Tag Archives: rationalist writing

Chapter 69: Missions

When Red teleports to the Sakai Ranch, the sun is approaching its zenith, and he takes a moment to enjoy its warmth on his skin. He’s not sure he’ll ever consider himself an “outdoorsy person,” but since moving to Saffron he’s come to appreciate being outdoors more than he can ever remember being before. He knows getting more sun sometimes helps with depression, but by the time he’s back to being Past Red it’s usually evening. In the week since he saw Dr. Seward, he has yet to make any meaningful progress with his other self… mostly because he hasn’t really tried.

Red finally feels like his skin has absorbed enough of the sun’s warmth and makes his way toward the ranch house, spotting Mr. Sakai as he emerges. “Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Red. So good of you to visit. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The rancher starts walking along the hexagonal perimeter of the nearby caterpie pen without waiting for an answer, throwing food into it from one of the sacks hanging at his waist. Red watches him go, conflicted emotions churning through him, then heads inside to get his own bags.

With Leaf living on the ranch and the RAWP therapy group coming by every few days, it rarely needs extra help. But Red still comes once in a while. Partly to help Leaf and Mr. Sakai, partly as an ongoing tribute to Aiko, a more practical equivalent to putting flowers on her grave. Even with his partition up, he still gets a little teary as he straps the feed bags around his waist, thinking of that first day they arrived here together. How nervous she was. How hopeful.

The sound of footsteps descending the stairs makes him quickly wipe his eyes before he turns.

Leaf is as pretty as ever in a plain shirt and jeans, her waist conspicuously absent of a pokebelt. He wonders if she feels strange without it. She smiles upon seeing Red, and he smiles back. Maybe there’s a part of him with selfish motive for coming too.

“Hey Red! I thought you couldn’t get a free afternoon this week?” she asks as Raff and Joy gambol down the stairs after her. Raff has gotten big, practically filling the stairway, and Red is happy to see Joy bouncing happily around the room without issue, apparently having finally gotten used to having just one eye.

“Saw my therapist last week, decided to shift some stuff around. How’s it going with you?”

She lifts a hand and rocks it side to side as she sits beside the door and starts pulling her shoes on. “The bad days are pretty bad, but they’re getting outnumbered little by little.” She finishes tying one set of laces, and he watches her brush her hair off her shoulder before she starts the second. “How’s The List? Cross anything off yet?”

On his first week in Saffron City, Red wrote up a list of the things he wanted to accomplish from his time with Sabrina, after which he would re-evaluate whether it was time to move on and do something else:

Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.

Develop ability to meld with pokemon enough to freely teleport with abra.

Learn telekinesis (or at least try everything advised before giving up)

Find an aspect of psychic phenomena confusing enough for major experiment.

It was tempting to keep adding more, and he had to remind himself multiple times that it wasn’t a list of all the things he wants to master about his powers, just what could reasonably be expected to be done in a few years and would make the most out of having such exclusive tutelage.

“Making progress. Particularly thanks to Aiko’s drowzee.”

It was a shock when Leaf called a couple weeks ago to explain that Aiko registered a will just a few days before Zapdos hit Vermilion, a coincidence that had his thoughts turn briefly superstitious before sanity reasserted itself. It was a short document, the gist of which was that Leaf got first pick of her pokemon, with the exception of any that would help with Red’s research, and Blue would have whatever was left.

It was simple, but made sense. Aiko didn’t know when she would need her will to be executed, what pokemon she might still have, and which of the other three might even still be alive. In essence she just placed her trust in the trio to get along and work out something fair, with just a few suggestions to make it clear that she was thinking of them.

The one exception was her eevee, who specifically went to Blue, then Leaf, then Red. The reason why was obvious, but it still hurt a little, considering he was the one who diagnosed Eevee so she could be healthy. Still, since his first thought was what a waste it would be to train the shiny eevee rather than trade it for far more powerful pokemon, Red can’t even say she chose wrong. He wondered if Leaf felt the same, but didn’t ask.

The only pokemon he’d taken for his research was her venonat, one of the magnemite she caught the night of the storm, and a drowzee from the same.

“Drowzee? Why?” Leaf asks as she straps on her own feed bags and heads outside. “Does it have a particularly large nose?”

Red smiles and follows her, summoning Pikachu and Nidoran from their balls. He’d bring Charmeleon out too, but with all these wooden pens around he doesn’t want to constantly be watching in case his pokemon’s tail bobs too close to one. “You know, I haven’t checked. But no, it’s… well, since two of my goals, maybe three, can be developed by getting better at melding with psychic pokemon, I’ve been spending most of my free time at the gym.”

“Well, that’s just ironic.” Leaf and Red split up to walk along the opposite side of a path with pens on either side for them to feed. She carefully measures food out for each pokemon while he uses his powers to sense how hungry each one is. “I don’t know if Blue would be happy or pissed,” Leaf says as she throws food in different directions for a group of rattata, making the whole pen run after each piece until all but two are busy nibbling. She has to tell them “Eat!” before they accept the food.

“Not for battling,” Red explains, ignoring the usual attempt to get him to talk about or to Blue.

Yeah, because that’s healthy.

Shut up, your idea of healthy is moping around all day.

“For what, then?”

“Being linked with pokemon as they use their abilities and practice maneuvers teaches me a lot more than sitting in my room with them.”

“But isn’t that what you did with your abra?”

“Yeah.” Red grimaces. “And as it turns out, abra are pretty boring.”

Leaf giggles. “I guess they do just sort of sit there. Or float, sometimes. They’re not social creatures, so I guess their inner world is just, what, looking for threats?”

Red nods. “And their next meal. Pikachu and Charmeleon are both constantly aware of their surroundings too, but they don’t automatically categorize everything as either a threat or food. There’s enough… confidence, in their ability to defend themselves, and enough expectation of safety, that there’s room for other things, like play.”

“But abra don’t really have a concept of ‘safe.'”

“Not naturally, no. I read that the pokeball simulations took a lot of work in the early days to repress their urge to teleport away all the time, and without that hypervigilance, there’s very little left of their minute to minute experience that’s particularly interesting.” Red shrugs. “So once I got used to their ridiculous hearing and having a tail, there wasn’t much to do other than spend the time strengthening the bond, which went slowly.” He frowns at her. “What?”

She’s giggling again. “Sorry, I just pictured you with a tail. What about telekinesis?”

He sighs and throws a handful of nuts and berries at a pair of maimed nidoran, one that’s missing a back leg, the other a front one. “Eat! Tried it. I could feel them doing something as they moved stuff around, but I can’t seem to activate the same part of my brain. Maybe because their brain structure is too different, or maybe because my telekinesis is just too weak.”

“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”

“Right. It’s only been a couple days, but I already feel more in tune with her than either of my abra. She pays a lot more attention to the nuance of others’ mental states, rather than just scanning for friend or foe.”

Leaf is quiet a moment as she moves on to the next pen. “Makes sense. I read up on them, and despite looking so goofy, they’re predators. They hunt in packs to overwhelm enemies that are wide awake, but for a single one it’s unreliable. So they probably need to be able to check how sleepy their opponents are.”

“Exactly. Since I noticed that, I’ve practiced paying attention to the same things in my own reading of others.” He casually tosses another handful of food out and orders the pokemon to eat it too. “So. Long night?”

“Red!” He feels a berry bounce off the back of his head, and turns with a grin to see Leaf glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t!”

“Just a guess, promise!”

Her glare fades to suspicion. “Okay. Sorry I threw the berry at you even though you sort of deserved it.” She smiles as she sees Pikachu sniffing at it.

“You’re forgiven. Pikachu, eat.” His pokemon electrifies the berry with a crackling sound until it’s steaming, then eats it in a quick gulp. “So what kept you up? The usual secretive project?”

“Yes,” she says as she moves to the next pen and scoops seeds over it for the three flightless pidgey hopping around in it. “Oh, also a Tier 1 went off nearby just after midnight.”

Red stops and turns to her, eyes wide. “What? I didn’t hear about that! Were you involved in any of the fighting?”

“No, by the time I was dressed and halfway there, it was already over. Guess it didn’t make major news.”

“Ah.” Red turns back to his work, wondering if she considered calling him to come help. Wondering if she didn’t because of Aiko.

Of course she doesn’t trust us. It’s only natural for her to-

“Speaking of my secret project,” Leaf says. “I want to talk to you about it.”

Or not.

“Really? That’s great! What’s changed?”

“I may need your help. I’ll tell you more after lunch. How are you and Laura getting along?”

He sighs. “Still encouraging me to talk to Blue. Don’t you start, too.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She’s quiet for a moment. “So, not well?”

“It’s not… terrible.” They did a lot of talking after the storm, once she got over her shock that he purposefully went into it, summarized what happened, and eventually described his ultimate decision.

She cried, which would have made him feel pretty wretched if she didn’t start hugging him too, which made him start crying too. She was the first person he met to wholeheartedly make him feel like she was glad he didn’t go into the building; she didn’t even bring his father up, perhaps remembering their talk after the Viridian Fire.

If they’d left it there, they might be on good terms. But then she insisted that she would talk to Blue, and he insisted that she shouldn’t, and then they had a new thing to argue about and carefully dance around. In the meantime, she’s gotten better about updating him on what she’s been working on, including catching him up on things that she was being quiet about, such as what happened to her in Celadon thanks to the kindly old President Silph, which led into her current investigations, which she still hasn’t revealed to him or Leaf, but keeps promising she will soon.

They finish feeding the pokemon while talking about why the Silph Company might have wanted to kill a Renegade on Mt. Moon, then return to the house to have lunch. The meatless spread doesn’t bother Red nearly as much as it did last time he was here, since he’s been keeping to his promise on the SS Anne with Leaf and not buying meat since he got back. It’s Mr. Sakai who has most of his attention through the meal. The older man seems more than ever like he’s just going through the motions of life, and it makes Red’s heart ache just being around him. He’s not sure how Leaf handles it day after day, but her courage gives him the strength to participate in small talk with him and act like everything is okay.

Once they’re done eating, they help him with the dishes, then Red follows Leaf into Aiko’s room, withdrawing all their pokemon except Raff and Pikachu. It’s largely the same it was a couple months ago, with just a couple changes to reflect the new inhabitants, one of which is Raff’s indoor soil to sleep on, which he goes to curl up in while Pikachu sniffs at the electronics until Red picks him up and pulls him onto his lap as he sits on the bed.

“So, what’s the big secret? What have you been working on?”

Leaf sits beside him and takes a breath as if to brace herself, then says, “The sakki program.”

Whatever Red was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You’re… did I hear you right? Sakki, as in killing intent? Not some program for Mr. Sakai?”

“Right.”

“I notice that I’m confused.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, I’m not a hallucination.”

“Then why…?”

“The Zapdos attack made me realize some things,” Leaf says gaze distant as she leans back in her chair and looks up the ceiling. “About the real scope of the problem I’ve been trying to face.”

Red slowly nods. “I’ve been reading your articles. They’re good, lots of receptive responses, particularly for the ones on that coordinator college site…”

“And lots of pushback.” She sighs. “Most of which seemed pretty intractable.”

“Stupid, too,” Red mutters, and her smile warms him. He doesn’t agree with a lot of Leaf’s positions, obviously, but he still spent more time than he probably should have trading insults with the most offensive of the poorly thought out comments on her articles. He wonders if she saw those. “But you knew you weren’t going to change the world in just a few months.”

“When Aiko and I talked about this, we spoke in years. But Red, I don’t think I can do it in a few decades. There are too many voices out there, and too many other causes, and… Every major incident is a recurring reason to keep to the status quo. Maybe I’ll eventually have enough influence to make some measurable difference, but it would be a fight of generations to really see the societal changes, and meanwhile, millions of more pokemon and humans suffer.”

Red shrugs, wanting to cheer her up but not sure how. “What else can you do? In a way I think you picked the hardest goal of all three of us. And what does any of this have to do with sakki?

She reaches into her pocket and holds a piece of pokepuff out to Pikachu’s nose. Red’s pokemon sniffs it, ears twitching, but doesn’t eat it. “He doesn’t cook pokepuffs, right?”

“Right.”

“So how long will he stay like this?”

“Haven’t checked in a while.” He counts to two minutes while Pikachu sniffs at the puff, looks away, looks back, sniffs it again… but keeps his mouth closed.

Leaf is smiling. “You trained him well. Would you mind using sakki on him, just for a moment?”

Red blinks at her, wondering what changed how scared of it she was before… then puts the pieces together.

“Killing intent” is what they called it, but only because its most obvious and immediate purpose was combat. But all it really does is give pokemon a mental state that removes restrictions of what’s “allowed.” Earlier when they were feeding the pokemon, many of them needed an explicit command to eat. Programming tech can expand the context of commands that are needed, but it can’t remove the need for them, once conditioned.

Red merges with Pikachu, acclimating to his pokemon’s mood in less than a second as his perception of the world doubles. The pokepuff smells delicious, and Red feels his own mouth watering. He starts to project the feeling of sakki, paying close attention to Pikachu’s impulses.

Once the feeling of release is complete, his pokemon darts forward to snatch the pokepuff from Leaf’s fingers. Red is already stopping the projection, and they watch as Pikachu happily chews his treat. Even without an initial command, his self-control isn’t that good that he’d stop after retroactively regaining the conditioning.

“So Aiko wanted to use a sakki program to remove the blocks from the ranch pokemon’s natural behaviors,” Red says. “Or at least the ones that haven’t been maimed, so they can be released back into the wild. But how does that help reduce wild pokemon suffering?”

Leaf just watches him, waiting with the calm patience of someone waiting for the inevitable. Whatever it is, she’s sure he’ll get it. Which reminds him to start at the basic assumptions.

There are generally just two parts to any belief someone holds: information and values. If she thinks he can figure it out on his own, she must believe that he has the information he needs to understand what her idea is based on. If that’s true, but he’s still not getting it, it’s because he’s not seeing the world enough from her perspective, through the lens of her values, to figure out what she’s thinking.

So he thinks back to those moments on the cruise, when their minds merged, and he saw the world from her perspective. Once he remembers how she feels about pokemon, and how much she values their wellbeing compared to other things he would normally rank much higher, it becomes obvious.

“You want to do it with all caught pokemon…” he says, slowly smiling as excitement grows in him. “But let them keep their non-aggression conditioning.” He has to remind himself not to get carried away before hearing more details, but… “Leaf, that’s genius.”

Leaf is grinning back, and blushing slightly. “Not genius enough. I checked online, people have occasionally brought it up as an idea, but always like a park, or your Safari Zone. I talked to Bill about it-“

Red feels a flare of envy. The inventor was upset with them for leaving the cruise, but after seeing their notes seemed mollified. Still, he hasn’t reached out to Red since, or responded to basic queries. Maybe he needs to just keep pestering the absent-minded inventor…

“-and he said that the technological barrier has two major elements. First to remove any type of conditioning we don’t want, second to maintain specific conditioning.”

“One interferes with the other,” Red guesses, stroking Pikachu’s back.

“Right. So from a programming angle, the hardest, but most direct way to do this would be to have individual programs for each pokemon to retrain them on how to live in the wild. The easiest way would be to just write a whole new and much simpler training program that only puts in restrictions on their aggressive behaviors, while keeping everything else the same… but that has additional complications.”

“Like how would it be distributed? With anti-tampering as strong as it is…”

“Right, it would mean entirely new balls specifically for this, which is economically a difficult sell.”

Red frowns, nodding. Even if existing pokeball software could be replaced, it would be a lot of work to safely wipe and download each one in a supervised environment. “Okay. So that’s a hurdle. But if people understand what it would mean…”

“I reached out to the Ranger General too. Well, to Ranger Matthew, who asked his captain, who passed it along before it came back to me. The concept itself isn’t totally strange, but using balls with a unique program for it is also a big disadvantage in the field. The ability to catch a pokemon, heal it, and use it right after without visiting a pokemon center first is often life saving.”

Red thinks of the spearow he caught on the way to Mt. Moon, then used against the paras swarm. The others probably had similar situations. “So we really do need a program to remove most conditioning, if this is going to catch on.”

“Yeah.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, displacing his hat as he considers the world she’s imagining and thinks of failure modes. “Babies?”

She shrugs. “Maintaining this would still be a fraction of current resources used for wild threats, but there are ideas to make even that easier, like adding in training that would designate breeding areas or seasons so that it’s easy to go through an area at certain times and catch babies as soon as they hatch.”

“Man, that would be… would the Rangers really be okay with something that affects wild pokemon behavior so much?”

Leaf sighs. “They would be one of the main groups needing convincing, yeah. The Ranger General said if a program like that existed, he might try picking a small and secluded area as a test zone and send a dozen ranger teams combing through it to catch every pokemon they find, recondition them to be able to live in the wild again, then keep moving on until the entire area has pokemon in it that can survive in the wild, but won’t attack humans. But they would want to wait for years afterward to make sure there’s no hidden effects on the pokemon’s life cycles or ecosystem, and he absolutely refused the idea of normal trainers getting involved.”

“I bet. There would be tons of people who’d want to help just to keep any rare pokemon they catch. But if you can develop the tech and convince governments to keep it to Rangers and maybe gyms…” He trails off, a subtle worry blooming as he finishes fully understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. The natural world of pokemon would be forever changed into something that better serves human interests. Pokemon interests too, but it’s not like there would be a way to stop human on pokemon aggression, other than laws.

Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”

“Nothing. Just… would you really be okay with it? You asked me not to use sakki anymore during the cruise, and even if that changed when we fought the magneton, this still feels like a… bigger change. If your idea works, we’d be forever altering the behavior of a significant portion of wild pokemon.” He watches her. “None of that bothers you?”

“Of course it does, Red.” She sighs. “You didn’t say it, but we also talked about mind control, and yes, to a part of me, that’s what this feels like. But what happened in Vermilion…”

Her gaze drops, and Red watches her cautiously. They’ve never talked in detail about what they went through, either alone or together. It’s easy to guess at what might have changed her mind, assuming he was there for it. The conflicted fear and sorrow that filled her voice when she told him to use sakki. The people they left behind at the burning building. The nidoqueen almost killing her…

“I can see why you became the way you are,” Leaf says. “Why everyone did. I was pretty privileged, growing up. Not just because of who mom and grandpa were, but because I was always on the move. Because I never lost anyone, the way most people did, that night.”

“Oh.” He feels like he should be objecting to “the way you are,” and he hears Past Red quietly murmuring about their decision about Aiko, but he doesn’t think that’s what she meant, and he ignores him. “I wish you still hadn’t.”

“Yeah.” Leaf looks around the room, smile watery, and takes a deep breath as she rubs her eyes, just once each. “That would have been nice.”

Red’s gaze drops, examining his hands. “I did wonder, at some point, whether you might change your mind on pokemon battling,” he says, voice quiet. “If you went through something bad enough. But it sounds like you’ve skipped ahead of the rest of us. Guess I just wanted to make sure you’re not feeling conflicted about it, or… that it’s not coming from a bad place, if that makes sense.”

“It does.” Leaf shrugs. “Humans do what we have to. I get it. But even if I grow the stomach to accept trainer battles, the real problem we all face… it’s not something that’s going to ever be solved by it. A thousand years from now, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how much society evolves, no matter how many Elite level trainers there are, even if every single legendary pokemon is caught, the wilderness will still be a hostile place, and people will still need to train pokemon to fight to defend ourselves. And that’s just…”

She lets out a breath, and shakes her head, face hard and gaze distant. “It’s unacceptable.”

Red is smiling, the iron resolve in her voice making something flutter in his chest. “Well. You don’t dream small, do you?”

Leaf’s gaze jumps to his, and she slowly grins before echoing back, “Where’s the fun in that?”

“None at all.”

“So, you’ll help?”

“Of course!”

Leaf beams at him in a way that warms him all the way to his heart, and Future Red suddenly pipes up. Hey, don’t we maybe want to talk about a commitment this big? What about all those other goals we’ve got?

We’ll figure something out. It’s the right thing to do.

And also the way she’s smiling at us feels really good.

And that, yes.

“I can already see some problems, though,” he cautions.

Leaf snorts, still smiling as she starts ticking points off with her fingers. “Poachers will be a much bigger problem if people can just stroll through any area and capture whatever they want, flying pokemon are probably never going to be fully domesticated, nor pokemon that live underground, nor water pokemon…”

“Ghosts,” Red adds, and she sticks up her pinky before raising her other hand. “And pokemon that appear by abiogenesis…”

“And this won’t help with the frontiers… yeah.” She drops her hands. “It’s not as amazing a plan as it first sounds.”

“It’s not,” Red agrees. “But it’s still amazing.” She grins at him again, and he feels his neck flush, hoping he doesn’t end up disappointing her. “What can I do, though? I’m not a programmer, or particularly influential.”

She gives him a look he can’t interpret before saying, “Well, the sakki is probably the most important thing we have to help develop the un-conditioning program. I was confused at first about how Aiko made so much progress mimicking it virtually, until I realized what must have happened.”

She’s still watching Red, as if expecting him to guess… no, as if expecting him to admit to something. “Uh. What?”

“You used sakki on one of her pokemon before she withdrew it, right? So she could analyze the changes it would have in a virtual environment?”

Red blinks. “What? No! I wouldn’t do that!”

Something shifts in her gaze, moving through doubt and into hope. “Really?”

“Yes, really! She never even asked.”

“Huh.” Leaf bites her lower lip. “Was there… any time when you used it on one of her pokemon?”

Red opens his mouth. Closes it. Shifts in his seat.

She sighs. “Red…”

“I mean, she was there when I did tests to make sure the state doesn’t persist after a pokemon comes back out, and tried maintaining it on more than one pokemon at a time… oh.”

She leans an arm on the desk and rests her chin in one hand, brow raised. He fleetingly wishes he could take a picture. “Oh?”

Red shifts again, heat creeping up his neck in embarrassment this time. “Okay, so what had happened was, the failsafe in that case was that she’d just withdraw her pokemon if she seemed worried about it. We already knew that once released the pokemon would have undergone their conditioning again and be safe, so I didn’t think of it, but… if she didn’t release and return it again after that, her ball had a record of its capture state.”

Leaf rubs her face. “And did this happen with anyone else?”

“…yes. But Aiko’s the only one that was trying to understand and replicate sakki, so I doubt any of them saved that mental state.”

“Mmhm. That sneaky, brilliant bitch.” She sighs, ignoring Red’s shocked face. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Who knows, maybe someone else will figure it out and save me the trouble.”

Red’s phone chimes, and he checks the message to see one from Sabrina. It’s requesting a meeting of all her students as soon as possible. “Damn it. I have to go sooner than I thought.”

“That’s alright. We can talk more later.” Leaf stands. “I’ll walk you out.”

They head outside, and Red goes down the porch steps while Leaf stays on it. He summons Saffron (once Cerulean, then Vermilion), wishing she would hug him goodbye. It’s something he feels she would have initiated, before. But now there’s a cautious distance in their friendship that feels fragile, and he supposes a hug might feel risky, to her. Or maybe he’s just coming off as less friendly now, without realizing it…

Red pauses to look back at Leaf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did I seem okay to you, today?”

Leaf’s brow rises, then draws down in concern. “Uh. Yeah, I think so. Is something wrong?”

“Nah, I’ve just been spending a lot of time with psychics lately, and thought I should just check to make sure I’m still… myself.”

She smiles. “That’s a very Red thing to be concerned about. Who else would you be?”

He thinks of telling her about Past Red, but that would be a much longer conversation. “Someone who doesn’t care about his friends,” is what comes out instead, and it isn’t until after he says it that he realizes how much it hurts to think that it might be true.

And now Leaf is walking toward him, arms going around his shoulders as she pulls him into a hug.

“You care, Red,” she murmurs as heat flushes through him… and tears prick at his eyes as he hugs her back. “No matter what may have happened, or will happen, I know that.”


Red teleports back to the roof of the small apartment building where Sabrina and her students live, the feel of Leaf’s concern still lingering on his body and heart. He barely sees his surroundings as he makes his way down, feet taking him through his now-familiar new home without conscious thought.

Most of the building has been refitted for use as class and training rooms, as well as a floor dedicated to experimentation. Red was amazed and humbled by it his first couple of weeks, and it still has some effect on him, shaking him out of his thoughts as he goes to his room to change, then hurries out of the building and toward the nearby Gym, where Sabrina called the meeting for some reason. He wonders if whatever they’re being assembled to speak about will involve gym business, and worries briefly about an incident that might have occured nearby.

“Hey Verres, catch!”

Red’s arm darts up before he even spots the object, pivoting in the direction of the voice and stopping the crumpled up fast food bag an inch from his face.

In the brief moment after his hand grips it, he feels its momentum continue, pushing his hand back enough that his knuckle grazes his nose. Then it becomes inert, and he lowers his hand to see Daniel walking toward him.

Red is both the youngest of Sabrina’s students and the newest, but before last month, that second attribute would have gone to Daniel. The lanky blonde has been in Saffron for just a year, but at 16 he’s one of the best psychics in a city known for its psychics, with an intricate understanding of how his abilities work that keep allowing him to push the envelope. He’s dressed in a simple white shirt with a purple hakama that flows around his legs, attire that’s different enough to mark him as a psychic without quite fitting into any particular school or tradition.

Red eyes Daniel warily as he tosses the bag in a nearby trash can, not pausing in his walk. “Hello, Daniel.” The continued force behind the relatively weightless object made it clear that it was telekinetically propelled and guided.

The older boy shakes his head as he falls into step with Red, the two making their way toward the gym together. “You didn’t even try, Verres. How do you expect to awaken your kinesis like this?”

“I’ve been practicing it on and off for months,” Red says, voice flat. “I don’t think it’s going to randomly start working now.”

“You’re the one that said pokemon abilities are the key to understanding psychic powers, right? That kids do stuff by accident all the time, just by willpower or sudden need? Maybe once you’ve unlearned those trainer instincts, it’ll come to you.”

Red sighs. The argument had been about whether psychic pokemon could really even be considered “psychics,” since none are sapient enough to actually understand what they’re doing, and so many of their abilities have been observed in non-psychic pokemon. This seems to be Daniel’s way of proving his point that real psychic abilities are tied to a deeper understanding of what you’re doing, rather than just relying on instincts like pokemon. “And in the meantime, I should just let myself be hit in the face.”

Daniel shrugs. “It’s your theory. But it would be a small sacrifice if it ends up working, right?”

Red eyes the blonde, but says nothing. He can never get a read on him, psychically or otherwise. The first time he’d thrown something at Red it had been a pencil, aimed at his chest, shortly after finding out that he had seemingly no ability to use telekinesis at all. Since then he’s done it half a dozen times, never in a way that presented any real danger to Red, so Red might just look immature if he complains to Sabrina.

He doesn’t know that she’d think that, but even if she acknowledges it as bullying, she’s the kind of Leader and teacher who tends to expect people to at least try to work out their problems alone before coming to her.

Besides, Red’s pretty sure that even if his mind were read, Daniel would be able to honestly say that he was just trying to see if Red’s telekinesis would awaken. For all Red knows that is his only motivation; like most of Sabrina’s students, he’s even more obsessed with psychic phenomenon and advancement than Red.

Daniel was raised in a small superstitious town with no other psychics in it. He somehow managed to teach himself enough about his powers in secret that, after pretending he wanted to become a trainer, he used the money his parents gave him to apply for the license and buy equipment to travel to Saffron and get close enough to Sabrina to impress her with his mental powers.

It’s a story that would impress Red enough to want to befriend the older boy, if his perspective wasn’t so… bizarre.

“Any idea why we’re meeting at the gym?” Red asks.

“Got the same message you did. Maybe she wants us to work with some of the trainers there again.” He doesn’t bother disguising the distaste in his voice, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Like I’ve got time to teach normals.”

It’s a common word, among the psychics who dislike the term “gifted” and “ungifted,” and find “non-psychic” too burdensome. But coming from Daniel, the word has an unpleasant edge to it.

“There are psychic trainers there too,” Red reminds him. “And like I said, I’ve been learning a lot from merging with psychic pokemon.”

“Still no telekinesis though. Seems like it should be a pretty straightforward test.”

Before Red can reply they enter the gym, and see another of Sabrina’s students waiting at the elevator. The three exchange simple nods for greeting as they wait for the elevator. Tatsumaki is almost as short as Red despite being in her mid-twenties, with curly green hair and a simple black collared dress. She’s widely considered the best telekinetic in Kanto, though she’ll quickly insist that she’s only the “strongest,” and that Sabrina is close behind while also being more “versatile.”

Red once asked her what the difference is, and she went on for twenty minutes about the distinction between raw telekinetic strength and the actual ability to manipulate and affect objects with it. He sort of got part of it, something like the difference between not just how much muscle you have but how good you are at using your whole body to lift a heavy box, compared to how well you intrinsically understand the weight distribution and shifting of the objects in the box and can balance it as you maneuver on the fly. But a lot of the phrases and concepts apparently had to be experienced to be fully understood, and most of it went over his head.

Once she finally stopped to ask about his telekinetic ability and he admitted his lack of any, she lost interest in the conversation, and seemed annoyed with him ever since, as if he wasted her time.

The elevator ride up is quiet too, and they move together to Sabrina’s office once they arrive at the top floor. The rest of the students are inside already, and Leader Sabrina is at her desk, with her Second and Third, Tetsuo and Keiji, standing at her sides.

Who died? Red thinks with sudden foreboding. Whatever this is, it’s something serious. He drops his mental shield for a moment to do a quick probe around, and feels a few others probing around as a general mood of anticipation and worry permeates.

Tatsumaki and he are the only two of Sabrina’s students in what Red would consider “normal” clothes. Satori Komeiji, the second youngest student at 15, is dressed in a flowing blue blouse and a flared skirt that goes from white to pink toward the edges, matching her hair and making her look like a big flower. Despite her youth, she’s one of the best mind readers in Kanto, and bonds incredibly well with pokemon… which is possibly why she barely ever talks to people.

Rowan Donkerk, a pale young man in his early twenties, wears the same white overcoat over black shirt and pants that Psychic Narud did, with the same words warning against the idea of a set fate written on the sleeves. He specializes in partitions and memory manipulation, and is apparently from an absurdly wealthy family in another region who came specifically to train with Sabrina, while also being initiated into the same sect as Narud.

Jason Grey is a lanky older teen wearing religious vestments, the oversized clothes hanging in huge folds around his body as his fingers spin the prayer beads around his neck. Red doesn’t know much about him except that he’s a trainer too; his starter was apparently a gastly that he tamed without even using a pokeball, earning him both Elite Agatha and Leader Sabrina’s attention. He was only a year into his journey before he accepted apprenticeship with Sabrina, and has been here for a couple years now. He always seems nervous, and barely talks to anyone more than he has to.

And finally there’s Rei, Sabrina’s most senior student in both senses of the word. Her long blonde hair is tied up in a severe bun, and her kimono looks like it’s worth a fortune, back ramrod straight as she watches their teacher and waits for the meeting to begin. If she has a specialty, Red hasn’t learned it; she just seems to be good at everything, and a general genius besides.

Sabrina herself cuts an imposing figure in a simple red turtleneck and black jeans. Like most Leaders, even while sitting quietly her presence seems to fill the room, likely due to some combination of his own expectations and subtle charisma on her part. Tetsuo and Keiji wear their personalized Gym uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Sabrina says, hands folded on her desk. “I’ll keep this brief. An emergency has come up, and I’m going to be unreachable for an unknown period of time of at least a few days, possibly more than a week.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he senses the shock bounce around the room full of psychics. It’s not unusual for Sabrina to go radio silent for hours at a time, and with her ability to teleport to so many places on a whim she still manages to have nearly as busy a schedule as most Gym Leaders. But disappearing for days at a time is a first.

“Tetsuo and Keiji will run the gym in my absence, but I’ll be relying on the rest of you to not only continue your classes, but assist them however you’re needed. None of you are in the gym’s chain of command, but they are both your seniors in psychic knowledge and experience, and can teach you things even I can’t. See this as an opportunity to branch out. No, Jason,” Sabrina says, looking at her student, who had barely twitched. “Not with that, it will have to wait until I return. But you will all have another assignment while I’m gone, and it has primary importance after the smooth operation of the gym, and your own classes.”

They all sit up straight as her gaze sweeps over them once before she finally takes a breath and says it: “I’ve come to suspect that someone has managed to fully partition their mind, to the point where their exposed surface thoughts and emotions are independent from their true inner ones, though still within their control. A perfect mental shield.”

The room is deathly silent. Even Tetsuo and Keiji are staring at the Leader with wide eyes, apparently not having been filled in on the reason for her sudden absence separately. This must really be fresh news.

What Red feels isn’t shock so much as dread. What Sabrina’s describing is someone who can act as the perfect liar. Not just able to hide their thoughts and emotions, but able to do so while they make people, that is to say, psychics, believe they aren’t. The difference between how they would be treated compared to someone who’s Dark or a Psychic using a mental shield would be night and day.

And just the rumor of such an ability would drastically lower trust in psychics everywhere, both those who might be using it and the ability of psychics to act as lie detectors.

“How sure are you of this, Leader?” Satori asks.

“Let’s say at least 70%. Enough to act on it decisively, and ask you all to as well. This is your assignment; try to do the same thing yourselves. Prove that it’s possible, if you can. If not, document all the things you try. Yes, Rowan?”

“Are both minds independent?” her student asks, brow drawn. “Does their behavior ever seem erratic, or at odds with themself?”

“A good question, but not noticeably. He almost always appears to be in total control of his emotional state, and the few exceptions don’t point to such a dichotomy of self.”

Red has taken his notebook out and started scribbling the questions and answers. A few of the others glance at him, but Sabrina ignores it. She knows him well enough by now. As he scribbles out the answers she’s giving to people’s questions, he also starts listing the things that he’s known have developed new abilities in him.

Unique circumstances

Mimicking other mental states

Forced to work around limits

Experiencing others using abilities

“The psychic,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Do people know if he spent a lot of time with other psychics, or pokemon?”

Sabrina’s gaze holds his, and he reinforces his shield automatically, though he feels no attempt to breach it. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s thought. “He spent a lot of time merged with all sorts of people, not just psychics, and has explicitly merged with lots of psychic pokemon as they used abilities.”

Red’s face falls as he notes that down, and it’s Rei that beats him to the punch: “Then it’s possible more than one person, or even pokemon, is capable of this.”

The room is quiet again as people glance at her, until Sabrina finally says, “Operate as though that’s not true, for now. It’s possible he learned how to do this by mimicking someone or something else, but that still leaves the question of how they did it. I believe that he pieced it together from disparate insights and abilities, or just worked it out himself. That’s why I need you all to work together on this. You’re some of the most gifted and brilliant psychics in the world. I’m counting on you.”

They all stand at attention and bow, and Sabrina bows back. Red feels dread as he considers the upcoming days. He’s the newest among the group, and the youngest, and the weakest, and the least experienced. More than any of that, none of his peers seem to particularly like him. But then, how much effort has he really put into that, so distracted by the newness of all this, and his own issues and goals? Optimistically this could be an opportunity to show them his worth, but if they don’t take him seriously or work with him…

“Good luck, everyone.” Sabrina strides for the door.

“Leader,” Red calls out before he can stop himself, still used to referring to her by that title despite not being a trainer anymore.

She turns and gives him a passive expression that still somehow communicates impatience. “Yes?”

“Can we work with others, if we don’t tell them what it’s for?”

Sabrina considers this a moment, fingers tapping against her leg in an oddly uncontrolled gesture, for her. “There’s a saying, that three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The room chuckles (a little nervously, in Red’s case), and Sabrina smiles. “I’ve already told all of you, and am planning no murders, which means I can only blame myself if this gets out sooner than I’d like. I took you all on not just because of your abilities and drive, but because I trust you not to do anything that will reflect poorly on me or my Gym. Use your judgement… but for now, only psychics, and preferably gym members. Understood?”

Red bows and murmurs, “Yes, Leader,” along with everyone else’s mixed honorifics. It makes sense; a psychic will have as much of an incentive to let an expert manage the release of a secret like this, and of course none of Sabrina’s gym members will want to go against her wishes.

“Then good luck to you all.” The door slides open, then closes behind her.

Tetsuo steps forward. “Okay, so that was a shock to everyone. Feel free to use gym facilities to work on this, and call on us if you need assistance.”

“Or if you plan on pulling in any other gym members,” Keiji says, gaze on Red. He nods to show he understands.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our gym duties, we’ll be happy to help,” Tetsuo says, and the two leave the room. As soon as the door closes, Daniel speaks.

“We should pair up,” he says, glancing at Tatsumaki. Red suspects that he likes her, and it’s clear he has his partner picked out. “We might be more productive, with someone to discuss our ideas with.”

“Or we can all discuss together,” Satori says, voice dry. “Since that would lead to more discussions. I would prefer to consider this alone, for now at least.”

“Shouldn’t we at least discuss it?” Jason asks. “We all have different focuses and perspectives. Perhaps one of us has some insight to share?”

Rowan shrugs, bemused. “I highly doubt that, unless one of you has been secretly working on this yourselves. I for one have other commitments tonight, and agree that it would be a waste of time to try and talk about it yet.”

Rei steps to where Sabrina was standing and turns, drawing all their attention to her.

“We’ve been charged by our teacher to do something no one else has,” she says, calm and confident. “It is a great honor, and likely of vital importance. I propose we all take the day to prepare and consider the problem on our own, and meet tomorrow to discuss potential solutions and plans.”

“Seconded,” Red quickly says. “It’s good practice to avoid cross-contamination of ideas, and keeps us from discussing solutions before we’ve fully considered the problem.”

“Agreed,” Satori adds, voice distant. “Like Rowan, I have other projects I must put to rest first, so I may put my whole attention on this.”

“Fine with me,” Tatsumaki adds, and the others nod or shrug.

“Good,” Rei says. “We’ll meet for lunch tomorrow in our cafeteria.”

“Should we ask them to join us?” Jason asks, pointing a thumb at the door where Tetsuo and Keiji exited.

“No. Let’s not bother them until we have something specific to test or need advice on.” She heads for the door herself. “Remember, don’t speak with each other about this for the rest of the day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”


Red walks back home, notebook in one hand and gaze distant. He could have just teleported back, as some of the others did, and saved himself a five minute walk, but he’s so physically inactive these days that even short walks have some value, and he doesn’t want to get too lazy. Besides, once he gets to his room he’d just be sitting and thinking anyway.

His mind keeps wanting to shift away from useful pursuits to social worries about his relationship with Sabrina’s other students. On the one hand he knows it’s important to be able to work together, as situations like this show. And as Blue and Leaf convinced him, being respected is important if he wants his ideas to be taken seriously and spread.

But on the other, all of that feels like excuses to the simpler truth: he wants to be liked. Even Daniel, who rubs Red the wrong way, is powerful and clever, and as immature as it is to care what he thinks of Red on a personal level, he can’t help it.

Maybe it’s just because he spent months with people who he had a good relationship with, and he’s forgotten how to make friends. He tries to think of the last person who he actually had trouble getting along with for any significant amount of time besides Blue, and can’t think of any since leaving Pallet.

Is this helpful? Future Red wonders. You’re supposed to be thinking of the perfect mental shield.

Maybe it is. Maybe I’m stuck on it for good reason, and should deal with it before trying to just move on.

Red reaches the apartment building and presses his notebook against the wall of the elevator  as he rides it up to his floor, flipping to the page after the possible causes of the perfect shield.

Identify relative advantages. What do I bring to the table?

Formulate at least one hypothesis worth testing. Test it if possible.

Determine which students may be befriended. Try to do so before meeting.

Determine which gym members can be worked with. Meet them.

He reaches his floor and goes to his apartment, then sits at his desk and tries to think of something else. When a couple minutes pass without anything new, he tackles the first one.

What does he bring to the table? What’s special about him, his power, or the way he thinks?

Rei is probably at least as smart as him. Rowan is better at manipulating and creating partitions. Satori is a more experienced trainer and merger. Jason has a more unique outlook, or abilities, or whatever it is that lets certain psychics specialize with ghost pokemon. And aside from anything else, Daniel and Tatsumaki are just more experienced, which applies to the others.

What are his remaining strengths? No, first list the things that are unique, figure out what’s a strength or useful after.

His background in science. Being raised by a reporter and a ranger. His social connections with Professor Oak and Bill. His mind-state mimicking. His screwed up trauma reaction…

Red blinks. Rowan asked whether the psychic ever seemed to be at odds with themself, and Sabrina said no, so Red dismissed the idea that his alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which he calls Past Red, might be related.

But if he and Past Red were to come to an agreement, they wouldn’t be at odds anymore. Maybe the psychic that developed the perfect shield does have their own alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which acts as the buffer mind for the hidden one.

(He definitely needs to come up with another name for it, and he refuses to call it an alternate personality.)

He hasn’t spent the whole week putting off talking with Past Red. That would be lazy and childish. He’s just spent it preparing himself for the ways he might actually do it, to ensure he has a good plan. A foolproof method that wouldn’t risk him spending the rest of his day and night lying in bed depressed.

He flips to a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing.

Hey Past Red. I’m about to let the partition down. If you don’t respond to this and put it back up, I’m never purposefully doing this again. We both have something the other wants. Let’s talk.

He looks at the paper, then he lets his breath out. As he tries to think of anything else he can do to prepare, maybe a gesture of goodwill, he realizes he should summon Pikachu, and returns to his chair with the yellow mouse curled up in his lap. Finally, with a reluctance that takes a minute to overcome, he closes his eyes and starts to bring his partition down.

When Red opens his eyes again, he sighs at the silly paper in front of him. Of all the changes the partition causes in his personality when it’s up, the fact that he treats himself like a separate person is the most worrying. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to “communicate,” he can remember writing the words himself perfectly fine.

But he clearly does get pretty irrational with the partition up, and he supposes it’s a useful framing device that Dr. Seward would approve of that might help interface with that irrationality. Red scratches behind Pikachu’s ear with one hand as the other picks up the pencil.

Dear Future Red (I’m not calling you Present Red, because I’m Present Red, obviously),

You’re an idiot.

Love, Present Red

He puts the pencil down and stares at the paper for a moment, fighting the urge to just tear it up and forget this nonsense before passing on the idea as too much effort. His thoughts are already drifting to Aiko, today’s trip to the ranch having unearthed memories that drag at him. He needs to figure out the underlying reasoning behind what he did, understand if he made the right decision for the right reasons, before something like it happens again. It could happen any day, and he’s done nothing to prepare.

But if he doesn’t bring the partition back up, he’d lose future moments of clarity like this. Red grimaces at the idea of being a hostage to his own self, and lets the partition go back up.

It immediately feels like he just sucked in a breath of fresh air. He sighs it out, looking down at the paper. Past Red’s thought process is fresh on his mind; they can’t both exist at the same time, so this is a dead end path to go down. Red shakes his head, scowling at how defeatist he is with the partition down, and starts writing again.

Dear Mopey Red,

Your attitude sucks. If you

Red stops, then slowly erases what he wrote. It’s a symbolic gesture, since he’ll remember having written it anyway, but this isn’t going to work as long as they’re insulting each other.

Look. I know you feel like I’m just you on happy-pills or something, but if having most of my grief locked away is interfering with my thinking, then being flooded by it is probably interfering with yours too. I’m doing this because I can’t model you as clearly as you can model me, and because I think we can actually learn something from what’s going on with us. Even if I’m wrong, we should be working on resolving whatever this is anyway, right?

He reads it over, checking to make sure he wasn’t too rude, adds Thanks for putting the partition back up at the beginning, then brings it back down.

The transition is so abrupt this time that Red practically feels his thoughts changing, mood plummeting as his eyes scan over what he’d just written. It’s not impossible that learning more about this partition would be helpful in a number of ways, and he does need to resolve it. But how is the important part. While it’s up, he feels like he would happily just delete all these feelings if he could, or lock them away permanently, which feels like self-mutilation.

We can’t “resolve” it if you push off working on it and leave the partition up, he writes to his future self. The only reason it was brought down was because of Sabrina’s task. Don’t pretend that you’ll be motivated to bring it down voluntarily again after this is all over.

He brings the partition back up, and sighs. His past self is right. So what do you want in assurances? We should be able to find an arrangement that works.

Well first off I want you to stop treating this like a negotiation. You’re trying to barter with your own mental health.

I’m trying to make sure my mental health doesn’t put my life on hold.

That’s not how it works, and you know it. Plenty of people have already told you that this would take work. If you’re not willing to do it, then admit that to yourself.

What do you call this?

I call it bad priorities. How about you just do the right thing.

Red puts the pencil down and stares at the sheet, anger pushing through the haze of numbness and grief. Treating his changed personality like a different self feels like giving into pathology, but… Dr. Seward did suggest it. Maybe it will help him take what happened more seriously even with the partition up, if he can just convince himself that he might be ignoring a real problem he needs to fix.

Meanwhile, he should just leave the partition down as long as he can. It’s rare that it’s down this early, usually by the time he’s used enough psychic ability for it to come down he doesn’t usually have the energy to do more than just lay in bed. He could spend a few hours working out his decisions, maybe go back to Aiko’s ranch…

Red sighs, eyes closed, and rubs his face. He can’t blame his partitioned self that much, if he can barely muster the energy to confront such depressing thoughts himself. Pikachu stretches on his lap and walks over to his hand, nudging it for more scratches. He complies automatically, still thinking over what to do.

If he keeps the partition down, he’d be burning goodwill with his “other self.” And part of him is interested in figuring out what Sabrina discovered, though it’s distant.

“Whatever,” he mutters, and lets go, bringing the partition back up.

Red lets out a breath. That had been close. His gaze lingers on the words, Do the right thing, and something twists in his stomach. He remembers what it felt like, writing it. There was an undertone of bitterness and challenge, there.

“Whatever,” Red echoes, and turns the page. Time to form some hypotheses, then make some friends.

Chapter 68: Internal Family Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can lie down, if you want.”

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

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

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

“Better?”

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

“Why would I mind that?”

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

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

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

“Might? How reliable is that?”

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

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

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

“So, how has your visit been so far?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nightmares?”

“Very few, actually.”

“Good. Are you missing Blue and Leaf?”

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

“Nothing?”

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

“And Blue?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How what feels?”

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

Red shrugs. “It’s… it just feels—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her brow rises. “And will you?”

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

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

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

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

“I think it might be, yeah…”


Ten minutes.”

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes?”

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so,” Present Red said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” Present Red said, looking uncertain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” Red and Future Red said together.

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Was it lucid?”

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

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

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

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

Red sighs. “Not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Give me a moment to think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Corpus callosum.”

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

Dr. Seward’s brow rises. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

“And no lost time, either?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Not really, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d think that, yeah.”

“But you still feel conflicted?”

“Right now? No, the partition is up.”

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

Red hesitates, then nods and closes his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

…and is transported into another world.

“Red? Is everything alright?”

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

“What’s wr-… ah. Is this… Past Red?”

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

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

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

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

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

“…Could you clarify that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“For comfort?”

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

“Then by all means.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

“Sometimes, yeah.”

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

Red sighs. “No.”

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

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

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

“It’s fine. Guilt is close enough.”

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

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

“Oh, no. I was just curious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And as for how to figure that out…?”

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

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

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

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

Red frowns, but nods. “Alright.”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 67: Postmortem

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks like he’s dying.

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

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

“Hey, Gramps,” Blue whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relatively speaking.

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

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

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

Blue never got so much as a scratch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

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

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

“Mr. Oak? It’s time.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf,

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

Hope you feel better when you wake!

Elaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something must be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf smiles. Right. Easy as pie.

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

She checks her phone for messages again. Still nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiko S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The gym. Leaf… can we sit down?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Red says, and then

she watches his lips form words that hammer her chest

(no, that’s her heart beating)

vision going white around the edges

Red’s face is panicked and tilting out of view

blood rushes through her ears in a roar

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

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

“Leaf, are you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another tragedy, only tangentially related. Another ended future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s true?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she says. “We… lost a friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then you should have died!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


End of Part I

Chapter 66: Interlude XI – Pyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Surge needs to know—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 65: Fearless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tracking and pokemon care,” Aiko says.

“That’s it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ETA?” he finally asks.

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

“Then use Tiānkōng.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were they?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir. Rendezvous?”

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

“Right. Good luck, Jack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The others are okay?” Elaine asks.

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

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

“Right… we’ll administ… er…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover your eyes! Zee, Flash!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…just before getting punched in the stomach.

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

“Aiko!”

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

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

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

“You okay?” she asks Aiko.

“Yeah. Go help Jack.”

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

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

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

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

“It was just a guess” Elaine says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and pulls it off to reveal Giovanni Sakai.

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

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

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

“It was. The hospital is burning.”

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

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

“Shit. They still need help, then?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heroic Accountability?”

“HA, for short?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same.”

“Alright then, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s here. Alive.”

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

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

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

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

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

The second floor’s atmosphere is more hushed and calm, though not by much. Still, the nurses and doctors moving between beds are doing so with more purpose than the frenetic triage going on downstairs, which is somewhat reassuring, and instead of cots the rooms and open spaces are full of hospital beds and equipment that must have been brought over from the main building’s storage. Red leads them to a windowed office that’s been converted into a single patient room, and they file in to see Leaf lying on one of the beds.

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

“Heyoo,” she says, voice low.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong with… the last one?”

“It’s on fire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way. Not leaving you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll stay.”

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

“Wait… what?” Leaf asks, eyes wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! What’s happening?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t you catch a nidoqueen?”

“I… yes, but it’s not trained!”

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

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

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

“Where?”

“Spread out, every floor above the first.”

“And my people?”

“I… I don’t… how many?”

“Seven.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 64: Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic. Truly inspirational.

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

“Hey,” he says. “I’m Blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he hears it: the sound of wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good!”

“Taro?”

“Y-yeah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first bit of excitement comes when a nidoking smashes through one of the barriers far to Blue’s right. He watches with envy as the pokemon there all start attacking it, causing it to roar and back away, then charge forward on all fours. More wild pokemon enter from behind it as the trainers there swap in physically bulky pokemon to stop it.

Blue is about to break ranks and go to it, feet already having turned him completely that way, when Leader Surge’s Second, Jack Riely, is suddenly there, a nidoking of his own out along with a forretress. Blue stares in fascination as the Second uses both together to take down the wild nidoking, his own keeping its attention by attempting to wrestle it to the ground while the forretress pins them in place with traps. He hadn’t even known Vermilion’s Second was here. Did he just teleport in?

Meanwhile the rangers direct the trainers in the area to pick off the other wilds trying to come in behind the nidoking. They finally manage to get another barrier up in place, and Jack catches the exhausted and badly injured nidoking.

“Eyes front,” the boy beside Blue reminds him, and Blue flushes, moving his gaze back to his own part of the perimeter where… nothing has continued to happen.

What feel like hours pass in the constant onslaught of wind, rain, and thunder. Blue wonders at times if he’s dreaming, if this is some purgatory, and he’s still in bed getting rest before his match with Surge. Should he do things differently, if that’s true? Maybe not put the Objections on, if he doesn’t actually want to join the gym…

“New wave!” the ranger shouts, and Blue’s attention snaps back to the present, looking around until he spots the magneton hovering above the barriers. Attacks quickly converge on it to bring it down, and everyone is tense for a moment as they wait for more to appear, but it takes a while before Grass and Bug pokemon start climbing the walls or squeezing through the gaps, and suddenly things feel slightly real to Blue again.

Happy to finally have something to do, Blue orders Maturin to send out Ice Beams against a tangela that pulls itself over the wall. The beams have an odd effect in the rain, freezing the drops that fall through them and leaving trails of fog in the chilled air. It takes real effort for Blue to switch to another attack when the next plant pokemon arrives, a weepinbell that climbs the barrier in a mess of vines. Instead her Water Guns help pummel it into a stupor. He doesn’t want to “steal the spotlight” if it means he’s just exhausting his pokemon to try and grab the decisive blows against the enemies that happen to be around him.

The defenders deter each small wave of pokemon that make it over and between the gaps in the wall until there’s a small ring of bodies acting as a second layer to the concrete barrier. The pokemon who do manage to make it across now are easily picked off, and despite his effort to stay focused, Blue steadily feels his vigilance give way to dull monotony, until he’s not sure he’d even order Maturin to attack any more unless some really powerful pokemon shows up.

And then light burns across the heavens, and Zapdos fills the city with its cry.

Blue turns to the source of the light along with everyone else, shading his eyes and squinting at the crackling electric shape of a bird winging its way lazily across the sky.

He waits to feel something at his first in-person sighting of a Stormbringer. He waits for the arcanine in his chest to roar fire through his blood. He waits for steely determination to bring him some focus. He waits, gaze following Zapdos without looking straight at it, for even awe.

Instead there’s nothing. Nothing except maybe the frustration at the distance between what he wants, and where he is. Frustration is like anger, right?

“Eyes out!” the megaphone wielder yells. “Don’t get distracted!”

Easier said than done. Blue’s not sure if it’s the Pressure getting worse, or the sight of his nemesis so far out of reach, or both, but it takes all his will just to tear his gaze away from Zapdos. He distracts himself by focusing, not on the barrier in front of him, but the skyscrapers beyond it, so bizarrely and beautifully lit by the thundergod’s glowing presence, each window reflecting the single, searingly bright point of light as it drifts across the black sky.

Eventually lightning flashes across the sky, so widespread and bright that it makes him glad he was able to tear his eyes away from Zapdos. A moment later it’s followed by thunder that seems to shake the very air around him.

This is the moment we’re most vulnerable. Blue tries to shake the ringing out of his ears as he rapidly blinks. There’s the sound of battle around him, but when he looks it’s all distant and easily contained.

He needs to do something, something meaningful, and standing here and staring at a wall on the off-chance something comes across it… isn’t.

Zapdos’s light moves across the city until the shadow of the pokemon center stretches long and dark over Blue and the rest of the trainers on the north side of it. Pokemon start attacking from a different direction as the source of Pressure shifts, and the rangers and gym members take up the slack as people start getting shifted around to try and predict where the next pokemon would come from.

It’s a confusing process of shuffling around one group at a time, and it makes Blue think the ranger coordinating is having trouble with their own Pressure; it seems much simpler to just have everyone step to the side as many times as it takes for the perimeter to rotate. But no one’s asked him, and he can’t exactly go up to the ranger and suggest this. He has a wall segment to watch.

Eventually the immense bright light starts to noticeably fade, little by little, until all of them are back in the relative darkness of a thunderstorm with far less lightning than it used to have.

Blue’s been watching the walls for some sign of an encroachment for a few minutes before he realizes it’s easier to focus, now.

They survived. The Stormbringer is gone.


Blue is watching the sullen red glow to the west when the others find him, sitting against the side of the pokecenter. Most of the trainer perimeter is resting, no new pokemon encroaching on the walls since Zapdos left about a quarter of an hour ago.

“I think part of the city’s burning,” he says. It’s unfair that he should feel so tired despite not doing anything. “When did that happen?”

“Might have been the Zap Cannon,” Aiko says. “Could have overloaded the lightning rods.”

“Calling that a Zap Cannon is like calling a Hydro Pump a Water Gun,” Elaine says. “I saw it, looked like a comet. Like a… lightning comet. That’s what we should call it. Lightning Comet.”

“You want to name an attack only used by one pokemon?” Taro asks. “Why not just call it a Zapdos Cannon?”

“Oo. That’s better…”

Blue is still watching the red glow, letting their conversation wash over him as he remembers the blinding figure of the Thunder God, the feeling of helplessness. He wishes he’d been able to watch it more, to see who had managed to pull it away from the city. Instead he was busy staring at a wall.

“Blue?”

“Hm?” He turns to find everyone looking at him, each holding a bottle of Glen’s custom energy drink. Glen is holding one out to him. “Sorry. Thanks.” He takes it.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He opens the bottle and drinks, swallowing the sweet, salty, and oddly refreshing liquid, then looks at the others again. “How’s everyone doing?”

They look at each other, or at the ground.

“Alright,” Aiko says after a moment. “Better than I expected to be.”

“Yeah,” Elaine says. “I think I mostly just feel relief? Like whatever I was expecting a stormbringer fight to be like… I mean it wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t as… I don’t know. If it wasn’t for the Pressure I’d rather go through that again than have a repeat of the onix nest.”

Glen and Aiko are nodding agreement, and Blue opens his mouth… then closes it, looking away.

She’s right. It wasn’t terrible. If he had to pick a word for his first encounter with a legendary pokemon, “boring” is the main one he can think of that fits. Or “frustrating.” It’s a testament to Leader Surge’s defensive planning, and he’s sure the other cities in the region will start copying his methods, but part of him worries that it might make people even more complacent with the existence of the Stormbringers.

“Not that I’m complaining,” Elaine goes on. “Glad we could help without anyone getting hurt. Anyone feel like a victory dance?”

“It’s not over yet,” Blue says, unable to keep silent at that. Who knows how many people got hurt outside those barriers? What if someone tried to run up to the wrong side of them and got caught outside? “The city is full of pokemon, and even if they’re not rampaging anymore they’re still not going to be happy about where they are.”

Aiko’s face is illuminated by her phone screen, hand covering it against the rain. “Networks are still down… Red and Leaf were coming from your trainer house, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And they called, what, ten minutes before the the first alert went out? So they were probably still traveling when the aerial wave hit.”

“You think they were caught out in the storm?” Glen asks.

Aiko’s face is drawn, voice tense. “I’m looking for other safe spots they may have reached. There’s a pokemon center to the west and a hospital northeast of here. Maybe they made it to either.”

Blue looks at the screen over her shoulder, then out at the storm. It’s much less intimidating than it was: the rain is just rain, not a torrential downpour, and the wind no longer has to be fought against just to stay upright. Most of all, the lightning is sporadic, the thunder mostly distant rumbles rather than the constant auditory assault of before.

He spots a group of rangers approach a part of the barrier without pokemon bodies piled near it and start slipping between the concrete screens. They’re moving in the direction of the burning buildings.

It’s not over yet, he thinks again. He gets to his feet. “I’m going out.”

“To look for them?” Aiko asks.

“No. Odds of finding them by just stumbling around are really low. I mean for that.” Blue gestures to the burning. “You guys don’t have to come. But I don’t think there’s much else we can do here. And if there’s even a chance that we can help out there… It beats sitting around here doing nothing.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Aiko nods and tucks her phone away. “I’m in.”

Blue searches her face. “Are you sure? It’s already past the time you’d head home to help your dad.”

“He barely even noticed, when I fell asleep in the hospital after the tunnels. I can still help for another couple hours.”

“I’m in too,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Taro hesitates, then looks at Chie, who’s looking at the ground. “I’m sorry, I don’t… I think we’ll stay?” He turns to his sister again.

Chie nods, gaze jumping from one face to the other as she fidgets. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how the Pressure made me feel, and I’m tired, and… it seems really dangerous out there.”

“Yeah, of course,” Aiko says. “Get some rest.”

“Thanks. I’m just not sure we’ll be of much help to you guys…”

Taro isn’t looking at his sister anymore, but Blue. His gaze tells Blue he only cares what he thinks of their staying behind, and Blue… doesn’t answer right away.

He knows it’s not fair: they came here with him (though maybe only because they didn’t know what else to do) and they didn’t break when the Pressure first hit, despite not having been in the cave with the rest of them. It’s not fair to judge them for wanting to rest, for believing they’re at the end of their rope rather than go back out into uncertainty and danger. If anything they should be commended for knowing their limits, right?

But he does judge them. Not morally, but… their merits, their competence, their potential. He can’t help it. What he needs of his companions are people who will follow him into those things, because there’s no way he’s going to be able to take down what he saw drifting lazily across the sky like a deadly sun, causing so much death and destruction passively, without people willing to do something far more uncertain and dangerous than this.

He could train everyone up anyway, and hope they grow into that trust and determination. And he would. He’ll be in Vermilion Gym for a few months, and he’d help them get their badge just like anyone else. But for the people he wants traveling with him, the people in his party… He wants heroes born for that eventual fight.

“Get some rest,” is all he says. “We’ll meet up later, once the storm is fully past.”

They nod, Taro still looking a little worried, and say their goodbyes. Once they’re gone, Blue gets up and goes to a pair of rangers under the awning near the front door to the pokemon center. One of them has a headset on and is sitting beside a radio set, presumably using it to coordinate with the rest of the city’s defenders.

“Ranger,” Blue says to the one standing by. “Would the pokemon center remain secure if my group leaves?”

The man looks them over, then the trainers remaining around the pokemon center. “In my judgement, yes. What’s so urgent?”

“We’d like to help with whatever is happening there.” He gestures, body language as confident as he can make it. He’s ready for a half a dozen different objections but part of him wishes that this time, just once, a ranger could look past his age and-

“Good timing, Trainer. We haven’t received check in back from a few of the defense points that were along the path of the Zap Cannon. I believe the gym members are organizing to head out soon, and could probably use you.”

Huh. Blue follows his gaze to the group of five trainers who are huddled near one of the floodlights. “Will do, thanks.” He starts to jog over to them. “This okay with you guys?”

“Sure,” Elaine says. “Safety in numbers and all that.”

“Just making sure.” He’s more worried about them not being able to make their own decisions, but there’s no time to discuss it further.

The gym trainers are all dressed in their tan and olive uniforms, along with hooded raincoats. They’re a mix of ages, the youngest close to Glen’s sixteen and the oldest being the gym’s Second. Blue hasn’t had the chance to spend much time with him, but he knows the Unovan fought with Surge in the war and has an aggressive style.

“…from Saffron and two more from Celadon are here, so if one of you wants to stay behind we can make sure there’s coverage in every direction.”

“What if they get called away?”

“The rangers can request more help if they need it.” Jack spots Blue and his group and turns slightly. “Yes?”

“Rangers told me you might be heading to the fires over there?”

The Second looks over at the Rangers in surprise, then back at Blue. “Wouldn’t say no to it, but this is a gym operation, Oak.”

“We’re going anyway. Just figured we could work better together,” Blue says before he can stop himself. “And I am a gym member.”

“What? Since when?”

“Tonight, actually,” Trainer Tori says, a tall blonde in her mid-thirties that Blue fought to reach his Challenge match.

“Didn’t think there was time for it to finish,” Jack says, frowning slightly.

“Surge called the match just before making the announcement.” Tori smiles at Blue, and he smiles back. “It was short, but a good strat.”

“Thanks.”

“Alright, you can tag along and get a taste of our search and rescue protocols. But your friends—”

“Are going to challenge for membership too,” Blue says. “And they’ll win. I’ll bet all my Objections on it, if you want.”

There are smiles and snickers from the group, and Blue keeps his own expression mild and friendly as his heart pounds. Is he being too confrontational? He probably shouldn’t interrupt the Gym Second, he has to get used to the idea of having superiors…

But Jack is looking at him with only mild irritation to go with his own amusement. “What do you think I’m going to do with them, offer them to Surge?” He turns to Glen, Elaine, and Aiko. “If you’re all coming because you’re planning on joining Vermilion Gym, then I’m going to treat you like fresh members, and you’re going to follow orders. We’re not going out there to capture rare or powerful pokemon, though we will be capturing wilds that we run across if we can and killing them if not. Anyone have a problem with that?”

Blue watches the three shake their heads, Aiko with a only a moment of hesitation. He was worried she might object to the idea of killing wilds, but she looks resolute.

“Good. Jerry, executive decision. You stay, and the rest of us will head out now.”

The youngest nods and salutes, fist over heart, and says, “Good luck.” He turns to Blue’s group. “Looking forward to working with all of you, so long as you make it back.”

“Ignore him,” Jack says with a stern look. “He’s got a morbid streak.”

“It was meant as inspiration.”

“We’ll have to work on that, Jer. Special class on inspiring speeches and parting words, starting this weekend.”

“Yes, Sir.” He salutes again, no less seriously, then heads off to inform the rangers, presumably.

Jack turns back to the rest of them. “Alright, so our main priority is going to be reaching the shelters that were caught up in that.” He bobs his head in the direction of the sullen red in the distant sky. “They’re not responding on the radio, and it’s possible the ones they were using got damaged. Surge is calling for an evacuation of that area, but they may not even have heard about it. We find anyone that needs help on the way, we do our best to help them, but otherwise we’re just going straight there. Hopefully phones are back up soon and we can get a better sense of what’s happening where. Any questions?” He gives them a moment, but no one responds. “Okay. Let’s get names, too. You three first.”

Blue’s friends introduce themselves, and then he learns the names of the other two gym members: Peter, a tall guy that towers over everyone else, and Mei Li, who has infrared goggles strapped over her head.

“Keep in mind,” Tori says after introducing herself, “Just because the Pressure is gone doesn’t mean you’re clean of its effects. People still feel primed for the way it makes them think for a while after, sometimes days. Sometimes it’s more insidious, since it feels more like your own thoughts. If you’re worried you’re making strange decisions, let someone know.”

“Eight trainers means starburst,” Jack says. “You four make up the square. Let’s move.”

He leads the way toward the barrier, checking carefully between the concrete walls in either direction before slipping past it. Once they’re all outside the perimeter, the four senior gym members take up a loose diamond pattern around Blue’s group, who cover the four corners, and everyone summons their pokemon, using commands they’ve trained with at the gym to complete the formation.

The city is unrecognizable in the dark. Trash and broken glass litter the slightly flooded streets, and there are pokemon lying here and there, most very obviously dead. Blue keeps an eye on Maturin, making sure she’s not too tired from the earlier vigil in the Pressure, but his pokemon seems mostly pleased by the environment. Elaine’s psyduck and Glen’s quagsire move with similar springs in their steps. He expected Aiko to bring out her krabby, but instead Eevee shines silver in the occasional streetlight.

Blue is on the back left of his party’s square, and he’s walking almost entirely sideways so he can keep an eye out in that direction. He’s worried at first that he’ll have trouble keeping his eyes where they need to be, but without being submerged in the Thunder God’s Pressure it’s far easier to focus on just his role.

It also helps that the group he’s a part of is smaller, so he doesn’t feel as useless. It’s alarming, in retrospect, how much his attention wandered under the Pressure. He’s lucky no one died because of his (ego) inattention, but he’s going to need to figure out a way to get a handle on it for next time. He can’t expect to be in a position of authority so quick that he won’t go through that again: there were plenty of experienced gym members and rangers that were part of that perimeter too.

He needs to look into ways to predict what it will feel like, and how to deal with it. Even if it feels the same the next time he faces a Stormbringer, he has to be prepared for a different emotion and thought process to overcome him if he’s actually in a position to do something meaningful. He wonders what would have happened if Zapdos had landed right in front of him: would the feeling of Pressure suddenly change to something more like in the caverns, where he was so shaken by the a sense of being caught in a trap that he’d missed a throw at an onix?

Blue winces at the internal jab of shame that still comes up when he thinks of that, then does his best to put it out of his mind. He’ll talk to Red and Gramps about Pressure once all this is over. For now, it’s enough that he’s on the move and with a clear goal.

“Venonat in an upturned garbage can,” Aiko says after they’ve been walking for a few minutes. “I think it’s still alive.”

“Halt,” Jack says. “Peter, check with her. Everyone else eyes out.”

Blue keeps his gaze moving on their surroundings, only slightly tense as his battle calm hovers at the edges of his thoughts. He hears the sounds of commands being given and battle starting behind him. It’s over quickly, the sound of the pokeball capture muffled by the sound of the steady rain, and once they return to formation and everyone starts moving again he’s reassured by his ability to keep his attention where it was supposed to be.

They go another block before Mei Li notices a magnemite floating down an alley, and goes off with Glen to capture it, and shortly after Peter spots a spinarak hanging from a wall, and goes with Elaine to deal with it this time. While he waits for them to capture it, Blue spots something moving in a small lake formed by a depression in the flooded street.

“Contact, I think” Blue says, pulse picking up. “I think it’s a buizel? Barely got a glimpse of it.”

“Wait till they’re back, then go with Tori.”

Blue nods and waits, gaze flicking away from the puddle every so often to ensure he’s not missing anything else. Eventually the other two return, and he follows the blonde woman to it… then lets out a breath of relief as he feels himself rapidly relaxing, his attention narrowing to a point.

He has his battle calm again. Even as he prepares Maturin to attack the buizel alongside Tori’s tangela, the tension of the situation doesn’t interfere with the state of flow: he shifts from one command to another, Tackle, Bubblebeam, Bite, until she catches it. Easy as can be.

It’s good to have it back, after spending the whole night without it. But as he returns to the group, he realizes it’s just one more thing that he can’t rely on, moving forward.

They continue their journey through the city, and while part of Blue is eager to find more pokemon that he might potentially catch, it’s hard not to also be worried about the signs of destruction around them, particularly once they pass a crushed car.

“Think anyone is in that?” Glen asks.

Jack pauses, and they pause with him. “I’ll check with… Aiko, right?” She nods, and he leads the way there, checking under and around the car first for any pokemon, then carefully peering into the crushed cabin as best he can while Aiko and Eevee stay on high alert.

“Think that nidoking did this?” Elaine asks. “We haven’t seen any other big pokemon.”

“They’re out here,” Mei Li says, her goggles on as she watches the sky. “Heard the ranger on the radio mention it.”

“Not too worried about them,” Peter says as Jack suddenly summons a machamp. It towers over him, and with a gesture and a word the pokemon grips the car door and tears it open. “We’ll hear them coming. More worried about the small ones…”

He trails off as they all watch Jack flash a light into the car and reach inside, then step back and return his machamp to its ball before walking to them with Aiko. He takes his position at the front of the group before Blue can make out his expression, but his tone is grim enough.

“Let’s go.”

They go, and Blue wonders again if Red and Leaf were caught out in all this, anxiety like a fluttering bird in his chest until he reminds himself to focus on his surroundings.

Little by little the red glow in the distance gets closer, and Blue begins to get flashbacks to Viridian Forest, the dark night around him growing brighter and brighter as he got closer to the fire. The storm continues to lessen too, rain fading to a drizzle and thunder more sporadic. Soon visibility has increased enough to make out how all the tallest buildings in a line down the path of the Zapdos Cannon were set on fire.

The mood of the group subtly shifts as the scope of the disaster becomes clear, and as they get closer to the affected area Blue hears Tori curse behind him.

“One attack,” she says, voice curt. “One attack did more damage than the entire rest of the storm’s lightning combined.”

“That’s how it goes,” Blue replies, remembering something he read about the way Articuno destroyed some town over a century ago without even summoning a storm, just flash freezing the whole area so severely that the trees literally exploded from the sudden drop in temperature. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the most successful defense against a Stormbringer in history. But they’re not something you can totally protect against or predict, no matter how hard you try.”

Lightning rods on every building in the city, and what does Zapdos do? Melt the rods. Just sheer brute forced its way through the protection.

No such thing as perfect defense. Sooner or later, unmatchable and unpredictable power wins.

It’s not quite like a whole street is on fire: in truth only the tallest buildings are, like giant torches stuck in the earth every few blocks. Some combination of good building materials and the rain kept them from being entirely engulfed or spreading to neighboring ones. But with the storm dying it’s only a matter of time.

“Shit, this is worse than they mentioned,” Jack says, one hand going up to rub under his raincoat hood. “Two closest shelters that are being evacuated are a stadium to the south and a hospital to the north.” He turns to look over the group. “Eight might be too many to send in one direction. We’re splitting up.”

Blue blinks. Are the gym members ditching them already? It’s nice to feel trusted enough to go on their own, at least. “Alright. Which way should we take?”

Vermilion’s Second shakes his head. “We’re all one unit now, Oak. You’re heading with Tori, Peter, and Glen down south. The rest of us are going north. If communication isn’t back up in two hours just follow whoever’s in charge locally.”

Blue stares at Jack a moment, then looks at his companions. None seem particularly thrilled about this, but… they said they’d follow orders. And he’s part of Vermilion Gym now.

“Right.” He forces a smile at Aiko and Elaine. “See you guys soon.”

They hug him and Glen while the gym members work out some logistics. “Be careful, Blue,” Aiko says after she pulls away, watching him with worried eyes. “Remember, you have nothing to prove to us. We’re with you.”

Blue squeezes her upper arm, touched but knowing that she knows better than to think it’s them he feels driven to prove himself to. “Thanks. Don’t feel pressured to prove anything either, okay? If you’re worried about your dad, head back.”

Aiko smiles, a wry twist of her lips. “Alright, I guess we’re both in the same boat then. But I won’t leave Elaine until I know she’s with one of you guys, so let’s meet up as soon as we can.”

“Right.” Aiko steps away, and Elaine hugs Blue hard around the ribs, making him smile. “Be careful, El. Won’t be able to do that victory dance later if you squeeze any harder.”

She loosens her grip and steps back, grinning. “Just making sure you feel the love.” And then she kisses his cheek, which leaves him feeling very confused as she turns away to join Aiko, who’s already following Jack and Mei Li.

Glen is giving him raised eyebrows, and Blue shrugs helplessly, which makes his friend smile and shake his head before heading to Peter and Tori, who are waiting for them. Blue puts his confusion and embarrassment aside and steps opposite of Glen to make up the sides of their new diamond formation, with Tori in front and Peter in the rear, and then they’re making their way south toward the docks.

There’s enough light from the fires that they can make out the street between the buildings, which is why they have plenty of warning every time some pokemon suddenly appear and start to run, hop, float, or skitter from one area to another. With just four of them they don’t go out of their way to catch any, though Blue wonders who eventually will. Maturin seems on edge as she walks beside him, and he’s not sure if it’s the fires above them or all the pokemon they can spot.

“There’s probably no one in these buildings, right?” Glen asks as they pass close to one.

“Even if there are, we’re not in a good position to help them,” Peter says. “Particularly if there are pokemon in them. They’re not rampaging anymore, but they’ll definitely be skittish from the fires, especially if they start spreading faster.”

“Anti-fire design and systems should slow down or extinguish some of them eventually,” Tori says. “But we need to reach the stadium quick to make sure they know Surge’s plan to get them out of the danger zone. There are probably close to fifty-thousand people at the stadium, and their wellbeing has to be prioritized over a handful that might be in any given building.”

Blue remembers what Surge said, at the end of his speech. Just remember that you’re making a choice, and that good intentions can often cost more lives than they save. He’s clearly drilled that concept into all of his people, and it’s not that Blue disagrees, exactly, but… if he knew for a fact that someone’s life was in danger in one of these buildings, he’d have to go in. He wouldn’t feel like he had a choice.

A voice in his head that sounds very much like Red asks him what he thinks the odds are that there isn’t at least one person in that building, and he informs that voice that guessed odds aren’t the same as knowing. And then hopes, again, that Red is somewhere safe.

They walk for over ten minutes before they hear the roar.

It’s distant, but coming from somewhere ahead, and distinctly recognizable.

“Was that a goddamned steelix?” Peter murmurs, and then the earth trembles briefly beneath their feet, a bare brush of the distant shockwave’s epicenter.

“I think that was in the direction of the stadium,” Tori says, and pulls out a container ball. “Bikes, everyone. We need to move quick.”

Within a minute they’re pedaling down the street toward the stadium at the edge of the wharf district, the wide, tall building rising up in the distance just before the ground slopes down into the harbor, the still-stormy ocean illuminated by lightning beyond it. The stadium’s dome is deployed, keeping its insides nice and dry from the rain, but there are clouds of dust from collapsed buildings nearby it, or perhaps destroyed parts of the stadium itself.

Blue feels his excitement growing as they get closer, and has to caution himself not to get too carried away. This promises to be something important, but they don’t know if the steelix is wild or under the command of a trainer who’s using it to fight off something worse…

A crowd of people are running as more tremors ripple through the area, though not at random. Blue can just make out their figures in the bright lights around the stadium, moving quickly in a column away from it and into the wide open lot, where a wide gap has been made in the same concrete walls that were placed around the pokemon center.

And on the other side of where they’re exiting from…

Blue blinks, then blinks again as he follows Tori and Peter onto the winding road toward the stadium lot, trying to watch where he’s going in the dark and make sense of the spectacle at the same time.

That’s definitely a steelix. And beside it is another steelix. And on the other side of the arena is a snorlax, around which are what look like a number of pokemon, all of whom are trying to flee the three titans… directly toward where the people are escaping.

Blue doesn’t know what’s happening, or what caused it, but there’s one thing he recognizes immediately as they get closer, and it makes him swerve his bike away from where the other three are headed and bike directly for the battle instead.

There’s an exeggutor, a venusaur, a lapras, and a blastoise, all fighting at the same time. And possibly two more pokemon Blue can’t see.

And behind them, moving his feet and arms, and sending out shrill whistles that Blue can just barely hear, there’s a figure. He’s not wearing his lab coat, and Blue can’t make out his hair or features under the hood of his own raincoat…

But he recognizes those pokemon, and there’s only one person he knows who can command that many at once, in a situation like this, to deal with two steelix at the same time.

Gramps is here.

And if Gramps is here, then the slim figure holding that snorlax back with a dragonair and a tangrowth is his sister.

And they’re still not quite winning, because the rangers and gym members are dealing with some commotion he can’t see behind the walls. They were left to deal with the problem on their own, probably demanded that the others go. There’s no one else around to help them.

Blue reaches the blockade and turns sharp to go around it and behind the snorlax. He lets his bike fall once he gets close enough and dashes forward, his battle calm secure around him as he takes out an ultra ball. There’s no thought here, not when things feel this right: if someone asked him yesterday or asks him tomorrow whether he believes in destiny or fate, he’d say no.

But in this moment, coincidence decides his next actions for him. He’s caught in the stream of his own nature.

Daisy sees him as he runs up behind her foe, and no words are needed. A quick command has both her tangrowth and dragonair unwrap the snorlax just as Blue steps into ultra ball range.

Locks on as it stumbles a step forward in surprise.

Throws as it heaves itself forward for a body slam.

Hits, catching it in a flash of light that sucks it out of the air mid-fall.

Blue rushes over and picks up the ball, victory singing through his blood, and neither of them bother exchanging words as they rush over to the Professor.

He’s still going, whole body composing a song that his pokemon dance to: his left hand has straps with bells on them wrapped around the back of each finger, his shoes make distinct noises when they hit the ground in bursts, and his right hand plays the flute between his lips in a constant stream of notes, high pitched for one pokemon and low for the other.

Together, his four pokemon can just barely keep the steelix in check, but they lack the type advantages needed to deal decisive blows, and there’s no one around to follow up on their moments of weakness.

The same strategy is too risky here, with the steelix’s long bodies moving in constant battle. They’re going to have to help Gramps take them down.

“Left,” Daisy says, and summons her hitmontop.

“Right,” Blue says and unclips Rive’s ball, hoping his pokemon can stand the rain for a few moments.

Together, the three Oaks stand tall against the storm.

Chapter 63: Interlude X – Judgement

Laura’s in the back of a taxi when the alert comes, on her way to Lavender Town to talk to a ghost.

The info on the flash drive her masked informant gave her made it clear that Silph is paying for someone’s living expenses in Lavender, and that this person was in contact with Silph R&D. But Laura has never encountered someone with such little information available on them. There’s no name or date of birth (the house is listed as owned and maintained by Silph Corporation for occasional trainings and corporate meetings), no contacts, no mention of profession or past. He’s not even on the company’s payroll.

It’s just treated as completely unremarkable that there’s a nameless man living in one of Silph’s unoccupied houses whose bills they’re paying, in exchange for his collaboration on certain projects.

She knows she shouldn’t get her hopes up that the man is somehow connected to the disappearance of the scientists and engineers that Sam told her about. His description, according to her investigator, doesn’t match any of the “missing” scientists or engineers she read about, few of which were actually reported by official sources as actually missing. But it’s been years since many of their most recent photos were available, and if this man hasn’t been using regenerative medicine he could have changed a lot since before he was in Lavender. Or he could have used plastic surgery, or been forced to.

The man’s habits are pretty simple, according to her investigator’s ability to spy through the windows. Wake up, shower, eat, staring at his computer or phone screen (reading seems most likely: one hand is often on mouse with minimal movement, while his expression stays mostly static and focused), work on his garden.

But occasionally he’d be hard at work on something, both on computer and talking on the phone. He never leaves the house except to buy things or sit in the park, according to the investigator. No social visits or trips out of town. No apparent employment. He must be still working for Silph.

Her investigator was good, but not good enough to figure out more about what the man is working on without breaking the law. He’d hinted in the past that as long as no one got hurt he would be willing to “bend over some lines a little, peek at what’s on the other side,” but so far she’s managed to resist the urge to take him up on it.

And the urge has never been fiercer. It’s clear from her investigation that President Silph either directly uses or willfully ignores the use of criminal actions to maximize the power and wealth of his corporate empire. That he’s already targeted her in some way weaves a constant thread of anxiety through her days and nights, a drive to get things resolved as quickly as possible, however she can.

But she needs to do things ethically, or the entire investigation would have weak points through which it could be undercut or dismantled. If this scientist in particular is being held hostage by Silph, then she needs to make sure he knows she can help him get out from under the criminal mogul by revealing his activities.

Unfortunately without a verifiable online presence, the only way the man could be contacted would be through physical means. Hence the letters.

She finishes penning the latest one, then reviews it.

Hello.

This is a test to see if your place is bugged or being video recorded. I hope this is a safe way to communicate with you about your present circumstances. If not, then simply dispose of this note and make no response. If so, write a response on the note and put it under your doormat.

I suspect you need help, and if so, want to help you. Feel free to ask any question in your response. If I’m wrong, then feel free to let me know that instead, and I’ll leave you be.

She doesn’t like it. She’d told the ninja-girl that she was used to cloak-and-dagger stuff, but there are too many unknowns here. For all she knows the man may be a criminal himself who will warn President Silph about the strange contact.

She would have tried to get more information first, tried to answer more questions before taking a risk, but for Leaf’s investigation.

A list of names for those who may have been responsible for the Mt. Moon incident… and one of them is a Silph subsidiary that was in a prolonged legal conflict over the rights of private companies to bid for dig sites along the mountain range.

And, what a coincidence, Silph made payments to someone throughout the dates of the dig. The only problem is that the file containing the payments didn’t reach the date of the incident, so she couldn’t check if they stopped after Yuuta was caught.

It’s not a clear connection, but it’s enough of one that Leaf’s investigation clearly raised some serious questions that might lead to serious repercussions from Silph.

Damn that girl. And bless her. She’s as driven as Red, and as likely to get herself hurt, one way or another. She told Laura she would sit on what she’s learned, and Laura believed her, was proud of her… but also knows that there will be a limit to the girl’s willpower and patience.

And maybe it’s unfair, but Red’s lie is still fresh on her mind. She can’t assume she knows how any of the kids will act.

Laura puts the recently drafted letter in the small pile beside her, then starts thinking of how to approach the next one when her phone buzzes in a harsh tone. Her pulse kicks up as she pulls it out of her pocket and reads the message.

STORMBRINGER ATTACK IMMINENT ON VERMILION CITY. YOU ARE WITHIN POTENTIAL PATH OF DANGER. STAY NEAR SHELTER AND MONITOR UPDATES REGULARLY UNTIL DANGER HAS PASSED.

For a moment the memory of being at Sam’s house when they heard the news of Zapdos traveling by Pewter is overwhelming. The same icy fingers clench around her heart, the same worry that she’s about to lose something precious.

Then she remembers that Red is on the SS Anne, and she closes her eyes, hands pressing against her face in relief so strong it’s almost painful..

Guilt follows a moment later. Blue is still there… and that girl she met, Aiko. Does Sam know? Of course he does. He wouldn’t go though, would he? He can’t, not after what happened last time—

The car is slowing. She looks at the driver, who rolls the car to a stop along the side of the road, then turns to meet her gaze.

“Can you drive?” the woman asks, face pale and eyes wide.

Laura is unable to process the question for a moment, then says, “Yes.”

“Good. And do you have pokemon?”

“Just one, in my purse.”

The driver closes her eyes, and her voice is strained. “Can you drive yourself the rest of the way to Lavender Town?”

What?” Laura stares at her, wondering suddenly if she dozed off in the car and is dreaming.

“I have to go, my little sister lives in Vermilion.” She looks at Laura with pleading eyes. “I have to make sure she’s okay!”

Laura meets the driver’s frightened gaze. What she’s asking her to do isn’t hard: cars drive automatically unless switched to manual control, and if attacked, many of their escape countermeasures are sufficient to distract pokemon and outpace them.

But if the car is attacked by something that can catch it… that’s what the drivers are supposed to be for. Not just trained to evade pokemon, but also trainers who will protect their passengers if needed.

“I understand if you report me, after,” her driver says, a note of desperation in her voice now. “I deserve it. But I’d rather lose my job than my sister. Please, just… tell me you’ll be okay on your own.”

Laura checks their location. Another two hours to Lavender. By then finding her sister would probably be impossible. “How will you get there?” Laura quietly asks.

Hope lights in the other woman’s eyes. “I have an abra, bought it just a couple weeks ago. I can go straight there.”

Laura breathes in, then back out. The price of abra had dropped quite a bit since Red and the others revealed their trick and sold so many. It likely led to her being able to afford one. It feels almost fated, that it would be up to her, now, to decide if she gets to use it.

And how could she decide otherwise? She would do the same for Red, if she knew he was in danger and she could help him.

“Go,” Laura says. “I’ll leave the car at the hotel. Good luck to you, and your family.”

The driver reaches back and takes her hand, squeezing. “Thank you. Be safe.” She doesn’t waste another moment, getting out of the still running car and summoning an abra, which quickly teleports them both away.

Laura watches them go, thoughts on Blue and Aiko again. Would Sam go? She’s suddenly not sure he wouldn’t.

She realizes abruptly that she’s a sitting target, and quickly collects her letters and goes into the driver seat. It’s been years since she did this, her mother had taught her when she was young… but everything looks about the same as she guides the car back onto the road, then sets it on autodrive and checks the defense mechanisms. Smoke cloud, flares, pokedoll deployment…

She keeps her gaze moving as the car speeds her away to Lavender, trying to stay alert for danger as her thoughts are pulled to what’s ahead and behind.


There are a lot of doors the name Samuel Oak can open.

If he wanted a ticket to the Cruise Convention? Even if he didn’t know Hazo personally, they’d fall over themselves to offer him a cabin.

If he wants a seat on a regional council for the treatment of lab-raised pokemon? He helped form Kanto’s council. No matter how many years he’s been away, or how much he may disagree with them, he can walk right in and they’d let him speak.

If there’s some politician campaigning in a city across the island, and Sam just happens to be in town and want a minute of his time? He doesn’t even need to write a check. The endorsement of Kanto’s premier Professor has interregional implications.

He makes no pretense at not being proud of these facts. If there was a time in his life where false-humility would be useful, he’s long since past it. Sam is always aware that he has very little actual power, outside of his laboratory. The power his status grants him flows from those who appreciate the mind and acts that earned it.

But opening a door is just the first step. After that, it’s up to his powers of persuasion.

“I’m afraid it’s just not possible, Professor Oak.”

Sam stands at the head of a table, where the sitting presidents of every Kanto and Johto university look at him with a mix of apology, discomfort, or bland disinterest. At least none are hostile, or at least not openly so. “Declaring something ‘not possible’ is a pretty strong stance, Daniel. What in specific makes it seem so hard to imagine?”

His old classmate doesn’t seem to take kindly to the familiar name, or the reframe, but a different university head responds before he can. “It’s easy for labs to say that we should just rely on the information in the pokedexes, but universities can’t afford to test the information ourselves. You get to be producer, regulator, and consumer.”

“It would just be for a little while,” Samuel says, spreading his hands. “The journals are consolidating behind paywalls because they can. Because they know you have to pay for them. If you all decide not to, they’ll bring the prices down. They’d have no choice, not if they want to stay relevant.”

“And what if they don’t?” another president says. “Field researchers are well and good to gather data and conduct the occasional imaginative study, but we all know that most of the listed experiments don’t replicate.”

“That’s a feature, not a bug,” Professor Elm explains. Sam’s Johto counterpart is a wispy sort of fellow, with a long, earnest face and a lanky build that his lab coat tends to billow around when he’s in the frenetic motion that keeps his staff hurrying after him. Now he sits with his lanky legs crossed against the table’s edge, a glass of some pale liquor in one hand. “Being able to see what others have tried-“

“No lectures, please, Professor,” President Nara says. The oldest of the university heads, Sam first met her at a Tier 1 threat near a small town by Lavender. “No one here is doubting the value of the pokedex network. We all pay for them too, and we appreciate that the price is so reasonable, and how hard you fought for those subsidies. But journals are where the real prestige comes from for academics that have hung their belt up, or never threw a pokeball at all. You’re asking us to leave our friends and employees out in the cold for what could be years.”

“Not years,” Sam insists. “Maybe one, tops.”

“And then what?” Osamu asks. “The prices are high, yes, but this assures quality of research. Peer review will suffer if the reviewers cannot be paid.”

“With all due respect, you’re on the review board for three different journals,” Professor Elm says, adjusting his glasses. “How many papers have you personally looked over in the past year, out of all those that those journals published?”

Osamu’s face reddens. “Are you questioning my integrity?”

“Not at all,” Professor Oak quickly says. “We know you’re a diligent and rigorous academic. But there isn’t enough time in the day for you to be solely responsible for every paper in even one of those journals. And instead of hiring more reviewers, the names of the reviewers are what’s being paid for. It’s become a mutually beneficial prestigious position, not something that assures quality.”

“I’d like to add,” Professor Elm says with a wry tone, “That the higher degree of accuracy in recent published research probably has more to do with better coordination in the scientific community, not higher cost of journals.”

“An interesting hypothesis,” one of the younger presidents Sam barely knows says, voice dry. “Would be nice if you decide to test it, sometime.”

“This is getting personal,” Sam cuts in. “Let’s keep things focused on the future. There are people working to turn the whole system of how research is funded and available on its head. To make it more accessible and better for everyone.”

“More about this secret project?” Daniel says. “Sly hints aren’t going to convince anyone, Sam. Maybe if you’re willing to finally be candid about what Bill is working on…”

Sam sighs, and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. But you all know me, my reputation. I hope that you’ll take it into account when I tell you that the longer you rely on the current system, the harder it will be to reach and adapt to a world that’s approaching soon, where knowledge is free.”

It was the wrong thing to say, he realizes immediately. The men and women in the room are good people, people who care about knowledge and truth and teaching. But they’re also driven by the incentives of their positions: they run schools, and the knowledge that schools offer are not free.

“Thank you both for your time,” Osamu says, voice cool. “Give us a moment to discuss, please.”

Sam tries to think of something that will clarify his last point, undo the damage, but Professor Elm is already standing and stretching, then moves for the exit. Sam nods to the presidents, and follows.

David is leaning against the wall between the elevators. “They’ve grown too powerful, Sam.” He says quietly, and takes a swallow of his drink, a frustrated tightness around his eyes. “We had chances to stop them, shape the culture, but none of us wanted to step into it. Same with the journals. The businessmen took over, and it’s hard to argue with the results, from the perspective of… well, people running a business.”

Sam nods and sighs, running a hand through hair that’s more salt than pepper these days. “I know. It’s the politics argument all over again.”

“For what it’s worth, you’d make a terrible mayor,” Elm says with a grin. “You’d turn Pallet Town into an experiment. Cycle through different laws every few months.”

“I would put them up for a vote, at least.”

“That and you don’t deal with unpopularity well.”

Sam smiles. “Think I handled their animosity pretty well.” He reaches absently into his pocket to unsilence his phone. A room full of such busy people would barely be able to complete a sentence if everyone’s phone was on. “If this doesn’t work, which it doesn’t seem like it will, we kick it up to the next level.”

“Don’t like involving politicians in this,” Elm says. “Regulations might work for us today, might work against us tom-… Sam, what’s wrong?”

Sam has stopped dead to stare at the screen.

Sixteen missed calls.

Five unheard messages.

Forty-three texts.

One region-wide warning.

He has just enough time to read that last, to register the words Zapdos and Vermilion and then his phone rings. Daisy.

“Sam!”

He looks up at Elm. “Zapdos is attacking Vermilion.”

His friend straightens, eyes wide. “Go. I’ll handle this. Go!”

Sam is already going, answering the phone with a “Where’s Blue?” as he runs down the stairs.

“I don’t know, grandpa, he wouldn’t answer his phone!” Daisy’s voice is tense, heavy wind blowing around her microphone.

“I’m porting home,” he says as he reaches the first floor, knees aching, and runs out of the building to emerge into the darkening twilight, hand going to his pokebelt. “Where are you?”

“Passing over Argent Town. I can see the storm, I’ll be in it in about ten minutes!”

That’s my girl. “Stop there. That’s my closest teleport point.”

“Grandpa you can’t!” Daisy’s voice is sharp. “The doctor said-“

“Daisy,” he interrupts as he summons Forun. The alakazam senses his tension instantly, and goes into combat readiness despite there being no threats around. “It’s not up for discussion. Teleport.”

The world wrenches around him, and then he’s in his front lawn and withdrawing Forun as he goes inside to his PC, thoughts already turning to what pokemon he’s going to take. No fire, rock, or flying, which means I’ll need Ice and Poison for the Grass and Bugs…

Daisy is still trying. “Blue will be fine, he’ll probably just help at a defense point or-“

“No, he won’t,” Sam says, voice quiet. “He’s not like you, Daisy. You understand that you can’t win against the storms, only survive them, only mitigate the losses.” Thoughts of his daughter and her husband send a spike of pain through his chest, one he endures a moment, then puts aside as he types search parameters into his collection. Pokemon that have been trained together, pokemon that don’t use audio or visual commands… “But Blue will try to find a win. Even aside from wanting to look good, wanting fuel for his legend, he needs a win against them, for himself. For your parents.”

Daisy is almost crying, he can hear it in her voice. “We can’t lose you too, Grandpa.”

“And I can’t lose either of you. Wait for me there in Argent. I have the last signal sent from Blue’s pokedex. We’ll find him together.”

The last thing Sam grabs is a small bottle of pills from the dresser in his room. He takes a breath, eyes closed, then swallows two and heads outside to teleport again, hoping that he’s not too late.


Seto could have run, when the alert went out.

It was a simple calculation. The price of a flight out of the city, normally affordable enough, even for someone living almost hand to mouth, had quickly skyrocketed to obscene heights. He could have emptied his bank account to buy a flight for himself, but not one for his mother, who was living on retirement funds.

What kind of a son would do something like that? To his own mother?

The voice was hers, ingrained from a hundred situations, repeated in a dozen tones, so often that she doesn’t even have to say it anymore. He hears it himself, every week when she asks for money for this or that reason, and he considers telling her he can’t. Every time she insists that he stop whatever he’s doing to come help her with something as inane as attaching a picture to a message, or as difficult as moving furniture around the apartment.

“Seto! Where are you?” Her voice was high and afraid, and he felt a stab of guilt for even thinking of leaving the city without her.

“I’m coming there, mom. The hospital isn’t far, we’ll go there and-“

“The hospital?” The word scraped along his mind. “You want me to sit in one of those rooms, with all those… people?”

Foreigners, is what she meant. But no, that’s not fair. He knew she dislikes being away from home, being surrounded by others, she rarely even took the bus anywhere, and it can’t be a comfortable place, the shelters…

“Mom, you can’t stay,” he said as he got dressed. His apartment is small and messy and it’s not far from her place, but it’s his. The one major rebellion he’d persisted in, despite her complaints that it was too expensive to have his own place, despite her insistence that a good son wouldn’t move out until he was married (and then take his mother with him to a bigger home, if he could afford it, which he should have been able to, if he’d followed her career “advice”…). “It’s not just a Tier 3, it’s a Stormbringer, there won’t be any emergency services if something happens in your building!”

“You’ll protect me,” she said, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “You still have those pokemon, don’t you?”

Seto looked at his belt, hung up on the wall by the door with its three pokeballs. Yes, he had pokemon. Three that he’d bought and trained despite her insistence that he was wasting his time and money. The ones that he one day dreamed would be his ticket to a better life, despite being in his early 20s already (getting permission to become a trainer when he was younger had always ended in tears, either for him or his mother or both).

A pidgey, a venonat, and a mankey. That last one had been expensive, he’d saved up for a week, hoping the whole time that the listing wouldn’t be bought out by someone else. “I… mom I only have three, and they’re not very strong-“

Well then what did you buy them for?” she demanded, breaths harsh and quick. “Seto I’m scared! People are leaving their apartments with all their things, they say the storm will hit the city in an hour! What if the electricity goes out? Come quickly!”

Seto could have left, even then. Or he could have gone to the hospital himself, helped the defense with his measly three pokemon and fifty or so hours of training, or just gone into the shelter there.

But what kind of son would leave his mother alone in the dark, with monsters all around?

One that wouldn’t be there when a magnemite breaks through her living room window.

“Go, Mankey!” Seto yells, voice shaking with fear as it competes with the sound of the raging storm pouring in, and his mother’s scream as she cowers behind him. “Chop!”

The magnemite’s prongs glow as they build a charge, and his pokemon’s attack comes simultaneously with the enemy’s. The magnemite is knocked against the wall with enough force to crack it, while his mankey crumples into a smoking heap.

His mother screams again at the electric discharge, or maybe just for the sake of it. It makes Seto twitch, and then he’s hurrying to withdraw his pokemon as the magnemite slowly rises up. He fumbles with an empty pokeball (he’d bought three, and never thrown one at a live pokemon before) as it starts to charge an attack again, realizes he’s not going to make it in time, and throws himself behind the couch, empty pokeball falling from his hand and rolling across the room.

Another blinding flash lights the room, followed by the smell of ozone and burning. He coughs, then looks up and realizes the couch is on fire.

“My couch!” his mom shrieks. “Put it out, Seto!”

He starts thinking of ways to do that before realizing the thought is insane and reaching for another empty ball as he backs away from the couch and looks over it at the magnemite.

It’s reoriented toward his mother as she runs toward the couch, table cloth bunched in her hands to beat the fledgling flames out.

In his imagination, Seto snaps his arm up to lock onto the magnemite, then pegs it and saves his mother.

In reality, he stares for a moment in horror, and then raises his arm and has to steady it with his other hand, and throws just as electricity arcs out and sends his mother crashing to the ground.

And misses.

“Momma!” he screams, feeling like he’s in a nightmare. He’s a horrible person, a lazy, ungrateful, disrespectful son who got his mother killed because he-

The magnemite is charging another attack. He should be running, or throwing his third ball. Instead he just stumbles toward his mother(‘s body) while reaching for a potion bottle.

What saves him is a giant scaly fist that punches through the broken window frame and grabs the magnemite with a crushing grip. Seto stares out the second story window to see the nidoqueen rear its fist back and up, then smash the magnemite downward and out of sight. It roars in triumph.

Seto is momentarily stunned by the sound and sight of the monster, then continues crawling to his mother’s body, potion in hand.

“It’s okay, momma,” he whispers, spraying her burnt skin. “It’s okay, I’m sorry, it’s okay…”

He babbles until the potion bottle is empty, and his mother is still lying in an unmoving heap. The healing from the potion is superficial, and it takes him a moment to remember, through the distracting sounds of the howling storm and the crashing of the nidoqueen hitting the building again and again, that potions need flowing blood to be effective.

If the potions aren’t healing her it’s because her blood isn’t flowing.

If her blood isn’t flowing it’s because she’s dead.

What hits him, first, in that moment, even through the self-recriminations and self-disgust, is relief. Just a second of pure, relieved… freedom.

And then the guilt is back, worse than ever, a howling gale of self-loathing that he can’t contain. I wanted her to die.

I let her die because I hated her.

I killed her.

I’m a monster.

He doesn’t deserve to live.

The building shakes again, and the nidoqueen roars again, reminding him of its presence in a much more personal way.

He should let it kill him.

Seto pushes himself to his feet, stumbles, then walks toward the shattered window.

The nidoqueen saves him again, though less directly. Clearly frustrated by something on the left side of the building, she abruptly stamps her foot hard enough to crack its foundation there, causing a quarter of it to suddenly collapse downward.

Seto is knocked to the ground as part of the apartment breaks away with a grinding roar that drowns out the storm, for a moment. Pain shoots through his knee as it hits the uncarpeted tiles, and he groans, gripping it and curling up into a ball. He can’t even kill himself without looking like a fool and wimping out…

He feels the spray of windblown rain on his face, and looks up with a blankly shocked expression. One of the walls is just gone, the apartment that had been next to his mother’s cracked in half down the middle. He can see out into the street below, which means he spots the kid running up behind the nidoqueen.

It’s hard to make out details in the intermittent light and heavy rain, but the kid is definitely wearing a pokeball belt, which means he’s a trainer. A real trainer, if he’s out in the storm. Seto’s saved… through no effort of his own. Does he deserve saving? He’s a horrible person. He just needs to end it.

Part of him rebels against this thought, suddenly. Kill himself? Why? His mom is gone, he’s finally free to do whatever he wants…

The flood of guilt that drowns him then is debilitating, and as soon as it passes he starts moving toward the hole in the wall, where the nidoqeen is still raging at something out of sight. She’s stretched up as high as she can, one hand clawing at a higher apartment.

The trainer behind her is close enough that Seto can see they have something in their hand. They’re not summoning anything, though… just walking carefully closer. What are they doing?

Trying to capture it, of course. Its back is turned… they could just walk right up to it and-

Its tail suddenly thrashes as it lets out another bellow, arm jerking back and tearing more of the building out with it. Vines are wrapped around its arm, something bright yellow latched onto it. A weepinbell? The nidoqueen tries to pulverize the plant pokemon against the building, and Seto hears someone yelling commands above him. There’s someone else in the building!

The trainer below has to jump back to avoid any debris, and its thrashing tail. His frustration is clear as he tries to get closer, still too far out of ultra ball range to get a lock.

Another figure runs up behind the first, a second pokemon trainer. But she doesn’t summon any pokemon either, and the two start to coordinate to get on either side of the rampaging nidoqueen without getting too close, so they can capture it when an opportunity arises.

But the storm is going to make it incredibly difficult, Seto distantly realizes. The nidoqueen is a big target, even he could probably hit it, but to get close enough to for the ball to lock on…

Even I could hit it… What’s he doing? Just sitting here and… watching, as the nidoqueen crushes the weepinbell, then brings it up to its mouth and bites its body away from its vines, causing the person above him to scream out.

He should be helping them, he’s a trainer too, he can catch it and he’d have an incredibly powerful pokemon…

No. All he has are pokeballs, scattered around the room (one fell out the newly opened wall). He would need an ultra ball to capture something that massive.

But he can still help. He can keep it distracted…

…with a pidgey and a venonat. He pushes himself back and away from the gaping wall, survival instinct finally returning for a moment. He can’t help with this, his pokemon are too weak, he’s too weak—

Well then what did you buy them for?!

His gaze flicks to his mom’s body, and he closes his eyes, groaning as his forehead lowers to the floor. Worthless…

And then the sky explodes with light, and a screech as loud as thunder echoes across the city.

Seto stares up at the glowing figure that descends from the storms, lighting the whole city in its intense glow. A constant current of electricity runs through its black and yellow feathers, making it easy to pick out but hard to look directly at. Its power is obvious and absolute, and if Seto wasn’t already on the ground, he would fall to his knees. Instead he merely bows his head again.

God…

That’s what this feeling is, what this power represents. Zapdos is a god, and his judgement is all around them, inside them. That’s why he’s been feeling the god’s judgement: Seto has been found unworthy.

There’s only one path to redemption for his sins.

He stumbles to his feet and walks forward again, out into the brightened night, out into the storm, eyes closed, waiting for the nidoqueen or the fall to kill him…

Don’t do it!”

Seto’s eyes snap open, and he looks down to see the male trainer looking up at him, expression one of desperate worry. Seto barely even notices the way the nidoqueen turns right next to him, toward the sound of the yell.

“Don’t do it!” the trainer repeats. “Don’t give up on your life that easily!” How does he know? “It’s the Pressure, you have to fight it! We’re here for you! We’re all fighting! Fight with—”

Red look out!”

The nidoqueen’s fists pound the ground, and the trainer who had been yelling up at him falls as the street buckles and cracks beneath him. The nidoqueen steps toward him as he scrambles away, and his friend rushes forward, ball outstretched, only to get caught by the pokemon’s sweeping tail, skidding and rolling over the street.

Leaf!”

Seto watches, numb with shock and self-loathing. They’re here for him, the trainer said, as if he’s worth all this, and now they’re going to die for him…

Fight with us!

“Go, Venonat!” Seto yells, throat dry and voice cracking. His pokemon materializes on the edge of the apartment floor beside him, and he points to the nidoqueen as it steps toward Red. “S-supersonic!”

His venonat’s antennae vibrate, and the nidoqueen raises a foot over the trainer… then overbalances, and has to take a quick step to the side to avoid falling.

And just like that, he saved a life. For a moment.

But sometimes a moment’s enough.

Red is on his feet, staring at his friend and looking like he’s about to run to her crumpled form… and then with a cry he’s running straight at the nidoqueen, ball out. It spins around, tail whipping toward the trainer, who stops dead just out of its range, as if he saw it coming, then steps forward, holds position, and throws.

And then the nidoqueen is gone, the ball it’s trapped in rolling along the ground as Red runs toward his friend.

Seto looks up, near the blinding figure of the Thunder God as it floats over the city, beautiful and terrible. The raindrops that blow against his face are bitter as tears as guilt suddenly surges through him again, dousing the moment of sudden hope and will.

He goes to sit beside his mother, hands covering his eyes as the dark flood pours down his cheeks. A distant part of him knows he should go and help Red with his friend, but for now, for just a few minutes, all the fight is gone from him, swallowed by a divine judgement that seems deaf to his whispered prayers for forgiveness.


It’s been two years since Karen last faced a legendary pokemon’s Pressure, and anticipation is like a drug in her system as she flies toward the storm around Vermilion. Most people would probably be afraid of flying into a thunderstorm, let alone one created by a legendary. The key is to stay near buildings and fly below the tallest ones.

Reckless is a word that’s been used to describe her, a time or two. Or ten. Stupid, however, is not.

Especially now that she has an excuse to run toward the Pressure, whatever its source.

Two years ago, Entei burned a line north-west through central Johto, and trainers scrambled to wall it off from Enju City and divert it. Karen was on the fourth line that day, and she still felt it coming from miles away while it burned a path through the forests, smoke blanketing the horizon until it burst out of the tree line, a living inferno that seemed to burn the air itself.

That day what she felt was fear. Not fear for her safety, though that’s a part of it that she also craves, as she never feels the rush it provides anymore. The woes of an adrenaline junkie, as her oldest brother used to say, before his own addiction got him killed.

What’s more nuanced, more driving toward something productive, is the fear of losing. The fear of messing up, of being publicly shamed and judged unworthy. The fear of disappearing back into the masses.

It was the fear she dealt with every time Pressure hit her, a valuable reminder of what drove her. She didn’t need a therapist to tell her that being the middle child in a big family made her seek recognition and attention, or that it was the primary thing that pushed her to risk her life in Tier 2 and 3 events around her. And each time she was around the Legendary Beasts, their aura confirmed that it was still her primary motivation.

She wasn’t an Elite then, had just gotten her eighth badge, but she was already known for her reckless battle style, a mentality that made her and her pokemon go all out to prove themselves, no matter the risk.

She knew one day her luck would run out. Watching Entei leap the first line of defense and run through the virtual wall of water that met him at the second, only to emerge from the cloud of steam without pause, made her think that would be the day.

But it wasn’t, and here she is: flying into a storm as she feels the Pressure rise in her thoughts like fog on a chill morning.

As the wind grows harsh and powerful and the cold rain quickly soaks her, she wonders what she’ll feel now. One of the four Elites of the Indigo League, and by far the youngest… is she still afraid of obscurity? She has to know. Is being one of the strongest and most renowned trainers in two regions not enough for her? The Pressure will tell her. And even if it wasn’t her job, she’d be diving right into it to find out for sure.

Reckless? Nah. It boggles her mind that more people don’t seem to appreciate the insights facing legendaries gives. Who needs therapy, when you can literally face personifications of your deepest subconscious fears, and then blast the hell out of them?

She flies over the city until she spots a tall building near the coast with flares on the roof, then guides Orochi toward it as best she can with the wind buffeting him out toward the ocean. Her hydreigon isn’t terribly large, having only evolved 7 years ago, but it’s faster than any other she’s encountered, and its three heads work seamlessly to keep them floating between the various buildings and billboards and light posts in the dark, rainy city. It’s always been a mystery how the Dark Dragon flies, one the recent discovery of the Flying Particle shed no light on. At least flygon has decently sized wings, but Orochi just glides along with barely any effort from the appendages on its back that look more like furred tentacles than wings.

When she gets close enough to the marked building, she finds another in the distance, and from there another, until she spots an occupied rooftop. She brings Orochi down into a dive and “lands” beside the figure of Lorelei, the dragon hovering just above the concrete. The older Elite is only identifiable by circumstance: her whole body is covered in the same type of Faraday suit Karen is wearing. Conductive wire mesh sandwiched between thick layers of fireproofed material would keep them safe from stray lightning bolts, though it does impede movement more than she’d like.

She’s also standing on a platform strapped to the back of a hovering cryogonal the width of a couch, with half a dozen other ones of varying sizes floating around her.

Kind of distinctive, that. Particularly for a non-Psychic.

“Good to have you, Karen! First Stormbringer fight, right?” Lorelei shouts, voice calm and assured despite having to contend with the storm. There are radios attached to the neck of the suits, but in this weather they’d be practically useless.

“Right!” she replies, and alternates stroking Orochi’s three necks, his scales slippery in the heavy rain.

“Then you’re going to be under Giovanni in attack order!”

“Understood!” The idea that elites are below Champions and above Leaders only applies when Champions don’t do weird things like become Leaders afterward. “No appearance yet?”

“No! We’ll be tracking the center of the storm and moving with it, in case it appears!”

Karen nods and turns as lightning flashes again, then again, illuminating the cityscape intermittently. In the moments between, she can make out a number of dull red spots, fires that even the intense rain and wind aren’t putting out right away. There are also a couple of obscured spots where dust clouds from collapsed buildings have been kicked up, and not yet fully battered back down by the rain and wind.

“And in the meantime we wait,” she mutters. Karen itches to go down and help fight, to protect the hospitals and pokemon centers they passed by, but she knows they can’t. The Gym Leaders who could come and their people are spread out around the city already; the Elites’ job is to stay fresh and ready for the cause of all this to make an appearance.

But that’s assuming it ever even does.

“Where are we taking it?”

“My initial pull will be west-southwest! You and Giovanni will need to bring it as far out to sea as we can!”

“Right, but after that?” Cinnabar Island is in that direction, if they lure it that way they’d be putting the people there at risk…

Lorelei laughs. “I like your optimism!”

Karen smiles and squeezes the base of Orochi’s middle neck. “You haven’t really seen my baby in action yet!”

“Noted!” There’s silence for a moment, and then, “If you get it past the bay, turn sharp south!”

Karen’s smile fades, and she suddenly wishes she could see Lorelei’s expression. By luring Zapdos south, there’s a chance it would pass by or over the Sevii Islands, Lorelei’s birthplace and home. Drawing it away from Cinnabar would mean endangering her family and friends and neighbors.

Of course, it could well miss the Sevii Islands entirely. They’re not that large… but in the worst case scenario, well, the total population of all the islands put together is a quarter of Cinnabar’s.

Simple math. Their primary objective is to ensure Zapdos doesn’t travel further up the mainland to Celadon, or turn north toward Saffron, but past that… The only choices risk some deaths to save many more. And the consequences of indecision would be no different than making the choice.

Still, Karen knows the knowledge must feel like hell, and the Pressure is probably making it that much worse. Yet Lorelei sounded composed, and calm, a rallying point for everyone present. Karen can do no less.

The center of the storm has clearly moved, and soon they’re moving with it, lighting new flares and placing them around another roof that’s not the tallest in its area, but still high enough to have clear sight of the cityscape. They’re there for about another fifteen minutes, and then they move again, waiting and watching for their opportunity while another wave of pokemon hits the city.

Karen has to fight the Pressure each time, the desire to do something burning through her. At one point they see another building collapse, and only Lorelei’s unmoving figure keeps Karen in place. She can’t look weak and impulsive in front of the other Elite, not while there are lives on the line.

Eventually Giovanni arrives, followed by half a dozen other trainers. They’re all also wearing faraday suits, so she doesn’t know by appearance who they are, but a vibrating chorus of high pitched noise accompanies them, as each of the trainers is riding a flygon, and that makes it pretty obvious. She’d be surprised if even Blackthorn Gym has this many flygon among its members.

“Good evening, Elites!” Giovanni’s voice is loud but clipped, and it makes Karen feel a little better about herself. She knows it’s petty, the Viridian Gym Leader has faced Pressure at least five times as often as she has, but the fact that the legendary Sakaki is struggling with it too makes her feel less weak.

Karen always feels awkward around the ex-Champion. His decision is one of the reasons she’s even in the Elite Four. She has no illusions that she could beat Lorelei or Bruno if they were going all out… or even Agatha, despite the Type advantage Karen’s strongest pokemon have against hers.

There are a number of Champions that step down from the position, but most do so to pursue other vocations, like Professor Oak, or travel to other regions. Brock is the only other ex-Champion Leader in Indigo, and he only won his match thanks to Aeosis; he must have known he didn’t deserve the title when he stepped down, wouldn’t be able to hold it against a challenger that prepared for that monster.

Giovanni? He might still be Champion, if he wanted to be. She wonders how it makes Lance feel. As far as she knows the two have never battled.

“Good to have you, Leader!” Lorelei’s tone is neutral. “I wasn’t aware that you would be bringing others!”

“All volunteered to be here, and are under strict orders to observe! They will only assist in pre-discussed emergency situations!”

It’s been a problem in the past, trainers who attempted to attack legendaries, either in a bid for revenge or glory, and only ended up getting themselves killed, or worse, interfering with the League’s plan. Giovanni probably didn’t bring his Second or Third, but Karen feels better with the other trainers around. She’s used to facing Johto’s Beasts in groups, both to effectively drive them in a certain direction and to deal with the rampage that would come in their wake.

“Very well! Attack order is myself, then you, then Karen! Hard south after the bay, if possible!”

“Respectfully, Elite, I would suggest I go first!” Giovanni yells. “Our pokemon cannot fly as effectively over water as land!”

Lorelei doesn’t seem happy about this, from what little body language Karen can read. Which isn’t much, given the storm and suit. “The first pull will be the hardest! My cryogonal are more expendable than you or your people! If you reach the bay, let Karen continue, and assist the city!”

Giovanni is silent a moment, then bows his head. “By your command, Elite!”

Karen isn’t sure who she agrees with, but she finds herself happy that she’ll have Zapdos all to herself once they’re over the water… even as the idea of being the sole target in the Legendary’s crosshairs sends cold fingers down her back to grip the base of her spine and squeeze until she’s shivering, legs numb…

Hello fear. She smiles, breathing hard as she focuses on how she will feel when she comes out the other side of this, alive and triumphant. It’s nice to feel you again, for a time.

Because what is there to fear, really? From the perspective of moment to moment experiences in a few hours the fear will either be gone, or she’ll be dead.

Those aren’t the only outcomes. I could be maimed. I could lose Orochi. I could fail and cause others to die.

Karen’s pulse is faster, her breaths short. This Pressure is tenacious. She lets the excitement and fear war within her, drive her to greater heights. Fighting Pressure is all about framing. She stares out at the storm and grins. Your greatest weapon will only give me strength.

They move as a unit to another two rooftops and well past the midpoint of the city when it finally happens: the god of thunder’s cry splits the sky as it descends from the dark like a slowly falling star.

Its presence below the cloudline transforms the city from a strobing world of dark and light to an endless black room with a single impossibly bright bulb hanging in it. Karen wishes briefly she could take a picture of the cityscape, illuminated from a single central point. The shadows the buildings cast move as Zapdos floats with deceptive slowness across the sky.

And then Lorelei is floating rapidly up and to the side. Her swarm of cryogonal forms an array around her and starts to gleam with extra ice that forms on them in a protective layer. After getting in position, one of her pokemon starts accelerating faster than the others, and Lorelei’s voice is suddenly sharp as steel in Karen’s headset. “Initial pull starting now.”

The cryogonal disappears into the distance, followed by Lorelei and the others. Giovanni follows her, but not at maximum speed, and Karen takes her cue from him, though it galls her to just hang back here doing nothing.

Wait. Your chance is coming. Wait.

She keeps Orochi behind the Leader as she strains her eyes against the glaring brightness of the god’s electric aura. Eventually a thin beam of blue and white lances out at it in the distance, and the jealousy churns through her. Lorelei’s attack has begun.

Zapdos doesn’t react to the attack, and Karen imagines that it might not have even felt it through its Light Screen. Once there are three beams hitting it simultaneously, however, lightning flashes down around it, and its cry once again echoes over the city in a thunderclap.

Karen wonders how many of the cryogonal just died, but a moment later more beams hit the legendary pokemon again, and finally the glowing bird turns to face them head on.

Karen sees the light around the bird flare, and banks Orochi into a steep turn just as a twitching ball of lightning flies out at them. The Zap Cannon is far slower than an actual bolt from the sky, but wherever it goes, arcs of electricity snap out from it to the buildings below, the rain evaporating into a hazy mist behind it.

Orochi manages to get out of its flight path in time to avoid being struck by it, and Karen turns to watch the glowing orb fly out over the coastline and out past the edge of the storm, where it quickly loses coherence. Orochi’s left head roars at Zapdos in defiance, and she quickly smacks its neck to get it to stop before looking over the city, and feeling a ball of ice in her stomach.

Roughly a dozen buildings in the path of that attack are on fire. Their lightning rods were overloaded.

She turns back to the Thunder God. There are more beams of icy light hitting it from the front, keeping it turned toward the ocean as it starts calling lightning down on its assailants again. They need to get it out of the city as quickly as possible.

She realizes with a start that Zapdos is closing the gap between them rapidly, now, and sees Giovanni abruptly loop and turn his pokemon toward the coast. She quickly follows suit, and they lead the legend across the city, racing to stay just out of its range.

Karen trusts her pokemon to keep them from hitting anything and turns to watch the battle as best she can as the rain pelts her face. There aren’t any new attacks hitting Zapdos, however, and she can’t make out Lorelei at this distance. The only reason the Thunder God is so visible is how bright it is.

Karen feels a chill go down her spine. The engagement has barely lasted a minute, and Zapdos is still a long way from the coast. Is Lorelei out of the fight already? She carefully drifts Orochi closer to Giovanni’s flygon. “I don’t see any more Ice Beams!” she yells.

“Maintain course! I will engage if it starts to deviate!” Giovanni calls back. “Be prepared to pick up if it does again after me!”

“Right!” Karen clenches her jaw against the impatience swirling in her. Lorelei knows better than to personally get in range of an attack, but determining the range of an enemy that can call lightning down in a thunderstorm is difficult, to say the least. There’s no truly safe way for a prolonged fight against legendary pokemon, who seem to shrug off all but the most powerful or effective attacks…

And their response when truly challenged, is always to retaliate with overwhelming force.

Lightning crackles through the clouds and pours into the tallest buildings, blinding Karen and probably anyone who’s outside, for a moment.

The thunder hits a split second later from everywhere at once, a grinding roar of noise that seems to practically vibrate the air around her. She blinks spots out of her eyes as her ears ring, and feels Orochi vibrate under her as all three heads roar in pain this time, the sound muffled.

She notices her dazed pokemon is drifting aimlessly to the side, and taps a command against his neck to get him to turn and speed up again. When she thinks to look behind her, she sees Zapdos is no longer facing them.

Before she can panic, a burst of light speeds toward the legendary’s glowing figure, and starts splitting into multiple sparks, each leaving a glowing trail behind them.

Most of the barrage misses Zapdos, but some hit, and its screech is a distant scrape against her throbbing ears. It turns back toward the coast, chasing Giovanni now, whose pokemon doesn’t bother attacking again and merely goes for pure speed as lightning blasts it.

Immune to electricity as flygon is, the heat from bolts of lightning is not so easy to ignore, and Karen knows that Giovanni’s suit can’t take many hits like that. The Gym Leader manages to outpace the Thunder God for a brief time, hopefully letting the wind and rain cool him off, but Zapdos is locked on and focused, and another Zap Cannon suddenly launches out.

Karen is far enough to the side to avoid the sphere of lightning without drastic action, but the others from Giovanni’s gym have to scatter. Zapdos keeps trying to turn after one of them, and Karen realizes they’re buying their Gym Leader time, each trading off to be the one chased while keeping Zapdos aimed unerringly toward the docks.

She’s not sure how this qualifies as an “emergency situation,” but it’s clear Giovanni’s people were prepared to do this at the first opportunity and help their Leader escape danger by taking some hits themselves. But with their pokemon and suits, they should be okay…

…and soon enough the ground below Karen gives way to docks, which give way to water. The squadron of flygon disperse rather than float over the sea, and Zapdos seems to be choosing which of them it wants to chase.

Now, finally, it’s her chance. “Come on, Orochi,” she mutters. “Let’s show them all what we can do.”

She taps out a command to the two side necks, then another to the middle one, hands adjusting along his neck to steer as he banks toward Zapdos while flying south-southwest as two of his heads curve back behind it and emit a pair of dark purple beams.

Karen watches the energy splash against Zapdos’s glowing form, and from this distance the speed at which it turns toward them is startling. “Go!” she yells with a surge of adrenaline even as her hands grip in the actual command, and her pokemon’s wings sweep all at once and jet them forward.

Lightning blinds Karen as they soar out over the bay, and Orochi cries out in pain, but doesn’t stop moving. She blinks away the spots and taps out a different command, and the next attack to come from her pokemon’s mouths is a pulse of darkness so complete that even Zapdos’s glowing form is obscured by it, for a moment, and the world returns to pitch black again.

She dips Orochi down in that brief darkness, then turns and darts back the way she came.

Then the legendary’s glowing form is revealed again, like the first sun being born in an endless void, and it screeches in rage… but in front of Karen, this time, rather than behind her.

Gods still need to see. Karen grins and flies behind the stormbringer, letting Orochi rest as Zapdos flies ahead.

Minutes pass in the harsh winds and soaking rain, and Zapdos flies over the water like a shooting star. Karen stays alert for any sign that the legendary is turning, but it’s hard to tell without the city to navigate by anymore: there’s nothing but water all around them. She watches the lightning bird as best she can through its blinding aura, and can just make out the dark patch in the back of its glowing form. All the while, the Pressure batters at her mind, making her itch to do more. She ignores it, for now. Part of mastering her fears, proving she’s stronger, is being able to resist it when necessary. She has a job to do first, and once it’s done… the fear of failure will be gone, and all that will be left is the invigorating fear of death.

Zapdos is flying farther and farther ahead, and she realizes Orochi has been getting tired, which is bad for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that they’re effectively in the middle of the ocean. She takes some ether out of her bag and taps its necks one at a time so they can bend around and open wide for her to point the nozzle into each mouth and spray. Ether’s effects on the body would work no matter which mouth Orochi ingests it with, but for the mental effects…

Her pokemon dutifully speeds up, and she finishes the bottle off by pointing the nozzle between the bars of her mask and spraying the last squeeze of ether into her own mouth before she can stop herself.

It’s like swallowing rubbing alcohol and coffee while a bolt of clarity lights her brain up from the inside. She feels more wired and alert than she can ever remember, and drops the empty bottle into the ocean as she leans over Orochi’s neck, body vibrating with energy as she grins even as worry rises up in her. Dangerous, taking ether, lots of side effects, but side effects don’t matter if you’re dead.

Time loses all meaning as she flies behind the storm god. She keeps her eyes away from it as much as she can, worried about damage to her eyes and hoping Orochi will be okay, and eventually the endless expanse of water below stops, and she realizes they’ve reached the mouth of Kanto’s massive bay.

She did it. She brought it all the way out to sea… assuming she can turn it in the right direction, at least. If it hadn’t drifted since they left Vermilion behind then Cycling Road would be directly ahead and on either side of them, but instead the enormously long and poorly named bridge is a distant string of lights to Karen’s right, and to her left… yes, there’s Fuchsia City in the distance.

She has to turn it hard west, now, to minimize the storm’s effects on nearby towns and pokemon populations, then south to minimize its chances of flying to Cinnabar.

Or… she can take it by surprise… fly up to it, get within capture range… throw an ultra ball…

Karen almost stops breathing as she pictures it. The first trainer in history to catch a Legendary pokemon… to have the god of lightning on her belt… it would prove her greatness to everyone, once and for all… she just needs… to fly a little closer…

Karen carefully pulls an ultra ball from the pouch on her saddle. The ball is slippery in her gloved hand, and she feels herself sweating in the thick suit. Zapdos is harder to look at the closer she gets, and she starts to feel warmth, then heat. How is it not cooking itself? She suddenly has doubts that even an ultra ball would even make it through that constant electric aura, but she has to try… She pushes Orochi a little harder, trying to get just a little closer…

It’s the buzzing in the air that she feels which snaps her out of it, the way Orochi vibrates and squirms in pain. She quickly has him back off. What was she thinking? Effective range of an ultra ball in these conditions would be maybe three meters, and they’re flying at speeds that would make any throw almost impossible.

Been in the Pressure too long… By the Guardians, how long have they been flying?

The land is too close, now, she has to turn Zapdos before he flies over it. She carefully commands Orochi to turn to the right and fly faster. Karen tries to judge the right distance, making sure they’re not too close while being at the right angle… then has Orochi’s left head fires a Dragon Pulse.

Zapdos is hit, but as the energies clash around it the Thunder God barely seems to notice or care. She has Orochi fire again and again, but her pokemon seems too tired to hit it with much power.

She quickly sprays more ether into its mouths as they start to pass over land, hands fumbling with the bottle in her haste. She’s fucking it up, she should have turned him earlier, should have paid attention…

Draco Meteor, she taps out, and her pokemon’s three heads each pour glowing orange death out at the glowing god, hoping no one is below them to get hit by the attacks.

Zapdos finally seems to notice them, and she quickly wrenches Orochi around to the right to lead it back on a chase. Electricity crackles through the storm clouds around them, but no lightning hits her and her dragon, and soon they’ve left the narrow strip of land, as well as the even narrower bridge, behind.

Now. She has Orochi turn slowly southward, and uses Dark Pulse again to distract Zapdos a couple times when it cuts through the inside of the curve to get closer to her. It fires another lightning ball back, and this time they’re too close to avoid it: electricity plays over her suit and Orochi’s body as the ball sails past, and she feels a surge of sympathy for Orochi as he endures the electricity and just keeps flying, a single bellow his only concession to the pain.

That, and he’s going slower. A lot slower.

Karen quickly orders another Dark Pulse, then opens the pouch at her side and grabs a syringe full of potion out of it, then another for electric injuries as Zapdos’s blinding light is temporarily obscured. She searches as best she can with her thick gloves for the soft spot between the scales in Orochi’s shoulder and injects both healing liquids into his bloodstream one after the other.

Orochi puts on more speed just as the Thunder God re-emerges, screeching in anger, but it’s too late to attack them again, and soon they’re leading it south… and then, exhausted though she and Orochi are, south-east. There are no islands in this direction. If she can take Zapdos as far out in this direction as possible, its odds of harming anyone else would be effectively zero.

Some part of her is aware that this is the Pressure pushing her to do more than she needs to, to rise above expectations and stand out. She ignores that part of her. She’s saving lives, by doing this. She can keep going. She has to prove that she can. And then… all this fear and struggle… will have been that much more worth it… what’s another hour of flying, after those she went through already? Will she even remember it as being any worse?

Still, no reason not to be smart about this.

Karen orders another Dark Pulse, and prepares to dive down and loop behind it again. The wave of pitch black spreads out behind her…

…and Zapdos dives under it, screeching in anger and firing another Zap Cannon at them.

The light engulfs her, and she can smell ozone and burning canvas as her pokemon screams in pain… then starts to fall.

Karen desperately blinks spots out of her eyes as the stormy ocean rushes up at them, hands fumbling for the medicine pouches along her saddle as her suit burns around her. The last thing she hears before they hit the angry waves is the Thunder God’s cry of victory.

Chapter 62: Trust

It’s worse than she imagined it would be.

There’s the storm itself, first and foremost. The world strobes between dark and light as constant, varying, often overlapping booms and rumbles of thunder pound at her ears. Powerful gusts of winds whip at her hair and clothes. Basic communication is difficult, and even keeping track of where they are quickly becomes an issue as the street signs are hard to make out, assuming they’re still even standing. The rain is still fairly light, but it reduces visibility even further, and gives cold teeth to the wind.

But the storm alone would be bearable. What’s made Vermilion into a waking nightmare are the pokemon.

“Tony,” Red shouts soon after they leave the building. “I’m using psychic senses to see if there are pokemon around so we can avoid them! I need you and Leaf to keep an eye out for any Dark pokemon, okay?”

“Me?” the man yells, like there’s anyone else around. “But I can barely see anything!”

“Neither can I!” Leaf shouts out, irritated at him and knowing she shouldn’t be. “But we still need your help! Watch the sides, and I’ll keep looking behind us!”

“Sides! Okay!” He turns his head rapidly left and right as they walk as Leaf brings up the rear and constantly looks behind her to make sure they aren’t being followed. Her hair is mostly restrained by her bike helmet, but wet strands of it keep getting blown loose to poke at her eyes. She considers putting her goggles on, but the rain would quickly make them useless.

Raff and Scamp walk beside her, their bodies occasionally twitching and shivering in ways that have nothing to do with the rain and wind. She feels guilty for subjecting them to this, but if they can help her save other pokemon… and people… She doesn’t need them for that though, does she? She saved her new nidorino by putting herself at risk, and Red’s pikachu…

No, that’s the Pressure, I got lucky to save Nidorino with only light burns, if it had turned toward me… She knows better than that, he wouldn’t have died if it got burned a little before she captured it, it’s sad to think of it getting more hurt but it could have been healed if that happened. She knew the stormbringer’s aura would make it hard to fight, would be distracting, but this is more than that. It’s not just that guilt is adjusting the priority of her values, it’s so overpowering it makes her stupid in the pursuit of themshe can’t actually save more pokemon if she gets herself killed trying, and she needs to keep that in mind, even when the feeling is hard to think through. Especially then.

So resolved, she walks about another minute before she sees the first one.

It’s a ponyta, lying dead in the street not a block away from the clothing store. There’s no question it’s dead: something has cut it so deep in front of its forelegs that it looks nearly chopped in half. Its mane no longer glows, orange hair lying limp and darkened by the rain that spreads and dilutes the pool of blood it’s laying in. The whole tableau is at the edge of one of the few remaining street lights, visible even between the lightning strikes.

The sight of it cracks something in Leaf’s heart. She steps toward it before she can help herself, hand fumbling for a potion and revive capsule, it looks dead but it might not be, she has to capture it at least and check, she has to do something to save it, save it, I have to save it…

“Leaf!”

She turns to see Red and Tony, staring back at her from the end of the sidewalk. She’s surprised for a moment that he even noticed she’d stopped, but of course his powers would tell him.

Leaf looks back at the ponyta. His powers would be able to tell if it was alive. Red wouldn’t have just ignored it if it were alive.

Would he?

No. No, Red’s a good person, he has trauma about pokemon but he wouldn’t just let it die. Even if that’s not true, at the very least he’d capture it for his own sake. If he’s ignoring it it’s because it’s dead.

Leaf closes her eyes. Takes a deep breath. Forces her feet to keep moving.

Red calls out a warning for some pokemon that seem to be fighting up ahead, and they take a detour… where they encounter a doduo lying in the middle of the street, both necks bent at unnatural angles to twist to either side of its round feathery body. There’s another after that, the burnt body of something small, maybe a nidoran or a rattata. And when they turn back toward the hospital, she spots a pidgey that flew into a building and broke its neck.

She can’t tell when she starts to cry, the rain disguising her tears even from herself.

Keep going, just keep going, there’s nothing you can do for them, just keep moving…

But even while she follows her own advice, part of her hates herself for not even checking to make sure the pokemon are really dead. For not doing enough to save them. Isn’t that why she became a trainer? To help people and pokemon? Isn’t that how she justifies capturing them in the first place?

No, she can’t blame herself for this. The real blame lies in the stormgod. Zapdos.

The hate that fills her is alien, burning her chest as she wipes at her face. She’d never hated anything so much in her life, let alone a pokemon. How many times had she sagely repeated, “No sense getting mad at a minccino for being a minccino” to herself, a reminder that all creatures follow their nature, and can’t be blamed for being what they are?

But this… the sheer destruction, the madness and pain and death that sweeps all it touches and drives them into madness and pain and death, it’s as close to real “evil” as anything a pokemon does that she can think of. Maybe it makes as much sense as calling a regular storm evil…

But you can’t kill a storm.

She drives the thought away, horrified by it, but also resigned. Can’t kill a god, either.

Not yet.

She turns to Red every so often to see how he’s managing. She knows that before the voyage using his powers like this would quickly be overwhelming, and from what she felt of them earlier he’s pretty close to his limit already. But… he seems mostly fine. Maybe his “psydar” really is just that much less costly to use. What impresses her more is that he even manages to concentrate on it through not just the distractions of the storm, but whatever the Pressure is making him feel, which she’s pretty sure is fear.

Until they see their first humans.

Leaf nearly walks into Tony, who has stopped because he nearly walked into Red. They all stare when they see what he’s looking at. It’s a pair, one adult and one child. They’re lying on the pavement trampled and torn up and just as clearly dead as the ponyta had been, but Red still stares and doesn’t move as the rain pours down and the wind blows his hair beneath his helmet.

Leaf swallows down the sob that’s rising in her at the sight. It’s her turn. She walks over to Red and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Red…” She doesn’t know what to say, other than the obvious. “We have to go!”

He looks at her, face twisting in grief and fear, but then he takes her hand. His skin is warm, and she realizes that hers are just freezing from the wind and rain. “There are people,” he says. “In the buildings we’re passing.”

She understands. Shouldn’t they be checking on them? What if they end up like these two? “No pokemon with them?” He shakes his head. “Then they’re probably safer inside,” she says, hoping it’s true.

Red closes his eyes, breathes deep, nods, and keeps moving. Leaf watches him for a moment, waiting for Tony to move past her. She remembers what it felt like, inside, and feels a surge of care for him. He’s trying so hard to do what’s right, even when he doesn’t know.

He always tries so hard…

She feels a sudden warmth toward him, and on its tail comes the flash of feeling she’d sensed when their thoughts were joined. The regard he has for her.

She didn’t know how to respond to that, at the time, and doesn’t now. But she wishes she’d reacted to it at all, instead of ignoring it and just hammering him about his views on pokemon until he left. She’d felt bad about that, been tempted to chase him, but she was still struggling too much against what she had felt in his thoughts, was worried she would make things worse.

Now her guilt over that seems to grow and grow. They could die here, either or both of them, and she’d been so unfair to him on the cruise… he tried so hard to understand her and let her understand him… she’s a horrible friend, she’s not used to having them for so long, of course she’d screw it up eventually…

It’s the shift that makes her notice it. The way her attention stops automatically drifting toward the guilt of not helping pokemon enough, to guilt over how she’s not a good enough friend. The severe switch, from constantly checking their pokemon to ensure they’re holding up okay to constantly checking Red to make sure he is, is enough to make her frown at herself. It feels wrong, and—

—and it’s distracting her from looking for Dark pokemon! She looks around, wildly at first, then lets out a breath, her guilt at being a bad friend surging up again before she shifts her attention away. That’s what she has to do, the Pressure somehow changed what it was affecting, but the solution is the same, just keep her thoughts on what’s important…

They walk through the storm and see more bodies, pokemon and human. At one point there’s another huge ongoing rumble that wasn’t thunder, and Leaf feels the ground tremble. She wonders if another building fell, or if there’s some pokemon beneath them causing quakes. How far down does the Pressure go? The idea of a rampaging onix beneath the city is terrifying, not just for its potential surfacing, but for the infrastructure damage it might cause. Vermilion is a coastal city though, the water table must be near the surface… And rising with the rain.

A chill that has nothing to do with the storm suddenly goes through her. If the water table rises enough to force the underground pokemon up, or those in the sewers…

“Pokemon in one of the buildings to our left,” Red shouts over the wind and thunder, snapping her out of her dark thoughts. They’re passing by a building with its door smashed in. “Keep an eye on it! Don’t sense any humans inside!”

“Is the pokemon hurt?” Leaf shouts back.

“Can’t tell! Just getting instant impressions!”

Worry goes through her as she remembers the bird pokemon bleeding from the broken glass inside them. “Red, we have to check!”

“What? Why?!” Tony yells.

“Leaf, it’s rampaging in there,” Red says, ignoring the man to look at her. “I can sense it moving around, fast! It’s not worth the risk!”

“If there was a human in there, you’d risk facing it to save them!” She stares into his eyes, willing him to understand. “Because you’re a good person! I have to be willing to risk facing it to save it too! It’s just as much a victim of Zapdos as the people here!”

Red stares back at her, then curses. “Do you have a plan?”

She nods and heads for the building, hand going to her pocket to pull out ear plugs. Joy’s voice would be mostly useless in the pouring rain, howling wind, and constant thunder, but hopefully inside… “You stay out here! Watch for the next wave!” She turns to her pokemon and points to the ground. “Guard!”

“Wait!” Tony shouts. “We might as well get out of the rain!”

“Too dangerous! I’m going to be using an area of effect attack!”

“A what?”

Leaf shakes her head and goes inside before he can argue. The man is turning out to be more of a hassle than she’d imagined, and she wishes he’d just stayed behind.

Leaf steps carefully through the broken door of the restaurant and summons Joy, the sound of the storm twice as muffled now that she’s mostly inside. It’s nice to be out of the cold, and she takes a moment to rest from the wind and rain as she looks around. A line of chaos extends from the doorway past the tables, upending them and the chairs, and her eyes jump to the claw marks on the floor, the gnaw marks on the chair legs. She takes a moment to study them, knowing she needs to hurry but not wanting to rush into anything. Raticate. Got to be. The sound of something crashing around inside the house makes Leaf start moving faster, worried the pokemon will hurt itself, if it hasn’t already.

She finds a door with its bottom half chewed open, and turns the handle to open the kitchen. It’s been torn apart, food scattered everywhere. The raticate is still there, digging through a cabinet. It turns a food stained mouth toward them as Leaf closes the door, then races straight for Joy, huge teeth open.

“Sing!” Leaf yells from behind her pokemon, and the wigglytuff’s voice fills the room, muffled and warped through her earplugs. The raticate stumbles, then falls limp and rolls to a stop. Leaf’s heart is in her throat as she watches it a moment while she pulls a pokeball free, then aims, locks, throws.

The ball absorbs it, then falls and rolls to a stop. She steps quickly over to pick it up, then withdraws Joy and takes her earplugs out as she makes her way back toward the front and out the building, wincing as the storm hits her again.

Red and Tony are watching both ends of the street, but Red turns to her with clear relief when she comes out. Tony just looks stressed and scared and impatient.

“Okay?” Red asks, voice raised over the rain.

“Yes! Thank you!”

They set off again, and Leaf feels better about things for a while, knowing that she took time to save a pokemon that might have gotten hurt or hurt someone else. She watches for Dark pokemon as best she can as they move from one block to another, trying not to focus on the bodies they see, human and pokemon alike, as Red continues to help them avoid pokemon wandering around the city.

But little by little she feels the Pressure erode at her thoughts again, start to bend them. It’s been a while since Red called out anything. Are there pokemon around them that he’s ignoring, now, to make better time?

No, she shouldn’t think that way… gods, why is she so suspicious of him, she’s such a terrible friend…

…but he wouldn’t be lying or anything, he’d just be… staying quiet. And she’s been in his head. She knows how easy it would be, to make that calculation, to not put him (or her, especially her) at risk just to save a pokemon.

And now Leaf worries they’re passing a dozen pokemon who are bleeding and broken just out of sight, and she’s just walking by them and not doing anything because she doesn’t want to make things awkward

“Stop!” she yells.

Tony lets out a small scream and looks wildly around, hunkering down, but Red just scans their surroundings for whatever Dark pokemon she might have seen, then turns curiously to her, hand going up to shield his face from the rain as it shifts to blow into his face.

Leaf walks up to him, turning him away from the wind. “Red…” How is she going to put this? She needs to get rid of these thoughts, to make it clear to herself that they’re not worth worrying about. “I want you to know, I trust you!”

Red stares at her, rain trailing down his face. “I… I trust you too, Leaf!”

“I know you care about me!” she continues, cheeks burning against the cold. “And I know how hard you try to do what’s right! I trust you to tell me if there are pokemon around us who I could save! So I’m not going to let the Pressure distract me with those thoughts! I need you to know that, that I’m sorry for what I said before, and that I trust you! Completely!”

Red keeps staring at her, and thunder crashes overhead, making them all flinch. “Are you two seriously doing this now?” Tony asks. “Here?”

“Shut up!” Leaf snaps at him, then turns back to Red, willing him to understand, to get it…

His face is a stew of emotions that are hard to read in the inconsistent light, and she’s aware of how close they are. She wonders if she should step back, but then his hands are on hers.

“Leaf… I swear to you, I’ll let you know if there’s a pokemon still alive around us! I… care about you, and I trust you too!”

Relief, overwhelming and cleansing. She doesn’t know if he understood, she can’t know if he really will or not, but he still said what she needed to hear.

Leaf realizes suddenly how easy it is to trust someone, when you know everything about them. When you know that they’re going to act a certain way, you trust them to act that way. But that’s not the deepest form of trust. Real trust requires uncertainty. It requires situations where the person might make choices that you’ll never know, might even make choices that appear to be wrong, but which you’ll accept anyway because you trust that they had a good reason.

She has to trust him as a choice, rather than wait for certainty. Or the Pressure would eat her up inside.

Leaf smiles briefly, and lets him go. His hands leave hers a moment later. “Okay! Let’s go!”

Red nods, gaze lingering on her face, and then he turns and starts to walk again. Leaf takes up the rear again, watching their surroundings, her thoughts still bending toward worry of being a bad trainer, or bad friend, before she forcibly remembers what Red told her, his words to remember her trust in him, and his for her.

A block later he stops to let her know there’s a pokemon a street down that’s staying still, and they detour to find a doduo sprawled on the ground with a broken leg. Next to it is a rattata that was clearly pecked to death, and is still being pecked, one head and then the other diving down into its body. Leaf feels her gorge rise and has to turn away, eyes closed and mouth open to let the rain wash the bile from her mouth, and when she turns back Red has already captured it, and she gratefully follows him back to their original route so they can move on.

When Red next stops them, it’s because he senses pokemon in one of the nearby apartment buildings. They walk around it until they find the side with broken glass all over the street, and Leaf has to fight down sudden nausea. The apartment building is twelve stories high, tall enough that it got hit by the wave of flying pokemon, and the ground is littered with dead birds and bugs who crashed into windows. She assumes they’re all dead, anyway, because Red is ignoring them as he triangulates by moving from side to side.

“This is one!” he says, pointing up to a broken window on the fourth floor. Leaf averts her gaze from the ground and counts windows until she knows which apartment the pokemon is in.

“One?”

“Yeah! Two more!” He quickly points them out, on the seventh and ninth floors. There are other broken windows too, but Red says no pokemon are in those. Maybe they flew away after. Or maybe they died from their injuries.

Leaf pushes the thought away as they make their way to the lobby, finally getting out of the wind and rain. Leaf lets her pokemon shake themselves dry, and withdraws them to reduce their Pressure exposure.

Red does the same, then wipes his wet hair from his face. “I’m going to check on the people here, see if they’re okay or want to come with us. Maybe one will be okay with Tony staying with them.”

“Hey,” Tony says. “This is no shelter. What if more pokemon get in?”

Red regards the man with some expression Leaf can’t read. “You can keep traveling with us, but I thought you were getting irritated at our detours? We’re rolling the dice each time we stop, and we’re going to keep doing that.”

Tony shifts his weight. “Right. Well, this place does seem solid enough.”

“Good.” He turns to Leaf. “Will you be okay on your own?”

She nods. “Go make sure the people are okay. I’ve got this.”

Leaf goes to the third floor, counting doors until she reaches the one the first pokemon was in. She presses her ear against the wood, but doesn’t hear anything but the storm outside. When she tests the handle, she finds it locked, and feels a sudden hesitation. It feels wrong to break the person’s door… but there are only two outcomes here. Either the pokemon dies in there from whatever injury it sustained going through the window (unacceptable) or it survives and attacks the homeowner when they return after the storm. She has to do it.

Part of her knows there are other possibilities, that it might survive but be too injured to attack whoever lives here, or that it might leave through the window when the storm ends. But she has no way to calculate those risks, and she’s here and has to do something.

Leaf summons Joy into the hallway, but not for singing. It’s possible the sound of the storm through the window will interfere too much with her singing for it to be effective. Instead she summons Raff too, then points to the door handle and tells her wigglytuff, “Pound.”

The round pokemon inhales, muscles shifting beneath its soft pelt. Its forelimbs, normally the vague shape and consistency of marshmallow flippers, stretch and thicken, and it slams one into the doorknob like a coiled spring of flesh, hard enough to shatter the wood around it before the limb compresses back to its shorter form.

Leaf quickly shoves the door open and steps behind Joy in case something comes out, but there’s only an empty front hall. The sound of the storm is louder, and she raises her voice to say, “Raff, Scout, Subdue!”

Her ivysaur moves into the dark apartment, muscles tense, and within moments a shape leaps out of the shadows at him, the hallway light revealing it to be a noctowl. Raff immediately sends sleep powder out from between his fronds in response.

The noctowl bats a wing forward, blowing the powder back down the entry hall and slamming Raff against the wall with a sudden burst of wind. Leaf ducks behind Joy and holds her breath, and watches as her pokemon tilts back from the gust of wind, then rocks forward and falls onto its face, body relaxing back into softness as Joy bounces gently, fast asleep.

Instead of following up on the attack, the noctowl hits the ground on its side and scrambles to get back up. One of its wings is broken and bleeding. Leaf rushes forward, ball in hand, gets the ping, and throws. The noctowl prepares to flap again, but is sucked into the ball before it can.

Leaf lets out her pent up breath as she half-collapses against a couch. That was close. She’d almost fallen prey to her own sleep powder, all because she was in such a rush to save the pokemon she didn’t put her air mask on despite being about to use spores. Though it’s not as distracting as before, the Pressure is clearly still affecting her decisions.

She checks Raff to make sure he’s okay, then withdraws him and wakes Joy before pulling her back into her ball too. Then she puts her new Noctowl into her bag, since both her belts are full, now, and after a moment’s thought puts the raticate she caught in her bag too so there’s a spot empty on her belts.

It’s getting kind of full. She’ll have to start tossing things soon if she catches more pokemon.

Leaf puts her air mask on now, then goes to check the next apartment she’d marked, going up another three flights of stairs, then counts the doors to find the right apartment. This one has its lights on, and Leaf watches with tensed muscles as Raff cautiously walks into a living room that looks like it’s been thoroughly trashed, a trail of blood on the carpet. After walking past the corner of the hallway, he ejects sleep powder at something out of sight.

Leaf twitches, a command on her lips, but nothing happens. Raff is focused on whatever he sprayed, alert and ready, but… not like he’s expecting combat.

Leaf hurries past Joy and enters the living room to see a bloody fearow, covered in deep stab wounds and lying still in a small crimson pool. Raff’s thin coating of sleep spores covers it… and the large kitchen knife in its chest.

Leaf almost raises a pokeball to capture it anyway, just in case, but just stares in grief and self-recrimination… and confusion. Her mind is interpreting what she’s seeing in a certain way that doesn’t make sense, and she knows it doesn’t make sense. There’s no way it flew into the kitchen and impaled itself on multiple knives, only one of which stuck in it. And if the other wounds are all from glass… then where’s the glass? She hears the outside storm, but not through any broken windows here: from behind her.

She turns to see the erratic trail of blood and claw marks and feathers leading to one of the bedrooms. Her heart is pounding for some reason, feet moving automatically to follow it… turns into a brightly painted room… sees…

…her knees give out, eyes shut, but still seeing…

…the crib, bloody…

…the woman, covered in deep gouges and scratches…

…the storm roaring outside the broken window, drowning out her groan of grief and defeat.

For the second time tonight, Leaf’s stomach heaves out its contents, her hand scrambling at her facemask to push it up in time, which only brings the smell to her. This time she empties herself before she’s able to crawl back, push herself up, get out and away. She doesn’t stop until she’s out in the hallway again, shaking and crying as she slides back to the floor, head in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she tells them, voice hoarse as tears start to fall. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

The storm rages outside, the smell of blood and worse contending with it. Leaf usually loves the smell of rain, the faint scent of ozone before, the clean minerally smell during, and the wet earthy smells that comes after.

But this storm’s ozone is sharp enough to burn her nostrils, and its rain carries with it the smell of dirty asphalt and oppressive dampness. The engine of destruction that Zapdos weaves around itself is one of nothing but pain and misery and death.

Raff eventually walks over to her and nuzzles his head against her side. She wraps her arms around his neck, carefully pressing her cheek to his leathery forehead as one hand brushes his frond.

What finally gets her up is the thought that Red didn’t sense people in this apartment. They’d already been dead when they arrived… but the fearow had been alive. It had finished bleeding out while she was making her way upstairs or catching the noctowl. Leaf would have only been too late by a few minutes at most, and there’s one more pokemon still in the building. It might be dying as she just sits here and wallows.

Leaf pats Raff and pushes herself up, then withdraws her pokemon and makes her way out of the apartment, feeling numb. As she does so she wonders if anyone else lives here, would come home to find… this. Her stomach clenches, making her put a hand on the wall, but there’s nothing left to come up, and after a moment she starts walking again.

By the time she reaches the stairs she’s moving quickly again, intent on saving the last pokemon if she can. When she reaches the apartment on the seventh floor, she stops herself. She has to think, to make sure she’s not rushing or forgetting something because of the Pressure and what just happened…

She turns from that memory, and busies herself summoning Raff and Joy again before she puts her face mask on and reviews her strategy. Joy smashes the lock, she opens the door, Raff goes in to subdue… Still seems like her best plan. She wishes she had pokemon more effective against Flying types… but no, they’d all hurt them far too much… Raff is safest, even if he’s at risk…

She bites her lower lip, remembering the way the noctowl blew his spores away. If it hadn’t been injured, he may have gotten seriously hurt. Why is she putting him at so much risk just for wild pokemon?

What, so I’m going to value his life over the pokemon’s just because he’s mine? I’m just like everyone else if I do that.

Shame burns in her chest, and she orders Joy to smash the lock, then leans around her and opens the door. “Raff, Scout, Subdue,” she calls out over the heightened sound of the storm.

The ivysaur goes in once again, and like last time reaches the living room before spraying sleep powder at something. Leaf hurries inside and sees a pidgey lying on the ground. Leaf’s heart sinks, thinking she may have been too late again: it didn’t try to fight back at all, and it looks pretty battered, like it bounced around the walls and ceiling in here after crashing through the glass.

She quickly captures it anyway, then goes to turn on a light so she can find the ball more easily when it rolls away. As soon as she flips the switch up, the buzzing of wings behind Leaf makes her turn to see something red and blue and yellow streaking toward her.

It hits her backpack, the shock of the blow absorbed enough that it only sends her sprawling into the wall. She just barely manages to avoid braining herself against the wall by slapping her arms against it, and quickly turns to see Raff and Joy attacking the ledian that hit her. It dodges Joy’s leap and Raff’s sharp leaves, and the buzz of its wings suddenly grows overbearingly loud. Leaf flinches back, hands clapping over her ears as it feels like her ear canals are being invaded by sharp stabbing worms.

The contending noise of the storm combined with her earplugs manages to keep it from being too harmful, but it also keeps Leaf from being able to shout out commands to her pokemon, who are struggling against the attack. The ledian is too fast for her to get a lock on it, and Crimson’s mobility would be more hampered by the small room,but there’s one pokemon she has that may be able to catch it.

A sudden burst of guilt stays her hand as she grabs her beedrill’s pokeball. It might kill the ledian, she can’t…

The red bug rockets into Joy’s face, and her pokemon cries out in pain as blood starts to spread over her downy fur.

Joy!” Leaf stares in horror as she sees one of the wigglytuff’s big, beautiful eyes is ruined, and then she’s withdrawing her pokemon before its keening noises of pain can rend at her heart any more. The ledian dives at Leaf again, but dodges out of the way as Raff’s vines swing at it.

“Go, Beedrill!” Leaf yells, fury and pain pulsing through her as her pokemon materializes. “Twin Needle!”

The ledian zips around the small room, but Beedrill cuts the corner as a burst of wind cuts one of Beedrill’s wings and spins it around. As it falls, however, one long, sharp claw stabs at the ledian and pins it to the wall, dragging it down as Leaf’s pokemon falls to the carpet.

Oh shit oh shit it’s going to die “Back!” Leaf calls out, but her pokemon doesn’t listen, still stabbing at the Ledian, and Leaf stares in useless horror for the space of a panicked breath before she remembers Raff and yells “Sleep Powder!”

The blue spores spread over the two bugs, and their frenzied movements slow, then stop. Leaf is already moving forward to pull Beedrill’s arm out of the ledian’s chest, pokeball ready in the other hand to capture it. It pings, and she tosses it in a careful underhand to make sure her shaking hand doesn’t miss.

Once it’s caught, she collapses back into the couch behind her, breathing hard and fogging her face mask. She feels wrung out, emotions still rising up and crashing against each other, bursting all over her insides like splashes of paint.

Joy. How bad was her wound? Too serious for a potion, probably, but… maybe the pokemon centers could heal it… it was hard to see how badly damaged the eye was, there was so much blood…

Leaf feels light headed for a moment, and abruptly sits up, worried she breathed in some sleep powder accidentally. But no, she’s not sleepy. Oh good. Just shock.

Her hands are still trembling as she returns her sleeping beedrill, then Raff. She stands, then abruptly sits back down, knees weak. Maybe she’ll just… sit here a moment. And heal her pokemon. Yeah.

The storm blows the occasional mist of rain through the window and onto her face as she brings Beedrill back out and sprays his wing, then uses an awakening potion on him. Once he’s buzzing back to consciousness, she withdraws him, then brings Raff out and checks him over for injuries. Seeing none, she sprays potion into his ears for the ledian’s attack, which makes him shake his head and raise a forepaw to rub at them. She smiles and pets his head, then looks out into the blackness of the storm as lightning flashes and thunder roars.

She wonders how the others are doing, out there. She wishes she never came to this place, and feels ashamed of her cowardice before she dismisses that as just another Pressure induced feeling. Whether it’s true or not, it’s easier to act brave if she thinks it is. She can make time for regret later, if she needs to.

Leaf collects the ledian and pidgey’s balls, then goes back to the lobby. She expects Red or Tony to be there, but it’s empty. She goes to the bathroom to wash her mouth out, shuddering as the memory returns. When she enters the lobby again, Red and Tony still aren’t around.

She hears something outside.

Leaf turns toward the front door, wary. What now…

It comes again, the cry of some pokemon. Leaf feels apprehension trickle down her spine, and quickly goes back to the stairs, gaze staying on the front doors as best she can.

She rushes up the stairs, pokes her head out into the hall of apartments and yells, “Red!” She doesn’t see him, and goes to the next floor, doing the same thing, then the next. She’s about to run up to the fifth when she notices a door that’s slightly open.

It’s the door to the apartment where she caught the noctowl.

She’s sure she closed it. Maybe the wind blew it open… she did break the lock, after all… but no, the door handle was intact.

Leaf walks to the apartment, frowning. When she pushes the door open to look inside, she sees Tony standing in the trashed living room and quickly covering a container box, which he then withdraws into its ball.

“What are you doing, Tony?” Leaf asks, voice barely audible over the storm. She has a brief but powerful flash back to Mt. Moon, and rage quickly joins her incredulity.

“Nothing.” Tony doesn’t look at her, and starts walking toward the door. She moves automatically to stand in his way.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Nothing? That’s all you have to say?” Leaf glares up at him, anger burning through her chest as she thinks of the woman and child lying dead upstairs. “After we’ve been trying to keep you safe, you parasite, you utter p-”

Pain explodes through her face, and she’s knocked to the ground in a sprawl, her bag holding her up. She lies in a daze for a moment, listening to his feet pounding down the hallway as she tries to reorient herself. He’d just… Swords of Justice that hurt…

Her hand grabs for a potion, but then she stops and forces herself to her feet, still reeling from the blow as she chases the man downstairs just in time to hear Red shouting at him to stop.

Her friend is in the lobby, staring at the exit as Leaf tries to run past him, stopping as he grabs her arm. “Red, he’s a thief! We have to stop him, he was stealing from the apartments!” Every word sends new pain throbbing through her face, but she barely notices as she tugs at his hand.

Red gapes at her. “Are you… Leaf, your face! He hit you?”

Yes! Now let me go! We have to stop him!”

He unclips a potion from his bag and sprays the pulsing ache in her jaw. The pain quickly fades under the cool layer of liquid, but he still doesn’t let her go. “What are you going to do if you catch him?”

The question brings her up short. What would she do? Use her pokemon to incapacitate him? She’s not a police officer, he’s not an immediate threat and none would respond to a call like this… Shit, I should have taken his picture with my phone… Out in the storm it would be almost impossible. “I can’t just let him get away with stealing their things!” Especially since she’s the one who broke open their doors…

But no, that was worth it. Property damage and theft aren’t as important as saving lives. She feels shame welling up inside her again. Why is she even pushing this when there are still pokemon out there that need help?

“I know it sucks, Leaf, but you can’t go outside, there are pokemon moving around out there!”

Her frustration and shame are pushed aside by the infectious fear in his voice, and she looks at the darkness on the other side of the glass doors. “How many?”

“Not a lot, yet, but enough that I don’t think we should leave. I think another wave is arriving!”

Another wave. Dread fills her as she imagines all the pokemon out there who are going to wind up dead or are already dying as they stampede across the city together.

The urge fills her to stamp and scream, to curl up and cry. There are too many, she’s just one person, she can’t save them all, but she has to try—

Think through this, think! You can’t save them if you’re dead! She could have died already even while being careful, that ledian… “Red, before we came in, your power didn’t see any rooms with two pokemon in it, right?”

“No, none!”

“Then I think your psydar can’t see bug pokemon. I found a ledian in the highest apartment along with a pidgey it had beaten unconscious.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he unclips a ball. “Go, Spinarak!” His pokemon appears a moment later, and he closes his eyes. “…Shit, you’re right. Even expecting it, there’s barely any trace of a mind to be picked up. I have to concentrate to… Oh, shit! Leaf, there are bugs in this wave! Some are climbing the building!”

What?” Leaf thinks of the apartments whose doors she left open. “Are they breaking windows to get in, or just getting into the ones already open?”

“There are just two, and none are inside yet, but…!” Red rubs at his eyes, tears leaving tracks on his cheeks. “I can’t… Leaf we have to get out of here!” he suddenly screams, voice ragged. “We’re surrounded!

Leaf feels fear claw up her throat as he scrambles for his abra’s pokeball, imagination painting an image of pokemon converging on the building and crawling through all the windows in a living flood to slaughter the inhabitants like… like…

“Go, Bill!”

Red’s abra appears, and Leaf snaps out of the mental image of the dead woman and baby upstairs. Red’s going to teleport… he’s going to just leave, all those pokemon are hurting and he—

No, wait, he can’t, they’re inside still and there are no open windows, Red should know he can’t teleport in here, why is he…

Leaf notices her confusion a moment later, and grabs Red’s hand as he reaches for his abra. His eyes are too wide, his body shaking… Pressure.

He struggles against her, and without pausing to think she draws him into a hug, her arms keeping his against his body. He suddenly goes still. “It’s okay,” she whispers, eyes closed as she feels his heart beating madly against her chest. She has to help him, the way he helped her. “I’m with you. Breathe, Red.”

It’s like hugging a mannequin at first, but Red slowly thaws against her. She feels his muscles relax beneath his damp shirt, and his breath comes in a deep, staggered inhale before he lets it out in a rush. He does it again, and when she feels his hands grip the back of her shirt, she relaxes a little.

“Thanks,” he says, voice low. “I think… it’s getting worse.”

“I know.” She’s been feeling it more often and intensely too, despite her earlier protections. “Zapdos is getting closer.”

“Or the constant exposure and other stressors… Leaf, the people living here didn’t want to leave. Some were too terrified to even open the door! I tried to get them to go out into the halls, away from windows, maybe group together… most didn’t want to. I only convinced a few when I felt the pokemon arriving outside. If the bugs start getting in or roaming the halls…”

“It’s okay, Red, you made some of them easier to defend.” She tries to think of the best way to keep so many people in so many different places safe. “How many apartments have people still in them?”

“Um. Let me… seven,” he says, voice choked even as his breathing becomes more steady.

“Okay. And what’s the highest one?”

“The… the eighth floor.”

“How high did you get?”

“Sixth.”

“Okay. So we need to go make sure they’re all safe, right? Let’s go to the fifth floor so you can sense the ones above, and I’ll try to convince them while you monitor for invaders.”

He nods, and she takes a moment to draw strength from him too before she lets him go. His face is red as he pulls away and withdraws his abra, and she pretends not to notice, since hers is probably flushed too.

They rush up to the fifth floor as Leaf tries to plan for what they may be facing. Most bugs that could fly would have been in the initial wave, but those nearby that are most plentiful that crawl include things like wurmple and spinarak. Pretty weak overall, though if an ariados shows up it could be trouble.

“We really should have caught some Rock pokemon!” Red yells as he runs up the stairs ahead of her.

Leaf grins briefly, glad he’s on the same page. “Can’t use Charmeleon or Crimson indoors either!” Which doesn’t leave them with many pokemon that have advantages against bugs. Her ledyba and venonat should be okay…

When they reach the fifth floor hallway, a group of five people are there, sitting on the floor or leaning against walls. “You’re back,” one says, an older woman in a wheelchair. “Is everything alright?”

Red shakes his head. “Pokemon are all around the building. Some may try to get in. Can some of you go to your neighbors and let them know? They wouldn’t come out before, but now maybe they will.”

Everyone stares at him, and Leaf steps forward. “Please, their lives are in danger. One of your neighbors just a couple floors up… she was killed along with her baby by a fearow that flew in.” She swallows, and sees shock and horror on a couple of the faces in front of her, stunned disbelief or blank fear on the others.

Red is staring at her in horror too, but she sees him put it aside to try again. He points to a young man. “You, there’s a couple in 205. Please go and let them know.” He points to an older woman. “There’s a man in, uh, 317 I think? He wouldn’t open the door, just yell through it and come back up if he doesn’t answer. You have to go now, I need to psychically check to see if any pokemon are getting in!”

The tenants he singled out look at him a moment longer, then start to move to the stairs together. Red looks relieved, and quickly sends the others to more apartments until it’s just Leaf, Red and the woman in the wheelchair.

“Elevator’s still in service, if you need me to get somewhere,” she says.

“Maybe later,” Red says. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes, then quickly opens them and looks at Leaf. He looks embarrassed, but also scared. “Could you… it’s getting really bad.”

Leaf understands immediately. He’s been using his powers too much today, and now he can’t even rely on the psydar anymore. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m right here.”

Red nods, and squeezes her hand back, then closes his eyes. Within a minute the strain of constant fear on his face shifts to one of grief. “Five pokemon around the building,” he eventually says, voice tight. “None inside yet…”

Another minute passes, and Red’s lips clamp down on a sob. Leaf’s heart aches as she sees him screw his face up against the grief, wishing she could do more to help him. The door to the stairs opens, and one of the tenants returns with an older couple. Leaf is just turning back to Red when he gasps, eyes flying open.

“Fourth floor… that way!” he points through the floor, and Leaf checks the door above it. 508. So probably 408? “Something just got in, and there’s a person there! Hurry!”

Leaf is already running for the stairs, taking them two at a time as her breath whistles in her ears. When she arrives at the floor, there’s a door open and a young woman running toward her, face twisted in fear. Behind her, an ariados is racing in pursuit, forehead stinger extended.

The sight of a person in danger helps Leaf fight down her worry about hurting the ariados, and she grabs her pidgeotto’s ball. “Go, Crimson!” Her pokemon appears mid-air near the ceiling, and Leaf points. “Gust!”

The ariados grips the floor, hunkering down against the powerful blast of wind to keep from being blown away, and Leaf quickly runs forward with an empty ball and catches it.

It takes a minute to calm the woman down and get her upstairs, and by then Red is already racing away toward the staircase on the other side. “Stay with them!” he yells, and Leaf has to fret nervously in place for a few minutes until he comes back with one of the tenants he sent in tow, along with another one, a young woman with a pokebelt around her waist, three balls clipped to it.

“It was a weepinbell,” Red tells Leaf. “It used its vines to climb up. Leaf, this is Audrey. She’s a Coordinator.”

“Hi,” Audrey says, hands twisted together in front of her. “I didn’t realize… so many people were…”

“It’s fine,” Red says. “You’re here now, you can help protect your neighbors, right?”

Audrey closes her eyes, then nods jerkily. “I can stay here and… yeah.”

“Good. Thank you.” He turns back to Leaf. “There are pokemon approaching 611 and three pokemon all grouped up and approaching 704, and there are people in both. The three aren’t bugs, but I think they’re flying types, because they’re not always sticking to the wall, and their movements are weird. We have to go warn them in case one or all of them try to go in. Let’s start with—”

“No, I’ve got better AoE, I’ll take 704,” Leaf says. “In the time it takes for us to get to one it may be too late for the other.”

Red hesitates, but he knows she’s right, and soon they’re heading for the stairs as she considers the unlikelihood of these coincidences. Two for two with occupied apartments so far, and possibly four for four… they must be attracted to the windows with their lights on. And she’s pretty sure she left the lights on in the apartments with the fearow and ledian…

“Be careful, Leaf,” Red says as he opens the door to the sixth floor, and she nods as she keeps going up one more flight. She’s jogging down the hall when she hears a scream, and adrenaline surges through her as she unclips her ledyba’s ball. Three pokemon, probably flying types, but slower than most to be this far into the storm and moving oddly… might be some hoppip or…?

She summons Ledyba and Raff, throwing their balls ahead and catching them as she reaches 704 and tries to open it. No luck. She steps back and points. “Tackle!” she tells both her pokemon, and they smash into it together, above and below, breaking it off its hinges and revealing…

…six pronged limbs that rotate and spin three grey orbs around in mid-air, each with a staring eye that locks on to her and her two pokemon.

Leaf stares in shock for a moment, then dives back and out of the way as the magneton starts to glow. “Dodge!” she yells to her pokemon as she hits the ground, but a moment later a blinding flash of electricity snaps through the air around them, blackening the walls and ceiling. Raff jerks and twitches, then sags, smoke rising from burns along his body, and Ledyba falls out of the air, her carapace cracked and blackened, innards exposed.

Leaf screams, vision tunneling, and then she’s scrambling up as she reaches for their pokeballs, withdrawing them as the magneton floats out of the doorway. She runs, terror like burnt iron in her nose and mouth as tears blur her vision.

There’s nothing on her belts that can stop a magneton, and she’s pretty positive she just lost one pokemon, maybe even… no, she can’t think that right now. She just has to run.

But the person in the apartment, and the ones upstairs…

She expects to be fried by another flash of electricity at any second, but hits the lever of the stairs’ door and keeps moving, leaping down the first flight and landing on hands and feet before pushing back up so she can race down to the floor below. “Red!” Magneton are Electric/Steel, but they have no Fighting or Ground types between them… “RED! MAGNETON!”

Her voice must echo down the stairs even if her words don’t, because when she opens the door he’s already walking toward her. There’s an elderly man behind him. “Leaf, what’s—”

“Magneton! Upstairs! We need Charmeleon!”

Red groans in frustration, covering his eyes briefly. “Of course… but the building, it might catch fire!”

“I think it’s going to anyway, it killed…” Her chest heaves, words dying in her throat, and she rubs at her face. “It attacked the tenant, and my pokemon, it may have set the hall on fire, I didn’t check… Red the people on the floor above—”

He’s already moving, yelling “Go downstairs!” to the tenant behind him as he runs past her and up the stairs, and she follows, thighs aching from going up and down so much. “We need a plan, Charmeleon can’t take a hit from a magneton!”

He’s right, but… they have nothing that really can

No, that’s not true. She could heal Raff, he’s surely still alive (of course he is, he has to be) she could heal him and then make him take another hit (like the monstrous trainer that she is), or Joy could take one (sure, losing an eye wasn’t bad enough), but she’s just guessing, she has no idea how powerful that mageton is, poor Ledyba was too weak to act as a measuring stick.

Just the thought of her sacrifice being treated that way makes Leaf feel sick with shame, but she has to think about this carefully or she might lose more of them. I can’t choose between them… I can’t!

“Raff or Joy…” Leaf stops herself. She doesn’t have to choose… she can just summon Scamp, who probably can’t take a hit, and have him act as a distraction… Just a rattata, Scamp’s just a rattata would she rather lose him or Raff or Joy…

Self-disgust makes Leaf stumble and sag against the wall. Red notices and turns around. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she moans, crying again, dammit all how often is she going to cry tonight, “I’m a horrible person, Red, I… I…”

“Stop that! You’re not a horrible person, whatever trade you thought about making makes sense and it’s just the Pressure making you hate yourself for it!” He grips her shoulders and squeezes, eyes on hers. “Leaf, I’m going to use my oddish to tank a hit. It can probably take one. You don’t need to use one of your pokemon, just be ready to catch it.”

Leaf stares at Red, gratitude and guilt warring. “I can’t let you—”

“Not your decision, I’m just telling you how it is. You care about your pokemon way more than I do mine, and I know you care about my pokemon more than I do mine too, but we don’t have time to let your guilt overwhelm you while we do this, and we need to do this now, because the guy in that apartment is still alive, but he’s fading fast. Are you ready?”

She knows she should say no, that she should insist that she use her own pokemon to distract the magneton from Charmeleon. But his words make sense, and she’s almost dizzy with gratitude for them.

No. If they’re going to do this, she won’t force him to make decisions she doesn’t find palatable.

“I’m going to bring Scamp out,” she says. He’s fast, not faster than electricity but maybe fast enough to get behind the magneton if with a Quick Attack…

Red hesitates, then nods. They summon their pokemon at the door to the apartment hallway, and Red looks through the window. “It’s there, floating in the hallway. It’s… electrocuting things. Randomly I think, but half the lights in the hall are out, and small fires are spreading.”

“Shit.” Leaf wipes sweat from her forehead, then rubs it on her pants to dry her palm and grips an empty pokeball. What else can they do, there has to be something else, some edge…

“Ready?”

“Y-yeah…”

“Okay, going in three… tw—”

“Wait!” She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Their argument on the boat… she doesn’t think she was wrong, but she regrets so much of how it went, now, how she approached it with him, and she knows part of making that up to him is saying this, now. She can’t hold anything back out of worry for potential risk while much greater risk of harm is imminent. “Red, use your sakki on Charmeleon.”

He stares at her, a mix of apprehension and calculation on his face, and then nods. “Three, two, one!”

He opens the door and goes right, while she goes left. The magneton hasn’t spotted them yet, its tongs charging for another bolt that lights up the hallway and sets an apartment door on fire, and then Charmeleon flings a blob of fire at the magneton, hitting it on the back of one orb.

It immediately discharges electricity in a burst around it, spinning wildly through the air, it’s in pain, what are they doing—

“Scamp, Quick Attack!” her traitorous voice yells, heart breaking as she sends her pokemon to its doom.

“Oddish, Absorb!” Red’s voice is distant, gaze unfocused as Charmeleon flings more fire at the magneton, trying to hit its weaving form… and succeeding, until the point of contact, where electric current seems to shimmer over the magneton’s body and the flaming oil soon falls off.

It turns to them at last, eyes drawn to the two pokemon approaching it, and Leaf closes her eyes as electricity flashes out again, then again. When she opens them, both Scamp and Red’s oddish are down.

“It has a Light Screen!” Leaf yells, and summons Pineco, not letting herself have time to analyse or justify the choice. It’s just the next pokemon that might actually help in the battle which she’d mind losing the least. “Tackle!”

Her pokemon bunches itself up, then launches forward. Electricity hits it mid-air, but it completes its arc and knocks the magneton into a mid-air spin.

The heat from the smoldering fires finally set off the building’s alarm, and water starts pouring down in the hallway, making the fight immediately more dangerous. Luckily Charmeleon is out of the splash zone for now, but what is he doing, Red isn’t giving any new commands…

She turns and sees his pokemon isn’t preparing another fling of its tail, but holding its mouth wide open. It looks like a ball of fire is forming in it, but it glows an odd color, like it’s shimmering with light just barely on the visible spectrum.

“Be ready,” Red says over the sound of the alarm, voice harsh with something like a barely contained rage, and then the glowing orb shoots out in a stream of plasma, hitting the magneton and slamming it against the wall. One of its prongs and a patch of metal along half of one orb is melted, and it strikes the ground with a clunk before it starts to hover in fits and jerks to get back up, spinning wildly.

Leaf is waiting for it, ultra ball pointed until she hears the ping. The feeling that comes over her as she captures it is a bitter one, almost alien to her. Not worth it. It was something she had to do, part of her duty to do, but tonight it’s a bitter duty.

Even more so if Pineco and Scamp are dead. She quickly withdraws them to check later, as they have no time to rest or recover from the fight. Absurdly some part of Leaf takes a moment to bemoan that she’s going to get soaked again for the second time tonight while indoors, then moves toward the room the magneton came from, where the fires have been thankfully already quenched.

Red stops her with a hand on her shoulder. “He’s dead!” Red yells over the alarm, voice choked with the rage that’s twisting his features. “We have to get the others out, these sprinklers may not stop the fire!”

Leaf sees that he’s right: it’s spreading along the walls and ceiling faster than the sprinklers can catch it. Red withdraws his pokemon, and they run for the stairs. “I’ll get the people upstairs!” Red says, and dashes up before she can respond. He knows where they are, at least.

She goes to the crowd at the fifth floor, who look like they’re on the verge of panicking. “Everyone! We have to be ready to leave the building! Red and I will take you to the nearby hospital shelter if the fire spreads!”

“But our homes,” one woman says, barely audible as she clutches at the man beside her. “We can’t just—”

“Get your ass in gear, Emi,” the old lady in the wheelchair snaps as she rolls toward the stairs. “Someone help me down the stairs, the elevators won’t be working with the alarm on!”

That seems to get people moving, and Leaf goes with them as the crowd hurries to the lobby. Audrey pushes her way to her as they go down the stairs, and she looks utterly terrified.

“Leaf… I can’t go to the shelter, I… I’m afraid of crowds! It’s why I didn’t join the city’s defense!”

Leaf doesn’t laugh, because people are dead and dying and it’s no one’s fault what they’re afraid of and she knows that the Pressure is amplifying the woman’s fears beyond what’s reasonable, so she doesn’t laugh, either in incredulity or scorn, but she does feel a tiny little ember of resentment that after everything Red and her have done tonight, the one other trainer they’ve met so far would of course be so… difficult.

She takes a deep breath as they reach the lobby, trying to organize her thoughts. Some people stop at floors instead of continuing down, probably going to their apartments to grab something. She doesn’t try to stop them; they need to wait for Red anyway, and she can barely keep herself from running up after him as she waits with everyone by the front door.

Only then does she turn to the older trainer, looking up to meet her gaze. “I’m sorry, Audrey, I wish we had more time to get to know each other, so I could understand your… your journey, your life, what you’re like when all this shit isn’t going on. I wish I had some idea of what the right thing to say is to help you. Since I don’t know what that is, all I can say is that I think there’s a version of you that you wish you were more like, and you have to be that version of you tonight. And it’s going to be hard, and you’ll screw up and maybe even people will die, but more will if you don’t do this, you might if you don’t do this, and when you look back on tonight you’ll know that you were able to do it, and that will make it easier next time. Does that make sense?”

Audrey nods, breathing hard like she’s trying not to cry. She’s edged away from her neighbors, being closest to the door. “I think so.”

“Okay. Great. You can freak out and cry and scream yourself hoarse tomorrow, maybe you don’t even leave your home for a month after this is all over,” woops her apartment is probably going to be on fire soon, please ignore that, “but for tonight you’re borrowing all the courage you’ll have in that time and using it here and now. Do you understand?”

She nods again. “Yeah. Borrowing courage. Yeah, okay.”

“Okay.” Leaf rubs her face as they all wait, worry growing with every passing minute, but soon Red comes downstairs with the last tenants in the building, who look shocked at the dozen or so others all standing around in worried clumps. As they all wait together to see if they’ll need to leave and for the others to come back, Leaf brings Raff out, unable to take the worry that he might be dead anymore. The flash noise of his summoning draws startled gasps from people, but she doesn’t even look at them, quickly spraying her pokemon with different medicines until he can stand and blink around him. Something eases in her chest, and she tears up as she rubs his head between the ears. From his sluggish response he’ll need more extensive healing than she can give right now.

She withdraws him, and almost summons Joy but stops herself, knowing she won’t be able to diagnose her injury and not wanting to put the pokemon in any unnecessary pain or use a potion in a way that might harm more than help. Eventually she turns to Red to take her mind off her worry. His face is drawn and haggard, and she approaches him. “Hey. You okay?”

Red shakes his head. “Fine.” He doesn’t seem to notice the contradictory signals there. “More pokemon in the building,” he tells her after a moment’s hesitation. “I promised I’d tell you, but… Leaf, you can’t go get them now, with the fire spreading.”

Leaf stares at him, stomach churning. “How fast? Some people went back to their apartments…” One of them comes down the stairs at that moment, coughing hard.

“Fast. Sprinklers are keeping it from spreading everywhere at once, but it’s on three floors now, and one of the stairwells is filled with smoke. If the other is too…”

She nods, gaze down. The pokemon are going to die, then, and there’s nothing she’ll do about it. She has to make her peace with what kind of trainer she is, especially after what she did with Scamp and Pineco.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No.” She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m glad you did.”

“Hey!” someone yells out. “We going or what? Tom said the fire’s spreading, so what the hell are we waiting for?!”

“We’re missing someone!” another voice yells. “I don’t see the guy in the green shirt…”

“Well that’s his choice, but we don’t want to be here when the roof comes down!”

Red closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. His face twitches, but a moment later he opens his eyes. “No pokemon outside the building now, not that I could see.”

Leaf frowns. “And the person inside?”

“In their apartment.” Red sounds so tired, voice flat and dull. “I don’t know why, but the floor above us was on fire by the time we came down. The sprinklers will help but that guy was right, if it spreads into the apartments, some of the roof might start to come down. Fire spreads fast. We have no water pokemon and can’t vent the stairs… there’s nothing we can do for them.”

She nods, feeling sick but knowing that Red feels even worse, and turns to the crowd. They can’t save everyone, have already failed to save everyone, and certainly can’t save people from themselves. She just wishes she’d known, she would have tried to stop them… How many more lives are her mistakes going to cost, tonight? A single moment of apathy and distraction, and she’d just let someone walk away to their death.

Some part of her knows that’s not fair, that others could have stopped the man. But blaming any of them would feel like admitting she’s not in control at all and she’s already feeling perilously close to empty on willpower.

She clears her throat, wiping at her face, then calls out in a slightly wavering voice, “Everyone! We’re heading out! Stay between Red, Audrey and me! Watch around us for pokemon! Don’t panic, but remember, if you have to run, we’re going to the nearby hospital! Get ready, the wind and rain are going to be strong!”

Red leaves first with his nidoran and bellsprout beside him, and the building tenants start walking out too. Leaf follows them with Ruby and Alice on one side, the venonat and buneary visibly unhappy with the soaking they receive once outside. Audrey summons a poliwhirl and takes the other side of the rear, her pokemon very lively as it waddles energetically beside her.

Leaf sees the coordinator’s pokemon, and rush of self-loathing fills her. She closes her eyes and grits her teeth against the cry of frustrated anger that wants to spill forth. She hadn’t checked what Audrey’s pokemon were. Neither had Red. They’d had a water pokemon available the whole time, and now…

She turns and sees multiple windows of the apartment building glow with fire as the crowd starts walking onto the street. Leaf quickly turns away, feeling like she’s leaving a part of herself behind in the growing blaze.

Leaf keeps her eyes moving for Dark and Bug pokemon and just follows the crowd, misery increasing as she remembers how unpleasant being outside in an intense storm like this is like. The constant thunder quickly starts to give her a headache, and she realizes she’s tired, so tired she could just curl up in a corner and cover her face and sleep.

Surely the storm must be over soon… surely…

They’re just a block away from the hospital when there’s a roar that drowns out even the rain and wind for a moment, and everyone freezes in place. Leaf is worried at first that they’re all scared, but then realizes Red must have stopped.

“Watch behind us!” she yells at the people close to her, then pushes through to Red. “What was that, Red?”

“Sounded like a nidoqueen or king!” There’s a crashing sound, and they start moving again, quicker. Leaf stays up front for now, eyes searching the streets for a sign and finally spotting one. Hope thrums in her chest. Soon they see the spotlights surrounding the hospital campus, and then the lights from the buildings themselves become visible in the downpour.

And then Red’s head whips around, and he stops moving. Leaf turns to look, and down the street to the right of their intersection, she vaguely sees the shape of something large moving in the rain and the dark.

Lightning flashes overhead, and she realizes what she’s seeing.

It’s a nidoqueen, and this time Leaf is close enough to feel the tremor in the ground as it stomps its foot, the rumbling that isn’t thunder and the crack that isn’t lightning accompanying the collapse of the building’s corner.

She’s also close enough to hear the screams.

“Oh gods,” Leaf whispers, and turns to see Red frozen in place, whole body twitching like he’s going to run away, or like he senses something painful. “Red, what is it? Red! Are they—”

“Get them to the hospital!” Red yells, and starts running toward the nidoqueen. His pokemon follow as fast as they can.

Leaf stares after him, heart in her throat, then turns to the shocked crowd. “Audrey! Up front, now!” Leaf is already bouncing from foot to foot with impatience, wanting to throttle Red for doing this to her while hoping desperately that he’s okay. Audrey shows up what feels like a minute later but is surely only a few seconds. “Listen, Audrey, the hospital is right there, don’t you dare let anyone die on the way! You need to be a hero tonight, this is your chance, now go!” She looks at everyone. “Go, now!

Audrey seems to snap out of her shock and nods, then breaks into a jog, and the crowd starts moving after her.

Leaf doesn’t wait to see if they keep pace or not; she just turns to the nidoqueen and runs after Red, trusting him to have good reason for whatever the hell he’s doing and determined not to let him die alone.

Chapter 61: Storm

Disorientation hits Red as he appears on the roof of the Trainer House, legs adjusting to the sudden stillness of the building below him, nose flaring as the heavy scent of the ocean is replaced with the scents of the city. He takes a moment to brace himself against the wind, which is gusting hard enough to flap his jacket and tug at his cap.

He and Leaf had changed into their traveling clothes and left a note in their room so the crew would know they’d left before going out onto the deck of the ship and teleporting back together. Red’s fear for Blue and Aiko, for himself, and most of all for Leaf were overwhelming as he summoned his abra and prepared for the unknown…

…but now that he’s here, his fear takes the backseat to a sense of awe as he gazes over the city.

Half the sky is twilight, the last gleam of light not enough to hide the stars on the deep, cloudless blue. The other half of the horizon is the dark of a starless night, storm clouds gathered in a sweeping curtain, rising up like the rough wall of a sheer mountain cliff. It’s like the storm has sucked all the clouds out of the sky into one half of it, and was now marching across to blanket it all.

“Swords of Justice,” Leaf whispers from beside him. “One pokemon did that?”

As if to punctuate her point, lightning flashes across the cloudwall, illuminating its many peaks and valleys. The thunder hits them a few seconds later, and it breaks the spell, Red’s fear resurfacing as he quickly withdraws his abra, then puts his headphones in and calls Blue. As he watches, lightning lights up a different part of the cloudwall, then another flash arcs down to the ground below it, then another far to the left. The thunder from each one hits with a few seconds between them, and Red realizes that he’s hearing what will be a constant refrain throughout the storm.

Blue answers after the fourth ring. “Red, how-”

“I’m here.” Red looks at Leaf, who’s at the railing and, looking down at the city below. “We’re here. We teleported back as soon as we saw on the news.”

“You’re… You actually…” Blue laughs. “Red, you brave, beautiful idiot! I shouldn’t have doubted you for a second!”

A particularly loud crack of thunder echoes across the city, and Red hears it both in the air around him, then a half-second later through his headset. He turns to the west. “Where are you guys?”

“Pokemon center by the harbor. We’re all here, Glen, Aiko, and I plan on helping out inside if we need to.” His voice loses its excitement, turning serious. “Come quick, Red, most of the trainers are already stationed somewhere.”

Red fights down his feeling of dread as he feels the wind gust around him again. The idea of getting caught out in that storm is viscerally terrifying, even though he knows objectively that it’s not the storm itself he should be worried about. He checks his map and puts in the destination. Seventeen minutes by bike. It might be faster than that estimate without traffic, but the storm is moving so quickly… “I don’t think we can make it to you, Blue.”

“Shit! Are you sure?”

“Even if everything goes right—”

“—I know, I know, it probably won’t. The other defense points are pokemon centers, city shelters, and hospitals, but I want you guys here. Together we’ll be unstoppable.”

Red grins. “Right. We’ll try.”

“Hurry, and watch yourselves!”

“You too.”

Red closes the call and turns to Leaf, who’s still staring down at the street below. He swallows, still worried about how they left things despite all that’s happening. “Leaf! We gotta go!”

She rushes over, and they head inside, taking the elevator down as he relays what Blue said.

“People are still moving through the streets,” she says, voice tense. “Most don’t seem to have pokemon with them, and… Red, a lot of them are moving on foot.”

Red stares at her, reading the same quiet horror in her expression that he feels. Most of those people wouldn’t make it to a shelter in time, why did they even leave their homes? Could they do something to help them move faster or… No, he could maybe take one person on his bike with him if they’re about his size, but there’s nothing they can do for all these people. He feels his confidence spiral again. They’re not ready for this… things are happening too quickly, he’s forgetting stuff he should be doing…

They reach the lobby and hurry over to the PCs against the wall.

“Which pokemon are you bringing?” Red asks as he deposits his metapod, then brings out his spinarak, then swaps Vermilion the abra with his pineco. Bill is in his bag rather than his belt: he has no intention of facing this situation without a way to escape.

“All of them,” Leaf says, and he sees her fill ball after ball with her pokemon, putting them on the ground after. He’s about to ask if her bag really has room for them, then sees her take a container ball out and summon its box. She pulls her spare pokebelt off it, then straps it loosely over her main one before tightening it and adding the balls. “I haven’t practiced with it much, but every pokemon might matter, here.”

Red nods, considering those he was leaving out. Metapod is the only truly “useless” pokemon he has, good for little more than a sacrificial distraction unless it evolves in the field. He chose bellsprout over oddish because they were the same types and he’d trained it more, but there’s nothing wrong with having both. And he has barely trained with his whismur, but it still has useful area of effect attacks…

Despite not having practiced at all with a second belt, Red realizes that limiting himself to six pokemon isn’t worth the risk. He doesn’t need to get used to battling with a team of six for the League, and the added physical awkwardness is less likely to kill him than the lack of options, at this stage in his journey. Even Metapod might save a life; if they need bait or a distraction, there’s no other pokemon he has that can survive hits as well, after it hardens its shell a couple times.

Red quickly takes his spare belt out too, and follows Leaf’s example by belting it over his first and taking out all his pokemon to attach them. It feels cumbersome, but not incredibly so.

His feeling of being unprepared suddenly returns with a vengeance. He’s had no time to really think or prepare for this, what else is he missing that’s as obvious as “bring all pokemon?” He grabs his notebook and starts writing as Leaf finishes attaching her biking gear, remembering his lesson from Vermilion Gym on the modes that Rangers try to ensure they’re prepared for:

1) Scout

2) Fight

3) Contain

4) Escape

What can he do to prepare for achieving these goals? He limits himself to one thing on each:

1) Scout – psychic radar

2) Fight – coordinate

3) Contain –

4) Escape – teleport

His mind races to find ways to help meaningfully “contain” a Tier 3 incident from getting worse, but can’t think of anything. Leaf is watching what he writes, clearly curious despite the nervous energy shifting her from foot to foot, and he starts summoning and putting on his own pads.

“Any quick notes on coordination that we should pre-agree to?” Red asks.

“My pokemon are better for defense and subduing,” she immediately says. “And I have better aim than you. You focus on taking them down and I’ll focus on keeping others busy or going for the capture.”

She’s right, Charmeleon, Pikachu, and Nidoran are his strongest fighters, and each is more lethal than any of hers besides maybe Beedrill. “Okay.”

“What’s psychic radar?”

“Using my ability to sense minds in quick glimpses to just get a rough idea of where they are around me.”

“You should call it psydar.” Seeing Red’s raised brow, she shrugs and smiles, nervous energy shifting her from foot to foot. “Radar stands for Radio Detection And Ranging. Lidar is Light Detection and—”

“I get it,” he says, grinning as he finishes clasping his helmet on, then writes (psydar) on the page and tucks his notebook away. “For escaping danger, our best bet is to teleport… I’ve got a sling to carry my metapod in, you could tie a shirt into one. If we carry our abra against our side, it can save us precious seconds needed to teleport out of danger.”

“Red, that’s going to make it really hard to maneuver.”

She’s right, they won’t be able to move nearly as nimbly, and any kind of roll would hurt their abra and probably interrupt the movement. He wants to argue that having an instant escape from danger makes up for it, but he’s already thought of the counter; they’d only be able to use it once, as it would effectively take them out of action and abandon anyone else who’s with them.

“Ok, just remember them as an option, then.” He puts his notebook away and stands, and they make their way to the heavy glass doors, which slide open as they approach.

“They didn’t even turn off the automatic doors?” Leaf murmurs.

“Must have been in a rush.” Red can imagine the panic because he feels it still stirring inside him, the irrational urge to just go to his room and cower in it until the storm passes… a rather outdated instinct for his hindbrain to push on him, since teleportation is a much safer option.

They step out into the dark street together and look up at the same time. The stormfront is moving visibly toward them, and they rush to summon their bikes and ride for the harbor, pushing themselves to get there before the storm envelops them.

There are people in the street making their way either home or to a shelter, and Red suddenly realizes that it was purely wishful thinking to say they would make it to Blue. He wants to be with Blue and Aiko, some part of him is sure that if he’s not there with them, something terrible will happen.

That’s nonsense and you know it, you’re not the best trainer around, they’re both better than you, just get safe…

Red shakes his head at the inner voice, distrusting it for its cowardice.

Not safe as in hiding, safe as in being with other trainers when the storm hits!

Some others are riding pokemon or bikes, or speeding down the roads in cars, last minute escapees heading northwest. But they also pass a lot of people on foot, and while he hopes they’re close to their homes, the glimpses of desperation he sees on some faces tears at his heart.

“Red!” Leaf calls out. “They…”

“I know!” he yells, but pedals harder. Blue said they had to make it to a defense point, and he understands why, there would be no way to save all these people in the street.

A minute of pedaling later, Red’s phone starts blaring at him. He checks it as he bikes, slowing down slightly, and sees an emergency broadcast message from the Ranger outpost at the eastern edge of Vermilion:

MASSIVE FLOCK FLYING OVER CITY SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY

Ice water floods his veins, and he finally listens to his inner nervous voice, recognizing its premortem wisdom. “Leaf! Change of plans!” He struggles to renavigate them to the nearest defense point, and finds a hospital just nine minutes away. “We’re not going to make it to the others, but there’s a hospital not far!”

“Okay!” She slows slightly so he can take the lead, and they make a hard turn at the next intersection, biking more west than south now. We’re going away from the storm now, we have more time, we can make it…

The wind grows more intense, along with the frequency and volume of the thunder. A stroke of lightning splits the darkening sky ahead of the stormfront, striking a tall building far in front of the stormfront. Another emergency message appears, and Red checks the map again before he reads it. Five minutes away…

FIRST WAVE PAST CITY LIMITS SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY

Four minutes between the flock and the first wave, they’ll be fine, they’re almost there…

Two minutes later some noise is growing over the near-constant boom of thunder, a windy rush that sounds almost like static, and Red turns toward the storm, unable to help himself. He feels his jaw drop.

The twilight sky ahead of the clouds is dark with birds, racing just ahead of the cloudbank in a loose and frenzied swarm of bodies that flap desperately to keep ahead of it. Some collide and fall, tearing into each other, while others pull further and further ahead, the strongest and fastest managing to stay safe, the gusts of air from their wings displacing those behind them.

As they get closer the roar of noise resolves into that of thousands of flapping wings. Leaf shouts a warning, and he looks around for a building they can duck into—

—and then the wind is pressing down on them as the flock passes overhead. Red’s bike is immediately blown over, sending him skidding over the pavement as the wind forces his eyes closed. His bag keeps him from rolling more than once, and Red hears not just cries and flaps of bird pokemon, but also the buzz of bugs and the crashing of glass. He opens his eyes a slit and watches the pokemon pass overhead, many of them flying too low in places and colliding with windows or billboards. Most don’t stop for anything short of an attack by another pokemon, which is itself rare despite the natural prey and predators that fly together.

All of them fleeing an indisputable master of the skies.

The wind pressure lessens as the bulk of them pass overhead, and Red sits up and looks around. Garbage cans and street signs are knocked over, and glass litters the street as windows designed to withstand hurricane-force winds were shattered by the beaks and bodies of heedless pokemon. Many of them are on the ground as well, dead or badly injured.

Red looks around for Leaf and spots her staring around in horror. Her eyes lock on something, and she struggles to her feet. He follows her gaze to see a spearow at the end of the street with a bleeding gash across its body sprinkling blood on the ground. It tries to take off, only to tumble back to the ground, one of its wings broken.

“Leaf!” he shouts, forcing himself to his feet as well. His arms and legs ache with what promise to be bruises, but his gear protected him from any serious injury. “We gotta go!”

She hesitates, turning back to him, then looks up. Her eyes widen, and she looks back at the spearow, struggling to take flight again… then rushes for her bike.

Red turns to see what scared her, then scrambles for his own. The stormcloud looks like it’s right on top of them, lightning illuminating the whole mass as it shifts in a slow, lazy circle. The thunder is near constant now, one rumble barely fading before the next one starts, and as they start to bike away again, Leaf in the lead now, Red feels his panic growing. Three minutes away… we can make it… but we never should have come here, what can we even do against this, it’s a stupid risk, I should teleport away, we can’t make it, we’re going to die…

The thoughts grow stronger, his panic rising as the winds pick up and the sky continues to darken with the onset of true night and the onrushing storm.

His legs are aching as he pedals harder, faster, trying to avoid an overturned trash bin and nearly spilling onto the street again. He can’t think, he just needs to get away, get away, GET AWAY!

Red skids to a stop and starts scrambling for Bill’s pokeball, mouth opening to shout to Leaf as he manually summons his abra…

…then remembers that Leaf doesn’t have a teleport spot outside of Vermilion.

She’s trapped here.

He has to leave her behind.

The thought comes as he watches her race away ahead of him, unaware that he’s stopped, and Red’s mind locks up as that thought hits a brick wall. He has to leave, has to, he’ll die if he stays, but she can’t leave…

She’s going to die.

“Le-!”

Thunder claps just as he yells, drowning him out. Leaf reaches the turn in the street ahead and disappears.

She’s going to die!

Red withdraws Bill and starts cycling again as the fear fills him, bending his thoughts toward nothing but running, hiding, escaping, surviving. He ignores the impulse and forces himself to cling to the thought of Leaf being left here, alone, dying without him, and races after her, bent over the handlebars. “Leaf!”

Shit, his phone! He can call her…

“Dial Leaf!” he yells, then turns the corner and sees her. She’s turned off the main road, bike leaning against her legs as she aims a pokeball at a bleeding pidgeotto, a huge shard of glass through its torso.

As Red pedals toward her and cancels the call, she throws the ball and captures it, then bikes over and picks it up.

“Leaf!” he yells as he gets closer. “What are you doing?”

She turns to him, and he feels an emotional punch hit his gut. She’s crying, face streaked with tears. “They’re hurting!” she sobs, arm wiping at her face. “There’s so many of them… you have to help me, Red! How can you just ride past them!?” She turns away and starts heading toward another downed pokemon.

Red stares at her, at a loss for words. The storm is almost on top of them, and she’s… He curses and follows after her as the panic rises up again. “Leaf, we have to go! We have to get out of the city!”

Leaf looks at him in shock. “I can’t leave them, Red, they’re going to die without me!”

Red feels like pulling his hair out. How can she be so blind, doesn’t she realize they’re all going to die anyway…

Wait…

Confusion. Something was wrong with that thought, and with how she’s acting…

A flash of light illuminates the street as lightning hits the building beside them. The thunder is oppressively loud and immediate, and behind it Red can suddenly hear something odd: the neigh of a rapidash.

It appears at the end of the street and runs through it in a blur of light. Red vibrates with a sudden preparation to bike away, but the rapidash doesn’t even glance at him or Leaf, who has paused to stare after it in awe. It just gallops past them, embers of light trailing its ignited mane and legs.

There’s another neigh behind him, and they turn to see another rapidash running toward them, followed by a dodrio. This time Red has the presence of mind to think of catching them, but they’re moving so fast he barely has time to think it before they’re upon them, then past, one after the other… and now he can dimly hear even more pokemon coming.

The first wave is here. He forgot to check the time after the flock went past. He forgot because…

Leaf smacks her cheeks with both hands, then rubs them hard. “Red, the Pressure is already here!”

Red blinks, staring at her. The Pressure can’t be here, they would feel it…

Oh.

Even recognizing that he’s under the effects of it doesn’t change the fact that he needs to RUN or HIDE or LEAVE, but the confusion from before is satisfied, just in time for him to realize that the correct choice is in fact to follow the instinct that the Pressure is promoting.

Hide!” he yells as another pair of dodrio run by, his mind registering the growing rumbling that’s not thunder, and starts biking again until he spots a two story clothing store with lights on. He turns to head straight toward it, making sure Leaf is following, and they skid to a stop in front of the door just as a crowd of pokemon turn onto their street, running wild and trampling anything in their way.

The doors slide open automatically, and as Red and Leaf rush in, biking between the clothing aisles, Red can make out the small crowd of people in the back, cowering against the walls or behind countertops.

Then the stampede arrives outside, a cacophony of different steps and cries filling the street as first a handful of pokemon run by, then a steady stream. Red turns to see nidorino, tauros, raticate, arcanine, ninetales, and others all rush by.

Red and Leaf move together off their bikes to summon Charmeleon and Raff, standing between the doors and the people in the store. Their pokemon appear, then both twitch and shiver, adjusting to the new environment… and the Pressure that’s bearing down on them.

Red feels like he’s holding his breath, and forces himself to exhale as the pokemon run by outside, muscles tense and jumping with fear and preparation… they’re all running by… they might be okay…

And then a nidorino runs into the side of a tauros and is headbutted away, sending it careening directly toward the storefront and through the automatic doors before it has a chance to fully open. Glass shatters and plastic crunches, and a quick set of commands from Red and Leaf send vines and fire whipping out to drive it back.

Instead it barrels through the pain, still spilling glass around it as it bellows and tears through racks of clothes to smash into a small pillar, cracking it.

We have to hide! “Smokescreen,” Red yells, and Charmeleon starts pouring smoke out of his tail No, wait, it’s acting randomly anyway, we need to be able to see it! “Stop!” He grits his teeth, trying to drown out the fear with anger. He has to kill this nidorino quickly before it hurts anyone, before it hurts Leaf…

“Sleep Powder!” Red turns in shock as Raff sends blue spores at the rampaging pokemon. The blue powder saturates the air, but the nidorino avoids it, not nearly injured enough to walk into the growing cloud. What’s she doing?

But he knows: just as his Pressure is driving him to fear, it’s drowning her in sadness, or maybe guilt. She’s going for the least painful attacks she can, even if they’re ineffective.

Then the Nidorino turns to him and charges, and panic makes Red yell “Ember!” as he dives aside.

The nidorino cries out in pain as it tries to get away from the fire that’s sticking to its side. It stomps through the store, throwing its horned snout around and tearing through racks of clothing… and spreading the fire to each. It gets close to one of the people hiding in the room, who screams and runs away, the movement catching the nidorino’s attention and causing it to rush toward him.

“Tackle!” Leaf yells, and Raff intercepts. The nidorino, flank still burning, is sent crashing into a row of clothing racks, and the shirts on them quickly catch fire. It shies away from it and tries to find another way out, but stops as it finds fire on every side of it, now.

Leaf lets out a dismayed cry, and runs toward it.

“Stop, Leaf!” Red says, and his pokemon stops attacking, taking the command as if directed at him. He rushes forward to grab her shirt, then freezes as the heat is felt, suddenly scared of being burned, watching in horror as she rushes straight for the flames…

…then drops to grab the bottom of one of the shirt racks, lifting the fire atop it toward the ceiling.

Water starts pouring from the sprinkler, though no fire alarm goes off. Leaf drops the rack and pulls out a pokeball, then runs through the dying flames to ping a lock and capture the nidorino. She quickly leaps back and away from the fires, even as they start dying too.

Red steps back from the powerful downpour of water, then turns back toward the front door. The stampede outside seems to be finally thinning, and soon Leaf has rejoined him with Raff, her clothes and hair soaked as they watch together for any more pokemon coming in.

They continue to run by outside, but fewer and fewer every passing second. Eventually a bibarel turns toward the broken doors for no discernible reason, only to slam into the edge of them and stumble away rather than coming inside. A young voice screams in fear anyway, which draws Red’s attention to the back of the store even as it sets his flight response into high gear again.

“It’s okay, hon, we’re safe,” the woman beside the small boy who’d screamed says, rocking his head against her stomach. She looks at Red and Leaf, eyes wide. “Th-thank you, both of you.”

It’s a little hard to hear her with the water rushing down, the constant thunder, and the cries of pokemon outside. Red shakes his head, still not relaxing. They had barely won that, they’d made so many mistakes… And he still feels an urge to just hide and stay safe, distracting him from thinking about what to do next.

It’s just fear, I can handle fear. He almost left when the Pressure first hit, but his desire to keep Leaf safe stopped him. He can do it again, he just has to focus on something to protect.

The sprinkler finally stops pouring water down, and Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, trying to let go of all else but that thought. He shifts his mind to many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room before inverting it to shining-mirror-in-a-dim-house…

Red opens his eyes and looks around, able to think clearly at last… but finding it hard to decide what to think about. It’s strange, trying to decide what to think about, it requires thinking about other things first, trying to decide on a priority list… but what priority did he have? He enters this state to clear his head. His head is clear. Done. No more priorities.

No, wait, he had a priority before that one, which led to it… the priority was to stay alive. He’s alive now, so that’s done. Why does it matter that he even completes priorities, again? It does give him something to direct his thoughts at, which is more pleasant than when they wander aimlessly.

No, that wasn’t it either. Protecting others. That’s what he needs to focus on. What can they do next to stay safe?

Red looks around. Leaf is using a burn heal on her arm. The man that was chased by the nidorino is leaning against the wall and shaking. There’s a crashing sound outside that makes him twitch and turn, fear naked on his face, and after a moment Red turns in the same direction toward the door. It was something outside.

They’re not safe here, that much is clear. Which means they need to go elsewhere, and if they can’t go outside… “Stairs,” he says, then withdraws Charmeleon and starts walking around looking for them. He finds them in the corner, and climbs until he reaches the top to see another room full of clothes, though less wet and burned and smashed up. The five strangers follow him, with Leaf bringing up the rear. Her face and arm are slightly burned.

Red feels a strain inside, a note of something that he would normally call grief if he… wait no, it is grief, and it’s…

He lets the mental state go, and immediately shivers as the Pressure brings the fear back. He’s used his powers a lot already today on the cruise, he can’t rely on them that much. I can deal with it. They are. He looks to the others. A young mother is holding her son, who looks about 4, tight against her leg. The man who tried to run from the nidorino is leaning against a counter with his hands in his hair, and the other two are an elderly couple, their clasped hands held tight between them.

None of them have pokebelts. What the hell were they even doing out there when the storm hit?

“Red.” Leaf approaches him, cheeks still wet with tears. Wait, no, that’s the water from the sprinklers. “I’m sorry for, before…”

“It’s alright, I went a little nuts too.” Red shakes his head. “I was a hair’s breadth from just… leaving. If you weren’t here, I would have.” He still wants to, but he seems to be getting used to the feeling, at least a little, though his nerves still feel jittery, his heart pounding too fast in his ears.

He needs to calm himself. He summons Pikachu, and sits on the floor as he pulls his pokemon into his lap and strokes him. Not just for his own comfort, but also because the electric mouse seems particularly agitated. Red merges minds with his pokemon briefly, and—

—then breaks the connection with a small cry of shock.

“You okay, Red?” Leaf asks from where she’s kneeling beside Raff.

“Yeah,” he says, staring at his pokemon with wide eyes as he rubs his forehead and focuses on his body to remind himself he just has one. How are their pokemon still following orders, while feeling the terror and desperate aggression that the Pressure is forcing on them?

He should have realized he’d end up feeling the stormgod’s aura twice over, would have if the damn thing didn’t keep pushing at him to run and hide… But there was something more interesting underneath that. Some overwhelming sensory input he couldn’t process at all, but was still aware of through Pikachu. Did he just begin adapting to a new sense his pokemon has? Or maybe it’s something he sensed through Pikachu before, but in such small amounts that he never noticed…

Something crashes downstairs, and everyone turns toward the stairway as the young boy screams and cowers against his mother. “Oh, what now?” Leaf moans, mirroring Red’s thoughts as they all listen to the pokemon downstairs knock over and smash things, probably confused as it tries to get back out. There’s a cry of pain from some pokemon Red doesn’t recognize, and he glances at Leaf, but she’s holding herself together, arms tight around her middle, biting her lower lip hard.

Red turns back to the stairs, swallowing against his own fear. Whatever you are, don’t be able to go up stairs… stay down there, get out…

Something else falls over with the crash of glass, and the boy screams again. The man turns to the woman, eyes wide. “Shut that kid up,” he hisses.

She glares at him, looking like she wants to shout something back, but fear contorts her features and she starts shushing the boy, rocking him against her.

A loud banging sounds below them, somewhere near the wall, and then there’s a crash, and the sounds of battle. Something hits the first floor’s ceiling hard enough to crack the floor nearby them, and everyone scrambles toward the walls away from it.

Red gets up and rushes to the stairs. He hears a pokeball discharge and looks back to see Leaf stand by the crack with Raff, as if preparing for something to burst through.

When he reaches the bottom of the stairs he sees the huge hole in the wall, some of which is still stuck to the spikes on the carapace of the kingler smashing at a male and female nidoran that dart around it. Each one leaps forward to strike the huge crustacean as soon as it focuses on the other, biting and stinging and kicking at it until it spews a foamy stream at both, sending them scrambling for traction. The ceiling is cracked above a linoone’s limp and bloody body, which looks like it was smashed against it. Red tries to imagine how that happened before he realizes he has more important concerns.

Everything’s wet from the sprinklers going off, and Red’s hand goes to Pikachu’s ball, fumbling for a moment with the one above it. A sudden jolt of fear keeps him from pulling it off, however, imagining the pokemon not getting taken down by his first attack and all turning on him together…

This is a normal fear, it’s a justified fear, but the Pressure is amplifying it, just set it aside. He breathes deep, then lets it out as he watches the kingler scurry to the male nidoran and crash its massive claw onto it in a blow that crushes it. Red barely notes the gore, watching the female nidoran switch from trying to scramble toward the kingler to running away, out through the broken front door.

Now. Red’s arm doesn’t move, and the kingler turns itself around to search for threats… then spots him in the stairwell. NOW!

He leaps backward as another stream of foamy water shoots out, tripping over the stairs behind him and scrambling back as the attack hits his legs in a painful spray… and covering his shoes in slippery foam that would make running impossible.

Red pulls Pikachu’s ball off and aims it at the stairs above him, out of the water soaking the stairs and floor below him. “Go, Pikachu!” His pokemon appears and flinches, quivering in place until Red lifts his legs to the side and yells, “Shoot!”

Pikachu leaps forward over Red, and electricity arcs out. It bends toward a metal clothing rack to the side, but its feet are in the water, and the charging kingler falls over twitching as it slides. Pikachu lands and immediately leaps onto its back, shocking it directly this time before scrambling to avoid its flailing limbs.

Red struggles to pull a great ball out and get to his feet, shoes slipping and sliding, and nearly misses it when Pikachu, sending another jolt through the kingler, gets knocked across the room by a swing of its claw.

“Pikachu!” Red pulls the greatball out, fury and fear pumping through him. There’s a trail of blood on the ground in the direction his pokemon was flung, mixing with the water, he’s okay, he’s okay—

The kingler gets to its feet before Red does, and he’s about to unclip Oddish’s ball when he hears running footsteps behind him. Red turns to see Leaf appear, and immediately tosses her the ball. “Careful of—!” he starts, but she’s already caught it and leaping over him, feet skidding on the slippery stairs and spilling her onto her side. She rolls with it, however, a few pokeballs coming loose from her second belt, and stops herself within range to aim at the kingler as it skitters toward her.

She throws, and it bats the ball away with its small claw while raising the massive one overhead, but the contact was enough; the greatball sucks the pokemon inside as it sails away and rolls behind a service counter.

Red lets out his breath, then yells, “Pikachu, here!” as he struggles to get up again. “Leaf, are you okay?” She’s still wearing her biking gear, but he watches with concern as she pushes herself to her feet, then struggles to keep them under her.

“Fine…” She holds onto a mannequin that managed to stay up, then looks around and gasps as she takes in the bloody bodies of the linoone and nidoran. He sees her visibly shudder, then try to step forward, forgetting about what she’d stepped in. She flails for balance, nearly takes the mannequin down before righting herself, then angrily pulls the shirt off it and lifts one foot at a time to wipe off the slippery residue from the bubblebeam.

Red’s mind fills with images of his pokemon bleeding out in a corner somewhere, or with its skull caved in, and feels tears gather in his eyes. He reaches back for a side pocket on his bag where he keeps some tissues to start wiping at his own shoe soles, but they’re not nearly enough, and frustration boils up in him, an anger and feeling of unfairness similar to when he watched his spearow die.

Red yanks his shoes off and carefully gets to his feet, stepping around the bubblebeam residue and rushing toward where Pikachu flew, digging a potion and revive capsule out of his bag, ignoring the feeling of his socks getting soaked around his feet.

His heart leaps as he sees the flash of yellow against the wall, under the hanging clothes hooked against it. He crouches and carefully picks his pokemon up, remembering too late that he can use his powers to check if he’s alive.

He uses them now, and feels relief as he senses Pikachu’s mind. He quickly empties a potion bottle into the long gash that goes over his back and side.

His pokemon twitches and starts to move again as it’s healed, but Red quickly realizes something is wrong. Pikachu’s hind legs and tail are utterly still.

Red hugs his pokemon to his chest, feeling like he going to cry. He doesn’t hear Leaf approach until she puts her hand on his shoulder, and he turns to her as a tear leaks down his cheek.

“Is he?” Leaf whispers, face horrified, but then she sees Pikachu moving, and lets out a breath of relief.

“His lower spine got severed,” Red says. They could fix it at a pokemon center… maybe. Depending on how bad the injury is.

“Oh, no, poor thing.” She crouches beside him and strokes Pikachu’s head between its ears. “Withdraw him, Red, you can’t do any more for him now.”

Red nods and puts his pokemon down, whispering words of encouragement before stepping back and withdrawing him. He puts his ball carefully at the back of his lower belt, swapping its position with his spinarak, heart heavy.

Leaf wraps her arms around him, shocking Red into stillness for a moment before he awkwardly hugs her back, then squeezes. “He’ll be okay,” Leaf says, and Red nods against her shoulder, not trusting himself to speak.

Over the wind and thunder he hears another pokemon’s cry outside, either in challenge, pain, or fear. Both of them flinch, then pull apart and stare at the doorway. Nothing comes in out of the darkness.

“Here.” Leaf hands Red the kingler’s greatball.

“Thanks.” He clips it to his second belt’s remaining spot, barely feeling any joy at having caught such a powerful pokemon. His heart is still pounding, and he realizes that it’s probably not going to stop on its own, not when more crazed pokemon might rush in at any moment… “We need to…” He clears his throat. “Talk about our next step?”

“I don’t know. We should talk to the people upstairs.”

Red nods, and leads the way up, grabbing his shoes and long-stepping around the slippery spots around the stairs along the way.

Upon reaching the second floor they hear a huge crashing sound outside, a grinding rumble that goes on and on, different from thunder, and they rush to the nearest window together as Red mutters, “Oh, what now,” causing Leaf to snort in exasperated amusement.

Though night has fallen and storm clouds blot out the moon and stars, from the second floor they can make out the occasional street lights and lit windows in the distance… and the shapes of pokemon as they continue to stampede. There’s no sign of what the massive noise was, but…

“That was a building, wasn’t it?” Red murmurs, and Leaf nods, face tight. Something powerful enough to knock down buildings is out there….

“We may not be safe here,” Leaf whispers as lightning illuminates her face through the window.

“That means they won’t be either,” Red asks after the thundercrack, leaving the implication obvious.

She closes her eyes, and he doesn’t need his powers to know that she’s thinking of all those pokemon out there, hurt and dying. “We should get them to the hospital. It wasn’t far, right?”

Red checks his phone. A three minute bike ride becomes… “About a ten minute walk. But only—”

“—assuming nothing goes wrong,” they say together, and smile slightly. Hers looks as strained as Red’s feels, but he’s still glad to see it. He takes his hat off and runs a hand through his hair, trying to still his nerves, then turns back to the group of people who have regathered near the middle of the room and approaches them. He plops down onto the floor and pulls his socks off, then starts cleaning the slippery foam from his shoes with them as best he can.

“I’m Red Verres,” he says, and waits for the others to introduce themselves.

“Pam,” the mother says. “And this is Jordan.”

“Sara,” the older woman says. “This is my husband, Kaito.”

“Tony,” the lone man says, scratching at his arm.

“Where were you all going?” Red asks. “Why didn’t you stay in your homes?”

“We weren’t home when the sirens started,” Kaito says. He sounds like he’s barely holding together, clutching his wife’s hand hard as his other adjusts his glasses. “We were eating out… took a walk after, the transport services got filled or stopped, we couldn’t get one…”

“I work here,” Pam says, voice quiet. “I was doing some accounting, and my son was scared from the sirens, I had to find him, he was hiding in a bathroom and locked it…”

Red frowns at the boy, who’s pressing his face into his mom’s leg as she strokes his back, then turns to Tony, who looks defensive and upset.

“I was… napping, alright?” He shakes his head. “I’m from out of town, and my phone’s broken. Didn’t know where the nearest shelter was.”

Napping? Whatever, the whole line of questioning wasn’t important, now that he thinks about it. “Didn’t mean to sound judgemental, sorry. My friend and I were just talking about what to do next. We don’t know how safe this place will stay, and were thinking of going to the nearby hospital, at best ten minutes away, to help defend it. You guys could stay out the storm there.”

“Go back outside?” Kaito asks, a quiver in his voice as it rises. “You can’t be serious!”

“You don’t have to come with us,” Leaf says, stepping up beside Red and handing him a towel that she clearly just used to dry herself a bit. He takes it with thanks and tosses his socks aside. Pam glances at them but says nothing, and Red reminds himself to pick them back up later. “But there are others who may need our help too.”

“Would you two protect us?” Sara asks, quiet voice almost drowned out by nearby thunder.

“Of course.”

Pam hesitates. “My son, I don’t think he’d… he might get scared and panic. He doesn’t like storms, and… new things upset him.”

Shit. Red thinks of projecting calm to the boy, then realizes that if he’s having trouble even getting himself to feel that way here in the building, there’s little chance he’ll be able to while out in the storm or in a combat situation. And that’s not even taking into account his own psychic exhaustion.

He looks to Leaf, who seems as conflicted as he is. “Staying here… would it be so bad?” she murmurs.

Red closes his eyes, letting out a breath. He… really doesn’t want to go back out there.

He knows that’s the cowardice from the Pressure that he’s feeling, but there are objective reasons not to leave the relative safety of the building. That said, he didn’t leave the Cruise Convention just to hide out in a clothing store.

We saved these people, Pikachu might be crippled, that’s enough, let that be enough…

Is that the Pressure talking, or just common sense? Because if they go back out there, he knows there will be more, and worse, to come.

“Pam, are there any rooms in the middle of the floor, separate from everything else that has locks on the door?” he asks, opening his eyes. Leaf is looking at him in surprise, then turns to the woman expectantly.

“No… I mean, yes, the offices, but—”

“You can open them?” She nods. “Then take everyone there.”

“I don’t… customers aren’t allowed to…”

Red isn’t sure what his expression is, but it makes Pam look nervous and Leaf cut in, voice calm but forceful. “Pam, your son isn’t safe out here, and neither are the others. Take everyone there, lock yourselves in until the thunder stops.”

“Screw that,” Tony says. “I’m not staying in an office while the place fills with pokemon. I’ll come with you two and get to a real shelter.”

Red had been about to snap at the man and tell him he doesn’t have much choice, until his final comment. What’s he going to do, say no, Tony can’t come with them? It would be easier than defending everyone at the same time, but if it’s just Leaf and Red they could use their bikes. “You don’t have a bike in there, do you?” Red asks, looking at the container ball on his belt.

The man stares at him like he asked an unreasonable question, then says, “No.”

How do non-trainers live so unprepared? He knows it’s an unfair thought, but he’s too busy thinking about ways to convince the man to stay to spare thought for being charitable. Going slow to protect 5 people makes sense, doing it for one just feels suboptimal. That might just be because he doesn’t like the man.

“We’ll stay here?” Kaito half asks his wife, who nods. “If you’ll let us,” he says to Pam. “We’ll keep out of anything.”

Pam hesitates a moment more, then her gaze flick to Tony. “Alright,” Pam agrees, seeming relieved that he won’t be with them.

Dammit. Red is glad the older folks wouldn’t be more people for them to watch over, but now convincing Tony to stay might cause trouble with Pam.

“Take us there now,” Red says as he takes his container ball out and grabs some new socks, then pulls his shoes on. “I have an idea to keep you guys a bit safer.”

They reach the administration wing, the whole thing set against a wall of the building with multiple rooms inside. “Stay in one of the middle ones, not too close to the building’s wall or these inner walls,” Leaf says.

Red brings his pineco out, near where the administration wall meets the building wall, then lifts it up and says, “Set!” The pineco shivers, then starts dropping sharp shards of its hard shell, the patter of the razor thin chitin faint on the carpet as Red starts walking backwards, repeating the command as needed.

Leaf does the same with her own pineco from the other side, and soon they reach the door. “Ok, get in. We’ll spread this in front afterward. Watch your step when you end up leaving, you’ll have to jump over it. Oh and be careful on the stairs.”

“Thank you, both of you,” Pam says, then leads her son inside. The elderly couple echo her, and then Red looks at Tony.

“Last chance to stay,” he says. “I’m pretty positive this will be safer for you than coming outside with us.”

Tony hesitates, then shakes his head. Red suppresses a sigh and finishes spreading more spikes, then withdraws his pokemon, whose bottom half now looks somewhat bare.

Leaf walks behind him and Tony to spread more spikes along the stairs as they go down. The first floor is still empty, but they’re still cautious as they make their way to the door.

Red reaches it and holds a hand up so Tony and Leaf stop. He pokes his head out and looks around. “Nothing I can see.”

“More waves are probably coming,” Leaf says, and checks her phone. “The slower pokemon.” She grimaces and tucks it away. “No signal.”

Red has none either. “Guess we’re on our own.” Shit, I forgot to tell Blue we wouldn’t be coming… He looks up at the black sky as lightning flashes nearly constantly. No rain, yet, but he can’t risk bringing Charmeleon out when it could come pouring down at any time.

Instead he summons Nidoran, then Bellsprout. Red watches his pokemon to see how they’re reacting to the Pressure. Both are tense, Nidoran’s ears twitching madly in every direction. Probably hearing pokemon that Red can’t.

Thunder cracks at the same time as a blinding flash of lightning, making Red jerk in fear, adrenaline pumping through him and setting his nerves on edge. He lets out an angry sigh as he tries to calm himself down again. It’s been barely an hour since the flock went over us, and I already feel like taking a nap… somewhere far away or deeply protected. He pushes back the instinct to run back upstairs and hide with the others, sucking in a deep breath, then letting it out slowly. It takes some time, but little by little he regains some sense of calm, and sends his psychic sense outward in a quick burst.

Other than the minds of Tony, Leaf, their pokemon, and the four upstairs, he senses nothing. He sends another pulse out just to be sure, then asks, “You guys ready?”

“Yes, dammit,” Tony mutters, breaths coming too fast.

“Ready,” Leaf says, voice steady, but with a tense edge.

“Okay. Follow me,” Red says, and leads them out into the storm, hoping he’s not about to get them all killed.

They’re not five steps away from the building when rain begins to fall.

Chapter 60: Interlude IX – Thunder

Surge, is that you on my six?”

Lieutenant David Matis checked his coordinates, then leaned to the side to look around his cockpit console. Most of the flight was through a dark and cloudless night, but the sun was just starting to rise, and he could vaguely make out the shape of the landscape they’re flying over, and the vague shape of the other helicopter below and ahead of him. “Yep, right behind you Smat.”

About time. Thought we were going to have to start this party without you.”

Had to loop around a patrol that Dropper spotted for us. All quiet so far for you?”

Not a peep. Saw our own patrol early on, but they didn’t spot us.”

Mm. Or they sent word ahead and are laying a trap.”

The radio was quiet for a moment, and then Helo spoke up. “Well shit, Surge, now you’re going to have him as paranoid as you.”

David smiled. “Old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Just keep your calm close.”

I’m calm, man, I’m calm. I’m so calm I’m sleepy. I’m so calm I-“

Shut up, Smat,” Major Key said from the seat beside David. “We’re practically breathing your fumes. Just keep them busy for a few seconds when you get there.”

Yeah, will do. What’s the key, Major?”

The major sighs, but says, “The key is to stay high and trust your maneuverability and speed.”

Thanks.”

Major Key, actual name Keaty, put his com down and looks at David with a long suffering expression. “Do I actually say it that often?”

David smiled as he kept his attention on the instruments and terrain. “No comment, sir.”

What if I order you to comment?”

Then I’d comment that callsigns are often given out unfairly, sir.”

Of course you’d say that, Lieutenant Simple Unrefined Genius.”

The helicopters continue to travel over the untamed wilds around Unova, making their way into the enemy’s territory through as circuitous a route as possible. The border between the warring regions is a no-fly zone, as in anything flying across it is liable to get shot down with at least ten kinds of ordnance. These new helicopters have been designed and built specifically for war. Resistant to heat, cold, blunt trauma, able to fly through storm-force winds, and silent as modern engineering can make them. Best of all, they’re powered by just a pair of voltorb that can be easily swapped out for fresh ones, and designed to absorb any electricity that hits them for more power. They’re likely the most expensive pieces of military hardware on the planet.

Which doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to make it through, of course. If something sufficiently heavy hits their blades they’re in trouble, and of course a well aimed hyper beam or similarly powerful attack would blow them out of the sky. Still, they’re the coolest thing Surge has flown so far, and by far the smoothest, more responsive than even his braviary. It was an honor to be picked as one of the pilots for this mission.

Signing up for the military was the easiest choice David has made in his sixteen years of life. He still remembers exactly where he was when it happened: the news coverage was absolute, showing the smoking buildings, the fleeing people. He assumed it was just another Tier 3 event, maybe one that was particularly bad, to be getting so much attention. Then he saw what the cameras were showing.

Trainers, giving orders to the pokemon that were rampaging through the town. Demolishing buildings, killing the pokemon that came to stop them. They didn’t order them to attack humans directly, but humans died anyway, from area of effect attacks or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The recruitment videos practically made themselves. With a “renegade region” nearby, no Unova town or city was safe as long as they were willing to stoop so low.

The politics of the situation all went over his head. He was too busy working his way through the gyms to pay attention to arguments about Unova’s expansion efforts into the wild and its effects on the ecology bordering the Inuvik region. It didn’t ultimately matter. Whatever their grievances, some lines just weren’t crossed. Not without expecting retaliation.

And retaliation was swift. Within a day Unovans with registered teleportation locations in both regions made quick strikes that did little overall damage, but sent the Inuvik population into high alert and practically froze their economy and civic business. Their League denounced the strikes as acts of “terrorism.” Unova’s champion and Elite Four responded by teleporting over all at once, attacking five different locations.

One quick acting defender managed to kill Valera, the Unova League’s Water Type master. Hostilities paused after that, the loss of such a skilled trainer a heavy blow for any region’s stability and safety. But tentative peace talks broke down when Inuvik refused to release Elite Valera’s pokemon back to the League, and Unova insisted it wouldn’t stop efforts to expand into the wild. Soon the war was back on.

Now retaliation was coming on metal, spinning wings. One of the major actors justifying the war was the Inuvik League’s most charismatic figure, Elite Sioux. All the known teleportation points were being closely monitored, but Unova got intel putting the Elite at a small town that functions as a defensive coordination point along their borders, near a major Ranger outpost.

Each copter had six soldiers in addition to their pilots, two of which had a gothitelle on their belts, the psychic pokemon specially selected for their unusually strong ability to block teleportation.

Two of the other six in each were Hunters, with confiscated renegade pokemon on their belts.

There was a lot of disquiet in David’s company when the Hunters were introduced to it. All of them were quiet and reserved, seeming unused to the company of others. Most were on the older side, and no one recognized them from basic, though the Major assured them that they enlisted and went through their own training.

It wasn’t really the Hunters that made the others uncomfortable, though. It was what they implied for the mission. Not a destruction of supply factories or power plants, nor a disruption of their economy or coordination ability. The only reason to bring Hunters was if this was an assassination. Their “actual” mission didn’t say that, of course, it said to secure the Elite’s pokemon for Unova, which is why they weren’t just going in to bring the building down on the Elite’s head, but no one doubted what securing his pokemon would entail, with the Hunters in their unit.

David wasn’t particularly bothered by that. Pokemon kill trainers when going all out all the time, and the idea of beating all your opponent’s pokemon so that they surrender is unrealistic in the heat of a large scale battle. What worried him was the potential for escalation. How would Inuvik respond if Hunters are being conscripted as soldiers?

David pushed down his speculation and doubts and focused on the mission. He didn’t have to like working with Hunters, but they were brothers in arms, fighting for a common cause: protecting Unova from the Inuviks. His job was just to get them in close enough to drop in, do the deed, and teleport out.

Lights up ahead,” Smat says. “We’re almost there folks. Blockers out.”

The major unstrapped himself and went back to the troops to relay the message and give them some final instructions. At the sound of the two pokeballs opening, Surge glanced behind him and saw the two creepy humanoid pokemon adjusting to their environment.

Confirmed, blockers are out,” he said into the radio.

Confirmed,” Helo echoed.

Staying dark unt-CONTACT!”

David’s adrenaline surged as he saw the line of energy lance out into the night. He can’t tell if the lead copter was hit, it looked like an Ice Beam—

Electricity arced up a moment later, and then another beam shot out. “Smat, you alright?”

Going in low! Sunsabitches have a whole—”

David was close enough to see the next attack coming, now, and shouted, “Brace for evasion!” over his shoulder as he prepared himself. Most attacks won’t reach them this high, but the defenders are aware of that: an assortment of flying pokemon are rising up in the distance. Most are turned toward Smat’s copter, but not all. “Incoming interceptors! Going down.”

Belay that,” Major Key said as he returned to the cockpit and strapped himself in. “Keep us high until we’re at the drop off zone.”

David’s lip thinned, but he nodded and fought his urge to start evasive maneuvers. The target was still some distance away, but they were passing near the Ranger Outpost now. Neither side would want to risk damaging it, as that might lead to backlash from CoRRNet, which has remained stubbornly neutral so far, even after a few rangers in Unova stepped down in protest and joined the army.

Sure enough, the defenders spotted them and started forming an aerial net. David flew in similar formations a hundred times, designed to “wall” enemies that might try to fly past by ensuring multiple pokemon would be in range to attack if they try. As the distance between his copter and the enemies shrank, he quickly scanned their forms and judged their lethality. They should be okay from most of them, but if those Steel or Dragon types get in striking distance… “Don’t think we’ll make it through this net, Major. I gotta bring us down.”

Shit, Surge, they’re waiting for us down there!” But he braced himself against the seat as David tipped the copter into a dive, eyes scanning for incoming projectiles.

Sure enough, arcs of lightning and beams of various energy lanced up at them. David swerved to throw their aim off, blinded briefly as they were struck by two bolts of electricity. He watched the copter’s energy levels spike, and grinned as he poured some of that juice into higher throttle. The longer they went without realizing how useless that was, the better.

Then another flash of light blinded him, and when it faded half the cockpit was iced over, making it hard to see and causing the copter to drag slightly as he maneuvered.

Thankfully he could still make out the pokemon forming the aerial net as they dove to stay in front of him. He could even vaguely see the shapes of their riders. “Hang on,” he yelled, and yanked the collective lever up, sending the copter into a steep climb. Far steeper than most pokemon could rise, causing only the top layer of the web to get close enough to attack as he buzzed past. The whole copter rocked as a powerful gust hit it, and rapid clunks sounded as something sharp and numerous peppered the vehicle’s side and rear.

Then they were past the net, racing toward the building Smat and Helo were heading toward. “Everyone okay back there?” he shouted, hoping nothing pierced the copter’s armor to strike the trainers.

They gave the affirmative, and he asked the same of the other pilots.

Helo and I are dropping payload now,” Smat said and David saw them in the distance, a pair of specks hovering over a wide compound. As he got closer he spotted the ropes, then the trainers at the ends of them as they bungee’d down.

Bring us down on the far side, Surge,” the Major said. “We’ll go in through the wall while they’re distracted by the roof.” David reached the clearing around the building and brought his copter down while Major Key checked the rear camera. “LZ’s hot, prepare for deployment!” The Major unbuckled himself and put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Take off as soon as we’re out, Lieutenant.”

Sir!” A battle erupted above him as the trainers made it to the roof and brought their pokemon out just ahead of their pursuers’ arrival. David hit the button to open the rear hatch, then touched his vehicle down and turned to watch everyone run down the ramp, pokeballs opening ahead of them as the two gothitelle followed their trainers.

As soon as the last boot hit dirt he lifted off, engines loud through the closing hatch as he made some vertical space, then jerked to the side to avoid some pokemon streaking right toward him. The rest went after his squadmates, but he had no time to worry about them, too busy trying to avoid the burst of fire that suddenly engulfed his copter.

The air inside the cockpit became searing, ice melting off the glass as sweat broke out all over his body. The hatch was still open, and he spared a quick glance back to make sure nothing critical was on fire. Just the seatbelts and cargo netting, as it turned out.

This is fine,” David muttered as he shoved the lever down to momentarily stall and avoid a metallic pokemon that flashed by above him, narrowly dodging its sharp wings before he shot away from the compound, a flash of electricity hitting him and making the console short out briefly. “This is all fine. Everything’s fine.” He switched on his com. “Dropper, we’re done here. What’s your position?”

Passing over the Outpost now. You guys drew them all off, I’ll be good. How much longer can you give me?”

I’ve got three on me like remoraid on a mantine!” Smat yells. “You make it out Helo?”

Yep, three more on me,” the other pilot drawled.

David glanced at the rear camera screens. “Got four on the hook that I can see.” One was almost directly above him, and he stomped on right pedal and twisted the throttle, accelerating toward the rising sun and hoping it would blind them as he began his run for the border… but not at max speed. Their second objective wasn’t to escape, but to draw attention and keep it on them so the assault team wouldn’t be overwhelmed. David could pop the hatch, bring his elgyem out and teleport if he wanted to abandon the aircraft, but then the Major and the others would have to deal with the trainers pursuing him.

They’re not using anything flashy in case they hit the buildings below,” Smat grunts, voice strained as he likely pulls off some maneuver. “Gonna stay here.”

They’ll box you in man, you need to race them.” David turned the copter hard to the left as a flash of light alerted him to an electric attack. It connected anyway, but as long as it looked like he was trying to dodge… they fired another one at him, and David smiled as he blinked the spots away. “Alright guys, let’s see who tires first…” He lowers the throttle, letting the pursuers get within attack range, then ramps it up again, jetting ahead.

The trainer riding the hydreigon was saving its own burst of speed, however, and kept growing in his rear view. “Shit, this thing’s fast.”

Dropping payload now,” Dropper reports. “Still got no one on me, anything I can do to lighten your load?”

No, we’re too far now. Just get out of there.”

Negative Lieutenant, not until our boys are safe.”

David scowled as he started climbing again, but knew she was making the same decision he was. “I might be leaving some behind, make tracks south-southeast and maybe you’ll catch them heading back.”

Roger.”

Surge, your tail is getting closer!”

David looked back to see Smat was right, then looks around quickly. “Where you coming from Smat?”

Your two o’clock, they’re trying to cut me off.”

I told y-“

Yeah I heard you the first time!” David saw him now, coming in at an angle and moving at full throttle. He must have been burning through his battery at that speed, but maybe he got hit with more bolts than David did. “Gonna pass in front of you and let them all eat our exhaust together.”

Alarm rang through David, but he failed to put his misgivings into words before Smat crossed into his line of sight, and a moment later he had to up his throttle to stay ahead of the pokemon cutting across to pursue him. His battery started to drain notably faster, bringing him down to 50% as the copter spent four times the output the voltorbs were supplying to stay ahead of the pursuers.

We can’t keep this speed up, Smat.”

Just a bit longer, we need them to peel off a bit.”

He was right, and slowly but surely David watched the pursuers fade as they tried and failed to keep up, a few wheeling away entirely as their pokemon tired. By the time his battery dipped below 30%, even the trainer on the hydreigon was starting to shrink.

And then they passed the edge of the the town, nothing below but dense forest, and their pursuer sent a ball of orange, glowing death above his copter. “Draco Meteor!” David shouted, and cut his throttle. The ball exploded into dozens of small orbs that descended in streaks of bright light, all of which sailed through the space he was just about to fly through…

…and where Smat’s copter still flew, trying to evade the streaks as they fell all around him until one hit his tail, bursting the metal apart in a flash of light. David watched in horror as the copter started to spin out of control from the torque of its rotor.

Jack, port out!” he yelled, but couldn’t spare attention as his pursuer used the slowdown to reach him. David went into a steep climb to avoid the wash of plasma that spread out under his copter. The hydreigon would down him soon, but if he bailed now without knowing if Smat made it out…

David cursed, then engaged autopilot and opened the rear hatch as he unstrapped from his seat. Thankfully the fires had blown out by the sudden rush of wind, and he could move into the holding area as he clasped his pokebelt on and unclips a ball.

Go, Braviary!”

His pokemon materialized on the ramp, just barely able to fit. He brought its whistle up to his lips and blew the command to attack any nearby pokemon indiscriminately, then watched as his friend launched herself out of the copter at the enemy hydreigon just as it prepares for another attack. Two of its three heads swerved to follow his pokemon, and the Dragonbreath that blasted out from the remaining side head only managed to melt the tip of the ramp rather than the whole underside of the copter.

David was already summoning his eelektross without waiting to see if his braviary was okay. His pokemon floats and curls around itself mid-air until it orients toward the dragon outside. “Thunderwave,” he yelled over the roar of the wind and propellers, not even sure if Zeus would hear him. Then the air crackled and popped with electric discharge as a bolt lanced out between his pokemon and other trainer’s.

The dragon barely reacted to the electric surge, but its movements slowed, and the trainer on its back visibly struggled to shake off the paralysis. She was directing her pokemon with her hands, and when her arm spasmed, the hydreigon took the taps as some command and started trying to bite at his braviary, who raked at it with one talon, the other leg missing.

David stood paralyzed for a moment as he watched his opponent fall farther and farther behind. Her head looked up at him, but he was too far to make out her expression. He had to fight down the urge to blow on his whistle and call his pokemon back, to leave her alone. I can’t let her go, I have to turn around, Jack may be dying down there… “Thunderbolt,” David yelled, and this time he heard the other trainer scream as the electricity hit her and her pokemon.

She fell limp against its back as it continued fighting his braviary. David considered hitting it again, making sure it wasn’t a trick or just a temporary stun… then withdrew his eelektross and pulled himself back to the driver’s seat, feeling numb, feeling a pit of something sick in his stomach as he strapped himself in and started his descent and turn, looping back around toward where Smat’s helicopter went down. He checked constantly to see if he was being pursued, but didn’t spot anyone, let alone the hydreigon trainer. He knew he should probably have gone back toward the objective, seen if he could distract any of his previous pursuers…

Smat, can you hear me?” He asked once he thought he was in range, torn between leaving and continuing his search. “Jack, answer me if you’re there.”

Surge!” Dropper’s voice. “What happened to Smat?”

He went down. Gonna check if he’s okay. What’s up with you?”

The Major said mission’s a success. They’re on their way out. You need help?”

He saw an irregularity in the forest below, and his heart leapt as moments later he spotted the copter wreckage wedged between some splintered trees. “No, I found him. Get out before you’re shot down too.” He searched for a clearing big enough to set down in.

Fuck that, I’m heading toward you.”

You might bring them, Dropper. Get out, now.”

Shit. Alright. Be careful, Dave.”

David found a clearing just a few minutes’ jog away, and set down. He quickly powered down so the voltorbs could rest, then grabbed the mediball and ran down the half-melted ramp and through the woods toward the downed copter, spraying repel on himself as he went and hoping the crash and his rotors would have scared any nearby pokemon away.

His heart was pounding with more than just exertion by the time he reached the wreckage. The blades had shorn off as they cut into the trees and cracked the smaller ones in two as it tipped onto its side. His feet sped up to bring him around to the cockpit, fear making it hard to breathe.

Shit,” he groaned as he saw Smat’s body hanging in his seat by his safety harness, blood pooling beneath him. “Smat! You alive?” David approached the glass, then hesitated and went to check if the ramp was down.

It was. He crawled in and clambered over the seats, one hand extending to release the mediball’s container box. “Smat, wake up,” he said as he stood “under” his squadmate and checked his pulse. A weight fell off his chest as he felt a weak pulse, and he grabbed a potion and started spraying the visible wounds as he assessed them. Panic threatened to distract him from figuring out what to do next, and he looked Smat over more carefully and tried to diagnose him for any critical wounds. Broken ribs by the sound of his breathing, broken arm and shoulder, or maybe just dislocated…

David looked around and saw the pokeball in the corner. Probably his elgyem’s. It wouldn’t respond to David’s commands…

Nngh…” David’s head snapped around as Smat stirred, then his eyes opened and he gazed blearily around. “Wha…”

Jack!” David sagged against the side of the passenger seat. “Swords of Justice, am I glad you woke up. Carrying you would not be pleasant for either of us.

Surge?” Bloodshot eyes travel from David’s face to the smashed glass and sideways tilt of the cockpit around him. “The fuck did you do to my helicopter… This is why you had to fly with Major…”

David grinned as he went to retrieve the pokeball, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. “Yeah, yeah. Small man, always talking. Say something useful for once and get your elgyem out so you can get back in one piece.”

Smat grabbed his arm as he lifted it to aim the pokeball at the cabin, fingers tightening around as he met his gaze. “You’re… okay? Copter?”

Landed nearby. I’m fine.” For some reason he thought of the trainer on the hydreigon, of his braviary… “For now at least. Get out of here before you get me caught, huh?”

Smat nodded, and Surge held the ball out while he raised his voice and hoarsely summoned the elgyem in it. The small blue pokemon appeared, its large head and strange eyes tilted this way and that as it took in its surroundings. “Here,” Smat muttered, and the pokemon floated over and settled on his outstretched hand.

“Get back quick, Dave.”

Yeah.” David straightened and unbuckled Smat’s harness. “See you soon.”

See ya. And thanks.” Smat smiled up at him, the expression half a grimace, then said “Teleport,” and vanished.

David wasted no time packing as many things of value as he could find, then headed back to his copter. He’s halfway there when he hears the twin explosions from behind him. Giving the voltorb the self-destruct command had felt wasteful, but he knew it was necessary to minimize how much of the copter tech fell into Inuvik’s hands.

He took off and flew over the forest back toward Unova, allowing himself to relax after a few minutes passed and no pursuit started up. He flew on until afternoon, where a hero’s welcome was waiting for him. Smat was on the mend, and told everyone that Surge had saved him. Spirits were overall mixed; the mission had been a success, though a costly one. A third of the strike force hadn’t made it out, and Helo’s copter also went down, the pilot presumed dead. Major Key commended David publicly for helping keep the casualty count lower than it could have been… and then told him in private that many on the strike team had died on the way out, from flying trainers who were returning from their chases.

He didn’t ask if David did all he could to keep them occupied once Smat went down. David didn’t ask if a hydreigon was among the pokemon that returned to kill his squad mates.

David went to bed feeling a mix of guilt and stubborn pride, and woke twice in the middle of the night from dreams of the hydreigon trainer plummeting down with her pokemon. The second time he rushed to the bathroom and threw up until nothing but bile came out.

A week later, a Unovan town was reduced to rubble, the earth shaking for hours of sustained and concentrated pokemon assault until its streets cracked and its building toppled.


When Surge took leadership of Vermilion Gym, his very first order while his pokemon were still being healed was to start renovations. The previous gym was a standard building full of training rooms and arenas. What he wanted was a true training facility that would allow him to centralize facilities for all the various skills he felt a trainer should have, and eventually, that’s what he got.

While that was still going on, he expelled every single gym member, causing a region-wide scandal that brought him League attention and a visit from a very concerned Champion. Surge explained his reasoning, and then started testing each one for continued membership. Not one at a time in official matches, but first by observing them in groups, seeing how well they demonstrated not just their trainer competence but also their teamwork, ability to teach each other, and ability to follow and relay orders. The scandal quickly died down when many of the old members still managed to pass, and spoke in favor of the system, but murmurs of a foreign Leader without respect for tradition still sounded around the city, especially when so many trainers came with him from Unova and quickly rose among the ranks of the gym.

Surge only waited a year before he started pushing his ideas for city planning at his meetings with the city’s mayor and legislators. They responded with bafflement at first, then anger. A gym leader, presuming to believe they should have a say in issues of construction and zoning laws, let alone asking for certain buildings to be put in certain places? Who did he think he was?

But once Surge grew more popular from a few defenses of the city and made his case to the public, outlined the defensive benefits of his choices, they eventually put pressure on the politicians and businesses themselves, and over the past five years he’s been slowly but surely altering the city’s layout to be more defensible.

Everyone thinks the changes are to help against pokemon attacks. They’re not wrong in every case. The rest, however, are to prepare the city for war.

It’s coming, of that he has no doubt. The destructive power of pokemon was a threat to human survival for centuries. Now, thanks to their ingenuity and technology, they’ve come close to being the most powerful creatures on the planet. Not entirely, of course, but the days when towns or cities would be wholly lost, let alone entire regions, is fading from living memory. Only the legendary pokemon are real societal threats anymore.

Or they would be the only ones, if not for pokeballs.

Ironic, that the same technology that protects them from one threat creates another. No wild pokemon is as dangerous to humanity as one in human hands, wielded by human intelligence. The war that forged him was the first in history to use pokeballs, but it won’t be the last… and the technology has only gotten better.

Sooner or later, another would start. And if anyone ever manages to catch a legendary pokemon… they could easily conquer entire regions, like the warlords of old.

Surge would be ready. And so would his city.

“Challenger, Blue Oak, from Pallet Town. Third Badge.”

Surge hears his gym raise their voice for the Professor’s grandson. His Second told him about the kid: sharp in combat and out, highly capable, charismatic enough to draw other trainers to him. He’s mildly interested in this fight, and watches as the young trainer walks into the arena like he owns it… wearing…

Surge frowns as the camera zooms in on the kid’s shirt, which is decorated with Objections like military commendations, each one with something written on them. A dull pulse of anger goes through him at the arrogance of it. This is someone who clearly missed the point of the system, if he’s wearing his peers’ tokens of submission like trophies.

There had been a lot of one on one requests relayed to Surge from the boy, he remembers, but he doesn’t respond to those unless something exceptional happens, and having “Oak” for a last name or selling abra to his gym for cheap didn’t qualify. He feels justified in that decision, now, but part of him does wish he made the time to talk with Oak before now. It’s always better to dress someone down in private first, if possible, rather than in public. He’s surprised that none of the others have already curbed this sort of attitude from his classes or preliminary matches.

“Leader Surge, of Castelia City, Lieutenant First Class in Unovan Military.”

Surge takes some Third Badge balls from the wall and attaches them to his belt. He’s tempted to swap one out for a Fourth Badge, as punishment for the kid’s attitude, but restrains himself. If Oak can beat him, he should, regardless of his other failures. He wouldn’t necessarily grant him a badge just because he wins, if his behavior in the stadium doesn’t demonstrate worthiness.

The noise of the crowd washes over him as he enters the arena and walks to his platform as he hastily rewords his usually planned opening speech. His main challenge arena is outdoors, by necessity: it’s not unusual for his pokemon to call lightning in his 7 and 8 badge challenges, and he knows that those facing him will be using ground types quite often. He doesn’t know how Brock and Giovanni justify the expense of artificial earth floors in their arenas, but he’s satisfied with using the real ground.

By the time he ascends the stairs he has his anger mostly under control, and the face that he presents to his opponent is the stern but calm one he expects all his subordinates to mirror when they need to take someone down a peg.

Surge toggles the private channel on while he waits for the arena to move into position. “You made a mistake wearing those like prizes, son,” he says. “I’m going to be harsh with you, but if you show humility and win the battle in good form, you’ll still get your badge.” He switches to the public channel and starts speaking before his opponent has the chance to respond, though he can distantly see Blue’s expression shift. “Welcome, trainer. Before we start, I must address the breach in decorum you’ve brought to my arena.”

The crowd goes instantly quiet, and Surge lets it hold for a moment before he speaks again. “The tokens on your shirt were given to you as signs of respect from your peers. You will not wear them as trophies during our battle. Remove them before stating your Challenge.”

The cameras have shifted to a close-up of the trainer’s shirt, their blown up images on the monitors above the stands showing each wooden token, and the names written on them. Anger pulses in him again at that, but he manages to control it, expecting the kid to start sheepishly pulling them off…

…except Oak does nothing of the sort. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Leader,” the trainer says, speaking calmly and confidently to the arena. Surge’s anger flares, and he feels his teeth grit against each other. He gave the kid a chance, and he— “These tokens represent all the trainers who helped me get where I am. They’re not worn as trophies, but to show that I’m not here by just my own merits.” Oak touches one of the Objections. “Each of these represent not just someone who gave me their respect, as you said, but also taught me something, trained with me, and in some cases fought beside me against wilds. I wish I could bring them with me in truth, to Challenge for our badges together, as a unit, which is what your gym taught us… but since challenges are only allowed as single battles, I honor them with these. They are not signs of their respect for me, but of mine for them.”

Surge stares at the challenger as the audience murmurs around the stadium, feeling like he’s been punched in the gut. This kid didn’t just turn around his intended browbeating, that’s just the sign of an adept showman. On its own it would be worth a grudging respect.

What Surge struggles to respond to is his offhand criticism of the gym. It was barely there, almost only in tone rather than content, but…

Blue Oak spoke loud and clear to the Gym Leader. Your gym teaches us how to work together. Why are we still challenging for badges as individuals?

It’s not that he’s never thought of it before. His tenure as a Gym Leader has been one of throwing out convention when it got in the way of what had to be done. But changing the nature of the Challenge battles, even if it’s just for Mastery, would be a logistical nightmare. Difficulty would be almost impossible to scale properly, even if he restricts all the challenges to be with those of equal Badge count, as team synergy matters far more for multi-battles. It would also encourage people to only seek out and train with those who they immediately identify as good battle trainers, losing a lot of the cross-transfer of skills and the more natural formation of bonds that would persist beyond their time at the gym.

The crowd’s murmurs have grown. He’s been silent for too long, fighting his urge to address the youth’s criticism, to respond with excuses. And they would be excuses. He agrees that it would be a more meaningful test of Mastery, at the very least. Perhaps Membership, and yes, even Leadership. It would just…

…be a lot of work. And it might fail horribly.

Surge smiles. Not much of a reason not to try.

“Very well,” Surge says at last. “Your challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

Surge knows that people often wonder how much of the pre-Challenge dialogue is scripted. It always seems too dramatic, too well paced. Even he’s thought it on occasion, when watching a Challenge at another gym.

But most Challenges are pretty straightforward, and Surge tries to keep his own parts free of flowery language. It’s only when a natural showman like the young Oak arrives that Surge notices himself naturally leaning into dramatic beats, the knowledge of what feels right seeming to align with what will be the most meaningful and correct statements.

“Vermilion Gym declines.”

Surge gives his words a moment to sink in and watches on the monitor as the young Oak’s expression shifts to shock, a surprised hum of conversation breaking out in the stands a few seconds later. Anger follows, briefly, before the youth smooths his expression out, and that’s when Surge continues. “I’ve always thought that single battles don’t fully mark one’s Mastery of my gym, but the duties of a Leader have kept me from designing a better way to fairly judge groups of trainers. One thing I do pride myself on is running a gym that’s open to new procedures and ideas. If you want your Vermilion Badge to matter, then I charge you with designing a better process for attaining one. You will Challenge for Membership.”

The crowd is loud, now, shocked conversations coming from every direction of the bleachers. Declining a Challenge is rare, and always embarrassing for a trainer (or, even more rarely, a gym leader, if it’s a Challenge for Leadership). But as far as Surge is aware, it’s unprecedented for a Gym Leader to dictate what the Challenger will fight for. He’s not even sure it’s allowed: if his opponent decides to get the League involved, Surge could end up pretty embarrassed. He has no actual reason to decline Oak’s Challenge, except for maybe the decorum argument for wearing the Objections.

But it feels right. And whatever the kid’s other plans were, he’s caught in the drama that he himself began. The chatter among the audience is finally fading as people wait with bated breath for the trainer’s response. Blue Oak looks like a man fighting with himself, and it’s not hard to guess why. He’s been on a warpath to get his badges quickly, and staying at a Gym is often an investment made in months, at the very least. He also probably has journeymates that have their own plans.

David Matis feels a little bad for forcing the youth to make such a decision on the spot and in public, but Gym Leader Surge wants the young Oak for his gym, now. He wants to see what that creative intelligence comes up with, to see if it’s something he can make workable.

That is the challenge that Gym Leader Surge set for Blue Oak. And what young trainer with visions of glory in their head could turn down such a thing?

Eventually Oak smiles, the expression captured on every monitor. “I accept.”

“Excellent. Then I will use only one of the pokemon I brought out. You may use two against it in a simple elimination. Prepare for battle!” He unclips the strongest pokemon he has on him. “Ready… set… go, Eelektross!”

The pokemon appears in the middle of the arena, one of the many children Zeus has had since arriving with Surge to Kanto. The floating eel undulates through the air, one of the few electric pokemon that can stay safe from ground attacks. He fully expects the young Oak to win this match if he came ready to challenge for Mastery, but there’s no reason not to try his best to win anyway.

“Go, Zephyr!”

Surge’s brow rises as he sees the pidgeotto appear, the surprise and confusion of the crowd mimicking his own sense of curiosity. He trusts a 3rd badge challenger not to bring a Flying pokemon into his arena without good reason, but… “Strike!”

Oak blows into his whistle, and his pokemon flies far to the side, out of range… then begins to beat its wings, sending clouds of dirt up into the arena as Surge’s pokemon starts to pursue to attack, its body glowing with the built-up charge. Surge holds a hand up as some of the dust blows over him, and grins. It’s not quite a sandstorm, but it’s enough to blind his pokemon.

“Your pokemon could be considered out of bounds, Trainer,” Surge says into the public channel. “It is too far to protect you if this were a real battle.”

“Normally you’d be correct, Leader. But your pokemon is just as blind to my location, and if it gets lucky, Zephyr knows Brave Bird.”

Surge shakes his head. “I won’t ask you to demonstrate that yet, but unless you have another strategy to show soon…”

The whistle blows again in response, and the pidgeotto returns to Oak, only to be withdrawn. A moment later Oak yells out, “Go, Rive!” Surge sees the flash from the other side of the settling dust cloud, and he uses the monitors to see what Blue just summoned: a rhyhorn.

That’s more like it.

“Atah!” Oak yells.

As the pokemon lumbers toward his blinded pokemon, Surge keeps his face calm… and only calls out “Sap!” when the rhyhorn is within striking range.

It throws its head up to jab his pokemon with its horn, but Eelektross knows where it is now and just takes the hit and latches onto its opponent’s grey hide with its wide mouth, green light shining as it begins its Giga Drain. The rhyhorn tries to shake it off, and only manages to by rolling its body along the ground. Surge yells “Sap!” again, but the pokemon is withdrawn a moment later.

“Nice,” Oak says in Surge’s earpiece as he swaps balls. “I figured you wouldn’t use an Electric pokemon without some Grass or Water moves. But I’ve won the match.” He summons his pidgeotto again, and whistles for it to start another huge sand attack from a distance.

“A bold claim, Trainer. But whatever damage that wound did to my pokemon will have been healed by its drain. Just blinding it won’t be enough to win, and your pidgeotto will tire eventually.”

“Eventually, yeah, but not before your pokemon drops. My friends yelled at me last time I kept this secret, so I’ll just let you know that my pokemon’s horn is poisonous. You’re going to notice your eelektross tiring very soon.”

Surge’s eyes widen, and then he laughs briefly, stopping himself before too much floating dirt can get into his mouth. “Full points for your honesty. Ceding a tactical advantage to ensure safety is appreciated at any gym. But you could be bluffing, and so I’ll have to try my best to win before my pokemon starts to show its effects.”

“Understood.”

Surge leans against the railing and takes a deep breath, then yells “Wild Charge!” His pokemon shoots out in a more-or-less random direction, escaping most of the cloud but not approaching the pidgeotto. Once it looks around and recorrects, Oak is already re-positioning his pokemon with a few quick blows on his whistle. Surge prepares another command to try and cut it off—

“David, stop the fight,” his Second says in his earpiece, and Surge immediately transitions to calling out “Stop!” instead. His pokemon freezes in place, and a moment later Oak blows his whistle, causing his pokemon to loop back around toward him.

Surge switches to his Second’s channel. “What is it?” Surge murmurs as the arena and his opponent watch in confusion.

“Zapdos is coming up the coast. Multiple confirmations. ETA is no more than an hour.”

The words are like a bucket of ice water on Surge’s head, cold spreading down his whole body as his mind stutters in shock, then tries to regain its bearings.

“Eelektross, return!” he shouts. “The match is over. The Challenger’s pokemon poisoned mine with its strike. Blue Oak has demonstrated sufficient skill to join Vermilion Gym.” Surge’s mouth is on autopilot as his mind races to all the things he has to do, the preparations that need to be made, even as fear and predicted grief continue to spread through him.

There’s scattered applause throughout the arena, everyone taken a bit by surprise from the abrupt end to the match. “I’ve also just received word that Vermilion is entering a Tier 3 state of emergency,” Surge says before the reaction can swell in the wrong direction. “Zapdos is coming. I repeat, Zapdos is arriving at Vermilion City within the hour. Everyone, please find your shelter or evacuate as soon as possible. If you plan to fight, assemble in the courtyard for briefing.”

Surge looks to Oak, switching to the private channel to ask what he would do. Though he’s a new member of the gym, Surge wouldn’t hold it against him if he doesn’t stay and fight; it would be too much to expect of someone who was pseudo-forced into it. But he stops as soon as he sees the expressions flow over the young man’s face.

Shock that shifts toward rage, and a determination so absolute that Surge doesn’t even need to ask.

Young and foolish, as many were in adolescence. Surge hopes he survives it.


The crowd fills the gym grounds, hundreds of trainers from the city and outlying areas who rushed here as soon as the call went out. Above them, the sky is still mostly clear… for now. The light is fading, however, and when Surge mounts the podium and looks to the southeast, he sees the storm coming, a blot of darkness that breaks up the horizon.

By the time he switches frequencies on his earpiece to the speakers his people are still deploying around the field and attaches the extended microphone, the crowd has fallen deathly quiet. Thousands of eyes watch their Leader. Tense eyes. Trusting eyes. Even a few excited eyes, from those who don’t understand what’s coming yet, or the adrenaline junkies who live for the dance with death.

But most of the eyes are fearful. Those who live here, particularly, and have family in the city, some in the crowd with them, some heading to shelters. He sees a number of younger men or women standing beside their parents or aunts or uncles, ready to face the storm together.

“Thank you all for coming,” Surge says, hearing his voice reverberate through the crowd. “Time is short, so I’m going to keep the motivational part of this brief. Not all of you are here because you want to be. Most aren’t even here out of a sense of duty. You’re here because some scary shit is coming, and when scary shit is coming, our instinct is to either run and hide, everyone for themselves, or gather together and draw comfort from our fellows. Draw comfort from a sense that someone is in charge and knows what they’re doing.” He wants to pace, to start using up the frenetic energy that’s filling him. Instead he stands still, hand clasping his wrist behind his back, feet parted and back straight. “I am not that person. Those of you here listening to me because you think one person, or even a group of people, can plan for what’s coming, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s alright. We’ve all been there.”

The crowd is still and silent. Surge releases his arm and points over their heads, to the southeast. “The moment that storm hits this city, any plan is going to get shot to hell. We know it’s Zapdos coming, obviously, so we know to expect constant and powerful lightning strikes, and every building in this city has rods to draw them away, so that’s the one thing we have on our side. But everything past that is a variable.” He lowers his arm and clasps it behind his back again. “We don’t know if it will be a dry storm or a heavy deluge. It’s coming up the edge of the coast, so any last minute changes in trajectory will alter that. We don’t know how long we’ll have cell reception or other electronic coordination. We don’t know what pokemon are rampaging at the stormfront. We don’t know if Zapdos will descend and wreak havoc personally, or stay above the clouds. We don’t know how many trainers in total will be available to help in the city. We don’t know how many of those trainers will still be alive after the first hour. Or the second, if there is one. Or the third.”

The eyes are wider, now. More of them filled with fear, doubt, uncertainty. He nods, though only those at the very front will see it. “Whatever you’re feeling now, it’s what you should be feeling. Even if it’s terror. If you would run, start running now. If you would hide, find a place to hide now. Because this is the truth, and the truth is terrifying. When the Pressure hits, and you feel more than just what’s true, when your doubts and fears are amplified beyond anything you’ve felt before, there’s a chance you’ll crack like an egg, and become another liability.” He’s careful to keep his voice calm and level. “So go, if you must go. There’s no shame in it. If you think you’ll break, then the best thing you can do for the city and those around you is to do your best to keep yourself safe. And to convince you I mean every word, I’m going to waste a precious minute right now to have everyone mill around aimlessly, to give cover to those who need to leave.” He sees the surprise on those closest. “You heard me. Sixty seconds, starting now; move, and if you’re going, go. Good luck to you.”

He starts walking in circles, having no one to mill with, just to show that he’s not paying attention to anyone and to get everyone moving as he counts under his breath. He hears the crowd around him start to move, quietly and without too much bumping into each other. A minute isn’t enough time for those close to the front to make it all the way out through the shifting press of bodies, but those that arrived first are the least likely to change their minds, and it’s better than nothing.

“Just got word from the League,” his Second suddenly says in his earpiece. “Leaders Sabrina, Erika, Koga, and Giovanni are confirmed to be on their way. CoRRNet says they’ve got two hundred rangers in the city or arriving in the next thirty minutes, with another hundred moving into the outlying areas.”

Some tension in Surge loosens. Having half of the Kanto League here would help immensely, and two hundred rangers are more than he expected. “Good. And from the Plateau? Lorelei’s up, right?”

“Yes, her and Karen.”

Elite Karen. Supposed to be some Dark pokemon prodigy, and currently the youngest of the whole Indigo League. Wouldn’t have been Surge’s first preference, or even his fourth, not least because she wouldn’t be able to teleport straight in. Lorelei will be a welcome addition, at least. “Got it,” Surge says. “What’s the ETA for Karen and Giovanni?”

“She was in Celadon apparently, so she’ll be here soon. Giovanni will take an hour.”

Better than he thought. “Thanks, Smat. With Lorelei we’ll have a chance at hitting Zapdos hard if he comes down, at least.” Fifty-four… fifty-five… He reaches sixty, then stops moving and switches back to the public channel. “Company halt,” he says, and the crowd quickly comes to a stop. They look around themselves, some smiling from the silliness of walking around aimlessly, checking out who they ended up beside, or looking for missing faces. There are notable gaps, now, but not many. A few people are still moving away at the edges of the field, and Surge waits until they step through the doors before he smiles. “Good, not everyone left. That’s always a relief.”

A chuckle moves through the crowd, nervous but still breaking the tension a bit. He lets it run its course, then waits another few seconds as he collects his thoughts. “I know that wasn’t the sort of encouraging talk people expect. I do want you all to know that I’m profoundly grateful and proud that so many of you are here and ready to do what the survival of our species have always needed us to do: risk everything we have, to save everyone we can. Earlier I said that any plan we try to form is going to be shot to hell. It’s the truth, but there are still basic objectives that will hold in the form of priorities. Priority 0 is always in effect. Communication will break down at some point, and when it happens you will know best what to do in any given situation you find yourselves in, to keep yourself and those around you safe. But Priority 1 will be to keep the shelters secure. Gym members are waiting outside to direct you to each and make sure we’re spread out enough. If there are friends or family or journeymates you want to stick with, find them there before heading out.”

Surge watches as people start to move again. “Not yet,” he says, and everyone stops. “Priority 2 takes precedence. The hospitals and pokemon centers are going to be staffed throughout the storm. Over the years the mayor and I have tried to ensure that they all are nearly as durable as the shelters, but many are still vulnerable. Those with five badges and up or experience in a previous Stormbringer attack, get assigned to one of those first. These places will need lots of volunteers afterward to cut down on the number of tragedies coming.”

Someone is raising a hand, like this is a class. If Surge calls on him more would raise their hands, and the momentum would shift, but the first person to raise their hand in such a situation is either brave or stupid, and it’s worth checking in case it’s the first. “Yes?”

“How do we know who to listen to if communications break down?”

Surge shakes his head. “I don’t know what your situation will be when that happens. If you’re at a priority site, listen to the rangers or gym members there. New priorities will likely come up, and the chain of command will be scattered across the city. If you’re not sure, always default to Priority 0.”

A few other hands pop up, but they’re out of time. Surge looks at the oncoming storm that now fills a quarter of the horizon. “One final note. Not everyone is going to make it to the shelters. Some people are going to try to ride things out in their homes, others just won’t get to one on time. It happens every Tier 3, no matter how much warning we get.”

Surge looks around the crowd. Everyone is absolutely silent, watching him. Many know what’s coming next. “They’re on their own. We cannot afford to spread trainers out too thin. They will have to reach a priority site before we can help keep them safe.” He lets out a breath as he asks the trainers to do something he would have had trouble doing, earlier in his life. That he did have trouble doing. “If you know of friends or family or even strangers that are in danger, and want to go help them… well, I won’t tell you to ignore your conscience. But just remember that you’re making a choice, and good intentions can often cost more lives than they save.

“Good luck to you all,” Surge says as he looks out at the crowd, feeling pride, and pity, and hope, and dread. “A god is coming to raze this city, if it can. May yours be with you, as you stand in its path.”