Chapter 127: Tests

Chapter 127: Tests

Blue makes an effort to slow down just before he walks into Cinnabar Gym’s coordination room, taking a breath and doing his best to shed any frustration or anxiety from his body language. There’s a knot in his stomach, a restless, jittery heat in his limbs, but by the time the door closes behind him he feels at least a little more like he’s stepping into a battle arena.

The room is dimly lit so that the various monitors on the walls easily stand out, and so the 3D hologram of Cinnabar Island being projected above the central table is vibrant and crisp. Normally the room would have a mix of gym members and rangers, but other than Chase the rest of the people in the room are “his” crew. Friends who flew or ferried over from all over Kanto, when he put out the call weeks ago. Friends who are relying on him to have a vision, to know what he’s doing, and he pulls those expectations around him like a cloak, reminding himself of all the things he’s done to earn their trust, until he feels even more fully in control and confident.

He raises his hand in greeting when people turn toward him, then wanders from one part of the room to another, listening to each group as they work, as he normally would. Elaine and Marcus are sitting face to face on their computers, while Glen and Maria are searching through the storage PCs. Bretta, Slava, and Sumi are standing with Chase by a trainer roster being displayed on a wall monitor, the latter two mostly listening in as the former debate some of the newer trainers’ merits and weaknesses. By the time Blue makes it to the central table, he feels like enough time has passed that people will take the news more lightly, but still he waits, bringing up the visual overlay of the island that puts the grid over it, then highlights sections by emergency level.

Within a minute the colors update, and he says, “We’ve got problems.”

Elaine looks up from her computer, then stands and comes around to his side of the table, and after a moment Marcus follows her. Glen and Maria walk over from behind him, while Chase and the others turn from the wall.

“Zone D4?” Elaine frowns. “And E3.”

“Back to yellow?” Bretta asks.


There’s a moment of silence, then Chase sighs. “Figured.” Cinnabar Gym’s Third is still wearing the dirt and stains of a hard battle on his uniform, and he looks even more tired than he sounds. “Heard G5 is also set to shift by the end of the week, if they don’t get that ranger outpost back up. Did they say what would turn D2 red?”

“Another few casualties might.” Blue zooms in on the region in question, a fertile plateau where some farm houses and ranches were set between Ranger outposts… until the whole area got overrun in the initial ditto stampede. “A new ditto outbreak would also do it, according to Mako.”

“He’s a worrier.” Glen taps another part of the table monitor to switch to the trainer roster the others are viewing. “Who can we rotate into the area?”

Blue glances around, trying to get a temperature check of the room. Maria seems grim. Glenn and Bretta, frustrated. Elaine is sad, but clearly focused. Slava and Marcus, disappointed. Sumi… dispirited? He’ll have a talk with her later.

They all look tired.

They’ve worked hard on this over the past few weeks. Lizzy and Alex are with the newer members, going over after-action reports while training Jamil to take over that role, while Maria and Viraj meet with Cadet Wendy and some other local trainers who like to do extra surveys with the rangers.

Together, they’ve built a system. A training program that weaves Cinnabar gym’s facilities, the group scenarios, and live field work side by side with the rangers to help ensure that the trainers here for their badge, most of whom have mainly focused on surviving wilds and battling other trainers, are prepared for… more.

Not just Cinnabar’s reclamation, but true wilderness taming. Expanding the reach of civilization.

But to do that, they’ve needed to both broaden and level up in a number of areas. Which means the team people Blue has gathered to guide them toward that goal needs to level up in a number of ways too.

First, evaluation. What trainers would work well together? What are their skills, and how balanced would the different teams be? They all help out with it, but Bretta, Sumi, and Maria have gravitated toward taking point, with a lot of input from Blue.

Second, scenario design. Elaine has become the main brains for those, working together with Marcus, Glen, and sometimes Bretta, who ran her own scenarios at the gyms she, Slava and Sumi visited if they didn’t already have them.

Third, field missions. Working side by side with rangers gives the trainers a wider range of knowledge, wider skills… and while most don’t translate to better skill in trainer battles, they do strengthen people’s pokemon, and give them opportunities to catch new ones.

Still, they’ve just barely managed to maintain the progress that led to CoRRNet downgrading Cinnabar’s risk profile. Something’s changed, on the island; stronger, higher stage evolutions of wild pokemon are showing up more often, and the stampeding patterns seem to be changing every few days.

Blue attended the ranger meeting at their city headquarters today to suggest the idea that a pokemon with Pressure is riling things up, like the absol in the diglett tunnels. It’s something they had already considered, apparently, but had no practical solution to discovering or dealing with if true. For now they’re just looking into ways to hold the areas they’ve worked so hard to reclaim lately.

Blue feels a resurgence of frustration and worry as he looks over how few strong trainers are left to do extra shifts, then reaches past Elaine to add his name to an extra D2 tour tomorrow. That done, he takes another breath. “I need you guys to tell me straight: how much more of this can you keep doing?”

The room is quiet. Blue turns to Chase, who has a brow raised. “This is your home, so I expect you’ll keep at it as long as you can. But I still want to know how long you think you can keep going at this pace, with your other duties as they are?”

“Blaine’s my Leader,” Chase says, as if that explains everything. “He says stop, give up some parts of the island, that’s what I do. He says keep trying, find a way? Then I go until I drop.”

Blue nods, but it’s not good enough. “Not doubting your commitment. But still, I want to know when you think that’ll be. Two weeks? Three? Can you keep your reflexes sharp enough to survive out there if you go through another month of this?”

Chase turns back toward the roster on the wall. Blue doesn’t fill the silence, and eventually Chase says, “Two more weeks, at least, if I start to get another hour of sleep each night. After that, even with a full nights’ worth, I’ll probably start making bigger mistakes, losing track of stuff, unless I cut down some shifts.”

Blue nods, then turns to Glen, because it has to be Glen next. His friend’s brow is furrowed, mouth set in a hard line. “This is my priority right now. The startup is going okay, new orders are coming in. Selling in Cinnabar has helped let me keep feeling good about both. I’m here.”

“For a month?” Blue tries not to sound like he’s pressing. “Three months?”

“Would you stay that long?” Chase asks, sounding more curious than skeptical.

It’s a fair question, and Blue turns back to him. “You know I’m aiming for the top, and more. If Cinnabar’s going to follow me the way I want all of Indigo to, I can’t leave it like this any more than Blaine could.”

“I’m here,” Glen says again, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “So long as you are.”

Blue smiles, brief but sincere. “Good to know. Now how long can you keep this pace up?”

Glen’s expression softens, and he glances at Chase before turning back toward the projected island. “I was thinking of cutting down to five shifts a week. Now I feel like I need to stay at seven, but… at this rate, I’ve got a week of charge left, maybe two.”

Blue puts a hand on the older teen’s shoulder and squeezes. One of the many nice things about his growth spurt is he’s nearly as tall as Glen, now. He’s starting to think he might end up even taller. “Start with six. See how it feels.”

He turns to Elaine before Glen can argue. She’s got her arms folded, and the look in her eye reminds him of their talk, back in Fuchsia. When she confessed her feelings for Glen, and her worries that she was losing her edge. And her response to his fear, that he’d get people killed who weren’t ambitious or skilled enough to fight beside him willingly.

“I’m here,” is all she says. “I can go at least another two weeks at this pace.”

Marcus, standing beside her, shrugs a shoulder. “I’m still having fun with the scenarios we’re making, and the wilds getting stronger just means I get stronger too. Ask me again in a month.”

Blue nods, then turns to Maria and says before she can start, “Don’t feel bad if—”

“—two weeks. Then I have to get back to my training with Jason. But I’ll still come by, now and then.” She gives him a slight smile, and it rests easy on her face. “I might feel a little bad, but not as much as if I hadn’t come at all.”

Blue smiles back. “Fair.” Maria’s time with Jason seems to have finished the process of pulling her out of her shell, and made her a lot more… calm is the only word Blue can think of for it. His disappointment over her pausing her journey has been entirely replaced by a confused relief over the clear benefits to her after what happened under the Rocket Casino, and he keeps meaning to talk to Jason about what they’ve been doing in case it’s a skill he could have learned to do for her instead.

He turns to Bretta, Slava, and Sumi. Bretta looks at her two friends, clearly pushing them to answer first, until Slava caves.

“I think I can keep this up for another week. I’m willing to keep going for more, but… I don’t know how much more.”

Sumi runs a hand through her hair. “I’d like to stay as long as we can.” Blue doesn’t miss the way she subtly includes Slava, and possibly Bretta. “But if the island ends up going through cycles… I still have two more badges besides this one. Might take a break to pick them up.”

“I want a path to victory,” Bretta says, blunt as ever. “Even if we gain ground faster than we lose it, we’ll end up stuck if the lost ground gets stronger than we can easily handle. It’s like we’re facing a trainer whose whole team is a setup for a Toxic stall.”

“It’s not that bad,” Chase says with a shrug. “We can secure most of the island, except a handful of areas that only the strongest trainers can deal with. Blaine won’t be happy, but he’s a pragmatist at heart. If he sees it’s no-win, he’ll shift focus to containment.”

Blue shakes his head. He likes Chase, but it’s exactly this kind of thinking that he has to change, even here on Cinnabar where people are used to more “active” defense. “That’s not sustainable if it takes weeks of extra trainer rotations to bring the zones to blue. Anything could happen in that time to put the whole island back in red.”

Bretta nods. “Stormbringer.”

“Second new species outbreak,” Sumi adds.

“Renegade activity.” Glen glances at Blue, who keeps his face neutral.

He gave his friends simple tasks, if they had the free slack, tasks which he sort of regrets given the sudden slew of new difficulties the island faces, and how little they learned.

Glen’s startup has been going well, and it puts him in contact with a growing list of distributors for all the various restaurants, grocers, and supply stores in the region… and on Cinnabar, that list is fairly short. Elaine’s been scouting the island more than anyone else to find good locations for scenarios, which gave her plenty of reasons to check out the different potential places where other hidden labs might be set up. Maria, Lizzy, Bretta, everyone has been making friends, asking questions, trying to get a better sense from the locals of what else might be happening on the island.

The little bits of information shared with each other haven’t amounted to much, which Blue expected, but was still mildly disappointed by. All they had was a rough time range where odd people might have showed up in the city or nearby towns, a general location where weird things might have happened, and a vague idea of what sorts of things might be included.

Even the lab’s discovery hasn’t changed much, other than to raise everyone’s awareness of the potential stakes. Blaine’s arrival made it clear that there was no need to hide things anymore… but at the very least, Blue has kept the secret of what Leaf suspects the lab was for. He doesn’t want to betray people’s confidence, and also it might make him seem a little unhinged if they’re wrong.

But it’s what’s on his mind when he says, “Or another set of myths waking up somewhere and turning the world on its head.”

Bretta nods. “Hell, a big enough stampede could send everyone back to the safety of the city.”

“Alright, alright,” Chase says, and sighs. “Not saying I want that. But most of our trainers aren’t getting strong enough, fast enough, to make a meaningful difference in the zones that are flaring up. We’ve got an absurdly low casualty rate given what we’ve been doing, and you guys can claim some credit for that. It’s a part of why Blaine has been so willing to give you more autonomy. But if more trainers start getting maimed or killed, or even losing too many strong pokemon, we’ll lose even more to caution and worry.”

And Blaine might retract some, or all, of that autonomy. It doesn’t need to be said, and Blue nods to show he’s got the message, feeling some of the anxious churn in his stomach again.

“We’ve still got a quarter of the recruits to organize.” Bretta says. “Once they’re ready to run a scenario—”

“Just run?” Chase asks. “Half the groups from last week couldn’t complete theirs.”

“We need a path to victory, like Bretta said,” Blue cuts in. It’s so clear, in pokemon battles. It’s not always right, but it’s at least there. A series of steps that will force the opponent into a corner, strip their options one by one, until defeat is inevitable. A series of readied reactions for different possibilities, to adapt to the range of things they might do.

But there’s no opponent here, no single mind he’s trying to beat, with limited options on its belt. There’s just… the world. It’s the endless potential of the wilds, of new combinations of enemies showing up at times and places that are hard to predict, and in amounts that are hard to prepare for.

“I want to believe we could do it with the people we have,” Blue says. “That we just need to be more—” He almost says unpredictable. Which wouldn’t make any sense, in this case, but… “Adaptable. Something we haven’t thought of before, something gyms or CoRRNet couldn’t do before. But new options would be good, whatever form they come in.”

“More resources can also lead to new options,” Elaine says.

“Resources are tapped, if you mean money,” Chase says. “Emergency funding worked, as far as Indigo is concerned, and CoRRNet won’t re-escalate our ranking unless things get way worse. Cinnabar’s in debt for the foreseeable future, and the Gym’s only avoiding budget cuts because the League is helping out.”

“Do we know any charitable millionaires willing to offer a bunch of money?” Slava asks. “Maybe even bounty money? We could reach out to some, frame it as a charity thing, or…?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Glen says, speaking slowly. “But a bunch of professional bounty hunters showing up would definitely create a different vibe.”

“Do we care about vibes?” Chase asks, brow raised. “Because I know Blaine wouldn’t care about vibes, if it makes people safer.”

“It might get trainers already helping out wondering why they’re not getting paid,” Slava says.

Glen crosses his arms. “If they’re as skilled as the professionals, maybe they should.”

“Okay, sidelining that debate for the third time,” Blue says. “Good ideas so far, keep them coming. Something besides money.”

“New outreach,” Elaine says. “We tapped What Comes Next, and there’s a lot of overlap with the others we know, but we could reach out to people directly?”

“Dragon Dojo.” Glen starts ticking off with his fingers. “Stormchasers?”

“Ew,” Sumi says.

“Agreed, but we’re in babble mode,” Blue says. “Just spit the ideas out, we’ll prune down to practical ones later. More suggestions?”

Bretta was studying the roster again, but turns to face them, frowning slightly. “Vermilion Gym? Might seem like poaching…”

The room is quiet for a moment. Blue tries to imagine that conversation, maybe between him and Surge directly, maybe just between Blaine and Surge…. “It’s not bad,” he says slowly. “But also might not be enough. At this point, we’d need, what, another fifty trainers with 3+ badges?”

“At least,” Sumi says. “Closer to seventy, all dedicating a few hours a day for three weeks.”

“Four to be safe,” Slava adds.

Bretta returns to studying the roster. “And yeah, three badges or equivalent would be needed to be extra careful not to risk new casualties. 4 badges would be better, with how absurdly fast the wilds on the island are getting stronger.”

“I’d be surprised if there are that many unattached high level trainers in Kanto that haven’t already come,” Chase says. “Or even all of Indigo. And if we want to attract people from further out, there needs to be a better prize involved, which leads us back to the incentives. If not money, then…?”

“Status?” Blue muses. “If we can hype participation up more…”

“Ditto,” Glen suggests. “People still need to hand over their catches until they’re safe, but maybe we can ensure everyone has a rotation through a ditto heavy area.”

“What about the area where a more stable ecosystem is developing?” Elaine suggests.

“It’s an idea. I’ll talk with Ira and Wendy. As for the earlier idea about rich folk, Red knows Bill, and Silph owes him a favor. Gramps also might have ideas about what’s happening on the island, and what we can do about it.” Blue switches the table setting to view the island hologram again, selecting the routes going through that area. “What about tactics? What sort of terrain are we working in, how can we change that?”

“You want to drain a lake or something?” Chase asks, sounding grudgingly admiring. “Flood some strong wild habitats? Because Blaine might have objections.”

“Babble first,” Elaine reminds him. “Pretty sure CoRRNet would too, but that’s for later.”

“Speaking of which…” Slava hesitates, then clears his throat. “Yeah, terrible idea probably, but uh… what about introducing some new invasive species?”

“Oh yeah,” Chase sighs. “This’ll go well.”

“And we’re live, in three… two… Hey Indigo, what’s bad, what’s good, what’s better than yesterday, cuz today I’m here on the island of fiery desire live with a random trainer you may have heard of named Blue Oak, currently acting member of the Cinnabar Gym. Mug for the camera, Blue.”

Blue smiles, a naturally wry expression he turns toward the held up camera for just a couple seconds before returning his gaze to the path they’re climbing. “Hey everyone. Watch your step here, it’s mossy.”

“Mossy, right.” Brightfire has bright blue hair swept up to a twirling point above his head, a cheerful disposition, and dark golden eyes that mark him as a member of one of Indigo’s “Dragon Clans.” To his credit, those gold eyes do sweep over the ground as he takes some careful steps up to the next ridge. The camera set in its swivel-mount atop his shoulder points down to take in the uneven terrain before lifting and turning to take in his profile again, and Blue’s face beyond. “Clan, Blue here says this is the best route to get a good view of what he’s been up to over on Cinnabar. It’s been a bit of a climb, but we’ll be there in…?”

“Few more minutes.”

“A few more minutes! During which, we have time for a few starters. Such as, what made you reach out to little old me? I’m sure all my clanmates who’ve been busy doing cool shit weren’t too busy to hear about that whole Miracle Eye thing, but you haven’t spoken to the press since, despite all the stuff you’ve been doing here, and I’m not exactly a journalist.”

Brightfire (born Bastion, as if that wasn’t already a cool enough name) may not be a journalist, but he’s got a larger online presence than most news sources. Child to a branch of the most famous Indigo Dragon Clan family, he started his journey under the massive shadow of his first cousin twice removed, Indigo Champion Lance. But unlike most in his family (and according to rumors, much to their displeasure), he aborted his gym circuit after his 7th badge, a couple years before Blue left Pallet Town. Instead of going on to challenge his aunt’s gym in Blackthorn, he ended up liveblogging a series of daring and extremely risky pokemon captures.

It exploded his already decently sized following, and the infamy he gained from some online commenters only brought him more. Blue had written him off as an interesting but somewhat dangerous influence, spurring people on to try things they weren’t prepared for to imitate his heroics, or gather some of his fame for themselves…

But the older teen is undeniably skilled, and undeniably inspires trainers to try harder and push their boundaries. Things Blue shares a natural affinity for, even if he’s more interested in reinventing gym cultures than rejecting them entirely.

“I invited you because I think you’d appreciate what we’re doing here,” Blue says, letting his voice carry the frank honesty he feels. “But I also invited you because I want your audience.”

“Uh oh, clan. Have we been duped? Top ten anime betrayals?” Brightfire is smiling. They didn’t rehearse any of this; it’s a point of pride for him to only record things live, and his reputation is built on authenticity. “You’ve got a pretty big following yourself, Oak. If they won’t bite, what makes you think my collection of free spirits will pay the price of admission for whatever you’re selling here?”

Blue feels a spark of heat in his chest. He wants to push back against the idea that his followers aren’t “biting,” but there’s a tangle of traps around claiming the people who follow him are people he can get to do things, comparing them in any way to Brightfire’s following, all while avoiding coming off as defensive if he says he did get plenty of people to come. “No price, and it’s not for me. I won’t even be on Cinnabar much longer, if things go well. But we’re doing something new here, something daring, and something hard. I’ll be pretty surprised if you or your ‘clan’ don’t want a taste.”

“We heard those airquotes, didn’t we, clan? But okay, Oak, we’re here and you’ve got us pegged. Just gotta see if whatever you’re doing is worth my time. The clan can decide for themselves, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Like any of them would do something their idol had spurned… though it might not be all-or-nothing. Brightfire could admit that the endeavor is daring enough, but say he’s not joining because he’s got other plans, and those people who want to be part of it could feel like they have his blessing to come. “How much do you know about what I’ve been up to, exactly?”

“I’ve heard about the wargames you’ve been putting people through at Kanto gyms. I’d say it’s a step in the right direction, but if you know anything about me—”

“Been watching your stuff since I was 9.”

“—you know what I’m going to say next.”

“‘No risk of dying, no point in trying.'” Blue shrugs a shoulder. “It took you far, and led a lot of your clan to greatness.”

“You mean my bio clan, or are you sucking up to the viewers?”

“Both. But there are still god-like, elemental forces wreaking havoc throughout Indigo, and I’d be dumb to call you a coward, but I am wondering when you’re going to go for broke.”

Brightfire grins. “He’s calling us out, clan. You bring me all this way just for that, Oak? What do we say, clan? You go for a dragonite, your belt better be loaded. Glory comes in the fight even if you fail, but fighting hard means fighting smart, and I’m not dumb enough to think I’m ready to beat the Beasts.”

“But you plan to be, someday? Does anyone from your clan plan to be?”

“Hey clan, he’s talking to you. Anyone gonna do something stupid enough to make all of us look like overeager idiots?”

Blue wants to say that’s not answering his question. If anything it’s implying the answer is no, not really, but in a way that makes them look noble and sane rather than afraid or hypocritical. But before he can, Brightfire slows, then grins and speeds up.

He heard it.

They make the rest of the climb quickly, spurred on by the distant shouts and other sounds of battle drifting from afar and echoing faintly around them, until they finally crest the final ridge, where a top down view of a plateau sticking out the side of a nearby mountain is waiting for them.

From this distance, they can just make out a squad of four trainers who are currently engaged against seven “wild” pokemon, their own trainers imitating a stampede that’s upping its pressure little by little, pushing them back toward the edge of the plateau. Brightfire seems at least a little interested, maybe just by how close the defending trainers are from the cliff’s edge. His left thumb and forefinger have sensor rings around them, and small twitches pan the camera on his shoulder left and right, followed by a pinching motion that sends its lens stretching forward.

They watch together as one of the trainers is forced back even further by rock thrown by a graveler. The figures are distant enough that it’s hard to differentiate them, but one of the closer trainers comes to their rescue, only for a fresh stampede wave to force the two of them further back.

“What are they trying to do?” Brightfire asks. “Not just survive, yeah?”

“Why not?” Blue asks, tone light. Obviously baiting.

“Too tame.” Brightfire’s gaze is fixed on the battle, despite his motto, and he detaches the camera from his shoulder, then holds it up to his eye so he can see more clearly. The four trainers are all being forced back again, and some are almost entirely out of room to maneuver. “And pointless. If it’s a real cliff, and they’re supposed to be in the field, they should have teleporters. Non-dark trainers hold them off while darks get on their fliers, then teleport away. Let them stampede off, or fight them somewhere better suited.”

It’s always nice to get reminders of how taken for granted it is, these days, that teleportation should be factored into any group of trainers’ strategy. “And if it’s not?”

“What, like the drop is a crowd of civvies or a hospital or something? And you just have them fight here to make it more intense?” Brightfire’s smiling now. “Still seems too tame. I thought you were doing interesting stuff. Come on, Oak. What’s the trick?”

“I’ll give you hints. One, they are just trying to survive.”


“And two, it is supposed to be a real cliff.”

Brightfire glances at him, then looks through his camera again. A moment passes before he says, “But there’s a trick. Alright. Clan chat’s probably exploding with guesses, but I’ll figure this out myself.”

Blue nods, and watches as the fourth trainer has finished healing their pokemon, and rejoins the fight. Some of the “stampeding” pokemon get ordered to move toward a path off the plateau, and the recovered trainer rushes to engage them in battle, drawing them back toward the others and joining them in a more robust defense.

Brightfire’s lips purse, and Blue catches him looking up, then around, then down, and knows he got it, even if he doesn’t know the how, yet.

Still, the group has to survive a little longer, and it’s looking bad. A blast of heat from an arcanine sends a pokemon nearly tumbling over the edge, sending Blue’s heart leaping into his throat. It only barely gets returned on time, but the distraction causes the trainer to get forced back once more… and then they turn to leap off the plateau.

“What,” is all Brightfire gets out before the plummeting figure engages their parachute, which blooms above them and slows their descent before they drop too far or fast, letting them glide toward the valley below. “Ha! Okay, clan, that got me, and I bet it got most of you. If all their bags are parachutes… they’re all dark?”

“No, not all.”

“But some won’t have time to mount up before it happens.”

“Before what happens?”

Brightfire just grins. “Whatever ‘it’ is. Hoping some of you figured it out, clan. Assuming they last long enough…”

Nearly thirty seconds of more desperate fighting ensue, and a few of the stampeding pokemon “escape,” being returned to their balls and sent back out. The team training will lose points for each of those, but it’s as Brightfire said. They just have to hold out, and keep the majority of their opponents engaged…

It’s gotten easier since that first badge scenario he watched in Vermilion Gym, but Blue’s heart still pounds as he watches the battle, and he wipes sweaty palms carefully on his pants. He wants this to go well for the sake of convincing Brightfire, but he also wants it to go well because he wants their new strategy to work. They couldn’t exactly practice it, here…

Another trainer looks like they’re moments away from jumping when the CRACK sounds. Brightfire and Blue look up to see two trainers higher up on the mountain, who weren’t in position yet when Brightfire checked. Their summoned rhyperior and onix are hard at work striking at certain parts of a cliff, and another CRACK echoes around them, followed by a third, until the jutting earth finally starts to fall.

The trainers scramble to withdraw their pokemon and summon teleporters, or run for the edge if dark. Blue feels a stirring of awe at the sight of the mountain face just… breaking, melting, tons of rock billowing dust out as it starts to gain momentum, all that earth almost seeming to turn liquid as it rushes the rest of the way toward the plateau the trainers are on…

…but it’s already clear, the last one having just leapt and deployed their parachute as the first of the boulders comes bouncing down ahead of the landslide.

The noise is incredible, an echoing rumble that still manages to be quiet and steady enough that it sounds like a waterfall, but with the occasional echoing crackle of breaking trees or bouncing boulders. Blue’s heart leaps into his throat as a boulder bounces in the direction of one of the trainers, while Brightfire lets out a whoop. It’s not close, really, but Blue still lets out a long breath as the last of them gets far enough to be clear, the line of colorful parachutes floating steadily away. The mountain continues to feed the hungry beast that awakened on its surface, obliterating greenery and ridges far below them all.

The plateau the trainers were on is still standing, but it’s scoured clean, and most of the edge has been cut off as if by a giant knife. It’s a little surreal to be standing in the same place he was a minute ago, and have the world in front of him so drastically transformed. Blue looks up to the trainers who caused it, and sees they’ve withdrawn their pokemon and left.

Brightfire is laughing, and Blue turns toward him with a brow raised. “How close were you?”

“I thought maybe something would appear beneath them.” Brightfire shakes his head, still grinning, and turns the camera around to face him. “What do you say clan? Worth the show? Glad you tuned in?”

“I did promise a good view, at the very least.”

“You did, and delivered.” Brightfire is still chuckling. “CoRRNet really gives you permission for this, Oak?”

“They do. I’m working with them, and the gym, to make sure we’re all pushing toward the same goal, so we can do things we otherwise couldn’t alone.”

“Yeah yeah, message is clear, we got it, don’t we, clan? Stronger together.” Brightfire shrugs. “Impressive as it is, I don’t see how it’s supposed to turn the tide of what’s going on in Cinnabar.”

“It’s just a part of the overall plan.” Blue shrugs back. “Those trainers, they became more prepared to fight in an environment that limited their movement. They faced overwhelming odds in a battle of endurance. And the other team identified an environmental factor they could use to their advantage, and made it work for them within just a few minutes of scouting the area.”

“Assuming this wasn’t scripted.”

Blue just gives him a level look. “I didn’t bring down a chunk of a mountain just to impress you.”

“You did it to impress me and spice up the learning activity?”

Blue smiles slightly. “A bit closer. Like I said, there’s a few different parts to our new overall strategy. Will you stick around a couple days, so I can show you a few more?”

“Any of them as impressive as this?” Brightfire’s brow is raised. “Because I kind of doubt you’ve got something else of that caliber ready, and we already knew you were a showman. If that was your inner crew—”

“Wasn’t,” Blue says. “Veteran group, but all 3 and 4 badgers. My friends were the stampede trainers, not the ones being trained, or the two up top, who were just a couple well suited gym members given free rein to do whatever they expected would work, after setting eyes on the location for the first time.”

“Sure. Point is, if someone from clan gets here expecting to learn to parachute and bring down mountains, how likely are they instead to shovel shit for weeks, or handhold 1 and 2-badgers?”

Blue does his best to control his smile, to show his amusement without letting on to the sudden hope he feels. Brightfire definitely isn’t showing no interest… even if he’s only talking as if it’s about his clan, and not his own odds of staying to join up.

He addresses the camera directly. “That’s up to the trainer. The abilities of everyone here is judged as fairly as we can, so just showing up claiming to be part of ‘clan Brightfire’ isn’t going to give anyone special treatment. But I will say, I plan for this island to be back to where it was before the ditto appeared, and I don’t plan to waste any time—or anyone’s time—on minor shit. We’re going to be doing almost two dozen special ops a week, when the ball gets rolling, and we’re going to need strong trainers doing what they do best… and learning new tricks along the way.”

Brightfire is watching him with a wry look, and when Blue meets those golden eyes, he sees something both predatory and respectful. “I guess I can stick around another day. See just how strong the wilds on this island are, that they’re giving you all so much trouble…”

This isn’t how Blue expected to arrive at Viridian Gym.

Final gyms are supposed to be special. To have an extra air of reverence and anticipation. To inspire an extra level of confidence, a knowledge that everyone there would know he’s a step below being qualified to, perhaps, become their boss’s boss, or their boss’s boss’s boss.

But instead of seven badges, he only has six when he walks in to the Gym lobby for the first time.

He also hoped to come at the head of a small army, loyal trainers who were also strong enough to get an eighth badge, whether it was Giovanni’s or not, and would travel through Indigo Plateau with him, until they reached the very top of the League and had a final, intense, glorious battle to see who would be Champion.

But instead he arrives alone. In style, on the back of Soul, but not as impressive as he would otherwise be.

He even wondered if, along the way between arriving and challenging Giovanni, he’d get a sense of the gym culture, find some way to improve or revolutionize it the way he did Vermilion, Fuchsia, Cinnabar, or even Celadon.

Instead Blue just makes his way through the gym without recognizing or connecting with anyone (though he caught the extra stares and excited looks), nor does he even get a sense of the vibe… which is, as far as he can tell, just that of a standard, competent gym that has no apparent theme beyond the earth tones and geode displays lining the halls.

He enters an elevator, walks down more halls, and arrives at Giovanni’s office. A black marble door set in the stone walls meets his fist as he knocks.

“Come in.”

Blue does, and a moment later he’s sitting in the office of one of the most powerful trainers in Indigo, a room that encapsulates the cold, implacable power and authority of the earth, with mosaic walls of polished black and brown stones, geodes of various colors tastefully set in sconces by each corner, and a black stone desk shot through with veins of gold.

“Good morning, Trainer Oak.” Giovanni is wearing his usual dark suit, matching the stone of the walls and desk.

“Morning, Leader. Thanks for inviting me.” He would have preferred an online exchange, but upon hearing what the topic would be, Giovanni said an in-person chat would go better, and Blue is not the sort of person to turn down an advantage in any situation where he might need to persuade someone.

All of Erika’s lessons are on his mind as he meets the powerful Leader’s gaze, a distant part of him still capable of fanboying over the youngest champion in Indigo history. “As the nearest gym to Cinnabar, I’d like to suggest—”

“I agree. My gym will reach out to Leader Blaine today, and negotiate logistics.” Giovanni’s smile is small, but feels almost mischievous as Blue blinks at him. “I’m sorry, did you want to go through your pitch in full, first?”

“No, Leader,” Blue says, and the surge of relief as it sinks in that he won is mildly dizzying. Combined with the “Brightfire clan” arrivals, which started less than twenty-four hours after the livestream and within the past few days have totaled nearly a dozen new trainers, Viridian Gym members would provide a much stronger backbone to their roster. “Thank you for your help.”

But hang on, why did he invite him here, if—

“It’s nothing. I’d additionally like you to know that should you want to challenge me, the arena is ready at any time. A few basic battles with my gym members, to observe the formalities, one thrilling match between us that you can add to your legacy highlights, and the Viridian badge will be yours.”

Blue stares at Leader Giovanni, so surprised now that he can’t help but feel wary. Is he being toyed with? Why would Giovanni offer this? Did Blaine mention that he wanted to save Giovanni for last? “At what cost?”

Giovanni spreads his hands, and leans back slightly in his chair. “No cost, Blue Oak. You’ve made your intention to become Champion clear. I approve. Your skills as a trainer and as a leader are still growing, but you already command more loyalty than you know. You also wish to do so quickly, allowing for the occasional undertaken project. I believe you could beat me if given a chance, or two. Three at absolute most. Do you disagree?”

Blue relaxes slightly, hearing it spelled out so clearly. He feels like he’s speaking to Erika, in a way, appreciating the directness and honesty, but… more than that, there’s something warming, something empowering, about hearing the Viridian Gym Leader say he approves of Blue aiming to become Champion. “No, Leader.”

“Good. So why pretend that you’re like any other trainer? The things you’ve done and seen elevate you above the usual 6 badges you carry. Some of your companions may warrant a similar fast tracking, but they can arrive in their own time.”

It’s all so gratifying, and so still there’s the nagging voice of doubt… “Do you plan to throw the match?”

“Would you say yes, if I did?”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe this is the real test.

Should he? Would he be able to live with his legacy? Like Giovanni said, Blue knows he’d be able to beat him sooner or later… and he’d get the near-perfect record. Something that might make all the difference, when the time comes to rally the region behind him.

There’s no way for Giovanni to know if his answer is truthful. Maybe he’s delayed too long already.

He almost says yes. It’s the practical thing to do, and sitting here, in the Leader’s office, being so frank and direct… and he wants to be practical.

But he didn’t make it all the way here on practicality alone.

“I think,” Blue says instead, each word feeling heavy and firm as the earth. “That I would do myself more harm than good, carrying your badge into Victory Road like that. I’ve dreamed of facing you in a real test of skill for half of my life… and that’s something I could give up, for the sake of Indigo. But what I can’t do without is the knowledge that I deserve to be Champion, in every way that matters. And beating you, for my eighth badge… it’s a test that matters, to me, like few others.”

It’s rare to see Leader Giovanni smile as wide as he does now. “I look forward to it. So let’s see how we can deliver Cinnabar back the peace it’s lost, and speed up the day that test comes.”