The forest was dark and full of monsters, but Red wasn’t afraid. The bravest man in the world sat across the fire, and Red knew nothing would happen to him while Tomio Verres was near.
“The most important thing to remember is that everything contains risk, Red. Everything.”
Red watched his father turn the spit over the bed of cinders. “You mean like how you can choke while eating?”
Tomio smiled. “Exactly.” His other hand poured a packet of soy sauce on the pidgey meat. The fire hissed and snapped as the sauce dripped down with the meat’s juices, and the sharp scent filled the air, combating the damp, green smells of the woods. “So tell me, what risks are we taking right now?”
Red thought it over as he carefully peeled the bark from a stick. His father had given the dagger to him last night for his eighth birthday, and he’d been itching to use it all day. He watched each peel of bark curl up, carefully adjusting his grip if it became too thin or thick. “I guess just being here instead of staying at home is a risk. But the fire is the real problem, since it might bring pokemon. Also, the smell of the meat might attract predators.” As he spoke, he imagined sharp teethed pokemon circling the camp just out of sight, slowly drawing in to pounce on his back. The back of his neck tightened, but he resisted the urge to look behind him. His dad would see if there was a pokemon sneaking up on him, and Kage would alert them if any came near.
The mightyena rested with its head on its forelimbs beside the fire, a shadow in the island of light. One eye was open, reflecting the fire as it watched the pidgey meat, nose twitching. Red checked his new spit for splinters, then handed it to his dad, who speared a pair of wings and legs onto it. “What about if we had stayed home?” Tomio asked. “It’s safe there. There are wards around town to alert us if dangerous pokemon come by, and others to help defend us.”
“Well. We might have fallen down the stairs at home.”
Red’s dad smiled and said nothing.
So Red considered some of the dangers back at Pallet Town. He could drown at the beach, but the obvious answer was to just not swim. He could get run over by a car, but they’re so uncommon and easy to avoid that it’s not likely. He eventually realized he was thinking in circles. Everything was too similar to falling down the stairs to be what his dad had in mind. He tried to think of unpredictable dangers like storms, and as a glimmer of understanding surfaced, he thought out loud. “Well… If I stayed home all the time, I wouldn’t learn as much. I could read about wilderness survival, but not practice. And if I never left home, I’d never practice training or defending against wild pokemon. Which might be okay, if I live my whole life at home or in a city. Or it might be deadly, if something unexpected happens.”
“Put another way?”
“Put another way…” Red took his cap off and scratched his head, then left it off so he could feel the wind in his sweaty hair. His mom had taught him to write with as much breadth as possible before editing down to the basics, cutting the fat from the ideas until the core message stood stark and irrefutable. That’s what his dad wanted. “Put another way, if I stayed home I wouldn’t be learning to manage risk. Letting others keep you safe is a gamble on the long run that you’ll always be protected.”
Pride warmed Red deeper than the fire reached. His dad took the first pidgey off the sticks holding it up, and after blowing on the meat a bit, slid it to the end of its spit and offered it to Kage. His mightyena extended his neck without rising and chomped it off the spit, spilling half of the pidgey to the grass. The dark canine began to feast, light bones cracking in his powerful jaws.
“So what are we doing to mitigate our risk right now, Red?”
“Well. First we used some repel to mask our scent. We chose a dense part of the woods so the firelight doesn’t go far. And as a last resort, Kage is ready to defend us if anything comes by.”
Tomio nodded. “What else?”
Red racked his brain to think of what he’d missed. “Our clothes? Nothing bright green or yellow, nothing tan or purple.”
“Yes, nothing that resembles prey in the area. What else?”
Red frowned. He picked up a third stick and began to peel it. The minutes crawled by, and when he realized he was focusing more on how much time was passing than finding the answer, he shook his head.
“Where are we?” his dad asked.
“About eight kilometers west of Pallet Town.”
“What’s nearby us?”
Red blinked. “Uh… besides Pallet Town… the beach is about two kilometers south… the southern shore, I mean. The western shore is another seven…”
His dad waited silently, still turning the meat as he pours soy sauce on the second pidgey. Eventually he said, “You can check your map.”
Red did so, brow furrowed. His dad rarely told him straight out how he was wrong, instead letting him flail about and find out himself. It might be more embarrassing if he was in school, but the only one around is his dad, who never laughs at him for missing a question.
Red expanded the map until he saw it. “There’s a Ranger outpost two kilometers up from us. North, I mean.” Once he saw it, he remembered there being one to the northwest of Pallet. He hadn’t realized it was so close.
“That’s right. To further minimize our risk in camping out, we chose to spend the night near a Ranger outpost. Being constantly aware of your location helps you not get lost, but what if you were in trouble? What if your phone was broken, or your pokeballs were running low on power? You might have tried to go all the way back to Pallet, when there’s help much closer.”
Red put his phone away, cheeks burning. Even without being laughed at, Red hated missing obvious things. He bit his tongue, pushing down the excuses that tried to bubble up. Whether he’d been lazy or just forgetful didn’t matter. “So why aren’t we spending the night with them?”
“Because I wanted to spend some alone time with my birthday boy.”
Red looked up and saw his dad’s smile. His frustration melted away, and Red finished peeling the stick with a smile of his own before handing it to his dad.
“So would you say the risk has been properly negated?” Tomio said as he took the spit and speared more meat onto it.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“What else could we do to be safer, other than camping closer to the outpost?”
“I could have my own pokemon,” Red said automatically.
Tomio laughed, and Red grinned. He knew his dad wouldn’t break the licensing regulations, but he hadn’t given up on the loophole that allowed kids to use pokemon registered to their parents. He wanted a pokemon of his own so bad that just looking at his dad’s full belt made his fingers itch to touch the cold spheres.
“I don’t know that a budew or azurill would be of much use for keeping us safe.”
“I could get a riolu, or a tyrogue.”
Red’s dad shook his head, still grinning. “I’d rather not have your mother call about a new hole in the wall because your training got out of hand. What else could we do?”
Red let it go while his dad was still in a good mood. “You could bring out another pokemon.” He knew his dad was more than capable of commanding two at once in combat.
Tom nodded, face serious again. “I could. Who would you suggest?”
“Kaze could fly around and let us know if something’s coming from the air. Nintai could go underground in case of tunneling pokemon.”
“In a forest?”
Red shrugs. “Kūfuku could use roots…”
His dad smiled and stood. He took out a pokeball and aimed it one handed at the ground far from the fire. “Kūfuku, kimi ni kimeta!”
The flash lit up the night for a split second, and then a victreebel was with them, its long vine immediately digging into the ground as it flexed its leaves and opened its wide mouth to the sky. Its eyes rolled to take in its surroundings, and it relaxed as it found itself at home. Tomio ran a hand over the plant pokemon’s bulbous body and dug a pokeblock out of his pocket with the other. He murmured a greeting as he dropped the pokeblock into its gaping mouth, then stood back.
“Kūfuku, ne o uero,” he said, and his pokemon began extending roots through the soil.
Tomio sat back down and carefully placed the second stick of meat on a small plate before handing it to Red. “Why those pokemon?”
Red accepted the plate with thanks, and began blowing on a wing, belly rumbling. “Kage’s nose is strong enough to warn us of most things approaching, but there would be no scent if it comes from underground, or dives from above.”
“Good. So why did I bring out Kūfuku and not Kaze?”
Red hesitated. “Because there are no pokemon native to this area that dive to attack their foes,” he said, trying to sound confident.
“Was that a guess?”
“Uh… an informed guess?”
His father smiled, but nodded. “And a good one. Spearow and Fearow do, but they do not fly by night. So in total our risk—”
“Dad? There’s something else we could do.’
“We could light other fires.”
Tomio’s hands paused while seasoning his food, face thoughtful. “As decoys.”
“Do you think we should do that?”
“Because leaving unattended fires can be dangerous, even if we build them carefully.”
“So why bring it up?”
“Because it’s an option, even if a dangerous one. It could be worth the risk. If I were here alone I might do it.”
“A manageable risk, to reduce a risk you have no control over.”
“Good.” Red’s dad finished cooking his meal, then joined Red on his side of the firebed. He placed a hand on Red’s hair, then bent to kiss his head. “Yoku dekimashita, Red.”
Red leaned against his father’s side, eating his dinner and feeling warmed from the inside and out.
“Remember, nothing is without risk, but risk is manageable. Risk is the balance between the danger of an action, and what the actor is capable of. A skilled trainer manages risks at all times and stays alive. A skilled and smart trainer thinks beyond the obvious risks of action, and find ways to do the impossible. Where such men and women go, legends bloom like flowers in their wake.”
As soon as Red gets over his shock, he whips his bag around one shoulder and scrambles for the zipper along the side. “Repel,” he hisses to Blue. “Now!” He pulls out the canister, pops the top, and sprays himself liberally, breathing deep to recover from the sprint through the woods and to keep himself from panicking.
The body in the field is too far to see clearly through the grass and flowers, but the tallish figure and short hair makes it appear to be a young man. There are red blotches on his clothes, but not enough to tell if he’s dead. Red tries to hold onto that hope, though it makes him anxiously aware of every passing second the venom might be creeping through the man’s veins…
Risk = Magnitude of loss x Probability that loss will occur. M is death for all of us, and P is… almost certain.
“Shiiit,” Blue says, quietly but with feeling as he pants for breath and sprays himself with repel. “How long—”
“Less than a minute ago,” Leaf murmurs, barely audible over the buzzing. Red offers his canister to her, but she shakes her head and holds up her own empty can. “I followed one of the beedrill here, and saw it… him… already lying there.”
Easiest variable to reduce is M, which means leveraging our pokemon’s safety. P needs to go down either way. What are our tools?
Blue already has his hand on a pokeball. “We need to watch their pattern, wait for an opening. Two of us can provide cover while the third goes to help him.”
Wait, Red mouths soundlessly as his mind races. Half a meter per second, sustained for up to 40 seconds—no good. He’s tempted to take his notebook out to check his numbers, he’s not great at math, but knows he’s just being optimistic. They’d never make it in time. Which way is the wind blowing?
Leaf is nodding as Red sucks on a finger and holds it up. “A distraction. Red, you taught charmander smokescreen, it’s perfect to keep them away. Bulbasaur could use his sleep powder on any that get through.”
“You’ve trained him in sleep powder?” Blue asks her.
“Yeah, we caught a ledyba with it before I found this place.”
“Wait,” Red whispers as yet another beedrill join the swarm. Moderate wind to the west, won’t work. Spinarak isn’t trained, can’t use web, beedrill could dive through sleep powder and sting before being affected—
“Then I’ll start with Zephyr and whip the smoke into them. You and Bulbasaur—”
They both look at him.
“We need to wait.” The words are hard to say, but he forces them out. “The nearest ranger outpost isn’t far, they’ll be here in eight minutes at most from when you sent your alert, Leaf. This swarm is too big to handle on our own.”
Blue looks at him in disgust. “We can’t just sit here while he could be dying out there!”
“Keep your voice down,” Red snaps, shame and anger and fear swirling in his chest. “This isn’t a cartoon. Against six beedrill, we might stand a chance. At least we could try to get away if things go bad. Against nine, we would need to each personally take down three beedrill, which none of our pokemon are capable of. But even nine would be better odds than this. There are over a dozen beedrill out there—”
“I’m not saying we need to beat them all, but if we’re careful we can at least distract them long enough to check if that guy’s alive.”
Red shakes his head, still breathing hard from the run as he tries to put his thoughts in order. “My charmander’s smokescreen covers half a square meter per second, and double that vertically. It could hide one person moving slowly, but I wouldn’t be able to see anything from inside it, which means I wouldn’t be able to check for and treat wounds.” Red’s voice cracks, and he takes another deep breath to steady his voice, fists clenched against the ground. “Blowing the smoke into the field won’t work either, the wind will disperse it too quickly.”
“So we try to draw them a bit at a time,” Leaf says.
Blue shakes his head with a frown. “They attack in swarms. Pull one and you usually pull others. But we don’t have to hold them long, eight minutes—”
“Eight minutes with at least four on each of us,” Red says. “Maybe more. None of our pokemon can protect us from all of them, and we can’t outrun them. Zephyr and Crimson can handle at least a couple each, but unless you’re paying close attention you won’t be able to withdraw them at a safe time. And you won’t be paying attention, because the rest will be on you.” Red takes another deep breath, trying to get his heartbeat to slow. “The repel won’t mean much if they see us.”
“We could bring out all of our pokemon,” Blue says. “They can hold them off long enough to check—”
Red meets Blue’s gaze. “No bluster, Blue. No bragging. Think before you answer, because you’re gambling with your pokemons’ lives, and ours. Are you really that confident you could command four at once? Two you just caught?”
Blue’s eyes are dark and deep as the sea in a storm, no longer the sparkling blue of his grandfather’s. “Yes,” he says after at least ten seconds, which is still longer than Red had expected. “Maybe not the caterpie. He wouldn’t do much against them anyway, but the others, yeah. I’ve watched gramps. I’ve seen a hundred vids. I’ve practiced in the sims. It wouldn’t be perfect, but I can do it.”
Red looks at Leaf. “You?”
She worries her lower lip. “Bulbasaur and Crimson, probably?”
“So let’s say I try with Charmander and my rattata. We’re still outnumbered over two to one.”
“We took on bad odds with the rattata cluster.”
“We ran from that rattata cluster. Beedrill are faster, and won’t give up as easily. Not to mention the whole point is to help the guy out there, which we can’t do while all of us are focusing on the beedrill.”
“Squirtle can—” Blue whips his head around, and Red hears it a moment later: more buzzing, approaching from their side instead of the din in the field.
They all get to their feet, pokeballs in hand, but the three insects pass by them without slowing and join the others in the flower field. Up close, the pokemon’s forelimb stingers look wickedly sharp, their yellow and black bodies lean and deadly.
Red crouches down again, legs shaking at the near miss, and Leaf leans against the tree with a relieved sigh. Blue pounds a fist into the grass as the three join the rest of the swarm, along with yet another from the other side of the clearing, bringing the total upwards of twenty.
Red looks back at the person in the field, searching for any twitch, any sign of life at all. “There’s too many. Fighting on mostly instinct and outnumbered, our pokemon will die. We probably would too. If we know that guy out there is alive, maybe it would be worth the risk, but…” Red’s distantly aware that his legs are still trembling, as are his arms. He forces his gaze away from the… body. “It’s not. We’d most likely just get ourselves and our pokemon killed for nothing. That’s not what responsible trainers do. We need to be ready to assist the rangers when they arrive. If there are only a couple they might need our help, but until then we need to—” His voice breaks, and he closes his eyes as they start to burn. Something, there has to be something we can do… “—stay safe. Whoever’s out there… is probably already d-dead…” Like dad, dead even though he understood the risks, dead because at the end of the day he chose to put himself at risk to protect others, I’m sorry dad, I can’t…
There’s a hand on his shoulder. Left hand, right shoulder, Leaf. A moment later Blue’s is on his left, and together they wait, the air filled with the buzzing of the swarm.
Bulbasaur can send powder up and have Zephyr blow it into field, should get some of them, but the rest will notice us… we can try to lure some here and set up a smokescreen to keep the rest from following, taking them out a few at a time, but if any go around the smokescreen we’ll be overwhelmed… Squirtle can draw their attention and stay in her shell to stay safe, but Blue has to be nearby to give commands…
Nothing. There’s nothing they can do. Red takes another minute to finish internalizing that, then takes a deep breath and raises his head, feeling a bit more in control of himself. He wipes at his face, then nods his thanks to the other two and stands. “Be on the lookout for the rangers, they’ll probably be coming from the east across the clearing.”
“Let’s circle around then,” Leaf says, and leads the way through the trees. Red follows Blue after her and tries to keep an eye on the beedrill. A few leave the swarm as they walk, but to the northwest. Red quickly takes out his phone and draws a cone on his map in that direction, estimating where their hive might be so he can avoid it in the future. He can look up foraging ranges to make a better estimation later.
Thankfully the repel seems to be keeping them hidden while the beedrill are busy. Red watches another one finish drinking its fill of nectar before flying off for home, its lower limbs coated in pollen. He wonders if the person in the field had been resting there when the swarm arrived, or if they had been foolish enough to try to capture a beedrill while they were foraging. Perhaps only one had been here at first, and the others had taken him by surprise. Either way, where’s his pokemon? As far as Red can tell, the body is alone.
They reach the eastern side of the clearing a few minutes before the Rangers appear through the trees. As Red had guessed there’s two of them, an investigative pair comprised of a senior riding a meganium and a junior on the back of an ursaring. Red doesn’t recognize either of them, and for a moment he feels homesick for the familiar, competent presence of the Rangers around Pallet Town. Then the two are dismounting and withdrawing their pokemon, and Red takes a step forward.
“Sitrep, one civ down, possibly trainer, surrounded by fifteen to twenty passive beedrill. Aid is one charmander, squirtle, bulbasaur, two rattata, two pidgey. Trained suppression skills are smokescreen and sleep powder.” He doesn’t mention their new captures; even if he considered them reliable, the Rangers wouldn’t.
The junior Ranger’s brow rises, but the senior doesn’t blink as he sizes the three of them up. His eyes linger a moment on Red’s clothes; the red and white of his jacket and black of his shirt makes him match the Ranger uniform color scheme. “You were right to alert us. All three of you are willing to assist?” They confirm, and he nods. “Pokeball count?”
“I have six.” Red glances at the others.
“Five,” Blue says, while Leaf holds up five fingers.
“Good. I’m Ranger Akio, this is Ranger Metis. Please stand by while we assess the situation.”
Red barely steps aside in time to avoid being shoved as they pass. The two Rangers stand at the edge of the clearing and begin to confer in low voices. Red’s gas mask is strong enough to mute the repel he used on himself, but the strength of the Rangers’ repellent still goes through his air filters. Their uniforms are smudged and stained by what seems like a rough few days in the woods, and they stand with the steady confidence of professionals.
The knot of tension in Red’s chest has eased somewhat seeing them. The authorities are here now, and he can relax a bit. The three trainers wait together quietly, ready to act on the Ranger’s command.
But after a couple minutes pass, Red feels his impatience begin to return. He realizes he’s rocking back and forth on his heels, and reminds himself that he’s the one that insisted on waiting for their judgement and assistance.
Blue eventually begins to pace, both hands spinning pokeballs and swapping them with those at his belt with a speed and skill that’s mesmerizing to watch. Red tears his gaze away and sees Leaf watching the Rangers as they murmur to each other, the senior pointing at the far end of the field. She seems more patient than he and Blue, though there’s a crease between her brow.
“So. A ledyba, huh?”
Leaf glances at him.
He smiles crookedly and shrugs. “I could use some distraction, and you seem pretty calm.”
She lets out a breath of amusement through her nose and nods, turning away from the field. “Wish I felt calm. Yeah, I got the ledyba about half an hour in. It was caught in a spinarak web. I couldn’t get a lock on it, so I had bulbasaur prep some sleep powder, then cut it out with razor leaves.”
“Razor leaves too, huh? You’ve been busy.”
She smiles. “What about you?”
“I got a spinarak, actually. Wonder if you stole its dinner.”
“Wow. Spinarak’s a nice catch.”
“Yeah, ledyba too. Lots of support and impairment.”
She nods, and then they’re silent again. The quiet is filled with the distant buzzing of the swarm and the mutters of the Rangers. Red’s knee continues to ache, and he bends down a bit to rub it gently. After a moment he straightens with a sigh. “Want to know how big an ass I am?” he asks quietly. “There’s someone lying out there either dying or dead, and I feel slighted because I’m not being included in the discussion on how to help them.”
“I know. I feel like my mom sent me out of the room so she could discuss ‘adult things.’ What do you think is taking so long?”
“Their main priority is protecting people, but my dad made sure I understood that they’re also guardians of wild pokemon and the environment. Since we don’t know if that guy’s alive, my guess is they’re trying to minimize collateral damage. Something heavy handed could have repercussions on the ecosystem that harm a lot of others.”
“Beedrill keep a lot of the plants in the forest spreading, and cull a lot of pokemon that move into their turf. This looks like a big chunk of a colony; if they’re all taken out, it could be enough to shift the ecology of this part of the forest in ways that are hard to predict.” Talking helps calm Red’s impatience, and he lets out a breath, stretching his arms behind his head. “Or if it’s part of a huge colony, the rest might go on a feeding frenzy to make up their losses. They might even migrate as a swarm. If the Rangers have a couple fully evolved fire pokemon, they could burn all the beedrill up in seconds, but that would be a last resort. Coming up with safe alternatives is harder.”
“Well, I’m happy to help however I can. But being kept out of discussing a plan that will involve my pokemon feels shitty.”
“Yeah. It’s probably because of how young we are. If we had a badge or two to flash around—”
“It’s insulting, is what it is,” Blue says, not keeping his voice as low as theirs. “Treating us like civs. If they knew who we are…”
Red rolls his eyes, though he’s smiling. “Who we are? That’s pretty generous of you.”
Leaf laughs. “Yeah, I don’t think ‘Juniper’ carries much weight around here.”
“You might be surprised,” Red says. “Your grandfather is pretty well respected, and some people even know of your mom’s work.”
“By ‘some people,’ he means the eggheads at the lab,” Blue says to Leaf.
She grins. “Bit of a biased reference pool, then.”
“Still,” Red says. “Unless these guys knew my dad, being the son of a Ranger and journalist doesn’t inspire much awe.”
Blue frowns at him. “Hey, you may not be an Oak by blood, but gramps doesn’t send just anyone out in the world with his babies. And no, I’m not talking about me,” he says as Leaf opens her mouth, and she covers her grin with a hand.
Red shrugs. “I think others would just call it nepotism.”
“Ahh, that’s crap.” Blue hooks an arm around Red’s neck. “Give it a few years and I bet ‘Verres’ will be a household Kanto name.”
Red flushes a bit at the unexpected compliment, trying to think of a reply when Blue knocks his hat off and begins grinding his knuckles in his hair. “After all, someone’s going to have to write my biography, ya know? Who better than the kid who watched the legend begin?”
Red curses and grabs for his hat, which leaves him defenseless to the noogie. Leaf leans against a nearby tree as she tries to muffle her giggles, and Blue spins in place so Red’s punches only graze his ribs.
Suddenly Leaf stands straight, face serious. The boys disengage and turn to see the Rangers approaching. Ranger Metis is frowning at them, but Akio merely watches impassively as they straighten their clothing and stand at attention. “We have a plan. Are you still interested in assisting?”
Red’s cheeks are hot as he nods along with the others. “Sorry sir, just nerves.” If you don’t want to seem like a kid, stop acting like one. “We’re ready. What do you need us to do?”
Even through his mask filters, the air is cloyingly sweet.
Red breathes through his mouth as he watches the meganium’s petals flap up and down, wafting more and more of its sweet scent into the air. They had separated the group, with Akio and Blue to the southeast of the clearing while Red, Leaf and Metis stay on the eastern side. Red can’t see Ranger Akio’s expression from this far, but sitting on the pokemon’s back, so close to the petals, the smell must be overwhelming. He’s probably used to it by now.
Blue on the other hand clearly isn’t, and even from a distance Red can see that his friend’s face is a grimace of disgust. He stands ready though, pokeball in one hand and flute in the other. After another few moments, when the scent feels tangible as cotton candy against Red’s tongue, Akio gives Blue the signal.
“Zephyr, go!” Blue’s pokeball flashes mid-air, and Zephyr swoops out, taking a moment to orient itself in the unfamiliar trees. Blue catches his pokeball with one hand and sticks his flute between his lips with the other, then points and blows a quick pair of notes.
The bird comes up behind Blue and hovers in the air as it begins to flap, small body bounding up and down mid air with every powerful sweep of its wings. Stronger and stronger gusts blow into the clearing, and it doesn’t take long for the beedrill to stop foraging and turn as one toward the source of the scent.
The buzzing of the field reaches a frenzied pitch, and Red feels a thrill of fear in his guts as the swarm suddenly dives toward Akio and his meganium. Blue has already withdrawn Zephyr and is running toward Red, Leaf and Metis.
Ranger Akio waits to ensure the trainer is clear, then slaps his pokemon’s side with a “Ha!”
The meganium leaps into the trees, swiftly disappearing through the foliage on its four powerful legs. Plant pokemon are not particularly known for speed, but meganium is one of the faster among them, and just barely outspeeds the average beedrill. The Ranger’s is no doubt also trained to be extra quick, and as long as their luck holds out, Akio should be able to keep the majority of the swarm focused on him until they’re far enough to cut the scent trail.
Meanwhile, Metis has already bounded off into the field with his ursaring. They decided not to stay in the clearing, even with the added risk of moving the body, in case any beedrill return or don’t follow Ranger Akio.
As indeed some haven’t. Red watches from the treeline as the powerful ursine swats a beedrill out of the air when it dives at him. The bug hits the ground and stays down, stunned or too hurt to fly again, but there are another four on the outskirts that suddenly turn their focus on Ranger Metis. Red tears his gaze away to crouch beside Charmander.
“Ok buddy, just like we practiced. Smokescreen. Charmander, smokescreen.”
Charmander’s head snaps up to Red, then he shivers a bit, eyes closing. A thick, heavy smog begins to pour from his tail, spreading and rising under the tree branch like a curtain between the field and the rest of the forest.
“Good job. Good boy,” he says, stroking his pokemon’s smooth head. “More, Smokescreen.” He looks at the field as the smoke rises around him, starting to obscure his vision. Faster, faster…
The last thing he sees is Ranger Metis carefully placing the body on the ursaring’s back before hopping back on and running toward him, the four beedrill in pursuit.
Then the smoke is everywhere, and Red can only crouch still so he doesn’t get barreled over. Ursaring aren’t nearly as fast as meganium, and the beedrill would swiftly close the distance. His heart hammers in his throat as he waits, keeping his hand on charmander so he knows where he is.
A few moments later the ursaring dashes through the smoke to Red’s right, a dark mass of furred muscle that takes some of the smoke with it. Then two beedrill zoom over him, more smoke dislodged in their wake. He hears the two beyond the smokescreen veer off, and says “Charmander, stop.” He picks his pokemon up and walks back through the smoke until it clears.
When it does, he sees the two beedrill lying on the grass a dozen feet away. They’d flown straight into the cloud of sleep powder that bulbasaur is raining down from a branch in a nearby tree. Leaf is beside him with a small bucket that Akio filled with more powder beforehand.
“All clear!” he says. “The other two turned back.” Red puts charmander down and waits, listening for any newly approaching buzz as the smoke slowly fades. He hears Leaf withdraw bulbasaur, and by the time she gets down from the tree, the smoke is diffuse enough for them to see the field again. The remaining two beedrill return to drinking nectar, taking no mind of them. A newcomer has already joined them, and the one that had been knocked down by the ursaring slowly rises back into the air.
Red lets a breath out and turns to see Blue jogging over, Zephyr on his shoulder. “Nice job. That was perfect timing with that powder, Leaf.”
“Thanks. You guys did great too.”
Red shrugs. He’d performed a simple task with minimal risk. Leaf approaches the unconscious beedrill warily and dumps the rest of her bucket onto them. Then the three trainers go to Ranger Metis, who’s crouched beside the body.
Everyone is silent, an air of tension making the forest seem oddly quiet and still. Or maybe that’s just the much quieter buzz of the remaining beedrill.
The body lies limp, mouth slightly parted and eyes closed. The Ranger has two fingers pressed to the young man’s neck, face impassive as he waits for a pulse. Impassive, but not indifferent; it’s an expression of control Red has seen on his father’s face. An expression of enduring.
The trainer’s wounds are hard to make out clearly. The back of his blue jacket is caked with blood where it pooled, but since he’s lying on it again it’s easy to look elsewhere. There are punctures along his torso, though it’s hard tell how many due to the spread of blood. Lacerations run along one arm and up his neck and jaw, leaving the rest of his face relatively unblemished. Red can see the Ranger’s potion and antidote bottles sitting on the grass, the droplets of their spray still glistening on the visible wounds. Their hypercoagulant properties have stopped any blood flow, but no new skin is growing over the wounds.
“Revive capsule?” Leaf says, voice hollow.
Ranger Metis shakes his head, once. “No swallow reflex.” He removes his fingers. “He’s gone. Lost too much blood, and the venom…”
A horrible weight is slowly pressing in Red’s stomach as he looks at the young man’s face. Blonde, with a round chin and a few days of beard growth. In death he looks barely older than Red. “How long…”
“Hard to tell without taking a temperature reading. He’s not stiff yet, so probably no more than a few hours.” Ranger Metis lets out a breath and rises, leaning against his ursaring’s neck and scratching its ear as he turns his face away.
Blue mutters something that gets lost in his face mask and stomps off, while Leaf walks to a nearby tree and sinks to the ground with her back against it, eyes closed.
Red continues to stand where he is, staring at the young man’s face. He’s dimly aware of his pulse speeding up, breath becoming faster and more shallow. He wants to ask if there’s any chance they could have saved him, if acting sooner would have helped… but he already knows there’s no answer. The trainer might have bled out before Leaf found him, or he might have died a few minutes after. Past that, it’s unlikely he’d have survived such blood loss.
This isn’t my fault. I can’t blame myself for making the right choice. He repeats it to himself as the world grows a bit fuzzy around the edges, distantly aware that he’s close to hyperventilating in his mask. He tears it off and takes deep breaths, willing himself to calm down. Not my fault. Not my fault…
The ursaring makes a chuffing noise and sits, Metis still rubbing its head. Now that Red notices the pokemon’s proximity, its size is intimidating. He meets its solid brown eyes and sees none of the razor focus of Trainer Donovan’s skarmory. Instead, the ursaring’s gaze is the very definition of neutral. It simply watches him, waiting. If he leaves it alone, it’ll leave him alone. If he attacks, it’ll snap his neck with one swipe. Things could go one way or the other, and the ursaring simply doesn’t care.
It looks away from him, gaze moving over the body, then off into the trees as its jaw gapes in a yawn. Unimpressed. Despite everything, Red’s lips twitch briefly with the ghost of a smile. The ursaring’s utter disinterest is grounding, in a way, and his breathing begins to even out. For the vast majority of the world and its inhabitants, life will go on. In the grand scheme of things, the web of tragedy and heartbreaks that will spread from this death are relatively minimal.
As soon as he thinks that, an echo of soul-cracking despair makes Red shudder, and he sways on his feet. Minimal. Right. He suddenly wants to call his mother. Hear her voice. He forces himself to remember the ursaring’s indifference, and after a moment the ache numbs a bit.
Ranger Metis finishes drawing comfort from his pokemon and steps away to withdraw it. He clips its pokeball to his belt slowly, then turns to consider the body, face once again a mask. “I’m going to identify him and record his death, then make preparations to transport him. There’s no need for you to be around for all that.” He turns to Red, and the other two as they approach again. “You did well. As thanks, please capture those two beedrill before they awaken. Then I suggest you find a safe place to camp. It will be dark soon.”
“If it’s alright,” Leaf says, “I would like to know who he was.”
Metis looks at her a moment. “Knowing will make it harder.”
“I want to know too,” Blue says, and Red nods. We owe him that much, at least.
Metis meets each of their gazes. His face softens a bit, and he turns away. “Alright. On the condition that you will keep it to yourselves until after we’ve had a chance to inform his family.”
They agree, and watch as Metis respectfully begins to pat the young man’s pockets down. He finds the wallet in his jacket, and extracts it to pull out the Trainer ID.
“Luke Koyama, Age 26. Home, Cremini Town. License issued March 3rd, 1492.”
There’s a moment of quiet as Ranger Metis puts the ID back. Red’s eyes are drawn to Luke’s pokeball belt, where four balls rest. “Was there a pokemon or pokeball out there with him?”
Metis pauses. “No. Not that I saw. I’ll double check before the swarm gets back. Now go catch those beedrill before they wake.”
Blue turns away, and Red and Leaf follow. They approach the sleeping pokemon without getting too close. One of them is still as stone, but the other’s wings are slowly flexing.
Each of the beedrill is about as tall as Red, their forelimb blades as long as his arms. The idea of applying human morality to barely sentient beings should be silly, but beedrill had always struck Red as an evil species, vicious in a way even the most commonly feared ghost and dark type pokemon are often not. No sense getting mad at a pokemon for acting in its nature, his father had told him once, but he can’t help but study their blades, trying to spot any signs of blood…
“You guys take them,” Blue says just as Red opens his mouth. “You took bigger risks.”
Leaf frowns at him. “What? You practically bathed in that beedrill bait. I was scared stiff thinking half of them would go after you.”
“Zephyr blew most of it away, and the beedrill knew the meganium was the source. If a few more had gone after you and Red—”
“I don’t want one.”
They both look at him. He shrugs a shoulder, keeping his gaze on the one starting to wake. “I don’t want one. They don’t really interest me, from a research perspective. So you guys should take them.” He walks away before they can reply, staring out in the direction Ranger Akio had gone.
You’re being irrational, Future Red mutters in the more distant recesses of his mind.
There are two of them and three of us. If someone has to go without, it might as well be me.
Rationalize it all you want, but you took us out of the running for purely emotional reasons. It feels good to you now, but I might need a beedrill someday.
So catch one then. They’re not rare.
Would that have made a difference? What if you come across a dragonair that had killed someone? Excuse me, that might have killed someone.
Is it so bad to not want a pokemon that might have killed a person?
The point of catching pokemon is to stop them from killing people. One of the points, anyway.
There are a pair of flashes and twin explosions of sound behind Red that light up the forest briefly. He looks up, noticing for the first time how dark it’s getting. Well, it’s moot now.
You’ll have to deal with it again eventually.
Technically, you will. Then you might not find it so easy.
His prospective mental voice grumbles a bit, but quiets down. Blue and Leaf approach, and Red turns to them.
“We’re not counting these as part of our catches,” Blue says. “So you’re still only one behind us.”
Red blinks at him, then smiles. The expression feels odd, but good. “Right. Thanks.”
“Not that you’ll be able to catch up before we get to Pewter anyway.” Leaf winks.
Red’s smile widens. “We’ll see about that. I woke up pretty late today, I might catch another three tonight while you guys are sleeping.”
Blue’s about to respond when Red spies a flash of color in the trees. “Akio’s back!”
They turn to see the Ranger approaching from the northeast riding an arcanine. Blue makes an appreciative sound at the sight of the majestic pokemon. Red wonders how far Ranger Akio had run before switching mounts.
After checking with Ranger Metis, Akio dismounts and examines the body for himself before approaching the trainers. The older man is sweating slightly, but otherwise seems fine. All trace of the meganium’s sweet scent are replaced by the vaguely burnt-air smell coming off of the arcanine’s fur.
“It’s good to see you’re all alright. Thank you for your help here today.”
“No prob,” Blue says. “Just doing our duty.”
Ranger Akio’s smile is brief, but genuine. If he’s bothered by Luke’s death, he doesn’t show it. Perhaps he’d already taken it as a given. “Yes. Today you three repaid the trust the public has placed in you, and all trainers. If you don’t mind, I’d like your names, so when we return Mr. Koyama and his pokemon to his family they know who else to thank.” He nods at Leaf. “Yours we have from the ticket you made, Miss Juniper.” He looks at the other two expectantly.
Ranger Akio’s brow twitches briefly at Blue’s surname. “A pleasure to meet you. May your travels be swift and safe.” He salutes them, one arm crossed behind his back and the other across his waist as he bows slightly.
Red and the others return it, then gather their things. Leaf cleans her bucket out carefully before collapsing it and putting it back in her bag, and Red puts his gas mask back on. Before leaving, Red approaches the Rangers.
“Could you do me a favor? I’m very curious to know what happened out here today,” Red says. “How Luke was killed. What he was doing in the field. I know it’s not likely we’ll get any answers, but…”
Ranger Metis glances at his superior, who studies Red for a moment. “It doesn’t do to obsess over these things. Trust me, I know. Sometimes mistakes are made. Accidents happen. People die. The why isn’t always known, or even helpful.”
Red doesn’t agree with that last bit, but he merely says, “I understand. I don’t intend to dwell on it. I just meant, if you do learn anything, I would appreciate knowing. I think it would help me put it out of my mind.”
Ranger Akio nods. “If we learn anything, I’ll pass it along. You have my word.”
Red salutes him again, bowing deep. “Thank you.” Red rejoins Blue and Leaf, and, looking back at Luke Koyama one more time in the darkening twilight, leaves the buzz of the remaining beedrill behind.
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