TEEN: The Legendarian Chronicles

Chapter 24 Extra: Chatlog
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>>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…
 
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Chapter 25: The Heart of a Rocket
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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
 
Chapter 26: The Johto Force
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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
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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
 
Chapter 28: Legendary Revenge
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Time for the climactic finale of Book 1! Enjoy~



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.> The rose cat 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
 
Chapter 29: Aftermath
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~ 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
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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
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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
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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
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~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~
 
Chapter 34: Flames of War
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~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.
 
Chapter 35: The Indigo Rangers
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In this chapter, everything finally starts to come together. We're so close--



~Chapter 35: The Indigo Rangers~


The next few minutes passed by in a hazy whirlwind of light and sound and motion. First weightless free-falling, then the tingling prickle of a psychic hold against my skin. Then wings flapping and the feeling of being airborne again, this time in a smooth, straight flight rather than the frenzied zigzagging of trying to throw off pursuers. Finally, I found myself blinking slowly as my senses returned, feeling the wind in my hair and my arms still clasped around a warm, fluffy neck. A crown of red and gold feathers danced in my vision.

“Swift?” I said, blinking. “Are you alright? I thought—” The last thing I remembered was him struggling to protect me from the Rockets, but then they double teamed us and knocked him out, and—

The Pidgeot turned his head slightly to glance back at me. “*After Mew rescued us, your friends gave me a revive,*” he explained.

Mew? And my friends…?” I lifted my head to see a pair of flying Pokémon soaring ahead of us. Ajia riding her Aerodactyl—Pichu on her shoulder—and Starr riding… a Dragonite? What? Where did the Dragonite come fro— But then my brain clicked into place. The Dragonite… it had to be Mew. Starr was riding Mew. What a bizarre thought.

I shook my head to get my bearings and then glanced around to see that we were flying low over a series of forested hills, no buildings in sight. The Tohjo mountains were visible in the distance ahead of us, so we had to be flying west, with Indigo at our backs. But why…?

“What’s going on? Why are we just leaving?” I asked, loud enough to be heard over the wind rushing past us.

Ajia looked back at me, then gestured for Aerodactyl to slow up until he was flying right alongside me and Swift. “The Elite Four is handling the situation back there,” she said.

I stared incredulously. The Elite Four were the ones who had confronted Moltres? I guess it made sense. They were the strongest trainers in all of Kanto. With their position, of course they’d be willing to put their lives on the line to protect the League. But still…

“Look, I know they’re tough, but there’s no way they can beat Moltres,” I said flatly.

“No, but they’re good enough to keep it busy without getting themselves killed,” she answered in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Which is more than you can say,” Starr cut in.

I bristled. Her tone had something of an accusatory edge to it.

“Really, Jade, what the hell were you thinking?” she went on. “Fighting Raven and Ender by yourself? Are you insane?”

I blinked cluelessly. “Was I supposed to know them?”

“They’re only the new heads of the Kanto combat unit,” she said flatly,

I jolted. I’d been fighting the combat unit heads without even knowing it? “How do you know that?”

Starr froze, looking like she’d rather not answer. “I… might have asked Ajia. But it was obvious; they were second in command under me, so it’s no wonder they got the position after I left.”

So I wasn’t the only one who had been curious about the goings-on within Team Rocket after we left. “Okay, well… anything I should know about them?” The following stream of obscenities told me I probably shouldn’t have asked. I glanced back at Ajia on my other side, still feeling rather lost about this whole situation.

“So, we’re just leaving it up to the Elite Four then?” I asked, hardly daring to believe it. I’d never known her to back down from anything. Especially after becoming Mew’s chosen.

“We’re not leaving it all to them, alright?” she answered. “We just need to take a moment to regroup somewhere safe and come up with a plan.” I blinked. That was an oddly terse response, coming from her, but… okay.

The three flying Pokémon soared low above the treeline, continuing their flight west of the city. After a minute or two, something caught my eye on the horizon: a large, red-roofed building situated atop a rocky outcropping, with scattered Pokémon flying above it.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s the Indigo Plateau ranger station,” Ajia replied.

I wanted to ask why she’d brought us here, but the words somehow didn’t reach my throat. Fortunately, Starr was more than willing to.

“Why did you bring us here?” she asked, not bothering to hide her suspicion.

“Look we needed to get out of the city, and we’ll have an easier time planning if we—”

“Whoa, hang on, what’s this ‘we’?” Starr cut in. “Jade and I aren’t a part of your rebel nonsense, remember?”

Ajia groaned. “I’m not saying you are! Just trust me, okay?”

Starr grumbled a bit but didn’t protest any more as the trio of Pokémon threw out their wings and prepared to land. We touched down in a large, gravel clearing in front of the building near a flagpole flying a stylized blue globe—the emblem of the Ranger Union. The building itself had a wide, stone base with a wooden, cabin-style upper level topped with red eaves. A squad of rangers was hurriedly assembling on one of the training grounds north of the base, mounting an assortment of flying-types—lots of Pidgeot and Fearow, but also Skarmory, Noctowl, and even Gliscor—all taking off for Indigo.

I recalled Swift, Ajia recalled Aerodactyl, and Dragonite-Mew flew off into the forest. Ajia immediately began striding toward the building with an obvious sense of purpose.

“So, I’m assuming you’ve been here before?” I asked, jogging to catch up. “If this was your go-to?”

“Yeah, my dad works here,” she replied.

I stopped, blinking with surprise for a second before continuing after her. I guess I did have the vague inkling that at one point I’d probably known that her dad worked for the Ranger Union… maybe? I’d just… managed to completely forget about it.

I followed Ajia up a small set of wooden steps to the building’s front entrance, Starr dragging her heels behind us with a very deliberate air. Ajia was just about to open the door when it suddenly burst open, forcing us all to jump aside as a ranger bolted down the steps and took off for the training ground. Ajia gave an embarrassed half-smile before holding the door open for us. I stepped cautiously inside, immediately shuffling off to the side so I wouldn’t be in anyone else’s way.

The main lobby was full of people, almost all of them wearing the iconic red jacket of the Ranger Union. The overall air was one of anxiety as the rangers rushed about their business, some of them giving orders to subordinates, others talking into handheld radios. I jammed my hands into my pockets, doing my best to merge with the wall, when suddenly, in the midst of all the noise, my ears caught the sound of someone calling out, “Ajia?!”

I turned to see a ranger not much older than Ajia striding toward us with a look of recognition on her face. “What are you doing here?” the girl asked.

“We had to get away from Indigo,” Ajia replied, folding her arms behind her back with a sheepish look. “Is it alright if my friends and I crash here for a bit?”

The ranger glanced at us dismissively. “Long as they stay outta the way, I doubt anyone’ll mind.”

“Great,” Ajia said brightly, turning around to face us. “Guys, this is my friend Kari. We met during that ranger internship I did two years ago.”

Starr gave a curt nod that passed for a greeting, and I just sort of waved. Kari didn’t seem too concerned with the introduction and was now giving Ajia a glare that was half suspicious and half exasperated.

“So you came here from Indigo, huh?” she said, tapping a finger against her belt. “Please don’t tell me you were fighting Moltres.”

“Heck no, I’m not that crazy,” Ajia replied. I fought back a sudden desire to melt into the floor.

Kari raised an eyebrow. “How ‘bout not mucking around in an emergency zone when we’re trying to clear out civilians?”

Ajia gave a crooked grin. “Can’t promise that, I’m afraid.”

“Oh my god,” Kari said, putting a hand to her forehead. “Glad to see you’re alright, at least. I’m sure your dad’ll be glad too—oh, speaking of—”

I glanced over in the direction she had turned to see a short, balding, dark-haired man who had just exited one of the main offices, talking with a couple of other rangers at his side. The man’s eyes lit up, and Ajia didn’t hesitate to run over and throw her arms around him, oblivious to the rangers who had to jump out of her way.

Man, it had been ages since I had seen Ajia’s dad. Not since the last time I’d stayed at her house back when we were both in grade school. That felt like an eternity ago with two completely different people, neither of whom were us.

Ajia and her dad were talking animatedly about something, though I couldn’t hear them with how many other people were in the lobby right now. I tapped my foot against the wall, feeling somewhat out of place. Kari gave me and Starr the occasional sideways glance, like she wasn’t sure if she should wait here with us or leave and get back to whatever she was doing before we showed up. So I just avoided making eye contact and let my gaze wander over the rest of the lobby, settling on a healing station off to the left.

…Aros was still injured and Chibi was out of power. And Swift could probably use some attention as well.

“Is… is it okay if I heal my team?” I asked Kari.

“We look like a Pokécenter to you?” she asked dryly.

My face fell. I was just about to stammer out some kind of apology, but then she snorted. “Just messing with ya. Help yourself.”

I blinked, but then didn’t waste any time excusing myself and weaving around the rangers in my path. I handed Swift, Chibi, and Aros’s Pokéballs to the ranger closest to the machine before rejoining Starr right around the same time as Ajia did.

“Alright, my dad’s cool with us staying here. Come on, there’s a lounge this way,” Ajia said, gesturing for us to follow her. But then she paused, glancing at Pichu, who was still riding her shoulder.

“You wanna go keep Dad company while we’re here?” she asked. Pichu, who had been looking a bit bored and anxious, immediately perked up and jumped down from her trainer’s shoulder, zigzagging around feet as she ran back to the office. Ajia smiled faintly as she watched her starter leave, then motioned for us to follow her again. I glanced back at Starr. She just shrugged, and the two of us followed Ajia down a relatively empty hallway off to the left.

“So, your dad, is he…” I struggled to think of the right way to put it. “Is he gonna be flying into danger with the rest of them?”

“No, no, he’s not a field ranger,” Ajia said quickly. “He’s an admin, he’s mostly in charge of organizing stuff here at HQ, assigning squads to the field, keeping track of who’s doing what, that sort of thing.”

That was a relief. It just went without saying, at this point, that the two of us were bound to get dragged into Rocket business. But the idea of anyone else getting caught up in it unnecessarily just felt… wrong. Even adults whose literal job was helping out with emergency situations.

“Does your dad know about…?” My voice trailed off as I failed to come up with the right words.

Ajia gave a puzzled half-smile. “About what?”

“I dunno…”—I gestured vaguely to all of her—“everything?” She laughed slightly, and I added, “You know… all the mortal danger and such.” I couldn’t have imagined my mom would have been remotely okay with anything I’d done on the Rebellion. And of course, I’d conveniently glossed over all of it during my phone calls.

Ajia gave an awkward shrug. “Soooort of? He knows a couple of things I’ve been involved with. The time I helped you out at the plane crash, the attack on Viridian, where I got my Eevee pair from… Stuff like that. I’ve made it sound like unrelated incidents and not, like… some kind of Rocket-fighting agenda.” Even though it was, in fact, a Rocket-fighting agenda, in every sense.

My attention was caught by my Pokégear buzzing from inside my pocket. I took one look at who was calling and was instantly hit with a bizarre mix of relief and guilt. Rudy. He was alright. But I’d completely forgotten about how we’d been split up, what with the panic of facing the executives.

“Where the hell did you go?” his voice immediately demanded the instant I answered the call.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, we’re both fine, but never mind that, where are you?”

I put a hand to my temple. “I’m at the ranger station west of Indigo. It’s a long story, can you meet me here?”

Technically I wasn’t sure if it was alright to just invite other people here, but it was too late to take it back. And I really didn’t want to explain it over the phone. Fortunately, Rudy was the sort to jump first and ask questions later. “Kay, we’ll head over,” he said before hanging up.

Well, at least that confirmed that Darren was alright too. But I was a little annoyed that, once again, running for my life had shoved everything and everyone else out of my head.

Ajia stopped once we’d reached our destination, opening a door and leading me and Starr inside the lounge, which was currently unoccupied. It was a spacious room with several well-worn couches, a couple of snack machines, and tables covered in various books and magazines. Starr didn’t waste a second zeroing in on the closest couch and flopping onto it dramatically.

“God. Can’t we have a minute of peace,” she muttered.

I walked over, leaning against the arm of the same couch. “We had nine months of peace,” I said slowly, more to myself than to her.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, waving a hand like she didn’t want to hear it.

Ajia had shut the door behind us and began pacing back and forth, lost in thought. I rubbed my arms, still feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened today. And now that we were finally in a calm, quiet environment, the questions were starting to flood my mind once more.

“I just… I don’t get it. Nothing about this makes any sense. Why are the Rockets doing this? And yes, I remember what Lexx said, but…” I trailed off, hoping one of them would say something to make me feel less lost. But neither of them did.

Starr narrowed her eyes at me, and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I’d been staring at her. “What’re you looking at me for?” she asked.

I fidgeted, unsure of how to put it. “Lexx said they were trying to stir up anti-Legendary sentiment. What did he mean by that?”

Starr let out a deep sigh. “Look… he’s right about one thing: the Rockets want the League to fear the Legendaries. That way they can look like the good guys for catching them.”

I gaped incredulously. “But they caused all of this by catching them in the first place!”

Starr shrugged. “No one knows that. You see a bunch of crazy Legendaries trashing cities on the news, is some kinda brainwashing plot gonna be your first guess?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but then froze. A strange and unexpected thought had suddenly taken hold in my mind. “Should we tell the League what’s going on? Like, all of it?”

Starr snorted. “Yeah, like they’ll believe us.”

“I’m serious. We could have Mew back up our story, and—”

“Leeeet’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ajia said, holding both palms out. “The Legendaries have good reason to want to play it safe right now. And Mew trusted me to keep her secrets.”

Right. It wasn’t fair to make that decision for them. But still… if we could at least ask them about it someday…?

Ajia glanced back and forth between me and Starr. “I’m going to talk with the rangers and figure out a plan. It is alright if I leave you two here?”

I tilted my head, mildly puzzled by how abrupt that was, but I nodded all the same. Ajia turned her attention to Starr, but didn’t get a response. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. Then she just went ahead and exited the room, shutting the door behind her.

Starr and I were alone. And for some reason, I couldn’t help but get the feeling like there was a thick air of tension hanging over the two of us. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but it was definitely there.

Starr let out a long, exasperated sigh, tilting her head so she could glance at me out of the corner of one eye. “So. You wanna explain?”

I swallowed. Why did I already feel like I wasn’t going to enjoy what was coming. “Explain what?”

She turned so she was now staring straight at me. “Oh, I dunno, why you were off fighting Rockets by yourself?”

I felt my cheeks go red. Right. That.

“I thought we were both done with that,” she said, eyes digging into me.

“Look, I wasn’t looking for Rockets, okay? They found me,” I shot back.

From the look on her face, Starr wasn’t convinced. And in the back of my mind, I knew that was a lie. My first instinct had been to figure out what the Rockets were doing and try to put a stop to it. Even if I’d gotten… momentarily paralyzed.

Starr’s expression softened. “Jade. How many times have I told you I don’t want to fight Team Rocket?”

I closed my eyes, gripping the edge of the couch. “I know. I know, I know.”

She stared at me, her face deathly serious. “Do you know? Cause from the way I see it, the moment the Rockets show their face again, you’re immediately looking for ways to get yourself killed.” She clenched her fists, glancing away. “And… I know I should be there to make sure that you don’t. But I don’t want anything to do with this mess.” She screwed her eyes shut. A heavy pause followed. “But I can’t just let you get yourself killed either. Do you see the problem?”

I swallowed. “Yeah.”

It wasn’t like I wanted to throw myself into danger. I wanted so badly to ignore it. To pretend it didn’t exist. And yet I’d defaulted to the instinct that told me it was my job to do something about it. Of course, it hadn’t just been me. Chibi had been gearing towards it as well. But at the same time, I couldn’t pin this on him. Even if I didn’t think I’d ever understand how he still had that much determination, after what had happened that night.

That night. I shuddered. My mind flashed back to it. Back to the night when Moltres had appeared over Midnight Island. I’d thought that I’d moved on. I’d thought that the things that happened last year were done and over with. In the past. I was starting to think that would never be the case.

“Back there,” I said slowly. “There was a moment when… it was like I was back on Midnight Island, on the night of the attack.” I wasn’t sure why I was saying it; the words just came out of my mouth without my thinking about them.

Starr sucked in a breath. I hadn’t meant to bring up something that had happened while she was still a Rocket. I knew she hated being reminded of it, and I was sure she was going to say so. But she didn’t. Instead, she stood up and walked over to me. I flinched. And then she grabbed my hand pulled me into a hug. I blinked for a moment, caught off guard, but then found myself slowly relaxing.

“That’s… that’s in the past, okay?” Starr said. “We both said we’d help each other get past all that, yeah?”

I exhaled slowly, holding tight. “Yeah.”

For several seconds, neither of us said anything. I forced my eyes shut, willing my brain to block out everything else—the Rockets, Moltres, everything—and just exist here in this moment.

After some time, Starr let go, glancing away. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said quietly.

I shuffled a foot against the floorboards, struggling to think of what to say. But I couldn’t help suspecting that the longer we stayed here with Ajia, the higher the odds we’d get dragged into something we didn’t want any part in. And I just… I didn’t want my recklessness to hurt Starr.

“I’m… I’m gonna go talk to Ajia. Gonna try to explain to her.” Explain what, I wasn’t quite sure. Just something. There had to be a way through this that wouldn’t leave me disappointing one of them.

I left the room and glanced back and forth down the hallway. It was just dawning on me that Ajia hadn’t specified where she was leaving off to. I’d pretty much just have to explore the base until I found her. So I tried my best to stay glued to the wall and out of the rangers’ way as I wandered the halls. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to find my way back to the lobby, where I spotted Ajia pacing back and forth in a tight circle in the corner. Her expression brightened when she saw me approaching.

“Ah, good timing, I was just coming to get you,” she said, giving a small wave. “Let’s talk outside, I don’t wanna get in anyone’s way.” She gestured to the door. I shrugged and followed her outside, down the wooden steps and around the cobblestone path that surrounded the building. Her movements were quick. Anxious, but controlled. Like her brain was moving at a million miles a minute, and she was struggling to keep up. Part of me couldn’t help suspecting that she’d led me outside in case she needed to say something that no one else should hear.

“Alright, I’ve been talking with everyone else, trying to get an idea of the situation.” Her hands moved animatedly as she talked. “Sounds like Moltres is still raging, so we haven’t missed our opportunity or anything.”

I blinked. “Huh?” I had the distinct feeling that I’d walked into a half-finished conversation without even knowing what the subject was.

“The rangers are still busy with the evacuation, so that means we don’t have to worry about that. So we can just focus on the Rockets.” She tapped a fist to her palm like she’d just realized something. “You fought the combat unit head, right? Were you able to get any info?”

From Ender? No, I’d been too busy trying not to get killed. Although… he had mentioned a few things. “He… did say that it was the kind of mission where he could have some fun, whatever that means.”

Ajia paused, putting a hand to her chin. “Well, that does seem to confirm that this is just an attention-grab.” Her eyes darted to the wall that way they did when she was deep in thought. “That’s good because they probably won’t confront us when we head back to the tourney site. Though it might make it harder to draw them out. I’m working on a couple of plans, but it’s a lot to juggle. The rangers aren’t gonna like this…”

I stared at her, a familiar feeling creeping up the back of my neck. One that I hadn’t felt since the night of the Viridian attack. Ajia was still pacing, still muttering various things under her breath, but I wasn’t paying attention to any of it now that I’d realized what was going on.

I’d… I’d have to say something. But the idea of doing so was just so intensely uncomfortable that part of me was tempted to just go along with everything she said, without question.

“You’re… you’re doing it again.”

Ajia paused, giving me a confused look. “Huh?”

I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to say this, I really didn’t. But it had to be said. “You’re just assuming that I’m gonna be a part of this. I haven’t agreed to it yet, so… it shouldn’t be a given.”

Ajia’s face fell. She bit her lip, clasping her hands behind her back. “Right. I’m sorry.”

That was it? That was all it took to get her to drop it? Something was up.

Ajia took a deep breath, her eyes sliding to the ground to avoid making contact with mine. “Can I ask you something? Have you ever considered rejoining the fight?”

I gaped at her. “What?” Why on earth would she ask something like that? “I spent five minutes in the fight just now and I almost died, what kind of question is that,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face.

Ajia looked mortified. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean it like that, I just…”

“You just what?” I asked, my voice heating slightly.

Her eyes darted to the side. “I just… this conflict has a way of dragging people in whether they like it or not. I’d… really prefer if we were ready for it, you know?”

It was a hasty excuse. Not nearly as polished as her previous ones.

“Alright, spill it, what’s going on,” I said flatly.

Her brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“You’re hiding something. Again.” The last word had deliberate emphasis.

“I’m not trying to, I just…”

I clenched my fists. “You just what? Why can’t you just be upfront, ever?

“It’s because of Mew!” she exclaimed suddenly.

I froze. Mew? Why on earth did Mew care if I was going to keep fighting the Rockets? The idea of a Legendary caring about human affairs still felt… really weird.

“Mew… wanted me to ask you,” she said slowly, struggling through every word. “I didn’t want to, but… she insisted.”

“Mew.” I repeated blankly. This was all happening because of Mew. In a way, it was a small comfort that Ajia wasn’t trying to drag me back into this of her own volition. It at least managed to clear the fog of hurt and betrayal from my head. But in its place, a wave of confusion swept in.

“Mew wants me to help you,” I said, more to myself than to her. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why can’t you just get help from the other chosen?”

Ajia paused, heavily considering her words, almost like she was grappling with them in her head. Finally she took a deep breath and quickly said, “None of the other patron legends have picked a chosen yet. I was the first.”

I blinked at her, stunned. “What? Is that… okay? Aren’t they short on time? Aren’t things supposed to get worse soon?”

“Yeah, they are. And that’s probably why Mew’s—” Her words cut off sharply mid-sentence. “I probably wasn’t supposed to—” Again, her words cut off. She stomped a foot to the ground and yelled, “I’m sorry, I know!”

I paused, the gears slowly turning in my head. “You’re talking with Mew right now, aren’t you?”

She massaged her temple. “Yeah.”

I honestly had no idea what to say to that. It was slightly discomforting to know that she was privately talking about me with someone else while I was right here.

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t right to lay all this on you,” she said heavily, staring downward.

I frowned. It was obvious by now that she hadn’t wanted to, so… I wasn’t mad at her anymore. Now I was just lost and unsure of what I should be feeling.

Ajia shook her head, letting out a deep sigh. Then she turned to leave.

I grabbed her arm. “Wait.”

“No, I need to go,” she said, still facing away from me.

“Ajia…”

But she had already run off, her footsteps echoing off the stone pathway. For several seconds, all I could do was stare after her, still processing what the heck had just happened. It felt like I was being torn in two different directions. On the one hand, Starr, who wanted nothing to do with this fight, and who would only be hurt by seeing me throw myself into it. And on the other hand, Ajia, someone who couldn’t walk away from it even if she wanted, who was now being pressured to drag me back in for unknown reasons.

But now… I guess I had just made my choice. The best thing I could do now was let Starr know that I’d successfully managed to stay out of this mess. She’d be happy to hear that, at least. And it was what I supposedly wanted as well. So why didn’t I feel happy about it?

My shoes dragged against the wooden steps as I slowly trudged back inside the ranger station. Starr wasn’t in the lounge anymore. She must’ve gotten bored and wandered off. Or maybe she’d gone looking for me and Ajia. Who knows. Well, I was already sick of this room, and the entire base was full of ambient anxiety from all the rangers mobilizing. Maybe I could go back outside and wait for Rudy and Darren to show up. At least then I’d have the fresh mountain breeze and the sounds of the forest to lose myself in. Anything other than being inside my head right now.

I turned to leave, but the door shut by itself. What the hell? I was just about to reach out and grab the handle when I felt a small prickle on the back of my neck, the hairs standing on end.

And then suddenly Mew was there, right in front of my face. I jumped back, stifling a yelp.

“Mew?! Don’t scare me like that!” I blurted out, clutching a hand to my chest.

The psychic cat folded her ears back, locking eyes with me. <I’m sorry. I just needed to speak with you.>

It took me several seconds to process that. “Me, as in, just me. Not Ajia?”

Mew nodded. <Just you.>

I relaxed slightly but still felt tense, with swirls of confusion clouding my head. Why was a Legendary Pokémon taking the time to speak with a random human, especially at a time like this? I took a few slow steps over to the nearest couch and sat down, gesturing for her to follow me. The psychic cat drifted over lightly, her tail twisting and turning behind her.

<So. How are you doing?> Mew asked.

Why did she care? “I’m… doing alright,” I said warily, gripping the fabric of my jeans.

<That’s good. Ajia was worried about you. She didn’t mean to cause you distress.>

I paused, struggling to sort through the dozens of things I could say. “Ajia told me you’ve been asking her to talk to me about joining the fight again. I just… don’t get why.”

Mew closed her eyes and turned away, clutching her tail with her paws and shaking her head ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should be upset with her. Of course, I had to assume she had a good reason for pushing Ajia to say those things, but…

Finally, the cat lifted her head and stared long and hard at me with her large, sapphire eyes. Her gaze was concerned, with a shadow of guilt mixed into it.

<It’s important,> she just said.

I frowned. What was I supposed to take from that? I’d been hoping for a better answer.

“Look, if you want the truth, I don’t know if I can,” I said, unable to keep the heated tone from leaking into my voice. “After everything that happened, I don’t think I have what it takes to fight Team Rocket anymore.” Was I so sure of that? Was that just an excuse? I was disappointing Ajia by hiding from the fight, but I was disappointing Starr by throwing myself into danger anyway. And even if I ignored both of them, I still had no idea what the right path was.

<It may not be possible for you to stay out of it for much longer,> Mew pointed out.

I swallowed. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

<Certain events that transpired last year may have altered your fate,> the legend said earnestly.

I raised an eyebrow. “My ‘fate’? What are you talking about?”

Mew paused, heavily considering her words. I couldn’t help noticing her eyes making the same tiny, darting motion that Ajia’s did when she was deep in thought. Were they… communicating right now?

I felt a prickle of anger welling up, and I stood to my feet so that I was at eye level with her. “Why does it matter so much whether I’m involved in this fight or not? Why does everyone seem so invested in that? You can’t expect me to believe I’m that important. That my involvement is that necessary.”

Mew fixed her eyes on me once again. <It’s not important for the sake of the fight, no. It’s important for your sake,> she said, her words strained.

What? What was she talking about…? Important for my sake? So she wasn’t concerned about what would happen in the fight, but… what would happen to me? Why?

Mew shook her head, glancing away. <I’ve said too much.>

My pulse quickened. “No, Mew, hang on, what are you saying?”

<I can’t…>

“Are you saying that something bad’s gonna happen to me if I don’t join the fight?”

<No, that’s not—>

“What do you know?!”

<Listen to me,> she snapped, staring me dead in the eyes with a desperate look. <I cannot say anything to influence your decision. This is up to you. Whatever happens, I have to trust that you will know what is right for you.>

What on earth was Mew talking about? Know what was right for what?

“Okay…?” I said slowly, still completely lost.

And then Mew took my hand and began to glow.

I flinched. “Mew?”

In a flash, our surroundings melted away, instantly replaced with darkness. I jumped back from Mew like my hand was on fire, throwing a hurried glance at my surroundings. But I couldn’t make anything out. Slowly, my eyes slid back to Mew, a feeling of incredulous dread rising in my throat. She gave me one last desperately sad look and then vanished.

“Mew!!”

My voice echoed off the walls. But she was gone. I was alone.

I took a few slow, shaking steps. The floor was made of rough, uneven stone, I could tell that much. And then my eyes slowly began adjusting to the semidarkness. I was in a small, wet cavern, the rocks glistening with water and glinting with the light of… something, though I couldn’t really see any light source. I could hear the sound of water crashing down behind me, and I turned around to see a large, crystal-clear pool filling half the cavern, fed by a wide, curving waterfall that covered most of the far wall. Then the rest of my senses returned; I shivered and rubbed my arms, overtaken by a sudden chill.

“She teleported me…” I whispered to myself, “…but why?”

My eyes slowly traced the walls. Wet stone surrounding all sides, with no openings. The waterfall had to flow in here from somewhere, but I had no way of climbing it.

“I’m trapped,” I muttered in disbelief. “She’s trapped me here alone with no way out…?”

And then a voice—a chillingly bitter telepathic voice—resounded in reply, <I wouldn’t say that you’re alone.>

An overwhelming pressure gripped me from all sides, and my body instantly went numb. Not that voice. Anything but that voice. It cut through me like a knife, sending my mind reeling back to that fateful day when I made the biggest mistake of my life. It was the voice that had haunted all my nightmares since then—one that I’d desperately hoped to never hear again.

From deep within the pool of water, two eyes, radiating blue, pierced the darkness with an icy stare that seemed to bore right through me. The glow illuminated the creature’s face, revealing a sleek avian head with a mouth curled into a smirk.

<Welcome, human. Are you ready to face the consequences of the day we last met?>






~End Chapter 35~

Next Chapter: It's all been leading to this.
 
Chapter 36: The Guardian of the Waters
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This is it. The chapter it's all been leading to. I never made it this far in the old version. I've been waiting so long. But now it's finally time.



~CHAPTER 36: THE GUARDIAN OF THE WATERS~


My breathing was shallow and my heart was pounding. I couldn’t move; I was frozen on the spot, barely able to think.

Lugia called me here to kill me. That was the only thought my brain felt like generating, and it repeated it over and over again until I felt like I was going to be sick. The Legendary dragon-bird slowly emerged from the pool in front of me, trails of water streaming down silver feathers, eyes glowing blue with psychic energy. I’d seen it countless times in my nightmares, but here it was, in front of me, for real.

I clenched my fists, swallowing hard. This was just like last time. Not like the Rocket conflicts, not a struggle for survival. There was nothing I could do. Nowhere to run, no way to fight back. Helpless. I might as well have already been dead.

But somewhere deep within the spiraling vortex of fear and panic, there was a tiny voice arguing that this didn’t make any sense. Why now? Why after so long? Why had Lugia let me live in the first place? Why was Mew in on this? Too many questions, my head was going to burst.

Lugia raised a brow. <No response? Are you content to allow fear to control you? How pitiful.>

I bristled. Had to do something, anything. I clutched at a Pokéball and held it up, my arm shaking. I’d battle. Yeah, that was it. We’d battle, and we’d… well we wouldn’t win, but we’d find some kind of opening that would let us escape. Any way out. We had to. The vaguest notion of how unrealistic this plan was prodded at the back of my mind, but I didn’t care.

Lugia’s eyes narrowed. <A battle. You want to battle. That’s… amusing.>

My fingers gripped the ball so tightly I could feel my pulse through them.

The dragon-bird tilted its head ever so slightly. <But then… perhaps it’s a good sign that your first instinct is to fight.>

I paused. Confusion drifted to the front of mind. But it felt more… puzzling than the barrage of panicked, unrelenting questions from before. Had… had Lugia been trying to get a rise out of me?

But then… then the sights and sounds of what happened last year hit me in the face like a truck. I was standing in a grassy field, lit by moonlight and the glow of Viridian City on fire. I saw Lugia, but it was no longer standing in front of me, but rather, looming high above me, mouth curled into a smirk, eyes flashing hatefully as the psychic energy tore through my body. A sudden jolt of nausea overtook me, and I was sure that I’d been hit with the attack for a second time. But no… Lugia hadn’t done anything. Yet again, I’d been dragged back to what happened last year. Why did this keep happening. Why. Why. Why—

<Are you quite done with your meltdown? I haven’t got all day.>

The words snapped me back into reality. I was here, right now, standing in front of the Legendary in a water-filled cavern. The attack in Viridian was last year. I had to focus on the now.

“What do you want with me?” I croaked.

<For starters, I’d like you to pull yourself together.> It almost sounded annoyed.

A surge of anger shot through me, shoving the terror aside. “Stop toying with me! You called me down here in order to get revenge, right? Are you gonna taunt me some more or just kill me outright since it didn’t work last time?”

For some time, the Legendary gave no sign that it had heard me. I stood there, fists clenched, breathing hard, waiting for its response. It was like nothing existed here but us—we might as well have been in total, crushing silence.

<Are you under the impression,> Lugia began slowly and menacingly, <that I tried and yet failed to kill you on that day?>

I froze, lost for words. It had sounded almost offended by what I’d said. For so long I’d wondered how I survived, and the only one I could talk about it with, the only one who even knew what had happened, was Chibi. But he hadn’t seen how it ended. I’d replayed it in my mind, over and over, unwilling to accept that the Legendary had just decided to let me live of its own volition. It didn’t make any sense. Not after I’d seen the unbridled fury in its eyes.

“I… I didn’t think—” I started.

<That much is evident,> Lugia cut me off. <But had you given it a second thought, it would seem obvious—even to you—that had I really wanted to, it would have been all too easy.>

“I know that!” I exclaimed, a wave of heated frustration washing over me. “And after today, what does it matter?!” It was like talking to someone who had a knife to my throat. I was trembling, muscles shaking no matter how hard I told them to stop. No matter how badly I wanted to appear unmoved by my total lack of control over the situation.

With a reserved tone of voice, the dragon-bird replied, <If you must know, I had Mew call you here today because I wished to speak with you in private.>

I took a step backward, muscles relaxing ever so slightly. It just wanted to talk? I couldn’t remotely expect it to be a pleasant conversation, but… alright. I could handle that. But still… why had Mew looked so anxious about sending me here? And why couldn’t I shake the feeling that I was still in danger?

<Now is not the time to dwell on past events,> Lugia went on, waving a wing dismissively. <My concern is the here and now. Mew tells me that you think you can stay out of this war, even after all that has happened.>

I blinked. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all. “Why do you care if I’m involved with the war against Team Rocket? Why the hell would it matter to you?”

<As a matter of fact…>—Lugia’s words were quiet and meticulous—<it matters a great deal. The actions and attitudes of all the humans who have opposed the so-called Team Rocket are very relevant to the Order’s interests. I was told you had read the words inscribed upon the ruins of Midnight Island. Or did they slip your mind?>

I stared, still trying to work through the conversation taking such a bizarre turn. “What, the thing about seven Legendaries making an alliance with humanity? Don’t tell me you’re one of them?”

Eyes narrowed, Lugia replied, <And what if I am? Is that so hard to believe?>

I paused. My mind pulled up the image of the silver bird soaring high over Viridian City, firing off brilliant orange beams that tore through whole city blocks at once. That wasn’t the image of a guardian who’d been tasked with keeping balance in the world. But I didn’t exactly feel comfortable saying that.

“No… I guess not.”

At my words, Lugia gave a sort of self-satisfied nod. <Good. Now pay attention. The conflict between human and Legendary has been steadily worsening the past few years, and it is likely to reach all-out war by summer’s end. There are those on either side who have dedicated themselves to preserving the balance. But that alone is not enough. Two sides working separately toward the same goal are unlikely to succeed. But together… they might have a chance.>

My eyes widened, and I dared to let a glimmer of hope rise within me. “You’re talking about the alliance, right? Are the Legendaries going to help form a new resistance against the Rockets?”

<No. I do not trust human organizations.> My face fell immediately. Lugia continued, <The potential for conflicts and schisms and betrayal is too high. It was already disastrous for one of our number who rushed in too soon after several humans betrayed the Rockets two years ago. Some of our order—like Mew—are willing to take that risk. I am not.>

What was it talking about? One of the Legendaries had tried to ally with a human before Mew? And it had backfired?

“So… if you don’t want to join us, then how are you supposed to form the alliance anyway?”

Lugia paused, shifting its wings while it considered its words. <The alliance between human and Legendary is intended to be between individuals, not just the two sides overall. It was believed that this would allow a more unified core when that alliance is put to the test.>

I nodded. “You mean like Ajia and Mew, right? I heard her referred to as being ‘chosen.’ But… I thought that meant, I don’t know… that she had some kind of destiny in all of this? And it seemed to fit in with the prophecy, so—”

With a scoff, Lugia said, <I’ve never put much stock in ‘destiny.’ Fate is nothing; action is everything. Your friend took action toward protecting the balance, and Mew selected her as a result. It’s as simple as that.>

I sighed, running a hand down my face. Alright, it clearly didn’t intend to explain anything more than the bare minimum. And I had to stop thinking about the legend like a prophecy, because it obviously wasn’t. So… seven individual humans would get chosen because they had protected the Legendaries. And none of them were predestined. And it was based solely on their actions.

But why was Lugia telling me all of this?

Unless…

I stared at the silver Legendary in wide-eyed horror, unwilling to believe it. It couldn’t be possible. It couldn’t be…

“So… so you’re saying…” I swallowed hard and continued, “that I’m chosen? Even after what I did?”

<Perhaps moreso because of what you did, among other things. You have connected yourself with the legends as few others of that rebellion have,> the dragon-bird answered.

Because of it? Why in the… how—” I struggled, the full effect of what I’d just been told hitting me in the chest like a truck. This didn’t make any sense. Lugia was supposed to hate my guts—why else would it have done… that? But now it wanted me to be its chosen and this didn’t make any sense.

Lugia closed its eyes in frustration and said, <Let me explain this as simply as I can. You are an interloper. You have no inherent significance in the legends, but your interference in the conflict between human and Legendary has forced you to become a part of them. The seven patrons of the Order are obligated to seek out those interlopers deemed to have the strongest connection to both the conflict, to the other interlopers, and to themselves.”

My stomach had melted away to nothingness. “And I’m one of them. I’ve helped save Legendaries. I’m friends with a bunch of others who are also involved. There really is no way I can escape from that mess, is there?”

<I doubt it. Unless you are willing to allow your allies to risk their lives while you save yourself,> Lugia said, giving me a rather disgusted scowl.

“Of course I don’t want to do that! I just… I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Ever since the rebellion ended, I feel like I kind of… broke something. Like I couldn’t fight them anymore, even if I wanted to.” I stared at the floor miserably, my face burning. There, I’d said it. I couldn’t tell Ajia, but I’d told a freaking Legendary that had tortured me.

Lugia’s expression softened. <In the end, it is your choice. I cannot force you. You’re connected to the conflict whether you like it or not, but your role in the legend is up to you.>

I glanced up at the dragon-bird incredulously. That was a weirdly… understanding response it had given me. “I don’t get it. How do I have a choice?”

<Simple. I cannot be your patron if you refuse. I would then select another.>

“And you really have to pick a human to side with?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Lugia let out what almost sounded like a growl. <I do not wish to go against the instructions given to the Order so long ago. Neither of our sides can prevail without the other. That much is obvious, from what we’ve seen of the conflict thus far.> It winced slightly, as though the admission was painful. <In particular, Mew seems to believe we will fail if we do not embrace our human allies. And of course, the humans will fail without our strength.>

It was such a weird thing to consider—that Legendaries could actually benefit from having humans on their side. But then… in this sort of fight, there were a lot of advantages to being human, weren’t there? We didn’t have a humongous target on our back just from being spotted anywhere. We could sneak into Rocket bases, gather information, avoid traps, figure out the Rockets’ weaknesses… Not even Mew could get into a Rocket base undetected—not without help.

<So. What will you do?>

I froze. This had all happened so suddenly—I wanted more time just to process all of it. But then… I’d already spent all day agonizing over whether or not I should help fight the Rockets. And even throughout the past nine months… I’d always felt like I was hiding from it all.

“This agreement… it’s not something that can ever be taken back, can it?” I asked slowly, my voice shaking. “I’d basically be saying that I’ll fight with you until we put things right for good, wouldn’t I?”

<The alliance requires patron and chosen to have their spirits physically bound together. So yes, I would say this is kind of a long-term commitment,> Lugia said dryly.

Right… I should have figured as much. Part of me always knew that I’d be drawn back into the fight whether I liked it or not. But then… if it really was inevitable, wouldn’t it be better to have a Legendary Pokémon on my side? Wasn’t that the best possible way to survive the war and protect everyone else?

I took a deep breath. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

Lugia’s piercing gaze seemed to bore a hole right through me. It motioned for me to step forward, and I did. My legs no longer dragged like lead as I moved them—already it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from me.

The avian dragon craned its long neck down until it was eye level with me, and for the first time I was struck by just how huge the Legendary was. Its head was small in comparison to its body, yet even that filled my entire field of vision as Lugia stared at me intently.

<This decision cannot be made lightly, and it absolutely must be your choice. Do you swear to fight alongside the Order of Legends to protect the balance of the world?>

The words echoed within me, sending my mind back to that day. The day that Stalker asked for my agreement to join the Rebellion. This was the same as that, wasn’t it? I had been uncertain at first, but then knew that it was something I had to do, for myself. This was no different.

I nodded forcefully. No turning back.

Lugia pressed its forehead against mine, and then the world came apart.

A blindingly bright flash of light shattered my field of view as a wave of psychic energy shot through my entire being. I was ripped apart, flipped inside-out, put back together, and then shredded once more, over and over into infinity. What felt like white-hot metal coursed through my veins, dissolving any and all sensations in a spiraling vortex of pain. And then my brain split open, unleashing a torrent of images from the past year. All of my panic, all of my uncertainty, every hesitation I’d ever felt from the moment the fight began suddenly bombarded my mind simultaneously, fighting for dominance.

It was too much. Too much failure and misery and despair at once. Impossible to sort though. And with each memory, the agony only twisted into me more and more like a burning spear. The ambush on Midnight Island, countless rebels brutally murdered. Trapped in the Rocket base with no way out, staring down death in the form of Mewtwo. The horrible mistake of using the Master Ball. Lugia flying high above me, glaring murderously, ready to end me.

No. No, I’d already had to endure all of that. I had already survived all of that! Not again! I wasn’t going to run away anymore!

I reached out blindly, but I couldn’t feel my body anymore and my limbs didn’t exist. Still desperately trying to claw my way out of the whirlwind, still feeling the tendrils of despair licking at the edge of my consciousness, I suddenly realized that I had actually grabbed hold of something. And that’s when I felt it. A vision of Lugia’s eyes radiating an aura of sheer calm that didn’t seem possible. It swept over me, engulfed me, and let my resolution bubble to the surface, unhindered.

I was going to fight alongside the Legendary Pokémon, and we were going to prevent the conflict between human and legend from escalating to all-out war. This was actually happening, and all of my uncertainty was meaningless now. I had made my decision!

And then my senses snapped back into focus in an instant. I was standing in the cave once more—no, kneeling—Lugia’s face still directly in front of me, still wearing that expression of pure calm that had dragged me free of the nightmare. I was holding tightly to its eye crests, almost hanging from them at this point. The legend didn’t seem to mind.

<It is done,> Lugia said. <You are marked. The two of us, legend and human, are one.>

I let go, allowing myself to slump to the floor, utterly drained. I sat there for several seconds as a light, airy tingling started building in my fingertips. Weird. I was pretty sure my legs weren’t going to obey when I tried to stand up, but then… it suddenly felt as though my entire body had become weightless. Was it an actual feeling, or just the contrast from the crushing weight of despair being lifted? I couldn’t tell.

“What… what actually happened there?”

Lugia hesitated. <It’s been described as our fates being intertwined. Obviously it’s something more real than that, but I don’t know what the actual process physically entails.> The last bit sounded uncomfortable to admit.

I nodded distantly, not really keen on relaying what I’d just experienced. It stared at me for a few seconds, but then seemed to realize that I wasn’t going to share the details, because it drew itself back up to full height and went on, <Right. So… about being chosen. I should tell you what some of the unique effects are. All chosen and patrons have a psychic link that allows them to communicate mind-to-mind, regardless of distance. We’ll also be able to feel each other’s presence—since I’m already a psychic, I can feel yours through the link, but it might take you a while to do the same.>

“Presence?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

<Condition. Energy. The state of your mind. For example, if you die, I’d be able to sense it from not feeling your presence.>

Great. Just what I needed.

Lugia’s expression sharpened as it pondered what to say next, tail swishing back and forth. <Be extremely careful who you tell of this—you cannot know who to trust unless they themselves have sworn a pact as well. Even your fellow rebels could be targeted by the enemy in the hopes of getting to you.>

I paused, shuffling a foot against the rock. “But I can tell Ajia, right?”

<Correct. You already know she is chosen anyway.>

That was a relief. I couldn’t imagine going through something like this and not being allowed to tell anyone. It must have been maddening for Ajia to endure that last year—constructing that whole elaborate plot to free Starr and Mewtwo, and not even allowed to explain how it was going to work. Having to trust that I would just go along without question.

“She tried to keep it a secret from me,” I said slowly, rubbing one arm with the other. “Did the fact that I knew about her being chosen have anything to do with why you picked me?”

<Yes, that was… a factor. Remember that I said the strongest candidates for chosenhood would be connected to other interlopers.>

There was that hesitation again. And there were still a few more details that didn’t quite add up. I squinted at the legendary and asked, “Why did Mew look so… down about sending me here?”

Lugia turned away, as though it had been hoping I wouldn’t ask. <Mew was… concerned for you. You had far too much knowledge of the legends and the patrons for someone who I didn’t think could be chosen, not to mention you were closely acquainted with Rockets who have captured some of our kin. I was certain I’d have to kill you for these things, as well as for that capture last year, but Mew was the one who suggested that I might reasonably be able to choose you instead.>

I didn’t know how to respond to that. Lugia had looked genuinely upset about it too.

<Also… there is the choosing itself,> the dragon-bird continued, pawing at the stone floor. <It has to be of your own choice. So of course, if you knew you might die otherwise, your consent would have been forced, and the pact would not have worked. And with how conflicted you were about joining the fight… the pact might have failed anyway if your resolve wasn’t strong enough. It might have torn your soul apart. There were a lot of risks. Again, you have Mew to thank for convincing me to go through with it.>

I shivered. Well that wasn’t a pleasant thought. But it was over and done with now. No point dwelling on what could have been. Although… there was still one last thing that had been bothering me all this time, and this was as good a time as any to learn the truth.

“Was Mew the reason that you didn’t… that night in Viridian… you didn’t…”

<Mew convinced me to spare your life, yes.>

And there it was. The answer to the maddening question that had hung over my shoulder for nine months. In the end, it was as simple as that.

<I am glad they did,> Lugia went on. <It would have been difficult to find another candidate with as strong a connection as yours.>

That was a weird sentiment to hear from it. I mean, yes, it was purely a practical concern. But before that, it had sounded genuinely glad that it hadn’t needed to kill me, which was still so surreal after… after what it had done that night in Viridian. My mind had basically split the Lugia from that night and the Lugia standing before me into two different people just to have any semblance of being okay in its presence.

<I will inform Mew,> Lugia announced suddenly. It craned its long neck upward and opened its beak, letting out a shrill cry that echoed throughout the cavern. “*Mew! It is done!*”

Mere seconds later, Mew appeared in a flash of light, glancing around frantically until her eyes landed on me.

<She has agreed?> Mew asked, throwing an anxious look at Lugia.

<The pact is complete… we are linked,> Lugia answered with a reserved tone. But then the slightest trace of a grin crossed its face.

And then in an instant, Mew’s eyes lit up and she swooped down right in front of my face, looking absolutely overjoyed.

<That’s wonderful!> she cried, grasping my hand with both paws and squeezing it tightly. The psychic cat made eye contact with me, and her expression softened. <I know I shouldn’t sound so pleased that you’ll be following such a dangerous path. Or that anyone should, but… I’m just so glad it worked.>

“Why?” I found myself asking. Why did a Legendary Pokémon care about the wellbeing of a single human? This was still so weird.

<Why?> Mew repeated blankly. <You are one of my chosen’s closest friends. I couldn’t bear to hurt her.>

Oh. Right. Yes, that made sense. Why was I reading more into it than that?

<I imagine you must still have many questions,> Mew said with a sympathetic smile.

I laughed slightly. “You can say that again.” Although one in particular had decided to surface in my mind, now seeing two of the patrons side-by-side…

“Who are all the patron Legendaries, anyway?” I asked.

Lugia blinked in surprise, then gave Mew an imploring look. She glanced back at it, nodding. The dragon-bird then said, <You already know Mew and myself. There is also Ho-oh, Raikou, Suicune, Zapdos, and Moltres.>

I tilted my head. “So you’re all guardians of Tohjo? Is that… important?”

<We’re not sure why,> Mew said simply. Lugia narrowed its eyes slightly, but didn’t comment. I wasn’t really sure how it was possible for them to not know. After all, weren’t they all pretty open with each other about this stuff? At least, it had seemed like it.

“So… which of them have already chosen a human?” I asked.

Lugia made a slight huff that I took as a sign of disapproval. <Out of respect to them, I will refrain from answering.>

I frowned. Okay, I hadn’t realized that was an invasive question. Except… the moment I gave it even a second thought, the answer became obvious: Ajia had already told me she was the only one.

Mew had clearly pieced that together. <She already knows.>

Lugia glanced away, looking mildly annoyed. <Alright, fine. Mew and I are the only ones, yes.>

In other words, I was the second chosen. What a strange thought. For so long I’d assumed that there were a bunch of other people out there allied with Legendaries, and that Ajia had been doing secret chosen missions with them. But no. It was just us.

And then the glaring red flag jumped out at me. “Wait… Raikou and Moltres. Both of them have been captured. How is that going to affect us?”

<Yes, that is going to be… a problem,> Lugia said, nodding slowly. <That is the reason that I didn’t wait to choose you. With the Rockets stepping out of the shadows in such a big way, we decided to accelerate our plans.>

I stared at it, perplexed. What did it mean by that? What plans?

Mew’s gaze turned steely. <We want to use this opportunity to free Moltres.>

My mouth fell open. “What? How?”

<We still have yet to work out all the details, but the input from our human allies will be critical,> she explained. <I’ll be speaking with Ajia at length after I return you to the ranger station.> Oh right. I had somehow forgotten that she had teleported me here to begin with.

“Where are we, anyway?” I asked, glancing around the cavern.

<Underneath the Whirl Islands, in Johto,> Lugia said, gazing upward with an odd sort of fondness in its eyes. <It’s one of many places that I call home.>

Those rumors that we’d all heard as kids… that Lugia had been spotted by the Whirl Islands. They were actually true. There was something weirdly comforting about that. It made interacting with the Legendaries feel less otherworldly, knowing that ordinary people saw them from time to time.

Mew glanced back at Lugia. <I believe that’s everything for now?>

The dragon-bird nodded. <Everything else can be handled long-distance.>

Mew turned back to face me, fixing her clear blue eyes on me. <I can take you back now,> she said, holding out her tail.

That… sounded nice. With all the fear and adrenaline having worn off, the cold, wet atmosphere was becoming more noticeably unpleasant. Mew offered her tail to me, and I held onto its tip. Our surroundings melted into shimmering light, then just as suddenly, we were back in the ranger station, like nothing had ever happened. It was wild to think that for the past half hour or so, I’d been clear across Johto, and now I was suddenly back in Kanto, back in the middle of the crisis hanging over Indigo. I never, ever would have expected half of the things that had already happened today. And the day wasn’t over yet. Not even close.

The weight of it all was starting to press down on me from all sides. A pressure building in my head suddenly flared up, and I couldn’t help rubbing my eyes in an attempt to relieve it.

<We’re glad to have you. And that includes Lugia, even if they won’t show it,> Mew said earnestly.

I paused, swallowing hard. “It’s a lot to take in,” I admitted. “What do I do now? Am I supposed to just go back to what I was doing before?”

Mew fidgeted with her tail. <I can’t really know how this must feel. Do you want to talk to Ajia?>

I inhaled deeply. “Yeah. That’d be great.”

Mew’s expression relaxed. <All right. I’ll tell her to come here.>

And then Mew vanished, leaving me alone with nothing but my thoughts and the overwhelming feeling that my life was never going to be the same again.






~End Chapter 36~

And with that, we're finally, finally into the real meat of this fic.

Next Chapter: The power of friendship or something.
 
Chapter 37: Combined Strength
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~Chapter 37: Combined Strength~


I didn’t have to wait long. I had just flopped onto the couch, feeling an unbelievable wave of tension leaking from my muscles, when the lounge door flew open and Ajia rushed in. She paused when she reached me, clasping her hands behind her back.

“Mew told me that you were talking with Lugia.” She paused. “How did it go?”

There were a dozen things I could have said. A dozen ways to explain the ridiculous rollercoaster of emotions I’d just gone through. But all I did was open my mouth and say the two words that summed it up best: “I’m chosen.”

At once, her entire face lit up. “I knew it! Yes! That’s amazing!” she said, flopping down on the couch next to me. But then a look of realization came over her, and she added, “At least… I think it is. I know you wanted to stay out of this mess, but…” She gave a bit of a confused laugh.

I smiled weakly. “Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it too. It’s… a huge responsibility.”

Ajia nodded slowly. “But… it also helps having someone at your back through it all.”

Someone at your back… It was easy to forget that through everything that happened last year… all those times she’d shown such impossible willpower… she wasn’t alone. How many difficult times had she needed to rely on Mew’s support?

“When were you chosen?” I asked.

She rested her chin on her palm. “It wasn’t long after the revolt, so… two years ago.” Her voice held an air of disbelief, like she was amazed that it had already been so long. “The resistance had broken apart after our falling-out with the commander, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any more connections within Team Rocket, Sebastian had just flat-out told me I was a tool, and I didn’t have any power to make a difference in the fight anymore.”

I hesitated, unsure of how to word my next question. “Was… was it painful for you too? Being chosen?”

Ajia nodded slowly. “It’s a test of resolve. All of the negative emotions connected to the fight, all at once. You’re either consumed by them, or push through and join your spirit with the patron’s.”

Part of me couldn’t help suspecting that she hadn’t had quite as much uncertainty or trauma to fight through. But… no, that wasn’t fair. Ajia had endured more than her fair share of pain. Making it into some kind of suffering competition wouldn’t do any good.

“Anyway,” Ajia went on, shaking her head as if to clear that topic. “It’s been such an incredible experience, getting to know Mew. I’ve learned so many things I’d never dreamed of. And I’m sure it’ll be the same for you and Lugia.”

“Your Legendary didn’t try to kill you.” I had no idea why I said that, but the words were out of my mouth before I knew it.

Ajia’s face fell immediately. “I… I’d forgotten about that,” she said quietly. “Did… did you ask Lugia about it?”

I bit my tongue and shook my head slightly. Ajia and Starr were still under the impression that Lugia had made a mistake in attacking me. I wasn’t too keen on correcting that assumption just yet.

“Well… I’m sure you’ll have plenty of chances to talk about it,” Ajia said, tapping her fingers together. “Though… I can understand if you don’t want to until you get to know Lugia better.”

She could say that again. Right now, I wanted nothing more than to pretend that the whole thing never happened. Even though part of me already knew that I wouldn’t be able to forget it. Just like I hadn’t managed to forget… various other things. Why would this be any different?

The conflicted and hesitant look on my face must have been pretty obvious, because Ajia smiled reassuringly and said, “Hey, so… I know this all feels overwhelming and such. Like you’re lost and don’t know where you’re going. It was the same way for me. Back when I first got mixed up with Team Rocket, I never could have imagined it would ever lead to something like… fighting alongside the Legendaries.”

My mind drifted back to the day that I saw Entei in the blazing forest. Of course I’d never expected anything like this at the time, but… looking back… In a way, it almost felt like I’d been heading down this path ever since that day.

“You know, it’s kind of weird that the two of us both got mixed up with Team Rocket, completely separate from each other,” I said distantly. “I mean, what are the odds, right?”

Ajia smiled. “Maybe it was fate.”

I chuckled a bit. Lugia wouldn’t like that way of describing it.

“Who knows.”

We both fell silent after that. There were a million more things I could have asked her. We were both chosen. There finally weren’t any secrets left. But I had no idea where to even begin. This was all so new and strange, and there were so many unknowns that it was impossible to focus on any one of them.

Ajia was the one who broke the silence. “I’m still really sorry that I dragged you deeper into all of this,” she said, folding her hands in her lap.

I snapped my head toward her. “Hey. We went over that. I decided to join the Rebellion, okay?”

She gripped one hand tightly with the other, her brow furrowing. “I should have been more suspicious of it from the start. I should have known that Sebastian was involved.”

Hearing that name was like a stab through the heart. It’d been so long since I’d had to think about how he’d used all of us.

“I would have done it anyway,” I said quietly, a slight bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I was already angry about not being able to help Entei.” It wasn’t as though I regretted joining the Rebellion. And yet…

“I should have warned you better,” Ajia said, looking up at me.

What would I have done if she had? Would I have still gone through with it if my friend—someone I looked up to and practically idolized—had told me in no uncertain terms that it was a bad idea? Where would we all be now? Me, still at home, bored and driveless. The experiments, still imprisoned. Starr, still on Team Rocket. That wasn’t a world I wanted to think about.

“I think… I think part of me wanted someone else to go through this with me,” she went on.

I stared at her, lost for words.

“I mean, I know I’m not alone in this,” she added quickly. “I’ve got Mew, I’ve got my team, but…”

It seemed like a weird sentiment… at first. But on second thought, I kind of knew what she meant. If I’d been going through something like that, without being able to talk to my friends… it would have felt crushingly lonely, even with Mew’s support.

Ajia sighed deeply, her eyes sliding to the floor. “I shouldn’t want that. I shouldn’t be glad that your life will be in danger too. I didn’t want to be the reason you got dragged back into this, after you asked me to knock it off.”

“I was glad too.”

She looked up at me in surprise.

“When I first started to realize that you were more involved in all this than I’d thought…”—I paused, taking a deep breath—“I was glad. Sure, it sounds bad to put it like that, but… we’re both the same. And I’m not gonna lie, there’s a part of me that’s terrified of all this, but…” My voice trailed off. “Well, we have Legendaries by our side, so that helps.”

Ajia nudged my arm. “We’ve got each other too.”

…Yeah. We did.

I found myself taking her hand in mine, holding it tight. Now, more than ever, I was glad to have her by my side.

“So… now that we’re both on the same page, Mew wants to talk to us,” Ajia said.

My face fell slightly. Right. Couldn’t just enjoy the moment. We had work to do. Work that I’d agreed to when I became chosen.

With a flash of light, Mew appeared before us.

<How are you feeling?> she asked.

“I…” I glanced at Ajia. “Pretty okay.”

The psychic cat nodded, her eyes relaxing. <I’m glad. I do hope that it helps knowing that you’re not alone in all this.>

I took a deep breath. “It does.”

Ajia looked back and forth between me and Mew. “So… how have things been going back at Indigo?”

Mew paused. <It’s been almost two hours and Moltres is still attacking the League,> she said, staring at the ceiling with a contemplative look.

I raised an eyebrow. “Still?” I would have figured their point had been made by now. Even if Ajia’s deduction was correct, and the Rockets were only doing it to make the Legendaries look dangerous. “What’s the point of dragging things out this long? It’s almost like they’re… waiting for something…” I muttered, my words trailing off.

Mew drifted back and forth in midair, fidgeting with her tail as she spoke. <I’ve been watching carefully, during the times that I haven’t been with either of you. Moltres has gotten into a few skirmishes with the humans, but nothing too serious.> She paused, looking pensive. <We don’t know how much longer they’ll be there. We must make our move to free them soon.>

Ajia turned to face me. “We’ve been talking about it. Our biggest advantage is the fact that the Rockets are trying to make this look like a Legendary attack, like the one on Viridian last year. That means they can’t openly use the full strength of their forces to back it up.”

Well, that did explain why I’d only seen two Rockets and they’d generally avoided associating with Moltres throughout most of the attack.

“So are we gonna try stealing the Master Ball, just like we did with Mewtwo?” I asked.

Ajia shook her head. “Close, but I’m betting they’re not carrying the Master Ball on their person. Not after we freed Mewtwo like that.”

Right. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple. The Rockets weren’t just going to repeat their past mistakes, but… “They’d have to have the ball nearby somewhere, right?” I asked, sitting up straight. “Just in case Moltres got knocked out?”

She nodded. “Bingo. We need to force them to recall it.”

A feeling of unease started to creep up on me. “How are we supposed to knock out Moltres?”

We might not be able to, but we’re not gonna be alone.” She gestured to Mew. Oh… right. And I had Lugia, as bizarre of a thought that was.

<Also. There’s someone I should introduce you to,> Mew added, gesturing to her side. The air next to her rippled and shimmered. Then a sleek crimson dragon suddenly appeared out of thin air. I jolted back, staring wide-eyed as it hovered right in front of my face without needing to flap its narrow, pointed wings.

<This is Latias. She’s agreed to help us,> Mew said.

“Latias,” I said blankly. Faint recognition stirred in the back of my head. “One of the guardians of Hoenn, right?”

The dragon raised a clawed foreleg. “*That’s me!*” she said, her voice high pitched and melodious, like the chiming of bells.

There was something bizarrely mundane about meeting a new Legendary Pokémon while seated on a couch indoors. I was so used to it always happening during missions or in deadly, tense situations that this was so… calm by comparison.

<She has an ability that will be useful for this mission,> Mew said, gesturing a paw in her direction. Latias bowed her head. Then then surface of her feathers rippled, distorting, and suddenly she was just gone.

I blinked. “Did she teleport?”

“*I’m invisible!*” the dragon exclaimed, and the words were coming from right in front of my face.

“Whoa,” I said, reaching out my hand and waving it in the air where she’d just been. I felt her claws touch my palm in return. When I stared very, very hard, I could just barely make out the slightest distortion in the air around my fingers, but other than that, nothing. Then the air rippled into her jet-like shape, and the dragon was back just as suddenly as she’d gone.

“*So you’re the newest chosen?*” Latias asked, fixing her large, amber eyes on me.

I smiled weakly. “Yeah.” But then my mind flashed back to what Lugia had just told me. “Wait, but… you’re not one of the patron legends?”

She shook her head.

I frowned. “Why not?”

Latias tilted her head, bemused. “*Why would I be?*”

I paused, feeling a bit silly for asking. “Huh. I guess I still don’t really know what makes the seven… like that,” I said, rubbing the back of my head.

“*Ah, yes,*” she said, a look of recognition crossing her face. “*None of us is really sure why those seven were selected to be patrons. It happened so long ago.*”

I’d have to ask Lugia about it at some point. Maybe it knew more, since it was a patron itself. Although if Mew didn’t even know, then…

“*Even though I’m not a patron, I want to do my part,*” Latias said, tapping her claws together. “*I know this place isn’t my home, but Mew’s helped me so much, and I want to return the favor.*”

“Your home region is Hoenn, right?” I asked.

Her feathery ears drooped. “*Yes, but… I’ve not been able to fulfill my duties as a guardian of Hoenn for some time now. Ever since my brother was taken…*” Her voice trailed off.

I frowned. “Your brother?”

She nodded softly, still looking down. “*His name is Latios.*”

A chill fell over me. I’d heard that name before. That was… that was one of the Legendaries that Sebastian had captured.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, hands clasped. “I can’t pretend to know how you feel but… I was devastated when I heard he’d been captured.”

Latias drew herself back in surprise. “*Did you know my brother?*”

My chest tightened and I glanced away. “No. But I knew the one who captured him. I… trusted him. And he betrayed everything we were fighting for.”

For several seconds, Latias said nothing. Then she held out her arm and said, “*Then he has wronged both of us.*”

I blinked. Then I slowly held out my hand, and she placed her claws against my palm.

A knock sounded from the door. Latias instantly went invisible. Mew dropped to the floor, fur shifting from pink to lavender, ears growing, tail splitting, until she stood there in her usual Espeon guise.

Ajia stood up and went to answer the door, opening it a crack and glancing through. I craned my neck to see through it and caught a glimpse of Ajia’s ranger friend Kari standing on the other side.

“We’ve got two kids out front asking for Jade. Friends of yours, I assume?” Kari asked. Ajia glanced back at me for confirmation.

I nodded. “Probably my friends, yeah. I’ll be right out.” I waited until Kari left before adding, “Rudy and Darren. They were both on the rebel team with me; they should know what’s going on.”

“Alright, go ahead and tell them,” Ajia said, holding the door open for me.

I exited the lounge and made my way back to the front entrance, which was now a lot more open than earlier, what with most of the rangers having taken off for Indigo by now. Out front was where I saw them: Darren sitting at the bottom of the entry steps, picking at chipped paint on the handrail while Rudy stormed about the parking lot, kicking at loose gravel.

Darren perked up when he saw me coming and gave a small wave. “Hey, good to see you’re alright. I know bad stuff always tends to happen when you get separated from us.”

I rubbed the back of my head as I sat down next to him. “I wouldn’t say always…” But no, he was right. This really did keep happening. I found my gaze sliding over to Rudy, unsure if I should say something or just leave him to his own devices.

“This is such BS,” he muttered. He was pacing, fists swinging at his side, eyes staring at the ground with such intensity that it looked like he was trying to set it on fire. “They’re gonna have to put the League on hold. Who knows when it’ll be back up? If ever!” He gave a particularly hard kick that scattered a wave of gravel through the air.

I tapped my fingers together, glancing away. I had no idea whether or not he wanted me to comment, but saying anything felt too awkward, so I stayed silent.

“I was gonna make the top cut, I know it,” he said, clenching his hands in front of his face. “Only eight trainers went 4-0, and the girl I lost to was one of ‘em, so losing to her didn’t hurt my score much.” He glanced back and forth between me and Darren, clearly upset that neither of us had said anything. Then he pointed a finger at Darren and yelled, “You were probably gonna make it too! Doesn’t that bother you?”

Darren looked awkwardly at me. “Well yeah, but I’m a little more bothered by the brainwashed Legendary terrorizing everyone. Just saying.”

Rudy took a step back, clenching his teeth. “That’s not... I mean yeah, of course I care about that, it’s just…”

I couldn’t really blame him for not focusing on Moltres. It was obvious he was stressed out by everything, and focusing on the tournament was just the easiest outlet.

My ears caught Starr’s voice behind me, and I turned to see that she was in the entryway. Ajia was there too. And from the sounds of it, the two of them were arguing about something.

Darren glanced back and forth between me and Starr a few times, furrowing his brow like he was trying to figure something out. Then he gestured for me to lean closer and held a hand to the side of his mouth, whispering, “Yeahhh sooo… when were you gonna tell us that you’ve been hanging out with a Rocket executive?”

My stomach dropped through the ground. “She’s not on Team Rocket anymore.”

He gave me a look like I’d just said something totally obvious. “Well yeah, I figured it had to be something like that, but… still would’ve liked an update.”

“Hey, come on, it wasn’t really my place to go giving out her secret to everyone,” I said.

He chuckled. “Alright, that’s fair,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Is it alright if I ask what the situation is?”

I threw a glance back at Ajia and Starr. “We’re still working on a plan.”

Darren paused, mulling something over in his mind. “Well, I guess let us know once you’ve got it figured out.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but then paused, squinting at him. He’d already pieced together that I was going to be heading back to Indigo, hadn’t he?

“I wasn’t implying that you had to come with me,” I said, slightly unnerved by his tone.

Darren gave me a look. “You do realize we got the same training as you, right?”

“I know that, but there’s nothing forcing you to be a part of it.”

“Who’s forcing you?” he said with a bit of a smirk.

I put a hand to my forehead. “No one, I just…”

“What are you guys talking about?” Rudy piped up all of a sudden, as if he’d only just noticed we were talking without him.

Darren stood up. “Jade’s going back to Indigo,” he said matter-of-factly, before I could give him the motion to shush.

Rudy gave me an incredulous glare. I sighed heavily before standing up as well. “We’re gonna try to free Moltres.”

In an instant, his annoyed and frustrated air just vanished. He stared wordlessly for several seconds before turning away sharply, fists clenched. A wave of guilt crashed over me. Before today, the last time he’d seen Moltres was the night that everything went bad. The last thing I wanted was to reopen those old wounds.

“I want to help.”

I jolted. His words were cold and quiet in a way that was very unlike him.

“What?” I said blankly.

Rudy spun around suddenly, fixing me with a serious look. “I don’t want any crap like this happening again, got it?” he said, jabbing a finger toward me. “If we free Moltres, that’ll put a stop to it, right?”

That was… a bit of a simplified view of the situation. The Rockets had other Legendaries. They were still a threat, even without Moltres. But still… dull images of that night kept drifting to the surface of my thoughts. If we could put a stop to that, even in one small way… it was worthwhile. But I already knew why it was important. That didn’t change that they didn’t need to be involved.

Darren seemed to notice my hesitation. “We know what it’s like to fight Rockets. In a way that other people don’t. They shouldn’t have to go through that,” he said distantly, a strange sadness in his eyes.

“And if it’ll get the tournament back on faster, then all the better,” Rudy added quickly. From the look in his eyes, it was obvious he knew that the tournament was toast. But it was an easy excuse.

I gave a weak smile. “Yeah. That’s also true.”

He folded his arms, looking satisfied. “Besides, you were gonna go back there anyway, yeah?”

“Well… yes.” But that was only because I was working with the Legendaries. They didn’t have that luxury.

“Then it’s safer if we stick together,” he said, like nothing was more obvious. “We gotta watch each other’s backs.” I couldn’t really argue with that.

Without warning, Rudy stomped over with the same intensity that he’d been storming about earlier. And then he threw an arm around Darren’s and my shoulders, which was a little awkward since he was the shortest out of us (what with Darren rapidly approaching my height).

“The three of us, we’re partners, got it?” Rudy said forcefully.

“Where’s this coming from?” Darren asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Got it??”

“I got it, I got it!” I said, pulling myself free before I could lose my balance.

Rudy stepped back, nodding sharply with a stern expression, like he’d sure showed us.

Darren massaged his shoulder and said, “Let us know when you’re heading out, mkay?”

It took me a second to realize that line was directed at me. “Right,” I said with a nod. Then I turned and walked back up the wooden stairs behind us.

Inside the ranger station entryway, Ajia and Starr were still discussing something, and it didn’t seem like a particularly pleasant conversation. Ajia glanced up as I neared, looking grateful that I had arrived right at that moment.

“Hey, so I’ve got a couple more things to figure out before we leave,” she said, her tone falsely cheerful. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

It was pretty obvious that she was admitting defeat as far as Starr was concerned, and was hoping that I’d be able to talk her down. But of course, I didn’t point that out. I just said, “Sure, see you in a bit,” as she took that opportunity to conveniently go find someone else to talk to. Which just left me and Starr again. And now I had to explain that my plans had taken a total 180 from what I’d been implying earlier. Great. Somehow I hadn’t realized until now that this was likely going to be the most painful part of being chosen.

“So Starr, uh…”

I didn’t want to drag her into it against her will—after all, I’d been angry when I thought Ajia was trying to do that. But I couldn’t just leave her in the dark either. How on earth was I supposed to bring it up?

“It… sounds like Ajia’s gonna be helping out back at Indigo soon.” Because that wasn’t a hopelessly vague statement or anything.

“I heard,” Starr said dryly, leaning against the wall without looking in my direction.

“I don’t… I don’t know how I feel about her going alone,” I said slowly, fidgeting a bit. “She could probably use our help.”

Starr folded her arms, brow furrowing. “I don’t want anything to do with any of this bullshit.”

I bit my tongue. Couldn’t tell her I’d been chosen. Had to find some way around it. “Yeah, but… it’s gonna be our problem whether we like it or not, isn’t it?”

I was starting to understand what Ajia had gone through. Even though she hadn’t been banking on Sebastian revealing her role to us back then… there was probably a part of her that had been secretly glad that he did. Because this was agonizing.

Starr squinted at me disapprovingly. “Why are you suddenly so determined to be a part of this? What changed in the last hour?”

Oh crap. She was more perceptive than I gave her credit for.

“I… nothing changed.” Augh, this was torture.

“Is this Ajia’s fault?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “She didn’t try to drag me into anything.”

“Oh good, so you’re just willingly throwing yourself into traffic. That’s great.”

I didn’t want to dignify that with a response. But at the same time, I couldn’t help noticing the pain hiding behind the anger in her voice. Not even an hour ago, I’d tried to reassure her that I wasn’t going to put myself in danger, and now I was completely turning my back on that. Ajia, Starr, the Legendaries, my team… there wasn’t any way to make them all happy.

Starr wasn’t looking at me. She was still leaning against the wall, staring out the window at the trees. She let out a frustrated sigh. “I need a moment. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone, got it?”

“I…” I started, but she had already walked past me and gone out the door.

‘Don’t do anything stupid’? I couldn’t remotely guarantee that. And it wasn’t like I could just tell Mew and Lugia, ‘sorry I can’t help, my friend told me not to.’

I let out a groan and sank back against the wall, sliding down it until I was sitting on the floor with my arms clasped around my knees. At this rate, our best option would just be to leave for Indigo without telling Starr and hope that everything went well enough that there wouldn’t be any cause for alarm when we got back. Or something. That idea felt kind of dishonest, but I couldn’t think of anything better at this point.

I sat there for a few minutes, chin resting on my knees, trying to force my brain to think about anything else. Was my team was healed yet? I kind of wanted to talk to them—Swift in particular. And I’d have to let them all know what was up before we went back to Indigo anyway.

I sat up straighter, glancing around the lobby. There weren’t any rangers near the healing station, but there had to be someone still onsite who knew how to use it. After all, the Pokémon returning from the emergency site would need healing, right?

I had just gotten up to go check (maybe my Pokéballs had been removed from the machine and were just sitting behind the counter or something) when—

“Hey Jade!”

I turned to see Ajia peeking out from around the corner of a door that opened into the hallway. I tilted my head at her, nonplussed, but she just gestured for me to come over. So I shrugged and walked over, rounding the corner to see her standing with Kari inside a meeting room of some sort, featuring a dozen or so empty office chairs around a circular table. Kari shut the door behind us and Ajia kneeled in one of the office chairs, folding her arms across its back.

“Sorry about earlier,” Ajia said, rotating the chair so its back was facing me. “I tried to break the news easy, but… you know Starr.”

I nodded in response as I sat down, not really too keen to think about it. “So, uh, what’s this meeting about?” I said, gesturing to the room.

“Just finalizing our plan,” Ajia said to me. She then rotated her chair around to face Kari, who was currently leaning back against the door, reading something on her phone. “What’s the status back at Indigo?”

Kari glanced up from the phone. “City’s been mostly evacuated; the Elite Four and the rangers are helping defend people ‘round the outer edge of the tourney site. If there was ever an opportunity for you guys to make your move, this is it,” she said in a strangely matter-of-fact tone. Like this was business as usual.

“Wait, wait,” I said, putting a hand to my temple, trying to gather my thoughts. “How much does the Ranger Union know about the situation? Do they know that Moltres is being controlled?” I asked.

Kari folded her arms. “We’d had our suspicions. But we didn’t have any proof until Ajia told us about the Rockets. She also said you guys are looking to free Moltres.”

I shot an incredulous glance at Ajia. She’d been willing to just say that upfront?

“If you ask me,” Kari went on, “I find it pretty hard to believe that the other guardians are gonna take this lying down. From what I saw of the Viridian attack, there were at least four of ‘em there. Shouldn’t this be left to them?”

The Viridian attack. It was so surreal remembering that everyone knew about that. It wasn’t just some secret known only to the people who’d gotten mixed up with Team Rocket. It wasn’t like Raikou being targeted alone in the middle of the forest in the dead of night—everyone had seen it happen.

“If any other Legendaries show up, they’ll just be targets,” Ajia pointed out. “There’s no way the Rockets would pass up that opportunity. Especially not with the tourney site deserted and no witnesses around.”

Kari put her hands on her hips, giving Ajia an impatient look. “So what exactly are you lookin’ to do?”

The slightest trace of a devious grin crossed her face. “We’re going to distract the Rockets when the other Legendaries confront Moltres.”

And there it was. Now it was starting to make sense. Ajia had revealed just enough about the Rockets to get the support of the rangers while keeping our alliance with the Legendaries under wraps.

“So now you’re banking on them showing up,” Kari said with a bit of a smirk.

“Hey, you just said you didn’t expect them to take it lying down,” Ajia countered.

Kari paused, looking reluctantly impressed. “Fair enough. You do your thing, the rest of us will do our part to protect everyone from the collateral damage. Cuz’ judging from the attack on Viridian… there’s gonna be a lot of it.”

A chill fell over me. My mind drifted back to the rangers’ attempts to keep everyone safe while the Legendary battle raged on in the skies over Viridian.

“Is… is everyone gonna be okay?” I found myself asking.

Kari gave me a deadpan stare, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d just said something unbelievably naïve. “It’s the Ranger Union,” she said flatly. “We’re not afraid to step up to protect people from raging Pokémon. Legendary or not.”

I winced. Right. Had to remind myself, it wasn’t like they weren’t used to dealing with disasters. Still, I liked it better when it was just us against Team Rocket and no one else.

“So you passed on the message, right?” Ajia asked.

Kari had gone back to tapping on her phone. “Yeh. Just got the reply from my squad leader. She’s gonna let the cops and the Elite Four know to keep an eye out for suspicious folks ‘round the tourney site.” So we’d have their support as well. Granted, this also meant we’d have to stay out of their way.

“Speaking of the squad leader, I need to get out on the field before she kills me,” Kari said dryly, stepping back from the door before opening it. Ajia stood up quickly and followed her out, and did the same.

“Nothing we said leaves that room, okay?” Ajia said as the three of us walked down the hallway. “I know the Ranger Union won’t approve of us getting involved.”

Kari gave an exaggerated sigh, tilting her head back to give Ajia a sideways glance. “Look, don’t blame us, we’re supposed to protect everyone alright? Letting a buncha random trainers into an emergency zone is a little counterproductive. And yes, I know you’ve got history with the Rockets, I know you’ve all fought them before, yada yada. That don’t make it any better.” She pocketed her phone and gave Ajia a serious look. “So I’m not gonna tell the higher-ups about what you’re up to, but please just keep whatever you’re doing under control, alright?”

Under control. Somehow I already doubted that we could promise that.

Ajia just winked. “Trust me.”

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

We had our plan, we had the Legendaries on our side, there was no sense wasting any time. Moltres wouldn’t be hanging around Indigo forever. It was time to make our move.

I retrieved Chibi, Aros, and Swift from the heal station. I was going to let the three out to talk to them. But then on second thought, it would probably be best to let my whole team know about the plan at the same time. So I found a good spot alone near the trees surrounding the ranger station and let all six of my Pokémon out of their Pokéballs at once.

Aros was still a little bit mangled—his wounds had hastily closed up with raw skin, which was the best that could be done with such a short heal. It would take an overnight treatment for him to fully recover. His energy levels seemed normal at least—antennae twitching with the usual alertness.

“You guys doing okay?” I asked.

Swift nodded with relief, while Aros gave a dismissive huff that generally meant he was upset about something, but that it could wait until he was ready to talk about it.

Chibi glanced around warily. “*We had to retreat?*” I couldn’t help noticing his use of ‘retreat’ as opposed to ‘escape.’ An obvious implication that he expected us to go back. Still, I nodded.

Jet tilted her head. “*Why? What happened?*” That’s right—she hadn’t been out at all since before the attack. Then again, neither had Firestorm or Stygian. The Charizard frowned, his brow creasing with concern as he realized that something had happened, and that he’d missed it. But the Absol was glancing back and forth between me and Aros, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Without much of an alternative, I launched into an abridged retelling of everything that had happened this afternoon. From the attack on Indigo, to the fight with the Rockets. From our escape to the ranger base to our upcoming plan to return and free Moltres. Swift and Chibi already knew most of it, although the latter nodded approvingly when I got to the part where he’d managed to knock Moltres down. Firestorm’s face fell progressively as the story went on. And through it all, Jet looked… worryingly unconcerned.

“*I don’t really see the problem,*” Aros spoke up loudly. “*Doesn’t this just mean we’re gonna get the chance to fight those two Rockets again?*”

Well, I was glad to see that he wasn’t shaken up by being utterly thrashed two hours ago, but still. “I mean… yes, but this isn’t exactly the sort of thing we should be happy about, and I don’t get why you’re so pleased.”

Aros turned away with a look of indifference that was obviously fake. Stygian squinted at him suspiciously before giving me a sideways glance. Then her gaze slid back to Aros and she said, “*You, me. In private. Now.*”

Aros groaned, but then she thwacked his leg with her paw before taking a few steps in that direction, roughly gesturing for him to follow her. I watched them wander off toward the trees, confused, but knowing well enough not to get involved.

Instead, I opted to focus my attention on Jet. “So, what about you?”

The otter tilted her head. “*What about me?*”

I shoved my hands in my pockets. “This Rocket business is new to you. I want to know how you feel about it.”

“*It’s great,*” she said brightly, and my heart sank through the ground.

“It’s… really not,” I said, a little more flatly than I intended.

Her face fell. Confused, the Floatzel glanced around at her teammates. “*I just wanna be a hero like you guys.*”

Swift gave her a sympathetic half-smile, like he wasn’t sure how to tell her that there was nothing heroic about it at all. Firestorm stared downward, looking troubled.

“I… that’s not…” I put a hand to my face, struggling to find the right words. “Look, I know the rebel stories sound, well… cool. But it’s not cool living them. I hope I haven’t made it sound like that, cause it’s really, really not.”

“*You saved legendaries. And you weren’t even that strong when you did,*” Jet pointed out like she was stating the obvious. “*I’m strong. I could help.*” The hopeful look on her face was heartbreaking.

“We could die,” I said, my voice dead serious.

But the Floatzel just stuck her nose in the air and said, “*We’ve gotten outta tough scrapes before.*”

“That’s—that’s not the same.”

She folded her arms, giving me an incredulous glare. “*Well, you were already gonna help Moltres, yeah? So what difference does it make?*”

I opened my mouth to speak, and then froze. “Right, I guess it doesn’t change anything.” Either way we’d be fighting Rockets. What difference did it make whether we all had the right mindset or not.

“*If you’re not going to tell her, then I am,*” Stygian’s voice suddenly rang out, loud enough for me to hear her. I turned to see the Absol trotting back to us, looking rather disgruntled.

“*Don’t,*” Aros called after her, but she ignored him.

Stygian came to a stop once she reached us, fixing her gaze square on me. “*That Rocket you fought. Her Flygon is his original.*”

I tilted my head. “What?”

“*His original,*” the Absol repeated with deliberate emphasis, like I’d somehow misheard her as opposed to just not knowing what that was supposed to mean.

I stared blankly at her. His original what? She still wasn’t saying what—hang on. ‘Original’ wasn’t marked as a descriptor in her words—it was an object. His original.

“That’s the Flygon he was cloned from?” I asked, gaping at her.

“*Yes. That’s what I said,*” Stygian said in the tone of someone explaining something obvious to a child. Aros had begun plodding back over to the rest of us, looking equally disgruntled.

That’s why you blew us off in that last fight?” I asked incredulously, snapping my head in his direction. “Settling some kind of grudge match?”

The Flygon turned his back to me. “*I wouldn’t expect you to understand,*” he muttered, sounding genuinely hurt by my dismissive tone.

I stared blankly. “Do you want to explain?”

No reply. Of course not.

I ran a hand down the back of my head. “I guess… it’s obvious that it’s important to you, so I won’t say anything bad about it,” I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. “But seriously though, you can’t just bail on the rest of us in the middle of a fight.” Ignoring orders from me was one thing, but he’d put Chibi in harm’s way and completely screwed up our ability to strategize versus the Rockets.

“*What’s it to you?*” Aros asked, still not facing any of us.

“*If we’re fighting side-by-side, that means we’re relying on you to support the team,*” Chibi pointed out sharply, glaring at the Flygon.

Aros’s antenna twitched impatiently. “*Alright, I got it,*” he said, smacking the ground with his tail fan. “*Is that everything?*”

No, I still had plenty more I wanted to say. But none of it was necessarily helpful. Especially not heading into a dangerous mission where we couldn’t afford to be too angry at each other. I could only hope that Chibi would rein him in if he went off the rails again.

“*Why is this fight your problem?*” Stygian asked all of a sudden.

I tilted my head at her. “Huh?”

The Absol’s ruby-red eyes bored into me. “*You’ve been talking about this mission like you don’t have a choice in it. Why?*”

Ugh, was I just that bad at keep secrets? Then again... I couldn’t really think of any reason not to tell my team. Sure, Lugia hadn’t specified whether “not telling anyone” meant human, Pokémon, or both, but given the options, it clearly trusted humans the least. And wouldn’t I need my team’s support if I was going to protect Lugia anyway?

…Ah, screw it.

“Because I was chosen by a Legendary Pokémon.”

Now that got a heavy silence out of everyone. All six of them stared at me, varying degrees shock, awe, and disturbed fascination crossing their faces.

“*What,*” Stygian said, her voice a total deadpan.

“*What does that mean?*” Chibi asked, fixing me with a serious look.

I took a deep breath, searching for the right words. “You know how Ajia’s partnered up with Mew? Well… it’s like that, but with me and Lugia.”

A sudden look of recognition crossed Swift’s features. Chibi blinked, staring off into the distance with intense contemplation. Firestorm, Aros, and Stygian still looked a bit skeptical.

“Look. All this stuff happening with Team Rocket and the Legendaries. It’s big. A lot bigger than any of us could have imagined. And if it isn’t stopped, it’ll turn into all-out war. That’s why they’re recruiting humans to help them.”

None of them really knew what to say to that.

Swift was staring downward, considering something carefully. Finally, he looked up and said, “*You’re referring to the writings on Midnight Island?*”

Aros turned to face him. “*Eh? You knew about this?*”

Swift ruffled his feathers, embarrassed. “*We didn’t know how much truth there was to it. It could have been a myth and nothing more.*” He paused for a moment, and then looked up at me. “*But I suppose this proves it, does it not?*”

I swallowed hard, nodding. “Yeah.”

Next it was Chibi’s turn to pause heavily before making eye contact. “*You’re in this fight for the long haul now, aren’t you?*” The hybrid’s gaze had softened; he knew how conflicted I had been about rejoining the fight.

I nodded again, and his ears raised slightly. “*Then you’ll have my support.*”

“*Mine as well,*” Swift said, fixing me with a soft, reassuring look.

“*Hell yeah,*” Jet said with an affirmative nod as I tried to ignore the sting in my heart.

“*You already know my answer,*” Aros said in a low voice. Stygian gave the Flygon a sideways glance but then looked back at me and nodded curtly.

Firestorm’s gaze darted between his teammates. “*I dunno what to make of this Legendary stuff, but…*” His eyes held a strange hesitation. “*It sounds important, so I’m with you.*”

I glanced back and forth at all of them, overwhelmed. Even if half of them had their own agendas in mind, that was fine. We’d still be sticking together through this.

I had my friends. I had Lugia. And I had my team. I wasn’t alone.

I couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks everyone.”

With that settled, it was probably time to get going. I grabbed my Pokéballs and recalled my team… all of them except one. I couldn’t explain why, just something told me to keep Firestorm out. The Charizard glanced around upon realizing that he was the only one still out, then tilted his head at me.

I took a deep breath. “Hey, so… is everything alright?”

“*I’m fine,*” he said, confused.

I shoved my hands in my pockets, struggling to make eye contact. “You sure? Cause you looked like you had something to say. And I thought maybe it would be easier if it was just the two of us.”

Firestorm glanced away, chuckling ironically under his breath.

“Hey, come on. What’s up?” I asked him.

The Charizard looked back at me, then let out a deep sigh. “*This is just like old times, isn’t it?*”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He was silent for a while, mulling over what to say. “*I thought it had been long enough that we’d never have to go back to that life. Maybe that was naïve.*”

Oh. That’s what was troubling him.

I folded my arms behind my head, staring upward. “Maybe it was, but I believed it too.”

“*I don’t want things to go back to the way they used to be,*” Firestorm said, tail curling around himself. He paused and then added, “*I don’t want to go back to the way that I used to be.*”

I blinked, taken aback. “Hey, hey. That wasn’t who you are, alright? You’d just evolved, it was a crazy stressful situation, and you lost control.”

“*That doesn’t make it less real,*” he said, closing his eyes.

I sighed. “No. But it doesn’t have to define who you are. And the fact that it’s affecting you like this… I don’t know, doesn’t that prove that you won’t turn into that so easily?”

Firestorm rested his claws on his belly, nodding softly with a contemplative look.

I shuffled a foot against the dirt. “If you’re scared, I don’t have to send you out when we—”

“*No, that won’t help,*” he cut in, shaking his head vigorously. “*I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding from it. And… this is important. We’re all on the same team, yeah?*”

All of us were a team. And that meant doing anything we could to support each other. I took a few slow steps forward and rested a hand on the Charizard’s shoulder.

“Hey. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll help you through this.”

The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “*I’m supposed to be the one to help you.*”

I smirked. “Hey. None of that.”

Firestorm chuckled. “*Hah… sorry…*” He shook his head and then straightened himself upright,

“Ready to go?” I asked, holding out a fist.

His gaze sharpened, some of the fire back in his eyes. “*Yeah.*” he said, tapping his own fist against mine.

I grinned. “Alright.” And with that, I recalled Firestorm and took a moment to let it all sink in, alone. My first mission as Lugia’s chosen, right before me. No looking back. Only moving forward.

And then, without warning, I felt an uncomfortable prodding at the back of my mind. Trying to ignore it, or focus on anything else only made it flare up twice as much. It was something related to Lugia. Something I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten to say something to it? No, that wasn’t quite right. More like… I was supposed to be paying attention to it. Yes, that was it.

But how? It wasn’t exactly here. Or was it? I threw a hurried glance upward, halfway expecting to see the dragon-bird soaring overhead.

No, not like that. Like this.

Like what? This.

I grabbed my head. What on earth was going on? It was like my mind kept flitting back and forth at random, and I couldn’t control its focus at all. One moment I’d be thinking one thing, and then out of nowhere it would fly off to something completely different.

Here. Lugia was here. And I still wasn’t paying attention.

What the heck did that mean?

Pay attention dammit!


I froze, blinking. “Lugia? Is that you?” I whispered.

Yes. Obviously. The idea was laced with a thick air of irritation.

“What… the heck is going on?” I muttered under my breath as I slumped against a nearby tree, struggling to process this weirdness.

<I told you we’d have a psychic link, didn’t I?> the Legendary said, and finally, finally I was ready for it, able to distinguish its words from my own thoughts at last.

“I… guess so,” I said distantly, still weirded out by the idea of its thoughts acting like my own. “But… I’ve heard telepathy plenty of times and it was never anything like this.” Telepathy felt like a psychic was broadcasting its thoughts. Like a signal, just one that was picked up by the mind instead of the ears. But this? This literally just felt like having Lugia’s thoughts come from inside my head. It was weird and alien and I didn’t like it one bit.

A strange hesitation drifted from Lugia’s thoughts. <Well, you’re right that this isn’t strictly telepathy, but there shouldn’t be any functional difference.>

I blinked. “Wait, it’s not? Then what is it?”

<I don’t know, but—>

“How can you not know?”

<You think I know everything?> came the Legendary’s irritated reply.

I wanted to say that it sure acted like it did, but that didn’t seem smart. Thankfully, Lugia either didn’t notice that thought or didn’t comment on it.

<Also, you really shouldn’t say things out loud when we’re communicating like this,> Lugia went on. <Just direct your thoughts toward me.>

I furrowed my brow. “I don’t really know how to do that. Saying words makes it easier to focus.”

<Try it now.>

I sighed. Alright. I didn’t want to, but this was kind of important, especially if I needed to communicate privately without giving away our connection. So I willed my thoughts to focus on the idea of Lugia as hard as I could.

Can you… hear me?

<Close,> it said. <I can feel a sort of… intent from you, but it’s not specific enough to get words. Focus on my presence. Feel it. Direct your thoughts toward it.>

I closed my eyes and plugged my ears, trying to block out all other senses. I could feel my heart beating—faster than usual, but gradually slowing. But I shoved that feeling to the side, retreating into my own head, ignoring everything else. Just my thoughts. Not the forest, not the mission, nothing. Just my thoughts.

And then… then there was something there. Like a thought that was just out of reach, hovering on the tip of my tongue but stuck in my subconscious. My mind kept slipping past it, but I willed it in that direction, grabbing at it like a faded memory.

<Lugia?>

<There we go. Loud and clear.>

I opened my eyes, blinking. There it was. That inaccessible chunk of thought suddenly felt alive, distinct and separate from my own, but somehow just as familiar, like it had always been there. Its thoughts were still different somehow, but when I let my focus slip, it was like there was no longer any line between my mind and the legend’s. I could feel it there, this overwhelming, overbearing presence.

<Not bad, the connection feels stable. You’ll still need to direct your conscious thoughts toward me if you want me to hear them—everything else will just feel kind of fuzzy and subconscious—but it shouldn’t take too much effort.>

<Really? So… you can’t just hear all my thoughts?> I asked, a bit more overly hopeful than I intended.

<By focusing on my presence, you’re opening a specific thought to me. Otherwise your mind will just be in the way. I suppose if I really wanted to I could force it aside, but…> It paused, dancing around the idea awkwardly. <Well, that wouldn’t do us any good.>

I bristled. That wasn’t too comforting a thought. Sure, it was nice that I had the option of opening specific thoughts to Lugia, rather than just giving it access to the entire jumbled up internal monologue all the time. But if it really wanted to…? On the positive side, surely I’d be able to feel if the Legendary were prying into other parts of my mind than normal?

<You feel skeptical,> the legend stated. <I understand that we have a long way to go before we’ll be perfectly in sync.> It could say that again. It felt uncomfortable enough having someone else in my head without it being that particular someone. Lugia had said we’d feel each other’s presence. Would it… notice the flood of anxiety that I got just from looking at it? Would it be able to feel the way my pulse shot up? God, I hoped not.

<Anyway…> Lugia went on, <the reason I wanted to speak with you is this: Mew has informed me that you’ll be making the move to free Moltres soon.>

I nodded instinctively before realizing that Lugia couldn’t see it. <Right.>

<We won’t be able to fight side-by-side this time. Not if we don’t want to give away our position to the Rockets.>

My chest tightened. <I know.>

Lugia paused, its mind dancing around the subject. <So… what I’m saying is good luck. I would hate to have to select a new chosen so soon after finding one.>

My stomach curled in on itself. That wasn’t exactly something I wanted to think about.

Lugia’s mind flushed with awkwardness. <That was… a joke. I will see you when this is done.>






~End Chapter 37~

Next Chapter: Lugia and Jade learn to work together, probably.
 
Chapter 38: Counterattack
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~Chapter 38: Counterattack~


A thick air of tension hung in the air as the four of us—me, Ajia, Rudy, and Darren—flew toward Indigo. I was riding Swift, Rudy had Fearow, and Darren had Skarmory. Mew had transformed into an Aerodactyl, flying alongside Ajia’s own Aerodactyl, no doubt intending to take advantage of that form’s incredible speed.

The idea of four of us going in alone to fight Rockets was completely insane. But I kept having to remind myself that it wasn’t just us. The Legendaries would be joining us, and the Rockets would be way more inclined to pay attention to them. And the rangers already knew to watch out for anyone suspicious at the tournament site and they had the Elite Four backing them up. This was nothing like the old Rebellion missions. Just had to keep telling myself that.

After a while, the trees thinned, and I could see the buildings of Indigo on the horizon. Smoke still billowed upward from the scattered fires Moltres had started around the tournament site. As for Moltres itself, the firebird seemed to be soaring in a wide arc over the whole city. Our group landed on the roof of a building on the western edge of the city, far from its current location.

“So how many Legendaries are going to be helping us?” I asked Ajia.

Ajia folded her arms behind her head. “Well we’ve got Mew, Lugia, and Ho-oh for sure. Mew was working on recruiting a few others, but hasn’t had much luck so far—they’re too concerned that this is a trap.”

“I mean. It pretty much is.”

Ajia chuckled. “Maybe so. But we’ve got a trap of our own. Oh, and Latias isn’t going to fight, she’ll be staying invisible and defending the others.”

That was good. At least, it helped ease the fear that all this mission would accomplish was getting our allies captured. The biggest problem was that we didn’t know how many Rockets were scattered throughout the city. While Lugia and Ho-oh could easily take down Moltres, we had no idea how much danger they’d be in. Which was why we had no choice but to split up, to cover as much ground as possible. We wouldn’t be able to watch each other’s backs like I thought. I really wasn’t too happy about that.

I turned to face Rudy and Darren, giving them both a serious look. “If anything goes wrong, get the hell out and regroup back here, alright?”

“Don’t gotta tell me twice,” Rudy said, face full of determination.

“No worries,” Darren said calmly. “Alakazam can make sure of that.”

I wished I had some of that confidence. But then, Alakazam was the reason Darren had made it off Midnight Island with no casualties. There was no reason not to trust him.

“Good luck,” I said.

Rudy held out a fist, “We got this.” He gave me and Darren a stern look until we returned the fist bump. Then he flashed a thumbs up to Fearow, and the bird spread her wings and took off, swooping down into an alley and out of sight. Darren gave a small wave, and soon he and Skarmory were gone as well.

I turned back toward Ajia and Mew, struggling to think of what to say. Ajia was the one who broke the silence. “See you when we’re done,” she said with a reassuring smile.

I forced a grin. “Yeah.”

Swift took off, and the two of us soared low over the tournament site. Had to keep our eyes out. While Swift focused ahead of us, I constantly turned my head in all directions, scanning for any enemies sneaking up on us. I was not going to let us get caught off guard again. Occasionally Moltres crossed into the airspace overhead, and I held my breath until it passed. We weren’t the target here—had to remember that.

It was now easy to see the squads of rangers taking formation north of the city. And from what Kari had said, the Elite Four had to be among them, ready to strike back if Moltres got too close. There were probably enough Pokémon there that they could take down the legend in an all-out fight. But the idea of actually fighting a Legendary wasn’t exactly high on anyone’s priority list. The fact that we even had a mental idea of how many regular Pokémon it took to bring down a legend… It was something I took for granted, but would register as totally foreign to anyone else.

In any case, couldn’t get distracted. If Moltres was mainly sticking to the northside, then that was where we’d find the Rockets. I pointed this out to Swift, and he took us in that direction. I knew we had to find them, but the back of my mind, I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t. Each empty street and bare rooftop gave me a small relief, but it could only delay the inevitable.

Suddenly, Swift jerked his head to the left. I followed his gaze and caught a flash of blue between buildings. What was that? The Pidgeot swerved back around to take a closer look. And there he was. The executive who had confronted us during the initial attack—Ender. He was sitting on the back of his Altaria, perched on a low balcony that gave him a good view of the air without putting him in full view. I wordlessly motioned for Swift to land on the roof of the closest building. His flight was softer than Aros or Firestorm’s. Faster than them too. That was why I’d picked him for this mission. But our opponent had the power advantage, so we couldn’t afford to give ourselves away.

Slowly, one talon at a time, Swift stepped closer to the edge of the roof. He craned his neck to look over the edge. Ender hadn’t noticed us. Any second I expected him to snap his eyes in our direction. But no. He was just sitting there. Waiting. Eyes trained on Moltres the entire time. And he was wearing a Master Ball cannon on his arm that hadn’t been there last time.

<Well if we weren’t sure before, we sure are now. Moltres is definitely bait,> I told Lugia.

<Feels rather foolish to swoop right into a known trap like this,> the legend replied.

<Yeah, well… it also feels pretty stupid to pick fights with an executive.>

<We will both follow our foolish courses of action, then.>

Was that a joke? I decided not to think about it.

Our goal wasn’t to fight Ender outright. I knew that much. But my heart still pounded as we waited. The signal would be obvious, I knew that much. Just had to be patient. Couldn’t give away our position yet. Just a little longer…

A bright yellow beam of energy shot out of nowhere, striking Moltres right in its heart. The firebird recoiled backward, screeching in pain. Up from the forest, Lugia burst into the air, spreading its wings to loom high above the plateau. It was a bit weird seeing the dragon-bird out in broad daylight, feathers gleaming stark white as opposed to their silvery sheen under the moonlight.

From the opposite side of the sky, Ho-oh soared into view, wings shimmering with a rainbow sheen, blue flames licking its wings. The two zeroed in on Moltres, circling the smaller bird intently. But Moltres didn’t retaliate. Instead, it folded its wings back and shot toward the ground, soaring low over the buildings. What was it doing? None of the Rockets had approached it, so it must have been acting on orders that it got previously. Orders to avoid any other Legendaries? Why?

Lugia and Ho-oh paused, glancing at each other. I could only guess that they were confused as well. But then it finally hit me. By sticking low to the city, Moltres was forcing Lugia and Ho-oh to fly low to engage. If they stayed too high, the firebird would have more than enough time to dodge their attacks. And the Rockets themselves were all sticking low to the city as well, so it would be easy for them to fire Master Balls from out of sight. Which meant that for any of the free Legendaries to strike back, they’d either have to put themselves in harm’s way, or attack the city. Of all the dirty tactics.

Lugia must have noticed the same thing, because it asked, <Is there any reason we can’t simply destroy them?>

Any reason other than the fact that it was implying callously murdering our enemies? Sure. The resulting destruction was exactly the thing we were trying to avoid. We were not turning this into another Viridian incident.

<Let us fight the Rockets, alright?> I said. <We’ll be more maneuverable closer to the ground, and that way the rest of you can deal with Moltres. You shouldn’t have any trouble with that, right?>

<Fine.>

Had to trust that everything would go according to plan. Couldn’t afford to think about the Legendary fight when I had my own mission to focus on.

Ender hadn’t taken his eyes off the Legendaries the entire time. His arm was trained upward, left hand hovering over the handle, ready to pull back the moment one of the free legends drew too close. He hadn’t so much as glanced in our direction the entire time. It was now or never.

“Open with Tailwind, then go into a Feather Dance,” I whispered.

In one smooth motion, Swift leaped from the rooftop and swooped down between the buildings, flapping his wings so fast that a powerful wind current filled the entire alley. The moment that was done, he switched to a light, fluttering motion, scattering countless downy feathers into the air around our opponents. Tailwind would give us the speed edge while also throwing off Ender’s cannon fire. Feather Dance would dull Altaria’s attacks, at least some of them.

Ender stared back at us with an amused look on his face. “Interesting timing,” he said, glancing between me and the Legendary battle raging overhead. “Alright, I daresay it’s time to escalate things.” He tapped something into a wrist communicator. I held my breath. But he didn’t move from that spot. He just went back to aiming at the Legendaries while Altaria kept a single eye trained on us.

I felt a prickle of anger well up inside me. Did he seriously think we were afraid to attack him? Or was he just that unconcerned with our presence?

“Air Slash!” I yelled.

Swift snapped his wings forward, glowing blades of wind already trailing from the tips, shooting toward our opponents. Altaria waited until the last second to raise a Protect, deflecting the blades away harmlessly.

Ender slowly turned toward us, raising an eyebrow. “Playing hardball this time. Alright.”

And then way the hell faster than it had any right to be, Altaria dove from the balcony and shot toward us. I pointed down, and Swift didn’t waste a second swooping under it and taking off in the opposite direction. We shot down the street, the wind following us and pushing us forward, most likely the only thing keeping us ahead of him. Swift kept his eyes firmly on the road ahead of us. Mine were free to wander. Just how close was he…?

A window ahead of us suddenly exploded with dragonfire, raining shards of glass down from above. I buried my face in Swift’s feathers and tried my hardest to ignore the slivers of pain crossing my arms. I’d felt worse. Had to stay one step ahead of him. If he was chasing us, he wasn’t firing at the Legendaries. Just had to stay one step ahead. This was what we’d trained for. I could handle this.

A shadow passed by overhead. I glanced up, expecting one of the Legendaries, but it was a Rocket I didn’t recognize, riding on the back of a Charizard, currently aiming a Master Ball cannon at a target I couldn’t see. Could I stop her? But Ender was right behind us, we’d be sitting ducks. I could let out Firestorm, have him target the other—no. No, staying on the run was safer than starting a head-to-head melee, I’d learned that much. It would probably be fine.

Wait. Through a gap between buildings, I suddenly got a much better view of the Legendaries, and they were a lot closer than I’d realized. Moltres was pinned to the ground, thrashing about wildly in the middle of what looked like a battle park. Ho-oh was perched on its back, talons digging into the smaller firebird’s wings while Lugia fired concussive pulses of psychic energy.

Dammit, they weren’t paying attention and the Rockets were closing in!

Time slowed. A crack split the air, my eyes caught the flash of movement, the Master Ball, its target unaware. In my mind I saw it hit, saw that flash of red from the time I’d fired a ball just like it, heard Lugia’s horrified scream and then—

A brightly glowing ball of mist deflected it at the last second, shot from thin air. I gaped at it in disbelief. And then a huge wave of relief crashed over me so hard that I almost lost my grip on Swift. Latias—Latias had saved them from certain capture.

And then out of nowhere, Lugia’s voice stormed to the front of my thoughts and yelled, <Warn me next time!>

<Sorry, I’m still getting used to this!> I replied. I’d seen it happen, I could have said something, I should have said something. I’d just completely forgotten that was even an option. But that was the entire reason we had Latias playing defense, right?

A spear of irritation pierced my thoughts like a burning hot iron, and I only barely stopped myself from grabbing my head. Geez, Lugia’s emotions were stronger than I thought. I’d known that I’d be able to feel them, but man this was distracting.

“*Are you alright?*” Swift asked, tilting his head to look back at me.

“I’m fine, just keep moving,” I managed breathlessly. We couldn’t afford to stop. Not while we were still being followed by—

I whirled around. Ender was gone. He was gone. The whole point of this was to keep him distracted. Of course he’d known that. Why the hell had I taken my eyes off him?

“Hold up,” I said, pulling back slightly. Swift flared his wings out to slow our flight before making a U-turn back down the street.

Dammit. I’d let Lugia distract me, and then I’d lost Ender. We had to find him, and fast. Letting an executive get free shots at the Legendaries was not an option here.

Movement. Something glinting in my peripheral vision. Flames.

“Look out!” I screamed.

Swift turned his head and raised a barrier just in time for a raging ball of pink fire to crash into it, scattering a wave of sparkling flares. What the hell was that? The fireball kept struggling against the barrier without dissipating, almost as if it were alive. Wait… it was. Altaria was inside the fireball, face contorted with vicious fury. Ender wasn’t on its back. I glanced around hurriedly, but he was nowhere to be seen.

The Protect flickered. Another second and we’d be toast. Had to do something, and fast.

“Through that doorway!” I yelled, voice cracking. Swift dropped the barrier and pointed his wings back, plunging toward the ground like a bullet and pulling up at the last second to shoot clean through the opening, immediately braking to avoid hitting the opposite wall. We turned around just as the doorway exploded into splinters. I shielded my face with my arms, squinting at the frenzied ball of magenta dragonfire currently shredding the entrance. Swift took a few hesitant steps backward before darting behind the nearest support column. Altaria charged, tearing through the column like butter, and then the ceiling gave way.

Swift jumped back, turning away from the falling debris, flaring his wings to keep me shielded. I flattened myself against his back, burying my face in his feathers yet again, dull pain assaulting my back with each chunk that hit me. Finally, it seemed to have settled. I cautiously opened one eye to take in the surrounding. The two of us had landed in a crumpled heap, covered by snapped boards and chunks of plaster, a fine mist of dust saturating the air. I coughed hard and breathed in too deep, which only succeeded in filling my lungs with more dust. Ugh. Had to get out of here.

A violent screech jerked my attention back to our opponent. In the doorway, Altaria stood twitching, body still raging with pink flames. We couldn’t use Protect. Not enough time had passed. Couldn’t make it out of the room in one piece. No other exits. Only a second to act.

“Sand Attack!” I blurted out.

Swift swept his wings forward, and a wave of plaster splattered into the dragon-bird’s face. Altaria staggered back with a cough, squinting at us through the dust. And in that split second, Swift flattened himself to the ground right before the dragonfire flared up and Altaria launched itself clear into the opposite wall, tearing right through and landing in another room.

Rubble was still raining down from the second floor over the entrance, and the hole was now mostly blocked. Had to make our own exit, then.

I whirled around and ordered, “Air Slash!”

Swift shook himself free from the rubble, then swung a glowing wingtip forward, unleashing a flurry of blades at a nearby window. Glass shattered, then a gust of wind swept the shards away. The Pidgeot leaped through the opening and launched into the air, beating his wings to take us away from there as fast as possible.

Except… we weren’t trying to escape. We needed to stay close by. Even if my every instinct was screaming to just ignore Ender and his Altaria and go find the others.

“Hold up, we don’t want to lose them,” I said. Swift responded by pivoting around in midair and landing on the roof of the building nearest the one we had just escaped from. This would give us a decent view of both exits, and then we’d be able to follow Altaria, hopefully to its trainer.

Except nothing happened. I furrowed my brow, staring even harder. It had been at least a minute by now. Where was Altaria? It wasn’t trying to find us? And where was Ender, for that matter? If he wasn’t on its back when it raged out, then where the hell had he gone?

I pointed downward wordlessly, and Swift glided down from the rooftop, landing in the middle of the street. I kept a tight grip as he cautiously stepped forward to peek through the crumbled doorway. But there was no sign of Altaria anywhere inside.

“Where did they…?”

Out of nowhere, a sudden needle of anxiety pierced my head. Every muscle in my body clenched tightly as I was hit with the overwhelming feeling that this was very not okay, despite having no idea why or how or what was—

Wait. Wait wait wait, this feeling wasn’t mine.

<What happened?!> I asked Lugia.

<Ho-oh was hit. Latias was able to destroy the ball before they could recover it, though,> it replied, a slight tremble to its voice.

I let out a deep sigh of relief. The last thing we needed was to have to rescue another Legendary on this mission. Part of me wanted to tell Lugia just how distracting its emotions were, although I already knew that the response would be less than pleasant. It was my problem. I had to get used to it.

“C’mon, let’s keep moving,” I said to Swift. With a few flaps, the two of us were airborne once again.

Maybe it would be better to stick closer to the Legendaries. After all, that was where the Rockets were most likely to be. Just being in the general vicinity would hardly give away the fact that we were straight-up working with the legends.

I pointed down a street that I was pretty sure led back to the park where the Legendaries were fighting. If the violent screeching and explosive blasts coming from that direction were anything to go off. That was when I spotted her. The female executive from before. Raven, was her name? She was riding the same Flygon as last time—the one that had soundly defeated Aros, this time wearing a blue and white scarf. Why did I have to keep running into all the Executives? Why couldn’t Ajia? Or Mew? Anyone who would stand a better chance than me.

I could try to locate Ender once again. Or I could deal with the executive in front of me who currently didn’t have any opponents. I didn’t get a chance to make that decision before she spotted us though.

“Back for more?” she just said. Then in a flash, she opened an array of Pokéballs. I caught sight of a large, black bird, then some kind of brown blur ducking behind an abandoned vendor stall, then a violet shadow tracing a path down the walls of the nearest building.

Oh hell, she wasn’t playing around. No way was I going through the same crap as last time. I let out both Firestorm and Aros, then let Chibi out onto Aros’s back so he could freely abuse his lightning. The hybrid didn’t waste any time charging up a Thunderbolt to fire at Raven, but her Flygon avoided it so quickly I could have sworn he’d teleported. Swift put on a burst of speed just as a pulsing wave of darkness shot right at us, fired by the Honchkrow.

“Another Tailwind!” I hissed. The Pidgeot looped back, flapping his wings faster and faster, and the resulting wind current swept through the alley, pushing at our backs and against the executive’s side. Honchkrow narrowed its eyes at us, struggling against the wind.

A shadowy orb shot from nowhere, smacking into one of Aros’s wings. He shook off the blow and glanced around hurriedly, but couldn’t locate his attacker. Chibi muttered something to the bug-dragon, and the latter responded by slamming his tail into the wall, unleashing a shockwave that shook the entire building. A dark shadow fell out of the wall, forming into an implike body with a huge, toothy grin. A Gengar. Its eyes flashed red, and a spear of ghostly energy suddenly pierced its own body, trails of red mist leaking out from the hole. Aros tilted his head in confusion, but then more of the same red mist materialized around him… and zeroed in on Chibi, seeping into his fur. The Pikachu shook his head to clear it before retaliating with a lightning bolt, but Gengar had already phased back inside the wall. Chibi winced, teeth clenched like he was in pain. Wisps of ghostly aura danced around his head.

All this time, Firestorm had been circling Honchkrow, breathing out scorching jets of fire to keep the bird off our tail. Raven and her Flygon were mostly hanging back, a good distance from the rest of the combatants. I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t about to question it. The moment they entered the fray, things would get a lot worse.

We couldn’t keep this up for too long. I knew that. Sooner or later, we’d be overpowered. But we just had to keep it up long enough to hold Raven’s attention away from the Legendary battle. Just had to hold out until then. Lugia would give us the all clear and then we could get the hell out of here.

And then a brown blur leaped up from a nearby rooftop, aiming right for us. Swift flared his wings to stall our flight. Too late. Blood splattered through the air. I stared stupidly, feeling my brain short-circuit trying to process it, my breath frozen, my stomach melting. Kabutops. It had slashed him clean across the neck, staining his feathers bright red.

No. No no no! At once, I found my hand flying to my belt, fumbling with his Pokéball. Had to recall him before it was too late. Had to recall him before it was too late. Each second felt like an agonizing eternity as my shaking fingers found the button and pressed it and then recalled Swift in a beam of red.

I’d recalled him in time, right? He’d live, right? He had to. He had to.

Falling. I was falling. I’d just recalled the Pokémon I was riding on. But I had to recall him. I had to, it was the only way he’d make it. He was in stasis now. He had to make it. Still falling, had to do something. But he had to make it. Still falling. But Swift—still falling, had to do something.

“Firestorm!” I yelled.

Barely seconds later, I saw a flash of orange as the Charizard swooped under me and caught me on his back. Immediately afterward, I clung to his neck as he barreled to the right to avoid blades of wind launched by Honchkrow.

“*What happened? Where’s Swift?*”

I buried my face against his neck, clenching my teeth and trying my hardest to banish that image from my mind.

“*Are you okay?*” Firestorm asked.

“I’m fine, just keep flying!”

His neck muscles tensed. It was obvious he wanted answers, but he was holding back from asking them. My every instinct was screaming that we had to flee, or else risk having what happened to Swift happen to more of us, and—

“*Watch out!*” Aros called out. I looked up to see his diving in front of us, the white light of Protect flaring up just seconds before a massive waterspout crashed against it, scattering a cold mist all around us. Holy crap, that was too close. That Hydro Pump would have knocked us out of the air for sure. Then Chibi had to fire a lightning bolt over my shoulder at Gengar, who’d been sneaking up behind us. Then more movement, out of the corner of my eye. A blurry brown shape. Blades flashing. Not again—

“Metal Claw!” I yelled.

Firestorm swung both arms in front of his neck just in time for the blades to bounce against them with a metallic clang. Kabutops sprang back, crouching on a nearby windowsill before leaping at us once more. But this time Firestorm was ready. He tilted a wing, changing our angle so the blades flew right past us. Then he reached out and grabbed the fossil by the leg, swinging it in a wide arc before hurling it straight into the pavement with a crack.

I let out a deep sigh of relief. Then an agonized cry snapped my attention back to Aros, but… but it hadn’t come from him. I stared in horror. Chibi was lying flat on his back, thrashing wildly, purplish flames clinging to his body, eating away at his skin in places.

“What the hell? What’s going on? What is that?!

The red mist. From when Gengar stabbed itself. It didn’t seem to do anything at the time, but it had been stuck to him ever since, hadn’t it? Firestorm flapped his wings hard, attempting to blow out the flames, but they didn’t waver or react at all. Chibi clutched his head, lightning pouring from his body, but it didn’t help.

“*What do we do?!*” Aros cried in between breathing out scattered plumes of dragonfire to keep our attackers at bay.

“I don’t know!” I didn’t know how to help him, I didn’t know what this even was, and there was too much to focus on for me to think of what to do, not when we still had to fight off the executive’s Pokémon and—

Chibi let out one last feeble cry before slipping from Aros’s neck and falling limply through the air. I automatically reached for his Pokéball and recalled him, staring numbly as he dissolved into red energy. Chibi, the most powerful member of the team, out of commission just like that, and I didn’t have the slightest clue how.

And then, without warning, Flygon shot toward us like a bullet. I jerked backward in surprise. Dammit, of course she’d needed to wait until Chibi went down before she could really press the attack. It was too dangerous to get close to us otherwise. That was Raven’s plan all along.

Aros zipped over to hover alongside Firestorm and me, facing outward so neither of us could be attacked from behind. The opposing Flygon circled us so quickly it was hard to follow it with my eyes. Aros lunged, slashing wildly, but hitting nothing but open air. It was too fast. How the hell was it this fast? What the hell was going on?

“Feint Attack!” I yelled, desperate for something to land a hit on them.

Aros glanced back at me with an uncertain look, but then the dark aura flared up around him and he slipped out of view. Seconds later, he reappeared in the other Flygon’s path, swinging his tail straight into its head. It tumbled over in midair, its momentum taking it way off-balance, and Aros didn’t waste a second darting in, his claws lit with dragonfire. He tore several wicked gashes across his original’s tail before it regained itself. The Flygon shot past him once, raking its fiery claws across his back, and before he could pivot around to brace himself for the second hit, it had already swooped underneath.

I flinched the moment it hit. Aros howled in pain, and I cracked one eye open to a gaping wound running the length of his belly, bleeding freely. My hand flew to a Pokéball and I recalled him in a beam of red.

Ugh, maybe that was too hasty. I’d get an earful for it later. It was a nasty wound, but not near as bad as… as what had happened to… No, I couldn’t let it get that bad with any of the others. But now it was just me and Firestorm against her, and somehow I didn’t think we had a shot against just her Flygon, let alone the rest of her team. If we took the fight to the ground, I could let out Jet and Stygian for backup. But then—

<Moltres is down!> Lugia’s voice rang out in my head.

I jolted. It was down? Already? Then again, that shouldn’t have been surprising—having to fight Lugia and Ho-oh at once, there was no way the firebird would be able to keep up.

<We’ll still be nearby in case we’re needed, but we’re backing off just to be safe,> Lugia explained.

<Gotcha,> I replied. No sense risking the Rockets capturing them when we didn’t need to. That also meant that we had absolutely no reason to keep fighting a losing battle against an executive. Time to get the hell out of here. But that Flygon… it would be on us in a second, unless—

“Scary Face!” I called out.

In one smooth motion, Firestorm banked a wing to spin around on the spot, flashing a grotesque snarl at the bug-dragon right behind us. Flygon wasn’t ready for that move and jerked backward with alarm the moment it made eye contact. Its wingbeats slowed, muscles losing their tension, and for a moment it was almost frozen in place, so Firestorm took that opportunity to whirl around and bolt in the opposite direction.

“Give ‘em a Smokescreen too,” I added, and Firestorm breathed out a billowing cloud of thick black smoke in our path. I covered my nose and mouth until it was well behind us. Then the road ended and we emerged into the same battle park where the legends had been fighting previously. I glanced around hurriedly until I spotted it—there, about fifty yards from us, was Moltres, lying prone, wings splayed across the dirt. There was something almost sad about the sight.

Wingbeats caught my ear and my heart stopped, but then my brain caught up—they didn’t sound anything at all like the buzzing of Flygon wings. I turned in all directions to see Aerodactyl approaching us from the right, which meant Ajia—no wait, he didn’t have a rider. It was actually Mew!

“*Stay close by, this is nearly over,*” she said.

Mew folded her wings back and swooped down to land on all fours right next to Moltres. And then she just stood there. Waiting. She could just teleport Moltres away right now, if she wanted to. But that wouldn’t break the mind control, at least not for good. We still needed the Master Ball. She’d be ready the moment anyone tried to recall it; we just had to—

A bright blue jagged beam shot out of nowhere, knocking Mew flying limply backward, frost coating her wings. I turned in the direction it had come from, and—

My stomach plummeted. “What?! Articuno?!”

The ice bird had just soared into view from practically nowhere, its long cobalt wings scattering a fine powder snow throughout the air. Mew shook herself off before launching back into the air, circling Articuno at high speed, breathing out explosive bursts of flame at it nonstop.

<Articuno’s here! We need you!> I exclaimed. <But watch out, the Rockets are still nearby.>

<On it!> Lugia replied.

A red beam glinted in my peripheral vision. I turned to look in its direction and… wait. Moltres was gone! They’d recalled it?!

Dammit! Articuno was just a distraction! Where were the Rockets? Who had recalled it? Where was the Master Ball?! I spun wildly in every direction, eyes struggling to find a focus in a sea of details, from the scarred park, to the roads, to Lugia and Ho-oh reappearing overhead, to—

Suddenly, my eyes snapped to it. A Xatu, down by the ground, clutching a Master Ball in its talons. A white glow formed around it, and my stomach jumped into my throat. It was preparing to teleport.

<It’s going to escape!> I cried.

<Mew’s on it!> Lugia replied.

A psychic glow encircled the bird just as it was flickering out of view. Mew swooped down, her eyes glowing the same shade of blue, and Xatu snapped back into clear view, right before it could vanish. She clenched her wing-hands, and the Master Ball flew out of the Xatu’s talons, shooting toward her. And then a second Ice Beam struck Mew dead on, knocking the Aerodactyl spiraling into the side of a building, crashing through a window. The Master Ball dropped to the ground with a clatter, landing in the road on the edge of the park.

Articuno wouldn’t have the thought to grab the ball itself. Not without an order from the Rockets. And they were busy right now. I only had a moment.

“Dive!” I yelled.

Firestorm folded his wings back and shot downward. I flattened myself against his back, forcing my brain to shut out everything else. Not the battle raging overhead, not the attacks flying past me, nothing. Just the tiny purple ball sitting alone on the pavement below. Closer, closer—

Blades of wind shot from nowhere and I felt the sting of pain as one tore across my arm. I clenched my teeth, gripping Firestorm even tighter. The Charizard whirled around to locate our attacked, but no one was there. What the hell? I glanced back at the ground to see a shadow materializing next to the Master Ball—a round body with broad wings and an eye-catching crest… Honchkrow! Of course! A dark-type. No way to use psychic abilities to wrestle the ball from it. Mew, where was Mew?!

Hy heart sank. The Aerodactyl had just pulled herself free from the building she’d been knocked through. Ice crystals covered her body; her wings twitched. She’d taken two Ice Beams from Articuno back-to-back, while in a flying-type body no less.

Firestorm launched a stream of fire downward. If he missed and melted the Master Ball, that’d help us either way. But Honchkrow snatched the ball and melted into shadow almost immediately. The shadow darted out of sight, past a row of cars on the side of the road, and I could no longer follow it with my eyes. It could disappear into the city, rendezvous with any of the Rockets inside, and then we’d never see the Master Ball again.

<It’s getting away!> I yelled to Lugia.

The legend didn’t reply, but I felt its heart rate spike and actually had to clutch a hand to my chest. And then without warning, a brilliant yellow beam shot through the air. I froze openmouthed as it cleaved through several buildings like a hot knife through butter. Glass shattered, concrete gave way, the upper floors slowly collapsed inward. I gaped at the destruction in horrified disbelief. We were only a few blocks away from the evacuees! Lugia couldn’t just let wild like that!

<What the hell was that?!> I demanded.

<You said it was getting away,> Lugia replied defensively.

I stifled the urge to scream. <How is blasting the city supposed to help?! You could’ve hit someone.>

<Well if you’ve got it under control, I’ll just go back to what I was doing,> the legend said, its thoughts tinged with irritation.

Ugh. Some help. We’d just have to do it ourselves.

Firestorm’s wings strained; he was beating them as hard as he could but we weren’t gaining. Was Honchkrow even still heading this way? I couldn’t tell. Just had to keep my eyes peeled for where it emerged from the shadow. Where was Ajia? Why couldn’t she have been the one to deal with this. Why’d it have to be me, the one least likely to—

Dammit, no, couldn’t let myself think like that. I could do this, with or without help. I could do thi—

“Forgetting someone?” a voice said icily.

Stones erupted from the ground in front of us. Firestorm swerved to the right, one of them clipping his wing. Then another stone shot up from that direction, and Firestorm had to throw his wings out to stop in time, then the third wave found its mark, bursting up right from under us. Stones dug into Firestorm’s belly, the shockwave from the impact shot through my body, and then we were down, skidding along the pavement before finally coming to a stop. I slowly stumbled off Firestorm’s back, dazed and in pain, limbs shaking. The Charizard pulled himself to his feet and clutched at his stomach with a grimace, blood streaming between his claws.

That was all three of my flying mons out of commission. I grabbed Firestorm’s Pokéball, ready to recall him when he pushed my arm down.

“*Either we both get out of here, or neither of us do,*” he said, spreading his good wing as wide as he could, keeping me out of view.

Couldn’t let him face Raven alone. In a flash, I let out Jet and Stygian. Three Pokémon, one nearly incapacitated, going up against an executive. Her Pokémon were advancing on us now. Gengar, Flygon, Kabutops… the same Kabutops that… that had… (My mind suddenly generated the image of it doing the same thing to Firestorm, and I tried shoving aside but it didn’t want to leave, and—)

In an instant, Gengar melted into shadow, Flygon’s claws flared up, and Kabutops dashed forward, blades outstretched. Jet and Stygian rushed forward to meet them, the former launching into a waterspout and the latter lighting her blade with dark energy. Firestorm tensed up, taking a half-step forward like he was about to jump into the fray. But then his eyes darted back to me and he didn’t move.

A spray of water hit my arm. Gengar’s shadow had tried to slip behind us, but Jet had just cut the ghost-type off with a well-aimed Water Gun. The ghost paused for just a moment, shaking itself off irritably, and the Floatzel took that opportunity to lunge forward, dark aura cloaking her fangs. Across the street, Kabutops leaped back and forth, forcing Stygian to turn in all directions just to follow it with her eyes. The rock-type found an opening and darted forward, blades aimed at her neck, but the Absol parried with her own blade. Flygon approached her from behind, ready to tear into her with flaming claws. But then out of nowhere, Jet tackled it to the ground, locking her frost-covered fangs around its arm. That left Gengar free to target us—the ghost flashed a devious smile before letting its fingertips crackle with electricity.

I didn’t have to say it. Firestorm raised a shimmering white Protect the instant Gengar let the lightning fly. A shower of sparks hit the asphalt as the bolt crashed into the barrier with a resounding crack. Gengar paused, frowning with disappointment. Without warning, Firestorm dropped the barrier and leaped forward, slashing wildly, his claws shrouded in a ghostly aura. Gengar let out a cry of alarm before dissolving back into shadow and regrouping with its teammates.

I let out a huge sigh of relief. But it was short-lived. My eyes darted back to Jet, wrestling with Flygon, biting it repeatedly with icy fangs. Stygian, staggering backward from the force of a massive blue orb that Gengar had just fired at her. A chill ran down my spine. One of the executive’s Pokémon was unaccounted for.

I spotted it a second later, leering at us from between two cars. Upon realizing that we’d noticed it, Kabutops broke into a run, blades flashing through the air with each step. Firestorm took a deep breath. He couldn’t use Protect again, so his claws went metallic. A scythe swung for his neck and he blocked it with a clang. Another one, from the other side; his other arm snapped up just in time. The Charizard kept his eyes trained closely on his opponent, watching, waiting… A third swing and this time he lunged forward, locking his claws around both blades at once. Kabutops’s eyes went wide, and it jerked its arms back, but the fire lizard refused to let go.

And then my eyes caught movement, over by Raven. At her side, a wisp of dark aura had just faded into view, revealing a large black bird clutching a purple Pokéball. My jaw fell open. Honchkrow? It was right here?! And it still had the Master Ball?!

“Thought we hadn’t figured out how you stole Mewtwo from us?” Raven asked, her words tinged with ice.

A bolt of lightning fired from Gengar’s fingertips, catching the tail end of a waterjet. The Floatzel inside let out a scream as the electricity coursed through her.

“Thought we didn’t know Mew would be here?”

With a vicious snarl, Flygon smashed Stygian’s head into the side of a car repeatedly. Fiery claws tore red gashes across her snow-white fur.

“The only question is how you’re working together with those monsters.”

One after the other, the Absol and Floatzel collapsed onto the road, out cold. All of them down but Firestorm, who continued to grapple with Kabutops, claws locked firmly around its scythes.

“I’m curious to know. But not curious enough.”

Kabutops slammed a clawed foot against the ground, and pointed stones burst through the pavement, right under Firestorm. The Charizard’s eyes went wide; he coughed hard, blood dripping from his mouth. Then he staggered backward, sinking to one knee before finally collapsing.

There was a moment where Kabutops’s eyes flickered between Firestorm and me. Like it was debating going over and just ending him right there. But then it opted to go for me instead. I took a step backward, feeling my blood turn to ice from the fossil’s cold, merciless gaze. It wasn’t even bothering with the speed anymore—it was just casually walking toward me. What the hell could I do to stop it anyway? Couldn’t outrun it, couldn’t fight back, no Pokémon left, no other options.

<Lugia!!> I screamed mentally.

<Hang on, I’m dealing with Articuno!>

<Hang on?! I don’t have time!> I’d be dead before it got here! What the hell good was being chosen if I was going to die alone with my patron nowhere near me?!

And then out of nowhere, Kabutops was knocked flying into the side of a parked car by absolutely nothing. I stared stupidly at the sight, unable to process it. What the hell had just happened? I didn’t see anything hit…

Without warning, Honchkrow let out a squawk as something slammed into it, knocking the bird clear down the street. Raven’s mouth hung open with a mixture of shock and rage. The Master Ball clattered to the pavement, then lifted into the air just as fast. But there was no psychic glow—it had been grabbed by something invisible.

Then, as if on cue, I felt a rush of wind next to me, and the air distorted into the jetlike shape of a crimson dragon.

“*Get on!*” Latias cried.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. I recalled all three of my Pokémon and jumped onto her back. She was small. I didn’t fit on her back all the way, and she was obviously having a hard time lifting me. But she didn’t complain.

“You can’t do that! Who the hell do you think you are?!” Raven screamed after us.

Latias whimpered slightly as a Shadow Ball struck her belly, but she didn’t let her flight path waver. My breathing was shallow and my heart was pounding at a million beats a minute. We’d done it. We’d gotten the Master Ball, and we’d escaped, and I wasn’t dead. I would have collapsed with relief if not for the fact that we still had yet to make it to safety. There was also the fact that Articuno was still circling the skies ahead of us, filling the air with a vicious Blizzard. Latias shivered, slowing her flight so we didn’t get too close. Lugia was forced to hang back while Ho-oh pushed through the storm, blue flames burning across its body.

And then a loud whistle split the air. Articuno broke from the fight immediately, diving below us to land in the center of the battle park. I spotted Ender closing in on it, his Altaria looking worse for the wear, covered in burns and missing plumes on its wings. In hot pursuit was Aerodactyl—the actual Aerodactyl—with Ajia on his back. So after I lost track of Ender, he’d run into her instead. I couldn’t help feeling a bit satisfied from seeing how much trouble she’d given him.

I braced myself in case he decided to try anything on us. But he knew better than to pick a fight with Latias. He also knew better than to attempt firing a Master Ball at her. Not with so many opponents close by. Instead, his Altaria took him right above Articuno, where he jumped down to land on the ice bird’s back before recalling the dragon-type.

“That wasn’t dumb luck… that was planned,” Ender called out, loud enough for us to hear him. “You were working together with them the entire time, weren’t you?” He laughed. “I think we’ll be taking that into consideration next time.”

His attention snapped to the other Legendaries. To Lugia and Ho-oh, soaring high overhead, to Mew, still in her Aerodactyl guise, now flying over to meet us.

He tapped a button on his watch and said, “We’re leaving.”

Suddenly, the same Xatu from earlier materialized right above him. He reached out to grab its talon, and in a flash, they were gone.






~End Chapter 38~

Next Chapter: Sometimes you just gotta prove a Legendary wrong.
 
Chapter 39: Burning Spirit
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~Chapter 39: Burning Spirit~


A bright quarter moon pierced the sky overhead, which was now red with twilight. Our group—me, Ajia, Starr, Rudy, and Darren—had just arrived at a large cabin deeper in the woods west of the Ranger Union HQ. I was riding with Ajia on Aerodactyl since all three of my fliers were out of commission. I’d basically felt numb ever since we left Indigo, and was looking forward to not doing anything for the rest of the night. The day had been far, far too long. Watching Rudy’s last preliminary match this morning felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. In a way, it had. I was chosen now. That life was in the past.

“This watch station isn’t currently in active use, so we should have some privacy,” Ajia explained as we all dismounted the fliers and made our way inside. “Dad said we could crash here since the tournament site is still an emergency zone, and probably won’t be cleared for a while.”

The cabin was two stories tall with an array of antennas and platforms on the roof. Inside was a cozy interior with a common room to the right, a kitchen to the left, and a wall covered in belts, tools, and other gear just ahead of us.

“Just don’t touch any equipment or anything,” Ajia added with a wink.

Darren elbowed Rudy, who had just picked up some kind of colorful, remote-like device from a shelf. It looked a lot like the ones that rangers used to calm raging Pokémon on TV. (Granted, it probably didn’t work anything like it did on TV, but the device itself was real.) Rudy hastily set it down, then opted to go raid the kitchen cupboards for whatever nonperishable foods had been left here. I considered following him—I was pretty ravenous after all—but exhaustion ended up winning out. I shuffled over to one of the common room chairs and sank into it, feeling vaguely lightheaded. Absentmindedly, I reached for my Pokéballs, only to remember that they weren’t there.

I’d dropped my team off at the main Ranger HQ healing station. My memory of the encounter was a bit fuzzy. After the adrenaline from the mission had worn off, it’d been replaced by a wave of sheer panic as I’d rushed straight there and made them swear that they absolutely would not open Swift’s Pokéball until they were ready to stabilize him. And they’d reassured me, over and over, that yes, they’d be able to handle it, and yes, from my description of the injury and the speed he’d been recalled, he was almost certainly going to recover. And now, an hour later, their words were starting to stick, and I could feel myself relaxing slightly. But the mental image of what had happened still burned, leaving a sickly anxiety worming through my insides.

<You really shouldn’t work yourself up so much about it,> Lugia had said. <Didn’t they say he was going to be fine?> And I knew that it was right, but my brain didn’t want to listen to that right now. Especially since it was coming from Lugia.

I could have died. My whole team could have died, and having contact with Lugia hadn’t helped one bit. I wanted to say something, but what was there to say? We’d all known, going into that mission, that the Legendaries wouldn’t be able to fight by our side. Obviously, that meant that they couldn’t step in to save us without putting themselves at risk. But we were the ones risking our lives to save them. It wasn’t fair.

But that was what I’d signed up for when I agreed to be chosen.

Looking for something to busy myself with, I found myself idly reaching for my bag, which was currently sitting on the coffee table. At least Mew had managed to recover our stuff from the hotel in Indigo. Something told me that returning to the emergency zone a second time for such a stupid reason would be slightly frowned upon.

I dragged the bag closer to my chair and started digging through it, like I was looking for something. I wasn’t really sure what, but I continued to shove the bag’s contents to the side until I reached the bottom. And there it was. Like I’d been looking for it all along. The strange metallic orb that I’d recovered from the basement of the Midnight Island ruins. I’d been carrying this thing around for nearly a year now, and I still had no idea what it was. I slowly clasped my fingers around it, feeling its cool, airy surface, a metallic tingle running through my fingertips.

When I’d first gotten it, there wasn’t anyone I could ask about it other than Stalker. And I’d never gotten the chance to ask him. But now? I was acquainted with multiple Legendary Pokémon, all of whom were familiar with the chosen pact. They’d definitely know something about the orb, right?

Something else prodded at the back of my mind. What had that pedestal said? That the alliance between human and legend… would fail? I hadn’t paid it much thought at the time. But now I’d seen the proof that the alliance itself was more than just a myth. Now the idea was a lot more unpleasant. Lugia and Mew didn’t seem to be under the impression that our efforts would fail. And we’d just had a major success too…

Something bumped my chair, and I glanced over my shoulder to see that Starr was leaning against it with her arms crossed over the headrest.

As expected, Starr’s mood had bounced between outrage and worry ever since we’d gotten back from Indigo. It wasn’t as if I could pretend we hadn’t just hurled ourselves into another deadly situation when she wasn’t looking—the evidence was written all over my arms. In between her ranting over the way we’d just up and left the moment her back was turned, she’d dragged me off to the medical office so I could get my arms bandaged up. None of the cuts were too deep—not like the bullet wound from last year. Still, it was probably good that she made me do something about it, because I sure as hell wasn’t in the mood for it after what my team had gone through.

“I still can’t believe you guys just went and did that,” Starr said with a rather unimpressed tone. “Could have at least told me.”

I rubbed the back of my head. “I thought Ajia tried to.”

Starr opened her mouth to speak but then froze. “Yeah. She did.” Something in her voice told me that fact didn’t really make a difference.

I exhaled slowly through my nose, unsure what I was supposed to be feeling right now. I hadn’t meant to just turn my back on everything I’d said to her when we were back at the Ranger HQ. But… becoming chosen kind of changed things a bit.

“I’m guessing it went alright?” Starr asked, trying too hard to make it sound casual.

I blinked. “Well yeah—like Ajia said, we did it. We freed Moltres.” We freed Moltres. Saying it out loud made the reality of it sink into my mind a bit deeper. In spite of everything, we’d succeeded.

“I know that,” she said with a slight huff. “But you’re okay, right?”

“I mean…”—I gestured to myself—“I’m here, aren’t I?”

Starr groaned exasperatedly and rubbed her knuckles against my scalp. “Alive and alright are two different things. Quit being dense.”

Okay, she had a point there. I’d made it back from all the Rebellion missions alive too, but… not entirely alright. And the various injuries I’d received were nothing compared to the anxious nausea from what my team had gone through.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” I said, my mouth dry.

She seemed to realize how I’d said it. “But someone else isn’t?”

I wrapped my arms around my knees, pulling them close to my chest. “Swift was… injured.” Everyone was injured, but… not like that.

Starr paused. “Is he gonna be alright?”

“The rangers said he would be, but…”

“But you’re worrying yourself about it ‘cause that’s what you do,” she finished.

I tilted my head back to look at her directly. “Kinda like what you’ve been doing.”

To my immense surprise, she let out a snort. “Got me there.” She sank against the back of the chair so that her chin was resting on the top of my head. “Just tell me we’re done for the day, alright? No more surprises.”

Given the fact that I had absolutely no desire to do anything else for the rest of the day—heck, the rest of the week—I said, “I’m okay with that, yeah.”

Eventually we’d have to deal with the fallout from all this. Eventually, Mew and Lugia would come up with the next plan of action, and I’d have to help them with it. But for now, I was content to just stay here like this.

There was a knock against the wooden doorframe. I glanced around the side of the armchair to see a ranger now standing in the entryway. My heart leaped for a moment upon seeing a Pidgeot behind her. But no, it wasn’t Swift—darker belly, longer markings, shorter crest. The moment I gave it a second thought, I felt like an idiot for getting my hopes up. Obviously, he wouldn’t have recovered yet. I don’t know what I was expecting.

“You really are something else, you know that, Ajia?” Kari said. Her voice was half accusatory, half reluctantly impressed.

Ajia spun around to face her. “Oh yeah?” she asked, in a tone suggesting that she knew exactly what was coming.

Kari leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. “It’s pretty obvious you guys are working together with the guardians. No idea how, but it’s the only way you could have pulled that last mission off.”

Ajia grinned sheepishly. “Saw through that, huh?”

The Rockets had seen through it too. What was it that Ender had said? ‘We’ll have to take that into consideration next time.’ I didn’t like the sound of that.

Something else was bothering me. From what the others had said, Raven and Ender were the only executives at that mission. Only two. Two top-class, legendary-handing executives, sure. But only two? Where were the rest of them? Did the Rockets really care so little about that mission? They’d taken a huge gamble by putting Moltres in such a vulnerable position… there had to be a good reason.

Kari’s expression turned darkly serious. “How long have you all had contact with the guardians? Was it since before the Viridian attack?”

Starr stood bolt upright. “Yeah, hold up. That’s Ajia’s deal, alright? The rest of us aren’t insane.” I found myself sinking lower into my chair.

Kari’s gaze slid back to Ajia, looking weary. “Please don’t tell me you had contact with them during the attack.”

What? She didn’t seriously think that we’d just stood by and let that happen, did she?

I threw myself around the side of the chair so that I was staring straight at her. “We tried to stop the Viridian incident! If all it took was just talking to the Legendaries, don’t you think we would have tried that?”

Kari paused, considering me closely. “…Fair. Sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

I sank back into the chair, still feeling a bit on-edge. The Legendary I had just made an alliance with… was one of the ones responsible for the attack on Viridian. And I didn’t feel remotely comfortable talking to it about that. Besides, Mew had been 100% against the attack. Mew had confronted Lugia about it, right?

I was chosen now. I was supposed to protect the Legendaries. Even if...

“So, looks like the big secret is out… again,” Ajia said, looking more relieved than anything. She’d been holding onto Legendary secrets a lot longer than I had. It had to be getting tiring, especially having to hide things from friends or allies.

At the point I finally noticed Rudy standing at the entrance to the kitchen, staring at Ajia with his mouth hanging open. And from the looks of things, he’d been like that for the past minute or so.

He blinked a few times to regain himself before saying, “You’ve been working with the Legendaries?”

Ajia gave him an amused smile. “What’s with that look? You’ve helped save them yourself, haven’t you?”

He shook his head. “That’s not the same. It’s not like I’ve ever talked to them.”

“Guess this explains why you guys were so sure we could pull off freeing Moltres, huh?” Darren asked me with a sideways grin. “Seemed like a crazy plan otherwise.”

“You went along with the plan,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “Never said I was smart.”

“Okay, hang on,” Kari said, putting a hand to her forehead like she was still trying to work something out. “The guardians. If you’re working with them, they’re still nearby, aren’t they? What about Moltres? Are you actually keeping it here? Where is it?”

Whoa. Okay, this was a lot of questions, how were we supposed to explain any of this? We couldn’t just tell everyone about the chosen pact. But now Rudy, Darren, and Kari were staring at Ajia expectantly. And heck, even Starr of all people was giving Ajia a curious glance, waiting to see what her response would be.

Kari walked over to Ajia, staring her straight in the eyes. “Where. Is. Moltres?”

Ajia let out a defeated sigh. “Alright, alright. I’ll show you.”

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

The five of us trudged through the darkening woods on our way to a nearby clearing, where Latias had apparently released Moltres from its Master Ball. Mew led the way, trotting in front of us as an Espeon. I kept expecting someone to question why Espeon of all people knew where the Legendaries were, but no one did. As for me, I was just conveniently going along with the fact that Starr had pinned the blame on Ajia to avoid bringing up the fact that I was chosen as well. Not that it did much to stave off the avalanche of questions from Rudy.

“This is nuts. I can’t believe your friend knows Legendaries. Which ones? How did she meet them? Have you met them?

“Look, one thing at a time, alright?” I said, though I wasn’t exactly sure which one to start with.

“Yeah, give Jade time to make something up,” Darren added with a chuckle. I glared at him and he just gave me a wry grin.

It also didn’t help that I was having a hard time thinking on account of Lugia complaining in my head the entire time.

<It’s not like we have a choice,> I reminded the legend. <They’re not going to leave us alone until we give them answers.>

<Of course you have a choice,> Lugia snapped. <You can refuse to tell them anything. Simple.>

I rubbed my eyes in frustration. <How are we supposed to explain why?>

<They do not require an explanation.>

<Um, yes, they do. If you want someone to help you then they have to be able to trust you,> I said flatly.

Lugia paused, unwilling to agree with what I’d said, but also struggling to think of a shutdown. It finally settled on, <Well… those two interlopers are one thing, but what about the others? What about her?>

I raised an eyebrow. <You’re gonna need to be a little more specific.>

<I’m not good with human names,> Lugia mumbled. <The one that you and Mew’s chosen are close to.>

I tensed up, feeling uneasy. <Starr? What about her. She already knows about the chosen pact, remember?>

<I’m aware,> Lugia said sharply. <That doesn’t give her the right to be privy to our plans. Particularly considering her… colorful past.>

I bristled. So Lugia knew about that. <Look, I don’t want to have this conversation. Starr betrayed Team Rocket. I trust her with my life.>

Lugia was silent for some time. Scattered bubbles of frustration drifted through its thoughts, but it didn’t put any of them into words. <…Fine,> it said grudgingly, and then its presence retreated into the corner of my mind where I had a harder time feeling it.

I let out a deep sigh of relief, already feeling a lot better. Dealing with my own emotions was one thing, but getting a double dose of anxiety was too much to handle.

“Oh crap, is that it?” Rudy said, suddenly breaking into a run.

I squinted. Some fifty yards ahead of us, an orange glow was visible through the trees. We emerged into a warm, brightly-lit clearing, and there it was. The gigantic firebird lay on its side, flames flickering gently on its head, wings, and tail. There was something oddly peaceful about it. I was so used to seeing it flying overhead, raining down death and destruction. I’d seen it used to kill escaping rebels. Earlier today, I’d barely escaped from it with my life. And even though I knew none of that was its own doing… it was still hard not to feel uncomfortable being so close to it.

The ground had been swept free of any leaves, needles, or other forest debris, which made it all the easier to spot the purple shards that lay next to Moltres. So Latias had destroyed the Master Ball. Well, of course she had, that was the only way to deactivate the mind control. She also must have healed Moltres, as most of its battle injuries were gone. Was she still nearby, guarding the firebird invisibly? I couldn’t help letting my eyes scan the air above the clearing, hunting for the telltale distortion.

Rudy was slowly inching closer to Moltres with a look of disturbed fascination. Meanwhile, Starr was glancing around the scene with a disapproving look on her face.

“So we’ve just got the Legendary bird of fire unconscious right here, huh?” she said. “No big deal, right?”

I gave her a look. “You’re acting like this is the first time you’ve seen Moltres.”

“Yeah, well, I am not letting myself get desensitized to this crap,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “This is not normal, okay?”

Kari and her Pidgeot hadn’t moved since we got here. The former was staring at Moltres with a somber look. Pidgeot’s head was lowered, eyes trained on the ground. It was easy to forget that those two—and most people, for that matter—weren’t used to being in the presence of Legendaries. Starr was right. We really had gotten desensitized to it.

After a minute of silence, Kari straightened suddenly, turning toward Ajia. “So what’s your plan?” she asked. “Moltres gonna be staying here or what?”

Ajia laughed. “No way. The other Legendaries are gonna explain the situation to Moltres when it wakes up. And… I guess it’ll go with them.”

Kari gave her a sideways glance. “So what, does everything go back to normal now? Moltres is free, the day is saved, no more Legendary attacks?” From the look on her face, it was obvious she didn’t trust that for a second.

Ajia rubbed the back of her head. “Not… exactly. But Indigo should be safe now.”

Kari nodded distantly, not taking her eyes off Moltres. “Don’t suppose you know where the next attack is gonna be?”

“The next one?” Ajia said, looking confused. “I mean… the goal is to prevent this from happening again.”

“Hm,” Kari just said, absentmindedly running a hand through Pidgeot’s crest. “Well. I guess I’ll let everyone know that there shouldn’t be any more trouble from Moltres. I should be getting back to base anyway.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, this is gonna be hard to explain. And you haven’t even given me half of it, I can tell.”

The ranger motioned to Pidgeot, who leaned forward for her to climb onto its back. She paused, glancing over the five of us in turn. “You know there were news crews at Indigo, right? I dunno if they saw you, but… whatever you’re hiding, word’s gonna get out eventually.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Ajia said simply.

Kari was silent for several seconds. Finally, she threw one last glance at Moltres before nodding. “Alright. Good luck,” she said with a small wave. “And try not to cause any more trouble.”

With a few powerful flaps, Pidgeot took off from the forest floor and the two of them flew off into the twilight skies.

“You two seem like real great friends,” Starr said dryly.

Ajia waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, don’t worry about her, I’m always getting into trouble and making things hard for her, and she’s always giving me crap about it. It’s kind of our thing.”

Starr just shrugged. Still, despite Ajia’s casual tone, I couldn’t help feeling bad. It was another reminder of just how badly this whole Rocket mess was stressing the rangers out. We could fight the Rockets, but they were the ones that had to deal with the fallout.

I was jolted from my thoughts by Rudy’s voice: “Oh crap, it’s waking up.”

What? Moltres was—?! I threw a hurried look back at the firebird, whose eyelids were twitching. Its head shifted slightly. Flames burned a bit brighter. Ajia glanced sharply at Mew, and the two of them nodded to each other for a bit while they talked mind-to-mind.

Starr took a few steps back, raising both arms. “Allllright, I’m good. I’ve seen enough. Heading back to the cabin now. I do not need to be near that thing when it wakes up.”

She turned and walked off into the forest, making it abound thirty feet before pausing like she’d just realized something. Then she turned to look back at me expectantly, waiting. She was expecting me to follow her. But if the Legendaries were going to be explaining the situation to Moltres soon, wouldn’t it be best if the chosen were present for it? Not that I could say I was chosen, but…

I gave Starr a helpless shrug that hopefully conveyed the fact that I wanted to follow her but couldn’t. She scowled and turned away, walking further away until she was out of sight.

I sighed, turning to face Rudy and Darren. “You two should probably head back too.”

Rudy gaped at me like he’d never been more insulted in his life. “What? Why are you allowed to stay here, then?”

I was spared the trouble of having to invent a reason when Ajia jumped in with, “At least hide, we don’t want to freak it out, alright?”

Rudy paused, still looking dissatisfied, but struggling to think of a counterargument.

“Come on, let’s listen to her,” Darren said, grabbing the back of his shirt and dragging him off toward the trees, ignoring his protests.

Ajia and I were the last ones to step back, leaving Moltres alone in the center of the clearing. Well, alone except for Mew. She threw a glance back at us to make sure we were all out of the way, then vanished. Several seconds passed. And then in a flash, she reappeared—in her normal body—with Lugia and Ho-oh. Even though I’d been expecting them, it was still jarring to see two gigantic birds suddenly appear out of thin air, making the clearing feel that much smaller. I couldn’t help letting my eyes slide over to Rudy who was now gaping at the trio of Legendaries in stunned disbelief.

Ho-oh nodded toward us, then took a slow, cautious step towards Moltres, leaning down to tap its beak against the smaller firebird’s shoulder.

“Can you hear me?” it asked.

Moltres stirred slightly. “*What’s going on…?*” it mumbled. “*Everything hurts…*”

“Easy,” Ho-oh said in a calm, measured voice. “You’re safe now.”

Moltres took several slow, shuddering breaths, struggling to fold its wings and pull its talons under its body. Then its eyes shot open. “*Wait, what?*” It glanced down at itself frantically, flames intensifying with a crackle. Then it threw an incredulous look back at Ho-oh, eyes wide with shock. “*I’m… how?*”

“The humans no longer control you. You are free now.”

The flames slowly lowered to a calm smolder. Moltres blinked a few times, lost for words.

“How are you feeling?” Ho-oh asked.

Moltres opened its beak to answer, but then it tilted its head at Ho-oh, squinting at the larger phoenix like it had only just realized something. “*Why are you speaking as though—?*” And then the firebird paused sharply, its eyes tracing the clearing and the humans standing nearby. It tensed, letting the flames on its body flare up once again. I felt a sudden desire to melt into the ground.

“Ah. That would be why,” Moltres said dryly, and it took me a second to realize that it had switched from Pokéspeech to common. “Seems we have humans in our midst.” It turned back to face Ho-oh. “Why is this acceptable?”

“These humans freed you from your capture,” the larger phoenix replied simply.

Moltres glanced back at us once more, narrowing its eyes. “I see. I would like to leave now.”

“You can if you must, but I would quite prefer if you’d remain,” Ho-oh said, closing its eyes matter-of-factly.

Moltres didn’t respond to that. But it also didn’t move. It just sat there, eyeing us suspiciously. I kept my eyes on the ground to avoid making eye contact.

Ho-oh turned to face the rest of us, the four humans standing at the edge of the trees. “I must thank you all for your assistance.” Its gaze fell on me, and I couldn’t help shrinking back a bit. “I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance,” the phoenix said, bowing its head. “You are aligned with my sibling, are you not?”

I blinked in surprise. It took me a second to realize it was talking about my chosen pact with Lugia. “Oh, uh, that’s right.” Unsure of what else to do, I bowed back and said, “It’s nice to meet you?”

Ho-oh nodded. “Likewise.”

“Where are my siblings?” Moltres spoke up suddenly, its expression somewhat conflicted.

Ho-oh shifted its wings uncomfortably. “Articuno is still within their grasp. We weren’t given an opportunity to free them like we were with you.”

Moltres was silent for several seconds. “I see…” it said, the emotion in its voice hard to place. It then glanced at each of the Legendaries in turn. “And what of Zapdos? Were they not a part of this effort?”

Ho-oh’s face fell. It glanced back at Mew imploringly.

<Zapdos has… not been speaking with me,> she said softly, curling her tail around herself.

Moltres blinked, and this time it was easier to see the heaviness that had taken hold in its eyes. But then its gaze hardened, and it said, “Never mind them. What happens next?”

<Well… now that we’ve freed you, we’ll be setting our sights on freeing the others,> Mew said. She gestured for Ajia to step forward, who did so with all the confidence of someone who wasn’t surrounded by Legendaries.

“The Rockets still have four Legendaries in their possession,” Ajia explained. “We’re not going to stop until we’ve freed them all. If we can pull it off, that will definitely prevent the war, won’t it?”

<That’s optimistic,> Lugia said with a snort.

<We need the optimism,> Mew replied, giving the dragon-bird a hard look.

“Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” Ho-oh said, considering her carefully. “But we must also prepare for the worst—if we are unable to prevent the war, we must ensure that the pact is completed. It may become difficult to locate more suitable candidates. We will have to take that into consideration.”

Moltres glanced between the other legends, mulling something over in its mind. “Still aiming to fulfill the chosen pact, are you?”

<Of course,> Mew said, as though nothing were more obvious. <Why would we stray from that path now?>

“Hm,” Moltres just said, disapproval crossing its face. “And how do any of you know that your… selected humans will remain by your side when this conflict escalates and their small lives are threatened?” I couldn’t help but notice its eyes briefly slide toward me.

Mew shook her head. <Moltres. You are like the rest of us. You’ll have to select an interloper eventually.>

The firebird narrowed its eyes. “So you say. I still am not convinced that humans possess the resolve necessary for something like this.”

<The humans freed you,> Mew pointed out.

Moltres tossed its head indignantly. “Your point? It’s one thing to naïvely charge forward into danger with no grasp of what it means. It’s another thing to see the reality of it, and to continue putting one’s life on the line.”

I… hated to admit it, but Moltres’s words did strike a chord inside me. It had been easy to agree to joining the Rebellion, knowing that it was dangerous, but not truly grasping the reality of risking my life for this cause. It had been a lot harder to keep pressing on after seeing that reality firsthand. But… I’d done it anyway. And I wasn’t exactly the strongest-willed person around. That had to count for something, right?

But no one had said anything to the contrary, so Moltres gave a smug grin and went on, “Humans don’t have the resolve necessary for something like this. They lack passion.”

“You’re wrong.”

Just those two words brought the world crashing to a halt. Everyone’s eyes widened in shock, even Moltres’s. I whirled around to locate the source… and saw the one person whose expression was one of anger rather than shock.

It was Rudy. Rudy was the one who had said it.

Moltres blinked, clearly not used to having a human talk back to it. “Excuse me?” it said, slowly striding across the clearing. A chill ran through me as the great firebird towered over Rudy, bearing down on him.

Rudy took a deep breath to steel himself and then said, “You’re wrong about humans. We’re not gonna run away just because it’s dangerous. We already know what’s at stake. We’ve been a part of this for too long.” There was pain in his words. That heaviness that I knew all too well.

“There is no true reason for you to be involved in this war,” Moltres said, waving a wing dismissively. “I cannot expect you to risk your life for this cause when you could leave at any time with no personal cost.”

Rudy clenched his fists. “What’ll it take for me to prove it?”

Moltres tilted its head at him, bemused. “Is… is that a challenge?”

“I guess it is,” Rudy said with a forced laugh. Like he wasn’t really planning on it, but wasn’t about to back down now.

The firebird stared blankly, almost like it was having a hard time processing his reaction. “Do you… honestly believe you can defeat me?”

He scoffed. “Like that matters to me.”

Moltres paused, and for once, it didn’t have an immediate comeback. Several seconds passed. Then, the firebird began to laugh. “I like that. Alright. Come at me, then.”

Rudy was going to fight Moltres. What even was any of this. My brain refused to accept it, even though I’d seen the entire conversation leading up to it.

<Is this really necessary?> Lugia asked, taking a step forward.

“You’re invited to keep quiet,” Moltres snapped. Lugia rolled its eyes, but said nothing.

Rudy spun around and let out his team. Six Pokéballs opened with a flash and materialized into Fearow, Raichu, Tauros, Nidoking, Ebony, and Pupitar. All six of them immediately snapped their attention to the huge fiery Legendary standing right in front of them, varying degrees of fear and awe crossing their features.

“In case some of you didn’t know, we freed Moltres from the Rockets,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder unnecessarily. “Except now it apparently doesn’t think we’re good enough to help it.” (Moltres raised a brow at that, but didn’t interject.) “Who wants to show it that we know what we’re getting into?”

Ebony’s mouth hung open, stars in her eyes. Raichu gave a devilish smirk, sparks leaping from her cheeks. Nidoking cocked an eyebrow but put up his fists just the same. Pupitar didn’t complain, which was about as close to a yes as she ever gave. Tauros glanced uncertainly at Moltres. He hadn’t been on the team during the Rebellion days; seeing Legendaries in person was totally new to him. And the idea of fighting them had to be equally weird. But after several seconds’ hesitation, the bull’s eyes sharpened. He pawed the ground and let out a snort, leveling his horns at the Legendary.

And in the midst of them all, Fearow glanced back and forth at her teammates incredulously. She drew herself back, ruffling her feathers. “*I’m out. This is crazy.*”

Rudy closed his eyes. “That’s fine. I’m the crazy one here,” he said, taking her Pokéball in his hand. He gave her a soft look. “But I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

Fearow scoffed, turning away dismissively. But then she glanced back at him out of the corner of her eye with just the slightest bit of uncertainty. Rudy held out the ball, and she snapped her gaze to him.

“*Stop,*” Fearow said sharply. “*You’re right.*” She took a deep breath, throwing a sideways glance at Pupitar. “*No regrets this time.*”

Rudy nodded forcefully, replacing her Pokéball on his belt. Then he spun around to face Moltres and said, “We’re ready.”

Such conviction,” the firebird said mockingly. But then it crouched low and spread its wings, flames intensifying with a crackle.

Rudy pointed forward and the team leaped into action—Nidoking and Raichu firing off bolts of lightning, Fearow letting blades of wind fly from her wingtips, Ebony barking out a pulsing wave of dark energy, Tauros charging powerfully, sparks coursing through his mane. Moltres lazily waved a wing to raise a wall of flame in front of its face, blocking the attacks. It then swept both wings forward, unleashing a hail of fireballs from its blazing feathers.

“Fearow, Nidoking, shield the others with Protect!” Rudy yelled.

The two of them banded together in the center with practiced coordination, and everyone else didn’t waste a second ducking behind the duo. Flames spilled out around the pair of shields, the entire group of Pokémon flinching from the waves of heat that scorched the air. I stepped back instinctively, but the fireballs rebounded off a psychic barrier that Mew had raised to keep the forest around us from catching fire.

“What sort of conviction does it take to risk your companions in a pointless battle?” Moltres called out. “What does this say of you?”

Rudy clenched his teeth, glaring at the Legendary. “They’ve got the same conviction as me. We’ve all got each other’s back; we all make each other stronger.”

“Such statements are meaningless,” Moltres said with a scoff. “Any risk you would take is borne by them, not you!”

The hail of fireballs lessened. But before any of them could prepare for another attack, Moltres swept its wings together, and another wall of flames burst up from the ground, right in front of Rudy’s team. The firebird stared down at them with a smirk as though daring them to break past the wall.

“Fearow, carry Raichu over the flames!” Rudy yelled.

Fearow paused just long enough to let Raichu leap onto her back before flapping harder to gain altitude. The electric-type leaped down from above, landing on Moltres’s back and discharging a flood of lightning. The firebird squinted for a moment as the electricity surged through its body. It began to glow. Then a beam of red shot forward, dissolving Raichu just seconds before flames erupted from the spot where she’d been standing.

Rudy re-released Raichu next to himself. Moltres snapped its attention to the two, starting slightly upon seeing that its target was standing right next to him. Then its eyes narrowed.

“You think I’ll hold back simply because you’re in the way?” it demanded.

Rudy smirked. “It made you pause, didn’t it?” Did he seriously just say that?

Moltres’s eyes went wide for a second. And in that moment’s hesitation, Nidoking burst up from the dirt, horn already crackling with electricity. A bolt of lightning shot through the Legendary. Moltres kicked the ground-type away, annoyed, but then Tauros slammed into it at full force, sparks leaping from his mane.

“I’ve made that mistake before,” Rudy muttered, staring downward, fists clenched. “I put my Pokémon at risk when I wasn’t willing to do the same for him. I’m not letting anything like that happen ever again.”

Moltres tilted its head incredulously, but then the corners of its beak turned up. “Oh? Then how will you protect them? How will you protect anyone? What strength can the legends possibly derive from you?”

“I…”—he grit his teeth—“I can’t answer that.”

Moltres smirked. “Better find an answer, then.” It unleashed another torrent of fire. “Before my patience is through!”

This time Ebony leaped in front, struggling to shield her teammates. Her pelt glowed red, absorbing the flames, but it was too much for her. Fearow flapped her wings, trying in vain to blow away the wall of fire. Raichu retaliated with bursts of lightning. It wasn’t enough. Ebony let out a whimper and sank to the ground. Nidoking struggled to raise a Protect, but it hadn’t been long enough since the last time he’d used it. The barrier flickered with the heat of the flames, then sputtered and died. The lineup broke, Nidoking retreating underground and Raichu hopping on Tauros’s back to escape the Flamethrower.

“I suppose you think that teaching this lot a few amusing tricks makes you worth something, is that it?” Moltres asked, its eyes lit with anticipation. Like it couldn’t wait to see how he’d respond.

But Rudy didn’t give an answer. He just kept his eyes on his team and called out, “Tauros, power up Raichu; Fearow, cover them with Mirror Move!”

Sparks coursed through Tauros’s mane, this time flowing into Raichu. She used the boost to fire off another lightning bolt, twice as thick as the last one. Moltres’s eyes twitched from the hit, and it swept another wing forward, sending more fireballs raining down from above. Fearow copied its motions exactly—a shimmering, reflective surface trailed from her wings, spawning an identical barrage to intercept Moltres’s attack. Nidoking used that opportunity to emerge from underground and fire off yet another Thunderbolt at the Legendary.

“Enough!” Moltres snapped, stamping the ground with a talon. The dirt began to glow.

“Get back!” Rudy yelled.

Fearow shot toward him with a Quick Attack while Tauros and Nidoking dashed after her. Seconds later, flames erupted from the ground where they’d been standing. Rudy staggered backward, shielding his face from the waves of hot air rushing outward. Even from where I was standing, the heat was stifling.

Finally, the flames cleared. I could see Tauros panting hard, Raichu clinging to his mane. Nidoking holding a tuckered-out Ebony under one arm. Fearow landing next to them, feathers scorched. They were still standing. But only because Moltres wasn’t remotely using its full power. How long until it got bored with this game? What would it do then? It wouldn’t… actually attack Rudy, would it? Mew would put a stop to things if it came to that… right?

Moltres chuckled lowly. “Such passion you instill in your comrades. Truly a sight to behold.” Its eyes scanned Rudy’s battered and tired lineup… and settled on Pupitar, who hadn’t moved this entire time.

“What of this one?” Moltres asked, cocking its head. “Has your stirring inspiration failed to move them?” It would’ve been easy to miss the way Pupitar’s eyes twitched slightly at the Legendary’s words.

Rudy scowled. “Leave her alone, she can do what she wants.”

“Oh? What happened to your talk of shared conviction?” Moltres asked eagerly. “Clearly you are not the great motivator you believe yourself to be.”

Rudy opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then clenched his teeth and remained silent. His team glared daggers at the firebird, but none of them had the strength to do anything about it.

At least, not until Pupitar hopped in front of all of them, facing down Moltres alone.

Rudy stared. “You don’t…” he struggled to find the words. “You don’t have to if you don’t wanna.” But Pupitar didn’t acknowledge that he’d said anything.

“Am I wrong?” Moltres asked her. “Why don’t you show me?”

Without warning, Pupitar fired a burst of gas and shot forward, plowing into the firebird’s belly. Moltres stopped laughing. The Legendary opened its beak and retaliated with a vicious Flamethrower, completely enveloping the rock-type in an overwhelming blaze.

“Use Protect!” Rudy yelled.

A shimmering white barrier formed around the pupa’s body, but the swirling torrent of fire completely surrounded her on all sides, immobilizing her. It was only a matter of time before the Protect shattered from sheer force of it, and then what? Moltres grinned wildly, adding more and more fire to the vortex. Flames spilled out around the barrier relentlessly. Pupitar’s armor glowed white-hot from the heat.

Wait. That glow. It wasn’t the heat—Pupitar’s body was glowing by itself. With a resounding crack, her armor split open. Arms and legs shot out, claws digging into the dirt. Rows upon rows of spikes erupted though the shell. Moltres paused its fire breath, staring down at its opponent with intrigue. Where there had once been a limbless pupa, a rock-armored beast slowly raised herself from the dirt, shaking bits of broken armor to the ground. Her eyes snapped open. She looked down at herself, flexing her claws experimentally.

She’d evolved. She’d evolved!! I didn’t think she’d have the strength to pull that off for several more months. Maybe it was the sheer pressure of fighting a Legendary. Maybe it was the force of taking Moltres’s attack. Maybe it was determination alone. But however it happened, she’d evolved.

All five of her teammates suddenly broke into wild cheering—Ebony practically jumping for joy in spite of her burns and Nidoking pounding his chest wildly and Raichu firing sparks into the air. Rudy stared at the dinosaur, eyes wide with awe and pride. Finally he jumped several feet into the air, throwing both arms up. “I told you you could do it! I told you! You did it!”

And then Pupitar, or rather Tyranitar—who had always looked perpetually bored with everything, even battling—flashed a toothy grin back at them all and said, “*I like this.*”

And then she charged forward. Every footfall sent jagged blades of stone ripping up from the earth, and for the first time, I saw a flicker of alarm in Moltres’s eyes before the Stone Edge dug into its body. The firebird recoiled backwards, screeching in pain and rage before unleashing an explosive burst of flame, shattering the stones to bits and consuming Tyranitar in a whirlwind of fire. The rock-type stood her ground, pushing on through the raging inferno. Raising both arms straight up, she pulled a hail of boulders from the dirt and sent them crashing into Moltres.

But the tips of Tyranitar’s spikes had started to melt away. The rock-type sank to her knees. She glanced back at Rudy, and his hand hovered over his Pokéball belt.

Tyranitar shook her head. “*Not yet. Took this long to get this body. Might as well see what it can do.*” She stomped the ground again and more rocks exploded up from under Moltres. The Legendary easily could have avoided the rocks. But it didn’t. Almost like it was making a point by sitting there and taking them. Stones dug into it over and over, but it kept up the relentless stream of fire, waiting until Tyranitar was doubled over, panting hard. The dinosaur screwed her eyes shut, digging her claws into the dirt. One last rock ripped itself from the ground, smacking Moltres in the side of the face. Then another fireball and she was down. Sprawled out on the dirt, the faintest trace of a grin still visible on her face.

“You were badass, Tyranitar,” Rudy whispered before recalling her in a beam of red light.

They’d lost. Well, there was never any question that they would. But Rudy didn’t seem bothered by that fact. He’d known full well there was zero chance of him coming out ahead, and he’d done it anyway, and he obviously wanted it to mean something, though I wasn’t sure what.

Moltres took several slow, menacing steps forward, eyes glued to Rudy the entire time. Part of me wanted to run over to him, but the other part was glued to the spot, unable to do anything but watch.

“I should kill you for such a foolish move,” it said poisonously, looming over him.

Rudy craned his neck upward to glare at the phoenix, defiance written all over his face. “I thought you wanted to see some passion. Now you’re saying it’s foolish?”

Moltres laughed, and the sound echoed around us with an eerie reverberating quality.

Rudy wasn’t fazed. “I want to make a difference. So if you won’t believe me, then let me prove that humans aren’t weak.”

The firebird tilted its head back, looking genuinely surprised. “Such conviction… but I wonder… will it be able to endure the flames of war?”

Rudy grinned. “We’ll find out, won’t we?”

Moltres opened its eyes wide as though it had been slapped, but then immediately broke into reverberating laughter once more. “Speaking as though I have already decided?! Ha! Very well! Let us see how you handle it!”

And in a flash, Rudy was completely engulfed in flames.

“Rudy!!” I screamed, eyes wide, but then Ajia held me back with a knowing look.

“Just watch,” she said quietly.

Just watch?! Just watch as Rudy was—wait. The flames swirled around in a vortex, sending waves of heat radiating around the clearing. Every few seconds, a gap appeared, and I caught a glimpse of him in the center. Face scrunched up in pain, but still standing, not charred to ash. And then I saw myself in his shoes, that moment when I felt myself torn apart as Lugia and I were joined together.

Mew had to stop Rudy’s team from rushing in to pull him from the flames. They all stared at her wide-eyed as she explained. Rudy was on his knees now, fists clenched at his side. Moltres’s eyes were closed in deep concentration. A faint red glow emanated from the firebird, visible even through all the firelight.

And then, in a flash, the flames cleared. Moltres’s eyes snapped open. Rudy fell forward onto all fours, breathing hard. At once, his team crowded around him, Nidoking helping him stand while Ebony nuzzled his side.

“What… what the hell just happened?” Rudy asked, sounding dazed.

Moltres folded its wings, peering down at him. “You wanted the chance to prove yourself. You have gotten it. You are now my chosen. You will fight by my side until the end of the war.”

He grinned weakly. “Sounds good.”

“Do not take this commitment lightly,” Moltres snapped, its voice heating up.

Rudy’s expression sharpened. “That’s not it. I know it’s a big deal.” His eyes slid to the ground. “I just… I know I’ll be able to help out a lot more if I combine my strength with yours. This is my chance to do something right. I wanna feel good about it.”

Moltres considered his response carefully. Finally it nodded and straightened itself, glancing around at the rest of us for the first time in a while. All of us were frozen, staring at the two of them with varying degrees of shock.

“So. I’ve sealed my pact, as you wished,” Moltres announced, throwing a sideways glance at Mew. “Does this satisfy you?”

Mew chuckled slightly. <There’s no need to put it like that,> she said with a smile. <But yes… I’m glad.>

Lugia gave an unimpressed snort. <So I suppose we are completely throwing secrecy to the winds, then?>

Mew curled her tail around herself. <For our missions to work from now on, we might have to. It was a great advantage in rescuing Moltres, but now the Rockets know that their enemies are getting help from the legends, one way or another.>

Lugia squinted at her. <Need I remind you that you were the one so insistent on keeping the secrecy in the first place?>

<I know…> she said, closing her eyes. <Times have changed.> She refused to look at Lugia.

<Why are you so worried about secrecy, anyway?> I asked Lugia privately. <I understand that it’s dangerous to let too many people too close, but everyone in our group has already proved they’re trying to help, haven’t they?>

Lugia was silent for some time, its mind flitting between two different things. It felt conflicted. <With humans, you can never know when they will turn on you. The Order has already learned that lesson the hard way.>

I blinked. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to take that. <So what you’re saying is, you don’t trust us.>

A prickle of annoyance. <You have had more dealings with humans than I. Can you honestly say that they have never betrayed you?>

I paused. Memories from last year surfaced in my mind. I’d trusted that Stalker wanted to help the Legendaries, and that had turned out to be a lie. Lugia must have sensed my doubts, because I felt a wisp of self-satisfaction from it.

<No. I can’t. But…> But I didn’t have a good argument. There wasn’t much point in continuing this conversation, so I decided to drop it for now.

“Today has brought us not one, but two great victories,” Ho-oh said, nodding toward Rudy and Moltres. “I wish you both nothing but the best.”

Moltres tossed its head indifferently. “So what next?”

Next? After everything we’d been through today, the idea of there even being a ‘next’ was too exhausting to think about.

Fortunately, Ajia was on the same page. She jumped in with, “We’ve all had a long day. We should call it a night; worry about tomorrow when it comes, alright?” She looked up at the Legendaries imploringly.

Mew nodded. <I agree. You all deserve rest.>

Thank god. Even if we’d be sleeping in tiny cabin bunks as opposed to the plush beds in the hotel room back at Indigo, it still sounded like heaven after all this. And… some of us had gone through more than others.

I glanced back at Rudy. He was giving his team a reassuring smile as he talked with them, having to hold Ebony down from licking his face repeatedly.

“You guys were awesome, you know that?” I said as I walked over. Ebony beamed up at me while Fearow closed her eyes with just the slightest bit of a self-satisfied grin. Rudy smiled faintly, holding a hand against his temple. I couldn’t help noticing him swaying a bit, like he might lose his balance at any moment.

“Hey, so… congrats,” I added, unsure if that was an appropriate thing to say in this situation. “How you feeling?”

“It’s wild,” Rudy said distantly. “I saw… things.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. All the negative emotions associated with the fight, all at once—that’s what he’d just had to endure. Having gone through that myself, I couldn’t blame him for feeling out of it.

Rudy finally opened his eyes, forcing a smile. “I made a lot of stupid mistakes, huh?”

“We all did,” I said slowly. “You could say that joining the Rebellion was the stupidest mistake of all.”

Rudy shook his head. “That’s the one thing I don’t regret. I mean… I know what it led to. But that was my fault. Just joining the team in the first place? I don’t regret that.”

I paused, meeting his eye. “Me neither.”

As we walked toward the edge of the clearing, I happened to glance over and see Darren leaning against a tree, hands buried in his pockets and an awkward look plastered on his face.

“Right, so… this is a thing, I guess,” he said with a forced laugh, his eyes tracing the various Legendaries still standing around the clearing, discussing things amongst each other. “Should I really be here?”

“Why the hell not?” Rudy asked heatedly. “You’re on our team, aren’t you?”

Darren chuckled. “The Rebellion ended a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Rudy said, waving a hand like he didn’t want to hear it. “The Rebellion’s over but that Rocket mess is still happening, yeah? That didn’t magically go away.”

Darren gave a noncommittal shrug. Then his eyes fell on me, and he gave me a curious look. “So Jade… you’re obviously one of the ones who’s allowed to be here, I guess. Did you… make a deal with one of them?”

I swallowed. No point in hiding it. “Yeah.” Rudy snapped his head toward me in surprise—he must not have pieced that together yet.

“Which one?” Darren asked.

“Huh?” I hadn’t been expecting that question to sound so casual. “Oh, uh… Lugia.”

He folded his arms behind his head and gave a crooked smile. “You know, that’s pretty sweet.”

I had a hard time framing it like that, but... yeah. It kind of was.

“Wait, seriously? You’re partnered with Lugia?!” Rudy exclaimed, and his tone ripped me back to a distant time. Back when he’d gush about meeting Legendaries and proving himself to them. Back before the weight of the world had crashed down on us.

Unsure of how else to respond, I just said, “Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Rudy demanded.

I almost laughed out loud. “Why do you think? I wasn’t allowed to, that’s why.”

He scowled. “That’s dumb, why not?”

I opened my mouth to speak… and then realized that Moltres really hadn’t explained much of anything about the chosen pact to Rudy. Maybe it planned on doing so privately later. Either way, silly as it was, Rudy had a point. While it made sense that we couldn’t go blabbing Legendary secrets to the world, I was absolutely fed up with keeping secrets from friends and allies. No more.

“You’re right. I guess it was dumb.”

Rudy nodded sharply like he’d sure showed me. Like I hadn’t just agreed with him.

“C’mon, let’s head back now. You look like you’re about to pass out,” Darren said.

“I’m just fine,” Rudy snapped. Nidoking rolled his eyes at that, as he was probably the only thing keeping his trainer standing.

It had been a very, very long day. But in the end, I couldn’t help feeling pretty okay about how it had all turned out.






~End Chapter 39~

Next Chapter: Sebastian's here. And he has news for everyone.
 
Chapter 40: Crisis in Hoenn
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With this chapter, we've hit an important milestone. LC is officially halfway done. It's wild to finally be at this point. Is everyone ready? Let's dive in~



~Chapter 40: Crisis in Hoenn~



By the end of the night, Mew had teleported the other Legendaries back to their respective homes. It was kind of strange to feel Lugia’s restless, distracted mind slowly settle into a calm, gentle flow, almost like a river slowing down. The feeling was… relaxing in a way. If Lugia could sleep soundly, then so could I.

Ajia showed us the barn behind the cabin, which was set up as a Pokémon sleeping quarters, and everyone let their teams out for the night (with a few exceptions like Pichu, who preferred to stay with their trainers). Then we were finally free to head inside and get ready to crash. My head hit the pillow and I was out almost immediately.

Then, what felt like seconds later, a high-pitched cry jerked me awake.

“What the heck…” I muttered to myself, burying my head under the pillow. The noise didn’t stop. And then, for whatever reason, my brain finally processed that it was Latias’s voice.

“Latias?” I blurted out, sitting up straight and blinking in the darkness. Then the light switch flipped on and I had to shield my face from the sudden brightness assaulting my eyes. Squinting through nearly-closed eyelids, I could just barely make out the crimson dragon flying circles near the ceiling.

“*There’s an intruder!*” she cried.

An intruder? What? Who? The Rockets? How did they find us here? Did they follow us? Were we under attack?

“Who is it?” I asked her.

“*It’s him! The one who stole my brother!*” the dragon cried.

My heart skipped a beat. Stalker? Stalker was here? No way. I hadn’t seen him in over nine months. I was hoping I could just forget about him. What on earth was he doing here? Why now?

I rubbed my eyes aggressively until I was finally able to see, then threw a glance at Ajia and Starr. Ajia already had a look of deep concentration as she spoke mind-to-mind with Mew. Starr’s eyes were screwed shut, and she looked tired enough to murder someone for more sleep.

“Someone gonna tell me what the hell is—”

“Sebastian,” Ajia cut in.

Starr’s eyes snapped open. “What the hell is he doing here?” she said.

“Guess we’re about to find out,” Ajia said, jumping to her feet. She paused long enough for Pichu to leap onto her shoulder before bolting out the door. With a heavy groan, Starr followed.

I leapt out of bed and glanced around for Chibi… and then remembered that he and the rest of my team were back at the main ranger station. Dammit. I mean, I’d had to, they were injured, but still, dammit. Then again, it wasn’t like we had any reason to expect a fight… right?

I rushed down the stairs, my head a confused, distorted mess of conflicting emotions. Stalker was here, and I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to feel about that. Wary? Anxious? Scared? Angry? This wasn’t how I’d imagined things would be the next time I saw him. But what had I imagined? That we’d somehow get the chance to talk things out and come to an understanding? Of course that was unrealistic. But had I wanted that?

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I registered the fact that we were running downstairs to confront a Rocket commander while wearing pajamas. So now embarrassment could get added to that pile of conflicting emotions.

My footsteps slowed as I reached the ground floor. The front door was open, light spilling out into the front walkway; Ajia and Starr were out on the steps. And there he was, right in front of us. Former leader of the Rebellion. Current head of the Johto combat unit. The one who’d used us for months, playing with our lives, all just to serve his power play with the Kanto force. Standing out there in a long, white executive’s coat, arms folded behind his back, Charizard sitting calmly at his side. He raised his hands disarmingly, casting an amused glance around at the lineup of both human and Pokémon that had rushed out to confront him.

“I believe congratulations are in order,” he said. “You all did quite the masterful job stealing Moltres from the Kanto force.”

Part of me wanted to say something. It had been over nine months since I’d last seen him. Nine months since he’d abruptly gone from trusted ally to cold manipulator in the span of a single night. But the words wouldn’t come.

“What do you want, Sebastian?” Ajia asked, her voice tired and exasperated. Pichu punctuated her words with a jolt of sparks.

“Wait… Stalker? He’s the one you’re all so worked up about?” a voice called out.

I spun around to see the two faces that weren’t scowling at him: Rudy gaping incredulously and Darren squinting like he was trying to put together what was going on.

“What are you doing here, man?” Rudy asked, taking a few steps forward.

“More like what the hell are you doing here,” Starr snapped.

Rudy froze, staring at her in bewilderment. He glanced back and forth between Stalker and me, waiting for answers.

Oh geez, he didn’t know. I’d never told him. He had no idea that Stalker wasn’t on our side after all. On top of that, I could now see a couple of Rudy and Darren’s Pokémon inching into view from around the side of the cabin, looking equally confused. Ebony and Weavile in particular were frozen mid-step, like they’d been about to run over and say hi until everyone started acting so hostile.

I made eye contact with Rudy and frantically shook my head back and forth while swiping a hand from side to side. But he just stared back, completely oblivious. Darren seemed to realize what I was getting at though. He grabbed Rudy’s shoulder, and when the latter turned toward him in confusion, he just shook his head and put a finger over his mouth.

“There’s no need for hostility. I’ve just come to talk,” Stalker said.

“You’ve got some nerve showing up here like this and expecting a warm welcome,” Ajia said coolly. Starr distinctly looked like she was holding back from saying much harsher things.

And then out of nowhere, Latias shot forward, stopping right in front of him and staring him straight in the eyes. “*Let my brother go!*”

Stalker stared back, unflinching. “I’m afraid that I can’t do that. I still need to utilize his strength for my plans.”

“*How is what you’re doing any different from what they’re doing?!*” she cried, voice breaking slightly.

Stalker closed his eyes in frustration. “I am not going to explain this again. I need Latios. Now do you want to hear what I have to say or not?”

Latias drew herself back, eyes wide and shining. And for a second, I was half-convinced that she was about to attack him. But then she screwed her eyes shut and bolted away from him, ducking behind Mew, who was hovering over Ajia’s head, watching him carefully.

“I believe your other Legendary allies will want to hear this. Why don’t you bring them here?” Stalker offered.

“You really think we’ll fall for that?” Ajia asked, raising an eyebrow.

“They have nothing to fear from me,” he said simply. “I’m the one who’s outmatched here.”

It didn’t… seem like he was lying. After all, what could he possibly do to us when he was so ridiculously outnumbered? Heck, even without the Legendaries, all Starr had to do was snap her fingers and her team would be on him in an instant. And from the look on her face, she was about five seconds away from doing just that.

Ajia let out a sigh, then glanced over at Mew and nodded. The psychic cat considered her carefully, then nodded back and vanished. Several seconds passed. I felt a sudden spike of irritation in the back of my mind as Mew no doubt had just invaded Lugia’s sanctum. Another minute passed, and Mew suddenly reappeared, this time joined by three gigantic birds—Lugia looking cross, Ho-oh concerned, and Moltres intrigued.

“Who is this human?” Moltres asked once it had gotten a good look at the standoff. “If he has stolen the power of a legend, why do we not simply kill him?”

Stalker stared unflinchingly up at the firebird. “Killing me won’t free Latios. It would only ensure that you never find him. And I have information that you require.”

“Bold of you to assume I would not kill you anyway,” Moltres said coolly.

“I would not have come here if I hadn’t prepared for that possibility.” The unspoken implication was clear—he knew for a fact that his life was not in danger.

Moltres considered him for some time before drawing itself back, looking satisfied. “Very well. Say what you have to say.”

Stalker turned to face the rest of us, surveying the faces on our group. “I’m sure by now you’ve all realized the purpose of the Rockets’ attack on Indigo.”

I hesitated. I thought we knew, but hearing him say it like that, I was suddenly unsure.

“They were… using it as bait to capture the other Legendaries,” I said, eyeing him closely.

Stalker folded his arms behind his back. “That’s one reason, certainly. Far from the main one, however.”

“So quit playing your dumbass games and tell us already,” Starr spat.

He made eye contact with Starr briefly, looking vaguely amused by her wording, before turning his gaze back to Ajia. “It’s more that they wished to draw attention away from something else.”

“So it was a distraction,” Ajia said flatly. Stalker nodded.

Nothing but a distraction. God, that explained everything. No wonder the mission didn’t make any sense. Trying to lure the others into a trap and capture them? And sending only a single squad of Rockets with two executives to do it? What a joke. Of course the Rockets didn’t really have an agenda at Indigo. No wonder it felt like the attack just kept going for hours with no end goal, more about putting on a spectacle than actually accomplishing anything. We were idiots.

“What are they really planning?” I asked, a sinking feeling building in my stomach.

Even after all this time, I had no trouble spotting that subtle gleam in his eye when I asked that. Like he was already relishing the chance to explain. I hated it—all it did was remind me of how I thought I knew him.

“The attack on Viridian last year put the Rockets in a dangerous position,” Stalker began slowly, carefully watching for our reactions, “and without Mewtwo, it would be too difficult for them to proceed with their plans, unless they manage to obtain a weapon on par with Mewtwo.”

A Legendary Pokémon… on par with Mewtwo? Did such a Pokémon exist?

“What, so like Mew?” I asked with a glance back at the psychic cat.

“Mewtwo was engineered to be stronger than Mew,” Starr cut in, folding her arms. “And Mew is too difficult to hunt down. Trust me, it’s not Mew.”

<Some Legendary Pokémon are more powerful than others,> Mew explained, gesturing to Lugia and Ho-oh. <They are the higher legends. It’s likely that Mewtwo matches even them in strength.>

That some Legendaries were even stronger than the rest… the idea had honestly never even occurred to me. Then again, it made sense, thinking back to when Lugia had attacked Viridian—Articuno and Moltres had barely been able to put a scratch on it. But somehow it was comforting that, as powerful as Mewtwo was, he wasn’t stronger than the higher legends. His power wasn’t unprecedented.

<Let them try for me. I dare them,> Lugia said coldly.

Ho-oh gave the silver bird a tired look. “It’s not wise to tempt fate.”

Stalker shook his head. “Fortunately, neither of you is the target,” he said matter-of-factly. “The Rockets have set their sights on Hoenn.”

A heavy silence fell over the surrounding. Slowly, each of us turned toward Latias, whose eyes had gone wide with dread.

“*What do you mean?*” she asked, her voice quivering slightly.

Stalker paused for several seconds, waiting until all eyes were back on him. Satisfied that he had everyone’s attention, he went on, “They’re going to reawaken Groudon and Kyogre.”

Groudon… and… Kyogre? I’d… vaguely heard of them. Ancient gods of Hoenn, or something like that? Not exactly the kind of Legendaries that anyone ever saw.

Latias was still staring. “*But… how? They’d need the red and blue orbs, but... those are…*”

“Currently held inside the Magma and Aqua bases, yes,” Stalker finished. “The Rockets aim to steal them.”

“Wait, wait wait wait,” I said, grabbing my forehead while I tried to make sense of this sudden revelation. “What the heck are you guys talking about? Orbs? Reawaken?”

Latias paused, realizing that the rest of us had no idea. She tapped her claws together and said, “*Two years ago, there was a terrible event in my home region. You might have heard of it—the humans called it the Hoenn weather crisis.*”

Okay, that definitely sounded familiar. Memories of seeing footage of a crazy weather catastrophe on the news suddenly drifted back to me. Supposedly caused by a gang of environmental extremists, although how exactly they’d been able to cause such a thing had always been conveniently danced around.

“*Two rival organizations sought to shape the Hoenn region in their own image,*” she went on. “*One sought to expand the land; the other, the sea. So they set their sights on awakening the ancient gods Groudon and Kyogre, to realize their dream.*” She paused, shivering. “*But… that dream would have been nothing but an unending hell for the world.*”

I stared at her, a chill running down my spine. “Are you saying that Team Rocket’s trying to recreate that disaster?”

“Only as long as it takes to capture them,” Stalker said simply.

I gaped at him, still struggling to process the weight of it all. “And these Magma and Aqua guys… we’ve gotta deal with them now?”

Latias frowned. “*I… don’t believe so. When the Hoenn region was in crisis, both teams’ leaders saw the error of their ways, and lent their efforts toward sealing Groudon and Kyogre once more. After the crisis was resolved, they announced that they wished to make amends, and pushed their organizations in a more respectable direction. Latios and I kept a close eye on them—the Hoenn region has not seen any trouble from them since.*”

“Well they’re gonna be in for a nasty surprise when the Rockets show up on their doorstep,” Ajia said grimly.

“The Rockets have been sending agents to Hoenn, gathering information for months,” Stalker went on, pacing slowly in front of us. “The Indigo attack was only to hide the fact that their entire combat unit began mobilizing yesterday. The mission is already underway. They’ve sent squads to both teams’ headquarters, as well as to the mountain where the two Legendaries now sleep, so I’d recommend splitting up.”

I jolted. “Hang on, what? Right now?! Why didn’t you tell us sooner?!”

“You sent Lexx to warn us but you couldn’t tell us that it was all just a goddamn distraction?” Starr snarled. “You wanted us to fall for it!”

Stalker stared at her, his gaze cold and unyielding. “I need you all to make things more difficult for them. But it wouldn’t do me any good if you stopped them outright before they even started.”

“The hell?!”

Ajia shook her head. “Just like the good old days, huh?” Her tone was disappointed, but unsurprised. “Getting everyone else to do your dirty work. Is that ever going to change?”

“I still need to appear loyal to the boss,” he replied, holding both palms up. “It would be a complete waste if I gave myself away now.”

I was speechless. I wanted to say something. Hell, I almost wanted to lash out like Starr. But all I could do was stare at him in stunned disbelief. It shouldn’t have been surprising. It shouldn’t have. But part of me had still been hoping that Ajia and Starr’s perception of Stalker had been… had been wrong. That the person I’d known on the Rebellion had been real. But no. Stalker was fake. It had only ever been Sebastian.

“You know, I’m surprised to see all of you here together,” Stalker said offhandedly. “Or rather, I’m surprised to see the Legendaries willingly accepting help from humans. Of course, I’m sure at least some of you are here by contract. I wonder which ones.” His eyes lingered on me a little longer than they should have. I kept my expression perfectly neutral.

“Anyway. I have business I need to attend to,” he said, turning to walk away, Charizard following close behind. “I expect I’ll be seeing you all in Hoenn soon. After all,”—he turned to face us one last time—“the clock is ticking.”

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

“What the hell was any of that?”

Rudy’s voice echoed throughout the yard, the only words anyone had spoken since Stalker had left.

“Like, I don’t even know where to start,” he went on, bracing himself against the side of the cabin. “Why was everyone treating Stalker like a bad guy? Why was he talking like that? What the hell is going on?”

“Your precious rebel team leader is head of the Johto combat unit,” Starr muttered, rubbing her eyes. The anger from Stalker’s arrival had largely worn off, and she mostly just looked exhausted.

Rudy gaped at her. “But… that doesn’t make any sense!”

I felt a nudge at my side; Darren had sidled over to me when I wasn’t looking. “Hey, quick question: when did you find out about that?” he whispered.

I jerked my head toward him. “Eh?”

“Well, you obviously already knew,” he said with a knowing look.

Oh. I guess it was obvious, yeah. I swallowed hard and said, “Last year.”

Darren clicked his tongue. “You could’ve mentioned it.”

I put a hand to my forehead. “I didn’t want to think about it, alright? I was hoping I’d never have to deal with him again, but then all this stuff happened and… yeah.” God, I’d turned into Ajia. When had that happened?

Rudy was pacing back and forth in the driveway, arms swinging at his side. Finally, he snapped his head toward the rest of us and asked, “So what are we gonna do about what he said?”

“Excuse me?” Starr said, staring at him incredulously.

He glanced back and forth between us like we were all insane. “We’re not just gonna let them catch Groudon and Kyogre, are we?”

“Yeah, why don’t you just charge right into an obvious trap. Sure,” Starr said, throwing her arms in the air.

“Starr, I’m not saying we should trust Sebastian or anything—” Ajia began carefully.

“But you’re all just gonna play into his hands like usual,” Starr finished, not bothering to hide the disgusted tone in her voice.

“Look, I was just chosen, alright!” Rudy shot back, giving her a fierce glare. “And I don’t really get what that means yet, but I know I can’t ignore this.”

I was in the same boat as him. I’d only been chosen for… geez, only about four hours longer than him. God, it felt weird putting that in perspective.

“Guess this means we’re getting the rebel team back together then,” Darren said, crossing his arms behind his head. “Unless you don’t need my help? I dunno if I can really measure up now that you’ve got Moltres.” He gave Rudy a sideways glance.

“You’re not getting out of it that easy,” Rudy snapped, grabbing the back of Darren’s shirt before he could walk back inside.

Starr stared at us, shaking her head. “So what am I supposed to do?”

Ajia gave her a soft look. “I’m not gonna pressure you to help us,” she said. “It’s up to you.”

“If I may interject,” a booming voice suddenly said. I looked up to see Ho-oh focusing its large, amber eyes on us. “If you wish to help your companions, you should say so.”

Starr stared up at the legend incredulously. “I don’t want to. I want nothing to do with this stupid war.”

“If that were true, you would not be here,” it said, with a rather matter-of-fact tone.

“The hell do you know?” she snapped.

Ho-oh’s expression was calm, unyielding. “My apologies,” it said, stepping back from us.

Starr’s eyes flickered back and forth between the various Legendaries, eyes narrowing suspiciously. Then she spun around to grab me by the shoulders, and I flinched.

Please tell me you’re not going to do this,” she said, her voice breaking.

I stared back, feeling my heart crumple inward. I didn’t want to do this to her. I really didn’t. But I didn’t have a choice.

“I have to,” I said weakly.

“It’s this stupid chosen thing again, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice low and cold, but with blades of anger digging into it. “Tell me the truth. You were chosen too, weren’t you?”

There it was. She’d already guessed, so there was no use denying it.

I swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

Starr clenched her fists, muttering various obscenities about the Legendaries. She glanced over at Ho-oh. Then to Ajia. Then screwed her eyes shut with a pained expression. “Then. I’m going with you.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off with, “Don’t say anything before I change my mind.”

Unsure of what else to do, I just nodded. There wasn’t anything I could say that would make things better anyway.

“Where are we going, exactly?” I asked, throwing a glance over at the Legendaries. Lugia tilted its head sort of like a shrug and then gave Mew an expectant look.

Mew put a paw to her chin. <Latias, do you know?>

At those words, Latias slowly drifted out through the cabin’s front door, eyes glued to the floor. Several times, she opened her mouth to speak, only for the words to fail. Finally, she managed to say, “*The Magma building is on the slopes of the great volcano, and the Aqua building is off the northeastern shore. I can show them to you, but…*” Her words trailed off. She stared downward, trembling slightly. “*I should have known about this. My home region is under attack and I didn’t even know. What kind of guardian am I?*”

I blinked. “Hey, hey this isn’t your fault,” I said, gently touching her shoulder.

“*This is all so much… I don’t know what to do,*” the dragon cried, burying her face in her claws.

I flashed a helpless expression at Mew. She flew down and embraced Latias, wrapping her arms around the dragon’s neck, and I took a few steps back to give the two some space.

For some time, no one said anything. We just stood there, awkwardly avoiding each other’s eye. It was a weird feeling—the first time an imminent Legendary mission had seemed so… personal.

Ajia watched the two with a solemn look on her face, then turned to the rest of us. “We don’t have much time. Let’s get ready.”

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

After we got dressed, Mew teleported us over to the main Ranger HQ. It was 4 in the morning, so Ajia first had to get someone on night shift to wake her dad up, then he woke up all the other senior rangers onsite. I wasn’t entirely sure, but it looked like she was having him break the news to the others so that she wouldn’t have to explain to everyone why we even knew about this in the first place. Being on a first-name basis with the Johto commander was hardly something to be proud of.

My half-asleep brain was still having a hard time processing the fact that we suddenly had to travel to a region clear on the southern end of the archipelago. It was nuts. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and we hadn’t gotten to fully recover from yesterday, and now this? Why the hell did we have to deal with this now? A voice in the back of my head said that was exactly the reason the Rockets had chosen to execute this mission in the dead of night after mobilizing all their troops while the entire region had its eyes on a Legendary attack. It made perfect sense, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood to admit that.

While struggling just to keep my eyes open, I spotted Starr making a break for the coffee pot, pouring herself a large cup and downing it almost instantly, without even adding any sugar or anything. I wandered over to her, and she must have mistaken that as me wanting to get coffee too, because she poured a second cup and held it out to me.

“I’ll pass,” I said, sticking out my tongue.

“I’ll take it,” Rudy said, suddenly appearing from behind me.

Starr raised an eyebrow, but handed it to him anyway. “Aren’t you like twelve?”

“I’m fourteen,” he snapped, shooting a glare at her.

Starr rolled her eyes—it was clear that she didn’t really see the difference.

“You like that stuff?” I asked, gaping at him as he started chugging it.

He grimaced. “No. But I think I’m gonna need it.” He did proceed to drown it in sugar, though.

Ajia broke off from the gathering of rangers and jogged over to us, moving far more quickly than anyone should at this hour. Her eyes held an obvious tiredness though, like she was forcing herself to be more energetic than she really felt.

“Okay, they’re gonna contact the Sootopolis rangers, have them start evacuating the city. So that’s all good there, I’m gonna see if I can snag some healing supplies for us,” she said, gesturing to a nearby closet. “Something tells me this is gonna be a long fight.”

Good. The last thing I needed was to be stuck with my entire team incapacitated like yesterday. I didn’t exactly have a stash of revive crystals lying around, given how expensive they were. Not that it would have done much to heal the massive wounds that my team had sustained… although it probably would have helped Chibi.

Speaking of my team… I glanced over at the healing station and… yes! A ranger had just walked behind the counter. I practically flew over to it, slamming both hands on the countertop and loudly asking, “Is my team healed?” It had been ten hours or so—that was enough time, right?

The ranger blinked at me in tired confusion. (I guess it was kind of weird for a trainer to be using this facility.) “...Your name?” he asked.

“Jade Arens.”

He shuffled through the Pokéball trays behind the counter before finding a tray with six balls, one of them the telltale black experiment ball.

“Looks like their wounds are closed up, for the most part. They were due for a few more hours on the machine to be back at 100%, but it’s safe to let them out, at least.”

No sooner had he set the tray down had I grabbed all six balls—three in each hand—and ran outside. All six of my Pokémon appeared in flashes of light, and I found myself immediately inspecting them for signs of damage. Jet, Chibi, and Stygian were okay—they’d gotten off easy. Firestorm and Aros had some raw skin where their wounds had closed up but not fully recovered yet. Swift… looked completely fine. Feathers clean, eyes alert, no sign of what had happened.

“Are you guys alright?” I asked.

Swift gave me a curious look while Firestorm stretched widely and yawned.

“*Still sore,*” the Charizard said, inspecting the wingtip that had been torn yesterday. “*At least we all made it out okay.*”

Chibi fixed me with a serious look. “*What about the mission?*” Right, it wasn’t like he could ask the rangers how it went.

“It went fine, Moltres is free, everyone else made it out okay,” I said quickly.

The hybrid eyed me closely. “*Something’s wrong. What is it?*” Of course he’d noticed right away. I don’t know why I expected anything less.

“I’m going on another mission,” I said flatly.

“*Another one?*” Stygian asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Stalker showed up, turns out that the entire Moltres situation was some kind of BS distraction,” I said quickly, trying not to think about it too much because it only made me feel even more frustrated about the way he’d played us for fools. “Two more Legendaries in the Hoenn region are in danger. I need to know who’s not feeling up to it so I know who’s okay to send out.”

“*Which ones?*” Firestorm asked, frowning.

“Groudon and Kyogre.”

Most of them showed no reaction to the names—stories of the two weren’t very common in our region, and that must have gone for both humans and Pokémon. At least… aside from the Floatzel now staring up at me with starry eyes.

“*We’re gonna rescue gods now?*” she said, mouth hanging open.

Ughh, I didn’t want to encourage that line of thinking, but I didn’t have the time or energy to shut it down.

“Yep, we’re rescuing gods. Big important stuff. Is everyone in fighting shape?” My eyes lingered over Swift. He tilted his head quizzically, and I quickly broke eye contact.

“*Well I’m fine,*” Jet said, sticking her nose in the air. “*That Gengar’s Thunderbolt wasn’t that bad.*”

Stygian closed her eyes. “*I’ve had worse.*”

“*You got off easy,*” Aros muttered, flicking her with his tail fan.

I stared at the Flygon, unsure of how I was supposed to take that. “So were you wanting to sit out or…?”

“*Who the hell do you take me for?*” Okay, never mind, I’d just failed at reading him again, that was fine.

“*I guess we don’t have a choice,*” Firestorm said, tapping his claws together. “*We can’t just let those two get caught.*” He paused for a bit, flame crackling. “*But we didn’t exactly stand a chance in that last fight,*” he went on, grimacing. “*This isn’t just gonna be a repeat of that, is it?*”

At his words, all six of them looked back at me, waiting for my answer. The answer I wasn’t sure I could give. Of course I didn’t want it to be a repeat of last time, but…

I swallowed. “We won’t be alone this time, we’ll have the others for support,” I said firmly. “And the Legendaries. They’ll actually be able to help us this time.”

The Charizard considered me carefully. “*Alright.*”

So that was everyone. I grabbed their Pokéballs and recalled each of them… and then found my hand frozen when Swift was the last one out.

“You’re… sure you’re alright?” I asked. It was hard to look at him without imagining that gaping wound across his neck. Even if it had only been for a few seconds… they were some of the most terrifying seconds in my life.

“*I’m fine,*” Swift insisted. “*You recalled me so quickly that I didn’t lose much blood. And it was a clean slice—easy to mend.*”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “I really don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.” Wait. That almost sounded like—“Not that I’d be fine with losing any of the others, that’s not it at all!” I added quickly. “I just…”

“*I know what you mean,*” the Pidgeot said, pressing his forehead against my arm.

I exhaled slowly, wrapping my arms around his neck.

“*But… I do worry,*” he said, shuffling a talon against the dirt. “*The possibility of losing any of us is a very real one. We can’t pretend otherwise.*”

I let go of him, glancing away. “I know that. I’ve always known that, I’ve just… shoved it aside. Rudy had to learn that truth the hard way, and here I’ve been hiding from it.” God, it hadn’t even been a full day yet, and here we were marching into mortal danger again. And I’d already accepted it as an inevitability. How screwed up was that?

“Do you… think maybe we shouldn’t be doing this?”

Swift paused, mulling the question over. “*It’s like you said. You were chosen. It’s a commitment you cannot back down from.*”

I rubbed my arms, eyes sliding to the ground. “Yeah, but… the rest of you aren’t bound to that or anything.”

He gave a patient sigh. “*Each of us has our own reasons for being here. And we’re not going to abandon you in your time of need. This is too important.*”

I knew that. I’d always known that. And yet there was still that small part of me that doubted it. That worried they were just going along with it because I was their trainer. Even if half of them were the sort to immediately call me out on that sort of thing.

“*Also, you really shouldn’t have recalled me while you were on my back,*” Swift added, giving me a look like he didn’t know what to do with me.

I smiled weakly. “I knew one of the others could catch me.” It was still a pretty stupid move, yeah. Just waiting the few extra seconds for Swift to glide down so I could recall him on the ground wouldn’t have resulted in that much more blood loss. But in the moment, it had just been the obvious thing to do.

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

“We’re gonna have to split up. Have half of us tackle the Magma base and the other half do the Aqua base,” Ajia announced once we’d all regrouped back at the cabin, where we could talk with the Legendaries without catching the eye of every ranger in the union.

“So, what, me and Jade take one base, you and the twerps take the other base?” Starr asked, with a tone that was trying too hard to be casual.

Rudy gave her an incredulous glare. “What? No way, the three of us are mission partners, you’re not splitting us.”

“That supposed to mean anything to me?” she said flatly, giving him an unimpressed look.

“It means,” Darren cut in, before Rudy could say anything hasty, “that we trained together and our teams already know how to support each other.”

“Yeah, well, if both of you come with me and Jade, then Ajia’s stuck by herself, and—”

“Look, our teams are gonna be uneven no matter what since there’s five of us,” Ajia said carefully, giving Starr a meaningful look. “Since those three have trained together and the two of us are more experienced, why don’t we just split it like that?”

Starr was silent for some time. “Fine,” she said grudgingly, folding her arms and glancing away. Though she hadn’t said so, it was pretty obvious that she was only coming along because she didn’t want me to get myself killed. But Rudy, Darren, and I had faced the combat unit together before. Our teams were a whole lot stronger now, plus we’d have Legendaries backing us up—actually backing us up, not like that crap from yesterday. I’d be fine without her.

…Somehow, I already didn’t believe that.

<Now it’s just a matter of which of us should go where,> Mew said turning to face her fellow legends. <Obviously, patrons and chosen will want to stick together, but—>

“Forgive my interruption, but what of the island where Groudon and Kyogre rest?” Ho-oh asked. “It seems reasonable to assume that the most powerful enemy forces will be the ones preparing to confront the legends directly.”

Ajia paused to consider it. “Actually, wouldn’t it work best if you and Lugia take that one? You wouldn’t be able to come with us inside the bases,” she pointed out.

<My abilities will be best utilized at sea anyway,> Lugia said simply. <And separating from my chosen will allow our groups a line of communication.>

Ajia tapped a fist against her open palm. “Alright so me, Mew, and Starr will hit the Aqua base. Lugia and Ho-oh will guard Sootopolis and make sure no one comes close.”

Rudy nodded sharply. “Then me, Jade, and Darren will hit the Magma base, and Moltres can be our backup.”

Moltres gave Rudy a sideways glance. “Time to prove that you’re not all talk, eh?”

“That’s the plan,” he replied shortly.

“*What about me?*” a small, high-pitched voice asked. I glanced over to see Latias hovering off by the bushes, her posture small and restrained.

“Are you… feeling up to it?” I asked cautiously.

The dragon’s eyes sharpened. “*I want to help. My home is in danger. This is my responsibility.*”

Mew gave her a soft smile. <Of course. We’ll be glad to—>

“Go with these three,” Starr cut in, gesturing toward me, Rudy, and Darren.

I blinked. “Eh?”

She fixed me with a hard stare. “You’re not gonna have your… ‘patron’ or whatever. And his will be stuck outside,” she added, jerking a thumb toward Rudy and Moltres. “So you three could use more firepower.”

Latias glanced at Mew, unsure, but the psychic cat gave her an encouraging smile. “*Alright. I’ll do it.*”

<Very well. Are you ready?> Mew asked, holding out her tail.

It took me a few seconds to realize that was directed at our entire group, and that this was it—she was seriously about to teleport us to Hoenn. I barely had time to process that reality before me, Rudy, Darren, Moltres, and Latias were all crowded around the tiny psychic cat. I grabbed hold of her tail tip.

And with that, our surrounding melted into distorted light before immediately reforming into a rocky, sloping terrain. If the sudden lack of trees didn’t give away how far we’d travelled, the stiflingly warm, humid air would have done it. Not to mention the volcano peak towering over the horizon. Smoke gently drifted up into the sky, blotting out the stars, and the moon had long since set.

And then I saw it. Not too far from us, built into the side of a sheer rock face, was a large, black and red building. A bright red light flashed angrily over the front entrance. From inside, I could hear the muffled sound of an alarm blaring. My stomach curled in on itself. The Rockets were already here.

Mew stared at the building, concern etched all over her face.

I took a deep breath. “Go on. The others will need you,” I told her.

<But…>

“The situation with the Aquas has gotta be just as bad. Go!”

She paused for several seconds before nodding. <Good luck.> Then she vanished.






~End Chapter 40~

Next Chapter: The race for the Red Orb is on.
 
Chapter 41: Team Magma
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~Chapter 41: Team Magma~


With a flash of light, Alakazam materialized from his Pokéball. At Darren’s command, the psychic-type observed our rocky surroundings, then held both spoons to his forehead, humming to himself for half a minute or so.

“Got it memorized?” Darren asked.

Alakazam held up a spoon and gave a grunt of approval.

Darren nodded. “Alright good.” He turned to Moltres and said, “If anything goes wrong, we’ll teleport out to you.”

The firebird blinked, apparently not expecting anyone other than its chosen to address it. “Very well. Should any enemy forces appear out here, I will not allow them to escape.” With that, Moltres spread its wings to take off, scattering embers as it ascended.

We turned our attention to the base. The front entrance had already been broken down by the Rockets; nothing stopping us from walking right inside. We stepped forward into a wide, open lobby with dark, glossy stone floors. Glowing tubes filled with what honestly looked like magma (it couldn’t really be magma, could it?) lined the walls. Flashing red lights illuminated the way forward, leading to the start of several long, narrow corridors. Not the best environment for all my broad-winged flying Pokémon. We’d need maneuverability.

I grabbed two Pokéballs and let out Chibi and Stygian. I’d keep Jet in reserve, that way I could let her out if anything happened to the other two, and she could hold off the enemy while I healed them. Rudy responded by letting out Ebony and Raichu. Then Darren took a few seconds to consider our lineup before letting out Weavile to stand alongside Alakazam.

Three Faint Attack users for surprise hits, a teleporter, two electric-types that could boost each other’s lightning; all small and maneuverable, but three of them big enough that we could duck behind their Protect if needed. A good roster for being in the line of fire. I hated how quickly and naturally that assessment came to us.

“Everyone’s good on their Protect training, right?” Darren asked. There was a murmur of approval from all of them.

“Good, cause we’re gonna need it,” he said grimly.

I turned to Latias. “It’s probably best if you stay invisible for most of this. The last thing we want is you getting captured.” The dragon nodded before vanishing in a wave of rippling light.

“*I’ve been wondering something,*” Ebony spoke up suddenly, her words hesitant. Everyone turned to face her, and she pawed at the floor sheepishly. “*We’re not going to lose anyone this time, are we?*” the Houndoom asked, and my heart tore itself in half.

Rudy froze, staring at the ground with an expression I couldn’t place. Finally, he leaned forward and put his hand on her head. “We’re not. I promise.”

I gave him a sideways glance. He couldn’t promise that. I couldn’t promise that. None of us could. But pretending was the only thing we could do.

We set off down one of the corridors, not running, but not moving slowly either. I didn’t really know what we were looking for. Some sign of the Rockets’ presence? The alarm continued to buzz angrily in the background, but I willed my brain to tune it out and just focus on what was right in front of us. No Rockets yet… and no Magmas either, for that matter…

Almost as if on cue, a pair of soot-black wolves rounded the corner and stopped right in front of us, crouching low and snarling.

“Hold it right there!” a voice ordered from somewhere.

I whirled around in time to see two more wolves dart up from behind, cutting off our escape. This didn’t feel like the Rockets’ style. Why would they warn us? In this sort of mission, there was no point in taking prisoners.

“Are you guys Team Magma?” I called out.

No answer. The two Mightyena in front lunged. Weavile and Stygian jumped in front of us, colliding with the opposing dark-types and enduring the dark aura that flared up from the impact. Behind us, I heard a snarl and the crackle of flames as Ebony took up the rear defense, followed by sparks as Raichu must have joined her.

“We’re not here to fight!” I yelled.

“Yeah, well, you’re gonna get a fight!” the voice retorted. Oh my god, seriously? We didn’t have time for this!

A flock of Golbat descended from the ceiling, spitting out globs of poison. I ducked immediately, covering my head, but the sludge splattered off a psychic barrier above us (Latias?). Chibi fired off a wave of sparks at the flying-types and they seized up, muscles twitching with paralysis, struggling to stay airborne. One dove right at us, and I dropped to the floor as it chomped down right where my arm had been just a second ago.

“Stop it, we’re trying to help you guys!” But I could barely hear my own voice over all the chaos, so I doubted that they heard it either.

“We’ve gotta get their attention,” Rudy muttered into my ear. “Something flashy, without hurting ‘em.”

Something flashy, something flashy… something like Flash?

“Shut your eyes, both of you,” I hissed to my teammates, and then, to Chibi: “Use Flash!”

Chibi took off running down my outstretched arm, and the last thing I saw before I shut my eyes was the hybrid leaping into the air, feathers glowing brightly. Then a blinding brightness assaulted my eyelids, and I had to hold a hand over my face to shut it out completely.

The sounds of startled yips and fluttering of wings filled the air. I opened my eyes a crack and saw the Mightyena staggering backward, ears pinned and eyes screwed shut. The Golbat weren’t affected (did they use sound to navigate?) but they were currently trapped by some kind of psychic aura, most likely Latias again.

“Stop attacking and just listen to us!” I yelled as loud as I possibly could.

Footsteps approaching. I spun around to see a group of people running up behind us, all of them dressed in hooded red uniforms emblazoned with a black M logo. They looked tense, guarded, but the moment they got a good look at us, their expressions suddenly morphed into confusion.

“Wait, it’s just a bunch of kids?” one of them said, shooting a glance at her teammates.

“What are you doing here?” a second one asked, fixing us with a rather unimpressed glare.

“We’re here because Team Rocket is invading your freaking base!” Rudy shot back.

“Why were you sneaking around?”

“The front door wasn’t exactly locked,” Darren pointed out flatly.

One of the Magmas turned around and hollered, “Hey Courtney! They’re not with the intruders!”

At his words, a side door further down the hallway opened. And from inside, a short, purple-haired woman emerged. The other Magmas all backed away slowly as she approached us, wearing an icy, inscrutable expression.

“You three… came to help?” she asked simply.

I looked at each of the Magmas in turn, who were all staring at her. They obviously held her in high regard. And… she didn’t seem like the kind of person we wanted to say the wrong thing to.

I took a deep breath and said, “The Rockets are after the Red Orb. We have to stop them no matter what.”

Courtney stared at us for several seconds before giving a curt nod. Then she turned around and gestured for us to follow her. “Come. This way.”

I glanced back and forth between Rudy and Darren, who both just shrugged before motioning to our Pokémon. Chibi jumped back on my shoulder while Raichu hopped onto Ebony’s back. Weavile gave her a dirty look and then opted to ride Stygian, while Alakazam hovered lightly across the floor. The other Magmas stopped to feed their Mightyena and Golbat squads some berries, and then our group set off, Courtney taking the lead. No one said anything as she led us down a maze of corridors, taking us deeper into the mountain.

“Where are we going, exactly?” I asked finally.

“The others… need help,” Courtney replied, her words terse. That really didn’t answer my question at all.

One of the Magma agents must have noticed the confused look on my face, because she added, “We got separated from the others. Last we saw, Admin Tabitha was trying to fight the intruders off, but he…” Her words trailed off.

“He’s fine,” Courtney snapped, a slight edge to her voice. She didn’t look back at any of us and just kept marching forward with the same forceful air.

An uncomfortable flicker of unease started to creep up the back of my neck. This situation… was a lot more familiar than I’d realized. An ambush in the dead of night, alarms blaring, scared rebels fleeing down dark hallways, desperate to regroup, Rockets lurking out of sight. I’d been caught up with thinking of this like another Legendary mission. Protect the orb; stop the Rockets from catching more Legendaries. But now that we were here, it was feeling a lot more like that night on Midnight—

No. No, it wouldn’t end up like that. The Magmas were clearly capable of defending themselves. But had they ever had to go up against an enemy as ruthless as the Rockets? And did we really have enough firepower to help them?

Light was streaming down the corridor ahead of us. My blood ran cold—I could hear gunfire in this direction. Courtney slowed to a stop when she reached the corner and held up a hand for everyone else to stop.

“Here,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what awaited us in the next area, but I already knew it wasn’t good. I crept closer to the corner, peeked around it and—

And then immediately jerked my head back. A squad of Rockets had guns trained on the entryway, ready to fire at any moment. I’d caught a brief glimpse of some kind of commotion behind them. Other Rockets and their Pokémon, fighting an unseen enemy—the other Magmas?

“Okay, yeah, we walk around that corner, we’re super dead,” I said flatly.

Darren nodded sagely. “The worst kind of dead.”

There was no way to get past that many armed Rockets, not when all they had to do was open fire on the entryway. Had to disable them somehow. Maybe Chibi could rush out with Quick Attack, paralyze a few of them… Although if he got targeted by their Pokémon forces, the last thing I needed was for him to go down first. Maybe…

Wait. What was I doing? We had the perfect surprise attacker right by our side.

“Latias, are you there?” I whispered. I wasn’t entirely sure if she could hear me or not, but seconds later, I felt a light claw tap on my shoulder.

“Can you disarm the Rockets in the entryway?”

Two taps. Then a small whoosh of air that felt like her darting around the corner. I let out a breath. Okay good, I was not in the mood to go running through the line of fire.

I made eye contact with Rudy and Darren. “She’s clearing the way. You guys ready to run?”

The two nodded and proceeded to give instructions to their Pokémon. I turned to face the Magmas and said, “When the Rockets go down, we’re gonna make a break for it and try to find your teammates.”

Half the group gaped at us in surprise. But Courtney just nodded with the same sharp, unreadable expression as before.

“*Go now!*” Latias cried suddenly.

“Now!” I repeated, breaking into a run.

Around the corner and I could now see the squad that had been guarding the hall, all flat on their backs, no guns within sight. I leaped over them and emerged into a large, cavernous room filled with heavy machinery that had been turned into a total warzone. Attacks tore through the air across the center of the room, ripping through the rocky floor and crashing against the machines as both sides traded blows while keeping behind cover. Which side was which?

“Over there!” one of the Magmas yelled, pointing.

I jerked my head to the left to catch a glimpse of someone in a red-hooded uniform peeking around the edge of a huge drill. Which meant the horde of Pokémon to the right was Rocket, with their trainers hiding out of sight. I wasn’t sure if Latias had gotten the chance to disarm that squad yet, and I wasn’t keen on finding out.

“We gotta move!” I yelled.

Darren nodded to Weavile before he and Alakazam teleported ahead, and the dark-type took off, already breathing out an Icy Wind toward the first three Pokémon that had broken from the Rockets’ lineup. At Rudy’s command, Raichu jumped down from Ebony’s back, her form already blurring into several copies of herself.

I met Chibi’s eye and said, “Go with Raichu; power each other’s Lightning Rod and then go for Discharge.”

The two electric rodents dashed after Weavile, and then Rudy and I sprinted in the opposite direction, Ebony and Stygian racing alongside us and the Magma squad following not far behind. Just had to focus on reaching the Magmas’ side of the cavern. I tried not to look at the scattered Pokémon that had fallen in the middle of the makeshift battlefield. Tried not to think about how they would have been recalled if they were able to be. Just had to keep running. I heard the familiar sound of bullets striking Protect—dammit why was that so familiar—and screwed my eyes shut, willing my legs toward the space that I’d last seen.

I reached our goal and ducked behind some kind of huge drill before sinking to the ground, heart pounding. Rudy jumped past me a second later, followed by Courtney and her Magma squad. I counted them out and—okay good, we hadn’t lost anyone. Whether that was luck or thanks to Latias playing defense, I wasn’t sure.

Once I’d recovered, my eyes wandered over the nearby Pokémon. Lots more Mightyena, but also plenty of Magcargo, Camerupt, Golbat, Rhydon, all keeping a constant barrage—rocks, fireballs, sludge—arcing through the air and raining down on the opposition. Then I suddenly noticed that about half the Magmas were staring at us in confusion. Right, they’d just seen a couple of random kids break through the Rockets’ defense out of nowhere, with no clue who we were or why.

“Courtney!” a loud, nasally voice called out.

I looked up just in time to see a large, round-faced man charging toward us—or rather, charging past us and clapping his hands on Courtney’s shoulders. “You’re alive!”

“Yes, Tabitha. We’re fine,” she replied dryly.

“H-how did you make it here?” he stammered.

She turned to gesture at me, Rudy, and Darren. “New friends,” she said in a singsong tone.

The man blinked in surprise. “What?” His head snapped toward us, like he’d only just noticed we were here. “H-how did you kids get in here? And why?

“Why does everyone keep asking that?!” Rudy yelled, stamping a foot against the dirt.

But before any of us could answer, Courtney cut in with, “Where’s Leader Maxie?”

Tabitha’s face fell. “We—we haven’t seen him. I think he’s still in his office. We’ve been trying to reach him, but the intruders haven’t yielded one bit.”

Their leader? The Rockets would no doubt be gunning for him if he was the one with the Red Orb. Had they already reached him? Were we too late?

“Which way to his office?” I asked hurriedly.

Tabitha blinked at me, apparently still confused that we were even here, but willing to overlook it for now. “It’s… on the far side of the cavern. Past where the intruders have taken up their defense.”

Rudy tapped a fist against his palm. “So we’ve gotta break through to get to him.”

My eyes slid back to the opposing side. Now that I was paying attention, the Rockets’ forces were clearly focusing on two things: keeping the pressure on the Magmas and preventing anyone from making it out of this room. If that pressure faltered for even an instant, they’d be overrun. No amount of gunfire could stop a horde of charging Rhydon.

On that note, it was now obvious that the water-types on the opposing side were hanging back to stay out of the line of fire. Could always tell Chibi to focus them down, but they were circled by a squad of Dugtrio, keeping their speed boosted with Agility.

Dammit. The Rockets had really thought this through.

“We could try to teleport past them?” Darren suggested, throwing an inquisitive glance toward Alakazam.

“*Too many in the way,*” the psychic said flatly. “*Need a clearer view.*”

He made a face. “Of course. Don’t know why I thought it could be easy.”

So we had to split their attention. Give them enough opposition that they couldn’t hold us back with just a single unified defense. The Rockets’ Pokémon were all clustered together, defending each other from the Magmas’ overhead barrage while the Rockets themselves kept behind cover. And while they couldn’t let loose any big attacks without hitting each other, they didn’t need to beat us—all they had to do was keep us from getting past.

Wait, but that meant… they almost definitely had other agents already confronting the Magma leader. Dammit. We had to get to him now.

I whipped out two more Pokéballs to let out Aros and Jet (too many rocks for Firestorm and Swift, better to keep them in reserve). I turned to each of them one after another and said, “Stygian, go for a Swords Dance and then slip through their defenses with Feint Attack. Chibi, stay on the move, paralyze everyone you can. Keep your power use low, go for Iron Tail when you get an opening. Aros, Jet—if you can pull anyone away from the center lineup, do it, then follow up with trapping moves. We don’t have to beat them, we just have to break their guard as fast as possible, got it?”

Chibi didn’t even answer, he just bolted away faster than I could see. The others nodded sharply before taking off after him. I could only hope that Latias had managed to disarm the rest of the Rockets. Even if she hadn’t… it wasn’t like they could fire on the melee with their own Pokémon in the way, right? Had to keep telling myself that.

Rudy and Darren had sent out more reinforcements and were quickly relaying strategies. The usual hit-and-run style, keeping out of sight, using disruption moves. Most of their Pokémon didn’t waste a second finding a good spot where they could duck behind one of the many large machines and start firing off attacks from behind cover. The only one who hadn’t moved was Tyranitar, who stood silently with an expression somewhere between impatience and disapproval.

Rudy stared blankly at her. “Tyrani—?”

“*That plan would take too long,*” she grumbled.

Then, before Rudy could say anything else, the rock-type broke into a lumbering run, charging straight into the center of the battlefield.

“Wait, get back, you’re just gonna be a target!” he yelled.

But the dinosaur ignored him and kept going. A few Rockets fired on her. Then upon seeing how useless that was, they started ordering their Pokémon into formation. At least, until a huge stone pillar erupted from the ground, right in the middle of that formation, forcing those on either side to back away from the center. Tyranitar didn’t waver—she just kept going, punching her own Stone Edge and shattering it to pieces, driving the Rocket’s Pokémon further to either side to avoid the hail of rocks.

Wait. She’d basically just cut a huge gap right through the middle of the Rocket’s defenses, forcing them to target her or else. If we could keep going with that, draw more of them away from the exit, then—!

“Change of plans! Everyone, support Tyranitar!!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

“You guys too!” Rudy called out, turning to the Magmas behind us. “Light Screen, Reflect, Helping Hand, anything! This is Hoenn, right? Your ‘mons know multi battle tactics, yeah?”

Tabitha looked unbelievably offended at being ordered around by a teenager, but Courtney just nodded and let out her Camerupt, ordering it to use Rock Tomb. Then the rest of the Magmas leaped into action, letting out Pokémon and calling out attacks. A duo of Claydol’s eyes glowed, and several walls of shimmering light went up around Tyranitar, diffusing the numerous attacks now flying right at her. The Mightyena squad that had first confronted us all rushed forward in formation, eyes flashing with the glare of Intimidate—half of them snarling viciously to cut the potency of the enemies’ moves, the other half barking out insults at the opposition, taunting them into an all-out offense, not giving them a chance to use the same support tactics we were using.

But an all-out offense wasn’t exactly outside the Rockets’ area of expertise. A squad of Dugtrio turned and shot toward Tyranitar, sending rippling waves through the ground and pulling her legs into a sinkhole until Weavile intercepted them with a few well-aimed ice chunks. They were followed by a squad of fighting-types, all rushing at her. A couple fireballs and mist balls from above knocked down two or three but rest kept going. A Machamp took the lead, reaching Tyranitar first and slamming all four fists into her belly. The rock-type reeled backwards, grunting in pain, but before Machamp could follow up with a second hit, Alakazam fired off a psychic pulse from both spoons, striking it right in the face. Its muscles strained, fighting against the telepathic hold, movements slowing just enough for Tyranitar to swing her tail and knock it off its feet before smashing it into the ground with her foot.

I dragged my eyes away from Tyranitar to take stock of all my Pokémon. Aros, trapping a pair of Poliwrath in a swirling Sand Tomb while a Claydol pelted the two with multicolored Psybeams. Stygian, slipping in and out of the shadows behind the machinery, slashing at a Hypno who’d been raising protective barriers around its teammates and then ducking out of view just as quickly. Jet, adding more water to a growing Whirlpool while Raichu electrocuted anything that fell in.

They were all holding their own. But we had to do more than that. For all we knew the Rockets could already have the orb, and we were stuck here dealing with—

Movement, in my peripheral. Alakazam snapped his gaze behind us and then suddenly brought both spoons together, raising a Protect just in time to block the shadowy orb that had flown right at his face.

What? Where had that—my eyes suddenly locked onto a shadow tracing the wall behind us. Was that…? Alakazam narrowed his eyes and pointed forward, firing a psychic pulse at the rock surface. A spiky, implike shadow fell out, immediately flashing a wide grin and snickering. Gengar! Already charging up a ball of ghostly aura in its paws.

A string of lightning shot from nowhere and Gengar cried out in alarm as the orb flew wild. Chibi! In a flash, the Pikachu raced into view, sparking threateningly, fur and feathers standing straight up. Gengar glowered at him, but it knew better than to take him on. It dissolved into shadow again, darting across the floor and out of sight. Chibi paused, nodding to me before dashing back into the fray.

I jerked my attention back to Tyranitar just in time to see a Linoone run up and tag her leg, washing her in a shower of white sparks. A surge of energy shot through her. The dinosaur’s next stomp packed enough of a punch to tear a hail of boulders up from the ground, burying three or four opponents right in front of her. Then, without warning, her whole body shook as a heavy punch slammed into the side of her face. Machamp—it had pulled itself free and was now pummeling her relentlessly while she fought to keep her balance. Other fighters dragged themselves out from under the Rock Slide. Seeing Machamp holding its own, they launched into their own counterattack, flinging chunks of earth, launching huge waterspouts, focusing every effort into taking her down.

My heart sank, and my eyes frantically swept over each of my Pokémon, one after the other, all of them busy struggling with their own opponents. None in any position to help her. But we couldn’t let her go down, not now, not when she’d done the most of anyone.

And then a brightly glowing mist ball shot down from above, exploding right in Tyranitar’s face, knocking all of her attackers flying. The rock-type blinked—either from confusion, or from the sudden brightness in her face, I couldn’t tell. Either way, the attack hadn’t caused her any pain. It was psychic.

Machamp was flat on its back, out cold. The other attackers picked themselves up from where they had fallen before glancing around, trying to locate their attacker. But before they could even make a move, another mist ball rained down on them, followed by a dazzling flash of light exploding outward that knocked the entire squad out instantly.

Hooooly crap was I glad we had Latias on our side. It was easy to forget that despite her timid, soft-spoken nature, she was still a Legendary Pokémon.

But the Rockets—they had to have realized that the invisible thing was the one dishing out the most damage right now. The reaction was obvious. The still-standing fighting-types retreated, trading off for line of ghost-types, all firing off bursts of shadowy aura toward the last place they’d seen her. The attacks flew wild; Latias had already swooped behind them, breathing out a sparkling cloud of violet and gold dragonfire. The ghosts fell to the ground, twitching wildly as sparks leapt from their bodies.

Then a black orb shot through the air, striking her dead-on. Latias gave a yelp, recoiling in surprise, and with a rippling of distorted light, her red, jetlike form suddenly snapped into view. I threw a glance in the direction the ball had fired from and saw—dammit, that same Gengar and its stupid smug face, cackling from its perch atop one of the Magmas’ drilling machines. I called for Chibi and he appeared from the opposite end of the cavern, firing off a huge lightning bolt—bigger than he probably should have—and striking it right in the face. I glanced back at Latias to see if she was alright and—

…And suddenly became aware of the fact that at least half of the fighters near her were frozen, staring openmouthed. Oh. They’d literally just seen a Legendary Pokémon appear out of thin air. That was a bit shocking, yeah.

The pause was only for a second. A lightning bolt broke the standstill, and then everyone was back to barking orders or dishing out attacks. But now the Rockets knew we had a Legendary supporting us. They weren’t here on a capture mission. None of them had Master Ball cannons. Still, something told me that we really, really didn’t want them all targeting Latias at once.

Sure enough, the few remaining fighting-types on the opposing side tagged out for dark-types, all firing off pulsing shockwaves of dark energy. Latias looped around the first two but the third one was too fast and caught the side of her wing, sending wisps of darkness trailing across her feathers. Latias shivered, struggling to pull herself free. The momentary pause slowed her flight just enough for her to get bombarded by three more Dark Pulses, followed by a barrage of Shadow Balls from the ghosts that had targeted her earlier. The dragon recoiled backward, eyes shut, struggling to block the attacks with her psychic power, but the dark energy cut right through it. Chibi fired at her attackers, dropped a Honchkrow, then had to dart away as a Marowak slammed its club into the spot where he’d been standing.

“Tyranitar, support Latias!” Rudy yelled.

With a huge effort, Tyranitar threw a Primeape off her back and weakly lumbered forward to stand in front of Latias, taking the dark attacks that were meant for her. The rock-type let out a low growl before stomping the ground. Pointed stoned burst up through the earth, driving the three opposing dark-types into the side of a machine and pinning them there. Then the dinosaur let out a deep, resounding roar that echoed through the cavern.

It was obviously just for show. I could see the deep cracks all over her armor. The eye swollen and bleeding. She wouldn’t last much longer.

Rudy’s hand hovered over her Pokéball. “Tyranitar, are you—?!”

“*Fine,*” the rock-type growled. “*Worry ‘bout the others.*” She glanced over her shoulder, but she wasn’t looking at us—her gaze was firmly on Latias. The dragon’s eyes were closed, and a healing glow washed over her, mending the blackened patches of skin and feathers. Then she thrust both arms forward and the same glow poured over Tyranitar. The bleeding stopped. Cracks in the armor slowly filled…

Wait—Latias could heal others? Not just herself!

Tyranitar blinked in surprise. Then the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. She let out a roar before swinging her tail at the ground, tearing our more chunks of rock to use as ammunition while Latias darted around her, deflecting as many attacks as possible. How could it have taken us this long to realize that those two were the perfect duo in this situation?

The battle raged on around them, too many details to possibly take it all in. I saw Darren recalling the fainted Weavile and sending out Golduck. Rudy spraying down Nidoking with a potion. Tyranitar enduring high-pressure waterspouts until Chibi and Raichu took the entire water squad down with a tag team lightning strike—both of their fur standing on end from a Lightning Rod charge. The ground-types, where were the—

Trapped. All of them trapped. Aros and Jet had combined their Whirlpool and Sand Tomb into a sprawling quagmire of mud (I’d never taught them how to do that!) and held them there while the Magmas’ fire-types poured flames onto them nonstop.

How long had we been at this? I had no idea if we were too late. No idea if the Rockets already had the orb. But we had to keep going until—

Darren tapped my shoulder. “Hey, enough of them are down that it’s probably safe for us to teleport over to the door.”

What? I peeked around the edge of the drill, and—he was right. The Rockets’ lineup was completely scattered from splitting their attention between Latias and Tyranitar, while also fending off blows from our teams and the hail of attacks from the Magma Pokémon. At this point we finally had a clear view of the doorway that led out of the cavern, now almost entirely unguarded.

Almost as if she’d sensed what we were planning, Courtney said, “Go. Help Maxie. We’ll hold them off.”

I snapped my head toward her. “Are you guys gonna be alright?”

“Help our leader!” she snapped.

I nodded and recalled everyone except Chibi before calling out, “Time to go!”

The hybrid fired one last bolt at the opposition before dashing across the torn-up earth, dodging several rocks along the way. He leaped onto my shoulder and I grabbed Alakazam’s hand, and then everything dissolved into a vortex of light and color, reforming seconds later into a darkened hallway.

A nearby Rocket spun around and was about to call for his teammates, but a single jolt from Chibi and he went down. Seconds later, there was another flash as Alakazam reappeared with Rudy. A few more seconds and it was Darren’s turn, and we didn’t waste a second. The three of us took off sprinting in the opposite direction, the sounds of the raging battle slowly fading behind us.

Tabitha hadn’t said where exactly their leader’s office was, but the first turn on the left led to a pair of large, important-looking double doors. This had to be it. I pushed the doors open to reveal a short passage with more magma tubes lining the walls. The floor was almost completely covered in scorch marks. There’d been a battle. Dark masses littered the ground all around, but I couldn’t tell what they—oh geez. I screwed my eyes shut, but couldn’t block out that smell. Charred flesh. I opened my eyes a crack. Honestly couldn’t even tell if they were Rockets or Magmas. My stomach clenched up, and I closed my eyes again until we reached the end of the hall.

When I next opened them, we were there—standing in front of us stood the doors to the leader’s office. My ears caught the sound of voices from the other side:

“I’m not going to ask again. Give me what we came here for or I’ll burn this entire place to the ground.” My heart skipped a beat. I recognized that voice.

“I know very well why you want it. I’ve used it myself for that very purpose. I will not allow anyone else to repeat my mistakes.”

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

A wave of tension flooded my body, and Chibi’s paws clenched my shoulder reassuringly. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply. Then I went ahead and released Stygian once more. Rudy let out Nidoking and Raichu, while Darren opted to go with Golduck and Sandslash.

I made eye contact with Rudy and Darren. This was it.

We pushed open the doors to reveal a large, red-carpeted office. There’d been a battle. More scorch marks marred the walls and floor; large stones were lodged into the side of an overturned desk. To our left was a short, slender man wearing a long red overcoat and a stoic expression, standing behind an enormous Camerupt. To our right, the Rocket executive I’d fought yesterday. Her Flygon wrestled with a Mightyena while Kabutops—that Kaputops, I noted, feeling an uncomfortable lurch in my stomach—slashed at a Crobat that was relentlessly fluttering around, trying to get at the executive directly.

Just Raven and her team. No other Rockets. She must have ordered the others to stay behind and prevent the Magmas from coming to their leader’s aid. That, or… back in the hallway…

Both of the two noticed us at the same time, turning in surprise. The Magma leader tilted his head ever so slightly, looking perplexed. The Rocket executive’s eyes widened. “You again?!”

Not wasting a second, Chibi leaped forward sent a Thunderbolt right at Raven, but her Flygon darted into its path at the last moment, smirking as the lightning coursed harmlessly across his scales.

Chibi’s claws gripped my shoulder. “*Dammit. That was my last bolt,*” he muttered.

What? He was out of power? In retrospect, I should have realized that—he’d been expending energy like crazy back in the cavern melee. Still, we had the advantage here—Stygian, Raichu, Nidoking, Alakazam, Golduck, and Sandslash out, with half our teams still in reserve. Raven glanced back and forth between us and Maxie, clenching her teeth in a wide-eyed rage. She had to realize she was outmatched. Her hand flew to a belt pouch and whipped out a Pokédex, pressing a few buttons on it.

“I didn’t want to do this. This is your fault,” she hissed, pointing at us. What? What was that supposed to—

A purple Pokéball materialized from the Pokédex’s transfer port. My jaw fell open. A Master Ball. Why did she have a Master Ball? We’d freed Moltres! Who—?!

She opened the ball, unleashing a burst of light. And then my stomach plummeted through the floor when that light formed into a huge, auburn beast. Blank, mindless eyes stared at us from a brightly colored face. Huge blue paws stamped the ground, radiating shimmering waves of heat.

Entei. She had Entei. The three of us had fought our way here, and now we had to fight Entei.

“The orb. Now,” Raven said.

Maxie’s calm demeanor had slipped, and he was now visibly sweating, staring down the volcano beast. Camerupt let out a snort and took a few steps forward, its movements shaky but its eyes unyielding.

Then, in the midst of it all, I just barely caught the sound of Darren hissing, “Alakazam!” under his breath. It took a second, but then I realized—the Master Ball, it was right there, we could steal it, we could—

Raven pointed at the psychic before he could even raise his spoons, and Entei immediately spat a fireball directly into his face. Alakazam’s eyes went wide right before it struck him dead-on, right in the chest. With a weak, sputtering cough, he sank to the floor almost instantly.

“Not this time,” Raven muttered darkly.

With a few more button presses, the Master Ball vanished. Deposited back into the online Pokéball storage, most likely. Then she signaled to Entei. The beast drew itself back, gathering flames in its throat. I stared at it in horror as Darren frantically scrambled to hold a revive crystal to Alakazam’s forehead, even though there was no way it would work in time. Chibi had run over to Raichu, holding a paw against her cheek as sparks rapidly coursed between them. Not enough time. Not enough—

Wait. Had I seriously forgotten our best defense?!

“Latias!” I cried.

She was still back in the cavern, helping the Magmas. She wouldn’t hear us, she wouldn’t make it in time, there was no way—

I was wrong.

Latias shot into the room overhead, firing a mist ball right into the fireball’s path. The two exploded in a wave of steam and sparks, and when it cleared, Latias was hovering lightly in front of us, facing down the volcano beast.

Raven stared at the jetlike dragon with a look of disturbed fascination, but then her gaze hardened. She signaled something else to Entei, and the legend opened its jaws wide, gathering a ball of black, shadowy aura in its mouth. Wait—Shadow Ball?!

Latias’s eyes went wide. She brought her claws together, gathering psychic energy between them, but she wasn’t fast enough. Entei fired. The Shadow Ball struck her right in the chest, knocking her flying back. With a weak cry, she crashed against the wall hard and sank to the floor, looking dazed. My heart curled inward. Just how many attacks had she been taking to protect everyone back there?

Raven turned back toward Maxie, glaring. “I warned you.” Then she snapped her fingers, and her Pokémon encircled her, taking defensive stances. The air around Entei started to shimmer. Blue embers flared up within its long, shaggy coat. I felt a wave of cold dread come over me. Something told me we weren’t going to like what was coming.

“Get back, everyone!” Rudy shouted. Stygian, Raichu, Nidoking, Golduck, and Sandslash all gathered together, preparing to use Protect. Then he turned toward the Magma leader and added, “You too!”

Maxie blinked at him, too stunned to respond, but his Camerupt shoved him over to us while Mightyena and Crobat joined our Pokémon’s defensive line. Suddenly a wall of light—larger, sparkling, more transparent than a Protect—surrounded us. I glanced back at Latias, whose eyes were shut in concentration. All of the Pokémon on our side raised their Protect shields at once.

The embers in Entei’s coat burst into full flame. Then it stamped the ground, and the room exploded.

Even through the Light Screen, even with that many Protects blocking the flames, the heat was beyond overwhelming. I clenched my teeth hard, covering my face with both arms as the sweltering air rushed over me. I could feel the skin starting to burn. I could hear the telltale spark of Protect shields flickering, about to shatter. My mind immediately visualized it—all of us, consumed by unrelenting flames, flesh melting, bones charred—

No—no, it had to stop before then. If it went on too long, Raven and her own Pokémon would be incinerated. It had to stop before their defenses ran out. It had to.

Finally, the air settled. Through closed eyes, I could tell that the blinding brightness was gone. The heat lingered, but it was weaker. Tolerable. Slowly, I opened my eyes a crack. The entire far side of the room—everything beyond our protective wall—was just gone. Incinerated. The walls were scorched black and warped from the intense heat. The banner hanging from the back wall had turned to ash, revealing what looked like the door to a safe. Raven’s attention snapped to it. She pointed it out to her beast, who obediently walked forward, stepping over what had once been Maxie’s desk, now reduced to scorched, ashen hunks. With fangs glowing like hot iron, Entei tore into the safe, ripping the door from its hinges. Raven proceeded to reach a gloved hand inside, pulling out a glossy, translucent red sphere.

The orb. There it was. And if we didn’t think of something within the next few seconds, the Rockets were going to have it.

“Do it now!” a voice hissed.

I whirled around to see Darren… staring very intently at nothing. I blinked cluelessly. What was he—wait. Alakazam was gone. Had he been recalled, or…?

“Darren…?” I asked slowly.

A burst of shimmering light and suddenly that space was far from empty. I jumped back, jaw hanging open. A fresh wave of heat radiated outward as Moltres was crammed into the corner of the room, wings folded, neck craned down to avoid hitting the ceiling. And in front of it stood Alakazam—eyes half-lidded, barely standing, and covered in burns… but conscious. He gripped both spoons in trembling claws, the tiniest trace of a smug grin playing at the edge of his muzzle.

He’d managed to teleport Moltres.

Maxie blanched, taking a step back. His Camerupt stared open-mouthed. Raven glared murderously. Moltres had been hers, and we’d stolen it.

Moltres really couldn’t maneuver in here at all. And it would be difficult for it to let loose any flames without incinerating the rest of us. Still, there was something undoubtedly intimidating about being cornered with Latias on one side and Moltres on the other. The firebird opened its mouth, letting flames lick the edges of its beak threateningly.

“We got what we came for,” Raven hissed, recalling her team and leaping onto Entei’s back. She pointed forward, and suddenly the beast was charging right for us. I threw myself out of the way, landing awkwardly on my side and throwing a frantic glance over my shoulder just in time to see the volcano beast barrel straight past us and through the open doorway. They weren’t attacking—they were escaping.

“Take me outside now!” Moltres demanded, slamming a talon against the floor. “They had an airship parked at the entrance to the base. If we do not follow them now, we could lose them.”

Rudy clenched both fists. “Then I’m coming with you!” he yelled, running over.

His patron drew itself back in surprise. “What?”

“I’m your chosen, aren’t I?” he said forcefully. “If the Rockets try to catch you, someone’s gotta get in their way.”

Moltres chuckled to itself. “Very well. We shall pursue the enemy together.” It leaned forward and Rudy vaulted onto its neck. Then the legend turned to us and barked, “Take us out!”

Alakazam blanched. Darren had been spraying him with potions, but he still looked just about ready to pass out. Still, he raised his spoons, screwing his eyes shut and clenching his teeth, and in a few seconds, the three of them flickered once, twice, then finally vanished. Seconds passed in silence with Darren intently watching the spot where they’d left. Then Alakazam reappeared and immediately fell forward onto his face.

“Sorry ‘bout that, bud.” Darren said, recalling him.

“Should we go after them?” I asked, picking myself up from the floor. We couldn’t let the Rockets take the orb, but picking fights with a Legendary was just about the stupidest move possible. I glanced back at Latias. The dragon was silent, resting on the floor, eyes closed as a healing glow washed over her body.

Darren sighed, staring at Alakazam’s Pokéball. “We’d never make it in time. And I’m not too sure any of our Pokémon could keep up with an airship. This is on Rudy and Moltres now.”

Footsteps echoed down the hall behind us. I immediately tensed up, but then Courtney and Tabitha burst through the door into Maxie’s office, panting hard and out of breath.

“The intruders are... retreating!” Tabitha managed between gasps for breath. Then his eyes flew open when he noticed the state of the office. “W-what happened here?! Leader Maxie are you alright?!”

And that was enough to finally pull Maxie from his stupor. He blinked a few times, Camerupt nudging his side, until he finally managed to say, “They took the Orb.” His eyes wandered across the destroyed office before finally settling on me and Darren. “Why was that group after it in the first place? Are they really trying to follow the path that I so foolishly chased two years ago?”

“Not… exactly,” I said, wincing. “They’re only trying to recreate the Hoenn crisis so they can capture Groudon and Kyogre.”

Maxie paused, processing this information with a look of distaste. “Why is a group of children the ones to inform us of this?” he asked dryly.

I put a hand to my forehead. “Look, it’s a bit of a long story, but we’ve dealt with Team Rocket before. We spent literal months infiltrating their bases and crap.”

“That, and you seem to have enlisted the help of the guardians yourselves.” He nodded toward Latias. The dragon ruffled her feathers and turned away shyly.

The leader of Team Magma turned to walk away from us, folding his arms behind his back. “I certainly don’t want to see that disaster repeat itself. Not after everything it took to put things right again. However…” He turned around, fixing us with a very serious look. “It has taken too long to get the Magma group on its way to being a respectable organization, and, understandably, the public still does not fully trust us, even if we have the backing of the champion.” He sighed, running his hand along a display cabinet that had miraculously escaped Entei’s blast. “I would prefer to keep us out of this.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but then froze. I hadn’t exactly implied that I wanted him to get involved, but… wasn’t preventing another crisis just as relevant to their interests as ours?

I struggled to find the right words. “Wouldn’t… wouldn’t opposing the Rockets now look better?”

“There is also… much to attend to here,” Maxie said slowly.

My eyes traced the walls of his scorched office. And then my mind drifted back to the rest of the base. The no doubt countless injured people and Pokémon…

I exhaled slowly. “Yeah… that’s fair.”

“I’ll go. In your place.”

I don’t think anyone was quite expecting that. Slowly, we all turned to look at Courtney, who was staring at Maxie with a look of cold resolution.

Tabitha glanced back and forth between the two, looking flustered. “Oh! And I shall accompany her, of course!” he hastily added, stepping forward alongside her.

Maxie considered them for some time, then finally sighed and removed his glasses, popping out a multicolored stone that had been embedded in the rim.

“Take this. You’ll need it.” He walked over to Courtney and dropped the stone into her palm. She stared at it in shock, glancing up at him as though asking if he was serious. He nodded. Then she slowly curled her fingers around it, nodding softly in return. I had no idea what that was supposed to be, but it obviously carried a large importance for the two of them.

Maxie straightened, turning back toward us. He laid eyes on Latias, and a curious expression crossed his face—something between intrigue and guilt. “I never did get to apologize for before. Though perhaps no apology could suffice.”

Latias closed her eyes. “*That time is behind us,*” she replied softly.

Right, she’d fought back against Team Magma to save her home once before. This reunion had to be a bit awkward for both of them.

Maxie’s gaze was on me and Darren again, and his expression was back to the same stoicism as before. “You lot look exhausted.”

“We’re fine,” I replied automatically, even if I could feel exhaustion creeping up on me now that the adrenaline was wearing off. “We’ve got to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the Blue Orb.”

“It will do no good to rush into a conflict unprepared,” he said firmly. “Take a moment to recover your stamina.”

“Team Rocket is infiltrating the Aqua base right now,” I said exasperatedly.

But Maxie was steadfast. “The Aquas won’t fall to them so easily—they’re more formidable than that.” The corners of his mouth curled up ever so slightly. “Trust us—we’d know.”






~End Chapter 41~

Next Chapter: The Aquas are prepared to take on most of the Rockets' Legendaries. Except that one.
 
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Hi, Chibi! It's been a while I know, but it's time to finally give this a review at last.

You may recall I read the prologue a couple years ago and gave a fairly positive review composed mostly of close-reading nitpicks. I wasn't sure what my experience reading further on would be like, given I knew the prologue wasn't that representative of the following chapters, but I had no idea how true that would turn out to be! I ended up reading the first three post-prologue chapters for this round of Catnip Circle, and I found them interesting, fun, and a breezy read. I described the content on Discord today as being what I want instead of the anime we got, and I meant it. Meanwhile the prose is solid, and it puts me firmly in Jade's headspace and delivers sense of place, urgency, threat, and so on.

My reading of these chapters is coloured enormously by discussion of LC on Discord, and I'll try to be conscious of when that's happening. For example, Chibi's appearance was less badass and more goofy in my head because I'm used to thinking of the guy making dumb expressions and also I know he's gonna get named Chibi, and I am delighted. Also, I'm shipping Jade/Starr literally from the moment they appear because I've been hardcoded to look for fuel. Still, I feel like the characters are compelling enough so far just from the prose regardless of my exposure to your thoughts elsewhere. The plot so far isn't the sort of thing I look for in fic and is extremely 2004-core as we've discussed, but it still has me hyped for what comes all the same, mostly due to just being genuinely exciting. It helps that you have some solid characterisation of a well rounded protagonist with room for growth, and some lovely worldbuilding details that make it feel grounded and expansive despite a tight focus and a high concept plot.

Also, frankly, the chapter art is fantastic. Your proficiency as an artist is impressive on its own, but the "vibe" of each piece really helps sell each chapter. I particularly love the cover art with the 'strings of fate' because the vibe is hugely appealling. Really works to get me to buy in.

Great work, and I'm keen to read on!
 
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Hi Chibi! I actually read chapters 5 and 5.5 a few weeks ago, but I got sidetracked before I could read on or review. Gonna drop my review now before the memory of them stops being fresh.

Wow! I think this was the first actual breather we've had since the opening. We needed it.

Wonderful art as always. Even if I didn't already know Chibi was to become a staple character, I think it would be a forgone conclusion that he'll join the anti-Rocket efforts. It's simply that he's a broody, moody son of a gun who can't or won't communicate as much until the last second. Meanwhile, it's interesting to me how different the characterisation is for the pokémon we've seen so far and the limits of communication between them and the humans. Firestorm strikes me as not particularly contemplative, given his straightforward attitude towards being caught and his frank assessment of Jade's communication concerns. She seems like a practical learner and I'm glad to see her making an effort, even if Firestorm is dismissive of the problem. Meanwhile, Swift seems to fit the "pet" archetype more than the other two. Excited to see how the team grows.

The overall vibe for this chapter is one of seeing grey skies and anticipating rain, yet walking out without a raincoat on all the same. I want to celebrate Jade's progress as a character and her decision to commit to a heroic objective, but she seems outmatched, naive, and ill-prepared. Is this the dawn of the "fight against impossible odds" Chibicore vibe I've heard so much about? Sure seems like it.

As for "5.5" - I really liked that for once the "admitting to doing something forbidden" scene doesn't go absolutely terribly. Pretty fresh to have a parental figure make a concession to their child's dreams while still laying down some expectations instead of just shutting the whole thing down and severing ties. I wonder if this means there'll be ongoing communication between Jade and her mum? I also like that even though, having followed Jade through her experiences so far, it makes total sense for her to commit to this, she still sounds pretty daft explaining her plans to someone. It's entirely believable and a reminder of the more mundane risks at hand, let alone the more serious danger she's getting into, while still being pretty funny.

Looking forward to reading more!
 
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