Review: Cultists of Cthulhu

Cultists of Cthulhu is a Survival Horror board game that combines exploration, social deception, risk analysis, and tabletop skill checks. The game it’s most similar to is Betrayal at House on the Hill, in that it’s a co-op game with a hidden traitor, but it has a few twists that help it stand out as highly enjoyable in its own ways.

Gameplay Overview

When you start the game, first all the players take the map squares and start forming the Miskatonic University campus and various buildings. Then, players take the roles of students or staff at the university, which have a variety of different stats and backgrounds. Then, each player is randomly given a role card, with either Academic or Cultist on it (only 1 Cultist is shuffled into the roles).

The Academics’ goals vary by the scenario chosen, but overall are working together to defeat whatever evil plagues the university. The Cultist, however, is there from the beginning to muck things up for the Academics, and if possible, kill them.

Play consists of turns where each player interacts with the academy in some way through event cards, requiring them to pass skill checks of varying difficulty. The game uses a unique dice system, and comes with 15 six sided dice of 3 colors: Green, Red, and Blue, each having 3 symbols on them.

Green dice have 3 Success sides, 2 Weird sides, and 1 Fail side.

Blue dice have 2 Success, 2 Weird, and 2 Fail.

Red dice have 1 Success, 2 Weird, and 3 Fail.

Every skill check or attack uses 5 dice. Character sheets will show 2 dice symbols for each skill in the color of the dice you use, while skill checks come in colors to indicate the rest of the dice. So if your character is great at Finesse, with two Green dice symbols on it, and gets a Blue Finesse skill check, you’d use 2 Green Dice and 3 Blue dice. If you’re decent at Reason, with a Blue and Green dice symbol, but get a Red Reason skill check, you’d roll 1 Green, 1 Blue, and 3 Red.

The scenario cards will tell you what the outcomes are. Usually the success is positive, and the failure is negative, but the Weird symbols have varying effects that can be good, bad, or mixed depending on what’s going on in the game. Now, normally dice rolling is one of my least favorite parts of games due to the random element it puts in, but this one does something clever with it.

After you roll your dice, you can choose any symbol you’ve rolled and reroll all dice of that kind. So let’s say you roll your dice and get 2 Success, 1 Weird, and 2 Fail. The card requires you to get 3 Success to get the positive effect, 2 Weird for the Weird effect, and 2 Fail is enough to get the negative effect. So a smart choice might be to reroll the 2 Fail dice. Hopefully, you’d get the 1 extra success you need and avoid the 2 Fail effect… but if the Weird effect is actually something you really don’t want to have happen right now,  it might not be worth the risk, and you might choose to just reroll the Weird, accept the two Fail, and hope that one dice will get you the third Success.

Mechanics like this help add a lot of nuance to otherwise rote gameplay, and is one of the strongest parts of the game. There are some genuinely hard choices it forces you to make, while also helping mitigate the downsides of a luck-based mechanic. I’ve had some great arguments erupt at the table as people try to decide which dice to reroll, and it’s all made more tense by the knowledge that one of the players is actually a cultist in disguise!

Once the player has finished their event card for their turn, they get 2 actions from a list of Move, Use Item, Use Room, or Attack. Some rooms have special effects if you use them, such as giving you an item or buffing one of your stats with a Green die. Another action that can be taken is Scenario Action.

Scenario actions are described on one of the 5 Scenario cards that you choose at the beginning of the game. Each one explains which Old God from HP Lovecraft’s mythos is invading the university, which monsters spawn, and what the goals of the players. Most scenarios require you to do specific skill checks in specific rooms, and reward you with artifacts or clues needed to defeat the various evils.

Once all the players have gone, the first player draws two cards from the Star Chart deck. They then look at these two cards (without revealing them to anyone) and choose one to resolve. Most of the cards have negative effects on them, so the player will try to choose the lesser of two evils… unless they’re the cultist, in which case they can pretend that they’re choosing the lesser one while royally screwing everyone over. Sometimes the card will have a beneficial effect on it, but increase the Star Chart by a large amount. After resolving the card (which can have a one time effect, a one turn effect, or a persistent effect) the player hands the First Player Token to their left and a new round begins.

The Star Chart has numbers on it going from 1-30, and along with going up from Star cards, various effects from Event cards and items can also cause it to increase. The higher it goes, the more there’s a risk of the Cultist being able to reveal themselves and summon various monsters. This acts like the reveal in Betrayal at House on the Hill, and is a turning point in the game where the players are now actively working against the traitor in their midst, while the individual cultist gains a huge boost in power that makes him a deadly threat to the other players.

A final note of interest is in the Madness and Wounds systems. Wounds are received as mystery tokens that have various effects on them. Some are straight damage, and if you accumulate too many of these, you die, while others are persistent negative effects on your various stats. And some wound tokens give you Madness.

Madness is tracked in three stages. On each Academic card, a list of effects relating to some mental disorder is there. The first is aesthetic, so if your character is in Stage 1 Madness, there’s no mechanical effect. But if their Stage 1 is something like “You start to feel clausterphobic,” in Stage 2, you might be forced to move toward an exit on your next turn, and if you reach Stage 3 you could be barred from entering any space with other players on it.

These provide interesting twists to gameplay, especially since the role cards that describe Madness effects are hidden from other players. So the disguised Cultist can take an action, like stabbing themselves or stealing from another player, and blame their Madness for “forcing” them to do it.

The game ends when either all the Academics are dead, or they have completed the Scenario Goals, such as closing the alien portal or stopping a summoning ritual. If the Cultist is killed, they can still continue to control the various monsters in the game, which until they are revealed, act in a more automated and less strategic fashion.

Verdict

Complexity: 1-2-3-4-5
Quality over quantity in mechanics.

Time Investment: 1-2-3-4-5
Not
a quick game, but it doesn’t drag on.

Replay Value: 1-2-3-45
Lots of variability in playthroughs.

Cultists of Cthulhu is ultimately a well designed game with solid themes and entertaining mechanics. The art is great, and everyone I’ve played it with enjoyed it quite a bit. Game sessions took 2-3 hours, but it wasn’t hard to explain, especially to players who are used to other board games or tabletop RPGs.

The game is 1-6 players, and includes special rules for playing by yourself or with one other person. This is fairly rare in board games, and I give serious props to the designer for including a solo/duo mode. The rulebook does a good job of teaching the game, though there are some rules that are a bit unclear. I’ve asked the designer to clarify some edge cases, which are included below.

If you and your friends enjoy Betrayal at House on the Hill, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, or are just looking for something new to try, I think you’d enjoy this pleasant romp of suspicion, madness, strategy and monsters. Enjoy!

Rules Clarifications:

Q: Do monsters take damage as pure numbers, or like everyone else, they get wound tokens that can be either wounds or debuffs?

A: Pure numbers, even if a player was turned into a monster.

Q: Are players expected to learn what each Academic’s madness possibilities are before the game starts?

A: It is a good idea to look over the madnesses before playing. You shouldn’t know which ones you’re playing with that game though.

Q: Star Spawn card showed 5 Green dice for combat, so we just kept using 5 green for it regardless of what the Combat card shows, right? And monsters can activate the Weird effect?

A: This is true for the Star Spawn because of its 5 green dice, but for any monster that does not have 5 dice there, it takes additional dice of the color shown on the combat card until it reaches 5, regardless of the symbol.

Q: How do the Weird effects on Combat cards interact with monsters?

A: Monsters can trigger the Weird effects, but some can only affect players, not monsters.

Q: When madness goes to 1 and they take more madness damage, do they take “wound tokens,” or just straight damage?

A: Wound tokens.

Q: The rules says each scenario action can only be done successfully once, is that per player, per game, or per turn?

A: Per game.

Q: How is “nearest wall” determined, exactly? What if there’s more than one?

A: A wall is a side of an indoor tile that doesn’t have a door or exit on it (and is adjacent to another tile). Distance is the same as moving to that tile. If there’s a tie, the player decides which.

Q: If a card says someone gets this event by starting on the same tile (Chemical Stench) does that person get two events on their turn, effectively? Or does it replace the Event they would normally get?

A: They get two events.

Q: Who rolls first in combat?

A: The defender.

Q: Three Night Gaunts just spawned at the same time: do we roll Power once for each and give them a different effect, or one for all of them and apply the same effect to each?

A: One for all, but if it seems more fun and you can keep track of their different effects, feel free to do one per Night Gaunt.

Guardian – Chapter 1

“Are you dissatisfied with my service?”

Terra sighs and picks a fig out of his lunchbox. He hates figs. “No, Puck. Thank you.”

The lunchroom is noisy, and Terra sits alone at his table. Being the new kid at school is something he’s used to, but for once he doesn’t mind the solitude. No one around means no one to see him talking to himself.

“Alone” is, as Terra discovered over the summer, a relative term. Across from him sits a boy only he can see.

Puck currently looks like a lanky teenager about Terra’s age, with spiky blonde hair and bright green eyes. His skin is pale, his features sharp and angled, and his lips are perpetually curved in a slight, sarcastic smile as he watches Terra continue to search through his lunchbox for something edible.

A pair of fellow 10th graders walk by, their gazes sliding right over Puck without seeing him before coming to rest on Terra. “Hey, you’re in our spot.”

Terra resists the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s the first day of school, how do you already have a ‘spot?’”

“This is where we always sat last year.”

Terra opens his mouth to argue, then remembers Puck’s presence and lets his breath out. “Fine. Whatever.” He puts everything back in his lunch box and moves to one of the few remaining empty tables at the corner of the cafeteria, so he can still see the whole room from where he sits.

Puck keeps pace with him, stepping around and between tables and chairs before lowering himself into his new seat, across from Terra again. He moves with the effortless grace of a cat. “Pitiful. Why not stand up for yourself? Perhaps one of them would lay hands on you, and I’d have to turn them into a frog.”

“No transformations, I told you,” Terra says as he sits back down and unpacks his lunch again.

“Forget the frogging then, what about a subtle illusion? I could make all his food taste rotten. Going hungry for a day never killed anyone.”

“No.”

“A minor hex? Trip him as he sits, so his face lands in his food?”

Terra smiles at the mental image, but just shakes his head.

“You’re no fun.” Puck leans back in his seat and braces himself against the underside of the table with his knees. A girl walking behind him veers around his outstretched form without looking. Terra knows that if he asked her why she took such a sudden detour, she would just stare at him in confusion and insist that she didn’t step around anyone. Faerie glamour can be a frightening thing. “What’s the point of having me around if you won’t make use of me?”

“You’re here to ‘protect and promote my well-being,’ not hex anyone who’s mean to me.” Terra unwraps the sandwich and bites into it. It takes all his willpower not to spit it back out. How did Puck know how disgusted Terra is by egg salad? Did he mention it at some point and forget?

Terra chews the mushy slop with as straight a face as he can, but by the slight widening of Puck’s smile Terra knows the faerie isn’t fooled. He curses himself for not being a better actor. He’s better than he was a few months ago when his unwilling guardian entered his life, but still not nearly enough to contend with Puck or the other so-called “Fair Folk,” who seem to do nothing but act.

“Speaking of which,” Terra says, putting his sandwich down and biting into some tasteless saltine crackers. “Let’s get started. How many Others are here?”

“Millions.”

Terra rolls his eyes and picks his words more carefully. “How many fae, other than yourself, did you sense since we entered the school building?”

Puck’s smile widens. “Three.”

Three? Damn. “Are any of them in the lunchroom now?”

“Two.”

Terra bites his lower lip, then lowers his voice, just in case. “Is their masque on, or are they dim?”

Puck wags a finger. “Ah, ah. That’s three questions asked and answered. If you’d like to bargain for more—”

“No, it’s fine.” He wasted his first question because he was distracted. Now he’ll have to wait 24 hours until Puck has to answer any more. It was one of the first bargains he struck with his guardian: three questions that Puck would be obligated to answer a day, in exchange for the freedom to watch TV while Terra is asleep. Unless Terra decides to renegotiate, he’s stuck with it for a full year and a day.

Still, he got what he needs, if he’s thorough.

Terra closes his eyes and concentrates on his breathing. The sounds of the cafeteria fade to a dull drone. He does his best to clear his mind, as his dad taught him: not to literally remove all thoughts, which is impossible, but to let the thoughts go. He imagines himself sitting on a rock in a river, the sound of the rushing water blending with the mixed voices and laughter of the other students around him.

He knows he must look strange: a skinny kid with second-hand clothes, sitting by himself with his head bowed and his eyes closed. Anyone looking at him probably has their weird-o-meter on high alert.

Terra lets that thought go with his next exhale, breathing in and trying to focus on the feel of the air entering his lungs. He can’t afford to be distracted.

When he finally opens his eyes, the first thing he notices is that Puck isn’t smiling. The fae is gazing at him with an intensity that most kids his apparent age can’t match.

But then, Puck is older than he looks.

Much older.

That thought, combined with his heightened attention, affects his perception. Glamour, the primary magic of faerie, is all about beliefs. As Terra looks at Puck, really looks at him, and acknowledges the lie he knows is in front of him, the edges of the glamour start to unravel. Puck’s blonde hair becomes lighter, ears growing points, face stretching-

Terra quickly looks away, not wanting to see what the being that calls itself “Puck” really looks like.

Instead he lets his gaze drift over the cafeteria from one end to the other, slowly. His eyes jump from one thing to another, but he doesn’t linger, letting anything that catches his attention go a moment later as he tries to equally take in everything he sees.

Two boys take turns trying to steal fries from a third’s tray. A group of girls have their heads together and giggle over something one of them is saying. Some other kids sitting apart like himself, a few in pairs, others with books or their phones out. All completely normal.

He finishes a full turn, and blinks. He thinks back to what he saw, every face, every interaction… then shakes his head. He can barely remember any of it. He closes his eyes and starts again.

And again.

And again.

It isn’t until after his seventh try that, upon thinking back, he sees it.

A group of three girls, all smiling, talking, laughing. Smiling at who? He can’t remember.

He looks at them now. Four girls, chatting and smiling. Normal.

He looks away, and thinks back, and something is… off. Three girls, laughing, then smiling, with looks of attention on their face as they look at…

…who? A fourth? There were only three.

He looks at them again, then away and thinks back, picturing them in his head. Three girls, all laughing as they look at…

As they look at…

Terra grabs three figs and holds them in his hand. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, turns toward the girls… and opens his eyes.

Four girls, all talking and laughing.

Terra’s hand tightens around the figs. Three figs.

Four girls.

Without looking away, he takes a fourth fig and adds it to his hand.

Then he closes his eyes and thinks back to the three girls who were all laughing-

Three?

Terra feels the four figs in his hand… and smiles.

Got you.

Terra opens his eyes and studies the four at the table. Two of the girls are white, the first with curly blonde hair and the second with wavy black hair. One is Hispanic with her hair in a long ponytail, and one is black, with a neon pink hair band. He tries to fix all four of them in his memory. He takes his phone out and snaps a picture, then looks away and checks it to see which of the three girls- no, the four girls seems new to him.

He looks at the picture and tries to remember each of them. Where did this Hispanic girl come from? “There,” he says, tapping the screen. “It’s got to be her. Some kind of memory charm, making everyone but the girls she’s talking to forget any details about her.”

“You humans and your toys.” Terra looks up to see Puck chewing on one of the remaining figs. His teeth look sharper than usual as they bite into the soft fruit. “So what will you do now? Expose her?” Puck isn’t leaning back anymore, gaze intense on Terra’s face.

Terra looks away. “I want to know what she’s doing first. If she’s got some plots going, or has anyone ensorcelled, or gave someone a token…” He sees the blonde girl playing with her necklace, and wonders if it’s a gift from the fae sitting next to her. Something that would help her get good grades? Get out of doing her chores? Maybe just a charm to give her good dreams.

If only it were that simple. With gifts from faerie, there’s always a catch.

Even if it’s something as simple as figs and egg salad sandwiches for lunch.

Terra gives up on trying to stomach down the sandwich and opens the box of raisins. He empties them into his mouth and tries to ignore the sour taste in favor of the sweetness. Thanks to some cleverness from Terra’s dad, Puck was bound by oath and contract to look after Terra’s well-being. However, there’s a lot of wiggle-room in the word “well-being,” as Terra discovered again and again over the past few months since Puck started watching over him.

“I could reveal myself to her,” Puck says. “Ask her what she’s doing with her playthings.”

Terra turns back to Puck warily. “In exchange for what?” He wants to keep Puck secret as long as possible, but he’s curious to know what the faerie would try to bargain for.

“An hour of freedom after school today, once you’re safely home.”

“Denied.”

“Half an hour.”

“No.”

“Five minutes.”

Terra pretends to think it over. Puck doesn’t seem particularly interested, but then, he’s a masterful actor. It’s hard to tell if this is something he actually wants, or if he’s just testing Terra’s desires the way Terra is testing his.

“No, I’ve thought of a better idea,” Terra says.

“Oh? Do tell.”

Terra ignores him and stands. He closes his lunch box and approaches the table with the fae and three girls, drawing curious looks from all of them. When he sits to the side in one of the empty chairs, they become annoyed.

“Um. Can we help you?” the brunette girl asks. The Hispanic girl looks the least hostile, as she plays with her fork over her untouched food and appraises him curiously.

“Yeah, mind looking at my drawing? I want a second opinion.” Terra pulls a folded slip of paper out of his pocket and opens it to reveal the simple sketch on the inside. It looks like a capital F, but with the top and middle lines slanted downward at an angle rather than sticking straight out, and with a dot to its left side.

“That’s not a drawing, it’s barely even a doodle,” the black girl says.

The blonde rolls her eyes. “Get lost, weirdo.”

Terra ignores them and pulls a thumbtack out of his belt, where its pin pierced the looped stretch of leather. He pricks his finger with it, just enough to draw a drop of blood, and presses it against the underside of the paper, so that it would bleed through onto the rune he drew on it. As soon as his open wound touches the paper, it begins to prickle with renewed pain.

“Ew, what’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of emo fre—” the blonde’s words trail off as she watches the blood seep through the paper and completely cover the rune. Her gaze suddenly becomes unfocused, and her eyelids droop closed. Her breathing slows until she’s fast asleep.

The other two follow suit, but Terra keeps his gaze on the Hispanic girl… or rather, the fae creature that’s pretending to be a Hispanic girl.

Her eyes are the only ones that moved away from the rune as he pressed his blood to it. Now she studies him with her chin on her palm, one brow raised.

“You’re human,” she says at last. “How did you find me? Where did you learn that symbol, and how to use it?”

“Three questions for three questions?” Terra asks.

Her other brow shoots up. “Bargaining now, are we? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, child?”

Not really. His heart beats hard and fast as he wipes a sweaty palm on his pantleg. His other hand stays where it is, keeping the wound on his finger pressed to the paper. This is the first time he’s interacted with a fae other than Puck, but in any given setting, the middle of a crowded lunch room is probably his safest for such an experiment. As long as he’s careful with his words, that is.

Puck, meanwhile, walks in slow circles around their table, humming to himself. The other fae doesn’t seem to have noticed him, which is encouraging. It means that Puck wasn’t just boasting when he implied that he’s stronger than most of his kind, and likely more than those who got exiled to the human world, like any at the school probably were.

Or maybe she’s just pretending not to notice him, and the humming is some secret language. Either way, all Terra can do is take a chance and hope to learn something.

“I believe I do. So, three questions each?”

“Very well. Three for thee, and then for me.”

“If you don’t mind, be more specific.”

The Hispanic girl smiles. “You may ask three questions, and if I deem them acceptable, I will answer. Afterwards, I will ask three questions that you must answer honestly.”

Terra doesn’t miss that she’s changed the rules, nor the slight difference at the end. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to accept them, you must answer all three. Then I’ll answer those three questions you’ve already asked, honestly.” Knowing that the fae can’t lie makes this much easier than it otherwise would be.

Her eyes narrow. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to answer them, you must answer honestly. Then you will ask three questions, and I will answer them.”

Damn. Terra hoped that she forgot the other questions she asked, so he could re-answer those instead. Over her shoulder, he can see Puck lean against the wall and cross his arms, fingers tapping against his arms. Is his guardian giving him a hint? He would only do something like that if he feels Terra’s well-being is at risk.

He remembers what Puck told him during one of their many Q&A sessions, where Terra was desperate to learn all he could of Puck’s kind. “The fae love the game of back and forth, but it does grow tiresome if neither side admits defeat. It is natural to try and gain advantage, but both sides must demonstrate good faith, or else risk the other’s ire. If you wish to spar with the fae, you must learn to lose a battle, here and there.

Maybe it’s time to lose, a little. “Let’s just make it fair as can be. We’ll both ask three questions. Then, if we both agree that the questions are acceptable, we’ll answer all three honestly, me first, then you. Sound alright?”

The fae sitting across from him considers a moment, eyes upward and finger twirling in her hair. “Deal,” she says at last. “My questions are: How were you able to remember me? What was the name of the one who taught you that rune? And what is your true name?”

Terra stays quiet, repeating what she said over in his head. Overall, he thinks he can get away with answering them without revealing anything too important. He’s about to say yes when he notices Puck shaking his head, with three fingers pressed against his jaw. Something wrong with the third question? It seems the most harmless… Terra knows that true names are important for all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t be too hard for this creature to get his if she really tries. It’s in the school records, after all.

Still, better play it safe. “I accept the first two, but would need a different third one.”

“Very well. Why were you looking for me, how were you able to remember me, and what was the name of the one who taught you that rune?”

Much easier. Puck seems unconcerned too.

That leaves his own questions. He takes a deep breath and lowers his gaze to the table, thinking hard. All around them the other students happily chat and eat their lunches, unaware that there’s a pair of monsters in their midst, or that three of their classmates are unconscious.

Another, stronger throb of pain goes through Terra’s finger. It’s slowly getting worse as more and more blood leaks out with every passing second. Terra does his best to ignore it. He can’t rush this part in particular, or all this would be for nothing.

He takes his time and thinks the questions through, word by word, forming them in his head and considering them from all angles. The trick is to have questions that aren’t too narrow, or she might say no, and aren’t too broad, so she can’t give a vague answer.

An impatient noise from the fae makes him look up at her. Her brow is creased again. “Your questions are acceptable,” he says at last.

“Exquisite. And your questions are?”

“My three questions are… Why are you attending school? What do these girls have that you gave them? What crime were you exiled from fae for?”

The fae’s eyes narrow. “I accept the first one. Not the other two.”

Damn. He thought the third would be too personal, but the second is something he needs to know.

Terra jerks as his finger feels a stab of pain, repeating with every heart beat. He’ll have to figure it out later: for now he just needs to get some info.

“Why are you attending school, why are you attending this school, and how long have you been attending this school?”

“Accepted. You first.”

“I wasn’t looking for you specifically, I was just looking for any fae. I found you by picking up figs for each person at your table, and noticing that I couldn’t remember four people. As for who taught me the rune, the only name I know for them is ‘Puck.’”

She rolls her eyes at the last bit. “I’m attending school because it amuses me, I’m attending this school because it’s the only high school in town, and today marks the start of my twenty-third year attending this school. Would you like to exchange another question?”

Hmm. If she wants something specific, chances are he won’t want to answer it. He tries to make himself appear interested before he says no.

“I’ll even give you two for one,” she says, clearly reading his reluctance anyway.

Now that’s tempting. Puck is shaking his head behind her, but Terra is intrigued. “May I hear the question first?”

“This ‘Puck,’ who taught you, where did you meet them?”

Well, he’s certainly not going to answer that. But maybe he can work her down to something more vague…

The pain in his finger suddenly pierces his concentration again, so deep it feels as though a needle has driven into his bone. He gasps and struggles not to let the paper go yet. “Perhaps we can negotiate this at… another time,” he says, eyes watering.

Before she can respond, the bell rings, and the lunchroom surges into motion around them as kids prepare to return to class. “Meet me after school by the parking lot gate,” the fae says.

Terra finally pulls his finger away from the blood-stained scrap of paper and stands. The room spins, and he puts a hand on the table to steady himself. Damn. That took more out of him than he was expecting. He feels light headed, like he just gave blood for some free movie tickets. Far more than he should have lost from such a tiny wound. Where it all went, he can’t begin to guess.

The girls start to stir, and he pushes away from the table before they wake up, only to stumble on legs that feel like jelly. Terra staggers past kids heading for the exits until his legs give out, and he collapses into a chair at a recently emptied table, taking deep breaths. He spots some unused napkins and wraps one around the paper before stuffing it in his pocket, then takes another to wrap around his finger.

Terra closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the cool table, tuning out the sounds of the crowd around him. He can still hear it when someone sits across from him, and knows that it’s Puck before his guardian even speaks.

“If you’re fishing for a response, you can save your energy,” Puck says, voice amused. “I know you can handle a little spell like that without your ‘wellbeing’ coming to risk.”

Terra bites back an insult. He’s been trying to avoid cursing Puck out, to avoid getting too used to letting his temper get the best of him. All it takes is one careless phrase implying he doesn’t want Puck around anymore, and the fae would be free of his bond.

“So, how did I do?” he asks instead. Perhaps even more valuable than the explicit agreement for three questions per day is the understanding he reached that, in dealing with the fae, he needs constant, honest feedback to safely navigate their social ties. Puck can’t refuse to answer or mislead him when it comes to them, and still hold true to his oath.

“Average at best,” Puck says. “You didn’t sign your life or first born away, but you missed four opportunities to close loopholes, and gave more information away than you needed to. Our adolescents can negotiate better than you, but for a human’s first attempt it was an acceptable show, even if it demonstrated why your kind so often gets overconfident enough to be drawn ever deeper into our webs.”

Terra feels nauseous, and he’s not sure if it’s from what Puck said, the blood loss, or the egg salad sandwich. It’s much harder not to take insults personally when you know as they’re being said that the speaker is compelled to tell the truth.

“Okay, well what should I have done different? Did I ‘lose’ too early, or too late?”

“Too early.” Puck leans his chair back from the table again, this time somehow managing to balance it on just one hind leg, arms to the sides for balance. “It’s a subtle dance indeed to know when a fae is actually upset, and when they are playing at offense to pressure you into disadvantage. Of course, she had a right to be upset in any case, with you barging into her plot unannounced. If you weren’t such a novelty, I think she would have made you regret it rather quickly.”

“Ugh. Well, I must have done something right, if I didn’t completely fail?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Puck drawls. “You showed good faith. Too many mortals to count lose an eye or a finger or their Wednesdays after their first conversation with the fae, simply because they can’t help but try to be too clever with their endless clauses and qualifiers and insecurities.”

“Um. That… might have been accidental. Just to be sure I do it again though, what does ‘good faith’ cover, specifically?” Terra asked.

“There’s no easy answer there. Some fae are more prickly than others, and either kind can still make you regret not being more strict. That said, a good starting rule of thumb would be not to demand conditions you would find insulting. For example, it’s not usually a problem to insist that a fae answer your question in a timely manner, say, ‘within one minute.’ This can ensure that you are not made the fool left standing with hat in hand for years and years. But if you also request that some fae speak in the same language as you when answering a question, it implies they have an intention to cheat you of your answer… which is another thing entirely from fully intending to give it to you, but on their terms.”

Terra tries to wrap his head around the distinction, and doesn’t quite succeed. “But… they will want to cheat me if they can, won’t they?”

“Of course. It is in our nature. But only to the extent that you allow yourself to make mistakes, and be deceived.”

“So I’m not allowed to make super extra sure that a fae can’t trick me, but it’s my fault if I end up being tricked?”

“Can’t trick you in subtle ways. A true fae does not act in obvious ways. One who answers a question while bashing their fists on the table to obscure the sound… terribly unsubtle. The mark of a weak mind. And implying that one might resort to such is insulting, even if it’s deserved.”

“That’s totally contradictory.”

Puck smiles, and somehow manages to bow from the waist while still balancing the chair on one foot. “That, too, is in our nature.”

Terra sighs. “Well, I’ll try to keep that in mind when I see her after school.”

“It’s a terrible idea, you know.”

“What do—”

“Excuse me.” Terra turns to see a teacher standing over him. “Lunch time is over. You need to head back to class.”

Oh, right. He looks around and sees the lunch room has mostly emptied of students. Terra’s head feels clearer, but he’s still a bit nauseous. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t feeling well. I accidentally cut myself, and the sight of blood makes me faint.” He holds up his napkin-wrapped finger, with its big red splotch on the front. It looks like it finally stopped bleeding, but he’s not sure. Surely Puck would say something if he pierced himself too deep?

The teacher’s skeptical look changes to alarm as soon as she sees the blood. “How did… why haven’t you gone to the nurse’s office for a band-aid?”

“I was just sitting here until my head is clear. Also I don’t know where it is…”

“Come, I’ll walk you there.”

Terra dutifully gets to his feet and follows her. Puck straggles along, zigzagging left and right through the hallway behind them with his gaze on his feet, but somehow never falls behind.

“As I was saying, it’s a terrible idea,” Puck repeats. “What do you hope to accomplish, seeking out other fae like this?”

“I want to know what they’re up to,” Terra mutters, low enough that he knows only Puck’s sharp ears can hear him. “If I learn enough, maybe I can stop your kind from screwing up anyone else’s life. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is, in fact. At some point they may try to harm you, and I’ll be compelled to intervene.”

Terra shrugs. “That’s your problem. All I care about is making sure your kind doesn’t hurt anyone here. Just be a good guardian and keep me safe while I do it.”

Puck gives a long-suffering sigh. “Well, I would like to be on record as advising you against it… with only your well-being in mind, of course. There are limits to my power, and if you antagonize too many fae, I won’t be able to protect you. Think of your father. He went through quite a lot of trouble, binding me to watch over you. Surely he wouldn’t want you to go seeking danger, and make it all for naught.”

Heat floods Terra’s stomach and chest as his hands curl into fists. He’s trying to get a rise out of you. Don’t take the bait. Terra bites his tongue until he’s a bit calmer and knows he can control the volume of his voice. “Well since he’s dead, I don’t know what he’d want,” Terra mutters. “And his murderer is the last person I’d listen to about respecting his memory.”

Chapter 41: Adaptability

“Mr. Verres! What’s wrong?”

Red gestures for Psychic Ayane to come inside the Trainer House workroom, and closes the door behind her. “Yeah, I guessed that you’d feel that.”

His teacher goes to the table, but doesn’t sit. She studies his face with concern. “I would be a poor psychic indeed if I missed the pit of despair and grief you seem to be stuck in. I sensed it before you even opened the door. I’m quite practiced at keeping my knowledge of people’s inner states to myself, but it’s all over your face as well.”

Red rubs his face with one hand and takes a deep breath. “Sorry to impose it onto you. I was hoping to get it under control before scheduling a session with you again, but today was… particularly bad.” He’s been able to be somewhat productive for the past few days, but last night he had another nightmare about the day he found out about his dad, and woke up feeling completely drained of energy. He managed to force himself to take a shower and eat some breakfast, but afterward just browsed the internet aimlessly while lying in bed.

“If you are not feeling up to a lesson today, please let me know, and we can reschedule.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, then tugs his hat down snug. “No, I think you’re the only one that can help me with this.”

“Me? What does-oh, Red! Don’t tell me you messed with your partition!”

The use of his first name combined with the tone his mother often uses makes Red briefly smile. “Not on purpose? It’s a long story.”

“Well.” She sits at the table, hands folded on top of each other. “Tell me, then.”

Red sits across from her before recounting the day they caught the abra. He debated whether or not to tell her about it, but even aside from the emotional fallout, he needs a psychic to help with the research. Ayane is qualified, and he likes her. It makes sense to see if she wants to come in on it. But first he needs to figure out what’s going on with him.

In any case, the only risk in revealing the story is the methodology getting out, so he skips over any details of how his plan worked. Thankfully she seems too busy shifting from worry to horror to intrigue to care, or she’s just not interested.

“A forced adherence of your common mental state… fascinating. And the abra didn’t react in any way? They didn’t just fail to connect, they ignored you completely?”

“Yeah. I was wondering if you could tell me what I actually did.”

“Certainly. Prepare your mind… I will begin contact in ten seconds.”

“Make it twenty?”

“Of course. Starting now.”

Red leans back and takes a deep breath before he begins to enter meticulously-reinforced-normal-state. He’s still trying to think of a better way to refer to it.

It’s easier to enter than it was the first time, in the field. He can better recognize when he has it more or less in place, even though it’s still the hardest mental state to “feel” with his fledgling psychic senses. He finishes with a few seconds to spare, and simply waits until Ayane reaches outward with her mind, beginning to entangle with his…

…only to have his mind slip from her grasp. Or, phase through it, maybe. Bounce off it, slippery and untouched. It’s hard to stick with any single description, since his mind is just coming up with analogies from his other senses to try and approximate what’s happening.

In any case, she doesn’t sense him, and it’s clear first from the crease between her eyebrows, then the way they shoot up, that she’s realized it. Eventually she opens her eyes, eyebrows still raised.

“Impressive, Mr. Verres. Very impressive. You have effectively created a mental shield, not just a blank mask, but an actual shield, without instruction on how. Very few with the Gift have done so, perhaps in part because of how young they often begin training. But it is still a great accomplishment.”

Red knows that would normally make him excited and proud, but any positive emotions he feels quickly drain back down the empty hole in his chest. Curiosity is all he has left, though even that feels a bit like a rote impulse. “Could you explain more what that means?”

“Certainly. A psychic’s mental shield is a simple enough thing: it prevents an established, mutual connection from another psychic mind. The psychic who is attempting to sense the shielded individual will not even know they have missed someone. It’s as if their mind is simply not there, like a Dark individual’s. But there are some exceptions to this cover. Can you guess what one is?”

Red thinks back to what he knows of psychics. He didn’t know that mental shields existed before, but what does that knowledge change about the world? Seek confusion. What no longer makes sense, now that-ah, right.

“Mental attacks can still affect a shielded mind, right?”

“Not all of them. Indiscriminate mental attacks, what might be considered ‘blunt force’ attacks, will still work. But the mental shield prevents ‘entanglement’ or joining of two minds, which is what allows detection and communication and many forms of manipulation.”

“And the shield does nothing against Ghost attacks.”

“Correct. They operate on a very different wavelength, so to speak, as do Dark mental attacks.”

“Got it. Well, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I just wish I thought of it sooner. Every time their minds were able to enmesh with mine, my partition weakened and I got these floods of… of sorrow. Intense grief.”

“And this new state, it doesn’t cause the same side effects as the previous ones? The shakes, the nausea?”

Red blinks. “Huh. No, and none of the other states have lately. I didn’t even notice, with how bad I’ve been generally feeling anyway.”

“It’s possible this new state was only available to you through the weakening of your partition. As less and less of your powers are devoted to maintaining it, you’ve become accustomed to not having it so strongly reinforced.”

“But I haven’t,” Red says, fingers gripping the edge of the table. He makes an effort to relax them. “I’m not curling up into a ball and crying every five minutes, but I want to. I hate feeling like this again, this…” Empty. Alone. “I want the partition back.” I want to go back to not missing my dad this badly, this constantly, it hurts too much. His throat feels blocked, and he quickly enters many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room to cut the emotions off, just long enough to avoid tearing up.

Ayane watches him with a mix of alarm and compassion. She can obviously feel him enter the emotionless state, but if she disapproves, she keeps it to herself.

“Can you help me?” Red asks after regaining control of himself.

“I don’t know.”

“That sounds ominous.”

She doesn’t smile. “It’s hard to enter your mind now, full of grief as it is. It makes it difficult to not get swept in, to focus on the deeper levels of your mind. Perhaps if your shield is up, I can attempt to breach it and simply examine how your powers are being utilized. Is that alright?”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not unless I choose it to be.”

“Still ominous.”

This time she does smile, briefly. Probably just humoring him. “The breaching itself usually results in a deeper reading beyond the most surface thoughts and emotions. An aggressive attacker would use projection abilities to distract or confuse you so that your defense is less robust, but without any of those it will be harmless. I only ask permission because if I do succeed, it could result in a deeper read than people are normally comfortable with, privacy-wise.”

He thinks it over for at least a solid minute, which she quietly gives him. What secrets does he have? Worst case scenario is what, she finds out how he did the abra thing? That he knew the clefairy prices would go up, maybe? All that’s protected by confidentiality, theoretically, and as long as he thinks of something else it shouldn’t come up.

Finally Red shrugs. “Sure. Give me another twenty.”

This time he feels the slipperygraspingbouncy attempt of her mind trying to connect with his for longer, but nothing really changes. It doesn’t even get harder to maintain, which he finds surprising. Eventually however the sensation feels more… complete. Like her mind is all around his, pressing in from every side. It still doesn’t connect to his, but it’s a rather disconcerting feeling.

Eventually she opens her eyes and relaxes. “I’m sorry, all I could sense is that it’s a clean shield. I can’t even sense what portion of your powers are going into maintaining it. I’ll have to think of something else.”

“Wait, so what was the difference between what you just did and what you originally did?”

“This was more thorough. When a psychic knows there is a shielded mind nearby, we can find it through careful search.”

“And that wouldn’t work on a Dark mind?”

“When you have developed your third eye you will better understand, but for now think of it like camouflage compared to invisibility, where viewing from another angle might reveal the trick for the former, but not the latter. In truth, it is more like invisibility versus intangibility.

“Which would mean that what you did now was like throwing flour or paint around and seeing my outline.”

She smiles. “That explanation works as well, though again, in truth the sensation is different from the analogy. A bit like poking at a missing tooth with your tongue.”

Something she said earlier was interesting to him. “That explains why it felt like your mind was all around mine, but you said that the searching mind won’t even realize it missed something normally, right? Does that mean you felt nothing when you reached out toward me?”

“Correct.”

Red shakes his head. “Man, psychic powers are so weird. I thought anything I felt from the other mind was the result of what that mind felt too.”

“What do you mean?”

“That strange feeling, of your mind slipping or bouncing off mine. It’s handy to know if someone is trying to touch their mind to mine, I guess, but it’s confusing my models of how psychic powers work that you don’t feel something too.”

Psychic Ayane stares at him. Red infers from her expression that he just said Something Significant.

“You felt something when I reached out with my mind?” she asks at last, speaking slowly.

“Yeah. Is that weird?”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing during a mental shield. Are you sure it wasn’t imagined, or some effect of your unusual shielding method?”

“No, it… hm.” He never tried entering the state without another psychic mind nearby: he mostly just practiced it while training the abras. “Okay, maybe. Let’s check.” Red stands and goes to the workroom’s table, then takes his notebook out and goes back to sitting on the floor. “So, I’m going to make a mark when I feel it. It should coincide to when you reach out, right?”

Ayane nods, a small crease between her brow again. Red takes the pencil out of the notebook’s spiral binding and opens to a fresh page. He concentrates on meticulously-reinforced-normal-state, pencil tip hovering over the paper. “Okay… ready when you are.”

He waits. And waits. He keeps his gaze on the paper, though in truth he barely sees it, focus inward to catch the sensation again. Red begins to wonder why it’s not happening when he realizes that she’s probably not actually trying. He smiles slightly. It’s always nice to meet others with a grasp of good methodology.

Finally, after staring at the paper and maintaining the mental state for what must be a couple minutes at least, he feels her mind brush his again before slipping/bouncing/whatevering off. He quickly draws a line on the paper, lifting his pencil back off the moment the sensation stops.

When he looks up at her, she’s staring at the page with wide eyes.

“Is this good, or bad?” he asks.

“This… I don’t know what this is.” She seems genuinely baffled, and Red feels some genuine interest kindle.

“Well, in the context of what you do know, what’s most confusing about this?” He flips to a new page and poises his pencil to take notes.

“Our Gift works through mutual entanglement,” she says slowly. “As you said. Some projection powers can differ, but to sense one-another first requires contact, intangible as it may be to our other senses. For you to feel my mind while I cannot feel yours is… I’ve never heard of such a thing. It confuses me, because I don’t understand how your shield is detecting my mind without sending any feedback for me to notice.”

Red finishes scribbling, then prods his chin with the eraser, thinking. “Okay, so what rules or laws would that break, that you assumed were absolute? Does anything change about the world, or… is there something that used to not make sense that now does?”

“I don’t… I have to think about it. But this is all aside from the main concern: your partition.”

Red’s mood immediately drops back down, and he sighs and puts his pencil down. “Right. That. So how do we fix it?”

“There are no easy paths. It’s possible that if you refrain from using any psychic abilities for a week or two, possibly more, it will eventually rebuild itself.”

Red stares at her. “Two weeks. No. That’s… I have to keep training my abra, to do research. I can’t just stop. Besides, that would just mean I go back to square one. I would effectively be giving up my ability to use my powers. What else?”

“We can shift the focus of our lessons, try and teach you the basics of memory and mood manipulation. Or…” She hesitates. “Perhaps this is not my place to suggest this, but another option is to deal with these emotions how someone normally might, without the Gift. I don’t know the source of your trauma, but it may be best resolved, if possible, rather than locked away.”

Red stares at the table. He wants to deny her words, get a quick fix that will help him sleep tonight, or at least get something to give him hope for tomorrow, or the day after. Something to end this constant, churning pain and emptiness soon, not next month or next year.

But he can’t rule out that she might be right. That it’s something he’ll just have to grow to live with, fight through… again.

Maybe it’s time to call his old therapist.

“I’ll think about it,” Red says. “We can talk it over again next lesson, along with my weird shield thing. In the meantime, let’s try those other options.”

“As you wish.”

“Oh, and one more thing. There’s some research I’m doing on the abra I caught, and I need a trained psychic to participate…”


Blue reaches the island stadium and immediately begins to explore the sandy dunes that make up the bulk of it, ignoring the trainer platforms for now. He tests the firmness of the ground, then begins to dig to make sure there isn’t concrete under it. Once water begins to fill his hole, he stops and scoops the sand back in, then goes to examine the dropoff at the edge, brushing wet sand off against his pants.

It’s the first outdoor stadium he’s fought in, now that he’s finally ready for his match against Misty’s Second. All around him, the water of Cerulean Bay rolls by in waves as the sun beats down. The terrain won’t be a problem for most of his pokemon, though he’d prefer a more solid surface for his shinx to run around on, if it comes to using Ion. He already trained Kemuri on the beach to ensure that the shiftry’s odd feet wouldn’t have trouble with sand.

Some spectators begin to arrive at the bleachers near the island, mostly others training at the gym who have sparred with him or are planning to challenge Ariya soon. Blue hasn’t lost an official match in Cerulean yet, and he’s glad to see the interest that’s generating for him. He knows his opponent is on her way, so he starts measuring out the dimensions of the sand dune. About eighteen meters across, and almost thirty meters long, with the edges tapering off to narrow strips before ending at the base of the trainer platforms. The platforms themselves stretch out over the sand a bit, the bottoms just within reach for him to pull himself up after he spots Ariya arriving from the pier.

By the time he finishes climbing up, she’s on the walkway leading to the small island. Misty’s Second is wearing dark clothing that doesn’t look particularly designed for swimming, which he takes as a sign that she doesn’t plan on engaging in a full battle below the water. He brought all his equipment just in case, but he’s far less prepared for a water battle. Thankfully Misty only sets those as Challenges for trainers with at least four badges.

Ariya, on the other hand, is far less predictable. The point of fighting one’s way up the ranks is to help the Gym try to find weaknesses and make sure that any challenger is prepared for the Leader. Brock’s Second threw Blue a curveball, and he expects Ariya will too.

That would apply to any Leader’s Second, however. Ariya particularly has a reputation for being a bit “wild,” especially considering her position of authority. If he expects a conventional battle, he’ll get blindsided.

Blue puts his earpiece in and turns it on as she mounts her platform and does the same.

“-hear me? Hello?”

“Hey, yeah I can hear you.”

“Cool. Nice to finally meet you, Youngster Oak. Heard good things.”

Blue smirks. Banter he can handle. “Thanks. I was actually in one of your amphibious classes a couple days ago.”

“Oh, yeah? Sorry, I tend to forget those things as soon as I finish them.”

Yeah right you forgot having the grandson of Professor Oak in your class. “I probably would too. I guess you have to do them?”

“Pretty much. One of a lower-case-L leader’s obligations. Just like busting an up-and-comer like you down a peg. Ready?”

“Yeah. What are the rules?”

“Pretty simple: three pokemon each. First to withdraw three loses.”

Blue is not reassured. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Okay. Should I go first?”

“Nah, I’ll start.” She unhooks a ball from her belt and throws. A flash mid-air, and a swanna is suddenly circling the small island, sun gleaming off its bright white feathers.

Ariya catches its ball and reclips it, and Blue watches it circle, once, twice, three times, mind racing as he wonders how to best counter a Water/Flying type. He knows it must look like he’s frozen, maybe even panicked, to the audience. From deep in his battle calm however, the thought doesn’t compel him to action. He has to play this carefully.

“Well?” Ariya finally asks in his ear.

“You didn’t say anything about a time limit. You just said three withdraws, right?”

Blue can’t see the smirk, but he can hear it. “What are you, a rules lawyer now? Fine, you’ve got ten seconds to send a pokemon out now or you lose.”

Crap. Ok, options. Half his team won’t be able to fight, and he brought his shinx, pidgey, shroomish, one of his bellsprout, and of course Maturin and Kemuri. Swanna aren’t strong, but being a flyer helps them dominate Grass types like Gon or Kemuri by evading or blowing away most of their attacks. That same airborne advantage makes them especially weak against electric pokemon, but Blue still hasn’t used his shinx yet in any of his matches, and he’s not about to reveal it now, one battle away from Misty-

“Three… two…”

“Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle materializes crouched on all fours. It seems excited about the surroundings, but quickly locks its gaze on the flying swanna, and Blue yells, “Maturin, Water Gun!”

“Swanna, Wing Attack!”

Swanna swoops down and Maturin’s jet of water clips its wing, sending it into an awkward spin. Its feathers are highly water absorbent, but it still takes a moment for the bird to right itself.

“Maturin, Tackle, then Bite!”

“Swanna, Gust!”

His squirtle dashes forward across the sand and leaps just as the swanna orients itself and pumps its wings. The burst of air slams Maturin back down and kicks up an obscuring cloud, but Maturin leaps up out of it a moment later and slams into the swanna.

It squawks as it tumbles back, Maturin holding on tight and snapping at it. Her weight is making it hard for the swanna to keep its altitude until Ariya yells, “Swanna, Brave Bird!”

Blue’s breath catches. What?! “Maturin, Withdraw!”

The swanna tucks its wings in and dives. Maturin manages to tuck into her shell a moment before the swanna, with no target apparent, pulls up just above the ground and speeds forward in a blur. The squirtle is dragged along the sand for only a moment before tumbling away into the water.

The swanna speeds off over the waves before finally lifting upward. “Good call,” Ariya says. “Have you seen me do that maneuver before?”

“No, I just… didn’t know what to expect, so assumed the worst.” Blue watches Maturin crawl back onto land and lets out a sigh of relief. “How did you train it to do that?”

“Ask me again after the match, and maybe I’ll show you. Swanna, Air Slash!”

“Dodge!”

Maturin tries, but the focused blast of air moves too fast. Blue watches his pokemon flinch as the air hammers her into the ground and kicks up another spray of sand. “Tackle!”

Maturin rockets up at the swanna again, but it easily avoids the attack by climbing altitude. Ariya tries another Air Slash, but this time it’s far enough for Maturin to get out of the way.

Blue wipes sweaty palms on his pants. He put Maturin out so the swanna would be restricted to its air attacks, but squirtle don’t have many attacks that can effectively deal with a flier so resistant to water.

Or rather, they don’t normally. Blue sold some of his clefairy and bought a few TMs for his pokemon a couple days ago. He was hoping to keep them secret for Misty too, but right now it’s the best path to victory. Maybe he doesn’t have to show all his cards, though.

Blue waits for the swanna to get a little closer… a little closer…

“Swanna, Aerial Ace!”

“Maturin, Bubblebeam!”

A tight, thin stream of water filled with bubbles lances out and rakes the swanna’s wing as it dives. Each tiny bubble pops explosively, like the bigger ones from the Bubble attack, causing the swanna to flinch and stumble in the air.

It still strikes Maturin with the iconic one-two downward then upward maneuver, but it’s slowed enough by Maturin’s attack that she can bite its tail as it passes by, without Blue even having to tell her to. The swanna screeches in pain and begins to claw and buffet Maturin with its wings.

“Withdraw!”

“Wing Attack!”

Maturin ducks into her shell, beak still firmly clenched down, just like they practiced. The swanna grows more frantic, until finally it tears its tail feathers out in its attempt to escape.

Ariya’s withdrawal cuts off its cry of pain, and Blue hops down off his platform to check on Maturin as she cautiously pokes her head back out of her shell, then follows suit with the rest of her limbs and spits out the bloody feathers. He sees a few scratches on her face and arms, only one of them deep enough to drip blood. Blue crouches down and checks her shell, then rubs her belly. Her tail begins to wag, and some tension eases from his stomach. She’s okay for a bit more.

“Ready for the second?” Ariya asks.

“Yep.” He jogs back to his platform and climbs up. If this were a real match Ariya probably could have kept her swanna out and worn Maturin down, but he’ll take the win. Unless her next pick is something easy for a squirtle to counter, he’ll bring Maturin back after a few attacks. His shiftry should be able to handle almost any other Water type she uses…

“Go, Pelipper!”

Blue scowls as the second Water/Flying type is summoned. So much for that idea.

“Pelipper, Wing Attack!”

“Maturin, Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!” Ariya yells, too late. Maturin opens her mouth and emits a tight beam of light, invisible in the bright day except for the white plume of frost that forms in its wake and hits the pelipper in the chest.

The bird only suffers through a moment of the cold before it tips out of the way, but that’s near Maturin’s limit anyway. The Bubblebeam was one thing, but a squirtle’s body has to be more drastically altered by a TM to allow it to shoot freezing rays. It will never be as effective as one coming from a pokemon that can naturally learn it.

“Tackle!”

“Gust!”

Maturin leaps up, only to get slammed back to the ground by the burst of wind.

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

Blue waits until the pelipper’s flight path loops around. “Water Gun!”

“Wing Attack!”

“Bubblebeam!”

“Gust!”

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

The pelipper dives, stalls, banks, and dodges as Maturin swaps attack moment to moment, and Blue keeps the pressure going. “Water Gun! Bubblebeam! Water Gun! Ice Beam!”

Over and over, Maturin obediently switches on command, like their drills. Ariya’s attempts to take advantage of attacks that her pokemon can shrug off get cut short by Ice Beams, and eventually the pelipper begins to get hit by them rather than the other attacks while Maturin endures repeated gusts of wind and the occasional rake of talons.

Seven… Eight…

The next Ice Beam is visibly weaker, and Maturin is responding to Blue’s commands much slower than the pelipper is Ariya’s. The next gust of wind knocks the squirtle from her feet, and Blue finally points her dive ball forward. “Maturin, return!”

“Not bad, Oakseed,” Ariya says. “Need another minute to choose your next one?”

“Will you give it to me?”

“I’ll give you as long as you want. Pelipper, Roost!”

Shit. Blue watches her pokemon wing down to the sand and fold its feathers back as it begins to rest and heal itself. Blue’s fingers brush Kemuri’s ball, then move to Ion’s for the easy win. No, not yet… But that leaves him with one of his Grass types, or Zephyr. Would the pidgey fare better, bird to bird?

“Your squirtle is well trained.”

“Thanks.”

“That Ice Beam must’ve cost you.”

“Worth the price.” She’s trying to distract me. Or giving him a subtle hint? Or playing mind games. But if this pelipper knows an Ice attack Zephyr is just as screwed… Better to go in strong.

“What do you think of-”

“Go, Kemuri!”

“Pelipper, up!”

The shiftry has barely materialized before the pelipper leaps back into the air with an explosive clap of wings, sending sand flying to either side. “Pelipper, Gust!”

“Dodge!”

Kemuri leaps aside, avoiding most of the wind. It still spins him around, and the pelipper dives forward as Ariya yells “Wing Attack!”

“Feint Attack!”

Kemuri pivots on one foot and brings its leaves up in a diagonal slash that catches the pelipper along its side, even as it rakes Kemuri with its talons in a flyby.

It’s hard to tell which is more injured at first, but the pelipper is definitely bleeding. Blue expects Ariya to withdraw it. “Sky Drop!” she says instead.

For the second time in the match, Blue is too surprised to react for a moment. By the time he yells out a hasty “Dodge!” it’s too late for Kemuri to avoid the pelipper’s grasping talons.

Two flaps, three, four, and yes, the pelipper is lifting Kemuri up, up, up into the air. “Leaf Blade!” Blue yells up at Kemuri, but if it manages to hit the pelipper with its leaves, they must only be glancing cuts, because it just keeps going higher. Much higher than is safe… “You won’t actually drop it from there,” Blue says after a moment.

“Wanna bet?”

Blue folds his arms. “Yeah, actually.”

Ariya raises a whistle to her lips, and Blue feels a pit in his stomach. She’s been using verbal commands all along without needing to, a deliberate handicap against a challenger with just one badge… did he do something that made her escalate the challenge?

She blows two quick notes on the flute, then a quick series of notes, and Blue raises Kemuri’s ball in a near panic. He has to withdraw the shiftry before he hits the-

-water? The pelipper banks before releasing Blue’s pokemon, and the shiftry falls sideways, helplessly plunging into the bay beside the island.

“Bit of advice for you, Oaksprout. I don’t bluff.” Ariya blows another series of notes on her flute, and her pelipper dives back down to the island, landing for another Roost.

Blue stares at the spot his pokemon disappeared, then lets out his breath as the shiftry surfaces a moment later. He slowly drops the ball back to his belt as he watches his pokemon splash and flounder, but continue to float. The water isn’t particularly deep there, and the waves push Kemuri back toward the island so that even its inelegant thrashes allow it to safely wash ashore.

“Take your time, we’re not going anywhere.” Ariya leans against the railing on her platform, one arm propping up her head.

Blue grits his teeth and watches his pokemon shake itself dry and catch its breath. He takes a moment to do the same, and lets his battle calm surround him again. He’s not going to win this battle on brute force or a decisive blow. And while shiftry don’t naturally have the status effect moves of most grass types…

“Kemuri, po!”

Blue’s pokemon straightens, and Ariya’s pelipper launches up again on her order, but nothing happens. From this distance, Blue can’t make out the shiftry’s eyes, and knows that Ariya can’t either. But he’s confident that after hours of practicing his first custom command, his pokemon is carrying it out.

Ariya waits a bit longer to see if Kemuri will do something, then takes the initiative. A few quick notes, and the pelipper blows a gust of wind at the shiftry. It’s a bit off mark however, and kicks up a cloud of sand and water to the right of Blue’s pokemon. A second attempt is even less accurate, and by the time Ariya tries a new command that sends the pelipper hurtling forward with its claws outstretched, it’s clear that something’s not right with her pokemon.

Blue watches it wobble and dip erratically as it attacks, and for a moment it looks like his shiftry will simply stand there while it slams into him.

Instead, just a heartbeat away, the bird crashes into the island and tumbles across the sand, flapping its wings erratically and squawking in distress. Ariya stretches forward, one hand gripping the railing as the other extends a pokeball just far enough to withdraw her pokemon.

Blue hears scattered applause from the audience, sparsely populated and distant though they are. Ariya returns to the center of her platform and turns her mic back on. “Ugh. Stupid mental attacks. You have no idea how irritating they get when training with Misty.”

Blue makes an effort to stop smiling as he reminds himself not to get overconfident. She’s down to her last pokemon, but Kemuri’s pretty banged up, and he wouldn’t put it past Ariya to bring out yet another-

“Go, Mantine!”

Even half expecting it, Blue groans. The third Water/Flying pokemon soars gracefully above the waves, wide wings rising and falling lethargically as if swimming through the air. It occasionally dips beneath the surface, then reappears elsewhere in a spray of water.

Kemuri slowly circles in place, never letting the mantine leave his sight. Unfortunately its constant dips beneath the surface prevent him from maintaining another Extrasensory attack.

“Leaf Tornado!”

A whirl of small, sharp leaf bits begins to form between the shiftry’s rotating arms, but as he launches it at the mantine on its next surface, Ariya yells “Air Slash!” and the green cyclone is blown apart by the cutting line of air that splits the water’s surface.

Kemuri manages to dodge on time, but the mantine continues, sending blade after blade of air at the shiftry every time it surfaces. Sprays of water and sand kick up, obscuring Kemuri’s constantly dodging form as it acts without instruction. Blue watches, trying to think of something else to do. His shiftry is still his most unruly and independent pokemon, but it’s been doing well so far. He knows it can win if he just thinks of the right command.

But as the blasts of air keep coming, nothing comes to mind, and Kemuri is beginning to visibly tire. Some of the attacks start to hit him, glancing blows that have mostly spent their energy travelling so far, but still enough to contribute to wearing the shiftry down. Blue wipes his palms again and grips the railing, trying to see some pattern or weakness to exploit. As his pokemon is mostly acting on its own at the moment, he allows his eyes to unfocus so he can mostly ignore the moment to moment distraction in front of him and reach a decision.

Brock likes his gym to teach decisiveness, and Misty’s is well known for valuing and promoting adaptability, which is part of why the terrain and Ariya’s tactics are what they are. Challenges are meant to be hard, but not impossible. If Blue really doesn’t have an electric type, he should still be able to win.

And it’s not even that complicated a challenge. Any Grass attack Blue hits the Mantine with is going to hurt, but its Flying type helps it avoid most of them, and the terrain allows it to stay out of range and harass. Blue just needs to close the distance, despite the risk. The longer he just stays where he is, the more Kemuri will get worn down for nothing.

Blue tightens his grip on the railing. How far is the mantine from Kemuri, at most? 10 meters? A bit too much. But 8? That he could do.

All-or-nothing it is, then. He watches the mantine dip in and out of the water, circling the small island. It’s getting a bit slower too, the constant movement and attacking no doubt taxing it nearly as much as Kemuri. Ariya would probably call for it to rest soon, which it can do safely, unlike his shiftry.

The mantine leaps up on Blue’s right side, sends another slice of air out at Kemuri as it floats over the island in front of him, then dips back down on his left. Two more hops and it’ll pass by the center of the island… one more…

“Leaf Blade!” Blue yells, and vaults the railing to leap down from his platform.

Kemuri jumps forward, stops at the edge of the water with its legs bunched beneath it, and springs forward just as the mantine emerges again. His leaves stretch out, sharp tips aimed straight at its white underbelly as it turns mid-air… and flaps its fin to send another line of air out, splintering Kemuri’s left arm as the invisible blade sends him tumbling to the side and into the water.

Blue is already standing at the shore, greatball held out to withdraw Kemuri as soon as he flounders back to the surface. “Return!” The beam shoots out and sucks the shiftry into his ball. Blue watches the mantine surface again a couple times, watching for some sign of injury. Is there a dark line along its wingspan, or is he imagining it? Either way, it’s clearly still fit enough to continue the fight.

Blue returns to his platform as Ariya lets the applause from their audience die down before saying, “Nice try, but come ooon, Oakling. You’ve got one shot left. I know you have an Electric type on that belt somewhere, you wouldn’t come to Misty with just Grass in your arsenal. So whatcha got? Did you buy a mareep from Johto? Maybe nab a pikachu during that forest fire?”

Images flash before him, of a blood-stained bundle of yellow fur lying in the grass of a smoke filled forest. Blue feels heat spreading through his chest as his fingers brush the cool metal of Ion’s ball. The shinx would make short work of her mantine, but now that he knows her entire strategy was built around baiting his Electric Type out, he can’t give Misty that upper hand.

He climbs over the railing and turns, arm flinging a ball out. “Go, Zephyr!”

A flash and the smack of the ball returning to his palm, and Blue brings his flute up with the other hand, immediately blowing into it: Wing Attack!

Zephyr dives at the mantine and rakes it with his talons during its brief flight above the water. Ariya brings her own instrument up and gives a different command, but she has to wait until mantine is surfaced for each one, while Blue can constantly adjust his own pokemon’s position.

Left. Right. Attack. Climb. Right. Dive. Attack. Wait. Attack. Left. Attack.

Zephyr is a tan and brown streak, first harassing the mantine’s left side, then hitting it from above on its next surfacing, then circling around to dodge a Water Gun or climbing up to avoid an Air Slash.

Ariya finally abandons the water as her mantine bursts out of it and soars up over the island, turning over in mid-air, then rotating on every axis to keep Zephyr in its sights as it sends burst after burst of water out. Two of them connect, one after the other, and Blue sends Zephyr in a deep dive to avoid the next ones before using a Gust to deflect the third. Mantine switches to a maintained Bubblebeam, and Blue sends Zephyr below it, wings tipped into a wider and wider spiral. The mantine is forced to turn in mid-air and drill a continuous line in the sand as it chases the pidgey around and around, losing altitude and flying more erratically as it struggles to balance the various forces keeping it up and dragging it down.

Blue feels sweat trickle down his neck, eyes burning in a reminder to blink. He doesn’t know who will run out of stamina first, Zephyr or the mantine, but he’s spent hours training his pidgey for endurance, knowing that its battles might come down to just how long it could keep up hit-and-run attacks. When the mantine’s Bubblebeam finally ends, Blue blows a sharp note, sending Zephyr up in a sharp climb-

-which is immediately abandoned as soon as Ariya commands another attack, allowing Zephyr to dodge the jet of water and loop around the mantine’s broad wings to rake a pair of bloody lines across its belly.

It shudders in the air, and finally begins to glide downward, the closest thing to a dead drop it can manage. Ariya withdraws it as it coasts by, and Blue lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

The spectators burst into applause again, and Blue is about to turn and hold up a victory sign when a bright light flashes in the air, causing a shocked silence.

Blue’s heart leaps into his throat, and he watches his first caught pokemon finally evolve with a wide grin. Zephyr is still flying, a looping, soaring ball of iridescent light that ends as abruptly as it began… leaving behind a pidgeotto, about as big as Zephyr had grown to be, but with wider wingspan, a full red crest, a smoother breast, and long red and yellow tail feathers.

The applause return, louder this time and mixed with cheers. Blue holds out his arm, and blows a note on his flute. Zephyr comes in for a landing, talons a bit sharper than before, and Blue strokes his back as the pidgeotto preens. He can’t seem to stop grinning.

“Nice job, Oak,” Ariya says. “That last command, you trained it with a feint?”

“Yeah. It’s one of my shiftry’s most useful maneuvers, so I figured I’d try to teach the others to do it too. Zephyr picked it up pretty easily. Maybe it’s got some murkrow in its lineage.”

“Well it was some damn nice flying, even without that. I don’t know if you really don’t have an electric pokemon or if you’re just so confident that you knew you wouldn’t need one, but I’m looking forward to your Challenge.” She gives a salute from her platform, and Blue returns it.

“So, if you were that impressed, how about that Brave Bird maneuver?” Even the basic version of the attack is an incredibly advanced technique, but if someone like Ariya with her own variation can teach him…

She laughs. “Yeah, I think you might be able to handle it. At the very least, it’ll be amusing watching you try to teach it to your pokemon.”


“Hello?”

“Hi Doctor Seward.”

“Hello… Red?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry to bother you. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course, Red, how is everything? You’re on your journey now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Everything’s fine. With the journey, I mean.”

“I’m glad to hear it. And your mother?”

“She’s good. She’s in Celadon now.”

“I know. Say hi for me, when you can. What can I help you with, Red?

“I just… uh… I’ve been going through some stuff.”

“I surmised as much. Are you alright?”

“I’m… not really. It’s my dad.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Did something happen to remind you of him?”

“A few things.”

“How bad is it?”

“…Pretty bad.”

“Scale?”

“Oh. Uh. I’d say I’m at a… a three. A four on good days.”

“I see. I’m sorry, Red. Where are you now?”

“Cerulean.”

“Grand city. I hope you’re enjoying it, at least a little. I have some colleagues there, if you want a referral?”

“I don’t think I’ll be here long. My friends and I will be on the move again soon.”

“Would you rather do a video feed then? I could make an opening, either early afternoon or evenings.”

“I think that might help, yeah. In the evening. Is tomorrow okay with you?”

“The day after. 7 o’clock?”

“Okay. Thanks a lot.”

“Of course. In the meantime, I have homework.”

“Heh. Right. Okay, what is it?”

“You have pokemon now, yes? Presumably a few.”

“Yeah, I have a full belt.”

“Congratulations. Which is your cuddliest?”

“My… what?”

“Your cuddliest. The one you can cuddle up with the best, safely.”

“I guess… um… my bellsprout is pretty safe, but it’s not exactly cuddly. My pichu I guess, now that it doesn’t randomly shoot sparks out anymore.”

“Yes, that’s rather important. Good. Now, I want you to spend some time just relaxing with it. Training is fine too, by all means be as physically active as you can manage, but I don’t want you lying in bed without a pokemon there beside you. Think you can do that?”

“Yeah, I think so. That’s a good idea.”

“I know it is. One more thing. Find something to do that’s related to your dad. I know you probably have a lot to be busy with, it doesn’t have to be a big project. Just do something you know would make him happy. Something that speaks to the loss, answers it back.”

“…”

“Is that alright?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah I… I can do that. Okay. Thanks.”

“Of course. Be well, Red. Talk to you soon.”


Red squints as he leaves the Trainer House for the first time in days. The sunlight makes his eyebrows ache, a familiar feeling from years ago when he spent whole weeks in his bedroom.

Like then, going outside after so long has a mixed effect. He can feel his spirits lift ever so slightly, but it also feels slightly false. Not to mention emotionally exhausting, like he’s trading off energy for the improved mood. Walking through the crowded city streets doesn’t help, but Leaf just arrived back in town and wants to grab lunch with him and Blue, so Red keeps his gaze down and puts one foot in front of the other rather than go back and crawl into bed.

His pichu is sitting on his shoulder, its paws gripping his collar tight as it looks around. One hand goes up to stroke its fur. He’s been spending as much time with it as he can since he spoke with Dr. Seward, and he’s happy to see how comfortable his timid little mouse seems out in public, compared to when he first got her.

The city is as alive as ever around them, sidewalks crowded with people and pokemon going about their day. Red spots some tourists and remembers their first day in the city. It’s strange how soon a new place can feel familiar. He feels his pichu climb up onto the bill of his hat as a growlithe walks by, a small spark snapping from her cheeks as she watches it walk by. He cups her in his palm and gives her a brief scolding before placing her back on his shoulder, where she presses her flat tail along the inside of his shirt.

By the time he gets to the restaurant, he’s acclimated enough to being outside that his excitement to see his friends again beats out his emotional fatigue. After arriving at the restaurant and spotting Leaf and Blue at a table, he actually smiles. They haven’t all been in one place for over a week, since the day they caught the abra. He withdraws his pichu before heading inside.

“-so jealous, I need to train with Crimson more so he can keep up.”

“Gonna be hard if you never do practice battles. We can spar if you want, avoid any cutting attacks.”

Leaf opens her mouth to respond, then puts her menu down with a grin as she sees Red. “Heya! Good to see you again.”

“You too. Hey man.” He slides his chair in and holds a fist up.

Blue knocks his against it. “Hey man yourself, I’ve barely seen you more than Leaf lately. You finish up the abra research yet?”

Red feels a stab of guilt over his inactivity lately. He knows the others are impatient to sell the abra. “Uh. Not yet. My teacher agreed to help with it though, so. Should be ready soon.” He fiddles with his menu, not really hungry but wanting to change the topic. “So how was the trip back?”

“Fine, but never mind that,” Leaf says, leaning forward. “Now that you’re here I have something to tell you guys…”

Red and Blue both lean in as she explains what she learned on the mountain, and how it led to her meeting with Giovanni. She stops talking when the waiter arrives for their order, and continues when he’s out of earshot, lowering her voice further as she goes over their conversation.

Her story makes Red’s mind begin to race, and for the first time all day he feels fully awake. He’s a bit jealous that she actually met with the legendary Gym Leader, but finding out that someone killed Yuuta before he could be executed, and that the other Leaders are covering it up, brings back all his uncertainties over voting to execute the Renegade in the first place.

“…and he just left! I know he was busy doing other things, he probably had a meeting to get to somewhere, but it was still really abrupt. I think I might have given away that I changed my mind, somehow.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Blue says as he slurps from his soup bowl. “He probably just had a psychic nearby reading your mind and texting to him.”

Leaf stares at him, eyes growing wider and mouth dropping open, then buries her face in her hands and let out a muffled cry of frustration. “Of course that’s what he did, Arceus, I’m such an idiot!

“Hey,” Red says, mouth full of slimy seaweed salad. He takes a moment to swallow the tasty strands down. It’s nice having money to waste on luxury foods. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just because we have one plausible hypothesis. Do you really think he would do something like that?”

Blue snorts. “For someone so smart, you’re really naive sometimes. You don’t think people would use psychics to get an edge in social situations? Absolutely, if it works and they can afford it.”

Red frowns. “Cynicism isn’t knowledge. He’s a Gym Leader, not just some random guy.”

“So? That just means he has more responsibility and ambition. If he thinks it’s in the best interest of Viridian or Kanto-”

“But isn’t that illegal?” Leaf asks, face rising. “In Unova a psychic needs consent to affect someone’s mind.”

“Oh, that’s true here too,” Red says. “I have to sign a bunch of stuff for pretty much anything my teacher does with me. But just reading someone’s mood and surface thoughts doesn’t count. It’s a passive thing that we just… do.”

Leaf and Blue look at Red in surprise. “Not that I’m there yet, myself,” he adds. “I’d have to focus to read someone, and if they weren’t psychic I’d barely be able to tell who I was reading from. Anyway, forget the moral concern. Imagine if it gets out. No one would feel safe talking to him again.”

“Oh come on, it’s Giovanni Sakaki. Anyone who doesn’t already take precautions about that sort of thing isn’t in a position to not talk to him if he wants a meeting.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going to again,” Leaf says as she stabs at her salad. “And I’ll warn others who might not to either!”

“But will you publish the story?” Blue asks. “Seems like that’s all he was concerned with, and what he’d continue to care about. No offense.”

She bites her lip a moment, moving some almonds around in their bowl. “I want to, but… I don’t want to act out of spite. I mean, assuming he was being honest, the reasoning for not publishing hasn’t really changed, right? Regardless of what he did to me personally. What do you guys think?”

Red and Blue look at each other. “You should ask your-”

“I should ask-”

“-grandpa/gramps,” they finish, almost together.

Leaf’s lip twitches. “I thought about asking Laura, but since she’s another reporter, it would have felt too much like going back on what I said to Giovanni. Now that I know what he did though… now that I think I know what he did,” she amends when Red opens his mouth, “I care a lot less about that.”

“Maybe you should, still,” Blue says. “What he did, it’s all in the game. Once you get involved in important issues, not just politics but actual Leader duties and Renegade stuff, you’re in a different world.”

“And that makes it okay?” Leaf asks, brow furrowed.

He shrugs. “What he did sucks, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just the way the world works. Gramps made sure I understood that, when he first found out how ambitious I am. Leaders don’t just train people and defend against pokemon. They’re not heroes from cartoons. They have to deal with the stuff that holds society together, and sometimes that stuff is too serious for being nice and honest.”

“That logic can excuse a lot of shitty stuff,” Red says. “You sound like you’re saying to just trust Giovanni, but you called me naive earlier.”

Blue shakes his head. “Different kind of naive. Look, he didn’t actually do anything that hurt you, right? I’m just saying, as long as you play ball, Giovanni will keep it in mind. If you go back on it now, you might regret it.”

Leaf rolls her eyes. “Well that’s just an argument out of self-interest, and I don’t need help on that front. If I start to think that I’m really only doing it for myself, I might just publish the story to prove that idea wrong. I don’t want to do it for that reason either, so I need to take it out of the equation.”

“Then what’s left?” Red asks. “If you only really care about what the outcome of the story would be, like you said, none of the arguments against publishing have changed. Just your trust in Giovanni.”

“Which I’m saying shouldn’t impact your view of his motives,” Blue says. “Not on its own, anyway. Not unless you fully understand what’s at stake and what his options were.”

“Do you think he’ll mind you telling us, and asking Professor Oak?” Red asks.

“He said not to publish, he didn’t say not to talk about it. I never would have agreed to that, which he’d know if he was digging around in my head.” Leaf spears a cucumber slice and munches it, scowling. “Okay, let’s talk to the Professor.”

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if he already knows,” Blue says. “But don’t worry, if he thinks it should be out there I’m pretty sure he won’t break the story ahead of you.”

“Ok, cool. I guess I’ll start on a draft of it, just in case, so I’m ready to go sooner if I need to. I’m almost done with the article on the dig site anyway.”

“Man, your following is going to shoot up like crazy if you do break a story like that,” Blue says as he leans his chair back, spoon tapping his lower lip. “Definitely more than the bump I’ll get from beating Misty.”

Red puts his foot on Blue’s chair leg beneath the table and pushes it down, jerking him forward in time to allow a waiter to pass behind him. Blue looks startled, then angry, but follows Red’s gaze and rolls his eyes before pointedly leaning his chair back again.

“Speaking of followings,” Red says. “I’ve been thinking about… some stuff lately. And I wanted to run something by you guys that might actually help with that.”

They both turn to him, and he takes a moment to remember the opening he rehearsed.

“So, I know we all have a lot of plans for the money we’ll make from the abra. And there’s a lot of good we want to do with that money. But, I thought that it might be worth considering how much good we can do with the abra too.”

He gives them a moment to say something, but other than a crease in Blue’s forehead and Leaf’s eyebrows going up, they let him continue. He takes a deep breath and feels a bit better about not remembering all of the next part.

“I was just thinking, abra aren’t just rare, you know? They’re not just good for battles. They’re also just useful, as natural teleporters. Not just to rich executives or politicians, but organizations like Gyms and hospitals and Rangers rely on them. Time saved travelling sometimes means lives saved.”

“You want to donate some of them?” Blue asks.

“That’s a great idea.” Leaf rubs her fork handle between her palms. “Maybe five each, to different organizations?”

“I actually had something different in mind,” Red says. “I want to sell them all wholesale, at half the market price.”

Leaf blinks, then slowly smiles. Blue stares.

“Obviously, I can only talk about my share. But I don’t want to undercut you guys. So I thought I’d let you know, work out the timing. And see if maybe you want to do the same.”

“All of them?” Blue asks. “Like… in one bunch? That’s-”

“A great publicity move,” Leaf says. “Not only do we get people buzzing about the charitable aspect, but we also show off that we managed to catch all these abra at once, which is much less notable if we carefully sell them off bit by bit.”

“And that’s a good thing?” Blue asks. “I thought the point was to keep it secret!”

“Shh,” Red cautions, and Blue frowns, looking around. “Look, I want to get as much benefit out of the catching strategy as we can, but eventually it will be noticed. And it should be. I want more people to have abra that need them, and that can’t happen even if we just go around farming abra all day. For one thing it’s inefficient, and for another we can’t actually spend months traveling around to do it. We don’t have easy transportation, or mass capture permits, or the safety to do it in other areas. The only reason this worked so well is that Bill let us use his property, remember?”

Blue’s frown softens through all this, becoming more thoughtful. “Okay, but still, selling the ones we have at a bargain seems dumb. We can do that for the next batch.”

“When’s that going to be? Selling all our abra off one by one will take weeks, if we want to get the most out of it. We’re leaving Cerulean when you get your badge, right? Unless you’re planning to lose, that means we’re going to be out of here soon, and won’t have access to Bill’s land. Which, by the way, we probably depleted quite a bit with our first haul.”

“I like the idea,” Leaf says. “I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to vetting 23 different people to sell abra to. If I sell them all to pokecenters, I know they’ll be in good hands.”

“And we save some money and time skipping evaluations,” Red points out. “Just basic health checks for each of them, rather than a notarized assessment, which I’m sure the buyers will be happy to cover. So it’s not quite as big a difference as it might first seem.”

“Aaaaargh, fine, fine,” Blue says, picking his spoon back up and pointing it at Red. “But I’m selling some of mine first.”

Red nods. “That’s fair. You have more than us, so the difference is bigger for you.”

“How about this,” Leaf says. “We do one more catching session before we leave Cerulean, then whoever has the least abra, we all agree to sell that many wholesale. I know you’re at a disadvantage Red, but-”

“No, that’s fine. I’m giving mine to the Rangers, so the more I can catch for them the better.”

“Awesome. This was a great idea.”

“You think so? I don’t want to pressure you guys…”

Blue grunts, then bobs his head left and right in some kind of weird nod-and-shake. “Nah, she’s right. It’s great optics for us, and exactly the kind of thing that would make gramps proud. Not to mention look good for him too, justify his trust in us. And most importantly, it makes Kanto stronger. The more people can get to incidents faster, the safer we’ll all be.”

Leaf nods, and smiles at Red, a warm, full smile that makes his stomach flutter. As they finish their meal, say goodbye, and go on about their day, Red finds his thoughts of his dad are less draining than they were, the tears that well up tinged more often with bittersweetness. Rather than endlessly recounting conversations he had with him, and all the conversations he never will again, he finds himself thinking of what he would say, if he were still around. And that he would be proud.

The emptiness in his chest is still there. The long nights, lying awake. The occasional crushing waves of grief. But as he works on his various projects over the next few days, including arranging the details for the sale to the Rangers, some of the pain eases.

Not a lot. But some.