Saylee Pokémon: 9 Deaths: 2

Key Pokémon: 13 Deaths: 1

"I made a couple of changes to my team," Key said, logging off of the computer. "I'm taking in Marth and Galen instead of Wanda and Shikoba. Galen should be able to deal with most of the gym on his own, since it's electric-type, right?" She held up the Geodude's pokéball while pocketing the Minun's.

"Yep," Saylee agreed. "Good plan... although it looks like you'll be the second challenger today," she adding, spotting a man and a teenage boy arguing in front of the gym.

"I can do it!" the boy insisted. Saylee was shocked to realize that the boy was Wally, the ill-looking kid that they'd helped to catch a Ralts back in Petalburg. He spotted Saylee and Key at about the same time.

"Key! Saylee!" he yelled excitedly, waving at them before breaking off to cough.

"Look, you're still ill," the man insisted. "Come home, Wally."

"No!" Wally insisted. "I'm much stronger now! Randall and I are going to challenge the gym!" He held up Randall's pokéball defensively, and then turned to Saylee and Key. "Will one of you please have a battle with me so I can prove it to my foster father?"

"A battle?" Key said, looking taken aback.

Saylee stepped forwards. "I'll fight you, Wally," she offered. "Key's got to keep herself fresh to take on the gym!" She released Makoto, opting to give Wally a bit of an advantage. She didn't intend to lose, but she did want to make Wally look good in front of his new foster father. She felt bad for the kid. At least he was visibly in better health than he had been back in Petalburg, and she wouldn't be surprised if the boy's relationship with his Ralts was having an effect on him. His positive emotions would feed his Ralt's power, and that in turn would positively affect his health.

"You're on!" Wally released Randall. Makoto squared up to fight.

"Tackles only," Saylee murmured to him. He nodded, charging Randall. He hit the little psychic hard, knocking him over.

"Double Team!" Wally yelled excitedly. "And then Confusion!"

Randall split into a dozen copies, circling Makoto. He charged one, but it was a fake; purple light flashed out from the rest and knocked him over.

"Makoto, triangulate the blow!" Saylee called. Makoto nodded, closing his eyes and standing very still for a moment, and then, without opening his eyes, whipped around and charged forwards. He hit Randall dead-on, knocking him to the ground. Wally yelled in sympathetic pain. Key whimpered, and Saylee returned Makoto.

"I'm sorry, Wally!" she called as he went a little wobbly on his feet and returned Randall. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah... yeah, that was fun!" Wally said, grinning brightly. "Thank you!"

"Come on, Wally," his foster father said gently. "I know that you're strong, but you need to go home and rest. You'll get stronger, I know it."

"Yeah! You had Saylee on the ropes there!" Key insisted.

Wally grinned all the brighter. "Well then... I guess I'll go home," he sighed, hugging Randall's pokéball. "Come visit me in Verdanturf, alright?"

"You're welcome anytime," his foster father agreed. "It's not far west of here."

"We'll come visit," Key promised. "I'll show you my new badge!"

Saylee watched the boy go, taking deep lungfuls of air as he clutched Randall's pokéball. Both of them had gotten much stronger very quickly.

"Are you and Galen ready?" she asked Key.

"You bet we are," Key said, stepping into the gym and facing down the electric gates fearlessly.

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It had been so sudden.

Galen had swept most of the gym, and soon Key was facing the gym leader, a jolly old man by the name of Wattson. Galen was outstanding as ever, and during the match one of the other trainers in the gym had challenged Saylee, insisting that she couldn't be wandering around the gym if she wasn't fighting. Wanting to see Key's match, Saylee had agreed. Makoto's Vital Throw was extremely powerful, and it had taken out a few electric-types in the past, so she figured it would be an easy battle. The sin of hubris...

Well, the other trainer had been at fault, too. He had charged up his Voltorb for too long. Saylee had tried to warn him that it was too much, that his Voltorb couldn't take it, but it was too late.

A badge for Key, and a double funeral for Saylee to watch over. She was starting to get resigned to it. Even in Hoenn, there was no such thing as safety.

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"I am just an awful trainer," Saylee muttered, pacing back and forth outside the door of the Pokémon Centre. Key glanced back through the glass doors, looking worried, but stayed at the counter, presumably booking rooms while Saylee made a call.

"For the love of—why are you saying that to yourself instead of the dumbass who got his own Voltorb killed because he's got a puff of cotton wool for a brain and didn't know when it was going to die?! That goddamn idiot better have his license revoked!"

Somehow, Blue always managed to help her put things in perspective.

"I've lost three Pokémon since I got here, Blue," Saylee said. "I let my guard down, and they paid for it. Hoenn was supposed to be safer than Kanto…"

"Just 'cause a country isn't running with thieving bastards and angry wild Pokémon that know how humans taste doesn't mean it's safe," Blue reminded her. "Careless dumbasses are just as dangerous. You know that."

"I shouldn't have tried to pick up new Pokémon here," Saylee sighed, rubbing her forehead. "If I could just get even one of my Pokémon through…"

"Y'know, I talked to Bill about that, and you're not the only one not getting anything through," Blue said. "Jasmine went on a trip to Sinnoh to do the contests there and had to come back because her Pokémon couldn't be transferred. Apparently she sent twelve million report messages, but none of the system admins heard a damn thing until she talked to Bill in person. When I went to him, he called up a bunch of his admin buddies and none of them had heard that you had a problem, either. They're working on it."

"Thank you, Blue," Saylee sighed. "That's both good to know and deeply suspicious."

"What, that somebody doesn't want you or Jasmine to be able to take your superpowerful Pokémon abroad with you? Really? Because I didn't see anything suspicious about that at all," Blue said dryly. "It's gotta be a targeted virus, because it's not hitting regular trainers—or Pokémon registered to regular trainers, anyway. I tried sending 'em to your buddy Key and no dice. We'll figure something out, don't worry. The next inexperienced dumbass you trip over'll get a faceful of Mary's thunderpunch."

"Thanks, Blue," Saylee said, smiling softly. "I just need to try and stay out of trouble until I can find where those stupid rocks came from so I can go home."

"Did you just say that you were gonna stay out of trouble?" Blue said flatly. "Did those words come out of your mouth? Funny, I didn't know you were starting a comedy routine."

"I'm hanging up, jerk," Saylee threatened.

"Okay, not the time for dumb jokes, I get it," Blue said. "C'mon, your inability to let bullshit pass is one of the things I love about you. Just, y'know, stop blaming yourself for other people being dumbasses, okay? You don't deserve to tear yourself up over this shit. You're more yourself when you're tearing up other people over this shit."

"Love you too, jerk," Saylee said. "How's the hunt going, by the way? For Professor Hawkshaw's killers?"

"Well, they sure as hell haven't turned up in my jurisdiction, which is pissing me off because if they did I could just kick their asses and head on out to Hoenn. Did you hear about her Girafarig, though?"

"I saw her with a Girafarig a couple of times, yeah," Saylee said.

"Well, it got killed too," Blue sighed. "But y'know how they've got those secondary heads in the tail? This one lived for a little while longer. The Girafarig couldn't be saved, but a police Kadabra got to her before the tail died and read its last memories."

"They saw the culprits?" Saylee said.

"Well, not exactly. The eyes on the tail-head are mostly for intimidation, y'know? The thing mainly works on smell. Its eyesight kinda sucks. The image is really, really, super vague. Just splashes of colour, really, but I'll send you a copy anyway, just in case."

"Thanks," Saylee said, wondering if Jenny knew about this development yet. "I met her daughter, Jenny. She's taking on the Hoenn gym challenge."

"Damn, that's gotta be hard going, right after losing her mum like that," Blue said. "How's she holding up?"

"She's grieving, but she's determined to at least attempt the League challenge," Saylee sighed. "She told her mother she would… I guess it's comforting to her, to do what she thinks her mother would have wanted for her. She's a pretty powerful trainer, too, so I think she can go far."

"Good for her," Blue said. "Anyway, I'll call you when Bill gets back to me, okay? And next time you get in trouble, be careful, moron. I love you."

"Love you too, jerk," Saylee said, hanging up. She gripped her pokégear tightly as she looked up with a sigh at the sinking sun. Neon lights were flashing on outside of all of the casinos, cinemas and game houses as the light fell.

"You okay?" Key asked, stepping out of the Pokémon Centre.

"Yeah… I'll be alright," Saylee said, pocketing her pokégear. "Do we have a room?"

"Well, the place is pretty busy, but we've got two beds in a dorm," Key said, grabbing Saylee's arm and tugging her off. "C'mon. There's a now Grouzilla movie out, and we need some fun."

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"So what's Verdanturf like?" Saylee asked as they headed down the westward path the next morning. "Do you know?"

"It's got the cleanest air in the country," Key explained. "Something to do with the wind currents. A lot of people go there for health purposes. I'm not surprised that Wally got sent there. He didn't use to be that sickly when he was a little kid, but he caught some kind of lung disease or something when everyone went on holiday a couple of years ago and it just didn't go away. The air must be doing him some good..."

"That, and his friendship with Randall, I'm sure," Saylee said, looking up at the dormant volcano looming over them. With the clear blue skies and wild Pokémon rustling the grass around them, it was easy to pretend that it was just a normal mountain. "Being with Pokémon changes us all for the better. I'm sure of it."

"Glad you are," Key said, brushing her hair out of the way as the wind blew it into her face. "As you can tell by the wind, we're here!"

Verdanturf wasn't large, but the houses were all brightly painted, and there were flowers everywhere. It looked like a cheerful little place. Saylee felt her gloomy spirits lifting a little just to look at it. The wonderfully clean air helped, too. There wasn't such clean air anywhere in Kanto or Johto. She felt like she'd never breathed so deeply.

"I don't actually know where Wally's new foster family lives," Key admitted. "We should ask around. Someone at the Pokémon Centre probably knows."

"Good shout," Saylee agreed, picking out the distinctive red top of the Pokémon Centre. The inside was just as brightly painted and florally decorated as the rest of the town, but was empty aside from the nurse behind the counter.

"They live on the road just south of here," the nurse explained, directing them on a map. "They've got the big house in the middle, you can't miss it. They might have gone up to the tunnel to see Wanda, though. She's refused to leave until her boyfriend gets through."

"The tunnel?" Saylee asked.

The nurse nodded. "They're digging a tunnel through to Slateport!" she said excitedly. "But the noise of the machines upset the Pokémon... so Wanda's boyfriend has been tunnelling through by hand, all on his own. It's very impressive, isn't it?"

"It really is," Saylee agreed. "Where is the tunnel?"

"West of here, cut into the cliff wall," the nurse said, pointing in the general direction.

"We might as well check it out first," Key said. "I want to see this tunnel, too."

They walked out of the Pokémon Centre and followed the path that the nurse had indicated towards the cliff face.

"That must be it," Saylee said, indicating the carved hole in the cliff wall. It had been propped up with wooden rafters, and there was a faint breeze coming from it, indicating that it had other exits. "That's pretty strong wind. Maybe he's through already!"

Following the wind, they found that, while there was another exit, it merely came out to a glade nearby. They continued on down the tunnel until they found a tall young woman with short, dark hair standing by another rock wall, listening to the pounding sound from behind it. "You're nearly there!" she called. "Can you hear me?"

They heard a faint, muffled call of assent. The woman's boyfriend was very, very close.

"Wanda?" Saylee called.

"Yes?" the woman replied, looking around. "Who are you?"

"I'm Key, and this is Saylee," Key introduced them. "We're friends of Wally's. We thought we'd come up and see how the tunnel is coming along."

"Slowly but steadily," Wanda said, running her hand down the rock wall. "He'll get through soon, I know it. I'm going to wait here until he does."

"There's not that much left," Saylee said, rapping the wall with her knuckles, and then paused with a thoughtful expression. "You know, I think we could smash through this wall. We were given Rock Smash back in Mauville, after all."

"That guy was way too enthusiastic about breaking stuff," Key muttered.

Saylee released Polly. "Well, sometimes it's useful," she said lightly. "Polly, Rock Smash, on my mark. OI! DIGGER!" She bellowed. "STAND BACK! WE'RE COMING THROUGH!"

The pounding on the wall stopped. Saylee signalled to Polly, who smashed into the rock wall, breaking through it. There really hadn't been much left at all; it crumbled straight away, revealing a man in a builder's uniform holding a shovel and hammer, coughing and waving dust away.

"Rusty!" Wanda yelled, flinging herself into his arms. He caught her and swung her around in a circle, both of them laughing and coughing.

"How about we get out into that famously clean air?" Key suggested, waving some of the dust away. Polly sneezed.

"Well done," Saylee said, scratching her ears. "Very well done."

"Thanks," Polly said, licking her hand, before making a face at the dusty taste and bolting out of the tunnel.

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"...and that's when I discovered that the reason that I hadn't seen a single thug for the past five floors was because that idiot had gone in ahead!" Saylee told them. "He was the one who'd knocked out the guard out front! He'd beaten up half the building so I wouldn't have to!"

"Sounds scary," Wanda gasped.

"Sounds cool!" Wally and Randall said in unison.

"Sounds sweet," Key said, nudging Saylee. "So were you two boyfriend-girlfriend then?"

"Well, not officially..." Saylee said, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. "But it was fun, fighting together. It wasn't like I was scared. Seriously, if you lock Carrie in a room with a hundred Rockets, it'll only be a fair fight if you take her bone away from her."

"I'm just relieved that there are no terrible criminals like that here," Wanda's father declared. Saylee and Key glanced at each other but opted not to bring up Team Aqua. Maybe they weren't really that big.

"How can your boyfriend stand being so far away from you?" Rusty wondered aloud, wrapping his arm around Wanda.

"We've both always been kinda loners," Saylee replied. "We've been apart before. Doesn't change the fact that we're best friends, and it just makes us happier to see each other again, you know? Besides, we call every so often, and he keeps texting me dumb pictures."

"When are you going back home?" Key asked. "You've never said."

"Haven't decided," Saylee said with a shrug. "Whenever I find out what those rocks are about, I guess. I wouldn't mind seeing more of Hoenn. This place is gorgeous."

"Where are you going next?" Wanda's mother asked. "Are you headed north?"

"I guess," Saylee said, shrugging again. "I'm bad at planning, to be honest. I make plans, and then life never sticks to them. I've just gotten into the habit of taking life as it comes."

"A fair philosophy," Wanda's father commented.

"I need another badge before I can go back and challenge Dad," Key sighed. "I don't know where to get one."

"You could go to Lavaridge," Wally suggested. "I've been reading up on all of the gyms. If you go north, and go up Mt Chimney, then you can get to Lavaridge on the other side easy!"

"There's a cable car run up the mountain, for tourists," his foster father added. "You can be there in a couple of days."

"I'm all for it," Saylee said, standing up. "Thanks for lunch. Sorry to impose on you."

"Not at all, you got Rusty through!" Wanda's mother insisted. "I haven't seen Wanda so happy in a good while."

"And you looked after Wally," Wanda's father added. "You're welcome here any time!"

"I'll maybe see you at the Pokémon League, Key," Wally said shyly. "I'm going to get stronger, I swear!"

"I'm counting on it," Key said, giving him a fistbump. "Somebody's gonna have to give me an actual challenge!"

"I'll see you too, Saylee," Wally said shyly. "Thank you again for fighting me earlier… I hope we meet again. I'm sure we will."

"Me too," Saylee said, shaking his hand and swinging her bag over her shoulder to leave. They returned their Pokémon, who had been eating and relaxing and enjoying the air outside, and started heading back to Mauville.

"Mt Chimney, then?" Saylee said to Key. "Why's it called that, anyway?"

"Because it's a dormant volcano," Key said. "But it still smokes sometimes." She pointed up at the mountain looming above them, and Saylee stiffened." There are scientists working nearby that have promised that they can let us know if it's gonna blow, so nobody pays any attention to the occasional bit of smoke and ash. Any volcanoes where you live?"

"There's the Cinnabar volcano," Saylee said. "It went off a few years ago. The island was uninhabited, for the most part, so there weren't a lot of casualties, but... there were also tidal waves and cave ins. It was a pretty big seismic event."

"Ohh, okay," Key said, nodding. "Just that?"

"Believe me, that was enough," Saylee said with a shudder. "There's a mountain range between Johto and Kanto, but none of them are volcanoes. The biggest one's Mt Silver. We call it that because it's so tall that it's constantly snow-capped. Some people call it the Red Mountain, too."

"That sounds ominous," Key said. Saylee didn't respond, merely opened her wallet and began counting through the contents.

"We'd better hit the Mauville market and get stocked up," she said. "Wanda's dad said it was a couple days' trek to Mt Chimney."

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Ahh, Selfdestruct. It's been a while since I've had cause to hate you (usually it's your big brother Explosion that's making my life a misery). Dishonour on you, dishonour on the programmer who made you, dishonour on his family, dishonour on his cow…

Sorry this is a day late. I was at my cousin's wedding all day yesterday. Spending today trying to wrestle control of my higher brain functions back from my hangover.

Saylee

RIP Makoto the Makuhita, level 9-21

Key