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Old June 16th, 2017 (6:16 PM). Edited June 18th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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    Chapter 7

    June, 2017

    Krissy rubbed her eyes. It was still early in the morning and she had been walking for over three hours. This would have been hard enough if she’d been sticking to the trails, but she had opted for a more secluded and obscure route back to her house. She checked the topographical map she’d bought in town yesterday. The mansion was only an eighth of a mile away. By the time she reached the top of the hill she was on, she was dragging her feet. She leaned against a tree, took some deep breaths, and decided it would be best to take a short rest. Approaching the enemy stronghold while exhausted was always a poor decision, after all.

    She collapsed, closed her eyes, and wondered if the boys had woken up to read her letter yet. Even though she knew no good come from it, she tried to picture how they would react to it. Jason was easy enough: he would show more than a good deal of righteous indignation that she’d acted unilaterally. And she imagined he’d be sad, even though he’d probably be too proud to show it. But it occurred to her that she was likely projecting on him and indulging in wishful thinking. It wouldn’t be the first time she misunderstood how someone felt about her. Or second.

    Travis’s reaction was easier to guess. He was mad that saving Wyvern was out of his hands now, but he was hiding how glad he was to be rid of her. The thought churned her stomach more than a little, so she turned on her side and tried not to think about it anymore. The important thing was that she was making process. This attempt had lasted a year and fifty-nine days longer than her first try, hadn’t it? All she had to do was wrap up a few loose ends at the mansion, and then she was free to find some new kids who might turn into her comrades. So there really wasn’t a good reason for her to feel as sick and miserable as she did.

    At some point she nodded off. When she woke up it was still morning and she felt well enough to keep moving. It would take a conscious effort, but she decided not to think about the boys for the rest of the day. Now that they were in checkmate and had no choice but to go to a Pokémon Center, there was no point in wasting any more of her mental stamina on them. She took a heading of west-south-west and walked on to her destination.

    Before long she was standing behind one of the last trees at the edge of the mansion grounds. There was a good forty yards of open grass between her and the building itself, which had two long stories of large windows where someone might look out and see her approaching. The best-case scenario was that she could get inside unnoticed and sneak into her father’s office with no one the wiser. That meant the front door was a non-starter, but it was also the only entrance to which she had a key.

    She clicked her tongue. Her best bet then would be to find Alessa somehow and get through the service entrance around back with her. Coming into contact with anyone was a risk of course, even with Alessa, but the chances of her being unsympathetic seemed low. Krissy just hoped she wouldn’t ask too many questions. With no options remaining that involved the front of the mansion, she stuck to the trees and made her way around back.

    The trees were much closer on this side of the property. An added bonus was that there were also fewer windows, as the only people who came back here were ones her father didn’t care to impress with architecture. In particular, the dull steel door that the Grunts used stuck out like a sore thumb, especially with its heavy, conspicuous lock. If Krissy remembered rightly, Alessa’s window was one above and two to the right from there. She grabbed a pebble from the ground, looked both ways, and ventured into the open space behind the mansion. Then she tossed the pebble at the window, missed it by a mile, scrambled back for cover in a panic, and broke her own rule by wishing Jason were here to make a decent throw.

    She shook off the stray thought and composed herself. But her composure was lost again almost immediately when the steel door opened with a loud scraping noise. She made sure she was well behind a tree and waited for whoever it was to pass by.

    “…saw Slate earlier today. Dude looked like sh*t.”

    “Well, can you blame him? You ever spent fifteen days in the brig?”

    They were two men; not Alessa as Krissy had hoped. She continued to listen carefully, though, as she’d never heard of anyone receiving a sentence of that length. She could barely imagine spending even two days underground.

    “Didn’t say I blamed him, just said he looked like sh*t, geeze.”

    “He never should’ve gone down there in the first place, that’s what’s getting me.”

    Krissy thought she heard one of them light a cigarette. Smoking was forbidden inside the building itself, including in the basement and sub-basement.

    “Course not, wasn’t even close to his fault. I don’t think anyone would’ve gotten out of there with their Pokémon. Like, you’re this close to moving on from Grunt and bam.”

    “Yeah. But just try telling that to Rus—”

    “Hey! Watch it, dumbass, the walls have ears.”

    “Whatever. Oh, y’know what else I heard was…”

    The Grunts went back and forth for several minutes on topics that were of no concern to Krissy. As they rambled on, she considered the matter of this ‘Slate’ who’d just been released from the brig. It seemed likely that he held a grudge against her father, which meant there was a small possibility that she could use this to her advantage. Trying to find and deal with this person would have to be Plan D or later and it carried considerable risk, but it was still important to keep all options open.

    Eventually the other two went back inside. Krissy waited another five minutes until she felt safe enough to give the window another try. She picked up three more pebbles, took a deep breath, and walked out into the open a second time. She pulled her arm back and took more care to aim. But, as before, the pebble bounced off the brick instead of the glass. She bit her lip, tried to adjust the motion she’d just gone through in her head, and then convulsed as the steel door to her left slammed open again.

    She jerked her head over. Standing there with a look of intense anger and incredulity on his face was the last Grunt she ever wanted to see again. It was the old one with the crooked eye. The same one who had the Ursaring and the Golbat. The same one who’d kidnapped Wyvern and would no doubt like to see her and her friends dead. For a moment that felt far longer, Krissy froze.

    The Grunt took a step forward and started to say something that would probably have been, ‘Hey, you!’ In that instant Krissy’s adrenaline took over. Her hand moved on its own to her belt. Before she knew what her plan was, a Pokéball was on its way to the midpoint between her and the enemy. The right words came out of her mouth at the same time. “Ice Punch!”

    The Grunt only had time to stop in his tracks and lift his hands halfway to where they needed to be. As soon as Frostbite appeared, she leapt straight for his head and retracted her claws faster than a human can blink. Her knuckles glowed blue as they clipped the Grunt’s right eye.

    Gaaaaaah!

    The Grunt dropped to a knee, and even behind his hands Krissy could see the frost and blood on his face. Rather than wait to see any more and give him any chance to retaliate, she swiped Frostbite’s ball from the ground and sprinted for the woods. Soon her Pokémon was running beside her and she returned her to the ball. That was when she heard the enemy shout something incoherent, or maybe she just couldn’t parse the words with how her head was right then. If he was calling for reinforcements, then they could be coming her way any second. So she kept running, and hard.

    At some point she tripped and had to catch herself to keep her head from colliding with a tree trunk. Her heart felt like it was about to pound out of her chest, which made it hard to hear the voices coming from different directions behind her. She forced herself to run farther away from them. The analytical functions that dominated her brain under normal circumstances were gone. The closest thing she had left was an overwhelming instinct to escape the danger.

    ‘Away’ and ‘escape’ meant uphill, and her legs were dying from it. As the adrenaline wore off, her body gravitated toward the more level way. But this put her on a tangent from the optimal trajectory, and at any other time this would have been obvious to her and indeed to anyone who knew forwards from backwards or sideways. When she had to stop for air again this dawned on her despite her spinning head. She put a hand to her temple and tried to calm herself down so she wouldn’t make any more mistakes. To her left was the base of a small bluff, to her right was downhill and therefore peril, and in front of her was a tall, dense clump of shrubs and bushes. The logical course would be to backtrack, but then she heard the fast feet coming from behind.

    Her hands shook. Running downhill was an unsustainable solution, so she had to fight here. She took Lucia’s ball from her belt and hoped there was only one of the enemy and that they wouldn’t shout. Then she turned around, and the sight of the black outfit with the red ‘R’ almost sprung her into action. But she stopped.

    It was Alessa. She was standing still just like Krissy, breathing hard, and wearing a loss of an expression. Then she advanced quickly but not threateningly. Krissy didn’t move a muscle when she wrapped her arms around her.

    “Holy sh*t, Lucy. The hell were you thinking?”

    Krissy didn’t know what to say. It had never crossed her mind that she’d have to talk to Alessa immediately after she possibly maimed a fellow Grunt. And she’d never thought she’d maim anyone, either, and this kept her from speaking just as much.

    “I thought you might leave and burn all your bridges someday, but picking a fight with Slate? Twice?

    Did she say ‘Slate?’ And ‘twice?’ “…H…How did you—”

    Alessa pulled back and held onto Krissy’s shoulders as she stared right in her face. “Wait. You thought we didn’t know about that?”

    Why would they? Krissy had never seen him before the first fight and he’d never seen her. She shook her head.

    “You and your pals made him lose three top-notch Pokémon in one day! Your dad grilled him for hours! How many preteen girl-geniuses with a Bayleef do you think are out there? Slate just had to ID you in a photo and we knew it was you!”

    Not a single step in this chain had occurred to her once. It felt like she had been walking in a minefield for hours without knowing it, where ‘hours’ meant over two weeks. She felt her eyes grow wide.

    Alessa continued. “Don’t tell me you’ve been this close to home the whole time! I guess that’d explain why they haven’t found you up north, yet.” She then began to drag Krissy by the arm. “Well, come on! They sure as hell know where to look now. We’ve got to get you farther away from here.”

    Krissy was exhausted, but somehow she moved along with Alessa.

    “You better appreciate how dead I am if they find me with you.”

    “…I’m… sorry…”

    “I don’t need you to be sorry. I need you to be smart. Now pick up the pace!”

    Krissy tried, but it was immensely easier said than done. Somehow she made it close to another mile through the woods before she slowed down so much that Alessa nearly had to lift her to get her to move at all. Her eyes were having trouble focusing and it hurt her throat to breathe.

    Alessa sighed. “I guess we can take a break. Gotta be somewhere out of sight, though.”

    Nearby there was an ancient tree whose roots covered a wide dip in the earth. Alessa lead the way underneath, and when they sat down Krissy collapsed into her side.

    “Still finding it hard to run, huh?”

    Krissy was gasping too hard to answer in words, but she nodded. Alessa rubbed her head and she felt somewhat soothed.

    “I suspected for a while, but if you’re still having trouble after a year of exercise I think you might just have small lungs.”

    Neither of them said anything for a while. At length Krissy’s pulse slowed and her breathing came closer to normal. Only when she was ready to talk did Alessa ask, “So, three questions: have you had any adventures yet, did you meet any cool people, and what the hell were you doing snooping around the mansion?”

    The answers to these questions were inextricably tied together, so Krissy began her explanation with Jason and Travis. She took her time to relay what in her mind were all of the relevant threads to the story. Though she tried, she was still disappointingly unable to fully describe the mechanics of Jason’s uncanny talent for catching wild Pokémon. She devoted so many words to this element of Jason’s character—as well as to Travis’s knack for teaching advanced water-type abilities to young Pokémon—that by comparison the revelation of her crusade against Team Rocket was brief and blunt. If Alessa found anything peculiar about this, or offensive about the fact that they were ostensibly enemies now, she gave no hint of it. The sole major omission in Krissy’s version of the tale was the matter of her new name.

    When she was finished she put emphasis on the most critical point: although she and Travis were not friends as she once suspected, Wyvern still needed rescuing.

    Alessa nodded. “Yeeaaah… that’s not something I’d ask your dad for help with. Still think it’s pretty dumb to try stealing his PKI card.”

    Krissy forgot everything else for the moment and jumped on this clue. “Card? Do you know what it looks like?”

    “Forget it. And before you ask I don’t know where he keeps it, either.”

    “I think it either has to be in his office or on his person. And—”

    “Look. Lucy.” Alessa sounded more serious than Krissy had heard her in years. “Don’t you think this is awfully far to go for someone who’s not even your friend?”

    Krissy hadn’t thought about it this way yet, which she could hardly believe herself. “Well… he’s a friend of a friend, anyway. Friend of maybe-a-friend.” She thought about it for another moment and felt ill. “…Friend of a former friend, maybe.”

    Alessa said nothing. Krissy shook her head and brought herself back to the real reason. “It was my fault. He didn’t want any part of this, and I pushed—well, maybe Jason did most of the actual pushing, but—”

    “It’s not your responsibility what he does with his Pokémon. I’m sorry about what happened—you know I wish we’d only steal from assholes and banks—but his mistake ain’t worth risking your neck.”

    Krissy had predicted that Alessa would react in roughly this way, but she had hoped otherwise. She’d learned about heroes from Alessa’s books in the first place, and a hero knew that their neck existed for risking. She wanted to explain to her that it wasn’t nearly enough to run away from home; she had to be her father’s antithesis, and that meant saving Wyvern. She almost began to say something along these lines, but everything stood still when she heard the sound of snapping twigs not far away. Then there were footsteps, and more than one set of them.

    Alessa put her hand over Krissy’s mouth for a moment, and then she crept forward without making a sound. Krissy stayed where she was and didn’t dare move a muscle, not even for one of her Pokéballs. She could only hope that the other Grunts were unaware of their presence and were only passing through. Alessa held up a finger at her and rose to her feet: it seemed she had a plan.

    “Hey!” she called out to no one Krissy could see. “Anyone seen her yet?”

    For a long second there was nothing. Alessa turned to her left and looked over the edge of the depression, which is why she didn’t see the body flying in from the right. Jason yelled at the top of his lungs as he landed on Alessa’s back and hung on by her neck.

    “Aggh! Who the f*ck—

    Krissy’s jaw dropped. She rushed forward to break them up, but as soon as she was out from under cover a second flying body collided with her and knocked her to the ground. This one was smaller and furrier and proceeded to lick her face. As she tried to remove herself from underneath Rabies someone grabbed her hand and tried to pull her up, but this only threw her physical predicament into further confusion.

    Meanwhile, Alessa continued to rave. “Get off me, you little sh*t!”

    “Never!”

    Bark! Bark!

    “Come on, we’re getting you out of here!”

    Krissy would have liked to explain to Travis that (besides her being stuck under a large puppy) she was in no need of extrication. But she was finding the concept difficult to articulate and had to settle for yelling, “Guys! Guys! Knock it off!

    *********

    It was fifteen minutes later when Krissy felt more acutely awkward than she ever had in her entire life. She was sitting on the ground with Alessa on one side and Jason and Travis on the other. She had meant for them all to sit in a circle, but it ended up being more of a squat triangle as the boys and Alessa mutually refrained from sitting as close to each other as to Krissy.

    At the moment, everyone was staring at her while she was staring at the trees. She had just finished explaining the gist of her situation to Jason and Travis. It hadn’t gone the way she’d imagined it would a year ago. There was no drama, no artfulness to how she’d explained it. It wasn’t nighttime or even raining. She’d said something to the effect of “Mariano Russo is my father. I want to defeat him and get Team Rocket out of Johto someday. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think they’d want to be around me.” It was straightforward. On-the-nose. Boring. You were supposed to at least make poetic use of the third-person when revealing something of such significance.

    She waited, and at great length someone finally said something. It was Jason. “So… do you want us to call you ‘Lucy,’ then?”

    Krissy shook her head.

    “Actually,” said Alessa in an uncharacteristically small voice, “I think I’m the only one who calls her that. It was usually just her proper name. ‘Lucia.’”

    Krissy endured a moment of crushing anticipation before the boys broke into their slowly-building but inevitable laughter. It grew especially loud from Jason.

    Alessa didn’t seem to get what was so funny, yet. “Huh?”

    Then Jason finally said, “You named your starter after yourself!”

    Alessa started laughing her head off immediately. “Omigod, you’re kidding!”

    Travis tried to restrain himself, but he wasn’t doing a good job. “Knew it. I knew that name had to come from somewhere.”

    Krissy wanted to find a hole to hide in.

    “You don’t know the half of it!” said Alessa. This time she was actually addressing the boys directly, and while smiling, no less. “One time when she was younger she was writing a story, like a little fantasy novel, and she named the main characters after me and her even though they were nothing like us! She just couldn’t think of any other names! And then she begged me to come up with the names for all the other characters, and oh my god, Chikorita’s ‘Lucia’ now! That is so her!”

    At the very least, it seemed like this might make the three of them friendlier with each other. Krissy supposed she might survive the embarrassment after all in that case.

    But then Jason asked her, “So wait, what about your name? Who’s ‘Krissy,’ then?”

    No one had said ‘Krissy’ the entire conversation so far. She’d been hoping to get away with just ‘Lucy.’ Alessa covered her mouth with both hands and looked like she might explode from holding the obvious truth back from her mouth. Krissy shot her a look that said, ‘Please, please don’t say anything or I might literally die.’

    In what appeared to take a herculean effort, Alessa removed her hands and said, “No idea.”

    “And none of your business,” added Krissy. She hoped that would be the end of it. The laughter did in fact die down, but what followed was worse in retrospect.

    Travis stared Alessa down. “So are you gonna help us or not?” From the look on his face, you wouldn’t know that he’d been in such a good mood only moments ago.

    Just like that the smile was gone from Alessa’s face as well. “Slow down, pipsqueak. I’m thinking about it.”

    Krissy could see from Jason and Travis’s eyes that they didn’t believe there was anything to think about. She wanted to say that this was Alessa’s livelihood at stake and that the Rockets treated traitors worse than they treated cops. She almost remembered what happened to the last police officer they caught trying to break into a hideout, but something in her brain mercifully stopped her.

    This was far easier for Krissy than it could ever be for Alessa. Krissy had any number of mitigating factors protecting her from fierce retaliation: nepotism, age, perceived threat, et cetera. But Alessa was an adult of no relation to anyone important and she had taken an oath of loyalty. Whatever Krissy had in store if her father caught her was certainly dreadful, but it wouldn’t be lethal. She couldn’t say the same thing with confidence for Alessa. There was no escaping that uniform.

    But she didn’t know how to say any of this without sounding like an apologist. She couldn’t think of anything worse than Jason and Travis seeing her as a defender of Rocket Grunts.

    While she was thinking, another tense silence had settled in. This time Alessa was the one to break it. “Anyway, we still have to get all of you further north for now. They might send out another wave of searchers.” She stood up. This didn’t resolve the situation by any means, but Krissy would take a continuing, pragmatic ceasefire.

    Jason stood up as well, and Travis followed suit after him. “We passed some on the way here,” said Jason. “They just asked if we’d seen anyone and kept moving. They weren’t going the right direction.”

    “Good. Better safe than sorry, though, right? I’ll cook for you guys tonight.”

    With that, the three of them followed her in silence. The things that could lie in store for Alessa hung heavily on Krissy’s mind, and this made her realize she hadn’t thought enough about what might happen to Jason and Travis. Things were never supposed to escalate to this point until they were at least fifteen and could better protect themselves.

    So nothing had really changed since the night before. Krissy was the only one who was anywhere close to safe.

    *********

    Krissy was tired, but she wasn’t asleep. The clouds were too thick for stars and the fire was already out. Everything was as dark as could be. It gave her some small measure of confidence that she could sneak away again. It was the right thing to do, especially now that there was one more person involved. If she was quick enough, then she might just bring everything to a happy end before the others could follow her to the mansion. This plan had seemed like a longshot when she was more awake, but now it was clearly doable.

    She sat up without making a sound. There was another critical difference between this night and the one prior: Alessa’s keys. They were only a few feet to Krissy’s right, and if she could find them then it would all go so much more smoothly. She could get inside the house without anyone’s help. There was still the matter of getting into her father’s office, but she wasn’t the worst lock-pick in the world. This was too good a chance to pass up, and she could save Alessa and the boys so much grief this way.

    She crept as carefully as she could next to Alessa, who was lying on her side. Krissy listened to her breathing pattern. It was regular, which meant she was asleep. If the keys were in her right pocket like Krissy thought, then she could get them without disturbing her. It was going to be simple, she told herself, and it let her keep everyone safe.

    Krissy wiped some sweat from her forehead and dried her hands on her shirt. Then she slowly reached out to where the top of Alessa’s leg was supposed to be. Her fingertips touched her hip. Then before she could move them any further a hand grabbed her wrist so fast and so hard that she thought it would break off. Alessa bolted upright and yanked her closer to her.

    Krissy started to cry out, but she just stopped herself. She couldn’t see a thing, but the way Alessa refused to loosen her grip painted a distinct picture. Krissy imagined a pair of burning eyes that were beyond furious. The way Alessa’s hand twitched and continued to squeeze the life out of Krissy’s wrist said something to the effect of, ‘I told you what would happen if you ever tried this again.’ But Krissy didn’t know whom Alessa was talking to and didn’t want to know; she was just trying to help.

    Alessa pulled her in until her mouth was right next to Krissy’s ear. She whispered, “Don’t mess with sleeping people. Not everyone likes that.” There was acid in her voice that she was clearly trying but failing to keep down. Krissy wanted to say she was one of those people, but now she wasn’t sure she knew what that even meant.

    “Were you after my keys?”

    Krissy barely managed to squeak the word, “Yes…”

    “You realize if I was a little less sharp I would’ve clocked you? Busted your head right in?”

    She did now. “…Yes…”

    “Is this how it’s going to be if I don’t help you or drag you away? You’ll keep pulling stupid, suicidal sh*t until you get that kid’s Seadra back? The one you said ain’t even your friend?”

    “…Yes.”

    Alessa’s hand kept twitching for several seconds, but then it gradually calmed down. “Fine. Go to sleep. We’ll all rest up, and then tomorrow night I’ll sneak you and your friends into the mansion. I’m keeping my keys with me, you’re on your own from there, and you never saw me.”

    Krissy was a little relieved, but she still swallowed. “Jason and Travis too?”

    “You want them to track you down again and ruin everything? Unless you can tie ’em up and leave ’em here, they’re coming too. If you don’t like it, pick some better friends next time.”

    Alessa finally let go. The conversation was over and the matter was settled. Krissy crawled back to her sleeping bag and rubbed her wrist. She didn’t know what was worse: that Alessa was right, or that the boys were going to agree to the plan without a second thought.

    *

    [Next time, in Chapter 8, Jen finds complications for the search from without and within.]

    [Just letting you guys know, the next chapter will take a little longer to get here because I'll be mostly away from the computer for about 10 days in a bit. Thanks so much for reading, and I'll see you soon!]
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      #27    
    Old June 17th, 2017 (12:42 PM).
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    Venia Silente Venia Silente is online now
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      I'm not caught up fully yet, but I like what I am reading. I like that this story has evolved, overall, to be like what I envisioned when I first heard about planning for it. Though I guess I have already said that before. When I got to the letter - the letter... I felt like the portrayal of the characters and the story around them were to shift a little. Like less "bad things just happen to people..." and more "...people can't always do good things". I think it was something in the delivery you gave when and right after Jason decided to not throw the letter, and then the key questions start flowing.

      I'm still hoping to fully catch up to this so I can give better judgment but in the meantime I want to congratulate you because I see the story goes on.
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        #28    
      Old June 17th, 2017 (1:14 PM). Edited June 17th, 2017 by Bay Alexison.
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      Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
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      So I decided to skim through Dad's Old Gym once more to see what changes you did and I think I agree having this be primarily Jen's POV this time around gives this story a more tight focus. There are also some subtle changes I noticed but actually makes the details much richer, like Krissy's father meeting with Jen's father with that dive. There's also the reference to fire safety that gives Jen's father a bit more character. So yeah, I like the changes you did here!

      Onto the latest chapter, I like the interactions between Krissy and Alyssa there, and everyone's reactions to Krissy being bad at names was amusing. Yeah, I agree with Alyssa how Krissy is stubborn to try to get things done without anyone's help, even if it's with good intentions. Looking forward to how this unfolds next.
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      Old July 16th, 2017 (5:53 AM).
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      I liked the shorter version of the Dad's Old Gym chapter. Good work with the trimming and keeping it to the one POV, while maybe removing some added neat aspects (e.g. a conversation with Bill, which I suppose has that dynamics earlier in this fic anyway so removing it makes sense) was pretty successful in telling the tale. And your ballpark nostalgia definitely shines through in both versions.

      Newest chapter continues to entertain. Nice to see more on Alessa and a somewhat different side to what we saw from before Krissy left. One can appreciate the trouble she's going through with betraying TR. Looking forward to the next chapter!
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      Old July 16th, 2017 (9:59 AM).
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      icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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        [Replies to readers' comments in the spoiler tags (there are some spoilers, but they're for prior chapters):

        Spoiler:

        Quote:
        Originally Posted by Venia Silente
        I'm not caught up fully yet, but I like what I am reading. I like that this story has evolved, overall, to be like what I envisioned when I first heard about planning for it. Though I guess I have already said that before. When I got to the letter - the letter... I felt like the portrayal of the characters and the story around them were to shift a little. Like less "bad things just happen to people..." and more "...people can't always do good things". I think it was something in the delivery you gave when and right after Jason decided to not throw the letter, and then the key questions start flowing.

        I'm still hoping to fully catch up to this so I can give better judgment but in the meantime I want to congratulate you because I see the story goes on.
        I like your description of "people can't always do good things," that's apt. Hope you continue to like the trajectory of the story!

        Quote:
        Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
        So I decided to skim through Dad's Old Gym once more to see what changes you did and I think I agree having this be primarily Jen's POV this time around gives this story a more tight focus. There are also some subtle changes I noticed but actually makes the details much richer, like Krissy's father meeting with Jen's father with that dive. There's also the reference to fire safety that gives Jen's father a bit more character. So yeah, I like the changes you did here!
        I'm definitely glad I could swallow my pride and make some needed improvements to it. Also glad that you noticed the little tie-ins. :) Thanks for your feedback on both versions!

        Quote:
        Onto the latest chapter, I like the interactions between Krissy and Alyssa there, and everyone's reactions to Krissy being bad at names was amusing.
        Poor Krissy. For all her serious troubles, she can't escape how silly her problem with names is. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        Quote:
        Originally Posted by bobandbill
        I liked the shorter version of the Dad's Old Gym chapter. Good work with the trimming and keeping it to the one POV, while maybe removing some added neat aspects (e.g. a conversation with Bill, which I suppose has that dynamics earlier in this fic anyway so removing it makes sense) was pretty successful in telling the tale. And your ballpark nostalgia definitely shines through in both versions.
        BAALLLPAAARRKS I definitely tried to fix some of Dad's Old Gym by "outsourcing" elements to the rest of the story. Thanks for your feedback both before and after!

        Quote:
        Newest chapter continues to entertain. Nice to see more on Alessa and a somewhat different side to what we saw from before Krissy left. One can appreciate the trouble she's going through with betraying TR. Looking forward to the next chapter!
        I wasn't going out of my way to show a different side of her, but now that I think about it that's what should happen when you try to show the same character under very different circumstances.

        Speaking of the next chapter...


        Thanks for reading!]

        Content Warning: There is a higher density of coarse language in this chapter than in the others.

        Chapter 8

        It was almost noon when Jen was standing outside the Violet City Pokémon Center. She had no way of knowing this, but at that very moment Jason was jumping onto a Rocket Grunt’s back in a desperate attempt to rescue his prodigal friend from what he mistook to be considerable peril. As for Jen, she was handing out fliers to anyone who walked by.

        “Excuse me, sir, have you seen these children? Please call this number if you do. Thank you.”

        “…No, ma’am, I’m afraid we don’t have a picture of the girl. She should be with the boys, though.”

        “You guys seen these trainers before? Well, if you could keep an eye out that’d be real great.”

        This was turning into the same routine that she’d gone through in Cerulean City. She must have talked to hundreds of people by now and handed out twice as many fliers, but no one had seen the kids. It felt like all it was doing was costing her a bundle at the copier store. Even though it was true that she had some small reason to be more optimistic about their chances in Violet City, it was hard to shake off that sense of futility.

        ‘Hanna and Derek said they were here, and that’s that. We’ll find ’em for sure this time.’ Her main partners in the search were not in town at the moment. It had only been a few hours ago that she got the call from them with the news, immediately after which she hopped on the first bus while they presumably passed out to recover from the all-nighter. The plan was that they’d meet up sometime that evening.

        Jen saw that her stack of fliers was growing thin, so that meant it was back to the copy machines, and probably the ATM before that. She looked around as she walked and saw that the number of people out and about for their lunch break was starting to pick up. She hoped to be ready to hand out more fliers before the streets turned quiet again. She was thinking it might be a good idea to try around the Tower District too when something else caught her eye.

        A young woman had just dropped a paper of her own on the cobblestones and was bent over to pick it up. She was wearing all black including a cap that she kept pulled low over her forehead, and her boots were nearly combat-ready. As Jen hadn’t been born yesterday, the fact that her jacket was zipped closed to hide the ‘R’ didn’t fool her for a second. The best thing to do at a time like this was to pretend she was an idiot and walk right past the obvious Grunt as if she were invisible.

        Not that this was easy. Jen stuck her right hand in her pocket to keep herself from making a fist. It sure would have been something if she could get Jason and his friends back just by giving one Rocket a black eye. She began to indulge in a few thoughts of intense (but still restrained and justifiable) violence, which gave her a small case of whiplash when the Grunt stepped in front of her path and said, “’Scuse me.”

        ‘Act normal. Act normal.’ “Yeah?”

        The Grunt held up a flier which bore a single portrait with no description. “You seen this girl?”

        Jen’s eyes nearly bugged out, but she caught herself. It was Krissy’s picture. At least Jen thought it was. It had to be, right? Then again she’d only ever seen her for a little while a few weeks ago. No, it was definitely Krissy. Team Rocket was specifically looking for Krissy. “’Fraid not.”

        “Hmph.”

        The Grunt was about to leave, when a few ideas struck Jen at once. She wanted to be sure beyond any doubt that it was Krissy, and they also really needed a photo. She quickly reached for her phone and asked, “Hey, want me to take a picture of that? My friend knows everyone around here.”

        The young woman hesitated, and her mouth came half-way open but she didn’t say anything. ‘Come on,’ thought Jen. ‘You don’t want to act suspicious either, do you, you evil little b*tch?’ Whether for this reason or because she simply couldn’t find any harm in it, the Grunt did hold up the flier again. Jen snapped a picture of it quickly but casually. Then she put on a look of concern that wasn’t exactly fake, but was perhaps deliberately misdirected.

        “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find her soon.”

        The Grunt nodded, and then walked off at a hurried pace. Jen turned the other direction and did likewise. She wanted to focus on the positive development in that she could change the flier to have all three pictures now, but even she couldn’t pretend that this was nothing compared to how much more drastic the situation the become. She prayed that Team Rocket didn’t know that the kids were probably in the area, because if she had to bet money on who would find them first it wouldn’t be on herself.

        It was when she walked straight past the sign that read ‘Copy, Photo, Print’ that Jen realized her eyes were fixed into a nervous glare. She tried to shake it off. Was it still too early to call Hanna and Derek? ‘Of course not. Sleep be damned—this is an emergency.’

        As Jen took out her phone again to try Hanna first, she went over again in her head who was supposed to know what: Hanna presumably knew a little something about Derek’s job, as she had probably applied her hacker skills to some of Derek’s work data in order to get the information from earlier this morning. Depending on how carefully Derek had selected and redacted his data, he probably still thought that Hanna knew little and Jen knew nothing. Either way, Jen still had to act like she was totally in the dark when she talked to either of them.

        It was getting increasingly difficult to pretend that she hadn’t ‘accidentally’ learned about Derek’s job as an undercover cop when she was seventeen.

        *********

        It was a few hours later when Jen was sitting on the curb by a hotel on the outskirts of town. Two cars drove by and she found herself growing anxious. She was thinking about calling Hanna again when Derek’s truck pulled into the parking lot. Hanna stepped out of the passenger side, rubbed her eyes, and gave a small wave. “I called ahead. You and me are sharing a room.”

        “’Kay.” It worried Jen a little that Hanna still looked this tired. They didn’t exactly have time for rest.

        Derek got out as well and cut to the chase. “If the Rockets are on their trail and they’re in the right city, that means we can’t just go around talking to people. That’s too slow. We need to head into the woods; it’s not likely we’ll find them in the city. Think you can track them with Summer?”

        Jen had to think about it. “I know she’d recognize Rabies’s scent if she found it, but probably not any of the kids’. We’d have to find something that belongs to them, and I didn’t think to get anything last time I was in Cherrygrove.”

        “That’ll have to do. If we’re lucky, Jason’s been using him a bunch. I’m gonna go check in, so let’s meet back here in ten.” With that, Derek darted off for the entrance.

        “He knows we’re checking in, too, right?” asked Jen.

        Hanna shrugged. “Long drive. Don’t think he’s all there. I offered to take a turn at the wheel but he wouldn’t listen. Shall we?”

        Jen was glad to finally have somewhere to drop her bag. When they entered the lobby she just saw Derek rounding a corner and heading to the rooms. It was nice that they were on the same page in terms of the urgency of the situation.

        “Honestly,” said Hanna, “I think we need him to slow down for a minute. You can only go so far on fumes.” Then she yawned before going to the front desk to take care of the typical hotel formalities. Jen found herself shifting from foot to foot in impatience. After what seemed like forever Hanna tossed her a key.

        “So what do—” Hanna was already walking, rather shambling, to their room as Jen started her question. “So what do I owe you?”

        “You don’t.”

        Jen would be lying if she said she hadn’t expected this answer, but that didn’t mean she was going to take it sitting down. “C’mon, don’t do this. Tell me what the bill was.”

        “No, you don’t do this.”

        “Nice comeback.”

        “Whatever.” Hanna struggled with the lock. “I know you don’t like talking money, but I’ve got some and you don’t, so I’m paying and that’s that. Also, I’m bigger than you.”

        Hanna’s facts were all correct, but Jen still didn’t agree with the conclusion. “Okay, so my finances aren’t exactly solid, but I can at least pay myself to be here cause I’m the boss. You said you ran out of vacation a few days ago, right?”

        The door finally opened, and Hanna promptly entered the room and fell face-first onto the bed nearest the door. “Bill’s been more than accommodating.”

        Jen suddenly felt silly for equating Bill to an ordinary employer, and she realized that her latest argument wasn’t much of an argument. If anything, Jen’s extended absence was more detrimental to her future financial prospects than Hanna’s was to hers. “Guess neither of us are really doing ourselves favors at work right now.”

        Hanna rolled over on her back and lifted her head. “You mean ‘none’ of us. There’s three.”

        It took Jen a moment to realize what Hanna meant. She had been taking it as a matter of course that Derek was on the clock. To her knowledge, their efforts were all perfectly within his normal work duties, but of course Hanna wouldn’t know that. To an uninformed observer the natural assumption would be that ‘at work’ for Derek meant a government building in Goldenrod. Jen was really sick of trying to keep track of what everyone supposedly knew. “Right, duh.”

        In any case, Hanna didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. She held up a limp arm as a signal for Jen to help pull her up. She obliged and brought Hanna to her feet with a grunt. “You need more exercise. Getting pretty heavy, there.”

        Hanna acted like she hadn’t heard that. “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow morning. It’ll be tough if we can’t find them tonight.”

        “Hey, we will. I’ve got a good feeling.”

        *********

        It was pouring. The leaves were catching a lot of it, but it was more than enough to put Jen’s spirits in the cellar. She rubbed some of the water off Summer’s nose. No Arcanine was happy in even a drizzle, and now more than ever Jen was regretting that she’d never taught her to use Sunny Day. It probably wouldn’t have been enough to dispel the rain entirely, but it still would have been a huge improvement, and they needed a huge improvement the way things were going. Yesterday afternoon’s search in the forest to the southwest of Violet City had turned up nothing, and the northeast was proving no better so far.

        “Hey,” said Hanna to Derek, “You’re sure we don’t want to bring this back to town for now?”

        Yes. In-town’s still a dead end. I don’t care if we’re out here all day.”

        The two of them didn’t seem much better even after a full night of sleep. Jen couldn’t understand why Derek was so hell-bent on searching for them this way, either. It felt like looking for a needle in a haystack to her. “Look, Derek, Summer’s good but I don’t know if anyone’s good enough to find them with nothing to go on. What are the odds we just stumble on somewhere they had Rabies out?”

        “We won’t have better luck in town. All we’d get are some old leads, if that. Hanna, bring Marie out again; it’s been long enough.”

        His tone was really starting to get under Jen’s skin. As for Hanna, she shook her head but tossed Marie’s ball anyway. The Alakazam stood in a slouch and her arms hung heavy. Marie let out a low, discouraging hum, and Jen noticed Hanna’s eyes widen in a familiar way.

        “No. They’re nowhere close.” Hanna bent down and rubbed Marie’s back. Apparently her Pokémon had been awfully tired lately and she wasn’t getting better. While Derek looked around, probably to decide where to go next, Hanna’s eyes suddenly grew wide again. “Wait.”

        “What is it?” asked Jen and Derek at once.

        “There’s somebody close by. Strangers. She thinks three.”

        Derek’s brow grew tighter. “How close?”

        Hanna paused, and when she spoke again it was in a smaller voice. “Fifty feet west. They’re coming this way.”

        Fifty feet?” Derek was almost whispering now, but it still sounded like he was shouting. “We needed to know that right away! Put your Pokémon away! They might be Rockets!”

        He didn’t have to tell Jen. She just felt lucky to have the cover from the trees and inclines around them, otherwise they might have been spotted already.

        When Summer and Marie were safe in their Pokéballs, Hanna turned on Derek. “Listen, you, this ain’t as easy for her as just looking. It’s not like—”

        “Later! Just follow my lead!”

        Derek began to walk north and gestured for Jen and Hanna to follow. He wasn’t moving at any particular hurry, and Jen assumed this was so that if they were seen it would look like they were simply passing through. She didn’t have time to think about whether it would have been smarter to run off, as she heard from behind: “Hey! You down there!”

        They turned around. Uphill from them were three Grunts who weren’t bothering to hide the letters on their shirts. As the Rockets began to approach, Jen started to consider despite herself how she would handle a battle with them. It was ‘despite herself’ because everyone with a brain knew that the risk of fighting Rockets didn’t go away if you beat some of them once.

        The clear leader of the trio walked right up to Derek with an insufferable swagger about him. “Hey, pal, you seen a kid around here? Girl, ’bout eleven?”

        Jen took some offense at how this pig acted like Derek was the only one here. It almost made her want to point out that Derek didn’t have any Pokémon left and had always been a crappy battler anyway.

        “No.”

        The two Grunts behind the leader—who was perhaps self-appointed—let their heads drop. They certainly weren’t trying to fake any gusto for their job. Mostly they seemed just as tired as Jen was with how the rain kept pelting their heads.

        “That really sucks,” said the leader. “Makes me wish there was some other way you could contribute. Get my drift?”

        Jen looked at Derek’s face. Immediately she felt a knot form in her stomach. He had looked angry a moment ago, and he often looked angry, but there was a tension in his jaw and something in the lines on his face that she was positive she had never seen before. She looked down and saw his fist shake at his side, and then the image filled her head of him beating the Grunt to a pulp. She was this close to moving forward to intervene, but then Derek loosened his fist and reached for his back pocket instead. He pulled out a few large, loose bills.

        Jen supposed it had just been her imagination—hers had always been a little overactive. The Grunt at least didn’t seem to have noticed a thing and took the money while wearing the same sh*t-eating grin as before. “Hey, you’re a smart guy, y’know that?”

        Not a muscle in Derek’s face moved. One of the other two Rockets however looked up and said, “Come on, let’s just keep moving.”

        With an obnoxious chuckle but without another word the first Grunt acquiesced and soon enough all three were out of sight. Jen and company stayed still for a good while afterward, until at length Derek let out a deep breath.

        “I nearly f*cked that up.”

        So Jen hadn’t imagined the whole thing. It wasn’t that she would have felt differently had she been in his shoes—who didn’t ever feel like correcting the shape of a Rocket’s nose? The difference was that she couldn’t see herself being as close to actually following through with it as Derek had just been. He’d always been strong—so had the whole family for that matter—but he’d never been any kind of fighter. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We didn’t get in a fight, and that’s all that matters. Went about as well as it could’ve.”

        Hanna nodded her agreement, but Derek didn’t say anything else. They then walked on, and Derek didn’t seem nearly as driven as he had been all morning, rather his feet dragged. When it felt like the right time Jen brought out Summer again, who growled at the ongoing rain but dutifully put her nose to the ground. They continued in no particular direction at a trudge for what felt like twenty minutes.

        Then Summer barked, and they all jumped at the sound. The Arcanine dropped her shoulders and sniffed with more intent than Jen had seen from her in over a year. “Summer? Is it Rabies? Is it your baby boy?”

        After a little more sniffing, Summer barked again and sprung back up. Jen could have cried, and her face broke out into a tremendous smile. Summer took off at a trot in a new direction. They finally had a trail. “Slow down, girl!” Jen turned to the other two. They didn’t quite seem to believe it yet. “We’d better move in slow. We don’t know how they’ll react.”

        “If they’re at the end of the trail, you mean,” said Hanna.

        “Hey, they’re gonna be there! Let’s go!”

        Now Jen took point with Summer, and even though the wind was coming from in front she could have sworn it was at her back. After all the agonizing and hopeless searching she was finally going to bring Jason and his friends home. She wouldn’t have to bring any unspeakable news back to Aunt Meg because this was it. Today was the day, she kept telling herself over and over. She repeated the thought as long as she could until Summer came to a sudden stop by a huge tree. There was a kind of hollow under its roots, but there were no kids there. There was nobody around at all, nor was there any sign of a camp, abandoned or otherwise.

        Jen could only stare as Summer sat at attention. The Arcanine didn’t look exactly happy, but she had clearly followed the scent as far as it went.

        “He must have put Rabies back in his ball here,” said Hanna.

        Derek examined the earth all around. “I don’t see any footprints. That’ll be the rain.”

        Jen felt like an idiot. She thought she’d stopped overreacting to small signs like that years and years ago.

        “Can Summer pick up any other scents?” asked Hanna. “Just anyone who’s been here?”

        Jen looked over at Summer. She knew she could understand Hanna at least that well. As for Summer, she put her nose to the ground again, but pulled her head back up quickly and with finality. “That might be the rain, too,” said Jen.

        Hanna sent out Marie, found nothing, and recalled her after barely any time at all. Then she came near and put her hand on Jen’s shoulder. “Let’s take a break. There’s space under those roots.”

        There was just enough space, she might have said. The ground was muddy and they had to bend their heads down, but the three of them were able to sit out of the rain. Less than an hour ago Derek probably would have shot down the idea of taking a break, but now he just stared into space. It was a familiar look that reminded Jen of when he was a teenager, which wasn’t necessarily encouraging. Several times it looked like he was about to say something, and eventually he did.

        “I think we need to let the police take it from here.”

        Jen could barely register what she’d just heard. When she didn’t say anything, Derek kept going in an attempt to explain himself.

        “I mean, we know they were here now. And if we tell the Violet police about how the Rockets are looking for Krissy they’ll put good people on it.”

        Jen didn’t see how there weren’t already ‘good people’ on it. Of course it was the right idea to tell the police what they’d just learned, but why should they drop their own search? She had to wonder if this was just him trying to get her and Hanna out of the picture while he continued to work on it alone. Maybe there were things he couldn’t do as a cop if they were in the way.

        “…I’m sorry. I also have to get back to Goldenrod. I’ve been away from work for too long.”

        No, he was serious. Derek wasn’t that good of an actor, and Jen knew it. He really intended to go back to whatever his normal duties as an officer were and leave everything to the local police. She felt like there was a boiling kettle in her stomach, and it was getting hard to hold in the steam. How could he seriously consider abandoning Jason to chance? “But…” she said, “…But we’re so close. We’re so much closer than the police have been able to get!”

        Derek put his hand to his forehead. “No, we’re not. We’re not prepared for this, trust me. I meet cops through work sometimes, and they know a hell of a lot more what they’re doing than we do. We need to let the professionals handle this.”

        Jen exploded. Ten years of careful discretion did nothing to keep her from shouting, “That’s you, you bullsh*tting coward!”

        Derek stared at her. He looked almost like she was holding him at gunpoint. Then the quivering fear suddenly gave way to something closer to rage, and he glared at Hanna for some reason. Hanna had been stuck in awkward silence to this point, but now she spoke. “Derek, I didn’t tell her, I swear.”

        Jen twitched. For a reason she could barely grasp, this was nearly as infuriating. “You told her before you told me?”

        Derek twisted his head back to Jen and jabbed a finger in her direction. “I didn’t ‘tell’ anyone, and she’s f*cking blackmailing me!”

        The corner where Hanna sat wasn’t big enough for her to disappear into, but it looked like she wanted to. She didn’t deny the charge.

        Derek took on a deadly serious tone. “Tell me when you found out and exactly how many people you’ve told.”

        There was no ‘if’ in that question, only a ‘how many.’ Jen almost slapped him. “It was last time we were both home for Christmas. I haven’t told a single goddamn person, and I never heard anyone guess.”

        It looked almost as if Derek had come down with a sudden case of stomach flu. Apparently his guess had been far more recent. “Well,” said Jen, “it’s all out in the open now. So what the hell do you mean ‘let the professionals handle this?’”

        And then Derek’s anger was back. “Look, do you want me to say it out loud? This isn’t my assignment, and I’m not allowed to call my own shots. I’m sorry, but this is bigger than just three kids and there’s too much at stake for me to ignore orders. Every day I waste here is putting a much bigger plan at risk.”

        “Let me see if I follow this stupid sh*t: for years and years the only thing you ever said about your job was how f*cking dumb your bosses are and how they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. So now they are worth listening to when that means leaving Jason in a ditch.”

        “Oh, shut up! If he’s in a ditch it’s cause you shoved him there!”

        She hadn’t seen that coming, and she thought for his sake that he’d better have a good explanation for it. “Excuse me?”

        “Why do you think I brought you into this in the first place? It’s because he used to trust you. Used to. But no, you had to throw that out the window as fast as possible. ‘I know! I’ll get my psychic friend to scare the sh*t out of them!’ Great f*cking plan! That’s why we’ll never find them again!”

        Jen almost started screaming about how he wasn’t there and had no idea how that plan actually went down, but she thought of something worse. She had realized what was actually behind Derek’s twisted idea, and it was so much more banal than he was trying to spin it. “So sue me, I tried! And I’m still trying, unlike you! You know what, f*ck it, the kids are trying, even if they’re stupid about it. You know why they’ve done more to hurt Team Rocket than you ever will? It’s cause to get anything done you’d have to stick up to your idiot bosses, which you won’t cause they might fire you and you’re scared to death of f*cking job interviews!”

        This stopped Derek cold, not that Jen gave him much of an opening to respond. “How are you not over this yet? That’s a problem for teens and new grads, not guys in their thirties! Is that seriously why you’ve stuck this long with a job you obviously hate? I can’t believe I was ever proud of you for what you do. You make me sick.”

        Derek’s face was utterly blank. He was staring a thousand miles away again. Then where there had been blankness it looked closer to sadness, but barely. “…You’re right.” He ducked his head, rose to squat, and left the roots to return to the open and the rain. He walked a few paces and then stood still. Slowly it sunk into Jen that she may have just said something that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She looked over at Hanna and saw that her head was buried in her hands.

        Minutes passed. Nobody moved, and the only thing that changed was that Derek was getting wet again. Eventually Jen realized that she had to say something, and probably something that at least resembled an apology. Before she knew what it was, she got up to join Derek. As soon as she was able to stand up straight, however, he spoke again. He sounded calm. “New plan. We’re going to save Wyvern.”

        Not in a million years did Jen expect him to say that. The idea had never even crossed her mind. “What?”

        Derek turned around to face her again. “That’s the only thing that’ll make them come back. They don’t have a shot of getting that key, but I do. We do. Hanna, I’m going to need your help.”

        Hanna got up as well, but she didn’t look remotely convinced. “Even if we get the key, will that work? We can text Travis that we’ve got it, but are they going to believe us?”

        “They will if Bill tells the press that his team’s cracked the Rockets’ new Pokéballs. Then we just have to tell the kids to read the news. It’s what they want to hear, and they’ll believe it. And we’re not going to trick them. We can do this the right way.”

        Hanna bit her lip for a moment. “And you’re sure you can do it?”

        “Yes.”

        Jen found it hard to believe, but it wasn’t like Derek to overstate his confidence about anything, much less something this dire. He continued. “There’s a Grunt who works directly for Russo who owes me. It’ll only work once, but he’ll get me inside the facility under Russo’s manor. Their network isn’t connected to the public internet, but everything I’ve heard suggests that once you have access to it their security sucks.”

        Now Hanna lifted her eyes up. The gears seemed to be turning inside her head.

        “If you can handle it,” said Derek, “I can call you when I get alone with one of the machines. Then you and Marie track my phone, teleport in, do your thing, and we’re out with the key and all the other data you can pull in ten minutes.”

        Jen wasn’t happy with one of the conditions of that plan. “And you’re sure you can find an unsupervised computer?”

        “Almost sure. But I’ve been getting ready to pull this kind of operation for years. But like I said, it’ll only work once. Soon as they know I’m not actually selling out the police then that’s the rest of my assignment out the window. This plan means cashing in for me, and if I’m lucky the police will think it was worth it. So are you and Marie up for it, Hanna?”

        “…Yeah. Should be no problem.”

        Jen swallowed. “I’m coming too.”

        Derek answered immediately as if he had read her mind. “No way in hell.”

        “What if things go south? Marie’s in no shape to fight, but Summer is.”

        “I have a Pokémon. We’ll be fine.”

        Somehow Jen hadn’t seriously considered this possibility, but she played it off. “One Pokémon’s never enough. Everyone knows that.”

        Derek shook his head, but to Jen’s surprise he said, “Fine. You’re right. But if you and Hanna get in serious trouble, Marie’s taking you out of there right away. And the plan is that nobody needs to fight at all.”

        ‘You mean she’ll be taking all of us out of there right away,’ Jen thought to say, but she didn’t push it. Derek was the professional, after all. “How soon can you make this happen?”

        “Tomorrow morning. I need some time to get ready, and we could use a good night’s sleep first.”

        Jen looked at Derek and Hanna, and Hanna especially seemed almost as confident as Jen had been when Summer found the trail. She had to wonder though if this was how Jason and his friends had felt when they first decided to pick a fight with Team Rocket. But then they were just kids, while Derek and Hanna were experts. This was going to work.

        *********

        It was past midnight when Travis had his back to a tree. A short ways behind him stood the biggest house he had ever seen. To his left was Jason, to his right was Krissy, and standing by another tree was the Grunt, Alessa. Nobody made a sound. The stillness lasted at least ten minutes, and then he heard a heavy door open and shut. With that, Alessa crept over to the three of them and whispered, “That’s the guard’s nightly bathroom break. There won’t be anyone watching for about five minutes. I’m going to open the door, and then I’ll signal each of you over one at a time.” She switched her small flashlight on and off. The beam was narrow. “You first, then you, then you.” She pointed at Travis, Jason, and Krissy in that order.

        There was no debate. This part of the mission was entirely in the Grunt’s hands, as much as Travis hated to admit it. He didn’t understand why they had to go one at a time, though. In any case, Alessa moved as quickly and quietly across the lit clearing as she could, unlocked the door, and disappeared. Several long seconds passed, and then Travis saw the signal. He had to move. It took a moment of hesitation, but he willed himself to cross the gap. He could only hope that nobody who was still awake was watching from one of the windows.

        As soon as he was through the door someone grabbed his shoulder and he nearly cried out. It was just Alessa, of course, but that didn’t keep his heartrate from spiking. He was about to move away from the entrance, but she held him in place. Then she made him face her and whispered, “Do you know what you’re getting into, here?”

        It didn’t seem like the perfect time to ask that question. Travis’s eyes strayed up and down the long hallway they were standing in. There was a dim light coming in from outside, but at the edge of his vision it was pitch black.

        “Answer me.”

        “Yes.”

        “Are you willing to do anything to get your Pokémon back? And I mean anything.”

        Travis didn’t like that she was willing to burn so much time on this. “Why?”

        “Because you might have to.”

        Something was crawling up Travis’s throat. Despite that, the answer was obvious. Wyvern came first. “Yes.”

        Alessa stared him in the face with a deep crease in her brow. He got the feeling she didn’t believe him. “One piece of advice, cause I feel sorry for you. If you end up facing Russo, don’t look him in the eye.”

        Travis didn’t know what to make of this. “Why not?”

        “Cause that’s what he wants you to do.”

        Alessa nudged him over to the side, and then signaled Jason. He came in a flash, but he got no words from Alessa before it was Krissy’s turn. Then there they all were huddled just inside the house. Alessa looked them over one last time and said, “Remember: you never saw me. Good luck.” She bent down and gave Krissy a quick one-armed hug. Travis wondered how Krissy could stand to let a Rocket touch her that closely, friend or no. Just how badly had they messed her up?

        Alessa hustled out the door and closed it as quietly as she could. Travis could feel the clock ticking as Krissy waved her hand and hurried them down the hallway.

        *

        [Next time, in Hubris Island, young Hanna overestimates herself and underestimates another.]

        [As a little roadmarking, the next two installments will be the last of the stand-alone chapters. After that the last four chapters are all numbered. Also, if you look a few lines down you can see Hubris Island at the top of the one-shots in my sig, but I'd suggest waiting about a week and a half to read it here.]
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          #31    
        Old July 16th, 2017 (7:56 PM).
        Bay Alexison's Avatar
        Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
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        That was a close one the three had with those grunts there. Oh ouch over Jen's burn to Derek over him not standing up to his bosses. I don't blame Jen for being tired of him unable to do that. At least that snaps Derek into getting a plan in action. Am looking forward to see if Travis will have to face the possibility if he'll do anything to get his Pokemon in the off chance he meets Russo.
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        Old July 22nd, 2017 (6:10 PM).
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          [Reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags:
          Spoiler:
          Quote:
          Originally Posted by Baaaaay!
          Oh ouch over Jen's burn to Derek over him not standing up to his bosses. I don't blame Jen for being tired of him unable to do that. At least that snaps Derek into getting a plan in action.
          I don't blame her either! Part of my idea with Derek is that it's easy for him to get mired in his own anxieties because he keeps everyone at arm's distance, so it's rare that anyone tells him what he needs to hear.

          A quick note on this chapter: this is a slightly-revised version of a one-shot I wrote for the Art/Writing collaboration event last year (which was super fun and I would be hella down to do again). I've chosen to present it here without the illustrations because the rest of the fic is text-only, but if you want to see the artwork that sp00kyskeleton prepared to accompany it, you can find it in the original thread. I'd recommend reading the chapter here first, though.

          Thanks for reading!]


          Hubris Island

          August, 2002

          Hanna had hoped she wouldn’t be fifteen years old yet, but as of a month ago she was. She had also hoped that she’d be able to enjoy this excursion to the Whirl Islands without worrying about her age, but there was little chance of that now. She tried to distract herself with the wide, cloudless sky and the salt breeze coming off the water, but it was no good. Then their little sailboat hit a small wave that sent some thick spray into her face, and she spat over the side.

          “Hey Derek,” said Jen, “What’s with all the turbulence? I thought you were supposed to be good at this.”

          “Keep it up and the ride isn’t going to be free anymore.”

          Jen just laughed. She tended to give her big brother a hard time, and Hanna thought it was to his credit that he let her get away with it as much as he did. At the moment Derek was leaning off the edge of the boat to balance the sail. Hanna was pretty sure he was nineteen, and today she saw a whole new side of him: specifically that he looked pretty good in an undershirt that was a size too small. It drew the eyes away from his face, which always bore a dull expression that stood somewhere in the range between vacant and irked.

          “Don’t worry, Hanna. Jen’s paying for your ticket, too,” he said, which snapped her attention away from his abs and back to his painfully boring face. “By the way—”

          Then he paused. Hanna had noticed that when most people might go ‘uhh…’ or ‘so, like…’ Derek just said nothing and took on a thousand-mile stare before he found whatever it was he wanted to say. Finally he continued. “You’re almost done, right?”

          Jen answered for her. “Yeah. She got accepted to Nerd School, Goldenrod Campus.”

          Hanna sighed. “Nobody keeps journeying forever.”

          “We’ll see about that.”

          Hanna could believe that Jen intended to stay on her Pokémon journey indefinitely, if only because she was still thirteen and nobody had confronted her about her future yet. One day of course she’d have to move on, whether that meant going to school like Hanna or starting a career like her brother—whatever it was he did for a living. He never gave a clear answer when they asked about that.

          “The real question,” said the aforementioned brother, “is who we’re going to find to babysit you next.”

          Jen stuck out her tongue at him as she took off her glasses to wipe away some of the spray. Then the boat hit another wave and she had to juggle to keep from dropping them.

          “Isn’t that your fifth pair since you left home?” asked Derek.

          “As if. I haven’t lost any since we went to Cinnabar, and that was like last year.”

          “I remember that,” said Hanna. “You tried to find them in some volcanic mud, and then I had to pull you out of the mud.”

          “Hey! That was a secret!”

          Jen pouted, but Hanna could tell she was still having fun. After spending over three years in close proximity it was never a mystery to her when Jen was actually upset. And sure enough, moments later Jen was staring at the sea and practically jumping out of her skin in excitement. “Hey! It’s a Mantine!”

          “Don’t rock the boat!”

          Hanna leaned forward to see the Mantine and took care not to agitate Derek any further. She had never seen one in person, but its huge fins that were stretched out like a kite were unmistakable. It surfed alongside them for a few seconds, but then it sped ahead and suddenly there was air under its fins. It rose a solid two feet above the water and stayed at that level for at least a dozen yards before it dove back under the surface.

          “Wow,” said Jen. “I’m so catching one of those today. It’ll be a great chance to use my new Ampharos, too.”

          “No, it won’t,” said Hanna and Derek together.

          “Huh?”

          “You tell her, Hanna. I’m trying to concentrate.”

          Jen looked at Hanna like there was no way she’d be able to explain why using an electric type was a poor decision in this case. So Hanna leaned back again and began to deliver the lesson. “When it comes to matchups against electric-types, Mantine’s more similar to Gyarados than to other water Pokémon. Those fins act like wings, so electric moves don’t just take advantage of conductivity: they also lock up the ‘wings.’ Any fully-evolved electric-type will probably knock a wild Mantine out in one hit, which is great if it’s trying to kill you but not so much if you want a new Pokéball to register it.”

          Jen stared at her older companion in amazement. Hanna wasn’t finished, however. “On top of that, I’ve seen your new Ampharos, and the guy who traded her to you was a terrible disciplinarian. If you try telling her to use an electric attack around the ocean—salt water is more conductive, by the way—she’s going to spray electricity everywhere and then I’ll have to take you to the hospital.”

          Now Jen was turning a little red, but she tried to play it off. “Yeah, good point. That’ll make it tough, though. Other than Ampharos all I’ve got is fire-types and that new Staryu for Surf. I guess Summer’s strong enough that she could deal, but hmm…”

          “Duck,” said Derek.

          Hanna and Jen both ducked as Derek adjusted their course and let the sail’s boom swing over their heads. “About that Staryu,” he said, “You’re drawing attention to the fact that you didn’t really need my help to make your way out here.”

          “Why wouldn’t we want your help when boats are fun and you’re so nice?” asked Jen with a sneer.

          “Correction: boats are fun when you don’t have to pilot them and worry about how to get around rocks and whirlpools. This isn’t a joyride—I’m here for work.”

          “What’s a boat ride got to do with your so-called ‘work?’”

          “You don’t need to know that.”

          While the siblings went back and forth, Hanna looked to the horizon and zoned out. Spotting a Mantine may have been captivating enough for Jen, but not for Hanna. She’d seen countless new Pokémon after five years on the trail, but she was running out of time to encounter any that were truly special. The fact was that only Jen was here for fun. Hanna wanted to find a Pokémon that nobody had seen for generations, if ever, and which was rumored to reside nearby. She wanted to fill one of the obvious gaps in the Pokédex before she had to leave the world of nature and Pokémon for who knew how long.

          She wanted to see Lugia just one time.

          *********

          Hanna, Jen, and Jen’s Arcanine were standing on a shallow beach that belonged to a rocky island that was dominated by a small mountain. It was almost noon, and Hanna could just see Derek’s sailboat receding into the distance. She still wondered where exactly he was going and what he was going to do there, but she wasn’t going to lose sleep over it.

          Jen stretched, smiled, and soaked in the sun before asking Hanna, “You’re sure you want to split up?”

          Hanna nodded. “I don’t want to get in the way of your fun.”

          “Fine, as long as you’re still having fun yourself.”

          Hanna didn’t want to say outright that she only cared about finding Lugia and not whether it was a good time, or even that it wasn’t boring. “Hmm.”

          “Cause you know you got, like, a one in a million chance of seeing Lugia—if there’s a Lugia. And I’d say that’s fifty-fifty so we’ll call it one in two million?”

          Hanna rolled her eyes and tried to signal with her posture that she was about to walk off. “Don’t make Summer go too deep in the water.”

          “Jeeze, I know that much. Don’t I, Summer?”

          Summer barked in an expression of total confidence in her trainer. Hanna wished she could share the sentiment and started to stroll down the beach. “Let’s meet back here before sunset.”

          “’Kay! Gimme a shout if you find him!”

          Hanna kept walking until she could no longer hear the splashing and the barking. She shook her head. How was she ever going to leave Jen to continue her journey by herself if she was worried about leaving her alone for one afternoon? It seemed like every day she had to stop her from doing something stupid, and every week she had to fix the mess from some stupid thing she ended up doing anyway. Jen was such an impulsive little kid.

          Of course, all this reminded Hanna of the only thought worse than that of leaving Jen unsupervised: in a few weeks she wouldn’t have Jen around to remind her to smile now and then. So she shook her head again and thought about how she might track down this legendary Pokémon.

          On the other side of the island there was a cave which connected underground to several other islands, according to Hanna’s prior research. If Lugia was down there, it would take Hanna way too long to find it. She needed a less obvious but more precise lead than that, and she was thinking it had to do with the sea and the sky. For that reason she wanted a better view, so she decided to leave the beach and start climbing. The island’s mountain was far too steep for her to reach the summit, but there were conspicuous outcroppings that would suffice.

          It was easy going at first as the base of the mountain consisted mostly of smooth boulders that rose only gradually. Hanna wondered if the tide sometimes reached this far up. Past the boulders the rise in elevation became much sharper and she had to put a hand on the mountainside to navigate the narrow way that wasn’t quite a trail. She decided she was right to leave her Pokémon in their balls today. Her Kadabra, Marie, in particular hated high places with poor footing.

          When she reached a relatively broad shelf she took a break and looked out to the horizon. The sun was still bright overhead, but there were a good number of clouds in the distance near one of the other islands. She could see a few whirlpools between shelves of rock, and nothing was out of the ordinary. It was about as good a day as you could ask from the Whirl Islands.

          In a bit of absent-mindedness, Hanna found herself taking out her Pokédex. She had read everything it had to say about Lugia a thousand times, so she figured a thousand and one times wouldn’t hurt. When she pulled up the page, Dexter began to narrate automatically.

          “Lugia is said to be the guardian of—”

          Hanna hit the skip button to shut him up so she could read in peace. There was little to read though besides vague conjecture and myth. The one solid fact it cited was that it was a flying-type, but there was disagreement as to whether it also had water-based or psychic qualities. The only image in the database was a crude illustration, and Hanna thought the hand-like wings depicted therein were probably ancient artistic license.

          Most of the things Hanna had ever learned about Lugia were, of course, legend. The key take-away though was that all of these legends focused on or at least made reference to the weather. It was possible that the alleged sightings in the Whirl Islands were baseless rumors that only seemed plausible because of the area’s unpredictable winds and currents. But at the same time, any other place in Johto seemed like even more of a stretch. If Lugia was anywhere to be found, it was here.

          With that in mind, Hanna decided she would spend at least an hour watching the air and the water for anything unnatural. If she was lucky she might catch Lugia on the move, and it seemed like a better bet than stumbling in the dark caves to find it sleeping. In this sense, it was a shame that the weather was so nice. So for some time Hanna fixed her eyes on distant clouds and whirlpools. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, though.

          Then after thirty-odd minutes had passed, something caught Hanna in the corner of her eye. They were mostly hidden by the mountain behind her, but there were some new, tall clouds that weren’t so far away from the island. It took her a while to figure out what was off about them, but then she noticed that they seemed to rolling more vertically than horizontally. She felt a small burst of optimism and knew she had to get a better look. There was a terribly thin path leading away from the shelf and further up the mountain in that direction, so she took it. Around a bend she came across an even shallower shelf than the first one, but one that provided a perfect view of these new clouds.

          Hanna sat down with her back to the wall and her legs dangling over the edge to observe the anomaly. She had never seen a cloud formation like it. It was almost as if she were looking at clouds from above; as if someone had turned them ninety degrees vertically. The shadows didn’t make any sense either. They seemed to move independently of any clouds or anything else. It all spun much like the whirlpools that were all around the sea, only much slower. The sight of it had her mesmerized.

          She thought about pulling out her notebook to take a sketch, but she wasn’t comfortable with managing her backpack in this position. Instead she continued to look at the clouds with a measure of hope that Lugia or something like Lugia might have something to do with this. Then she thought about pulling out her notebook to take a sketch, but stopped when she realized she’d just thought about that, which was weird. She was probably thinking in strange ways because of how the horizon would spin along with the clouds until she realized that was impossible and blinked, only for it to start again every time. On top of that, it was tiring the way the shades of gray shifted and spun and made her vision slip out of focus.

          All of this made Hanna decide she could probably continue to monitor the peculiarities with her eyes closed.

          *********

          Hanna didn’t want to be asleep anymore. It may have been dark enough, but it was terribly loud and oddly wet. A small part of her that she never made known to anyone was worried that she’d wet the bed, but that hadn’t happened in a number of years, the exact number of which was absolutely nobody’s business. Besides, the wetness was all over and it was cold rather than warm, so that couldn’t be it. Since her mind was still hazy, this provided a small amount of comfort. But then she opened her eyes, the relief vanished, and she screamed at the top of her lungs.

          It felt like a typhoon. The sun was gone, the rain was coming down in sheets, and the wind was blowing in her face at what felt like twenty miles an hour. She was still sitting in the same spot and holding on for dear life.

          She tried not to panic. She tried not to think about how the beach was now completely covered by the tide, or how it would be suicide to try the path down when it was wet, or how jumping would also kill her whether from the rocks or the water. She was stuck. And even if she weren’t stuck she was far too terrified to move.

          All she could do was sit there and grip the edge beneath her with white knuckles. It was five minutes or five hours later when she thought she heard something besides the wind and the hammering raindrops. It was her name. She brought herself to look down, and she could just spot Jen riding on a Pokémon beneath her.

          …ump!…Jum…!

          Hanna couldn’t believe what she was hearing. How on earth was she supposed to jump? “No!” she yelled back. “You’re crazy!

          Jen kept trying to coax her, but Hanna knew that even her survival instinct was smarter than Jen. There was no way she could move now.

          …old on!…ust……econd!

          Jen was up to something. Hanna saw that she was getting her Pokémon to swim in an oval, gradually picking up speed. The water was rising. If Jen was trying to use Surf to raise the tide enough for her to jump in, that was insane. The Mantine could never get the water high enough for her to survive. Hanna closed her eyes and wished it would all go away. There were some warm drops on her face now among the cold ones, which must have been tears.

          When Hanna opened her eyes, something had indeed gone away: Jen. She wasn’t in the water anymore. But she wasn’t drowning: it was only in the upper right corner of her eye that Hanna caught her.

          They were flying. The Mantine had grabbed the wind and was leaning into it to climb fast. It was almost as high up as Hanna was, but its trajectory looked like it would hit the mountain well below and away from her. Jen leaned as far as she could in one direction without falling, and shouted something. The Mantine pulled off so it was flying nearly parallel to the cliff face, and it kept on climbing.

          Then Hanna was looking slightly up at Jen. She couldn’t see her face clearly, but her posture was hard and steady like steel. Her friend pulled slightly at Mantine’s face so that for just a moment it stalled. The Pokémon was hanging nearly still in midair seven feet away from Hanna. Jen wasted no time. She rose to her feet, and then she jumped into space. With a grunt, she somehow managed to hug the wall of the mountain instead of bouncing off of it. She immediately found her footing, and now the two of them were on the shelf together.

          Hanna looked up at Jen in utter astonishment. Jen’s breathing was rough but she didn’t seem rattled in the least. She stuck out her hand. “Come on, get up!”

          Hanna’s right hand felt weak and she didn’t want to let go of the rock, but she managed to reach out to Jen’s. Jen left nothing to chance and grabbed her forearm. Hanna suddenly felt immensely glad that Jen wore those fingerless gloves everywhere. Now it felt like it might be possible to get out of there. Hanna slowly raised one of her legs and tried to keep her balance toward the wall. She had one foot on the shelf.

          It gave way. Hanna’s foot slipped and everything immediately slowed down as her brain processed the beginning of a freefall. There was nothing beneath her but air.

          Then with a jerk she stopped. Her arm nearly fell out of its socket, but Hanna was not falling. Jen was still holding on. Hanna was all spun around and her left hand and her feet had nothing, but Jen was somehow handling the whole thing. When Hanna finally looked up, she saw Jen on one knee. She had a death grip on the mountain wall with her other hand. Her eyes were closed and her teeth were clenched.

          As Hanna’s arm began to rise again and the rest of her body with it, only one thought passed through her mind: ‘When? When did she get this strong?’

          Her wits returned to her, and Hanna found the wall and helped pull herself up the rest of the way. They were both standing on the shelf now. The rain and the wind were still belting them without mercy and they were out of breath, but for the moment they were okay.

          Jen turned them around to face the sea, and she shouted down to the Mantine who had glided back to the water. “Surf! As hard as you can! Surf!

          Hanna watched as the Mantine obeyed. To the naked eye it looked like it was just swimming around, but any experienced trainer could tell that it was powering the stronger waves that were now hitting the mountain, each one starting and ending taller than the last.

          “We need good timing, but it’ll work!” yelled Jen over the gale. “Link arms! Here we go!”

          At this point Hanna would believe anything Jen told her. They pulled tight with their elbows so they were locked together. When she looked down again, Hanna’s gut told her there was no way the waves were tall enough to catch them right, but they were committed now.

          “Ready?” Jen didn’t wait for an answer. Hanna braced herself.

          “One! Two!

          Jen was interrupted. From twenty feet to their right and ten feet above them there came a crack that blew out Hanna’s ears and a flash that struck her blind. Something was pinching her from her toes to her chest, and it felt like every hair on her head was standing erect. As her sight came back in a haze, she looked over and saw a small tree sticking out of the mountain that was now on fire. Her heart was in her throat along with her tongue.

          Hanna vaguely heard a voice that sounded like counting, and on ‘three’ her body moved on its own. She was falling. Someone’s arm was in hers though, so it didn’t quite register as falling. Then something shocked her feet and she was underwater. The water was moving fast and pulled her forward and away from the mountain. Something shined in front of her face, and for a moment it looked like a pair of glasses floating away, never to be worn again.

          At last, something smooth came up from beneath her. It pushed her up and over the surface again. It was only now apparent to her that the arm was Jen’s and that the smooth thing beneath them was the Mantine. The storm showed no signs of stopping, but they were riding away from the island.

          *********

          It was around midnight when Hanna and Jen staggered up to the Cianwood City Pokémon Center. They were soaked to the bone and still speechless after hours of trying to keep balance on Jen’s new Mantine, to say nothing of the preceding ordeal. Jen tried to take off her glasses which weren’t there, and then just rubbed her eyes and yawned.

          Hanna was immediately relieved when they passed through the automatic doors and into the bright, warm building. She was so relieved that she almost walked right into the man who was trying to leave at the same time.

          “Oh, uh…”

          Hanna looked up. It was Derek. Suddenly she woke up a bit and found herself acutely aware that she was wearing a white shirt and that it was drenched. To her dismay it occurred to her that her bra must have been on full display right in front of him. She resisted the urge to look down and check, and instead crossed her arms over her chest as quickly but casually as she could.

          Then she looked more closely at Jen’s older brother, and noticed what she had missed in her momentary panic: Derek looked beyond awful. He had a black eye, a swollen cheek, a cut around the corner of his mouth, claw-shaped holes in his shirt, a bandaged hand, more claw-shaped holes near the crotch of his pants that revealed his boxers, and last but not least a missing shoe.

          Hanna, Jen, and Derek stood still for a while. Between all the visible (but obfuscated) underwear, Derek’s various injuries, and Jen’s conspicuously absent glasses, it seemed inevitable that somebody would lead things off with a question.

          At length, Derek did so: “Anything happen?”

          Jen shook her head. “Uh… no, not really. You?”

          “Nah.”

          Jen waited a beat. “’Kay.”

          “Yeah.”

          Derek walked past them and out the door without another word. Likewise, the two girls walked to the front desk without another word so Jen could drop off her Pokémon and so they could ask for some towels. Then they stopped by the vending machines to buy some hot chocolate and found two comfortable chairs to collapse in.

          It was fifteen minutes later when they finished their drinks and looked each other in the eye. Then Jen broke out laughing.

          “Hey,” she said, “I think there’s, like, a lesson here about hub-reese.”

          “It’s ‘hue-briss,’” said Hanna, who stared at the floor and rubbed her forehead. Pronunciation aside, she wasn’t sure Jen had the right word. ‘Hubris’ referred specifically to a misplaced confidence in oneself in the face of fate or the divine. But that didn’t describe an unmerited lack of confidence in a peer, especially a peer you mistook for a dependent. In any case, Hanna was about to admit that some credit was long overdue, and that much talk about ‘babysitting’ had to be taken back. But Jen kept talking before she had a chance.

          “That’s legendary Pokémon for you. I bet that’s how they get their kicks—you know, trying to scare the crap out of anyone who thinks they got what it takes to find them.”

          Hanna jerked her head up again. She didn’t know what to say. Surely that couldn’t be Jen’s only takeaway from all this. That wasn’t right at all. “Yeah,” said Hanna regardless. “They don’t mess around.”

          They fell back into silence. It was a silence that was uneasy for Hanna, even though it seemed perfectly easy for Jen. Hanna knew she had to make it right, even if Jen was letting her off the hook. Rather, especially if Jen was letting her off the hook.

          “I was thinking,” said Hanna, “After… When I head off to school, you ought to team up with someone younger. Maybe some new trainers you can show to ropes to.”

          Jen stared at her wide-eyed, as if the thought had never crossed her mind. “You really think so?”

          Hanna did think so. Maybe she thought that Jen would have to slow down and think a little more if that was the road she was going to take, but there was no doubt she’d make the adjustment.

          “Mull it over. I think it’ll be a good change of pace for you.”

          Jen was blank for a moment. Then she sat back, stared at the ceiling, and smiled.

          Hanna decided she would leave it at that for now. School was still a few weeks away, and it wasn’t like she wanted to start saying goodbye.

          *

          [Next time, in Wyvern, Travis struggles to act like he cares about gym badges.]
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            #33    
          Old August 5th, 2017 (11:04 AM). Edited August 13th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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          icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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            Wyvern

            February, 2017

            A bead of sweat rolled down Travis’s forehead. He wanted to believe it was only there because the room was too warm. Outside there was a dusting of snow, but in Azalea Gym it was always summer. Balanced upright on the grass floor in front of Travis was Wyvern, his Horsea, who let his coiled tail wind and unwind as if he were standing on his ‘toes.’ Past Wyvern was a Scyther, and past the Scyther was the gym leader, Bugsy, who was smiling and did not appear close to sweating.

            And it was a friendly smile, not even a competitive one. Travis had to envy how relaxed Bugsy could afford to be about this fight. Everyone expected a leader to put out their C-team (or their F-team, as Travis expected was the case with Bugsy) and lose just often enough for the whole stupid system to work. And the leaders never had two people watching from behind and scrutinizing their every move, either.

            “Come on, Wyvern, you can do it!”

            “Hey, Travis, try to suck less!”

            Jason had a point, of course. The only reason Travis’s Wooper, Leviathan, was already out of the fight was because he had made the mistake of assuming that a Metapod wouldn’t be able to do jack in a real battle. In his defense, how was he supposed to guess that Bugsy would put in the time to train a chrysalis to use attacks that involved movement? What was the point when it was just going to evolve to Butterfree in a month, anyway? In any case, Travis now realized that he had just spent a lot of time thinking about nonsense when he should have been strategizing, and now the standoff between their final Pokémon was over.

            “Scyther, use Fury Cutter!”

            The Scyther spread the blades that comprised its forearms wide and dashed forward. Travis’s lip quivered as he tried to remember what made a Fury Cutter different from a Slash. The gap was closing fast, and Wyvern still didn’t have any orders. Before it was too late, Travis blurted out the last thing they had worked on. “Scald!”

            As his opponent closed in, Wyvern hopped backward and shot a quick spray of water from his snout that gave off intense steam. It hit the Scyther square in the face, and the mantis Pokémon immediately pulled its arms back in from attack-position to cover itself. Travis could tell from the faint sound alone that a burn must have set in. That was good luck.

            On the other end of the battlefield, Bugsy nodded. “Hm.”

            Before Travis noticed it, the Scyther found its nerve again and jumped forward. Wyvern tried to jump again to dodge, but the right blade gave him a small cut on his abdomen and sent him sliding backward. Travis cursed himself for not calling another attack by now. “Scald him again! He doesn’t like it!”

            Wyvern was upright and the Scyther was in pursuit by the time Travis finished speaking. Wyvern’s chest expanded and contracted as he blasted his opponent, this time in the thorax. As before, the Scyther pulled off from its attack and tended to itself, but there was no burn this time. Travis frantically tried to decide whether this was bad luck or if the attack wasn’t as effective from that distance, while Bugsy took everything in stride and seemed unconcerned that his Pokémon wasn’t pressing as hard as a Scyther should.

            The Scyther screamed at Wyvern, but aside from that everything slowed to a halt. Travis was drawing a complete blank, and the gym leader wasn’t saying anything either. Was he going easy on him? Travis would never live it down if Jason got that impression. Bugsy’s eyes went back and forth between the two Pokémon, and Travis found his own doing the same. Then his eyes settled on Wyvern, and he noticed something that sent a chill up his spine.

            Travis could see the veins in Wyvern’s back popping out. They weren’t supposed to be visible from where he was standing; they were too small. Something was wrong. Now that he looked closer, there was something off in his Horsea’s posture. He wasn’t hurt that badly yet, so what was it? Travis’s eyes darted to the Scyther’s blades again, and it occurred to him that Wyvern might be terrified. The thought made his stomach hurt.

            “Scyther,” said Bugsy. “I know it’s hot, but it won’t hurt you like fire. Tough it out!”

            The bug-type seemed to understand. It took a moment to psyche itself up, and then burst forward. Travis could barely think straight, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to get his Pokémon out of there. “Smokescreen!”

            Wyvern’s veins popped out even more as the black cloud burst from his mouth. The Scyther wailed as it barreled through and the smoke got into its eyes, but that didn’t stop it from landing another hit. It cut deeper than the first time, and Wyvern went toppling backward. Without any prompt from Travis, he shot a Bubble Beam at the Scyther as it moved in for the third time. The jet of bubbles made a roll of deafening sounds on impact, and this slowed his opponent enough for Wyvern to roll out of the way. The tip of Scyther’s blade struck dirt.

            Travis heard Krissy behind him. “All right! If he can keep forcing misses, that’ll keep the Fury Cutter weak!”

            So that was the deal with Fury Cutter. In his head, Travis kicked himself for not knowing. They’d dodged a bullet.

            “Give him a freaking order, man!”

            ‘I know. I know. Shut up.’

            Wyvern pulled himself up and fired another volley of bubbles. It sounded like they hit their mark, but all Travis could look at were those veins. He still didn’t know what the matter was—only that the battle had to stop so he could check on him. And since winning would take too long and could hurt Wyvern even further, that meant it was time to forfeit. It wasn’t a hard conclusion to reach.

            But he couldn’t do it. Another fear—one that was at constant war with his concern for his Pokémon—grabbed his throat from the inside and kept him from speaking. The fear was this: that if he gave up when the outcome of a fight was still in question, Jason would think he was a wuss. He would be right to think so. Travis didn’t even want to imagine it. If you couldn’t handle the gyms, maybe you couldn’t keep up at all, and Jason had another friend that could more than keep up now.

            Despite the burn and Wyvern’s attacks, the Scyther endured and cut Wyvern again. And again. His Horsea hit the dirt for the third time, and now the injuries were too many and the veins were too prominent to ignore. The battle looked hopeless enough that Travis’s fears wouldn’t keep him from calling it. He moved forward and held up his hand. “Wait! We give!”

            Bugsy’s eyebrows shot up, but he complied without hesitation. “Pull back, Scyther! It’s over!”

            Travis hurried over to Wyvern. He hated that he hadn’t thrown in the towel just a few seconds earlier. Why should his stupid anxieties and phony pride be more important than keeping Wyvern from getting hurt? Who did he think he was, putting his Pokémon in harm’s way for a worthless piece of plastic? He dropped to his knees, picked up the poor Horsea, and was immediately surprised by the look of confusion in his eyes.

            It seemed Wyvern wanted to keep fighting. That ruled out the fear-and-anxiety explanation for the problem with his veins, which meant Travis still had some inspecting to do. As he ran his hands over Wyvern’s chest and spine, Bugsy started to give an obviously practiced speech containing advice and encouragement. The leader might as well have been miles away; Travis didn’t listen to a word he said and put all of his attention on his Pokémon. Despite this, he came no closer to figuring out what was the matter. Pulse and breathing both seemed normal. He frowned, decided it wasn’t something he could diagnose while Wyvern was at rest, and returned him to his Pokéball.

            *********

            It was late that afternoon, almost evening, when Travis was leading the way through the woods to the south of Azalea Town. It wasn’t a marked trail, and if you weren’t looking for it you might not guess there was a path at all. They had already passed the hills that kept the sea air away from Azalea, and before long Travis expected they would find the beach he had heard about at the Pokécenter. As far as they had come, however, Jason still had yet to say anything about Travis’s loss that morning. Travis had to wonder if his friend was letting him stew in miserable anticipation on purpose, which would be bad form.

            “Hey, Travis.” Ah, there it was. Jason’s voice was full of obvious tells. He must have finally thought of something good.

            “Yeah?”

            “What’s the difference between you and a sheriff?”

            Travis groaned. This was so painfully easy. How embarrassing that Jason had taken so long to think of it. He muttered the answer as Jason shouted it: “…no badge.” “No badge!

            Now that that was out of the way, Travis could say something he’d been saving for a few hours. “Better laugh now, cause they ain’t all bug-type gyms. They shoulda disqualified you for letting it get that close when you have a freaking fire-type.”

            Jason laughed this off. “Just wanted to be sure Rabies didn’t burn the whole place down.” If he felt any shame about how Krissy had made Bugsy look easy with Lucia—a grass-type—he wasn’t showing it.

            On the subject of Krissy, she was looking increasingly but predictably uncomfortable. “You know,” she said, “you guys really don’t have to be all over each other like this when one of you loses.”

            “Yeah, we do,” they said at the same time and with the exact same intonation. Jason added, “It’s practice.”

            “For what?”

            Travis answered her. “For when one of us finally beats you.”

            “Oh man,” said Jason with a look of intense longing in his eyes. “We’re gonna be insufferable when that happens.”

            “Nothing but sick burns left and right.”

            “They’ll have to quarantine those burns, they’ll be so sick.”

            For the duration of this, Krissy did nothing but roll her eyes. Then she made the mistake of saying, “Boys will be boys.”

            Jason and Travis jumped on the opportunity. “That’s it!”

            “Huh?”

            Jason beamed and pointed in her direction. “Sarcasm!”

            Travis smiled too, though not as loudly. “She’s finally learning. Next we might hear actual insults.”

            “Thought this day would never come! I’m so proud of you.”

            Krissy bit her lip, and Travis was half-sure she was hiding a smile. It also made him suspect this would be the last remotely sarcastic thing they’d hear from her for a good while, but it was worth it. For her part, she exhaled slowly and tried to steer the conversation in a new direction. “Odd time of year to camp at a beach.”

            “Can’t help it with Travis. If he’s away from a large body of water too long he starts to shrivel up.”

            Travis actually didn’t mind Jason’s explanation, even if he wasn’t taking them the ocean for his own health. He hadn’t decided when, how, or if he was going to explain this to Jason and Krissy, but the real reason they were going to the beach was because he wanted to check on Wyvern’s circulation in his natural habitat of saltwater as opposed to on dry land. He also wanted to avoid any debate on whether the nurses at the Pokécenter were more qualified to make the diagnosis. Travis didn’t think they were, otherwise they would have noticed that something was wrong by themselves a few hours ago.

            In any case, soon the trees began to thin out and the land fell away even sharper than before. The ocean came into view in a disappointingly hazy and undramatic fashion for Travis’s tastes. They still had to walk a good quarter-mile down a slope that grew more barren and rocky as they went along. The wind picked up in a hurry from ahead of them to noises of disapproval from Jason and Krissy, who zipped up their coats. Travis was just glad to taste the salt, though.

            Finally they reached the beach proper, but even then it was half-covered in rocks. You had to walk nearly to where it was damp to get uninterrupted sand. Worse yet, the ocean didn’t seem as vast as it should have because of the low, heavy clouds in the distance that obscured the horizon. It was the grayest beach Travis had ever seen, but to tell the truth he thought the world needed gray beaches too.

            Jason shivered a little in the stiff breeze. “I get the feeling this place ain’t exactly crowded in the Summer, either.”

            “Somebody comes here, at least,” said Krissy. “Or they used to.” She pointed at a long, low fisherman’s pier a ways down the coast to their right. Even at this distance they could see it was in terrible disrepair. “We’ll have to clear a spot to pitch the tent. Are we sure we don’t want to head back to the woods?”

            “Real sure,” said Jason. “It’s here or nothing. Wouldn’t be fair to rob Travis of his precious, intolerable mid-February ocean breeze right before his birthday.”

            Travis clapped a hand to his forehead. He thought they’d been over this.

            “Oh!” said Krissy. “I didn’t know it was coming up.”

            ‘That was by design.’ Travis was not a fan of when his birthday fell. By his reckoning, the day before Valentine’s Day was the second-worst possible birthday, and he was just lucky it didn’t fall on Valentine’s Day proper.

            “Yeah. I thought I’d talked about it before, but—Oh man!” Jason suddenly pointed at a nearby cluster of stones. “A Shuckle!

            Sure enough, near the rocks there was a small, porous red shell with a long, soft head sticking out. Jason wasted no time in running towards it and sending out a Pokémon. “Go, Ali!”

            Jason’s Ledian appeared, the Shuckle withdrew completely into its shell, and the long, boring fight commenced. “Mach Punch!” Ali began to pound away at the Shuckle’s shell with rapid jabs to no visible effect. Travis decided to take the opportunity to sit on a rock and stare at the water.

            “Hey, Krissy!” shouted Jason. “We’ll see how your Pokémon do against this kind of defense when I catch him!”

            Krissy walked over and sat down next to Travis. “Leech Seed,” she said under her breath.

            Travis had to roll his eyes at the unpleasant surprise that probably awaited Jason in a few days.

            “So,” said Krissy, “You’re coming up on one year soon, then?”

            Travis wasn’t sure what she was talking about for a moment, but he figured it out. “No. I started in April with Jason.”

            Krissy’s eyes widened for a moment, and then she smiled. Travis thought it was weird. Why did she have to be so weird and annoying?

            “By the way,” she said, “I think Wyvern still had a shot in that fight. I wouldn’t have pulled him just yet.”

            She was right, of course. But even putting aside Wyvern’s apparent vein trouble that she must have missed, Travis couldn’t agree with her less about keeping him in. Supposing Wyvern had gone on to win, it undoubtedly would have brought him close to passing out. He didn’t care what everyone else thought; a stupid badge wasn’t worth that. Everyone could go on about how much they mean and how they’re the only way your Pokémon will respect you, to which Travis called BS. And that so-called ‘rule’ about needing four badges to ride on a Pokémon in the water wasn’t one Travis would follow even if it were enforceable.

            He had practiced a spiel on this topic over and over, but no one had ever heard it. Instead he said something he didn’t remotely believe but which sounded safer. “We were done. Bugsy had that fight cold. I was looking something like eight moves ahead, and Scyther had a ninety-two point five and a third chance of winning.” A perfect bluff, thought Travis.

            “I wouldn’t sell Wyvern short,” said Krissy. “You’ve taught him some incredible water moves really well for his age, and if you taught him some moves from other types to round it out you’d be surprised what kind of situations he could get out of.”

            Travis was wondering how or if he should say that he didn’t have the slightest interest in wasting Wyvern’s time and energy on mastering anything but water moves. Then he heard the sound of a Pokéball breaking open and Jason yelling, “Shoot!”

            They looked over, and Ali was back to agitating the shell. Jason rubbed his chin, and Travis could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears as he contemplated how to outmaneuver a Pokémon that apparently didn’t need to do anything more than imitate a rock to force a stalemate. Then Jason took off his coat, loosened his arms, grabbed a small stone, and walked over to the ocean to skip it. Despite how rough the water was from the wind, Jason swung his arm and flicked his wrist with such torque that he still got four skips.

            But Travis noticed how Jason had to shake his elbow and rub his shoulder afterward. “Your arm’s gonna fall right off if you keep treating it like that.”

            “You’re just jealous you can’t get more than two skips on a still pond!”

            Travis was about to retort that Jason would probably drown in that same pond if he tried to swim, but then Krissy asked, “Jason, do you think you can help us clear a spot for the tent while Ali works on the Shuckle?”

            Jason looked over at the so-called battle. “Yeah, probably.”

            While they moved rocks around, Travis thought about when would be the best time to let Wyvern into the water. It was tough to decide whether getting some privacy would be harder than explaining what he was up to.

            *********

            It was midnight, Travis was eleven, and he was walking to the edge of the half-rotted pier. It was a full moon, there were no clouds, and the reflections saved him from falling off the edge. When he reached the end he found a ladder, and it passed the shake-test for stability but barely. Now it was time for the easy part: he unclipped Wyvern’s ball and opened it over the water. There was a small splash, and looking down he could just see the silhouette of his Horsea staring back at him. The breeze picked up and Travis rubbed his hands together for warmth. So far so good.

            “Wyvern, use Surf. Gentle. Real gentle.”

            The waves picked up momentarily, but they subsided to normal levels just as quickly. The moonlight then showed that all around Wyvern there was a circle of almost perfectly still water. Outside the circle the waves moved past as usual, and this was what showed Travis beyond a doubt that it was working. A ‘Gentle Surf’ meant that Wyvern (or someday Leviathan, when he got the hang of it) would take control of the surrounding water as usual, but instead of forcing it along he kept it in place. This water was now trapped and was separate from the rest of the ocean as if it were oil.

            Travis hated how most trainers treated Surf like it was this lame ‘extra’ move to make travel easier. It was the direct manipulation of water outside the body. No move was more powerful or versatile. He took a deep breath. The hard part was next.

            Carefully he knelt down to drop his towel on the pier. Then he took off his coat. Then he took off his shirt. The wind felt like ice, and he rubbed his chest until it burned. He continued to disrobe until he had nothing on but his swim trunks, and then he had to think for a minute. It seemed silly to wear your trunks under your jeans all through the winter if you were never going to use them, but in the end he decided he didn’t want to go back with any wet clothes. He took the trunks off as well, and now he was standing naked a few feet over the ocean with the temperature near freezing.

            His teeth chattered as he said the one word that kept this from being suicide: “S…Scald.”

            Travis heard a multitude of bubbles in the water before him. Then he closed his eyes and psyched himself until he was ready. He jumped. The fall was over too soon, and the initial shock alone almost made him scream. It felt like every inch of his body from his scalp to his toes was covered in liquid snow, and he swore some of his extremities were shrinking. But he could still move and still think, which meant the Scald had worked. Then his left heel strayed too far in one direction, and in a flash he felt what the water would be like without Wyvern keeping it this warm. He pulled his leg close and rubbed his now-numb foot.

            He needed air. While the sensation returned to his foot, he used his arms to rise to the surface. It took only two gasps for him to decide he liked the water better than the air already. He gritted his teeth and tried to slow his breathing with his nose. Then he felt something swim behind him, and Wyvern shoved him forward closer to the center of the hemisphere where it was safer. Travis turned around, and when Wyvern’s head popped up again he said, “G…good job. Perfect. Thanks.”

            This wasn’t the first time they’d practiced using these techniques together, but he hadn’t dared an attempt since November, which had seemed dangerous enough at the time. But someday they were going to have to do this much and more. He thought about that.

            “Wyvern,” he said. “Think you can keep this up for a long time?”

            Travis heard movement in response. It sounded positive.

            “And how far do you think you can swim? All the way to Kanto?”

            More movement. Highly positive.

            “All the way to Unova?”

            Movement, but there was some hesitation too. Did Wyvern know where Unova was?

            “Past Unova, past Kalos, and then back here?”

            Little movement. This time it was inquisitive, Travis was pretty sure. He supposed it was a hard thing for a Horsea to grasp. But that was the plan. Travis hated wasting any time on gym battles when the real battles they had to prepare for were going to be at sea. He wondered if Wyvern would be excited or nervous to know that he was going to be on the first Pokémon team to circle the globe without flying or touching land.

            He hadn’t told Jason about this either. Not yet. Something felt wrong about planning an adventure that they couldn’t go on together, even if it was probably a decade off. But as tempting as it was to keep thinking about the future, there was something more important that needed Travis’s attention now. He took a deep breath and went back underwater to get to work.

            He stuck his arms out, and Wyvern found them even though there was nothing to see. As lightly as he possibly could, Travis traced his fingers around Wyvern’s vital features. The gills in front of the spikes on his head were opening and closing normally. Dorsal fin was responsive. Pulse was normal as he felt it from the chest. Then he placed one finger on a patch of thin exoskeleton at the top of the neck, and the vein there showed what he was looking for. Wyvern’s heart was beating at a normal pace, but the blood was pumping much harder than Travis had ever felt.

            He needed air again, so it was back to the surface. Wyvern followed. Travis tried to think of what he’d read about that could fit this one isolated symptom. Maybe it was because he was too cold to think clearly, but he had no idea. So he tried the stupid, obvious approach. “Wyvern, how do you feel?”

            Nothing. The question was too abstract; he had to refer to specific feelings.

            “Is something scaring you?”

            There was a little movement. It was either hesitation or confusion. Travis couldn’t tell, and it frustrated him to his core. Still, if nothing else he could try to alleviate the effects of whatever was wrong. He took another deep breath.

            Wyvern found him underwater again, and Travis put one hand on his chest and another on his back. He kept one finger on the soft spot where it was easiest to feel the blood flow. The best thing he could think of was to try to calming him down. He began to rub Wyvern’s chest. ‘Slow down,’ he said in his head and tried to convey through his fingers. ‘Breathe slower. Breathe deeper.’

            Wyvern must have been listening, as his water intake felt less shallow now, but the blood was pumping as hard as before. It wasn’t working, so maybe it really wasn’t a mental or nervous issue, but Travis kept at it. Then something changed in a way he hadn’t expected: the pulses came just as frequently and just as hard, but they felt longer somehow. It was like more blood was coming through with each cycle. None of it made any sense to him, but he had to stop thinking for a moment because he was out of air. He tapped Wyvern on the snout to tell him to stay put, and rose to take care of his own oxygen before coming right back down.

            It was back to rubbing and wondering what on earth was going on with his Pokémon. He tried being even more gentle, as if to say ‘No, really, calm down.’ But Wyvern’s blood pressure stayed high, and the total flow continued to increase. Travis was getting close to his lungs’ limit again, and then all of a sudden it was no longer pitch black, and that made the rest of his air escape through his mouth. Wyvern was glowing.

            Travis’s hands fell away on their own, and for a moment his indecision left him paralyzed. It was only to avoid drowning that he kicked his way back up. One long gasp and he was down again. He stared at his Pokémon. Wyvern’s eyes were closed and he was twitching. This wasn’t supposed to be happening yet. Wyvern was too young; his body was still growing at this stage. Now Travis finally realized what the problem was. Wyvern’s energy output as a whole was too high for his frame—he was coming close to having a Seadra’s heart in a young Horsea’s body. Had Travis pushed him too hard in training? What if his veins ruptured?

            Travis could only try to think of whether evolving would help the situation or make it worse. Would the body grow to match the heart, or would the heart just outgrow the body even more? He had no idea, and anything he did now could be disastrous for all he knew. He panicked for a moment. Since he was out of time, there was no choice but to try the stupid, obvious thing again. All he could do was defer to Wyvern.

            Travis put both hands on his Pokémon’s back, and since he didn’t know how to say it without words he just spoke them through the water. “You don’t… have to… if you don’t… want to.”

            Wyvern stopped twitching. But he was still glowing. He drew in one deep draft of water, and Travis could feel the blood pump in response. It was heavy, but calm and controlled. Wyvern wasn’t nearly as scared as Travis was.

            Then Travis’s fingers stretched out almost on their own, but not quite. Wyvern’s exoskeleton was expanding. The spikes on his head grew longer and they were joined by others. Travis could scarcely believe what he was seeing, but the dorsal fin split in two and each half came out larger. The halves pushed their way to the sides of Wyvern’s back, and they each grew into three prongs while before they had been simple and round. Travis knew there would be poison in the tips and kept his hands close to Wyvern’s neck. He wanted to see every last change, but then the light subsided.

            Now that it was over, Travis became keenly aware of two things: that his lungs were empty again, and that without his noticing the water had lost most of its heat. His body tried to pull his arms and legs to his chest to address the second need, but this left it at a loss for how to address the first. He froze with his back turned upward. Then he heard something almost like a jet engine, and he was surrounded by bubbles. He was no longer frozen, and before he knew it something rammed into his chest and drove him straight up and over the surface. Travis choked, coughed, but managed to breathe again.

            When he had control of himself, he found that all he could do was relax. It seemed impossible, but their little hemisphere of ocean felt as warm as bathwater now. He looked at the outline of his Seadra’s head, and felt sorry for any Pokémon that had to go up against that Scald in battle. It had gotten so much more potent just from the evolution. Without a doubt it was going to prove invaluable when it came time to go on their real journey.

            Just to be safe, Travis reached out and felt Wyvern’s pulse again. He couldn’t be sure now that his body had changed so much, but everything felt normal. Then on a whim he asked, “Hey, Wyvern. Think you can swim to Unova and Kalos and then back here?”

            Wyvern fanned his fins and then swam in a blisteringly fast circle around Travis, which could only mean an overwhelmingly, enthusiastically positive response. Travis grinned like an idiot. The moonlight showed the creases in Wyvern’s new, probably scary expression, but it was plain from that answer—and more importantly the way he made that answer—that Wyvern was still Wyvern.

            This was already one of the happiest days of Travis’s life, and it wasn’t even an hour old. Now he just had to figure out how he was going to get out of the water and dry off without catching hypothermia, but he was pretty sure he could manage it.

            *

            [Next time, in Chapter 9, Krissy and company reach the hard part.]

            [And that's all for the standalone chapters. Up next are chapters nine through twelve, and then that's the end. Hope you enjoy the rest of the ride, and thanks for reading.]
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              #34    
            Old August 6th, 2017 (3:17 PM).
            Bay Alexison's Avatar
            Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
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            I've read Hubris Island and commented on it a while back, so I don't think I'll repeat much here. I do remember saying I wonder about Derek's job, and then now we already got that reveal and how Derek was training his Pokemon in an earlier short story. I like the connection there.

            "Wyvern" is a very enjoyable short too. Haha poor Jason dealing with Shuckle. Some nice interactions between Travis and Wyvern, and cool evolution scene there. Does makes things bittersweet concerning the situation in the main story now.
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            Old August 13th, 2017 (12:08 PM).
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            icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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              [Replies to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags:
              Spoiler:
              Quote:
              Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
              I do remember saying I wonder about Derek's job, and then now we already got that reveal and how Derek was training his Pokemon in an earlier short story. I like the connection there.
              Yeah, it's one of those things like in Dad's Old Gym that had 'reveal' status when I originally wrote them as one-shots but now don't. In this case I definitely think the joke works better with the rest of the story.

              Quote:
              Haha poor Jason dealing with Shuckle. Some nice interactions between Travis and Wyvern, and cool evolution scene there. Does makes things bittersweet concerning the situation in the main story now.
              Lol, Jason's fine, I feel sorry for his Ledian. XD The evolution scene was fun to write.

              Thanks for reading!]

              Chapter 9

              June, 2017

              Krissy was trying to work up the nerve to peek around a corner. They had come as far as they could without stepping foot in any of the main hallways, but their destination was right in the middle of one. She looked over her shoulder first. Jason and Travis were still there, and they looked as nervous about this hallway as she was. The only one who didn’t seem bothered was Frostbite, which was a good thing because this might not be possible without a Pokémon who could move in silence. Krissy still had to look around the corner. She swallowed, and then she leaned forward.

              The door to her father’s office was directly underneath a lamp, and standing right in front of it was a guard. Krissy pulled her head back again as soon as she spotted him. She held up one finger to Jason and Travis; there was a plan for this. She got as close as she could to Frostbite’s ear and whispered, “Feint Attack. Temple. Blunt. Go.”

              The Sneasel steeled herself, lowered the feather on her ear, and retracted her claws. Then she dashed around the corner without making a sound, and Krissy swore she turned into a living shadow on the way. Half a second passed. There was a clump, a thud, and then nothing. Krissy waited another few seconds, then decided it was safe. She motioned the other two, and they entered the hallway. Frostbite was sitting on the Grunt’s back where he lay prone and still. When they came close Krissy saw the bruise on the side of his head. So far so good.

              She pulled the lock pick from her shirt pocket and got to work on the knob. Her hands shook when she tried the initial insertion, but after that practice took over. There was a click, and she pushed the door open as slowly as she could. Jason and Travis didn’t have to be told to drag the Grunt inside with them. Frostbite crept in last, and when Krissy eased the door shut again and locked it everything was pitch black. Finally, she exhaled. Outside it looked like any other sentry post abandoned for the restroom or the kitchen, and no Grunt would dare enter here without permission.

              “What now?” whispered Jason.

              “One second.” Krissy walked to where she knew the desk was, and then waved her hands around for the lamp’s chain. After she found it they had enough light to see, but the corners of the room were still dark, as were the tops of the bookshelves that lined the walls. She recalled Frostbite and said to the boys, “Don’t touch any of the other lights. If it’s too bright someone might see it under the door.”

              Travis stared at the limp body that was still in the middle of the floor. “What do we do about him?”

              “Just put him out of the way for now. And keep your ears open in case he starts to wake up. Jason, we’ll need Specs’s Hypnosis if that happens.”

              The boys grabbed the Grunt’s arms again, and to the nearest corner he went. Krissy noticed that they were more careful with his head than she thought they’d be. When they were done, Jason slowly scanned the rest of the room. “So… do you have any idea what this thing’s going to look like?”

              “Not really. Look for anything that’s even a little electronic. Could be a card. I’m going to start on his computer in case there’s a digital version.”

              Travis looked at the towering shelves. “Guess you could fit a card between book pages. That’s where I’d hide something important.”

              “So me and Travis got the books and you’ve got the computer,” said Jason. “Sounds like a plan.”

              Krissy nodded. She didn’t have the heart to say she no longer thought the key would be anywhere but on her father’s person. It had been too easy for them to break in, and he’d never keep anything of such importance under such scant guard. For that matter, she wouldn’t be surprised if he only kept all these books here to make it take longer for would-be spies or traitors to search for things that weren’t even there.

              Jason and Travis were already opening books and flipping through the pages. She owed it to Travis at least to look just as hard as they did; before it came time to face the inevitable, anyway. So she walked behind the desk, pulled up the chair that was still too large for her, and got to it. Rather, she turned on the bulky, antique monitor that took up a whole corner of the table and waited for it to warm up. She tried to convince herself that it didn’t matter how long it was taking when nothing was going to be there anyway, but it still made her anxious.

              Finally she saw a login screen. A long ID number was already filled in for the username, which meant she only had to guess the password. She placed her fingers on the keyboard as if something would just come to her. When nothing did, she tried the passwords that would get you into one out of every ten computer systems: ‘password,’ no. ‘123456,’ no. ‘password1,’ no.

              Krissy decided she would have better odds with weak passwords that were at least specific to the user. ‘mariano,’ no. ‘110970,’ no. ’1970-11-09,’ no. The next idea gave her pause. It was one she had to try, and she wasn’t sure what she would think if it was right: ‘lucia.’

              ‘You have exceeded the limit for failed password attempts. Your account will be unlocked in six hours.’

              Krissy’s jaw locked up. Why didn’t she think this might happen? She could have searched the desk to see if the password was written down first. Now they had no shot of finding anything on the computer before morning, and worse yet this screamed, ‘Somebody tried to break in here.’

              She almost panicked, but then she remembered the restart button. She leaned under the desk to press it, and then covered her face for the next thirty seconds as the machine booted up again. Now the login page was back, and the username field was still auto-populated. Krissy took a deep breath and tried again with random letters just to test.

              ‘You have exceeded the limit for failed password attempts. Your account will be unlocked in six hours.’

              That meant the login system must be tied in with the network and not the computer itself. Krissy realized what this implied and had to bite her tongue. If someone on security was still awake, they might have gotten an alert. There could be guards coming their way that very second. ‘No. We’re fine. None of the technical staff stay here overnight. We’re fine.’

              Krissy kept trying to convince herself of this. She put her forehead to the desk, closed her eyes, and tried breathing for a minute. When she was ready, she took out her lock pick again and decided to try her luck with the desk drawers. Maybe there’d be something.

              *********

              The two-hundredth book Krissy tried didn’t have anything hidden in its pages, just like the one hundred and ninety-nine before it. She rubbed her eyes and looked at her watch. Six o’clock. Her hands shook. Her father was not only up, but he had showered and was currently eating breakfast, unless her watch was fast. He was going to be here in five minutes. Krissy had known that nineteen times out of twenty it was going to turn out this way, but that was no consolation. They were trapped.

              She surveyed the rest of the room. The Grunt hadn’t moved an inch, much less woken up. It was probably best to treat him as a non-factor. Travis was scouring the floorboards on his hands and knees, as if he was going to find a hidden compartment or a trapdoor. Krissy couldn’t blame him for trying, even if it was more hopeless and naïve than searching the books was. As for Jason, he had just finished double-checking the desk drawers. He stood up and faced Krissy. His face was laden with fatigue and worry, which gave Krissy an idea of how awful her own face must look. “Look under the door,” he said. “There’s more light coming in now. Think we’re out of time. You got a plan?”

              Of course Krissy had a plan. The problem was that it was the worst plan ever. She did her best to put some confidence and authority in her voice, but fell far short. “We’re going to get the jump on him. He can’t beat us if he doesn’t have a chance to send out any Pokémon.”

              Jason sucked in some air and nodded. Travis stopped where he was on the floor and didn’t look up.

              “You two get in the corners closest to the door. Bring out Rabies and Leviathan, and get them ready but keep them quiet.”

              Jason nodded and went straight to the left corner, but Travis was slow to pick himself up. He dragged his feet to the other corner where the Grunt was. Krissy didn’t tell him to do anything like ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get your head in the game,’ though maybe she should have. She didn’t know. There were too many variables, too many unknowns, and everything else she’d done so far had gone for the worst, anyway.

              Two flashes, two noises, and no sign that anyone beyond the door had noticed. Jason and Travis whispered some instructions to their Pokémon. The Growlithe and the Quagsire set their feet for the ambush. Then Krissy thought about lines of sight and realized that she’d nearly blown the whole thing with her plan. She tore into herself under her breath, and then said, “Jason, move behind that reading chair instead. The way the door opens you’d be the first thing he sees right now.”

              Jason nodded and repositioned himself and Rabies behind the large chair, which put them closer to the center of the room than Krissy had wanted. “Try to get back to the corner as soon as you can. We want him caught in a triangle.”

              She checked her watch again: four minutes to go. Then she looked over at Travis. He was crouched down and staring at the floor again. Nothing about him screamed confidence, and maybe it was for the best that Krissy couldn’t make eye contact with him. She didn’t want to make him any worse. Leviathan looked ready in any case.

              Now that everything else was set, it was her turn. She let out Lucia and led her to the right-front corner of the desk. That put them on the far side of the door’s arc. She checked her watch one last time: three minutes and twenty-seven seconds. She double-checked how the door was going to open. There were no trainers, no Pokémon, and no Grunt in where her father’s field of vision was going to be. She took a deep breath, said “Ready,” then reached over to pull the lamp’s chain.

              The room was dark again. There was a little light that peeked in from the under the door, but that was it. Krissy leaned in and put her hand on the back of Lucia’s smooth head. “The enemy’s coming in from that door. Don’t attack until I say so.”

              The Bayleef shook the buds growing from her neck. Krissy couldn’t be sure when she couldn’t see her face, but it seemed like Lucia was eager. Krissy wished she could feel even remotely the same. Instead she stared at the door and felt each passing second. She was sweating, and she worried she might be breathing too loudly. More seconds crawled by. This was torture.

              Then there were footsteps. Krissy suddenly wished she was still just waiting. She put her hand by the lamp chain. A shadow came from under the door. Krissy took a deep breath now because she wouldn’t have a chance to once the door opened. She heard the rattle from the key and then the click. The knob was turning. The door came half-way open as she had expected in the average case. She saw her father, but she herself was still completely in shadow. The light hit the chair, but not Jason or Rabies behind it. Now he was supposed to close the door behind him because he always wanted privacy right away, even if that meant finding a switch in the dark. He did so, and she could no longer see him.

              A bead of sweat was rolling onto Krissy’s nose but she let it stay there. She was going to wait until he took four steps. He took one. It was in the right direction. He took another. A third. A fourth. This was it. She turned on the light.

              “Don’t move.”

              Her father didn’t move. He only watched as Jason came out from his hiding place and hustled with Rabies over to their corner. At the same time, Krissy and Lucia moved a few feet to make their formation symmetric. Her father turned his head over his other shoulder to take brief notice of Travis, Leviathan, and the Grunt before turning back to meet her eye. If any of them or their Pokémon were causing him even slight discomfort, he wasn’t showing it.

              “Lucia, I’ve been meaning to have a word with you.”

              “Shut up.” She couldn’t let him dictate the course of the conversation. That would be begging for defeat. “We want the encryption key to the new Pokéballs. Hand it over.”

              He rubbed his chin but looked otherwise unaffected. “That’s an odd thing for you to know or care about.”

              Now Jason joined in, but he tried too hard. “Cut the crap! One of your goons tried to steal one of our Pokémon, and now he’s trapped! You’re not going anywhere until we have him back!”

              “Ah.” Krissy’s father kept his feet still but looked over his shoulder at Jason. “You must be the other two that 301 mentioned. Just out of professional curiosity, who did you steal it from?”

              “I didn’t,” said Travis. He was still looking more at the floor than at their opponent. “I got him from the ocean.”

              “That only narrows it down. Did you steal it from its mother, or from its children? Judging by your age, I’d say its mother is more likely.”

              Krissy saw Travis’s fists shake. Her father continued. “I can understand your frustration at losing it, considering all the time and resources you must have put into its training. But the moral posturing and hypocrisy offend me all the same.”

              He was stalling. Worse yet, he was trying to slip them poison. Krissy had to put a stop to this at once. “Don’t listen to a word he says!”

              He faced her again. “And why shouldn’t they do that?”

              “Because you should never listen to a smart liar. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

              This made her father raise an eyebrow. “Oh?”

              Krissy had learned this lesson from Alessa last year. Just for kicks, she had managed to out-debate Krissy into believing that monarchy was the best way to run a country. Then when Krissy admitted defeat, her friend and keeper turned the tables and debated her back onto the side of democracy, laughing all the while. Alessa had only been playing a game, but she had taught Krissy volumes about people like her father in the process. “A smart liar can take any disgusting thing and make it sound like logic. That’s why you have a conscience, so you know not to believe them.”

              Her father smiled. “It’s funny you should use the phrase ‘smart liars.’ I believe you know the saying about the pot and the kettle? Or about glass houses and stones?”

              Krissy felt more than a little ill, but then Jason said, “Nice try, assh*le. Don’t think we can’t tell the difference. Now where’s that key?”

              Krissy couldn’t believe it, but she had almost let her father seize control of the situation again. She had to be more careful if they were going to stay focused.

              Her father put his hands in his pockets. “I have a busy schedule today, so I appreciate you trying to hurry this along. Giving you the key is out of the question, but there shouldn’t be a problem with extracting your friend’s Pokémon and returning it to its original ball, nor with having you escorted off the premises afterward. I’m not interested in having a battle in here and ruining my books.”

              Krissy looked at Jason and then Travis. They didn’t buy this any more than she did.

              “There would be one condition for my trouble, of course.”

              He faced Krissy again. She tried to appear strong and determined, but that became ten times harder to do when she accidentally looked in his eyes—his Arbok eyes.

              “Lucia, as compensation for this, and for the damage you’ve done to 301’s team and face, you will begin your assignment early.”

              Any strength left in Krissy’s expression dissolved.

              “Due to your age, you will have to operate under the direct supervision of a Class C Grunt. If you object we can discuss other ways to settle the matter between you and 301, but this is the minimum I can offer if your friend wants his Pokémon back.”

              Krissy’s knees felt weak. She was supposed to have four more years before facing this situation. This shattered every contingency she had considered short-term, mid-term, long-term, and lifetime. It was bad enough that her father had identified her as a hostile long before he was supposed to, but there was no way she could carry out her plan from the inside. There would be too many eyes watching, gathering allies would be impossible, and even that paled in comparison to the thought of the things she’d have to do as an actual member of Team Rocket.

              But she couldn’t say no, either. It would be one thing if Wyvern were her Pokémon, but he wasn’t. And it would be one thing if this weren’t all her fault, but it was. She had started them on this path before any of them were ready, and Wyvern and Travis were the ones paying for it. It was her impatience, her arrogance, and her deceptions that had brought them here. She couldn’t turn this down in good conscience.

              “No.”

              All eyes turned to the speaker. It was Travis. He kept his eyes down and said, “We’re not trading. You don’t get any of us. And none of our Pokémon either. Give us the key.”

              Now that her father was looking somewhere else, Krissy found her sense and resolve returning. “You’re in no position to ask for terms! If you don’t want to look like Slate, you’ll do what we say. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you have on the rest of the board—you’re still in checkmate!”

              Krissy’s father closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m disappointed. I would have expected a better appraisal of the situation from you.” He turned to face her again. “I suppose you think you have me pinned with a queen and two bishops, but the fact is that your bishops are pawns, and they’re facing the wrong direction.”

              Krissy was done with his tricks. “You wanna bet?”

              “Yes. I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice, but your friends’ Pokémon are not going to attack me.”

              Krissy’s mouth opened, but no words came out.

              “Haven’t you looked at their posture? Can’t you tell a safe Pokémon from a useful one? You’d have enough trouble getting that Growlithe to set a condemned building on fire, much less attack a person. I won’t get anything worse from him than playful roughhousing, same with that Quagsire. I’d have to pull a knife on your friends to get them to attack me in earnest.”

              All three of them were struck dead silent. It had never occurred to Krissy that the boys might be bluffing, but now it was obvious. Even if Rabies and Leviathan looked just as eager as ever, they were still waiting for an opponent that hadn’t arrived yet. If Jason and Travis told them to attack now, they would hesitate more than enough for her father to act.

              “That leaves your Bayleef as the only Pokémon here that wasn’t raised to be worthless. Obviously you haven’t forgotten everything I’ve taught you, as further evidenced by 301’s injuries and that Grunt in the corner.”

              ‘You’ve already smelled the blood in the water.’ The words crept up again from under the surface. The poison had never gotten out of her system. She heard new words, too, even though no one was speaking: ‘Your friends have lost because they are decent, and you are still in it because you are a Rocket.’ There was no winning for her against him. Not then, not now, not ever.

              “And you’ve made one more mistake: you sent out a Pokémon that was mine to begin with.” He raised his hands and slapped his left with the back of his right, making a violent-sounding crack. Krissy recognized the gesture right away. It came straight out of the Team Rocket handbook: a Pavlovian trigger to induce obedience.

              ‘Oh no. Oh god, no.’ Krissy wasn’t Lucia’s original trainer. She had no idea what he had done to her before they met.

              “Bayleef, come.”

              Krissy was convinced beyond all doubt that her Pokémon would obey. But nothing happened. Now for the first time her father’s expression took on some measure of doubt, maybe even consternation. He slapped his hand again. “Bayleef. Come.”

              Still nothing. Lucia might have tensed up slightly, but even that was a maybe. Then it was plain and simple to Krissy why nothing was happening, and the explanation just slipped out of her mouth on its own. “That’s not her name.”

              “Excuse me?”

              Krissy should never have worried. Lucia could stare down a Taunt from the most experienced Pokémon and barely break a sweat. She knew not to listen to anyone who wasn’t her trainer. And there was no easier way to tell that someone wasn’t her trainer than if they didn’t so much as know her name. “I said that’s not her name. That’s just her species.”

              Her father couldn’t cheat his way out of this. If he wanted to beat Lucia, he’d have to send out a Pokémon. She was this close to telling Lucia to attack him.

              Her father frowned. “I see. I hoped this would be easier.”

              Without warning, the lamp dimmed. Her father’s eyes opened wide, wider than she knew they could open, and out of them burst a piercing, red glow. Every last joint in Krissy’s body seized up. She tried to close her eyes but couldn’t. She had to keep staring into that red gaze. Everything in her peripherals began to bend and swirl. This wasn’t natural, not for a human. This was Arbok, Persian, something. This wasn’t her father, but at the same time it was more her father than it was before. This was how he looked when she was asleep.

              Lucia fell to the ground in a heap. Krissy tried to keep her balance, to do anything to stay upright, but it was probably luck that kept her from falling over.

              “Krissy!” That was one of the boys. Jason. Someone was barking from that direction, too. She heard quick footsteps, and then the red eyes looked away. She was still stuck, though. Two bodies fell to the ground. The eyes turned in the other direction, and another body fell down. But only one, not two.

              “Look at me.”

              The other body crumpled. That was five, which left only her. The eyes faced her again, and now the distortion at the edge of her vision began to invade the center. Her father took two steps forward, but then he stopped, bent over, and put his hand to his mouth. Was it nausea? He made a violent cough, and Krissy barely saw something dark purple, almost black, dripping between his fingers.

              “Come out.” The voice was pained and raspy.

              Her father’s head was then covered in a shadow that extended down to his chest. It rose out of him as a mass of spikes, and the red eyes went with it. Then it came into its own shape and flashed a sharp, manic grin. Gengar. Her father had invited a toxic ghost into his body. That was something they would put you away for. How was he still alive, much less standing?

              Something finally gave way and she hit the floor. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Was this Glare, Hypnosis, or something else entirely? Both? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that she had never miscalculated so badly in her life. What on earth had compelled her to take an apparent checkmate at face value against her father? You can’t win when you’re not even in the same league.

              It was vague, but at some point Krissy heard other people come into the room. Someone hoisted her up, but she still couldn’t move.

              “Put the Pokémon back in their balls, but don’t send them to Acquisitions yet. That will depend on what I decide to do with their trainers. I’ll be downstairs in a few hours.”

              “Yes, sir.”

              At one point Krissy was in an elevator, or at least she thought so by the sound and the faint sensation of falling. Then the echo of boots said they were in a metal hallway. A door opened, and she was shoved onto a hard floor.

              “Holy sh*t, man, watch it! Don’t you know who that is?”

              “Huh? Whaddya talkin’ about?”

              The door shut again, and the voices continued on the other side of it, though Krissy couldn’t make out what they were saying. Instead her mind was filled with the sight of the Gengar’s eyes. If it took such a powerful attack to overcome her father’s immunity, he must have started building it up decades ago. The Gengar had been haunting her since birth: paralyzing her in subtle ways her entire life. She’d always known that looking her father in the eye was dangerous, but she never suspected how right she was. These thoughts repeated themselves over and over in Krissy’s head as everything slipped away.

              *********

              Very slowly, things started to return to Krissy, though she couldn’t tell how long it took. Sight came first, then sensation in her extremities which spread until she was just lying on the floor as she normally would. She pushed herself up and looked around. Travis was sitting on a metal bench and staring at nothing. Jason was walking in circles. They noticed that she was awake, but it seemed nobody knew what to say yet, herself included.

              She recognized this room as one of the cells in the brig. Not that she had seen one from the inside before, but that was the only thing it could be. So this was it. They’d lost. She felt around for her Pokéballs, but they were gone. Frostbite, Primeape, Lucia. She tried not to think it, but they were probably gone forever. Leviathan was going to join Wyvern. Ali, Specs, and Rabies, too. And it was all her fault. She hugged her knees.

              “There’s gotta be something we can do,” said Jason at nearly a whisper. “Someone can pretend to be sick and then we jump the guard. Something.”

              Krissy shook her head. That wouldn’t work. It would only get Jason or Travis a black eye. She didn’t know how to tell him that it was time to give up—to try to cope. This had ended as soon as she’d missed her offer to join Team Rocket early. And that was all Travis. He would have gained the most by her saying ‘yes,’ but he tried to save her anyway. Had he known that meant throwing away everything else? She suspected he had. And since she wasn’t worth that much to him, that made him a moron. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to act like one of the selfless idiots she was more used to seeing in stories than in real life.

              She truly had found those friends she’d wanted from the beginning. She should have known better than to look for them in the first place.

              *

              [Next time, in Chapter 10, Derek passes the point of no return.]
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                #36    
              Old August 14th, 2017 (4:49 PM).
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              Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
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              I admit, I didn't expect Krissy's dad to have been possessed by Gengar. I take it it relates to several of Gengar's entries which it mentions taking other people's shadows? Either way, makes me wonder how that has happened. I also admit I thought Lucia will go to Krissy's father's side, but luckily Krissy thought of nicknaming her a while back. I feel bad for her thinking she doesn't deserve to be friends with Jason and Travis.
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              Old August 26th, 2017 (5:37 PM). Edited August 26th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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              icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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                [Reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags:
                Spoiler:

                Quote:
                Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
                I admit, I didn't expect Krissy's dad to have been possessed by Gengar. I take it it relates to several of Gengar's entries which it mentions taking other people's shadows? Either way, makes me wonder how that has happened.
                I didn't have a particular entry in mind; it just made sense to me that a ghost would be able to possess someone, especially a willing participant. The way I'd describe it is that it's similar to how Hanna and Marie work together. In this case, Russo's allowing the Gengar into his body so that its abilities can augment his own. Where Hanna is able to think more efficiently and have Marie share people's thoughts with her, Russo is able to use minor hypnotism on people through his eyes with Gengar's help--or major hypnotism, but this puts more of his insides in contact with Gengar's poison and could be lethal if he keeps it up for too long. He keeps Gengar inside of him except when his body needs to recover, and it took him several years to build up enough immunity to do this. (I'm only elaborating on this here because it's not going to get any more explanation in the story than I've already given it.)

                Thanks for reading!]

                Chapter 10

                It was eight o’clock in the morning when Derek walked up the path to the mansion with a folder of misinformation in hand. He had to roll his eyes when the place came into view. It was exactly the sort of overbuilt, tacky, nouveau riche monstrosity that his dad would rail about whenever one of them went up within five miles of Ecruteak. The old man had hated the “new-vogue rich” bastards almost as much as the old-money rich bastards. Derek wondered two things: why he still thought of his dad as the ‘old man’ even though he hadn’t lived to be much older than he himself was now, and how he could be thinking about idle nonsense when he was twenty yards away from Mariano Russo’s front door.

                Derek wished he hadn’t just thought of that, as now the fact he had come this far without anyone showing up to slow him down felt more ominous than fortunate. Even if the mansion wasn’t Johto HQ proper, he had expected at least minimal guard to be present. Instead this might as well be any other (large, ugly) house on any other clear, quiet morning. Derek’s old, crippling fear of showing up at the wrong address suddenly boiled up, but it passed quickly because he would be safer at almost any other house, after all.

                The instructions from Lewis were to take the rear entrance, so Derek veered off the main walkway and into the open grass between the mansion and the woods. Nobody was running out to intercept him. Where the hell was the security? Maybe they were watching with closed-circuit cameras, but that did nothing to stop someone in his position from throwing a brick through a window. Then again, considering Russo’s personality profile, it was possible he was just waiting for someone to be dumb enough to try something like that.

                Derek rounded the corner to the back of the grounds, and a familiar face in a Grunt’s uniform was leaning next to a steel door. Lewis’s anxiety was obvious in his step and his eyes as he hurried over to him. “The hell took you, Brooks? I’m skipping my post for this!”

                Derek went over in his head the attributes that anyone he knew in Team Rocket associated with him: curt, jaded, bitter, not-hobbled-by-neuroticism. “Tough sh*t. This ain’t exactly on my way to work.”

                “Whatever.” Lewis pointed to Derek’s folder. “That stuff you’re selling’s in there, right? Let’s go talk.”

                Derek pointed at Lewis in turn. “I told you. Russo’s eyes only. Guy who writes the checks or nothing. I ain’t getting short-changed on this one.”

                Lewis bit his lip and looked over his shoulder. Derek knew the pattern, and he was counting on the decision getting punted to someone else first. “Look, man…”

                Derek reached into his pocket. He couldn’t take any chances today. “Will this do it?” He flashed a bill: a hundred-hundred. Getting Rockets to do what you wanted was even more expensive than getting them to leave you alone.

                It was a foregone conclusion that this would get him through the door, but Lewis hesitated for longer than Derek had anticipated. Finally he swiped the note. “Okay, fine. Follow me.”

                Lewis unlocked the door, led Derek in haste around a few corners, and then pressed the call button on an elevator that looked twice as old as the rest of the house. Thirty seconds later the car arrived, and the inside looked even older than the out. As they descended with a jerk, Derek tried to decide whether staying silent all the way down would make him seem more suspicious or less. Fortunately, Lewis made the choice for him. “Man, but you picked a weird day to see the boss.”

                Derek was anxious to know whether this was good luck or bad luck. If it meant Russo was less likely to actually grant him an audience, it was great news. “That right?”

                “Yeah. Big family trouble. Got most of us pretty on-edge, just so you know.”

                “Appreciated.” It was indeed good luck, then. No Rocket was going to want to talk to Russo directly today, and the longer they gave Derek the run-around the greater his chances were of giving someone the slip.

                Just to keep his mind occupied, Derek tried to think about what ‘family trouble’ could mean. Russo’s bio listed only two immediate family members. Ex-wife Penelope was reported in the local newspaper as having disappeared nine years ago, but recent police intelligence suggested the Rockets had covered-up her suicide. Daughter Lucia, born 2006, was journeying and otherwise had nothing in her file except a photo from when she was five. And it was also possible that the trouble could be coming from extended family. The elevator screeched a little as it came to a stop, and Derek put these thoughts on the back-burner.

                The basement put on no pretensions of being anyone’s home. The hallways were cold, dim, and industrial with steel floors and exposed pipes where they had skimmed on the ceiling. “Boss is awful particular we do our business down here,” said Lewis as they walked. “Sucks, but can’t really blame him for wanting things quiet where he lives.”

                ‘More like he wants it easier to trap intruders,’ thought Derek. ‘Not hard when there’s only one way back up.’

                They walked by a number of Rockets in a circle who wore stone-serious, nervous expressions. Lewis wasn’t kidding about the base being ‘on-edge.’ Then they passed a pair of Grunts moving the other way who seemed relatively at ease. One of them was showing off his newly acquired hardware: a familiar black Pokéball. “…just got it from the quartermaster. Think he’s got some left if you want one.”

                “Nah, I’m gonna lay low today. Hear they’ll be standard issue in a month or t…”

                Derek took note that some people’s jobs were about to get a lot harder. As for Lewis, he was looking increasingly anxious. It was as if he wasn’t quite sure where they were supposed to go. Derek was trying to figure out whether it was better to appear impatient or indifferent when Lewis came to a sudden stop in the middle of an intersection.

                Lewis took a hesitant look down the other hallway, than called out, “Hey, Slate! Got a minute?”

                Another Grunt who looked too old to still be a Grunt stopped in his tracks. He stood with his back to them for a few seconds, but when he finally turned around and approached them Derek failed to keep his surprise from showing. This was definitely the same one who’d captured Wyvern. Fortunately, Derek had a ready excuse for being surprised: Slate’s right eye was barely visible behind a swollen mass of black and blue. It was easier to count the stitches than to see the pupil.

                Slate gave Derek a cursory but stern looking over. There was no obvious recognition on his end, which was expected but still a relief. Then he faced Lewis. “What?”

                “Got a guest here. Can you entertain him for a few while I find an Admin? I’ll cover half your night shift.”

                It took Slate several seconds to decide. “…Deal. We’ll be in 105A.”

                Lewis flashed Slate a thumbs-up and then he was gone. Slate turned around again. “Come on.”

                Derek followed. Now that he knew what room they were going to, it reminded him to take note the numbers of the rooms they passed. He was going to have to navigate some of this place by himself. They were on 116N. After a few turns he had the numbering scheme figured out, but it would still require some guesswork to get back to the elevator from 116N in case things went south.

                Then Derek spotted the holy grail: open door, lights off, computer monitors on. 108E. Just the place for Hanna to work her magic. Unless he found somewhere better, this room was his destination once he got away. That was one uncertainty down with only a mountain of them left.

                A minute later they had arrived. Slate unlocked the door, opened it, and gestured Derek in first with his thumb. Derek didn’t like having a Rocket to his back for even two seconds, but he took the risk and walked in. The room was nothing but four close walls with a small table and two chairs. Rocket facilities came standard with dual-purpose rooms for hospitality and interrogations. Derek took the chair closest to the door and sat casually with his body facing Slate. He wanted to seem compliant but not intimidated.

                Slate made no issue of Derek’s choice of seat. He closed the door behind him and took his place on the opposite side of the table. They weren’t making eye contact. Now Derek had to choose between letting the time burn until Lewis showed up with an Admin or trying to get something out of Slate. Obviously the man was having a bad day, so the question was whether Derek could exploit that. The risk of missing an opportunity seemed worse than the risk that this would backfire.

                “That’s a real shiner you got there. Get caught cheatin’ at cards?” Always best to lead off with the obvious and therefore unsuspicious.

                Slate scowled and shook his head. “I don’t get caught. Hundred percent unprovoked—hadn’t even said a word yet. Goddamn Ice Punch.”

                Derek winced. Ice Punch fit the symptoms, all right. “You give the other guy worse?”

                Slate pounded the table. “Couldn’t. It was the boss’s f*ckin’ daughter.”

                “…Yikes.” That was certainly one for Lucia’s file if Derek ever learned more about the context of the exchange. He didn’t want to assume, but it was possible some things ran in the Russo family.

                “I’m swear to god, this kid is a f*ckin’ witch. I mean a biblical, hell-spawn, blood-sucking sorceress.”

                Derek nodded. “Sure looks like it.”

                “You don’t know the half of it! That little sh*t already made me lose two Ursaring and a Golbat! She even summoned some mystery *sshole with a Tyranitar, and everyone thinks I made that part up!”

                Derek lost all composure in his expression. Below the table he dug his fingers into his leg just to keep himself from flipping out. He needed a quick excuse for looking so shocked. “Two Ursaring?”

                “Eight years ago. This one kid had twin Teddiursa with big paws—that’s how you know they’ll be good. I gave up two weeks’ pay so the Admins would let me raise ’em, and two months’ pay to keep ’em after they evolved. And now they’re gone. Eight years gone.”

                Derek was only half-listening at this point. ‘Lucia. “Krissy.” Fake name, not a nickname. We didn’t think to look up Russo’s family. Violet City’s database would have had the picture from her license. It wouldn’t have taken us five minutes.’

                Slate continued in his raving. “F*ck! If there was ever a kid who needed to lose some molars it’s this one, but who’s gonna try anything? And get this: we finally get her and her stupid toadies locked up, and I can’t touch her!”

                Derek’s hands shook. It was too late. They were here. The Rockets had them. Russo had them. For a split-second some idiot part of his brain thought it was lucky for them that Krissy was the boss’s daughter, but that was nonsense. If anything, it made the whole situation twice as dire. Whatever was coming to them, it might come slower but it was more likely than not going to be beyond sadistic.

                “You know what? F*ck it. I’m gonna do it.”

                Derek didn’t want to betray anything in his voice. “Hm?”

                “Ah, nothin’ much. Just thinking it wouldn’t be a problem if her little pals had a few more bumps and bruises on ’em. Might get her thinking. And I know one of them that really deserves it.”

                Everything stopped for Derek. Whatever his original plan here had been, it was far from his mind now. A new plan was already taking its place, and even though he didn’t know the whole thing yet, he knew the first steps. He reached into his back pocket for a pack of cigarettes that he’d never opened because he didn’t smoke. He took one out and asked, “You got a light?”

                “Yeah, one sec.”

                Derek gestured the pack toward him. “Want one?”

                Slate looked surprised for a moment, but then he said, “Hey, that’d be great, thanks.”

                Derek got up and began to approach on his left, Slate’s right. The Grunt’s attention was on his pocket as he dug out his lighter, and his bad eye left Derek out of his field of vision. Derek came to within a pace of him and still saw no hint of realization. Slate didn’t know that Derek could no longer allow him to leave the room. Before he could look up again, Derek grabbed his head and slammed it into the metal table.

                Slate was dazed enough that he didn’t scream, but he wasn’t out. Derek dropped his cigarettes and hoisted him to his feet. He pounded his fist into his stomach once to knock the air out of him, and again because he was mad. Slate doubled over, which made it easy for Derek to drive his head into the wall. The Grunt fell to the floor in a heap and didn’t move an inch from there. Derek on the other hand had to stagger backwards and grab his chest because he was hyperventilating.

                While he was still getting his breathing under control, he bent down to check the Grunt’s vitals. Pulse was still there. Derek wasn’t a killer yet, but he realized that everything else had changed. If there had been any chance before of his getting out of here entirely covertly, that was gone. Lewis was still on his way with an Admin, and they were only going to draw one conclusion from this scene. There was no way Derek could hide the body—no, hide Slate; he wasn’t just a body yet.

                Derek closed his eyes and tried to focus. He had to treat his cover as blown now. That meant he was probably fired, but the thought only barely crossed his mind. The only thing that mattered was that this was his only shot of getting the kids out of here. He slapped himself in the face, took Slate’s keys, and made a beeline for the door. There was nobody in the hallway, so he could lock the door behind him unnoticed. Then he picked a direction and moved that way in a hurry.

                He didn’t know where to go. They might not even be on this floor, and he didn’t know how to get to the lower ones. Then he heard footsteps approaching the corner in front of him. He stopped in his tracks and looked for the nearest door; it didn’t matter if anyone was inside. He found one a few paces behind him. Locked. The footsteps were getting closer to the intersection. Somehow he fit Slate’s key in the lock on the second try despite his shaking hands. It clicked.

                The room was unlit, and once Derek closed the door behind him it was pitch black. He allowed himself a few seconds to breathe, but it didn’t help much. He clapped a hand to his forehead and muttered, “F*ck. F*ck. F*ck.”

                This was ridiculous. There was absolutely no way he could find where they were keeping the kids if he couldn’t be seen. That left the unsubtle option of using Tyranitar to pulverize anyone who crossed his path, but that was untenable. Even supposing he reached them that way, it would be war by the time he got there. The Rockets would have disabled the elevator by then to trap them, and he didn’t want to risk calling in Hanna and Marie to extract them in the chaos. He continued to swear under his breath. It was impossible.

                Then he stopped swearing. The answer had been staring him right in the face. He might not need to find them at all if Hanna could. They’d never tried calling Travis because he probably would have blocked them right away, but if there was a time to try, it was now. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and prayed to have some luck for once.

                There were only five names in his contacts, so it took only a few taps to dial Hanna. She picked up right away.

                “Ready?”

                “No, wait!” Derek was almost too loud. He brought himself under control and moved further away from the door.

                “What’s wrong?”

                What wasn’t wrong? “They’re here. The kids are here. I don’t know where, but the Rockets have them.”

                Hanna was silent for several seconds. “…Oh my god.”

                “Listen. This might be our only shot so between we’ve got to get it right. You need to call Travis, hope someone picks up, and lock onto them.”

                “Is that going to work? What if they took their phones?”

                “Then I’ll think of something else! Maybe a guard think it’d be funny to answer it! If that happens, bring Jen and Summer and come out swinging. If it’s too hot to handle, teleport out again.”

                Derek thought he heard Jen asking something on the other end.

                “I mean,” said Hanna, “we can do that, but say Travis still has it. What if there’s a Rocket in the room and he hurts him for trying something with his phone?”

                Derek dug his fingers into his arm. “It doesn’t matter. We’re out of options. Lead with a text and try to convince him. Send it in code so it looks like nothing if a guard reads it. Whatever!”

                There was another vague noise from Jen on the other end, but Hanna wasn’t answering. “Hanna, please. I don’t have much room to do anything from here. I…I’m stuck. I need you to try this. They need you to try this.”

                More noises from Jen, and then a few words from Hanna that weren’t directed at her phone: “…Get off me! I’m going to answer him, okay?” A short pause. Then Hanna said, “We’ll do it. Sit tight. I’ll call you right back.”

                Derek was one tap away from hanging up when he heard a few more words: “Be safe. We’ll get you out next.” She hung up first.

                He fumed. Who was she to tell him to ‘be safe?’ Wasn’t he the only one who actually had any business being down here? He had been preparing for an infiltration mission like this for years. Even if Jason and his idiot friends had just stuck to training from the beginning, Derek would have made it here eventually. This was never about his safety, and he had to keep it that way for their sakes.

                *********

                Travis felt hollow. It was probably because he had skipped dinner the night before. He was staring at the wall, which hadn’t changed in the last hour. Other things that hadn’t changed were his shoes, the floor, the ceiling, the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, and Jason. His friend was still walking in circles, and every few minutes he would say something to the effect of how they had to do something, or an example of what they might try. Then Krissy would give a curt, expert reason why his idea wouldn’t work, and it was back to silence. This all repeated like clockwork, and Travis wanted nothing more than for all the clocks to stop. The only choices were to wait for things to get worse or to make things worse themselves, so it would be best if everything just froze.

                He had to wonder if it wouldn’t feel so bad if it weren’t all his fault. Krissy’s Rocket friend had summed it up earlier: ‘Are you willing to do anything to get your Pokémon back?’ He had said ‘yes’ then, because he was still a liar.

                ‘Hell yeah, we should fight Team Rocket,’ when he meant, ‘Hell no, we’ll freaking die.’

                ‘Wyvern, easy. He’ll clean their clocks,’ when he meant, ‘Wyvern, because Leviathan’s weaker. And I’m going to keep him as far away from the action as I can.’

                ‘Yes,’ when he meant, ‘Anything? How can I possibly know that?’

                And now he knew the answer was ‘no.’ He wasn’t going to offer up one hostage to get another back. That was the hard, awful truth, even though he already knew that if anyone ever asked, he would say he shut down Russo’s offer because it was an obvious trick and the creep was never going to free Wyvern anyway. Even at the end of his rope Travis couldn’t handle the thought of being honest about something like that. It was pathetic.

                All of this in his head was interrupted when his pocket started buzzing. It took him a moment to realize what it was. His phone hadn’t gone off since he blocked his parents’ numbers last year. Jason and Krissy stared as he pulled it out.

                “…They didn’t take your phones?” whispered Jason.

                Krissy felt for her own pocket with a look of disbelief on her face. Then it reverted to a look of bitter resignation. “Why bother? Who would we call?”

                In one sense, she was right: Travis didn’t get the feeling that the police could even make it down here. But some inexplicable, almost optimistic part of him knew the Rockets had made a mistake. “No. They just forgot. They were focused on the Pokémon.”

                Jason pointed at Travis’s phone, which was still vibrating. “Well, what is it?”

                Travis flipped open the screen for the first time in months. He didn’t recognize the number on top, but underneath it read: “hey herd u needed a lift, give me a call! –H”

                He couldn’t believe it right away. His first thought was that whoever it was had the wrong number, but everything added up too well. “It’s Hanna. She wants to bail us.”

                “What?” Jason couldn’t believe it either. “Does she know? There’s no way.”

                Maybe she knew and maybe she didn’t. All that mattered was that she probably had the computer and her Alakazam ready. It seemed too good to be true.

                “The Pokémon,” said Krissy. “We can’t leave without them.”

                It was too good to be true. Or maybe not. Travis tried to remember if Hanna could do her hacker-thing with only a text or if she needed an actual phone call. If a text wasn’t enough, they had a tiny bit of leverage. “She can help us get them back. If Jen’s there and brings her Arcanine, we’ll be good.”

                “Yeah, but…” Jason trailed off. He didn’t know how to say what Travis knew was on his mind.

                Krissy had no problem saying it. “Wyvern.”

                Travis bit his lip. Then he started tapping a reply.

                “Travis.” Jason started walking up to him. “You don’t have to. We’ll think of something. We can get out of here on our own and save Wyvern too.”

                Here was Travis’s message: “pkmn outside door. need firepwr pls” He hit send.

                A text came back almost immediately: “u got it. pls call now”

                “Look,” said Jason, “we don’t know if she’ll actually help get the others back! What if she just sends Marie and rounds us up as fast as possible? Then it’s over!”

                Travis had already considered Jason’s point, and he didn’t care. Of course he wanted to save every last one of them. Maybe Hanna would stick to her word and maybe she wouldn’t. But the fact was that the situation was the same as in Russo’s office.

                He looked at Krissy. She was staring at the floor again. He didn’t know if Jason understood, but they had to get her away from this place at all cost. The way Krissy’s father made her sick was worse than anything he could ever do to him, Jason, or the Pokémon. Most of things he’d hated about her were never really her—it was a walking poison named Russo. Travis had to wonder if it got worse every time he or Jason hyped her up as ‘ruthless’ or ‘bloodthirsty’ after she embarrassed some trainer in a battle.

                There were a lot of words he wanted to take back. He wasn’t sure if he would ever work himself up to doing so, but for now he could hit ‘call’ and try to make up for it that way. In his head, he begged and begged Wyvern to forgive him.

                *********

                Hanna’s phone lit up. Travis was calling. She pressed the button to answer, and at the same time the program on her laptop kicked into gear. She whispered into the mic, “Don’t hang up.” This was it.

                Jen cracked her knuckles. “Here we go.” She pressed the button on Summer’s ball, and the Arcanine appeared next to her. The hotel room was small, so it was a tight fit with two people and two Pokémon. Jen put her hand on the top of Summer’s head. “Marie’s taking us to a fight, girl. Be ready.”

                Summer made a low growl. Hanna wasn’t convinced that she understood this meant teleportation, but she sounded ready. First the program needed to finish running, though. Hanna looked at the thousands of lines of logging information flying up the screen. Usually it was half-done by this point, but there was really no telling. “Come on…”

                Marie made a growl of her own and spun her spoons. ‘Marie. How are you feeling?’

                Marie sent a psychic pulse instead of words. It put a healthy-enough blue tint in Hanna’s peripheral vision, but it didn’t feel terribly strong. By Hanna’s best guess, Marie had enough in her for at most five teleportations. That meant it wasn’t quite a good day, but on a bad day she might only be able to manage three, so they were lucky. It was enough to get the kids in one go and then Derek with another.

                The program was still running. Did it always take this long, or was it just her?

                Five seconds passed. Then a window popped up with a satellite map of the outskirts of Violet City. It zoomed in to a spot a few dozen yards away from a mansion. “Got ’em.”

                It was the longitude and latitude, anyway, but in this case Marie needed more than that. Hanna put her hand on the Alakazam’s back and let her take complete control of her retinas. She saw a hazy vision of the same spot as on the map, but from the ground. ‘Go down.’

                The vision dove underneath the earth and only stopped moving when she saw the outline of a hallway. That wasn’t it, but there was always some degree of error with phone GPS. ‘Check the walls on either side.’ Beyond one wall was dirt, and beyond the other was a broom closet. ‘Down again.’ This brought them to another hallway. In front of them was a door with two human shapes in front of it. They passed through the door and into a room with three smaller silhouettes in it. ‘There.’

                Hanna got her own eyes back, and then motioned to Jen. “Ready?”

                “Ready.”

                Jen leaned in to grab Marie’s shoulder.

                ‘Bring Summer too. Jen’s got her.’

                ‘Okay. Got Summer.’

                Hanna took a deep breath. She tried not to think about how many years it had been since she was last in anything resembling a battle. ‘Go.’

                The hotel room vanished. Hanna’s body began to turn in contradictory directions, but since she knew where they were going it felt like diving straight forward. Then they were in another small room, except this one was metal, and they were suspended two feet in the air. Any psychic detachment Hanna was still experiencing collapsed when they landed on their feet with a loud noise.

                “Aaaah!”

                Jason was sprawled out on the floor almost right underneath Hanna. That was close. She looked around. There were Travis and Krissy, neither of whom looked entirely with it, and there was the door.

                Then she heard a muffled voice. “The hell was that!”

                Hanna reached down and pulled Jason to his feet. “Get behind us! Move!” She heard someone working on the knob as the kids scrambled for the far corners.

                “Summer,” said Jen, “get rid of him.”

                Summer breathed in, and as soon as the Grunt opened the door she bellowed so loudly it made Hanna’s ears ring.

                “F*ck!” The Grunt bolted from the doorway. Summer was about to charge after him, but Jen stopped her.

                “Wait!”

                Amid a rash of noises and swears from outside, Hanna heard several Pokéballs opening. Into the room burst two Raticate, but Summer torched them before they could get close. They squealed in pain and skidded to a halt. In the close quarters Hanna could feel the heat on her arms, which is why it took her a moment to realize something was wrong. She didn’t know how many balls had opened, but it was more than two. That, and her forehead felt far too cold for all the fire that Summer had just used.

                As Summer leapt forward to sink her fangs into one of the large rat Pokémon, Hanna’s eyes darted about the room. “Marie! Watch out for a—”

                Her gut was right, but it was too late. A spot on the wall grew dark, and out of it shot a mass of deepest black. Before Hanna could even finish speaking, it struck Marie square in the forehead and she slumped to the floor. Shadow Ball. Only now did Hanna see the Haunter floating near the ceiling, and she completely froze up. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do in this situation.

                Then Summer roared again and the two battered Raticate skittered to the door, but the Haunter only flashed its disembodied claws and shadow-fangs. At the same time, Hanna felt a rumbling sensation and low noise in her brain. Marie was using Psychic. It built slowly at first but then there was a spike. It was concussive. The Haunter’s eyes went dark and it fell straight down. It didn’t land with any real impact, and all that remained on the floor was a lumpy shadow and a small pool of something faintly purple.

                Hanna started breathing again. Her head was still pounding. From down the hallway she heard running feet, but they were moving farther away. Jason, Krissy, and Travis ran past her for the door, while Jen chased after them and told them to hold on, or something to that effect. They must not have felt the Psychic attack if they could still move and their ears weren’t ringing. Hanna put a hand to her temple and looked at the Haunter. Marie must have broken apart most of the poison in its body on a molecular level. She didn’t know if the Haunter was still alive, or if that was the right word for ghost-types, but she hoped the kids would assume it had fainted.

                By the time Hanna managed to shake off her headache, Jen and the kids were back inside and the kids were clipping Pokéballs to their belts. “Okay,” said Jen, “We’re all good here. Let’s blow this joint before they come back. Summer, stay on the door!”

                Then Jen noticed Marie, who was still on her knees. The kids were staring at her as well.

                “…Is she okay?” asked Krissy.

                Hanna already knew what the answer was, but she needed specifics. She dropped to Marie’s eye level and felt her forehead. ‘Marie? Marie? …Oh, sh*t.’

                Marie opened her eyes a crack. Then she sent Hanna a psychic pulse. It was so weak that it didn’t even make it to Hanna’s eyes. ‘How many more can you do, girl? You’ve got to say how many. I can’t tell.’

                ‘…’

                ‘Marie?’

                ‘…One.’

                A pit formed in Hanna’s stomach. “…She’s got one teleport left in her.”

                Jen was in disbelief. “What?”

                Hanna ground her teeth. “And I think she’s going to pass out right after she uses it. Give me your phone.”

                Jen pulled her cell out of her pocket and Hanna swiped it with too much force. She brought up Derek in the contacts list, and waited for two rings too many for him to pick up. “Derek?”

                He didn’t waste a syllable. “Status?”

                “We’re here. We have the kids—”

                “Then teleport out. Now.”

                “Hold on! We have the kids but Marie’s not good. She can only do one more trip, so you have to meet up with us first or you’ll be stuck.”

                Silence. Why wasn’t he saying anything? Hanna stood up. Maybe they’d have to meet him partway there. “Derek? Where are you? Listen, we need to—”

                “Go.”

                Hanna’s mouth stayed open, but she couldn’t say anything. Everyone was staring at her.

                “W…”

                “I said go. Get the kids out of there now. I can handle myself. I’m not unprotected.”

                “Derek, that’s nuts! You just said a minute ago—”

                He didn’t raise his voice in volume, but he shouted with his tone. “Hanna! They’re children! They’re our first priority, now move it before you’ve got Rockets to deal with!”

                She knew he was right. It made her sick, and she wanted more than anything to tell him off. She wanted to tell him that he was too important to leave behind either. But they were children. Derek was an adult, this was his job, and she had to trust him to know what he was doing. She closed her eyes. “Okay. We’re going.”

                “Good.”

                “Be care—” He hung up. “…ful.”

                Hanna wished he were here so she could slap him. And while she was at it, they could all escape together like they were supposed to. She shut the phone and tossed it back to Jen. “Everyone get close. Jen, get Summer back in her ball; it’ll make it easier.”

                Jen looked absolutely stricken, but she seemed to understand and didn’t argue. Back in the ball Summer went. Jason and Travis approached slowly with their heads hung, but Krissy didn’t move.

                “…He’s here?” she asked in a small voice. “Derek’s here?”

                “Yes. He’ll be okay; he’s a professional. But we have to go.”

                The only word to describe the look on Krissy’s face was ‘horror.’ She nearly came out of her skin. “No! We can’t!”

                She tried to dart toward the door again, but Jen caught her by the arm. “Krissy! Come on!”

                Krissy struggled and screamed. “No! No! They’ll kill him!

                Hanna stared at Krissy, and then at the boys. She could see it in their faces: they believed her without question. She was missing something, and she was terrified to know what. A feeling from deep inside told her they couldn’t leave yet, and it wouldn’t be easy to shut it up.

                *********

                Derek put the phone back in his pocket. He closed his eyes, let his back rest against the wall, and allowed himself to breathe. It was over. Thanks to Hanna and Marie they’d finally done what they’d set out to do. The kids were safely on their way home.

                He opened his eyes again. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Safe for Krissy meant away from home, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to let her go off by herself. And then there was Travis. His trainer’s journey was probably over for good, as was Jason’s, but that was nothing compared to how his Pokémon was still trapped. It would have been so perfect if things had gone according to plan—if they’d been able to lure them back by saving Wyvern. But there was no chance of that happening now.

                Derek put his face in his hands. He knew it was selfish, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about how this was the end for him, too. He’d blown his cover and had nothing to show for it. There was no way the higher-ups would forgive that kind of mistake. He was going to lose his job. He’d only survived this long because of this niche he was hiding in, this existence where he so rarely had to speak as himself. He could remember the last time he needed to find a job: the crushing uncertainty and constant worry that had nearly driven him to the unspeakable. ‘I can’t go back to that. No. No. I can’t.’

                Go back? Hell, he couldn’t even leave this basement. He’d never make it to the elevator without being spotted, and once they found him there was only so long he could try to fight his way out. There were too many of them. And he wouldn’t allow himself to be captured, so he’d just die first.

                Then everything in Derek’s head shifted. What had seemed so heavy now felt terribly, dangerously, wonderfully light. They couldn’t fire him if he was dead. How had he forgotten over the years how much sense that made? It made everything so easy. There was nothing stopping him from going after the grand prize.

                He was going to fight his way to Russo and give him a choice: hand over all of his encryption keys and other electronic credentials, or get dismembered by a Tyranitar. That meant Derek would either succeed and come out as a hero, possibly with enough results to save his employment, or he would fail and just die. Dead people didn’t have to apply for jobs. Nobody ever stabbed a corpse with millions of impossible questions about its experiences so far and watched it squirm in its own inadequacy.

                And nobody would have to tell Jen that her brother killed himself. He would just be a casualty in the line of duty. If anything, this was his best chance to avoid death by actual suicide.

                Surely she could live with that.

                Derek walked to the door and opened it. The hallway seemed bright and inviting. He walked to the nearest intersection slowly and with all the confidence of someone who no longer had any reason to hide. As he went he unclipped Tyranitar’s unassuming Pokéball and fiddled with it in his hand.

                It only took two turns for him to find what he was looking for: literally any Rocket. As luck had it, he had found a small crowd of them that included Lewis and an Admin. He was pretty sure he recognized the Admin from intelligence reports. Poor bastard only had psychic-types; this part wouldn’t be hard.

                “Brooks!” Lewis it seemed took some exception to his presence, presumably because they had seen what shape Slate was in.

                Now that there was no reason for him to put on an act, Derek could allow his utter contempt for Lewis and everyone like him to come to the surface. “You took too long, f*cko. I said I wanted to see your boss.”

                Lewis stared at him like he was speaking a foreign language. He continued, “So go get him. Now. Tell him it’s police business.”

                The Rockets all brought out Pokéballs of their own. The Admin snarled, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

                Derek almost laughed. It was like the Admin was setting it up for him on purpose. “That makes two of us.” It was all so straightforward. Victory or death. Win-win. He wound up to throw the ball and finally get to work.

                *

                [Next time, Chapter 11.]
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                  #38    
                Old August 27th, 2017 (9:39 PM).
                Bay Alexison's Avatar
                Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
                O, Dance of Devotion!
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                Well, Derek got himself in a tight situation big time after making Slate unconscious. Granted, I wouldn't like the idea of kids being beaten either. Hopefully him playing hero will be in his favor and not the other way around.

                Close call also with Hanna, Jen, and the kids. Yeah good idea they still stayed behind incase the worse happens to Derek. Poor Travis feeling guilty over all this and in his head wanting Wyvern to forgive him.
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                  #39    
                Old September 12th, 2017 (9:44 PM). Edited 4 Weeks Ago by icomeanon6.
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                  Join Date: Feb 2008
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                  [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags:
                  Spoiler:

                  Quote:
                  Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
                  Hopefully him playing hero will be in his favor and not the other way around.
                  It doesn't help that he's taking one of the worst possible mindsets to play hero with. We'll see what happens!

                  Quote:
                  Close call also with Hanna, Jen, and the kids. Yeah good idea they still stayed behind incase the worse happens to Derek. Poor Travis feeling guilty over all this and in his head wanting Wyvern to forgive him.
                  They're still there for now, but leaving Derek behind is still very much on the table! And yeah, poor Travis was born to be saddled with guilt.

                  This is a double-update with the final two chapters of the fic. One last time before it's over, thanks for reading!]

                  Chapter 11

                  Hanna didn’t have time for this. No matter how much Krissy wanted to scream about it, the decision was already made. The kids were getting saved and that was final. Hanna shook off any remaining hesitation and spoke with a forcefulness that was more for herself than for the others. “Jen, drag her. We’re leaving.”

                  “No!” Krissy tried to pull away again, and while Jen didn’t exactly drag her she still had to pick her up. Then Krissy started kicking.

                  “Ow!”

                  This outburst brought Jason out of his silence, but not in the way Hanna was hoping for. “Hey, she said they’re going to kill him! Don’t you believe her?”

                  Hanna bit her lip. “Jason, Derek knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be fine, okay?”

                  She stood up to help Jen with Krissy, but as soon as she did Jason ran to one of the far corners of the room. “We’re not leaving without him!”

                  Hanna was speechless. Marie wasn’t well enough to manage the teleportation with two kids that didn’t want to come along. She took a step in Jason’s direction, but as soon as she did Travis darted for the other corner.

                  ‘Not you! You’re the one who picked up the phone! Can’t you trust us?’ Hanna didn’t say this out loud, and Travis didn’t say anything either. He just stared at her as his shoulders heaved up and down. She almost wanted him to collapse in a panic if only because it would make this easier. Did they need Summer to tackle one of them?

                  Seconds passed that they couldn’t afford to lose, but nobody moved. Then everyone moved as a noise like a distant explosion or shuttle launch pounded through the ceiling and shook the floor.

                  The kids looked up. Jason asked of nobody, “Is that Derek’s Tyranitar?”

                  Hanna and Jen said the same thing: “His what?

                  An alarm went off. It was a shrill, repeating tone, and it came with a woman’s voice from a loudspeaker in the hallway: “All personnel: intruder alert. Hostile intruder on level B1. All personnel with Pokémon are to engage immediately. Repeat…”

                  Hanna clenched her fist and cursed at herself for the lie she was about to push on them. “They can’t beat a Tyranitar! Now get over here!”

                  “They can!” screamed Krissy. “They can beat any one trainer! Tyranitar has too many weaknesses!”

                  Of course, of course, and of course. Hanna knew all that, and so did Derek. He wasn’t just going to try and fight them all at once. He had a plan. He had to have a plan.

                  There was another explosion, or something like one. The lights flickered and almost went out. Hanna felt Marie’s forehead. It wasn’t good for her to keep waiting like this. “Krissy, please. Marie’s—”

                  The alarm stopped, and in its place came a new voice. This one was male and sounded older. “Mr. Brooks, your attention please.”

                  Hanna saw Krissy twitch.

                  “This is Mariano Russo speaking. I’m told you seek an appointment. In the interest of limiting any further structural damage to this facility, I will see you immediately.” The speech was interrupted by a short fit of coughing. “…Also in the interest of preventing damage, and in acknowledgment that negotiations may break down, we will meet in the Testing Room on the bottom floor. It will be less claustrophobic for your Pokémon. One of my men will show you to the elevator.”

                  Hanna had no idea what to make of this, but Krissy did and she was despondent. “No… You don’t know what he does to cops. Derek’s a cop, isn’t he?”

                  There was a question of when Krissy had learned that, but in Hanna’s mind it was dwarfed by another: how would she know whatever it was Russo did to cops? Hanna looked behind at Jason, who showed no surprise, just terrified belief.

                  Krissy kept speaking, and her voice grew weaker. “The last two that tried. He… He fought them both at once, just for fun. Their Pokémon d…died from blood loss. After he won, they…”

                  Krissy broke into tears. “They threw the cops in front of the Magnet Train. They forged suicide notes. He taught me how to fake their fingerprints… and…” She lost it.

                  Hanna’s heart stopped, and she saw Jen’s grip loosen. At that moment a news story from four years ago resurfaced in her memory, one that had seemed disturbing but otherwise inconsequential. Two train-jumpers in the span of eight hours, the second coming only minutes after the trains started up again, and no relation found between the two cases other than their proximity. But the newspaper had said they were office workers or something, not police officers. Then she tried to imagine what would happen if Derek died on the job and under cover; whether his superiors at the police would acknowledge his work to the public, or to his colleagues.

                  If Krissy was telling the truth, then Russo knew that killing Derek the same way wouldn’t risk an all-out war with the police. Undercover officers became statistics, not stories, so there was no reason not to kill them. Worse yet, killing Derek might not even be difficult for Russo if he was that skilled a battler. Hanna didn’t have Marie’s help to tell if Krissy was lying or acting, but the story fit too well for her to risk doubting it.

                  Part of Hanna’s brain knew that this changed nothing, that getting the kids out came before getting any of themselves out, no matter how bad things looked. But she didn’t really believe it anymore, not when she could picture the reality of Derek’s death so clearly. She knew she could never live with herself if they ran away now. And she couldn’t imagine what it would be like for Jen, who looked pale enough to faint, or for Krissy.

                  The girl’s face was hidden in her hands now. “I’m sorry… I tried to forget on purpose… I wouldn’t have done it if I knew you’d be here! I’m sorry!

                  Hanna’s chest felt both hollow and heavy. Her heart was made up even if her mind wasn’t. She took a knee and put a hand to Marie’s head again. ‘Hold on. Then before she could articulate why it was anything but her worst idea ever, she brought Marie back into her ball. Everyone stared at her, and she motioned Jason and Travis to come over. They did.

                  She wanted to explain something to them, even if she was going to have to make it up as she went along. She stayed on one knee so that she’d be below their eye level. “All right. We’re going to save Derek. But listen close, or the deal’s off.”

                  She had their attention. If they trusted her to have a plan, she didn’t; not quite. Hanna couldn’t bet on Marie evacuating everyone in the middle of a fire-fight. She also didn’t trust Marie or Summer to turn the tide in any battle between a Tyranitar and a Rocket Executive, and she didn’t have any concrete ideas of how to get around that. So Hanna’s ‘plan’ was to trust in her own tendency as a capable, overconfident adult to underestimate people, especially children.

                  “If we’ve ever tried to tell you that you’re too small and weak to make a difference, that was garbage. You’re strong as hell and so are your Pokémon. That’s a stupid, dangerous thing for any kid to hear, but it’s true.”

                  Fifteen years ago, Jen had taught her that nothing blinded the older like the size and age of the younger. If you needed a miracle, you had to hope you were wrong about someone. That saved Hanna’s life back then, and she had to hope it would work for Derek now.

                  “We only tell you you’re weak because being young and strong makes you feel invincible, and we’re terrified at the thought of something bad happening to you because you don’t know better. If you can promise me you know you’re not invincible, we can try this.”

                  They nodded. She had no choice but to believe them.

                  “You stay behind Jen, and you stay in front of me. You fight when I say you can and no earlier. And the next time I say we’re leaving, it’s final. Got it?”

                  More nods. Hanna stood up. “Krissy. Do you know where we’re going?”

                  “…Yes.” Her eyes were red, but she sounded ready.

                  “You go second, then. Direct us.”

                  Just like that, everyone fell in line. They crept out of the room with Jen taking point. When they saw the coast was clear, Krissy said, “Left.” Then they ran.

                  Something told Hanna she was going to hell for this.

                  *********

                  The elevator reached the bottom floor. Derek winced and grabbed his side as he stepped out. Tyranitar’s tail had only barely swung into him during the brief, one-sided skirmish upstairs, but he knew he was going to feel it for weeks. The elevator was at the end of a long hallway, and fortunately it was tall enough for his Pokémon to fit without its spikes scraping the ceiling. Before Derek let Tyranitar out, though, he took a moment to make sure he could hide any sign of pain from his minor injury.

                  He was fine. He held Tyranitar’s ball in front of him and pressed the button. The familiar mountain of green rock appeared there, all eight feet and five hundred pounds of it. It turned its head to look at Derek, opened its mouth to show its teeth, and growled. Derek didn’t move a muscle and just stared it in the eye. That was how to say, ‘I’m still bigger and stronger than you. Don’t you forget it.’

                  Tyranitar closed its mouth. For today at least it was still convinced that it was impossible to scare or seriously hurt Derek. That was the only way Derek had ever tried to keep its obedience, even though one of these years it was bound to fail. He walked past the armored dinosaur Pokémon, and it followed him. Each of its steps shook the floor. Derek still didn’t like walking with Tyranitar when there was no one else to capture its attention, but it would probably be smartest to show up armed and ready.

                  He felt shocks from his side every few paces, but he didn’t let it show. This served as a reminder that Tyranitar wasn’t really his Pokémon in any deeper sense. All he’d done was convince it when it was small enough that if it knew what was good for it, it would do what he said. If he was honest, even when he was a kid none of his Pokémon had been ‘his’ Pokémon. The only difference was that they were soft enough for a Pokéball to convince them who was boss, so there was never a reason to get physical with them. They had all just gone with the flow until they moved on to the next stage of their lives, whether back in the wild or with another trainer. Even his first one had been that way, his…

                  Sh*t. He had forgotten again. It felt wrong to forget when this might be the end coming up. He tried to retrace the memory. He had turned ten, but his dad had already sold off Vesuvius and Krakatoa’s litter to get them out of debt, so Derek didn’t get his promised Cyndaquil and he used that as an excuse not to start yet. Then he turned eleven and Dad finally put his foot down and caught him the next best thing, which would mean fire-type… Vulpix. She was a Vulpix. He wondered where she was now, and if she could remember… how many… twenty years ago? She might already be dead.

                  They were getting close to the other end of the hallway. He would have time to regret every last thing he’d ever done later. Or maybe he wouldn’t, but that was part of the idea. They reached the open doorway, past which was a ramp that led up. The first thing that came into view was the towering ceiling. They emerged from an opening in the floor. The underground gymnasium was large enough for three basketball courts, and the playing surface was dirt. There were no benches or seats, and the only features on the concrete walls were a number of exposed pipes and a door labelled ‘MAINTENANCE.’

                  At the other end of the arena there was another ramp leading down. Derek only noticed it because at that moment someone’s head was coming into view, followed by his body. He was wearing a pinstriped suit and walked slowly. It was him. After years of hard, miserable work, plus a few minutes of reckless, irreversible decision-making, Derek was in the same room as Mariano Russo.

                  Both parties approached the middle of the field and stopped close enough to talk, but far enough away to be safe. Russo cleared his throat, but then he kept coughing for several seconds. He was even bent over. This just might have been Derek’s lucky day.

                  At length, the Rocket boss straightened up and spoke. “Good morning, Mr. Brooks.” His voice was steady, calm, and a little flat. “Your Pokémon is certainly an impressive specimen. It must have been an ordeal to train.”

                  Derek said nothing. The reports hadn’t suggested that Russo would be the type to make small-talk. Was he stalling?

                  “To tell you the truth, I wish you had picked a better time to show up. Having a real battle usually means it’s my best day of the year, but I’m not fit to fully enjoy it at the moment.” Indeed, Russo looked pale.

                  “You understand what I’m talking about, don’t you? In my experience, most police officers take the job because it’s the easiest way to bust some heads without facing any consequences. I just prefer to do away with the pretension of civic duty. It makes climbing the ladder easier.”

                  Tyranitar was getting impatient. It stamped its feet, bellowed at the stranger, and advanced well in front of Derek. He said, “Hold,” and it stopped in its tracks.

                  “At least one of you gets it. So if battling doesn’t excite you, Brooks, perhaps gambling does? It’s always been something of a fascination for me. The real fun is in tricking some sucker into betting everything when they have no chance of winning. All the better when the sucker thinks he’s tricking you the same way. I think the best battles are also natural gambles, the only difference being that the terms are set by the victor after the battle is over.”

                  This behavior didn’t match the reporting at all. The book on Russo was that he was strictly business at all times. He was never supposed to indulge. Was their intel flawed?

                  Then Russo squinted and just barely tilted his head. “Now that I think about it, you look familiar. I can’t help but shake the feeling that we’ve met, but I can’t put my finger on it either.”

                  That confirmed it: he was just stalling. He had probably called in backup from all around Violet City and wanted more time for them to show up. If that was the case, it meant he wasn’t feeling confident about the battle. Suddenly, the idea of outright victory seemed very real and possible to Derek, but he had to make it fast. Then it occurred to him how he could best seize the initiative.

                  “Hyper Beam.”

                  Tyranitar reared back its head and unhinged its jaws. As the unmistakable glow and high-pitched wail built up, Derek saw something no photograph had ever captured: Mariano Russo looking shaken. The Executive scrambled for his belt. He had less than three seconds left, and for a moment Derek thought he might have miscalculated.

                  Russo threw a ball at his feet, and a Snorlax taller than a man standing up and wider than a man lying down appeared. Not a millisecond later, Tyranitar’s mouth erupted. The focused orange blast struck the Snorlax directly in the stomach. The giant Pokémon collapsed and was sent sliding on its back. Russo had to dive out of the way to avoid being crushed. When Tyranitar’s attack dissipated, there was a smoldering red mark on the Snorlax where several layers of skin and fat had been melted away. It groaned one time and didn’t get up.

                  One down, and since Russo had been fast enough, Derek still wasn’t a killer yet. According to the bio, there were supposed to be four Pokémon remaining. But if the team’s damage-sponge could fall that easily, the rest of them wouldn’t be a problem. This was going well.

                  Russo made no attempt to keep the fury out of his eyes. “That was low. I misread you.” As the steam billowed from Tyranitar’s mouth, the Executive pulled out another ball and threw it.

                  There appeared a tall, red mantis-like Pokémon. ‘Scizor. Bug/steel. Bad match-up for rock/dark. Need to put this one down quick.’ The only problem was that Tyranitar was still panting from using such a taxing move.

                  Russo knew this. “Plan B.”

                  The Scizor began to run in an arc around Tyranitar, which drew its attention but no response. As the Scizor built up speed, Derek began to notice that something was off. The arc was too wide. At this rate it was only going to get farther away from Tyranitar and closer to…

                  Derek’s hands shook. The Scizor’s eyes locked with his own and it broke into a sprint, and a far faster one than he expected from a steel-type. Tyranitar was too slow to do anything about it. The steel claws opened and Derek saw his death approaching. The sense of easy mortality that had carried him this far evaporated. He was too close to victory to die here. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Moments before his survival instinct took over, he had one idea to save himself. He shouted, “The trainer! Kill him!” He was dead if Russo could protect himself without Scizor.

                  Derek’s body moved on its own from there. He dove to the side just in time to avoid the Scizor’s swing. On impact he ducked and rolled, but it left him off balance. At the same time Tyranitar began to run at Russo.

                  “Plan A! X-Scissor!”

                  The command came before Tyranitar got anywhere close to Russo. The Scizor turned its attention entirely away from Derek and darted after its new target. It would have no trouble catching up.

                  Derek called out, “Cancel that! Get the Scizor!”

                  As the Scizor pulled back its right claw to strike, Tyranitar stopped in its tracks, spun, and sent its tail flying into its opponent’s head. Despite its steel body, the Scizor was knocked thirty feet away. It was slow to come to its feet, and there was a visible dent in its skull.

                  Derek was about to order an attack, but Tyranitar already had its own idea. It rushed the Scizor with lumbering steps and opened its jaws to use Crunch. The Scizor failed to jump out of the way. Wisps of shadow came from Tyranitar’s fangs as it seized its opponent’s head. Once again the Scizor’s steel skin offered only so much resistance. When the difference in size and strength was this great, conventional battling wisdom always took a backseat to physics.

                  The Scizor struggled and managed to land two deep incisions on Tyranitar’s hide, but only deep enough to make it angrier. Tyranitar twisted the Scizor’s neck so hard it looked like it would snap, and the struggling ceased. Then it dropped the enemy to the ground and crushed its chest with its foot.

                  Derek said, “Pull off.”

                  Tyranitar stomped on the Scizor one more time, but then it moved away and set its eyes on Russo again. Two down, three to go, and Derek still wasn’t a killer yet. “If any of his Pokémon move past you, crush him, and ignore any others he sends out.” Derek didn’t even know if Tyranitar could process an order of that complexity, but all he needed was for Russo to believe it.

                  After near-brushes with death on both sides, it seemed like the time to speak to the Executive directly. “I wouldn’t mind Tyranitar turning you into a discolored spot on the wall, but you’re more useful to me alive. I’m willing to keep this between the Pokémon if you are.”
                  Russo’s voice remained steady despite his scowl. “Don’t flatter yourself. This has nothing to do with your preferences: it is textbook mutually assured destruction. Your Tyranitar cannot stop my Pokémon from killing you, and likewise all of my Pokémon together cannot stop your Tyranitar from killing me, not when it’s at full strength. Therefore the only path to victory is to disarm the opponent first. It’s still anything goes.”

                  It was difficult for Derek to follow what came next. Russo’s glare grew even sharper and his eyes began to twitch uncontrollably. The Rocket boss tensed his shoulders as if expecting something else to happen. Then he began to say, “Hypnos—”

                  Russo’s eyes went wide and he grabbed his throat just before breaking into a fit of pained coughing. He dropped to his knees as his whole body convulsed. It was like the man was going mad. When he was finally quiet again, Derek saw him mutter something under his breath.

                  The lights flickered. He realized this wasn’t just Russo having an episode.

                  Frantically Derek looked around for anything else that was amiss. He almost missed it in the bad light, but Russo’s shadow was slowly growing darker. When it became pitch black, it suddenly darted away from Russo and slithered on the ground in Tyranitar’s direction. “Below you!”

                  Before Tyranitar could react, a Pokémon emerged from the shadow. The maniac had been keeping a goddamned Gengar inside of him. It spat an inky, purple liquid from its mouth: Toxic. The mess landed on Tyranitar’s belly, which prompted a roar and an attempt at a Crunch attack, but Gengar was far too quick and floated out of harm’s way.

                  It was difficult to tell from a distance, but it didn’t appear that the poison was sinking into Tyranitar’s skin. Close call. But with Russo still shaking on the floor, Derek only had to stay focused on the enemy Pokémon.

                  He and Tyranitar didn’t have much practice against ghost-types, or against anything as fast as a Gengar for that matter, but at least the type matchup was nothing to worry about. The Gengar was darting back and forth as it threw Shadow Balls and waved its arms as if to attempt Hypnosis, but none its efforts did more than annoy Tyranitar. So it was just a matter of landing a hit. Crunch was apparently too slow, but they had practiced one other dark-type move at least a little. “Use Dark Pulse!”

                  Tyranitar lowered its head and allowed some shadow to seep out of the thin gaps in its armor. Immediately the Gengar flew as far away from its trainer as it could, and that happened to place it much closer to Derek than before. Tyranitar tracked it all the while, and before Derek could say anything it let loose a massive wave of all-encompassing blackness. The bulk of it hit the Gengar, but the tail end of it flew at Derek and overwhelmed him.

                  He tried to stay calm. He knew what a Dark Pulse did to a human. He knew that when one hit you it was vitally important to try to stay focused on the world around you and avoid thinking about anything else. He was especially not supposed to think about bullies from his childhood, especially not the ones standing right in front of him. The best part was that they were still kids while he had grown bigger. That made it easier to grab one of their necks. Derek pushed his thumbs into the little bastard’s windpipe. He squeezed and squeezed so he could be sure that this brainless sadist would never say a word again.

                  Derek slapped himself in the face. That was one hand off the bully. He slapped himself two more times, and finally the faceless children vanished and he was back in the Rocket gym. He was just in time to see Tyranitar rush the Gengar where it was frozen in pain only inches above the ground.

                  “Toxic.” Russo had his voice back. The order made Derek realize what a huge error Tyranitar was about to commit.

                  “Dark Pulse again!” But it was too late. Tyranitar was committed to using Crunch. The shadows around its fangs took grip on the Gengar’s mass where normal teeth would just pass through them. There was an unearthly scream, and at the same time a fountain of poisonous fluid erupted from the Gengar in all directions. That included down Tyranitar’s throat.

                  Tyranitar choked and wailed, while the Gengar simply fell on its face and sunk halfway into the floor. Already Derek could see veins bulging through Tyranitar’s rocky skin in the neck area, and they had a faintly purple cast. ‘Sh*t.’ It was difficult, but Derek managed to convince himself that this wasn’t as bad as it looked. The poison would get worse as the battle went on, but there was no way Russo could put up a war of attrition for long, now. He had sent out Gengar too late, so he only had two Pokémon left. Tyranitar would just have to handle them quickly.

                  Three down, two to go, and Derek still wasn’t a killer. As Russo came to his feet with another Pokéball in hand, Derek told himself that it was almost over. It had to be.

                  *********

                  Hanna stood with her back to the wall. She was watching the hallway behind them while Jen peeked around the next corner. They’d had good luck so far, but obviously it couldn’t continue. Just as Hanna was wondering if this was the corner where their luck would run out, Travis tapped her on the shoulder. Jen was huddling everyone together and whispering. Hanna kept an ear on the discussion and an eye on the hallway.

                  “Big crowd in front of the elevator. They’re all just standing there watching the door, but I think there’s too many for us to get the jump on ’em.”

                  Krissy had an immediate explanation. “They must be guarding all of the elevator doors in case Derek tries to get away. It’ll probably be the same thing on all the other floors, too.”

                  Jason asked, “Are there any stairs?”

                  Krissy shook her head. Then she stared off into space while everyone waited for her to say something. If Hanna had her figured correctly, she was trying to work out a way to fight off a large number of Rockets. That was out of the question. Hanna seriously considered bringing out Marie before Krissy could suggest anything suicidal, but the girl spoke up first.

                  “I just remembered. There’s a service elevator that goes straight from this floor to the bottom.”

                  “Will it also be guarded?” asked Jen.

                  “I don’t think so. It’s in the quartermaster’s depot, and that has a special key. I think I can pick the lock.”

                  The fact that this plan didn’t involve taking on a small army was music to Hanna’s ears. And at this point she believed without hesitation that Krissy was plenty adept at breaking and entering. “We’ll take it.”

                  They walked back the way they had come slowly at first, but they took to running again when they were far enough from the last intersection. Even if they still had to be cautious, they couldn’t afford to ignore the element of time. Hanna prayed that Derek would try to keep Russo talking as long as possible.

                  As they went, the lights grew more and more erratic. Soon they reached a stretch where they were almost completely out. It was here that Krissy told Jen, “Next left, and then it’s on the right.”

                  As was becoming routine, they crowded near the corner while Jen checked for Rockets. But instead of signaling them one way or the other, she just said, “Oh my god.”

                  Jen just kept staring. Obviously there was nobody there if she wasn’t pulling her head back, so despite her misgivings Hanna got everyone moving again. But when she saw around the corner for herself, she too had to stop and stare.

                  There was a long gash in the ceiling. It was lined with twisted, broken, and melted steel bars. From the way everything burst downward, it was clear that the cause had come from the floor above rather than this one.

                  “Hyper Beam,” said Krissy. “That must have been one of the shockwaves we felt.”

                  Hanna could hardly believe it. The damage spread for at least a dozen yards. If Russo was confident he could take on the creature that did this, then the five of them were hopelessly out of their league. Then she looked away from the ceiling and noticed the rest of the wreckage on the floor. There were a number of fallen cinder blocks, and next to one of them was a body.

                  She swallowed. Before anyone else decided to move, she walked towards it. She stayed clear of the sparks the fell from the shattered fluorescent lights. “Krissy, get to work on that door.”

                  Hanna knelt over the prostrate Grunt and hoped that neither of the boys would come over to get a closer look. She saw the sticky mess of red the nearest block had made of the back of his head. The blood was pooling up, but it was too dark to see from a distance. Even though she knew what she would find, she put her fingers to his neck. Nothing. If there was any saving him, he needed to get to a hospital in no fewer than five minutes.

                  No, Hanna told herself. He was dead. Even if it weren’t obvious from the injury, they couldn’t use Marie’s teleportation without Derek. Alerting the Rockets wasn’t an option, and calling an ambulance wouldn’t even get anyone through the front door. So he was dead.

                  Now that she was done rationalizing, it hit her. It hit her in the gut and it stayed there. She put a hand to her mouth and tried not to make a sound. They could never know about this. She could never tell the kids that their being here had contributed in any way to a person’s death. She could never tell Derek that his Pokémon had been the most immediate cause, even if it was an accident. She could never tell Jen because it would tear her apart just as much, maybe more.

                  And Hanna herself didn’t know if she could sleep knowing about this, either. She wished Marie were in good enough shape to wipe out the memory that very minute, but she would have to hold it inside for now. She got up and turned around. The kids had already learned their lesson; they didn’t need to learn it even harder from a corpse. It was too cruel.

                  “He’s unconscious. He’ll be fine when another Rocket gets to him.”

                  The boys seemed to hear her but didn’t react much. They were focused on Krissy’s struggle with the doorknob. Jen however looked Hanna in the eye and kept looking. Her expression was inscrutable. For the first time in years, Hanna didn’t know what she was thinking. Maybe she was waiting for Hanna to shake her head, to let her know that they were hiding the truth from the kids.

                  ‘Please believe me,’ thought Hanna. ‘I know you’re not a kid, but I didn’t want to see it either.’ Jen turned away to watch the doorknob again.

                  Krissy wiped some sweat from her forehead. This was taking too long—solid minutes too long. Hanna just wanted them to get through the door and away from that body. She wanted to find Derek before he ended up the same way, and get everyone out before the hideous consequences of her own stupid decisions kept piling up. Why hadn’t she put a stop to this weeks ago when she had the chance? It didn’t occur to her that all the others might be asking the same question of themselves.

                  The lock clicked. Krissy opened the door, and Jen made sure she was the first one to actually walk through. Hanna went last and made sure to shut and lock the door behind them. Inside there were rows and rows of shelves, boxes, and miscellaneous electronic gadgetry. More importantly there were no people in sight, and at the other end of the long, wide room there was an elevator. Almost there.

                  Jen and the boys wasted no time and ran. Hanna started to follow after them, but she passed Krissy in the process. “Krissy, come on!”

                  Krissy didn’t move. Instead she stood in place and stared at one of the shelves.

                  “Krissy!”

                  Krissy kept staring, but said, “I think I just got an idea.”

                  *********

                  The veins were showing all over Tyranitar’s back, and the purple tint was spreading. Its shoulders sagged, and its breathing had grown more pained and erratic by the minute. Fifteen feet in front of it, Russo’s Mr. Mime was also looking tired, but it had taken far too long to get him to that point. Worse yet, the twelve layers of alternating Reflects and Light Screens between him and Tyranitar were still up. They had gone up only two seconds after the Mr. Mime entered the field, and since then they had lost three layers and gained five. They covered the entire width and height of the room.

                  Derek seethed. “Again.”

                  Tyranitar lowered its head and charged at the shimmering, nearly invisible wall. Its momentum broke down with every other layer it passed through, and when it was almost halfway there the Mr. Mime shifted its hands. A blindingly white sheet of light appeared in the middle of the wall. The new layer stopped Derek’s Pokémon completely, and then sent it toppling backwards. Again.

                  Derek’s fingernails dug so deep into his palms that they nearly drew blood. Protect wasn’t supposed to work on four attempts in such a short span. Everything was going wrong. Hyper Beam had fizzled out after breaching four Light Screens, the Dark Pulses did even less, and trying to run through the Reflects was only tiring Tyranitar out even further. There couldn’t be more than a few minutes left until the toxin brought down Tyranitar without Russo so much as needing to call out another attack.

                  Derek glared at the other side of the gym as Tyranitar struggled to its feet. Russo’s posture was still shaky, but his stall-tactics seemed to have only improved his condition. The Mr. Mime’s feet were dug into the floor, and while his hands stayed pressed against his conception of the wall, his knees were shaking. If that wasn’t a sign that the defense was about to break down, Derek knew he was screwed.

                  Tyranitar pulled up to its full height. It roared, and the way its voice broke in places and sounded half-submerged did not inspire confidence. But it would have to do. “Again!”

                  Head down. Charging. Slowed, but not yet stopped. The Mr. Mime shifted his hands yet again, and the white sheet began to coalesce. It grayed out. Tyranitar kept moving, and let loose another bellow.

                  Then Russo spoke. “Drop.”

                  The Mr. Mime’s hands fell to his sides, and the wall vanished. Tyranitar stumbled, but not enough to fall down. It kept barreling forward. When it was still a few steps away, however, Derek caught a faint glow all around the Mr. Mime. Then he was blinded.

                  The Dazzling Gleam attack filled every part of Derek’s vision with pulsing flashes of white and pale pink. Along with the fairy light came a high-pitched ringing that kept him from hearing anything else. It didn’t hurt much, though, so he must have been outside of its damage-range. All the same, he couldn’t afford to be out of commission with the battle still going on. He had to be ready as soon as his sight came back, so he tried to think. Assuming Tyranitar was in the process of clobbering the Mr. Mime—Derek didn’t want to consider the real possibility that a strong fairy-type attack might be too much for it—then Russo could be sending out another Pokémon at any second. It would be his fifth and final.

                  Derek couldn’t afford to take any chances with the poison. The last round would have to end as soon as it began. At this point he could see vague shapes, but only in his peripheral vision. He guessed there were two more seconds until Russo threw his final Pokéball. He had to trust that the Mr. Mime was already gone.

                  “Hyper Beam!”

                  The ringing in his ears was replaced by another, more familiar high-pitched sound. The center of his vision began to resolve into shapes as well. He saw two flashes at almost the same time: a red one on the ground, and a long, orange one starting high and moving low. But instead of staying constant, the orange flash swung to the right after hitting the floor. The residual fairy light was fading more quickly, and Derek caught something red, white, and round moving away from the beam. It rolled faster than anything of that shape was supposed to on its own volition, and then it jumped up at Tyranitar.

                  It was unbearably loud and bright. Derek was knocked off his feet. He hit the dirt, and all he could hear was the sound of his own blood pumping. The fairy light was gone, but now everything around him was a blur. He tried to remember that this was nothing; that he’d kept far worse pain under wraps when he needed to convince Pupitar that he was still stronger than it. He concentrated on one limb at a time and brought himself up to his knees.

                  His eyes came close to normal before his ears did. To his left he saw the Mr. Mime sprawled out and inert in a tangle of bleeding limbs. To his right he saw scattered pieces of a smooth material that were unmistakably bits of Electrode shell. Straight ahead of him was the rest of the Electrode, shattered and scattered but probably reparable, and above that was Tyranitar. There was a long crack extending from its side to nearly the small of its back. Derek shuddered to think of what its chest looked like. It coughed, and blood mixed with black and purple fell from its mouth. He had never seen the creature hang its head so low. But it was still standing.

                  Lying all around the gym were five battered, bruised, and broken Rocket Pokémon. That was all of them. Russo was lying prone with his hands covering his ears. The fight was over.

                  But that made no sense. Why would Russo have his Electrode use Explosion when all he had to do was keep stalling to win? With all that speed—hell, with a lucky Thunder Wave—an Electrode should have been able to avoid hits and keep Russo safe more than long enough for the poison to take down Tyranitar. This was all very, very wrong. Derek was missing something.

                  Russo stood up and removed his hands from his ears. Then he reached for his belt. He pulled out an Ultra Ball.

                  In that moment Derek felt the bottom fall out from beneath him as he realized his mistake. The Gengar wasn’t one of the five. Whoever gathered the intelligence for the report would have gotten the number based on how many balls Russo carried. The real number was five plus one that he kept inside him.

                  Russo began to speak. It might as well have been a whisper, and Derek only caught the tail end of it. “…but you’ve lost.”

                  The pounding in Derek’s head began to subside, but in his chest the pounding only grew harder. He wanted to come to his feet, but his legs wouldn’t move.

                  Russo coughed, then half-smiled. “If it makes you feel any better, I can’t take any credit for training this one. It was a gift from the boss.” He threw the ball.

                  The red flash grew into something very large and very tall. It was a gray, hulking mass of armor, claws, teeth, and one drill-shaped horn. It was a Rhydon, and Derek was positive they weren’t supposed to grow to seven feet. They also weren’t supposed to have blood-shot eyes and permanent holes drilled into their haunches. Derek could only imagine what they had pumped into those holes. Its muscles pushed apart the gaps in its armor in a way that was painful just to look at, and its whole body was already twitching.

                  The Rhydon didn’t wait for orders. It rushed head-on at Tyranitar, who was still trying to recover from the Hyper Beam and the Explosion. The sound of the collision was like a mountain breaking in two. Tyranitar hit the ground and kept tumbling from there until it slid to a stop.

                  “Earthquake.”

                  The Rhydon bellowed, and that alone was enough to shake the floor a little. It set its feet, and Derek quickly came to his senses and dropped flat. The attack rattled every bone in his body, even as far away as he was. The dirt floor split only inches to his left. Before he knew it, there was a wall of earth rising above him. It took all of his willpower to stay put and not fall into the trap of trying to run away. One wrong move was enough to give a human a broken bone.

                  As the shaking died down, Derek dared to look up at Tyranitar. The crack around its middle had been forced open even wider. He could see trickles of blood, sand, and shadow coming out of it. The Earthquake had broken down much of the rock in its armor. Against a lesser rock-type in similar shape the move might have been lethal, but while Tyranitar’s eyes were closed, Derek could still hear its pained, hoarse breath.

                  Russo spoke again. “Tear it apart.”

                  The Rhydon stepped forward. The horn above its nostrils began to spin faster and louder than any electric drill. ‘We’re dead.’ A small feeling in Derek’s head insisted that this was fine. This was what he wanted. This was what he had been counting on. They can’t fire you if you’re dead.

                  Derek told the feeling to shut its mouth and staple it. Whether because he truly wanted to survive, or simply because he preferred to die kicking and screaming instead of lying down, he wasn’t done yet. “Get up!”

                  Tyranitar’s head moved a few inches, but its eyes stayed closed. The Rhydon was almost there. Derek pushed himself up to his knees again, then did the first thing that came into his head. He slapped his left palm with the back of his right hand, making a loud crack. “Get up!

                  It was a Pavlovian trigger which had been designed to mean, ‘Obey or you’ll regret it,’ but which to Derek’s Larvitar had meant, ‘Beat the tar out of this Pokémon and you won’t regret it.’ He hadn’t tried this in all the years since its first evolution, back when it occasionally wasn’t motivated to crush every living thing in sight. He didn’t know if the gesture still meant anything to it.

                  Derek may not have known his Pokémon, but his Pokémon knew that sound. Tyranitar rolled from its side, somehow forced itself to its feet, and burst forward faster than Derek could have hoped for. It let out a horribly strained roar and caught Rhydon flat-footed. The collision was just as loud as the first.

                  But the Rhydon took only two steps backward, and it kept its balance. It locked claws with Tyranitar, and then it began to push back. That rush of momentum was gone, and now Derek’s Pokémon had to dig its feet into the ground just to keep from being knocked over again.

                  More blood and sand burst from Tyranitar’s side. Its back quivered the way it would if it had a fever. Just like that, Derek’s last hope was shown to be false. Even if there were an opening to execute a proper attack, Tyranitar was just as likely to faint if it tried anything that required more muscles than shoving.

                  The resistance was for naught. The Rhydon pressed until Tyranitar’s feet gave way. Derek’s Pokémon was on the ground again, and this time the Rhydon was already on top of it. Once more the horn began to spin.

                  Then out of nowhere, the sprinklers in the ceiling came on. Water poured down in two jets that hit the Rhydon on the top of the head and didn’t let up. The drill came to a stop, and the Rhydon yelled upward in confusion. Where a second ago nothing could have stolen Derek’s attention, he found himself looking up as well. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Looking closer, it was as if something was pushing or pulling, either way breaking the water from the sprinkler heads.

                  “Ignore it!” shouted Russo, but the Rhydon continued to scream at the source of its irritation. It was twice-weak to water, and those jets were not soft.

                  This was baffling enough, but then the leaves came. They flew in over Derek’s head, all glowing, and swarmed the Rhydon. The beast screamed and tried to bat them away, which left its arms covered in tiny, insignificant, but certainly infuriating cuts.

                  But while the Magical Leaf attack succeeded in getting under the Rhydon’s skin, that was nothing compared to the stomach-churning dread it gave Derek. He stood up, turned around, and told himself over and over that this couldn’t be happening. The arena was in shambles from the Earthquake, and he couldn’t spot them right away. But there they were around the corner of a tiny cliff close to the wall behind him: Krissy and her Bayleef.

                  Derek nearly threw up. How could Hanna leave them behind? The answer was obvious. She hadn’t. Derek spun his head around the rest of the gym until he spotted Travis with a Quagsire near the right-side wall. The Pokémon’s front fins were raised to the ceiling.

                  Derek thought he was losing his mind. “What the f*ck are you doing here!

                  Even as he hollered at them, Tyranitar pulled itself away. It slowly rose to its feet. The Rhydon was too preoccupied to notice.

                  “Rhydon! Kill it!”

                  Russo’s Pokémon faced Tyranitar with reluctance, but then a roar came from the far right corner of the gym and its attention was robbed again. Derek knew the voice. It was Summer’s. How, how could Jen send her Arcanine out against the ground-type from hell?

                  Summer ran from her hidden spot in the corner to a rare stretch of flat floor close to the far wall behind Russo. She bared her fangs. It was enough to grab the Executive’s attention in addition to the Rhydon’s.

                  Derek wasn’t fooled. Summer couldn’t make a difference in this fight for more than thirty seconds. As fast and strong as she was, she wasn’t in the same league as this Rhydon. Russo was going to snuff out the opposing Pokémon one by one and then they were next. They hadn’t saved the kids. They were going to die.

                  Derek had killed them all. It was supposed to be only himself. But he had killed them all. For the first time since his journey ended, when his dad last called him from the hospital, Derek’s eyes welled up.

                  *********

                  Jason took a deep breath. From his hiding place near the door he saw Summer take her position on Russo’s flank. She had their attention. Everything was going better than they could have hoped for so far. Lucia was keeping the Magical Leaf going strong, same with Leviathan and the Redirected Surf or the High-Pressure Rain Dance or whatever it was that Travis had taught him. The only one with nothing to do was Rabies. Jason knew that was for the best, and told himself so.

                  Summer moved to her next position. She ran in an arc to the opposite side of the room from him and drew all eyes with her. The gigantic Rhydon now had its back to Jason. This was his chance. He ran from his spot and toward the middle of the gym. Nobody noticed him, not even Derek. He stopped just far enough away. The ground beneath him was elevated but still flat enough. He took another deep breath. Then he adjusted his grip on the black Pokéball in his right hand.

                  “Rhydon, Earthquake! Kill them both!”

                  Jason had to hurry. His eyes darted all over the Rhydon’s back, but then they settled on a set of small holes close to where its left leg met its backside. Those weren’t supposed to be there. That was his place to aim. He wound up sidearm and fixed his eyes on the target. If he kept looking right there, then he could hit the mark even if it was moving as he threw.

                  The Rhydon raised its other leg to launch the attack, and everything slowed down for Jason. He double-checked every condition in his head. The Pokémon was feeling stress from its elemental weaknesses, acting indecisive, and had a potential weak-spot. Those were all good. It may not have taken any meaningful damage, but there was nothing they could do about that. Most importantly, it didn’t know he was here. That was why even though he had a few more of the quartermaster’s Pokéballs on his belt, his only real chance would be on the first attempt.

                  Three movements began at once. The Rhydon’s other foot began to drop, Tyranitar ducked its head and lunged, and Jason stepped and planted with his opposite leg as he whipped his arm forward.

                  If time had been slow a moment ago, now it was nearly at a halt. A feeling of mixed weakness and regret stirred in the back of Jason’s head. It was there because none of his skills as a battler were of any use here, and Krissy’s were. Even Travis’s were. All he could do to help was use his cheap, lousy tricks with a Pokéball.

                  And wasn’t that why they were here to begin with? No matter how hard he tried, he had never proven to Krissy that he was worth anything as a Pokémon trainer. So he got them to pick fights with Rockets. But he was never a real factor in any of those battles, and now during the final one he didn’t even have a Pokémon out. He would just have to live with the fact that she would never see him as anything more than a joke, and that eventually she would probably leave because of it.

                  Time didn’t stop. The Rhydon’s other foot hit the ground and Tyranitar made contact in its best attempt at a tackle. The cracks began to shoot from underneath the Rhydon’s foot, but Tyranitar pushed everything out of balance and most of the cracks went in Jason’s direction. Jason’s elbow and wrist twisted to fire the ball. Inside the elbow there was something long and stretchy that yelped in pain, but that was normal. It had been doing that for months.

                  The cracks in the ground were halfway to Jason. The punctures on the Rhydon’s left leg moved slightly, Jason’s eyes followed them, and the ball left his hand.

                  The long thing ripped nearly in two.

                  Jason’s elbow was on fire, and not in the same way it usually was when he threw. This was different, and it hurt five, ten, a hundred times as bad. His eyes lost track of the ball as it spun towards its target. He was falling. The cracks passed all around him as his throwing arm landed on the dirt. The shockwaves entered his elbow, and the soft thing that was inside there snapped. It was in two pieces. His forearm hung loose, and everything below his bicep was dying from pain.

                  He screamed.

                  *********

                  The Rhydon had vanished, but Jen barely noticed. The cries drowned out everything else.

                  Jason!

                  She sprinted from her hiding spot in the corner: the place where she’d been huddled up like a coward while she let her little cousin, an eleven-year-old, Aunt Meg’s baby, take point. The residual shockwaves from the aborted Earthquake almost made her roll her ankle, but she ran through it and nothing happened. She slid to a stop where Jason was lying like a rag-doll on the floor. His eyes were shut and wet and he just kept screaming.

                  Derek was there almost as fast he she was, and he too dropped to his knees. “Oh god. Oh god…”

                  Derek moved Jason just enough so he was on his back and off of his right arm. Jen had no idea what had happened, but it had to be to that arm. It was limp while everything else Jason had was thrashing about. Derek tried to steady him in place, but he didn’t seem to know where to put his hands. “Jason! Jason! Try not to move!”

                  Derek’s voice was crying. It wasn’t going to work. Jen fought back her own tears and tried to help keep him still. “Jason, you’re okay. Everything’s going to be fine. We’re taking you to the hospital, just hold on!”

                  Travis, Krissy, and their Pokémon were hovering over them now. They were stunned silent. But that was still only five people, they needed one more. And she was the one they needed to get Jason out of here. Jen stood up and turned her head all around the room. “Hanna!”

                  Jen found Hanna where the battle had been. She was standing in front of the man who must be Russo, and standing behind him was Summer, who growled in her best impression of a Pokémon that might actually hurt a human. Also nearby was Derek’s huge, sick Tyranitar. It was lying on its side with its eyes closed, not unlike the five other Pokémon all around that looked maimed or dead. But the Rhydon was gone. There was only a black Pokéball with a red ‘R’ on the front, and it wasn’t shaking. There was nothing stopping them from leaving.

                  “Hanna! We have to go!”

                  Hanna didn’t say a word or even turn her head. Instead, Russo reached into his jacket pocket and handed her something.

                  “Wallet, too,” said Hanna. “Everything in your pockets. Anything with a chip in it.”

                  Russo spoke. “That card has all my private keys on it. You don’t need the rest.” There was a frog in his throat.

                  “I don’t trust you. Hand it over.”

                  The Rocket took a moment, but he emptied his pockets as requested. It only barely registered with Jen that Hanna was taking what Derek had infiltrated the mansion to acquire in the first place. She could hardly think about anything other than Jason’s screams.

                  Hanna kept pressing. “If you have a gun, take it out and drop it.”

                  Russo spread his jacket open. “No true Johtoan abides a gun in his country. A strong weapon ought to require a strong wielder, such as with swords and Pokémon.” He looked where his Rhydon was trapped. “So perhaps we need to rethink the Pokéball as well.”

                  “Whatever. Get f*cked.” Hanna started to walk away, and Summer raced to her side. But then Hanna turned around again. “If you think for a minute about retaliating, you better know that I got us in here from miles away, and I can drop that guy and his Tyranitar on you faster than you can blink. Wherever you are and whenever I feel like it.”

                  As it turned out, there was no need for a bluff. “I wouldn’t worry,” said Russo. “I doubt I’ll have a job after today’s fiasco. And if I know my likely replacement, as long as you leave him alone he’ll be satisfied to send his men after me, instead.”

                  Jen didn’t know if she believed him, and she didn’t care right now. Jason was still in agony. She was just glad it was finally enough for Hanna, who turned and jogged back to them. Now Jen saw that there were tears in her friend’s eyes as well. Hanna gave her a look that could only mean, ‘I’m so, so, sorry.’

                  Hanna dropped Marie’s ball on the ground. The Alakazam’s head was drooping and she could only stay up on her hands and knees. “All Pokémon back in their balls,” said Hanna. “Quickly!”

                  Jen had forgotten. She recalled Summer, Krissy and Travis recalled theirs, but Derek had to hurry away to retrieve his Tyranitar. As he was running back, Russo raised his voice and spoke again.

                  “Lucia.”

                  Who was he talking to? Not Krissy, right? But who else could it be?

                  “I will probably be overseas for a long while. If you should need it, the region’s best center for homeless children is in Blackthorn.” He turned away with a frown, and then stared at the rest of his defeated Pokémon.

                  Krissy said nothing. Jen thought she saw some disgust come over the girl’s face, but she got the feeling it wasn’t as simple as that. Then she looked back at Russo and felt the slightest hint of déjà vu, but it was dispelled by the urgency of the situation and forgotten almost immediately.

                  Hanna took Marie’s hand and placed it so her spoon was pressed against Jason’s heaving chest. Then Jen and the others huddled close. They each got a hand on Marie and held on to each other. All six humans were ready to go, as were the Pokémon. It was finally over.

                  As the gym dissolved around her, it occurred to Jen that soon Jason would also be thinking it was over, but in a different way. Going home still meant the end of the journey. Something told her that was going to hurt worse than the arm, and her heart broke.
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                  Old September 12th, 2017 (9:44 PM).
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                  icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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                    Join Date: Feb 2008
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                    Note: This chapter is part of a double-update. If you clicked to see the last post in this thread, it is not the latest chapter. Click here to read Chapter 11 first.

                    *

                    Chapter 12

                    Hanna rubbed her temples. Even though they had made their escape only two hours ago, it felt like a whole day had passed. The lab was so quiet. She kept waiting for something to make her jump, but of course nothing did. Bill’s cottage was far, far away from Russo’s mansion, as was the hospital in the Cerulean where they had taken Jason. Hanna kicked herself for never having taught Marie the location of any human hospitals. It would have saved the poor kid a bumpy ride in the ambulance.

                    In any case, everyone was where they were supposed to be now. Jen, Derek, and Krissy were taking care of Jason’s emergency, while she, Travis, and Bill were here to handle Wyvern’s.

                    “Okay,” said Bill as he finished adjusting the scanner. “Try it now.”

                    Hanna cued up the program again and let it run. It was going to take each of the dozens of encryption keys they’d found on Russo’s PKI card and map those to the scanner’s quantum matrix decoder. Bill had found about a hundred ways to map keys to decoding schemes, so this could take a while.

                    The scanner whirred to life. Bill nodded in satisfaction and walked over to where Hanna was sitting. He spoke, and his voice was quiet and careful. “I have to make some calls. If you need anything, just come and get me.”

                    “Sure.”

                    Bill left the room, and Hanna leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She opened them again when she remembered she owed Travis an update. “Travis, the computer’s running. It shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

                    That was a lie. There was always the chance that none of the keys were the right one, or that they needed to find a more creative way of extrapolating the decoding matrix from them. But she couldn’t bring herself to explain that. If it didn’t work, she’d just say the program had some bugs and they were going to fix them.

                    Travis muttered, “…Okay.”

                    Hanna turned around. Travis was sitting on the floor next to Marie, who was sound asleep. He looked like he could use a few weeks’ worth of sleep, himself. With that miserable expression on his face, you wouldn’t think he was less than an hour away from getting his friend back. It was probably because he didn’t completely trust her. She didn’t blame him. For that matter, he obviously hadn’t been comfortable with staying behind while the others took Jason to the hospital. In the end Hanna was the one who convinced him that Wyvern needed somebody there when he woke up, too.

                    Travis pulled his knees close to his chest and hid his face. Hanna took that to mean it was time to leave him alone and check on the program’s process, but then she noticed that Marie had a damp towel on her forehead. Travis must have put it there while she wasn’t looking.

                    She heard Marie’s voice. ‘…Kid good.’

                    ‘Yeah.’

                    Not asleep then, but just resting. She’d gone through a machine to patch up the effects of the Shadow Ball, but mostly she was just mentally exhausted, and no machine could help with that. Everyone thought Pokécenters put all the juice back in a psychic-type’s brain, but that was just because the young ones could bounce back naturally.

                    Then Marie put a new voice in Hanna’s head, even though she was in no shape for it and Hanna had told her over and over again to cut that out.

                    ‘I gave up on him. I don’t deserve this. I gave up on him. He’s going to know.’

                    The sound was devastating. It was as bad as anything Hanna had ever heard from Derek. And just like was usually the case with Derek, Travis’s conclusion was completely wrong. Anyone could tell he hadn’t been giving up on Wyvern when he returned her call. He was just saving his friends from more immediate danger. And even if the danger hadn’t been more immediate, how could he beat himself up so much for being faced with an impossible choice?

                    She had to fix this. She got up, walked over, and sat down in front of him. “Hey. You did fine.”

                    Travis kept his head hidden.

                    “Listen. Just because it worked out better than you thought it would doesn’t mean it’s an accident. Sometimes giving up on nobody looks like giving up on somebody because these are hard decisions. But Pokémon can tell the difference better than humans sometimes. That’s because they don’t see the world as a big game of chess—they just see what you’re feeling.”

                    Now Travis looked up. “…Do you read minds?”

                    Hanna decided to play it up a little. She winked and pointed at Marie. “Just a little bit. Marie doesn’t like to embarrass people, so it’s usually pretty safe.”

                    Travis turned a little red, but to Hanna’s relief he didn’t seem too disturbed to learn this. “How does she get it into your head? Is it a move?”

                    Hanna smiled. “Sort of. As best as I can tell it’s a benign application of Confusion. She’s mostly self-taught. I just helped out a little with interpreting human language and some fine-tuning.”

                    Travis looked amazed, but that only lasted for a moment. If anything, now he looked worse than before. “You said they see what you’re feeling, right? Well, I gave up. That’s what it feels like, and that’s what he’s what he’s gonna see.”

                    “That’s just what you think you feel. You’re still looking at this like chess. It’s so much simpler than that. As soon as you can hold him again, you’re going to feel so happy and relieved it’ll drown out everything else. Wyvern’s going to know how hard you tried. You’ll see.”

                    Travis didn’t react. His face was stiff.

                    ‘Boy crying.’

                    No tears, no discoloration, no disrupted breathing. It killed Hanna that there was a little boy who could hide it this well. She patted him on the shoulder, got up again, and left him alone. This was so backwards. If anyone was supposed to be wracked with guilt over how they’d handled this whole misadventure, it was her. She could have put a stop to it before it even began.

                    Of course, it was possible she needed to give herself a similar lecture to the one she’d just given Travis. She’d done her best at each step and try as she might, she couldn’t predict the future. If she’d gotten their licenses taken away before disaster actually struck, she probably would have regretted it anyway. Sure, if she could go back and do it over she never would have let Travis lose Wyvern in the first place. That also would have saved Jason’s arm. And there was one stranger who wouldn’t be dead, even if he was a Rocket and even if it was an accident. That last thought churned her stomach, so she tried to stop thinking about the what-ifs.

                    She sat down at her workstation again. The sensor’s display still showed static inside the ball. As the program ran on, she kept thinking about the what-ifs despite herself. The worst part of it all was that letting the kids just walk away from the gym had all been for naught. The whole idea behind not telling their parents right away was that they didn’t want to put an end to the kids’ journey, but it was over anyway. Jason and Travis might not be allowed to leave Cherrygrove City again once their parents picked them up. They could be trapped there until adulthood, stewing in scars and regret and never moving on.

                    The screen changed, and Hanna forgot about all this. She could hardly believe her eyes. If nothing else, one thing had gone right. The sensor’s image was free of static, and in the middle of the circle was the unmistakable outline of a Seadra.

                    “Travis, come look at this.”

                    *********

                    Travis was sitting in the back seat of Bill’s car. They were on their way to the hospital to see Jason and the others. Hanna and Bill were talking about something, but he wasn’t listening. His attention was on the white ball that he cradled in his hands. There was a red cross on the front, and next to that Bill had written in sharpie, ‘Jun 15 5:00pm.’ That was when it was safe to open. Seven days away. The ball’s release switch was elevated, and underneath it there was a ring of foam to prevent it from activating by mistake.

                    There was no weight pressing down on Travis, but there was no great force lifting him up, either. It was disorienting. Wyvern was here, he was free, but he was sick. They’d told him the Rockets had put chemicals in the black Pokéball—something to put Pokémon in a constant rage and keep them from ever falling asleep. So Hanna and Bill wanted to give Wyvern the medicine the same way to be safe: confined to a Pokéball and slowly. They had let Travis watch when they transferred him from the Rocket ball to this one.

                    It was going to be a long week. But at the end of it he was going to let Wyvern in the water, rub his back, and tell him it was all just a bad dream.

                    The car pulled into a parking garage next to a long, white building. Bill found a space, and the car stopped. It was quiet, and the world around Travis seemed very small. They got out. Hanna led him to the elevators with a hand on his shoulder, probably because his eyes were on Wyvern’s Pokéball and not on where he was going. At some point they came into a bright but pale hallway, and things became noisy again. Travis looked up because the world couldn’t stay small forever. Krissy was sitting on a bench by herself. Standing not far from her were Jen and Derek.

                    Bill walked off somewhere, maybe to the restroom, while Hanna joined the other adults in their conversation. As for Travis, he supposed the proper thing to do would be to sit next to Krissy. He did so, but didn’t get too close.

                    Krissy looked dead tired at first, but when she noticed Travis her eyes were drawn straight to the Pokéball and they grew wider. “Is that…?” Her voice was small and cautious.

                    “Yeah.”

                    She smiled. Her eyes still looked so sad, though. So he asked, “How are you doing?”

                    “Better. How about you?”

                    “Better.”

                    Her eyes really did look sad, though. Then he realized what else it could be and he feared the worst. “…How is he?”

                    “They said he needs surgery. I haven’t seen him, but Jen said he’s awake with local anesthesia.”

                    Travis didn’t see what it mattered where the anesthesia came from, but at least it sounded better than when they put Jason in the ambulance. That was a relief, so again his attention went back to Wyvern’s Pokéball. He stayed that way for a good minute, but then he noticed more of what the adults were saying. He started to listen.

                    “…not gonna be able to look Jason in the eye again. Or Aunt Meg. Or Mom. Or… sh*t.” That was Derek. He sounded beyond terrible.

                    “Look,” said Jen, “the doctor said he’d already worn that ligament down to nearly nothing. The Earthquake just made things messier after it snapped. He was going to need the surgery anyway if he kept throwing that way.”

                    “No, that’s… that’s not what I’m talking about. God, what else might have happened if…”

                    Hanna interrupted him. “Derek, we made the decision to bring them down there. Me and Jen. Mostly me. That’s on us, not you. And anyway, we’re all still here. Let’s just be happy about that.”

                    “No, I… I wanted to… I almost really… I wasn’t thinking, I just… Oh god.”

                    Derek put his hand over his eyes. He ceased to be incoherent and just sobbed instead. Travis could barely believe what he was seeing and hearing. He didn’t want to know what Derek regretted so badly that it reduced him to this.

                    Derek began to walk off. After a few moments of hesitation, Jen and Hanna followed after him. That left Travis alone with Krissy. Now that nobody else was around, Travis remembered several regrets of his own. There were a lot of words to take back before it was too late, and very soon it was going to be too late.

                    Travis opened his mouth. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t pick up that conversation where they had left off. Knowing what he did now, it was too much for him to handle. But that wasn’t fair to her. He still had to say something.

                    “For, uh…”

                    “Huh?” Krissy gave him her full attention.

                    “…When you get back on the trail. If you join up with some other trainers, you might want to… uh…”

                    “…Yes?”

                    “…When you win a battle you’re always supposed to gloat a little. Or just cheer or something. Like, act surprised, even if you knew you were gonna win. Jason calls that ‘courtesy hype.’ It makes the loser feel like it meant something to beat him.”

                    Krissy was still for a beat. “…Did that get on your nerves? That I never did that?”

                    Travis sighed. “Yeah. Kind of. I know you were trying to be nice.”

                    Krissy stared at the floor. Travis stared at the wall. He thought about how stupid that just was. The closest that got to what he was really supposed to say was that he suggested she meant well. That barely scratched the surface.

                    “That reminds me,” said Krissy, “I don’t think you and Jason should be so hard on each other when one of you messes up. That bugged me. A lot.”

                    Before Travis could think to say that this was understandable, he went on the defensive like the thick jerk he was. “What? But that’s just how the game works.”

                    “Game?”

                    “Yeah. We see who does better at everything, and whoever’s been doing better lately is winning. We can’t tell who’s winning if we let stuff slide. Like… it’s how you play.”

                    “…That’s a stupid game.”

                    Travis was this close to calling something about her stupid, but he bit his tongue. They’d both rightly pointed out something the other could improve on, so they were even. “Yeah. It’s pretty stupid. But we like it.” He didn’t add, ‘I think.’

                    “Well, if you have to play your game all the time, do you have to be sore losers about it too? It’s like whenever one of you does something good the other has to be mad about it. Can you still play the game and be happy when either of you gets a bunch of points? Isn’t it better to get even by playing better instead of trying to make the other guy feel lousy for doing well?”

                    Travis just couldn’t see why anyone should act like they didn’t want to win. Besides, it wasn’t like they never gave each other props for stuff. She wasn’t making a lot of sense, even for a girl. Still, it couldn’t hurt to think about it. “I dunno. Maybe.”

                    They fell into silence again. It was a pretty lousy conversation. But then again, it was probably better than any they’d had one-on-one before. It wasn’t the worst way to handle the last time they’d ever say more than ten words to each other. Travis had once thought he’d be glad to have it over with, but that feeling seemed naïve and petty, now.

                    There were footsteps coming from down the hallway. Travis looked up and saw Jen coming back alone. She stopped in front of a room, shook her head quickly as if to clear something out of it, took a deep breath, and opened the door. After she shut it behind her, Travis asked Krissy, “Is that Jason’s room?”

                    “Yeah.”

                    A nurse exited the room and went about her business somewhere else. Travis supposed Jen or Jason had asked for privacy. “Wonder what they’re talking about.”

                    “I hope it’s nothing bad.”

                    “Me neither.”

                    Travis had a strong feeling that they ought to know what was being said, and he suspected Krissy felt the same.

                    *********

                    Jason’s back was propped up against pillows. He could see that his right arm was in a sling, but it might as well have been missing. Although his shoulder ached something fierce, past that there was nothing at all. The room was too cold, but his lap at least was warm because Rabies had his head and front paws drooped over it. He was a good boy, so Jason scratched behind his ears with his left hand.

                    “Um…” The nurse had the blood pressure stuff ready, and she wanted his left arm but seemed uneasy about the Growlithe in the room.

                    “He doesn’t bite.” Jason said it with a straight face. It wasn’t as honest as saying ‘He only bites when he’s playing too rough and we’re still working on that,’ but he didn’t want her to ask that he go back into his ball.

                    The nurse bought it, and for the next few minutes Jason stared at the ceiling as the endless examinations continued. It wasn’t how he wanted to spend the last hours before his parents showed up. As long as they weren’t here, he could almost pretend it wasn’t over. That was all he could think about. It should have been enough for him when they got the call from Hanna that Wyvern was saved, but it wasn’t. Maybe something was wrong with him.

                    As the nurse was putting away her equipment, the door opened. It was Jen, and she had the kind of encouraging smile on her face that made Jason think she was faking it. The sight was enough to make Rabies perk his head up and wag his tail. She shut the door behind her, then had a few quiet words with the nurse. All Jason heard was the nurse saying, “Five minutes.” Then she left, and he and Jen had the room to themselves.

                    Jen pulled a chair over to the bedside, and in response Rabies pushed down hard on Jason’s lap to get up and greet her. “Oof—” He saw a few stars. Was there anything that wasn’t going to hurt today?

                    “Hi, Rabies!” Jen was using a sing-song voice. Rabies stood on his hind legs and put his paws in Jen’s hands to balance. “Oh, are you glad to see Grandma?”

                    Jason’s face scrunched up. “…‘Grandma?’”

                    “Yeah. He’s Summer’s baby, and Summer’s my baby. So I’m Grandma.”

                    By those rules, did that make Jen his aunt-in-law? Jason decided not to do the math any further because it was too weird. In any case, Jen picked up Rabies and set him very gently back on Jason’s lap, where he stayed put and kept wagging.

                    “So. How’s our hero doing?”

                    Jason frowned. “What are you talking about? None of this would’ve happened if I wasn’t so dumb.”

                    Jen was still smiling. “Same here, and I’m really supposed to know better. I heard Hanna say it was all her fault a few times too. And Derek’s…” She paused and the smile faltered, but only for a moment. “Derek’s being pretty down on himself, too.”

                    Jason didn’t want to keep talking about this, and it seemed Jen could tell. “So. I never knew you were such a hot-shot at catching Pokémon. That’s really cool.”

                    It was really cool; past-tense. And according to Jen, anyway. “It never got my team any better. I just stuck with my first three. It… it never seemed fair to take time away from them to work with a fourth. I let the new ones go after a week if I didn’t use them, and that was all of them. I heard they don’t mind getting let go if you never bring them out.”

                    “Yeah, that’s right.” Jen leaned forward. “How many have you caught, if you don’t mind me asking?”

                    “…Pokédex says fifty-four. I evolved two and there’s also Rabies, so fifty-one.” It was so embarrassing. Fifty-one caught, and other than two it was all for nothing. All he’d gotten out of it was some fleeting fun; fun he never thought he’d have to miss.

                    But Jen’s jaw dropped all the same. “Jason. That’s incredible. I don’t think Hanna and I caught that many combined our whole journeys. You have to show that Pokédex to Bill later. He’d be beside himself.”

                    Why? Because he might have a shot at completing it? That was ridiculous. Even if he ever got his license back—which was a joke—he’d never be able to match that pace again. His eyes gravitated to his now-worthless arm.

                    “I know what you’re thinking.” Did she? “I wanna show you something. I don’t think you’ve seen it before.”

                    Jen took her shirt and pulled it up to the bottom of her ribs. On her side there was a deep-red patch of scarred, mangled skin. Jason was at a loss for words.

                    Jen’s smile came back. “Magmar. Fire Punch. It doesn’t hurt anymore.” She covered it up again. “Took me out of commission early into my second year. I was positive lying there in the hospital I was never going to be able to camp out on the trail again, but in the end it only cost me ten months. By the time I was fifteen, you’d never guess I lost most of a year. It always feels permanent at the time, but it usually isn’t.”

                    Jason didn’t buy it. The doctor had said something about taking a thing from his shoulder and moving it to his elbow. That couldn’t possibly mean he’d be able to throw again. But he didn’t have to argue that point because there was a bigger issue. “Who cares if I get the arm back if I’m not allowed to use it?”

                    “I hear you. Actually, that’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about.” Jen leaned forward again. “Here’s the thing: your parents trust me and Derek a lot. And for all the doctors know, that Earthquake was from a wild Pokémon. Nobody knows that all six of us were in this big underground Rocket showdown. They just see three overconfident kids and three responsible adults. We can even tell the Lafayettes that Hanna and Bill got Wyvern out with hacker magic; nobody has to know how bad it got.”

                    Jason had an idea of what she was getting at, but she didn’t know what she was talking about. “You’re not gonna talk them into getting me licensed again. They’ll just say the arm means training was a bad idea in the first place.”

                    “Sure, if I asked them right now. But we can play the long game, and I’ve got a plan to ease them into it.”

                    Jason looked away, but he kept listening.

                    “You’re going to be out of the hospital well before you’re cleared for any strenuous activity. And yes, you’re going to be miserable, but your parents are going to see that and they will want to help. They won’t be ready to let you back out in the world unsupervised, but I bet you anything they’ll like the idea of you doing what makes you happy as long as it’s in a safe environment and someone’s got their eye on you all the time.”

                    He looked at her again. What was she talking about?

                    “So how would you like to come work at the gym when you’re well enough? We can ease you into things as your arm gets better, and at the same time we’ll work on wearing down your mom and dad. You can teach the little kids how to catch Pokémon like a pro, you can take on all comers at battling, whatever you want. I know it’s not journeying, but we really do have a lot of fun up there.”

                    Everything clicked. He couldn’t explain how his mind could change so thoroughly just like that, but he knew Jen had figured it out. It sounded like a dream come true. That was the path back to the real trail, he knew it, and it didn’t even sound like a bad way to spend a year or more. He tried to find holes in the logistics, but they weren’t there. You could use a Pokécenter without a license if you had an adult—he just couldn’t catch anything and keep it, or leave town unsupervised. For now, the gym was perfect.

                    So why did it make him sad to the point of tears?

                    He rubbed his eyes with his good arm. Soon the answer was obvious. “…It’s not the same. It… it won’t ever be the same without them.”

                    Even if Travis ever got his license back, Krissy didn’t have to wait. She could leave anytime. And there was no reason for her to come back, not when Travis hated her and she knew it. He didn’t care what Travis thought; it wasn’t half a real journey if anyone was missing. They needed someone who made them aim higher, someone who knew everything but still wanted to learn everything else and teach them, someone who wanted to be there no matter how much better she was. Jason could list any number of reasons, but they were all just ways to dance around what he really thought. He liked her, and he didn’t want her to leave.

                    He was bent over, and everything from his shoulder to his legs ached. Rabies whined a little. Jen leaned forward and rubbed his back. “I didn’t tell you one other thing about when I was out with the injury. I was worried for a while me and Hanna would lose touch, but the darnedest thing happened. She stayed on the trail plenty, but she never went too far from Ecruteak. And pretty much every weekend she stayed over at our house. And look at where we are now: we’re still friends, even though she lives all the way out here. Now, I can’t tell you for sure what your friends will be up to or who else they’ll meet, but there’s no reason—”

                    The door burst open. Travis and Krissy ran over and jostled the bed more than a little. Rabies jumped up and pushed too hard on Jason’s lap again as they talked over each other.

                    “Can I please I work at the gym, too?”

                    “I wanna work at the gym! Can you talk to my parents!”

                    Jason was dazed. It didn’t seem real. Travis leaned over and spoke to him more plainly and directly than he ever had. “We’ll make it work. We really will, honest.”

                    Krissy nodded vigorously. “Yeah, promise.”

                    Bark!

                    Jen tried to stifle her laughter. “Of course you can! The more the merrier! Just don’t expect much money!”

                    Finally a smile made its way onto Jason’s face, but he failed to stop crying.

                    “Whoa, wait,” said Travis. “You’re not supposed to cry when I don’t have a camera!”

                    Jason busted a gut laughing along with Travis. Even Krissy had a hard time holding it in. They were already on the long road back.

                    *********

                    Epilogue

                    August, 2018

                    There was nothing like tournament night in Krissy’s book, nor in Lucia’s. Her Meganium lived for the bright lights. Krissy herself was partial to having a packed house, and this month they had one and then some. The bleachers were full and spectators were sitting in the grass all the way up to the edge of the dirt arena. There was something to be said for a loud punctuation to every twist and turn of a battle, especially when the spectators caught on to a smart move.

                    Lucia stamped her feet and ruffled the flower around the base of her long neck. She was more than ready for a tough fight. Unfortunately, there were no fifteen-year-olds in the pool this time and other finalist was only Patrick. Unless he’d taught his Hitmontop a new trick for the first time in two years, it was a near certainty that Krissy would have her third title in five attempts. Just as the Hitmontop was flipping onto his head to start spinning, two voices from the crowd echoed her opinion:

                    Patrick sucks! Pa – trick – sucks!

                    “Hey!” yelled Jen from the sidelines. “You two quit it or you’re fired!”

                    There were some scattered cheers and laughs from the younger members of the audience, and the chants that followed were more positive in nature. As usual the sentiment of the chants was mostly divided by gender lines, but there were definitely some boys’ voices calling for a ‘Krissy,’ ‘Meganium,’ or ‘Lucia’ victory.

                    Jen blew her whistle, and the necessary formality commenced. Krissy decided to practice on putting more oomph in the commands she gave, along with some dramatic arm gestures to boot. As for Patrick, he seemed as flustered as ever, and more importantly he didn’t seem to notice that Lucia was using a tiny bit of her Sweet Scent attack every spare moment as was standard procedure. Soon enough, the long-distance Vine Whip attacks started to hit the normally evasive Hitmontop. Lucia was doing a great job of making them flashy without losing their impact, and she raised her melodious voice in a little taunt to let everyone know.

                    The crowd ate it up, and it was clearly getting under Patrick’s skin. He finally ordered Hitmontop to close the distance. Krissy knew his track record, and his strategy was so transparent that she decided to go for the perfect finish instead of settling for the sure win. She snapped her fingers twice to signal the next move to Lucia. The Meganium set her feet, and nobody could see the preparations she was making inside her body.

                    When the Hitmontop was halfway there, Krissy gave her order at the same time as Patrick’s.

                    “Close Combat!”

                    “Petal Dance!”

                    A wave of shock and anticipation rose from the stands. Both Pokémon were using high-octane moves that would leave them highly vulnerable if they fell short, and this was a one-Pokémon tournament. Hitmontop bounced off his point and into the air as Lucia reared up onto her hind legs. The cloud of bright pink and white flowers erupted from the base of her neck faster than anyone watching—save Krissy—would think was possible. The petals swarmed Hitmontop at full blast and visibly slowed him down even in midair. It was already over, and he’d lost enough momentum that Lucia was able to add a flourish of her own: she spiked him to the ground with one of her heavy feet. It made her own landing a little awkward, but Krissy was relieved to see that she didn’t twist anything.

                    The crowd exploded. It wasn’t nearly as loud as the official tournaments sounded on TV, but it might as well have been the same thing. Patrick waved his arms and walked out of the box, which led Jen to blow her whistle again. Krissy was so pleased with how they had put on a good show for the gym that she forgot to do the polite thing, which was act surprised. Fortunately, Lucia reminded her with the victory roar they’d practiced. Krissy raised two fists in the air in kind. It still felt a little fake and she was sure Jason and Travis were going to give her crap for it later, but at least she was working on it.

                    She walked out into the center of the arena. There was a handshake, a few obligatory words of sportsmanship, and then Patrick was out of there with Hitmontop in his ball as fast as he could walk. Lucia decided to soak in the moment a little more and lowered her head to nudge Krissy hard in the chest, as if to say, ‘Hey, we did it.’ Krissy hadn’t taught her to do that, but she didn’t mind it.

                    *********

                    Ten minutes later the stands were empty. It was late, after all, and most of their customers for these events had bedtimes. In the same vein, Krissy’s big Meganium and Jason’s little Growlithe were taking a nap on the grass. As staff, however, Krissy and her favorite knuckleheads still had to clean up. She was gathering trash while Jason and Travis were supposed to be taking down the booths from the afternoon’s festivities.

                    “Travis, quit f*cking around and give me a hand with this table.”

                    A lot had changed in the last year-plus, and among the changes were in Jason’s vocabulary and the pitch of his voice (depending on the day).

                    “Yeah, yeah, just a sec.” Travis was entertaining a few ten-year-old trainers who were still hanging around. Their eyes were on Wyvern, who was balancing on his tail and looking very focused. Travis held out a water bottle. “Okay, show ’em.”

                    Wyvern spread his fins, lowered his head, and willed the contents of the bottle to rise into midair and form into a ball, and then into a cube. The two girls gawked at it, and the boy in the group actually covered his mouth. Then the block of water shot forward like a weak bullet and splashed harmlessly on the ground. It was a perfectly impressive and delightfully worthless technique. Wyvern growled like a true showman.

                    “Wow! Cool!” A round of applause. Krissy stared for a moment at the younger trainers. They were so small. She didn’t remember feeling as small back then as they looked now. It really put her aspiration to defeat Team Rocket as fast as possible into perspective when she saw the gap between herself and them. And she still had that goal, but she could wait until she was actually ready. There was a long way to go yet.

                    “Come back tomorrow and I can show you guys how he does it,” said Travis.

                    “You bet!”

                    After some quick goodbyes, the ten-year-olds were off to the trail again. Travis gave Wyvern a well-deserved pat on the head, and returned him to his Pokéball. Wyvern still wasn’t a fan of hanging around on land for more than an hour or so. Since Travis had gotten his license back on his twelfth birthday, he made up for it by taking him and Leviathan on regular trips to Lake Rage. If Jason minded that he couldn’t come along—Mrs. O’Connor’s strict rule that he had to be in the same town as Jen at all times was still in effect—he didn’t make an issue of it.

                    Travis gestured where the young trainers had gone. “See? That’s how you do P.R.”

                    Jason rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the folding-table. “Yep. Now like I was saying about this f*ckin’ table…”

                    “Jason, don’t swear. You’re terrible at it.”

                    They all looked over, and Krissy was surprised to see Derek walking up along with Hanna. She waved at them. “Hey, guys! I didn’t see in you in the stands.”

                    Hanna waved back. “We got here a little late, so there weren’t any seats left. Congratulations, by the way!”

                    “Thanks!”

                    Jason and Travis hoisted up the table and carried it off to the shed. It still felt great to see Jason using both of his arms. He called at Derek over his shoulder, “Just you wait! My goal is to be a goddamn Swearing Master! Like no one ever was!”

                    Derek shook his head. Krissy noticed that there were surprisingly few rings under his eyes. He said to her, “When you guys are done, we’ll be in the clubhouse with Jen.”

                    A burly man walked over. This was Carlos, one of the adult employees, and he spoke with a thick accent that Krissy found charming. “They can join you now. Francine and I’ll take care of the rest.”

                    “You sure?” asked Krissy.

                    “Yes, ma’am.” He turned to Hanna and Derek. “They make the rest of us look bad. They’ve been at it since morning, and they’ll be at it all night if we don’t tell them to quit it.”

                    Hanna nodded. “I can believe that.” Then she said to Krissy, “Go on in and sit down. We’ll grab the boys.”

                    To tell the truth, getting off of her feet didn’t sound bad to Krissy. She handed the bag to Carlos. “I owe you one!”

                    Carlos shrugged as if to say, ‘Like I said, you really don’t, but whatever,’ and got to work.

                    As Krissy walked, she took another look at the tall lights and the bugs swarming around them. She never got tired of the way they lit up just enough of the edge of the dark forest. She also never got tired of how all around the clubhouse it still smelled like popcorn for a few hours after a tournament ended. Inside Jen was sitting at the table and going through the cashbox.

                    She smiled when she saw Krissy. “We really cleaned up this time. It’s gonna make a good dent in the loan. That reminds me, it’s your turn to file the taxes this year.”

                    Krissy was this close to voicing an earnest, desperate objection, but she caught herself. You had to be careful when to take someone seriously around here. “Nice try.”

                    Jen snapped her fingers. “So close.” Then she tossed Krissy a can of soda. “Little celebration tonight.”

                    Krissy sat down. “Oh?”

                    Before Jen could say anything, the other four came through the door and they carried a conversation with them. Jason pulled up a chair on one side of Krissy and Travis took the other. “Okay, you can settle this,” said Jason. “I think you trained Lucia to power up a Petal Dance really quickly, but Travis says you gave her a signal to start powering up early. Who’s right?”

                    “Do you have money riding on it?”

                    Jason and Travis both broke into a stream of, “What? No. Never. Who, us? No.”

                    Krissy thought so. She took a dignified sip from her drink. “I’m afraid spectator-gambling is prohibited at North Ecruteak Gym. I couldn’t say.”

                    They were united in their retort: “Booooooo.

                    She changed the subject. “How’s your job going, Derek?”

                    Derek took in a sharp breath at the question, but he seemed to be at relative ease when he answered. “It’s good. They’ve still got me behind a desk, but we’re, uh… we’re starting to get things running more smoothly. Getting some other cities on board, too, so that’s good.” Some subjects were still hard for him to talk about, according to Jen, but she’d asked that they all try to nudge him along. Krissy noticed Hanna give him a little smile of encouragement from across the table.

                    When everyone had their seat and their drink—three beers, three sodas—Jen stood up and knocked on the table. “Now that we’re all here, a couple of toasts. First to our local battler extraordinaire for her gym-leading third tournament victory.”

                    Cans were raised and elbows were nudged. “Hear, hear!” Krissy turned a little red, but not much.

                    “And next… Uh, give me a sec.” Jen cleared her throat and smiled wide. “It took me a long chat over the phone, but we got some mail from the O’Connor house today.”

                    Krissy’s heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be, could it? She stared with mouth agape as Jen reached into her pocket. She pulled out a plastic card, showed it off to the room, and slid it across the table to Jason. He was speechless, but Krissy couldn’t contain herself. “Oh my god!”

                    “Tell me that’s what I think it is,” said Travis.

                    As the applause and congratulations poured out, everyone seemed to forget about the drinks part of the toast. Derek even gave the most convincing smile Krissy had ever seen from him.

                    “So, where to first?” asked Hanna.

                    Just like that, Jason laughed and ceased to be speechless. “Oh wow, I dunno. Somewhere we haven’t been yet. Wherever there’s tough Pokémon to catch!”

                    “Better have an ocean,” said Travis.

                    “You know,” said Hanna, “If you ask Bill, he could name you some Pokémon that’d break some new ground for us. We’re always on the lookout for more data on ones that nobody seems to have caught in the wild.”

                    Jason jumped to his feet. “Like Lugia!”

                    Krissy was in mid-sip, and some of it went up her nose.

                    “Uh,” said Hanna, “I was thinking more like ones we only see in captivity post-evolution. Like Machamp, or—”

                    Jason was ignoring her now. “We can look for clues around the Burned Tower first thing tomorrow!”

                    “Whirl Islands,” said Travis. “That’s where we’re gonna find him. Guarantee it.”

                    “Yeah, yeah, I heard he’s there too! And on the way I can catch an electric-type. That’ll make it a cinch to wear him down!”

                    Travis clapped his hands. “Double-weakness. He won’t know what hit him.”

                    “Actually,” said Krissy, “the prevailing theory is that its other type is psychic, not water.” Why was she lending this proposal any credence?

                    “That’s ridiculous,” said Travis. “It’s obviously water.”

                    While Jason started thinking aloud about his plan to catch the legendary bird, Krissy leaned over and whispered to Travis, “We’re not being serious, are we?”

                    Travis whispered back, “Half-and-half? If there is a Lugia and we think we’re actually getting close, we’ll start being more careful. Anyway, let’s just let him have this for now.”

                    That made sense to her. “Sounds good.”

                    “…and then we’ve got him! All we need to do is start saving for a supply of Ultra Balls.”

                    “I like it!” said Jen. “Oh, actually, Derek! You know your way around the Whirl Islands pretty well. Why don’t you give them a ride when you’ve got a good weekend?”

                    Krissy saw Hanna mouth the words, ‘Keep an eye on them.’ Was she honestly worried about them finding Lugia? No, of course not, she must have been talking about the whirlpools.

                    Derek held up a finger to slow things down for himself. “I’ll think about it.”

                    Krissy thought about it too. Maybe it was just because of Jason’s infectious excitement, but she had to admit that the legends probably weren’t based on nothing. At the very least, there must be some strong, unidentified Pokémon out there, and who was to say one of them wasn’t uncannily similar to Lugia? So now that between her and the boys they had three licenses, one fully recovered arm, and a shared, open disregard for wasting time on gym badges, why not go for it?

                    Who was going to stop them?

                    The End

                    [I want to extend my deepest, sincerest thanks to you for reading until it said 'the end.' There's a lot more I want to say about this story now that it's over, but that can wait. It's been a true pleasure to write, and a true privilege to receive so much encouragement from the readers. So again, thank you all so much!]
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                    Old September 13th, 2017 (10:20 PM).
                    Bay Alexison's Avatar
                    Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline
                    O, Dance of Devotion!
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                    Ch 11
                    I like the part where you have Hanna reflected on the death of a grunt. Often we just think of grunts from a villian group as throwaway characters, and if a grunt, say, kill someone else, then it's tragic.

                    Derek's Tyranitar is sure a tank able to go through five Pokemon, even when being poisoned later. Did Jason broke his arm there? If so, man that gotta hurt. Russo letting Lucia know of somewhere she can go to seems like a part of him kinda cares for him, but I already expected for her to not take it.

                    Ch 12 + Epilogue
                    Glad that Travis got his Pokemon back, even if the result is bittersweet. Somewhat of a let down Jason's going to be out of commission for a bit due to his arm, but at least Jen has something for him to do while he recovers. And when he did get his license back, lol him wanting Lugia here. But yeah, I would consider throwing pokeballs a skill a trainer should have heh. Also Jason, swearing is not as cool as you think. Cute how Krissy is pretty reserved when it comes to battling, and after the tournament battle she tries to work to be a little more excited in her victories.

                    This has been a joy reading this from beginning to end. Congrats on finishing it!
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