“Remind me why we’re in such a hurry again,” Serena proposed to her mother while she was hastily being pressured to brush her hair.
“I told you. Your father is taking us to one of the other districts in the city so we can be safe,” Grace answered. “We need to be ready to leave at any time.” Serena said nothing in response. Not because she was in such agreement that no more needed to be said. Rather, she wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about all of this. “Oh, by the way, here,” Grace added. She handed Serena a small plastic card with her picture and other information printed on it.
“What’s this for?” Serena asked.
“That’s your I.D.,” Grace answered. “Gary says all of the people who live here are supposed to have one. Make sure you hold onto it so that you won’t get into trouble if any Team Rocket guards question you.” Serena gazed into her photo. She was smiling, but there was absolutely no genuine content in her expression. It was such a fake face and Serena was confident it wouldn’t fool anyone, not that it needed to. But surely her anxious feelings were becoming more evident and harder to hide. While Grace continued to race around the cramped room, Serena sat idly by on the bed; lost in her thoughts with eyes fixated on her card.
She eventually got up and exited the room when her frustration from her mother pestering her to get ready reached its peak. Serena strolled down the hallway and walked right into Tracey, who had been traveling in the opposite direction.
“Oh...sorry, Tracey,” she apologized.
“No worries,” he replied. “You okay?” Tracey asked when he noticed that Serena said nothing more after that.
“You’re going too, aren’t you?” she asked at last, ignoring her friend’s immediate concern for her own well-being.
“You mean with Brandon? Of course. You and your mom are coming too, right?”
“Well, I guess...but...”
“What’s on your mind?”
“The thing is, I don’t know if I want to leave.” Tracey’s eyes widened.
“What? Why not?”
“It’s just...I don’t know if that’s where I belong.” Tracey’s eyebrows were raising suspiciously.
“What’s that got to do with anything? Serena, you know how dangerous it is around here, and now these guys are trying to give us a way out of harm’s way.”
“Tracey, I can’t just leave Charmander. He’s my friend. What kind of friend would I be if I just abandoned him?”
“First off, I’d say he’s in pretty good hands with these guys. Second, what would you want to say to him? Good luck trying to convince Charmander to come with you now when he thinks his brothers are in danger,” Tracey reasoned. “You’ll never convince him to just drop everything and go back into hiding again. You know how stubborn he is.” Serena was getting a bit annoyed with how this conversation was progressing.
“Yeah, but I’m not saying that Charmander should leave,” she argued.
“Then what are you saying, Serena?”
“All I know is, when we were hauled away on those trucks and just before the Viridian Phoenix came to our rescue, I was the one who had the steak knife and was ready to fight Team Rocket off on my own.” Serena didn’t wait for Tracey to respond and continued walking down the hallway, away from him.
Charmander sat quietly and still on the sofa. His eyes held a very focused and intense look. To everyone else, it seemed that he was just listening very carefully to Gary’s debriefing of their next mission. They weren’t wrong to think that. Charmander was picking up every word that was being said. But that didn’t mean his mind was completely where it probably should have been.
Deep down, Charmander couldn’t stop thinking about it.
He vividly recalled Morgan shooting Johnathan Leer, whose blood stained the floor of the dusty old library. Charmander had never seen something so gruesome as cold-blooded murder. Up until now, he had only ever witnessed temporary paralysis at the hands of Team Rocket pistols. Nothing serious or life-threatening. But this was completely different. Johnathan wasn’t just dead. His body had been violated. He had lost his humanity, his life. Now he was just an inanimate corpse.
Killing was absolutely horrible. Was Charmander really going to have to do this in order to stop Team Rocket and save Squirtle and Bulbasaur? The very thought almost made him sick to his stomach.
“So what do you think, Charmander?” Gary called out to him. The other Pokémon situated in the room turned to look at their friend in question as well.
“…Huh? What?” Charmander replied. Gary shook his head.
“Did you hear anything I just said?” Charmander shook his head shamefully. Despite wracking his brain to try to remember, all he could think about right now was the horrors of guns and their murderous capability. The memory of Johnathan Leer’s body collapsing to the floor replayed in Charmander’s mind over and over again. “Are you sure you even want to go on this one? You’re not really looking all that interested.”
“Sorry, Gary. I was thinking about other stuff. Could you just run it by me one more time?” Charmander requested. Gary sighed and rolled his eyes.
“One of our Pokémon friends is missing, and I have reason to believe he’s in danger and needs our help. Are you in, or would you rather sit this one out?” Charmander surveyed the room and saw all the Pokémon he had already met in attendance. Pikachu, Combusken, Emboar, and Braixen were all accounted for. Charmander was questioning the validity of Gary’s claim.
“Who’s missing? It seems like everyone’s here,” Charmander debated.
“It’s not anyone you’ve already met,” Braixen clarified. “He’s been running around a lot lately on other business so it’s no surprise that you haven’t been introduced to him yet.”
“Who is he?”
Trevor pulled up a photo of the Pokémon in question on the projector screen. It looked like a thin ferret-like creature with a greenish-blue color on the top half of its body and cream on the lower half. The creature had pointy ears with red on the inside, a rounded nose, and red and black pupils in its eyes. The Pokémon was dressed in a beige trench-coat with a neutral expression.
“This is Quilava. He’s training to become an expert in infiltration,” Gary explained. “He knows a lot about technology, weaponry and he oversees all negotiating and communication the Viridian Phoenix makes with other groups in the city.”
“Hold on...there are other groups like the Phoenix?” Charmander asked. Gary nodded.
“It’s a whole community. You see, we’re not the only people who have banded together to try and assert authority against Team Rocket.”
“Only problem is, the other groups in this community don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with us and the way we do things,” Emboar elaborated.
“But as long as we stay out of each other’s way, there’s no problem,” Iris added.
“You probably saw on your last mission that the Southern District isn’t exactly a paradise,” Gary described. “Food, clothing, water, shelter, weaponry and any other necessary resources are hard to come by. So the Phoenix has formed trade agreements with some of these other rebel groups in order to get by.”
“Okay...but what does any of this have to do with Quilava?” Charmander inquired.
“Quilava is our spokesperson for these agreements,” Gary answered. “He has a way of ‘speaking their language’ in order to get us the things we need without stepping on anyone’s toes. Quilava was supposed to meet with the leader of one of the rebel groups calling themselves ‘The Skulls’ so that we could renew our current trade agreement and keep the food supplies coming our way,” he explained. “Problem is, I haven’t heard from his since he left.”
“Disappearing like this isn’t something new to Quilava,” Braixen argued. “The guy’s always running off without so much as a good-bye. He could show up here any minute now for all we know.”
“Normally I would believe that,” Gary contested. “However, this time around I made Quilava promise that he would contact me right before he met with The Skulls’ leader just so I would know he got there safely. I made it very clear to him that if he didn’t contact me within 24 hours of his departure, I would have to assume the worst had happened to him and stage a rescue operation,” he reasoned. “We’re well past that deadline and I haven’t heard so much as a peep.”
“What do you think happened?” Charmander wondered aloud.
“Any number of things,” Combusken answered. “Although, Quilava is very resourceful and cunning so we can rule out most random possibilities.”
“Yeah,” Ash agreed. “And if our last mission is anything to go by, I doubt Team Rocket had anything to do with his disappearance since Morgan told us that the Grunts down here aren’t looking for us.”
“That only leaves one real possibility,” Iris gathered. She turned to Gary. Charmander wasn’t certain where his friends were going with all of this. “You think The Skulls had something to do with Quilava’s disappearance?”
“At this point, that makes the most logical sense,” Gary responded.
“Well then, let’s go over there and roll some heads until they give us our friend back!” Pikachu proposed.
“Not so fast,” Gary stopped him. “We can’t just act based on that assumption alone. I’ve already arranged to speak with The Skulls’ leader myself, but now we need to be careful about how we approach this.”
“Why?” Charmander asked.
“If we assume they did something with Quilava and attack them for it, only to find out that they’re actually innocent, we can kiss our trade agreement goodbye. They’ll never trust the Phoenix again after that and we’ll lose one of our biggest inflows of necessary resources,” Gary explained.
“Yeah, not to mention the fact that the Viridian Phoenix will have even more enemies to watch out for,” Emboar added. “It would be a lot tougher to get things done than it is already.”
“Okay, so what do we do then?” Charmander asked.
“I’m going to approach them alone out in the open first. Regardless of whether or not they’re actually behind Quilava’s disappearance, they’ll at least believe we’re not suspecting them of any foul play,” Gary began. “But I’m going to have everyone split up into groups and hide nearby just in case this is some sort of trap.” Gary proceeded to assign the Phoenix members to their groups.
Ash, Iris, and Emboar were to be positioned in an alleyway to the left of the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Charmander found himself sandwiched reluctantly with Combusken, Braixen and Pikachu. His group was to be situated to the right alleyway. Trevor was to remain behind at the hideout while his ankle recovered. When Charmander questioned Brandon’s absence from this group effort, Iris clarified that he was going to be escorting the Pallet Town citizens to Central District while this mission was taking place. Once the preparations were made, the group set out for its next mission.
Charmander stopped when he saw Serena standing against the wall in the hallway near the exit. She said nothing to acknowledge his greeting. Luckily, Charmander didn’t take his friend’s silence personally since the expression she wore on her face was not one of anger or sadness. But rather, one of determination. In a way, Charmander could relate to that feeling that could not be described verbally. He had experienced it himself many times before in the past. Perhaps he was just willing to let Serena focus on whatever she needed to.
The journey to the rendezvous point started off a bit rocky, but gradually got easier. Gary would occasionally halt the Phoenix’s movement whenever his eyes met a nearby Grunt’s. He would grip his weapon in preparation, but then immediately relax when he saw the enemy drop its guard and wave pleasantly at Charmander and Ash. Trevor’s book mission was proving to have been more beneficial than Gary had imagined.
The Phoenix arrived at its destination early. The Skulls’ leader was nowhere to be seen. This left Gary plenty of time to direct his teammates to their designated positions. He instructed that none of them were to move from their spots unless signaled to do so by a specific hand gesture that Gary would make. Unsure of how much time they really had before the meeting would take place, Combusken, Braixen, Pikachu and Charmander sat idly and began to chat in anticipation.
“Alright, their leader should be here any minute now. But before this goes down, I want to make something clear to you,” Combusken announced as he eyeballed Charmander. The recipient said nothing. “If this thing comes to violence, stay hidden and out of our way, got it?” Charmander’s eyes widened in angry disbelief.
“What did you just say?” Charmander challenged.
“You’re not fooling anyone. We all know you’re not cut out for this and you’ll die if you really think you can take anyone on around here.” Braixen rolled her eyes.
“Come on, Combusken. Are you serious? Are we really doing this now?” she complained.
“This isn’t my first mission,” said Charmander.
“Oh please,” Combusken scoffed. “That little book fetch quest wasn’t a real mission. Perhaps you don’t realize it, but we’re up against way more dangerous odds out here than just a bookworm with a kitchen utensil and a faulty god complex.”
“Hey, I had to start somewhere. I might not be on your level yet, but how am I ever going to grow if guys like you are always trying to keep me down, huh?” Charmander argued.
“It’s not about growth. I can tell just by looking at you that you have no potential whatsoever. You’re wasting your time if you think you could ever be like us.” Charmander gritted his teeth. He could feel his anger rising.
“Tell me that again after I sock you one right in that fat beak of your’s, pal!” Charmander threatened. Combusken completely ignored the fighting words.
“I don’t know what you said to Brandon to make him think that you belong here, but you’re only going to get yourself killed. I’m trying to be the nice guy here and tell you to stay out of harm’s way.”
“Oh yeah, you’re such a nice guy telling me to run and hide like a coward!” Charmander shouted sarcastically, still seething with anger.
“Stop it, both of you!” Braixen joined in. With a hand behind each of their heads, she slammed the two combatants face-first into a collision with one another. “Charmander, shut your mouth before you blow our cover.” She turned to Combusken. “Combusken, lay off and let the kid do what he wants. If he thinks he can prove himself here, get over yourself and just let him.” Neither Charmander nor Combusken had anything left to say. So, they simply sat by in anticipation for the meeting to commence. Pikachu had one or two wise remarks to make about all of this, but he decided to follow Braixen’s example and keep his own mouth shut as well for once.
Eventually, the Phoenix members caught a glimpse of The Skulls’ leader as he approached Gary in the open space. He was about the same height as Gary with surprisingly well-groomed blue hair and sunglasses resting atop his head. The boy was dressed in torn jeans and a black leather jacket. He looked like a jock in a typical 80’s high school movie.
“Well, well. If it ain’t Gary Oak,” the boy greeted smugly.
“Damian,” Gary acknowledged without much emotion.
“I take it you’re lookin’ to renew our agreement, right?”
“Correct. But that’s not all I need to discuss with you.” Gary was effortlessly conveying no emotion in his words so as not to arouse any suspicion of Damian.
“I’m a bit surprised to be doing business with you of all people when it’s always been your little ferret friend I’ve been talking to in the past,” Damian pointed out.
“That’s why I’m here in his place,” Gary corrected. “Quilava is missing. I don’t suppose you or anyone in The Skulls would happen to know anything about that, would you?”
“What’re you sayin', Gary? You think we had something to do with it?” Damian retorted.
“Not at all. But if you have any leads or ideas as to where he might’ve gone, the Phoenix would greatly appreciate your help.” Gary couldn’t tell if Damian believed him or not. Damian shut his eyes as a devilish smile overtook his face.
“You’re nothing like Quilava. I know that much,” Damian responded. Gary froze. Just what did he mean by that? Damian opened his eyes to stare Gary down. His smile vanished as soon as he elaborated. “You’re a terrible liar.” Gary took a slight step back and gritted his teeth. What just happened? He wondered. Did I give something away just now, or did he suspect me right from the beginning? Regardless, maybe there was still a chance to prevent this from taking a turn for the worst.
“What do I have to lie about?” Gary argued. “The Phoenix has no reason to suspect that The Skulls had anything to do with it.”
“You sure about that?” Damian questioned. Gary gulped. He had no idea where this conversation was headed. The two groups hiding nearby were just as anxious about this. Ash was just about ready to jump out to come to Gary’s aid at any second. He wasn’t so sure that it was worth it to wait for Gary’s signal anymore. “It would give you chumps a pretty good reason to just wipe us out, thinking we took one of your kind.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gary commented. Little did he know that this was just what Damian wanted.
“What if I told you that we did take your pal and we’re holding him captive as we speak?” Gary could feel his heart stop for a moment. Why on earth would Damian reveal something like that out of the blue? He had no choice but to speak exactly what he was thinking.
“Why would you do that?” Gary asked. “Assuming you’re even telling the truth, what good would come from that, much less telling us? You know that this breaks our agreement.”
“Hate to break your heart, pal. But The Skulls aren’t interested in doing business with you guys anymore. Besides, it was just a matter of time before you broke our little trust contract too,” Damian answered. This was what he wanted.
“What do you mean?” Gary inquired. He was growing more anxious by the second. Was this about to get bad? Should he give the signal now? Would that just make it worse?
“C’mon, Gary. Don’t make me spell it out for ya,” Damian responded. “We both know you would’ve broken our little agreement sooner or later. You Phoenix chumps think you’re better than all of us and you know it.”
“What proof do you have of that?” Gary knew deep down this wasn’t a good enough retort, but he couldn’t think of what else to say.
“The proof is in those monsters you got doin your bidding; the one we got locked away safely on our turf, and the ones you and I both know you’ve got hiding nearby right now. By the way, you might as well call them out since you obviously weren’t man enough to come alone.” Everyone’s eyes widened at this revelation. Just how did Damian know about this? When were they spotted, if ever? More importantly, what was Gary to do in order to get them out of a situation that was getting worse by the minute?
“The Viridian Phoenix has no reason to betray you, Damian,” Gary reasoned. “We rely on this trade agreement.” He was trying his hardest not to say anything threatening or dangerous.
“Oh, is that so? Well, that works out just fine for us then since we got no problem betraying you ourselves!” Damian exclaimed. He lifted his hand into the air above his head and in the blink of an eye, Gary found himself surrounded. Members of The Skulls circled the two, pistols all pointed at him. Gary shut his eyes. He knew what needed to be done next, and he knew it was just what Damian was wanting. He signaled for the Phoenix groups to emerge as well. Only now, with their hands above their heads in surrender. Gary shot Damian an icy glare and was not surprised to see that smug look plastered across the boy’s face.
“Damian, why are you doing this? Making enemies with us is pointless and won’t solve anything!” Gary exclaimed.
“Don’t feed me that trash, Oak!” Damian yelled. “Everyone knows you Phoenix guys think you’re better than all of us. You were just biding your time and waiting for your chance to stab us all in the back!”
“What makes us so much better?”
“I hate repeating myself. It’s your little fire pets,” Damian explained. “I don’t know where you got them, but everyone knows you’ve got some serious firepower with them at your side.” Gary knew exactly where this was headed. Suddenly everything made sense now. “The Skulls will make better use of them than you ever did. So hand them over now, and I’ll think about sparing your lives,” Damian threatened. The Pokémon and humans stood back-to-back with one another as the clicking of weapons echoed through the air.
Charmander was completely still as he stared straight into the weapon in front of him. He couldn’t tell if this was a Team Rocket paralyzer, or the very same kind of weapon that killed Jonathan Leer. Was this it? Was he really about to die? How much was this going to hurt? Charmander wanted with all of his heart to get angry and let his power build up inside of him. But he couldn’t. He was just too frozen with fear.
At this point, Gary had stopped listening to Damian’s words. There was no reasoning with him anymore. There was only one way out of this.
“So what’s it gonna be, Gary?” Damian asked. “Are you gonna let them walk over quietly to the winning team, or are my boys here gonna have to spill some blood?” Silence followed in anticipation of Gary’s response. No one in the Phoenix said a word. They didn’t have to. The veterans knew Gary well enough that he didn’t have to say what he was thinking. The answer was obvious.
“There’s gonna be bloodshed alright...,” Gary answered at last. A pause. He then proceeded to stare Damian down directly. “But it’s not gonna be our blood that’s spilled.” In response, Damian pulled out his own gun, and proceeded to fire at Gary. In a flash, Gary pulled out his scythe and deflected the bullet with an ear-piercing sound as the forces clashed.
The new signal had just been given. The time was now.
As if on cue, the Skull members open fired. The Phoenix gang collaboratively leapt high into the air to dodge the fray. Braixen had grabbed Charmander as she jumped since she knew he wouldn’t have reacted in time on his own. Ash drew his sword and the fight began.
Gary twirled his scythe and spun in a perfect circle in his place. The blade cut through the crowd of men charging toward him; leaving a thin ring of blood gravitating in the air around him before it fell.
Iris delivered a powerful uppercut to her opponent to catch him off-guard and proceeded to brutally strike the man in the head with his own weapon. He immediately collapsed to the ground. Three other guys tried to gang up on her, but she was more than ready for them. In a hypnotic blur of movements, Iris dodged incoming fists and weapon shots. She knocked each of her attackers out with sheer precision in her knuckles and feet.
Ash swung his sword around and sliced the men in his immediate vicinity. His swipes were outlined with slivers of blood escaping from the victims. The injuries were painful enough to cripple the gang members, but not fatal enough to kill them. The Skulls were no real threat to Ash, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to actually finish them off. Come to think of it, he’d been holding back quite a lot lately. The blue frog Pokémon; Jessie and James, now these thugs. Was it Morgan’s words that were making him think twice instead of going in for the kill? No. Not possible. These weren’t Team Rocket grunts. There was no need for Ash to hold back here. So why was he then? Didn’t matter. That had to end right now. Lives were at stake here. Ash delivered the final blow to each of his opponents. But his sword was dripping more with cold remorse than blood.
The thugs tried to unleash a barrage upon Emboar, but quickly found their assault had no effect. Perhaps it was the ominous orange glow around him, emanating an intense heat. Maybe it was protecting him physically, or simply hindering the thugs and their aiming. But Emboar brushed off their attacks and sent each man flying through the air with singular, decisive punches.
Pikachu deemed it beneath him to take any of his opponents seriously. He jumped and skipped past attacks, and concentrated mere fractions of his electrical power into his hands; discharging it by slapping and smacking each of his attackers.
Charmander found himself surrounded alongside Combusken and Braixen. The trio had their backs to one another. Combusken and Braixen practically danced in synchronized harmony as they dodged and attacked their respective targets without getting in each other’s way. Charmander would’ve been more impressed if wasn’t already busy dodging bullets for his own life and trying to stay out of Combusken and Braixen’s way.
Braixen twirled and swung her trusty wooden stick in rhythmic motions. The flame that lit the tip of it inflicted painful, yet nonlethal burns to the thugs it touched. The latter would either fall backward or collapse immediately to the dirt beneath their feet to nurse the pain. Braixen’s style seemed more like a cheer routine with a baton than a legitimate fighting style. But it apparently got the job done. Combusken’s style was much more straightforward as far as Charmander could tell. It was a disciplined display of martial arts that struck its target with a healthy blend of speed and power.
Charmander could barely find a moment of his own to take the offensive amidst all the chaos. He wasn’t sure where to look. Who was going to attack him? From where? Was there a moment for him to strike back? Would he just get in his allies’ way? Charmander had no time to think. Only to act. The moment he was searching for came with barely any warning at all. Charmander wasn’t sure how he’d sensed it. But somehow he did.
Combusken had just launched a roundhouse kick and was now facing away from the Skull gang member. Unknowingly, his attack had missed and he was now wide open. The thug aimed his weapon and was prepared to fire.
“Oh no you don’t!” Charmander shouted. He raced forward towards the enemy. Charmander squatted down and leaped up into the air. By the time the thug had noticed him, it was already too late. Charmander came soaring up into the air with a Metal Claw attack well on its way. Surely he was going to attempt to knock the weapon out of the man’s fist. These guys are so predictable! The man thought.
But he was wrong.
Charmander flew right past the pistol. With all his might, he swung his glowing fist at the man and collided square across the latter’s face. Both Charmander and the thug landed back on the earth seconds later. The difference was that the man rolled and tumbled painfully across the dirt while Charmander landed comfortably under the weight of his own legs.
Combusken took notice of Charmander’s counterattack. It wasn’t the most impressive thing he’d ever seen. But even he didn’t expect someone like Charmander to recognize and seize such a brief opportunity. It had to be luck. Nothing more than that. Combusken refused to acknowledge that moment as anything more.
With all of the members of The Skulls defeated effortlessly in a few short minutes, the Phoenix regrouped just in time to catch Damian attempting to flee. Gary’s mind began to race. But he wasn’t going to allow his anger to overtake his strategic thought process. It was time to lead, and fast.
“We’re not letting Damian get away that easily!” Gary objected aloud. “Everyone, assume pursuit formation 7-6! Let’s move!” he instructed. The rest of the Phoenix obliged with the command. Braixen hastily grabbed Charmander’s hand and led him to his necessary spot of the sprinting group. Together the Viridian Phoenix charged down the nearby street and turned at the corner. Until Damian was caught, there was no reason to call this fight a victory, and Gary had no intention of letting that coward escape.
“Serena, come on. This is crazy!” Tracey commented as he followed Serena down the hallway of the Viridian Phoenix hideout. “I know you were the one who was ready to fight back at the truck. But you didn’t need to. You still don’t need to!”
“Don’t try to talk me out of this, Tracey,” Serena replied. “I’ve already made up my mind.”
“But this isn’t like you at all! This is risky and you’re trying to make yourself into something you’re not meant to be.”
“You’re right. This isn’t like me,” Serena admitted. “Which is all the more reason why I have to do this. I can’t be myself anymore.” She clenched her fist ever tighter and didn’t let up on her power-walking pace in the slightest. Tracey tried to find the words to argue further, but found it more difficult to do so in between his heavy breaths as he tried to keep up with Serena.
“You don’t honestly think anyone else sees it that way, do you?” Tracey contested at last. The two stopped just outside of a closed door.
“I’m not asking you to do this with me.” Serena paused and hoped her words would sink in. “I don’t know what will happen. But if I don’t try this now, I won’t be able to just walk away and forget about it.” Tracey still believed this was a bad idea. But he was losing reason to argue.
“I still think this is a bad idea, and there’s still plenty I want to say to you. But clearly I’m not going to be able to change your mind right now, am I?” he asked rhetorically. Tracey turned on his heels and began to walk away from Serena and back down the way he came. “Come find me after this is over, will ya?” Serena nodded with unbridled determination glimmering in her eyes. She took a heavy breath to steady her nerves, placed her fist against the door in front of her, and knocked. The voice inside the room answered and permitted Serena to enter.
Inside, Brandon was organizing some papers and placing them into a briefcase. His mind was buzzing as he finalized preparations for transporting the Pallet Town group up to Central District. He froze in his place when he saw Serena now standing in the room across from him.
“What is it?” Brandon inquired.
“We need to talk.”