brace for hurricane wind gusts!”

The remaining civilians run for the pokemon center entrance while the trainers summon their pokemon. Blue’s pulse kicks up, ready to finally do something, and the battle calm descends even as he spares one last worry over Red and Leaf. They’ll be okay. They’ll have gone to another defense point…

“Go, Maturin!” Blue yells as the cloud of pokemon approaches, and goes down to one knee, hands braced against the pavement. “Bai!”

The command is almost lost in the other trainers’, and Maturin joins the dozens of pokemon sending ice, fire, electricity, and other projectiles up into the oncoming cloud of pokemon to divert them around the pokemon center.

The forefront of the wave falls or veers away, tangling with the ones behind them and causing a chain reaction of interference and deterrence. But there are too many still coming behind them, and within another few heartbeats the rest of the mixed flock is flying overhead in a cacophony of noise and force that knocks multiple defenders down, and stuns most of their pokemon into stopping their attacks.

Blue rubs grit out of his eyes and sees some rangers and gym members moving inside the trainer perimeter to finish off and catch any of the flying pokemon that hit the building or were knocked out of the air. He watches as others around the perimeter converge on any of the wild pokemon that are staying to fight rather than flying off again, itching to join them, but none are close, and he doesn’t want to break position in case one of the straggling fliers ends up nearby.

And then the Pressure is upon them, and Blue finally experiences the aura of a Stormbringer.

It’s like being turned into someone else. The battle calm he held onto through the aerial wave shatters, and he’s left feeling… weak. Impotent. Meaningless. What could he do to stop Zapdos like this? What difference could he make?

As the sense of frustration and despair fills him, two people around Blue break and run for the pokemon center, one screaming out “I’m sorry!” over and over until he’s inside. The older woman next to Blue, Fumiyo, is shivering so hard she has trouble standing straight, and after a few moment she groans and turns away, stumbling toward the building.

It’s a stark reminder that what he’s feeling isn’t real, and he straightens his back as the ranger on the megaphone tells them to contract to make up for their losses.

“You okay?” he asks Katie as he steps backward. She nods, though she looks like she’s going to throw up. “Glen! Okay?” Blue yells.

“I’m good!”

“Taro?”

“Y-yeah!”

He turns to the new trainer on his left and sees him rubbing his eyes. He almost introduces himself again and ask his name… but doesn’t see the point, suddenly.

It takes a few minutes for the next alert to go out, and then the first ground wave is there, a trickle that became a living tide of pokemon who race around the barriers as the darkness deepens. Blue can’t see over the concrete, but he can hear what’s on the other side well enough; the whinnying and the screeching, the stomping and the bellowing. Everyone’s eyes are drawn to the burning rapidash that leaps the wall, only to be overwhelmed by water attacks that smash it against the concrete it just jumped over. Blue itches to catch it, as, he’s sure, does everyone else, but no one breaks the line, their discipline reinforced by caution of what they can hear moving around them.

And then they’re coming over from all sides, a dodrio here, a ponyta there, even a scyther, which leaps over the wall, dodges the attacks that get sent at it mid air, then zips back over the concrete as soon as it lands, wings a blur. Blue fights against the feeling of pointlessness as best he can and tries to stay focused on his segment of the wall, but only a few pokemon attempt to cross near him, and Maturin is just a turret, sending out attacks that just add to the onslaught.

“Bai,” Blue commands. “Gaw. Gaw.” The doduo is knocked down and doesn’t get back up, and then he’s just listening to others make similarly repetitive commands and watching his segment of the barrier in the dwindling light.

He never imagined that facing a Tier 3 would be so… boring.

Blue hears the rain before it hits, an onrushing shhhHHHH that envelops them in the space of a breath. He shivers even through his raincoat as the ever present wind turns bitingly cold against his legs and arms. He tries to stay alert for anything trying to cross the walls, any sign of an emergency he has to help with elsewhere, but the heavy rain makes it hard to see, and the sound of the downpour plus the now overhead thunder makes it hard to hear.

Floodlights eventually snap on behind the trainers, directed at the barrier so they can see if anything crosses, but for a long while, nothing does. Blue can imagine the pokemon on the other side, not a full wave but just disparate individuals running away from wherever the Pressure is originating. He looks up into the strobing dark clouds on the off chance that he can make Zapdos out, and has to remind himself that he needs to be focusing on what’s around him.

The first bit of excitement comes when a nidoking smashes through one of the barriers far to Blue’s right. He watches with envy as the pokemon there all start attacking it, causing it to roar and back away, then charge forward on all fours. More wild pokemon enter from behind it as the trainers there swap in physically bulky pokemon to stop it.

Blue is about to break ranks and go to it, feet already having turned him completely that way, when Leader Surge’s Second, Jack Riely, is suddenly there, a nidoking of his own out along with a forretress. Blue stares in fascination as the Second uses both together to take down the wild nidoking, his own keeping its attention by attempting to wrestle it to the ground while the forretress pins them in place with traps. He hadn’t even known Vermilion’s Second was here. Did he just teleport in?

Meanwhile the rangers direct the trainers in the area to pick off the other wilds trying to come in behind the nidoking. They finally manage to get another barrier up in place, and Jack catches the exhausted and badly injured nidoking.

“Eyes front,” the boy beside Blue reminds him, and Blue flushes, moving his gaze back to his own part of the perimeter where… nothing has continued to happen.

What feel like hours pass in the constant onslaught of wind, rain, and thunder. Blue wonders at times if he’s dreaming, if this is some purgatory, and he’s still in bed getting rest before his match with Surge. Should he do things differently, if that’s true? Maybe not put the Objections on, if he doesn’t actually want to join the gym…

“New wave!” the ranger shouts, and Blue’s attention snaps back to the present, looking around until he spots the magneton hovering above the barriers. Attacks quickly converge on it to bring it down, and everyone is tense for a moment as they wait for more to appear, but it takes a while before Grass and Bug pokemon start climbing the walls or squeezing through the gaps, and suddenly things feel slightly real to Blue again.

Happy to finally have something to do, Blue orders Maturin to send out Ice Beams against a tangela that pulls itself over the wall. The beams have an odd effect in the rain, freezing the drops that fall through them and leaving trails of fog in the chilled air. It takes real effort for Blue to switch to another attack when the next plant pokemon arrives, a weepinbell that climbs the barrier in a mess of vines. Instead her Water Guns help pummel it into a stupor. He doesn’t want to “steal the spotlight” if it means he’s just exhausting his pokemon to try and grab the decisive blows against the enemies that happen to be around him.

The defenders deter each small wave of pokemon that make it over and between the gaps in the wall until there’s a small ring of bodies acting as a second layer to the concrete barrier. The pokemon who do manage to make it across now are easily picked off, and despite his effort to stay focused, Blue steadily feels his vigilance give way to dull monotony, until he’s not sure he’d even order Maturin to attack any more unless some really powerful pokemon shows up.

And then light burns across the heavens, and Zapdos fills the city with its cry.

Blue turns to the source of the light along with everyone else, shading his eyes and squinting at the crackling electric shape of a bird winging its way lazily across the sky.

He waits to feel something at his first in-person sighting of a Stormbringer. He waits for the arcanine in his chest to roar fire through his blood. He waits for steely determination to bring him some focus. He waits, gaze following Zapdos without looking straight at it, for even awe.

Instead there’s nothing. Nothing except maybe the frustration at the distance between what he wants, and where he is. Frustration is like anger, right?

“Eyes out!” the megaphone wielder yells. “Don’t get distracted!”

Easier said than done. Blue’s not sure if it’s the Pressure getting worse, or the sight of his nemesis so far out of reach, or both, but it takes all his will just to tear his gaze away from Zapdos. He distracts himself by focusing, not on the barrier in front of him, but the skyscrapers beyond it, so bizarrely and beautifully lit by the thundergod’s glowing presence, each window reflecting the single, searingly bright point of light as it drifts across the black sky.

Eventually lightning flashes across the sky, so widespread and bright that it makes him glad he was able to tear his eyes away from Zapdos. A moment later it’s followed by thunder that seems to shake the very air around him.

This is the moment we’re most vulnerable. Blue tries to shakes the ringing out of his ears as he rapidly blinks. There’s the sound of battle around him, but when he looks it’s all distant and easily contained.

He needs to do something, something meaningful, and standing here and staring at a wall on the off-chance something comes across it… isn’t.

Zapdos’s light moves across the city until the shadow of the pokemon center stretches long and dark over Blue and the rest of the trainers on the north side of it. Pokemon start attacking from a different direction as the source of Pressure shifts, and the rangers and gym members take up the slack as people start getting shifted around to try and predict where the next pokemon would come from.

It’s a confusing process of shuffling around one group at a time, and it makes Blue think the ranger coordinating is having trouble with their own Pressure; it seems much simpler to just have everyone step to the side as many times as it takes for the perimeter to rotate. But no one’s asked him, and he can’t exactly go up to the ranger and suggest this. He has a wall segment to watch.

Eventually the immense bright light starts to noticeably fade, little by little, until all of them are back in the relative darkness of a thunderstorm with far less lightning than it used to have.

Blue’s been watching the walls for some sign of an encroachment for a few minutes before he realizes it’s easier to focus, now.

They survived. The Stormbringer is gone.


Blue is watching the sullen red glow to the west when the others find him, sitting against the side of the pokecenter. Most of the trainer perimeter is resting, no new pokemon encroaching on the walls since Zapdos left about a quarter of an hour ago.

“I think part of the city’s burning,” he says. It’s unfair that he should feel so tired despite not doing anything. “When did that happen?”

“Might have been the Zap Cannon,” Aiko says. “Could have overloaded the lightning rods.”

“Calling that a Zap Cannon is like calling a Hydro Pump a Water Gun,” Elaine says. “I saw it, looked like a comet. Like a… lightning comet. That’s what we should call it. Lightning Comet.”

“You want to name an attack only used by one pokemon?” Taro asks. “Why not just call it a Zapdos Cannon?”

“Oo. That’s better…”

Blue is still watching the red glow, letting their conversation wash over him as he remembers the blinding figure of the Thunder God, the feeling of helplessness. He wishes he’d been able to watch it more, to see who had managed to pull it away from the city. Instead he was busy staring at a wall.

“Blue?”

“Hm?” He turns to find everyone looking at him, each holding a bottle of Glen’s custom energy drink. Glen is holding one out to him. “Sorry. Thanks.” He takes it.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He opens the bottle and drinks, swallowing the sweet, salty, and oddly refreshing liquid, then looks at the others again. “How’s everyone doing?”

They look at each other, or at the ground.

“Alright,” Aiko says after a moment. “Better than I expected to be.”

“Yeah,” Elaine says. “I think I mostly just feel relief? Like whatever I was expecting a stormbringer fight to be like… I mean it wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t as… I don’t know. If it wasn’t for the Pressure I’d rather go through that again than have a repeat of the onix nest.”

Glen and Aiko are nodding agreement, and Blue opens his mouth… then closes it, looking away.

She’s right. It wasn’t terrible. If he had to pick a word for his first encounter with a legendary pokemon, “boring” is the main one he can think of that fits. Or “frustrating.” It’s a testament to Leader Surge’s defensive planning, and he’s sure the other cities in the region will start copying his methods, but part of him worries that it might make people even more complacent with the existence of the Stormbringers.

“Not that I’m complaining,” Elaine goes on. “Glad we could help without anyone getting hurt. Anyone feel like a victory dance?”

“It’s not over yet,” Blue says, unable to keep silent at that. Who knows how many people got hurt outside those barriers? What if someone tried to run up to the wrong side of them and got caught outside? “The city is full of pokemon, and even if they’re not rampaging anymore they’re still not going to be happy about where they are.”

Aiko’s face is illuminated by her phone screen, hand covering it against the rain. “Networks are still down… Red and Leaf were coming from your trainer house, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And they called, what, ten minutes before the the first alert went out? So they were probably still traveling when the aerial wave hit.”

“You think they were caught out in the storm?” Glen asks.

Aiko’s face is drawn, voice tense. “I’m looking for other safe spots they may have reached. There’s a pokemon center to the west and a hospital northeast of here. Maybe they made it to either.”

Blue looks at the screen over her shoulder, then out at the storm. It’s much less intimidating than it was: the rain is just rain, not a torrential downpour, and the wind no longer has to be fought against just to stay upright. Most of all, the lightning is sporadic, the thunder mostly distant rumbles rather than the constant auditory assault of before.

He spots a group of rangers approach a part of the barrier without pokemon bodies piled near it and start slipping between the concrete screens. They’re moving in the direction of the burning buildings.

It’s not over yet, he thinks again. He gets to his feet. “I’m going out.”

“To look for them?” Aiko asks.

“No. Odds of finding them by just stumbling around are really low. I mean for that.” Blue gestures to the burning. “You guys don’t have to come. But I don’t think there’s much else we can do here. And if there’s even a chance that we can help out there… It beats sitting around here doing nothing.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Aiko nods and tucks her phone away. “I’m in.”

Blue searches her face. “Are you sure? It’s already past the time you’d head home to help your dad.”

“He barely even noticed, when I fell asleep in the hospital after the tunnels. I can still help for another couple hours.”

“I’m in too,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Taro hesitates, then looks at Chie, who’s looking at the ground. “I’m sorry, I don’t… I think we’ll stay?” He turns to his sister again.

Chie nods, gaze jumping from one face to the other as she fidgets. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how the Pressure made me feel, and I’m tired, and… it seems really dangerous out there.”

“Yeah, of course,” Aiko says. “Get some rest.”

“Thanks. I’m just not sure we’ll be of much help to you guys…”

Taro isn’t looking at his sister anymore, but Blue. His gaze tells Blue he only cares what he thinks of their staying behind, and Blue… doesn’t answer right away.

He knows it’s not fair: they came here with him (though maybe only because they didn’t know what else to do) and they didn’t break when the Pressure first hit, despite not having been in the cave with the rest of them. It’s not fair to judge them for wanting to rest, for believing they’re at the end of their rope rather than go back out into uncertainty and danger. If anything they should be commended for knowing their limits, right?

But he does judge them. Not morally, but… their merits, their competence, their potential. He can’t help it. What he needs of his companions are people who will follow him into those things, because there’s no way he’s going to be able to take down what he saw drifting lazily across the sky like a deadly sun, causing so much death and destruction passively, without people willing to do something far more uncertain and dangerous than this.

He could train everyone up anyway, and hope they grow into that trust and determination. And he would. He’ll be in Vermilion Gym for a few months, and he’d help them get their badge just like anyone else. But for the people he wants traveling with him, the people in his party… He wants heroes born for that eventual fight.

“Get some rest,” is all he says. “We’ll meet up later, once the storm is fully past.”

They nod, Taro still looking a little worried, and say their goodbyes. Once they’re gone, Blue gets up and goes to a pair of rangers under the awning near the front door to the pokemon center. One of them has a headset on and is sitting beside a radio set, presumably using it to coordinate with the rest of the city’s defenders.

“Ranger,” Blue says to the one standing by. “Would the pokemon center remain secure if my group leaves?”

The man looks them over, then the trainers remaining around the pokemon center. “In my judgement, yes. What’s so urgent?”

“We’d like to help with whatever is happening there.” He gestures, body language as confident as he can make it. He’s ready for a half a dozen different objections but part of him wishes that this time, just once, a ranger could look past his age and-

“Good timing, Trainer. We haven’t received check in back from a few of the defense points that were along the path of the Zap Cannon. I believe the gym members are organizing to head out soon, and could probably use you.”

Huh. Blue follows his gaze to the group of five trainers who are huddled near one of the floodlights. “Will do, thanks.” He starts to jog over to them. “This okay with you guys?”

“Sure,” Elaine says. “Safety in numbers and all that.”

“Just making sure.” He’s more worried about them not being able to make their own decisions, but there’s no time to discuss it further.

The gym trainers are all dressed in their tan and olive uniforms, along with hooded raincoats. They’re a mix of ages, the youngest close to Glen’s sixteen and the oldest being the gym’s Second. Blue hasn’t had the chance to spend much time with him, but he knows the Unovan fought with Surge in the war and has an aggressive style.

“…from Saffron and two more from Celadon are here, so if one of you wants to stay behind we can make sure there’s coverage in every direction.”

“What if they get called away?”

“The rangers can request more help if they need it.” Jack spots Blue and his group and turns slightly. “Yes?”

“Rangers told me you might be heading to the fires over there?”

The Second looks over at the Rangers in surprise, then back at Blue. “Wouldn’t say no to it, but this is a gym operation, Oak.”

“We’re going anyway. Just figured we could work better together,” Blue says before he can stop himself. “And I am a gym member.”

“What? Since when?”

“Tonight, actually,” Trainer Tori says, a tall blonde in her mid-thirties that Blue fought to reach his Challenge match.

“Didn’t think there was time for it to finish,” Jack says, frowning slightly.

“Surge called the match just before making the announcement.” Tori smiles at Blue, and he smiles back. “It was short, but a good strat.”

“Thanks.”

“Alright, you can tag along and get a taste of our search and rescue protocols. But your friends—”

“Are going to challenge for membership too,” Blue says. “And they’ll win. I’ll bet all my Objections on it, if you want.”

There are smiles and snickers from the group, and Blue keeps his own expression mild and friendly as his heart pounds. Is he being too confrontational? He probably shouldn’t interrupt the Gym Second, he has to get used to the idea of having superiors…

But Jack is looking at him with only mild irritation to go with his own amusement. “What do you think I’m going to do with them, offer them to Surge?” He turns to Glen, Elaine, and Aiko. “If you’re all coming because you’re planning on joining Vermilion Gym, then I’m going to treat you like fresh members, and you’re going to follow orders. We’re not going out there to capture rare or powerful pokemon, though we will be capturing wilds that we run across if we can and killing them if not. Anyone have a problem with that?”

Blue watches the three shake their heads, Aiko with a only a moment of hesitation. He was worried she might object to the idea of killing wilds, but she looks resolute.

“Good. Jerry, executive decision. You stay, and the rest of us will head out now.”

The youngest nods and salutes, fist over heart, and says, “Good luck.” He turns to Blue’s group. “Looking forward to working with all of you, so long as you make it back.”

“Ignore him,” Jack says with a stern look. “He’s got a morbid streak.”

“It was meant as inspiration.”

“We’ll have to work on that, Jer. Special class on inspiring speeches and parting words, starting this weekend.”

“Yes, Sir.” He salutes again, no less seriously, then heads off to inform the rangers, presumably.

Jack turns back to the rest of them. “Alright, so our main priority is going to be reaching the shelters that were caught up in that.” He bobs his head in the direction of the sullen red in the distant sky. “They’re not responding on the radio, and it’s possible the ones they were using got damaged. Surge is calling for an evacuation of that area, but they may not even have heard about it. We find anyone that needs help on the way, we do our best to help them, but otherwise we’re just going straight there. Hopefully phones are back up soon and we can get a better sense of what’s happening where. Any questions?” He gives them a moment, but no one responds. “Okay. Let’s get names, too. You three first.”

Blue’s friends introduce themselves, and then he learns the names of the other two gym members: Peter, a tall guy that towers over everyone else, and Mei Li, who has infrared goggles strapped over her head.

“Keep in mind,” Tori says after introducing herself, “Just because the Pressure is gone doesn’t mean you’re clean of its effects. People still feel primed for the way it makes them think for a while after, sometimes days. Sometimes it’s more insidious, since it feels more like your own thoughts. If you’re worried you’re making strange decisions, let someone know.”

“Eight trainers means starburst,” Jack says. “You four make up the square. Let’s move.”

He leads the way toward the barrier, checking carefully between the concrete walls in either direction before slipping past it. Once they’re all outside the perimeter, the four senior gym members take up a loose diamond pattern around Blue’s group, who cover the four corners, and everyone summons their pokemon, using commands they’ve trained with at the gym to complete the formation.

The city is unrecognizable in the dark. Trash and broken glass litter the slightly flooded streets, and there are pokemon lying here and there, most very obviously dead. Blue keeps an eye on Maturin, making sure she’s not too tired from the earlier vigil in the Pressure, but his pokemon seems mostly pleased by the environment. Elaine’s psyduck and Glen’s quagsire move with similar springs in their steps. He expected Aiko to bring out her krabby, but instead Eevee shines silver in the occasional streetlight.

Blue is on the back left of his party’s square, and he’s walking almost entirely sideways so he can keep an eye out in that direction. He’s worried at first that he’ll have trouble keeping his eyes where they need to be, but without being submerged in the Thunder God’s Pressure it’s far easier to focus on just his role.

It also helps that the group he’s a part of is smaller, so he doesn’t feel as useless. It’s alarming, in retrospect, how much his attention wandered under the Pressure. He’s lucky no one died because of his (ego) inattention, but he’s going to need to figure out a way to get a handle on it for next time. He can’t expect to be in a position of authority so quick that he won’t go through that again: there were plenty of experienced gym members and rangers that were part of that perimeter too.

He needs to look into ways to predict what it will feel like, and how to deal with it. Even if it feels the same the next time he faces a Stormbringer, he has to be prepared for a different emotion and thought process to overcome him if he’s actually in a position to do something meaningful. He wonders what would have happened if Zapdos had landed right in front of him: would the feeling of Pressure suddenly change to something more like in the caverns, where he was so shaken by the a sense of being caught in a trap that he’d missed a throw at an onix?

Blue winces at the internal jab of shame that still comes up when he thinks of that, then does his best to put it out of his mind. He’ll talk to Red and Gramps about Pressure once all this is over. For now, it’s enough that he’s on the move and with a clear goal.

“Venonat in an upturned garbage can,” Aiko says after they’ve been walking for a few minutes. “I think it’s still alive.”

“Halt,” Jack says. “Peter, check with her. Everyone else eyes out.”

Blue keeps his gaze moving on their surroundings, only slightly tense as his battle calm hovers at the edges of his thoughts. He hears the sounds of commands being given and battle starting behind him. It’s over quickly, the sound of the pokeball capture muffled by the sound of the steady rain, and once they return to formation and everyone starts moving again he’s reassured by his ability to keep his attention where it was supposed to be.

They go another block before Mei Li notices a magnemite floating down an alley, and goes off with Glen to capture it, and shortly after Peter spots a spinarak hanging from a wall, and goes with Elaine to deal with it this time. While he waits for them to capture it, Blue spots something moving in a small lake formed by a depression in the flooded street.

“Contact, I think” Blue says, pulse picking up. “I think it’s a buizel? Barely got a glimpse of it.”

“Wait till they’re back, then go with Tori.”

Blue nods and waits, gaze flicking away from the puddle every so often to ensure he’s not missing anything else. Eventually the other two return, and he follows the blonde woman to it… then lets out a breath of relief as he feels himself rapidly relaxing, his attention narrowing to a point.

He has his battle calm again. Even as he prepares Maturin to attack the buizel alongside Tori’s tangela, the tension of the situation doesn’t interfere with the state of flow: he shifts from one command to another, Tackle, Bubblebeam, Bite, until she catches it. Easy as can be.

It’s good to have it back, after spending the whole night without it. But as he returns to the group, he realizes it’s just one more thing that he can’t rely on, moving forward.

They continue their journey through the city, and while part of Blue is eager to find more pokemon that he might potentially catch, it’s hard not to also be worried about the signs of destruction around them, particularly once they pass a crushed car.

“Think anyone is in that?” Glen asks.

Jack pauses, and they pause with him. “I’ll check with… Aiko, right?” She nods, and he leads the way there, checking under and around the car first for any pokemon, then carefully peering into the crushed cabin as best he can while Aiko and Eevee stay on high alert.

“Think that nidoking did this?” Elaine asks. “We haven’t seen any other big pokemon.”

“They’re out here,” Mei Li says, her goggles on as she watches the sky. “Heard the ranger on the radio mention it.”

“Not too worried about them,” Peter says as Jack suddenly summons a machamp. It towers over him, and with a gesture and a word the pokemon grips the car door and tears it open. “We’ll hear them coming. More worried about the small ones…”

He trails off as they all watch Jack flash a light into the car and reach inside, then step back and return his machamp to its ball before walking to them with Aiko. He takes his position at the front of the group before Blue can make out his expression, but his tone is grim enough.

“Let’s go.”

They go, and Blue wonders again if Red and Leaf were caught out in all this, anxiety like a fluttering bird in his chest until he reminds himself to focus on his surroundings.

Little by little the red glow in the distance gets closer, and Blue begins to get flashbacks to Viridian Forest, the dark night around him growing brighter and brighter as he got closer to the fire. The storm continues to lessen too, rain fading to a drizzle and thunder more sporadic. Soon visibility has increased enough to make out how all the tallest buildings in a line down the path of the Zapdos Cannon were set on fire.

The mood of the group subtly shifts as the scope of the disaster becomes clear, and as they get closer to the affected area Blue hears Tori curse behind him.

“One attack,” she says, voice curt. “One attack did more damage than the entire rest of the storm’s lightning combined.”

“That’s how it goes,” Blue replies, remembering something he read about the way Articuno destroyed some town over a century ago without even summoning a storm, just flash freezing the whole area so severely that the trees literally exploded from the sudden drop in temperature. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the most successful defense against a Stormbringer in history. But they’re not something you can totally protect against or predict, no matter how hard you try.”

Lightning rods on every building in the city, and what does Zapdos do? Melt the rods. Just sheer brute forced its way through the protection.

No such thing as perfect defense. Sooner or later, unmatchable and unpredictable power wins.

It’s not quite like a whole street is on fire: in truth only the tallest buildings are, like giant torches stuck in the earth every few blocks. Some combination of good building materials and the rain kept them from being entirely engulfed or spreading to neighboring ones. But with the storm dying it’s only a matter of time.

“Shit, this is worse than they mentioned,” Jack says, one hand going up to rub under his raincoat hood. “Two closest shelters that are being evacuated are a stadium to the south and a hospital to the north.” He turns to look over the group. “Eight might be too many to send in one direction. We’re splitting up.”

Blue blinks. Are the gym members ditching them already? It’s nice to feel trusted enough to go on their own, at least. “Alright. Which way should we take?”

Vermilion’s Second shakes his head. “We’re all one unit now, Oak. You’re heading with Tori, Peter, and Glen down south. The rest of us are going north. If communication isn’t back up in two hours just follow whoever’s in charge locally.”

Blue stares at Jack a moment, then looks at his companions. None seem particularly thrilled about this, but… they said they’d follow orders. And he’s part of Vermilion Gym now.

“Right.” He forces a smile at Aiko and Elaine. “See you guys soon.”

They hug him and Glen while the gym members work out some logistics. “Be careful, Blue,” Aiko says after she pulls away, watching him with worried eyes. “Remember, you have nothing to prove to us. We’re with you.”

Blue squeezes her upper arm, touched but knowing that she knows better than to think it’s them he feels driven to prove himself to. “Thanks. Don’t feel pressured to prove anything either, okay? If you’re worried about your dad, head back.”

Aiko smiles, a wry twist of her lips. “Alright, I guess we’re both in the same boat then. But I won’t leave Elaine until I know she’s with one of you guys, so let’s meet up as soon as we can.”

“Right.” Aiko steps away, and Elaine hugs Blue hard around the ribs, making him smile. “Be careful, El. Won’t be able to do that victory dance later if you squeeze any harder.”

She loosens her grip and steps back, grinning. “Just making sure you feel the love.” And then she kisses his cheek, which leaves him feeling very confused as she turns away to join Aiko, who’s already following Jack and Mei Li.

Glen is giving him raised eyebrows, and Blue shrugs helplessly, which makes his friend smile and shake his head before heading to Peter and Tori, who are waiting for them. Blue puts his confusion and embarrassment aside and steps opposite of Glen to make up the sides of their new diamond formation, with Tori in front and Peter in the rear, and then they’re making their way south toward the docks.

There’s enough light from the fires that they can make out the street between the buildings, which is why they have plenty of warning every time some pokemon suddenly appear and start to run, hop, float, or skitter from one area to another. With just four of them they don’t go out of their way to catch any, though Blue wonders who eventually will. Maturin seems on edge as she walks beside him, and he’s not sure if it’s the fires above them or all the pokemon they can spot.

“There’s probably no one in these buildings, right?” Glen asks as they pass close to one.

“Even if there are, we’re not in a good position to help them,” Peter says. “Particularly if there are pokemon in them. They’re not rampaging anymore, but they’ll definitely be skittish from the fires, especially if they start spreading faster.”

“Anti-fire design and systems should slow down or extinguish some of them eventually,” Tori says. “But we need to reach the stadium quick to make sure they know Surge’s plan to get them out of the danger zone. There are probably close to fifty-thousand people at the stadium, and their wellbeing has to be prioritized over a handful that might be in any given building.”

Blue remembers what Surge said, at the end of his speech. Just remember that you’re making a choice, and that good intentions can often cost more lives than they save. He’s clearly drilled that concept into all of his people, and it’s not that Blue disagrees, exactly, but… if he knew for a fact that someone’s life was in danger in one of these buildings, he’d have to go in. He wouldn’t feel like he had a choice.

A voice in his head that sounds very much like Red asks him what he thinks the odds are that there isn’t at least one person in that building, and he informs that voice that guessed odds aren’t the same as knowing. And then hopes, again, that Red is somewhere safe.

They walk for over ten minutes before they hear the roar.

It’s distant, but coming from somewhere ahead, and distinctly recognizable.

“Was that a goddamned steelix?” Peter murmurs, and then the earth trembles briefly beneath their feet, a bare brush of the distant shockwave’s epicenter.

“I think that was in the direction of the stadium,” Tori says, and pulls out a container ball. “Bikes, everyone. We need to move quick.”

Within a minute they’re pedaling down the street toward the stadium at the edge of the wharf district, the wide, tall building rising up in the distance just before the ground slopes down into the harbor, the still-stormy ocean illuminated by lightning beyond it. The stadium’s dome is deployed, keeping its insides nice and dry from the rain, but there are clouds of dust from collapsed buildings nearby it, or perhaps destroyed parts of the stadium itself.

Blue feels his excitement growing as they get closer, and has to caution himself not to get too carried away. This promises to be something important, but they don’t know if the steelix is wild or under the command of a trainer who’s using it to fight off something worse…

A crowd of people are running as more tremors ripple through the area, though not at random. Blue can just make out their figures in the bright lights around the stadium, moving quickly in a column away from it and into the wide open lot, where a wide gap has been made in the same concrete walls that were placed around the pokemon center.

And on the other side of where they’re exiting from…

Blue blinks, then blinks again as he follows Tori and Peter onto the winding road toward the stadium lot, trying to watch where he’s going in the dark and make sense of the spectacle at the same time.

That’s definitely a steelix. And beside it is another steelix. And on the other side of the arena is a snorlax, around which are what look like a number of pokemon, all of whom are trying to flee the three titans… directly toward where the people are escaping.

Blue doesn’t know what’s happening, or what caused it, but there’s one thing he recognizes immediately as they get closer, and it makes him swerve his bike away from where the other three are headed and bike directly for the battle instead.

There’s an exeggutor, a venusaur, a lapras, and a blastoise, all fighting at the same time. And possibly two more pokemon Blue can’t see.

And behind them, moving his feet and arms, and sending out shrill whistles that Blue can just barely hear, there’s a figure. He’s not wearing his lab coat, and Blue can’t make out his hair or features under the hood of his own raincoat…

But he recognizes those pokemon, and there’s only one person he knows who can command that many at once, in a situation like this, to deal with two steelix at the same time.

Gramps is here.

And if Gramps is here, then the slim figure holding that snorlax back with a dragonair and a tangrowth is his sister.

And they’re still not quite winning, because the rangers and gym members are dealing with some commotion he can’t see behind the walls. They were left to deal with the problem on their own, probably demanded that the others go. There’s no one else around to help them.

Blue reaches the blockade and turns sharp to go around it and behind the snorlax. He lets his bike fall once he gets close enough and dashes forward, his battle calm secure around him as he takes out an ultra ball. There’s no thought here, not when things feel this right: if someone asked him yesterday or asks him tomorrow whether he believes in destiny or fate, he’d say no.

But in this moment, coincidence decides his next actions for him. He’s caught in the stream of his own nature.

Daisy sees him as he runs up behind her foe, and no words are needed. A quick command has both her tangrowth and dragonair unwrap the snorlax just as Blue steps into ultra ball range.

Locks on as it stumbles a step forward in surprise.

Throws as it heaves itself forward for a body slam.

Hits, catching it in a flash of light that sucks it out of the air mid-fall.

Blue rushes over and picks up the ball, victory singing through his blood, and neither of them bother exchanging words as they rush over to the Professor.

He’s still going, whole body composing a song that his pokemon dance to: his left hand has straps with bells on them wrapped around the back of each finger, his shoes make distinct noises when they hit the ground in bursts, and his right hand plays the flute between his lips in a constant stream of notes, high pitched for one pokemon and low for the other.

Together, his four pokemon can just barely keep the steelix in check, but they lack the type advantages needed to deal decisive blows, and there’s no one around to follow up on their moments of weakness.

The same strategy is too risky here, with the steelix’s long bodies moving in constant battle. They’re going to have to help Gramps take them down.

“Left,” Daisy says, and summons her hitmontop.

“Right,” Blue says and unclips Rive’s ball, hoping his pokemon can stand the rain for a few moments.

Together, the three Oaks stand tall against the storm.

Chapter 63: Interlude X – Judgement

Laura’s in the back of a taxi when the alert comes, on her way to Lavender Town to talk to a ghost.

The info on the flash drive her masked informant gave her made it clear that Silph is paying for someone’s living expenses in Lavender, and that this person was in contact with Silph R&D. But Laura has never encountered someone with such little information available on them. There’s no name or date of birth (the house is listed as owned and maintained by Silph Corporation for occasional trainings and corporate meetings), no contacts, no mention of profession or past. He’s not even on the company’s payroll.

It’s just treated as completely unremarkable that there’s a nameless man living in one of Silph’s unoccupied houses whose bills they’re paying, in exchange for his collaboration on certain projects.

She knows she shouldn’t get her hopes up that the man is somehow connected to the disappearance of the scientists and engineers that Sam told her about. His description, according to her investigator, doesn’t match any of the “missing” scientists or engineers she read about, few of which were actually reported by official sources as actually missing. But it’s been years since many of their most recent photos were available, and if this man hasn’t been using regenerative medicine he could have changed a lot since before he was in Lavender. Or he could have used plastic surgery, or been forced to.

The man’s habits are pretty simple, according to her investigator’s ability to spy through the windows. Wake up, shower, eat, staring at his computer or phone screen (reading seems most likely: one hand is often on mouse with minimal movement, while his expression stays mostly static and focused), work on his garden.

But occasionally he’d be hard at work on something, both on computer and talking on the phone. He never leaves the house except to buy things or sit in the park, according to the investigator. No social visits or trips out of town. No apparent employment. He must be still working for Silph.

Her investigator was good, but not good enough to figure out more about what the man is working on without breaking the law. He’d hinted in the past that as long as no one got hurt he would be willing to “bend over some lines a little, peek at what’s on the other side,” but so far she’s managed to resist the urge to take him up on it.

And the urge has never been fiercer. It’s clear from her investigation that President Silph either directly uses or willfully ignores the use of criminal actions to maximize the power and wealth of his corporate empire. That he’s already targeted her in some way weaves a constant thread of anxiety through her days and nights, a drive to get things resolved as quickly as possible, however she can.

But she needs to do things ethically, or the entire investigation would have weak points through which it could be undercut or dismantled. If this scientist in particular is being held hostage by Silph, then she needs to make sure he knows she can help him get out from under the criminal mogul by revealing his activities.

Unfortunately without a verifiable online presence, the only way the man could be contacted would be through physical means. Hence the letters.

She finishes penning the latest one, then reviews it.

Hello.

This is a test to see if your place is bugged or being video recorded. I hope this is a safe way to communicate with you about your present circumstances. If not, then simply dispose of this note and make no response. If so, write a response on the note and put it under your doormat.

I suspect you need help, and if so, want to help you. Feel free to ask any question in your response. If I’m wrong, then feel free to let me know that instead, and I’ll leave you be.

She doesn’t like it. She’d told the ninja-girl that she was used to cloak-and-dagger stuff, but there are too many unknowns here. For all she knows the man may be a criminal himself who will warn President Silph about the strange contact.

She would have tried to get more information first, tried to answer more questions before taking a risk, but for Leaf’s investigation.

A list of names for those who may have been responsible for the Mt. Moon incident… and one of them is a Silph subsidiary that was in a prolonged legal conflict over the rights of private companies to bid for dig sites along the mountain range.

And, what a coincidence, Silph made payments to someone throughout the dates of the dig. The only problem is that the file containing the payments didn’t reach the date of the incident, so she couldn’t check if they stopped after Yuuta was caught.

It’s not a clear connection, but it’s enough of one that Leaf’s investigation clearly raised some serious questions that might lead to serious repercussions from Silph.

Damn that girl. And bless her. She’s as driven as Red, and as likely to get herself hurt, one way or another. She told Laura she would sit on what she’s learned, and Laura believed her, was proud of her… but also knows that there will be a limit to the girl’s willpower and patience.

And maybe it’s unfair, but Red’s lie is still fresh on her mind. She can’t assume she knows how any of the kids will act.

Laura puts the recently drafted letter in the small pile beside her, then starts thinking of how to approach the next one when her phone buzzes in a harsh tone. Her pulse kicks up as she pulls it out of her pocket and reads the message.

STORMBRINGER ATTACK IMMINENT ON VERMILION CITY. YOU ARE WITHIN POTENTIAL PATH OF DANGER. STAY NEAR SHELTER AND MONITOR UPDATES REGULARLY UNTIL DANGER HAS PASSED.

For a moment the memory of being at Sam’s house when they heard the news of Zapdos traveling by Pewter is overwhelming. The same icy fingers clench around her heart, the same worry that she’s about to lose something precious.

Then she remembers that Red is on the SS Anne, and she closes her eyes, hands pressing against her face in relief so strong it’s almost painful..

Guilt follows a moment later. Blue is still there… and that girl she met, Aiko. Does Sam know? Of course he does. He wouldn’t go though, would he? He can’t, not after what happened last time—

The car is slowing. She looks at the driver, who rolls the car to a stop along the side of the road, then turns to meet her gaze.

“Can you drive?” the woman asks, face pale and eyes wide.

Laura is unable to process the question for a moment, then says, “Yes.”

“Good. And do you have pokemon?”

“Just one, in my purse.”

The driver closes her eyes, and her voice is strained. “Can you drive yourself the rest of the way to Lavender Town?”

What?” Laura stares at her, wondering suddenly if she dozed off in the car and is dreaming.

“I have to go, my little sister lives in Vermilion.” She looks at Laura with pleading eyes. “I have to make sure she’s okay!”

Laura meets the driver’s frightened gaze. What she’s asking her to do isn’t hard: cars drive automatically unless switched to manual control, and if attacked, many of their escape countermeasures are sufficient to distract pokemon and outpace them.

But if the car is attacked by something that can catch it… that’s what the drivers are supposed to be for. Not just trained to evade pokemon, but also trainers who will protect their passengers if needed.

“I understand if you report me, after,” her driver says, a note of desperation in her voice now. “I deserve it. But I’d rather lose my job than my sister. Please, just… tell me you’ll be okay on your own.”

Laura checks their location. Another two hours to Lavender. By then finding her sister would probably be impossible. “How will you get there?” Laura quietly asks.

Hope lights in the other woman’s eyes. “I have an abra, bought it just a couple weeks ago. I can go straight there.”

Laura breathes in, then back out. The price of abra had dropped quite a bit since Red and the others revealed their trick and sold so many. It likely led to her being able to afford one. It feels almost fated, that it would be up to her, now, to decide if she gets to use it.

And how could she decide otherwise? She would do the same for Red, if she knew he was in danger and she could help him.

“Go,” Laura says. “I’ll leave the car at the hotel. Good luck to you, and your family.”

The driver reaches back and takes her hand, squeezing. “Thank you. Be safe.” She doesn’t waste another moment, getting out of the still running car and summoning an abra, which quickly teleports them both away.

Laura watches them go, thoughts on Blue and Aiko again. Would Sam go? She’s suddenly not sure he wouldn’t.

She realizes abruptly that she’s a sitting target, and quickly collects her letters and goes into the driver seat. It’s been years since she did this, her mother had taught her when she was young… but everything looks about the same as she guides the car back onto the road, then sets it on autodrive and checks the defense mechanisms. Smoke cloud, flares, pokedoll deployment…

She keeps her gaze moving as the car speeds her away to Lavender, trying to stay alert for danger as her thoughts are pulled to what’s ahead and behind.


There are a lot of doors the name Samuel Oak can open.

If he wanted a ticket to the Cruise Convention? Even if he didn’t know Hazo personally, they’d fall over themselves to offer him a cabin.

If he wants a seat on a regional council for the treatment of lab-raised pokemon? He helped form Kanto’s council. No matter how many years he’s been away, or how much he may disagree with them, he can walk right in and they’d let him speak.

If there’s some politician campaigning in a city across the island, and Sam just happens to be in town and want a minute of his time? He doesn’t even need to write a check. The endorsement of Kanto’s premier Professor has interregional implications.

He makes no pretense at not being proud of these facts. If there was a time in his life where false-humility would be useful, he’s long since past it. Sam is always aware that he has very little actual power, outside of his laboratory. The power his status grants him flows from those who appreciate the mind and acts that earned it.

But opening a door is just the first step. After that, it’s up to his powers of persuasion.

“I’m afraid it’s just not possible, Professor Oak.”

Sam stands at the head of a table, where the sitting presidents of every Kanto and Johto university look at him with a mix of apology, discomfort, or bland disinterest. At least none are hostile, or at least not openly so. “Declaring something ‘not possible’ is a pretty strong stance, Daniel. What in specific makes it seem so hard to imagine?”

His old classmate doesn’t seem to take kindly to the familiar name, or the reframe, but a different university head responds before he can. “It’s easy for labs to say that we should just rely on the information in the pokedexes, but universities can’t afford to test the information ourselves. You get to be producer, regulator, and consumer.”

“It would just be for a little while,” Samuel says, spreading his hands. “The journals are consolidating behind paywalls because they can. Because they know you have to pay for them. If you all decide not to, they’ll bring the prices down. They’d have no choice, not if they want to stay relevant.”

“And what if they don’t?” another president says. “Field researchers are well and good to gather data and conduct the occasional imaginative study, but we all know that most of the listed experiments don’t replicate.”

“That’s a feature, not a bug,” Professor Elm explains. Sam’s Johto counterpart is a wispy sort of fellow, with a long, earnest face and a lanky build that his lab coat tends to billow around when he’s in the frenetic motion that keeps his staff hurrying after him. Now he sits with his lanky legs crossed against the table’s edge, a glass of some pale liquor in one hand. “Being able to see what others have tried-“

“No lectures, please, Professor,” President Nara says. The oldest of the university heads, Sam first met her at a Tier 1 threat near a small town by Lavender. “No one here is doubting the value of the pokedex network. We all pay for them too, and we appreciate that the price is so reasonable, and how hard you fought for those subsidies. But journals are where the real prestige comes from for academics that have hung their belt up, or never threw a pokeball at all. You’re asking us to leave our friends and employees out in the cold for what could be years.”

“Not years,” Sam insists. “Maybe one, tops.”

“And then what?” Osamu asks. “The prices are high, yes, but this assures quality of research. Peer review will suffer if the reviewers cannot be paid.”

“With all due respect, you’re on the review board for three different journals,” Professor Elm says, adjusting his glasses. “How many papers have you personally looked over in the past year, out of all those that those journals published?”

Osamu’s face reddens. “Are you questioning my integrity?”

“Not at all,” Professor Oak quickly says. “We know you’re a diligent and rigorous academic. But there isn’t enough time in the day for you to be solely responsible for every paper in even one of those journals. And instead of hiring more reviewers, the names of the reviewers are what’s being paid for. It’s become a mutually beneficial prestigious position, not something that assures quality.”

“I’d like to add,” Professor Elm says with a wry tone, “That the higher degree of accuracy in recent published research probably has more to do with better coordination in the scientific community, not higher cost of journals.”

“An interesting hypothesis,” one of the younger presidents Sam barely knows says, voice dry. “Would be nice if you decide to test it, sometime.”

“This is getting personal,” Sam cuts in. “Let’s keep things focused on the future. There are people working to turn the whole system of how research is funded and available on its head. To make it more accessible and better for everyone.”

“More about this secret project?” Daniel says. “Sly hints aren’t going to convince anyone, Sam. Maybe if you’re willing to finally be candid about what Bill is working on…”

Sam sighs, and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. But you all know me, my reputation. I hope that you’ll take it into account when I tell you that the longer you rely on the current system, the harder it will be to reach and adapt to a world that’s approaching soon, where knowledge is free.”

It was the wrong thing to say, he realizes immediately. The men and women in the room are good people, people who care about knowledge and truth and teaching. But they’re also driven by the incentives of their positions: they run schools, and the knowledge that schools offer are not free.

“Thank you both for your time,” Osamu says, voice cool. “Give us a moment to discuss, please.”

Sam tries to think of something that will clarify his last point, undo the damage, but Professor Elm is already standing and stretching, then moves for the exit. Sam nods to the presidents, and follows.

David is leaning against the wall between the elevators. “They’ve grown too powerful, Sam.” He says quietly, and takes a swallow of his drink, a frustrated tightness around his eyes. “We had chances to stop them, shape the culture, but none of us wanted to step into it. Same with the journals. The businessmen took over, and it’s hard to argue with the results, from the perspective of… well, people running a business.”

Sam nods and sighs, running a hand through hair that’s more salt than pepper these days. “I know. It’s the politics argument all over again.”

“For what it’s worth, you’d make a terrible mayor,” Elm says with a grin. “You’d turn Pallet Town into an experiment. Cycle through different laws every few months.”

“I would put them up for a vote, at least.”

“That and you don’t deal with unpopularity well.”

Sam smiles. “Think I handled their animosity pretty well.” He reaches absently into his pocket to unsilence his phone. A room full of such busy people would barely be able to complete a sentence if everyone’s phone was on. “If this doesn’t work, which it doesn’t seem like it will, we kick it up to the next level.”

“Don’t like involving politicians in this,” Elm says. “Regulations might work for us today, might work against us tom-… Sam, what’s wrong?”

Sam has stopped dead to stare at the screen.

Sixteen missed calls.

Five unheard messages.

Forty-three texts.

One region-wide warning.

He has just enough time to read that last, to register the words Zapdos and Vermilion and then his phone rings. Daisy.

“Sam!”

He looks up at Elm. “Zapdos is attacking Vermilion.”

His friend straightens, eyes wide. “Go. I’ll handle this. Go!”

Sam is already going, answering the phone with a “Where’s Blue?” as he runs down the stairs.

“I don’t know, grandpa, he wouldn’t answer his phone!” Daisy’s voice is tense, heavy wind blowing around her microphone.

“I’m porting home,” he says as he reaches the first floor, knees aching, and runs out of the building to emerge into the darkening twilight, hand going to his pokebelt. “Where are you?”

“Passing over Argent Town. I can see the storm, I’ll be in it in about ten minutes!”

That’s my girl. “Stop there. That’s my closest teleport point.”

“Grandpa you can’t!” Daisy’s voice is sharp. “The doctor said-“

“Daisy,” he interrupts as he summons Forun. The alakazam senses his tension instantly, and goes into combat readiness despite there being no threats around. “It’s not up for discussion. Teleport.”

The world wrenches around him, and then he’s in his front lawn and withdrawing Forun as he goes inside to his PC, thoughts already turning to what pokemon he’s going to take. No fire, rock, or flying, which means I’ll need Ice and Poison for the Grass and Bugs…

Daisy is still trying. “Blue will be fine, he’ll probably just help at a defense point or-“

“No, he won’t,” Sam says, voice quiet. “He’s not like you, Daisy. You understand that you can’t win against the storms, only survive them, only mitigate the losses.” Thoughts of his daughter and her husband send a spike of pain through his chest, one he endures a moment, then puts aside as he types search parameters into his collection. Pokemon that have been trained together, pokemon that don’t use audio or visual commands… “But Blue will try to find a win. Even aside from wanting to look good, wanting fuel for his legend, he needs a win against them, for himself. For your parents.”

Daisy is almost crying, he can hear it in her voice. “We can’t lose you too, Grandpa.”

“And I can’t lose either of you. Wait for me there in Argent. I have the last signal sent from Blue’s pokedex. We’ll find him together.”

The last thing Sam grabs is a small bottle of pills from the dresser in his room. He takes a breath, eyes closed, then swallows two and heads outside to teleport again, hoping that he’s not too late.


Seto could have run, when the alert went out.

It was a simple calculation. The price of a flight out of the city, normally affordable enough, even for someone living almost hand to mouth, had quickly skyrocketed to obscene heights. He could have emptied his bank account to buy a flight for himself, but not one for his mother, who was living on retirement funds.

What kind of a son would do something like that? To his own mother?

The voice was hers, ingrained from a hundred situations, repeated in a dozen tones, so often that she doesn’t even have to say it anymore. He hears it himself, every week when she asks for money for this or that reason, and he considers telling her he can’t. Every time she insists that he stop whatever he’s doing to come help her with something as inane as attaching a picture to a message, or as difficult as moving furniture around the apartment.

“Seto! Where are you?” Her voice was high and afraid, and he felt a stab of guilt for even thinking of leaving the city without her.

“I’m coming there, mom. The hospital isn’t far, we’ll go there and-“

“The hospital?” The word scraped along his mind. “You want me to sit in one of those rooms, with all those… people?”

Foreigners, is what she meant. But no, that’s not fair. He knew she dislikes being away from home, being surrounded by others, she rarely even took the bus anywhere, and it can’t be a comfortable place, the shelters…

“Mom, you can’t stay,” he said as he got dressed. His apartment is small and messy and it’s not far from her place, but it’s his. The one major rebellion he’d persisted in, despite her complaints that it was too expensive to have his own place, despite her insistence that a good son wouldn’t move out until he was married (and then take his mother with him to a bigger home, if he could afford it, which he should have been able to, if he’d followed her career “advice”…). “It’s not just a Tier 3, it’s a Stormbringer, there won’t be any emergency services if something happens in your building!”

“You’ll protect me,” she said, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “You still have those pokemon, don’t you?”

Seto looked at his belt, hung up on the wall by the door with its three pokeballs. Yes, he had pokemon. Three that he’d bought and trained despite her insistence that he was wasting his time and money. The ones that he one day dreamed would be his ticket to a better life, despite being in his early 20s already (getting permission to become a trainer when he was younger had always ended in tears, either for him or his mother or both).

A pidgey, a venonat, and a mankey. That last one had been expensive, he’d saved up for a week, hoping the whole time that the listing wouldn’t be bought out by someone else. “I… mom I only have three, and they’re not very strong-“

Well then what did you buy them for?” she demanded, breaths harsh and quick. “Seto I’m scared! People are leaving their apartments with all their things, they say the storm will hit the city in an hour! What if the electricity goes out? Come quickly!”

Seto could have left, even then. Or he could have gone to the hospital himself, helped the defense with his measly three pokemon and fifty or so hours of training, or just gone into the shelter there.

But what kind of son would leave his mother alone in the dark, with monsters all around?

One that wouldn’t be there when a magnemite breaks through her living room window.

“Go, Mankey!” Seto yells, voice shaking with fear as it competes with the sound of the raging storm pouring in, and his mother’s scream as she cowers behind him. “Chop!”

The magnemite’s prongs glow as they build a charge, and his pokemon’s attack comes simultaneously with the enemy’s. The magnemite is knocked against the wall with enough force to crack it, while his mankey crumples into a smoking heap.

His mother screams again at the electric discharge, or maybe just for the sake of it. It makes Seto twitch, and then he’s hurrying to withdraw his pokemon as the magnemite slowly rises up. He fumbles with an empty pokeball (he’d bought three, and never thrown one at a live pokemon before) as it starts to charge an attack again, realizes he’s not going to make it in time, and throws himself behind the couch, empty pokeball falling from his hand and rolling across the room.

Another blinding flash lights the room, followed by the smell of ozone and burning. He coughs, then looks up and realizes the couch is on fire.

“My couch!” his mom shrieks. “Put it out, Seto!”

He starts thinking of ways to do that before realizing the thought is insane and reaching for another empty ball as he backs away from the couch and looks over it at the magnemite.

It’s reoriented toward his mother as she runs toward the couch, table cloth bunched in her hands to beat the fledgling flames out.

In his imagination, Seto snaps his arm up to lock onto the magnemite, then pegs it and saves his mother.

In reality, he stares for a moment in horror, and then raises his arm and has to steady it with his other hand, and throws just as electricity arcs out and sends his mother crashing to the ground.

And misses.

“Momma!” he screams, feeling like he’s in a nightmare. He’s a horrible person, a lazy, ungrateful, disrespectful son who got his mother killed because he-

The magnemite is charging another attack. He should be running, or throwing his third ball. Instead he just stumbles toward his mother(‘s body) while reaching for a potion bottle.

What saves him is a giant scaly fist that punches through the broken window frame and grabs the magnemite with a crushing grip. Seto stares out the second story window to see the nidoqueen rear its fist back and up, then smash the magnemite downward and out of sight. It roars in triumph.

Seto is momentarily stunned by the sound and sight of the monster, then continues crawling to his mother’s body, potion in hand.

“It’s okay, momma,” he whispers, spraying her burnt skin. “It’s okay, I’m sorry, it’s okay…”

He babbles until the potion bottle is empty, and his mother is still lying in an unmoving heap. The healing from the potion is superficial, and it takes him a moment to remember, through the distracting sounds of the howling storm and the crashing of the nidoqueen hitting the building again and again, that potions need flowing blood to be effective.

If the potions aren’t healing her it’s because her blood isn’t flowing.

If her blood isn’t flowing it’s because she’s dead.

What hits him, first, in that moment, even through the self-recriminations and self-disgust, is relief. Just a second of pure, relieved… freedom.

And then the guilt is back, worse than ever, a howling gale of self-loathing that he can’t contain. I wanted her to die.

I let her die because I hated her.

I killed her.

I’m a monster.

He doesn’t deserve to live.

The building shakes again, and the nidoqueen roars again, reminding him of its presence in a much more personal way.

He should let it kill him.

Seto pushes himself to his feet, stumbles, then walks toward the shattered window.

The nidoqueen saves him again, though less directly. Clearly frustrated by something on the left side of the building, she abruptly stamps her foot hard enough to crack its foundation there, causing a quarter of it to suddenly collapse downward.

Seto is knocked to the ground as part of the apartment breaks away with a grinding roar that drowns out the storm, for a moment. Pain shoots through his knee as it hits the uncarpeted tiles, and he groans, gripping it and curling up into a ball. He can’t even kill himself without looking like a fool and wimping out…

He feels the spray of windblown rain on his face, and looks up with a blankly shocked expression. One of the walls is just gone, the apartment that had been next to his mother’s cracked in half down the middle. He can see out into the street below, which means he spots the kid running up behind the nidoqueen.

It’s hard to make out details in the intermittent light and heavy rain, but the kid is definitely wearing a pokeball belt, which means he’s a trainer. A real trainer, if he’s out in the storm. Seto’s saved… through no effort of his own. Does he deserve saving? He’s a horrible person. He just needs to end it.

Part of him rebels against this thought, suddenly. Kill himself? Why? His mom is gone, he’s finally free to do whatever he wants…

The flood of guilt that drowns him then is debilitating, and as soon as it passes he starts moving toward the hole in the wall, where the nidoqeen is still raging at something out of sight. She’s stretched up as high as she can, one hand clawing at a higher apartment.

The trainer behind her is close enough that Seto can see they have something in their hand. They’re not summoning anything, though… just walking carefully closer. What are they doing?

Trying to capture it, of course. Its back is turned… they could just walk right up to it and-

Its tail suddenly thrashes as it lets out another bellow, arm jerking back and tearing more of the building out with it. Vines are wrapped around its arm, something bright yellow latched onto it. A weepinbell? The nidoqueen tries to pulverize the plant pokemon against the building, and Seto hears someone yelling commands above him. There’s someone else in the building!

The trainer below has to jump back to avoid any debris, and its thrashing tail. His frustration is clear as he tries to get closer, still too far out of ultra ball range to get a lock.

Another figure runs up behind the first, a second pokemon trainer. But she doesn’t summon any pokemon either, and the two start to coordinate to get on either side of the rampaging nidoqueen without getting too close, so they can capture it when an opportunity arises.

But the storm is going to make it incredibly difficult, Seto distantly realizes. The nidoqueen is a big target, even he could probably hit it, but to get close enough to for the ball to lock on…

Even I could hit it… What’s he doing? Just sitting here and… watching, as the nidoqueen crushes the weepinbell, then brings it up to its mouth and bites its body away from its vines, causing the person above him to scream out.

He should be helping them, he’s a trainer too, he can catch it and he’d have an incredibly powerful pokemon…

No. All he has are pokeballs, scattered around the room (one fell out the newly opened wall). He would need an ultra ball to capture something that massive.

But he can still help. He can keep it distracted…

…with a pidgey and a venonat. He pushes himself back and away from the gaping wall, survival instinct finally returning for a moment. He can’t help with this, his pokemon are too weak, he’s too weak—

Well then what did you buy them for?!

His gaze flicks to his mom’s body, and he closes his eyes, groaning as his forehead lowers to the floor. Worthless…

And then the sky explodes with light, and a screech as loud as thunder echoes across the city.

Seto stares up at the glowing figure that descends from the storms, lighting the whole city in its intense glow. A constant current of electricity runs through its black and yellow feathers, making it easy to pick out but hard to look directly at. Its power is obvious and absolute, and if Seto wasn’t already on the ground, he would fall to his knees. Instead he merely bows his head again.

God…

That’s what this feeling is, what this power represents. Zapdos is a god, and his judgement is all around them, inside them. That’s why he’s been feeling the god’s judgement: Seto has been found unworthy.

There’s only one path to redemption for his sins.

He stumbles to his feet and walks forward again, out into the brightened night, out into the storm, eyes closed, waiting for the nidoqueen or the fall to kill him…

Don’t do it!”

Seto’s eyes snap open, and he looks down to see the male trainer looking up at him, expression one of desperate worry. Seto barely even notices the way the nidoqueen turns right next to him, toward the sound of the yell.

“Don’t do it!” the trainer repeats. “Don’t give up on your life that easily!” How does he know? “It’s the Pressure, you have to fight it! We’re here for you! We’re all fighting! Fight with—”

Red look out!”

The nidoqueen’s fists pound the ground, and the trainer who had been yelling up at him falls as the street buckles and cracks beneath him. The nidoqueen steps toward him as he scrambles away, and his friend rushes forward, ball outstretched, only to get caught by the pokemon’s sweeping tail, skidding and rolling over the street.

Leaf!”

Seto watches, numb with shock and self-loathing. They’re here for him, the trainer said, as if he’s worth all this, and now they’re going to die for him…

Fight with us!

“Go, Venonat!” Seto yells, throat dry and voice cracking. His pokemon materializes on the edge of the apartment floor beside him, and he points to the nidoqueen as it steps toward Red. “S-supersonic!”

His venonat’s antennae vibrate, and the nidoqueen raises a foot over the trainer… then overbalances, and has to take a quick step to the side to avoid falling.

And just like that, he saved a life. For a moment.

But sometimes a moment’s enough.

Red is on his feet, staring at his friend and looking like he’s about to run to her crumpled form… and then with a cry he’s running straight at the nidoqueen, ball out. It spins around, tail whipping toward the trainer, who stops dead just out of its range, as if he saw it coming, then steps forward, holds position, and throws.

And then the nidoqueen is gone, the ball it’s trapped in rolling along the ground as Red runs toward his friend.

Seto looks up, near the blinding figure of the Thunder God as it floats over the city, beautiful and terrible. The raindrops that blow against his face are bitter as tears as guilt suddenly surges through him again, dousing the moment of sudden hope and will.

He goes to sit beside his mother, hands covering his eyes as the dark flood pours down his cheeks. A distant part of him knows he should go and help Red with his friend, but for now, for just a few minutes, all the fight is gone from him, swallowed by a divine judgement that seems deaf to his whispered prayers for forgiveness.


It’s been two years since Karen last faced a legendary pokemon’s Pressure, and anticipation is like a drug in her system as she flies toward the storm around Vermilion. Most people would probably be afraid of flying into a thunderstorm, let alone one created by a legendary. The key is to stay near buildings and fly below the tallest ones.

Reckless is a word that’s been used to describe her, a time or two. Or ten. Stupid, however, is not.

Especially now that she has an excuse to run toward the Pressure, whatever its source.

Two years ago, Entei burned a line north-west through central Johto, and trainers scrambled to wall it off from Enju City and divert it. Karen was on the fourth line that day, and she still felt it coming from miles away while it burned a path through the forests, smoke blanketing the horizon until it burst out of the tree line, a living inferno that seemed to burn the air itself.

That day what she felt was fear. Not fear for her safety, though that’s a part of it that she also craves, as she never feels the rush it provides anymore. The woes of an adrenaline junkie, as her oldest brother used to say, before his own addiction got him killed.

What’s more nuanced, more driving toward something productive, is the fear of losing. The fear of messing up, of being publicly shamed and judged unworthy. The fear of disappearing back into the masses.

It was the fear she dealt with every time Pressure hit her, a valuable reminder of what drove her. She didn’t need a therapist to tell her that being the middle child in a big family made her seek recognition and attention, or that it was the primary thing that pushed her to risk her life in Tier 2 and 3 events around her. And each time she was around the Legendary Beasts, their aura confirmed that it was still her primary motivation.

She wasn’t an Elite then, had just gotten her eighth badge, but she was already known for her reckless battle style, a mentality that made her and her pokemon go all out to prove themselves, no matter the risk.

She knew one day her luck would run out. Watching Entei leap the first line of defense and run through the virtual wall of water that met him at the second, only to emerge from the cloud of steam without pause, made her think that would be the day.

But it wasn’t, and here she is: flying into a storm as she feels the Pressure rise in her thoughts like fog on a chill morning.

As the wind grows harsh and powerful and the cold rain quickly soaks her, she wonders what she’ll feel now. One of the four Elites of the Indigo League, and by far the youngest… is she still afraid of obscurity? She has to know. Is being one of the strongest and most renowned trainers in two regions not enough for her? The Pressure will tell her. And even if it wasn’t her job, she’d be diving right into it to find out for sure.

Reckless? Nah. It boggles her mind that more people don’t seem to appreciate the insights facing legendaries gives. Who needs therapy, when you can literally face personifications of your deepest subconscious fears, and then blast the hell out of them?

She flies over the city until she spots a tall building near the coast with flares on the roof, then guides Orochi toward it as best she can with the wind buffeting him out toward the ocean. Her hydreigon isn’t terribly large, having only evolved 7 years ago, but it’s faster than any other she’s encountered, and its three heads work seamlessly to keep them floating between the various buildings and billboards and light posts in the dark, rainy city. It’s always been a mystery how the Dark Dragon flies, one the recent discovery of the Flying Particle shed no light on. At least flygon has decently sized wings, but Orochi just glides along with barely any effort from the appendages on its back that look more like furred tentacles than wings.

When she gets close enough to the marked building, she finds another in the distance, and from there another, until she spots an occupied rooftop. She brings Orochi down into a dive and “lands” beside the figure of Lorelei, the dragon hovering just above the concrete. The older Elite is only identifiable by circumstance: her whole body is covered in the same type of Faraday suit Karen is wearing. Conductive wire mesh sandwiched between thick layers of fireproofed material would keep them safe from stray lightning bolts, though it does impede movement more than she’d like.

She’s also standing on a platform strapped to the back of a hovering cryogonal the width of a couch, with half a dozen other ones of varying sizes floating around her.

Kind of distinctive, that. Particularly for a non-Psychic.

“Good to have you, Karen! First Stormbringer fight, right?” Lorelei shouts, voice calm and assured despite having to contend with the storm. There are radios attached to the neck of the suits, but in this weather they’d be practically useless.

“Right!” she replies, and alternates stroking Orochi’s three necks, his scales slippery in the heavy rain.

“Then you’re going to be under Giovanni in attack order!”

“Understood!” The idea that elites are below Champions and above Leaders only applies when Champions don’t do weird things like become Leaders afterward. “No appearance yet?”

“No! We’ll be tracking the center of the storm and moving with it, in case it appears!”

Karen nods and turns as lightning flashes again, then again, illuminating the cityscape intermittently. In the moments between, she can make out a number of dull red spots, fires that even the intense rain and wind aren’t putting out right away. There are also a couple of obscured spots where dust clouds from collapsed buildings have been kicked up, and not yet fully battered back down by the rain and wind.

“And in the meantime we wait,” she mutters. Karen itches to go down and help fight, to protect the hospitals and pokemon centers they passed by, but she knows they can’t. The Gym Leaders who could come and their people are spread out around the city already; the Elites’ job is to stay fresh and ready for the cause of all this to make an appearance.

But that’s assuming it ever even does.

“Where are we taking it?”

“My initial pull will be west-southwest! You and Giovanni will need to bring it as far out to sea as we can!”

“Right, but after that?” Cinnabar Island is in that direction, if they lure it that way they’d be putting the people there at risk…

Lorelei laughs. “I like your optimism!”

Karen smiles and squeezes the base of Orochi’s middle neck. “You haven’t really seen my baby in action yet!”

“Noted!” There’s silence for a moment, and then, “If you get it past the bay, turn sharp south!”

Karen’s smile fades, and she suddenly wishes she could see Lorelei’s expression. By luring Zapdos south, there’s a chance it would pass by or over the Sevii Islands, Lorelei’s birthplace and home. Drawing it away from Cinnabar would mean endangering her family and friends and neighbors.

Of course, it could well miss the Sevii Islands entirely. They’re not that large… but in the worst case scenario, well, the total population of all the islands put together is a quarter of Cinnabar’s.

Simple math. Their primary objective is to ensure Zapdos doesn’t travel further up the mainland to Celadon, or turn north toward Saffron, but past that… The only choices risk some deaths to save many more. And the consequences of indecision would be no different than making the choice.

Still, Karen knows the knowledge must feel like hell, and the Pressure is probably making it that much worse. Yet Lorelei sounded composed, and calm, a rallying point for everyone present. Karen can do no less.

The center of the storm has clearly moved, and soon they’re moving with it, lighting new flares and placing them around another roof that’s not the tallest in its area, but still high enough to have clear sight of the cityscape. They’re there for about another fifteen minutes, and then they move again, waiting and watching for their opportunity while another wave of pokemon hits the city.

Karen has to fight the Pressure each time, the desire to do something burning through her. At one point they see another building collapse, and only Lorelei’s unmoving figure keeps Karen in place. She can’t look weak and impulsive in front of the other Elite, not while there are lives on the line.

Eventually Giovanni arrives, followed by half a dozen other trainers. They’re all also wearing faraday suits, so she doesn’t know by appearance who they are, but a vibrating chorus of high pitched noise accompanies them, as each of the trainers is riding a flygon, and that makes it pretty obvious. She’d be surprised if even Blackthorn Gym has this many flygon among its members.

“Good evening, Elites!” Giovanni’s voice is loud but clipped, and it makes Karen feel a little better about herself. She knows it’s petty, the Viridian Gym Leader has faced Pressure at least five times as often as she has, but the fact that the legendary Sakaki is struggling with it too makes her feel less weak.

Karen always feels awkward around the ex-Champion. His decision is one of the reasons she’s even in the Elite Four. She has no illusions that she could beat Lorelei or Bruno if they were going all out… or even Agatha, despite the Type advantage Karen’s strongest pokemon have against hers.

There are a number of Champions that step down from the position, but most do so to pursue other vocations, like Professor Oak, or travel to other regions. Brock is the only other ex-Champion Leader in Indigo, and he only won his match thanks to Aeosis; he must have known he didn’t deserve the title when he stepped down, wouldn’t be able to hold it against a challenger that prepared for that monster.

Giovanni? He might still be Champion, if he wanted to be. She wonders how it makes Lance feel. As far as she knows the two have never battled.

“Good to have you, Leader!” Lorelei’s tone is neutral. “I wasn’t aware that you would be bringing others!”

“All volunteered to be here, and are under strict orders to observe! They will only assist in pre-discussed emergency situations!”

It’s been a problem in the past, trainers who attempted to attack legendaries, either in a bid for revenge or glory, and only ended up getting themselves killed, or worse, interfering with the League’s plan. Giovanni probably didn’t bring his Second or Third, but Karen feels better with the other trainers around. She’s used to facing Johto’s Beasts in groups, both to effectively drive them in a certain direction and to deal with the rampage that would come in their wake.

“Very well! Attack order is myself, then you, then Karen! Hard south after the bay, if possible!”

“Respectfully, Elite, I would suggest I go first!” Giovanni yells. “Our pokemon cannot fly as effectively over water as land!”

Lorelei doesn’t seem happy about this, from what little body language Karen can read. Which isn’t much, given the storm and suit. “The first pull will be the hardest! My cryogonal are more expendable than you or your people! If you reach the bay, let Karen continue, and assist the city!”

Giovanni is silent a moment, then bows his head. “By your command, Elite!”

Karen isn’t sure who she agrees with, but she finds herself happy that she’ll have Zapdos all to herself once they’re over the water… even as the idea of being the sole target in the Legendary’s crosshairs sends cold fingers down her back to grip the base of her spine and squeeze until she’s shivering, legs numb…

Hello fear. She smiles, breathing hard as she focuses on how she will feel when she comes out the other side of this, alive and triumphant. It’s nice to feel you again, for a time.

Because what is there to fear, really? From the perspective of moment to moment experiences in a few hours the fear will either be gone, or she’ll be dead.

Those aren’t the only outcomes. I could be maimed. I could lose Orochi. I could fail and cause others to die.

Karen’s pulse is faster, her breaths short. This Pressure is tenacious. She lets the excitement and fear war within her, drive her to greater heights. Fighting Pressure is all about framing. She stares out at the storm and grins. Your greatest weapon will only give me strength.

They move as a unit to another two rooftops and well past the midpoint of the city when it finally happens: the god of thunder’s cry splits the sky as it descends from the dark like a slowly falling star.

Its presence below the cloudline transforms the city from a strobing world of dark and light to an endless black room with a single impossibly bright bulb hanging in it. Karen wishes briefly she could take a picture of the cityscape, illuminated from a single central point. The shadows the buildings cast move as Zapdos floats with deceptive slowness across the sky.

And then Lorelei is floating rapidly up and to the side. Her swarm of cryogonal forms an array around her and starts to gleam with extra ice that forms on them in a protective layer. After getting in position, one of her pokemon starts accelerating faster than the others, and Lorelei’s voice is suddenly sharp as steel in Karen’s headset. “Initial pull starting now.”

The cryogonal disappears into the distance, followed by Lorelei and the others. Giovanni follows her, but not at maximum speed, and Karen takes her cue from him, though it galls her to just hang back here doing nothing.

Wait. Your chance is coming. Wait.

She keeps Orochi behind the Leader as she strains her eyes against the glaring brightness of the god’s electric aura. Eventually a thin beam of blue and white lances out at it in the distance, and the jealousy churns through her. Lorelei’s attack has begun.

Zapdos doesn’t react to the attack, and Karen imagines that it might not have even felt it through its Light Screen. Once there are three beams hitting it simultaneously, however, lightning flashes down around it, and its cry once again echoes over the city in a thunderclap.

Karen wonders how many of the cryogonal just died, but a moment later more beams hit the legendary pokemon again, and finally the glowing bird turns to face them head on.

Karen sees the light around the bird flare, and banks Orochi into a steep turn just as a twitching ball of lightning flies out at them. The Zap Cannon is far slower than an actual bolt from the sky, but wherever it goes, arcs of electricity snap out from it to the buildings below, the rain evaporating into a hazy mist behind it.

Orochi manages to get out of its flight path in time to avoid being struck by it, and Karen turns to watch the glowing orb fly out over the coastline and out past the edge of the storm, where it quickly loses coherence. Orochi’s left head roars at Zapdos in defiance, and she quickly smacks its neck to get it to stop before looking over the city, and feeling a ball of ice in her stomach.

Roughly a dozen buildings in the path of that attack are on fire. Their lightning rods were overloaded.

She turns back to the Thunder God. There are more beams of icy light hitting it from the front, keeping it turned toward the ocean as it starts calling lightning down on its assailants again. They need to get it out of the city as quickly as possible.

She realizes with a start that Zapdos is closing the gap between them rapidly, now, and sees Giovanni abruptly loop and turn his pokemon toward the coast. She quickly follows suit, and they lead the legend across the city, racing to stay just out of its range.

Karen trusts her pokemon to keep them from hitting anything and turns to watch the battle as best she can as the rain pelts her face. There aren’t any new attacks hitting Zapdos, however, and she can’t make out Lorelei at this distance. The only reason the Thunder God is so visible is how bright it is.

Karen feels a chill go down her spine. The engagement has barely lasted a minute, and Zapdos is still a long way from the coast. Is Lorelei out of the fight already? She carefully drifts Orochi closer to Giovanni’s flygon. “I don’t see any more Ice Beams!” she yells.

“Maintain course! I will engage if it starts to deviate!” Giovanni calls back. “Be prepared to pick up if it does again after me!”

“Right!” Karen clenches her jaw against the impatience swirling in her. Lorelei knows better than to personally get in range of an attack, but determining the range of an enemy that can call lightning down in a thunderstorm is difficult, to say the least. There’s no truly safe way for a prolonged fight against legendary pokemon, who seem to shrug off all but the most powerful or effective attacks…

And their response when truly challenged, is always to retaliate with overwhelming force.

Lightning crackles through the clouds and pours into the tallest buildings, blinding Karen and probably anyone who’s outside, for a moment.

The thunder hits a split second later from everywhere at once, a grinding roar of noise that seems to practically vibrate the air around her. She blinks spots out of her eyes as her ears ring, and feels Orochi vibrate under her as all three heads roar in pain this time, the sound muffled.

She notices her dazed pokemon is drifting aimlessly to the side, and taps a command against his neck to get him to turn and speed up again. When she thinks to look behind her, she sees Zapdos is no longer facing them.

Before she can panic, a burst of light speeds toward the legendary’s glowing figure, and starts splitting into multiple sparks, each leaving a glowing trail behind them.

Most of the barrage misses Zapdos, but some hit, and its screech is a distant scrape against her throbbing ears. It turns back toward the coast, chasing Giovanni now, whose pokemon doesn’t bother attacking again and merely goes for pure speed as lightning blasts it.

Immune to electricity as flygon is, the heat from bolts of lightning is not so easy to ignore, and Karen knows that Giovanni’s suit can’t take many hits like that. The Gym Leader manages to outpace the Thunder God for a brief time, hopefully letting the wind and rain cool him off, but Zapdos is locked on and focused, and another Zap Cannon suddenly launches out.

Karen is far enough to the side to avoid the sphere of lightning without drastic action, but the others from Giovanni’s gym have to scatter. Zapdos keeps trying to turn after one of them, and Karen realizes they’re buying their Gym Leader time, each trading off to be the one chased while keeping Zapdos aimed unerringly toward the docks.

She’s not sure how this qualifies as an “emergency situation,” but it’s clear Giovanni’s people were prepared to do this at the first opportunity and help their Leader escape danger by taking some hits themselves. But with their pokemon and suits, they should be okay…

…and soon enough the ground below Karen gives way to docks, which give way to water. The squadron of flygon disperse rather than float over the sea, and Zapdos seems to be choosing which of them it wants to chase.

Now, finally, it’s her chance. “Come on, Orochi,” she mutters. “Let’s show them all what we can do.”

She taps out a command to the two side necks, then another to the middle one, hands adjusting along his neck to steer as he banks toward Zapdos while flying south-southwest as two of his heads curve back behind it and emit a pair of dark purple beams.

Karen watches the energy splash against Zapdos’s glowing form, and from this distance the speed at which it turns toward them is startling. “Go!” she yells with a surge of adrenaline even as her hands grip in the actual command, and her pokemon’s wings sweep all at once and jet them forward.

Lightning blinds Karen as they soar out over the bay, and Orochi cries out in pain, but doesn’t stop moving. She blinks away the spots and taps out a different command, and the next attack to come from her pokemon’s mouths is a pulse of darkness so complete that even Zapdos’s glowing form is obscured by it, for a moment, and the world returns to pitch black again.

She dips Orochi down in that brief darkness, then turns and darts back the way she came.

Then the legendary’s glowing form is revealed again, like the first sun being born in an endless void, and it screeches in rage… but in front of Karen, this time, rather than behind her.

Gods still need to see. Karen grins and flies behind the stormbringer, letting Orochi rest as Zapdos flies ahead.

Minutes pass in the harsh winds and soaking rain, and Zapdos flies over the water like a shooting star. Karen stays alert for any sign that the legendary is turning, but it’s hard to tell without the city to navigate by anymore: there’s nothing but water all around them. She watches the lightning bird as best she can through its blinding aura, and can just make out the dark patch in the back of its glowing form. All the while, the Pressure batters at her mind, making her itch to do more. She ignores it, for now. Part of mastering her fears, proving she’s stronger, is being able to resist it when necessary. She has a job to do first, and once it’s done… the fear of failure will be gone, and all that will be left is the invigorating fear of death.

Zapdos is flying farther and farther ahead, and she realizes Orochi has been getting tired, which is bad for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that they’re effectively in the middle of the ocean. She takes some ether out of her bag and taps its necks one at a time so they can bend around and open wide for her to point the nozzle into each mouth and spray. Ether’s effects on the body would work no matter which mouth Orochi ingests it with, but for the mental effects…

Her pokemon dutifully speeds up, and she finishes the bottle off by pointing the nozzle between the bars of her mask and spraying the last squeeze of ether into her own mouth before she can stop herself.

It’s like swallowing rubbing alcohol and coffee while a bolt of clarity lights her brain up from the inside. She feels more wired and alert than she can ever remember, and drops the empty bottle into the ocean as she leans over Orochi’s neck, body vibrating with energy as she grins even as worry rises up in her. Dangerous, taking ether, lots of side effects, but side effects don’t matter if you’re dead.

Time loses all meaning as she flies behind the storm god. She keeps her eyes away from it as much as she can, worried about damage to her eyes and hoping Orochi will be okay, and eventually the endless expanse of water below stops, and she realizes they’ve reached the mouth of Kanto’s massive bay.

She did it. She brought it all the way out to sea… assuming she can turn it in the right direction, at least. If it hadn’t drifted since they left Vermilion behind then Cycling Road would be directly ahead and on either side of them, but instead the enormously long and poorly named bridge is a distant string of lights to Karen’s right, and to her left… yes, there’s Fuchsia City in the distance.

She has to turn it hard west, now, to minimize the storm’s effects on nearby towns and pokemon populations, then south to minimize its chances of flying to Cinnabar.

Or… she can take it by surprise… fly up to it, get within capture range… throw an ultra ball…

Karen almost stops breathing as she pictures it. The first trainer in history to catch a Legendary pokemon… to have the god of lightning on her belt… it would prove her greatness to everyone, once and for all… she just needs… to fly a little closer…

Karen carefully pulls an ultra ball from the pouch on her saddle. The ball is slippery in her gloved hand, and she feels herself sweating in the thick suit. Zapdos is harder to look at the closer she gets, and she starts to feel warmth, then heat. How is it not cooking itself? She suddenly has doubts that even an ultra ball would even make it through that constant electric aura, but she has to try… She pushes Orochi a little harder, trying to get just a little closer…

It’s the buzzing in the air that she feels which snaps her out of it, the way Orochi vibrates and squirms in pain. She quickly has him back off. What was she thinking? Effective range of an ultra ball in these conditions would be maybe three meters, and they’re flying at speeds that would make any throw almost impossible.

Been in the Pressure too long… By the Guardians, how long have they been flying?

The land is too close, now, she has to turn Zapdos before he flies over it. She carefully commands Orochi to turn to the right and fly faster. Karen tries to judge the right distance, making sure they’re not too close while being at the right angle… then has Orochi’s left head fires a Dragon Pulse.

Zapdos is hit, but as the energies clash around it the Thunder God barely seems to notice or care. She has Orochi fire again and again, but her pokemon seems too tired to hit it with much power.

She quickly sprays more ether into its mouths as they start to pass over land, hands fumbling with the bottle in her haste. She’s fucking it up, she should have turned him earlier, should have paid attention…

Draco Meteor, she taps out, and her pokemon’s three heads each pour glowing orange death out at the glowing god, hoping no one is below them to get hit by the attacks.

Zapdos finally seems to notice them, and she quickly wrenches Orochi around to the right to lead it back on a chase. Electricity crackles through the storm clouds around them, but no lightning hits her and her dragon, and soon they’ve left the narrow strip of land, as well as the even narrower bridge, behind.

Now. She has Orochi turn slowly southward, and uses Dark Pulse again to distract Zapdos a couple times when it cuts through the inside of the curve to get closer to her. It fires another lightning ball back, and this time they’re too close to avoid it: electricity plays over her suit and Orochi’s body as the ball sails past, and she feels a surge of sympathy for Orochi as he endures the electricity and just keeps flying, a single bellow his only concession to the pain.

That, and he’s going slower. A lot slower.

Karen quickly orders another Dark Pulse, then opens the pouch at her side and grabs a syringe full of potion out of it, then another for electric injuries as Zapdos’s blinding light is temporarily obscured. She searches as best she can with her thick gloves for the soft spot between the scales in Orochi’s shoulder and injects both healing liquids into his bloodstream one after the other.

Orochi puts on more speed just as the Thunder God re-emerges, screeching in anger, but it’s too late to attack them again, and soon they’re leading it south… and then, exhausted though she and Orochi are, south-east. There are no islands in this direction. If she can take Zapdos as far out in this direction as possible, its odds of harming anyone else would be effectively zero.

Some part of her is aware that this is the Pressure pushing her to do more than she needs to, to rise above expectations and stand out. She ignores that part of her. She’s saving lives, by doing this. She can keep going. She has to prove that she can. And then… all this fear and struggle… will have been that much more worth it… what’s another hour of flying, after those she went through already? Will she even remember it as being any worse?

Still, no reason not to be smart about this.

Karen orders another Dark Pulse, and prepares to dive down and loop behind it again. The wave of pitch black spreads out behind her…

…and Zapdos dives under it, screeching in anger and firing another Zap Cannon at them.

The light engulfs her, and she can smell ozone and burning canvas as her pokemon screams in pain… then starts to fall.

Karen desperately blinks spots out of her eyes as the stormy ocean rushes up at them, hands fumbling for the medicine pouches along her saddle as her suit burns around her. The last thing she hears before they hit the angry waves is the Thunder God’s cry of victory.

Chapter 62: Trust

It’s worse than she imagined it would be.

There’s the storm itself, first and foremost. The world strobes between dark and light as constant, varying, often overlapping booms and rumbles of thunder pound at her ears. Powerful gusts of winds whip at her hair and clothes. Basic communication is difficult, and even keeping track of where they are quickly becomes an issue as the street signs are hard to make out, assuming they’re still even standing. The rain is still fairly light, but it reduces visibility even further, and gives cold teeth to the wind.

But the storm alone would be bearable. What’s made Vermilion into a waking nightmare are the pokemon.

“Tony,” Red shouts soon after they leave the building. “I’m using psychic senses to see if there are pokemon around so we can avoid them! I need you and Leaf to keep an eye out for any Dark pokemon, okay?”

“Me?” the man yells, like there’s anyone else around. “But I can barely see anything!”

“Neither can I!” Leaf shouts out, irritated at him and knowing she shouldn’t be. “But we still need your help! Watch the sides, and I’ll keep looking behind us!”

“Sides! Okay!” He turns his head rapidly left and right as they walk as Leaf brings up the rear and constantly looks behind her to make sure they aren’t being followed. Her hair is mostly restrained by her bike helmet, but wet strands of it keep getting blown loose to poke at her eyes. She considers putting her goggles on, but the rain would quickly make them useless.

Raff and Scamp walk beside her, their bodies occasionally twitching and shivering in ways that have nothing to do with the rain and wind. She feels guilty for subjecting them to this, but if they can help her save other pokemon… and people… She doesn’t need them for that though, does she? She saved her new nidorino by putting herself at risk, and Red’s pikachu…

No, that’s the Pressure, I got lucky to save Nidorino with only light burns, if it had turned toward me… She knows better than that, he wouldn’t have died if it got burned a little before she captured it, it’s sad to think of it getting more hurt but it could have been healed if that happened. She knew the stormbringer’s aura would make it hard to fight, would be distracting, but this is more than that. It’s not just that guilt is adjusting the priority of her values, it’s so overpowering it makes her stupid in the pursuit of themshe can’t actually save more pokemon if she gets herself killed trying, and she needs to keep that in mind, even when the feeling is hard to think through. Especially then.

So resolved, she walks about another minute before she sees the first one.

It’s a ponyta, lying dead in the street not a block away from the clothing store. There’s no question it’s dead: something has cut it so deep in front of its forelegs that it looks nearly chopped in half. Its mane no longer glows, orange hair lying limp and darkened by the rain that spreads and dilutes the pool of blood it’s laying in. The whole tableau is at the edge of one of the few remaining street lights, visible even between the lightning strikes.

The sight of it cracks something in Leaf’s heart. She steps toward it before she can help herself, hand fumbling for a potion and revive capsule, it looks dead but it might not be, she has to capture it at least and check, she has to do something to save it, save it, I have to save it…

“Leaf!”

She turns to see Red and Tony, staring back at her from the end of the sidewalk. She’s surprised for a moment that he even noticed she’d stopped, but of course his powers would tell him.

Leaf looks back at the ponyta. His powers would be able to tell if it was alive. Red wouldn’t have just ignored it if it were alive.

Would he?

No. No, Red’s a good person, he has trauma about pokemon but he wouldn’t just let it die. Even if that’s not true, at the very least he’d capture it for his own sake. If he’s ignoring it it’s because it’s dead.

Leaf closes her eyes. Takes a deep breath. Forces her feet to keep moving.

Red calls out a warning for some pokemon that seem to be fighting up ahead, and they take a detour… where they encounter a doduo lying in the middle of the street, both necks bent at unnatural angles to twist to either side of its round feathery body. There’s another after that, the burnt body of something small, maybe a nidoran or a rattata. And when they turn back toward the hospital, she spots a pidgey that flew into a building and broke its neck.

She can’t tell when she starts to cry, the rain disguising her tears even from herself.

Keep going, just keep going, there’s nothing you can do for them, just keep moving…

But even while she follows her own advice, part of her hates herself for not even checking to make sure the pokemon are really dead. For not doing enough to save them. Isn’t that why she became a trainer? To help people and pokemon? Isn’t that how she justifies capturing them in the first place?

No, she can’t blame herself for this. The real blame lies in the stormgod. Zapdos.

The hate that fills her is alien, burning her chest as she wipes at her face. She’d never hated anything so much in her life, let alone a pokemon. How many times had she sagely repeated, “No sense getting mad at a minccino for being a minccino” to herself, a reminder that all creatures follow their nature, and can’t be blamed for being what they are?

But this… the sheer destruction, the madness and pain and death that sweeps all it touches and drives them into madness and pain and death, it’s as close to real “evil” as anything a pokemon does that she can think of. Maybe it makes as much sense as calling a regular storm evil…

But you can’t kill a storm.

She drives the thought away, horrified by it, but also resigned. Can’t kill a god, either.

Not yet.

She turns to Red every so often to see how he’s managing. She knows that before the voyage using his powers like this would quickly be overwhelming, and from what she felt of them earlier he’s pretty close to his limit already. But… he seems mostly fine. Maybe his “psydar” really is just that much less costly to use. What impresses her more is that he even manages to concentrate on it through not just the distractions of the storm, but whatever the Pressure is making him feel, which she’s pretty sure is fear.

Until they see their first humans.

Leaf nearly walks into Tony, who has stopped because he nearly walked into Red. They all stare when they see what he’s looking at. It’s a pair, one adult and one child. They’re lying on the pavement trampled and torn up and just as clearly dead as the ponyta had been, but Red still stares and doesn’t move as the rain pours down and the wind blows his hair beneath his helmet.

Leaf swallows down the sob that’s rising in her at the sight. It’s her turn. She walks over to Red and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Red…” She doesn’t know what to say, other than the obvious. “We have to go!”

He looks at her, face twisting in grief and fear, but then he takes her hand. His skin is warm, and she realizes that hers are just freezing from the wind and rain. “There are people,” he says. “In the buildings we’re passing.”

She understands. Shouldn’t they be checking on them? What if they end up like these two? “No pokemon with them?” He shakes his head. “Then they’re probably safer inside,” she says, hoping it’s true.

Red closes his eyes, breathes deep, nods, and keeps moving. Leaf watches him for a moment, waiting for Tony to move past her. She remembers what it felt like, inside, and feels a surge of care for him. He’s trying so hard to do what’s right, even when he doesn’t know.

He always tries so hard…

She feels a sudden warmth toward him, and on its tail comes the flash of feeling she’d sensed when their thoughts were joined. The regard he has for her.

She didn’t know how to respond to that, at the time, and doesn’t now. But she wishes she’d reacted to it at all, instead of ignoring it and just hammering him about his views on pokemon until he left. She’d felt bad about that, been tempted to chase him, but she was still struggling too much against what she had felt in his thoughts, was worried she would make things worse.

Now her guilt over that seems to grow and grow. They could die here, either or both of them, and she’d been so unfair to him on the cruise… he tried so hard to understand her and let her understand him… she’s a horrible friend, she’s not used to having them for so long, of course she’d screw it up eventually…

It’s the shift that makes her notice it. The way her attention stops automatically drifting toward the guilt of not helping pokemon enough, to guilt over how she’s not a good enough friend. The severe switch, from constantly checking their pokemon to ensure they’re holding up okay to constantly checking Red to make sure he is, is enough to make her frown at herself. It feels wrong, and—

—and it’s distracting her from looking for Dark pokemon! She looks around, wildly at first, then lets out a breath, her guilt at being a bad friend surging up again before she shifts her attention away. That’s what she has to do, the Pressure somehow changed what it was affecting, but the solution is the same, just keep her thoughts on what’s important…

They walk through the storm and see more bodies, pokemon and human. At one point there’s another huge ongoing rumble that wasn’t thunder, and Leaf feels the ground tremble. She wonders if another building fell, or if there’s some pokemon beneath them causing quakes. How far down does the Pressure go? The idea of a rampaging onix beneath the city is terrifying, not just for its potential surfacing, but for the infrastructure damage it might cause. Vermilion is a coastal city though, the water table must be near the surface… And rising with the rain.

A chill that has nothing to do with the storm suddenly goes through her. If the water table rises enough to force the underground pokemon up, or those in the sewers…

“Pokemon in one of the buildings to our left,” Red shouts over the wind and thunder, snapping her out of her dark thoughts. They’re passing by a building with its door smashed in. “Keep an eye on it! Don’t sense any humans inside!”

“Is the pokemon hurt?” Leaf shouts back.

“Can’t tell! Just getting instant impressions!”

Worry goes through her as she remembers the bird pokemon bleeding from the broken glass inside them. “Red, we have to check!”

“What? Why?!” Tony yells.

“Leaf, it’s rampaging in there,” Red says, ignoring the man to look at her. “I can sense it moving around, fast! It’s not worth the risk!”

“If there was a human in there, you’d risk facing it to save them!” She stares into his eyes, willing him to understand. “Because you’re a good person! I have to be willing to risk facing it to save it too! It’s just as much a victim of Zapdos as the people here!”

Red stares back at her, then curses. “Do you have a plan?”

She nods and heads for the building, hand going to her pocket to pull out ear plugs. Joy’s voice would be mostly useless in the pouring rain, howling wind, and constant thunder, but hopefully inside… “You stay out here! Watch for the next wave!” She turns to her pokemon and points to the ground. “Guard!”

“Wait!” Tony shouts. “We might as well get out of the rain!”

“Too dangerous! I’m going to be using an area of effect attack!”

“A what?”

Leaf shakes her head and goes inside before he can argue. The man is turning out to be more of a hassle than she’d imagined, and she wishes he’d just stayed behind.

Leaf steps carefully through the broken door of the restaurant and summons Joy, the sound of the storm twice as muffled now that she’s mostly inside. It’s nice to be out of the cold, and she takes a moment to rest from the wind and rain as she looks around. A line of chaos extends from the doorway past the tables, upending them and the chairs, and her eyes jump to the claw marks on the floor, the gnaw marks on the chair legs. She takes a moment to study them, knowing she needs to hurry but not wanting to rush into anything. Raticate. Got to be. The sound of something crashing around inside the house makes Leaf start moving faster, worried the pokemon will hurt itself, if it hasn’t already.

She finds a door with its bottom half chewed open, and turns the handle to open the kitchen. It’s been torn apart, food scattered everywhere. The raticate is still there, digging through a cabinet. It turns a food stained mouth toward them as Leaf closes the door, then races straight for Joy, huge teeth open.

“Sing!” Leaf yells from behind her pokemon, and the wigglytuff’s voice fills the room, muffled and warped through her earplugs. The raticate stumbles, then falls limp and rolls to a stop. Leaf’s heart is in her throat as she watches it a moment while she pulls a pokeball free, then aims, locks, throws.

The ball absorbs it, then falls and rolls to a stop. She steps quickly over to pick it up, then withdraws Joy and takes her earplugs out as she makes her way back toward the front and out the building, wincing as the storm hits her again.

Red and Tony are watching both ends of the street, but Red turns to her with clear relief when she comes out. Tony just looks stressed and scared and impatient.

“Okay?” Red asks, voice raised over the rain.

“Yes! Thank you!”

They set off again, and Leaf feels better about things for a while, knowing that she took time to save a pokemon that might have gotten hurt or hurt someone else. She watches for Dark pokemon as best she can as they move from one block to another, trying not to focus on the bodies they see, human and pokemon alike, as Red continues to help them avoid pokemon wandering around the city.

But little by little she feels the Pressure erode at her thoughts again, start to bend them. It’s been a while since Red called out anything. Are there pokemon around them that he’s ignoring, now, to make better time?

No, she shouldn’t think that way… gods, why is she so suspicious of him, she’s such a terrible friend…

…but he wouldn’t be lying or anything, he’d just be… staying quiet. And she’s been in his head. She knows how easy it would be, to make that calculation, to not put him (or her, especially her) at risk just to save a pokemon.

And now Leaf worries they’re passing a dozen pokemon who are bleeding and broken just out of sight, and she’s just walking by them and not doing anything because she doesn’t want to make things awkward

“Stop!” she yells.

Tony lets out a small scream and looks wildly around, hunkering down, but Red just scans their surroundings for whatever Dark pokemon she might have seen, then turns curiously to her, hand going up to shield his face from the rain as it shifts to blow into his face.

Leaf walks up to him, turning him away from the wind. “Red…” How is she going to put this? She needs to get rid of these thoughts, to make it clear to herself that they’re not worth worrying about. “I want you to know, I trust you!”

Red stares at her, rain trailing down his face. “I… I trust you too, Leaf!”

“I know you care about me!” she continues, cheeks burning against the cold. “And I know how hard you try to do what’s right! I trust you to tell me if there are pokemon around us who I could save! So I’m not going to let the Pressure distract me with those thoughts! I need you to know that, that I’m sorry for what I said before, and that I trust you! Completely!”

Red keeps staring at her, and thunder crashes overhead, making them all flinch. “Are you two seriously doing this now?” Tony asks. “Here?”

“Shut up!” Leaf snaps at him, then turns back to Red, willing him to understand, to get it…

His face is a stew of emotions that are hard to read in the inconsistent light, and she’s aware of how close they are. She wonders if she should step back, but then his hands are on hers.

“Leaf… I swear to you, I’ll let you know if there’s a pokemon still alive around us! I… care about you, and I trust you too!”

Relief, overwhelming and cleansing. She doesn’t know if he understood, she can’t know if he really will or not, but he still said what she needed to hear.

Leaf realizes suddenly how easy it is to trust someone, when you know everything about them. When you know that they’re going to act a certain way, you trust them to act that way. But that’s not the deepest form of trust. Real trust requires uncertainty. It requires situations where the person might make choices that you’ll never know, might even make choices that appear to be wrong, but which you’ll accept anyway because you trust that they had a good reason.

She has to trust him as a choice, rather than wait for certainty. Or the Pressure would eat her up inside.

Leaf smiles briefly, and lets him go. His hands leave hers a moment later. “Okay! Let’s go!”

Red nods, gaze lingering on her face, and then he turns and starts to walk again. Leaf takes up the rear again, watching their surroundings, her thoughts still bending toward worry of being a bad trainer, or bad friend, before she forcibly remembers what Red told her, his words to remember her trust in him, and his for her.

A block later he stops to let her know there’s a pokemon a street down that’s staying still, and they detour to find a doduo sprawled on the ground with a broken leg. Next to it is a rattata that was clearly pecked to death, and is still being pecked, one head and then the other diving down into its body. Leaf feels her gorge rise and has to turn away, eyes closed and mouth open to let the rain wash the bile from her mouth, and when she turns back Red has already captured it, and she gratefully follows him back to their original route so they can move on.

When Red next stops them, it’s because he senses pokemon in one of the nearby apartment buildings. They walk around it until they find the side with broken glass all over the street, and Leaf has to fight down sudden nausea. The apartment building is twelve stories high, tall enough that it got hit by the wave of flying pokemon, and the ground is littered with dead birds and bugs who crashed into windows. She assumes they’re all dead, anyway, because Red is ignoring them as he triangulates by moving from side to side.

“This is one!” he says, pointing up to a broken window on the fourth floor. Leaf averts her gaze from the ground and counts windows until she knows which apartment the pokemon is in.

“One?”

“Yeah! Two more!” He quickly points them out, on the seventh and ninth floors. There are other broken windows too, but Red says no pokemon are in those. Maybe they flew away after. Or maybe they died from their injuries.

Leaf pushes the thought away as they make their way to the lobby, finally getting out of the wind and rain. Leaf lets her pokemon shake themselves dry, and withdraws them to reduce their Pressure exposure.

Red does the same, then wipes his wet hair from his face. “I’m going to check on the people here, see if they’re okay or want to come with us. Maybe one will be okay with Tony staying with them.”

“Hey,” Tony says. “This is no shelter. What if more pokemon get in?”

Red regards the man with some expression Leaf can’t read. “You can keep traveling with us, but I thought you were getting irritated at our detours? We’re rolling the dice each time we stop, and we’re going to keep doing that.”

Tony shifts his weight. “Right. Well, this place does seem solid enough.”

“Good.” He turns to Leaf. “Will you be okay on your own?”

She nods. “Go make sure the people are okay. I’ve got this.”

Leaf goes to the third floor, counting doors until she reaches the one the first pokemon was in. She presses her ear against the wood, but doesn’t hear anything but the storm outside. When she tests the handle, she finds it locked, and feels a sudden hesitation. It feels wrong to break the person’s door… but there are only two outcomes here. Either the pokemon dies in there from whatever injury it sustained going through the window (unacceptable) or it survives and attacks the homeowner when they return after the storm. She has to do it.

Part of her knows there are other possibilities, that it might survive but be too injured to attack whoever lives here, or that it might leave through the window when the storm ends. But she has no way to calculate those risks, and she’s here and has to do something.

Leaf summons Joy into the hallway, but not for singing. It’s possible the sound of the storm through the window will interfere too much with her singing for it to be effective. Instead she summons Raff too, then points to the door handle and tells her wigglytuff, “Pound.”

The round pokemon inhales, muscles shifting beneath its soft pelt. Its forelimbs, normally the vague shape and consistency of marshmallow flippers, stretch and thicken, and it slams one into the doorknob like a coiled spring of flesh, hard enough to shatter the wood around it before the limb compresses back to its shorter form.

Leaf quickly shoves the door open and steps behind Joy in case something comes out, but there’s only an empty front hall. The sound of the storm is louder, and she raises her voice to say, “Raff, Scout, Subdue!”

Her ivysaur moves into the dark apartment, muscles tense, and within moments a shape leaps out of the shadows at him, the hallway light revealing it to be a noctowl. Raff immediately sends sleep powder out from between his fronds in response.

The noctowl bats a wing forward, blowing the powder back down the entry hall and slamming Raff against the wall with a sudden burst of wind. Leaf ducks behind Joy and holds her breath, and watches as her pokemon tilts back from the gust of wind, then rocks forward and falls onto its face, body relaxing back into softness as Joy bounces gently, fast asleep.

Instead of following up on the attack, the noctowl hits the ground on its side and scrambles to get back up. One of its wings is broken and bleeding. Leaf rushes forward, ball in hand, gets the ping, and throws. The noctowl prepares to flap again, but is sucked into the ball before it can.

Leaf lets out her pent up breath as she half-collapses against a couch. That was close. She’d almost fallen prey to her own sleep powder, all because she was in such a rush to save the pokemon she didn’t put her air mask on despite being about to use spores. Though it’s not as distracting as before, the Pressure is clearly still affecting her decisions.

She checks Raff to make sure he’s okay, then withdraws him and wakes Joy before pulling her back into her ball too. Then she puts her new Noctowl into her bag, since both her belts are full, now, and after a moment’s thought puts the raticate she caught in her bag too so there’s a spot empty on her belts.

It’s getting kind of full. She’ll have to start tossing things soon if she catches more pokemon.

Leaf puts her air mask on now, then goes to check the next apartment she’d marked, going up another three flights of stairs, then counts the doors to find the right apartment. This one has its lights on, and Leaf watches with tensed muscles as Raff cautiously walks into a living room that looks like it’s been thoroughly trashed, a trail of blood on the carpet. After walking past the corner of the hallway, he ejects sleep powder at something out of sight.

Leaf twitches, a command on her lips, but nothing happens. Raff is focused on whatever he sprayed, alert and ready, but… not like he’s expecting combat.

Leaf hurries past Joy and enters the living room to see a bloody fearow, covered in deep stab wounds and lying still in a small crimson pool. Raff’s thin coating of sleep spores covers it… and the large kitchen knife in its chest.

Leaf almost raises a pokeball to capture it anyway, just in case, but just stares in grief and self-recrimination… and confusion. Her mind is interpreting what she’s seeing in a certain way that doesn’t make sense, and she knows it doesn’t make sense. There’s no way it flew into the kitchen and impaled itself on multiple knives, only one of which stuck in it. And if the other wounds are all from glass… then where’s the glass? She hears the outside storm, but not through any broken windows here: from behind her.

She turns to see the erratic trail of blood and claw marks and feathers leading to one of the bedrooms. Her heart is pounding for some reason, feet moving automatically to follow it… turns into a brightly painted room… sees…

…her knees give out, eyes shut, but still seeing…

…the crib, bloody…

…the woman, covered in deep gouges and scratches…

…the storm roaring outside the broken window, drowning out her groan of grief and defeat.

For the second time tonight, Leaf’s stomach heaves out its contents, her hand scrambling at her facemask to push it up in time, which only brings the smell to her. This time she empties herself before she’s able to crawl back, push herself up, get out and away. She doesn’t stop until she’s out in the hallway again, shaking and crying as she slides back to the floor, head in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she tells them, voice hoarse as tears start to fall. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

The storm rages outside, the smell of blood and worse contending with it. Leaf usually loves the smell of rain, the faint scent of ozone before, the clean minerally smell during, and the wet earthy smells that comes after.

But this storm’s ozone is sharp enough to burn her nostrils, and its rain carries with it the smell of dirty asphalt and oppressive dampness. The engine of destruction that Zapdos weaves around itself is one of nothing but pain and misery and death.

Raff eventually walks over to her and nuzzles his head against her side. She wraps her arms around his neck, carefully pressing her cheek to his leathery forehead as one hand brushes his frond.

What finally gets her up is the thought that Red didn’t sense people in this apartment. They’d already been dead when they arrived… but the fearow had been alive. It had finished bleeding out while she was making her way upstairs or catching the noctowl. Leaf would have only been too late by a few minutes at most, and there’s one more pokemon still in the building. It might be dying as she just sits here and wallows.

Leaf pats Raff and pushes herself up, then withdraws her pokemon and makes her way out of the apartment, feeling numb. As she does so she wonders if anyone else lives here, would come home to find… this. Her stomach clenches, making her put a hand on the wall, but there’s nothing left to come up, and after a moment she starts walking again.

By the time she reaches the stairs she’s moving quickly again, intent on saving the last pokemon if she can. When she reaches the apartment on the seventh floor, she stops herself. She has to think, to make sure she’s not rushing or forgetting something because of the Pressure and what just happened…

She turns from that memory, and busies herself summoning Raff and Joy again before she puts her face mask on and reviews her strategy. Joy smashes the lock, she opens the door, Raff goes in to subdue… Still seems like her best plan. She wishes she had pokemon more effective against Flying types… but no, they’d all hurt them far too much… Raff is safest, even if he’s at risk…

She bites her lower lip, remembering the way the noctowl blew his spores away. If it hadn’t been injured, he may have gotten seriously hurt. Why is she putting him at so much risk just for wild pokemon?

What, so I’m going to value his life over the pokemon’s just because he’s mine? I’m just like everyone else if I do that.

Shame burns in her chest, and she orders Joy to smash the lock, then leans around her and opens the door. “Raff, Scout, Subdue,” she calls out over the heightened sound of the storm.

The ivysaur goes in once again, and like last time reaches the living room before spraying sleep powder at something. Leaf hurries inside and sees a pidgey lying on the ground. Leaf’s heart sinks, thinking she may have been too late again: it didn’t try to fight back at all, and it looks pretty battered, like it bounced around the walls and ceiling in here after crashing through the glass.

She quickly captures it anyway, then goes to turn on a light so she can find the ball more easily when it rolls away. As soon as she flips the switch up, the buzzing of wings behind Leaf makes her turn to see something red and blue and yellow streaking toward her.

It hits her backpack, the shock of the blow absorbed enough that it only sends her sprawling into the wall. She just barely manages to avoid braining herself against the wall by slapping her arms against it, and quickly turns to see Raff and Joy attacking the ledian that hit her. It dodges Joy’s leap and Raff’s sharp leaves, and the buzz of its wings suddenly grows overbearingly loud. Leaf flinches back, hands clapping over her ears as it feels like her ear canals are being invaded by sharp stabbing worms.

The contending noise of the storm combined with her earplugs manages to keep it from being too harmful, but it also keeps Leaf from being able to shout out commands to her pokemon, who are struggling against the attack. The ledian is too fast for her to get a lock on it, and Crimson’s mobility would be more hampered by the small room,but there’s one pokemon she has that may be able to catch it.

A sudden burst of guilt stays her hand as she grabs her beedrill’s pokeball. It might kill the ledian, she can’t…

The red bug rockets into Joy’s face, and her pokemon cries out in pain as blood starts to spread over her downy fur.

Joy!” Leaf stares in horror as she sees one of the wigglytuff’s big, beautiful eyes is ruined, and then she’s withdrawing her pokemon before its keening noises of pain can rend at her heart any more. The ledian dives at Leaf again, but dodges out of the way as Raff’s vines swing at it.

“Go, Beedrill!” Leaf yells, fury and pain pulsing through her as her pokemon materializes. “Twin Needle!”

The ledian zips around the small room, but Beedrill cuts the corner as a a burst of wind cuts one of Beedrill’s wings and spins it around. As it falls, however, one long, sharp claw stabs at the ledian and pins it to the wall, dragging it down as Leaf’s pokemon falls to the carpet.

Oh shit oh shit it’s going to die “Back!” Leaf calls out, but her pokemon doesn’t listen, still stabbing at the Ledian, and Leaf stares in useless horror for the space of a panicked breath before she remembers Raff and yells “Sleep Powder!”

The blue spores spread over the two bugs, and their frenzied movements slow, then stop. Leaf is already moving forward to pull Beedrill’s arm out of the ledian’s chest, pokeball ready in the other hand to capture it. It pings, and she tosses it in a careful underhand to make sure her shaking hand doesn’t miss.

Once it’s caught, she collapses back into the couch behind her, breathing hard and fogging her face mask. She feels wrung out, emotions still rising up and crashing against each other, bursting all over her insides like splashes of paint.

Joy. How bad was her wound? Too serious for a potion, probably, but… maybe the pokemon centers could heal it… it was hard to see how badly damaged the eye was, there was so much blood…

Leaf feels light headed for a moment, and abruptly sits up, worried she breathed in some sleep powder accidentally. But no, she’s not sleepy. Oh good. Just shock.

Her hands are still trembling as she returns her sleeping beedrill, then Raff. She stands, then abruptly sits back down, knees weak. Maybe she’ll just… sit here a moment. And heal her pokemon. Yeah.

The storm blows the occasional mist of rain through the window and onto her face as she brings Beedrill back out and sprays his wing, then uses an awakening potion on him. Once he’s buzzing back to consciousness, she withdraws him, then brings Raff out and checks him over for injuries. Seeing none, she sprays potion into his ears for the ledian’s attack, which makes him shake his head and raise a forepaw to rub at them. She smiles and pets his head, then looks out into the blackness of the storm as lightning flashes and thunder roars.

She wonders how the others are doing, out there. She wishes she never came to this place, and feels ashamed of her cowardice before she dismisses that as just another Pressure induced feeling. Whether it’s true or not, it’s easier to act brave if she thinks it is. She can make time for regret later, if she needs to.

Leaf collects the ledian and pidgey’s balls, then goes back to the lobby. She expects Red or Tony to be there, but it’s empty. She goes to the bathroom to wash her mouth out, shuddering as the memory returns. When she enters the lobby again, Red and Tony still aren’t around.

She hears something outside.

Leaf turns toward the front door, wary. What now…

It comes again, the cry of some pokemon. Leaf feels apprehension trickle down her spine, and quickly goes back to the stairs, gaze staying on the front doors as best she can.

She rushes up the stairs, pokes her head out into the hall of apartments and yells, “Red!” She doesn’t see him, and goes to the next floor, doing the same thing, then the next. She’s about to run up to the fifth when she notices a door that’s slightly open.

It’s the door to the apartment where she caught the noctowl.

She’s sure she closed it. Maybe the wind blew it open… she did break the lock, after all… but no, the door handle was intact.

Leaf walks to the apartment, frowning. When she pushes the door open to look inside, she sees Tony standing in the trashed living room and quickly covering a container box, which he then withdraws into its ball.

“What are you doing, Tony?” Leaf asks, voice barely audible over the storm. She has a brief but powerful flash back to Mt. Moon, and rage quickly joins her incredulity.

“Nothing.” Tony doesn’t look at her, and starts walking toward the door. She moves automatically to stand in his way.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Nothing? That’s all you have to say?” Leaf glares up at him, anger burning through her chest as she thinks of the woman and child lying dead upstairs. “After we’ve been trying to keep you safe, you parasite, you utter p-”

Pain explodes through her face, and she’s knocked to the ground in a sprawl, her bag holding her up. She lies in a daze for a moment, listening to his feet pounding down the hallway as she tries to reorient herself. He’d just… Swords of Justice that hurt…

Her hand grabs for a potion, but then she stops and forces herself to her feet, still reeling from the blow as she chases the man downstairs just in time to hear Red shouting at him to stop.

Her friend is in the lobby, staring at the exit as Leaf tries to run past him, stopping as he grabs her arm. “Red, he’s a thief! We have to stop him, he was stealing from the apartments!” Every word sends new pain throbbing through her face, but she barely notices as she tugs at his hand.

Red gapes at her. “Are you… Leaf, your face! He hit you?”

Yes! Now let me go! We have to stop him!”

He unclips a potion from his bag and sprays the pulsing ache in her jaw. The pain quickly fades under the cool layer of liquid, but he still doesn’t let her go. “What are you going to do if you catch him?”

The question brings her up short. What would she do? Use her pokemon to incapacitate him? She’s not a police officer, he’s not an immediate threat and none would respond to a call like this… Shit, I should have taken his picture with my phone… Out in the storm it would be almost impossible. “I can’t just let him get away with stealing their things!” Especially since she’s the one who broke open their doors…

But no, that was worth it. Property damage and theft aren’t as important as saving lives. She feels shame welling up inside her again. Why is she even pushing this when there are still pokemon out there that need help?

“I know it sucks, Leaf, but you can’t go outside, there are pokemon moving around out there!”

Her frustration and shame are pushed aside by the infectious fear in his voice, and she looks at the darkness on the other side of the glass doors. “How many?”

“Not a lot, yet, but enough that I don’t think we should leave. I think another wave is arriving!”

Another wave. Dread fills her as she imagines all the pokemon out there who are going to wind up dead or are already dying as they stampede across the city together.

The urge fills her to stamp and scream, to curl up and cry. There are too many, she’s just one person, she can’t save them all, but she has to try—

Think through this, think! You can’t save them if you’re dead! She could have died already even while being careful, that ledian… “Red, before we came in, your power didn’t see any rooms with two pokemon in it, right?”

“No, none!”

“Then I think your psydar can’t see bug pokemon. I found a ledian in the highest apartment along with a pidgey it had beaten unconscious.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he unclips a ball. “Go, Spinarak!” His pokemon appears a moment later, and he closes his eyes. “…Shit, you’re right. Even expecting it, there’s barely any trace of a mind to be picked up. I have to concentrate to… Oh, shit! Leaf, there are bugs in this wave! Some are climbing the building!”

What?” Leaf thinks of the apartments whose doors she left open. “Are they breaking windows to get in, or just getting into the ones already open?”

“There are just two, and none are inside yet, but…!” Red rubs at his eyes, tears leaving tracks on his cheeks. “I can’t… Leaf we have to get out of here!” he suddenly screams, voice ragged. “We’re surrounded!

Leaf feels fear claw up her throat as he scrambles for his abra’s pokeball, imagination painting an image of pokemon converging on the building and crawling through all the windows in a living flood to slaughter the inhabitants like… like…

“Go, Bill!”

Red’s abra appears, and Leaf snaps out of the mental image of the dead woman and baby upstairs. Red’s going to teleport… he’s going to just leave, all those pokemon are hurting and he—

No, wait, he can’t, they’re inside still and there are no open windows, Red should know he can’t teleport in here, why is he…

Leaf notices her confusion a moment later, and grabs Red’s hand as he reaches for his abra. His eyes are too wide, his body shaking… Pressure.

He struggles against her, and without pausing to think she draws him into a hug, her arms keeping his against his body. He suddenly goes still. “It’s okay,” she whispers, eyes closed as she feels his heart beating madly against her chest. She has to help him, the way he helped her. “I’m with you. Breathe, Red.”

It’s like hugging a mannequin at first, but Red slowly thaws against her. She feels his muscles relax beneath his damp shirt, and his breath comes in a deep, staggered inhale before he lets it out in a rush. He does it again, and when she feels his hands grip the back of her shirt, she relaxes a little.

“Thanks,” he says, voice low. “I think… it’s getting worse.”

“I know.” She’s been feeling it more often and intensely too, despite her earlier protections. “Zapdos is getting closer.”

“Or the constant exposure and other stressors… Leaf, the people living here didn’t want to leave. Some were too terrified to even open the door! I tried to get them to go out into the halls, away from windows, maybe group together… most didn’t want to. I only convinced a few when I felt the pokemon arriving outside. If the bugs start getting in or roaming the halls…”

“It’s okay, Red, you made some of them easier to defend.” She tries to think of the best way to keep so many people in so many different places safe. “How many apartments have people still in them?”

“Um. Let me… seven,” he says, voice choked even as his breathing becomes more steady.

“Okay. And what’s the highest one?”

“The… the eighth floor.”

“How high did you get?”

“Sixth.”

“Okay. So we need to go make sure they’re all safe, right? Let’s go to the fifth floor so you can sense the ones above, and I’ll try to convince them while you monitor for invaders.”

He nods, and she takes a moment to draw strength from him too before she lets him go. His face is red as he pulls away and withdraws his abra, and she pretends not to notice, since hers is probably flushed too.

They rush up to the fifth floor as Leaf tries to plan for what they may be facing. Most bugs that could fly would have been in the initial wave, but those nearby that are most plentiful that crawl include things like wurmple and spinarak. Pretty weak overall, though if an ariados shows up it could be trouble.

“We really should have caught some Rock pokemon!” Red yells as he runs up the stairs ahead of her.

Leaf grins briefly, glad he’s on the same page. “Can’t use Charmeleon or Crimson indoors either!” Which doesn’t leave them with many pokemon that have advantages against bugs. Her ledyba and venonat should be okay…

When they reach the fifth floor hallway, a group of five people are there, sitting on the floor or leaning against walls. “You’re back,” one says, an older woman in a wheelchair. “Is everything alright?”

Red shakes his head. “Pokemon are all around the building. Some may try to get in. Can some of you go to your neighbors and let them know? They wouldn’t come out before, but now maybe they will.”

Everyone stares at him, and Leaf steps forward. “Please, their lives are in danger. One of your neighbors just a couple floors up… she was killed along with her baby by a fearow that flew in.” She swallows, and sees shock and horror on a couple of the faces in front of her, stunned disbelief or blank fear on the others.

Red is staring at her in horror too, but she sees him put it aside to try again. He points to a young man. “You, there’s a couple in 205. Please go and let them know.” He points to an older woman. “There’s a man in, uh, 317 I think? He wouldn’t open the door, just yell through it and come back up if he doesn’t answer. You have to go now, I need to psychically check to see if any pokemon are getting in!”

The tenants he singled out look at him a moment longer, then start to move to the stairs together. Red looks relieved, and quickly sends the others to more apartments until it’s just Leaf, Red and the woman in the wheelchair.

“Elevator’s still in service, if you need me to get somewhere,” she says.

“Maybe later,” Red says. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes, then quickly opens them and looks at Leaf. He looks embarrassed, but also scared. “Could you… it’s getting really bad.”

Leaf understands immediately. He’s been using his powers too much today, and now he can’t even rely on the psydar anymore. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m right here.”

Red nods, and squeezes her hand back, then closes his eyes. Within a minute the strain of constant fear on his face shifts to one of grief. “Five pokemon around the building,” he eventually says, voice tight. “None inside yet…”

Another minute passes, and Red’s lips clamp down on a sob. Leaf’s heart aches as she sees him screw his face up against the grief, wishing she could do more to help him. The door to the stairs opens, and one of the tenants returns with an older couple. Leaf is just turning back to Red when he gasps, eyes flying open.

“Fourth floor… that way!” he points through the floor, and Leaf checks the door above it. 508. So probably 408? “Something just got in, and there’s a person there! Hurry!”

Leaf is already running for the stairs, taking them two at a time as her breath whistles in her ears. When she arrives at the floor, there’s a door open and a young woman running toward her, face twisted in fear. Behind her, an ariados is racing in pursuit, forehead stinger extended.

The sight of a person in danger helps Leaf fight down her worry about hurting the ariados, and she grabs her pidgeotto’s ball. “Go, Crimson!” Her pokemon appears mid-air near the ceiling, and Leaf points. “Gust!”

The ariados grips the floor, hunkering down against the powerful blast of wind to keep from being blown away, and Leaf quickly runs forward with an empty ball and catches it.

It takes a minute to calm the woman down and get her upstairs, and by then Red is already racing away toward the staircase on the other side. “Stay with them!” he yells, and Leaf has to fret nervously in place for a few minutes until he comes back with one of the tenants he sent in tow, along with another one, a young woman with a pokebelt around her waist, three balls clipped to it.

“It was a weepinbell,” Red tells Leaf. “It used its vines to climb up. Leaf, this is Audrey. She’s a Coordinator.”

“Hi,” Audrey says, hands twisted together in front of her. “I didn’t realize… so many people were…”

“It’s fine,” Red says. “You’re here now, you can help protect your neighbors, right?”

Audrey closes her eyes, then nods jerkily. “I can stay here and… yeah.”

“Good. Thank you.” He turns back to Leaf. “There are pokemon approaching 611 and three pokemon all grouped up and approaching 704, and there are people in both. The three aren’t bugs, but I think they’re flying types, because they’re not always sticking to the wall, and their movements are weird. We have to go warn them in case one or all of them try to go in. Let’s start with—”

“No, I’ve got better AoE, I’ll take 704,” Leaf says. “In the time it takes for us to get to one it may be too late for the other.”

Red hesitates, but he knows she’s right, and soon they’re heading for the stairs as she considers the unlikelihood of these coincidences. Two for two with occupied apartments so far, and possibly four for four… they must be attracted to the windows with their lights on. And she’s pretty sure she left the lights on in the apartments with the fearow and ledian…

“Be careful, Leaf,” Red says as he opens the door to the sixth floor, and she nods as she keeps going up one more flight. She’s jogging down the hall when she hears a scream, and adrenaline surges through her as she unclips her ledyba’s ball. Three pokemon, probably flying types, but slower than most to be this far into the storm and moving oddly… might be some hoppip or…?

She summons Ledyba and Raff, throwing their balls ahead and catching them as she reaches 704 and tries to open it. No luck. She steps back and points. “Tackle!” she tells both her pokemon, and they smash into it together, above and below, breaking it off its hinges and revealing…

…six pronged limbs that rotate and spin three grey orbs around in mid-air, each with a staring eye that locks on to her and her two pokemon.

Leaf stares in shock for a moment, then dives back and out of the way as the magneton starts to glow. “Dodge!” she yells to her pokemon as she hits the ground, but a moment later a blinding flash of electricity snaps through the air around them, blackening the walls and ceiling. Raff jerks and twitches, then sags, smoke rising from burns along his body, and Ledyba falls out of the air, her carapace cracked and blackened, innards exposed.

Leaf screams, vision tunneling, and then she’s scrambling up as she reaches for their pokeballs, withdrawing them as the magneton floats out of the doorway. She runs, terror like burnt iron in her nose and mouth as tears blur her vision.

There’s nothing on her belts that can stop a magneton, and she’s pretty positive she just lost one pokemon, maybe even… no, she can’t think that right now. She just has to run.

But the person in the apartment, and the ones upstairs…

She expects to be fried by another flash of electricity at any second, but hits the lever of the stairs’ door and keeps moving, leaping down the first flight and landing on hands and feet before pushing back up so she can race down to the floor below. “Red!” Magneton are Electric/Steel, but they have no Fighting or Ground types between them… “RED! MAGNETON!”

Her voice must echo down the stairs even if her words don’t, because when she opens the door he’s already walking toward her. There’s an elderly man behind him. “Leaf, what’s—”

“Magneton! Upstairs! We need Charmeleon!”

Red groans in frustration, covering his eyes briefly. “Of course… but the building, it might catch fire!”

“I think it’s going to anyway, it killed…” Her chest heaves, words dying in her throat, and she rubs at her face. “It attacked the tenant, and my pokemon, it may have set the hall on fire, I didn’t check… Red the people on the floor above—”

He’s already moving, yelling “Go downstairs!” to the tenant behind him as he runs past her and up the stairs, and she follows, thighs aching from going up and down so much. “We need a plan, Charmeleon can’t take a hit from a magneton!”

He’s right, but… they have nothing that really can

No, that’s not true. She could heal Raff, he’s surely still alive (of course he is, he has to be) she could heal him and then make him take another hit (like the monstrous trainer that she is), or Joy could take one (sure, losing an eye wasn’t bad enough), but she’s just guessing, she has no idea how powerful that mageton is, poor Ledyba was too weak to act as a measuring stick.

Just the thought of her sacrifice being treated that way makes Leaf feel sick with shame, but she has to think about this carefully or she might lose more of them. I can’t choose between them… I can’t!

“Raff or Joy…” Leaf stops herself. She doesn’t have to choose… she can just summon Scamp, who probably can’t take a hit, and have him act as a distraction… Just a rattata, Scamp’s just a rattata would she rather lose him or Raff or Joy…

Self-disgust makes Leaf stumble and sag against the wall. Red notices and turns around. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she moans, crying again, dammit all how often is she going to cry tonight, “I’m a horrible person, Red, I… I…”

“Stop that! You’re not a horrible person, whatever trade you thought about making makes sense and it’s just the Pressure making you hate yourself for it!” He grips her shoulders and squeezes, eyes on hers. “Leaf, I’m going to use my oddish to tank a hit. It can probably take one. You don’t need to use one of your pokemon, just be ready to catch it.”

Leaf stares at Red, gratitude and guilt warring. “I can’t let you—”

“Not your decision, I’m just telling you how it is. You care about your pokemon way more than I do mine, and I know you care about my pokemon more than I do mine too, but we don’t have time to let your guilt overwhelm you while we do this, and we need to do this now, because the guy in that apartment is still alive, but he’s fading fast. Are you ready?”

She knows she should say no, that she should insist that she use her own pokemon to distract the magneton from Charmeleon. But his words make sense, and she’s almost dizzy with gratitude for them.

No. If they’re going to do this, she won’t force him to make decisions she doesn’t find palatable.

“I’m going to bring Scamp out,” she says. He’s fast, not faster than electricity but maybe fast enough to get behind the magneton if with a Quick Attack…

Red hesitates, then nods. They summon their pokemon at the door to the apartment hallway, and Red looks through the window. “It’s there, floating in the hallway. It’s… electrocuting things. Randomly I think, but half the lights in the hall are out, and small fires are spreading.”

“Shit.” Leaf wipes sweat from her forehead, then rubs it on her pants to dry her palm and grips an empty pokeball. What else can they do, there has to be something else, some edge…

“Ready?”

“Y-yeah…”

“Okay, going in three… tw—”

“Wait!” She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Their argument on the boat… she doesn’t think she was wrong, but she regrets so much of how it went, now, how she approached it with him, and she knows part of making that up to him is saying this, now. She can’t hold anything back out of worry for potential risk while much greater risk of harm is imminent. “Red, use your sakki on Charmeleon.”

He stares at her, a mix of apprehension and calculation on his face, and then nods. “Three, two, one!”

He opens the door and goes right, while she goes left. The magneton hasn’t spotted them yet, its tongs charging for another bolt that lights up the hallway and sets an apartment door on fire, and then Charmeleon flings a blob of fire at the magneton, hitting it on the back of one orb.

It immediately discharges electricity in a burst around it, spinning wildly through the air, it’s in pain, what are they doing—

“Scamp, Quick Attack!” her traitorous voice yells, heart breaking as she sends her pokemon to its doom.

“Oddish, Absorb!” Red’s voice is distant, gaze unfocused as Charmeleon flings more fire at the magneton, trying to hit its weaving form… and succeeding, until the point of contact, where electric current seems to shimmer over the magneton’s body and the flaming oil soon falls off.

It turns to them at last, eyes drawn to the two pokemon approaching it, and Leaf closes her eyes as electricity flashes out again, then again. When she opens them, both Scamp and Red’s oddish are down.

“It has a Light Screen!” Leaf yells, and summons Pineco, not letting herself have time to analyse or justify the choice. It’s just the next pokemon that might actually help in the battle which she’d mind losing the least. “Tackle!”

Her pokemon bunches itself up, then launches forward. Electricity hits it mid-air, but it completes its arc and knocks the magneton into a mid-air spin.

The heat from the smoldering fires finally set off the building’s alarm, and water starts pouring down in the hallway, making the fight immediately more dangerous. Luckily Charmeleon is out of the splash zone for now, but what is he doing, Red isn’t giving any new commands…

She turns and sees his pokemon isn’t preparing another fling of its tail, but holding its mouth wide open. It looks like a ball of fire is forming in it, but it glows an odd color, like it’s shimmering with light just barely on the visible spectrum.

“Be ready,” Red says over the sound of the alarm, voice harsh with something like a barely contained rage, and then the glowing orb shoots out in a stream of plasma, hitting the magneton and slamming it against the wall. One of its prongs and a patch of metal along half of one orb is melted, and it strikes the ground with a clunk before it starts to hover in fits and jerks to get back up, spinning wildly.

Leaf is waiting for it, ultra ball pointed until she hears the ping. The feeling that comes over her as she captures it is a bitter one, almost alien to her. Not worth it. It was something she had to do, part of her duty to do, but tonight it’s a bitter duty.

Even more so if Pineco and Scamp are dead. She quickly withdraws them to check later, as they have no time to rest or recover from the fight. Absurdly some part of Leaf takes a moment to bemoan that she’s going to get soaked again for the second time tonight while indoors, then moves toward the room the magneton came from, where the fires have been thankfully already quenched.

Red stops her with a hand on her shoulder. “He’s dead!” Red yells over the alarm, voice choked with the rage that’s twisting his features. “We have to get the others out, these sprinklers may not stop the fire!”

Leaf sees that he’s right: it’s spreading along the walls and ceiling faster than the sprinklers can catch it. Red withdraws his pokemon, and they run for the stairs. “I’ll get the people upstairs!” Red says, and dashes up before she can respond. He knows where they are, at least.

She goes to the crowd at the fifth floor, who look like they’re on the verge of panicking. “Everyone! We have to be ready to leave the building! Red and I will take you to the nearby hospital shelter if the fire spreads!”

“But our homes,” one woman says, barely audible as she clutches at the man beside her. “We can’t just—”

“Get your ass in gear, Emi,” the old lady in the wheelchair snaps as she rolls toward the stairs. “Someone help me down the stairs, the elevators won’t be working with the alarm on!”

That seems to get people moving, and Leaf goes with them as the crowd hurries to the lobby. Audrey pushes her way to her as they go down the stairs, and she looks utterly terrified.

“Leaf… I can’t go to the shelter, I… I’m afraid of crowds! It’s why I didn’t join the city’s defense!”

Leaf doesn’t laugh, because people are dead and dying and it’s no one’s fault what they’re afraid of and she knows that the Pressure is amplifying the woman’s fears beyond what’s reasonable, so she doesn’t laugh, either in incredulity or scorn, but she does feel a tiny little ember of resentment that after everything Red and her have done tonight, the one other trainer they’ve met so far would of course be so… difficult.

She takes a deep breath as they reach the lobby, trying to organize her thoughts. Some people stop at floors instead of continuing down, probably going to their apartments to grab something. She doesn’t try to stop them; they need to wait for Red anyway, and she can barely keep herself from running up after him as she waits with everyone by the front door.

Only then does she turn to the older trainer, looking up to meet her gaze. “I’m sorry, Audrey, I wish we had more time to get to know each other, so I could understand your… your journey, your life, what you’re like when all this shit isn’t going on. I wish I had some idea of what the right thing to say is to help you. Since I don’t know what that is, all I can say is that I think there’s a version of you that you wish you were more like, and you have to be that version of you tonight. And it’s going to be hard, and you’ll screw up and maybe even people will die, but more will if you don’t do this, you might if you don’t do this, and when you look back on tonight you’ll know that you were able to do it, and that will make it easier next time. Does that make sense?”

Audrey nods, breathing hard like she’s trying not to cry. She’s edged away from her neighbors, being closest to the door. “I think so.”

“Okay. Great. You can freak out and cry and scream yourself hoarse tomorrow, maybe you don’t even leave your home for a month after this is all over,” woops her apartment is probably going to be on fire soon, please ignore that, “but for tonight you’re borrowing all the courage you’ll have in that time and using it here and now. Do you understand?”

She nods again. “Yeah. Borrowing courage. Yeah, okay.”

“Okay.” Leaf rubs her face as they all wait, worry growing with every passing minute, but soon Red comes downstairs with the last tenants in the building, who look shocked at the dozen or so others all standing around in worried clumps. As they all wait together to see if they’ll need to leave and for the others to come back, Leaf brings Raff out, unable to take the worry that he might be dead anymore. The flash noise of his summoning draws startled gasps from people, but she doesn’t even look at them, quickly spraying her pokemon with different medicines until he can stand and blink around him. Something eases in her chest, and she tears up as she rubs his head between the ears. From his sluggish response he’ll need more extensive healing than she can give right now.

She withdraws him, and almost summons Joy but stops herself, knowing she won’t be able to diagnose her injury and not wanting to put the pokemon in any unnecessary pain or use a potion in a way that might harm more than help. Eventually she turns to Red to take her mind off her worry. His face is drawn and haggard, and she approaches him. “Hey. You okay?”

Red shakes his head. “Fine.” He doesn’t seem to notice the contradictory signals there. “More pokemon in the building,” he tells her after a moment’s hesitation. “I promised I’d tell you, but… Leaf, you can’t go get them now, with the fire spreading.”

Leaf stares at him, stomach churning. “How fast? Some people went back to their apartments…” One of them comes down the stairs at that moment, coughing hard.

“Fast. Sprinklers are keeping it from spreading everywhere at once, but it’s on three floors now, and one of the stairwells is filled with smoke. If the other is too…”

She nods, gaze down. The pokemon are going to die, then, and there’s nothing she’ll do about it. She has to make her peace with what kind of trainer she is, especially after what she did with Scamp and Pineco.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No.” She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m glad you did.”

“Hey!” someone yells out. “We going or what? Tom said the fire’s spreading, so what the hell are we waiting for?!”

“We’re missing someone!” another voice yells. “I don’t see the guy in the green shirt…”

“Well that’s his choice, but we don’t want to be here when the roof comes down!”

Red closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. His face twitches, but a moment later he opens his eyes. “No pokemon outside the building now, not that I could see.”

Leaf frowns. “And the person inside?”

“In their apartment.” Red sounds so tired, voice flat and dull. “I don’t know why, but the floor above us was on fire by the time we came down. The sprinklers will help but that guy was right, if it spreads into the apartments, some of the roof might start to come down. Fire spreads fast. We have no water pokemon and can’t vent the stairs… there’s nothing we can do for them.”

She nods, feeling sick but knowing that Red feels even worse, and turns to the crowd. They can’t save everyone, have already failed to save everyone, and certainly can’t save people from themselves. She just wishes she’d known, she would have tried to stop them… How many more lives are her mistakes going to cost, tonight? A single moment of apathy and distraction, and she’d just let someone walk away to their death.

Some part of her knows that’s not fair, that others could have stopped the man. But blaming any of them would feel like admitting she’s not in control at all and she’s already feeling perilously close to empty on willpower.

She clears her throat, wiping at her face, then calls out in a slightly wavering voice, “Everyone! We’re heading out! Stay between Red, Audrey and me! Watch around us for pokemon! Don’t panic, but remember, if you have to run, we’re going to the nearby hospital! Get ready, the wind and rain are going to be strong!”

Red leaves first with his nidoran and bellsprout beside him, and the building tenants start walking out too. Leaf follows them with Ruby and Alice on one side, the venonat and buneary visibly unhappy with the soaking they receive once outside. Audrey summons a poliwhirl and takes the other side of the rear, her pokemon very lively as it waddles energetically beside her.

Leaf sees the coordinator’s pokemon, and rush of self-loathing fills her. She closes her eyes and grits her teeth against the cry of frustrated anger that wants to spill forth. She hadn’t checked what Audrey’s pokemon were. Neither had Red. They’d had a water pokemon available the whole time, and now…

She turns and sees multiple windows of the apartment building glow with fire as the crowd starts walking onto the street. Leaf quickly turns away, feeling like she’s leaving a part of herself behind in the growing blaze.

Leaf keeps her eyes moving for Dark and Bug pokemon and just follows the crowd, misery increasing as she remembers how unpleasant being outside in an intense storm like this is like. The constant thunder quickly starts to give her a headache, and she realizes she’s tired, so tired she could just curl up in a corner and cover her face and sleep.

Surely the storm must be over soon… surely…

They’re just a block away from the hospital when there’s a roar that drowns out even the rain and wind for a moment, and everyone freezes in place. Leaf is worried at first that they’re all scared, but then realizes Red must have stopped.

“Watch behind us!” she yells at the people close to her, then pushes through to Red. “What was that, Red?”

“Sounded like a nidoqueen or king!” There’s a crashing sound, and they start moving again, quicker. Leaf stays up front for now, eyes searching the streets for a sign and finally spotting one. Hope thrums in her chest. Soon they see the spotlights surrounding the hospital campus, and then the lights from the buildings themselves become visible in the downpour.

And then Red’s head whips around, and he stops moving. Leaf turns to look, and down the street to the right of their intersection, she vaguely sees the shape of something large moving in the rain and the dark.

Lightning flashes overhead, and she realizes what she’s seeing.

It’s a nidoqueen, and this time Leaf is close enough to feel the tremor in the ground as it stomps its foot, the rumbling that isn’t thunder and the crack that isn’t lightning accompanying the collapse of the building’s corner.

She’s also close enough to hear the screams.

“Oh gods,” Leaf whispers, and turns to see Red frozen in place, whole body twitching like he’s going to run away, or like he senses something painful. “Red, what is it? Red! Are they—”

“Get them to the hospital!” Red yells, and starts running toward the nidoqueen. His pokemon follow as fast as they can.

Leaf stares after him, heart in her throat, then turns to the shocked crowd. “Audrey! Up front, now!” Leaf is already bouncing from foot to foot with impatience, wanting to throttle Red for doing this to her while hoping desperately that he’s okay. Audrey shows up what feels like a minute later but is surely only a few seconds. “Listen, Audrey, the hospital is right there, don’t you dare let anyone die on the way! You need to be a hero tonight, this is your chance, now go!” She looks at everyone. “Go, now!

Audrey seems to snap out of her shock and nods, then breaks into a jog, and the crowd starts moving after her.

Leaf doesn’t wait to see if they keep pace or not; she just turns to the nidoqueen and runs after Red, trusting him to have good reason for whatever the hell he’s doing and determined not to let him die alone.