As Wallace's aircar streamed through the sky towards the borders of Rustboro City, dark smoke came out to meet them like giant crawling fingers. Devon Corporation was swallowed in flames. It looked bigger than when Flannery had seen it on the television. She stared at the bright flames, unable to tear her eyes away from the horrifyingly beautiful sight of destruction.
"Looks like it's spreading fast," observed Wallace.
Winona coughed, holding a gloved hand to her nose. "Officer Jenny evacuated the people towards the Center. Luckily there's no wind right now, or the whole building would be ash."
"Looks like some rain would be perfect right about now," Wallace mused, hand already reaching for one of his Pokémon. "Would you like to watch the show, or evacuate the trapped folks in the fire?"
The plan, of course, was for Wallace to use his Water Pokémon to help douse the fire. He could easily coordinate his Pokémon from the aircar, while Winona scouted the situation from above on her Flying Pokémon. Flannery, being a Fire specialist herself, would ride with Winona and assist wherever she could.
"I don't see Steven," Flannery said without thinking, worry lacing her voice despite herself.
Wallace patted her shoulder. "He'll be fine. A little fire won't hurt him."
She shrugged. "I'm worried about the President-Mr. Stone. They said he wasn't with the employees when they escaped."
"And that's what we're here for," Winona declared, standing up from her seat.
"Whoa, need I remind you that the car is still moving," Wallace glanced over and did a doubletake. "Did you even put your seatbelt on?"
"I don't believe in seatbelts."
This time Flannery patted him on the shoulder. "She'll be fine. A little fall from the sky won't hurt her."
His smile was wry. "Now I see why he likes you so much."
Before she could respond, Winona called out Altaria. "Make it rain," she reminded Wallace, who saluted her as he slowed down the aircar. The two women hopped onto the elegant bird-type Pokémon, waving at him in parting.
As they glided towards the fire, Wallace remarked, "One with a fiery passion that burns, huh." He drew out his own Pokéballs, and smiled. "Let's hope it doesn't burn too much."
The smell of burning filled their senses, almost nauseating. The closer they drew towards the flames, the louder the crackles of heat and the sound of sirens. Flannery found herself squeezing her own legs to keep from trembling.
The fire did not scare her. But the thought that he might be inside, that other people were stuck in a furnace of death, shook her. She had been nervous before, during the incident with Team Aqua and Magma, but it did not make this situation any easier to face.
"See anybody?" Winona asked.
They circled the building, unable to get too close because of the curling smoke. Altaria didn't like the heat either. It flinched when the black smoke got near its wings. Winona leaned forward like a bird herself.
"He'll be okay."
Flannery wondered why everyone seemed to think it necessary to reassure her.
"Steven may be professional, but he's also human," Winona said, barely audible over the wind. "I forgot, and completely lost sight of what was important. As a result, I hurt Wallace."
Flannery stared at her back, not really following. "But you were just following your dream."
"Yes, but at what cost? I hated comparing myself to him. In the end, I was only thinking about myself instead of the people around me."
"We're not perfect."
"Exactly. Which is why we forgive." The older woman paused. "Even ourselves."
They flew higher. The air was clearer, despite the smoke and ash, and the streets below looked miniature.
"Who do you think started the fire?" Winona suddenly asked, breaking their silence.
"I don't know," Flannery lied.
Altaria suddenly swiveled its sleek head. Flannery could hear a faint but audible feminine cry. It was a cry for help. "That way," Winona pointed towards the top of the corporation. "Come on, Altaria!"
They dove so fast that Flannery felt her stomach flop. This is why Wallace prefers the aircar. And so do I. The cries became louder as they neared the east side of the building. Smoke was heavier on that side, and they almost didn't see a young woman nearly falling out of the broken window in desperation.
The woman was nearly sobbing with relief when they finally reached her. Her clothes and face were sooty and her eyes were red-rimmed.
"You're going to be okay," Winona soothed, steering Altaria closer to the broken window.
"The President's inside," the woman coughed. "He broke his leg and can't walk."
"I'll go in," Flannery said, already moving toward the opening. The woman thanked her profusely, scrambling out of the way.
"Be careful," Winona warned her friend, eyes tight with worry.
With a nod, the redhead gingerly hopped past the broken glass and held her breath instinctively.
Inside was a completely different world from where she just came from. It was dark, even though the blinds were open, because of the thick, gray smoke. Not even the sunlight could penetrate. It felt like she was actually inside a volcano. She shielded her face with an arm, and for a moment, felt a flicker of panic that rooted her in place.
The sound of a lightbulb popping nearby jolted her back to her senses.
"Wait here," she shouted back at Winona. "I'll be right back with the President."
Winona was helping the exhausted woman onto Altaria's back, who managed to say, "He's nearby. The firefighters can't get through because the hallway collapsed. Please hurry!"
Flannery wasted no time. She threw her Pokéball, and Torkoal emerged with a confident cry. It wasn't bothered by the flames one bit. "Help me find Mr. Stone, Torkoal."
It sniffed the air once, and then immediately plodded towards the opposite end of the room. She took off her shirt and tied it around her nose and mouth, leaving only her thin tank top to shield her from the heat. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the floor of what seemed to be an office. There were no flames inside yet, but she could hear the crackling of fire nearby. The toxic smoke was incredibly hot, but Torkoal's Overheat was even hotter. This was nothing.
I can do this.
In the back of her mind, she wondered what Steven was doing. Either he came inside from the ground floor, or Metagross carried him higher like Altaria did. Either way, he had his Pokémon so he would be fine. Wallace would soon put out the flames. That was what Flannery kept repeating to herself as she slowly made her way after Torkoal.
The tortoise-like Pokémon signaled her its location. She found it waiting calmly next to a familiar gentleman lying on the floor near the door. He was dazed from the smoke and pain, probably from his broken leg, but miraculously conscious.
His eyes focused on her face. They slowly widened in recognition. "This Torkoal… are you Flannery?"
She smiled through her makeshift mask. "That I am. We're getting you out of here pronto. Can you hang onto me?"
He obeyed weakly, so Flannery ended up dragging him across the dark office back towards the broken window. Because she couldn't see, they nearly missed the exit. Fortunately, Winona had clambered inside when she felt they were taking too long.
"Is there anybody else inside?" Winona asked as they got Mr. Stone onto Altaria's back next to the other employee.
He coughed, trying to get fresh air into his lungs. "That girl," he groaned.
The employee gasped.
"He's right! The thief."
Winona paused. "The thief? You mean the same one Steven was chasing?"
Flannery leaned out the window and noticed drops of water falling from the sky, soft and silent like the coming of providence. Wallace had already used Rain Dance. White steam began issuing from the building, and the flames hissed angrily at the moisture. A beep from Winona's communicator reminded them that people were waiting down below.
"Officer Jenny… yes, we found him. We'll come down shortly. Two people need immediate treatment... What? You found the person who started the fire?"
She almost didn't hear him, his voice was so weak. Steven's father was close to passing out, but he looked at Flannery with a strength in his eyes that reminded him of someone.
"Please… help that girl…"
Flannery opened her mouth, but couldn't find any words.
"She has nobody... to help her."
If this was Flannery a week ago, she would have apologized and refused. How could she possibly help anybody when she could barely help herself? She was hesitant, constantly relying on her grandfather for guidance. She never believed in herself.
But that was a week ago.
She was not alone. Just as in every battle she was fighting together with her Pokémon, she had her friends and loved ones to show her that life wasn't about being strong. She was strong because of her weaknesses. And if that wasn't the truth, then she would just pep talk herself into believing it until it became true.
"Wallace is coming here to pick you—Flannery? What are you doing?"
Pretending not to hear Winona, the redhead took off her fake glasses and gathered her hair into a familiar ponytail. Flannery gave Mr. Stone a cheerful wink. "I'll be right back."
Winona gasped when the redhead turned back into the smoke-filled office. "Flannery!"
"Torkoal and I can handle this much heat," she shouted over her shoulder. "Tell Wallace I won't take long."
She disappeared into the smoke.
Time slowed down.
Every breath she took seemed to last hours, and the seconds seemed to drag by with every step she took into the collapsed hallway. Wallace's Pokémon had done quite a number on the fire, until she could no longer hear the crackling flames. But the smoke, while lighter, still had not dissipated. White fogged her sight until she was stumbling blind over the rubble of broken wood and charred floors.
"Torkoal, where are you?"
Its head nudged her leg and she smiled in relief. "It might collapse again, so walk near the walls. Can you smell her?"
There was a moment while it hummed and hawed in its own fashion. Finally, it gave a triumphant cry.
"You found her?"
"Lead the way."
The two climbed deeper into the dark hallway, passing by doors and more hallways. Everything was eerily silent. She wanted to turn on the lights, but knew they were either shorted out or the firefighters turned them off for safety.
After what seemed like an eternity, Torkoal suddenly entered a doorway to the right. Flannery adjusted her eyes to the pitch black room.
"Hello?" she called out. "Is anybody there?"
A woman's faint voice came from the corner of the room.
"Torkoal, can you give me some light?" It complied, allowing its shell to glow a warm orange. Flannery stepped towards her, beginning to see the faint outline of someone sitting on the floor. The entire room was charred, and ash wafted in the still air like dust. But she pulled down the shirt from her face anyways.
"Are you okay?" Flannery asked, walking towards her.
She stopped mid-step and heard creaking beneath her. The top floor was weakened by the fire. It would collapse if she made the wrong move.
"You found me again." The woman's voice sounded hoarse. "But I think this will be our last meeting."
There was blood soaking the woman's side and leg. She had propped herself up on a wall and tried to smile through the pain. "You need to go to the hospital," Flannery stated firmly, scanning the room. "I'll help you—"
"You're going to help me?" the woman cut in. "What are you going to do for me?"
"Well maybe I can't do anything for you," Flannery snapped, having had enough of the woman's pessimism and bitter tone. "Maybe nobody can. But that doesn't mean you get to just sit there and watch me risk my life trying to get you out of here."
The thief barked a short laugh. "I'm injured, that's exactly what I'm going to do."
Flannery was done. She was tired, sweaty, and fed up with the woman's defeatist attitude. She stepped towards her, ignoring the ominous creak that followed. The woman's smile faltered.
"You're a fool."
She didn't bother to reply, concentrating on finding the most stable foothold so she didn't fall through the floor. Torkoal stayed where it was but watched her progress anxiously.
"I'm not going back."
She was only three steps away.
The redhead reached her side and looked down at her. "Why are you crying?" she asked.
The thief lifted a hand to her eyes. Her fingers came away wet. She blinked. "I'm not. The smoke just hurt my eyes."
"All the more reason you should go to the hospital."
The woman sighed and fixed her eyes on Torkoal. "I didn't start the fire. My partner did not want to compromise our mission, so he disposed of me when the opportunity appeared."
"You mean he betrayed you."
"I would have done the same."
"You need better friends," Flannery concluded. "But before that, you need to go to the hospital."
The thief cracked a smile. "You're stubborn."
They looked up to see a familiar man standing in the doorway, the orange glow from Torkoal casting shadows over his face. She stood up, relief coursing through her body at the sight of Steven well and alive. He could help her carry the thief to safety. Everything was going to work out.
Then her smile faded. There was something strange about the way he continued to look directly at Flannery, and Flannery only. It was as if nobody else existed in that room but her. As if the thief wasn't bleeding on the floor just a few feet away.
Why isn't he moving?
She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry from the smoke. "Steven, we need to help her."
"Let's go," he spoke calmly, keeping his eyes on Flannery. "This place won't hold out much longer."
"Steven." She kept her gaze steady and did not look away. "Your father asked me to help her. He trusted me. I'm not leaving without her."
He was silent.
Perhaps it was the stress of recent events catching up to her, but something inside of her snapped.
"Fine," she stated. "Both of you can do whatever you want. I don't care. But I am going to what is humane and just and you can just sit there and watch me." Flannery hadn't lost her temper like this since she was a teenager and some stupid kid tried to pull a prank on her in the hot springs. She reached down to pull the injured woman away from the wall and towards the door.
The floor beneath them splintered and gave away.
Flannery waited for the fall, squeezing her eyes shut while saying a mental goodbye to her grandfather. When there was only the sound of heavy breathing and she was still lying on a solid floor, she blinked open her eyes.
Steven had rushed across the room and shoved them both to safety (more or less). A quick glance to the right informed her that the other woman was safe but had fallen unconscious. She tried to sit up but a weight restricted her movements. Steven had landed on top of her. If this were any other situation, Flannery would have blushed ten times over.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
She had to laugh at the situation they were in. "Winona's right. You really are a hero."
Steven propped himself up on an elbow and looked down at her. When it became clear that he wasn't moving from that position anytime soon, Flannery felt like the flames had returned hundredfold inside her body. She was suddenly conscious of her sweaty face, the ash and grime in her messy hair, and the swarm of Butterfree in her stomach.
"That would make you the damsel in distress," he remarked, eyes searching her face. "But I'm pretty sure I told you to stay out of danger." He continued to speak softly, his other hand brushing a stray lock from her eyes. "You listen your friends. You listen to my father. What does it take for you to listen to me?" She parted her lips and did not know what to say. Luckily, she didn't have to.
Their heads turned to see the Pokémon staring expectantly at them. In the quiet of the building, they could hear Wallace calling their names. It appeared that help had finally arrived.
"Time to go," Steven said, pushing himself up to his feet. "You head out first. I'll carry her."
"Okay," she said faintly.
He didn't elaborate, but this time Flannery knew what to say.
"That's what friends are for."