Chapter 55: Accountability

She remembers this feeling.

Not from before, when they fought the absol the first time. She was too distracted during that fight to process what she was experiencing or connect it to any memories, simply trying to push through it as best she could. It wasn’t until she heard the Ranger’s explanation that she linked the two feelings from her recent and distant past together.

Fear. Deep as her bones, practically vibrating them as she trembled and bent, made herself small as she could… even while staring up at that shimmering glow, that terrible beauty, every feather a gem of a different color. Fear like a weight… like pressure… compressing every part of her, inside and out.

But there are differences. There’s no heat prickling along her skin like something alive. The fear itself isn’t as sharp, the pressure isn’t as heavy. She can move. She can run. She can speak.

She can fight.

Aiko prepares to face an onix for the first time, feeling the vibration of its oncoming arrival beneath her feet. She wanted to go with Blue and Elaine, but has nothing tanky enough to contribute to their team. One of the trainers that came with them from Golden Hills, Payton, went with them instead, so she stays with Bretta’s group and doesn’t look back, even as the sounds of battle start behind her.

Instead she alternates between watching the tunnel and her sandslash. Dune is clearly on edge: his claws are slightly embedded into the ground to feel vibrations, and his sharp scales stick out in all directions. “It’s almost here,” she tells the others. “Plan?”

“Aiko, right?” Bretta says from beside her. “Sumi usually tanks while Slava and I hit them from afar.”

“Try to draw it in,” Sumi says from the far left. “We’ll hit it from the sides and—”

Even with the growing rasp of stone on stone to give them warning, the onix barrels into the open chamber frighteningly fast and grinds to a stop as it sees the half circle of trainers and pokemon blocking the way to its eggs. To Aiko’s eye it’s half again as big as the one Blue fought for his badge, but standing so close makes it seem tall as Aeosis. It raises itself to look imperiously down at them, then roars again, the sound a physical assault on her eardrums that drowns out her first command to her sandslash.

As soon as it ends, Aiko backs up and yells “Dune, Trap!” through the ringing in her ears. An answering roar comes from behind her as the other parent attacks her friends, but Aiko puts it out of her mind, trusting them to handle it.

The biggest difference of all, that. She and her pokemon aren’t alone anymore.

As her pokemon starts to crawl slowly backward, quills fully extended, the onix tries to pick its target between it and Bretta’s bayleef. It crawls further into the cavern, not spotting Slava’s poliwhirl or Sumi’s hariyama at its sides, and as soon as it looks like it’s about to lunge, the trainers all speak at once.

“Tarro, BB!”

“Pol, Submission!”

“Dune, Fast!”

“Bayleaf, Leech Seed!”

Their pokemon attack within a heartbeat of each other, and the onix twists hard to the side to avoid most of the scatter shot of seeds, but staggers and groans as the length of its body gets sprayed by the poliwhirl’s bubblebeam while their melee fighters use the distraction to reach it. Dune digs his claws into a boulder segment about halfway along the onix’s body just before it rolls to the side to break the hold of the hariyama that grabs it from behind. The violent motion displaces both attackers… along with four thin wedges of rock that tear off with a grinding crack.

The onix roars in pain this time, and snaps its body sideways to keep its injured segment unexposed. Aiko predicts that it will sweep its tail toward them, but like in their last absol fight, a command gets caught in her throat, fear for her pokemon suddenly suffocating her, and she watches in horror as the rocky whip sweeps out and hits Dune and Sumi’s hariyama, sending them flying back.

The hariyama is heavy enough that it doesn’t go far, but Dune hits the ground and bounces before he rolls up against the wall, trembling. Aiko wants to run to her pokemon, but can’t leave the others.

“Go, Dugtrio!” Her freshly registered pokemon appears, and she yells “Fast!” before remembering that she hasn’t trained it in her personal commands yet.

The onix is more wary now, the brief opening gone as it begins to use its shovel-like lower jaw to scrape up wedges of rock and dirt, then fling them at the attackers. Aiko spends another moment paralyzed with indecision: Bretta said to draw it into the chamber, but it’s not chasing after her bayleef, instead attacking the pokemon from a distance while it stays on guard against the hariyama.

Slava tries to get close enough for his heavy ball to register while the onix scrapes up another mouthful, but leaps back or to the side every time the onix moves too quickly or looks like it’s going to turn to him. Aiko can see his arm trembling, and knows the Pressure is getting to him too.

He needs an opening. “Dugtrio, Dig!” As her dugtrio starts to burrow and prepare for a sneak attack, the other pokemon keep shooting seeds and water at the onix to keep it ducking and weaving and ensure they can dodge its rock throws.

Sumi’s hariyama lunges close enough to start slamming its palms into the onix, and it staggers under the blows, body rolling to avoid the attacks and moving away from the tunnel opening. Slava and his poliwhirl scramble back to avoid getting crushed, but in the midst of it all he still holds the ball steady enough for it to get a lock. As soon as the ping sounds, he throws.

Aiko doesn’t know if it’s from some effect of the Pressure or the unfamiliar weight of the ball, but the throw doesn’t have enough force behind it. The heavy ball clunks to the ground just in front of the onix’s rolling form, and gets crushed a moment later.

“The entrance!” Ranger Miko yells from behind them. “Cut it off!”

They startle and turn to see the absol racing toward them. The two rangers and the other Golden Hills trainer, Abdu, give chase, their pokemon clearly chosen for speed to try and keep up as the absol bounds around the outer edge of the cavern. It can’t escape with the onix fighting at the exits, but unlike when they fought it earlier, it has the room to maneuver, and uses it to slip away from the pursuing pokemon between the occasional precise strike.

And now it’s making its winding way toward them, and the newly cleared tunnel opening.

Aiko has a moment to wonder if it’s not better to just let it go, weighing the current risk against yet another confrontation, but Sumi is already moving. She withdraws her hariyama and runs up the incline to throw and re-summon it at the tunnel entrance ahead of her. “Guard!”

The absol is already at the foot of the incline, and instead of bounding up toward the hariyama, leaps to the side, its horn piercing Sumi as it runs by. Blood flicks across the cavern floor like water off a snapped towel.

Aiko sees her fall, hears Slava and Bretta cry out, as if from a great distance, her heartbeat pounding in her ears as fear suddenly chokes her. The absol is bounding her way, its red eyes almost glowing as they bear down on her and… her body… won’t move…

Her hand grasps feebly at her pokeballs, trembling and indecisive over who to summon, knowing she has nothing that can stop it. I can’t die, some part of her yells, but even in her head it sounds panicked and whiny rather than defiant. Dad’s waiting for me!

At the last second she throws her body weight to the side in an awkward sprawl that does nothing to keep the absol’s horn from slashing across her torso.

Aiko feels the sharp edge cut through her armor mesh and grate over her ribs just before Abdu’s stantler collides with the absol and knocks it away, her blood speckling its white fur. Aiko loses track of what happens next, eyes screwed shut in pain as she hears Ranger Miko yell “Stay focused on the onix!”

Aiko tries, but there’s so much pain, and the blood… Her hands are sticky with it as she tries to hold her wound closed and lie still, breathless screams escaping through clenched teeth. The fear and pain take turns pounding through her consciousness for what feels like hours, and when relief finally comes she still gasps and clutches at her bloody side, fingers probing the new flesh in a panic and shuddering as fresh pain is felt along her ribs.

“Stop, hey, stop!” Hands grab her wrists. “Let it finish healing!”

Aiko opens her eyes to see Abdu’s concerned face. She takes a shuddering breath and holds it as she lets him finish bathing her wound with the headless potion bottle. She realizes she’s about to pass out and slams her hands against the floor, the fresh pain forcing things back into clarity as she starts to take deep, calming breaths. The gradual pain relief makes her shudder, dizziness slowly fading.

Aiko suddenly remembers Sumi and cranes her neck to the side. She sees Ranger Miko tending to her, and snaps her attention back to the onix, which is only being kept in check by Bretta and Slava’s poliwhirl and bayleef now. Both are visibly tiring, however, and despite the leech vines and grey splotches riddling its form, the rock snake still moves quickly, paternal rage driving it through the pain.

The poliwhirl’s next burst of water is suddenly weaker than the previous ones, and it stops shooting any new ones after that. As Slava quickly swaps his pokemon out, the onix takes advantage of not being on the defensive to strike… and roars in pain mid lunge. It twists back upon itself, then starts to crash its body against the wall. Everyone stares in confusion, and for a moment Aiko thinks it’s under some mental attack… until she remembers her dugtrio. She feels a sudden, piercing pain in her chest as the onix stops thrashing: in the dim light, she can vaguely make out the thick gouges in its hide… and the red stain on the wall it had been rubbing against.

She’d sent it to its death without even getting the chance to know it. All to buy a few extra seconds.

Aiko pushes herself to her feet, knees shaking. “I’m fine,” she tells the concerned Abdu. “I’m fine, help them!” He nods and heads toward the onix, and Aiko starts to move as fast as she can toward Dune despite the ache in her left ribs.

Her sandslash is still lying by the wall he fetched up beside, and she lets out a breath that’s half a sob as she sees that he’s still alive. She kneels and looks her pokemon over, making soothing noises as she strokes his snout. Oddly, comforting him makes her fear more bearable, even as her heart aches for the pain he must be in. Four scales were broken off with a dozen more on that side that are cracked where the tail hit, and a bruise is spreading along his middle. She fumbles for a potion bottle, cursing herself for not getting it out earlier, and starts to spray it over his injuries, flinching as something crashes against a cavern wall behind her. Next she takes a towel out to quickly wipe the onix’s thick, gel-like blood off Dune’s claws so she can make sure they weren’t damaged by its hide.

She finds nothing, but by the end of her inspection Dune still appears to be having trouble breathing. She wishes she had Red’s ability to feel what her pokemon are feeling, and considers just withdrawing him. But no, the fight is still ongoing, and she has nothing else that can do much. Her krabby and oddish might distract an onix for a bit, but… her hand shakes as she thinks of that massive body crashing down on them.

She gets out a syringe and fills it with potion. “I’m sorry, Dune, you’ll have to fight a little longer…” She steadies her hand with a deep breath, then injects some potion into his blood to help with potential organ damage. As she waits for it to work, her eyes scan the diffuse light that fills the cavern to see how Blue and Elaine are doing. Their graveler and shiftry are still fighting the onix, along with Payton’s kingler.

As she watches, her heart begins to lift. The three pokemon are effectively keeping the onix penned into the tunnel entrance, and each time it sticks itself out too far for some maneuverability, Blue orders Kemuri forward for a quick slash or two before leaping back out of range. They’re wearing it down, she can see it, another couple minutes and—

Tremors suddenly shake the cavern as a grinding cacophony reverberates around them. The onix seems to have decided that two dimensions isn’t working in its favor, and the front half of its body is disappearing underground as it spins itself like a slow drill. If she wasn’t already crouching beside Dune she would probably have fallen to her knees.

Blue’s group is knocked off balance, and barely have a chance to react before the ground crumbles beneath his shiftry. Aiko watches as if in a nightmare as the onix pulls it out of sight, Kemuri’s hoarse cough of pain mixing with Blue’s yell of rage as Elaine grabs his arm to keep him from running toward the hole. A moment later there’s a cracking sound, and the onix emerges, splinters of wood and leaves showering around it.

Blue tears free of Elaine and rushes forward to stand impossibly close to the emerging onix, one arm out… and a ball held facing it. Aiko hears the distant ping just before Blue pelts it at the center of the onix’s body.

Even at this distance, Aiko sees something wrong before he even releases the ball. She’s watched and faced Blue in dozens of battles now, and can count on one hand the times his stance was sloppy, his aim off, his follow-through weak. She’s studied him closer than she’d ever admit out loud, and sometimes he seems more like a machine than a person, body executing perfect catches, throws, and swaps without any wasted motion or energy, almost making it all look effortless.

This throw is like watching a different person. His arm trembles, he releases the ball a hurried heartbeat early, and the throw has too much force, sending the ball just over the onix’s body as it lunges forward. Payton’s kingler stops it cold before it can crush Blue, its massive claw clenching between two boulders near the onix’s rear as its claws dig into the ground. The onix whips around only to have a bubblebeam spewed in its face, and Blue manages to stumble away and summon Maturin.

Aiko releases a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She’s starting to feel like she’s in a nightmare, everything’s going wrong and she’s just sitting here, afraid to send a potentially injured pokemon to his death. She should have stayed above ground, let Glen come down, he’s more experienced, has stronger pokemon. Ranger Fischer was right. She’s not strong enough to be down here, to be part of a group like hers—

My team members are more than they appear on paper.

Blue. He believed in her. Professor Oak did too. She may not have the experience of a veteran trainer, but her pokemon are just part of what she brings to a group.

A trainer who only trains their pokemon will never become great, Giovanni had written in his first Rationally Thinking post. It is the mind that directs the pokemon. A trainer who only trains their body will never become great. It is the mind that guides the body. Train your mind, and you may triumph even when your body or pokemon are insufficient.

Red taught her how to meditate once, when she saw him practicing some psychic ability. She doesn’t think she can get into the right state of mind with the chaos and Pressure all around her, but she still closes her eyes and lets her thoughts scatter as she concentrates on the feeling of air rushing in with a deep breath.

A sharp pain in her ribs makes her let it out, but she pulls in another, a little more shallow, then blows it back out, slow as she can, trying to calm herself so she can focus her thoughts one step at time.

Needs: Survival. Capture threats.

No. Just survival. Run. Regroup. Return.

Onix would chase. Need to remove their need to be here. What happens if the eggs disappear? Would only stay to defend if they’re being moved. But then other would chase the mover.

There’s a loud crash, and lots of yells, some in pain. Aiko gives into the fear hammering at her mind by huddling into herself, not caring how it looks to others as long as she can appease the fear enough to concentrate. The Pressure makes it hard to think, her thoughts on the verge of scattering as her heart hammers and every loud noise of the battles makes her flinch. But once the chain of ideas starts linking together, not even the fear can stop it.

What are their needs? Think like them. Food. Dryness. Safety for self and eggs. They want to protect them, eliminate threats. If we can’t leave, and we can’t beat them, we need them to leave. Apex predators. Not scared of any pokemon cries. What do they fear?

Water.

Aiko’s eyes snap open. The beginning of an idea is there.

Flood the chamber. Not enough water. Make it sound like it’s flooding? Play rainfall noise from speakers? Get up high, spray water from above? Would that just confuse them?

She discards the idea. Too much effort. Focus. What are they feeling? What’s the experience of the Pressure to them? Protective rage? Acute fear for their eggs?

Aiko turns to the clutch of eggs near the center of the room. Each one is about the size of a small adult curled into the fetal position, and weighs almost as much as solid stone. Aiko doubts she could move faster than a waddle with one, assuming she could even lift it for long. She could try putting them in containers, but to the onix that would just appear as if they’ve vanished, and enrage them further. Maybe they could strap some onto the backs of strong pokemon and have them run… but she can’t think of a pokemon that can both carry the egg and outrun an onix with its weight, let alone one that they have with them.

So they can’t move the eggs themselves. Which means she needs the onix to want to do it. She knows they can swallow their eggs and regurgitate them later if they need to be moved.

I don’t need to flood the whole chamber.

She recoils from the idea of hurting the baby onix, and reminds herself that it would be too hard to break through the shells anyway. If she just pretends to try, that might get the parents’ attention, but they might just fight that much harder to reach and kill her.

No, she needs to make them afraid to leave them here. She can’t flood the chamber, and she won’t hurt the eggs, but could she at least make it look like the eggs are at risk in a way that forces them to move them?

Aiko starts to dig through her bag until she finds the container ball that holds all her water. “Dune, follow.” She moves toward the eggs, and her hands shake as she releases the box, then tosses the lid off and stares at the rows of bottles that take up roughly half of its space. Not enough. “Dune, follow!” She pushes herself to her feet and they run to where Elaine and Blue are fighting, pain radiating from her ribs with every step. One or more is probably cut or fractured, every breath painful as she tries to draw in enough to speak loudly. “Guys! Need your bags! Water!”

To her relief neither ask questions, simply shrugging out of their straps so their packs fall to the floor as they continue to give orders to their pokemon. Aiko starts rooting around in them until she finds the right containers, then runs back to her box and opens theirs beside it, looking at the bottles and canteens within. Blue has all of Maturin’s water in here too. And it still won’t be enough!

Aiko looks around the chamber and spots Bretta and Slava’s bags, dropped to their sides at some point in the battle. It would take forever to find the right containers… unless…

Aiko dashes across the cavern toward Sumi, grabbing her team’s bags along the way. “Sorry just borrowing them!” she gasps over her shoulder, unsure if they heard her but unable to yell louder with the pain in her side. Ranger Miko is still with her, an open medkit and bloody gauze pad to the side, along with a pair of scissors. The girl’s shirt and jacket have been opened and cut, revealing a line of flesh that’s been mostly wiped clean of blood. A pale pink scar runs from the center and down at a diagonal.

The ranger’s attention seems completely focused on the potion she’s injecting into the girl’s chest, but as soon as Aiko arrives she speaks without looking up. “Trainer, can you take over—”

“No, sorry, I have a plan to get the onix to leave!”

The ranger’s eyes flick up at her for just a second. “How?”

“Water, enough to put the eggs at risk and make the onix leave with them.”

A tense moment passes as she finishes injecting the potion, then nods as she tosses the syringe aside and grabs another pre-filled one from the open kit beside her. “What do you need?”

“Can she talk? Sumi! Are you awake?”

Sumi’s eyes flutter open, and she nods, face covered in sweat.

Something in the ranger’s shoulders loosens. “You’re lucky to be alive, hon. I thought it pierced your heart, might have just clipped it. Try not to move.”

Aiko feels a flood of relief, for more than one reason. “Listen,” she half-yells over the renewed crashes and shouts of the battles behind them. “I need your water, all of it, and the rest of your group’s. Do you know where they keep theirs? Can you point to them?” She holds up their bags.

Sumi stares at her in confusion, and Aiko isn’t sure if she heard her.

The nearby onix roars again, and as soon as it ends Aiko raises her voice, both in frustration and to account for the ringing in their ears. “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR TEAM KEEPS THEIR WATER?!”

Sumi blinks, slowly, then inclines her head a few degrees.

“Point them out to me!” Aiko starts taking every container ball out of the bags, watching Sumi until one finger weakly raises. She repeats the process with the other two. “Thank you. Ranger?”

“Left lower pocket, bottom ball.”

Aiko grabs it and stuffs her pockets, then runs back toward the eggs, tossing the trainers their bags along the way. “Sorry!” She pauses as the absol and pursuing pokemon pass close by, ready to run if it turns toward her. It dodges closer to the wall to avoid a gout of flame from the ranger’s ponyta, however, and Aiko takes the opportunity to dash to the center of the cavern where she left the first boxes.

Once the four new ones are all out, she pops the tops off and checks to make sure they’re the right ones. Rows of water bottles and canteens face her, three of them even including ten gallon jugs for recharging water pokemon. Enough. It has to be. She drags the boxes around to form most of a half-circle, all of them more or less pointing at the clutch of eggs, then collapses beside the first one, one hand clutching her ribs as the other starts uncapping bottles, jugs and canteens one after another.

She’s just finished the third box when Blue suddenly yells “Heads up!”

She turns in time to see the three rocks sail up to crack along the roof of the cavern, then fall in a spread that forces Bretta, Slava, and Abdu to retreat with their pokemon or risk being crushed. The onix they were fighting uses the opportunity to twist around along the wall and grab Bretta’s bayleef in its jaws before it can go far.

Aiko shuts her eyes, but still hears the horrible crunch, the cut off bleat of pain, and a cry of grief that chills her blood.

“Aiko!”

She turns to Elaine and sees that the onix has finally broken free of Blue’s group, perhaps scared by how close she is to its eggs, perhaps smelling the water and panicking, and is barreling toward them.

Toward the eggs, and toward Aiko, who’s between them.

Aiko feels the world narrowing to the feel of her heart in her throat, the rumbling beneath her feet, and the sight of the scarred and mottled onix. She tries pushing through to command Dune to try a Sand Attack to distract and disorient it, but her voice comes out in a breathless whisper.

Her pokemon leaps forward, and for an instant Aiko thinks he heard her anyway. But no, instead of trying to blind the onix, he simply dashes at it head on, injury slowing him too much to be of any use.

Aiko’s hand snaps up, pokeball aimed. “Return!” The beam catches her pokemon just before he’s out of range, and he disappears. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it alone. The others can care for her pokemon. In her last seconds, she takes out the heavy ball, hand trembling as she holds it up, knowing it won’t lock on time but preparing herself for another attempt at a dodge that might buy her an extra second…

There’s a thud behind her, and the sound of rushing water, followed by another, then another. She turns to see Payton kicking the boxes over, all the caps opened while she was busy watching the fight.

Bags of food and various trail rations spill onto the cavern floor, and along with them come gallons and gallons of water. Some of the bottles and canteens fall out as well, but this only spreads the pool faster, and once she kicks her boxes over as well, the pools begin to converge and expand even faster. Some patches of the ground absorb the water, but most of it is solid, and soon there’s a rushing tide spreading outward… most of it is heading straight for the clutch of eggs.

No roar sounds, no cry of alarm or fury. One second the onix is bearing down on her, and the next it’s juking its body toward the clutch of eggs. The rock snake begins to swallow her eggs whole, one after the other, and a rumbling from the other side precedes the father arriving from the other side to help as the water begins to reach them.

Aiko is tempted to raise her heavy ball, but even as she debates the risk of it, unsure of what one will do if their mate suddenly vanishes, they’re already done and fleeing toward the exit that the mother came from. Elaine scrambles to get out of their way, returning her graveler as she goes.

There’s a moment of relative silence as their rumbling retreat echoes behind them, but it’s quickly broken by one of the Rangers: “Cover the exit!”

The absol is leaping after the departing onix, almost reaching the opening before Elaine can re-summon her pokemon. The kingler scuttles toward it, apparently out of water, but the absol is able to run around it easily until the ponyta chases it off with another burst of flame, causing it to juke toward the other exit.

But Bretta, Slava, and Abdu are already converging on it, and as one of the rangers tries to intercept it along the way, it’s forced to dodge to the side again and again. Aiko has summoned her oddish, and a cloud of spores makes the absol leap back just as twin orders of “Wrap!” send two sets of vines from two different tangela lashing out at it, Elaine and Payton standing side by side as their pokemon grab at the absol’s neck and legs.

It begins to thrash wildly to untangle itself, and before it can a bolt of electricity hits it from Ranger Seishi’s jolteon, one leg severed during the chase. The absol sags against the tangela’s insulated vines, and they unwrap from it a moment later as three different pokeballs ping a lock, throw, and hit it, the first opening to pull it inside.

In the space of a heartbeat the Pressure fades to nothing, and Aiko feels its absence like a breath of renewed life, looking around at the others as they blink and gasp in air as if waking from a nightmare.


They spend a few minutes making sure everyone is okay and collecting their things. Half of the trainers got injured in some way that Aiko didn’t notice, the worst beside Sumi and herself being Blue, who lost an entire pant leg with the skin on one side a bloody abraded mess, and Payton, whose arm got dislocated somehow. Aiko is given another shot and advised to be careful on the way up until she can be checked out at a proper medical facility.

Sumi takes longer to stabilize enough for the rangers to feel safe with her moving, and even then they summon a stretcher for her. Aiko sees Blue go to the hole his shiftry disappeared down, great ball in hand. She feels a moment of hope, but after a few long breaths staring down the hole, Blue reclips the ball and turns away, eyes down. She wants to comfort him, but her gaze moves to the red stain along the wall, the vague, crushed form below it, and tears press against her eyes and spill down her cheeks. Elaine is suddenly there to put an arm around her shoulder, and Aiko gratefully turns her face to her shoulder, trying not to sob so that her ribs don’t hurt any more.

“I’m okay,” she whispers. “Hooo, I’m okay, I’m okay… Are you okay?”

“Yep.” Elaine says, squeezing her shoulder.

“It just… hit me, I guess. How close we came.” Blue approaches with some napkins and one of the water bottles that didn’t empty. “Thanks. I’m sorry, about Kemuri…” She wipes at her face.

Blue lets out a deep breath, hand brushing through his hair, then nods. “Gonna help with the cleanup.” He wanders away, and Aiko sees a couple other pokemon bodies that she missed during the battle. She wonders if he’ll want to bury Kemuri, but from the way he walked away from the hole she can’t imagine there was much left of the shiftry to gather in a container. Like her dugtrio.

The combined smell of various different kinds of blood in the cavern is suddenly hard to take, and she feels her gorge rise. “Gonna get some air,” she says, realizing how stupid it sounds but trusting Elaine to know what she means. Her friend nods, and Aiko makes her way carefully to the tunnel entrance so she can lean against the wall inside it and breathe a bit more easily, closing her eyes.

For the first time, she wonders to herself whether she’s ready to be a trainer yet. Maybe her dad was right. Maybe she should have stayed longer… trainer battles are fine, and the earlier fights were okay, if a bit terrifying, but losing pokemon like this… she’s not sure she can take that.

“Hey.” She turns to see Ranger Miko standing at the entrance. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Aiko wipes at her face. “Just need a moment.”

“Alright. Let us know if your side is hurting you more. And good job, Trainer. You saved lives today.”

The ranger leaves before she can respond, and after a moment Aiko closes her eyes and rests her head against the wall again, trying to get the images and sounds of pain and death to stop.

When they’re finally ready to head back up, everyone moves with a slow, quiet pace that lets Aiko replay what happened what feels like a hundred times, sometimes focusing on different details in particular, other times just running the same jumbled flash of highlights in a loop. The ranger’s praise wars with her own self-recriminations for how badly she choked, and her shame only grows as they travel up and up, and she has time to remember her mistakes again and again.

They’re about halfway to the surface when they hear noises coming from ahead, and everyone quickly prepares themselves as best they can for a fight. She offers to take the front of the litter from Slava, who’s behind her, and he accepts, carefully transferring the poles to her before moving up the line, hand on a pokeball.

A minute later Aiko distantly sees light appear around the corner up ahead, then hears Elaine shout Glen’s name. The relief in her tone matches Aiko’s, and she smiles for the first time in what feels like days as she sees their friend is the first to round the corner, looking at them in surprise.

“Hey guys, I brought the cavalry!”

“The absol was captured,” Ranger Miko says. “The cavalry should about-face.”

“Woah, nice job!”

“Now, trainer. We have injured.”

“Oh. Shit.” He turns around, causing the person behind him to do the same, then the person behind them, presumably along the rest of the procession. “Hey, pass on the message that we’re going back and see if whoever’s on the end feels confident to lead the way?”

“I got it,” Elaine says, ducking and squeezing her way through the crowded tunnel to help the new arrivals reverse course.

Slava reaches out to take the litter poles back, pointing out that she’s injured too, and Aiko lets him without protest. Her side doesn’t hurt as much now that she’s not running around, but it still feels tender, and the weight of the litter had been making her ribs ache. The rest of the journey feels quicker, and once they reach the surface, the rangers move off together to debrief and call an ambulance as the two groups begin to intermingle, sharing the details of what happened below.

Aiko and Blue let Elaine fill Glen in, the talkative girl somewhat subdued in her storytelling. Blue stares at the ground, one hand rubbing the now empty greatball at his side. After a moment he seems to realize what he’s doing and unclips it with a sigh, taking his pokedex out to wipe its registration before he shrinks it down and tucks it in his pocket.

“You doing okay?” she asks.

“Sure.” He shrugs. “Just coming to terms with it. Kemuri put me through a lot, after I caught him. But he came through for me time and again. He was good at playing up injuries, faking enemies out, you know? I was hoping throughout the fight that he’d come back up at the right moment, or that I’d find him down there after. Hurt, but, you know, mostly okay. He’s come back from… not worse, but pretty bad.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, feeling wretched. If she’d just thought of using the water earlier…

“It’s my fault,” Blue says. “All of this is. If I’d just thought to message them myself instead of assuming they’d listen to the rangers, or just checked my phone earlier…”

Aiko blinks. “What? That’s ridiculous, you couldn’t have known. But… if I hadn’t gotten so affected by the Pressure, or if my pokemon were stronger, we might have captured ours and come help. I was useless.” Blue is giving her a strange look, and she sees Elaine and Glen have stopped talking to stare at her too. “I mean before the water thing. If anything I should have thought of it sooner.”

“Huh,” Elaine says. “So that’s what that’s like.”

“What?”

“Hearing someone else blame themselves for something silly.’

“It’s not silly!” Aiko says, too loud. She lowers her voice. “I froze up down there. More than once.”

“You think I didn’t?” Blue says. “I missed an onix from close enough to spit on it!”

“Oh, are we throwing a pity party over here?” Bretta asks, and they turn to see her and Slava walk up to them, Payton and Abdu close behind. “I love these, it always turns into a game of one-upmanship for how terrible you think you are so you can feel better about hating yourself.”

“That’s not it,” Aiko says, suddenly angry. Don’t they understand? “It’s not about that, it’s about making sure you own your shit! I screwed up, okay? I did good things too, sure, but I still was too weak. I have to do better next time.”

Everyone’s quiet for a moment, and Aiko stares defiantly at each of them, daring one of them to tell her she’s wrong. It’s Blue that speaks first. “You’re right. You screwed up.”

She meets his gaze, keeping her chin high. Of course Blue gets it. “Yeah. I did.”

“I did too. Will you tell me off for it?”

“I…” She takes a breath. “You screwed up, Blue. Keep track of others better. And whatever shook you down there, learn to deal with it. That throw was yours to miss.”

“Guys…” Elaine says, sounding nervous, but Blue holds a hand up.

“You’re right. I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko nods. “Me too.”

Blue smiles. “We’ll help each other.”

“Yeah.” She smiles back.

There’s silence for a bit, and then Slava says, “I mean, if no one else is going to call me on it, I screwed up a pretty easy throw too.”

Aiko turns to him, considering. “I saw. Wasn’t sure if you wanted in on this.”

“Whatever this is,” Bretta mutters.

“I think I do,” he says, slowly.

“Then…” Aiko turns to face him fully. “Work on your throws. Because if you’d made that catch, Bretta wouldn’t have lost her bayleef. And Sumi may not have gotten hurt.”

There’s another silence, this one a bit more shocked, but Slava nods, grey eyes meeting hers steadily. “I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko smiles. “I’ll help. If you want. Though Blue can probably help more?”

“Of course.”

“I do. Thanks.”

Bretta looks at the three of them with some trepidation. “Um. Well. Obviously, I’m the most terrible one—”

“No, not like that,” Aiko says. “Without exaggeration. Just… be clear.”

Bretta frowns at the ground, brow creased. “I… fucked up. Big time. For leading you guys down there instead of going to the rangers’ meeting. For not reaching out to Blue. If Sumi hadn’t messaged him, we might all… be dead…”

“Yeah,” Slava says, voice quiet. “But we chose to follow you, so that’s on us a bit too.”

“I think I’m supposed to own this,” Bretta half-asks, turning to Aiko.

She consults her gut feeling, then shrugs. “You both screwed up. You both should take 100% of the responsibility, for yourselves.”

“That math doesn’t add up,” Payton says.

“But it feels right.” She turns to them. “Doesn’t it? I’m honestly checking, I’m not really sure what I’m doing here and mostly playing it by ear.”

That gets a round of chuckles, but Bretta and Slava both nod. “100%,” he says. “We’ll help each other do better.”

“Yeah.” Bretta’s hands rise to rub at her face. “We owe that much to Sumi.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Elaine says.

“Friends,” Aiko corrects, voice quiet.

Bretta meets her gaze a moment, pain leaking through her brave mask. Aiko wishes she hadn’t said anything for a moment, but then the girl nods. “You too. And I owe you guys an apology. I was a bit of a jerk, earlier. If I’d just offered for us all to go together… well, I came over in the first place to say… Your group is heading back to Vermilion Gym after this, right?”

Blue looks around at the others, who nod. “Yeah.”

Bretta rummages through her bag and takes out a handful of Vermilion Gym Objections. “Take these. You guys saved us down there. Already thanked these two. Any time we’re in a bind in the future… well, I know who I’m listening to.”

“Mine and Sumi’s too,” Slava says, holding out more. “She wanted to thank you guys.”

Aiko flushes as she sees the handful of tokens, trying to find some way to refuse them. “Aiko, you definitely don’t get to say no,” Bretta says to her. “Or I’m going to get mad about you spilling all my water. You think it grows on trees? Nuh uh. Opposite.”

That brings a weak smile, but Aiko still hesitates to take them. “You should have some,” she tells Abdu and Payton, “You didn’t have to come down with us—”

“We’ve already been to Vermilion,” Abdu says with a smile.

“You saved my life, both of you—”

“You saved all of ours,” Payton says with firm conviction. “I just came to help.”

“Goddammit, I’m trying to do something nice here,” Bretta interrupts. “Just take the damn tokens! Except for you, Glen. You were late.”

“Oof, there’s the guilt again,” he says. “Do I get to call myself weak for getting airsick?”

Aiko studies him briefly, unsure if he’s making fun. “Do you think it’s something you can improve on?”

“I… don’t know. I can try. I will try.”

“Then yes.”

“Alright then. Sorry I let you guys down.”

Elaine looks close to tears. “You didn’t… no, sorry, I know, I guess you guys… have to… but I… I don’t…”

“You were fine,” Blue says, and smiles. “Better than fine. You don’t have to look for some mistake just to fit in.”

“Oh, but… I felt so rushed, I know I was making mistakes but… I couldn’t seem to stop myself or think faster…”

“Well, I don’t want to take that away from you, if you really feel like you need to be held accountable for it,” Blue says. “But from what I saw, you did great, Elaine. Maybe reserve… this sort of thing… for when you make a mistake that you can point harm to, in specific?”

“I’m sure there will be future opportunities, if that makes you feel better,” Glen says.

Elaine smiles slightly. “It does, a little. Okay.”

“Well,” Abdu says. “I felt left out, but couldn’t think of anything concrete either. Did anyone see me screw up?”

“Nah, you did good, this time,” Payton says. “Me, though, I’m pretty sure getting distracted by the other fights cost the ranger his jolteon’s leg. I hope it can get re-attached, I feel wretched about it, especially for a pokemon that loves to run that much.”

“You’ll do better next time,” Aiko says, the words now having the feel of ritual.

“I’ll help,” Abdu says, completing it, and Payton nods.

Bretta and Slava are still holding the tokens, and Blue finally steps forward and takes them. “I’ll divide them up later, when people are feeling less down on themselves.”

“Good,” Bretta says. “Except Glen.”

“You can give some of mine to Glen,” Slava says, handing his to Blue. “I get airsick too.”

They hear the ambulance arriving then, its large tires and shock suspension helping it drive easily over the wild grass, and as a group they go to watch Sumi get loaded into it.

“Intravenous potions not working?” Glen asks quietly.

“No,” Slava says. “Some part of the injury isn’t getting reached, or it healed wrong. There’s internal bleeding, and her pulse is still irregular.”

One of the rangers points to Aiko after Sumi is loaded up, and an EMT turns to her. “Ma’am? Do you need help boarding?”

Aiko blinks. “Me?”

“You were badly injured,” Abdu says. “Play it safe, hm?”

A hand gently pushes at her back. “Go,” Blue says. “Make sure you’re okay. We’ll see you in Golden Hills.”

She checks the time, wondering how long it would take. She only has a few hours before she returns to the ranch, but the tenderness she still feels when she breathes too deep makes her abandon her protest. “Alright. See you guys there.”

She climbs into the ambulance back to sit across from where Sumi is lying down. “Slava?” the girl asks without opening her eyes.

“N-no, it’s me. Um. Aiko.”

“Is he…”

“Just a sec.” She pokes her head out. “Hey, Slava, she wants to talk to you.”

He jogs over and steps in. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Slava,” Sumi says between shallow breaths, voice quiet. “I heard… surgery… if something happens… my pokemon…”

“Hey, don’t talk like that,” the boy says, voice lowering as he takes her hand. “And I told you not to sign them to me. You know I screw everything important up. Let your sister have them.” He squeezes her hand. “And all that’s beside the point, because you’ll be fine.”

Aiko realizes too late that she should probably give them some privacy, but there’s not enough room to maneuver past him now. Sumi’s eyes open, and she looks at him from beneath heavy lids. “Promise…”

“I promise you’ll be fine.”

There’s the sound of the driver door opening and closing, and then the engine starts up. “Promise.”

He glances at Aiko, who sees pain and fear and doubt in his gaze. Say yes, she mouths. He lets out a breath. “Alright, I promise, if it stops you from worrying. I’ll look after them. If something happens. Which it won’t.”

Her eyes slip closed again. “Thank you…”

“See you soon, okay? You’ll be out by dinner time. We’ll skip it for ice cream. Sound good?”

Sumi doesn’t respond, and after a moment her hand goes limp. Slava stares at her, fingers moving up to her wrist. Aiko’s heart catches, but then he lets out a breath, and he glances at Aiko. “Look after her on the way?”

“Yeah, of course,” she says, though she’s not sure what she could do.

“Thanks. See you in a bit.” He looks at Sumi again, then backs out of the cabin, and one of the EMT enters and closes the back behind him. The ambulance starts to move, and Aiko reaches out to take Sumi’s hand as the tech starts hooking her up to the machines. Her fingers squeeze weakly back.

Aiko wonders what the girl’s relationship with Slava is like, that she’d trust him with her pokemon over family. She thinks about her own, and the thought she had when she withdrew Dune. Who would she want to have her pokemon, if something happened to her? Her dad, so he could take care of them on the ranch? Or her friends, who might use them for battles, put them at risk… but maybe get their lives saved by them, let them see more of the world?

It’s a hard question, and she feels a mix of guilt and pain over her dugtrio again. She hadn’t even gotten the chance to know it, but it was hers, she had captured it from the wild and was responsible for it. It hurts to think about, but if she continues being a trainer, it won’t be the last pokemon she loses. Is she really prepared for that?

Her thoughts run in circles throughout the trip back to town, and she holds Sumi’s hand all the way to the operating room before she’s led off to get a CT scan.


Aiko wakes with a start, scream trapped in her throat as she thrashes a moment, then realizes where she is and collapses back onto the hospital bed, closing her eyes. Three ribs cut and cracked, no organ damage thankfully. It took about an hour and a half to diagnose and treat her, then she was told to rest for a bit.

How long was I out? She looks out the window, and curses when she sees it’s dark out, swinging her legs off the bed and stumbling to her phone. A quick glance at the time while she calls her dad tells her she ended up sleeping another two hours.

“Hey Dad? Hey! I… fine, everything’s fine! I just took a nap… yeah, long day… mmhmm.” Aiko pulls her shoes on. “Yep, I’ll be right home! No, I’ll take care of that when I get there! Yeah. Right. Mmhm. See you soon. Love you.” She closes the call and takes a moment to breathe, forehead pressed against the phone screen. He sounded a little alarmed, a little worried, but seemed to take her assurances at face value. No anger for not calling, no suspicion that something bad had happened. She knows that’s not normal, but she’s a bit grateful for it, at the moment.

Aiko shakes herself and goes to use the washroom, worrying about Sumi all the while. The nightmare is stubborn in leaving too, keeping part of her in the cavern, paralyzed by fear as her friends and pokemon die one by one. Her hands tremble slightly as she washes them, and she practically attacks the towel to dry them off, angry with herself.

She needs to be stronger if she’s going to be a trainer. Her pokemon need to be stronger too, better trained. She thinks of the program she was working on at home, to help her pokemon fight more naturally on command, the way Red can make his. Whatever objections Leaf has, Aiko will do her best to pay attention to, but… she’ll take any advantage she can get if it will keep her pokemon and teammates alive.

Aiko collects her things and checks out with the nurse by the elevator, then makes her way to the waiting room below. She hears their voices before she arrives, and recognizes Abdu’s voice.

“Shit man, forget that. You get Giovanni out of the way before your fourth badge, maybe your fifth or sixth, but seventh is a bad idea. Eighth is just arrogant.”

“I’ve been called worse,” Blue says.

“You’re exaggerating.” Slava. Aiko relaxes a bit, knowing he wouldn’t sound so casual if something had happened to Sumi. “It’s not as bad as saving someone like Brock for last. Blue got it right going for him first, no one’s crazy enough to take Aeosis on.”

“I don’t blame them, after today,” Elaine says.

“Aeosis is one pokemon,” Payton says. “Sure he’s stupid-strong, but Giovanni is Giovanni. You really want to face him at his best?”

Blue snorts. “It’s not his best, challenging him for Gym Leadership will be his best. But it’s the best I’ll likely get, since I don’t plan on ever doing that. I want to beat him when he’s being at least somewhat serious.”

“Is this a pride thing? Or a fame thing?” Elaine asks. “Because I think if you can beat Aeosis, or even Sabrina’s alakazam, what’s it called, Sin?”

“Sync.”

“Sync, right, if you fight and win against them you probably get more buzz.”

“Maybe, but… look, Brock and Sabrina are great trainers, with amazing pokemon. All the Leaders are, but yeah, there are a couple with even greater pokemon that elevate them. But I want to beat the greatest trainer in Kanto, even if he has no single pokemon as strong as theirs. If anything I think that makes him more formidable. There’s no one point of strength, you just have to straight up beat him team against te—”

Blue stops talking as he sees Elaine and Glen stand up, and turns. “Aiko!” They rush over to take turns hugging her, being careful of her ribs, but she squeezes them tight, smiling.

“They told us you were just resting and everything went fine, but it’s been a while,” Elaine says. “We were worried.”

“I’m okay.” She looks at Bretta and Slava. “Any news?”

“She’ll live,” Slava says, and a weight rolls off Aiko’s chest, though some of it returns at his next words. “They’re worried about permanent damage though. Its horn went past her heart and nicked her spine.”

“We’re probably going to spend the night,” Bretta says. “They already explained how you go home to help your dad out, so don’t worry. We’ll be in town when you port back tomorrow.”

Aiko lets out a breath and nods. “Alright. Message me if you hear anything new.” She turns to Payton and Abdu. “You two staying too?”

“Yeah, it’s too late to travel anyway.” Payton smiles. “We’ll see you tomorrow, say goodbye before you all head back to Vermilion.”

“Oh, by the way,” Blue says. “Rangers came by, thanked us for our service and all that. Even though they’re the ones that caught the absol, the town’s bounty is going to be split among us, along with a bonus from the rangers for helping them acquire a pokemon that will be so important to research.”

“Except for Glen,” Bretta says with a sweet smile, causing him to snort.

“Your share comes out to about $2,500,” Blue says.

Aiko blinks. “Oh. Uhh. Wow. Okay. Great.”

“Yeah. And we’re having a small funeral for our pokemon tomorrow.”

Aiko’s feelings keep rollercoasting, and she swallows past the lump in her throat, then clears it. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll be there.” She turns to the room. “It was great meeting all of you, even if the circumstances were… you know.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“Night, Aiko.”

“Take care.”

Elaine hugs her again, briefly, and Aiko waves to everyone as she steps away… then stops and turns back. “Oh, I almost forgot… have you spoken to Red and Leaf? Do they know?”

“Nah, I figured I’d wait until they reached out. Don’t want to bring them down, you know? They’re probably enjoying a fun, peaceful cruise.”

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