Some would consider it madness to hunt an Ultra Beast in a desert, at night, with a sandstorm brewing.
But UB Blaster appeared only at night, when the harsh sunlight had faded. Haina Desert was tricky enough to navigate in the day; at dusk, restricted vision from the lack of light would make it even more dangerous. Blaster was known to be especially destructive, so Nanu cautioned her against going alone.
"Forget about the whole Interpol secrecy nonsense. Take the Aether boy with you," he had said.
For a moment, Moon had been tempted. Gladion was her best friend, her strongest rival. There was no one else in the world she would rather have as her battle partner. But Gladion was busy with his work at the Aether Foundation. Furthermore, Looker and Anabel had entrusted her with the mission. As Champion, it was her responsibility to watch over Alola. It wouldn't be fair to drag him into it, not when she'd already done so too many times before.
Besides, Moon had made all the necessary preparations. She was dressed for the environmental conditions, she carried water, full restores and beast balls, and her pokemon were similarly equipped with the necessary protective gear. So she was confident that she could handle the mission on her own, despite Nanu's misgivings.
To her credit, things did go pretty well for the first part of it. They found the UB, a nine-metre tall, bamboo-like giant, standing rooted in the deep sand. It roared defiance and fired glowing gas at them. After a concentrated attack by half her team, Moon subdued it with a few balls. With a sigh of relief, she turned to her pokemon.
"Good job, guys," she praised. They came to her, exhausted but happy. Though she wanted nothing more than to collapse onto her Ride Charizard, her team deserved her attention first. Sitting in the pokeballs with sand and dirt would be horribly uncomfortable, so she knelt down to refresh them. "That was a huge one, wasn't it? But you all did reall---"
Moon turned instinctively, and her eyes widened. Another Blaster was surging out of the sand. A shrill cry filled the air as it shot an Air Slash at them. Gold, her Kommo-o, leapt protectively in front of her. The impact sent him crashing into Moon, knocking her aside. She struggled to her feet, stumbling against the growing winds.
"Battle formation! Manu, forward! Star, support! Goldie, hold on!"
Decidueye had already taken to the skies, soaring above the clouds of sand particles, while Toxapex darted to the opposite side. Boiling water streamed across the sand, thickening it into mud and trapping Blaster.
Gold clanged noisily as Moon finished spraying the Full Restore on him. "All better. Now for--"
She hadn't even noticed the dull humming before it rose into a full roar. Walls of wind and sand enclosed them, stinging her arms and legs even through her clothes, and Moon realised with dawning horror that she could barely see the rest of her Pokemon anymore.
"Star! Manu!!!" she yelled. The sound of her voice was swallowed by the blustering gales, and she coughed, choking on sand particles. "Stay... with me... Goldie...!"
A whirring screech rang out, and a bright beam of light burst through the sandstorm. Instantly, Gold shoved her aside, but Moon felt a searing pain in her arm as a part of the Flash Cannon struck her. She screamed.
Moon woke slowly. The first thing she became aware of was the dull, throbbing pain in her right arm. Then the scratchiness of her dry throat. The smell of earth, with hints of sage and other unfamiliar plants in the distance. The muted sounds of a howling wind, as if it came from behind a wall. The dry crackling of a campfire nearby.
Something cool and wet touched her eyelids, clearing the last of the dust and grit from them. She forced herself to open her eyes. Blurred shapes gradually came into focus as she blinked, and she found herself staring up at a very familiar face.
His furrowed brow relaxed slightly at her voice, and he lifted a canteen to her lips. "Drink first," he ordered.
She was lying with her head in his lap, she realised, as he placed one arm beneath her shoulders to help lift her. The cool water was balm to her parched lips and she sipped greedily.
Her body ached, her muscles felt like lead, her head was still spinning, and she could hardly think. As she shifted, her bandaged arm twinged.
"Don't move that arm too much yet. There's only so much your Curi could do," Gladion said.
Curi. Her Comfey. In a flash, memories of the battle came rushing back to her. Flash Cannon. The second Blaster. The suddenly catastrophic sandstorm. A deadly chill gripped her heart, and she stared at Gladion in horror.
"G-Gold! And Manu and Star---!"
"It's okay, they're fine," Gladion assured her. "I've treated them and returned them to your balls. They're resting now."
Waves of relief swept over her, and Moon sighed, collapsing back into his arms.
"Thank you, thanks... I... thanks..." she croaked. Again, he held out the canteen for her, and she drank.
It took a while before she was able to sit up on her own. They were in a shallow, rocky cave, barely big enough to shelter them. Beyond the entrance, Moon could see the sandstorm still raging. A small fire crackled cheerily just inside the cave mouth, casting a warm, rosy glow over them. Their backpacks lay against the wall.
"Here." Gladion held out an unwrapped granola bar. "You need to regain your energy. It may be a while before the skies clear enough for us to fly."
"And Blaster?" Moon asked.
"No sign of it, last I checked. No sightings of it outside, though, so it probably flew deeper in. Eat."
The grains were dry, but not unpleasantly so. Moon ate obediently, sipping water between mouthfuls. During the briefing before the mission, she had been warned repeatedly about the dangers of overhydration, along with various other advice on desert survival. Considering what had happened, she knew she was lucky to be alive, with no more than a badly bruised arm and a few scratches.
As she finished off her granola bar, she watched Gladion pulling out more supplies from his backpack. Like her, he was dressed in long sleeved, protective clothing, and a pair of night vision goggles hung around his neck.
Moving over to her, he smeared soothing cream over her sore, scratched hands. His gentle touch was as comforting as his presence there, and Moon smiled gratefully at him. "Thanks, Glad. I really owe you one."
"What you owe me... " Gladion threw the tube of cream back into the first-aid kit with a clatter. "...Is an explanation for your stupidity."
She flinched at his harsh words, but he went on speaking as he packed. "Imagine what would've happened if I hadn't been there. You could have died! What the hell were you thinking?!"
Moon bristled. "Look, I had it all mostly under control," she said defensively, "until the sandstorm---"
"You come to Haina Desert, and you don't expect a sandstorm?" He snapped the box shut, then glared at her. "Very smart."
"Of course I did! I was prepared, water, goggles, full restores, clothes!" She tugged at one sleeve pointedly, glaring back at him. She hated the insinuation that she was a reckless child, an irresponsible trainer who didn't have any idea what she was doing. "Despite what you seem to think, I'm not an absolute idiot. I planned for this trip, and I knew what I was doing. I just... I didn't think the sandstorm would get this bad. It's never gotten this bad before."
"Yeah? That's what backup is for. To deal with unexpected problems, like bad sandstorms. To watch your back so you don't get sneaked up on by a second UB." Gladion folded his arms, scowling. "Why didn't you wait for me? Nanu told you he'd call me for help."
"Because I knew I could handle this. I've handled all the other UBs just fine!" Moon insisted. "Looker and Anabel trusted me with the mission---"
"But you know how deadly this one is. Nanu warned---"
"I'm the Champion!" Moon burst out. "People are looking to me to protect Alola! I can't fail them!"
There. It was out at last. Moon drew her knees up to her chest, hugging herself. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she hid her face in her arms. "I'm the strongest trainer in the region. I'm good at battling. People... people are expecting me... to.. I can't... fail..."
For the past two years, she had worked hard and made her way to the top. She had been so proud when she first saw her name in the Hall of Fame. She was proud of her pokemon, her brave, strong, wonderful companions. When Interpol first contacted her about rounding up the stray UBs, she was confident that they could face them, the way they took down Nihilego before.
But Xurkitree had caused a great deal of damage, injuring many wild pokemon in Lush Jungle. And then Blaster...
"The last time Blaster appeared, it landed in that forest near Malie City. The entire place got burnt and destroyed. Acerola only just managed to scare it away," she mumbled. "Blaster's dangerous, Gladion, if only because of its sheer size. So I have to take care of it. I have to..."
She was the Champion. Failure simply wasn't an option.
Gladion was silent for a while. Rising on his knees, he shuffled over to sit beside her. Awkwardly, he slid one comforting arm around her shaking shoulders.
"Moon... No one said you have to do it alone."
"But it's my responsibility. You don't understand, I can't ask---"
"Nihilego, my mother, and the Wormhole?" His sharp voice stopped her mid-ramble. "I think I understand just fine."
She looked up at him. Gladion's eyes softened as he looked at her.
"I used to think that I had to solve it myself, too, because it was my mother's fault. Our family's problem," he admitted haltingly. "But you taught me... that I don't have to do it all by myself. That it's okay to ask for help, to depend on someone else."
"You were there for Lillie and me. We're here for you, too. Nobody's expecting you to fight alone."
At those simple, earnest words, the tears fell. The hollow ache that had enveloped her heart for the past few months was finally beginning to ease. Moon leaned against Gladion, resting her head on his shoulder, and wept.
Hesitantly, he patted her back, holding her close until her quiet sobs ceased.
"I'm sorry I didn't wait for you," she whispered, rubbing her eyes. Gladion shrugged.
"It's okay. We'll go after the second Blaster together. All right?"
Together. Moon felt her eyes fill again, and she nodded, laughing softly.
"All this time, I was so scared I wouldn't be able to live up to everyone's expectations," she said. "I wanted to be strong... to protect everyone. Yet in the end, I'm the one being protected instead."
"No kidding," Gladion deadpanned. Moon punched him lightly, and he chuckled. Pulling back, he looked into her eyes.
"You are strong, Moon," he said quietly. "It takes strength to trust and rely on your friends, you know?"
Her heart swelled with warm affection, and she hugged him tightly.