Chapter 86: Interlude XVII – The Needs of the Few

No, thank you.”

Her parents looked at her like she’d turned into a doduo, and she almost smiled at the mental image of herself with two heads. Instead she struggled to keep her face placid and calm, intuiting that anything short of utter seriousness would doom her to failure.

But Erika,” her mother started, and already the tone was wrong, wrong, WRONG, it’s not the tone she ever uses when talking to father, nor to any other adults, it’s the tone the teachers use when trying to get a crying student to calm down, but she’s NOT crying, she’s CALM, “You know how much grandma enjoys your visits. She even said she bought you some new dresses, remember?”

“I do not enjoy the visits,” she replied, still calm as she continued staring at her book. It was one of her very favorite books, as large as her torso and with each massive page containing a high definition picture of a different Grass pokemon, paragraphs of small words crammed all around the image. As she spoke she looked at a vileplume, the left half of its body overlaid on a separate half-page that, when turned, revealed under it a computer generated image of its inner structure; first the fibrous muscles under the skin, then, when she turned that page as well, the hard roots it has in the place of bones. She’d already read over the book so many times she can practically recite each paragraph by heart, but she turned the pages anyway, then turned her head to the opposite page, which showed a paras, its own hidden half-pages mirroring the vileplume’s so that the book closed perfectly evenly.

She loved the book for its craftsmanship as much as its content, and the feel of the thick, glossy pages (are they even made of paper?) under her fingers was soothing as she kept her eyes averted from her parents, who stood in the doorway of her room dressed and ready to go.

We’ve talked about this, Erika,” her father said. His voice was better than mother’s, patient without being brittle the way hers was, but if it gave way to anger it was worse, far worse. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

Yes, like chores,” she said, and turned the page to pass her eyes over the innards of the paras. It was part of the strategy she devised without words, a simple understanding that the farther she was from being ready, the more energy her parents would have to commit to getting her ready, the more likely they would be to just give up and leave without her. “I did all my chores, and my homework.” She didn’t always, but this week she did, just in case it helped. “I can do things I don’t want to if I have to. I don’t have to visit grandma.”

But Erika, she’s family,” mother said, as if that was a reason. As if that meant something. “Why don’t you want to go?”

I told you. I told both of you. You didn’t listen.” She knew she had to stay calm, but her voice wavered and her eyes burned. She raised her book to hide behind it. You never listen. She always makes me put on dresses like a doll and touches my hair even though I say to stop and says mean things about the way I act and we have to always eat the food she likes and I don’t like it, and I don’t like the way her house smells and we’re always there for hours and I can’t read or watch vids or anything because that would be rude but no one tells her that saying mean things about my friends is rude and it’s not fair that I have to go just to make her happy instead of not having to go to make me happy. I’m her family too, shouldn’t she care if I’m h-hap…

The tears overflowed, blurring the picture of the parasect. She heard her mother sigh, and she knows that sigh, knows even without looking that her mother is rubbing her forehead, eyes closed.

Erika… your grandmother is very old, and she’s not going to be around forever. When you’re older you’ll be glad that we took you to see her even when you didn’t want to.”

Her mother’s words made her stomach feel heavy, guilt and shame and anger and doubt swirling as her throat and eyes and nose burned, and she didn’t have the words, couldn’t explain that maybe her mother was right and maybe she would understand later, but her memory and her senses told her she won’t enjoy it, that she’d just make more bad memories and regret wasting another whole Saturday, and worst of all—

the tears began to spill down her cheeks, and mother and father began arguing in a low voice—

worst of all being told to ignore her memory and senses meant she couldn’t trust them at all. What if she thought hugs were good but later they were bad? What if she believed learning about plants was good but later she’d regret it, that it was dumb just like Hayate from school said…

Erika.” Her father’s voice, deep and blunt, anger at its edges. “You are being very spoiled and selfish right now. I will not drag you from your bed like a baby. Your mother and I are going to the car. If you are not there in two minutes, we will leave without you and there will be no dessert, no playtime, no internet, and no books for a month. Understand?”

Her fingers tightened around the glossy edges of her large book, and she closed her eyes, refusing to acknowledge him as the hot tears continued to stream down her face.

Two minutes,” he repeated, and then she heard their footsteps retreating, and a moment later the front door opened and closed.

She held out for a minute and a half, gripping her book tight and trying to read through her tears and trying to convince herself that she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t wouldn’t wouldn’t, and then she dropped it and ran, heard it bounce on the floor and later would find one of its hard cardboard corners bent under the smooth outer lacquer.

She could do things she didn’t want to do, when she had to.


Leader Erika walks into the Celadon central police station and immediately heads past those working at the front with a simple nod. The officers nod back, and a couple even smile. They were all strangers, before. Now she’s been here often enough that she recognizes the faces on every shift.

Before. That the word has gained such weight in everyone’s collective thoughts and dialogue speaks volumes in itself of the times they’re living through. Within a day of the weather gods’ abrupt arrival and departure, it became clear to Erika that any major plans she had for the next few months would have to be delayed or reconsidered. By the next week she realized that her plans for the whole year might not survive the changes taking place around the island, and it only got worse from there as the changes, both ecological and social, continued to make themselves known around the world.

Now, nearly a month later, Erika has begun to realize that rather than expecting things to go back to “normal,” she would have to make her plans around a new concept of what normal is.

Not least of which involves the region’s perception of renegades.

She passes one of the more secure checkpoints and arrives at the Chief’s office, knocking politely and waiting for the “Come in” to do so. Her bright kimono makes her stand out in the police station, where everyone else is wearing uniforms or formal suits, but one of the privileges of her position is that she gets to wear whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and has even made it a sign of status.

No one here knows what her clothing indicates, of course; they would have to be from her Gym to recognize the woven patterns signaling that she is Feeling Asexual Today but Craving Comforting Touches and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. She can’t recall the last time her patterns have been so consistent for so long, but it has been nice at the Gym to only have people come up to her to give a hug or offer some of their time for any menial tasks she might need done, while only her Second and Third felt willing to breach the last one.

Of course that means leaving the Gym, already an unpleasant experience most days before (before), requires her to put some extra effort into social interactions to protect against the sorts of social missteps that normal culture has never bothered trying to solve.

Such as the handsome man in the suit who appears fascinated by the detailed map of the city hanging on the police chief’s wall. He turns and beams at her as soon as she enters the door, and approaches offering his hand for a shake. “Good afternoon, Leader Erika. I’m Agent Looker with Interpol, and I’ve been sent to take over the investigation here.”

She folds her own in her sleeves and bows her head instead. She doesn’t understand why handshakes are even still a thing; unhygienic, inconvenient if your hands are full, no set protocol for grip length or strength, and downright unpleasant if either person is sweating. All the potential downsides of a hug with none of the benefits.

The foreigner blinks, then drops his arm before he bows stiffly back. Not out of disrespect, she guesses, but age and unfamiliarity. He’s still smiling, and appears to be in his mid forties, hair just starting to grey at the temples and deep lines around his eyes and mouth. She’s only ever met a couple Interregional Police agents, since most of their quarry don’t try hiding in major cities like Celadon… or rather, that’s what everyone believed. It’s a thought from before, and she expects the overturning of that particular assumption has been as shocking to those like Agent Looker as anyone. “Good afternoon, Agent Looker.” She turns to Chief Tsunemori and Detective Hirai. “Chief, Detective.” She bows to both, who return it, then turns back to the newcomer. “Welcome to Celadon City. When do you expect to leave?”

Looker blinks, and Detective Hirai snorts from his seat. The agent quirks a brow at him, then turns to the police chief, who sits behind her desk with her chin in her hand as she watches. “I seem to recall you saying I should expect the Leader’s full cooperation?”

“I did say that, yes.” Chief Tsunemori shrugs a shoulder. “You may have a different idea of what that entails.”

Looker’s expression says he would have preferred a more descriptive warning of some kind, and Erika hides her smile. She and Tsunemori have had an understanding ever since she became Leader; on one end, Erika doesn’t throw her weight around in police affairs, either in public or private, and doesn’t expect any special treatment for her people, which is something of an unofficial norm in most cities. In exchange, Tsunemori doesn’t waste Erika’s time and doesn’t keep anything from her. They are not quite social equals, but their domains of influence are disparate enough that they can mostly operate as such, and Erika appreciates the straightforward working relationship she’s formed with the older woman.

“I want the truth about who these renegades worked for to be found as much as you do,” Erika says, and the interpol agent turns back to her. “But your people have been disruptive in their investigations, and our city is having enough trouble moving forward without being paralyzed by an investigation of endless scope and duration.”

“From what I’ve been told, everything we have done has been within our regional mandate.”

“That mandate was for furreting out hidden renegades,” Erika calmly retorts. “We have no evidence there are any remaining in Celadon, unless that’s changed in the past… thirty-seven hours?” She looks at Detective Hirai, who shakes his head.

“My people are still tangling with the corporate lawyers, but even with the renegade element helping us cut through the red tape, all we’ve got are confiscated financial holdings and more names to look into, a lot of them overseas. On the staff angle we’re looking into family and friends of the other casino workers, both in the lab and above it, but so far nothing suggests more renegade activity in the city, or even region.”

Agent Looker begins to respond, and Erika holds a hand up. “I don’t say this as a prelude to obstruction. I suspect you will be surprised by how cooperative my Gym is prepared to be with your investigation. I simply mean to establish a boundary, and wish to know that you are aware of the need for one.”

The interpol agent meets her gaze for a moment, and Erika decides that it isn’t a hostile or challenging stare, but rather a thoughtful one. She stares calmly back, and eventually he nods.

“I don’t have a set number for you, Leader, but rest assured that I am now acutely aware of your preference, and that I’ll run into the limits of your patience sooner rather than later. Good enough, for now?”

Erika considers the reasonableness of insisting on a timeframe now, rather than later. She wants a precommitment, something to anchor future considerations on, and after a moment decides that the others in the room will not judge her for a failed attempt to get it.

“I’m afraid not. I have families from all over the city, and some from outside it, still waiting for justice against the only survivor among the renegades that killed their children, siblings, and parents in that Casino. They’ve had to wait longer than any others in the history of our Region once those responsible have been apprehended. I think they’ve been patient enough.”

“With all due respect, Leader, my job is to prevent more tragedies, not appease those already unfortunate enough to be grieving.”

It takes a moment to keep herself from bristling. “‘Appease’ is your word, not mine. I am a Leader, not some mayor worrying about popularity. I don’t enjoy executions, but I take all of my duties seriously, and this is one of them. If over three weeks of interrogation have not yielded any new information, what purpose is there to the continued delay?”

“Quite a few.” Agent Looker tucks his hands into the pockets of his long tan duster. “For one thing it makes the opposition sweat.”

“And that’s preferable to making them think the investigation is closed?”

“They’ll know it’s not. An organization like this has to have sources in any major law enforcement units to operate.”

Erika glances at the Chief, who purses her lips but doesn’t gainsay him. “So you make them worry. What then?”

“We watch. We listen. We feel for…” His hands rise, fingers strumming the air. “Vibrations on the web.”

Erika crosses her arms, hands slipping through opposite sleeves. Such vague words invite further comment, but she’s learned the value of speaking with simple expressions.

Eventually he drops his arms and gives a crooked smile. “I’m afraid I can’t be more specific, Leader. Information security. But your Champion has been informed, and already approved.”

That makes her heart pound, but there’s no use making a scene about it here. “Understood. What will you be needing from me, then?”

“For now very little. Most of our work will be assisted by the police as we scan the city for any other hidden underground structures, and the mayor is already requesting cooperation from local businesses and organizations. Anything you can do on that front would be appreciated, but the main help would come from any trainers you can spare to join our search parties. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a shortage of competent trainers. Plus, your people are known. Reassuring. Trusted.”

A win win. It raises her esteem of him, that he’s offering such a simple goodwill gesture without attempting to dress it up. Her status in the city has already been damaged enough by this, and anything that makes her gym more present in resolving it can only help… unless it’s badly bungled.

Which puts her in a bit of a difficult position, unfortunately.

“I’ll see what I can do,” is all she says, and inclines her head to both the Agent and Chief before turning for the door.

“You don’t, by the way.” Erika pauses and looks to her side, raising a brow and resorting to silence once again until Looker clarifies. “Want the truth as much as I do. I’ve been tracking interregional renegade movement for over a decade, trying to dig deep enough to tear the whole system out by the roots. You would be satisfied with making sure your city or region is clean, and I understand why. But I won’t be. Not without hard evidence that the Casino is as far as it goes.”

Erika meets his gaze, realizing that she’s been wrong to categorize him as just another police officer, interested in doing their job well at best and taking the presumption of righteousness for granted at worst. She has little patience for virtue signaling, but can at least respect someone who wants to competently get their job done.

Looker is doing neither. He’s a True Believer, doing what he believes needs to be done for the greater good.

Which makes him dangerous.

“This is my city,” she says, voice hard as she can make it. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that its people and organizations are prepared for expected pokemon and renegade attacks, not impossible to disprove hypothetical ones.”

“I appreciate that, Leader, and intend to fully coordinate with you,” Looker responds, and his cheerful demeanor doesn’t fade a bit as his eyes turn hard. “But if I have reason to believe there are more Renegades hiding in your city, I’ll look behind every poster on every wall in this city to find them.”

Erika considers him for another moment, then simply nods and leaves. She could have mentioned the restrictions of the mandate, but the truth is they’re flexible enough with probable cause that he probably could barge into people’s houses and check for secret staircases. Especially if he has Lance’s approval.

Which means…

She leaves the police apartment and goes immediately to the waiting car, sitting in the backseat and directing the driver back to their gym. Along the way she puts up the privacy barrier, then calls the Champion’s direct number. He answers after just two rings with a “Yes?”

“I just spoke with Agent Looker,” she says, voice calm. The lack of niceties would normally communicate her anger clearly enough, but these were unusual times, and the no-nonsense attitude on both sides could just be the result of their endlessly busy days.

“Times are changing, Erika.” Lance’s voice is just as clear and calm, but she detects the note of tiredness beneath it. “What happened in Hoenn showed that our system isn’t working, and what it revealed in Celadon showed it could just as easily have been Kanto. There’s no argument I could imagine you making that would change my mind. I know it happened in your city, but we need to treat this as a regional threat.”

“None of which explains why you didn’t at least warn me.”

“I only spoke with him a couple hours ago, and didn’t realize you were meeting him today. I was going to reach out tonight.” His voice is stiff, which is one of the only tells the dragon master has… in this case, a tell that he’s very close to pulling rank. “I’m sorry, but it was simple bad timing. No slight was intended.”

She briefly considers pushing it, then decides to save the loss. “Understood,” she says, blowing her breath out. “Apologies if I implied bad faith.”

“Don’t worry about it. We all want what’s best for the region. We can speak more about this tonight, if you want.”

“Tonight,” she agrees, and ends the call.

After a moment she sighs and calls Giovanni. He answers after just one ring.

“Yes.” Voice flat, clearly busy, but recognizing that she wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.

“We have a problem.”


It took three weeks for the gym to be brought back to about 70% of how it looked before the quakes and torrential rain loosened soil, flooded gardens and dislodged trees. There were far more important cleanup projects around the city that took priority, and so Erika never announced any official organized cleaning efforts, but part of what she’s instilled in the community she built here is a care in their shared spaces. She’s seen both Gym members and visiting trainers help the gardening staff clear or repair the damage in their free time, and it has filled her with both pride and a sense of peace.

These are her people. This is what she fights for.

As she walks through the gym now, her gaze is drawn not to the remaining bare patches of soil where things have yet to be replanted, nor the submerged benches at the edges of various ponds that seem to just be permanently larger now, but the bigger projects, such as a gazebo on a dock that sank when one of its supports cracked, and a tree that fell into a bush-lined walkway; someone has cut a path through the trunk, but both halves are still on either side. She briefly considers ways she might incorporate it into the design of the area; no matter how strong the sense of wanting to return to “normal” is, perhaps it would be better not to completely erase signs of the cataclysm.

It certainly left its mark on her Gym in other ways.

She passes by more and more groups of people sitting and discussing things in large groups, some in gazebos, others around benches, others just gathered on patches of grass. When she reaches the desk at her central gazebo she thinks over her mood, then selects Dew to keep her company, summoning the bellsprout from her belt.

She smiles as its vines curl and uncurl, head bobbing around in a lazy roll as it looks for something to climb. It stops as its eyes find her, and she extends a hand for it to wrap itself around. It’s hard not to giggle and squirm as it shimmies its way up her arm and onto her shoulder, and she takes a deep breath of its pleasant, clean scent, specially cultivated to be more of an anti-scent than anything. Sometimes the smells of the gym can be a bit overwhelming, and Dew lets her breathe without smelling anything but clean, slightly more humid than usual air, like the air after a rainstorm.

Once she sits she spends some time just observing the gym around her, watching those within sight. There are no arenas near her gazebo to maintain a relaxing atmosphere, and most of the damage to this area has been repaired, which is probably why so many people are meeting nearby. As she watches them she starts composing a list of names to put on the renegade hunting taskforce. Giovanni assured her that while there are other operations in the city which he needs to keep private (and thus uninvestigated), there are no other renegades in her city under his employ… and yet.

She allowed the ones in the casino’s subbasement because Giovanni insisted that they were trained, trusted professionals, not rabid killers, and he insisted they were needed in case Silph sent his own. Then they started killing people who fell during the earthquake, and while she understands the reasoning that likely led to that, she was still furious with Giovanni for weeks, and demanded both the promise and a weregild to help the families.

If he lied, he has no room to complain if she finds out. But she should still try to ensure that none of the other illegal activities he’s been engaged in are discovered, which makes it difficult to find the right sort of people to put on the job.

After a few minutes of work, Erika spots Blue Oak moving from one group to another, tapping into a pad as he listens to each, often saying something brief in return before he moves on to the next. It took him a week to get out of the hospital and through enough physical therapy to walk without crutches, and he spent all of it organizing things virtually, his travel companions moving to and from him like combee around a hive.

She was skeptical, at first. Giovanni’s public address wasn’t particularly surprising coming from someone so good at shaping his image and wielding his unique status in imaginative ways, and she made the mistake of seeing it as a simple way to both reassure people and elevate his social power in the uncertainty following the cataclysm. She even did something similar, if on a smaller scale, during her speech on the interregional day of mourning that was organized, where each city and town held a mass funeral for everyone lost, all on the same day.

And maybe it would have stayed that way, if not for Blue Oak, who lit his torch at the pyre Giovanni built and ran with it, spreading it far and wide. Within days the call to action had something concrete for people to think about, had infrastructure that people could tap and contribute to.

Maybe other Leaders would be upset about their gyms shifting to focus so much on something other than pokemon battles, but she’s never been afraid to let her people branch out in interests, and it seems to her a perfect opportunity for the gym to show its unique value. She didn’t even have to order anyone to do anything, just nudged the formation of a central group focused on breaking the overall issue of existential threats down into smaller, easier to understand and digest problems that the other groups could work on finding tasks the common trainer, scientist, or even citizen could contribute to. She participated directly for a week, then handed it off to others once her gym duties needed her attention again.

Blue swore that he hadn’t coordinated with Giovanni ahead of time, and Giovanni corroborated that, and Erika still isn’t sure she would believe them if the catalyst wasn’t so obviously unexpected. And of course if Blue hadn’t been unconscious at the time. Still, it’s put her into a difficult position.

Giovanni Sakaki is a black hole of status. Even more than other ex-Champion leaders of the Indigo League, he doesn’t just suck respect and attention in, he wields what he has at least as well as she does. She’s avoided interacting with him as much as possible in public not just to minimize associations that might form between them if his plans go awry, as they recently have, but also to not be dragged along in his cultural wake. Cooperation is easier than competition as long as they stay in their own domains.

But when his domain has become “leader of the fight against global existential risks,” all other domains start to feel like subdomains. Her only choice, in view of the inevitable, was to try and ride the wave and make her gym, with the unique combination of culture and minds she’s cultivated here, a major power.

And it’s working. They’re gaining traction, growing more organized, and putting out videos and articles that people are paying attention to, important people. Even if she wanted to guide or pivot things in another direction, she would fail.

And she doesn’t want to. After seeing the threat so clearly, seeing Giovanni’s worries justified, and seeing what’s being done in response, the potential good her gym can accomplish, she feels gratitude that all that she’s worked to build has found a project worthy of it. That her people can make a difference.

She wonders, sometimes, if this is how the old warlords felt when they bent the knee to a superior daimyō. The feeling is much more positive, almost freeing, than she expected, given how much she worried about it happening when they formed their partnership years before she was even Leader.

A blonde girl in a dark blue kimono arrives with a datapad in one hand and a balanced platter of tea and biscuits in the other. Her kimono patterns signal that she’s Feeling Female Today and that she’s Open to Selfish Bisexual Encounters and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. Those last two have been pretty common among the gym’s administration, and Erika briefly wonders if they’re getting redundant at this point, but no, they’ve been useful as separate signals in the past. This has just been an unusual situation.

“Afternoon, Leader. Allowed to murder renegade yet?”

“Not today, Diana.” Her Second was always blunt, but in the past few weeks she’s dropped what few social pretenses she adopted for others’ sake. Lack of extra spoons, maybe. “Reports from Beta and Epsa?”

“Beta working with Pewter now,” Diana says as she puts the platter down. “Set up quadrants, organized survey teams. Beta-1, biggest subgroup, focusing on Titans. Beta-2 and 3, Beast and Bird origins.”

“Indigo specific?”

“No, new caution, every region.” She shrugs. “Low likelihood, low cost.”

Erika nods. “Epsa?”

“New partners, deusbiologists studying Groudon and Kyogre’s remains. Free labor, crowdsourced research assistance.”

Erika smiles and pours herself tea, then takes a sugar cube and holds it up to pop in Dew’s open bulb. “That was fast.” It had been her idea. She holds the pot up toward Diana, but her Second shakes her head and Erika puts it down, then selects a dark chocolate almond biscotti to dip into the steaming amber liquid. “I don’t recognize that group by the fountain.”

“New, informal. Calling it Eleven, mentally. Breaks naming pattern, but eleventh group and eleven members.” She shrugs. “Headed by four of Sabrina’s students, rest are psychics and researchers.”

“Studying the unown?”

“And ruins. Contacting archaeologists, explorers, mythologists, searching for connections. New unown sightings, higher frequency, new locations, coincidence?” She snorts. “Sky Pillar.”

Erika nods. One of many new curiosities that she’d let mostly pass under her radar, with so much else to focus on, but even she caught a glimpse of them once while surveying the damage to the city from the Celadon department store, six unown flying across the sky in a barely visible string of random (to her, at least) characters. “Have they reached out to the boy from Hoenn?”

“No responses. Avoiding limelight.”

“Maybe I can reach out to Wallace.” She searches the group more closely for a red hat while she takes another bite of her biscotti. “Is Mr. Verres with them?”

“Not today, comes often. Why?”

“I need a group to help find any Renegades in the city.” She finally bites into the soaked biscotti, letting the hot liquid and dissolved biscuit slide down her tongue. “I want him to be on it.”

She remembers seeing him for the first time, years ago in Pallet Town during a trip to Professor Oak’s house; a boy with a mess of black hair and startling red eyes, playing with Blue and a couple other friends in the front yard. She wasn’t a Leader then, and he probably doesn’t remember even meeting her back then, as she spent most of the time talking with Daisy and Sam.

But she remembered those eyes, when she saw them again during the press release his group gave with the Abra sale. It was a surprise when he came into the cafe in Vermilion after the Zapdos attack, where he asked Sabrina to be her student. It impressed her, the way he spoke so confidently among a group of the most important people in the region, with just a brief stumble upon seeing them all so unexpectedly.

“Young.” Diana doesn’t sound skeptical so much as thoughtful. “Hero at the Casino, yes, but not a detective. Not even symbolic, like the girls.”

The ceremony honoring the heroes of that day was a spot of brightness for the city after a week of gloom. She’d been the one to suggest it to the mayor, who was happy to stand on a stage and hang medals around the necks of a couple dozen citizens and visitors to the city who’d gone above and beyond, that day.

All three girls from the casino had to be convinced to be there, especially after Mr. Verres insisted that he not. They objected that if he didn’t deserve praise none of them did, but he’d pointed out that someone had to take credit for the Renegades’ defeat and plenty already know they were directly involved, while publicizing his role in the story would just tip other Renegades off to how nearby psychics might forewarn their victims.

Personally Erika believes there’s some element of self-preservation in the boy’s decision. While there’s a chance that he’s actually just that modest, his argument didn’t strike her as entirely reasonable, and her impression at the time was that he was hiding something. She certainly can’t blame something like shyness or stagefright, particularly compared to the girl with the hat who stood visibly trembling on as the mayor handed her a second medal for her friend in the hospital.

“He knows what a renegade pokemon feels like, psychically. If he’s willing to at least try to teach some others, it could be helpful. Invite him to tea, won’t you?”

“Sure. First, Blue Oak.”

Erika’s brow rises as she dips her biscotti in the tea again. “Why? Do you think he’d ask his permission?”

“No, unrelated. Blue requested. Wouldn’t say why, guessing restless, got what he needs here. Challenge likely.”

The Leader blinks, biscotti soaking for longer than intended as she stares at her Second. “What do you mean? He’s helping coordinate—”

Diana shrugs, not waiting for her to finish speaking. “Ball in motion, can delegate online, still get badges.”

Erika frowns at her Second, who merely raises a challenging brow back until Erika sighs. That never worked on Diana, no reason to expect it to start now just because of a fancy title. “When he arrived he said he didn’t want special treatment, and I said I still wouldn’t let him fight you or Mary. Maybe I can change my mind, insist on it, as part of restoring the sense of normalcy.” Not many Challenge matches have been happening lately. She expected to grow a backlog due to how busy she would be, but few people have even extended Challenge over the past few weeks, and none have reached Erika. “There would be some impact to being the first to get his badge, if that’s what he’s envisioning, but… the ‘Gym Advisor’ role is working better than he or I envisioned, given everything. How sure are you that he’s planning to leave?”

“Plans changed. Friend better, headaches, but can travel. New project good, more important than gym prestige, but badges still needed for Champion.”

All of this is true, and it takes Erika a moment to realize why she needed Diana to tell her this, why it bothers her to think about it. If Blue leaves, it would be a sign that the status he hoped to gain through staying isn’t important to him anymore… which means her status isn’t as important anymore, not just in relation to him but as part of a wider shift. The month he spent here is no different from Pewter or Cerulean, and less than Vermilion.

Combined with the way Agent Looker is undermining her role in the city, it’s a harsh sting to recognize that her influence may be shrinking faster than it’s growing.

“Can he be convinced to stay?”

“Doubtful. Strong willed, smart, knows own worth.” Another shrug. “Best bet is to beat him in the Challenge.”

Erika slowly nods, causing Dew to wobble and shift its grip around her neck. She gently adjusts a vine to be more comfortable. “Alright, I’ll speak to him first, then. Thank you, Diana.”

Diana nods, and reaches forward to give Erika’s upper body a hug. Erika smiles and returns it, appreciating the simple contact for a few brief moments, and then Diana leaves her to read through her message backlog, including one from her Third. Mary is out in the field with a small group of gym members to help some local Rangers clear out a slugma hive that randomly appeared to the west of the city after the earthquakes. Yet another fire to put out (literally in some cases), taking time away from getting things back to normal, and if they’re a permanent addition to the local ecology there will be years of adaptation ahead. Plus, an extra wild Fire type around the city will make it that much easier for challengers coming to her gym.

She takes more time than she probably should responding to Mary’s message, wanting to ensure she expresses her appreciation and offer any extra resources needed in a way that doesn’t come off as perfunctory. Of all the people she’s befriended in life, she appreciates her Third even more than Diana. Without her, there would be no way Erika could make this gym what she wanted it to be, could spend so much time doing so many different things. Too much of her time would be spent training, keeping her pokemon strong and her skills as sharp as they were when she defeated the previous Leader.

It’s easy enough to battle most Challengers, but in any true trainer battle, Mary is by far her superior. She thankfully has no interest in being Leader, and no ambition to become Champion, and so serves their Gym by defending Erika’s title and stopping anyone who might sense weakness in a Leader who spends so much time on things like gardening and try to take the gym for themselves.

It’s a stupid system, when you boil it down, and why she was at first skeptical of Giovanni’s proposal that she take over the Celadon Gym. Being a Gym Leader was never an aspiration of hers, but she had to admit that the ability to shape her own community was attractive, and Giovanni pointed out the way she could make it work for her and her friends by playing to their strengths. She wears the title of Leader because it suits her, but in truth she’s simply the first among equals, with Diana and Mary happy to handle their niche responsibilities while she handles hers.

It also helps in situations like this. If she can get Mary to beat Blue before he Challenges her…

But no. If he’s beaten by her Third, it would be a blow to his status, and without any particular upside gain if he wins. With both her status and the effectiveness of Giovanni’s plan in some measure tied to the young Oak’s successes, she has to be careful how she handles this.

After the message is sent, she takes two video calls at her desk, one mediating a conflict in scheduling between her gym members and another negotiating a bulk order purchase with Silph’s Celadon representative, and she’s on her third cup of tea before Blue approaches the gazebo. As he does so he lets out a whistle, and his pidgeotto flies down from wherever it was soaring overhead to land on the gauntlet he wears on one arm. He takes a moment to stroke his pokemon, who already looks too big for his arm to hold up comfortably, then withdraws it and joins her.

Blue seems to be going through a growth spurt, gaining an inch every time she doesn’t see him up close for longer than a week. He stopped favoring his left side shortly after he gave up the crutches, and now moves confidently up the stairs of the gazebo and into the bench as close to across from her as he can get. “Afternoon, Leader.”

She returns his respectful nod before offering him tea, which he accepts, and the sweet platter, which is accepted with a bit more interest. She studies him a moment as he looks over his options, then selects one. “Diana said you wanted to speak with me, which is perfect timing, as there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He gives her a curious look as he bites into a tea-soaked chocolate biscuit, and she sips her own tea, gaze on his. “Isn’t it about time you moved on?”

Blue freezes mid-chew, and she just smiles and waits for him to continue chewing, swallow, sip.

“Is it?” he eventually asks. “I know it’s not what we originally planned, before.” Before. “But I think we’re doing a lot of good, here.”

“You are, and it’s been wonderful to see it happen. But be honest: you have even less of an interest in applying for membership than you did before you arrived. Am I right?”

Blue hesitates a moment, then nods.

“And are there any further changes you want to see done? Novel changes,” she says as he starts to speak. “Not tweaks, and not things that would likely develop without you, now that you’ve gotten the stone rolling.”

“No,” he admits. “Honestly, you’re right. I’ve been thinking more and more that we should move on and start getting other gyms more directly involved in the kinds of things we’ve been doing here. I was able to loop in some of Vermilion because I still have friends there and some of Saffron thanks to Red, but being at a gym in person would make it much easier to really get them involved.”

“And now that your friend Glen is better, it’s time to start the Challenges.”

“Yeah. That’s actually what I wanted to speak to you about in the first place.” He smiles. “Guess I didn’t realize how obvious it would be, from your perspective.”

Erika smiles. “Or perhaps it’s just the position of my seat.” She gestures to encompass her view of the garden, the gym, as a whole, and watches him carefully.

“Yeah, maybe…” He trails off, then his eyes narrow.

Erika innocently sips her tea.

“I came ready to defend a Mastery Challenge. It feels like the time is right, but I figured you might need convincing. Now it’s like… even though you said the time is right, I feel like I still need to convince you. Or… I want you to convince me.” Blue shakes his head, smiling. “How did you do that? Just by making it seem like I’ve been dragging my feet? Yeah, some of that, and showing that you don’t need me here, or like, it’s totally fine for me to go… damn. I almost missed it.”

It’s nice, having such an apt student. “I’ve been too busy, unfortunately, to be able to claim full credit for seeing this coming. Diana had to point out that you were probably moving on soon. If it were up to me you’d stay longer.” It was hard to admit things like that, the first few times. Hard to peel back the curtain, show vulnerability in a way that would reduce his esteem for her. It’s gotten easier as she’s seen the fruits of it, seen him learn and grow to be better at spotting it himself, and thus she gained a different sort of esteem, a more unique one that she’s had with few others, particularly outside her Gym. Which of course was the point from the beginning.

Blue bows his head, looking both proud and grateful. “Thanks. I have to admit, I don’t think it’ll be as easy, elsewhere. Your gym culture is really well suited to what we’ve been doing… I’m glad I was here to do it with the ‘training wheels’ on first. I’ll miss this place.”

“That seems rather optimistic of you.” Blue blinks, and she sips her tea. “I suppose you can leave with or without a badge.”

“But… you said—”

“I admitted you would likely benefit from moving on. Personally, I wouldn’t mind keeping you here longer.” She grins. “You don’t think I’m going to just let you win, do you? “

Blue looks surprised for another moment, then grins back. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He eyes her over the rim of his own tea cup, swallowing it down like it’s soda. Once he’s done he sets it down and leans forward onto his crossed arms. “Does that mean you’re going to try to slow me down? Make me run the gauntlet?”

“What do you think?”

He considers the question and she lets him, finishing her biscotti and pouring herself a second cup of tea while she reads an email from a nearby Ranger outpost asking for assistance with a sweep of some fields to the Southeast.

“No,” he says at last. “What you originally said when I arrived still holds. It makes us both look better, if I just fight you.”

“And what of your original concerns, about not appearing privileged? Pulling ahead of your group?”

He sighs. “Too much has changed. I’m not the brightest light around anymore, and we’ve picked up more people. I’m not sure it even makes sense to wait for everyone to get their badge now, not when it might take months for so many Challenge matches to even take place.”

Erika nods. “Then make your final preparations, and I’ll schedule our match for the day after tomorrow.”


The central stadium was a difficult decision.

All the smaller ones were easier to just make simple lines in the dirt or grass. Pokemon battles are far too destructive to the landscape (especially when expecting Flying, Fire, Ice, and Poison pokemon to feature prominently) to put too much effort into keeping the arenas aesthetically pleasing.

But for Challenge matches, which get recorded and televised, which are often all that anyone outside the Gym will see of it, the first impression is too important to ignore. Her competition isn’t stiff, since of all the Kanto leaders only Misty really leans into any form of showmanship, but even if everyone’s arena was as boring and straightforward as Surge’s, she would still want hers to stand out.

The compromise she ultimately reached was to play into the obvious, highlight it and make it part of the aesthetic. The arena itself is a bare patch of round dirt, its only artistic flourish the red and white flowers that respectively outline the top and bottom halves, easy to replant before each match. Just around it is simple grass for ten meters, cut to a precise square that starkly frames the arena, and on its edges is where the real decorations start. Chrysanthemums grow in practically every color, and so she had them planted in a cycling red, orange, yellow green, blue, violet pattern. With her rainbow badge thus represented on the field, and a reasonable distance around the arena now filled, the next layer contrasts back to a more uniform color palette as eight large topiary sawsbuck form the regal “walls” of the open air arena.

The actual “walls” are the stone tiles that surround the whole thing in three layers, creating a rather wide buffer between the arena and the rest of the gym. Beyond its aesthetic value, this is the final barrier to ensure any fires that don’t get contained at least won’t spread to the rest of the gym.

Their colors change with the seasons, naturally, but this year winter seems to be exceptionally late due to whatever the weather gods did, which is why her gym is still so colorful. As the announcer finishes introducing her and Blue, she begins walking past the border of red and orange and brown, making the arena feel as warm and cozy as a 40×40 meter outdoor space could.

It’s good weather for a battle. Brisk without being cold, with the sun unobscured to warm the skin. Much as she loves her kimonos, the sleeves are too long and voluminous for pokemon battles, and they’re not great for running. Instead she wears an emerald blouse, fitted earth-tone cargo pants, and five balls on her belt. Her fingers trail over them as she walks to her platform in the arena.

Cradily, Grass Rotom, Ludicolo, Ferrothorn, Vileplume. Pokemon that can handle all of Grass’s weaknesses, so long as they’re deployed correctly. The pre-battle speeches were rehearsed, but of the fight itself, nothing was offered nor asked. It would be a true test of will and wits and skill, and her pulse quickens as she realizes how much she wants to win.

It’s been a long time since she cared so much about a single battle.

Their audience only adds to the pressure. The stands beyond the outer edges are packed as the city turns out for its first Challenge match in weeks. She raised the prices to double what they were before and they still sold out in hours.

Part of that of course might be the identity of the challenger. Blue Oak’s following, already higher than almost any other trainer in Kanto after the experiments in Vermilion Gym, has grown to rival actual Leaders’ since he spearheaded the #WhatComesNext movement. As they both approach their platforms and she gets close enough to make out his expression, she tunes her earpiece to the private channel and says, “You look too solemn. Relax by about half.”

His expression eases into a calmer one. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” She switches to the public channel. “People of Celadon. Friends and guests. It’s been a month since our world was changed, and we are all trying, together and apart, to find our place in this new one. To resume the work we did before, or find new ways to help each other. To prepare for the challenges ahead.

“By now, the name Blue Oak should be known across the region. It is no mistake that I decided to resume Challenge matches with his, though his was one of many interrupted by the cataclysm.” An easy lie, to help unruffle any feathers by those who have been waiting all this time. “And it’s no mistake that I am the first trainer he will officially face in my Gym, though he has already battled many of them, winning against most. Blue Oak’s journey is a special one, and there is little point at this juncture to deny it. He has been privileged in many ways since he began his travels, and before, but I challenge anyone to deny that he has earned more than he was given, and given yet more to others.”

Blue stands with his hands on his belt, face calm. She studies him a moment, mostly for effect. “And so I chose, when he arrived at my Gym, to put him in a position of influence. Not unearned power, nor exclusive benefits. Simply my ear, so that I could judge for myself the value of his vision, his thoughts, his goals. And what I’ve seen, what everyone has seen, is someone who will not rest until humanity is ready for what comes next.”

He hadn’t needed to prod her to include that phrase, and even knowing it was coming, she can see the pride in his bearing, much as he tries to suppress it. “To that end, I chose to help him rather than hinder him, and now I am glad to test him. If he is worthy, he will bear my gym’s badge and its lessons into the world beyond, and like a seed on the wind, plant our values far and wide. Blue Oak, what is your Challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Celadon Gym accepts. Defeat my five pokemon, and the Rainbow Badge will be yours.”

Erika pulls on her facemask, then rests her hands on her pokeballs. Across from her, Blue does the same. “Ready,” she intones, feeling her pulse in her throat. “Set. Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Go Shim—Go, Sunny!”

“Spikes!”

Her pokemon materializes with enough of a lead on his that the attack completes just as the houndoom appears, causing it to flinch as her ferrothorn whips shards of metal onto Blue’s side of the field.

She finds herself grinning, and not just at the early advantage. He named his houndoom Sunny? “Return!” she shouts just as Blue yells “Taf!”

“Go, Ludicolo! Water gun!”

The Grass/Water pokemon appears just in time to take the flamethrower, shaking it off with a spin of its body and returning a jet of water that the houndoom nimbly dodges… only to yelp as it steps on a shard of metal.

“Return, go Zephyr! Wawb!”

“Ice Beam!’

Blue’s command set the pidgeotto’s wings to flap hard, but not toward its opponent; instead the gust of wind scatters the metal shards away from most of the field before her beam hits, and Blue quickly swaps his pokemon out for a breloom. Erika is already impressed; the pidgeotto family don’t easily learn how to use whirlwinds to clear hazards, and it means that her usual status-heavy strategies are going to be less effective.

“Gon, Pam!” The breloom springs forward in a blur, its Mach Punch connecting just as it’s hit with Ludicolo’s second Ice Beam, and then Blue yells “Dam!” and his pokemon begins a Mega Drain to heal itself.

The first note of worry undermines Erika’s confidence. Grass has five weaknesses, and Fighting isn’t one of them; Blue brought the breloom as a pivot, something to counter whatever gives him trouble on even ground, as it would be immune to most Grass types’ nastier tricks. This is a pokemon she needs to take down, but her only pokemon that can resist its Fighting attacks is Vileplume, and breloom are infamously, almost uniquely, difficult to poison for a non-Poison or Steel type; many can even metabolize it, and use it to heal themselves.

Acid would still be effective, but he likely has his own poison pokemon to swap into. Instead she makes a snap decision in the other direction. “Return! Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Gon, pam!”

She expected him to switch to a Fire type, and stops herself from ordering it to use Spikes again. Even if he clears it retrapping his field would be a good way to punish him for swapping, but any extra attacks could cost her this trade. The breloom’s attack clearly hurt Ferrothorn, but an “Ingrain!” causes her pokemon to send roots out and begin to heal itself.

“Paf!”

The sound of the force palm hitting ferrothorn resounds through the air. An “Iron Head!” slams its body into the breloom as well, though the blow clearly disoriented it. Blue’s pokemon is strong, and she knows she picked right in not trying to poison it.

As the powerful blows dent her pokemon’s metallic shell, its thorns leave the breloom’s fists and feet bloody… but after half a dozen exchanged attacks it still doesn’t let up, and soon the blood of both pokemon colors the ground around them.

“Stop!” she yells, and Blue echoes her half-a-second later. Her heart is pounding, and she looks up at Blue. He’s holding two balls ready, but he doesn’t look tense. “If I call this a draw, would you agree?” she asks in the private channel.

His reply comes quickly, as if expecting it. “Sorry, Leader, it’s close but Gon will win, and can heal much easier… though Ferrothorn is still healing through its ingrain.”

“A wild ferrothorn would self-destruct at this point.”

“In the wild I would withdraw Gon and hide behind something.”

Erika can’t help but smile. Cocky little… She sets her frustration aside, considering her options. She could insist on it anyway; she doesn’t actually believe Blue would contradict her in the public channel, but he might make his disapproval known through his tone or expression, which would taint the results of the battle even if she won. And he’s right that her pokemon is unfairly recovering while she thinks.

“Return!” she says, pulling her pokemon back into its ball. The abrupt removal of its roots from the ground churns the earth around breloom, but it keep its feet by using its long tail to balance. She switches to the public channel. “The Challenger and I agree that his breloom would win this match, if narrowly and painfully. My ferrothorn is defeated, but in the wild I believe it would self-destruct in a circumstance like this. The Challenger asserts that he would withdraw his pokemon and find cover in time. I say we simulate this with a coin toss.”

Blue’s eyes widen. She hears the murmur of the crowd, and wishes she had an actual coin with her. Instead she simply puts a hand behind her back and makes a fist. “If you can guess whether I am holding one finger out or two correctly, your strategy succeeds. If you fail, you are killed, ending the match with my victory. As a third choice, if you don’t pause to return your breloom, you would surely make it on time.”

Blue’s incredulous look is a sweet thing, as is the glare it soon shifts to… but after a moment he’s grinning, and her smile has widened to match it.

She’s never heard of a Leader doing something like this before, but it’s within her technical right to declare pokemon too injured to continue, and showmanship goes a long way to making the unorthodox acceptable. Blue should know that better than anyone.

Now the question: with the eyes of the world on him, would he risk it all on a coin flip, or take the safe option?

“The choice is yours, trainer,” she says, and extends two fingers behind her back, where the cameras from that angle could see. “One, two, or sacrifice? You have ten seconds to decide.”

She decides against an out-loud countdown, letting the seconds tick by in her head as the very air itself seems to hold its breath, while Blue does an admirable job of not appearing stressed. She reaches eight when he says, “Sacrifice.”

She can almost hear the collective sigh from the audience. She isn’t sure if she’s disappointed or relieved herself, but it’s easy to be gracious as Blue withdraws his breloom. “A wise choice.” She suspects Blue found it harder than he’d ever admit on camera not to guess a number, not to show that bravery can pay off and add the “win” of the moment to his legend, but the wrong choice would have hurt him far worse than the benefits of success. “Ready to resume. Set. Go, Cradily!”

“Go, Shimmer! Dodge!”

“Rock Throw!”

The sight of his venomoth sends a satisfied thrill through her. She predicted the attempt to apply status effects to whoever she sends out next, but would have been satisfied with him sending a Fire pokemon out too. Part of why she suspects he was so adamant in keeping his breloom is that he knew she would bring a cradily, and has nothing else to confidently take down a Rock/Grass type.

“Ta!”

“Rock Throw!”

Her pokemon’s vine flings small stones up in another spray, shredding the venomoth’s wings just as it spits a stream of purple poison all over her pokemon.

“Return! Go, Zephyr!”

“Ingrain!”

As roots once again sink into the ground, Blue brings a whistle to his lips and begins to blow commands. A cloud of sand covers her pokemon, some of it rising to Erika’s position, and when she yells out “Rock Throw!” her pokemon’s attack misses. She repeats the order, but Blue sends his pidgeotto banking out of the way of the attack.

The ingrain will counteract the effects of the poison for a little while, but if it was as powerful as she thinks it was then sooner or later it would take her cradily down, and withdrawing it would only delay the inevitable. She needs to take down his fliers while she can so that Ludicolo can finish off his Fire types on its own.

But her frustration starts to grow as attack after attack misses, then transforms to worry as her pokemon’s movements begin to noticeably slow. Finally, she can feel only admiration at how deftly the pidgeotto and its trainer dance through the sky, until she must return her cradily to a well deserved rest.

It’s now three to four, and she has one more chance to clear his fliers. “Go Rotom!”

A lawnmower materializes from the ball, floating above the ground and wrapped in vines. Blue lifts his ball, and whistles for his pokemon to get closer, but the pidgeotto is tired, and a quick “Thundershock!” zaps it out of the sky just before it can be returned.

Three to three.

“Go, Sunny!”

“Return!”

“Sa!”

“Go, Ludicolo!”

Instead of fire, a cloud of smog is belched from the houndoom’s mouth, and Erika swallows a curse as it envelops her pokemon. “Bubblebeam!”

“Dodge!”

Too late; the houndoom is still favoring its paw, and all the missed Rock Throws are made up for as the stream shoots out of the purple haze and nails it mid-leap, sending the black and red canine tumbling back as rapid pops fill the air.

It struggles to stand, but Blue quickly returns it. Three to two. The advantage has flipped, and now it’s just a matter of—

“Go, Nin!”

“Return!” Erika yells as the golbat appears. Her pokemon is already poisoned, and after seeing how skilled Blue is with that whistle she won’t allow a repeat of what he did with his pidgeotto. “Go, Rotom!”

As Blue blows a command, her own “Thunderbolt” is drowned out by the high pitched shriek from the golbat. It makes her flinch, for just a second, and as she wonders what that was (a normal supersonic attack can be felt but not heard, hence the name), she realizes the golbat is swooping down and biting the thrashing vines around the floating mower.

“Thunderbolt!” she shouts again, and this time her pokemon responds, electricity crackling around itself. The golbat jerks, but clings stubbornly on, and as the rotom starts to jerk and shudder midair, she yells the command again. The golbat withstands the second discharge, which means it’s healing itself, but a third should—

“Return! Go, Soul!”

She could get a free attack in, but when the arcanine appears, large and scarred and glowing in the sun, she swaps her pokemon for Ludicolo instead.

“Bubblebeam!” she commands just as Blue yells “Sae!”

And his pokemon—

—blurs—

Extreme Speed

—into Ludicolo, knocking it entirely around.

Most other pokemon would fall, but ludicolo are exceptionally light on their feet, and their near-constant motion from one foot to the other makes it easy for them to stay standing. She prepares to command it to attack again, but a “Faf!” from Blue has his pokemon sink flaming jaws into the back of her, and then it begins to snap its whole body violently side to side.

“Flail!” she yells, and her pokemon does exactly that; it starts to swing itself back and forth, limbs smacking the arcanine repeatedly as its whole body jerks and twists. Its pain and panic turn from a weakness to an asset, and it manages after just a few moments to slip free of the arcanine’s jaws.

As Blue’s pokemon recovers from the multiple blows its opponent landed in its mortal terror, Erika yells “Bubblebeam!” and Ludicolo spins and shoots—

—”Saeb!”—

—and misses as the arcanine is suddenly on the other side of the arena.

“Sae!”

And then it’s nearly knocking Ludiculo off balance again, and the next bubblebeam has the same result, and the one after that.

It’s happening again, she realizes, noticing the way ludiculo is slowing. The houndoom’s poison has been doing its work, slowly but surely, and by the time Blue’s Soul has tired from its rapid movements and she finally manages to hit it, the stream is weaker than any that came before, and the arcanine slows further, but doesn’t stop.

She thought her pokemon would be, on average, a little more powerful than Blue’s. This arcanine is in a league of its own.

She opens her mouth to yell another attack, but her pokemon is wobbling like a spinda, and instead she yells “Return! Go, Rotom! Thunderbolt!”

“Sae!”

The arcanine slams into Rotom just before the electricity arcs around it, and both pokemon fall to the ground together.

One to one. A golbat against a vileplume. Normally she would have no chance, but his pokemon is injured…

“Go, Nin!”

“Go, Vileplume!”

“Aw!”

“Sleep Powder!”

The golbat dives directly into the cloud as it strikes at her pokemon, wings and claws and teeth tearing, and it’s all over in moments.

Nin’s movements slow, and then it flops to the ground, fast asleep.

And Vileplume, torn up and bleeding from half a dozen places, falls to the ground, unmoving.

Utter silence descends, and what breaks the tension in Erika is a bubbling laugh.

A draw.

After all that… their conversation, the speech she made, the choice she gave Blue…

A draw. No badge, and shared glory.

She could live with that.

“Return!”

“Return!”

Erika reclips her ball to her belt, and smiles at Blue, a wide, genuine smile. That was more fun than she’s had in… well, at least a month.

“Well,” she says in the public channel. “For the first time in my admittedly short Leadership, a match has ended with no clear winner. Challenger, you and your pokemon fought—”

“Excuse me, Leader,” Blue interrupts in private chat, speaking so quickly that Erika nearly doesn’t understand him. “You said defeat your five pokemon, in the Challenge.”

“—exceptionally well,” she finishes, editing on the fly as she considers his words. Does he mean to challenge her ruling? A case could be made, she supposes, that by the strict definition of “defeat” he has won… certainly in the wild, if he defeats his last opponent he would be considered safe. But comparison to wild battles are a rule of thumb, and the general consensus in the League is that a draw is not a victory in a Challenge match.

“Thank you, Leader,” Blue is saying to the arena at large. “I came expecting my toughest Challenge yet, and you showed me that I clearly have much more to learn.”

“Do you really want a badge on a draw?” she murmurs in private. “Not good optics, people will always question it. Lower esteem for us both.” She switches to public. “As do we all.”

Blue’s expression is impossible to read, but he seems to be struggling with something. A second passes, then two, and Erika feels the silence begin to stretch on too long. She has to say something, and disappointing as it may be to Blue, the only thing that makes sense is—

“I believe, however, that the battle may not be over yet. With your permission, Leader…” He reaches for his belt and unclips a greatball. “My Soul is stronger than it looks.”

Oh you cheeky son of a…

This would look terrible if he’s wrong, worse than accepting a draw or awarding a badge on one. But there’s only one thing she can say:

“As you will, Challenger.”

Blue nods, then takes a breath and braces his arm, pointing the ball to the ground in front of his platform. “Go, Soul.”

His arcanine materializes in a flash, lying on its side. From here Erika can just make out the rise and fall of its side, but its eyes are closed. Its fur doesn’t show the electricity burns any non-Fire pokemon would be sporting now, so there’s even less of a way to tell how much damage is below the surface.

Blue is climbing down, and she knows what he’s going to do before he does it. Ten steps with the eyes of the city on him, back and shoulders straight, and then he’s beside his pokemon, and placing a hand on its fur.

His mouth moves, but his mic is off. Later, a close-up camera and some lipreading would reveal the words, “Go on, boy. Show them who we are.”

In the now, Erika simply watches as the arcanine opens its eyes, gets slowly to its feet, looks around at the empty arena… and, without any further prompting from Blue, raises its head to the sky and roars.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify me by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter. Thank you!

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