Guardian – Chapter 2

The rest of the school day crawls by, one boring introductory class after another. Most teachers just introduce themselves and go over the general topics the class will be about. Some of them hand out ungraded quizzes to test people’s general knowledge. In English class, the teacher calls for the book report that was assigned over the summer. Terra doesn’t have it, and doesn’t bother making an excuse. He can’t exactly tell Mrs. Banilovo that he didn’t read the book because his dad was murdered and a magical being of pure, capricious evil became his new primary caretaker.

A few months ago the idea of missing such a big part of his grade would have bothered Terra at least a little. Getting bad grades usually makes him feel shitty, but the worst part was always telling his dad and seeing his disappointment. Won’t have to worry about that anymore, a bitter voice inside him says, followed by a flood of shame. Still, he can’t deny that a part of him is glad he doesn’t have to put up some front of normalcy and try to pass his classes. He just has to do the bare minimum that would avoid some parent-teacher conference.

His final period of the day is Social Studies, and Terra picks the desk right next to the door. He sits with his backpack on, staring at the clock as the teacher drones on about expectations for the coming months. The last few minutes toward 4PM finally tick by, and Terra stands as soon as the bell rings, heading out the door and barely noticing the startled look the teacher gives him. His thoughts are entirely on the meeting ahead as he walks quickly toward the back exit of the school.

Puck keeps up with him effortlessly, having stationed himself by the doors throughout every class. The fae doesn’t bother him during class time, some part of his oath no doubt counting that as harmful, but as soon as they’re on the move again, the devil on his shoulder is back.

“You should postpone this. Practice questions and answers with me, use some of your dailies to gather more knowledge-”

“I know. But the longer I wait the more damage she and the others can do,” Terra says. “Especially now that she knows I know what she is. I’m doing this, Puck. Today. So what can you tell me that’s actually useful, knowing that you can’t talk me out of it?”

Puck’s placidly amused mask slips, and for a moment some mix of haughty annoyance and boredom leaks through, there and gone in a blink. If Terra hadn’t been watching close he may have missed it. But he’s picking up a few tricks in deliberately invoking the Oath to do what he wants: if he’s right, making it clear that he’s committing to an action will force Puck to do his best to make that action safer.

After a moment of silence, the fae speaks again, and his tone has his usual careless cheer. “Do not accept any gifts. Do not offer any gifts. Do not say anything that can remotely be interpreted in any way as a promise or commitment of any kind. If your senses confuse you at any point, if you suspect even for a moment that she might be using glamour on you, then chances are she has.”

Terra glances at his Guardian. “What would she do?”

Puck shrugs a shoulder. “Impossible to know ahead of time without knowing who she is or what any of her titles are.”

Not reassuring. “Could she have done that in the cafeteria?”

“Harder with so many around, without warning or time to prepare. You’re removing every safety net by doing this.”

Terra frowns. If Puck had put it like that before, Terra might have actually listened to his warnings about this being a bad idea. The Oath may compel Puck to act in Terra’s best interest, but the fae still has to recognize the optimal strategy before he can be compelled to do it. “So what do I do if that happens?”

“Break whatever patterns she forms, keep her off balance. Irreverent improvisation, responding to sudden changes, these are skills that many fae do not hone, as they tend to disrupt the roles in our stories. This is less true of the exiled rabble around here, but you should still break whatever pattern you’re in if you notice one. Bark like a dog, jump up and down while spinning, take your clothes off and throw them around. Act unpredictably enough and her glamour will break, particularly if she’s the one setting the tone and tempo of the conversation. Of course, this will likely irritate her, but you must be constantly paranoid of your surroundings and ready to attempt a breakout at any time. She may test you with little things: be vigilant. Take nothing for granted.”

Terra nods along as he shoves his way through the crowds of students blocking the halls. After a moment he stops, frowning… then jumps around in place, quacking like a duck.

Everyone in the immediate vicinity slows and stares at him, a few giggling or rolling their eyes. His face flushes, and he keeps walking.

Puck tilts one hand up and taps his fingers against its palms in mocking applause.

Terra doesn’t react, still embarrassed by the way everyone looked at him. He reminds himself that he’s no more at school to make friends than he is to get good grades. As long as he avoids truant officers showing up at his door and finds other fae so he can throw a wrench in their plans, the rest doesn’t matter.

But it still makes his stomach feel hollow, knowing he’s probably going to be seen as a freak or clown all year.

“What if things go south?” he asks. “Can you take her in a fight?”

“If you are stupid enough to goad her into physical action, I will be compelled to defend you.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Puck lets out a long suffering sigh. “I am stronger, but without knowing her nature or seeing what preparations she has made, I cannot guarantee I would escape unscathed, nor can I guarantee I could stop her from escaping or harming others if she chooses. After which we will need to be constantly on our guard by her and any others she may call to her aid.”

“But if push comes to shove, you can defeat her,” Terra insists as he pushes his way through the growing crowd.

“Yes,” Puck admits at last, and his grin is savage, bringing out the sharp angles in his cheeks and jaw. “But it will cost, foolish boy.”

“That’s fine,” Terra says as he goes down some steps. “I just needed to know how much I’m able to bluff.”

Puck studies him for a moment as they walk, then he chuckles. “Turn your shirt inside out,” he says.

Terra glances at him, brow raised.

“The image she has of you is one she can channel power through. Change something of yourself, and whatever she may have cast will have less of a hold.”

Terra grimaces, then makes a sharp turn into a bathroom. First day of school, and already the floor is wet and a soap dispenser is empty, its bright pink innards spilled all over the sink. There’s only one other boy inside, a kid from his homeroom who’s picking at a pimple, and Terra gives him a brief nod before finding a stall and going in. He sits on the toilet lid and tries to think quickly. If he inverts his shirt, it’ll be really obvious. He’d rather the fae be left wondering whether he did something on purpose or not.

Instead he quickly takes his shoes off, then turns his socks inside out before putting the sneakers back on. Another moment’s thought, and he takes a pen out of his pocket and doodles on the back of his hand. “Enough?” he mutters to Puck, whose eye is peering through the opening at the sides of the door. Why do they build these with such wide gaps?

“It’ll do.”

Terra puts the pen away and flushes the toilet, then steps out and washes his hands. The boy gives him a curious look, and Terra realizes he didn’t hear any peeing. Oh well. He goes back into the hallway, which is now even more crowded with students.

“If you’d told me this earlier I could have been prepared before the bell rang,” Terra says, trusting the noise and chaos around him to hide that he’s talking to himself.

“Had I known the depths of your stubbornness, perhaps I would have.” Puck’s movements in the crowd are almost hypnotic, a sidestep here, a body turn there, dancing between gaps in people that seem too small to fit him, his clothing brushing others’ without him actually touching anyone. The fae appears to have eyes on the back of his head, so effortlessly does he glide through the crowd… a feat that’s surely just for fun, since Terra knows he could make the students step around him instead. Or maybe not: he’s never seen his guardian use glamour on a crowd this big and tightly compressed, before. An important potential limitation to ask about later.

“Any other hard rules?” Terra asks as he reaches the doors to the parking lot and steps out into the sunlight, gaze roaming over mostly empty spaces. Not a lot of kids here can afford a car, and most here look old and used. Terra’s house is a fifteen minute walk, so he has no bus to catch. He spots the fae standing outside the gate, to all appearances still looking like a normal teenage girl. The chatter of the emerging crowd of high schoolers fades a little as he walks toward her, away from all the cars.

“Don’t do anything to reveal my presence. And don’t try to attack her.”

Terra considers this, and realizes he has a golden opportunity to find out something important without using one of his daily questions on it. He slows his steps. “Can I bluff that I’m ready to attack her?”

Puck’s jaw tightens, and he seems to be weighing something carefully. Terra doesn’t quite trust this serious side of the fae: normally he just assumes that any emotions Puck shows are carefully controlled and crafted to reveal only what Puck wants Terra to see, but it’s possible the oath has forced him to drop some of his subtlety. Or perhaps he’s putting on such a serious face because of the oath, to make Terra take what he says more seriously…

Well, it’s working if so.

“If you feel it’s necessary to prevent her from attacking you,” Puck says at last.

“Great. So what are some deterrents I could use?”

“You have nothing with you that would be a credible threat to her.”

Hmm. Well, it rules some things out, at least: now he knows fae aren’t weak against anything he has in his bag or pockets. “Let’s say I have to threaten her at some point. What’s the best way I could do it?”

“Put your hand in your pocket and act confident,” Puck says, and speeds up his steps before Terra can say anything more. His guardian steps off to the side, gaze downward as he approaches the other fae. He begins to playfully leap forward twice, then to the side, feet turning on their toes as he abruptly steps away from Terra, jumps sideways, turns 90 degrees, extends a foot in front of him and falls forward onto it…

Terra does his best to ignore Puck’s antics, keeping his gaze on the girl in front of him. He thought he was used to his guardian’s eccentricities by now, but then the thought occurs that he might be doing something important. Avoiding wards on the ground, maybe? It would make sense for the fae to set up protection after picking a meeting spot. Terra just hopes Puck’s confidence in his abilities are justified.

“So,” the girl says as soon as he’s within talking distance. “What say you? Two questions for one, under the same rules as our original bargain?”

Terra takes a deep breath. “First some introductions. I don’t know what to call you.”

“Valentina will suffice, as long as we are simple class mates.” She smiles. “Would you like to be something more?”

Terra doesn’t need Puck to shake his head from behind her to know the answer to that. “Val it is, then. I’m–”

“Terra, yes. And our bargain?”

“I won’t speak any more about Puck at this time,” he says, face straight.

Her smile fades, eyes growing cold. “Then what have you to bargain with instead?”

“How about a peace treaty?”

She smiles once again, but it’s different this time: slow and mechanical, like little wheels in her cheeks are spinning to draw her lips up on wires. “Ooo, how exciting.” The expression continues to grow, far past amused and into the uncanny valley of a creature trying to pass for human, her teeth showing in neat ivory rows that appear too clean, too perfect. “I did not realize we were at war. Shall we battle, then, so that I can judge the value of your peace?”

Sweat drips down Terra’s neck as his heartbeat flutters. She wasn’t thrown off by that at all, if anything she seems to be enjoying the prospect. Terra tries to control his breathing as he keeps his gaze on hers above the macabre grin. “If I thought you were stupid enough to want to fight, I wouldn’t have even approached you in the first place,” he says. “Fighting you would be inconvenient, and cost me time and effort I would rather not waste.”

Her head tilts to the side, and she begins to walk around him, her movements showing the same feline grace that Puck walks with. “But why would you wish to fight me at all? I’m sure there’s much we can learn from each other… help each other with…”

Terra doesn’t turn when she gets behind him, trusting Puck to protect him so that he doesn’t appear afraid, though the back of his neck itches as she disappears from sight. “Because you don’t belong here. I want you to leave the students alone.”

“Belonging is such an unfathomable thing,” she says from just behind him, lips an inch from his ear, and he flinches despite himself. “Consider the two of us, for example. I have been here for years and years, while you have just arrived, know no one, would not be missed.” She sniffs, and walks back around to his front. “It seems clear to me that you are the interloper here.”

Terra suddenly realizes that the fae is placing them into Roles. Puck spoke about this, a way that fae resolve conflicts through storytelling, pitching their own character against their opponent’s and arguing the clear dominance of their will through story narrative. If Terra can win this, he could greatly weaken the fae’s influence over him and the other students, perhaps even weaken her core being, if her nature is tied enough to the Role she’s taking on. But if he loses, she can gain power over him, and he can be restricted in his very thoughts and actions by the Role he’s been branded with.

A spell in the form of a story, Puck had said. A glamour woven word by word, by all who speak and to all who hear.

Terra folds his arms to hide the trembling in his hands as he tries to look relaxed and think of a way to flip her narrative around. “All of that can change,” he says as she circles back around him again. “I can make friends, become a part of the community. And through it all, I’ll be human, just like them. You’re not, can never really belong to a human school the way another human would.”

“And yet soon you will be gone, as thousands before you, while I shall remain here, a fixture, part of the very soul of the Alton High School experience for generations.”

“Generations who have forgotten you,” he lobs back. “Whose yearbooks are you in? Who remembers you once they’ve left? A particularly shitty substitute teacher can reside in a student’s memory longer than you.”

The fae’s smile is smaller now as she passes in front of him. “Remember or not, it is my interactions that affect them, the services I provide that makes me invaluable, unparalleled in impact across the school staff or student body.”

“You don’t perform a service. You’re only here for your own benefit.”

“Are merchants not entitled to some profit? The students here have their needs, like any others. Their woes,” she says, and Terra’s chest aches with grief, thoughts of his dad flashing through his mind. “Their pains.” He grits his teeth as the grief vanishes, replaced by a throb of agony from his pricked finger. “What I offer is the means to solve or salve them. The choices are always theirs.”

“Hard to make a real choice when you don’t know the full truth,” Terra says, relying on Puck’s description of how the fae folk tend to operate. “You deceive them in some way with every transaction, even if you don’t lie.”

“Is it Truth we serve, brave Knight? Then Truth we shall battle with. The girls you saw, whose names you do not even know, they each suffer a different sorrow. Trisha a difficulty with money, her family too poor to even buy her food for every meal. Kelly fears for her mother, drinking herself into a stupor night after night. And Alma, poor Alma.” The fae sighs, one hand rising to her forehead, palm out. “She has nightmares of her grandfather’s hands, she’s afraid for herself, afraid even more for her younger sister–”

“Stop,” Terra says, throat dry. Lying, she’s lying–

No, they have to speak truth.

Exaggerating then, goading me into–

“Does the Knight no longer serve Truth? Who is your new master, then, tell me, so that I may serve them too.”

“You don’t want to help them,” he says, pulse picking up as his face flushes in anger. “You just like being part of their suffering.”

“Oh, this one does know us. How gratifying, to be seen. But only in part, dear Knight, for when they accept my gifts, as they surely will, I’ll revel in their joy as well.” She smiles, and the clouds part to release a beam of sunlight onto her face, wreathing her hair like a halo. “Whatever they may feel, the good or ill, the excitement and despair, it’s all a part of what makes your mortal lives so precious!”

Terra stares at her, mouth slightly open. She’s… beautiful. An angel. He wants to kiss her, to bow his head, to kneel-

“Ahh!” Terra throws his arm over his eyes, staggering back a step. “Such beauty! I am besotted!”

There’s silence for a moment, and Terra lowers his arm. The “sunlight” is gone, the fae staring at him with the flat eyes of a doll. “Have a care, child. Mockery is the pastime of fools. That can be your Role as easily as a Knight.”

Terra worries that he pushed her too far, but Puck is twirling a finger in a “go on” gesture, and so Terra says the first thing that comes to mind. “But I don’t know how to juggle.”

It feels weak, but the girl isn’t paying attention, instead scanning the trees behind her. Terra’s heart thumps in his chest as she looks right at Puck, who twiddles his fingers cheerfully at her. But she turns back to Terra, eyes narrowed. “Who are you communicating with?”

“What are you talking about?” he asks, knitting his brow together in what he hopes is a convincing look of confusion.

“Your fear is too shallow,” she says, head tilted back as one finger caresses her neck. “It is here…” The hand moves lower, splays over her belly. “But not here. What gives you such courage, I wonder? I took you for some wizard’s get, or a hedge mage, but even they would know more to fear. If you’ve truly learned from some fae, and are here to prevent me from interfering with the lives of others, then you must be aware that you’re being used, yes?” She seems to be talking to herself as she starts to pace again, and Terra doesn’t offer an answer. “Or are you willingly acting their agent? Which is it? Foolish, or prepared?” She suddenly stops walking around him and steps forward, nose flaring, and he steps back, hand going into his pocket. She stops, eyes glancing at his hand before returning to meet his.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but back off.”

“Your eyes have gone unfocused twice. You’re hearing something I am not. No? Seeing something, then… but trying not to draw attention to it… yes, that’s it. Now you’re more nervous. It takes so much effort, to keep it secret. It would be easier to just tell me. One less secret to keep. You want to tell me. You feel the answer, fighting to get out.”

Terra clamps a hand over his mouth as the he feels himself about to speak, and the answer gets lodged in his throat. Literally: it feels like there’s something in his throat, squirming and wriggling as it tries to escape.

Her hand rises, fingers curling as she beckons. “That’s it. Come on out, now…”

He feels like he’s going to vomit, except instead of bile there will just be the word “Puck.” He’s about to run for it, hope to get far enough before the word comes out, then quickly takes the pen from his pocket and jabs it into his leg.

“Pnnngfhhucking ow!” he yells, eyes closed against the sharp pain. He lifts his fist and inspects the damage: the tip didn’t penetrate his pants, but he knows he’ll have a spectacular bruise beneath it soon.

The fae’s eyes gleam. “Clever boys should not reveal a weakness so readily. How many holes will you poke in yourself if I ask again, I wonder? Let’s find out…”

“You’ve just proven my point,” he says, trying to ignore the pain and force her back on the track of the narrative. “You professed a love of humanity, but free will is one of our most cherished values. That’s why I want to stop you from interfering with their lives. Free will is too large a part of being human, something you’ll never understand if you keep using tricks like that.”

The fae’s eyes narrow. A moment of silence passes, and Terra wonders if he said something important, but doesn’t dare look to Puck to check. His guardian has moved out of his field of vision, likely having the same thought.

“Unfettered decisions is an unrealistic standard,” Valentina says at last. “I do not subvert their values or coerce their choices, thus their will is their own. I simply offer them help, and they can choose to take it.”

“Your gifts are poisoned,” Terra quickly says, still trying to find his footing, then remembers what she called him: a Knight. “I’ll help them myself, so they don’t need your ‘gifts.'”

“A challenge!” she trumpets, and Terra jumps a bit, startled. “I accept your vow, most solemnly stated. Help the three fair maidens, oh noble Knight, and my power over them shall be broken!” she sobs, hands covering her face. When she reveals it, her grin is back, and this time her teeth fill her mouth in a nest of countless needle-thin spurs, her eyes glowing blue like some deep sea creature’s lure. “But if you fail, I shall feast on your intestine.”

Terra feels horror creep up his body like cold, dark water of unimaginable depths. He remembers Puck’s warning, tries to will himself into doing something spontaneous and at odds with his feelings, but he somehow just… can’t, the fear is paralyzing, and a moment later he recognizes that it’s not a glamour, he’s actually afraid of what this monster would do to him if he fails.

“More,” he croaks through numb lips, and his voice quavers. He clears his throat and makes an effort to sound confident. “I need more. You have to leave all the students here alone, not just these.”

“Such demands are not yours to make.” She breathes deep, savoring something in the air, those glowing eyes lidding halfway as her grin widens even further. Her face looks like a mask stretched too tight from behind. “I am not some lesser fae, driven to gamble no matter how lopsided the wager. Try for these girls if you feel compelled, but if you wish to intervene with others, you must do so in the same fashion, one by one.”

Terra tries to think through what he’s agreeing to, but it’s hard with a literal monster grinning a few feet away from him. “I don’t need your permission talk to or help them. If you have nothing to offer, then I’ll feel free to take more drastic steps to interfere with your games.”

“Ah yes. This… peace treaty you spoke of. I must admit I find myself curious of what exactly you’re threatening to do… especially while you sweat through your shirt from just speaking with me. It might prove an even better diversion than your oh-so-noble challenge.” She steps closer, and her nails abruptly sharpen and elongate into claws. “Do you really think you can win a fight with me, child?”

“I won’t have to,” he quickly says. I’m safe, Puck will intercede, I’m safe… “I’m nervous, sure. I would be stupid not to be. But that doesn’t mean a fight with me wouldn’t cost.”

Valentina makes a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a pair of scissor blades sharpening against each other… but her claws retract, her face returning to its normal teenage self. “Very well then. What do you have to offer in this peace treaty?”

Terra is careful not to sigh in relief. “The way that I found you? I can teach it to others.”

“Magic is not so easily taught and spread. And to pierce the masquerade so blatantly would earn you enemies far greater than I.”

“It’s not magic,” Terra says. “Just a trick anyone could learn.”

Her eyes narrow. “But those who learn of it can still point to you as the teacher.”

“Nope. I don’t even need to teach it to people directly.”

There’s silence for a moment, brief as a heartbeat. “You lie.”

To that, Terra just smiles. He feels jittery, his blood pounding in his ears from a mix of fear and adrenaline, but he hopes the smile, at least, shows all the confidence he feels. He’s thought about it, of course, just letting the world know what’s really going on, putting the proof out there somehow. He’d have to bring the idea up with Puck later to see what the consequences might actually be.

Whatever the fae sees in it makes her fingers tap together. “A temporary restriction,” she says at last. “For the duration of the wager, I’ll not offer others my gifts. We’ll play for these three only, you and I.”

But Terra shakes his head. “Peace treaty, remember? Not a wager. I don’t plan to haggle over how much time you’ll give me or what stakes there are if I win or lose. You know my intentions and the boundary I want you to abide by. And now you have some idea of the consequences if you step over them.”

Valentina appears angry for a moment, but then she laughs. “Oh, yes! Your intentions are quite clear!” She laughs harder, the sound gaining an edge of hysteria to it. “Ahh, and the consequences! Oh, this will be fun!”

Terra stares at her, unnerved but not wanting to show it. Particularly since he has no idea what makes this so amusing. He has a bad feeling Puck is going to tell him how badly he screwed up, but he can’t exactly check now. “Right. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. See you around.”

Valentina has tears pouring down her cheeks now, laughing so hard her face is red, one hand braced against her knee. She nods and waves a hand at him in a shooing gesture, then begins to laugh even harder, eyes closed as she leans against the fence. Terra begins to back away until he’s past the gate, then turns around and hurries in the direction of his house, her laughter following him off the school grounds.

The trip home is uneventful, a fifteen minute walk through suburbs that all look the same punctuated by constant checking of the map on his phone to make sure he’s going the right way. Terra made some token effort to get to know the town of Hillsboro when he got here, even knowing that they would probably move again in a year or so, but after the one-two punch of his father’s death and Puck’s appearance flipped his world upside down and then sideways, he had too much on his mind to care about learning the lay of yet another American small town.

Puck is a silent figure beside him as he walks, both from lack of speech and lack of audible footsteps. The fae is walking on top of a metal fence, his feet carefully balancing on each tip with what Terra suspects is false care, considering how gracefully Puck usually moves. Terra would say his guardian is brooding if he knew what a brooding fae looks like. Or rather, a brooding Puck: now that he’s actually met another fae, it’s easier to think of Puck as an individual among a specie, with what are probably his own quirks.

Terra isn’t sure what to make of Valentina. She seemed to have a flair for drama, which is different from Puck’s constant nonchalant playfulness. More willing to become visually monstrous, to frighten, though part of that may be the pact restricting Puck’s behavior. More to the point, she also seems a bit more… unhinged.

If he’s interpreting Puck’s silence right, his guardian is either furious with him or trying to think of the best strategy to ensure Terra’ well-being. Or both. But that’s fine with Terra, so long as whatever it is doesn’t get in the way of helping the other students.

Which is what he’s worrying about now. Regardless of his long term plans to get rid of the fae at the school, for now he can undermine Valentina by helping with the things that are driving them to accept the fae’s double-edged gifts. Which means all he has to do is help a family overcome poverty, a mother deal with alcoholism, and…

“…nightmares of her grandfather’s hands…”

Terra shudders. Okay, that one definitely gets dealt with first.

“So?” he says at last. “Did you learn anything from observing her?”

“Very little of importance,” his guardian says from above him.

“Importance to who? No, better yet, to what goals?”

“The only one that matters, of course. Ensuring your well-being.” His guardian’s tone isn’t mocking, but it doesn’t have to be. “She was careful with what she did so as not to reveal anything of her domains or titles. She suspected from the start that you may not approach alone, and she did not forget the potential presence of another just because she acted as though she did.”

Terra waits, but Puck doesn’t deign to say anything further. He decides to change tracks and start working on the more immediate problem. “You once mentioned a rune for changing my appearance and voice… what’s the cost?”

“No measly prick of your finger, you can be sure. But you would live without lasting harm, if given sufficient time to rest. Still, I must advise against it. To trick another in such a way can have complicating effects–”

“I don’t mean the blood,” Terra interrupts, impatient with Puck’s standard warnings against him doing anything besides wake up, eat, and go to school. “I mean the part that makes the specific effect.”

“Ah. Mind your terminology: a cost is paid in the moment to activate the glamour, an exchange is what’s put in ahead of time to inscribe the rune. I should think it would be obvious?”

The mesh fence gives way to a wooden one as they pass a yard with a large German Shepherd behind it. Terra half-expects it to rush at them, barking its head off at the fae beside him. Instead it trots alongside them, and Puck does a quick handstand so he can briefly pet it before flipping forward onto his feet. “Not really,” Terra says after the distraction ends. “I get why I had to give up some sleep to be able to put others to sleep with the other rune, but I don’t understand what I’d be giving up to make people think I look and sound different. My appearance? My voice?”

“Such are for much more powerful glamours. If it’s not a change in the essence of the world itself you wish, but just a fooling of another’s senses, then an equivalent exchange would be similarly fleeting as that which you impose on the other.”

Similarly fleeting. Why would someone seeing or hearing a disguise be fleeting? “Will their memory stay the same? Like after an hour will they still remember my disguise, or will their memory of the event change?”

“No more or less than all memories do.”

Ah. “Memory itself, then. Memory is fleeting. I have to forget what someone looks and sounds like, to mimic them.”

“Again, I must warn you that–”

“How long would it last?” Puck didn’t deny it, which Terra is taking for now as moderate evidence that it’s true.

The fae is silent for a long while, and Terra worries that the fae just thought of something that would stop him from answering. “How long would it last, Puck?” No answer still, and Terra reaches out to shake the fence picket. The fae quickly skips to the next one, which does nothing to lessen Terra’s anger at being ignored. “I want to remind you that I’m doing this with or without your help. If you don’t answer my questions it’ll just be more dangerous for me.”

“Naive genius,” Puck says, tone bored. “Clever idiot of a child. If you were half as smart as you believe you are, you would not have walked right into her traps back there. Instead I must now give serious thought as to whether your well-being actually would be improved by you failing in your endeavor, failing in so spectacular a way that you are put beyond her reach… such as perhaps in a jail cell.”

Terra’s throat is dry, and he struggles not to panic as he reminds himself that while Puck may not be outright lying, he’s almost certainly being deceitful in some way. “I’m noting your insults as a reaction to you disliking me finding a way around your three question limits, and not letting it influence my decision.”

“Note them however you wish: I’m bound by my understanding of the pact, not yours.”

“But you will still tell me what traps I walked into, because even you know that can help me avoid them in the future.” Terra tries to sound confident.

“Unless it makes you so overconfident that you blunder right into another.”

“That’s…” Terra can’t think of something to say, so he just says, “Stupid.”

“Bravo. Your pithy rejoinder has convinced me.”

Terra doesn’t bother asking what it’s convinced Puck of. “I don’t find it convincing, is what I mean. So if you hope it’ll change my behavior then you’re wrong, and should act accordingly.”

Puck hops down onto the sidewalk and walks beside him, hands clasped behind his back. “Do you truly not see it? She set you up in the role of the Knight, and despite your initial misgivings, lured you by the nose until you leapt headfirst into it.” Puck shakes his head and sighs. “The Fool indeed would have suited you better, but their stories can often end in unexpected victories. She chose well to seal your fate.”

“I think I can fulfill the Role.”

“Can you, now?” Puck sounds cheerfully curious, but Terra has learned to hear the cutting edge beneath the words, the tone of laughter that delights in his misfortune. “And how many monsters have you slain? How many oaths have you sworn and abided by? How many innocents have you championed? Who have you saved, ever, in your paltry sixteen years of life?”

Terra’s face is flushed by the end of it. The answers, of course, are none and no one to all of the above. But… “Every story starts somewhere. Maybe this is mine.”

And Puck only shakes his head, and lets the silence fill with nothing but Terra’s footsteps as he finishes walking home, each scuff of sneaker on pavement somehow sounding like fool, fool, fool

Terra feels a familiar ache as the house comes into sight, a bland one story building with a small yard and fence around it. Its emptiness echoes to him from a block away. When he first arrived in town, it was like any other place they’d rented: peeling paint, plain curtains drawn over the windows, no personalized welcome mat or signs of habitation. Just a place to keep his meager possessions and sleep at night for the year or so before they moved again. Nothing to get attached to, nothing to mark it as a “home.”

Now, however, he knows it will never be that to him, but also that it will never be the same as all the previous places, never be as easily let go. It would always, to him, be the place his father died. The last place they lived in together. Terra hasn’t given much thought to what he would do in the future, but he knows that despite the pain it brings him to return to it every day, leaving it will be harder, a renewed wound waiting in his future.

He unlocks the door and lets it swing open with a creak, standing in the threshold for a moment as the pain returns, the momentary expectation of seeing his father at the kitchen table, surrounded by old books, a cup of hot chocolate and a distracted, but warm, smile waiting for him.

Instead the house is dark and empty, and he walks inside, letting Puck close and lock the door behind him as he goes straight to his room and lets his bag fall to the floor.

The ache in his chest is getting stronger. He knows why, knows that his time is nearly up, but he lets it linger for a little while, lets himself feel it as best he can. His throat becomes clogged, tears threatening to seep through his eyelids as he lies on his back in bed and struggles against the urge to reach up to his necklace. He won’t use it this time, he won’t, he’ll just… let it come crashing over him, let himself feel it, and it’ll be better after, he’ll feel better…

But a few minutes later he’s curled up in a ball, sobbing into his sheets, and his hand moves on its own to the silver coin hanging from his neck. His thumb rubs over it three times in quick succession, and the pain immediately begins to fade, the hole in his chest closing rapidly until all he can feel is the numbness again.

When he finally dries his face and sits up in his bed, the first thing he sees is Puck, crouching over the far side of the bed with his toes on its frame. His face is appropriately solemn, but his bright green eyes gleam with some inner satisfaction.

Your gifts are poisoned. That’s what Terra said, to the creature that called herself Valentina. So it is with all fae gifts, perhaps all magic. Anything that seem too good to be true, someway, somehow, the cost comes due. But even if he feels frustrated that the girls taking her gifts wouldn’t consider that…

Well. He can’t judge them too harshly.

Terra turns away from the creature and busies himself with taking his shoes off. His breaths are deep to control the anger that comes in the wake of freshly grieving his father. The pendant takes the sadness away, but only dulls the associated emotions, and just looking at Puck is like salt to an open wound.

“You dodged the question before, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. So. Losing my memory of what someone looks and sounds like seems too easy for a glamour so strong. There’s got to be another catch. Do I just lose the memory of what they look and sound like? Or also the other memories associated with them?”

In his periphery, Terra sees Puck make a show of looking at his wrist, which suddenly appears to have a watch on it. Terra closes his eyes and tries to reset his expectations when he opens them, but the watch is still there. Which means either the glamour is stronger than he expected, or Puck stole someone’s watch.

“It doesn’t appear to be tomorrow yet… would you like to negotiate for more questions?”

Terra’s jaw clenches. “My well-being is tied to helping these girls. How can you justify not answering?”

“Your well-being is unaffected at all by whether you help these girls,” Puck says with a smile. “You did not agree to any consequences to yourself, remember?”

Terra considers Puck quietly, wondering if he’s pretending not to understand, if he can even do that, or if he really missed it. “You can’t seriously think that Valentina’s going to let me live?”

Puck’s brow rises.

“The trick,” Terra explains. “The one that can help people see her. I deliberately told her about it so that she would consider me a threat. There’s no way she’d let someone who can teach others to find her just walk around free. She’s probably hoping to find out what it is before she attacks me, but maybe she’ll just kidnap and torture me… what?”

Puck has been shaking his head. “You humans. Always thinking on such direct lines. So ignorant of the richer tapestry that makes up the threads between us all.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Valentina will not attack you directly,” Puck says. “You don’t need to understand why. It is enough that I know it.”

Terra’s pulse begins to pick up again, heat blossoming in his chest as he stares at that smug, smiling face. “What if you’re wrong? You can’t take that chance, or your arrogance would get me killed. You–”

Puck laughs, clutching his belly and falling backward off of Terra’s bedframe only to land on the desk chair behind it, body draped over the seat as his feet stay kicked up over his bed. “Oh, do excuse me… it was just so amusing, to be lectured by a relative infant about what I know and don’t know about my own kind.” He takes the headphones off Terra’ desk and puts them on, then opens his play list and begins to scroll through his music library.

Terra is up in a flash, heat flooding through him as his pulse pounds in his head. He steps toward Puck and makes a grab for the headphones, but the fae somehow tilts his head just right, and Terra’s hand passes by. He tries again, and again, touching nothing but air.

“Ah, love this one,” Puck says as he selects a song.

Terra’s head pounds with his heartbeats as he kicks at Puck, but the lithe blonde uses his hands to grip the chair and push himself up, avoiding Terra’s foot. Terra kicks again, then punches at him, fist connecting with the back of his chair as Puck slumps lower in his seat, then crouches on it in one smooth motion that avoids another kick to his legs.

Anger makes Terra’s vision blur, and he suddenly grips the chair and yanks it away from the desk…

…only for Puck to calmly step off of it, headphones still on as begins to tap his foot to the beat.

Terra swings the chair at the fae with a cry of rage, and Puck leaps backwards over him with a somersault that results in the chair bashing his monitor off his desk. The wires pull his computer tower over, and the power cable is yanked out of the wall.

Terra stares at what he’s done, anger briefly overwhelmed by shock and regret. The headphones lie on the floor, and he turns around to see Puck calmly straighten and brush off his spotless clothing, icy green gaze insolently meeting his.

“Is there anything else you require of me, or should I prepare dinner?”

Terra just barely restrains himself from lashing out at the fae again. “Get out–” Icy fear suddenly floods him as he realizes what he almost said. “–of my room and bring food. I’m hungry.”

“As you wish.” Puck bows, then turns on his heel and steps out.

Terra puts the chair down, then collapses into it, breathing hard as he struggles to get his emotions back under control. Stupid. Fucking stupid. He knows from experience what happens when he tries to attack Puck, he’s done it half a dozen times at least since the fae first showed himself to Terra and admitted to killing his dad. Each time, it’s been like fighting a phantom, or a mind reader, like trying to punch smoke, always whirling and flowing just beyond his reach.

Terra eventually remembers to use the calming techniques his dad taught him, closing his eyes and breathing deep, focusing on the feeling of the air rushing through his nose and into his lungs until his heartbeat begins to slow. Stray sparks of anger and flushes of heat keep returning, but soon his thoughts are flowing in other directions again, and he replays what happened in his mind’s eye with something other than frustration or shame.

Terra’s eyes open, and he looks up at the ceiling of his room. He stands from the chair, then lifts an arm until his hand touches the ceiling.

His fingertips brush it, and he stares at his arm, considering the length of it. Could Puck’s body really pass through a space that small without hitting the ceiling? Was he that agile and compactable? Or was Terra just attacking a glamour all along, or maybe just at the end?

He lowers his arm and presses his hands to his face. He can’t cry: the locket doesn’t just take his sadness about his dad, it takes it all, but he feels a bone deep weariness that’s somehow worse than tears, a sense of hopelessness about his life. The world went mad three months ago, and at this rate he knows it won’t be long before he joins it.

After a minute he lowers his hands and stares at his computer, not feeling the energy to pick it back up. He knows he just hit the monitor, the computer itself is probably fine, but with his luck the way it fell onto its side damaged something in it anyway. He doesn’t want to know, if so, wants to delay the truth.

What’s true is already so…

Terra’s eyes squeeze shut at the sound of his dad’s voice in his head, but there’s no accompanying stab of grief, just the hole in his chest that does nothing to stop the rest of the Litany of Gendlin from coming.

What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true…

“For they are already enduring it,” Terra whispers, staring at his computer. He takes another deep breath, then crouches down and straightens the tower up, puts the monitor back on his desk and plugs the power cable in.

He hits the power button, fully expecting nothing to happen… but the familiar beep and hum of it coming to life eases some tension in his chest. It boots up quickly, and he watches the monitor with trepidation until the damage becomes clear.

A massive blotch, discoloring the whole screen, concentrated on the left half of it. The pixels are dead at the center, but he supposes he should be lucky it works at all.

Terra signs in and gets to work. The internet is a blessing and a curse. Hundreds of books and articles, tens of thousands of pages of information available to read all about magic and fairies… and the vast majority of it isn’t true, or is only partially true, or is missing key bits of information. Looking for charms/glyphs/runes/glamours that change one’s appearance and voice isn’t the hard part: finding one that at least somewhat matches what he already knows about how it should work is.

His stomach growls in hunger as he skims through page after page, hours removed from his sparse lunch. When Puck returns with a lamb stew that makes his nose wrinkle, he starts eating without complaint or wondering where Puck got it. The broth and meat have a sour taste, but it’s not as bad as egg salad, at least.

“I must tend to my own sustenance, now,” Puck says from the doorway.

Terra eyes his guardian. “Must have taken a lot out of you, keeping so many spells going throughout the day. How much time will you need?”

Puck shrugs a shoulder. “It will take what it will take. I must ensure that you will not leave the house and potentially endanger yourself while I’m gone, however.”

“Since when?”

“Since you began a crusade to interfere with beings that could make your life a living nightmare.”

Well, when you put it like that… “So what exactly are you going to do?”

“I’ve already set wards to protect against intrusion, but I still need to extract a simple agreement from you that you will not leave the house while I’m gone. It is to your benefit to do so.”

Terra snorts. “Right. And what will you do if I don’t agree?”

“Stay. Be weakened by my inability to properly care for myself, and be potentially unable to properly defend you if the situation calls for it.”

Hm. Not much he can squeeze out of this without shooting himself in the foot, then. “Tell you what, I’ll agree to that if you agree to pick me up something I actually like to eat when you’re out.”

“Have you been dissatisfied with my service?”

“Perish the thought. But I would be more satisfied if you brought some pizza back.”

“Pizza is bad for your health,” Puck says, to all appearances deadly serious. “The pact would not allow me to–”

“Oh that’s bullshit, plenty of people–” Terra frowns. What exactly does Puck know about human nutrition, anyway? “Whatever, a hamburger then. Normal sized. Throw as many vegetables on it as you want.

Puck’s mouth twists. “And in return you promise to remain indoors?”

“Until you return, or midnight, whichever comes first.”

“So mote it be.” He gives a mocking bow, then turns away.


The fae looks over his shoulder, eyebrow raised.

Terra’s face is set, voice a deadly whisper. “If you try something clever with this that messes up my enjoyment of my hamburger, I’ll never agree to such a thing again, and we can both go down in flames together.”

Puck grins, tips an imaginary hat–no, wait, a hat actually appeared on his head while he made the motion–then walks away.

Terra waits until he hears the front door close. Then he waits a little longer, still researching the glamour to change his appearance.

After about half an hour passes, he quickly saves all his notes and opens a new tab in his browser’s incognito mode. He types “how to kill fae” into the search bar, and begins his true research.

Chapter 51: Link

Red bikes to the Vermilion Gym with his metapod in the basket. Its emerald body gleams in the sun as its half-lidded eyes stare at the shifting world around them, occasionally moving to track his bellsprout as its sinuous body climbs around it through the gaps in the plastic, shifting to keep its leaves in the sun as he turns through the city streets. His legs pump faster as he sees a stretch of empty sidewalk ahead, and he stands on the pedals for a moment, enjoying the morning breeze against his face.

It’s a week after he met with Sabrina, and his days have become filled with attending Gym classes and testing battle strategies against other trainers. With the Cruise Convention just a few days away, however, it’s time to finally check “Attend Electric Pokemon Class” off his list.

Of all the things he’s going to miss about the city, the most unexpected one by far is its gym. Despite originally going mostly to humor Blue, after his second visit with Leaf he ended up staying long after she left, attending more classes and signing up for another battle to test his command code. He felt out of place at first among the group that Blue and Aiko had gathered, but the others were so friendly, and the gym staff so knowledgeable and supportive, that he quickly began to enjoy himself. There’s an atmosphere of camaraderie that he didn’t expect, a very real sense of belonging that comes with being surrounded by people dedicating themselves to the same goals and helping each other along the way.

He tried focusing on his psychic training the following day, but it was difficult and emotionally taxing enough that progress was slow, and the entire time he was distracted by thoughts of what he learned at the gym the day before. After lunch he talked himself into going back for a quick “break” of a class or two that ended up lasting the rest of the day, and then trainer battles into the night, which he justified by remembering his promise to help Charmander evolve. By the time he returned to the Trainer House that night, he already had plans to return as soon as his pokemon recovered, and that’s exactly what he did the next morning, writing some quick thoughts down as he sat in the Pokemon Center waiting room before dashing off to meet up with the others again.

He never realized how much the Gym classes had to teach beyond just pokemon battling, but that’s not his only reason for going day after day: he always looks forward to the next one, but in truth it’s the pokemon battles that have been dominating the majority of this shower and biking thoughts. It started from just wanting to try out his ideas on efficient command use, but once he started seeing each match as a puzzle that he had to be smart and creative and quick enough to solve, the allure of facing new opponents and optimizing his strategies became addictive.

Red even watched a trainer battle online, which he never expected he’d do of his own free will. He found himself curious after the Professor’s story about Sabrina, however, and decided to find the video online.

Even knowing the outcome ahead of time, it had Red on the edge of his seat. Leader Kiyo didn’t bother with any of the showmanship or lessons that Brock or Misty engaged in with Blue: he spoke nothing but commands, his pokemon attacking without restraint. But Sabrina and her pokemon were always one step ahead, driving Kiyo to greater and greater extremes. Great chunks of the arena began to crack and split as Kiyo’s final pokemon, a gargantuan machamp that was almost nine feet tall, struck the ground in what would likely be killing blows if any of them connected with Sabrina’s alakazam.

She must be reading the Machamp’s intentions before it attacks, Red thought as Sabrina simply kept dodging until the machamp collapsed to its knees, unable to withstand the invisible psychic assault from her pokemon. But she can’t be joined fully with her pokemon at the same time, can she? It must be trained well enough to pick up what to do from what she senses… Unless of course she simply joined with her alakazam as it reads the Machamp’s thoughts while attacking, but to split her attention that many ways and still be able to think straight, let alone well enough to battle, is ridiculous. Red can still barely distinguish his abra’s physical sensations from his own.

The video was both humbling and inspirational. It’s why Red has been incorporating his psychic powers into his training sessions as a way to add some psychic practice into his days, so he can try using them in combat again. He hasn’t done so since his battle with Blue in Cerulean, but he’s developed his abilities a lot since then, and his strategy for tonight’s battle will rely on him maintaining a connection throughout the battle.

Red reaches the gym and dismounts, then places his pokemon carefully on the sidewalk and withdraws his bike and its gear. He also withdraws his bellsprout, but keeps the metapod out so he can lift it into a new sling he bought for his bag. It’s hard to read the metapod’s emotional state even if he’s using his powers, but it settles into the sling without fuss as Red lifts his bag onto his shoulders and carries his pokemon through the lobby and toward the locker rooms so he can change into the gym clothes. Since the pokemon is so bad at battling, its best bet for evolution is to just spend as much time out of its ball as possible so it can finish its metamorphosis.

Once he’s clad in khaki and olive, he heads onto the open field and breaks into a jog toward the building the class is located in. Red’s head doesn’t turn on its own to watch the various classes and activities going on around him anymore, but he does occasionally spot someone from the group and exchanges waves with them if they’re not busy.

Red feels a surge of satisfaction as he reaches the Electric Training building without being out of breath, pleased that the extra weight of his metapod hasn’t tired him. Unlike his time in Pewter and Cerulean, he’s been staying much more physically active, and it’s paying off.

Red feels a brief surge of disorientation as he walks through the door, similar to the feeling of teleporting with his abra. One moment he’s in an open field, with an implicit understanding that the buildings around him will each have the same basic, utilitarian aesthetic as the rest of the gym. The next he finds himself in a very high-tech facility, everything from the light sources to the floor made out of unusual material.

He makes his way to the class he’s attending and finds a large room with wide stalls to each side of a central walkway. The floor of the stalls looks strange, but Red recognizes the thermoplastic polymers and teflon covering almost everything else. About a dozen other trainers are already inside, most milling around the front of some of the stalls, so Red picks an empty one to place his bag beside. He looks inside and finds a range of strange objects around the target dummy in the center: a tree branch is protruding out one of the walls, and a rod of some metal is sticking out of the ground near the dummy, as well as a few boulders of varying sizes.

Red looks around. No one else is exploring their stall, and he hopes that doesn’t mean they’re not supposed to. He unslings his metapod and puts it beside his bag, feeds it some berries, then walks in to look around.

There’s just enough room for himself and a pokemon to circle the pokedoll at the center, in this case a machoke with its arms outstretched and its mouth open in a yell. Red wonders what the point of the various objects are, and takes the ultraball from his belt.

“Go, Pichu!”

The electric mouse materializes and looks around in confusion, nose wiggling. He registers the machoke as a potential threat, but Red claps twice, and Pichu relaxes. He turns to Red and immediately bounds over to climb up his pant leg and onto his shoulder.

Red laughs and nudges him down his arm, then flings him up in the air. The mouse tumbles and lands on its paws, then runs back toward Red to do it again, squeaking excitedly all the while.

After a few iterations of this, Red is ready to tell his pokemon to attack the pokedoll, but realizes some of the other trainers are gathered at the front of his section to look in at them. He let Pichu rest on his arm rather than flinging him up again, walking back into the main aisle with a slight blush.

“Aren’t you worried it’ll get hurt?” one of them asks as he approaches.

“Nah, I’ve already looked up safe heights for him to fall from. He and my charmander both like jumping, so I’ve been letting them compete for treats to see who can go higher.”

“Oh. Why?”

One of the other trainers answers before he can. “Because it’s easier for the pikachu family to fire stronger attacks downward than laterally or upward.” The girl notices everyone’s attention on her now, and adjusts her glasses. “I mean. I’m guessing that was why?”

Red smiles and shifts his shoulders as Pichu runs along them behind his neck. “Yeah, I figure the more he gets used to jumping and leaping from tall objects, the easier it will be for him to use height in attacks.”

“What about shinx?” one of the other students asks. “Do they work that way too?”

“Or magnemite?”


The other trainers are all talking at once, and the girl and Red try to answer questions as best they can. The rest of the trainers in the room gravitate toward them to listen and occasionally ask their own questions.

“I heard absolute height matters too,” one says. “Like they get more charge if they’re higher up—”

“I don’t think that’s right,” the girl says, “But maybe it depends on the pokemon—”

“You might be thinking of specific moves,” Red interjects. “Summoning an actual bolt of lightning with the Thunder attack is easier at higher elevations, so maybe other electric attacks occur quicker too.”


“Is it true the pokemon’s size influences how much electric power it can produce?” someone else asks.

Red blinks. “Uh… I’m not sure, actually, I never heard of—”

“It can affect the amount of current they produce,” the girl cuts in. “But voltage is just as important for power, and different pokemon generate different amounts of voltage, so some benefit more or less from being bigger. You can check how much in your dexes.”

This prompts most of the students to start taking out their pokedexes and looking the information up, and the others to argue among themselves. Red and the girl both exhale as all the attention shifts off them, and after a moment he notices her glancing at him.

When he turns to her, she has her hand out. “Hi. I’m Lizzy.”

He shakes it. “Red.”

“Oh!” She adjusts her glasses as she sizes him up. “No wonder you look familiar. I thought you’d be taller.”

Red blinks. “Taller?”

“Did you get your Researcher license yet, from the abra study?”

“A week ago. You’ve read it?”

“Just the abstract so far. It’s on my List.” Red hears the capital L in her matter-of-fact voice. “I’m terribly jealous, you know. I’m hoping to get my Researcher license too.”

“That’s awesome! What are you working on?”

“Power generation by electric pokemon. That’s why I’m here.” She narrows her eyes suddenly, gaze speculative.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Red quickly says, hand going up to stroke Pichu. “I’m just here to train my pokemon and learn more.”

“Well that’s a relief. So what are you working on next?”

Red is in the middle of explaining his psychic practice sessions when the instructor comes in, an older man with a full mustache and beard, and a scar under his right eye. If it wasn’t for his clothes, which mirror the rest of the gym members’ outfits, Red would peg him as an old fashioned pirate stereotype, and as soon as he thinks it Red can’t help but imagine him at the prow of a boat, eyepatch over his scarred eye and a chatot on his shoulder.

“File in, everyone,” he says as he takes a poster board and easel from the side of the room and sets it up. His voice rough from a life (Red assumes) of yelling orders at his crew. “Pokemon away unless they can stay quiet and still.”

Red looks at his pokemon as some of the other trainers withdraw theirs. Metapod will be fine, but Pichu might get impatient. Red snaps his finger at Pichu and holds his hand out so the mouse can leap back up and climb to his shoulder, then extends his mind to his pokemon’s and breathes deep, arranging his thoughts into a relaxed pattern that quickly calms his pokemon down. Pichu doesn’t fit in Red’s collar anymore, but he’s able to snuggle up to his neck from the side and doze on his shoulder as he lines up with the rest of the class.

“Name is Otto, and I’m here to give you the basics on Electric Types, both for safety and combat. If you don’t have an Electric pokemon with you, you’re wasting your time here, because the lecture part’s nothing if you can’t participate in the practical training. With that in mind, anyone want to leave and come back another time?” He waits a moment, but no one steps out of line. “Good. Training and battling with Electric pokemon isn’t like doing so with any other types. Rock pokemon get to just fling stones around. Water pokemon point and shoot. Even Fire pokemon are pretty straightforward, as long as you’re aware of what in the environment is combustible. But Electric pokemon are tapping into a much more unpredictable force. To utilize them to their full potential, you have to learn at least the basics of how that force operates… a force that can kill you if you do not understand it properly.”

He looks from one trainer to the next, meeting their gaze for a moment until he’s sure he has everyone’s attention.

“So. You all know how static electricity works, yes? Anyone want to explain it simply?”

Red notices some eyes turning to him, and raises his hand, but Lizzy had hers up first. “The ground is naturally negatively charged,” she says. “And if you build up some positive charge by rubbing against the right things, you create potential energy. The spark you feel when you touch some piece of metal that’s grounded, meaning it provides a pathway for the charge to reach the ground, is the equalization of that energy.”

“Good. Everyone understand that?” The instructor holds up two hands, one palm open, the other as a fist. “Any time you get negative charge and positive charge near each other, the electrons making up the negative charge want to get across to balance things out. That flow of electrons is electricity, and the space between them can channel it.” He smacks his fist into his palm. “Lightning works on the same principle: the bigger the difference in charge, the more powerful the spark.” He takes a black marker out and begins to draw a large cloud, then a horizontal line. He uses a blue marker to draw a bunch of negative signs under the earth. “When a thunderstorm forms, the clouds begin to get both negative and positively charged areas.” He draws more negative signs near the bottom of the cloud, and then uses a red marker to draw plusses in the top portion of the cloud. “There are actually layers of both within big thunderclouds, but the important point is that the majority of lightning you see is electricity being discharged from one part of a cloud to another, or between differently charged parts of the air.” He draws yellow lines between the positive and negative charges in the cloud.

“But.” He brings the red marker down to draw a bunch of plusses on the ground beneath the cloud. “The concentration of negative charge at the bottom of a cloud also positively charges the ground beneath it. Downward leaders ionize the air as they begin to branch out beneath the cloud, too fast for our eyes to see, and when they meet upward leaders, often from whatever’s tallest in the area, they overcome the resistance of the air between them in an explosive discharge.” He draws another jagged lightning bolt between the cloud and ground. “Rarely, a positive lightning bolt will arc from the higher parts of the clouds, off toward the negatively charged ground far from the base of the storm.” He draws a long lightning bolt diagonally across the page from the top of the cloud to the ground. “These bolts are very rare, but much stronger.”

He turns back to them. “Your pokemon’s electricity,” he says, and knocks his knuckle against the cloud, “Follows this same principle. Each of them do it differently, but the first step is that they’re capable of building positive and negative charges. The second is they’re able to shift the charge of whatever their target is, thus creating that pathway for the energy difference to stabilize… in a bolt of electric energy.” He lowers his hand and examines the class. “Why is that important?”

Red thinks of the way he and Leaf used the lightning rods to redirect the electricity of the pikachu in the forest, and raises his hand. “It still acts as electricity, so it’s still seeking the path of least resistance toward the nearest opposite charge.”

“Right, but not the whole story. They actually have even more control than that: the third step is that they make an ionically charged ‘path’ of sorts in the air, increasing accuracy and adjusting the power of their attacks. It’s not perfect, however, and can still be interrupted, which means you all need to start studying different materials’ conductivity so that, at the very least, you’re never taken by surprise by something in your environment drawing away your pokemon’s attacks before they can reach their target, like some amateur who doesn’t understand how they might be stupider than their pokemon’s instincts.” Otto snorts.

“You mean the pokemon know how electricity works?” one of the other students asks.

“Do they ‘know?’ By which you mean, do they understand about electrons and resistance and how exactly a bolt of electricity will travel?” their instructor asks. “I have no idea. Perhaps they do, in some way. Or perhaps they can see the forces fundamental to the world more clearly than us, or feel them, and so it’s as easy to navigate as walking a path in a garden is to us. Whatever the case, they’re far less likely to screw it up than their ignorant trainers are.”

Red is thinking again of the way the ‘chu were stymied by the rods in the forest, for a while at least, and is about to speak up in hesitant challenge to the idea, but Otto continues before he can. “Of course, that’s not to say they’re perfect. I’ve seen wild pokemon make mistakes that an informed trainer wouldn’t. But I can also tell you I’ve never seen a pokemon stand too close to whatever they were attacking and end up shocking themselves through the ground, and I have seen countless trainers, who should have known better, command their Electric pokemon to attack something too close, or without a clear path. Remember, your pokemon are conditioned to obey. Even if their instincts are better than yours. If you want to master the Electric type, you need to immerse yourself in knowledge until it ascends to an instinctual level as well, until you can avoid the amateur trainer’s mistakes and the wild pokemon’s too, even spotting opportunities they would not.”

Otto waits for any questions, then gives a stiff nod and caps the marker in his hand. “So, everyone pick a dummy and bring your pokemon out. There are various objects and protrusions in each one, and you’re going to learn about the ones in yours, figure out the effect it will have on your pokemon’s attacks, and then everyone is going to rotate to the next one over.”

Red takes up position at the lane where his metapod is, and withdraws it so it’s not in the way of the next person who takes the lane. Who, it turns out, will be Lizzy: the girl steps up to the aisle beside him and summons a flaaffy. The pink sheep bounces around in glee before its trainer can get it to focus, and Otto speaks out a moment later.

“Everyone, pull out your phones and go to the gym site, then find the page listing materials by conductivity. Then command your pokemon to use a basic ranged attack against the pokedoll in front of you. Your lanes are filled with either conducting materials or insulated ones. Raise your hand to signal when you can get your pokemon to strike the doll. Begin whenever.”

Red gives Pichu a brisk rub to rouse him, and is about to clap once to signal battle readiness, then decides to use his powers once again to Project a sense of battle readiness, focusing on the pokedoll as a threat. Pichu goes rigid after a moment, then leaps down and stands between Red and the doll, letting out a squeak of challenge as his cheeks begin to glow.

Red smiles, then starts giving commands along with the other trainers. The snaps and crackles of electricity fill the room as each pokemon tries and often fails to hit their targets, being diverted by one of the objects in the way. What immediately interests Red is the floor: it lights up around the objects struck by Pichu’s electricity, signalling, he assumes, the danger zones of where the current is flowing once grounded. He begins to move around the room with Pichu and try attacking from different angles, noting the changes in the electricity’s behavior.

Otto goes around explaining the mistakes from one circumstance to another, and eventually everyone manages to get it right, only to shift to the next stall and try again with the knowledge of what worked and the new array of obstacles. By the third room Red can tell Pichu is getting tired, and lets him rest for a bit as he feeds him one of the leppa berries that Red recently bought. They’re not as effective or fast acting as the concentrated ether made from them, but also not nearly as expensive. It takes a few minutes before Pichu is back to his energetic self, and Red uses that time to think through what he’s learned so far.

Some metals in the environment are so good at conducting electricity that they’ll “catch” any electricity sent by them, while other materials will only do it sporadically. Red soon finds himself treating insulated objects like wood, rubber, and plastic as if they’re not there, but this comes back to bite him on a couple of occasions. Red starts to recognize that objects touching each other can also affect whether a material develops a positive or negative charge.

“Friction, contact, and induction,” Otto eventually calls out. “These are the methods by which an object’s charge will change. Remember, like charges repel! If your pokemon generates a negative charge, it will positively charge the surfaces of objects nearby it, moving their electrons to their other side. If the object is then grounded briefly, some of the electrons will flow out of it, leaving it positively charged as a whole once ungrounded. In a battlefield where things are moving, these rules need to be second nature to you.”

Red tries to keep this in mind as he moves to the next chamber, but it’s hard to juggle all the different ideas, and he finally decides to try and see what Pichu thinks of the challenge. It takes a moment to enmesh his mind with his pokemon’s and keep it in a purely receptive state, but once he does he gets used to just feeling the mouse’s instincts as it faces the pokedoll and readies itself for battle.

For a minute all Red can feel is his pokemon’s body, its racing heart, its trembling legs, the adrenaline pumping through it. He’s competent now at distinguishing these sensations from his own, even the much stronger sounds that echo in Pichu’s ears, the sharp scents that threaten to overwhelm him if he’s not careful to track them seperately.

As he practiced in his training sessions, he begins to focus more on the felt-senses of his pokemon rather than the purely physical ones, the heat in Pichu’s throat, the intangible sense of tension along his spine, and tries to match them to emotions Red can understand as he starts to give commands, starts to move around the pokedoll and see how Pichu’s sensations shift.

He’s still reaching for some insight when Otto calls out to them to switch again, and it takes another minute to get back into the same level of sync. It isn’t until he commands Pichu to use a thundershock in front of a small shrub that he realizes he recognizes the feeling his pokemon has… sort of.

Skepticism? No, simpler than that. Hopelessness? Red thinks back to the last time he felt something similar and realizes it’s the way he felt on the field with the abra, the sense of having a plan that he didn’t believe in. An instinct of anticipated failure.

It feels almost like something clicks inside him, a shock all its own at how thinking of that feeling resonates with Pichu. Did he just tap into his pokemon’s instinctive grasp of its own electric abilities?

Only one way to find out.

Red takes his notebook out and begins writing out how the sensation felt and what triggered it. He has to move to a new section before he finishes, but once he’s there he starts to test it out. Move here, order an attack, record the feeling and result, move there, order an attack, record the feeling and result…

Red notices in his periphery that the instructor is staring at him as he passes by, but Otto doesn’t interrupt, merely calling out another switch. It goes on like that until Pichu is tired out again, and Red feeds him a full meal and pours some water into a bowl for him. He sits down to take notes about his experience, his nose finally adapting to the smell of ozone in the room as the electric attacks continue to snap through the air around it.

With practice I may be able to tap into pokemon’s understanding of what won’t work. The challenge lies in incorporating that information mid-battle, in the time between giving the command and feeling the response, so that he can abort an action that the pokemon knows won’t work… I also can’t rely too much on this, since there are plenty of attacks that didn’t work that Pichu didn’t anticipate. But no attacks succeeded once he felt they would not, so at least there are no false positives.

“A lot of your pokemon are getting tired,” the instructor bellows. “The energy they produce, the current, is getting low, meaning more materials will be able to effectively insulate against their attacks unless you use one with higher voltage to overcome it. Now that you have some experience, try to conserve their strength. Two tries in each room, then rotate to the next one. Starting… now.”

Red lets Pichu rest a bit more for the first room, then only tries one attack in each of the following ones, feeling out which attack routes his pokemon is sure won’t work first, trying to feel for some kind of preliminary anticipated failure just from Pichu’s positioning. If he trains his pokemon like this enough, he’s sure it’ll manifest eventually, but then the question is whether the skill is transferable to a real battle.

Red is also impatient to try this out with his other pokemon. He wonders why he never read anything like this while looking up tips for psychic trainers, but the answer is pretty obvious: if it’s a tip that might actually help someone out competitively, they’d want to keep it to themselves. Still, Sabrina should propagate the information, right? Why hasn’t he heard something about it before? He needs to ask a psychic he can trust, but for now he’s eager to see what else he can find out like this. By the time the class ends, he resolves to try using this in battle tonight.

“Okay, that’s it for today,” Otto calls out once everyone has tried out each chamber. “Remember how tired your pokemon are right now. This is in part because you as their trainers asked them to attack targets that they couldn’t hit. The better you understand these forces, the more efficiently your pokemon will fight. Study up. Dismissed.”

Everyone begins to leave their rooms, many of them not withdrawing their pokemon to let them rest a bit. Otto goes around to converse with a few trainers, and Red brings Metapod back out and sits beside his two pokemon writing in his notebook until Otto approaches, as he suspected he would.

“Fresh insights, Verres?” the instructor asks.

Red wonders if every gym member here knows who he is, then feels a touch of surrealism as he remembers that he was on TV for donating dozens of abra to gyms, so it’s not unlikely that every gym member of every gym knows who he is. “Yeah, a few.”

“Mind sharing any? Or you got another big heist to pull off on nature first?”

Red is relieved to see the scarred man smiling, and returns it. “Can’t think of any yet, this is more to do with my psychic powers. I noticed what you were talking about, the instincts of my pichu knowing when he wouldn’t be able to land an attack. A kind of futility.”

Otto scratches his beard. “Interesting cheat, that. You still missed a lot of the attacks though. Sure you’re not imagining it?”

“Yeah, right now it only comes to me as he’s attacking. You wouldn’t happen to know any electric trainers that are psychic would you? Outside the gym, even?”

“Some psychics that use electric pokemon, sure. Ones with a focus in it? Never heard of one. Aren’t most into Psychic and Ghost types?”

Red sighs and nods. He can understand why, after seeing Sabrina fight. How much more effective would his powers be in battle with his abra?

“Still, there are at least a few of them that are partially electric, right? Maybe check in regions with a lot of them.”

“I will, thanks.”

“And let me know if this line of thought pays off,” Otto says. “Or anyone at the gym. Surge would be interested too, for sure. We’ve got a pretty firm grasp of what our pokemon know through trial and error, science, and passed down wisdom, but we don’t imagine they can’t still teach us something new.” The instructor reaches a hand out to stroke Pichu along the back with one finger.

To Red’s surprise, his pokemon doesn’t flinch away or become wary. Possibly because he’s so tired. “I will. Thanks for the class.”

Otto nods and moves on to the next student. Red gets back to writing out his ideas for what to test with the other pokemon, and suddenly remembers the girl Lizzy as a question occurs to him. He looks up and searches the room for her, just in time to spot her heading toward the door. It takes a moment to grab his pokemon and head out the door, and he catches up to her just outside.


She blinks at him. “Hi. How was your lesson?”

“Good. Learned something new about using my psychic abilities. What about you?”

“I’ve been practicing regulation of voltage output for my pokemon. This was the first time Marigold has tested it against different materials.”

Red assumes Marigold is her flaaffy. “I was curious about that, from what you said earlier. Mind if I walk with you?”

“Feel free. I believe my schedule put me at a physical training next.”

“Oh, cool, same here.” They walk together out of the building and start across the center field.
“So you said something just now about altering your pokemon’s voltage as if it’s a decision you can make. Earlier I was wondering about how to adjust pokemon getting tired, but don’t stronger attacks just cause the pokemon to use higher voltage naturally?”

“Not always. Power is voltage times current. Some attacks use more voltage, some use more current, which takes more energy.”

“And it varies by pokemon.”

“Right. Being able to push the pokemon’s voltage higher would increase power, but also overall efficiency if current output is steady.” She shrugs. “That’s the theory, at least. We know it works that way mechanically, but pokemon are still something of a mystery.”

Red considers the problem, trying to spot some failure mode as Pichu climbs onto his hat and curls up there. “You mean if adjusting their voltage takes something else out of them, they might get tired sooner? Produce less power?”

“Oh, if only. Even if the power output ends up being the same, higher voltage or higher current can both cause different problems, you see? Pokemon follow instinctual limits, but not always optimally so. If we want to find the true limits, we still have to take care not to hurt them in some way while doing so.”

“Huh. Yeah, I can see how that would be hard. Still, the benefits of figuring it out would be big, right?” He smiles. “It’s really cool that you’re tackling something that important.”

She blinks, and her fingers fiddle with the hem of her shirt. “Yes. Well. It interests me, you know?”

“I do.” Red gives her a curious look. “Is it hard, teaching your pokemon to adjust voltage manually? I’m surprised you’re in a beginner class if you’ve already worked with an electric pokemon so much.”

“It was hard, but I did it alone,” she explains. “And I figured it would be good to get the basics as I work up to more advanced classes. I’ll be here for a while, so it would be silly not to. And my sister insisted they’d take me more seriously here, if I do.”

“Oh, is she a Gym Member?”

“Ex. She’s helping run the family business now.”

“Neat, what business?”

Lizzy adjusts her glasses, the lenses sheening in the sunlight briefly. “Power. My last name is Takada.”

Red blinks. “Takada as in Takada Power, Takada? Wow!” He frowns. “Wait, but why did you have to teach yourself if your family is in the energy business?”

“Oh, my parents aren’t trainers,” she says. “My older sister was the first in the family to go on her journey, against their wishes. They threatened to groom me to take over the business, but I told them I was leaving too and to find someone outside the family, you know.” She shrugs. “My sister was passionate about electric pokemon. She wanted to be a breeder or coordinator. She would still be here at the gym, if Dad hadn’t died last year.”

Red’s chest aches in sympathy, and it takes a moment for him to respond. “I’m sorry.”

Lizzy nods, and they circle around the obstacle course in silence for a bit. “I hope I can help the family anyway, when I finish my research. My sister believes in me enough that she gave me my starting pokemon.”

“Well, I hope you succeed. Are you planning on joining the Gym eventually? Or are you here for a badge?”

“I haven’t decided yet. I just wish I could find some trainers to test my ideas with.” She glances at him briefly.

Red feels embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I’d love to help—”

“I understand. You must be very busy.”

They reach the spot where the other trainers are gathered before class starts. “Well, yes, but it’s not that. I’m actually leaving town in a couple days.” He explains about the Cruise Convention, and her disappointment takes on a cheerful tone.

“That’s a great reason. Very well, you’re excused.”

Red grins. “Thanks. But my friend Blue might be up to help. He’s got a shinx, would probably love to learn what you did.”

“Blue Oak? Work with me?” Her hands move to the hem of her shirt again, straightening it. “Well. Yes. I mean, if he agrees. That would be delightful.”

“Well, I’m meeting him and some friends tonight after dinner, if you want to join us.”

“Splendid. Thank you.”

“Alright trainers, fall in!” their instructor bellows as they approach. “Class hasn’t officially started yet, which means you early birds get extra training! Aren’t you the lucky bunch? Two laps around the course for warm up! Bags stay on! Left right, left right, let’s go people! Remember, your pokemon can be swapped out, but you cannot! A tired trainer is a dead trainer! Is that going to be you?”

“No sir!” they chorus as they run. Red struggles to keep up as he mentally calms Pichu down, his nap unceremoniously interrupted.

“You are the central link that holds your team together! Will you be the one to break?”

“No sir!”

“Prove it with your sweat! Stay in step, speed it up, you can do it, let’s gooo!

A match is underway as Red enters the battle room that evening, Lizzy trailing right behind him. They stay near the door to watch with the dozen other trainers around the room as the super-talkative Elaine battles an older teen named Shigeki. Elaine’s tangela struggles against a burst of icy wind from Shigeki’s piloswine, then swings a pair of vines out to grip it. The piloswine leaps forward at its trainer’s command, and the tangela has to break off its attack before it can get gored by the icy tusks that form over the piloswine’s ivory ones.

Should have taken the hit and started draining it, Red thinks. It takes another few near-misses before the piloswine manages to corner the tangela with a hit that leaves it too frozen to respond to commands, and the battle ends as Elaine withdraws her pokemon.

“Nice job guys,” Blue says from the side as Shigeki brings his pokemon over to Glen, who appears to have a triage center set up in the corner of the room for injuries that aren’t so intense they need a pokemon center. “Elaine, remember that your Tangela is a tank. It’s not going to be able to do much if you won’t let it get hit in exchange for setting up a bind or spreading some powders onto them.”

“I know,” she moans, hands gripping her hair. “I was just so worried that an ice hit would take her down, piloswine’s physical attacks are so strong, I wanted to try and weaken him first, it was stupid, tangela can take physical attacks well, I need to…” she wanders off, still talking, and Blue notices Red and Lizzy.

“Yo, Red! Glad you could make it!” Most of the others turn and yell greetings as Taro and Chie walk onto the arena to square off against each other. “Okay, two pokemon each, first blood or knockout. Ready… start!”

Red walks over to Blue as the battle starts, only half watching as they summon their pokemon and begin shouting commands.

“Hey Blue,” Red says, voice low. “This is Lizzy, she’s looking for others to test out some ideas she has for electric pokemon combat. I told her you might be interested.”

“Sounds good,” he says, and sticks a hand to the side, eyes never leaving the match. “Nice to meet you. Let’s talk after the match.”

“Charmed,” Lizzy says, and takes it without looking as she watches the match with interest. He leaves them to it and goes to Glen and Shigeki.

“Hey, Red,” Glen says as he checks the piloswine over, potion bottle in hand.

“S’up Verres. You here to battle?”

“Hey guys. Yeah, meeting Aiko here.”

“A single battle?” Shigeki crosses his arms. “Got something new up your sleeve?”

Red smiles. “Assuming it doesn’t horribly backfire.”

“Nice,” Glen says. “I don’t think I’ve seen you do a single battle yet.”

“Why do you focus on doubles so much?” Shigeki asks. “For wild encounters?”

“That’s half of it,” Red admits. “Since I’m not training for badge matches or anything. The other half is that it’s kind of a long-term investment. Eventually my psychic abilities should help a lot with commanding one pokemon at a time. I may not even need audible commands eventually.”

Glen nods. “But fighting with two or more is going to be harder. That’s why your command system is built with group battles in mind.”


They watch the match to its conclusion, then Red helps take care of the pokemon, following Glen’s lead and building off what he learned with Aiko. He’s careful not to use his powers too often, since he’s been using it a lot today and plans to use it more soon for his battle, but so far the grief he feels from using it is vague and fleeting, not yet the crushing waves or steady drain of despair.

There’s a lull as Blue and Lizzy talk and the others propose various matches between each other. Red takes the time to get in his daily Bayes Theorem practice. Someone in a math forum named Masasin taught him an even simpler method using odds ratios, and Red quickly goes through the Tyranitar event math again with it:

Prior odds * Relative likelihoods = Posterior odds
Relative Likelihoods = Posterior Odds / Prior Odds
Posterior Odds of R1 are 79:21
Prior Odds (T1:T2) are 64:36

So the relative likelihoods (R1 | T1:T2) are 79/64:21/36

Next the Prior Odds are 2:15, so

79 : 21
÷ 64 : 36
× 2 : 15

79 : 280

So P(T1 | R1) = 79/(79+280) = 22.01%.

By the time Aiko shows up, he’s back to feeling like he’s not quite sure what he’s doing, but he gets a similar answer to the original method so he can’t be that far off. Right?

Red stands to greet Aiko as she approaches. “How’s the ranch? We still on for the visit tomorrow?

Aiko’s grin is radiant as she puts her bag down and prepares for their match. “Absolutely. I can’t wait for you to see my dad again, Red, he’s like a completely different person! Well, not completely, he still spaces out at odd times and has trouble talking about… you know, me being here and stuff, but lately while they’re around but he’s more there than he’s been in years.”

“That’s great!” Red withdraws Metapod so it’s not confused by any commands and goes to stand opposite Aiko in the arena. In his last couple battles with Aiko, she’s beaten him both times: her main pokemon are a little stronger than his, and it takes him a while to piece together her strategies by interpreting her commands. She usually does better near the start of fights, before he manages to land a prediction and take the tempo of the match from her and catch up in pokemon knock outs, though not enough to win the match. “So just a heads up, I’m going to be using my powers during the battle, so if I act strange in some way, just ignore it.”

Aiko’s eyes widen. “Cool!”

“Didn’t you throw up last time you tried this?” Blue asks from his seat at the edge of the arena. The conversations around the room have quieted as people prepare to watch the match.

Aiko winces. “Ooo, less cool.”

“That shouldn’t happen this time,” Red says. “I know what caused it, and I’ve been practicing.”

Glen gives Red a skeptical look, then starts pulling out some extra equipment from his Container box of medical supplies. “Maybe you should tell us what ‘strange’ looks like, so we know if something actually does go wrong?”

“Good point.” Red scratches beneath his cap. “Basically I may move oddly or seem spaced out at times. And I may act like I’m hurt, but it’s all in my head. Don’t worry about me being actually injured unless you see me get hit by something.”

Aiko frowns. “You’ll be feeling what the pokemon do?”

“Some of it. And only some of the time.”

“I don’t have any pokemon with mental attacks, but what about those? If it’s all in your head anyway, wouldn’t that still count as you experiencing the attack?”

“Yeah, that’s one of the risks. I mean, feeling a lot of pain and stress can have mental effects on its own, you know? But I’ve got to bear them to get better at it.”

“But there’s no lasting harm?” Glen asks.

Red hesitates, but Blue’s the one that answers. “Beyond the risk of an attack accidentally going past your pokemon and hitting you?”

“Much less,” Red confirms.

Aiko nods and puts a hand over one of the balls at her belt. “Good enough for me. Ready when you are.”

Blue looks between them from the sidelines, hand raised above his head. “Ready…” He slashes it down. “Start!”

“Go, Charmander!”

“Go, Krabby!”

Their pokemon materialize across from each other, and Red immediately merges his thoughts with those of Charmander’s, feeling the fire lizard’s momentary disorientation, then the rapid series of insights that prepares it for battle: the scent of its trainer behind it, the sight of a pokemon straight ahead and facing it, and the lack of any command to relax all adding up to Charmander’s attention focusing on the krabby ahead as an enemy.

More than the shared senses, it’s that shared, rapid orientation that amazes Red. He feels a synchronization within himself and his pokemon, a shared focus that almost feels like he’s both projecting and being projected onto, despite Charmander not being psychic.

All this happens within a second, and Red is ready for Aiko’s command as soon as she gives it.

“Wide!” Aiko yells.


Red feels his pokemon’s jolt of adrenaline as its body obeys the command by conditioning, a heartbeat before a wide spray of bubbles are emitted by the krabby to cover the field. His pokemon reacts to them faster than Red can intellectually follow, its instincts moving it in just the right way to avoid the pattern it sees in the oncoming attack, which Red only gets the vague understanding of second-hand.

“Rapid!” Aiko says next, and part of Red wants to focus on the command, try and interpret it and predict what her pokemon will do next, as he usually does, but it’s hard to focus on it and interpret his pokemon’s sensations and “thoughts” at the same time. Instead he just lets Charmander continue to dodge on his own, hopping away from each quick clump of bubbles that are sent toward him by instinct.

It seems to work at first, but soon there are too many to avoid, and Charmander grazes one. It pops with explosive force, sending him tumbling into another one, the water droplets a cold pain against his dry skin.

Red grunts in shared pain, hand clapping over his side where Charmander was hit the worst.

“Red! What happened?”

“Are you okay?

“Fine!” he yells, and sends his thoughts plunging back into Charmander, who’s bouncing back to his feet, pain already fading to a dull ache. “Charmander, Hold!”


Aiko knows by now what’s coming, but her krabby isn’t fast enough to avoid the smokescreen entirely, as Charmander now fires three of them rapidly by default. One solid hit on its left claw keeps it from being able to see clearly, and Red opens his mouth to give an attack…

…then stops. He feels it: Charmander’s impulses, barely restrained by his conditioning. Like with Pichu earlier in the day, Red can’t actually read Charmander’s thoughts, different from his own as they are, but he can feel his pokemon’s felt-sense, a tension in its legs, a twitching in its arms, a desire to act.

The guides he read talked about the point when the psychic achieves harmony with their pokemon, and this may not be quite that depth yet, but identifying the sensations he’s felt from Pichu, and now Charmander makes Red think of it more as a connection to their instincts, at least. And that’s something he can use.

Through the surprise and triumph, Red remembers what he’d planned to do next if this worked: assess the instinctual drive to act and determine what useful information it provides for his strategy and next commands. But there isn’t time for that, the krabby is still shooting bubbles blindly out, and what he can interpret of the instinct sort of matches what he wants Charmander to do anyway…

Red almost doesn’t do it: he’s worried about what might happen, unsure of giving up control in such a way. But a voice inside that sounds like Blue reminds him of how often he’s lost matches from being too cautious, from not committing on an uncertainty… so Red rearranges his mind into a state of acceptance. More, a state of permission, one in which there are no wrong answers, nothing that’s not allowed.

And in response, Charmander attacks with a flurry of Embers. The krabby just barely avoids them and shoots another trio of bubbles out at Charmander, who dodges and returns fire again, not just faster than Red would have commanded him, but with more precise timing than an oral command would allow. Two globs of fire land on the krabby, and its hard chitin is no match for the sudden heat: it begins to scramble around in pain despite its resistance.

Aiko withdraws it, leaving the burning oil to fall to the ground and gutter out a moment later, and Red grunts as his pokemon’s forward charge is aborted, confusion flooding his and his pokemon’s heads. The next instinct his Charmander had was hard to understand other than hunger, and Red’s imagination supplies him with the mental image of his pokemon rushing forward and using his sharp claws to pierce and crack open the krabby’s blackened shell so he could eat its cooked innards… except there’s no krabby around, and—

“Charmander, return!” His pokemon melts into light and returns to his ball.

Aiko stops herself from throwing her next ball out, staggering forward a step at the abrupt switch in momentum. The smoke is slower to fade than the fire, still spreading out from the globs on the floor, and Blue goes to turn on the overhead fans so the room begins to clear.

“You alright?” Aiko asks.

“Yeah, just… give me a sec.” Red takes stock, physically and mentally. He feels okay, mostly. The memory of Charmander’s pain is dull, but the connected senses and echoed impulses is still sharp.

Red wipes a hand across his face, feeling a cold sweat there. No tears, thankfully, the grief is still mute, but he’s shaken all the same. That moment when he Projected to Charmander the permission to follow his instincts allowed him to tap into something powerful, but dangerous. He can’t remember reading anything about that in the articles and guides by other psychic trainers. Why wouldn’t they warn people about this?

Maybe because it’s dangerous, part of him says. That’s what happens when you let go of caution!

Or maybe because they didn’t do what I did, another part responds. That projection allowed Charmander to forget his conditioning, at least some of it… does that only happen if there are specific instincts being triggered?


His head jerks up. “Yeah. I’m okay. Sorry, just… making sure I understand what I just did.”

“What did you just do?” Aiko asks. “Charmander never reacted that quick in our last battles.”

“It was something instinctual, for both of us. I think it might have been specific to the krabby, though? Which is weird, since I didn’t think charmander and krabby interacted much in nature.” Red takes his pokedex out and checks for areas where they share habitat. The pokedex highlights the Sevii Islands to the south of Kanto, where charmander have been found raised in caves not far from the shore. “Huh. Guess they do. Still, it might be a generic response.”

“You should try it with a pokemon that charmander would never encounter naturally,” Aiko says, tapping her lip. “I don’t think I have any we can be sure of that qualify, though. Maybe Eevee, just because they’re so rare?”

“Right.” Red summons Charmander, who looks like he’s still in battle mode when Aiko brings her shiny eevee out. Red quickly merges minds with his pokemon, and feels Charmander’s general combat readiness. “Nothing yet,” he says, eyes closed in concentration.

“Might need them to fight to know for sure,” Aiko says. “Just go easy on her though, she’s still new to battling.”

“Right,” Blue says, and raises his hand. “Aaand start!”



Both pokemon leap to obey the similar commands, Red’s more geared toward using safe attacks that test for weaknesses or vulnerabilities, while Aiko’s is a directive to move quickly and only strike if it can be done quickly and without compromising movement. As a result, Charmander tosses a couple Embers out while Eevee dashes back and forth in a zigzag, then begins circling the fire lizard, who turns in place and rapidly backs up to maintain distance as the silver fox closes in.

Within their combined felt-sense, Red once again notes the instinctual desire warring with the command he gave, similar to Pichu’s anticipated failure, though not as strong, more of a frustration than anything. There’s no hunger this time, nothing that gives Red an idea of what Charmander would do if let off his “leash”… but as Eevee manages to leap around an Ember and get a strike in, Red knows suddenly that his command is holding his pokemon back, keeping Charmander from taking tactically superior actions moment to moment, even if it lets him plan for a stronger overall strategy.

Red staggered to the side from the pain of the impact, but he quickly rights himself as his pokemon does. “Aiko,” he says, voice rough as Eevee circles around for another attack and he feels the tension in Charmander rising. “I’m going to try it again. Be ready.”

“Do it!”

Red breathes deep and relaxes, letting the words echo in him and the sentiment propagate outward.

Do it.

The tension in Charmander snaps, and he leaps forward and up, powerful legs kicking him into a flip, the flame on the end of his tail burning a circle through the air and whipping Eevee in the rear as it dashes beneath.

The thrill of savage triumph is so strong that Red doesn’t manage to catch what happens next in time: Charmander no sooner lands than spins around and sends an ember out at the pokemon from point blank range—


—only to miss as Eevee thankfully leaps aside at her trainer’s command, avoiding a nasty burn and giving Red a chance to yell “Stop!”

Charmander immediately halts its motions, and Eevee does the same after Aiko commands her to.

The room is silent for a moment but for the sound of the two pokemon’s breathing, Eevee’s a little pained, and then Blue yells “Match!” He’s on his feet, grinning. “Whew! Okay! So that was pre-”

A flash of light makes them all recoil, and Red feels a fierce grin stretch his lips even as he covers his eyes. The two pokemon are really close, it’s hard to tell definitively where the light is coming from… but he knows. He felt it in that shared surge of triumph.

When the light fades, Charmeleon stands tall and proud where Charmander was. With scales of dark red, a sharp profile, sharper claws, and a tailflame that seems twice as bright, the fire lizard lets loose a high pitched roar that causes its flame to blaze briefly.

“Niiice,” Glen says, and the spell is broken, everyone offering their own congratulations at once. Red’s smile fades as he notices Aiko rushing forward to heal her eevee.

“Sorry, Aiko,” Red says as a twist of wretchedness goes through him. “Is it bad?”

“No, she’s okay,” Aiko says after a moment of inspecting the wound and spraying it. She withdraws Eevee and smiles. “Good match. That attack was really unexpected.”

Unexpected for both of us. “Thanks.” Red goes to meet his metamorphed pokemon, reaching tentatively out with one hand as he reaches out with his mind as well.

It takes effort to process the two streams of data simultaneously: the hotter, tougher hide under his palm and the hungrier, sharper thoughts engulfing his mind. Red quickly brings some food out of his pouch and offers it to his pokemon, who sniffs at it as Red rubs around the spur of bone growing back from the front of his skull.

“Eat up, Charmeleon. You deserve it.” Red drops the food to the floor.

Charmeleon lets out a skraa that shows off its newly sharpened teeth, and throws a small glob of flame at it, letting it cook the food before he chows down.

Aiko, meanwhile, is watching them speculatively. She seems to come to a decision by the time Charmeleon finishes eating. “Glen,” Aiko says. “Get in here.”

“Bwuh?” Glen says.

Red blinks. “Should I—”

“Oh no, you stay,” she says with a sharp grin. “Glen and I need to work on our teamwork, and you need two opponents. The only thing I have to beat that,” she jerks her chin at Charmeleon, “is my sandslash, and even with your new psychic bond thing, that wouldn’t be a fair fight one on one. Or do you want to try it?”

Red considers it, but shakes his head. “No, it’s too dangerous, both ways.”

Aiko crosses her arms. “Both ways? You really think he could win?” She sounds both skeptical and impressed.

“Not sure, but I only ever practiced with him as a charmander. For all I know Charmeleon’s thoughts and instincts will respond differently to even basic commands, let alone psychic ones. I’d rather practice with him first.” Red gives his pokemon one last rub, then withdraws him. “Let’s do doubles.”

“Wait,” Chie says. “I’m still not sure what actually happened there. Why was Charmander acting differently?”

“What did it feel like?” her brother asks.

“I’m also curious,” Lizzy says from beside Blue. “Is it related to what you did in class earlier today?”

Everyone starts asking questions at once, until Blue raises his hands, quieting the babble down.

“Red, be careful what you reveal here. You might be giving up a powerful edge, even if not everyone can reproduce it themselves.” Blue folds his arms. “No one will think less of you for keeping it secret.” Lizzy looks like she might respond to that, but instead stares off with a thoughtful expression.

Red looks at everyone as they watch him, and for a moment, surely no more than a breath, he feels the urge to stay quiet. To keep the secret to himself, at least for a little while longer, to use it as a secret weapon to win the upcoming matches.

No. Down that road lies madness. He’s a researcher, not a battle trainer. He’s getting too caught up in these battles if he’s seriously thinking that winning them is what’s important. It’s fun, but it doesn’t matter. Learning matters.

“Okay, so here’s what I’ve been up to lately…” Red starts to explain, and everyone listens attentively as he describes the psychic connection he began learning to feel, how he explored it, and his ideas for tapping into it during training and combat.

He’s too caught up in the moment, trying to describe things he doesn’t quite have words for yet, to realize how he starts to pace, how animated he becomes, how he mimics some of the mannerisms of the various teachers he’s had at the gym. He’s too busy recognizing how the work of finding those words solidifies the concepts, rough and crude as they are, and only notices in the moment that he wishes he had an easel and poster board to write the ideas out, give them more structure, connect words and ideas so they can be processed together.

It isn’t until after the questions are over and his battle with Glen and Aiko is about to begin that he realizes how much better he could explain it if he tried again from scratch, and thinks, And teaching. That matters too. A stray thought that feels like the completing of a circle, and the opening of a new door.