“Okay,” Red says as he takes out his notebook. “From the top… bags, phones, and wallets?”
“Check,” Leaf says cheerfully. Blue echoes her, with decidedly less cheer.
Red ensures he has his for what’s probably the third time, then puts a checkmark. “Restocked rations?”
“Pouch of pokeballs?”
Leaf giggles. “Check.”
Blue makes a sound of disgust and leans over to peer at the notebook. “You didn’t actually write them all like that, did you?”
Red shows him the page with a grin. “It helps keep things memorable even when I’m not looking at it.”
“Twenty-six parts! Red, we don’t need a specific reminder for whether our clothes fit ‘comfy!'”
“Oh, right.” Red stops walking and kneels down to adjust his shoe and tighten the laces. “This has been bothering me since we left, but I was ignoring it. See, it was handy.”
“Well we’re not—” Blue stops as he sees Leaf pause to adjust her backpack straps, then shakes his head and keeps walking without them… but a few steps later he adjusts one of his straps too.
Red winks at Leaf, then checks off 17 and goes back up to 4 as he catches up. “Crammed canteens?” Blue groans and walks faster. “Checklists save lives, Blue. Giovanni just blogged about it a couple days ago. So, crammed canteens?”
“My ‘canteens’ are full, yes. I refilled them last night.”
The trio makes their way through Cerulean North’s streets, the sidewalks still mostly empty as the sun continues to climb past the horizon. Pichu sits on Red’s shoulder, napping in the soft morning light, while Bulbasaur dutifully follows Leaf, only wandering off occasionally to examine a light post or mailbox with his vines. Eventually they find a bus that takes them to Cerulean South, and Red finishes his checklist on their way before he tucks it back in his bag, content that they’re as prepared for the road as they can be.
Cerulean South is much less touristy than North: its storefronts are less flashy, the busses are filled with kids and adults on their way to school or work, and it has far more residential streets. They pass each of these by, one bus stop at a time, until they finally reach the last stop, far into the southern suburbs. They get off the bus and follow Blue’s GPS toward a nearby pokemon center and Trainer House, there to welcome any travelers coming north.
To the side of the Trainer House is their destination: a bike shop. A bell chimes overhead as the three enter and find themselves surrounded by a colorful variety of bikes in all shapes and sizes.
“Good morning,” an older man with a woolen cap and half-specs says. “How can I help you today?”
Red spots a sign that says POKEMON MUST REMAIN IN THEIR BALLS WHILE IN STORE THANK YOU and pops the collar of his jacket to hide Pichu, who’s currently cuddled up behind his neck. “Hi!” Leaf says. “We’re trainers, so we’re looking for—”
“-all terrain bikes, got ya, got ya.” The man sidles around the counter, eyes bright with the prospect of three purchases. “Got a number of models right here.” He walks to a line of bikes near the far wall, where Blue is already looking some over.
“These are a bit pricey,” he says. “Last bike I had was like, a hundred bucks at most?”
“Well, sure, that’s fine if you’re just riding around your neighborhood or city. Take a cheap thing like that on the road and it’ll last you till Saffron before breaking down. These are top of the line models, each made for hard travel.” The salesman puts a hand on one of the bike seats. “Comfortable too. You’re planning on riding for hours at a time, right? That can make for a mighty sore behind.”
Red presses his fingers into the seat, testing the cushion, then goes over to another one. He feels a bit of a difference, but he has no idea how that difference translates over hours of riding. He hasn’t ridden a bike in years, and was so busy recently he never managed to fit in any time to research prices.
The bell above the door rings, and Red turns to see a young girl about their age enter the shop. Her black hair is cut short, falling just beneath her jaw, and she has an angular, impish face that takes in the room all at once, then goes over to a set of bikes near the counter and studies them thoughtfully. She’s wearing a full pokeball belt and a protective jacket zipped up the front, with a traveler’s pack slung over her shoulder. Red wonders if she’s leaving the city too.
“A comfortable seat shouldn’t make a huge difference in the cost of the bike,” Blue points out.
“If you’re looking for affordable, I understand, of course.” The store owner’s tone remains cheerful as he pats the handlebars of one of the sleeker and more expensive-looking bikes. “Just remember, your life may depend on this piece of equipment one day. In other areas you can afford to be prudent, but surely not this one.”
“What!” Leaf says upon spotting the price tag. “$10,000?! For a bike?”
The man straightens to his not-inconsiderable full height. “As I said, ma’am, these aren’t bicycles for just heading down to the store. That, in particular, is a competitive mountain bike used by top athletes, and able to achieve high speeds over rugged terrain. It’s not even our most expensive model.”
Leaf stares at him through this explanation. “I can buy a ponyta to ride for half the price. And it shoots fire out of its mouth.”
Red covers his grin as the man frowns. Before he can respond, the girl who walked in says, “Hey, I’m ready to purchase. Mind unlocking this one?”
“Of course. Just a moment, please,” he tells the three of them, and goes over to the newcomer. “Find everything okay? Have you had a chance to look around? I can answer any questions you might—”
“No thanks,” the girl says. “This is the one I want.”
He nods and bends down to unlock the bike. “As you say.”
“Hey.” Leaf walks over. “What made you choose that bike, if you don’t mind my asking?”
The girl glances at Leaf’s pokeball belt. “I’m just looking for the best deal.”
“Right, but how did you decide that? We’re not really sure ourselves.” Leaf gestures to Red and Blue, who’ve come by to join her. The store owner frowns at this, but continues undoing the restraints on the bike before taking it over to the register.
The girl’s gaze lingers on Blue, probably recognizing him. She shrugs. “I looked at all the ones in my price range and found the least expensive bike with the majority of the features and specs compared to those above it. The value of each dollar spent above this one starts to drop off pretty sharp.”
“There is a premium for getting the best of the best,” the man agrees. “But I’d say this is still only an average bike.”
She shrugs again. “An average bike for a way below average cost seems like a good deal to me. In any case, it’s what I can afford. If you guys have more cash, check out those two. They’re a bit better, for about a hundred extra.”
Blue examines the bikes she pointed to, then puts his hands on a silver one. “Alright, I think I’ll take this one,” he tells the shop owner, then looks back at the girl. “Thanks.”
“Make it two, please,” Leaf says, standing beside a bronze one.
Red checks the prices out and considers his options. He’s low on funds again, but when the abra sales finalize he’ll have more money than ever. Of course, it’s money he’ll have plenty of other uses for… and besides, he has the ability to teleport now. As soon as he masters free teleportation, he’ll just pay someone to fly him to every major city, and travel will be much easier.
That said, he doesn’t know how long that will take, and he’s worried about slowing the other two down in the meantime. “Is there much of a speed difference for these?” Red asks the girl.
“Nah, not really. Both have three gears, main difference is some better shock absorption and a more sturdy frame.”
The store owner seemed irritated by the cross-talk at first, but now he smiles as he finishes unlocking the bikes for Blue and Leaf. “Well, you certainly know your stuff. You work with bikes, miss?”
“No, I just did some studying up. Big purchase and all.” She glances at the trio, and Red fights the urge to defend his lack of preparation.
“I’ll take the same one she’s getting,” Red says. He looks at the bikes and picks out a dark green one.
“Alrighty.” The man unlocks the last one, then goes around the counter. “Can I interest you all in a cyclist starter pack?” He points to some container balls along the counter, placed above a glass display with a bunch of items under it. “Extra $140, comes with knee and elbow pads, helmet, basic repair and maintenance gear, and an extra tire. I’ll even throw in a watch: nothing fancy, but it can set alarms and do countdowns and whatnot. Comes with the container too, of course, which holds an extra large box with room for your bikes.”
The trio immediately turns to the girl. She seems taken aback, but nods. “Yeah, that’s a good deal.”
“I’ll take one, then,” Red says, and the others agree. The store owner tells them to pick out their helmets and pads while he rings everything up, looking much more cheerful. Red goes over to the wall of gear and stares at the variety of colors and styles available.
“Come on,” Blue says as he steps up beside him. “You know what we have to do.”
Red puts on a theatrical sigh as he watches Blue pick out a blue helmet and pads. “Do we, though?”
“You guys do,” Leaf says, picking out some bronze ones. “Mine are matching my bike.”
“See? She’s breaking the pattern.”
“Hey, some leaves look bronzeish, in the fall,” she says.
“Well, fire can burn green, depending on what’s being burned.” Red picks up the dark green helmet and takes his hat off to test the size.
“Hmm.” Leaf absently adjusts his jawstrap, then looks him over. “It looks okay. You know, I never actually asked, what’s your favorite color? I feel bad for assuming, but…”
Red smiles. “Yeah, okay, it’s red.”
“Well, there you go then. Besides, they’ll make your eyes even more striking.”
Red is glad she turns away before his blush becomes evident, and after a moment he puts the green away and takes the red helmet and pads. He sees her grin out of the corner of his eyes, and goes to join Blue and the girl, who already have their purchases. Hers are black, which matches her jacket and hair.
They all finish buying their gear and thank the clerk, then go outside to put everything into the storage containers and put their pads on. Red feels Pichu shift restlessly at all the movement, and carefully transfers the napping pokemon onto the ground, where he wakes and stretches, looking curiously up at Red as he returns the pokemon to its ball, “Thanks for the advice,” Red says, sitting to take his shoes off and slipping the knee pads on. He takes care to ensure the shoes are fit snug again when he puts them back on.
“No problem,” she says after the others echo him. “Happy all my research was able to help others too.”
“You caught us on a bad day, normally we’re more prepared than this,” Blue says. “You leaving the city too?”
“Yeah, heading south.”
“Same here,” Leaf says. “We should travel together, if it’s okay with your companions.”
The girl looks down, then lifts her chin a bit, as if bracing herself. “I’m on my own, actually.”
Red blinks, and studies the girl’s face again. He tries to re-estimate her age, maybe put her up to 13 or 14, but surely no more than that. Blue’s brow is raised too, and he exchanges a look with Red, who can tell that he’s also curious to know why someone as young as them is on their trainer journey alone.
The girl finishes putting her shoes back on and straps her helmet on, then sits on her bike and begins adjusting the seat and handles. She doesn’t elaborate, and the silence continues through everyone else doing the same. “Well,” Leaf says as she finishes getting her seat to the right height. “You’re all the more welcome to join us then, if you want.”
The girl looks at her, expression guarded. “Really?” She glances at Red and Blue. “Would that be okay?”
“Sure,” Blue says, and Red nods. “Safer for everyone.”
She smiles, and bows from the waist. “I’d love to. I’m Aiko Sakai. Nice to meet you all.”
They make introductions as they go, pedaling slowly at first down the main straight out of town to get used to their bikes. Aiko knew who Blue was, of course, and not just because of his name: she unzipped her jacket while riding and lifted it to the side to reveal a Cascade Badge.
“Nice!” Blue grins. “When did you get it?”
“Last night. I saw you a few times at the gym, but we never fought.”
“I thought you looked familiar. Sorry I missed your battle, I’ll have to check it out.”
“It was just my first badge, so I know she went easy on me. Not sure it was even recorded.”
“Hey, don’t downplay it. Was last night your first try? Then your gym record is better than mine so far.”
Red smiles as he listens to them talk shop. It’s strange hearing Blue be so supportive, but then, Red never really watched him interact with other battle trainers, so he doesn’t know if it’s common for him, or part of the other changes he’s observed in his friend lately.
The suburbs begin to thin out until the horizon opens ahead of them at last, revealing fields of green as far as the eye can see. Red feels a tremor of the old excitement again, the urge to run forward to the next adventure, even tempered by his experiences and fears. He wonders if he’ll ever lose it completely, and a small, quiet part of him knows he likely will, and pre-mourns its eventual loss even as he lets the sensation fill him, pedaling faster.
The others are at least as eager, and soon their bikes are flying over the winding road, eating miles until the outlying fields shift to ranch land, similar to the ones owned by Pallet Labs, but much bigger: acres of fenced off cultivated habitats, everything from tree groves to small lakes to artificial rugged mountainous terrain for rock and fire types.
But the majority are simple open grasslands where caretakers, trainers, and breeders watch, feed, play with, and train a wide variety of pokemon. At one point they spot a herd of ponyta running alongside a rapidash, and slow down as a group to watch their fiery manes and tails stream behind them. The rancher riding the rapidash waves to them, and they wave back.
“That’s Jona,” Aiko says. “He’s good with Fire types, so he regularly takes them into the mixed habitats.”
“You know him?” Leaf asks.
“I was raised around here. My dad runs a nursery on ranching land down south.”
“You grew up on a pokemon ranch? Did you help take care of them?”
“Some of the younger ones, yeah.”
“Damn, really?” Blue says. “I was only allowed to interact with Gramps’ pokemon. He wouldn’t even let me near the lab’s pokemon unless it was with supervision for a school assignment.”
Leaf nods. “Same, my mom and grandpa specially trained some of their pokemon for me to interact with, but that was it. All that early exposure must have given you a leg-up when you started your journey.”
Aiko seems about to say something, but then just shrugs and begins pedaling faster again. The trio speed up to match her, and Red catches the look of confusion between Blue and Leaf.
The land around them continues to change as they go further south, buildings spaced out farther apart as some of the ranch plots grow incredibly large, and not visibly occupied. The grass grows tall in many of these, and the group is careful to stick to the roads that keep some distance from any pokemon that might be wandering by. Before they left the Trainer House they discussed the pokemon found wild here, mostly pidgey, bellsprout and meowth, and agreed that rather than hunting for rarer pokemon in the area, their time would be better spent reaching Vermillion faster.
The one exception is pineco, which Blue was adamant about catching. They’re sometimes found in trees along the route, so every so often as they ride, Blue swerves to check under branches of any trees they pass by. So far he hasn’t had any luck, which leads to them riding for a few hours without incident.
Red is happy with the peaceful journey, but he can tell Blue is getting restless. He eventually steers closer to Red as they pass by a particularly wide open field. “Hey, this area looks totally unused,” he says, voice raised into a half-shout to be heard over the sound of their wheels and the wind. “Think we should try the abra trick here?”
“Abra trick?” Aiko shouts back.
Blue looks chagrined for a second, but Red sees no harm in explaining, since the sales will be finalized by the time they reach Vermillion, with the press waiting for a statement.
So he goes over what the three of them did while in Cerulean, then says, “We can’t do it here though, too big a risk of pokemon being driven into nearby fields! Besides, I’d want at least a day to scope out the area, like last time!”
Aiko seems excited. It’s hard to tell while they’re biking, and he doesn’t exactly know her that well. But then she asks what made him think of the technique, and Red is happy to go over the research and planning, though his throat is starting to hurt from all the yelling.
“Did you ever come up with something like that before?”
“Sort of!” Red says. “I’ve been trying to incorporate sound since we started our journey!” The near loss of his pokedex when his spinarak mistook it for a caterpie and nearly carried it away through the trees makes him shudder. “It has its risks, but it also saved Leaf and I during the Viridian Fire!”
“You guys were there too?”
“Oh, yeah, Blue actually went and helped stop the fire. I mostly just broke my arm and used my pokedex to scare off a couple dozen pikachu!”
She stares at him for a moment, keeping her bike straight without looking. “You chased off a horde of pikachu with just your pokedex?!”
“It sounds a lot more impressive than it was! I was mostly just terrified!”
“I was there!” Leaf yells back from ahead of them. “It was terrifying, but also impressive!”
Aiko laughs. “Forget taking care of pokemon, I wanna know what you grew up doing!”
“Uhh. Not much?” Red thinks. “I mean my dad was a Ranger, and he taught me a lot! Also I worked in Pallet Labs—”
“What! You worked with Professor Oak, and you’re jealous that I grew up in a nursery?” She shakes her head. “He’s one of my idols, I would kill to have a ten minute conversation with him!”
That can be arranged, Red thinks, but holds back from saying. Maybe better to surprise her, after making sure he can actually get it to happen. “I mostly worked with others in the lab, but yeah, I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says. “The pokedex software he gave me is amazing though! Without it I wouldn’t have started my research!”
“What about you, what model ‘dex do you have?”
Aiko doesn’t respond, staring ahead as she rides, and Red wonders if she didn’t hear him. Or maybe her throat is tired too. It’s the second or third time she’s gone quiet at odd moments in conversation, but Red tries not to read too much into it, because he knows if he does he’ll be tempted to use his powers. Instead he just enjoys the wind on his face, the physical exertion (though he’s about ready for a rest), and the variety of natural smells surrounding him. After spending a long time in a city Red always feels like he’s rediscovering his sense of smell.
Speaking of which…
“Do you guys smell that?”
They look around until they spot the source of the sweet, sugary scent: a lone tree off to the side of the road up ahead, not in any of the enclosures. As the wind pushes its branches toward them, the smell becomes stronger. Blue veers toward it, and they follow until they can hear the buzzing, each of them drawing up hard to avoid getting any closer.
“Combee hive,” Aiko says, breathing hard and wiping sweat from her eye. She points to the big yellow structure attached to the tree, each side of it riddled with triple-hexagon openings. “In their harvesting phase, seems like.”
Blue takes out some binoculars. “Yep. There are a few of them around it. More inside I bet… and… pineco! Five or six of them, near the bottom branches. Must be safe for them here, with the hive nearby.”
“Blue, maybe we should keep looking,” Red says. “There’s got to be some pineco around that we can catch without the risk of pissing off a vespiquen, not to mention all those combee.”
“Oh come on, there are four of us. Zephyr and Crimson can take care of the vespiquen, and between Charmander and…” He pauses and looks at Aiko. “Sorry, I just realized I don’t know what pokemon you have.”
“Against these, my best bet would be my spearow.” She examines the tree critically. “I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot, if I could get a pineco too—”
“-but we shouldn’t hurt them. Hives help pollinate the area, and combee are peaceful creatures. It’s not their fault we want the pineco next to them.”
Leaf smiles. “Plus one to all that.”
“So we need to do it without hurting them,” Blue says without missing a beat. “No problem, we’ve got a bunch of non-lethal options.”
Red and Leaf look at each other. “Does using my charmander to fill the hive with smoke count as harming them?”
Aiko holds a hand out and teeters it side to side. “Depends what’s being burned to create the smoke. It might not be poisonous, but it could cause them to take the hive apart and relocate if they think there’s a fire coming.”
“I’ll keep it as an emergency measure then. Maybe a sleep powder and gust?” he suggests. “Or we could use Joy. How’s their hearing?” He asks Aiko. “Leaf has a wigglytuff.”
“Not great, and their buzzing would interfere unless you got super close.”
“I think I have a better idea.” Leaf slings her bag off one shoulder and around her side, unzipping a pocket and taking a container ball out.
Inside its box she reveals the jar of combee honey that Professor Oak gave her. “The genuine article, and high potency according to your grandpa. If I smear some on a rock and throw it far off, they might all go for it. That way we don’t have to risk fighting any of them.”
“Brilliant!” Blue lowers his bike’s kickstand and climbs off it, then puts his bag down and cracks his knuckles. “Okay, so we’ll get our fliers out, Leaf will set the bait and throw it as hard as she can, then—”
“Hang on, why not just ride away with it?” Red asks. “Like the ranger in Viridian. And unlike him you can just drop the bait if they get close.”
Leaf frowns. “Maybe. What’s their top speed?”
Aiko is about to respond when Blue says, “They’re about as fast as skarmory and honchkrow.”
“…Which means what, in terms of actual speed?” Red asks. Blue shrugs, and Red smiles. “Super useful, thanks.”
“Their max is about 3 kilometers per minute,” Aiko says. “And they turn almost instantly.”
Red blinks, then takes out his ‘dex to check. “Huh. She’s right.”
Leaf whistles as she looks up at the combees, who are still flying slowly around in a lazy swarm. “That’s fast. Faster than me on a bike, in any case.”
“They can’t sustain it long, but yeah, it’s pretty much all they have, combat-wise,” Aiko says. “Their attacks are individually very weak, so they rely on a swarm to take care of any predators. As long as they can strike first all at once, they stand a chance. Otherwise they need to just overwhelm you with numbers, or have their vespiquen join and direct them. They communicate mostly by scent, so other odors can confuse or distract them. Most won’t go farther than about 8 kilometers from their hive, so any bait we use would be a bit short lived. They often lock the segments of their bodies together to face bigger opponents, and can drag them out of the air by sheer weight if needed.”
“Wow,” Blue says. “You swallow your pokedex or something? You sound like a bigger nerd than him.” He jerks a thumb at Red.
She looks away. “I just read a lot.”
“Don’t worry, that was actually mostly a compliment coming from him,” Red assures her.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Blue smiles. “It’s good to meet other competent trainers. So what about the vespiquen? I know it’s powerful, way stronger than a beedrill even without its hive to back it up, but not its nesting habits.”
“It’s at the center of the hive with a small reserve of female combee that stay with it at all times, and won’t come out unless it believes it’s under threat. All the other combee leaving won’t be enough to make it expose itself.”
“So, the bait idea could work,” Blue says. “We just need to get it farther, faster. Pidgeotto are quicker than skarmory, barely. I can tie the bait to Zephyr and fly it around in circles.”
There’s a pause as everyone considers this. “Yeah, that should work,” Aiko says. “Get some distance before you set the bait though, they’ll be on you almost immediately.”
“Right. So you three go up—”
“Uh,” Red raises his hand. “I have bad luck with trees.”
Blue rolls his eyes. “What, you’ll never climb a tree again?”
“You say that like it’s going to come up a lot.”
“What if there’s a super rare pokemon for you to research in one?”
“I’ll work on it, but now might not be the time to—”
“Don’t worry, I can do it.” Aiko has already dismounted and taken her bag off. “You each want one?”
“I’ll go too,” Leaf says. “We can be done in half the time. But we have to be careful. They coat the ground under them in spikes of hard chitin to keep predators from climbing up the tree. Red, you think you can boost us up somehow?”
He thinks about it. “Yeah, I’ll summon a container box and toss the lid by the tree’s base. Just jump onto it and climb from there.”
Aiko smiles. “Sounds good.”
“And don’t take any risks for mine,” Red says. “If there are extra in easy reach great, if not just get back down. I’ll be ready with Charmander if we need the smoke.”
Blue summons Zephyr. “Alright, let’s do it.”
“Hang on.” Red takes his bag off and lays it on the ground, then drops into lotus position. “Let’s not rush. They’re not going anywhere, and no one’s life is in danger. Five minutes of thinking about any problems with the plan, no conversation. If we can’t come up with a better plan or have no other changes to suggest, we go forward. Agreed?”
Leaf sits, legs folded beneath her. “Agreed.” Blue remains standing, but nods.
Aiko looks at the three of them as they think silently, and blinks. Eventually a slow smile spreads over her face. “Do you read Giovanni’s blog, by any chance?”
Red grins. “Yes! You too?”
“What self-respecting trainer doesn’t?”
Red coughs and looks at Blue, who folds his arms. “Hey, I’ve read a few!”
“And I’m not from Kanto, so that’s my excuse,” Leaf says. “I did read a couple after meeting him though.”
Aiko’s mouth drops open. “You met Leader Giovanni?”
Leaf grimaces. “It’s not… whatever you’re thinking. Ask me about it later. Anyway, what about his blog?”
“Oh, it’s just that he made a post about this yesterday. Isn’t that what you’re doing, a premortem?”
“Damn, I didn’t get a chance to read yesterday’s yet actually,” Red admits. “The last one I read was about the—”
“Wasn’t it good?”
“So good! I had no idea he was the one that pushed to make checklists mandatory in hospitals—”
“Oh sweet Arceus there are two of them now,” Blue puts his hands over his face.
“He’s just upset because I made a checklist for our trip,” Red explains, which makes Aiko laugh. “Anyway, premortems?”
“Right, yeah. So a postmortem is when you look at something that’s dead and examine how it died, right? Premortems are a way of visualizing a task before you begin and focusing on what could go wrong. No, sorry, not just what could go wrong: imagine things have gone wrong and then figure out why. The psychologist who came up with the term suggested it for teams that might normally have trouble with groupthink or have other reasons to avoid mentioning problems. Giovanni gave a bunch of examples where trainers would benefit from it too.”
“Huh. Okay, so what else do we do?”
“Everyone visualizes that the plan has gone wrong, then writes down reasons why. Then we take turns listing what we thought of, and change our plans accordingly.”
For once Leaf beats Red to taking out a notebook, and she tears a sheet out and hands it to each of them, along with extra pencils. Blue joins them on the ground so he can press the paper against his leg to write on it. “Okay. Five minutes, right?”
Red sets a timer on his new watch. “Five minutes, starting… now.” Red centers his breathing first, then closes his eyes and pictures the plan from start to finish. He flags a concern immediately in putting honey on something for Zephyr to fly around with, so he opens his eyes to write that down and keeps thinking. They get to the tree, Red sets up beneath it, the two climb up… the pineco are passive, when hanging, and if they can lock on and catch them without too much noise or vibration to the tree they should be easy to get without a fight.
No, stop thinking of how things can go right, focus on what goes wrong. The plan has already failed, totally. What probably happened to cause that?
The first thing that comes to mind is the honey dripping as it’s whipped about in the air and falling on Blue, so that the combee converge on him. In that case Red would trigger a smokescreen while Blue gets whatever the honey sticks to off and runs. After they abort they can reassess.
So how to stop that? An umbrella at least prevents it from getting somewhere he can’t easily wipe it off. Is there any container the honey could be in that would keep it from falling out, while still letting it emit its scent? There’s nothing Red is carrying that would do that, but maybe the others have something.
Next, the tree. Aiko says the vespiquen won’t come out unless the hive itself is threatened, but assuming she’s wrong, or them climbing the tree shakes the hive enough for her to come out, again, smokescreen and run for it. Alternatively, the three of them can stand and fight. If they capture it fast enough the swarm might not have time to identify them as a threat and attack, though he’s pretty sure Leaf and Aiko would be upset by that outcome.
Last, the pineco. If the tree vibrates enough with them climbing it to wake them up, the two should have their pidgey and spearow on standby to defend them. Pineco can’t do much when threatened, but they are capable of blowing themselves up if they think they’re going to die, so in either case a quick capture or a quick escape is best.
Eventually his watch vibrates, and Red opens his eyes and resets it. “Everyone ready? Who wants to go first?”
“Ready… set… now!” Leaf uncaps the honey, and Aiko dips the sponge into it, then lifts it out and dangles it to the side by the rope tied around it as Leaf caps the honey and puts it away.
“Ice Beam!” Maturin shoots a freezing ray at the sponge, crystallizing the viscous liquid being absorbed into it before any can drip off onto the towel they prepared. They’re downwind of the tree and Red doesn’t know how fast scent travels, but it sounds like the buzzing of the combee is already louder.
Blue lifts his flute to his lips with one hand and his umbrella with the other, then sends a piercing note through it, followed by a few more. Zephyr takes off, clutching the length of rope in his talon so that it yanks the frozen sponge into the air.
When he gets high enough another series of notes causes him to bank in the air toward the tree in a looping circle. It’s not just Red’s imagination now, the combee are louder, and they’re moving. More of them pour out of the hive and zip toward Zephyr as he wings past, and soon there’s a whole swarm of them chasing the pidgeotto around in the sky.
Red waits until no more come out of the hive, then yells “Go!” and dashes with Leaf and Aiko to near the base of the tree. He can just barely see the dark teal shards of chitin that are littered around the grass, sharp and large enough to punch through their shoes if they step on them. He summons a container onto the grass while the girls summon pokemon, then quickly grabs the lid off and tosses it to form a plank. Aiko runs across it first, then Leaf, and soon both are climbing while he brings Charmander out and waits beneath the hive as the girls carefully start climbing, with Bulbasaur and Aiko’s venonat, Winter, stationed below with him.
Red takes the extending bug catcher net he’d clipped to the back of his collar and extends it as he keeps his eyes on the massive hive, breath audible in his facemask as he watches for the slightest sign of the vespiquen. He feels the urge to use his powers and see if he can get a sense of her mood, perhaps even an early warning of whether she’s coming out… but he forces himself to remember what happened with Maturin, and quickly dismisses the idea. He’s never tried connecting with a Bug type’s mind before, and even if he didn’t know they were infamously harder for psychics to read, now is not the time to try out experimental psychic abilities.
The fact that the urge came to mind is worrying in itself, though. He’s been tempted to use his powers more and more as his control has improved, and he’s starting to wonder if it’s simple curiosity or something else. Are psychic powers addictive, in some way? Beyond the normal addictive qualities of any new experience or power trip?
Not the time to think about this. He focuses on the task at hand, glancing occasionally to the others to check their progress. Leaf and Aiko reach the bottom branches and successfully capture a couple pineco, the pokeballs dropping to the grass. Red quickly walks onto the container lid and uses his net to roll the pokeballs toward him, then grab them and clips them to his belt, which he emptied except for Charmander’s ball. Leaf tests the branch above her, but it’s too thin for her to climb up without the whole thing shaking. As she looks for another path up, Aiko nabs a third pineco, drops it too, then goes for a higher branch.
Red claps his palms once, causing her to look down. He makes an X with his hands, and points to Leaf, who has found another branch with two more on it. He flashes six fingers, then makes a ring with his thumb and forefinger.
She nods and starts climbing down just as Leaf finishes catching the two and lowers herself to join them.
Behind them, Blue’s notes have changed pace, causing them all to turn and look. The swarm isn’t following Zephyr anymore: they’re all buzzing around something on the ground.
Uh oh. Either some honey melted and fell, or, more likely since all the combee are there, the sponge fell. They quickly withdraw their pokemon, and Leaf grabs the net from Red as he puts the lid of his container box back on and withdraws it. Leaf clips the sixth ball that Red didn’t have space for onto her belt, then collapses the net and hands it to him as they run for the bikes.
Blue already brought Zephyr down beside him, and as soon as he sees them run for the bikes, he heads for them too, commanding Zephyr to follow. Leaf and Aiko bring out their pidgey and spearow to follow too, and Red has a moment to miss his own spearow again. How do I still not have a flyer! He glances at all the combee flying nearby, but keeps running. They’re not particularly useful or interesting to him, and it’s not worth going near the swarm.
They all make it to their bikes, grab their bags, and mount up. The cloud of combee is dispersing in all directions, and a few come toward them.
“Gust!” Leaf and Blue both yell, and Zephyr and Crimson send bursts of air out that knock the combee away, sending them flying off in other directions. Within moments the four pedal away as fast as they can, and soon they leave the buzzing behind completely.
By the time they stop for a rest, everyone is tired and sweaty and more than happy to sit on the grass beside the road, or in Red’s case, flop onto it and gasp like a fish. He spent little time in Cerulean doing physical training compared to the other two, and he makes a mental note to not make the same mistake in Vermillion. He’d make a physical note, but his arms are stiff and he’s too tired.
“Nice job, everyone,” Blue says after he catches his breath. Zephyr has landed beside him, and Blue feeds him some berries before withdrawing the pidgeotto. “How many did we get?”
“Six,” Red says. He rolls onto his stomach and unclips the five pineco and puts them in a pile along with the one Leaf carried, while the girls feed and withdraw their own pokemon. “How are we dividing them? One for Blue and I, two for Leaf and Aiko?” He takes an empty ball out of his pouch and offers it to Leaf.
“One is fine for me,” she says as she takes the ball.
“I’ll take two, then,” Blue says, and hands a ball to Leaf and Aiko. “You okay with that?”
“Sure, I’ll sell my extra.” Aiko says.
They all start registering their pokemon… all but Aiko, who just admires the two pokeballs in her hands. Red catches her glancing at the trio’s dexes, but she stops after she sees him noticing.
Before he can ask about it, Blue finishes and puts the ball away, then brings Maturin out. He points to his face and says “Soak!” Red rolls away in time to avoid getting splashed by the gush of water that hits Blue’s face.
“Gross,” Aiko says, but she’s smiling. “You know that’s not pure water, right?”
Blue shakes his head, sending droplets all over and causing the others to cry out in disgust. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t stick like sweat does, so it’s a step up.”
Leaf shakes her head and brings Bulbasaur out too, feeding him a pokepuff. “Hundreds of virtual hours spent training pokemon to learn the difference between attacks they can use on humans and those they can’t, just so you can get a quick bath in the field.”
“Why not just use your water bottles?” Red takes out Pichu and Charmander’s balls and summons both so they can enjoy some time in the wild. Charmander sniffs along the ground and crawls off, tail held high, while Pichu goes over to Leaf, who smiles and splits off a piece of pokepuff for him as well.
“Too cold. Besides, Mr. ‘Crammed Canteens’ wants me to waste drinking water now?”
“You’re right. Hey Leaf, what alliterates with ‘washcloths?'”
“Don’t you dare,” Blue warns a grinning Leaf, who sticks her tongue out at him and mouths “wet” after Blue turns his back. “I don’t know what the fuss is about, Maturin will replenish her water soon enough.”
“Yeah, and if we’re attacked meanwhile and she runs out of water, we can die happy that at least your face isn’t sticky.”
Aiko’s giggles cut off Blue’s response. She holds a hand up to cover her mouth. “Sorry, it’s just… you guys are strange.” She watches them care for their pokemon for a bit, then summons a sandshrew and takes a snack bar out, breaking pieces off for it.
“Nice get,” Blue says. “Catch it near Mt. Moon?”
“Yeah, on the eastern slopes.”
“I wanted one for Surge, but never encountered any.”
“Who are you going to use for your Challenge then?”
“Still deciding on my lineup. Maturin helped me get the last two badges, but she’ll have to be benched for this round. What about you? Who’s your starter, anyway?”
Aiko doesn’t respond right away. She’s looking down at her sandshrew with a small frown, and Red’s about to say something when she sighs and unclips another ball. “Go, Sneaker!”
A small raticate appears. It looks around in alarm at all the pokemon, then relaxes when Aiko opens her palm and offers it a handful of berries. “Say hi, Sneaker.” She runs her fingers through its fur as it eats. “I caught him a few years ago, as a rattata.”
“Oh. Neat.” Blue’s face is carefully expressionless, but Red can guess his thoughts.
Leaf’s the one to ask the question. “If you don’t mind telling us, how old are you, Aiko?”
“So… you’re about our age. You started your journey when you were… what, ten?”
“No.” She’s quiet again, stroking her sandshrew, then speaks without looking up, “Actually, I’m not on a journey. I’ve been training my pokemon for a few years, but mostly around home. I got my Trainer License just last week.”
The three stare at her as she continues to feed and play with her pokemon. The wind blows her hair against her face, and when she tucks it behind her ear Red can see the slight flush in her cheeks.
“So that’s why you’re traveling alone?”
“Yes. The farthest from home I’ve been are the areas around Cerulean and Saffron. My dad thinks I was in Cerulean to visit my aunt. I was, but she didn’t know what I was up to most days.” She looks up at them. “Neither of them knows I have a license now. He wouldn’t let me get one when I was young enough to need permission, so I saved up money for pokeballs and potions and trained whatever I caught in secret. The money for this bike was my birthday present from both of them, and I spent so much time researching so I could get a good price and still have some left over for trainer supplies. I would have bought a used one, but I think he’d notice.”
The trio listens in silence. “Why doesn’t your dad want you to be a trainer?” Red asks quietly.
“My mom was killed in a pokemon attack a few years ago, and he thinks I’m too young to do it alone. Wants me to wait until I’m older, since I don’t know any other kids who are ready for their journeys.”
“So… you don’t have a pokedex? How do you train your new captures?”
“My mom’s old dex. It’s at home. I learned to reprogram it.”
Red winces. Pokedex technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the years… even if her mom’s pokedex is just ten years old, it would be considered ancient by today’s standards. Each pokemon’s virtual training would take, what, three hours to transfer to their ball? Maybe more? “That sounds tedious,” Red says as Pichu climbs up his arm and settles in her familiar spot around his neck.
“I can’t believe you’ve been training for years on your own,” Blue says. “That’s really… well, reckless for one thing.”
Aiko’s head snaps up. “Easy for you to say! Your grandfather is Professor Oak, you were just handed a rare and powerful starter and have two friends you can travel with—”
“It’s also really brave,” Blue says, smiling.
She blinks, then lowers her head so that her hair swings forward and hides her eyes. “I’m sorry. You’ve all been nice to me, and I’m just struggling with some jealousy. It’s not your fault.”
“Why not come with us?” Everyone turns to Leaf, who shrugs. “I mean, I haven’t asked Red or Blue about it yet obviously, but it would be okay with me. You seem smart and competent and nice enough. And like Blue said, the more the safer.”
Aiko stares at Leaf like she’s a pokemon that learned to talk, then slowly turns to Red and Blue, eyes wide.
Blue smiles. “I guess I did say that. What do you think, Red?”
Aiko looks at Red alone now, and the intensity of her gaze is unsettling. It’s just full of such… hope. He feels like saying no would crush her, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a decision that should be made lightly or under pressure.
“Give me a minute?”
“I’ll give you an hour!” Aiko says, then dips her head again, biting her lip. “I mean, yeah, take your time.”
Red nods seriously, and closes his eyes again. It’s not a plan, exactly, but he still visualizes his agreement going wrong somehow. Despite liking Aiko so far, he imagines himself a couple months from now regretting the decision. Why?
She could be a thief. We don’t even know if it’s her real name, she might grab our stuff tonight and just run. She could be a bad trainer. Maybe she gets one of us hurt, or our pokemon get killed trying to help cover for her.
He feels like he’s not going deep enough. It feels wrong somehow, trying to imagine why you might regret befriending someone, but he slips his mind deeper into the free-flow of thoughts and lets himself consider everything he just learned about her. Her dad doesn’t want her to be a trainer, maybe she’s concealing something from us. She’s poor, maybe she can’t afford the same tools or gear as us and we’ll keep having to buy her things to not feel guilty. She admitted to being jealous, it might get worse over time and cause arguments and bitterness.
There are a lot of potential negatives, but they’re all just that: potential. He can’t really plan around them the way he could the results of the pineco plan premortem. At best he can be more aware of them in case they pop up and address them quickly if they do.
Because the benefits really seem to outweigh the negatives. A fourth companion means a safer team, through her extra pokemon and a new complement of skills. She seems to be smart and intellectual, like him, care about not harming pokemon, like Leaf, and is going for badges, like Blue. Red briefly wonders if she’s too perfect, but he can’t imagine why someone who knows the three that well would want to mess with them. To steal Professor Oak’s pokedex software, maybe? Best to keep an extra eye on his tonight just in case.
But beyond that, she said she grew up nearby, and she should get her dad’s permission before leaving with them anyway, so he can put some of that paranoia to rest if he really needs to. Red checks the list of pros and potential cons against each other again, then opens his eyes. Blue and Leaf are waiting with an air of curious patience that Aiko is failing miserably to imitate. If she’s a spy, she’s either very good or very bad.
“I vote yes.”
Aiko lets her breath out, grinning from ear to ear, until Blue says, “Then I have just two questions for you, to get my vote.”
“Yes?” she asks, back to nervously twisting her fingers together.
Blue’s gaze fixes unwavering on hers. “Two of us here have made a very solemn promise: to fight against the Stormbringers, if ever they attack somewhere near enough for us to reach. You don’t have to join us, but I have to know if you’re okay with that. Don’t just say yes: whatever we’re doing, we drop it and go. You may have to wait a long time for us to come back. We might not come back. Understand?”
Aiko’s nervousness seems to have faded, and to her credit she appears to be giving the question serious consideration. Finally, she nods. “I think so. And yeah, I’m okay with that.”
“Good. Then my second question is this: will you have trainer battles with me?”
Aiko blinks. Blue asked the question with the same intensity he did the previous one. “I… right now?”
“I mean at all.”
“Of course! How else will we get better?”
Blue grins, all seriousness dropping away. “Okay, you’re in.”
Aiko takes a moment to react, but when she does it’s to simply bow until her forehead touches the grass.
The first night out, everyone jokes about how excited they are to be roughing it again, without the luxuries of beds or showers, but they make better time than expected, and as the sun begins to set they’re almost halfway to Saffron City. Aiko says her house is on a ranch near the express tunnel that goes under Saffron city, and they should reach it tomorrow.
“Do you think your dad will be okay with you coming with us?” Leaf asks as they set up camp.
“I’ve been tempted to message or call him about it, but I think it’ll be better to ask in person.” It’s clear that she’s nervous, but she does her best to hide it as she brings her sleeping bag out of its container and sets a lamp up beside it. “I can take first shift, if you guys are tired. Or last shift. Or one of the middle ones. Whatever.”
Red smiles. “Relax, we’re probably not going to sleep right away. And it’s appreciated, but don’t feel like you have to constantly try to please us, you know?”
“Besides, sleeping less than three hours is kind of a waste anyway, right?” Leaf says.
“Is it three hours or two?” Blue asks.
“Either way, having two people get middle shifts sounds terrible. Might as well let one person get a full night’s sleep and alternate.”
Red lets them talk it out as he sits on his bedroll and begins meditating. He cycles through his mental states quickly and practices fighting down the surges of sadness that envelop him. It’s hard, so he switches to sensing nearby minds to distract himself and make sure there aren’t any pokemon nearby or underground.
He senses nothing but Leaf and Aiko’s minds, and realizes that this is the first time he has tried his powers in a place that’s guaranteed to have no others around to distract him. He smiles as he concentrates on nothing but their two steady-stream-of-raindrop-impressions on his mind, grief momentarily forgotten. He doesn’t extend his mind out to feel what they’re feeling, but it’s strange how even without doing so he can tell the two apart. Aiko’s is… quicker? No, more energetic. No that’s not the word, it’s frenetic compared to Leaf’s calm…
Red maintains the sensory field as long as he can without tearing up, then drops it and tunes back into the conversation. Aiko is talking about how she usually sleeps at Ranger Outposts while traveling alone. Leaf describes some of those they’ve visited while Red takes the rock Psychic Ayane gave him out and puts it in his palm.
Round, solid, slightly rough. Lift.
They start describing their various catches, and Aiko mentions that besides her raticate, venonat, spearow and sandshrew, she also has an oddish and krabby.
Feel the texture, the weight, the wholeness of it… slip between… and lift.
“I think I’ll sell one of the pineco, but the other I’m definitely keeping. They make amazing tanks and trap setters.”
Blue lets out a breath. “You have no idea how nice it is to be traveling with someone that speaks my language. Yes, I’m going to teach mine to trap the shit out of the battlefield, and as long as I take out any fire types they have…”
Feel the rock. BECOME the rock. LIFT THE GODDAMN ROCK.
“Is there an advantage to using two?” Leaf asks.
“Might sell one too, after I check which is stronger, but I might also keep both and train them differently. It’ll work well for faking others out too, when people know my teams well enough and expect one. I’ll have to be careful with nicknames…”
Okay, change of tactics. Do not try to lift the rock. Instead realize the truth: there IS no rock.
“Red?” Leaf asks.
“Hm?” He opens his eyes to find them looking at him. “Sorry, what?”
“Oh you’re practicing,” Leaf says. “I thought you dozed off, sorry, go back to it.”
He sighs and drops the rock. “Nah it’s fine. What’d I miss?”
(“Practicing what?” Aiko whispers to Blue.)
“I was just asking if you’ve decided on any nicknames for your pokemon yet.”
(“He’s psychic, trying to lift the rock.”)
“Ah, no. Not really. I mean, technically I’ve named my abra—”
(“Oh! Cool! But don’t they practice by bending spoons?”)
“That’s great!” Leaf grins. “What did you name them?”
“My sensei said I’m not advanced enough for spoons yet,” he tells a surprised Aiko. “They’re for practicing moving parts of things you’re not directly touching.” He turns to Leaf with an embarrassed smile. “Uhh, I named one Bill and the other Cerulean.”
(“Did he use his powers to tell what we’re talking about?”)
Leaf covers her eyes with one hand. “Red, you can’t name your pokemon after the locations they teleport to! That’s not a nickname, that’s just labeling!”
(“No, you’re just whispering really loud.”)
“Look, I’m trying okay? I don’t really…” He trails off as he hears something. “What was—”
Blue leaps to his feet, followed quickly by the others as everyone summons their starters, eyes scanning the darkness around them. Leaf’s head snaps up as her hand swaps Bulbasaur out. “It’s wings! Above us!”
Blue and Aiko also swap their pokemon out while Red grabs the lantern and puts it in the middle of the camp. “Everyone back to back, four points!”
They set up around the lantern with Charmander, Zephyr, Crimson and Aiko’s spearow at the ready, the light no longer ruining their night vision as they scan the starry sky. There are clouds over the moon, but still there’s enough light for them to spot the pokemon winging down toward them.
“There are two, and they’re big,” Blue murmurs, and Red feels his pulse redouble in speed. “I’ll send Zephyr up when they-”
“Hellooooo the camp!”
Red blinks. He knows that voice…
Blue curses and rubs his eyes, withdrawing Zephyr with his other hand. “Gramps! You scared the shit out of us! Why!”
Relieved laughter escapes Leaf as she returns Crimson too, and Red smiles at Aiko’s shocked expression. “It’s okay, we know them.”
“‘Gramps?’ As in…?”
With a few final, mighty whumps of displaced air, the pidgeot lands in the grass just outside the lamplight. From its back slides Professor Oak, in all his lab-coated glory, and a moment later a second massive bird lands behind it, which Red recognizes as Daisy’s swellow by its bright white and red breast.
“Oh, come on, you can’t expect me to miss your birthday just because you’re out wandering the world!”
“It’s not until next week!”
“Yeah, but where’s the surprise if I came then? Hello Red, hello Leaf!”
“Hello professor,” they chorus. “How did you find—ah, the pokedexes, right?”
“Yep. And who might this be?”
Red smiles and turns to the dumbfounded Aiko. “Professor Oak, this is Aiko, a new friend of ours. Aiko, I believe you said something about killing to talk with your ‘idol?’ At least now that won’t be necessary.” He sees Daisy dismount from her swellow, and then… help someone else down? Oh. Red suddenly realizes what’s about to happen and flushes slightly. They’re only a few days apart, after all…
“It’s… such an honor, Professor,” Aiko stammers as she bows low.
“Hiya kids!” Daisy says as she walks into the lamplight, followed by—
“Laura!” Leaf rushes forward to hug her.
Red’s mom looks surprised but pleased as she returns the hug. “Hello, Leaf. It’s good to see you again.” She looks up at Red. “Hi hon. Happy early birthday surprise!”