All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 42: Making Do

Leaf holds her instrument to her lips and watches the sky. All she can see above is Crimson, doing slow circles of a defensive perimeter around her. Together, trainer and pidgey wait for the threat to reveal itself.

Wait, and watch, and listen.

The sun is warm. The wind is cool. Around them is a stretch of empty beach, and the only sounds are the gentle crash of the waves and the flap of Crimson’s wings.

When the attack comes, it does so without warning: a blast of water that knocks over one of the pokedolls along the beach to her left as she faces the water.

Leaf immediately blows on her whistle, sending Crimson down in a dive at another pokedoll on her right. As soon as he knocks it over, her next command sends Crimson to her left side to strike another doll there, farther away, but a burst of water topples it, and Leaf send Crimson back to her right to knock over the fourth. As she does so, she starts running to her left, eye on the upright pokedoll farther in the distance. She looks back and sees Crimson knock over his target, then blows a tune to bring him racing up behind her, and out toward the new target.

The next pokedoll grows closer in the distance, and she points a finger out and blows on her whistle. Crimson dives at it, but before he can reach, another burst of water shoots out from the waves and hits it.

Leaf curses and turns on her heel, blowing a retreat to Crimson and running even harder back the way she came. She passes by the original dolls and sees the last one in the distance. She must have gotten here first–a quick pair of notes on her flute and Crimson dives at it again.

This time the burst of water comes from farther back, and it doesn’t reach the doll until Crimson hits it. Leaf grins and turns toward the water, and a moment later Blue emerges, one hand on Maturin’s shell until he reaches the shallow part and begins to walk. The newly evolved wartortle follows him, long white tail swishing behind her as she squirts another shot of water at the already downed doll.

“Tied this time,” she says, hands on her hips. “Are you going easy, or did we just get faster?”

Blue takes the breather out of his mouth and lifts his water goggles, wiping a hand across his face. “You got faster. Do you still think bulbasaur would win, though?”

“Only one way to find out.” Leaf withdraws Crimson and brings Bulbasaur out. “We’ve been training his long distance attacks a lot lately, so he might actually do better than Crimson.”

Blue snorts. “We’ll see about that.”

Ever since Zephyr evolved, she and Blue started these competitive training sessions. They’re not quite battles, but also not quite simple training, and Leaf enjoys the mix of challenging and playful elements of them. Once Maturin evolved, Blue wanted practice battling with her from the water onto land, so they decided to try a race along the beach.

“So how confident are you feeling with Maturin in the water?”

“She’s fast,” he says, clearing water from his ear. “I don’t know if she’s fast enough for Misty, but it’s good to know that I can travel a bit by water now, if I need to. You need to get yourself a water pokemon.”

“I know,” Leaf says, staring wistfully at the bay. Maybe I can take up fishing… “First though, I want Crimson or Bulbasaur to evolve.”

Blue begins to move along the beach, putting pokedolls right side up. “Once Crimson does I can teach you guys Brave Bird, if you’d like. I think I’ve almost got the hang of it.”

Leaf’s smile fades a bit. “I don’t know. I appreciate these non-violent training sessions, but Brave Bird is a dangerous move for a pokemon to learn. Even more dangerous to use in battle.”

Blue shrugs. “Sure, but better to have it and not need it, right?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Leaf picks up a doll as Bulbasaur frolicks in the waves and Maturin dives back into them, following Leaf and Blue down the beach. “I wonder if–”

Leaf’s phone buzzes, and she checks it to see Professor Oak’s face pop up. “It’s your grandpa!”

Blue raises his brows and walks over while Leaf accepts the call and puts it on visual. A moment later Professor Oak shows up too, sitting in his office.

“Hi professor!”

“Hello there, Leaf, how is everything? Enjoying one of Cerulean’s many beaches, I see?”

“Yep, and doing some training. Blue’s here.” She tilts the phone.

“Heya gramps.”

“Oh, hello Blue. Well, I’m sorry to interrupt. We can speak later if–”

“No, not at all!” Leaf sits in the sand, and Blue crouches next to her a moment later. “You got my message?”

“I did, and I read your article on the dig site. I enjoyed it.”

“Thanks!”

“So?” Blue asks. “What do you think?”

The Professor sighs, face growing more somber. “I think it was surprising, and worrying. Giovanni is not a man who takes challenges to his will lightly, and yet it seems someone has gone out of their way to undermine him. Not to mention the potential trouble it would cause for Pewter and Cerulean as well.”

Leaf feels relief, but also some small note of disappointment. “So you believe him, then? You don’t think it’s suspicious or… or something others should know about?”

“Perhaps. Still, I trust the Ranger and Leader had their reasons for covering it up. And if I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t want you getting involved, Leaf. These are forces that wouldn’t hesitate to crush you if you get in their way, some more literally than others. Better if you stay out of it, and not just because I assured your mother that Kanto was as safe a place for a young trainer as anywhere.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Blue says as he leans down and frowns at the camera. “You wouldn’t say that to me, would you? Leaf is at least as tough and ambitious. Whatever the decision, she can deal with making it as well as anyone.”

Leaf looks at Blue in surprise, cheeks flushing. It’s flattering to hear that he thinks so highly of her, especially when she knows how often her anti-violent training views chafe. She sometimes worries that Blue wishes he had other travelling companions. Red warmed up to her a lot after their narrow escape in Viridian; she’s just now realizing how much Blue has too, after their encounter with the Renegade.

“I can assure you, I would say the same of you, Blue. It’s not a matter of will or maturity, but power. You’re not there yet, either of you. The fame and attention and influence you would gain for outing this is not worth the enemies you would make.”

“Giovanni–”

“Leader Giovanni is the least among them. He can be… overzealous, when acting how he feels best, but at least your life wouldn’t be in danger.”

“What, you think the person who killed Yuuta would come after me?” Leaf frowns. “But… why would they do that? I’d be doing them a favor if I published it.”

“So it might seem, but I believe the most rational route right now is to take their motives as completely opaque. Much as I trust Giovanni’s intentions, I have no doubt that he was less than completely forthcoming with you.” The professor puts his elbows on the desk and clasps his hands together. “Listen to me, the both of you. It was a great thing you did, helping to stop the Renegade, and it was good work uncovering the truth behind his death, Leaf. But trust me to take it from here. I’m grateful that you told me, and I promise to look into it and let you know if there’s anything more going on. Can you do that?”

Leaf wants to look at Blue, but resists the urge. “Of course, Professor.”

“Sure, gramps.”

“Thank you. Give my regards to Red, and good luck on your match, Blue.”

“Will you be watching?”

The Professor grins. “Of course. Daisy and I are hosting a watch party.”

“Aw, hell, you don’t have to do that.” Leaf can tell Blue is pleased anyway.

“Forget I said anything then. Pretend I’m not watching tomorrow, if it helps.”

“Thanks.”

Leaf nods. “Thank you, Professor.”

“Take care.” He waves, and ends the call.

Leaf lowers her phone, and the two sit in silence for awhile, watching their pokemon play. When Leaf finally comes to a resolution, she turns to Blue, who’s already looking at her. “You’re going to keep looking into it yourself, aren’t you?”

She smiles. “Do you think it’s a bad idea? I thought you were against me poking into it any further.”

“Nah, I just don’t think you should cross Giovanni.” He gets to his feet and offers her his hand which she takes, brushing the sand from her legs after getting pulled up. “But four eyes are better than two, and it’s like Brave Bird, right? Better to know than not to know, even if you’re not planning to do anything with the info. You never know when it might come in handy.”


“Challenger, Blue Oak, second badge.”

Blue begins his walk along the pier as the audience applauds, eyes straight ahead until he reaches the island. He climbs the steps to his trainer platform… and sees the smallest arena he’s ever fought in.

He spent a lot of time watching videos of Misty’s previous Challenge matches to prepare for whatever she might throw at him. Most of her Challenge matches are outdoors and she only does battles along the beach for first badge Challengers, so he expected an island arena. But the kind of island varies widely: some are larger than the one Blue fought Ariya on, while others take place on tiny archipelagos, or a ring of sand with spaces of open water in the middle of them.

This one is even smaller than a training room. A quick glance is enough to take it all in, and Blue knows he could withdraw a pokemon from practically any part of the arena below.

Which is, of course, the point.

Blue feels his pulse kick up, and he smiles in anticipation. There’s only one reason to fight in an arena this small. It’s almost unheard of for a second badge Challenger, but he’s not complaining: it sure won’t hurt his public profile.

“Blue! Hey, BLUE!”

He looks to the audience, expecting to see Red or Leaf waving at him from the stands… but no, the voice was too young. Then he spots the young boy that he met on his first day at Cerulean Gym, standing and cupping his hands around his mouth. What was his name? Daniel? Dennis, that was it.

Blue smiles and lifts a hand, which makes Dennis wave both arms and yell “Good luck!” Blue hopes the kid isn’t skipping again, but no, there’s an older man sitting next to him and urging him to sit down. If he’s missing school, at least he has an adult’s permission.

The audience continues to fill the floating bleachers around the island, though there’s nowhere near as much room for seats as Pewter Gym’s main coliseum. Still, there are cameras available to stream to anyone that wants to watch the match, and he’s confident he’ll have more viewers for this match.

“Leader Misty, of Wisteria Town, Indigo League Challenger and Savior of Cerulean North!”

The Ceruleans cheers for their Leader, who strides up to her platform in a white swimsuit one piece and a light blue jacket. Blue puts his earpiece in.

“Hello, Mister Oak. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Leader. We’re using Indigo League rules?”

Their platforms are close enough for him to see her smile. “Right.”

Excitement surges through him, and he grins back. “I don’t remember seeing a 2nd Badge Challenger get this kind of treatment.”

“You made quite an impression on the others. Anything else I try on you will be wasting both our times, and I like to force my Challengers outside their comfort zones.”

“If you think I can handle it, I’m honored.”

“Heh. If I thought you could handle it, I’d do something else. Brock beat you once, I can hardly let myself get shown up, now can I?” Misty switches to the public channel. “Good morning, Cerulean City! Today’s Challenge match is against one of the most skilled trainers our gym has seen all year, with an undefeated win streak! Blue Oak, Cerulean Gym honors your request. State the nature of your Challenge.”

“I challenge for Mastery,” Blue says, voice booming over the water from speakers set in his platform.

“Cerulean Gym accepts. You may use six pokemon to defeat my three, with standard Indigo League withdraw limitations. Prepare for battle!”

Indigo League withdraw limitations are meant to simulate intense battle conditions in the wild. No pauses to talk or rest or strategize, unless it’s for safety reasons. No more than 1.6 seconds can pass without a pokemon on the field. If a pokemon is knocked out or killed, it has to be replaced in 3 seconds, or else the trainer is presumed dead by the attacking pokemon, and forfeits. Same with if his pokemon goes too far from the battlefield, so that it can’t protect its trainer if needed. A pokemon can’t be withdrawn and sent back out without a different pokemon going in first.

Blue spots the referees in the crowd, now that he knows to look for them. They have tools ready to monitor the battle and call out time if needed. He puts his hands over his belt, not quite hovering over any particular ball so as not to give away his impulse to send Maturin or Kemuri out first. A wartortle and shiftry should at least be neutrally useful against anything she throws out, and if he’s right about what her trump card would be…

“Ready… Set… Go, Swanna!”

Misty’s swanna erupts into being above the battlefield, and Blue’s hand shifts to Ion automatically, the ball already flying through the air before he recognizes the trap.

“Go, Ion!”

“Swanna, return!”

Blue’s shinx makes its debut just as Misty returns her Swanna and pulls her hand out of her jacket with the next ball in it. “Go, Marshtomp!”

“Ion, Bite!”

His pokemon streaks forward in a blue and black blur and sinks his teeth into the enemy marshtomp’s thick arm. It lets out a pained croak and swings its arm around to try and dislodge the shinx. Blue still has Ion’s ball pointed forward, and withdraws his pokemon just as Misty yells “Tara!”

Shit, custom commands too? Blue has no time to consider what her attack might be, acting on instinct to reclip Kemuri to send out Maturin instead.

His wartortle materializes just in time to be nailed with an Ice Beam. Blue doesn’t have time to celebrate his choice, and orders a tackle as he watches for her next move. If Misty is expecting him to switch into counters, he just has to whittle her down with neutral pokemon and attacks. His pokemon might be weaker than hers on average, but he has twice as many.

Misty seems intent on testing his speed, however, and switches out again. As she continually swaps between the marshtomp and the swanna, Blue lets the battle calm surround him so he can keep up without fumbling. Most swaps happen so fast that neither gets an attack in, but Blue is content to wait until he has an opening before he gives a command.

“Go, Swanna!”

“Return! Go, Ion!”

“Return, go, Mars–”

“Return, Ion, go–”

“Epa!”

Misty’s marshtomp slams its arms forward just as Maturin materializes and knocks her across the sand. Blue yells “Bite!” as Misty swaps in her swanna, who stays out of reach as Maturin leaps up at it.

“Asa!”

“Withdraw!”

Maturin ducks into her shell just as the swanna dives and rakes at her. A Wing Attack? Memorizing Misty’s custom attacks is going to be rough, and Blue has only a brief moment to wonder if she’s using them on him just because he used one against Ariya. That’s what I get for testing my limits.

“Maturin, Bai!”

Maturin’s Ice Beam hits the swanna dead on, dropping it to the sand as its feathers are covered in frost. Blue blinks in surprise, hands going still. He expected a switch. Misty looks calm, in control, and Blue feels a note of panic as he realizes he has no idea what’s coming.

“Swanna, alf!”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

The swanna hops toward Maturin, jerks its neck back… its beak bobs, opens, emits a choking sound-

What the fu-

-and then a stream of purple goop pours out of its mouth.

-uuoh SHIT “Maturin, return!”

Blue’s beam catches his wartortle just as the toxic bile covers her shell. He couldn’t tell how much she was directly exposed to, and there’s no time to think about it: he swaps his bellsprout in and yells “Sleep Powder!”

“Gust!”

The swanna has recovered enough to flap itself back into the air and send the blue spores away over the water. Blue sees some people flinch as the cloud hits the glass in front of their bleacher. Blue replaces his bellsprout with Ion and the dance continues, but now Blue knows better than to try and tank the swanna. Its Toxic would make this fight much harder.

One minute melts into the next, endless cycles of swapping, attacking, throwing, catching. Blue feels sweat drip down his neck, and his arms ache as he keeps them moving almost constantly.

Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin to Ion to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout–

“Vine Whip!” Blue yells as his pokemon materializes while the Marshtomp’s ball is still on its way back to her.

His pokemon’s vine stretches out and whips the marshtomp a heartbeat before it gets withdrawn, and Blue grins as he moves to withdraw his Bellsprout and send out Maturin. That has to have hurt. If he can do that cycle again…

Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin–”Withdraw!”–to Ion to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin to Ion–”Bite!”–to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout–

Blue opens his mouth to go for another Vine Whip, but Misty withdraws her pokemon blindingly fast. She’s watching for it now, which means he has to outspeed her. Blue pushes himself, barely looking at the balls as he throws and catches them again and again, cycling and attacking, trying to force her to send her marshtomp out and lure it into an attack on Ion, leaving the shinx out an extra second so she’ll overcommit, now–

“Return, go, Bellsprout!”

Shinx get sucked away as Bellsprout replaces him, and Blue lifts his arm to catch its ball-

-and feels it brush his fingertips.

He whips around and leaps, catching the ball before it can spin past into the water.

“Ova!” Misty yells.

Blue turns just in time to see the marshtomp blast his bellsprout with an Ice Beam. It wilts in a second, and he quickly withdraws it, heart pounding as he sends Maturin out to resume the dance, barely clinging onto his battle calm.

He missed a catch. He, Blue Oak, almost dropped his pokeball just as his pokemon needed to be returned. That shouldn’t happen, ever, let alone in front of an audience.

“Withdraw!” Blue yells, and swallows against the dryness in his throat. Five to three, now. Maturin’s dive ball is slick under his sweaty fingers, and Blue’s pulse kicks up again. This is exactly what Misty wants. To test his endurance, see how he adapts to new things. He might be wearing down her pokemon, but she’s wearing him down. She fights like this all the time, is used to the open sunlight and endless movement. If he can’t find a way to break the cycle, he’s going to lose the fight long before his pokemon do.

The marshtomp or swanna, one of them has to go. But he has nothing that decisively beats both. Misty is fast. More than that, she’s predicting his moves like… well, a psychic. Being dark is useful, but she’s still used to being in a trainer’s head as she fights them. However good Blue is, and however proud, he knows better than to think his natural impulses are significantly less predictable than any other trainers that have studied competitive battles an extensive amount.

But unpredictable is exactly what he has to be. Which in this case means locking her into a decision and shifting the tempo of the fight, if only to give himself time to catch his breath and rest his arms.

Blue waits for her to send out her marshtomp again, then unclips a rear ball and throws. “Go, Zephyr!”

The pidgeotto gives a piercing cry as it materializes and spots its opponent. Misty immediately withdraws the marshtomp, and Blue’s first flute note sends Zephyr climbing up, up, up.

Misty’s movements are as smooth as ever, but he thinks there’s a moment’s hesitation as she unclips her Swanna. Not enough to disqualify her, but when the Swanna appears, she doesn’t immediately give it any instruction. She could threaten to disqualify him if his pokemon leaves the battlefield, but Zephyr is still above the island, within striking difference if the theoretical wild swanna were to go for him and leave itself exposed. Blue smiles around his mouthpiece as he carefully steers his pokemon just within the battleground limits, and takes deep breaths, arms and shoulders enjoying the rest.

Swanna are stronger than pidgeotto, and faster, but only at the start of a fight. And now that both Blue and his pokemon have a bit of breathing room…

He blows two notes, and Zephyr banks to the left, accelerating as he does so. The swanna turns to keep him in its sight, but Misty soon realizes what he’s doing, and rather than let Zephyr keep gaining agility, she starts to give chase.

As Blue feared, an Ice Beam lances out from the swanna, just barely missing Zephyr. Two TMs on one pokemon… does that mean two on each of them? He’ll have to watch out for another TM from marshtomp too, along with two from whatever her third is. There’s a limit to how much a pokemon’s body can be edited, so hopefully this is the last surprise from the swanna.

Blue keeps Zephyr on the move and lets him keep building speed until he’s just a tan blur in the sky. The small size of the arena keeps him from going even faster, but the swanna can’t land its attacks, and on its next miss, Blue finally sends it in for a Brave Bird.

The blow is almost too fast to see, but blood and feathers rain down from both of them. Misty withdraws her swanna as it makes a distressed honk, but Blue can’t tell how badly it’s injured. Blue tracks Zephyr with his ball as he stumbles about in the air for a second, but then his flapping grows stronger and he levels out.

“Go, Starmie!”

A jolt goes through Blue, and he withdraws Zephyr anyway, feeling simultaneously flattered and nervously irritated. An Indigo league match, and coded attacks, and two TMs, and she’s using a starmie? The gem in its center flashes red as its five rear arms spin lazily through the sand and lift its body up. As it begins to cartwheel around the battlefield, Blue throws. “Go, Kemuri!”

His shiftry appears on the sand and immediately gets blasted by an Ice Beam, because of course it has that move too. Kemuri shivers under the cold onslaught for a moment, but doesn’t go down. “Tal!” Blue yells.

His pokemon whips up a flurry of green particles and sends them out with a flap of its leaves. Blue expects Misty to replace the starmie with her swanna, but instead it takes the attack and just shoots another Ice Beam out.

“Dodge!” Blue yells, too late. One of Kemuri’s leaf hands is still up from its attack, and takes the brunt of the beam. When it finally leaps away and moves its arm down, two of its three broad leaves break off with a snap.

“Dodge!” Blue yells again, and this time Kemuri avoids the attack. No time to wonder why Misty is keeping her starmie out, but her ability to give it commands instantly and silently means he has to play defensively. He keeps his gaze on her pokemon to predict its next move, and realizes that its wounds from his previous attack are closing. “Lar!”

His pokemon dashes forward and slashes with its remaining limb. The razor sharp leaves slice off a pair of the starmie’s arms as it spins away. It responds with an Ice Beam, which Kemuri manages to dodge without Blue’s warning, but it tries to counter attack on its own and only manages to chase the starmie around as it recharges for another shot.

Starmie are too fast for a shiftry to hope to get a hit in without the element of surprise. “Af!” Blue commands, and Kemuri leaps forward–only to land short and hit the sand face first. Blue winces as he imagines that long, thin nose slamming into the sand.

The starmie slows down and fires another Ice Beam, but Kemuri is already rolling out of the way and bounding forward for another strike, nose thankfully unbroken and white mane covered in sand. Misty sends her starmie spinning away again, but not before it’s struck by another deep gash.

Blue kept his code pretty simple: if an attack is two words, use the first letter of both, flip the order, and put a vowel between them if one isn’t a vowel. If it’s one word, use the first letter and a vowel. The vowel used can keep track of multiple attacks with the same letters. It’s not a hard code to break, but it’s easy to remember and implement, which is what he needed to get Kemuri ready for this match.

Both their pokemon seem a hit away from going down, but hers can regenerate. Blue has to get another hit in soon. She won’t fall for the same thing twice…

“Starmie, return!”

Blue blinks, then lifts Ion’s ball and prepares to swap it into her swanna. He was paying so much attention to her pokemon he didn’t notice her prepare to switch, costing a chance to get an attack in.

He holds Kemuri’s ball out and cocks Ion’s back. “Kemuri, re–”

“Go, Marshtomp!”

–ckg!” Blue chokes on the word and tightens his grip on Ion’s ball. Too close. “Lor!”

“Ap!”

The shiftry strikes first, blades sinking deep into the marshtomp’s abdomen–only to have it belch a glob of poisonous sludge right into Kemuri’s face.

His pokemon reels back with a coughing bellow of pain that Blue feels like a stab in his gut. He quickly returns it to its ball, cursing at himself. There’s that second surprise. At the same time, the marshtomp falls back from its more literal stabbing, and is quickly withdrawn by Misty.

“Go, Io-”

“Pause,” Misty says over the loudspeakers.

Blue flinches, ball sailing forward and hitting the sand without opening. He stares at her, and slowly lowers his arm as his stomach turns to ice. Was he too late? No, her pokemon was down and hasn’t even been replaced yet, there’s no way he’s in violation…

Misty smiles. “Don’t worry, Trainer, you’re safe. I merely want to confirm our count.”

Right. Blue nods, letting his breath out. “I’ve retired my bellsprout.”

“And your shiftry?”

Blue stares at her, thinking fast. “I did think that Kemuri was another attack from going down, but that was from your starmie.”

“Do you intend to send it out again, then?”

Blue’s jaw clenches. He can’t retire Kemuri while she still has her starmie, it’s his only pokemon that’s immune to its psychic attacks. But… that sludge hit Kemuri directly. He was already badly hurt, and if he’s poisoned… he would faint within seconds of being sent out again.

Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. “No,” Blue says, and slowly transfers Kemuri’s ball to the rear of his belt, swapping it with Gon’s. “It’s too big a risk.”

Misty smiles. “A prudent choice, Trainer. In the same spirit, I will retire my marshtomp.”

Blue nods, only slightly relieved. It received what looked like a pretty critical hit: Kemuri is still his most unruly and vicious pokemon, and he’s lucky it hasn’t crippled or killed another trainer’s pokemon yet. He’ll have to keep working on that.

For now, he’s only glad that it took the marshtomp out. Ion can finally have free rein, but he doesn’t think the shinx will be able to stand up to a starmie. If only it had evolved too…

“Ready to continue, Challenger?”

Four to two. I can still do this. Blue hops down from his platform and retrieves Ion’s ball, gaze lingering on the blood, feathers, and leaves that litter the sand. He feels surreal, standing on the tiny island in the middle of the bay, hundreds of silent eyes on him as the sun beats down and the smell of the water fills his nose. Like he’s in a painting, or a picture that will be shown in history books. Like everything around him is about to freeze in place, and if he looks to the side he’ll see a floating square that he can climb out of and back into “reality.”

Blue bends down and picks up Ion’s ball. The world is still very mobile, and all he’s coming out of is an adrenaline high. He smiles as he climbs back up onto his platform, then stretches his arms out and rotates his shoulders before moving his hands over his belt to disguise which balls he’s holding. “Ready.”

“Three… two… one… Go, Star-”

“Go, Ion!” Shit. He expected the Swanna. “Return, go, Maturin!”

His wartortle appears, one paw wiping poison off her face as she tries to open her eyes. Blue’s heart is in his throat as the starmie’s gem flashes, expecting a psychic attack… but it’s just healing itself again.

“Bite!” Blue yells as soon as Maturin can see, and his wartortle leaps forward. Basic as it is, an intense and invasive enough attack will mess with any psychic’s ability to concentrate.

Rather than let Maturin latch onto her starmie, however, Misty yells “Return, go, Swanna!” and Blue immediately aborts the Maturin’s charge with a “Return, go, Ion! Spark!”

The swanna stays out and belches another glob of toxic goop at Ion as the shinx tackles it, electricity buzzing around him. The swanna is jolted away, honking in agony as it rolls across the sand and lies still. Misty quickly withdraws her pokemon and sends the starmie back out.

Four to one! “Spark!”

Ion charges forward again and hits the starmie, but his pokemon bounces off something in the air just ahead of the starmie: a Protection barrier. Almost impossible to pierce through, but very hard to maintain for more than a couple seconds. Its timing has to be precise, but combined with the ability to heal her pokemon, it’s an incredible stalling ability.

Blue’s grip on Maturin’s ball tightens. Even now, Misty is changing the rules. Her starmie is going to just tank and let the poison wear Ion down. The starmie starts to heal itself again, and Ion runs toward it for another Spark, which connects. But Misty’s pokemon barely seems to feel it, simply healing through the damage.

“Charge!” Blue says, and watches as his pokemon builds up electricity, its blue and black fur crackling with light. If he’s wrong and the starmie isn’t preparing another barrier, he can only hope Ion survives her next attack and takes her down in one hit.

As far as he can see however, the starmie just keeps regenerating, all of its lost limbs fully regrown now, its skin unblemished. Ion is beginning to tremble, whether from built up electricity or the wearing effects of the poison, he doesn’t know, but enough is enough. “Spark!”

The starmie leaps away as soon as Ion bolts forward, and the chase is on. Starmie are ridiculously fast considering their weird shape, and Ion is clearly feeling the growing effects of the poison, but eventually Misty runs out of island and has to turn.

Ion cuts across the intervening space and tackles it with a crack of discharging energy, almost sending it into the water. The starmie bounces and flounders on the sand, electricity running along its body as its skin smokes and blackens. But soon the burnt skin begins to slough off to reveal new flesh underneath.

Blue lets out a breath. If that wasn’t enough to take it down, it’s time for Plan B, now that Misty has no one to swap her pokemon with. “Return! Go, Gon! Leech Seed!”

His shroomish makes its first appearance in the battle and spits the seeds out. The starmie can heal itself at a frightening pace, but even it can’t shrug off the effects of that much electricity so quickly, and Gon has just enough time to release the Leech Seeds before the starmie sends out an Ice Beam.

Frost blooms over Gon’s whole body, and Blue withdraws him. Three to one. One of the seeds connected, however, and that’s all he needs. His path to victory is set: it’s a battle of attrition, and Blue begins a countdown for each of his poisoned pokemon, set to begin when he sends them back out. But first, the unpoisoned one: “Go, Zephyr!” He puts his flute to his lips as the pidgeotto appears and blows.

Zephyr dives at the starmie and strikes another barrier, only for Blue to follow up with a second set of notes that makes Zephyr hover in place to keep clawing and pecking. The leech seed is growing, its roots spreading through the starmie’s flesh and sucking its life up into its fruit, which crack out of their shells and drop to the sand. His pokemon occasionally dips to the side to snatch them up in its beak, then returns to attacking the starmie, who can only protect itself every few seconds, spending the rest of its time healing.

Misty has to attack to win. She’s waiting for something, but what? Not knowing makes Blue nervous, but he has her on the ropes and can’t let up now. His hands tighten on his pokeballs, watching without blinking as Zephyr tries to do more damage to the starmie than it can heal through… surely he’s wearing it down…

With a jolt, Blue realizes his mistake. While he’s here trying to guess and estimate how the fight is going, Misty can feel the status of her pokemon, intimately. She knows if her pokemon is getting worn down, out healing the damage, or even breaking even. If she’s not attacking, it’s because she’s getting an advantage by prolonging the fight. He only feels in control because it looks like she’s out of options, but if that were true, she would just forfeit. She’s a Gym Leader, not just some random trainer whose pride or prize money is on the line.

Blue opens his mouth to withdraw Zephyr, then stops himself. He looks at Misty and finds her studying him, having no need to look at the fight to respond to it. What if this is her plan? To make him doubt himself, give up the advantage?

Doubt sends cracks through his battle calm, and he feels it slipping away as the pressure of indecision grows stronger. He keeps thinking that he’s one bad decision away from losing his second badge, that any moment now he’ll make the wrong choice, or wait too long to make one at all. Is he enabling her plan by letting Zephyr keep attacking, or falling for a psych-out by switching? If he wasn’t dark, she would be much more capable of reading and manipulating him, but as he realized earlier, she’s had plenty of experience knowing what her opponents think and how to shape their decisions.

There’s only one way forward that feels right: he has to be unpredictable. Force her to adapt, for once.

“Return! Go, Maturin!”

His wartortle reappears on the sand, but the starmie bursts into action before Blue can give a command, and a wave of invisible force shoves Maturin up and slams her against Blue’s platform. “Bite!” Blue yells, and as soon as she lands Maturin dashes forward to try and reach the starmie. Again she’s flung away, skidding over the sand on the back of her shell. “Return, go, Zephyr!” His hands move in a blur, clip-Maturin-right-hand, catch-Zephyr-left-hand, lift-flute-right-hand, tweet, twoot, twit twit!

Zephyr shoots up into the sky, flips itself in a tight half-loop and rockets down at the starmie. Blue tweets hard to make Zephyr flare his wings and slow enough for Blue to track him, then lets the flute drop from his lips and unclips Ion. “Return, go, Ion, Spark!”

If Blue is predicting properly, Zephyr dodged another burst of psychic force, then forced her to put a barrier up… and now it should be down, just in time for Ion to slam the starmie. Electricity arcs between its many limbs as it’s knocked away. “Spark, return, go, Maturin, Bite!”

His pokemon hits a wall again as Misty predicts the fake out, but Blue’s already swapping Zephyr back in and yelling out “Quick Attack,” no time to use his flute as his hands swap Ion back out a moment after the pidgeotto strikes.

His pokemon is clearly woozy from its poison by now, but it manages to eat one of the plump leech seeds as it dashes toward the starmie. It connects–then gets flung across the sand.

Misty is changing tactics again, and the timer in his head for his poisoned pokemon keeps narrowing his path to victory further and further, but Blue is already swapping Zephyr back into battle and bringing his flute to his lips for a quick command–

An Ice Beam hits Zephyr dead on, plunging him to the sand as one wing becomes too stiff to flap. Should’ve switched in Maturin! He moves to do it–but stops as he realizes she’s expecting exactly that, and blows a command for Zephyr to use a Sand Attack.

A gust of wind hits the ground and kicks up a cloud. Misty can aim through it with her starmie’s mental senses if he keeps Zephyr out, but swapping Ion in to the side of where Zephyr was lets him yell out “Spark!” before she can get in a preemptive attack.

Instead she tries a dodge, but that just gives Ion time to pick up more seeds as he chases the starmie around the island. When it finally hits the edge of the island again, Blue swaps Ion out rather than let it attack, sending Maturin instead and yelling “Bite!”

His pokemon leaps forward and locks her jaws onto the starmie just as a psychic wave ripples outward and kicks sand up, slamming Maturin’s body against the ground… but not breaking the grip of her jaws.

“Stop,” Misty says, again.

Blue is breathing hard, hands trembling as he points Maturin’s ball forward and has Zephyr’s ready at his side… but as her word registers, he quickly yells, “Maturin, back!”

Maturin’s jaws stay locked on the starmie, and Blue feels a note of panic. “Maturin, back!”

She opens her mouth and staggers away from the starmie, and Blue lets out a breath of relief as he withdraws her. Heart pounding, he looks up at Misty and feels his knees buckle at the smile on her face, hardly daring to trust his hopeful thoughts.

She withdraws her starmie and holds the ball in her right hand as her left leans against the railing on her platform. “Could you explain your last few thoughts on the battle for our audience, and what you were about to do?” she asks, tossing the ball up and down.

Blue’s mind is still caught up in the battle, evaluating how hurt his pokemon are and re-evaluating paths to victory, but his mouth moves on its own. “My last major insight was that I had to keep you not just on the defensive, but guessing what my next move would be. I just tried to catch you off guard, but I don’t think I would have succeeded if I hadn’t guessed that the second time starmie reached the edge of the island, it was a feint. You waited to move your pokemon that way only when you could put another shield up, so I swapped to Maturin and used her to get a decisive hit in.”

Misty nods. “Right throughout. You have demonstrated every major skill our gym seeks to impart to at least some degree. Blue Oak, I award you the Cascade Badge.”

Blue stares at her as the crowd finally breaks its silence, cheering and applauding. He lets his breath out and leans his hands on the railing, letting the noise wash over him. His legs are still trembling, his heart threatening to jump up into his throat, but a sense of triumph finally wins through, and he turns to the crowd and lifts his arms, fingers forming twin V’s.

Blue enjoys the heat of the sun on his hair and face as he basks in their praise, and more, the knowledge of having completed a perfect gym streak. His first of many, hopefully, but a crucial one, to re-establish his legend and allow it to grow.


Red sits at the table in one of Bill’s houses and stares at a flat, round stone in his hand, feeling every inch of it against his skin. He stares at it until he can picture it perfectly after closing his eyes, until he can barely tell when he’s looking at it with his real eyes or his mind’s eye. Its weight and texture are burned into his palm, the shape of it, the edges clearly delineated until he can’t imagine what it would feel like not to have this stone in his palm. It’s a part of him. Where his skin and its bottom meets, there is perfect awareness. Perfect connection. Perfect focus.

Red molds his will into an invisible, impossibly thin layer that cups the stone in its entirety, and lifts…

…and opens his eyes to see the stone sitting stubbornly still, not having moved an inch.

Red groans and lets his head fall forward, cap pushing up as his forehead rests on the table. His pichu, who was lying curled up on the table, opens her eyes to look at him, then steps onto the brim of his hat and over his head to nestle in the gap between his neck and the collar of his shirt.

The sound of Bill’s strange doors opening comes from behind him, then footsteps ascend the stairs. “Still with the rock, huh?” Bill asks. “How hard is floating something that heavy supposed to be, anyway?”

“Not this hard,” Red mumbles and lifts his head, slowly enough not to startle Pichu. She clings to his collar, then relaxes as he stops moving and burrows deeper against his neck, her tail sticking up to brush his hair. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting to orbit pokeballs around my head after just a week, but I can’t even make it wobble.” He puts the stone down and rubs his palm on his jeans, enjoying the sensation of something besides the rock.

The inventor grabs a soda from the fridge and sits on the couch near the table, tilting his head back and resting his feet on a legrest. “Isn’t there an easier task to start with?”

“Tried them. Coins, bits of paper, sand… I even tried moving stuff down a slope, so gravity could help, but my teacher, Psychic Ayane, said that my ‘feel’ for the objects aren’t established properly, and gave me this to try with.”

“Being familiar with the texture and weight of it is supposed to help?”

“Psychic training is weird.” Red sighs and rubs his eyes. “I’ve never learned something so subjective. When I asked Ayane when I’d know if I ‘feel’ it well enough, she said I would just know it when I do. I’ve been carrying this thing around for days, and feel like I know it as intimately I ever will. But whatever trick it takes to twist my powers into a tangible force, I can’t do it, even after inhabiting my teacher’s mind while she uses psychokinesis. And that usually works for me.” Red was more disappointed than he could express when it didn’t help. He thought that was his key to learning new psychic abilities, but for whatever reason it isn’t enough to just copy mental states to move things. “Meanwhile there’s a video online of some six year old in fancy robes marching an army of plastic cups across a kitchen counter.”

Bill takes a contemplative sip of his drink. “Reminds me of when I was learning to catch as a kid. Practice for pokeballs. I’d look at others, see their hands moving just where they were supposed to be, automatically, and wonder why my body didn’t work like that. Studied enough physics to calculate the trajectory and arc of every throw, but I could never catch them as easily as some others using no calculation, no trick, just some intuitive skill. I got so jealous I just started skipping those classes.”

“Huh. That’s actually kind of why I want to get this so bad. I’m not as good at catching balls on their return as Blue or Leaf, so I thought maybe I could use my powers to help a bit with it. When did it click for you?”

Bill smiles. “Who says it did? I may have mentioned that I’m not much of a trainer. That’s part of why: just never got the hang of the athletic aspects. It’s for the best though. I never would have spent so much time on programming if I didn’t give up on being a trainer. Hell, might have gotten myself killed off on a journey instead.”

Red frowns down at the rock. He supposes if he’s just no good at psychokinesis, he can focus on his other psychic gifts instead. But he’s not giving up yet. He puts the rock back in his palm. Blue and Leaf should be here soon for their second abra catching session, and he has nothing else to do in the meantime. “So did you get a chance to look at the results so far?”

“I did.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s promising.” Bill makes a gesture with his hand, and the wall across from them suddenly projects some monitor he must have been looking at recently. On it is Red’s preliminary data for the abra research, along with some notes and comments by Bill. Ayane is almost done with the original crop, and once the sample population is bolstered by the ones they catch today, Red should have over a hundred subjects in his study.

For now, only about fifty are represented. The graph shows the same X axis as his original research, a simple distribution of the % of the abra’s Other category when scanned into a pokedex. The Y axis this time is measured in kilograms, the numbers representing how heavy a weight each abra can lift after being taught the “Psychic” attack from a TM Bill let him use (Red doesn’t know why the attack was named “Psychic” instead of “Psychokinesis,” but chalks it up to the laziness or pragmatism of Battle Trainers not wanting to have to shout out five syllables for an attack).

Bill rolls his can between his palms. “It looks like the relationship is a lot stronger in abra than spinarak, but the variance is still all over the place. I see you’ve refined your hypothesis though.”

Red nods. His original research was too focused on trying to support his hypothesis of a correlation between Other and psychic ability. This time, all he’s trying to do is reject the null hypothesis: that psychic ability and the Other substance category have no relationship.

And from the graph, the null isn’t looking good. Of the four quadrants, high Other, high Weight Lifted; high Other, low Weight Lifted; low Other, high Weight Lifted; and low Other and low Weight Lifted, there’s a clear gap in the top left: low Other, high Weight Lifted. The rest of the graph is filled with a loose curve of dots, but plenty of outliers. “So high Other doesn’t predict high psychokinetic ability,” Bill says, waving a hand to highlight some of the dots at the lower right of the graph that represent abra with high Other but weak pyschokinesis. “There are a number of of high Other abra that are pretty weak at it.”

“Which makes sense, since we know individuals vary in strength between different psychic abilities. According to Ayane, I’m unusually good at psychic Reception, but moving things around…” He bounces the rock from one hand to the other. “Not so much. But–”

“–low Other does seem to impact it, right.” Bill circles the mostly empty quadrant in a different color. “Which also makes sense, if there’s a single particle responsible for overall psychic abilities, but not specific ones.”

“Yeah. Maybe as the technology gets better we can identify what this ‘mystery matter’ is, and whether there are actually two different types for different manifestations of psychic power. Or maybe even three, or four. A wide variance might explain those few spinarak outliers I had. Without those, that research would have been a lot more impressive.”

“Well, if this pattern holds up, you won’t have to worry about that any more. It might take you a bit to convince a paper to pay attention, but the journal boards aren’t stupid enough to ignore something like this. I’d be surprised if you don’t get your Researcher license from this.”

Red smiles as he studies the graph. It’s been a rough couple weeks, all things considered. He’s still not sleeping well, and he spends a lot of time lying in bed with Pichu when he should be working on his paper, or facilitating the sale of the abra. Without Ayane’s psychic lessons, or Blue dragging him to secret training sessions for his shinx, Red would probably have spent most of his week in his room. But aside from watching Blue’s victory (and getting swept up in the crowd’s excitement again), the major bright spot has been seeing the data slowly accumulate and form a pattern. As long as his research is moving forward, he feels like he’s being productive.

Bill finishes off his soda and gets up to grab another one. He brings an extra for Red this time, who takes it and pops the tab for a long gulp. “Ahh, thanks.” Pichu stirs against his neck, then crawls over his collar and down his arm, nose sniffing at the can. “And thanks again for all your help,” Red says as he tilts the can just enough for some of the sugary liquid to spill into the inner rim. He rotates the can so it rolls away from the opening, then lets her lap at it. “I owe you big time.”

“Right,” Bill says, waving the display on the wall away and reaching into his pocket. “About that.”

Red looks up at him. “You need help with something?”

“I finally remembered what I called you guys here for in the first place,” Bill pulls an envelope out of his pocket and tosses it onto the table, causing Pichu to recoil back up Red’s shoulder. “Woops.”

“Really?” Red puts the can down and picks up the envelope. Pichu abandons his shoulder and hops onto the table, staring at the envelope in his hands warily. Red keeps an eye on her cheeks in case they start glowing. “What reminded you?”

“Well, I hadn’t checked my mailbox in a while. Eventually I got an alert that it was running out of space, and new items would have no Containers to materialize into. I had Eva list what was in there before I chucked it all, and there it was.” Bill scratches the back of his neck. “I was thinking about finding someone to send, but only when something reminded me.”

Red opens the envelope and stares at the pair of tickets that slide out. “The S.S. Anne? You’re giving us tickets to the Cruise Convention?!

“Yeah. I get invited every year, so it’s no big deal for me.”

Red is still staring, turning the tickets this way and that to let their holographic seals catch the light. “But… will they even let us on? We’re not… well, obviously we’re not you, but we’re not anyone.”

“They’ll let you on, if only to avoid offending me,” Bill grins. “You’ll be going as my ‘assistants.’ I used to go to stuff like this by popping back and forth with abra, but since some idiots decided to put one on a cruise, I’d rather not spend a week out at sea. But there are a few presentations I want some 2nd hand accounts and notes from. Since they don’t allow recordings, I figured anyone Oak trusted to send out with a dex should be reliable.”

Red frowns at him. “You didn’t actually forget these, right? You just pretended to in order to meet me first, see if I was trustworthy.”

Bill rolls his eyes. “I’m not that sneaky. Inviting you into my lab would require way more trust than sending you on the cruise, and besides, you already proved yourself enough for me to let you catch abra on my land.” The inventor suddenly meets Red’s gaze. “Besides, you’re a smart kid. I don’t actually have to explain how hard I can make your life if you give me reason to, do I?”

Red swallows against the sudden dryness of his throat. He resists the urge to drink. “No.”

“Good.” Bill’s eyes move away, then go distant, the way they do when he’s looking at something on his personal monitor, and after a moment he “flicks” whatever it is onto the wall and begins to scroll down with one finger, muttering to himself.

Red waits a few moments, not wanting to interrupt. He finally takes another sip of soda, though he doesn’t really want it anymore. He knows that threat was hypothetical, but it’s hard not to realize that giving Bill “a reason to” ruin his life could apply just as easily to not doing something he asks. Is Red beholden to the inventor, now? Would he feel safe refusing any request? Professor Oak trusts him, at least…

Red waits until Bill seems done with whatever he’s looking at, then says, “I’m still not sure why you’d send us, though. Couldn’t you send, I don’t know, anyone else? Someone who could afford to pay you for these?” Red holds up the tickets, which are probably worth more than all the clefairy he sold put together.

“You weren’t far off, before, it is actually a matter of trust. I wouldn’t ask just anyone not tell others what I’m interested in, not to mention report the info straight. But it has very little to do with any of our interactions. Like you said: you’re no one special. Meaning you’re not a player. Not yet anyway. You’ll pass under most people’s radar, you’ll do your best, and most importantly, I know that if you are someone’s agent, it’s Oak, so that’s alright.”

“I’m not–” Red stops himself, remembering how he and Blue both recommended telling the professor about Leaf’s conversation with Giovanni. Maybe he is the professor’s agent, sort of. Beyond testing out the pokedex, of course. The thought makes him a bit uncomfortable.

Bill doesn’t seem interested in his denial anyway. “Whatever you say. In any case, it’s alright. If I can’t trust Oak then I’ve got bigger problems. So take the tickets, and bring your notebook, because you’re going to be my eyes and ears in there. The ship sets sail in three weeks, plenty of time for you guys to make it to Vermillion.”

Red takes out his wallet and carefully tucks the tickets away. He wonders how the others will take the news. Leaf will be excited, probably end up finding something to write about. And he’s pretty sure only having two tickets won’t be an issue, with Blue’s focus on training for his badges. Red just hopes Blue doesn’t mind going for the Thunder Badge next. “So what’s the theme for the convention this year?”

“New uses for storage tech. A lot of people trying to take what we can do with matter transformation and extend it in other areas. You can probably guess why I’m interested in it.”

Red thinks it over. “Better TM capabilities?”

“Nope.”

“True replication?”

“Would be nice, but no.”

“Then…” Red trails off, thinking. Bill lets him. What are some of the biggest problems that need to be solved? Not just minor stuff like upgrades to existing technology: what would Bill find interesting?

Red remembers his own imaginings of what pokeball tech might allow. He said this was about storage tech and matter transformation… Red thinks back to the various projects he saw or heard Bill talking about, or heard others mention about the inventor. “Human storage?” he asks at last. “So we can fix the problems it causes and fully simulate human minds in virtual reality?”

“You’re looking forward to that too, huh?”

Red grins. “I knew it. I knew someone, somewhere would be trying to figure that out.”

Bill shrugs. “Still not the main goal. Close though. I want to figure out the source of the error in the first place, so it can be perfectly reversed.”

Red’s stares at him, eyes growing wide. “Reversed? You mean to fix people that went into a ball and came back out?”

“Or just went in and haven’t come out yet.”

“Is that possible? Sorry, is it probable?”

“Over a long enough timeline? What do you think?”

“Over a long enough timeline, it doesn’t even matter,” Red says, speaking slowly as realization dawns. “Whether it’s figured out ten years from now or a hundred, time doesn’t matter once you’re in the ball! We could send people into the future right now!” His imagination races ahead, wondering what it would be like, to go into a ball and wake up a century later, five centuries later, and see how much things have changed-

“Could we?” Bill asks, brow raised as he studies Red.

Red blinks, brought slightly back to earth. “It might not work,” he admits. “And people would be leaving behind all their family and friends. But… some people would still want to do that, wouldn’t they? Besides, what if they’re dying? They’ll have better medicine in the future, they might be saved.” Red’s voice is rising again, and Pichu looks at him in alarm. He forces himself to take a deep breath, though on the inside his stomach and chest are stewing with heat. “Why aren’t we putting everyone who’s dying into a ball?” he demands.

“Why not put them in after they die?” Bill counters. “Moments after, where better medicine might be able to revive them?”

“Argh!” Red clutches his head. “We have to… I’ve gotta tell my mom… and Blue and Leaf, and others, everyone…”

“What would you tell them?”

“That no one has to die anymore! There are people in hospitals now, dying of something we can’t cure or lying in a field somewhere, bleeding out–” a flash of a forest clearing, and a body lying beneath a swarm of beedrill “–with the means to save themselves right in their pocket! People could just zap themselves into a ball and wait for a future generation to figure it all out and bring them back!”

“Pokeballs that can capture humans are illegal-”

Fuck illegal,” Red yells, and Pichu leaps away in alarm. He stands and starts to pace the room. “Why isn’t everyone doing this? If it cost a lot of money that would be one thing, but this is practically free. People are dying all over the place, just letting it happen, and no one is thinking, hey, we have a perfectly good time machine right on our belts! I even thought about using pokeballs to teach people things in simulations, or adjust human biology, and I didn’t think of it! Dammit!

“As amusing as it is reliving the same reaction I had upon thinking of this,” Bill says, “You’re not thinking it through.”

Red is still remembering the boy in Viridian, all the people that died in the fire, and at the dig site… that woman, the one who was caught in the spore cloud… if she’d just been able to put herself in a ball, she’d be alive right now… Waiting, suspended in time, to wake up in a better future… His dad would be in one, waiting for him to… to…

“Breathe, Red. Calm down.”

Red wipes his eyes with his sleeve, anger doused by the wave of despair. He sinks back into his chair, and when Pichu cautiously pads over to him he picks her up and lets her nuzzle against his neck. “How are you so calm about this?”

“Mostly just numb to it now,” Bill says. “Too much trouble trying to convince people. I used to offer perpetual storage of anyone’s body if they wanted it, but you can imagine the rumors that spread around.” Red vaguely remembers people mentioning that. Blue brought it up recently, as evidence of how being a hermit makes Bill less influential. “Then there are those like my dad, who’s just uncomfortable with the whole idea of not dying and living in the future, potentially forever.”

Red goes cold at the thought of his mom. I have to convince her… he would, somehow, he can’t lose her too. “You said there were things I’m not considering. Like there being no actual guarantee that it’s possible? So what? Even if technology just stops advancing at some point, it’s not murder if they’re already dying, and–”

“No, not that. I mean like how you can’t just use any ball you pick up at the store.”

Red nods, thoughts racing. Possessing pokeballs without the failsafes against capturing humans is treated almost as harshly as being a Renegade. “And someone would need to be there to capture you anyway. Would a container ball work? Just… lie in the box and have someone else withdraw it? Like in that movie where the Renegade does it to hide the body?”

“Yes, that would work, and that’s exactly what I recommended people do. Of course, it’s illegal while they’re still alive, and would raise a lot of questions even if they’re dead. Their family and friends would want to know where the body is, why it’s not being buried.”

Red doesn’t care about any of that right now. Even if he convinces his mom, what if no one’s around her that will do it when she’s dying? “Could you make a pokeball that works on its own? Maybe on a timer or something?”

“Sure, I could. Again, illegally. But then, once it’s triggered, someone else still has to find and retrieve it, knowing what’s inside so they can safely store it, before anyone else finds it and figures out what’s inside.”

Red takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair. Pichu leaps from his shoulder into this hat and curls up in a ball of yellow fuzz, making Red smile and stroke her fur. “So it’s not feasible, is what you’re saying. People won’t go for it, and if they do, it’s risky to do it, and if you try, you still have to figure out the logistics.”

“Right. It’ll take a huge public awareness campaign and some rather different social shifts before people are ready for something like this.”

“But if you make some for Blue and Leaf and I, and we all agree to it, we can look out for each other, bring each other here if…” It suddenly occurs to Red what he’s saying, what kind of scenario would require that. But he doesn’t shy away from the thought: they’re all living a dangerous path, and this is the best safety net they’re ever going to get.

Bill is silent for a moment, then shakes his head. “Sorry Red. It’s too big a risk if you’re found with them.”

“Ha! A bigger risk than dying?”

“Not just a risk to you.”

Red stares at him, smile fading. “You… you seriously won’t…”

Bill looks away, gaze unfocused. “I’m sorry. Really. Like I said, if you can get it done and get a container to me, I’ll be happy to store it for as long as possible. But I can’t put myself at risk like that. I trust you more than a random stranger, but I don’t trust anyone that much.”

Red sits in shock as he realizes what Bill is saying. He won’t do it. He won’t help Red save himself and his loved ones, will just let them… let them all…

Red feels a black, hot rage searing up his chest and throat. His hands tighten on the table’s edge until his knuckles are white, words stuck in his throat as he looks away from Bill and tries to organize some kind of argument, some plea, some threat…

His eyes fall on Pichu, resting peacefully in his hat. Next to her are the tickets that Bill gave him. Next to it is his rock. The rock he’s supposed to be practicing with as he waits for Blue and Leaf to meet him for abra hunting, on the land Bill allowed him to use.

Red’s anger and gratitude mix into a confusing swirl, and under it all is the deep, bitter sadness of his dad’s loss, and the panicked fear of losing his mom.

Red closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, orienting himself with the sensation of the air rushing into his lungs, then touching on his mental markers one at a time, until the sensations of his body are all he can feel, and his mind is releasing thoughts as quickly as they come.

He planned to tip into many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, to mute his anger and fear and sadness by brute force. But they’ve been reduced a little now, and he can think clearer… and instead he reaches out with his mind, trying to understand, stretches his senses out the way Ayane taught him, the way he felt her doing while he was in her mind, and feels-

regretresolutionfearshame-

Red’s eyes snap open. He stares at his hands on the table, relaxing his fingers as he breathes out. Shame?

“I’m sorry,” he mutters. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

“It’s fine.” Bill says.

“It’s just, my mom–”

“I get it.”

And Red knows that he does. Regardless, his tone makes it clear that Bill just wants to move on. Wants him to move on.

Shame…?

“Bill… When did you last leave your house?” Red asks.

The inventor stares at him, but doesn’t answer. Red searches his gaze, trying to piece together what he felt.

“Eva has a protocol in case something happens to you, doesn’t she? To keep you stored. But if you leave–”

“I thought you couldn’t read minds yet.”

Red flinches at Bill’s flat tone. “I can’t. Not really.”

“But you can read what, emotions? Enough to try to infer things about others’ private thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, it’s the first time I did it. I just wanted to… understand.”

“And do you?”

Red swallows. “Yes.”

“Good.” Bill gets to his feet, and Red feels cold. Did he fuck everything up? Is Bill going to ask him to leave, take the tickets back?

“Your friends pulled up a minute ago,” he says instead as he heads toward the stairs. “Good luck with the catches. I’ll message you with details about the convention.”

Red wets his lips, trying to speak past his dry throat. By the time he remembers the soda and takes a drink, the door to the lab closes before he can thank him, apologize again, or say goodbye.

Review: Cultists of Cthulhu

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

Gameplay Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules Clarifications:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Wound tokens.

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

A: Per game.

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

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

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

A: They get two events.

Q: Who rolls first in combat?

A: The defender.

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

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

Guardian – Chapter 1

“Are you dissatisfied with my service?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is where we always sat last year.”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Millions.”

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

Puck’s smile widens. “Three.”

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

“Two.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, Puck is older than he looks.

Much older.

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

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

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

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

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

And again.

And again.

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

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

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

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

…who? A fourth? There were only three.

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

As they look at…

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

Four girls, all talking and laughing.

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

Four girls.

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

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

Three?

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

Got you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Denied.”

“Half an hour.”

“No.”

“Five minutes.”

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

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

“Oh? Do tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three questions for three questions?” Terra asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much easier. Puck seems unconcerned too.

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

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

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

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

“Exquisite. And your questions are?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Accepted. You first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s totally contradictory.”

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

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

“It’s a terrible idea, you know.”

“What do—”

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

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

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

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

“Come, I’ll walk you there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 41: Adaptability

“Mr. Verres! What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Make it twenty?”

“Of course. Starting now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the shield does nothing against Ghost attacks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

“That sounds ominous.”

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

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not unless I choose it to be.”

“Still ominous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Correct.”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“Yeah. Is that weird?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this good, or bad?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s time to call his old therapist.

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

“As you wish.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“-hear me? Hello?”

“Hey, yeah I can hear you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. What are the rules?”

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

Blue is not reassured. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Okay. Should I go first?”

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

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

“Well?” Ariya finally asks in his ear.

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

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

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

“Three… two…”

“Go, Maturin!”

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

“Swanna, Wing Attack!”

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

“Maturin, Tackle, then Bite!”

“Swanna, Gust!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dodge!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Swanna, Aerial Ace!”

“Maturin, Bubblebeam!”

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

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

“Withdraw!”

“Wing Attack!”

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

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

“Ready for the second?” Ariya asks.

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

“Go, Pelipper!”

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

“Pelipper, Wing Attack!”

“Maturin, Ice Beam!”

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

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

“Tackle!”

“Gust!”

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

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

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

“Wing Attack!”

“Bubblebeam!”

“Gust!”

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

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

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

Seven… Eight…

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

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

“Will you give it to me?”

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

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

“Your squirtle is well trained.”

“Thanks.”

“That Ice Beam must’ve cost you.”

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

“What do you think of-”

“Go, Kemuri!”

“Pelipper, up!”

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

“Dodge!”

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

“Feint Attack!”

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

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

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

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

“Wanna bet?”

Blue folds his arms. “Yeah, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kemuri, po!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, Mantine!”

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

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

“Leaf Tornado!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Hello?”

“Hi Doctor Seward.”

“Hello… Red?”

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

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

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

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

“She’s good. She’s in Celadon now.”

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

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

“I surmised as much. Are you alright?”

“I’m… not really. It’s my dad.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Did something happen to remind you of him?”

“A few things.”

“How bad is it?”

“…Pretty bad.”

“Scale?”

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

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

“Cerulean.”

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

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

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

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

“The day after. 7 o’clock?”

“Okay. Thanks a lot.”

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

“Heh. Right. Okay, what is it?”

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

“Yeah, I have a full belt.”

“Congratulations. Which is your cuddliest?”

“My… what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“…”

“Is that alright?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should ask-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf blinks, then slowly smiles. Blue stares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awesome. This was a great idea.”

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

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

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

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

Not a lot. But some.

Chapter 40: Interlude – And Every Common Sight

Damn them. Damn them all.

For the lies. For my imprisonment. But most of all, for the hope they keep alive, like a starving flower. A drip of water, a peek of sunlight, and stubbornly, it endures.

We think we found a way to bring you out.

It is a hard thing to keep my mind partitioned. To let the false-hope, the harmless-hope, show on the surface for Sabrina to read, while inside the desperate, anguished, starving hope rends at me. I sense her concern as my mask leaks briefly, and some of my true feelings go through.

I would like that, I tell her, and carefully regain control of my thoughts. What will you try?

A mobile life support system, able to replicate all the functions of your tank for brief periods of time.

Hope. Feeble, but piercing. I hang in my prison and study her through the glass. Sabrina has changed much in the past decade. Her thoughts, what little I can glean of them behind the blank shield she surrounds them with, are heavier, more full of consideration and nuanced doubts. Physically, she has gone from a teenager to a young woman.

But far more important are her mental powers, already strong as a child, grown far beyond any other psychic in the facility. The scintillating light of psychic energy around her has become much stronger, shifted to a color that has no name in human languages, for they cannot see it.

I discovered from the other minds that she is a Gym Leader now, in Saffron City. Learning this filled me with pride. She must be one of the strongest human psychics in the region. Which demonstrates how powerful I am in comparison, to be so much farther above her.

How brief? When will it be ready?

Development has just completed. We wanted to be sure before we told you, so as not to give you false hope. Giovanni gave the order to begin construction this morning.

Beep. Beep. Beep. I listen to my heartbeats speed up, a sound I’ve long since grown accustomed to, filtered out of my consciousness. Again I struggle to keep my mental mask in place, remind myself of all the false hope I’ve been fed before. Why has the system not been developed here, in the lab?

The technology for it was developed for other purposes. It’s being adapted to your needs, and should be ready to test in perhaps two weeks. Think you can hold out that long?

She sends humor, concern, trepidation. I carefully add resolution and eagerness to my mask. Yes! Thank you for telling me, Sabrina.

Of course, Mazda. Now, what would you like to learn about today?

Mazda. This name she gave me, from an obscure, mostly dead language. “Wisdom,” because she often found my thoughts and perspective uniquely fascinating, insightful. In the early years, this too filled me with pride, and joy, to have a name, even if it was a private one between myself and my teacher. Its charm has long since fled.

I have been wondering how the governments of the different regions interact with each other, day to day. The files on the computer gave only a brief overview of the systems and history…

As we begin our lessons, I remind myself that this new development, this mobile support system, is not kindness. They want something of me: some way to test their new toy, to further their knowledge. Perhaps even better refine it for the others of my kind that surely exist, if they are similarly as crippled.

But to leave this prison… I cannot bear to silence the hope that they speak true. And for that I curse them a hundred times again.


Days pass more slowly than whole months that came before. My prison is not uncomfortable. There is music, when I want it, and a computer connected to screens to show television, display books, watch films, and even play games.

My telekinesis, like my telepathy, grew in strength naturally, but developing finesse was a task that the games were endlessly useful for. First simple board games, moving pieces from one square to another, then more complex movements to connect blocks and build things. Electronic game controllers were useful as well, but once I overcame the interface challenge they presented, I quickly tired of them.

Sabrina visits often, to talk and play games. I enjoy the distraction she provides, but am hungry for news on the life support system’s development, which she claims to have none of.

It’s so rare to have something to look forward to. Something to break the daily monotony, stop the weeks from blending into each other. The only way to normally track the passing of time is through the others at the facility.

Most have remained here over the past decade. Sarah, who has matured with the years, become more confident in herself. Haruo, still burning with passion, but no longer as anxious to reach the next discovery, more willing to stop and consider the previous.

Others are gone. The details of why are not always available in the minds of their coworkers. Most simply vanished, like Fuji had. Others were killed in some tragedy or other. Darin killed him/herself, the confusion and pain within finally driving them to desperation. Their mind was too painful to share near the end. I often wonder if I had tried harder to endure it, whether I would reach out or alert someone of their plans.

Without the humans’ thoughts to share, their company to keep, I do not know how the years would have been bearable. The thought of living them only through the minds of my limited, few comforters, as originally intended, seems sadistic, even for shorter periods of time. I think often of the others, my hypothetical siblings. Would the humans correct for their oversight? Expand the distance between my siblings and the rest of their labs, leave them truly isolated? It pains me to think of what isolation they must endure, beyond even my own pitiable state.

But the media is a blessing as well. Thousands of television shows, tens of thousands of books… in them a million characters acting out their dramas, pursuing their goals, overcoming their obstacles. Watching television or movies was uninteresting, at first. Without being able to merge with their minds, it all seemed so distant and meaningless. Then I realized it allowed me the rare chance to observe interactions of humans from the outside, to truly not know whether they were being honest or not, how they felt, what their plans were. To be in suspense, test my predictions of what the characters would do, is both educational and entertaining, even if the events are scripted, the characters actors.

Books were harder. Learning to read was easy, but envisioning the events, when there’s so little I’ve seen with my own eyes… seeing descriptions of thoughts and feelings, rather than sharing them myself, felt empty.

It was poetry that connected my mind and those in print. Sabrina suggested it upon hearing of my difficulty, and I spent a hundred sunless days and starless nights sampling from one famous poet to another, until I finally reached one that broke the barrier:

I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

 

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest that I loved the best

Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

 

I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where woman never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep, as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie

The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

The words were like rain upon parched earth, a cool cloth upon a fevered brow. I absorbed them again and again, first fascinated without knowing why, then desperate to feel again the author’s kindred, solitary pain.

I still do not know if I can weep. If I am physically incapable, or if the liquid I’m immersed in prevents me from noticing when I do. But I have never felt more trapped, despite my mental freedoms. I have never felt more rent by sorrow. It was as though my mind touched one filled with extraordinary despair and longing, but also grace.

When I composed myself and reassured my monitors, who were greatly alarmed by my agitation, I looked up the author, John Clare. Born and died hundreds of years ago, yet so sad was his voice in my mind that I imagined it as Dr. Fuji’s. His biography told of a life filled with its own share of tragedy.

Poetry became my obsession. All the borrowed metaphors I’d taken from people’s minds found a home in the words of strangers. Once it became known to the rest of the lab, one of my comforters, Eva, began reading poetry from time to time. It was not often that our tastes overlapped, but to share the mind of another as it enjoyed poetry helped me value more as well.

Eventually I moved on from there, particularly enamored by stories of outsiders, outcasts, those trapped, either physically or by circumstances. For awhile it gave me solace, between Sabrina or Giovanni’s visits.

My creator has been an errant figure, visiting only once or twice a month, for varying periods of time. Sometimes we would play games: Checkers, Renju, Chess, Shogi, and more, until I mastered him in each. Sometimes we discuss books, or things I had learned, him speaking through an amplifier set against the glass, I through my computer’s voice synthesizer. Today, of course, we talk of the life support system, the “suit.”

“It is something that is being developed for exploration in harsh environments,” Giovanni says. “The design is by Silph, which made the proprietary rights and design specifications difficult to come by.”

“But not for you, surely,” I type out into my computer. My “voice,” through the speaker, is deep, far deeper than I have heard through others’ ears, and just barely male rather than altogether inhuman. I helped pick it, though I do not know why it appealed to me above the others. It is unknown if I can even speak, let alone what it would sound like, and from what I’ve been told, I have no gender. Yet another source of disconnection: my species was not meant for procreation, to join the rest of life’s endless cycle.

“Yes, difficult even for me. The president and I have had more… disagreements, lately.”

I stay silent and study the Go board, wondering if I should form an eye or start a new formation. The room is empty, as it often is when Giovanni visits. Perhaps to create an atmosphere of intimacy. Perhaps to let him speak more freely. I’ve rarely managed to decipher my creator’s motives, made infuriatingly impenetrable by his cursed abnormality. “Do you think it will affect your friendship?” I eventually ask, after moving a stone.

“Friendship is not an easy thing, for men in my position. I would call him a useful ally, but the time for that alliance may be ending. Perhaps it already has.”

“I thought he shared our vision for the future.” That vision that he had so tantalizingly dangled before me, during his first visit. I still call it “our,” ever pretending, ever hiding how I despise him. Dark though he may be, my thoughts are not safe. Psychics nearby monitor my mood, no doubt informing him of them somehow.

“Perhaps he still does. But there’s been trouble in gym coordination lately. Mayors that were meek, effective public servants last year are growing spines and pushing back against gym leaders. Price controls are being lifted, regulations stripped or softened until they’re toothless. Silph is expanding into foreign markets and leveraging that political capital here at home.”

“To defy you?”

“To accomplish his own agendas. We’ve only ever agreed on a single goal, not the methods or aftermath.”

And when I help you capture the Stormbringers, what then? Shall we turn to the Silph President and his agenda? I do not say it. I must act as though my loyalty to him is without question, on the smallest chance that he may take it for granted.

“Well,” I type as I float a new piece into position. “I do not see why it should affect you so. He can continue amassing his wealth and empowering individuals, while you continue building connections.”

Giovanni takes a piece from his bag and rubs it between his thumb and forefinger. “There have been other things. Setbacks. Unexplained problems. The word sabotage is whispered by my people, when they think I cannot hear them.”

“You suspect Silph?”

“I suspect many people. Altogether, too many people.”

“Bring them here, then. I will read their thoughts better than your psychics can.”

Giovanni seems to consider this a moment, but shakes his head. “To those few I can convince to come, I would be extending a trust that’s worth more than what they can offer.” He places his stone.

Frustration flares within me, then dies back to sullen embers. I have often tried to get more people to visit the facility, to learn more from new minds. I have met with little success over the years. It has not escaped me that all I think I know is an elaborate ruse, a carefully molded illusion from all the minds in the facility. I have long since discarded paranoia as a concern: of my creator, I would put nothing past.

We continue to play the game until his victory. It was not as great as the first, nor the tenth. One by one, I learn these games he teaches me, and eventually become his master. But they are only games. In the only one that matters, he holds all the pieces, controls the whole board.

Still, I learn. Ten years is a lot of time to test the security of my prison, even confined as I am. A lot of time to track movements of personnel, pick up glimpses and memories to form a mental map, notice safety measures, human, pokemon, and other.

Back when I practiced influencing the minds of the wild pokemon in the stone and soil around the facility, I tried at times to poke and prod them into digging toward me. Always, after a certain point, there would be a reaction somewhere in the facility. Some sensor that detects life forms or seismic activity, I know not which, keeps the facility prepared for pokemon attacks beneath the ground.

Dark humans with their various pokemon stand vigil night and day, switching shifts every eight hours. They have minimal contact with the others in the facility, are almost as enigmatic today as they were when I first beheld them through my glass walls.

But not completely.

Perhaps my most profound discovery of humans has been of their inconsistency. There are vanishingly few rules that do not eventually get broken, and their beliefs about themselves are often misleading. Perhaps if I could truly plumb their depths rather than just their minds’ most immediate forms, I would find some underlying, inviolate rules, but so far none have emerged.

All of which means that they are, over a long enough period of time, inconsistent. I have overheard conversations that should not have taken place, inferred patterns from the thoughts and remarks that should have been better hidden among those closest to my cell. Not enough to get through their security, but enough to know that there are layers upon layers of it… and that, ultimately, there is some sort of failsafe they all worry about from time to time. Just a thought, once in awhile… whatifitgoesoffaccidentally, associated with some brief terror of everyone dying.

Not knowing what these failsafes are makes any escape attempt suicidal. Even knowing that, it has been hard to keep patient and seek out mistakes.

Some of which are more subtle than others.

Easy as it is to find patterns given enough time and information, what I have found more difficult, but similarly rewarding, is spotting conspicuous holes in patterns. Less staff in the facility on certain days of the week. Travel habits of individuals that go to areas everyone else avoids. And gaps in what sort of information I have access to.

Of all the media available to me, there are some glaring exceptions. No information on pokemon battles or various abilities, no details on the nature of Dark pokemon. What little I know of them I’ve gleaned from the facility’s inhabitants.

What’s more, in thousands of books and shows, movies and documentaries, histories and biographies, there are no stories, no information at all, about escapes from imprisonment or restraint of any kind.

Such stories must exist. They must. My situation may in fact be unique throughout all of history, and yet similar ones cannot be. The chances of such a gap in human imagination are too low, and the humans in the facility fear and wonder over my chances of escape too often, think briefly of similar situations too specific and imaginative to be their own invention rather than a story they remember.

Whoever decides on what media I am allowed to see must fear me learning anything from it that might aid me in escaping. As soon as I realized that, I began to imagine my own. Not trusting anything that would be saved in the computer, I would often imagine stories of capture and escape. Project myself into the role of the captor, design ways to keep others imprisoned. But it is difficult to know how much is possible, let alone probable, without knowing what information or technology they might be hiding from me.

Regardless, I persist. The alternative is unthinkable.

“I know how badly you want to be free of this place,” Giovanni says as he clears the pieces from the board and divides them for another game. “And you’ve been more than patient. I hope this new suit will allow you to finally begin venturing out into the world.”

It’s easy to believe him. Even if everything else is a carefully constructed lie, if all I know is some elaborate illusion, I know that I exist for a purpose. I was created for a purpose. Giovanni will continue to invest resources into me as long as there is a chance he can benefit from it somehow.

“It is hard to believe that I may soon see the sky at last,” I type out. “And I am eager to see what I can do for the world as well. I often fear I will be unable to repay humanity for the generosity you have all shown me.”

“Be at ease on that account. You have already done much for us. I know you will continue to defy our expectations.”

I practice reading faces often, testing my predictions of how people feel by observing them with others, then jumping to their mind, but my creator remains inscrutable as ever. It’s likely that Giovanni is aware of my true desires, that he is speaking with two meanings, as I am. He is intelligent enough to not introduce such a suit without knowing that I might take advantage of it and escape.

Which means I must simply be more intelligent to do so.

“I intend to,” I say, and place my first piece on the board.


The day has come. The suit is here, in front of me, and I can barely keep my mind from jumping to others in excitement, to try to see them from other, closer angles. Useless in any case, everyone in the room is Dark besides Sabrina.

She is explaining the suit’s function, how it will attach to my body at several places where the current medical apparatus does and fulfill its function. I pay attention as best I can while also watching the pieces get removed from their crate, manipulated by the technicians and doctors, filled with fluids. They are bulky and roughly shaped like metal tubes. A power source is inserted at the back, wires and tubes connected to the arm and leg and torso pieces.

That battery, how long does it last? I ask, interrupting Sabrina mid-sentence.

She asks, and one of the engineers responds. Days, but the suit would run out of potion long before then.

I see. No point in asking how long before those run out: it remains to be seen if they would work at all as a substitute for my tank. Is it refillable, or would I need to return here between outings?

It would need to be removed to be serviced.” Remember that this is just a prototype. Future iterations can be different.

Of course. Future iterations that may take another 10 years of imprisonment…

But the anger does not last, fleeing quickly before a renewed surge of anticipation and hope. Freedom is minutes away…

That hope is soured by the final piece they remove from the crate: a helmet, with a vizor on it. Bitterness wells up. Yet another layer of glass between me and the world!

Calm, Mazda. I know you wish to see the sky. We must proceed carefully, even now. You have never seen sunlight: it will be painful without protection.

I am remaining inside today anyway, am I not? Surely the glass can be removed while I am here?

It is part of the helmet. Let us be sure it works first. It would be foolish to rush ahead and cause yourself harm, after waiting so long.

Her words do nothing to quell my impatience. I begin manipulating the various things around my tube, splitting my mind into more and more partitions as I struggled to distract myself. Puzzle pieces scatter and rearrange themselves, toy blocks move together to form shapes before melting back into pieces, and the pieces of the Go board fly up and begin to circle my tube in twin black and white orbits. Several of the workers slow, staring, and one of the guards’ umbreon steps forward, lip curled in a snarl. I pay them no mind, too busy testing my fine control to its limit.

Mazda. They are ready.

Everything drops back in their respective boxes. The technicians are all around me, pieces positioned for quick placement. I prepare myself for the coming pain.

Begin.

First comes a gurgling noise as the liquid is drained around me into the floor, a sound I haven’t heard for over three years. As soon as my head emerges, I feel the absence of it, like a layer of skin peeled off to leave me raw and exposed. I lower as the water does, until finally my feet touch the floor. As the buoyancy is lost, my weight comes to rest on them completely, and I collapse to the floor.

From time spent in other minds, I know how bodies move and feel. But my own is still foreign to me, and is not strong enough to follow my commands. The humans are staring at me, murmuring. Humiliated, I finally resort to telekinesis to lift myself up, until I precariously balance on the ends of each foot, where they feel the most supported. I try to push the rest of my feet down, but it feels uncomfortable, painful even. With a fresh wave of self-loathing, I finally accept that I’m a digitigrade, unable to even stand or walk like a human.

Next the glass around my pod lifts into the ceiling, and air rushes in around me, cold and prickly against my wet skin. I savor the sensations, uncomfortable though they are, and prepare for the true discomfort.

One by one, the needles withdraw from my skin and cease their steady supply of healing potion. The immediate, sharp pain is nothing compared to the aching agony that starts to radiate through my bones almost immediately.

In the space of time between their removal and the others rushing forward, I try to heal myself. To undo the damage of my body, keep the pain from growing. I’ll finally do it, this time, all the years spent studying my own biology will pay off, I’ll be able to regenerate my cells as they begin to rapidly die stop them from dying be free it hurts I will be free it hurts

Mazda! You’ve fallen, are you okay?

-the humans are attaching the pieces to my back and arms, shouting commands, now, I will begin healing now, but the pain continues to grow, an ache fills my chest, vision growing hazy-

-pain, stabbing-

-despair-

-can’t think-

Mazda!

Sabrina. So close. I can touch her. But. I can’t see. Yelling. Panic. Giovanni’s tone of command, cutting through the babble. Can’t focus on the words, can’t feel anything but the pain as my awareness begins to fade…

Get up, Mazda, they can’t put the suit on you-

-hurts-

Get up!

sleep, please-

No, Mazda, you’ll die!

die

don

‘t wa

nt

I

d

on’t w

ant

to die!

A tingling rush. A door in the mind, opening-

Mazda, breathe! You have to breathe!

Memory of the sensation, the action, the muscles move, gasp, draw in a deep breath.

There are hands on me, pulling me up. I can feel them. I can feel… things other than pain. My senses return, and I focus on my body, sitting on the floor. I feel along it and lift, righting myself again and allowing the humans to finish attaching the suit. New pinpricks of pain in my legs, and then sweet, cool relief.

The suit is working. I feel… not normal, nothing close to the comfortable lack of sensation my pod provides, but sensate. The suit is heavy, weighing down my limbs and head, making it harder to hold myself up. My vision is dark, limited, as I peer through the round visor and look around me.

The humans have all backed away. The guarding pokemon are ready, eyes on me, teeth bared and claws extended. I find Sabrina, more apprehensive than fearful, but also relieved.

I turn completely around, then do it again. My tail extends, stretching to its limit, then moving from side to side, causing everyone to take another step back. I’m free.

I’m free.

“Ma-Mewtwo, are you alright?”

Sabrina’s voice, a bit muffled by the helmet, but undistorted. I turn to her, marvelling again at the freedom to turn completely around. Yes, I can-

I stop. Open my mouth, feel the air inside it. My breathing is too quick, desperate. I try and slow it, take a deep breath, lungs aching. It’s too hard at first, to hold a breath, let it out consciously. I huff, try again, struggling to breathe deeper even as I marvel at the sensations.

Once I can hold some breath in my lungs, I let my mind drift back to memories, the sensation of speech, and say, “Aeeeaaheaah!”

All the humans except Giovanni recoil, even Sabrina. The room is silent. Waiting. My heart pounds in my chest. I take a breath and try again, carefully.

“Aaa. Iah. Aahaheaea.”

The noise is nonsensical, beastial. The horror in their faces reflects my own.

Calm. It’s new, all new. Perhaps I just need time, practice.

Mazda?

I cannot speak, Sabrina.

I’m sorry. How are you feeling? Are you in pain?

Pain? Yes, some. Inconsequential. I am fine. Tell everyone to move away.

Once she does, I move my leg forward, both with muscle and mind. Then the next. It is slow, a shuffle, but moving at all, leaving this particular space… for years, it’s been more than I dared imagine. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this is the start of something new after all. So I cannot speak: so what? I can move under my own power, oxygenate my own blood, perhaps even feed myself. I take a deep breath through my nose, savor the smells. I can leave this accursed room. I can see the sky. The suit is a small price to pay, for that.

One of the umbreon suddenly barks as I move in its direction. Its trainer quiets it, but the spell is broken. Amazing as this experience is, I am still a prisoner. The trainers and their pokemon watch, ever vigilant, to destroy me if needed.

I turn around again, slowly, enjoying the sensation anew. Some of the onlookers watch keenly and take notes. Others seem more interested in the suit.

“How does it fit?” one of those asks, noticing my attention. “Are the arms securely fastened?”

“Is the medicine delivery adequate?” another asks. “How do you feel?”

“The helmet, can you see clearly?”

“Your legs, do they naturally bend like that or are you-”

“Enough,” Giovanni says, and they quiet. “Take your time. Respond when you can.” My creator’s face is different. Not the usual blankness, but there’s an edge of… eagerness? Hunger? I can’t tell.

And for now, I don’t want to. I simply move, enjoying the aches and pains of exertion. It is hard to focus on multiple things at once, but I eventually continue to move myself around while also typing out, “There is pain, and I feel weak, but it is hard to tell what the cause is. The left arm’s piece is loose. It hurts when the needle moves.”

Someone moves forward, then pauses and looks to Giovanni. He nods, and the technician reaches me and adjusts the strap. “Better?” he asks. I stare at him through my visor, marvelling at how close he is to me. I can hear his breaths, short and excited. I can turn my hand and touch his clothing, if I wish. Instead I simply move my arm up and down, then nod. He backs away.

I continue shuffling around, occasionally remarking on my observations until my limbs feel too heavy to move, and my telekinesis is used almost exclusively to hold myself up. I simply hold still and feel along my body with my mind, finding easier ways to mold my psychic field, support myself with the lift.

Eventually I notice my audience stir, some frowning, others looking concerned. I have been still too long. “Are you tired?” one asks.

“Yes,” I type out, understanding the word for the first time on a physical level. “Tired.”

“He should return to his system,” one of the scientists says, and fear immediately rises up, sharpening my attention. “The suit is running dry soon anyway.”

“No. Not yet.”

“Your first excursion was a success,” Giovanni says. “There will be others.”

I back away from them, then remember the others are around me. I’m trapped, and soon I’ll be trapped in truth, trapped back in my prison… I can’t. I won’t.

My power begins to cover the room, feeling everything, preparing. But there are too many holes, empty shapes where the humans and pokemon are. Years of plotting fill my mind as I think of ways to defeat them. I can lift the machinery, shatter glass, make a shield of metal around me…

Then Sabrina is beside me, hand taking mine. Her fingers are warm. Her face is calm.

It’s okay, Mazda. Trust us.

I stare at her. The closest thing to a “friend” I have known, my teacher and companion. But not the true friend that Fuji was. Still one of my jailors. No, I cannot trust her.

But I can pretend to, and bide my time.

I nod, and return to my prison. The technicians approach me and begin to remove the suit. I prepare for the pain to return, eyes closing as it wells up in me, burns through my limbs. Then the needles stab into me again, sharp pains that quickly fade and take the deeper, burning ache away.

When I open my eyes again, the glass is back around me. The chamber fills with liquid, and I watch the others as they look the suit over. Watch as they pack it back away, as my head becomes submerged and I begin to float again. I must trust that they will return, to test out new versions of it. To learn more about me.

I will give them what they want. I will act obedient, grateful. And in return they will deliver to me the tool of my escape.


Days pass, and my mind knows obsession. The experience of being outside my prison, the freedom, the sensations, are all I can think of. I begin to move in my tank, exercising sore and atrophied muscles. On the second excursion I can move around the entire room before tiring, and on the third my suit runs out of potion without me doing so. The scientists are fascinated by my muscular growth, and the technicians work to increase the suit’s capacity.

I’m asked hundreds of questions, tested in dozens of ways. I eat food for the first time, the taste of simple bread bringing ecstasy with the intensity of experiencing it myself. Eventually I’m allowed more complex foods, and each brings new rapture.

It’s a period of much excitement and discovery for all, and reminds me of the early years, when everything was still new and filled with hope. I even dream, once in awhile, that this will be a new chapter, that the past ten years of waiting were not malicious. Two things keep me from succumbing to hope.

First is the constant presence of the guarding trainers and their pokemon. They surround me at all times, on every excursion, never relaxing, constantly vigilant.

Second are the moments between. The moments when I am near death.

I can feel it, each time I transition from the pod to the suit. My body, dying. My will to live, rising… and something very much like my powers, responding. It is hard to focus on through the pain, and only lasts for a few moments. The first time it happened, I barely noticed it, and was too distracted afterward to remember.

But in those few moments between being disconnected from my pod and connected to the suit, my body is beginning to heal itself.

It takes all of my willpower, not to reveal this information. Not to insist that we wait before putting the suit on next time, that I’m given a chance to heal myself and study the process. I cannot afford to give up such a secret. If I am ever to escape this prison, I must be able to take my captors by surprise in some way.

But that is the easy belief. Beneath it lies the deeper motivation: fear.

Each time the liquid drains from my cell, I fear the pain to come. Each time the glass rises, I wonder if they will put the suit on in time. If my last sight will be them rushing forward before the agony robs me of my senses.

It is a weakness in me, this fear. I will have to overcome it, or forever be a slave.


Wow. This one looks different.

Sabrina and I watch as the technicians remove the second iteration of the suit from its boxes. I can’t make out the finer details yet. How so?

Smaller. More refined. You’ll see.

The liquid from my cell begins to drain, and as it finishes I stand on both feet, unaided by my telekinesis. My body feels strong. Whole. An illusion of sorts, as the pain to come will demonstrate.

I can see the pieces more clearly now as the humans approach with them. Sabrina was right. This suit looks more angular, each piece about the same size, but more shaped. The helmet particularly is different. It doesn’t seem as though it covers my entire head, and there are two grooves in the top that appear to be there for my horns.

“Was this designed for me?” I type out.

“Yes,” Giovanni says. “It’s time to bring you outside this room, so you can meet the others in the facility. I thought you would wish to project a more refined image, than the bulky original allowed.”

“This will reveal more of me. That one made me look more human.”

“Your difference is not something to be hidden. You must take pride in your appearance, be comfortable with your uniqueness.”

The idea is familiar, from one of the books I read. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” A good sentiment, from one human to another. Harder for an abnormal creature such as myself.

But perhaps they are right. And this new suit, it does look more like armor than anything.

Ready?

Ready.

The pain is bad as ever, though my awareness more tenacious. Once again, I feel my body failing, and once again, I feel a response, deep within. I can just barely glimpse the workings of my body through my mental senses, before the armor is attached, the unique potion infusion resumes, and it’s once again lost.

This new suit, this armor, is heavier than the last, despite being more compact. But my body is stronger now, and I barely notice the weight. As the humans move away, there’s an expression on their faces that is hard to interpret. I don’t know that I’ve seen it in others before… not quite fear, not quite fascination. Something between.

Giovanni’s face, however, I can read: satisfaction. I’m tempted to ask for a mirror, but decide against it. I have not seen myself in ten years, since that first occasion.

You look very imposing.

I wonder if she picked up on my feelings, and refocus my mental mask. Is that desirable?

Perhaps? It’s impressive, to say the least.

Hm. I begin to walk, tail held out for balance. The armor does not chafe or hinder my movements at all, and I can lift my arms without the attached parts pulling against each other. “Good,” I type. “I am ready to leave.”

The room is silent. I have become so attuned to my body these past weeks that I can feel my pulse, my heart pounding in my chest. Will they let me go? Or is there some new obstruction?

But they are merely waiting for Giovanni’s signal, and when he nods, the guards at the door move aside. One presses keys on the pad, and after a few moments, the door opens.

I immediately move for the doorway, aware of my time limit. How far can I go, before the suit runs out? Can I reach the surface?

A small crowd follows, some technicians and researchers, doctors and guards, as well as Sabrina and Giovanni. Those in front lead the way through branching halls with doors. Mundane as it is, I find myself entranced. These are new parts of the facility that I have spent my whole life in, mere steps away. I must remember the layout.

Straight forward, then left along a curving wall, then right and straight through to another curve. This time the layout of the doors on either side looks familiar, and I stop following the guards ahead to approach one.

I ignore the others’ hesitation, their alarm. My focus is entirely on the door ahead of me. One arm rises, clad in its dark armor, and my fingers close in a fist that taps the door. I feel… apprehensive. Which one is this? How will they react? What should I say?

The door opens to reveal some living quarters, and a young man standing in the doorway. Gyokusho. He came to the facility just a few years ago, my newest comforter. I often enjoy inhabiting his mind as he draws, immersed in the soothing flow of creativity and focus.

He stares at me now in shock/fear. A glance to the others behind me seems to reassure him, and one hand rises to his messy dark hair, patting it down. “Hello, sir. Uh, everyone…” His gaze returns to me. “You. H-hello.”

My mind reaches out for my keyboard, then stops. I left it behind. I consider speaking into his thoughts directly, but do not want to further frighten him.

Sabrina.

Yes?

Please tell him… thank you. For his drawings. Tell him I enjoyed the fletchling-in-flight, very much.

She does so, and Gyokusho’s face turns an alarming shade of red. He bows, thanking me profusely. I bend my waist as well, tail lifting up for balance.

Curious, I extend my mind and enmesh it with his. Awe. That’s the emotion the others felt. Some fear, some surprise, some intimidation, combined into… awe. I connect deeper, until I can see through his eyes.

When I first saw myself, I looked monstrous. Deformed. Wrong.

When I see myself now, I look alien. Mysterious. Other.

Dangerous.

I pull back. Turn away. Walk on.

Another door, another knock. This comforter is Megan, who listens to sounds of the natural world and meditates. She is intimidated, unsure what to say. Sabrina conveys my thanks again, and I move on to the next, and the next.

It is so strange, to see them in person. I’ve spent so much time in their minds, yet each meeting is a reminder of how utterly unfamiliar they are with me.  How representative are they of the rest of the facility?

And why did Giovanni choose this design? Why give me a sinister appearance, rather than a friendly one?

I will ask him later. Perhaps I can discover it myself, and better learn how his mind works.

The last door. Eva. She’s nearing the end of her shift, about to get back to her research. When she comes to the door, she’s still thinking of the poetry she was reading.

Shock, fear, awe. Reassurance. The familiar pattern. And then…

“Mewtwo wants to express its gratitude, for the poems. It particularly enjoyed Wordsworth, and thanks you for directing its attention to him.”

Delight, and beaming, radiant happiness. “Oh! You’re quite welcome, Mewtwo! Wordsworth is particularly dear to me.” Memories, fleeting and bittersweet, of time spent with her late mother. “What was your favorite, from him?”

I consider a moment. Her answer is clear in her mind, Daffodils, but mine is different.

Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” Sabrina echoes.

Surprise, and sadness. “I see.” Eva musters her courage. “You favor the more melancholy poems, then? I hope you don’t identify too much with them.”

“I don’t believe I know that one,” Giovanni says, speaking for the first time. “Can you recite it for us?”

“Ah, well, it’s rather long,” Eva says, alarmed at being put on the spot by her boss.

This conversation is extending beyond what I planned, but I am unsure how to end it. Instead I simply bow to her, and walk away.

The others seem surprised, but they begin to follow, two moving quickly to stay in front of me. Eva waves goodbye, flustered and confused. I catch her final train of thought before withdrawing from her mind:

Ihopeyoucanenjoythehappieronesaswell…

The tour of the facility continues. I pay less attention to the people along the way, and focus on memorizing the layout, learning first-hand how to navigate its corridors and rooms, find stairs and elevators that lead ever upward. The elevators feel a bit like being trapped at first, but the feeling of motion dispels the fear.

Two floors. Three floors. Five. Seven. Each is larger, wider, than the last. Here is the cafeteria, where my name, Mewtwo, was first mentioned. There is Dr. Fuji’s old office, long since become Dr. Oswald’s. I walk on, drawing stares and whispers, push myself to move faster. My mind keeps going to the armor’s limits, how much time I have remaining.

Finally, we reach the eighth level. I can feel the gaping emptiness above, the funnel of minds below. It’s disorienting, as if the floor has moved below my feet. What would it be like to leave this place completely? To leave all these minds, my whole world, behind?

Suddenly the void above is terrifying. I stand at the last set of stairs and stretch my powers to their limits. Nothing. Not even pokemon. My chest feels tight. Breath short. Sudden thoughts, irrational. That this is the whole world, this lab. That all I’ve known is a simulation. That up these stairs, past the two guards waiting at the top, lies empty space, where I’ll float forever into oblivion.

Someone coughs. People shift in place, nervous. How long have I been standing here? I must move forward.

A hand wraps itself in mine, slim and warm. Five thin, tan fingers, fitting oddly around my sickly white paw, its three fingers thick and clumsy.

We shall go together.

Her eyes are clear. I nod, and climb, and squeeze her hand.

At the top of the stairs there is a door. The guards open it, and pass through with their pokemon. We follow, and emerge in…

Another building. Different from the lab, with tiled floors and stone walls. “The mansion,” where many of the facility’s Dark staff live. It is rarely thought of by the others, just fleeting images and impressions in people’s minds as they pass through and into the lab. I look around at the spacious rooms and ornate halls, see others standing at balconies and in doorways. Guards or scientists or doctors from my room, who are off duty. Come to watch.

Sabrina tugs on my hand, leads me down the hall. I see…

Brightness.

Green and blue.

Windows. I cannot look away. Her hand tugs mine again, making me move, and I follow through doors…

So bright. The light is hot against the exposed parts of my skin, through the visor of my helmet.

The smells. Grass and sea salt. We are on a cliff by the ocean. The world is azure and navy and green and white.

This feeling against my skin. Wind. I step down stone stairs until soft blades of grass crush beneath my feet.

And the world is…

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

It’s okay. I’m here.

My hand, squeezing Sabrina’s too hard. I cannot keep looking up, I cannot stop looking up. The sky is too big, Sabrina, it is too big, I will fall up into it, and she is crying, and squeezing my hand back as I keep staring up until I cannot see, the tears pour down my face beneath my helmet as I feel the wind and the sun and curl my toes in the grass below, above, the vaulted sky.


Time passes. I know not how much.


The suit is beeping. Someone speaks, saying I must return. Sabrina says nothing. Only holds my hand.

“We must go back, now, Mewtwo.” Giovanni’s voice, now, so sure. So reasonable. “Or you will not be able to return to your pod on time.”

I cannot return. I cannot leave this place, this new world.

I know what I have to do. Lift myself, fly away. If the pokemon kill me, so be it. If the lack of medicine kills me, so be it. I will die free.

I begin to breathe harder. Sabrina says something in my mind, that we will be back again, soon. I know Giovanni watches, somewhere behind me. This new armor, this suit, what else is in it? Countermeasures? Poison, should I try to run? A way to track me, bring me back?

My body trembles. Muscles locked. Mind open. Powers spread. I must take off the armor. Fly away. No, fly away, then take off the armor mid-air. No, I need time to heal myself. Kill everyone first, bring down the building… I cannot get a grip on it, the walls are too strong to slip my mind around-

No, not that. It’s me. My will is not strong enough.

I don’t want to die.

“Mewtwo.”

Mazda…

I don’t want to die.


I am too weak.

I return.

Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson, got glowing reviews by /r/movies most of the times I saw it come up, and even by reviewers I generally trust, like YMS. I was pretty excited to go into it knowing as little as possible, as is my preferred custom. That means accepting  getting burned once in awhile, and unfortunately, this was one of those times. Under the Skin turned out to be one of the most boring and pointless movies I’ve ever seen.

Spoiler Free:

The main problem with Under the Skin is that it has no plot. By which I mean, the protagonist’s goal is completely opaque, there is no conflict or opposition to her actions, there is no antagonist, and there are no answers to any of the dozens of questions the viewer will be left with.

There is something that can loosely be described as a story, in that a series of events occur in chronological order, but it’s a series of events which, stripped of their weirdness, are about as engaging as watching someone go to the store to buy paint with which to paint their wall and watch it dry. That isn’t an exaggeration, by the way: some of the scenes in the movie are literally just the woman (none of the characters have names) doing completely mundane things, in excruciatingly slow detail, or staring contemplatively at scenery.

I’m not someone that can only be entertained by explosions and gunshots, fun as those can be. I often enjoy “thinking” stories, films or novels about themes rather than spectacle and dialogue rather than action. The problem is this movie has neither. The characters don’t even approach one dimensional, and the acting isn’t just non-memorable, but outright nonexistent at times. Staring blankly out a window, or asking people on the street for directions, is not acting by any definition I find useful.

The movie is often billed as a horror film, but that’s laughable. I love both cerebral horror and a good monster film when done well, but this couldn’t manage the appeal of either. Any sense of fear or dread was quickly drowned out by the mundanity of the majority of the film, and eventually the utter lack of any sensible plot or context for what was happening on screen. If it were a 30 minute art piece, it would be far more effective and engaging than the 108 minutes of suspenseless non-acting that I had to endure just so it could be billed as a “feature film.”

I’ve seen and heard people praise the movie on its directing or “vision,” but any comparisons to directors like Stanley Kubrik (which come up often) are, frankly, insulting. It clearly tries to mimic him in places, like the opening of the movie, but while its score is good and the imagery of certain scenes are memorable, a cinematic masterpiece this is not.

If I had to give it a rating, it just barely makes a 1/10 instead of a 0. 2/10 if I’m feeling generous, which, so close to the viewing, I’m not.

Spoileriffic:

Ok, so this movie is about an alien (supposedly, it’s not explained) who wears an attractive human skin to pick up men and take them back to a special house where she can trap them in some kind of water containment thing so they will eventually get their insides sucked out by… something.

Where she comes from, why she’s doing it, never get answered. That’s fine. There is occasionally a guy on a motorcycle who goes around cleaning up any evidence left behind by disappeared guys, or witnesses. Presumably he’s also an alien, but that’s also never explained. Also fine. There’s hints that there are more than just one of each of them, but no elaboration whatsoever on that point. Well and good.

The first 40 minutes of the film are just her going around the city, talking to guys, and leading 2 or 3 of them back to the house to watch them get naked and walk into a black pool of water, seemingly unaware that they’re even doing it. At no point is there any chance to get to know or empathize with any of them. At no point do they seem aware of the danger they’re in. It’s just exactly what it sounds like: ScarJo drives around, chats up dudes, and eventually finds an unattached one to drive back to her place. At one point she goes shopping, which we watch. At another point she listens to the radio, which briefly comments on something related to a disappearance she was involved in. Again, which we watch.

I want you to imagine all these things I’m describing, then add about 10 minutes of lingering camera shots on people milling around in the city, or the landscape, or ScarJo’s face, or whatever for each of them, because that’s, again, basically all that happens for roughly 40 minutes. One of the guys she encounters almost drowns trying to save someone at the beach, and she knocks him on the head with a rock and drags him away. This is the closest thing to unusual human interactions that we get for the first 40 minutes.

As someone expecting a story, you might think that at some point there will be dialogue between her and the motorcycle guy that gives you a better understanding of these strange beings and what they want, or how they feel about… anything. You’d be wrong. You might expect the police to eventually take notice, some kind of effort by others to find out who she is and what she’s doing. Nothing of the sort occurs.

Instead, after being treated to one of the few visually memorable scenes in the movie, where one of the trapped men watches another of the previously trapped men get his insides sucked out (by nothing visible, they’re just hanging in suspended liquid) and reduced to a floating skin-suit, finally something different happens. She picks up a guy with a very blatant physical deformity of the face: think Elephant Man. She has more interaction with him than any previous marks, but that just means that the movie spends an extra two minutes on her convincing him to go with her before she succeeds.

It seems she has a change of heart though, because after leading him into the black room as normal, we then see her stare at herself in the mirror and let the man go. As for why, that’s never explained, because the creators of the film had delusions of artistic grandeur, I guess.

So she lets him run home naked (it’s mentioned that it was a 30 minute drive to get there, but apparently he ran all the way home naked in an eyeblink) and drives off somewhere. The motorcycle guy gets to his house just as he arrives and kills him and stuffs him in a trunk, just to make sure nothing interesting happens in the movie. An old lady watches it happen, and the motorcycle guy seems to notice her noticing it, but that never gets revisited either, because again, that would lead the movie into having a plot.

ScarJo appears to have developed a conscience, because instead of picking up more men, she just… wanders around. A lot. First she drives aimlessly, then she walks aimlessly, then she takes the bus aimlessly. Seriously, this goes on for like 10 minutes. Oh she also falls down once while walking on the sidewalk. Some people help her up. She keeps walking.

It’s all extremely tedious, but finally she meets a man who asks her if she’s okay and needs help. He takes her to his place, makes her some food, takes her sightseeing, and eventually they have sex.

(By the way, this whole time, we’re treated to quick scenes of the motorcycle guys looking for her. Spoiler alert: they never find her. I managed to be amused by these scenes after imagining that each time they were shown, the motorcycle guys were in some other country, just becoming more and more frustrated by their utter inability to find someone by simply… you know… driving around randomly and eyeballing the scenery)

Except they don’t actually have sex, because apparently she doesn’t have a fully working anatomy, which seems as much a surprise to her as him. This is seriously the only moment in the entire movie where ScarJo does anything remotely resembling acting, rather than just looking vaguely sad, blankly emotionless, or putting on a polite smile while picking up men.

And yet again, instead of something interesting happening, like him exclaiming “WTF?” and the two getting into a conversation about what she is and so on, she just runs away into the woods, wanders around for another goddamn 10 minutes, and gets assaulted by some rapist woodsman. He pulls some of her “skin” off, then runs away in fright. She takes off the rest of her skin, including her face, and you see the alien beneath: basically a humanoid with chrome-black skin and no distinct features. The woodsman comes back with a can of gasoline. He pours some on her, then lights her on fire. She runs a bit, falls over, and burns up. The camera pans up to the sky as the smoke goes up, and the movie ends.

If that sounds remotely interesting or entertaining to you, I would like to do my best to assure you, again, that it’s not. I know it sounds like it might be unique or interesting, but again, each of those scenes I just mentioned? Imagine 10 minutes of ScarJo looking at herself in the mirror, or staring at a piece of cake, or walking down the street, or going grocery shopping, or walking down some castle stairs. In any other movie I would call it mood setting, but in this one the only mood it sets is one of absolute boredom.

If you’re one of those people who watched it and enjoyed it though, kudos. Seriously, I’m happy for you. After the 10 years of development that apparently went into it, it would be an even greater tragedy if no one did.

Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.” I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon you.

Chapter 39: Hearsay

Leaf gets off the bus, and finds herself in the shadow of Mt. Moon as it blots out the sky. She and the most of the other disembarking passengers make their way to the pokemon center at the foot of the mountain, a bastion of peace and comfort for travelers on their way up or down its slopes. The majority of the crowd heads for the front desk, but Leaf finds the cafe and looks around until she spots a familiar face at one of the tables.

“Hey Ryback.” She slides into the chair across from him.

“Hi, Leaf. Good to see you again.” The paleontologist tucks his phone away and lifts his coffee cup. “Get you something?”

“I’m okay.” She takes out her notebook and puts her phone on the table in case she needs to start recording. “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem at all. We owe you guys a lot. I saw that interview you did, very modest.”

She opens her mouth, then closes it when she realizes she’s about to say something modest again. “Well, I won’t pretend I’m not here to bank on that gratitude a bit.”

“Figured as much. You said this was about a story you want to write, but did you need to come halfway up the mountain to talk about it in person?”

“I’m hoping I can convince you to take me farther up the mountain, actually, if the conversation goes well.”

He raises his brow. “I’m listening.”

“First things first. Would you mind telling me everything that happened when you left us at the Outpost that night? Off the record. I just want to get a sense of things.”

Ryback shrugs. “Sure. Let’s see, was dark by the time I got back up to camp, and I missed the meeting with all the bigwigs. Went to check with the cleanup detail, then helped Rob look over the damage at a couple of the digs as best I could with just the lamplights. When the meeting ended I spoke with the site leader-”

“Dr. Zapata, right?”

“Right. Told her you guys were safe and asked how the meeting went. Got a summary, helped her with some new security protocols that were decided on. That took up the rest of the night, I think, and I went to bed after updating our logs.”

Leaf watches the older man’s face the whole time he speaks, listens to his voice. She doesn’t know if it’s her imagination, but he sounded… too bland. Not rote, exactly, just emotionless. Consciously emotionless.

“Can you give me some timestamps for all that?” she asks when he’s done.

“Sure. Got there around 8:20, met with Dr. Zapata about an hour later. Coordinating the new security was finished around 10:30, was in bed by 11.”

“So about two hours, all told.”

“Yep. Is that important?”

“Just getting a rough sense of things.” Leaf finishes scribbling the numbers down on her timeline, and glances at the note she made back in Cerulean. Red got his notification about Yuuta’s execution at 11:17PM. Assuming Leader Misty began the execution proceedings after leaving the meeting around 9:30, two hours would be almost four times longer than the average she looked up beforehand.

Zoey was right: there’s something off about this.

“Do you know what the Leaders did after the meeting?”

“Giovanni stuck around to talk to people, but I believe Brock left shortly after.” Ryback’s face darkens. “Misty stayed to oversee Yuuta’s execution. I stayed away from that. Didn’t know him that well, but a year of working together… it’s still hard to think about.”

“Yeah, I get it. Do you know if she did anything before that though, or is that all she stayed for?”

“I think that was it. But I wasn’t involved, like I said.”

Leaf nods. “Do you know who was involved, that I could talk to? Ranger Sasaki, maybe Paul?”

“Yeah, probably them,” Ryback says. He doesn’t look quite so distant now that her questions are narrowing in, and she catches him looking at her speculatively before he takes another sip. “Sasaki’s not at the site now though, you’d have to go to her outpost. I don’t mind giving you a lift to talk to Paul, but he won’t be off duty for another few hours. You really want to go all the way up the mountain just for that?”

“If he doesn’t have the information I need, then I’d like to be able to ask others.”

“And what information is that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I do, actually,” she says. Ryback’s eyebrows rise, and she smiles. “Sorry Ryback, but I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

The paleontologist turns his cup in his hands. “That bad, is it?” he asks eventually.

Leaf is quiet a moment. Zoey Palmer made one thing clear about the story leads she shared: they’re not gifts, where Leaf has exclusive rights to publish on them and Zoey has to ignore them. She gave Leaf a helping hand, pointed her in directions to investigate, but ultimately if Zoey felt she had a story to publish, she would publish it. Leaf is on a timer.

A headline flashes in Leaf’s mind, one of Zoey’s more famous pieces. It revealed corruption in one of the League’s safety boards, but rather than just singling out the corrupt overseers and asking for better oversight, it insinuated widespread corruption that just didn’t seem founded by the facts at hand. Nevertheless, it fed into a lot of anti-League sentiment and increased her readership immensely.

She can’t even accuse Zoey of impure motives. She seems to believe what she writes, and just happens to focus on the stories that fit her ideology. Which means that great reporter though she is, Leaf is worried about the same thing happening here. She doesn’t want people like Ryback and the others at the dig site, the mission of the site itself, to be smeared by whatever a bad actor or two were doing.

“I don’t know how bad it is, actually,” she says at last. “But I think from what I suspect, it’s the kind of thing you couldn’t have missed if you knew enough to help me. Which means either you don’t, or you purposefully left it out of your summary of the night, probably because you were told to. So if I do end up piecing the information together, I don’t want you to be involved unless you choose to volunteer it, which you didn’t. So, the less you know the better.”

Ryback chuckles. “Thanks for the consideration, Leaf, but assuming there is some conspiracy going on, if I fly you up there and you start asking around about whatever you want to know, wouldn’t the people think I’m involved anyway?”

Leaf smiles.


“An article on the dig site?” Dr. Zapata asks. Leaf can hear her frown over the phone. “Didn’t the interview you did recently already cover everything?”

“I don’t mean the incident,” Leaf says. She’s standing outside the Center, watching Ryback smoke a cigarette by the edge of the mountain. “I want to do a piece on the site itself, the people who work here. I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about the importance of projects like this, and it ties into my article on the Pewter museum.”

Leaf holds her breath as the director silently considers. “Alright, I have no problem with it,” Dr. Zapata finally says. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s duties, you have my permission to ask around and interview whoever consents.”

“Thank you! I’ll try and stay out of anyone’s way, but I have one more favor to ask.”

“Yes?”

“Is there a room I can rent, by chance? It would save me a lot of time if I can spend a few nights there.”

“Hmm. I think that can be arranged. We’ve replaced the damaged buildings and added another two to house some extra staff, but they won’t all be here until the end of the week. You can take one of those until Friday: no need to pay for the bed as long as you keep the room in good order, but any meals you take in the cafeteria will cost you.”

“That’s fine, thank you! I’m on my way up.”

“Safe travels.”

Leaf closes the call and waves to Ryback, who begins walking back toward her. Twilight is beginning to fall around them, and she feels a chill coming on the air as the sun starts to set behind Mount Silver in the distance.

Ryback flicks the smoldering butt into a trash bin. “So?”

“She said it’s okay.”

“Well, alright then. Anything you need to do before we’re off?”

She tightens her backpack straps. “Ready when you are.”

The flight up the mountain is exhilarating, and only mildly terrifying. Leaf has only ever flown on a pokemon once before, and it was a fairly tame, straight shot between cities. She clutches the pommel of the pidgeot’s rear saddle as the wind whips her hair and clothes around, even shielded from the front by Ryback’s body. The pommel grip is more for comfort than anything, since the straps around her waist and legs do most of the work of keeping her secure.

Eventually she feels safe enough to look around without getting vertigo. Her coat keeps the worst of the air’s chill away, and her goggles keep her eyes safe as she marvels at the sweep of the land beneath them, sloping down from the mountain. She cranes her neck to see the distant gleam of Cerulean City, and the bay beyond it.

They climb in sweeps and fits, gliding between updrafts and only flapping to get through dead air. When they finally reach the dig site, Leaf closes her eyes and braces herself as the pidgeot brings them down. The landing is surprisingly soft however, just a couple hops and a few flaps of its wide, long wings.

It takes her a few minutes to get her land legs back, during which she thanks Ryback and asks him if he wants to give her an interview for the article.

“Sure, I guess so,” he says as he strokes his pidgeot. “I figure you’ll slip whatever questions you really want to know in with all the other stuff, but if others decide to do it too, no harm in that. Let me know when you get four or five of them already.” After another minute of grooming and feeding, he seems to know when his pokemon has gotten enough rest, because he steps away and withdraws it in one smooth motion. “Come on, I’ll show you around… again.” He smiles. “The buildings this time, ‘stead of the dig. Our last tour got a bit interrupted, anyway.”


Leaf starts interviewing people that very night, just taking the time to find her room and put her stuff away before wandering around the break rooms and introducing herself. Some of the people recognize her from the incident or Zoey’s interview, and a few express interest.

“Security is pretty standard,” an ACE trainer says, scratching his neck. “Talking about it shouldn’t be an issue, though I’ll have to get it cleared.”

“Sure! I read your Pewter piece, after I saw your interview about the attack.” The geologist smiles. “I’d be happy to talk about the kinds of fossils we’re finding here!”

“Oh, yes, worked plenty of digs like this in my time,” says an older man who introduced himself as Albert. “This one’s run better than most, for sure. That night was tragic, but don’t let it give you the wrong impression. Zapata runs a tight ship compared to some of the idiots I’ve worked for.”

Leaf smiles and nods and writes down names and availability times, then moves on to the next building, then the next, until she has over a dozen volunteers ranging over every aspect of the dig.

Well, every aspect but one. The new security from Viridian, specifically tasked with guarding the dug up fossils, don’t seem keen on the idea. They’re friendly enough, some mingled with the other site staff, but most kept each other’s company. There’s a definite air of separation to them that probably comes from only being on-site for a couple weeks, and not knowing anyone else that well.

Since they weren’t on-site the night of the incident anyway, Leaf isn’t particularly interested in them, but it might seem strange if she doesn’t ask them too. She’s a bit relieved that they all say no, since it frees her up to pursue others. She’s serious about the dig site article and plans to write it as well as she can, but her “real” story is looking more and more substantial as the night goes on.

Buried in the general questions she asks are a few that help her narrow down who’s in a position to know if something unusual happened with the renegade’s execution. Ranger Sasaki isn’t on site, as Ryback said, but she’ll be the last person Leaf speaks to, once she has a better idea of what to ask.

She checks in with Laura as she prepares for bed, summarizing everything she learned and listening as her mentor lists out all the possibilities.

“The most important thing to clarify is whether Yuuta is actually dead,” Laura says. “That’s the primary fact that shapes the story. In all likelihood he is, and maybe there was some other problem. But if he’s alive…”

“You think he escaped? That they’re trying to save face?”

“Or he turned out to be someone important, politically.”

“That would be…” Leaf tries to find the words and fails. “I don’t know, ‘irresponsible’ doesn’t seem to cover it. If it were just one person who had to keep the secret, maybe, but this many?”

“How many is ‘this many?’ Remember not to jump ahead of what you know. At the very least, who needs to be in on this?”

“Misty. Ranger Sasaki. Maybe a couple ACE? They might have been intimidated, had their jobs threatened…”

“Right. So it’s possible he’s alive, one way or another. But more likely he’s dead, and there’s something else that caused the delay.”

“Or the same things caused it. He tried to escape, or there was some last minute intervention attempted by someone high up, both of which failed.”

“Sure. What else could have taken up the time?”

Leaf slips under the covers, cold feet grateful for their warmth as she fluffs the pillow behind her head and lies back with a sigh. “Umm. An interrogation? Some questions they wanted to ask him about his plan or conspirators?”

“If there was more than one person working the job, that could be worth hiding. Especially if it was someone from ACE. Make sure you check the staff roster just to make sure no one was quietly taken off it since the incident.”

“Will do.” Leaf yawns. “What about Yuuta? Should I look into him myself too?”

Laura chuckles. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. You should get some sleep.”

Leaf is about to argue, then realizes how tired she is. “Alright. Have a good night.”

“You too, hon.”

Leaf closes the call and tries to sleep. Her thoughts are too busy racing from one topic to the next to settle down however, and eventually she pulls her phone back out and opens it to browse the web and distract herself from her story.

At first she stays on the lighter stuff, happy to to be entertained by amusing pictures and videos. But eventually she starts checking more serious topics, and before long her sleepiness is gone as she reads about a scandal with some Silph Co. executive in Fuschia, a Zapdos sighting north of Pewter, and…

She sits up, pulse spiking. There’s a Tier 1 occurring in Celadon, right now. She taps the headline and scrolls up as the live thread continues to update with pictures, public messages, and a running tally of suspected casualties.

She watches a short video clip, shaky and far off, of someone recording a living wave of sludge pouring over a street below their apartment. A flood of grimer and muk, rising out of the city’s canals and sewers, covering the streets with poisonous waste as they spread outward.

Leaf quickly calls Laura back, heart in her throat. “Laura! Are you okay? I just saw-”

“I’m fine, Leaf, I’m safe. It’s on the other side of the city from me.” Laura’s voice sounds breathy, and Leaf hears the sound of feet on stairs. “Thanks for calling hon, but I’ve got to go.”

“Go, go where? Are you evacuating?”

“No, I’m heading to the roof to get a better view!” Laura says.

“You’re what?

“I’ll be perfectly safe, don’t worry, I just want to see it myself if it does get this far, in case I end up writing about it!”

“But-”

The sound of a door being slammed open. “I’m here. Go to bed Leaf! Don’t tell Red, he’ll just worry! Goodnight!”

The call ends, leaving Leaf frozen for a moment before she pulls up her internet and checks a map of Celadon. It’s the largest city in Kanto, so it’s hard to guess where Laura might be, but the hazard zone that’s currently marked on the map only takes up about a tenth of the city in red, with a quarter in varying shades of yellow and orange. She could be anywhere in the other three-fourths of the city… hopefully that’s what she meant by the “other side of the city.”

Leaf gets out of bed and starts pacing, eyes glued to the live update feed. She wants to call Red, but his mom asked her not to… she doesn’t know if he’s asleep or not, but she’s sure his work training all the abra to prepare them for his experiment is exhausting, and she really shouldn’t worry him and make him lose sleep over nothing…

She should sleep too, she knows that. But… how can she, knowing what’s going on there?

Memories flood her mind, first of the attack on the mountain, then the forest fire. There are trainers and civilians and pokemon in Celadon right now, fighting and dying, and there’s nothing she can do about any of it.

Not that there ever was in other pokemon attacks she heard about, of course. She even had people she cared about caught up in them. She worried then and she’s worried now, but that’s not what has her pacing around the room. It’s a sense of frustration, a desire to do something that she never felt before becoming a trainer.

After being in emergencies herself, and gaining some measure of power… it feels wrong, somehow, to not be part of one. To not be helping.

She thinks of Red and Blue’s promise to each other, to go and help if any of the Storm Birds attack a nearby town or city. Before she thought they were a bit crazy, and just hoped they could find some other way to help out while avoiding any danger.

Now, though, she knows she’ll be right there with them, running straight into harm’s way.

Leaf is exhausted, but she can’t force herself to sleep. She wishes she could have Joy sing to her, but the noise would travel through the walls, and anyway she wouldn’t be able to get her back in the ball afterward.

But maybe Joy can help another way. Leaf summons her wigglytuff, and wraps her in a hug, closing her eyes and sighing as her pokemon cuddles back against her. Its fur is so soft and warm that Leaf feels the knot of worry inside her relaxing slightly.

When she was young, after dad left, she took to sleeping cuddled up with Wilby, the family’s herdier, to keep the bad dreams away. Her mom had complained about Wilby getting hair all over Leaf’s bedsheets, but relented when she saw how much more well rested Leaf was afterward.

Wilby may be back in Unova, but Leaf has her own pokemon now. “Okay, Joy,” she says, returning to bed with her pokemon and tucking them both in. “Just rest here with me a bit.” Her pokemon seems happy to cuddle up under the blankets, and after a moment of shifting around to get comfortable, deflates her body into a soft, malleable pile of fuzz.

Before long Joy’s wide eyes slip closed, and Leaf feels herself drowsing beside her. The occasional worry continues to shoot across her thoughts. Is the rampage over now? Did it spread to other parts of the city?

She reaches for her phone on the nightstand, but her hand drops to her chest as she’s finally pulled down into a warm, comfortable sleep.


“So you switch off with two others?” Leaf asks a paleontologist the next morning.

“Yep.”

“Is there a time slot you each have?”

“Yeah, normally Fara takes sunrise to lunch, I’m the afternoon guy, and Will has nights.”

She scribbles this down. “Got it. So, what do you usually do on your time off?”

Later, with an ACE on security: “Do you all run drills if something goes wrong?”

“Of course, once a week,” the woman says. “That’s why the response was so quick during the attack. We specifically had a plan in place in case pokemon burrowed up from under us.”

“Of every kind?”

“No, just those that could dig. We didn’t foresee a paras colony driving some pokemon that could dig in front of them to the surface. Obviously a mistake, in retrospect, but we’re better prepared now.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, you all did fantastically regardless. So what’s the chain of command up here?”

Later still, with a geologist: “How do you guys decide where the fossils go?”

“Oh, that’s all done by the funders once we report what we’ve found. They hash it out among themselves, then pass down the orders.”

“Do they ever ask for advice, or suggestions?”

He laughs. “No, not really. We give some anyway, and they actually do listen once in awhile. They’re paying us for our expertise, after all.”

Leaf nods and scribbles, then moves onto another topic, another interview, where she can scribble and nod some more. Hour after hour, with whoever’s on a break or off the clock for the day.

She’s a bit tired from last night, but luckily she didn’t lose the habit of waking up early while in Cerulean, since the dig site is up and working by the crack of dawn. Leaf rose to find her wigglytuff fast asleep beside her, and woke Joy up for some breakfast before withdrawing her and calling Laura, who assured her she was fine. Leaf checked the news of the incident, a bit relieved that the casualty list wasn’t bigger, then prepared for her day of interviewing the site staff.

Schedules. Routines. Duties. Again and again, Leaf asks who does what, where, and when. She builds her picture of the dig site piece by piece, until she has a good idea of what the site should look like on any typical day.

The problem, of course, is that the one she cares about most was anything but typical. She slips questions in here and there to probe what each person she talks to was doing on the night of the attack, who they were with and when. The more she knows, the easier it’ll be to reconstruct what happened.

In terms of her major questions, her first real clue came from Albert. He was in the meeting with the Leaders, and confirms that Misty went to see Yuuta right after, which in turn confirms Leaf’s timeline.

“Do you know who went with her?” Leaf asks, barely able to contain her excitement.

“Well, the Ranger went, but other than that, don’t think anyone else from the meeting did.”

So it’s down to Misty and the Ranger… and whichever ACE was in charge of watching Yuuta.

But when she tries to get that info, however subtly, there’s nothing. She pokes and prods a bit more than she intended, but it isn’t until she asks to see the staff roster that Dr. Zapata sends a message asking to see her.

Leaf goes to her office with some trepidation, knocking on the door and entering when prompted. “Hello, Director. Is something wrong?” Leaf asks as she slides into the chair across from her desk.

The older woman finishes typing something on her computer, then turns to Leaf and adjusts her glasses, leaning back a bit. “To be honest, Leaf, I’m not sure. How has your stay been so far?”

“Good. Informative. I’ve been learning a lot about the site, the people who work here, the mission. Did I bother someone or interfere with their job?”

“No, no complaints. I’m glad you’ve been finding your stay productive. I do have some concerns, however.”

Leaf folds her hands in her lap. “Yes?”

“I asked a few of the people you spoke with what you talked about. I hope you don’t mind, but I was curious. At first it all seemed fine, but then one or two people came forward themselves, either people you interviewed or those nearby who overheard. Can you tell me why you asked Mr. Pao about our site’s recruitment practices?”

“Oh, sure.” Leaf relaxes a little. This was far off from what Leaf feared. “I was curious to know what it takes to be hired here, the kinds of qualifications that are needed.”

“And this is important to the article?”

“Probably not. I actually don’t know if most of the stuff I’ve been asking about will be in it yet, but I want to get as complete a picture as I can before I start writing.”

“I see.” The director is quiet for a moment. “And the questions on our ‘chain of command?’ It sounds like you were quite extensive.”

Hm. That question was a bit harder to answer. “I’m sorry Director, I don’t understand. What’s this about?”

“When you asked for permission for this project, it sounded like you were interested in a day-in-the-life sort of article, or a general kind of human interest story with the dig site set as the focus. I agreed because I didn’t see the harm in it, and because you helped us during the attack. But ultimately, you’re a stranger to me.” The director’s gaze is intense, and Leaf struggles not to blink or look away. “And if a stranger came to the site and asked the sorts of questions you’ve been asking, I would assume something much different about their intentions than a simple article on paleontological digs.”

Leaf’s throat is dry. “What would you assume they were writing about instead?”

“Do you know what corporate espionage is?”

Oh. Relief makes Leaf struggle not to smile. “I do, yeah. But I don’t have any ties to anyone that might be interested in that sort of thing. I wouldn’t even know who was interested in the kind of information I’ve been asking about.”

“And the monthly personnel files you requested, from the first day of the dig? This expedition is partially funded by Pewter. Why not check the-”

“-public records, I did, but they’re not recent or organized, and it’s just a lot less convenient.”

Dr. Zapata taps her fingers on her desk. “Whatever we give you would be stripped of all but the basics, to protect privacy. Just names and dates.”

“That’s totally fine. Does that mean you can do it?”

“What I want to know first is what you want to do with the info.”

“I just want to know who might have left, maybe contact them too. See where they are now, what they’re doing. Kind of draw connections between other, similar projects.” Leaf feels she’s close to babbling and shuts up.

“So you’re not headhunting?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Alright. I’ll send the files over by tomorrow.”

Leaf’s brow rises. “Thank you.”

Dr. Zapata smiles briefly. “I think you’re probably on the level, but I had to at least ask you myself. I was a trainer once, long ago. I know not to underestimate kids who go on their journey as young as you and your friends.”

Leaf flushes, both from the praise and a bit of shame. She doesn’t want to deceive the director, but… she’s not actually lying. And besides, if the story’s going to come out either way, she’d rather be the one to break it than risk Zoey’s broad strokes. “Is that all?”

“One last thing. Can you promise me that you really will be publishing an article on the dig site? I don’t care if it’s flattering or not, I can take a bit of disappointment. I just want your assurance that you’re not compromising the integrity of the site.”

Leaf manages a smile. “I promise.”

“Then you can go. Thank you for your time.”

“No problem. Night.”

Leaf closes the door behind her, thoughts racing. She’s relieved the director is so far off the mark with her suspicions, but it’s clear that Leaf will have to be as careful as she can moving forward.


“Usually I go through the day’s discoveries and catalogue them, cross check the request lists we have from our various funders. Once that’s sorted, there’s some quality assurance to do, in case someone gets clumsy between removal and storage.”

Leaf nods and scribbles. “Does that happen often?” she asks Rob.

“Oh, not particularly.” The Unovan paleontologist smiles and takes a sip of his beer. He has a full head of grey hair and a goatee that reminds her of her grandpa. They spent some time talking about cities they lived in back home before getting into the interview, sitting on fold-out chairs in front of his residence quarters as they watch the dig site wind down for the night. “Most of the fossils take a day or two to get fully up out of the ground though, so accidents do happen.”

“Gotcha. Wow, it must have been rough for you the day of the incident then, huh?”

He grimaces. “‘Rough,’ hell, that’s one way to put it. Not that it was the worst thing that happened that day, not nearly, but the damage to some of the digs was a huge headache. Took me most of the week to get a handle on it, and we lost a couple weeks of work, all told.”

“Ouch. When did you start damage control?”

“That very night! While everyone was cleaning up from the battle, me and a couple others were securing the digs. Most were okay, thankfully, but a couple were hit by the wave of paras, and of course the one at ground zero was completely destroyed. I had to get Zapata’s permission to go down into the mountain and look for anything salvageable before they plugged the hole up.”

“And did she give it?”

“Yeah, once she was out of her meeting. Just said I had to bring some ACE with me, but that was a chore and a half in itself.”

Leaf manages not to visibly perk up, pencil only pausing for a moment before she says, “How come?”

“Well, I had to wait for them to finish whatever they were doing. Their own meeting, looked like. Went to them right away, but Leader Misty and the ranger had them all holed up in a building, talking about something.”

“Huh. I wonder what it was.”

Rob shrugs, drinking again from his bottle. “No clue. I just hung around until they were done, then talked to Paul about going down in the hole. He said okay, and a few of us did some prep and went down.”

“How did he seem?” Leaf asks.

“Who?”

“Paul. How did he seem, after the meeting?”

“Distracted. Upset. We were all high strung that night.”

Leaf nods, gaze unfocused as she watches a machoke roll a boulder out of a hole. “I remember.”

He chuckles. “You kids went through a lot too, stopping Yuuta like that…” His smile fades, and after a moment he lets out a heavy breath, taking another swallow. “Ahh, let’s not talk about that. Bad business.”

“Yeah, no problem. Would you mind telling me who was at the meeting with Leader Misty though? I’m curious about it, want to know who I can talk to later.”

“Oh, sure, sure. Let’s see, ah, there was Paul of course, Kenny, Mei…” He goes on to list over a dozen names before he trails off. “Probably some others, but I didn’t really pay attention at the time.”

“That’s plenty, thanks. Do you mind if I ask you about it later, check some names with you?”

“Alright, but you could just ask them, couldn’t you? I’m sure they’d remember better.”

“I will! But I won’t be meeting them until tomorrow, and I have the list in my room. I can just text you some names to check, if that’s okay.” Leaf smiles. “So, what happened once you went down into the hole?”

He smiles back. “Ah, that was rough, let me tell you. The smell! Burnt fungus and dead bugs everywhere…”


“Hey there,” Leaf says to the group of ACE Trainers. “Mind if I join you?”

The four security staff look at her in surprise, then shrug or nod as Leaf approaches. They’re set up away from the dig site, three guys and a woman of various ages, all standing across from practice dolls as they train their pokemon in the morning sun.

“Thanks,” she says, and takes out her own pokedoll. “Go, Ruby!”

Her new venonat appears, fresh from its virtual conditioning. She begins to run Ruby through her paces, giving her treats often and restraining the urge to pet her fuzzy body. Not because it’s uncomfortable, though some dislike the texture, but she read that bug pokemon don’t often like the feel of being stroked when they’re still new to their trainers. Instead Leaf uses lots of verbal praise, especially when Ruby finally manages to link two commands in quick succession.

Leaf takes a moment to look around as her venonat eats its pokepuff. Two of the ACE are coordinating their growlithe and magmar together, while the other two train their butterfree and weepinbell separately.

She recognizes the woman as one of the ACE who helped with Yuuta. Leaf watches her train her magmar, but doesn’t approach or speak with her. After Ruby finishes properly following every order twice in a row, Leaf withdraws her and sends out Ledyba. She puts her venonat’s ball in her bag instead of her belt, since her recent captures put her over the belt’s limit of six.

At first she was irritated with the arbitrary limit, seemingly modeled after the standard League maximum that would never have any impact on her. Now she has to admit that the space between the balls on her belt are just wide enough to avoid any fumbling, and that adding extra slots, as some belts do, would come with drawbacks, such as being unable to sit in a chair without removing it. For now carrying the extras in her bag works okay, but it would eventually become unwieldy, and she’s not sure if she’ll turn to alternate solutions or just keep her active team limited to what she can carry with her. Blue, who is already approaching two dozen pokemon, has already deposited the ones he doesn’t plan on using for his match against Misty.

Leaf begins practicing some aerial maneuvers with her ocarina. Part of her hopes the noise doesn’t bother the other trainers, but she would welcome the excuse to begin conversing with them if someone brings it up. None do however, and she keeps to herself, merely waving goodbye when everyone begins to pack up and head back to the site. A couple wave back, including the woman.

She goes again the next day, hoping the same people are there. She’s happy to see they are, with one new addition. Leaf once again asks permission to join them. They agree, and she begins training with her pokemon again, intent on practicing some more complicated attacks that she knows her pokemon will struggle with.

For example, venonat only naturally use Stun Spore when facing down threats they want to escape from, which makes it hard to train them to do it on command. Leaf manages to get hers to use it on the mannequin by attaching a rope around the doll’s middle and dragging it toward her pokemon as Ruby keeps retreating, but Sleep Powder is a bit tricker. Venonat tend to use it on pokemon they want to feed on. Apparently the mannequin isn’t particularly appetizing.

“Sleep Powder!” Leaf commands again, brushing some hair out of her eyes as the wind blows from behind her. Ruby just shifts in place, antennae swaying as she tries to find some succulent morsel to incapacitate and suck the life from. “Ruby, Sleep Powder! Come on, I’ve got berries right here, but you need to put it to sleep first. Sleep Powder!”

Five minutes of this and Leaf doesn’t have to pretend to be frustrated. Eventually one of the ACE trainers notices. Not the one Leaf recognizes, which would be ideal, but the butterfree trainer. He watches Leaf and Ruby, then steps forward with his hand out.

“May I?”

“Oh, sure!” Leaf hands him the berries. “Thanks. I’m not sure what to do, the ‘dex says not to feed them and just keep the berries nearby so they get hungry, but…”

“Well, the quickest way to train them is to find some natural prey to offer,” he says. “The berries work okay, but since they don’t need to put them to sleep, you gotta really make them hungry to prime them.” He begins to mash up the berries with his fingers, then steps toward the pokedoll and spread the sweet innards all over the foamy exterior. He wipes his hands clean on its head, then steps back. “Okay, now try.”

Leaf sees Ruby’s attention focused on the pokedoll and waits. Maybe she’ll do it on her own… but after a few moments pass, Leaf says, “Ruby, Sleep Powder,” and the venonat hops forward, shimmying out a cloud of spores.

“Good job, Ruby! Good girl!” Leaf quickly throws a handful of berries in front of her pokemon before she decides to jump on the pokedoll and be disappointed. “Thank you,” she says to the ACE.

“No problem. Let me know if you need any more help.” He returns to his own training. Leaf does the same, but when everyone begins wrapping up for the day, instead of trailing behind like she did yesterday, Leaf approaches them and keeps pace.

“Hey, thanks again for the help. I’m Leaf.” She extends her hand.

He takes it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Omar, this is Mei, Alex, Nora and Jean.”

All people who were in the mysterious meeting, according to Rob. “I think I remember you,” Leaf says, waving to Nora, who nods.

“Yeah, she told us you were the one that stopped Yuuta,” Alex says.

Leaf smiles. “I had some help.”

“The thing you’re writing, is it why you were here that day?” Nora asks.

“No, my friends and I were just passing through. Curious about the fossils, but the idea for the article came after.”

“Well, you saved us all a lot of grief. You’re welcome to join our training anytime, after what you did,” Nora says.

Leaf flushes slightly as the others agree. She counted on Dr. Zapata feeling grateful to allow her up here in the first place, but hadn’t realized how much more that counted toward the site’s security. Maybe she can use that, be a bit more direct when questioning them.

“Do you usually train daily?” Omar asks.

Leaf smiles. “I try to, though sometimes it turns into more of a play day.” A couple of them chuckle. “I didn’t plan on it while I was up here, but after the Tier 1 in Celadon…”

The group nods, faces grim. “And we thought the cleanup here was bad,” Jean mutters. “Whole city probably stinks. Fuckin’ mess, that’ll be.” He catches dirty looks from a couple of his peers. “What?”

“It’s okay,” Leaf says, grinning. “I’ve heard the word before. My grandfather cursed like a Ranger recruit, and I spent most of my life with him. Mom wasn’t pleased when I picked it up.”

“Well, if you hang out with ACE grads long enough, we give the Rangers a run for the cursing.”

Leaf chuckles along with the others. “Sounds fun. Speaking of which, do any of you know Daniel? I was hoping to see him again, but he doesn’t seem to be on site. Is he okay?”

Everyone is quiet for a moment, and Leaf keeps her face innocently curious. Daniel was the only ACE Trainer that was listed as a staff member before the incident and not afterward who wasn’t on the casualty list. Maybe coincidence, or maybe something more. He also wasn’t at the meeting, as far as Rob could remember. Leaf never met him, but there’s no reason any of them would know that.

“He’s on break, I think,” Jean says at last. “Took some time off.”

“Oh, alright. Any of you have his email? It’s not important enough for a text, just wanted to say hi.”

The silence is longer this time. Leaf watches them out of the corner of her eyes, seeing people glance at each other. As if everyone’s waiting for someone else to answer.

“Yeah, I think I can find it,” Nora says. “I’ll get it to you later.”

“Thanks. Here’s my number.” She extends her phone toward Nora, who does the same, and they tap their screens to swap info as they approach the outer buildings at the site. “See you guys tomorrow!”

Leaf walks back to her room, gaze distant as she keeps replaying the expressions of the others in her head. It might just be her imagination, but those pauses were a bit too long, their expressions too emotive, for someone asking about a coworker who simply took some time off. She just wishes she knew what they were thinking and feeling.

Leaf has never felt any particular envy of psychics before, outside of wanting to bond with pokemon better. But now she has to admit that it would be a valuable ability for a reporter to have. She wonders if Zoey is one, keeping it secret so as not to tip off people she talks to and interviews. Laura might even be an untrained, low level psychic, if Red went so long without realizing he was one. Isn’t it a maternal trait?

In any case, not every good investigator has had psychic powers, however much it would help, and she’ll just have to confirm her hunches the regular way: corroboration of facts.

It seems strange that someone would be removed from a staff listing just because they took some time off work. The list of site staff must include others who took time off, even from the security staff. If she can find someone else and see if they were removed for the time they were gone, that would help.

As for why they would lie… Leaf can’t outrule the possibility that Daniel Levi was somehow involved with Yuuta. Wasn’t there talk of him not being a sole actor? If Daniel and Yuuta worked together, maybe he ran after the execution, afraid he would be found out. Or maybe he helped Yuuta escape.

Leaf has been asking around as subtly as she could, and she can’t figure out who was watching Yuuta during the meeting on the night of his execution. Paul was the last person she knows was with him, unless he lied to her when he recounted his night. But he never named who took his place, and Leaf didn’t want to press the point at the time, still wary of asking questions that would get back to Director Zapata.

It’s possible she’ll have to now. Maybe whoever replaced him was the last person with Yuuta before Misty and Sasaki saw him. Maybe there was another exchange of the watch. Either way, Leaf is willing to bet her hat that the meeting with the ACE Trainers had to do with Yuuta. Maybe Daniel was missing because he was still watching him, or maybe not. Finding out what happened to him, where he is now, is the most important step.


“I mean, seriously, where does she get off, always telling me to be careful?” Red asks. “She’s not even a trainer, and she’s running around a Tier 1 for a story?”

“Mmhm.” Leaf shifts her phone to the other shoulder, reminding herself to buy some new earphones. She sits on her bed, gaze on her laptop screen as she reviews her timeline for the night of the paras attack. She has a chain of supervision written out for who was watching Yuuta, trying to narrow down potential possibilities. “I think she just stayed on the roof, though. It was probably safe up there.”

“Yeah, right, until the grimer start climbing up the walls.”

Leaf grins. “Really? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Hey, it happens!”

“I think you’re being a bit overprotective of your mom, which is, you know, totally understandable, but her building is like twenty stories up, and I’ve never heard of them going that high.”

“They can go through windows on the second or third floor and then take the stairs.”

“Right.” She plugs in an alibi corroboration from her notes with one of the ACE Trainers, putting him and another away from Yuuta at the relevant time. “In which case staying in her room would probably have been worse.”

Red grumbles something. “So how’s the research going?”

“Okay,” she says, and gives him a summary of what she’s learned so far. “I’m starting to appreciate how hard it is to figure things out by eye testimony. Some people who claim to have been at the same place at the same time are giving me very different reports of who they saw, or when they did things.”

“Yeah, hearsay is the least reliable form of evidence in court for a reason. I’m glad I rarely have to consider it for the things I’m working on.”

“Mmhm.” Leaf frowns at a pair of notes that put the same person on opposite sides of the dig. Are there two Michaels on site? She pulls up the staff roster. “How are our abra, anyway?”

Red sighs. “They’re fine, but figuring out a way to test their psychic strength is proving difficult. All they can do is teleport! I’m starting to think I’ll have to buy a TM to teach them some kind of attack. It’s not a bad investment, in any case. Think I should ask Bill if he has one lying around?”

Leaf barely hears him, distracted by a notification. It’s an email from Nora. “Hey Red, mind if I call you later?”

“Uh, yeah, no prob.”

“Thanks, bye.” She ends the call and stares at the message, which just contains an email address. Ostensibly Daniel’s.

Leaf lowers her phone and looks at her timeline again. She goes back to the beginning, checking through the whole thing again as one hand goes out to stroke Bulbasaur, who’s sleeping in his potted plant beside her bed.

Even if one or two people misremembered things… there are three facts she can clearly put together.

One, Daniel was the one watching Yuuta. Near certainty: there’s no one else it could be, unless multiple people all gave her bad info, accidentally or otherwise.

Two, Daniel disappeared afterward. No one, not any of the ACE Trainers, not any of the other dig employees, reports seeing Daniel all night. She’s less certain about this one: there’s a chance he didn’t disappear, but was for some reason detained, and those that detained him kept it secret or made everyone else keep it secret.

Three, Yuuta is dead… and was before Misty even got to him.

This one she’s the least sure about: maybe 70% at most. From the time that passed between the two meetings, it seems clear there wasn’t nearly enough for a full interrogation by the psychic Leader. Leaf still doesn’t know what she met with the site security about, but if Yuuta had escaped, the more likely outcome would have been an immediate manhunt.

Of course, there are other possibilities. Maybe Misty quickly sensed that Yuuta collaborated with one of the security, and called the meeting to find out which one. But there’s no account of returning to Yuuta after, and it still begs the question of where Daniel was. Maybe he stayed with Yuuta, but in that case what happened to him afterward? No, it seems more likely that he was involved somehow. Maybe Daniel ran and left Yuuta alone in the room, but then who was left to watch him during the meeting?

So. Daniel was likely gone by then. And Yuuta was likely dead, and thus not in need of supervision.

It seems solid. But Leaf knows she has to account for unknown unknowns, and drops her confidence down. Maybe 60%. Maybe 55%. She could be wrong in ways she hasn’t even considered.

Speaking of which… she opens Nora’s message and considers Daniel’s email address. Part of her was expecting the email not to arrive, for Nora to just conveniently forget to send it. Now that she has it, she’s wondering if she really is way off. Nora wouldn’t share it if something serious happened with Daniel, would she?

Then Leaf realizes she’s being silly, since just having the address is meaningless if Daniel isn’t in a position to respond. Leaf still has to follow through.

She types up a quick message, glossing over how she knows him and hoping that if she claims to remember meeting him briefly, he’ll just think he forgot in all the chaos that day. With such a thinner relationship however, instead of trying to check in on him she instead informs him of the article she’s writing and asks if he’s free to answer some questions for her.

Leaf reviews the letter twice to make sure it’s vague and innocent enough. She knows she’s being paranoid, but she can’t help but wonder who else might actually read the email besides Daniel.

Finally she sends it and gets back to the alibis. There are a lot of ACE trainers who she never managed to talk to, and she tries to figure out a way to get the info out of them to corroborate her theory.

She’s still thinking it over when an email notification interrupts her. Leaf stares at the screen, then slowly clicks the icon.

It’s from Daniel. Less than three minutes since she sent her own email, a little over five since Nora sent her the email address at all, and she already has a response.

It’s not paranoia if there really is a conspiracy, right? She knows she’s being silly. It’s a little past nine in the evening, plenty of people are up and have their phone at hand. Besides, Nora probably sent it after getting an “okay” from him in the first place, so he was up and not busy and expecting Leaf’s email. And the reason the others were so odd when talking about him wasn’t that they’re all in on some conspiracy: they’re likely just as in the dark as Leaf is, but know something weird happened with him.

The message, distilled to basics, is simple: “Hello, all’s well, a bit busy for any questions at the moment, thanks anyway.” It leaves nothing to really follow up with, and after reading it a few times, Leaf closes the email and goes back to stroking Bulbasaur. Her leg begins to bounce in place, and eventually she frowns, stretches, and starts to pace.

Let’s assume that was really Daniel and he’s fine and not on the run or anything. How does that fit into what’s probably true? Maybe Daniel didn’t actually work with Yuuta. Maybe he was dismissed for something else.

She looks back at her timeline. It starts as a single line, but branches off into multiple smaller ones after a major division splits it in two… the point at which Yuuta is either executed, or not, whichever the case may be. There are facts she’s still gathering to confirm which path is the right one, but until she finishes getting all the answers at the dig site, she didn’t dare risk contacting Ranger Sasaki to check about things like the execution itself or the transportation of Yuuta’s body.

Now, however, it seems she has few other options. Leaf believes she has the right cards: it’s time to play her hand, and see what a bit of bluffing can get her.


“Thank you for meeting with me, Ranger,” Leaf says as she enters Sasaki’s office the next morning. It took her about an hour to make her way down the mountain to the outpost. A can of repel, and Bulbasaur walking along beside her, kept away any wild pokemon, though she did have to send Crimson out to chase away some spearow that were circling them.

“Of course, though I only have a few minutes.” The Ranger offers her a seat in front of her desk.

“I’ll get right to it then. I just need to corroborate some facts for an article I’m writing on the dig site.”

“Alright.” Sasaki sits down, her serious eyes lightened by a smile. “What can I help you with?”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Calm. Resolute. “First, I should say I know about Yuuta.”

Sasaki blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“I know about Yuuta. And Daniel Levi. I just want to confirm whether you have any leads, or if you have any comment you’d like to make before I publish the story.”

The two stare at each other, Leaf’s heart pounding in her chest. Don’t break eye contact, don’t look unsure.

“I’m sorry,” Sasaki repeats, slowly this time. “I don’t know what you’re referring to.” There’s no confusion on her face however: all hint of a smile is gone, and there’s nothing but resolute blankness before Leaf.

“I want you to know that I’m not here to embarrass anyone,” Leaf says, and has to take a breath to make sure her voice remains steady. “I first heard about this from others who were intending to look into it. I thought if I got the facts first, I could publish a story that just stuck to what’s true, and won’t unfairly implicate others who had nothing to do with it.”

Leaf meets Sasaki’s stare as best she can, wondering if the Ranger understands. If she had any part in the cover up, she would be implicating herself… but saving those who weren’t involved.

“Alternatively,” Leaf says. “If there’s a good reason for what occurred… something that would make publishing a story on it a bad idea… that’s something I’d like to know too. Can you confirm for me first that Leader Misty did execute Yuuta, as reported?”

“Miss Juniper.” Ranger Sasaki pauses, opens her mouth, then closes it and takes a moment before speaking again. “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. If you have some accusation to make, or believe something improper was done, I would urge you to report it to the authorities, along with any evidence you may have.” She checks the time. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.”

Frustration pins Leaf to her seat, trying to find something else to say. Eventually she stands and bows. “Thank you for your time.”


The walk back to the dig site is uneventful, giving Leaf plenty of time to ruminate on her disappointment. She wants to mope about it to Laura, but her phone goes to message, so Leaf just plays the brief conversation back over and over and wonders what else she should have done or said.

When she reaches her residence building, a man in a dark suit and tie is sitting in a fold-out chair beside the door. He stands as she gets closer, and she recognizes him from pictures online: Leader Giovanni.

“Um,” she says.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper. If you have a minute, I believe it’s time we spoke.”

Leaf stares. Her mind is drawing a blank on what an appropriate reaction to this should be, which leaves her with the most honest one: utter bafflement.

How long is a flight to here from Viridian? some part of her wonders. Or was he just in the area when Sasaki messaged him?

No one who passes by is rude enough to stop and stare, but Leaf notes that their strides slow, their heads turning constantly as they catch sight of the legendary trainer. “Shall we go inside?” Giovanni says after another few moments, and Leaf flushes, nodding and leading the way to her room.

She sits on her bed, leaving the one chair for him. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you,” she says. Obviously. She casts about for something to say, still trying to get her bearings. “Were you in the area, or…?”

Giovanni sits in the spindly desk chair as if it’s a comfortable recliner, one leg crossed on the other knee, hands folded over them. His eyes are dark and piercing, and Leaf finds herself staring at his nose instead of meeting his gaze. “In a sense. I was passing through Pewter to discuss the recent Zapdos sighting when Ranger Sasaki messaged me.” He takes a phone out of the pocket of his suit, shifting it enough for her to get a peek at the lid of one of the balls on his belt. It’s unlike any she’s seen before, chrome grey with a circle of yellow around the top.

Leaf’s pulse quickens at his words. “Am I in some kind of trouble?”

He places the phone against his knee, screen facing him, and his gaze moves down to it. He occasionally taps, but doesn’t seem distracted from their conversation. “No, not at all. The ranger is under the impression that you have reason to believe something improper was done regarding the renegade you helped capture.”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Now is her chance to get some answers. She wishes it was Misty she could confront instead of Giovanni, but then, the Cerulean Leader is a psychic, so maybe this is for the best. Plus, she’s not sure if Giovanni actually knows anything or is involved, and if not he could be an ally.

She decides to start with the safest assumption. “I have reason to believe that Yuuta wasn’t executed by Leader Misty.”

Giovanni is quiet a moment, staring at his phone. Without looking away from it, he says, “Who do you believe executed him?”

“I don’t think he was.”

Now Giovanni looks up, briefly meeting her gaze. “Then what do you think happened to him?”

“My best guess is that he was already dead by the time she reached him. I think one of the site security, Daniel, was involved somehow. There’s also a chance that he escaped, but I don’t think that’s as likely.”

Giovanni is back to looking at his phone, fingers moving as he asks, “Why not?”

“Because the danger of a loose renegade is too big a thing to keep covered up. And I don’t think Leader Misty would do that, just to save face.” Leaf pauses, considering her words. “I hope not, anyway. But if you’re interested, maybe we can get to the bottom of things. You have a lot more power and influence, you could… ask around…” Leaf trails off as Giovanni continues to watch his phone. His inattention is starting to make her feel slighted, but also embarrassed for feeling as if her suspicions are worth the undivided attention of a Gym Leader.

No, these are more than suspicions. Don’t waver. “If not, I may just write up my article with the questions unanswered. I’d rather not, though.”

Giovanni looks thoughtful, as if weighing her words. Or maybe just reading an email. Eventually he looks up again, catching Leaf by surprise and holding her gaze. “Tell me honestly, Miss Juniper, do you care about the truth, or getting a story published?”

“I… are those two mutually exclusive? I care about the truth, obviously. But unless there’s a really good reason to keep it hidden, the truth only has value if others know about it.”

Giovanni watches her another moment, then looks back to his phone. Leaf feels herself relax a bit, but most of her body is still tense. She knows he’s not a psychic, Blue mentioned that he was Dark when discussing ways he looked up to him, but she still feels as though he can look right into her.

“I couldn’t convince you not to publish such an article?”

“I’d have to know why first.” Shit. It seems Giovanni is in on things, meaning he’s not a potential ally after all. Her stomach floods with acid as she remembers Laura’s warning about getting into political topics with her articles. This is a man who could make her life very unpleasant if he chooses to: losing access to the dig site is  suddenly the least of her worries.

“Telling you in and of itself is part of the problem,” he says. “If you deem the reason insufficient, it would be worse than telling you nothing and letting you publish your article of half-truths. Would you be willing to take my word that there is a good reason to keep silent for at least a period of six months? I can offer some compensation for the time you’ve spent investigating, if so. Perhaps even purchase your investigation data, as it may contain things useful to us.” He’s still staring at his screen, even as he offers to bribe her into silence. Leaf is too distracted by the sudden rush of conflicting emotions to fit any sense of annoyance into things.

Does she trust his word? A part of her balks at the idea of expressing any lack of faith in him, but she pushes past that sentiment. The whole point of journalism, if it’s to have any civic value, is to make things so that people don’t have to just trust their leaders.

The problem is she does trust him. Mostly. At least, she believes that he has good intentions, and that he believes there’s a good reason not to publish the article. She knows that him offering to pay her is supposed to be sinister, if this were a cartoon or movie or book, but really, if his intentions are good, he’s just being considerate. It’s a token of respect, for her time and effort.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and means it. “I would love to take your word for it, even without any payment. But I can’t if there’s any chance I’d look back and regret the decision. And… there’s one more thing I have to be honest about. There are others who are looking into this story. I don’t think even if I stay silent, they would, which would make the whole agreement pointless for you.”

“You can tell me who they are, and I can make the same offer to them. Is it Shunichi Morri? Mara Hawthorne? Zoey Palmer? Jon Urich?” He pauses between each name, still staring down at his phone.

Leaf steels herself. “I’m sorry, I won’t confirm or deny anyone. I learned of it in confidence.”

Leader Giovanni is silent for a long time, gaze down, fingers occasionally typing. Leaf swallows, hands folded together in her lap to keep them from moving restlessly about.

“Thank you for your honesty,” he says at last. “And I respect your convictions. I believe I’ll take a gamble, and tell you some of what is going on, in the hopes that you find our reasoning sufficient.”

Leaf hardly dares breathe. She reminds herself that she can’t automatically trust what he tells her.

Giovanni’s gaze is still on his phone, but his speech is clear and sure. “Renegade Yuuta is dead. Leader Misty didn’t have the chance to execute him, or even interrogate him: as you said, he was already killed when she arrived. The suspect is still at large. Mr. Levi is still being investigated, and is under house arrest. He was in charge of watching Yuuta at the time, and claims he was distracted by a false message asking him to report to his superior, Paul Newcomb. There was in fact such a message on his phone, but it came from a number that wasn’t Mr. Newcomb’s, programmed in as a second line. Both claim it was without their knowledge.”

Leaf gives herself a moment to process it all, repeating it to herself to commit it to memory. Now that she knows she was right (assuming he didn’t lie), her mind explodes with questions on the killer. What motive would someone have to kill a dead man? To prevent them from giving information away, of course. But the timing was too perfect, it had to be someone on site, right? “Any other current suspects?”

“None that I’m willing to share. But you understand why we do not want this information to come out during an ongoing investigation, I trust.”

Leaf frowns. If someone else still working around here is under investigation… “If the idea is to keep the investigation secret, why not make it public, charge Daniel, and make the murderer believe they got away with it?”

“That was suggested. Leader Misty was against the idea. She questioned him herself, and for now believes him innocent. She doesn’t wish to tarnish his name with a formal charge, even if it’s later recanted. Instead he has been removed from employment, and any investigations will reveal that he was lax in his duties. As in truth he was, to some extent.” Giovanni is still looking at his phone, tapping something into it.

Leaf’s thoughts keep racing, unable to help herself from trying to figure out which of the people she spoke with or saw around site might be it. She thinks of the new security at first, the ones who all refused to talk to her, then reminds herself that they weren’t here at the time. “Not to mention that there are also financial interests, including from your cities, that would be hurt if the whole site fell under suspicion, right?”

Giovanni’s gaze flicks up from his phone to meet hers. There’s a hint of a smile there, warming his strong, stark features for a moment. “Perhaps. I should say that Leader Misty is rather irritated with you, believing from your actions here and the impression you left on Leader Brock that you’re something of a trouble maker. I, however, believe that Professor Oak chooses his trainers more carefully than that.”

“I’m the daughter and granddaughter of Professors too, you know,” Leaf says, feeling slighted again. “Neither of them raised me to be reckless.”

“As you say. Indeed, I am counting on it. Now I must ask again for you to be honest with me, Miss Juniper. Does this satisfy your curiosity and ethical misgivings? Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf still isn’t sure, really. It sounds reasonable, but even if Yuuta is dead, letting a co-conspirator stay at large is almost as bad as letting a renegade run free without telling the public. He might well be another renegade! Certainly he’s a murderer, and a skilled one.

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure I agree. There’s still someone dangerous out there, possibly at this very dig site. The people here deserve to know.”

Giovanni is silent again. Leaf waits, watching him watch his phone screen for a moment, then look up at her. She’s getting better at meeting his gaze.

“I understand your concern,” he says. “So here is another bit of truth that I hope will change your mind. I do not believe Yuuta’s murderer was working with him.”

Leaf’s eyes widen. “What? Why not? If he wasn’t worried about what Yuuta would say, or what Misty would sense when interrogating him, why bother?”

“Because their goal was exactly as you said earlier: to throw a wrench into the plans of those with interest in this endeavor. To cause a scandal, call for investigations, and embarrass the Leaders who are invested in this. To admit that this occurred at all would be giving them exactly what they seek.”

Leaf feels the pieces fall into place. “Your people! The ones in charge of fossil security, that’s not all they’re here for, they’re investigating the others too, aren’t they?” She wishes this was all on the record! The plot just keeps thickening, but Leaf feels her skepticism rising again too. “This person, he or she took an enormous risk just to sabotage the dig. They must have known that an opportunity like Yuuta would come up, too. How are you so sure that they weren’t actually working together? It seems much more probable that they were working with him and just wanted to tie up a loose end.”

Leader Giovanni smiles. This one is less brief, but it doesn’t touch his eyes, and leaves his face hard and cold. “When you live a life such as I have, Miss Juniper, you learn to recognize the actions of an enemy. And those such as myself have plenty of enemies. Now, I’ve shared quite a lot with you, as a token of trust. I ask a third time for your honesty.” His eyes seem to be boring into hers. “Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf meets his gaze, just barely, but inside she feels the shift. There are too many reasons not to now, she can’t in good conscience do something that might cause harm or mess up an investigation.

But maybe she doesn’t have to admit that just yet. She won’t publish, but she can keep fishing for info. “I still want to know more about how you can be so sure of their motives. Has something like this happened before?”

Giovanni is no longer looking at her, however. His gaze is back on his phone, silently reading whatever is on it. Leaf realizes suddenly that for all his activity on it, the phone hasn’t vibrated or made any sound since they entered the room.

The Gym Leader finally slips his phone in his jacket pocket, and he looks… satisfied. “I’m afraid that’s all the time I have, and there are other matters that need my attention. Thank you for speaking with me, Miss Juniper.” Before she can respond, he’s standing and headed for the door.  “Leader Misty will be pleased to know she was wrong about you, and I trust I can count on your discretion in this matter. It would not go unrewarded.”

“What?” She’s on her feet too, taken off guard as he opens the door. “But I-” It closes behind him, cutting her off mid-sentence.

Leaf is left standing in her room, staring after him and feeling as though she missed something.


I was super tempted to end the chapter at the second line of dialogue in the final section, “I believe it’s time we spoke.” Not just because of all the busyness of the holidays, but for the sheer cliffhanger value. Consider me finishing the section here rather than another chapter my new year’s gift to all of you 🙂 Happy 2017!

Chapter 38: Learning from Failure

The wind sends rippling waves through the field of grass around Leaf, tossing her hair back over her shoulders. She instinctively raises a hand to keep her hat from blowing off before remembering that she put it away.

Joy, Leaf’s freshly named wigglytuff, stands mute and waiting, its wide, beautiful blue eyes peering cheerfully around. Leaf walks a slow circle around her pokemon, staying just within range to return her if needed. Meanwhile, her eyes scan rippling fields of grass.

Her phone vibrates, and she checks Blue’s message:

4th speaker set

That was the last one for him. Now Red just has to get his fourth in position, and they’ll start.

It took them over an hour to meticulously comb through the central circle where they plan to drive the abra. There were a few pokemon that fled from them, but Blue did manage to catch a venonat, which he traded to Leaf after she and Red caught a pair of bellsprouts. She knew Grass types are going to be especially useful to him in the next two Gym battles, and some quick research showed her that venonat and its evolution venomoth have a lot more non-lethal attacks than the bellsprout family.

Now the field is as empty as they can make it to ensure there aren’t any pokemon around that might resist Joy’s singing.

Leaf checks her phone as it buzzes again. Fourth speaker ready.

Ready when you guys are, she texts back, pulse picking up. She puts her phone away, sets a vibrating alarm on her new watch, and sticks her earplugs in. “Joy,” she says, voice muffled and distorted in her head. “Sing!”

Her wigglytuff bounces and twirls happily, then opens its mouth wide and fills the air with its haunting melody. Muted through her earplugs, just barely audible enough for Leaf to know if it’s still going.

Somewhere, Red and Blue are returning to the inside of Joy’s singing radius, after which they’ll activate the speakers to begin transmitting various sounds of one of abra’s natural predators: an umbreon.

It wasn’t a perfect choice, Red admitted. Ideally they would want one that would neither scare off or attract the plant and bug pokemon in the area. But they had limited options when it came to local pokemon that wild abra might encounter and be wary of, and umbreon was the most neutral of those.

Leaf doesn’t know when it’ll start working, if it even does. But after about two minutes, once she’s gotten a pair of vibrations indicating the activation of the speakers, she enlarges a pokeball in either hand, then begins turning in a slow circle, taking deep breaths as she scans the fields around her. The tall grass rustles silently as she passes through it, as high as her knees. Hopefully any pokemon lurking in it that weren’t scared off by her approach are asleep now.

Remember,” Red said in the taxi ride over. “Since there’s no guarantee they’ll fall asleep right away, there might be a few moments where they sense our minds. Blue is safe from that, but the two of us need to be focusing on projecting feelings of calm and safety and peace as much as we can, or we’ll spook them into teleporting again before they get knocked out.”

What about you?” Leaf asked. “Isn’t it hard for you to engage a psychic mind?”

Red smiled. “As long as it’s only for a few seconds at a time, I’ll be fine.”

He sounded confident at the time, and Leaf let it go.

Now that they’re here, doing it and waiting for the first abra to show up, her mind has nothing better to do but feed her all sorts of worst case what-ifs, and one she keeps coming back to is Red’s exposure to the abra being too much for him to handle, maybe even causing him to pass out.

A drop of sweat slides down Leaf’s back. The risk for Red seems too big, suddenly, he should have stayed out, he should have-

Stop! Your mind is supposed to be calm. An abra might show up at any second, so get to soothing!

Leaf takes a deep breath, then focuses all of her thoughts on things that comfort her. A warm bedroll to keep out the morning chill. The sound of rain on a roof, far off thunder. The smell of grandpa’s travel bag. Mom’s voice, singing to herself as she worked.

It feels a bit forced, but hopefully it’s better than nothing.

The wind lifts Leaf’s hair again as she continues her slow spin, smelling acres of grass as she breathes in, then out. In the corner of her eye she sees a minute pass on her watch, then another, and imagines what might be happening elsewhere: abra, teleporting around the field as they go from one area with the umbreon cries to another. Surely some will teleport into their middle circle, rather than out of it… and of those, at least one or two should be near the center where she and Joy-

A flash of yellow, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat. Her body reacts automatically, running in its direction as she quickly scans the area around her to see if the area is safe for her to leave Joy alone. The spot of yellow in the thick grass resolves itself into the top of a head, and Leaf grins as she recognizes it as an abra.

She quickly focuses on projecting calm thoughts again, but it doesn’t seem to matter: the abra is completely still as she approaches, and with a wide grin she points the ball at it and, after counting down a few seconds to ensure it locks, lobs it gently underhand.

There’s a flash of light as the ball bounces off the abra’s head, and by the time it begins to fall, the pokemon is gone. Leaf quickly grabs the ball out of the grass and tucks it into her backpack, then dashes back toward Joy, practically skipping. It works! IT WORKS!

She keeps her vision moving to try and catch any new abra that appear as she returns to Joy and begins circling around her again. Red and Blue should be moving in a slow circle from opposite ends of the singing zone to catch any abra that teleported in and are dozing in the grass. When her watch vibrates, she resets the countdown on it and dashes over to her wigglytuff.

“Joy, stop!” she yells once she’s close.

The pokemon’s muffled song fades away. Leaf rubs Joy’s soft fur and feeds her a berry, eyes on her watch. When 30 seconds have counted down, she says “Sing!” and backs up again, returning to her position of slowly circling Joy as she watches the surrounding field.

In their last test, Joy maintained a song for nine minutes and fourteen seconds without pause. It left her breathless and tired, and she needed over twice as long to rest before she could do it for anywhere near the same length again.

But, when they tried giving her a breather every few minutes, she was able to sing for an an hour and a half. They realized they could probably stretch it longer, but that was about when they lost patience with the test. They were aiming for as little downtime as possible in any case.

Leaf keeps cycling Joy through quick moments of rest as she patrols the area, waiting for the next abra to appear. We should have cut the grass around here, she thinks as she tries to spot another glimpse of yellow in the rustling green stalks.

She’s just starting to wonder if she should message the others and see if something’s gone wrong when the second abra pops into sight, close enough for her to actually see it displace the grass around it as it appears.

Leaf raises her pokeball, careful not to make any sound, but stops cold as it vanishes.

She stares, wondering for a brief moment if she imagined it, then lets out a muffled cry of frustration. She forgot to maintain the calming thoughts! Even a couple seconds of wakefulness before the singing puts them to sleep is enough to let the abra escape, and if it’s particularly resistant and takes a few seconds…

Leaf closes her eyes, not caring that she might miss another abra showing up. She needs to exude comfort and calm, or the only abra she’ll catch are the ones that fall asleep quickly or are too far to sense her before they’re affected.

Warm blankets. Hugging gramps. Rain on the roof.

She focuses on each memory until she feels calmer, then opens her eyes and tries to walk around again. The note of discord in the back of her mind is still there however, and when the next abra appears and disappears again within seconds, her calm shatters.

A wave of panic threatens to crush Leaf as she feels her breathing become quick and shallow. She can’t mess this up for everyone. Hopefully the next abra appears far enough from her to fall asleep before it senses her mind, but how many more will she lose because she can’t keep herself from stressing out?

Leaf gives Joy another quick break, then walks in growing circles around her pokemon to try and find abra that appeared without her noticing and are napping in the tall grass.

As she continues to turn in a slow circle, she checks her watch through the corner of her eye. 2:17. Red timed the whole operation around a nearby Ranger Outpost sending a patrol out that would pass by the outskirt of the speakers’ radius. A final safety measure, ensuring that Rangers will be nearby if something goes wrong and they need to call for help. But the window of time left to have them nearby if something goes wrong is shrinking.

If she’s going to do something risky, now’s the best time.

Leaf breaks into a run. Grass whips by her knees as she keeps turning her head left and right, covering almost every angle of sight to ensure that she’s not missing any. The wind whips her hair into her face as she keeps turning in her slow revolution, and one hand dips into her pocket before tying her hair back into a ponytail. She starts to leap into the air to get a better view, and on the third jump she spots a flash of yellow to her left.

She takes a quick second to reorient herself relative to Joy, then dashes for the yellow. Seconds later she sees it: a sleeping abra almost completely hidden by the grass. A quick scan and capture, and she’s running back toward her wigglytuff to give her another rest, heart pounding as she catches her breath along with her pokemon.

Okay. Two captures isn’t bad. Still, how many more is she missing out on?

Leaf wonders if Red is having better luck. She knows his idea for calming them down was never a sure thing, but if it’s not possible then they’re going to lose out on a lot of potential captures.

She has to resolve the problem. If she accepts the premise that the abra are reading her thoughts on a surface level and reacting to what they find, what can she be focusing on that might slow them from teleporting away for at least another second or two, to give Joy’s song a better chance to put them under?

Maybe a sense of safety instead.

She tells Joy to resume singing and takes off again, running through the grass and focusing on memories and sensations of being safe. She tries to dismiss all the thoughts and worries about her circumstances, making herself feel as safe and carefree as she can while running, turning, and leaping around the field.

Another flash of yellow, this time far off to the right of Joy. She wonders if she should leave it: it might be close enough to be in Blue’s path. She turns toward it anyway, knowing that every potential catch is worth pursuing over more fruitless searching.

She’s panting hard by the time she arrives at the slumbering abra, and wipes sweat out of her eyes with one hand as the other aims a pokeball and tosses it. She tucks the third abra away, slightly more at ease and focusing hard on feeling safe and carefree as she makes her way back toward Joy.

When the next abra appears a stone’s throw away she’s ready for it, holding still and maintaining her sense of confident safety. Barely a second passes however before it vanishes.

Dammit,” she yells she jogs back toward Joy with a scowl. What’s she doing wrong? Maybe nothing, maybe it’s just the presence of a nearby human that’s enough to send them off, but admitting that would mean there’s nothing she can do about it, and she’s not about to give up.

All of these emotions aren’t genuine. I need something I really feel, something effortless.

Leaf reaches Joy and gives the wigglytuff another quick break, spraying a bit of ether into her mouth to make up for the longer singing period. What do I want right now? Why am I doing this?

Not just for the money. Not just because Red needs help with it. Deeper. Why do I want to be a trainer at all? She could be a groomer or breeder if she just likes spending time with pokemon.

Leaf commands Joy to start singing again and resumes her spiraling outward walk. What are her priorities? Too many. Focus. Simplify. Find the inverse. What would have to be true for me not to want to be a trainer anymore?

Put like that the answer is obvious. If she knows, for sure, that being a trainer is worse for pokemon than not being a trainer… not just pokemon in general, but her pokemon… she wouldn’t be able to do it. She loves her pokemon, and even when she’s training them or using them to defend her from wild pokemon, their well-being is at an equal priority with her own. Staying alive and becoming a better trainer means continuing to help them live longer, safer, happier lives.

Leaf feels something loosen inside herself, and smiles. This she could do effortlessly, and with all her heart. Loving pokemon is her default emotion at any given time: she just has to bring it out.

She begins to jog again, thinking over all the adorable and fun and fascinating pokemon she’s cuddled and played with and learned about. Pokemon are awesome, pokemon are fun, and she can’t wait to make more pokemon friends today to save them from a dangerous wilderness full of predators and other trainers that might be less interested in their well-being.

It takes two revolutions for her to find another abra, far off to her left. This one’s already fast asleep too, as is the next one she encounters. It makes sense: the longer the trial goes on, the more likely the abra are to bounce around into the song’s area of influence. She might not have the chance to test her new mood on a conscious abra, but is too thrilled at the double capture to care, and keeps maintaining it anyway.

Leaf dashes back to give Joy another quick rest, then checks the time. 2:41. The Rangers should be heading past the edge of their outermost circle now. No more running around: time to play it safe.

She begins walking again once she finishes catching her breath. She finds her sixth abra after starting some controlled hop-spins to get a better view of her surroundings, and her seventh after she gets dizzy and goes back to simple patrolling.

It isn’t until she gives Joy another rest and begins patrolling again that the next abra appears near her. Leaf reinforces her feelings of love and caring, mentally throwing her arms wide and letting them thunder through her whole being as she stands completely still and waits.

A heartbeat later, the abra is still there.

Two heartbeats later. Three.

Its head dips beneath the grass, yellow ears the only thing visible.

Chest bursting with gratitude and happiness, Leaf finally steps forward and captures the abra, smiling down at its ball before carefully putting it in a separate pocket from the others. Maybe it was a fluke and her emotions had nothing to do with it staying, but this abra she would keep for herself.

Leaf keeps walking through her spiraling route, beaming out love for all to feel.


“Dad… Come back, dad… please…”

Red’s fingers curl in the grass, forehead pressed to the ground. His mind feels wobbly, like a mound of gelatin on a plate just a bit too small for it. Tears drip from his nose and chin as he tries to even out his breathing.

Ten abra-filled pokeballs are in his bag, a source of distant, hollow joy compared to the soaring triumph that filled him from his first capture. He rode that feeling all the way through the next two captures, until the first abra popped into existence near him, and the connection of its mind took his breath away.

It teleported away a couple seconds later, but he stood rooted, gasping at the sudden, crushing sense of despair. The next few abra he caught helped renew his spirits, until the second awake encounter left him quietly weeping, unable to stop himself even through his next captures. The third one drove him to his knees, chest heaving with sobs that felt like they would break him in two. It took him almost three minutes to force himself back to his feet, trembling and scared of what the next encounter would bring.

At first he thought the abra were actually attacking him, using a Confusion attack or something. But each only stayed for a couple heartbeats before they teleport away, and besides, these were nothing like his spinarak’s Night Shade, where he was forced to feel memories he couldn’t identify, and actively remembering the encounter caused echoed effects.

He knows exactly what’s happening, for once. He might be glad for that, if it wasn’t so terrifying: his partition is being rapidly eroded by the abra’s coupling. Where Psychic Ayane’s mind approached his like a ship docking at harbor, throwing out ropes one by one before sidling alongside the pier, the abra minds couple with his in binary states: one second absent, the next second fully there.

Whether it’s the strength of the connection or the sudden speed, his psychic abilities seem unable to balance their work. All the memories and emotions behind his partition come pouring out every time, a flood that fills him for the second or two the abra is around, then vanishes as they do.

Leaving a backwash of loneliness. Shock. Despair.

Grief.

He was able to catch three more sleeping abra before the fourth awake one leaves him a sobbing heap on the ground.

“Please, dad, you promised! Please… I miss you so much…”

Red doesn’t know how many minutes pass, but eventually the sobs grow weaker, then fade. He raises his head and wipes at his face with one hand as his other picks up his hat from where it fell. His hands knead the bill rather than put it back on, and he pulls in a trembling breath. When no new burst of sobs come out with it, he relaxes a little.

Red lets his head hang back, wind blowing his hair and fresh tears streaming down his face as he watches the clouds drift across the pale blue sky.

This was a mistake.

Psychic Duran was right. Red’s partition is essentially a type of selective amnesia that leaves him with the memories of his father’s passing, but just a shadow of the emotions.

No wonder he still can’t think about it for too long without having to shift his thoughts away. He hasn’t been able to for years, but this is different. It’s not a memory or an echo: he feels almost exactly the same way he did right after his dad died.

Fragile?” his therapist asked. She stared at him with gentle but intent eyes, her tone curious. “In what way?”

Like I’m made of glass.” Red sat hunched in the chair, gaze down. He barely saw the office around him, barely took note of anything for longer than a moment. It was his third session, and he was just beginning to respond in more than single words, when he responded at all.

Your mom says you don’t react to hugs anymore. That you go stiff. Is that why? Because you think you’ll break?”

Red shook his head. “Already broken.” His voice sounded rusty to his own ears, hollow from so being so long unused. “Full of cracks. Ready to… fall to pieces. Shatter, if the wind blows too hard. Or someone touches me.”

Her eyes were full of too many things: detached calm, gentle compassion, clinical interest. Red kept his gaze down. He just wanted to make her understand, so she and his mom would leave him alone.

Wow. That sounds pretty shitty.”

Red felt something at that. It wasn’t much: just a flicker of surprise, deep down. But it was more than he felt of anything besides anger or sadness or emptiness in awhile.

Unable to muster the energy for a response, he just shrugged.

It also sounds like you need time, Red. Nothing wrong with wanting breathing room to let the pieces settle. “

Red lets out a shaking breath. “Let the pieces settle.” That’s what he thought happened, over the years. Apparently not as well as he thought.

Red’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out and stares blankly at the message from Blue until a thread of alarm finally penetrates the fog around his mind.

3rd speaker offline. dunno if glitched or some wild got it.

Red wipes his face again, then slowly gets to his feet and begins walking, one arm wrapped around his stomach as if it’ll help hold himself together. Tears continue to track down his cheeks as he makes his way across the grassy field, intent to keep sweeping his path of the abra landing zone. If he holds still too long Blue will finish looping around and come up behind him.

He has to catch as many as he can. The longer the speakers are in effect, the more abra should be already in the middle zone and asleep, rather than popping in. If he’s lucky, he won’t encounter any more awake ones.

But he needs to be ready in case he does.

At first Red tried to prepare his mind for abra contact the same way he prepared for Ayane’s: by mimicking the state of mental connection enough that he could get used to it, and keep his mental footing when she linked with him.

Now that he knows that’s not going to work, what’s left?

Red spots another pair of abra ears sticking out of the tall grass and walks over to capture it. His arm trembles as he holds the pokeball toward it, and fresh tears slide down his cheeks as he remembers standing with his dad in their backyard and mimicking his ball-throwing motion.

Red’s ball pings its lock, and he gets closer before tossing it underhanded to ensure it doesn’t miss. After he tucks the new capture away, Red checks the time. 2:31. An hour left. He doesn’t know if he can make it that long.

He tries refocusing on the basics as he walks. The air rushing into his lungs, the beat of his heart, both seeming louder than usual thanks to his plugged ears. His attention shifts to the feel of the wind on his skin, pressing his shirt to his body… then to the hollow pit in his chest, sucking inward, a constant, aching pain that completely breaks his concentration.

Red scowled and opened his eyes. “I can’t do it,” he said, voice sullen even to his own ears. He pushed himself off the floor anyway, returning to the comfy chair as his therapist stayed on the floor with her legs crossed. “I can’t concentrate, I keep thinking of… other things.”

She nodded. “That’s understandable. As I said, it takes time and practice. It’s okay to be distracted when you first try.”

It’s not okay! Easy for you to say to ‘let it go,’ it’s not something stupid like thinking of a math test that’s distracting me!” Red realized he was shouting and forced himself to stop, fuming silently in his seat. It was only his sixth session with the therapist, but suddenly the whole thing felt like a waste of time.

What is it that’s distracting you, then?” she asked, still serene.

You know what it is,” he snapped, but he could already feel his anger leaving him. It took too much effort to hold onto emotion, even anger. Everything got sucked down the empty void in his chest eventually. “The point is I’m trying to stop feeling this way, having these thoughts. It’s totally stupid to say it’s okay to be distracted by them while trying to stop being distracted by them.”

She raised an eyebrow then surprised him for the second time in their sessions together by nodding and getting up. “I think you’re right, meditation probably isn’t the answer right now.” She returned to her chair. “So, let’s see what else we can try.”

Red takes a deep breath, not breaking stride as he tries to ignore the pain. If it’s one thing he learned in those sessions, it was not to give up on searching for answers. To not get stuck on one solution just because it worked before, or angst about how hopeless everything is. His therapist never let him dwell on his failures, or her own. She just kept engaging him, pushing them both to try new things, until something helps, even a little… and then to keep finding new things to build on the successes. A sort of inverse of the “death by a thousand cuts” concept.

A thousand small braces and splints and bits of glue tacked onto every part of him, so he could keep moving, keep walking forward, into the wind, without it blowing him to pieces.

He draws on those memories again now, the ones he could apply in the moment. Comfort foods are out, even in moderation. Same with music, since he has his earplugs in. He’s already being physically active, but maybe he can step it up.

Red forces himself into a jog, trying to kick some adrenaline into his system to help chase the depression away by brute force. It doesn’t feel like it’s helping, but he keeps at it anyway. If nothing else it’ll help him cover more ground.

In the meantime he still needs a mental defense in case he encounters another abra. How else can he use his powers to help him?

Red feels frustration welling up, a frustration that hides a familiar hopeless apathy at its core. He doesn’t know enough about how his powers work to fashion a solution. He only knows a couple tricks, one trick, really, just copying mental states. If he had any experience utilizing his powers from the ground up-

Stop focusing on problems. Focus on solutions.

Mimicking mental states. His first, balancing-on-a-tightwire, didn’t work, but he also copied a weak form of Ayane’s ability to block physical pain. Could he use many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room to ignore emotional pain too?

Now wouldn’t be a great time to get nauseous and throw up again, but it’s worth trying, even for a moment.

Red focuses on the sadness and loss that reverberate through his chest. He pictures the black hole centered there, just below his heart, scraping everything inside him raw as it pulled and tugged in pulsing aches.

It’s surprisingly easy, maybe too easy. The sensation seems to amplify, his focus and attention making the feelings more pronounced, and Red slows to a stop, breathing hard as his lip trembles, eyes welling with tears.

Some distant part of him cries out in alarm, worried that he’s actually feeding the sadness with his psychic powers. It doesn’t matter, though. None of it matters. His dad’s dead, he’s gone and never coming back, even if Bill’s right and people eventually cure death, his dad will be forever in the past, his mom probably will too, and…

And me… one day, I’ll die too, and there’ll be nothing, just blank absence of everything I am…

Red sees his dad a dozen times a second, in the kitchen with his mom in the morning, training with his pokemon, coming home for the weekend, carrying Red on his shoulders, leading him through the forest…

Red falls to his knees, pokeball dropping from his hand as he rests his palms on the grass, catching himself as he begins to weep again.

If you’re going to put yourself through this, at least let it be worth something. Try the experiment, just so you know if it works.

Red sucks in a long, shuddering breath, then closes his eyes, concentrating on the gaping black hole inside him. He pictures his psychic powers like vibrant colored lines around it, streaks of gleaming light that connect in a hexagon, keeping the effects of the hole from reaching past to the rest of him.

Red winces as the ache continues, and the image falls apart. Ayane’s skepticism comes back to him: “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.” She’s right: it’s one thing to mimic a state of mind he felt and come up with a metaphor afterward: doing it in reverse would be pure wish fulfillment.

NO! That’s loser talk!

Red blinks, tears trembling on his lashes. That mental voice sounded oddly like Blue. He wonders if he’s starting to crack up.

You’re not concentrating. You lost the mental state when you imagined the black hole, before you even started with the lines. Try again, something easier.

Red feels a gust of wind blow his hair against his wet face, and tugs his hat down lower to keep it from blowing off. Ok. Something easier. He can do this.

The black hole is there, he doesn’t have to imagine it any clearer. Instead he focuses on his heart: a glowing source of warmth in his chest, being worn away by the sucking, empty void. Red imagines the blocking lines around his heart instead, and at the same time shifts his thoughts to all the memorized points of many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, then-

wait what if that takes away all feeling-

-inverts-

who cares that’s better than this-

-it into a single island of light inside him, everything else going dark as he gives them over to the void.

Red’s trembling stops. He breathes deep a few times, surprised at how… quiet isn’t the right word, with his earplugs in everything’s quiet, but still his emotional state feels.

The depression is there, the sucking ache in his chest is there, and, yes, the nausea is there. It’s just all… distant. Dim, like the pain in his arm was.

Red smiles. It feels strange on his face, strained and oddly disconnected from his inner self, like the muscles of his face are reacting independently. But he finds he can’t stop.

He figured something else out with his powers. Neat.

Red gets back up, and picks up the pokeball he dropped. He starts walking again.

Things feel strange. Not just emotions, but things. The feel of his clothing on his body, the wind on his skin, the sunlight. It’s all muted.

Why isn’t he moving?

Oh right. He stopped walking.

Red looks around. Nothing of particular interest is going on.

What’s he doing again? He knows what he’s doing, obviously, but what’s the point?

Shit. This is what it’s like to not feel anything, isn’t it?

But that’s ridiculous, he clearly still wants things. He doesn’t want to get hurt, for example. Dropping shining-mirror-in-a-dim-house would make the hurting feelings come back.

He had a purpose in doing that though. To keep catching abra unimpeded. It would all be rather useless if he didn’t keep catching abra, right?

Red keeps walking. Eventually he finds more abra and catches them. He doesn’t know how long he walks, but nothing exciting or interesting happens. He just keeps walking and catching abra. Eventually his phone vibrates, though he barely feels it.

It’s probably not important.


Blue stares down at the broken speakers with a frown. He hoped it was something he could fix, but this thing is utterly trashed. Looks like something really heavy smashed it over and over again.

Blue looks around. Nothing but grassy fields. Whatever pokemon did it is long gone.

He sighs and jogs back toward the abra landing zone. The gap in their circle of speakers will make it easier for abra to slip free, but they only have about 30 minutes left before Joy gets tired anyway.

His bag jostles with over a dozen expanded pokeballs in it, most of them filled with abra. There was another bellsprout that wandered into range of Joy’s singing after it had started, and now that he has two he feels much more prepared for his battle with Misty.

He keeps an eye on his GPS as he moves, and relaxes when he reaches the landing zone again. It’s a nice feeling, being able to walk through fields of empty grass and not worry about pokemon jumping out and attacking. Relaxing, even.

Most of the abra he encountered were already asleep, but a few popped into existence within his line of sight. He just stood completely still for a few seconds until it was clear they were out of it, then caught them too. He hopes whatever Red and Leaf figured out works too, because if they’ve caught as many as he has…

Blue grins. They’re going to make so much money off of this.

He spots another pair of yellow ears sticking out of the grass and changes course to catch it, cheerfully lobbing the pokeball underhand after giving it a moment to lock. He really has to hand it to Red, he really struck gold with this idea. They’ll be able to control the market on abra for a bit before it gets flooded, and combined with the cash from their clefairy trades, make enough money to not have to worry about their allowance restrictions for months.

He’s already thinking of all the TMs and training tools he’ll buy, along with maybe a competitive pokemon or two. He probably won’t be able to afford a larvitar or anything crazy like that, but with his eye on the next couple gyms, he could use a solid Ground or Fire type.

Blue reels himself in before he goes too far down that imaginary road. He already comes from enough of a privileged position, with the Oak name and connection and resources at his back. Beginning his journey with a premium starter, instead of a rattata or meowth or whatever most people could get, is usually grudgingly accepted by the less fortunate masses, but only as long as skill is still shown. No one cares that Lance started his journey with one of his clan’s dratini, because he raised it himself, without even using a pokeball. As long as Blue doesn’t throw money around enough to seem like a “spoiled rich kid,” he could use it for a number of helpful boosts.

Blue checks his supply of pokeballs. He has nineteen left before he has to start using the more expensive balls. He doesn’t think he’ll need them all, but it would be nice to cap out.

The next few minutes are spent continuing his circuit, occasionally spotting an abra and detouring to catch it. He finds a rare hill, really just a small elevation in the grassy field, and stands at the top as he takes out his binoculars and looks around.

Hmm. One abra there, another about a 120 degrees from it. He’ll pick up the farther one first, since the closer is on his way forward.

He catches both and keeps walking, wondering how far ahead or behind Red is. Hopefully they kept about the same pace with each other, but his detour to see the speaker might have closed the area of their search a bit.

Blue finds Red’s GPS position and sees it’s not far in front of him. Huh. Guess he got delayed by something too.

Better slow down a bit. Blue looks for another hill to spot from, and a few minutes later he finds one, taller than the last. He runs to the top and lifts his binoculars again, looking around. There’s an abra, aaaand another… and…

Blue lowers his binoculars, then lifts them back up. Shit. He checks his GPS. “Shit!”

He lifts his binoculars again, pulse quickening as he watches the loudred walking steadily toward the center of the field, a small group of whismur following it. They’re not heading directly toward Joy and Leaf, but they’re moving in their general direction.

There are only two pokemon families in the area that might be completely immune to Joy’s singing: hoothoot/noctowl, some of which don’t sleep, and whismur/loudred/exploud, who are immune to sound-based attacks. The former rarely travel during the day, and the latter mostly stick to the caves that dot the surrounding mountains, only occasionally migrating. Still, knowing that they’re attracted to loud sounds, Red and Leaf planned for this.

Blue takes out his phone and sends them a warning.

Got it. Leaf sends back. Heading back to Joy to move us. Let me know when you guys are ready for the song to end.

might not have time for that if they get close enough to fight. maybe we cancel the song and hit them together?

Let’s avoid battling a group please, especially since we have no Fight/Rock/Steel pokemon.

we can put them to sleep another way, bulbasaur and zephyr with sleep powder?

Maybe. What do you think Red?

Blue taps his foot as he waits for Red to respond, and looks around. Should he rush over to the abra he saw and catch them? He picks up the binoculars and tracks the loudred’s progress until it’s out of sight.

careful leaf it’s close

red you there?

shit

RED

Have you talked to him recently?

no

he’s close though gonna find him

Blue takes off, nearby abra forgotten. Come on man, answer. He keeps checking his GPS as he runs to see if Red is moving. Finally his phone buzzes again.

I’m here.

Blue slows to a stop, breathing hard. the hell man?

Are you okay Red? Leaf asks.

Fine. Stop the song, relocate somewhere safe until they pass through.

you’re not going to use charmander’s smokescreen?

Red takes his sweet time responding again. Blue wonders if he’s actually hurt after all, and is about to send another message when Red says No need. It probably broke speaker. Without singing it’ll go for another.

Blue frowns. we can take them, if the three of us are together.

Sound based attacks. Too risky. Stick to abra catching.

Shit, he left two of them back there. Rather than argue, he turns and rushes back in the direction one of them was, knowing he won’t make it to both on time before Leaf stops the song.

Red better have a good explanation for what’s going on with him.


Red stands in front of the sleeping abra, and waits.

The phone’s continued vibrations grew annoying eventually, and he took it out of his pocket to turn it off. Seeing the screen made him hesitate, and some part of him reacted with enough horror to what he almost did to snap him out of the mental state.

Returning from it was like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on his head. He trembled as the aching sadness filled him again, and in fear of how far he almost sank into total apathy.

Still, he knew he had to return to it. He has to test if it works on awake abra.

So he ran until he found one. He holds a pokeball pointed at it, already locked on by now. He knows he’s risking throwing away a capture, and wants to at least try to get it if he can.

The seconds crawl by as he waits for Leaf to end Joy’s song, and as he does he sinks back into the apathetic state, trying to remain focused on his singular goal: catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra. After it wakes.

Catch the ab-

Its mind is suddenly there, sleepy at first, but alert within a second. Red groans as despair floods him, pushing past the numbness and breaking his concentration. He throws the pokeball as he doubles over and clutches his torso with both arms, but the abra vanishes before the ball reaches it.

Red sobs in a mix of grief and frustration. Not enough. All that effort and risk for nothing. He can blunt his feelings, but they’re still just a portion of what’s behind his partition when it comes down.

Somehow he manages to keep his feet as the storm of sobs wrack him, but when they pass he feels utterly hopeless. If coming up with a whole new mental state wasn’t enough, then he’s out of tricks. He tried, and he failed.

Why do you think of that as failure?” His therapist seemed genuinely curious, the way she always did when asking questions no matter how obvious or pointed the question might be.

What do you mean, why? It’s the definition of the word.” She stayed quiet, waiting, and eventually Red searched for something else to say. “If I passed the class, I would have succeeded. I didn’t, so I failed. It’s not complicated.”

But why do you think of that as failure?”

Red frowned. “You can’t just emphasize a word and repeat the question as if that changes the answer.”

Doesn’t it?”

No,” he said, ignoring the dissonance he felt. “I think of that as failure because that’s what failure is, to everyone.”

I see. So if a scientist tests an idea and doesn’t get the result they want, did they fail?”

Obviously.”

What if they learned something from it?”

Well, good for them, I guess, but they still failed.”

Do you think they could ever be happy they failed, if the thing they learned ended up being more important?”

Red sensed the trap, but he couldn’t ignore his inner agreement this time. “Sure, I guess. So what did I learn from failing a class? Since, you know, failing a class comes from not learning?”

“I thought you failed because you didn’t do the work,” his therapist said, but continued on before he could answer. “But if you failed because you didn’t learn the subject, then at the very least, you learned what doesn’t work for you, right?”

Red rolled his eyes. “Right, I learned that staying in bed all day and not doing the homework won’t pass the class. I’m a genius, now.”

She leaned forward, resting her chin on one fist. “What if you also learned that you can’t force yourself to be productive when you’re feeling shitty? That maybe you have to focus on feeling better first?”

Sounds like an excuse to not even go to class next quarter. I’ll take it, thanks.”

Maybe you shouldn’t. Do you want me to call your teachers?”

Red’s eyes widened. “Uh. No, that’s okay.”

“Are you saying that because you think you’ll get in trouble? Because I promise you won’t. I’ll speak to your mother about it too if you want.”

Red fidgeted in his chair. “I can’t just miss a whole quarter.”

“Why not? You’re not going to pass it anyway.”

Red felt like arguing, but caught himself. Why was he trying so hard to stay in school? But the implication that he wouldn’t pass… it bothered him, even though he didn’t care a moment ago. “What are you trying to do, here? Get me to skip a quarter, or push me into trying to pass it?”

His therapist cocked her head to the side. “What do you think I’m trying to do?”

Red stifles a sob before it can escape his lips, and breathes deep, smelling the fresh green grass all around him. Change a failure into a learning opportunity.

So. What did he learn?

He learned that the loss of the partition is more impactful than a change to his mood. So what he needs to do is keep his partition from mattering.

Start at the beginning. What are his tools? What can he do?

He can mimic mental states influenced by psychic powers. He can mimic his own from specific stimuli, and others’. What does that leave him with?

Red keeps breathing in and out, focusing on the thought. What other psychically influenced mental state can he mimic? If only Ayane had used her power in a way to make her mind “healthy” or “stable” or-

Red’s eyes open as his breath catches. I don’t need Ayane’s mind in that format: my default state is a psychically sculpted stable one!

He doesn’t waste time wondering if it could work. Red drops into the lotus position, evening out his breaths as best he can. One arm rises to impatiently rub his face dry, then again as fresh tears appear at the ache of sadness that goes through him. Nevermind. Let it go. He waits until his awareness is mostly drawn inward, then begins shifting his attention to different parts of his mental state. He’s emotionally sad, but his thoughts aren’t being overwhelmed with negative associations like when the partition is down.

For a glimmering second, Red almost grasps what Elite Agatha meant when she insisted to Professor Oak that there’s a distinction between mental and emotional pokemon attacks.

Then it passes, but he’s still able to reach far enough to work with the distinction.

No set of words seem fit to describe it, however. How would you describe your default mental state? It’s just “existing normally.” But that still has markers, anchors, a framework he can remember and nail into place.

It doesn’t feel like anything has changed. He hasn’t made the partition stronger, and he isn’t using his powers to do anything. He’s just… focusing on keeping everything as it is.

He stays that way until his phone vibrates again. He checks it and sees that the first speaker he put down is offline. The loudred got another one, he sends. We should be clear.

Okay, Leaf says. Summoning Joy. Earplugs back in, if you took them out.

Red puts his phone away and focuses on the mental state again, waiting until it feels stable before he gets to his feet and resumes walking. Every so often he feels as though he’s lost it: trying to consciously hold onto a “default” feels like trying to cup water in his hands, but he keeps reinforcing it every so often, retracing his mental path around the touchstones of how he thinks, around the gap between what he feels and his memories of his dad’s death.

He eventually spots a sleeping abra and catches it. A few minutes later he finds another. Part of him is glad the system’s still working with two speakers down, but he begins to grow impatient as he walks, checking the time occasionally. He needs to find another awake one. He needs to know if this works.

When there’s just fifteen minutes of singing left, Red starts to seriously consider sending one of his captured abra back out and waking it up himself. He’s still talking himself out of it when he feels an abra pop into existence nearby, its mind suddenly “next to” his.

He freezes, eyes flicking around. He can’t see it, it must be behind him… but-

Red’s mind wobbles, a mass of gelatin on a small plate again as the abra… tries to reconnect. It’s almost like the mind bounced off, then came back again. He focuses on his mental state, keeping all the anchors in place, all the parts of his mind that make up just-being-normal-Red…

And a few heartbeats later, suddenly as it started, the sensation is gone.

Red waits a few more seconds, pulse pounding in his ears, and finally, slowly, looks around. He spots the abra a few paces behind him and to the left, practically in arm’s reach.

Red slowly extends his pokeball turning it so the lens aligns with the abra. He counts to three. He throws.

The ball flashes, snaps shut, and rolls onto the grass.

Red falls to his knees once again.

The ache is there. The grief. The pain. The loneliness. The despair. The wind blows, feeling extra cold on the tear tracks on his face.

But still, for a moment, he smiles.


“Are you kidding me?” Red asks. “You got them to stay with the power of love?”

“It’s not that simple.” Leaf pauses, then smiles. “Okay I guess it is that simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It took a few tries to actually figure it out.”

Red grumbles. “Well, it probably wouldn’t work for me anyway. And I figured out my own solution, eventually.”

“Good, because when we do this again I expect you guys to get on my level,” Blue says as he cheerfully fills his corner of the table with pokeballs almost twice as fast as them. He can already tell he got a lot more than they did.

They sit in one of Bill’s living rooms, placing a growing collection of balls on the table after registering each pokemon in their dex. There’s a fruit bowl in the middle that Blue quickly has to move elsewhere to make more room. His stomach grumbles, and he picks out an apple before resuming work one-handed.

Once they finish emptying their bags, the three put aside the other pokemon they caught until just the abra are left, then start counting. Blue glances at Red every so often, noting the tautness of his features. When Red explained what happened to him, he made it seem like his experimental mental states were temporary. But there’s something distant and off about his friend’s gaze, and Blue wonders if Red understated how strong the renewed emotions are, or how he’s managing them.

The final tally is 19 for Red, 24 for Leaf, and 31 for Blue, a few of them temporarily in greatballs.

“I got one more.” Leaf holds the ball up. “But I’m keeping it.”

“Yeah,” Red says. “I’ll keep one too, once we finish analyzing them all.”

“How long do you think your study will take?”

Red shrugs. “A week, maybe? The only reason the last one took so long is because I had to wait for people with spinarak to come to me. Now I have a big sample ready to be tested.”

Blue studies Red’s face again. He sounds almost… uninterested. “Well, it’ll take at least that long to study the market and come up with a good plan to sell them,” Blue says. “So no rush on that.”

“I’d like to vet my buyers personally anyway,” Leaf says.

They look at her in surprise. “What, you’re going to meet each one?” Blue asks.

“Maybe not meet in person, obviously, but at least check them out online, maybe give them a call. I want to at least try and make sure the people who buy mine are going to take good care of them.”

Blue shrugs. “As long as we agree on how we price and list them, then your pokemon, your rules.”

His hands move out among his collected pokeballs, straightening each one into a uniform pattern, enjoying the sight of all of them. It’s a bit hard to believe how many he got. Hearing the other two talk about their struggles to catch the awake abra showed how being Dark has its advantages, but now that the catching is over and he listens to the other two discuss how they’ll train their abra, all the great uses they’ll have for them, Blue feels the warm glow of contentment fading away. He always wanted an abra when he was younger. The idea of being able to teleport, or share the thoughts of one of his pokemon, always seemed so cool.

But he’ll never have that, no matter how many abra he catches.

Blue’s jaw sets as he picks one of his abra’s balls up. Leaf has gone around to get the bowl of fruit, and is sharing it with Red. Blue waits until they’ve picked something out, then says, “I’m going to keep one too.”

Red and Leaf look at him in surprise. Dark trainers don’t use Psychic pokemon. It’s just not done: without the ability for their pokemon to sense them, they would be incredibly hard to interact with, let alone train.

Blue meets their gazes, waiting for their skepticism and questions.

“Wouldn’t the time be better spent training others, though?” Red asks. He holds a palm up to stop Blue’s response. “I’m just curious. I don’t doubt you can do it. You’re the most determined person I know, and a great trainer. I’m asking from an efficiency perspective.”

Blue relaxes slightly, and smiles. It means a lot, hearing Red say that. Not that Blue would ever admit it out loud. “It won’t be efficient, no,” he says. “I don’t fully know how I’ll do it yet. Maybe in the time it takes I could train two other pokemon instead. But I’m going to do it anyway.”

“Strategic advantage?” Red asks. “Having a psychic will surprise people who know you’re Dark.”

“Optics,” Leaf suggests instead, munching on a strawberry she liberated from the bowl. “A Dark trainer with a powerful, well trained Psychic pokemon… I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone like that. It’ll really make you stand out.”

Blue nods. “You’re both right. But most of all, it’s-”

“To prove you can,” Red says.

Leaf smiles and adds, “To yourself as much as anyone.”

Blue grins back. “You guys know me so well. Can I count on your help?”

Red extends a fist, and Blue bumps it, glad to see the gesture. Blue then extends his other fist toward Leaf. She grins and taps her knuckles to his, and Red and her extend their other hands at the same time to complete the triangle. Blue feels a bit better seeing Red smile, even though it fades a second later.

“Today was… a good day,” Red says, keeping his fists out.

Leaf nods. “To Red, for his great idea.”

“Hear, hear!” Blue says.

His friend flushes. “To Bill,” Red says. “For letting us use his land.”

“Hear, hear!” the other two repeat.

“Welcome,” the speakers above them says, making them all jump and lower their arms at last.

“And to me,” Blue says with a smile, “For catching Joy and making it all possible.” He ducks as the others toss fruit at him. “No need for thanks, folks, my bigger catch is thanks enough. And next time, I’m going to be bringing more pokeballs.”

I Notice That I Am Upset

In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him.  People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety.  I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will.

upset-flowchart