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Pokémon The Legendarian Chronicles

Chapter 19: Fury and Lightning
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    The Legendary birds mission continues! This is my fourth favorite chapter in Book 1 and I love how it turned out. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.



    ~Chapter 19: Fury and Lightning~


    Mew. It was seriously Mew. Right here, right in front of my eyes. Never, in a million years, did I think I’d get such a clear view of the living myth itself. Seeing Legendaries in person was one thing but Mew? The mother of all Pokémon? The pale rose cat hovered over to the birds, raising a large, pink bubble around them and allowing them the chance to rest. The trio landed on the ground, folding their wings tightly as a healing glow washed over their bodies. Mew, on the other hand, was now staring at Mewtwo, head tilted ever so slightly with a sort of… perplexed curiosity on her face.

    <Who is this one?> the cat asked softly, her telepathic words reverberating through the air, cool and clear.

    “*You tell us!*” Moltres shot back. “*They have your power!*”

    Mew tilted her head the other way, looking even more intrigued. <And Entei?>

    “*Their mind is not their own,*” Articuno said in a low voice. “*The humans have done something to them.*”

    Mewtwo gave no reaction to Mew’s arrival. He couldn’t. All he could do was stare back, eyes glowing a mindless blue, waiting for the order that would designate the new arrival as either friend or foe.

    “Mewtwo, neutralize Mew! Entei, don’t let the birds heal!”

    Mew turned her head in the direction of the voice, observing the Rockets with a mixture of sadness and pity. <So humans have become our enemy once again. But I wonder… are you really prepared for that?>

    The squealing of tires and roar of engines assaulted my ears out of nowhere. I snapped my head in their direction to see a pair of jeeps rumbling towards us through the trees, traversing the uneven, root-covered terrain like it was nothing. The passengers whipped out their firearms and pointed them right at us, and it was like my brain just shut down. I had no idea what to do. There was nowhere to run!

    With the flapping of wings and a flash of shimmering light, Fearow shot forward from behind us and put up a Protect just a split second before the sound of gunfire rang out and bullets pinged off the shield. Stupid! How could I have forgotten the plan?!

    “Aros, we need you!” I yelled.

    “*On it!*” the Flygon called out.

    I threw a hurried glance upward to see the dragon streaking away from the aerial battle, his wings a blur. Fearow’s Protect started to flicker. Without wasting a second, Firestorm and Wartortle jumped in front, putting up shields of their own as the tall, shaggy bird leaped back and leaned down for Rudy to climb on her back. Aros swooped down alongside me and in one smooth motion I threw a leg over his back and clung to his neck. Time for one last Protect, and this time it was up to Aros since Fearow hadn’t yet recovered from the last one. That gave Rudy and I the chance we needed to recall our nonflying Pokémon and then finally get out of the line of fire holy crap.

    “Ha! We made it out! Take that!” Rudy called out behind us as Aros and Fearow shot into the air. My breathing was shallow and it felt like my heart was going at a million miles an hour, but we’d made it. We’d been ambushed by two squads of Rockets and made it out unharmed. It was insane!

    Just as soon as I had that thought, a hail of noxious sludge started raining down from above, forcing Aros to suddenly barrel to the right to avoid it. I threw a frantic glance over my shoulder to see a swarm of Golbat and Weezing belting out Sludge Bomb non-stop. Rudy pointed them out to his Fearow, and the pair of them looped around and shot toward the poison-types.

    “What was that move you used in Celadon? The one with the purple dragonfire?” I asked Aros.

    “*Dragon Pulse?*”

    “Yes, that! Do it now!” I cried as three of the Golbat rushed us at once, their wings glowing in preparation for Aerial Ace.

    Aros opened his jaws wide, allowing a ball of violet energy to gather in his mouth before unleashing it in the form of a pulsing shockwave. The draconic energy knocked two of the bats out of the air, but the third managed to skillfully loop around it and shoot right at us. Or rather—right at me.

    I flattened myself against Aros’s back, screwing my eyes shut and clinging to him for dear life. Seconds later, I felt a sudden wave of heat from that direction. I opened my eyes a crack, and… the Golbat was gone? What? A flash of orange caught my eye, and I whirled around to see Stalker’s Charizard shooting past, flames licking the sides of her mouth.

    “*Stop holding so tight,*” Aros muttered.

    Er, right, I still had my arms clenched around his neck, even after the danger had passed. I relaxed a bit, then said, “Come on, we should meet up with the others.” The Flygon gave a slight huff, but then swooped back down toward the clearing.

    My heart sank—the outer perimeter of the ALR circle was now swarming with combat unit jeeps. Holy crap the Rockets were attacking the ground team rebels with full force, and suddenly they outnumbered us two to one and any hopes of taking them on with sneak attacks and mob tactics were utterly dead. The rebels had been forced to regroup in order to defend each other. An outer perimeter of Pokémon alternated using Protect to block the gunfire while teleporters blinked in and out of the crowd, escaping with a few rebels each time. Chibi raced around the fray, launching Thunderbolts with a frightening level of precision and dropping the Rockets left and right. But… how on earth was he doing that? With his undersized power capacity, he should have been out after we all launched our simultaneous attack on the ALRs. Wait… the ALRs! They’d been forced to discharge insane amounts of power into the air to avoid being overloaded. Had he been able to absorb some of it with his Lightning Rod ability?

    But even with the rebels putting up an impressive defense, the Rockets were still closing in. And the more of them escaped from the ambush, the fewer Pokémon were available to use Protect.

    “*What do we do?! They need help!*” Aros yelled.

    “I don’t know, let me think! And since when do you care so much about the rebels?”

    “*Idiot! Stygian is down there!*”

    What? I scanned the ground frantically. Sure enough, down in the middle of the fray, I caught sight of an Absol, cloaked in the dark aura of Feint Attack, jumping in and out of shadows—and with a with a rider on her back, too! Wait a second… it was Darren!

    “Why doesn’t he just teleport out of there…?” I muttered, but then the answer hit me the moment the words left my mouth. Stygian was a dark-type—she was immune to psychic skills like Teleport.

    Had to focus. Had to think of something. Attack the jeeps? That was the only thing I could think of. The Rockets didn’t even have Pokémon out! Not with all the gunfire.

    “Use Dragon Pulse!” I yelled, pointing downward. Aros immediately responded with another burst of sparkling dragonfire aimed right at the closest jeep, only for it to strike something invisible in midair and go hurtling off. What? They had rebound shields?! Of course they did—the combat unit jeeps at the Entei mission did—why would these be any different? They didn’t do much beyond deflecting special attacks—nothing like the crazy absorbing trick the ALRs could pull. Except getting in close for a physical attack meant being in perfect range to get shot.

    We had to do something, and fast. But what?!

    I had just pulled out Swift’s Pokéball—maybe a dust storm would give the rebels the cover they needed?—when an icy gale swept through out of nowhere, and a distant, unearthly howl reverberated throughout the trees. I knew that sound.

    “Holy crap… that’s—that’s Suicune!” I exclaimed.

    “Suicune—seriously?!” I turned to see Rudy flying alongside us once again, now gaping at me. “Where is it?! And wait, how do you know that?!”

    “I’ve heard it before!” I yelled over the sound of the wind.

    “You’ve heard it?” Rudy gasped. “What—how…?”

    I didn’t get a chance to respond. Right that second, a massive cobalt beast shot through the trees, snarling as it raced for the crowd of Rockets. And then the entire battleground dissolved into pandemonium. The jeeps immediately broke off from pursuing the rebels, splitting into two groups to attack the water-type from both sides. A dozen flashes of light appeared as the Rockets’ Pokémon took form around the Johto beast. Nothing compared to the forces that had cornered Raikou. Without hesitation, Suicune fired a volley of multicolored beam attacks at the opposing Pokémon without even slowing down. The lineup crumbled instantly; the beast shot past them, setting its sights on the jeeps and firing at the closest one, only for its beam to rebound wildly off the vehicle’s energy shield.

    But rebound shields were nothing compared to the ALRs. And there was nothing to stop the beast from leaping up onto the jeep and attacking from within the shield’s radius.

    “How dare you use my sibling for your sick goals!!” Suicune snarled, smashing the windshield and unleashing a torrential waterspout into the vehicle. The doors flew open and a flood of water gushed out, followed by the panicked Rockets scrambling to abandon the vehicle. Suicune didn’t waste a second before it started picking them off with rapid-fire volleys of Bubblebeam.

    “You’re all pathetic!! Stealing our power and using it against us, pretending you have any real strength at all! Cowards! Thieves! You are nothing!”

    Bullets pelted its hide, but it didn’t even seem to care. It wasn’t even slowed down. One after the other, it sent jeeps flying with high-pressure water blasts, stamping the escaping Rockets into the dirt, catching them in its jaws and hurling them into the ALR barrier with a—

    Okay, no, I couldn’t watch that anymore. The point was, Suicune was keeping them busy which meant that the rebels were safe, for now. I threw a glance back at the fight within the ALR barrier, and… Mew’s arrival had actually evened the odds. The nimble feline zipped around the battlefield, pelting Mewtwo with shadowy orbs of black energy, distracting him just long enough for Articuno to land a series of rapid-fire Ice Beams, freezing the larger psychic in a shell of ice. His eyes glowed, and the ice shattered, but that gave Mew the opportunity to strike him dead on with an even larger burst of dark energy.

    On the fringes of the battlefield, Entei raced around in a blazing fireball, launching vicious Flamethrowers into the fray—only for Moltres to intercept it at every turn, using its own fire affinity to endure the flames and get close enough to rake its talons across the beast’s face. Wicked Thunderbolts lanced across the battle zone, striking both of the Rockets’ Legendaries relentlessly.

    Had the Rebellion really done its job? We’d given Moltres the opportunity to call for reinforcements and now the Rockets were scrambling trying to keep up with the new arrivals. But with the barrier still up, how would the Legendaries inside manage to get free, even if Mewtwo was defeated?

    “Switch the Anti-Legend Rays to offense mode, now!” a voice called out.

    I whirled around to see a handful of the jeeps that had fled from Suicune’s assault clustered off to one side of the ALR circle. And then, in an instant, the force field encircling the Legendary battle just vanished. What? Why would they drop the shield? The Legendaries could escape now!

    Without warning, the ALR closest to them retracted its antennae and swiveled its upper half downward, forming a cannon that shot out a blindingly bright yellow beam, striking Moltres right in the stomach. The firebird recoiled backward, screeching in pain as the beam scorched its feathers black. Mew shot forward instantly, putting up a barrier to protect the fire legend, but then two, then three more ALRs fired the same beams at her, shattering the barrier with a crash. I whirled around to look at the ALR nearest us, but it too had folded up its shield projectors and had switched over to firing its stored power. Stalker was right—the ALRs didn’t just absorb power, they could fire it back too. Not only that, but the Rockets could control them all remotely too?

    “Now!” an executive called out.

    Now? Now what??

    Violet Pokéballs flew through the air, and the three birds’ eyes went wide with panic. In an instant, they each let loose massive blasts of fire, ice, and lightning, struggling to break free of the ALR beams.

    That’s why the Rockets dropped the shield?! To throw Master Balls?!

    Suicune raced forward, accompanied by a violent gust of wind that swept half the Master Balls off into trees. Mew dove in front, readying a shield, but was knocked flying by a sudden psychic blast from her clone.

    A flash of red out of the corner of my eye! I whirled around to see a red beam being sucked into one of the balls—a Pokémon was being captured?! My eyes frantically darted from one Legendary to the next. Mew, Mewtwo, Entei, Zapdos, Articuno… Moltres, there was no Moltres—Moltres was caught?!

    “No way…” I muttered, staring in disbelief like a bucket of ice had just been dumped on my head.

    Zapdos folded its wings back and dove forward, talons outstretched, clearly reaching for the ball that had just taken the firebird, but then a second group of Rockets hurled more violet spheres into the fray.

    “*No!*” Articuno cried, folding its wings back and diving. The ice bird knocked Zapdos out of the way, sending the latter reeling. Mew shot down after them, again trying to shield the birds with a protective bubble, but then a blue aura formed around her as Mewtwo grabbed hold of her telekinetically. And in the moment the smaller cat had to spend wrenching herself free from Mewtwo’s grip, an ALR rotated and fired on her.

    A third round of Master Balls flew through the air, and this time Articuno was hit—struck on the back by the infallible capture device. With a horrified screech, the falcon’s body dissolved into red energy and was sucked into the ball. I gaped in horror. A second capture?

    Mew had taken to blinking in and out of view around the battlefield, teleporting non-stop, pressing buttons on the fallen Master Balls and trying to open as many of them as possible. But then a blue aura appeared around all of them, and they flew out of her reach, pulled by Mewtwo’s telekinesis.

    With a painful and terrifying wail, Zapdos let loose another wave of lightning from its body, shaking itself free of the ALR beam before bolting upward, frantically dodging more beams. Except the thunderbird wasn’t trying to escape. It took that opportunity to spread its wings high above the battlefield and let a hail of Thunderbolts rain down on the Rockets. The first few bolts lanced off the jeeps’ shields. But the lightning just kept coming without pause, eventually shattering the shields and striking two of the jeeps, causing them to erupt into flames. I flinched as the Rockets’ screams assaulted my ears.

    “You think you can challenge the legends without facing the consequences?!” Suicune exclaimed, staring at the events with cold fury in its eyes. But then one of the ALRs nearest it rotated and fired, knocking the water beast off its feet. At that point, Mewtwo finally managed to intercept Zapdos, knocking it out of the sky with a psychic blast, while the Rockets on the ground scrambled to get out of its range. Two more machines fired on the thunderbird the moment it crashed to the ground.

    Wait a minute. The ALRs couldn’t run the barrier and the ray at the same time. Now that the shield was down, the machines wouldn’t be absorbing any attacks thrown at them. Which meant that without having to overwhelm the entire network at once, we could target them individually!

    “Hey Jade!” a voice called out. I spun around to see Rudy and Darren approaching, both still riding on Fearow and Stygian, respectively.

    “Ray gave the order to retreat—there’s not much else any of us can do here!” Rudy yelled, grimacing like he hated every word.

    “Are you kidding?! Of course we can do something! We can stop the ALRs!” I countered. The two of them paused, looking taken aback.

    “I dunno if you forgot, but we already tried that,” Darren said, tilting his head in confusion.

    “Oh yeah?! Watch!” I pointed at the nearest ALR and said, “Aros, use your strongest move, now!” The Flygon turned his neck back to give me an incredulous scowl. “Please, just trust me,” I added quietly. Several seconds passed. Finally, his gaze hardened into determination, and he nodded before turning back to face the Anti-Legendary Ray. The Flygon brandished both sets of claws, letting them glow with a writhing green aura before slashing wildly. Claw marks appeared in the machine’s outer armor, shallow at first, but deepening with each strike.

    “Holy crap, that’s actually working,” Rudy gasped, pulling out a Pokéball to release Ebony. “Use Inferno, now!” The Houndoom’s eyes lit up, and she breathed out a massive wave of white-hot flame. Without a word, Stygian rushed around to the other side of the machine, the blade on her head glowing purple. She aimed a few strategically-placed slashes, cleaving off the shields on the upper part of the cannon, allowing Ebony’s flames to penetrate the inner mechanisms. Finally, the beam started to sputter, giving way to a wave of sparks before the entire top half of the machine collapsed in on itself, half-melted.

    We’d done it. We’d actually done it! The ALRs weren’t unstoppable. The Legendaries didn’t know that they could be destroying the ALRs, right now! They needed to know! If they joined in, we’d be able to take care of them all in no time! Suicune had seen me before—if it recognized me, I could use that opportunity to pass on the message to it. And if not, well… Aros was fast, right?

    “Let the others know that we’ve got to start destroying the ALRs—there’s something I’ve gotta do!” I announced. And then to Aros, I added, “Circle the battlefield real quick, I know a way we can end this.”

    “*You what? …Oh, whatever, I’m not even gonna question it at this point,*” the Flygon muttered under his breath before taking off. We shot around the ALR circle in a wide arc, my eyes rapidly scanning the ground ahead of us. Finally, I spotted Suicune weaving in and out of the trees, struggling to get closer to a group of Rockets that had gathered between two ALRs for protection and were firing beams at the beast any time it got too close.

    “Suicune!” I called out. Suicune whipped its head around to face us, its crimson eyes boring a hole right through me. And for a split second my heart stopped as I saw the beast charging a shimmering beam of light in its mouth until its eyes went wide and it froze.

    “You! You’re an interloper, aren’t you?!” Suicune barked.

    “A what?” But the beast didn’t explain. I shook my head and went on, “Listen to me! Those machines aren’t indestructible, and they can’t absorb your attacks when they’re in offense mode!”

    Suicune paused, blinking in surprise. It then glanced between me and the ALR circle a few times before sprinting off without a word.

    Aros threw a glance back at me like I was insane. “*The hell was that?*”

    “It was stupid, but it’s gonna turn the tide of the fight,” I said firmly. Across the clearing, Suicune had already started bombarding one of the ALRs with multicolored beam attacks. Not too far from it, the rebels were doing the same. Zapdos was still desperately attempting to strike back at the Rockets, so blind with rage that it didn’t even notice the ground glowing white until a pillar of swirling blue flame erupted from below, called forth by Entei. Zapdos screeched in anguish as the flames enveloped it. But then, without warning, Mew teleported to Entei’s side, grabbed hold of the beast, and then teleported again. An agonized howl rang out as the fire legend reappeared within one of the ALR beams that had been aiming at Zapdos. Its body spasmed wildly as the energy dug into it, then finally collapsed to the ground, motionless.

    It was down. Entei had finally been brought down. I didn’t know whether to be glad that the free Legendaries had one less enemy, or feel bad that they’d even had to do that to one of their own in the first place.

    Mew stared at the fainted beast for several seconds. Then out of nowhere, her eyes widened like she had just realized something. The cat disappeared from view again, then reappeared alongside Entei, grabbed hold of its mane, and—

    A blue aura formed around her and she froze right as the glow of a teleport had started to form. Clenching his paws together, Mewtwo wrenched Mew away from the fallen beast before a narrow beam shot out of nowhere, dissolving its body into red energy.

    The Rockets had recalled Entei. That meant its Pokéball was here, at the mission site. And I’d seen where the Pokéball beam had come from—it was the van that had transported Entei and Mewtwo here in the first place, still hiding amongst the trees, covered in a camouflaged sheet. Entei’s Pokéball was in there. Right there, right now! I could steal it. And Mewtwo! And then nothing could stop Zapdos from freeing the other two birds! Our mission didn’t have to end in failure!

    I had to do it.

    “Aros, the van, over there. Entei’s in there,” I said.

    “*I saw.*”

    “We’re going to steal it.”

    For about the millionth time that day, Aros turned his neck to gape at me like I’d just said the craziest thing he’d ever heard. “*What?*”

    “I’ve already got a plan on how to do it.” My brain felt like it was on fire from racing so fast.

    Aros opened his mouth to say something, but then shook his head and turned around, saying “*I never knew humans were so… this,*” before flying over as quickly as he could, touching down alongside the passenger door. I grabbed both my Pokéballs, releasing Firestorm and Swift. The van had to be occupied. I wasn’t taking any chances this time.

    “Firestorm, fill the back of the van with a Smokescreen so the Rockets can’t aim at us. Swift, use your Keen Eye to see how many are in there. Then Aros, you grab them and throw ‘em out. If they drop their guns, hurry and grab ‘em. If not, get back to us and use Protect,” I said. If any of them were caught off guard by the sudden instructions out of nowhere, they didn’t show it.

    Firestorm stuck by my side as I crept around to the back door of the van. I took a deep breath—no turning back now. I threw open the door and Firestorm immediately jumped forward to spew a thick cloud of smoke inside. Swift circled around in the air and called out, “*Only two of them!*”

    No gunfire yet. Aros shot through the smoke, and a couple of panicked yelps reached my ears right before he emerged, carrying two flailing Rockets in lab coats.

    Just a pair of scientists. They weren’t even armed. The Flygon hurled them off into the trees unceremoniously.

    “Make sure they don’t bother us,” I told Aros. Then, to Swift, “I need you to clear out the smoke.”

    The Pidgeotto nodded and whipped up a gust of wind, sweeping the van clear within seconds. I climbed inside, followed by both of my Pokémon, and we were met with a wall of computer consoles and softly flickering lights. Alright, where would Entei’s Pokéball be? I couldn’t see it out in the open. Maybe it had been stashed somewhere for safekeeping? I frantically started throwing open every drawer and compartment I could find… but I couldn’t find any Pokéballs. Or anything resembling a Pokéball, for that matter. That didn’t make any sense. It should have been here.

    “It has to be here,” I reassured myself, double-checking all the places I’d already looked. I must have missed it. That was the only answer. It had to be here!

    “*Hey, we’ve got trouble,*” Aros said.

    I groaned. “What kind of trouble?”

    “And just what do we have here?” a chilling voice behind me asked. My blood instantly ran cold. Not that voice. Not now. Why now?!

    Slowly, I turned to see the executive Astrid approaching the van, sitting atop her Arcanine. Aros spread his wings defensively and brandished his claws, doing everything in his power to look bigger and also hide me from view.

    “I know you’re in there,” Astrid called out to me. Damn it. I clenched my fists, mind racing. We’d have to fight the head of the combat unit. That was the last thing we needed right now. Except… unlike our last encounter with her, Aros was actually on my side for real this time. He was strong enough to fight her, right?

    “*I’m not afraid of her. Half her team’s fire-type. Fire doesn’t hurt m—*” The Flygon’s words were cut off by a red-hot fireball to the face, knocking him backward. “*Oh shit, that’s hot!*” he cried, bracing himself against the back door of the van.

    “That was a warning shot,” Astrid said poisonously. “Now get out of the way.”

    “*Screw you.*”

    Astrid sighed exaggeratedly and with a very slow, deliberate motion, dismounted her Pokémon. “Arcanine, keep the experiment busy while I deal with this one.” The firedog bared its teeth and lunged. I flinched, screwing my eyes shut the moment it struck, hearing Aros howling in pain. When I opened my eyes, Arcanine had dragged the Flygon away from the back of the van, its jaws locked firmly around one of his arms. Aros flared his wings in a desperate attempt to stabilize himself while drawing back his other arm to slash with. But at the last second, the firedog let go of him and dodged the incoming attack before charging forward, its entire body wreathed in flames.

    Astrid was now standing at the back of the van, staring at me with a condescending scowl. Firestorm and Swift took fighting stances in front of me. Her hand hovered over her Pokéball belt, but she hadn’t sent anyone else out yet. She was… waiting for us to make the first move? Why?

    Wait… the equipment? There was a ton of sensitive equipment behind us. Of course she didn’t want to run the risk of accidentally destroying it. But… what was so important about it?

    The answer snapped into my mind, clear as day. It was controlling Mewtwo. That had to be it. Razors had mentioned that a device had been controlling him. Mewtwo and Entei had been unloaded from the van before the mission. Entei had been recalled into it. This was it! This was the Legendary control tech. I clenched my fists, feeling a spark of confidence rising within me. I actually had way more leverage in this than I thought, didn’t I?

    “You can’t hide in there forever,” Astrid snapped.

    I gave her a defiant glare. “I think I can. I think these computers are the only thing keeping Mewtwo on your side. What happens if I destroy them?”

    “You’ll be in for the worst pain of your life, that’s what,” she spat. But at the same time, there was actually the tiniest sliver of fear in her expression. Mewtwo might have been the Rockets’ greatest weapon, but they were also terrified of him, weren’t they?

    Neither of us made a move. Behind her, Arcanine had knocked Aros to the ground, pummeling the dragon repeatedly with a series of rapid-fire blows. My chest tightened—Aros was faring much worse than I’d expected. I had to find a way out of this, and fast. But I couldn’t actually destroy the computers with her standing there. It’d be a death sentence. At the same time, she couldn’t start a battle without running the risk of destroying them herself—that was a death sentence as well. And she couldn’t just pull me out herself while I had Firestorm and Swift here. We were stuck. And from the look on her face, she knew it just as well as I did.

    Without warning, Firestorm spat a fireball right at Astrid. Her eyes went wide, and she lunged out of the way, dodging it at the last second.

    “You’re going to regret that!” she snarled.

    And then a sudden bolt of lightning struck her from nowhere, knocking her to the ground instantly. What the hell? How—where had that come from?! My question was answered when a spiky Pikachu shot into our field of view, stopping in its tracks right in front of the van.

    Chibi!

    Arcanine immediately bolted away from Aros, snarling furiously as it threw itself between its fallen trainer and Chibi. But then its eyes darted between me, Chibi, and Aros as it slowly stepped backward, ears pinned and tail low. The firedog let out low growl, then nudged its nose under its trainer and rolled her limp body onto its back before racing off.

    I sank to my knees, letting out a huge sigh of relief. I didn’t have much chance to relax before Chibi rounded on me. “*What are you doing facing down the head of the combat unit alone?! I’d expect that kind of overconfidence from Aros, but not you, Jade.*”

    “*Hey,*” Aros growled, hobbling over to us.

    “I didn’t mean to! It kind of just happened,” I muttered lamely, feeling my cheeks go red.

    Chibi closed his eyes and shook his head. “*Stay out of trouble, damn it,*” he said before racing off.

    “Since when has he been so protective?” I muttered under my breath. I leaned outside the van to get a good look at where he was heading and saw that the rebels’ sabotage hadn’t gone unnoticed. With Suicune focusing its efforts on the ALRs and Mew and Zapdos banding together to fight Mewtwo, the Rockets had opted to stay out of the Legendaries’ way, which put them in another direct clash with the Rebellion.

    I took a deep breath. The others would be okay. The Rockets’ forces had already been decimated by Suicune. And Chibi was going to help protect them. I had to focus on what I was doing. I turned back to see how Aros had fared and—

    “Oh geez… are you okay?”

    “*What’s it look like?*” Aros said in a low voice, looking away. The bug-dragon’s scales were covered in nasty red blisters and vicious gashes in jagged, tearing patterns that looked like bite wounds, bleeding freely. I hopped down from the van and approached him carefully—the last thing I wanted was to catch him off-guard in such a vulnerable state.

    “At least take these,” I said, reaching into my belt pouch and holding out a fistful of oran and rawst berries. The Flygon scarfed them down instantly.

    “*Not nearly enough, but it’ll do,*” he muttered.

    I climbed back inside the van, a feeling of hopelessness starting to settle in. No matter how hard I looked, I hadn’t been able to find Mewtwo and Entei’s Pokéballs. Was there any point in spending more time looking? But if not, what was I supposed to do now?

    The answer hit me like lightning. The threat I’d made to Astrid… to destroy the Legendary control tech… now that she was gone, I could actually do that.

    “Firestorm, time to trash that console.” The Charmeleon looked like he’d just been told it was his birthday. Blowing out a huge fireball onto his claws, he drew back a fist and swung it with all his might. We’d been attacking heavily armored weaponry all day, it was actually kind of funny seeing his Fire Punch tear through ordinary computers. But the real question was: had that broken the Rockets’ control over Mewtwo? I leaned outside the back of the van to get a better look at the Legendary battle and—

    I stared. Mewtwo lay sprawled out in the dirt, motionless. They’d finally managed to take him down. If I’d been just a little bit faster…

    Zapdos’s feathers were charred black, its wings straining just to stay aloft. And yet it still was bearing down on the Rocket’s forces with an unyielding fury, despite the fact that its bolts had weakened to the point that they couldn’t even break the vehicles’ shields. Master Balls flew through the air, forcing the electric-type to dive out of the way in an awkward move that almost sent it crashing to the ground.

    <Zapdos, we must leave!> Mew pleaded.

    “*No!! I’m not leaving without them!*”

    <It will do us no good if you’re captured as well!>

    “*I can’t leave them!!*” the thunderbird cried, eyes wide with desperation.

    Mew glanced frantically between Zapdos and the Rockets, her eyes widening in horror as a Master Ball flew right at the former. And then, in the blink of an eye, she teleported to Zapdos’s side, and the two of them vanished together. This time they didn’t reappear. Mew had taken them far from here.

    They’d escaped. But it also meant they’d had to give up on rescuing Articuno and Moltres.

    The squeal of tires suddenly rang out, alarmingly close to us this time. Had the Rockets realized I was here? How?!

    Astrid’s Arcanine. Like it wouldn’t have led them back to me? Especially now that the Legendaries were gone? My train of thought was rudely interrupted by Aros clambering inside the van, shoving me, Firestorm, and Swift into a corner in the process.

    “Aros, what the hell.”

    “*The Rockets are all heading this way. Excuse me if I didn’t want to be in the line of fire,*” Aros grumbled.

    “You couldn’t just fly away?”

    “*How the hell would you have gotten out then, huh?*”

    I raised an eyebrow. “Is that concern?”

    Aros scoffed. “*Tch. As if. Chibi would never let me hear the end of it if I got you killed.*”

    Well alright then. Either way, we had to get out of here, now. “Can you still fly?”

    “*Don’t have much of a choice if we wanna get out of here,*” the Flygon grunted.

    I recalled Firestorm and Swift, then slowly clambered onto his back, taking care to avoid the worst of the burns.

    “Alright. Let’s go.”

    Aros bolted out of the van and then everything dissolved into chaos. Gunfire rang out, so close it nearly split my ears. And then out of nowhere, Aros barreled to the left and my arms slipped from his neck and for a single, heart-stopping moment I was clutching at thin air before my hands found his tail fan and I clung to it for dear life. His every move sent whiplash running through my lower body, but there was no chance for him to slow down—I had no choice but to ride it out. The dark aura of Feint Attack slowly crept across the both of us as we shot across the ground, nothing more than a shadow. More Rockets in this direction—more gunfire! Nowhere was safe! Our shadowy aura faded, but the bug-dragon immediately focused all his energy into flaring it up again, just in time to misdirect a second Rocket squad’s gunfire, right before bolting for the empty airspace between two jeeps.

    “*Dammit this is hard—I’ve never used Feint Attack this much in such a short time,*” Aros grunted.

    He was running low on energy. Everyone was. What would we do if he ran out entirely? I just had to hold on. We were going to make it, I just had to hold on! They couldn’t hit us; we were moving too fast. I just had to keep telling myself that. We were moving too—

    A sudden, sharp pain tore through my arm and I was falling. My surroundings spiraled past me in a dizzying whirlwind, and the only thing I could make out was the ground rushing toward me and my voice as I screamed, and I screwed my eyes shut right before I struck the ground and kept going, tumbling over and over before finally skidding to a stop in a crumpled heap, every inch of my body racked with pain.

    I clutched my left arm to my chest and immediately felt my right hand soaked with something warm and sticky. What…? Slowly, shakily, I peeled my fingers away, revealing a deep gash that carved through—okay no, I shouldn’t have looked. I clutched it even tighter, wincing as the dirt from my hand stung the wound and blood continued to seep through my fingers. Damn it, why was there so much blood?! My right arm was an awful, scraped-up mess, but at least it wasn’t bleeding all over the place like—

    Like I’d been shot. No way… I’d been shot?

    I clenched my teeth and struggled to regain control of my breathing as tears stung the corners of my eyes. They were still after me, weren’t they? I had to get up. I had to run! But my body didn’t want to move.

    I craned my neck to look up at my surroundings and saw the Rockets that had cornered us earlier now closing in. Saw their Pokémon launching attacks at Aros as he made repeated attempts to swoop down towards me. Saw the familiar form of an Arcanine bounding towards me in the distance and felt my blood run cold. I swallowed hard and poured every ounce of effort into pulling my legs underneath my body, then somehow managed to put my weight on one leg and lift myself from the ground, still clutching my bloodied arm. Had to keep moving. Had to—

    A sudden bolt flew out of nowhere and I was on the ground again, crying out in agony as a surge of lightning tore through me.

    That was it. I didn’t have any strength left. My body was paralyzed, my limbs twitching uncontrollably. I could barely make out the heavy thud of paws striking the ground near me, followed by the scraping of boots against the dirt.

    Had to… do something. But my thoughts didn’t want to flow straight. Everything felt hazy and distant, even the pain.

    The last thing I saw was Astrid staring down at me, her face devoid of any emotion. Then everything went dark.






    ~End Chapter 19~
     
    Chapter 20: Ultimatum
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    This chapter contains a detailed portrayal of trauma and PTSD. The majority of the narration was directly inspired by anecdotes written by trauma survivors.

    Disclaimer: I am not a trauma survivor. I appreciate any and all feedback on the accuracy of the portrayal in this chapter.



    ~Chapter 20: Ultimatum~


    My eyes blinked, and a dim surrounding gradually came into focus. Where was I? I couldn’t remember, but this didn’t seem like the last place I’d been conscious. I’d been… in the forest, right? We were trying to escape, and… this would be a lot easier to process if my head didn’t hurt so damn much. My thoughts dragged like mud.

    I blinked a few more times, willing my eyes to focus. I was horizontal, staring up at a ceiling. Alright, that was a start. I tried to sit up and—pain, everywhere, I should have known. A dull aching throb was the only sensation my body felt like giving me. But by this point frustration was starting to win out. I forced myself into an upright sitting position… and found myself on a bench in a dimly lit concrete room. Its only features were a tiny sink, a toilet that I wanted to stay as far from as possible, and the metal bars comprising the front wall. Wait… bars?

    A cell. I was in a cell. A half dozen similar cells filled out the rest of the room. Near the entrance to the room, a Rocket officer sat reclining at a desk, reading something on a tablet.

    My heart sank through the floor. I’d been captured. And now I was imprisoned and waiting for who knows what. I sank back against the wall, the weight of the situation crushing down on me. And then the memories of the mission itself came rushing back.

    We’d failed.

    No, we hadn’t.

    Articuno and Moltres had been caught.

    All of them would have been caught if it hadn’t been for us. I actually helped, damn it. I mattered.

    And look where it’d gotten me.

    I buried my face in my hands, my mind a swirling mess of conflicting emotions. Out of nowhere, a stabbing pain shot through my left arm. I went to grab it with my right… and then froze. My arm was crudely wrapped in medical tape. Oh crap, I’d been shot, too. I held my breath, gingerly running my fingers across the tape, feeling the shape of the wound. The tape was probably only to keep it from bleeding all over whatever vehicle I’d been transported in. Blood had caked all over the edges and formed an ugly scab. Removing the tape was gonna suck. But that was a problem for later. For now, I had to figure out more about my situation. What time was it? How long had I been here? I glanced at my watch, and… right, my watch was dead. This was the second watch that Raichu had killed. If I ever got out of here, my next one was gonna be a wind-up.

    I was seriously making plans around the inevitable next time I’d be electrocuted. What the hell?

    A sudden creaking rang throughout the cell block, and I glanced up to see the entrance door swinging open. And then a wave of cold dread crashed down on me. Astrid stepped through the doorway, her expression cold and disapproving, like she’d rather have been anywhere else. Astrid, who I’d escaped from twice, both times knocking her out with Chibi’s lightning. Except this time there was no way out—I’d be at her mercy.

    “You’re awake. Good. That’ll make this easier.” She turned to the guard at the desk and said, “Leave us.”

    At first, the Rocket didn’t notice that she’d addressed him. Several seconds later, his eyes suddenly widened, and he jerked forward in his seat, nearly dropping his tablet. “Oh! Uh, right away!” He quickly gathered up his belongings off the desk and hurried out of the cell block, looking almost as flustered as I felt.

    I was alone… alone with the head combat executive. No Pokémon. No allies. Not even any Rocket bystanders would know what happened to me. With slow, deliberate steps, Astrid walked forward toward my cell. The sound of her heavy boots echoed off the walls, each footfall digging into me like a shock wave. I had to stay calm. I couldn’t let her know how terrified I was—not when she hadn’t even done anything yet.

    “Why am I here?” I asked, forcing my words to sound calm and collected.

    “I think you know why,” she replied, tapping her ID to the scanner on my cell door.

    Of course. The Rockets wouldn’t have bothered to bring me back alive if I didn’t have something they wanted. And that something was information.

    The cell door shut behind her with a metallic clang. I did my best to avoid eye contact, but she was right there. Right in front of me, staring down at me like I was nothing, no doubt thinking up the best ways to force me to talk.

    Astrid raised an eyebrow. “What’s that look for? You should be happy I’m the one interrogating you. The others aren’t quite as… understanding as I am.”

    I highly, highly doubted that. But was the dread on my face really that obvious? I quickly tried to rearrange my expression into something more neutral, but even my facial muscles felt distant and unresponsive.

    “There are a lot of things I want to know about your little team,” Astrid continued, her tone casual, like this was a perfectly ordinary conversation between two people who weren’t mortal enemies.

    “…And if I don’t feel like telling you?” It was a stupid question. I already knew the answer, and I didn’t even want to hear it.

    Astrid delicately plucked a Pokéball off her belt and opened it, releasing a burst of white light that condensed into the form of her Raichu. That Raichu. The orange mouse gave a swish of its long, inky-black tail, sparks leaping off its cheeks. Just looking at it sent a jolt of nausea through my stomach.

    “Use your imagination,” she said.

    I clenched my teeth, trying my hardest to give her my most defiant glare possible. It didn’t feel very convincing.

    “Let’s start with where that rebel base of yours is.”

    Alright… I had to know she was gonna ask that. What was somewhere far away from Midnight Island, but still close enough for us to go on missions? Fuchsia? The S.S. Anne had sailed past there. It made sense.

    “I’m going to assume you didn’t hear me,” she said icily. “Where is the rebel base?”

    Then again… if I told her too readily, she’d immediately know I was lying. Why would I just immediately give away the rest of my team without any force? I wouldn’t. Which meant—my insides melted away just thinking about it—that I had no choice but to take the first attack.

    “Time’s up.”

    She snapped her fingers, and Raichu let a string of lightning fly. The sudden burst of gut-wrenching pain gripped my whole body, tearing through every nerve like wildfire. I clenched my teeth, desperately trying to keep myself from crying out in agony. Had to endure it. Couldn’t let her get to me. But the pain—! It consumed every inch of me, threatening to tear me apart.

    Finally, it stopped. I gasped for breath and coughed hard, my arms and legs trembling uncontrollably while Astrid stared down at me with her usual condescending face. Breathing heavily, I glared back at her—part of me actually wanted her to know I’d taken the attack on purpose. It meant I had control over something, at least.

    “Maybe that question was too hard?” she said mockingly. “Let’s try a different one. Who’s your leader?”

    I let out a breath. I could actually answer this one. Except… she almost definitely wasn’t going to like the answer.

    “You already know our leader’s called Stalker,” I said in a low voice.

    She glared. “That’s completely useless and you know it.” Of course.

    I closed my eyes. “I don’t know his real name. You think he’d have told us?”

    A long pause followed. “Is he a former Rocket? Is he a former executive?”

    “I don’t know,” I said, my words as slow and deliberate as possible. “I know he has contacts on Team Rocket, but that’s it.”

    A sudden jolt out of nowhere left me doubled over, clutching my stomach as another wave of pain wormed through my insides. It was short, but it caught me off-guard and left a pit of nausea in its wake.

    “You’re not telling me the full truth,” Astrid hissed. “Was he a part of the revolt? Is he the former commander?”

    “I… what? I don’t know anything about the revolt!” I really didn’t! What was I supposed to say?! I didn’t even know enough to be able to make up random crap.

    Astrid’s face lit up with rage, and she drew back a fist. I braced myself for the punch… but then she froze, staring at me wide-eyed, like she couldn’t believe she’d almost lost control. Seconds passed; neither of us moved a muscle. Then her expression hardened, and she snapped her fingers.

    A blinding flash and another flood of lightning. I screamed as the pain burned through every inch of me, drowning out every other sensation. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I was on fire, and it just kept going, with no sign of ending. Why wouldn’t it end?!

    It took me several seconds to notice when it finally stopped. The pain was gone, and I was… on the floor? I blinked slowly, my thoughts struggling to flow again. I must have fallen off the bench at some point. My stomach clenched painfully, and the stinging taste of acid filled my mouth. Muscles trembling, my limbs tried to maneuver under my body so I could lift myself off the filthy concrete. But then… what was the point? She was just going to shock me again.

    Astrid kneeled down next to me and brushed the hair back from my face. “You know… I don’t actually like torturing people,” she said, her voice cold and quiet.

    “You’ve sure showed it,” I muttered dully, not looking up at her.

    A fist locked around my shirt collar instantly, dragging my body off the floor. My limbs flailed, struggling for balance, but it didn’t even matter—she lifted me up to her level and stared me dead in the eyes.

    “You listen to me very carefully,” Astrid said, her voice low and dangerous. “The only reason you are alive right now is because you’re useful to us. Which means the only way you are leaving this base alive is if you prove it wasn’t a waste of time to bring you here. So if you tell me where the rebel base is, I might just be so happy that I’d convince the boss to let you go.”

    Somehow, I couldn’t imagine her being happy with anything. But at that moment, it was a really, really appealing lie. Astrid stared at me expectantly, her eyes scanning my face, searching for anything she could latch onto.

    “Did you hear me? I’m giving you the chance to live if you cooperate. You should be grateful,” she spat.

    The chance to live… it just meant selling out everyone else on the Rebellion. I willed myself to ignore it, but her words cut through me like a knife. I had to say something. Something that would satisfy her without killing my teammates. But my mind had gone completely blank. Come on, I had to say something!

    “Answer me, damn it!” she yelled, throwing me to the ground. I barely had a chance to register the pain shooting through my left side before my senses dissolved in a wave of lightning. It tore through me, scrambling my insides, numbing my limbs, setting every nerve ablaze with agony.

    A pause. The lightning stopped for a single, sweet instant. Just long enough for me to get my senses back. Then it returned, somehow worse. Alternating between pain and relief, my body twitching uncontrollably the entire time. Couldn’t brace myself. Couldn’t endure it. Not like this.

    She was saying more things now. Asking—no, demanding more answers, and it took my brain far too long to piece together the words: “What Pokémon does your leader use?”

    How was I supposed to know that? A small voice urgently prodded at the back of my mind. I… did know the answer to that? What was I supposed to do about it?

    “Charizard,” my voice said.

    “I already know that,” came a reply full of exasperation. Another blast of electricity shot through my body.

    The next question: “How many members are on your team?” I knew that one. It was… a number? What number? My brain wouldn’t stop counting the seconds it had been since the last shock. Six… seven… eight…

    “Eight,” my voice mumbled. What was the question? That… wasn’t the answer, was it? Another burst of gut-wrenching pain gave me my answer.

    Nothing meant anything anymore. I couldn’t move or talk or do anything but lie there and listen to words I couldn’t understand and wait for the next shock because there was always another shock.

    I was powerless. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. My body didn’t exist anymore, just a swirling torrent of pain, and I was drowning in it. Why? Why was this happening? I couldn’t process it anymore. Couldn’t think. Nothing existed but pain.

    “Why can’t you just cooperate?!”

    Anything to make it stop. Anything. Why couldn’t I do anything? There had to be something. My brain scrambled to find an answer, clawing through a sea of static, searching for any two thoughts to piece together. I felt my voice, and then somehow became aware that it was my voice. It definitely existed. I could use it. I could end this!

    Screaming. I’d been screaming. The past few minutes suddenly flashed through my brain, clear as day. Lying down, taking the pain, useless, unable to do anything, hovering at the edge of consciousness because there was no way she’d give me the relief of slipping over that edge.

    “I’ll tell you!”

    “What?” Astrid demanded, taken aback.

    “I said I’ll tell you, I just… I need more time. I need… I need to think about it first. Please…” God, I sounded pathetic.

    I couldn’t see her face. I had no idea what her reaction was. I could only see the concrete floor and my arms stretched out uselessly in front of my face. Seconds passed. Glorious, pain-free seconds. The ache in my body was nothing so long as the shocks stopped.

    My senses gradually started returning. I could feel the cold, rough surface of the concrete scraping against my face. The sting of the bullet wound in my arm. The warm, wet feeling spreading across my lower body.

    Slowly and deliberately, Astrid’s boots stepped into my field of view. My ears caught the sound of her leaning down, right in front of me. And then finally, in a dangerous whisper, inches from my ear, she said, “You have one hour.”

    I let out a long, slow breath. It had worked. I honestly couldn’t believe it had worked. How much of my pathetic display had been acting and how much of it hadn’t been? I had no idea. Astrid recalled her Raichu, then turned around and strode out the cell, stopping just long enough to shut the door.

    I was alone. Frozen on the floor, body unresponsive. Each breath came slow and deliberate, like I couldn’t remember how to do it automatically. Eyelids closed and opened, like I was controlling them for the first time. The opposite end of the cell slowly came into focus, and it took my brain a few seconds to realize that I could look at things and see them. That my actions and senses were connected. Something about the idea just didn’t make sense.

    Movement, in my fingertips. I was moving them. It took far too much effort, though, and I stopped. That was fine; I didn’t want to move anyway. I didn’t want to do anything. Did feeling things count as doing something? Some part of my brain remained convinced that none of these senses were mine anyway. That I was seeing through the eyes of a stranger and feeling pain that definitely had to be someone else’s because there was no way that all of that had really happened to me. It couldn’t have been real.

    Time had no meaning anymore. My eyes slid to my right-hand wrist, but the watch remained dead. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there. This fact was alarming, for some reason.

    My eyes snapped open. I only had an hour. One hour to figure out some way—any way—to not go through that again. Breath—my breath—seized in my chest, and fingers clutched at the concrete until skin started to scrape off.

    I wasn’t really going to give in… was I? I could come up with all kinds of logical-sounding cover stories now that I had a chance to think. The problem was… there was no way she’d ever let me go until she got a chance to confirm if I was telling the truth. And when she found out I was lying—because of course she was going to find out…

    I knew she wasn’t going to kill me. Some part of me just knew. She needed me here, so I could feel the punishment and know that I was powerless to stop it and that the only way she’d let it end was if I gave her what she wanted. A shiver ran through me. That was it, wasn’t it? The only way it was going to end. If I didn’t sell out the rest of the Rebellion, I was stuck in here with no end in sight. How long would I be able to take that until I gave in? I didn’t want to know. Just thinking it about it hurt.

    A sound pricked at my ears suddenly. Footsteps echoing softly down the hallway outside the cell block. And it was like a bucket of cold water had been dumped on my head. It couldn’t have been an hour already. No way. No way. I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t go through that again.

    The entrance to the cell block swung open and my entire body went numb. Please, no.

    “Hey, kid!” a hushed voice called out. Definitely not Astrid’s voice.

    My eyes snapped open. Slowly, painfully, my arms lifted my torso from the floor. My head turned toward the cell block entrance. And then I blinked, unable to process the sight. A familiar face, framed by curly blonde locks. Icy blue eyes. A devilish grin that faltered slightly once she got a good look at me.

    The girl—Stracion—spoke. “Wow, you’re a mess.”

    “Thanks,” I muttered dully.

    “Anyway, I can’t exactly come in there, so we’ll have to talk across the room… cameras and all that,” she said, pointing to the security cameras in the corners, facing the cells. “Can’t be seen talking to a rebel who’s about to escape.”

    “Then why are you here?”

    “Aw, come on. I thought we were friends.” But then, for whatever reason, my brain finally managed to work through the implications of what she’d said.

    “Wait, what do you mean, ‘about to escape’?”

    “Slow on the uptake right now, arent’cha? That’s okay, maybe these will help.” She produced a handful of minimized Pokéballs and rolled them across the floor into the cell, where they bumped into my side. I stared at them, confused. My head was starting to hurt from trying to process all of this.

    “How did you get those?” I asked.

    “Your leader messaged me; said one of your teammates would be teleporting ‘em over, so I just had to be in the right place at the right time,” she said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger.

    I could practically feel the context trying to piece itself together in my brain. A teammate had teleported two Pokéballs to Stracion, and she was giving them to me…

    “Wait. These are my Pokémon?”

    “Nah. I think your Pokémon are over there, actually,” she said, gesturing to the desk where the guard had previously been stationed. A Pokéball Containment Unit sat on a shelf behind it, along with a belt pouch.

    Right… I’d had my Pokéballs with me when I was captured. But then whose were these?

    “So, I’ve done my part—the rest is on you, yeah? Better get on that, ‘cause I’d bet you only got a minute or two before someone notices something on the security feed. Toodles!” She winked before disappearing out the doorway

    I stared at the place where she’d left, blinking in confusion. Had that… really just happened? My eyes slid back to the Pokéballs at my side. Someone had given her two Pokémon to give to me that weren’t mine? That… that didn’t make any sense. Not that anything made any sense with how badly everything still hurt. I didn’t want to think right now, I just wanted to curl into a ball and forget everything.

    But I couldn’t ignore this opportunity. Slowly, my right hand slid down until it reached the Pokéballs. It took several second of fumbling for my fingers to find the buttons that opened them. Twin bursts of light suddenly appeared alongside me. And when they took shape, all I could do was stare.

    “Aros? Stygian?” I blurted out. “What are you two doing here?”

    The clones’ eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the pathetic sight of me. I screwed my eyes shut, like that somehow made it better. I couldn’t even describe how I felt to see them.

    “*Stalker sent us. Said it was important to get you out of the enemy’s hands as soon as possible,*” Aros said, his words a bit… off, like he couldn’t figure out what to make of me.

    “How are we getting out?” I mumbled.

    Stygian turned around and began investigating the cell bars, pawing at them for a few seconds before scoffing. “*These bars aren’t meant to hold Pokémon at all.*” The Absol drew herself back, then lunged, swinging her head so the blade cleaved through the bars repeatedly. After the third swing, the cell door clattered to the ground in pieces.

    She looked back at me expectantly. “*We need to move.*”

    Move. I had to move? Just breathing was hard enough right now. How the hell was I supposed to stand up, let alone make it outside the base? I could practically feel their eyes burning into me as I propped myself up on my elbows, wincing as a jolt shot through my left arm. Okay, that arm was useless; just the other one, then. I grit my teeth and forced a leg forward so I could put weight on it, willing myself to push through the pain. Everything was slow. Maddeningly slow. Why did my legs feel like dead, useless stumps. Why had I let myself get into this situation in the first place. Why.

    Somehow, I managed to stand, and it was like my legs had switched from lead to jelly, wobbling unsteadily as I braced myself against the wall. Aros looked me up and down once more and grimaced before turning his back to me. “*Get on. It’ll be faster.*”

    I felt my cheeks go red. Why did anyone have to see me like this. Why. “Are you… sure?”

    He closed his eyes. “*Just do it.*”

    I reached out an arm to grab the dragon’s side, then slowly maneuvered a leg over his back. His scales were crossed with the scabbed marks of where his wounds from the last battle had been hastily healed.

    “Why are you risking yourselves for me?” I mumbled.

    “*You freed us from our confinement. It’s a simple matter of returning the favor,*” Stygian said with a tone that made it quite clear she didn’t want to hear anything else about it.

    I crossed my arms around Aros’s neck and then kind of just… collapsed onto his back as every muscle gave out at once. The Flygon shifted a bit to make sure I wouldn’t fall off the moment he started moving, then carefully stepped over the broken door pieces and ambled towards the cell block entrance.

    “Wait. Are… are my Pokémon really in there?” I said, weakly pointing at the Pokéball Containment Unit on the shelf over the guard station. Aros tilted his head at it, then reached forward and undid the latches on the case, opening it. Two Pokéballs and a black hybrid ball—they had to be mine. My heart skipped a beat—the Rockets had almost gotten their hands on Chibi again. Except, wait… he hadn’t even been with me when I was captured.

    “*Ha, I bet they were pissed when they found out Chibi isn’t in there,*” Aros said with a chuckle. “*Wish I could’ve seen that.*”

    I slowly extended a shaking arm to grab the three minimized balls before stuffing them in my pocket with the other two. Something about having five Pokéballs felt really weird. The belt pouch was too far for me to reach, so Aros just grabbed it and slipped it around his neck before exiting the cell block.

    “I don’t know where we are. I don’t know how to get out of here. I can’t…”

    “*It’s Celadon,*” Stygian cut me off. “*We know this base by heart. Just be quiet.*”

    Just be quiet. I could do that. Aros’s wings buzzed on either side of me, and we were airborne, shooting down a deserted corridor. I caught sight of Stygian racing ahead of us, a white blur in my fuzzy vision. Second later—or minutes, I couldn’t really tell—blaring sirens split the air, and flashing red lights dug into my eyes. I buried my face in Aros’s neck and thought about being anywhere else.

    “*They’ll be on us soon. I’ll stay in front and use Protect.*”

    Gunshots fired and Aros changed direction suddenly and all my senses dissolved into an onslaught of lights and sounds and motion and chaos. Every so often I caught shreds of what was going on: the sparkling white light of Protect. The prickling sensation of Feint Attack’s dark aura. The writhing nausea caused by our constantly changing flight path as the two clones pushed on, dodging the Rockets’ deadly force at every turn.

    “*On your left, watch it!*”

    I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t do anything but keep my head down and pour every ounce of effort into holding fast to Aros’s neck with hands that barely seemed to work while every sense was overloaded at once.

    Our flight path zigged and zagged and spiraled tightly upward. I dared to open my eyes a crack and was met with a view of the same stairwell that I’d once crept up under vastly different circumstances. At some point Aros spun around, and I felt a burst of heat as the dragon launched some kind of fire breath down the stairs. Not long afterward, the metallic clang of blades on metal rang out and then cold air pierced every inch of exposed skin like needles.

    “*We’re outside. You need to recall me.*” a voice urgently prodded at my ears.

    What? Oh, right, Stygian couldn’t fly. I grabbed a Pokéball, pointed it vaguely in her direction, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. What? Why didn’t…?

    “*Hurry!!*”

    Idiot. It was the wrong Pokéball. I fumbled with a few more before finding the right one and recalling the Absol in a beam of red. And then Aros’s wings powered us rapidly upward, sending a rush of wind and tangled hair into my face.

    “*Which way?*”

    Dammit. How was I supposed to answer that now? Slowly, I peeled open my eyelids and was met with the orange glow of sunset… or was it sunrise? Midnight was… east of Celadon, so…

    “Head… head away from the sun,” I said. God, I hoped it was the sunset. “Make sure you’re not followed.”

    “*I know.*”

    The twilight gave way to a dark, moonless night. The flight stopped feeling like flight after a while as everything gradually went numb. I was floating in a void, some part of my brain refusing to accept that we’d actually escaped. Somehow, I was still in the cell, but also out here at the same time. Lost in the abyss of dread, waiting for Astrid to resume the interrogation, and also numb from the autumn night sapping the heat from my body. Both somehow real and not real.

    I had no idea how long it continued like that. There were times I was certain I was dreaming. That I’d fallen asleep at some point and lost my grip on Aros, slipped from the Flygon’s back and been dashed to pieces on the ground below. But my hands—numb as they were—were locked tightly around the clone’s neck. I didn’t think I could have moved them if I wanted to.

    Eons later, I heard Aros’s voice telling me, “*We’ve landed.*”

    Slowly, my eyes opened. The ground was right below us. I exhaled slowly, feeling a rush of… something. I wasn’t quite sure what. Relief that we’d made it home in one piece? I didn’t feel like one piece.

    My hands trembled as they slowly unclasped from one another. Aros straightened himself so that when I slid off his back, I was standing upright as opposed to toppling over. I wasn’t totally convinced my legs were going to support my weight, but they did.

    That’s when I realized we weren’t alone. A crowd of Rebellion members had gathered outside the front entrance to the stadium, glancing uncertainly amongst each other. A hot wave of embarrassment washed over me as I became all too aware of the dozens of eyes running up and down the pathetic sight of me. The hushed voices whispering and wondering. Everyone knew I’d been captured. Everyone could look at me and see that I was the first one to screw up so badly.

    I could feel the fires of humiliation burning every inch of exposed skin. The sounds of the whispers and the murmurs and even the genuine questions that my brain didn’t feel like parsing because it had all blended together into a flurry of needles assaulting my ears. I couldn’t take it. I wanted to be as far from here as possible. Preferably in my room, alone, where no one could see me, and I could forget everything.

    A finger tapped my shoulder, and I almost melted into a puddle right then and there. I spun around to see Stalker standing behind me, motioning for me to follow him away from the crowd. The last thing I needed was everyone staring at me in this state. Something told me he knew that. I followed him away from the stadium, where there were no longer a million things demanding my attention and assaulting my senses. It helped… kind of.

    Stalker turned to face me, and he didn’t mince words. “Were you interrogated?”

    His question felt like a knife plunging straight through my chest. But I nodded.

    Stalker paused to consider me carefully for some time. No doubt mulling over just how badly I’d screwed up. How likely it was that I’d screwed over the rest of the team. Finally, he turned around and said, “Go get cleaned up. We’ll meet in my office to talk privately about what happened.”
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The water was too cold. I cranked the shower handle as far as it would go, but it still felt too cold. Even when the room filled with steam and my skin turned bright red and I knew it was burning, but I couldn’t feel it. Nothing felt like anything. I was going to wake up and realize it’d all been a dream any second now.

    I didn’t bother trying to unwrap my wound and redress it properly. I’d deal with that bloody mess later. Hopefully much later. Maybe if I waited long enough, I wouldn’t have to do it at all.

    The clothes I’d been wearing previously were still lying in an ugly heap on the bathroom floor. Just looking at them made me feel sick, so I avoided doing that, but at the same time it was hard to ignore them. Trying to think about what to do was too much effort, though. Maybe I’d have Firestorm burn them or something, hell if I knew.

    After what felt like an eternity, I found myself sitting at the end of the bed wearing clean clothes and not really sure how I’d gotten there because everything after a certain point was all a blur. I wanted nothing more than to just fall backwards and pretend no one else existed. But Stalker was waiting for me downstairs. Somehow that fact alone was powerful enough to get me out of my room and awkwardly traversing the stairs down to the main floor. It wasn’t that I was afraid of what he’d say or do if I didn’t. It was just… I couldn’t disappoint him more than I already had.

    I realized about halfway down that I should have taken the elevator.

    True to his word, Stalker was waiting for me in his office. I didn’t say anything when I entered; I just set Aros and Stygian’s Pokéballs on his desk and then eased myself into the chair facing him. My eyes wandered around the room, not focusing on anything in particular, just avoiding his gaze.

    “I need to know everything that was said during your interrogation. As word-for-word as possible,” he said.

    I winced. Ever since I’d left that cell, my brain had been furiously working to erase all of it. Like the images and sounds and thoughts and feelings were all some diseased part of my memory that had to be eliminated as soon as possible.

    But it was still there. All of it.

    My words tasted like the salt of sweat and the sting of lightning as I recounted every detail I could. It felt unreal. Like something that had to have happened to someone else. My voice echoed dully in my ears, and some part of my brain remained convinced that it wasn’t my voice.

    Stalker sat there and listened the entire time. Calmly. Patiently. But there was a slight edge to his expressions. And I knew the only reason he was having me relay this was because he knew how likely it was that I’d given away some piece of crucial information that’d doom the Rebellion. He didn’t comment on anything, just offered prompting questions whenever my voice died for more than a few seconds. I kept expecting him to ask if I had really meant it when I said I would tell her the base’s location. And yet… he didn’t.

    “So overall, what you’re saying is… you didn’t actually give away anything.”

    I blinked. My brain was such a hazy mess of shame and humiliation that it took several seconds for his words to register. I really… hadn’t given anything away… had I? Not yet, anyway—I’d been rescued before I’d gotten a chance to. But… was I going to? I didn’t know. I hated that.

    “What do I do now?” I said, my voice raw.

    Stalker paused, closing his eyes. He was silent for what felt like forever. Finally he said, “Take some time to recover. You’re exempt from training and missions for now.”

    I let out a breath as a rush of… something hit me in the chest. Relief? I wouldn’t have to endure anything like that ever again. Shame? I’d failed so badly I wasn’t getting another chance. Anger? He was basically saying that I was no use to the team anymore.

    I didn’t want to go on any missions—so then why did his words feel like a punch to the gut?

    I muttered something in response and then left before I made the mistake of sharing how I felt. I was hoping I could make it back to my room without anyone seeing me. But Rudy approached me as I exited the elevator on my floor. He fidgeted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact, like he knew I didn’t want to see anyone right now.

    “Hey Jade, uh… wanna hang out and watch League tournaments? I downloaded the ‘96 Kanto top cut—I heard it was pretty awesome.”

    I just wanted to fall asleep and forget the entire day.

    “No thanks.”

    I walked past him so I didn’t have to see the look of disappointment on his face. Something told me it would’ve hurt as much as… well, as much as everything else did. My actions were on autopilot as I scanned my room key and shuffled inside, my mind a swirling mess of conflicting emotions that I didn’t want to sort through. Instead, I walked straight to my bed and collapsed face-down onto it.

    I should’ve let my Pokémon out for the night. That’s what I always did. But then I’d have to explain to them, and that… really didn’t sound appealing. Not right now. Maybe later. Or never.

    At some point, I managed to kick off my shoes and worm my way under the covers, although I wasn’t entirely sure when. The blankets felt soft and warm against my skin. Nothing like the cold, hard concrete floor of the cell. But there were moments where I could have sworn I was back there. Like I’d just imagined the escape, and any second I’d feel Astrid standing over me telling me my time was up. I kept seeing flashes of light in my peripheral vision. Flinching, expecting another burst of lightning.

    It was stupid. I was home, I was safe… why was it still affecting me? There was absolutely no chance I’d be attacked here. But my thoughts kept straying back to the detention cell, no matter how badly I wanted them to stop. That feeling of being useless, unable to fight back, completely at her mercy, knowing that when push came to shove, I’d betray everyone.

    The feeling burned. I clenched my fists, swallowing hard. I had to ignore it. I had to forget it. It didn’t matter. I’d escaped. I was never going back there. She couldn’t hurt me anymore.

    I closed my eyes slowly, digging my nails into my palms as hot tears streamed down my face.

    It wasn’t real. It didn’t happen.

    In my dreams, I saw nothing but lightning.






    ~End Chapter 20~
     
    Chapter 21: Scars
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 21: Scars~


    “Char. Chaaar? Meleon’charr? Chaar, meeleon char’charmeeleon.”

    My hazy, sleep-addled brain only barely registered the Pokéspeech in my ear or the claw poking my shoulder. I pulled the covers over my head, but that didn’t stop either of the two intrusions.

    “What is it?” I grumbled, emerging from under the covers to find the Charmeleon eye level with me. This had better be good. Though judging by the last few times he’d woken me up, it probably wasn’t.

    “*I finally worked up the nerve to talk to Charizard.*”

    Part of me vaguely registered that I had wanted to see that. It had probably been amusing.

    “*She’s, uh… got a thing with Dragonite…*” he continued, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. “*But she did teach me how to use Flame Burst.*”

    “That’s good,” I replied dully.

    “*It’s better than good. My fireballs always went out before. Now they go, like… clear across the battlefield and explode.*”

    Alright, yes, that was pretty impressive. I wasn’t sure what kind of response he was hoping for, though.

    “*You should come train me. I think I’m close to evolving.*” It was painfully obvious in his voice that he was just saying it to get me out of bed. I didn’t doubt that he legitimately wanted to train, it just clearly wasn’t the main motivation.

    “I’m not feeling it right now,” I said, covering my face with a pillow so I didn’t have to look at him.

    Firestorm groaned. “*That’s what you said yesterday.*”

    “It just doesn’t sound appealing, okay?”

    “*Then what does?*”

    I didn’t want to answer that. Because the truth was, I didn’t really want to do anything right now. Eating and showering mostly just felt like a chore. Sleeping was nice, I guess. Even if it was impossible to get comfortable and my left arm wouldn’t stop throbbing ever since I’d changed out the bandages and smothered it with every disinfectant I could get my hands on (only because Swift had sat next to my bed and calmly stared at me until I did).

    Firestorm had stolen the card key to my room so he could come in whenever he felt like it, which was often. Bragging about victories. Complaining about losses. Relaying every single thing Stalker had ever said about his progress—including reminding me how close he was to evolving about five times a day. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to see any of those things—heck, I’d never forgive myself if I missed his evolution. But… I just… I couldn’t bring myself to face everyone. I couldn’t even explain why—the idea was just so completely and utterly uncomfortable on every level that it was just easier to stay in my room until the feeling passed. Whenever that was.

    “You can train without me, you know that, right?” I said quietly, lifting the pillow a bit to look at him.

    The fire lizard gave an unimpressed snort. “*Obviously. I used to train by myself, remember?*” When I didn’t respond, he added, “*That doesn’t change the fact that you’re my trainer, and you’re supposed to train me. So you have to do it.*”

    He was still trying to pretend he wasn’t worried about me. In a way, that was worse than if he’d come right out and said it. I should have been able to bounce back from this. I knew how ridiculous it was that I’d lost the will to do anything and that the idea of facing anyone who knew what had happened was nauseating. I’d already spent countless hours mentally kicking myself over it, but the feeling refused to subside.

    When I didn’t say anything, Firestorm glowered and plopped down on the floor like he was going to wait it out. But he’d get bored and leave eventually—that much I knew. And then I wouldn’t have to think about the fact that he had a point.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I could count on hearing someone knock on my door several times a day. Usually they went away when I didn’t respond. Rudy would sometimes hold entire conversations with the door, though. This was one of those times.

    “Hey Jade! Get this—Darren’s Ivysaur evolved. I can’t believe he got his starter to its final form before we did.”

    I could. With how little he cared about training Wartortle.

    “So I asked Stalker, and he said that Ivysaur usually evolves before Wartortle or Charmeleon. What’s up with that?”

    Hopefully that meant that Firestorm wasn’t going to evolve quite yet. He’d been keeping pace with Ivysaur for some time now. Although I had no idea how much he’d been training for the past few days.

    “So yeah, you gotta get out here and help me train, ‘cause I really want a Blastoise—it’s just so much cooler than Wartortle.”

    He could train with literally anyone. He didn’t need to ask me. And there was a strange sort of desperation in his voice that I couldn’t quite place. I screwed my eyes shut and willed him to leave as hard as I could. I didn’t want to think about how disappointed he was that I wasn’t up to training with anyone. I should have been up to it. I shouldn’t have felt like this.

    Rudy rambled at the door for a few more minutes before finally leaving. I thought I’d feel better after he left, but I didn’t. The anxiety had just evolved into a sickly emptiness.

    Yep, this sure was easier than just going outside and seeing everyone.

    I grabbed the remote and flipped the TV on, willing myself to stop thinking about it. Normally the competitive battling channels were the easiest way to distract the mind and keep unpleasant thoughts at bay. I quickly found that there was nothing good on, though. Not in October, with the regional league over, and all the master trainers biding their time for the championship circuit that would eventually lead into next year’s Worlds. The kind of matches involving trainers who’d gotten multiple badge sets from multiple regions.

    I flipped through the channels idly, passing by everything from boring amateur single battles with no strategy to Kalos matches that could easily be mistaken for super contests with all the stylish outfits and flashy transformations. I kind of wanted to find a Unova tournament or something—battles with a lot of Pokémon on the field just felt right after all of Stalker’s multi battle training. Couldn’t find one, though. Figures.

    I finally settled on some kind of weird monotype tournament, with Pokémon teams limited to a single type. The fire-type trainer was absolutely dominating with a Talonflame, just tearing through the opposing fighting-type trainer. There was hardly any question of who was going to win, which kind of diminished the entertainment value. In any case, competitive battling was more fun to watch with Rudy—he always had interesting commentary, regardless of how close the matches turned out to be.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored him.

    A light fluttering to my left caught my attention, and I turned to see Swift gliding in through the open window, clasping a grocery bag in his talons. He dropped it on the bed and then landed alongside it. I stared at the bag for a few seconds before unfolding it to reveal a boxed lunch.

    “How’d you buy this?” I asked. He hadn’t borrowed my wallet—it was still sitting on the bedside table like normal.

    “*Stalker gave me money,*” the Pidgeotto replied.

    Great, now I had that to worry about. I wasn’t sure why that was worrisome, it just was.

    I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I knew from experience that Swift wasn’t going to back down until I took care of myself, and that he had way more patience than I did. So, fighting back every impulse that said food was completely unappealing right now, I opened the box. It was the ‘trainer’s special’ containing an assortment of rice balls and dumplings—I’d gotten it a few times before. He must have noticed.

    Swift perched on the end of the bed, preening a few unruly feathers and pretending he wasn’t waiting for me to actually eat the lunch he’d bought.

    “You can leave now,” I said. I already knew he wasn’t going to.

    The tawny bird shuffled his talons a bit, looking down. “*You shouldn’t push everyone away,*” he said quietly.

    I bristled, then immediately tried to rearrange my expression into something neutral. “I know what I’m doing.”

    “*Are you sure?*”

    No, I wasn’t. Every hour since that night, I’d been doubting myself on literally everything. This was no different.

    The others knew I’d been captured, and that it had been miserable in one way or another. But I hadn’t told them what, specifically, had taken place. I couldn’t… except for Swift. Even when I’d told him to leave just like I’d told everyone else, he’d sat there quietly, sometimes not saying a word for hours on end. He’d figured out how to unlock the window so he could leave and come back without relying on Firestorm opening the door, and he’d scarcely left me alone since then.

    “*You’re hurt,*” the Pidgeotto said, striding across the bed to sit next to me.

    “I’m aware,” I said, clutching my arm.

    “*I meant here,*” he said, gently pressing his beak against my heart.

    I swallowed hard and looked away. I had no right to be making such a big deal out of what happened. It wasn’t that bad. I was being ridiculous. We’d been through plenty of rough situations by now. Why was this any different? Why was this ruining me?

    Weak. That’s what I was being. That’s what I’d always been.

    “What am I doing here?” I announced randomly. “I’m not the kind of person who can fight Rockets and protect Legendary Pokémon. Who was I trying to kid? I’m not strong enough for something like that. I never was.”

    “*But you did it anyway,*” Swift said with a matter-of-fact tone.

    “I… what? That doesn’t matter.”

    The Pidgeotto tilted his head. “*Why not?*”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but I didn’t really know how to respond to that, so I just took a large bite of rice ball—too large, my eyes started watering.

    “*It was hard from the start. But you kept going, even when you were outmatched. Why?*”

    I forced myself to swallow the bite I’d taken and then said, “I don’t know. Because I thought it was important? Because I thought it’d make me important?” This was a pointless conversation. It was the same thing Stalker had asked me a few weeks ago.

    Swift didn’t say anything. He just fluffed out his feathers and settled into a relaxed position alongside me, making it clear he wasn’t going anywhere. He didn’t understand. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go outside, I just… couldn’t. They’d all seen me that night. They all knew. Everyone knew. Why did that bother me so much?

    “They all know I failed. I don’t know how to face that kind of humiliation,” I finally said.

    “*They don’t think that about you,*” the Pidgeotto said calmly.

    A pause. “…Yeah, but I do,” I whispered, more to myself than to him.

    “*I don’t.*”

    I screwed my eyes shut. Damn it, why’d he have to be all matter-of-fact like that. It was impossible to argue with.

    Maybe if I could just… tell myself that his opinion of me mattered more than my own. Mattered more than everyone else’s opinion. Though in a way, it already did, and that was the weird thing. I wasn’t afraid of Swift judging me over any of this. He hadn’t gotten frustrated, hadn’t been disappointed, hadn’t tried to push me to do anything… just sat by my side and… was there. If I could focus more on that than what I was feeling… then maybe…

    I took a deep breath. “I guess it’s probably time I went outside, yeah. You’ll come with me, right?”

    Swift beamed. “*Of course.*”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Every inch of me protested as I slowly made my way down the stairs with legs I’d barely used at all the past few days. But I didn’t want to use the elevator. If I was going to the effort of even going outside in the first place, there was no point in taking shortcuts. Swift followed me down, flap-hopping a few steps at a time. Part of me wished he was still a Pidgey so he could sit on my shoulder like he used to.

    Cold air washed over me the moment I stepped outside the stadium. But I kind of appreciated the cold weather—it meant that I could wear a jacket and hide the bandages on my left arm and the scabbed-up scraping all over the right. The last thing I needed was people staring at them.

    I wasn’t too keen on running into Rudy or Darren right away—not after the way I’d been ignoring them. Maybe later, but not now. So I avoided our group’s preferred training field in favor of one on the other side of the stadium. Even there, I skirted along the outer edge of the clearing to avoid catching anyone’s eye before sitting down on a log that served as seating. Swift landed alongside me, clutching the bark with his talons.

    A dispute had broken out between the rebels of Group 1 and Group 16, and Reed, loudmouth as always, had challenged Sasha to a battle. Sasha… the Rebellion’s primary strategist. There was no way this was going to go well for him, but at least it would be amusing to watch. They’d started a double battle—Reed’s Electrode and Persian fighting Sasha’s Pachirisu and Farfetch’d (I’d long since learned not to judge Sasha’s weird Pokémon choices). The electric squirrel had immediately launched into a weird dance, waving its paws around obnoxiously. In the background, Farfetch’d was swinging its leek around like a weapon in a complex series of forms. Both of Reed’s Pokémon immediately went after Pachirisu, much to his displeasure, seeing as he’d ordered Electrode to go for Farfetch’d. I wasn’t totally sure what was going on, but I was pretty sure it was gonna spell Reed’s downfall.

    For the rest of the Rebellion, life had gone on after the previous Legendary mission. While there had been a fair number of injuries for both rebel and Pokémon alike, everyone had made it back—Rudy had mentioned that at some point during one of his many conversations with my door. In other words, no one else had been captured. It was probably unfair for me to assume the others had been unaffected by what they’d gone through. I mean… being in the line of fire was always terrifying. That kind of terror wasn’t just going to go away once the danger had passed. And yet, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat over… that.

    Pachirisu’s dance continued—Reed’s Pokémon were still ignoring Farfetch’d. The leek duck continued its forms, repeating them twice, three times. Something was about to happen. No sooner had I thought it than Farfetch’d rushed forward, brandishing its leek like a sword. A single strike and Electrode was sent rolling backward, sparks shooting out of it. Persian barely had a chance to register that its partner was down before it too was rushed by the ninja duck—one leek smack to the head, and the cat went down.

    A roar of laughter burst out from Reed’s teammate Kris as the former gaped at both of his unconscious Pokémon before recalling them and storming over to his opponent.

    “Okay seriously, I know you cheated!” he shouted indignantly.

    “Not my fault you don’t know how Follow Me works,” Sasha replied with a giggle.

    I snorted. Alright, that was kind of funny.

    Swift had huddled close to me, fluffing his feathers for warmth. I gave him a few scritches under his long red crest and said, “Alright, this isn’t so bad. Better than the competitive battling channels, in any case.” Swift gave a contented nod.

    Movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention, and I turned to see Chibi approaching us pensively. I’d known that he’d made it back from the mission safely, but it was still a bit surreal that this was the first I’d seen or heard from him since then. Not that that was anyone’s fault but my own.

    Whatever small bit of happiness I’d felt upon seeing him quickly faded once I realized how troubled he looked. Swift glanced between me and Chibi a few times, then flapped his wings and took off for a tree behind us. Giving us privacy, was he? It did look like the hybrid wanted to tell me something.

    “*Razors wasn’t at the last mission,*” Chibi announced all of a sudden.

    I turned toward him. The Pikachu was staring at the ground with such intensity that I half expected the patch of dead grass in front of him to burst into flames.

    “I remember,” I said slowly, not sure why he was bringing this up now.

    “*We were all fighting for our lives. Even Aros of all Pokémon tried to save you.*”

    Oh… that was it. He was forcing me to think about his problems so I wouldn’t think about my own. Honestly… in a weird way, I kind of appreciated that.

    “*I asked him why. Do you know what he said?*”

    I shook my head.

    “*He said he was afraid to fight them,*” the hybrid said disgustedly.

    I stared. That… did make sense, from just the short amount of time I’d spent with Razors in Celadon base. He’d insisted on having Aros and Stygian do the bulk of the fighting. And he’d refused to spar with anyone ever since arriving here.

    “*He was always willing to fight,*” Chibi went on. “*It was always the two of us against the world… or at least, against our world. Back then… that was what we lived for. That’s why I fight. For what they did to him. For what they did to me. For what they’re going to do. How can he just ignore that?*”

    I clenched my teeth. I was starting to get a better idea of what was going on here. Razors had been fighting so long that he didn’t have any fight left in him. And honestly… I couldn’t help relating to that. It’s what I was feeling, too.

    “*I just… don’t understand,*” Chibi finished brokenly, all anger gone from his voice.

    “Why don’t you talk to him about it?” I asked. It was probably a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say.

    The Pikachu closed his eyes. “*I don’t know how… not anymore. It’s like most of him is just… gone.*”

    A cool breeze had started to blow, ruffling my sleeves and the hybrid’s pointed head feathers. We sat there in silence for some time, listening to the wind through the trees and watching the few remaining leaves fall to the ground.

    “*I always looked up to him, you know,*” Chibi went on suddenly. “*No matter what they did to us, no matter how hard we were punished… he always had this way of keeping the rest of us optimistic.*” His words had a hollow air, like he’d been holding onto them for far too long.

    “*I was the one who always pushed for us to escape. Razors didn’t need to be a part of it—our handler liked him best. But he went through with it for my sake.*” He paused, taking a deep breath. “*There was one escape attempt that went bad… worse than the others. Our handler was fed up. He’d always hated me most out of the hybrids. He was going to kill me, but… Razors stepped in. Took the attack that was meant for me, and scarred up the handler pretty badly.*”

    Chibi lifted his head to stare at the sky. “*That was the last straw. They started testing mind control tech on all the hybrids after that. I was the only one that was immune,*” he said with a bitter laugh. “*It’s my fault that it even happened to him in the first place. And now I can’t handle what it’s done to him. I’m pathetic.*” He buried his face in his paws, muttering “pathetic” over and over.

    “Do you want me to talk to him?” I said, without even really thinking about it.

    The Pikachu’s eyes snapped open, and he fixed me with an incredulous glare. The sort of expression that I would have flinched at when I’d first met him, but I was far too used to seeing it by now.

    “I didn’t know him before, so it won’t hurt as much for me to talk to him,” I added.

    Chibi blinked a few times, his eyes shifting back and forth. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “*If that’s what you want, then sure.*”

    The hybrid stood up and slowly shuffled away. But once he’d taken a dozen or so steps, he paused and said, “*Thanks,*” before leaving.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    It wasn’t that hard to find Razors. He never battled with any of the rebels, but he could usually be found quietly watching Aros and Stygian train. I didn’t say anything as I sat down on the grass next to the Scyther, and he didn’t acknowledge that he’d seen me.

    I sat there for several minutes mulling over what to say. Telling Chibi that I’d talk to Razors was a lot easier than actually going and doing that. If the Pokémon that had basically grown up with him couldn’t relate to him anymore, then what chance did I have? Even though that was kind of the whole reason I was talking with him to begin with.

    I ran my fingers through my hair, ruling out a half dozen different ways to open the conversation. Eventually realizing that nothing was going to sound right and just going ahead and saying, “I noticed you and Chibi haven’t seen eye-to-eye since you came to the island.”

    Razors turned his head toward me sharply, like he hadn’t been expecting me to bring that up. But then, slowly, he closed his eyes and nodded.

    “Is… is it alright if I ask why?” I asked cautiously.

    For the longest time, the Scyther didn’t answer. He just surveyed me closely with eyes that didn’t betray a hint of emotion.

    “*It’s like we hardly know each other now,*” Razors said quietly. “*He’s become so bitter, and I’ve become so… empty. He wants vengeance for what they did to him, for what they’re going to do to the Legendaries. I want… nothing.*”

    The Scyther stared off into the distance, something shifting in his eyes, though it was hard to tell what. “*I’ve forgotten how to feel things. He feels everything, all the time.*” In that moment, for whatever reason, it finally hit me—there was almost something nostalgic about his words. A longing for something in the past.

    “You wish things could go back to the way they were before?” I asked slowly.

    The mantis screwed his eyes shut, like he hated just thinking about it. “*We weren’t happy, but we had each other. Now I should be happy. The nightmare is over. He’s safe. But… I’m not happy.*”

    Razors glanced down at my expression and chuckled softly. It had a hollow, empty feel. “*It’s all right. I thought it might be like this. He desperately needs to be a part of the fight. I think I need to be away from it. I can’t even fight the Rockets. Not without being terrified of what might happen.*”

    Right. He was still worried that they might be able to take control of him again. And I didn’t know enough about the experiment control to reassure him that wasn’t the case. For all I knew, it could have been.

    The Scyther shook his head. “*I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. I know you’ve endured hardships of your own.*”

    “It’s fine,” I said quickly. “It helps keep my mind off… things.” So even he knew what had happened to me. I should have figured… it wasn’t like Aros or Stygian had any reason to hide it. “So if fighting the Rockets is out… what about training? It’s how Chibi keeps his mind off bad things.”

    Razors looked away. “*No one should want to spar with me. I was a killing machine for the Rockets. I’ve never learned how to hold back. I don’t know if I…*”

    I exhaled deeply and stood to my feet. “Look. Everyone and their mom has been asking me to battle all week, and right now I’m finally in the mood to do it. I think it’ll do me some good to have a bit of adrenaline, and I think it’ll do you good too.”

    The Scyther blinked several times in surprise. “*Are you sure?*”

    “No, but let’s do it anyway before I change my mind,” I said, walking off to find one of my Pokémon. A few moments passed, but sure enough, I heard the crunching of leaves behind me as he followed. I honestly had no idea where the sudden burst of motivation had come from, but something about being able to focus on someone other than myself was definitely helping. And I wasn’t in the mindset to question why.

    I wound up locating Firestorm before Swift, which was just as well, because he was the one I had in mind for the battle.

    “We’re fighting Razors,” I announced without warning as we walked up to him.

    The fire lizard gave me the most incredulous double-take I’d ever seen. “*Seriously?*” I nodded firmly, and a wide grin formed across his snout. “*Okay!*” he exclaimed, taking a fighting stance.

    I turned to face Razors. “I know you’re way stronger than Firestorm, so we don’t have to go until the knockout—we can call the match at first blood.”

    The mantis glanced between me and Firestorm with the sort of deadpan stare that I’d taken to mean he was severely skeptical of this arrangement. But he was hardly the only Pokémon on the island with dangerous weaponry. Darren’s Sneasel had caused her fair share of heavy bleeding in a few matches. It was nothing to get too worried about unless you didn’t have a Pokéball.

    “Would it make you feel better if I keep his Pokéball in my hand the whole time?” I added. “At the slightest sign of trouble, I can recall him instantly.”

    Razors considered my words carefully, regarding me with an intense stare. Finally, after several seconds, he gave a short, slow nod.

    “And that’s okay with you, right?” I asked, turning to Firestorm.

    The Charmeleon puffed out his chest. “*I’m not scared.*”

    We took our positions at opposite ends of one of the dirt training grounds surrounding Midnight Stadium. Firestorm bounced lightly on the soles of his feet, lashing his flame-tail back and forth. Razors, on the other hand, kept glancing uneasily at his scythes. Any onlookers who knew nothing about the two would probably assume that Firestorm was the higher-level combatant.

    And then it was like all the energy I didn’t have over the past week hit me all at once, and I called out, “Alright Firestorm, show me that new Flame Burst!”

    The Charmeleon planted his feet and took a deep breath, embers already starting to gather in his mouth. He then shot out a brilliant orange fireball that kept its size even as it flew across the battlefield. My eyes lit up—he’d really done it. But Razors wasn’t fazed. In one smooth motion, the mantis leaped aside, allowing the fireball to sail past him, striking the dirt with such force that it exploded into a spray of embers.

    I hadn’t really been intending for it to hit, though—it was mostly to get Razors moving. The bug-type was now watching us carefully, body tensed and ready to dodge again, but making no apparent effort to attack.

    “Another one!” I ordered.

    A second fireball shot toward the mantis, this time striking much closer to him and catching his leg in the spray from the explosion.

    “Alright, now—”

    Something shifted in Razors’s eyes, and he lunged forward, closing the gap between himself and Firestorm almost instantly.

    “—Metal Claw!”

    The slightest trace of a grin crossed Firestorm’s face—he knew why I’d ordered that. While Razors’s dash had been lightning quick, the follow-up slash was telegraphed. Firestorm had plenty of time to raise his hardened claws and block the mantis’s scythe with a metallic clang. We’d used that same tactic against Sneasel a few times, and it had worked just as well here.

    Razors paused slightly before jumping back from the clash and darting in again, this time from the side. Another slash, and the Charmeleon blocked this one just as easily. The bug-type’s darts and dashes were impossibly quick, but the slashes themselves were… not. It was almost like he had to come to a full stop before swinging his arms.

    Razors was holding back, but not the normal way by dampening attacks. Instead, all his moves were slow and uncoordinated, like this was his first time battling. Well, even if it was a quick match, at least a victory would boost Firestorm’s mood and prove that not everything Razors touched died.

    “Time for a Slash!” I yelled.

    Firestorm’s claws lengthened, sharpening within the attack’s glow. He drew back an arm and swung it at Razors’s chest, but his claws just bounced off the mantis’s chest plates. Shoot, I’d forgotten. Razors’s exoskeleton wasn’t normal. What was it made of? I’d seen him tank fire moves effortlessly, so… rock? Wait—that just meant that Metal Claw was our best option for both defense and offense.

    All of a sudden, Firestorm leapt back to avoid a slash that had come out of nowhere. Razors was on him in an instant, flowing from dash to attack in one fluid motion. The fire lizard swung his arms wildly, knocking away two more slashes, but with a lot less room to spare this time. My pulse quickened. So Razors was finally getting into the swing of it?

    “Stick to Metal Claw, try to break his guard and land a hit!”

    The Charmeleon responded by hardening his claws once again and deflecting two more slashes with an echoing clang. Razors’s moves quickened, his breathing grew heavier. Firestorm swung his tail, trying to knock his opponent off-balance, but the Scyther was too quick for that and leaped over it easily. The Charmeleon darted forward while the mantis’s guard was down, ready for the final blow!

    But Razors was faster—while Firestorm was focused on attacking, the Scyther caught him with a clean slice across his left thigh.

    “Alright, that’s the match!” I called out, raising both arms.

    Firestorm reeled backward, clutching his wound and scowling. “*Ugh. Thought I had that,*” he said before I recalled him.

    My heart was pounding, my mind flooded with exhilaration. More surprising than the fact that Razors had gotten into the battle was the fact that I’d gotten into it. That was actually fun. A couple rebels were sitting off to the side, watching our battle. That fact didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.

    Razors paused to wipe his scythe in the dirt before approaching me. “*You were right… that was nice.*”

    “Told you,” I said, chuckling a bit. But part of that was directed at myself.

    The Scyther fixed me with an odd stare, and I couldn’t really tell what he was thinking until he said, “*I have to thank you, you know.*”

    “For the battle?”

    “*For how much you’ve done for Chibi. You’ve helped him in ways I never could.*”

    I frowned. “I… come on, that’s not your fault. You weren’t yourself for the longest time.”

    “*I know that,*” Razors said simply. “*But that doesn’t change the reality of it. The things I did while under their control still happened. I know how close I came to killing him. I know how close he came to killing me.*” He paused. “*I’m glad he didn’t succeed, though. That would have ruined him.*”

    The tiniest bit of unease flickered in the back of my mind at his words. He didn’t mean… the only reason he was glad Chibi hadn’t killed him was because of how it would have affected Chibi… right?

    Razors caught sight of my sudden change in expression and seemed to realize what I was thinking, because he quickly added, “*You don’t have to worry about me.*”

    I tilted my head, nonplussed.

    “*If I didn’t think there was a reason for me to be here, I wouldn’t still be looking for one, would I?*” he clarified. So he did know what I was thinking.

    “*Besides… if I give into despair, I’ll have let them take everything from me. I can’t have that.*” His eyes relaxed in a way that almost felt like a smile… or his equivalent of one. I smiled back. There was something oddly comforting in his words that kept resonating in my mind after he’d said them.

    The crunching of leaves signaled that someone was approaching us. I glanced over my shoulder to see Stalker sauntering over, his hands in his coat pockets.

    “Mind if I have a word?” he asked once he was a few steps away.

    I bristled. This was the first time he’d seen me in days, and I had a suspicious feeling I knew what he was going to talk to me about. Still, I found myself nodding cautiously, and he motioned for me to follow him away from the training area. Neither of us said anything at first; the anxiety of what was coming hung over me like a thick fog.

    “Let’s talk your interrogation. You glossed over your torture, but I know it happened.”

    I exhaled slowly. There it was. But he was right. I kept trying to ignore it because it didn’t happen, except it did happen.

    “What do you want to know?” I mumbled.

    “How are you feeling?”

    I blinked. If I’d been expecting anything, it hadn’t been that. I raised an eyebrow at him, but he continued to regard me with the same calm, unyielding expression.

    “I… just had a Pokémon battle,” I said, as though that somehow answered his question.

    Stalker chuckled a bit. “I suppose that’s good. The others have been worried about you.”

    I clenched my teeth and looked away. “Yeah, I know.” Only about half of me wanted to evaporate away from the conversation, so that was progress at least.

    “I knew, when starting the Rebellion, that something like this would happen eventually,” he said. “It comes with the territory. I didn’t expect how unprepared I was to handle it.” I glanced back at him, honestly a bit bewildered by the idea that he could be unprepared for anything.

    “So I want you to stop holding it in. Let it all out. What are you feeling?”

    I scowled, rolling my hands into fists. “I don’t know, a lot of things. I hate that I can’t stop thinking about what happened. I hate how badly it’s affecting me.” My words sped up; my volume increased. “I hate that I can’t do anything, I hate feeling so useless, I hate that everyone knows I failed, I hate that you know I failed.” I was breathing hard, a swirling mess of emotions clouding my head. But in the midst of them all, I couldn’t help feeling a glimmer of… relief?

    “I took you off missions for your sake, not because you’d failed,” Stalker said calmly. “You did not fail. From what the experiments told me, that mission would have gone a lot worse if it hadn’t been for you.” I knew that. I’d known that all along. For some reason I’d still managed to convince myself that wasn’t the case, though. Because I felt like I’d failed. And rather than face that, it was easier to convince myself that everyone else thought so too.

    “I know that,” I said slowly, fighting every word. “I… think it’ll take a while for the rest of me to accept that, though.”

    “That’s fine. No need to rush it,” Stalker said. “I should probably mention the real reason I took you aside, though.” I tilted my head, a bit taken aback, and he went on, “Yesterday I announced what the Rebellion’s next mission is going to be.”

    Right, I vaguely recalled Darren knocking on my door and saying something about me missing an important meeting.

    “We’re going to free Mewtwo.”

    My jaw dropped. “Seriously?”

    He nodded. “We won’t be able to do anything to oppose the Rockets so long as they have Mewtwo. We’ve seen it in action. Now we need to take it away from them.”

    I swallowed, feeling utterly torn. On the one hand, freeing Mewtwo, but on the other hand…

    “I… still don’t know if I’ll be able to…” I began slowly.

    “I’m not asking you to be a part of the mission,” Stalker cut in. “But you’re a member of the team, and you deserve to know. And it’s not as though you’ll have had no contribution—that data you recovered also contained info on how they’re controlling Mewtwo. It will prove invaluable to our efforts.”

    My mind flashed back to the conversation I’d had with Mewtwo in the Celadon base. The last thing I’d said to him… that promise that I’d free him someday. It was such an insanely lofty goal. But Stalker had said it with unflinching confidence. Like there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that our team would be able to steal Team Rocket’s greatest superweapon.

    No wonder the Rockets were afraid of him.

    Something else was prodding at the back of my mind now. Something I’d been meaning to ask him when I saw him again. One tiny detail from the interrogation that I hadn’t buried away.

    “Can… I ask you a random question?” I asked.

    “Certainly.”

    “Are you the former Kanto commander? I keep hearing all sorts of rumors about him.”

    Stalker raised an eyebrow, intrigued. “Is that who the Rockets think I am?”

    I shrugged. “They’re not sure if that’s who you are. I think it’s their main theory.”

    “That’s interesting,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Well, it’s always good to keep them guessing.”

    I stared. He… really hadn’t answered my question at all. “So… are you?”

    Stalker gave me a pointed look. “Do you think I am?”

    “I don’t know anything at all about the former commander, so I have no idea.”

    “I see. Well you wouldn’t have heard much from any Rockets. They don’t like talking about what happened.” More redirecting. He obviously wasn’t going to tell me. I’d learned by now that pushing Stalker to explain something he didn’t intend to was a lost cause.

    “Holy crap Jade, you’re out here?!” a voice called out all of a sudden, followed by hurried footsteps behind me.

    Oh geez. Even if I was feeling a little better, I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to handle Rudy levels of enthusiasm.

    “Jade! Darren’s beaten me twice in a row, you gotta come kick his butt,” Rudy said breathlessly once he’d reached me. Oh, for the love of—that’s what he was opening with? I shot a pleading look at Stalker, but he just smirked and gave a small wave before walking off. Damn it—now I really wasn’t going to get any answers from him.

    I turned back to see Rudy staring up at me way too eagerly. I sighed, rolled my eyes, and said, “Alright,” before following Rudy back to the training grounds. Maybe a few more battles wouldn’t be so bad.






    ~End Chapter 21~

    I’d like to apologize in advance for Chapter 22.
     
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    Chapter 22: Desperate Hour
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    This chapter contains an elevated level of graphic violence compared to the average chapter, as well as one or more of the triggering themes listed in the thread's opening post.



    ~CHAPTER 22: DESPERATE HOUR~


    A distant rumble reverberated throughout the air, dragging me out of a deep sleep. What was that? Don’t tell me someone was battling at this hour? I sat up, blinking slowly in the darkness. My eyes caught the faint hint of movement—Swift or Firestorm waking up and looking around, most likely.

    “Did you guys… hear that?” I asked.

    Then the alarm sounded. An earsplitting siren, assaulting my senses out of nowhere. What the hell? Why was the fire alarm going off? I threw my hands over my ears, desperately trying to block out the awful noise, but there was no stopping it. A bright red light flashed in the corner of the room, highlighting both Firestorm and Swift as they glanced around apprehensively. Firestorm was saying something, but it was impossible to tell what with all the noise.

    What on earth was going on?

    I stumbled my way out of bed and rushed to the door as quickly as I could, throwing it open. A half dozen kids had already emerged from their rooms and were running down the hallway, a few of them still in pajamas. My dazed brain was still trying to process what the heck was going on when my nose caught the scent of… smoke? There was actually smoke in the air. This wasn’t a drill, this was a legit emergency, holy crap. It took several seconds for the reality of that to properly sink in. And when it did, everything went into overdrive at once as I bolted back inside.

    “We’re evacuating!” I announced, grabbing my bag and shoving things into it randomly.

    “*What?!*”

    But I just grabbed their Pokéballs and recalled the two without saying anything else. It’d be faster getting out if it was just me. And… they’d be safer in their balls. I threw on my shoes and rushed out the door, pulling my arms through the sleeves of my jacket as I fled down the stairs, jumping two or three steps at a time.

    Damn, there was a lot more smoke down here. I pulled my shirt over my mouth as I pressed on, following the arcing hallway to the stadium lobby. Was this where the fire was? I didn’t want to run straight into it, but at the same time, this was the fastest way out of the building. I rounded the corner into the lobby and completely ground to a halt, gaping in disbelief.

    The entire front entrance had been demolished, chunks of concrete and glass scattered throughout the lobby. I strained my eyes to try catching a glimpse of what had caused this, but with half the lights blown out and all the dust in the air, it was impossible to tell. A couple of kids bumped into me as they bolted past and disappeared into the dust cloud that had once been the entrance.

    And then my blood ran cold as gunshots tore the air.

    What? We were under attack?! I dropped to the floor and ducked behind the wall, my heart pounding furiously in my chest as my mind raced. Deep breaths… I had to calm myself and figure out something to do. There had to be some way out of here… deep breaths.

    A sudden thud to my left. I whirled around to see what it was and—oh god, what. Reed had crumpled to the ground in an awkward heap, his eyes wide and staring and a bullet hole in his head. I blinked stupidly at the sight, unable to process it until the blood started to pool on the ground around him.

    What. This couldn’t happen. In all the times… There was always danger, but… no one had ever… How many kids had just run outside? They didn’t have Pokémon out, they couldn’t use Protect, oh god.

    Another group was approaching the lobby from the opposite hallway. I couldn’t see them clearly, just their silhouettes through the dust cloud.

    “Don’t go outside! There’s Rockets out there!” a voice called out behind me.

    “What do we do?!” one of the kids across the lobby yelled. A girl’s voice… Kris? Oh god, her teammate was dead next to me and she couldn’t see him, oh god.

    “I don’t know, just don’t go that way!”

    I turned around to see a half dozen or so rebels gathering in the hallway behind me, almost all of them from different mission groups, which meant they were missing teammates. I recognized Liam and Zoe, although their third teammate, Alec, was nowhere to be seen.

    Where were Ray, Mai, and Sasha? They’d be able to figure out a plan. Where was Stalker? He’d be able to fight the Rockets off. Where were Rudy and Darren, oh god, why hadn’t I wondered that yet, where were they?

    I forced several deep breaths to steady myself. Had to focus. Couldn’t lose myself now. I’d done this before. I’d been in the line of fire before. I could handle this. This wasn’t like being trapped in the detention cell. I had options. I had Pokémon. I couldn’t lose myself.

    My eyes snapped open, and I whipped out a Pokéball to release Chibi. As soon as the Pikachu materialized, he glanced around in alarm, folding his ears back from the noise. “*Shit, what’s going on?*”

    “We’re under attack,” I said. “The Rockets have us cornered—our main exit is a death trap.”

    “What about the fire escape?” Zoe piped up.

    “They’ll definitely have agents back there too,” Liam replied.

    Chibi glanced between me and the other rebels, then closed his eyes in concentration, flattening his ears with his paws. After a few agonizingly long seconds, he said, “*Our best bet is busting through a side wall. They won’t be expecting that; it might buy us some time.*”

    Zoe nodded before putting her hands on the sides of her mouth and calling out, “Tell everyone you meet to avoid the exits and break through a side wall. We’ll meet up in the forest outside!”

    “Okay!” one of the rebels on the other side yelled back.

    “*Alright, let’s go!*” Chibi barked, taking off down the hallway.

    I jumped to my feet and raced after him, followed by the rest of the rebels in our group. All the while the blaring alarm and flashing lights served as a constant reminder of just how wrong all of this was. How many rebels had run out the front entrance and been gunned down? I didn’t even know if Rudy or Darren was among them, and the only thing I could do was push on with the others and desperately hope that we’d be able to find a way out.

    The smoke was thicker in this direction. The fire had to be at the back of the building, which meant they’d definitely been trying to drive all the rebels in the direction of the main entrance. I held my shirt over my mouth and squinted as the smoke stung my eyes and it got harder to breathe. We’d be out of here soon. I just had to keep telling myself that.

    “*Right here!*” Chibi shouted, waving at a portion of wall far ahead of us. Strings of electricity leaped off his fur as he gathered energy. Then, with a flash of light and a crash that was somehow even louder than the alarm, he fired a lightning bolt clear through the wall, shattering it into chunks of concrete and drywall.

    “We’ve gotta make a break for it. Don’t stop to use Protect—our best chance is to keep moving,” Liam said.

    “*I’ll attack all the Rockets I can,*” Chibi added. “*Anyone with priority attackers should send them with me, they’ll be too fast to get shot.*” Not a second after he’d said it, a half dozen flashes of light appeared all around us as the rebels released Pokémon to join him.

    “*Now go!*”

    With every inch of me screaming not to, I followed the others through the gaping hole in the wall and out into the cold nighttime air. I coughed hard, forcing deeper breaths now that we’d left the smoke and pouring all my focus and effort into running as fast as possible. Chibi’s makeshift exit had put us facing the outdoor training grounds, with scattered bits of forest in the distance across the battlefields. Completely open and exposed—no cover until we made it to the trees.

    I flinched as gunshots rang out, clenching my teeth and forcing my legs to run faster. On either side of me, Pokémon darted around, so fast they were a blur as they struck down targets that were nearly invisible in the pitch-black night. Just had to keep running and let them handle it. Just had to keep running. We’d made it out of the stadium, we were going to be alright, just had to make it across the battlefield and—

    A high-pitched screech tore the air. I whirled around just in time to catch a blinding flash and somehow my legs skidded to a stop right before a Hyper Beam struck the ground dead ahead of me. The shockwave knocked me off my feet, sending a jolt of pain running up my spine when I landed flat on my back. Dazed, winded, and ears ringing, I slowly picked myself up from the ground only to stare openmouthed at the smoking crater just five feet in front of me as clumps of dirt and grass rained down from the impact.

    Holy crap that was too close. Damn it—humans were easy enough to knock down with a Quick Attack or two, but Pokémon? With all the bullets flying around, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Rockets’ Pokémon were more dangerous in this situation. Chibi was the only one that could knock them out fast enough.

    “Over here!” a voice called out. I snapped my head in its direction and caught sight of a human silhouette waving to us from within the trees. Every few seconds, the shimmering flash of a Protect barrier gave enough light to reveal several other kids standing in the area, and an assortment of Pokémon clustered around them defensively.

    We weren’t the only group to make it out. There were others!

    “Jade!” Rudy’s voice. Rudy was alive. Holy crap, thank god.

    I jumped to my feet and sprinted over as fast as my legs would carry me before ducking around one of the Protect users and slipping inside the circle. I was immediately met with paws on my shoulder and dog breath in my face as Ebony reared up on her hind legs to greet me.

    “You’re okay!” I exclaimed breathlessly, avoiding the Houndoom’s tongue and flashing Rudy a relieved smile.

    “Heck yeah, I’m not going down that easily,” he said, forcing a grin.

    My face fell. Had… had he not heard what had happened to the rebels that ran outside the front entrance? Should I tell him?

    Ebony hopped down from my shoulder and happily barked out a small wisp of flame before joining the rest of the Pokémon defending our group. She took position alongside Wartortle, who had just finished surrounding himself with Protect and was now panting from exhaustion, glancing back at Rudy with an anxious look on his face.

    I scanned the rest of the group, an uneasy feeling creeping over me. “Where’s Darren?”

    Rudy’s face fell. “Haven’t seen him yet. I thought he’d be with you.”

    Crap. We couldn’t just leave without Darren. Not to mention all the other rebels that might still be trapped inside the stadium.

    I flinched from the ping of bullets against Protect and instinctively ducked down to put more of myself safely within the circle of rebels as the Pokémon all around us alternated between shielding the group and attacking the enemy. By the light of Ebony’s flames, I caught a glimpse of several squads of Rockets, nearly invisible amongst the trees. Even harder to spot was the shadowy mist that formed behind two of the squads right before two large somethings appeared from the darkness and knocked them to the ground. I barely caught a glimpse of the culprits—a flash of green and red wings here, a white, four-legged blur there—before they vanished into the shadows once more.

    By this point, another group of kids had escaped through the hole in the stadium and was now racing toward us. Chibi bolted all around them, unleashing wicked thunderbolts at the Rockets’ forces while the rebels’ Pokémon kept them distracted with blindingly fast maneuvers. The moment the kids reached the treeline and ducked inside the Pokémon circle with the rest of us, a wave of frantic shouting ensued.

    “What are we gonna do?!”

    “My friends are still trapped inside!”

    “What was wrong with the main entrance? My teammates ran through there!”

    “Listen to me, everyone! If you can fly or teleport out of here, then do it!” a voice called out, grabbing everyone’s attention instantly. I whirled around to see that Ray’s team had suddenly appeared right outside our defensive lineup. So they had made it out. But that left one huge question—where was Stalker?

    “Where should we go?”

    “Somewhere safe, like a Pokémon Center,” Ray said, and in that moment, for the first time, he looked just as lost and scared as the rest of us. “Anyone who’s still missing teammates, stay here and keep our defenses up.”

    “I’ll teleport back inside and see if I can find any stragglers,” Sasha added, motioning to her Alakazam before the two of them disappeared.

    Darren had a teleporter. He couldn’t possibly be trapped inside. Right?

    An unearthly screech filled the air, freezing everyone in an instant. A scarily bright orange glow lit the night sky, and then the brilliant form of a blazing phoenix soared into view overhead. My stomach tied itself into knots just looking at it. Moltres. They’d brought Moltres with them? We couldn’t fight Moltres!

    With another terrifying screech, the firebird craned its neck back before unleashing a massive fireball right at Midnight Stadium, engulfing the entire rear wall. In the light of the flames, I saw several flying Pokémon fleeing the building through open windows, carrying riders on their backs. Time slowed as Moltres snapped its attention to them. It drew itself back, inhaling deeply—no, no, no, this couldn’t be happening—and shot out a vicious stream of fire, completely incinerating two of the fleeing Pokémon and their riders.

    I gaped in horror, jaw hanging open. What were we supposed to do if a Legendary Pokémon was targeting us? We’d never faced anything like this! How could we possibly make it out of here?

    A pulsating burst of violet dragonfire shot out of nowhere, striking the phoenix right in the heart. Moltres reeled backward, more stunned than hurt, whirling its head around wildly to locate its attacker. And then a thunderous roar echoed across the island, and an orange dragon soared into view from the forests to the east. On its back was a trainer wearing a long, black, hooded cloak that concealed nearly all of their body from view. But there was no mistaking who it was. The firebird fixed its blank, emotionless eyes on the newcomers, watching them closely. Charizard flared her wings outward to slow her flight, staring down the Legendary in return.

    And then it hit me—Stalker was challenging it. The Legendary Bird of Fire was here, and he was going to fight it. What the hell was he thinking?

    Without warning, Moltres shot out a blazing Flamethrower at the opposing fire-type, who nimbly ducked out the way and launched into a high-speed loop around the firebird. I’d seen Charizard fly—she was fast, but I’d never seen her fly this fast. The dragon was practically a blur, streaking around, spitting more violet flares at her opponent, but the Legendary wasn’t remotely fazed by any of it. I held my breath as Charizard only barely managed to swerve away from another burst of flames. Her flight path zigged and zagged through the sky, almost like Stalker was trying to force Moltres to pay attention to them.

    But… why? They couldn’t possibly hope to put a scratch on the Legendary. And if they got hit by even a single one of its attacks, they’d be done for.

    Except if Moltres was focusing on him, that meant it wasn’t focusing on us. That’s what he was banking on! The light of the flames now consuming the stadium clearly illuminated the silhouettes of several flying Pokémon taking to the air.

    I obviously wasn’t the only person to notice this, because Ray spoke up saying, “If you’re gonna fly away from here, now’s the time to do it. Send your Pokémon back once you reach a safe distance away—we’ll need all the help we can get.”

    I caught the sound of wings buzzing behind me and turned to see Aros flying over to join us, closely followed by Stygian.

    “*Take it I’ll need to fly some of you out of here?*” the Flygon asked. The same Flygon that had once made such a fuss over letting me on his back.

    “I’m… honestly surprised to see you volunteering like this,” I blurted out without thinking.

    Aros scowled. “*This place is our home too. And it’s under attack. Why wouldn’t we be involved?*”

    This place was their home. I’d always thought the experiments merely tolerated us, but they actually liked it here, didn’t they?

    A yellow blur slowed to a stop in front of me, revealing itself to be Chibi, panting and out of breath from dashing around and knocking out so many of the Rockets’ Pokémon. Sparks leaped off his fur at random—so he was already nearly drained? The Pikachu shook his head to get his bearings, then stood up and glanced between the two clones, his face falling. “*Where’s Razors?*” he demanded.

    Aros frowned. “*Haven’t seen him.*”

    “*What?*” The hybrid’s eyes went wide, and he glanced around frantically. “*No way… I have to find him!*” he yelled, racing off.

    “Wait, come back!” I cried, but the hybrid didn’t stop. Damn it, why’d he have to do this now? There was no telling what’d happen if I lost sight of him—especially with him being so low on power already.

    “Find Darren and I’ll meet up with you two later!” I yelled to Rudy before sprinting after Chibi. I heard paws strike the ground behind me, then saw Stygian in my peripheral vision, running at my side. She was coming with me? Whatever, I wasn’t about to question that now.

    “*Wait, what should I do?!*” Aros called after us.

    “Just help evacuate everyone! We’ll meet up with you later!” I called out over my shoulder.

    The roar of flames filled the air as we sprinted along the treeline. I scanned the training grounds and the forests to our left—it wasn’t nearly as hard to see anymore with the all the firelight—but he’d run off so fast that I’d already lost him. Had to keep my eyes out for lightning. That would be my best indicator. Unless he ran out, which was a very real possibility. Damn it, where’d he run off to?!

    Stygian and I were nearing the front of the stadium now. I slowed down, creeping close to the trees to avoid catching the attention of the Rocket squads that still remained in the area. I didn’t like being here, but this was the most likely spot for Chibi to have run. Still, there was no sign of lightning, and these Rockets likely wouldn’t be standing if he’d been through here.

    Overhead, the battle between Stalker and Moltres continued, although it wasn’t so much a battle as a game of cat and mouse, with his Charizard ducking and weaving around nonstop torrents of flame. The firebird wasn’t the only enemy after him now. Dozens of mounted Rockets had taken to the air, sticking close to the Legendary and launching their own attacks at him. I watched with bated breath as Charizard only barely managed to avoid getting zapped by a lightning bolt, right before a jet of water clipped her wing.

    My jaw hung open as the dragon spiraled downward uncontrollably, struggling to regain control of her flight. At the last second, the fire-type straightened her wings, and the two of them pulled out of the dive right above the ground, shooting out in a straight line right past me, closely followed by a squad of combat unit executives. This was bad. Avoiding Moltres was one thing, but that was just one thing to avoid, not a dozen executives.

    Charizard put on a burst of speed, shooting off into the night sky. But she didn’t turn around. Her orange tail flame grew smaller and smaller as she put more distance between herself and the island. Moltres let out a cry and tore after the dragon, followed by all the mounted Rockets.

    My heart sank through the ground. No way. Stalker was leaving us?

    No—he was leading the Rockets away. He’d only confronted Moltres because that was the most conspicuous thing possible, and the perfect way to get everyone’s attention. Of course the Rockets were mostly after him. The rest of us were just an added bonus—that’s all we’d ever been.

    And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. There, sitting atop her Arcanine, silhouetted by the flames engulfing the stadium, was the head of the combat unit. My legs froze up instantly and my whole body went numb. No. Not her. Anyone but her. Not right now. Not like this.

    Almost like she’d felt me staring at her, Astrid turned and laid eyes on me, and my stomach curled in on itself. Oh god no, why did she have to notice me, why.

    For several seconds, neither of us moved. She just stared at me. Something in her face looked downright exhausted. “I am really tired of you, you know that?” Astrid said. And then she hopped off her Arcanine and started walking towards me.

    I was paralyzed, terror shooting through my veins like ice. I couldn’t breathe. I was back in the detention cell with her standing over me like I was nothing, drowning in an endless torrent of agony with no end in sight. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t fight back. Couldn’t do anything.

    “Stay away from me!!” I screamed.

    And for just a second she actually paused, staring at me wide-eyed with an expression I couldn’t place. It was only for an instant—then her gaze hardened and she advanced toward us once more.

    “*We need to move!*” Stygian hissed, shoving against me.

    Her words barely registered. My brain was caught in a loop, replaying everything that had happened that night, over and over. She was in front of me, but also somehow standing over me, staring down at me. The heat of the flames melted into an endless barrage of lightning. Not again. I couldn’t handle that. Couldn’t handle being trapped, useless, unable to move, unable to fight back, unable to—

    “*Come. On!!*” Stygian growled, throwing her body against my knees so that I toppled over onto her back. I barely had a chance to process what was going on and throw my hands out to catch hold of white fur before the Absol was sprinting away at high speed, half-dragging me behind her. My heart was pounding so fast it hurt, my breathing shallow and irregular, and the only thing I could think about was keeping hold of Stygian’s mane as she bolted in the opposite direction. Each footfall thundered through my whole body and my feet dragged against the dirt and I had no idea how far Stygian had run, but none of that mattered so long as she took us anywhere but there.

    Eventually the dark-type slowed to a stop. I relaxed my grip and let myself slide off her back, only barely managing to catch myself from faceplanting into the dirt.

    “*Ugh. I’m not doing that again. That was hard,*” Stygian muttered in between heavy panting.

    “Is she gone?” I said breathlessly, picking myself up from the ground.

    The Absol rounded on me with an unimpressed scowl. “*What was that? She didn’t even attack us and we had a clear escape route. Why did you stop?*”

    Why did I stop. Why did I shut down. Why was just the sight of her enough to send me reeling back to that night? What was wrong with me?

    “*Focus,*” Stygian growled, staring me dead in the eyes with her face just inches from mine. I swallowed hard and forced myself to stare back at her ruby-red irises, focusing on nothing else. Not Astrid, not the other Rockets, nothing. I wasn’t in the detention cell, I was here. I was nowhere else but here.

    Footsteps crunched the leaves behind us. I bristled, throwing a glance over my shoulder. Was it her?! No, it was a squad of Rockets half-hidden amongst the trees. Wait—that was actually worse.

    “*Oh shit,*” Stygian muttered, her fur standing on end. The Absol jumped in front of me and covered herself in the white light of Protect.

    Nowhere to run. Too many for Stygian to fight on her own. The moment her Protect faltered, we’d be sitting ducks.

    The buzzing of insect wings was the only warning. A green blur shot out of nowhere, striking all four Rockets with such speed and precision that by the time I had finished blinking, all of them had staggered backward, unconscious before they even hit the ground.

    “What the hell,” I said, too stunned to think.

    The green blur stopped abruptly in front of us, revealing itself to be a tall, armored mantis. I blinked several times, trying to process what I was seeing. It was Razors.

    “You saved us?” I said, still reeling from what had just happened.

    “*Sure took your time. The rest of us have been fighting since the attack began,*” Stygian said flatly.

    The Scyther looked down and said nothing.

    “*Razors!*” a voice cried. I whirled around to see Chibi bolting towards us from deeper in the forest. Oh sure, now he showed up. We wouldn’t have been in this situation if not for him running off like that.

    “*You’re here!*” the Pikachu exclaimed one he’d reached us.

    “*I’m here,*” Razors said. “*And I’m not running away. Not until everyone is safe.*” He gave the Pikachu a pointed look.

    Chibi stared at him in disbelief. But then his eyes lit up and his mouth hung open ever so slightly in a relieved smile.

    “Can we get back to the others now, please?” I snapped. Yes, I was glad to see that Razors was alright, but none of this would have been necessary if Chibi hadn’t run off in the first place.

    I just barely had the chance to register a faint rumble under my feet right before pointed stones erupted from the ground all around us, uprooting trees and scattering chunks of dirt through the air. I recoiled backward, throwing a frantic glance in every direction as the stones rose higher and higher out of the earth, surrounding us on three sides.

    “What now?!” I yelled. Just when I thought the worst was behind us—suddenly this?! What even was this? Rock Tomb? Stone Edge?

    “Well, look at what we have here. I never imagined I’d be lucky enough to find three of our experiments all in one spot.”

    What? I knew that voice from somewhere… but where? Razors had gone rigid, eyes wide and unblinking. I followed his gaze in the opposite direction to see a burly, dark-haired combat unit officer standing alongside a Rhydon and a Raticate at the entrance to the stone circle.

    I stared, feeling a chill run down my spine. I recognized him. The lead experiment handler. Razors’s old trainer—Tyson. What the hell was he doing here? Sure, he was on the combat unit, but… why here? Why now?! We hadn’t run into him in months! Unless… unless he knew that a raid on the rebel base would give him an opportunity to recapture the experiments?

    As if he’d noticed my staring, Tyson narrowed his eyes at me and said, “Yeah, don’t think I’ve forgotten about that shit you and your friends pulled last time we met. But I’m not here for you.” He held up a small, black computerized device.

    “*No!!*” Chibi cried, unleashing a vicious torrent of lightning. The electricity swerved to the right, missing Tyson completely and zeroing in on the Rhydon’s nose horn. The Pikachu took a step back, momentarily dumbstruck, but then let out another cry and rushed straight at Tyson. Rhydon stepped forward to block him, moving way faster than it should have and taking the brunt of a Quick Attack like it was nothing. Seeing this, Stygian leveled her blade at the experiment handler and dashed forward, but before she’d cleared half the distance, the Raticate—a hybrid?—tackled her away from its trainer.

    Chibi let out a pained cry, snapping my attention back to him in time to see that the Rhydon had grabbed hold of him with its giant foreclaws, squeezing him tightly while he swung his tail like a glowing blade. With an unimpressed grunt, the rock-type smashed him into the dirt. Once, twice, three times—it kept going. I stared helplessly. It hurt just to watch—each blow felt like a shockwave through my heart. After what felt like ages of that, the Rhydon finally stopped swinging Chibi around and pinned him under its fist, where the Pikachu continued to struggle against its hold.

    “I don’t have any patience for you today, number nine. You used that up a long time ago.” Tyson leered at Razors. “On the other hand, you’re the real prize here.”

    Razors was trembling all over, eyes screwed shut, shaking his head repeatedly as he dug his scythes into the dirt.

    “*Let him go! I’ll kill you!!*” Chibi snarled, clawing at the dirt and swinging his Iron Tail wildly, to no avail. Each swing had less force than the previous one as he succumbed to the pain and exhaustion.

    Had to do something. I could have my Pokémon attack him? Steal the device controlling Razors? Something?!

    “Might want to think twice about bringing out any more Pokémon,” Tyson said, pointing his handgun at me before I even managed to reach my belt. I froze, swallowing hard. Protect wouldn’t do me any good if I couldn’t even let them out without getting shot.

    “So here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said to Razors. “You’re gonna listen to me like you’re supposed to, you’re gonna slice the rest of them to ribbons, including that damned rat, and then I am going to feel infinitely better about things.”

    Come on, think! I had to do something. Couldn’t let out Firestorm or Swift without getting them shot. Couldn’t recall Razors without his Pokéball. What to do. What to do?! Recall Chibi and make a break for it (and somehow not get shot in the process)? And leave Razors behind? No way—Chibi would never allow that. He’d just break out of his Pokéball and go back for him. But if he refused to fight Razors, and Tyson got full control of him, then…?

    There had to be something! Come on, think!

    Razors’s frantic struggling gradually faded. The Scyther’s eyes glazed over, dull and mindless as his movements slowed to a stop. He then turned to face the experiment handler, calmly awaiting orders.

    A satisfied sneer spread across Tyson’s face. “Good. Now kill the rat first. That little shit’s given me enough headaches to last a lifetime.”

    Rhydon stepped backward, leaving the bruised, battered, and drained Pikachu lying in a crumpled heap on the ground.

    “Chibi!” I shouted.

    Razors bolted forward like lightning, blades outstretched. Time slowed to a crawl. I saw Chibi lift his head to stare brokenly at his friend, all fight gone from his eyes. Saw the exact moment he accepted that Razors was going to kill him.

    And then the Scyther froze with his blade mere inches from Chibi’s face. He blinked, his eyes flickering between mindless and frantic. Numb and in pain. Dead and alive. Every part of his body trembled.

    “What are you doing?!” Tyson roared.

    Razors locked eyes with Chibi. With a gargantuan effort, he wrenched his face into a forced smile.

    “*I’m sorry.*”

    In one swift motion, he raised an arm and drew a scythe across his own throat. Dark blood sprayed as his body jerked suddenly, then his legs gave out and his body fell to the ground with a dull thud.

    “No!!” Tyson shouted, his face instantly going white.

    It felt like all the air had been sucked from my lungs. No way. No way. That had not just happened. No way. I stared stupidly at the sight, unable to process it. In an instant, he was gone. Just like that?

    Chibi’s mouth hung open, eyes wide with horror and Razors’s blood splattered across his face. For several seconds, he didn’t move—just stared unblinking at the Scyther’s dying body, making an awful sort of choking noise. Slowly, shakily, he turned his gaze upward to focus on Tyson.

    “*I’ll fucking kill you!!*”

    The Pikachu shot forward, all exhaustion instantly turned into unbridled fury. Rhydon’s eyes went wide, and it held its arms out to shield its trainer from the electric-type, but Chibi already had an Iron Tail ready and sent the armored beast reeling backward with a strike right between the eyes. It crashed onto its back, dazed and clutching its face in pain. And then Chibi turned his attention to Tyson, who blanched and recalled the rock-type before taking off running. He barely made it ten yards before the Pikachu caught him with a metallic blow to the leg, instantly snapping it sideways at a grotesque angle.

    Tyson screamed. Chibi hadn’t stopped screaming since it happened. And he continued screaming the entire time he stabbed the Rocket over and over with his tail as the blood stained his fur and his voice grew hoarse and his movements slowed until his eyes rolled back and he finally succumbed to exhaustion and collapsed.

    It was like time had stopped. I stood frozen on the spot, staring blankly with my mouth open, the past few minutes a blur. I had to have imagined it. I had to. I blinked repeatedly, each time willing my surroundings to change. But the scene lay in front of me, the same as it had before.

    At some point Stygian trotted over to my side, though I wasn’t sure when. My attention snapped over to her, and for a sickening moment, my breath caught in my chest—the Absol was dripping with blood. But then some part of my brain managed to notice how the blood mostly ran down her right side. The side with the blade. The blade itself was covered—it wasn’t her blood. My eyes slid behind her, where the experimental Raticate lay motionless aside from its matted fur rising and falling with each shuddering breath.

    I flinched. Whatever, couldn’t think about that now, had to focus on—I glanced back at where Chibi had fallen, but ended up catching another glimpse of Razors lying face-down in a pool of dark blood, and for a moment it was like that image was burned into my eyes and it was the only thing I was ever going to see again. Fighting back daggers of nausea tearing at my insides, I forced myself to look at anything else as I held out Chibi’s Pokéball and recalled him.

    “*You have him. There’s no reason to linger here,*” Stygian said. Her words held a strange heaviness, and she didn’t look me in the eye.

    I exhaled slowly. She was right. And yet, for some reason it felt like I’d never be able to move from this spot. Because Razors was here, and we weren’t leaving without him, but he was never moving again, so neither could I, and it didn’t make any sense, but that was the loop my brain was stuck in.

    I felt a nudge at my side, and my legs started walking of their own accord. I reached out an arm to steady myself and loosely grabbed a handful of fur. The Absol squinted at my hand, but didn’t say anything.

    The roar of the raging fire and the call of emergency sirens filled the air as we wandered in the direction that I’d last seen the rebels make their defense. Neither any Rockets nor rebels remained. I could only hope that meant the latter had escaped, and that the few Rockets that hadn’t pursued Stalker had withdrawn after their targets had fled. But I knew better than to hope for the best. Not after everything that had happened so far.

    And then Darren appeared in front of us in a burst of shimmering light. His expression was frazzled and anxious, but he was unharmed.

    “You’re okay?” I asked, taking a step backwards. But then I realized who wasn’t with him. “Wait, where’s Rudy?”

    “He’s alive, now come on,” Darren said, outstretching a hand. I stared at it blankly until I realized that his other hand was holding his Kadabra’s.

    “Wait—Stygian can’t be teleported and I don’t have her Pokéball.”

    He frowned. “Where is it?”

    I threw a useless glance back in the direction of the stadium. If it was still in Stalker’s office, then it was long since melted. But wait! Could I put her in a new one?

    “Tell me you have an empty Pokéball,” I pleaded.

    Darren nodded before quickly retrieving one from his backpack and handing it to me. I tapped it to Stygian’s shoulder, and her form dissolved into it. Then Darren grabbed my hand and our surroundings melted into distorted light before re-forming into somewhere completely different. We were standing in the middle of the street in a small town. The polished red roof of a Pokémon Center stood out against a scattering of old wooden buildings, and the oppressive heat of the stadium fire had become a cool, salty breeze.

    “This isn’t… where are we?” I asked.

    “Lavender Town Pokémon Center,” Darren replied. “Sasha wasn’t sure the Midnight one would be safe.” I wasn’t sure here was that much safer. But right now, anywhere was better than the stadium.

    Cop cars and ambulances practically lined the street. A large crowd had gathered in front of the Pokécenter—rebels, Pokémon, police, nurses, bystanders. A handful of medical Blissey could be seen bobbing in and out of the crowd, gathering Pokéballs from some of the rebels. Panicked and crying kids were led inside the center by police Growlithe.

    This was all too much. I closed my eyes, trying to block out the details while my brain struggled to process everything. A sickly nausea had wormed its way through my insides and didn’t feel like leaving. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else.

    “I think Ray’s group told them we evacuated from the fire on Midnight Island,” Darren said quietly. “He didn’t mention anything about us being targeted by Team Rocket.”

    I honestly couldn’t tell if I agreed with that decision. My brain felt like it had slowed to a crawl, and each thought was like trudging through a mile of mud.

    The sound of buzzing wings approached, and for a single, heart-stopping second, my brain latched onto the hope that Razors had come back. But no. That fantasy was dashed the moment I opened my eyes to see that Aros had landed in front of me.

    “*Where’s Stygian?*” the Flygon asked.

    Rather than answer, I just pulled out the dark-type’s new Pokéball and let her out. I then wandered toward the Pokécenter, suddenly desperate to get away from the crowd. I couldn’t stand being out here and seeing any of this. I didn’t want to acknowledge any of it. This was all wrong.

    Inside the center was worse. Rebels—kids I’d lived with and battled with for four months—occupied all the couches in the small lobby. Crying, consoling each other, hugging their Pokémon tightly. I saw Zoe comforting Liam along with his Bayleef as he doubled over, sobbing. Kris, hugging her Furret, neither of her partners anywhere to be seen. I’d seen one of them die, right in front of me.

    There’d been about fifteen kids outside, and another ten or so in here, which meant… My breath seized in my chest—almost two dozen rebels were unaccounted for. Some of them had fled elsewhere, they must have. But… there was no avoiding the sickening truth that most of them had died on Midnight Island. And that wasn’t even counting how many of the survivors had lost Pokémon.

    And then, for some reason, I properly realized that both of my partners were still alive.

    “You said Rudy made it out?” I asked, turning to face Darren.

    “Yeah,” he replied. But there was a slight edge to his voice. Something was wrong. Something other than the attack itself.

    “…Where is he?” I asked warily.

    Darren’s face fell, and his eyes shifted a bit. But then he pointed at the far end of the lobby. There, seated on a couch, was Rudy, face buried in his hands, shoulders trembling. My stomach curled inward on itself. He was safe at least, but something was definitely wrong. I walked over, my steps slow and cautious. Ebony was lying next to him, resting her head on his leg. The Houndoom glanced up at me with a worried look as I neared.

    “Hey. You… you alright?” It was a stupid question. None of us were alright. Not after what had just happened.

    “Wartortle’s dead,” Rudy croaked.

    It was like the air had been sucked from the room. I must have misheard him. I must have.

    “What?” was all I could say.

    He took several slow, shaking breaths. “The Rockets were all surrounding us. He’d already used Protect a bunch, but… I didn’t recall him. I thought he could handle it, I didn’t think that… that…”

    I sat down on the far end of the couch, staring at the floor in shock. And yet… an insidious voice in the back of my head kept telling me this wasn’t shocking at all.

    “I didn’t want him to get hurt, I swear. I just… I wasn’t thinking… I didn’t realize…”

    He hadn’t realized. I hadn’t realized. Hadn’t realized that it had been like this the entire time. How many times had I noticed him being careless with Wartortle and just brushed it off? I figured it would all work out in the end, because… well, because why wouldn’t it? Things had always worked out for him before.

    I didn’t think anything of it, so I never said anything, and now Wartortle was dead.

    The urge to comfort Rudy flared up inside me, but what was there to say? Reassure him that it wasn’t his fault? In other words, lie to his face? Pretend like it wasn’t both inevitable from the way things had been going and also completely avoidable if anyone, including me, had ever stopped to say, “hey, maybe you should appreciate your starter more?” No, I’d rolled my eyes and thought, “ha ha, typical Rudy,” and then ignored it.

    Countless opportunities, all wasted. The image of Razors lying in a pool of blood flashed through my mind, distorting into Wartortle.

    I couldn’t handle this right now. I didn’t know how to be there for him when I felt ready to collapse at any moment, and if that made me a bad friend, then I almost didn’t even care because I’d already screwed up so many times that this paled in comparison.

    “Take care of him, will you?” I said to Ebony, giving her a few half-hearted neck rubs. The firedog glanced in my direction and gave a light whimper. Of course this was hitting her hard—she’d lost a teammate. And on top of that… she was still just a pup, wasn’t she? Even as a Houndoom?

    I stood up from the couch and shuffled away. But since I didn’t know where to go, I wound up wandering aimlessly around the lobby, lost in a daze. The scattered voices and crying all around me had blended into a distorted haze of sound that my brain didn’t feel like sorting through. What was I supposed to do now? What were any of us supposed to do now?

    It wasn’t until my ears caught a familiar voice in Pokéspeech that I felt myself snap back into reality and turn in the direction of the noise to see Aros and Stygian at the front entrance with a rather confused nurse.

    “These two say you’re their trainer?” she asked.

    “*I just said we don’t have a trainer, but we’re with her,*” Aros said exasperatedly.

    I stared blankly for a few seconds before saying, “Yeah, they’re with me. I guess.” My face probably looked like I was willing to kill someone for a bit of rest. I vaguely wanted to rearrange it into something less hostile, but the message got lost halfway, so I wound up just staring at the floor.

    The nurse gave me a sympathetic smile. “You’re welcome to head on back to the trainer’s dorm if you like,” she said gently.

    I blinked. “Right. Uh, come with me I guess,” I said, motioning to the two clones.

    My legs were on autopilot, shuffling against the carpet as I wandered down the hall, rounding the first corner I came to. I was met with a wide dormitory about the same size as the lobby and filled with a dozen or so bunks. A few kids were back here already. Three. That still left around twenty unaccounted for. I hated knowing that.

    I stumbled over to the closest bed and plopped down onto it heavily, sliding my backpack off my shoulders and letting it fall to the floor. Aros and Stygian sat down in front of me, glancing around uncertainly.

    “*So… uh… do we need to go inside a Pokéball to stay indoors?*” Aros asked in what sounded like genuine confusion.

    “I’d feel safer if you didn’t,” I said immediately. I had no idea what the odds were that we’d be attacked here, but I didn’t want to be without the experiments. Not now.

    A sudden vibration from my pocket gave me pause. It took several seconds for me to realize that I hadn’t imagined it—my R-com had just received a text message. Slowly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the device. I pressed the button on its front to light up the screen.

    It was a text message from Stalker.

    By the time you all read this, I hopefully will have been able to draw the Rockets away from you. Otherwise, you won’t be reading this.

    The biggest danger to any of you right now is being connected to me. For that reason, I will not attempt to approach any of you. It’s safer if they think I’ve abandoned the rebels. Stay in public, and stay together. Don’t give them the opportunity to isolate you or single you out.

    The Rebellion is over. But your real names and identities should still be safe—I’ve made sure of that. It’s up to you what you want to do from now on. If I never see you again, thank you for being a part of the fight. Whether it seems like it or not, you made a difference. If you want to continue the fight, come to Johto. I lead the Johto Resistance there. I can offer its protection. You’ve all proven yourselves worthwhile allies. I’d be honored to have you on my side again.


    Our identities were safe, he’d said. Not mine. Mine was compromised ever since the day Astrid pieced together who I was. With the Rebellion finished, would I ever be safe anywhere again?

    The adrenaline was wearing off, leaving a tidal wave of smothering exhaustion in its wake. I was only dimly aware that I’d unclipped Swift and Firestorm’s Pokéballs and opened them. Both of my Pokémon appeared alongside the bed and glanced around in confusion. Somewhere amidst the torrent of questions from Firestorm, I managed to mumble, “Ask them,” gesturing vaguely in the experiments’ direction. After that, I fell back onto the bed and didn’t get up.






    ~End Chapter 22~
    The following post contains an extra that goes along with this chapter. In addition, I did write up an author's commentary post when I published this chapter on Serebii, explaining the reasoning for some of the decisions made in this chapter. After the positive response this chapter got over there, I don't think I'll bother with posting it here. But if anyone wants to see it, you can find it [here].
     
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    Ch 22 Extra: “I’m Sorry”
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 22 Extra: “I’m Sorry”~













     
    Chapter 23: Betrayal
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    So I've often said that this fic has been around for a very, very long time, and this chapter introduces the one subplot in the fic that dates back to the original draft. As a result, it has quite a bit of sentimental value. I've really been looking forward to this one. Hope you enjoy~



    ~Chapter 23: Betrayal~


    Sunlight filtered in through a crack in the curtains, falling across my face and slowly dragging me out of a heavy sleep. I blinked several times, putting a hand over my face to keep the sunbeam from stinging my eyes. It felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d slept for five minutes or five days. Hazy memories started bubbling to the surface of my mind, one after another. The stadium engulfed in flames. Gunshots. Moltres. Running for our lives. Razors…

    I shivered. That was… one hell of a nightmare.

    I sat up and squinted at my surroundings as my eyes adjusted to the light. And then a chill fell over me. This wasn’t my room. I was in a small, cabin-style dormitory filled with beds, half of which were occupied by other members of the Rebellion.

    So then… all of that from last night… that all really happened?

    I collapsed back against the pillows like a heavy weight had just been dropped on me. All of that had really happened. The Rebellion was over. Nearly half the team was gone. Razors was gone. Stalker had disappeared.

    But those of us who had escaped… we were still alive. I was so sure we’d be targeted here, I just hadn’t had the energy to deal with it last night.

    Both Swift and Firestorm were already awake, the former gazing out the window and the latter idly playing with his tail flame. Aros and Stygian were curled up on the carpet near the doorway in a way that had probably made it difficult for anyone else to enter the room. The Absol’s coat was spotless, and it was impossible to tell that she’d been ashy and bloodstained the previous night. She must’ve spent most of the night cleaning herself.

    Swift took that opportunity to push off from the windowsill and glide over to the bed, landing alongside me.

    “*Morning,*” he chirped.

    “Morning,” I replied automatically, glancing around the room once more. I had apparently set my Pokéballs on one of the tables by the doorway, judging by the fact that there were three of them sitting on the polished wooden surface next to a black hybrid ball. The latter of which was currently open.

    “Where’s Chibi?” I asked warily.

    At my words, Stygian partially opened a single eye to stare at me before yawning widely and sitting up. “*He broke out halfway through the night and ran off,*” the Absol said, rubbing a paw against her face.

    Honestly, I couldn’t even blame him. Not after the way I’d spent an entire week holed up in my room. I only hoped he wouldn’t get spotted by the wrong people. He was usually pretty careful, but… in his current state…

    “*I can’t pretend to know how he’s feeling,*” Aros said, sitting up suddenly with an alertness that made me doubt he’d really been asleep. “*The hybrids were always a lot closer with each other than the rest of us. We just gotta give him space.*”

    Give him space… All right. I could do that.

    A crushing emptiness had settled into the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t stop seeing it happen, over and over in my mind. Couldn’t stop seeing the look on Chibi’s face when it had happened. It felt like my heart was going to collapse inward on itself.

    “I should have done something.”

    The experiments tilted their heads in confusion, but Swift seemed to know what I was talking about. He stepped closer to me and gently asked, “*What should you have done?*”

    “I don’t know. Something. Razors is dead and I watched it happen and I couldn’t do anything, but I should have figured something out,” I said, burying my face in my hands.

    “*Please don’t blame yourself,*” the Pidgeotto said quietly. “*Not after everything you’ve been through.*”

    I didn’t have anything to say to that. Not while my gut felt like it’d been punched and my hands were already soaked with tears.

    “*Why didn’t you send us out?*” Firestorm murmured. Not this again.

    “It wasn’t safe,” I muttered, wiping my eyes. That horrible feeling of paralysis flashed through my memory. Wanting to send someone out and fight back, but knowing I’d just be getting them killed.

    “*But… I could have helped—*”

    “You would have been shot,” I replied in what was probably a harsher tone than necessary, but I wasn’t in the best mindset to be tactful. The Charmeleon froze like he’d been slapped, then looked away and said nothing.

    I put a hand to my forehead. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just… I don’t think I could handle losing any of you. Rudy’s going through that right now, and—”

    “*Wait, what?*” Firestorm said, looking up suddenly.

    “Wartortle,” I replied. The name said it all.

    The Charmeleon blinked at me in confusion like I’d just told him the moon was square. “*Was he just… not strong enough…?*”

    “Yeah, well maybe it wasn’t his fault he never got any training because no one ever thought he was worth anything, alright?” I snapped, slamming a fist against my knee. Rudy hadn’t thought so, and I hadn’t cared, and now he was dead, and no one could fix that, and I was completely not in the mood to deal with Firestorm’s stupid strength obsession. Even though I was his trainer, it was my job to deal with it, but dammit, not now. Later. I’d deal with it later. I had more pressing concerns. Like figuring out what to do with myself from now on.

    I took a deep breath to steady myself and looked over each of my Pokémon, but then my eyes fell on the two clones. Figuring out what I was gonna do was one thing, but what about them?

    “I… I’m not sure what you two want to do now,” I said awkwardly. “The Rebellion is over. That kind of rules out staying on Midnight Island.”

    Aros folded his arms, throwing a sideways glance out the window. “*Might’ve crossed my mind, yeah,*” he said. Stygian had suddenly become very interested in licking her already spotless claws.

    “I don’t know if there’s anywhere you’ve wanted to go? Both of your species aren’t even from this region, so…”

    The Flygon tossed his head indignantly. “*You don’t expect us to make a living in the wild, do you? You know there’s nothing wild about us.*”

    “*I was raised by humans, and I lived in the wild just fine,*” Firestorm pointed out.

    “*Yeah, well you weren’t made by humans, were you?*” the dragon retorted, pointing a claw at the Charmeleon.

    I really didn’t see how that was relevant to anything. “Look, I don’t care if you’re clones, alright? Where do you want to live? We can’t just leave you at the Pokémon Center.”

    Aros peered at me through his red eye lenses, his expression hard to place. Finally, he said, “*Well then, given our choices, I think we could make do with having a trainer for now.*”

    A heavy pause followed. I blinked at him, mouth agape, while my brain processed the implications of what he’d just said.

    “Wait, what?

    The Flygon folded his arms. “*There’s no place for us in the wild, and I still have business with the Rockets. Sticking with you right now is easiest.*” So I was just a means to an end, then.

    My eyes traced the floor back and forth as I struggled to think of a response. “I… guess that makes sense?” Aros nodded in a self-satisfied way, like he’d sure showed me. “But seriously, you’re both on board with this?” I asked, throwing a bewildered look at Stygian, who’d been silent the whole time.

    The Absol cracked one eye open, glancing at me out of its corner. “*As far as humans go, you’re not absolutely terrible,*” she offered.

    I smiled weakly. “Thanks.” That might have been the nicest thing she’d ever said to me.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I couldn’t just spend all day in the trainer’s dorm. Eventually, I had to make my way outside. I recalled all my Pokémon except for Aros, who didn’t have a Pokéball (I would need to get one for him at some point) before wandering toward the hallway to the lobby. On the way, I happened to pass by a floor-length mirror and caught a glimpse of my reflection out of the corner of my eye, which made me stop.

    I looked like a mess. Still dressed in the same clothes I’d been sleeping in before the attack—an oversized t-shirt and drawstring pants that were now thoroughly torn on the legs—crumpled under a dirt and ash-covered jacket. A tangled pile of too-long blonde hair hung around my face (why hadn’t I noticed that it needed cutting until now?), and my eyes held a strange heaviness that I hadn’t seen before.

    I didn’t look fourteen anymore. And not just because I was turning fifteen in two weeks. There was something else. It felt like I’d lived four years in the past four months, and that fact was plastered all over my face, even though I couldn’t really describe why.

    With a long, slow exhale, I forced myself away from the mirror. No sense dwelling on pointless things like that.

    The Pokécenter lobby wasn’t quite as packed as it had been last night, though there were still plenty of rebels and Pokémon and cops around. The overwhelming haze of grief and horror from the previous night had mellowed out into a lingering aura of calm, cold despair that hung in the air like a wet blanket. Some of the kids were talking with the police. Others were talking quietly amongst themselves in hushed, scared voices, glancing around frequently. Others sat alone, staring out the window in silence. I noticed Darren in the third category. Well, not quite alone; his Sneasel was next to him, making a game of jumping on and off the couch repeatedly.

    Darren glanced up at me as I approached. “How’d you sleep?” he asked.

    “I feel like I woke up from a coma and all of this is fake,” I said, unceremoniously flopping onto the couch with my arms hanging over the back.

    “Ah… you too?” he replied.

    I exhaled through the nose in a rough approximation of a laugh before leaning my head back against the couch cushion and rubbing my temples. Sneasel began idly clawing at the edge of my jacket. I didn’t remotely care enough to tell her to stop.

    “Where’s Rudy?” I asked.

    Darren nodded over his shoulder in the direction of the hallway I’d come from. “He requested a private room. Hasn’t come out yet.” He paused for a few seconds, then added, “I tried knocking but he didn’t answer.”

    I gave a hollow laugh. “Can’t really blame him.” Not after what I did last week.

    “He wouldn’t talk to me last night either. I don’t think he likes me much. I mean, that doesn’t bother me, it’s just…” His voice trailed off.

    I furrowed my brow, like I was focusing on some hard to make out detail on the ceiling. A couple times I opened my mouth like I was going to say something, but no words came.

    “I mean, it’s cool. You two were friends before all this. I get it,” Darren went on, with a tone that sounded like he was talking to no one in particular. Sneasel abandoned my jacket to jump in his lap, and he stroked her ear feathers absently.

    “Are all your Pokémon alright?” I blurted out suddenly.

    Darren blinked. “They’re fine. Kadabra saved our butts on more than one occasion.”

    “Oh. That’s good.”

    An awkward silence followed as I struggled to find something, anything to say. Anything we could have normally talked about felt pointless and inane right now, though.

    After what felt like ages, Darren broke the silence. “I know it probably seems like I’m taking all this pretty well. Guess I’m not that great at expressing this kind of thing, huh?”

    I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye without moving my head. He was staring out the window with an expression that was hard to place.

    “It’s a lot to take in,” I finally said.

    “Part of me’s grateful that my team and I got out of it as well as we did. I know that sounds terrible, but… I can’t help thinking it, y’know?” He paused, frowning. “Hang on, you didn’t lose any Pokémon, right?”

    My Pokémon… Razors wasn’t my Pokémon.

    “No,” I said, my voice hollow.

    Darren let out a breath. “Okay. Just checking. Didn’t wanna say anything like that if you were in the same boat as Rudy.”

    And then, in that moment, for whatever reason, I was hit with the crushing realization that everything I’d based my life around had completely and totally fallen apart, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do from now on.

    “What are you gonna do now?” I asked, suddenly turning to face him. “I guess… what were you gonna do before the Rebellion? Rudy was always out for the whole ‘win the League, be a competitive battler’ deal, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked you.”

    Darren crossed his arms behind his head with a thoughtful look. “I just wanted to get out of Celadon. See the rest of Kanto, maybe travel to other regions. I was tired of living in a town run by Rockets. Probably sounds silly that I joined an anti-Rocket team after wanting to get away from them, but”—the corners of his mouth curled up—“Stalker was pretty persuasive when I met him.”

    “You can say that again,” I said with a dry laugh.

    “What about you? You’ve never struck me as the competitive battling type.”

    I chuckled under my breath. “Definitely not.” Why had I wanted to become a trainer? I could only think of the reasons why I’d decided to become a rebel. But before that… before Team Rocket, before Entei… what were my goals then?

    “I only wanted to go on a journey because everyone else was,” I said slowly as the memories came drifting back. “I hated being left behind. All my closest friends were older than me, except for Rudy. So they all left years ago.”

    That was it, wasn’t it? That’s all I’d really wanted back then. To meet up with Ajia and Starr and travel around with them. The idea was almost laughable now. Like something out of a fantasy.

    I took a deep breath, trying to clear my thoughts. The question of what to do next resurfaced in my mind, and I was again reminded that I had no idea what to do with myself.

    “Did you read Stalker’s text?” I asked.

    Darren nodded.

    “Are you gonna join him?”

    He paused to consider the question. “Nah. I think, after all this… I’d kind of like to actually go on that journey. It’s not as exciting as fighting Rockets, but I’ve kind of had enough excitement for a while, y’know?” He made eye contact with me. “What about you?”

    After what happened last night? Half my brain was screaming to get out of the fight against Team Rocket and never look back. But what else was I supposed to do? What other options did I have at this point?

    I could go home. Leave it all behind. Pretend I’d never met Stalker or joined his team. Pretend I didn’t know that Team Rocket was brainwashing Legendaries in preparation for a regional takeover. But would it really be safe to stay anywhere for extended periods of time from now on? Especially back in Viridian, the heart of the organization? No, no it wouldn’t. If anything, I’d just be a danger to everyone around me.

    I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t stay in one spot. I had to keep moving. And I owed it to my Pokémon to continue training—especially the experiments. But where would I go? I couldn’t just wander without any sort of destination. Sure, trainers did that all the time, but I wasn’t a real trainer. I didn’t have much money either.

    “I’m… not sure. I haven’t decided yet,” I said, more to myself than to him.

    As if he knew what I was thinking, Darren said, “Well, regardless of what you choose, you’re still missing a license, aren’t you? You should probably fix that before anything else.”

    If I’d been capable of it, I’d have laughed out loud. “I failed the exam.”

    Darren smirked. “You don’t think you’d fail it now, do you?”

    I was all set with my usual retort that I’d failed it twice and was never going to get any better… and then I realized how colossally stupid that sounded. I had been training Pokémon for four months under the guidance of an actual master trainer. I barely knew anything about Pokémon when I started, and now?

    “I… I guess I wouldn’t,” I said slowly as the implications of that sunk into my head. I could become a trainer. A real trainer. I could actually earn money by doing officially sanctioned battles. I could travel around and stay at any Pokécenter I wanted and not have to worry about getting sent home and having my Pokémon taken. I could head to Johto where the Kanto Rockets were less likely to find me. I could meet up with the Johto Resistance and get their protection.

    This fixed everything.

    “I’m going to be a real trainer,” I said suddenly, sitting bolt-upright with my eyes wide. “Where’s the closest League office? Probably not here—Saffron, maybe?”

    Darren stared at me incredulously. “I honestly wasn’t expecting that kinda one-eighty.”

    “Yeah, well, I needed something like this. Makes everything feel less hopeless,” I said, letting out a breath before standing to my feet in a surprisingly smooth motion. Then a thought hit me and I said, “Hey, can I steal another Pokéball off of you?”

    “Another one?” Darren asked, raising an eyebrow.

    I put a hand to my forehead. “Yeah, uh… the experiments are gonna stick with me.”

    “Ha. Called it,” he said, looking rather pleased with himself as he fished through his bag. Sneasel reached in with her claws to ‘help,’ but Darren pulled the bag away from the dark-type before she could tear more holes in it and then retrieved a red and white sphere from inside.

    “You owe me,” he said, giving me a wry grin as he handed it over.

    “I’ll pay you back after I get my license.”

    “Deal.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t go get my license right away. That would have involved taking a trip to Saffron, where the closest League office was located. And while I could probably have made it there and back in the same day, I didn’t exactly want to leave Lavender without Chibi, even if it was only for an afternoon. Plus, it was probably best if Darren and I waited for Rudy to come around before making too many plans.

    That said, it seemed risky for any of us to stick around the Pokécenter for too long. Stalker might’ve drawn the Rockets off last night, but any center near Midnight Island was an obvious target if the Rockets decided it was better to finish off the rest of us. Hell, the only reason they hadn’t already was probably because of all the cops around. Not that I felt too great about the cops either. I didn’t really want to risk getting questioned about the Rebellion and revealing that I was an illegal trainer with connections to Rockets. Not to mention the fact that three of my Pokémon were genetic experiments. I could end up losing them.

    So I returned to the trainer’s dorm, introduced Aros to his new Pokéball, and took stock of everything I owned in preparation for leaving town, whenever that would be. Turns out, I didn’t have much. I’d pretty much only grabbed my bag and my Pokéballs when I’d fled the stadium. That left me with nothing more than a single spare T-shirt and a Rocket uniform. Well… that and the strange metallic orb I’d found in the ruins. I couldn’t even remember putting it in the bag to begin with, but apparently it had wound up there at some point.

    I also still had my R-com. I’d reread Stalker’s final message to the Rebellion about a dozen times. I’d even sent him a response asking where he was in Johto. But I hadn’t received a reply yet. Which was fine—I still hadn’t decided if I was even going to join the Johto Resistance. And there would be plenty of time to decide after I became a Pokémon trainer.

    I showered and changed into my spare t-shirt and black Rocket pants. I looked like a dork, but it was better than what I was wearing before. There’d be time to grab a cheap outfit or two from a thrift shop or something. I was sitting on the bed, toweling off my wet hair when a flicker of yellow in my peripheral vision caught my eye.

    My heart skipped a beat. It was Chibi.

    The Pikachu was seated on the windowsill, looking every bit as disheveled as last night, with fur and feathers sticking out at awkward angles and most of his body covered in scrapes and bruises. His face still bore the bloodstains of when it happened, only now the marks were smudged and matted where the fur had been soaked with tears.

    I swallowed hard and said, “You’re back.”

    He gazed up at me distantly, eyes bloodshot and half-lidded. I had to force my expression to remain neutral when the sight of him felt like being stabbed in the heart.

    “I… I was worried about you,” I said quietly, unsure of whether or not I should have said so.

    The hybrid glanced away, staring at the floor with no change in expression.

    My voice shook as I went on, “I know you probably want to be alone right now, but… I just… want to make sure you know I’m here for you? If you want me to be.”

    Without saying a word, he hopped down from the window and crossed the dormitory on all fours. I held my breath as he walked past me, but he didn’t even glance in my direction. He just hopped up onto the wooden table by the door and tapped the button on his Pokéball, dissolving himself into it.

    I let out a deep breath. Yeah, that’d gone about as well as I’d expected. Aros had said to give the hybrid some space… well that’s what was going to happen, whether I liked it or not. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much he was suffering. At least now that he was back in his Pokéball, I could have one of the center’s staff heal him. The crushing realization hit me that I honestly didn’t even know how badly he was injured. He could have had broken ribs for all I knew. He wouldn’t have let it show, either way.

    A faint, lightheaded feeling had suddenly overtaken me. Like I’d been running on overdrive ever since last night but somehow hadn’t noticed until the stress of seeing Chibi again. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my appetite had suddenly decided to appear out of nowhere, making me painfully aware of just how ravenous I was.

    I guess that answered the question of where I was headed first.

    Lavender Town only had one trainer’s cafe, and it was tiny. Given Aros and Stygian’s size, we had to eat at one of the outdoor tables, which was less than ideal given the cold wind blowing in from the sea. Everyone argued over who got to sit next to Firestorm, we talked about our upcoming trip to Johto, and for a little while it actually felt like things were normal.

    I kept Chibi inside his ball. I wasn’t ready to talk to him yet, and he almost definitely wouldn’t want to come out anyway.

    After eating, the walk back from the cafe was considerably less miserable than the walk to it had been. That kind of bothered me. I wasn’t allowed to be feeling kind of alright. Not after what had happened last night. Not after what Rudy was going through. Not after what Chibi was going through. There was no such thing as normal anymore, but it was like all the pain and despair had just melted into background noise that I could barely sense anymore. It was just the way things were. This was life now.

    I was lost in thought as I walked down the streets of Lavender Town, not paying attention to anything in particular. Which meant I was completely unprepared for the hand that reached out of nowhere, grabbed hold of my shirt, and dragged me into the nearby alley.

    “What the hell?!” I cried, whirling around to face my attacker and—I froze up instantly. It was Astrid. Again. Why was it always her?! What was she doing here?! While I was frozen, she pushed me up against the wall of the nearest building, pinning me completely. Every inch of me wanted to scream, but my voice caught in my throat. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t fight back, I couldn’t do anything. Why not?!

    “Quit shaking. I’m not here to kill you,” she muttered.

    She wasn’t? But then… that could only mean… My insides melted away just thinking about her Raichu. Not that. Not again.

    “Where is your leader?” Astrid demanded.

    “H—he’s in Johto!”

    Where in Johto?!”

    “I don’t know, I swear I don’t know, he didn’t tell us anything, I’m not lying I swear!” I said all in one breath.

    Her eyes bored into mine, looking almost… desperate? Now that I was paying attention, I could see the exhaustion covering her face and the dark circles under her eyes. Seconds passed with neither of us making a move. My heart thundered in my chest and sweat dripped down my face and every inch of me hoped and prayed that she’d somehow, miraculously be satisfied with my answer.

    After what felt like an eternity, Astrid released her hold on my collar, pushing me away. “Lucky for you I can tell you’re not lying,” she said with a scowl. “If your leader’s really abandoned you, then you’re useless to me now. Your team’s finished. You’re powerless. You’re no threat to Team Rocket on your own. So I suggest you take advantage of my generosity and get the hell out of here.”

    I stared at her stupidly, unable to process what had just happened. “What? You’re letting me go?”

    She didn’t say anything. She just turned and strode off down the alley with the same intensity she’d approached me with.

    What? Why was she doing this? And worse, why did I feel like I should know why?

    “W-what kind of game are you trying to pull?” I called after her, my voice shaking. This had to be some kind of trick. It had to be. “Even if I’m not a threat, there’s no way you’d ever just let me go.”

    Astrid froze mid-step. With her back to me, she said, “You’re not worth the time it’d take to kill you. It’d be a wasted effort.”

    I stared incredulously. “That doesn’t… I know what you’re like. You’ve always enjoyed making me suffer.”

    She whirled around, her face lit with fury. “You don’t know a damn thing about me,” she spat, sounding almost offended by my words. She then turned to leave once more.

    Nothing about this made any sense. Astrid had always targeted me, right from the start. I’d always thought she had a grudge against me ever since the plane incident—which had only gotten worse with each time I escaped. But the kind of grudge that would lead her to target me without killing me? Because if she was really as dangerous as she acted, then there was no way I should have lived through all my encounters with her.

    Unless it really was all an act. Which would make this just another link in a long chain of slip-ups and character breaks that I’d never pieced together before. The exaggerated threats that somehow never led anywhere. The total lack of enjoyment during the interrogation. The pain in her eyes during the raid last night. Too many unexplainable things.

    Without thinking, I blurted out, “You—you actually don’t want me dead.”

    Astrid spun to face me again, eyes narrowed. “Figured out that much, have you?”

    My pulse quickened. I was actually right?

    “I just don’t know why,” I went on slowly.

    She squinted at me like I’d just said the dumbest thing she’d ever heard. “God, I’m lucky you’re such an idiot.”

    A horribly unnerving feeling swept over me. After all the times she’d given me the usual death glare or arrogant smirk, seeing this kind of expression from her felt really weird. There was almost something… familiar about it. The image felt ancient in memory, much older than any of my run-ins with Team Rocket. I was suddenly years younger, with her making that exact face and telling me how stupid I was being. How did I have this memory of her looking at me like that from way before I’d even met her?

    Because I’d seen that face before, five years ago.

    It hit me like a ton of bricks to the face. Five years. Five years—had it really been that long? Long enough that I’d forgotten what she looked like. How was I even capable of forgetting something like that? But there was no other explanation. It had to be her. That would make her seventeen now? Old enough to be an executive. How did I go this long without realizing?

    My mind was racing. Too many thoughts to process all at one—it felt like my head was going to burst. It all made sense now. Everything fit.

    Astrid was still looking at me like I was a moron. “Are you even listening to me? What else do I have to do to make you go away??”

    “Oh god, it really is you, Starr.”

    Astrid froze, like the words were a slap to the face. She stared at me in horror, swearing under her breath.

    Five years ago, my best friend had suddenly moved away from Viridian with no explanation whatsoever. Now, she was back in my life again, in the form of the person who’d been haunting my nightmares.

    Her expression hardened. “So… what are you going to do now, Jade?”

    She wasn’t denying it? Some part of me had still hoped, desperately, irrationally, that I was wrong. But I wasn’t. All this time my worst enemy was actually my childhood best friend. The same person I’d been devastated to lose years ago was the one who’d stalked, terrorized, and outright tortured me now. I stared at her, feeling a horrible chill run down my spine. This couldn’t be real. It had to be some sick joke.

    Starr frowned. “You look upset. How do you think I felt when I found out you were involved with that damn rebel team? It was bad enough that Ajia’s involved in rebel matters, but now you too? Do you think I wanted this?”

    “I just… I don’t understand… how did you turn into this? What happened after you left?”

    “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said darkly. “My past is my business, and you’d do well to stay out of it.”

    I bristled. “Am I just supposed to forget that my old best friend is part of an organization that wants me dead?”

    Yes, you are. Damn it Jade, I knew you’d react like this. The fact that we were friends five years ago shouldn’t matter anymore. Things are different now.”

    “‘Things are different now’?!” I shouted, my blood starting to boil. “Does that make it okay to be a Rocket? Is that your excuse for everything you’ve done?” I was seething, fists clenched, heart pounding.

    “Jade, my situation is a lot more complicated than you’re making it out to be—”

    “I don’t care! How could you do all of those things to me?!”

    “Damn it Jade, do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to keep you alive the past few months?!” she shouted. “I knew who you were from the start, and I had to keep every other Rocket from figuring that out! Every damn time you snuck into the base or sabotaged our missions, I had to make sure I found you before anyone else, otherwise you’d have been shot and killed in a second.

    “As for that night in the detention cell…” she went on, her voice breaking. “Did it never occur to you that I tortured you because that was the only alternative to killing you that wouldn’t look totally suspicious? Do you think I enjoyed that? I had to make damn sure that I was convincing. And guess what—if I lost my position, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my subordinates from killing you the second I was done interrogating you. You know they all wanted you dead! And if it weren’t for me, you would have been.”

    I stared at her, lost for words. “I don’t… I didn’t think—”

    “Tch. That much is obvious. Now, look. We are going to forget that any of this ever happened. I don’t even care if you keep doing your rebel crap, just do it somewhere far away from me, got it?”

    “Well you’re quite the loyal Rocket,” I muttered as she was about to walk off.

    Starr spun around furiously. “Yes. I am a loyal Rocket. And you’d do well to remember that. So stop trying to question my loyalties, got it?! We’re done here!!”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Astrid was Starr.

    That single, unavoidable fact burned in my thoughts for the rest of the day as I wandered aimlessly down the docks south of town, staring blankly out to sea, occasionally catching glimpses of Midnight Island through the fog.

    My old best friend had tortured me. That thought wouldn’t stop echoing in my mind either. Even though we weren’t friends anymore and hadn’t been for years. She should’ve been no different than any other Rocket who’d tried to kill me.

    Except she was different. We had been friends. Didn’t that mean anything to her? What had caused her to change so much? What had happened in the last five years? Why did she even join Team Rocket to begin with?

    I shook my head. Would knowing really change anything? This was the new Starr. So what if we’d been friends as kids? Those kids were long gone—both of us were different people now. There was no reason for me to care about any of it. I was going to Johto in a few days, and I’d never see her again. An old friend I’d lost contact with years ago suddenly reappearing as a terrible person was really not my problem.

    It wasn’t my problem. I didn’t care.



    Yeah. Right.

    It was so, so stupid, but I had to know, or else it was going to eat away at me forever. I had to talk to her again… get some answers. But the idea was… not exactly a comforting one. Try to talk to the person who’d imprisoned and tortured me? She’d spared my life this time. And apparently several other times. But there was no way I could trust that would always be the case. Her loyalties lay with Team Rocket now. I never wanted to be at her mercy again.

    I was going to need backup. Someone who’d be able to defeat her if it came to a fight. Someone more logical than me, who could talk to her without losing their cool. Preferably someone who knew her and had a reason to care about the situation.

    My eyes widened. I actually knew someone who fit that description perfectly.






    ~End Chapter 23~
    Astrid is, and has always been, Starr. As unlikely as it may seem, every single terrible thing Astrid ever did was written through this lens, and I hope that a lot of her weird behavior makes sense now. The encounter in Chapter 15 is probably the only one that didn’t have a lot of foreshadowing in it, because there wasn’t a lot at stake, so she was able to really ham it up. With each subsequent encounter, however, the façade started to slip—rereading some of those scenes with this in mind should cause them to take on a whole new meaning.

    The following post contains an alternate take on Chapter 20 from Astrid's point of view.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 23 Extra: Heartless
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 23 Extra: Heartless~

    (Chronologically, this extra takes place right after the interrogation in Chapter 20. Do not read this extra until you have read Chapter 23.)
    The ideal Rocket is heartless.

    That’s what Astrid told herself as she made the long walk back from the detention cell to her personal quarters. Scattered grunts passed by her in the hallway. She ignored them. They wouldn’t speak to her unless spoken to. It was amazing how much control she had over their lives.

    And yet she couldn’t control the one damn thing that mattered.

    She couldn’t think about that now, though. Not where others could see her. Not where weakness wasn’t tolerated, and was something to be snuffed out, or at the very least buried so deep that no one could ever see it. No one. Not the rebel. Not the other executives who’d been watching her interrogation. Not the boss.

    The ideal Rocket does not show weakness.

    To those under her, she was the image of perfection. She never hesitated. Never failed. Never showed weakness. Just pure, ruthless precision. They didn’t know any better. They couldn’t see the scars she bore from past failure.

    She arrived at her room. The door shut behind her, and she turned the lock with a faint click. Her boots hit the wall with a dull thud when she kicked them off. They were heavy boots. They gave her a commanding presence. It was always good for others to fear you before they’d even seen you. She’d always enjoyed that. Not right now, though. She didn’t feel intimidating right now. She felt small and helpless.

    A flash of light and her Raichu appeared from his Pokéball on the bed next to her. She wasn’t sure why she’d let him out, she just knew she didn’t want to be alone right now.

    Raichu glanced around, a bit surprised to see that they were back in their room. But then the mouse struck a pose, feeling rather pleased with himself. He’d done a good job, hadn’t he? That rebel was so scared! He was good at acting scary, right? His trainer didn’t respond. She just sat there, staring at the floor, shoulders trembling.

    Something was wrong. Normally his trainer always praised him for a job well done. Was this because he hadn’t gotten the rebel to confess? They were going back in an hour, right? He’d definitely succeed then.

    The electric mouse hopped closer to his trainer, nose twitching. She didn’t… seem upset with him. What was the problem, then?

    “I don’t know what to do,” Astrid whispered.

    Raichu cocked his head. “Raiichu’raai?”

    Astrid glanced down at her Pokémon. His normally cheerful demeanor had given way to concern. She couldn’t look at him without seeing the fact that she’d used him to do those things.

    The ideal Rocket follows orders.

    She’d trained him well. His control over his lightning was unreal. He could always dish out the exact amount to cause the most pain without causing lasting damage or letting the target fall unconscious. And he had no reason to think there was anything different about this situation. It was just a game to him. Just another routine torturing of someone who was just an enemy, and whose feelings didn’t really matter.

    “I’m not mad at you. You followed orders well.” Raichu perked up at bit at her words, and she gave him a reassuring pat.

    I followed orders well,” she added with a bitter laugh.

    That’s what all this was, right? Following orders. She was good at following orders. She was so good at it that in time she’d become the one giving the orders. But they’d never truly ceased. They just came from higher up now. From the administrators. From the boss.

    If it was just following orders, then why did it hurt so much?

    It used to hurt a lot more often. But that was because she was weak then. Inexperienced. Blind to the reality of the world. You couldn’t get through life without hurting others. Anyone who thought otherwise was a fool.

    She’d volunteered to go down there, though. She didn’t have to be involved. It was a bit strange for a department head not to delegate something like that. The others were perfectly willing to do it. But if she’d let them, there was no telling what they’d do to the rebel.

    So in some way… it must have mattered to her.

    What the hell was Jade thinking, becoming a rebel? Why did Astrid have to go through this again? Wasn’t it bad enough that she’d already gone through this last year, with Ajia?

    No… that was wrong… she hadn’t gone through this with Ajia. It had never gotten this bad. How had things gotten this bad? She’d thought she’d been able to put a stop to it in the Celadon base. Putting on a show of it. Something that would look good for the others while also scaring the shit out of Jade. And yet she just kept coming back. Why?

    It was Jade’s own damn fault if she was so determined to keep getting herself into trouble. If she was too stupid to avoid getting herself killed, then that was her problem. Astrid had already saved her life twice now. Twice, she’d risked everything, and for what? Some stupid, meaningless connection that should have died years ago.

    It didn’t mean anything, not anymore. The pain of some no-good rebel meant nothing to her. Neither did the sight of that rebel unconscious and bleeding in the forest…or the sight of her lying on the cell floor, writhing in agony.

    Because that’s what she was good at. Causing pain.

    Astrid clenched her teeth. The memories twisted into her like a knife no matter how much she told herself they didn’t matter. The screams echoed in her ears no matter how hard she willed them not to.

    It was Jade’s fault. It couldn’t have been helped.

    At some point she lost the will to keep sitting up and had collapsed sideways onto the bed. Raichu nuzzled her arm fervently, his cries tinged with alarm. She reached out and hugged the electric-type tightly as her tears soaked the pillow.

    The ideal Rocket is heartless.

    She was the ideal Rocket… wasn’t she?

    Then why did it hurt so much?
     
    Chapter 24: Old Friends and New Enemies
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Just a heads up: this chapter is reaaaally long. I'd probably split it in two if it wouldn't screw up my chapter numbering. So be sure to settle in, cause there's a heck of a lot of ground to cover here~



    ~Chapter 24: Old Friends and New Enemies~


    My heart wouldn’t stop pounding as I sat down at the Pokécenter video phone and opened my wallet to retrieve the small, wrinkled, water-stained piece of paper that Ajia had written her Pokégear number onto so long ago. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself, then placed a few coins into the console before punching in her number. There was no need to be nervous. I was just calling an old friend. No need to be nervous. Not like I was calling to tell her that a mutual friend was part of Team Rocket’s upper ranks. My feet tapped the floor without me telling them to. I tried to make them stop, but that just made them tap faster. Then Ajia’s face appeared on the screen and my heart jumped into my throat. No going back now.

    Her eyes lit up the moment she saw me. “Jade? Hey, how’ve you been? You shoulda called sooner, it’s been ages!”

    I forced a smile, though it was only slightly forced—there was something undeniably uplifting about seeing her again after all this time. Something that cut through all the nerves and reminded me why she was the one I was reaching out to right now.

    “It’s good to see you,” I said, and I meant it.

    “So what’s up?” she asked.

    I swallowed hard. There really was no way to open this conversation that wasn’t totally awkward. Why bother trying to find one.

    “It’s our old friend Starr,” I said slowly, fighting every word. “I found out that she’s a Rocket executive.”

    Ajia’s face fell. “Oh. You… you know about that now?”

    My heart crumpled inward on itself. “You knew?”

    She paused, eyes glancing away ever so slightly. “It would’ve been better if I’d never found out, honestly.”

    Ajia knew. This was yet another thing that Ajia knew. Yet another thing that exposed her history fighting Team Rocket… one that I hadn’t even known about until five months ago. Another reminder that my friends were entangled in a vast conspiracy, and that I’d only started to scratch the surface.

    “So that day, at the plane crash… you knew that was her?”

    Ajia nodded. “And I’m sure she knew who she was fighting then, too.”

    “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, hurt leaking into my voice despite all efforts to keep it out.

    She paused, frowning. “I… it had been so many years since we’d seen her. I didn’t think it would do any good to bring up that kind of drama out of nowhere. Things didn’t go so well when I found out.”

    I bit my lip and glanced away. “Ugh, I didn’t realize. I wanted to talk to her again… try to get some answers, you know? But… if that’s a bad idea—”

    “Well hang on, I never said that,” Ajia cut in, smiling faintly. “Things didn’t go so well the last time I talked to her. But that was just me. She’ll have a lot harder time refusing both of us.” She winked.

    I stared at her. Somewhere, deep within all the hurt and confusion and shock that this day had held, it was like the tiniest flame of hope had just been lit inside of me, its warmth gradually radiating outward. Ajia was willing to help. I hadn’t even had to ask.

    “Where are you?” she asked.

    “I…”—I shook my head to get my bearings—“I’m at the Pokémon center in Lavender Town.” A pause, and I added, “Do you know where that is?”

    “I’ve got a Pokégear. I can find it.”

    Right. Obviously. “I guess I’ll see you here then?”

    “Yup, see you!” She waved once more before hanging up.

    I collapsed against the seat cushion, letting out a massive sigh of relief—one that it felt like I’d been holding for hours. I had Ajia on my side in this. I wasn’t alone. Someone else knew what it felt like to discover that their friend was on Team Rocket, and that someone was also an expert trainer who had fought Team Rocket before. That alone was enough to remove a huge weight from my shoulders.

    Ajia arrived far more quickly than she had any right to. Sure, her Aerodactyl was fast, but it felt like I’d only been waiting a couple of minutes before I glanced up to see a petite teenaged girl walking in through the front doors to the center with a Pichu perched on her shoulder and an Espeon trotting at her heels. The bright energy in her dark eyes stood out in contrast to the grim atmosphere that hung over everyone I’d seen in the past twelve hours, and I couldn’t help suddenly feeling self-conscious about how exhausted and worn-out I probably looked. Last time she’d seen me, I’d been trying to convince her that I really did want to fight Team Rocket. A fresh wave of embarrassment hit me from how bad an idea that had turned out to be.

    I stood up from the couch a little too late and wasn’t ready when Ajia threw out her arms and pulled me into a hug, saying, “It’s good to see you!”

    Words failed me, like I’d momentarily forgotten what to do when confronted with such good cheer. In the end I settled on, “Thanks for helping me out,” with what hopefully wasn’t too defeated a tone.

    She elbowed me lightly as we separated. “Hey, what are friends for?” But then she cocked her head, gazing at me like she was trying to figure something out. “Are… are you doing alright?”

    I closed my eyes, smiling weakly. So it was that obvious, huh? “I’ve been better,” I said, grabbing my bag and slinging it over my shoulder. “Come on, let’s walk outside while we talk.”

    A cool sea breeze swept through our hair as we stepped outside the Pokécenter. Espeon dashed ahead of us, zigzagging across the path that led to the boardwalk. Ajia held her arms out to the side while we walked, allowing Pichu to scamper from one end to the other.

    “So, you start,” Ajia said. “What have you been up to?”

    I gave a dry laugh. No way, I definitely wasn’t going to open with that. “I’d reeeally prefer for you to answer that first.”

    She blinked a bit in surprise, but then folded her arms behind her head, which prompted Pichu to jump down and cling to her jacket front. “Ah, you know me, I’ve been traveling. A few odd jobs here, a local tournament there. Spent some time in the Sevii Islands recently, that was fun. It’s still warm there this time of year. And they’ve got tons of novelty tourneys and unofficial gyms—I got to take Lapras through a surf race where the competitors use water attacks to knock trainers off their Pokémon.”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but then stopped myself. ‘You know me,’ she had said. But I honestly wouldn’t have been able to guess half of that stuff. Her combat skill went without saying, so I probably could have assumed something related to competitive battling, but other than that… it was like I didn’t know anything about her anymore.

    “They’ve got a bunch of cool ruins down there too,” she went on. “Lots of rare Pokémon. Took Ninetales to the fire festival they held on the solstice at Mt. Ember. It’s really popular with the legend-spotting community—they say Moltres has shown up a few times in the past to give its blessing. Didn’t get to see it this year, though.”

    I could hardly blame Moltres. The solstice was not long after Entei’s capture—of course it wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere near humans. Not that it mattered either way, because the firebird had been caught two weeks ago and would never show up at the fire festival there, or anywhere else ever again.

    Pichu jumped down from Ajia’s jacket and dashed up one of the wooden posts lining the boardwalk. The electric-type then hopped from one post to the next while Espeon jumped up and tried to catch her in midair.

    “Any League stuff?” I asked, looking for any excuse to keep Ajia talking so it wouldn’t have to be my turn.

    “Nah, I haven’t done official competitive since the Rocket stuff last year. I try to stay off TV, y’know? Don’t wanna advertise where they need to send a hit squad,” she said with a chuckle. I had a hard time finding humor in that. Then again, she could have been laughing at the fact that Espeon had caught Pichu mid-leap with its telekinesis, and the mouse was now flailing indignantly against the psychic-type’s hold.

    “I mean, they’ve got agents scattered across the islands, but nothing large-scale. I took down a smuggling ring while I was there, but they never found out it was me, so…”

    Why the hell hadn’t I been traveling with Ajia all this time? Even leaving out the fact that she had the unexplainable ability to fight Team Rocket and actually win, I could have been spending all this time having fun with one of the people I’d most wanted to meet up with when I became a trainer. And I’d had the opportunity after the plane incident, too! Sure, I had been opposed to leaving home without a license, and she’d been opposed to getting me mixed up in Rocket drama. But then I’d gone and done both of those things anyway. Was it just because the Rebellion had seemed important enough to leave home without permission and without a license?

    “So… hang on… is that why it’s been ages since you last visited Viridian? Staying off the team’s radar?” I finally asked.

    Ajia clicked her tongue in thought. “Part of it. My dad’s work transferred him to Indigo, so there’s also that.” She smiled faintly and gave me an encouraging nudge. “Alright, your turn. What’s it like being on that rebel team?”

    My stomach tied itself into a knot. I’d known she was going to ask at some point, but that hadn’t made it any easier to come up with a suitable response.

    “Don’t ask how I know this, but it sounds like you guys have really been making a difference,” she added once my pause had lasted more than a few seconds. “I mean… saving Raikou and Zapdos? Not to mention Mew! How many people can say they’ve even seen Mew, let alone saved her?” Her words held a cheerful air, but at the same time there was something… measured about them. She’d seen how worn and ragged I looked. She knew something was up. But she didn’t know what, so she’d focused on lifting the mood before it had the chance to drop.

    I swallowed a lump, clutching the wound on my left arm, hidden from view under my jacket sleeve. Nope, I wasn’t ready to explain any more than the bare minimum.

    “The rebel team was disbanded not long ago. It was getting too dangerous to continue, so we had to split up.” The sooner I could transition this into talking about Starr, the sooner I could stop thinking about the Rebellion’s fate. “That’s why I’m here, and that’s how Starr found me. You said we were gonna talk to her, right?”

    Ajia blinked, obviously caught off-guard by the sudden subject change. “Oh, of course! Want to head to Viridian now?”

    Now it was my turn to pause in confusion. “Viridian? I’ve only ever run into her in Celadon.”

    “Yeah, it’s not uncommon for combat unit execs to bounce around depending on where they’re needed and what their mission schedule is like,” Ajia explained. “But as far as I know, Starr primarily leads the Viridian combat unit.”

    The irony of it—I’d been so disappointed when Starr never returned to Viridian. Turns out she had. Just not the way I’d been expecting or hoping.

    Ajia pivoted on her heels and put her hands over her mouth, calling out, “Alright, time to go, you two!”

    As some point we had passed her Pokémon, both of whom were now perched atop opposing posts, shooting small, star-shaped bits of energy to knock each other off. Upon hearing Ajia’s call, however, they bolted over to us, neck-and-neck until Ajia held up a Pokéball and the yellow mouse instantly skidded to a halt.

    “*Whaaat,*” Pichu said, fixing her trainer with an incredulous frown.

    Ajia put her other hand on her hip. “Come on, we’re heading to the Viridian base. Everyone knows you there, I can’t have you out.”

    “*I can hide in your bag,*” the electric-type pleaded.

    Ajia cracked a smile. “Only if you stay in there,” she said, sliding her backpack from her shoulders. “We don’t need a repeat of the Cerulean incident.”

    “*That was one time,*” Pichu mumbled, leaping into the bag the moment her trainer unzipped it.

    Ajia shouldered her backpack before turning to face me and saying, “Need to run back and grab anything before we go? Oh, and is this your first time teleporting?”

    “No to both of those,” I said, tugging at my own backpack strap for emphasis. But then my brain caught up with her second statement and I added, “Wait, we’re teleporting?”

    She gestured to the psychic fox sitting at her heels, who was now fixing me with a curious stare. Well that explained how she’d gotten here so quickly. Ajia put a hand to my shoulder before reaching out her other hand to grab Espeon’s forked tail. Then the foggy surrounding of Lavender town melted into shimmering light.

    Espeon took us straight to Viridian in a single jump, which was crazy far—farther than I’d seen any Pokémon do at once. We entered the base through the northwest entrance, located in a discreet warehouse on the edge of town. It was one of the less commonly used entrances, from what Darren and I had seen during the time we’d spent scoping out the base. Probably because it led directly to the storage division. Of course, that just made it easier to track down replacement boots and gloves for my uniform. Ajia already had a Rocket uniform, and a working Rocket ID for that matter. When I asked her how, she just said, “It’s a long story.”

    “Well, when this is all done, I’d like to finally hear it,” I replied.

    Ajia kept her hat pulled low over her face as she led us into the commons. Viridian HQ didn’t harbor nearly as many bad memories for me as Celadon, but I couldn’t help feeling the grip of anxiety just from being inside a base again. I had told myself I was done. That I was going to Johto to turn a new leaf. And now this.

    We made our way toward the private rooms, which were generally reserved for executives, admins, or other important agents who were stationed at the base long-term. Apparently Ajia knew which room to check first, because she walked with a sense of purpose, like someone who didn’t have any doubts as to her destination. She stopped in front of room 160, checked her R-com once (she had an R-com too?), and then knocked three times. My chest tightened—this was it.

    Several seconds passed. Then, a muffled voice from the other side of the door: “Oh, for the love of—”

    I could hear the clattering of locks being undone before the door swung open to reveal an extremely unimpressed Starr. She was dressed more casually than the full executive getup I’d always seen her in—just a black tank top and gray capris—and was currently fixing me with a particularly disapproving scowl.

    “What are you doing here? And what’d you bring her for?” she demanded pointing at Ajia.

    “It’s great to see you too,” Ajia said brightly.

    Starr put a hand to her forehead, dragging it down her face and pulling at her eyelids exasperatedly. She then leaned out the doorway and shot a couple of furtive glances down the hallway before stepping aside and roughly gesturing inside her room.

    While I didn’t fancy being overheard any more than she did, the idea of setting foot in her quarters was… hardly appealing. Then again, it wasn’t as if I was alone—I did have Ajia with me. That made it better, right? My footsteps dragged against the carpet as I walked through the doorway into a narrow entry hall. Once the two of us were inside, Starr slammed the door shut, locked it, and rounded on us.

    “You’ve got five seconds to explain what the hell you’re doing here.”

    “We’re just here to talk,” Ajia said, holding up her hands defensively.

    “I don’t want to talk with the likes of you guys,” Starr spat, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re just a bunch of no-good rebels trying to ruin my position on Team Rocket. Do you think I’ve forgotten the revolt? How many Rockets were totally screwed over because of you?”

    Ajia frowned. “Screwed over? Really? That’s a bit harsh. Also, I think you’re giving me too much credit for everything that happened back then.”

    What was this revolt they were talking about? I’d lost count of how many times I’d heard people mention it, but no one ever felt like explaining what it was.

    Starr glared at Ajia silently for several seconds. Then she caught sight of my confusion before giving Ajia an odd look like she was trying to figure something out. Finally, a slow, satisfied grin made its way across her face, and she quietly said, “You mean Jade doesn’t…?” Starr decided against finishing the sentence, however, and instead threw a few unsettling glances my way, like she knew something I didn’t.

    “What? I don’t what?” I asked, scowling at her.

    Ajia, on the other hand, seemed to understand what Starr was insinuating, even though I had no idea. She gave her a sort of annoyed stare for a few seconds, but then casually said, “I think we’re getting off-topic. So, do you mind telling us why you’re so loyal to Team Rocket, or do we have to be here all day?”

    Starr tilted her head. “What? That’s a stupid question. Why are you loyal to your rebel cause?”

    “Simple. I’m against Team Rocket’s goals. I want to prevent them from going through with their plan to use the Legendaries to increase their power and influence. And I don’t want to see any more lives ruined by Team Rocket.” Ajia smiled and said, “Now it’s your turn. Go on, don’t be shy.”

    Starr clenched her teeth, looking apprehensive. Her hand hovered over her pocket, where the outline of an R-com was visible through the fabric. I shot a nervous glance at Ajia, but she had a rather amused expression. “Going to turn us in? I’m surprised at you, Starr—I’d think an executive like you would know what would happen if two wanted enemies of Team Rocket were captured. But nah, I guess it’s totally cool if they kill us—no big deal, right?”

    Starr continued to scowl at her. “That’s my biggest problem. It would be a lot easier if I could just pretend I hadn’t known you two before I joined Team Rocket.”

    Ajia put a hand to her forehead. “Right… So, the only reason you care if the other higher-ups kill us is because we used to be friends. That’s comforting.”

    Starr scoffed. “I’m head of the combat unit, what do you expect? Any threat to Team Rocket is the enemy, and I’ve gone through this debate in my head enough times. The past few years I’ve learned to ignore any sympathy, although Jade pretty much owes her life to it.” I glanced away, too embarrassed to look her in the eye.

    “The point is… it’s my business why I’m a Rocket,” Starr continued. “Why the hell do you two even care anyway? Why does it matter?”

    “Because…” Ajia began, choosing her words carefully, “you can’t be loyal to Team Rocket and help its enemies at the same time. Trust me, it doesn’t work. Sooner or later, you’ll be found out, and you’re gonna have to choose.”

    Starr folded her arms. “I’m not a double agent like your allies. Stop making it sound like I’d help rebels.”

    “I guess all the times you made sure I wasn’t killed don’t count, then?” I said dryly. “How many times was it?”

    Starr’s mouth hung open, like my words were a slap to the face. “Not wanting you dead doesn’t count, alright! I’d never help the rebel cause or anything! And I wouldn’t have any problems if you two didn’t keep showing up in my life trying to test my loyalties.”

    “So, what you’re saying is that you’re 100% satisfied with being a Rocket,” Ajia said. “It’s never made you feel uncomfortable at all. You’ve never once regret something you’ve had to do for the team. Ten out of ten, would join Team Rocket again.”

    Starr gave her a horrified look, like she couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “What the hell are you trying to say?”

    “What I’m saying is—can you really blame me for trying to help the Rockets I met who wanted a way out but didn’t know what to do?”

    “I’m not like all of them, alright! You really think someone in my position can just leave?!” Wait—her argument wasn’t that she didn’t want to leave, but that she couldn’t? That was totally different than what she’d implied earlier.

    “There have been Rockets higher ranked than you who managed to—”

    I can’t do what the commander did!! I won’t!! That was your fault anyway! He actually agreed with all your rebel bullshit. That’s not who I am!”

    “Then who are you, Starr? Is serving Team Rocket all that you have?”

    Yes!!!” she shouted, her eyes wide with desperation. “I threw away everything from my old life when I joined Team Rocket! Even my name… And I thought that included my friends. But I’ll never be entirely free, will I?” she asked, glaring at us.

    I flinched and looked away. She… kind of had a point, much as I hated to admit it. If Starr really wanted nothing to do with us anymore, then what was the point of trying to force her to? It wouldn’t help her. It definitely wouldn’t help me get over what she’d done. Why were we doing this?

    “For how loyal you are to the team, I assume they must be loyal to you as well, then?” Ajia asked, her tone casual. “The boss really wouldn’t mind if he knew what you’d done?”

    Starr’s eyes widened with shock before immediately narrowing into the fiercest rage I’d ever seen from her. “Get out. NOW.”

    I was about to protest, or at the very least try to calm her down, but then Ajia raised both arms and said, “Fine. That’s all I needed to know. It was great talking with you, let’s do it again soon.”

    I shot an incredulous glance at Ajia, who gave me a meaningful look but didn’t say anything. Starr took several heavy steps over to the door and threw it open, pointing out. I did my best to avoid eye contact, but still caught sight of the glare she fixed on us the entire time we walked out. The instant I had cleared the doorway, I felt the door slam shut right behind me.

    “We’re leaving just like that?” I asked, staring at Ajia in confusion.

    A long pause followed. “I wasn’t lying when I said I’d found out everything I needed to know,” she said quietly. “Let’s go to the Pokémon Center for now. I’m starting to get an idea of how we can settle this.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “I think we can actually get Starr to quit Team Rocket.”

    The announcement came out of nowhere. Ajia had been mostly silent as we’d walked to the north Viridian Pokécenter, where she’d reserved a double bunk room for us. Having the silence broken with such a bold claim was definitely not what I’d been expecting.

    “Seriously?”

    Ajia nodded, sitting up straight in her chair. “She’s trapped. She’ll never admit it, but it’s obvious there are a ton of things she hates about being a Rocket. She’s just had to ignore all of them in order to stay alive. It really is the same as the other ex-Rockets I’ve known. But even if we were to convince her of that, there’s no way she’d ever follow that path. I gave up trying to convince her to quit when I first found out. But with you being involved, things are different. The things she’s had to do to save you have made her question the things she’d always believed to be true.”

    The idea that she wasn’t too far gone… that the person we used to know might still be in there, deep down. It was obviously appealing. But… it didn’t change the things she’d done. Nothing could change that. Trying to be friends with her again was almost more uncomfortable of a thought than just the fact that we were enemies now.

    “Are you… sure about this?” I asked slowly.

    Ajia nodded again. “But I don’t think we should push her to make a decision. What we should do, is show her what Team Rocket would do if they found out what she’s done.”

    I grimaced. “I’m pretty sure she knows. That’s why she doesn’t want to oppose them.”

    “Exactly,” Ajia said, eyes shining. “She refuses to betray them, but what if they betray her first? What if we show her that they don’t deserve her loyalty? All we’d have to do is trick her into revealing the fact that she’s helped us.”

    I paused. That… did make a bit of sense. I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to do that exactly, seeing as she’d been willing to go so far as to torture me without breaking character. But Ajia didn’t know that. Ajia didn’t know half the stuff Starr had done. And I didn’t exactly feel like going into detail on most of it.

    “By the way… how did you find out Starr was on Team Rocket?” Ajia asked.

    Friggin’ hell. There was just no getting around it, was there?

    I exhaled slowly. “She was on the mission to end the Rebellion. Her subordinates killed half the team. The rest of us only escaped because our leader drew them off. I ran into her the following day in Lavender Town, where she was stalking me.”

    A sickly, hollow feeling filled my chest, intensifying with each word. Ajia had gone quiet, listening carefully with worried eyes and tight lips. She brought her hands to her mouth and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees.

    “…Seriously?” she just said.

    Aside from that one word, the silence in the room was so thick it threatened to crush us. Even Pichu had ceased rummaging through Ajia’s bag and peeked out, glancing between the two of us with drooping ears.

    “Looking back, I’m pretty sure she was only there to make sure she found me before the others.” That didn’t make it okay, but it was… something. My hands started trembling, and I clenched them shut to make them stop. “Our next mission was going to be freeing Mewtwo. Now we’ll never get to.” Why was I saying any of this. I’d already answered her question—none of this needed to be said.

    “Yeah, I’ve heard of Mewtwo,” Ajia said gravely. “Team Rocket’s ultimate weapon.”

    “I… kind of made a promise to him—that I’d figure out a way to free him someday. I know it was naïve and stupid, but I meant it at the time.”

    At those words, a sly grin made its way across Ajia’s face, and I could practically see the gears turning in her head. “…Don’t count that idea out just yet.”

    I furrowed my brow, staring at her in blank confusion. She couldn’t be serious, could she?

    “Alright, I’ll bite. What are you planning now?” I said, bemused.

    “Nothing too concrete yet…” Her voice trailed off as she whirled around in the desk chair and grabbed her bag from the floor, prompting Pichu to jump to her shoulder. “I’m gonna talk with some friends, see what I can dig up,” she said, retrieving a tablet from her bag and tapping away at it.

    I still wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened. Just when I’d thought things were at their most hopeless, Ajia had suddenly gotten some sort of epiphany that could potentially solve everything? I sat there for a good five minutes before realizing that she was probably gonna be at that for a while. No sense just sitting here waiting.

    “Alright, while you’re working on that, I’m gonna go… get some new clothes… or something.” I stood up, grabbed the room’s card key and stepped outside, leaving Ajia and Pichu muttering excitedly to each other.

    Wandering down the streets of Viridian after all this time was surreal. Granted, it wasn’t like we were staying in an area I was totally familiar with. I was never supposed to wander around north Viridian, and it wasn’t too hard to see why—the streets and buildings were undoubtedly grimier and more worn-down, both from age and vandalism. The area carried a shifty feel, like it was the sort of place that would have made me feel uncomfortable five months ago. But in spite of that, it still held a tangible air of familiarity. The same sky. The same cool breezes carried down from the highlands to the west. The same shadows cast by the sun slipping behind Mt. Silver.

    I could have stopped at home if I wanted to. Even if I’d already decided I couldn’t stay there, and had to keep moving—just to visit… But I couldn’t risk giving away how badly things had gone. And I still hadn’t held up my end of the bargain and gotten a license yet. No matter what, I had to do that first.

    I managed to track down a thrift shop and get a pair of jeans and a spare t-shirt for less than 1000 pyen. Even that was pushing it on what I could afford, but with most of my clothes burned up in Midnight Stadium, I didn’t have much of a choice.

    Night had fallen by the time I returned to the Pokécenter. I tapped the card key to our door’s scanner and entered the room to see Ajia and Pichu in exactly the same spot I’d last seen them. I’d have guessed that neither of them had moved while I was gone, although a few half-eaten boxes of Hoennese take-out scattered around the room implied otherwise.

    “Hey Jade, grab some food if you want, we’re just about done here,” Ajia said without looking up from her tablet.

    I dropped my shopping bag to the ground and settled back against one of the beds with a box of noodles. I didn’t have to wait long. No more than five minutes later, Ajia rotated in her chair, facing me with a wide grin.

    “Alright. I think we’ve got it,” she said dramatically.

    Pichu jumped onto her trainer’s head and spread her paws to the side for emphasis. I sat up straight, setting down the noodles and focusing all my attention on them. Time to finally learn what this was all about.

    “Figuring out the part with Starr—that’s easy,” she said, waving a hand to the side. “The hard part is how we set up the trap in our favor, and how to make sure that we’re all able to escape afterward.”

    I nodded. “Right.”

    “That’s where Mewtwo comes in.”

    I put a hand to my face, still feeling embarrassed about bringing that up. I knew it was an unrealistic goal.

    “I found out something interesting,” Ajia went on. “Moltres and Articuno are typically managed by a pair of Legendary handlers who are also top combat unit executives. But ever since the last Legendary mission, Mewtwo has belonged to the boss himself. He actually keeps its Pokéball on his person at all times.”

    I blinked. “Whoa. Really?”

    “The other important thing I found out is how the Legendary control technology works,” Ajia said, grinning slyly. I raised both eyebrows, intrigued. How on earth had she gotten her hands on that info?

    “It’s different from what Team Rocket has done with their experiments in the past,” she explained. “The others just had a chip implanted into them which communicated with a device that the experiment handlers kept on them at all times. But the Legendaries’ energy signatures were way too strong for that. Once they figured out how to make a chip that wouldn’t be overloaded, it had to be shielded so much that it could barely communicate with any external devices. They managed to pull it off with some big and powerful machinery, but it wasn’t a long-term solution. Without a perfect resonance with the Legendary’s energy signature, they’d adapt to the signal and become resistant over time.”

    Right… that made sense, from what I had seen at the birds mission. But what about the attack on Midnight Island? The Rockets wouldn’t have been able to transport that kind of machinery to the island, would they?

    “Wanna know the secret? They modified their Pokéballs to contain the same hardware as the devices that the experiment handlers kept. It’s perfect—the link between a Pokémon and its Pokéball is the only way to get a signal that will perfectly match.”

    I raised an eyebrow. “How does that help us?”

    “It means that destroying a Legendary’s Pokéball will not only free it from capture… it’ll free its mind, too.”

    I gaped at her. No way. That’s all we had to do? Granted, once I’d taken more than a second to think about it, that didn’t seem quite so easy. After all, the boss had personal ownership of Mewtwo. He’d hardly allow us to walk up and take the clone’s Pokéball.

    I took a deep breath. “Okay… so we need to get the boss involved in this… that’s the only way we’re getting access to Mewtwo.”

    “Right. So combine this with the other idea—we get Starr to reveal that she helped rebels. Now imagine she does it in front of the boss.”

    My jaw dropped.

    “There’s no way he’d be able to overlook that level of treachery from a head executive, let alone her. Then, in the midst of all the Rocket drama, we steal Mewtwo’s Master Ball, destroy it, and escape with Starr while Mewtwo wreaks havoc.” A wild grin had spread across her face, and her eyes were lit with a level of excitement I’d never seen from her—and that was saying something. In a weird way, her absolute confidence that we could pull this off was almost intimidating.

    “So here’s the plan…”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    My heart pounded as we descended the elevator into the Viridian HQ once more. We’d gone over the plan a dozen times. I’d had all last night and all morning to psyche myself up for what we were about to do. Ajia was 100% confident, and her confidence was downright infectious. But even with all that, I was still an anxious ball of nerves, and nothing could change that.

    We emerged from the elevator and set off. Our first goal: wrecking the anti-teleport field surrounding the base. That would be our ticket out of here when our mission was done, plus it was the only way for us to bail early if things got too dicey. To do that, however, we had to get into the primary control room. In other words, the most important room in the entire base, save for maybe the boss’s personal office. This was so far beyond anything I’d done on the Rebellion, and considering the mess I’d caused when I freed Chibi, that was saying something.

    Ajia led the way through the commons, down a hallway adjacent to the office division, one that I had never properly explored. I kept my hand on my Pokéball belt the entire time, half expecting every Rocket we walked past to suddenly lunge at us. It felt so incredibly obvious that we were up to no good, and part of me was amazed that half the base hadn’t already felt an aura of intended sabotage from us. But we looked just like any other Rockets, and we had working IDs to match. Nothing would give us away until we did anything.

    “This is it,” Ajia whispered, and my heart jumped into my throat. Already? It felt like we’d just left the Pokécenter, and now we were already here?

    The two of us stood in front of a large black door with thick metal hinges and a computerized lock. No way to get through something like this without admin rights, which neither of us currently had. We’d have to break in. From this moment on, the base would be on high alert. With a smooth, subtle motion, Ajia retrieved a Pokéball and opened it. The light took the shape of her Umbreon, whose eyes flashed red the moment he appeared.

    “Your turn,” she said.

    Right—I was the one in charge of getting us through the door. I was the one who had to kick all of this off. One last mission. One last blow against the Kanto force before escaping to Johto. After this, I’d be free.

    I released Stygian. The dark-type appeared in a flash of light, glancing around wordlessly and then nodding.

    No turning back now.

    The Absol drew herself back, the blade on her head glowing before she swung it into the lock with a heavy metallic crunch. Once, twice, three times the blade gouged through computer chips and mechanical parts until finally the latch clattered to the ground. The base alarm instantly started blaring. We’d known that was going to happen—I ignored it and threw open the door, and our group rushed into the control room all at once. We found ourselves inside a massive black-walled space—part server room, with massive computer towers covered in flickering lights and a jungle of cables—and part security station, with an entire wall of monitors displaying video feed of every division in the base. But none of that was important. What was important was the squad of guards at the control panel who had just rotated in their seats to face us, gaping in disbelief.

    Ajia didn’t even have to say anything. She just swung her bag down from her shoulder and out leaped Pichu. Time slowed. The Rockets drew their firearms and Stygian dutifully raised a Protect in front of us. And then Pichu shot forward as nothing more than an electric blur, zipping from one Rocket to the next faster than my eye could follow. Flashes of sparks and strings of electricity shot out from each impact, one after the other, followed by garbled cries and bodies slumping to the floor.

    Pichu slowed to a stop in an instant, twitching her oversized ears. The mouse then jerked her attention to the right and shot off once more, into the server maze. I caught several more flashes of light before the electric-type rushed back to us.

    “*That’s all of them in here. More are coming down the hall, though.*”

    I couldn’t help staring. I’d seen feats of raw electric power from Chibi, but never anything even remotely close to the speed and precision that Pichu had just displayed. Couldn’t focus on that, though—we didn’t have much time before this room would be swarming with more Rockets than we could ever handle.

    “The field generator should be this way,” Ajia said, walking off towards some of the larger machinery and gesturing for me to follow her. She stopped in front of a large device—at least eight feet tall and topped with a glossy black dome surrounded by antennae—before pacing back and forth in front of it, looking it up and down. “I’m pretty sure this is it,” she said, folding her arms.

    I raised an eyebrow. “Pretty sure?”

    She flashed a grin at me and shrugged. “Well, we won’t know for sure until we take it out, will we?”

    Fair enough. In any case, while Pichu could’ve just zapped it, we were better off not doing anything that might cause an explosion with us in the room. Which meant Stygian was up again. The dark-type stepped forward, claws clacking against the floor tiles, and lit her blade once more. She then lunged forward, slicing clean through the wires and cables trailing out of the machine with repeated swings until none were left unsevered.

    Ajia paused with a look on her face like she was straining to hear something. Then her eyes lit up, and her face split into an excited grin. “Alright, we did it! The field is down.”

    “What, really?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the full-blast fans on the server towers.

    “Yep. Time for phase two.” Ajia shot a quick glance at her Umbreon, and he nodded, eyes flickering red for a second. She then pulled out a Pokéball, and in a shimmering flash, her Espeon appeared in front of her.

    Now for the part I was least enthusiastic about. Throwing ourselves headlong into danger was one thing, but relying on the experiments to cause a commotion to draw the team away from us was an entirely different thing. I exhaled deeply, then grabbed Aros’s Pokéball to release the bug-dragon alongside Stygian.

    “So you guys know what you’re doing, right?” I asked.

    “*Leading with Double Team and then alternating between Faint Attack and Protect,*” Aros replied in a bored tone.

    Double Team alone would make them a nightmare to hit, but with the addition of the other two moves, it’d be almost impossible for the Rockets to get them. Probably.

    “*You still haven’t explained how this diversion is going to help you free Mewtwo,*” Stygian said bluntly.

    I hadn’t told them about the Starr portion of the mission. I’d decided it would be better to open that can of worms after we escaped. If I told them now, the response would definitely be a universal ‘are you insane?’ and it would be easier to refute that after Starr was off Team Rocket.

    “It’s complicated,” I said. “Just promise me you’ll watch out for each other.”

    The Absol rolled her eyes. “*No need to be so sappy.*”

    I kneeled beside Espeon and clipped both clones’ Pokéballs to the makeshift collar around the fox’s neck. When things went bad, which they definitely would, the plan was for Espeon to recall them and teleport back to Ajia. That at least made me feel a little bit better.

    Ajia reached into her bag and started pulling out multicolored bottles, handing them to me one after another. Temporary battle enhancements—X Attack, X Speed, and the like. Apparently Ajia had grabbed them from a Rocket storehouse a few months ago. We unscrewed the lids and started holding out pills for the two clones. Taking battle enhancements was hardly a new experience for them—they gulped the pills down without even flinching.

    Out of nowhere, Pichu cried, “*They’re almost here!*”

    I jolted. “Alright, go now!” I yelled, pointing out the door.

    None of them needed telling twice. Aros bolted forward, tearing a good-sized chunk out of the doorway with his claws as he did. Stygian rushed after him, her form already blurring into multiple copies of herself with a Double Team. Espeon wasn’t far behind them. Almost immediately, I heard shouting and firing and attacks crashing against walls and all the chaos one would expect to hear from rogue experiments loose inside a major base.

    Ajia stuffed the bottles back into her bag and then held it open for Pichu to jump back inside before pivoting on her heels and motioning to me. “Come on, the experiments won’t be able to distract them forever.” But there was still one Pokémon unaccounted for.

    “Wait, what about Umbreon?” I asked, glancing at the dark fox.

    “I like to keep him out during missions. For luck,” she said, winking.

    I stared. Wouldn’t he be kind of noticeable? Maybe we wouldn’t be the only Rockets with Pokémon out now that the base was on high alert? But still?

    Ajia was already heading for the door. Alright then, she’d gotten us this far—I just had to trust her.

    Outside the control room, the clones had already torn a hole clear through the wall and detoured into a different hallway. That way the path we’d taken to get to the control room wouldn’t turn into a firing zone. Combat unit agents raced past us, and my stomach twisted into knots. But they completely ignored us. Didn’t even glance our way. Sure, we were in uniform, and the experiments were a little bit more conspicuous, but I’d been expecting at least a few Rockets to notice us or call us out as rebels or attack us or something.

    We raced down the hallway back toward the commons, which were now frighteningly empty compared to five minutes ago. Guards remained at their posts, but everyone on the combat unit had taken off to corner the experiments. I couldn’t help feeling like all eyes were on us as we crossed the area, making our way toward the entrance to the transport hangar. But no one confronted us. No one said anything. I shouldn’t have been bothered by the fact that things were going better than expected, but I was. Why were things going so well? What was going on?

    Before I knew it, we’d already made it to our destination—we were now standing in the middle of a vast concrete space half-filled with trucks and jeeps. I paused to catch my breath, keeping my eyes glued to the entrance, still half-expecting a squad to burst in and demand to know why we weren’t with the others.

    In any case, I knew what my next task was. It hadn’t exactly been hard to locate Starr, or rather Astrid, in the Team Rocket agent directory on my R-com. I brought up her number in my contact list and then, feeling like an idiot, snapped a photo of myself and Ajia standing in the transport hangar. If that didn’t get her to separate from the other Rockets and come running straight to us, nothing would.

    “I just messaged the boss,” Ajia said. “I wrote, ‘In five minutes, there will be an incident in the transport division that you’ll want to see. Your head executive is going to betray you.’”

    It was almost funny how matter-of-fact that was. She’d just text messaged the leader of Team Rocket. That was a thing you could do.

    “Course, that means I won’t be able to use this Rocket ID ever again when this is done, but…”—she smiled distantly—“well, it’s worth it.”

    My R-com vibrated suddenly. Well, that sure hadn’t taken long. I tapped the screen and was met with a text reading, “Wtf are you two doing there?!”

    “You’ll have to come here to find out,” I typed back. Almost immediately, I received a reply consisting of a near-keyboard mash of incoherent swearing.

    I winced and pocketed the device again. “I think I got her attention.”

    Now all we had to do was wait for the real mission to begin. Everything else was just setup. This was what it was really about. Confronting Starr. Confronting the boss. Saving Mewtwo. My heart pounded uncomfortably in my chest. Seconds dragged by like minutes. I couldn’t stop glancing at my watch, expecting more time to have passed.

    And then Starr appeared at the entrance to the hanger. She froze the instant she saw us, staring with a mixture of rage and disbelief.

    “Hey, you made it!” Ajia called out, waving to her. “Come on over, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

    Starr shook her head to regain herself before charging towards us, fists clenched. “Stop acting like you know me! Someone will hear!” she hissed.

    “No one’s here, that’s why we sent the rest of the team on a wild experiment chase,” Ajia said, waving a hand dismissively.

    “There are still cameras!” she shrieked. “Get out of here now or we’re all dead!”

    Ajia folded her arms. “Nah, I think we’re gonna stay right here.”

    Starr’s face lit up with fury, and before I knew what was happening, she had whipped out a Pokéball to release her Raichu. I froze. Not the Raichu. She wasn’t seriously going to—? Sparks leaped off its cheeks and I screwed my eyes shut, desperately trying to brace myself for it even as panic shot through my veins. But then I heard paws strike the ground near me and the crash of lightning against lightning. Seconds passed. The pain didn’t come. Slowly, I opened my eyes a crack, then widened them fully when I saw Pichu standing firm with her back to us, cheeks sparking.

    “Was that really necessary?” Ajia asked, her voice uncharacteristically harsh.

    “Yes, it was,” Starr answered coldly, tilting her head down so that the brim of her hat covered her face. “Now I’m only gonna ask this once. Why are you here?”

    “To prove that you can’t play both sides forever,” Ajia said simply.

    Starr took a step backward, eyes widening. “…What?”

    “You can’t be loyal to Team Rocket and help its enemies at the same time. So if you’re gonna have to choose eventually, why not leave before they find out?”

    Starr glowered at us. “I wouldn’t have to choose if you two didn’t keep pulling this rebel crap.”

    “Do you expect us to just ignore all the things that you’ve done?” I asked, clenching my fists.

    “Do you have any idea how much easier it would’ve been to just tell myself I didn’t know either of you?!” she shouted, her eyes now wide and frantic.

    I folded my arms. “You wouldn’t have to do that if you weren’t working for a group that wants to murder us.”

    “Stop acting like it’s that simple! Team Rocket is all I have!”

    “It wouldn’t have to be,” Ajia said exasperatedly. “You’ve already proven that you haven’t completely changed. So come with us, before they find out you’ve helped us in the past.”

    Starr took another step backward. And for the first time throughout all of this, a shadow of doubt had fallen across her face. She clenched her teeth, glancing back and forth uncertainly.

    “No…” she said slowly and shakily. “I can’t and I won’t!” Her Raichu nodded fervently and shot out a wave of sparks.

    And then a voice rang out over the PA speakers. A deep, commanding voice tinged with cold amusement: “Well this certainly is an interesting turn of events, isn’t it?”

    Starr froze in horror and swore repeatedly under her breath. Ajia made eye contact with me, and the tiniest trace of a grin crossed her face. One more thing had gone right. The boss had seen and heard everything.

    “Two rebels and a double agent, very interesting indeed. But with such a unique situation as this, I think I know the perfect solution. All combat unit agents will proceed to the transport hangar. Leave the experiments—they were only a diversion.” And with that, the speakers fell silent.

    Starr immediately rounded on us with a horrified expression. “You told the boss?!

    I flinched. “We… might have done that, yeah.”

    “Why?!”

    “When I asked if the boss wouldn’t mind if he knew what you’d done,” Ajia said carefully, “I’m guessing the answer is no?”

    Starr opened her mouth like she was about to speak, but then suddenly froze with her mouth hanging open. For several seconds, she didn’t say anything; she just stared at us, gears turning in her head. “You were trying to turn them against me,” she said quietly. “That’s the only reason you’re here.”

    Ajia smiled weakly. “Aw man… I didn’t think you’d figure it out so soon.”

    Starr gaped at the both of us, shaking her head in total disbelief. “I can’t. Believe. I actually cared about you two!” she yelled, pointing forward and signaling for her Raichu to attack. The orange mouse gave an impatient cry and jumped in front of her, yellow cheek pouches already sparking. Without wasting a second, Pichu dashed forward, readying a Thunderbolt of her own and launching it at the same instant Raichu did. The two bolts collided in midair, shooting out waves of sparks and strings of lightning in all directions.

    “You want to keep testing my loyalty?!” Starr yelled. “Fine! Then be ready for me to prove you wrong!”






    ~End Chapter 24~
    Bonus scene in the following post!
     
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    Ch 24 Extra: Chatlog
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Code:
    >>Chatlog between K0508151 'Tetra' and J0208243 'Sakari' on 10/30/2998
    
    >Tetra: Hey I'm calling in a favor.
    >Sakari: Tetra?
    >Sakari: still using that old codename?
    >Sakari: whatcha need
    >Tetra: Can you keep a secret from Sebastian?
    >Sakari: depends on the secret
    >Tetra: The kind of thing he'll be happy to find out about when it's done.
    >Sakari: you're gonna need to be a little more specific
    >Tetra: I want to free Mewtwo.
    >Sakari: holy shit what
    >Tetra: Can you help me?
    >Sakari: wait seriously?
    >Sakari: what makes you think you can pull that off when we haven't been able to?
    >Tetra: Long story, I've got a way to get in a personal confrontation with the boss.
    >Sakari: ???
    >Tetra: I need to know how the Legendary control works.
    >Sakari: see that's kind of a trade secret
    >Tetra: You know I could figure it out sooner or later.
    >Tetra: Sooner just means I'll use it against Giovanni and not you guys.
    >Sakari: ha, try using it against us, you'll find it won't work
    >Tetra: ?
    >Tetra: I'm not even gonna ask
    >Tetra: So can you help me or not
    >Sakari: ...
    >Sakari: ok fine
    >Sakari: gimme a sec
    >Sakari: alright, I'm sending some files over
    >Sakari: all the IP's been wiped but what's left might be useful
    
    >>Sending 12140112.zip
    >>File sent
    
    >Tetra: This is perfect.
    >Tetra: Remember, this stays between us.
    >Sakari: whatever
    >Sakari: you pull this off I don't even think he'll care where you figured out how to do it
    >Sakari: but seriously how are you gonna pull this off
    >Tetra: It involves Z
    >Sakari: Z?
    >Sakari: no one knows about him still?
    >Tetra: And I plan to keep it that way.
    >Sakari: cool cool
    >Sakari: but, uh, one last thing
    >Sakari: why's this all coming out of nowhere
    >Sakari: what's this really about
    >Tetra: Starr
    >Sakari: ...
    >Sakari: oh this is gonna be GOOD isn't it?
    >Sakari: can't wait to see the footage
    >>Sakari is offline
    
    >>delete chatlog? Y/N
    >>Y
    >>admin credentials required:
    >>********
    >>chatlog deleted
    Lexx reclined in his office chair, arms crossed behind his head and a wide grin plastered over his face. Ajia never ceased to amaze. He did have half a mind to tell Sebastian what her plans were, just because it would be entertaining if nothing else. But there was no need to go back on his word—he did value her trust, after all.

    Besides… if all went well, they’d both be seeing the footage rolling in from Viridian tomorrow…
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 25: The Heart of a Rocket
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    While this whole arc dates back to the original, this chapter is probably the one that has changed the least over the years. It's also one of my favorites in Book 1. Enjoy~



    ~Chapter 25: The Heart of a Rocket~


    Bolts of lightning tore the air inside the transport hangar, smothering all other sounds in a barrage of thunder. Pichu countered the first couple of strikes with bolts of her own—much smaller but perfectly timed to deflect the stronger attacks. Stray lightning flew wildly, colliding with walls, lancing along the ground, and narrowly missing the vehicles parked in the far end of the hangar. But it quickly became obvious that Raichu wasn’t going to let up, and the smaller mouse would run out of electricity first.

    “Agility!” Ajia called out. Pichu dropped to all fours and dashed around in a zigzag pattern, accelerating to the point that her movements were hard to follow. Raichu charged up another Thunderbolt and fired it straight at her, but by that point she was moving so fast that his attack completely missed its mark.

    “Why are you so committed to them? After everything they’ve put you through?” Ajia asked, her voice calm and matter-of-fact, like she was just having an interesting discussion with Starr and not whatever the hell this was.

    Starr clenched her teeth. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she growled. “Raichu, Quick Atta—”

    “Encore!”

    Before Raichu could even process the command, Pichu seamlessly switched from running to clapping her paws together, unleashing a shower of white sparks over Raichu. The moment the sparks touched his fur, strings of electricity jumped from his cheeks, and he was forced to charge up another lightning bolt.

    “You’re only doing this because you’re afraid of them,” Ajia went on.

    “Shut up! Shut! Up!” Starr screamed, clapping her hands over her ears.

    Raichu was already panting from the effort of all the wasted Thunderbolts. Ajia took advantage of his momentary exhaustion and ordered a quick Nasty Plot. At her words, Pichu froze, deep in concentration. The mouse’s face split into a twisted grin as a dark glow started to spread across her body. And then one of Raichu’s bolts finally found its mark—I flinched as the burst of lightning knocked Pichu’s tiny frame rolling along the concrete like a ragdoll. But the mouse regained herself within seconds—far faster than I would’ve thought possible—and retaliated with a burst of star-shaped energy discs. Raichu lunged out of the way in time, but it didn’t make any difference—the stars just looped around and struck him in the back of the head. He pivoted around, readying another Thunderbolt, only to catch another Swift to the face. Starr ground her teeth out of frustration, looking ready to punch Ajia for that move. But then a manic grin spread across her face when the white sparks clinging to her Pokémon’s body finally faded.

    “Now! Quick Attack!” she called out.

    A shimmering flash caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I glanced over and—Espeon was back! Before I knew what was happening, I had already dashed over, practically sliding to a stop in front of her.

    “Are the others alright?”

    The psychic fox nodded, lifting her chin to show off the two Pokéballs clipped to her collar—Aros and Stygian, both safely recalled. I let out a huge sigh of relief and unclipped them both, replacing them on my own belt. At least that was one less thing to worry about.

    Meanwhile, Raichu was refusing to let Pichu gain any ground in the match. He dashed after her, matching her move-for-move, making it harder and harder for her to avoid him. But then she started firing more swift stars behind her as she ran, hitting him dead on now that he was so close.

    “Raichu, use…”—the larger mouse staggered back, pelted by stars—“Use…”—he started charging up another Thunderbolt, but lost concentration halfway through as more stars struck him right in the face—“Come on, we can’t lose to her! Use Mega Kick!!”

    Raichu was in bad shape. He’d wasted most of his electricity on pointless Thunderbolts. His trainer was beyond flustered and not at all prepared to deal with Ajia’s tactics. His moves were stronger, but that didn’t mean much if he kept getting bombarded with small hits and never got a chance to focus. Ajia was winning.

    Raichu shot forward with the speed boost of a Quick Attack, pulling out of it at the last second and catching Pichu in the side with a powerful kick. Without warning, a flood of electricity surged into him the moment he made contact. Raichu cried out in pain and alarm, staggering backward under the force of the lightning. And then Pichu jumped up and headbutted him in the face, knocking him to the ground with a thud. The larger mouse lay there twitching wildly for several seconds, struggling to lift his body from the concrete. Finally, his limbs gave out, and he collapsed.

    Pichu had defeated Raichu. A fellow electric-type far bigger, far stronger than her, and she’d managed to win. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it happen firsthand. The tiny mouse stood there on all fours, trembling slightly, but then turning and flashing a grin back at Ajia and me. Her trainer smiled back and opened her bag, and the little electric-type dashed over and jumped back into it.

    Starr stood rooted to the spot, jaw locked, fists shaking, face red with rage. “Raichu’s not my only Pokémon,” she growled, recalling the orange mouse and reaching for her belt. But before she got the chance to open another Pokéball, someone began clapping slowly.

    “As much fun as it is to watch you two battle, perhaps we should get to business.”

    Everyone froze. That was him, wasn’t it? Slowly, we all turned to face the entrance to the transport hangar, where the leader of Team Rocket now stood, flanked by executives. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, dressed in a crisp black suit bearing the Rocket insignia. Every inch of him oozed professionalism, from his slicked-back hair to his dark, piercing eyes and sharp features. I’d seen him before—as my hometown’s representative, his battles were frequently shown on TV. But that didn’t compare to seeing him in real life. TV couldn’t capture the overwhelming aura of authority that he gave off. I couldn’t help feeling small and insignificant just standing in the same room as him. This was a gym leader, and strong enough to command the respect of everyone on Team Rocket.

    But none of that was important. Right now, the only thing that mattered was the fact that he had ownership of Mewtwo. This was the moment of truth.

    Espeon’s eyes flashed blue, and a psychic aura surrounded Giovanni. The executives surrounding him recoiled backward in shock right before a minimized Master Ball flew out of his pocket. It shot toward us, pulled by Espeon’s telekinesis—our plan had actually worked?!

    And then the ball froze in midair. Espeon stared at it, confused. The fox squinted in concentration, jerking her head as though trying to force the ball closer to us. But it didn’t move. It was like her psychic abilities had just stopped working.

    Oh no. No, no no no no. Her powers hadn’t stopped working. They’d been negated.

    The Master Ball slowly drifted back toward Giovanni, who grabbed it and replaced it in his pocket. A subtle yet condescending sneer crossed his face. “Really now, I’m a bit disappointed. You honestly believed I would walk right in here and allow you to snatch something so valuable and use it against me? I was expecting something a bit more creative.”

    Out of the shadows behind Giovanni emerged a tall, humanoid shape. Pointed ears, a catlike face, a long purple tail—Mewtwo now stood alongside the head of Team Rocket, his eyes radiating an eerie cobalt aura.

    We’d been played. I threw a panicked glance at Ajia, whose eyes had gone wide. She made eye contact with me, then tilted her head toward her Espeon.

    Wait… her Espeon. That’s right! We could still teleport out of here! There was still a chance for us to escape! The violet fox suddenly bolted towards us. She’d reach Ajia first—I just had to grab Ajia’s hand and then reach out to Starr and—

    My body froze, like an invisible force was gripping me from all over. An unrelenting, smothering, all-powerful force—one that pressed down from all sides, threatening to crush me with its sheer presence. I couldn’t move. No amount of effort made any difference.

    “You’re not going anywhere. I want to have a discussion with you three,” Giovanni said calmly, gesturing to Mewtwo with all the nonchalance of someone giving orders to a family pet.

    The psychic hold on us relaxed, and I doubled over, coughing hard. Even if we could move again, the point had been made very clear. Mewtwo could stop us no matter what we tried. We were trapped. Trapped with Starr and the boss and the combat unit and Mewtwo. With just one move, the boss had completely dismantled our plan.

    More Rockets kept funneling into the transport hangar behind Giovanni, laughing once they saw us trapped here like this. As if we needed an audience. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Mewtwo had us completely pinned, no, we needed half the combat unit here as well.

    I glanced at Ajia again as a wave of cold dread washed over me. But she smiled weakly and mouthed the words, “It’s going to be okay.” I didn’t believe her. This was so many levels of not okay, and I got that it was kind of her thing to be reassuring in these kinds of situations, but what were we supposed to do now?

    Giovanni surveyed us carefully for some time, no doubt mulling over what to do with us. Finally, his cold, disapproving gaze settled onto Starr.

    “Astrid, get over here.”

    It took her several seconds to acknowledge the fact that he’d said anything. With slow, shaking steps, she approached the leader of Team Rocket, avoiding eye contact the whole time. Several times she opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words. Finally, she managed, “I… this isn’t… I would never betray Team Rocket, you know that.”

    “This isn’t a question of your loyalties to this team. It’s whether or not they exceed your loyalties to its enemies,” Giovanni said slowly, his tone unreadable.

    “I am not a double agent!” Starr practically screamed. “I would never do anything against this team—haven’t I shown that?! Just because I don’t want them dead doesn’t mean I’m on their side!”

    Giovanni wasn’t listening, however, and had focused his attention back onto Ajia and me. “You’ve certainly done a good job of ruining my head combat executive, although I wouldn’t expect anything less. I finally have the honor of meeting one of the most notorious criminals in Team Rocket history. Haven’t had your fill of luring high-ranking members towards treason, have you? You certainly caused quite a mess last time.”

    Ajia… was one of the most well-known enemies of Team Rocket? With a history of luring Rockets into betraying the team? That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But… it was what we were doing right now. Starr had accused her of ruining Rockets’ lives. That was… also what we were doing right now.

    Giovanni fixed his gaze on me, and I couldn’t help flinching. “And… who is this one?” he asked his subordinates with an amused tone.

    The executive nearest him whipped out a tablet and tapped the screen a few times before answering, “Jade Arens—a member of the rebel team. Crashed a transport jet; stole experiments eight, nine, twenty-four, and twenty-five; was captured during operation L005 and broke out of Celadon detention block.”

    The boss’s lips curled into a smirk. “So you’re the rebel that keeps mysteriously escaping unscathed. I’d have chalked it up to dumb luck, but it appears you’ve had help on the inside after all.”

    Starr’s face lit up with panic. “I never let her escape! I don’t know how she broke out of Celadon! That wasn’t me!”

    “Even if it wasn’t, it’s clear that you need to sort out your priorities. But never let it be said that I’m not fair.” His face split into a cruel grin. “If I can’t be confident in your loyalties, then you deserve the chance to prove them to me, wouldn’t you say?”

    “I… I don’t…”

    He turned to face her, his expression cold and unflinching. “I’m giving you one last chance, Astrid. Here we have two rebels against our cause—a common situation. I believe you know the protocol.”

    Starr glanced around anxiously, fidgeting with her gloves. “But… they knocked out Raichu…”

    “No, no, not your favorite Pokémon,” Giovanni said, his voice dripping with false amusement. “Punishment from your Raichu just isn’t… isn’t effective enough. No, I was thinking more along the lines of your first Pokémon.”

    Starr stared at him, eyes wide and pleading, but he didn’t say anything more. Finally, she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths to steady herself before removing a Pokéball from her belt and opening it.

    Her first Pokémon. Which one was her first?

    The burst of energy took the shape of a huge reptile—tall, upright, and towering over her. White light became leathery blue scales and jagged crimson spikes. Piercing amber eyes leered at us like we were prey. Massive, toothy jaws opened and snapped shut.

    A Feraligatr. The final evolution of Johto’s water-type starter.

    My chest tightened. I’d actually forgotten how much she used to love water Pokémon. What else had I forgotten from all the time we’d spent together? Five years ago… I clenched my fists, fighting back a wave of nostalgia obscuring my thoughts. Not now, dammit. I couldn’t handle it.

    “Much better,” Giovanni remarked. “Now…”—he leaned back against the wall, like a spectator watching a tournament—“you know what to do.”

    Starr glanced from Giovanni, to Feraligatr, to us, and then back to Giovanni again, gaping in disbelief. “What? You can’t be serious.”

    “Did I not sound serious?” he asked. “I assumed this was the perfect test. After all, you’ve given the order many times before, and I should think you’d be able to do it again. Unless there’s something different about these two rebels.” The last part was said in a more threatening tone.

    “But… that’s not—I can’t just…” Starr’s eyes flew from side to side, desperately searching for an answer.

    My stomach had dissolved away into nothingness. He seriously was trying to make her kill us. As if it wasn’t bad enough that we were going to die here, he was making Starr be the one to do it? And she’d done it before. How much of an idiot had I been to think maybe there was a chance she wasn’t too far gone?

    We had to do something. But what? With Mewtwo there, what could we possibly do? Fight back? We couldn’t fight him. Not even Ajia could remotely hope do that. I made eye contact with Ajia, desperately hoping for… something, though I wasn’t sure what. But she just stared at the floor, tenser than I’d ever seen her.

    “Are you under the impression that your actions here will decide their fate?” Giovanni asked, once the silence had gone on too long. “They are enemies of Team Rocket. It should be quite obvious what will happen to them either way. This decides your fate, not theirs.” My body went even more rigid at his words. No way. No way, this could not be happening. We had to do something.

    Starr took a half step backwards, hands trembling, staring at him wide-eyed. “Anything but that. Please. Anything at all.”

    “I have generously offered you the opportunity to prove your loyalty,” her leader snapped. “You will accept it, or you will be regarded as no different from the likes of them. This discussion is over.”

    A deadly silence fell over the area. Feraligatr shifted uneasily and glanced at its trainer, obviously confused by her hesitation. Giovanni tapped his foot against the concrete. Starr glanced around frantically, from us, to the boss, to the combat unit, her expression one of petrified horror. My heart pounded so fast I thought it was going to explode and save her the trouble of having to decide whether or not to kill me. Because there was no reason for her not to. Giovanni had flat out said that we were going to die either way. Every time I blinked, my mind generated the image of her pointing forward, Feraligatr lunging, its claws and fangs tearing into us… There was no reason for her not to, and the anxiety of waiting for that single, inevitable moment was tearing me apart. I’d have given anything for it to end.

    And then the words—two simple words—came and shattered my every expectation into a thousand pieces: “I can’t.”

    “What?” Giovanni demanded.

    “I said I can’t—you had to know I couldn’t!!” Starr exclaimed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

    Starr had refused. She absolutely would not, could not kill us, even if refusing wouldn’t save us, and would only doom her. It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t even change anything. And yet, for some reason, I had never felt more relieved. It was so, so stupid. We weren’t saved. Nothing had changed! She’d only screwed herself over by refusing. But in that instant, it was like nothing else in the world mattered.

    Giovanni stared at her, his expression flickering between outrage and shock. And in that moment, it honestly looked like he had no idea what to do. It was so weird seeing that level of hesitation from the leader of Team Rocket. The Rockets surrounding him started throwing sideways glances around and muttering amongst themselves, like they couldn’t believe it either.

    “I will not lose another Rocket leader to rebel ideals,” Giovanni said slowly, his voice shaking with suppressed rage. He then glanced back and forth at the executives nearest him and said, “Raven, Ender—escort Astrid to a detention cell. The rest of you may dispose of the rebels in any manner you see fitting.”

    Two executives broke from the lineup and advanced on Starr. She took several steps backward, shaking her head slowly, whispering, “No…” under her breath all the while. And then, without warning, all the fear and hesitation and pain on her face contorted into utmost fury.

    “No!!” Starr yelled, bolting towards Ajia and me. She reached us within seconds, pivoting around to face the Rockets, her eyes lit with rage. “I’m not leaving them.”

    This was it. She had really, truly chosen us over Team Rocket. I couldn’t believe it, even though I’d just watched it happen.

    Giovanni stared at her incredulously. “You know what this means.”

    I don’t care!!” she snarled, fixing the boss with a venomous glare. “I gave up everything for this team! But you’re always singling me out with this kind of bullshit! I’m done!!”

    It took several seconds of stunned disbelief for her words to sink into everyone. Feraligatr stared at Starr like she’d gone insane, but then slowly lumbered over to stand alongside its trainer, facing down the Rockets with her. The pair of executives that was originally supposed to apprehend Starr shot a glance at their leader questioningly.

    Giovanni’s cold gaze rested on Starr for the longest time. Finally, he closed his eyes and turned his back to her, saying, “Then you’re no different from them.”

    And in that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the faintest hint of a grin appear on Ajia’s face. Out of nowhere, an explosive pulse of dark energy shot towards Mewtwo, striking the clone right in the face. My jaw dropped through the floor—what the actual hell had just happened? Slowly, my eyes slid down to Ajia’s Umbreon, who was currently tensed up in an anxious fighting stance, eyes glowing red.

    No one dared to move an inch. Mewtwo’s eyes were closed, his facial muscles clenched—the only sign he’d even felt the attack.

    Giovanni stared at Ajia incredulously, then slowly broke into a deep, echoing laugh. “Are you planning on fighting Mewtwo?”

    “Isn’t that what it looks like?” Ajia replied simply as both her Espeon and Umbreon leaped forward, putting themselves a good distance from us.

    Ajia was going to fight Mewtwo. Ajia was going to fight Mewtwo what in the hell how?? She might have been the strongest trainer I’d ever seen (as strong as Stalker?) but fighting Mewtwo??!

    Giovanni’s laughter died down to a quiet chuckle. “I could do with some entertainment after all of this.” His eyes slid to the psychic cat still standing at his side before he snapped his fingers and said, “Destroy them.”

    Mewtwo’s eyes flickered blue, and the clone drifted forward, levitating a few inches from the concrete. He extended a bony arm, flexing his bulbous fingers outward and firing a burst of psychic energy at the pair of foxes, who scattered immediately. Espeon’s form blurred into a dozen illusory copies while Umbreon dissolved into a shadow tracing the ground. In response, Mewtwo gave a slow, sideways hand sweep, dispelling all of the copies instantly and knocking Espeon flying. Seconds later, Umbreon emerged from the shadows behind the clone, lunging for him and a striking with a dark aura. Slowly, the psychic cat turned his head to face his attacker, staring down at the fox like he was nothing. Umbreon flinched, eyes going wide with panic.

    “Aura Sphere,” Giovanni said lazily.

    Without hesitation, Mewtwo brought his palms together by his side, focusing energy into a pulsating blue orb between them. Umbreon jumped back in alarm, then melted into shadow once more, but the clone hurled the orb, and the orb pursued. It zeroed in on the shadow instantly, mere inches away from striking when it suddenly exploded in a blinding flash. I shielded my eyes from the glare, and when it waned, I saw Espeon standing firm in front of Umbreon, eyes squinting in pain, steam leaking off her body.

    It took me several seconds to figure out what had happened. Espeon had teleported into the Aura Sphere’s path. She had taken the attack to protect Umbreon. But most importantly—she was still standing? I mean, sure the psychic fox had a natural resistance to fighting-type energy, but damn. Espeon took that moment to generate more afterimages of herself dashing around the hangar, and Mewtwo wasted no time picking off the copies with multicolored Psybeams shot from his fingertips.

    This wasn’t a fight. This was a game. What did it matter if we had ten, or even twenty more Pokémon between us? I’d seen Mewtwo take on all three Legendary birds at once—each bird a match for twenty Pokémon on its own. But Ajia was completely absorbed in watching the events unfold, as though this were the most important battle of her life and not Espeon and Umbreon running around stalling for time while Giovanni and the other Rockets all laughed at the inane resistance. The fact that she was even willing to fight Mewtwo at all had initially staved off the cold dread of imminent death. But now the truth was starting to sink in—Ajia didn’t have a plan. Neither of her Pokémon could remotely hurt Mewtwo. And if we tried to teleport again, Mewtwo could stop us just as easily as he did last time.

    And yet… in spite of everything… there was still a part of me that would not, could not accept that. I couldn’t just go down without a fight. If Ajia was willing to go down fighting, then so was I. And my Pokémon would definitely prefer that. Especially the experiments—I couldn’t just let them get recaptured without them even knowing about it.

    So it was settled. I was going to fight.

    “Not you too,” Starr muttered once I’d grabbed a Pokéball. “This is a waste of time. You can’t beat Mewtwo—no one can.”

    “Then why did you side with us if you knew we were screwed?” I asked, giving her an incredulous stare.

    Starr dropped her gaze to the ground, eyebrows furrowed like she was in pain just thinking about it. “I don’t know.” She screwed her eyes shut, muttering through clenched teeth, “I don’t know, I don’t know—”

    And then, without looking back at us, Ajia randomly announced, “You were forced to join Team Rocket, weren’t you?”

    Starr bristled. “What are you talking about?”

    “You tried to figure out what was up with the sudden relocation to Johto, but you got in over your head and found out too much, didn’t you? You had no choice but to join at that point,” Ajia went on, not taking her eyes off the battle.

    Starr glared at her for several seconds, then turned her gaze away sharply, refusing to make eye contact. “That’s not… It was my choice…” Her tone wasn’t very convincing.

    Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they both knew something I didn’t. “What does her moving away have to do with Team Rocket?”

    Ajia shot a surprised glance in my direction. “Wait, what? I thought you knew—”

    “I’m the boss’s daughter,” Starr answered before Ajia got a chance to say anything.

    Oh. Oh. That did explain a lot, didn’t it?

    “Do you still want to side with Team Rocket?” Ajia quietly asked. “They might have given up on you, but we haven’t.”

    “It’s not like I have a choice at this point. But what does it matter, we’ll all be dead soon,” Starr muttered, staring brokenly at the floor.

    Ajia put a hand to her forehand. “Starr, it’d be a big help if you stopped being such a pessimist while I’m trying to get us out of here.”

    What. What was she talking about?

    “Umbreon, it’s time!”

    At once, the panic and fear crossing Umbreon’s face twisted into a wild grin, and his eyes flashed red. Then, without warning, a cloud of black fog billowed out from his body, quickly enveloping both him, Espeon, Mewtwo, and Giovanni in total darkness. What was Umbreon doing? What kind of move was this? And even if Mewtwo was weak to dark-type attacks, it was still Mewtwo.

    “An amusing tactic, but ultimately pointless,” Giovanni said. Then, to Mewtwo, he added, “Dispel it.”

    Mewtwo’s eyes flashed blue from within the haze, but nothing happened. And then out of nowhere, a brilliant white light pierced through the fog. Two different grunts of pain rang out, followed by the sound of something clattering to the ground. Then, without warning, the haze vanished into thin air.

    And all I could do was stare in utter shock and confusion at the sight in front of me. Espeon and Umbreon, both panting and looking incredibly tense. Mewtwo, trembling and on his knees, one hand over his face. Giovanni slowly standing to his feet, his expression a mixture of outrage and shock. And at his feet, Mewtwo’s Master Ball—broken. Snapped clean in half, the insides blackened.

    No way. How the hell had that happened? What had I missed? Had anyone else seen it? Something had managed to drop Mewtwo’s defenses long enough to break his Master Ball? Espeon? Umbreon? How?!

    Giovanni’s face went white as he absorbed the details of what had just happened. An expression of utmost horror slowly crept across his features. “No… NO!! Somebody bring another Master Ball! Articuno, Moltres, assault rays, anything!!

    At once, the hangar exploded into a frenzy. Half the Rockets immediately made a break for the exit, and the other half released an army of Pokémon. And at the center of it all Mewtwo rose stiffly, swaying a bit as he stood to his feet. His tail twitched. Fingers clenched and unclenched, like he was controlling them for the first time—and he was. Finally, his eyes snapped open, revealing a pair of brilliant purple irises. He turned his head from side to side, taking in his surroundings, and the numerous opponents taking shape all around him. And then the clone laid eyes on me, and I froze. Something flickered across his expression—recognition?—and he gave a slow, curt nod, followed by a sideways flick of the wrist that obviously meant for us to leave.

    We’d actually done it. Mewtwo was free. We could escape. We were going to live.

    My ears caught the nearby sound of a Pokémon being recalled, and I spun around to see that Umbreon was back in his ball and Ajia was now walking towards me with Espeon. She held out a hand, and I took it. Then I held out my other and said, “Come on Starr.”

    Starr had gone rigid with shock. Her Feraligatr nudged her shoulder gently, its face alternating between concern for her and disdain for us.

    The hangar shook with a massive impact. Mewtwo had just destroyed one of the assault rays by hurling it against the wall with a heavy metallic crunch. Countless Pokémon attacks flew towards him, but he deflected them with a barrier and sent a blast of psychic energy at his attackers, smashing them into the concrete.

    “Starr, come on!”

    Finally, after several seconds, Starr managed to move her arm enough to take a Pokéball from her belt and recall her starter into it. Immediately, I reached out and grabbed her other hand. And then the dark, concrete surrounding of the Rocket base melted into shimmering light. We reappeared in a small clearing ringed by sparse woods with an overcast sky hanging over us. Judging by the peak of Mt. Silver in the distance and the nearby sounds of city traffic, we had teleported to somewhere on the outskirts of Viridian.

    We’d survived. I’d been so sure we going to die, and somehow, we had managed to escape. My body was still shaking with the remnants of fear and adrenaline as my brain struggled to grasp that single, unbelievable fact.

    “Well… it might not have gone the way we planned, but Mewtwo is free,” Ajia announced, breaking the silence.

    I snapped my attention to her. A single, burning question surfaced in my mind and threatened to consume all other thoughts until I got an answer: “What on earth did your Pokémon do back there?”

    Ajia’s face fell immediately. Shadows of guilt and sympathy flickered through her eyes. “I’m sorry, Jade—I really am—but I can’t tell you that. In fact, I really, really wish it hadn’t come to that, but with Mewtwo screwing up our first plan, I didn’t have a choice.”

    My throat clenched up. Ajia had a backup plan the entire time. That whole time I thought we were going to die, and she had a plan. I guess she had tried to tell me it was going to be alright, but… I hadn’t believed her. I really had no idea how to feel about all of it. We’d survived. Things had worked out in the end. So why didn’t I feel satisfied by any of it? All I could feel was a burning, useless frustration with nothing to point it toward.

    “And you really can’t tell me?” I said incredulously.

    She nodded. “I’m sorry.”

    “Why not?”

    She closed her eyes, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

    I sighed. Just another thing to add to the list of secrets I didn’t know about Ajia. It was starting to feel like I barely knew her at all.

    Starr was still standing motionless, staring at nothing with a look of total shock. Honestly, in spite of how angry I’d been at her earlier, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. It finally made sense. She’d been forced to join Team Rocket because her father was the boss. The sheer amount of pressure she’d been under, combined with zero tolerance for disloyalty. And then in an instant, her life had been turned completely upside down… because of us.

    Starr blinked a few times, her eyes growing more focused. She weakly glanced around at her surroundings like she was seeing them for the first time. And then her eyes fell on Ajia and me, and her expression slowly hardened.

    “You guys fucking ruined my life.”

    Ajia rubbed the back of her head. “That’s a bit overdramatic.”

    “This isn’t a joke! What the hell am I supposed to do now? Team Rocket was all I had. There’s nowhere for me to go now… Why couldn’t I have just done it? Why? Why, why, why??” Starr collapsed to her knees and buried her face in her hands, mumbling continuously.

    I clenched my teeth and looked away. She didn’t actually wish that she’d been able to kill us. That much was obvious at this point. But there was no denying the fact that her life would have been much, much simpler if it hadn’t been for us.

    Starr finally pulled her hands from her face and stared at the sky hopelessly. “It doesn’t matter what I say, the point is I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why. Maybe those memories meant more to me than I wanted them to.”

    Again, her argument seemed to hinge on there being no real problem with murder so long as it wasn’t us. I was really getting sick of it, especially since there was no possible counterargument that would work on her.

    “I still don’t understand,” she continued. “Why were you guys willing to risk your lives for something like that?”

    “Maybe those memories meant more to us that we wanted them to,” I said quietly.

    Starr laughed. “Well we’re a sentimental bunch of idiots, aren’t we? I thought I’d trained myself better than that.”

    Ajia sighed and walked over to Starr, her steps slow and cautious. She crouched down next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder before speaking in an impossibly calm and measured tone. “I know this is a big shock. It always is. But if you’re worried about Team Rocket hunting you down after this, I’ve got a lot of experience at avoiding them. And I know some friends who can help with—”

    “Just go away.”

    Ajia paused, looking taken aback. She stood there, staring wordlessly for some time before standing up straight and turning away.

    “If you say so,” she said quietly. She then made eye contact with me and forced a smile. “You’ll be okay, right?”

    Honestly, at this point it was hard to imagine myself being fazed by anything. That was the only good thing about having endured everything up until now.

    “I’ll be fine,” I said, and for once, I meant it.

    Espeon, who had wandered off at some point, now came trotting back to her trainer’s side, casually flicking her tail from side to side. Ajia glanced at the psychic-type, then back at me.

    “Get a Pokégear why dont’cha? We need to keep in touch.”

    I snorted. “Maybe once I have the money. But I’ll call you when I get to Johto.”

    “Sounds good,” she said, waving. “I’ll see you, Jade.”

    I waved back, and the two of them blinked out of sight.

    Now it was just me and Starr. Just like it had been when this all started yesterday morning. I shuffled my feet against the dirt, unsure of whether I should say anything. Of course she wouldn’t want to talk to me right now. I’d just helped ruin her life, after all.

    “I’m sorry.”

    “Why the hell are you apologizing?” she snapped. “Have you forgotten what I did to you?”

    No, I hadn’t forgotten. I’d never be able to forget that. And that’s why I knew that none of this had come from any desire to put things right, or recover from what she’d done. It was solely because I’d been angry and had wanted answers. And only now that I’d gotten them was I able to see how badly things had gotten out of hand.

    “What are you going to do now?” Starr asked, practically choking on the words.

    For once I actually knew the answer to that question. Mewtwo was free. That was my last goal here in Kanto, which meant—

    “I’m going to Johto. That’s where the rest of my team might be heading, and it’s the safest place from the Kanto force right now.” That last part was somewhat directed at her. There was no doubt the rest of the team would be after her. Maybe Stalker’s resistance could protect her too. I gave Starr a pointed look, hoping she’d get the hint. But she just continued to stare at the ground, arms clasped around herself, trembling slightly.

    I swallowed. “I… do you want me to leave you alone too?” She didn’t answer. I stood there, awkwardly watching her, waiting for some kind of response. But none came.

    “I’ll… leave you alone now,” I said quietly, turning to leave. I barely made it five steps before she called after me.

    “Jade!”

    I closed my eyes, exhaling slowly through my teeth. “What?” I asked, turning to face her.

    She fidgeted a bit with her gloves, avoiding my gaze. “Things… can’t ever go back to the way they used to be.”

    Well, that was a bit insulting. “I know that. I’m not that naïve. Even if they could… I’m not sure I’d want that anymore.”

    “…Me neither,” she said, looking away.

    A long pause followed. I wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at.

    “But… if we could start everything over…” she began slowly, “I’d like that.”

    I blinked. If I’d been expecting anything, it hadn’t been that.

    She wasn’t able to look me in the eye. “I don’t have anyone else right now. I guess I didn’t really have anyone else on Team Rocket either. Sure, at my rank, I had countless admirers. Any time I needed someone to chat with, or fool around with, I didn’t have to look far. But… I didn’t have anyone I could trust.”

    I didn’t know what to say.

    Starr closed her eyes and clenched her fists. “I guess… after everything that’s happened… after everything I did… I don’t deserve to ask that from you.”

    “Alright.”

    Her eyes snapped open to stare at me in shock. “…What?”

    “I said alright. I want to start over too.”

    “You… you do?”

    I took a deep breath. “Everything that’s happened between us has been so messed up. But neither of us wanted that—it was only because we were on opposing teams. I think we both need the chance to move on.” I was so, so tired of being haunted by that night. And this was probably the only way to heal from it.

    I offered a hand to help her stand up. She hesitated, staring at it for a few seconds before slowly reaching out to take it. I pulled her to her feet. And then out of nowhere she threw her arms around me, pulling me into the tightest hug I’d ever felt. My body immediately tensed up, every instinct telling me to pull away. But then, after several seconds had passed, I found myself relaxing into the embrace. Slowly, I lifted my arms from where they’d been pressed to my sides, clasping my hands around her as she trembled all over, tears soaking my shoulder. Weakly at first, my hold gradually tightened until I felt some of the stress and hurt and anger finally starting to melt away.

    I wasn’t sure how long we stood there like that. All I knew was that it was the first moment since this all started that I didn’t regret finding out who she was.

    Starr sniffled a couple times, fighting to regain control of her breathing. And then she finally managed to speak, her voice barely audible.

    “So, we’re going to Johto, then?”

    I swallowed hard and nodded. “To Johto.”






    ~End Chapter 25~
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 26: The Johto Force
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    NaNoWriMo is finally over! Regular updates resume now!



    ~ Chapter 26: The Johto Force~


    A sharp autumn wind cut through the air, tossing my hair into my face and forcing me to hold it back. I was seated on a bench in the middle of a training park in southern Viridian—the only familiar sight I’d allowed myself throughout this entire ordeal surrounding the Viridian base. Rudy and I always used to come here to watch matches between kids older than us—or rather, older than him—who had already started their journeys. In the summer, it was so popular that battles often cropped up over who could train on which field—with the field at the top of the hill at the center of the park being the most heavily contested spot. We’d make meaningless bets on the combatants and excitedly call out whenever anyone sent out a Pokémon that was definitely going on our team someday.

    It was a place full of memories from a time when the biggest concern in my life was whether or not I’d finally pass the training exam and be able to join that world. It was also the place where I’d decided to break the news to my Pokémon regarding what had just happened not more than an hour ago. And where I’d received pretty much exactly the response I’d been expecting:

    “*You’re kidding.*”

    They didn’t even need to say anything—the reaction was plain from their faces and body language. Aros flared his wings like the news was a personal attack. Stygian drew herself back, eyes narrowed, claws digging into the dirt. Swift cocked his head to the side, his gaze soft but concerned. Firestorm stared downward, more confused than upset, although he couldn’t keep his tail flame from crackling in agitation.

    Yep, couldn’t say I was surprised at all.

    “*Say it again,*” Stygian said, her voice low and dangerous.

    I took a deep breath. “The head of the combat unit betrayed Team Rocket and joined our side.”

    The dark-type’s piercing, crimson eyes dug into me. “*And it hasn’t remotely occurred to you that this is a trap?*”

    Of course it hadn’t. Because the idea of it being a trap was completely absurd. My right eye twitched, and I fought to keep a stern face as I said, “Did you miss the part where I said the boss himself has rejected her?” The Absol gave a dismissive huff and turned away sharply.

    “*So what if she’s a traitor now?*” Aros growled, baring his teeth. “*I’m more concerned with all the shit she’s pulled in the past.*” My eyes couldn’t help tracing all the faint marks on the dragon’s scales from where Starr’s Arcanine had viciously torn through him not even a month ago.

    “I’m not asking you to forgive all of that stuff,” I said plainly. Hell, I wasn’t so sure if I’d forgiven any of it yet, even if I did want to move past it. “I just want you not to attack her on sight.”

    “*She attacked us first,*” the Flygon shot back, lashing his tail from side to side.

    “*Many of our allies have attacked us. Chibi tried to kill us when we first met him,*” Swift chirped, obviously trying his hardest to sound calm and measured. Maybe a bit too hard, but the effort was appreciated.

    Aros tilted his head, antennae twitching. “*Was he even sane at the time?*”

    Swift paused, shifting his wings a bit. “*I suppose not.*”

    The Flygon snorted in a ‘well, there you go’ sort of way.

    “*She didn’t just attack us,*” Firestorm spoke up suddenly before fixing me with a serious look. “*She attacked you. That doesn’t make any sense, if you say she was your old friend.*”

    I groaned, rubbing my eyelids in frustration. “Look, I know this sounds weird as hell. But you guys weren’t there. You can’t imagine what it was like. She risked her life to help me and Ajia. She was… she was willing to throw her life away rather than betray us,” I said, feeling my throat clench up from the memory of it.

    No one had an easy retort for that. Aros opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but decided against it. Firestorm made eye contact with me, his brow furrowed. Skeptically at first, but then slowly relaxing into something more… uncertain.

    “*She risked her life for you…?*” the fire lizard asked.

    I nodded as forcefully as I could, hoping that as least some of that force would show how adamant I was about this. “Yes. Definitely.”

    The four Pokémon shot confused glances at each other. The head of the combat unit, risking herself for me. Even I had to admit it sounded strange.

    “*I still think you’re insane,*” Aros said, folding his wings.

    I closed my eyes. “I know.”

    “*If this bites you in the ass, I’m not saving you.*”

    “That’s fine,” I said, standing up from the bench and stretching my legs. I walked a few steps and then pivoted to face the others. “I’m gonna go back and talk to her now. I’ll let you know if anything else comes up.” With that, I recalled them.

    Good thing I’d decided to have that conversation with them away from Starr. Not that I could really blame any of them for having that reaction. After all the things she’d done… A shiver ran through me, and I suppressed the memory. Didn’t want to think about any of that now.

    I cast one last wistful glance around the park before turning and walking down the trail in the direction I’d originally come. On the other side of the park, Starr was doing much that same as I had done—informing her Pokémon of what had just happened. Which was far more important for her team than it was for mine, considering that her entire life was going to be different now.

    She’d removed her hat, vest and gloves, all of which made her Rocket status pretty obvious. I shivered again upon seeing her sitting there in a tank top, but she didn’t seem too bothered by the cold. Then again, she was surrounded by fire-types.

    “Need me to come back later?” I asked upon seeing that she was still in the middle of talking to her team.

    Starr glanced in my direction. “No, I’m pretty much done,” she said, motioning for me to join her.

    My eyes swept over her Pokémon warily as I stepped forward into their midst. Feraligatr jerked its head upward, leering suspiciously the entire time. Arcanine, on the other hand, refused to look at me—the firedog kept its hateful gaze firmly on a tree further down the trail, as though it were trying to set it on fire with just its eyes. Flareon glanced around at the others uneasily, folding its ears back and swishing its fluffy tail from side to side. Rapidash stood calmly off to the side, eyes closed and flames flickering gently in the wind. Raichu… I could hardly look at Raichu without feeling sick, so I didn’t.

    At least not until the electric-type dashed up to me and I almost flew out of my skin.

    “*So you’re not the enemy anymore!*” the mouse said cheerfully. Oh god why.

    “*She’s not the enemy anymore because she pushed our trainer to treachery. Don’t forget that,*” Feraligatr growled.

    “*I know that, I heard what Starr said,*” Raichu said, puffing out his cheeks in a pout.

    “Alright, easy with the growling, Feraligatr,” Starr said, giving the water-type a stern look. The gator immediately stopped glaring and stood at attention.

    Starr motioned for me to sit and I did, slowly relaxing onto the bench next to her, but keeping a wary eye on all of her Pokémon. Especially that one.

    “I told them what’s up. They’ll, uh…”—she made eye contact with Feraligatr—“they’ll get used to it.” She hesitated a few seconds, then took a deep breath and added, “I’ll get used to it.”

    “Might take a while for my team to do the same,” I admitted. “In the meantime, it’s… probably best if I not let them out around you.”

    Feraligatr scoffed at my words. “*Might not like any of this, but wouldn’t ever disobey a direct order. Not much of a trainer, are you?*”

    I bristled. There was something bizarre about being insulted by a Pokémon claiming I didn’t have enough control over my team. Granted… I really didn’t, but that was none of its business.

    And then Raichu jumped into my lap and every muscle in my body tensed up instantly and every thought dissolved into a torrent of oh god, oh god, get him off, get him off.

    “*I think it will be fun being on the same side,*” the mouse said, cocking his head to the side. “*Even if I don’t get to act scary anymore.*” God, why’d he have to talk like that, all bubbly and friendly like he wasn’t Starr’s torture Pokémon of choice. Didn’t he remember what she’d had him do to me?

    “Does—does he have to sit here?” I stammered, desperately attempting to force my facial expression into something neutral even as every instinct devolved into an endless loop of nope.

    “No, he doesn’t,” Starr said flatly, giving the electric-type an unimpressed stare—he instantly jumped over to her lap and I could breathe again. Raichu sat there drumming his paws on Starr’s arm and giving playful flicks of his tail, all while continuing to fix me with an oblivious grin. I looked away. That was really not the sort of thing I felt like dealing with right now. Maybe later. Or never.

    “It’s still hard to believe that all of that actually happened,” Starr said distantly, staring at the clouded sky. “Part of me still thinks it’s a dream, and I’m gonna wake up and be back in my room. Part of me still wants that to be the case,” she added with a hollow laugh.

    I clenched my teeth and glanced away. It was only natural for her to feel conflicted about it. But it was still an uncomfortable thought—imagining what would have happened if she hadn’t turned her back on Team Rocket.

    “But this is real,” she went on. “I’m a traitor now. The thing I’ve spent the last five years hating with all my guts.” She sighed deeply. “Can’t afford to get caught now, so I’ve started thinking about what I’ve gotta do from now on,” she said, gesturing to a duffel bag on the ground by her feet. “I already pulled all the money out of my bank account. The team has that on record, so the last thing I need is them tracking me that way.” I blinked at it, taking more than a few seconds to realize that it was packed full of cash. When had she had time to do that?

    “It’s gonna suck carrying so much cash around, but anyone stupid enough to try and rob me deserves what’s coming to them.” She scoffed at the thought. But then her expression hardened. “What I’m actually worried about is my license. They have contacts in the Pokémon League. They could have my trainer ID flagged for anything—and odds are it’ll be something I’ve actually done, too,” she added with a grimace. I didn’t even want to think about how long her list of arrestable offences probably was.

    “I could always get a new ID under the table, but all the providers I know have ties to Rockets,” Starr said, setting Raichu on the ground and then leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees. “We’ve got the region’s black market on lockdown, pretty much, so any rival dealers are gonna be hard to track down. Maybe we could take a quick trip to another region? Figure out who runs the show there…?” She shot an inquisitive look my way as though hoping to see what I thought of that idea. But I just stared at her blankly.

    Starr raised an eyebrow at my clueless response. “What? It’s not that hard if you know what to look for. There are a lot of tells. Like if you go up to a shop and they’ve got—”

    “You sure know a lot about this kind of stuff.” The words were out of my mouth before I’d really thought them through.

    Starr paused, blinking. A crooked grin slowly crossed her face, and she gave a slight laugh. “Come on, I’m—I was an executive. I know there’s that stereotype that combat unit execs are only good at bashing skulls in, but we had to know our stuff too.”

    “Mm,” was the only response I gave to that, shuffling a foot awkwardly against the dirt. The less I thought about combat unit execs bashing skulls in, the better.

    Starr leaned back against the bench, crossing her arms behind her head. “Anyway, point is, it might take me awhile to get a new license, so I won’t be able to book us a Pokécenter room. The real question is whether your ID was compromised,” she said, giving me a sideways glance.

    I snorted. “Well that’d be hard considering I don’t have one.”

    It took several seconds for the full implications of what I said to hit her. But it was obvious when it did—her eyes snapped open and she suddenly turned to face me, one eyebrow raised as high as it would go. “You’re joking.”

    I just responded with a deadpan stare. Slowly, her face split into an incredulous smirk, until she finally burst out laughing.

    “Seriously, you’ve been training Pokémon illegally this whole time? Oh man, that’s rich!

    I felt my cheeks go red. “Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m an idiot.”

    “No, I’m serious, I’m legit impressed,” she said, elbowing me. “I never would’ve expected that from you.”

    I shoved my hands in my pockets. “Yeah, well, I only got this far because of the Rebellion’s resources. I never would’ve been able to do it on my own.”

    “Okay, okay, that’s fair. Still hilarious though. Anyway, let’s hit Goldenrod first. It might be a Rocket hotspot, but it’s also frickin’ huge, so I think I have a decent shot of finding what I need there.”

    I shrugged. “Fine with me. But how should we get there? Flying?” Starr didn’t have any flying Pokémon, to my knowledge. We could both probably fit on Aros? But that’d be pushing him too hard, especially for long-distance flight. Not to mention he didn’t trust her at all.

    Fortunately, Starr cut down that train of thought immediately. “Hell no, do you have any idea how far that is? We’re taking the bullet train.”

    I blanched. “All the way to Goldenrod? Aren’t the tickets like 10,000 pyen?”

    Starr gave me a look that plainly said I was an idiot while gesturing both hands at the duffel bag full of money.

    “Eh… right.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    It had been years since the last time I’d ridden a high-speed bullet train. While the southern Pokansen line wasn’t near as fast as the northern line that ran directly from Saffron to Goldenrod in an hour, it had the perk of making additional stops, one of which was near Viridian. Starr bought the tickets, and we boarded the train, where I wasted no time in finding a seat to collapse into. Honestly, I was just plain exhausted. I hadn’t exactly slept much the previous night because of the looming anxiety of the Mewtwo mission, and I’d been running on fumes ever since the adrenaline from the mission had worn off. I wound up sleeping through most of the trip. Not like I missed out on much scenery. The forests on the southern edge of the Tohjo Mountains were gorgeous most of the year, but by now they’d lost most of their leaves, leaving the surrounding draped in shades of brown and gray. And it was too foggy to see Mt. Silver anyway.

    Three hours later, I awoke to Starr grabbing my shoulder and shaking it to pull me out of a shallow half-sleep. I blinked groggily, taking more than a few seconds to realize that the train had stopped and almost all the other passengers had already left. I grabbed my bag and followed her off the train and onto a huge, densely-packed platform. Starr led the way through the station, weaving around the crowds effortlessly while I trailed after her. And then we set foot outside onto the streets of Goldenrod.

    Sunlight glimmered off the windows of the tall buildings around us. The dreary fog we’d left behind in Viridian had been replaced with an impossibly bright sky, forcing me to shield my eyes the moment we were outside. Or at least until we walked under the shadows of the huge arches supporting the overhead railways. No longer blinded, I could instead focus on the sounds of nearby traffic and the chattering crowds and overhead planes. I’d barely been here five minutes and I was already certain this was the busiest city I’d ever been to.

    “Man, it has been a while since I’ve been here,” Starr said, stretching widely. “Course, the last time I was on vacation, not… whatever this is.” She sighed and turned to face me. “What about you? Ever been to Goldenrod?”

    I shook my head. “Furthest west I’ve ever been was visiting relatives in Cherrygrove when I was a kid.”

    She clicked her tongue. “Huh. You’ve been on your own before, though, yeah? I mean, I’d have assumed yes, but if you’re not even a real trainer…” She trailed off, smirking.

    I raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’ve been on my own.”

    Starr nodded. “Good, cause I gotta go check out some shady places, and I don’t want you coming with. Wanna say we’ll meet up at the central district Pokécenter?” I was about to respond, but she had grabbed a Pokéball and opened it. The flash of light took the shape of an oversized mouse, and I immediately averted my eyes.

    “You’re letting Raichu out?” I asked, all too aware of how immediately tense I’d become.

    “He’s my best defense if I get jumped,” she said, a bit defensively. “I’m kinda surprised you don’t have number nine out. You still have it, right?”

    My stomach curled inward on itself. “Yeah. I have him.” I hadn’t talked to him since… since the morning after it happened. Which was only two days ago, but still. I’d deliberately kept him in his ball while explaining things to my team because I’d wanted to talk to him in private. But now I needed to actually go through with that.

    “Hey, wake up. You good for meeting at the central Pokécenter? I dunno what time, but probably after sundown.” She stared at me expectantly.

    I shook my head to clear it. “Oh, sure.”

    “Alright, see you then,” she said, giving a slight wave before turning and walking off. She made it about ten steps before she spun around and called out, “Oh yeah, avoid the west side of town!” Five more steps and she added, “Oh, and the underground!”

    I chuckled a bit under my breath. That probably wouldn’t be too hard. It seemed best to just head straight to the central district and kill time there.

    Bus stops lined the streets outside the train station. It wasn’t hard to find one of the iconic red and white buses that led to the Pokécenter in most towns. No license meant fishing coins out of my pocket to pay the fare (and enduring the confused looks as to why someone my age wouldn’t just pay using a license), but I’d gotten used to that by now.

    Twenty minutes later, I was standing in front of largest Pokécenter I’d ever seen—several stories tall and practically covered in posters showing off new trainer tech they had available inside. The nearby buildings weren’t much different, dwarfing their surroundings and lined with signs and ads. Central district was clearly the most popular destination for both tourists and trainers, as the streets were packed with both. It would’ve been nice to be here as a tourist. To just forget everything going on with Team Rocket and get lost in the sights and sounds of the city. But then again, was there anything stopping me from doing that, at least for the afternoon? It wasn’t like I had a destination. Heck, I still hadn’t even heard back from Stalker. The only thing stopping me from enjoying myself was, as usual, myself.

    So it was decided. I was here as a tourist after all. With that, I set off in a random direction, cyclists weaving around me as I vaguely followed the flow of the foot traffic. My first priority was food. The last thing I’d eaten was a simple Pokécenter breakfast with Ajia six hours ago—although it felt closer to six days ago from how much had happened. But if there was ever a place to be looking for food, this was obviously it. Restaurants and food carts were everywhere, practically lining the streets no matter where I went in Central district. And each one had a line of trainers out front too. I bought something resembling a bacon pancake (a local specialty) from a food cart and then sought out one of the many training parks in the area. I soon found one on the edge of a river that cut through the city. Trees lined the walking paths, but the fields were wide, open, and full of short-cropped grass and dirt battlefields. I sat down at a picnic bench and ate while watching a group of trainers in the closest field as they practiced a tag team attack with a Growlithe, Wooper, and Chikorita.

    It wasn’t until that moment that I managed to properly appreciate the fact that I was in Johto now. Not only that, but I was on my own in the biggest city in Johto. That would’ve been completely unthinkable five months ago.

    At some point, I unclipped Chibi’s black Pokéball from my belt and rolled it around in my palm. It had only been two days since the attack on Midnight. Two days. And he had spent most of that time in stasis, inside his Pokéball. It’d be crazy to expect him to have recovered at all. At least, not emotionally. But still… I needed to talk to him. No matter how much he didn’t want me to. Even if he put himself back in the ball the moment I let him out… I had to try.

    I held my breath and pressed the button. A flash of light, and the Zapdos-Pikachu hybrid materialized in the grass next to me. Slowly, he opened his eyes. He didn’t look at his surroundings, or even make eye contact with me. He just stared straight ahead and said, “*What do you want?*”

    “I just want to talk,” I said gently.

    “*What’s the point,*” he said. It wasn’t a question. His tone made it clear that he didn’t want an answer. But I was going to give him one whether he liked it or not.

    “The point is that I want to help you through this.”

    For several seconds, he didn’t say anything. He just stood there, unmoving aside from his eyes flickering back and forth as he considered his words.

    “*What do you think…*”—his eyes slowly slid upward to meet mine—“*you can possibly say that will make anything better?*”

    I almost flinched. His eyes were cold and dead, devoid of any energy. I took a deep breath to steel myself and said, “Nothing. I can’t fix this. I know that.”

    “*Then why bother?*”

    I swallowed hard. “Because I don’t want you to suffer through this all by yourself?” I said, trying to keep the edge out of my voice. “You suffered alone for how many years because they took him? I can’t let you go through that again.”

    The Pikachu bristled. “*It’s none of your business.*”

    “Of course it is,” I said, gripping my knees tightly. “You’re a part of my team. I’m not just going to ignore you. Not when I need to be there for you.”

    He paused, flattening his ears. “*If you’re worried about whether or not I’ll still fight for you—*”

    “You know that’s not what I’m worried about.”

    “*—I’ll do it. I’ll fight.*”

    My mouth hung open. That was completely not the answer I’d been expecting. “I’m… I’m not just going to throw you into danger while you’re like this.”

    “*I can let myself out.*”

    I put a hand to my forehead slowly, trying my hardest not to let the exasperation show. This wasn’t right. I was supposed to be comforting him, not getting frustrated with him.

    “*I have to fight them,*” Chibi said, suddenly fixing me with a serious glare. “*Don’t you see? That’s why I exist.*”

    My throat clenched up. “That’s… not true. I know we’re still going to be fighting them, but that’s not your purpose. You don’t have to—”

    “*I called Razors a coward,*” he said, eyes wide and desperate. “*I accused him of hiding from the fight while the rest of us risked our lives. That’s the last thing I said to him before he died. That’s why he put himself at risk like that.*” He was shaking all over, fur standing on end. “*It’s my fault. I did this. It’s my fault,*” he muttered over and over to himself.

    “It’s not—”

    “*If I can’t hold myself to what I said to him, then what am I worth? I have to fight them. They have to pay. It’s the only reason I’m still here.*”

    I exhaled slowly. “Don’t do this. You don’t have to live for revenge. He’d… he’d have wanted you to live for yourself.”

    “*Don’t you dare try to say what he’d want,*” the hybrid snapped, suddenly livid. He jabbed his tail at me and said, “*I joined you because I knew it would give me the opportunity to fight them. That’s the only reason. And if that changes, then I have no reason to stay with you. I don’t need you. Don’t try to stop me.*”

    He swung his tail around to hit his Pokéball and dissolved into it. I sat there, completely dumbstruck, staring at the place where he’d been as a burning pain wormed its way through my chest.

    I didn’t feel like watching any of the trainers in the park anymore.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    It was past 5 when I made my way back to the central Pokécenter, and the sun had already set, leaving the sky streaked with the red glow of twilight. The surrounding hadn’t darkened, though—far from it. Between the glow of the nearly-full moon and the overwhelming glare of the huge billboards and screens that lined the buildings, Goldenrod was somehow just as bright and lively as it had been a few hours ago. That fact was comforting. It was hard to imagine getting ambushed by Rockets in a place like this.

    I was about to walk inside the Pokécenter when someone waving caught my eye in my peripheral vision. It was Starr, seated at one of the benches out front, although I almost didn’t recognize her. She’d gotten a haircut—shorter than it was before—and completely changed her outfit. She was now dressed in a leather jacket with gray leggings and a dark violet skirt. Her signature oversized combat boots were gone, replaced with lighter, lace-up boots.

    “You look… really different,” I said as I walked up.

    “Yeah? Well, that’s the idea. Make it harder for any Rockets to recognize me from a distance.” She paused for a bit, then added, “I think this is the first time you haven’t flinched when you saw me. First time in recent memory, anyway.”

    I winced. “Really?” I hadn’t realized I’d been doing that.

    “Yeah. I… I’m glad,” she said, glancing away.

    It made sense. I’d hardly just be able to turn that instinct off. The instinct that associated her with nothing but pain and misery. The part of my mind that still couldn’t understand how she’d done those things.

    “So, uh… no luck on the license,” Starr went on awkwardly. “This would be so much easier if I could just hit the underground, but that place is practically owned by Rockets.” She muttered some miscellaneous obscenities regarding the Johto force before continuing with, “With my luck, this’d be the one time they actually got their sorry asses in gear and came through on a hit issued by the Kanto force.”

    Yet another weird bit of internal Rocket politics that I had no real say in.

    “Whatever. No Pokécenter tonight, so we’ll have to stay at a hotel,” she said, standing up and motioning to me. “Come on, I know a few on the west side of town that don’t ask for ID.”

    I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said to avoid the west side of town.”

    “Yeah, well, you got me with you now,” she said bluntly.

    It was hard to argue with that. She did know way more about this city than I did. It was a strange thought, but I glad to have her by my side.

    “Probably better that we stay away from the Pokécenter,” Starr went on. “Place’ll be crawling with kids. We’d stand out pretty bad. Or at least, I would.” She flashed a smirk at me from over her shoulder.

    I rolled my eyes. She was really dredging up that old joke? “I’m almost fifteen. You can’t call me a little kid forever.”

    “Watch me.”

    And for that moment, even just a tiny bit, it felt like old times.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    That good feeling didn’t last. Not with my dreams dragging me back into the Rocket base, just like they had in the week following my capture. Maybe it had something to do with us staying in a tiny hotel room in the shadiest part of town. Or maybe it was falling asleep and being completely vulnerable in the same room as the person who’d tortured me. Either way, the night was an endless chain of sinking into a shallow, restless sleep, only to be jolted out of it minutes later. I kept seeing Astrid standing over me, and she’d tell me it was all a trick, and that I was a naïve idiot to have ever believed that she could change. Then she’d snap her fingers and suddenly Raichu would appear, only this time he’d grin stupidly as his electricity tore me apart. Sometimes Mewtwo was there, and he’d clench his fingers together and I’d feel an unbearable pressure from all sides, forcing the air from my lungs and crushing my bones with a sickening crunch. And I’d be certain that I’d died, only to feel another string of lightning shoot through my heart.

    Sometimes the experiments were there too, and Stygian would give me a look of cold disgust while Aros would laugh and say, “I told you so.” Chibi would scold me and say that I wasn’t any use to him dead, and then he’d leave, and I’d try to run after him only to abruptly realize that my legs didn’t work anymore. Then I’d blink, and I’d be back in the hotel room, and I could feel my pulse, but my limbs still wouldn’t move, and for some reason Astrid was still there, standing across the room, glaring at me. But then I’d blink again, and she’d be in bed, asleep. And I’d be left with a sickly feeling of unease worming through my insides until I rolled over and buried myself in the blankets and started the whole thing all over again.

    I didn’t mention any of it the next morning. Not when we got ready for the day, or when we rode the bus back to the central district. When Starr joked that I looked like a zombie, I just replied that the bed was uncomfortable. And then we parted ways at the Pokécenter, and I was left to wander the city with my thoughts still stuck in the twisted mess of nightmares and the realization that it would be impossible to just erase the memories of what she’d done. No matter how badly I wanted to.

    The rest of the day passed by in a dull haze. I wandered through department stores looking at items I couldn’t buy and stumbled across more parks where I debated training but found that I wasn’t up to it. I spent hours arguing with myself over whether or not it was worth it to talk to Starr about it, and at the end of those hours, I was no closer to having an answer, so I wound up just asking Swift.

    “*Of course you should tell her,*” he had said. “*She joined you for a reason.*”

    And in a way, I had already known he would say that. But actually hearing it from him still helped. So before the afternoon was over, I made my way back to the Pokécenter early and waited out front for Starr.

    She returned before sundown, disembarking a bus that had come from somewhere that wasn’t part of the typical trainer circuit. From the look on her face, I could already guess that her search had gone better today than it had yesterday.

    “Guess what?” she asked sitting down next to me. “Got lucky and found a guy who was able set me up with a new trainer ID. Gonna take him a few days to get around some of the League checks, but it should be good to go after that. Won’t be able to use it to enter any official tournaments or the like. But for everyday use it should be fine. Nice to finally have things go right for a change.”

    My chest tightened. Great, now I was going to ruin her good mood. But I couldn’t ignore this. Not if I wanted to travel with her without turning into a ball of nerves all the time.

    “Hey, um… can we talk?”

    She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

    I gripped the edge of the bench so hard my knuckles turned white. “I can’t stop thinking about that night in the detention cell.”

    Starr’s face fell immediately. “I really don’t want to talk about that,” she said, glancing away.

    “I need to talk about it,” I forced myself to say. “Maybe you can brush it aside or pretend it didn’t happen but I don’t have that luxury.”

    Starr flinched, like the words were a slap to the face. She turned away, screwing her eyes shut. Slowly, like she hated every word: “Right. Say what you want to say, I guess.”

    I really only had one question. One single, burning question that consumed my thoughts and made it impossible to think about anything else. I took a deep breath and said, “I, just… why? Every single time we ran into each other, it’s like you were dead-set on seeing me suffer. I don’t get it. You said you had to keep the others from suspecting you, but… why’d it have to involve that?

    I didn’t want to be angry at her—not after everything we’d been through yesterday. But dammit, that wasn’t the kind of thing I could just forget. I’d tried.

    Starr couldn’t look me in the eye—she just stared downward for the longest time, looking absolutely miserable. “I was afraid they were going to kill you,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “I couldn’t make the same mistakes I made with Ajia. I couldn’t take the risk that anyone would find out that we knew each other. I thought if I put on a good show and got you to confess, then maybe no one would care if I let you go after we finished off the rebel team.”

    I winced. It hurt to hear her talk about the death of my teammates with such… casual language.

    Starr buried her face in her palms. “I didn’t care if you hated me, or if you never wanted to see me again… I just wanted you to live.” She paused, dragging her nails against her forehead as she balled her hands into fists. “I know that doesn’t fix anything. I know I can never take it back, no matter how badly I want to. That was… the most painful thing I’ve ever done.”

    I stifled the urge to sarcastically reply that it had been more painful for me. Because the truth was… I didn’t envy her. The idea of being forced to torture someone I cared about without breaking character… it was nauseating.

    Starr finally pulled her face out of her hands, staring brokenly into the distance. “I could have betrayed them sooner,” she said bitterly, her words dripping with self-loathing. “I could have refused, taken you, and tried to escape. It’s just… I’ve seen what happens to those who betray Team Rocket—I’ve done it to traitors myself. I was a scared, selfish idiot, so I did what I’ve always done and just buried it all away.” She swallowed hard and inhaled deeply. “But… I’m glad you and Ajia didn’t give up on me. I still hate the way she tricked me, but…”—she exhaled slowly—“it’s better this way.”

    I was silent for a long while. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t even sure what kind of answer I’d been hoping for.

    “There’s still a part of me that’s afraid of you,” I admitted.

    She closed her eyes. “Yeah, I know.”

    “I do still want to start over,” I added quickly. “It’s just… going to be harder than I thought.”

    “That’s fine. It’s the best I can hope for.” She stared downward for a few seconds, then abruptly stood up. “Hey, how about we get something to eat? My treat.”

    “You’ve been paying for everything this entire trip,” I mumbled. I still hadn’t puzzled out how I felt about that.

    “Yeah, well, I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for. Five years?” she asked, offering a hand to me.

    I stared at it for a long time. Then my eyes slowly slid upward to meet hers. That wasn’t the face of someone who just wanted to brush aside my pain or act like it never happened. Not by a long shot.

    “Yeah. That sounds good,” I said, taking her hand.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Dinner was nice. Starr led the way down a maze of side streets to some backroad full of restaurants that would have been impossible to find unless you were looking for it. I ordered what ended up being the best bowl of noodles I’d ever had, and we swapped stories about our early training days. Stories like the time when Starr’s Totodile and Ponyta refused to train together. Or the time when I’d used Swift against Sandshrew and had forgotten what moves Pidgey could use. Her stories were from five years ago and mine were only from four months ago, but mine might as well have been from five years ago, that’s how distant they felt.

    At some point around the end of the meal, it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked my R-com ever since we’d left for Goldenrod. I fished it out of my bag and turned it on to see that I’d gotten two texts yesterday. Around the time Starr and I had been on the train, from the looks of it. I tapped the first one and read:

    Hey, Rudy said more than five words to me today so that’s progress. Btw, where’d you go? You sorta just vanished, lol. Went to get your license I’m guessing? When you getting back?

    Oh my god, I’d forgotten about Rudy and Darren. I’d completely ditched them without saying a word, and then forgot about them for three days. Granted, three absurdly stressful and eventful days, but still.

    “You shouldn’t use that,” Starr said, snapping me out of my thoughts. “Get a Pokégear.”

    “Yeah, with what money,” I said flatly.

    “I’ll get you one then, just don’t use that. They can track—” Her eyes went wide, and she fixed me with a skeptical glare. “Wait, hang on. If the rebels all had legit Rocket accounts, why didn’t we ever have a record of you guys spending time on Midnight Island? I had my people check the new recruits, too. They all came back clean, nothing suspicious.”

    “Stalker told us he tampered with the trackers in our R-coms,” I replied.

    She smacked her forehead. “Of course.”

    I went back to the texts. The second one was from a number I didn’t recognize. Intrigued, I tapped on it. My eyes widened instantly. It was from Stalker.

    I can’t tell you my current location. However, I can meet with you if you’d like.

    My heart jumped into my throat. This was the first I’d heard from Stalker since the night of the attack. Finally, I’d be able to talk to him and figure out what I was going to do from now on.

    “Where do you want to meet? I’m in Goldenrod right now,” I typed back immediately, my fingers flying across the screen. Did he have his R-com on him at the moment? How long would I have to wait for a reply? The next few seconds seemed to drag on for ages. Until finally:

    Johto National Park. West Garden. One hour.

    Johto National Park… that was nearby, wasn’t it? I brought up the GPS app (it loaded lightning fast—a perk of being in Goldenrod?) and checked it out. Just north of the city. Perfect—wouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to get there by flying.

    “Mind sharing what you’re reading over there?” Starr asked dryly.

    I glanced up to see a rather unamused look on her face. Okay, so maybe staring at an R-com while we were trying to move past the time she spent on Team Rocket was a little tasteless.

    “Uh. Just talking with a friend. We’re planning to meet up at the Johto National Park.”

    She raised an eyebrow. “Who?”

    I sucked in a breath. She definitely wasn’t going to like the answer. I could have just lied. But I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted things to be more open between us. But at the same time, why did it have to be this?

    I exhaled slowly and said, “Stalker.”

    Her eyes widened instantly. “You’re meeting the rebel team leader?” she asked in a low tone, leaning forward across the table to stare at me face to face. “Who is he?”

    I narrowed my eyes. “Why do you ask?”

    “Because that asshole was the bane of my existence for months. I’ve got to know.” I gave her an unimpressed stare. She threw her hands up and said, “Come on, it’s not like I can turn him in now.

    “Well, I don’t know who he is anyway,” I said matter-of-factly, leaning back against my seat.

    Starr snorted. “He really didn’t tell you his name? Some leader. He must have really trusted you guys.”

    “He didn’t tell us so we couldn’t have that kind of info forced out of us,” I muttered without thinking.

    Starr froze, looking like she’d just been slapped. She blinked a few times, then turned away sharply and said, “Right. Whatever… just go.”

    I frowned. “Now?”

    “Yes, now,” she said without looking back at me. “I’m covering the bill anyway, so there’s no reason for you to stick around. I’ll be at the same Pokécenter as before.”

    I sat there for several seconds, still processing the turn the conversation had just taken. Finally, I grabbed my backpack, stood up from the booth, and walked out the door. It wasn’t until I got a few steps away from the diner that I really stopped and thought about what I’d said. And… alright, maybe I was too harsh, especially since we were making an effort to heal the bad blood between us. But honestly, I wasn’t gonna deal with that Rocket crap after everything we’d been through. Not anymore.

    I wandered around until I found a park that doubled as a takeoff and landing point for flying Pokémon. From there, Aros and I took to the skies, and within minutes we were soaring over the city, the buildings below us glowing golden in the light of the setting sun. The crisp November air swept over us as we flew north of the city. I was glad that it was November. October had… well, it had sucked. Not to mention my birthday was coming up. Something about the idea of not being fourteen anymore sounded extremely appealing, and I couldn’t wait for that day to come.

    Eventually the buildings of the city gave way to open fields, and I spotted the National Park in the distance. It would’ve been hard to miss the iconic Pokéball shape that its trails formed through the grass. I pointed Aros in the direction of the west garden, and the dragon spiraled down to land. And then I waited for Stalker to arrive. He’d requested that we meet in an hour, but with how quickly I’d left the diner, I’d gotten there far earlier than I needed to. But that was fine. I found an empty picnic table and sat down, watching bug Pokémon flit in and out of the tall grass as the sky slowly darkened and the majority of the park’s visitors left.

    And then I heard the sound of heavy wingbeats. My pulse quickened, and I glanced around hurriedly until I caught sight of a Pokémon flying high above the park—broad-winged, orange, and flame-tailed. And on its back was a trainer.

    “It’s really you,” I said, standing up from the bench as Charizard landed in front of me and Stalker dismounted her. Part of me was having a hard time believing it. Last time I’d seen him, he’d been desperately flying off into the night sky, closely pursued by Moltres.

    He recalled Charizard and turned to face me, taking a few steps forward. “How have you been?”

    I bit my tongue. If that wasn’t the hardest question to answer right now, I didn’t know what was. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. I was still pretty sure that it was all going to hit me in the face at once.

    “This has probably been the hardest week of my life,” I admitted.

    Stalker nodded. “I’m not surprised. I only wish it hadn’t been necessary for me to leave.”

    My mouth went dry. Did he have any idea how hard it was for us to make it through the aftermath of the attack without him? For four months, we’d looked up to him and relied on him for everything, and then he was suddenly gone with only a text message telling us that he was even alive.

    “Why didn’t you come back?”

    He gave me a pointed look. The hurt in my voice clearly hadn’t escaped him. “I’m a huge target. That night proved as much—approaching the rebels in that situation would have been a death sentence. For them as well as me.”

    I’d known that all along. Part of me had just hoped that there was more to it than that.

    “You’re one of only a few rebels to contact me, you know that?” he said.

    Probably because I didn’t have a choice. My identity had been compromised. It wasn’t safe to return home. Not to mention everything that happened with Starr in the Viridian base. Even the boss himself knew my name now.

    “Yeah. I believe it,” I said flatly. “I can’t go back to my old life, so I might as well make the best of this one.” I couldn’t help but get the feeling that his eyes were carefully analyzing my every reaction—almost like being x-rayed. It was a little unnerving, so I decided to turn the conversation back to him. “What about you? What have you been doing? You know, now that the Rebellion’s over.”

    “Lots of catching up on things,” he replied. “I’ve been busy ever since I got here. But it’s nice to finally be back in my home region.”

    “You’re from Johto?” I asked. For some reason, it had never occurred to me to ask where he was originally from. He didn’t have much of a Johto accent either, so I never would have guessed.

    Stalker nodded. “It was convenient that you came to Goldenrod. It’s not far from where I live.”

    I shuffled a foot against the dirt. “Huh. I had no idea. I was only there because a friend suggested it,” I said. But then I was suddenly struck by how strange that was. “So, hang on… why didn’t you run the Rebellion from Johto? Have us infiltrate the Johto force instead?”

    “That’s actually what I hoped to talk to you about,” he said, the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. “You see, I needed to weaken the Kanto force.”

    I tilted my head. “Wait, really? But… both halves of Team Rocket are working together toward the same goal, right? What’s the difference?”

    “The Kanto force is the real threat in this situation,” he said matter-of-factly. “They invented the Legendary control technology. They created Mewtwo.”

    Mewtwo. I hadn’t told him yet!

    “Mewtwo’s been freed,” I immediately replied, feeling my heart swell a bit with pride. Sure, Ajia had been behind most of it, but still.

    Stalker’s eyes lit up. “I heard. And I can’t thank you enough.”

    “Wait, what?” I asked, taken aback. “You heard?”

    “The news spread like wildfire. Mewtwo caused a great deal of damage to the Viridian base before it was forced to flee,” he explained. “I don’t know if you’ve realized this, but freeing Mewtwo was probably the most important thing that’s happened in the entire fight against Team Rocket. More important that all the other missions combined.”

    I paused. There was definitely something strange about the way he’d said that. Almost like he’d been planning the Mewtwo mission all along.

    “Did… did you create the Rebellion specifically to free Mewtwo?” I asked.

    Stalker blinked, gazing at me curiously, as though the thought had never really occurred to him. “It’s hard to say. I didn’t know much about number thirty-six back then. But I can’t help feeling like it was always our most important task.”

    I don’t think I could have given him a more weirded-out expression. But before I could say anything, his eyes slid past me, and he chuckled. “Well, this is unexpected. I think we’re being watched.”

    I jolted. What? Someone was watching us? And he wasn’t concerned by that? I whirled around to look in the direction he was facing. And then my jaw fell open when I saw who it was.

    “Starr?! What are you doing here?!” I blinked a few times, half-expecting my mind to be playing tricks on me. But no, it was really her standing there, half-hidden in the bushes, watching us. Her arrival was so completely random that I was having a hard time processing it. How had she even gotten here? I had flown but it would’ve taken way longer to get here any other way.

    For several seconds, she didn’t say anything. She just stood there, staring at me like she was having just as hard a time figuring out why I was here. Finally, in a low tone of voice, she said, “Jade, what are you doing with him?”

    I scowled, taking several steps toward her. “Come on, don’t change the subject. Were you seriously that desperate to find out who Stalker is?”

    He’s Stalker?!” she exclaimed, staring at me incredulously. She threw a glare at Stalker, and he nodded softly. And then she broke into a fit of manic giggles.

    “He’s Stalker. He’s Stalker. Oh man, I knew it had to be one of the creeps from the Johto Resistance, but him?!” What the hell was she talking about? Did she know him?

    Starr forced herself to regain control of her breathing, wiping her eyes as she shook her head in disbelief. “Jade, do you have any idea who the hell you’re standing next to? That’s Sebastian Shepard, the fucking commander of the Johto combat unit.”






    ~End Chapter 26~
     
    Chapter 27: The Revolt
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Hope you're ready for a big ol' pile of reveals~



    ~Chapter 27: The Revolt~


    I stared at the two of them, a feeling of unease growing inside me. Stalker appeared relatively unfazed by Starr’s revelation and was simply watching us with a calm, expectant look, like we’d go right back to our conversation as soon as this minor interruption was taken care of.

    “What’s she talking about…?” I asked hesitantly.

    He put a hand to his chest. “She’s not wrong. That is what I’m known as, and I am the Johto commander.”

    Stalker was the Johto commander. Not the former Kanto commander like everyone had thought. That’s how he had access to so much of the team’s inner workings. That’s how he’d been able to bypass security checks for the rebels, give out admin rights left and right, and draw suspicion away from us by modifying things behind the scenes.

    I took a wary step back from him. “What? How? You were… helping us defeat Team Rocket.”

    “In a manner of speaking, yes,” he said simply.

    “But… why? If you’ve been a commander all this time?”

    “Because the Kanto force can’t be allowed to capture the Legendaries.”

    I paused, giving him a skeptical glare. “You say that like the Johto force is different. Like they’re not also catching Legendaries. Well guess what, they caught Entei, and that’s what started this whole mess. How do you explain that?”

    Stalker appeared completely unconcerned with that accusation. “Every Legendary that my force catches is one that the Kanto force cannot.”

    A wave of anger suddenly flared up inside me. “So, what, you were only having us prevent the Kanto force from catching the Legendaries so that you could get them all yourself?”

    He chuckled under his breath. “Of course not. We’re only catching certain ones.”

    Certain ones?” I said incredulously. “Why would it matter which ones you catch? What difference does it make?”

    “It makes all the difference in the world,” Stalker replied immediately. His expression had turned darkly serious.

    “Well, it’s good to see that you’re just as full of shit as you’ve always been,” Starr cut in all of a sudden, stepping out of the bushes and folding her arms behind her head. “I don’t know what the Legendaries have to do with anything, but I do know that spouting hypocritical garbage to trick people into following your cause sounds exactly like you.”

    Stalker closed his eyes. “Astrid, I don’t think any of this concerns you.”

    “Like hell it doesn’t,” she spat. “Jade’s my friend, and if you think I’m gonna let you pull one over on her, you’ve got another thing coming.”

    He paused, both eyebrows raised, looking impressed. “Ever the loyal one, I see.”

    Starr glared at him. “Maybe I am. Not that you’d know anything about loyalty with all your lying and double-crossing. By the way, don’t think I didn’t notice the way you up and left your little rebel team the moment things got too risky for you.”

    “You’d do well not to talk about things you know nothing about,” Stalker shot back coldly. “The Rebellion accomplished what it needed to. My decision to end it was as much a tactical one as it was for their protection.”

    “What, don’t tell me you actually cared about your pawns this time?” Starr said with a laugh. “You never did before. Where were you when we caught your followers after the revolt, huh? You didn’t exactly step in to stop their executions. No, that would’ve required actually owning up to something for a change.”

    “A better question perhaps is where were you? Carrying out said executions, I presume?”

    Starr clenched her teeth. “Yeah. I’m a screw-up. I know that. Least I don’t try to pretend I’m not.”

    “I was under the impression that’s what you’re doing right now.”

    “Oh, screw you,” she spat. “You don’t get to act all self-righteous after what you did. Especially since the rebel team was you pulling the exact same shit you did last year, only with kids this time.”

    “And what of the fact that your unit was responsible for those kids’ deaths?” Stalker asked calmly.

    Starr’s face went red. “You want me to beat your ass right here and now?!”

    Stalker closed his eyes. “I highly recommend that you don’t try that.”

    Starr’s hand flew to her Pokéball belt, and that was enough.

    “Okay, stop!” I yelled, holding out both arms and staring down the both of them. “I am sick and tired of hearing about all this stupid Rocket drama through vague rumors and sideways accusations, and I want answers. You two are finally going to tell me what this freaking revolt was about, and what the hell it has to do with anything, now. In detail. I’m sick of always being in the dark about everything.” I was seething, fists clenched, breathing hard. No more. I was not just going to accept any of this crap anymore.

    Stalker raised both eyebrows, looking impressed. “Fair enough. I’d say it’s time you knew the truth as well,” he said, grinning slyly. Starr rolled her eyes, but then swept her hand in a “go ahead” gesture. He paused for a moment, and then began.

    “It all started spring of last year. I’d just turned seventeen, was promoted to executive, and finally in a position to start making changes in the team. You see… I’ve had plans for the Johto force for a very long time. Right after I reached officer rank and learned about the Legendary Project, in fact. So I’d been making it my goal to forge as many connections as I possibly could—I wanted to know everything that happened on the team.”

    He closed his eyes, carefully considering his next words. “So imagine my surprise when I heard that a teenage girl was causing discreet mischief amongst the lower ranks.”

    I took a step backward. No way. He couldn’t be talking about Ajia, could he?

    “It was nothing too serious—ambushing grunts, stealing assets, that sort of thing. At least, that’s all it was at first. She has a real knack for reading people. She found anyone on the team who felt scared or trapped—namely younger Rockets who had nowhere else to go—and started convincing them to turn traitor. Of course, most of them had already come to me with the same concerns at one point or another—it wasn’t hard for me to hear about what she was doing.

    “One day I finally confronted her. She wasn’t afraid—she could immediately tell that I was no ordinary Rocket, and that I had my own agenda. I decided I could use her, so I told her the identity of several high-ranking Kanto agents who were conflicted about the things they’d done.”

    He paused again, carefully taking in my reactions to what he’d said. It felt like his eyes were boring straight through me.

    “You might be wondering how the former Kanto commander factors into all this. I trained under him for a year when I was stationed in Kanto, shortly after being promoted to officer. He wasn’t the commander yet, but he was the most powerful trainer I’ve ever known. Unfortunately… when he did get promoted to commander, he was forced into running the Legendary Project. I’ve never seen a Rocket break so quickly. He hated the idea.

    “I talked to the commander and proposed the idea that we use our position to capture the Legendaries ourselves, so they would be safe from Rockets who would abuse their power. He utterly refused. I think he was already planning to quit Team Rocket, but just needed the final push.”

    Stalker paused again, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. “I’m sure you can see where this is going. I told Ajia to go meet the Kanto commander.”

    Starr let out an exaggerated sound of disgust. “Okay, I like how he’s conveniently leaving out all the bullshit. First of all, Ajia was pulling a lot more crap than just spreading treasonous ideas and screwing up grunt jobs. Oh sure, it started as that, but then even the combat unit started reporting subtle things going wrong here and there. Second, he’s the one who gave her the ability to do half that stuff. I started looking into it ‘cause it always looks impressive if you catch a traitor. I was officer-rank and a candidate for becoming executive so I was under a lot of pressure, okay?” That last part was forcefully directed at me.

    I raised an eyebrow. “I… wasn’t going to say anything.”

    “You were giving me that look,” she said with a huff. “I was a loyal Rocket, and I did what had to be done. Until I found out that Ajia was the traitor. I tried the same thing I did with you—making sure they never caught her while trying to keep suspicion off myself. Of course, she eventually figured out that I was the one shadowing her. I tried to get her to leave Team Rocket alone, but she wouldn’t listen to me. We argued a lot, she tried to convince me to quit, I was pissed that she’d even dare to try that. Well… you know how that ended up.”

    Stalker chuckled. “So you wouldn’t have even had anything to lose from the revolt if you hadn’t pursued her.”

    “Don’t think I don’t know that,” she said, glaring fiercely. “I’ve lost a lot of things from trying to protect my friends. But you wouldn’t know anything about that.”

    Stalker ignored her. “So Ajia met up with the commander, he found others like him who didn’t want to catch Legendaries, and he started training everyone who was part of their growing rebel band.”

    “Oh, and by the way,” Starr cut in, “the only reason Sebastian told Ajia to go to Kanto was to get her out of the way while he built more of an influence in Johto. That and the fact that he wanted to get rid of the Kanto commander to weaken the Kanto force.”

    “No arguments here.”

    I stared at them. This wasn’t getting anywhere. “Okay, I still don’t get what specifically happened between you two, and I kind of think it needs to get mentioned.”

    Starr snorted. “Well for starters, he’s a traitor and he didn’t get caught. And second, I found out that he was getting everyone else to do his dirty work, setting the Kanto force up for failure without actually doing anything himself, so he’d never get connected to any of it. I threatened to turn him in, but… he was one step ahead of me,” she said through gritted teeth. “He knew I’d done far more traitorous things trying to keep Ajia from being caught, and he made it very obvious that I’d be screwing myself over if I did anything against him.”

    Stalker held up his arms defensively. “Just covering my tracks. So long as neither of us reported the other to the admins, we’d be alright. And we were.”

    “Easy for you to say,” Starr growled, still giving him the death glare.

    I glanced between the two, feeling more awkward by the second. “Alright, enough of that. What happened next?”

    Stalker folded his arms. “Well, as the number of rebels grew, so did the tensions on the Kanto force. Rumors of treachery started flying around and a lot of members were taken in for questioning. Quite a few important rebels found themselves on the chopping block,” he said with a wry grin. “But then one day Ajia got a little too cocky with her sabotaging and was captured. I suspect it might have been intentional, but I never did find out for sure.”

    I raised an eyebrow. “Why on earth would it have been intentional?”

    “Because that was the tipping point that got the commander to turn traitor,” Stalker said darkly. “He gathered all the rebels, declared their betrayal, and broke her out of captivity, causing massive damage to the base before they all escaped together with her.” He paused to let the moment sink in. “That was the revolt.”

    The infamous day that no one on the Kanto force wanted to talk about. They’d lost their commander, a chunk of their forces, and had failed to hold onto their most wanted criminal.

    Starr clenched her teeth and closed her eyes, like the memory was painful. “It… took us a long time to recover. Losing dozens of agents, just like that. It was impossible to track down all of them. We had our hands tied just trying to get things back on track. And my loyalty was… called into question. I’d previously been under orders to hunt down and eliminate Ajia. I got closer than I’d like to admit, but… obviously I didn’t succeed. The boss always suspected that I had some connection to her, but he never had any definite proof—that’s the only reason my punishment wasn’t as severe as it could have been,” she said, wincing.

    “I did become executive the following spring, but the boss always kept me under a close watch after that. And of course, Sebastian and his Johto pawns got off scot-free,” she added, shooting a nasty glare at him. “So, in case you don’t get it, Jade, this is what he does. Draw people in, get them to do his dirty work, and let them take the heat when things go south.” She paused, then added, “Just like what happened to the rebel team.”

    I stared at her, unwilling to believe it. But at the same time, there was a part of me, deep down, that knew it wasn’t a lie. Which meant that the Rebellion had only ever been an extension of the revolt—a way to weaken the Kanto force to put him in a better position to take control of the team. He wasn’t trying to put an end to Team Rocket. He wasn’t even trying to prevent the Legendaries from being captured.

    I swallowed hard as a sudden feeling of numbness overtook me. “So then… all along… we really were just pawns in something that’s been going on much longer?”

    Stalker stared at me with a frustratingly blank expression that was impossible to read. I at least wanted him to get defensive, or gloat, or something.

    “Go on. Tell her that you were just using them. Just like you used me.” Wait, what? Why was I hearing that voice?

    Everyone spun around suddenly. Sure enough, there at the edge of the trees stood Ajia with her Pichu perched on her shoulder. Relief welled up inside me. And then it immediately transformed into confusion.

    “Ajia? How…?” I barely managed.

    “Well, this is a new one, Astrid,” Stalker cut in. “When you figured out that Jade was a few steps away from joining my side of the resistance, you had to make sure you’d have backup before coming here. What, afraid to face me alone?”

    Starr’s smirk immediately changed into a scowl. Ajia walked forward to stand alongside us, her expression strangely cold. Everything about her looked tense. On-guard. Like she was expecting a fight to break out any second and had to be ready for it.

    “It’s been a while, Ajia.”

    “Sebastian,” she said, nodding. “I should have realized you were the rebel team leader. Nice touch having them call you Stalker, by the way.”

    “Judging by the fact that Jade knew nothing at all about the revolt, I’m guessing you kept all of your encounters with Team Rocket a secret from her,” Stalker said.

    Ajia sighed. “That’s true. But did you seriously tell your newest set of pawns that you were trying to stop Team Rocket?”

    “I never said anything of the sort. I said I wanted to stop the Legendary Project.”

    Ajia turned to me. “Do you believe him, Jade?”

    I bristled. It definitely made sense for Starr to hate him after what she’d gone through on Team Rocket, but it still seemed like Stalker and Ajia held a common goal, even if they were going about things completely different.

    Everyone was still looking at me, waiting for my answer. Unsure of what else to do, I nodded.

    Starr chuckled. “Yeah, he’s really done a number on her.” I shot her a glare—she really didn’t have to talk about me like I wasn’t there. If they wanted to talk about how this affected me, the least they could do was get my opinion on it.

    Ajia gave Stalker a sideways glance. “Yeah, well, he can be pretty convincing. After the revolt, I met up with him again, ready to work together from then on. That’s when he told me that he had no intention of giving up his position on Team Rocket, and that everything we’d done would make it easier for him to take control of the team. And of course, he became the Johto commander not long afterward.”

    Stalker didn’t say anything. He just continued to regard her with the same neutral expression.

    “I’ve gotten over the fact that I was just a pawn,” Ajia went on, staring downward with a pained face. “I was naïve, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I just don’t want to see anyone else used for his goals like I was.”

    Stalker exhaled slowly through his nose. “If that’s the way you want to see it, then fine. But don’t try to pretend that you know how things were between me and the rebels. I’ve hid things from Jade, but so have you, and I don’t think that—”

    Ajia cut him off. “Jade, did Sebastian even tell you what the Johto resistance is actually working towards?”

    “I was ready and willing to tell her before you two showed up,” Stalker snapped, looking cross for the first time in the conversation. But then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and his calm, collected air was back. “Our goal is to prevent Giovanni and the Kanto Rockets from abusing the power of the Legendaries by capturing them ourselves.”

    Ajia snorted. “And somehow it’s alright if you’re the one doing it.”

    Stalker raised an eyebrow. “You know, Ajia, you’re not exactly one to talk about not using Legendaries.”

    I stared. What on earth was he talking about? I shot a glance at Ajia, but she looked just as confused as I felt.

    Stalker put a hand to his forehead. “Right, I don’t suppose you told them that, either. Jade, Astrid… do either of you know exactly how you three escaped from the Viridian base?”

    “Are you saying that you do know?” Starr asked, fixing him with an incredulous glare. “You weren’t exactly there.”

    It would have been easy for anyone else to miss it, but I’d known him long enough to catch the tiny glint in his eye. Like he’d been waiting for someone to ask him that, and was already relishing the chance to explain.

    “I admit that it took me a long time to figure it out. I watched the security footage and reviewed the reports all night. You two somehow managed to disappear within a crowd that was actively looking for you, then make it all the way to the transport wing without any Rockets or cameras spotting you. And you did it all with an Umbreon at your side for seemingly no reason.”

    That’s right—Umbreon had been with us the entire time. And he hadn’t done anything until the fight with Mewtwo. Of course that was strange, but when I asked Ajia why, she’d just said he was there for luck. Of course there was more to it than that.

    Stalker fixed his gaze on Ajia, lips curled into a smirk. “You were very thorough, I’ll give you that. But there was the slightest weirdness about the flash of light when you sent out your Espeon. And why did your Umbreon look like it was concentrating at that exact moment? A moment which took place immediately after the anti-teleport field went down. That wasn’t your Espeon at all, was it? It was something teleporting to you from outside the base. But I don’t think I would have suspected that of being an illusion if not for the fact that no one saw what happened to Mewtwo’s Master Ball. Your entire mission was hidden within an illusion, wasn’t it? And that would explain your Umbreon—or should I say… your Zoroark?”

    Zoroark? What? I’d never heard of that Pokémon. And how could it disguise itself as an Umbreon and somehow hide a bunch of other stuff going on around it? I glanced at Ajia, hoping for answers, but she was staring at the ground, brows furrowed in concentration.

    Stalker went on, “But what could have been so important to hide? Something strong enough to land a hit on Mewtwo and drop its defenses long enough to break the Master Ball. Something that not only had the ability to teleport, but also to disguise itself—because everyone saw it as an Espeon, even when it was nowhere near Zoroark. And you would never put such a high-stakes plan into motion without some kind of trump card.

    “There aren’t many options. I know who the seven are. The only one that fits is Mew. You’re Mew’s chosen.”

    What. Ajia was Mew’s… chosen? What? He didn’t honestly believe that Mew had shown up to help us free Mewtwo… did he? Why would the Legendary Mew get involved in our personal drama?

    Starr burst out laughing, completely unimpressed. “Are you insane? You don’t seriously think Ajia’s got a friggin’ Legendary, do you?”

    I shot another glance at Ajia, desperate for some indicator of what the hell Stalker was talking about, but… she was just staring at him, impressed. She wasn’t denying it. And from the slow grin spreading across Stalker’s face, he knew he was right.

    Starr glanced between the two of them, her amused smirk slowly fading into a suspicious glare. “Hang on. He… is just making shit up… right, Ajia?”

    He had mentioned “the seven.” The seven Legendaries who would form an alliance with humanity? Mew was one. And it had chosen Ajia? Chosen her for what? I clenched my teeth, desperately forcing every ounce of thought into piecing together the scraps of information.

    Stalker knew about the legends. And the Johto force owned Legendaries, but only certain ones. Did that mean there were certain Legendaries he didn’t want to catch?

    “You’re only trying to protect the seven special ones from the legend, aren’t you?” I said slowly, my eyes widening as the realization hit me. “The seven that will pick a chosen?”

    “What the hell is up with this ‘chosen’ thing that you and Sebastian keep going on about?!” Starr demanded all of a sudden. She then turned toward Ajia and added, “Don’t tell me he’s actually right about this. Was that seriously Mew that broke Mewtwo’s Master Ball? Why didn’t you tell us?!”

    And with that, Ajia’s silence finally broke. “I already told you guys that I couldn’t tell you, remember?” she said desperately. “The chosen aren’t supposed reveal their position to anyone; it’s too dangerous at this point.”

    “That still doesn’t explain what it is,” Starr said flatly, fixing her with an unimpressed stare.

    I turned toward her expectantly, waiting for an answer. Ajia hesitated, her eyes flickering between me and Starr. Both of us staring her down, no longer willing to accept a lack of answers.

    “It means I was picked to fight alongside Mew and protect her as the conflict gets worse,” Ajia said slowly. “And… if necessary, she can lend me her power.”

    That legend… it was more than just a myth? If the Legendaries were actually making deals with humans, then it had to be real. But why were they doing it? What possible reason could there be for Legendaries to get help from humans?

    “I thought you were against humans using the power of the legends, but I suppose not,” Stalker said, folding his arms with a smug grin.

    Ajia scoffed. “It’s not the same.”

    “Explain to me, then. Why isn’t it the same?”

    Ajia raised both eyebrows incredulously. “Mew chose me and I accepted. Your force’s Legendaries didn’t have a choice.”

    “Neither did any of the Pokémon you’ve captured, but they accept that and fight for you just the same,” he said, gesturing to her with one palm up.

    Ajia threw her arms in the air. “Oh, come on! I’m not having this conversation with you again. No one who fights for you ever really has a choice in it. You just make it look like there is.”

    “If you’re going to keep saying things like that, then you’d better be willing to back it up with force,” Stalker muttered, his eyes cold. He had grabbed a Pokéball from his belt, gripping it so tightly his knuckles turned white.

    Ajia smirked. “I’ve beaten you before. If it’ll make you leave Jade alone, I’ll do it again.”

    Wait, what? Hang on… didn’t I get a choice in any of this?

    “You honestly think you can beat me now that I’ve got a Legendary?”

    “You just told everyone I’m partnered with Mew, so yes.”

    “And how are we different, exactly?” Stalker asked, throwing his arms to the side.

    “Stop it!” I yelled, stepping in between them. If I wasn’t careful, we all risked a Legendary fight breaking out right here and now, and that was definitely something I wanted to avoid.

    “I get that this conflict between all of you goes way back. But this is about me, and what I’m planning to do from now on,” I said shooting a glare at each one of them in turn. “If you’re gonna talk about what I should do, you should at least talk to me about it.”

    Ajia paused, looking taken aback. She threw a confused glance at me, like she honestly hadn’t realized she’d been talking about me like I wasn’t there.

    Stalker nodded slowly. “That’s a fair request. You should know that my side is the one that’s going to make a difference in this fight. What can the outer resistance do without access to the inner workings of the team? I accomplished more with twelve-year-olds in four months than the resistance has in the past year.” He turned to Ajia. “You don’t even have the commander on your side anymore, do you?”

    Ajia bristled, and for the first time in the conversation, she didn’t have a comeback ready for him. She just glanced away, avoiding his gaze.

    “Why does there have to be a ‘side’?” I asked quietly.

    “An excellent question,” Stalker said, throwing a significant look towards Ajia.

    She screwed her eyes shut. “I tried that. He was the one who used me. He’s the one who thinks imprisoning the Legendaries counts as saving them.”

    And then, just as Stalker was about to respond, the muffled sound of something buzzing caught everyone’s attention. It was coming from Stalker’s direction. He sighed, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his R-com. He took a look at the caller, raised an eyebrow, then answered it.

    “I said no calls.” Several seconds passed, and then, “How urgent?” His eyes flickered back and forth as he listened to what the caller was saying, then at once, he raised both eyebrows in surprise.

    “…that is urgent,” he said slowly.

    And then out of nowhere, Ajia stiffened, mouth hanging open like she’d just made a horrible realization. She blinked a few times, eyes darting around until they fell on Stalker.

    “This is bad,” she announced.

    “I expect you just got the same message I did,” Stalker replied, pocketing his R-com. What? She hadn’t gotten any messages at all. How did he—

    “What’s going on?!” Starr demanded.

    “Legendaries are attacking the Viridian Rocket HQ,” Ajia said.

    A moment of heavy silence followed as Starr and I gaped at each other incredulously. Legendaries were attacking the Viridian base? What? Where the hell had that come from?

    “What?” we both said in unison.

    Ajia was now pacing back and forth, rubbing her temples. “This is bad, this is really bad,” she said repeatedly.

    “Why? So let the stupid Legendaries clobber the Kanto force. I really couldn’t care less anymore,” Starr grumbled.

    “It’s not that. The battle’s happening over the city. Just think of how many innocent people are gonna get caught up in that.”

    Starr clenched her teeth. “So…?” she asked in her best attempt at nonchalance, despite the obvious concern crossing her face.

    “Don’t forget—the Kanto Force isn’t exactly a pushover, even without Mewtwo,” Stalker interjected. “They might be scrambling now, but they will organize. We don’t want them adding to their selection of captured Legendaries, do we?”

    That crushing sensation I’d felt after Articuno and Moltres had been captured… I didn’t think I could handle that for a second time. Not if there was something I could do about it.

    “I’d go, but after the Entei fiasco, I don’t think I’d be welcome there,” Stalker continued. “And if I caught one of them while disguised, my forces could never use it.” The slightest trace of a grin crossed his face. “But it doesn’t matter, because you three will make sure none of them get caught, won’t you?”

    “Like hell we will,” Starr spat.

    But Ajia didn’t respond for some time. She was still staring at him, both eyebrows raised incredulously. “Of course. Just like old times. Why take action yourself when you can get everyone else to do your dirty work?” With a half-hearted chuckle, she added, “The funny part is even knowing that, I have to do it.”

    Stalker turned away. “There’s no need to be so dramatic. We both want the same thing here. I’m unable to take action right now. You’re able. It’s as simple as that.” And with that, he started walking away.

    “Wait, you’re leaving just like that?” I asked.

    Stalker paused. “I know better than trying to turn friends against each other. I’m not making the same mistake Giovanni made.” He made eye contact with me. “You would have made a good ally. You had one of the most drastic transformations out of anyone on the Rebellion. But you still lack resolve. What are you really fighting for? I’ll be interested to find out.”

    A Pokéball opened, and a flash of light took the familiar form of an orange dragon. He mounted his Charizard and whispered something in her ear. With a nod, she flapped her huge wings and took off to the north.

    Starr glared at the space where he’d left. “Of all the arrogant, lying, hypocritical, traitorous shitheads, it had to be Sebastian.”

    Even knowing the reason why she despised him so much, her words still stung. That was my leader she was talking about. The leader who’d taught the rebels how to fight people like her—of course she’d hate him. But then… if it was only ever to serve his own agenda… Damn it, what was I supposed to think anymore?

    Ajia sighed. “Never mind him. We can’t afford to let him get our spirits down, right?”

    Easier said than done. My mind was still reeling from everything I’d just learned. Most of all, the revelation that after all our hard work to protect the Legendaries, he’d been catching them himself anyway.

    “I have to know which Legendaries he’s caught,” I said slowly, fighting back the feeling of numbness that was spreading inside me.

    Starr gave me a sideways glance. “The Johto force has both Raikou and Entei. And Sebastian has personal ownership of Latios,” she said, her voice dripping with contempt.

    My heart sank through the floor. Raikou? After all that effort we went through to save Raikou last August, he just went ahead and caught it? Not to mention… Latios?

    Starr turned to face Ajia, arms crossed and looking reluctantly impressed. “So you’ve got a friggin’ Zoroark, huh? No wonder you escaped from Team Rocket as many times as you did. I swore I was going crazy a few of those times you gave me the slip.”

    I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around that fact. “So… you don’t even have an Espeon and an Umbreon? It was Mew and Zoroark?”

    Ajia shook her head. “No, I do have them. You saw them both for real after that plane crash.”

    “But then in the server room… when you let out Espeon, it was actually Mew?”

    “I never let Mew or Espeon out of a ball in that room. Sebastian was right; it was all one of Zoroark’s illusions, to hide the fact that Mew teleported to me. I would never ask Mew to go into a Pokéball, even for the sake of a mission like that. And against Mewtwo, Umbreon was the perfect cover—you might not know this, but Zoroark can’t maintain illusions when they’re hit by attacks.”

    Ajia had ‘Umbreon’ out with her the entire time we were in the Viridian base. That’s why we had such an easy time getting around the base without incident. It wasn’t that she had better luck than me. She’d made her own luck. She’d always made her own luck.

    Ajia was pacing again, muttering to herself. She did this for several seconds while Starr and I watched, then abruptly turned to face us. “I’ve got to help out in Viridian,” she said firmly. “You’ll help too, right Jade?”

    I bristled. The idea was honestly terrifying, but… I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t just let that kind of disaster strike my hometown. Not if there was something I could do about it. Slowly, I nodded.

    “I’ll come too,” Starr said.

    I gaped at her. “Wait, seriously? You got pissed off at Stalker for even suggesting it.”

    This whole situation is pissing me off, so I might as well go with you and beat the crap out of my dumbass subordinates,” she muttered, folding her arms. But then her eyes widened with realization, and she suddenly added, “But if you think for even a second that I give a crap about your rebel cause, you’re dead wrong, you hear me?”

    “Alright, alright,” Ajia said, holding both palms out defensively. “Anyway, you’ll both want to brace yourselves. We’re gonna teleport to Viridian now.”

    It took several seconds for the weirdness of that statement to sink in. But when it did: “How? You don’t have Espeon out.”

    Ajia made eye contact with me, grinning sheepishly. “Espeon doesn’t know how to teleport.”

    And then, while I was still processing what that meant, a small, pale-rose cat appeared before us in a flash of shimmering light. I blinked stupidly at the sight, barely able to get out the word, “Mew?” before its psychic aura took hold of us, and we all vanished.






    ~End Chapter 27~
     
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    Chapter 28: Legendary Revenge
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~CHAPTER 28: LEGENDARY REVENGE~


    We’d been warned. I already had some idea of what awaited us when we appeared on the edge of Viridian, looking down on the city from atop the hills to the east. But that didn’t compare to seeing it in real life. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my hometown crumbling under a hail of wind and fire and explosive power.

    A giant pair of silver wings beat against the night sky, lit by the full moon above and the city lights below. Their owner—a sleek, long-necked dragon-bird—fired a blindingly orange beam from its beak, lancing through several blocks of northeast Viridian. Cries of fury echoed through the air like a haunting melody, sending chills down my spine. And the bird wasn’t alone—the unmistakable silhouette of a humanoid feline circled the skies alongside it, firing concussive pulses of psychic energy nonstop, flattening entire city blocks at once. Below them, vicious winds tore through the streets, flipping cars and shattering glass storefronts. Suicune, if the flashes of blue and the unearthly howls in the air were anything to go off. And then, just when I thought I’d seen all of them, a burst of flames illuminated the night sky. A brilliant golden phoenix soared into view, its wings shimmering with the colors of the rainbow.

    Seeing Mewtwo here was one thing. Hell, even Suicune wasn’t too surprising—not after the fury it had displayed toward the Rockets last time. But the other two—the pair of gold and silver birds. Ho-oh and Lugia. The guardians of the skies and the seas. And here they were raining destruction upon my hometown. The only consolation was that the damage was limited to the northeast side—far from my old home—but for how long? The Viridian Gym had already been reduced to a smoldering crater. No doubt about it—the Legendaries knew the Rocket HQ was under there. And they didn’t care how much of the city they’d have to destroy to get at it. How many people had already been killed? How many more would die before the night was over?

    I turned away, swallowing a lump in my throat. It was too much. I’d seen the power of the legends firsthand. But this was different. Before I could at least pretend it was alright because the Rockets had brought it on themselves. Not anymore.

    Mew hovered a few feet in front of us, gazing at the enraged Legendaries in the distance. <Of all the stupid, risky actions… I don’t blame Mewtwo, but Lugia should know better. At this rate they’ll be captured, and for what? Senseless destruction.> She shook her head sadly.

    “Why is this happening?” I asked weakly. “Why now? What triggered this?”

    Mew sighed. <Not all the Legendaries agree on how to handle the human threat. Mewtwo’s escape hurt the Rockets. Some of our number wish to use that opportunity to land the finishing blow. But it’s not that simple.>

    “We can’t just murder a bunch of random Rockets and expect that to fix things,” Ajia cut in, speaking to no one in particular. “I don’t care what they’ve done—it’s not worth it. It wouldn’t even put an end to Team Rocket.”

    <And what of the innocent humans and Pokémon that will die in the crossfire? Ho-oh and I have been doing all that we can to stop them, but it’s not enough.>

    I blinked. Ho-oh was on our side? I had just assumed, when I saw it there… My eyes snapped back to the ongoing battle, where the blazing phoenix spiraled low over the city, tailing Lugia relentlessly and diving in front of it every time the silver bird attempted to charge an attack. Lugia drew itself back, visibly annoyed, then beat its wings rapidly, stirring up a fierce whirlwind and knocking the sky guardian out of its way. The silver bird then began gathering energy for another beam attack until a fireball stuck it in the belly, sending it reeling backward. It snapped its head in the opposite direction to see Ho-oh soaring upward to meet it once again, flames licking the edges of its crooked beak.

    Mewtwo paused, glancing back at the gold and silver birds locked in combat with each other. It was only a momentary pause, though—within seconds, he’d gone back to ripping up chunks of concrete and asphalt with his mind, effortlessly tossing them aside. And then, from the trees, a jagged blue beam and a jet of flames shot right at the clone, forcing him to loop out of the way. A dazzling phoenix shot into the air, its wings scattering embers as it zeroed in on Mewtwo. Seconds later, Articuno’s cry filled the air, and the cobalt falcon flew upward to join Moltres.

    Weirdly enough, I was glad to see them. Even though it was another reminder that we’d failed to save them. Even though that might have been the only reason they were fighting Mewtwo, which meant that in some small, twisted way, I was actually glad that the Rockets had control of them right now. It was completely messed up, and sure as hell wasn’t a reason to want the Legendaries to get captured, but right now, in this moment, it was fortunate. If Mewtwo was busy with Articuno and Moltres, that would give people time to evacuate, right?

    “Holy shit, you guys. You really think this was worth letting Mewtwo go free?” Starr asked, fixing me and Ajia with an incredulous glare. “Cause I know for a fact the Rockets weren’t planning on using its power like this.”

    “Starr, the only reason we made it out of Viridian base alive was because we freed Mewtwo,” Ajia calmly replied.

    “Bullshit, you had Mew,” she shot back. “You didn’t need to let Mewtwo go free. But you two had been planning it all along, right?”

    I swallowed hard and glanced away. Of course we’d been planning to free Mewtwo all along. And until now, I’d never remotely questioned if it was the right thing to do. It just went without saying that he deserved to be free. Which meant that in a way, the destruction of Viridian was our fault. Except… the Rockets had started it by targeting the Legendaries in the first place—that had to count for something, right? But the Legendaries weren’t even attempting to prevent any collateral damage, and to any unknowing observer it looked like the Rockets’ legends were protecting the city, and damn it all, why did this have to be so backwards?

    “Don’t tell me you’re okay with the way Team Rocket brainwashed Mewtwo and used him to catch the others,” I mumbled, trying and not quite succeeding at driving away my own uncertainty. Freeing him was the right thing. It had to be. Nothing made sense if it wasn’t.

    Starr squinted at me. “I haven’t figured out how I feel about that, alright?” she snapped. “My issues with Team Rocket are all personal—the Legendaries have nothing to do with any of it. But this?”—she gestured to the ongoing chaos—“This is not okay.”

    <No. It’s not,> Mew agreed. <But neither Mewtwo nor Lugia intends to back down today. No matter the cost. They intend to end the threat. We must stop them.>

    My stomach dropped through the floor. Would we be… actually fighting Legendaries?

    Seeing the look on my face, Ajia quickly added, “Mew and I will try to stop them. You and Starr should stick to the ground and find out how the Rockets are reacting to all of this.”

    “You guys do know we had a plan for something like this, right?” Starr cut in.

    All eyes turned to her. She paused, then hastily added, “Er, the Rockets, I mean.”

    <Any information you can provide will be invaluable,> Mew said, fixing her large eyes on Starr imploringly.

    Starr blinked, obviously still having a hard time grasping the fact that a Legendary was right in front of us, asking us for help. I could hardly believe it myself.

    “Riiight, so…” Starr began, glancing back and forth at all of us. “It’s pretty obvious Articuno and Moltres are both sticking to defensive tactics. But their handlers will be nearby in case either gets knocked out. The boss, the admins, and all the other important members will have already been evacuated through one of the secondary entrances. Grunts will probably be moved away from the commons and to the storage and acquisition divisions—they have service elevators connecting to a few warehouses across town. That just leaves the combat unit. Bet you anything they’ve moved the ALRs above ground through the transport ramp, and they’re not going anywhere. So if you don’t want them catching more Legendaries, that’s what you’re gonna have to deal with.”

    “Destroying ALRs sounds a lot better than fighting Legendaries,” I admitted.

    Ajia tapped a fist against her open palm. “That’s perfect—if the combat unit’s defenses go down, they’ll have no choice but to retreat. That way, no one will be captured. And with the Rockets gone, the Legendaries won’t have any reason to attack Viridian.”

    It was an optimistic plan. Too optimistic. But at the moment, that’s what we needed.

    Mew’s eyes turned steely. <I will take us closer to the battle. Prepare yourselves.>

    Within seconds, the surrounding trees and hills melted away into the tall grasses on the outskirts of Viridian. From here, we no longer had a clear view of the city’s destruction, but the sounds—the explosions tearing through the streets, the blare of the emergency sirens, the engines revving from cars no doubt trying to escape—the sounds made it impossible to forget why we were here.

    Ajia wasted no time in letting out her Aerodactyl and mounting the flying-type. Mew glowed for a few seconds, then suddenly ballooned outward in size. Arms, legs, and tail thickened; ears receded; wings and antennae sprouted, until finally the light faded to reveal golden-orange scales where there had once been pale rose fur. The newly-transformed Dragonite gave her wings a few test flaps before turning to face Starr and me.

    <I wish you the best,> she said. <Both of you.>

    Starr raised an eyebrow at that last bit, but Mew had already launched herself into the air, closely followed by Ajia on her Aerodactyl.

    “Let’s get this over with,” Starr muttered, releasing her Arcanine and climbing onto its back. An instinctive shudder ran through me upon seeing her like that—seated atop the firedog, wearing that stern expression. In that moment, it was really, really hard not to see her as Astrid, no matter how badly I wanted to burn that image out of my brain forever.

    I forced my eyes shut, taking a deep breath to steel myself. Then I grabbed Aros’s Pokéball and released him. The Flygon appeared in front of me, glanced around at his surroundings, then promptly tensed up when he laid eyes on Starr and her Arcanine, flaring his wings outward and hissing.

    Damn it, I should have realized he’d have just as much reason to instinctively see her as a threat. I carefully laid a hand on his shoulder, rearranged my face into one that was as calm and reassuring as possible, and said, “Aros, listen to me—Rockets and Legendaries are fighting over Viridian City. Starr’s going to help us stop them, but I need you to—”

    “*No. No, I don’t like this,*” the dragon growled.

    “I don’t like this either,” I replied, ignoring that our use of ‘this’ was referring to two entirely different things. “But we have to hurry. The longer we wait, the more damage gets done.”

    Aros wouldn’t look at me. His red-lensed eyes were fixed squarely on Arcanine, fangs bared in what probably looked like an intimidating snarl to anyone who couldn’t see right through it.

    And then, in the same authoritative tone she’d always used as a Rocket, Starr snapped, “People are dying, Twenty-four. Listen to your trainer and let’s get a move on.”

    Aros drew himself back like he’d just been slapped. The former head of the combat unit had just ordered him to listen to me. He glanced back and forth between Starr and me, lost for words, but slowly lowering his wings until they lay flat against his sides. I paused, unsure what his posture meant, but then a quick tilt of his head over the shoulder and it was obvious he wanted me to climb on. So I did.

    I didn’t want to ignore his discomfort. I wanted the chance to talk to him about it, but right now was not the time. Later—I’d talk to him later. Even if the list of conversations I owed my Pokémon was steadily lengthening.

    Starr gave a rapid series of hand signals to her Arcanine, and the firedog took off running north. I pointed after her and, after a few seconds’ hesitation, Aros fluttered his wings and took off in pursuit. We raced across the grassland, aiming for the forest on the northeast edge of the city, the sounds of the raging battle growing louder all the while. It wasn’t long until we crossed the treeline and Starr motioned for her Arcanine to slow down as we approached the area surrounding the transport ramp.

    The combat unit was here, just like Starr said. Lights from their jeeps pierced the darkness, illuminating the ring of ALRs encircling the ramp entrance on flatbed semi-trucks. All around the clearing, Rockets were scrambling, some of them taking up guard posts with Pokémon at the ready. Others piled into jeeps and took off toward Viridian, while others still grabbed machinery from transport trucks before taking flight on their Pokémon, following after the jeeps.

    As Arcanine shifted its weight, getting ready to leap forward, Starr glanced back at me and said, “You’ve fought enough Rockets that I’m gonna assume you know what you’re doing. Stay out of the line of fire and don’t you dare get yourself killed, you hear me?” She fixed me with an intense stare that didn’t let up until I nodded.

    She gave a sharp nod in return. “Good.” Then her Arcanine dashed off so fast it was practically a blur.

    I nudged Aros, and the two of us shot after her. Arcanine led the way, barking out flamethrowers in front of us and forcing Rockets to leap out of our way. It was dark, visibility was against them, and half the combat unit was busy dealing with rampaging Legendaries. We actually had the advantage here, and damn it if I wasn’t gonna take full advantage of that. Aros and I stuck close to Starr until we reached the ALR circle, then we broke formation and zeroed in on the closest machine. I ordered a Dragon Pulse, and the Flygon breathed out a lick of violet dragonfire, but it just crashed against an unseen energy field with a wave of sparks.

    So the ALRs were in barrier mode now. But they’d have to drop the barrier eventually to let their transport vehicles escape the base. That’s when we’d make our move. Right now we had other concerns, though…

    “Feint Attack!” I called out just seconds before gunfire rang out. The dragon-type barreled out of the way, dark aura already flaring up. I caught a glimpse of combat jeeps racing past us, full of armed Rockets, right before we faded into the shadows and slipped behind their lineup.

    “Now Sand Tomb,” I ordered.

    Aros dropped to the ground just long enough to dig his claws into the dirt, instantly dissolving a wide swath of land around us into quicksand. He just as quickly bolted back into the air the instant the gunfire started up again. The jeeps didn’t pursue; their tires spun uselessly against the sand.

    A rush of satisfaction flooded my mind, mixing with the ongoing adrenaline shooting through my veins. It was nuts. I was supposed to be afraid. I was supposed to hate this. But the only thing I could think about was the next move, the next target, the next way to take advantage of the Rockets’ disorganization.

    We swooped back down to fly past Arcanine, who was deftly leaping out of the line of fire with erratic bursts of Extremespeed. Then a flash of orange caught my eye as Raichu shot out of nowhere—tail glowing metallic—and slashed holes in the Rockets’ tires. Not too surprising that Starr was doing alright against them, but I was still glad to see it.

    Nothing else took priority, so I ordered another quick Dragon Pulse against the ALRs. Same result—how much longer was that barrier going to stay up? We could only avoid the Rockets for so long. And we didn’t have nearly the numbers to pull the same trick the Rebellion did last time.

    An explosion of light burst from nowhere so close it practically blinded me. I shielded my eyes, squinting as stars danced in my vision. A Pokéball flash? But how was it right in my face when there was no one else around? Unless… it was one of mine. Only one of my Pokémon knew how to break out of a Pokéball.

    My heart sank through the ground as my eyes finally adjusted enough to see the Pikachu that had materialized in front of me. Strings of lightning coursed through his fur as he surveyed the Rockets’ forces.

    “Chibi!” I cried. The hybrid’s ears twitched. He turned his head just enough to glance at me out of the corner of one eye.

    “*I told you I was going to fight them,*” he said in a low tone of voice.

    My stomach curled inward on itself. I had to do something. I should have done something before. Should have helped him. Should have tried talking to him again. Should have…

    “At least stay close by so I can—”

    He shook his head. “*Not this time.*” Then he raced off.

    I swore under my breath before hastily grabbing a Pokéball from my belt and throwing it forward, releasing Stygian in a flash.

    “Follow him,” I said, pointing. “I’ll need you to bail him out if he knocks himself out.”

    The dark-type nodded wordlessly before slipping into the shadows and dashing away. She’d never failed yet. In fact, she’d proven herself to be a master of getting out of tight spots. And this was the perfect opportunity for her to abuse her Feint Attack to slip in and out of the shadows. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Just had to keep telling myself that.

    A brilliant orange glow suddenly lit the clearing, and I jerked my head in its direction to see Arcanine spouting massive fireballs at the cargo hold of a truck attempting to leave the base. A squad of Pokémon suddenly materialized nearby, half of them launching jets of water at the firedog and the other half extinguishing the raging flames. Arcanine crouched down, raising a Protect around Starr and itself. The Rockets’ refused to let up; their Pokémon increased the pressure on their waterspouts. Raichu jumped in front and fired off series of Thunderbolts, dropping two of them before retreating behind the truck to avoid the Mud Shots launched back at him.

    And then the important detail in all of that action finally jumped out at me: trucks. Leaving the base. The ALR barrier was down! Had to attack while we had the chance!

    I tapped Aros’s side and pointed at the closest target. “Another Dragon Pulse!”

    The Flygon’s dragonfire struck the ALR’s metal shell in a blaze of violet sparks and I couldn’t help pumping a fist. Finally, no more pesky barrier to deal with. Finally, we could do what we’d set out to do.

    And then a sound caught my ears. An unearthly howl, echoing in the wind. A shiver ran down my spine, and I couldn’t help glancing around uneasily. I knew that sound.

    A waterspout burst through the trees, knocking a combat jeep flying backward so hard it flipped over in midair and landed on its roof with a metallic crunch. Seconds later, a cobalt beast burst through the trees, gale force winds slashing outward from it, sweeping enemy Pokémon off their feet and slamming them to the ground just as hard.

    I clenched my teeth. Suicune. One of the Legendaries responsible for this mess. A major problem for the Rockets, sure, but I still wasn’t happy to see it here. I turned back to check Aros’s progress on disarming the ALR and—my face fell. The metal was glowing hot but had only just barely started warping from the dragonfire. Dammit, this was taking too long. Even in offense mode, these things were still ridiculously armored and almost impossible to take down alone.

    A high-pitched wail split the air. I whirled around to see the adjacent ALR firing a bright yellow beam at Suicune. The beast staggered backward under the force of the attack, snarling furiously and opening its mouth to retaliate with a Hydro Pump. Then Aros and I had to duck as the ALR we’d been attacking suddenly rotated its upper half 180 degrees to fire at the water-type. Suicune let out a pitiful cry and sank to its knees, caught between the force of the twin beams.

    Without thinking, I grabbed two Pokéballs from my belt and threw them forward, yelling, “Air Cutter, Fire Blast!”

    Firestorm and Swift appeared in front of me. Their eyes widened at the sight of Suicune paralyzed and howling in pain, but they knew better than to question things in the middle of a mission. We’d trained for this. A massive five-pointed blaze and a relentless flurry of wind blades joined Aros’s dragonfire in tearing through the ALR armor.

    This was stupid, focusing all our efforts on offense while we were out in the open and could be attacked at any time. I threw a glance over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of more Rockets approaching from the shadows of the forest. Too dark to count them. Had to flee. Had to save Suicune. Couldn’t do both. Flashes of light signaled more Pokémon being let out. We were running out of time. Chunks of molten metal slowly slid down the ALR, exposing the machinery within. We were so close!

    Then the unmistakable sound of attacks crashing against Protect reached my ears. Slowly, I turned in its direction, then blinked in surprise. Arcanine, Feraligatr, and Rapidash stood firm between my Pokémon and the Rockets’, using the same alternating Protect technique that the Rebellion had perfected. Starr barked out orders to Flareon and Raichu, who darted in and out of the fray, attacking with electrified punches and glowing hot fangs.

    “We need to target both ALRs!” I yelled, throwing an arm toward the machine on the opposite side of Suicune.

    Starr didn’t look back at me; her attention was held firmly by the battle. But then, after several seconds, she called out, “FF, machine target, strongest moves!”

    Feraligatr and Flareon broke from the lineup, racing toward the ALR. Arcanine and Rapidash stayed behind to keep using Protect. Raichu kept up the offensive pressure by switching to Discharge, catching both the Rockets and their Pokémon in a web of lightning. I flinched and turned away—I knew what that felt like. I didn’t need to see it.

    Firestorm paused to catch his breath, embers dripping from his mouth, before pressing the attack once more. Aros’s dragonfire was down to a narrow stream, only half as bright as it had been. We had to be getting close—we had to. On the second machine, Feraligatr’s claws tore jagged holes in the armor while the internals glowed white-hot from Flareon’s breath. Both beams flickered once… twice… come on! Just a little more—!

    Finally, an explosion of sparks shot out of the ALR cannon as the top half of the machine literally collapsed inward under its own weight. On the second ALR, the middle portion finally melted enough for Feraligatr to rip the cannon off entirely, instantly shutting down the beam. We’d done it.

    Raichu dashed over to us, looking rather self-satisfied. A shiver ran through me when I saw that the entire squad of Rockets was now on the ground, out cold. Without any more gunfire to worry about, Arcanine and Rapidash had rushed forward to engage the enemy Pokémon, unleashing a barrage of fire on all of them.

    “I’m… I’m honestly surprised more of them didn’t attack us,” I said, my voice shaking from… exhilaration? Stress? I couldn’t tell.

    “They’re a little busy dealing with number nine,” Starr said dryly, jerking a thumb toward the other side of the ALR circle. Now that I was paying attention, I could see the occasional lightning flash in that direction. So he hadn’t run out of power yet. That was good. Although part of me hoped that he would so he’d pass out and then Stygian could bring him back.

    A low growl snapped my focus back to Suicune. The beast took a few trembling steps, its eyes dazed and unfocused. Then it shook its head as though trying to clear it before glancing around hurriedly, its gaze falling onto Starr and me. The Legendary squinted as though trying to identify us. Then its eyes went wide.

    “Interlopers… I should have known,” it muttered. “Your intervention is neither wanted nor needed!” Just as pleasant as always, then.

    Movement in the trees above caught my eye. Dammit, what now? Couldn’t we have five minutes without another problem showing up?

    I barely had enough time to recall Swift and Firestorm before a mounted squad of Rockets on flying Pokémon dove at us. Suicune took off running, firing a lightning-fast Bubblebeam volley that knocked three Pokémon out of the air. The remaining Rockets broke formation, circling around the beast, those in front taking defensive positions while the ones in the back swooped in closer. Light glinted off metallic devices strapped to their arms. I squinted at one, trying to make out the details, when the Rocket wearing it grabbed hold of a handle with their opposite hand and pulled back sharply. In the blink of an eye, an explosion of energy shot a ball straight at the water beast, instantly transforming it into bright red light. I gaped at where Suicune had just been standing, where there was now only a violet Pokéball vibrating furiously on the ground.

    The Rockets had Master Ball cannons now? That wasn’t allowed! How were we supposed to stop that?!

    A Xatu’s eyes flashed blue and a psychic glow surrounded the ball, lifting it upward. The ball. Had to get the ball before the Rockets did. Had to get the ball.

    “Feint Attack!” I hissed, pointing forward.

    Time slowed. Dark aura flared up as Aros dove for the ball, wings straining. The Rockets turned. Their mounts charged up attacks. Flames and poison darts and rocks shot toward us, missing their mark, the shadows hiding our true position. Just a little further, had to destroy the Master Ball, just a little further—

    The white glint of stars caught my eye. I turned at the last second. Too late—the Swift attack hit Aros’s left wing, sending our flight path spiraling out of control. I clung to the dragon’s side as tightly as I could, desperately trying to keep my eyes on the Master Ball even as our surroundings blurred into a dizzying whirlwind. A flicker of blue shot by, but by now it felt a million miles away and there was no way we could possibly reach it in time.

    And then, in a burst of dark aura, a white-furred shape emerged from the shadows. A blade flashed through the darkness, striking the ball and shattering it with a wave of sparks.

    Yes! Stygian had got it! Suicune emerged in a flash of light, lashing out in snarling frenzy the moment it took shape. Oh crap—no way was it in the mood to tell friend from foe. Had to back off now.

    Vicious torrents of water shot in every direction. Aros darted upward, only narrowly avoiding one that passed so close I felt the icy mist spray against my arm. I held tight as branches scraped at us until Aros burst above the treeline and into the open air. I blinked at the sudden brightness assaulting my eyes, then glanced around quickly, trying to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. I saw the streets of Viridian backed up with cars evacuating the area. The news choppers hovering overhead. People wearing brightly-colored uniforms—rangers?—flying on Pokémon, ducking and weaving through the chaotic sky battle, actually trying to calm the rampaging legends. Squads of police Pidgeot patrolling the air above the major roads, using Protect to shield cars from flying debris as Mewtwo tore apart more buildings. Still the same number of Legendaries flying around—good. Or bad, in a way. None had been captured, but none had left either.

    Moltres and Articuno circled around Mewtwo like vultures, spouting fire and ice at him repeatedly. The clone raised a psychic barrier, but the sheer strength of their attacks was making it spark and flicker with each strike. Finally, Mewtwo turned to face the pair of birds, lifting an entire building over his head. With just the tiniest flex of his hand, cracks shot across the walls, crumbling the building in midair. Then, before either of the birds could make a move to dodge, Mewtwo hurled an avalanche of concrete through the air, knocking the pair to the ground and burying them in a makeshift Rock Slide.

    But Mewtwo didn’t go back to demolishing the Rocket base. He remained in the sky, scanning his surroundings for more opponents. Lugia and Ho-oh were still locked in combat, trading wind and flames and dragonfire at each other. For the moment, Mewtwo had no one to fight. In fact, the only thing within his line of sight was one of the news helicopters that had strayed closer to the battle than the others.

    Wait, he wasn’t going to…

    The clone drew his arms to the side, charging up a blue ball of aura between them.

    Seriously?! Collateral damage was one thing, but now he was going out of his way to attack innocents? I had to do something. If there was even the slightest chance I could convince him not to…

    Too late—I’d barely opened my mouth to call out to him before he fired the Aura Sphere forward. I stared, frozen in shock as the orb shot through the air, zeroing in on the helicopter. And then an orange blur shot out of nowhere, right into the Aura Sphere’s path. The attack exploded in a burst of light, which faded to reveal a Dragonite hovering lightly in midair, steam leaking from its body.

    “*You must stop!*” the dragon cried.

    Mewtwo paused, turning to gaze at the dragon hovering in front of him and tilting his head ever so slightly. Then his eyes narrowed. <That form does not fool me. I can feel your presence. I know it’s you.>

    Mew ignored his comment and simply replied, “*Nothing good can come from any of this.*”

    Mewtwo turned away, refocusing his attention on the aerial combat unit squads gathering in the skies above the Rocket base. He spread his arms wide, wisps of psychic energy leaking from his bulbous fingertips.

    “*You’re only putting yourselves in danger! Do not underestimate the humans!*”

    In an instant, Mewtwo spun around and shot towards Mew, stopping right in front of her so that he was staring her dead in the eyes.

    <I have no reason to fear the humans,> the clone said, his words slow and meticulous. <I have captured myself in a Pokéball and hidden it where no one can find it. I cannot be captured now, correct?>

    Holy crap. I had never thought about it like that, but he honestly had a point. Not only that, but if we hadn’t destroyed Suicune’s ball… if we’d just let it out and kept the ball… the beast would have been immune to capture too. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

    “*You can still be defeated!*” Mew countered. “*And imprisoned. Even without a Pokéball. And what will you do then?*”

    Mewtwo narrowed his eyes. <Just stay out of this.> He swung an arm forward, already charging an orb of black energy in his hand. But Mew put on a burst of speed and zipped away instantly.

    A flash of flames and a burst of ice shot up from the ground. No way—hadn’t the birds been defeated? But then, sure enough, Articuno and Moltres soared upward, their wounds freshly healed. The Rockets—they must have healed the two birds while Mewtwo was distracted. Now the aerial combat unit squads were gaining altitude to join their Legendaries. If they weren’t just leaving this fight to Articuno and Moltres, that could only mean one thing—they had Master Ball cannons. They were going to capture Lugia and Ho-oh.

    My brain froze up and instinct took over and before I’d even worked through my own plan, I found myself pointing forward and yelling, “Sandstorm!”

    Aros’s wings buzzed into overdrive. Dirt and dust and debris from the ground rushed upward to form a swirling vortex of sand all around us. No shortage of material to work with—the storm grew and grew, fed by the rubble scattered across the city blocks to our west. It clouded the sky, blotting out the moon and obscuring the Rockets and their Legendaries. I couldn’t help grinning. They didn’t have goggles on or anything—try taking aim at the legends in that.

    And then a sudden rush of cold crashed against us. Aros’s wings faltered with the impact, fluttering erratically for a few seconds before the vibration stopped and I felt them brush limply against my legs. And for a single, heart-stopping moment, we were weightless, and then we were falling.

    “Aros? Aros!!”

    All I could do was hang on for dear life as we plummeted through the trees. Aros hit the ground, and the impact from the blow shot through me, breaking my grip and knocking me flying into the underbrush. I landed in a crumpled heap, arms limp, head spinning, and pain wracking every inch of my body.

    Damn it. What the hell had just happened? I grit my teeth, forcing all my effort into flexing each limb, one after the other. Everything hurt, but nothing felt broken at the very least. I took a deep breath and winced as I braced myself against the roots of a tree and slowly lifted myself from the ground. First one leg. Then the other, until I was on my feet, swaying a bit from dizziness and brushing snapped twigs and dead leaves from my jacket with scraped-up hands. Once I’d finally got my bearings, I whirled around to find Aros splayed on the ground several yards behind me, his belly covered in glittering ice crystals.

    Damn it, why hadn’t I been paying more attention?! I’d already been pushing him hard all night and he hadn’t even wanted to be a part of the fight, and now this?

    Wait. He’d been hit from below. We’d been attacked from the ground. Our enemy was nearby! In a flash, I recalled Aros and let out Swift and Firestorm, just as I heard footsteps sprinting toward me.

    “Protect!” I yelled.

    Both my Pokémon raised shimmering barriers around themselves, and I ducked behind them as an Ice Beam shot past me, right where I’d been standing. Heart pounding, I glanced up to see a Rocket grunt jump out from the thick of the trees. What looked like an ice-type Eevee—how had a grunt managed to get her hands on one of those?—stood pawing the ground in front of its trainer.

    Just a grunt—no firearm. No other Pokémon. I had two, and enough experience in double battles to keep track of both of them. Firestorm had an overwhelming advantage. Swift could stay in the back and offer support. We could win this.

    “Glaceon, Icy Wind!” the Rocket yelled.

    “Flame Burst; Air Cutter!”

    Frigid air rushed toward us. Swift took to the air and beat his wings rapidly, sending out blades of wind that cut through Glaceon’s attack, but not before a layer of frost had formed on both my Pokémon. Firestorm stood his ground, retaliating with a blazing fireball, but the ice fox was quick enough to dodge. The fireball landed in the bushes, setting them ablaze and casting a bright, flickering firelight throughout the trees. Swift dove at Glaceon, hurling more wind blades at it and leaving dozens of tiny cuts on its frost-colored pelt.

    “Ice Shard!” the Rocket ordered.

    The Pidgeotto didn’t even have a chance to react. A thin sheet of ice instantly formed on Glaceon’s head crystals, then shot forward like a bullet, striking him right in the heart. I winced, practically feeling the impact as Swift fell backwards, crashing to the ground in an awkward heap. Firestorm took that opportunity to spit another fireball at the Glaceon, who just barely managed to leap out of the way at the last second. But this time the attack hit the dirt and exploded into a cloud of embers, singeing the fox’s coat.

    Swift was struggling to stand, chunks of ice embedded in his feathers, muscles quivering from the cold. And then he started glowing. Feathers dissolved into a bright white light before his whole body expanded outward—talons thickening, wingspan doubling, head crest lengthening—until the light faded just as suddenly as it had appeared, and I found myself staring at a Pidgeot. I blinked at him in surprise and awe, mouth hanging open. He’d evolved? He’d evolved!!

    The Rocket swore under her breath. Firestorm grinned wildly. Swift—the Pidgeot—took to the air with a mighty flap and circled overhead, the firelight gleaming off his glossy head feathers. And in that moment, I couldn’t help feeling really good about our odds.

    “Another Flame Burst and Air Cutter!” I called out.

    Swift was faster now—a single flap of his wings instantly sent a flurry of wind blades flying at our opponent. Firestorm took a deep breath, gathering a bright ball of flame in his throat, but then—

    “Mirror Coat!”

    Oh no. No no no. Just those two words were enough to bring cold reality crashing back down on my head. An iridescent sheen rippled across Glaceon’s coat as the fireball shot toward it. Time slowed to a crawl. I saw the fire fly through the air, striking the Glaceon dead-on. A shudder ran through the fox’s body as it staggered backward… and then a blinding burst of shimmering light erupted from the spot where the fire had landed. Firestorm’s eyes widened. He took a half step back before the light consumed him.

    I shielded my eyes. Both from the brightness and because I couldn’t handle seeing him take that kind of attack. When I finally looked again, the fire lizard was on all fours, coughing hard with steam leaking off his body. My heart sank through the ground, and my hand drifted toward his Pokéball, until—

    “*Don’t recall me!!*” Firestorm hissed, digging his claws into the dirt. No way. I had to recall him. There was no way he could fight in that condition. And yet… he was still our best shot at winning this fight. And he’d been devastated the last time I didn’t let him help out against Team Rocket. And he’d never forgive me if I recalled him now.

    Slowly, muscles trembling the entire time, the Charmeleon dragged a foot forward and put his weight on it. Then the other, until he was standing on two legs again, swaying slightly, body glowing with the red aura of Blaze. I swallowed hard. So it was decided—he was going to keep fighting. I wasn’t in a position to play it safe. If Glaceon could rebound our distance moves, then we needed to take the fight to it.

    “Get closer and use Fire Punch! Swift, use Aerial Ace!”

    By the time Firestorm even managed to take a step forward, Swift had already closed the gap with Glaceon, beak glowing. He struck the Glaceon once, then immediately followed it with an upward slice. But he still wasn’t done. While Glaceon was reeling, the eagle was already banking around for another strike.

    “Ice Beam the Pidgeot!” the Rocket called out.

    A frigid blue beam shot toward the flying-type, nailing him right in the belly. Swift recoiled backward, shaking off the blow before diving at the fox once more. But then a second beam fired at him, and this one hit a wing. The Pidgeot’s eyes widened as his wing froze mid-flap, and he plummeted straight to the ground with a heavy thud. But by this point, Firestorm had actually managed to stumble his way closer to Glaceon while it was distracted with Swift. He blew out a fireball into his palm and drew it back in a fist before slamming it hard into the side of Glaceon’s face. The fire went out with the impact, but he pulled his arm back to follow up with another punch. Suddenly, his fist burst into flame right before smashing into the fox’s head crystals, scorching them black, the ice-type crying out in pain.

    Firestorm paused, staring at his fist incredulously and at the flames licking his claws that had flared to life without him needing any fire breath.

    “*I did it,*” he whispered. “*For real this time!*” And in spite of our situation, I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride.

    Glaceon sank to its knees, panting hard and trembling all over. The Rocket took a few steps backward, glancing back and forth between Swift and Firestorm. We had her beat, and she knew it.

    “What’s going on here?!” a voice called out through the trees.

    The grunt’s eyes widened. “I need backup!” she yelled.

    Damn it. Not more Rockets. We’d only just barely managed to beat one. This wasn’t the time for more!

    An officer burst through the trees, running toward the cornered grunt. Without warning, Firestorm spat a glob of embers at the ground near the newcomer’s feet before he could get too close to any of us.

    “*Stay back!*” the fire lizard snarled.

    The man jumped back, one hand on a Pokéball and the other hand on his firearm. He glanced from Swift and Firestorm to the beaten grunt and her Glaceon. And then his eyes fell on me, mouth curled into a smirk.

    He leveled the gun at me, and my blood ran cold.

    “*No!!*”

    The next few seconds lasted forever. I saw the gun pointing straight at me. Saw the man’s finger tighten on the trigger. Then his eyes abruptly slid to the left and his face twisted up in alarm. Firestorm lunged, the man turned his gun on him at the last second, a gunshot split the air. Then a spray of blood, a cry of pain, and horrified shouting as the fire lizard sank red-hot fangs into the man’s arm, his tail flame blazing with rage. What the hell? The other Rocket panicked; her Glaceon fired Ice Beam repeatedly, but Firestorm was unfazed, his body consumed by the blazing red aura. Blood poured from wounds, claws slashed about in a frenzy, the Charmeleon held tight and refused to let go.

    “Firestorm? Firestorm!!” I screamed.

    And then he started glowing. A blinding white light engulfed his body as it doubled in height and expanded outward. His neck and jaws both elongated; a huge pair of wings suddenly sprouted. With a terrifying roar of pain and rage, the Charizard easily overtook the Rocket and threw him to the ground. His jaws were still clamped around the man’s arm—snarling in fury, Firestorm jerked his head back, ripping the shredded limb off and throwing it aside.

    “Firestorm, what are you doing?!!” I screamed, gaping at him in horror.

    Still hopelessly reaching for the gun with his other arm, the Rocket gave one last frantic cry of, “G-get this thing off of me!!” before Firestorm slashed open into the man’s torso and oh my god what was happening.

    “*Not again…*” the dragon muttered, oblivious to the man’s screaming. “*Not again!!*” He expelled a vicious blast of heat that enveloped the body under him, blackening the flesh. The other Rocket had long since run off, which left Firestorm alone with the man’s charred remains, blood spattered across his face and claws.

    I stood frozen on the spot, breathing shallow and limbs trembling and brain still trying to piece together what the hell I’d just seen. My Pokémon, the one who had once been that helpless little Charmander, had just brutally murdered someone. Someone who was going to kill us, but still.

    “I—you… you saved my life, but… you… why did you… that?” I stuttered, still reeling with shock. I’d never even imagined that he’d be capable of anything like that. I couldn’t stop seeing it, even when I closed my eyes. His crazed desperation in a blaze of blood, and—

    “*First with my trainer in the city… then with you on that ship… I was always too weak to do anything about it, but not again!!*” the Charizard roared, looking practically deranged.

    I took a step backward as Swift hopped between us, flaring his good wing defensively. Pulling out Firestorm’s Pokéball, I carefully said, “Okay, okay, ‘not again’… whatever that means. I’ll just, y’know, recall you now…”

    “*No! You can fly on me out of here! Finally, I can do it!*” he exclaimed with a crazed expression. No, definitely not. I pressed the button on his Pokéball, and the fire lizard dissolved into a beam of red light.

    I stood motionless, staring at his Pokéball in disbelief, part of me desperately hoping that I’d imagined the last two minutes. But the evidence was right there. My eyes unconsciously slid back to where he’d done it, and oh god why did I look. The body was charred so thoroughly it might as well have been anything, but the blood splattered around it said otherwise, not to mention the arm lying ten feet away. And in a weird way I was still glad he’d saved us, but for the love of crap, why this? He was a Charizard; a single punch would have knocked the guy flying.

    I sank to my knees, arms clasped around my middle, struggling to hold back a wave of nausea. Eventually failing and throwing up onto the ground.

    “Why… why did he think that…” I said, choking on the words before wiping my mouth on the back on my hand and furiously rubbing the hand into the dirt.

    Talons cautiously stepped into my field of view. Huge talons, not those of a Pidgeotto, but a Pidgeot. Something about seeing my first Pokémon now standing over me, even if it was because I was kneeling, made me feel unbearably small and helpless.

    “*He wasn’t able to handle the evolution. And there are… some things he hasn’t told you about himself,*” Swift replied, his words slow and careful.

    I didn’t ask what he meant. I didn’t want to know.

    Something touched me out of nowhere, and I flinched before realizing that Swift was resting his head on my shoulder. “*It’s not safe here,*” the Pidgeot said gently.

    All at once, something inside just broke, and I threw my arms around his neck, burying my face in his feathers. And even in the midst of all this, the back of my mind kept screaming that we had to keep moving, had to get back to the fight. Viridian was in danger. The Legendaries were in danger. I was in danger, if I just stayed here. But right now, I wanted nothing more than to ignore all of that and just stay here, holding Swift like this forever.

    After some time, I finally managed to pull away. My eyes slid over to Swift’s frozen wing. He couldn’t even fold it against his side—it was just hanging there, stiff and useless.

    “Your… your wing,” I said lamely, pointing at it.

    Swift craned his neck back to look at it. “*I’ll be fine. But I won’t be able to fly until it’s healed.*”

    Had to get a hold of myself. The mission wasn’t done yet. Not until either the Rockets or the Legendaries retreated. But then the cold truth hit me. Aros was unconscious. Swift was injured. Firestorm was delusional. Chibi and Stygian were elsewhere. I couldn’t do anything without their power.

    Maybe I could find healing supplies. Unlikely, but worth a shot given that the Rockets were currently emptying their transport hangar. Either that or meet up with Starr or find Stygian or any number of other things that didn’t involve sitting here feeling sorry for myself.

    “I’m gonna get back to the others and then I’ll heal your wing, I promise,” I said, grabbing Swift’s Pokéball.

    “*Stay safe,*” the Pidgeot said as he dissolved into red light.

    Everything still hurt like hell from the fall, but I pulled myself to my feet and set off toward the sounds of the ongoing battle. I hadn’t fallen far from the Rocket base; it wasn’t long until I reached the clearing where the ALRs had been set up. They were down to about half—Suicune must have destroyed more of them, although I couldn’t see the beast itself, and could only hope that it hadn’t been captured. I saw flames and lightning flying through the air across the clearing, but I was too far to tell if it was Arcanine and Raichu… or Chibi. If I could just get to them… The only problem was the squads of Rockets patrolling the ALRs like vultures. Without any Pokémon, I didn’t have a shot in hell at making it through.

    But I had to do something. I spotted an overturned jeep and crept closer to it, heart pounding the entire time. Several crates in the back seat had spilled out when the jeep flipped and now lay scattered across the ground, some of them cracked, others half-crushed. Maybe one of them had healing supplies?

    Worth a shot. My hands flew to the closest box, prying open its broken lid to reveal jars of battle enhancements. Fished through the shards of a second box and found nothing but Pokéballs. After that, communicators, scope lenses, power bracers, and none of this was helpful. There had to be something I could use. Anything. Some way I could help. Some way to not be totally useless.

    Last box. Opening it revealed stacks of sleek, metallic arm cannons. Master Ball cannons. Dammit, those wouldn’t do me any good.

    Or… would they? Mewtwo was immune to capture. Because he’d already technically been captured. Why couldn’t all the Legendaries do that?

    The staggering weight of that realization took several seconds to fully process. I stood there, frozen on the spot while my brain attempted to work through the implications of such an idea.

    This was what Stalker had been trying to argue. He’d said that his side was catching Legendaries so the Kanto Rockets couldn’t get them. At the same time, he was still willing to use their power to his own ends. But… if someone else were to do it. Someone with no intention of stealing their power and using it for themselves?

    No. It was wrong. But… why? It wasn’t wrong to catch Pokémon in general. Why the Legendaries? Because no human should even have access to that kind of power. Maybe if their power was being abused? But if it wasn’t…

    Mew had said that she didn’t expect Mewtwo or the others to back down. Not even if the odds were against them. They’d do anything to end the fight against Team Rocket today. But even if they managed to destroy the entire Viridian base, that wouldn’t end the fight, not by a long shot. The boss and the other higher-ups were long since evacuated. All this battle was doing was endangering both them and everyone else.

    I had to protect the city. I had to protect the Legendaries. I had to do something. And I couldn’t possibly fight the Rockets head-on. But what if there was another way? I was tired of doing nothing. Tired of being powerless. I actually had a chance to make a difference this time. How could I turn that down?

    I was running. At some point I’d grabbed a Master Ball cannon and strapped it to my arm, and now I was running as fast as my legs would carry me, away from the Rockets, the ALRs, the entire forest. I didn’t stop running until I’d reached the grasses on the outskirts of Viridian, and then I doubled over, gasping for breath but high on the surge of adrenaline shooting through my veins.

    I couldn’t see Mewtwo. Had Mew managed to drive him away? Not likely. In any case, he’d already captured himself, so he wasn’t a factor. I could hear Suicune’s howling wind echoing throughout the streets of Viridian—so at least it hadn’t been captured, but there was also no way for me to get close to it without walking straight into ground zero. And then there was Lugia. Soaring low overhead, knocking Rockets out of the sky with only a light fluttering of its wings. Aside from a few scorch marks, the bird looked practically untouched. Just how tough was it? If the fight had been going on this long and it still had plenty of fight left in it, then at this rate… it would either level all of Viridian or get captured by the Rockets, and I wasn’t willing to let either one happen. It wouldn’t be expecting an attack from the ground, not when all of its enemies were in the air and all the ground Rockets were either evacuating or guarding the base. And the Rockets wouldn’t have any reason to think that a rebel had captured their target before them. I could escape into the trees. I could actually save a Legendary all by myself. Without anyone’s help. Not Stalker. Not Ajia. Not even my own Pokémon.

    I had to do it.

    Lugia wasn’t looking this way. Occasionally it raised a psychic barrier to block an attack from Articuno or Moltres, but that was easy to anticipate. I had a clear shot. I held out my arm and leveled it at the Legendary. And then I froze, arm trembling. My heart thundered in my chest. Sweat dripped down my forehead. My hand refused to move.

    I couldn’t do it.

    Had to do it.​

    Had to leave.

    Had to put a stop to this.​

    It was wrong.

    It was the only way.







    I pulled back on the handle.

    An explosive force knocked me off my feet, shooting the Master Ball towards its target. I didn’t see the hit, but I did see the look of utmost terror that struck Lugia’s face as its body transformed into blood-red energy. It flailed its wings in a desperate bid for freedom, but nothing could stop the capture process now. I flinched as a wave of horrified screeching assaulted my ears. Then the energy was drawn into the ball, which snapped shut and fell to the ground, vibrating furiously. I half-expected the ball to burst open any second. But it didn’t. It gave one last futile shake and grew still.

    Lugia was caught. No single fact mattered more than that. Not the Rockets. Not the other Legendaries. I had done it? Had I meant to?

    The image of its terrified expression flashed through my mind, and I couldn’t help wincing. If I was saving the legend, it sure didn’t feel like it anymore. What was I supposed to do with it now? Take it far away from the Rockets and Viridian City? Explain that it was immune to capture just like Mewtwo?

    My legs trembled as they carried me closer to the ball now lying motionless on the ground. Gingerly, my fingers reached out to touch it, still expecting it to lash out at any moment. But the ball didn’t move. My fingers wrapped around it. Still trembling, I lifted the ball to my face.

    “*What…?*” a voice gasped in Pokéspeech.

    I almost jumped out of my skin as I whirled around to locate the source of the voice. My eyes fell on a small, yellow shape amidst the grass, lit by the light of the full moon. Chibi?! What was he doing here?! Had he followed me?

    “Chibi! I can explain… at least, I think I ca—this isn’t what you think!” I stuttered, dumbstruck. This wasn’t what it looked like. What was it, then? What was it?

    The Pikachu just stared at me, mouth agape. Finally, he shook his head as though trying to regain himself before hissing, “*What the hell did you do that for?!*”

    What the hell did I do it for? All my reasons and justifications suddenly felt hollow and trite. It had made sense in my head, in a world where the consequences of catching a Legendary didn’t exist. But in this world, where everyone I knew was so adamantly against the thing I’d just done? I was the same as Stalker. But was Stalker really wrong? Ajia certainly thought so.

    Wait… Ajia. How would I explain it to her? How would I explain it to Lugia? Did I think it would be okay with this? Did I care?

    I only wanted to protect the Legendaries. But they wouldn’t get a choice this way. Capturing them took that away. Even if their power wasn’t being abused… to steal their freedom, even for the sake of protecting them…

    It was wrong. Absolutely. I wanted nothing to do with it. I drew back my arm and hurled the Master Ball as far from myself as I could.

    “*No, don’t!!*” Chibi shouted, absolutely horrorstruck.

    The ball struck the ground and burst open, unleashing a brilliant surge of white light taking the Legendary’s giant form. Lugia shrieked in surprise and rage, flapping its wings rapidly to steady itself in the air as it glanced around, frantically searching for its captor. The avian dragon fixed its gaze on the Rockets in the distance, then suddenly whirled around to face me, its eyes blazing with unparalleled fury. My heart stopped and my body froze up. My eyes took in the sight of it charging a ball of energy in its mouth, but somehow my brain couldn’t piece together what to do. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I could only stare in paralyzed terror at the deadly beam of energy that was going to end me.

    I was an idiot and I was going to die for it.

    And then a giant lightning bolt flew out of nowhere, striking Lugia head-on. The giant silver bird recoiled backward, its Hyper Beam flying off wildly into the air. It blinked in surprise, as though it couldn’t believe what had just happened. And then, slowly, it turned its gaze past me, to where I knew Chibi was standing. I glanced back at him, dumbstruck. The Pikachu was sparking wildly and out of breath, trembling all over. He’d… he’d put his entire remaining power supply into that one bolt, hadn’t he? And he was still conscious?

    “*Please don’t!!*” he pleaded in between gasps for breath. “*She’s not with Team Rocket, she’s fighting against them! That capture was stupid and impulsive and it didn’t mean anything! So please… don’t!!*” Tears streamed down his face.

    The birdlike dragon paused, and for a moment, it honestly looked taken aback. At least… for a moment. Then its gaze hardened. It lifted Chibi into the air psychically before tossing him into the forest unceremoniously. And then a telepathic voice filled my mind, chillingly bitter and overbearingly powerful, its sheer presence threatening to crush me.

    <The half-legend speaks on your behalf, human. But it does not matter if you are opposing the ones who seek to overthrow the legends. Alliances mean nothing. Ambitions run awry no matter the side. It is all the same to me.>

    It flicked a single wing feather.

    The world dissolved into pain. Psychic energy tore through my body and a blinding pain suddenly dug into every inch of me at once. I was on fire, every nerve ablaze with agony. I tried to clench my fists, cry out, do something, but nothing would respond. I was helpless. Drowning. Couldn’t do anything, couldn’t see anything, my senses were gone, my body didn’t exist, nothing existed but pain—god, why wouldn’t it stop? Couldn’t tell how long it had lasted. Seconds, minutes? Couldn’t keep track, thoughts wouldn’t flow straight. Couldn’t do anything… couldn’t stop it… couldn’t keep going… Just end it now, Lugia. Anything but this. I didn’t want to… hadn’t meant to… no way to take it back…

    The last thing I saw was Lugia’s eyes glowing in a void, terrifying, beautiful, and unreal. Then everything faded to nothingness.






    ~End Chapter 28~
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 29: Aftermath
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Thanks for the review, Umbra! And apologies to everyone for the long wait. Two more chapters in Book 1, let's wrap things up~


    ~ Chapter 29: Aftermath~


    After spending forever lost in a hazy void of nothingness, the tiniest bit of awareness slowly started returning to me. How much time had passed, I had no idea. Scattered images and senses drifted to the front of my mind—a dizzying patchwork of memories that I wasn’t entirely sure were mine. A burst of cold before falling out of the sky. Someone’s Charizard tearing a man limb from limb. A giant silver bird soaring overhead, eyes flashing murderously.

    Something deep inside gave a terrified lurch at that last image as a flood of memories spilled out of my head. I saw a violet Pokéball strike the bird, and somehow knew that I was the one who’d thrown it. Saw the terrified look on its face when it realized what had happened. Saw that terror distort first into fiery rage, then into cold hatred as it flicked a single feather and tore my existence to shreds.

    I sucked in a breath as my head split open again just from the thought. That had actually happened. I’d really done that. And then Lugia had… It had…

    A thick haze of fear and regret suddenly flooded my mind. No. No way. I couldn’t be dead. No. I was still here, wasn’t I? And… and I could still move, right? Right? But… when I tried to, my body felt distant and unresponsive, like it wasn’t even there. Almost. A dull, aching pain consumed every inch of me, and the idea of trying to fight that pain was too exhausting to think about.

    Wait. If I could still feel my body’s pain, then—

    At once my eyes snapped open and I sat bolt upright, then immediately regretted it as a wave of dizziness struck and I clutched my forehead for dear life. I sat there, heart drumming uncomfortably and head spinning from the sudden movement, but most importantly, very much not dead. Hard as it was to believe.

    It took several seconds for me to pry my eyes open again and take a proper look at my actual surroundings. When I did, I found that I was… in a hospital room? With a Pidgeot standing next to my bed and an Absol sprawled out on the floor.

    Swift beamed. “*You’re awake.*”

    “*Told you two she wasn’t gonna die,*” Stygian said, yawning widely.

    The Pidgeot gave her a bemused look. “*You were not so confident of that before we got here.*” The dark-type scowled at his comment and rotated herself so that she was facing the wall.

    I coughed as a random jolt of pain shot down my spine, followed by my legs clenching up and my vision going dead for a second. Right, okay, sitting up—way too draining. I slowly sank back against my pillow, willing myself to relax as muscles kept twitching and random senses blinked in and out. Swift was saying something, but the tones were all distorted and I couldn’t make out any words without the tones.

    “*—shouldn’t push yourself,*” he finished.

    I gave him a weak smile. “Wasn’t planning on it.” But then I couldn’t help glancing around at the unfamiliar scenery. “Where are we, anyways?”

    “*Some human building,*” came Stygian’s muffled reply. Yes, because that narrowed it down. Shouldn’t have expected Pokémon to know or care about such things. At the very least, the sunlight streaming through the drapes told me I’d been out cold all night (maybe longer?). I glanced at my watch—it was a little past noon on Tuesday. So I’d been out for less than a day, at least. But sixteen hours was still a long time to be unconscious.

    My eyes fell on Swift’s left wing. It was folded at his side, good as new. “At least it looks like whoever brought us here healed you guys,” I said.

    “*Fed us too,*” Stygian piped up, only slightly concealing the satisfaction in her voice.

    I smiled. “That’s good.”

    And then, I finally noticed the small, spiky yellow shape curled up in the blankets alongside me. I stared at it for a few seconds, not entirely convinced that I wasn’t just imagining it. But no, it was really Chibi. I wasn’t sure if a part of me had expected to never see him again after he ran off during the fight, but…

    “I’m glad you’re here.”

    For several seconds, he didn’t give any indication that he’d heard me. He might have even been asleep. But then, the Pikachu’s ears flattened against his head. Slowly, he turned to glare at me out of the corner of one eye.

    “*Don’t ever do anything that stupid again,*” he growled.

    I glanced away sheepishly. He wasn’t wrong—it was stupid. And now that I finally had a chance to think about what had happened, and how he’d reacted at the time… I’d really scared him, hadn’t I? Almost as much as he’d scared me when he ran off.

    “I’m sorry,” I said.

    After a long moment, the hybrid relaxed slightly, ears lifting, fur lowering. “*I’m glad you’re here too,*” he said quietly. Then he paused, like he wanted to say something else, but was having a hard time finding the right words. “*…I was lying.*”

    I tilted my head, confused.

    “*When I said that I didn’t need you,*” Chibi went on. “*That was a lie.*”

    Oh. The conversation in Goldenrod. The one that had hurt far more than I was willing to admit.

    His paws gripped the sheets tightly. “*I can’t lose you too. I won’t.*”

    I couldn’t really explain why, but I found myself reaching out and stroking the fur on the Pikachu’s back. It was a weird thing to do, and moving my arm felt sluggish and unnatural. But in that moment, it just felt right. I half expected him to glare at me or swat my hand away, but he didn’t. He didn’t protest either. He just curled up into the sheets again, and within minutes, his breathing grew soft and steady like he’d fallen asleep.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I wasn’t quite sure how much time had passed, but eventually, the door swung open and in walked a woman dressed in a brightly-colored uniform covered in belts and pouches. Her tired eyes and mile-a-minute movement gave off the impression of someone who’d been working all night and was only functional thanks to caffeine.

    “Good, you’re awake, I was worried I’d have to come back later again. My name’s Jen, I probably don’t look it, but I’m your nurse,” she said rather quickly while removing her gloves and washing her hands at the sink. “Our staff’s been stretched pretty thin thanks to the disaster, and I just got back from working in the field, so you’ll have to excuse the getup.”

    I blinked. Her outfit was the least of my questions. “Where am I?” I asked.

    “Medical wing of Viridian’s Pokémon Ranger HQ,” she replied, grabbing a chair from the wall and pulling it over to my bedside.

    Ranger HQ? Not where I would have guessed. Though it did explain the uniform. But then the rest of what she’d said began stirring up memories in my still-clouded mind. Things that had been there, buried underneath the rush of pain and fear from my last conscious memory. The entire reason I’d been in harm’s way to begin with.

    “Wait, what happened?! Is Viridian still in danger?!” I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright.

    She raised both hands disarmingly. “Calm down, calm down, everything’s under control. The attack stopped hours ago, and we’re all still busy helping out with the recovery effort.”

    I settled back against the pillow, head already spinning and having to force back a wave of nausea. I grabbed my face with both hands and took a few deep breaths to try to steady myself. Why did something as simple as moving have to suck so much? The nurse offered me a plastic cup of water and I took it gratefully, grasping it with both hands and downing it in just a few gulps. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I was probably thirstier than I’d been in my entire life. I handed it back, immediately wishing I had more. But she just picked up a clipboard and began writing something onto it.

    “Why am I here?” I asked.

    Jen raised an eyebrow. “Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed your condition, but…”

    I shook my head (ow, why) and said, “Er… that’s not—how did I get here?”

    “Ahh, I know what you meant. Your friends brought you here. Anyway, enough worrying about that. Your scans came back normal, but now that you’re awake, I need to run you through some tests.”

    Scans? I’d been scanned while I was unconscious? I guess that made sense, but it was still a strange thing to hear.

    “What kind of tests?” I asked warily.

    “I’ve got to check your motor skills, senses, balance, coordination, reflexes—things like that. If there’s any nerve damage, we want to know.”

    I clenched my teeth. Somehow, in the wave of relief I’d felt just from waking up alive, it hadn’t occurred to me that my current state could be permanent. I really, really hoped not.

    Jen went on to run me through a hopelessly long list of actions that seemed to go on forever. Bending my limbs in certain ways, holding things, pushing against her hands, you name it. She tapped various instruments on my joints to check the response and had me identify various sensations, from cold to hot to sharp. And in between giving instructions and taking notes on a clipboard, she talked almost constantly. My suspicion that she’d been up all night had proven to be correct, but when I asked why she didn’t just trade off with someone else, she said that everyone on the force had been working just as long. Even after the Legendary attack had ended, the recovery effort wasn’t going to be over any time soon.

    Standing up to check my balance was definitely the worst part of the exam, as my legs had apparently decided to become gelatin and refuse orders… at least at first. With each movement, it was like they were remembering more and more how to be legs. But by that point I’d started to feel lightheaded again and had to sit back down.

    “So… how bad is it?” I asked, wincing.

    Jen tapped her fingers on her clipboard with a thoughtful look. “Well, you’ve got some pretty obvious psychic sickness, but thankfully it doesn’t look like there’s any nerve damage. Looks like whatever got you was only trying to cause pain. Oh, that reminds me—can you tell me what Pokémon attacked you? None of your friends had any idea.”

    My throat closed up and my heart dropped like a stone. Couldn’t tell her it was Lugia. Had to think of something else. Anything else, but my brain chose that moment to conveniently forget the names of every other psychic Pokémon in existence.

    “It was dark. Didn’t see it.”

    Jen tilted her head, and for a second, I was sure she was going to call me on the obvious lie. But then she just clicked her tongue and said, “Shame, that would’ve made it easier to treat. Oh well, like I said, no long-term damage, so you got off lucky, eh? We’ll have you stay here another night to make sure, though. You’ll probably feel random dizziness and numbness throughout the day but be sure to give a holler if anything worse crops up.”

    I nodded softly. At least doing that didn’t hurt.

    “Anyway, before you leave—or whenever you feel comfortable holding a pen—I’ll need you to fill out some paperwork. I got as much info as I could from the friends who brought you here, but I need a little more from you, plus your signature on a few things. Also…” She paused, and this time her expression grew more serious. “I couldn’t help but notice you don’t have any legal ID. Seeing as you’re a minor, that wouldn’t normally be a big deal. But then there’s the fact that you have Pokémon…”

    My stomach dropped through the floor. Not this. Not now. I was supposed to have gotten a license by now! But then everything had happened with Starr, and then we’d had to go to Johto and then—

    Jen sighed, eyeing me closely. “Look, technically our organization is separate from the Pokémon League, so while I could report you, League bureaucracy isn’t exactly my biggest concern, especially right now. I just need to know if there’s any reason you shouldn’t have Pokémon. Like if you had your license taken away, or—?”

    “Of course not!” I cried. “I just… I failed the exam, that’s all. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then! You—you can ask my Pokémon if you don’t believe me,” I said, gesturing wildly in their direction even as my limbs protested.

    But Jen’s face softened, and she chuckled a bit. “Relax, I’m just giving you a hard time. Just… do me a favor and go get your license after you leave here, okay?”

    I stared downward, cheeks burning red. “Right. Okay.” No more delays, then. I was finally going to get one. But first… “You said my friends brought me here. Can I see them?”

    Jen gave me a curious look, but then she stood up and said, “Alright. I’ll send for them.” Then she stood up and exited the room.

    I didn’t have to wait long. Even with my hazy time sense, I could at least trust my watch. A few minutes later, the door swung open and Starr practically burst into the room, storming over to me with such conviction that I half expected I was about to be punched. But instead she flopped down into the chair next to my bed and grabbed my hand so hard I thought she was going to crush it.

    “Dammit Jade, don’t ever scare me like that ever again, you hear me?” she snapped, staring me dead in the eyes.

    “I didn’t mean to,” I mumbled sheepishly, glancing away.

    “Glad to see you awake,” Ajia said with a smile, shutting the door behind her and taking a few steps toward us. Starr still had my hand in an iron grip and I suspected I wouldn’t be getting it back anytime soon. And by now my mind had finally cleared enough to realize that I had about a million questions.

    “How did you guys find me?” I asked.

    “Number nine,” Starr replied.

    I blinked, throwing a sideways glance at where he was sleeping. “Wait, what? How did he…?”

    “Starr and I met up near the end of the fight,” Ajia explained. “She wasn’t sure where you’d gone, and we were getting ready to go looking for you. Then your Pikachu and Absol came running up to us, and… they said you’d been attacked by a Legendary,” she finished, her expression turning grim.

    “We thought you were dead,” Starr said bluntly, fixing me with a very serious stare.

    My chest tightened. A distant, echoing shadow of the psychic blast radiated throughout my whole body. I couldn’t help visualizing it. Ajia and Starr following my Pokémon out of the forest and seeing me lying there, presumably dead, because what else could they have expected if I’d been attacked by a Legendary. And Chibi knowing that it was my own damn fault, but apparently not saying anything.

    “Did they… say anything else?” I asked cautiously.

    “You implying there’s something else we should know?” Starr asked, raising an eyebrow.

    I closed my eyes, massaging my forehead with my left hand. “Never mind. I’m still out of it.” That answered that question at least. But something still didn’t add up. Even if they hadn’t revealed why I’d been attacked, what about the Master Ball cannon I’d been wearing? That would have been a dead giveaway.

    “What happened with the Legendary battle?” I asked, desperate to get my mind off that topic.

    That question finally got Ajia’s eyes to light up. “Our efforts worked. You two plus Suicune took down enough of their offenses that once their evacuation was done, the combat unit gave up on trying to capture any of the others and retreated. Mew finally managed to convince Mewtwo to lay off after that, and the others followed him.”

    I blinked at her in disbelief. Our efforts had worked? We’d actually made a difference? Part of me couldn’t help feeling cheated that I hadn’t gotten to see it. And I still couldn’t help feeling like there had to be more to it than just that. Lugia had left me alone—why?

    “Mew told me you rescued Suicune, by the way,” Ajia added with a reassuring smile. “She wanted to thank you, since you’d never hear that from Suicune itself.”

    Right. I had rescued Suicune. Or at least, Stygian had, but I’d been going for it too, she’d just gotten there first.

    “Hey, did you hear her? We won. You can stop looking so miserable,” Starr said, nudging my shoulder with her free arm.

    I was about to protest, but honestly? She was right. There was no point dwelling on all the things that had gone wrong when so much had actually gone right. All three of us were still alive, and none of the Legendaries had been captured. It really was the best we could have hoped for.

    “So why’d you guys bring me to the Ranger HQ anyway?” I asked.

    Ajia grinned and held up two fingers. “Two reasons. Hospital was overfilled. And I’m familiar with this place since my dad used to work here, I’ve got friends interning here… aaaaand, rangers don’t really pry too much,” she added with a sheepish grin. “Huh… I guess that’s three reasons. Anyway, we brought you here, said you’d been hurt in the attack, and that was that.”

    At this point Ajia grabbed one of the visitor chairs and pulled it away from the wall so she could sit facing both Starr and me. “So Starr and I were talking while we were waiting for you to wake up,” she said. Something about her words sounded rehearsed, like she’d been eagerly awaiting the chance to say them. “We both think it’s pretty likely that after the attack, Team Rocket’s gonna be lying low for a while. They’ve got a lot of recovery to do after this.”

    I squinted. Where was she going with this?

    “So like, now’s the perfect time for us to team up and slow them down, while they’re having a low point,” Ajia went on, eyes shining with the same energy and enthusiasm she’d shown when she first came up with the plan to free Starr from Team Rocket. “We can actually fight them together now, you and me. Won’t that be awesome?”

    Wait, what? Why was she talking like we’d already decided that was how it was going to be from now on? I mean, yeah, it was a nice idea, fighting Team Rocket alongside her. But I still didn’t know if I even wanted to be in the fight anymore. I’d finally gotten a chance to walk away from it all after the Rebellion ended. And I hadn’t even gotten to decide if that was what I really wanted before being thrown right back into even more deadly situations. The only reason I had even approached Stalker to join his resistance was because I’d wanted its protection. And he’d just been using me.

    This whole time… I’d just been a player in Stalker’s games, and now I was a player in Ajia’s, and what if I didn’t want to follow anyone’s plans? I was tired of only considering how I could be useful to others. Was that all I was good for? Helping other people achieve their goals, while not even being important enough to tell all the details of how or why? And yeah, okay, maybe it was an important goal, but still.

    Starr glanced back and forth between Ajia and me, squinting like she was trying to figure something out. Finally, she came right out and said, “Hey, uh, Ajia? Me and Jade are gonna talk alone for a bit.” I shot a confused glance her way, but she didn’t look at me.

    Ajia paused, blinking in surprise. She made eye contact with me, and I just shrugged, so she said, “Uh… sure? No problem. Just… come and get me when you’re done?” She stood up, threw one last confused glance between us, and then walked towards the door.

    “What was that about?” I asked once Ajia had left.

    Starr sighed deeply and let go of my hand, allowing feeling to return to it. “Look. I don’t have any interest in opposing Team Rocket. With my situation, I don’t ever want to see, hear, or think about them ever again.”

    That was wasn’t too surprising. I’d already kind of assumed that much. Why did she need to say that now?

    Starr went on, “And I’d prefer if you two didn’t go getting yourselves into trouble with them from now on. But I know better than to expect that, so—”

    “I don’t want to either,” I replied immediately.

    Starr froze, staring at me incredulously. “You don’t?”

    I shook my head slowly, mind reeling. Had I finally come to a decision on the question that had been plaguing me since the end of the Rebellion?

    Starr stared at me for several seconds before closing her eyes and exhaling through her nose. “Mostly because of me, right?”

    I clenched my teeth. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say yes.” While the dangers of being captured by Astrid were a thing of the past… there was no denying the effect that she’d had on me.

    She crossed her arms behind her head. “No, I get it. But I guess that kind of means we’re in the same boat. In a way… I’m kinda glad you’re not buying into all of Ajia’s resistance crap—and no, not just because I hated rebels when I was a Rocket,” she added quickly. But then her expression softened, and she glanced away. “I just… was really looking forward to us traveling together. And there’s no way that would work out if I had to deal with you going off to fight Rockets all the time. I know it’s selfish, but I don’t care.”

    Selfish or not, it was what I wanted too. It was why we’d headed to Johto together in the first place. I still wanted that, even with the various detours that had come up. I wanted that more than I wanted to fight Rockets, that much was certain.

    “Figured out how you’re gonna tell Ajia?”

    I swallowed. “Not quite. She was so excited to work together.”

    “Yeah, it’s pretty hard to say no to her,” Starr said, chuckling under her breath. “Might as well get it over with.” She stood up and walked over to the door, opening it and gesturing outside. A few seconds later, Ajia walked in, still looking rather perplexed.

    Starr leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. “Right, so Jade’s not joining your resistance.”

    “My resistance?” Ajia asked, giving us both a puzzled look.

    “Yeah, you and all the Rockets that left with you during the revolt, and all that,” Starr said, waving a hand dismissively. “You were talking like she was gonna join you guys, and she’s not. So… yeah.”

    Ajia glanced back and forth between us, confused at first, but then slowly, a look of understanding spread across her face. She smiled awkwardly and said, “There is no resistance.”

    She’d said it like it was some big revelation, but the significance was somewhat lost on me. Starr, on the other hand, was gaping at Ajia in disbelief.

    “What.” Her voice was a flat deadpan. “You’re… you’re kidding me.” She stared at Ajia, as though waiting for her to confirm that she’d been joking. But Ajia just closed her eyes and shook her head.

    “But… you and all the agents who left us… you’re not… working together? Sabotaging us with all your inside info?”

    “We’d been planning on it,” Ajia said. “Or at least… I’d been hoping we’d get to do something like that. But it didn’t work out that way.”

    Starr blinked repeatedly, mouth hanging open like she’d just had her entire worldview shattered and was desperately trying to find some grain of truth in what she’d been assuming all this time.

    “What about the former commander?” she asked.

    Ajia sighed and glanced away. “We… had a falling out shortly after the revolt. No one’s seen him since.” She paused, folding her arms tightly around herself. “The commander was the real face of the revolt. When he left… everything fell apart.”

    The room fell silent. Twice, Starr tried to say something, but couldn’t find any words. The Rockets had spent all that time paranoid that the Rebellion was led by their former Kanto Commander when no one had heard from him in over a year? It was almost laughable.

    “So like… you weren’t just bullshitting me when you said you weren’t actually that big a part of the revolt?” Starr asked, still disbelieving.

    Ajia shook her head. “I was just… Sebastian’s pawn. And without the commander’s influence, none of the other deserters wanted to join me, so they all just…went their separate ways, trying their best to avoid being hunted down. I still have a few friends on Team Rocket, and that’s where I get all my info. But other than that…”

    From the moment Ajia had first showed up out of nowhere on that fateful day I’d been captured by Rockets, I’d seen her as someone who was far more deeply involved in the fight against Team Rocket than me. It just went without saying that she was part of something greater. But in reality, it was just her, a couple of friends on Team Rocket, and Mew.

    Ajia lowered her gaze to the floor. “That was the lowest point in my life. I was so, so tempted to just run away from it all. Pretend it never existed. Live my life far away, oblivious to what was going on in my home region.”

    What? None of that sounded like Ajia at all. I couldn’t imagine her running away from anything, let alone something so important. Which of course was hypocritical of me, since I didn’t want anything more to do with the fight against Team Rocket. But Ajia… Ajia was supposed to be stronger than me. She wasn’t supposed to feel the same fears and regrets that I had.

    “But I couldn’t stay out of it for long,” she continued, looking up. “Even moving far away wouldn’t keep me out of it forever. If the Rockets get free rein to do whatever they want here, who’s to say that’ll be the end of it? What’s gonna stop other gangs in other regions from doing the exact same thing? The Rockets would make a killing selling goods to their own copycats in distant lands.”

    “We already are,” Starr added with a scoff. “Where do you think all the funding for the anti-Legendary tech came from? Not out of our own pockets, that’s for sure.”

    “You keep saying ‘we’ to refer to the Rockets.” The words were out of my mouth before I’d put any thought into them.

    Starr groaned exasperatedly. “Jade, it’s been two days, give me a damn break.”

    All this conversation was doing was reminding me why the fight against Team Rocket was so important. I already knew that it was important. That wasn’t the problem.

    “I guess that explains why you were so hopeful that I’d join you,” I mumbled, tapping my fingers together.

    Ajia nodded. “Sounds like you’re pretty set on staying out of it from now on, though.”

    Was I set on it? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore, other than the fact that way too many things had happened this past week and I still needed time to process all of them, and I’d never get that if I jumped back in right away, and especially if it felt like it wasn’t even my decision.

    “I get that you have to keep fighting them—you can’t exactly turn your back on Mew,” I said quietly. “And I guess there’s six other people out there who are in the same boat as you. I don’t know if you’ve met any of them yet, but they should be able to help you, right?”

    Ajia opened her mouth to speak but then paused, heavily considering her words. “Right.”

    So it was decided then. I wasn’t going to fight alongside her. Part of me still wasn’t sure if this was the right decision, but there was no taking it back now.

    After several seconds of silence between us, Ajia let out a sigh, putting a hand on my shoulder. “I think I need to apologize.” I sat there, staring blankly until she continued, “It wasn’t right to drag you into that mess even further. That was the one thing I wanted to avoid when we first ran into each other last summer, and then I went and did it anyway.”

    I tilted my head. “I mean… you did tell me not to back then. I decided to join the Rebellion anyway.”

    She smiled weakly. “Maybe so. That didn’t give me a free pass to string you along for the past few days, though.” She glanced between me and Starr, her face falling. “You both had to go through a lot of pain because of me. I know things worked out in the end, and I honestly thought that made it alright, but… it doesn’t.” She bowed her head deeply. “I’m sorry.”

    Starr raised both eyebrows. “Well, this is a switch,” she said, looking reluctantly impressed. “I’m still pissed about the past few days but… I’ll get over it. It’s pretty obvious by now that I needed this.” She glanced away. “So… thanks, or whatever.”

    I stared at the floor, unsure of how to put my thoughts into words. “I guess… I would’ve preferred not being in the dark all the time. I get why you couldn’t mention anything about Mew, but even with the rest of it…”—my throat clenched up—“it felt like I wasn’t good enough to know anything.” I hadn’t realized it at the time, had I? But like most things, looking back at it hurt a lot more than it had in the moment.

    “Yeah, no more of that secrecy crap from now on,” Starr added, glaring at her. “We’re all on the same page now, right?”

    Ajia glanced between us, her face slowly splitting into a relieved half-smile. “Right. I can promise that.”

    Starr nodded firmly, as though glad that we had that settled. “In any case…” she went on, folding her arms with a bit of a smirk. “I hate to admit it, but it’s pretty cool that you’ve got a Legendary in your head. If we—if the Rockets didn’t have a reason to fear you before, they sure do now.”

    Ajia closed her eyes, shaking her head. “That’s nice to hear, but nothing I’ve done is special. All the access I had to the inner workings of Team Rocket was only thanks to the commander. And anything I’ve done since then was only possible because I had Mew’s help.”

    Starr put a hand to her forehead. “Just take the stupid compliment.”

    Ajia laughed. “Alright, alright,” she said, rubbing the back of her head. “Anyway, I guess now I’m wondering… what are you two going to do from now on?”

    I glanced at Starr. “We were planning on traveling around Johto. We want to stay away from the Kanto force, and, well… make up for lost time.”

    Ajia nodded. She was smiling, but her eyes held an air of hesitation. Like she wanted to say something but was holding back.

    “Oh, just say what you want to say,” Starr grumbled, waving a hand in her direction.

    Ajia clasped her hands in her lap, debating her words. “Right. So… I know I’m on my own when the time comes to fight Rockets, and I really mean it when I say I’m not gonna drag either of you into that. But… I’d love it if I could meet up with you two on your journey… at least occasionally?”

    My eyes widened. “What? Of course!”

    Starr threw me an incredulous glare. “Dammit Jade, how am I supposed to say no if you go and agree to it immediately?” she muttered.

    I jerked my head toward her, blinking in surprise. She wasn’t okay with it? I hadn’t thought… I wasn’t trying to decide for her, but—

    She rolled her eyes. “I’m joking. God, and people say I’m the one who can’t take a joke.”

    It took several seconds for her words to sink in. But when they did, I found myself laughing like an idiot and not even sure why, because it wasn’t exactly funny, but something about the deadpan in her voice and the way I’d walked right into it was hilarious in a way that didn’t make any sense. I was laughing, and it hurt like I was sore all over, but I never wanted it to stop. Then Ajia grabbed both my hand and Starr’s, and Starr tugged her arm in a half-hearted show of disapproval even though she obviously could have gotten free if she’d really wanted.

    Five years. Five years since the three of us had talked and laughed and actually been able to enjoy each other’s company. No less than three days ago Starr had been my mortal enemy and Ajia had been practically a stranger with all the secrets she held.

    And now the three of us actually had a road forward. To heal from our pasts. To find a new tomorrow. Together.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The next day, I was cleared to leave the Ranger HQ, and save for some general pain and dizziness, the psychic sickness was largely gone. I still had a hard time believing that I was walking away unscathed from a Legendary attack, but after the fifth time bringing it up, and the fifth time hearing Swift tell me not to worry about it, I was finally taking his advice to heart. In any case, I had more important things to think about. Like my upcoming training exam.

    I’d left the Ranger HQ alone after insisting to Ajia and Starr, for what felt like the millionth time, that I’d be fine on my own, and that I didn’t want them to call me a taxi. I could hardly blame them—I still felt weak, and it was almost certainly obvious in my movements. But there was something I needed to take care of away from them.

    It was easy to find an empty park not far from the Ranger HQ. The air was cold enough that no one was outside, especially considering that the city still had yet to recover from the disaster two days ago. I pulled out two Pokéballs, opening one of them to let out Swift. The other was Firestorm’s. Something told me I didn’t want to be alone while confronting him. Not because I was afraid he’d attack or anything. I just… needed the support.

    “Has he even been out since it happened?” I asked, feeling the pit in my stomach starting to swell.

    “*They let him out when they healed us,*” Swift explained. “*They had to give him something to calm him down before he’d let anyone get close though.*”

    Maybe he’d still be feeling the effects of whatever it was. Since he’d been in a ball this whole time, his condition shouldn’t have changed. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, but it was… something.

    I opened the ball. The burst of light started to take shape, and half of me still expected to see the waist-height, red fire lizard standing in front of me, not the huge, orange dragon that he’d become. But no, there he was, wings folded at his sides, arms resting limply on his belly, neck hanging low with his eyes on the ground.

    He’d obviously been cleaned up since it had happened. The only image of his new form in my memory was one with blood splattered across his face and claws. It suddenly struck me that someone was dead because of him, and I immediately wanted to put him back in the ball and forget everything. But no. I had to deal with this. And so, swallowing every doubt and hesitation and lingering suspicion that I could have done something to prevent his breakdown, I opened my mouth to speak.

    “Do you want to talk?”

    “*What’s there to say?*” Firestorm replied without looking up.

    I shifted a bit. “Well, I can think of a few things.”

    The Charizard exhaled sharply through his nose but didn’t say anything for some time. He just stood there, head low and eyes glued to the ground.

    “*I know what you must think of me,*” he finally said.

    I took a deep breath. “I don’t know what to think. Do you want to explain?”

    “*I should have told you ages ago,*” he said through gritted teeth. “You even asked me.*”

    I furrowed my brow. “What are you talking about?”

    The fire lizard glanced away, eyes screwed shut like he’d rather be doing anything other than having this conversation right now. But eventually he turned back and, without making eye contact, said, “*You’re not my first trainer.*”

    I tilted my head. “I… already knew that,” I said cautiously.

    “*I never told you why I had to leave my first trainer.*”

    I frowned. “…Didn’t you? You told me you were stolen from him.”

    He flinched, claws balling into fists. “*That’s not what happened. We—my trainer and I—came to the first city on the path. We couldn’t find the Pokémon Center, and… I guess we wandered into an area we weren’t supposed to go through. These older guys showed up and… their Pokémon attacked me, just for fun. I didn’t stand a chance… it was pathetic…*”

    So far, it all seemed to match up with what he’d told me before. It didn’t… seem like he’d lied.

    “*I wasn’t strong enough,*” Firestorm whispered, his voice quivering. “*I was supposed to protect my trainer. I failed. And it would have been me if he hadn’t tried to save me.*”

    …Oh.

    I exhaled slowly, searching for the right words to say, but everything felt hollow and tactless. “Your trainer… he’s dead, isn’t he?”

    Slowly, the Charizard nodded.

    “Were you two close?”

    Much to my surprise, the dragon let out a low, raspy laugh. “*No. He was only my trainer for a few days. But why should that matter? I didn’t serve my trainer well, I didn’t protect him, I didn’t do anything. I never have—even with you.*”

    How could he say something like that? “I don’t get it—how have you failed me?” I regretted the question almost immediately.

    “*Are you joking?*” Firestorm asked, lifting his head and staring me dead in the eyes. “*How many times have the Rockets almost killed us and I haven’t been able to do anything about it? Do you know how many times I’ve re-lived that day? Do you know how many times I’ve seen you lying on the ground, dead?*”

    I took a half step back, pulse quickening, fears and regrets flashing through my mind. Times I’d felt the same as him. Deaths that I could have, should have done something to prevent. But… no. No more of that. I’d been down that road. I’d blamed myself enough. It only led to pointless misery.

    I stepped forward, struggling to keep my face calm and collected. “It’s not your fault that you couldn’t protect me before. You didn’t need to do what you did back in the forest,” I said quietly.

    Slowly, he lowered his gaze to the ground once more, looking utterly miserable. “*It was the first time I was able to protect you.*”

    I put a hand to my forehead. “Firestorm, that’s… I already told you a long time ago, didn’t I? You honestly can’t expect yourself to get me out of every crazy situation that I get myself into. And I don’t want you considering what you did last night as your only success in a history of failing at life or something.”

    “*I was always too weak to kill.*”

    I paused, staring at him directly, a chill running down my spine. “Firestorm, what are you talking about?”

    He twiddled his claws, tail lashing back and forth. “*Anyone who would kill my trainer… I wanted them to die. But the thought scared me because I was too weak to handle it. I was hoping that once I evolved, I could—*”

    “Do you feel stronger now?”

    He looked up at me with a broken expression.

    “We could sit here and try to work out the morals of killing Rockets all day, but I’m more concerned about you,” I said harshly. “I don’t want you protecting me if it means obsessing over it and losing yourself.”

    Firestorm turned away again, unable to meet my eyes. A tangible silence fell over the area as he stared at the ground in deep thought.

    “*…I don’t feel stronger,*” he said finally. “*And… that’s not what I wanted to be like when I was finally able to protect my trainer. Not even strong enough to control myself? I just… no… it’s not what I wanted.*”

    I let out a long breath and slowly took another step closer. “Look, I’m… sorry that you had to go through that… with your old trainer. I should have realized something was up. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious how it affected you.” So many signs. So many things I’d brushed aside. Careless mistakes that had led to someone’s death. “I want to be a better trainer for you. If you felt like you had failed me, well… I didn’t do the greatest job telling you otherwise.”

    One last step and I was able to put a hand on the Charizard’s shoulder. It was weird standing so close to eye level with him. Just last summer he’d been that wide-eyed, naive little Charmander. Now, all these months later, he was taller than me.

    “Just… please promise me you won’t lose yourself again. It… hurt to see you like that.”

    Firestorm didn’t reply. But then, slowly, he lifted his arm to lay his claws over my hand, squeezing gently as he gave a small nod. We stood there for a long time—wordless, motionless, not even making eye contact. And yet I didn’t want it to end.

    “Come on,” I said finally. “We’ve gotta head to the other side of town. I figured it would be a good chance for Swift to teach you how to fly.” At my words, Swift, who had been silently watching us this whole time, stepped forward to stand alongside us, giving a light flutter of his wings. Firestorm craned his neck back to look at his own wings and flexed them experimentally, as though he’d only just now noticed that he could actually control them. Then he turned back to face me and Swift, eyes relaxing for the first time since his evolution.

    “*I’d like that.*”






    ~End Chapter 29~
     
    Chapter 30: To a New Tomorrow
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Aaaand, here's the final chapter of Book 1! Thanks to everyone who's followed the story thus far! Book 2 will begin on March 1st~



    ~ Chapter 30: To a New Tomorrow~


    I arrived at the League registration office and barely even had to wait—it wasn’t as if very many people applied for their license in November. And I was already in the system as having passed all the required classes. All that was left was the exam. The dreaded exam that had thwarted my last two attempts to become a trainer.

    As the examiner led me into the back room, I expected to feel… something. Fear. Anxiety. The pain of past failure burning a hole in the back of my mind. But now? After everything I’d been through? Enduring countless battles, calming unruly experiments, facing down raging Legendaries? This was nothing.

    The test ran through everything from wild Pokémon interactions, trained Pokémon handling, conflict resolution, trainer interactions, League policies, Pokémon rights, and yes, even the dreaded battling that had once been the bane of my existence. Two hours later and the results were in my hands and I was staring down at a passing grade. For years I’d imagined how this moment would feel. I’d imagined it would be my grandest triumph, finally beating the unjust system that had kept me trapped in Viridian for two long years. But now, in the moment… I mostly just felt relieved to finally have it finally over with. No rush of excitement. No explosion of joy. Just… relief.

    I was finally, finally going to be a real Pokémon trainer. And I’d done it before my fifteenth birthday, just like I’d said.

    So I told the staff I wouldn’t be needing a starter Pokémon, as I already had one lined up elsewhere. The first Pokémon registered under my ID would get logged as my starter, in this case. It only seemed fitting that it should be Swift—the only one who had been with me since before it all began.

    I’d pick up a Pokédex later. I’d need one if I wanted access to things like the automatic payment system, online storage system, or automatic Pokémon registration. And I’d want those things eventually, but for now, just having a trainer ID was enough.

    And so I found myself walking down the streets of Viridian, staring at the glossy card in my palm, part of me still not convinced that it was real. What next? There were almost too many options. I could go meet up with Ajia and Starr right away. I could finally follow up with the texts that Darren had sent me. I could call home and show that I’d finally upheld my end of the bargain, the one that had gotten me allowed to go on this journey in the first place. But first, and perhaps most importantly, I had to share the news with my Pokémon. After all, this was going to have a big impact on their lives from now on. And… there was still one thing I hadn’t considered until now—the experiments. All three of them had only joined me because I’d been fighting Team Rocket. Turning my back on that fight meant saying goodbye to the one thing that had brought us together. And for all I knew, it was the only thing keeping us together. The sooner I told them, the better. And if they wanted to leave, then…

    I sighed. No sense putting it off. I veered off from the sidewalk into an open lot between two buildings. Then I grabbed all five of my Pokéballs and opened them. Seeing them now, lined up together—Pidgeot, Charizard, Pikachu, Flygon, Absol—I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride in the team I’d brought together throughout the past few months. Even if a few of them might not be around for much longer.

    “*So you two really evolved, huh?*” Aros asked, tilting his head to get a good look at Swift and Firestorm. The latter blushed and glanced away, his evolution obviously still a sore topic.

    “*Well, congrats,*” the Flygon went on. “*Our fights might be a bit fairer now.*” He smirked. As if he cared at all about having a fair fight.

    “So, I’ve got a bit of an announcement,” I said, holding up my trainer ID for all of them to see. “I’m finally a real Pokémon trainer.”

    The significance of this was lost on the experiments, whose expressions varied between confusion and apathy.

    “*You weren’t a trainer before?*” Aros asked dismissively. “*Then what were you?*”

    But before I could figure out how to answer that, Firestorm cut in with, “*You passed the test?*” His eyes glinted with an enthusiasm that I hadn’t yet seen on his face as a Charizard.

    “*I knew you’d be able to do it someday,*” Swift added, beaming.

    It was silly, but seeing my first two Pokémon looking so proud of me, well… now I really couldn’t help but feel proud of it. Even if it wasn’t that big a deal—the kind of accomplishment that kids three years younger than me commonly pulled off.

    Aros glanced back and forth between us, still confused. “*Huh. So you’re a trainer now, or whatever. Does that actually change anything?*”

    I almost chuckled under my breath. “No not really. Just makes things easier for me, that’s all.” But then my mind snapped back to what I’d really called them all out to tell them. “It’s… not the only news, though,” I went on slowly, my mouth going dry. “I’m still going to be training in Johto, but I’m not going to be meeting up with Stalker and I’m not joining his resistance.”

    The Flygon tilted his head, antennae twitching. “*Why not?*”

    I exhaled slowly through my nose. “He’s… on the Johto force. He was just using us to get back at the Kanto force. He wasn’t trying to protect the Legendaries—his force has been catching them after we save them.”

    That got more of a reaction out of everyone.

    Firestorm jerked his head toward me. “*What?*” he asked, eyes wide. “*You can’t be serious.*”

    Unsure of what else to say, I just nodded. Several seconds passed with nothing but stunned silence from all of them.

    “*I’m so sorry,*” Swift said, lowering his head. “*That must have been hard to learn.*”

    I clenched my fists and looked away. “Yeah, it… it definitely hurt.”

    “*So that’s why you’re not going to fight Team Rocket anymore?*” Stygian asked, fixing her large, crimson eyes on me.

    Aros jolted, throwing a glance at the Absol. “*Wait, you knew about this?*”

    “*Just the part about leaving the fight. I didn’t know about Stalker.*” Right, she’d been in the room when I’d told Ajia. So had Chibi, for that matter. My eyes slid toward the Pikachu, who hadn’t given any visible reactions to anything so far. He was just staring at the ground, deep in thought.

    “*Wait, but… what does this mean for us?*” Aros went on, still confused. He glanced back and forth between Stygian and Chibi, then back at me with an imploring look.

    I sighed. “Well… I know you three joined me because that’d give you the opportunity to strike back against Team Rocket. You won’t be able to do that if you stay with me now. So… I guess what I’m saying is you’re free to go, if you want.”

    “*Go where?*” the Flygon asked blankly.

    I shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re all strong Pokémon, you could probably live wherever you wanted. I guess we can look up where your kind is from, if that’s what you mean.”

    He shook his head, tail lashing back and forth. “*That’s not…*” His voice trailed off.

    Stygian gave him a rough nudge with her shoulder. “*Just say what’s on your mind,*” she said bluntly.

    The Flygon shot a glare at her, but then stared downward, twiddling his claws. Finally, he said, “*I don’t want to live in the wild.*”

    I blinked. “I mean, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” I added quickly.

    Aros flattened his wings. “*But I can’t just stay with you if you’re not fighting the Rockets anymore.*”

    Firestorm gave him a skeptical look. “*Why not?*” I couldn’t help wondering the same thing.

    The Flygon squinted at us from behind his red eye lenses. “*How am I supposed to…? How would I ever…*” He let out a frustrated huff and vibrated his wings to float a couple dozen yards from us, sulking over by one of the buildings lining the lot. Stygian stared after him as he left, shaking her head slightly.

    “What about you?” I asked her.

    She turned to face me, considering me carefully. “*I’d be fine with the wild. He’s just soft. Couldn’t even catch his own prey.*”

    I winced. Well that seemed a bit harsh. Lots of human-raised Pokémon had trouble with that, and it wasn’t exactly hard to see why.

    “*That whole ‘needing to get back at the Rockets’ thing has always been an excuse,*” she went on.

    “What’s stopping him from just staying, then?” I asked her.

    The Absol pawed the ground, furrowing her brow. “*Well… okay. There’s a bit more to it than that. But that’s the gist of it.*”

    I stared. That really didn’t answer my question at all. But by now Aros was looking back at us from where he’d flown off to, swishing his tail fan in agitation. Stygian let out a sigh, then trotted over to him. The two experiments conversed away from the rest of us for a few minutes while I just stood there feeling awkward. Firestorm made eye contact with me and gave a clueless shrug, so at least I wasn’t the only one confused. I glanced down at Chibi, who still hadn’t said anything. He didn’t give any sign that he was going to, either. Which meant that it was probably best if I speak with him alone, like we usually did.

    “*Just go if you want to, then!*” Aros yelled out of the blue, grabbing all of our attention.

    Stygian smacked his leg with a paw. “*Idiot! I’m not leaving without you.*”

    I jammed my hands in my pockets and did my best to look like I hadn’t noticed. And I was suddenly struck by the realization that out of all my Pokémon, I knew the two clones the least. Sure, Chibi wasn’t very open with his emotions, and Firestorm had held his fair share of secrets until recently. But at least I knew them. And, well, it kind of made sense. The two of them hadn’t even technically been on my team until… what, five days ago? Longest five days of my life, but still.

    After several minutes, the two clones slowly made their way back to the rest of us.

    “So… is it alright if I ask what that was about?” I asked, halfway expecting to get chewed out just for asking.

    Aros snapped his eyes to mine, wings flaring. “*Look, I could live in the wild just fine if I wanted to. I just don’t want to,*” he said, pointing a claw at me.

    I really didn’t believe that at all anymore, but I nodded to spare his feelings on the matter.

    The Flygon relaxed slightly, lowering his wings. He glanced once at Stygian, then back to me. “*Okay, look… If we’re gonna stay with you, then you owe it to us to do something that isn’t boring.*”

    I blinked, completely not expecting that kind of one-eighty. I flashed a questioning look at Stygian, as if to ask ‘what the heck did you say to him?’, but the Absol didn’t respond.

    “We’d… be traveling across the region,” I began slowly. “Seeing new places. Having new experiences.”

    Aros cocked his head to the side, unimpressed.

    “…And battling new opponents, yes,” I added. Typical.

    The Flygon exhaled sharply through his nose, giving a curt nod. “*That is acceptable.*”

    I gave a sigh of relief and smiled weakly. “Alright, glad to have that settled. And… thanks. I appreciate it.” That last part was mostly directed at Stygian, who just shrugged dismissively.

    I recalled all of my Pokémon except for Chibi. And I was about to ask him his thoughts on the news, but then… something occurred to me. Something else I’d been wondering since I’d first woken up after the attack.

    “Can I ask you… what you think of me? After what I did to Lugia.”

    The hybrid took several seconds to mull the question over. “*I think you were an idiot. But you already knew that,*” he said simply.

    That was it? Nothing about how I’d basically betrayed the cause that we’d dedicated ourselves to for months? How I was the same as the Rockets?

    “Nothing else?”

    He opened a single eye and peered at me through its corner. “*I trust you had your reasons. I also trust you know to never do anything that stupid ever again.*”

    He wasn’t wrong. I’d done what was probably the stupidest thing I’d ever done in my life. And yet, I’d survived. How? That single nagging question had returned in full force.

    “Did you see what happened after I blacked out?”

    He shook his head. “*After Lugia threw me away, I ran to get Stygian and your friends. By the time we got back, Lugia was gone.*”

    “What about the Master Ball?”

    “*I wasn’t exactly looking for it. I had more pressing concerns,*” he said flatly.

    I rubbed the back of my head. “Eh… right.” In any case, that wasn’t the main reason I’d wanted to talk to him in private. “So… when I asked the others if they were alright with me leaving the fight… What are your thoughts?” I asked, already anxious to hear his answer.

    He stared at me, unblinking. “*You know I can’t just ignore what they’re doing to the Legendaries. It’s too big a part of what I am.*”

    I closed my eyes. “I know.”

    Several seconds passed. He let out a sigh and then said, “*But I don’t want it to be all that I am.*”

    My eyes snapped open, meeting his. The hybrid’s gaze had softened, his ears raised slightly.

    “*It’s like you said. I want to live for myself. It’s what he would’ve… It’s what I want. But I have to discover what that means first.*” He paused. “*Same as you.*”

    Chibi had a point. After all, that was what I was planning right now, wasn’t it? Traveling around, finding my own path as a Pokémon trainer, free from the pain and trauma of the past.

    Hesitantly, I replied, “I’d like it if we could both figure out what that means… together.”

    He smiled faintly, giving a slow head shake. “*We can’t hide from the past forever.*”

    “Maybe not. But I think we deserve a break,” I said, giving a weak smile of my own.

    I held out my hand, just the same way I had when I’d asked him to join me in the fight so long ago. And now I was asking him to join me in leaving the fight.

    The Pikachu stared at my hand for a long while. Finally, he reached out a paw and said, “*You’re probably right.*”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    My next destination took me to Route 8, past the expansive urbanization of Saffron and over the rolling grasslands crisscrossed with roads that led towards Lavender on the coast. I’d flown this same path plenty of times—mostly when returning to Midnight Island from Celadon HQ—but it had always been at night, and I’d never quite gotten to appreciate the waves of gold sweeping through the fields with the wind.

    It wasn’t hard to find Darren. Since we were still using R-coms for communication, I had the exact coordinates. I pointed out a cluster of trees running along the trainer path, and Swift folded his wings back to spiral down towards it. I clutched his feathers tightly as we descended. I still hadn’t quite gotten used to how much swooping momentum there was to his flight—nothing like the straight-line hovering of Aros’s insect-like wings—and there were times it felt like I was going to slide right off his back. But the Pidgeot levelled out his flight gradually, and the two of us landed softly on one of the dirt paths that cut through the grassland. Not too far from us, I spotted Darren reclining against his Venusaur, who appeared to be napping against a tree.

    “Hey, good to see you’re not dead,” he said, waving as I walked over.

    I snorted. “That’s more relevant than you know.”

    His face fell. “Oh geez. And here I thought we were done with that. But I guess you said you were joining Stalker in Johto, huh?”

    I shook my head. “Not anymore, I’m done with Stalker. This was a different thing. And it’s… kind of the reason I ditched you in Lavender,” I said sheepishly.

    “Yeah, I was starting to think you weren’t just getting your license,” he said, chuckling a bit. “Guessing it was something more important?”

    I grimaced. “Yeah, I… there was a bit of an emergency situation with an old friend of mine. It’s hard to explain, but—”

    The awkwardness on my face must have been blatantly obvious, because he cut me off with, “You don’t gotta tell me if you don’t want to. But did it work out in the end?”

    I blinked. I hadn’t really been expecting that kind of question, but looking back at it… all the fear, all the pain, all the stress from the past few days, and in the end, things had mostly worked out.

    “Yeah. It did.”

    He folded his arms behind his head and grinned. “Sounds like it was worth it then. Better than we can say about some of our missions.”

    I couldn’t help giving a small laugh. “You can say that again. In any case, you weren’t wrong about one thing.” I reached into my pocket and held up my shiny new trainer’s license.

    Darren’s eyes lit up. “Heeyyy, nice job, told you you’d pass,” he said, elbowing me lightly.

    “Yeah, I really shouldn’t have waited this long, but… I’m just glad to have it done with,” I said with a relieved grin.

    Darren nodded, putting a hand to his chin. “So what’s your plan now? Gonna do the Kanto League with Rudy? Well, wait, you said you didn’t want to go into competitive battling, right?”

    I winced. I would’ve had to explain it eventually, even if I didn’t want to. “Actually… that situation I mentioned with my old friend. It’s not really safe for either of us here in Kanto. And she doesn’t really have anywhere to go, so… I told her I’d be sticking with her.”

    Darren gave me a sideways glance. “Only came back to say you’d be ditching us again, I see how it is,” he said with a smirk.

    I opened my mouth to protest, but before I could get the words out, he cut me off with, “I’m just messing with you. It’s not like you said you’d be traveling with us or anything.”

    “I was gonna say,” I said, laughing slightly. “You had me worried there.”

    Darren leaned back against Venusaur, idly stroking the reptile’s leaves. “Besides, I’ll be sticking with Rudy. He acts like he doesn’t want me following him, but he hasn’t told me to leave yet.”

    I glanced around. “Where is Rudy, anyway?”

    “Out in the tall grass that way,” Darren said, pointing toward the hills to the south.

    “Cool, thanks. I’m gonna go talk to him,” I said, setting off in that direction.

    “Also, just so you know, I’m not letting you off the hook for those two Pokéballs,” Darren called after me.

    I spun around and called back, “Wasn’t expecting you to. Since I’ve got my license now, I can actually make good on that.”

    I trudged through dry, crunchy grass that reached up to my knees. A pair of Growlithe atop the nearest hill leered down at me as though looking for a fight, but then saw that I didn’t have any Pokémon out and realized they probably weren’t going to get one. Then something grabbed their attention and they tore off into the grass.

    I continued walking deeper into the field until a flash of black caught my eye off in the distance. I squinted at it until I was able to make out the form of a lithe, black dog leaping in and out of the grass. A Houndoom. So I was close. Sure enough, once I rounded the hill, there he was, dressed in a winter jacket but also still wearing his usual cargo shorts despite the cold autumn wind.

    “Hey, how’s it going?” I asked, giving a small wave as I neared.

    Rudy turned. He smiled, but his eyes held a faint heaviness.

    “We’re just working on some of her dark moves,” he replied. “Never really practiced them before ‘cause I always just stuck with fire.”

    I cupped my hands over my eyes as I squinted out at the rolling grassland. Now that I was paying closer attention, I could see that Ebony wasn’t just vanishing into the grass, she was literally vanishing, her body fading in and out in a flash of darkness. But once she noticed that she had another onlooker, the Houndoom quickly came trotting back to us, her tongue hanging out of her mouth.

    “That was… really good,” I said.

    Rudy gave me a sideways grin. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she learned it from the experiments, I just never drilled her on it ‘til yesterday.”

    Ebony bounced lightly in front of me, eyes shining. “*Absol taught me!*”

    “Really? I’ll have to let her know you’re doing so well with it.”

    The Houndoom beamed. Then her tail pricked up and she swung her head roughly in the opposite direction. I followed her gaze to see the same pair of Growlithe that had been eyeing me earlier, now leering at Ebony from the top of a nearby hill

    “Looks like you’ve got some new opponents. Go get ‘em, Ebony.”

    She took off bounding through the tall grass, full of endless energy as she tackled the opposing firedogs. Just like all the times I’d seen her roughhousing with Chloe back in the days before Rudy became a trainer. How was the Growlithe doing, anyway? She’d probably been sadder to see him leave with Ebony than I ever was.

    We stood there, watching the Houndoom blink in and out of view with wisps of black smoke clinging to her body. It was actually a bit weird seeing her battling without managing to accidentally set fire to everything and needing… and needing Wartortle to put out the flames.

    “So. How are you really doing?” I asked, giving Rudy a meaningful look.

    He gave me a sideways glance, then closed his eyes with a low sigh. “Trying my best to stay together. Y’know… for hers and the others’ sakes.”

    I nodded softly. That was probably the most that anyone could ask.

    “How are the others doing?”

    He exhaled slowly, shuffling his foot against the grass. “Aside from Ebony, Nidorino took it the hardest. I never even noticed he was close with Wartortle.”

    I hadn’t noticed either. I hadn’t noticed a lot of things. I hadn’t been there for a lot of things either.

    “I’m… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you after the attack.”

    Rudy didn’t respond for some time. He just gazed off into the distance, his expression blank. “I can’t really blame you for that. You were dealing with a lot of crap, too.”

    “You tried to be there for that, though.”

    “Yeah, well…” He sighed, staring downward and running a hand through his hair spikes. “We all had crap to deal with, in our own way. No one was really in a spot to be helping anyone out.”

    I grimaced, mind flashing back to that night. Still in shock from Razors’s sacrifice, unable to help him, or Chibi, or myself, or anyone.

    “I don’t think I ever took the Rebellion seriously,” Rudy spoke up, suddenly turning to face me. “It was all just a game, y’know? Like, it was dangerous, but somehow… things would always work out. They just… would.”

    I swallowed. “It wasn’t like either of us were really ready for it.” We were just kids. Stalker had known that. In retrospect, he’d probably been banking on that. Sure, I’d spent all my time constantly worrying about everything that could go wrong, but there were times where I’d envied Rudy’s carefree view. Maybe that was also naive of me.

    We’d both been naive. It felt like we’d aged years in just the past few months.

    “I’ve thought about quitting training, you know.”

    I jolted. “Why?”

    Rudy shuffled his foot against the dirt, mulling over what to say. “I guess… I wasn’t sure if I deserved to be a trainer. After what happened.” He clenched his fists. “I keep trying to think of ways to make up for it, but there’s nothing. It was only him. He was the only one I treated like that, and I don’t even know why. How screwed up is that?”

    It was only Wartortle. And now it was too late to change that.

    I sighed. “It sucks, but trying to do better is, well, better than nothing. Even if you don’t know how to do that.”

    He was silent for a long time. But then his face relaxed slightly. “Y’know Darren said the same thing. Hate to admit it, but he’s right. Giving up, quitting… that’s the easy road.” He straightened his back, clenching his fists at his side. “I… think I’m gonna keep training. I owe it to my Pokémon. And, I dunno… maybe I’ll figure out how to do better from there?”

    Rudy unclipped a Pokéball from his belt and stared at it for a few seconds, rolling it around in his palm. “I caught a Buizel the other day. I don’t know, I just felt like… like I needed a new team member and it should probably be a water-type to make up for the way that I…” He paused and shook his head. “That’s a stupid reason to catch a Pokémon. I think I knew it was stupid, because I haven’t even let the Buizel out at all. It might not even know I caught it.”

    Several seconds passed. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at until he roughly thrust the Pokéball in my direction. “Here.”

    I stared blankly. “What.”

    “Take it. I shouldn’t have it,” he said, giving the ball a shake for emphasis.

    My eyes flickered between the ball and his face, which was deathly serious. “Are you… sure?”

    He glanced away. “I still owe you for letting me train Pikachu. Consider it my half of a trade.” It was obviously just an excuse. But not a bad one. It at least got me considering it. The chance to train a new team member. One who didn’t have the same awful past with Team Rocket as the rest of us. Something about it felt… symbolic. A clean start to training.

    I held out my hand. “Yeah. Okay, thanks.”

    Rudy dropped the Pokéball into my open palm and then shoved his hands in his pockets, nodding forcefully like he was glad to have that settled.

    “So where you off to now?” he asked.

    I opened my mouth to answer. But then something grabbed me about the way he’d said it, and I realized that he wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t already known that I wasn’t going to be joining him. Or at least, he’d already figured.

    “I’m going to Johto. After all that Rocket stuff, I wanna stay away from the Kanto force as much as I can.”

    He folded his arms. “Johto, huh? Can’t say I had any plans to head out there until after I’ve seen all of Kanto.”

    I’d already expected that much. Which meant that this was the last time we’d be seeing each other for a long while. And yet…

    “I… don’t see why I couldn’t stop back here from time to time though,” I added quickly. “I’m sure my team would love having a battle at some point.”

    The faintest trace of a smile crossed Rudy’s face. “We’ll see. If I’m up for it.” He paused. “If my team’s up for it.” He held out his fist.

    My chest tightened. I’d come here to say goodbye, and he’d straight-up acknowledged that, and now I was the one having a hard time with it. It hurt, but… we both needed different things out of our journey right now. And hopefully this was the best way for both of us to heal.

    I tapped his fist. “See ya around.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    A flock of Pidgey took to the air as I stepped out of the tall grass and into a clearing on the western half of route 8. The towering buildings of Saffron rose above the horizon in the distance, and the sun was starting to near them. I pulled my jacket tighter to myself, then took out the Pokéball Rudy had given me. This was as good a spot as any—I opened the ball. A burst of white light spilled out and condensed on the ground in front of me, forming a small, orange-furred creature lying on its side. A Buizel—my new Buizel. Twin cream-tipped tails curled around its body, which still bore the scuffs and scrapes from the battle where Rudy had caught it. Nothing too serious—a potion would handle it. I grabbed one from my bag and began spraying down the weasel’s pelt.

    At least, until its eyes snapped open. Without warning, the Buizel leaped away from me, flaring its arm fins to the side to look as big as possible.

    “*You’re not the human who caught me,*” it hissed. “*What gives?*”

    I paused, a wave of awkwardness washing over me. Right. It had no idea what was going on. How was I supposed to explain it?

    “Er… the trainer who caught you… he traded you to me, and—”

    “*You can shut yer yap cause I ain’t heard enough humanspeak to know it yet,*” the Buizel said, sticking… her?—it sounded like a her—nose in the air.

    And… yeah, trainers didn’t exactly make a habit of trying to hold conversations with freshly-caught wild Pokémon. It usually took a couple weeks for Pokémon to understand human speech, if they hadn’t already heard enough of it from battling trainers while in the wild. Which this one obviously hadn’t.

    Feeling rather silly, I grabbed Swift’s Pokéball and let him out.

    “Gonna need you to translate,” I told him before launching into an abridged retelling of how Rudy hadn’t felt right about catching the Buizel and had given her to me in return for Pikachu. The sea weasel’s eyes twitched impatiently as Swift relayed the message. Then, without warning, she fired a stream of water right at me. I ducked instinctively, feeling the cold spray as it shot over my head.

    I snapped my attention back to the Buizel. “What was that for?!”

    “*You didn’t beat me. You didn’t catch me. I don’t gotta listen to anything you say.*” She stuck out her tongue.

    I sighed. “Fair enough.” I held up the Pokéball that Rudy had given me—the one that she’d been originally captured in. Then I pressed the center button to open it before tossing it in front of her. She didn’t waste a second. The ball had barely touched the grass before the sea weasel spat a narrow stream of water, soaking the inside of the ball.

    The outer shell of a Pokéball was incredibly durable. The internal circuitry? Not so much. Her captured status was as good as gone.

    “Run away or battle,” I said firmly.

    Some things didn’t need translating.

    With a wild, toothy grin, the Buizel generated a swirling pulse of water around her body, shooting forward in an instant. Swift braced himself against the impact, flaring his wings to the side to keep his balance as the weasel struck. He winced a bit from the blow, but other than some soaked belly feathers, didn’t look too damaged. The Buizel’s face fell. She jumped back, aiming a Water Gun at his face, but the Pidgeot took flight in that instant, and the water missed its mark. He flew in a tight circle over his opponent, dodging two more water streams before diving forward, beak glowing brightly.

    The Buizel didn’t try to dodge; she braced herself for the hit, obviously hoping to follow up with a counterattack. But Swift’s Aerial Ace completely bowled her over, tearing a streak of red across her fur in the process. I winced. Okay, I might have overestimated how tough this Buizel was. Or underestimated how strong Swift had become. Either way.

    But the sea weasel wasn’t down and out yet. She pushed herself up off the ground, staggering slightly, but ultimately managing to keep her footing. Then her paw stomped the dirt and another swirl of water enveloped her, sending her shooting into the air.

    This time Swift was ready. Even with the Aqua Jet’s incredible speed, he had the altitude advantage. All he had to do was clap his wings together, unleashing a violent whirlwind below him. The Buizel pushed against it, water spraying everywhere as she struggled to keep her trajectory on-point. And with just a bit more force, she might’ve been able to pull it off. But her jet faltered, and in that instant, the winds swept her up in a tight vortex before slamming her into the dirt.

    This time she wasn’t so quick to stand back up. In fact, it wasn’t until several seconds passed that it hit me—I was fighting a wild Pokémon, and I’d just knocked it prone. This was supposed to be where I’d catch it.

    I fumbled with my bag. Pokéball, needed to grab a Pokéball (why didn’t I already have one in hand?) I hadn’t even thought to buy any yet—thank god it was standard for new trainers to get five Pokéballs with their license, otherwise I might not have even had one. Finally, my fingers managed to grasp something small and round. I yanked my arm out of the bag, Pokéball now in hand, hit the button to expand it, and then—

    Wait. This was actually the first time I’d ever even attempted to catch a Pokémon. What if I missed? The mental image was too embarrassing to bear. And so, resisting the urge to do a full overhand windup like they always did on TV, I gave the ball a light underhand toss. It made contact with the Buizel’s fur and sucked her prone form inside before falling to the ground. I held my breath as it shook once, twice, three times, the center button flashing all the while. And then the flashing stopped.

    I exhaled slowly. I’d done it. I’d caught my first Pokémon. After five months of being on this journey, I’d hit the milestone that most trainers hit within the first week. It was surreal. It was also the coolest I’d felt in a long, long time.

    After the shock had worn off, I cautiously walked over to where the Pokéball lay motionless.

    For the second time today, I let Buizel out of her ball. She materialized on the ground and gave me a dirty look before turning her back to me and setting to work licking her wounds.

    “You wanted me to catch you fair and square, so I did. Willing to listen now?”

    After Swift repeated my words, Buizel turned from licking her cuts and shot me an incredulous glare. “*Your Pidgeot is way tougher than me. Whaddya need me for, huh?*”

    “I don’t ‘need’ you, but I’d like to have you on my team if you’re willing.”

    That gave her some pause. She tilted her head, considering my words carefully.

    “*How many badges you got?*” she finally asked.

    I blinked. “Well… none, but—”

    “*What good are you, then?*”

    “Look if you’ll just listen…” But Buizel had already gone back to cleaning herself.

    Alright. I wasn’t exactly doing a good job of selling myself. Granted, I wasn’t entirely sure why it mattered so much to me, but it just didn’t feel right to take her from Rudy only to immediately release her. Of course, I’d still do it if that was what she really wanted, but…

    “If you’re worried that I can’t make you stronger, then you’re wrong,” I said, not really sure where I was going with it.

    Buizel didn’t turn to face me, but her ears did twitch slightly. And her licking noticeably slowed.

    “I was… part of a team,” I went on, struggling to find the best way to explain it. “A secret team. And we were trained to protect Legendary Pokémon from people trying to hurt them.”

    That got a reaction. The water-type spun around, flashing me a skeptical brow raise. “*Nuh-uh.*”

    I nodded forcefully. Buizel’s eyes darted toward Swift, and he nodded as well.

    “*You’re telling me you guys were heroes?*”

    ‘Heroes’? That was… a weird way to put it. It didn’t feel quite right to call us that. Not after all our failures. Not after all my failures. But…

    “Sure. If that’s how you want to put it.”

    Buizel’s mouth hung open in shock. After several seconds, she finally regained herself enough to ask, “*What was it like? What were the Legendaries like?*”

    So she was curious now?

    “I can tell you all about it if you want. But it’s kind of a long story. You might have to stick with me for a while if you wanna hear all of it.” I gave her a sideways smirk.

    Buizel snorted, clearly wise to the game I was playing. And yet, the water-type stood on her hind paws and began walking toward me, shaking her head like she couldn’t believe what she was doing.

    “*Yeah, alright fine.*”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Wings beat heavily on either side of me—nothing like the smooth, rhythmic buzzing of Aros’s wings. But at the same time, I could get used to flying on Swift. His takeoffs might not have been as smooth, but his feathers made for a warmer, softer grip. And once we reached a high enough altitude, we could just soar effortlessly for miles. There was something undeniably calming about watching the clouds drift by underneath us as the sun slowly sank below them, painting the sky a vibrant pink and tingeing the edges of the clouds a brushfire orange.

    Swift was leading the way, and I trusted his navigation well enough to leave it to him. After all, Viridian City and its outskirts had once been his home too. And now, after all this time, we were heading back to Route 22. Where it all began. Where I’d been riding my bike all those months ago, Swift flying overhead as a tiny Pidgey. Where I’d first seen the blazing hillside and Team Rocket trying to catch Entei. Where I’d first been dragged into a war with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, all just because I’d wanted to go on a training journey with my friends.

    It was weird to think that now, after all this time, that wish was finally coming true. Not at all in the way that I’d thought it would, but it was still happening.

    Swift dipped below the clouds, wisps of water vapor trailing from his wingtips. I scanned the ground below, my eyes tracing the dirt path snaking its way through the tall grasses, skirting the edge of the forest as it led up into the highlands, and eventually, to Johto. Swift spotted them long before I did and began his descent. Then I saw them too. Ajia was laughing about something. Starr gave her a light shove but started laughing just the same.

    And in that moment, soaring on the back of my first Pokémon, preparing to set out on a journey with my best friends, it stuck me properly that for the first time in a long while, things felt sort of alright. It was easy to forget that Team Rocket wanted all of us dead. It was easy to forget that we had to stay on the move to avoid them. It was easy to forget all of the terrible things that had happened to us.

    In that moment, it was easy to pretend that everything was alright.



    ~END BOOK 1 OF THE LEGENDARIAN CHRONICLES~
     
    Chapter 31: Eight Months Later
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    THE LEGENDARIAN CHRONICLES
    BOOK 2: RESISTANCE





    ~Chapter 31: Eight Months Later~


    July 3

    Sweat dripped down my forehead as my hand hovered over a Pokéball, and the audience waited with bated breath to see what my final Pokémon would be. On the other side of the arena, Gym Leader Jasmine considered me with the same calm, composed air that she’d always shown. In front of her, a gigantic ironclad serpent slowly traced a circular path in the center of the battlefield, his body segments rotating rhythmically and massive jaws grinding against each other.

    Three on three, no substitutions, and both of us down to our final Pokémon. Steelix hardly looked worse for the wear after his brief scuffle with Aros, which he’d brought to a crushing end through a well-timed Ice Fang. I’d watched Jasmine take down dozens of opponents with him throughout the past week—he had the endurance of a champ and could shrug off small hits all day long. But I already knew who I wanted to use against him. We had to clear out all the electric-types first, but now she was in the clear.

    “Go!” I called out, throwing the Pokéball forward. The burst of light condensed into the form of an orange weasel, who bounced lightly on her hind paws, spreading her arm fins wide before sizing up her opponent. She had to crane her neck back just to make eye contact with him. But rather than flinch or show any sign of apprehension, the Floatzel just grinned.

    Technically Jet had the advantage. Technically. Our opponent was still huge metal snake that was not gonna go down easy. The referee waved both flags to start the round, and the match was on.

    “Aqua Jet!” I called out

    Jet crouched low and sprang into the air, a swirling pulse of water propelling her forward. The water jet traced a jagged line in midair, zeroing in on Steelix’s lower body and striking the joint between two segments with a fierce spray of water. Steelix jerked slightly, eyes tensing for a moment. A solid opening hit, but nothing too devastating.

    “Thunder Fang,” Jasmine said, her voice so soft I could barely hear it.

    But Steelix definitely heard. The iron snake slowly turned his oversized head, keeping his eyes on Jet as she dashed around to his other side. Suddenly, he lunged, massive jaws opening, boulder-sized teeth crackling with lightning. Jet saw him coming though, and deftly backflipped away just in time for his jaws to snap shut on open air.

    “Nice dodge!” I exclaimed.

    Jet landed a good twenty feet away from Steelix and spun around on her front paws, sticking out her tongue at the giant snake.

    Jasmine frowned. “Autotomize,” she said. Again, I could barely hear her over the grinding of dirt as Steelix pivoted in the middle of the battlefield, keeping his head trained on Jet the entire time. But this time, rather than pursue her, he began rotating his body segments. Slowly at first, then building in speed. Fast, faster, past the point that he should have been able to, moving so fast that his spines were just a blur. Finally there was a powerful crunch, and the outer layers of his metallic skin snapped off, clattering to the floor with an echoing clang. The freshly-shed Steelix gave a swish of his tail and did a quick loop in the center of the battlefield, segments still whirring like an engine, dirt grinding beneath his body. Satisfied with the increased speed, he leveled his head at Jet, body tensed with potential energy, ready to strike.

    Well, there went our mobility advantage.

    “Now. Another Thunder Fang.”

    Steelix lunged at Jet with so quickly he was almost a blur. The Floatzel dashed to the side, using a spurt of water to push herself faster than she’d normally be able to run. But neither of us were ready for how quickly he managed to turn and zero in on her, teeth already sparking. He was right behind her. Only a few more seconds and he’d close the gap.

    “Jump now!” I yelled.

    Jet leaped upward the instant before Steelix would have struck, somersaulting over his head in a wide arc. But the steel-type snapped his head upward at the last second, and his jaws locked tight around one of her tails. Electricity surged through the Floatzel’s body, and I flinched as her pained screeching filled the air. When it finished, she was left dangling from his jaws, flailing indignantly, punching his teeth repeatedly, to no effect.

    Oh crap. Jet was stuck. Steelix’s teeth began sparking again. He’d have no problem just repeating the attack, over and over. Unless—!

    “Water Gun!” I blurted out.

    The reaction was immediate. Jet used the momentum from her flailing to swing her body upward and spit a narrow stream of water straight into Steelix’s eye. The iron snake recoiled backward, grunting in pain, and that was all the opening that Jet needed to wriggle her tail free and drop to the ground.

    Shouldn’t have wasted a moveslot on Water Gun of all things, but it managed to get her free, so it was worth it. But now I was stuck on what to do next. With Steelix’s increased speed, we couldn’t just go for repeated light blows. I could have Jet stop and try to pull off a Bulk Up, but the benefits likely wouldn’t outweigh the damage she’d take from being an open target. Come on—what was the best move?

    Jasmine pointed a finger forward. No need to give a command, there was no reason not to keep going with Thunder Fang. Jet couldn’t take too much more of that. Had to think. Some way to get our advantage back.

    Then, out of nowhere, an idea struck, and I shouted, “Whirlpool!”

    Jet flashed a toothy grin, then dove at Steelix within a pulse of water, swerving around his lower body as he lunged with his jaws. Tighter and tighter she spiraled around the steel-type, until the outer circles joined together with the inner ones, forming a swirling vortex that swallowed up his lower body and held him firmly in place. There! It’d be that much harder for him to pivot now.

    Steelix gave a small snort of annoyance, then lunged again, but the swirling waters held his lower body in place, and he couldn’t pull himself out. Jet laughed and pelted him with a few spurts of water now that he had no way to close the distance.

    Jasmine paused, observing the turn of events carefully. Then she said, “Bulldoze.”

    Ah, crap.

    From within the watery grip of the swirling whirlpool, Steelix wrenched his tail free. Then he struck the ground, letting loose a rolling shockwave that churned up the dirt floor as it traveled across the battlefield. Jet stopped laughing abruptly, then attempted to leap over the wave, but the moment she landed, the dirt under her paws crumbled into chunks, then dug into her body from all sides. The Floatzel grunted in pain as she sluggishly wrenched herself free, swaying a bit on her feet once she stood back up.

    On the plus side, that was Jasmine’s fourth move command. No more surprises now. On the downside, Jet’s legs had taken the full brunt of that shockwave, and her movements had noticeably slowed.

    “Don’t worry about it, just use Aqua Jet!” I called out.

    That’d make up for the loss of speed, in any case. Once the burst of water flared up around her body, Jet shot forward like a bullet, using it to close the distance much faster than she’d have been able to run. The Floatzel swerved around Steelix, narrowly avoiding another tail smash, then dove into the whirlpool surrounding him, following the momentum of its current. Her silhouette was little more than a blur as she pelted the serpent with repeated Aqua Jets from within the swirling waters. He flinched with each blow, eye twitching. I knew that tell. The attacks were getting to him. Slowly. But at the same time, he was just watching her do it. Carefully waiting for the right moment…

    “Keep your guard up!” I warned.

    But there was a moment’s pause after her next Aqua Jet. She hesitated for just a second too long. Suddenly Steelix’s head zeroed in not on where she’d been, but where she was going to be the moment she darted forward. Boulder teeth locked around her midsection, crackling with electricity. Jet gasped in pain and shock as lightning coursed through the entire whirlpool with her trapped inside.

    No!

    But the Floatzel hadn’t gone limp yet. She was still struggling against Steelix’s hold, bubbles streaming from her mouth with each thrash. Only a few more seconds before she’d run out of air and we’d have to forfeit.

    Last chance, had to make it count.

    “Waterfall!”

    I wasn’t even sure if she could hear me over the rushing water of her own whirlpool. Or if she’d register the command with how much pain she had to be in. But then, without warning, the whirlpool broke, and all the water in the vortex suddenly collapsed together in a rushing wave, shooting straight upward with Jet right at the center of it. Steelix’s eyes went wide just a second before the wave crashed into his face, snapping his head backward with a grinding crunch. For a single, heart-pounding moment, he leaned back as though suspended in midair. Then his weight dragged him down and his head crashed into the dirt, where he lay unmoving.

    The referee swung a red flag towards Jasmine. “Steelix is unable to battle. The challenger is the winner!”

    A sudden wave of noise burst from the audience stands, where all the gym trainers had been watching their leader’s match—half of them cheering for our victory and the other half groaning at Steelix’s defeat. The waterfall collapsed, streaming over the battlefield, and Jet emerged from within, coughing and sputtering. It didn’t last long though—she quickly regained herself and flashed a wide grin at the audience. Jasmine recalled her Steelix without a word, but then folded her arms behind her back and gave a gentle smile.

    We’d done it. We’d won the gym battle.

    I realized too late that Jet was bounding towards me now. Eighty pounds of wet furball collided with my chest and knocked me to the ground.

    “*I did it! That’s right, me!*” she called out, posing for the onlookers in the audience.

    “Yep. You sure did,” I gasped, thoroughly winded. “Now, could you please get off.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    It had been eight months since the rebellion against Team Rocket was brought to a crushing end, and some days, when I was particularly distracted, I could forget about everything that happened and just be a normal trainer enjoying their journey throughout the Johto region.

    There were, of course, reminders. My friend Ajia, who was still deeply involved in the fight against Team Rocket, but avoided bringing it up, for my sake. My friend Starr, who had once been a top Rocket leader and my greatest enemy, but who had thrown it all away to save my life. My Pokémon, half of which were genetic experiments, rescued from Team Rocket’s labs. Sometimes the memories would creep up on me when I was least prepared for them, like the dead of night, lying in bed, suddenly flashing back to the floor of a Rocket detention cell. My dreams were laced with threads of lightning, pierced by the mindlessly glowing eyes of Mewtwo, and haunted by the looming spectre of a giant avian dragon, glaring murderously, ready to end me.

    But for the most part, life had gone on. Each day on the road in Johto was another day that I’d survived beyond all of that. And each day brought new experiences that had nothing to do with any of it.

    After a quick stop at the Pokécenter, I found myself and all six of my Pokémon—Swift the Pidgeot, Firestorm the Charizard, Chibi the Pikachu-Zapdos hybrid, Aros the Flygon, Stygian the Absol, and Jet the Floatzel—seated at the trainer area of an outdoor cafe, eating lunch and listening to Firestorm recount his battle with Magneton for his teammates that hadn’t seen it.

    “*So that was a direct hit with Thunderbolt, yeah? Didn’t think I could take another one, even if it was real slow and I was dodging everything, eventually one of them was gonna land.*”

    The Charizard was standing back from the table, giving him room to spread both his arms and wings to accentuate the dramatic beats of his story. On his opposite side was Aros, listening to the story with as disinterested a look as possible, though he couldn’t help giving a nod of approval at certain parts. Chibi stared off into the distance, the salty sea breeze ruffling his pointed head feathers. Stygian was sprawled out under the table, pawing at something beneath the deck floorboards and not particularly paying attention. But Swift was hanging on every word, beaming with pride at his teammate’s success.

    “*So then, uh…*” The Charizard paused, tapping his claws together. “*Wait, what was next?*”

    “Smokescreen,” I offered.

    His face lit up. “*Oh yeah! Jade ordered Smokescreen. So Magneton starts using Swift a ton. I mean a ton, there’s stars everywhere, and they’re all hitting me, even with the smoke.*”

    I smirked. “When are you gonna remember that Swift is a sure-shot move?” He’d forgotten during the match, too.

    But the fire lizard just snorted. “*That’s your job.*”

    Alright, that was fair.

    “*So I had to land and cover my face with my wings and just slowly walk toward it, taking the hits. And I couldn’t see, but neither could it, but I could feel where the stars were coming from. So I just let off this huge Flame Burst that explodes right in the middle of all three magnets and boom!*”—Firestorm clapped his hands together with a small wisp of flame between his claws—“*Down it goes.*”

    Jet leaped onto the table, throwing a paw up to give him a high five—which would have knocked my food tray to the floor if I hadn’t managed to catch it before it slid all the way off. I gave her an unamused stare, and she grinned sheepishly before jumping down.

    “*I took down Magnezone. That’s a lot harder than beating Magneton,*” Aros pointed out to me in the kind of tone you’d use for something helpfully informative and not stating the obvious.

    “You know, you might have forgotten this, but I was there, and I saw the whole thing,” I said with a laugh. “In any case, sorry about that whole Hidden Power thing. No one else used any dragons against her, so I had no idea it would hit so hard.”

    “*It’s not that impressive,*” Jet chimed in. “*Aren’t those magnet guys mad weak to ground?*”

    Aros opened his mouth to protest but I cut him off with, “Actually, in his defense, it had used Magnet Rise, so we had to totally change our strategy.” The Flygon gave a satisfied huff at my explanation. Jet just shrugged before dropping to the ground and hunting under the table for lost fries.

    All of a sudden, I felt my Pokégear start buzzing. I grabbed it from my pocket and checked it to see that Starr was calling me.

    “Hey, how’s it going?” I answered.

    “Terrible. When are you gonna save me from Ajia?” Starr replied in an exaggeratedly defeated tone. I heard a laughing voice in the background call out, “Oh, whatever!” Starr snorted and then added, “Yeah, okay, I might be lying. It’s been nice.”

    Since Starr and I had been primarily travelling together, with Ajia only meeting up with us once a month or so, the two of them had spent the past week in the Sevii Islands, just the two of them. Plus it had given me the chance to spend some time with just me and my team. Having both our teams out together could sometimes get a bit… tense. Not outright hostile like eight months ago, but still. (Not that any of that had affected Jet. She’d immediately gone up to Starr’s team and tried to make friends with all of them, to varying degrees of success.)

    “So, you still up for Blackthorn?” Starr asked.

    “Of course!” I said with a grin.

    “Sweet, it’s been ages since I’ve been to the hot springs there. Looking forward to that.”

    I chuckled under my breath. “Yeah, you have fun with that.”

    She scoffed. “Don’t think you’re getting out of it. Anyway, when do you think you can meet us there?”

    “Tonight’s fine. I’m done with my gym battle so we’re just wasting time in Olivine.”

    “Oh nice, you’ll have to tell me how that went. So see you tonight?”

    “Yup, see you then,” I said, ending the call.

    Swift turned to face me once I had put my phone away. “*So where’s our next destination?*” he chirped.

    “Sounds like it’s gonna be Blackthorn City.”

    “*Who’s flying?*” Aros asked.

    “It gets pretty cold in those mountains, even this time of year. So I was thinking Firestorm.”

    The Flygon shrugged. “*Fine with me. But we should stop at the beach before we leave town.*”

    Firestorm snorted and rolled his eyes. “*You always want to do that.*”

    “*I like sand,*” Aros replied defensively.

    “Yes, we can hit the beach,” I said, standing up. “Might as well enjoy the sun before we head up into the mountains anyway.”

    I was pretty much done with my food, so I picked up the tray and went to throw its contents in the trash. At least, until Jet poked my side and made grabby-hands at it.

    I rolled my eyes and lowered the tray so she could reach it. “Here.” She shoved the remaining fistful of fries into her mouth.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Olivine City was a heavily industrial town, with the majority of its coastline taken up by piers and shipping yards. That said, there were still a few nice public beaches out on the western edge of town. My shoes kicked up sand as I left the main path and walked down the gleaming white shore, shielding my eyes from the sun as I went. Maybe I should have thought to pick up sunglasses, but it was a little late for that now.

    Once I’d located a stretch of sand that was relatively clear of other beach-goers, I set down my bag, kicked off my shoes, and let all six of my Pokémon out of their balls. Jet dashed forward and dove into the water immediately, surfacing a few seconds later and playfully squirting a few streams of water at the others. Firestorm shielded himself with his wings and gave an annoyed snort before turning around, giving a few flaps, and taking off, soaring low overhead. Stygian pawed at the sand for a bit, then took off running down the shoreline and through the flocks of Wingull that lined the beach, scattering countless fluttering white shapes into the air. Meanwhile, Aros had set to work digging out a massive hole and constructing a large mound of sand around himself.

    “You better smooth that back out when you’re done; the lifeguards don’t like it when people leave holes everywhere,” I told him.

    “*I got it, I got it,*” the Flygon replied, giving a swish of his tail.

    I grabbed a towel from my bag and laid it on the sand. I wasn’t much in the mood for swimming, and the ocean was always too cold for my tastes anyway. I could at least relax on the beach while everyone else had fun though. Swift wound up settling down next to me, fluffing out his feathers to absorb maximum warmth and closing his eyes contentedly. The only other one who hadn’t gone off to busy himself was Chibi. The Pikachu was sitting by himself in the sand, gazing out at the ocean with a troubled look on his face.

    “Something up?” I asked.

    “*It’s nothing,*” the hybrid replied.

    I made sure he wasn’t looking at me before I smirked. “With you, it’s never nothing.”

    He gave a small huff but didn’t dignify that with an answer.

    I tilted my head. “You weren’t hoping you’d get to be in the gym battle, weren’t you?”

    Chibi turned and gave me a face that said, “who do you think I am?” Alright, so I didn’t really think it was something as dumb as that. Just wanted to rule it out.

    Several seconds passed in silence. Finally, he opened his mouth and said, “*I know we said we both needed to take a break from it all…*” but his voice trailed off before he could finish.

    Oh. It was this again. Seemed like every few weeks, he’d start asking about the situation with Team Rocket again. It was making it harder and harder to pretend that we’d left that world behind.

    I took a deep breath. “Okay, look. I’ve been asking Ajia about it practically every time I see her, which is what you told me to do, by the way. She still hasn’t heard anything.”

    His ears pricked up at my words. “*That’s even worse. Eight whole months and nothing?*”

    “She said they’re probably just working on gathering funds to recover from their main HQ being totally fried last November,” I said pointedly.

    He paused, taking a few seconds to think of a response. “*That, or they’re working on something big and they don’t want anyone to know about it.*”

    “We don’t have any proof of that.”

    “*We can’t disprove it.*”

    I put a hand to my forehead. “No, I guess we can’t, but that really doesn’t tell us anything.”

    Chibi turned away, flattening his ears in frustration. He sat there like that for several seconds before standing up suddenly and announcing, “*I’m going for a walk.*” He then wandered off down the beach, kicking at the sand as he went.

    I sighed. I wasn’t like I didn’t understand his anxiety. There were times that I felt it too, no matter how many times I told myself that the fight against Team Rocket wasn’t my problem anymore. But there wasn’t any sense in stressing out over something that we had literally no information on. It wasn’t like we could do anything about it now.

    I was dragged from my thoughts by a sopping-wet Floatzel leaning into my field of view and staring me straight in the eyes.

    “*Hey. I’m bored.*”

    I smirked. “We’ve got a whole ocean here,” I said, gesturing to it as though she hadn’t noticed.

    The sea weasel flopped down into the sand next to me, sending a wave of it into my lap. “*Whatever. Tell me one of the rebel stories.*”

    “You’ve already heard them all,” I said with a snort.

    “*I don’t care. Tell me the one where your friend was gonna kill you but then she didn’t. I like that one.*”

    I let out an exaggerated sigh. “Alright, you asked for it,” I said, sitting fully upright and spreading my arms for dramatic effect. “So there we were in the main Rocket base. Alarms blaring, Rockets all around us with no way out…”

    And so, like I’d done a dozen times before, I told the story of how Starr betrayed Team Rocket. From the unruly lightning that tore the air from Pichu’s battle with Raichu, to the crushing checkmate at the hands of Mewtwo. From the overbearing presence of Giovanni to the smothering feeling of certain death when he gave Starr his ultimatum. Halfway through the story Floatzel flipped onto her back and stretched out widely, sunning her belly. It was always hard to tell if she’d dozed off or not. But either way, I kept going. It felt good to tell the story. Especially when I got to that single, unbelievable moment when Starr had decided to turn her back on the Rockets, despite the fact that there had been absolutely nothing in it for her. By all accounts, it should have been a death sentence. And yet she’d done it anyway. And that was why I’d known without a doubt that her change of heart was genuine. Even though there had been times when it had been difficult to move on, or difficult to forget the things she’d done, that moment always managed to stand out more, like a flame piercing the rest of my memory.

    The afternoon stretched into early evening, with Jet dozing off periodically (but still opening one eye every so often to make sure I was still talking.) At some point Chibi wandered back, and he and Stygian passed the time by racing each other up and down the shoreline, thus ensuring that no Wingull could safely land there for the rest of the afternoon. But eventually Stygian took a break from that and went to pawing at Aros’s now quite formidable sand mountain, knocking down some of its spires. Aros was content to deal with this by occasionally swatting the Absol back with his tail. At least until Firestorm swooped over them and upped the ante by breathing out a small, concentrated spurt of flames at the mountain, melting its tip into a brightly glowing lump of glass.

    “*What are you doing?!*” Aros demanded, standing up in one swift motion that knocked most of the sand from his body.

    “*It looks better this way,*” Firestorm said, landing next to Stygian and flashing an innocent grin.

    The Flygon glared at him, then dug his claws into the sand. Seconds later, the ground underneath Firestorm and Stygian collapsed into a sinkhole, sucking the two of them down and ensnaring them in a Sand Tomb.

    “Oh my god, you guys…” I said, chuckling under my breath.

    “*I want in on this!*” a voice cried out near me. I glanced to my left, where there was now a Floatzel-shaped indent in the sand, conspicuously empty. Now Aros had to defend his rather sad and abused-looking sand mountain from invaders on three different sides.

    “You know, if you guys wanted to battle, we’re not on the right beach for it,” I said, gesturing towards the designated battle area on the other side of the volleyball courts. No one heard me, and even if they had, I doubt they’d have cared.

    For the second time today, my Pokégear started buzzing. I reached for it, careful not to get sand on it, and half expecting to see Ajia or Starr calling me back. But nope, it was the name I hadn’t been expecting, but really should have been.

    I answered the call with, “Hey Rudy.”

    “Got your text, how’d the battle go?” he asked immediately.

    I grinned. “It was great. Came pretty close to the wire, but we pulled through and got the badge,” I said, unable to keep myself from pulling it out again and admiring its metallic surface in the gleaming sunlight.

    “Awesome, you gotta send me a pic of it later,” he said rapidly, his words ending in a sudden pause, as though he was waiting for something with bated breath.

    I waited a few seconds for good measure and then slowly asked, “…So what about you?”

    “Oh man, thought you’d never ask!” he exclaimed, and I could practically hear the grin behind his voice. “Just got to the plateau. Man, you should see this place, it’s freaking huge. I can’t even tell how many stadiums they got here. I think five. It’s at least five. Man, even the side ones make Midnight Stadium look like kid stuff. They’ve got huge-ass shields too, so you can just cut loose and practice your attacks as hard as you want.”

    I couldn’t help smiling. Rudy had been looking forward to the Kanto League tournament for months, and now that it was finally on the horizon, it was hardly surprising that it was all he could think about.

    “So I got registered, got my Pokémon approved and everything, so we just spent the day checking out everything. You wouldn’t believe it, there’s gotta be like a million shops here. Everything’s freaking expensive, but I did get some sweet gear for my team—I’ve gotta show you when you get here.” He paused for about two seconds but then immediately kept going with, “Well, alright, I’ll tell you one of them; Nidoking’s wearing an Expert Belt. But that’s the only spoiler you’re getting. Oh, did I tell you how many people are here? Well, actually, it’s not that many yet, I think I was one of the first ones.”

    I laughed. “Honestly, when you said you were gonna get there early, I didn’t believe it. Since when do you arrive early to anything?”

    “Hey, if you wanna be serious about the tournament, that’s what you gotta do,” he said matter-of-factly, like nothing was more obvious.

    I shrugged. “Alright, that’s fair.”

    A couple seconds’ pause followed. “So… you sure you’re not entering the tournament?” he asked in an overly-hopeful voice.

    I put a hand to my forehead. “Rudy, there’s a month left, and I have zero Kanto badges. I’ve been traveling through Johto. And I only have four of those badges. So no.”

    He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Lame. I don’t think they let guests enter the tourney site until August.”

    “I can wait.”

    “Fine. Guess I gotta bother Darren then,” Rudy said. “If he ever shows up. I swear, it’s like he’s not even trying.”

    I raised an eyebrow. “Where’d you two get separated, anyway?”

    “I went on ahead of him on Route 23; he wanted to take it slower.” All of a sudden Rudy gasped. “Hey wait, I haven’t even told you about Victory Road yet!”

    Oh no. That was definitely going to take a while.

    “You can tell me all about that in person, okay?”

    “Seriously?”

    “I’m heading to Blackthorn soon, and I wanna make it there before sundown. Aaand I get the feeling this is a long story,” I added with a slight laugh.

    Rudy snorted. “Yeah? Alright, you got me there. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice over the phone anyway.” In the background, I could just barely make out a muffled barking sound. “What? Oh yeah, Ebony says hi.”

    I chuckled. “Tell her I’m looking forward to seeing her.”

    There was the muffled sound of Rudy saying something with the microphone pointed away from him, then a much louder and clearer voice barking out, “*Really?! Oh boy, oh boy!!*” Then some other scattered background noises, some of which sounded vaguely like Pokéspeech. Then Rudy’s voice came back with, “Gotta go now talk to you later!” all in one breath before he ended the call.

    I couldn’t help snickering as I pocketed my phone. Now I had that to look forward to as well.

    I stretched widely before standing to my feet, dusting the sand off my shorts, and calling out, “Hey, guys!” Aros, Stygian, Jet, and Firestorm all glanced over at me from their wrestling pile surrounded by lumpy mounds of soaked or melted sand.

    “We’re heading out soon. Come on, let’s get the beach cleaned up.”

    My words were met with scattered grumbling, and it took me repeating it several times before everyone took the suggestion to heart. (Granted, it mostly involved Aros using Sand Tomb to dissolve the mountain and Firestorm flying the melted bits off to sea.) After that, I gathered up all my stuff, recalled everyone except Firestorm, and braced myself for our flight into the northern mountains.

    “Well, we’ve got a month until we meet Rudy in Indigo,” I said as the fire lizard spread his wings. “What do you think the odds are we can get the Blackthorn gym badge in that time?”






    ~End Chapter 31~

    Two more chapters of normal trainer fic. Enjoy it while it lasts.
     
    Chapter 32: The Kanto League
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 32: The Kanto League~


    The Tohjo Mountains stretched out in every direction as Firestorm and I soared eastward from Blackthorn with Starr riding Swift not far behind us. By now, the sheer slopes of Mt. Silver towered over the southern horizon as we crossed over into Kanto, and from there the terrain gave way to rocky highlands, and then forested hills. Until finally, a wide, flat-topped mountain appeared on the horizon ahead of us, the only landmark for miles.

    “*Is that it?*” Firestorm asked.

    I grinned. “Yep. That’s Indigo.”

    The massive rock face practically glimmered in the mid-morning sun, its surface streaked with red and purple. I caught sight of the cave entrance at the base of the mountain, beyond which lay the sprawling labyrinth of Victory Road that any first-time competitors would have to pass through before being allowed entry. Good thing I wasn’t actually participating in the tournament.

    Warm updrafts sent us soaring upward until we were flying directly over the city, and I finally caught my first glimpse of the tournament site. A massive central building was ringed by an impressive array of stadiums. I had spent so long training on Midnight Island that I thought I had a good idea of what stadiums were like, but like Rudy had said, these put Midnight Stadium to shame—able to fit an endless number of spectators and boasting towering screens to report ongoing battle statistics. Surrounding the main stadiums were smaller battlefields and lines of training ground, where trainers’ Pokémon could be seen launching attacks into the air.

    As we neared the airspace over the plateau, it became increasingly obvious just how many other trainers were making the same journey, as the sky was absolutely swarming with flying Pokémon. A scattered group of uniformed people riding Pidgeot circled the area, waving colored flags to direct the aerial traffic. I nudged Firestorm’s side in a way that told him to slow down, and then we waited until one of the rangers gave us the go-ahead to land in a roped-off patch of dirt on the southwestern edge of the plateau.

    Everyone making the flight today had to be guests. Most of the competitors had probably been here for at least a month, training and preparing for the tournament to begin tomorrow. There was still the occasional frantic and out-of-breath trainer sprinting up the grand stairs from Victory Road at the last minute, however.

    “*I’ve never seen this many trainers in one spot,*” Firestorm said, craning his neck around to take in all the details surrounding us. “*Just think of how many people we could battle here.*”

    I gave him a nudge. “Hey, remember we’re not here to compete, we’re just supporting Rudy and Darren.”

    Firestorm shrugged. “*Doesn’t mean we can’t have fun in the meantime.*”

    A sudden burst of air rushed into my face as Swift landed alongside us. Starr jumped down from his back right before I recalled both him and Firestorm to make room for the other fliers landing all around.

    “Man, that took way too long,” Starr said, stretching widely.

    I raised an eyebrow. “It was only a thirty minute flight?”

    “Yep. Too long, if you ask me. Shame Ajia can’t just have Espeon give us a lift everywhere.”

    I snorted. ‘Espeon’—in other words, Mew. “I think ‘Espeon’ has better things to do,” I said dryly.

    Starr shrugged. “Whatever. Speaking of, is Ajia here yet?”

    “I texted her earlier. She said she was busy and that she’d be getting here later today.”

    “Attention all guests!” a recorded voice blared from speakers mounted around the landing area. “Please see the visitor’s booth for a spectator badge and a map of the tournament site outlining which areas are off-limits to all non-competitors. Tickets for designated seats can also be purchased at this time.”

    Well, that wasn’t going to be a problem. I’d already reserved a basic spectator badge, which was enough to get me into the tournament site and let me watch the preliminaries. If anyone I knew made it into the top cut, I’d think about buying seats for it, but otherwise it was too expensive to consider.

    “So I’m gonna go meet up with some friends,” I said, pausing slightly. “You can come with me, if you want?”

    “No thanks. I’ll just entertain myself around the city until Ajia gets here,” Starr replied.

    “Alright, I’ll catch up with you two later,” I said, waving to her before I walked off.

    After sending a quick text to Rudy to let him know I’d made it here, I waited in line to pick up my badge at the visitor’s booth. Within seconds, I’d received his reply of, “Alright! I’m over at public battlefield C. See you there!”

    All I had to do was show the attendant my ID and she handed me a glossy card that read ‘99 Kanto League Championships’ with the word ‘spectator’ under it in big, bold font. Simple though it was, I couldn’t deny that it felt really cool to hang the badge around my neck and freely set foot inside the tournament site. Who didn’t dream of visiting Indigo Plateau during tourney season? Granted, that dream usually included being an actual participant, but I’d long since abandoned the idea of being a competitive battler, and just being here was cool enough.

    So I wandered the tournament site, passing under the shadows cast by the grand stone arches at the entrance. My eyes traced the ridiculous array of vendors’ stalls that had been set up along the walkway, which was absolutely packed with trainers. I saw battle enhancements of every shape, size, and color, the majority of which I didn’t even know the names of. An absolute rainbow of different types of Pokéballs. Walls upon walls of TMs. An assortment of League-branded merch like shirts, bags, and plushies (including a ridiculously huge plush of Bubba the Venusaur, this year’s tournament mascot.) It was almost dizzying.

    I really wasn’t too keen on draining my account while I was here, and that was almost definitely going to happen if I stayed here too long. Instead, I pressed on through the vendors’ alley and made my way toward the public battlefields that rimmed the eastern edge of the tourney site. Once there I was met with the sight of dozens of trainers, all with Pokémon by their side—some of them studying new moves, others holding mock battles. Attacks were kept fairly low-key. A quick glance at all the signs lining the area revealed why: ‘Moves with ratings exceeding 90 are strictly prohibited on the public battlegrounds. The complete list of League-approved moves with ratings can be found here,” followed by a code that could be scanned to visit the webpage. Well that made sense—there weren’t exactly any shields out here to keep big, explosive attacks from going out of control.

    I wandered along the outskirts until I reached battlefield C, then weaved through scattered groups of trainers. I passed by a crowd gathered around a Dragonair practicing looping figure-8s in the air, then a duo of Marowak and Scyther doing a synchronized Swords Dance. And then when I reached the far corner of the battlefield, I finally caught sight of an olive-skinned, spiky-haired boy standing alongside a full team of Fearow, Nidoking, Pupitar, Houndoom, Breloom, and Tauros. He turned in my direction. Then his eyes lit up and he waved, proudly holding up the competitor badge hanging from a cord around his neck. Before I could respond, the Houndoom dashed forward in a blur of black, rearing up to put her paws on my shoulders and licking the side of my face. Some things never changed.

    “Well about time you got here, Jade,” Rudy said in a mock scolding tone as he strolled over, hands on his hips.

    “I got here as soon as I could,” I said, laughing as I shoved Ebony down. “This is literally the first day that the tourney site’s open to non-combatants.”

    “I know, I know, just trying to give you a hard time,” he said, elbowing my arm. “I still think it sucks that you’re not actually in the tournament. But at least you’ve been keeping up with badge collecting, yeah? How many you up to now?”

    “Five,” I said.

    He nodded approvingly. “Ever considered entering the Johto League?”

    “I’m a little late for that this year,” I said with a laugh.

    “Next year, then.”

    I shook my head. “Nah. The gym battles were just the best way to keep my team from getting bored.”

    “Fine, whatever works for you,” he said, shrugging. “I can’t say it’s too different for me either. After the rebellion ended, training and badge collecting has kinda been what’s kept me going, yeah?” It was kind of a surprise to hear him mention that. Neither of us exactly brought up the rebellion’s end very often.

    “Anyway, it doesn’t matter that you’re not entering,” he went on, waving a hand dismissively. “In fact, it’s a good thing. Y’know, it’s getting close enough to the preliminaries that I really shouldn’t train with anyone who I could be fighting in the tournament. So you need to be my training partner. My team needs all the practice it can get!”

    I couldn’t help chuckling a bit under my breath. There hadn’t been a single time we’d met up that he hadn’t challenged me. And while I’d always left out the experiments in the past, Rudy’s Pokémon had been making leaps and bounds in strength lately. It could actually be a fair fight now.

    “How does three rounds of one on one sound?” he asked, taking a few steps back to put some distance between us.

    “Fine by me,” I said. “You send out first.”

    He spun around, sizing up all of his team members. Ebony hopped up and down in front of his face, but he gave her a pat on the neck and said, “Not this time,” with a small laugh. He glanced at each of the rest of them in turn, muttering various things to himself. And then his gaze fell on the rock-armored cocoon sitting off to the side, ignoring everyone else.

    “I choose Pupitar!” he exclaimed.

    The rock-type gave no response at first. Her eyes were half-lidded with the usual bored expression, which I would have chalked up to her species not being very expressive, although she’d never exactly showed much interest in anything or anyone as a Larvitar either. Rudy didn’t seem too fazed by her (lack of) response though. He just waited patiently while she seemingly considered the idea. Finally, after a lengthy pause, the rock-armored cocoon hopped forward heavily, the pointed end of her shell digging into the dirt with each hop.

    “So you’re entering the Indigo League tournament, and you haven’t gotten one of your team members to their final form yet?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “Ah, screw you,” he said, giving me a shove. “No one gets a pseudo-legend to its final form in their first year of training.”

    I smirked. “I know, just giving you a hard time.” It wasn’t like I’d have been able to do any better.

    I took a good twenty or so steps back to put some distance between us before I let Stygian out of her Pokéball. The Absol appeared in front of me in a burst of white light, then glanced around briefly before her eyes fell on her opponent.

    “*Interesting,*” she just said. Probably referring to the fact that I normally didn’t use her or the other experiments in my battles with Rudy. He must have noticed too, because his eyes widened slightly, but then he just pumped a fist and shouted, “You got this, Pupitar!” Pupitar gave a slight rock that seemed to be her species’ equivalent of a shrug.

    “Let’s open with a quick Night Slash,” I said.

    Stygian dashed forward, dark aura flaring to life around her forepaws as she ran. Pupitar didn’t move. Sure, it was unlikely she could dodge in time. But she just sat there as Stygian closed the gap between them. Within seconds, the Absol reached her opponent and swung a paw down, carving shallow gashes into Pupitar’s shell.

    Then Rudy suddenly yelled, “Headbutt now!”

    Stygian was mid-move and didn’t have a chance to react. Without warning, the rock-type shot upward and smashed into her face. The Absol staggered backward, clutching a paw to her forehead and glaring daggers at the pupa.

    Alright, shouldn’t have rushed in like that. If he just had Pupitar go for the counterattack on every move, her endurance would win out over Stygian’s strength. Had to play this smarter.

    “Swords Dance!” I called out.

    Stygian circled back to where her opponent most likely couldn’t reach and began honing her claws in a complicated, rhythmic series of forms, her movements growing sharper and more forceful in the process.

    Rudy watched her dance, furrowing his brow. Then he just shrugged and said, “Alright, we’ll go with Rock Polish.”

    Shoot. I’d expected him to press the attack while Stygian was setting up, not respond with a setup of his own. Since when did Rudy use setup moves, anyway?

    As Stygian finished her dance, Pupitar began spinning against the dirt, slowly at first, but quickly increasing in speed. The rocky surface of her shell smoothed over, the plates of armor clicking against each other, almost like they were loosening.

    “Alright, now for a Rock Smash,” Rudy said, grinning.

    The rock-type vented a burst of gas from her shell, instantly propelling herself forward like a rocket. Whoa—I’d definitely never seen Pupitar do that before.

    “Cut her off with a Night Slash!” I ordered.

    Stygian dashed forward. Her claws, honed from the earlier dance, flared up with a far larger and more vicious aura. She rushed forward, intent on landing a hit first, hopefully knocking her opponent prone, and then we’d be free to dish out a follow-up attack.

    The two met at the center of the battlefield. The Absol’s claws landed first, cleaving deep gashes into the rock-type’s armor. But the move didn’t stop her momentum, not by a longshot. The pupa plowed straight into Stygian just as fast, bowling her over like she was a ragdoll. She tumbled over her side, but then sprang to her feet quicker than I’d thought possible and smacked Pupitar in the back before she had a chance to react.

    And then I realized the same thing that Stygian just had—Pupitar was fast, but only in a straight line. She still had trouble turning on a dime.

    Rudy shook his head. “Alright, you are still too fast and we gotta fix that. Bulldoze!”

    Pupitar burst up into the air before Stygian could slash at her once again. She reached the apex of her leap and closed her eyes in concentration before plunging back to the ground, unleashing a shockwave of rolling dirt all around her. Stygian leaped back in a hurry, but the waves reached her in seconds. She jumped once, twice, avoiding the first two, but then tripping over the churned-up earth left in their wake.

    Damn it, now Stygian’s paws were covered in mud and she was obviously fighting the urge to stop and kick it off but also had to keep moving to avoid the nonsensically fast Pupitar and argh. None of her hits were doing enough damage. Granted, there was always Iron Tail… We hadn’t exactly perfected it after learning it from Jasmine while training in Olivine, and it was hard to land, but…

    Pupitar let out another burst of gas, shooting forward.

    Ah, screw it.

    “Iron Tail!” I yelled.

    Stygian’s bladelike tail began to glow, flickering at first, then gradually increasing in brightness. But it was slow, and the Absol had to jump back to avoid the oncoming attack. Finally, the light faded to reveal a metallic sheen, and the dark-type lunged at her opponent. She stopped, pivoted on her front paws, then swung her tail in a wide arc—

    —and went completely over Pupitar’s head.

    “Dammit!” I hissed under my breath.

    “Another Headbutt!”

    Alright, bad idea, bad idea, had to salvage this. Something, anything—!

    “Sucker Punch!” I blurted out.

    The second before Pupitar made contact, Stygian ducked down and slipped behind her in one smooth motion. Before the rock-type had a chance to react, Stygian caught her with a heavy strike right to the back of her head, right between the armor plates. Pupitar pitched forward, eyes going wide for a second. Then she kept going, faceplanting into the dirt at full speed.

    I pumped a fist in the air. And in the seconds it took Pupitar to begin wrenching herself free from the earth, I almost forgot to order a follow up.

    Now go for the Iron Tail!”

    Stygian crouched low, tail glowing again. Pupitar struggled, the boost gas digging her horns deeper into the dirt. Not fast enough. The Absol’s tail shed its glow, fully metallic. She swung it in a downward arc, striking the pupa in the back of the head with a resounding clang and knocking her flying. The rock-type tumbled across the battlefield before finally coming to a halt.

    Pupitar picked herself up from the dirt, giving us… what would have looked like an either annoyed or pissed-off face if it weren’t her default. Though there was also subtler tells. The way her body had started trembling. Her eyes twitching. Our moves had done more damage than I’d thought.

    The next few seconds dragged on weirdly long as Pupitar paused, seemingly considering something. Then, without warning, she let out a burst of gas… and shot right past Stygian and back to her trainer’s side.

    “Done already?” Rudy said, staring at her incredulously.

    The rock-type gave no response, continuing to eye me and Stygian with the same annoyed (?) glare.

    He rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright, you’re the boss.” He gestured to me and Stygian. “First round is yours, I guess.”

    I stared blankly. “What was that about?”

    Rudy shoved his hands in his pockets. “Ah, you know how she is. Doesn’t always wanna battle, but then gets grumpy when she doesn’t get to.” He gave the cocoon a playful jab before recalling her.

    Huh. Then, again, now that I thought back, that had been the case when we trained on the Rebellion as well. Back then, he’d always brush it off with the fact that it’d all be worth it when she became a Tyranitar. At least, before he got bored and switched to training Ebony nonstop. I’d never seen him so calm about it.

    “But like, it’s not her fault!” Rudy added quickly. “Just part of being a Pupitar, y’know? Prob’ly more boring for her than it is for me. That’s part of the reason I wanna get better, so that she can evolve. I think she’ll like having legs again.”

    I smiled. “I think you’re right. In any case, that was a lot tougher than our last match.”

    “Yeah? I’ll take that as a compliment then, cuz she won’t,” he said with a slight laugh. “Anyway, you won that round so you send out first.”

    I nodded, recalling Stygian. My hand hovered over the rest of my Pokéballs, but then settled on one.

    “You’re up, Aros!” I called out. The buglike dragon took shape in front of me, already tensed for battle. But then his red-lensed eyes fell on Rudy and he relaxed slightly, mouth curled into confident smirk. “*Well this should be fun.*”

    “Don’t underestimate him,” I warned. “He’s entering the league, after all.”

    “*I got it, I got it,*” the Flygon said waving his tail fan. His tone wasn’t too convincing.

    Rudy grinned upon seeing my pick. “Time for the real star of the show,” he said. “Nidoking, you’re up!”

    The armored, rabbit-like beast lumbered forward, striking a dashing pose once he reached the center of the battlefield. Nidoking. One of the Pokémon that Rudy had been training the longest. The team’s powerhouse.

    “Did you see his new belt?” Rudy asked. “It’s pretty badass, isn’t it?”

    Nidoking lifted his bulky arms to better show off the tattered black belt tied around his midsection.

    “Oh yeah, I remember you mentioning that. Guessing you taught him some new fighting-type moves?”

    “You’ll see,” Rudy said, still grinning cheekily.

    I snorted. “Alright then.” I motioned to Aros and said, “Open with Dragon Pulse!”

    The Flygon opened his mouth wide and breathed out a jagged burst of violet dragonfire. Nidoking responded by lunging to the side in one deceptively fast motion; his thick hind claws scraping the dirt as he skidded to a halt. He flashed a grin that seemed to mirror his trainer’s, then flexed his foreclaws as if asking for more.

    Egh, what a waste. Aros was way too far away to guarantee a hit. We’d have to close the distance.

    “Alright fine, fly closer and use Dragon Claw!” I yelled.

    Rudy’s grin still hadn’t lessened. And he wasn’t the sort to fake confidence to psyche out his opponent. He was planning something. Nidoking stamped a foot and held both arms forward, clearly readying himself for a counterattack. Aros vibrated his wings and shot forward, claws flaring up with dragonfire. The poison beast made a lunge at the last second but Aros swerved around him effortlessly, drawing back his claws and slashing down right alongside the row of thorns running down his back. Nidoking grunted in pain, stumbling forward. But then he swung his heavy arms in a wide arc before the Flygon could make a move to get out of the way, catching hold of his tail.

    “What the hell?” I muttered.

    Rudy’s smirked. “Ice Beam.”

    Oh, hell no.

    Nidoking pointed his horn, ice crystals glittering around it before a jagged beam of bright blue energy shot forward, striking Aros right in the face. The bug-dragon let out a pathetic cry as his wings slowed and he crashed into the dirt, shivering like mad.

    Ice Beam. He knew freaking Ice Beam, the one thing Aros was hopelessly weak to. He couldn’t possibly endure another one of those. Had to do something fast.

    “Get in the air!” I yelled desperately.

    It’d take Nidoking a good couple of seconds to charge up the energy for another beam. More than enough time to put some distance between them. It’d buy me some time to think, anyway.

    Aros shook the frost off his wings, shaking all over. But he grit his teeth with a look of determination and wrenched his tail out of Nidoking’s grip before taking to the air. His flight faltered a bit at first, but he quickly put on speed, flying so high I had to squint at the sunlight.

    “Coming back down anytime soon? You know regulation battlefields have a height limit,” Rudy pointed out, sounding far more amused about it than he had any right to.

    “Oh, quiet,” I shot back. He was right, but I wasn’t about to admit it. I motioned to Aros and yelled. “Dragon Pulse, and spread it out!”

    Aros inhaled deeply before breathing out another burst of dragonfire. But this time instead of a single jet, it exploded into wide flurry of embers raining down on Nidoking. The poison beast raised his heavy forelimbs overhead, shielding his face. His horn glittered with ice crystals, and I sucked in a breath. But then Nidoking paused, eyes tracing Aros’s path through the sky. There was no point in wasting the energy on a move that was so easily dodged from far away.

    Rudy clearly realized the same thing too, because he nodded and called out, “Toxic!”

    Nidoking opened his mouth wide, gathering a pool of sludge in his throat and spitting it out so that it splattered apart in the air. Aros turned away to shield his face, but several drops of the stuff splashed against his side. He shook them off with a sound of disgust, but the damage was done—his scales remained tinged with a sickly purple. Couldn’t afford to waste time, then. Had to go for an all-out offensive. While also avoiding Ice Beam. Ugh, what a pain… Judging by the smirk on Rudy’s face, that was exactly why he’d done it, too.

    “Sand Tomb!” I called out.

    Aros pitched his wings backward and shot toward the ground, keeping his eyes on Nidoking the entire time. The Flygon reached the earth within seconds, digging his claws into the ground and clenching them tightly. At once, the dirt around Nidoking dissolved into a vortex of sand, sucking him into its center no matter how hard he thrashed against it.

    “Alright, he’s immobilized! Now stay behind him so he can’t hit you!” I yelled.

    Aros took off flying in a wide arc, quickly putting himself out of Nidoking’s prime Ice Beam range and pelting his back with more dragonfire. The poison-type struggled to pivot, but the sand weighing down his lower half made it difficult. Wrenching his legs upward only made him sink deeper.

    “Dig!” Rudy called out, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. Was he insane? Using Dig against a ground-type. Nidoking would be a sitting duck while he was underground!

    Nidoking didn’t waste a second diving headfirst into the sinkhole, scattering fistfuls of sand behind him as he tunneled downward.

    I pointed forward with what must have been a manic grin on my face. “Get him with Earthquake!” And then, for whatever reason, the alarm bells went off in my head. Moves rated over 90 were banned on the public battlefields. Earthquake was definitely on that list.

    “Wait! Wait wait wait!” I called out frantically just as Aros was preparing to slam his legs into the ground with all his might. God, the last thing we needed was toppling over a dozen trainers and Pokémon. What other moves could hit Nidoking while he was underground? Bulldoze maybe? I wasn’t so sure. But wait—I’d already used up all four of my move commands with that stupid Earthquake.

    Nidoking popped his head out of the dirt a good twenty feet away from where he’d submerged, now perfectly free from the Sand Tomb.

    “Now!”

    Ice Beam fired, striking Aros perfectly while he was still waiting for me to order something. A wave of frost rushed over his body from the impact point, and he flailed his wings in an attempt to get away. But it was too much. His tail thrashed desperately against the air for several seconds, then his wings gave out and he crashed to the dirt, unmoving.

    I let out a low groan, screwing my eyes shut while I grabbed his Pokéball to recall him. Then I shot Rudy a glare. “Been using TMs, I take it?”

    He grinned. “You noticed.”

    “Well it’d be a little hard not to!” I yelled, laughing slightly.

    “Also, it’s an Expert Belt, not a Black Belt,” he added, jerking a thumb toward Nidoking, who was now flexing.

    I rolled my eyes. “You think I can tell the difference?”

    “Obviously not.”

    Ouch. I’d walked right into that.

    “Whatever, we’re one round apiece and you have the first sendout again,” I said with just the tiniest bit of irritation leaking into my voice.

    Rudy pivoted on his heels and had barely looked over his lineup before turning back and announcing, “I’ll use Tauros, then.”

    A recent addition to his team. The young bull gave a snort and trotted forward, shaking his mane proudly.

    After that Ice Beam nonsense from Nidoking, I was fully expecting more unexpected moves. I just obviously didn’t know exactly what kind, which made it hard to anticipate. Obviously, the best choice would be the team member with the fewest exploitable weaknesses. That was Chibi, but… I still wasn’t totally sure if anyone on Rudy’s team was a match for him. And there was no point to this if it wasn’t an even match. So, in that case…

    “Your turn, Firestorm!” I called out, releasing him. The fire lizard took shape in front of me, flaring his wings and spitting a few embers.

    “Let’s open with Work Up!” Rudy exclaimed. Tauros gave a flick of his tails before launching into an energetic march, tossing his head with each hoofbeat.

    I pointed forward. “Get in the air and use Flame Burst!”

    With a mighty flap, Firestorm shot skyward. He opened his mouth wide, gathering a large ball of flame, then launched it downward. But Tauros was fast. By that time, he seemed to have somehow finished his march already, because he was able to break into a full gallop and avoid the worst of the fireball. It hit the dirt right behind him and exploded into a flurry of embers.

    Firestorm was too high to land a direct hit without Tauros being able to dodge everything with ease. At worst, he’d take a few minor scorches. Same tactic as last time, forcing us into close quarters. Fortunately, Firestorm was good at that.

    “Fly down behind him and use Fire Punch!”

    Firestorm pitched his wings back, shooting into a steep dive. He flared his wings out once he neared the ground, aiming to close the distance before his opponent could try anything. Tauros lunged with his horns, but the Charizard was moving much too quickly and tilted a wing to instantly loop behind. He drew back an arm, flames bursting to life around his fist, then swung it, landing a scorching blow to Tauros’s back. The bull recoiled backward, pivoting on his forelegs, face scrunched up with pain and then—

    “Rock Tomb!”

    Dammit. There it was.

    Firestorm’s eyes went wide, and he spread his wings to gain altitude again. But he’d already lost too much of his momentum from the Fire Punch, and wasn’t ready for the giant boulders that erupted from the ground around him, smashing into his belly and knocking him to the dirt. Tauros didn’t waste any time charging at him the moment he crashed to the ground, which had the added impact of knocking him flying right back into the rocks.

    “Get back in the air!” I yelled frantically, clenching both fists tight.

    Firestorm struggled to pull himself free from the rubble, but his movements were slow, and he had to raise his arms to catch Tauros’s horns before the latter could ram him again. What was I doing? This was the same gambit Rudy pulled last round. Couldn’t get flustered just from one unexpected move. Rock Tomb was weaker than Ice Beam anyway, and it wasn’t like Tauros had any equipment powering it up either. Firestorm wasn’t down and out yet.

    “Another Rock Tomb!” Rudy yelled.

    “Smokescreen!” I blurted out.

    Tauros reared back, ready to strike. But the Charizard breathed out a billowing cloud of black smoke right into his face, and he stumbled backward, coughing. And in the moment it took for him to regain himself and slam his hooves into the dirt, Firestorm shot into the sky, one wing slightly crooked. Stones erupted from the ground right behind where he’d been just seconds earlier.

    Rudy’s eyes followed Firestorm turning tail back into the air. Then he just shrugged and said, “Alright, another Work Up then.”

    Ughh no, not more setting up. That was the whole reason we’d pressed the attack in the first place. Did Tauros even have any long-range moves? I could maybe play it cheap and just have Firestorm stay out of reach the whole time? Either way, couldn’t waste time, had to give a command.

    “Flame Burst!” I called out, because I really didn’t have anything better to say.

    The Charizard breathed out another raging fireball, and this time his aim was true, striking Tauros right on the back and exploding with a plume of embers that made him grunt in pain. But the normal-type had already finished his march, and despite the damage, his movements were as sharp and energetic as ever.

    Rudy put a hand to his chin, thinking. Then the corners of his mouth turned up and he ordered, “Swagger!”

    Really? That was awful bold of him.

    Tauros slowed down, fighting back the pain from the previous hit. And then he began to strut, tossing his mane and whipping his tails with an overconfident smirk. Firestorm glanced away, determined not to look at it. But as the seconds went by, his eyes darted back more and more frequently. He muttered something under his breath. I saw his muscles tighten up with anger. Saw him go slightly cross-eyed.

    “You wanna power him up? Alright fine.” I stamped a foot to the dirt and yelled, “Fire Punch! But don’t get too close to the ground! Be ready to dodge the rocks!” Man, that was a tall order right now, especially with him flustered by the confusion. I already regretted it, but taking it back would be even more confusing.

    Firestorm dove. I flinched, half expecting him to just crash into the dirt, but he flared his wings and caught himself, moving so fast that he’d hopefully be hard to hit with more rocks. Tauros braced himself, ready to meet his opponent head-on. The Charizard drew back his fist, raging flame licking his scales, and then—

    The fire went out. Firestorm stared stupidly at his own fist for a few seconds, then forgot to flap his wings and crashed to the ground with a dull thud.

    I smacked a palm to my forehead. Dammit.

    “Wild Charge!” Rudy called out.

    Tauros drew himself back, his body crackling with… electricity? Yeah, strings of lightning leaped off his fur as he charged forward, slamming himself into Firestorm with full force. The fire lizard faceplanted into the dirt and didn’t move after that.

    I stared, my brain taking several seconds to process the full weight of what had just happened.

    “Heeeellll yeeeaaah!!” Rudy yelled, jumping three feet into the air

    “Oh my god, I am never gonna hear the end this, am I?” I asked, putting both hands to my forehead in what was only slightly exaggerated defeat.

    “Hell no!” he exclaimed, pumping both fists above his head

    I’d lost, and it wasn’t even a close loss on the last two. And I hadn’t even really won the first match, Pupitar had just gotten bored. That was even worse. Granted, we probably would’ve won that round anyway. At least I could tell myself that.

    I recalled Firestorm and put my hands on my hips. “Well fine, if you call getting a single cheap shot with new moves your strategy, let’s see how that carries you.”

    “Not my fault you weren’t expecting it,” he said with a smirk. And in his defense… any opponent in the League would be expecting those moves. I just didn’t care to do any research because I wasn’t entering.

    “Alright, you asked for it, next time you’re fighting Chibi,” I said, sticking out my tongue.

    He scoffed. “Bring it on, we’re not scared of him anymore.”

    “*I beg to differ,*” Fearow cut in dryly.

    He craned his neck to glance back at the shaggy bird. “Well hey, no one said you had to fight him.”

    I tilted my head. That wasn’t the first time today that he’d just casually replied to his Pokémon without thinking about it. “You’re getting better at Pokéspeech, huh?”

    Rudy paused, considering it. “Yeah? I mean, I never cared too much about it in school, but then… I guess you guys made it look cool, so I started working on it again.” He shoved his fists in his pockets, like he was making an embarrassing admission and not describing something really cool.

    “I think it’s neat,” I said.

    He just shrugged and turned around, grabbing a potion from his bag and spraying down Tauros’s scorched fur. Behind the two of them, Breloom was chatting with Fearow about something while Nidoking posed for random passersby. And Ebony… well, Ebony was currently running circles around Pupitar, trying in vain to get the latter to play with her, while the pupa slowly rotated herself so that she wasn’t facing the energetic pup.

    He had a pretty solid team. The six in front of me, not to mention Raichu, who must have been in storage at the moment. And they’d all obviously been training a lot. It honestly seemed like they had a shot at making it to the top cut.

    “Hey, good to see you here!” a voice behind me called out. A familiar voice. “Let me guess, this one already dragged you into a battle, yeah?”

    I whirled around and sure enough, there was Darren strolling up to us, a soda in one hand while he waved with the other.

    Rudy jerked his head toward us. “Well look who decided to show up!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands forward dramatically.

    “He’s exaggerating,” Darren said, raising a hand to the side of his mouth in a mock whisper. “I’ve been here for two weeks.”

    “Slacking off for two weeks, more like it,” Rudy shot back. “Are you a tourist or a competitor?”

    Darren rolled his eyes, but then my attention was stolen as a furry black shape dashed up my side, clinging to my shoulder.

    “Ow! Claws, claws!” I cried, freezing with my arms out to the side—moving only made the claws dig in more. A huge fan of pink feathers edged into my peripheral vision, and it wasn’t hard to guess who the culprit was.

    “Alright, get down Weavile,” Darren said, struggling to lift her until she finally jumped down herself. The dark-type grinned up at us toothily. Then she immediately dashed off as Ebony rushed after her, correctly identifying her as a much better playmate than Pupitar.

    “So you’re competing too?” I asked upon seeing the competitor badge hanging from his neck.

    “Yeah, this one bullied me into it,” he said, jerking a thumb towards Rudy.

    “Oh whatever, you wanted to do it too,” Rudy said dismissively, standing up and shoving the empty potion bottle back into his bag.

    Darren shrugged. “Mostly for the novelty, but whatever.”

    While he’d insisted in the past that the competitive battling scene wasn’t his thing, I couldn’t help but notice that he’d been keeping pace with Rudy’s badge-getting throughout the past nine months.

    “Anyway, are your teams hungry?” he asked. “I was just about to take mine to the feed tent.”

    Rudy gave him an indignant look. “We just barely got started on our training. We’ve got at least two more hours before it’s time for a food break.”

    The rest of his team didn’t seem to feel the same, in particular Ebony, who took that moment to conveniently reappear next to us and yell out, “*Snacks!!*”

    Rudy glanced back and forth between his team and us before putting his arms up in mock defeat. “Yeah, alright fine.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    We stopped by the Pokécenter for a quick heal (none of our team members were too terribly injured) before following Darren out to a huge tent where they had a Pokémon feeding station set up. It allowed trainers to pay a flat fee for each member of their team and the Pokémon could eat as much as they wanted from a wide variety of foods.

    With all three of us letting out our teams at once, I got the opportunity to see Darren’s full team of Venusaur, Sandslash, Golduck, Alakazam, Weavile, and Skarmory. All of them but Skarmory had been on his team during our Midnight Island training (the steel-type had joined the party sometime a few months ago.) Even if Darren wasn’t as big into competitive battling as Rudy, there was no denying that he had a solid team.

    Rudy chattered nonstop about the strategies he’d been developing for each of his team members, then badgered me until I spilled the details of my most recent gym battle. Compared to my previous one versus Jasmine, it hadn’t been the most interesting win. Gym Leader Claire’s Kingdra had been kicking my ass with crazy fast moves until I sent out Chibi and took advantage of the rain by spamming Thunder over and over. Normally I wouldn’t have wanted to win like that, but… Chibi had been wanting to let off some steam for a while, and it had seemed to do him some good.

    Now, on the other hand, the one who seemed like he most needed to let off steam was Aros. He kept glowering at Rudy in between shoving fistfuls of food into his mouth like he was trying to show the food who was boss.

    “Got something to say?” I asked dryly.

    The Flygon glanced away. “*He’s gotten better.*”

    I gave him a pointed look. “Well yeah, of course he has. He’s been training a ton. I mean, he’s entering the Indigo League tournament. There’s no shame in us losing to him.”

    Aros huffed. “*I’ll just have to go all-out next time.*”

    I rolled my eyes. Either he was just lying to look better, or had actually been giving a weak effort—I wasn’t sure which one was worse.

    Around twenty minutes later, and just as we were preparing to leave the Pokéchow tent, I received a text from Ajia that read, “Hey, I just got here. Already found Starr. Wanna grab lunch and chat?”

    “Sure thing,” I texted back. Then I turned to Rudy and Darren and asked, “Mind if I take off? Gonna grab lunch with a friend who just got here.”

    “Leaving us again, I see how it is.” Darren said with a smirk.

    I rolled my eyes. “Ha ha. I’ll be back later this afternoon, alright?” At this rate I was never going to live down that time I left for the afternoon and then vanished for five days.

    Rudy gave me a look that said I was insane. “Um, how about no. I’ve still got like a billion moves I wanna practice.” He paused for a bit before adding, “And you need more practice too.”

    I snorted. “I’m not even in the tournament.”

    “All the most reason to improve,” he said earnestly.

    “That doesn’t even make any sense!” I yelled, but for some reason it was just dumb enough that I was laughing all the same. “Like I said, I’ll be back in a few hours, and we can all beat the stuffing out of each other just like old times. Deal?”

    Rudy scoffed. “I don’t need multi battle practice, this isn’t the Hoenn League.”

    “Ah, come on, it’ll be fun,” Darren said, elbowing him.

    “Whatever. But I swear, if you two gang up on me again, you’re gonna get it.” What exactly we were going to ‘get’ remained to be seen.

    After checking to make sure that my team was done eating (and having to stop Jet from shoveling treats into my bag for later) I recalled them all and gave one last wave to Rudy and Darren before taking off.

    Ajia texted me the name of the restaurant and I found it on my Pokégear map. It was a smaller place about 10 minutes out from all the stadiums. And while it still had plenty of trainers inside, it wasn’t anything like the wall-to-wall packed establishments that filled the tourney site.

    I quickly spotted Starr and Ajia after the latter waved to me from a booth in the far back of the room. I waved back, then went and placed my order at the front counter before going back to join them.

    “Good to see you,” Ajia said brightly as I sat down across from her.

    “I’m just glad you could make it,” I said, grinning.

    “Of course!” she said with a wink. “In any case, you said you had friends competing in this one, right?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, I just got done meeting with them.”

    “How d’you think they’ll do in the tournament?” Starr asked with the slight edge of a smirk.

    I paused. “Well, I don’t know if Darren is all that into it, but his team is really well-balanced. And Rudy… he’s gotten really hardcore recently. I actually lost to him, just now.”

    “Niiice,” Starr said, laughing slightly. I rolled my eyes, determined to not let it get to me.

    Ajia put a hand to her chin, as though thinking about something. “You three trained together last year, right?”

    “Yeah,” I said.

    The unspoken implication was clear. It was unlikely that the three of us would have gotten as good if we hadn’t trained under Stalker. But Ajia didn’t continue that train of thought. She just leaned back, glancing wistfully around the restaurant, and all the League memorabilia lining the walls. “Man, being here brings back memories.”

    “What year did you compete here again?” I asked.

    “It was in ‘96. I made it to the top 16, though I honestly don’t know how, I was pretty terrible back then,” she said, giving an embarrassed smile.

    I waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, you couldn’t have been that bad.”

    Ajia chuckled. “I dunno, you should’ve seen me. I took a break from training after that, and then I started traveling in Johto. And then I got mixed up in all that Rocket stuff, trained under the commander, and, well… for better or worse, I got a lot, lot better. That’s definitely the only reason I won the ‘97 Johto Championships.”

    I smacked my forehead. “I still can’t believe I didn’t watch that one live. Spent that whole stupid summer sulking because I failed the trainer exam.”

    Starr snorted. “Wow, really? Even I watched that one.”

    Ajia raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?” she asked with just the slightest bit of a wry grin.

    Starr scowled. “Oh, don’t get the wrong idea. We were enemies, alright? I had to stay informed on your location and your strengths and your—”

    “Uh huh, sure,” Ajia said, elbowing her playfully. Starr just rolled her eyes with an exaggerated scoff.

    The side mention of Team Rocket had dragged up the memory of what Chibi had been badgering me about, though. I really didn’t want to bring it up, but at the same time, it wasn’t fair to just ignore it.

    I glanced around a few times, just to make sure that I wasn't in danger of being overheard. But with all the noise in the restaurant it was almost impossible to pick up individual voices.

    “Hey, uh… I know I’ve asked you a million times, but… Chibi was wondering if there’s any news on the Rocket front,” I said. Starr raised an eyebrow at my words, but then turned to Ajia just the same.

    Ajia leaned back in her chair, folding her arms. “Same as last time, I’m afraid,” she said. “No more targeted Legendaries, no more major combat unit missions. It’s all business as usual.”

    “That’s what I told him, but he wouldn’t buy that,” I said. “Kept saying that they’re probably working on something big.”

    She paused, considering something carefully. “Well… he could be onto something there.”

    “What? But you just said—”

    “Nothing’s actually happened,” Ajia added quickly. “But one of my contacts keeps hearing about how the higher-ups are really, really upset about losing Mewtwo.”

    Starr laughed. “Of course they are. Take away their ultimate weapon, they’re gonna be pissed.”

    “Not just pissed,” Ajia said, shaking her head. “They straight-up can’t proceed with any of their plans until they have a way to deal with it.”

    I tilted my head. “Well, that’s good, right? That’s why we haven’t heard anything.”

    “Probably just afraid if they try anything, Mewtwo’s gonna show up out of nowhere and kick their ass,” Starr said with a smirk.

    Ajia gave her an exasperated look. “Starr…”

    “Alright, I’ll stop.” She let out a sigh. “Look, we all know they’re not gonna give up. Just means that when they do try something it’s gonna be fast and decisive. Something that’ll get them the biggest advantage in the shortest time, before there’s any chance for a counterattack. Also something that is totally none of our business,” she added, giving me and Ajia a pointed look.

    Eh… right.

    None of us brought up Team Rocket again for the rest of the conversation. I was also fairly certain that I didn’t want to relay anything we’d said to Chibi.






    ~End Chapter 32~

    Next Chapter: A certain estranged sibling shows up to stir the pot.
     
    Chapter 33: Family Reunion
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 33: Family Reunion~


    “Breloom, use Drain Punch!” Rudy yelled.

    The bouncy, mushroom-capped Pokémon fired his back legs to leap forward, driving an arm into his target’s thorax. The opposing Scizor tumbled backward and slumped over, still passed out from the earlier Spore attack. Beads of orange light clung to Breloom’s fist from the impact point, slowly settling into his body. Rudy smirked and threw a hand forward, ready to order another move.

    And then Scizor’s eyes snapped open. The armored bug shot to its feet in one sharp motion, shaking its head to clear the haze of sleep before its eyes focused on the opponent now standing right in front of it.

    “Yes! Use Aerial Ace!” its trainer called out.

    Breloom sprang backward, but Scizor pursued, blades of white light forming around its pincers. It swung once; Breloom slipped under it with a smooth dodge, but the follow-up came impossibly fast, tearing into him first with a downward strike before smashing him back with the upward one.

    “And a brutal Aerial Ace attack sends Breloom flying! Rudy’s in a tight spot—Connor might just be able to turn this match around!” the commentator’s booming voice called out over the speakers, whipping the audience into a frenzy. I clenched the armrests of my seat. Rudy was probably wishing he’d brought Ebony to this match—would’ve been nice to just make short work of Scizor with a Flamethrower or two. Then again, his opponent’s team was stacked with rock-types so he’d opted not to (though part of me had still half expected him to bring her anyway.) Now he had a way tougher fight ahead of him.

    It was down to the final one-on-one in Rudy’s fourth preliminary and he couldn’t afford to lose. He’d already lost one match. Same as Darren. Not the end of the world, but it did mean that neither of them could take a second loss without seriously hurting their chances at making it to the top cut.

    The past week had blazed by in a nonstop whirlwind of activity with the preliminary rounds of the tournament in full swing. Each of the five stadiums held ten matches a day with a strict time limit of thirty minutes to a match. When combined with the plethora of side events and activities going on in the city outside the tournament site, every single hour of the day had something to do. The result was me, Ajia and Starr crashing at our hotel room each night feeling utterly drained. (Or at least, Starr and I were drained, Ajia seemed to have infinite energy as usual.) I’d basically just alternated between watching matches with Rudy and Darren or Ajia and Starr—it always just felt too weird mixing friend groups, especially with the former being several years younger than me and the latter several years older.

    From hearing the talk of the town, Rudy was quickly becoming one of the favorites to win this year, and footage from his matches was spreading like wildfire. It was honestly kind of cool to be able to say that I knew one of the fan-favorite competitors. Knowing how many people in the audience all around us were cheering for him… I couldn’t help glowing a bit with pride.

    Breloom picked himself up from the ground, wincing from the large gash running through the mushroom cap on his head. The Aerial Ace had knocked him clear across the battlefield, but that meant he had a moment to regain himself before having to deal with a follow-up attack.

    “Go for another Substitute!” Rudy ordered.

    Connor pointed forward. “Aerial—” He paused sharply, then shook his head and yelled, “No, Bullet Punch, before it finishes the sub!”

    I barely caught a glimpse of Scizor’s pincers flashing metallic right before the bug shot forward, a red blur too fast to see. But Breloom had already put his foreclaws together in concentration, pushing his aura out from his body. The sheer speed advantage from Bullet Punch didn’t mean much when Scizor had to clear half the battlefield just to reach Breloom and he’d already started the move. Within seconds, the aura had condensed into an identical copy of Breloom. Scizor smashed its pincers into the substitute in a rapid-fire frenzy, and the copy recoiled backward, wisps of lights breaking off from the main mass. But it was still standing, with the real Breloom unharmed behind it.

    No way—it didn’t shatter? The first one had! Had that earlier Bulk Up really made that much of a difference?

    “Alright, another Bulk Up!” Rudy called out.

    Scizor hammered away at the aural Breloom, but each blow didn’t have near as much force as the first one without the momentum from the dash. Meanwhile, the tangling vines growing between the steel-type’s armor plates constantly sapped tiny bits of its energy, sending beads of green light flying back to Breloom.

    Darren nudged my shoulder, and I leaned over so I could hear him over the crowd. “With Scizor packing a move that hits Breloom that hard, you can tell that Connor didn’t think he’d need anything else to bring it down. He’s scrambling now.”

    I had to admit, even I had almost counted Rudy out too soon. But it was hard to blame his opponent for sticking with all-out offense. After all, his initial attempt to setup had backfired completely when Breloom opened with Spore, ironically giving Rudy the free setup instead. And Scizor had already wasted its fourth move on Knock Off earlier, so he didn’t have that many options.

    With a flash of light, the substitute finally burst wide open, torn to shreds by the relentless barrage of punches. And without the sub, Breloom was wide open.

    “Now Drain Punch!”

    “Another Aerial Ace!”

    Breloom was faster. It nimbly ducked under Scizor’s claws and fired a springy forepaw forward, driving a punch clean into the bug’s thorax. But Scizor took the hit and kept going, tearing at the grass-type with a jagged pincer. Yellowish liquid leaked from his mushroom cap. He recoiled backward, and for a second, I thought he was going to retreat and try a different approach. But Rudy just pointed forward again, and Breloom took that as a sign to push the attack. Strange… it didn’t seem like the best idea. But then I noticed what he must have already seen: this Aerial Ace had done far less damage than the previous one. Each punch was met with more and more of that orange glow leaking out from the impact and flowing into Breloom. More beads of green light shot from the vines ensnaring his opponent. The gashes on his mushroom cap were slowly closing up…

    He was healing almost as fast as Scizor was dishing out damage.

    “You can do it Breloom!” I yelled, adding to the incomprehensible mass of cheers and shouts from the audience.

    Breloom dropped to the floor, compressing his back legs like a spring, drawing a fist back. He then launched himself upward and caught Scizor with a vicious uppercut right to the chin. The steel-type’s head snapped backward. The white light around its pincers flickered and died. Breloom paused for a moment, realized that he didn’t need to brace for the counterattack, and then sprung forward, driving another punch straight into his opponent’s face.

    And that did it. Scizor stumbled backward, eyes screwed shut, pincers flailing as it struggled to gain its bearings. It sank to one knee, then fell flat on its face and didn’t move. I held my breath until the referee raised the red flag.

    “Scizor is unable to battle! The winner is Rudy Fierro!”

    And with that I jumped to my feet, cheering at the top of my lungs as the stadium burst into applause. Breloom staggered over to grab the equipment pouch that Scizor had knocked off at the start of the battle, swinging it over his shoulder before stretching a clawed forearm into the air. On the far end of the battlefield, in the trainer’s box, Rudy mirrored his Pokémon, throwing a fist upward repeatedly.

    That was it—that was the third win Rudy needed. He actually had a shot at making the top cut now. Of course, it wasn’t a guarantee. The actual score came down to how many matches his opponents had won, and how many matches their opponents had won, and a lot of math that I only pretended to understand. But he had a shot, and that alone was exciting enough that I found myself cheering my throat raw even after the results faded from the scoreboard.

    Next week was apparently when the tournament site would really explode with activity, seeing as the majority of the spectators who weren’t accompanying a competitor would usually opt to save their trip for watching the top cut. The idea that the tourney site in its current state was comparatively less packed compared to how it would look next week—that was mind-boggling.

    “Well, he’ll be happy,” Darren said, leaning back in his seat with a grin. “I know he’s been real stressed about making it to the top cut.”

    I tilted my head. “He has?” He’d been the picture of overconfidence all week. Bragging nonstop about how he was a shoe-in for the finals and that none of the other competitors could possibly measure up.

    “Yeah. I mean, not that he’d show it, but you know how he is,” Darren replied. Upon seeing my confused face, he added, “Can’t let anyone know, least of all his team. Doesn’t want them to stress out too.”

    I… actually hadn’t realized that until now. And in a way, that kind of bothered me. I mean, it did make sense—Darren had been traveling with Rudy for the past nine months, so of course he had a better read on him by now. But still… I should’ve been able to spot things like that.

    By now, scattered members of the crowd were starting to get up from their seats and make their way to the stairs. There were still plenty of preliminary matches left after this, though, so a lot of them were electing to just sit and watch the next match. At least the exits wouldn’t be totally clogged.

    I motioned to Darren. “Wanna go meet up with him?”

    “Can’t. I’ve got a match in half an hour,” he replied simply.

    I almost fell out of my seat. “What?! I didn’t know your next match was so soon!”

    Darren just shrugged. “I practiced a bit this morning, and my team’s already been checked in.” He motioned to his belt, conspicuously devoid of Pokéballs. If it had been Rudy with a match so soon, it would’ve been the only thing out of his mouth for the past hour.

    “Are you gonna be late?” I asked.

    “I’ll be fine. Tell Rudy I said congrats, yeah?” Darren said, standing to his feet and stretching. He then waved and said, “See you later,” before making his way to the end of the seating row.

    “See you. And best of luck with the match!” I added.

    “Same to you,” he replied automatically. And then he paused, gears slowly turning in his head. “I don’t know why I just said that.”

    “Force of habit maybe?” I said with a laugh.

    “Yeah? Probably. Anyway, later.”

    After Darren left, I waited for a minute or two for more people to leave the stands, then got up and started making my way down to the hallway that led to the competitors’ entry and exit. It seemed like the best thing to do would be to catch up with Rudy real quick, then find Ajia and Starr and grab seats for Darren’s next match. Granted, I probably should have asked which stadium it was going to be in, but I could probably check the match listings online once I got a free moment.

    Despite my waiting, however, I wound up getting stuck behind a huge group of people all exiting the stands at once. So I stood a couple yards back, leaning against the railing as I waited for an opening. And then, rather unexpectedly, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

    “Hey, your name wouldn’t happen to be Jade, would it?” a voice asked.

    I spun around to see a boy around a year or two older than me, with gray eyes and reddish-brown hair (dyed lighter in the front) looking at me with a rather curious expression.

    “Er… do I know you?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

    He chuckled, reclining back against the same railing as me. “Probably not. I don’t think we ever saw each other much way back in Viridian, and I mostly hung out with Ajia anyway. My name’s Lexx. I’m Starr’s brother.”

    I blinked. If I’d been expecting anything, it hadn’t been that. But now that I thought back, he did look vaguely familiar. In my mind, I could imagine a six-years-younger version of him alongside Ajia and Starr at our old school.

    Seeing the blank look on my face, Lexx went on, “Sorry, I know it’s been ages. I really didn’t expect you to recognize me. I was wondering if you knew whether Ajia or Starr was around here. I haven’t been able to find either of them.”

    “I can try calling Ajia,” I offered.

    “That’d be great,” he said brightly.

    I grabbed my Pokégear and tapped Ajia’s number, throwing a side glance at the newcomer every so often. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about this whole situation felt strange. Why couldn’t he just call her himself, if he knew her? In any case, Ajia soon answered the phone.

    “Hey, Ajia? Your, uh… your old friend Lexx is here?” I said, unable to keep the confusion out of my voice.

    “Lexx? What’s he doing there?” Okay, so she was more surprised that he was here than the fact that he wanted to speak to her at all. They’d clearly kept in contact at some point within the past six years.

    “I don’t know, I was hoping you could tell me.”

    I heard the muffled sounds of talking in the background as Ajia had apparently covered the microphone with her hand.

    “He didn’t say?” she asked.

    “No, he just said he was looking for you and Starr.”

    “Oh, figures,” she said, slightly exasperated. “Alright, where are you two?”

    “Uh, we’re…”—I glanced around to locate some sort of identifier—“We’re by stairway D. In stadium 4.”

    “Kay, we’ll be right over,” Ajia said before hanging up.

    I replaced my phone in my pocket and then just sort of shuffled a foot against the concrete while I waited for her to show up. Now that I thought about it, it was kind of weird that I’d been traveling with Starr for nine months and she hadn’t mentioned her brother once that entire time. I mean, sure, I hadn’t thought to ask, but… He hadn’t come up once in any of the countless stories she’d told about her training journey. Not even a single side mention?

    We were just standing there in silence with the chatter of the crowd all around us. I glanced around aimlessly to avoid eye contact, feeling like it’d be too awkward if I stared. Lexx tapped his heels against the railing, humming to himself while he browsed something on his phone.

    …I should probably say something to him.

    “So have you… seen Starr lately?” I asked with an awkward half-smile.

    He chuckled. “Well, I’ve tried to. She kind of avoids me.”

    I raised an eyebrow. “...Why?”

    “I’ll let her do the honors of explaining,” he said with a wink.

    Well, now I was really confused. But I was spared having to think too hard about it because right then I spotted Ajia entering the stands from the nearest entryway. I waved to grab her attention… and then spotted Starr following close behind her, looking like she’d rather have been anywhere else.

    “Seriously, I don’t get why you’re making me come along, I do not want to talk to him,” I heard her say rather loudly as they approached. Ajia said something quietly in reply, and then Starr shot back with, “No, I don’t care that it’s been over a year since we last spoke, what does that matter?”

    And then she froze as if she’d suddenly realized that she now had the misfortune of actually being in her brother’s presence, and hadn’t yet figured out how to handle it.

    “Hi Starr,” Lexx said brightly.

    For several seconds, she didn’t respond. Then her gaze hardened, and she stormed over, grabbing him by the collar and pressing him against the railing.

    “What do you want?” she demanded, staring him dead in the eyes with a murderous glare.

    “Ah, come on,” Lexx replied, hardly looking fazed. As if this was a perfectly normal greeting from her. “I’ve been trying to contact you for a while now. You can’t ignore me forever.”

    “Watch me,” she muttered, letting go of his collar and turning away, refusing to look at him.

    I glanced back and forth between the two of them, thoroughly lost. “I don’t get it. What’s going on with you two?”

    Starr gave me the expression she reserved for when she thought I was being especially dense. “Well, for starters, he’s the traitorous scum who sold me out during the revolt. Not to mention he’s friends with Sebastian.”

    It took me several seconds to process the implication of what she had said. If he was involved in the revolt and knew Stalker, then…

    “You’re on Team Rocket?!” I blurted out, spinning towards Lexx.

    Starr burst out laughing. “Of course he is! I got caught up in that damn team because the boss is my dad—why would it be any different for Lexx?”

    I shot a glance at Ajia, but it was obvious from her lack of reaction that she was already aware of all this. I couldn’t get a read on how she felt about it though.

    “And hey! I just realized something!” Starr exclaimed suddenly, all amusement gone from her voice. “Ajia, you’ve known for ages that he’s on Team Rocket, but you never tried to screw him over because of it! What, was I just special?”

    Ajia gave Starr a sympathetic look. “I’ve talked it over with him in the past. We can’t really work together because our aims are so different. But we’re not being actively pitted against each other either.”

    “It’s because Sebastian doesn’t care if we were friends,” Lexx added dismissively. “He’s fighting the Kanto force. If you guys get involved, that just helps us. It’s not like what happened with you being loyal to the boss and all.”

    Starr folded her arms and glanced away, muttering various obscenities under her breath.

    “Congrats on your betrayal by the way,” Lexx added. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

    “You better not try to compare my treachery to yours,” she snarled, whirling around to face him. “I didn’t get a choice. They betrayed me first.”

    “Don’t tell me you wish you were still on the Kanto force?” Lexx asked tauntingly.

    “Of course not,” Starr muttered. “I just… I… it’s complicated.”

    Lexx smirked. But then he made eye contact with me, and it was obvious he could tell that I was still confused. “Alright, look. You already know that we need to use the power of the Legendaries. And yeah, that means catching them. So if you try to stop us, just know we won’t hold back. But you already knew that, so outside of the battlefield, there’s no reason for bad blood. We’re both trying to stop the Kanto force, right?”

    Starr gave an exaggerated sound of disgust. “Why are you even here anyway? What, did you come here just to piss me off or something?”

    “Ha, that’d be fun. But no, I’m here on business.” He turned to face Ajia. “Sebastian wanted me to give you a message.”

    She blinked. “He what?”

    “Great,” Starr said with an eye roll. “Couldn’t even be assed to come tell us himself, so he sends his gopher boy to do it.”

    “He didn’t want me to text it, either. Had to be in-person.” He paused to make sure all three of us were paying attention. And from the tiniest trace of a grin on his face, I suspected that part of it was for dramatic effect as well.

    “Team Rocket is going to attack the League.”

    It was like everything around us had stopped existing. I gaped incredulously, jaw hanging open. He couldn’t possibly be serious. It took several seconds for any of us to find the words to respond, but when we did, all three of us spoke at once:

    “What?”

    “You’re kidding.”

    “Are they insane?!”

    “It’s not going to be a serious attack or anything,” Lexx quickly added, raising both palms. “More to get people’s attention, really.”

    “But why?” I asked, thoroughly lost. “Are they trying to, like… draw the Legendaries out of hiding?”

    “Doubt it. Seems more like they’re trying to stir up some anti-Legendary sentiment. What better place to do that than the League?”

    What? Anti-Legendary sentiment? The hell was that supposed to mean?

    Ajia took a deep breath. “When are they going to attack?” she asked, her tone darkly serious.

    “‘Fraid we don’t have word of that,” Lexx said, giving an exaggerated shrug. “Soon enough that Sebastian’s got his hands tied. He was hoping you three could do something about it.”

    “Why don’t you do something about it, huh?” Starr asked heatedly.

    Lexx folded his arms behind his head. “Sorry, but I’ve got a prior engagement.”

    She raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? And what’s that?”

    He winked. “Sorry, can’t tell you. Don’t wanna spoil the surprise.”

    Starr clenched her hands like she wanted to strangle him.

    “Okay, wait, wait,” I said, sweeping my hands to the side while trying to clear my thoughts. “If Sta—if Sebastian really cares about this, why doesn’t he warn the League? What makes him think we’re the best defense here.”

    “Ah, I’m sure the League already knows,” Lexx answered with a casual tone. “That’s probably what the Rockets are banking on.”

    I gaped at him. “What the hell?” Nothing about this made any sort of sense. And something else kept nagging at me in the back of my head. His vague, backhanded responses… they all pointed to one thing.

    “Why are you talking about this like you’re in the dark?” I asked, the realization slowly dawning on me. “You know exactly why they’re doing this, you’re just not saying anything.”

    Lexx’s grin widened for just an instant, and in that moment, it was obvious that he’d been waiting for someone to point that out. But he still didn’t answer the question.

    Ajia sighed exasperatedly. “Lexx… come on…”

    He held up his arms. “I’m not trying to toy with you guys, honest. There’s just certain things I can and can’t say, that’s all. Besides, now that you guys know what’s coming, you’ll be less likely to get hurt, right? I’m still doing you a favor.”

    Ajia opened her mouth to speak, but then she paused before any words could come out. “You said they wanted to stir up anti-Legendary sentiment,” she said, furrowing her brow in that way she did when she was putting the puzzle pieces together on something. “In other words, they’re going to attack the League and pin the blame on the Legendaries. They don’t plan on anyone knowing it’s them.”

    For several seconds, there was no response. Then a slow, satisfied grin made its way across his face. “That’s my favorite thing about you,” he said. “I don’t even have to say the things I’m not allowed to say; you just figure it out anyway.” He clapped his hands together with a look of finality. “Welp, that pretty much covers everything I needed to say. I should probably get back to Mahogany now.”

    Starr snatched his collar again, yanking him towards her. “What makes you think you can drop a bombshell like that and just leave, huh?” she growled.

    “Oh, do enlighten me as to what you’re going to do to me,” he said, his voice lilting with amusement.

    Several seconds passed, during which it felt like nothing else around us even existed. Not the crowds, not the stadium, nothing. Starr’s hand hovered over a Pokéball, and she muttered, “if we weren’t in public…” but then she shook her head and clenched her fist before shoving him away roughly.

    Lexx smoothed out his collar with a smug grin. Then he gave a small wave and said, “Nice seeing you all,” before walking off.

    I stared blankly at the concrete floor after he left, my mind swirling with a million different things. Ajia was still pondering his words while Starr was muttering incoherent half-sentences laced with profanity. While I couldn’t say that my first impression of Lexx was a positive one, I also couldn’t say that I felt the same… vitriol as she did. There was definitely more to it than that.

    “So… you really can’t stand him, huh,” I said, desperate to have one comment that didn’t relate to the revelation he’d just given us.

    Starr snapped her head in my direction. “That little weasel got out of the revolt scot-free, while the boss never let me forget what happened,” she spat, gripping the handrail so hard her knuckles turned white. “Then he had the nerve to mock me for following the boss, as if I had a choice in it.”

    I tapped my fingers together awkwardly. “…Maybe you guys could put that in the past now that you’re not a Rocket anymore?” After all, I’d done a lot of stuff that had outraged her as a Rocket.

    Starr scoffed but didn’t say anything.

    “Look, this whole thing has got us on edge, so I think we should go do something to take our minds off it,” Ajia suggested, gesturing for us to follow her outside. I exhaled slowly, only just then realizing how much tension I could feel in my shoulders. Yeah, finding a distraction sounded like a good idea.

    I grabbed Starr’s hand and tugged lightly on her arm.

    “Yeah, alright fine,” she muttered, clasping her hand around mine. “Let’s go find a side event or whatever.”



    ~~~~~~~~~~​



    Team Rocket was going to attack the League.

    That single thought wouldn’t leave my mind for the rest of the day. And while entering a couple of one-on-one pickups with Ajia and Starr had helped (Ajia ended up winning a couple of rare berries), I was soon back to obsessively dwelling on it.

    Was what Lexx said true? What reason would there be to tell a lie like that? He was friends with Stalker… So was I, at one point. Well… had I ever really been his friend? Or was everyone on the Rebellion just his pawn? How many times had I asked myself that same question?

    I wound up missing Darren’s match. I’d have to explain myself later. He probably wouldn’t mind that much, but it still bothered me. That was a few hours ago; now I was using the battle equipment section of the vendor’s alley as a distraction. I was in the middle of trying to wrap my head around why anyone would give their Pokémon equipment that poisons the holder when my Pokégear started buzzing. I answered it.

    “Hey!” Rudy’s voice blared in my ear, way louder than it needed to be. “Darren was looking for you earlier.” That was usually code for ‘Rudy was looking for me.’

    “Yeah, I was busy,” I just said.

    “Well I just stopped by one of the food carts. Why don’tcha head over, I’ve got loads to tell you.”

    I closed my eyes. I couldn’t really think of any excuse not to, so I said, “Sure, I’ll be over in a few,” before hanging up.

    I went and found Starr debating whether or not to buy a Choice Band, and told her I was heading off. Of course, Rudy hadn’t bothered to tell me which food cart he’d stopped at, and I knew by now that texting him for more info was pointless. It was probably within the tourney site grounds at least. So I just wandered down the alley that had the most enticing smells, now painfully aware of the fact that I’d missed lunch. Rocket business sure had a way of killing my appetite.

    It didn’t take long for me to find Rudy. He was seated at one of the many outdoor picnic tables in the adjacent park. I wandered over to him and couldn’t help staring at the ridiculously large tray of fried snacks sitting on the table in front of him.

    “Geez, did you order that for your entire team or what,” I said as I sat down across from him.

    “Oh, shut up, I didn’t know how many came with it,” he grumbled.

    “Yeah, well, I’m stealing a few,” I said, grabbing a toothpick and spearing a ball of fried seafood before popping it into my mouth. Having something to chew on helped fill an otherwise awkward silence at least. Wasn’t long before I got the itch to say something though.

    “I missed Darren’s match,” I said, my voice weirdly monotone.

    “Aw really? Lame,” Rudy said through a mouthful of food. He chewed for a bit and then said, “You, uh… you saw mine though, right?”

    I chuckled weakly. “Yeah, I did.”

    “Ah, okay.” He nodded, looking pleased. “So you saw how long Pupitar lasted in that match. I managed to find someone selling an eviolite and she’s been loving it. Or at least, I think she has. It’s hard to tell, y’know?”

    He rambled on for a bit about his team. About how Nidoking had beat some kid’s Dragonair in a practice match and how he could totally take on a Dragonite if anyone here actually had one (no one did). About how Fearow had been helping Breloom get over his fear of flying-types, and how he’d actually managed to stall her out recently. About how Raichu had managed to use Substitute four times in a single match. I felt bad about zoning out for most of it, but it was hard not to with how distracted I felt.

    “And I think Fearow actually wanted to be on the tournament roster? Even though she volunteered to sit out ‘cause you can only bring six. But now she’s complaining about how I used Pupitar even though she doesn’t care, and now they’re not talking to each other, and I’m just like ‘I don’t know what’s going on anymore.’ I dunno how to make them both happy. It’s dumb!” He folded his arms with an overly sulky expression. Then, for whatever reason, he must have finally noticed my face. “So what happened to you? You look like you just got your ass handed to you or something.”

    Darren’s words from this morning echoed in my head. Couldn’t stress Rudy out with Rocket BS. Not when he’d come so far.

    I forced a laugh. “Yeah, I did.”

    He held back a snicker. “Again? Seriously, I know your team’s better than that. You just giving bad orders again, or what?”

    I snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably it.” Well, it was a handy excuse, at least.

    Rudy gave an exaggerated sigh. “Well, only one thing to do. Come on.” He stood up and motioned for me to follow him. “Let’s run through some strategies or something.”

    “I already did a bunch of battles this morning.” I did two. That counted as a bunch.

    “Nah, we wouldn’t be battling,” he said dismissively. I raised an eyebrow. “I mean, like, tactics and crap. The kinda stuff we used to do back on Midnight. I can show you some of the stuff my team’s been working on. Maybe it’ll help yours, I dunno.”

    Rudy, the strategist. What bizarro universe had I stepped into.

    “Oh, and you’re not allowed to tell Darren any of this, got it?” he added, jabbing a finger at me. “I know he’s acting like he doesn’t give a crap about the tournament but he mostly… sort of… always won when we used to spar.” The words looked physically painful. “So I gotta hold onto any advantage I got, you hear?”

    “I got it, I got it,” I said, waving a hand. More distractions couldn’t hurt. And it wasn’t like I could do anything about the impending attack right now. So what point was there in making myself miserable? As usual, none. I was here to enjoy myself, dammit.

    So I stood up and prepared to follow him out to the public battlegrounds. And then a distant rumble reverberated through the air, sending a small tremor through the ground. All around us, the chatter of the crowds slowly trailed off as everyone’s attention was caught by the unexpected quake.

    “What the hell was that?” Rudy asked, glancing around in confusion.

    I froze, pulse quickening, a pit of dread slowly building in my stomach. That couldn’t be it. That had to be some random training accident or something. Some overpowered attack had gone wild and hit a building. Get enough trainers in one place and it was bound to happen.

    And then I felt another tremor radiate through the ground. The distant call of an alarm split the air.

    It couldn’t be. Now? Why now? So soon?!

    This was it. The Rockets’ attack was now.






    ~End Chapter 33~
     
    April Fool's Special: Triple Threat
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    This chapter is pretty short but it has a lot of cool action. I hope you all enjoy! Happy April 1st! ;D



    ~Chapter 34: Triple Threat~


    My body had gone rigid, every panic instinct flaring up at once. We were supposed to have more time. It wasn’t supposed to be this soon. We were supposed to have more time. Lexx’s warning from earlier flashed through my mind on an infinite repeat. It wasn’t supposed to be this soon. But... he hadn’t said one way or another, had he? Some warning.

    “C’mon, let’s go check it out,” Rudy said, gesturing in the direction that we’d heard the explosions. His words reached my ears, but my body didn’t want to respond.

    “Wait,” my voice finally said.

    Rudy turned, giving me a confused look.

    I clenched my fists, swallowing hard, struggling to force the words out. “This… is probably Team Rocket’s doing.”

    He froze, staring at me with an expression I couldn’t place. Surprise? Fear? No, it was more like a dozen thoughts and memories flashing through his mind at once. He turned back in the direction of the commotion. The noises were growing louder, building in intensity. More explosions. Now we could actually hear screaming.

    Rudy bit his lip. “I mean… we’ve still got to go see, don’t we?”

    I didn’t have an answer for that. Mostly because he was right. I nodded slowly, and then the two of us took off running. Most of the other trainers were running away from the direction we were heading. I didn’t like the look of that, but we pressed on until we’d reached the entrance to Stadium 3. Now that we were here, I could see a plume of smoke rising up above it. I glanced around hurriedly, trying to make out the source of the chaos, but nothing stood out.

    But then when I saw it, all I could do was wonder how on Earth it had managed to not stand out.

    “What the bloody hell is that thing?” Rudy blurted out, saying pretty much the same thing that I had wanted to say.

    Three Hyper Beams split the air, instantly vaporizing a large chunk of the stadium above us. I stared brokenly as chunks of concrete rained down from the impact, only finally managing to piece together that they were falling right at us.

    Instinct took over, and I dove headlong through the stadium entrance, landing roughly on the tile floor, tremors shooting through the ground behind me. I lay there breathing hard, eyes screwed shut and arms clasped over my head until the movement finally ceased. I cracked one eye open. Then I shook my head to clear the dust from my face and lifted myself from the floor before throwing a glance back the way I came.

    The hallway was filled with rubble. I couldn’t see Rudy but he was probably ok. I turned around and ran in the opposite direction. I passed the main lobby, then ran down the hallway that circled the stadium until I reached one of the offshoots that led into the audience stands.

    A horrifying screech of a roar reverberated through the air. I shot a glance skyward, squinting at a figure silhouetted against the harsh sunlight. And there it was. It was a Lugia, but… wrong. Huge, draconic wings beat the air. Sunlight glimmered off nightmarishly long, pitch-black blade claws. Three heads—one normal, one bladed and demonic, and one eye-searingly bright—roared and snapped their jaws, firing off non stop energy beams and blowing giant holes in the stadium walls.

    Suddenly Chibi burst out of his Pokéball in a flash of light, appearing on my shoulder.

    “*I should have known,*” he said darkly.

    I snapped my attention to him. “What? How?”

    “*It was just rumors for the longest time. Experiment Number Thirty-Seven. But no one thought they’d actually go through with it after they had such success with Thirty-Six. I guess with Mewtwo being freed, they didn’t have much of a choice.*”

    What? This thing was a hybrid made by Team Rocket? But then… if it was here, then Team Rocket had to be nearby, right?

    “Come on, we’ve got to find the Rockets,” I said. I opened a Pokéball and let out Swift and jumped onto the Pidgeot’s back and the three of us flew upward. I tried to give the three-headed nightmare of a Lugia a wide berth, but then it saw us.

    “Swift, use Agility!” I cried.

    The Pidgeot put on a burst of speed, and he only barely managed to dodge the ensing triple Hyper Beam. But the shock waves of the attack’s sheer awesomeness knocked our flight path totally askew. I held tight to Swift as the three of us plummeted downward, the ground rushing up at us. And yeah, okay, maybe it was one of the coolest ways to die, but I still didn’t want to die!

    And then suddenly a psychic glow surrounded us, slowly lowering us safely to the ground. My feet reached the concrete. I took a wild look around, trying to locate our savior. A flash of white wings caught my eye, I whirled around and—there it was. Lugia. Half of my brain wanted to freeze up with panic at the memory of how it had tortured me last year, but the other half was to enraptured by just how damn cool Lugia was.

    “You saved me?” I asked breathlessly. The dragon-bird nodded expressionlessly.

    “What the heck is that thing?” I asked, gesturing to the three-headed monstrosity.

    <Why should I know?> Lugia said. Its psychic voice was a lot saltier and less-majestic than I’d been expecting.

    “Well, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a three-headed Lugia!” I shouted, gesturing to it.

    Lugia rolled its eyes. <Whatever. Come with me. We’re figuring this out now.>

    Wait. It wanted me to fly up there with that thing in the air? It had almost killed me!

    “Why me?” I whined.

    <Because you’re a foolish little kid who confronts Legendaries when you know you shouldn’t,> Lugia said tiredly. <Now get on my back>

    I obeyed, recalling both Swift and Chibi and climbing onto the Legendary’s back. Lugia spread its wings and the two of us were skyward again.

    <Hey, ugly!> Lugia yelled, firing off an aeroblast at the hybrid. A trio of Hyper Beams—one yellow, one bluish white, and one black—shot toward us in reply, but Lugia put on a burst of speed and looped out of the way, putting us far enough away for the shock waves to miss.

    And then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small pink cat levitating someone up to us.

    “Ajia!” I cried.

    Mew was lifting her psychically. I thought it was kind of weird for her to do that out here in the open where anyone could see, but I didn’t say anything.

    “Do you have any idea what that thing is?” I asked.

    Ajia shook her head. “We’re just as much in the dark as you are.”

    <Come on, we’ve got to strike back,> Lugia snapped.

    Mew stared at it. <But it would take at least three Legendaries to match that one’s strength.>

    “Hello, yes, I’m here now,” a voice announced, and I turned around to see Ho-oh flying up to us, its rainbow wings beating the air. When it noticed all of us staring at it, it blushed. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

    <Eh, right.> Lugia turned back towards its three-headed counterpart, which had been conveniently distracted while we were talking. <All together now!> it cried.

    Mew, Lugia and Ho-oh all focuses their power into their strongest attacks, Psystrike, Aeroblast, and Sacred Fire. The three attacks swirled around each other and formed a single beam of power, striking the three-headed abomination dead-on.

    Yes! Direct hit!

    But it just smirked and dusted itself off with its claws. No way… our attacks hadn’t even made a dent!

    “You didn’t honestly expect that to work, did you?” a condescending voice shouted.

    I glanced over to see a Charizard rapidly flying toward us with a trainer on its back.

    Ajia’s eyes went wide. “Sebastian?!”

    Stalker tilted his head. “Who? Nevermind, I need your help.”

    I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”

    He gestured to the destruction with a wild look in his eyes. “Because this wasn’t supposed to happen!”

    “What do you know about that thing?” I demanded.

    “Well for starters, I created it,” he said, with a tone that suggested that he was annoyed I didn’t already know that.

    “What?!” I exclaimed. “How? Why??”

    Stalker scowled. “Don’t tell me you forgot how I cloned Lugia and turned it Dark?”

    “Uh. First of all: no, I don’t remember that. I think I’d remember that. Second of all: what??

    “No matter,” he said, turning around dramatically. “I created TriLugia by fusing three clones together—one normal, one Dark, and one Light. It was supposed to be my ultimate weapon. But its power has run wild and I can’t control it anymore. Much as it pains me to say it, I need your help.”

    I decided to ignore the eighty billion questions his story brought up and instead focus on the matter at hand. “We attacked it with all three of our powers combined, but it wasn’t enough.”

    “Well yeah,” Stalker said matter-of-factly. “TriLugia doesn’t have the power of three Lugias. Each of its components is already three times cooler than normal—you’d need the power of nine Lugias. And that’s just not going to happen,” he said, scoffing at such a notion.

    “Then why didn’t you make nine Lugias?!” I yelled.

    Stalker stared. “I don’t have that kind of time on my hands.”

    “Apparently you do!” I yelled, throwing both arms toward the rampaging monster. “Why the hell did you make it in the first place?!”

    “Why wouldn’t I? It was the only way to fulfill the prophecy…” he replied simply as though nothing were more true.

    I stopped, staring. “The Midnight Island prophecy?”

    “What? No, the Lavender Town prophecy…” Then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Which prophecy are you talking about and why don’t I know about it?”

    “What do you mean you don’t know about it, I asked you about it, back on the Rebellion! And why are there so many prophecies?!”

    “Never mind that,” he said dismissively. “We’re going to need a power even greater than the Legendaries if I’m going to take control of that thing…”

    “A power greater than the Legendaries?” I breathed. “Does such a thing exist?”

    “It does…” Stalker said meaningfully, “and it’s sitting in your bag.”

    What? It was what? I grabbed my bag from my shoulder and slid it into my lap. I could feel an aura of great importance radiating out from it. I reached my arm in and felt my fingers brush against the cool metallic orb that I’d found in the basement of the Midnight Island ruins.

    “How did you know I had it?” I asked.

    “I have my ways…” he said mysteriously.

    I slowly lifted the orb out of the bag, holding it in front of my face.

    “It might look like an orb,” Stalker said, “But it’s actually a shard of TriLugia’s power.”

    “But it doesn’t look like an orb!” I shot back. “And everyone thought it had to do with Giratina!”

    Stalker looked at me like I was an idiot. “What the hell is Giratina.”

    <Never heard of it,> Lugia added dismissively.

    Oh come on! Just when I thought I knew what the heck was going on with all of this.

    Mew held up a paw, muttering something ancient-sounding as a magical glow started to encircle the orb magically. All of a sudden, its shape rippled and distorted like a hologram being deactivated and then there was a glassy jet-black crystal in my hand.

    “What,” I said.

    “That’s it, that’s the Dark Crystal…” Stalker said darkly, with a dark grin.

    I could feel an evil power radiating out from it. Stalker reached out his hand as if to take it, and I instinctively clutched it to my chest.

    “Hmph. Fine, keep it then. So long as we use them together, it makes no difference.”

    “‘Them’?”I asked, raising an eyebrow.

    He reached into his coat and pulled out a second crystal, this one radiating a purplish light that distorted the air around it. “This is the Psychic Crystal. I stole it from its true owner and now it’s mine.”

    “Then what’s the third…?” I began. But then all of a sudden, Mew had a look of recognition on her face and she turned to face her chosen with an awestruck look.

    <It’s you,> Mew said, awestruck.

    “Me?” Ajia asked. But before anyone could say anything, suddenly she started to glow. I stared in shock as, before our eyes, a brilliant white stone materialized in her hands.

    “Where did this come from?” Ajia asked in amazement.

    “The Light Crystal was originally hidden away, just like the others. It came to you because you were meant to have it…” Stalker muttered mysteriously. That made sense.

    <That’s how destiny works, after all,> Mew added. Lugia gave a small harumph but didn’t say anything.

    Stalker turned to face the mindless, rampaging, three-headed Lugia, holding the Dark Crystal out in front of him.

    “By the combined power of all three crystals, we should be able to destroy TriLugia.”

    “Why are you alright with us destroying it?” I asked. “You made it for a reason, didn’t you?”

    Stalker turned away. “Hmph. I don’t need it alive, I just need its blood for the ritual…”

    I decided to place that bit of information in the “let’s not think about this” section of my brain.

    The three of us closed our eyes and all concentrated at once. I felt a wave of darkness radiating out from the Dark Crystal, which melted together with a wave of pure light and a wave of pure psychic-ness. My eyes opened, and I saw a huge vortex of power forming between the three crystals, swirling different shades of black, white, and purple. Suddenly and without warning, it shot forward into a piercing beam that tore through the air. TriLugia snapped all three heads in our direction. The beam struck it in the belly, and the beast roared, flailing its heads, limbs, wings, and tail. I held my breath, hoping that we’d done it.

    But then its eyes snapped open, and it flashed a murderous glare at all of us.

    “No way…” I muttered.

    <It wasn’t strong enough…> Mew said hopelessly.

    “That’s impossible,” Stalker said.

    All three heads opened their mouths, and for an instant, I was sure that it was going to attack us. But instead, it fired three, blindingly bright, mile-wide beams at the ground below.

    “No! This one shouldn’t be capable of that attack!” Stalker yelled. This one? Was he implying there was another one??

    The energy bored a hole deep into the earth. The ground split open, cracks radiating across the tournament site like a spider web. Small at first, they rapidly grew outward, buildings falling into the gaping chasms.

    “This wasn’t supposed to happen this early! It’s too soon! The portal isn’t open yet!”

    Plumes of magma shot up through the cracks. A feeling of dread slowly started to come over me. This attack. Just how deep could it go? Just how much damage would it cause? And why was Stalker so terrified?

    “I was supposed to reach the sacred realm! I was supposed the gain the power of the Pokégods!”

    <Lugia, what’s he talking about?> I asked.

    <I don’t know!> the dragon-bird yelled, its voice saturated with panic. I felt its panic in my mind as well. Stalker had flown off in a hurry. Shock waves started to radiate through the air. The chasms had traveled so far they’d reached the horizon. A horrible, unearthly glow had started to build from deep within.

    Then an earth-shattering explosion and everything faded to white.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “What in the name of all existence is happening here?!” a voice thundered across the void between worlds.

    The spatial one perked up, its attention dragged from the spectacle unfolding on the physical plane. “Ah, you’re right on time, this world just nuked itself, come have a look.”

    The temporal one drifted over, its movements as slow as possible to indicate just how much it didn’t want to.

    “What are you doing?” it asked, its voice a low, cold rumble that reverberated through the ages.

    Palkia glanced back at its handiwork. “Is, uh… is that a rhetorical question?” The temporal one didn’t dignify that with a response, so it continued, “Well, I noticed this universe had eleven…”—it paused, counting on its claws—“no wait, twelve versions of itself. And I thought that was kind of weird, so I went and combined them. Most of them just kind of fizzled out, but numbers three and twelve ended up fighting for dominance here. You can’t tell me that’s not cool.”

    Dialga squinted at the abomination before it, recognition flashing through its eyes.

    “Did you not think this world was bad enough as it was?”

    “I mean… I’d answer that, but that’d be getting into things I’m not supposed to talk about,”
    Palkia said, giving the diamond dragon a you’re-not-supposed-to-talk-about-it-either kind of look.

    The temporal one groaned heavily and turned to leave.

    “Look, it’s fine, I’ll erase all of it, okay?” Palkia offered.

    Dialga turned sharply, eyes flashing. “Is that supposed to be the ideal scenario here?”

    “Well I can’t just leave it, it’ll bleed into the others.”

    “And you didn’t think of that before starting this?”

    “Sorry, foresight’s not my specialty,”
    Palkia said with a tusked grin as its counterpart glared murderously.

    Fix it, the temporal one snarled before shifting its existence to another plane.

    “I just said I was going to,” the spatial one muttered, turning back to look upon its creation. It sighed. Then it spread its arms wide, streaks of red light tracing a path from its pearls to its clawtips.

    Ah well, it was just one timeline out of infinity. No one would miss it.






    ~End Chapter 34~

    Alright, so this special is probably somewhat more incomprehensible to the folks here on TR than it was on Serebii. :P It's a ridiculous, multi-layered inside joke based on the previous revisions of LC. Or rather, what would happen if you took Revision 3 of LC and unceremoniously shoved it into the current version. Stalker creating TriLugia. A trio of crystals with great destiny. The world being destroyed. All of that actually happened, once upon a time.

    Happy April Fool's. Real chapter coming this weekend.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 34: Flames of War
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    MANY THANKS TO PIXIE FOR SCREMS. For anyone who didn't see it, there's an April Fool's special here.



    ~Chapter 34: Flames of War~


    My body had gone rigid, every panic instinct flaring up at once. We were supposed to have more time. It wasn’t supposed to be this soon. We were supposed to have more time. Lexx’s warning from earlier flashed through my mind on an infinite repeat. It wasn’t supposed to be this soon. But… he hadn’t said one way or another, had he? Some warning.

    “C’mon, let’s go check it out,” Rudy said, gesturing in the direction that we’d heard the explosions. His words reached my ears, but my body didn’t want to respond.

    “Wait,” my voice finally said.

    Rudy turned, giving me a confused look.

    I clenched my fists, swallowing hard, struggling to force the words out. “This… is probably Team Rocket’s doing.”

    He froze, staring at me with an expression I couldn’t place. Surprise? Fear? No, it was more like a dozen thoughts and memories flashing through his mind at once. He turned back in the direction of the commotion. The noises were growing louder, building in intensity. More explosions. Now we could actually hear screaming.

    Rudy bit his lip. “I mean… we’ve still gotta go see, don’t we?”

    I didn’t have an answer for that. Mostly because he was right. I nodded slowly, and then the two of us took off running. Most of the other trainers were running away from the direction we were heading. I didn’t like the look of that, but we pressed on until we’d reached the entrance to Stadium 3. Now that we were here, I could see the plume of smoke rising above it. I glanced around hurriedly, trying to make out the source of the chaos, but nothing stood out.

    And then an overwhelming burst of flames tore through the sky, and a massive shadow loomed overhead, circling like a vulture. My blood ran cold. Every muscle in my body seized up instantly. I knew that shadow. Slowly, my eyes slid upward to stare helplessly at the fiery spectre soaring over us. Just like when it attacked Midnight Stadium that night, the night that our lives had been torn apart.

    Moltres. The Legendary guardian of fire, now permanently colored in my mind as an omen of death.

    The firebird drew itself back, flames licking the edge of its beak. The image of it incinerating the fleeing rebels flashed through my mind, and I forced myself to look at anything else. Rudy was frozen, staring at the legend with a disturbed fascination. My eyes slid back to it just in time to see it exhale an explosive blast of flames that tore through the side of the stadium with a deafening crash. I stared brokenly as chunks of concrete rained down from the impact, only finally managing to piece together that they were falling right at us. We had to move.

    Instinct took over, and I dove headlong through the stadium entrance, landing roughly on the tile floor, tremors shooting through the ground behind me. I lay there breathing hard, eyes screwed shut and arms clasped over my head until the movement finally ceased. I cracked one eye open. Then I shook my head to clear the dust from my face and lifted myself from the floor with slow, shaking steps before throwing a glance back the way I came.

    I was alone. I blinked stupidly at the huge pile of broken tile and concrete now filling the entryway, icy horror shooting through my veins as I processed that fact. I was alone. Rudy hadn’t made it through.

    “Rudy!” I screamed. Oh god, he’d been crushed, oh god.

    And then his voice called out, “I’m over here!” and I almost collapsed with relief. His words were muffled by all the rubble in the way, but I could just barely make out him saying, “Want me to bust through some of this concrete?”

    I clenched my teeth. “Don’t waste your time, I’ll go around!” The last thing I wanted was for him to be stuck in one spot while Moltres was attacking.

    “Gotcha!” he yelled, and then I didn’t hear anything more from him.

    I spun around on the spot, a million things flashing through my mind. But when I lifted my foot to take off in the opposite direction… it didn’t move. My body was completely paralyzed. I had to do something. Had to… fight Moltres? No way. Out of the question. I couldn’t do that. But if Moltres was here, that meant there had to be Rockets here as well. I could handle fighting them, right?

    I sank to the ground, both hands clutching my head. The flames. The bright fluorescent lighting suddenly melted into a pitch-black night. The stadium interior twisted and distorted into the familiar hallways of Midnight. I saw rebels taking to the sky, desperately trying to escape the carnage. Saw Moltres draw itself back, an infernal glow building in its throat before unleashing a column of fire that incinerated everyone instantly.

    No. No, no, no! I wasn’t on Midnight Island, the Rebellion ended a long time ago, that time in my life was over!

    …And why was it over? Because of something just like this. I’d thought I was safe. I’d thought I was free. But it was never going to be over, was it? Never, never, never.

    No. None of that. I’d survived, hadn’t I? I’d endured all of that and worse! I couldn’t fall apart now, not after all of that. But I was used to it then. Used to being on edge with my life on the line, and the past nine months had dulled those instincts. I didn’t want to return to that life, dammit! I was happy ignoring it.

    And then a burst of white light appeared out of nowhere right in front of my face, taking the form of a Pikachu.

    “Chibi!” I gasped, jerking backward.

    Yellow ears stood bolt upright as he glanced around hurriedly, his entire body tense.

    “*What’s going on?*” he asked.

    I forced back a shaking breath, struggling to find my voice. “Moltres is attacking the League.”

    The hybrid paused, blinking incredulously. Then he glanced up and down at my sorry state, no doubt trying to hold back his disdain.

    “*And what are you doing here?*” he asked.

    I swallowed hard. “Trying to pull myself together,” I admitted.

    His gaze softened. “*Well, come on then.*” He grabbed my hand, tugging at it lightly. Slowly, I closed my fingers around his paw, then dragged one foot forward until I could put my weight on it. Then another. Until I was finally able to force myself upward, bracing my arm against the side of the building. My pulse still pounded, but it no longer hurt. My head still spun, but it was growing clearer.

    “I don’t know if I can do all of this again,” I whispered.

    “*You’re not alone,*” Chibi said, leaping up onto my shoulder.

    I wasn’t alone. I knew that.

    “You’re sure eager to jump back into this,” I muttered.

    “*Only because I knew it wasn’t really over. The threat you can see is a much easier threat to face,*” he said. I couldn’t really argue with him.

    I started running. Slowly at first, building in speed as my feet struck the tile floor over and over. I passed the main lobby, then ran down the hallway that circled the stadium until I reached one of the offshoots that led into the audience stands. We emerged into the stadium, its seating and stairways now strikingly empty. High above the battlefield, Moltres circled like a fiery spectre, poised to rain destruction upon us. The airspace within the stadium was filled with trainers flying on Pokémon, evacuating. I sucked in a breath, frozen in horror as Moltres neared them. That same image flashed through my mind yet again, and I dug my nails into my palm to force it out.

    And then the firebird banked a wing to swing a full U-turn. It breathed out a torrent of flame, but the blast tore through an empty block of seating.

    I stared blankly, feeling as though my brain had to restart from sheer confusion. Moltres wasn’t going out of its way to attack anyone? This wasn’t like the attack on Midnight at all. What was going on? Why was it even here, then?

    “It’s… not actually attacking anyone directly,” I muttered under my breath, hardly daring to believe it.

    “*I noticed,*” Chibi replied. “*This is an attention-grab.*”

    I clenched my teeth. Of course. Hadn’t Lexx basically already confirmed that? How could I have forgotten?

    “Starr’s brother told us something like this was gonna happen. I still don’t entirely get why.”

    If he was surprised that we’d spoken with Starr’s brother, he didn’t let it show. “*We still can’t let them get away with it.*”

    I swallowed. “Right.” I grabbed a Pokéball and let out Aros. The Flygon materialized in front of us, and his antennae immediately twitched into overdrive as he surveyed his surroundings.

    “*Oh geez what,*” he blurted out, craning his neck up to get a good look at Moltres.

    “*It’s exactly what you think,*” Chibi replied.

    “*Well, shit. Guess we gotta do something about it, huh?*”Aros said, leaning down for me to hop on. I swung a leg over his back, holding tightly to his neck, and with the buzzing of wings, the three of us were airborne.

    I forced my eyes away from Moltres as we quickly ascended. Soon we’d cleared the height of the stadium walls, and then we could see the whole tournament site. Crowds of people and Pokémon filled the streets below, all heading away from the stadiums. Some of them making their way to the city, others aiming for the forests on the western edge of the plateau. Hundreds of flying Pokémon took to the sky all over. And in the midst of them all were the Pokémon rangers leading the evacuation. Everywhere, squads of flying Pokémon wearing brightly colored scarves directed the aerial traffic, struggling to bring some sense of order to the chaotic frenzy of escaping Pokémon.

    Had anyone else noticed that Moltres wasn’t attacking them? Did that seem weird to them? Then again, the damage it had done to the stadiums was putting people in danger regardless—the distinction didn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t the Rockets’ goal, they’d no doubt gotten a few people killed from this, and there was no way they cared.

    Suddenly, a handful of beam attacks shot through the air, flying past Moltres. One of the firebird’s wide loops over the tournament site had taken it too close to a handful of the escaping Pokémon. Their trainers had panicked and ordered attacks. When seemingly threatened by a Legendary, their instinct was to try striking back. I held my breath, mentally willing them to stay away from it as hard as I could. They didn’t need to be involved in this. No one else needed to get hurt. Just stay back. Please.

    It didn’t work. A beam struck Moltres in the back of the head. For several seconds, the firebird didn’t react. But then it slowly turned its blank, soulless eyes in the direction of its attackers. It hadn’t been ordered to attack people. But striking back at an enemy was just instinct. My breath froze. The Legendary began flapping its wings, unleashing a wave of superheated air that forced back the attacking Pokémon, sending them tumbling limply through the air.

    “Stay back! Do not engage, I repeat, do not engage!” a commanding voice blared through a megaphone. I snapped my head in its direction to see a man on a Dragonite shouting to the crowds. “All trainers and Pokémon are to evacuate the tournament site. Do not attempt to engage with the Legendary Pokémon.”

    So the rangers were handling the evacuation and preventing anyone from being stupid and fighting Moltres head-on. Which… might have included us, if they hadn’t just issued that order. Was there really nothing for us to do here?

    Something else was nagging at me. There was no actual sign of Team Rocket here. Moltres had obviously just been given a general order to attack the tournament site, because there was no one nearby who appeared to be giving orders. It was alone. But there had to be Rockets somewhere, right? They’d hardly just let loose one of their most powerful weapons without having someone keep an eye on it.

    “Well well well, look at what we have here,” a voice drawled.

    I tensed up. Who was that—was he talking to me? I spun around to see a man in his thirties approaching us from below on the back of an Altaria. The bird’s fluffy, cloudlike wings beat the air softly and rhythmically. Its overall gentle and nonthreatening appearance didn’t quite match its trainer’s sharp features and condescending aura.

    “Who are you?” I asked.

    He put a hand to his chest. “You don’t recognize me? I’m wounded. Then again, it would be hard for me not to recognize you, what with the company you keep.”

    I bristled. He was referring to Aros and Chibi. He knew they were experiments. He was on Team Rocket.

    “*Careful,*” Chibi muttered. He’d clearly realized the same thing.

    “Should I recognize you?” I asked. Had to keep him talking. Any moment he was wasting with us was one he wasn’t spending doing… whatever it was the Rockets came here to do.

    A subtle grin crossed his face. “Don’t play coy, you’ve got number nine right there, haven’t you? My greatest success was managing to recover it after you so thoughtlessly stole it from us. I’d have thought that would have left more of an impression.”

    The gears slowly turned in my head. “You were head of the S.S. Anne mission?”

    He nodded, looking pleased. “Mmhm. Course, I’m head of a bit more than that these days. But that’s neither here nor there. Technically we’re not supposed to engage, but, well… this is too perfect an opportunity to ignore.”

    I tensed up. What did he mean by that?

    And then, without warning, he drew a gun from his belt and pointed it at us.

    “Aros!”

    A gunshot split the air and the white aura of Protect flared up around us, and for a second, I was sure that we’d been hit. But Aros’s flight hadn’t faltered, and I couldn’t feel any pain. When the light faded, Aros launched into an erratic, zigzagging flight path, just to make sure we couldn’t be caught off guard again.

    Holy crap that was too close. I hugged Aros’s neck tighter.

    The corners of the man’s mouth turned up. “You’re sharp. That’s good. It’s no fun if you’re not.” He motioned to his Altaria. At once it blasted out a plume of dragonfire way bigger than Aros’s, right in our flight path. The Flygon looped over it before countering with his own dragonfire, but Altaria veered out of the way so effortlessly it felt like we were standing still by comparison.

    The skies above us were open. We could escape easily, if we wanted to. There was no reason for us to fight him. But wasn’t he pretty much our only lead right now? Without him, we didn’t have the slightest clue what Moltres was doing here.

    “Your best success was the S.S. Anne?” I said, injecting way more confidence into my voice than I actually felt. “The mission that was supposed to stop the Rebellion before it started? How’d that go for you?”

    The man’s smile faltered. His hand hovered over another Pokéball, but he pulled it back, managing to regain some of his composure.

    “You’re wasting time, Ender,” a woman’s voice said crossly.

    I bristled. Who was that?

    Aros whirled around just in time for a blur of green to slam into him, sending us reeling backward, our flight path completely askew. I threw a hurried glance around, unable to locate our attacker. Aros gasped. My attention snapped back to the front just as the green blur rushed us again. It was… another Flygon? Claws tore into Aros’s side and he roared with pain, thrashing about wildly but failing to dislodge his attacker. I clutched his shoulders, struggling to hold on as the two of them grappled back and forth, wings straining. The other Flygon was winning. It pulled its claws out and dug them back in, just under the wing joint, making Aros’s left wing falter for just a second. He pitched sideways; I lost my grip, and for a single, heart-stopping moment I was weightless, and then I was falling.

    “Aros!” I screamed.

    Falling. The battlefield rushing up at me. Aros dove, but the other Flygon clutched his tail, holding him back. He wouldn’t make it. He wouldn’t make it. Had to do something, anything, and fast, or else I was dead. I fumbled with the Pokéballs on my belt, struggling to grab the right one as my distance from the ground rapidly shrank. Finally, a burst of white light flashed in my face as broad, feathered wings materialized. Swift fluttered a bit, having to get his bearings from being released in a freefall. But then he spotted me, realized what was up, and pointed his wings back so he could swoop down under me. I landed on his back, clutching at the first feathers I could grab, and the air flattened me against his back as he pulled out of the dive, rapidly beating his wings to regain altitude.

    I buried my face in his feathers, screwing my eyes shut and holding on for dear life, heart pounding so fast it hurt. That was way, way too close. Claws still clung to my shoulder. I turned to see Chibi still holding on out of the corner of my eye.

    “Go with Aros!” I yelled, holding out my arm. The Pikachu dashed along it and took a flying leap, catching hold of Aros’s tail before climbing the rest of the way up his back. He’d be able to freely let loose as much lightning as he wanted without me in the way. Meanwhile, Swift continued our ascent until we reached the same altitude as our opponents. He beat his wings to steady our flight, then began circling the two Rockets and their dragon-types.

    “Don’t take away all my fun, Raven,” the man—Ender—said. “Have you forgotten what sort of mission this is?”

    Raven didn’t respond. She just glanced back at Moltres, who was currently terrorizing the next stadium over.

    “But I suppose you’re right,” Ender went on, sighing in mock defeat. “Such a prime target as this one really ought to be eliminated.”

    I bristled. Didn’t like the sound of that at all.

    Swift was keeping us moving, harder to hit from both attacks and gunfire. Then, again, after that first shot, Ender hadn’t fired again. Maybe to avoid advertising the fact that Rockets were behind all this? It was my only guess, anyway.

    Chibi made the first move. He fired a burst of lightning at the enemy Flygon (he must’ve been aiming for its trainer) but the bug-dragon darted out of the way so fast it practically vanished. The moment it slowed down, Aros shot forward. Chibi whirled around, forced to generate a Protect barrier to guard them from behind after the clone left them wide open. Altaria’s dragonfire rebounded off the barrier in a burst of flares, dissipating into the air. But then its trainer glanced over in our direction.

    “Air Slash!” I hissed.

    Swift circled the dragon-bird, firing blades of wind from his wingtips, one after the other. But all it had to do was dive downward, letting the blades clash together in the center of the circle. Swift flapped hard, readying a whirlwind in case the Rocket made a move against us. But he didn’t. He pointed back toward the dueling Flygon pair, and Altaria took off after them.

    Wait. I was an idiot. They were going to tag team Aros, then gang up on me. Had I seriously forgotten my double battle training?

    “Aros, use Protect!” I yelled.

    But he must not have heard me, seeing as his claws flared up with dragonfire and he slashed, finally catching the enemy Flygon with a wicked slash across its side. It lunged with its jaws, attempting to bite his neck, but Chibi swung an ironclad tail at its head, cutting a long gash across its cheek. It let out a cry of alarm, but it didn’t retreat or move out of the way or anything.

    And in that instant, I realized that Raven hadn’t even ordered a dodge. They’d been acting as a stationary target to keep Aros in one spot.

    Altaria drew itself back, something glittering in its mouth.

    “Swift—!” I began.

    Too late. Altaria fired a jagged beam of bright blue ice crystals straight at Aros. The bug-dragon snapped his head in that direction but not quickly enough to react before it crashed into him, covering his entire body with frost (as the enemy Flygon conveniently chose that moment to put some distance between them.)

    Dammit. Why did everything have Ice Beam whenever Aros was out?

    Aros vibrated his wings frantically, struggling to shake off the ice crystals. He got his bearings, flashed a snarl at the bird-dragon… and then forced himself back toward the enemy Flygon once more.

    “Hey, leave the Flygon, we’ve gotta deal with Altaria!” I shouted. We could try to double-team it, use the same tactic they were using.

    But he didn’t listen. He tore through the air, focusing on the Flygon with a murderous glare in his eyes.

    No, dammit! What the hell was he doing?!

    Swift fired off more blades of wind, catching Altaria with a couple slices that managed to keep it in one spot for at least a couple of seconds. Chibi turned around and tried firing a couple bolts back at the dragon-bird, but without any help from his ride, the lightning flew wild, missing its mark. Aros’s claws flared up again. He lunged, slashing wildly. But he was flustered, his aim was off; the other Flygon swooped out of the way effortlessly. It swung its tail, hitting him upside the head. Chibi’s lightning missed again. Come on, this was ridiculous!

    Another Ice Beam split the air. While we’d been focused on the Flygon, Altaria had a clean shot, and this time Aros’s wings iced over with so much frost that he couldn’t shake it off. He was falling, Chibi still clinging to his back for dear life. I whipped out their Pokéballs, recalling them both.

    I swallowed hard. The two Rockets had just completely effortlessly tag-teamed Aros, and now Swift and I were the only target left. Sure, I could let out Firestorm for reinforcements, but…

    “Get ready to use Agility,” I whispered to Swift. Lead or no lead, this wasn’t worth sticking around. Had to get out of here before they got bored with knocking us around and went for the kill.

    Ender asked something of his partner, but I couldn’t hear what. Raven shook her head, muttering something. Ender gave a short reply with a shrug. And then Raven retrieved a whistle from her belt pouch and blew into it, letting out a shrill, high-pitched note. I tilted my head, confused. What was that for?

    Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Moltres, suddenly gunning right for this stadium, fiery wings beating the air with way more drive and purpose than when it had just been idly attacking the tournament site. A wave of icy dread shot through my veins. No. It wasn’t going to—

    Raven pointed at me. “Kill her.”

    The firebird’s mindless eyes settled on me, and my stomach melted. Oh god. It was coming right for us. A Legendary was coming for us and it intended to kill us and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

    “Swift!” I cried.

    He dove. The wind rushed past us as his speed rapidly increased. I flattened myself against his back, willing us to go faster, all the while screaming at myself to not look back. It was too close. Even with the boost from Agility pushing us forward, there was no way we’d outpace the legendary. I couldn’t help it. I threw a hurried glance over my shoulder and it was right there. The firebird’s blank, soulless eyes were fixed dead on us. It drew its head back, flames gathering in its throat.

    Chibi. Chibi was the only one who could so much as put a scratch on the legend, but he couldn’t do it while riding my shoulder. Not without catching me and Swift in the blast.

    Time slowed. I opened his Pokéball. The burst of light took ages to materialize.

    “Mega bolt!” I cried.

    Draining his entire power supply into a single move. That was our only shot.

    Any surprise the hybrid might have felt from being let out in midair flew right out the window the moment he saw why. He curled himself inward, sparks leaping off his fur, lightning dancing between his ears. Then the Pikachu spread his arms and fired off a giant lightning bolt right at the firebird. Moltres didn’t react; it couldn’t. But the lightning stopped it dead in its flight path, flames spilling out from its beak as it let out an agonized wail.

    Holy crap, that was too close. I jerked my attention away from Moltres to see Chibi falling limply through the air. Swift looped around just long enough for me to recall the Pikachu, and then we were off again. Flying faster than I’d ever flown before. Diving down towards one of the exits in the audience stands, a doorway far too small for it to follow us through. We could duck out of sight before the firebird regained itself.

    But then I heard the sound of giant wingbeats churning the air. I dared to shoot another glance back only to see the glint of flames not far behind us.

    No. No, no no! He’d bought us a few seconds. But Moltres had already regained itself and was closing in once more. Swift strained his wings, flying faster than he’d ever flown, faster than either Firestorm or Aros could fly, but it wasn’t enough.

    No! We couldn’t die here!

    And then a high-pitched screech tore the air. I glanced back right as a searing orange and yellow beam shot from nowhere, striking the firebird right in its heart. It snapped its head in the direction of the blast. And then another beam lanced through the air, hitting it in the face. And then another. I turned as far as I could and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small handful of trainers perched on the topmost platform of the audience stands, surrounded by Pokémon that I couldn’t make out from this far.

    Maybe they hadn’t gotten the rangers’ message. Maybe they didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All that did matter was that whatever small distraction they could provide was exactly the opportunity that Swift and I needed. But what if Moltres ended up killing them instead? I couldn’t just let that happen, could I? But what the hell could I do to stop it?

    Swift suddenly banked hard to the right, jerking my attention back to in front of us, and the Rockets that I’d somehow forgotten about during the panic with Moltres. They’d cut off our exit when we weren’t looking. Altaria’s attack missed, but that Flygon was way faster. A raging cloud of dragonfire exploded right into our flight path. No time to dodge. Swift raised a Protect, the flames dancing across the barrier. But the barrage kept coming without pause, a relentless bombardment of sparkling blue and green fire.

    The Protect flickered, and then it was gone. Swift spread his wings, angling himself back so that I wouldn’t be hit. The attacks struck once, twice, three times, and the Pidgeot recoiled backward, each impact sending shock waves reverberating through my body. My hands hurt from clenching his feathers. I felt my grip slipping with each blow he had to endure, but I held tight for dear life. Then an Ice Beam crashed against his face, sending a wave of cold rushing over my skin, and there was that awful, stomach-melting moment of weightlessness again.

    Falling. The pair of us spiraling toward the ground, my hands holding tight with a death grip as the air rushed past. Struggling to reach for my Pokéball belt. Had to recall him, had to let out Firestorm, had to do something. But my hands trembled, missing their mark, and my vision had gone blurry, and my sense of space had dissolved into a dizzying spiral, and the last thing I saw was the flashing of wings in my peripheral vision, rapidly closing in on us. And in that moment, the only thing my brain managed to process was that they weren’t Altaria’s or Flygon’s—they were a Dragonite’s.






    ~End Chapter 34~

    Next Chapter: Mew has something to tell Jade.
     
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