The rain is hammering against the window, and outside, the sky is dark. The rest of Sootopolis is dark too, evacuated at the eleventh hour by the League's efforts. Elite and Gym Leader alike had gathered at the volcano crater city to clear the path of the Legendary's rampage, and now only a few remain behind. Outside, Kyogre's wrath threatens to drown not only Sootopolis, but Hoenn itself. Inside, a decision is about to be made.
"What do you mean you're not leaving?!"
Steven winces at Glacia's tone, not daring to look toward the Sootopolis Gym Leader. He knows Wallace would never back down in his decision, yet the sheer terror of his stubbornness is written clear in his expression. The same terror churns in his own gut as he keeps his face toward the windowpane smudged blind with torrential rain.
"Wallace, it's too late to save this city. Sootopolis is lost."
Drake's voice grates through the quiet, one-room building they had huddled in. It is almost enough to drown out the rattling of the door as each new gust of wind batters the city's walls. The former sea captain is no stranger to loss, nearly twice the age of the foolhardy youngster whose life he's trying to save, and he hopes his words carry enough wisdom to change Wallace's mind.
"It's too strong… too strong…" The look in Phoebe's eyes is distant, trailing toward the direction where the orbs that could control such a beast formerly rested. Mt. Pyre's slopes had been raided by the rogue organization known as Team Aqua mere months before Kyogre's appearance. Everyone in the room knew it was no coincidence. The group had been crafty and remained elusive despite the League's best efforts, yet even they had not anticipated that Kyogre's power would be this destructive. Aqua ran in fear as soon as the sea god appeared, taking the orb with them when they vanished, and with it Hoenn's last hope at quelling the beast.
"It sucks, and I know I hate it as much as you do, but the best we can do is seek shelter in another city while we figure out what to do next."
Never one to look so serious, Sidney's expression is as tight as his fists, balled against his sides no doubt in an effort to stop from slugging the closest thing in frustration. They were the most powerful trainers the region could offer, and there was no way they'd be enough. A god's wrath cannot be contained by human hands. Wallace is well aware of that fact, and yet he does not budge.
"Sootopolis is my responsibility, I will watch over her just as my ancestors have done for millennia."
Drake scoffs. "There's nothin' that says you have to go down with the ship. That's a seafarin' rule, not one from ancient scripture."
The stare from Glacia never falters, and she crosses her arms. "A city can always be rebuilt. A people cannot."
"Wallace, we need you." Phoebe is very near pleading at this point. "If there's anyone who can help piece together how to stop this monster, it's you."
"Yeah, man. I'm supposed to be the stubborn one here." Sidney does his best to lighten the mood, but no one takes the bait, and he sighs, slouching even further against the wall. "C'mon…"
And for the first time since the door was pulled shut behind them, Steven speaks.
"It's okay, he can stay."
All eyes snap toward the Champion with a collective gasp and shout of dismay. Had they heard correctly? Did he just sign and seal his best friend's death certificate without so much as batting an eye?
But Steven's gaze is soft as he turns to face the group, his expression silhouetted against the murky light from the window.
"But he won't be doing this alone."
Shock turns to puzzlement for a brief moment, a slight breath, just long enough for him to crack a thin, ironic smile he hopes no one will see. He's finally got this whole plan worked out in his head.
"I'll be staying with you, Wallace."
And the room erupts.
"No, Steven, you can't!"
"Have you gone mad?"
"What the hell, man?!"
Only Wallace remains silent, staring, lips pressed into a thin line. He knows what Steven is trying to do, and it won't work.
"I know you think someone has to stay who can enter the Cave of Origin in my stead, but without the orbs—"
"No, that's not it," Steven cuts him off with a shake of his head. "There's another reason, and it's because I have a very important task for you, Wallace."
As the Sootopolis Leader fixes him with an absurdly quizzical look, he strides forward to the table, pulling out his PokeNav. He calls up a map, but doesn't consult it, instead he stares straight at Wallace, gaze as serious as his words.
"I need a Relicanth, and you're the only one here who knows how to find one."
He toggles the projection feature from his PokeNav before he manages to convince himself that such an outlandish plan will never work. The map wavers only a little as he stills the nervous shaking of his hand.
"I've marked three places on this map, here here and here. Glacia, Sidney, and Drake, you are to head out to these respective locations and await my signal."
Steven continues before Sidney's string of expletives telling him just how stupid this all sounds breaks his concentration.
"Phoebe, I need you to go to the Oceanic Museum in Slateport. Ask the curator for the ancient stone tablet donated by my father. He'll know it's urgent. Bring it back here as fast as you can."
A stunned silence falls as his tone never wavers. The realization sets in that this isn't an elaborate joke; the Champion fully believes what he's saying. Glacia finally stutters out the question that hangs on everyone's lips.
"Then, what will you be doing?"
"I will remain here to keep Kyogre occupied. It cannot be allowed to leave Sootopolis' seas. The plan depends on being able to contain its power here."
The room erupts again, and Steven closes his eyes, willing his racing heart to stay as calm as he's trying to keep his comrades.
"Please!" he shouts, and the noise halts. They've never heard him raise his voice before, and they wait as he takes another moment to compose himself once more.
"The Legendary titans might be our only hope to save Hoenn. We don't have time to argue, so please—" his breath catches, and he feels Wallace tense in his seat. "...Please, we all must play our part."
The uneasy silence is punctuated by the hammering rain and the wailing wind, and then slowly the scraping of a chair cuts through as Drake rises. He nods once, solemnly, and then steps out into the storm. Glacia and Sidney watch him leave, the former still boring her icy stare into the Champion's heart.
To everyone's surprise, it's Phoebe who rises next. The color has returned to her cheeks, and she jabs a finger into Steven's chest with an earnest look.
"You better be here when I get back."
The door swings shut behind her as Glacia pushes her chair in.
"For once we seem to share the same sentiment. I'm sure Sidney will agree."
The Elite in question is a simmering cauldron of emotion, so he opts for a curt nod instead of words, and follows Glacia out the door.
Only Wallace is left now, and Steven can see how white his knuckles are, as if somehow anchoring himself to the table keeps him from spinning off into oblivion with the rest of his drowning city. His voice is a whisper.
Steven surprises himself with how steady his voice is despite the dread settling in his stomach. He tells himself that if he looks anywhere other than Wallace's gaze, his friend will know what this plan truly means. That the strain of summoning one Regi is already a monumental feat for a person to bear; he's read it in the ancient texts and had it corroborated by the researchers in Sinnoh. Summoning all three at once is simply not survivable.
"You should go."
Wallace stands, shakily, hesitantly, still not able to tear his eyes from Steven's face.
Steven hopes Wallace will never know that this is one of the last times he'll see him alive. He extends a hand to his friend, a gesture of good faith and reassurance, even though it feels empty. But as Wallace clasps the hand in a clammy grip, he pulls Steven into a hug so fierce that he nearly chokes.
"I will see you again." Wallace's words are strained, hissed right against his ear, and Steven squeezes his eyes shut and focuses on not losing it all now.
Wallace pulls back and again regards him with those eyes. The stare that feels like he knows Steven intends to break the promise before he even makes it.
"You have my word."
And in a flutter of white, Wallace leaves with the single minded goal of adding a Relicanth to his belt alongside his Wailord. He is going to name it Steven, because its head is as rock hard as his friend's.
Steven watches Wallace go before rolling his gaze to the ceiling. There he says a silent prayer that should Hoenn survive, Wallace will forgive him. That they'll all forgive him. He pulls out his PokeNav and types a message to his father. He'll hit send later. For now, he readies his pokeball and steps out into the dark, rainy night.
AN: Thanks for your patience, everyone. The reception to the first chapter caught me a bit by surprise, so it took a bit of time to turn what I assumed would be a one-shot into a full fledged story, but it's happened! The story is finished, minus some editing polish, so stay tuned. The wait for the rest of the chapters won't be as long as it's been for this one. I hope you enjoy the continuation of Final Gambit.
Steven learns quickly that the land is no place to face a god of the seas. Sootopolis's lowest level is already flooded, sending waves crashing against the side of the house that had been their shelter. Salty spray joins the rain, and Steven is quickly soaked to the bone as he hurries to reach higher ground. Metagross needs to be within range to reach Kyogre, and he'd rather not drown right out of the gate.
His partner materializes on one of the city's mid levels, its claws sinking into the sloping volcanic stone like anchors. It doesn't take much to locate Kyogre circling overhead; the beast's massive wingspan slices through the swirling clouds with ease, an ominous silhouette flickering in and out of view as lightning rips through the sky. As he catches sight of the legendary beast, whatever command Steven had been ready to give dies on his lips, words suddenly feeling insignificant in the shadow of a god.
But Metagross won't be intimidated. It has prepared for this moment; they both have. Its gaze flicks down to where its trainer gapes at their opponent, and it sends a confident psychic pulse. Steven flinches, and finally tears his eyes away from the sky, finding Metagross's unwavering red stare. It gives a low rumble, and Steven can see the way its legs flex and tense. If they aren't ready now, they'll never be. He takes a steadying breath and nods.
Metagross turns its stare skyward and roars defiantly.
At first, nothing happens, and Steven wonders if Kyogre heard their challenge over the raging storm. But in an instant, he wonders no more as a bolt of blue energy slams into the cliff side, obliterating the spot where his partner had stood.
He's scrambling over chunks of stone and rubble before he realizes what he's doing. His heart is in his throat as he reaches the crater, the white rocks scarred black from the ferocity of Kyogre's attack, and he peers down.
Metagross is conscious, but barely. It lets out a painful groan and tries to rise as Steven slips down the side of the crater. His feet land with a splash; it's raining so hard the hole is already filling with water. Overhead, Kyogre's piercing cry splits the night, and Steven suppresses a shiver as he digs for his stock of healing items. For Kyogre to already be this strong after only waking so recently... They can't afford to take another hit like that. Metagross is tough, but steel can endure only so much before it yields.
"Let's… Let's be more careful from now on, okay?"
His partner's rumbled reply is deadly serious, all trace of its usual sarcasm destroyed along with the rubble in that crater. Its eyes close momentarily as the potion takes effect, and it hums a note of thanks.
Back on its feet, Metagross shakes itself off and hunkers low, sharing a look with its trainer; an unspoken vow of loyalty that Steven has seen from his starter time and time again. They both know the stakes, what the end of this battles means. Not just for Steven, but for Metagross too. Because ever since it found out about the plan— Steven's tumbling emotions had been easy enough to sense— it swore it would be by its trainer's side until the end, regardless of how unbearable the thought of continuing on with him is. This was never their battle to win.
With a powerful push, Metagross darts one way, while Steven dashes the other. In their bid to stall Kyogre as long as possible, they can't both be taken out in the same attack. Not that Steven even wants to admit he might lose a partner in this crazy plan; the thought hurts too much to even consider as a possibility. And as the rain drums down, he swallows that sinking fear and channels it into desperate belief, a second pokeball ready in his hand. His shout is lost to the wind, but Metagross feels it through their mental connection, loud and clear. Failure is not an option.
In a flash, Skarmory is out of its ball and Steven is already urging it skyward before he's fully situated on its back. His loyal flyer obeys, but the warble it gives as the ground falls away below them belies its nervousness. Steven takes a moment to catch his breath before he gives his pokemon what he hopes is a reassuring pat. "Metagross will keep Kyogre busy. Just keep us out of the battle, but not too far. If Metagross gets hit, bring me to it as fast as you can."
The plan sounds good, and Skarmory caws in confirmation, but the creeping doubt slithers down Steven's spine along with the soaking rain. How long can they truly keep this up? He has faith in Metagross, but without knowing how long it will take for all the pieces to fall into place… Steven shakes his head to banish the thought as Skarmory banks in a wide turn. There is no margin for error, but there's even less room for doubt.
As if on cue, his starter's flash cannon slices through the clouds, eliciting a startled screech as it scores a direct hit against Kyogre's flank. Its retaliatory strike is swift, but Metagross is prepared and already is on the move, safely dodging back into the maze of of Sootopolis' streets.
Kyogre's roar of frustration echoes through the empty city, and for the first time since the beast was awakened, Steven feels a flicker of hope burn through the suffocating weight of his decision. But like any flame in a downpour, it's extinguished in an instant as an entire city block is leveled as Kyogre lashes out, and his heart sinks again.
Steven's second silent prayer of the night is for Phoebe and Wallace to return swiftly. Guerrilla warfare only works when there's someplace left to hide.
The wind and rain continues to swirl in a vicious tempest that only grows with each flap of Kyogre's fins. Steven curses under his breath and ducks closer to Skarmory's back as the storm buffets the two of them about. It's not easy flying, especially with the beast looming so close overhead, but after nearly being swallowed beneath the massive waves at ground level, Steven is thankful Skarmory is willing to brave the storm.
Below them, Metagross groans as it clambers out from a jagged hole where Kyogre had sent it tumbling, and in the lightning flashing overhead, Steven can see its hide is dented in more places than he can count. Despite its injuries, his starter is undeterred, and it launches itself back at the leviathan with a throaty roar, promising to keep Kyogre occupied for as long as it takes.
But just as it has every time since the start of their battle, Kyogre is able to swat everything Metagross throws at it as if the powerful steel type is no more than a Surskit. Again, Metagross slams into the sloping cliff side, demolishing an abandoned house when it falls to the ground. And again, as it picks itself clear of the rubble and staggers back to its feet, Steven has to command Skarmory to roll out of the path of another volley of lightning aimed their way. He clings to his flyer's rain-slicked back with cold, numb hands and tries not to look at the churning waters below.
Except that some part of him feels the urge to stare at the angry sea until a familiar speck of white breaks the surface. The lower crater of Sootopolis is completely underwater, and he knows Wallace will choke when he sees his city slipping beneath the waves, but right now the only thing he wants to see is Wallace safely coming back from the ocean depths.
Just as he's peering over Skarmory's wings in the faint hope that maybe Wallace will be there this time, his flyer squawks in warning. Steven's head snaps up and finds the sky much closer than before. But it's not the clouds that have closed in.
Kyogre has discovered their presence.
Metagross is too far away to grab Kyogre's attention, so its glassy-eyed gaze has swung to the next closest target. Steven doesn't have to say a word, Skarmory can feel the air crackle with electricity, and as Kyogre's jaws open wide with a shriek, his partner is already fleeing for their lives. The air around them grows hot, and sparks dance through the sheets of rain. Kyogre's attack will swallow them whole.
Without warning, a blue blur rushes past Steven's head with a metallic cry. Time seems to slow as Metagross rockets through the air and collides with the sea god mid-flight. But the air is rife with charge, and Metagross's flying tackle is only enough to send the attack off course, not stop it. The sky erupts in a brilliant bolt, and Steven's stomach drops as Skarmory rolls into a dive.
They spin haphazardly to the left as the thunderbolt soars right, and as Skarmory pivots out of the path of Kyogre's strike, Steven feels his grip on its back loosen beneath his numb fingers. For a brief second, he believes they've made it through the worst of it. But even though the attack missed them, it hit something else. As Metagross tumbles toward the ground it roars in warning; they're on a collision course. Skarmory shrieks in dismay and twists out of the way.
But his flyer's dodge isn't clean enough. Metagross's leg clips Skarmory's wing, and the jolt of the connecting blow separates Steven from his partner. Steven's heart is in his throat as suddenly he is now free-falling toward the churning waters below. His pokemon's frantic cries are muffled by the rushing wind as he plummets.
This wasn't the way things were supposed to end.
Wallace is coming up from the depths into Sootopolis' crater lake when he sees something crash through the surface above. He squints through the murky water, the rough conditions make it hard to see, but when lightning flashes and he catches a glint of silver against the sea of black, his heart stops.
"Oh my god."
Gyarados can sense its trainer's panic and surges toward the drifting body. No, it's not a body, he's still alive, he has to be... Wallace grabs Steven's sinking form with both arms and holds tight as his partner breaks for the surface. With a mighty splash, they exit the water and make for the nearest solid ground.
To Wallace's dismay, they come to a stop on the roof of the Sootopolis Gym. The floodwaters are already lapping over the edges, but there's no time to mourn the loss of his Gym. In a flurry of agitated wings, Skarmory lands next to Gyarados and nervously watches Wallace check on its trainer's breathing.
But as soon as Wallace leans close, Steven coughs and Wallace nearly drops him in surprise. The Champion is soggy and disheveled and barely able to sit up under his own power, yet he laughs between coughs.
"Wallace, am I glad to see you! Your timing could not have been any better."
"Steven, are you insane? You could have died!"
A flash of something dances across Steven's features, but rather than acknowledge Wallace's dismay, he changes the subject.
"Did you catch one?"
He glances towards Wallace's belt as the Leader helps steady him on his feet. Wallace notices and nods, producing a shiny new dive ball in his hands.
"I wouldn't have come back without it."
"Brilliant." Steven wastes no time in digging out two pokeballs of his own and offering them to his friend. Wallace just stares at him in disbelief; he recognizes that first pokeball.
"Steven, why are you handing me Metagross's ball?"
"And Skarmory's too. I need that Relicanth on my team, and your Wailord as well."
But Wallace still doesn't move.
"Steven, what is going on?"
"I have to ask you to just trust me this time, Wallace. It's just temporary," he lies through his teeth. "I need a very specific set of pokemon for this whole plan to work. I know it sounds crazy, but I've triple checked; this is what has to happen. In exchange, I entrust these two to you."
"What do you mean, 'entrust'? What about the others?"
"They still have a very important role to play."
Reluctantly, Wallace retrieves a second pokeball and hands both over to Steven. The weight of the two that are placed in his palm in return are significantly lighter. Skarmory watches the exchange in silence, and in the distance, Metagross's roar echoes across the deserted city.
Kyogre's screech overhead causes both of them to involuntarily duck, and Steven gives a grim smile.
"Now all that's left is to wait for Phoebe to arrive."
If Drake were a betting man, he would've put money on this being the first rainfall the desert had ever seen. Resting with his back against a wet sandstone slab, he watches his Flygon fret and fuss over the foreign moisture falling from the sky. It huffs and rumbles and glares daggers up at the sky, and Drake secretly wishes that dealing with gods was as simple as flying up there and beating them back down to the ground.
But he knows it's not that simple. No matter how many dragons he commands, it still wouldn't be enough to stop Kyogre's rampage. Which is why he has to believe in something that's not raw strength. Something written in texts from an age that time forgot, a time when mortals remembered to fear the gods.
Drake's hand tightens around his PokeNav, the earlier message from Steven called up on screen. 'Once they're awake, do whatever it takes to bring them back to Sootopolis. I'm counting on you.'
He scowls at the screen and then scowls at the sandstone tomb before him. "Whatever it takes," he mutters, pulling his coat's collar up tighter to his chin. "I sure hope you know what you're doing, lad."
Drake can't decide which is worse, the wind, the rain, or the wait. He bets he knows which one Flygon hates the most. And then he decides the thing he hates the most isn't any of those three options after all.
It's the fact that, until now, he's forgotten what it's like to fear.
Glacia is angry. No, she's beyond that; she's livid. And there's not even anything worthwhile to kick on this godforsaken beach she's standing on. She watches Walrein fortify its ice dam at the shoreline, a weak effort to keep the rising tides at bay, and shivers. Her back is nearly against the rocky formation behind her, the beach slipping away inch by inch beneath the effects of Kyogre's wrath, even from here. Why on earth Steven wanted her to fly to the other end of the region just to drown anyway is beyond her. All she knows is that it's what the young Champion asked of her, so that's what she's going to do.
Part of her wonders why she can't just obey orders without question, it'd be a lot easier in the long run. Sidney seemed to have no trouble with that when they parted ways, banking Mandibuzz in the direction of Route 121. He'd been eerily silent the whole flight, which was odd considering he usually had such a colorful outlook on things that it put Drake to shame. But ever since they left Sootopolis, he'd been staring toward the horizon with a focus that she'd never seen from him before. For whatever problems he had with authority in his life, and there had been many, she secretly was impressed with his unwavering loyalty to the League.
Which prompts another round of frustration to bubble to the surface. Here she is, on this tiny insignificant rock, slowly sinking into the sea, and for what? She's a protector of this region, and she doesn't even have anyone to protect. Her family is safe and sound in Sinnoh where the legendary creatures are either benevolent toward humans or keep to themselves.
But as Walrein barks in dismay as another wave crashes over its barrier, Glacia chides herself on her error. Anger always did make her short-sighted. Hoenn is where her family is now. It is home to her pokemon — her partners — who she would be lost without. It is home to her colleagues and friends, who for all their antics nearly feel closer to her than her own family. And it is home to so many more that she has a responsibility to protect, as she swore as part of the Hoenn Elite.
And maybe that's why she's so mad about all of this. She's worried. Because the only time you should worry about losing loved ones is to the whims of time itself. And the only time you were supposed to fear the legends is when you misbehaved and your mother threatened that Giratina liked to snack on naughty children. And the only time you should be standing in the pouring rain waiting for a signal unknown is only in the most dire of circumstances.
Glacia sighs and crumples a fistful of her dress.
Because here she is, soaking wet and worrying over the fate of everyone she knows and loves. She's worried for Sidney, she's worried for Drake and Phoebe, she's worried for Wallace. For Steven. For the region. For the world.
The wind is blowing so hard the rain stings Phoebe's face as Dusknoir hurries the pair of them back toward the heart of the storm. They're still a ways off from Sootopolis, but Kyogre's presence weighs heavy in the air. Except the heaviness Phoebe feels in her heart isn't from the sea god's menace. She clings to the museum's ancient tablet with all her strength despite the dread that fills every corner of her being.
When she had arrived at the museum and asked for the tablet, breathless and soaking wet, the curator paled so quickly she thought the man might faint. But he held his composure and retrieved the artifact, handing it to her with shaking hands.
But in the end, it hadn't been the curator's reaction that left Phoebe unsettled. The truly terrifying thing had been that the second Phoebe's fingers brushed the ancient stone, the spirit's voices cried out all at once, and she nearly buckled from the force. It had taken considerable effort to conceal her alarm and bid the museum director farewell.
Even now, tucked in her arms, the tablet oozes malice; she can feel it clear as day. Dusknoir sends a worried look her way as she shivers. If the secrets locked away in the carved glyphs were so ominous that even the dead feared them, what on earth could Steven hope to achieve with such dreadful power?
But not once in all her time as an Elite under his charge has Steven ever lead her to doubt him. And now is not the time to start. She just has to believe that he knows something about this tablet that the spirits do not. She has to. So she squints into the wind and urges Dusknoir on, the precious cargo tucked away, gnawing a sinister hole in her heart.
Hardly a word has been spoken since the tablet's arrival in Sootopolis. Phoebe and Wallace stand in silence on the roof of the Sootopolis Gym, water lapping at their ankles as the city continues to flood. Their tasks complete, neither knows what else to do besides watch and hope, eyes glued to where Steven is clutching the artifact so tightly they fear it might break in half.
Wallace fidgets with the ends of his cape, unused to the feeling of helplessness that washes over him with each rising inch of the tide. He swallows the shame in fearing that even if Steven's plan succeeds, there won't be much left of his city to save.
Beside him, Phoebe is tense, and she concentrates on keeping her breathing steady. When she handed the tablet over to Steven, she saw the way his hands shook. At first she thought it must have been from the chill of the storm, but now that she's seen the grim look in his eyes she isn't so sure…
That same look is now focused intently on the tablet in his hands. Steven's shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath before he sets his jaw and turns, walking away from them, closer to the edge of the rooftop. The sound of his splashing footsteps halt as overhead, Kyogre and Metagross's roars mingle with peals of thunder.
Steven's hand twitches towards his belt for a second before he stops himself. That particular pokeball is no longer in its usual place, left in the care of his friend with an unspoken guarantee that it will remain empty. It takes significant effort to think beyond the racing of his heart. He knows Metagross can feel it too. His gaze rolls skyward.
He's ready to start the beginning of the end.
And so he relays his farewell to the pokemon he's known for his whole life —his first pokemon, his first true friend— and he feels it in his heart as Metagross cries out with the desperation of its love. Kyogre screeches in pain as the bite of Metagross's resolve bolsters the steel type's attack, and in turn, his partner's renewed determination steadies Steven's nerve. How many nights had he spent lying awake, preparing for this moment? It would be unbecoming to stall any longer.
He takes another breath and closes his eyes, and as his fingers dance over the timeworn carvings, he begins to recite the incantation in a strange tongue known by only the oldest of the Sinnohan scholars. From the edges of the tablet, a surge of energy prickles at his fingertips; cold, powerful, terrifying. But he buries his fear and ignores it. To falter now would mean failure, and he would not fail.
After the first few lines, he pauses and palms a pokeball from his belt. Relicanth appears in the choppy waves next to the Gym, and the freshly caught pokemon regards him with wary eyes. But he cannot spare the time to reassure it, and he continues, bringing another pokeball to bear. Cradily materializes next to Relicanth, and Steven gives her a weary smile.
"Make sure Relicanth doesn't leave your side, okay?"
She chirrups in the affirmative and Steven's smile is genuine this time. Her loyalty is as boundless as her enthusiasm, and the guilt of not telling her of his plan's true intentions is especially hard to swallow.
But there's no time to waste on regrets, and as the incantation continues, Armaldo, Claydol, and Aggron all appear in short order and blissful ignorance, and are instructed to hold their position in line across the roof of the Gym. Then, Wallace's Wailord materializes in the water on the far side of the Gym, completing the row of all six pokemon.
Phoebe and Wallace both continue to watch in puzzlement at the strange parade happening before them. But their puzzlement turns to dread as moments after Wailord falls into line, Steven staggers forward with a gasp and lands hard on his knees.
Wallace tries to rush to his side, but Phoebe's hand clamps down on his arm with surprising strength. Her eyes are wide and terrified, but she shakes her head no. Something is stirring, awakening... They must not interfere.
The Sootopolis Gym Leader makes a tortured noise at the back of his throat, but stops trying to break from her grasp. Instead, they watch as a ring of light forms around where Steven is kneeling, strange glyphs forming in the pale light. Phoebe tries to convince herself that the ghastly color of Steven's face is just a trick of the light, but she can't ignore the way the spirits are trembling, shivering, cowering.
She realizes she's digging her nails into Wallace's skin, but he doesn't seem to notice. He's gone stock still, too fixated on where their friend manages another line of the scripture between heavy breaths. After the next line, Steven pauses, his breathing steadying for a moment before he hugs the tablet to his chest and doubles over with a strangled cry.
Wallace jerks against Phoebe's hand again, but freezes when he catches sight of her expression. She's staring into empty space, unblinking. What he doesn't know, though, is that the space above Steven's hunched form isn't empty.
Three shadows have grown from the circle of glyphs that only she can see. The power of their presence makes her body shake, and Wallace is almost lost in his panic.
He doesn't know that there is a terrible price to be paid for unlocking such guarded secrets. He doesn't know that in her silence, Phoebe's heart breaks for the man standing next to her, and tears roll down her cheeks for the man kneeling a few yards away.
Steven's body shakes as he takes another shuddering breath. He's never felt a pain such as this. A sudden weight is pressing down against his shoulder blades, forcing him to hunch closer to the earth, and each lungful of air is a battle. The icy hand of dread that had seeped from the tablet the moment he spoke the first words of the scripture snakes its way around his heart. He can feel it pulse with growing strength as its fingers close tighter. It hurts, it hurts so badly, and he cries out as another presence, sharp as steel, jabs through his gut.
Through the sound of his own pulse ringing in his ears, he hears Aggron roar with protective righteousness. The Gym roof shakes as his partner charges forward, ready to tear whatever is harming his trainer into little tiny shreds. But Steven can't let that happen. He is barely able to pry his hand away from the tablet. It flies up, palm out, and Aggron freezes mid-charge.
"No! Stay there!"
The shout is all he can muster, but it's enough. Aggron is terrified and confused, but it obeys with a keening whine. Squinting through the pain, Steven can see it retreat next to where Armaldo is shaking and fidgeting with nervous uncertainty. Cradily tucks a tendril around Relicanth, keeping it near, and she shares a worried look with Claydol. It knows, just like Metagross knows, but it remains silent; it can't bring itself to upset her. Their line remains unbroken, so Steven continues while he still can.
The last verse he knows by heart. He's rehearsed it so many times in his head, trying to envision how it would be, how it would feel...
He never imagined it would feel like this.
With every word, the icy hand tightens, and the knife in his gut digs deeper, and weight on his back grows heavier, and by the last line he can bear it no more. He gasps, eyes squeezed tight. Any trace of the ancient language gone as he all but shouts the last line.
"—Those with courage, those with hope in your hearts, open the door where the eternal titans sleep!"
The words rip from his throat and Wallace loses it, tearing from Phoebe's grip. She doesn't try to stop him this time, she's openly sobbing now. The spirits have told her. The air is thick with the omen of death.
But Wallace never makes it to Steven's side. A swirling gust of wind bursts from the ground where Steven kneels with such ferocity that it blows Wallace backward. He recoils in horror as Steven's head rolls back, his eyes wide and staring, jaw slack, trapped in the center of the vortex. The tablet clutched tight to his chest begins to glow and the sky rumbles with something other than Kyogre's wrath. The white light surrounding the tablet grows, tracing lines down Steven's form and merging with the pulsing glyphs at his feet, completely engulfing the Champion in its aura. And for a second, time seems to stop.
Everything feels lighter, whiter, and Steven can finally open his eyes. But Sootopolis is gone. Instead, he finds himself in a chamber of rock and steel and ice. Empty, cavernous, save for the three titans standing before him. Larger than life, they loom over him, and he finds it hard to breathe from where he's kneeling on the rough chamber floor.
"Why have you summoned us?"
Their voices are booming, the pressure so strong he can't move.
"Hoenn—" he falters as the heavy weight on his shoulders presses down. "Hoenn needs your help."
An otherworldly sound erupts through the chamber —the rattling of stones, the chatter of ice, the screeching of steel— and he realizes the trio is laughing. They're laughing.
"Why would Hoenn need our help? She should know better after her people had forsaken us."
"We're… we're not the same people," Steven musters, a dull throb pulses in his stomach, and a chill wraps itself around his chest.
"You're not?" The rock titan leans down, easily towering over where Steven is hunched in the dirt. "Tell me, do you not fear us?"
"I—" The sharp sensation of steel stabs Steven through the midsection, and he gasps, but does not avert his gaze from the titan's leering face. "I do not fear you."
Regirock stands back up and hums in thought, but before it can speak, Steven continues, short of breath as the pain continues to grow, the icy sensation spreads its fingers through his ribs.
"Please, Hoenn needs you. Kyogre… Kyogre will bury her in the depths of the sea without your help."
All three titans pause in their rumbling. Registeel turns to its companions.
"Perhaps Hoenn finally understands our worth."
But Regice grates another laugh. "I am doubtful. Tell me, human, do you know what you must give to obtain our power?"
Steven clutches the tablet closer to his chest, nails digging into the coarse, ancient stone. "I do, and I am prepared to give it in exchange for Hoenn's protection."
The mirth in Regice's voice disappears as it turns the glyphs of its face toward Steven.
And the hand of ice around his heart squeezes.
The air around Steven explodes outward in a shockwave as he screams. The force is so powerful, the rain evaporates before it even gets to the ground. The white aura of the tablet swirls into a great column around him. There it hangs, pulsing in and out like a heartbeat —once, twice, three times— before the light rockets skyward where it splits into three separate directions and shoots off beyond the city's walls.
Then all at once, Sootopolis falls into silence, save for the renewed hammering of the rain across the flooded crater basin.
Steven lies face down in the water, unmoving.
For a moment, Wallace is too stunned to move. He can only stare in disbelief. Phoebe can already see the words forming on his lips before he screams their friend's name. It's a desperate scream; one that sends a chill down her spine. Mercifully, the echo from the empty city walls is cut short as Wallace crashes next to Steven with a frantic splash.
"Steven! Steven! Wake up! Oh god, wake up!"
By now, Wallace has hauled Steven's still form into his lap where he cradles his head with trembling hands. Steven is no more than a rag doll, limp and lifeless, eyes closed. Wallace is too busy wiping the soaking hair from Steven's face to bother checking for a pulse. His voice is hysterical.
"Steven, wake up! You can't be—!" The word won't come out. "You can't…"
But Steven doesn't answer. His hands are cold when Wallace plucks them from the water. Wallace tells himself the chill must be from the sea; he refuses to accept the alternative. Frantically, he tries to rub the warmth back into them, as if it somehow would solve everything. He stifles a sob.
Suddenly, the earth lurches beneath their feet, bringing Cradily's mournful wail to an abrupt halt. A deep rumble rattles the Gym roof, and Wallace reflexively holds Steven's body tighter against his chest. The shaking sends Armaldo cowering even tighter beneath its claws, and jolts Aggron from its shocked stupor. It even seems to startle Kyogre, as its circling comes to a halt overhead and it screeches, eyes upturned to the horizon.
Something is happening. Phoebe can sense it too. A great omen, an immense power… The spirits are no longer crying for death; they are crying for salvation.
She is startled from her vision as the PokeNav in Steven's pocket crackles to life with Sidney's static-filled voice.
"Steven, what the hell is going on here?!"
Wallace jumps at the sound, but he waits, hoping that maybe Sidney will accomplish the miraculous and wake his friend, but Steven doesn't move.
Sidney's voice crackles through once more, and his panic somehow outweighs Wallace's own. "This giant pile of rock just broke open and I think… I think there's something inside. Holy shit, there is something here and it just moved!"
Wallace gives in and digs the PokeNav free of Steven's jacket. Someone has to answer Sidney. But as he toggles the voice reply, he doesn't speak, he can't. Breath caught in his throat, he's too distraught to think straight. Not that he would even know what to say to Sidney if he could find the words.
But Phoebe knows, the spirits imbuing her with their powers, and she stares straight ahead and whispers, "They're awake."
Wallace's head snaps towards her, and it's at that moment that Steven's body lurches in his hands with a choking gasp.
He nearly screams as Steven's arms flail wildly, hands grasping for something to anchor himself back in reality. They find purchase on the soaking fabric of Wallace's cloak, and Steven takes a ragged breath, like it's the first breath he's taken in years. His eyes are wide and frantic, panicked as if he just clawed his way back from the abyss. Wallace has never been so scared in his life.
Sidney's voice cuts through the air again, blissfully ignorant of the miracle Wallace has just witnessed.
"Steven what the —" A burst of static that sounds like the rusted gears of a train car jars the speaker. "— we supposed to be doing? What is this thing?!"
An icy grip grabs Wallace by the wrist, and he sees Steven staring at him, face betraying the agony of the Regi's price.
"Tell him…" His voice is barely a croak. "Tell him to lead it back here. Glacia and Drake, too. Do whatever it takes."
Wallace nods because he doesn't know what else to do, and shakily toggles the button again.
"T-this is Wallace. He says to lead it back to Sootopolis however you can."
"Wallace?" It's Glacia's voice this time, and for once she sounds just as harrowed as the rest of them. "What happened to Steven?"
"He's…" Wallace wants to say fine, but nothing about the pale and shaking person in his arms is even close to fine. "...He's here."
"Well, put him on!"
And Wallace panics again, because he can't tell Glacia that Steven almost— he still can't say it.
But Phoebe steps in, and somehow her voice is strong and steady. "Just get here as soon as you can. All of you."
A flood of reassurance washes over Wallace as Phoebe gives him a nod. He mouths a silent thank you to her, and she smiles thinly. She may have no idea what's going on either, but they can't falter now.
But the reassurance is all but gone when he feels Steven stir in his arms, weakly, listlessly. Phoebe rushes to his side in an effort to help Wallace prop him upright. Steven's breathing is shallow, and Phoebe fears he might collapse again any minute.
He's nearly made it to his feet when Sidney pipes up again. "This better not be one of those 'easier said than done' things."
Steven weakly shakes his head, answering the PokeNav now back in his hands. "No… they'll follow you easily. They just… I just…" He stumbles, nearly falling from Wallace's grasp, clutching at his midsection with the arm that Wallace isn't clinging onto for dear life.
"Well it ain't listening," Sidney grumbles. "I even tried asking nicely."
Steven's face pales even further, but then a realization hits. "Wait. The tablet. Where's the tablet?"
He tries to straighten and search for it in the rising water, but he can't, and as he doubles back over with a groan, it spurs Wallace to finally speak.
"Steven, we need to get you out of here. Somewhere safe."
Steven brushes his friend off, too focused on trying to find the ancient tablet. "No, Wallace, I have to stay."
"Steven…! But you—"
Phoebe can see the hurt clearly written on Wallace's face, and as much as she agrees with him, she has to believe Steven knows what he's doing. So she swallows her conflict and leaves the pair's side to begin to scan the waves. The tablet can't have gone far, and it's not long before she spots a faint glow a few yards away. She is already running towards it when Steven's shout freezes her in place.
"Phoebe, wait! Don't… Don't touch it. Just show me where."
She's startled by the sudden outburst, but she obeys and points it out for Wallace to guide the two of them over.
It's agonizing to watch how the Champion has been reduced to such a helpless state. He's barely upright and leaning on Wallace so heavily that at this point it's almost better if the Gym Leader outright carries him. But his expression—she's seen it before back at the League, that look of steely-eyed resolve—is still so determined that it leaves Phoebe in awe.
Wallace lowers him down to the ground, and as Steven scoops the tablet into his arms a palpable flood of relief courses over him. The faint glow of the carvings increases in strength, softly pulsing in and out, and Phoebe notices the rhythm is eerily close to matching the rise and fall of Steven's own breathing. The tablet pulses in and out again, and the tension melts from Steven's posture, imbuing him with a fresh breath of life. He's no longer hunched over, and as he sits back, he's already concentrating on the next line of the scripture.
Fingers tracing the ancient text, he spares a glance toward where his pokemon stand, ever obedient despite the mixture of fear and confusion in their expressions. Armaldo is shaking, but puts on a brave face next to Aggron's hulking form, the latter of which hasn't budged since his trainer's command to do just that. Steven knows it's torturous for the overprotective steel type to do nothing but watch, and he hopes his lingering gaze is enough of an apology. It has to be, because Steven can't bring himself to meet Cradily's anguished stare. Her cries have softened now, though she still quivers from her distress. Even without looking, the guilt makes his heart clench. Despite all of his regret, he is endlessly proud of them. He hopes that after it's over, Claydol relays as much to the rest of his team.
They've done their job. Now it's time for Steven to finish his. He focuses back on the tablet in his hands.
At first, his voice is shaky and uncertain. But with every word, it grows in strength. Phoebe feels some of her fear wash away, as Steven is slowly sounding like his old self; confident, composed, in control. Wallace is still hovering at Steven's side as the ritual continues, unsure whether things are going to finally be alright or not. The sight of Steven collapsed in the cold, gray waves still chills him to the bone.
Blissfully unaware of his friend's inner turmoil, Steven recites another part of the incantation. Turning his gaze skyward, determination finally outweighs the pain in his expression. The ghost of it still remains though, and he can't quite hide how much effort it takes to do anything more than read the tablet aloud. But continue to read he must, and as he reaches the end, his voice carries such strength it can be heard even over the din of the storm.
The command of Steven's last line sets the air abuzz, the spirits murmuring in Phoebe's mind. Ancient energy is converging on Sootopolis, and it's all channeling through not only the tablet, but Steven himself. Feeding off this new surge of energy, Steven finally moves in an attempt to drag himself to his feet. She lets out a sigh of relief as he nearly manages to stand under his own power. Wallace is there to help him the rest of the way, but it's still such a marked improvement, she can't help but feel a faint glimmer of hope.
Except it's snuffed out in an instant as overhead, Kyogre screeches, and there is no sign of Metagross anywhere. All eyes watch as the leviathan slowly turns in its path and fixes its gaze on them.
Phoebe's blood runs cold. Next to her, she hears Wallace make a quiet choking noise. The air feels too heavy to breathe, and even the rain is frozen in time as the god of the sea stares down with all of its menace.
Sidney's voice bursts through the PokeNav's speakers with a whoop of victory and confirmation that the titans are finally on their way toward Sootopolis just as her lips form the words:
And then it's like a bomb goes off. Kyogre roars, and Wallace panics, and Steven is turning toward his pokemon with orders for every defensive move that they know.
In a flash, Phoebe's own pokemon are out, and Dusknoir and Sableye are standing in front of Steven's team with their hands out, barriers rising in tandem with Claydol's. She meets Steven and Wallace's gaze with a nod and an unspoken vow; they are Elite, they will not wither in the face of danger. Not when Hoenn needs them most.
Steven gives her a knowing look and draws himself up enough so that Wallace can fish out his own pokemon. The Sootopolis Leader is still shaking, but Steven knows that his friend has the same steadfast resolve to protect that which he loves. As Wallace's prized Milotic materializes alongside his other partners, Steven allows himself a moment to muse; his friend really would make a good Champion…
With their pokemon assembled behind an array of shimmering barriers, Steven turns his gaze skyward where Kyogre is seething with rage. His heart is hammering in his chest and his grip around the tablet tightens. Summoning as much strength as he can from where he hangs from Wallace's shoulder, he issues their ultimatum.
"We must last until the Regis arrive. Hold the line at all costs!"
Sidney clings to Mandibuzz so tightly he fears he might yank out a handful of feathers. Adrenaline is still surging through him, his limbs tingling and a giddy smile plastered on his face. He's not sure he's supposed to be laughing in the face of the clanking, screeching monster charging across the landscape in his wake, but the momentary terror is drowned out by the sheer thrill of not having been crushed to death in the creature's steel grip.
Getting the thing's attention when it first emerged from its rocky tomb had been the hard part. At ground level, Registeel towered over him, its featureless face impossible to read. Steven said to get it to follow him, but how was he supposed to know if it even had been paying attention to him? It had seemed to be confused at first, grumbling and grinding to itself while the glyphs of its face blinked to life. Even Mandibuzz's dark pulse hadn't spurred it into moving. It had been content to just thrash blindly until Sidney made probably the dumbest decision of the day and directed Mandibuzz to hover directly in front of the thing's nose. ...Or, what Sidney guessed was its nose.
Turns out, he had guessed right.
When the the creature's fist closed in and nearly swatted them from the sky, Mandibuzz's panicked dodge must have triggered some annoyance response; like a giant swatting a fly, and Registeel finally gave chase as Sidney and Mandibuzz turned tail and ran.
Mission accomplished. Now all he has to do is stay on course and keep the thing angry enough to keep chasing them all the way back to Sootopolis. Easy peasy! So Sidney hurls another insult over his shoulder and urges Mandibuzz to keep up its pace, keeping them just out of reach of Registeel's angry grasp.
"All aboard the Save Hoenn Express!" Sidney whoops to the sky, and Mandibuzz screeches in unison. "Next stop, Sootopolis!"
Wallace grimaces as the roof of his Gym creaks and groans as another volley of Kyogre's attacks rains down from above. The building is barely standing under the assault, yet every time he urges Steven to evacuate to higher ground, his friend refuses. So instead they stand by their partners, seawater now waist deep and climbing as their platform slowly disappears into the waves.
Claydol is so tired it can barely keep its feet above water, and Cradily's petals are straining to keep Relicanth in line as the waves batter them back and forth. Milotic has put on a brave face, but the way her tail droops and her scales have lost their lustre tells Wallace she's reached her limit. Their defenses have held so far, and yet he can't shake the feeling that the next round will be the one to break the Camerupt's back...
Overhead, Kyogre roars as Metagross slams a flash cannon into its flank, its assault on the Gym momentarily halted. In the brief respite, Wallace can see that Aggron's labored breathing has steadily gotten worse the deeper the water has gotten, and its trainer is faring no better.
"Steven—" he starts, earning him the same weary glance every other time he's tried, but he continues anyway. "I know, I know. We have to 'hold the line'… But if the Gym collapses, what does it matter if we're all swept under in the end?"
"Wallace…" Steven hugs the tablet just a bit tighter. "I can't…" His gaze trails up to the lip of the crater where Kyogre dodges Metagross' sneak attack by slipping into the clouds above. "I don't know how much longer it'll be, but I have to stay here."
Beside him, Phoebe can barely keep from trembling as she nods. "We understand."
Wallace catches the look in her eyes, so distant and full of pity, and he don't bother trying to hide his frustrated scowl. "No, we don't understand. Steven, this is insanity. It's fine if you don't want to tell us everything, but it's not safe to stay—"
Milotic's shuddering wail is the only warning before Kyogre's attack hits its target. There's no time for Wallace to finish his thought. He becomes weightless as the Gym roof gives way beneath their feet.
The first thing that greets Sidney as he crests over top of Sootopolis' walls is the sight of his friends hunkered atop the Gym's roof, alive and kicking. He begins to call out to them, waving frantically from Mandibuzz's back, but a thought stops him cold.
Why didn't he see Kyogre?
A quick glance side to side reveals nothing but empty air space. But before he can question the beast's sudden hide-and-seek skills, the cloudbank in front of him explodes in a burst of light.
Sidney yells and shields his eyes, not that that will save them from the point blank attack. But the attack never comes. Still alive and in one piece, he lowers his arm. Mandibuzz squawks a question and Sidney blinks in confusion.
"If the attack wasn't aimed at us…"
Frantically, he looks past his partner's wing just in time to see his friends disappear beneath the waves.
A pokeball is in his hand before he can think twice. "Sorry, Mandibuzz, but I'm gonna go do something really stupid." He gives his partner a pat on the neck and rolls off its back.
The rushing in Sidney's ears drowns out the churning of his stomach as he falls, but the sensation doesn't last as he calls out his pokemon and grabs hold of its fins. Sharpedo's skin is rough and firm, and it grounds him from the panic of freefall. He squints through the wind and takes aim, tongue poking out askew as he concentrates.
"There!" He points just past his partner's snout toward the remnants of the Gym. "Lower your head and it'll protect us on the dive! At least, I hope!"
Used to its trainer's half-cooked plans, Sharpedo obeys with a sharp cry, the wind parting as its skull bash forms around them. Sidney's fairly certain Sharpedo has never flown before, but the pokemon's aerial grace doesn't show it. They slice through the water's surface right on target with only a slight jolt to show for it. They burst back to the surface in an instant, Phoebe clinging tight to Sidney's arms.
"Fee, oh man, you're okay! I gotcha!"
"Sid, wait! Steven… He needs help."
Sidney blinks for a second, but Sharpedo is already scanning the sea for the Champion. "Wait, isn't Wallace with him?"
Phoebe shakes her head. "Yes, but he's—"
A splash startles them both as something lands in the water right next to Sharpedo's fin. A platform of ice bobs in the waves beside them. It's nearly doubled in size by the time Phoebe realizes Glacia is standing at the edge, offering her a hand.
"Hop on! It's probably not as comfy as a Gym roof, but it should do the trick."
With Phoebe safely in Glacia's grasp, Sidney is just about to climb aboard himself when another splash sounds from the far side of the platform.
"Wallace!" Phoebe shouts just as Sidney spots a flash of white that disappears back under the surface.
"Sharpedo, let's go!"
His pokemon turns to head for where they last saw Wallace in the churning waves, only for the Sootopolis Leader to burst to the surface before they arrive. An exhausted Milotic shoves both her trainer and the dead weight in his arms toward Glacia's ice floe. Quickly, Sidney clambers aboard the floe himself to assist Glacia in hauling the pair aboard.
"Take him!" Wallace shouts, practically shoving Steven into the Elite's arms. He bobs under the waves at the motion, but Milotic shoves again, and Wallace resurfaces in time for Glacia to grab his hand.
Sidney is too busy dragging Steven over the edge to notice that Milotic herself doesn't come back up. Thankfully Sharpedo is on the case, and he lifts her tired body on his snout high enough for Wallace to recall her to safety.
Still catching his breath, Wallace gets to his feet with Glacia's help. Whatever gratitude that washes over him for her timely arrival is cut short as he overhears Sidney's failing efforts to help Steven up.
"Whoa, I gotcha, Boss."
Sidney has to hang on tight as Steven's legs give out and he sits down hard on the ice. Phoebe is already rushing to Sidney's side and together they manage to prop Steven upright. It's at this point that Sidney understands just what Phoebe meant earlier. He can't hide his shock at the sorry state of their leader. Steven is barely a shell of his usual self, skin deathly pale and hands trembling as they anchor the ancient slab to his chest as if it was the only thing grounding him in reality. Sidney's expression is tight as Steven stares off into space for a moment with a distant expression, and Phoebe can only offer a solemn shake of her head.
"Hey, uh, Boss?"
The sound of Sidney's voice seems to jolt Steven back to the present, and he finds the younger Elite's eyes with a shocked look of his own. "Sidney? Wait… If you're here, then…"
On cue, a thunderous impact rocks the city's walls. And then another. All eyes turn up to the crater's edge where two titans are standing tall, their silhouettes glowing bright against the stormy clouds. Regice and Registeel stare down into the crater bowl, their faces impassive as they stand stock still. The sky rips apart with furious lightning, and the rain is driving like needles. Somewhere behind them, Kyogre's cry is laced with unbridled rage, and the maelstrom increases in intensity.
Tearing his gaze from the two legendary titans, Steven finally spots Glacia through the storm, but he has no time to offer a greeting. He's wheeling his head, almost frantic, searching for something. "My pokemon, where are they?"
There is no reply; the ice platform is empty of anyone but the Elite, and Wallace's eyes widen in realization as Phoebe utters, "The line."
The water is getting rougher by the second, and Steven begins to panic. "We need to—" He doubles over with a cough. "They have to—"
A nasty wave breaks over the edge of their platform, and everyone stumbles from the impact. The ice floe tilts dangerously, but just as suddenly as the ice begins to rock, it stops. Wailord has the edge of the floe clamped in its mouth, and Armaldo slides down from its head and onto the platform, soggy and shaking, but unharmed. Claydol hovers down along side Armaldo, also having sought shelter on Wailord's back. From the other edge of the platform, Cradily hoists herself onto the ice with a boost from Relicanth. The ancient pokemon had towed her back to the surface after the collapse. She shakes herself once and then spots Steven and the rest of her teammates, and lets out a joyful squeal.
But Steven is not ready to celebrate just yet. "Where's Aggron?"
Wailord whines an uncertain note and Claydol echoes it. They don't remember seeing the big steel pokemon in the chaos.
Suddenly, the waves explode, and in a shower of salty spray, a pair of metal claws latch themselves into the ice. Like a drowned Delcatty, Aggron drags itself onto the floe, its hindquarters lifted up by a Kingdra's bony crown. Aggron is haggard, panting heavily and barely conscious. But Steven knows how stubborn the steel type can be, and with every team member accounted for, the line remains unbroken.
Steven deflates with relief, a giddy smile arranging itself on his face, and he covers his face with his hand. "Thank the gods."
Glacia shares a puzzled look with Sidney at the Champion's outburst, but inquires no further as a gust of wind swirls overhead.
"Not sure it's the gods you should be thanking, lad," Drake quips as he slides from Salamence's back. His partner lands heavily, allowing the weight of its other passenger to slump to the ground. Metagross creaks and groans as it tries to rise from where it collapsed upon landing, no longer supported by Salamence's sturdy frame. Its hide is so damaged there are visible cracks through the steel. The cross above its left eye is caved in, rendering the eye almost useless. One leg doesn't even respond as it struggles to crawl toward its trainer. Steven can't tear his eyes away.
"Metagross." It's barely a whisper, whether it's all he can muster, or the breath truly has frozen in his throat. He can feel his heart racing, the adrenaline starting to kick in. They're both still alive. He never thought he'd see his partner again. He never thought Metagross would see him again.
With a burst of strength, Steven lurches to his feet and stumbles as far as he can before falling to his knees at Metagross's side. He leans his head against its crest, the steel cold against his feverish brow. There are no words exchanged, the emotion pouring from Steven is all Metagross needs to know. The sound it makes is halfway between a wheeze and a sob.
However, the reunion is short lived as another resounding crash echoes across the abandoned city. Sootopolis's white stone crumbles down into the crater as Regirock lands atop the city's walls.
Three titans— one of rock, one of ice, one of steel— encircle the city, and Kyogre roars with outrage.
As the beast's cry echoes into nothingness, Sootopolis falls silent save for the howling of the storm. Everyone from human to pokemon alike is waiting, watching, as a wave of unease sweeps through the ruined city.
Steven slumps back against Metagross's leg, desperate stare fixed on where the Regis stand, unmoving. There is no scripture left to read, no command left to spur the titans into action. So he closes his eyes and hopes. He pours everything he has into a final plea. That maybe, just maybe, he can convince them that humanity is worth saving.
A hand falls on Steven's shoulder, and he opens his eyes to Wallace's concerned gaze. The water-type trainer is a complete mess. His hat long since lost to the bottom of the sea, the unspoken question in his eyes is as clear as day. If this is everything they could have done, would it truly be enough?
Steven doesn't have to answer. A rumble grows out of the silence, increasing in strength until it drowns out the hammering of the rain and the wailing of the wind. The walls of the city begin to shake. Buildings crumble to dust, leaving Wallace in wide-eyed terror. It's as if the very earth itself has decided to make this their grave. Kyogre screeches once more, rising higher into the stormy skies, ready to leave Sootopolis for the ruin it has become.
And then the Regis move.
The titans bring their arms to bear as one, a white energy growing and dancing between their hands. There is something terrible in that energy; everyone can feel its overwhelming presence. All eyes are turned to the sky as the Regi's power grows. Phoebe whimpers, and Sidney wraps his arm tighter around her shoulders, expression tight. Glacia and Drake share a tense look, but say nothing. Even Wallace cannot suppress a shiver where he kneels next to Steven's side. They'd been nothing in the face of Kyogre's awakening. They'd thought there was nothing left that could oppose the sea god's wrath. How wrong they were.
Kyogre, too, seems to realize its mistake in trying to run, as now it's nearly face to face with the Regi trio at the crater's edge. As it draws near, their energy cracks and sparks before leaping forth, creating a chain from one titan to the other that blocks Kyogre's path. The sea god freezes in place, startled for a moment by the Regis' display of power. Kyogre glowers at the three titans before it starts to charge an attack in its maw, content to blast a path through the titans' perimeter. The Regis make no attempt to defend themselves, and Kyogre allows itself a toothy smirk. It roars in triumph as its beam reaches full power.
The attack dies on its jaws.
In an instant, the titan's power slams into the sea god full force, drowning the beast in blinding white energy. Kyogre's pained howl tears through the night, clouds rippling and scattering from the force of the Regi's attack. The beast plummets from the sky, slamming into the crater's wall on the way down. The blow seems to jar it from its agony, and it lashes out, firing beams indiscriminately in an attempt to free itself from the Regis' hold.
Attacks rain down across the ruined city, destroying what little is left standing and churning the sea into a frenzy. Steven feels Wallace cling tighter to his arms as their makeshift platform lurches and bucks under the onslaught. Neither titan nor god cares what happens to the tiny specks of humanity caught in the crossfire. Bursts of light dance across the Regi's forms, mixing with the sparking flashes of their own power. The glyphs of their faces expressionless, hauntingly stoic in the face of such chaos.
They have seen ages and eons, and they know that the sea god does not have dominion over this world. Like the spires of an ancient church, they stand unflinching, staring down at the creature that dares to claim Hoenn as its own. Under their guard, Kyogre would not triumph. It had never triumphed as long as they had kept watch, and they would not allow it to happen this time either. Hoenn will persist.
It's magnificently terrifying to see Kyogre writhe and wail as the titans' energy pours over it. It struggles harder, but it's to no avail. Their arms outstretched, the Regis' expressionless faces belie nothing as they are battered with the wind and rain. Only once does Regirock stagger when one of Kyogre's beams strikes it dead center, but it's very clear: the god of the sea is losing.
Slowly, the beast is pushed lower and lower into the crater where the city walls rumble and quake. Wallace watches breathless until he sees just where the Regis are forcing Kyogre to go. He's on his feet with a gasp, wheeling to face Steven with an incredulous stare. "The Cave of Origin! They're pushing it toward the Cave of Origin!"
Weakly, Steven can only nod. It's been his plan this entire time. If not the orbs, then his hope was that something else could seal Kyogre's power within the cave's walls. He wants to explain as much, but he can't. His limbs are like lead, every breath is a battle. He can feel his strength waning with every inch the Regis gain. Still, he holds Wallace's gaze, hoping his stare can offer all the explanation for him.
The conflict is clear in Wallace's face. He can see Steven's waning condition, and he cannot bring himself to leave his friend's side. Not after everything they've been through on this horrible day. But he is Sootopolis's guardian, the protector of his city, the keeper of the Cave of Origin and all its lore and power. With a frantic gesture that he'll be right back, Wallace dashes toward the edge of the platform, harrowed stare fixated on where Kyogre is now being forced into the Cave's yawning opening, still screeching and thrashing, its fins gouging chunks from the ceremonial doors as its pushed deeper into the darkness.
Steven watches him go and tries to call out for Wallace to wait, but it comes out feeble, lost in Kyogre's angry roars. But for Steven, the roars are muffled, and everything feels further away. He can feel himself slipping, fading… Wallace is too far away now, he'll never be heard over the storm.
Resigned, Steven's head rolls back against Metagross's leg. The steel type whines a low note, and Steven feels a weight settle in around the two of them. There's a finality in their solitude, and as the thought of goodbyes hits him, he remembers one last thing. He uses his last strength to pull his PokeNav out, just to check. He toggles the screen and his gut sinks.
'Message failed to send. Retry?'
The message for his father. It never made it. In a panic he fumbles for the button, but his strength is gone, and the PokeNav tumbles from his hand and clatters across the ice, landing out of reach.
Steven struggles to move his tired body. His breath is coming in short gasps now, but he can't leave his father in the dark like this. He can't. If he could just… hit… send…
As he's reaching for the device—weakly, futilely—a voice echoes in the back of his mind. The same voice he heard in the chamber of rock and steel and ice, and he freezes.
"It is done. The pact is complete."
It's only then that he's faintly aware that the chaos of the storm has vanished. The drumming rain is only a patter now, and the air is quiet and still, no longer filled with the sound of Kyogre's final throes. From the top edge of the crater's walls, sunlight peeks through, the first rays of morning sneaking through the thinning clouds. In a way, the peacefulness almost feels mocking, the comfort foreign, like it knows he's leaving soon. He very nearly smiles at the thought of enjoying the sunrise one last time. The plan has worked. The beast has been sealed away. But he's just so tired...
"We shall take what is owed and leave this place."
Steven always imagined he'd made peace with his decision, that he'd be ready in the moment. But he's not. He wants to beg, to plead for just one more moment, he can't go yet. But he can't ask for more time, not from the beings who restlessly slumbered for so long. What was his existence against the centuries they'd spent imprisoned? Watching... Waiting... He can't even feel his trembling fingers anymore, stretched as far as they can go, and his PokeNav is still out of reach.
He can't go yet.
But the titans wait no longer. As Steven feels the icy presence take its leave, his last breath leaves with it. The strength leaves his limbs. The world around him is just so dark... He slumps forward. He's exhausted. He doesn't even feel it when his he hits the ground.
Beside him, the ancient tablet has broken in two, the voices of the spirits nothing more than a whisper in the winds. The seal is lifted, the Regis are free, and in the eerie calm left in the aftermath of Kyogre's rampage, Steven Stone gives his life in return for the region he loves.
It has been just over a week since the incident that should have swallowed all of Hoenn, yet only claimed one life. Sootopolis stands quiet, empty, and flooded. Too damaged to allow her citizens to return to what's left of their homes, and too unstable to attempt to repair her just yet.
There is nothing Wallace can do except wait and hope. The same agonizing uncertainty as that day, when he could do nothing but helplessly watch. So he sets about burying his grief in something other than solitude, and busies himself with the rest of the Elite. They work in silence save for what's necessary. There's not much left to be said that can close the hole left from that fateful day. There's not much they want to say because that means it's time to fill it, and no one's ready for that just yet.
He travels to Pacifidlog with Sidney and Drake to help stabilize the battered floating colony. Then to Slateport with Phoebe to hand out provisions and aid to the refugees. And then Lilycove to do more of the same with Glacia. Last, to Mossdeep, alone, where he can't bring himself to even set foot on the northern part of the island.
Not because he knows that's where Steven's house sits, as empty as it's always been even when he was alive. Not because it would dredge up too many reminders of what would be missing from within its walls forever. But because Aggron, in its grief, refused to let anyone come near the home unless they were Steven himself. It had become so fiercely territorial that the road to the small cliffside cottage was blocked with barricades to keep accidental passerbys safe from its rampage. No amount of consoling or pleading would calm it, so Wallace turns on his heel almost as soon as he arrives, and takes its empty pokeball with him to Ever Grande, to be placed with the rest of Steven's belongings.
It's there, as he's tucking the pokeball into the last box left in the barren Champion's office, that Wallace sees the message that was never intended for him. He only notices because the notification light of Steven's PokeNav is blinking— low battery. He almost doesn't check the screen; it's not his place to look. But he does. Perhaps it's guilt. Perhaps it's grief. The reason why doesn't matter when he sees what's on the display.
He's not sure why he feels compelled to read it, and he certainly doesn't feel better after reading it. But he reads it all the same. And when he's done, his finger hovers over the 'Retry' button, and he pauses.
Has it been long enough for the wounds to close? Will this message tear them back open again, fresh and searing? Or do they fester still with the unknown knowledge contained in the letter's text, meant for the one who is suffering the most?
He hasn't seen Joseph Stone since the funeral. In fact, even at the funeral he openly avoided Steven's father the entire time. It hurt too much to see the unspoken question in his eyes: "You're his best friend. Why didn't you stop him?"
Wallace could never think of what to say to that. "I'm so sorry for your loss" was not the answer Mr. Stone was looking for. "I didn't know" felt too hollow to even try. So he'd settled for a happier truth, one that filled him with as much guilt as it did pride.
"He saved us all, Mr. Stone. Steven was a hero."
Except now… Now he knew the real truth. The awful, horrible burden that Steven took upon himself.
And with that knowledge, Wallace almost can't bring himself to face Joseph again. His eyes that are so tired. Tired of life, and all the misery it brings. Tired from having seen the burial of not only his wife, but his only child. Tired from seeing the faces of sympathy time and time again, and Wallace is just another one of those faces in a parade of empty tragedy.
Joseph had given him a shattered smile, and those tired eyes drifted off to some part of the room, far away and out of focus. "He always did have a knack for doing what he thought was right."
Wallace withdraws his hand from the button. Mr. Stone deserves to have his son's final words delivered to him by another human being. Not by some cold, emotionless screen. Maybe, just maybe, he then might find some peace. It's all Wallace can hope for, at this point.
Steven's PokeNav is tucked safely in his pocket as he drifts westward toward Rustboro on his Gyarados' back. It's not a short trip; Ever Grande is on the other side of the region. Wallace isn't sure if he's thankful for the extra time, or dreading how many times he can play the conversation over in his head before he arrives.
But he has to. He has to do what's right. For Steven.
Wallace's cheeks are wet, and he can't even blame it on the rain. He tilts his head to the clear blue sky, because he wants him to see. To see all of the beautiful and wondrous and broken things he left behind.
"I have never been more angry with you, Steven Stone, than I am right now. I just want you to know that."
If you're reading this, then my plan has gone into action. I can only hope that this message finds you and the rest of Hoenn safe. A Champion's duty is to protect their region, and when I embarked on this journey and learned what I learned, I only followed through with it as a last resort to ensure that Hoenn would continue on, even if it meant I that I could not. I'll miss you, and I'm sorry, but it had to be done.
I know you'll want to know exactly what happened, so I'll explain here. Besides myself and the Sinnohan scholars whom I confided in, you will be the only person who knows what transpired. I ask that you keep the details a secret, as this is a dangerous power should it fall into the wrong hands.
This whole plan started when I inadvertently discovered a link between the ancient stone tablet we donated to the Oceanic Museum, and Sinnoh's legend of the Regi Titans. Last year on a trip to Mt. Coronet, an archaeological dig uncovered carvings that matched the symbols found on the tablet we unearthed here in Hoenn, and from there I made the connection. I didn't think much after the initial discovery, and I wasn't spurred into action until Team Aqua raided Mt. Pyre and stole the Blue Orb, said to have the power to control Kyogre and hold dominion over the seas. The League agreed, the stolen orb was a major threat to Hoenn's safety, and we needed a plan to prevent disaster.
While the League worked on a plan to apprehend Team Aqua and reclaim the orb, I set out in secret to come up with a backup plan should our initial strategy fail. Call me paranoid, but I couldn't sit idle when I knew I might have had the means to stop any evil that Team Aqua could concoct.
In Sinnoh, the legendary Regigigas is said to be a protector, but it is not the only one of its kind. It had created three others like it in order to watch over the land where it could not. These three others resided in our own region, unfortunately sealed and locked away by the ancient people who feared their immense power. I had stumbled upon one of their tombs by complete accident many years ago, and later uncovered the location of the other two. Regirock, Regice, and Registeel; three Legendary Titans whose sole purpose was to watch over Hoenn and keep her safe. I knew that if I could figure out how to unseal their tombs, if Hoenn ever needed protecting, the Regis would come to her aid.
Unfortunately, things were not as simple as that, as I found out. I returned to Sinnoh several times to not only solve the mystery of the slumbering titans, but to decipher the stone tablet we had discovered. I figured that it surely had to be a key part in this mystery, and I was right. The inscriptions were an incantation that could be used to break the seals on the Regi's chambers. However, there was a catch.
Due to the immense power needed to seal the Regis in the first place, it would not be so easy to undo the work the ancient people had done. A sacrifice would be necessary to channel the energy needed to unseal the chambers. The person who fulfills the requirements of the unlocking ritual and recites the incantation will be used as a live conduit to undo the seal. With so much energy flowing through them, they will be able to control the titans for as long as they have energy to spare. That is to say, the one who unlocks the Regis can command them, but will also be killed by them, drained of their life energy in order for the titans to be free. It was a foolproof measure; none of the ancient people would consider giving their life to unleash what they assumed to be a terrible power.
At first, the Sinnohan scholars seemed reluctant to share this information with me, but I convinced their own Champion —a very passionate woman of both battling and history— to help me. Together we decided that should it be necessary, and only as a last resort, the titans should be summoned to protect the fate of the world. I committed the ritual to memory (would you believe a Relicanth and a Wailord are key to their revival? I thought it a mistranslation myself, but the scholars assured me it was not) and left Sinnoh with the words I was to recite should it come to that.
I have shared none of this information with anyone in Hoenn, not even the League. I knew it wasn't fair to carry such a secret, but I could not allow this information to be spread so easily. One ancient, powerful artifact was already in the wrong hands, I could not allow a second to be stolen as well.
As I'm sure you are now well aware, the worst did come to pass. Kyogre was unleashed by the hands of fools and left unchecked to destroy Hoenn. I can only hope that it now slumbers within the Cave of Origin, sealed away by the titans' power, as my plan intended.
Know that I did not make this decision lightly, nor have I done it to be remembered as a hero. It was what any Champion should have done.
I hope that despite my constant failings as your son, I've been able to make you proud.
I promise I will say hi to Mom for you.
And please apologize to Wallace for me. I haven't told him anything, and I'm sure he'll be quite upset with me about all of this.
Thank you for everything, Dad.
Steven can't help but find it eerie to be facing the all-too-familiar door. It's so hard to shake the unease, like he's trespassing, yet he's standing in front of his own childhood home.
Just like waking from a dream, he can't really remember how he got here. The first thing he can recall is winding his way through the streets of Rustboro toward his eventual destination. Where his feet had taken him hadn't been a surprise; he'd made a promise, after all. It's just startling that it feels like Rustboro hasn't changed one bit, but he knows that's not the case. For one, all of the usual pokemon he'd been accustomed to seeing are gone. In their stead float only ghosts, drifting in and out of the streets crowded with people ensconced in the same ethereal glow as him.
He's no fool. There's a very good reason he's here, but he never expected death to be this familiar.
A Shuppet drifts by and he doesn't mean to stare, but he does. The ghost pokemon stares right back, but instead of snickering as the ghosts in the living world did, it gives him a wistful look. Like it knows how unjust it is that he's here.
But life isn't about playing fair. Steven knows this. He's known it ever since he was a little boy, and the one person in his life that meant everything had been taken from him all too soon. In a way, it made his decision that much easier. If it could prevent that same theft from happening to someone else, what he had given would all be worth it.
He raises his hand and knocks on the door. There is a shuffling inside, and after a moment the door opens.
She's as beautiful as he remembers, pieced together from childhood memories and fond stories from his father… All traces of her illness are gone; she is tall and strong and radiant, and not even the puzzled look she gives him can dull her presence. He smiles.
It's a hesitant question at first. After all, he was only five when she left. She would have no idea what her child looks like as an adult. But the realization is swift; he looks like his father after all. The next time she says his name, he nearly shivers from the anger in her voice, the pain. He did not expect such pain.
"Steven, you shouldn't be here. Why are you here?"
As much as he's planned what he'd say to her, he's at a loss. The desperation of her question leaves him speechless.
"How can this be? It's too soon… Look… look at you. You've grown so much." She's crying now, silent tears streaming down her pale cheeks. The conflict in her eyes is written so clearly that Steven can barely swallow around the tightness in his throat. She reaches out a hand to cup the face of the son she never had the chance to know. "You can't be here. Not now. Not when you've got so much life ahead of you."
He falters, the prickle of tears beginning to form in his own eyes. He's back at home now, four years old. He's accidentally knocked over his father's display case of rare fossils, and she's discovered what he'd done. That same sinking feeling in his stomach, it rushes back stronger than ever. Yet his mother's tears sting more than any scolding he's ever gotten. He's in trouble, he's upset her, even though that's never what he intended. He never should have come here.
The regret grabs hold and strangles him. This isn't what he wanted.
It was supposed to be a happy reunion.
He tries to explain, this wasn't a choice he made selfishly. He had to. He had to in order to save the things he loved. But he can't form the words, because he knows deep down that nothing will heal the wound of meeting your child in the afterlife before his father.
As he goes to wipe his eyes, an icy sensation runs down his spine, and suddenly he notices the large gathering of ghost pokemon behind him. Guides of the spirit realm, they are drawn to those who are in turmoil. To soothe or to punish, Steven isn't sure, but he has no time to think, as his mother ignores the ghosts and reaches out and grabs him by the arm. She whisks the two of them through the crowd of pokemon and away down the street, a purposeful march to her step, and the vice grip on his wrist leaves him no choice but to follow.
"I have to make this right," she mutters as she tugs him toward the north edge of the city.
Paved streets fade to grass and rocky cliffside, and Steven knows all too well where they're headed. Any attempt he makes at asking why gets ignored with a shake of his mother's head, and she pulls them along even faster until they're at the gates of Rustboro Cemetery.
Finally, she lets go of his arm in order to swing the iron gate open. It creaks just like he remembers, and a faint breeze rustles the treetops. He shivers. The air is thick with something, what it is, Steven can't tell. He's too busy trying to keep the memories of this place from burying him. He's on autopilot as he trails behind his mother. Timeworn into his heart, he'd never forget the path to her grave. Everything in his chest squeezes a bit tighter as they arrive at the Stone family plot. Except this time there is something different, and the sight of it makes his blood run cold.
A new headstone next to hers. His headstone.
The reality of his situation comes crashing back down and he's shaking so badly he can barely choke out the same question he's been trying to ask for the last fifteen minutes.
"Mom… w-why are we here?"
Finally, she answers. "Because I'm sending you home."
Another breeze dances through the trees, and with it comes the faint tinkling of windchimes. Steven shivers again.
"But it's too late, Mom. I'm already dead." His stomach flips at the word. "I can't go back."
"It doesn't have to be too late."
And as she turns towards the pair of headstones, the guilty thought crosses his mind that maybe she's gone crazy in all the time she's spent here in this afterlife. He shakes his head and banishes the idea. His mother's not crazy... But then why is she so insistent when there's nothing that can be done?
He realizes she's kneeling now in front of his grave, her hands resting on the smooth stone. Her eyes are closed, fingers tracing the chiseled "S" of his name, and she's whispering something he can't quite make out.
Suddenly, the light of her spirit pulses once, twice, three times, like a heartbeat. She gasps as the wind picks up again, sending the chimes dancing. The breeze is short and swift, but as it dies down, the chimes don't die with it. They sway and clink and rattle in the still air, and it's only then that Steven realizes that the windchimes in the spirit world are special, too.
Chimecho hang in the trees above and sing, their tails swaying in time as the air swirls with light— drifting particles that glow and pulse with the same spirit energy that surrounds his mother...
Steven's eyes go wide as his gaze darts back to where she's kneeling, and his heart leaps into his throat. Another breeze rushes through, sending a cloud of particles floating away from her ethereal form. He can see the ground through her body, she's fading away like a waning sunset, and the panic nearly swallows him whole.
"Mom, what's happening!? Where are you going?" He can't bring himself to rush to her side, because what if when he reaches her, she melts through his hands; a million particles of glowing dust in the wind. "Why are… you… you're disappearing."
Her smile is as soft as it is sad. "I've had a lot of time, Steven. A lot of time to learn about this place. About the spirits who inhabit this place."
He watches in silent horror as more of her is carried away into the sky to the tune of the Chimecho's song.
"You're right, those who live in this world are dead. But they're not gone. They have the ability to commune with the living. Mediums, psychics, even wild ghosts can all hear our voices if the connection is strong enough."
Her eyes flick down to where a worn silver band rests around one of his fingers. He's wearing several, but this one stands out. She'd never forget it. It was hers.
"I've watched over Joseph all this time. And I've tried to watch over you, as best I could. The memories… They weren't as strong… But I've seen you grow, and what you've become. I'm so proud of you."
"Mom, why are you saying this?"
His voice cracks, but she's back to ignoring him, ignoring the way he's shaking and holding back the tears. She has to finish what she's going to say before it's too late.
"The most amazing thing is, if a soul's connection to the living world is strong enough, they have an extraordinary power. In exchange for a part of their spirit, they can send a wish to the land of the living in the chance that it may be granted. The greater the wish, the larger the price."
She smiles, because behind that mask of grief, he's still that same brilliant little boy. He's already figured it out.
"I've given you life once already. What kind of mother would I be if I passed up the chance to give it to you again?"
He has nothing left to say. He's losing her again. Twice in a lifetime is too much. The tears pour unheeded down his cheeks.
"Steven..." Her voice is hollow; an echo on the wind. She reaches out with a fading hand, and he takes it without hesitation, falling to his knees in the soil next to her. He buries his face against her shoulder and sobs.
He's five years old again in her hospital room, begging for her to stay. He doesn't want her to go away and leave him all alone. Because this time, the memory is filled with the emptiness that comes afterward. He hugs her so hard that maybe if he never lets go, he can still save her. That's what he's supposed to do: save people.
She's slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.
Leaning back from their embrace, she cups her hand against his face. He looks at her with terrified eyes.
"Take care of your father for me." With her thumb she wipes the moisture from his cheek, her own tears running down the side of her face that hasn't faded yet. "I love you to the stars and back."
Suddenly, the wind picks up. What had been a steady breeze is now a gale, the force of it so strong it begins to lift him from the ground. He panics as he's lifted upward, prying him from her grasp. He tries to fight it, to get back to her side, but he's helpless. She watches him rise and gives one final smile. It's peaceful and reassuring and he's back at the hospital, being led from her room for the last time. He can't cry again, he has to be brave. For her.
He stops struggling and watches as the outline of his mother disintegrates into the sky; a whisper in the wind. He stares at the slight imprint in the soil where she had knelt. It's the last thing he sees before a flash of green light fills his vision, and the world goes silent.
He wakes with a start. Wherever he is, it's freezing. He blinks through the haziness of his mind, and realizes just how uncomfortable it is sprawled out on his side across a sheet of ice. He props himself up with one shaky hand and takes another breath, the sunlight warm on his face even as his hair drips water down his cheeks. His ribs ache, and his arm tingles with pins and needles, and why is his PokeNav all the way over there? Wait a minute…
Metagross's happy cry reverberates through him until it rattles his very soul.
He's back in Sootopolis.
A shadow falls across his face, and a familiar voice leans close as a hand falls on his shoulder with a gentle shake.
"Steven? Steven, hey. You scared us for a moment there."
It's Wallace. He looks harrowed, and doesn't even try to hide the quiver in his tone. Around him are the concerned faces of the Elite and their pokemon. No one dares to speak, as if breaking the silence would sever the last thread of reality, and the world would come crashing down around them. There is a wave of unease in the air somewhere beneath the overwhelming relief in seeing the Champion sit upright and alert, albeit shakily.
Phoebe watches as Steven looks from face to face, the same disbelief shining clear in his expression. She knows none of her fellow Elite truly understand why this uncertainty lingers in their hearts. Why Glacia's smile is laced with worry, her hands wringing tightly in front of her dress. Why the tension in Drake's jaw turns his own smile into a grimace. Why at her side, Sidney shifts from foot to foot, fidgeting with Absol's pokeball. And why she can barely hide her own shaking, too exhausted to even try to pretend she's not crying still.
Because no one had seen what she had, when they rushed to the side of their fallen friend. The tiny green spirit that floated just above Steven's body as Wallace desperately tried to wake him. Why it let her remember its face, she'll never know. Because as she recognized Celebi for what it is, she also realized how easy it would have been for it to have erased all trace of its intervention as easily as it reset the timeline. Instead, it met her own shocked stare with its bright blue eyes and grinned, a child-like giggle echoing in a way that only Phoebe could hear. And as she watched with tear streaked shock when the life flooded back into Steven, Celebi had given her a mischievous wink before blinking back out of existence, like it had never even been there in the first place.
But its exit was not without a trace. Manipulation of the flow of time is a messy thing; imprecise on even the best days. Somewhere in the back of her mind—in the back of everyone's mind—is the ghost of memories that supposedly never happened. Like the feeling of something you should remember, something you couldn't quite put into words, sitting right on the tip of your tongue, something lingered, sour and repugnant. The feeling that in deep in their hearts, they knew Steven had died. They had seen it with their own two eyes. Lived it. For days… weeks. And then suddenly, it was nothing more than a lie. A myth. A fairy tale full of nightmares. Because he was alive. Right there in front of them. Living, breathing proof that somewhere, somehow, a second chance had been granted.
"Wallace… I—" Steven falters as Wallace's hand unconsciously tightens on his shoulder, and he realizes no one has moved from the rough semicircle in which they'd gathered. Like they still can't believe what they're seeing. Steven looks around, and he notices that beneath the overwhelming relief runs a hint of something else. A cord drawn taught, pulled until it frayed, yet refused to snap.
It's only once Steven lands on Phoebe's heartbroken gaze that he realizes something is truly amiss. She's staring, wide-eyed and tearful. That the vivid recollection of his mother's face, of the weight of her in his arms… It hadn't all been a dream. His hand finds its way to his chest, gripping the fabric of his utterly ruined suit until his knuckles turn white. Beneath the curl of his fingers beats his heat, strong and steady. The growing dawn light glints off the of his silver rings, and for a second he forgets to breathe.
Suddenly, he's enveloped in a soggy, white-clad hug. Wallace's arms are a vice-grip, and even if he had the strength to fight it, Steven wouldn't have dared try. Instead, he sags against the shaking form of his friend until Wallace relents. But even as Wallace draws back, he keeps a steady hold of Steven's shoulders, stare so fierce that Steven nearly tries to duck away in shame.
"If you even try something so stupid ever again..."
Steven winces. He knows Wallace isn't looking for an apology. He just knows he can't make an empty promise to Wallace again. Because even if after all of this something else were to happen. If it wasn't truly the end. If an ancient power were to awaken once more…
"Steven." Wallace gives him a gentle shake. "Just… tell us next time, okay?"
Metagross's hum of agreement travels through the icy platform, and Steven's guilt rushes back anew. Behind the Elite, his pokemon are huddled together, simply staring at where their trainer had fallen. Not by their side where they could have tried to protect him. Not together as a team, as he'd promised so long ago. Somehow their silence hurts even more than any of the Regi's curses.
Except that as his gaze lands on them each in turn, there's no accusation left in their expressions. It's been buried deep by the relief of it all, and even the stalwart Aggron seems to have abandoned its shock at the betrayal of what had been Steven's final, awful command. It huffs a soft sound, and Armaldo chatters a nervous question in reply. Claydol's gaze drifts over Steven's shoulder to catch Metagross's one good eye, and the psychic types share an unspoken confirmation. Everything is going to be okay. Cradily shrieks with pure, unbridled joy.
Almost in response to her happy cries, a deep rumble echoes across the devastated city, and everyone freezes. An icy dagger of dread buries itself through the growing warmth in Steven's chest as all eyes turn up toward the crater's edge. The Regis.
But rather than looming down as before, the trio of titans stands with their backs on Sootopolis, the morning sun casting a halo of light around their imposing forms. A strange chattering sound rises through the air, joined by clattering and clanking, and Steven realizes only then that the tablet by his side is broken. With their link severed, the Regi's voices are muted to nothing inside his mind. Their purpose fulfilled, all that's left is for them to take their leave, and one by one they slip below the lip of the crater without another sound.
Steven exhales the shaky breath he's been holding and feels Wallace do the same. All eyes are back on him, and he realizes he's never given Wallace a response. He peeks over Wallace's shoulder only briefly, his pokemon waiting just as patiently as his friend. "I'll try," is the most honest answer he can muster.
And for the first time, the ghost of a smile dances across Wallace's face. "I guess that will have to do." He offers Steven his hand as he rises. Steven accepts it and is hoisted to his feet where he wobbles only momentarily before Wallace steadies him. "I hope you know, Steven Stone, just how impossibly exhausting it is to be your friend. I believe these are yours, by the way."
Three objects are shoved into Steven's hands. Two pokeballs and his PokeNav. Wallace looks at him expectantly, waggling his open palm. Steven quickly realizes what the gesture means, and he pulls out the two borrowed pokeballs from his pocket. While Wallace is occupied with his two returned partners, Steven turns his attention to the PokeNav, and his stomach does a flip.
He deletes the message. He'll explain everything later. For now, he pockets the device and rests his hand against the cool steel of Metagross's brow. If he listens closely, he can hear the faint sound of windchimes dancing on the breeze. He turns his gaze upward toward the clear blue sky and makes one final promise.
AN: Thus concludes the seven-chapter-long one shot I never intended to write. This chapter was always intended to serve as an alternate ending to this fic, something extra for the reader which they can then ultimately decide which ending they truly believe. (You know, alternate timelines and all that jazz...) I was intending to post this as a separate piece, but then I was worried that divorcing it would confuse things, so here we are.
I would like to first off thank my wonderful beta, QuoteMyFoot, for their tireless enthusiasm and support for this fic. Without them, I doubt this would have gotten past the first chapter and made any sort of sense whatsoever.
Secondly, thank you to everyone who has read, ,kudos'd, commented, and bookmarked this fic. Your readership means a lot, especially with the wildly different style from anything I'd written before. Your patience with me as I experimented with style and tense is greatly appreciated. I can't promise I'll stick to one style or genre moving forward, either, but I do intend to keep writing. Thanks for sticking around, and I hope the payoff for your patience was (and will continue to be) worth it in the end.
Thank you so much, again, and I'll see you in the next fic.