The Quest for the Legends (ILCOE)

This is an author's commentary intended for readers who have already read the entire ILCOE. My retrospective comments on the chapter are in bold below, with some remarks within the text and then some overall thoughts at the bottom. The commentary will contain significant spoilers! Do not read the commentary on your first read-through!

Chapter 66: Doubts

This one was published on February 18th 2016, my twenty-sixth birthday, and the fic was now thirteen years old. It had been more than nine months since chapter 65... but in those nine months I'd finished editing not just this chapter but the next four, and they would go on to be posted with a week in between.

In the NaNo draft, this chapter was titled "Stuff Happens", because I had no idea what to call it. It eventually got this name late in editing; as I was working on these four chapters together, I ended up giving them somewhat connected names: Doubts, Friends, Truths and Lies. For this one in particular, "Doubts" seemed apt, mostly because of Alan's doubts about continuing but also Mark's doubts about Mitch.

I've actually got an additional early version of this chapter, from when I sent it to opal for a beta-reading in June 2015. I thought I'd pretty much finished it then, but I wasn't quite happy with it, and in September, after working on the subsequent chapters for a while, I decided to make more changes to it - leading to me realizing more about Alan. So that's yet another version I'm going to be able to talk about here!

In November 2015, I signed up for Habitica, a productivity app meant to help you build up good habits. I was skeptical beforehand that this sort of gameification would work on me, but it really did: setting up a daily task of working on the fic for at least half an hour really properly kept up my train of thought and helped me get work done on it even when there were parts I'd have wanted to put off. The rest of the fic would have taken significantly longer if it weren't for that, and in particular it really helped me keep up the pace on editing these four chapters, which were a bit of a headache all in all.

“Right,” said Robin as they ate lunch in a busy Scorpio City restaurant. “So what do we know about the Waraider herd exactly? I’ve never been super-into legendaries.”

“They’re eight unicorns of different types,” Mark said. “Normal, Fire, Water, Electric, Grass, Ice, Psychic and Dark. Supposedly they’re always together, and the legend says they keep the balance of the world and if they’re ever separated nature will go out of whack.”

Robin raised her eyebrows. “That doesn’t sound like a fun fight.”

“Is that even true?” May asked, looking at Mark. “It sounds like something people would make up.”

This opening is fairly similar to how it was in the draft - all these lines were rewritten, but mainly just for phrasing, retaining more or less the same content. In hindsight, I wish I'd done a more significant rewrite here to account for the difference in mood at the end of chapter 65 - they all sound like they're feeling pretty good here, which is slightly jarring coming straight off a chapter ending with everyone pointedly quiet and unenthusiastic and Robin sort of dragging them along.

“They’re an elusive bunch,” Chaletwo said. “I don’t know them very well, to be honest, but the part about them keeping together is true, at least. Don’t know exactly what would happen if they were separated, but I’d guess the keeping balance bit is probably a human invention.”

“Didn’t you and Mew create them?” Mark asked.

“Well, in a manner of speaking. We created Waraider, but then a couple of months later there were suddenly eight of them, and we had nothing to do with that. He must have created the others himself.”

“Huh.” Mark blinked. “Can any legendary create others?”

“Not normally, but their powers can be unpredictable. It wouldn’t be the first time something like it has happened.”

“Wait, so can we separate them or not?” Robin asked.

Chaletwo hesitated before answering. “Since we didn’t create them, I don’t know how their relationship works, but they do act pretty obsessively dependent on each other. Best-case scenario, being separated will make them very, very angry, and there are a lot of ways it could be a lot worse than that. I’d rather not test it.”

“Why didn’t you ask Waraider about the others, if they just suddenly appeared out of nowhere?” May asked.

Chaletwo sighed. “I did, but he was confused. Young legendaries don’t have the best control over their powers. Maybe he made them by accident. Or he was just… well, you’d understand if you’d met them. They’re pretty… strange, for lack of a better word.”

This spontaneous line about Chaletwo having asked where the others came from inspired the chapter 70 extra, "Not Alone".

“So how are we going to capture them?” Robin asked. “Putting them in separate Pokéballs would be separating them, right?”

“That’s the thing. See, my thinking is that any adverse effects would directly or indirectly involve something going screwy with them when the others aren’t all there, and that should mean it’ll be fine if they’re all captured simultaneously – if nobody’s left to cause any damage, there’s nothing to fear. But obviously that’s not the easiest thing to accomplish in a fight.”

Needing to capture all the unicorns simultaneously had been the plan for a while - probably since the ILCOTEM revision, which added the bit about how if they were ever separated it would cause chaos as part of the redone version of the legend.

Robin stared at him.

“Okay,” Mark said, “clearly we really don’t want a fight here, then. We want to talk to them and get them to agree to be caught, and then it’ll be easy to get them all in Pokéballs at the same time instead of having to puzzle out how we’d get it done by force. And there’s no reason to think they’d say no if we explain things to them, since they don’t have any siblings they’re paranoid about, or any reason to think Chaletwo would be lying to them, or any reason to not want the War stopped. Right?”

“It… may not be so simple,” Chaletwo said reluctantly. “Like I said, they’re weird. They don’t like to do anything unless they all agree on it, and some of them are pretty nuts. We might get lucky and convince all of them, but I wouldn’t count on it, and if we don’t convince all of them, they’d probably rather all fight back than coerce the remaining ones.”

“Wouldn’t the less nuts ones try to persuade the others for something like this?” Mark said, but a familiar sensation of dread was already forming in his stomach.

“Again,” Chaletwo said, “they’re weird. They tend to operate on some strange moon logic. Don’t trust them to be reasonable about anything.”

Alan sighed heavily, grimacing. “So, in other words, we have to assume there might be a battle, again.”

So much for Alan telling Mrs. Riverstone they were going to avoid having to fight from now on, eh?

So, interesting change here: in the draft, Chaletwo explained right here that the other unicorns just split off from Waraider over time, and the others are basically just personality aspects of Waraider. It actually surprised me rereading it just how much he said; I remembered Chaletwo saying too much about the unicorns' nature in one way or another and editing it out for a more interesting reveal later, but I really thought I hadn't actually realized some of this until November 15th 2012, when I'd just started NaNoing chapter 70, took a shower, and suddenly had an epiphany about how to make the Waraider battle way more interesting (I mentioned this on the Quest Blog, so it was definitely that day).

On reflection, I think what happened is that originally I didn't properly grasp the implications of what I was saying there. I only spontaneously wrote this into the conversation as an excuse for why they wouldn't just go there and talk to them immediately, like Mark's suggesting - as he says, there's no real reason for Waraider not to agree to the plan if they explain it. Because I didn't want them to actually do that, instead I had Chaletwo handwave why that won't work; Emphire, say, just is anger and nothing else, so they can't just persuade her like a normal, rational individual, and the unicorns place their loyalty to one another above all else, so if anyone disagrees they won't force them into it. Thus, they need to assume they'll probably have to battle. (Mark's diplomacy efforts had not yet become important or significant, and when I'd been preparing for this whole idea of them having to fight eight legendaries and capture them simultaneously, it's not like I was just going to ditch all that to have them solve the whole thing just by talking to Waraider.)

However, then, when I'd started working on chapter 70 and took that shower, I started thinking about this more, and realized that oh. They're literally parts of him, manifestations of his different impulses that he's isolated from himself - basically imaginary friends. Does he realize that's what they are? Probably not. And - I think I'd always vaguely imagined the Waraider battle involving a moment where one goes into a ball and the others start to unravel chaotically, at least since the ILCOTEM. But I think this was where I imagined that moment where they do throw the balls simultaneously, but only one of them actually works, because only Waraider is actually a real Pokémon - and instead of just having to capture them simultaneously, Mark has to talk to Waraider and help him understand, not instead of a battle but at the end, as its twist, because it turns out winning the battle is impossible. Mark will actually get to persuade a legendary to their side!

Immediately I loved this idea, and this battle became a much more interesting prospect. But I also realized, I think while writing chapter 70, that since this made Waraider's nature into the battle twist, I really shouldn't have Chaletwo explain so much of it here. Even in the draft, the end of chapter 70 isn't really written like I already revealed all this stuff here, so I figure I must already have been planning to remove this by the time I got there.

Instead, now that I actually understood what was up with Waraider, I rewrote this conversation so that Chaletwo doesn't know exactly what's up with the other unicorns; he just figures Waraider must have created them somehow. The truth is Waraider is a legendary whose internal voices are externally manifested imaginary friends that he fully thinks are real and doesn't want to lose or disappoint, so he goes to bizarre, misguided lengths to keep them all content, resulting in a crippling decision paralysis and rigid, arbitrary routine. But to the other legendaries, who don't properly understand him, the unicorns are just really weird, and one's just literally always angry for some reason, and they won't do anything unless they all agree which never happens, and all in all they're just more trouble than they're worth to try to talk to at all. So Chaletwo can vaguely imagine the prospect of trying to explain the War to them and actually get them to willingly be caught, and while he has no idea what's really behind it, he's just pretty sure there's no way that's going to work.

“We should have assumed that anyway,” May said. “I’m sticking with what I suggested before: let’s contact the other legendary hunters. We need more battle strength and more information, and they would have both. And the more people and Pokémon we have, the more likely we can win this fight.”

“Do you think we should maybe contact Carl too, then?” Mark asked hesitantly. “He did help us catch one legendary, and I’ve felt kind of bad that we never actually told him the truth about what was going on. He’d probably be a huge help, and he kind of owes us a favour for helping save his town. And we can check on whether Volcaryu’s safe.”

“What about Victor?” May suggested. “He knew a bit of what was going on, from Mitch. We could go all the way with that.”

“Mitch himself, too,” Mark added. “And Sparky – we kind of saved his town as well, and he saw us fighting Thunderyu.”

“Slow down,” Chaletwo said. “We can’t tell the entire region what we’re doing. We know the other legendary hunters can be trusted; let’s contact them first.” He paused. “But fine, I suppose given those Gym leaders already know something, it’d be a good idea to check on them if we can. And perhaps we could use some more help.”

Alan looked between Mark and May, disbelieving. “So, what, that’s it? Getting Gym leaders to help us is fine? We could’ve done that all along?”

“It’s an emergency, isn’t it?” Chaletwo said defensively. “There’s eight of them. We had enough trouble with three just earlier.”

To an extent I'm lampshading here. But in-world, the Waraider herd really does change the situation, and with Mew already telling other legendaries about the War, secrecy no longer seems quite so pressing as to override that entirely - and as he notes, they're talking about people who already know something.

Alan exhaled, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms, but said nothing. Mark looked awkwardly around the table; everyone seemed to have finished eating, at least. “Well, since we seem to agree we should try to get in touch with them, what’s the best way to do that? Mitch is right here in town, at least. We could go talk to him now.”

“Leah had a Pokégear. I saw it on her wrist,” May said. “You can look up Pokégear numbers in a directory online. We should be able to do it on the Pokémon Center computers.”

“That sounds good,” Robin said immediately. “How about Mark and Alan go see if Mitch is around, and meanwhile May and I take our Pokémon to the Pokémon Center and try to get in contact with that Leah person?”

May glanced warily at Robin for a moment before nodding. Mark looked at Alan; he gave a small shrug, still averting his eyes.

“See you, then, I guess,” Mark said as he stood up and handed his Pokéballs to Robin, and Alan followed him without a word.

In the draft, instead of a directory, May's Pokégear had a pass-by feature automatically registering nearby trainers (!?), and May and Robin literally just sat here calling numbers off the list until they got Leah (!?!??!), and it was May who suggested they do this together (ahahaha). Alan also showed no signs of discontent, because the breakdown he's about to have was completely spontaneous. Obviously, I changed it to a regular phone directory because that makes sense (although now I'm wondering whether she's had issues with being officially dead and yet having her Pokégear still merrily out there, hmm). Here it's also Robin who suggests she and May handle finding Leah's number, really as a pretext because she wants to talk to May privately.

-------

The air outside was cool and calm, and Mark felt himself growing a bit less tense as he breathed it in – they really did only have two legendary encounters to go, and if they amassed several more experienced trainers, perhaps battling the Waraider herd wouldn’t be so daunting.

Beside him, Alan sighed. “This is such a mess.”

In the draft, the previous line ended with Perhaps it would all go smoothly from here on. I'm guessing I removed it because it was rather too optimistic, but I think it made for a better contrast with Alan going "This is such a mess."

“What?”

“Everything,” Alan said, his voice hard. “This has all been one huge screwup from the start. Fight all the legendaries, except we could have just explained things to them, except once we start trying to explain they won’t listen. Fight many legendaries at a time, except some math principle says it’s practically impossible. Go to the League to train, except while you’re there Tyranitar goes and murders someone. Don’t tell anyone about the plan, except now let’s call in a bunch of people who could have saved us a lot of trouble if they’d been helping us in the first place. Go to the Acaria mountains, except that was all a lie to waste our time. Then nearly get killed by some murderous dragons, just for kicks. Oh, and the entire principle behind what we’re attempting is just guesswork. Good luck!”

“Alan,” Chaletwo responded acidly before Mark had the chance, “I’m glad you’ve found yourself in being a cynic, but at least we’re trying. You didn’t think of any of these things either. It’s not that hard to overlook some possibilities –”

Chaletwo is immediately defensive, of course.

“I know!” Alan exclaimed, throwing his arms up in frustration. “I didn’t think of it either, and that makes me every bit as much of an idiot as you.”

“Well, what do you want us to do about it? If you have better ideas, be my guest, but if you’re not planning to make any suggestions, stop complaining.”

“I don’t have better ideas,” Alan said, his voice growing quieter. “I just… We’re so bad at this. It’s been a string of mistakes and failures, even if we’ve stumbled into some lucky victories along the way. We have no idea what we’re doing, and we’re in way over our heads. Robin could’ve died earlier and so could I, and even before that there was Dragoreen taking you hostage, and then she just… toyed with us for several weeks for her own ends, and we bought it hook, line and sinker. God, we’re the world’s worst heroes.”

“Well, we’re not doing this to be the world’s greatest heroes,” Chaletwo snapped. “We’re doing this because it needs to be done. Is this some kind of vanity project for you? Because I’m starting to miss when you were gone, and if you don’t actually care about our mission I’m sure Robin can make up for your absence.”

In the draft, Alan said he felt like at this point, if they succeed in this it'll be by some sheer stroke of luck that they don't actually deserve; Chaletwo responded that it isn't about that: There is no deserving. There’s a world we need to save. Stop making this about nobility; we’re not doing this to be heroes. We’re doing this because we need to. I revised it to have Alan be the one to bring up the hero thing, once I'd gone deeper into the actual issues underlying this.

Alan looked like he’d been slapped. He stared at Mark in a mixture of anger, frustration and deep, deep hurt.

In the draft, this was Alan looked like he’d been slapped. He looked at Mark in a mixture of anger, frustration and deep, deep hurt: that had clearly struck some hidden sore spot, and Mark felt pretty bad for him. As so often, I removed the unnecessary spelling-out of something you can already infer, but I do think now that it leaves the rhythm of this line a little off.

“Alan, it’s –”

“Sorry,” Alan said. “Just... sorry.”

And he turned around and walked away without looking back.

Well done, Chaletwo, Mark thought.

“Do you think any of that was fair?” Chaletwo responded, the heat still present in his voice. “We’ve worked hard to get here, we’ve almost done it despite all the problems on the way, and now he starts complaining we’re not heroic enough, whatever that’s supposed to mean? I’m sick of him imposing his lofty standards on what we’re doing as if – as if any of that matters when we have a world to save!”

Chaletwo is already insecure enough about his plan without other people pointing it out, damn it! Here they are having just caught three legendaries, with only two encounters left that they're totally going to get through, only for Alan to start breaking it all down.

Mark looked after Alan – he was still walking quickly straight down the street, without looking to either side – and sighed; he kind of wanted to go after him, but he didn’t know what to say, and he suspected Alan wanted to be alone for now.

“Let’s just see Mitch, all right?” he said and headed off in the opposite direction.

In the draft, part of him guiltily kind of agreed with Chaletwo.

-------

When he reached the Gym, however, it was locked. A note, scribbled in messy, jagged handwriting and hastily stuck to the door with duct tape, apologized for any inconvenience caused by the temporary closing, but provided no explanation.

“I guess that’s a dead end, then,” Chaletwo said.

“It’s weird, though,” Mark said. Something about this nagged at him. “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“It’s not that important to check up with him. We already know how much he knows, and it’s enough for him to know he shouldn’t be prying into it further or telling people about it. And he’s a low-level Gym leader anyway.”

“Yeah, we don’t need to check on him,” Mark said. “I just think we should.”

He walked around the side of the Gym, peeking in through the windows. The ones in the battle arena showed it to be empty, but as he peered into the back room on the right side of the building, he found the light on. He knocked carefully on the glass a few times.

A shape rose with a start from the sofa below the window. Mitch’s face came into view, his eyes wild and haunted; his gaze darted up and down the street before it fixed on Mark.

Mitch reached over to the window and opened it, blinking blearily at the sunlight. There were dark bags under his blue-green eyes, his face sallow and pale, his silver hair unkempt and messy. “What is it?”

Mitch's eyes are now blue-green, the most pronounced color change yet!

“Are… are you all right?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” Mitch said, too quickly. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” Mark said, hesitant. “Can we talk? I think you might be able to help us with... the thing I’m doing for Chaletwo, if we let you in on it.”

Mitch surveyed him for a few seconds; yet again there was that strangely unnerving, tantalizing stare of his, that desperate shine in the depths of his pupils. Then he looked away again, and Mark blinked, snapped out of a trance. “I don’t think I can help you with anything. I’m sorry.”

In the draft (where his eye color was mentioned in this paragraph rather than that earlier one), I added, (For a moment Mark was shaken with a sudden feeling that he was sure Mitch’s eyes weren’t this color last time he’d seen him, but then it was gone, and he figured he must have been imagining it.) Obviously, this would've made it obvious that the eye color was significant, and it might have been kind of fun if I had left this in and then left it to readers to figure out what it means. I'm not 100% sure, but I think I took it out because Negrek had recently (in a review for chapter 65) theorized in the Serebii thread that Mitch was possessed by Chalenor - no one had figured this out before, and I think that's why I wrote in this really explicit hint about it here in in the first place, but since now it was clear that it was already realistically possible to work it out, I decided it wasn't needed. I mentioned on Tumblr at one point that I'd decided to mess with something in this chapter thanks to Negrek, and I'm pretty sure I was referring to this.

“Well, couldn’t you at least hear us out?” Mark said. “We’ll explain what’s going on.”

“No. You shouldn’t tell me anything. I wish I could help, but I can’t. I’m very, very sorry.”

His voice was tight and pleading, and it struck Mark suddenly that he sounded afraid. “What’s going on?” Mark asked, unnerved. “Why?”

Mitch closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “You know what’s been happening to me. It’s gotten worse – a lot worse. I’m not sure what’s real anymore. I don’t need any more information to process right now.”

In the draft, he added, I’m beginning to fear I could snap and endanger others. That’s why I closed the Gym and why I’m staying here. Presumably I took that out because it would've been a bit too concerning for Mark to just walk away and think no more of it.

Mark stared at him. “Have you tried getting help?” he asked. “Like a psychiatrist, I mean?”

“I did once,” Mitch said, wincing uncomfortably. “It didn’t help.”

In the draft he went into more detail: “I don’t want to be stuck in a mental hospital,” Mitch said, his voice trembling. “The antipsychotics didn’t help. I don’t think they’d have any choice but to incarcerate me. I have to try to...” Sharing a bit too much, again probably ringing too many alarm bells for Mark to go off and figure he's going to be fine.

“Locking yourself up in your Gym isn’t going to help either,” Mark pointed out. “You should see someone.”

Mitch looked at him for a long moment, not quite making eye contact this time. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he murmured. “Thank you.”

Mitch could tell his eyes were affecting Mark earlier and is being extra careful not to make eye contact now, as the first thing on his mind is his feeling that his strange powers are growing out of control and he doesn't want to accidentally harm Mark somehow.

“Is there anything I could help you with?” Mark asked.

“No, no, it’s... I can call someone.”

Mitch is not actually going to call anyone; he just wants to convince Mark to go away and not worry.

Mark nodded, wary, not taking his eyes off Mitch. Chaletwo, he thought, is there something... can you feel, like, if some Psychic Pokémon’s been messing with his head, or something like that?

In the draft, Mark very randomly suggested here that maybe Mewtwo² had been messing with this head. This made no sense.

“I’m not sensing any psychic interference, or anything else out of the ordinary. Whatever’s going on with him, it’s all him.”

Well, there’s definitely something really weird going on here. Mark paused, a crazy idea taking hold in his head. What if, like, Mew were anchored to him, like you are to me, and he was –

“If Mew were anchored to him or doing anything to him, or any other legendary for that matter, I could sense it. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Any substantial external use of psychic powers is detectable psychically, even if performed by a Dark-type. But this situation, with a Dark-type anchored to Mitch with just a soul anchor, which is only capable of lending a minuscule fraction of its powers to him but it's still enough to give him substantial psychic powers because the Dark-type happens to be the Destroyer, is just not something that's occurred to him as a possibility.

Behind the window, Mitch’s gaze flicked restlessly from side to side and occasionally back to Mark, but he remained silent.

“I know it seems cold to say this,” Chaletwo said, “but he may just really be crazy. He did say he’s losing his grip on reality, and if you ask me he’s always seemed a little unbalanced. Maybe living under a fake identity has been slowly driving him mad all these years, or something.”

Chaletwo's extremely scientific opinion. (About as scientific as "The Waraider herd just operate on moon logic.")

He really has psychic powers, Mark pointed out.

“Well, some humans do. And that’s another possibility – maybe he’s just a strong natural psychic, but for some reason it only started to kick in after his near-death experience, and it’s a bit overwhelming for him. In that case nobody can really help, but he should eventually reach the full extent of his powers and get used to it.”

Mark considered it, biting his lip. Something about this still didn’t sit right with him, but he wasn’t sure what he could do about it, if anything, and if Chaletwo was confident it wasn’t some Pokémon messing with him, it had to ultimately be his own problem.

“I’m glad you’re going to get help,” he said to Mitch at last. “Get better.”

Mitch nodded, unfazed by the lengthy pause in the conversation. “Thank you,” he said again, giving a forced smile. “I’ll… make another attempt.”

Mitch knew Chaletwo was there and Mark was talking to him.

I feel a little weird about the "it had to ultimately be his own problem." In the draft, I wrote: Mark couldn’t help feeling, as he stepped back from the window, that Mitch said that a little too quickly and a little too eager to end the conversation – but Chaletwo urged him to leave it, and the entire situation unnerved him enough that he kind of wanted to. I guess this was another change to make it more reasonable for Mark to walk away?

“Goodbye,” Mark said. “Try to do it soon.”

“Goodbye,” Mitch said, and he shut the window and disappeared behind the back of the couch again.

I wrote on the Quest Blog while NaNoing that despite my having decided several times that Mitch was not going to be in this chapter, he was in it anyway. I always knew Mitch wouldn't actually join up with them, because plot, and I suppose I'd figured then it was a waste of time to show them meeting up with Mitch, but then Mark just really wanted to visit Mitch and I ended up doing it. In hindsight, I'm a little baffled I apparently spent so long waffling over it, when if I hadn't included this meeting Mitch would be popping up in chapter 75 for the first time since chapter 41 - odds are people wouldn't have even properly remembered who he was, much less had a reasonable basis to assume he was still significant. At least with this scene it's pretty clear that yeah, what's happening to him is still important and you should definitely be wondering what's up.

-------

If I find Alan, Mark thought as he walked back the way he’d come, are you going to let me talk?

“What do you mean, let you talk? When do I ever not let you talk?”

I love the pettiness of this response.

You know what I mean. Don’t comment. I want to try to calm him down, and you probably wouldn’t help.

“Fine,” Chaletwo said. “But can you tell him not to try to bring everyone down with his stupid pessimism?”

He’s obviously stressed out. Stop making it worse.

Chaletwo didn’t respond to that.

Mark continued down the street, looking from side to side. Where would Alan go when storming off? Normally he might have guessed the Pokémon Center, but May and Robin should be there right now, so if he wanted to be alone, that wouldn’t be it.

In the draft he actually did go to the Pokémon Center, and this scene played out very differently; more on that in the end notes.

Instead, he just followed the street straight onwards, all the way to the edge of town. He was about to turn back when he spotted Alan sitting on a rock by the roadside a bit further ahead, hugging his knees with one arm while stroking the tall, yellowed grass growing around him absent-mindedly with his other hand.

“Hey,” Mark said as he came up to the rock. “You okay?”

In the draft, Mark added, “I told Chaletwo to shut up, if that helps.”

Alan shot only a brief glance in his direction before returning his gaze to the distance ahead, where the tiny village of Merville bordered the calm ocean. For a second he was silent; then, quietly, he muttered, “I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.”

Mark stared at him. “What do you mean, you don’t want to do this?”

“It just... makes me feel bad.” Alan paused, still not looking in Mark’s direction. “I’m angry all the time, and everything we do just angers me more. I’m tired of pretending nothing’s wrong. I don’t want to feel this way.”

Alan grabbed a long grass stalk and pulled at it, his knuckles white; it didn’t budge, and he unclenched his fist in defeat and let it go again.

Alan's here moping about feeling like a failure and then fails to even tear out a piece of grass. Is this too on the nose? I couldn't resist.

“Do you… do you know why you feel like that?” Mark asked after a few seconds.

Alan paused for a long moment. “Maybe Chaletwo’s right,” he said eventually. “Maybe this really has been a vanity project for me. My dad’s always been this big celebrity hero, and I… wasn’t. On my own journey I just sort of wandered around without even the drive to participate in a League, and I didn’t feel like I’d really accomplished anything. When I came with you I thought I was finally going to do something amazing and important like him, but here we are bumbling around with no idea what we’re doing, making one stupid mistake after another, and I just... I don’t feel very heroic.”

Mark wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He’d never really thought about what they were doing in those terms. Heroes were people in stories, people with special destinies. People who were fated to succeed.

Joke's on you, Mark, you are a hero in a story and you were always going to succeed, you just never got to know that.

“And every time something bad happens,” Alan went on, “I feel like I should have seen it coming and done something about it. I think that every time, that from now on everything’s going to go right because I’m going to pay attention and spot the flaws and fix everything, but it doesn’t work. I can’t fix anything. I don’t even notice things that need to be fixed until it’s too late.” He sighed, fiddling with the grass again. “And who was I kidding? I couldn’t even be a proper Pokémon trainer.”

“What are you talking about?” Mark said, dumbfounded. “You don’t need to take part in a League to be a proper Pokémon trainer. Loads of trainers never do.”

Alan hugged his knees with both arms. “I had more Pokémon,” he said, quietly. “Charlie and Racko and them are the ones that stayed behind. The others wanted to go to the League. And I guess they found new trainers who did, eventually. People like you and Robin.” He grimaced, his voice turning bitter. “Or even May.”

It just pains Alan more than words could say, after all this time trying and failing to fix her, that he's pretty sure the Pokémon he released would've preferred May to him.

“There’s no shame in releasing your Pokémon when that’s what they want,” Mark said. “I released Letaligon while you were gone – even Scyther was maybe going to leave the night that you came back, even though he ended up staying. And didn’t… didn’t your dad release a bunch of his Pokémon, too?”

Alan made a small noise of dismay. “That’s… that’s different. Letaligon wanted to get stronger and evolve and then go to fight her father. You did that for her. You took her to the League and helped her evolve and then took her back to Ruxido, exactly like she wanted. She didn’t leave because you’d failed her.” He shot a glance towards Mark out of the corner of his eye. “Even then,” he went on in a murmur, “when I was a kid and my dad told me about all the Pokémon he’d released on his journey, I always thought I could do better. I could be an even better trainer and then they wouldn’t want to leave.” The conclusion hung unspoken in the air.

I'm kind of sad Mark didn't get to tell Alan that Letaligon's release didn't exactly go as hoped. Maybe in the next revision I can fit that in.

Mark stepped closer, facing Alan, his mind racing. “I… I think I get it,” he said slowly. “Sandslash once told me that most Pokémon grow up wanting a trainer who’ll just take them to the League and make them strong and then release them, and that really good trainers are the ones who can make them change their minds. I think you said something similar once too, right?”

He's, of course, referencing the conversation with Sandslash in chapter 25 and the conversation with Alan in chapter 41, though at this point I was basically hoping you don't remember the Sandslash conversation too well. At least not well enough to remember when it happened and go back and reread it.

Alan winced silently, not moving.

“I don’t think you should expect to change every Pokémon’s mind, though,” Mark said. “They’re… they’re not all going to want the same thing, right? It’s not a measure of how good you are; it’s about who they are and what they want. Scyther decided to come back instead of staying with his swarm, but I don’t think that means I’m a better trainer than if he hadn’t.”

“I know,” Alan said, sighing. “Like I said, it’s something I thought when I was a kid. It’s just…”

“And I mean, six of your Pokémon did want to stay with you. I think that makes it pretty clear you were the best kind of trainer, even if some of the others chose differently. And for the ones who didn’t want to stay, you respected that and released them. I don’t think there’s anything better you could have done.”

“I could have taken them to the League like they wanted,” Alan replied, his voice dull.

“But you don’t have to take everyone where they want to go,” Mark said. “I’m sure some of my Pokémon want to continue training after this, but after the League I realized I don’t want to.” Alan looked up at him in vague surprise. “Just like they don’t have to stay with you if they don’t want to, you don’t have to go to the League if you don’t want to. What you want matters too, and if you and your Pokémon want different things, you have to split up.”

Alan stared into the distance, thinking. “Do you think I’m too self-sacrificing?” he said after a while.

I imagine this is something Alan has been told before. Probably by Charlie. Robin telling him he should stand up for himself more while they were in the Acaria Mountains probably was another thing making him think about this (relatively) recently.

“I guess maybe, sometimes,” Mark said. After a moment of thought, he sat down on the ground beside the rock. “That’s not… it’s not exactly a bad thing, though,” he went on. “I mean, being selfless is a good thing. But you’re allowed to think of what you want, too, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about quitting training when you weren’t into it anymore. I’m sure your Pokémon understood, even if they were disappointed.”

Mark glanced up at Alan; he was still gazing unseeingly towards Merville, but there were tears at the corners of his eyes, and Mark quickly looked away again.

“So,” Alan said quietly after a minute, “if I quit now, you’d understand?”

This was something that spontaneously hit me here like a ton of bricks - I had no idea this was actually kind of a parallel question until I realized that was where Alan's mind had gone during all this. (Not entirely parallel: this is about saving the world, and not merely about advancing their personal goals. But it's similar enough.)

Oh. Mark hadn’t thought of it that way around at all – but now, the answer was inevitable.

“Yeah.” He exhaled, looking back up at Alan. “If that’s what you need to do.”

Alan nodded slightly. “Thanks,” he said. “That actually means a lot.”

They sat there for a few minutes more together, silent, watching the soothing waves of the ocean in the distance.

“I didn’t know you were going to quit training,” Alan said after a while.

This was a decision Mark came to at the League, you'll recall, when Alan wasn't there.

Mark took a deep breath. “Yeah. Thinking back, I never really wanted to be a trainer that much, you know? I just… I just wanted to get out. I wanted to see the world and meet Pokémon and maybe see a legendary if I was lucky. And then all my friends got to be trainers and I didn’t, so I guess I kind of latched on to it. But battling isn’t my thing and it never has been. It’s been fun, and I’m glad I got to experience it once, but when this is over with I just want to go home.”

“When I was a kid, I was really excited to be a trainer,” Alan said, something bitter and hollow in his voice. “I was so sure I could be even better than my dad and would do everything right. But then, as I failed to live up to that, I just started to hate it. I loved my Pokémon, but I couldn’t stand not being that great.”

Mark blinked. “That’s why you quit?”

Alan nodded, his fingers tightening around his knees. “I got my eighth badge, and then I just… I knew I wouldn’t be any good at the League and it’d just make me feel worse, and I couldn’t handle it. So I ended up quitting with nothing to show for it, after all that time and effort. And my Pokémon suffered for it.”

Alan collecting all eight Hoenn badges but then not going to the League was a spontaneous thing I wrote into his backstory for his character bio way back when; I couldn't have imagined at the time that this was actually key to his entire character, but it totally was.

“Well, again, I’m sure they understood.”

Alan considered it, wincing. “Maybe. They said it was okay, but I never told them… I said I’d just decided training wasn’t for me, and I could tell they didn’t quite buy it. I just couldn’t… I couldn’t tell them I was betraying them for something so petty.” His hands clenched into fists.

“It’s not petty if it’s really affecting you like that, though,” Mark said. “If quitting helped, then that was the right thing to do.”

Alan let out a long sigh, rubbing his face with his hands. “Well, that’s the thing. It didn’t really help, did it? I feel like even more of a failure for quitting than I did before. So I guess the real lesson here is trying to run away from things doesn’t actually help me.” He shook his head. “I mean, God, I know I’d never forgive myself if I left you when you’re trying to save the world. I just…”

“If you’re worried about us thinking you betrayed us or it’s petty, it’s not –”

Alan shook his head again. “No, it’s not about you. It’s just the way I am. But thanks for saying that.”

Mark looked up at him, not sure what to say. The older boy nodded slowly to himself, lost in thought, before his expression hardened, his back straightened, and he lowered his feet into the grass.

“Really, thanks,” Alan said, meeting Mark’s gaze at last as he offered his hand. “For… for listening and making it seem like I had a choice. It helped.”

“Do you feel better?” Mark asked.

Alan took a deep breath. “I think so, a little. Maybe we really can do some good, in our bumbling, unheroic way.”

“I hope so,” Mark said, smiling.

Alan gave a wisp of a smile in return as he looked back in the direction of the town.

“I think you should tell your Pokémon why you really quit,” Mark said, and he turned around again. “They’re your friends. They’ll get it.”

Alan hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. I think I will. Thanks.”

And they walked towards the Pokémon Center together.

Alan basically realized here that he didn't truly have a choice; there's just no way he could quit and live with himself afterwards. But Mark being all right with it, and having this conversation about it, helped him feel a lot better about staying, made that choice feel freer and made him realize and articulate to himself that he would genuinely rather continue than the alternative. And just that difference in framing makes a lot of difference.

This is one of my favorite scenes in the fic. (I illustrated it in 2017.) The rest of this chapter is nothing special, just some exposition and setup, but I think this conversation came out really well in the end. The flow of thoughts makes sense step by step, comes full circle, and leads to a conclusion that feels basically inevitable. I feel like I can say this because for most of the time that I was working on these chapters, it distinctly didn't feel that way, and getting to this point was an incredibly satisfying breakthrough.

Initially, in the NaNo draft, Alan went off to the Pokémon Center to mope, sent out Charlie, and when Mark came in he was lying on one of the couches absent-mindedly petting him (in Charmander form) - so of course, once Alan started saying he couldn't even be a proper Pokémon trainer, Charlie butted in like no, what are you talking about, you're a great trainer and that's why we stayed, and we're your friends and why didn't you talk to us about how you were feeling. It was kind of cute (but very badly written - I'm not quoting it because I never even cleaned it up after NaNo and it's just bad), but it just rendered Mark completely extraneous - Charlie obviously had this covered - and in fact, Mark ended up just slinking away and leaving it to him. In principle, of course, there's nothing wrong with the protagonist not being the one to solve everybody's problems, but here, the way it played out was desperately unsatisfying and just didn't work, on any level, and this was one of the first things I knew I'd just have to completely redo in editing - that's why I didn't give it even a cursory cleanup.

So the first thing I did was get rid of Charlie. Alas, it was kind of fun for him to get a little bit of spotlight, but I didn't want to suddenly give one POV scene to Alan or Charlie at this point in the fic, and Mark just standing there watching two other characters have a conversation that he really had no business being part of at all just didn't do anything for the story. Instead, Alan would just be sitting alone, moping, when Mark found him, and then Mark would talk to him about how he's feeling. This immediately helped a bit, but it was still awkward - Mark's initial weird, too-sagely effort to convince Alan he wasn't a failure as a trainer was abrupt and out of character and never actually convincing.

By the time of the June 2015 beta version, I'd redone it to have Mark relate this back to some concrete memories of things he'd learned from his journey instead of sudden sagely wisdom, talking about the conversation he'd had with Sandslash and then saying you can't expect every Pokémon to want to stay with you forever... but he didn't talk about Letaligon and Scyther or that he was going to quit training. Thus, Alan didn't ask about that either after Mark affirmed that he'd understand if Alan quit... and therefore, Alan never talked about why he quit training. Instead, they just sat there silently for a bit, and then Alan kind of abruptly just realized that “Honestly, quitting probably wouldn’t help me. How bad would I feel about myself if I just stopped even trying?” He chuckled hollowly. “Plus I’d probably just lie awake at night worrying about how it’s going. I mean, end of the world, right?” All of which was true, and made sense, but it still didn't feel very satisfying or earned. I sent it off to opal anyway because I've definitely published chapters before where bits were awkward and abrupt, but I still just had this nagging feeling that Alan was trying to tell me something and I just couldn't put my finger on what.

Then in September, I realized that of course Mark would want to bring up Letaligon and Scyther in the whole discussion about releasing Pokémon, and that led pretty naturally to the mention that he was going to quit training, and then because Alan didn't know about that, of course he asked about it, and Mark explained... and then Alan went and said that when he was a kid he was excited to be a trainer, but when he wasn't good enough at it he started to hate it. And suddenly everything about Alan and everything he'd been saying just clicked (and seemed pretty obvious even though I somehow hadn't properly connected it earlier), and it tied the whole conversation together too by naturally bringing it around to the previous time where Alan quit thanks to his fear of failure, and the way that it had solved nothing for him, providing a natural angle from which he'd come to this conclusion. This was honestly one of my most memorably satisfying moments writing the fic.

This chapter plan is the first multiple-sentence one, as this is where they really start to get more detailed: Chapter 66: Knowing the Waraider herd is always together and that disastrous consequences could follow if they’re apart, they decide they need extra preparation if they are to be able to capture all of them at the same time. They decide to contact Leah and some of the Ouen Gym leaders who know something about the War (Mitch, Sparky, Carl and Victor). Mark talks to Mitch, but he’s confined himself to the Gym, fearing he’s going mad and could endanger others; they successfully get in contact with Leah, who agrees to teleport to Acaria City to meet them. Obviously, I didn't get to the actual contacting Leah part here, thanks to the sudden Alan issues.

However, this is the chapter plan as it is in the current document. The original chapter plan looked a little different: Chapter 66: Knowing the Waraider herd is always together and that disastrous consequences could follow if they’re apart, they decide they need extra preparation if they are to be able to capture all of them at the same time and have the idea of trying to meet up with some of the other trainers in the know; Leah and a guy are combing the other regions for Mew, but Mary and another boy are in Ouen looking for the Waraider herd as well. They track down Mary in Acaria City. Yup: originally, the plan was not for them to have Leah and some gym leaders along for Waraider, but rather Mary, the second legendary hunter. I wanted the other legendary hunters in general to have a bit of a presence, and bringing in her too seemed fun. Later, though (but pre-NaNo), I decided I wanted to write more Leah, and it'd probably actually be more fun to see her again than to introduce yet another new character; I'm pretty sure opal encouraged me in this as well. Then at some point the idea came up to have them approach the relevant gym leaders as well; I think this may have been quite shortly before NaNo. Prior to that, I wasn't planning on the return of any familiar faces for this arc at all.


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