Chapter 77: Focusing

“I’m guessing by that you don’t mean ‘concentrating really hard?'” Red asks.

“Correct,” Dr. Seward says with a smile. “If anything I imagine you could teach me a thing or two about better concentration. No, ‘Focusing‘ is a technique designed by a man named Eugene Gendlin. He was one of the first humanistic therapists, and it’s meant to help people better understand themselves.”

Red nods, feeling a mix of hope and wariness as he settles back against the couch. “Well, that sounds like the sort of thing I need, so I’ll try it.”

Dr. Seward’s office has become familiar to him again over the past few months. He feels comfortable here, though not quite “at ease,” given that they often talk about difficult or sensitive topics, and at some point during a session he knows he’ll be asked to bring his partition down, which despite the progress he’s made lately is still… difficult, sometimes.

The “journaling” has helped. It’s more like having a written conversation with someone, and much more mentally taxing, but they have ground rules, now. It’s hard to always tell, but he thinks Past Red has benefited from the past few sessions, where he spent most of the time doing trauma work: recalling the night of the storm in a safe environment where he could stop and be reminded of coping skills when things got overwhelming, and where Dr. Seward could help him unpack how he felt about what happened, the choices he made, and what they mean to him now.

Last session they reached the fire itself, and Dr. Seward stopped Past Red with almost half the session left so they could learn something new before continuing. They spent the rest of the time talking about other things, such as the ground rules for bringing the partition up and down throughout the week, and whether he felt more positively inclined to his “fake self.” Red is getting better at recalling the emotional states that he had with his partition down, and is still able to remember the distinct mix of grudging acceptance when Past Red admitted that things are getting a little better.

“So, first some background,” Dr. Seward says. “There are a lot of different lenses, or models, through which you can view yourself, and your mind, and how you make decisions. In the Focusing model, it can help to think of yourself as the executive decision maker who has a council of advisors. There are many of them, some obvious and some not, some internal and some external. Your past experiences, taken in total, can be conceptualized to make up one, perhaps even your most important one, or most commonly used. But it’s not alone: if you’re doing something new, in particular, you may rely on other advisers, such as things you read online, or are taught by others. And they can be divided up; maybe some of your past experiences differ from others, so you’d have two advisers giving you different advice. Is this tracking so far?”

“I think so,” Red says. “Is this all to say that Past and Future Red are just advisors like any others?”

“No, though that’s one lens you can take. Focusing is more about advisors you aren’t aware that you have.”

Red considers that a moment. “Cultural conditioning? Things I consider so normal that I don’t even question them?”

Dr. Seward smiles. “That’s a good one, but also not the one Focusing, well, focuses on. Let’s consider an example. When is the last time you were afraid of something you had no good reason to be?”

Red thinks of Jason’s ghost pokemon, then dismisses it; he had obvious reasons to be afraid of them. But he remembered a more fitting example that night, from a different roof. “The second day of my journey, I met a trainer whose brother had a skarmory. He let us pet it. I knew it was tamed, but being in its presence… it was still really hard to take the steps forward and actually touch it.”

Dr. Seward nods. “That sort of irrational fear is very common. When I was young, I loved going to the beach. One day there was a story about a sharpedo attack near Cinnabar, and despite how incredibly rare such things are, and Cinnabar being miles and miles south of here, I still didn’t want to go in the water for a whole month when my parents would take me to the beach. I could even see others swimming nearby, perfectly safe!”

Red smiles slightly. “Yeah, I went after Leaf and Blue. It was pretty embarrassing.”

“Do you remember what it felt like?”

“Sure. I was worried—scared, really—and embarrassed, and also curious.”

She nods along until he’s done, then asks, “But how did all that feel?”

Red blinks. “I’m… not sure.” But even as he says it, he understands. “It felt like… my heart was pounding, really hard. And I was sweating. And… my feet wouldn’t move. They felt numb, or stuck, or something, like I literally lost control of them.”

“I see. So you used words like worried, and scared, and embarrassed, and curious. I would probably use the same words for my own experience, minus the curious part. We would both use the same words, and understand what each other meant, for the most part. But my own experience of those words, in the moment, was completely different. I felt my feet, I distinctly remember that, because the sand was hot; it was my legs that felt out of control, they wouldn’t stop shaking. I felt heat in my face, more than just from the sun, because I was so ashamed. And there was a ball in my gut.” She closes her hand in a fist over her stomach. “Like a clenched fist. I felt sick, like I was going to throw up at any moment.”

Her description is vivid enough that he feels a shadow of what she describes as well, and Red nods as he gets it. “One of the other psychic students, Jason, actually made me think about this not long ago, when he mentioned that emotional pain usually has a physical component for him.” Red starts to feel some of the excitement of encountering a new concept, a new way of thinking, and it clicks in some way, his thoughts racing ahead through the new doors it opens in his mind. “We use the same words when we describe our emotions, but we often feel something very different from each other. Like describing what it feels like to share a pokemon’s senses with a non-psychic… no matter what I say, it won’t actually make you know what I’m actually feeling.”

It’s strange, he knew this from what he’s felt while sharing senses from other people too, the way they feel fear or anger or even happiness differently in their bodies. He just never put dedicated time into really thinking about it. “So how does this help? Is there something different about how I experience emotions compared to Past Red?”

“That’s an interesting thought worth exploring, but not the main point. Remember what I said about advisers? Your body is one of them. It has information that you’re not always consciously aware of. It’s common to think of your body as just a meat puppet being guided around by your brain, and there’s a lens through which that’s true. But this meat puppet sends plenty of chemical and electric signals to your brain, which is very much not in control of most of its functions. You can’t decide if you’re hungry or not, your body informs you of it. You can’t decide if you’re scared or not; things that might reasonably be dangerous may not frighten you, while things that you know should not be can still trigger a fear response. So what is guiding what, exactly?”

Red considers this, weighing the times he’s had feelings that he couldn’t explain or were poorly calibrated against the times he has “trusted his gut” and been glad he did… “Maybe this fits less for me, since I can actually stop myself from feeling something, with my powers. But I get what you’re saying: I can’t control the release of adrenaline in my blood, or dopamine in my brain. So I can accept that my body is an advisor, though not a particularly good one, outside of things like whether it’s time to eat or use the bathroom.”

Dr. Seward nods. “The point is not that it should always be promoted above other advisers, only that you should be aware of it and seek its counsel when the advice of the others doesn’t seem complete. The practice is new to me, but from the literature and what I’ve tried so far, I’ve come to accept that the body knows things about you that your conscious mind does not, or can not always fully articulate. I don’t mean that literally, as if your body has its own set of thoughts, but it seems quite plausible to me that it reacts to what is in the subconscious, if that helps as a way to describe it.”

“Yeah, it does.” He’d wondered, sometimes, whether his alternate selves actually “exist” in his mind while he’s not thinking of them or having their thoughts intrude on his. It’s not like when he brings his partition down he has a sudden memory of Past Red being “awake” and observing everything he does and says, it’s much more integrated than that, a new set of perspectives on events that abruptly snap into focus. Ideally, he would like to be able to have both sets of perspectives at once (or all three if he counts Future Red), able to switch between them as easily as considering different hypotheses without committing to or being blinded by any (as much as is possible, at least). “So how do I tap into that knowledge?”

“By paying attention to what your body feels, and how that feeling changes. Normally I’d have you do some exercises to help you become aware of your felt-senses, as Gendlin calls them, but you’re already very familiar with mindfulness and paying attention to such things, so we’ll see how it goes if we dive right in. We’ll still start with something simple, however. What’s something you don’t fully understand about yourself? A reaction you have, an indecision, a confusion, something about yourself or your experiences that you have trouble untangling?”

Red considers for a minute, and his thoughts first jump to his complex feelings about Rei, and her plans to investigate what Sabrina has been up to. They’ve gotten along better than he expected, over the past month. Once she started treating him as a peer, if not quite an equal, he noticed her demeanor changing, little by little, relaxing enough to show an analytical perspective and dry humor that makes her company not entirely unpleasant. He thinks he’s noticed her becoming more friendly and relaxed around him as well, which makes it harder to decide whether he should act on his loyalties to Sabrina.

But using that example would involve bringing up things he shouldn’t be talking about, confidentiality or no confidentiality, so he dismisses it… and finds himself thinking of Leaf. His stomach immediately lifts into his chest, and he feels a mix of happiness and the lingering remnants of anxiety. It’s gotten a lot better, since they last spoke and she told him she didn’t blame him.

“You were right, by the way,” he says absently, eyes closed in thought. “About asking Leaf how she felt. I should have done it earlier.”

“Yes, you should have, but I’m glad that it helped. Do you want to unpack those feelings? I forgot to mention, you don’t only need to do Focusing on unpleasant things.”

He quickly shakes his head, cheeks burning. He hasn’t admitted his feelings for Leaf to his therapist, but he could tell that he doesn’t need to.

Next his thoughts go to his mom. His worry for her, the risks she’s taking in her investigations. He’s proud of her, but also afraid that she’ll get arrested or thrown in jail or worse. Still, there’s nothing complicated or unresolved about those feelings. They’re complex, but they make sense to him.

“I can’t really think of anything,” he says after another minute.

“Hmm. I wonder if you thought of something that you were considering bringing up, but thought it would be silly, or not important enough, or embarrassing? Remember that this doesn’t have to be a deep or difficult problem first, it’s just for practice.”

“Right.” He shifts, thoughts going back to Leaf, and realizes he’s being silly. “I guess… I could talk about how I feel about Leaf.”

“Alright,” she says, face and tone giving nothing away but calm acceptance. “Go ahead and begin meditating, and let me know when your awareness is spread through your body.”

Red nods, grateful that he doesn’t have to immediately launch into trying to find words for his feelings, and closes his eyes as he takes deep breaths, focusing on the feel of the air rushing into his nose and lungs, then back out, cold at first, then warm. He works his awareness down from the top of his head, relaxing tension in his shoulders and neck as he keeps breathing in and out, adjusting his hips to be more comfortable, crossing then uncrossing his ankles. It takes little more than ten seconds to feel fully relaxed, and to have most of his awareness and thoughts confined to how his body feels.

“Ready,” he murmurs.

“Good. Now, think of Leaf… imagine spending time with her, of being around her, of talking to her… and when it seems clear, point to where those feelings are.”

Red’s hand moves without thinking toward his sternum, right between his stomach and chest. “Here.”

“Describe them.”

“Um. It’s like… I guess hope, and—”

“Remember, you’re describing sensations. Avoid any emotion words.”

“Right.” He swallows, concentrates on his awareness of his body. “There’s a… lightness. In my chest. And my stomach? Like a balloon, expanding outward, around my heart. Oh, and my skin feels warm.”

“Okay. So a sense of lightness in your torso, between your stomach and chest, like a growing balloon. And warm skin. Is that right?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it pleasant?”

“…Sort of. It hurts a little too. Like the pressure from the balloon is pressing against my heart and lungs. It’s not continually expanding, it just… feels a bit too big.” As he says it out loud, the sensations feel more real, the ache sharper and the “air” in it more distinct… “The balloon is filled with… flapping wings. Or something. The air isn’t static.”

“Are they like butterfly wings, or bird wings, or bat wings…?”

“Um. Bird wings. Light, and ticklish, like feathers.”

“I see. Sounds like that part feels good?”

“Mostly.”

“So there’s a balloon of what feels like feathery wings stirring air in your torso, which is pressing outward a little painfully, but feels mostly good. Does that sound right?” Red nods. “Okay. I want you to just sit with that feeling for a while. Get used to noticing it. If it starts to fade, think of times you’ve spent with Leaf again, or the thought of seeing her soon.”

“Alright.” His attention does slip away from the “felt-sense” every so often, but it’s not hard to bring it back, and the more he sits with it the more fine details and texture become evident, and the more tangible it feels, until he almost pokes at his sternum in case it feels any different.

“I’m going to ask you some questions about the feeling, now, and they might not make sense, but just try to answer them anyway. First… does this feeling seem like it’s on your side, or against you?”

Red almost asks what she means, then remembers he’s supposed to try anyway. “Well, it feels like…” He’s not sure what being on his side would mean, but he knows what it would feel like if it was against him: he’s had experience there. “I don’t feel threatened or scared by it, or angry about it… and… I don’t dislike having it… so it seems like it’s on my side, I guess?”

“I see. What do you think it wants for you?”

“Um.” He tries to think about that and keeps getting error messages. “Um. I don’t know. I guess for me to just… spend more time with her.” He can feel his face burning.

“That would make you happy.”

“Y-umm, yeah… I think so…”

“Alright then, let’s see if we can better understand what this feeling actually is.” She smiles slightly. “I don’t mean deciding whether to put the L word on it or not, but rather figuring out what the individual parts are that make this feeling up, or what the effects of this feeling are on you.”

Red takes a deep breath. “Okay. How?”

“As we touched on before, the word itself, ‘focusing,’ wasn’t chosen to refer to concentration. Think of it like adjusting a microscope, trying to get a clearer image. The adjustments will be done by speaking things out loud, hypotheses you could say, and you’ll check the clarity of the image by paying attention to what you feel. If it feels clearer, if it changes in any way, if it fades, even if it stays the same, that’s information. Ready?”

“I think so?”

“It’ll become clearer once we try, and we’ll start simple. I want you to say out loud something like, ‘Being around Leaf makes me happy,’ and ‘I want Leaf to care about me,’ and ‘I want Leaf to respect me,’ and focus on that felt-sense, and tell me what happens, if anything.”

Red squirms slightly, feeling the urge to call the whole thing off. This isn’t really harder than wandering up to a group of strangers and trying to join their conversation, however, so instead he thinks of that for a moment as he breathes, thinks of how well it turned out, then focuses on Leaf again and says, “Leaf makes me happy. I want-“

“Not so fast. Just focus on that a moment. And you can try putting it into your own words after, but first try the exact phrase I used.”

“Okay. What was it again?”

“‘Being around Leaf makes me happy.'”

“Right.” He takes another breath and turns his attention inward again. “Oh. There’s a new, uh, ‘felt-sense’ in my lower stomach. It’s… wiggly.”

“Was it there before, and you didn’t notice? Or is it actually new?”

He thinks back. “I think it showed up when you asked me to say the stuff out loud.”

“Understandable. Well done on noticing it. If you can, let your awareness take in both, and report any changes in either as you repeat the phrases.”

“Okay.” He takes a moment to let his awareness spread to fill his whole torso, glad he’s had so much practice pinpointing multiple sensations at once, then swallows and forces himself to say, “Being around Leaf makes me happy.” He pauses, evaluating, comparing… “The squirming got worse, for a moment. And the wings… flapped faster?”

“Okay. Next was ‘I want Leaf to care about me.'”

“I want Leaf to care about me.” He doesn’t really feel anything. “I want Leaf to care about me more… I like when Leaf shows she cares about me…” Still nothing. He shakes his head. “Feels the same.”

“That’s fine. ‘I want Leaf to respect me?'”

“I want Leaf to respect me. I want Leaf to respect me… also nothing. Or maybe… the feeling is fainter? I might just be losing focus, give me a second.” He takes a breath and focuses on being with Leaf again, pictures her smile, until he feels the flapping wings against his ribs. “I want Leaf to respect me. No. No change.”

“Try some variations. Whatever makes sense.”

“Alright. Um. I want Leaf to… respect me… to like me… to admire me…” He pauses. “I want Leaf to admire me. Yeah. There was another flutter at that, a stronger one.”

“Let’s invert it. What are you afraid of?”

The thought comes immediately, and Red swallows. “I’m afraid Leaf doesn’t admire me. That she judges me. That she’s disappointed in me.” He thinks of that morning in her room at the hospital, of the night before on the S.S. Anne, and has to take a deep breath, hand going to his chest to rub. “It hurts more. Like it’s pushing the air out of my lungs.”

“Okay. Maybe that’s enough for now. We can take a break if you’d like. But if you want to keep going… remember the last time she expressed that she does admire you, and see if that eases the pain.”

Red nods, eyes still closed, and concentrates on his visit, on her telling him she didn’t blame him. The pain fades a little, but… It’s not the same. He’s glad she cares about him and doesn’t blame him, but that’s not where the pain actually came from. He can think of times when she said something admiring or praised him, but there are other things, more serious things…

“Red?”

“Sorry, it’s… it helped a little, but there’s more.”

“Do you want to keep going?”

He almost says no, but he does want to better understand this feeling… “Yeah.”

“Then keep voicing hypotheses around whatever is confusing you, and see if anything resonates.”

“Okay. I want to… I’m worried Leaf doesn’t respect me… no… I’m worried Leaf doesn’t respect my beliefs?” He sighs, shifts on the couch. “I feel close, the wings are lighter and the pain is sharper.”

“How about the wiggling in your lower stomach?”

“Oh.” He concentrates a second. “Mostly gone. I think that was embarrassment… woops, sorry.”

He hears her smile. “You don’t have to apologize, and yes, that seems likely. So worrying she won’t respect your beliefs was closer?”

“Yeah, but it’s not quite it.”

“It can be hard to really understand how something feels, particularly something complex. You’ve made progress on this, and it was only meant to be practice. I’m happy to continue it if you want, but maybe it would help to try something else for now. That might help whenever we or you loop back to this.”

“Yeah. Alright. Should I open my eyes?”

“Yes, go ahead. Maybe get up and stretch a bit, let yourself relax.”

Red smiles at the idea that lying down with his eyes closed hasn’t been “relaxing,” but she’s right, he feels somewhat fatigued, a little like when he uses his powers too much. He opens his eyes slowly, and takes a deep breath as he sits up, rotating his shoulders and neck. “I get what you meant, now.” He puts a hand over his chest. “The idea that there’s something deeper to my emotions that I’m not consciously aware of, beliefs tied into them that the body is reacting to. It’s actually kind of fascinating.”

“I’m glad you think so, because we’re going to try Focusing on Aiko next.”

His smile fades. “Right. Partition up, or down?”

“You tell me.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, dreading the answer but knowing it makes sense. “Alright. Give me a minute.” He makes another circuit around the couch, stretching his arms across his chest one at a time, then brings pikachu out and lies back down, opening his arms and letting his pokemon leap onto his chest. “You’re getting a little big for this,” he says, and shifts the mouse’s weight closer to his stomach so he can take deep breaths.

Red strokes Pikachu’s fur as he curls up on his stomach, then closes his eyes and lets his breathing even out as he focuses on relaxing again. It’s harder this time, knowing that soon he’s going to be drowning in emptiness and sorrow.

“What if he can’t feel anything?” he asks, knowing he’s reaching for a reason not to do it but trying anyway. “He might be too overwhelmed.”

“Then we’ll try with the partition up. But I think you’ll be okay.”

Breathe in, breathe out. He concentrates on the warmth radiating from Pikachu through his stomach, and relaxes his body outwards from there until his attention is diffuse.

Then he brings his partition down, and it’s like his whole body gets submerged in chilly water, only Pikachu’s warmth lingering and keeping his attention in his body instead of on the thoughts that immediately rise up.

“Red? Is it done?”

He must have reacted in some way. Despite everything, he almost says no. Almost brings the partition up, intentionally for once, afraid of what he might find in this new technique. If his body is telling him something right now, it’s that he’s a cold and hollow being.

“Yes,” he says instead, knowing that if he doesn’t, his partitioned self would use it as an excuse to keep from trying things like this again. I keep saying I want to get to the bottom of this, to work on it. I would be a hypocrite if I backed out now… not to mention Partitioned Red is going to hold it over me. He makes an effort to inject some emotion into his voice. “Ready.”

“Okay. Think about that night, and point to where in your body you feel something.”

Red’s breathing becomes shallower as her words bring back mental images and feelings, tightens muscles along his whole body and sends fear burrowing up through his guts like a diglett. “I… everywhere. Back is tight. Neck is cold, hands are cold stomach is… ball of… of nerves… chest—”

“Breathe, Red. Focus on your lungs. Breathe in… and out… in… and out… in… and out, that’s it… in… and out…”

Red keeps focusing on his breathing to take his mind off the mental images of the dead and dying, the feeling of hopelessness and fear, the crushing fear when Leaf was nearly killed… Pikachu clearly picks up on his distress, and shifts to pad around on his torso until he reaches his collar, fur tickling Red as he nuzzles his neck and jaw. It helps him focus on Dr. Seward’s words.

“That’s it… Keep going. Remember the tools you’ve been using when we talk about that night, and use them whenever you need to. You can do this.”

Red nods, and starts cycling through the other coping skills she reminded him of. They’ve never called what he goes through when discussing that night PTSD, and he’s not sure if it’s because his symptoms aren’t strong enough or if Dr. Seward just doesn’t think it matters to label it, but by this point he has enough anchors to calm himself quickly: thinking of the civilians they failed to save makes him think of the civilians they succeeded in saving, which chains into the pokemon they saved, which chains into the feel of Leaf hugging him in the rain. This is interrupted briefly by the sight of Leaf being batted away by the nidoqueen’s tail again, but he quickly replaces that image with the latest one of her at the ranch, alive and healthy, and he adds a new memory to the end of the chain: Leaf telling him that she doesn’t blame him.

“Okay,” he murmurs after his body feels at least somewhat relaxed again, and he shifts Pikachu back toward his stomach, where he’ll be somewhat less distracting. “I’m ready to… try again.”

“Alright. Let’s be more specific… just think about Aiko herself, and try to only focus on the two most powerful felt-senses. Just point to where your feelings are most noticeable.”

He nods, and thinks of Aiko, picturing her face. The first sensation is immediate, and he points to his chest. “Weight. Heavy.” His finger rises to his head. “Swirl.”

“Swirl?”

“Don’t know… like… a swirling mess, noise, confusion. Hard to think.”

“Okay. So there’s a heavy weight on your chest—”

“In.”

In your chest, and a swirling in your head. Making it hard to think, hard to breathe?” Red nods. “Alright, then. I know it’s unpleasant, but let’s sit with those feelings for a minute, and see if you notice anything else about them. You’re doing great, Red.”

Red keeps breathing, and keeps thinking of Aiko. The day they met, their conversations about her joining them, her laughter during one of Red and Blue’s arguments (extra stabbing-twist in the stomach, there then gone), her beaming pride when her eevee beat Red’s nidoran… the look on her face that night…

Tears prickle at his eyes, and he fights to stay present with the feelings in his chest and skull. It’s easier to picture them, now. A plate of metal over his ribcage, crushing his lungs. A swirling blackness between his ears, a microcosm of Zapdos’s storm that a part of him is forever stuck in. “The swirl is a storm,” he says, voice thick. “The storm. Rain. Wind. Lightning. Darkness.”

“I see. So, are these feelings on your side, or against you?”

“How could they… against me. They hurt. They’re…” His throat tightens, and he squeezes his eyes even more tightly shut. “I want them to go away. I’m just like him, I’m weak, I don’t want to think about them, I just want them gone…”

“Easy… stay with me, Red. Breathe. In… Focus on the air in your lungs… out. Good, again… and out. It’s completely understandable that you want these feelings to go away. But remember, they’re something your body is trying to tell you about yourself, that’s already true. That doesn’t mean they’re right, only that until you understand what they really are, what they really mean, there may always be some piece of the puzzle missing.”

Red keeps breathing, and clutches at Pikachu, who nuzzles his fingers. A distant part of him worries that he’s hurting his pokemon, which leads to him worrying about whether the conditioning would suppress any reaction if he is, and he relaxes his grip, forces himself to go back to stroking. “I think they’re against me,” Red says, voice flat, but calmer this time.

“Alright. Let’s see if we can focus on the chest one first. Do you remember what to do?”

He nods, shifts, clears his throat, then whispers, “I feel sad about Aiko dying.” The pain in his chest intensifies, and he makes a sound of discomfort as he shifts on the couch.

“I’m sorry, I’m guessing that made it worse. What else?”

Red knows what else. He knows he has to say it, despite his worries about anchoring. He takes a breath, then just blurts it out: “I feel guilty.”

The room is quiet a moment, and Red’s brow furrows. He focuses on Aiko, on the feelings inside him, and says it again, more slowly. “I feel guilty about Aiko… uh… I feel guilty about not stopping Aiko?”

“Red? Found something?”

“Nothing’s changing.”

“Well, maybe you don’t feel particularly guilty then. Didn’t you say that to me, on your first visit back?”

Red opens his eyes to look at her, letting the felt-senses fade from his awareness. They’re still there, though; now that he’s noticed them, put words to describing how they feel, it’s easier to notice them as distinct feelings. “I’ve been avoiding thinking of it as guilt because… I know it’s not evidence for whether I should feel guilty.”

“Right, I remember now. Dealing with it as guilt might be a mistake, and bias your views on what you chose. But from what you’re saying now, it seems like you don’t actually feel any.”

Red blinks at her. “But… I have to, don’t I?”

Dr. Seward shrugs. “Do you?”

Red slowly leans his head back, thinking of how he feels. He can’t actually be free of guilt, can he? Wait, there it is… no, that’s guilt about not feeling guilt…

He makes a sound of frustration and shifts, unpleasant emotions roiling in him. “I don’t know, it’s hard to think straight about it.”

“Well of course. That’s partly why we tried this in the first place. Would you like to continue? Maybe identifying what those feelings really are will help clarify things.”

Red rubs his face, feeling exhausted already. He just wants to go home and curl up and take a nap… but if he does, the partition will be back up when he wakes, and he’s not sure if Future Red would try this again. He might just claim victory at the lack of guilt and use that as an excuse to keep not thinking about things, no matter what he says otherwise. “Yeah,” he sighs, and closes his eyes. “I’ll try…”

Again he sinks into his body’s senses, feeling a note of annoyance at having to do it all yet again, which he doesn’t have to voice to imagine Dr. Seward’s reminder that therapy is work, and not always pleasant work. She would tell him to take a break if he’s feeling overwhelmed, but he’s not, really, just impatient, despite the fact that he reaches a mindful state and focuses on his felt-senses even faster than last time.

“Ready. What do I do?”

“Try again. Focus on the plate of metal in your chest, find things that resonate with it or change it.”

“Okay. I feel sad about Aiko’s dad…” The feeling gets worse. No surprise there. “I feel… I wish I had known her better.” Again, the metal gets heavier. “I wish I could have saved her…” Nothing. Or almost nothing, there was something wrong with the words themselves as he said it, and now he feels tears prickling at his eyes as the more correct words come to mind. “I… regret not being able to… to stop her—oh!” One hand moves to the spot just below his ribs, suddenly distracted from the unpleasantness.

“Red?”

“Sorry,” he gasps, prodding with his fingers as he breathes deep. “The metal plate is… it moved?”

“Moved how?”

“Not moved, actually, it… uh… wait, it’s gone… back to normal, I mean.”

“Say it again.”

“Right. Give me a minute…” He focuses on the heavy weight in his chest, and thinks of that moment where she ran away, when she literally slipped from his fingers… he could have tackled her, if he had held her for just a few minutes she’d be alive…

Red wipes his eyes distractedly, feeling it more clearly this time. “The metal plate… melted. I didn’t have to say it out loud, just thinking about how I could have saved her… it became a… a hot ball in my stomach and a cold… ” He focuses on the sensation. “Cold gaps between my ribs.”

“That sounds painful?”

“Not… as much,” Red admits.

“Alright. Let’s sit with these for a moment, then say things about the new felt-senses?”

Red takes a few deep breaths, drawing his attention back to the distinct feelings in his stomach and chest and head as best he can through the distraction they each cause.

“Any new details or textures?” He shakes his head. “Then let’s try focusing on just the stomach sensation first, the hot, heavy ball. Is it still there?”

“…Yeah.”

“Try testing more words against it, see if something fits.”

Red nods and considers his options a moment. What’s close to guilt? “I feel… shame. About not trying to save Aiko.” Nothing. “I feel inadequate… I feel weak…”

“Maybe it’s time to branch out again. Try thinking about something related to Aiko, something connected to your strongest emotions about her, without quite being her.”

What immediately comes to mind by the end of her second sentence is Blue, and the ball in his stomach becomes heavier and hotter. “Blue,” he says, and now it’s easier to predict which words match the feeling. “I feel angry at Blue. The ball is hotter, it’s like… dripping metal in my stomach…”

“Okay. Why are you angry at Blue?”

“I’m angry at Blue for making her feel like she needed to prove something.” The ball starts dripping more, filling his whole stomach with molten iron. “I’m angry at Blue for judging what I did while he wasn’t there, didn’t see what actually happened. I’m angry at Blue for blaming me instead of…” He wipes at his eyes, sniffing back a sob. “Instead of c-comforting me…”

Dr. Seward shifts the coffee table with the tissues closer to him with her foot, and he reaches out blindly to take some, wiping at his face. “That sounds very painful,” she says, voice light as a feather.

“Y-yeah…”

“How does the ball feel now?”

“It’s gone. Melted into a pool.”

“Mm. Is that better?”

“…yeah.”

“Okay. That’s what’s called a ‘shift,’ a change in your understanding of what your body is telling you about your feelings that results in a change in what your body feels. It can take some time to process that new signal, to live with it and see how it feels, so let’s leave it be, for now, and go to the cold sensation you described between your ribs. I’m curious to know if that seems easier to put words to, now?”

Red wipes his eyes once more and swallows, trying to concentrate… “Yeah, I… think so. It’s f… I mean… I feel afraid… that he’s right…” His eyes clench tighter, and he breathes out. “It’s worse now. Like bits of ice are stabbing my lungs.”

“I see.” Dr. Seward is quiet a moment. “This is probably a good time to point out that these are a lot of painful sensations that you’re experiencing, painful emotions to process, and I want to acknowledge how hard it is to experience them the way you have. I want to also check and see how you’re doing, if you want to take a break or even stop for the day.”

“No.” The word comes out before he really thinks about it. It is painful, and exhausting but now he feels close to something, something like the shift in his stomach. And he wants to know. It’s something about himself that he can’t see, and he wants to see it, wants to see every part of him, shine a light in every corner of the dark machinery that grinds and ticks and spins under the surface to make him the way he is. “Let’s keep going.”

“Very well. So you’re worried he’s right, but also don’t feel guilty. It makes me wonder what you worry he’s right about, specifically?”

Red takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain to focus on the cold ice instead. “I’m afraid he’s right about me being a coward…” Nothing. “I’m afraid he’s right about… me not caring enough about Aiko.” Also nothing… no, there was a shift, but he can’t tell how… “There was something there.” Red swallows and takes another breath. “I’m afraid Blue is right that I don’t care about anyone more than myself.” Nothing again. “I’m afraid… Blue is right about me not caring about my friends…” Still nothing. Maybe he imagined the shift…

“It looks like you’re getting a little frustrated?”

“A little. It’s there, I just can’t get it to respond…”

Dr. Seward laughs. “It’s very like you, to learn about this just thirty minutes ago and already expect to be an expert at it. But it can take time to tease the right words out, and find something that resonates with felt-senses.”

Red frowns, but sighs and nods. “So what do I do?”

“Let’s table it, if that’s alright with you, and go back to a previous question now that we have more of an understanding of what these felt-senses might mean. The hot, heavy ball in your stomach which melted into a pool of liquid metal… now that you know it represents your anger at Blue, does it feel like it’s on your side, or still against you?”

Red forgot that question, and now that he reconsiders it the answer seems obvious. “On my side. It’s a protective anger.”

“It seems that way, yes. I’d like you to try thanking it.”

“…thanking the feeling?”

“Yes. And reassuring it. If it helps to combine this exercise with Internal Family Systems, imagine there’s an Angry Red who has been trying to get your attention this whole time because he’s seeing something unfair and wants to protect you from it.”

It happens effortlessly as she speaks: Angry Red is wearing his journey outfit, jeans and jacket and hat, and has his arms crossed, foot tapping in the empty space of Red’s inner world.

He felt another shift, too, as she spoke, a ripple in the liquid metal pool, and the image of Angry Red clarifies something. “I think he’s angry at me too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A little. Like… angry that I’m letting myself get so affected by what Blue said.”

“And does that resonate with you? The whole you?”

Red lets out a slow breath. “Yeah. It does.”

“Whenever you’re ready then.”

Red swallows and shifts, making Pikachu flick his stomach with his tail. Red gives him a scratch along his scar, then moves his hand from his fur to his lower stomach, above the internal pool. “I… don’t know what to say?”

“Sure you do.” He can hear the small smile in her voice. “You’ve been talking to yourself for years.”

Red takes a breath, nods, and says, “Hey, Angry Red. Thanks for… uh. Being angry. About the Blue thing-“

“More specific?”

“Right, sorry. Angry Red… thank you for being on my side, and for caring that Blue was unfair, and helping me notice that.”

“Good. Now reassure it, him, that you get what he wants you to do, and you’ll do your best.”

“Okay…” He directs his attention to Angry Red, who has stopped tapping his foot. “I hear you. I’ll do my best to not let it affect me, and to make sure Blue knows that what he did wasn’t right, if the opportunity comes up. Oh.” Red shifts. “He didn’t like that part.”

“Wants you to be more proactive about it?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Makes sense. He wants the injustice corrected. How do you feel about it?”

He doesn’t want to. He really doesn’t want to. The thought of talking to Blue at all, let alone about this, makes him instinctively flinch, his stomach burn, his ribs ache with cold.

But… He’s right. I am angry about it, and I should talk to him about it, even if it’s the last time I do.

“…I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but I’ll work on it. And,” he adds with sudden inspiration, “I know you’ll remind me, and keep me from letting his words affect me, in the meantime. I’m glad you’re here, to do that. Thank you.” They aren’t just words into empty air, by the end: Angry Red seems as real to him as Future Red, and as he recognizes the truth of what he’s saying, the molten pool in his stomach slowly starts to fade, until…

Red opens his eyes, voice full of wonder as he rubs his stomach. “It’s… gone. Not entirely but I can barely feel it, unless I concentrate really hard.”

“Excellent work, Red.” Dr. Seward is smiling wide, voice full of pride that makes him feel warm. He suddenly realizes he feels different in more than one way, and quickly checks his partition.

It’s still down. But… the world doesn’t seem as overwhelming and hopeless as it did before minutes ago.

“I’d like you to practice this in the coming week,” Dr. Seward goes on, writing some notes. “There are a lot of other feelings you might want to explore, and insights into even unrelated ones can be helpful in unexpected ways. But if you want to tackle some new felt-senses, like the storm in your head, you can, or we can wait until you’re here again. Either works.”

“Alright.” Red slowly sits up, holding onto Pikachu so that he’s still in his lap by the time he’s upright.

“There are a few books you might find useful on it… the shortest is just called ‘Focusing,’ by Gendlin himself.” She finishes writing them on a sheet of her notepad and tears it off to hand to him. “If you do try it, take lots of notes.”

“I will.” He folds the paper and slips it into his pocket, still unused to how… different he feels. He can still feel the swirling confusion around his thoughts, the pain in his chest, heaviness in his limbs, and more… but he’s got something new, along with it all, and he doesn’t need Focusing to recognize it.

Hope.

“Thank you, Doctor.” He bows. “It was strange, but I’m glad you shared it with me.”

She smiles. “It’s my pleasure, Red. I had a feeling you’d take to it, and there are few more satisfying feelings in this job than seeing a client take a new model or toy with eager hands, and run with it. I think it’ll take you far.”


When Sabrina charged them with their task and left the city, she said she would be gone for a few days, “possibly more than a week.” That left things rather open ended, and so after two weeks without her return, there was a low level of worry among the other students, unstated but more than noticeable for a group of psychics. After a month, they called a meeting with Saffron’s Second and Third, who admitted that they’ve had occasional messages from their Leader and thus knew she was still alive, but still had no idea when she would return.

By Red’s most recent visit to Aiko’s ranch (he still thinks of it as hers, rather than her father’s or even Leaf’s) the wider world took notice. Luckily no new wild pokemon incident have hit the city or its surrounding routes, but a Gym without its Leader can’t grant badges. And so a steady queue of people who qualified to challenge Sabrina simply continued to grow, while others took the mentions of her absence as good reason to head elsewhere first. It helped that Cerulean, Celadon, and Vermilion were so nearby, so that trainers on their journeys had such an abundance of alternative choices.

Still, the practical effect is that the gym becomes steadily emptier week by week, until Red barely sees anyone as he enters the cafeteria on the day after he learns Focusing. And now it’s not his or Rei’s fault, since their experiment ended long ago.

Tetsuo was right in predicting that non-psychic, non-dark people in the cafeteria would be rare that first week, and if not rare, mostly expressing curiosity or fear or challenge, but they still managed to get some variety during their experiment, including people so caught up in their thoughts or conversation that they didn’t even notice the signs. A game quickly developed between Red and Rei in predicting who fell into what group as they came in.

There were a few unusual cases; one trainer approached them to see if they could detect the spirit haunting her. Rei agreed to check, and reported finding nothing, which seemed to just upset her until Red had a flash of inspiration and asked for her number, promising to pass it along to someone who specializes in such things and fairly confident that Jason would be happy to reach out. Another trainer kept his gaze on Rei as soon as he walked in, and she quickly warned Red not to merge with him, a hint of pink in her cheeks. Red was tempted, but the fact that a psychic with nearly a decade of experience over him said not to do something ultimately proved enough to keep him from doing it. He turned the event into a conversation starter with Past Red about their general risk aversion, and how they felt about it, which turned out to be a rich vein for debate (not all of it civil) that continues off and on to the present.

Among the experiment’s other benefits, Red got better at discerning Rei’s emotions through her mimicked mental states, until her mimicry improved at an even faster rate. Regardless of its fidelity however, unlike Red she was never able to retain more than a few by memory at a time, and each one became less “real” when she adopted a new one (or maybe just as more time passed from her original exposure to them). By the time the experiment ended and they reported that branch of investigation a failure to the others, he noted clear improvements in getting faster and more efficient at mimicking and maintaining a different mental state, and could hold onto them for longer before he started to feel depression color his mood.

Unfortunately, neither of them got any better at concealing the inner awareness (meta knowledge?) of being deceitful. Even when asked questions as simple as the flavor of ice cream they tasted while merging with someone else eating ice cream, there was sincerity, but always side-by-side with anticipated failure and tricking self and tricking others… One of his biggest takeaways from the experiment was how insufficient language could be to describe internal states, there being so few words for experiencing multiple emotional states at once. As if the range of emotions are discrete integers, rather than a spectrum along multiple axes, some of which intercross and form all sorts of new patterns…

“Morning, Red,” Jason says, regrounding Red in the present as he sits at the medium’s table with his tray of food.

“Morning Jason, Satori.”

Satori nods to him, feeding her torracat with one hand as the other holds an ice cream cone to lips as pink as her hair. Normally a pokemon standing on the table probably wouldn’t be allowed, even from one of Sabrina’s students, but with the place as empty as it is no one seems inclined to talk to her about it.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Red says to Satori. “I know torracat’s evolution is Fire/Dark, and with how much time you spend linked with your pokemon I was wondering—”

“Why no everstone to keep it from evolving?” Satori guesses. “My half-sister, Koishi, is Dark. I’m trying to learn how to pierce the veil between us.”

Red blinks. “You’re trying to… learn how to interact with Dark minds?” He grins. “You don’t dream small.”

“It isn’t ambition, but loneliness,” Satori says between licks of ice cream.

Red withholds the further praise he was about to add, which now feels like it might be insensitive. But Rei isn’t the only of his fellow students he’s made some strides in getting to know over the past few weeks, so he just nods and starts eating his vegetable burrito. “So you’re hoping your familiarity with him will help once he evolves. I’m sure it’s not your only plan, though?”

“Correct. I’ve been practicing connecting with other dark pokemon.”

“Huh. How do you check for progress meanwhile?”

“I see Koishi on weekends, and have a list of tests to check for incremental changes.” She turns her ice cream and takes another lick. “I can share it with you, if you’re curious.”

Red smiles. “That would be awesome, thanks!”

“It’s no trouble.” She scoops up another handful of pokeblocks for her torracat to eat from her hand. “How is Past Red?”

“Better, actually.” She and Rowan are the only people besides Dr. Seward that refer to his unpartitioned self as a separate individual. “I saw my therapist yesterday, and learned a new technique that actually helped a little, with what we’ve been going through.”

“Your aura is different, then,” Jason says, frowning slightly. “I thought I was imagining it.”

“Oh, hang on.” Past Red, this is just for Jason and maybe for us to learn something, please put the partition back up soon. Red brings the partition down…

…and feels his features settle, his posture shift, his appetite wane. The cafeteria fades to a blur of unimportance past their table, his attention drawn away by feelings of pain and sadness and…

…that’s it.

Fascinating,” Jason says, watching Red with wide eyes. “It’s minor, but your emanations are distinctly more harmonious than the last time I sensed you without your partition.”

“Huh.” I’m… not sure how I feel about this.

Could probably try Focusing on it, Future Red chimes in.

That’s going to get annoying quick. But it is strange to get independent verification that something has changed in his internal state. It feels too “neat.” Like doing some exercise and getting a letter the next day informing you of how much muscle mass you gained.

But after another moment’s consideration he knows that feeling is silly. If he has a fever and takes medicine for it, the fever goes down, and he can measure that. The only reason it feels strange to have his emotional health confirmed by an outside source is that he’s not used to it… not just in general life, but specifically from therapy when he was younger. He remembers noticing a trend of positive changes after looking back at who he was weeks later, especially when they reviewed his progress during sessions. Having near-instant gratification from mental health treatment feels like it goes against what it’s “supposed” to be, a long, complicated process with ups and downs…

Maybe he’s being stubborn, and he should just accept that sometimes a new intervention really can have immediate, positive effects…

…or maybe he’s being overly optimistic, and forgetting that feeling better a day after therapy doesn’t mean he will two days after, that by next week he won’t regress again…

“Hm.” Jason plays with his prayer beads, and Red remembers where he is, raising his shield. Or at least attempting to, it’s always harder for him than Future Red. “As fascinating as it is experiencing your mood shifts, I feel compelled to ask if you’re alright?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just…” Red shakes his head, then sighs and lets his partition come back up. His next breath seems to fill his chest more than the one before, and he smiles at Jason to assure him he’s fine as he takes a bite of his burrito. “Sho, whatsh the plan today?” He swallows. “Message said we’re doing something new?”

“We’ve found a gym member we’d like to bring into the experiment. He’s a fairly strong psychic with experience merging with his kadabra and starmie for battles… and has recently made a lot of progress merging with his exeggcute.”

Red perks up. Satori and Jason made progress with doduo during their weeks of working on multiple-mind merger, but it eventually hit a dead end. Even when Satori inhabited both minds at once, she became able to hold two different views together without any apparent dissonance to Jason and Red’s probes. Making contradicting statements isn’t quite lying, but it’s closer than any other attempt they’ve made so far… But even that was only for certain topics, such as which direction she was looking or other physical effects of merging with two different minds at once.

Exeggcute are the next logical step, a multi-mind pokemon that also happens to be psychic. Tests have shown that each seed can learn what one-another knows at the speed of psychic thought, but that they don’t all simultaneously know the same things. If some pokemon might be the key to learning how to keep knowledge truly partitioned within the same mind, Red thinks it’s them. Two weeks ago he asked Satori and Jason if they felt up for a group attempt at merger, and by the end of the discussion Jason said he would look for promising candidates to invite into the experiment.

“That’s great! What’s his name?”

“He’s coming in now.” Satori says, and Red turns to see a young man, maybe mid-twenties, entering the cafeteria and heading straight for them after a quick glance around. “Red, meet Alex Cyr. Alex, Red Verres.

“Call me Cyr,” the trainer says, shaking Red’s hand as he sits beside him. “Heard a lot about you, online. It’s a pleasure.”

Red smiles. “Then you have the advantage, and I get to ask you to tell me more about you.”

“Ha! Fair enough. Let’s see, four badge trainer, ten year psychic, three year law student—”

“Law student?” Red asks, surprised. “Don’t think I ever met a psychic law student. Or a trainer who went into law… what made that happen? And how do you find the time?”

Cyr grins. “Well, my pokemon training has been on a slow pace lately, which helps. With Sabrina being out of town, I only come to the gym a couple times a week while I focus on my studies.”

“And the why?”

He shrugs. “Became a bit fascinated by interregional government affairs since I came to Kanto, what with the whole Indigo League thing you’ve got going here. Got me wondering how much help a psychic might be in helping resolve conflicts and mediate things at the governmental level.”

“Huh. Cool.” Red smiles. “Okay, we’re probably closer to even footing now. Thanks for joining us on this.”

“Happy to be here, really. It’s just the kind of experimental stuff I was hoping to find at Sabrina’s gym…” His eyes widen as he trails off, and Red follows his gaze. “Who is that?”

“Rei’s joining us too?” Red asks, surprised, and turns to her as she reaches the table. “Thought you had ‘other projects’ to fill your time?”

“I do,” the blonde says, not sitting. “But I know Tatsumaki wouldn’t come, and Rowan is still stubbornly doing his own thing, so I can’t risk getting lumped together with them as uncooperative. Besides, an experiment like this needs the best of the best.”

Red matches her wry smile. “Well, it’s good to have you.” Despite their new familiarity, they still feel much more like respected colleagues than friends. Part of that was her general continued aloofness and lingering wariness of his partition, but another part was his own wariness of the plans she revealed to try to learn Sabrina’ secrets.

It only came up once or twice, and Red has mostly gotten over his worry about his knowledge of it being revealed, as he found his suspicion of Rei is actually far more dominant than any guilt toward Sabrina, and with all the practice he’s had redirecting his thoughts is far more likely to show if he needs it to.

“Hey,” Cyr says, and stands as he holds his hand out to Rei. “Nice to meet you…”

Red turns back to his burrito as they introduce themselves, knowing that look by now. Rei got a lot of admirers approaching the table they’d set up at during the experiment, and he never saw her engage with any of them beyond simple politeness. “So does this mean the last person is…”

“Daniel,” Jason confirms. “Is that okay?”

Red shrugs, smothering his sigh. “I’ll deal.” While he’s gotten closer to the present half of Sabrina’s students, he hasn’t made much progress with the other half, and Daniel remains as smugly arrogant as ever. Red finishes his food by the time the older boy enters, and Jason gets to his feet and does one last introduction.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s get started,” Rei says, smoothly taking charge of the proceedings in a way Red might have resented a month ago. Everyone nods, and they move as a group toward the elevators. Empty as the gym is, the six of them stand out in a number of ways, and Red is aware of how everyone they pass turn to stare.

He takes his mind off the stares by debating whether he should try to talk to Daniel about why he’s here. On the one hand, it would be the friendly thing to do. On the other, it might cause some disharmony right before they plan to work together.

“Surprised you came to this,” Red finally comments, deciding that he’s going to be distracted if he doesn’t bring it up.

His fellow psychic snorts, looking around the gym. “I don’t think it’ll amount to anything, but the sooner it’s tried the sooner we can move on to other things.”

Well, that settles that. Red wants to ask if that means he’ll give it his best shot, but decides that might come off as less than friendly. If only one of the others had agreed to come… but Rowan could be remote in his own way, and Tatsumaki would only care a little more than Daniel.

They reach the elevator, which takes them just a couple floors down before the doors open at the first level of training rooms, and they find the Gym Second waiting.

“Hello, everyone,” Tetsuo says, gaze jumping between them. “I thought I’d come observe your experiment, if that’s alright.”

Everyone seems taken aback except for Rei, who turns to them. “I figured it would be good to have someone else with us, who wouldn’t be participating, in case something goes wrong.”

“Wrong?” Daniel asks. “You think there’s something unsafe about this?”

“Maybe not in the traditional sense,” Tetsuo says. “But mergers with exeggcute are still largely uncharted territory. Better safe than sorry… and the last experiment you guys ran here cost the gym some money, so I want to be sure I can attest to exactly what’s going on.”

Red nods and smiles. “Makes sense to me.” He’s happy to have another experienced trainer and psychic in the room, regardless of the reason. Future Red feels nervous that the experiment might get aborted early, but the rest of him recognizes that if it is, it would probably be for good reason.

Cyr leads them to a private training room, then takes a pokeball out and summons his exeggcute into the middle of the bare floor.

They appear gathered in a small pile, each of the six round bodies touching. Red remembers reading about how they were the hardest pokemon to be coded for balls, since technically they’re six distinct bodies. The saving grace was that, individually, none have much of a mind to speak of, their mental presence nearly non-existent. Only once a cluster of six has psychically linked do they show pokemon level intelligence, and it’s stranger than even other pokemon with multiple heads, like dugtrio or magneton. Instead exeggcute psychically operate as one mind.

“My first psychic teacher told me that merging with a pokemon is more difficult the more different their physiology,” Red says as the group goes to sit by each of the individual seeds, which arranged themselves in a close-knit hexagon after what was likely a mental command from Cyr.

“Mostly true,” Satori says. “But complexity matters as well, and there are no pokemon more physically simple than an individual exeggcute seed. It also helps to have a guide.” She adjusts her hairband, then looks at Cyr expectantly.

“Right.” The young man shifts to sit more comfortably, face thoughtful. “So, physically, you want to prepare yourself to feel their smallness, and their roundness, and their rigidity. They have only five senses: touch, sight, taste, vestibular, and psychic. The first thing you will likely notice is their outer shell, which is where nearly all their nerves are. Imagine yourself as just your head, with your stomach taking up half the space of your brain, only able to move by muscle contractions of your face, which is now spread around your whole head. Let yourself feel that discomfort and distinct lack of control or presence. The world is large and confusing, each nutrient difficult to acquire, and predators are everywhere. Only in numbers are you safe, and only in numbers can you readily acquire food, so seeking and finding others of your kind is a priority above every other impulse. When alone, it might be the only impulse.”

Satori speaks with her usual assertive, if distant, tone, and everyone’s attention shifts to her. “We will keep them close enough that they have enough intelligence to not be overwhelmed by that impulse, and instead each will barely be an individual at all, but rather have an assigned function, all working toward maximizing different goals.”

Cyr nods. “Those goals generally are food acquisition, threat monitoring, mobility coordination, memory, future planning, and flux.”

“Flux?” Jason asks.

“Ah, um, it changes a lot, between small, miscellaneous tasks. It’s a little hard to describe… kind of a mix of processor and RAM, if that analogy works for you?” Jason shakes his head. “Hmm, probably won’t matter unless that one’s yours, and then you might experience it for yourself.”

“Are certain seeds more suited at one task than another?” Rei asks, looking down at hers.

“IIII’m actuallyyy… not sure? They all shift to combat mode when in a fight, but…” Cyr sees Red’s mouth opening and closing like a fish as he tries to find a spot to jump in without being rude. “Do you know?”

“Their neurology is incredibly malleable,” Red says with the relief of being able to clarify something for someone. “They each adapt as needed: when they’re in combat, all the seeds shift to focus on survival in various ways, both combat and escape, though pokeball conditioning mostly eliminates that, but even outside of it, they definitely alter their focus if one of them gets separated or finds a new cluster. That said, there might be natural affinity toward particular tasks; a lot of exeggcute breeding is about testing for that, so that a cluster can be made up of seeds that are each perfectly attuned to their task.”

“Yep, sounds about right,” Cyr says. “Any questions? Everyone ready to give this a try? Great.” He tosses the exeggcute’s pokeball to Tetsuo, who’s sitting by the door. “Then here we go…”

He closes his eyes, and Red does the same as he lets his psychic senses stretch out. The other five minds around him are way more distinct than the exeggcute stretched out between them, and it’s even harder to focus on the specific node that’s his seed in front of him. It’s slippery, in the sense that his focus keeps getting distracted toward the wider, stretched out brain that the whole exeggcute shares.

He can sense the thoughts, the sensations, as they bounce and reverb and echo from seed to seed, brain to brain. He drags his attention to the single node in front of him, trying to block out the web connecting it elsewhere, the stream of thoughts that keep pulling him into a chaotic mix of minds. He just has to keep bringing his attention back to the seed, picking up new things little by little… the feel of its round body, simultaneously claustrophobic and comfortingly simple… the bemused neutrality of its emotional landscape as it sits motionless, surrounded by people/seeds who are attempting a double merger (impossible, paradox, absurd)… the thoughts aren’t remotely human, aren’t really thoughts, but just a fundamental confusion and lack of prior experience or understanding to draw upon to act on what’s occurring. If he concentrates a little more, he can even understand where that baffled silence is coming from… which seed keeps getting pinged and returning static, causing the seed/himself to keep looping… and looping… and looping… Red needs to try to take in more of the network, but every time he tries the echoed impulses of the other seeds feel like they drown out his own thoughts, and he can only barely sense the other minds connected—

“Ugh,” Daniel says, jolting Red out of his merger and making him look at the blond. Daniel has been quiet since they entered the training room, but now he’s shaking his head. “This is pointless.”

“It’s not pointless,” Red says, irritated by his concentration being broken. He checks the time and is surprised to see half an hour has passed. It felt like five minutes, tops. “I was getting somewhere.” He looks around at the others to see them nodding.

Daniel looks around at them with clear annoyance. “I didn’t say I couldn’t merge, but they’re just… empty. What’s supposed to happen here, exactly?”

“We’re not exactly sure,” Jason says. “But it will probably take more than a little effort to do a true merge with them, and that’s when we’ll experience a little more of what it’s really like to have a multifaceted mind.”

“I have an idea,” Rei says, and turns to the gym’s Second. “Tetsuo, could you take Daniel’s spot, while he stands by for safety?”

Tetsuo looks surprised, but shrugs after a moment. “Why not.” He goes over to Daniel, who looks like he’s trying to think of an argument, then seems to realize he’s getting an out and just takes the empty pokeball, leaning against the wall as the Second takes his spot.

Before long they’re all merging again, and Red is starting to get desires from his seed. Sunlight. Soil. Moisture. He thinks his is the one in charge of finding sustenance for the cluster, but there’s none of that stuff here, and little by little he notices a change happening as the impulses shift toward something else. He’s curious what, but it feels like it’s beyond the scope of his seed, in another node, being fed by it. He tries to follow it and gets lost in the echoing empty noise again, and again, and again, before retreating and trying to sink deeper into the merge. He starts to share its eyesight, which is fairly poor, seeing the shape of himself sitting beside it, seeing the shape of the others as the seed turns… he wants to—

COOKIES

the fuck?—

It’s all he has time to think, more sentiment than words, and then his mind is full of images and tastes and smells of cookies, not just those he automatically recognizes as his memories and concepts, but others too, five others to be exact, each a myriad of colors and shapes and textures and tastes, some similar, some unique—

The unmistakable sound of a pokemon being withdrawn, and the link is abruptly gone. Red opens his eyes to see the others look around in bewilderment. It takes a moment for him to register where he is (not cookies), who he is (not cookies) and then he turns to see Daniel standing with the pokeball outstretched, a puzzled, even concerned look on his face.

“Are you all, uh, alright?”

“What the… hell was that?” Cyr says, rubbing his lips, then blinking hard.

“Everyone okay? Sound off,” Tetsuo says, clearly recovering from his own experience.

“I’m fine,” Jason says, spinning his spirit beads.

“Fine,” Satori says. “Hungry for cookies.”

The group chuckles slightly, except for Rei and Tetsuo. “In an unnatural way?” Rei asks.

“No, no. I’m not obsessed or anything.”

“Good. I’m also fine,” Rei says. Red nods, and Cyr flashes a thumbs up. Rei seems to relax a little, then looks around. “So… best guesses for what happened?”

“What actually happened, first of all?” Daniel asks.

The group looks at each other, then Jason speaks up. “I suddenly got inundated with thoughts of cookies. Every sense and memory just felt overloaded with it.”

The others are nodding, and Red turns to Daniel. “Why did you withdraw the exeggcute?” He’s glad his tone is curious, not accusatory.

“You all went stiff, at the same time. More still than usual. A few of you started… chewing at nothing.” Daniel lets out a breath. “It was a bit freaky.”

“I bet,” Tetsuo mutters. “You did the right thing.”

Red nods, and the others join in to thank him. Daniel seems unsure what to do with the praise, and just shrugs.

“So, do we try again?” Rei asks.

“Not until we know what happened,” Tetsuo says, voice firm. “I’ve never heard of anything like it, and—”

“I have an idea,” Red says. “Um. I think someone managed to actually fully merge with the whole exeggcute cluster. I was trying, over and over, and kept falling short. Whoever did it must have been thinking of cookies at the time, and… that’s what propagated to all the other seeds.”

There’s silence at this, and Satori slowly nods, while Rei looks blankly curious. “Did anyone feel like they managed it?” she asks.

Everyone is silent. “We might be able to tell who it originated from, by thinking over what we thought or felt first more carefully,” Tetsuo says.

“Mind if I check if my exeggcute is okay?” Cyr asks, hand up for his ball, and Daniel floats the ball to him mentally. “Thanks.”

“Shields up, everyone,” Tetsuo says, and a moment later Cyr looks around, gets nods from them, and summons his pokemon again.

The exeggcute seems totally fine and normal, still clustered together in a hexagon. “Doing a quick check,” Cyr says, and a few seconds later he nods, smiling. “It’s fine.”

“Now what?” Satori asks, arms around her knees as she looks at the exeggcute contemplatively. “I’d like to do it again. It was novel.”

“There’s a lot to consider,” Jason says. “And before we try again, we may also want to check us all to ensure we don’t have any lasting desire for cookies.” He’s smiling slightly, but he also seems serious.

“I second that,” Tetsuo says, and gets to his feet. “Let’s debrief at the clinic, and ensure everyone is checked over. I’ll have to revise the safety evaluation of this experiment and check with our ethics team, but maybe by tomorrow we can try again, if everything is as fine as it seems.”

Red is disappointed, but gets up with everyone else, still playing over the experience in his memory (like an echoing thought, out and back, bouncing, searching… okay, time to stop evoking that particular comparison). What confuses him the most is how someone could be unaware of being the one that thought of cookies first. He even looks at Daniel, a suspicion blooming in his mind. Would the blond sabotage an experiment just because he wasn’t part of it anymore? He does seem in good spirits, now that everyone is okay…

“Good thing it was cookies that someone thought of,” Daniel says with a sly smile that only grows Red’s suspicion. “There are more embarrassing and sensitive thoughts that would have been strange for everyone to share from everyone else…”

“Well great,” Cyr says, as they reach the elevator and he presses the floor where the medical wing is located. “Now that you’ve said that, it’s almost certainly going to be something like that next time…”

Red’s next breath is steady. He holds it a moment longer than he should, then lets it out slowly.

He doesn’t look at Rei.

He doesn’t look at Tetsuo.

He keeps his eyes forward, barely hearing the sarcastic reply by Daniel or the murmurs between Satori and Jason, still feeling Daniel and Cyr’s words like a punch to the gut as his body advises him in no uncertain terms that he has dangerous knowledge, and needs to figure out what to do with it.

Aaah, shit, Future Red thinks as the pieces fall into place. That sneaky… I told you this would come back to bite us. So what are we going to do?

Past Red is silent, and Present Red has no idea.

Chapter 76: Chrysalis

Two months after she moved in, Leaf still wakes aware that she’s in a dead girl’s bed, in a dead girl’s room, in a dead girl’s house.

She stares at the ceiling for a minute, listening to the quiet of the house around her. It’s been years since she stayed in a private room for months at a time. Even those weeks in Pewter and Cerulean and Vermilion were spent in trainer houses, the bunkbed filled rooms shared with a dozen others. Waking up in the same bed day after day without the sounds of others waking up and moving around and talking quietly… just her and her thoughts… it’s nostalgic, bringing back memories of when she was too young to travel everywhere with mom and grandpa.

She eventually reaches for her phone and checks her messages, spending a minute (or ten) scrolling through her news feeds and reading comments from her latest article. Each scroll of her finger triggers a minor dopamine hit that finishes waking her up, but also tugs her attention toward the wider world outside the room, until she starts to get restless enough to get out of bed and into the shower.

Afterward she joins Mr. Sakai for breakfast, the bereaved father still treating her presence like it makes total sense for a virtual stranger to take up residence in his daughter’s room. She’d spoken with Aiko’s aunt, gotten her blessing, for whatever that’s worth, but at the very least Leaf doesn’t get the impression that Mr. Sakai ever confuses her for Aiko. That would be too cruel, and she’s been wary of any signs of it. Instead the rancher simply treats her like a perpetual guest, feeding her at every mealtime and accepting her help with the managing of the pokemon.

“Remember not to make dinner today, Mr. Sakai,” Leaf says as she clears the table. “We’re having guests, and I’ll be ordering food for everyone.”

“Guests? How wonderful. More children to see the pokemon?”

“No, Blue and his friends are coming by.” She’s glad she reminded him. The longer she lives with Aiko’s father, the more surprised she is by how relatively functional he is. She does find him weeping quietly as he works from time to time, but as long as his wife or Aiko aren’t brought up he often seems fine. She helps take care of the pokemon and looks over the ranch finances (which are a little better these days, thanks to the extra income from the therapy groups), but he does the laundry, keeps the house clean, orders food to the ranch, all with steady competence day to day.

The clearest areas the gaps appear are in any changes to the schedule. If she’s not around to help, he prioritizes the pokemon’s care over his own or the household’s, and she’s come to suspect that for Mr. Sakai, the easiest way to cope with his losses is to simply act as if each day is the same. To be lost in the repetitive habits of predictable schedules and (relatively) thoughtless chores. The few times she’s seen how he acts when he has nothing to do, she was a little frightened by how lost he looked, sitting at the table and staring blankly at the wall, or wiping down the already clean kitchen counters, or simply falling into an exhausted, but fitful, sleep.

Once the table is clear they go outside to summon the pokemon into their pens. She brings Raff and Crimson out so they can walk and fly beside her as she makes a circuit around her half of the ranch, then returns to her room (Aiko’s room) a few minutes shy of her scheduled call. Raff goes to rest on his soil bed by the window, which she opens so Crimson can fly in and land on the perch she set up on the wall. She already sees the invitation waiting on her screen when she arrives. “Hi Bill,” she says after accepting the call and turning on her mic.

“Eva found six errors in the simulated program,” the inventor says. Leaf doesn’t get offended by the lack of niceties or smalltalk anymore; if anything it makes it easier to interact with him, since she doesn’t have to worry that he’ll ask about her or how her day went, or the other sorts of questions that sometimes make it hard to talk with others these days.

“That doesn’t sound so ba-“

“Then it crashed.”

Leaf sighs. “You did that on purpose.”

“Crushing unfounded optimism is just one of my many public services. You’re welcome, and also, pay attention. Your scope is way too big. Untraining commands is hard enough. Reinstituting wild behavior is worse. Keeping certain pieces of conditioning is just not something you can do right now.”

Leaf sits up, jaw clenched. “I know you’re not telling me to give up.” He’d agreed to look over what she’s developed so far, and she expected harsh criticism, but…

“I am actually, on that goal and plan of attack. But you’ve got other options.”

She opens a document to take notes. “I’m listening.”

“Reverting newly caught pokemon’s brainstates to what they were when caught would be… well, easy for me, at least achievable for you, if time consuming. It’s low hanging fruit that no one’s developed because there’s been no incentive to. But it would make a good learning opportunity, and be a stepping stone.”

“A stepping stone to releasing already caught pokemon?”

“Thanks to that fascinating sample of yours that I’m still curious about the origin of, yes, though without a saved version of their brain-states it’s going to take an immense amount of work applying it to each pokemon. As I said before, keeping any bit of conditioning makes the whole thing exponentially harder, but this also showed that carving out specific exceptions moving forward may be more doable. And by doable I mean maybe half a decade of effort by a dozen of the best TM programmers around, taking into account QA and some unexpected complications.”

Leaf rubs her eyes with the heels of her palms. “But it would work?”

“Theoretically, yes, but my point is don’t focus on that right now. Just aim for simple reversion. It’ll be an achievement you can call your own, draw attention to your project, get people thinking about it. Whatever you decide, this is about all the time I can put into it. I’ve already sent out a notice to some of my circles, maybe it’ll help connect you with others who find it interesting.”

Leaf lowers her hands. She shouldn’t be ungrateful. He’s done so much for her and Red already, and didn’t even get all that upset when he found out they left the cruise early, though he did point out how stupid it was, in the same impersonal, distracted voice that indicated that he wasn’t trying to berate them, only pointing out a fact. “Right. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Bill says, voice wry, and Leaf realizes her thanks didn’t sound particularly thankful. “Trust me, you’re better off without me being more involved. Even if I had the time, which I don’t, and the interest, which I also don’t, my version of this would be way different than what you’re envisioning.”

“What do you mean?”

“The easiest way to do what you want is to just create a brainstate of a pokemon with all its wild behaviors intact, add an additional set of conditions against harming humans, and then just apply that brainstate to all pokemon of its species that are released.”

A chill goes down Leaf’s back. “That’s… you would just be mentally cloning one pokemon over and over. Effectively killing all the others…”

“Yep, and I know you’ve got problems with that, which is why me not doing it is better for everyone,” he says, a little impatiently. “Well, except for people who might die to wild pokemon between when my hypothetical version would be complete and yours.”

Leaf swallows her retort. “Couldn’t we just… save their mental state upon capture, and use that?” It would delete each pokemon’s experiences between capture and release, which is also a form of erasure, a killing of the pokemon that they become to replace them with who they were, but that wouldn’t matter for balls designed specifically to pacify wild pokemon, who would be released immediately after capture anyway.

“Sure, yeah, but now you’re back to writing a program that applies the right conditioning dynamically to each individual, which is a lot more work. However you want to tackle it, you’ve got some options and my advice for which to choose. Hopefully someone reaches out soon, but meanwhile I’d get more samples if you can.”

“Alright. Thanks, Bill. Really.”

“Welcome. Good luck.”

And then he’s gone, and Leaf is leaning back in her(/Aiko’s) chair. That was… disappointing, but not as bad as it could have been.

Still, she’s going to have to reconsider her priorities now that she has a better idea of the difficulty of the task and what the short term rewards would be. She doesn’t know nearly enough about programming to do the hard work with any sort of efficiency on her own, which means she’s going to be mostly reliant on others as she does her best to learn quickly… but she still remembers the resolution she made a while back, where no matter how much her goals might change, she’d never regret improving herself. If she can identify her programming skills as lacking, she should focus on improving them while she waits to be contacted.

So that’s what she does for the rest of the morning, occasionally stopping to play with some of her pokemon. She’s getting to know Aiko’s better, and they’re integrating well with her pokemon in their games and tests. She knows the transfer of ownership doesn’t delete their memories of their previous trainers, just makes them seem long ago while adding bonding memories with their new ones. It’s preferable to the alternative, but she can’t help but wonder if they miss Aiko at all, and gets teary-eyed as she strokes Aiko’s oddish’s grassy leaves, wondering if they might even think they were abandoned.

After lunch she’s back to working on her programming, and a couple hours go by before she hears pokemon outside getting excited by something. She gets up to look, and grins as she sees Blue and the others biking down the dirt paths that wind around the various pens. She quickly saves her work, then runs down the stairs and out onto the porch.

Blue is just stepping off his bike when she reaches them, and seems surprised as she pulls him into a hug. After a moment he hugs her back, still breathing hard from his pedaling. He smells like the road to her, a mix of biking gear and sweat and dirt, nostalgic scents that make her realize how much she misses their journey together.

The others start removing their own gear and stowing it away, and she releases Blue so he can do the same, smiling wide. “It’s great to see you again.”

Blue looks a little embarrassed, but returns her smile as he unbuckles his helmet. “You too. You cut your hair!”

“Wanted to try something new.” She goes to hug Elaine as well, who grins at her.

“Hey Leaf! It looks great.”

“Thanks!”

“Take notes, Blue,” Glen says as the older boy strips off his knee pads, then stretches his arms out for his own hug. “Compliment, don’t just notice. Pixie cut really suits you, Leaf.” Leaf feels her cheeks warm as she steps over to him, while Blue grumbles something. “Doing alright?” Glen murmurs, giving her a brief squeeze before letting her go.

“One day at a time.” She steps back and waves to the others, who return the gesture. Leaf vaguely remembers Lizzy, but not the other girl, who she first took to be wearing a rain poncho or something, but turns out to have on a long, dark cloak that she had gathered around her waist to be able to bike. “Hello, I’m Leaf Juniper.”

She takes her wide-brimmed hat off a moment to unbuckle the helmet she’d been wearing under it. “I know. Heard all about you. I’m MG. Don’t think you’d have heard much about me.”

Leaf glances at Blue, who just smiles. “Well, I’m looking forward to doing so. Are MG your initials? Or is your name Emgee?”

“Neither.”

Leaf waits for more, then simply nods and turns to the final member, who has just finished putting her bike in its box. “Hey, Lizzy.”

“Hello, Leaf.” The tall girl puts the lid on and returns the container to its ball, then looks around them as she stretches and walks over to the nearby pen that holds some sentret, each standing on their tail to get a better look at the newcomers. “This place seems very nice,” she says as she rubs one of their bellies, making it chirp.

Leaf grins. “Yeah.” She looks at Blue. “I thought there’d be others?” She didn’t watch the matches, but did read about the two groups that were practicing scenarios with Blue, and of course read about the results.

“Bretta went ahead of us to rejoin some friends. Everyone else decided to stay at the gym.”

There’s a story there, Leaf senses, a neutrality to Blue’s tone that feels forced, but she just nods for now and lets them finish packing up their things before leading them to the house. The weary travelers take turns showering and introducing themselves to Mr. Sakai, who seems to be having one of his better days, taking the introductions in stride as he helps clear parts of the bottom floor for people to sleep that night. Leaf goes around getting everyone’s orders for dinner, talking with everyone about their trip here and plans for when they arrive in Celadon. She wonders why they aren’t going to Saffron first, but figures she can guess.

While Blue is in the shower and MG and Lizzy go to help Mr. Sakai with the pokemon as they take a tour of the ranch, Elaine and Glen find Leaf while she’s putting the dinner orders in. “Hey. So… Blue told us.”

It takes a moment for Leaf to understand what they mean. “Yeah?” she asks, a little wary. “What did he say, exactly?”

Elaine smiles slightly. “We’re not fishing, Leaf.” Her smile fades. “He explained how Red was with Aiko when she ran into the building, but didn’t go in after her. How he and Red fought, and… how they disagreed about what Red should have done.”

“He was a little more detailed,” Glen adds. “Said Red accused Blue of making Aiko so worried about looking heroic that she risked herself recklessly to live up to his ideals. And that he told Red that if going in to help her would mean death, then he should have been willing to die.”

“Is it true?” Elaine asks, voice low and gaze earnest.

Leaf feels her heart twisting, and takes a deep breath before letting it out as she finishes putting the dinner order in. She’d wondered whether Blue would ever tell them. She’s glad he finally did, but she’s not sure what it means for him. She gets the confirmation, then puts her phone away and gives them her full attention. “Yeah. There was more, but… that seems a fair enough way to summarize it.”

“And how do you feel about it all?” Glen asks, voice cautious, which in turn makes Leaf cautious.

“I think both of them are wrong in their own ways, and judging how others decide things like that… doesn’t always have a clear answer.”

To her relief, Glen smiles. “That’s basically what Surge said.”

Leaf blinks. “Wait, Surge talked about it?”

“Not directly,” Elaine explains. “Sorry, I thought you knew… we’re explaining this out of order. Surge’s speech was related to what happened in the second scenario. We can tell you about it later, but we think Blue told us the story in the first place because he’s struggling with what Surge said.”

Glen sighs. “It’s almost like he wanted everyone to make up their own mind about whether he was right or not, and for us to feel free to leave if we disagreed.”

“Or if we’re worried he’d get mad at us for disagreeing,” Elaine adds, and Glen nods. “It’s not that simple, of course, but everyone who was going to stay still decided to… except Vlad and his friends. I don’t think their changed decision is related, but we’re worried Blue took it pretty hard.”

Glen nods. “He’s been a little off ever since. Would you talk to him, sometime tonight?”

Leaf nods, worry churning in her stomach. “Of course. Thanks for letting me know.”

Their obvious relief and hope makes her worry grow, but also infects her with some hope too. When the status quo seemed so hopeless, a change like this might result in something good. They go to help take care of the pokemon, and Blue joins them outside eventually. With everyone working together it goes by much more quickly than usual, and once they’re all back inside Leaf innocently asks about the badge scenarios while they wait for the food to arrive.

The others take turns filling her in on what happened, first during Blue’s group challenge, then during Glen’s, from both the participants’ and the observers’ perspectives. Despite her aversion to watching the matches, it’s fun listening to them relate what happened with occasional bursts of suppressed excitement at the thrilling bits (and some occasional arguing about details of what actually happened, which usually ends with Lizzy reminding people that there’s footage available or Blue jumping in to push the narrative along). The conversation extends through dinner, and for the most part Leaf is able to avoid thinking of the combatants’ pain… up until the end of the second match, when Blue’s subdued description of the dragonite brutally one-shotting each of Bretta’s pokemon makes Leaf’s hands curl into fists.

“And that was it,” Glen concludes as they start to clean the table. “Surge made a speech about how what happened couldn’t be judged, and they got their single challenge matches the next day. They were intense, but both got their badges too.”

Suddenly Mr. Sakai, who had been silently listening throughout the conversation (or else deep in his own thoughts), speaks up from the kitchen. “Was he talking about Aiko?”

Everyone goes silent. Leaf exchanges looks with Blue and Elaine and Glen, trying to decide what to say… she’d told him what happened to Aiko within the first month of living here, aware that it was a risk but wanting him to know she’d died while attempting to save others.

Before she or Blue find something to say, Leaf is surprised to hear MG respond, despite being the most quiet of the group. “Yes, Sir. Aiko’s actions are part of what inspired the gym to teach this lesson. I never met her, but I wish I had. She’s very inspirational to me.”

“Oh.” That’s all he says. Just that. None of them break the ensuing silence, listening to the quiet sounds of his movements in the kitchen, and when he leaves it a minute later, Leaf feels her heart twist as she sees him silently weeping. “I’ll go to bed now. Goodnight, everyone.”

Their subdued goodnights follow him down the hall, and they’re all silent again until they hear the door close.

“Did I say the wrong thing?” MG asks, hat completely hiding her features and voice fragile as a cobweb.

“No,” Leaf immediately says. “No, I think that was perfect. Thank you.”

The hat shifts in a nod, and Elaine gets to her feet. “Anyone want tea or cocoa or something?”

A few hands go up, including MG’s, and Leaf gets up to help her while Blue suggests the group get more comfortable. By the time they finish making the drinks they find the others spread out in the living room, on the couch and floor talking about lighter things. Once everyone has their mugs, Leaf perches on the end of the couch and decides to poke a potentially delicate subject during the next lull in the conversation.

“So… I was under the impression that the scenarios you guys were practicing with were to help against pokemon incidents… but some of the things you described in the Challenge matches were definitely not that?”

Smiles spread around the group, and Glen chuckles. “Should have figured you’d see it. Yeah, they kind of took it in a different direction than us. Don’t think it’s a secret, or at least it won’t stay one for long after all the chatter that’s been going on over the net…”

“It’s why Vlad decided to stay longer,” Elaine says, voice confident, and Leaf glances at Blue to see him shift in his seat. He doesn’t contradict her, however. “When he heard what Surge was preparing everyone for… He and his friends decided to stay at the gym with the others.”

“What, the thing about hard decisions?”

“No,” Blue says, and she turns to see his gaze intense on hers. “The scenarios are to prepare trainers for war.”

Sudden cold spreads through Leaf’s veins as she stares back at him, hardly believing what she heard. War. An ugly word, where she’s from, divisive and often taboo in polite company. Her grandpa in particular spoke of those times with a venom she never heard about any other topic. He’d lost friends in it, spoke out against it at the time and was shunned by the whole Unovan government and League while it was going on. Almost left the region, according to Leaf’s mom, who never spoke much about those days other than when she taught Leaf about it in her history lessons. It’s a scab on the region’s legacy, not quite old enough to become a scar, still itching and bleeding out occasional silence and harsh words between friends and family and neighbors who hold opposite views of it.

“Kanto is preparing for war?” she whispers, and her first thought, which she would later spend a restless hour in bed reflecting on, is of how fast she can leave the region.

Blue shakes his head, and the relief warms her as much as her tea. “Nothing specific. Surge is just sure that war is coming, one way or another, and wants to prepare people.”

Leaf’s brow is furrowed. “And… what do you guys think?” She looks at Glen and MG in particular, the other non-Kanto natives.

Glen rubs his face, sighing. “It seems crazy.”

Lizzy nods. “The Indigo League is larger than practically any other region in the world, definitely the biggest on the island. Who would be crazy enough to attack us?”

“Only Hoenn or Sinnoh are close enough,” MG says from beneath her hat, a cup of cocoa in her hands. “And only they would benefit.”

As the others start to discuss it, something tickles at Leaf’s memory with growing urgency, like she’s forgetting something important. She thinks it has to do with something her mom or grandpa must have said at some point, but only once she gives up on that line of thinking does the answer come to her in a flash, the words of an old woman on a bench as they fed their pokemon together. And who will this trainer be? What new calamities will they bring, with the power of a god in their pocket? Kingdoms have warred for less, long before mankind’s reach exceeded its grasp.

“Blue,” she says, and something in her tone makes everyone turn to her. “If you had the chance to catch one of the Stormbringers… and the alternative was to kill it. What would you do?”

He’s silent a moment, everyone watching him. “I’ve thought about it before,” he admits. “If I’m being honest, I want them dead. But… it would be too big an advantage to give up, when going after the others. I’ve often thought that I don’t actually need to beat all three. Just getting Zapdos might be enough to take the other two down because of type advantage, though capturing any of them would be a big help against at least one of the others. And not just them. Could take them from region to region, hunting down the legendaries…”

“And who would own them?” Lizzy asks, and her tone makes it clear she made the connection.

Blue nods. “Thought about that too. Who I’d trust…” She sees him realize it too, his thoughtful expression shifting to one of surprise, then growing resignation, until he sighs. “Fuck. You’re talking about war… It’s not just who I’d trust, but who’d trust me, or whoever else has one. Even if we know we won’t attack someone…”

“But people would be even less likely to attack a region with a legendary on someone’s belt,” Elaine protests.

“Yes,” MG says quietly. “Until they can get their own.”

The group is quiet a minute, and Leaf’s tea no longer warms her. Blue looks far more tired than he did a few minutes ago, gaze distant and unfocused.

“We should probably head to bed,” Elaine says after a minute of silence. “Can talk about this more tomorrow.”

The others murmur their agreement, exchanging goodnights with Leaf before heading downstairs where they laid out their sleeping mats. Leaf gives Blue a significant look, and he nods at her. She goes to brush her teeth and prepare for bed.

She’s just finishing up when she hears a quiet knock at her door, and goes to open it. Blue walks in looking very solemn despite his pajamas, a complex smile on his face as he looks around at Aiko’s room. “You’ve made it your own.”

“Partly.” She goes to sit on the bed, and for a moment it seems like he might go to the computer chair, but then he joins her. She’s glad he does. “How you feeling? Don’t want to keep you up if you’re too tired.”

“Naw. I’m fine.” He takes a pokeball out of his pocket, and summons Aiko’s eevee. Its silver fur gleams as it materializes, looking around the subtly changed room, and Leaf suddenly wishes she hadn’t changed anything, for a moment, until it turns to hop onto the bed with them. It settles down in a furry coil between them, and both of them reach out to scratch its thick fur together.

“Still haven’t named her?” Leaf asks, voice quiet.

“No. Aiko wanted to wait until she evolves… makes sense to me.”

Leaf nods. “Any thoughts on that?”

“Yeah. But we’ll see.” He looks at her. “I was thinking it over, and I think there’s only one way.”

She blinks at him, unsure if he’s still talking about Eevee. “One way to…?”

“Every region needs its own legendary under a trainer’s control. That way no region would want to mess with them. They could just send their trainer over and wreak nearly as much havoc in revenge.”

Leaf stares at him, then slowly nods. It’s horribly elegant in its simplicity. “I guess that might do it…”

“You think it’s a bad idea,” he says, clearly reading her hesitation.

“Not in the way you mean. There are stories, in Unova, of the power that legendaries give to one side of a war or the other. If people know that’s how others might act, whoever catches one might try to act first to keep others from getting a legend of their own.”

He sighs and nods. “I know. I just can’t think of how else war could be avoided forever. At some point, someone’s going to catch a legendary. I’d rather it be me, but if I just go around grabbing them all up… it’s too much power to put in one person’s hands. And too risky to assume no one else would get them at some point. I’d have to kill them all, just to stop anyone else from getting one.”

Leaf is reminded somewhat of her and Red’s conversation with Bill in his lab, the inventor’s sabotage of other projects for fear of the first AGI being enough to destroy or dominate the world if developed poorly or by the wrong sort of person. “You might be right. That’s not actually what I wanted to talk about, though.”

“What, then?” He’s watching her with simple curiosity for a moment, and then wariness sets in. She can practically feel his walls going up, the connection between them growing brittle, and if he wasn’t Dark she would think she was a latent psychic like Red. “Oh.”

“Not that,” she quickly says. “Not directly, at least. I actually want to know more about the gym’s reaction to Aiko, what Surge said. I feel like people were tiptoeing around it out there, probably because Mr. Sakai was around, but… yeah. What’s going on with that whole thing?”

Blue looks slightly reassured. “Well, there are a few layers to it, the way Sabra explained it,” he says, voice low. “How Aiko and Jack’s deaths kicked things off. I don’t know if you remember, or if I ever told you, but Peter, one of the gym members who was leading my group that night… I defied his orders to go help Gramps and Daisy. He was mad, but didn’t make a big stink about it. I guess it would have been weird to, in light of everything. He just told Surge, expecting him to decide if a punishment would be fitting. And combined with what Jack did, and what Red didn’t… apparently, Surge wasn’t actually sure. He invited the upper tiers of the gym to meet a few nights to talk. About sacrifice, and expectations.”

“They never had before?” Leaf asks, skeptical and intrigued.

“Not like this. Surge’s policy was always for people to follow orders and think of the broader mission, but apparently he always talked to people who broke with that policy in private, and never punished them much. It was treated as a grey area, an inconsistency that no one really knew how to speak about at the gym. But there were a lot of others in the city who had similar stories from that night, and Sabra said once the conversation started more and more came out, it wasn’t centered on Jack or Red or me.”

Leaf considers this a moment. “And that’s when the idea to have it happen in the scenarios came from?”

Blue nodded. “My scenarios were the first chance the gym had to really play with the idea. Play with different circumstances, prepare people for the aftermath. Test whether it can be trained.”

“Whether what can?” Leaf asks, wishing she could write about all this, suddenly. It would make for a fascinating article, even a book, but she’s not sure she can spare the time anymore.

“The ‘heroic impulse,’ as Surge calls it.” Blue’s gaze is distant. “The thing that makes you move toward danger to save others, without even thinking about it.”

“To help people be more willing to do it?”

“No. He said that’s already possible. But to do it better. To not make it an impulse, anymore, to think about the odds, evaluate the broader mission, decide if it’s really what you should do.”

Leaf is silent, thinking about what Blue must be feeling right now. Surge meant train as restrain, in some cases. Blue was essentially told by the Gym Leader that Red may have made the right decision. Not necessarily that Blue made the wrong one, in going to help Professor Oak and Daisy, but… “I take it you disagreed?” she says lightly.

Blue shakes his head, and Leaf feels her heart leap. Could this be it? The resolution to Red and Blue’s fight?

“I don’t know anymore,” Blue sighs. “Surge is coming at it from the angle of someone in the military. He had the idea of focusing on the broader mission literally drilled into him. But the gym itself teaches that trainers aren’t soldiers. Maybe that’s a bad thing in his view, but to me it’s not. Someone who will always follow orders rather than do what they think is right with the information they have in the moment… I can respect it. I get why Surge is for it, I get why it makes sense as a Leader, or just someone who leads, to want others to do it. But I don’t think I can trust someone like that. They’re giving up their responsibility to someone else.”

Leaf considers this a moment, wondering what her own answer for this would be and whether she should nudge things back in the direction of Red’s decision, and then she realizes the implications of what he said. “Wait, Blue, don’t you want people to do that, once you become Champion? If you make a plan to take down a Stormbringer, wouldn’t you want the trainers working with you to follow the plan, rather than run off to do their own thing?”

“I always thought that’s what it meant, being a trusted leader. It’s not fair, really, that things turned out so well when I went to help Gramps and Daisy. When people break from a plan like that in a combat situation… I think most of the time it actually causes more problems.”

“Most of the time,” she echoes. “But you’re not most people, and it wasn’t a usual circumstance. So… I guess you can just trust that the people you’ll be leading will make their own decisions, unless you specifically want to train them not to and see how that goes?”

“But I don’t want to lead people like that. I want to inspire them to do what’s right, and trust that they’re each capable of figuring out what that is, moment to moment. If someone sees someone in danger in front of them… it feels like I’d be asking people to not get mad if someone punches them in the face, if I told them to ignore that, or not to pick up money on the street. Especially if it’s a friend that’s in danger.” Blue shakes his head, looking frustrated. “But I also want to know that I can depend on them to trust a plan they’re given, and not deviate too much from it.”

She stares at him. “You’re not just talking about a handful of trainers following you on your journey.”

“No. To take down the Stormbirds once I’m Champion, I’ll need dozens, maybe hundreds, that I can rely on like that.”

“That sounds…” She doesn’t want to say impossible. “Unlikely.”

He rubs his face. “I know. I know. I just… don’t know what to do.” He lowers his hands, staring at the wall. “When we were traveling to Vermilion, I thought I could learn about leadership from Surge’s gym. And I did… in more ways than I imagined. But even if I have fewer questions now, the new ones feel harder than ever to answer.”

Leaf can’t remember ever hearing such vulnerability in Blue’s voice before, and realizes suddenly that he isn’t just catching her up on what he’s been doing. He’s unloading his frustrations to someone he trusts, but also isn’t in charge of. Someone who can listen without him worrying about having to look strong for.

She takes her hand from Eevee’s fur and puts an arm around his shoulders. “So you’re facing problems that seem bigger than you can solve, with no one that seems to know how to solve them, and trying to figure out how to get it done as you go. That about right?” He nods, and she nods too, smiling slightly. “Welcome to the club.”

Blue is silent a moment, then chuckles. “It’s good talking to you again. How’s Operation Pacify going?”

“We don’t have to talk about my problems just yet, if you still want to vent.”

“I think I’m done for now. Thanks. And I have been curious. Sorry I haven’t had time to check in until now.”

“I get it.”

“No, really. It’s bothered me a few times, and I’ve been trying to find a good way to apologize for it.”

She raises a brow. “For what?”

“Leaving you? Making it hard for you to stay?” He shrugs, looking uncomfortable. “Red ran off to Saffron… sorry, I didn’t mean ran like that, just… at least he can teleport in every so often and help out, while I decided to stay in Vermilion for way longer than we expected, without talking to you about it ahead of time… and then you got stuck helping Mr. Sakai—”

She pulls her arm back and sticks a finger out at him. “Let’s get something straight, Blue Oak. I didn’t get stuck helping at the ranch. I could have stayed in Vermilion, or gone with Red, or hell even gone back to Unova if I wanted. Mom asked me to often enough, and I was even considering a quick visit after the cruise, before the storm hit. I chose this instead.”

Blue puts a hand up in apology. “You’re right, I know you did. But you still came to Kanto expecting a journey, and we… I guess it feels like our shit got in the way, and we let you down.”

“You did, but not in the way you’re thinking.” He looks surprised, but she keeps going. “I don’t need you feeling sorry for me, or guilty for me not staying, or whatever you’ve been worrying about. I’m here because I think it’s important, as important as what you’re doing. Understand?”

Blue looks at her a moment, then slowly nods. “Right. Yeah, that was… pretty shitty of me, actually. Sorry.”

She’s satisfied to see Blue look properly chagrined, and decides to ease up a bit, smiling as she pokes him in the side. “For?”

“…for apologizing?”

“Good. Apology accepted.” She starts scratching Eevee again.

He smiles back, and they sit in companionable silence until Leaf feels brave enough to guide things back toward Red’s decision. “So the gym was testing to see if people can be trained not to abandon the mission and save their friends?”

“Mostly, but not that simple. Like I said, it’s also to have a place to explore how people act in different situations, and prepare them for what it’s like to be in those situations… and handle how others might react.”

He’s not looking at her, and after a moment Leaf gently prompts, “Like with you and Red?” There’s a moment of silence, and then Blue nods, and a lot of her tension fades. “And how are you handling that?” she asks, hope rising. This could be it, they might finally—

“Nothing’s changed.”

“What?!” He jumps slightly, and she lowers her voice, glaring. “What do you mean ‘nothing’s changed?'”

“I mean I don’t see what’s different, now. He’s learning from Sabrina, I’m going for badges… it’s not compatible.”

“You’re not this dense, Blue. Who cares what you two do? I’m talking about your friendship!”

“The friendship he wouldn’t even risk his life for?”

Leaf’s glare melts into something that’s a mix of exasperation and sorrow, and she puts her hand over his, stopping his fingers’ movements in Eevee’s fur for a moment. “Blue… I watched him run up to a nidoqueen in the middle of that storm, after two hours of helping others, to save a complete stranger. I told you all this before, but it’s like you don’t believe me.”

“‘Course I do,” Blue mutters.

“Then why do you think he wouldn’t risk his life for yours?”

Blue shrugs a shoulder. “I think he would… if it’s safe enough.”

The bitterness in his voice makes her sigh. “Blue… you have to decide if this is about how much he cares about you, or whether he’s willing to save others. If it’s the latter, then you’ve already decided that all this doesn’t matter, right? You won’t be traveling together, he’s not on a pokemon journey. Why keep the fight going? I know you miss each other.”

She can see him struggling with it, and hope makes her pulse race. When he meets her gaze, she sees wary curiosity there. “It doesn’t bother you? That he might not have cared about Aiko?”

“If I believed that, yeah. Of course it would. The whole thing makes me feel sad and confused and yes, sometimes angry at him.”

“How do you deal with that?”

The hope is slowly returning. This is the farthest they’ve ever gotten, talking about it. “I wasn’t there. That’s how I deal with it: reminding myself that I don’t know what he saw, and how he felt. I might have gone in after her. I think I would have. But I didn’t go through what he did, I don’t know how the Pressure was affecting them—”

“The Pressure was gone by then, it—”

“Let me finish, Blue. I know the Pressure was gone, but there are aftereffects, right? My point is that you don’t know how he felt, and why he didn’t go in. Maybe he’s really just a cold computer that was weighing risk and reward all night, and Aiko didn’t make the cut. But I don’t believe that, and you can’t just decide that’s the case.”

Blue is quiet a moment, either processing what she said or checking to ensure she’s done. “He doesn’t have to have been cold about it,” he eventually mutters. “I know he felt torn up. But he justified it, after. He stood by the decision.”

“And that’s bad? He can’t just genuinely have a different view?”

“He can,” Blue says. “But I don’t see how he can also care about me. Those two things… they can’t fit together in my head. Maybe he cares as far as he can, but then his caring and mine, they mean two different things. That’s what made me so… angry, then. Now I don’t feel angry about it, just sad.”

She waits a moment, then asks the real question that she’s been wanting to. “Do you think there’s any chance of talking to him about it? Being friends again?”

Blue shrugs. “That’s up to him, more than me. I wasn’t the one that—”

“Blue,” Leaf interrupts. “Come on. I was there, remember? You said he should have died. Yes, he said some things he shouldn’t have too, but anything after that was tainted, and you were the one that set the ultimatum.”

“Wasn’t an ultimatum, he took it that way—”

“Blue. Tainted, remember?”

She watches him squirm, face shifting between stubbornness and shame. “Didn’t mean it that way,” he finally whispers, so low she can barely hear him. “Of course I’m glad he’s not dead.”

“I know.” She puts her hand over his. “I know you would have died for him. And believe it or not, I think he’d risk it for you too. But he wouldn’t do what he thought was certain death for Aiko. Do you need him to be willing to for you? Not by your measure, but by his.”

Blue is quiet for nearly a minute. “I don’t know,” he mutters at last.

“Not to journey together, but just to be friends.

He sighs. “No. Probably not.”

Leaf’s heart is in her throat, and it’s a struggle not to squeeze his hand tighter. “And do you think it’s possible that he doesn’t think it’s obvious that you’re glad he’s not dead?”

Leaf watches a little more of his stubbornness melt away, heart pounding, and it’s hard to stay quiet and let him answer at his own pace, hard not to just shake him and demand he apologize.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Success! “So… you think you can tell him that, maybe?”

Blue rubs his face with his free hand. “I’ll think about it.”

Leaf almost yells at him again, but instead she takes a controlled breath and reminds herself not to push him. Instead she just squeezes his hand, and leans her head against his shoulder, and they sit in silence until Eevee’s snores prompt Blue to head to bed.


The group leaves for Celadon the next day amidst bittersweet goodbyes. A part of Leaf wants to join them, to be surrounded by her peers again, on the road seeing new places.

But another part of her is looking forward to the coming quiet of the ranch again, and she knows she’s still not ready. Not ready to leave Aiko’s bed, her room, and the mission that she’s come to consider both of theirs, building on her work and started from different directions, but which she knows her friend would have agreed with. She still has too much work to do here.

Once they’re gone and Leaf returns to work on her articles and programming, she finds a new distraction bubbling up to the surface of her thoughts every so often.

She wants to tell Red what she and Blue talked about. She itches to, a constant pull on her attention. At the very least, she wants to tell him what Blue said about being glad he’s not dead. She fantasizes about it, even, about just calling Blue up and telling both of them to just shut up a moment, that all she wants Blue to do is just say that one thing, just that, and for Red to just listen and respond, only to that, and then they can go on with their days and that one thing might be enough of a difference to get the ball over the edge and rolling downhill.

But she can’t. Because she told Blue she wouldn’t, and they might not be ready. Blue might screw things up by adding something else, or muttering it, or Red might be having a bad day or have been bottling up anger about what Blue said that he can’t keep in, or something that just makes things worse instead of better, and she’ll have been the cause of it, and both of them would trust her less.

Instead she tries to just focus on her work, which gets harder as the week creeps by day to day and she gets closer to Red’s next visit… right up until the day before, when Laura texts her out of the blue to ask if it’s okay to visit when Red’s there too.

With everything that’s happened, Leaf nearly forgot about Laura’s promise. Nearly. Her imagination supplied all sorts of outlandish plots over the past few months, each methodically repressed to keep her from investigating them without Laura’s approval, and now they all come roaring back to the forefront of her mind as she responds with a simple question: Is it time?

The response comes back almost immediately, and Leaf grins, sends an affirmative, then starts reviewing her old Mount Moon research to refresh herself on what Laura will want to talk about.


“You’re sure this is okay?” she asks Red as they walk past the pens and into an open area at the outskirts of the ranch. “It won’t be too tiring, on top of the other stuff you’ve been doing?” Other stuff that he’s been fairly hush-hush about, but she knows it involves using his powers, which still makes him sadder.

“We’ve got what, an hour before my mom gets here? I should be fine, this is just more practice of what I’d be doing anyway.”

Red looks like he’s been doing well. Better than the last couple times she’s seen him, at least. “How’s therapy been?”

He glances at her. “Alright. Pretty good, actually. I’m learning ways to talk to myself better when I get sad.”

“Oh, neat. Like what?”

“I guess you could call it journaling. We’re actually talking pretty often now, and making deals with each other. Not often, but more than before.”

Leaf’s not sure she really gets what he means by all that, but she can sense he’s not too comfortable talking about it yet, and they’ve reached an open area. So she just nods and hands him the bag of pokeballs, then opens her own bag of food, placing some granola on the ground as he summons the first pokemon.

Leaf knows what Red has probably been thinking, as they walked out here. At the very least, what he was thinking when she asked him to do this, told him her plan. She doesn’t think he’s judging her, but she wouldn’t be surprised if some part of him was considering her a hypocrite, though she knows she might just be projecting. Overall, she appreciates that he hasn’t said anything about it, and she feels justified in being grateful for his silence given that she would be shocked if he didn’t at some point remember their argument about pokemon testing.

Not that what they’re doing is the same as testing chemicals on rattata or measuring the damage done to pokemon by various attacks in a laboratory setting to better understand type advantages. Nothing they’re doing here is painful, and theoretically would cause no lasting damage.

Theoretically being the key word, there. She wouldn’t do it if she suspected otherwise, but she can’t be absolutely sure, and so she watches with apprehension as the first pokemon Red summons, a rattata (of course) sniffs at the food she put down, but doesn’t eat it. He hands her the ball, and she aims it at the pokemon, and waits… until suddenly the rattata eats the food unprompted, and she quickly withdraws it into its ball.

The next pokemon is a spearow that’s missing a wing, then an oddish, then another rattata, this one missing a leg. Some of these pokemon might be able to be released back into the wild, if this experiment works. For the others, being back in the wild would be a death sentence even if they could regain their wild instincts, but they still make useful trial samples. She doesn’t plan on releasing any of them without Mr. Sakai’s permission, of course, she’d asked for permission to even try this… though she’s not sure how meaningful that permission being granted was.

Still, two different flavors of guilt work through her as she withdraws pokemon after pokemon, and half of her keeps reminding herself that it’s fine, that Red has used sakki on a number of pokemon already for combat and none seem to have any negative side effects while the other half points out that if it was really that safe, she could just use her own pokemon.

By the time she’s withdrawn a dozen pokemon, Red looks barely strained at all, and smiles reassuringly at her as she ties the bags closed. She smiles back in what she hopes is a reassuring way as they return to the ranch, and maybe it was the smile or maybe it was something else, but as they walk Red sends her reeling with a simple question:

“Do you blame me for what happened to Aiko?”

She stops walking and turns to him. “What?”

His gaze is down, steps slowing to a stop. “Sorry, I know that was random. I’ve been meaning to ask it for a while and… the urge came up, and I didn’t want to lose my nerve. You can say yes, I won’t get mad. It’s important for me to know.”

The frustration of not being able to tell him what Blue said returns and peaks, but paired with it is her own desire to be clear, here, her own caution in how she expresses her feelings. Luckily, she’s thought about this a lot, and practiced how she would say it in her head.

“No,” she says first, because she thinks that’s important. “I don’t blame you at all, Red. You didn’t make her who she was, or force her into coming along with us or going into the building.” She wonders, briefly, if he’s reading her mind. He promised he wouldn’t, but she can’t help but think of it. She starts walking again. “But I’m guessing that’s not what you mean by ‘blame?'”

Red nods, still looking downward as they pass pen after pen of maimed or abandoned pokemon. “Do you think I should have gone in with her?”

“I wasn’t there,” she says, and realizes suddenly that she should have told Red this earlier too. She was judging Blue for not telling Red how he really felt, for not clarifying, and here she had waited for him to ask her this instead of making it clear herself. They’ve still been friendly, so it hadn’t seemed like as big a deal, but she knew on some level that he wondered, and she had just… let him go on wondering, because it would have been awkward and uncomfortable to talk about it and risk the status quo. “I don’t know exactly what happened, or how you were feeling. That’s the position I’m taking, because it’s the right one. I don’t have any right to judge you, and I don’t. That’s the truth, Red.”

He looks at her at last, and she can see how much her answer means to him… even as she can see that it’s not wholly satisfying, either. And she can guess why: it’s not absolution she’s offering, or even agreement with his philosophy. “More than that,” she adds, “I don’t know myself enough to really answer any better. I thought I did, that day, and I’m sorry if things I said came off as judgemental. But with more time to think about it… I just don’t know, and I’m not sure I will anytime soon. But it doesn’t matter, for me. For us. It doesn’t matter to our friendship.”

Red absorbs this a minute, then nods. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”

“You’re welcome.” I’m sorry I can’t say more, I’m sorry I can’t get Blue to say more yet, but soon… “We’ve got another half hour, feeling up for some medical checks?”

He is, and they go through a dozen before his phone chimes, and they go outside. Laura arrives on the back of a familiar swellow, and Leaf waves at Daisy, smiling. Blue’s sister waves back at them, but as soon as Laura is clear of her pokemon’s downdraft she yells, “See you in a few!” and takes off again without even dismounting.

Red’s mom spends a minute hugging him, until he becomes visibly uncomfortable and squirms. She lets him go, smiling, and Leaf is a little embarrassed but mostly pleased when she gets the same treatment.

“It’s great to see you both again.” She tucks her sunglasses into her satchel, and looks around the ranch. “Is Mr. Sakai here?”

“He’s at the pond taking care of the water types. We have a little while before he’s done, and we eat.” They finish heading toward the house, and go upstairs to the living room table. Laura excuses herself to use the bathroom, and Red and Leaf sit at the table alone for a minute. They wait quietly, and Leaf can see the same pent up anticipation in Red as she feels herself. She gets up and fills three glasses of water for all of them, and has to keep herself from tapping her foot when she sees Red’s bouncing under the table.

Laura returns and sits down, thanking Leaf for the water and taking a long drink. When she lowers the glass and sees the two of them watching her, she smiles slightly, folds her hands, and grows serious. “What I’m going to reveal to you both is potentially incredibly dangerous, not just for you but also others beyond myself. I’m trusting you for two main reasons. First, you may already be at risk, to the point where ignorance will be more dangerous than knowledge. We were lucky I hadn’t told you anything by your cruise, Red, but President Silph wouldn’t be likely to expect you to stay ignorant forever. The second reason is because I need help.”

Leaf nods, trying to tamp down her excitement. She’d been hoping for this, not just an explanation but something she could do to help. “Of course. Whatever you need.”

Red nods. “What’s changed?”

Laura sighs. “Well, the most relevant part is that I got fired.”

What?”

“Oh, Laura!” Leaf takes her hand. “I’m so sorry!”

Red’s mom is grinning as she squeezes Leaf’s hand. “Thank you, but it’s fine, really. Well, not fine, but I saw it coming. I work freelance, but the station that’s been funding this whole project has been put under a lot of pressure lately, and my boss couldn’t keep it going anymore without results for the higher ups… results that I wasn’t ready to show, since they would jeopardize the real stories. Normally we might have been able to convince them of that, but I suspect the funders started getting leaned on too. The station’s asking for whatever I’ve collected so far, and I refused. They’re taking me to court over it.”

None of this seems to indicate to Leaf that anything is “fine,” and from Red’s expression he feels the same. “What are you going to do?” Red asks.

She shrugs. “I’ve already retained an attorney, and there’s no way they expect things to get resolved anytime soon. I’m not dismissing this as just an intimidation tactic, but I do think that’s the main goal. The point is that it makes it much harder to find another funder and work on this as easily. Sam is doing what he can, but I still had to let some of my people go, and I could use your help, Leaf.” She looks at Red. “I won’t say no to yours too, Red, but I don’t expect it. I’m mostly telling you this because I promised, and because I think it’s safer for you to know.”

Red still looks troubled, but nods, and Leaf takes the opportunity to move things along. “I’m happy to help, obviously. Can you tell us what you learned, now? And what learned?”

Laura takes a breath, then nods, and begins to talk. About Silph Corporation, her secretive informant, and the broader mystery of the missing researchers that Professor Oak had clued her in about months ago. Red looks somewhat overwhelmed, but Leaf already knew enough that even with the presence of a masked source that climbed up to Laura’s balcony what the hell she just feels moderately whelmed… until the connection to the Mount Moon renegade that she and Blue stopped becomes clear, and she understands why Laura told her to stop looking into it.

“He worked for Silph at one point,” Leaf said, eyes wide. “You think Silph killed him!”

But Laura shakes her head. “Practically anyone who’s worked in Kanto has worked for Silph. I don’t think Silph hired Yuuta. I think he was a weapon aimed at them… but I’m not sure by whom. There are still a lot of pieces missing, but it’s become clear that Silph is fighting a shadow war against others. Maybe competitors, maybe someone else, but not just the government. There’s a network of shell companies and operatives that Yuuta might have been one of, except we can’t see any reason for Silph to have harmed his own interests that way. We have reason to believe he was killed by Silph, though.”

“Wait,” Red says. “Silph wasn’t responsible for Yuuta but… they still killed him? Why? He was already going to be executed, and if he wasn’t working for them, why worry about him saying something first?”

“Maybe they would be hurt by things he knew even if he wasn’t working for them,” Leaf says. “Or maybe it was revenge, or… a warning to others?” She frowns and looks at Laura. “Has something like this happened before?”

“Not that I’ve seen so far, but I’ve got someone looking into it.”

“What are you doing now?” Red asks. “Are you still in Lavender Town?”

Laura nods. “Looking into someone there that’s working for Silph. It might be one of the missing researchers.”

“And me?” Leaf asks. “What am I going to be working on?”

Laura takes a battered old laptop out of her bag and slides it over to Leaf. “This has a copy of the files my informant shared with me. Don’t transfer them anywhere else, keep it disconnected from the net,
and wipe its drive if you so much as suspect that someone is after it.”

Leaf takes the laptop a little reverently. “Is that… likely?”

“No, or I wouldn’t be putting you or Mr. Sakai at risk like this. I’ve done everything I can to avoid giving any indication that I’ve been here or have worked with you. But not everyone I’m working with is the most trusting sort, and the paranoia of those I’m investigating can stretch far. Keep your web searches from being too conspicuous, just in case.” Leaf is about to repeat that she still doesn’t know what she’s working on, when Laura says, “I want you to find out who my informant is.”

Leaf’s blinks. “The one that Silph was after?”

“Yep.” Laura smiles. “I’m not the most trusting sort either, and her identity might be vital to figuring out more about who all the players are in this game, even beyond who she’s working for or with. It might also help me work out a way to contact her.”

Leaf nods, thoughts already bending toward this new puzzle as her hand moves over the laptop’s battered cover. “Got it.”

“Anything I can do?” Red asks. “I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to, but just in case…”

They hear the door downstairs open, and Laura closes her bag and tucks it away. “Nothing I can think of now, but I’ll let you know if I think of something.” She unclips a container ball from her belt, then aims it at the floor before discharging its box.

Mr. Sakai enters the room just as Leaf and Red are helping Laura put the food she brought on the table, and as they eat Mr. Sakai tells them that he thinks the blind poliwhirl in the pond is pregnant. Leaf smiles at his excitement, but part of her worries about the cost of raising the new pokemon. Some might get sold eventually, but few people would want to buy them newborn. It makes her empathize anew with the kinds of worries Aiko must have dealt with her whole life.

Still, even with those worries and her enjoyment of the extra company, it’s hard not to be impatient as she waits for everyone to finish eating, then continues to talk with Red and Laura about the informant and Laura’s interactions with her until Daisy calls to let Laura know she’s arriving. Leaf gets another hug before she leaves, and then it’s her and Red again.

“Guess I should head out too,” Red says once his mom and Daisy are just a speck in the air. He turns to her, and she can see the concern in him. “You’ll be careful with this stuff, right?”

Leaf smiles. “Of course. I know Laura only gave me this particular job because it’s safer than investigating Silph, or whoever hired Yuuta.” It’s a lot harder to be upset about that protectiveness than she would have been before losing Aiko. And it was scary to hear about what happened to Laura in Celadon. “I’m just happy to be doing something useful, and so potentially interesting.”

Red nods. “Well, let me know if I can help with this too. And… thanks, for what we talked about earlier.”

Leaf hugs him, and feels his hesitation before he returns it. She still thinks about it, occasionally… the experience of how he saw her during their experiment on the cruise. Remembering it feels strange, self-conscious and almost embarrassed without quite being unpleasant, but she doesn’t know how to respond to it, and so she just continues to treat him like she normally would if she hadn’t glimpsed it. “Anytime, Red. And same to you, with your projects. I know we don’t have a lot of psychic pokemon here, but if you need someone to bounce ideas off of, feel free to reach out whenever.”

He smiles. “I will. Goodnight.” He summons his abra, and she has one last urge to tell him about Blue, suddenly, and then he disappears in a blink.

Leaf stands in place for a moment, regretful and conflicted, then shakes her head and rushes upstairs to get to work.

She starts by reading through the information on the laptop, resting it on her stomach as she lies in bed and devours the information in each case folder. It takes her the rest of the afternoon, and her thoughts are swirling with all the illicit acts the Silph Corporation might be involved in as she feeds and withdraws the pokemon. By the time she finishes and warms up the leftovers, she has an idea for how to approach the problem, and boots up her own laptop as soon as she’s back in her room. She decides to keep Aiko’s computer clean of anything related to this, just in case, but as long as she keeps things vague enough, her own computer should be fine.

Leaf decides to separate the information into three categories: what she knows, what she suspects, and the hypotheses that she plans to gather information for or against. But she makes no clear delineation on her worksheet: instead each are placed on a spectrum of confidence intervals.

Farthest to the right, where the confidence is closest to 100%, are direct observations: Laura said the informant was Thin and Short. A little more leftward, not quite at 90%, is that she’s almost assuredly Female, judging from both Laura’s impressions and President Silph’s identification, which they can trust insofar as he seems at least as motivated in finding out who she is.

Just behind that is the word Dark. Perhaps Leaf is overconfident about this, placing the word somewhere around the 80% mark, but there are two fairly strong indicators: one is that the informant didn’t immediately teleport away while being pursued, which is only moderate evidence in and of itself, given that making others believe that she’s Dark when she’s not might be the exact reason to do it. Perhaps more importantly, being Dark presents several clear advantages to anyone doing the kind of work she does, and this one has been exceptionally successful. Leaf lists Psychic? just behind Dark, as it would certainly help her with the kind of work she did as well, but also get a complication penalty for adding yet another skill to her already impressive repertoire.

That’s where things get murky. From what she’s accomplished so far, Leaf lists Hacker and Burglar at around the 70% mark. Leaf’s met a lot of extraordinary people while traveling with her grandpa and mother, but never someone on the far side of the law. If selecting for someone who’s training with a purpose like this in mind, it makes sense for someone to have trained in both climbing buildings and computer security. But assuming that the woman who put on the mask and snuck into Laura’s apartment is the same person who gathered all the information would be a mistake. Laura did say the informant seemed genuinely inexperienced, so maybe they were working with someone else, as the more expendable apprentice or “face” of the group.

Which would mean, of course, that it’s a collaborative effort, and not only does she not need to have all the associated skills herself, but there might be other noise in the evidence available. Leaf has been mostly ignoring that consideration for now, as it would still be valuable to identify the masked informant regardless.

By the time she goes to brush her teeth and shower, she realizes that location is what she should start researching first, and she hurries back to examine the raw files Laura was given. There are folders where the data is collected with purpose, such as divided by crime or funding or common employees, but the original flashed hard drives that all the info comes from are there too, which means she can look at the latest files on each, and determine not just where each Silph computer was hit, but when.

After a couple hours of work, she starts plotting each hit on a map of Kanto multiple times to create a time graph. Once she plays it forward to watch as the thefts occur, the cluster becomes clear. Fuchsia city. That’s when the first theft of information occurred, and the most.

She’s so pleased to have found something useful from her first night working on it that she doesn’t realize how late it’s gotten, or how many messages she’s missed. She saves her work and gets into bed, deciding to quickly skim them before she falls asleep.

Amidst the messages from Blue’s journeymates, some of her followers and readers, and new responses to her articles, a new email from an unknown source catches her attention. In it is a simple message:

“Hello. I heard about your project from Bill, and found it really interesting! I didn’t realize there were others so dedicated to reducing pokemon suffering. I live in Unova, and don’t really get out much, but if you’re working by remote collaboration anyway, I’ve been studying pokeball programming and would like to help.”

Leaf smiles, excitement banishing her tiredness. It would be morning in Unova now, and… yes, they’re still online. She opens an instant message window.

Hi, this is Leaf (obviously). Thanks for reaching out! I don’t know if you knew, but I’m from Unova too 🙂 How long have you been involved in pokemon welfare?

Hi Leaf 🙂 Yeah, Bill mentioned who your family is. I guess you could say I’ve been raised in it… my dad taught me to help raise and take care of pokemon from a young age, and I’m a little socially isolated, so I sort of consider them brothers and sisters.

Leaf smiles. It’s one of the sweetest things she’s ever heard. Sounds amazing! What interested you in the project? And what’s your name?

I’ve been independently working on ways to safely release pokemon into the wild after capture, so it seemed like a good fit 😉 Sorry for not introducing myself earlier! My name is Natural. It’s very nice to meet you!