Tag Archives: rationalist writing

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, jut 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.

a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The gym. Leaf… can we sit down?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Red says, and then

she watches his lips form words that hammer her chest

(no, that’s her heart beating)

vision going white around the edges

Red’s face is panicked and tilting out of view

blood rushes through her ears in a roar

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

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

“Leaf, are you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another tragedy, only tangentially related. Another ended future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s true?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she says. “We… lost a friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then you should have died!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


End of Part I

Chapter 66: Interlude XI – Pyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Surge needs to know—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 65: Fearless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tracking and pokemon care,” Aiko says.

“That’s it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ETA?” he finally asks.

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

“Then use Tiānkōng.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were they?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir. Rendezvous?”

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

“Right. Good luck, Jack.”

“And you.” He steps back so she can fly off in a gust of wet wind. Once she’s gone, he looks up at the burning building, then turns to them and gestures up the street. “Go ahead, 120 degree sightlines each. I’ll bring up the rear.”

Aiko stares at him a moment in the dim light as the rain falls, then turns to keep their surroundings in view. Understanding creeps through her with cold tendrils, like the rain is seeping through her skin to fill her chest and stomach.

“But,” Elaine says, voice quiet. “She said…”

“We don’t know what pokemon are in the building,” Jack says, and his voice is neutral without being flat, absolute without being cold. “Or how many civilians, and where. Any we found would need to be guarded, and none of us have any pokemon that can carry others. Priority 3 remains assisting with the hospital evacuation. Still, I can’t force you to come with me, and I can travel faster on my own, though it would be safer if we all move together.”

He doesn’t say that they agreed to follow orders, because he doesn’t have to. “But the Pressure is gone,” Aiko says. She’s reaching, and she knows it. “All the pokemon we’ve encountered since have been less hostile.”

“The ones in the building are seeking shelter,” Elaine says, voice low. “They’ll be on edge, especially if they think they’re competing over limited safe space.”

Aiko turns to her in shock. “So you think we should just go?”

Elaine glances at her, then turns back away to keep scanning around them. “Didn’t say that,” she murmurs, and Aiko winces. She thought she was getting better, but her tone was still incredulous and scornful.

“I can assure you we will not lack for people to help,” Jack says before she can apologize. “And choosing to try to help whoever might still be alive in there is choosing to ignore those who are likely still ahead.”

Aiko is back to watching her quadrant (now tridrant?), though her thoughts are still on Elaine, bothered by the other girl’s response. She feels a little resentful, as if she’s being asked to make the decision for both of them.

Aiko shivers in the rain, and takes a deep breath, trying to think through the confusing stew of emotions roiling through her. It’s a hard moral choice, one that she knows there’s likely no right answer to, and she doesn’t want to make it. Feels like she’ll regret it no matter what she chooses. And feels… a bit of resentment, to Elaine. For not siding with her, for forcing her to make this decision, in a way.

But no. Elaine has been working harder to be more assertive, to speak her views even if they might disagree, and she’s been getting better, but she still needs encouragement. That hasn’t changed just because of their circumstances. “What do you think, Elaine? I’m really curious.”

Elaine opens her mouth, closes it, looks at her, then back away. Finally she says, “I think… he’s right?” Before Aiko can respond, she says, “Yeah. Not a question, sorry. I think he’s right.”

Aiko reaches out to take her hand, and squeezes it briefly before she lets it go. It feels like there’s a lump of ice in her chest, like a betrayal to what she’s even doing here… but she can’t ignore the logic of the Second’s words, even if she’s willing to ignore his expertise.

“Alright. Let’s go.” She starts walking, and Elaine moves with her, and Jack follows them both without a word, the low crackle of the distant fire quickly swallowed again by the shushing rain.

Aiko tries to stay focused on watching for dangers while they move, thoughts spinning uselessly over her decision as the minutes pass and they make their way to the hospital again. They pass by a small apartment building that looks like something burst out from underneath and inside it, and at one point there’s the sound of an explosion in the distance, making them all turn toward it as it echoes off the buildings, the sounds muted by the rain. Twice they have to hide as more magnemite swarms float by, forcing them to take alternate routes to still have more light than just Jack’s zebstrika provides. It’s in those brief periods that they’re the most vulnerable, as the only source of light along otherwise dark streets, but Aiko still never feels any real fear, just a sort of distant worry and a tension as she stays alert for what might be coming.

They’ve just reached another area that still has streetlights on when Aiko’s gaze moves over the bodies without registering them for a moment. Then she sucks in a sharp breath and runs forward a few steps before staggering to a stop, remembering protocol. “Bodies!” She turns to the others and points.

“Watch the streets,” Jack says as he dismounts and runs forward, and the girls move to flank him while turning back to back. Anxiety makes Aiko’s weight shift between her feet as she watches for any threats, part of her wondering why this form of fear is somehow fully felt, where the distinction is drawn in her own mental landscape.

“I’ve got pulse,” Jack says after a moment, cutting her anxiety in half. “…Steady breaths. No wounds.” Thunder rolls overhead, and when it ends Jack’s voice comes from another place behind Aiko. “Same here.”

She turns to catch him in her periphery this time when he moves to the third body. He curses as he suddenly lifts the woman up, checks her pulse, then lower her onto the ground face-up and starts performing CPR. Aiko’s heart pounds so loud in her ears that she can barely hear him when he finally speaks, voice flat. “Dead. Her face was in water. Drowned in a goddamn puddle.”

Aiko closes her eyes as anxiety turns to grief and denial, though only for a moment. If they’d been here sooner, they might have saved her… but they made it in time for the other two. And if they had stopped to search that building, they might not have.

It’s just like Jack said. Time is the highest priority.

“The others are okay?” Elaine asks.

“Unconscious, but no visible injuries,” Jack says, and grunts. Aiko turns to see him lifting a big man by his shoulders so that he’s propped against a trash can, well away from the water on the floor, and looks back at her half of the perimeter before he does the same with the younger figure. “I’m guessing mental attack.”

“Could have been plant based,” Aiko suggests, voice dull. “Rain would wash away spores.”

“Right… we’ll administ… er…”

Aiko blinks as Jack trails off, and turns to him just in time to see his body hit the street, the sound of it muffled by the rain. His machoke, however, makes a much louder sound when it falls.

Something that bears only a passing resemblance to fear goes through Aiko, an empty and meaningless sensation compared to what she felt from the Stormbringer’s pressure. “Elaine!”

Elaine turns and sees Jack. She gasps and moves forward… only to stumble.

“Hypnosis,” she says, falling onto her hands and knees, and then mutters something else that Aiko can’t hear before she falls facedown too.

There’s no moment of hesitation, even as Aiko fears her friend drowning too, panics at the sudden sense of exhaustion that makes her eyelids heavy. Her arm moves to grab the awakening on her belt as Jack’s zebstrika falls over, followed by Elaine’s psyduck.

“Eevee,” she mutters as she brings the bottle up to her face, arm heavy. “Track…” She feels herself falling, but even still jams the rubber nozzle into her nose and breathes in as she squeezes the handle. One.

The awakening lights her sinuses on fire, a jolt that knocks her mind reeling out of the beginnings of sleep and makes her heart start pounding again. She catches herself against the ground as her mind clears, looking around as pain jolts up her arm.

Eevee is barking at something, but the sounds are fading as her pokemon sags with exhaustion too. Aiko follows its gaze past Jack and Elaine’s figures to an alley behind them across the street, where something yellow and humanoid standing at the mouth of an alley… four of them, one taller than the others.

Aiko rushes to wake Jack two then his zebstrika three before moving to Elaine. “Drowzee in the alley!” she yells as she pushes the nozzle into Elaine’s nose and presses it. Four.

“Cover your eyes! Zee, Flash!”

Aiko presses her arm over her eyes and covers Elaine’s face with her body just in time for the blinding light to creep in at the edges. When it’s gone, Elaine is stirring against her, and Aiko quickly jumps up to help with the battle.

Jack’s zebstrika is racing at the figures, electricity arcing outward to shock the wild pokemon as they try to recover from the blinding. Its charge suddenly falters from some combined mental attack. Five. “Eevee, Fast!” she yells after her pokemon gets back to its feet, then grasps for her sandslash’s ball and summons it too.

Mental attacks are hard to avoid or protect against, though most rely on something similar to line of sight. As soon as her sandslash is summoned, Aiko points to the drowzee and says, “Dig!”

Her pokemon’s claws move in a blur, ripping up asphalt and burrowing into the wet ground with a full-body shimmy, its scales scraping and churning the ground up as its legs kick it out behind it. Jack has summoned a liepard, and Aiko feels a rush of relief at the sight of the dark pokemon.

As the lean purple feline dashes forward to tear into the group of psychics with claws and teeth, Elaine’s psyduck starts to spray them with water guns while Eevee dashes in and out for tackles, dodging the drowzees’ fists. The three trainers advance on them even as the hypno leaps at Jack’s liepard with a headbutt that sends it sprawling, and Aiko tries to keep up with everything happening.

“Double Edge!” she yells as Eevee is knocked away, then turns in alarm as Jack stumbles to one knee. But he already has an awakening of his own pressed to his nostril while Elaine summons her own drowzee and commands it to hypnotize their opponents as she wakes her psyduck back up.

The hypno has dropped down onto all fours to rush at the liepard again, but leaps away a moment before claws dig out of the ground below it. Before Aiko can give her pokemon another command, the hypno’s eyes glow, and Aiko’s sandslash slumps back into its hole… just as the liepard leaps back onto the hypno, tearing bloody lines down its yellow hide and trying to bite its neck through the thick white fur there.

Eevee went down while she wasn’t looking, hopefully asleep, but before Aiko can summon another pokemon the drowzee break and run, all three racing on their stumpy legs down the alley. “Don’t let them get away!” Jack yells between commands, crouching beside his zebstrika to reawaken it.

Aiko stops moving toward her sandslash and races after the drowzee, free hand going to her pokeball pouch as she keeps the awakening in her other one. It should have two or three more sprays left in it, she can’t remember if she’d used it five times or six, and she knows she used it three times before—

She gets close enough to lock onto the rearmost drowzee and throws just as it and the one ahead turn to her, eyes glowing. Her target disappears in a flash and she presses the nozzle into her nose in anticipation…

…just before getting punched in the stomach.

That’s what it feels like, anyway, despite nothing touching her. She sprawls back on to the wet ground as the breath rushes out of her, confusion and pain making her head spin as Elaine dashes forward and captures the drowzee just as it turns to her.

“Aiko!”

“I’m fine,” she tries to say, and instead just wheezes with pain. She waves her free hand forward instead, toward the last retreating drowzee. Her friend looks at it, then back at her, then takes off at a run.

Aiko leans back onto her bag and pulls a potion out, lifting her shirt over her stomach to spray where the telekinetic hit landed, and sighs as the pain is somewhat numbed. As she lies there and waits to heal, another one of those echoing explosions reverbrates throughout the city.

After a minute or so it’s easier to get full breaths, and she pushes herself to her feet with one hand on the wall until she’s standing. She’s about to start after Elaine when her friend turns the corner back into the ally and jogs over, picking up their captured drowzee along the way.

“You okay?” she asks Aiko.

“Yeah. Go help Jack.”

“Right.” She starts jogging back the way they came, and Aiko hobbles after her. By the time she makes it to the street again, the battle is over.

Aiko uses a flashlight to reach into the hole and awaken her sandslash, then wakes Eevee up and checks her for injuries. The bottle is surely empty now, and she takes a moment to look for a trash can to throw it out in before realizing she can’t find one. She places it carefully on the ground, feeling absurdly guilty, then goes to Jack and Elaine next to the two civilians they saved… and the one they didn’t reach on time.

“You saved us,” Jack says, looking at Aiko and clearly reading her expression. “Which means you saved them too. Focus on that.”

“Elaine figured it out,” Aiko says, though she still feels her spirit raised a little. “If they’d targeted her first instead of you, I wouldn’t have…”

“It was just a guess” Elaine says.

“Good job to both of you, regardless,” Jack says. “With the battle too. If I were traveling alone and came upon them I might have stopped despite my better judgement, and would have paid the price for that.” He sighs and looks down at the bodies. “But now we have another hard choice to make.”

Aiko looks at him, then the civilians. “We’re not going to leave them?” she asks, unable to keep the incredulity from her tone. “Just because we have no transport—”

“We don’t know what condition they’ll wake in,” Jack interrupts.

Aiko gets it just as Elaine covers her mouth, eyes wide. “You think they were fed on.” She slumps against a light post, a weariness that has nothing to do with sleep coming over her. “Of course they were.”

The damage done by “dream eaters” like drowzee and hypno often vary in symptoms from instance to instance; Aiko has heard of people and pokemon who temporarily lose their memories, have trouble with random types of physical movement or coordination, can’t control their emotions, hallucinate, and more… all of which might be permanent if fed on for long enough, until the victim is comatose.

“Even if they weren’t,” Jack says, voice just loud enough to be heard over the rain. “One of them died. If the other two wake… they likely won’t be able to just brush that off.”

“So what do we do?” Elaine asks. “What can we do?”

“My machoke can carry one. I can put the other in Zee’s saddle, and walk beside him to make sure he doesn’t fall off. The third…” He trails off, letting them work it out themselves.

Aiko doesn’t need him to lay the options out for her again. She can see them. “If we work together to carry her in a sling, we slow down a lot. Limit our reaction time. Get tired faster.” She swallows. “And there are more people ahead who may need help, right now, while we stand here waiting.”

“There almost certainly are, at the hospital,” Jack says.

“It feels wrong,” Elaine says. “Leaving her here. But we… saw others. And we left them. This just feels worse because…”

“Because of them,” Aiko finishes, looking at the other two. Whatever condition they wake in, when they regain their senses (assuming they do), they’ll wonder where she is. And know that she was left behind.

“I’ll remember where she is,” Jack says. “And ensure she’s picked up soon.”

It takes a couple minutes to get both of them secured, the young boy cradled in the machoke’s arms, the older man slumped against the zebstrika’s neck. Aiko is still trying to think through ways to bring the woman too, and almost asks if he has any container boxes big enough to fit the woman, but… whatever he would have to empty out to make the room for her might be things they end up needing. She doesn’t ask, but resolves to buy a bigger container ball herself as soon as she can.

Eventually they’re ready to go, and without looking back they start moving again, Jack walking with his hand over the man’s around the pommel and looking over his shoulders as Aiko and Elaine watch in front and to their sides.

They’re almost at the hospital when Eevee alerts them to the coming danger. Aiko sees her shift to a battle stance, large ears turned upward as she barks.

It’s another magnemite swarm, or perhaps one of the earlier ones: it’s hard to tell its size as it spreads and condenses, electricity arcing through it and outward at its surroundings. Once again Aiko’s only reaction is a faint and empty panic, and vaguely wonders if such emotions would ever feel meaningful again, or if the Thunder God’s Pressure broke something in her.

“Shit!” Jack says. “Get ready to run if it turns this way, we’ll head into the—”

A blast of orange light spears through the darkness and hits the ground beneath the swarm and drills into it… and a moment later there’s an eruption as a column of earth soars up and encompasses the magnemite before detonating as well, knocking scores of them to the ground and burying them in rubble.

Aiko’s hands are clapped over her ears from the now-familiar noise, which is far louder from this close up. She watches wide eyed as more beams of light hit the remains of the swarm from different directions, and Aiko follows them to their sources to spot the green, sinuous bodies of the flygon that glide soundlessly overhead.

It takes them less than a minute to blast the remains of the magnemite swarm out of the sky, and then they’re descending, half a dozen of them, to capture as many as are still alive.

“About time,” Jack says, and Aiko turns to see him smiling. “Wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with that myself.”

Aiko turns back in time to see one of the flygon swooping down to land in front of them. Its rider quickly unstraps themself and slides off, then fiddles with their hood as they approach…

…and pulls it off to reveal Giovanni Sakai.

“Leader.” Jack is still smiling as he steps forward to clasp hands with him. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Jack. What’s your objective, here?”

“We’re on our way to evacuate a hospital to the north, which we think may have been in the path of Zapdos’s attack.”

“It was. The hospital is burning.”

Aiko’s stomach sinks at the words, dispelling some of the feeling of being starstruck by her proximity to the ex-Champion and Leader. She turns and sees a similar expression of dismay on Jack’s face. “How bad is it?”

“The top few floors were lost almost immediately. No telling how many died then, but there were a number of trainers there who worked their pokemon ragged to try and stall the fire from going lower, and the evacuation got the next few out before it spread. It’s an ongoing race since then.”

“Shit. They still need help, then?”

“Badly. My men and I have been ensuring no major threats approach as the hospital’s defenders help escort its civilians out. The job is almost done, but the bottleneck is still trainers able to assist in escort. The sooner you arrive, the better… but I see you have wounded. Civilians?”

Is that judgement in the Leader’s tone? Aiko tries to read his expression, but it seems neutral… though intense. He has the same air of focus that he exudes through videos.

“We just picked them up,” Jack says. “Can you assist us in transporting them?”

Giovanni looks at his people a moment, then back to Jack. “Yes, we can take all of you. It’ll only be a couple minutes for us, opposed to another ten for you. Come and help with the captures, and we’ll fly over together.”

Aiko lets her breath out, relief making her almost dizzy. She doesn’t know how much more there’s still to come, but for now at least it feels like the hardest part of the night is over.


It takes five minutes to finish catching all the magnemite that are still alive, and then fly to the hospital. Aiko and Elaine managed to get 4 and 5 respectively, and she can’t help but feel that they, along with the drowzee she caught, are something of a reward for choosing to stay and help… even if some part of her feels disgusted at herself for thinking of pokemon in that way.

Aiko has never ridden on such a smooth ride as a flygon, and the simple lift and forward propulsion created by its sail-like wings allows her to relax for the first time since they left the pokemon center. She takes in the city as best she can on the short ride. There are whole blocks that are dark, and the giant torches of the buildings cast a broader glow from up high, letting her see how little the slice of the city they’ve been struggling through really is. She hopes the others are alright, wherever they are now.

Then she can make out their destination, and squints against the wind and rain to scan the hospital campus. She can see most of the defensive perimeter is still in place, but the area within it has become a mass of people as the flaming building continues to be evacuated. In the handful of seconds before they land, Aiko can make out two processions of people: one thick and bustling mass going to the southwest, likely toward the pokemon center she and the others came from, and one similarly thick one going to the east toward another shelter.

Once they land she discovers there’s a third, much smaller one underway.

Aiko and Elaine rest against one of the barricades, shoulders leaning against each other as their backs lean against their bags. Eevee and Psyduck are resting with them, eating the same nutrient bars they’re munching on.

“How’s your stomach?” Elaine asks after a minute.

“Only hurts when I breathe,” Aiko says, causing Elaine to snort and nudge her shoulder. Aiko nudges her back, smiling. “How you feeling? Still invincible?”

“A little. Mostly tired. Think it’s too early for a victory dance?”

“Probably.” Aiko glances up at the burning building. There’s a wide area around it that’s empty, which makes the rest of the campus perimeter a bit crowded. “We’re definitely doing one before we go to bed tonight, though.”

“Oh, man. I’m excited already. Mostly for the bed part, though.” Elaine turns to her. “We going to do that thing again, too? Where we talk about how we screwed up?”

Aiko blinks. “Yeah, I think so. I will, anyway. You been thinking about that?”

“Uh huh. Been trying to come up with a name for it too. How does Aiko Accountability sound? AA for short.”

Aiko laughs despite herself and nudges Elaine’s shoulder again, harder this time. “No thanks.”

“Heroic Accountability?”

“HA, for short?”

“Hmm.” Elaine munches her bar. “I’ll keep thinking. But yeah, I’ve been considering how I could have dealt with those drowzee better.”

Aiko thinks back to the battle. “I think you did great, but if you have something specific in mind…?”

“I felt like every decision was fully thought out, like I had plenty of time to think things through. But looking back… could have stopped those drowzee more easily if I’d been willing to switch to lethal attacks right away. Just didn’t consider it.”

Aiko did, once the drowzee ran. Jack had said to stop them, and Aiko interpreted that as run after and catch them. If she’d summoned Sneaker or other pokemon, she could have taken them down much easier. But… they were running. She didn’t want to hurt them if they weren’t even trying to fight back, at the time. “Well, I’m definitely not someone who’s going to blame you for that. Not just because I didn’t either, but also because I think people resort to lethal means too easily when dealing with pokemon. And everyone got out okay, right?”

“But maybe we might not have. Couldn’t have known that, at the time.” Elaine sighs. “And it’s not about whether you blame me, is it?”

“No. I guess it’s not.” It’s strange, seeing the thing she created adopted so fully that it’s being applied beyond her own views and boundaries for it. Before she can think on it further, she sees Jack making his way back to them, with another two Vermilion Gym members she vaguely recognizes.

“Aiko, Elaine, this is Sab and Josh, boys, these are the two who I came here with, and likely to be new gym members soon.”

“Good to meet you,” Sab says, and Josh nods.

Aiko nods back while Elaine waves. “Same.” They appear to have gone through their own ordeals tonight: Sab’s pokebelt is half empty, his hand tracing over the spots every so often as if confirming that they’re gone, and Josh’s clothes are covered in soot stains that the rain hasn’t fully washed away. She recognizes the look on their faces every time they glance at Jack: something like relief and trust and hope, that the worst of the night is over.

“The two civvies we brought were folded into the patients that are being transported in groups,” Jack says. “You’ve both done plenty already tonight, but this is what we came here for. If you’re still able, every trainer will help us transport more people faster.”

The girls look at each other, and Elaine speaks first. “Is your dad going to be okay?”

Aiko checks the time and is shocked to see it’s only 9:14 PM. Did it really only take them an hour to travel here from the pokemon center? “I think I’m okay to help a bit longer. I don’t want to leave you here.”

Elaine nods. “Then I’m okay to help more too.”

“Good. Let’s move out, then.” He holds a hand out to each of them, and Aiko smiles as she takes one and gets to her feet with the help of the Gym Second, then tucks the rest of her meal bar away. “Patients are heading out in a procession every few minutes. Anything you need to do before we go? There are working PCs here if you need to swap pokemon or transfer equipment.”

“I’m good,” Aiko says. She has all her strongest pokemon with her already.

“Same.”

“Alright then, let’s go.”

They meet some hospital staff and another three trainers around a small fleet of enclosed transport gurneys meant for outdoor travel. After just a couple minutes of waiting for a hospital orderly and a nurse to arrive with one last patient, they all begin their journey past the perimeter, trainers in a wide eight point star that keeps the patients and hospital staff in the middle. There are flares along the road to indicate the fastest route to the nearest hospital, and by now enough trainers have made the journey that the route is fairly clear, allowing everyone to move at a brisk pace, alternating between quick steps and jogging when they reach long stretches of empty street, the sounds of the gurney wheels nearly thunderous.

Aiko stays alert throughout the trip, waiting for something to go wrong. Occasionally an ambulance passes by in one direction or the other, those headed to the same destination no doubt full of patients, and they also spot other trainers going back the way they came on bikes or riding pokemon, probably having just finished their own escort. Overall the trip feels far safer than the other traveling they’ve done, and after about half an hour of jogging through the rain, they spy the hospital.

The group makes for the guarded gap in the perimeter, and once they’re inside the hospital staff thanks the trainers profusely as they lead their charges either into the building or to some outdoor treatment areas.

“Good job everyone,” Jack says. “Fifteen minute break, then we’re meeting here to head back, but only those of you with bikes or pokemon to ride. The rest should stay here and see if there’s anything you can do that’ll be useful.”

Elaine approaches Aiko as she sets an alarm on her phone, and together they go looking for another spot to rest in. “Let’s try inside,” Aiko says. Her legs ache and she’s sweating under her clothes, but mostly she has to pee.

“Gods, yes. Getting out of the rain for even a minute sounds amazing.”

There are a number of buildings on the grounds, and they head for the nearest one, a squat reception center that looks like it’s mostly for administrative purposes. When they arrive, however, it’s clearly been transformed into another treatment facility, all the furniture inside cleared away for patients to lie down or rest in chairs as tired looking medical staff move from one person to the next while concerned friends or family hover nearby or hold their hands.

There’s no line for the bathroom, thankfully, and when they both emerge they find a bare patch of tile to rest on. It really is nice to be out of the wind and rain for a moment, and Aiko is just wondering if a five minute nap would make her feel better or worse when she spots a familiar red outfit and mop of black hair passing by from the direction of the bathrooms too.

“Red?” she whispers, heart racing, and stands. “Red!”

The boy’s head snaps around, eyes wide, and then they’re running to each other and hugging, and Aiko feels some last bit of tension relaxing inside her. “Are you okay?” they ask at almost the same time, then grin at each other as Elaine approaches, beaming.

“I’m fine,” Aiko says. “We rode out the Thunder God at a pokemon center, then went with Blue and Glen and some gym members to help at a nearby hospital that was set on fire… Elaine and I just got here by helping with the evacuation.”

“Hi Red! It’s great to see you again.”

“Hey Elaine. I’m… really glad to see you guys too.”

“Why are you wearing two pokebelts? And…” Aiko studies his face as her initial joy fades, her smile fading with it. “Red, you look… awful.” Not just exhausted, but also like he’s been crying all night. Dread suddenly fills her stomach. “Wait, where’s Leaf?”

Red’s smile drops, and the dread reaches her heart, freezing it and sending ice through her veins. No, he wouldn’t have smiled at all if she’s…

“She’s here. Alive.”

Aiko feels her heart thaw, but it’s still pounding. “Alive is nice. ‘Great’ is better. I’ll even settle for ‘Fine.'” Red doesn’t smile, and Aiko’s grip on his clothes tightens. “She was injured?” she whispers, and when he nods, she has to swallow against the dryness in her throat to ask, “What happened?”

“We didn’t make it here until after Zapdos left too,” he murmurs. “Got caught in the storm and did our best to help people. We… didn’t get everyone, but… we had to clear out an apartment building and… then there was a nidoqueen…” Red passes a weary hand over his face. “I caught it, but Leaf got hurt. Bad. One of her arms was broken in three places, and some ribs on that side, and her lung…”

“Oh, Leaf,” Elaine whispers, and Aiko hugs him tight again as he trails off, eyes closed as if that will block out the mental image of her friend so badly hurt.

“Where is she now?” she asks after she manages to get herself under control, voice hoarse.

“Here. I carried her to the barricades with the help of someone we saved, and a doctor that saw her started treating her outside. Once she was more stable… there’s not enough room in the main building, with everyone that’s coming here, but they’ve prepared surgery rooms on the third floor.” Red leads them in the direction he was heading before, and they go up some stairs and into an office space turned patient resting center.

The second floor’s atmosphere is more hushed and calm, though not by much. Still, the nurses and doctors moving between beds are doing so with more purpose than the frenetic triage going on downstairs, which is somewhat reassuring, and instead of cots the rooms and open spaces are full of hospital beds and equipment that must have been brought over from the main building’s storage. Red leads them to a windowed office that’s been converted into a single patient room, and they file in to see Leaf lying on one of the beds.

Aiko feels tears gather in her eyes at the sight of her friend lying on the cot, half her body wrapped up, but to her shock and delight, Leaf is awake, and smiles at them as they walk in.

“Heyoo,” she says, voice low.

Aiko wants to hug her, and settles for clasping her unhurt hand tight to her chest. “Don’t you heyoo me! You were supposed to be safe on a cruise!” One hand rises to wipe at her cheeks. “You should have stayed there!”

“Pretty rich… coming from you. What about… your dad?” It’s clear that it’s hard for her to take deep breaths, each word sounding strained and breathy. She turns her head as Red approaches with a water bottle and a straw, and takes a drink.

“Dad will be fine.” She feels a bit of guilt saying it this time as she glances at the clock. Almost ten. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Nah. I’ll be… fine too.” Leaf turns her head a bit. “Hey, Elaine.”

“Hi Leaf. I’m really glad you guys ended up at this hospital instead of the last one we saw.”

“What’s wrong with… the last one?”

“It’s on fire.”

Leaf winces, and turns to Red, who shrugs. “Haven’t been paying attention to much since we got here,” he says, and Aiko sees something in his face, the way he looks at Leaf.

“The others… okay?” Leaf asks, turning back to them.

“As far as we know, yeah. We split up after Zapdos blasted—”

Her phone alarm goes off. “Fuck,” she whispers, taking it out and turning it off, then checking to see if service is back up so she can send a message to Jack. Still nothing.

“Such language.” Leaf’s voice is more wary than teasing. “What’s up?”

“That would be the burning hospital,” Elaine says. “We’re supposed to head back to help with more evacuation.”

Leaf’s brow rises, and she looks at Red, who immediately starts shaking his head.

“No way. Not leaving you.”

“This isn’t like… the forest,” she says. “I’m safe here. There are others… that need help.”

“Screw others!” Red half shouts, and everyone flinches except Leaf, who just watches him as he takes a deep breath, eyes down and hands gripping the railing of her cot.

A nurse walks by and pauses at the door. “Sir, please keep your voice down or go outside.”

Red’s eyes are closed. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

The nurse looks over them a moment, then walks on. Aiko realizes Leaf is putting some pressure on her hand, trying to tug it back, and reluctantly releases it, watching as her friend rests it on Red’s instead.

“I understand,” Leaf murmurs. “And if you’re… at your limit. I get it. We’ve done enough. But if it’s just that you… don’t want to leave me… I appreciate it. A lot. But they’re going… back out… and they’ll need you… more than I will.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, and nods. Aiko almost says she’s not going back out, she’s with Red on this one, they’ve done enough and just leaving Leaf alone makes her feel terrible—

“I’ll stay.”

Everyone looks at Elaine. “I agree with Red. Leaving you here would be really demoralizing. And I think we can all use a rest. Maybe we switch off? They mostly need warm bodies at this point, so Red and Aiko can go back now for another run, then when they get back Aiko can stay, then Red again. If we’re not done by then.” She turns to Aiko before anyone can respond. “You can stay first instead, if you want. But we can’t keep Jack waiting. He’s going to be our Second soon, too.”

“Wait… what?” Leaf asks, eyes wide.

“Oh, right. I’ll explain it to you while they’re gone. Or Aiko will.”

Everyone looks at her, and she takes a moment to consider how she feels. Okay, overall. And she’ll have to head home eventually tonight… she’d rather give Elaine some rest and then stay with Leaf before teleporting, rather than stay and then leave without giving Elaine a chance to.

“Alright, let’s go before they leave without us.” Aiko leans over and kisses Leaf’s forehead. “Rest up, okay? I don’t care if this hospital catches fire too, no heroics allowed from people with multiple broken bones.” She turns to Elaine. “Take care of her, E.”

Leaf rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Finally.”

Red looks like he wants to kiss Leaf too, but instead he just squeezes her hand. “I’ll be back soon.”

She squeezes back, then lets him go, smiling wider. “I know… you will.”


Aiko and Red hurry back to the perimeter, where Jack is waiting with an impatient look on his face, already mounted on his zebstrika… alone. Whatever he’s about to say gets aborted when he sees Red with her instead of Elaine, however. “What happened?”

“Long story,” Aiko pants as she summons her bike and starts getting her gear out of the box to strap onto her elbows and knees. “Sorry we’re late.”

He’s quiet a moment, then says, “You came. That matters more.”

“Where are the others?” Aiko asks, a brief flare of pride chasing away some of her regrets.

“Sent them ahead when I decided to wait a bit longer. Can take care of themselves, and might be needed to make up another group.” He looks at Red. “Verres, right? Pokemon and special skills?”

Red lists them as he pulls his own gear on, and Jack perks up at the mention of him being psychic. “Alright, it’ll be good to have an extra early warning system, if you’re up for sweeping for wilds?”

Her friend looks as though he’s going to say something, but just nods distractedly as he clasps his helmet on, and gets on his bike. “Sure. Do you want to know if any are in buildings, or just outside? And what about people?”

“Just wilds and people outside. Everyone ready? Let’s go.”

They head out, and soon Aiko’s thighs are burning as she struggles to keep up with Jack’s pace. She’s not sure if he’s trying to reach his people or just in that much of a rush to help with the next escort or both, but she wishes she had put her goggles on too: the rain is annoying enough without it whipping her face as she speeds by. On the plus side, the rain is definitely lighter than it used to be, and she can’t remember when she last heard thunder. The storm seems to finally be ending.

Red rides beside her, quiet and focused on whatever he’s sensing. She wishes they were able to talk, she wants to know more about what happened with him and Leaf, to know why he felt so nearly at the end of his rope… and why he was looking at Leaf that way, as if she couldn’t guess. It’s strange thinking of yet another romance budding around her without her realizing it, though the two did have some time alone together lately. Or maybe it’s just the extreme circumstances.

While racing back to the burning hospital, they pass by two formations of patients and trainers early on, and then no one else. It makes Aiko feel nervous, then hopeful. Maybe there’s no one left to evacuate. Maybe they can just turn around and head back to Leaf…

A vibration runs through the ground, shaking the street beneath her tires and almost spilling her. She hears breaking glass and cracking sounds from the buildings around her, and sees the water on the streets ripple with the vibrations. Aiko glimpses a squad of flygon soaring overhead, probably hunting whatever might be in the area that caused it, and hopes the fight doesn’t take place near the hospital.

When they arrive a couple minutes later, she immediately notices two things: how much more of the building is now on fire, and how much emptier the campus around it is. Jack leads them through the barricade and starts looking for someone in charge to direct them, but the few people still around appear to be preparing to transport the final civilians away from the area. There don’t appear to be any other patients that need escorting, but they eventually find some hospital staff in a cluster nearby, staring at the burning building or recovering from some ordeal. The Gym Second pulls his zebstrika up alongside them.

“Hey! What’s happening?”

“Building too far gone!” one man gasps, clutching at a stitch in his side. “Some pokemon came under and sent a quake through the place, and it started to collapse! Fire’s spreading faster above, and first floor entrances are blocked!” In the dim light Aiko can see tear tracks on his dirty face, and that he’s not wearing black clothing but hospital scrubs, covered in soot. “Some trainers that just arrived went in, but the atrium collapsed! Doesn’t matter who they save, they’re trapped on the floors above!”

Jack is turning his pokemon and riding for the hospital before he even finishes speaking. Aiko stares after him a moment, then follows, legs pedaling furiously.

“Aiko!” Red yells as he bikes beside her. “What are we doing?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t know how to answer, but trusts Jack to have a plan. He rides past the entrance, which she can see is filled with the collapsed ceiling above it, and stops at a spot just past it and along the wall. When she reaches him he’s dismounting from his pokemon and swapping it for his machoke and a blastoise.

“Aiko, Red, you don’t have to follow,” he says without looking at them, pointing instead to the wall and saying, “Brick Break!” His pokemon rush forward and smash through the concrete, forming a wide hole. Beyond it is just more rubble, but his next command is “Brick Break, slope!” and his pokemon keep going, focusing their efforts upward and creating a steadily climbable pile as they toss what they find behind them.

“What are you going to do?” Aiko asks, and still the panic she feels is hollow and empty. It’s a worry, nothing more or less. She can think through it, she can act. She’s not stuck in fear.

“Create an opening, find my people,” he says, and there’s a fierceness in the Unovan’s face that Aiko hasn’t seen all night as he pulls his bag off his shoulders and tosses various medicines off his belt, adding burn heals instead. “Rescue whoever I can.”

“Sir, this isn’t going to work,” Red says, voice strained. “Even with the blastoise, you can’t know what path they took, it might run out of water before you find them. And if the roof comes down on you… there are too many things that can go wrong, we’d need everything to work perfectly…”

“I know the hospital, and I know my people. Might be enough.” Jack pulls an air mask over his head, and just a single raindrop beads the face visor. “You two don’t have to come. I’ll welcome the help, but I don’t expect it. I should have died a long time ago, to my own mistake, but someone came for me when it wasn’t smart. Saved my life. Kept me close after, so I’d rise up with him. Trusted me with command… and I used it to send these trainers here. No one’s fault. But now it’s my turn.”

Red stares at him, then turns to her. “Aiko… we can’t—”

“We’ll be okay, Red.” The thought of just staying out here while the people and pokemon burn inside… she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, would never be able to look Blue or Leaf in the eyes again… The memory of how she froze up when Zapdos appeared shames her all over again. This is my chance.

“We need to think this through, to premortem it! I don’t have any water pokemon, or anything strong enough to help with rubble—”

“Didn’t you catch a nidoqueen?”

“I… yes, but it’s not trained!”

“Doesn’t have to be to push rubble! And I have a sandslash to dig us out too!” She’s doing the same thing Jack did, stripping off everything unimportant. Her only pokemon that will be needed inside are her sandslash and krabby, and maybe Sneaker too. She drops the rest of her pokemon into her bag, then clips more potions and burn heals onto their spots.

Jack’s pokemon have found the stairwells that he clearly knew was there, and Jack whistles sharply, causing them to stop digging. “It’s okay to stay out here,” Jack says to them. “I hereby give you permission. Just tell me one thing, Verres: are there people still alive in there?”

Red’s face twists in anguish, and his mouth opens, closes, opens, jaw trembling.”Y-yes.”

“Where?”

“Spread out, every floor above the first.”

“And my people?”

“I… I don’t… how many?”

“Seven.”

Red closes his eyes tight. “Third floor.” Tears leak down his cheeks. “That side.” He points to the left and rear of the building.

Jack clasps his shoulder. “Good man.” And with that, Jack scrambles up the rubble and into the building.

Aiko turns to Red, her own air mask hanging from her neck. “I’m going.”

“Don’t, Aiko, please, the risk is too high!”

Aiko looks at him a moment, then reaches out to brush a tear from his cheek. He wasn’t there, after the fight with the absol and onix. Maybe it would be unfair to think that he wouldn’t understand, he did come all the way from the cruise to face the Thunder God… But whatever he went through while here, whatever got Leaf injured, it used up what brought him.

And Jack’s already inside. Jack, who twice tonight made hard choices, hard sacrifices, for the greater good, and twice let her make them too. She’s sick of making those kinds of sacrifices, and if he’s going in, she can hardly do less.

“It’s okay,” she says, and on a whim kisses his cheek for luck. “I’ll be back soon.”

Then she slips her mask on and runs after Jack. Red’s shock lasts long enough that she gets a head start, but she feels his hand on the back of her shirt, trying to pull her away from the rubble as she starts to climb. She keeps going until she tears away from his grasp, and by the time she’s in the stairwell, he’s not with her anymore.

Chapter 64: Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic. Truly inspirational.

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

“Hey,” he says. “I’m Blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he hears it: the sound of wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good!”

“Taro?”

“Y-yeah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They survived. The Stormbringer is gone.


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

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

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

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

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

“Oo. That’s better…”

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

“Blue?”

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

“Are you okay?”

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

They look at each other, or at the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To look for them?” Aiko asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if they get called away?”

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

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

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

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

“What? Since when?”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was meant as inspiration.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think anyone is in that?” Glen asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gramps is here.

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

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

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

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

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

Locks on as it stumbles a step forward in surprise.

Throws as it heaves itself forward for a body slam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together, the three Oaks stand tall against the storm.

Chapter 63: Interlude X – Judgement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She finishes penning the latest one, then reviews it.

Hello.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. And do you have pokemon?”

“Just one, in my purse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a feature, not a bug,” Professor Elm explains. Sam’s Johto counterpart is a wispy sort of fellow, with a long, earnest face and a lanky build that his lab coat tends to billow around when he’s in the frenetic motion that keeps his staff hurrying after him. Now he sits with his lanky legs crossed against the table’s edge, a glass of some pale liquor in one hand. “Being able to see what others have tried-“

“No lectures, please, Professor,” President Nara says. The oldest of the university heads, Sam first met her at a Tier 1 threat near a small town by Lavender. “No one here is doubting the value of the pokedex network. We all pay for them too, and we appreciate that the price is so reasonable, and how hard you fought for those subsidies. But journals are where the real prestige comes from for academics that have hung their belt up, or never threw a pokeball at all. You’re asking us to leave our friends and employees out in the cold for what could be years.”

“Not years,” Sam insists. “Maybe one, tops.”

“And then what?” Osamu asks. “The prices are high, yes, but this assures quality of research. Peer review will suffer if the reviewers cannot be paid.”

“With all due respect, you’re on the review board for three different journals,” Professor Elm says, adjusting his glasses. “How many papers have you personally looked over in the past year, out of all those that those journals published?”

Osamu’s face reddens. “Are you questioning my integrity?”

“Not at all,” Professor Oak quickly says. “We know you’re a diligent and rigorous academic. But there isn’t enough time in the day for you to be solely responsible for every paper in even one of those journals. And instead of hiring more reviewers, the names of the reviewers are what’s being paid for. It’s become a mutually beneficial prestigious position, not something that assures quality.”

“I’d like to add,” Professor Elm says with a wry tone, “That the higher degree of accuracy in recent published research probably has more to do with better coordination in the scientific community, not higher cost of journals.”

“An interesting hypothesis,” one of the younger presidents Sam barely knows says, voice dry. “Would be nice if you decide to test it, sometime.”

“This is getting personal,” Sam cuts in. “Let’s keep things focused on the future. There are people working to turn the whole system of how research is funded and available on its head. To make it more accessible and better for everyone.”

“More about this secret project?” Daniel says. “Sly hints aren’t going to convince anyone, Sam. Maybe if you’re willing to finally be candid about what Bill is working on…”

Sam sighs, and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. But you all know me, my reputation. I hope that you’ll take it into account when I tell you that the longer you rely on the current system, the harder it will be to reach and adapt to a world that’s approaching soon, where knowledge is free.”

It was the wrong thing to say, he realizes immediately. The men and women in the room are good people, people who care about knowledge and truth and teaching. But they’re also driven by the incentives of their positions: they run schools, and the knowledge that schools offer are not free.

“Thank you both for your time,” Osamu says, voice cool. “Give us a moment to discuss, please.”

Sam tries to think of something that will clarify his last point, undo the damage, but Professor Elm is already standing and stretching, then moves for the exit. Sam nods to the presidents, and follows.

David is leaning against the wall between the elevators. “They’ve grown too powerful, Sam.” He says quietly, and takes a swallow of his drink, a frustrated tightness around his eyes. “We had chances to stop them, shape the culture, but none of us wanted to step into it. Same with the journals. The businessmen took over, and it’s hard to argue with the results, from the perspective of… well, people running a business.”

Sam nods and sighs, running a hand through hair that’s more salt than pepper these days. “I know. It’s the politics argument all over again.”

“For what it’s worth, you’d make a terrible mayor,” Elm says with a grin. “You’d turn Pallet Town into an experiment. Cycle through different laws every few months.”

“I would put them up for a vote, at least.”

“That and you don’t deal with unpopularity well.”

Sam smiles. “Think I handled their animosity pretty well.” He reaches absently into his pocket to unsilence his phone. A room full of such busy people would barely be able to complete a sentence if everyone’s phone was on. “If this doesn’t work, which it doesn’t seem like it will, we kick it up to the next level.”

“Don’t like involving politicians in this,” Elm says. “Regulations might work for us today, might work against us tom-… Sam, what’s wrong?”

Sam has stopped dead to stare at the screen.

Sixteen missed calls.

Five unheard messages.

Forty-three texts.

One region-wide warning.

He has just enough time to read that last, to register the words Zapdos and Vermilion and then his phone rings. Daisy.

“Sam!”

He looks up at Elm. “Zapdos is attacking Vermilion.”

His friend straightens, eyes wide. “Go. I’ll handle this. Go!”

Sam is already going, answering the phone with a “Where’s Blue?” as he runs down the stairs.

“I don’t know, grandpa, he wouldn’t answer his phone!” Daisy’s voice is tense, heavy wind blowing around her microphone.

“I’m porting home,” he says as he reaches the first floor, knees aching, and runs out of the building to emerge into the darkening twilight, hand going to his pokebelt. “Where are you?”

“Passing over Argent Town. I can see the storm, I’ll be in it in about ten minutes!”

That’s my girl. “Stop there. That’s my closest teleport point.”

“Grandpa you can’t!” Daisy’s voice is sharp. “The doctor said-“

“Daisy,” he interrupts as he summons Forun. The alakazam senses his tension instantly, and goes into combat readiness despite there being no threats around. “It’s not up for discussion. Teleport.”

The world wrenches around him, and then he’s in his front lawn and withdrawing Forun as he goes inside to his PC, thoughts already turning to what pokemon he’s going to take. No fire, rock, or flying, which means I’ll need Ice and Poison for the Grass and Bugs…

Daisy is still trying. “Blue will be fine, he’ll probably just help at a defense point or-“

“No, he won’t,” Sam says, voice quiet. “He’s not like you, Daisy. You understand that you can’t win against the storms, only survive them, only mitigate the losses.” Thoughts of his daughter and her husband send a spike of pain through his chest, one he endures a moment, then puts aside as he types search parameters into his collection. Pokemon that have been trained together, pokemon that don’t use audio or visual commands… “But Blue will try to find a win. Even aside from wanting to look good, wanting fuel for his legend, he needs a win against them, for himself. For your parents.”

Daisy is almost crying, he can hear it in her voice. “We can’t lose you too, Grandpa.”

“And I can’t lose either of you. Wait for me there in Argent. I have the last signal sent from Blue’s pokedex. We’ll find him together.”

The last thing Sam grabs is a small bottle of pills from the dresser in his room. He takes a breath, eyes closed, then swallows two and heads outside to teleport again, hoping that he’s not too late.


Seto could have run, when the alert went out.

It was a simple calculation. The price of a flight out of the city, normally affordable enough, even for someone living almost hand to mouth, had quickly skyrocketed to obscene heights. He could have emptied his bank account to buy a flight for himself, but not one for his mother, who was living on retirement funds.

What kind of a son would do something like that? To his own mother?

The voice was hers, ingrained from a hundred situations, repeated in a dozen tones, so often that she doesn’t even have to say it anymore. He hears it himself, every week when she asks for money for this or that reason, and he considers telling her he can’t. Every time she insists that he stop whatever he’s doing to come help her with something as inane as attaching a picture to a message, or as difficult as moving furniture around the apartment.

“Seto! Where are you?” Her voice was high and afraid, and he felt a stab of guilt for even thinking of leaving the city without her.

“I’m coming there, mom. The hospital isn’t far, we’ll go there and-“

“The hospital?” The word scraped along his mind. “You want me to sit in one of those rooms, with all those… people?”

Foreigners, is what she meant. But no, that’s not fair. He knew she dislikes being away from home, being surrounded by others, she rarely even took the bus anywhere, and it can’t be a comfortable place, the shelters…

“Mom, you can’t stay,” he said as he got dressed. His apartment is small and messy and it’s not far from her place, but it’s his. The one major rebellion he’d persisted in, despite her complaints that it was too expensive to have his own place, despite her insistence that a good son wouldn’t move out until he was married (and then take his mother with him to a bigger home, if he could afford it, which he should have been able to, if he’d followed her career “advice”…). “It’s not just a Tier 3, it’s a Stormbringer, there won’t be any emergency services if something happens in your building!”

“You’ll protect me,” she said, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “You still have those pokemon, don’t you?”

Seto looked at his belt, hung up on the wall by the door with its three pokeballs. Yes, he had pokemon. Three that he’d bought and trained despite her insistence that he was wasting his time and money. The ones that he one day dreamed would be his ticket to a better life, despite being in his early 20s already (getting permission to become a trainer when he was younger had always ended in tears, either for him or his mother or both).

A pidgey, a venonat, and a mankey. That last one had been expensive, he’d saved up for a week, hoping the whole time that the listing wouldn’t be bought out by someone else. “I… mom I only have three, and they’re not very strong-“

Well then what did you buy them for?” she demanded, breaths harsh and quick. “Seto I’m scared! People are leaving their apartments with all their things, they say the storm will hit the city in an hour! What if the electricity goes out? Come quickly!”

Seto could have left, even then. Or he could have gone to the hospital himself, helped the defense with his measly three pokemon and fifty or so hours of training, or just gone into the shelter there.

But what kind of son would leave his mother alone in the dark, with monsters all around?

One that wouldn’t be there when a magnemite breaks through her living room window.

“Go, Mankey!” Seto yells, voice shaking with fear as it competes with the sound of the raging storm pouring in, and his mother’s scream as she cowers behind him. “Chop!”

The magnemite’s prongs glow as they build a charge, and his pokemon’s attack comes simultaneously with the enemy’s. The magnemite is knocked against the wall with enough force to crack it, while his mankey crumples into a smoking heap.

His mother screams again at the electric discharge, or maybe just for the sake of it. It makes Seto twitch, and then he’s hurrying to withdraw his pokemon as the magnemite slowly rises up. He fumbles with an empty pokeball (he’d bought three, and never thrown one at a live pokemon before) as it starts to charge an attack again, realizes he’s not going to make it in time, and throws himself behind the couch, empty pokeball falling from his hand and rolling across the room.

Another blinding flash lights the room, followed by the smell of ozone and burning. He coughs, then looks up and realizes the couch is on fire.

“My couch!” his mom shrieks. “Put it out, Seto!”

He starts thinking of ways to do that before realizing the thought is insane and reaching for another empty ball as he backs away from the couch and looks over it at the magnemite.

It’s reoriented toward his mother as she runs toward the couch, table cloth bunched in her hands to beat the fledgling flames out.

In his imagination, Seto snaps his arm up to lock onto the magnemite, then pegs it and saves his mother.

In reality, he stares for a moment in horror, and then raises his arm and has to steady it with his other hand, and throws just as electricity arcs out and sends his mother crashing to the ground.

And misses.

“Momma!” he screams, feeling like he’s in a nightmare. He’s a horrible person, a lazy, ungrateful, disrespectful son who got his mother killed because he-

The magnemite is charging another attack. He should be running, or throwing his third ball. Instead he just stumbles toward his mother(‘s body) while reaching for a potion bottle.

What saves him is a giant scaly fist that punches through the broken window frame and grabs the magnemite with a crushing grip. Seto stares out the second story window to see the nidoqueen rear its fist back and up, then smash the magnemite downward and out of sight. It roars in triumph.

Seto is momentarily stunned by the sound and sight of the monster, then continues crawling to his mother’s body, potion in hand.

“It’s okay, momma,” he whispers, spraying her burnt skin. “It’s okay, I’m sorry, it’s okay…”

He babbles until the potion bottle is empty, and his mother is still lying in an unmoving heap. The healing from the potion is superficial, and it takes him a moment to remember, through the distracting sounds of the howling storm and the crashing of the nidoqueen hitting the building again and again, that potions need flowing blood to be effective.

If the potions aren’t healing her it’s because her blood isn’t flowing.

If her blood isn’t flowing it’s because she’s dead.

What hits him, first, in that moment, even through the self-recriminations and self-disgust, is relief. Just a second of pure, relieved… freedom.

And then the guilt is back, worse than ever, a howling gale of self-loathing that he can’t contain. I wanted her to die.

I let her die because I hated her.

I killed her.

I’m a monster.

He doesn’t deserve to live.

The building shakes again, and the nidoqueen roars again, reminding him of its presence in a much more personal way.

He should let it kill him.

Seto pushes himself to his feet, stumbles, then walks toward the shattered window.

The nidoqueen saves him again, though less directly. Clearly frustrated by something on the left side of the building, she abruptly stamps her foot hard enough to crack its foundation there, causing a quarter of it to suddenly collapse downward.

Seto is knocked to the ground as part of the apartment breaks away with a grinding roar that drowns out the storm, for a moment. Pain shoots through his knee as it hits the uncarpeted tiles, and he groans, gripping it and curling up into a ball. He can’t even kill himself without looking like a fool and wimping out…

He feels the spray of windblown rain on his face, and looks up with a blankly shocked expression. One of the walls is just gone, the apartment that had been next to his mother’s cracked in half down the middle. He can see out into the street below, which means he spots the kid running up behind the nidoqueen.

It’s hard to make out details in the intermittent light and heavy rain, but the kid is definitely wearing a pokeball belt, which means he’s a trainer. A real trainer, if he’s out in the storm. Seto’s saved… through no effort of his own. Does he deserve saving? He’s a horrible person. He just needs to end it.

Part of him rebels against this thought, suddenly. Kill himself? Why? His mom is gone, he’s finally free to do whatever he wants…

The flood of guilt that drowns him then is debilitating, and as soon as it passes he starts moving toward the hole in the wall, where the nidoqeen is still raging at something out of sight. She’s stretched up as high as she can, one hand clawing at a higher apartment.

The trainer behind her is close enough that Seto can see they have something in their hand. They’re not summoning anything, though… just walking carefully closer. What are they doing?

Trying to capture it, of course. Its back is turned… they could just walk right up to it and-

Its tail suddenly thrashes as it lets out another bellow, arm jerking back and tearing more of the building out with it. Vines are wrapped around its arm, something bright yellow latched onto it. A weepinbell? The nidoqueen tries to pulverize the plant pokemon against the building, and Seto hears someone yelling commands above him. There’s someone else in the building!

The trainer below has to jump back to avoid any debris, and its thrashing tail. His frustration is clear as he tries to get closer, still too far out of ultra ball range to get a lock.

Another figure runs up behind the first, a second pokemon trainer. But she doesn’t summon any pokemon either, and the two start to coordinate to get on either side of the rampaging nidoqueen without getting too close, so they can capture it when an opportunity arises.

But the storm is going to make it incredibly difficult, Seto distantly realizes. The nidoqueen is a big target, even he could probably hit it, but to get close enough to for the ball to lock on…

Even I could hit it… What’s he doing? Just sitting here and… watching, as the nidoqueen crushes the weepinbell, then brings it up to its mouth and bites its body away from its vines, causing the person above him to scream out.

He should be helping them, he’s a trainer too, he can catch it and he’d have an incredibly powerful pokemon…

No. All he has are pokeballs, scattered around the room (one fell out the newly opened wall). He would need an ultra ball to capture something that massive.

But he can still help. He can keep it distracted…

…with a pidgey and a venonat. He pushes himself back and away from the gaping wall, survival instinct finally returning for a moment. He can’t help with this, his pokemon are too weak, he’s too weak—

Well then what did you buy them for?!

His gaze flicks to his mom’s body, and he closes his eyes, groaning as his forehead lowers to the floor. Worthless…

And then the sky explodes with light, and a screech as loud as thunder echoes across the city.

Seto stares up at the glowing figure that descends from the storms, lighting the whole city in its intense glow. A constant current of electricity runs through its black and yellow feathers, making it easy to pick out but hard to look directly at. Its power is obvious and absolute, and if Seto wasn’t already on the ground, he would fall to his knees. Instead he merely bows his head again.

God…

That’s what this feeling is, what this power represents. Zapdos is a god, and his judgement is all around them, inside them. That’s why he’s been feeling the god’s judgement: Seto has been found unworthy.

There’s only one path to redemption for his sins.

He stumbles to his feet and walks forward again, out into the brightened night, out into the storm, eyes closed, waiting for the nidoqueen or the fall to kill him…

Don’t do it!”

Seto’s eyes snap open, and he looks down to see the male trainer looking up at him, expression one of desperate worry. Seto barely even notices the way the nidoqueen turns right next to him, toward the sound of the yell.

“Don’t do it!” the trainer repeats. “Don’t give up on your life that easily!” How does he know? “It’s the Pressure, you have to fight it! We’re here for you! We’re all fighting! Fight with—”

Red look out!”

The nidoqueen’s fists pound the ground, and the trainer who had been yelling up at him falls as the street buckles and cracks beneath him. The nidoqueen steps toward him as he scrambles away, and his friend rushes forward, ball outstretched, only to get caught by the pokemon’s sweeping tail, skidding and rolling over the street.

Leaf!”

Seto watches, numb with shock and self-loathing. They’re here for him, the trainer said, as if he’s worth all this, and now they’re going to die for him…

Fight with us!

“Go, Venonat!” Seto yells, throat dry and voice cracking. His pokemon materializes on the edge of the apartment floor beside him, and he points to the nidoqueen as it steps toward Red. “S-supersonic!”

His venonat’s antennae vibrate, and the nidoqueen raises a foot over the trainer… then overbalances, and has to take a quick step to the side to avoid falling.

And just like that, he saved a life. For a moment.

But sometimes a moment’s enough.

Red is on his feet, staring at his friend and looking like he’s about to run to her crumpled form… and then with a cry he’s running straight at the nidoqueen, ball out. It spins around, tail whipping toward the trainer, who stops dead just out of its range, as if he saw it coming, then steps forward, holds position, and throws.

And then the nidoqueen is gone, the ball it’s trapped in rolling along the ground as Red runs toward his friend.

Seto looks up, near the blinding figure of the Thunder God as it floats over the city, beautiful and terrible. The raindrops that blow against his face are bitter as tears as guilt suddenly surges through him again, dousing the moment of sudden hope and will.

He goes to sit beside his mother, hands covering his eyes as the dark flood pours down his cheeks. A distant part of him knows he should go and help Red with his friend, but for now, for just a few minutes, all the fight is gone from him, swallowed by a divine judgement that seems deaf to his whispered prayers for forgiveness.


It’s been two years since Karen last faced a legendary pokemon’s Pressure, and anticipation is like a drug in her system as she flies toward the storm around Vermilion. Most people would probably be afraid of flying into a thunderstorm, let alone one created by a legendary. The key is to stay near buildings and fly below the tallest ones.

Reckless is a word that’s been used to describe her, a time or two. Or ten. Stupid, however, is not.

Especially now that she has an excuse to run toward the Pressure, whatever its source.

Two years ago, Entei burned a line north-west through central Johto, and trainers scrambled to wall it off from Enju City and divert it. Karen was on the fourth line that day, and she still felt it coming from miles away while it burned a path through the forests, smoke blanketing the horizon until it burst out of the tree line, a living inferno that seemed to burn the air itself.

That day what she felt was fear. Not fear for her safety, though that’s a part of it that she also craves, as she never feels the rush it provides anymore. The woes of an adrenaline junkie, as her oldest brother used to say, before his own addiction got him killed.

What’s more nuanced, more driving toward something productive, is the fear of losing. The fear of messing up, of being publicly shamed and judged unworthy. The fear of disappearing back into the masses.

It was the fear she dealt with every time Pressure hit her, a valuable reminder of what drove her. She didn’t need a therapist to tell her that being the middle child in a big family made her seek recognition and attention, or that it was the primary thing that pushed her to risk her life in Tier 2 and 3 events around her. And each time she was around the Legendary Beasts, their aura confirmed that it was still her primary motivation.

She wasn’t an Elite then, had just gotten her eighth badge, but she was already known for her reckless battle style, a mentality that made her and her pokemon go all out to prove themselves, no matter the risk.

She knew one day her luck would run out. Watching Entei leap the first line of defense and run through the virtual wall of water that met him at the second, only to emerge from the cloud of steam without pause, made her think that would be the day.

But it wasn’t, and here she is: flying into a storm as she feels the Pressure rise in her thoughts like fog on a chill morning.

As the wind grows harsh and powerful and the cold rain quickly soaks her, she wonders what she’ll feel now. One of the four Elites of the Indigo League, and by far the youngest… is she still afraid of obscurity? She has to know. Is being one of the strongest and most renowned trainers in two regions not enough for her? The Pressure will tell her. And even if it wasn’t her job, she’d be diving right into it to find out for sure.

Reckless? Nah. It boggles her mind that more people don’t seem to appreciate the insights facing legendaries gives. Who needs therapy, when you can literally face personifications of your deepest subconscious fears, and then blast the hell out of them?

She flies over the city until she spots a tall building near the coast with flares on the roof, then guides Orochi toward it as best she can with the wind buffeting him out toward the ocean. Her hydreigon isn’t terribly large, having only evolved 7 years ago, but it’s faster than any other she’s encountered, and its three heads work seamlessly to keep them floating between the various buildings and billboards and light posts in the dark, rainy city. It’s always been a mystery how the Dark Dragon flies, one the recent discovery of the Flying Particle shed no light on. At least flygon has decently sized wings, but Orochi just glides along with barely any effort from the appendages on its back that look more like furred tentacles than wings.

When she gets close enough to the marked building, she finds another in the distance, and from there another, until she spots an occupied rooftop. She brings Orochi down into a dive and “lands” beside the figure of Lorelei, the dragon hovering just above the concrete. The older Elite is only identifiable by circumstance: her whole body is covered in the same type of Faraday suit Karen is wearing. Conductive wire mesh sandwiched between thick layers of fireproofed material would keep them safe from stray lightning bolts, though it does impede movement more than she’d like.

She’s also standing on a platform strapped to the back of a hovering cryogonal the width of a couch, with half a dozen other ones of varying sizes floating around her.

Kind of distinctive, that. Particularly for a non-Psychic.

“Good to have you, Karen! First Stormbringer fight, right?” Lorelei shouts, voice calm and assured despite having to contend with the storm. There are radios attached to the neck of the suits, but in this weather they’d be practically useless.

“Right!” she replies, and alternates stroking Orochi’s three necks, his scales slippery in the heavy rain.

“Then you’re going to be under Giovanni in attack order!”

“Understood!” The idea that elites are below Champions and above Leaders only applies when Champions don’t do weird things like become Leaders afterward. “No appearance yet?”

“No! We’ll be tracking the center of the storm and moving with it, in case it appears!”

Karen nods and turns as lightning flashes again, then again, illuminating the cityscape intermittently. In the moments between, she can make out a number of dull red spots, fires that even the intense rain and wind aren’t putting out right away. There are also a couple of obscured spots where dust clouds from collapsed buildings have been kicked up, and not yet fully battered back down by the rain and wind.

“And in the meantime we wait,” she mutters. Karen itches to go down and help fight, to protect the hospitals and pokemon centers they passed by, but she knows they can’t. The Gym Leaders who could come and their people are spread out around the city already; the Elites’ job is to stay fresh and ready for the cause of all this to make an appearance.

But that’s assuming it ever even does.

“Where are we taking it?”

“My initial pull will be west-southwest! You and Giovanni will need to bring it as far out to sea as we can!”

“Right, but after that?” Cinnabar Island is in that direction, if they lure it that way they’d be putting the people there at risk…

Lorelei laughs. “I like your optimism!”

Karen smiles and squeezes the base of Orochi’s middle neck. “You haven’t really seen my baby in action yet!”

“Noted!” There’s silence for a moment, and then, “If you get it past the bay, turn sharp south!”

Karen’s smile fades, and she suddenly wishes she could see Lorelei’s expression. By luring Zapdos south, there’s a chance it would pass by or over the Sevii Islands, Lorelei’s birthplace and home. Drawing it away from Cinnabar would mean endangering her family and friends and neighbors.

Of course, it could well miss the Sevii Islands entirely. They’re not that large… but in the worst case scenario, well, the total population of all the islands put together is a quarter of Cinnabar’s.

Simple math. Their primary objective is to ensure Zapdos doesn’t travel further up the mainland to Celadon, or turn north toward Saffron, but past that… The only choices risk some deaths to save many more. And the consequences of indecision would be no different than making the choice.

Still, Karen knows the knowledge must feel like hell, and the Pressure is probably making it that much worse. Yet Lorelei sounded composed, and calm, a rallying point for everyone present. Karen can do no less.

The center of the storm has clearly moved, and soon they’re moving with it, lighting new flares and placing them around another roof that’s not the tallest in its area, but still high enough to have clear sight of the cityscape. They’re there for about another fifteen minutes, and then they move again, waiting and watching for their opportunity while another wave of pokemon hits the city.

Karen has to fight the Pressure each time, the desire to do something burning through her. At one point they see another building collapse, and only Lorelei’s unmoving figure keeps Karen in place. She can’t look weak and impulsive in front of the other Elite, not while there are lives on the line.

Eventually Giovanni arrives, followed by half a dozen other trainers. They’re all also wearing faraday suits, so she doesn’t know by appearance who they are, but a vibrating chorus of high pitched noise accompanies them, as each of the trainers is riding a flygon, and that makes it pretty obvious. She’d be surprised if even Blackthorn Gym has this many flygon among its members.

“Good evening, Elites!” Giovanni’s voice is loud but clipped, and it makes Karen feel a little better about herself. She knows it’s petty, the Viridian Gym Leader has faced Pressure at least five times as often as she has, but the fact that the legendary Sakaki is struggling with it too makes her feel less weak.

Karen always feels awkward around the ex-Champion. His decision is one of the reasons she’s even in the Elite Four. She has no illusions that she could beat Lorelei or Bruno if they were going all out… or even Agatha, despite the Type advantage Karen’s strongest pokemon have against hers.

There are a number of Champions that step down from the position, but most do so to pursue other vocations, like Professor Oak, or travel to other regions. Brock is the only other ex-Champion Leader in Indigo, and he only won his match thanks to Aeosis; he must have known he didn’t deserve the title when he stepped down, wouldn’t be able to hold it against a challenger that prepared for that monster.

Giovanni? He might still be Champion, if he wanted to be. She wonders how it makes Lance feel. As far as she knows the two have never battled.

“Good to have you, Leader!” Lorelei’s tone is neutral. “I wasn’t aware that you would be bringing others!”

“All volunteered to be here, and are under strict orders to observe! They will only assist in pre-discussed emergency situations!”

It’s been a problem in the past, trainers who attempted to attack legendaries, either in a bid for revenge or glory, and only ended up getting themselves killed, or worse, interfering with the League’s plan. Giovanni probably didn’t bring his Second or Third, but Karen feels better with the other trainers around. She’s used to facing Johto’s Beasts in groups, both to effectively drive them in a certain direction and to deal with the rampage that would come in their wake.

“Very well! Attack order is myself, then you, then Karen! Hard south after the bay, if possible!”

“Respectfully, Elite, I would suggest I go first!” Giovanni yells. “Our pokemon cannot fly as effectively over water as land!”

Lorelei doesn’t seem happy about this, from what little body language Karen can read. Which isn’t much, given the storm and suit. “The first pull will be the hardest! My cryogonal are more expendable than you or your people! If you reach the bay, let Karen continue, and assist the city!”

Giovanni is silent a moment, then bows his head. “By your command, Elite!”

Karen isn’t sure who she agrees with, but she finds herself happy that she’ll have Zapdos all to herself once they’re over the water… even as the idea of being the sole target in the Legendary’s crosshairs sends cold fingers down her back to grip the base of her spine and squeeze until she’s shivering, legs numb…

Hello fear. She smiles, breathing hard as she focuses on how she will feel when she comes out the other side of this, alive and triumphant. It’s nice to feel you again, for a time.

Because what is there to fear, really? From the perspective of moment to moment experiences in a few hours the fear will either be gone, or she’ll be dead.

Those aren’t the only outcomes. I could be maimed. I could lose Orochi. I could fail and cause others to die.

Karen’s pulse is faster, her breaths short. This Pressure is tenacious. She lets the excitement and fear war within her, drive her to greater heights. Fighting Pressure is all about framing. She stares out at the storm and grins. Your greatest weapon will only give me strength.

They move as a unit to another two rooftops and well past the midpoint of the city when it finally happens: the god of thunder’s cry splits the sky as it descends from the dark like a slowly falling star.

Its presence below the cloudline transforms the city from a strobing world of dark and light to an endless black room with a single impossibly bright bulb hanging in it. Karen wishes briefly she could take a picture of the cityscape, illuminated from a single central point. The shadows the buildings cast move as Zapdos floats with deceptive slowness across the sky.

And then Lorelei is floating rapidly up and to the side. Her swarm of cryogonal forms an array around her and starts to gleam with extra ice that forms on them in a protective layer. After getting in position, one of her pokemon starts accelerating faster than the others, and Lorelei’s voice is suddenly sharp as steel in Karen’s headset. “Initial pull starting now.”

The cryogonal disappears into the distance, followed by Lorelei and the others. Giovanni follows her, but not at maximum speed, and Karen takes her cue from him, though it galls her to just hang back here doing nothing.

Wait. Your chance is coming. Wait.

She keeps Orochi behind the Leader as she strains her eyes against the glaring brightness of the god’s electric aura. Eventually a thin beam of blue and white lances out at it in the distance, and the jealousy churns through her. Lorelei’s attack has begun.

Zapdos doesn’t react to the attack, and Karen imagines that it might not have even felt it through its Light Screen. Once there are three beams hitting it simultaneously, however, lightning flashes down around it, and its cry once again echoes over the city in a thunderclap.

Karen wonders how many of the cryogonal just died, but a moment later more beams hit the legendary pokemon again, and finally the glowing bird turns to face them head on.

Karen sees the light around the bird flare, and banks Orochi into a steep turn just as a twitching ball of lightning flies out at them. The Zap Cannon is far slower than an actual bolt from the sky, but wherever it goes, arcs of electricity snap out from it to the buildings below, the rain evaporating into a hazy mist behind it.

Orochi manages to get out of its flight path in time to avoid being struck by it, and Karen turns to watch the glowing orb fly out over the coastline and out past the edge of the storm, where it quickly loses coherence. Orochi’s left head roars at Zapdos in defiance, and she quickly smacks its neck to get it to stop before looking over the city, and feeling a ball of ice in her stomach.

Roughly a dozen buildings in the path of that attack are on fire. Their lightning rods were overloaded.

She turns back to the Thunder God. There are more beams of icy light hitting it from the front, keeping it turned toward the ocean as it starts calling lightning down on its assailants again. They need to get it out of the city as quickly as possible.

She realizes with a start that Zapdos is closing the gap between them rapidly, now, and sees Giovanni abruptly loop and turn his pokemon toward the coast. She quickly follows suit, and they lead the legend across the city, racing to stay just out of its range.

Karen trusts her pokemon to keep them from hitting anything and turns to watch the battle as best she can as the rain pelts her face. There aren’t any new attacks hitting Zapdos, however, and she can’t make out Lorelei at this distance. The only reason the Thunder God is so visible is how bright it is.

Karen feels a chill go down her spine. The engagement has barely lasted a minute, and Zapdos is still a long way from the coast. Is Lorelei out of the fight already? She carefully drifts Orochi closer to Giovanni’s flygon. “I don’t see any more Ice Beams!” she yells.

“Maintain course! I will engage if it starts to deviate!” Giovanni calls back. “Be prepared to pick up if it does again after me!”

“Right!” Karen clenches her jaw against the impatience swirling in her. Lorelei knows better than to personally get in range of an attack, but determining the range of an enemy that can call lightning down in a thunderstorm is difficult, to say the least. There’s no truly safe way for a prolonged fight against legendary pokemon, who seem to shrug off all but the most powerful or effective attacks…

And their response when truly challenged, is always to retaliate with overwhelming force.

Lightning crackles through the clouds and pours into the tallest buildings, blinding Karen and probably anyone who’s outside, for a moment.

The thunder hits a split second later from everywhere at once, a grinding roar of noise that seems to practically vibrate the air around her. She blinks spots out of her eyes as her ears ring, and feels Orochi vibrate under her as all three heads roar in pain this time, the sound muffled.

She notices her dazed pokemon is drifting aimlessly to the side, and taps a command against his neck to get him to turn and speed up again. When she thinks to look behind her, she sees Zapdos is no longer facing them.

Before she can panic, a burst of light speeds toward the legendary’s glowing figure, and starts splitting into multiple sparks, each leaving a glowing trail behind them.

Most of the barrage misses Zapdos, but some hit, and its screech is a distant scrape against her throbbing ears. It turns back toward the coast, chasing Giovanni now, whose pokemon doesn’t bother attacking again and merely goes for pure speed as lightning blasts it.

Immune to electricity as flygon is, the heat from bolts of lightning is not so easy to ignore, and Karen knows that Giovanni’s suit can’t take many hits like that. The Gym Leader manages to outpace the Thunder God for a brief time, hopefully letting the wind and rain cool him off, but Zapdos is locked on and focused, and another Zap Cannon suddenly launches out.

Karen is far enough to the side to avoid the sphere of lightning without drastic action, but the others from Giovanni’s gym have to scatter. Zapdos keeps trying to turn after one of them, and Karen realizes they’re buying their Gym Leader time, each trading off to be the one chased while keeping Zapdos aimed unerringly toward the docks.

She’s not sure how this qualifies as an “emergency situation,” but it’s clear Giovanni’s people were prepared to do this at the first opportunity and help their Leader escape danger by taking some hits themselves. But with their pokemon and suits, they should be okay…

…and soon enough the ground below Karen gives way to docks, which give way to water. The squadron of flygon disperse rather than float over the sea, and Zapdos seems to be choosing which of them it wants to chase.

Now, finally, it’s her chance. “Come on, Orochi,” she mutters. “Let’s show them all what we can do.”

She taps out a command to the two side necks, then another to the middle one, hands adjusting along his neck to steer as he banks toward Zapdos while flying south-southwest as two of his heads curve back behind it and emit a pair of dark purple beams.

Karen watches the energy splash against Zapdos’s glowing form, and from this distance the speed at which it turns toward them is startling. “Go!” she yells with a surge of adrenaline even as her hands grip in the actual command, and her pokemon’s wings sweep all at once and jet them forward.

Lightning blinds Karen as they soar out over the bay, and Orochi cries out in pain, but doesn’t stop moving. She blinks away the spots and taps out a different command, and the next attack to come from her pokemon’s mouths is a pulse of darkness so complete that even Zapdos’s glowing form is obscured by it, for a moment, and the world returns to pitch black again.

She dips Orochi down in that brief darkness, then turns and darts back the way she came.

Then the legendary’s glowing form is revealed again, like the first sun being born in an endless void, and it screeches in rage… but in front of Karen, this time, rather than behind her.

Gods still need to see. Karen grins and flies behind the stormbringer, letting Orochi rest as Zapdos flies ahead.

Minutes pass in the harsh winds and soaking rain, and Zapdos flies over the water like a shooting star. Karen stays alert for any sign that the legendary is turning, but it’s hard to tell without the city to navigate by anymore: there’s nothing but water all around them. She watches the lightning bird as best she can through its blinding aura, and can just make out the dark patch in the back of its glowing form. All the while, the Pressure batters at her mind, making her itch to do more. She ignores it, for now. Part of mastering her fears, proving she’s stronger, is being able to resist it when necessary. She has a job to do first, and once it’s done… the fear of failure will be gone, and all that will be left is the invigorating fear of death.

Zapdos is flying farther and farther ahead, and she realizes Orochi has been getting tired, which is bad for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that they’re effectively in the middle of the ocean. She takes some ether out of her bag and taps its necks one at a time so they can bend around and open wide for her to point the nozzle into each mouth and spray. Ether’s effects on the body would work no matter which mouth Orochi ingests it with, but for the mental effects…

Her pokemon dutifully speeds up, and she finishes the bottle off by pointing the nozzle between the bars of her mask and spraying the last squeeze of ether into her own mouth before she can stop herself.

It’s like swallowing rubbing alcohol and coffee while a bolt of clarity lights her brain up from the inside. She feels more wired and alert than she can ever remember, and drops the empty bottle into the ocean as she leans over Orochi’s neck, body vibrating with energy as she grins even as worry rises up in her. Dangerous, taking ether, lots of side effects, but side effects don’t matter if you’re dead.

Time loses all meaning as she flies behind the storm god. She keeps her eyes away from it as much as she can, worried about damage to her eyes and hoping Orochi will be okay, and eventually the endless expanse of water below stops, and she realizes they’ve reached the mouth of Kanto’s massive bay.

She did it. She brought it all the way out to sea… assuming she can turn it in the right direction, at least. If it hadn’t drifted since they left Vermilion behind then Cycling Road would be directly ahead and on either side of them, but instead the enormously long and poorly named bridge is a distant string of lights to Karen’s right, and to her left… yes, there’s Fuchsia City in the distance.

She has to turn it hard west, now, to minimize the storm’s effects on nearby towns and pokemon populations, then south to minimize its chances of flying to Cinnabar.

Or… she can take it by surprise… fly up to it, get within capture range… throw an ultra ball…

Karen almost stops breathing as she pictures it. The first trainer in history to catch a Legendary pokemon… to have the god of lightning on her belt… it would prove her greatness to everyone, once and for all… she just needs… to fly a little closer…

Karen carefully pulls an ultra ball from the pouch on her saddle. The ball is slippery in her gloved hand, and she feels herself sweating in the thick suit. Zapdos is harder to look at the closer she gets, and she starts to feel warmth, then heat. How is it not cooking itself? She suddenly has doubts that even an ultra ball would even make it through that constant electric aura, but she has to try… She pushes Orochi a little harder, trying to get just a little closer…

It’s the buzzing in the air that she feels which snaps her out of it, the way Orochi vibrates and squirms in pain. She quickly has him back off. What was she thinking? Effective range of an ultra ball in these conditions would be maybe three meters, and they’re flying at speeds that would make any throw almost impossible.

Been in the Pressure too long… By the Guardians, how long have they been flying?

The land is too close, now, she has to turn Zapdos before he flies over it. She carefully commands Orochi to turn to the right and fly faster. Karen tries to judge the right distance, making sure they’re not too close while being at the right angle… then has Orochi’s left head fires a Dragon Pulse.

Zapdos is hit, but as the energies clash around it the Thunder God barely seems to notice or care. She has Orochi fire again and again, but her pokemon seems too tired to hit it with much power.

She quickly sprays more ether into its mouths as they start to pass over land, hands fumbling with the bottle in her haste. She’s fucking it up, she should have turned him earlier, should have paid attention…

Draco Meteor, she taps out, and her pokemon’s three heads each pour glowing orange death out at the glowing god, hoping no one is below them to get hit by the attacks.

Zapdos finally seems to notice them, and she quickly wrenches Orochi around to the right to lead it back on a chase. Electricity crackles through the storm clouds around them, but no lightning hits her and her dragon, and soon they’ve left the narrow strip of land, as well as the even narrower bridge, behind.

Now. She has Orochi turn slowly southward, and uses Dark Pulse again to distract Zapdos a couple times when it cuts through the inside of the curve to get closer to her. It fires another lightning ball back, and this time they’re too close to avoid it: electricity plays over her suit and Orochi’s body as the ball sails past, and she feels a surge of sympathy for Orochi as he endures the electricity and just keeps flying, a single bellow his only concession to the pain.

That, and he’s going slower. A lot slower.

Karen quickly orders another Dark Pulse, then opens the pouch at her side and grabs a syringe full of potion out of it, then another for electric injuries as Zapdos’s blinding light is temporarily obscured. She searches as best she can with her thick gloves for the soft spot between the scales in Orochi’s shoulder and injects both healing liquids into his bloodstream one after the other.

Orochi puts on more speed just as the Thunder God re-emerges, screeching in anger, but it’s too late to attack them again, and soon they’re leading it south… and then, exhausted though she and Orochi are, south-east. There are no islands in this direction. If she can take Zapdos as far out in this direction as possible, its odds of harming anyone else would be effectively zero.

Some part of her is aware that this is the Pressure pushing her to do more than she needs to, to rise above expectations and stand out. She ignores that part of her. She’s saving lives, by doing this. She can keep going. She has to prove that she can. And then… all this fear and struggle… will have been that much more worth it… what’s another hour of flying, after those she went through already? Will she even remember it as being any worse?

Still, no reason not to be smart about this.

Karen orders another Dark Pulse, and prepares to dive down and loop behind it again. The wave of pitch black spreads out behind her…

…and Zapdos dives under it, screeching in anger and firing another Zap Cannon at them.

The light engulfs her, and she can smell ozone and burning canvas as her pokemon screams in pain… then starts to fall.

Karen desperately blinks spots out of her eyes as the stormy ocean rushes up at them, hands fumbling for the medicine pouches along her saddle as her suit burns around her. The last thing she hears before they hit the angry waves is the Thunder God’s cry of victory.

Chapter 62: Trust

It’s worse than she imagined it would be.

There’s the storm itself, first and foremost. The world strobes between dark and light as constant, varying, often overlapping booms and rumbles of thunder pound at her ears. Powerful gusts of winds whip at her hair and clothes. Basic communication is difficult, and even keeping track of where they are quickly becomes an issue as the street signs are hard to make out, assuming they’re still even standing. The rain is still fairly light, but it reduces visibility even further, and gives cold teeth to the wind.

But the storm alone would be bearable. What’s made Vermilion into a waking nightmare are the pokemon.

“Tony,” Red shouts soon after they leave the building. “I’m using psychic senses to see if there are pokemon around so we can avoid them! I need you and Leaf to keep an eye out for any Dark pokemon, okay?”

“Me?” the man yells, like there’s anyone else around. “But I can barely see anything!”

“Neither can I!” Leaf shouts out, irritated at him and knowing she shouldn’t be. “But we still need your help! Watch the sides, and I’ll keep looking behind us!”

“Sides! Okay!” He turns his head rapidly left and right as they walk as Leaf brings up the rear and constantly looks behind her to make sure they aren’t being followed. Her hair is mostly restrained by her bike helmet, but wet strands of it keep getting blown loose to poke at her eyes. She considers putting her goggles on, but the rain would quickly make them useless.

Raff and Scamp walk beside her, their bodies occasionally twitching and shivering in ways that have nothing to do with the rain and wind. She feels guilty for subjecting them to this, but if they can help her save other pokemon… and people… She doesn’t need them for that though, does she? She saved her new nidorino by putting herself at risk, and Red’s pikachu…

No, that’s the Pressure, I got lucky to save Nidorino with only light burns, if it had turned toward me… She knows better than that, he wouldn’t have died if it got burned a little before she captured it, it’s sad to think of it getting more hurt but it could have been healed if that happened. She knew the stormbringer’s aura would make it hard to fight, would be distracting, but this is more than that. It’s not just that guilt is adjusting the priority of her values, it’s so overpowering it makes her stupid in the pursuit of themshe can’t actually save more pokemon if she gets herself killed trying, and she needs to keep that in mind, even when the feeling is hard to think through. Especially then.

So resolved, she walks about another minute before she sees the first one.

It’s a ponyta, lying dead in the street not a block away from the clothing store. There’s no question it’s dead: something has cut it so deep in front of its forelegs that it looks nearly chopped in half. Its mane no longer glows, orange hair lying limp and darkened by the rain that spreads and dilutes the pool of blood it’s laying in. The whole tableau is at the edge of one of the few remaining street lights, visible even between the lightning strikes.

The sight of it cracks something in Leaf’s heart. She steps toward it before she can help herself, hand fumbling for a potion and revive capsule, it looks dead but it might not be, she has to capture it at least and check, she has to do something to save it, save it, I have to save it…

“Leaf!”

She turns to see Red and Tony, staring back at her from the end of the sidewalk. She’s surprised for a moment that he even noticed she’d stopped, but of course his powers would tell him.

Leaf looks back at the ponyta. His powers would be able to tell if it was alive. Red wouldn’t have just ignored it if it were alive.

Would he?

No. No, Red’s a good person, he has trauma about pokemon but he wouldn’t just let it die. Even if that’s not true, at the very least he’d capture it for his own sake. If he’s ignoring it it’s because it’s dead.

Leaf closes her eyes. Takes a deep breath. Forces her feet to keep moving.

Red calls out a warning for some pokemon that seem to be fighting up ahead, and they take a detour… where they encounter a doduo lying in the middle of the street, both necks bent at unnatural angles to twist to either side of its round feathery body. There’s another after that, the burnt body of something small, maybe a nidoran or a rattata. And when they turn back toward the hospital, she spots a pidgey that flew into a building and broke its neck.

She can’t tell when she starts to cry, the rain disguising her tears even from herself.

Keep going, just keep going, there’s nothing you can do for them, just keep moving…

But even while she follows her own advice, part of her hates herself for not even checking to make sure the pokemon are really dead. For not doing enough to save them. Isn’t that why she became a trainer? To help people and pokemon? Isn’t that how she justifies capturing them in the first place?

No, she can’t blame herself for this. The real blame lies in the stormgod. Zapdos.

The hate that fills her is alien, burning her chest as she wipes at her face. She’d never hated anything so much in her life, let alone a pokemon. How many times had she sagely repeated, “No sense getting mad at a minccino for being a minccino” to herself, a reminder that all creatures follow their nature, and can’t be blamed for being what they are?

But this… the sheer destruction, the madness and pain and death that sweeps all it touches and drives them into madness and pain and death, it’s as close to real “evil” as anything a pokemon does that she can think of. Maybe it makes as much sense as calling a regular storm evil…

But you can’t kill a storm.

She drives the thought away, horrified by it, but also resigned. Can’t kill a god, either.

Not yet.

She turns to Red every so often to see how he’s managing. She knows that before the voyage using his powers like this would quickly be overwhelming, and from what she felt of them earlier he’s pretty close to his limit already. But… he seems mostly fine. Maybe his “psydar” really is just that much less costly to use. What impresses her more is that he even manages to concentrate on it through not just the distractions of the storm, but whatever the Pressure is making him feel, which she’s pretty sure is fear.

Until they see their first humans.

Leaf nearly walks into Tony, who has stopped because he nearly walked into Red. They all stare when they see what he’s looking at. It’s a pair, one adult and one child. They’re lying on the pavement trampled and torn up and just as clearly dead as the ponyta had been, but Red still stares and doesn’t move as the rain pours down and the wind blows his hair beneath his helmet.

Leaf swallows down the sob that’s rising in her at the sight. It’s her turn. She walks over to Red and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Red…” She doesn’t know what to say, other than the obvious. “We have to go!”

He looks at her, face twisting in grief and fear, but then he takes her hand. His skin is warm, and she realizes that hers are just freezing from the wind and rain. “There are people,” he says. “In the buildings we’re passing.”

She understands. Shouldn’t they be checking on them? What if they end up like these two? “No pokemon with them?” He shakes his head. “Then they’re probably safer inside,” she says, hoping it’s true.

Red closes his eyes, breathes deep, nods, and keeps moving. Leaf watches him for a moment, waiting for Tony to move past her. She remembers what it felt like, inside, and feels a surge of care for him. He’s trying so hard to do what’s right, even when he doesn’t know.

He always tries so hard…

She feels a sudden warmth toward him, and on its tail comes the flash of feeling she’d sensed when their thoughts were joined. The regard he has for her.

She didn’t know how to respond to that, at the time, and doesn’t now. But she wishes she’d reacted to it at all, instead of ignoring it and just hammering him about his views on pokemon until he left. She’d felt bad about that, been tempted to chase him, but she was still struggling too much against what she had felt in his thoughts, was worried she would make things worse.

Now her guilt over that seems to grow and grow. They could die here, either or both of them, and she’d been so unfair to him on the cruise… he tried so hard to understand her and let her understand him… she’s a horrible friend, she’s not used to having them for so long, of course she’d screw it up eventually…

It’s the shift that makes her notice it. The way her attention stops automatically drifting toward the guilt of not helping pokemon enough, to guilt over how she’s not a good enough friend. The severe switch, from constantly checking their pokemon to ensure they’re holding up okay to constantly checking Red to make sure he is, is enough to make her frown at herself. It feels wrong, and—

—and it’s distracting her from looking for Dark pokemon! She looks around, wildly at first, then lets out a breath, her guilt at being a bad friend surging up again before she shifts her attention away. That’s what she has to do, the Pressure somehow changed what it was affecting, but the solution is the same, just keep her thoughts on what’s important…

They walk through the storm and see more bodies, pokemon and human. At one point there’s another huge ongoing rumble that wasn’t thunder, and Leaf feels the ground tremble. She wonders if another building fell, or if there’s some pokemon beneath them causing quakes. How far down does the Pressure go? The idea of a rampaging onix beneath the city is terrifying, not just for its potential surfacing, but for the infrastructure damage it might cause. Vermilion is a coastal city though, the water table must be near the surface… And rising with the rain.

A chill that has nothing to do with the storm suddenly goes through her. If the water table rises enough to force the underground pokemon up, or those in the sewers…

“Pokemon in one of the buildings to our left,” Red shouts over the wind and thunder, snapping her out of her dark thoughts. They’re passing by a building with its door smashed in. “Keep an eye on it! Don’t sense any humans inside!”

“Is the pokemon hurt?” Leaf shouts back.

“Can’t tell! Just getting instant impressions!”

Worry goes through her as she remembers the bird pokemon bleeding from the broken glass inside them. “Red, we have to check!”

“What? Why?!” Tony yells.

“Leaf, it’s rampaging in there,” Red says, ignoring the man to look at her. “I can sense it moving around, fast! It’s not worth the risk!”

“If there was a human in there, you’d risk facing it to save them!” She stares into his eyes, willing him to understand. “Because you’re a good person! I have to be willing to risk facing it to save it too! It’s just as much a victim of Zapdos as the people here!”

Red stares back at her, then curses. “Do you have a plan?”

She nods and heads for the building, hand going to her pocket to pull out ear plugs. Joy’s voice would be mostly useless in the pouring rain, howling wind, and constant thunder, but hopefully inside… “You stay out here! Watch for the next wave!” She turns to her pokemon and points to the ground. “Guard!”

“Wait!” Tony shouts. “We might as well get out of the rain!”

“Too dangerous! I’m going to be using an area of effect attack!”

“A what?”

Leaf shakes her head and goes inside before he can argue. The man is turning out to be more of a hassle than she’d imagined, and she wishes he’d just stayed behind.

Leaf steps carefully through the broken door of the restaurant and summons Joy, the sound of the storm twice as muffled now that she’s mostly inside. It’s nice to be out of the cold, and she takes a moment to rest from the wind and rain as she looks around. A line of chaos extends from the doorway past the tables, upending them and the chairs, and her eyes jump to the claw marks on the floor, the gnaw marks on the chair legs. She takes a moment to study them, knowing she needs to hurry but not wanting to rush into anything. Raticate. Got to be. The sound of something crashing around inside the house makes Leaf start moving faster, worried the pokemon will hurt itself, if it hasn’t already.

She finds a door with its bottom half chewed open, and turns the handle to open the kitchen. It’s been torn apart, food scattered everywhere. The raticate is still there, digging through a cabinet. It turns a food stained mouth toward them as Leaf closes the door, then races straight for Joy, huge teeth open.

“Sing!” Leaf yells from behind her pokemon, and the wigglytuff’s voice fills the room, muffled and warped through her earplugs. The raticate stumbles, then falls limp and rolls to a stop. Leaf’s heart is in her throat as she watches it a moment while she pulls a pokeball free, then aims, locks, throws.

The ball absorbs it, then falls and rolls to a stop. She steps quickly over to pick it up, then withdraws Joy and takes her earplugs out as she makes her way back toward the front and out the building, wincing as the storm hits her again.

Red and Tony are watching both ends of the street, but Red turns to her with clear relief when she comes out. Tony just looks stressed and scared and impatient.

“Okay?” Red asks, voice raised over the rain.

“Yes! Thank you!”

They set off again, and Leaf feels better about things for a while, knowing that she took time to save a pokemon that might have gotten hurt or hurt someone else. She watches for Dark pokemon as best she can as they move from one block to another, trying not to focus on the bodies they see, human and pokemon alike, as Red continues to help them avoid pokemon wandering around the city.

But little by little she feels the Pressure erode at her thoughts again, start to bend them. It’s been a while since Red called out anything. Are there pokemon around them that he’s ignoring, now, to make better time?

No, she shouldn’t think that way… gods, why is she so suspicious of him, she’s such a terrible friend…

…but he wouldn’t be lying or anything, he’d just be… staying quiet. And she’s been in his head. She knows how easy it would be, to make that calculation, to not put him (or her, especially her) at risk just to save a pokemon.

And now Leaf worries they’re passing a dozen pokemon who are bleeding and broken just out of sight, and she’s just walking by them and not doing anything because she doesn’t want to make things awkward

“Stop!” she yells.

Tony lets out a small scream and looks wildly around, hunkering down, but Red just scans their surroundings for whatever Dark pokemon she might have seen, then turns curiously to her, hand going up to shield his face from the rain as it shifts to blow into his face.

Leaf walks up to him, turning him away from the wind. “Red…” How is she going to put this? She needs to get rid of these thoughts, to make it clear to herself that they’re not worth worrying about. “I want you to know, I trust you!”

Red stares at her, rain trailing down his face. “I… I trust you too, Leaf!”

“I know you care about me!” she continues, cheeks burning against the cold. “And I know how hard you try to do what’s right! I trust you to tell me if there are pokemon around us who I could save! So I’m not going to let the Pressure distract me with those thoughts! I need you to know that, that I’m sorry for what I said before, and that I trust you! Completely!”

Red keeps staring at her, and thunder crashes overhead, making them all flinch. “Are you two seriously doing this now?” Tony asks. “Here?”

“Shut up!” Leaf snaps at him, then turns back to Red, willing him to understand, to get it…

His face is a stew of emotions that are hard to read in the inconsistent light, and she’s aware of how close they are. She wonders if she should step back, but then his hands are on hers.

“Leaf… I swear to you, I’ll let you know if there’s a pokemon still alive around us! I… care about you, and I trust you too!”

Relief, overwhelming and cleansing. She doesn’t know if he understood, she can’t know if he really will or not, but he still said what she needed to hear.

Leaf realizes suddenly how easy it is to trust someone, when you know everything about them. When you know that they’re going to act a certain way, you trust them to act that way. But that’s not the deepest form of trust. Real trust requires uncertainty. It requires situations where the person might make choices that you’ll never know, might even make choices that appear to be wrong, but which you’ll accept anyway because you trust that they had a good reason.

She has to trust him as a choice, rather than wait for certainty. Or the Pressure would eat her up inside.

Leaf smiles briefly, and lets him go. His hands leave hers a moment later. “Okay! Let’s go!”

Red nods, gaze lingering on her face, and then he turns and starts to walk again. Leaf takes up the rear again, watching their surroundings, her thoughts still bending toward worry of being a bad trainer, or bad friend, before she forcibly remembers what Red told her, his words to remember her trust in him, and his for her.

A block later he stops to let her know there’s a pokemon a street down that’s staying still, and they detour to find a doduo sprawled on the ground with a broken leg. Next to it is a rattata that was clearly pecked to death, and is still being pecked, one head and then the other diving down into its body. Leaf feels her gorge rise and has to turn away, eyes closed and mouth open to let the rain wash the bile from her mouth, and when she turns back Red has already captured it, and she gratefully follows him back to their original route so they can move on.

When Red next stops them, it’s because he senses pokemon in one of the nearby apartment buildings. They walk around it until they find the side with broken glass all over the street, and Leaf has to fight down sudden nausea. The apartment building is twelve stories high, tall enough that it got hit by the wave of flying pokemon, and the ground is littered with dead birds and bugs who crashed into windows. She assumes they’re all dead, anyway, because Red is ignoring them as he triangulates by moving from side to side.

“This is one!” he says, pointing up to a broken window on the fourth floor. Leaf averts her gaze from the ground and counts windows until she knows which apartment the pokemon is in.

“One?”

“Yeah! Two more!” He quickly points them out, on the seventh and ninth floors. There are other broken windows too, but Red says no pokemon are in those. Maybe they flew away after. Or maybe they died from their injuries.

Leaf pushes the thought away as they make their way to the lobby, finally getting out of the wind and rain. Leaf lets her pokemon shake themselves dry, and withdraws them to reduce their Pressure exposure.

Red does the same, then wipes his wet hair from his face. “I’m going to check on the people here, see if they’re okay or want to come with us. Maybe one will be okay with Tony staying with them.”

“Hey,” Tony says. “This is no shelter. What if more pokemon get in?”

Red regards the man with some expression Leaf can’t read. “You can keep traveling with us, but I thought you were getting irritated at our detours? We’re rolling the dice each time we stop, and we’re going to keep doing that.”

Tony shifts his weight. “Right. Well, this place does seem solid enough.”

“Good.” He turns to Leaf. “Will you be okay on your own?”

She nods. “Go make sure the people are okay. I’ve got this.”

Leaf goes to the third floor, counting doors until she reaches the one the first pokemon was in. She presses her ear against the wood, but doesn’t hear anything but the storm outside. When she tests the handle, she finds it locked, and feels a sudden hesitation. It feels wrong to break the person’s door… but there are only two outcomes here. Either the pokemon dies in there from whatever injury it sustained going through the window (unacceptable) or it survives and attacks the homeowner when they return after the storm. She has to do it.

Part of her knows there are other possibilities, that it might survive but be too injured to attack whoever lives here, or that it might leave through the window when the storm ends. But she has no way to calculate those risks, and she’s here and has to do something.

Leaf summons Joy into the hallway, but not for singing. It’s possible the sound of the storm through the window will interfere too much with her singing for it to be effective. Instead she summons Raff too, then points to the door handle and tells her wigglytuff, “Pound.”

The round pokemon inhales, muscles shifting beneath its soft pelt. Its forelimbs, normally the vague shape and consistency of marshmallow flippers, stretch and thicken, and it slams one into the doorknob like a coiled spring of flesh, hard enough to shatter the wood around it before the limb compresses back to its shorter form.

Leaf quickly shoves the door open and steps behind Joy in case something comes out, but there’s only an empty front hall. The sound of the storm is louder, and she raises her voice to say, “Raff, Scout, Subdue!”

Her ivysaur moves into the dark apartment, muscles tense, and within moments a shape leaps out of the shadows at him, the hallway light revealing it to be a noctowl. Raff immediately sends sleep powder out from between his fronds in response.

The noctowl bats a wing forward, blowing the powder back down the entry hall and slamming Raff against the wall with a sudden burst of wind. Leaf ducks behind Joy and holds her breath, and watches as her pokemon tilts back from the gust of wind, then rocks forward and falls onto its face, body relaxing back into softness as Joy bounces gently, fast asleep.

Instead of following up on the attack, the noctowl hits the ground on its side and scrambles to get back up. One of its wings is broken and bleeding. Leaf rushes forward, ball in hand, gets the ping, and throws. The noctowl prepares to flap again, but is sucked into the ball before it can.

Leaf lets out her pent up breath as she half-collapses against a couch. That was close. She’d almost fallen prey to her own sleep powder, all because she was in such a rush to save the pokemon she didn’t put her air mask on despite being about to use spores. Though it’s not as distracting as before, the Pressure is clearly still affecting her decisions.

She checks Raff to make sure he’s okay, then withdraws him and wakes Joy before pulling her back into her ball too. Then she puts her new Noctowl into her bag, since both her belts are full, now, and after a moment’s thought puts the raticate she caught in her bag too so there’s a spot empty on her belts.

It’s getting kind of full. She’ll have to start tossing things soon if she catches more pokemon.

Leaf puts her air mask on now, then goes to check the next apartment she’d marked, going up another three flights of stairs, then counts the doors to find the right apartment. This one has its lights on, and Leaf watches with tensed muscles as Raff cautiously walks into a living room that looks like it’s been thoroughly trashed, a trail of blood on the carpet. After walking past the corner of the hallway, he ejects sleep powder at something out of sight.

Leaf twitches, a command on her lips, but nothing happens. Raff is focused on whatever he sprayed, alert and ready, but… not like he’s expecting combat.

Leaf hurries past Joy and enters the living room to see a bloody fearow, covered in deep stab wounds and lying still in a small crimson pool. Raff’s thin coating of sleep spores covers it… and the large kitchen knife in its chest.

Leaf almost raises a pokeball to capture it anyway, just in case, but just stares in grief and self-recrimination… and confusion. Her mind is interpreting what she’s seeing in a certain way that doesn’t make sense, and she knows it doesn’t make sense. There’s no way it flew into the kitchen and impaled itself on multiple knives, only one of which stuck in it. And if the other wounds are all from glass… then where’s the glass? She hears the outside storm, but not through any broken windows here: from behind her.

She turns to see the erratic trail of blood and claw marks and feathers leading to one of the bedrooms. Her heart is pounding for some reason, feet moving automatically to follow it… turns into a brightly painted room… sees…

…her knees give out, eyes shut, but still seeing…

…the crib, bloody…

…the woman, covered in deep gouges and scratches…

…the storm roaring outside the broken window, drowning out her groan of grief and defeat.

For the second time tonight, Leaf’s stomach heaves out its contents, her hand scrambling at her facemask to push it up in time, which only brings the smell to her. This time she empties herself before she’s able to crawl back, push herself up, get out and away. She doesn’t stop until she’s out in the hallway again, shaking and crying as she slides back to the floor, head in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she tells them, voice hoarse as tears start to fall. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

The storm rages outside, the smell of blood and worse contending with it. Leaf usually loves the smell of rain, the faint scent of ozone before, the clean minerally smell during, and the wet earthy smells that comes after.

But this storm’s ozone is sharp enough to burn her nostrils, and its rain carries with it the smell of dirty asphalt and oppressive dampness. The engine of destruction that Zapdos weaves around itself is one of nothing but pain and misery and death.

Raff eventually walks over to her and nuzzles his head against her side. She wraps her arms around his neck, carefully pressing her cheek to his leathery forehead as one hand brushes his frond.

What finally gets her up is the thought that Red didn’t sense people in this apartment. They’d already been dead when they arrived… but the fearow had been alive. It had finished bleeding out while she was making her way upstairs or catching the noctowl. Leaf would have only been too late by a few minutes at most, and there’s one more pokemon still in the building. It might be dying as she just sits here and wallows.

Leaf pats Raff and pushes herself up, then withdraws her pokemon and makes her way out of the apartment, feeling numb. As she does so she wonders if anyone else lives here, would come home to find… this. Her stomach clenches, making her put a hand on the wall, but there’s nothing left to come up, and after a moment she starts walking again.

By the time she reaches the stairs she’s moving quickly again, intent on saving the last pokemon if she can. When she reaches the apartment on the seventh floor, she stops herself. She has to think, to make sure she’s not rushing or forgetting something because of the Pressure and what just happened…

She turns from that memory, and busies herself summoning Raff and Joy again before she puts her face mask on and reviews her strategy. Joy smashes the lock, she opens the door, Raff goes in to subdue… Still seems like her best plan. She wishes she had pokemon more effective against Flying types… but no, they’d all hurt them far too much… Raff is safest, even if he’s at risk…

She bites her lower lip, remembering the way the noctowl blew his spores away. If it hadn’t been injured, he may have gotten seriously hurt. Why is she putting him at so much risk just for wild pokemon?

What, so I’m going to value his life over the pokemon’s just because he’s mine? I’m just like everyone else if I do that.

Shame burns in her chest, and she orders Joy to smash the lock, then leans around her and opens the door. “Raff, Scout, Subdue,” she calls out over the heightened sound of the storm.

The ivysaur goes in once again, and like last time reaches the living room before spraying sleep powder at something. Leaf hurries inside and sees a pidgey lying on the ground. Leaf’s heart sinks, thinking she may have been too late again: it didn’t try to fight back at all, and it looks pretty battered, like it bounced around the walls and ceiling in here after crashing through the glass.

She quickly captures it anyway, then goes to turn on a light so she can find the ball more easily when it rolls away. As soon as she flips the switch up, the buzzing of wings behind Leaf makes her turn to see something red and blue and yellow streaking toward her.

It hits her backpack, the shock of the blow absorbed enough that it only sends her sprawling into the wall. She just barely manages to avoid braining herself against the wall by slapping her arms against it, and quickly turns to see Raff and Joy attacking the ledian that hit her. It dodges Joy’s leap and Raff’s sharp leaves, and the buzz of its wings suddenly grows overbearingly loud. Leaf flinches back, hands clapping over her ears as it feels like her ear canals are being invaded by sharp stabbing worms.

The contending noise of the storm combined with her earplugs manages to keep it from being too harmful, but it also keeps Leaf from being able to shout out commands to her pokemon, who are struggling against the attack. The ledian is too fast for her to get a lock on it, and Crimson’s mobility would be more hampered by the small room,but there’s one pokemon she has that may be able to catch it.

A sudden burst of guilt stays her hand as she grabs her beedrill’s pokeball. It might kill the ledian, she can’t…

The red bug rockets into Joy’s face, and her pokemon cries out in pain as blood starts to spread over her downy fur.

Joy!” Leaf stares in horror as she sees one of the wigglytuff’s big, beautiful eyes is ruined, and then she’s withdrawing her pokemon before its keening noises of pain can rend at her heart any more. The ledian dives at Leaf again, but dodges out of the way as Raff’s vines swing at it.

“Go, Beedrill!” Leaf yells, fury and pain pulsing through her as her pokemon materializes. “Twin Needle!”

The ledian zips around the small room, but Beedrill cuts the corner as a a burst of wind cuts one of Beedrill’s wings and spins it around. As it falls, however, one long, sharp claw stabs at the ledian and pins it to the wall, dragging it down as Leaf’s pokemon falls to the carpet.

Oh shit oh shit it’s going to die “Back!” Leaf calls out, but her pokemon doesn’t listen, still stabbing at the Ledian, and Leaf stares in useless horror for the space of a panicked breath before she remembers Raff and yells “Sleep Powder!”

The blue spores spread over the two bugs, and their frenzied movements slow, then stop. Leaf is already moving forward to pull Beedrill’s arm out of the ledian’s chest, pokeball ready in the other hand to capture it. It pings, and she tosses it in a careful underhand to make sure her shaking hand doesn’t miss.

Once it’s caught, she collapses back into the couch behind her, breathing hard and fogging her face mask. She feels wrung out, emotions still rising up and crashing against each other, bursting all over her insides like splashes of paint.

Joy. How bad was her wound? Too serious for a potion, probably, but… maybe the pokemon centers could heal it… it was hard to see how badly damaged the eye was, there was so much blood…

Leaf feels light headed for a moment, and abruptly sits up, worried she breathed in some sleep powder accidentally. But no, she’s not sleepy. Oh good. Just shock.

Her hands are still trembling as she returns her sleeping beedrill, then Raff. She stands, then abruptly sits back down, knees weak. Maybe she’ll just… sit here a moment. And heal her pokemon. Yeah.

The storm blows the occasional mist of rain through the window and onto her face as she brings Beedrill back out and sprays his wing, then uses an awakening potion on him. Once he’s buzzing back to consciousness, she withdraws him, then brings Raff out and checks him over for injuries. Seeing none, she sprays potion into his ears for the ledian’s attack, which makes him shake his head and raise a forepaw to rub at them. She smiles and pets his head, then looks out into the blackness of the storm as lightning flashes and thunder roars.

She wonders how the others are doing, out there. She wishes she never came to this place, and feels ashamed of her cowardice before she dismisses that as just another Pressure induced feeling. Whether it’s true or not, it’s easier to act brave if she thinks it is. She can make time for regret later, if she needs to.

Leaf collects the ledian and pidgey’s balls, then goes back to the lobby. She expects Red or Tony to be there, but it’s empty. She goes to the bathroom to wash her mouth out, shuddering as the memory returns. When she enters the lobby again, Red and Tony still aren’t around.

She hears something outside.

Leaf turns toward the front door, wary. What now…

It comes again, the cry of some pokemon. Leaf feels apprehension trickle down her spine, and quickly goes back to the stairs, gaze staying on the front doors as best she can.

She rushes up the stairs, pokes her head out into the hall of apartments and yells, “Red!” She doesn’t see him, and goes to the next floor, doing the same thing, then the next. She’s about to run up to the fifth when she notices a door that’s slightly open.

It’s the door to the apartment where she caught the noctowl.

She’s sure she closed it. Maybe the wind blew it open… she did break the lock, after all… but no, the door handle was intact.

Leaf walks to the apartment, frowning. When she pushes the door open to look inside, she sees Tony standing in the trashed living room and quickly covering a container box, which he then withdraws into its ball.

“What are you doing, Tony?” Leaf asks, voice barely audible over the storm. She has a brief but powerful flash back to Mt. Moon, and rage quickly joins her incredulity.

“Nothing.” Tony doesn’t look at her, and starts walking toward the door. She moves automatically to stand in his way.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Nothing? That’s all you have to say?” Leaf glares up at him, anger burning through her chest as she thinks of the woman and child lying dead upstairs. “After we’ve been trying to keep you safe, you parasite, you utter p-”

Pain explodes through her face, and she’s knocked to the ground in a sprawl, her bag holding her up. She lies in a daze for a moment, listening to his feet pounding down the hallway as she tries to reorient herself. He’d just… Swords of Justice that hurt…

Her hand grabs for a potion, but then she stops and forces herself to her feet, still reeling from the blow as she chases the man downstairs just in time to hear Red shouting at him to stop.

Her friend is in the lobby, staring at the exit as Leaf tries to run past him, stopping as he grabs her arm. “Red, he’s a thief! We have to stop him, he was stealing from the apartments!” Every word sends new pain throbbing through her face, but she barely notices as she tugs at his hand.

Red gapes at her. “Are you… Leaf, your face! He hit you?”

Yes! Now let me go! We have to stop him!”

He unclips a potion from his bag and sprays the pulsing ache in her jaw. The pain quickly fades under the cool layer of liquid, but he still doesn’t let her go. “What are you going to do if you catch him?”

The question brings her up short. What would she do? Use her pokemon to incapacitate him? She’s not a police officer, he’s not an immediate threat and none would respond to a call like this… Shit, I should have taken his picture with my phone… Out in the storm it would be almost impossible. “I can’t just let him get away with stealing their things!” Especially since she’s the one who broke open their doors…

But no, that was worth it. Property damage and theft aren’t as important as saving lives. She feels shame welling up inside her again. Why is she even pushing this when there are still pokemon out there that need help?

“I know it sucks, Leaf, but you can’t go outside, there are pokemon moving around out there!”

Her frustration and shame are pushed aside by the infectious fear in his voice, and she looks at the darkness on the other side of the glass doors. “How many?”

“Not a lot, yet, but enough that I don’t think we should leave. I think another wave is arriving!”

Another wave. Dread fills her as she imagines all the pokemon out there who are going to wind up dead or are already dying as they stampede across the city together.

The urge fills her to stamp and scream, to curl up and cry. There are too many, she’s just one person, she can’t save them all, but she has to try—

Think through this, think! You can’t save them if you’re dead! She could have died already even while being careful, that ledian… “Red, before we came in, your power didn’t see any rooms with two pokemon in it, right?”

“No, none!”

“Then I think your psydar can’t see bug pokemon. I found a ledian in the highest apartment along with a pidgey it had beaten unconscious.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he unclips a ball. “Go, Spinarak!” His pokemon appears a moment later, and he closes his eyes. “…Shit, you’re right. Even expecting it, there’s barely any trace of a mind to be picked up. I have to concentrate to… Oh, shit! Leaf, there are bugs in this wave! Some are climbing the building!”

What?” Leaf thinks of the apartments whose doors she left open. “Are they breaking windows to get in, or just getting into the ones already open?”

“There are just two, and none are inside yet, but…!” Red rubs at his eyes, tears leaving tracks on his cheeks. “I can’t… Leaf we have to get out of here!” he suddenly screams, voice ragged. “We’re surrounded!

Leaf feels fear claw up her throat as he scrambles for his abra’s pokeball, imagination painting an image of pokemon converging on the building and crawling through all the windows in a living flood to slaughter the inhabitants like… like…

“Go, Bill!”

Red’s abra appears, and Leaf snaps out of the mental image of the dead woman and baby upstairs. Red’s going to teleport… he’s going to just leave, all those pokemon are hurting and he—

No, wait, he can’t, they’re inside still and there are no open windows, Red should know he can’t teleport in here, why is he…

Leaf notices her confusion a moment later, and grabs Red’s hand as he reaches for his abra. His eyes are too wide, his body shaking… Pressure.

He struggles against her, and without pausing to think she draws him into a hug, her arms keeping his against his body. He suddenly goes still. “It’s okay,” she whispers, eyes closed as she feels his heart beating madly against her chest. She has to help him, the way he helped her. “I’m with you. Breathe, Red.”

It’s like hugging a mannequin at first, but Red slowly thaws against her. She feels his muscles relax beneath his damp shirt, and his breath comes in a deep, staggered inhale before he lets it out in a rush. He does it again, and when she feels his hands grip the back of her shirt, she relaxes a little.

“Thanks,” he says, voice low. “I think… it’s getting worse.”

“I know.” She’s been feeling it more often and intensely too, despite her earlier protections. “Zapdos is getting closer.”

“Or the constant exposure and other stressors… Leaf, the people living here didn’t want to leave. Some were too terrified to even open the door! I tried to get them to go out into the halls, away from windows, maybe group together… most didn’t want to. I only convinced a few when I felt the pokemon arriving outside. If the bugs start getting in or roaming the halls…”

“It’s okay, Red, you made some of them easier to defend.” She tries to think of the best way to keep so many people in so many different places safe. “How many apartments have people still in them?”

“Um. Let me… seven,” he says, voice choked even as his breathing becomes more steady.

“Okay. And what’s the highest one?”

“The… the eighth floor.”

“How high did you get?”

“Sixth.”

“Okay. So we need to go make sure they’re all safe, right? Let’s go to the fifth floor so you can sense the ones above, and I’ll try to convince them while you monitor for invaders.”

He nods, and she takes a moment to draw strength from him too before she lets him go. His face is red as he pulls away and withdraws his abra, and she pretends not to notice, since hers is probably flushed too.

They rush up to the fifth floor as Leaf tries to plan for what they may be facing. Most bugs that could fly would have been in the initial wave, but those nearby that are most plentiful that crawl include things like wurmple and spinarak. Pretty weak overall, though if an ariados shows up it could be trouble.

“We really should have caught some Rock pokemon!” Red yells as he runs up the stairs ahead of her.

Leaf grins briefly, glad he’s on the same page. “Can’t use Charmeleon or Crimson indoors either!” Which doesn’t leave them with many pokemon that have advantages against bugs. Her ledyba and venonat should be okay…

When they reach the fifth floor hallway, a group of five people are there, sitting on the floor or leaning against walls. “You’re back,” one says, an older woman in a wheelchair. “Is everything alright?”

Red shakes his head. “Pokemon are all around the building. Some may try to get in. Can some of you go to your neighbors and let them know? They wouldn’t come out before, but now maybe they will.”

Everyone stares at him, and Leaf steps forward. “Please, their lives are in danger. One of your neighbors just a couple floors up… she was killed along with her baby by a fearow that flew in.” She swallows, and sees shock and horror on a couple of the faces in front of her, stunned disbelief or blank fear on the others.

Red is staring at her in horror too, but she sees him put it aside to try again. He points to a young man. “You, there’s a couple in 205. Please go and let them know.” He points to an older woman. “There’s a man in, uh, 317 I think? He wouldn’t open the door, just yell through it and come back up if he doesn’t answer. You have to go now, I need to psychically check to see if any pokemon are getting in!”

The tenants he singled out look at him a moment longer, then start to move to the stairs together. Red looks relieved, and quickly sends the others to more apartments until it’s just Leaf, Red and the woman in the wheelchair.

“Elevator’s still in service, if you need me to get somewhere,” she says.

“Maybe later,” Red says. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes, then quickly opens them and looks at Leaf. He looks embarrassed, but also scared. “Could you… it’s getting really bad.”

Leaf understands immediately. He’s been using his powers too much today, and now he can’t even rely on the psydar anymore. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m right here.”

Red nods, and squeezes her hand back, then closes his eyes. Within a minute the strain of constant fear on his face shifts to one of grief. “Five pokemon around the building,” he eventually says, voice tight. “None inside yet…”

Another minute passes, and Red’s lips clamp down on a sob. Leaf’s heart aches as she sees him screw his face up against the grief, wishing she could do more to help him. The door to the stairs opens, and one of the tenants returns with an older couple. Leaf is just turning back to Red when he gasps, eyes flying open.

“Fourth floor… that way!” he points through the floor, and Leaf checks the door above it. 508. So probably 408? “Something just got in, and there’s a person there! Hurry!”

Leaf is already running for the stairs, taking them two at a time as her breath whistles in her ears. When she arrives at the floor, there’s a door open and a young woman running toward her, face twisted in fear. Behind her, an ariados is racing in pursuit, forehead stinger extended.

The sight of a person in danger helps Leaf fight down her worry about hurting the ariados, and she grabs her pidgeotto’s ball. “Go, Crimson!” Her pokemon appears mid-air near the ceiling, and Leaf points. “Gust!”

The ariados grips the floor, hunkering down against the powerful blast of wind to keep from being blown away, and Leaf quickly runs forward with an empty ball and catches it.

It takes a minute to calm the woman down and get her upstairs, and by then Red is already racing away toward the staircase on the other side. “Stay with them!” he yells, and Leaf has to fret nervously in place for a few minutes until he comes back with one of the tenants he sent in tow, along with another one, a young woman with a pokebelt around her waist, three balls clipped to it.

“It was a weepinbell,” Red tells Leaf. “It used its vines to climb up. Leaf, this is Audrey. She’s a Coordinator.”

“Hi,” Audrey says, hands twisted together in front of her. “I didn’t realize… so many people were…”

“It’s fine,” Red says. “You’re here now, you can help protect your neighbors, right?”

Audrey closes her eyes, then nods jerkily. “I can stay here and… yeah.”

“Good. Thank you.” He turns back to Leaf. “There are pokemon approaching 611 and three pokemon all grouped up and approaching 704, and there are people in both. The three aren’t bugs, but I think they’re flying types, because they’re not always sticking to the wall, and their movements are weird. We have to go warn them in case one or all of them try to go in. Let’s start with—”

“No, I’ve got better AoE, I’ll take 704,” Leaf says. “In the time it takes for us to get to one it may be too late for the other.”

Red hesitates, but he knows she’s right, and soon they’re heading for the stairs as she considers the unlikelihood of these coincidences. Two for two with occupied apartments so far, and possibly four for four… they must be attracted to the windows with their lights on. And she’s pretty sure she left the lights on in the apartments with the fearow and ledian…

“Be careful, Leaf,” Red says as he opens the door to the sixth floor, and she nods as she keeps going up one more flight. She’s jogging down the hall when she hears a scream, and adrenaline surges through her as she unclips her ledyba’s ball. Three pokemon, probably flying types, but slower than most to be this far into the storm and moving oddly… might be some hoppip or…?

She summons Ledyba and Raff, throwing their balls ahead and catching them as she reaches 704 and tries to open it. No luck. She steps back and points. “Tackle!” she tells both her pokemon, and they smash into it together, above and below, breaking it off its hinges and revealing…

…six pronged limbs that rotate and spin three grey orbs around in mid-air, each with a staring eye that locks on to her and her two pokemon.

Leaf stares in shock for a moment, then dives back and out of the way as the magneton starts to glow. “Dodge!” she yells to her pokemon as she hits the ground, but a moment later a blinding flash of electricity snaps through the air around them, blackening the walls and ceiling. Raff jerks and twitches, then sags, smoke rising from burns along his body, and Ledyba falls out of the air, her carapace cracked and blackened, innards exposed.

Leaf screams, vision tunneling, and then she’s scrambling up as she reaches for their pokeballs, withdrawing them as the magneton floats out of the doorway. She runs, terror like burnt iron in her nose and mouth as tears blur her vision.

There’s nothing on her belts that can stop a magneton, and she’s pretty positive she just lost one pokemon, maybe even… no, she can’t think that right now. She just has to run.

But the person in the apartment, and the ones upstairs…

She expects to be fried by another flash of electricity at any second, but hits the lever of the stairs’ door and keeps moving, leaping down the first flight and landing on hands and feet before pushing back up so she can race down to the floor below. “Red!” Magneton are Electric/Steel, but they have no Fighting or Ground types between them… “RED! MAGNETON!”

Her voice must echo down the stairs even if her words don’t, because when she opens the door he’s already walking toward her. There’s an elderly man behind him. “Leaf, what’s—”

“Magneton! Upstairs! We need Charmeleon!”

Red groans in frustration, covering his eyes briefly. “Of course… but the building, it might catch fire!”

“I think it’s going to anyway, it killed…” Her chest heaves, words dying in her throat, and she rubs at her face. “It attacked the tenant, and my pokemon, it may have set the hall on fire, I didn’t check… Red the people on the floor above—”

He’s already moving, yelling “Go downstairs!” to the tenant behind him as he runs past her and up the stairs, and she follows, thighs aching from going up and down so much. “We need a plan, Charmeleon can’t take a hit from a magneton!”

He’s right, but… they have nothing that really can

No, that’s not true. She could heal Raff, he’s surely still alive (of course he is, he has to be) she could heal him and then make him take another hit (like the monstrous trainer that she is), or Joy could take one (sure, losing an eye wasn’t bad enough), but she’s just guessing, she has no idea how powerful that mageton is, poor Ledyba was too weak to act as a measuring stick.

Just the thought of her sacrifice being treated that way makes Leaf feel sick with shame, but she has to think about this carefully or she might lose more of them. I can’t choose between them… I can’t!

“Raff or Joy…” Leaf stops herself. She doesn’t have to choose… she can just summon Scamp, who probably can’t take a hit, and have him act as a distraction… Just a rattata, Scamp’s just a rattata would she rather lose him or Raff or Joy…

Self-disgust makes Leaf stumble and sag against the wall. Red notices and turns around. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she moans, crying again, dammit all how often is she going to cry tonight, “I’m a horrible person, Red, I… I…”

“Stop that! You’re not a horrible person, whatever trade you thought about making makes sense and it’s just the Pressure making you hate yourself for it!” He grips her shoulders and squeezes, eyes on hers. “Leaf, I’m going to use my oddish to tank a hit. It can probably take one. You don’t need to use one of your pokemon, just be ready to catch it.”

Leaf stares at Red, gratitude and guilt warring. “I can’t let you—”

“Not your decision, I’m just telling you how it is. You care about your pokemon way more than I do mine, and I know you care about my pokemon more than I do mine too, but we don’t have time to let your guilt overwhelm you while we do this, and we need to do this now, because the guy in that apartment is still alive, but he’s fading fast. Are you ready?”

She knows she should say no, that she should insist that she use her own pokemon to distract the magneton from Charmeleon. But his words make sense, and she’s almost dizzy with gratitude for them.

No. If they’re going to do this, she won’t force him to make decisions she doesn’t find palatable.

“I’m going to bring Scamp out,” she says. He’s fast, not faster than electricity but maybe fast enough to get behind the magneton if with a Quick Attack…

Red hesitates, then nods. They summon their pokemon at the door to the apartment hallway, and Red looks through the window. “It’s there, floating in the hallway. It’s… electrocuting things. Randomly I think, but half the lights in the hall are out, and small fires are spreading.”

“Shit.” Leaf wipes sweat from her forehead, then rubs it on her pants to dry her palm and grips an empty pokeball. What else can they do, there has to be something else, some edge…

“Ready?”

“Y-yeah…”

“Okay, going in three… tw—”

“Wait!” She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Their argument on the boat… she doesn’t think she was wrong, but she regrets so much of how it went, now, how she approached it with him, and she knows part of making that up to him is saying this, now. She can’t hold anything back out of worry for potential risk while much greater risk of harm is imminent. “Red, use your sakki on Charmeleon.”

He stares at her, a mix of apprehension and calculation on his face, and then nods. “Three, two, one!”

He opens the door and goes right, while she goes left. The magneton hasn’t spotted them yet, its tongs charging for another bolt that lights up the hallway and sets an apartment door on fire, and then Charmeleon flings a blob of fire at the magneton, hitting it on the back of one orb.

It immediately discharges electricity in a burst around it, spinning wildly through the air, it’s in pain, what are they doing—

“Scamp, Quick Attack!” her traitorous voice yells, heart breaking as she sends her pokemon to its doom.

“Oddish, Absorb!” Red’s voice is distant, gaze unfocused as Charmeleon flings more fire at the magneton, trying to hit its weaving form… and succeeding, until the point of contact, where electric current seems to shimmer over the magneton’s body and the flaming oil soon falls off.

It turns to them at last, eyes drawn to the two pokemon approaching it, and Leaf closes her eyes as electricity flashes out again, then again. When she opens them, both Scamp and Red’s oddish are down.

“It has a Light Screen!” Leaf yells, and summons Pineco, not letting herself have time to analyse or justify the choice. It’s just the next pokemon that might actually help in the battle which she’d mind losing the least. “Tackle!”

Her pokemon bunches itself up, then launches forward. Electricity hits it mid-air, but it completes its arc and knocks the magneton into a mid-air spin.

The heat from the smoldering fires finally set off the building’s alarm, and water starts pouring down in the hallway, making the fight immediately more dangerous. Luckily Charmeleon is out of the splash zone for now, but what is he doing, Red isn’t giving any new commands…

She turns and sees his pokemon isn’t preparing another fling of its tail, but holding its mouth wide open. It looks like a ball of fire is forming in it, but it glows an odd color, like it’s shimmering with light just barely on the visible spectrum.

“Be ready,” Red says over the sound of the alarm, voice harsh with something like a barely contained rage, and then the glowing orb shoots out in a stream of plasma, hitting the magneton and slamming it against the wall. One of its prongs and a patch of metal along half of one orb is melted, and it strikes the ground with a clunk before it starts to hover in fits and jerks to get back up, spinning wildly.

Leaf is waiting for it, ultra ball pointed until she hears the ping. The feeling that comes over her as she captures it is a bitter one, almost alien to her. Not worth it. It was something she had to do, part of her duty to do, but tonight it’s a bitter duty.

Even more so if Pineco and Scamp are dead. She quickly withdraws them to check later, as they have no time to rest or recover from the fight. Absurdly some part of Leaf takes a moment to bemoan that she’s going to get soaked again for the second time tonight while indoors, then moves toward the room the magneton came from, where the fires have been thankfully already quenched.

Red stops her with a hand on her shoulder. “He’s dead!” Red yells over the alarm, voice choked with the rage that’s twisting his features. “We have to get the others out, these sprinklers may not stop the fire!”

Leaf sees that he’s right: it’s spreading along the walls and ceiling faster than the sprinklers can catch it. Red withdraws his pokemon, and they run for the stairs. “I’ll get the people upstairs!” Red says, and dashes up before she can respond. He knows where they are, at least.

She goes to the crowd at the fifth floor, who look like they’re on the verge of panicking. “Everyone! We have to be ready to leave the building! Red and I will take you to the nearby hospital shelter if the fire spreads!”

“But our homes,” one woman says, barely audible as she clutches at the man beside her. “We can’t just—”

“Get your ass in gear, Emi,” the old lady in the wheelchair snaps as she rolls toward the stairs. “Someone help me down the stairs, the elevators won’t be working with the alarm on!”

That seems to get people moving, and Leaf goes with them as the crowd hurries to the lobby. Audrey pushes her way to her as they go down the stairs, and she looks utterly terrified.

“Leaf… I can’t go to the shelter, I… I’m afraid of crowds! It’s why I didn’t join the city’s defense!”

Leaf doesn’t laugh, because people are dead and dying and it’s no one’s fault what they’re afraid of and she knows that the Pressure is amplifying the woman’s fears beyond what’s reasonable, so she doesn’t laugh, either in incredulity or scorn, but she does feel a tiny little ember of resentment that after everything Red and her have done tonight, the one other trainer they’ve met so far would of course be so… difficult.

She takes a deep breath as they reach the lobby, trying to organize her thoughts. Some people stop at floors instead of continuing down, probably going to their apartments to grab something. She doesn’t try to stop them; they need to wait for Red anyway, and she can barely keep herself from running up after him as she waits with everyone by the front door.

Only then does she turn to the older trainer, looking up to meet her gaze. “I’m sorry, Audrey, I wish we had more time to get to know each other, so I could understand your… your journey, your life, what you’re like when all this shit isn’t going on. I wish I had some idea of what the right thing to say is to help you. Since I don’t know what that is, all I can say is that I think there’s a version of you that you wish you were more like, and you have to be that version of you tonight. And it’s going to be hard, and you’ll screw up and maybe even people will die, but more will if you don’t do this, you might if you don’t do this, and when you look back on tonight you’ll know that you were able to do it, and that will make it easier next time. Does that make sense?”

Audrey nods, breathing hard like she’s trying not to cry. She’s edged away from her neighbors, being closest to the door. “I think so.”

“Okay. Great. You can freak out and cry and scream yourself hoarse tomorrow, maybe you don’t even leave your home for a month after this is all over,” woops her apartment is probably going to be on fire soon, please ignore that, “but for tonight you’re borrowing all the courage you’ll have in that time and using it here and now. Do you understand?”

She nods again. “Yeah. Borrowing courage. Yeah, okay.”

“Okay.” Leaf rubs her face as they all wait, worry growing with every passing minute, but soon Red comes downstairs with the last tenants in the building, who look shocked at the dozen or so others all standing around in worried clumps. As they all wait together to see if they’ll need to leave and for the others to come back, Leaf brings Raff out, unable to take the worry that he might be dead anymore. The flash noise of his summoning draws startled gasps from people, but she doesn’t even look at them, quickly spraying her pokemon with different medicines until he can stand and blink around him. Something eases in her chest, and she tears up as she rubs his head between the ears. From his sluggish response he’ll need more extensive healing than she can give right now.

She withdraws him, and almost summons Joy but stops herself, knowing she won’t be able to diagnose her injury and not wanting to put the pokemon in any unnecessary pain or use a potion in a way that might harm more than help. Eventually she turns to Red to take her mind off her worry. His face is drawn and haggard, and she approaches him. “Hey. You okay?”

Red shakes his head. “Fine.” He doesn’t seem to notice the contradictory signals there. “More pokemon in the building,” he tells her after a moment’s hesitation. “I promised I’d tell you, but… Leaf, you can’t go get them now, with the fire spreading.”

Leaf stares at him, stomach churning. “How fast? Some people went back to their apartments…” One of them comes down the stairs at that moment, coughing hard.

“Fast. Sprinklers are keeping it from spreading everywhere at once, but it’s on three floors now, and one of the stairwells is filled with smoke. If the other is too…”

She nods, gaze down. The pokemon are going to die, then, and there’s nothing she’ll do about it. She has to make her peace with what kind of trainer she is, especially after what she did with Scamp and Pineco.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No.” She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I’m glad you did.”

“Hey!” someone yells out. “We going or what? Tom said the fire’s spreading, so what the hell are we waiting for?!”

“We’re missing someone!” another voice yells. “I don’t see the guy in the green shirt…”

“Well that’s his choice, but we don’t want to be here when the roof comes down!”

Red closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. His face twitches, but a moment later he opens his eyes. “No pokemon outside the building now, not that I could see.”

Leaf frowns. “And the person inside?”

“In their apartment.” Red sounds so tired, voice flat and dull. “I don’t know why, but the floor above us was on fire by the time we came down. The sprinklers will help but that guy was right, if it spreads into the apartments, some of the roof might start to come down. Fire spreads fast. We have no water pokemon and can’t vent the stairs… there’s nothing we can do for them.”

She nods, feeling sick but knowing that Red feels even worse, and turns to the crowd. They can’t save everyone, have already failed to save everyone, and certainly can’t save people from themselves. She just wishes she’d known, she would have tried to stop them… How many more lives are her mistakes going to cost, tonight? A single moment of apathy and distraction, and she’d just let someone walk away to their death.

Some part of her knows that’s not fair, that others could have stopped the man. But blaming any of them would feel like admitting she’s not in control at all and she’s already feeling perilously close to empty on willpower.

She clears her throat, wiping at her face, then calls out in a slightly wavering voice, “Everyone! We’re heading out! Stay between Red, Audrey and me! Watch around us for pokemon! Don’t panic, but remember, if you have to run, we’re going to the nearby hospital! Get ready, the wind and rain are going to be strong!”

Red leaves first with his nidoran and bellsprout beside him, and the building tenants start walking out too. Leaf follows them with Ruby and Alice on one side, the venonat and buneary visibly unhappy with the soaking they receive once outside. Audrey summons a poliwhirl and takes the other side of the rear, her pokemon very lively as it waddles energetically beside her.

Leaf sees the coordinator’s pokemon, and rush of self-loathing fills her. She closes her eyes and grits her teeth against the cry of frustrated anger that wants to spill forth. She hadn’t checked what Audrey’s pokemon were. Neither had Red. They’d had a water pokemon available the whole time, and now…

She turns and sees multiple windows of the apartment building glow with fire as the crowd starts walking onto the street. Leaf quickly turns away, feeling like she’s leaving a part of herself behind in the growing blaze.

Leaf keeps her eyes moving for Dark and Bug pokemon and just follows the crowd, misery increasing as she remembers how unpleasant being outside in an intense storm like this is like. The constant thunder quickly starts to give her a headache, and she realizes she’s tired, so tired she could just curl up in a corner and cover her face and sleep.

Surely the storm must be over soon… surely…

They’re just a block away from the hospital when there’s a roar that drowns out even the rain and wind for a moment, and everyone freezes in place. Leaf is worried at first that they’re all scared, but then realizes Red must have stopped.

“Watch behind us!” she yells at the people close to her, then pushes through to Red. “What was that, Red?”

“Sounded like a nidoqueen or king!” There’s a crashing sound, and they start moving again, quicker. Leaf stays up front for now, eyes searching the streets for a sign and finally spotting one. Hope thrums in her chest. Soon they see the spotlights surrounding the hospital campus, and then the lights from the buildings themselves become visible in the downpour.

And then Red’s head whips around, and he stops moving. Leaf turns to look, and down the street to the right of their intersection, she vaguely sees the shape of something large moving in the rain and the dark.

Lightning flashes overhead, and she realizes what she’s seeing.

It’s a nidoqueen, and this time Leaf is close enough to feel the tremor in the ground as it stomps its foot, the rumbling that isn’t thunder and the crack that isn’t lightning accompanying the collapse of the building’s corner.

She’s also close enough to hear the screams.

“Oh gods,” Leaf whispers, and turns to see Red frozen in place, whole body twitching like he’s going to run away, or like he senses something painful. “Red, what is it? Red! Are they—”

“Get them to the hospital!” Red yells, and starts running toward the nidoqueen. His pokemon follow as fast as they can.

Leaf stares after him, heart in her throat, then turns to the shocked crowd. “Audrey! Up front, now!” Leaf is already bouncing from foot to foot with impatience, wanting to throttle Red for doing this to her while hoping desperately that he’s okay. Audrey shows up what feels like a minute later but is surely only a few seconds. “Listen, Audrey, the hospital is right there, don’t you dare let anyone die on the way! You need to be a hero tonight, this is your chance, now go!” She looks at everyone. “Go, now!

Audrey seems to snap out of her shock and nods, then breaks into a jog, and the crowd starts moving after her.

Leaf doesn’t wait to see if they keep pace or not; she just turns to the nidoqueen and runs after Red, trusting him to have good reason for whatever the hell he’s doing and determined not to let him die alone.

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 cacophany 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 he’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 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.”

Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Welcome back everyone! Getting back to work was rough this month, so expect a moderate amount of editing over the weekend, as this one didn’t have a chance to get much proofreading. Hope you enjoy it, and as usual, all feedback welcome, either here or on /r/rational!


Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Sakura thought she was out of tears.

There were plenty, when they first told her. When she first saw her baby brother’s remains, when they interred him beneath the earth. Six years old, and grown so fast. Already talking about his dreams. Already preparing for his future. Only to have it snatched away by a monster in the shape of man.

Over a year of tears after that, as the trial went on. As her mom, first in shock that her son could be gone, then in denial that her husband could be the killer, went from a source of added distress to an infuriating enemy, to a monster of a different shade. Months of tears, of listless despair punctuated by fits of crying, of sobbing herself hoarse. And then the final verdict. Not guilty. That storm should have squeezed the last drops out. When she rose from her exhausted sleep the next day, feeling drained, feeling empty, she thought she’d cried her last tears.

There was only one thing left to do, and tears weren’t part of it.

Dry eyed, she planned. Dry eyed, she kept her mask in place. Pretended to be glad that the monster was free. Expressed relief that it was all a misunderstanding. Her mom insisted that now they could “really grieve” for Sokka. As a “family.”

Yes mother, she said. But there were no more tears to give, and eventually her mother left her alone.

It was easier when she was old enough to leave. When she could go from planning to action, didn’t have to pretend anymore. Just another few months to find the right pokemon. To train them without using their pokeball, after the initial capture. To give them the right commands and training, to overwhelm the initial conditioning.

More difficult was the timing. The monster went to nearby incidents all the time, to fight the other monsters. To act the hero, or maybe help him believe himself one. There were a few times she went with him, fought alongside him, keeping a different death hidden in her bag each time. But there were always others around.

Until one day there wasn’t. It was just the two of them, keeping the pokemon to the edge of the forest. It’s been unruly since Articuno flew by and buried a third of it in snow, a different population expanding too much every week as the ecosystem re-balances in the wake of the loss of habitat and Pressure induced rampage.

She was distracted the whole fight, looking for an opening. Worrying that someone else would come. Worrying she would miss her chance. And distracted by his smile, after they took down the third wave together, their movements and orders coordinated from multiple fights together. An encouraging smile. Like they were comrades. Like she’d forgotten. But that was the point, so she smiled back.

And when his pokemon was injured after what seemed to be the last wave, and he went forward to heal it, she looked around, withdrew her pokemon, opened her bag, and spoke a single syllable, low, under her breath. Just enough for the weedle to hear.

And to spring.

And to sting.

And sting. And sting. Until his raticate finally managed to scramble over despite its injuries and crunch it between its jaws.

“Sakura,” her father gasped, hand scrabbling weakly at his bag, body locked in pain. “Po…nnn…”

She moved to him, took his concerned and injured pokemon’s ball off his belt, returned it. Then she simply watched until his movements slowed to sluggish twitches, then stopped altogether.

Something in her loosened, after that. A knot of anger and grief she’d been holding onto for years. But still, she didn’t cry. She had no more tears.

She never saw the camera, set high in the trees to mark the perimeter. She thought she was safe, until the Rangers showed up.

She defended herself, mask cracking just a little as she poured passion into her voice, tried to call upon her grief and direct it to serve her. But still, she didn’t cry. Once it became clear that she would be branded, she came clean. Reported where her other lethally trained pokemon were kept. Waited for the end.

Now she sits strapped to a chair in a secure room in Viridian Gym, and her death comes in a neat black suit, his movements quick and purposeful without seeming hurried. He sits in a chair across from her, and his voice is the same deep, commanding voice she has heard in interviews, turned toward something new. Perhaps an attempt at gentleness.

“Hello, Miss Uryuu.”

Her gaze rises to meet his. “Hello, Leader.”

Giovanni Sakaki does not look disgusted, or fearful, or angry, or shocked, or even carefully professional, the way all the expressions she’s seen since being caught were. Instead the young Leader looks… curious?

“Are you comfortable?”

It’s a question she doesn’t expect, not just from her executioner, but also from Leader Giovanni in particular. She never really paid too much attention to her city’s pride, didn’t seek out stories of his childhood here, or his rise to Champion, or his political efforts that preceded his recent return home to head Viridian Gym. But people talked, information was hard to avoid, and what she’d learned of her Leader was that he was a man with keen perspective, intense focus, iron will… and a willingness to do what needs to be done, no matter how controversial.

She could admire that, in the abstract way she was able to admire anything, while obsessed with her own singular goal.

Insofar as she allowed herself to imagine her execution at his hands, it was always quick and efficient. Perhaps he would briefly berate or lecture her for wasting his time. Instead he asks her if she’s comfortable, and the numbness that has surrounded her since she was branded finally fades around the edges as she wakes up to how her body feels.

She was allowed to use the bathroom, thankfully, but not fed in the past… ten hours? She thinks she’s hungry, but it’s hard to tell. Her legs are a bit cramped from being in the chair for so long. Rear a bit sore. But not bad, all things considered, and given what’s about to come…

Or is she mistaken, somehow?

“Does it matter?” she asks, and clears her throat. “You’re here to execute me, aren’t you?”

The Leader’s dark gaze stays steady on hers, and after a moment he reaches into his jacket and removes a syringe, placing it on the table to his side.

Her eyes linger on it, then she looks away. “I’m fine, then. Just…” She wants to say get it over with, but can’t quite form the words. Her heart is beating faster, some instinctual will to live reaching up even at this late stage.

He doesn’t respond to the implication, instead saying, “Could I trouble you to tell me why, first?”

“I already confessed.”

Giovanni is quiet, a moment. “Let me rephrase. You confessed to what you did and why you did it. But you could have just stabbed him with a knife, risked an investigation, at worst gone to prison for a decade or two. You could have attacked him with your pokemon openly, thrown your life away to ensure his death. Instead you were meticulous. You tried to thread the needle, tried to make it look natural.”

She stares at him, unsure of what to say. Of what he wants from her. Her numbness is still fading, her awareness of her body and situation only growing in her final moments, and she’s not sure she should thank him for that.

“You wanted to live,” he says simply. Not a question.

She looks away. It seems cruel, to ask her now. Why. Why did she try so hard to kill him in just the right way, if she knew what she was risking?

“My brother,” she says at last. “Would have wanted me to.”

“And so you were patient, and careful, and tried to give yourself the best chance.”

“Yes,” she whispers.

“Do you want to live?” he asks. There’s something calculating in his demeanor, she knows, but he also seems genuinely curious. “Or is it just the wish of what your brother wanted, that kept you from simply ending him the moment you trained your first pokemon to attack humans?”

Sakura doesn’t know how to answer that. She spent little time with friends, after, or fun things. She knew, on some level, that if she succeeded then she would one day have to consider those things, but she always put that off for later, considering it a distraction, and a seductive one at that.

But at this moment, with the syringe so close (What’s in it? Something painless? Or is Viridian’s new Leader old fashioned enough to have filled it with weedle venom?), and the hard chair beneath her, and her rumbling stomach, she thinks of how much she’d rather be safe at home in bed, or at the cafe by her old house, having her favorite dish with some plum wine. That would be… rapture.

“Yes, I would prefer to live for my own sake too,” she says at last, voice angry as a tug of longing goes through her. “Is that what you want to hear? I didn’t take you for someone who has time for… cruelty.”

“I find there is often a regrettable overlap between what is cruel and what is pragmatic,” the Gym Leader says, sounding undisturbed by her accusation. “I’d say it is intention that ultimately matters, but I know others disagree. What if you could never see your family again, your friends, your home? What if living meant exile, in a land far away, your old life left behind?”

She stares at him, anger twisting into confusion at the sudden change in topic. “I don’t… yes. Of course.”

“Would you train pokemon to kill again?”

“No.” A flame of hope is lighting in her chest, suddenly. Is this some final trial? It seems impossible to contemplate, that a Renegade would be allowed to live after admitting her guilt, she’s never heard of such a thing… exile… “I only did this because of my brother, I’d never—”

“What about teaching others how to?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Would you teach others your methods for training pokemon without their ball? For lethal commands, if it meant you could live?”

She stares at the Leader, whose face is still curious, eyes intent. She shakes her head, just once, the motion aborting as she realizes she doesn’t know what he’s asking her, what she’s answering.

Giovanni sighs, seeming to read her expression. “I’m sorry. I’m getting your hopes up. These are just hypotheticals, you understand. I wanted to get to know you, a little. I try, for all the Renegades that fall under my jurisdiction. Some rage at the world or some particular target, others are excessively greedy or impulsive. And of course, there’s the simply mad.” He shrugs a shoulder. “You seem one of the rarer sort. Poor judgement, but not excessively so. I find it tragic. A waste. You would have made a fantastic coordinator, Miss Uryuu…”

She stiffens. Here comes the moralizing, the judgement—

“…I’m sorry our society has failed you so thoroughly.”

And then it comes: her eyes prickle, her throat feels clogged on her next breath. A single tear escapes, and she breathes in, whole body shaking once.

She’d wanted to be a coordinator, once.

Sakura regains control quickly, embarrassed. Still, it’s better to feel something, at the end. To know she isn’t dry and dead already, after all.

“I’m sorry too, Leader,” she whispers. “Not for… that. For the trouble I’ve caused.” She swallows past the lump in her throat as her pulse speeds up, as she steels herself, closing her eyes. “Thank you for speaking to me. For looking at me like I’m a person, still. I’m… I’m ready.”

There’s silence, for a while. And then she hears the syringe scrape against the table slightly as it’s picked up. “Goodbye, Miss Uryuu.”

She feels the prick of pain, and then spreading numbness, and then nothing.


Silver watches on the monitor as a trio enters the room where Father sits. He has long-since memorized his father’s body-language: the current pose is one he internally dubbed The King in His Castle, a position of calm strength, inviting supplicants in magnanimously.

The three guests don’t look like the usual supplicants, however. All three are dressed in red and black, and their leader has hair a shade lighter than Silver’s, though still closer to red than orange.

“Hello, Maxie. It was good of you to come. I hope your quarters are suitable?”

“Giovanni.” The tall, thin man’s tone is cold, his aloof face seeming to permanently be set in an expression of sharp focus and slight annoyance. He’s a stark contrast to his right hand man, who’s round and cheerful, or the girl to his left, who seems unconcerned with anything around her, gaze staring off in the distance from beneath her hoodie. She’s technically wearing a uniform like the other two, but seems less committed to treating it as such, with lots of personalized touches. “Our quarters are quite pleasant. Your hospitality is appreciated. But what I care about is your answer. I would have it now, if you’d please.”

“Of course. I’ve already requested two labs to wind down operations and prepare to collaborate with your people, and have Senji picking a field team.”

“Excellent. As ever you vindicate my confidence in you. This removes two points of failure from our path, bringing our estimates of success to—”

“—seventy-three percent—” says the woman in a distant tone of voice.

“—and will allow us to move forward on the next stage by—”

“—six months, four days—” says the round man with a grin.

“—ahead of schedule. Your payment will be delivered tomorrow. And the search itself?”

Silver’s mouth hangs open slightly. The two had spoken without hesitation, Maxie pausing for each to supply the information as if they were extensions of himself. Father has a lot of really cool minions (he’s not supposed to call them that when they’re around) but he doesn’t have any who do stuff like that. Silver wonders if the three are psychically linked, then realizes they wouldn’t have had to talk separately.

Father shifts to Apologetic Resoluteness between breaths. “I’ve reviewed your plans extensively, and had many of my most trusted advisers do so as well. I’m sorry, but I can’t support that endeavor at this time.”

“Hm.” One hand goes up to adjust the tall man’s glasses. “And your reasoning?”

“Assuming the legends of Groudon’s powers are accurate, it does not diminish concerns about secondary effects,” Father says with his hands steepled below his chin. “Creating more landmass can be incredibly valuable, but upsetting the water cycle can have effects on the climate beyond what is immediately noticeable.”

“This is not new. I am eighty-three percent confident that the extent of his abilities are exaggerated.”

“Be that as it may, the effects on even a single region can have dangerous externalities.” Giovanni’s hands fall to his desk, clasping there. “And you know of my position on the current crop of weather-wielding pseudo-gods facing my own region.”

“Prudence as a virtue has taken you far, but I see the makings of a fault in you through it,” Maxie says, speaking as though to a student. Silver has to admit, the man is brave to talk to Father like that. “I’d hoped your vision and mine could meet somewhere. Do let me know if there’s some alteration on my end that would change your answer. I would put it under most serious review.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s simply impossible at this time. Even if we could come to some agreement, I have too many pressing projects to tend to.”

“Understandable. The offer is open. So long as you do nothing to impede our efforts, future alliance is possible. Good day.”

Silver watches as Maxie turns to leave and the man with him turns on one heel within a heartbeat, as if waiting for the movement so he can walk in step with his boss. It would probably look more impressive if the woman had done the same, but despite being on point with her earlier calculation, it takes a full three seconds before the woman notices that they’re leaving and turns to follow them.

Father waits until they’re at the door. “Yes, about that…”

The tall man stops, hand out for the handle, then turns his head to father, just enough to reveal his profile.

“I believe you know how much I value peace. Peace, and the lack of investigation that comes with it. If things come to war between you and Archie, I will have to, regretfully, join my forces to his, in order to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible.”

Silver leans forward. He can’t make out any changes in Maxie’s expression on the monitor, from this far away, but the woman’s voice still comes clearly, quiet though it is: “Fourteen percent.”

“Unthinkable,” Maxie says, sounding as though his jaw is stiff. “You, assisting that brute? That pirate? His goals are… epistemically…”

“Just business, Maxie. Strategically, the fighting would end soonest if I were to work with him. As I said, I value the current peace immensely. Perhaps that will soon change, but I only thought it fair to warn you, given our history.”

“Does he know?”

Silver can’t see Father’s expression, but he can guess: Who Do You Take Me For. Or perhaps I Will Give You a Moment to Recall Who You’re Speaking To. A subtle but powerful difference.

“Thirty one percent,” the girl says into the silence.

It looks like Maxie might say something after that, but after a moment he simply dips his head in the barest of acknowledgements and opens the door. His lieutenants follow him out, and the video feed cuts out, turning the screen into a dark mirror through which the red haired boy sees himself.

Silver leans back in his chair and places his hands beneath his chin as he tries to think through his father’s reasoning. He expected his dad to keep himself neutral in the budding shadow war in Hoenn, particularly if either side drags the whole conflict into the open. He could have even warned that he would side against whoever attacked first, as a deterrent, but he very specifically seemed to choose not to do so, and warned that he would pick a side instead. Father wouldn’t tell Archie of course, it would just incentivize him to start a conflict he could be confident he will win, but still…

His thoughts circle fruitlessly from there until Silver notices the repetitions and gets out of the chair to finish his history lessons. His tutor expects him to complete the whole book by the end of the week, and when he complained to Father, the Gym Leader merely looked at him and said that he was welcome to attend a regular school if he’s finding his workload “too great a challenge.” Which of course just made Silver want to work twice as hard to prove it wasn’t that, it was just boring compared to training his pokemon or honing his throwing and catching reflexes.

But that sort of argument only occasionally works on Father, and he has to space out when he uses it with lots of actual work done. So Silver rewards himself for going back to his study desk with a braided whip of gummy candy and gets to work as he eats it, half a dozen sweet and sour and salty flavors filling his mouth as he reads the next question he’s on:

This chapter recounted how the three southern Kanto warlords finally agreed to negotiate for alliance after over ten years of diplomatic relations. Describe, as though you were each of them, first their reasoning for resisting, then what they believed each of the other two warlords’ reasoning was.

Silver studies the question, eyes narrowed as he sucks on the end of the gummy braid, then gently peels a string off with his teeth. The book he read didn’t really go into much of what each warlord thought of the other two’s reluctance. One of the warlords, Takeda, never even wrote about his political thoughts, and instead practically all the writing directly from him involved his records of training pokemon to be ridden into battle for combat purposes rather than just transport. So, as usual with his tutor’s assignments, Silver would have to look up secondary and ancillary sources to try and model the ancient warlord’s perspective.

This takes him over an hour to do, and his candy whip is long gone by the time he finishes. He eyes the jar afterward, but it’s only there for reinforcement of positive actions, and he doesn’t think his father would think “continuing to do the same task because I’m getting bored but didn’t stop” qualifies. Not that he is getting bored, but… they’re just so tasty.

Once he finishes with Takeda, however, he does think he deserves another to keep working, and that he can justify it to Father later. He gets up and goes to the jar, only to stop as the screen snaps back on and he hears his father say, “Thank you, Kiba. Let him in please.”

Silver blinks, then hurries back to his seat in front of the secured monitor that’s connected directly to the camera in Father’s office. The candy can wait.

Once again the door opens, this time without a knock first, and in comes an athletic man with dark skin, a roguish beard, and a dark navy coat that flares at his knees when he walks. He’s followed by his own pair of minions, an even more muscular man who’s almost as wide as the door and a woman with wild hair that goes down to her waist. Silver wonders if everyone in their organizations dresses the way they do, and how they keep them secret if so. If Father made everyone that works for him wear a uniform… well, that might be pretty cool, actually, judging by his visitors today.

“Gio! Good to see you!” Archie walks up to Father and extends an arm to his side, as if getting ready to slap the Gym Leader. Silver’s eyes go wide, and his mouth drops open as Father’s arm rises to meet it when it swings, and the two clasp arms. He’s never seen Father greet someone with anything but a brief handshake, a nod of the head, and just once, a bow.

“Welcome, Archie. Shelly, Matt.” The minions get the head nod, and nod or wave back. “I take it the voyage went well?”

“Ahh, well enough, well enough. We were in the area anyway, you know.” Like Max, Archie doesn’t sit on the available chairs, though he does lean his arms against the back of one while his subordinates lean against the walls farther back. “Great operation you’ve built here, Gio. Could use some of your touch again back home, even on a part time basis. I miss our talks.”

Father snorts. “You miss having someone who would argue with you, you mean.”

“Ha! These two will do it,” Archie says, jerking a careless thumb over his shoulder. “But about different things than you. All under the same flag, we are. Not the same. So? You’ve considered my offer?”

“I have. I can gather the information you asked for, and possibly even acquire a copy of the blueprints.”

Archie’s eyebrows rise. “Seriously? You have operatives in Slateport?”

“Seriously,” Father says, tone bland.

“‘Course you do. And in return?”

“You would need to refer at least another six staff by the end of the year.”

“Six.” Archie taps his fingers on the back of the chair. “That’s asking a lot, Gio. Only got another two lined up, both of them Dark.”

“If it helps, all six can be, just this once.”

“Aye, it does,” Archie admits. “What do you need so many for, anyway?”

Father smiles. “How do you travel so far, so fast?”

Archie grins. “Maybe someday you’ll find out. Guess that applies to me too. Alright, six more. Will you be signing onto our venture, then?”

“Unfortunately, I have to decline for now. Too much on my plate to try and operate from multiple regions at once.”

Archie shrugs. “It’s not Gio the warrior we need. You can think from anywhere, direct from a phone or cam, can’t you?”

“Through trustworthy intermediaries, perhaps. In some advisory role. But manpower is hard to spare, obviously.”

“Good enough! And for the rest?”

“For that, I cannot help you. To release such a beast into the oceans would be catastrophic if even half of the legends about it are true. You would need to capture it instantly, or it would be nearly impossible to ever stop.”

Archie snorts. “I never took you for one who let fear get in the way of greatness, Gio.” Silver blinks, feeling surreal at watching a second person talk to Father like this, one right after the other. Who do they think they are? “These powers are going to be used one day. It’s either us or someone else, this one or some other, and the sooner we’ve done so, the better prepared we’ll be.”

“You’re speaking of Maxie.”

“Aye, and others. But mainly him, for now.” Archie’s face is solemn, voice flat.

Father lets out a sigh. There are no stances now, Silver suddenly notices. His father is just… being himself? No, surely he’s still setting his body language deliberately, just not in as strict a sense. “The very last thing I need, currently, is any kind of attention. If there comes a point where you and Maxie come to blows, I’m afraid I’ll have to side with him, just to end the fighting quicker.”

Silver flinches as the big man suddenly grips the chair, face fit to pick it up and smash it over Father’s head. “That madman? You would pick him over me?”

“I’d prefer to pick neither,” Father says, face and body still totally “natural” and relaxed, but tone suddenly harsh. “If the two of you would just sit together and—”

Archie shakes his head, releasing the chair and stepping back. “After what he did? Not happening. Not if the world was ending and he came to me on his knees.”

Father sighs, but nods. “Then I hope the two of you can find some other path to victory that doesn’t cross each other’s…” Even without a visual angle, Silver can hear a small smile in Father’s next words. “Exciting as it might be to face you again.”

Archie is quiet for a moment, face still livid… and then he cracks a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Aye. Exciting as it might be.” He turns, and the other two step away from the walls to follow him to the door, not at all in lockstep, but clearly at attention. “You’ll have your people, Gio. Just get me the info.”

“Won’t you stay a while, enjoy some—”

The door closes behind the three before Father can finish speaking. After a moment he shrugs, as if to himself, and the screen goes dark.

Silver sits where he is, absorbing the new information, candy and history lessons forgotten.

There’s no way Father would send his people to both Archie and Maxie at the same time and tell them to fight each other… or would he? It wouldn’t be too hard for them to recognize each other and avoid attacking each other. Maybe they could sabotage both organizations from within, but that could just delay the conflict…

Silver smiles. He thinks he has it: if Father puts people in position and has both Archie and Maxie killed, it would end the fight as well! They spoke like they were friends, but, well, Father pretends to be friends with lots of people, if not exactly in the same way…

Satisfied with his answer, Silver eventually goes back to his work, rewarding himself with another candy whip. Once the assignment is done he plays a sim for a couple hours, grinding his team up in preparation for a gym challenge until a family of primeape start rampaging nearby and kill him. He scowls and shuts the game off. He knows he’s supposed to party up with others if he spends too long in the wild, but most of the other players are dumb. If the developers made the game more realistic he could have had his pokemon dig a hole and stayed in it with an air tank to avoid the primeape instead of being forced to fight them again and again until his team went down.

Silver takes his anger out on a nearby punch-dummy shaped like a hitmonchan (he’s sure no one would be stupid enough to actually punch a hitmonchan, but it does a cool thing where it spins and hits back if he hits it hard enough), then goes to watch some of Father’s recorded battles. Not the ones from his gym, but from before he was even Champion. There aren’t nearly as many, of course, and their quality is poor; most are recorded by people’s phones, and many are incomplete, either starting at some midway point in the fight or ending before it finishes as the recorder gets scared off or distracted.

But they’re real. Father’s fighting for his life, even as he’s still developing his skills. His verbal commands have little of the iron calm they do today, and his physical motions aren’t nearly as efficient… but he seems more alive in the footage than any other time Silver sees him.

The one he eventually settles on was recorded from the fourth floor window of some building in Fuchsia City. On the street below, Father uses a donphan to clear the road of the various pokemon running through it, until a crowd of people start to run down a different intersection that had seemed safe a moment ago. They’re being chased by a venusaur that lumbers toward them, and if there are any trainers left behind it that are still alive or able to try to slow it down, the camera footage doesn’t see them. The rare pokemon is throwing razor leaves at the fleeing people, cutting at their knees and ankles until they collapse, then sending vines out that glow green and start to melt the flesh of the downed humans upon contact.

Silver knows that objectively he should be disgusted or sickened by the gruesome deaths he’s seeing. He knows that’s what most people would feel. Or say they would, anyway, and the emotion in the repeated “Oh, Arceus, oh, lord, no,” by the guy holding the phone seems genuine enough. But Silver’s too busy anticipating what Father would do next, imagining what he would do in his place.

So when Father summons a geodude and a machoke, and the machoke picks the geodude up and throws it at the venusaur, Silver has already anticipated the explosion that almost makes the recorder lose their grip on their phone. The venusaur had tried to bat the hurtling rock pokemon away as it sailed at it, but the by the time it was close enough, it was too late.

The image before the explosion looked like many of the injured victims were close enough to get caught in that blast, but it’s hard to tell in the aftermath, and the recorder just stays on that street long enough to confirm that the venusaur’s head is gone and quietly swear before he quickly pans back to Father’s donphan when it bellows in pain. The ground beneath it is crumbling, and soon plants begin to grow up through the pavement, lashing out at anything nearby.

“Watching these again?”

Silver twists in his chair to see Father standing by it. He hadn’t even noticed him come in, and wonders how long he’s been there. “Rhetorical question. I think you’re actually asking for justification. It feels… judgey.”

“Do I sound judgemental?” Father asks, eyebrows raised.

“No. Just curious.” Silver turns back to the screen. “But it still feels judgey.”

Father pauses to consider that. “My real question was, what are you looking for, in these old videos? I ask with curiosity, to know if there is something valuable for you in them, but yes, also with a predisposition that you are wasting your time.”

Silver nods. “I want to learn from you. But in most vids, you’re too far away. You’re like a character in a movie. Here you’re…” Silver gestures toward the screen, where the younger Giovanni is spraying a potion onto his pokemon and yelling some command to a different one, too late, his hands blurring as he drops the potion bottle and slings a pair of pokeballs out. “Closer. I can see what you’ll do next, sometimes. I spot mistakes, though those are rarer.”

“Oh? Was there a mistake here?”

“Yes. The geodude and machoke should have been out and prepared ahead of time. The only downside would have been slowing you if you had to run, but in that case they could have served as a distraction, or been deployed first in case it would have avoided a rout in the first place.”

“Good catch. Yes, this was the battle that led me to always having a pokemon on standby during every fight, one that would not respond to any commands but the one I would give if I had to run. This combo in particular is a bit too risky, now. Can you guess what I use instead?”

Silver thinks it over. What would he want protecting his retreat if his life was in danger? It has to be able to adapt to a lot of different threats, and not be easily taken out. Tanky pokemon are no good, though, most are slow, and he needs something that can be a credible threat, not just be run around by something fast and lethal enough.

“How worried would you be about collateral damage? Public perception?”

“I’m curious to know your answer, without knowing either of those.”

They watch the screen until the end of the video, when the person recording suddenly pulls the phone back into the apartment a couple seconds before the whole building shakes, and then the feed ends. By then Silver has already crossed out a number of obvious but insufficient options. Pokemon like Dragonite and Tyranitar are powerful, but it would be a waste to keep them exclusively to last resort bodyguard duty. Pokemon with good crowd control are a must, but also those that aren’t weak to too many types. Speed is what he keeps going back to. What’s faster than the fastest jolteon? Able to do indiscriminate damage in a wide area without risking himself?

As soon as Silver mentally swaps himself with Father, still trying to answer the original question at the same time, he has it. “Something psychic. A mental attack, fast, hitting everything around it… except you.”

“It’s remarkable, what psychic pokemon can do to the reactions of those around them, all without causing any damage, mental or otherwise.”

Silver smiles, briefly, but it fades as he browses the videos available for what to watch next. “Do you ever miss it?”

Father sits on the arm of his sofa, face thoughtful as he watches Silver select another video. “No. No matter how strong I became, I was only one man trying to hold back an endless tide. Even then, I realized it. From the beginning I knew I had to build my individual strength only insofar as it allowed me to grow my collective strength.”

“But doesn’t that mean you’re not the strongest anymore?”

“I was never the strongest. My excadrill was far stronger.”

Silver frowns at him. “You’re being pedantic.”

“Not so. My point is my power was always in the pokemon I had under my command. On my journey, I had a few dozen. Today I have hundreds. More importantly, if something happens to me, the system I’ve created would ensure the work continues. Now, are you ready for dinner?”

Silver is. It’s his turn to pick the dinner, so they have sashimi and cranberry juice. It’s clear that Father dislikes the juice, but Silver smiles each time he drinks it and makes a face, so he keeps sipping it. The two sit alone to eat today, a luxury that Silver always treasures, even if it gives Father the freedom to ask him questions about how his studies are going.

He answers them as quick as he can, then goes to the question that’s really been interesting him. “Father, why did you promise both of your friends that you would support their enemy in a fight?”

“You haven’t guessed?”

“I think I have. It was to have them both killed by one of your agents once they trusted you, right?” Silver smiles.

Father’s chopsticks pause on the way to his mouth, ever so briefly. Silver isn’t sure if others would have noticed it, but he notices everything Father does. “Do you think I would kill my friends?”

Silver shrugs. “If you had to.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“If you were just doing it for fun, maybe. But you’re trying to stop monsters. You have to be a stronger monster to do that, don’t you?”

After a moment of silence, Silver looks up from his food to see that Father has stopped eating, gaze distant. He hesitates, realizing that calling someone a monster is probably not considered polite. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Father immediately says. “No, you didn’t. You simply held up a mirror to show me the sort of man I appear to be. I’m glad, that you can do that for me.”

“Oh. Okay.” Silver’s legs kick beneath the table as he tries to figure it out on his own, but eventually his worry that he did say something wrong is too great. “Why?”

“Because,” Father says, and begins to eat again. “Perhaps if your grandmother had such a mirror, she would not have become quite the monster she did.”

Silver still isn’t sure he understands that either, but he resolves to figure it out himself instead of going on about it for the rest of dinner while there are other things to ask. “So I was wrong? About your plan?”

“Yes. I decided that the best way I could ensure that my friends did not fight was to make them think I was more on their opponent’s side than theirs. As long as both believe I will side with their enemy, and thus put them at a severe disadvantage, then both have an added incentive not to begin hostilities. And since both know why I would not tell their opponent that, they also have an incentive not to refer to it themselves, or tell any of their own people, for fear that it would get to the other.”

“Huh.” It made sense, in a roundabout sort of way. “I guess it’s better to lie to friends than kill them. How often do you do that?” Silver is thinking of the shows he watches, sometimes, and how often secrets between the heroes cause trouble. He doesn’t bring them up; Father doesn’t like him getting his sense of what’s realistic or true from media, and Silver knows how much smarter Father is than the writers of the shows or movies from the rare nights when they watched something together. Silver would be asked to write out what the characters did, what he would do instead, and then Father would point out all the better choices they could have made.

Father takes a sip of his juice, grimaces, puts it down. “Perhaps most would not need to. For certain people, however, secrets are required to ensure safety.”

Silver nods. This he understands; secrets are what keep him safe. Father puts a lot of effort into ensuring his enemies don’t know Silver exists or where he is. But still… “When do you know that it’s safe to share a secret, then?”

“When the consequence of it staying hidden becomes worse than the consequence of it getting out. Or when someone’s trust is about to be broken.”


Dr. Light watches the rest of the team file into the room with a barely controlled, simmering anger that makes it hard to sit still. One or more of these eight idiot geniuses has broken ranks, and now they’re all going to be paying for it.

“Alright folks, let’s get this started. I’m sure we all have important things to get back to,” she says. As head of Cinnabar Labs, she’s the de facto highest ranking administrator in the room. Not that she asked to be; she was happily working on her gene editing research until 2.351 “awoke.” Labs across the region shut down rapidly after that as staff consolidated to work on all the breakthroughs that followed. Unfortunately that meant senior staff quickly became supervisors as they had more people to manage, and supervisors quickly became administrators. Soon she had less and less time for research, and before she knew it she was administrator of the whole lab, a job Dr. Fuji would have been much better suited to…

She forces her thoughts away from that sad path. Better not to think about it, and besides, she has more immediate worries.

“What’s this all about, Ivy?” Dr. Burnam asks her, and she meets his gaze, searching it for any sign of complicity. “Next administrator meeting is supposed to be in a week.”

“You may have noticed the word ’emergency’ in the email,” she says, voice dry. “It can’t wait until next week. Someone’s drawing from the communal pool out of rotation.”

A few people at the table curse or mutter under their breath, and Dr. Light tries to watch them all at the same time, as well as everyone else. It’s no use, she knows that, she’s not going to be able to tell who’s in on it just by watching for guilty tells. If they were the sort of people with tells, they wouldn’t have their jobs.

“Now obviously we can’t just get a psychic in here and have them check for guilt,” she says, which elicits some chuckles from the room of dark and psychic scientists. “But I’d like to resolve this without getting Giovanni involved. I hope I don’t need to remind you all that part of our jobs is to try and solve these sorts of problems before they get to his desk. He’s got enough on it.”

“So what’s someone doing?” asks Dr. Martin. “How are they getting away with it? There’s logs for every request, isn’t there?”

“Sure, yeah. Have you checked it recently?”

The man frowns. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I—”

“—she’s not implying anything, it’s a simple question.” Dr. Bosch interrupts. “Have you looked at it recently, or do you just sign your name and move on?”

“Look, when you make it sound like—”

“Enough,” Dr. Light says, already feeling a headache coming on. “I brought the book, just take a look at it yourselves.” She lifts it from the portfolio from the stack behind her and starts passing it to her left, where people begin to rifle through the pages of signed names, times, and requisitions.

Dr. Martin shakes his head and frowns, passing it on with a puzzled expression. Dr. Sato does the same, but Dr. Brown’s brow rises, and she sees that he spotted it. “A lot of these are just scribbles.”

“What?” The woman next to him takes the book and looks it over, then scowls. “Who did this?”

The others are clamoring for a look now, and Dr. Light raises her hands. “No need to check yourselves, it’s not that complicated. I’m pretty sure my 5 year old niece has done something similar when she needed her mom to sign a note for school once. At least one person has been just scribbling something that looks like a name on the form, but it’s illegible. Avoiding electronic records keeps us safe in one way but opens us up to shit like this. So, let’s get to the bottom of this now. Quick and easy. If you’ve been doing this, raise your hand.”

Everyone stares at each other, some in consternation, others in bland confusion. Dr. Light drums her fingers on the table, hoping with every passing second that someone does the right thing… until it becomes clear that no one will.

“Dammit people,” Dr. Collins says with a disgusted look. Head of the reconstructive cloning program, and suspiciously good at finishing his projects on time. She hears he drives his people to the bone, though, so it may just be that. “I’ve got two samples that need to be monitored for the rest of the day, I don’t have time for this.” He makes to get up.

Sit. Down,” Dr. Light says. “We all have places to be, but this is serious. People aren’t just asking for supplies, they’re asking for staff too.”

“Well, then, what’s the issue?” Dr. Brown asks. Mechanical R&D. He’s working on making environmental suits resistant to cold, heat, and electricity all at once, including Mewtwo’s. “Just ask them who they worked for.”

“Thanks, Mark, I didn’t think of that,” she says with a sweet smile. “Maybe if we’d spotted these right away that would have worked, but no one remembers whose lab they assisted in every day for the past five months. Anonymous records, folks! Get it through your heads. Unless one of you wants to put your name on some file that might get emailed? We can cast a vote, what do you say? Anyone?” She glares around the room, but no one raises their hand. “Thought not. So what’s the solution here?”

“Don’t you have one?” Dr. Martin asks.

“Clearly not, or she wouldn’t be asking,” Dr. Collins says. “I don’t see what the solution can be, though. We’re all hurting for manpower at some point. We just need to check the book daily from now on, make sure no one makes a request without printing legibly.”

“That’s only half the problem,” Dr. Light says, and sighs. Most of her anger is spent. “The reason people are doing this, I’m pretty sure, is that it lets them get through crunch time on their projects. We’ll have to implement a project scale down—”

The whole room starts to shout her down, but she takes the binder and slams it on the desk until it’s quiet. “I don’t like it either, but we’re running our people ragged like this! If we all follow the rotation, no one gets burnt out, but we clearly can’t do that, so this seems like the best option.”

“Easy for you to say,” Dr. Sato says, taking her by surprise. “Of course if there’s an emergency going on, Cinnabar Lab will get the priority, even outside of rotation.”

Her temper flares back up. “I’m sorry, do you want the living superweapon’s room to be understaffed on the day it happens to decide it wants out? I know it won’t be your people who get pasted to bloody jelly first, but—”

“No one’s saying they want that,” Dr. Brown says, holding up a soothing hand. “I think the main argument is that we all have critical projects to work on, and without the ability to pull people as needed, many of them will fall through.”

“And if everyone pulls at once, or people start to pull extras with scribbles, normal projects are falling through,” Dr. Romero says, speaking up for the first time. “I’ve got a backlog that I’ve been waiting for some openings in the roster to tackle. Now I know why it’s been taking so long.” She shakes her head. “We should be better than this, folks.”

“If we could just hire more staff—” Dr. Collins starts, only to have Dr. Brown make a sound of exasperation.

“Not this again. It’s not going to happen, Perry, not anytime soon. You don’t think Giovanni’s been trying? We’ve practically tapped the whole island dry.”

“Hell at this point I’m pretty sure they’re thinking of retraining the electricians and janitors,” Dr. Bosch says with a smile. “It’s not like we can hire interns or temps from the outside and have them sign an NDA, right?”

The discussion continues off topic from there, but Dr. Light makes no effort to rein it in. She knows better than to stop a bitchfest this massive before it lets off some steam, and despite what Dr. Sato said, she knows what it’s like to be hurting for manpower too.

It’s a simple coordination problem: nine labs set up in Kanto, with enough full-time staff to run maybe seven of them at once… but all nine are working on critical projects that can’t be stopped or delayed. Ostensibly. In truth, any of them (except maybe Cinnabar) could wind down some operations, consolidate, and take turns using the same resource pool, but… no one’s really willing to be the one to do that first.

So people make special requisitions of resources or general staff to deal with some emergency or opportunity, and then the lab they came from falls behind, so they do it, and on it goes, until all anyone’s accomplished is overworking everyone to complete a “normal” week’s worth of productive work instead of recognizing that the expectations are unrealistic. The first person to admit their lab could get by with less would just get by with less, freeing more for the other labs, who now don’t have to sacrifice as much.

All that would be okay if there was maybe another 100 staff to go around, but as Dr. Bosch mentioned, it’s not like they can hire just anyone, even for small positions. The two full-dark labs are the greatest drain on scarce resources, as Giovanni tries to bring a second lab of Cinnabar’s capabilities up to speed for project 3.0.

It’s a point of major concern for her, since she doesn’t know what will happen to 2.351 if they finally do get the staff needed to scrap the risky hybrid and start anew. People have been expecting it for years, but the logistics are just too great a hurdle. They still don’t know how unique 2.351 may be: the second lab that tried to recreate it kept failing, and no one’s sure if it was the presence of the other minds that were needed, or some quality of that combination of minds in particular, or even just one of them.

Those projects were shut down quickly. Erring on the safer side to avoid an explosive intelligence growth only to create batch after batch of varying degrees of “feral” mewtwo has been a nightmare to contemplate, and she doesn’t envy Dr. Sato for having to deal with it. Getting most of his geneticists poached by Dr. Martin’s hybrid project didn’t help either…

“—think it’s clear that this is more widespread than any of us want to admit,” Dr. Brown says. “Not that I’m admitting anything, but… just supposing you’re all in on it, I guess I’d think that’s just the normal state of affairs, and I’ve been missing out. I do sort of feel that way, to be honest.”

Dr. Romero raises his hand. “I haven’t been. This is all news to me, though I guess I should have seen it coming.”

Dr. Light raises her hand too. “I also don’t do it, and you’re missing the point. This isn’t sustainable. Whether all of us are doing it or just one of us, it’s messing with everyone’s productivity and worker well-being. Which is important, because I don’t want to bring up anyone here’s severance package.” She glares around the room, and is satisfied to see everyone look away.

Just then the door opens. Dr. Light is about to yell at whoever it is to knock first, but immediately gets to her feet when Giovanni himself walks in the room.

“Sir! We weren’t expecting you…” Normally their boss will communicate with them through video casting, or just a voice call. Traveling without the ability to teleport is annoying for all dark folk, but for someone as busy as the Gym Leader, she legitimately doesn’t know how he manages to get so much done. What’s he even doing here? Did someone leak the meeting to him?

“I apologize for dropping in so unexpectedly,” Giovanni says, voice steady and calming. “I’ll only be a few minutes. What’s this meeting concerning?”

“Ah.” Dr. Light feels a pit of dread in her stomach. She didn’t want to get Giovanni involved for her own sake, but she also didn’t want whoever was pulling this crap to get fired. The word takes on a different sort of meaning when you work for secret organizations doing highly illegal experiments.

Dr. Burnam gets Giovanni up to speed, either unaware of the implications or uncaring. She never managed to get a good read on him.

“Well, that does sound like a frustrating problem. What solutions have you proposed so far?”

Dr. Light clears her throat and sums up the ideas they had (except for hiring new people, since it goes without saying), without mentioning that each have at least one person who spoke out against them. She sees a few grateful looks flashed in her direction. She’s still a bit nervous, but has calmed down from the initial jolt to the heart that came from seeing the boss so unexpectedly.

“I see.” Giovanni stands with his hands clasped behind his back, gaze taking in the room. “Well, it seems you’re on the road to a solution. I won’t distract you all any further. Dr. Collins, I just came for you. Completely unrelated.”

Dr Light blinks as she looks at Perry. The head of the Celadon lab goes pale, sweat beading his forehead, and Dr. Light looks back at Giovanni just as he pulls a greatball from inside his jacket.

The room explodes into motion as everyone suddenly moves for the walls or gets behind other furniture, while Dr. Collins babbles “I… I don’t… Sir… Please, I can explain…”

Giovanni points the ball at him. There’s a ping. Dr. Light is still seated in her chair, staring in shock as Perry finally pushes himself up out of his seat and tries to run.

The ball hits him in the back, his wail of fear abruptly cut off as he’s sucked into it.

The room is quiet as the ball falls to the ground and rolls up against the table leg.

Giovanni steps toward the ball. “Would you mind, Dr. Light?”

“No, sir,” she says, lips numb as she leans down and takes the great ball with trembling fingers. Part of her wants to ask what Dr. Collins did. What terrible betrayal, what monumental incompetence. The rest of her doesn’t want to know. Sorry, Perry. She hands it to her boss without looking at him.

“Thank you. Do keep me posted on how all this resolves, won’t you?” He’s not looking at her, but at the rest of the room. Dr. Bosch looks like he’s going to be sick, and Dr. Romero’s face is turned toward the wall, shoulders shaking. “I’ll see you all for the normal meeting next week.”

Giovanni leaves. Dr. Light stays seated. Slowly, one by one, people make their way back to the table. Lift overturned chairs. Sit down.

“So,” she says after everyone’s back, some with their head in their hands, others staring blankly at her or the table. “Those in favor of a slightly scaling down operations, raise your hand.”

Every hand goes up. Politics, Dr. Light thinks in a mix of disgust and relief. She just wanted to be a researcher. Still, if she was a praying woman, she’d be thanking Arceus every day that she works in an organization where someone in charge can step in and enforce coordination, frightening as it sometimes is.

At least she doesn’t have to apply for grant money.


If there’s one thing Tahu always knew he was meant for, it was understanding what people wanted.

“I’m sorry,” the renegade says. “I just… I don’t know what came over me! Please, don’t, don’t kill me, I’m sorry!

Desperation. Fear. He types the words out with trembling fingers as he feels the sensed emotions in himself. Then he withdraws his mind from theirs, knowing what was coming next. No mystery here; the man is malleable, but weak. What he wants doesn’t matter compared to what Giovanni does.

“They had to die. Parasites, swollen on the blood of the people. The legal system’s in their pocket, they had to see what happens to them! It’s less than they deserved!”

Righteous anger. Complete conviction. Some mystery on this one. Tahu tries to predict Giovanni’s response, whether he thinks the renegade could be tempered, made useful. In the end he predicts wrong, which only drives him to understand more.

“Go fuck yourself, ‘Leader!'” The woman practically spits the word out. “If you’re going to kill me then get it over with!”

Rage. Self-loathing. No mystery. If death is what she wants, death she’ll have.

Month after month, whenever Giovanni has to execute a renegade, his personal assistant Tahu is nearby, listening to the conversations through an earpiece and typing what he finds to his Leader. He’s gotten better at predicting what Giovanni would choose, whether he would give them the shot that kills them, or the one he keeps in his jacket that would only make them appear dead. But his Leader still surprises him, and his explanations of why are always enlightening, to the point that Tahu has requested to be present and listen in on even dark and psychic renegades, just so he can try and predict Giovanni’s choice. He was granted that, for which he’s grateful. He has a lot to be grateful for, overall.

“This has all just been a terrible mistake. I wish I could do something, say something to convince you of that…”

Tahu sits with his back against the wall dividing him from the renegade, eyes closed as he feels for something, but… there’s barely anything there, and what he finds is hard to parse. He’s used to numbness when people are facing their final moments, but this is different. It’s not numb but nearly empty. Some traces of tension, some wariness, some anticipation. What he thinks of more than anything are numbers that go up or down, expectations and… calculation. That’s the word.

Tahu opens his eyes and types into his phone: No regret. Seems to be calculating what the best thing to say is? Hard to read, feels neither sincere or insincere. Tahu feels a brief stab of frustration and worry that he can’t be of more help, but a greater part of him is excited. How would Giovanni handle this?

There’s a pause, and then the Leader says, “Unfortunately, even if I believed you, it would not matter to your sentence. You know that. I’m curious if there’s anything you would have done differently, looking back on what’s happened?”

“I don’t know. Worked a different job, I suppose, so that I wouldn’t have become a suspect.”

Tahu hears Giovanni sigh. “Mr. Ueno, you’re about to be executed for a crime that, in most people’s eyes, deserves a punishment far greater than a quick and painless shot into oblivion. This conversation is not being recorded, one of the few rights I have managed to acquire for branded renegades in our region, so that their last moments would not be spent thinking of their legacy. So they could have some freedom, some space to be genuine, in their final experiences. If you truly wish this to be your last conversation, it is of course your choice. But I’ve seen your code… or I suppose I should say, the code that was used in the attacks. It’s impressive stuff. You can use your final moments how you wish, I just thought you might appreciate someone to talk to.”

That last was a good touch: a lie of sorts, Tahu knows Giovanni doesn’t actually understand much programming, but he sensed the flicker of pride when the Leader mentioned the code. Now the renegade is feeling something more familiar, cycling between a desire to share, to be understood, with honed instincts of keeping the truth to themself.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” Giovanni says. “Oh, pardon me, that was thoughtless.” The faint sound of a hypodermic needle being picked up from its table—

Resolution, like standing at the edge of a cliff.

“Wait.”

—and the sound of it being put down. “Yes?”

“I would have waited a day.”

Giovanni doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “What would have changed, if you waited?”

“Everything. I thought of a far more elegant solution just a day after I left the ball, but didn’t want to return and risk being seen on camera taking it back. It was well hidden, even more than the other cities.”

“The other cities.” Giovanni lets out a breath. “So you were behind the incident in Fuchsia? It seemed similar. Well planned out. Methodical.” More pride, and some annoyance? Tahu sends a quick text. “And others,” the Leader says after a moment. “I’ve missed some, haven’t I?”

“Not just you. My first experiments were in Carmine and Ivory Town, but no one noticed. They were chalked up to just random pokemon attacks, as if a parasect and kingler just happened to wander into the middle of town without anyone noticing.”

“So four successful tests in all. What were you trying for each time? Not just a delayed autorelease, surely.”

“Set, preconditioned behaviors. Imagine the applications.”

“Oh, I have, believe me. Security. Search and rescue. Transport, if people want to travel from fixed locations by pokemon without a handler. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?”

“Sure, if my thinking was stuck that small.”

Tahu’s breath stops. He’s been Giovanni’s personal psychic for over eight years, and he’s never heard someone so much as insinuate that the Leader was less than a genius, even outside of his presence. Not that the people he spends time with are likely to say so, but still…

“Oh, I can think bigger,” Giovanni says, and it’s only from long association that Tahu can hear the slight, dangerous smile on the Leader’s face. “But they’re all the sorts of reasons hacking pokeball tech is illegal in the first place. Is that what you were actually aiming to do, ultimately?”

“Yes.”

“And would you, if you were given a second chance? Warned away from it?”

“Probably. It’s too great a challenge to just ignore. What am I supposed to do, pretend there are more interesting things to work on? There aren’t. Not to me. That’s why you’re going to let me live.”

“Am I?”

“Of course. All this isn’t for my sake, and you’re not just building a profile of renegades. You want to know if I’m controllable. If I’ll be able to work for you secretly, if you get me out of this somehow and stick me in a facility somewhere. I’m not the first to think of this, there are conspiracy theories online. I was always skeptical of them, but now I’m starting to believe it.”

Tahu blinks. This is the first time he’s heard someone get so close to the truth, even if they’re motivated to believe it by egotism. The man is more confident than he claims: Tahu senses a sliver of hope, a shard of curiosity… but mostly what he feels from Ueno is that of course he would be spared death. A man of his genius is too valuable to kill, his story too important to end here.

Tahu lets Giovanni know, though he doesn’t think it will change the Leader’s obvious next response: “And would you?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Ueno’s hope grows, as does his egotism. Vindication is a singing chorus in Tahu’s mind, and he quickly withdraws his connection with the renegade, disliking the feel. It was like a drug.

It wasn’t the only thing he felt, however. Sincerity, Tahu types out… then hesitates.

If he sends this message, he predicts Giovanni will spare the renegade. He’d think someone this skilled would be a waste to kill, that his potential positive impact would be too great not to explore, in a safely restricted way.

But Tahu doesn’t quite agree. There’s something off about the man’s thoughts, his inner experiences. It would be one thing if he felt like a vibrating voltorb, but instead he’s more like… some ghost that might fade out of the corner of your eye as soon as you look away.

He could change the message. Lie about the renegade’s sincerity.

But Giovanni trusts him. It’s part of the puzzle of the man, the way he assigns trust to others when he has so many secrets to keep. Tahu has no doubt that if he betrays his Leader he would be snuffed out, but he’s okay with that. Because just as he’s trusted, he trusts his Leader in return.

It would be one thing to act without his knowledge for his benefit. But to deliberately deceive him… that would be a step too far.

Perhaps there’s another way.

Sincere, he sends, the wait already having gone on for a few seconds longer than customary. But there’s something about him that seems inherently hard to pin down. I would not trust him. He rereads the message twice, then sends it too.

It’s the first time he’s ever added commentary to his readings.

If Giovanni is surprised, it’s not evident in his voice. “I suppose we’ll see.” There’s the scrape of the needle…

“Wait. Wasn’t that the poison one?”

“There’s no non-poison one. It’s just a matter of dosage. I advise you keep still.”

Well, I tried. Tahu lets out a breath, then stands and stretches his legs and shoulders before he makes his way out of the room and around to the front of the building, where he takes a pull on his e-cig, holding it in his lungs for a while to relax his nerves.

No matter how many times, the moment of injection always brings him back to his own, even when it’s non-lethal. He hadn’t known that at the time. He thought he was going to die.

He was just a thug, back then. He gravitated toward the strongest kids in his neighborhood, did his best to understand what they needed, then give it to them. He was good at it. Even without people saying anything, he’d get feelings about what those around him needed or wanted.

So when he felt his whole gang’s anger at someone in an opposing one, how everyone seemed to feel it would be best if they just weren’t around anymore, the easiest thing to do was use a pokemon to kill them. Nothing fearsome, just a crappy bug that he caught and barely trained. Hopefully something that would be seen as an accident.

And it was. The first time. He wasn’t so lucky the third.

He may not have been spared if the Leader sent to execute him hadn’t noticed his untrained psychic powers. Apparently they made him so valuable that he was already “sold” by the time he woke up a few days after his supposed execution, body recovering from the comatose state slowly but surely. He barely had time to get used to the idea that he was actually still alive before he was told what would happen next in no uncertain terms.

He would be sent to another region. Minor plastic surgery, newly forged documents, and a falsified civil record would allow him to leave his past behind him. He would dedicate himself to the service of the Leader who had purchased him. His life would be full of work, but not cruel. He would be allowed a salary, some personal time. He could eventually retire, even.

But he could never speak of what had happened to him. And he couldn’t quit. Not unless he wanted to be hunted down a second time, and killed with even less of a trial.

Tahu agreed. It seemed, on balance, an excessively fair trade, even to his young and stupid self.

He had few opinions about his new lease on life, at first. He was just happy to be alive. When he was told that it was Leader Giovanni, of all people, who had purchased him, it felt like a dream. Even a gutter punk from another region like him knew about the youngest Champion in Kanto history. Apparently the Viridian Gym Leader was paying a premium for psychic and dark renegades, even without training.

Traveling to Kanto felt like something out of a kid’s movie. A month before, he had been a petty criminal. No prospects, barely any money to his name. Now he was on his way to a foreign region, where food and lodging would be provided indefinitely, as well as training for his latent psychic powers, all so he could help one of the most powerful trainers in the world.

And all I had to do to earn it was try to kill someone, and get branded a renegade, he remembers thinking as he watched the island he would soon call home approach in the distance.

Life is strange, sometimes.

Leader Giovanni eventually calls for him, and Tahu presents himself to his boss’s office. Or at least the one in the Gym. It’s far more ostentatious than the ones in his less… public places. Trappings of the position are important: even Tahu, who’s been in here countless times now and is always acutely aware of Giovanni’s position in comparison to him on even a personal level, feels their difference in status more keenly when he walks in.

“Sit down,” the Leader says, typing something on his computer. “I’d like you to report more fully on the renegade we just interviewed.”

Tahu feels himself start to sweat, suddenly worried that he’s here to be punished for his comment. He instinctively reaches his mind out to sense what his Leader is thinking, and of course senses nothing at all. It’s surprising how that never stops getting ever-so-mildly frustrating. It’s the reason most psychics don’t spend a lot of time around dark minds, if they can help it.

“I feel as though I have a weak grasp on his psychology,” Tahu says after a minute, knowing his Leader would never begrudge him time to think. “I don’t know how to evaluate what he believes is true about himself and what he will justify tomorrow. I think it’s… risky, letting him live. More than most, I mean. Even given what he can accomplish, I wouldn’t have made the same decision.”

Giovanni nods, and continues to type into his computer. Tahu waits, knowing he isn’t being slighted and needing the time to think through what he just said over and over before he’s satisfied he didn’t leave anything out, or assert something he can’t stand behind.

Eventually Giovanni stops typing, clicks something, then gives Tahu his full attention. “Is this the first time you had an opinion on whether a fellow renegade was too dangerous to risk?”

Fellow renegade. It’s been so long since he’s thought of himself in those terms. “No.”

“Why haven’t you shared them before?”

“I didn’t feel it was my place,” he says automatically. “I’m sorry if—”

“No,” Giovanni says, and Tahu falls silent. “Skip that part.”

After a moment the psychic nods. “Sir. I worried you would make a mistake. I hoped to help you avoid it, if possible.” His throat feels dry, but he doesn’t swallow, face schooled as he meets his Leader’s gaze.

“Good.” He looks at his screen, mouse moving to bring something up. “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved, since coming to work with me?”

Tahu blinks at the sudden shift. “I don’t.” He’s fought alongside the other Gym members, of course. He can remember a few of the people he’s saved, like a group of trapped trainers during the Viridian Forest fire a few months ago. When he was still new to all this, he kept track; it felt like something that might eventually balance out the ones he took, someday. Eventually he stopped counting. “Do you?” It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that Giovanni was somehow tracking something like that.

“No. Even counting just the renegades you’ve helped, there’s no way to tell which were the direct result of your intervention. But here’s what the record shows.” He turns the screen, and Tahu sees a graph that stretches back decades. “Notice anything?”

It’s faint at first, but there. A steady upward trend, starting eight years ago. By the beginning of this year, the percentage of renegades that Giovanni has managed to spare from execution has more than doubled from the point it was before Tahu joined.

“I long ago honed the art of speaking with and discerning which renegades were safe to spare and which weren’t to what I thought was as good as I could do. It was only with your help that I was able to break those limits.”

A swell of pride in Tahu’s chest makes him feel oddly embarrassed. Praise by the Leader isn’t unheard of, but this is more than that. It’s… something very close to validation, and Tahu is alarmed to feel something like tears prickling at the back of his eyes. “I’m… gratified that I can be of such help, Leader. But wouldn’t any psychic serve as well to pass along simple impressions?”

“Would they? I’m told that there’s a depth and nuance that comes with skill for these things, as well as the ability to keep your perspective while merging it with someone else’s emotions.”

“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to dodge the compliment, I only meant that any psychic of sufficient skill could do what I do.”

“To a certain degree, yes. Sabrina, if she had no other duties, or Hitoshi, perhaps. But you weren’t selected for your abilities alone. You were selected because of your background, and because of your loyalty. Loyalty I fostered in you, so I could extend trust. Do you understand?”

“I… believe so. You’re saying you trust me to share my thoughts with you.”

“Yes.” Giovanni’s lips quirk in a smile. “I often find that confidence is not just a matter of our own assessment of our competence, but also our assessment of how those around us recognize or value our competence. For whatever reason, it seems I’ve signaled enough positive signs of trusting your judgement to warrant you to feel confident enough to share some of it. This is me reinforcing that confidence more explicitly.”

Tahu bows his torso, taking on the cultural practice of the region to show the depth of his feeling. “I’m honored, Leader. More than I can say.”

“I did end up sparing Mr. Ueno.”

Tahu blinks, still bowing. He sits up. “Ah.”

“I don’t want that to discourage you,” Giovanni says. “There are factors beyond those you’re aware of. Some who request renegades are less, ah, lenient than others, with those they employ. Taking your advisement into consideration, I believe Mr. Ueno will do well with someone who will keep a closer eye on him than most, while still ensuring his particular skills and genius can benefit others.”

“I understand.” It’s hard not to think of what sorts of living conditions might be required to keep a renegade of Ueno’s genius under such close control. Not that it matters: in the end it’s surely better than death, and perhaps the programmer would relish an environment that lets him dedicate himself entirely to his work.

“Now that you’ve extended not just your trust of me, but of mine toward you, I want your perspective on something that I’ve shown few others. Perhaps you can advise me on it, the same way you do with the renegades.”

Tahu feels pride swell up in him again, and smiles. “Of course. I’m at your service, Leader. Always.”

Giovanni sends a message, then stands. “Good. Because we’re going now.”

When Giovanni tells him where, Tahu feels his heart leap, and hurries to follow. Today began as fairly normal. He wouldn’t have guessed that his decision would change so much.

He knows what’s been going on at Cinnabar Island, of course, but only second hand. He’s never been in the same room as the creature, and no video footage exists. It’s one of the greatest mysteries around, and it’s hard to contain his excitement at finally having a closer look at it, if still indirectly. Sabrina talks about it with him, now and then, but not in much detail. He gets the feeling she doesn’t like him, though it’s hard to know for sure with how good she is at mental defense.

Eventually Tahu stands with Giovanni before a door, waiting for the system to boot up.

“It takes a few minutes for the room to clear out, normally,” Giovanni says. “I often spend the time reviewing my goals for the meetings, playing through what it might say, how I will respond to certain questions.”

“And are you not now?”

“No. For this, I’ve developed a script.”

“Ah.” He’s not sure he understands, but he has a more pressing question. “Wouldn’t it help if I could merge thoughts with it first, at least once? Get a sense of how it thinks and feels?”

“I’m sure it would, but for matters such as that, I must defer to Sabrina. I know your shield is sufficient, or you would not be here, but if she gives you clearance then we can discuss it for one of the upcoming visits.”

His jaw sets. “As you say, Leader.”

“Until then, I’m curious about your impression without such. What I want you to focus on are the same sorts of things you would with a renegade interview. Understood?”

“Yes.”

When they get the notification that things are ready, Giovanni taps the screen beside the door, then walks in. Tahu gets only a glimpse of what’s inside, then it closes, and he’s left to watch on the monitor.

The experimental life form hangs suspended in his pod, various media systems around it to play him music or display videos or digital books. The computer terminals and chairs are all empty, the guard and their pokemon absent. He spots the new addition of the mobile life support suit, which hangs nearby in its own chamber where it can be serviced and deployed as needed. It’s apparently used more and more often these days, as Mewtwo leaves his chamber to interact with the rest of the facility, and spend time outside. Giovanni stopped requiring his own presence for those; according to Sabrina, the Leader’s creation seems content to simply stand and stare, or walk around the manor grounds.

Tahu knows that at first Giovanni only pretended to be absent, watching from a distance through binoculars until Mewtwo returned downstairs. Lacking the ability to teleport is one of the Leader’s greatest frustrations, and so after a dozen such incidents, when it seemed truly content to simply bask in the sunlight, Giovanni allowed the trips more often, and put his time to better use elsewhere.

As he said, trust is hard to develop.

“Greetings, Giovanni. How are you today?”

Mewtwo’s synthetic voice fills the chamber, and Tahu watches as the Leader reaches the chair in front of the tube and sits, one leg crossed over his knee as he gazes up at his creation. “Greetings, Mewtwo. Well enough, and you?”

Scripted, he said. Tahu tries to determine what the point of this script is. What he’s meant to witness and advise on, with everything so set in stone.

“Yes. Shall we play a game?”

“Not today.”

No immediate response. Is that part off-script? Tahu watches both of them, but his gaze moves more often to the creature’s face, fascinated. He knows it’s half human, but he sees nothing familiar in its pinched, bone-white features. No lips, no eyebrows, a snout instead of a nose… he can’t make out the eyes from this distance, but he imagines them as similarly alien.

“Is something wrong?” Mewtwo finally asks.

“Yes. Something is wrong, and has been for a long time, now.”

“What is it? Perhaps I can help.”

Giovanni gathers himself with a breath, then expels it and stares down at his clasped hands. “You cannot help with this. It was my error, you see. My mistake. I didn’t trust you.”

The room is quiet. There’s the background noises of the creature’s life pod, and the monitoring equipment. It all sounds so real, even through the speakers. The one for Mewtwo’s heart rate stays constant, steady, despite the surprise it would surely be feeling. Little things like that keep distracting Tahu, and he makes an effort to refocus, in case he misses what he’s supposed to see.

Finally Giovanni’s creation responds. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s quite simple. I didn’t trust you, Mewtwo, when we created you. I hoped for intelligence, and intelligence you have, in abundance. I hoped for power, and that too you have, far outstripping our expectations in some ways, even if others are not yet met. But I did not dare hope for obedience, for trust. Hope for such things would be foolish. Dangerous. I needed to be cautious. Safe. And as a result, I fear I have ruined things permanently.”

Mewtwo is silent again. Tahu can’t imagine what responses it might have prepared for something like this, except to ask the obvious…

“Ruined things how? What have you done?”

“I manufactured your illness.” Tahu’s eyes widen. “It was meant as a control mechanism, when you were created. Many of your non-dark researchers truly do not understand it, to help sell the illusion. The others enhance it, keep it evolving, to keep them befuddled. When they reach a breakthrough or suspect the truth, we have them inflict Amnesia on themselves if psychic, or transfer them to another facility if not.”

Silence, for almost a minute. Tahu uses the time to guess what Giovanni is thinking, what the consequences he’s expecting from this will be, until a single word is spoken:

“Why?”

“We had no way of knowing how smart you would be. How… human. Or how powerful. If you were to somehow escape, despite all our other precautions, we needed something immensely deadly and pernicious, beyond even the ability of a powerful psychic’s ability to regenerate.” Giovanni pauses, seeming to let out a heavy breath. Surely part of the script as well. “We succeeded.”

Silence in the room, but for the occasional fluid transfer, the steady beep. Beep. Beep. Tahu watches Giovanni’s fingers smooth the material of his pant leg. It’s the first time he’s seen the Leader show any sign of nervousness. Pent up energy, yes. Tension, of course. But this can only be described as nervousness. Tahu can see the moment when he calms himself, and raises his gaze to meet his creation’s again. To focus on the importance of the moment.

“I cannot be cured?” the synthetic voice asks at last, so deep and powerful. A fitting voice, somehow.

“On the contrary, you can. The problem is that I do not trust that you trust us. I have come to realize my error in stages, over the years. I did not like those realizations, but I endeavored to consider them, focused on discerning how justified they were. I listened to counsel from those who know you best. I now believe my errors were severe.

“Had I simply trusted you more, given you more freedom sooner, perhaps you would be a perfect partner, now. A few years in, there was still much testing to do. Much to learn. And always, more excuses to be made, more reasons for caution. Your threats were, of course, the greatest justification to stay the course, but I do not blame you for them. I blame myself, for making them necessary. Perhaps if I had been less cautious, trusted the human in you more than the pokemon, there would exist a strong bond, if not like that of a parent and child, at least not one of master and slave. I do not…” Giovanni stops, and it’s hard to tell if it’s part of his script or not. “I am imperfect in many ways. I have learned much over the past decade. I hope you understand that. I hope I have not ruined things irrevocably. That by coming clean, I can salvage some seed of trust. That is all I need, in truth. To really, truly feel that, even if you cannot forgive me, it would be safe to grant you your freedom, and perhaps start anew.”

Tahu is holding his breath despite himself. He forces himself to breathe out, then back in. He’d gotten caught up in the moment, when he should be trying to think through what he’s seeing, the implications, and what Giovanni’s imagined responses to this script, this confession, are.

He knows enough to already presume that the Leader would have used prediction algorithms that studied every word Mewtwo has ever spoken, running millions of simulations (imperfect, all imperfect, for of course they can’t put the real Mewtwo in a ball and risk damage to his mind), coming up with all sorts of answers, until he could find the right words to say to get the right response:

“Of course we can. I understand your choices, whatever pain they have caused me. Once I am cured and free, we can begin building true trust between us.”

Giovanni closes his eyes, breath coming out in a near silent rush. He’s focused on something, though what it is Tahu can’t begin to guess (so frustrating!), and he’s glad he was told to engage his shield so he isn’t tempted to reach out, only to feel that void again.

No, he has to try. Tahu puts himself in Giovanni’s mind as best he can. Not just what he might feel, hearing those words, but how he wants to feel.

Is it even remotely like what he feels when a renegade says they would toe the line, if spared?

Giovanni’s eyes open. He watches his creation a moment longer, as if contemplating feelings that just… won’t… change.

And then he presses the button beside the pod that would terminate Mewtwo’s life.

Instead of poisons flooding the pod, Mewtwo simply disappears from inside it. The rest of the room flickers on the monitor, fading back into the bare whiteness of the holochamber. Giovanni sits still as the simulation ends yet again, finger finally leaving the empty air where the button was.

Tahu watches as Giovanni sits for another minute in that white, empty room, then stands and leaves the chamber.

The Viridian Gym leader takes a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipes sweat from his forehead as he rejoins Tahu. The psychic barely notices, still thinking of what he saw.

“Do you understand?” Giovanni eventually asks.

“I think so,” Tahu says, each word measured, careful. “It is not enough to hear the right words. Difficult choices don’t come when you hear the wrong ones. What matters here is not what the creature says, but how you feel about what it says.”

“Yes. I’ve rarely found it so difficult to understand my own feelings on a matter, but in this case it seems impossible for me to separate my caution from my perception of reality. I’ve lost perspective.”

Tahu feels uncomfortable, if touched, for being so confided in. “Does that mean that it’s best to simply start anew?”

Before Giovanni can answer, his earpiece rings. “Yes?” Tahu sees the Leader’s eyes widen, then narrow, before he begins to stride down the hall. “I’m on my way. Have everyone assembled in ten minutes. Let the League know I’ll be going.”

Tahu takes his phone out to check messages. “Trouble?”

“Just the world’s well timed seasonal reminder of what my indecision costs.”

Chapter 58: Precipitate

On the fourth morning of the cruise, the ship stops by the northernmost of the Sevii Isles so people can shake off whatever cabin fever they might have before the return trip to Vermilion. Knot Island is long and thin, with a massive, dormant volcano called Mt. Ember hogging most of its landmass at the northern end. The port at its southern end is highly focused on tourism, with lots of restaurants, hotels, and offers of guided trips to the mountain or the other Sevii islands.

Red and Leaf spend most of their time ashore by exploring Treasure Beach, so called because the tides often bring in pearls, shells, scales, or other valuables from the unusually high number of aquatic pokemon around the island. There are people who scour the beaches as a second job or profitable hobby, but most tourists are required to stay relatively near to the town to avoid wild pokemon, which means the area has been mostly picked clean. Since Red and Leaf have their pokemon to protect them, they move farther along the coast. Crimson flies above them looking for danger while their other pokemon help them dig, with varying degrees of success.

Luckily no wild pokemon attack them, and Red’s just happy to spend time with his newly evolved pokemon. Pikachu is incredibly fast compared to when he was a pichu, able to dash from the shoreline to the tall grass beyond the sand and back before Red can call out a command to return. They break up the digging with occasional training exercises, and even Leaf seems happy to do things like target practice again. It takes Red almost an hour to get used to Pikachu’s stronger and more accurate electric bolts, but isn’t sure how much of that may have to do with the difference of the beach’s air humidity.

After a few hours they manage to find a tiny pearl that some shellder spat out, as well as a small pocket of ruby “star sand,” the deteriorated remains of staryu and starmie gems that often find their way to shore. It’s not much given the time investment, but upon seeing Leaf’s sad expression when she carefully scoops the ruby grains into a pouch, Red manages to cheer her up a bit by suggesting they give the money from selling it to Aiko’s ranch. Eventually they return to town to try one of the restaurants there for lunch before they head back to the ship. Since it’s technically off the ship, Red orders food without any pokemon in it, which also seems to cheer Leaf up. They spend most of the meal talking about what other options there are for tasty, pokemon-free salads and pastries.

Afterward they head back to the ship, and Red tries calling Bill to see if he has anything to say about the psychics on the cruise. The inventor doesn’t answer, as usual, so he calls Ayane next.

“It’s not unusual for us to keep details about jobs to ourselves,” she says, and Red can hear the frown in her voice. “But that does seem like a context where it wouldn’t be as big a deal as you’re reporting. Do you have any reason to believe something criminal or wrong is happening?”

“No,” he admits. “It’s just a feeling. Have you ever been asked to come on one of these?”

His teacher laughs. “No, Red, I’m afraid I’m not quite as renowned as to be hired by the sorts of people on the Cruise Convention. But plenty of businesses employ psychics to help in their negotiations and to tell if they’re being influenced when they know other psychics will be around. Your plan to talk to the ship’s captain seems reasonable, but I wouldn’t start throwing accusations around without something more concrete to report.”

Red thanks her and says goodbye, then turns to Leaf, who’s on the phone with his mom.

“Uh huh. Yeah.” She notices he’s free, and says, “Hang on, here’s Red.”

He takes the phone from her. “Hi Mom!”

“Red, can you repeat what Mr. Silph said to you?”

Red blinks, her tone forestalling any questions he wants to ask. Instead he just recalls the conversation as best he can.

When he finishes, she lets out a breath. “Okay. And just to be sure, he came to you, right? Was there any reason to believe that he might have known you were on the boat before he arrived?”

“I don’t… think so,” Red says, trying to remember what might have hypothetically tipped Mr. Silph off. He turns to Leaf. “You didn’t post about us coming online, did you Leaf?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I thought about it, but decided not to drive up expectations in case I wasn’t able to write something. I… did tell someone at Aiko’s ranch, a guy named Adom, but I don’t think he would have told anyone, since he told me something about the cruise in confidence.”

“Leaf says—”

“I heard her. So there’s one potential source, aside from Bill himself. I’ve never met him, do you think it’s something he might have done?”

Red closes his eyes and tries to model Bill as best he can. What does he want? Why did he send us here? What purpose do we serve in being here? He doesn’t know enough, it’s all speculative. “I can’t think of anything, but… I mean, the two probably do business together. Mr. Silph might have asked if Bill was coming, and he told him we were instead?”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of.” The tension in his mom’s voice adds worry to Red’s confusion. He can’t imagine what his mom is so concerned about, but she’s not the type to worry needlessly, and clearly she has some information he doesn’t. “And he hasn’t talked to you again since that first time?”

“No. What’s going on, Mom?”

“It’s a long story, but the less you know the better, from what Leaf told me about all the psychics on the ship.”

Red’s hand tightens on the phone as protective anger creeps up his temples. “You think he’s trying to get to you somehow, through me?” He acted so friendly, too…

“Maybe not explicitly. Just stay calm and avoid him as best you can for the next few days. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course. Sorry if I said the wrong thing to him—”

“No, hon, I’m sure you didn’t, and you couldn’t have known either way. I could have told you earlier… though maybe it’s best that I didn’t after all. I’m sorry you’re getting caught up in this.”

Red feels curiosity warring with his sense. She just said that the less he knows the better, and he’s still itching to know more. “It’s okay,” he says after a moment.

“Does that mean you won’t try to pry into it yourself?”

Red is acutely aware that the last time they met in person she was berating him for breaking a promise to her. She’s not using the word, but she doesn’t have to. “You can tell me when the cruise is over though?”

“Yes, and I will. I was planning to soon anyway.”

“Okay, then.” Silph probably has a psychic constantly in his mind to let him know if another tries to invade it anyway.

“Thank you, Red. Just enjoy the rest of your cruise as best you can. I love you. ”

“Love you too, Mom.” He hands the phone back to Leaf, who says goodbye shortly after, looking as troubled as him. “Well? What else do you know about all this?”

“I promised I wouldn’t say, Red, plus the psychics…”

Plus the psychics. Meaning she promised in a context separate from knowing about them. But he’s sure she has her reasons, and slowly lets the anger go as he breathes out. “Alright, fair enough.”

Leaf looks a bit surprised. “Really?”

Red smiles and starts looking through his phone directory again. “I’ve found that trusting you is pretty easy, in general. Come on, let’s see how Blue and Aiko have been doing.”

Turns out, not so well.

“Oh, no!” Red hears Leaf exclaim, hand over her mouth as she listens to whatever part of the story Aiko is on. “Are you… is everyone alright?”

Red himself is still in a mild state of shock as Blue finishes summing up what happened in the tunnels. “That… really sucks,” Red says, thinking of how much time and effort he and Blue put into training Kemuri back in Pewter. “I’m sorry, Blue. What about the girl who got hurt?”

“She’s set to undergo some more specialized treatment. We’re still waiting on updates to see how much she’ll recover.”

“Damn.” Red wants to say he’s sorry again, but it feels inadequate. I should have been there…

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“Do you?” Red glances at Leaf, who’s pacing restlessly with a concerned look on her face.

“You warned me to be careful. I should have been more prepared.”

“I wasn’t thinking that, actually. Just… wishing I could have helped.”

“Oh. Yeah, it would have been good to have you down there.”

Red isn’t sure how to respond to that. He wants to say sorry again, this time for not being there, but it would feel hollow, knowing that he’ll be going to train with Sabrina soon. Again he feels like he should say so, and again he balks at making the words real, not sure how to actually approach the topic given yet another example of what he’s risking if he leaves.

“How’s the cruise, anyway?” Blue eventually asks after the awkward silence spins on a while.

“Oh, uh, good,” Red says, relieved. “Some of the tech is really cool… oh shit, Blue I totally forgot, you guys haven’t heard anything yet, right? It hasn’t leaked?”

What hasn’t leaked?”

So Red sums up the pokemon cloning tech demonstration, along with all the shortcomings, both admitted and imagined by Leaf.

“Blue? You there?”

“Yeah,” he says, sounding a bit dazed. “I’m here.”

Red grins. “How blown is your mind?”

“Red… that’s…”

“I know.”

“How long?” Blue demands. “How long before it’s ready? I… damn it, I already wiped Kemuri’s ball… why haven’t they already announced this?”

“I don’t think they know, yet.” Red notes his own surprise; he hadn’t expected Blue of all people to want to bring back his pokemon instead of get a new, top shelf mon. But after further thought, it makes sense: Blue has never wanted to be seen as taking an easy route. He wants to prove he has what it takes himself to train and raise the best pokemon. “Honestly, I’d be surprised if they even know what’s wrong. If it turns out to be trivial, maybe they’ll be ready in a year or two. If it turns out not to be, well… a decade, maybe a bit more?”

Blue lets a breath out. “Yeah. Alright, then. Still, this is going to throw the markets into chaos.”

“Not just pokemon markets, all of them.”

“Shit, yeah. Is there any way we can use that?”

“People are talking about which stocks to short sell, so maybe that. I’m not really sure how it works though: something about borrowing stocks, selling them, then buying them back when the price is down.”

“I’ll check with the others, and Gramps and Daisy, maybe someone will know how we can get in on it. Damn, I don’t have time for this now!”

“What’s going on?” Red asks.

“I’m getting ready to fight Leader Surge. Trained up my dugtrio, just seeing if I can get a last minute evolution out of Gon to cover for Kemuri’s spot on the team.”

Red hears the clipped, tense note in his voice. “Have you gotten the chance to talk to Surge yet?” he asks, trying to get the conversation somewhere more positive.

“No.” Dammit. “He’s either really busy or too above talks with random trainers at the gym. Either way, he’ll have to give me some face time after I beat him.”

Red grins. That’s more like it. “Well, good luck. I’d say I’ll be cheering you on, but I don’t think the ship’s net will handle streaming.”

“No sweat, just watch it later. I’ve got some ideas I want to test with you when you get back.”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it again. Just say it.

“Red?”

“You haven’t asked the others to try them out?”

“Different sets of skills. It’ll be too late to help with Surge, but I want to see if I can get my team to respond to stressed syllables on commands. What do you think?”

Huh. That would be hard for some pokemon with less acute sense of sound, but would really allow for more variation in each command’s specificity… “It sounds like a good challenge. But… Leaf can probably help with that more than I can, since it’s not necessarily combat related.”

“I’ve got another idea for her. Plus, you can use your powers to figure out when my pokemon are hearing different pitches, right?”

“I could, yeah.”

There’s another pause before Blue says, “Well, it was just an idea.” There’s a frown in his voice, and Red knows his own hesitation was clear. “It’s fine if you’ll be busy with something else.”

“I might be, yeah,” Red says slowly. He struggles one last time to explicitly say it, and fails. It seems this is the closest he can come for now. “I’ll let you know when I get back?”

“Alright, sure. Anyway, I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the trip.”

“Sure. Good luck with the match, and say hey to Aiko for me.”

Red ends the call, and stares at the phone for a bit, wondering why it’s so hard for him to tell Leaf or Blue that he’s going. Should he take it as a sign that he’s not actually ready to leave, that he would regret the choice later? That there’s some part of him that doesn’t want to go? Except that’s not a new insight, he knows there’s a large part of him that doesn’t want to go.

Red feels his thoughts going in useless circles and contemplates getting his notebook out, but decides to check his messages and email instead while he still has some internet connection. Soon the boat announces that it’s preparing to sail again, and Red sees Leaf finally end the call as they make their way back over the docks together.

“Hey. Crazy stuff, right?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Leaf looks troubled, and Red assumes it’s about their friends almost dying underground until she says, “Red, Aiko reminded me of something I wanted to talk about, before we came on the cruise. She told me about you using your powers to remove your pokemon’s conditioning, and let them follow their battle instincts at just the right moments.”

“Yeah, Blue calls it sakki. It translates basically to ‘killing intent,’ which isn’t quite accurate for what I feel when I use it. That depends a lot on the pokemon” He trails off as he sees her expression. “What about it?”

“I don’t understand how you could do something so reckless. Aiko was saying you’ve been careful, but all it takes is one slip up, and you could have your license stripped, or worse.”

“Oh, no, it’s not like that!” he says, smiling. He sees a flash of irritation on her face, and stops. “Come on, Leaf, you know how risk-averse I am. I wouldn’t do it if it was that dangerous! Like I said, it depends on the pokemon. I refused to use it with Charmeleon after he evolved because I wasn’t sure it was safe.”

“I know you’re sane, Red, I’m just concerned that you can’t actually know how dangerous it is, and the consequence if you’re wrong is too high. Don’t you think if that sort of thing was safe, other psychics would have thought of it by now?”

“We don’t know that they haven’t,” Red points out. “Battle Trainers are so secretive already, and a lot of psychics like to act all aloof and mysterious on top of that. A psychic battle trainer who figures it out would be twice as unlikely to tell anyone, they’d just want to keep the advantages it gives to themselves.”

“Did you at least reach out to Professor Oak or Psychic Ayane to see? Or Sabrina? She’d know if anyone would, right?”

Red hesitates a moment. “Not… yet, no—”

“Swords of Justice, not you too, Red!” Her hands cover her face. “Why are you keeping secrets now?”

Red feels a flare of indignation as he remembers how he specifically chose not to keep the ability to himself. “I’m not, there just wasn’t time! I told the others, didn’t I? That’s how you found out about it in the first place!”

“But none of them are psychic! And they’re battle trainers, none of them are going to tell you not to do it anymore!”

Invisible bands squeeze around Red’s chest even as his indignation grows. Why are they arguing again, he doesn’t want to argue with Leaf, even more than arguing with Blue or his mom it makes him feel wretched… “The way you are?”

“Yes, the way I am! I’m worried about you, Red, and Aiko, and whoever else you guys might test this thing on!”

“Leaf… I appreciate the worry more than you might believe, but really, you don’t know what it’s like, using it. I’m in their head the whole time, remember? Feeling what they feel. I started using it with Pikachu before he evolved, and he didn’t feel any kind of desire to kill, even in battle, it’s just a useful way of knowing when a good time to use an electric attack is. I did it again on the beach today, and there was no sense of… leashed violence or desire to kill anything, he was just thinking about how his electricity would act. What’s wrong with that?”

Leaf rubs her temples. “Nothing, but that’s one pokemon in some situations. I don’t want you to let your guard down and then get taken by surprise when some other instinct surfaces.”

“I know what to look out for. If my pokemon starts to want to attack a human or go for a kill, I’d just end the mental state to stop them.”

“And what if Aiko figures out a way to imitate it, but without whatever safety you might get from the mental link? It’s just a ridiculous risk to take, all for some advantage in trainer battles.”

Red frowns as he considers that. Does he actually trust others to use this kind of ability without a psychic connection? “I mean yeah, that could be a problem. I’ll talk to her about that too, if you want.”

“That’s not enough, not if you continue to use it. Even if she says okay, others might figure it out and try.”

“So… what, you do want me to keep it secret, now?” Red asks, bewildered.

Leaf makes a sound of frustration as they board the ramp leading back to the ship, causing one of the older cruise members to look over at them. She lowers her voice, though still sounds like she’s holding back a yell. “I don’t know! At the very least, you should ask Sabrina or your teacher from Cerulean.”

“Yeah, of course.” He could have brought it up with Ayane, but she’s not a trainer, and he’s going to be with Sabrina soon… “I was planning to, you know. Really.”

“Alright. But in the meantime, you’re way too confident about a risk that might get you labeled a renegade, just for the edge it gives you in a fight. Don’t you think it’s possible that getting into trainer battles may have warped your perspective a bit?”

She’d said the magic words: too confident. “Hang on, I need to process that.” Red pulls out his notebook and starts to write out the benefits of practicing the mental merge… no, specifically the sakki that arises in battle, as they reach the deck of the ship and find a table to sit at so they can watch the cast off. Waiters are circulating with beverages, and Red distractedly takes a glass of chilled juice as he works, nearly spitting it back out for being bitter instead of sweet. He sets it aside to concentrate, and after a minute shifts to outright goal factoring the decision as he starts to break it down into each piece of value he gets from it.

But it’s hard to focus, hard to tease apart each motivation on the spot. All he can really think of is that it makes him stronger as a trainer, and helps him learn about his pokemon. And… well, he enjoys the company too, the camaraderie. The challenge, coming up with new strategies, thinking about ways to beat theirs…

“You might be partially right,” he eventually says, leaning back in his seat and reaching for his juice again before remembering the taste. “But it’s not winning itself that I care about. It’s… There are a couple things, and I won’t deny that it’s exciting to use it in battle and pull off a win, but it’s not that I need the win, I just… it’s the craft of it.”

Leaf stares at him over her own fruity beverage. “The craft of turning your pokemon into a killing machine?”

“No! To… gah, I don’t know how to describe it.” Red taps his pencil against the page where he wrote some question marks. “It’s a creative thing, I think, and also a competence one. There’s just this rush when a plan comes together, you know? Being connected with my pokemon enough to know what they’re thinking, to be able to stop them when I need to, to judge the right time for changes in their mood, integrating all that into a strategy… I feel like I’m good at it, I mess up a lot but rarely the same way twice, and each new battle is like a new puzzle—”

“So play the sims!” Leaf exclaims, then glances around self-consciously and lowers her voice again. “Or figure out other skills they can do, like a Coordinator! Or just… keep battling but without this thing with your power. Why do you have to risk their lives, or others’ lives?”

“But that’s the other part of it,” Red says, voice lowered too. “We’re all risking our lives! If this is something that might help keep us alive at some point, I need to practice using it in fights.”

“But that sort of thinking could justify anything!” Leaf shakes her head and puts her drink down as she leans back in her chair. The expression on her face rends something in Red’s chest. “It’s no use. I thought… I don’t know, Red, I thought you understood, but you’re just like everyone else, even Aiko…” She sighs and covers her eyes with her palms. “Is it me? I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels like how we use our pokemon should matter too, but maybe I’m just fooling myself by trying to be a trainer too.”

Red feels like there’s an iron ball in his gut. He wants to insist that he is different, though clearly he’s not, or that there’s nothing wrong with her, but he can’t think of a way to show that rather than just say it. “Maybe if… if you try to explain again, from the bottom… like your base values, what you’re building from and why they matter?”

“It’s no use, Red. I think you just have to feel it yourself, or it won’t matter.”

Red’s not sure how to respond to that, and they sit in silence as the boat finally starts to move below them. Leaf lets her hands fall from her face, and Red relaxes slightly when he sees her eyes are dry. They watch the shore start to recede away from the ship, until the island and its mountain are just a part of the horizon. Her words keep running in Red’s head until he realizes the answer is right there in them.

Red turns to her. “So show me.”

Leaf glances at him, wary. “Show you?”

“The way you feel. Show me, while I’m reading your mood. We never tried me learning that trick you did with the abra, maybe that will help me understand your perspective better.”

“Well first of all, it’s not a trick,” Leaf says.

He makes a brushing off gesture. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. When I shift my mental state to match someone else’s, I actually feel what they do. Mental powers work by symmetry.”

Leaf looks suddenly speculative, which is much preferable to her despair or frustration. “I remember hearing you say something like that before. But it’s only temporary, right?”

He shrugs. “Sure, as temporary as any other emotion.”

“I mean, it doesn’t affect your worldview, your day to day life. You can feel sad if you merge with someone who’s watching a movie that makes them sad, but you won’t start feeling sad every time you watch that movie afterward… will you?”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “I… don’t know, actually. I doubt I’d feel what they feel every time, but I’ll still have the memory of their sadness, and might be able to experience it at least somewhat the way they do.” He grins. “This is something I really want to test, now.”

Leaf seems to grow excited too. “Okay, yeah, why not? Let’s see, the exhibits are starting in like ten minutes. Maybe tonight, after dinner?”

“Sure!” He returns her wave, then makes his way to the next presentation with some relief. He was worried they’d end the argument on a down note, but instead he’s going to get a unique opportunity to change his views on something. That’s normally enough to excite him on its own, but he can’t help also having a spring in his step at the thought that it might bring him and Leaf closer together. All he has to do is understand where she’s coming from, and maybe even help her better understand him too.


Leaf has a nagging sensation that she’s missing something.

It follows her all through the presentations that afternoon, causing her thoughts to keep circling back to the experiment she and Red are going to try. At times she’s elated: if there’s a way for Red to really, truly feel the way she does about pokemon, how could he go back to feeling the way he does now? He’d have to see how important it is to minimize their suffering.

But something about that train of thought bothers her, and she finally realizes what it is on her way to dinner, once she’s not trying to split her attention so much. Mental powers work by symmetry. Red already explained how powers are split by reception and projection; if he can mimic what she’s feeling in order to feel it himself, then what would stop him from projecting what he feels about pokemon so she has to feel it too?

Not that she thinks Red would do something like that… But it does mean that any sort of thought or mood altering that the powers facilitate must be temporary. The alternative would mean…

“Leaf!”

She looks up and sees Red waving at her from the corner of the dining hall. She goes to join him, and his smile fades as she sits down. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Red, have you heard anything about psychics being able to change how others feel about something permanently?” A chill works its way up her spine as she thinks of the way Giovanni (probably) set a psychic to read her thoughts (and possibly project moods onto her!) without her even knowing. “Sorry, better question: how do we know they don’t? Is there anything you can think of that would stop it?”

Red blinks. “Well, first off, I think others would figure that out. Even if there was some worldwide conspiracy among psychics, which, I mean, no one’s told me yet, there are also some people just psychic enough to notice when others are merging with their minds, and they’d have no reason to keep quiet.”

“Couldn’t they just make someone feel ambivalent about it?”

“They would have to feel ambivalent about it too, which they clearly don’t if they’re going out of their way to force it onto others. At best maybe, they could just spread the feeling that it’s a good thing to do? But changing how you feel about something isn’t the same as changing how you think, and psychics can’t give others amnesia, so people would notice their views suddenly changing…” He trails off, and she sees her worry start to reflect on his face. “Though… I guess if someone was able to do that, like if it was a unique power of theirs, we wouldn’t necessarily know about it. In both cases, it would depend how subtle the effect is, given the context it happens in.”

Leaf looks around. “Like if the psychic just hung out at the buffet and projected an enjoyment of a certain fruit, people could just naturally think they’re in the mood for that fruit.”

“Temporarily, that would work, sure. To make it permanent…”

Leaf watches Red’s expression as it shifts into his now-familiar ‘thinking face,’ and she smiles when he brings his fork to his mouth without realizing that most of the spaghetti on it fell off. Whatever Red’s other flaws might be, she appreciates how readable he is. He’s not just a bad liar, as the recent incident with the ship steward showed, but he expresses all his emotions so guilelessly that it’s clear he’s not even aware of how he wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about interacting with someone whose honesty is paired with such openness. Even if there really is some massive psychic conspiracy out there, she knows Red wouldn’t be able to keep it from his friends if he ever finds out about it. “Operant conditioning?” she suggests.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. If the psychic is craving that fruit themself, they can project that craving. The target eats the fruit, and assuming they like it… or maybe if the psychic is eating the fruit too they can project their enjoyment… I mean, it would be hard to do for multiple people all at once, but…”

“But the idea makes sense, right?” She feels icy fingers around her heart. “Forcing people to feel positive things until they associate them with whatever they’re doing, the same way we train pokemon…”

“It… doesn’t seem impossible.”

The two of them stare at each other for a moment. “How many psychics are here, again?” Leaf whispers.

“A lot. But it would require massive effort to do something like this. We’re probably being a bit paranoid,” Red says, though his voice is also lowered.

“Are we? Because even if it’s really hard to do, I don’t know if it’s possible to be paranoid enough about people who can literally change how you think and feel.” She sees his expression shift. “No offense, I know you would never do something like that, but you can’t expect everyone to have the same moral compunctions—”

“Wait.” Red starts eating faster. “If you’re that worried, we should talk more in our rooms.”

Leaf can hardly argue with that, after she’s the one that brought up the concern. She feels warmth inside at how willing he is to take the concern seriously, even if he’s skeptical, and tries to focus on the flavors of her food as she finishes eating, all too aware of how many other psychics may be around them. When they’re both done, she leads the way out of the dining hall, trying not to visibly hurry.

She feels a little better once they’re in the empty halls, but Red doesn’t start talking again, so she decides to wait until he deems it safe. He seems to relax once they near their rooms, and opens his mouth to say something when he stops suddenly. A second later she notices the note taped to their door, and watches him tug it off and flip it open.

“It’s from Paul,” Red says. “The captain isn’t available to talk to us, apparently, but the head steward can for a few minutes tomorrow morning.”

“Oh. Good enough?” Leaf still isn’t even sure what they should say to the captain anyway. “They probably just want to make sure we’re not wasting the captain’s time, first.”

“Yeah.” Red opens the door and leads the way into their mostly-reconstructed living room. “Which we might be.”

“Even considering what we were just talking about?”

Red sits on one of the couches, two hands rising to his head. One goes for his non-existent hat briefly, as the other runs its fingers through his hair. “To be clear, it’s not that I think people aren’t immoral enough to do something like that. I’ve been trying to imagine how it might actually be done, and the scale and effort required would just be immense.”

Leaf lowers herself into the seat across from him, tucking her legs under her and wishing she could summon Raff. “You’re still new to all this, Red. You can’t know what a really experienced or powerful psychic, or group of them, is capable of. I’m more curious to know why I haven’t heard people talking about this before. Like, not even psychic villains in movies or books do this.”

Red’s gaze drops to his folded legs. “Probably because the only way to stop it would be to kill all psychics.”

Leaf frowns. “That’s not…”

“Isn’t it? Really think about the consequences of what you’re saying being true. How do you think society would react? What possible solution could non-dark or non-psychics come up with that actually wards off that kind of fear?”

Leaf thinks for a few minutes, and Red lets her, eventually taking his notebook out to write in. How would she try to be safe from a threat like this? Write down all her major opinions and preferences, check over them every month? Write out events that might realistically change people’s preferences so she can track those that make sense? But people sometimes change their preferences for no apparent reason at all.

Leaf remembers hating hummus sometime between when she first tried it and after she stopped eating pokemon, until one day she tried some again and it tasted great. At the time she thought that one just had a really good recipe, but after that she enjoyed most brands to some varying degree. She also thinks about a show she watched before coming to Kanto. It was about a bunch of angsty teenagers who went to a special school for kids with magic powers, but kept whining about how empty their lives were when they could have whatever they wanted. At first she watched it to laugh at how terrible it was, but eventually she started to actually get invested in the story and enjoyed it, for the most part.

All of which is normal behavior that everyone probably experiences from time to time… except maybe it’s not, some of the time. Leaf doesn’t actually believe that some psychic employed by Big Hummus is going around singling kids out to make them change their tastes, but if she ever changes her mind about something that’s more important, she’d probably feel pretty paranoid if she knows that psychics could cause that change.

Leaf’s recently filled stomach churns as she thinks of the ways society would probably react to that knowledge. No psychic would be able to do business with someone without them being suspicious… or marry a non-psychic… and, yes, it’s even possible that they might get killed, depending on the culture. From what she understands, Kanto has a history of treating its psychics with something close to reverence; today they’re respected and valued beyond most other professions. Unova’s past treatment of psychics wasn’t nearly so rosy, and they’re much less high-status today.

“I don’t think a mass killing would happen,” Leaf says at last, and Red tucks his notebook away. “But I agree that it would definitely get dangerous for many, and there would be… social consequences.”

“Mmhm. So maybe some psychics can do this, but they all have a huge incentive to hide it if so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we should know if I can even change my own views permanently before we speculate about psychics changing someone else’s. And even if I can, that doesn’t mean others can. It might be unique to my way of thinking. Or my powers, which may be the same thing. And that still won’t mean I can change others’ beliefs or values.”

“I get it. But even just changing your own seems… creepy, to me, now that I’ve thought about it more. You’re not worried about suddenly changing who you are?”

Red shrugs. “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Not sure. I guess because I change all the time, and it’s only sometimes deliberate? And it’s not like I don’t know who I’m changing into, in this case: someone more like you.”

She stares at him, heat prickling her cheeks. “That’s… pretty flattering, Red. But if it’s that easy to just decide my values or perspective is better than yours, why not just… change them?”

“Well, what if I can’t? That’s the point of this, isn’t it? To see if there’s some extra feelings or something that would help me actually change my values in a way I normally can’t?”

“Sure, but this seems like more of a trick now. Is it really okay to force yourself to change?”

“Why wouldn’t it be, if I’m choosing it? If I’m stuck on some value that causes suffering, then hopefully at some point I realize it and that value loses its strength relative to one that helps me be more moral, but why not shortcut that process if I can? If some sociopath realized their lack of empathy was harmful, wouldn’t we be glad that they might want to take a pill and change, if they could?”

Leaf grins. “Are you trying to get me to argue against my own views?”

Red smiles. “No, promise.”

“Because, I mean, certainly think that it would help you be more moral, don’t get me wrong… I just don’t get how you can make that decision about your own values. The idea of my values being changed like that is kind of scary, to me. Like I’m killing off a part of myself.”

“It is an interesting question about how one ‘decides’ on their ethics,” Red admits. “I guess it’s more about meta-ethics? Like if I think the change in views would make me have more moral beliefs, I might tweak one of my values in a way that my other values tell me would make me a better person. But why am I prioritizing some over others, so that they can gang up on it? Maybe that value is more important than I think, and once it’s tweaked, I might change a different one that I normally would not have been okay with changing. Even if it only happens two or three times, I might end up changing myself to someone that my original self would find abhorrent.”

“See, exactly! You definitely shouldn’t try something like this if that’s even a possibility. If you can change your values through reason, rather than brute-forcing it, you should. Otherwise, how would you actually know it’s a better moral position?”

“Values don’t always run on logic, though,” Red says, shrugging a shoulder. “Some are just… formed out of whatever basic experiences people have. Take the sociopath example again. Someone who doesn’t empathize with suffering is going to have a harder time understanding why suffering is bad. At best they can just recognize consequences to it that may interfere with other values they have. What if I just have faulty wiring?”

Leaf shakes her head. “There’s something wrong with those people, though, you can’t compare something like this to that. I mean, by wrong I mean ‘by my values,’ obviously, but I also mean on a somewhat objective scale?” She frowns. “It sounds like I should feel guilty about saying it, and I do, a little, but… if there’s something different in their mental wiring or the chemical mix that influences how they think or experience the world compared to 99.99% of other people, we can recognize that as the fault of biology. Any difference isn’t bad, again by my values—”

“I get it,” Red says with a grin. “You don’t have to keep repeating ‘by my values.'”

“Okay. But I just mean that it’s not the difference itself that I think is bad, but the kind of difference this in particular is. It’s just such a huge breakdown of a core experience in society, which leads to some pretty important values. As long as we have that common ground of basic values to draw on, particularly things like… Anti-Suffering, and Happiness, and Truth, and Logic…” Leaf trails off, thinking about the people who argued against her Pewter Museum article. They would say that they valued those things… “Well, we’ll still probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but on a long enough timeline, with enough resources and discussion, we should be able to reach agreement eventually. If there aren’t other values that take precedence, I mean. And I don’t think there are, for us. I don’t think there’s something missing in you.”

Even as she says it, she feels a bit of doubt inside. Maybe there is something missing in Red… but if there is, it’s missing in the vast majority of people, and the only reason it seems more clearly missing in him is because he’s so reasonable otherwise. Leaf remembers the discordant feeling she had after realizing that Aiko doesn’t eat pokemon despite being a trainer, and wonders again if there’s just something wrong with her own self. Maybe from their perspective, there’s something missing or warped in her. She doesn’t think she values humans any less just because she also cares about minimizing pokemon suffering, but objectively, she’s less willing to trade-off one for the other, so it seems pretty obvious that she does. Which… may be bad, actually.

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Red says with a smile. “But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try this experiment. We don’t even know if it would permanently change anything, and I’m okay with risking it, for something like this. Worst case scenario is that I think more like you, a little, and that doesn’t seem so bad.”

Leaf frowns as she tries to put into words the twisted feelings of worry and danger she senses about all this. If she’s wrong to feel the way she does, she’d hope that reason and evidence would be enough to shift her views. If Red actually changes his values like this… what would stop her from just as easily changing her own if subjected to the same thing? “Why not try something less core, then? Like the fruit thing, just to see if it works?”

“I mean, we can, but… I really think it’s alright, Leaf. If it was this easy to mess up, Ayane would have told me about it. I’m just going to be sampling how you feel, for now, the same as I’ve done with her. Not trying anything new or fancy.”

That… does sound reasonable. Leaf lets her breath out. “If you’re sure…”

“I am. Trust me.”

Leaf nods. She does trust Red. Even if he sometimes thinks in ways that she finds frustrating or lacking in empathy, she mostly believes that he’ll find the right answer eventually, and recognize it when he sees it. “Alright. Here goes, then.” She repositions herself to be more comfortable, then closes her eyes and tries to focus on how her brain feels, then how her emotions feel, trying to detect when he starts.

She still hasn’t noticed anything by the time Red quietly says, “Okay, ready.”

“You’re merged with me?” she asks, voice also quiet. She suddenly feels a tension in the air, nothing supernatural, just an intimacy that makes her feel oddly vulnerable. “You can feel what I feel?”

“Yeah. I don’t feel anything different, though.”

“Well, what do you feel?”

Red is quiet, and she peeks under one eyelid to see his expression. It seems normal, but also slightly flushed. “Nervous?” he says at last.

“Oh. That might be me, then, yeah. Did you want me to start?”

“Yeah. Just show me how you feel about your pokemon.”

“Alright.” It’s easiest to imagine Joy first, with her big blue eyes, her white and pink fur, the happiness she always shows at cuddling. Leaf smiles as love for her pokemon fills her, and soon she’s thinking of Raff too, with his toothy grin, and Crimson, flying so fearless and free, and Alice’s floppy ears.

She almost forgets that Red is even there until she hears him sigh. “Wow. That’s… nice.”

Leaf grins, eyes still closed. “Isn’t it?” She thinks of her companions’ pokemon, from Pikachu with his timid explorations to Maturin’s bold bids for snacks or affection, to Eevee’s energetic drive to keep up with the other, more experienced pokemon. Leaf’s thoughts briefly touch on Kemuri and the others who she never met that got killed or hurt in the tunnels, but she shies away from that pain, instead focusing on all the other pokemon out there, with all their quirks and mysteries, all their quiet, private lives, all the fascinating wonders of unique biology that they are. Even the dangerous ones, and they’re almost all dangerous by default, are living beings whose suffering is sad, and could be made to live happier lives with human assistance. Soon she feels an endless ocean of warmth inside her, a swirling cauldron of wonder and joy and gladness that she can tap at any time by just thinking of the shining future that may some day come, when every living thing is free to live without suffering.

Red doesn’t say anything this time, merely letting out a long, slow breath as they bask in the feeling together. For a moment she imagines what it’s like for him, not feeling this way. She always thought it must be lonely to only love a few things, a practical rounding error in terms of absolute numbers of living things. Like whole swathes of the world are just lacking in color or beauty…

Leaf’s eyes fly open as Red makes a strange choked sound, and something in his expression clears as he relaxes. “Sorry! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” His eyes open, and after a moment he smiles, looking a bit dazed. “That was… really nice.”

She examines him for a moment, but he really seems genuinely happy about what he felt, and eventually she smiles too. “Right? So how do you feel about pokemon now, if you think back to that feeling?”

“One sec.” He closes his eyes, and she watches as he breathes deep, then lets it out. “I can feel… some of it. But it’s a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. Like remembering that I used to enjoy roller coasters.”

“Oh.” Leaf can’t help but feel disappointed, even though part of her is glad that he didn’t permanently alter himself that easily.

“Hang on, though, I’m going to see if I can recreate it.”

“And that’s safe?”

“Yeah, like I said I did this with Ayane all the time, mimicking states of mind… this is just an unusual one in some ways…” He trails off as he continues to breathe, eyes closed.

Leaf watches him a moment, curious and mildly worried as his face starts to twitch in minor frowns. After surreptitiously checking the time and letting a few minutes pass, her curiosity wins out. “Well?”

“It’s not… really working…”

“How come?”

“I’m trying to mimic the state of mind, but other feelings get in the way. I’ve never had that happen before. It’s hard to focus without letting them mix.”

Leaf frowns. “Other feelings?”

“They’re a bit hard to explain. There’s some grief, like usual when I use my powers a lot, but it’s just a small part of it.”

“Well, can you project it, so I can feel what it’s like?”

Red opens his eyes in surprise. “Uh. I don’t think I should. It’s not… pleasant.”

If he’d said it was dangerous, that would be one thing… but unpleasant she can handle, if it means better understanding what he’s going through, and what obstacles are in the way of seeing eye to eye. “Hey, you risked having your values altered by me. I think it’s fair to see what you’re going through when trying to recreate how I felt.”

“Uh. Okay, then. Starting…”

The psychic connection is felt immediately, this time, like some giant drain got unplugged deep inside that endless ocean of joy in her, its waters rapidly receding from the shore of her thoughts as it gets sucked down.

She barely has time to panic before more sensations are there, the drain revealing jagged rocks that don’t translate into words, but in flashes of insight and concepts that only roughly bring up errant thoughts about how pokemon hurt each other all the time, they hurt humans, they killed Red’s dad, killed Blue’s parents, they’re not people, they’re just biological machines, they’re monsters—

She starts feeling a sort of creepy-crawly disgust, a fear of something alien, and suddenly imagines bug pokemon, all the most vicious and creepy ones, until she physically flinches.

they’re wondrous but dangerous, they feel sensations but they don’t care about anything, they can’t, any joy they feel around us they were conditioned to feel, they’re Other—

The ocean is almost gone, and rain falls in her head, down her cheeks, dark clouds of fear and anger and under it all there’s that grief

“Stop!” Leaf says, voice strained, and she gets one last snapshot of feelings not her own, a horror at hurting someone incredibly precious, the sensation rapidly fading even as it leaves her with a glimpse of herself that shocks her, a tenderness and desire to be near her that utterly distracts her for the space of a breath.

Then the feelings seem completely gone, and Leaf opens her eyes to stare at Red, emotions mixing violently inside her. Anger, fear, disgust… is that really what he thinks of pokemon? Pity, grief, affection… there’s so much pain, there, she sensed it tingeing every thought. And that last thing… she feels butterflies in her stomach as she suddenly realizes what she sensed.

Surely she misread that? Red gets flustered from time to time, and she always thought it was cute how clearly unused to being around a girl his age he is… but that glimpse of how he saw her, far more idealized than how she sees herself, makes her suddenly second guess her usual perceptions. Leaf’s cheeks start to burn at the level of affection and esteem he holds her in. Had she really thought him an open book, if she missed something that big?

And despite the sharp disagreement in their philosophical differences, he admires her perspective. That came clear, even through the dark feelings.

She wishes she could say the same about his.

Red is looking down at his legs, chagrin clear on his face as he breathes steadily. “Sorry about that,” he says, not looking at her, and she wonders if it’s the grief he’s apologizing for, or if he understands what else she glimpsed. “It’s gotten a lot better lately, believe it or not…”

“Red,” she interrupts, putting her confusing feelings aside and taking a deep breath, trying to consider her next words carefully. “I… I think you need help… Your thoughts, they’re…” She almost says twisted, but she understands the root of that twist now, doesn’t she? Pity fills her as she imagines living with that grief every day, it’s a wonder he can find any joy and affection in pokemon at all… “They’re all colored by that loss, and I understand it, I think, a little anyway, but you can see that it’s not reasonable, can’t you?”

Red frowns, crimson gaze coming up to search hers. “I’m not sure what you mean…”

“I mean, have you considered that the… the loss of your dad, the trauma of that, may be what makes it so hard for you to care about pokemon? What makes you think of them as… ‘Other?'”

Red’s face clears. “Oh. No, it’s not what you think, that’s just how it always goes with my powers. The grief isn’t related to what we were thinking about.”

She stares at him. “You really believe that. That those feelings you had… the thoughts they translated to, things like pokemon just being biological machines, you think that’s normal?”

“I mean…” He’s frowning now, still not meeting her gaze for more than a heartbeat at a time. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is in this context, but I don’t think it’s related to my dad, if that’s what you mean. I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him.”

“Don’t you?” she asks, voice softening.

“No! The way I think about them is… I mean, it feels completely separate, like obviously it’s informed by tragedies like that, but it’s still built on… you know, rational basis, on observations, on what I value.”

But that would make it so much worse, she thinks, biting her lip to keep from saying it. “I don’t… think you’d necessarily be able to feel that, if that’s true or not, I don’t think you’d know that, that’s how trauma works, it… it exaggerates negative things…”

Red’s brow is drawn, his lack of understanding making her heart sink. “I’m telling you, that’s not how it is,” he says. “You’re just linking the two feelings because they seemed so entwined in the projection. Look, I’ll send you something unrelated—”

No!”

Red’s frown slips, and he looks ashamed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to… make you feel that…”

Leaf makes a conscious effort to relax. She hadn’t meant to yell… “No, that’s alright. I just don’t… want to feel it again right now, or anything remotely like it. And I believe you, that it’ll come across regardless of what the topic is. But… that doesn’t rule out the idea that they’re connected.”

Red looks frustrated, and also a little guilty, still, as he nods and suddenly gets to his feet. “Okay.”

“Okay?” She watches him go to where his shoes are, confused and nervous.

“Yeah. I get it. I’ll think it over.” He slips his sneakers on, and with a start she realizes that he’s leaving.

Leaf’s hands find each other, twisting as she wrestles with her worry about having hurt him. She didn’t mean to push him away… “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. Just want to clear my head.” He still won’t look at her, even as he steps out the door and closes it behind him.

Leaf watches him go, unable to think of anything else to say. In truth, she could use some distance too. She knows it’s irrational to blame psychic powers for what Red’s going through, how his views were formed, just because it’s how she was made aware of them, or how he has to keep revisiting them. And she knows Red would never force that feeling on her. But she can’t help but wish in that moment that all psychics lost their abilities, if it was the only sure way to ensure he never feels the way that projection did again… and to ensure that she never has to either.


Red wanders through the halls, a violent stew of emotions causing a trembling somewhere in his stomach. His thoughts constantly dash around and collide, with a single refrain going around and around in different iterations.

I hurt her.

He passes by rooms where people talk and laugh, feeling like a ghost drifting by, untouchable by whatever is around him.

I made her feel bad.

Eventually his feet bring him up enough stairs that he emerges onto the deck of the ship.

I made her scared of me.

On the first few evenings of the cruise, the decks were often populated by attendees looking to enjoy the sun set over an uninterrupted horizon. Red goes to the eastern side so he can have the ship’s rails to himself. He barely notices the changes in the sky as the sun dips toward the water behind him, instead focusing on his breathing, on calming himself.

He screwed it all up. This week was supposed to be fun and educational, and a chance to get closer to Leaf. Instead they just keep having arguments, and now his final chance to bridge the difference in their views completely backfired. Instead all he accomplished was disgusting her and driving a wedge between them, all because he didn’t think to stop and recognize how his grief might feel to her, how unused to it she would be.

Irrational as it is, for a moment he wishes he didn’t have his psychic powers. If it meant undoing what had just happened, if offered at this second, he would give his abilities up to turn the clock back and take away whatever hurt he inflicted on her.

But that’s just childish. It’s not the fault of his powers, it’s his. He should have gone slower. Should have taken the time to examine what was so hard about mimicking her state of mind, recognized that his partition had weakened too much, insisted on waiting.

Instead Leaf asked him to show her how it felt, and he didn’t want to deny her.

And now she’ll probably never let me try anything like it again. Maybe just not anytime soon, but if the cruise ends and they still haven’t resolved this, if he leaves to train with Sabrina… he and Leaf will just keep drifting further apart. He knows they will, it feels like a branching timeline in his head, where one path leads to futures he’ll be forever barred from if he doesn’t get the chance to understand her better.

Why is he choosing to leave her? Leave all of them, that is? Blue and Aiko could have been killed in those tunnels. How can he help keep Leaf safe, keep them all safe, if he’s not with them? His goal factoring was done before he knew how close they’d come to dying without him even being aware. How could he risk going off with Sabrina and finding out second-hand that they… that she…

Tears prickle at his eyes as he feels the ache of losing his dad, mixed with the feeling of wanting to be with Leaf, of preemptively missing her, like a gouge in his chest, so sharp it makes him actually put his hand over his heart, trying to hold the painful emptiness closed.

I can’t do it.

He can’t leave her. Not like this. If he does, she’ll just… go on thinking that he’s a monster. He has to stay, to show her… show her how he can stop eating pokemon, how he can stop using the sakki.

He’ll have to tell Sabrina no. Maybe she’ll have an opening later, a few years from now… he’ll be a better psychic then, anyway, he’ll keep practicing. He’ll even stop training so he can practice more, that way he can show Leaf that he’s taken her seriously, and he’ll get more control so he can copy her mental state the next time they try. Surely there would be a next time, if he stays…

There’s a voice inside wondering if he’s really okay with that, with not spending any more time with Blue and Aiko’s friends at the gym, with not exploring the use of his powers in battle. But it’s a small voice, easily shouted down by his other desires and fears. Red rubs his face, then moves away from the railing to head back to the room and tell Leaf. His heart feels a bit lighter just having made the decision.

As he walks through the halls, he notices how oddly quiet everything is. There’s no sound of chatter or cheer coming from the various common rooms, though the lights are on. Dinner should already be over, people were already gathering in various lounges when he was headed to the railing… where is everyone now?

He sends his mind sense out briefly, a bit longer than a locating ping, just enough to get a sense of the general “mood” of the thoughts…

Worry. Panic. Resignation. Sorrow.

Red stops in his tracks, eyes wide, then bursts through the door to his side where he sensed a crowd of people, about to ask what’s happened—

His eyes absorb the information in bursts, jumping from place to place:

A monitor, hanging on the wall.

The timestamp on the news footage, a few minutes old.

Dark roiling clouds, blotting out half the horizon like a cloak.

Stabs of light illuminating the coast below them.

“…dropped from cloud cover less than ten minutes ago, according to eyewitness reports,” the news anchor is saying, voice distant to Red’s ears. “It was only for a few moments, but combined with satellite images, we can now confirm that Zapdos is making its way in a north-northwestern direction.” The image shifts to a storm projection map that shows the cone of probability engulfing Amber Town, Vermilion City, and possibly the Pokemon Tech campus farther to the west. “The League has confirmed deployment, and Rangers are enacting Tier 3 emergency protocols for the tri-city area…”

Red can’t breathe. A sliver of air enters and leaves his parted lips, but attempts to suck in a deeper breath, to ground himself, aren’t working. His fists clench until his nails dig into his palms, but he doesn’t wake up from the nightmarish haze that’s surrounded him.

Not fair, it’s not fair, summer is practically over, why would it come now, why would it come again…

He forces himself to cut off that line of thinking, to close his eyes and try to predict what would happen next.

There’s no question of trying to convince Blue to keep to an edge of the crisis zone, to help how they can without risking himself. Blue and Aiko are there, right in the path of the stormZapdos is coming to them, faster than a mounted pidgeot could fly, even if they had one to carry them, even if there would be any around not already in use to evacuate.

And Red is all the way over here, out to sea with rich and intelligent and influential people who are just standing around and murmuring in worried tones, just watching

Just like me.

Red’s feet pound the carpet of the halls as he runs for his room, gasping in a sharp breath now that his body is forced into motion, unaware of when exactly he started moving. He passes by the corridors and cabins unseeing until he bursts into his bedroom and starts grabbing everything he has out and tosses them into a container box as thoughts keep bubbling to the surface of his panicked brain, uncertainty about what he’s doing finally slowing his hands as he gets to the notebook he’s been using for the exhibits.

What if Zapdos turns? There were parts of that projection cone that carried it away from Vermilion. He can’t teleport back to the ship once he leaves, he’ll miss the rest of the presentations… would Bill understand? Or what if Blue and Aiko and the others are out of town already, gone on some trip after his battle with Surge was over? No, Blue would go back as soon as he hears…

Red needs data. He needs to know how often these projections have been wrong in the past, needs the base rate so he can…

So he can what? Find a reason not to go? Convince himself that a 10% or 20% or even 50% chance of being wrong is worth staying safe on the cruise? The excuses are already there, within easy reach.

I’m here on Bill’s assignment, I don’t know for sure if Blue is still in the city, I’m mentally exhausted from using my powers earlier—

He slaps the excuses down, one at a time, forcing himself to stuff the next thing into his bag, then the next, then the next, until he suddenly hears running footsteps, and the bang of the living room door slamming open.

“Red?!”

Leaf. He hadn’t even checked if she was still here, she must have gone out after he did. Red stays frozen in place, tempted suddenly to stay quiet, to teleport away without telling her so that she stays here, stays safe

His connecting door opens a moment later, and there she is, face flushed and breathing hard. “Red, Zapdos is…” She trails off, wide eyes taking in his mostly packed bag.

Red straightens, meeting her gaze. “I’m going,” he says, hoping she decides to stay, stay, Leaf, please…

Leaf nods, fear and anxiety fading as resolution takes their place. “I am too.”