Tag Archives: rationalist writing

Chapter 74: Choices

The second group badge challenge takes another week to organize, and Blue is informed the same day he wins his badge that he still won’t be part of the process.

It’s frustrating, but understandable. Even if within the gym everyone trusts Blue and the other newly badged members not to collaborate with Glen’s group, the optics need to remain as clean as possible. People were already picking apart the first match for being too easy… which Blue knows because he spent way too much time the next day poring over all the reactions and feedback online.

+954/-121 Pretty basic, imo, barely any of the battles were team-based, even then only 2v1 at most

+786/-305 Oak should have been disqualified as soon as he found Surge, the first attack against the pidgeotto is fine but what was that warning shot at the ground for? Clear favoritism…

+457/-462 The civilians were too helpful, in a REAL incident they would be too scared to do anything. And leaving that guy in the alley should have definitely counted as a loss!

| +143/-218 Yep. Sure hope I never have to rely on Oak saving me.

|| +49/-15 You think he’s obligated to, even if you would get him or others killed?

|| +9/-0 He saved my life during the storm. What have you done?

Not all the feedback is negative, of course. Most of it even seems positive, or reservedly excited. Other Gym Leaders, in Kanto and beyond, have released statements or commented in press releases to praise Vermilion for exploring new ways to challenge trainers… though most dodge questions concerning any of their own plans to either follow Vermilion’s example, or come up with their own new twists. In every case, the press seems happy to cover the development from every angle they can.

Most of the group seems happy with the limelight, if a bit overwhelmed at times… but Blue should have known that not everyone would.

“I was happy enough just being part of the group,” Taro confides during dinner on the third night after their challenge. “The media showing up at practice made sense, in a way, since we were doing something so new. But I didn’t think my first badge would be so… scrutinized by everyone.”

Blue follows Taro’s glances to see someone at the side of the gym cafeteria holding up their phone to take a picture of everyone. He smiles for the camera, which makes the young girl grin as she taps the screen a few more times. They usually eat at the gym these days, both to save travel time and to avoid extra attention, but they’re not exactly hiding. “It does get annoying, sometimes. But it’ll fade away soon enough.” Until they do something else newsworthy, at least. Which he intends to do sooner rather than later, even if he hasn’t thought of it yet.

“I guess so. But it’s more than annoying, to me. I’m starting to stress over things like my clothes and hair, knowing there might be cameras everywhere I go.”

Blue frowns, reminded of similar conversations with Red. It’s even more surprising coming from Taro, whose goals include gym battling. “Attention is power. You don’t have to use it, but if you ever want what you say to matter to others, or if you need help with something, it’s better to have it than not.”

Taro shrugs, staring down at his food. “I’m starting to think I don’t want power.”

Yep. Definite Red vibes. Blue pushes the thoughts away, trying to focus on the here and now. “Becoming the first sibling Champion pair makes power kind of a requirement. And… you know, the outcome?”

“I guess. I mean… I like being a trainer, and it feels good to finally have a badge… but maybe Championship is more Chie’s passion. I thought I cared about it, but really, I’ve just been along for the ride. I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy traveling. What if it turns out what I’ve really enjoyed was just being a gym member?”

Blue watches him twirl his fork in his noodles, unsure what to say. TaroChie hadn’t followed the four of them the night Zapdos flew by, and he judged them for it at the time. After talking with gramps about his oath, admitting that he wouldn’t go through with it any more… it felt like less of an issue, knowing that they likely wouldn’t be in another Stormbringer attack any time soon even if they traveled with him. They would have time to grow, to get stronger, and maybe when the time was right, when they were all prepared, they would choose differently.

He hoped that was already happening. That getting their badges would give them confidence. It seems that in Taro’s case, it’s doing the opposite.

“What will you do, then?” he asks after a minute. “If your sister decides to keep going?”

“I guess I could just go from gym to gym to learn, and not worry about badges,” Taro says. “Maybe get more experience, then go to academy to be a Ranger.”

Blue is surprised anew, and almost points out that being a Ranger can be more dangerous, then realizes that he’s assuming safety is the main motivation.

He wants to encourage everyone to reach for their dreams, to not give up on them. But he also wants to make sure it’s their dream they’re pursuing, not his.

“Working directly to help people, without worrying about badges, or the spot light,” Blue muses as the alarm goes off on his watch at the same time as Glen’s does. They both stand, trays in hand. “It’s not a bad life.”

The relief on Taro’s face sends a stab of guilt through Blue as the other boy follows him to the garbage cans. “Yeah. Maybe someday… I mean, I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know how Chie feels about it, and I’d feel bad leaving her to journey alone.” He smiles. “Well, without me at least.”

Blue smiles back as he leads the way toward the training rooms. He’s already decided that he would welcome any of the others who want to travel with him after they finish here. Blue looks back over the others as they follow in small groups, talking amongst themselves.

Of those that have already earned their badges, he’s pretty sure Lizzy and MG will want to continue traveling with him, Glen, and Elaine. Chron is the only one that approached him ahead of time to say that he regretfully wouldn’t be coming along after, and Blue assured him that he understood. With Taro potentially bowing out, he’s less sure about Chie’s decision. If Taro is taking for granted that his sister would go on without him, he’s probably underestimating how much she cares about him. Blue knows he does that sometimes, with Daisy.

That leaves those still preparing for their challenge. Bretta is going to go rejoin Slava and Sumi after getting her badge, the latter of whom is still recovering from complications to her absol wound’s treatment. It’s the last three, Vlad, Bolin, and Hitoshi, that he’s most unsure about, since he’s spent the least time with them, compared to everyone else.

Each is the son of a ranger stationed around Saffron, and they grew up together knowing they would start their journey at the same time. He knows they got their starting pokemon last year when Bolin turned thirteen, and arrived in Vermilion just a week before Zapdos flew by. While Blue never encountered them before or during the storm, they gained nearly as much fame as he did by rescuing a couple dozen civilians from a building that got filled with one of the magnemite swarms.

Since then each has proven himself a skilled trainer, and they complement each other well, with Bolin preferring pokemon that can control the battlefield, Vlad focusing on sweepers, and Hitoshi catching and training anything that can stall or tank. Just as importantly, they collectively know a lot about pokemon abilities and habits, both in the wild and for training.

He should check what their plans are after the challenge. Vlad seems most like the leader of the trio; maybe he can talk to him about it first, get a sense for whether they’ve discussed staying at the gym or continuing their journey. Blue lets his steps slow until he’s level with the three of them, who are talking with Bretta and Lizzy about their favorite regional food.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but anyone got any new ideas on how Zephyr recognized that frost-rotom?”

“Actually, yeah,” Vlad says. “I looked into the scouting programs, and it turns out abilities like that don’t work the way we would think. It’s more like training an artificial intelligence. You can’t tell your pokemon how to identify every single other pokemon it might see, and then determine that it’s wild if there’s no trainer standing beside it, because that would still require teaching them what every single pokemon looks like. They instead go off of the same criteria they would use to identify a threat, even one they’re not used to encountering. Do you think your pidgeotto even knows what a fridge is?”

Blue blinks. “Huh. No, I guess he wouldn’t ever have seen one.”

“So he was just playing it safe?” Bolin asks. “Makes sense. Big object moving on its own toward his trainer… no other human around it… turns out it wasn’t even wrong. It doesn’t have to think ‘a rotom is possessing that fridge,’ or whatever bird thoughts would sound like, to think ‘that might be dangerous.'”

“Makes sense,” Blue admits. “I was hoping Zephyr might have had a way to notice that it was a Ghost type, maybe because of surrealism.”

Vlad shrugs. “Had the same thought, but it’s easy to test. My bet is Zephyr would do the same thing if we put a fridge on a dolly and pushed it toward you.”

“Where would we get a dolly?” Hitoshi asks.

Bolin grins. “Forget the dolly, where would we get a fridge? Borrow it from the gym cafeteria?”

“Why not? Bet we could get someone to sign off on it if we explain it’s for training.”

“Vlad,” Blue says. “Do you think wild pokemon would make the same mistake? Or is it something that the scouting program caused?”

Vlad looks skyward thoughtfully, then shrugs. “Nothing in particular that I saw in the program would cause it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Bretta asks. “Decoys?”

He blinks. “No, actually… but now that you mention it…”

“It’s been tried,” Bolin says with a dismissive gesture. “Life-sized, full color pokedolls, with speakers to make the right sounds… they can catch a wild’s attention, but not keep it.”

“Probably the cry that’s the most convincing, but one thing they lacked was motion,” Vlad points out. “That’s how most pokemon hunt and react to danger.”

“No, that’s how some pokemon do, maybe even the largest category, but most go off of colors or scents or sounds—”

Blue listens to them bicker and feels a stab of nostalgia before shaking it off. “In any case,” he interrupts, “It’s worth a try. Not sure how hard it would be to get them to consistently move in a battlefield, but if it draws even a couple attacks from wild pokemon it could be worth a lot.”

“There’s another mystery I’ve been working on,” Lizzy says. “I didn’t realize it until I saw on the video feed that when you first encountered him, Leader Surge’s raichu sent a thundershock at the ground in front of you, after attacking Zephyr.”

The others look at her expectantly, and finally Bretta nods. “Right, it was a warning shot to let him know where the boundary was. What’s the mystery?”

“Well, how could he do that?”

“I don’t follow,” Blue admits. “I had my rubber soles, he knew that, and…”

Lizzy is waving a hand. “It hit the ground in front of you, Blue. You were the tallest thing in your immediate vicinity. It was a massive risk!”

“It’s Leader Surge,” Hitoshi points out. “He’s probably trained that raichu so well it could hit a pokeball midair without shocking its thrower.”

“Right, but how? Did he somehow train his raichu to create an upward streamer that precise?”

The group is silent, glancing at each other. “Is that… would that be hard?” Hitoshi finally asks.

“Yes! Yes it would be hard, we don’t even know how pokemon do that!”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Bretta asks. “You’re a gym member now, and a badged one. You can probably request a brief meeting. Maybe Sabra or Aigerim would know?”

Lizzy blushes slightly, hand smoothing her clothes. “I… yes, I suppose I could do that. I will do that. Soon. When they’re less busy, maybe…”

Blue wants to point out that they’ll be leaving town soon, but Bretta is already talking about Lizzy’s confidence and how to build it up, so he lets it go for later. They reach the training rooms soon after, and unfortunately find the two largest arenas occupied already, one by a group of trainers doing mass target practice, another by what looks like an attempt to mimic their “defend the pokedoll” scenario.

Blue considers asking some of the occupants if they would use other rooms, especially since Glen’s group is challenging for their badge soon. The trainers would probably agree… but some might resent it, a little, or feel pressured to do so. He doesn’t want to get a reputation for using his status to bully others into special treatment.

So they make use of the smaller rooms for the next few hours, doing simple battle matchups in groups of two or four. They get plenty of large scale training done outside during the day, and more battle experience is rarely a waste. Blue knows Bolin and Elaine both have pokemon that are close to evolving, and if they can get them over that cusp before the challenge it would be a huge boost in combat ability. How much that will matter is hard to know without details of the scenario, but it can’t hurt.

Blue seeks out Vlad and suggests they train his swapping speed, which he knows the older boy has been working on. He agrees, and soon Blue’s hands move constantly to throw and catch Maturin, Ion, and Gon’s balls out, forcing Vlad to keep switching his fearow, sandslash, and magnemite out. Before long both have worked up a light sweat, the battle itself largely perfunctory as they focus on speed and accuracy.

For a few minutes they seem evenly matched, but Blue is spending most of his attention watching Vlad’s form. Once he thinks he’s spotted the weakness in technique, he starts speeding up, then adjusting where he throws his pokemon to be released.

Vlad adjusts to the pace well, but as soon as he has to catch an off center throw he starts moving more erratically, until a ball merely grazes his fingers and bounces against the wall. They both call for their pokemon to stop, and he jogs over to pick it up from where it rolled across the floor.

“You should try to use a point on your body as a reference,” Blue says, taking out his water bottle for a drink. “Your reflexes are good, but you’re releasing at a slightly different point each time. It forces you to keep adjusting instead of having a memorized position to catch from.”

“Right,” Vlad says as he reclips the ball to his belt, then wipes sweaty hands on his pants. “Who taught you all this? Your grandfather?”

Blue shrugs. “Yeah, but mostly it came down to practice. Before I got Maturin, getting good at throwing and catching seemed one of the best ways I could prepare for my journey. What about you? Did your parents teach you?”

“Nah, my parents focused on other stuff. It was Hitoshi’s dad that taught us all to throw.” He shakes his head. “Never felt like it stuck, for me, not as much as the others, but I guess I’m improving. Ready?”

“Yep.” They return to the battle, slow at first, then swiftly building back up to the earlier, rapid pace. Blue watches Vlad’s hands as they throw and catch, his own moving automatically, and smiles. “Nice spread!” he shouts between commands. “Much tighter!”

Vlad grins as he catches his sandshrew’s ball even as he summons his fearow again. “Thanks! Now go seriously!”

Blue does so, sinking entirely into his instincts so that he’s not consciously thinking between ordering attacks, predicting swaps, and switching his own to counter them. The sound of pokemon materializing and being sucked away fills the room with overlapping echoes.

It takes another minute for Vlad to miss a catch, and by then both are breathing hard. They stop the battle and summon all their pokemon to rest, then heal them of the few wounds that managed to get through the rapid displacements. Blue decides it’s as good a time as any to ask.

“So, what are your plans, after you all get your badges?”

“Not sure,” Vlad says as he sprays potion over his magnemite’s metal skin, the dent caused by one of Gon’s kicks slowly smoothing back out. “We were talking about maybe sticking around here. Surge does things so different from Celadon… and we’re learning a lot that will be useful for when we join the rangers.”

Blue nods, unable to argue with that. But Vlad isn’t done.

“But at the end of the day, even with these scenarios, we’re still fighting trainers, not wilds. I don’t want to be one of those people who think their pokemon’s strength is all that matters.”

“Ugh, I know what you mean. Trainers that spend months just battling in gyms and trainer houses until they can crush their next couple badge challenges… there are fewer of them here than I saw in Pewter or Cerulean, but there are some around.”

“Yeah. I’d rather do something useful with the time, and get skills beyond just battling.”

“So you’ll continue your journey?”

“Yep. I don’t know how the others feel about it, but personally I’d be happy to tag along with you guys, if you’ve got room in your group.”

Vlad’s tone is casual, and Blue doesn’t think it’s an act. If he hadn’t already decided to invite them along, that casual confidence would do it. “You’re still going to Ranger academy at some point though, yeah?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Was actually planning to ask you to come along if you didn’t,” Blue says, and Vlad grins.

“Cool. I’ll ask the others, after the match.”

A few minutes later they start again, practicing sideways and backwards throws, trying to push themselves to make catches in any circumstance until they’re too tired to continue and go to search the other rooms. They watch the end of Elaine’s battle with Chron, then find Glen in a room with the rest of his team, bouncing ideas off each other for new tactical maneuvers to try tomorrow.

When people start yawning and “resting their eyes,” he dismisses everyone to bed, and the twelve trainers head back outside. Most of them bring out an abra to teleport back to their trainer houses, exchanging goodnights as they go. Blue finds himself walking with Elaine and Glen through the dark gym grounds, and takes a deep breath of the smells of the city muted by mud and rubber and their uniforms. He’s going to miss this place, when they leave.

“You guys can go ahead, if you want,” Blue says. “I might stick around a bit longer.”

“Not tired,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Blue smiles, warmed by their desire to keep him company, and they start walking off the main path, toward the obstacle courses and outdoor targeting ranges.

“Oo, let’s do some laser light practice?” Elaine asks, rummaging through her bag.

“Sure.” He takes the thin laser pointer from her, then unclips Maturin’s ball from his belt as they approach the lined up pokedolls. In a normal battle having a hand taken up by an aiming device could be a huge liability, but in some circumstances, particularly those with low light, it can be a priceless extra form of command and precision.

He aims the laser at the doll in front of him, and Maturin tracks the beam. Two rapid clicks, and a water gun spurts out. Three, and a bubble beam fills the air with rapid pops. Four, and an ice beam flashes into existence, leaving an after-image in Blue’s vision.

The others do the same, Elaine with her golduck and Glen with his dugtrio, the latter without much success; the moles’ vision is notoriously poor, and they have trouble targeting pokedolls in general, as static objects. It makes Blue think of the decoy idea again, and how they could rig an object to best draw attention during battles. Leaf might have some ideas…

“Is it too soon to start talking about after?” Elaine asks as she tries to get her golduck to shoot smaller, quicker streams more accurately.

“Nah, it’s been on my mind lately too. I think Vlad and the others will be joining us.”

“Nice,” Glen says, moving his pointer around to ensure all three heads are tracking it before he clicks a sand-attack command. “But I thought they already had their Saffron badges?”

“Oh, we’re not going to Saffron next,” Blue says. “We’re heading to Celadon. Which reminds me…” He takes out his pokedex and starts tapping at it with one hand. “I need to finally get a growlithe on the way to Erika.” He’s been holding off on buying one online. He’s wanted one since he first laid eyes on the fiery dogs, and he wants to catch one himself, not just have it arrive in his PC without effort.

The other two are silent, and after a moment he glances at them to see surprise and confusion. “What?”

“Why Celadon next?” Glen asks. “Saffron is closer, and then Celadon would be on the way to Fuchsia…”

“Yeah, I know it’s not the fastest route, but Sabrina isn’t in Saffron. She’s been gone for what, two weeks now?”

“And… you think she won’t be back by the time we get there, and finish our challenge matches?”

Blue shrugs. “Maybe, but I already gave up on getting my badges as quickly as possible when I decided to become a member here.” The others are silent again, and Blue frowns at them. “What is it?”

Elaine’s voice is hesitant. “Are you sure that’s the reason, and it’s not to avoid Red?”

“Of course not. He’s learning from Sabrina, but he’s not a gym member.” Blue checked, but they don’t need to know that.

“Well, maybe not, but he’s still at the gym.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He and one of the other students are doing some experiments at the gym. That’s what people on the Saffron forums are saying, anyway.”

Blue shrugs again. “Well, I didn’t know that, so no, that’s not the reason.”

The other two are quiet again, and Blue sighs. “What? Spit it out.”

“Alright,” Glen says, facing the target in front of him as he clicks commands for his pokemon. “We’ve talked a few times, and have been wondering… what really happened, that day?”

Blue releases his laser’s button and turns warily to both of them. “Where is all this suddenly coming from?”

“We didn’t know Red that well,” Elaine says, and takes a deep breath, turning her own laser off and sitting as she calls her golduck over for treats. “But we saw the way you and he got along before, and can tell from the way you react to him being mentioned now that something’s changed.”

Blue looks away, anger pounding in his temples even as her words ease the sense of betrayal that rises up. After the storm, he just told everyone that Red would be going to train with Sabrina. He thought he did a good job of not showing anything else, but…

“We know it has something to do with Aiko,” Elaine says, and despite the slight hitch in the name, her voice is firm, and when he turns he sees her gaze steady on his. “Leaf was so devastated, and it took me a few days to realize it wasn’t just from her death. When I asked a few days ago, she wouldn’t tell me, just said to ask you or Red. I figured I should ask you first.”

Blue wrestles silently with indecision. There’s still so much anger and frustration roiling in him, pacing circles in his chest and billowing fire through his body when he thinks of what Red did. What he said. Part of him thinks he should just tell them, and just get it over with. Another part worries that it might be too shocking, or demoralizing, to hear. Or that it would set a strange dynamic between them, one where they think he’s judging them if they say or do anything like Red.

But ultimately, it’s the idea of badmouthing his friend that really bothers Blue. He’s the one that made his friend try so hard to be a trainer, he can see that now. All Red ever really wanted to do was research, and if he turned out to actually be pretty good at battling, and seemed to enjoy doing it with Blue and the others in Vermilion, that still doesn’t mean he was cut out to be a trainer.

Spreading the story of what Red did would just undermine him, and the thought of turning people against his friend makes the fire in his chest snuff out, leaving a hollowness in its place. Despite what he did, Blue doesn’t bear him any ill will. There’s no reason to undermine his goals.

“You’re right that I haven’t been honest about it,” Blue says after a minute. “Sorry about that. But… it really is something private, and I’d rather not talk about it. Okay?”

Glen and Elaine look at each other, and Blue feels a stab of guilt. Don’t they deserve to know what really happened with Aiko? He stands and tucks the laser light in his pocket. “I’m heading to bed. See you guys in the morning.”

Elaine looks like she wants to say something further, but after a moment she dips her head. It bothers him a little to see it. Like a slight reversion to the way she was before they all talked her into being more assertive in the tunnels. “Night, Blue.”

“Goodnight.” Glen holds out a fist. “You know we’re here for you, right? If you need us.”

Blue taps his knuckles against the older boy’s. “I know. Thanks, to both of you.”

Blue watches the wall of monitors come on one by one, each corresponding to a different drone camera. His hands are clenched in his lap to resist the urge to grab a pokeball off his belt and spin it. He doesn’t even have his belt on him. He wondered if he would be as nervous watching the second group badge challenge as he was during his, but he’s definitely not; this is easily five times worse.

The battle is taking place to the east of the city, in a carefully cleared out corridor of open fields around a road between Vermilion and one of the neighboring towns. Blue watches through six airborne cameras as the cars come to a stop, then let the trainers out at the edge of the suburbs, where the highway becomes the only thing dividing the fields of grass that stretch out toward the hills in the distance.

Glen’s team immediately spreads out to scout the area, and Blue wishes he could hear what they’re saying to each other. They all turn at some audible cue, watching another car approach. From out of it steps… an old lady, with a shuffling gait and a metal walker.

“Yes!” Chie says, fist raised as the others groan and curse. They’re all sitting in a room at the gym, set up specifically for them. There’s even a snack table. It feels like the honor it is, though it’s hard to appreciate fully with Blue’s stomach feeling like a clenched fist. “Pay up, everyone!”

“Hang on,” Chron says, “We don’t know yet if…” He trails off as Leader Surge’s voice comes through the speakers, welcoming the contestants to their badge challenge and praising the hard work they’ve put into their time at the gym before going into the rules themselves. Blue has a quick moment of regret over how this format does away with the back-and-forth between Leader and Challenger, and wonders how that might be fixed before he realizes Surge is describing the details of the challenge itself.

To earn your badges, each trainer must arrive in the town of Eastbay with their civilian and at least one pokemon in fighting shape, as judged upon arrival. The town is about a two hour walk from your current location. Upon crossing the threshold with your civilian, you will not be allowed back in the field. Good luck, Challengers.”

“Yep, that’s an escort mission,” Blue says as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket and takes out a bill.

“Damn it,” Taro mutters as everyone hands his smiling sister some money. “Well, it’s straightforward at least. But why do they get two hours?”

“We should be happy for them,” MG says, sitting in her chair with legs raised in front of her. Her murkrow, Nyx, sits on her shoulder, matching the wide black hat she wears over the dark cloak that wraps around her whole body, just a sliver of face peeking out above her collar. Her newly won badge gleams on the rim of her hat. “The time pressure was the worst part of our challenge. For me, anyway.”

“Me too,” Chron says, and Blue nods agreement. “But I’m betting they make the battles harder to balance it out. And I’m not sure about the straightforwardness… what was that last bit, about going back after reaching the finish?”

“They have no reason to split up,” Lizzy says, voice thoughtful. “Maybe that will come later. Maybe the rule is there to keep one trainer from rushing ahead with the civilian to finish the match early? Everyone has to arrive together, or something.”

“Makes sense. But if so, and they all stay together the whole time, they’ll end up facing much different battles than we did.”

The conversation continues as the challenge begins, and they watch the six trainers set up a moving rectangular perimeter around the civilian: Glen takes the front left position with Vlad, Bolin and Bretta are directly to the civilian’s left and right, while Elaine and Hitoshi cover the rear. One of the camera angles shifts as it floats low for a moment, and it becomes clear that the “civilian” is of course a gym member wearing a wig. Blue wonders how much more coaching they might have given her than the last participants. They wouldn’t be recruiting this one to help them out, that’s for sure.

And then, once everyone has summoned their pokemon… they start walking. A fearow and noctowl scout ahead and around them, a dugtrio and sandslash burrow alongside their trainers to sense threats from below ground, and the rear trainers have a tangela and weepinbell entwined with their bags to watch behind them.

A minute passes, then two, and the screens show nothing but the seven figures steadily moving forward. The scenery stays the same, and no danger appears. Five minutes later, the group is still just walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And walking.


“For Arceus’s sake, someone attack them already!” Taro yells.

The room erupts with the laughter of released nerves. Blue’s hands have gone numb from gripping each other, and he shakes them after relaxing his grip. Lizzy squeaks something about going to use the bathroom before dashing off.

“The tension is probably even worse for them,” MG says matter-of-factly, hands turning her broad, dark hat around and around on her head. “Maybe that’s the challenge.”

“That, and keeping alert,” Chron says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and staring at it. “Shit, I’m sweating and I’m not even there! Wonder what they’re planning.”

“We should be able to figure it out.” Taro takes out a bill and holds it up. “I bet five bucks they’re going to wait for them to rest before striking. This is an attention test. Any takers?”

“Odds?” Chron asks.

“Uh… Five for five.”

“One to one, you mean. You need to make your bets more interesting, or else you’re barely doing more than flipping coins. I’ll bet one to three. My five to your fifteen.”

“That’s a terrible deal!”

“Then I guess you don’t really think it’s an attention test. See? You’re already learning something about yourself.”

“I’ll bet five against it,” Chie says. “And another five that there’s actually some secret objective they don’t know. Any takers?”

“Yeah, I’ll take that,” Blue says as he realizes how strongly he doubts that’s the case, voice thoughtful. “I think they’re just taking things to the opposite extreme.” Blue fiddles with his badges, twisting them around and around in their pins. He wonders how wide the net of gym members going ahead and to the sides of them is to keep wild pokemon from interfering. If one does anyway, would they just have to deal with it?

Do you think they’ll stop to rest at some point?” Taro asks.

“The civilian might force them to,” Chie notes. “There are too many unknowns to guess where the real challenge will come from. Hell, she might have a ‘heart attack’ or something just to introduce another challenge.”

Lizzy dashes back into the room, then stops as she sees them all still walking. Her face is pink as she returns to her seat, hands gripping her knees. Blue resists the urge to joke about how fast that was, remembering a certain tree and hill on the first day of his journey. He wonders if Leaf or Red are watching, then if they watched his own challenge, then realizes he’s being stupid. Leaf doesn’t watch battles if she can help it, and Red isn’t even a trainer anymore. Probably has more important things to do than care about what Blue’s up to…

Same goes for me and him. Blue forces his attention back to the challengers, who are… still walking. He sighs, slouching slightly in his chair as he glances at the time. It’s been almost ten minutes now.

“Wish we could hear what they’re saying,” MG notes. “I bet Elaine is joking about how easy their challenge turned out to be.”

The room chuckles. “Glen is probably reminding everyone to stay sharp,” Blue adds. It’s what he would be afraid of, some sudden attack while their attentions are elsewhere. “Then coming up with ways to do that. Maybe they’re playing spotting games.”

“First person who says something related to ‘grass’ ruins the game,” Taro says, and half the others immediately respond, “Bretta,” then laugh.

“Would they put in a secret objective?” Chron asks.

Taro turns to Blue. “You know Surge best.”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t put it past him to set up new win conditions that get announced during the challenge itself. What I can’t figure out is what the purpose of this part would be. You’d think that—”

Everyone on the monitors suddenly stops as they distantly hear Bretta yell something, and Blue notices her dugtrio has emerged from the ground and is freaking out. It’s a split second of warning that changes everything when the ground suddenly erupts around them, kicking a cloud of dirt up as there are suddenly too many things to pay attention to at the same time.

On one monitor Blue watches Elaine hurriedly order her tangela to unwind from her as electricity visibly arcs through the ground in pulses, keeping them from advancing along the road. As Vlad and Bolin withdraw their flying pokemon to send out a gloom and another weepinbell, a flash of light draws his attention to another screen to reveal Glen’s snorlax, which immediately body slams the ground, making Blue’s jaw drop.

“By the Three,” Taro mutters. “What pokemon did Glen just murder? I couldn’t make it out. Rock or Steel type might have survived?”

“I can’t see any of their attackers,” MG notes.

“Stunfisk,” Blue, Lizzy, and Chron say at the same time. He’d just noticed a yellow and orange patch on the ground that Hitoshi’s sandslash is burrowing toward, but he recognized the tactic before that, since it was used on him in the city.

“You were right, Blue,” Lizzy adds with a frown. “They’re still not sticking to natural circumstances.”

“To be fair, they’d have what, a handful of pokemon to pick from if they did?” Chie says. “Only a few of which are electric, if I remember the area’s wilds right. What are the odds they’d run into a pond or muddy stream so the gym has an excuse to pull this on them?”

“Well it kind of ruins the scenario,” Taro disagrees, nervously tapping his foot as he watches Vlad switch to a ranged pokemon, only for his target to burrow underground. “It’s one thing in the city with our challenge. After a Stormbringer or stampede all kinds of pokemon can show up where they normally wouldn’t be. But six… no, eight stunfisk hiding along a road? Why test them in preparing for something that wouldn’t happen? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of these kinds of challenges?”

“No,” Blue says as he watches Glen’s screen, waiting for the inevitable. He knows it’s going to come, but when…? And does Glen? “The purpose of these challenges is measuring not just trainer skill, but teamwork. Preparing trainers for real situations is secondary.” Or maybe tertiary, if what they’re really preparing trainers for are Renegades… but Surge said that wasn’t it… “Come on, Glen, check,” he mutters.

As if hearing him, Blue’s friend finally stops directing the rest of the battle and turns back to his snorlax, ordering him to move. As Blue predicted, there’s nothing beneath the snorlax but an impression of its body against the grass, and a spot of churned earth where the stunfisk burrowed away. Or perhaps it just remained where it was.

Rather than keeping his snorlax tied up with guesswork, Glen brings his gloom out and orders it to cover the area in leech seeds, powders, and spores. Blue checks the others and sees them using a similar strategy, and soon the battle starts to wind down as they neutralize the ring of pokemon.

“Things aren’t starting well,” MG says, only her wide eyes visible as she hunkers in her robes and hat, staring at the screens. “Hitoshi lost two pokemon from that. Did anyone else?”

“Yeah, a few, but it’s okay,” Taro says, letting out a breath and stretching, which makes Blue realize how rigidly he’s sitting. “They’ll be able to heal up… actually, realizing that makes this all much less stressful.”

Chie is shaking her head as they watch a handful of gym trainers wearing grass ghillie suits suddenly sit up from the fields around the group, then move to withdraw their stunfisk. “Don’t you think they designed the challenge knowing that? There’s something we’re not getting here, I’m telling you.”

“Agreed,” Lizzy says as the revealed opponents head off in a group, leaving the challengers to deal with the aftermath of the battle. “Even with potions and revives and ether, they’ll get worn down eventually. Especially if they take severe wounds.”

Blue watches Glen and the others start summoning injured pokemon out to check them over and heal them. “They’d know not to keep their pokemon out too long and risk something debilitating… but this first attack took some of them by surprise, and there could already be permanent damage done.”

“Still, they were given their full travel bags,” Chron muses. “Could be a mix of testing for preparation, field care, attrition management…”

Blue is skeptical, but he’s not sure why. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Their challenge certainly wasn’t… in fact this could already be considered more complex when you consider the amount of different skills involved.

When the party eventually starts moving again, they do so far more carefully than before. As the minutes start to tick by again, the viewers start to relax, but the challengers on screen look as hyper-vigilant as ever, sometimes sending their pokemon out to check parts of the grass on either side of the road, or their fliers in wide circles that one of the drones will often track.

They’re going to be burnt out by the end of this. The others have started talking quietly among themselves, attention slipping from the repetitive scenery to speculate about what would come next and grab food and drinks from the snack table. Blue knows they’re covering for their own anxiety, but he can’t join them in the lighthearted banter and betting. He feels a helpless frustration as he imagines the level of strain they must be going through. This sort of test isn’t one they could have reasonably prepared for, and of course there’s nothing he can do now, but it still feels like he’s failing them by not being able to intervene in some way…

A hand touches his shoulder. Blue jumps slightly, then turns to see MG watching him, eyes knowing beneath her wide brimmed hat. “Relax,” she whispers. “Trust them.”

Blue takes in a deep breath, then lets it out. He hadn’t realized he’d been so obvious about it. “Never cared so much about a match I wasn’t in,” he admits. “Been a long time since I felt so useless.”

“I feel like that all the time,” she responds, withdrawing her hand to fold her arm back over her knees. “It’s comforting when I know I can’t mess anything up.”

Blue shakes his head. “You’re great, MG. I don’t want to sound like a motivational poster, but you really just have to believe in yourself more.”

“I think I’m getting better at that. But it’s still different from when I’m in battle.”

Blue blinks, then nods. “It is. I hadn’t thought you’d noticed, from the way you act outside it.”

“I’ve been talking to Elaine. She said she had a similar problem.” MG’s hands clasp her legs under her cloak. “I don’t want to distract people, make them worry about me. But battles are the only time I feel in control. They make more sense than… other things.”

Blue wants to ask what things, but the room has suddenly gone quiet, and his head whips around to view the monitors, where he sees… nothing. Just that the group has stopped walking.

“What… did we miss something?”

“No, they just all slowed together. They must see something ahead?”

“Definitely. Notice how often they’re all looking forward now, instead of to the sides or behind?”

“Come on, cameras, pan out…”

One of the drones finally does, and the room holds their breath as they see…

…a body. Lying in the road.


“Is that…?”


Oh, no…

“There it is,” Chron mutters, shaking his head, but Blue barely hears him, remembering a field of beedrill, the buzzing they made, the sense of impotence as he looked upon a body whose name he can’t even remember…

After a few moments, Elaine summons her golduck and sends him toward the body alone. Blue smiles despite his dread, glad Leaf shared the story of how she caught Joy with them. Everyone on both sides of the screens watches the blue figure approach the body without any obvious reaction, then finally reach it and stand still, probably from another command from Elaine.

A tense thirty seconds pass, and then most of them are running forward while Bretta and Vlad stay with the “old lady.”

Elaine picks a sheet of paper up from the body as Glen checks its pulse, then abruptly stops and looks up at Elaine.

“Five to one the paper says he’s dead,” Chron says. “And describes what wounds he died from.”

“I’ll take that,” Taro says as they watch the group listen to Glen say something, and suddenly four of them are taking out their bike containers and putting on pads and helmets. Bretta and Vlad keep walking with their charge, a bit faster than before. They got it, Blue thinks with relief.

“So,” he says. “Ten dollars to one that they each have to have a civilian to get their badge?”

The room is quiet, until Chie says, “Does that mean someone’s already lost?”

“We don’t know how many there are,” Taro says, sounding more hopeful than reassuring. “Maybe that was a warning. To let them know that speed does matter in some way…”

“Ugh.” Chie stands and starts pacing. “What a dirty trick! Putting those stunfisk there, of course they’d go slower after… wait, does this count as a hidden objective?”

“Nah, it was right there in the opening instructions. They were intentionally vague just so a moment like this could happen, sooner or later, but the last part was a clue after all.”

MG is watching Blue intently, her murkrow eating nuts she’d placed on the brim of her hat. “Odds that someone has already lost their badge?”

Blue shakes his head. “One to four? One to five, maybe? I think that’s exactly the question Surge wants them to be thinking, now. Maybe it was possible to get there faster and help the civ, but either way the real hook is revealed…” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “But maybe I just want to think that. It just seems unfair if they’re penalized for doing what seems safest at the time without even knowing there were other civilians ahead.”

“I’ll take one to your five that there’s more than six civilians in total,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Without comment on whether they could have saved that one.”

“Deal,” Blue says as the four trainers bike ahead in a square, each using flying pokemon to scout around them as they focus on speed. Blue wonders if there’s any chance that the civilians would be off the main road, but surely they wouldn’t make them search through all the fields between Vermilion and Eastbay. They would have to double back and spread out from the road just to be sure…

Two minutes of uninterrupted biking pass, and some of the tension starts to fade again. The others begin betting on what they think the next challenge will be, but Blue just watches the scenery fly by. He wishes they were allowed their phones, so he could keep track of how far Eastbay is now that they’re biking. He keeps glancing at the two screens for the drones that stayed with Bretta and Vlad, waiting for another surprise to come from them. But they seem fine, just steadily walking forward at a moderate pace.

Blue’s continued focus keeps him from being surprised when they abruptly skid their bikes to a stop, and a jolt of adrenaline goes through him as one of the cameras turns to reveal a zebstrika racing across the grass, a trainer on its back. “Guys!”

The challengers scramble off their bikes and call back their pokemon, drones picking up the four sharp notes at four slightly overlapping times. It’s hard to judge distances without a wide angle shot, and at first it seems like they’ll be okay, but zebstrika are fast—Blue’s fingers grip his knees as he watches Bolin’s noctowl and Elaine’s pidgeotto get intercepted on their way back to withdraw range, bolts of electricity dropping them out of the air.

Taro curses as their friends are forced to break rank and rush forward to return their shocked pokemon to their balls. “It’s fine, they’ll heal them after,” he mutters almost to himself. “A single attack wouldn’t hurt them too bad, right? Especially ranged?”

“Zebstrika can’t conduct electricity as well from afar,” Lizzy reluctantly confirms, voice low. “But they’re not terrible at it. They’ll still need serious healing.”

No one offers to make bets on that. Blue tears his eyes from the screens to take in the room. Everyone looks tense and worried, MG’s eyes wide above her collar. Blue takes a deep breath and forces his body to relax as he looks back at the screens. He needs to appear calm, confident, for their sakes. “They’ll be okay. A single zebstrika won’t be too hard to take down, even if its trainer summons a second pokemon they would still be at a strong disadvantage…” He quickly checks on Bretta and Vlad to make sure they’re not being ambushed too, but they seem fine.

The zebstrika rider, meanwhile, doesn’t summon a second pokemon. They don’t even get off their first one. They just… ride away, a glowing streak of white against black that one of the cameras follows for a moment, before returning to the group of four, who seem… well, shocked. They’d just finished summoning their new pokemon and arranging themselves in defensive positions, but when it becomes clear that the attacker is not sticking around, Elaine and Bolin bring their injured pokemon out and begin healing them while the others keep careful watch. Once that’s done, they swap once again to faster pokemon, but avoid flying ones as they get back on their bikes and start riding again, slightly slower.

Blue relaxes a little further, glad they’re expecting another attack. He really does need to trust Glen and the others more. The abruptness of the attack was still jarring, and he can tell the others feel the same by how quiet they are, each probably wondering how they would have handled what happened. Or maybe that’s just him.

It’s Chie that breaks it. “Bet five it was Paul. He’s the only one crazy enough to ride into battle on a zebstrika.”

The silence persists a moment longer, then Taro says, “I’ll take that, our gym’s got plenty of crazy to go around.” The words are threaded with pride.

“I’ll do three to one that it was Sabra,” Chron adds. “They would want someone with authority doing something so risky.”

“I’ll take that too,” Taro grins. “Sabra wouldn’t just run by as a hazard, she fought against us.”

“Different scenario, different rules,” Chron reminds him. “And they might still fight. Wonder if Surge will fight this ti—yep, there it is.”

The zebstrika is indeed back, and without flying pokemon to target it doesn’t loop around them, simply getting close enough to electrocute Hitoshi’s raticate before racing off. Once again the challengers stop, but this time Hitoshi just swaps his pokemon with a nidorina, and then they’re riding again, heads craning in every direction to keep an eye out for—

Two of them, this time, and spotted in time to swap their pokemon to ground and grass types. Flame Charge, Blue thinks, sucking in a sharp breath, and indeed, the air around the zebstrika begins to shimmer with heat as they barrel toward Elaine’s tangela and Hitoshi’s gloom.

It’s Bolin that rescues them, his sandslash kicking a cloud of dirt up… not at either of the two charging pokemon, but at their targets. Both zebstrika riders veer off rather than risk hitting each other in the cloud, then gallop off into the distance.

The room lets out a collective breath as the trainers quickly swap their pokemon and remount their bikes, clearly intending to keep moving as the zebstrika circle around in wide arcs.

“How are they supposed to fight back with the trainers riding their pokemon?” Lizzy asks, then shakes her head. “That’s the point, isn’t it? They’re not.”

Chie nods. “The goal isn’t to beat them, it’s to slow them down. They might try to win that way if they can, but this is safer, and makes it more challenging for them.”

Blue nods, rubbing his neck as he stretches some of the tension out of his shoulders. What would he do against just constant harassment by pokemon that are so fast they can just keep engaging and disengaging at will? “This really is unlike anything we’d ever face. Wild pokemon don’t act like this, and trainer matches are in arena, have rules that would keep the battle ongoing…”

“It actually kind of reminds me of your match with Surge,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Letting Zephyr stay out of range, trusting in Brave Bird to get into the arena on time…”

“Yeah, good job Blue,” Taro says with a smile. “You inspired an impossible challenge.”

His sister reaches out and flicks his ear. “Don’t be stupid, Surge has seen a lot more battles than we have, particularly in the war. He probably got this tactic from there.”

Blue’s eyes widen, thoughts shifting suddenly in a new direction. He watches the zebstrika appear again, racing after the bikes and swiftly catching up before sending electricity out in broad waves, resorting to attempts to paralyze now.

That’s it. The traps, the pokemon having TM moves, the coordinating enemy tactics… the objectives of each scenario are the sorts of things that trainers might face in incidents or their journeys, but the battles are against pokemon that are explicitly trained with more than winning battles in mind.

The scenarios aren’t trying to prepare them for some lone, crazy renegades. They’re for coordinating against enemy trainers, with their own opposing, tactical goals.

Like in a war.

“…pretty big risk,” Lizzy is saying, and Blue focuses on the conversation again, still a little dazed by the realization and unsure if he should share the thought. He might be wrong… “What if they get hurt?”

“It would be on them, wouldn’t it?” Taro says. “You can’t run into an attack during a battle and then accuse your opponent of being a Renegade.”

“But you also can’t order an attack after your opponent has run into the field,” Chron points out. “Once you can reasonably assume the risk, that puts culpability on you.”

“Then this is ridiculous,” Taro says, throwing his hands up. “Is part of the challenge being legal experts now too?”

“You were talking about crazy,” Chie notes, smiling slightly. “I dunno if it’s true, but it could be valuable… I mean, Blue was in a situation like this, sort of. And Hunters have to walk a fine line themselves, don’t they?”

“In theory.” Chron shrugs. “I heard it’s really rare for them not to get a Kill on Sight order these days, if they’re used at all. Do you know, Blue?”

“No. Never really looked into it.” It’s hard to focus on the conversation, thoughts distracted by a sense of cold that’s creeping through his body. If the scenarios really are meant to train people to be better at fighting other people, whether Renegades or in war… then what did Blue spend all this time helping develop them for? They were meant to be another tool to prepare people for dealing with incidents. For taking down the Stormbringers.

He has to talk to Surge about this, after the match. He’s leaving soon, so he knows his opinion won’t matter much… they won’t ever really be a part of shaping the gym’s scenario challenges. But now Blue is thinking that maybe they should be…

“They see something!” Lizzy says, interrupting the conversation and drawing Blue’s gaze from the floor to the screens. The challengers are indeed biking faster, as if trying to outpace attacking zebstrika hadn’t been motivation enough, and the reason becomes clear a moment later as a pair of civilians appears on the screens. One looks like a comedically underprepared-for-travel young Joey, shorts and all, the other a hiker that seems to be injured. The four trainers set up around them, withdrawing their bikes and bringing out their ground and grass pokemon again as the zebstrika approach.

Everyone’s more prepared now: Ground attacks disrupt their opponents’ footing while the Grass pokemon set up hazard zones that would pen the zebstrika in. Their opponents once again choose to flee rather than risk being taken down, and as soon as they’re racing away Glen is kneeling beside the hiker. He opens the man’s bag, probably at his unheard instructions, and releases a container ball. In its box they find a wheeled stretcher, and everyone works together to help the man lie on it.

“Something wrong with his leg that potions can’t fix,” Chron notes. “Ten to one. Just another way to slow everyone down.”

“Forcing them to split up,” Blue adds with a nod, and looks back at Bretta and Vlad. Still walking, their charge still shuffling along with her cane. “Two people escort them back to meet up with the others in case the zebstrika come against them, and the other two move ahead on their own… but it’s a risk without knowing which the zebstrika will go after.”

“What would you do?” Chron asks.

Blue opens his mouth, then closes it, considering. “Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no safe option, they have to just try and minimize their risks… and if was in Glen’s position…” Blue grins as he sees his friend summon his snorlax. “…I’d try to focus it all on me.”

On the screen Glen stands beside his newly summoned snorlax as the other three mount their bikes and start riding away… without the civilians. The Joey was apparently convinced to drag along the hiker’s wheeled stretcher, and the three of them begin to walk… not back toward the others, but forward.

Nice job, Glen. Blue looks at the other screens to confirm, and yes, there’s Vlad summoning his bike and leaving Bretta to hurry toward Glen, drone following overhead.

“He’s going to guard against them alone?” Taro shakes his head, voice admiring. “Lot of crazy going on at this gym.”

The trainers that pedal ahead ride single file, and after they’ve been riding for about a minute the zebstrika return. Glen summons his gloom to help battle them, and they come from both sides, forcing Glen into a battle on two fronts.

Snorlax can’t quite hit his opponent as it shocks him from afar, not without leaving his charges, and the zebstrika could run circles around him anyway. But it can tank the hits and keep it distracted while Glen focuses on the other one, swapping his gloom out as soon as the Flame Charge starts and replacing it with a sandslash.

They should both be coming from the same side, ignoring the snorlax, Blue thinks, but no, even with their speed Glen could easily use his pokemon as a pivot, and they need to be close to hit the gloom (or the civilians, if they were actually planning on doing that).

The battle is more manageable when their focus is where Glen wants it, and the riders aren’t slowing the trainers down much now that the other three are biking forward. They seem to realize this, and eventually turn to ride away…

… just as a “family” of pikachu race toward Bretta, Aigerim trailing behind them, and Vlad suddenly swerves to avoid a jolteon that’s standing in the road, fur glowing with electricity. The three biking trainers soon find their path impeded too, a literal field of mareep and flaaffy grazing and occasionally sending sparks between each other.

“This is it, then,” Taro says, face set in a solemn mask as he slowly sits back in his chair. “The real battle finally starts now…”

“Awww,” Lizzy says, leaning forward. “Look at all the fluffers, they’re just so cute!”

The tension breaks, and Blue exchanges grins with the others as Taro mutters, “Yeah, adorable.” Their friends have stopped pedaling and clearly started discussing what to do. Blue spots the trainers that are guiding all the pokemon, and shakes his head when he sees them dressed as ranchers. He wonders what the story is… pokemon that have gotten loose, or grazers walking their flock through a warzone.

The door to the room suddenly opens, and everyone’s surprise turns to shock as they see their Second. Sabra is wearing a casual uniform, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a chair in the other.

Everyone stands at attention even as she gestures them back to their seats, smiling. “Just here to watch the match, same as all of you. Mind if we join?” She steps out of the doorway, revealing another gym member behind her that Blue only knows by face.

He carries his own chair and sets it down behind Taro and Lizzy, while Sabra plops hers down next to Blue. “Of course not, but… weren’t you going to participate in the match?”

“Oh, we already did. Who do you think was riding the zebstrika?” She grins.

Blue feels a familiar, dull stab of envy over the advantage that being able to teleport gives, while Taro groans and Chie checks if Paul was the other rider. He was, and Taro sighs as he hands his money over to Chron and his sister.

Sabra takes a long drink from her water bottle, and Blue catches a scent that makes him suddenly revise whether it actually contains water. “Enjoying the show so far?”

“It’s been utterly nerve-wracking,” Blue admits, gaze jumping back to Bretta’s battle. She’s… not battling at all, actually. All the pikachu are in the field nearby while the old lady quickly hobbles forward, Bretta walking beside her and watching the rodents. The pokemon look like they’re… eating? Did she throw food into the grass? Blue grins, glad their trainer had accepted that and commanded his pokemon to eat it, despite it not fitting Blue’s ideas of what the scenario represents. Maybe these in particular are meant to be wild pokemon, which is why it looks like just a family of ‘chu traveling together?

Sabra is beaming at him. “Thanks! Past couple weeks have been good fun.”

Blue snorts, but he’s smiling too. He certainly couldn’t disagree with that, and he can easily imagine how the otherwise serious gym culture enjoyed their task even more than Blue and his friends did. Blue notes that Vlad has chosen to ignore the jolteon, which is racing after him, its trainer now revealed to be on their own bike and commanding it to shock Vlad’s dugtrio, to minimal effect. Still, it’s promising to be a pain for him and Glen when he stops.

“Oo, they reached the mareep field! Ha… of course they’re just going to try and walk through.” Sabra shakes her head.

“Wait, what’s another option?” Taro asks. “Not fight them all, right?”

“Well, it is, if a pretty dumb one. But I’m just here to heckle and watch, not spoil anything. Maybe someone will think of it.”

By the time they get to the other side, Vlad finally reaches Glen, and the two fight off the jolteon, then swap roles. Glen rides ahead, the Joey riding behind him on the bike, while Vlad attaches the hiker’s stretcher to his bike with rope and starts slowly towing him forward.

With no immediate battles in sight, the viewers start to relax again. There’s some relief that they found another civilian in the mareep field, this one actually capable of keeping up with them… or at least not slowing them as much.

That’s four. Just two more… “How much more is left?” Blue asks Sabra as the others chat with Paul. “You can at least share that, right?”

“The mareep field is about two thirds of the way there,” she says between mouthfuls of pretzels.

Blue nods, then asks, “And why are the scenarios training us for war?” He’d lowered his voice, but kept his tone casual, and watches Sabra out of the corner of his eyes as his gaze stays on the screens.

She merely grins at him, no surprise on her face. “What an interesting idea. I wonder what Surge would think of it.”

Blue sighs, but nods. He’ll have to wait to ask him after all.

The next half hour passes without any major shocks, just more obstacles and harassment. Blue feels something in him relax when they find the final two “civilians,” who turn out to be trainers that were under attack and barely fending off a small swarm of magnemite.

Glen has rejoined the other three, and together they save the two trainers, causing a cheer among the observers. With six civilians found, alive, Blue feels like the worst is past.

He checks the others to see Vlad carefully guiding the hiker through the mareep field, while Bretta and her charge bring up the rear slowly but surely. She’s seen the least combat so far, and part of Blue still fears a lingering worry that some twist is waiting for her…

“Yes!” Blue turns to see Taro standing, fists raised, and follows his gaze.

There it is. One of the cameras is pointed forward, where the town’s proximity sensors can be distantly made out, At the edge facing the road, a banner set up, the word “Finish” written across it. The four trainers slow to a stop, and their civilians slow with them, looking back in obvious confusion. The trainers ignore them, however, and start moving back toward Vlad and Bretta. After a moment the civilians follow, apparently unsure whether they’re supposed to go on to safety or not.

“What are they doing?” Paul asks, and the others chuckle, which just seems to confuse him further.

“It’s a silly rule, really,” Blue says. “Not letting them go back after dropping the civilians off. I get that it’s supposed to add a hard choice, but really… you think we’re not going to go back for each other, and all cross the finish line together?”

Sabra is looking at her watch, but the others are already talking about how they’ll celebrate. The challenge does seem like a done deal, now; with all six trainers together, Blue’s expecting one final battle, but he’s confident they can handle it…

“Woah. What’s up with Bretta?”

Blue snaps his gaze to her monitor, two hours of anticipation for the other shoe to drop finally culminating. The older girl has just reached the mareep field, and… they’re moving. Together, a yellow mass dotted with pink, all walking toward the others…

No. Stampeding toward the others, as Bretta summons her pokemon one at a time, almost frantically as the old woman hobbles after the mareep as fast as she can.

“Did she do something?” Lizzy asks, voice worried. “Set off some trap?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it…” Blue feels his heart pounding. “This will push the others out, they can’t try and stop a tide of mareep, nor ride around it to rejoin Bretta on the other side, not with the civilians to protect…”

The others seem to know it, because they suddenly stop, no doubt warned by Bretta. Vlad has just reached them, and he’s arguing with someone as he starts untying the hiker.

“Shit,” Chron says, voice low. “He’s going back for the civilian… through the mareep? Why? Bretta is on the other side…”

“But she’s not facing the mareep,” Lizzy says. “None of them are attacking her. She didn’t summon her pokemon for them, she’s facing… the other way…”

Blue watches as Vlad gets back on his bike, a lightning rod in one hand, and starts pedaling furiously back toward Bretta, the stretcher still attached as the other four trainers stare after him… then quickly start ushering the civilians toward the finish line, two of them helping the Hiker walk. The camera pans to show the mareep stampede approaching.

Blue looks at Sabra. “What’s happening?”

The Second looks back at him as she takes another drink, then caps the bottle. “Time’s up.”

“Bretta, come on, go!” Chie mutters. The older girl still where she was… standing guard at the rear, her civilian still hobbling away. “What’s she doing?

“Guarding against something,” MG says, voice quiet. “Something that set off the stampede.”

As Blue watches in numb shock, the mareep flood toward Vlad. He hops off his bike at nearly the last second and plants the lightning rod into the ground just as the stampede flows around it, errant shocks being redirected into the ground.

Lizzy suddenly yelps, a sound of fear that opens the gate to the others’ surprised exclamations, and Blue looks at each screen until he sees…

…a dragonite. Wings stretched out, golden-orange scales gleaming in the sun, the beat of its wings vaguely audible as it approaches the rearmost drone, which is hovering between it and Bretta.

On its back, sitting in its saddle, is the unmistakable figure of Leader Surge.

“That is not an electric pokemon!” Lizzy says, hands gripping her knees. She sounds almost… cheated. “Neither was the blastoise, but is it too much to ask that Surge sticks to—”

A wave of electricity spreads through the dragonite’s scales, lighting its whole body up for the duration of a blink, and then a bolt connects from its antennae to Bretta’s golbat. It drops, unmoving.

Lizzy sits back in her chair, a guilty fascination flashing across her expression. The rest of them watch in quiet horror as their friend quickly withdraws her golbat while ordering a sleep powder from her weepinbell… which the dragonite scatters to the side with a flap of one wing, then opens its mouth to bathe the weepinbell in fire.

“Oh, come on,” Chron mutters, shifting in his seat, knee bouncing. “What the hell is she supposed to do against that?”

Bretta withdraws her weepinbell and sends out her graveler, but Blue knows what’s coming next. Sure enough, even as her pokemon is preparing to attack, the dragonite opens its mouth again, and a beam of white light covers the graveler in frost, a crack resounding loud enough for the drones to pick up.

The room has gone deathly silent, and Blue feels his nails digging into his palms, barely able to think through his rising anger. Chron is right, this isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

What can I do? I have to do something

It’s a stupid thought. All he can do is watch.

Vlad is through the stampede now, and he leaves the lightning rod in the ground as he rights his bike and starts pedaling again, bringing the gurney to the hobbling civilian. Blue looks to see the others have ushered the other five toward the Finish, but stop at the last meter. They watch the yellow and pink wave approach, but still they wait… for what, Blue isn’t sure. Perhaps a miracle.

Bretta keeps sending out pokemon, trying desperately to keep the dragonite at bay. Blue notices out of the corner of his eye that Sabra isn’t watching the screens anymore, but rather is studying him. He looks back at her, and in her gaze sees something that stokes the spark of heat in his chest: a glimmering, focused interest.

“What is this?” he whispers, anger barely leashed as he also turns away from the screens, from the oncoming, inevitable end. It doesn’t make sense, there’s nothing they can do about this… even if all six of them were together they might not be able to stop a dragonite…

“A test,” she murmurs, voice low enough that only he can hear over the others’ worried chatter. “To see what the rest of your friends will do, if put in a situation similar to the one Red and Aiko were in. That Jack was in.”

Blue’s anger gets doused, a chill spreading through him instead. “What… why?”

“I want to know what kind of trainers you’re shaping, for one thing. But more than that, it’s our first chance to see what trainers will do in situations like this, in a controlled environment. To prepare them.”

He stares at her, trying to process this. It’s… an experiment? “Why them? Why not in our challenge?” Why not when he could do something about it?

“Why do you think we filled a building with voltorb?”

Blue gapes, then shuts his mouth as the next pulse of anger chases away the dread, filling his chest with heat again. He could see it… one of his teammates goes in, the voltorb start charging electricity to some unknown timer, Blue has to either go in to start clearing them or let his teammate… “You were trying to force me into the same situation Aiko was in?” he asks, struggling to keep his voice low.

“Not you specifically. This isn’t really about you, and besides, I’m pretty sure I know your answer already.” The Second shrugs, seeming completely unapologetic.

“But then… why didn’t you just put a civilian in there, have them shout for help?” he asks, thinking of the civilian that the rotom was near.

“Oh believe me, I wanted to, but Surge vetoed it.” Sabra sighs. “Said it was ‘too difficult a challenge’ to make it necessary for victory, instead of a hazard for a risky choice. Spoilsport.”

The fact that Surge considered anything else too difficult seems absurd given what’s unfolding on the screens. Vlad finishes strapping the civilian onto the stretcher… then turns to Bretta, standing alone against the dragonite, clearly realizing that even with her civilian now having a chance of being rescued, she can’t disengage.

“And you… had higher hopes for us?”

“Nah, you would have had to pull off something genius to get everyone out of it alive.” Her eyes gleam as she tips her head back, taking a deep drink from her bottle. “But it would have been interesting to see you try.”

And Blue turns back to the screens a final time to watch Vlad make his choice.

Bretta is down to her second to last pokemon, and her hand shakes slightly as she summons a poliwhirl. Surge waits until it sends out an ice beam, the dragonite flinching for the first time as frost covers its chest and shoulder… and then electricity races across its scales, flashes, and the poliwhirl falls.

And Vlad…

Vlad gets on his bike and rides away, the extra, now-unnecessary civilian still weighing him down. Blue feels something in his heart lurch at the sight of him, face down, shoulders hunched. Body language that radiates a sense of shame, of defeat, even as he pedals as fast as he can to race the civilian away, despite there being an extra civilian already waiting at the finish line for him.

The mareep have reached the town, and the rest of the team has ushered the civilians across the finish line, then set up a defensive wall to protect them. A sharp note sounds, as the front line of mareep approach them, and suddenly the whole flock stops running, and goes back to grazing.

Bretta’s last pokemon falls. One of the extra cameras is holding a close-up of her face, streaked with tears as she stares up at the dragonite and its rider.

Leader Surge salutes her, arm moving in two crisp motions, and then the dragonite is moving past her in a streak as she kneels beside her last pokemon, hands full of medicine, then drops them and withdraws it.

The room isn’t quite silent, as they watch the end. Someone is sniffling. Someone else’s chair creaks as they rock back and forth on it. Blue looks at the others, sees the anger, the despair. He has a moment of clarity, even in his own swirling pain and impotent rage, a reminder that this is just a challenge match. All that’s been lost is a badge, at most. Some time. Some pride. He knows that pain. He survived it, and they will too.

But it feels like more.

He watches as the dragonite effortlessly cuts Vlad off. There are perhaps fifty yards left between him and the mass of mareep, which is rapidly being withdrawn into balls by a small crowd of gym members. Glen and the others watch from afar, a silent line. So close, and yet so far.

Vlad gets off his bike, legs shaking with exhaustion (just exhaustion), and unclips a ball.

“No,” Surge says, voice a shock as it is suddenly heard, once again, through the speakers. “It’s enough.”

Vlad collapses back onto the ground, one hand over his face as he takes deep breaths. Bretta was walking in their direction, and now she breaks into a run as the first civilian unstraps herself from the stretcher and stands. As Bretta reaches them and falls to the ground beside Vlad, arms around his shoulders, the civilian takes off her wig and stretches her back and shoulders before going to stand respectfully by the sitting trainers, hands behind her back and chin up before her Leader.

“What we all just witnessed,” Surge says for all to hear, on the field and off, “is the kind of act that cannot be judged by any other.”

Blue can hear nothing but his heart pounding in his ears, a strange mix of emotions warring in him.

“Not by a judge, interpreting law. Not by a commander, directing a battle. We do not know how we will act in a moment such as this until we have experienced it. We do not know what it will cost us. We do not know the consequences of what could have been, had we chosen differently.

“Everyone on this field today performed bravely, and intelligently, and skillfully. The rules of engagement say only those four that reached the end have earned their badge, and the rules are sacred. But I say to you two here, that you are no less than they. Never think it. The badges we dispense are marks of skill and experience, and poor enough at that. They cannot be confused for marks of character, or potential.”

Vlad is looking up, finally, as is Bretta, the two of them seemingly unafraid of the massive beast in front of them. Their gazes are only for Surge.

“Your challenge matches will be tomorrow night, or the next, if you prefer. I will do my best to make them fair matches, to defeat you both and not cheat you of the sense of accomplishment. But in my mind you have both already earned the mark of mastery from my gym. Though your badges will be inscribed with a different date than your team mates’… that difference should be worn with pride.”

The celebration is muted, given the circumstances. Glen was going to postpone it until the next night, and Blue suggested everyone help Bretta and Vlad prepare for their matches, but Vlad insisted that two (or even three) celebrations are better than one, and Bretta declared that she’s too tired for any training tonight anyway, so they might as well relax and enjoy themselves.

So that’s what they do, or at least, Blue watches the others do so. His thoughts, of course, are still on what happened. On what it meant, if anything. On what it changed, if anything.

What Red did, and what Vlad did, are different. Their situations are different. The results are different.

But when Blue was watching it all unfold… as he watched Vlad decide, between a doomed attempt to save his friend, and a chance to save himself and the civilian…

Blue didn’t feel an answer. He didn’t find a solution. On both sides, there was only pain. And that was true even before Vlad rushed away from the gate, away from the badge he’d earned, to try and save Bretta in the first place.

It was too much like Red choosing to come to Vermilion in the first place, and the comparison made it clear that for Blue it’s never just been a matter of cowardice versus selflessness.

He understands why Gramps came for him during the storm. Of course he does. He doesn’t feel worthy of his grandfather’s life, and the risk is just too high in a way it’s not with Daisy. The certainty of it, a growing poison rather than the roll of dice. But people still face certain death for those they care about, even if the recipient doesn’t want them to. He can both not want Gramps to make that choice for him, and understand why he does.

What he couldn’t forgive was that Red didn’t care for Aiko the way his grandfather cares for him. That he might not care for Blue the way Blue cares for him.

Surge said the act couldn’t be judged, but Blue still feels the hurt, the disappointment. Is that not judgement?

He’s not sure.

But the anger

The anger feels like it’s missing. Like it’s sucked all the air out of the room it was in, leaving an emptiness he doesn’t understand.

As the dinner comes to a close, and the quiet chatter (with occasional bursts of laughter, relieving to hear but still odd to Blue’s ears) starts to fade, he stands in his seat and looks around at the others, who immediately go silent. They’d rented a private room at a restaurant, and in the dim gold lights he sees expressions of anticipation, curiosity, content… and worry. Probably worry over how quiet he’s been. Whether he’s upset.

He’ll have to fix that. To make sure they understand what it means to him, to be part of a journey like this together. What sorts of things he expects of them, to ensure they’re not just willing, but aware.

“I can’t say anything that Surge didn’t, and better,” Blue says, and swallows. “I… agree with it all. But there’s something else I have to share, and you two especially deserve to know. About why this happened.”

Vlad and Bretta look relieved, but also confused. “It happened because we didn’t deal with the mareep flock right,” Bretta says. “We went over it already in the debrief.”

She doesn’t seem to notice any irony in saying “we” when she’s the one person on the team that didn’t actually have a chance to make that mistake. “That’s a lesson we all learned, yeah. But there’s a reason that sort of absolute test was included at all.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Glen and Elaine are watching him with particular intensity, and he meets their gaze briefly before looking back at everyone else. “I trust you all, and want to ask that what I share with you here not leave the room. I won’t make it a request. But hopefully you’ll understand when I’m done.

“It has to do with the night Aiko died…”

Chapter 73: Teamwork

Blue spends the week leading up to the match doing little but training and planning, not just with Glen but with all twelve trainers. They often break off into groups of four to six to discuss particular things, but at least half the time all twelve trainers are in a room talking about what the gym might possibly throw at them.

“Sabra said we have to declare who’s challenging by tomorrow,” Blue notes a couple nights before the match as they finish up another meeting, empty plates of food and half-drunk soda around them. Everyone else has gone to bed. “So they can prepare the pokemon they’ll use against us.”

“Bet you’re glad I won’t be going with you, then,” Glen says with a smile. “Otherwise they’d bring out the really scary stuff.”

Blue smiles back, but he feels a pang in his chest. It’s unfair that Glen wouldn’t get to be part of the world’s first live scenario challenge, that he’d have to wait until next week for his own team’s challenge, after all the work he put in. He plays it off, but Blue isn’t sure how seriously to take it.

Blue takes another swallow of his soda, then spins the can in his hands. “Glen, if you want—”


“But—” Blue starts again, but Glen is already shaking his head.

“I’ll stay with my team. It’ll help, knowing what to expect. And we’ll be right behind you.” He holds his can up. “Win it, Blue. We’ve been here long enough.”

Blue nods, and drinks with his friend. Long enough to form memories that he wouldn’t trade anything for, too long to stay with some. And aside from all that, he’s been feeling it more and more, lately. The call of the road.

“We’ll be gone by the end of next week,” Blue promises, and taps his can to his.

He spends another hour in bed after, examining his roster, thinking of who to bring. If he expects all electric pokemon, like a normal gym battle, then a pidgeotto or wartortle will hold him back. But if they surprise them, mix things up in some way… he’d rather have a balanced team. Still, it feels strange to have gone through so much to capture ground pokemon like his dugtrio, and then not end up using them.

In the end he picks Maturin, Zephyr, Rive, Gon, Ion, and his yet unnamed snorlax. It’s his strongest pokemon by far, and he spent a lot of time learning how to train and take care of it from Glen. Whatever they bring to counter it, he’s confident he can use it to better effect.

He sends the list to Sabra, then rolls over and tries to sleep, dreaming of victory and disaster both entwined.

After some discussion it became pretty obvious where the battle would take place. The Zapdos Cannon’s trajectory was nearly due-south, and luckily the only buildings tall enough to be affected were in about two dozen blocks along either side of the major road that the ball of plasma briefly aligned with. The majority of the destruction in the area has been cleared away, but the skyscrapers themselves are still surrounded by construction vehicles and cranes; some are slated for demolition, others rebuilding. The city’s motels, hotels, and even trainer-houses are packed full of the displaced citizens who lived in them, and the city took a hard look at how much traffic it would cause to shut the streets down during repairs rather than keeping a few lanes open and concluded it was well worth it.

Which is why when the taxis driving Blue’s team turn toward the cordoned off blocks, there isn’t much surprise. The barricade gate goes up as they approach, and suddenly the streets around them are eerily empty and quiet as they drive between the burnt buildings, all the construction in the area halted. Blue wonders if everyone involved had any warning, or was just told to take an extra long lunch break.

As soon as Blue and his team are dropped off, they don’t wait to watch the two taxis drive away, instead quickly spreading out to scout the area.

“Testing, sound off,” Blue instructs, clicking his earphone to the open channel.

“I hear you, Blue,” Taro says, echoed by his sister a moment later.

“Heard TaroChie,” Lizzy says.

“Heard Lizzy,” MG says.

“Heard MG,” Chron finishes. “Guess they’re not blocking our coms.”

“They’d better not, with an arena this big,” Chie notes. “East alleys are clear by the way. Anyone see anything we’re going to have to be defending?”

“Or assaulting?” Taro adds. “They might throw a curveball and say we’re the wilds.”

“Shh. Anyone else hear that?”

Blue almost asks Chron what he heard, then doesn’t need to; there’s a buzzing coming from every direction. For a split second he thinks the match has started, that there’s a horde of beedrill coming at them… but a moment later he recognizes the sound. Soon the drones are visible, flying in from all directions. Some stop overhead, others go farther along the block and out of sight.

“There are nine civilians trapped in the zone,” Surge’s voice echoes out from their speakers without preamble. “You have 30 minutes before the next wave hits. Priority 1 is to find the civilians and keep them safe. All trainers will receive a badge if you are successful, except for those who have lost all their pokemon.”

Blue’s racing thoughts hit a wall, and for a moment he stops thinking in terms of how to win the challenge and starts thinking of the implications of the new rule. All of their scenarios assumed an all-or-nothing badge win for the challenging side, that’s the whole point of doing badge challenges as a team.

No, there has to be some consequence to “death,” even if the mission succeeds, now people will be trained to somewhat prioritize their own survival, just like in a real incident.

“-radio silence, so you will not receive any additional warnings.” Surge is saying as Blue forces himself to pay attention again. He quickly sets a 29 minute alarm on his watch. “All rescued civilians and surviving trainers must be indoors in a secure location within the scenario bounds by the end of it.”

“Three teams of two,” Blue mutters. “TaroChie, Chron and MG, Lizzy with me.”

“Any trainer leaving the marked scenario bounds will be considered to have forfeited. Any trainers who attempt to move past an enemy pokemon without their own pokemon around to combat it will also be considered deceased. Attempts to interfere with drone functions or observation is strictly off limits; you are to treat them as though they don’t exist. Finally, as trainers would otherwise face a significant handicap in not being able to capture ‘wild’ pokemon encountered, your opponents will withdraw their pokemon not just when they feel their lives are in danger, but if they feel that a trainer of basic competence would be able to capture them.”

“That is all. Good luck.”

Blue sees Lizzy running toward him, her phone out, and he brings out his own so he can open a map of the area. He doesn’t know how big the marked off area is along the path of destruction, but the edges are well defined, at least. “TaroChie, find the nearest edge of the arena and search along it. Report back when you find another edge.”

“Together?” Taro asks.

“Can cover more distance apart,” Chie adds.

Blue hesitates, then says, “Your choice, risk and reward. Chron and MG, you’re on buildings. Liz and I will get streets. Let’s move in the same direction and stick to one side of the street, so we can loop around after without retracing our steps.”

“We’re splitting,” Chie says. “It may put me on the far side from all of you, but I think I’ll be okay.”

“Can we split too?” MG asks.

“Sure, but don’t go more than one building from each other,” Blue says. “Keep in mind, we don’t know what the enemy’s power breakdown is going to be.”

“In a situation like this, where they can’t know which of us they’ll be facing, they may all be equalized,” Taro says, voice hopeful.

“The objective itself gives us incentive not to stick together,” Lizzy says as she and Blue begin searching the side streets and alleys between the buildings, “But that’s a potential bonus of this scenario, you know? No reason to fight unless a civilian is nearby. If Surge shows up, just run away.”

“No reason but pride,” Taro mutters. “Not sure how I feel about getting my first badge without fighting a Leader.”

“I get it,” Chron says. “But if his loadout is to take on me or MG or Blue, he’ll crush you.”

“He’ll probably be guarding a civ,” MG points out. “Which means at least one of us will have to face him.”

“Don’t assume that,” Blue warns. “We also don’t know if realism is what they’re optimizing for.” He was afraid of a situation like this, where no amount of preparation could answer basic unknowns about the rules the scenario has been built on. “Move as fast as you can without tiring out, we need to learn more nearly as much as we need to start finding civs.”

“Going to check the next street,” Lizzy says as she brings her electrike out. “We can leapfrog one to the next?”

“Sounds good.” Blue summons Zephyr, and a quick blow of his flute sends the bird pokemon up and around in scouting circles. It’s not a perfect defense, considering the training is for any pokemon that get spotted without a nearby human, but maybe the gym has trained some pokemon to operate at a distance from themselves.

“More than half of these buildings are locked tight,” MG says. “Should we assume they are not inhabited?”

“Yeah,” Blue says as he runs from one alley to the next, breathing in deep, steady breaths. “My guess is those’ll be all the big ones, with the small ones left open, but check the doors on each just in case.” It’s another thought that sends him back into wondering about the decision making that went into the challenge, and the expectations for the challengers. They were only allowed to bring in their pokemon and combat relevant items, like medicine and communication devices, which greatly limits how prepared they could have been for this particular scenario. That supports the idea that realism is the main goal, but it also restricts how creative they can be within the scenario itself, which is a mark against realism. Blue can’t imagine a situation where they would have to do search and rescue but not have access to their bikes…

“Hazards,” Chron reports, voice slightly breathless. “Found an apartment building filled with galvantula web, enough to fill the lobby. Guess this supports the idea that they’re only using electric types. Testing to see if it’s active…”

Blue almost warns him about how to go about testing it, then holds himself back, not wanting to undermine his friend by presuming incompetence. Besides, he has to focus even more on his surroundings now. Are those pineco shards littering the floor…? No, just a broken beer bottle…

There’s a loud snapping sound from his earplug. “Yyyep, that’s live. Very live. Should I try to get through?”

“Can you?”

“With a few minutes of work, yeah.”

Blue hesitates as he makes his way around the base of a crane to check the thin alley between a pair of ruined buildings, then turn toward the next and enter it from the other side of where they started. “Not sure. Thoughts?”

The channel is quiet at the moment, and Blue uses the silence to check the next alley. He sees a scrap of cloth on a wall that was caved in, and wonders if it’s part of the scenario. Would they deliberately seed the area with clues? He could go inside and check, but that would be deviating from his role of sticking to the outsides. After a moment he marks the location on their shared map and moves on, trusting Chron and MG to check it out.

MG is the first to speak. “They made trainer ‘death’ lose us our badge. They probably want decisions like this to be punished if wrong. Makes me think it’s better to ignore.”

“We were dropped off near it,” Lizzy points out. “Maybe it’s meant to be an early source of information one way or another?”

That gives Blue pause. Would Surge want to construct the scenario like that, rather than develop it to be as realistic as possible? Blue’s not yet positive that he has a good handle on Surge’s personality; his “virtue,” as far as most people seem to believe, is teamwork or coordination or something like that, and Surge agreeing to these scenarios seems to back that up. But that doesn’t really help him here, and it feels like there’s a deeper answer, a more true one that fits more evidence, covers more ground.

He and Glen wrestled with this topic all week, knowing they would have to outthink the Gym Leader and his people, but being here, in the test itself, somehow focuses Blue’s thoughts, channels them inexorably toward a conclusion, instead of just suggesting one idea after another, each reasonable in their own way.

Blue stays still and closes his eyes as he leans against a wall, catching his breath and focusing as hard as he can on the direction his thoughts are moving. In Surge’s heart of hearts, did he agree to these scenarios just to teach challengers to work together better? Maybe. But the Lieutenant is different from most Gym Leaders. He was in the military, was in a war, and is more involved in his city than any Leader in Kanto. He acts like someone not just dedicated to the role of a Gym Leader, focusing on their city’s safety in the present and immediate future, but as someone with an eye on wider currents carrying dangers from farther in time. Paired with a burning drive to prepare for the worst, it’s hard not to see these scenarios as just another part of the preparation that drives him to reshape an entire city, block by block and piece by piece, to better suit his goals.

Would someone like that present a scenario where the way to win is to play it safe? Or to dive for (seemingly obvious) objectives?

He doesn’t know. But if he has to bet (and he does), then…

“Leave it,” Blue says, and starts moving again. “Just mark the location. We don’t know yet if the civvies will always be in danger, better to confirm rather than risk wasting time.”

“Do you think we should start at the opposite end, in that case?” Lizzy asks.

“TaroChie will have to tell us how far that is first,” Blue says as he looks through the window of a fully intact deli shop. Nothing out of the ordinary. As he jogs over to the next block, Blue checks the time and is relieved to find that only three minutes have passed so far. They’ve covered two blocks so far, there’s no way the arena will cover twenty blocks…

“Found someone,” MG says, a thread of excited tension in her voice. “Ma’am, are you oka-gah!”

“What happened?” Blue asks, alarm quickly replacing his excitement. “Are you okay?!” He hears something through his earpiece that sounds like… crying?

“Ma’am… ma’am please…” MG’s voice is muffled.

“MG, are you okay? Report!”

“Ngh… fine… ” Her voice sounds muffled, and after a moment she speaks more clearly, though her tone is… frazzled. “The civilian is… distraught. She’s hugging me. Wh-what should I do?”

Blue’s mouth opens, then closes, listening to the tinny sound of the woman’s crying. This isn’t something they prepared for… Of all the people for that to happen to… are all the civilians going to do this, or were they each specially instructed to—

“Hug her if she needs hugging,” Chie says. “Reassure her that she’ll be okay. Sit with her until she calms down, then tell her to follow you to one of the buildings that seemed safe and securable.”

“A-alright… ma’am… um, it’ll be okay… uh, guys, I’ll uh, I’ll be back in a bit.” Her transmission ends.

“Thanks Chie.” One down. Blue checks the time and sees that another two minutes have passed. “Keep moving, everyone.”

They continue their sweeps, and Blue tries not to feel impatient as they continue to find nothing but empty alleys and side streets. He knows it’s important, if even a single civilian isn’t in one of the buildings they’d all fail without checking, but he wishes there was an easier way. If only one of them had a pokemon they could fly on… no, then they would probably have just changed things up anyway. Search and rescue pokemon. We all need to have at least one, that can keep up with a bike… Blue has to struggle to stay focused, and does so by imagining there’s a gym member pretending to be a civilian cowering between those two trucks ahead… no, so there might be a “wild” pokemon, waiting to ambush him in that alley…

“Just found a barrier,” Chie says. “I counted four blocks, took me almost exactly six and a half minutes to reach it from our starting position. Going to keep tracing the edge till I meet Taro.”

“I see one too,” he says. “Five blocks. Looks like we were dropped off around the middle.”

“Good job. Lizzy and I are close to yours, Taro, so we’ll check the other side of the street as we double back. You and Chie keep going along the edge until you meet up with each other.”

“You got it.”

As the coms go silent again, Blue is aware of the persistent buzzing that’s been ongoing since the match started. He looks around until he spots one of the drones, and sees another one nearby. They’re following them, probably recording them. He considers flashing a victory symbol, then decides not to come off as too cocky.

He wonders where the others flew off to, at the start. Would they go to the gym members? For a moment Blue considers the possibility that another team of trainers has been secretly put in the scenario, either competing for their own badge or specifically to foil them, then dismisses it. “If anyone spots one of the drones that’s not following you, let us know. May be a clue.”

“Would they do that?”

“Don’t know, but can’t hurt to keep an eye out.”

He’s just crossing over to another block with Lizzy when Chron’s terse voice suddenly says, “Contact. I just entered a bank and hear someone shouting for help.”

“Do you need backup?”

“Checking it out now, I hear a banging!” It sounds like he’s running as he speaks, and Blue almost tells him to go slow, be wary of traps, but no, if someone’s shouting for help… “Ah, shit! It’s Aigerim, she’s using an electabuzz to try and bash a door down! Go, Gloom! Stun Spore!”

Blue checks his map for the others’ locations and see that Chie is closest. “Chie, go—”

“No, I got this! Gloom, Absorb! Keep searching!”

Blue bites his lip, but decides not to undermine his teammate. “Alright, but call out if you need help!”

“Dodge! Okay, switching off!” His transmission cuts off, and Blue starts moving again, wanting to hurry up and reach the end of the street so they can start heading back toward the middle, where they can reach any of the others more easily. As he exits an alley he sees Lizzy crossing the street, the barricade marking the edge of the scenario up ahead, and quickly finishes his own sweep before joining her on the other side, once again taking the side streets she skipped.

“Hey guys,” MG says. “I’ve calmed her down and… um… she seems ready to travel. Where should I take her?”

“Chron is trying to save someone at the bank,” Chie quickly says. “It would probably be a safe place once cleared?”

“Agreed,” Blue says, picking up on what she’s getting at. “Make sure your civilian is a safe distance away when you get there, then help Chron out, and we’ll start bringing anyone else we find there.”

“Right… we’re on our way to him.” Blue hears her start coaxing the woman before shutting off her mic again, and heads to the next street. He sees Lizzy beside it, however, and her expression stops him. “What’s wrong?”

She’s frowning hard at her map, and adjusts her glasses before turning to him. “We’re about to hit the ten minute mark. A third of our time is gone and we’ve only found two. We won’t make it at this rate, especially with one trainer down to guard them.”

Blue wants to refute the necessity of the last part, but it’s the safest play, and more importantly their time feels like it’s ticking by faster than before. “Any ideas?”

“Let’s treat this a little more like a real scenario. Call out to anyone that needs help. They were probably told to react realistically… it might draw in enemies too, but at least we’re spending our time on them rather than walking around.”

Blue thinks about it, viscerally aware of the passing time, a clock that ticks with each beat of his heart. “It’s a good idea. If they decide to punish it though…” He thinks of Surge again, tries to model the leader’s philosophy and perspective. “…and he might, it would be dangerous to do in reality… it would take up a lot of our time. We’d probably get overwhelmed, if it’s just the two of us. Let’s hold onto that idea until we’re near the end, in case we get desperate.”

She nods, and they start searching again. “Waiting until we can gather at the bank might be best anyway, you know? We’ll have a fortified place to defend, though I’m unsure what they would do if time runs out while we’re under siege there.”

Blue can’t guess that either. Count it as a loss because the next wave would hit meanwhile? “Let’s not assume that’s a victory condition then. I—”

“Blue, here!” He dashes over to Lizzy and finds her kneeling beside a young man sitting against a dumpster, face pale and eyes closed. Blue recognizes him as one of the gym members he fought during his challenge matches, though he can’t remember his name.

He has what looks like an actual wound on his arm, blood soaked through his shirt.

Blue skids to a stop and reaches for a potion, but Lizzy already has one out and is spraying the wound. Blue stares at the shredded arm and sleeve, not breathing as he waits for it to start closing, but nothing happens. Are they too late?

Don’t be stupid, that would mean he’s actually dead. Blue lets his breath out, grounding himself. He got a bit too caught up in the scenario there; it looks realistic, but obviously the wound must be fake. Still, if the rules state that enough time passed without help would count the “civilian” as dead…

A moment later he stirs and opens his eyes, arm still looking like a side of raw beef, then lets out a sigh of relief. “Oh thank Arceus… I thought I was a goner! Are you here to rescue me?”

Even after hearing about what MG went through, it feels weird to play along with something like this… but breaking the illusion also feels unsporting. “Yes,” Blue says as he quickly thinks of how he would act in a real situation. “Are you… do you feel okay? Can you stand?”

Lizzy frowns at the man’s arm, then pokes at it and brings her finger to her nose, sniffing the “blood.” The trainer smiles at her, then quickly puts on a scared face again as he turns back to Blue. “I don’t know… I feel a little weak. Could you help me up?”

Blue holds an arm out for the man to take, then pulls. He almost immediately staggers, then leans onto Blue’s shoulder.

“Sorry… just a little dizzy…”

“Uh huh,” Blue says, and internally sighs. Of course this wouldn’t be easy; now their search party would be halved. “Lizzy, keep looking for others, I’ll get him to the bank.”


Blue and the trainer blink at her as she leaves the alley and observes the street around them. “Uh… why not?”

“It would take too much time. Leave him here. We know where he is, if we find another civilian we can come back for him and escort both together.”

Now the “civilian” seems just as surprised, and Blue grins. “Genius.”

“Wait, you can’t…” He trails off, looking back and forth between them, then seems to remember his role and staggers harder against Blue. “I’m hurt! You’re just going to leave me here where I could be attacked by another pokemon?”

Clearly there wasn’t too much time spent coaching the actors beyond their basic roles. “Hey, you’ll be alright,” Blue says with a grin as he ducks under the older boy’s arm and sets him back down against the wall. “Just sit quietly like you were before, and call out for help if you see any wild pokemon. We’ll be back before you can say—”

“Blue, I’ve reached the bank and helped Chron defeat the, ah, ‘wild pokemon’ here.”

Blue grins and straightens. “That’s great!” He ignores the fake civilian and continues on to the next alley, signalling Lizzy to do the same. No matter how realistic Surge might make the scenario, he’s not going to put two civilians in the same alley, probably not even those beside each other… or is that what he wants Blue to think? “What did Aigerim do after?”

“Just left, didn’t say anything,” Chron says, voice dull. “It’s not all good news, Blue. We lost six pokemon between us. You guys need to be careful.”

Blue stops in his tracks, mouth agape. He barely manages to keep from repeating the number, knowing his incredulous tone would come off as criticizing. Still, it’s difficult to swallow his frustration. “What happened?”

“Nothing, it was just… strong. I lost three before MG showed up, then one more, and she lost two. I don’t know if we weren’t meant to take it on with just two trainers, but…”

“No,” Blue says, feeling a pit in his stomach. “It’s fine, this must be how they’re balancing against our belt numbers.” Hopefully that’s all it is. “There was a civilian there though, right?”

“Oh, yeah. So… that’s two we’ve got now, right?”

Blue feels a thread of worry for his teammate as he peers into a dumpster. Chron sounds so despondent. Not that Blue blames him, being down to two pokemon… “Three, actually. Sort of. Long story.”

“Well, that’s great!” Chron says, clearly trying to put on a cheerful tone. “We’ll find somewhere safe to put them, then head back out to—”

“You can’t. We need you to guard them.”

“I can still fight, Blue, don’t bench me yet.”

Blue bites back his first response, which would have been to remind Chron that if he loses his last pokemon he’d lose his badge. He knows that, and it would just make him feel more like he’s being sidelined for his own good.

Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in her head, telling her that she had to go in there…

Blue shuts his eyes and shakes his head, taking a calming breath against the spike of anger. He wishes his battle calm applied to situations like this, this whole scenario, it would be so much easier to think quickly and clearly… “This is for the mission, Chron. I wouldn’t put it past Surge to attack them at some point after we’ve gathered them, and I’m guessing you kept your tanks for last.”


“Then you’re the best person for the job. If the place is attacked, hold them off as long as you can, while we come running.”

“Right. You got it. Sorry, Blue, I—”

“It’s fine. Really.” Blue meets Lizzy at the end of another block, and they both turn into their next ones. “MG, keep searching buildings until you—”

“WOOOOAH, BIG, big big!” Taro suddenly yells, and Blue freezes as he hears a roar echo through his earpiece and the city. “Guys, there’s a freaking blastoise!

“Back out!” Blue says, and checks his map. “Where was it?”

“Between the pizza place and the—Ah shit, it’s chasing me!”

What? Who’s the trainer?”

“It’s Otto, he’s making it chase me!”

So much for avoiding unnecessary battles. “Get it into the main street, Lizzy and I will come and—”

“No! Keep looking, I got this!”

Chie cuts in, voice strained. “Don’t be an idiot Taro, you’ve got nothing that can take it!”

“Don’t plan to!” Taro says between breaths as he runs. “Just gonna keep moving!”

Blue blinks, then grins. “Genius. Let us know if he breaks off!”

“Will do!”


“Trust your brother, Chie, and go meet up with MG.”

There’s a pause, then a conflicted, “Alright. You’d better not get cornered, Taro!”

“You bet!”

“Which way are you headed?” Blue asks, looking around, then spots the distant figure as it runs from the truck-sized turtle. The blastoise is down on all fours as it gives chase, with its trainer at its side.

“Up main street, back toward where we started!”

“Hey,” Chron says, “You also found the answer to our typing question, so thanks for that!”

You’re welcome!

Blue turns to Lizzy. “Otto might have been guarding a civ, can you go—”

“On it.” She jogs off, and Blue keeps moving as he checks the time. They’ve almost finished with this side, and they have only eighteen minutes left. Lizzy’s idea is becoming both more attractive and less, but the civ they found was unconscious, so it wouldn’t work for him even if he was instructed to go to someone calling out for him, and the gym members representing wild pokemon would almost certainly attack if they start yelling for survivors to come out into the streets…

The buzz of the drone is a little louder. Did it get closer? He tries glancing around without shifting his head, but it’s floating somewhere above and behind him. He’s about to dismiss it when Zephyr suddenly screeches out a warning, flying a quick circle between two buildings on the next block, then rapidly flies back to Blue, landing on his shoulder.

“You’re getting way too big for this,” Blue mutters as he quickly feeds his pokemon a berry so that he’ll fly away, then quickly returns him to his ball. There’s something reassuring about knowing that he’s about to be attacked. The battle calm is already spreading through him as he moves to an open area and summons Ion.

The luxio is over twice as tall as he was when Blue got him from Leaf as a shinx, and comes up to his trainer’s waist. He sniffs the air as he gets his bearings, then widens his stance and growls… facing the direction that Zephyr marked.

Knowing that the gym members will use non-electric pokemon makes Blue extra glad he brought Ion.

“Charge,” he says, and slips his protective mask on as the yellow bands around his pokemon’s legs and the star at the end of its tail begin to glow. Electricity scintillates over its blue and black fur until it’s standing on end, and sparks arc between its grit teeth.

A heartbeat passes, then another, and then an expanding cone of ice swirls out of the alley and envelops the whole street.

Blue feels like he’s been dunked in a pool of ice water, immediately starting to shiver as the freezing wind cuts at his clothes and hair and seeps into his bones. He’s glad his eyes are protected by his facemask, but its surface quickly fogs from his breaths. Downside to not just having goggles, he thinks as he rips it off, wincing as his eyes and nose begin to sting from the cold. He sticks his fingers into his armpits to keep them warm as he yells, “S-s-seriously?!”

There’s no response. Not that he particularly expected one, but still, that was overkill. The cone of frost is evident along the ground and streetlights and trash bins, the center of it slightly off from Blue and his pokemon. If they were any closer, or hadn’t caught the diffuse end of the attack…

I should run. Blue doesn’t even know if there’s a civilian in danger. A distant part of him itches to take on whatever challenge this is, but his calm is still with him, and he knows how underprepared he is to face an ice pokemon, let alone one strong enough to use blizzard; his only pokemon not weak to it would be snorlax and wartortle, neither of which would have an offensive advantage. That distinction goes to rhyhorn, who Blue doubts would be able to take a single blizzard without needing to be withdrawn.

Ion’s Charge is helping protect him from the cold, steam rising off his body as small sparks connect between his fur and the remaining flakes of ice. “Follow,” Blue yells as he turns and starts to run, and he’s just keyed his microphone to tell the others what he found when he hears a scream.

It comes from the direction of the blizzard.

“Fuuuuck,” Blue whispers as he slows to a stop, and Ion does the same, fur still sparkling.

“What is it, Blue?”

“You okay?”

“What’s wrong?”

Woops. “I found another civilian, being guarded by something that just hit me with a Blizzard.” He turns back the way he came in time to see a/


/floating toward him.

Blue blinks, then rubs his eyes and blinks again, and it’s his pokemon’s growl that makes understanding click into place. It’s a strange sensation, having knowledge blocked somewhere in his own head, like something having something on the tip of his tongue, but somehow ten times worse.

“Ion, bach!” His pokemon opens his mouth and lets out a bolt of energy, which appears to splash harmlessly against the fridge. Thanks to the Charge Beam TM Blue bought, the longer Ion stays in battle, charging and discharging electricity, the stronger he will become… but he wouldn’t last long without something to tank those blizzards.

The rotom opens its door to reveal an otherworldly purple glow, and Blue yells “Charge!” again before covering his face with both arms. The blast of cold is sharper this time, and his whole body convulses with shivers.

“What is it, Blue?”

“Rotuh-tuh-tom,” he says, teeth chattering as he drops a hand to his belt and bends fingers stiff from the cold around his heavy ball. “Ice tuh-type, may b-be trouble. Ion, b-bach!”

“I’m on my way,” Chie says.

“D-Don’t come to me,” Blue says, and throws. “G-Go, Snorlax!” The grey ball disgorges its massive contents, and Blue barely manages to catch it as it flies back at him, arm still shaking from the cold. “Check the buh-block I’m f-f-facing for th-the civ!”

“Right, on it!”

“Ion, Ch-charge! Snorlax, Protect!”

The attack comes a moment later, but instead of a blast of freezing air, Blue just feels a cool breeze. He lets out a breath of relief and quickly rearranges his healing gear so that he’s ready to treat not just electric burns but frostbite. Snorlax’s thick fat will protect them from the worst of the cold, but not forever. “Snorlax, pivot, Ion, bach!”

The large pokemon lifts one foot and swings its body to the side, and the light that bursts from Ion is twice as bright as the first was. The refrigerator jolts and vibrates as it’s hit… but its counter attack is swift, a burst of returning electricity that hits Snorlax and causes him to grunt in pain.

“Charge,” Blue tells Ion again, then tells Snorlax to protect them from the next attack. He hopes it will be the Blizzard again, and wonders who the rotom’s trainer is. He didn’t see anyone, but they must be nearby to give it commands… is it possible that it’s an actual wild rotom that was never found within the scenario grounds?

No, the drone came a little closer just before Zephyr noticed it. In fact, it’s strange that Zephyr noticed it at all, considering it doesn’t look like a pokemon, but a regular, floating fridge. He’ll have to look into that later.

As another blast of electricity hits Blue’s snorlax, Taro’s voice comes back, sounding utterly winded. “Okay… I lost it… goddamn fast for… a giant turtle…”

“You lost it?” Chie asks, sounding alarmed. “Where?”

“Uh… it was definitely still chasing me when I ran around the demolished skyscraper, but after that…”

“So there’s a blastoise just wandering around the scenario now. Awesome.”

“I’m sorry, weren’t you… the one who told me… not to get cornered?”

“It could be back on its way to you, Lizzy,” Chron cuts in. “Be careful.”

“I believe I’ve searched the area where Taro encountered the blastoise, but have found no civilians. It’s possible it was just roaming free, you know? But I’ll watch out for it, maybe follow it. It could lead me to one.”

“You be careful too, Blue, it might be on its way to help out the rotom.”

“Got it,” Blue says. Should he try to finish the battle sooner? No, beating it sooner probably won’t help get the civilian to safety much faster, he has to treat his pokemon as the main resource being expended until the civilian is safe.

“Snorlax, Pivot! Ion, bach!”

The rotom takes the electric attack and returns with another of its own, though to Blue’s relief its next attack is a Blizzard. The overwhelming strength of his opponent is balanced a little by it not using only its most optimal attacks, though even that wouldn’t save Blue if he didn’t have his snorlax. Was he meant to be facing this foe? None of the others have pokemon that would fare better… is that why it only attacked once Lizzy left?

“Blue, I’m here,” Chie says. “Looking for the civilian now.”

“Got it.” Blue keeps rubbing some of the earlier chill from his fingers as Ion continues building up his power, whole body glowing as the luxio’s breaths come harder and faster. “You’re doing great, Ion,” Blue says. “You too, Snorlax… Just a little longer…” His snorlax’s movements are noticeably slowing, and Blue can’t reach most of its wounds with his potions… especially not while it’s still blocking attacks from reaching them.

Luckily, snorlax aren’t just sought out for their bulk. Their strength is as terrifying as their size implies, and while you can’t punch a rotom, if he gets close enough to the fridge he could probably smash it to pieces. Snorlax are slow enough that Blue doesn’t want to risk sending it after something that can evade so easily… he’d rather keep using it as a tank for now. And they have yet another invaluable attribute for just such an occasion…

“Snorlax, Rest!”

His pokemon lets itself fall back into a sitting position, then slumps forward with a sigh, tension releasing from its body as it begins to heal.

Most pokemon aren’t particularly expensive to own; their pokeballs help reduce their maintenance and upkeep by a lot, so that even if a pokemon would normally need to eat a few times a day, their relative day may stretch out over a week by their trainer’s standards. Other than the minor energy costs for storage, all pokemon are essentially free if you don’t use them, but even a pidgey kept out of their ball all day every day won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars a year, whereas a gyarados could easily cost thousands if the trainer is investing heavily in their training or growth.

Snorlax are on the far end of the scale, their bodies requiring massive amounts of calories and long periods of sleep to maintain healthy levels of both muscle and fat… which they quickly burn through in combat to move quicker than they normally do, and regenerate damage they take through short, self-induced comas.

Even sitting, the hulking figure of Blue’s pokemon fully covers his, but he still crouches slightly as he braces for the next attack. “Ion, Charge.” He waits for the next electric or ice attack, preparing to run out of cover with his pokemon, order the attack, then run back…

But no attack comes. Instead Blue’s snorlax begins to twitch in his sleep, and grumble.

They taught it Dream Eater! Blue quickly snaps his arm up, feeling a rush of anger and apprehension even through the analytical thoughts considering his next move. Dream Eater isn’t an attack a wild rotom would know, but it’s the perfect counter to a snorlax, and he has nothing else that can take a frost rotom on. If it doesn’t go down in a couple hits…

“Snorlax, return!” Blue quickly backs up to open the distance between himself and his luxio, now that he’ll be the main target. “Ion, bach!”

The light bursts forth with an audible hum, and the fridge jerks and spins in mid-air as its door opens again. The howling Blizzard sweeps almost a full 360 degrees, covering most of the block in a thin layer of frost. To Blue it’s like his whole body gets slapped by a giant freezing hand, but a few blinks clear the tears from his eyes, and Ion seems unfazed… from the attack, at least. Blue can tell his pokemon is getting tired, and unclips its ball as he reclips Snorlax.

“Ion, Charge!” Blue yells. The rotom sends out an electric bolt this time, but Ion barely flinches, his own energy field seeming to divert it into the ground around him. He knows better than to hope the next attack isn’t another blizzard. The rotom is staying far enough that Blue doesn’t think a direct hit would seriously hurt him, but it might render him incapable of battling for a while.

What if I am? The rules said if I run out of pokemon, not if I need a breather. Not that he’d take one, wasting time could cost everyone their badge, but… It’s not going to attack me without a pokemon around. Rotom are just a little faster than blastoise… I can outrun it… and if it turns back toward Chie, re-engage it.

It’s a good plan. But it would rob Ion of the power he’s accumulated so far: a lot of things carry through pokemon swaps, but the energy his luxio is generating isn’t one of them. He would lose his chance to take the rotom down, and Ion would go down from another attack.

“Bach!” Another bloom of light, and as it hits Blue can almost make out the purple aura around the fridge, a pair of flat, alien eyes plastered over its front as the fridge falls out of the air with a crash… then lifts back up, steaming and swaying as electricity arcs from Ion to the ground around him, the loud snaps and crackles almost masking the sounds of Ion’s harsh breathing. Just a little more…

What comes out next isn’t a blast of ice or lightning; instead the purple glow around the fridge is more evident, coalescing on the side facing luxio, which doesn’t change even as it keeps rotating, a growing sphere of—

“Blue, I found the civilian. Moving with him now.”

Blue barely hears her as he unclips and throws his rhyhorn’s ball as far as he can toward the side of the fridge, waiting until it’s nearly reached it before yelling, “Go, Rive!”

The ball releases his pokemon and rockets back just as the purple sphere detaches and jets toward Ion. “Ion, Return! Rive, thar!”

Ion disappears in a flash of light just as the purple sphere passes through the space where he was, and Rive digs into the ground and tears out a chunk of asphalt, then launches it at the fridge. It hits with a THUD that seems to echo around the blockand sparks fly out the back of the fridge as its frame bends, popping the door open and leaving it unable to shut.

The fridge suddenly drops out of the air, and a glowing spot of orange and blue plasma zips away from it, back down the alley from which it came.

Blue stares, breathing hard as he waits to make sure it’s really over. Then he summons Ion back out.

His pokemon appears, then abruptly collapses, breaths coming fast and hard. Blue rushes over and sprays potion over it, the mist hissing as it touches his pokemon’s hot fur.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Ion. You did great,” he murmurs, and withdraws his pokemon. “You too, Rive, return.”

“Blue, are you okay?”

He opens his mic. “Sorry, yeah. I’m fine,” he says as he wipes sweat from his face.

“What happened?”

He glances at his former opponent. “I beat a fridge.”

“We’re all very proud of you,” MG says, sounding entirely serious. He can’t always get a read on her. “Also, I found another civilian, but the blastoise is patrolling nearby. I think we may need to defeat it?”

“Or we can get it to chase one of us again while the other rescues him. I’m coming,” Lizzy says.

“Be extra careful. This rotom seemed particularly prepared to fight my team, and showed up once I was alone,” Blue says as he starts jogging toward the next block. “Assume that you’re facing pokemon that will counter what you have, even if it would be rare or unusual.”


“Got it.”

It feels strange going from a battle that intense back to checking empty alleys and streets, but he has to be thorough. He checks the time and sees the battle only took about three minutes, which means they have just over fifteen left. “You’ve been quiet, Taro, how are you doing?

“Full of Glen’s Gogo Juice, and ready to gogo. Where do you need me?”

Chie sighs. “How do you keep coming up with worse names—”

“MG is at half strength, and I’m down two,” Blue interrupts. Snorlax would need to finish his Rest to heal up, which wouldn’t take too long, but the mental attack is more concerning. He’ll bring Snorlax out if he needs to, but should refrain until he can run him through drills to ensure nothing critical was eaten. “Chie, your pokemon are still fresh, meet up with me and I’ll escort the civilians while you finish searching this side.”

She finds him a couple streets later, and he leads her civilian to the alley where he and Lizzy left the first one. It’s a mild relief to see the trainer is still there. “As you can see, he’s injured,” Blue says to the newcomer. “Could you help him walk while I defend us from any wild pokemon?”

The two look at each other, then the new civilian nods and goes to help the “injured” one up. Soon Blue is leading both toward the bank, struggling against his impatience with the pace they’re setting as he summons Zephyr to scout around him again and keeps an eye out for any more attacks.

“Okay, MG. Ready when you are.”

“Ready. Count of three… two… one… go!”

Then there’s distant running, and a roar, and a yelp, and silence.

“MG? Lizzy?” Blue looks down the street in their direction and sees a rush of water spreading out from an alley and running down the sidewalk. He almost tells the civilians to wait here, or go the rest of the way alone, but after a moment he grits his teeth and keeps walking as his heart pounds. He wishes, not for the first time today, that his battle calm extended beyond just when he is in literal combat…

“Whew! You okay MG?”

“M-my hat…”

“I see it! One sec… is he looking away?”

“…wait… now, yes!”

“…Got it!”

“Thank you.”

“Okay seriously guys, what’s going on?” Chie asks.

“It didn’t try chasing me, it just used its cannons to blast water at us when we left cover. Made us jump back into hiding, and now it’s patrolling again.”

“So we do need to take it down.”

“Maybe,” Taro says. “Or maybe you just have to avoid getting seen. Stealth tactics, you know?”

“Try blinding it too,” Blue adds. “Smokescreen, Flash, whatever.”

“I believe I have a better idea,” MG says. “We will poison it. Eventually Otto will have to withdraw it before it succumbs.”

Taro sighs. “Shit, I should have done that, it would have already worn itself out chasing me…”

“It’s fine, we’ve got it,” Lizzy adds. “Switching off for a bit, we’ll let you know if we need backup.”

Blue is approaching the bank, and resists the urge to look up at the drone following him. If an attack will come, it would be now… But despite his tension, he leads the two civilians into the bank without incident. Chron is waiting, and guides them back to the room with the others as Blue stares at the pile of furniture stacked on either side of the door into the inner rooms until Chron comes back.

“Is this a barricade, or a trap…?”

“Both? I asked them to help, figured I could easily collapse them if needed, turn it into a big heavy mess for any attacking pokemon to dig through.”

Blue grins. “I like it. How are the ‘civilians’ doing?”

“Oh, one pulled a pack of cards out and asked if I wanted to play. Not sure if they know there’s no reason to keep the act up now, or if they’re trying to get me to lower my guard.”

Blue nods, wondering if there’s a way to get information out of them. “Your drone is still outside, so they’re keeping an eye on the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the area is hit the moment you try to leave. Hell, after the rotom I wouldn’t be surprised if the delay is them picking a pokemon that would be just the right challenge for what you’ve got left.”

Chron nods, face serious. “I’ll be ready. Now get back out there and do your part.”

Blue nods and tips a salute before jogging back into the sunlight. That’s four safely in shelter, with… twelve minutes left.

He feels his stomach drop. They have roughly half the area left to search. It’s tempting to send Chron out after all, maybe to slowly, safely work his way through the webs in that building…

We need to think of something better. Something that will help us with the search…

Blue closes his eyes and tries to think through the sense of dwindling time. Resources. Knowledge. Skills. What am I not fully utilizing? All of his trainers are being used, none have pokemon that would help find people or move faster, none of them have special knowledge of this area… do they have knowledge of the gym members? Experience hiding strategies in urban environments?

“All done with this area Blue, on my way back to start the other half.”

“Alright. I’ll come join you…” Blue trails off, still feeling like he should be able to think of something clever, something out of the box that will help them…

What would Red do?

He forces himself not to shy away from that thought. Red would use his psychic abilities, but that’s not helpful to Blue… he might use some knowledge of pokemon, something not related to battling. Blue has some of that, but he can’t think of anything that would help…

What would Leaf do?

She told him about what happened during the storm, what she and Red went through. Blue wanted to know, but he couldn’t tell how much of what she said was just trying to talk Red up, make Blue accept that he did a lot to save people. As if that was the point…

Focus! What would LEAF do?

Leaf’s strengths as a trainer don’t go toward battling, she would probably have trained her own pokemon to be able to do something more helpful in a situation like this, like finding injured people… her other skills are more centered around people, like Blue, she’s good at getting them to do things, like she did with the people in the apartment building that later caught fire…

Blue’s eyes widen, and he looks back toward the door Chron and the others piled furniture beside before quickly running through, back toward where the “civilians” are sitting and playing a card game.

“Everyone, please listen to me,” he yells, and they all jump. “There are other people out there that need help, and we’re not sure we can find them in time. I know it’s dangerous, but I’d like to ask you… no, beg you, to help us find them before the next wave hits.”

One of them chuckles, quickly covering their smile, while the rest look sheepish or confused. “I don’t think we…” another starts, but Blue cuts him off.

“I know you’re injured,” he says to the one whose arm still looks like it’s covered in blood. “You should stay here. But the rest of you, I can assure you that one of us will always be nearby to keep you safe, and we’ll make it back before the wave hits. So please…!” He claps his hands together and bows, as low as he can. “Help us save the others that are still out there!”

There’s an awkward silence, and Blue doesn’t dare look up or move. Thirty seconds. I’ll give it thirty seconds, then laugh it off and say it was worth a try and we’ll just have to run everywhere, and try the galvantula web… six… seven… eight…

He gets to fourteen before one of the civilians clears their throat, and shifts, and when Blue looks up he sees the woman getting to her feet. “I’ll help.”

Another hesitates a moment longer, then stands too. “Same.”

The one who smiled earlier is frowning at them, and after seeing Blue’s gaze on him shakes his head. “Dunno what Surge would expect.”

“It’s alright,” Blue says, and straightens with a smile relief making him feel giddy as his heart pounds. “It’s got to be realistic, right? Not everyone would come.”

Chron is staring with a mix of awe and incredulity. “You don’t think they’re going to try to punish this with more attacks or something?”

“They might,” Blue admits. “But I’d rather lose from battling than not try my best to save everyone. Hopefully we’ll be back soon.” He turns to the others. “Thank you. Now come on, there’s no time to lose!”

Blue leads them outside, and Zephyr takes off from a nearby building to fly overhead again. “Stay in sight of my pidgeotto, it’ll let us know if any pokemon are nearby. We’re going to go block by block checking the alleys, alright? If you so much as get a paranoid feeling that there’s a pokemon nearby, just run to me or one of the others.”

“You got it, Oak,” one of them says.

“You guys have fake names, or should I call you by your real ones?” He doesn’t remember their real ones, but it would be a good time to learn them either way…

“I’m supposed to be ‘Nellie.’ Got a backstory and everything; cruise ship chef.” She grins. “I think Nellie’s always wanted to do something meaningful, help people, you know?”

“I’m ‘Alex.’ Here on vacation.” The trainer shrugs. “Just figured it would be more interesting than sitting there and waiting.”

“Good enough for me.” Blue toggles his mic. “How are the buildings looking, TaroChie?”

“Done a block already, but we haven’t found anyone yet.”

“More hazards, though. Bunch of voltorb rolling around in one of the buildings. I marked it for if we get desperate.”

“Alright, I’m coming to sweep the alleys with help from a couple of the civvies. Protecting them is Priority 2, got it?”

Taro laughs, while Chie just says, “Got it.”

They make their way through the streets at a jog, and now each block takes just a couple minutes to clear. Blue worries briefly that one or both might not actually tell him if they find a civilian, but by the second block “Alex” calls out, and Blue runs over.

This civilian is pretending to be unconscious. Blue moves carefully toward her, and when the pile of rubble beside her shifts and an Alolan golem uncurls from inside it, Blue feels a spike of fear before the battle calm takes over.

“Go, Gon!” he yells, and his breloom appears just as the golem bellows and starts generating electricity between its prongs. “Contact! Gon, pam!”

The breloom’s legs coil, then he leaps forward in a green and tan blur to punch the golem just before its electricity arcs out into the street, hitting street lights. Gon leaps back in front of Blue, and begins bouncing from foot to foot, tail held high as he prepares for another attack.

“What is it, Blue? Need help?”

“No, I have double advantage. Keep searching, one of you come get the trainers!” Gon evolved a couple weeks ago, going from a squat, slow mushroom that was valuable for its status effects to one of Blue’s heaviest hitters. As long as it’s faster than its opponent, and against a golem it certainly is, Blue is confident it can win most fights it has advantage on… let alone one as stacked in its favor as this.

So much for facing pokemon that are designed against him, though to be fair this does seem like a mostly random encounter.

There’s a clicking sound from somewhere above, and Blue looks up to see Sabra standing on the roof. She waves at him, and Blue quickly looks back down to see the golem charge its body with electricity.

Blue quickly orders another Mach Punch, then follows up with a Leech Seed. No matter how hard Gon hits, golems’ hides are tough, and he doesn’t know how strong this one is. Better to play it safe, wear it down and keep his distance while darting in for attacks…

No. He doesn’t have that luxury, the sooner he takes it down the better. After the golem charges at Gon and punches him with an electrically charged fist, Blue yells, “Counter!” and watches as the two begin slugging it out at close range. It may be tough, but its electricity will barely faze Gon, while his attacks are each striking at weak points, resonating deep through its rocky hide…

And then there’s another series of clicks, and Blue yells “Dodge!” on sheer instinct as the golem’s electricity seems to loop back on himself, and his whole body starts to glow with heat…

But as soon as Gon leaps away, electricity arcs through it, and Blue’s gaze snaps to the source of it: a stunfisk lying flat against the ground that had been hiding under another pile of rocks.

Blue quickly summons Maturin as he tries to withdraw Gon too, but the golem is lumbering forward, and one red-hot fist knocks the paralyzed breloom into a spinning fall. “Gon, return! Maturin, bab!” And then he reclips Gon’s ball and whistles on his flute while pointing at the stunfisk.

Blue can only follow what happens next because he initiated half of it. As Gon disappears in a flash of red energy, Maturin spits a bubblebeam at the golem, knocking it into the nearby wall, then the ground, its hide turning white wherever the water splashes. Just a blink later, an arc of electricity hits Maturin, and hasn’t even ended when Zephyr divebombs the stunfisk and begins tearing at it with beak and talons.

A heavy ball is thrown from above, and withdraws the golem. Blue quickly orders another bubblebeam against the stunfisk, hoping to knock it out before it retaliates against Zephyr, but instead the flat fish electrocutes Maturin again, and Zephyr takes some of the shock just from proximity, or from his continued attacks. Blue quickly withdraws both his wartortle and pidgeotto as he realizes this isn’t a fight he needs to win.

“Forfeiting, Oak?” Sabra calls from above.

“Hardly,” he calls back up, reclipping his pokemon to his belt and checking the time. Nine minutes left. “I could keep fighting with both and maybe you’d take one or the other down before it died, but if this were a real battle you’d withdraw it by then, and if it were a real wild battle I’d capture it. Stunfisk can barely move outside of water or mud.”

“So you’re going to just walk by it?”

“Nope,” Blue says, and runs… around the block, to approach from the opposite side of the street. Like he said: stunfisk can barely move on dry land.

Blue quickly reaches the downed civilian and takes a variety of medication out, spraying her with potions and paralyze heals onto her shirt, then sticks an awakening nozzle into her nose. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but she gets the cue and “wakes up” on her own.

“Hi!” he says with a grin and grips her arm to pull her up. “We might want to run. I don’t know what else she has… I mean, might be lurking around here.”

She smiles and follows him at a jog, and once they’re a distance away Blue summons Zephyr again and heals him. “So, quick proposition… help me find other survivors, or I can take you to a safe locati—”

“The blastoise is down,” Lizzy says, sounding giddy. “Took it long enough. We’ve extracted the civilian and are heading back to the bank—”

“No time,” Blue interrupts. “I mean, good work, but also, just keep them with you. Wait, are they hurt?”

“No, they’re walking on their own.”

“Good, because we’re running short on time and need to make a decision between searching the rest of the buildings we haven’t yet, or go back to the galvantula web or voltorbs. No need to defeat them all, just make your way through it and see if anyone’s alive in either.”

“I was thinking about that, Blue,” Lizzy says. “Galvantula don’t spin webs like that unless they know their area is secure. It’s… not likely anyone would be alive in one’s nest.”

Shit. “But not impossible?”

“No, not impossible, if they’re hiding in a closet or something.”

“Well, our other alternative is the voltorb building, and frankly that just seems suicidal,” Chron says. “I vote we try the galvantula webs.” He sighs. “And by ‘we’ I mean you all, of course.”

Taro and Chie agree, and the others stay outside to protect the civilians helping them and keep searching themselves. Blue is approaching the next block when he hears a crackle and Zephyr screeches in pain. Blue’s head snaps up to see his pokemon falling out of the sky, and leaps forward to return it before it hits the ground, then leaps back with a yell as another bolt of electricity suddenly hits the ground nearby.

He follows the path of its afterimage, blinking rapidly, and sees Surge standing on the roof of a nearby building, a raichu beside him.

Blue gapes up at him for a moment, a mix of excitement and worry being mostly suppressed by confusion. With Surge’s pokemon so far away, how is Blue supposed to battle him?

I’m not. This isn’t a challenge to battle… Surge has removed himself as an opponent, maybe predicting the earlier sentiment that Chron shared. It’s a hazard, something he’s supposed to figure out, not bash his way through. Which means…

Blue opens his map and pings his location. “Lizzy, I need you.” Then he looks around before first dragging over a metal garbage bin, then a wide plastic tarp from the back of a truck, then a broad stack of pvc pipe. By the time Lizzy arrives, he’s staring at the truck itself again.

“What’s goin-oh-shit-it’Surge,” Lizzy gasps, hand darting to her pokeball as she stares up at the gym leader. “Blue, it’s Surge! What’s he doing up there?”

“Guarding something, I’m pretty sure,” Blue says. “Do you think we could hotwire this truck?”

Lizzy blinks, then looks at him. “That’s what you need my help with?”

“Well I don’t know how much you know about cars, so maybe not. I was just thinking out loud, like, do you think it would be against the rules? I guess I can ask.” Blue looks up at the gym leader and cups his hands around his mouth. “Hey Leader, is it okay if I borrow this truck?”

Surge shakes his head, but Blue can’t make out his expression. Is he saying no to the question, or refusing to answer? Maybe it’s exasperated acceptance… no, better play it safe. “Sorry, the actual thing I asked you to help with is getting past him. I think this is a challenge, to see—”

“—how well we paid attention during our classes,” Lizzy says with a nod, and Blue blinks. He was going to say ‘how resourceful we are,’ but Lizzy immediately begins examining the things he gathered, then looks around them. “There’s a safe path… I think. The start of one.” She traces something that looks like an inwardly turning maze, but Blue can’t make it out. “I could guide you, but I suspect you would rather cheat.”

Blue grins. “You got me.”

She smiles. “We’ll need more metal. What’s the plastic tubes and tarp for?”

“I figured something non-conductive could be held up for cover?”

Lizzy shakes her head. “Tallest thing is generally going to be struck in a natural environment, no matter what it’s made of. With pokemon to guide things it’s a bit different, but there’s a rule where you can’t repel electricity from something, just conduct it. The reason lightning rods are metal is to avoid too much resistance that would lead to… well.” She points to one of the nearby burned buildings. “That tarp could be used to step on though, to avoid shocks from below, but our feet are already pretty protected by our rubber soles. Maybe bring it for a civilian?”

“Right. I’ll go get more trash bins then,” Blue says, having resisted the urge to tell her now isn’t the time for a science lesson. It takes another precious three minutes for him to bring her what she needs, and soon they’ve got a makeshift lightning rod to move and travel carefully around his building, checking its alleys and side streets.

“Ugh, web is full of spiders!” Taro yells in their ear.

“That’s horrible,” MG responds. “No one could have predicted this.”

“We’ll be back,” Chie says. “Fighting!”

Blue wants to yell for them to just get out and not waste the time, or risk getting wiped out. But they’re out of options, and so he keeps quiet, and hopes they’re okay.

Surge gives them a few token shocks, keeping them hunched over. The civilian is inside the electronic instrument shop (“Surge is hilarious,” Blue pants as he tugs the lightning rod to just outside the door) and he convinces her to leave with them, trying to hurry despite the circumstances.

“We’re out,” Blue says once they’re out of range. “And we found one.” They hurry to clear the rest of the blocks, searching desperately, now, a mix of hope and dread on every face Blue sees. Two more… come on TaroChie, you’ve got it… fire pokemon, rock pokemon… You can do this…!

“Whew! We’re through, and we did indeed find someone in a closet! Coming out now!”

Blue grins, but it’s short lived as the minutes keep twitching inexorably down. Eight. Eight out of nine in twenty five minutes. Five minutes to find one, just one… The thoughts keep racing through Blue’s head as he tries to think of what they might be missing. Are they really expected to go into a building full of voltorb if they don’t know there’s a civilian in there? They obviously wouldn’t make them explode, but…

Blue is clearing the last block before he spots Nellie on the other side open a dumpster lid, peer inside, then close it… and he suddenly freezes in place, eyes wide. One hand rises to his ear piece, and he says, in a voice that surprises him with how calm he sounds, “Did anyone think to check the dumpsters and trash bins?”

There’s silence for a moment, and then…


“Checked if I could hide in one during the chase, but couldn’t fi—Oooh—”

“Why would we—”



“Dammit, seriously?”

“Seriously,” Blue says, and starts running. “Full resweep of the streets, now, and check every closed container you find! Careful of pokemon lurking in some, just run if you find any!”

The task quickly proves to be disgusting, and some of the others do indeed find a couple grimer and a trubbish waiting for them under the lids. But with two minutes left, Blue runs for the area where he fought the rotom. He starts looking through them in such a rush that he almost closes his third dumpster before realizing that what he’s seeing isn’t just a pile of clothes. It helps that it’s screaming.

“Ahh!” The man inside cowers, curled up, then looks up with a smile. “Oh, you’re not a poke—”

Blue drops the lid as his other hand covers his face, sighing. “I found him. Everyone get back to the bank, now!” He opens the lid again and grabs the nonplussed gym member’s hand, pulling him out of the bin and onto the street. “Are you okay? No injuries or anything?”

“Uh, well now that you mention it—”

Blue takes out a pair of potion bottles and sprays all over his clothes. “Now? Anything else?”

The young man cowers back slightly from the look in Blue’s eyes, and swallows, glancing between the two potion bottles. “Um. I think I’m good…”

“Good. Then run, because the next wave is about to hit!”

Blue knows he gave himself almost a minute of grace when he set his alarm, but his heart is still pounding in his throat as they race for the bank, only to face a small horde of pokemon waiting on main street. Surge and Sabra and Aigerim and Otto and two others that Blue doesn’t recognize are standing beside their pokemon, and without pausing Blue grabs the civilian’s arm and pulls him down an alley, opening his mic again. “We’re coming in from behind, Surge and the others are out here!”

“I’m going to collapse the front,” Chron says. “Everyone else get to one of the fire exits and guard it!”

There are seventeen seconds left when Blue spots everyone fanned out in a half circle around the bank’s side entrance, their pokemon out and waiting. Blue can hear the horde coming, now, the gym leadership’s pokemon roaring and howling as they march on the bank, and Blue finds himself grinning wide, suddenly sure that this has been fun for them. He sees similar, celebratory grins on everyone’s faces as, stitch in his side and hand still clamped firm around the last civilian, Blue rushes past them and into the bank.

The others quickly pile in and close the doors, then start to whoop and cheer before Blue raises his hand.

“Not yet,” Blue pants as his alarm goes off. “Everyone in the same room with the civilians, let’s go!”

There’s a banging sound from the front, and Chron is just arriving as they do, looking worried, but with laughter in his eyes. “Man, this bank is probably not going to be happy with what the Leader’s doing to their furniture.”

“In, in,” Chie says to the civilians, pushing them all inside. Then, without a word, the trainers all fan out again, summoning pokemon to stand beside them.

And then they wait, listening to the sound of moving (breaking?) furniture.

And then silence, followed by footsteps, followed by…

Leader Surge, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, and a smile on his face at the sight before him.

“Congratulations,” is all he says, and then everyone cheers.

Mrs. Khatri and Mr. Iha look quietly furious.

Blue sits in Leader Surge’s office. There was a brief ceremony in the street, in front of the drone cameras. His third badge sits next to the other two, and he keeps glancing at it, enjoying the way the light gleams off its yellow surface. He quickly returns his attention to the conversation going on around him each time… the conversation that started within an hour of the match finishing, Surge escorting him away from his teammates and other friends so he could speak with him privately.

Instead of a heart to heart with his Leader, however, Blue had to hold in all his questions once he saw the two league officials back again.

Somehow, caught up in everything as he was, he didn’t even consider that, as he was focusing on his objectives, on the realism the scenario was intended for, that realism was extending to attacks from the pokemon that were actually hitting him and his teammates. Hearing the two yell about it did reframe those moments with a bit more seriousness, somehow.

“Well?” Surge asks Blue, brow raised. “Would you care to make a formal renegade accusation?”

“Of course he’ll say no,” Mr. Iha says just as Blue opens his mouth to.

“Don’t be overdramatic, Leader,” Mrs. Khatri sighs. “That’s not our goal here, and you know it. This isn’t what we talked about when we condoned these scenarios.”

“All I know is that you are asserting that my gym members were at risk during their challenge match,” Surge says, hands laced over his desk and tone cold. “Let’s let the trainer speak this time, shall we? Blue, what are your thoughts?”

Blue waits half a minute, forming his words, then simply says, “It was great.” He keeps his expression calm as he turns to the two League representatives, as if all this is completely unimportant and obvious. “I knew how far I was from the opponent pokemon at all times, and I trusted the gym members and Leader to not do anything that would endanger me. We’ve all trained and learned well, whether it was studying safest trainer distances from enemies, or the distance over the ground that electricity can travel.”

“I’m willing to believe you both,” Mrs. Khatri says. “But consider the optics. The whole region, maybe the whole world, saw trainers being knocked off their feet by blastoise water cannons, and being nearly frozen solid.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I understand,” she repeats, gaze on his. “But imagine how it will play to others. How some will react against it, and others will adopt a new, laxer standard. When do you suspect the first death will take place?”

Blue grits his teeth, waiting for Surge to answer, then realizes it was asked of him. “Trainers occasionally get hurt during battles, real or not.” He shrugs. “We may be limiting ourselves.”

“Trainers get hurt, by accident,” Mr. Iha says. “Some attacks have wide range, sometimes pokemon miss or trainers don’t pay attention to where they’re positioned. But pokemon should never attack if a human is too likely to be caught in the radius.”

Surge snorts. “That was a foolish regulation when you tried to pass it, and I won’t pretend it has moral weight on its own. A pokemon that can’t follow an explicit order, even if it risks harm to a human, is a pokemon that can’t handle a wide range of real situations where it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the human is already dead. Or they’re being eaten alive, right in front of you, and the only way to save them risks hurting them too.” Surge’s face is like stone as he stares down the angry league official until he looks away. Once he does, Surge turns to Mrs. Khatri, who seems less inclined to get into a staring match.

“You’ve made your point,” she says, her own anger more under control. “And as I said, it doesn’t matter. The pokemon will still need to be turned over for examination, and the incident investigated and discussed before any further scenarios are constructed.”


Everyone ignores Blue’s outrage as Surge unclips three balls from his belt and hands them over, which distracts him anyway. He almost expresses his surprise that Surge was the rotom’s trainer, then clamps his mouth shut. The Leader was clearly prepared for this meeting, and Blue isn’t going to risk throwing a wrench in things without thinking. They have the drone footage, anyway, which would either clear the Leader or wouldn’t.

“The scenarios will continue,” Surge asserts, not leaving room for them to argue. “But we will restrain ourselves to simple, static battles until your investigation officially recognizes that we’re not being negligent with our trainers.”

Blue wants to yell that that’s pointless, that Glen and Elaine and the others wouldn’t get a real challenge that way, wouldn’t get to really experience what they did, what they all worked for… But again he grinds his teeth together, and waits until the two representatives leave.

As soon as they do, some of his anger burns itself out, the arcanine prowling in his chest without a clear source to unleash his anger on. This was supposed to be a day of triumph, but somehow all he can think of is that they may have lost something precious before it even really got a chance to begin and grow.

“Well, ” Surge says after a moment as he pulls a small flask from his desk, unscrews, and drinks from it. “Now that’s out of the way… what did you think?”

Blue looks at his Leader to see he’s smiling. After a moment, Blue smiles back.

“It was great. Amazing. I have a lot of questions.”

Surge nods. “I have some time to spare.”

“The rotom… I never saw their trainer, until the end maybe. Psychic?”

“Ah, yes. Two of the staff members were not from our Gym. A loan of sorts, especially requested. It made for a useful added range of challenge.”

Blue nods. “How realistic did you actually want it to be? I feel like we cheated, at times, but…”

Surge shakes his head. “You can’t cheat if you follow the rules. And if anyone’s at fault for the rules-as-written, it’s me. As for how realistic… I think you’ve guessed. As much as possible, given constraints.”

Given constraints. Surge and his people selected that too, for the most part, but there was an unforced expectation that the pokemon would follow “wild” guidelines despite being explicitly trainer-guided… Blue almost mentions how that can change the lens of the exercise, but his new revelation is more well rounded, now.

“You’re not just using these scenarios to train us for Tier incidents,” he says, voice quiet.

Surge raises a brow at him, then takes another drink before capping it and putting it in his desk. “What makes you say that?”

“You wouldn’t have let pokemon use moves they could only learn from TMs if you were, even if it would provide us the best challenge.” The Leader watches him expectantly a moment, and Blue presses on. “You’re preparing us for renegades. Sabotage. Why? Is it just in case, or… is something happening?”

But even as he asks, Blue realizes he’s got it wrong. The Leader’s face shows genuine confusion, for a moment, and then he smiles again, the sheepish tones to it looking strange on the Leader’s face.

“I forgot. You faced exactly that situation on Mount Moon, of course that’s what you would think of first.” His smile fades. “I’m sorry if it brought back any memories, in the moment, that wasn’t my intention. Too many other things to consider, something was bound to slip through the cracks.”

Blue waves a hand to the side. “No, it’s fine… But then, I don’t understand. What were you going for?”

The Leader shrugs. “You’ve got at least one more match to figure it out. Let me know if you do. Maybe you’ll decide to stay after all.” He smiles. “I would be happy to have you, if so.”

Blue grins at the compliment, brief but sincere. “I can’t promise I’ll stay. But I can say I’ll be back… one day as Champion.”

Chapter 72: Gaze Forward

No matter how many times they do this, it still feels real.

The sound of overlapping commands, the cries of pokemon attacking and being attacked, the explosive noise of pokeballs opening to send out new combatants… it all blends together to send a thrill through Blue’s body, quickening his pulse despite the cool lens of his battle calm that helps him observe the ebb and flow of the battle.

It doesn’t have the life or death edge to it that actual incidents in the wild would, but Blue still feels every loss on his team keenly, still feels compelled to win at all costs… which, as part of the attacking team, means striking at the pokedolls their opponents are clustered around.

The six defenders are doing a good job of not just keeping their ring secure so no stray attacks go through, but defeating the attackers efficiently, swapping places with quick, coordinated movements to ensure that each trainer is using the best counter available to one the attacking trainers are using no matter where in the circle they are. Case in point, as soon as Blue’s opponent sees his wartortle come out, he quickly shuffles two spaces to the right and sends his sandslash to help a teammate as his own position is taken by another trainer with a lombre.

Blue smothers a curse and orders an Ice Beam, knowing that the Grass/Water type would be able to take more of them than Maturin would its retaliating Grass attacks. If this were a normal match it would be easy to just swap himself, either to a different one of his own pokemon or with one of his teammates… but it’s far from that.

The battle is meant to mimic the attrition actual defenders face in Tier 2 or 3 incidents (while still maintaining even teams so neither is overwhelmed), and Glen’s solution was to give his own team only three pokemon each to the attackers’ full six. To balance that Blue suggested attackers not be able to coordinate with each other or swap their pokemon unless they were about to faint, just as if they were real wild pokemon on a rampage…

With one exception.

Glen agreed to the exception without knowing what it was, and just before the match Blue told his team to bring at least one flying or ground pokemon, then save them for last.

As Maturin desperately tries to avoid the green glow of the lombre’s Absorb, Blue raises her ball with one hand and his whistle to his lips with the other before blowing a single long, sharp, unwavering note.

Both defenders and attackers pause for a heartbeat, and then six red beams connect with six pokemon. Blue reclips Maturin and grabs another ball, movements matching his teammates so that all six new pokemon appear almost simultaneously.

The defensive team has only a moment to recognize that they’re now facing a mix of exclusively flying and ground pokemon, and then Glen is yelling out his own counter order to coordinate their response. Blue can’t hear it over his next whistled command to Zephyr, but the defensive pokemon are quickly swapped out for Water and Ice types.

The attackers are already acting, however, and their pokemon start kicking up dirt, multiple sand attacks creating a haze that the defenders struggle to aim through. Beams of frost-forming light pierce the localized sandstorm until one nails a fearow, which is withdrawn before it hits the ground and replaced with a diglett that immediately begins adding to the mass sand attack. It helps that all the types strong against either Flying or Ground attacks are weak to Ground or Flying ones respectively, and that the only type that can hit back against both hard, Ice, is fairly rare… their opponents only have two, though most water pokemon are taught at least one as well.

Blue wipes sweat from above one eye, gaze jumping constantly to spot any early sign of change in the defenders’ strategy. This is the critical moment of the battle, and they would either win or lose by how well the defenders can deal with the sudden shift.

It takes nearly twenty seconds before a wave of water suddenly gushes out to the side of the cloud, instantly clearing all the sand and dirt coming in from a third of the circle of attackers. Twin beams of light spear out and hit a sandshrew and pidgeotto, and the lack of renewed sand and dirt coming from those directions gives the defenders an opening.

Blue has to suppress the urge to shout out a command to the others, judging this to be outside the limits of the allowed offensive coordination. Three of his trainers still move on their own to try and cover the breach, but not the ones on the far side who can’t see it, and what looks like the full might of the defenders start pushing through the opening to quickly overwhelm them.

Blue doesn’t go to try and fight them; the only chance the offense has now is that the defense will leave one side exposed, and they can swoop in for a quick hit on one of the pokedolls. He blows another command to Zephyr instead, and his pidgeotto follows him around to the other side, away from the defenders that have breached the sandstorm.

The two remaining attackers on the “back side” have realized something is wrong when Blue and Zephyr join them, but there’s no time for them to figure out what; one more sharp whistle followed by two brief notes, and Zephyr sends a whirlwind over the field strong enough to clear all the remaining sand…

…only to reveal Glen’s snorlax, his trainer standing by Blue’s goal, ready to defend it. His hair and skin are covered in sand and dirt, but he quickly wipes his facemask clean, and Blue can see his smile as he sees what’s waiting for him.

Blue grins back, then attacks with his teammates in one last desperate bid to overwhelm the snorlax before Glen’s allies come.

As soon as the battle ends, Blue’s calm leaves him. He feels it trickling away, wishing it would stay just a little while longer… at least until he finishes dealing with the media.

Even as unofficial training exercises, the group battles would probably have gathered some interest on their own; outside the Rangers’ practice incidents, it’s rare for so many trainers to battle together at once, and the spectacle of it would probably have drawn crowds no matter what, even this far outside the city. But thanks to both Blue’s own fame and the widely broadcast genesis of the new format, by their third practice battle the media had been ready and waiting at the end, and by the fifth they were there at the start, recording everything.

On the one hand there’s an obvious benefit to having so much added screen time and prestige surrounding his pet project. What he’s doing could revolutionize the way gyms operate the world over, and it’s good not just to have the matches recorded for posterity, but also to normalize the idea as early as possible. The more time he spends answering questions and talking about his vision, the better… and the interviewers seem happy to let him go on until his throat gets sore.

On the other hand, each post-battle interview takes time away from him and his trainers. Even during their smaller private battles, Blue enjoyed spending time after each match he participated in or observed going over what happened, doling out feedback both teasing and serious, reviewing strategies and tactics from every angle. It helped improve bonds between the trainers, and gave him a wider understanding of how other trainers think about battles.

The first few group battles ended the same way, the trainers unwinding together as they talked and teased and laughed about the match, all while establishing strong feedback norms both within and between the battling teams. Blue started the very first battle debrief with Aiko’s ritual, and it became a staple of each, no less bittersweet no matter how many times he went through it.

Having that all recorded is probably good too, but it also feels like an intrusion, and tonight is worse than ever; the two teams are practically mobbed as soon as the last pokemon is withdrawn, and Blue has to jog over to intercept the reporters as they hesitate at the circular dip in the ground where all the dirt was kicked up. Once their attention is drawn to him they start fanning out and focusing their cameras and extending microphones.

“How did that battle go, Blue?”

“Are you disappointed your side lost?”

“What inspired this battle’s setup?”

It’s times like this Blue misses Leaf most. He raises his hands to quiet them, trying to think of how he can diplomatically ask them to back off. If he just asks them for privacy it would just make some of them that much more curious as to what they talk about…

And then his watch chimes with an incoming message. He taps its screen to read it, and his pulse, which had just finished slowing from the end of the match, kicks back into high gear as hope surges through him. He turns to the media with an apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry, I know you’ve come all this way in the hopes of another interview, but I’ve just been summoned by Leader Surge. If you’re willing to wait, you can meet me outside the gym in a couple hours, and I’ll likely have more to talk about than I do now.”

“What’s the meeting about, Blue?”

“Was this scheduled, or did you just get the invitation?”

He holds both hands up again to quiet them. “It was just sent, and I imagine it has something to do with the footage you all have been broadcasting; maybe he wants to criticize my performance in person, so thanks for that.” He’s smiling as he says it, and the crowd chuckles. “I don’t know for sure what we’ll talk about of course, but I hope it has some relevance to these exercises, and am happy to discuss it more later.”

The news folk seem reluctantly satisfied with that, and once Blue turns away from the few remaining shouted questions he feels relief when even those quickly stop and everyone mobilizes to change venue.

“Nice to have some privacy,” Glen murmurs as Blue returns to the trainers. “There really a meeting with Surge?”

“Yep,” Blue says as the others gather around, and smiles. “But it’s not for an hour.”

The group laughs, and Blue turns to them. Twelve trainers in total, seven boys and five girls, badges ranging from four at the top end to zero at the lowest, ages twelve to sixteen. Not the best he’s trained or fought with, but the best that would make this commitment with him, that would trust him… and all of them faced Zapdos’s attack. Blue’s spent over a month training intensely with them all while simultaneously working to develop these mock-incident battles, and if Surge’s invitation is really about adopting the scenarios officially, maybe it’ll finally have paid off.

“That said, we’ll still have to cut this short for me to get there on time, so let’s go straight into it,” Blue says to the expectant ring of faces. It makes him sad to skip the ritual, and for a moment the old bitterness at being Dark flares up before he pushes it away again by reminding himself of the advantages. “Good job to the defense. The improvised Surf wave was inspired, and I think it would work just as well against wild pokemon. Whose idea was it?”

Glen, along with the rest of his team, look at Lizzy and Chron, who glance at each other then raise their hands with sheepishly proud smiles. Blue smiles back and nods at them. “Next match the two of you are going to be on opposite teams. Who wants to swap with one of them?”

“I will,” Elaine says, brushing some hair out of her face and tying it back with the rest of her bun. The auburn curls have gotten long enough to reach her shoulders now, and no matter how tight she ties it some strands keep managing to escape.

“Why?” Blue asks, curious rather than challenging.

“We’ll be status heavy if he comes, and have too many sweepers if she does. Those are my specialties.” She smiles slightly. “Plus, it would be nice to win a match once in a while.”

There are a round of “ooo”s mixed with scattered laughter, Blue’s among it. It’s true that his team has been losing lately, mostly because he suspects Glen is just a better strategist than him. The gap is closing though, and Blue nods. “Good luck with that. If we win the next one, we’ll know who the dead weight was.”

The group’s reaction is even stronger this time, and Elaine grins wide as she flicks her hair back and puts a hand on her hip. “It’s a poor trainer that blames their ‘mon instead of themselves.”

Blue winces as everyone laughs again at his own words thrown back at him. A response comes to mind, but he’d rather end things on a self-deprecating note, and it’s good to see Elaine engage in banter like this.

The storm changed all of them in some way, but Elaine more than others. Aiko’s death seemed to take something out of the girl’s bright-eyed enthusiasm, replaced it with a quieter self-confidence that led, among other things, to her being willing to speak against her friends far more often. There’s still some of the old Elaine left, however, particularly when it’s just her, Glen, and Blue.

He still remembers the kiss she gave him before they split up, rain falling around them and buildings burning above. The memory makes him uncomfortable, and thankfully she hasn’t brought it up or done anything like it since.

“On your own head be it,” he says with mock-severity, then turns to the group again. “So, what did we learn from that match?”

“Flying and Ground combo is bullshit,” someone mutters to another round of laughter.

“You guys countered it well enough,” Taro says, and others on Blue’s team nod. “Oh, I also learned to keep moving when sight is limited.”

“Dangerous in a real fight,” his sister disagrees. “Might get hit without pokemon between you and the enemy.”

“Not to be done lightly, then,” Blue says, as he turns the topic over in his thoughts. “Should we be practicing a move like that in training, if it’s too dangerous to use outside of it?”

The group is silent a moment before another of Blue’s team speaks up. “The team that’s imitating wild pokemon should.” MG is a year older than Blue, but her clothes make her look younger; long sleeves that nearly cover her hands, a wide black hat that covers her hair, and generally enough layers of dark cloth to make her seem like she’s wearing an outfit that’s too big for her. At first he thought she might have a skin condition that makes her avoid sunlight, and he still hasn’t ruled it out, but when he asked her about it she insisted that she just likes layers. “Though it might not be that easy. Nyx and Vortumna would probably try to stay with me if I tried to go in another direction from them.”

“You might want to train that out of them,” Blue says, thinking of the way her murkrow and eevee can fight so well as a team. “If you ever need them to stay in one place while you do something elsewhere…”

She shakes her head. “I can use other pokemon for that. I’d rather their default be to stay with me.”

Blue nods, letting the topic go. When she first started showing up to practice battles he thought she was too shy to be part of the core group he was forming, even worse than Elaine used to be for speaking up for herself. But while she is shy most of the time, she often switches to confident and assertive when it comes to discussing her pokemon or battling, and she’s definitely smart enough to deserve her spot.

All of his trainers are. He’s proud of both teams, and while a steady, stubborn, stupid part of him misses what used to be, he’s had time to grieve, and move on. These days he keeps his gaze steady on the present and future.

“True, and most scenarios are a bit defense-favored anyway,” Glen adds to something Blue missed while woolgathering.

“Including this one?” Blue asks with a smile, which starts an argument about whether it’s true or not. The discussion stays largely positive, given Glen was leading the defense when he made the comment, and after a minute Blue decides to leave them to it, and summons his bike after a round of goodbyes. He’s already wearing his pads; it’s part of his standard trainer gear now, ever since he had to throw himself to the side to avoid a boulder that flew past his pokemon.

When Blue arrives at the gym, the media is already set up outside. He’s surprised to see the crowd has grown; most reporters wouldn’t let their rivals in on a new story like this. When he gets close enough to make out specifics, however, the reason is obvious, and he feels foolish for thinking the world revolves around him.

Leader Surge is a head taller than the tallest reporter, and imposingly built, with shoulders so broad that Blue often feels like he should have trouble going through doors. His strong, commanding voice is distinct even when speaking at a normal pitch, and as Blue approaches the secondary crowd of civilians gathered around the reporters he can finally make out some of what’s going on.

“…very closely with the mayor to integrate new plans into reconstruction. Pewter, Celadon, Saffron, and Fuchsia have already reached out to adopt some of the defensive measures into their city design, but there’s a lot more we could do if we really pushed for it.”

“Are you talking about walls?” a reporter asks as Blue stops at the edge of the crowd to listen.

“No, the mayor and I agree that any form of restriction on movement could be as much a liability as a benefit, especially in the event that a full evacuation is necessary. But what I hope to see in Vermilion are automated shutters for every window and door that can be deployed city-wide within minutes, smaller bunkers built into basements beneath every residence, and those buildings most affected,” he says as he points to the burnt husks being torn down in the distance, “Will be rebuilt with state-of-the-art fireproofing. The mayor and I both share a lifelong commitment to a common purpose: to make Vermilion City the safest in the world.”

The crowd around the reporters break into applause and cheers, and Blue claps along with them as the media starts shouting more questions that Surge gives some unheard response to before he turns to the gate. Blue starts squeezing through the crowd to follow him, waving at the few reporters that spot him and switch to shouting questions at him instead until he’s through the gym entrance and jogging up behind his Leader.

The tall blond turns and smiles as he sees Blue approach. “You’re a bit early. Did you hear about the press release?”

“No Sir, came straight from group debrief.”

“Good man. Head to my office, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Blue nods and breaks off toward the elevator. Vermilion Gym’s non-training rooms are as utilitarian as it comes, and the first time he was summoned to it he expected Surge’s office to be no different. Instead he found himself in a room that looks less like a simple meeting and administrative space, and more like a Ranger HQ coordination room. There’s a desk in the corner with a computer and some filing cabinets, but most of the floorspace is dominated by a round holotable ringed with chairs.

When he enters it now, he finds the gym’s Second and Third present and watching a static holograph of the city, its buildings and streets highlighted in various colors.

“Hello, Blue,” Sabra says in her customary low drawl as she manipulates the hologram to rotate it. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You’re not avoiding me to get out of training assignments, are you?”

Blue straightens his shoulders and bows his head and neck. “I’m sorry, Second, of course not. I’ve just been busy with—”

“I know. Hard to miss when it’s all over the news.” She jerks her head to a monitor on the wall, which shows some reporter still talking outside the gym. Her lips quirk as her half-lidded eyes turn to his. “I’m partially teasing you, but also reminding you that your gym duties don’t end because of special assignments. Message me your availability for the week by tomorrow morning.”

Blue bows again, this time including his upper torso. “Yes ma’am.” Blue interacted with Sabra a handful of times outside of classes, back when she was the Third. After the storm she stopped teaching as many once the new Third, Aigerim, took over for most of her duties. Blue hasn’t spent quite all of his time with his own group since joining the gym, and has gotten to know other members fairly well over the past two months, but Sabra is an exception who feels more a stranger now than less.

Aigerim is a near total mystery. He fought her during his challenge matches, but she didn’t speak beyond what was necessary, and like Sabra he hasn’t interacted with her since joining up. He remembers hearing that she’s not a particularly strong trainer, but more focused on other things; she was apparently studying city planning and infrastructure before either Surge convinced her to join his gym, or she became motivated to study pokemon battles.

That knowledge keeps Blue from being surprised when she suddenly turns to him. “Maybe he’ll see it,” Aigerim taps the edge of the table with her knuckles. “We’re considering where a new hospital should go to replace the one destroyed in the attack. Any suggestions?”

Blue steps forward slowly, eyes on the holographic model, and after just a moment he recognizes the area they’re focused on. He’s not likely to forget the part of the city where Aiko died.

“What’s wrong with the original location?” he asks, and is pleased to hear that his voice sounds casual despite the sudden dryness in his throat, the tightness in his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sabra watching him, but he dismisses the thoughts associated with that and just focuses on Aigerim.

“That should be part of your answer,” she says, rotating the map and zooming in to the hospital campus. “Unless that is your answer.”

“No,” Blue says, and swallows. “Zoom back out?”

She does so, and Blue tries to focus past the upsurge of confusion and pain, frustration and anger, grief and betrayal. The hospitals are highlighted a certain color, and he can see a spot that’s more central between the other hospitals around the one that had collapsed (with Aiko inside it (and Red out)).

“There, maybe?” Blue points, almost feeling like he’s just reacting at random rather than spend more time thinking about it. But no, it’s the clear spot that’s closest to the middle of all the hospitals around it…

Aigerim tsks, and turns the holo back in another direction. “With all these open streets to the east and north… no thank you. We want to avoid it being overrun. Let them build a shopping mall there or something.”

Sabra snorts, and Blue focuses a bit more now that he knows what the criteria they’re looking for are. He reconsiders the hospital plaza and realizes the issue… “The foundation is probably not as sound as it used to be. You want a place between these hospitals where the ground is still secure, the sight-lines are good without being open to rampage, and that means… here?” He points.

Aigerim smiles and zooms the map back out. “See? He sees it.”

Sabra shakes her head. “Wasn’t disagreeing with you, Aig. S’politics, that’s all… they’ll never let it be built there.”

“People don’t want a hospital nearby?” Blue asks, confused enough that the other feelings aren’t as distracting. “Why?”

“Not the people living there, the people living elsewhere. New hospital means new need for stores, offices, apartments… huge boost to the local land value. Incidents like this are always an opportunity for some to make more money, and Surge is trying to get the mayor to cut into all the dickering, but with an election coming—”

She’s interrupted by the door opening to reveal Leader Surge, and… Blue searches his memory for where he knows the face of the second man from, then finds it by imagining him as a talking head. Hiro Iha is one of the top Indigo League administrators, most recently famous for pushing back against the idea of limiting pokemon attacks in league matches, particularly those without spectators.

Hope rises in Blue. If they’re here to talk about the gym’s official adoption of scenario battles, having a league official that seems generally in favor of realism seems promising…

And then a second one walks in, and Blue recognizes her immediately. Yuna Khatri’s first act after joining the regulatory body was to do a full inspection of each gym’s trainer strength evaluation systems, which led to her pushing for more transparency and equality between gyms in both Kanto and Johto. She got the regional spotlight again last year when she officially censured Leader Giovanni for how much time he spends away from his gym.

It’s harder to predict what her reaction to his proposal of group challenge matches would have been, but she strikes him as someone interested in conformity between the gyms. He suddenly wishes he had more time to prepare for this, or at least thought of league judgement as a possibility so he could prepare for it. In retrospect, he just assumed that if Surge wanted it to happen, it would.

Sabra turns the holo off as Leader Surge moves to the head of the table. “Thank you for coming, everyone. This is Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri from the league council, and they’ll be joining our discussion.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Blue says, smiling and bowing to the league officials before he sits. “I’ve followed your actions on the council with great interest.”

“Oh?” Mr. Iha asks after inclining his head back as he pulls out his own chair and lowers himself onto it. “What in particular?”

Blue expected some skepticism, and is glad to have at least one specific thing to cite. “Most recently, the arguments you made for retaining severe poisons in not just Elite matches, but also gym battles, showed a level of trust in trainer discretion that I appreciate. I would love to talk to you more about it later.”

Mr. Iha raises a brow, but nods with a slight smile. “Perhaps we can, another night; we have other obligations after this one.”

“That would be great.” Blue turns to mention something of Mrs. Khatri’s too, but Surge starts speaking, and he sits.

“We’re here to talk about your scenarios, and whether they’re a justified method of delivering badges. Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri are here to advise me on the decision.”

“Advising you, Sir?” Sabra asks, irreverence so subtle that Blue almost misses the emphasis on the second word. Blue can understand the sentiment, even if her attitude (in front of non-gym members, no less) is as surprising as ever; the only Leader that Blue can think of who might care less what others think of how he runs his gym is Giovanni (and maybe Blaine, but he doesn’t really count).

Surge gives her a look. “My decision will be made based on what I believe is best for our city and gym, and the trainers who come to us, as always. But I still value their wider perspective and any insights and recommendations they may have, and thus ask you all to do your best to answer their questions. Now, given our guests’ time constraints, I think we should cut to the chase and—”

“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” Blue says. “But I’d like to note that Glen should be here too. He’s been working as hard as I have on these scenarios, and he deserves recognition for it as well.”

Surge’s brow furrows, but he nods. “Consider it noted. I would ask for him to join us, but…” He turns to Mr. Iha, who is checking his watch with a mild frown.

“He has an abra set for the gym,” Blue presses. “It wouldn’t take more than maybe five minutes for him to arrive.”

“Are you requesting his presence for his sake?” Mrs. Khatri asks, gaze meeting Blue’s. “Or does he have knowledge you lack?”

Blue feels his neck flush, and struggles to keep his expression passive and pleasant as he tries to think of a way to avoid sounding ignorant while still getting Glen here. “I can answer any questions you might have, but Glen suggested many of the ideas and was part of the planning. I thought having him here to explain his own thoughts, or his side of any disagreements, might give the fullest picture.”

Mr. Iha is the one that responds with a shake of his head. “Such information sounds more relevant to how the gym may decide to adopt and implement these scenarios, and not our interests at this time. We shall make do with what we have.”

“Will it satisfy you if he’s invited to future meetings on this topic, and I commend him when I next see him?” Surge asks Blue.

Future meetings is rather encouraging, though Blue would have preferred the extra support of having Glen in the room. Still, he can accept the bone Surge is throwing him. “Yes, Sir.”

“Good. On to the scenarios themselves, then.” Surge leans back in his chair and opens a palm to the League officials.

Mr. Iha is the first to speak. “We all watched the battle that the media broadcast tonight, but some elements to the scenario, or previous ones, are not made clear by observation. What were the rules and balance priorities?”

Blue settles back in his own chair and runs over his thoughts once again. This part he’s long been prepared for. “I think some context is necessary. Our first step when we started this over a month ago was to form teams by average experience and skill, followed by consideration of their available pokemon, since pokemon are the most variable; if we need to tweak a team into better balance, making them use some of their weaker or stronger pokemon is an easy way to adjust things. Before even working on any scenarios, we spent a few days doing practice battles, first in twos, then threes, then fours, and so on, to ensure we had a good understanding of each trainer’s capabilities and their synergy in working together.”

“Can you explain what you mean by synergy?” Aigerim asks. Blue hadn’t expected a question from anyone besides the league officials, let alone her, but neither seems to object to it.

“Sure. Most trainers, no matter how good, have certain things they’re particularly skilled at.” Blue thinks of Elaine’s comparison to game characters, but decides not to bring up that frame. “For some it’s their battle command system, for others it’s their moment to moment tactics and reaction time, for others it’s their overall strategy, or their ability to adapt to the unpredictable, or how well trained their pokemon are, or a dozen other things. Get someone with good tactics and another with good strategy together, and they can pull off some great things. Two trainers who are really unpredictable could get in each other’s way, and often do, but if they’re matched with others who think along the same lines their improvisation looks almost coordinated.” Blue shrugs. “It’s hard to tell ahead of time, but you can really see it when you watch people battle together often enough.”

Aigerim nods without following up with any more questions. He wonders if she was genuinely curious about what he meant, or just checking to see if his experience and perception of it matched hers.

“Is that also when you started setting different rules for both sides, or did that come after?” Mr. Iha asks, getting things back on track.

“After,” Blue says. “At first we tried keeping things as even as possible on both sides, but they just felt like six on six battles where the objective didn’t really matter until most of the trainers were out of pokemon anyway. Glen also brought up the idea of making the battles more reflective of actual incidents by changing how much coordination the team representing the wild pokemon in the scenario are allowed, which we tried and found really fun—”

“Fun?” Mrs. Khatri interrupts, brow raised. “Was that an important metric in your design philosophy?”

Blue frowns for just a moment before clearing his expression. He was waiting for her to speak out, he’s more frustrated with himself for his choice of words. “I didn’t mean it was just fun. It added another layer to the planning and fighting that we weren’t used to, helped us grow stronger.”

“Restrictions often force people to become creative,” Sabra asserts with a nod. “But wouldn’t this also restrict the ability of both teams to work together? Even swapping positions, only one team would ever get the full benefit of the exercise.”

Blue shrugs. “Even if we assume only one side is having some interesting restriction, which I don’t think was true in today’s scenario for example, in the end it’s a tradeoff. We decided that making the scenarios more realistic is way more valuable than just deciding who the best combination of six trainers are. It’s not like we’re preparing to hunt teams of renegades or something.”

Surge seems to have something to say to that, but restrains himself as Mr. Iha says, “Let’s speak more about today’s match. What do you think could have improved it?”

Blue’s mind races as he tries one last time to find something. He expected a question like this, and spent most of the trip here trying to figure out what he could say.

The problem is he can’t think of anything. Unlike the first few engagements, the setup seems to reflect a realistic incident, or part of one. The teams, and more importantly the rules applied to both, seemed balanced enough that either side could reasonably have won, though it would take a few more tests to make sure.

Damn it, why couldn’t Surge have done this after one of the other matches, when he could have listed specific mistakes and described how he planned to correct them? Instead he’s going to end up sounding overconfident…

But no, there’s also a value in trusting his own assessment and standing firmly behind it. Surge may have spotted things he would change out of preference, or different priorities than what Blue has been considering. The only thing to do is show his trust in the work they’ve done.

“I think it was solid,” Blue says at last. “More features could be added, though we’ll run it another time or two to make sure of what we’ve got so far. But at its core… I know this sounds self-serving, but I would respect anyone who was able to win a badge from this kind of match if it were held against Leader Surge and his own team of trainers.”

Sabra smiles as Surge raises a brow, but Mr. Iha is frowning. “I believe we’ve reached a point of disagreement. Each individual, you say, including trainers who just fought what was essentially a normal trainer battle? Perhaps the defenders would deserve a badge, as they had to make do with half as many pokemon, but if the offense won, you would award a badge to someone that had such an advantage?”

“I would,” Blue says, trying to keep his tone mild despite the anger stirring in his chest. “Because clearly it wasn’t as big an advantage as you’re implying. Or do you think my trainers were just that incompetent?”

Woops. That last word was a bit transparent. He keeps his gaze on Mr. Iha as he sees Surge steeple his hands under his chin in his periphery. The league official’s lips thin, and Blue tries to think of a politically safe response if he actually says yes.

Sabra saves him by speaking up. “We haven’t decided yet how we might run these scenarios; we may always take the role of the ‘attackers,’ for example. And remember that even the attackers in this battle had opponents that were able to swap pokemon while they were not, until the end.”

“My point was not that they are not capable,” Mr. Iha says, which is probably the closest thing to an apology that Blue will get. “The true issue is whether that capability is demonstrated through the matches. As you say, the attackers were unable to change their pokemon, but that is exactly the sort of skill that is crucial for a trainer.”

“Yeah, it is,” Blue concedes. “But there are seven other badges that trainers can use to demonstrate that particular skill in. This was one potential scenario for one badge. I don’t think the league is lowering its bar by having it focus on other skills.”

“One badge, for now,” Mrs. Khatri says, turning everyone’s attention to her. “But our job entails taking the wider view, and the longer one. If other gyms decide to implement similar systems, perhaps that would not be so bad. But say the second or third such breaks from tradition are each a little broader than this one, and the fourth gym decides to hand badges out by, say, acts of extreme service to the community, or non-battle training skill, or the fulfillment of the leader’s personally prized virtue. Commendable as those things may be, they are not what the pokemon leagues are designed for. Indigo is one of the most well respected in the world, our champions recognized across the globe for their battle skills. Disagreements about what makes someone worthy of a badge can very well make it harder to avoid conflict between gyms, or between gyms and the league, or between our league and foreign ones.”

The room is quiet for a moment. This was not one of the ideas Blue had prepared for. At worst he imagined facing arguments for tradition for its own sake… and the problem is he actually agrees with her, to an extent. He doesn’t want badges to become seen as meaningless, and he particularly doesn’t want the Indigo League to lose prestige… especially considering he plans to be leading it as soon as he can.

The silence builds, and Blue realizes he has to say something… and if he can’t rely on preparation, he has to at least speak from his heart. “I wish I could dismiss your concerns, but unfortunately I think you’re right to have them. My only response is that I trust our region, from the trainers to the leaders to the league officials such as yourselves, to ensure that doesn’t happen… and in the meantime, we should act to improve where and when we can, even if it requires fundamental change. I think these scenarios make my peers and myself better trainers, and I think this gym will better serve its trainers and its city by officially adopting them.” He sees Mr. Iha about to speak, and predicts the response. “For awarding gym badges, in particular. Training people with them is good, but it’s not enough. As long as the Mastery Challenge is a one-on-one standard trainer match, that’s what most who come here will focus on.”

“Well said,” Surge puts in, speaking for the first time since the beginning. He turns to the two league officials. “I understand your concerns, and appreciate your time in discussing this with us. You can rest assured that I do not intend to have my gym’s prestige deteriorate by any means.”

Mr. Iha looks like he wants to say something to that, then checks his watch. Mrs. Khatri gets to her feet and bows her head, and after a moment he does the same, followed by the rest of them. “Thank you for the discussion, everyone. Leader, please keep us abreast of any decisions you make on this.”

“I will.” Surge waits until they leave, then turns to Blue as he sits back down, prompting the others to take their seats again too. “Well… that didn’t go so badly.”

Blue smiles, both in relief and at the idea of Surge worrying about that too. “Seems more true now that you said it than a moment ago. Were you worried I wouldn’t be able to explain things, or that they would be more resistant?”

“Some of both,” Sabra says. “And you kept your temper better than I expected.” Aigerim nods.

He blinks. “Was that something you were worried about?”

“A little. Heard you could be hot headed, when someone gave you cause to be.”

“That’s…” He catches himself as he notices the trap, and the way he feels heat moving through him again. Where did she hear that? Not from his trainers, surely?

Maybe from people who were at the hospital that day.

The anger rises further, mixed with a confusing and painful mess of emotions, and he takes a moment to push them down. It doesn’t have to have been the hospital. Maybe they heard about what happened with the rangers leading the absol hunt. Or one of a dozen other times he got pissed at someone in public. “…probably fair,” he admits, though part of him (a big, four legged, fire breathing part) continues to insist otherwise. “I’m working on it.”

“Evidently,” Surge says, fingers tapping the table as he studies Blue. “If we are to try this experiment, and you end up getting your badge, would you leave the gym to pursue your journey?”

Blue is quiet a moment, not because he needs the time to consider his response; it’s one of the questions he predicted he would be asked weeks ago, and has already searched both his feelings on the issue and what he imagines the Leader would want to hear most so he could give a response that best satisfies both. He hesitates before answering, however, because he knows that responding too quickly would make his answer seem less credible and thought out. Or maybe it would make it seem more earnest and true, but if Surge is worried about him outright lying then he has bigger concerns.

“I would make sure all my people get theirs too,” Blue says. “Not just those that will be continuing their journey with me, but also the ones that I’ve trained with, whether they want to stay or not, and whether the format lets us earn them six at a time, or by groups of four, or three, or whatever. And then, once everyone has made it through, yes, I would continue my ambition of challenging the rest of the league.”

“I see. Regrettable, but I understand… just as I hope you’ll understand, then, when I say that you won’t be looped into our discussions about the scenarios we construct.”

Blue blinks. “What do you… why not?”

It’s a stupid question, but Surge is already answering. “You’ll be the first opponent, of course, you and however many others are involved in the scenario. We’ll continue discussing the ones you engage in and how you construct them, but the ones we make will have to be kept close to the vest to avoid any unfair advantage. And afterward…”

Afterward Blue would be gone. He wouldn’t ever actually help construct the scenarios with the gym, wouldn’t actually be part of the process of turning it into an official league activity.

Oh, people will remember that it was his idea, of course, and will remember that he was practicing it with his friends for a while. But it’s not the same, for all they might know the gym would have been working on it from the start, and his own practice was just to prepare.

The anger comes, then, but he’s too pragmatic for it to do much but make him look down, hands clenching his knees.

“I’m sorry. I know—”

“No,” Blue says. “I get it. It’s my choice, to leave after. I can change my mind, if I really want to.” He sighs, looks up. “One last question of my own? The media will be waiting outside. What can I tell them?”

Leader Surge spreads his hands. “Whatever you want, as long as it’s true. The goal is not to take your due credit from you.”

Blue nods, then rises to his feet and briefly bows. “Thank you, Leader.” He nods to the Second and Third, who nod back.

“Thank you, Mr. Oak. Dismissed.”

By the end of the second month anniversary of the Zapdos attack, Vermilion City has largely recovered… visually, at least. All the broken windows have been replaced, and most of the stores are unshuttered and back in business. The main exception are the dozen cranes that still dot the cityscape where the burnt buildings are being repaired. His gaze stays on them as he mounts Daisy’s swellow and they take off, circling the city once to gain altitude and then flying due west.

It’s been over a week since the meeting, and things have continued more or less as usual, with a couple exceptions: first, he and Glen go to speak with Sabra and Aigerim after each match, sometimes with Surge present, and second, Blue spent more time at the gym on Sabra’s orders, dropping his visits with Gramps in order to fulfill his duties in training with and teaching more than just the group he’s been doing scenarios with.

Now that he knows his time at Vermilion is starting to come to a close, his time at the gym and among the city streets make him realize how much he’s going to miss it all. But as the city falls away behind them, land swiftly replaced by water, Blue feels something loosen in him too. Vermilion holds bad memories as well as good, memories with weight, and his time at the gym reminded him of those too. Aiko is part of it all, in the gym’s central yard, and its training rooms, and its dining hall, memories of her hidden in every nook and cranny, ready to pop out without warning, and in those moments he always felt renewed grief, and anger at Red not just for his decision, but for running away afterward.

Not that Blue is one to talk. He can recognize that he’s avoided facing them himself, now that he’s doing so again little by little, thanks to Sabra. He wonders if she noticed, and occasionally thought of asking her, but he’s still not sure if he’s ready for whatever conversation that might lead to. For now he’s just focused on getting through it all a day at a time, though he has been reaching out to Leaf more often. Whatever painful memories he’s facing, he knows that living where she is must be at least as bad.

“Awfully quiet back there, bro.” Daisy’s voice is clear in his earpiece despite the wind, and he feels her hand find his where it clutches the saddle handle for a brief squeeze. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Blue shakes himself out of his melancholy as best he can. “Sorry, just thinking about today’s scenario. What’s new and exciting with you? How’s my steelix?” It was a tough choice, but he didn’t feel right keeping it once he learned that Daisy lost two pokemon holding it off before he got there.

“My steelix, thanks again by the way, is doing great. And I don’t know how exciting it is for others, but new… I’ve got Moonlight able to do five consistent Metronomes now, none too impressive. Decided to try teaching a snorlax to swim—stop laughing, do you have any idea how much air they can hold?—hmm, what else… broke up with my girlfriend, found ano—”

“What!” Blue flicks her leg. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone. Who was she?”

“You don’t know her, and ‘is she’ is fine, she’s not dead,” Daisy teases, then goes silent. Blue takes a breath, and by the time he lets it out his sister’s hand is back on his. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he says, not wanting to talk about it. “So you found another already? Who is she?”

“A coordinator from Kalos. She’s only in town for a few weeks, but she bought a couple abra while here so visiting will be easy. What about you, drawing any puppy-love eyes from all those trainers you’re working with?”

Blue thinks of Elaine’s kiss, and after a moment just says, “Nah.”

Daisy sighs. “I’m sorry, again. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear, I’m just an idiot.”

“Huh?” Blue realizes he was quiet for too long, and she must have thought she upset him. He replays what she said and can’t find any reference to Aiko. “Why?”

“I didn’t remind you of Red?”

Oh. The abra thing. “No,” he says, voice flat.

“Ah. Okay.”

She doesn’t believe him. Blue considers telling her he was too busy thinking of Elaine to think of Red, then rejects that idea and just pokes her in the ribs through her thick jacket. “Seriously.”

“I believe you.”

Blue rolls his eyes and lets it go, glad she’s not nudging him to make up with Red again, at least. He spends the next few minutes looking out over the ocean as the setting sun sends ripples of light across its waves. The rocking from her swellow’s wing movements make it hard to take pictures unless he times it with a glide, but he didn’t bring a wrist strap and doesn’t want to risk dropping his phone. Though come to think of it, her pokemon could probably catch it if he does…

He’s just about to ask what she thinks when Daisy speaks first. “Blue, can you promise me something?”

“Depends what it is,” he says, already wary.

“Just… let him have tonight? Don’t bring up what he did. I get it, I do, but—”

“You don’t get it,” he says, anger bursting up in a scalding wave. “It wasn’t you he came for.”

She’s quiet for a minute, then says, “You can be a real idiot too sometimes, you know that? You think he never did that for me?”

“It’s different. It wasn’t killing him then.” The words churn acid in his stomach, the very act of saying them out loud makes them more real.

“And it wouldn’t be killing him now if he hadn’t then. You’re just intent on protecting him, and I get why, but all he was doing was the same thing you asked Red to—”

Blue reaches up and switches off his earpiece, face a mask as he presses his forehead against her back none too gently and closes his eyes. He’s already tried explaining to her the difference between what Gramps did and what Red didn’t do. And she wasn’t there, after, didn’t hear the way he was justifying it. Blue’s not in the mood to hash over it all again.

Daisy pats his hand, then squeezes it, then pinches it. He pinches back, hard, and she leaves him alone after that. He told his gym leadership that he was working on his anger, and that includes against annoying older siblings. All things considered, he thinks he’s handling things rather well.

A couple hours later they’re home, which is already full of neighbors, friends, and researchers from the lab, all happy to toast to the Professor’s health. The place feels so strange, after so long away, and not just because it’s decorated for the celebration and crowded. Blue plays the part of the cheerful grandson, but in truth he feels a fraud; all these people so happy to see Gramps healthy again would look at Blue with considerably less friendliness if he hadn’t made it through the storm.

His grandfather does seem his old self, at least, holding court with his stories, arguing in high spirits with Uncle Samson, laughing uproariously at the pictures his coworkers took depicting how they taped pictures of his face onto a series of mannequins and set them up around the office, each with various speech bubbles relaying his most common phrases or admonishments.

There are two big cakes, one with a standard “Welcome back!” written over it with all his employees’ signatures in icing over the surface, and a second that gets delivered in the middle of the party. Its surface is covered in a custom depiction of the professor, Blue, and Daisy standing side by side with two steelix between them. This is only discernible from context, as the art isn’t particularly good, but that’s understandable considering it’s done in frosting and was made by two of the children that had been evacuated from the arena that night. Daisy reads the letter that comes with it aloud, which makes numerous people teary eyed, and results in applause that cause the Professor to wipe at his eyes and excuse himself briefly. Blue has to struggle to accept his portion of the praise with a smile, all the while thinking of Aiko, and how few people will ever know how she did something far braver than him, and didn’t survive for her own cake or applause.

Once that’s over Blue takes the opportunity to locate his grandfather’s doctor (who has had a few drinks by this point) and pull him aside to ask him straight how bad it would be if Gramps is exposed to Pressure again. The older man gives a despairing sort of shrug, as if knowing that they aren’t speaking about an unlikely hypothetical. “Your grandfather is rather unique in the combination of the age he’s reached and the amount of Pressure exposure he’s had. It’s hard to tell how much of the harm is caused from the initial exposure opposed to the duration, but on the optimistic side? Another hour could take three months to recover from. On the not so optimistic side, he could be down for a year.” Seeing Blue’s horrified expression, the doctor nods. “On top of that, your sister said he passed out within forty minutes of first feeling the Pressure. The medication is getting less effective, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasts half as long next time.”

Blue eventually finds himself on a couch in the corner of the living room, staring into his soda as the conversation ebbs and flows around him, lost in thoughts of the future. Despite what Daisy said, once everyone leaves he’s going to need to talk to Gramps about what happened again. Every time he visited over the past two months, watching the Professor steadily recover his health, it had been to talk about other things, the older man firmly guiding conversations away from anything serious unless they were related to Blue’s goals. Now they would have to finish the talk they had that first morning after the storm.

Daisy kicks his foot as she walks by, and he looks up to see her giving him a curious look. He shakes his head, and she frowns but doesn’t pry. “Raymond is here, you know. Think he wanted to talk to you at some point.”

Blue smiles despite his mood. Ray is one of the two trainers who set off with Daisy from Pallet Town during her own Journey. The other, Clara, died a few years ago, and the two have remained close, which means he used to come by often to visit both his old professor and Daisy. He spent a lot of time coaching Blue’s pokeball throwing… though those memories are a bit ruined by Red being there too.

It’s the first time since his own journey that they’ve spoken, and Blue actually enjoys himself for a while as he talks about his adventures. He should have suspected what was coming, and when Ray starts talking about Clara and how hard it was for them to lose her, Blue feels a sudden sense of betrayal that he has to force down for long enough to make the appropriate social responses, including promising to call Ray if he ever wants someone to talk to about Aiko. Afterward he excuses himself to lie in his room for a while, feeling the anger at Daisy pace around in his chest and send ripples of heat through him until he realizes she may not have pushed Raymond to say all that, and it finally fades to a dull and painful ache.

Guests start to trickle out after midnight, the remaining ones helping clean up as the party begins to wind down. Blue is shoo’d away from helping wash dishes by one of his neighbors, and wanders the house looking for something useful to do, only to fail utterly and end up listlessly picking up half full plastic cups and dirty plates from all sorts of unlikely places around the house.

When the last guest has finally left, Blue heads to his grandfather’s office, expecting him to already be catching up on the work he wasn’t able to do from the hospital. Instead he sounds like he’s speaking with someone, and when Blue hears who it is a mix of emotions he can’t quite place run through him.

“…would have just made things awkward,” Red says, and it takes a moment to recognize the voice is coming from his grandfather’s computer, rather than Red having arrived at some point while Blue was busy.

“Nonsense, you’re always welcome here. This thing with Blue will pass as soon as you both speak to each other more.”

Red is silent, and Blue feels a moment of unwanted kinship with his old journeymate. Gramps doesn’t understand; as long as neither of them have changed their minds, speaking to each other could only make things worse. “Anyway, I should get back to it,” Red says. “Just wanted to say I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I appreciate it, and the call. What are you working on now, anyway? I noticed you registering a number of psychic pokemon lately, “

“Oh, yeah, it’s a new project by Sabrina. I’m, uh, not supposed to talk about it yet, but I’ll share more when I can; it’s pretty exciting, actually.”

Professor Oak tsks. “You’re not making me less curious, you know. I may just ask around and see what I can learn on my own.”

“Hey, yeah you should do that, maybe you’ll find out more than me!”

Gramps chuckles. “Goodnight, Red.”

“Goodnight, Professor.”

Blue waits a full minute, both to disguise the fact that he was listening and to let his emotions settle down. Eventually he knocks on the door. “Come in,” Gramps says, and Blue enters, aiming straight for one of the comfy chairs that make up the Professor’s home office. “Not tired yet?”

“Nah. Could say the same for you, though. Shouldn’t you still be getting lots of rest?”

“Just after this email,” his grandfather promises, tapping away at his keyboard with his eyes on the screen. “Did you hear about the wingsuit prototype, using the flying particles?”

“Yeah, Bernard told me about it after dinner.” Blue examines his grandfather in the bright office light, the lines on that familiar face, and the hair that seems more salt than pepper every time he sees him. A terrible love seizes his heart and squeezes, and he has to blink rapidly and clear his throat before asking, “Enjoy the party?”

“Very much. It was nice to have an excuse to see everyone again.” The professor taps a few more times, then clicks, then reaches up and turns off his monitor before standing to tidy up some things. “So what do you want to talk about, Blue?”

He smiles slightly. “What, a doting grandson can’t just come to spend time with his grandfather?”

Gramps laughs. “Alright, fair enough. But if you don’t bring up something to talk about soon, I warn you I will, and then you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.”

“Empty threat. You’ve already nearly talked yourself hoarse tonight, start yapping away any more and you’ll lose it completely.”

“Hmm. Nothing a squeeze of potion wouldn’t fix.”

“Yuck.” Blue takes a breath, then lets it out. “Gramps, I…”

“I know.”

He closes his eyes. “You don’t. I’m trying to say something new.”

Professor Oak stops, then comes to sit in the chair next to him. “I’m sorry, Blue. I’m listening.”

“Gramps, I can’t… I can’t do this again. I can’t go into another storm, not until I know you feel confident enough in me not to come too. I know it will get in the way of my ambitions, but I need you to know, so you don’t come anyway.”

The professor watches him with a slightly furrowed brow. “Alright,” he says slowly. “If that’s what you want, I understand, of course… and I’ll trust you. But… is it what you want, Blue? What about your promise?”

Blue’s eyes widen. “What… are you talking about?” he asks, trying far too late to look puzzled. Did Red tell him? That fucking coward—

“You don’t remember?” Gramps asks, seeming genuinely surprised.

“Remember what?”

“Well, maybe it’s better not to tell you, then…”

“Gramps, remember what?”

His grandfather sighs. “Right, I suppose it’s a bit late for that.” He shifts in his seat to more fully face Blue, expression grave but tranquil. “How much do you remember of that time, after your parents died?”

Blue shrugs, gaze down. “Bits and pieces. Sadness. How unfair it all was. Feeling lost. Being… angry. A lot of that.”

“I suppose that makes sense, though you showed very little of it. Very little of anything, in fact… except the anger. After your parents died, you were… inconsolable isn’t the right word. It wasn’t like Red after Tom was killed, you kept on going about your life as if it was mostly normal. You cried, yes, but mostly you were angry, as you say.”

“Sure, I remember all that.” Not that he particularly wants to. “And?”

Professor Oak sighs again, clasping his hands over his knee and looking suddenly older as he stares into his lap. “It was maybe a week after it happened, you’d just started therapy and had spent the night at Red’s… Tom and Laura were downstairs talking to me after they dropped you off, and Red spent some time with you upstairs while we talked about how you were doing. I remember Laura being worried about you when I expressed my own concerns, mostly because we didn’t know why you weren’t expressing more sadness. After Red came down and everyone left… it was late, so I thought you were sleeping… I didn’t mean to pry, but when I walked by your bedroom toward mine, I heard you talking. I thought you were on the phone with Red or Daisy, but it wasn’t a conversation. Or at least not that kind.” His grandfather’s eyes are so sad Blue can barely look at them. “You were making a promise to your parents.”

Blue just stares at him. He can’t remember this at all; the earliest he can recall putting the thoughts into words, into saying them out loud, was to Red after his dad died…

“You don’t remember?”

“No,” Blue says, blinking. “But… I was thinking about it then, I know that. And I did make that promise again, later.”

Gramps nods. “Well, I knew, then, that when you got older you would try. That you would throw yourself into the teeth of the world, to get as strong as possible, to take them down. When you finally told me about your ambition, I was relieved. I knew you wouldn’t try to do it alone, to hide it and pretend to just be after a normal championship. That’s what I was most afraid of… well, I was still a little afraid of it after, if I’m being honest. That if I tried to keep you home longer, to wait until you were older, you would just grab a pokemon and go. But that night… that was when I stopped responding to incidents that would expose me to Pressure. It was already starting to debilitate me, and I knew I had to preserve as much time with it as I could for Daisy, and then for you.”

The words hit his chest like stones. Blue reaches out and takes his grandfather’s hand, jaw working as he breathes in and out. “I used to think you were a coward,” he whispers, not looking at his grandfather. “When I was younger, I thought… thought you should go after them. Capture them. Kill them.” He looks up, hand squeezing. “I didn’t think that for long, I understood after Moltres hit Viridian.”

His grandfather smiles and raises Blue’s hand for a kiss, then clasps both hands around his. “I told you all this just to make sure you understand… there’s nothing you did that made me choose what I did rashly. I was prepared for this for years. If you decide to give up that promise, which I know must mean a lot to you… I don’t regret being the cause of that, exactly. You are too young, particularly if you want to be more than a cog in the machine. But I want to make sure you’re doing it for reasons you can respect yourself for, and not out of some form of coercion that concern for me has forced onto you.”

Blue swallows the lump in his throat, trying to think through the confusion he feels. “I… I don’t know what to think, Gramps. Part of me knows it was a childish commitment, totally naïve about what exactly it would mean, not just in the moment but for my other promise, my real goal of taking them down. I know I shouldn’t hold myself to something just because I said it when I was younger, no matter how much I meant it.” Red has said a lot on that topic, Blue can almost hear his voice before dismissing the apparition with a rush of words. “I don’t know how I’ll actually act the next time I have an opportunity to face them, maybe I’ll be able to resist and maybe not, but… whatever I choose, I don’t think I’ll do it just because of the promise.”

Gramps watches him a moment, then slowly nods. “I understand. And… I said I would trust you, but to be clear, you’re not just saying this because you want to keep me from assuming you’re there next time and going?”

“I thought about it,” Blue says, and shakes his head. “But no, this is me.” He’s not sure if that would actually be true, if Gramps hadn’t told him that story about himself, hadn’t helped him realize just how far back the (objectively) ridiculous promise went. It’s one thing to commit himself to what others think is impossible, and he’s still sure that capturing or killing the Stormbringers is the most important thing, the only really important thing, he can do… but he won’t live to do it if he rolls the dice every time they hit a town or city meanwhile.

“Well, then.” His grandfather squeezes his hand again, long and hard. “I know I say this a lot, but… I’m very proud of you, Blue. I always have been, and decisions like this are why.”

Blue nods, bites his lip. “I think they’re going to take the scenarios from me.”

Gramps raises a brow, and bless him, doesn’t miss a beat. “Don’t they have to, eventually?”

“Yeah, but once they do, it’ll be out of my hands. It’s mine, mine and Glen’s, and then…”

“I understand. But you have higher heights to climb, and a pain like this will be necessary, time and again. It’s good practice, for when you’ll be giving up something quite a bit more dear to you for your true goal.”

Blue nods, and his thoughts sway back again as his eyes suddenly burn. “Do you think they… ” His words fade with his breath, and he swallows hard as the true, deep fear comes boiling out. “Mom and Dad, would they be… mad at me, for breaking my…?”

He barely gets the last word out before his grandfather has pulled him into a tight hug, and he clings to him until all his tears are gone.

The next day, as he’s on his way back to Vermilion City, Sabra sends him a message: they would no longer discuss his practice scenarios afterward, and the first group badge challenge would be in a week.

A followup message simply states that the battleground would be within the city.

Chapter 69: Missions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, because that’s healthy.

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

“For what, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”

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

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

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

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

“Just a guess, promise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“I notice that I’m confused.”

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

“Then why…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“So how long will he stay like this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None at all.”

“So, you’ll help?”

“Of course!”

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

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

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

And that, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, really! She never even asked.”

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

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

She sighs. “Red…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Verres, catch!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unique circumstances

Mimicking other mental states

Forced to work around limits

Experiencing others using abilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re an idiot.

Love, Present Red

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

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

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

Dear Mopey Red,

Your attitude sucks. If you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you call this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 68: Internal Family Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can lie down, if you want.”

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

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

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


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

“Why would I mind that?”

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

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

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

“Might? How reliable is that?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

“So, how has your visit been so far?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Very few, actually.”

“Good. Are you missing Blue and Leaf?”

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


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

“And Blue?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How what feels?”

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

Red shrugs. “It’s… it just feels—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her brow rises. “And will you?”

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

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

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

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

“I think it might be, yeah…”

Ten minutes.”

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes?”

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so,” Present Red said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” Present Red said, looking uncertain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” Red and Future Red said together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it lucid?”

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

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

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

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

Red sighs. “Not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Alright. Give me a moment to think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Corpus callosum.”

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

Dr. Seward’s brow rises. “Really?”

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

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

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

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


“And no lost time, either?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Not really, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d think that, yeah.”

“But you still feel conflicted?”

“Right now? No, the partition is up.”

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

Red hesitates, then nods and closes his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

…and is transported into another world.

“Red? Is everything alright?”

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

“What’s wr—… ah. Is this… Past Red?”

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

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

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

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

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

“…Could you clarify that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For comfort?”

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

“Then by all means.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Sometimes, yeah.”

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

Red sighs. “No.”

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

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

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

“It’s fine. Guilt is close enough.”

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

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

“Oh, no. I was just curious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And as for how to figure that out…?”

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

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

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

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

Red frowns, but nods. “Alright.”

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

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

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

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

It takes just a moment for him to bring the partition back down, and then he’s back in reality. “Bye,” he mutters, and shuffles out of the office, the brightness of the day now dimmed through the shadow of death covering the world.

Chapter 67: Postmortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks like he’s dying.

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

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

“Hey, Gramps,” Blue whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relatively speaking.

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

Blue almost lost Maturin to a jumpluff, of all things, 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.”


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!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something must be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf smiles. Right. Easy as pie.

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

She checks her phone for messages again. Still nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiko S

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

She quickly searches for Elaine and Glen, and is just about to 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?


“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. It would take a few days, 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, heart pounding in his chest.

“Sorry,” he says, and gives a slight bow. “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.”

A thread of hope pierces 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 Leader Surge needs to know—”

“I don’t care.”

Sabra turns to the boy in surprise and sees he’s already walking without her, and not toward her mount. 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 another 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 pants which were just starting to dry. Red 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. It’s high time she learns another way, now that she can’t rely on Jack to pick up her slack.

The pain flares again, and she folds it away. Later. She’d give in later. For now there’s a trainer in her city that needs her, and a Leader that needs to hear what’s happened to his old friend, so instead she focuses on what the boy must be feeling.

“Just because it hurts, doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing,” she murmurs against Red’s ear, eyes closed as the various guilts she’s accumulated in her own life swirl inside her, filling her with pain and nausea, letting them bolster her spoken truth in the hope that it resonates with him. “We don’t always get to know.”

She doesn’t know how long it takes 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, 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. Our highest priority 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.


“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 of those echoing explosions reverberates 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 alley 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 Sakaki.

“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.


“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.”


“Spread out, every floor above the first.”

“And my people?”

“I… I don’t… how many?”


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 a 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 the 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 moments 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!”



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 Riley, 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, however, freezing the drops that fall through them and leaving trails of fog in the chilled air, lowering visibility. Blue feels himself wanting to ignore the clear risk there, and it takes real effort to switch to another attack when a weepinbell climbs the barrier in a mess of vines. Instead he orders Maturin to use Water Guns to help pummel it into a stupor. The urge to “steal the spotlight” is like a constant itch under his skin, making him impatient to do something that feels meaningful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They survived. The Stormbringer is gone.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oo. That’s better…”

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


“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?”


“And they called, what, ten minutes before 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.”


“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 victreebel 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 victreebel 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.


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.


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 the driver being able to afford one. It feels almost fated, that it would be up to Laura, now, to decide if the woman would get 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 during the frenetic motion that keeps his staff hurrying after him. Now he sits with his long 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 when he was just a teenager. “No one here is doubting the value of the pokedex network. We all pay for them, and appreciate 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 is not free. Could never truly be, or they would be out of a job.

“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,” 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 finally starting to thin under his fingers. “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 alright.” 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.

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


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 had quickly skyrocketed to obscene heights, but he could have emptied his bank account to buy a ticket for himself. But he couldn’t have afforded another 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 reaches for another empty ball as he backs away from the flames. The magnemite has 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.

“Mama!” 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 in a state of complete shock, half convinced that none of this is actually happening, to see the nidoqueen rear its fist back and up, then smash the magnemite downward and out of sight. It roars in triumph.

The sound is literally stunning from this close up, and when it ends he’s aware that he’s wet himself and that this definitely all is really happening. He continues crawling to his mother’s body, potion in hand.

“It’s okay, Mama,” 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. A trainer. A real trainer, if he’s out in the storm. Seto is 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 ultraball 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 ultraball 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, washing the whole city in its intense light. 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.


That’s what this feeling is, what this power represents. Zapdos is a god, and his judgement 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.

No!” the boy, Red, cries out as Seto watches, numb with shock and self-loathing. They’re here for him, the boy 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 could see the future a second before it happened. As soon as it’s past he 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, and guilt suddenly surges through him again, dousing his 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 the anticipation is 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. Reckless is a word that’s been used to describe her, a time or two. Or ten.

Stupid, however, is not: the key is to stay near buildings and fly below the tallest ones. That way all you have to worry about is the pokemon, assuming it’s a Stormbringer’s storm.

Okay, so some people might still call that stupid. But it helps that she now 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 blazed a path through the forests, smoke blanketing the horizon until it burst out of the tree line, a living inferno that seemed to ignite the air itself.

That day what she felt was fear. Not just for her life, though she craves that too sharp bite too. 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. Being the middle child in a big family made her seek recognition and attention from a young age, and she knows that was the primary thing that pushed her to risk her life in the Tier 2 and 3 events that would occur around her during her journey. And each time she was around the Legendary Beasts, their aura confirmed that it was still her primary motivation.

She wasn’t an Elite that first time, 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 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 through the mesh of her suit. 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 turns again after!”

“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 ultraball…

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 ultraball 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 ultraball 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 ultraball 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 fire 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.