All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Welcome back everyone! Getting back to work was rough this month, so expect a moderate amount of editing over the weekend, as this one didn’t have a chance to get much proofreading. Hope you enjoy it, and as usual, all feedback welcome, either here or on /r/rational!


Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Sakura thought she was out of tears.

There were plenty, when they first told her. When she first saw her baby brother’s remains, when they interred him beneath the earth. Six years old, and grown so fast. Already talking about his dreams. Already preparing for his future. Only to have it snatched away by a monster in the shape of man.

Over a year of tears after that, as the trial went on. As her mom, first in shock that her son could be gone, then in denial that her husband could be the killer, went from a source of added distress to an infuriating enemy, to a monster of a different shade. Months of tears, of listless despair punctuated by fits of crying, of sobbing herself hoarse. And then the final verdict. Not guilty. That storm should have squeezed the last drops out. When she rose from her exhausted sleep the next day, feeling drained, feeling empty, she thought she’d cried her last tears.

There was only one thing left to do, and tears weren’t part of it.

Dry eyed, she planned. Dry eyed, she kept her mask in place. Pretended to be glad that the monster was free. Expressed relief that it was all a misunderstanding. Her mom insisted that now they could “really grieve” for Sokka. As a “family.”

Yes mother, she said. But there were no more tears to give, and eventually her mother left her alone.

It was easier when she was old enough to leave. When she could go from planning to action, didn’t have to pretend anymore. Just another few months to find the right pokemon. To train them without using their pokeball, after the initial capture. To give them the right commands and training, to overwhelm the initial conditioning.

More difficult was the timing. The monster went to nearby incidents all the time, to fight the other monsters. To act the hero, or maybe help him believe himself one. There were a few times she went with him, fought alongside him, keeping a different death hidden in her bag each time. But there were always others around.

Until one day there wasn’t. It was just the two of them, keeping the pokemon to the edge of the forest. It’s been unruly since Articuno flew by and buried a third of it in snow, a different population expanding too much every week as the ecosystem re-balances in the wake of the loss of habitat and Pressure induced rampage.

She was distracted the whole fight, looking for an opening. Worrying that someone else would come. Worrying she would miss her chance. And distracted by his smile, after they took down the third wave together, their movements and orders coordinated from multiple fights together. An encouraging smile. Like they were comrades. Like she’d forgotten. But that was the point, so she smiled back.

And when his pokemon was injured after what seemed to be the last wave, and he went forward to heal it, she looked around, withdrew her pokemon, opened her bag, and spoke a single syllable, low, under her breath. Just enough for the weedle to hear.

And to spring.

And to sting.

And sting. And sting. Until his raticate finally managed to scramble over despite its injuries and crunch it between its jaws.

“Sakura,” her father gasped, hand scrabbling weakly at his bag, body locked in pain. “Po…nnn…”

She moved to him, took his concerned and injured pokemon’s ball off his belt, returned it. Then she simply watched until his movements slowed to sluggish twitches, then stopped altogether.

Something in her loosened, after that. A knot of anger and grief she’d been holding onto for years. But still, she didn’t cry. She had no more tears.

She never saw the camera, set high in the trees to mark the perimeter. She thought she was safe, until the Rangers showed up.

She defended herself, mask cracking just a little as she poured passion into her voice, tried to call upon her grief and direct it to serve her. But still, she didn’t cry. Once it became clear that she would be branded, she came clean. Reported where her other lethally trained pokemon were kept. Waited for the end.

Now she sits strapped to a chair in a secure room in Viridian Gym, and her death comes in a neat black suit, his movements quick and purposeful without seeming hurried. He sits in a chair across from her, and his voice is the same deep, commanding voice she has heard in interviews, turned toward something new. Perhaps an attempt at gentleness.

“Hello, Miss Uryuu.”

Her gaze rises to meet his. “Hello, Leader.”

Giovanni Sakai does not look disgusted, or fearful, or angry, or shocked, or even carefully professional, the way all the expressions she’s seen since being caught were. Instead the young Leader looks… curious?

“Are you comfortable?”

It’s a question she doesn’t expect, not just from her executioner, but also from Leader Giovanni in particular. She never really paid too much attention to her city’s pride, didn’t seek out stories of his childhood here, or his rise to Champion, or his political efforts that preceded his recent return home to head Viridian Gym. But people talked, information was hard to avoid, and what she’d learned of her Leader was that he was a man with keen perspective, intense focus, iron will… and a willingness to do what needs to be done, no matter how controversial.

She could admire that, in the abstract way she was able to admire anything, while obsessed with her own singular goal.

Insofar as she allowed herself to imagine her execution at his hands, it was always quick and efficient. Perhaps he would briefly berate or lecture her for wasting his time. Instead he asks her if she’s comfortable, and the numbness that has surrounded her since she was branded finally fades around the edges as she wakes up to how her body feels.

She was allowed to use the bathroom, thankfully, but not fed in the past… ten hours? She thinks she’s hungry, but it’s hard to tell. Her legs are a bit cramped from being in the chair for so long. Rear a bit sore. But not bad, all things considered, and given what’s about to come…

Or is she mistaken, somehow?

“Does it matter?” she asks, and clears her throat. “You’re here to execute me, aren’t you?”

The Leader’s dark gaze stays steady on hers, and after a moment he reaches into his jacket and removes a syringe, placing it on the table to his side.

Her eyes linger on it, then she looks away. “I’m fine, then. Just…” She wants to say get it over with, but can’t quite form the words. Her heart is beating faster, some instinctual will to live reaching up even at this late stage.

He doesn’t respond to the implication, instead saying, “Could I trouble you to tell me why, first?”

“I already confessed.”

Giovanni is quiet, a moment. “Let me rephrase. You confessed to what you did and why you did it. But you could have just stabbed him with a knife, risked an investigation, at worst gone to prison for a decade or two. You could have attacked him with your pokemon openly, thrown your life away to ensure his death. Instead you were meticulous. You tried to thread the needle, tried to make it look natural.”

She stares at him, unsure of what to say. Of what he wants from her. Her numbness is still fading, her awareness of her body and situation only growing in her final moments, and she’s not sure she should thank him for that.

“You wanted to live,” he says simply. Not a question.

She looks away. It seems cruel, to ask her now. Why. Why did she try so hard to kill him in just the right way, if she knew what she was risking?

“My brother,” she says at last. “Would have wanted me to.”

“And so you were patient, and careful, and tried to give yourself the best chance.”

“Yes,” she whispers.

“Do you want to live?” he asks. There’s something calculating in his demeanor, she knows, but he also seems genuinely curious. “Or is it just the wish of what your brother wanted, that kept you from simply ending him the moment you trained your first pokemon to attack humans?”

Sakura doesn’t know how to answer that. She spent little time with friends, after, or fun things. She knew, on some level, that if she succeeded then she would one day have to consider those things, but she always put that off for later, considering it a distraction, and a seductive one at that.

But at this moment, with the syringe so close (What’s in it? Something painless? Or is Viridian’s new Leader old fashioned enough to have filled it with weedle venom?), and the hard chair beneath her, and her rumbling stomach, she thinks of how much she’d rather be safe at home in bed, or at the cafe by her old house, having her favorite dish with some plum wine. That would be… rapture.

“Yes, I would prefer to live for my own sake too,” she says at last, voice angry as a tug of longing goes through her. “Is that what you want to hear? I didn’t take you for someone who has time for… cruelty.”

“I find there is often a regrettable overlap between what is cruel and what is pragmatic,” the Gym Leader says, sounding undisturbed by her accusation. “I’d say it is intention that ultimately matters, but I know others disagree. What if you could never see your family again, your friends, your home? What if living meant exile, in a land far away, your old life left behind?”

She stares at him, anger twisting into confusion at the sudden change in topic. “I don’t… yes. Of course.”

“Would you train pokemon to kill again?”

“No.” A flame of hope is lighting in her chest, suddenly. Is this some final trial? It seems impossible to contemplate, that a Renegade would be allowed to live after admitting her guilt, she’s never heard of such a thing… exile… “I only did this because of my brother, I’d never—”

“What about teaching others how to?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Would you teach others your methods for training pokemon without their ball? For lethal commands, if it meant you could live?”

She stares at the Leader, whose face is still curious, eyes intent. She shakes her head, just once, the motion aborting as she realizes she doesn’t know what he’s asking her, what she’s answering.

Giovanni sighs, seeming to read her expression. “I’m sorry. I’m getting your hopes up. These are just hypotheticals, you understand. I wanted to get to know you, a little. I try, for all the Renegades that fall under my jurisdiction. Some rage at the world or some particular target, others are excessively greedy or impulsive. And of course, there’s the simply mad.” He shrugs a shoulder. “You seem one of the rarer sort. Poor judgement, but not excessively so. I find it tragic. A waste. You would have made a fantastic coordinator, Miss Uryuu…”

She stiffens. Here comes the moralizing, the judgement—

“…I’m sorry our society has failed you so thoroughly.”

And then it comes: her eyes prickle, her throat feels clogged on her next breath. A single tear escapes, and she breathes in, whole body shaking once.

She’d wanted to be a coordinator, once.

Sakura regains control quickly, embarrassed. Still, it’s better to feel something, at the end. To know she isn’t dry and dead already, after all.

“I’m sorry too, Leader,” she whispers. “Not for… that. For the trouble I’ve caused.” She swallows past the lump in her throat as her pulse speeds up, as she steels herself, closing her eyes. “Thank you for speaking to me. For looking at me like I’m a person, still. I’m… I’m ready.”

There’s silence, for a while. And then she hears the syringe scrape against the table slightly as it’s picked up. “Goodbye, Miss Uryuu.”

She feels the prick of pain, and then spreading numbness, and then nothing.


Silver watches on the monitor as a trio enters the room where Father sits. He has long-since memorized his father’s body-language: the current pose is one he internally dubbed The King in His Castle, a position of calm strength, inviting supplicants in magnanimously.

The three guests don’t look like the usual supplicants, however. All three are dressed in red and black, and their leader has hair a shade lighter than Silver’s, though still closer to red than orange.

“Hello, Maxie. It was good of you to come. I hope your quarters are suitable?”

“Giovanni.” The tall, thin man’s tone is cold, his aloof face seeming to permanently be set in an expression of sharp focus and slight annoyance. He’s a stark contrast to his right hand man, who’s round and cheerful, or the girl to his left, who seems unconcerned with anything around her, gaze staring off in the distance from beneath her hoodie. She’s technically wearing a uniform like the other two, but seems less committed to treating it as such, with lots of personalized touches. “Our quarters are quite pleasant. Your hospitality is appreciated. But what I care about is your answer. I would have it now, if you’d please.”

“Of course. I’ve already requested two labs to wind down operations and prepare to collaborate with your people, and have Senji picking a field team.”

“Excellent. As ever you vindicate my confidence in you. This removes two points of failure from our path, bringing our estimates of success to—”

“—seventy-three percent—” says the woman in a distant tone of voice.

“—and will allow us to move forward on the next stage by—”

“—six months, four days—” says the round man with a grin.

“—ahead of schedule. Your payment will be delivered tomorrow. And the search itself?”

Silver’s mouth hangs open slightly. The two had spoken without hesitation, Maxie pausing for each to supply the information as if they were extensions of himself. Father has a lot of really cool minions (he’s not supposed to call them that when they’re around) but he doesn’t have any who do stuff like that. Silver wonders if the three are psychically linked, then realizes they wouldn’t have had to talk separately.

Father shifts to Apologetic Resoluteness between breaths. “I’ve reviewed your plans extensively, and had many of my most trusted advisers do so as well. I’m sorry, but I can’t support that endeavor at this time.”

“Hm.” One hand goes up to adjust the tall man’s glasses. “And your reasoning?”

“Assuming the legends of Groudon’s powers are accurate, it does not diminish concerns about secondary effects,” Father says with his hands steepled below his chin. “Creating more landmass can be incredibly valuable, but upsetting the water cycle can have effects on the climate beyond what is immediately noticeable.”

“This is not new. I am eighty-three percent confident that the extent of his abilities are exaggerated.”

“Be that as it may, the effects on even a single region can have dangerous externalities.” Giovanni’s hands fall to his desk, clasping there. “And you know of my position on the current crop of weather-wielding pseudo-gods facing my own region.”

“Prudence as a virtue has taken you far, but I see the makings of a fault in you through it,” Maxie says, speaking as though to a student. Silver has to admit, the man is brave to talk to Father like that. “I’d hoped your vision and mine could meet somewhere. Do let me know if there’s some alteration on my end that would change your answer. I would put it under most serious review.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s simply impossible at this time. Even if we could come to some agreement, I have too many pressing projects to tend to.”

“Understandable. The offer is open. So long as you do nothing to impede our efforts, future alliance is possible. Good day.”

Silver watches as Maxie turns to leave and the man with him turns on one heel within a heartbeat, as if waiting for the movement so he can walk in step with his boss. It would probably look more impressive if the woman had done the same, but despite being on point with her earlier calculation, it takes a full three seconds before the woman notices that they’re leaving and turns to follow them.

Father waits until they’re at the door. “Yes, about that…”

The tall man stops, hand out for the handle, then turns his head to father, just enough to reveal his profile.

“I believe you know how much I value peace. Peace, and the lack of investigation that comes with it. If things come to war between you and Archie, I will have to, regretfully, join my forces to his, in order to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible.”

Silver leans forward. He can’t make out any changes in Maxie’s expression on the monitor, from this far away, but the woman’s voice still comes clearly, quiet though it is: “Fourteen percent.”

“Unthinkable,” Maxie says, sounding as though his jaw is stiff. “You, assisting that brute? That pirate? His goals are… epistemically…”

“Just business, Maxie. Strategically, the fighting would end soonest if I were to work with him. As I said, I value the current peace immensely. Perhaps that will soon change, but I only thought it fair to warn you, given our history.”

“Does he know?”

Silver can’t see Father’s expression, but he can guess: Who Do You Take Me For. Or perhaps I Will Give You a Moment to Recall Who You’re Speaking To. A subtle but powerful difference.

“Thirty one percent,” the girl says into the silence.

It looks like Maxie might say something after that, but after a moment he simply dips his head in the barest of acknowledgements and opens the door. His lieutenants follow him out, and the video feed cuts out, turning the screen into a dark mirror through which the red haired boy sees himself.

Silver leans back in his chair and places his hands beneath his chin as he tries to think through his father’s reasoning. He expected his dad to keep himself neutral in the budding shadow war in Hoenn, particularly if either side drags the whole conflict into the open. He could have even warned that he would side against whoever attacked first, as a deterrent, but he very specifically seemed to choose not to do so, and warned that he would pick a side instead. Father wouldn’t tell Archie of course, it would just incentivize him to start a conflict he could be confident he will win, but still…

His thoughts circle fruitlessly from there until Silver notices the repetitions and gets out of the chair to finish his history lessons. His tutor expects him to complete the whole book by the end of the week, and when he complained to Father, the Gym Leader merely looked at him and said that he was welcome to attend a regular school if he’s finding his workload “too great a challenge.” Which of course just made Silver want to work twice as hard to prove it wasn’t that, it was just boring compared to training his pokemon or honing his throwing and catching reflexes.

But that sort of argument only occasionally works on Father, and he has to space out when he uses it with lots of actual work done. So Silver rewards himself for going back to his study desk with a braided whip of gummy candy and gets to work as he eats it, half a dozen sweet and sour and salty flavors filling his mouth as he reads the next question he’s on:

This chapter recounted how the three southern Kanto warlords finally agreed to negotiate for alliance after over ten years of diplomatic relations. Describe, as though you were each of them, first their reasoning for resisting, then what they believed each of the other two warlords’ reasoning was.

Silver studies the question, eyes narrowed as he sucks on the end of the gummy braid, then gently peels a string off with his teeth. The book he read didn’t really go into much of what each warlord thought of the other two’s reluctance. One of the warlords, Takeda, never even wrote about his political thoughts, and instead practically all the writing directly from him involved his records of training pokemon to be ridden into battle for combat purposes rather than just transport. So, as usual with his tutor’s assignments, Silver would have to look up secondary and ancillary sources to try and model the ancient warlord’s perspective.

This takes him over an hour to do, and his candy whip is long gone by the time he finishes. He eyes the jar afterward, but it’s only there for reinforcement of positive actions, and he doesn’t think his father would think “continuing to do the same task because I’m getting bored but didn’t stop” qualifies. Not that he is getting bored, but… they’re just so tasty.

Once he finishes with Takeda, however, he does think he deserves another to keep working, and that he can justify it to Father later. He gets up and goes to the jar, only to stop as the screen snaps back on and he hears his father say, “Thank you, Kiba. Let him in please.”

Silver blinks, then hurries back to his seat in front of the secured monitor that’s connected directly to the camera in Father’s office. The candy can wait.

Once again the door opens, this time without a knock first, and in comes an athletic man with dark skin, a roguish beard, and a dark navy coat that flares at his knees when he walks. He’s followed by his own pair of minions, an even more muscular man who’s almost as wide as the door and a woman with wild hair that goes down to her waist. Silver wonders if everyone in their organizations dresses the way they do, and how they keep them secret if so. If Father made everyone that works for him wear a uniform… well, that might be pretty cool, actually, judging by his visitors today.

“Gio! Good to see you!” Archie walks up to Father and extends an arm to his side, as if getting ready to slap the Gym Leader. Silver’s eyes go wide, and his mouth drops open as Father’s arm rises to meet it when it swings, and the two clasp arms. He’s never seen Father greet someone with anything but a brief handshake, a nod of the head, and just once, a bow.

“Welcome, Archie. Shelly, Matt.” The minions get the head nod, and nod or wave back. “I take it the voyage went well?”

“Ahh, well enough, well enough. We were in the area anyway, you know.” Like Max, Archie doesn’t sit on the available chairs, though he does lean his arms against the back of one while his subordinates lean against the walls farther back. “Great operation you’ve built here, Gio. Could use some of your touch again back home, even on a part time basis. I miss our talks.”

Father snorts. “You miss having someone who would argue with you, you mean.”

“Ha! These two will do it,” Archie says, jerking a careless thumb over his shoulder. “But about different things than you. All under the same flag, we are. Not the same. So? You’ve considered my offer?”

“I have. I can gather the information you asked for, and possibly even acquire a copy of the blueprints.”

Archie’s eyebrows rise. “Seriously? You have operatives in Slateport?”

“Seriously,” Father says, tone bland.

“‘Course you do. And in return?”

“You would need to refer at least another six staff by the end of the year.”

“Six.” Archie taps his fingers on the back of the chair. “That’s asking a lot, Gio. Only got another two lined up, both of them Dark.”

“If it helps, all six can be, just this once.”

“Aye, it does,” Archie admits. “What do you need so many for, anyway?”

Father smiles. “How do you travel so far, so fast?”

Archie grins. “Maybe someday you’ll find out. Guess that applies to me too. Alright, six more. Will you be signing onto our venture, then?”

“Unfortunately, I have to decline for now. Too much on my plate to try and operate from multiple regions at once.”

Archie shrugs. “It’s not Gio the warrior we need. You can think from anywhere, direct from a phone or cam, can’t you?”

“Through trustworthy intermediaries, perhaps. In some advisory role. But manpower is hard to spare, obviously.”

“Good enough! And for the rest?”

“For that, I cannot help you. To release such a beast into the oceans would be catastrophic if even half of the legends about it are true. You would need to capture it instantly, or it would be nearly impossible to ever stop.”

Archie snorts. “I never took you for one who let fear get in the way of greatness, Gio.” Silver blinks, feeling surreal at watching a second person talk to Father like this, one right after the other. Who do they think they are? “These powers are going to be used one day. It’s either us or someone else, this one or some other, and the sooner we’ve done so, the better prepared we’ll be.”

“You’re speaking of Maxie.”

“Aye, and others. But mainly him, for now.” Archie’s face is solemn, voice flat.

Father lets out a sigh. There are no stances now, Silver suddenly notices. His father is just… being himself? No, surely he’s still setting his body language deliberately, just not in as strict a sense. “The very last thing I need, currently, is any kind of attention. If there comes a point where you and Maxie come to blows, I’m afraid I’ll have to side with him, just to end the fighting quicker.”

Silver flinches as the big man suddenly grips the chair, face fit to pick it up and smash it over Father’s head. “That madman? You would pick him over me?”

“I’d prefer to pick neither,” Father says, face and body still totally “natural” and relaxed, but tone suddenly harsh. “If the two of you would just sit together and—”

Archie shakes his head, releasing the chair and stepping back. “After what he did? Not happening. Not if the world was ending and he came to me on his knees.”

Father sighs, but nods. “Then I hope the two of you can find some other path to victory that doesn’t cross each other’s…” Even without a visual angle, Silver can hear a small smile in Father’s next words. “Exciting as it might be to face you again.”

Archie is quiet for a moment, face still livid… and then he cracks a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Aye. Exciting as it might be.” He turns, and the other two step away from the walls to follow him to the door, not at all in lockstep, but clearly at attention. “You’ll have your people, Gio. Just get me the info.”

“Won’t you stay a while, enjoy some—”

The door closes behind the three before Father can finish speaking. After a moment he shrugs, as if to himself, and the screen goes dark.

Silver sits where he is, absorbing the new information, candy and history lessons forgotten.

There’s no way Father would send his people to both Archie and Maxie at the same time and tell them to fight each other… or would he? It wouldn’t be too hard for them to recognize each other and avoid attacking each other. Maybe they could sabotage both organizations from within, but that could just delay the conflict…

Silver smiles. He thinks he has it: if Father puts people in position and has both Archie and Maxie killed, it would end the fight as well! They spoke like they were friends, but, well, Father pretends to be friends with lots of people, if not exactly in the same way…

Satisfied with his answer, Silver eventually goes back to his work, rewarding himself with another candy whip. Once the assignment is done he plays a sim for a couple hours, grinding his team up in preparation for a gym challenge until a family of primeape start rampaging nearby and kill him. He scowls and shuts the game off. He knows he’s supposed to party up with others if he spends too long in the wild, but most of the other players are dumb. If the developers made the game more realistic he could have had his pokemon dig a hole and stayed in it with an air tank to avoid the primeape instead of being forced to fight them again and again until his team went down.

Silver takes his anger out on a nearby punch-dummy shaped like a hitmonchan (he’s sure no one would be stupid enough to actually punch a hitmonchan, but it does a cool thing where it spins and hits back if he hits it hard enough), then goes to watch some of Father’s recorded battles. Not the ones from his gym, but from before he was even Champion. There aren’t nearly as many, of course, and their quality is poor; most are recorded by people’s phones, and many are incomplete, either starting at some midway point in the fight or ending before it finishes as the recorder gets scared off or distracted.

But they’re real. Father’s fighting for his life, even as he’s still developing his skills. His verbal commands have little of the iron calm they do today, and his physical motions aren’t nearly as efficient… but he seems more alive in the footage than any other time Silver sees him.

The one he eventually settles on was recorded from the fourth floor window of some building in Fuchsia City. On the street below, Father uses a donphan to clear the road of the various pokemon running through it, until a crowd of people start to run down a different intersection that had seemed safe a moment ago. They’re being chased by a venusaur that lumbers toward them, and if there are any trainers left behind it that are still alive or able to try to slow it down, the camera footage doesn’t see them. The rare pokemon is throwing razor leaves at the fleeing people, cutting at their knees and ankles until they collapse, then sending vines out that glow green and start to melt the flesh of the downed humans upon contact.

Silver knows that objectively he should be disgusted or sickened by the gruesome deaths he’s seeing. He knows that’s what most people would feel. Or say they would, anyway, and the emotion in the repeated “Oh, Arceus, oh, lord, no,” by the guy holding the phone seems genuine enough. But Silver’s too busy anticipating what Father would do next, imagining what he would do in his place.

So when Father summons a geodude and a machoke, and the machoke picks the geodude up and throws it at the venusaur, Silver has already anticipated the explosion that almost makes the recorder lose their grip on their phone. The venusaur had tried to bat the hurtling rock pokemon away as it sailed at it, but the by the time it was close enough, it was too late.

The image before the explosion looked like many of the injured victims were close enough to get caught in that blast, but it’s hard to tell in the aftermath, and the recorder just stays on that street long enough to confirm that the venusaur’s head is gone and quietly swear before he quickly pans back to Father’s donphan when it bellows in pain. The ground beneath it is crumbling, and soon plants begin to grow up through the pavement, lashing out at anything nearby.

“Watching these again?”

Silver twists in his chair to see Father standing by it. He hadn’t even noticed him come in, and wonders how long he’s been there. “Rhetorical question. I think you’re actually asking for justification. It feels… judgey.”

“Do I sound judgemental?” Father asks, eyebrows raised.

“No. Just curious.” Silver turns back to the screen. “But it still feels judgey.”

Father pauses to consider that. “My real question was, what are you looking for, in these old videos? I ask with curiosity, to know if there is something valuable for you in them, but yes, also with a predisposition that you are wasting your time.”

Silver nods. “I want to learn from you. But in most vids, you’re too far away. You’re like a character in a movie. Here you’re…” Silver gestures toward the screen, where the younger Giovanni is spraying a potion onto his pokemon and yelling some command to a different one, too late, his hands blurring as he drops the potion bottle and slings a pair of pokeballs out. “Closer. I can see what you’ll do next, sometimes. I spot mistakes, though those are rarer.”

“Oh? Was there a mistake here?”

“Yes. The geodude and machoke should have been out and prepared ahead of time. The only downside would have been slowing you if you had to run, but in that case they could have served as a distraction, or been deployed first in case it would have avoided a rout in the first place.”

“Good catch. Yes, this was the battle that led me to always having a pokemon on standby during every fight, one that would not respond to any commands but the one I would give if I had to run. This combo in particular is a bit too risky, now. Can you guess what I use instead?”

Silver thinks it over. What would he want protecting his retreat if his life was in danger? It has to be able to adapt to a lot of different threats, and not be easily taken out. Tanky pokemon are no good, though, most are slow, and he needs something that can be a credible threat, not just be run around by something fast and lethal enough.

“How worried would you be about collateral damage? Public perception?”

“I’m curious to know your answer, without knowing either of those.”

They watch the screen until the end of the video, when the person recording suddenly pulls the phone back into the apartment a couple seconds before the whole building shakes, and then the feed ends. By then Silver has already crossed out a number of obvious but insufficient options. Pokemon like Dragonite and Tyranitar are powerful, but it would be a waste to keep them exclusively to last resort bodyguard duty. Pokemon with good crowd control are a must, but also those that aren’t weak to too many types. Speed is what he keeps going back to. What’s faster than the fastest jolteon? Able to do indiscriminate damage in a wide area without risking himself?

As soon as Silver mentally swaps himself with Father, still trying to answer the original question at the same time, he has it. “Something psychic. A mental attack, fast, hitting everything around it… except you.”

“It’s remarkable, what psychic pokemon can do to the reactions of those around them, all without causing any damage, mental or otherwise.”

Silver smiles, briefly, but it fades as he browses the videos available for what to watch next. “Do you ever miss it?”

Father sits on the arm of his sofa, face thoughtful as he watches Silver select another video. “No. No matter how strong I became, I was only one man trying to hold back an endless tide. Even then, I realized it. From the beginning I knew I had to build my individual strength only insofar as it allowed me to grow my collective strength.”

“But doesn’t that mean you’re not the strongest anymore?”

“I was never the strongest. My excadrill was far stronger.”

Silver frowns at him. “You’re being pedantic.”

“Not so. My point is my power was always in the pokemon I had under my command. On my journey, I had a few dozen. Today I have hundreds. More importantly, if something happens to me, the system I’ve created would ensure the work continues. Now, are you ready for dinner?”

Silver is. It’s his turn to pick the dinner, so they have sashimi and cranberry juice. It’s clear that Father dislikes the juice, but Silver smiles each time he drinks it and makes a face, so he keeps sipping it. The two sit alone to eat today, a luxury that Silver always treasures, even if it gives Father the freedom to ask him questions about how his studies are going.

He answers them as quick as he can, then goes to the question that’s really been interesting him. “Father, why did you promise both of your friends that you would support their enemy in a fight?”

“You haven’t guessed?”

“I think I have. It was to have them both killed by one of your agents once they trusted you, right?” Silver smiles.

Father’s chopsticks pause on the way to his mouth, ever so briefly. Silver isn’t sure if others would have noticed it, but he notices everything Father does. “Do you think I would kill my friends?”

Silver shrugs. “If you had to.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“If you were just doing it for fun, maybe. But you’re trying to stop monsters. You have to be a stronger monster to do that, don’t you?”

After a moment of silence, Silver looks up from his food to see that Father has stopped eating, gaze distant. He hesitates, realizing that calling someone a monster is probably not considered polite. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Father immediately says. “No, you didn’t. You simply held up a mirror to show me the sort of man I appear to be. I’m glad, that you can do that for me.”

“Oh. Okay.” Silver’s legs kick beneath the table as he tries to figure it out on his own, but eventually his worry that he did say something wrong is too great. “Why?”

“Because,” Father says, and begins to eat again. “Perhaps if your grandmother had such a mirror, she would not have become quite the monster she did.”

Silver still isn’t sure he understands that either, but he resolves to figure it out himself instead of going on about it for the rest of dinner while there are other things to ask. “So I was wrong? About your plan?”

“Yes. I decided that the best way I could ensure that my friends did not fight was to make them think I was more on their opponent’s side than theirs. As long as both believe I will side with their enemy, and thus put them at a severe disadvantage, then both have an added incentive not to begin hostilities. And since both know why I would not tell their opponent that, they also have an incentive not to refer to it themselves, or tell any of their own people, for fear that it would get to the other.”

“Huh.” It made sense, in a roundabout sort of way. “I guess it’s better to lie to friends than kill them. How often do you do that?” Silver is thinking of the shows he watches, sometimes, and how often secrets between the heroes cause trouble. He doesn’t bring them up; Father doesn’t like him getting his sense of what’s realistic or true from media, and Silver knows how much smarter Father is than the writers of the shows or movies from the rare nights when they watched something together. Silver would be asked to write out what the characters did, what he would do instead, and then Father would point out all the better choices they could have made.

Father takes a sip of his juice, grimaces, puts it down. “Perhaps most would not need to. For certain people, however, secrets are required to ensure safety.”

Silver nods. This he understands; secrets are what keep him safe. Father puts a lot of effort into ensuring his enemies don’t know Silver exists or where he is. But still… “When do you know that it’s safe to share a secret, then?”

“When the consequence of it staying hidden becomes worse than the consequence of it getting out. Or when someone’s trust is about to be broken.”


Dr. Light watches the rest of the team file into the room with a barely controlled, simmering anger that makes it hard to sit still. One or more of these eight idiot geniuses has broken ranks, and now they’re all going to be paying for it.

“Alright folks, let’s get this started. I’m sure we all have important things to get back to,” she says. As head of Cinnabar Labs, she’s the de facto highest ranking administrator in the room. Not that she asked to be; she was happily working on her gene editing research until 2.351 “awoke.” Labs across the region shut down rapidly after that as staff consolidated to work on all the breakthroughs that followed. Unfortunately that meant senior staff quickly became supervisors as they had more people to manage, and supervisors quickly became administrators. Soon she had less and less time for research, and before she knew it she was administrator of the whole lab, a job Dr. Fuji would have been much better suited to…

She forces her thoughts away from that sad path. Better not to think about it, and besides, she has more immediate worries.

“What’s this all about, Ivy?” Dr. Burnam asks her, and she meets his gaze, searching it for any sign of complicity. “Next administrator meeting is supposed to be in a week.”

“You may have noticed the word ’emergency’ in the email,” she says, voice dry. “It can’t wait until next week. Someone’s drawing from the communal pool out of rotation.”

A few people at the table curse or mutter under their breath, and Dr. Light tries to watch them all at the same time, as well as everyone else. It’s no use, she knows that, she’s not going to be able to tell who’s in on it just by watching for guilty tells. If they were the sort of people with tells, they wouldn’t have their jobs.

“Now obviously we can’t just get a psychic in here and have them check for guilt,” she says, which elicits some chuckles from the room of dark and psychic scientists. “But I’d like to resolve this without getting Giovanni involved. I hope I don’t need to remind you all that part of our jobs is to try and solve these sorts of problems before they get to his desk. He’s got enough on it.”

“So what’s someone doing?” asks Dr. Martin. “How are they getting away with it? There’s logs for every request, isn’t there?”

“Sure, yeah. Have you checked it recently?”

The man frowns. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I—”

“—she’s not implying anything, it’s a simple question.” Dr. Bosch interrupts. “Have you looked at it recently, or do you just sign your name and move on?”

“Look, when you make it sound like—”

“Enough,” Dr. Light says, already feeling a headache coming on. “I brought the book, just take a look at it yourselves.” She lifts it from the portfolio from the stack behind her and starts passing it to her left, where people begin to rifle through the pages of signed names, times, and requisitions.

Dr. Martin shakes his head and frowns, passing it on with a puzzled expression. Dr. Sato does the same, but Dr. Brown’s brow rises, and she sees that he spotted it. “A lot of these are just scribbles.”

“What?” The woman next to him takes the book and looks it over, then scowls. “Who did this?”

The others are clamoring for a look now, and Dr. Light raises her hands. “No need to check yourselves, it’s not that complicated. I’m pretty sure my 5 year old niece has done something similar when she needed her mom to sign a note for school once. At least one person has been just scribbling something that looks like a name on the form, but it’s illegible. Avoiding electronic records keeps us safe in one way but opens us up to shit like this. So, let’s get to the bottom of this now. Quick and easy. If you’ve been doing this, raise your hand.”

Everyone stares at each other, some in consternation, others in bland confusion. Dr. Light drums her fingers on the table, hoping with every passing second that someone does the right thing… until it becomes clear that no one will.

“Dammit people,” Dr. Collins says with a disgusted look. Head of the reconstructive cloning program, and suspiciously good at finishing his projects on time. She hears he drives his people to the bone, though, so it may just be that. “I’ve got two samples that need to be monitored for the rest of the day, I don’t have time for this.” He makes to get up.

Sit. Down,” Dr. Light says. “We all have places to be, but this is serious. People aren’t just asking for supplies, they’re asking for staff too.”

“Well, then, what’s the issue?” Dr. Brown asks. Mechanical R&D. He’s working on making environmental suits resistant to cold, heat, and electricity all at once, including Mewtwo’s. “Just ask them who they worked for.”

“Thanks, Mark, I didn’t think of that,” she says with a sweet smile. “Maybe if we’d spotted these right away that would have worked, but no one remembers whose lab they assisted in every day for the past five months. Anonymous records, folks! Get it through your heads. Unless one of you wants to put your name on some file that might get emailed? We can cast a vote, what do you say? Anyone?” She glares around the room, but no one raises their hand. “Thought not. So what’s the solution here?”

“Don’t you have one?” Dr. Martin asks.

“Clearly not, or she wouldn’t be asking,” Dr. Collins says. “I don’t see what the solution can be, though. We’re all hurting for manpower at some point. We just need to check the book daily from now on, make sure no one makes a request without printing legibly.”

“That’s only half the problem,” Dr. Light says, and sighs. Most of her anger is spent. “The reason people are doing this, I’m pretty sure, is that it lets them get through crunch time on their projects. We’ll have to implement a project scale down—”

The whole room starts to shout her down, but she takes the binder and slams it on the desk until it’s quiet. “I don’t like it either, but we’re running our people ragged like this! If we all follow the rotation, no one gets burnt out, but we clearly can’t do that, so this seems like the best option.”

“Easy for you to say,” Dr. Sato says, taking her by surprise. “Of course if there’s an emergency going on, Cinnabar Lab will get the priority, even outside of rotation.”

Her temper flares back up. “I’m sorry, do you want the living superweapon’s room to be understaffed on the day it happens to decide it wants out? I know it won’t be your people who get pasted to bloody jelly first, but—”

“No one’s saying they want that,” Dr. Brown says, holding up a soothing hand. “I think the main argument is that we all have critical projects to work on, and without the ability to pull people as needed, many of them will fall through.”

“And if everyone pulls at once, or people start to pull extras with scribbles, normal projects are falling through,” Dr. Romero says, speaking up for the first time. “I’ve got a backlog that I’ve been waiting for some openings in the roster to tackle. Now I know why it’s been taking so long.” She shakes her head. “We should be better than this, folks.”

“If we could just hire more staff—” Dr. Collins starts, only to have Dr. Brown make a sound of exasperation.

“Not this again. It’s not going to happen, Perry, not anytime soon. You don’t think Giovanni’s been trying? We’ve practically tapped the whole island dry.”

“Hell at this point I’m pretty sure they’re thinking of retraining the electricians and janitors,” Dr. Bosch says with a smile. “It’s not like we can hire interns or temps from the outside and have them sign an NDA, right?”

The discussion continues off topic from there, but Dr. Light makes no effort to rein it in. She knows better than to stop a bitchfest this massive before it lets off some steam, and despite what Dr. Sato said, she knows what it’s like to be hurting for manpower too.

It’s a simple coordination problem: nine labs set up in Kanto, with enough full-time staff to run maybe seven of them at once… but all nine are working on critical projects that can’t be stopped or delayed. Ostensibly. In truth, any of them (except maybe Cinnabar) could wind down some operations, consolidate, and take turns using the same resource pool, but… no one’s really willing to be the one to do that first.

So people make special requisitions of resources or general staff to deal with some emergency or opportunity, and then the lab they came from falls behind, so they do it, and on it goes, until all anyone’s accomplished is overworking everyone to complete a “normal” week’s worth of productive work instead of recognizing that the expectations are unrealistic. The first person to admit their lab could get by with less would just get by with less, freeing more for the other labs, who now don’t have to sacrifice as much.

All that would be okay if there was maybe another 100 staff to go around, but as Dr. Bosch mentioned, it’s not like they can hire just anyone, even for small positions. The two full-dark labs are the greatest drain on scarce resources, as Giovanni tries to bring a second lab of Cinnabar’s capabilities up to speed for project 3.0.

It’s a point of major concern for her, since she doesn’t know what will happen to 2.351 if they finally do get the staff needed to scrap the risky hybrid and start anew. People have been expecting it for years, but the logistics are just too great a hurdle. They still don’t know how unique 2.351 may be: the second lab that tried to recreate it kept failing, and no one’s sure if it was the presence of the other minds that were needed, or some quality of that combination of minds in particular, or even just one of them.

Those projects were shut down quickly. Erring on the safer side to avoid an explosive intelligence growth only to create batch after batch of varying degrees of “feral” mewtwo has been a nightmare to contemplate, and she doesn’t envy Dr. Sato for having to deal with it. Getting most of his geneticists poached by Dr. Martin’s hybrid project didn’t help either…

“—think it’s clear that this is more widespread than any of us want to admit,” Dr. Brown says. “Not that I’m admitting anything, but… just supposing you’re all in on it, I guess I’d think that’s just the normal state of affairs, and I’ve been missing out. I do sort of feel that way, to be honest.”

Dr. Romero raises his hand. “I haven’t been. This is all news to me, though I guess I should have seen it coming.”

Dr. Light raises her hand too. “I also don’t do it, and you’re missing the point. This isn’t sustainable. Whether all of us are doing it or just one of us, it’s messing with everyone’s productivity and worker well-being. Which is important, because I don’t want to bring up anyone here’s severance package.” She glares around the room, and is satisfied to see everyone look away.

Just then the door opens. Dr. Light is about to yell at whoever it is to knock first, but immediately gets to her feet when Giovanni himself walks in the room.

“Sir! We weren’t expecting you…” Normally their boss will communicate with them through video casting, or just a voice call. Traveling without the ability to teleport is annoying for all dark folk, but for someone as busy as the Gym Leader, she legitimately doesn’t know how he manages to get so much done. What’s he even doing here? Did someone leak the meeting to him?

“I apologize for dropping in so unexpectedly,” Giovanni says, voice steady and calming. “I’ll only be a few minutes. What’s this meeting concerning?”

“Ah.” Dr. Light feels a pit of dread in her stomach. She didn’t want to get Giovanni involved for her own sake, but she also didn’t want whoever was pulling this crap to get fired. The word takes on a different sort of meaning when you work for secret organizations doing highly illegal experiments.

Dr. Burnam gets Giovanni up to speed, either unaware of the implications or uncaring. She never managed to get a good read on him.

“Well, that does sound like a frustrating problem. What solutions have you proposed so far?”

Dr. Light clears her throat and sums up the ideas they had (except for hiring new people, since it goes without saying), without mentioning that each have at least one person who spoke out against them. She sees a few grateful looks flashed in her direction. She’s still a bit nervous, but has calmed down from the initial jolt to the heart that came from seeing the boss so unexpectedly.

“I see.” Giovanni stands with his hands clasped behind his back, gaze taking in the room. “Well, it seems you’re on the road to a solution. I won’t distract you all any further. Dr. Collins, I just came for you. Completely unrelated.”

Dr Light blinks as she looks at Perry. The head of the Celadon lab goes pale, sweat beading his forehead, and Dr. Light looks back at Giovanni just as he pulls a greatball from inside his jacket.

The room explodes into motion as everyone suddenly moves for the walls or gets behind other furniture, while Dr. Collins babbles “I… I don’t… Sir… Please, I can explain…”

Giovanni points the ball at him. There’s a ping. Dr. Light is still seated in her chair, staring in shock as Perry finally pushes himself up out of his seat and tries to run.

The ball hits him in the back, his wail of fear abruptly cut off as he’s sucked into it.

The room is quiet as the ball falls to the ground and rolls up against the table leg.

Giovanni steps toward the ball. “Would you mind, Dr. Light?”

“No, sir,” she says, lips numb as she leans down and takes the great ball with trembling fingers. Part of her wants to ask what Dr. Collins did. What terrible betrayal, what monumental incompetence. The rest of her doesn’t want to know. Sorry, Perry. She hands it to her boss without looking at him.

“Thank you. Do keep me posted on how all this resolves, won’t you?” He’s not looking at her, but at the rest of the room. Dr. Bosch looks like he’s going to be sick, and Dr. Romero’s face is turned toward the wall, shoulders shaking. “I’ll see you all for the normal meeting next week.”

Giovanni leaves. Dr. Light stays seated. Slowly, one by one, people make their way back to the table. Lift overturned chairs. Sit down.

“So,” she says after everyone’s back, some with their head in their hands, others staring blankly at her or the table. “Those in favor of a slightly scaling down operations, raise your hand.”

Every hand goes up. Politics, Dr. Light thinks in a mix of disgust and relief. She just wanted to be a researcher. Still, if she was a praying woman, she’d be thanking Arceus every day that she works in an organization where someone in charge can step in and enforce coordination, frightening as it sometimes is.

At least she doesn’t have to apply for grant money.


If there’s one thing Tahu always knew he was meant for, it was understanding what people wanted.

“I’m sorry,” the renegade says. “I just… I don’t know what came over me! Please, don’t, don’t kill me, I’m sorry!

Desperation. Fear. He types the words out with trembling fingers as he feels the sensed emotions in himself. Then he withdraws his mind from theirs, knowing what was coming next. No mystery here; the man is malleable, but weak. What he wants doesn’t matter compared to what Giovanni does.

“They had to die. Parasites, swollen on the blood of the people. The legal system’s in their pocket, they had to see what happens to them! It’s less than they deserved!”

Righteous anger. Complete conviction. Some mystery on this one. Tahu tries to predict Giovanni’s response, whether he thinks the renegade could be tempered, made useful. In the end he predicts wrong, which only drives him to understand more.

“Go fuck yourself, ‘Leader!'” The woman practically spits the word out. “If you’re going to kill me then get it over with!”

Rage. Self-loathing. No mystery. If death is what she wants, death she’ll have.

Month after month, whenever Giovanni has to execute a renegade, his personal assistant Tahu is nearby, listening to the conversations through an earpiece and typing what he finds to his Leader. He’s gotten better at predicting what Giovanni would choose, whether he would give them the shot that kills them, or the one he keeps in his jacket that would only make them appear dead. But his Leader still surprises him, and his explanations of why are always enlightening, to the point that Tahu has requested to be present and listen in on even dark and psychic renegades, just so he can try and predict Giovanni’s choice. He was granted that, for which he’s grateful. He has a lot to be grateful for, overall.

“This has all just been a terrible mistake. I wish I could do something, say something to convince you of that…”

Tahu sits with his back against the wall dividing him from the renegade, eyes closed as he feels for something, but… there’s barely anything there, and what he finds is hard to parse. He’s used to numbness when people are facing their final moments, but this is different. It’s not numb but nearly empty. Some traces of tension, some wariness, some anticipation. What he thinks of more than anything are numbers that go up or down, expectations and… calculation. That’s the word.

Tahu opens his eyes and types into his phone: No regret. Seems to be calculating what the best thing to say is? Hard to read, feels neither sincere or insincere. Tahu feels a brief stab of frustration and worry that he can’t be of more help, but a greater part of him is excited. How would Giovanni handle this?

There’s a pause, and then the Leader says, “Unfortunately, even if I believed you, it would not matter to your sentence. You know that. I’m curious if there’s anything you would have done differently, looking back on what’s happened?”

“I don’t know. Worked a different job, I suppose, so that I wouldn’t have become a suspect.”

Tahu hears Giovanni sigh. “Mr. Ueno, you’re about to be executed for a crime that, in most people’s eyes, deserves a punishment far greater than a quick and painless shot into oblivion. This conversation is not being recorded, one of the few rights I have managed to acquire for branded renegades in our region, so that their last moments would not be spent thinking of their legacy. So they could have some freedom, some space to be genuine, in their final experiences. If you truly wish this to be your last conversation, it is of course your choice. But I’ve seen your code… or I suppose I should say, the code that was used in the attacks. It’s impressive stuff. You can use your final moments how you wish, I just thought you might appreciate someone to talk to.”

That last was a good touch: a lie of sorts, Tahu knows Giovanni doesn’t actually understand much programming, but he sensed the flicker of pride when the Leader mentioned the code. Now the renegade is feeling something more familiar, cycling between a desire to share, to be understood, with honed instincts of keeping the truth to themself.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” Giovanni says. “Oh, pardon me, that was thoughtless.” The faint sound of a hypodermic needle being picked up from its table—

Resolution, like standing at the edge of a cliff.

“Wait.”

—and the sound of it being put down. “Yes?”

“I would have waited a day.”

Giovanni doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “What would have changed, if you waited?”

“Everything. I thought of a far more elegant solution just a day after I left the ball, but didn’t want to return and risk being seen on camera taking it back. It was well hidden, even more than the other cities.”

“The other cities.” Giovanni lets out a breath. “So you were behind the incident in Fuchsia? It seemed similar. Well planned out. Methodical.” More pride, and some annoyance? Tahu sends a quick text. “And others,” the Leader says after a moment. “I’ve missed some, haven’t I?”

“Not just you. My first experiments were in Carmine and Ivory Town, but no one noticed. They were chalked up to just random pokemon attacks, as if a parasect and kingler just happened to wander into the middle of town without anyone noticing.”

“So four successful tests in all. What were you trying for each time? Not just a delayed autorelease, surely.”

“Set, preconditioned behaviors. Imagine the applications.”

“Oh, I have, believe me. Security. Search and rescue. Transport, if people want to travel from fixed locations by pokemon without a handler. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?”

“Sure, if my thinking was stuck that small.”

Tahu’s breath stops. He’s been Giovanni’s personal psychic for over eight years, and he’s never heard someone so much as insinuate that the Leader was less than a genius, even outside of his presence. Not that the people he spends time with are likely to say so, but still…

“Oh, I can think bigger,” Giovanni says, and it’s only from long association that Tahu can hear the slight, dangerous smile on the Leader’s face. “But they’re all the sorts of reasons hacking pokeball tech is illegal in the first place. Is that what you were actually aiming to do, ultimately?”

“Yes.”

“And would you, if you were given a second chance? Warned away from it?”

“Probably. It’s too great a challenge to just ignore. What am I supposed to do, pretend there are more interesting things to work on? There aren’t. Not to me. That’s why you’re going to let me live.”

“Am I?”

“Of course. All this isn’t for my sake, and you’re not just building a profile of renegades. You want to know if I’m controllable. If I’ll be able to work for you secretly, if you get me out of this somehow and stick me in a facility somewhere. I’m not the first to think of this, there are conspiracy theories online. I was always skeptical of them, but now I’m starting to believe it.”

Tahu blinks. This is the first time he’s heard someone get so close to the truth, even if they’re motivated to believe it by egotism. The man is more confident than he claims: Tahu senses a sliver of hope, a shard of curiosity… but mostly what he feels from Ueno is that of course he would be spared death. A man of his genius is too valuable to kill, his story too important to end here.

Tahu lets Giovanni know, though he doesn’t think it will change the Leader’s obvious next response: “And would you?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Ueno’s hope grows, as does his egotism. Vindication is a singing chorus in Tahu’s mind, and he quickly withdraws his connection with the renegade, disliking the feel. It was like a drug.

It wasn’t the only thing he felt, however. Sincerity, Tahu types out… then hesitates.

If he sends this message, he predicts Giovanni will spare the renegade. He’d think someone this skilled would be a waste to kill, that his potential positive impact would be too great not to explore, in a safely restricted way.

But Tahu doesn’t quite agree. There’s something off about the man’s thoughts, his inner experiences. It would be one thing if he felt like a vibrating voltorb, but instead he’s more like… some ghost that might fade out of the corner of your eye as soon as you look away.

He could change the message. Lie about the renegade’s sincerity.

But Giovanni trusts him. It’s part of the puzzle of the man, the way he assigns trust to others when he has so many secrets to keep. Tahu has no doubt that if he betrays his Leader he would be snuffed out, but he’s okay with that. Because just as he’s trusted, he trusts his Leader in return.

It would be one thing to act without his knowledge for his benefit. But to deliberately deceive him… that would be a step too far.

Perhaps there’s another way.

Sincere, he sends, the wait already having gone on for a few seconds longer than customary. But there’s something about him that seems inherently hard to pin down. I would not trust him. He rereads the message twice, then sends it too.

It’s the first time he’s ever added commentary to his readings.

If Giovanni is surprised, it’s not evident in his voice. “I suppose we’ll see.” There’s the scrape of the needle…

“Wait. Wasn’t that the poison one?”

“There’s no non-poison one. It’s just a matter of dosage. I advise you keep still.”

Well, I tried. Tahu lets out a breath, then stands and stretches his legs and shoulders before he makes his way out of the room and around to the front of the building, where he takes a pull on his e-cig, holding it in his lungs for a while to relax his nerves.

No matter how many times, the moment of injection always brings him back to his own, even when it’s non-lethal. He hadn’t known that at the time. He thought he was going to die.

He was just a thug, back then. He gravitated toward the strongest kids in his neighborhood, did his best to understand what they needed, then give it to them. He was good at it. Even without people saying anything, he’d get feelings about what those around him needed or wanted.

So when he felt his whole gang’s anger at someone in an opposing one, how everyone seemed to feel it would be best if they just weren’t around anymore, the easiest thing to do was use a pokemon to kill them. Nothing fearsome, just a crappy bug that he caught and barely trained. Hopefully something that would be seen as an accident.

And it was. The first time. He wasn’t so lucky the third.

He may not have been spared if the Leader sent to execute him hadn’t noticed his untrained psychic powers. Apparently they made him so valuable that he was already “sold” by the time he woke up a few days after his supposed execution, body recovering from the comatose state slowly but surely. He barely had time to get used to the idea that he was actually still alive before he was told what would happen next in no uncertain terms.

He would be sent to another region. Minor plastic surgery, newly forged documents, and a falsified civil record would allow him to leave his past behind him. He would dedicate himself to the service of the Leader who had purchased him. His life would be full of work, but not cruel. He would be allowed a salary, some personal time. He could eventually retire, even.

But he could never speak of what had happened to him. And he couldn’t quit. Not unless he wanted to be hunted down a second time, and killed with even less of a trial.

Tahu agreed. It seemed, on balance, an excessively fair trade, even to his young and stupid self.

He had few opinions about his new lease on life, at first. He was just happy to be alive. When he was told that it was Leader Giovanni, of all people, who had purchased him, it felt like a dream. Even a gutter punk from another region like him knew about the youngest Champion in Kanto history. Apparently the Viridian Gym Leader was paying a premium for psychic and dark renegades, even without training.

Traveling to Kanto felt like something out of a kid’s movie. A month before, he had been a petty criminal. No prospects, barely any money to his name. Now he was on his way to a foreign region, where food and lodging would be provided indefinitely, as well as training for his latent psychic powers, all so he could help one of the most powerful trainers in the world.

And all I had to do to earn it was try to kill someone, and get branded a renegade, he remembers thinking as he watched the island he would soon call home approach in the distance.

Life is strange, sometimes.

Leader Giovanni eventually calls for him, and Tahu presents himself to his boss’s office. Or at least the one in the Gym. It’s far more ostentatious than the ones in his less… public places. Trappings of the position are important: even Tahu, who’s been in here countless times now and is always acutely aware of Giovanni’s position in comparison to him on even a personal level, feels their difference in status more keenly when he walks in.

“Sit down,” the Leader says, typing something on his computer. “I’d like you to report more fully on the renegade we just interviewed.”

Tahu feels himself start to sweat, suddenly worried that he’s here to be punished for his comment. He instinctively reaches his mind out to sense what his Leader is thinking, and of course senses nothing at all. It’s surprising how that never stops getting ever-so-mildly frustrating. It’s the reason most psychics don’t spend a lot of time around dark minds, if they can help it.

“I feel as though I have a weak grasp on his psychology,” Tahu says after a minute, knowing his Leader would never begrudge him time to think. “I don’t know how to evaluate what he believes is true about himself and what he will justify tomorrow. I think it’s… risky, letting him live. More than most, I mean. Even given what he can accomplish, I wouldn’t have made the same decision.”

Giovanni nods, and continues to type into his computer. Tahu waits, knowing he isn’t being slighted and needing the time to think through what he just said over and over before he’s satisfied he didn’t leave anything out, or assert something he can’t stand behind.

Eventually Giovanni stops typing, clicks something, then gives Tahu his full attention. “Is this the first time you had an opinion on whether a fellow renegade was too dangerous to risk?”

Fellow renegade. It’s been so long since he’s thought of himself in those terms. “No.”

“Why haven’t you shared them before?”

“I didn’t feel it was my place,” he says automatically. “I’m sorry if—”

“No,” Giovanni says, and Tahu falls silent. “Skip that part.”

After a moment the psychic nods. “Sir. I worried you would make a mistake. I hoped to help you avoid it, if possible.” His throat feels dry, but he doesn’t swallow, face schooled as he meets his Leader’s gaze.

“Good.” He looks at his screen, mouse moving to bring something up. “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved, since coming to work with me?”

Tahu blinks at the sudden shift. “I don’t.” He’s fought alongside the other Gym members, of course. He can remember a few of the people he’s saved, like a group of trapped trainers during the Viridian Forest fire a few months ago. When he was still new to all this, he kept track; it felt like something that might eventually balance out the ones he took, someday. Eventually he stopped counting. “Do you?” It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that Giovanni was somehow tracking something like that.

“No. Even counting just the renegades you’ve helped, there’s no way to tell which were the direct result of your intervention. But here’s what the record shows.” He turns the screen, and Tahu sees a graph that stretches back decades. “Notice anything?”

It’s faint at first, but there. A steady upward trend, starting eight years ago. By the beginning of this year, the percentage of renegades that Giovanni has managed to spare from execution has more than doubled from the point it was before Tahu joined.

“I long ago honed the art of speaking with and discerning which renegades were safe to spare and which weren’t to what I thought was as good as I could do. It was only with your help that I was able to break those limits.”

A swell of pride in Tahu’s chest makes him feel oddly embarrassed. Praise by the Leader isn’t unheard of, but this is more than that. It’s… something very close to validation, and Tahu is alarmed to feel something like tears prickling at the back of his eyes. “I’m… gratified that I can be of such help, Leader. But wouldn’t any psychic serve as well to pass along simple impressions?”

“Would they? I’m told that there’s a depth and nuance that comes with skill for these things, as well as the ability to keep your perspective while merging it with someone else’s emotions.”

“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to dodge the compliment, I only meant that any psychic of sufficient skill could do what I do.”

“To a certain degree, yes. Sabrina, if she had no other duties, or Hitoshi, perhaps. But you weren’t selected for your abilities alone. You were selected because of your background, and because of your loyalty. Loyalty I fostered in you, so I could extend trust. Do you understand?”

“I… believe so. You’re saying you trust me to share my thoughts with you.”

“Yes.” Giovanni’s lips quirk in a smile. “I often find that confidence is not just a matter of our own assessment of our competence, but also our assessment of how those around us recognize or value our competence. For whatever reason, it seems I’ve signaled enough positive signs of trusting your judgement to warrant you to feel confident enough to share some of it. This is me reinforcing that confidence more explicitly.”

Tahu bows his torso, taking on the cultural practice of the region to show the depth of his feeling. “I’m honored, Leader. More than I can say.”

“I did end up sparing Mr. Ueno.”

Tahu blinks, still bowing. He sits up. “Ah.”

“I don’t want that to discourage you,” Giovanni says. “There are factors beyond those you’re aware of. Some who request renegades are less, ah, lenient than others, with those they employ. Taking your advisement into consideration, I believe Mr. Ueno will do well with someone who will keep a closer eye on him than most, while still ensuring his particular skills and genius can benefit others.”

“I understand.” It’s hard not to think of what sorts of living conditions might be required to keep a renegade of Ueno’s genius under such close control. Not that it matters: in the end it’s surely better than death, and perhaps the programmer would relish an environment that lets him dedicate himself entirely to his work.

“Now that you’ve extended not just your trust of me, but of mine toward you, I want your perspective on something that I’ve shown few others. Perhaps you can advise me on it, the same way you do with the renegades.”

Tahu feels pride swell up in him again, and smiles. “Of course. I’m at your service, Leader. Always.”

Giovanni sends a message, then stands. “Good. Because we’re going now.”

When Giovanni tells him where, Tahu feels his heart leap, and hurries to follow. Today began as fairly normal. He wouldn’t have guessed that his decision would change so much.

He knows what’s been going on at Cinnabar Island, of course, but only second hand. He’s never been in the same room as the creature, and no video footage exists. It’s one of the greatest mysteries around, and it’s hard to contain his excitement at finally having a closer look at it, if still indirectly. Sabrina talks about it with him, now and then, but not in much detail. He gets the feeling she doesn’t like him, though it’s hard to know for sure with how good she is at mental defense.

Eventually Tahu stands with Giovanni before a door, waiting for the system to boot up.

“It takes a few minutes for the room to clear out, normally,” Giovanni says. “I often spend the time reviewing my goals for the meetings, playing through what it might say, how I will respond to certain questions.”

“And are you not now?”

“No. For this, I’ve developed a script.”

“Ah.” He’s not sure he understands, but he has a more pressing question. “Wouldn’t it help if I could merge thoughts with it first, at least once? Get a sense of how it thinks and feels?”

“I’m sure it would, but for matters such as that, I must defer to Sabrina. I know your shield is sufficient, or you would not be here, but if she gives you clearance then we can discuss it for one of the upcoming visits.”

His jaw sets. “As you say, Leader.”

“Until then, I’m curious about your impression without such. What I want you to focus on are the same sorts of things you would with a renegade interview. Understood?”

“Yes.”

When they get the notification that things are ready, Giovanni taps the screen beside the door, then walks in. Tahu gets only a glimpse of what’s inside, then it closes, and he’s left to watch on the monitor.

The experimental life form hangs suspended in his pod, various media systems around it to play him music or display videos or digital books. The computer terminals and chairs are all empty, the guard and their pokemon absent. He spots the new addition of the mobile life support suit, which hangs nearby in its own chamber where it can be serviced and deployed as needed. It’s apparently used more and more often these days, as Mewtwo leaves his chamber to interact with the rest of the facility, and spend time outside. Giovanni stopped requiring his own presence for those; according to Sabrina, the Leader’s creation seems content to simply stand and stare, or walk around the manor grounds.

Tahu knows that at first Giovanni only pretended to be absent, watching from a distance through binoculars until Mewtwo returned downstairs. Lacking the ability to teleport is one of the Leader’s greatest frustrations, and so after a dozen such incidents, when it seemed truly content to simply bask in the sunlight, Giovanni allowed the trips more often, and put his time to better use elsewhere.

As he said, trust is hard to develop.

“Greetings, Giovanni. How are you today?”

Mewtwo’s synthetic voice fills the chamber, and Tahu watches as the Leader reaches the chair in front of the tube and sits, one leg crossed over his knee as he gazes up at his creation. “Greetings, Mewtwo. Well enough, and you?”

Scripted, he said. Tahu tries to determine what the point of this script is. What he’s meant to witness and advise on, with everything so set in stone.

“Yes. Shall we play a game?”

“Not today.”

No immediate response. Is that part off-script? Tahu watches both of them, but his gaze moves more often to the creature’s face, fascinated. He knows it’s half human, but he sees nothing familiar in its pinched, bone-white features. No lips, no eyebrows, a snout instead of a nose… he can’t make out the eyes from this distance, but he imagines them as similarly alien.

“Is something wrong?” Mewtwo finally asks.

“Yes. Something is wrong, and has been for a long time, now.”

“What is it? Perhaps I can help.”

Giovanni gathers himself with a breath, then expels it and stares down at his clasped hands. “You cannot help with this. It was my error, you see. My mistake. I didn’t trust you.”

The room is quiet. There’s the background noises of the creature’s life pod, and the monitoring equipment. It all sounds so real, even through the speakers. The one for Mewtwo’s heart rate stays constant, steady, despite the surprise it would surely be feeling. Little things like that keep distracting Tahu, and he makes an effort to refocus, in case he misses what he’s supposed to see.

Finally Giovanni’s creation responds. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s quite simple. I didn’t trust you, Mewtwo, when we created you. I hoped for intelligence, and intelligence you have, in abundance. I hoped for power, and that too you have, far outstripping our expectations in some ways, even if others are not yet met. But I did not dare hope for obedience, for trust. Hope for such things would be foolish. Dangerous. I needed to be cautious. Safe. And as a result, I fear I have ruined things permanently.”

Mewtwo is silent again. Tahu can’t imagine what responses it might have prepared for something like this, except to ask the obvious…

“Ruined things how? What have you done?”

“I manufactured your illness.” Tahu’s eyes widen. “It was meant as a control mechanism, when you were created. Many of your non-dark researchers truly do not understand it, to help sell the illusion. The others enhance it, keep it evolving, to keep them befuddled. When they reach a breakthrough or suspect the truth, we have them inflict Amnesia on themselves if psychic, or transfer them to another facility if not.”

Silence, for almost a minute. Tahu uses the time to guess what Giovanni is thinking, what the consequences he’s expecting from this will be, until a single word is spoken:

“Why?”

“We had no way of knowing how smart you would be. How… human. Or how powerful. If you were to somehow escape, despite all our other precautions, we needed something immensely deadly and pernicious, beyond even the ability of a powerful psychic’s ability to regenerate.” Giovanni pauses, seeming to let out a heavy breath. Surely part of the script as well. “We succeeded.”

Silence in the room, but for the occasional fluid transfer, the steady beep. Beep. Beep. Tahu watches Giovanni’s fingers smooth the material of his pant leg. It’s the first time he’s seen the Leader show any sign of nervousness. Pent up energy, yes. Tension, of course. But this can only be described as nervousness. Tahu can see the moment when he calms himself, and raises his gaze to meet his creation’s again. To focus on the importance of the moment.

“I cannot be cured?” the synthetic voice asks at last, so deep and powerful. A fitting voice, somehow.

“On the contrary, you can. The problem is that I do not trust that you trust us. I have come to realize my error in stages, over the years. I did not like those realizations, but I endeavored to consider them, focused on discerning how justified they were. I listened to counsel from those who know you best. I now believe my errors were severe.

“Had I simply trusted you more, given you more freedom sooner, perhaps you would be a perfect partner, now. A few years in, there was still much testing to do. Much to learn. And always, more excuses to be made, more reasons for caution. Your threats were, of course, the greatest justification to stay the course, but I do not blame you for them. I blame myself, for making them necessary. Perhaps if I had been less cautious, trusted the human in you more than the pokemon, there would exist a strong bond, if not like that of a parent and child, at least not one of master and slave. I do not…” Giovanni stops, and it’s hard to tell if it’s part of his script or not. “I am imperfect in many ways. I have learned much over the past decade. I hope you understand that. I hope I have not ruined things irrevocably. That by coming clean, I can salvage some seed of trust. That is all I need, in truth. To really, truly feel that, even if you cannot forgive me, it would be safe to grant you your freedom, and perhaps start anew.”

Tahu is holding his breath despite himself. He forces himself to breathe out, then back in. He’d gotten caught up in the moment, when he should be trying to think through what he’s seeing, the implications, and what Giovanni’s imagined responses to this script, this confession, are.

He knows enough to already presume that the Leader would have used prediction algorithms that studied every word Mewtwo has ever spoken, running millions of simulations (imperfect, all imperfect, for of course they can’t put the real Mewtwo in a ball and risk damage to his mind), coming up with all sorts of answers, until he could find the right words to say to get the right response:

“Of course we can. I understand your choices, whatever pain they have caused me. Once I am cured and free, we can begin building true trust between us.”

Giovanni closes his eyes, breath coming out in a near silent rush. He’s focused on something, though what it is Tahu can’t begin to guess (so frustrating!), and he’s glad he was told to engage his shield so he isn’t tempted to reach out, only to feel that void again.

No, he has to try. Tahu puts himself in Giovanni’s mind as best he can. Not just what he might feel, hearing those words, but how he wants to feel.

Is it even remotely like what he feels when a renegade says they would toe the line, if spared?

Giovanni’s eyes open. He watches his creation a moment longer, as if contemplating feelings that just… won’t… change.

And then he presses the button beside the pod that would terminate Mewtwo’s life.

Instead of poisons flooding the pod, Mewtwo simply disappears from inside it. The rest of the room flickers on the monitor, fading back into the bare whiteness of the holochamber. Giovanni sits still as the simulation ends yet again, finger finally leaving the empty air where the button was.

Tahu watches as Giovanni sits for another minute in that white, empty room, then stands and leaves the chamber.

The Viridian Gym leader takes a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipes sweat from his forehead as he rejoins Tahu. The psychic barely notices, still thinking of what he saw.

“Do you understand?” Giovanni eventually asks.

“I think so,” Tahu says, each word measured, careful. “It is not enough to hear the right words. Difficult choices don’t come when you hear the wrong ones. What matters here is not what the creature says, but how you feel about what it says.”

“Yes. I’ve rarely found it so difficult to understand my own feelings on a matter, but in this case it seems impossible for me to separate my caution from my perception of reality. I’ve lost perspective.”

Tahu feels uncomfortable, if touched, for being so confided in. “Does that mean that it’s best to simply start anew?”

Before Giovanni can answer, his earpiece rings. “Yes?” Tahu sees the Leader’s eyes widen, then narrow, before he begins to stride down the hall. “I’m on my way. Have everyone assembled in ten minutes. Let the League know I’ll be going.”

Tahu takes his phone out to check messages. “Trouble?”

“Just the world’s well timed seasonal reminder of what my indecision costs.”

Chapter 58: Precipitate

On the fourth morning of the cruise, the ship stops by the northernmost of the Sevii Isles so people can shake off whatever cabin fever they might have before the return trip to Vermilion. Knot Island is long and thin, with a massive, dormant volcano called Mt. Ember hogging most of its landmass at the northern end. The port at its southern end is highly focused on tourism, with lots of restaurants, hotels, and offers of guided trips to the mountain or the other Sevii islands.

Red and Leaf spend most of their time ashore by exploring Treasure Beach, so called because the tides often bring in pearls, shells, scales, or other valuables from the unusually high number of aquatic pokemon around the island. There are people who scour the beaches as a second job or profitable hobby, but most tourists are required to stay relatively near to the town to avoid wild pokemon, which means the area has been mostly picked clean. Since Red and Leaf have their pokemon to protect them, they move farther along the coast. Crimson flies above them looking for danger while their other pokemon help them dig, with varying degrees of success.

Luckily no wild pokemon attack them, and Red’s just happy to spend time with his newly evolved pokemon. Pikachu is incredibly fast compared to when he was a pichu, able to dash from the shoreline to the tall grass beyond the sand and back before Red can call out a command to return. They break up the digging with occasional training exercises, and even Leaf seems happy to do things like target practice again. It takes Red almost an hour to get used to Pikachu’s stronger and more accurate electric bolts, but isn’t sure how much of that may have to do with the difference of the beach’s air humidity.

After a few hours they manage to find a tiny pearl that some shellder spat out, as well as a small pocket of ruby “star sand,” the deteriorated remains of staryu and starmie gems that often find their way to shore. It’s not much given the time investment, but upon seeing Leaf’s sad expression when she carefully scoops the ruby grains into a pouch, Red manages to cheer her up a bit by suggesting they give the money from selling it to Aiko’s ranch. Eventually they return to town to try one of the restaurants there for lunch before they head back to the ship. Since it’s technically off the ship, Red orders food without any pokemon in it, which also seems to cheer Leaf up. They spend most of the meal talking about what other options there are for tasty, pokemon-free salads and pastries.

Afterward they head back to the ship, and Red tries calling Bill to see if he has anything to say about the psychics on the cruise. The inventor doesn’t answer, as usual, so he calls Ayane next.

“It’s not unusual for us to keep details about jobs to ourselves,” she says, and Red can hear the frown in her voice. “But that does seem like a context where it wouldn’t be as big a deal as you’re reporting. Do you have any reason to believe something criminal or wrong is happening?”

“No,” he admits. “It’s just a feeling. Have you ever been asked to come on one of these?”

His teacher laughs. “No, Red, I’m afraid I’m not quite as renowned as to be hired by the sorts of people on the Cruise Convention. But plenty of businesses employ psychics to help in their negotiations and to tell if they’re being influenced when they know other psychics will be around. Your plan to talk to the ship’s captain seems reasonable, but I wouldn’t start throwing accusations around without something more concrete to report.”

Red thanks her and says goodbye, then turns to Leaf, who’s on the phone with his mom.

“Uh huh. Yeah.” She notices he’s free, and says, “Hang on, here’s Red.”

He takes the phone from her. “Hi Mom!”

“Red, can you repeat what Mr. Silph said to you?”

Red blinks, her tone forestalling any questions he wants to ask. Instead he just recalls the conversation as best he can.

When he finishes, she lets out a breath. “Okay. And just to be sure, he came to you, right? Was there any reason to believe that he might have known you were on the boat before he arrived?”

“I don’t… think so,” Red says, trying to remember what might have hypothetically tipped Mr. Silph off. He turns to Leaf. “You didn’t post about us coming online, did you Leaf?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I thought about it, but decided not to drive up expectations in case I wasn’t able to write something. I… did tell someone at Aiko’s ranch, a guy named Adom, but I don’t think he would have told anyone, since he told me something about the cruise in confidence.”

“Leaf says—”

“I heard her. So there’s one potential source, aside from Bill himself. I’ve never met him, do you think it’s something he might have done?”

Red closes his eyes and tries to model Bill as best he can. What does he want? Why did he send us here? What purpose do we serve in being here? He doesn’t know enough, it’s all speculative. “I can’t think of anything, but… I mean, the two probably do business together. Mr. Silph might have asked if Bill was coming, and he told him we were instead?”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of.” The tension in his mom’s voice adds worry to Red’s confusion. He can’t imagine what his mom is so concerned about, but she’s not the type to worry needlessly, and clearly she has some information he doesn’t. “And he hasn’t talked to you again since that first time?”

“No. What’s going on, Mom?”

“It’s a long story, but the less you know the better, from what Leaf told me about all the psychics on the ship.”

Red’s hand tightens on the phone as protective anger creeps up his temples. “You think he’s trying to get to you somehow, through me?” He acted so friendly, too…

“Maybe not explicitly. Just stay calm and avoid him as best you can for the next few days. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course. Sorry if I said the wrong thing to him—”

“No, hon, I’m sure you didn’t, and you couldn’t have known either way. I could have told you earlier… though maybe it’s best that I didn’t after all. I’m sorry you’re getting caught up in this.”

Red feels curiosity warring with his sense. She just said that the less he knows the better, and he’s still itching to know more. “It’s okay,” he says after a moment.

“Does that mean you won’t try to pry into it yourself?”

Red is acutely aware that the last time they met in person she was berating him for breaking a promise to her. She’s not using the word, but she doesn’t have to. “You can tell me when the cruise is over though?”

“Yes, and I will. I was planning to soon anyway.”

“Okay, then.” Silph probably has a psychic constantly in his mind to let him know if another tries to invade it anyway.

“Thank you, Red. Just enjoy the rest of your cruise as best you can. I love you. ”

“Love you too, Mom.” He hands the phone back to Leaf, who says goodbye shortly after, looking as troubled as him. “Well? What else do you know about all this?”

“I promised I wouldn’t say, Red, plus the psychics…”

Plus the psychics. Meaning she promised in a context separate from knowing about them. But he’s sure she has her reasons, and slowly lets the anger go as he breathes out. “Alright, fair enough.”

Leaf looks a bit surprised. “Really?”

Red smiles and starts looking through his phone directory again. “I’ve found that trusting you is pretty easy, in general. Come on, let’s see how Blue and Aiko have been doing.”

Turns out, not so well.

“Oh, no!” Red hears Leaf exclaim, hand over her mouth as she listens to whatever part of the story Aiko is on. “Are you… is everyone alright?”

Red himself is still in a mild state of shock as Blue finishes summing up what happened in the tunnels. “That… really sucks,” Red says, thinking of how much time and effort he and Blue put into training Kemuri back in Pewter. “I’m sorry, Blue. What about the girl who got hurt?”

“She’s set to undergo some more specialized treatment. We’re still waiting on updates to see how much she’ll recover.”

“Damn.” Red wants to say he’s sorry again, but it feels inadequate. I should have been there…

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“Do you?” Red glances at Leaf, who’s pacing restlessly with a concerned look on her face.

“You warned me to be careful. I should have been more prepared.”

“I wasn’t thinking that, actually. Just… wishing I could have helped.”

“Oh. Yeah, it would have been good to have you down there.”

Red isn’t sure how to respond to that. He wants to say sorry again, this time for not being there, but it would feel hollow, knowing that he’ll be going to train with Sabrina soon. Again he feels like he should say so, and again he balks at making the words real, not sure how to actually approach the topic given yet another example of what he’s risking if he leaves.

“How’s the cruise, anyway?” Blue eventually asks after the awkward silence spins on a while.

“Oh, uh, good,” Red says, relieved. “Some of the tech is really cool… oh shit, Blue I totally forgot, you guys haven’t heard anything yet, right? It hasn’t leaked?”

What hasn’t leaked?”

So Red sums up the pokemon cloning tech demonstration, along with all the shortcomings, both admitted and imagined by Leaf.

“Blue? You there?”

“Yeah,” he says, sounding a bit dazed. “I’m here.”

Red grins. “How blown is your mind?”

“Red… that’s…”

“I know.”

“How long?” Blue demands. “How long before it’s ready? I… damn it, I already wiped Kemuri’s ball… why haven’t they already announced this?”

“I don’t think they know, yet.” Red notes his own surprise; he hadn’t expected Blue of all people to want to bring back his pokemon instead of get a new, top shelf mon. But after further thought, it makes sense: Blue has never wanted to be seen as taking an easy route. He wants to prove he has what it takes himself to train and raise the best pokemon. “Honestly, I’d be surprised if they even know what’s wrong. If it turns out to be trivial, maybe they’ll be ready in a year or two. If it turns out not to be, well… a decade, maybe a bit more?”

Blue lets a breath out. “Yeah. Alright, then. Still, this is going to throw the markets into chaos.”

“Not just pokemon markets, all of them.”

“Shit, yeah. Is there any way we can use that?”

“People are talking about which stocks to short sell, so maybe that. I’m not really sure how it works though: something about borrowing stocks, selling them, then buying them back when the price is down.”

“I’ll check with the others, and Gramps and Daisy, maybe someone will know how we can get in on it. Damn, I don’t have time for this now!”

“What’s going on?” Red asks.

“I’m getting ready to fight Leader Surge. Trained up my dugtrio, just seeing if I can get a last minute evolution out of Gon to cover for Kemuri’s spot on the team.”

Red hears the clipped, tense note in his voice. “Have you gotten the chance to talk to Surge yet?” he asks, trying to get the conversation somewhere more positive.

“No.” Dammit. “He’s either really busy or too above talks with random trainers at the gym. Either way, he’ll have to give me some face time after I beat him.”

Red grins. That’s more like it. “Well, good luck. I’d say I’ll be cheering you on, but I don’t think the ship’s net will handle streaming.”

“No sweat, just watch it later. I’ve got some ideas I want to test with you when you get back.”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it again. Just say it.

“Red?”

“You haven’t asked the others to try them out?”

“Different sets of skills. It’ll be too late to help with Surge, but I want to see if I can get my team to respond to stressed syllables on commands. What do you think?”

Huh. That would be hard for some pokemon with less acute sense of sound, but would really allow for more variation in each command’s specificity… “It sounds like a good challenge. But… Leaf can probably help with that more than I can, since it’s not necessarily combat related.”

“I’ve got another idea for her. Plus, you can use your powers to figure out when my pokemon are hearing different pitches, right?”

“I could, yeah.”

There’s another pause before Blue says, “Well, it was just an idea.” There’s a frown in his voice, and Red knows his own hesitation was clear. “It’s fine if you’ll be busy with something else.”

“I might be, yeah,” Red says slowly. He struggles one last time to explicitly say it, and fails. It seems this is the closest he can come for now. “I’ll let you know when I get back?”

“Alright, sure. Anyway, I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the trip.”

“Sure. Good luck with the match, and say hey to Aiko for me.”

Red ends the call, and stares at the phone for a bit, wondering why it’s so hard for him to tell Leaf or Blue that he’s going. Should he take it as a sign that he’s not actually ready to leave, that he would regret the choice later? That there’s some part of him that doesn’t want to go? Except that’s not a new insight, he knows there’s a large part of him that doesn’t want to go.

Red feels his thoughts going in useless circles and contemplates getting his notebook out, but decides to check his messages and email instead while he still has some internet connection. Soon the boat announces that it’s preparing to sail again, and Red sees Leaf finally end the call as they make their way back over the docks together.

“Hey. Crazy stuff, right?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Leaf looks troubled, and Red assumes it’s about their friends almost dying underground until she says, “Red, Aiko reminded me of something I wanted to talk about, before we came on the cruise. She told me about you using your powers to remove your pokemon’s conditioning, and let them follow their battle instincts at just the right moments.”

“Yeah, Blue calls it sakki. It translates basically to ‘killing intent,’ which isn’t quite accurate for what I feel when I use it. That depends a lot on the pokemon” He trails off as he sees her expression. “What about it?”

“I don’t understand how you could do something so reckless. Aiko was saying you’ve been careful, but all it takes is one slip up, and you could have your license stripped, or worse.”

“Oh, no, it’s not like that!” he says, smiling. He sees a flash of irritation on her face, and stops. “Come on, Leaf, you know how risk-averse I am. I wouldn’t do it if it was that dangerous! Like I said, it depends on the pokemon. I refused to use it with Charmeleon after he evolved because I wasn’t sure it was safe.”

“I know you’re sane, Red, I’m just concerned that you can’t actually know how dangerous it is, and the consequence if you’re wrong is too high. Don’t you think if that sort of thing was safe, other psychics would have thought of it by now?”

“We don’t know that they haven’t,” Red points out. “Battle Trainers are so secretive already, and a lot of psychics like to act all aloof and mysterious on top of that. A psychic battle trainer who figures it out would be twice as unlikely to tell anyone, they’d just want to keep the advantages it gives to themselves.”

“Did you at least reach out to Professor Oak or Psychic Ayane to see? Or Sabrina? She’d know if anyone would, right?”

Red hesitates a moment. “Not… yet, no—”

“Swords of Justice, not you too, Red!” Her hands cover her face. “Why are you keeping secrets now?”

Red feels a flare of indignation as he remembers how he specifically chose not to keep the ability to himself. “I’m not, there just wasn’t time! I told the others, didn’t I? That’s how you found out about it in the first place!”

“But none of them are psychic! And they’re battle trainers, none of them are going to tell you not to do it anymore!”

Invisible bands squeeze around Red’s chest even as his indignation grows. Why are they arguing again, he doesn’t want to argue with Leaf, even more than arguing with Blue or his mom it makes him feel wretched… “The way you are?”

“Yes, the way I am! I’m worried about you, Red, and Aiko, and whoever else you guys might test this thing on!”

“Leaf… I appreciate the worry more than you might believe, but really, you don’t know what it’s like, using it. I’m in their head the whole time, remember? Feeling what they feel. I started using it with Pikachu before he evolved, and he didn’t feel any kind of desire to kill, even in battle, it’s just a useful way of knowing when a good time to use an electric attack is. I did it again on the beach today, and there was no sense of… leashed violence or desire to kill anything, he was just thinking about how his electricity would act. What’s wrong with that?”

Leaf rubs her temples. “Nothing, but that’s one pokemon in some situations. I don’t want you to let your guard down and then get taken by surprise when some other instinct surfaces.”

“I know what to look out for. If my pokemon starts to want to attack a human or go for a kill, I’d just end the mental state to stop them.”

“And what if Aiko figures out a way to imitate it, but without whatever safety you might get from the mental link? It’s just a ridiculous risk to take, all for some advantage in trainer battles.”

Red frowns as he considers that. Does he actually trust others to use this kind of ability without a psychic connection? “I mean yeah, that could be a problem. I’ll talk to her about that too, if you want.”

“That’s not enough, not if you continue to use it. Even if she says okay, others might figure it out and try.”

“So… what, you do want me to keep it secret, now?” Red asks, bewildered.

Leaf makes a sound of frustration as they board the ramp leading back to the ship, causing one of the older cruise members to look over at them. She lowers her voice, though still sounds like she’s holding back a yell. “I don’t know! At the very least, you should ask Sabrina or your teacher from Cerulean.”

“Yeah, of course.” He could have brought it up with Ayane, but she’s not a trainer, and he’s going to be with Sabrina soon… “I was planning to, you know. Really.”

“Alright. But in the meantime, you’re way too confident about a risk that might get you labeled a renegade, just for the edge it gives you in a fight. Don’t you think it’s possible that getting into trainer battles may have warped your perspective a bit?”

She’d said the magic words: too confident. “Hang on, I need to process that.” Red pulls out his notebook and starts to write out the benefits of practicing the mental merge… no, specifically the sakki that arises in battle, as they reach the deck of the ship and find a table to sit at so they can watch the cast off. Waiters are circulating with beverages, and Red distractedly takes a glass of chilled juice as he works, nearly spitting it back out for being bitter instead of sweet. He sets it aside to concentrate, and after a minute shifts to outright goal factoring the decision as he starts to break it down into each piece of value he gets from it.

But it’s hard to focus, hard to tease apart each motivation on the spot. All he can really think of is that it makes him stronger as a trainer, and helps him learn about his pokemon. And… well, he enjoys the company too, the camaraderie. The challenge, coming up with new strategies, thinking about ways to beat theirs…

“You might be partially right,” he eventually says, leaning back in his seat and reaching for his juice again before remembering the taste. “But it’s not winning itself that I care about. It’s… There are a couple things, and I won’t deny that it’s exciting to use it in battle and pull off a win, but it’s not that I need the win, I just… it’s the craft of it.”

Leaf stares at him over her own fruity beverage. “The craft of turning your pokemon into a killing machine?”

“No! To… gah, I don’t know how to describe it.” Red taps his pencil against the page where he wrote some question marks. “It’s a creative thing, I think, and also a competence one. There’s just this rush when a plan comes together, you know? Being connected with my pokemon enough to know what they’re thinking, to be able to stop them when I need to, to judge the right time for changes in their mood, integrating all that into a strategy… I feel like I’m good at it, I mess up a lot but rarely the same way twice, and each new battle is like a new puzzle—”

“So play the sims!” Leaf exclaims, then glances around self-consciously and lowers her voice again. “Or figure out other skills they can do, like a Coordinator! Or just… keep battling but without this thing with your power. Why do you have to risk their lives, or others’ lives?”

“But that’s the other part of it,” Red says, voice lowered too. “We’re all risking our lives! If this is something that might help keep us alive at some point, I need to practice using it in fights.”

“But that sort of thinking could justify anything!” Leaf shakes her head and puts her drink down as she leans back in her chair. The expression on her face rends something in Red’s chest. “It’s no use. I thought… I don’t know, Red, I thought you understood, but you’re just like everyone else, even Aiko…” She sighs and covers her eyes with her palms. “Is it me? I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels like how we use our pokemon should matter too, but maybe I’m just fooling myself by trying to be a trainer too.”

Red feels like there’s an iron ball in his gut. He wants to insist that he is different, though clearly he’s not, or that there’s nothing wrong with her, but he can’t think of a way to show that rather than just say it. “Maybe if… if you try to explain again, from the bottom… like your base values, what you’re building from and why they matter?”

“It’s no use, Red. I think you just have to feel it yourself, or it won’t matter.”

Red’s not sure how to respond to that, and they sit in silence as the boat finally starts to move below them. Leaf lets her hands fall from her face, and Red relaxes slightly when he sees her eyes are dry. They watch the shore start to recede away from the ship, until the island and its mountain are just a part of the horizon. Her words keep running in Red’s head until he realizes the answer is right there in them.

Red turns to her. “So show me.”

Leaf glances at him, wary. “Show you?”

“The way you feel. Show me, while I’m reading your mood. We never tried me learning that trick you did with the abra, maybe that will help me understand your perspective better.”

“Well first of all, it’s not a trick,” Leaf says.

He makes a brushing off gesture. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. When I shift my mental state to match someone else’s, I actually feel what they do. Mental powers work by symmetry.”

Leaf looks suddenly speculative, which is much preferable to her despair or frustration. “I remember hearing you say something like that before. But it’s only temporary, right?”

He shrugs. “Sure, as temporary as any other emotion.”

“I mean, it doesn’t affect your worldview, your day to day life. You can feel sad if you merge with someone who’s watching a movie that makes them sad, but you won’t start feeling sad every time you watch that movie afterward… will you?”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “I… don’t know, actually. I doubt I’d feel what they feel every time, but I’ll still have the memory of their sadness, and might be able to experience it at least somewhat the way they do.” He grins. “This is something I really want to test, now.”

Leaf seems to grow excited too. “Okay, yeah, why not? Let’s see, the exhibits are starting in like ten minutes. Maybe tonight, after dinner?”

“Sure!” He returns her wave, then makes his way to the next presentation with some relief. He was worried they’d end the argument on a down note, but instead he’s going to get a unique opportunity to change his views on something. That’s normally enough to excite him on its own, but he can’t help also having a spring in his step at the thought that it might bring him and Leaf closer together. All he has to do is understand where she’s coming from, and maybe even help her better understand him too.


Leaf has a nagging sensation that she’s missing something.

It follows her all through the presentations that afternoon, causing her thoughts to keep circling back to the experiment she and Red are going to try. At times she’s elated: if there’s a way for Red to really, truly feel the way she does about pokemon, how could he go back to feeling the way he does now? He’d have to see how important it is to minimize their suffering.

But something about that train of thought bothers her, and she finally realizes what it is on her way to dinner, once she’s not trying to split her attention so much. Mental powers work by symmetry. Red already explained how powers are split by reception and projection; if he can mimic what she’s feeling in order to feel it himself, then what would stop him from projecting what he feels about pokemon so she has to feel it too?

Not that she thinks Red would do something like that… But it does mean that any sort of thought or mood altering that the powers facilitate must be temporary. The alternative would mean…

“Leaf!”

She looks up and sees Red waving at her from the corner of the dining hall. She goes to join him, and his smile fades as she sits down. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Red, have you heard anything about psychics being able to change how others feel about something permanently?” A chill works its way up her spine as she thinks of the way Giovanni (probably) set a psychic to read her thoughts (and possibly project moods onto her!) without her even knowing. “Sorry, better question: how do we know they don’t? Is there anything you can think of that would stop it?”

Red blinks. “Well, first off, I think others would figure that out. Even if there was some worldwide conspiracy among psychics, which, I mean, no one’s told me yet, there are also some people just psychic enough to notice when others are merging with their minds, and they’d have no reason to keep quiet.”

“Couldn’t they just make someone feel ambivalent about it?”

“They would have to feel ambivalent about it too, which they clearly don’t if they’re going out of their way to force it onto others. At best maybe, they could just spread the feeling that it’s a good thing to do? But changing how you feel about something isn’t the same as changing how you think, and psychics can’t give others amnesia, so people would notice their views suddenly changing…” He trails off, and she sees her worry start to reflect on his face. “Though… I guess if someone was able to do that, like if it was a unique power of theirs, we wouldn’t necessarily know about it. In both cases, it would depend how subtle the effect is, given the context it happens in.”

Leaf looks around. “Like if the psychic just hung out at the buffet and projected an enjoyment of a certain fruit, people could just naturally think they’re in the mood for that fruit.”

“Temporarily, that would work, sure. To make it permanent…”

Leaf watches Red’s expression as it shifts into his now-familiar ‘thinking face,’ and she smiles when he brings his fork to his mouth without realizing that most of the spaghetti on it fell off. Whatever Red’s other flaws might be, she appreciates how readable he is. He’s not just a bad liar, as the recent incident with the ship steward showed, but he expresses all his emotions so guilelessly that it’s clear he’s not even aware of how he wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about interacting with someone whose honesty is paired with such openness. Even if there really is some massive psychic conspiracy out there, she knows Red wouldn’t be able to keep it from his friends if he ever finds out about it. “Operant conditioning?” she suggests.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. If the psychic is craving that fruit themself, they can project that craving. The target eats the fruit, and assuming they like it… or maybe if the psychic is eating the fruit too they can project their enjoyment… I mean, it would be hard to do for multiple people all at once, but…”

“But the idea makes sense, right?” She feels icy fingers around her heart. “Forcing people to feel positive things until they associate them with whatever they’re doing, the same way we train pokemon…”

“It… doesn’t seem impossible.”

The two of them stare at each other for a moment. “How many psychics are here, again?” Leaf whispers.

“A lot. But it would require massive effort to do something like this. We’re probably being a bit paranoid,” Red says, though his voice is also lowered.

“Are we? Because even if it’s really hard to do, I don’t know if it’s possible to be paranoid enough about people who can literally change how you think and feel.” She sees his expression shift. “No offense, I know you would never do something like that, but you can’t expect everyone to have the same moral compunctions—”

“Wait.” Red starts eating faster. “If you’re that worried, we should talk more in our rooms.”

Leaf can hardly argue with that, after she’s the one that brought up the concern. She feels warmth inside at how willing he is to take the concern seriously, even if he’s skeptical, and tries to focus on the flavors of her food as she finishes eating, all too aware of how many other psychics may be around them. When they’re both done, she leads the way out of the dining hall, trying not to visibly hurry.

She feels a little better once they’re in the empty halls, but Red doesn’t start talking again, so she decides to wait until he deems it safe. He seems to relax once they near their rooms, and opens his mouth to say something when he stops suddenly. A second later she notices the note taped to their door, and watches him tug it off and flip it open.

“It’s from Paul,” Red says. “The captain isn’t available to talk to us, apparently, but the head steward can for a few minutes tomorrow morning.”

“Oh. Good enough?” Leaf still isn’t even sure what they should say to the captain anyway. “They probably just want to make sure we’re not wasting the captain’s time, first.”

“Yeah.” Red opens the door and leads the way into their mostly-reconstructed living room. “Which we might be.”

“Even considering what we were just talking about?”

Red sits on one of the couches, two hands rising to his head. One goes for his non-existent hat briefly, as the other runs its fingers through his hair. “To be clear, it’s not that I think people aren’t immoral enough to do something like that. I’ve been trying to imagine how it might actually be done, and the scale and effort required would just be immense.”

Leaf lowers herself into the seat across from him, tucking her legs under her and wishing she could summon Raff. “You’re still new to all this, Red. You can’t know what a really experienced or powerful psychic, or group of them, is capable of. I’m more curious to know why I haven’t heard people talking about this before. Like, not even psychic villains in movies or books do this.”

Red’s gaze drops to his folded legs. “Probably because the only way to stop it would be to kill all psychics.”

Leaf frowns. “That’s not…”

“Isn’t it? Really think about the consequences of what you’re saying being true. How do you think society would react? What possible solution could non-dark or non-psychics come up with that actually wards off that kind of fear?”

Leaf thinks for a few minutes, and Red lets her, eventually taking his notebook out to write in. How would she try to be safe from a threat like this? Write down all her major opinions and preferences, check over them every month? Write out events that might realistically change people’s preferences so she can track those that make sense? But people sometimes change their preferences for no apparent reason at all.

Leaf remembers hating hummus sometime between when she first tried it and after she stopped eating pokemon, until one day she tried some again and it tasted great. At the time she thought that one just had a really good recipe, but after that she enjoyed most brands to some varying degree. She also thinks about a show she watched before coming to Kanto. It was about a bunch of angsty teenagers who went to a special school for kids with magic powers, but kept whining about how empty their lives were when they could have whatever they wanted. At first she watched it to laugh at how terrible it was, but eventually she started to actually get invested in the story and enjoyed it, for the most part.

All of which is normal behavior that everyone probably experiences from time to time… except maybe it’s not, some of the time. Leaf doesn’t actually believe that some psychic employed by Big Hummus is going around singling kids out to make them change their tastes, but if she ever changes her mind about something that’s more important, she’d probably feel pretty paranoid if she knows that psychics could cause that change.

Leaf’s recently filled stomach churns as she thinks of the ways society would probably react to that knowledge. No psychic would be able to do business with someone without them being suspicious… or marry a non-psychic… and, yes, it’s even possible that they might get killed, depending on the culture. From what she understands, Kanto has a history of treating its psychics with something close to reverence; today they’re respected and valued beyond most other professions. Unova’s past treatment of psychics wasn’t nearly so rosy, and they’re much less high-status today.

“I don’t think a mass killing would happen,” Leaf says at last, and Red tucks his notebook away. “But I agree that it would definitely get dangerous for many, and there would be… social consequences.”

“Mmhm. So maybe some psychics can do this, but they all have a huge incentive to hide it if so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we should know if I can even change my own views permanently before we speculate about psychics changing someone else’s. And even if I can, that doesn’t mean others can. It might be unique to my way of thinking. Or my powers, which may be the same thing. And that still won’t mean I can change others’ beliefs or values.”

“I get it. But even just changing your own seems… creepy, to me, now that I’ve thought about it more. You’re not worried about suddenly changing who you are?”

Red shrugs. “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Not sure. I guess because I change all the time, and it’s only sometimes deliberate? And it’s not like I don’t know who I’m changing into, in this case: someone more like you.”

She stares at him, heat prickling her cheeks. “That’s… pretty flattering, Red. But if it’s that easy to just decide my values or perspective is better than yours, why not just… change them?”

“Well, what if I can’t? That’s the point of this, isn’t it? To see if there’s some extra feelings or something that would help me actually change my values in a way I normally can’t?”

“Sure, but this seems like more of a trick now. Is it really okay to force yourself to change?”

“Why wouldn’t it be, if I’m choosing it? If I’m stuck on some value that causes suffering, then hopefully at some point I realize it and that value loses its strength relative to one that helps me be more moral, but why not shortcut that process if I can? If some sociopath realized their lack of empathy was harmful, wouldn’t we be glad that they might want to take a pill and change, if they could?”

Leaf grins. “Are you trying to get me to argue against my own views?”

Red smiles. “No, promise.”

“Because, I mean, certainly think that it would help you be more moral, don’t get me wrong… I just don’t get how you can make that decision about your own values. The idea of my values being changed like that is kind of scary, to me. Like I’m killing off a part of myself.”

“It is an interesting question about how one ‘decides’ on their ethics,” Red admits. “I guess it’s more about meta-ethics? Like if I think the change in views would make me have more moral beliefs, I might tweak one of my values in a way that my other values tell me would make me a better person. But why am I prioritizing some over others, so that they can gang up on it? Maybe that value is more important than I think, and once it’s tweaked, I might change a different one that I normally would not have been okay with changing. Even if it only happens two or three times, I might end up changing myself to someone that my original self would find abhorrent.”

“See, exactly! You definitely shouldn’t try something like this if that’s even a possibility. If you can change your values through reason, rather than brute-forcing it, you should. Otherwise, how would you actually know it’s a better moral position?”

“Values don’t always run on logic, though,” Red says, shrugging a shoulder. “Some are just… formed out of whatever basic experiences people have. Take the sociopath example again. Someone who doesn’t empathize with suffering is going to have a harder time understanding why suffering is bad. At best they can just recognize consequences to it that may interfere with other values they have. What if I just have faulty wiring?”

Leaf shakes her head. “There’s something wrong with those people, though, you can’t compare something like this to that. I mean, by wrong I mean ‘by my values,’ obviously, but I also mean on a somewhat objective scale?” She frowns. “It sounds like I should feel guilty about saying it, and I do, a little, but… if there’s something different in their mental wiring or the chemical mix that influences how they think or experience the world compared to 99.99% of other people, we can recognize that as the fault of biology. Any difference isn’t bad, again by my values—”

“I get it,” Red says with a grin. “You don’t have to keep repeating ‘by my values.'”

“Okay. But I just mean that it’s not the difference itself that I think is bad, but the kind of difference this in particular is. It’s just such a huge breakdown of a core experience in society, which leads to some pretty important values. As long as we have that common ground of basic values to draw on, particularly things like… Anti-Suffering, and Happiness, and Truth, and Logic…” Leaf trails off, thinking about the people who argued against her Pewter Museum article. They would say that they valued those things… “Well, we’ll still probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but on a long enough timeline, with enough resources and discussion, we should be able to reach agreement eventually. If there aren’t other values that take precedence, I mean. And I don’t think there are, for us. I don’t think there’s something missing in you.”

Even as she says it, she feels a bit of doubt inside. Maybe there is something missing in Red… but if there is, it’s missing in the vast majority of people, and the only reason it seems more clearly missing in him is because he’s so reasonable otherwise. Leaf remembers the discordant feeling she had after realizing that Aiko doesn’t eat pokemon despite being a trainer, and wonders again if there’s just something wrong with her own self. Maybe from their perspective, there’s something missing or warped in her. She doesn’t think she values humans any less just because she also cares about minimizing pokemon suffering, but objectively, she’s less willing to trade-off one for the other, so it seems pretty obvious that she does. Which… may be bad, actually.

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Red says with a smile. “But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try this experiment. We don’t even know if it would permanently change anything, and I’m okay with risking it, for something like this. Worst case scenario is that I think more like you, a little, and that doesn’t seem so bad.”

Leaf frowns as she tries to put into words the twisted feelings of worry and danger she senses about all this. If she’s wrong to feel the way she does, she’d hope that reason and evidence would be enough to shift her views. If Red actually changes his values like this… what would stop her from just as easily changing her own if subjected to the same thing? “Why not try something less core, then? Like the fruit thing, just to see if it works?”

“I mean, we can, but… I really think it’s alright, Leaf. If it was this easy to mess up, Ayane would have told me about it. I’m just going to be sampling how you feel, for now, the same as I’ve done with her. Not trying anything new or fancy.”

That… does sound reasonable. Leaf lets her breath out. “If you’re sure…”

“I am. Trust me.”

Leaf nods. She does trust Red. Even if he sometimes thinks in ways that she finds frustrating or lacking in empathy, she mostly believes that he’ll find the right answer eventually, and recognize it when he sees it. “Alright. Here goes, then.” She repositions herself to be more comfortable, then closes her eyes and tries to focus on how her brain feels, then how her emotions feel, trying to detect when he starts.

She still hasn’t noticed anything by the time Red quietly says, “Okay, ready.”

“You’re merged with me?” she asks, voice also quiet. She suddenly feels a tension in the air, nothing supernatural, just an intimacy that makes her feel oddly vulnerable. “You can feel what I feel?”

“Yeah. I don’t feel anything different, though.”

“Well, what do you feel?”

Red is quiet, and she peeks under one eyelid to see his expression. It seems normal, but also slightly flushed. “Nervous?” he says at last.

“Oh. That might be me, then, yeah. Did you want me to start?”

“Yeah. Just show me how you feel about your pokemon.”

“Alright.” It’s easiest to imagine Joy first, with her big blue eyes, her white and pink fur, the happiness she always shows at cuddling. Leaf smiles as love for her pokemon fills her, and soon she’s thinking of Raff too, with his toothy grin, and Crimson, flying so fearless and free, and Alice’s floppy ears.

She almost forgets that Red is even there until she hears him sigh. “Wow. That’s… nice.”

Leaf grins, eyes still closed. “Isn’t it?” She thinks of her companions’ pokemon, from Pikachu with his timid explorations to Maturin’s bold bids for snacks or affection, to Eevee’s energetic drive to keep up with the other, more experienced pokemon. Leaf’s thoughts briefly touch on Kemuri and the others who she never met that got killed or hurt in the tunnels, but she shies away from that pain, instead focusing on all the other pokemon out there, with all their quirks and mysteries, all their quiet, private lives, all the fascinating wonders of unique biology that they are. Even the dangerous ones, and they’re almost all dangerous by default, are living beings whose suffering is sad, and could be made to live happier lives with human assistance. Soon she feels an endless ocean of warmth inside her, a swirling cauldron of wonder and joy and gladness that she can tap at any time by just thinking of the shining future that may some day come, when every living thing is free to live without suffering.

Red doesn’t say anything this time, merely letting out a long, slow breath as they bask in the feeling together. For a moment she imagines what it’s like for him, not feeling this way. She always thought it must be lonely to only love a few things, a practical rounding error in terms of absolute numbers of living things. Like whole swathes of the world are just lacking in color or beauty…

Leaf’s eyes fly open as Red makes a strange choked sound, and something in his expression clears as he relaxes. “Sorry! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” His eyes open, and after a moment he smiles, looking a bit dazed. “That was… really nice.”

She examines him for a moment, but he really seems genuinely happy about what he felt, and eventually she smiles too. “Right? So how do you feel about pokemon now, if you think back to that feeling?”

“One sec.” He closes his eyes, and she watches as he breathes deep, then lets it out. “I can feel… some of it. But it’s a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. Like remembering that I used to enjoy roller coasters.”

“Oh.” Leaf can’t help but feel disappointed, even though part of her is glad that he didn’t permanently alter himself that easily.

“Hang on, though, I’m going to see if I can recreate it.”

“And that’s safe?”

“Yeah, like I said I did this with Ayane all the time, mimicking states of mind… this is just an unusual one in some ways…” He trails off as he continues to breathe, eyes closed.

Leaf watches him a moment, curious and mildly worried as his face starts to twitch in minor frowns. After surreptitiously checking the time and letting a few minutes pass, her curiosity wins out. “Well?”

“It’s not… really working…”

“How come?”

“I’m trying to mimic the state of mind, but other feelings get in the way. I’ve never had that happen before. It’s hard to focus without letting them mix.”

Leaf frowns. “Other feelings?”

“They’re a bit hard to explain. There’s some grief, like usual when I use my powers a lot, but it’s just a small part of it.”

“Well, can you project it, so I can feel what it’s like?”

Red opens his eyes in surprise. “Uh. I don’t think I should. It’s not… pleasant.”

If he’d said it was dangerous, that would be one thing… but unpleasant she can handle, if it means better understanding what he’s going through, and what obstacles are in the way of seeing eye to eye. “Hey, you risked having your values altered by me. I think it’s fair to see what you’re going through when trying to recreate how I felt.”

“Uh. Okay, then. Starting…”

The psychic connection is felt immediately, this time, like some giant drain got unplugged deep inside that endless ocean of joy in her, its waters rapidly receding from the shore of her thoughts as it gets sucked down.

She barely has time to panic before more sensations are there, the drain revealing jagged rocks that don’t translate into words, but in flashes of insight and concepts that only roughly bring up errant thoughts about how pokemon hurt each other all the time, they hurt humans, they killed Red’s dad, killed Blue’s parents, they’re not people, they’re just biological machines, they’re monsters—

She starts feeling a sort of creepy-crawly disgust, a fear of something alien, and suddenly imagines bug pokemon, all the most vicious and creepy ones, until she physically flinches.

they’re wondrous but dangerous, they feel sensations but they don’t care about anything, they can’t, any joy they feel around us they were conditioned to feel, they’re Other—

The ocean is almost gone, and rain falls in her head, down her cheeks, dark clouds of fear and anger and under it all there’s that grief

“Stop!” Leaf says, voice strained, and she gets one last snapshot of feelings not her own, a horror at hurting someone incredibly precious, the sensation rapidly fading even as it leaves her with a glimpse of herself that shocks her, a tenderness and desire to be near her that utterly distracts her for the space of a breath.

Then the feelings seem completely gone, and Leaf opens her eyes to stare at Red, emotions mixing violently inside her. Anger, fear, disgust… is that really what he thinks of pokemon? Pity, grief, affection… there’s so much pain, there, she sensed it tingeing every thought. And that last thing… she feels butterflies in her stomach as she suddenly realizes what she sensed.

Surely she misread that? Red gets flustered from time to time, and she always thought it was cute how clearly unused to being around a girl his age he is… but that glimpse of how he saw her, far more idealized than how she sees herself, makes her suddenly second guess her usual perceptions. Leaf’s cheeks start to burn at the level of affection and esteem he holds her in. Had she really thought him an open book, if she missed something that big?

And despite the sharp disagreement in their philosophical differences, he admires her perspective. That came clear, even through the dark feelings.

She wishes she could say the same about his.

Red is looking down at his legs, chagrin clear on his face as he breathes steadily. “Sorry about that,” he says, not looking at her, and she wonders if it’s the grief he’s apologizing for, or if he understands what else she glimpsed. “It’s gotten a lot better lately, believe it or not…”

“Red,” she interrupts, putting her confusing feelings aside and taking a deep breath, trying to consider her next words carefully. “I… I think you need help… Your thoughts, they’re…” She almost says twisted, but she understands the root of that twist now, doesn’t she? Pity fills her as she imagines living with that grief every day, it’s a wonder he can find any joy and affection in pokemon at all… “They’re all colored by that loss, and I understand it, I think, a little anyway, but you can see that it’s not reasonable, can’t you?”

Red frowns, crimson gaze coming up to search hers. “I’m not sure what you mean…”

“I mean, have you considered that the… the loss of your dad, the trauma of that, may be what makes it so hard for you to care about pokemon? What makes you think of them as… ‘Other?'”

Red’s face clears. “Oh. No, it’s not what you think, that’s just how it always goes with my powers. The grief isn’t related to what we were thinking about.”

She stares at him. “You really believe that. That those feelings you had… the thoughts they translated to, things like pokemon just being biological machines, you think that’s normal?”

“I mean…” He’s frowning now, still not meeting her gaze for more than a heartbeat at a time. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is in this context, but I don’t think it’s related to my dad, if that’s what you mean. I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him.”

“Don’t you?” she asks, voice softening.

“No! The way I think about them is… I mean, it feels completely separate, like obviously it’s informed by tragedies like that, but it’s still built on… you know, rational basis, on observations, on what I value.”

But that would make it so much worse, she thinks, biting her lip to keep from saying it. “I don’t… think you’d necessarily be able to feel that, if that’s true or not, I don’t think you’d know that, that’s how trauma works, it… it exaggerates negative things…”

Red’s brow is drawn, his lack of understanding making her heart sink. “I’m telling you, that’s not how it is,” he says. “You’re just linking the two feelings because they seemed so entwined in the projection. Look, I’ll send you something unrelated—”

No!”

Red’s frown slips, and he looks ashamed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to… make you feel that…”

Leaf makes a conscious effort to relax. She hadn’t meant to yell… “No, that’s alright. I just don’t… want to feel it again right now, or anything remotely like it. And I believe you, that it’ll come across regardless of what the topic is. But… that doesn’t rule out the idea that they’re connected.”

Red looks frustrated, and also a little guilty, still, as he nods and suddenly gets to his feet. “Okay.”

“Okay?” She watches him go to where his shoes are, confused and nervous.

“Yeah. I get it. I’ll think it over.” He slips his sneakers on, and with a start she realizes that he’s leaving.

Leaf’s hands find each other, twisting as she wrestles with her worry about having hurt him. She didn’t mean to push him away… “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. Just want to clear my head.” He still won’t look at her, even as he steps out the door and closes it behind him.

Leaf watches him go, unable to think of anything else to say. In truth, she could use some distance too. She knows it’s irrational to blame psychic powers for what Red’s going through, how his views were formed, just because it’s how she was made aware of them, or how he has to keep revisiting them. And she knows Red would never force that feeling on her. But she can’t help but wish in that moment that all psychics lost their abilities, if it was the only sure way to ensure he never feels the way that projection did again… and to ensure that she never has to either.


Red wanders through the halls, a violent stew of emotions causing a trembling somewhere in his stomach. His thoughts constantly dash around and collide, with a single refrain going around and around in different iterations.

I hurt her.

He passes by rooms where people talk and laugh, feeling like a ghost drifting by, untouchable by whatever is around him.

I made her feel bad.

Eventually his feet bring him up enough stairs that he emerges onto the deck of the ship.

I made her scared of me.

On the first few evenings of the cruise, the decks were often populated by attendees looking to enjoy the sun set over an uninterrupted horizon. Red goes to the eastern side so he can have the ship’s rails to himself. He barely notices the changes in the sky as the sun dips toward the water behind him, instead focusing on his breathing, on calming himself.

He screwed it all up. This week was supposed to be fun and educational, and a chance to get closer to Leaf. Instead they just keep having arguments, and now his final chance to bridge the difference in their views completely backfired. Instead all he accomplished was disgusting her and driving a wedge between them, all because he didn’t think to stop and recognize how his grief might feel to her, how unused to it she would be.

Irrational as it is, for a moment he wishes he didn’t have his psychic powers. If it meant undoing what had just happened, if offered at this second, he would give his abilities up to turn the clock back and take away whatever hurt he inflicted on her.

But that’s just childish. It’s not the fault of his powers, it’s his. He should have gone slower. Should have taken the time to examine what was so hard about mimicking her state of mind, recognized that his partition had weakened too much, insisted on waiting.

Instead Leaf asked him to show her how it felt, and he didn’t want to deny her.

And now she’ll probably never let me try anything like it again. Maybe just not anytime soon, but if the cruise ends and they still haven’t resolved this, if he leaves to train with Sabrina… he and Leaf will just keep drifting further apart. He knows they will, it feels like a branching timeline in his head, where one path leads to futures he’ll be forever barred from if he doesn’t get the chance to understand her better.

Why is he choosing to leave her? Leave all of them, that is? Blue and Aiko could have been killed in those tunnels. How can he help keep Leaf safe, keep them all safe, if he’s not with them? His goal factoring was done before he knew how close they’d come to dying without him even being aware. How could he risk going off with Sabrina and finding out second-hand that they… that she…

Tears prickle at his eyes as he feels the ache of losing his dad, mixed with the feeling of wanting to be with Leaf, of preemptively missing her, like a gouge in his chest, so sharp it makes him actually put his hand over his heart, trying to hold the painful emptiness closed.

I can’t do it.

He can’t leave her. Not like this. If he does, she’ll just… go on thinking that he’s a monster. He has to stay, to show her… show her how he can stop eating pokemon, how he can stop using the sakki.

He’ll have to tell Sabrina no. Maybe she’ll have an opening later, a few years from now… he’ll be a better psychic then, anyway, he’ll keep practicing. He’ll even stop training so he can practice more, that way he can show Leaf that he’s taken her seriously, and he’ll get more control so he can copy her mental state the next time they try. Surely there would be a next time, if he stays…

There’s a voice inside wondering if he’s really okay with that, with not spending any more time with Blue and Aiko’s friends at the gym, with not exploring the use of his powers in battle. But it’s a small voice, easily shouted down by his other desires and fears. Red rubs his face, then moves away from the railing to head back to the room and tell Leaf. His heart feels a bit lighter just having made the decision.

As he walks through the halls, he notices how oddly quiet everything is. There’s no sound of chatter or cheer coming from the various common rooms, though the lights are on. Dinner should already be over, people were already gathering in various lounges when he was headed to the railing… where is everyone now?

He sends his mind sense out briefly, a bit longer than a locating ping, just enough to get a sense of the general “mood” of the thoughts…

Worry. Panic. Resignation. Sorrow.

Red stops in his tracks, eyes wide, then bursts through the door to his side where he sensed a crowd of people, about to ask what’s happened—

His eyes absorb the information in bursts, jumping from place to place:

A monitor, hanging on the wall.

The timestamp on the news footage, a few minutes old.

Dark roiling clouds, blotting out half the horizon like a cloak.

Stabs of light illuminating the coast below them.

“…dropped from cloud cover less than ten minutes ago, according to eyewitness reports,” the news anchor is saying, voice distant to Red’s ears. “It was only for a few moments, but combined with satellite images, we can now confirm that Zapdos is making its way in a north-northwestern direction.” The image shifts to a storm projection map that shows the cone of probability engulfing Amber Town, Vermilion City, and possibly the Pokemon Tech campus farther to the west. “The League has confirmed deployment, and Rangers are enacting Tier 3 emergency protocols for the tri-city area…”

Red can’t breathe. A sliver of air enters and leaves his parted lips, but attempts to suck in a deeper breath, to ground himself, aren’t working. His fists clench until his nails dig into his palms, but he doesn’t wake up from the nightmarish haze that’s surrounded him.

Not fair, it’s not fair, summer is practically over, why would it come now, why would it come again…

He forces himself to cut off that line of thinking, to close his eyes and try to predict what would happen next.

There’s no question of trying to convince Blue to keep to an edge of the crisis zone, to help how they can without risking himself. Blue and Aiko are there, right in the path of the stormZapdos is coming to them, faster than a mounted pidgeot could fly, even if they had one to carry them, even if there would be any around not already in use to evacuate.

And Red is all the way over here, out to sea with rich and intelligent and influential people who are just standing around and murmuring in worried tones, just watching

Just like me.

Red’s feet pound the carpet of the halls as he runs for his room, gasping in a sharp breath now that his body is forced into motion, unaware of when exactly he started moving. He passes by the corridors and cabins unseeing until he bursts into his bedroom and starts grabbing everything he has out and tosses them into a container box as thoughts keep bubbling to the surface of his panicked brain, uncertainty about what he’s doing finally slowing his hands as he gets to the notebook he’s been using for the exhibits.

What if Zapdos turns? There were parts of that projection cone that carried it away from Vermilion. He can’t teleport back to the ship once he leaves, he’ll miss the rest of the presentations… would Bill understand? Or what if Blue and Aiko and the others are out of town already, gone on some trip after his battle with Surge was over? No, Blue would go back as soon as he hears…

Red needs data. He needs to know how often these projections have been wrong in the past, needs the base rate so he can…

So he can what? Find a reason not to go? Convince himself that a 10% or 20% or even 50% chance of being wrong is worth staying safe on the cruise? The excuses are already there, within easy reach.

I’m here on Bill’s assignment, I don’t know for sure if Blue is still in the city, I’m mentally exhausted from using my powers earlier—

He slaps the excuses down, one at a time, forcing himself to stuff the next thing into his bag, then the next, then the next, until he suddenly hears running footsteps, and the bang of the living room door slamming open.

“Red?!”

Leaf. He hadn’t even checked if she was still here, she must have gone out after he did. Red stays frozen in place, tempted suddenly to stay quiet, to teleport away without telling her so that she stays here, stays safe

His connecting door opens a moment later, and there she is, face flushed and breathing hard. “Red, Zapdos is…” She trails off, wide eyes taking in his mostly packed bag.

Red straightens, meeting her gaze. “I’m going,” he says, hoping she decides to stay, stay, Leaf, please…

Leaf nods, fear and anxiety fading as resolution takes their place. “I am too.”

Chapter 57: Autoargumentation

Somehow the exhibits on the second day just aren’t as interesting as the first.

Of course, Red reflects, that might just be the new feelings clashing around in him taking up his attention. He does his best to focus on the presentations, but doesn’t dare use his powers any more today, since he can feel the grief lurking at the edges of his thoughts already. It’s hard to tell what relationship they have with exacerbating each other, if any, but dealing with both would really suck.

The most interesting tech demo is the advanced potion delivery system: at first he imagined a more technical and useful version of the idea he had when he was young about filling a balloon with healing potions to throw at injured people. Unfortunately too much exposure of it on undamaged flesh would cause other medical issues, so application needs to be pretty precise unless the liquid can be cleaned off soon after, which it won’t be able to in most cases where you’d need to apply it from a distance anyway.

Instead the company is developing a drone that takes in its surroundings, scans for open wounds, then shoots a high powered mist of droplets at any it detects. It’s effectively a more precise version of having trained medic pokemon, and is similarly limited in cases like when Red and the others found the trainer in the field full of beedrill back in Viridian, as the wild pokemon that make the area unsafe might just destroy the drone. But the demonstration video showed how it could be helpful in combat situations, where it frees up trainers from having to switch to medic duty.

After the exhibits are over, Red meets up with Leaf again for dinner, where they exchange notes and try out the new artificial meats. This time the options are all plant pokemon, so Leaf gets some steamed bellsprout while Red munches on fake oddish. Just as flavorful as the “real” kind, if a bit less juicy, and the bellsprout he swaps with Leaf for is better.

They wander the boat after eating, passing from the pitch dark of a cloudy night over the ocean to the bright and cheerful lights of the boat’s corridors. As they near doors to the common areas, Red hears the sounds of conversations and subdued revelry. Leaf pokes her head into them, seemingly at random, until they reach one that seems to strike her fancy. “Let’s see what’s going on in here,”

“No, I’m okay,” Red says. “I’ve never really been into big crowds or parties…”

Her brow furrows. “Are you shy? I never noticed you having trouble talking to strangers before…”

Red shrugs. “It’s different if I have something to talk about with them. I just feel a bit out of place, here.”

“Well, if you’re going to be a Professor one day, you’ve got to learn to mingle. Come on, this is part of your PR training.” Leaf takes his hand, warmth spreading from the contact all the way up his arm and through his chest as she pulls him into the wide, sparsely crowded room.

Red doesn’t put up much of a fight. “Should I take notes?” he asks with a slight smile.

“Absolutely. Observe: humans in their native habitat.” Leaf gestures broadly at the room. “A luxurious cruise, where their every need is catered to, and their only concerns are social.”

Red snorts. Then he notices that Leaf is looking expectantly at him, and grins as he dutifully pulls his notebook out. “What part of that was actually an important lesson?”

“None,” she cheerfully says. “Just making sure you’re paying attention. What we’re looking for is a moderately sized group, where an extra arrival or two wouldn’t come off as intrusive.” She gestures with her elbow as they pass people, all of which do indeed look like ‘moderately sized groups,’ no fewer than four and no more than seven, as far as Red can quickly discern. “There’s not really such a thing as one that’s too big, but when groups get big enough in a setting like this they tend to fracture into smaller ones, and we don’t really want to be an active cause to that unless there’s someone who seems like a straggler themself that we want to try and poach from a conversation. Then, look for those with natural openings for someone else to step into… or sit in, or whatever. See there? Group of six.”

Red follows her gaze. “Yeah.”

“Lots of empty space between the members that we can sidle into. And for what they seem to be doing… ideally you want to enter at a time where one person appears to be the main one talking, like either telling a story or explaining something, rather than a more intimate and active conversation. An energetic debate works too. Something that doesn’t come off as private, basically, something we can enter as participants.”

Red dutifully notes down the bullet points. “Okay, so we’re going to join that one?”

“No, it sounds like he’s talking about trade tariffs, and I don’t know about you but that’s not super exciting to me. Let’s try that one near the corner… Notebook away first, though, they might get the wrong idea. Look casual and curious. Yeah, like that.”

“I’m not—This is my normal expression.”

“Perfect.”

Red shakes his head and follows as she unobtrusively walks by another group, then another, until she sidles into an empty space to listen to two people who seem to be arguing about differences in regional markets based on trainer culture. Eventually someone else poses a question about the relative “star power” of different league members, which seems to give Leaf permission to ask a question of her own after that one is answered about the effects of different educational attitudes. The answer to this prompts another argument, which leads the conversation onward as members of the group occasionally excuse themselves and are replaced by others.

Red is content to just listen, and not jump into the conversation without something particular to say. After this goes on long enough, however, Leaf seems to feel he’s not being sufficiently mingley.

“Go find another conversation, if this one’s boring you,” Leaf eventually murmurs. “See if you can find your own group to infiltrate.”

There’s a moment of unease as he considers walking around the room alone just to find someone to force into talking to him, but he doesn’t want to look like a coward. “Yes ma’am.” He wanders off, listening to the different kinds of conversations and looking for similarities to the one Leaf gravitated toward. As he drifts between them to listen for an interesting conversation, however…

“…about Raikoth, though getting enough at once will be…”

Red’s head turns at the familiar word. Wasn’t it something Bill mentioned working on?

He finds the speaker the next time they say something, and frowns. It’s a group of just three people, two girls and a guy. All three are relatively young, and the main speaker is animated as she talks, hands moving constantly as the other two nod along. Would one person be too much of an intrusion? They’re not quite positioned in a “closed” way, with two of the sitting on opposite ends of a couch while facing a third person in a chair. Another chair is sitting open across from it… should he take the fourth corner of the square? Are there rules for being the person that makes a group look “closed,” especially if he doesn’t know any of the others?

He drifts closer all the while as he frets, until finally he’s just sort of hovering near the empty chair, looking at something else as he listens to their conversation. Something about incentives for early speculators…

Hey Present Red, you know the longer we just stand here the more awkward it’ll be when we finally make it clear we’ve been listening the whole time, right?

Yes Future Red, but I currently have no control over my legs as the thought occurs that dying of awkwardness may be impossible, but suicide as a cure for awkwardness is not.

That got dark, Present Red. If it’s any consolation, I won’t hold you accountable for any awkwardness we endure. That blame will go strictly to Past Red.

That does help, actually, thanks. This is all his fault.

Hey, screw both of you, let’s see how well you can say no to Leaf! Or are you going to run and tell her you took the coward’s way out after all?

That sounds like Future Red’s problem.

Joke’s on you Present Red, now that you’ve thought this, you’ll have to do it soon enough that your memory of episodically experienced moments will still make it part of your continuous present self!

Shit, you’re right! Red forces himself to move around the chair and plops down on it while looking at the person speaking.

Which causes everyone to stop paying attention to her and stare at him.

You fools, you’ve DOOMED US ALL!

“…Hi? Can we help you?” the girl who was speaking asks.

“Yes!” he says, too quickly. “I mean no, sorry. I was just… I heard you say something about ‘Raikoth’ and I think Bill mentioned it and I was just… wondering what you were talking about. Sorry. I can go.” He pushes himself out of the seat.

“Wait, hang on. Bill told you about it?”

“Yeah?”

The three glance at each other. “What did he say, exactly?”

Red slowly sits back down, heart pounding. Maybe this was a mistake… would Bill have wanted Red to advertise that knowledge? He never said anything about keeping it secret. “Uh. Just that it was something that would help with research funding and publishing using… prediction markets, I think?”

“Huh,” one of the others says. “Yeah, that’s about right.”

“And he called it by its project name,” the original speaker muses. “Guess it’s okay that you know, then. Why’d he tell you in the first place?”

“To cheer me up, sort of. I had some problems with the research publishing world.” Red thinks of the recent flood of churned out articles. “Still do, come to think of it. I didn’t mean to interrupt, though, I was just curious to know more. Are you guys working on it?”

“Yeah, actually.” The girl studies him briefly. “Our presentation is one of the last ones, and we were just going over what to highlight, given potential failure modes. Maybe we can use you as a soundboard, since you just know the general points… and you’re familiar with research funding and publishing, apparently?”

“Oh, yeah. I have my Researcher license.”

“Wait, wait,” the guy says. “Are you Red Verres?”

Red smiles, wondering if being recognized is ever going to get old. Probably someday. “Yeah, that’s me.”

The guy looks to the other two and jerks his thumb at Red. “This is the kid who caught like two hundred abra for research, and gave half of them away, or something like that. He’s responsible for the recent churn of psychic paper grist.”

“Woah, I’m not… I mean first off it was closer to a hundred, and we didn’t give them away, we sold them at a third their market price. But more importantly I don’t like to think I’m responsible for the recent articles just because they followed my single, relatively simple paper.”

“It’s cool, he’s not blaming you,” the other girl says. “Happens a lot when new discoveries pop up, big or small. Which is kind of why we’re working on this. I’m Haley, by the way.”

“Rick.”

The girl he interrupted when he sat down raises her hand. “Sarah. So you tell us… What do you think of the state of current research?”

Red hesitates. “Well… I only really know about pokemon research.”

“Good enough,” Haley says, propping her chin on her fist. “What bothers you about it?”

“Getting grants,” he immediately says. “Which is kind of understandable given how many trainers are out there that might be asking for money to experiment with their pokemon. But it also probably discourages a lot of independent researchers who are starting out.” He grimaces as he remembers the ache in his fingers from typing in Pewter. “I had connections and got lucky, and then that paper wasn’t conclusive enough to be publishable. And since getting published is necessary to get the research bought by the labs that update the pokedex, there are a lot of journals that will publish just about anything, no matter how sound the research methods or useful the result, and skip right over things like peer review.” Red sighs. “And of course the more of those there are, the more researchers will manipulate the data or adjust their methodology to meet whatever minimum standard they can.”

“Seems frustrating,” Rick agrees. “And the root of all of those problems is?”

Red blinks. “All?”

“Yeah. Say most, if that helps. If you could change one thing for maximum impact, what would it be?”

Red’s nervousness is long gone, mind turning itself to this new challenge. After thinking about his frustrations of the past couple months, he eventually says, “Non-professional reviewers? Like if there were researchers whose only job was to peer review and replicate stuff…”

“Not bad,” Haley says, while Sarah waggles her hand side to side in an even less enthusiastic endorsement. “It comes with its own complications,” she acknowledges with a glance at Sarah. “Instead, what do you think of making sure scientists who come up with an experiment can’t be the ones to test it?”

“But… then who would?”

“Other scientists!” Sarah says. “The way things work now, researchers are both the people who come up with the theory they want to test, and then do the experiments to test them. Right away, you’ve got a bunch of biases interfering with what should be a truly objective process. What if, instead, anyone could come up with a theory, and outsource the experimentation to a neutral, special lab that has no skin in the game?”

“I see why it removes bad incentives,” Red says, speaking slowly as he thinks through his words. “But… I like coming up with research ideas and testing them.”

“And there’s the ego thing,” Haley says with a sigh. “No offense to you, this is part of what we’re worried about. Too many prominent researchers may insist on testing their own hypotheses. People aren’t used to the idea of getting credit just for coming up with a hypothesis that pays off when someone else does the work. Or they just feel protective of their ideas, insist that no one else can do it justice.”

Red digests that, and has to admit that part of him would feel skeptical that others did his own experiment right if he’s not involved at all. Well, not any others, if Doctor Madi or Professor Elm or Bill or Professor Oak did it, he’d accept those results. “Famous researchers may be able to work out agreements between themselves, but what about lesser known scientists? What if no one wants to try their idea out? And how does that fix funding or publishing?”

“You said it yourself; the prediction market,” Rick reminds him.

“Oh. Oh! So people bet on what research they think will be worth running?”

“Not quite. People bet on what they think the outcome of a particular research question will be. Some particular hypothesis might start out negative-sum, with the missing money going to fund the research when the betting pool becomes large enough. But we were talking about ways to convince corporations or labs or regional governments to subsidize payouts.”

“In a somewhat randomized way, of course,” Sarah says. “Which is another hurdle they would likely balk at.”

Rick nods. “Once some can be convinced to do that, though, you’ve got positive sum markets that start to look very lucrative to the average citizen that might want to make some money, not to mention investment firms. Instead of reviewing hundreds of proposals by dozens of labs trying to get a taste of the yearly research budget pie, governments can just pay that money to Raikoth, marked specifically for a particular kind of research they want to see done. Private organizations do the same thing: take some of their research budget, put it into Raikoth on specific ideas they want to see tested. And when those preferences become known…”

Red thinks it over, and slowly smiles. “Then researchers can propose ideas that match what the money is available for, which brings more money in to fund them as people start to bet on the outcomes. That’s awesome!” Sarah chuckles, and Red lowers his voice. “It sounds too good to be true, really. What about the lab or researcher who does the actual experiment itself, though? The consulting scientists would have to be watched to make sure no one involved is betting.”

“Naturally. The oversight would come from investors on both sides, and once a lab or researcher is selected, they’d take proposals from both and decide on an experimental draft. Then they’d publish it.”

“Yeah, pre-registration to make sure they don’t change the methodology was one of the answers I considered giving.”

“More than that, it’ll be the exact paper that’s published, just with the numbers all blank. ‘We compared three different levels of muk exposure and found that the highest level had X percent more health problems, characterized by fever, rash, cough, and so on, than the lowest, Y.’ After the research is done, just fill in the numbers, add a Discussion section, and boom. No alterations in changing how the results are shown or which tests are done during the data gathering.”

“And since the research odds are being made public,” Haley says, “Everyone can weigh in, with not just their money, but also their reputation.”

“Which means some will abstain, of course,” Sarah responds with a sigh.

“She’s a cynic,” Rick tells Red. “But not wrong. We’re still trying to get enough big names to get in on it so people can’t just avoid getting involved.”

Red grins. “Yeah, I can think of a lot of people who wouldn’t want their mistakes to be public.”

“Oh, yeah. Researchers and consulting scientists are going to be held to a new standard, completely by natural incentives. A public record showing a history of accurate predictions will become not just financially lucrative, but give a lot of prestige that makes particular researchers more likely to have their own ideas funded and tested out in the marketplace, or even hired to consult.”

“And,” Haley says, “If the results don’t feel conclusive enough, and people are still arguing over whether it’s true or not, a replication study can be funded the same way, because people obviously still care.”

“What if an idea doesn’t get funding?” Red asks, thinking of his search for spinarak experiment funding again. “What if no one cares enough about the proposal?”

“Then we’re no worse off than we are now.” Haley shrugs. “But remember, this can be crowdfunded incrementally. People have opinions about things, people want to make money with little effort, and there are guaranteed to be science hedge funds that go around trying to make a quick buck off someone’s hypothesis.”

“My favorite part?” Rick asks with a smile. “The people who keep pushing bad ideas, even after research debunks them.”

“Oh, right!” Red laughs. “They’ll keep betting against the research! Until they go broke, anyway, or admit that they don’t believe it enough to put money on the line.”

Sarah snorts. “Some of them will stay in denial, insist that the system is corrupt or biased somehow anyway. But yeah, it’ll punish that kind of thinking pretty hard, and make their views mostly irrelevant. Same with companies falsifying reports by paying researchers to do the studies for them. With Raikoth, there’ll be a profit motive for everyone to be on the lookout for corruption.”

“Sounds great,” Red says, feeling wistful and frustrated as he imagines such a system. “I hope you guys finish it soon.”

“Depends how the post-cruise funding goes, but with Bill’s help and connections we’ll hopefully get there eventually.”

Red nods, lost in thought for a moment as he considers how different research fields would be once they’re done. He’d miss not being able to come up with his own experiments, but picking from a list of others to try could be fun too, and he can still come up with hypotheses for others to test… “Well, thanks for explaining it. I’ll let you get back to your conversation now.”

“No problem!”

“Bye!”

Red is out of his seat and looking for Leaf when he remembers that he had a secondary mission, and turns around. “Oh, one more thing…” He leans over the back of his chair, lowering his voice. “Do you guys happen to know why there are so many psychics here on the ship?”

“Sure,” Rick says with a shrug. “Everyone hired one, for when we’re meeting with potential partners or investors. It’s a basic way to check for honesty, and to ensure our own thoughts aren’t being picked apart during negotiation.”

That… makes a lot of sense. “Got it. Thanks again.” Red heads off to find Leaf, glad that mystery was solved so easily.

Red wanders around the room looking for another conversation to join until Leaf finishes hers, but doesn’t find one by the time she gets up and makes eye contact. She tilts her head at the door questioningly, and he nods.

“Well? How’d it go? I saw you talking to some people,” Leaf says with a smile.

“Good, actually!” He shares what he learned as the two head back to their room.

“Nicely done. And yeah, I got a similar explanation about the psychics.” She’s quiet a moment, then sighs. “I’m glad it’s something so innocuous, and that everyone on board seems to know about it, but I still can’t help but feel a bit paranoid.”

Red frowns. “From what they said it’s just for explicit meetings, though. I doubt they’d care what random participants think.”

“Sure, and I know that off the cruise I could be talking to a psychic at any point in my day and not realize it. Still just a bit wary after the Giovanni thing, I guess.”

Red has no reply to that. Soon the topic is forgotten as they reach their quarters and repeat last night’s mix of training and talking about the exhibits of the day. Red brings his metapod out and props it up against the wall, then puts Pichu and Nidoran through their paces, not wanting to risk Charmeleon in the enclosed (expensive) space.

Once they and their pokemon are tired out, they decide to try some of the assorted drinks from the room’s bar. Leaf opens one of the miniature liquor bottles, some kind of plum flavored rice wine that they both take turns sipping and making faces at as they try to acclimate to the taste. Red’s lips tingle each time they touch the bottle mouth, and he’s not sure if it’s from the alcohol or from his knowledge of what was just touching it. Soon his cheeks feel flushed, which he’s pretty sure is not from the alcohol. Or not exclusively, anyway.

Eventually they start pouring bits into cups and mixing them with fruit juices and sodas to see if they can make it bearable, after which they just start mixing sodas and fruit juices to try and invent the perfect beverage. After Raff tries to sneak some for the fifth time, Leaf starts looking up what sodas are safe for ivysaur to drink. The resulting expressions and eagerness on her pokemon’s face as he laps the fizzing drinks up from a bowl send them both into laughing fits, and soon they’re bringing the rest of their pokemon out to see all of their reactions too.

By the time midnight rolls around, Red goes to bed feeling enormously content. Which, in turn, makes him feel dread for when the cruise ends and he has to leave Leaf again. He stays up late and stares at the ceiling as Pichu quietly snores beside him.


Red sleeps in again the next day, and wakes up for lunch with a vague sense of despair that’s exacerbated by not seeing Leaf in their rooms, or even in the cafeteria. He tries once again to immerse himself in each exhibit to occupy his mind, but he can barely pay attention to them until it’s time for the one simply titled “Replication breakthrough.”

Red makes his way to the listed room wondering if it has something to do with scientific study replications or some more efficient way to replicate goods and speed up production, until he notices that everyone around him seems to be moving in the same direction. Soon he suspects that everyone on the boat is heading to the same exhibit, a common bloc that everyone’s supposed to attend at once, and he wonders just how big a breakthrough it will be. He starts to look around for Leaf, wondering which direction she might be coming from and hoping to snag a seat near her.

Upon entering the auditorium, however, what immediately takes Red’s attention is the live charizard that lies curled up on the side of the stage. He considers walking up to the presenter and asking him what he thinks he’s doing, letting a charizard out here, this is a boat after all, but it’s a brief thought compared to his awe and admiration. The pokemon appears to be sleeping, its slow breaths expanding its sides in a steady rhythm that’s hushed but still clearly audible over the crowd. Red finds his seat while barely taking his eyes off the great lizard, its orange scales glinting from the many lights around them. It isn’t until he finds a seat that he wonders at what its presence here might imply.

Eventually the lights dim but for the ones illuminating the stage and the middle aged, athletic man standing beside the pokemon. “For decades, we used pokeball technology to merely catch and release,” the presenter says. “It’s only recently that we began to edit the physical properties of those inside the ball, and then their mental experiences.”

The man holds up an ultra ball and withdraws the charizard into it. He then aligns the lens with a machine on the table behind him, and the monitor behind him lights up to show the charizard slumbering in the simulation its ball presents for it. He takes something out of his pocket, and a moment later it expands into another ultra ball.

“Witness, an empty ball.” Its click echoes around the quiet room as it opens, showing the reflective inner surface of the base and lid to the audience. The speaker moves it in a slow half-circle so everyone can see before he closes it and places it in the receiving slot of the PC behind him. “And our custom hardware, which has no pokemon inside it: only a carefully measured amount of certain substances.”

The giant monitor behind him starts to list the contents in the form of a container scan. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Calcium, Sulfur… Red sees the amounts start to drop off rapidly, and mutters “Holy shit” before he can help himself. By the murmuring and muttering that’s filling the room, he’s not the only one that suspects where this is going…

The presenter ignores them, waiting for the scan to finish displaying everything there. Eventually it stops, the last elements listed as Other. The ultra ball with the charizard in it is still displayed separately, showing that it hasn’t left its ball. “The next step is obvious. What can be broken down, altered, and released whole again, should also be able to be copied. All this matter simply needs a fitting schema with which to be arranged, a template that’s provided by our good friend Carnus. Let’s say hello to Carnus again, shall we?”

The presenter takes the ultra ball out of the machine and points it to the open space to his left… but not the one that the charizard was in. Nevertheless, there’s a flash, the auditorium’s shocked reactions almost drowned out by the sound of the charizard appearing: the same hue, the same proportions, and lying in the exact same position.

“Woops,” the man says, smiling at the audience as a buzz of conversation grows even louder. “Wrong ball.” He points the original back toward his right, and another charizard comes out: the original Carnus.

“Holy shit,” Red says again, barely able to hear himself as shouts and applause break out in the audience. Red stares at the two charizard, looking back and forth as thoughts crowd his head, too many to make sense of. Cloning has been imagined in fiction since before Red was born, he grew up on stories of how it could change the world and knew that some people, somewhere, were working on it… but always in the same way he knew people were working on nanotech and genetically engineered hybrid pokemon and infinite energy sources. It wasn’t something he expected to see any results of anytime soon.

This changes everything, the entire fields of catching and training pokemon just became much less important, pokemon value by rarity is practically gone… hell, this totally outdoes Red’s abra trick, obsoletes it and any others for catching large amounts of rare pokemon, the sheer scale of how much this changes makes Red feel like he’s in a dream…

The presenter lets the noise continue for another few seconds as he clips the two ultra balls to his belt, then raises his hands, palms out. “Hold on, everyone, don’t get too excited yet.” The room quiets down almost instantly, and Red feels his mental footing refirm. Of course there’s something else, some catch…

The presenter goes to the cloned copy and puts a hand on its shoulder. “While this Carnus is a living, breathing charizard, and not just some statue made of biological parts, there are still some flaws with the process that we’re trying to figure out. The cloned pokemon’s autonomous functions all seem in good order, but they don’t respond to any but the most extreme stimuli, and always in what appears to be a fairly mindless way.” He looks a little sad as he says it, looking at the cloned charizard and giving its shoulder a rub. “We’re working hard to figure out what’s going wrong, and with your help, I’m sure we’ll get there soon.”

He smiles and steps back up to the front of the stage. “People said it was impossible. That despite all our technological marvels, the complications involved would make this a step too far. And we’ve all had doubts, one way or another. But today, the goal of pokemon cloning now appears to be years away rather than decades. Since we have some of the finest minds in biology, tech, and business in the room, we’re hoping that this demonstration will bring us the talent and funds we need to make history, and truly change the world. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The room explodes in applause, though there’s a layered, stilted quality to it, as much of the audience is slow to get over their shock. The presenter bows, then gestures to his side as he names the team leaders standing there, ready to be approached. Some people are already moving toward the stage, either to talk to them or examine the clone, while the rest of the audience breaks into a hundred different conversations.

Beside him, Red hears a pair of poketech engineers speculating about potential data loss from the order in which the pokemon is reassembled, while one of the women ahead of him turns around in her chair to begin an animated conversation on the effects of even minor mistakes in the base material amounts with the man sitting beside Red. He tries listening to one conversation first, then the other, but both are on specifics of the fields that leave him with the now-familiar feeling of being out of his depth, and instead he just sits and stares at the two charizard as his mind fills with wonder and speculation. The notebook page in front of him is blank, and he eventually just writes “Converting base matter into cloned pokemon, autonomous living functions, no mind?”

As soon as Red writes it, his mind extends outward, curiosity like a restless itch. His head immediately bows against the cacophony of thoughts; trying to focus through it is like he’s trying to feel a raindrop on a single patch of skin in a thunderstorm. Thankfully the charizard’s mind is different enough that he can isolate it from all the humans’, focus his thoughts on its blunter/fuzzier/more singular rhythm…

But there’s only one of them.

Red frowns as he tries harder to isolate a similar mental signature, but there’s nothing even remotely like it in the room. Red opens his eyes to confirm that yes, the cloned charizard is still there, and feels a twist go through his stomach.

Did they create a Dark charizard?

After a moment Red’s skepticism kicks in. There’s no way they haven’t hired a psychic to help diagnose what’s wrong with the clones, they would know by now if they’re somehow turning the pokemon Dark by testing psychokinesis on lifting its tail or something. But the alternative is that they just don’t have a brain, which seems unlikely, considering it’s meant to be a complete clone, and is at least able to breathe on its own… then again, maybe they just recreated it with some other autonomic nervous system. How would he know there’s an actual brain in its skull? It’s not like anyone would open it to find out. Also he can’t imagine why they would do that on purpose.

Maybe it’s not brain activity that my powers detect. Maybe it’s… mind activity?

Red needs to talk to a fellow psychic. He uses his “echolocation” to search for any other psychic minds around him, focusing as best he can with his eyes open as he slowly turns to match faces to hits.

He finds a few nearby, but his sense of them fades when he gets out of his chair and starts to approach them. Red immediately stops, not wanting to seem aggressive. The next psychic he homes in on doesn’t move away, but when Red focuses on the person he thinks it is he finds the woman looking at him with a guarded, almost hostile expression. Red holds his hands up in a gesture of apology while stepping away. There’s got to be a better way to do this…

He finds his seat again and closes his eyes, then focuses on his curiosity, trying to project it as best he can without forcing it on others. He then adds his sense of general… openneness, his desire to talk to someone and learn and share information distilled into a feeling that doesn’t really have a name.

He’s starting to feel some grief undermining his concentration, but does his best to isolate it. He hopes whatever he’s doing feels more like a sign that says I’m very interested in chatting with anyone who can feel this rather than HEY PSYCHICS! COME TALK TO ME RIGHT NOW!

“There are over a dozen Gifted in this room too polite or wary to ask you what you’re doing,” a voice says, deep and roughened by age and cigars, and Red looks up to see an older man with short, grey hair, a thin mustache, and a striped suit and hat. “But novelty overrides such concerns, for myself. Or perhaps that’s just your feelings splashing over me like a bucket of paint.”

Red quickly stops the projection and forms his mental shield as he turns to the man. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude, I just figured it would be better than walking up to strangers and telling them I know they’re psychic. You know, in case they don’t want to be outed. If that’s a thing people worry about.”

The older man raises a brow. “And why would you need to speak to a fellow Gifted so urgently?”

“I just wanted to ask some questions about the charizard. I’m Red, by the way. Red Verres.”

“Watari.” The psychic turns to the charizard with no apparent recognition. “I admit that this situation is rather intriguing in its own right. At first glance, it appears to vindicate those Gifted who have always spoken of a ‘soul’ that exists separate from the mind, and insisted that this is what we are in truth interacting with.”

Red blinks, skepticism warring with the evidence of his (extra sensory) perceptions. “Well,” he says, speaking slowly as he considers the problem, “I guess if I was thinking in terms of disproving the hypothesis that the clone is missing a soul, I would first have to determine whether it being brain dead was a more important variable. Do you know if anyone has ever lost the ability to have their mind sensed, through an accident or something?”

The psychic drums their fingers along the top of the chair in front of him. “Not that I can recall, short of the sorts of injuries that would kill someone.” he eventually says. “Even those with extreme mental trauma have some sensorium that can be sampled, even if their thoughts or emotions are, in essence, gone. They are not… this.” He gestures toward the cloned charizard. “This emptiness.”

“What about the opposite?”

“Gaining a sensable mind, where there was none before? Only if you count children.”

Red rakes the fingers of one hand through his hair, missing the weight of his hat. He’d never thought to wonder about that, and he should have. “What age do children become detectable?”

“Depends on the species,” the man says, giving him an appraising look. “Humans, after a handful of months within the womb. Pokemon that are born from eggs have detectable minds long before they actually hatch, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to even longer than humans.”

That… doesn’t track with what little Red knows about brain development. “Shouldn’t they be detected earlier than that?”

“By what measure? Whatever your political or philosophical frame, I can assure you that someone has come up with an explanation that fits. If you’re speaking purely from the perspective that active brain activity should be detected by a psychic, however, I do believe that is the question at the heart of this mystery. We only detect that which we can understand and feel ourselves in some fashion, after all.”

“Right,” Red says, frowning. “Thinking about it more, I’m mostly confused at why I can’t at least detect what the clone’s body is feeling, since that at least seems like it shouldn’t require it to be conscious. I’ve merged minds with my pokemon while they were napping before, and it still felt like something, and of course the original charizard’s mind is there… Is this clone just totally unable to sense the world around it?”

“I’m sure they have Gifted on staff to try and understand where their technology has gone wrong,” he says. “Or they’re here to attract those that can better help them assess the problem, along with the more obvious recruitment of money and other talents.”

“Are you thinking of approaching them?” Red asks.

Watari glances at him. “I am already quite gainfully employed.”

“Oh, cool.” Red smiles. “Are you one of the truth checkers?”

The psychic stares at him, and Red’s smile eventually fades. What is with psychics and their weird social norms? Is he committing some taboo that Ayane never told him about?

“Uh. You don’t have to answer.”

“Who are you, really?” the man asks, seeming genuinely curious.

Red is taken aback not just by the question (and the confirmation that he doesn’t recognize Red’s name) but by the implied context around it that he feels utterly unaware of. “I don’t…” Red stops, thinks a moment, then says slowly, “I feel as though I’ve been dropped into a movie and don’t know my lines, or character. Did I say something that strange? I’ve met four psychics already, and their jobs never seemed like a secret…”

The older man meets his gaze for another few moments of silence while Red tries to keep from fidgeting nervously, and wonders if he should drop his shield. Maybe it’s making him look guilty, as though he has something to hide. But even if he drops the shield now he’ll be wondering if he’s meant to be keeping something hidden, which will inevitably draw up things like Bill’s secret, thus making him seem guilty as soon as he starts thinking about the very fact that there’s something he wants to keep secret at all. Maybe he should try to partition that meta knowledge into its own shield to keep it separate—

“Oh!” Red’s eyes are wide as he considers that briefly, then realizes the danger and lets the train of thought go. He looks up at the bemused psychic. “Sorry, I think I just figured out how we do the ‘amnesia’ thing. A little. I was told not to experiment with it on my own, but now I’m actually worried I’ll do it accidentally.”

The older man slowly blinks. “Now am the one who feels a character in the wrong play. Which, I’m sure, is the point.” He considers Red a moment longer. “Do you by chance know the story of how General Hideyoshi fooled the Mori clan’s undefeated psychic warlord at Himeji Castle into falsely believing that he was surrendering?”

“Uhh…” Red wants to say that he doesn’t know much history, or that the question doesn’t make him feel any less like he’s cluelessly in the middle of something that he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to admit to ignorance without at least trying to figure out the answer.

So instead he puts his attention into actually trying to guess what the ancient general had done, and why the older psychic was asking him about it in this particular context. How would Red fool a psychic? He couldn’t use another psychic or dark person to lie to them, they wouldn’t believe anything they said. Professor Oak told him that the best thing to do to prepare for meeting a psychic is to make sure he has nothing on his mind that he’s worried about the psychic learning. This was fairly easy to do when he met Narud, since he didn’t know anything important, but harder with Sabrina, when he did.

Though, actually… it wasn’t Red’s information that he wanted to keep Sabrina from knowing. It was Bill’s. And Bill hadn’t told him that information, he had figured it out himself, after already giving Red the tickets. Bill can’t have been worried about people here finding out things about him, but the very act of warning Red about psychics would prompt Red to be on the defensive. Which would make it seem like he’s hiding something regardless of whether or not Bill has something to hide.

Hell, if Red hadn’t even known it was a big deal, he wouldn’t have even had to try and keep himself from thinking about it. But even if an interrogator isn’t specifically looking for some information, they would be able to sense that feeling of guilty desire to deceive or hide something, and ask the right questions to bring it to the forefront of Red’s mind either way.

The older psychic seems amused that Red is actually giving the idea some thought, and doesn’t interrupt his thinking. Red’s doesn’t need his powers to try and put himself in the other man’s shoes and look at the world from his perspective. Red isn’t the general in this circumstance; he’s the one sent by the general, who would be Bill. Red’s psychic, so that kind of breaks the pattern of the hypothetical, but if there isn’t some norm among psychics not to ask what people do, then maybe there’s one specifically on this cruise…

He realizes with a sinking feeling why hiding in plain sight is the ideal form of deception. If “everyone knows” why there are so many psychics on board, then any psychics not on board for that reason aren’t given additional suspicion. Except, perhaps, from other psychics, and so of course a psychic asking another psychic what they do on the cruise is frowned upon. Espionage seems the easiest answer, but Bill didn’t even know Red was psychic when he first invited him, and thought that he still didn’t know how to pick up on emotions when he gave him the tickets, so it’s not like he would worry about that. But he definitely knew before Red came on the cruise, and still said nothing.

Which means saying something would have just made things worse, or that he was purposefully pretending not to know that Red was psychic so that he could act surprised upon finding out so that Red could assume that he had no ulterior motive for sending Red…

Complexity penalty. That way lies madness. He can entertain it as a possibility, but for now he has no evidence to confirm it one way or the other, and it would just distract from more probable likelihoods.

“I guess,” Red says slowly, “If I were that general, I would convince my negotiator or second in command or whatever that we were surrendering. Maybe even fake suicide, and stage the beginnings of a surrender. Have my people start dismantling the camp until the negotiator leaves. Maybe even send some prisoners who are told and see the same thing. Then, they wouldn’t need to worry about honesty: you can’t betray a falsehood or even the possibility of a ruse if you don’t suspect one yourself.”

“So you do know the story.”

“No, I just… it’s obvious, once you think about it.”

They stare at each other in silence for another few seconds while the dominos finish falling one after another in Red’s head.

I’m not actually a secret agent of Bill’s he thinks, then doesn’t say, recognizing how useless a defense it is, even against someone who can read his intentions.

I don’t think that I’m a secret agent, really, I wasn’t given any instructions beyond to just take notes about the presentations, would be similarly pointless, since the person being anticipated is the only one who knows what he’s actually after.

“I just wanted to talk to someone about the charizard,” he finally says, feeling an odd sort of shame. “Sorry for bothering you.”

“No bother at all,” the man says, and tips his narrow hat. “Have a good night, Gifted.”

Red watches him go, brain feeling like he just went through a battery of tests. He sits idly for a few minutes until the crowd finally begins to thin out as people make their way out of the exhibition room.

“Red!”

He looks up to see Leaf on her way toward him, apparently having spotted him on the way out. His heart swells at the sight of her, chasing away his dark thoughts.

“Hey! What do you think?” He gestures at the two charizard. “Pretty crazy, right?”

Leaf is close enough now for him to read her expression, which doesn’t look particularly impressed, let alone awe stricken. “Yeah. Pretty crazy.”

“What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head. “Is there something you’re waiting for, here?”

Red glances at the crowd near the presenters, which looks like it won’t be thinning any time soon. “I guess not. You going somewhere specific?”

She shakes her head. “Nowhere. I was just going to walk around the boat. Maybe go to our room and cry a bit. Or scream.”

Red stares at her in shock. “Why?”

“Not here. Come on.” She starts walking, and Red quickly follows her. The halls of the boat are a bit crowded as people rush this way and that, but soon they reach one of the doors to the outer decks, which are practically empty. Eventually, Leaf says, “Please tell me you understand at least a little bit why I’m so upset right now.”

Red rubs his temples. “Leaf… normally I’d be happy to try and model you, but I just finished some spy movie crap with another psychic, and my brain still feels soft.” She gives him a surprised look. “I’ll tell you later, but for now it would really be nice to just have a straightforward conversation.”

“Okay, well then being straightforward, I’m pretty disgusted by the world right now. Cloning mentally crippled pokemon is just the start of what looks to be a pretty horrifying future.”

Red’s never heard so much venom in Leaf’s voice, and tries to pick his words carefully, forcing himself to try and model her perspective despite his earlier protest. “If it helps, there’s no mind there at all that I could sense. It was as close to literally braindead as I could imagine, as unthinking and unfeeling as a rock.”

Leaf looks surprised by that. “Okay. I guess that’s not quite as horrifying as it could be.”

“And I know we don’t agree on the weight of pokemon personhood, but I can sort of understand why you would be weirded out by the idea of cloning Joy or Raff. It would basically treat them like commodities, right?”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. I know Aiko would be pissed about it because it’ll just encourage people to all raise copies of the same pokemon, instead of taking care of all the other pokemon that already exist.”

Red didn’t think of that part. “Yeah. Though it would mean people aren’t breeding dozens of pokemon just to try and get one particularly rare or powerful combination of genes. That’s good, right?”

“Oh no, they’ve got a much better market for that now.”

“What do you mean? They said they just stored all the needed elements and…” Red trails off. “Huh. How do they even know how to stabilize each combination of molecules? That Other metric must be full of something specific, but they didn’t just list it out… I mean, we still can’t artificially recreate charmander oil in a lab, that’s one of the first things I looked up after we started out. But… that clone’s tail had a flame so I guess just copying the form is enough…”

“Right, that might just be the result of putting the right biological organs together in the right places,” Leaf says.” Artificial pokemon meat is made by specific software to turn the right elements into the right pattern of biological compounds as efficiently as possible. But whatever script they’re using to fit atoms into the whole blueprint is bound to be more prone to error the more precise they try to be, and the main issue is that meat is still something we understand how to code as output, while other stuff pokemon make or have as part of them are not.”

“They’re not trying to code one from scratch, though, they’re just copying the process that happens when you bring a pokemon out of its ball.”

“No they’re not,” Leaf says as she stomps along the corridor and out onto the deck of the ship. “They’re applying that process to a new bunch of matter! That’s important if we’re thinking of what goes into the ball in the first place, think about the ‘flying particles,’ we definitely don’t know how those are emitted! Maybe it’s just about putting the right organs in the right places too, but what if it’s not? Even if its brain worked alright, it might not have been able to breathe fire, or fly. They probably just put together something impressive enough to show for investors.”

Red considers this silently for a while as he follows Leaf to the railing at the edge of the deck. The two stare out into the dark waves below and brilliant stars above as Red wonders how accurate her suspicion is. Leaf may be too cynical, part of the mindset she’s been cultivating to be a journalist, but either way, surely the psychics on board would notice something that deceptive. Plus, many collaborators might not actually care.

But ultimately he realizes it’s irrelevant to the real point. “Okay, let’s say they can only really effectively clone a pokemon by using other pokemon. For a while, anyway, eventually it’ll get figured out when we understand them and how their abilities work better. But Leaf, don’t you get it? They’ll eventually be able to bring pokemon back to life with this!”

“No, Red, they won’t! They’ll just make a clone using the remains of the previous pokemon, or others. There’s no continuation of consciousness like there is when we digitize a pokemon in their ball, or store them, it’s not analogous to sleep, it’s just turning dead matter into living creatures.”

“Why is that bad?”

“Because there are already living creatures around!” Leaf waves an arm in a gesture that’s probably meant to encompass more than just the ocean around them. “Come on, Red. Don’t tell me you haven’t already thought of what this will probably lead to.”

“I was distracted, really. I get it now, though, you think people are going to just… store a bunch of charmander for biological parts. But even if people need to use charmander to make a charizard, nothing says they have to be alive first.

“And who’s going to stop them from using living pokemon?” Leaf shakes her head. “You can’t see past the potential benefits of this, that’s the problem. Like everyone else, you’ll just accept whatever cost there is as unimportant compared to the gains.”

An announcement interrupts Red before he can respond, alerting them all that dinner is being served. People around them start to change the direction in which they drift. “Leaf, I don’t—”

“Sorry, can we table this?” Leaf lets out a frustrated breath. “I have to go, I made plans for a couple interviews during dinner.” She starts heading to the dining hall, and Red follows her with an ache in his chest. He’d hoped to eat with her and talk more, but she clearly wants some space from him.

He contemplates going to the dining hall and sitting alone, or trying to strike up a conversation with someone. After the stressfully enigmatic talk with the psychic, however, he finds the prospect daunting, and just grabs some food to take to his room, thoughts still swimming with amazement at the cloning technology, curiosity about what it was doing wrong, and, more often than he’d prefer, the conversation he had with Leaf, and how irritated she was, and how irritated he’d made her…

He’s still in bed an hour later, food eaten, mood swinging between various pessimistic thoughts. Eventually he has the presence of mind to realize he’s just sulking, and brings Pichu out to keep him company the way he would if his depression was particularly bad. That comparison distracts him briefly; what he’s feeling now isn’t nearly as strong as the feelings of using his powers too much… of missing his dad. But he still would have thought he’d be better at overcoming it than this.

He needs to get his mind off this frustrated worry that she’s going to hate him forever just because they argued before he leaves the journey. Red takes his laptop out and starts typing up a report of the cloning presentation for Bill and doing his best to ignore his argument with Leaf. Blue he’s used to not getting, they just have such different priorities, but Leaf… If only he wasn’t leaving soon, he might not be so fatalistic about it all…

He’s still writing out his thoughts about the presentation when there’s a knock at the door to the living room, and Red stares at it a moment, heart hammering. “Come in!”

Leaf opens the door and pokes her head in. Her buneary, Alice, curiously sticks her head in from around Leaf’s knees, nostrils flared at the lingering scent of food. “Hey. Are you joining us tonight?”

Red smiles, some weight rolling off his shoulders. “Sure!”

Leaf smiles and closes the door, and he quickly changes into his workout clothes, body feeling light and full of energy. He pauses as he changes, a bit amazed as he realizes how much of a shift in his mood and energy level was dependent on just knowing that Leaf wasn’t mad at him. He quickly grabs his notebook and writes out, find out what the link is between mood and energy/motivation level, see if it can be harnessed independently or summoned on command? Then he summons Metapod and Pichu, and carries Metapod into the living room to lean it against the corner.

Pichu runs off to say hi to Leaf upon spotting her, as usual. She smiles and gives the pokemon she caught an affectionate rub, then sends him back to Red, who steps up to the opposite side of the obstacle course. “I shifted some things around,” she says. “Haven’t tested it much, but let me know if it’s not working for you.”

“Right.” Red watches her go around the course to get an idea of what the new configuration is intended for, then starts his track when she gets to the end of it.

Soon he’s gotten into the new rhythm of things, and is wondering if he should bring up their previous conversation. It feels risky, and he doesn’t want them to argue again. But he also doesn’t want the topic to have ended on such a negative note, and he never had trouble talking to her about things before. She might find it odd or disappointing if he started now.

“So, about what we were talking about, before,” Red says carefully, stretching his thoughts out to test her mood.

“Yeah?” Leaf seems curious, not hostile at all, mostly focused on her workout. Red withdraws so he can focus on his own and talk at the same time. “Oh! You said something about psychic spy stuff?”

Red misses a step and almost twists his ankle on the edge of a couch cushion. He’d completely forgotten about that, he was just so upset at the idea that Leaf might be mad at him that he forgot…

“Right, that.” He summarizes the conversation with Watari, and Leaf stops exercising so she can listen, causing him to slow to a stop too. As he explains his suspicions, she starts to pace by the windows, an intense look on her face.

“Okay, I’m back to suspecting something shady is going on,” Leaf says. “I think we should tell the captain or event organizers, just to make sure they’re aware of how many psychics there are here.”

“But we don’t even know how many there are, or should be,” Red says. “What are we going to say? ‘Hey, there’s more psychics than we two kids who have never been to one of these before expected and one of them seemed secretive about his job?'”

Leaf sighs. “I know, we need more info first. Still, I’d feel pretty silly if we didn’t raise the concern and it turned out to be something important just out of fear of being embarrassed.” She gets back onto the obstacle course, and Red starts moving again too. “I really need to figure out how to guard my thoughts and mood from intrusion. We should practice that sometime.”

“Yeah.” Red’s mood plummets again as he realizes it would have to be sometime soon. He should tell her he’s leaving… But it’ll just depress him more, and he was enjoying thinking about other things. “I’m a bit psychic’d out today, but maybe tomorrow night, or the one after?”

“Sure. And I’ll see if I can get a five minute conversation with the captain or someone else with authority tomorrow.”

They exercise in silence a bit, and Red’s thoughts go back to the argument from earlier, the things he didn’t get a chance to say. Just out of fear of being embarrassed. That’s not quite why Red’s hesitant to bring the conversation up again, he’s more afraid of spoiling the mood, but he knows it’s going to continue to bother him if they just leave the conversation there. So he considers what the best opening statement would be to set a more positive tone, and the next time he vaults over the two couches, one after the other this time instead of all as one maneuver, he catches his breath and says, “About that other thing… from earlier. I’ve been thinking about what you said, and you’re right. I think I might be too quick to just accept the opportunities.”

“Yeah?” Leaf asks from behind him, sounding surprised.

“Yeah. But I also think we might have drifted off point, a little… I was curious to know, what if we forget about this technology as it currently exists and talk about the ideal? Maybe we disagree less than it seems, philosophically.”

“Maybe.” Leaf’s buneary hops straight over both couches at once, its ears just missing the ceiling. It lands on her shoulder, then rebounds forward. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, if we could just collect a bunch of dead matter for the elements and work out the algorithms to perfectly duplicate a pokemon, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen will get you most of the way there for most—”

“People aren’t going to want most pokemon, they’re going to want the rare and powerful ones. You think most people have a ton of iron lying around to turn into a steelix?”

“Okay, but pretend they just buy iron in bulk to use, and can easily purchase any rarer elements they need, all ethically sourced. I know you have doubts about that actually happening, but hypothetically, would you still be against being able to revive your pokemon?”

“But I wouldn’t be reviving them. Like I said, I’d just be making a copy.”

“A copy that’s using like 90% the same matter?” Red pants as he leaps from side to side between the chairs. “Like if you make a backup copy of your pokemon, and they get killed, and you have the extra elements around to repair whatever wounds they got and bring them back to their previous saved state… is that bad?”

Leaf is quiet, and he wishes he could see her facial expression for longer than a couple seconds at a time as they pass by each other. He’s about to use his powers to check her mood when she says, “I can’t say that I won’t be tempted to just… turn some bushes into a new Raff if something happens to him. But there are other pokemon in the world that could use a loving trainer. I should just raise another one and raise them instead. To be honest, ever since we’ve been to Aiko’s ranch, I’ve been wondering if I should even catch any new pokemon, outside of like a life or death situation.”

Red tries to wrap his mind around that, and fails. Not just the idea of not catching new pokemon they encounter in the wild, that requires a whole separate conversation and time to contemplate. What he really can’t imagine is being given the ability to return a dead pokemon to life, and just… starting over with a new pokemon instead of regaining all the time and effort he’s already put into his. To lose the relationship between himself and his pokemon…

“I think you’re an incredibly moral and caring person,” Red says. “And I feel sincerely awed that you have that level of care for each pokemon as an individual rather than a… I don’t know, a pattern of interactions with a persistent chain of experiences? But what if it happened to me? Would you really not want me to come back to life just because it was a copy?”

“Do you want a clone of you just picking up where you left off after you’re dead?”

“Of course! I mean for all I know, someone secretly kills me and puts a clone in my place every few months while I’m asleep, right? If I died and someone cloned me from a backup I might not even notice if it were done carefully enough. I’m basically a clone of Past Red, and I’d be upset with Past Red if he didn’t want me, as Present Red, to exist, just like I’d be upset with him making a decision that ignored my well-being. Similarly, I have to consider what’s best for Future Red when I make decisions, who’s kind of not-yet-created clone of me. And if I would be mad at Past Red for not caring if I exist, it would be a dick move to not want Future Red to exist.”

Leaf stops to drink some water, and gives some to Alice too as she stares at Red with an expression he can’t quite place. “You have the strangest way of thinking sometimes, you know that?”

Red stops to rest and hydrate himself and Pichu too, and briefly samples her mental state as he does so. There’s more admiration and pleasure than confusion, and he grins. “You realize how that sounds, coming from you?”

Leaf laughs. “Fair enough. I didn’t say I don’t like it, though.” She gives her buneary a nut from the pouch at her belt, then gets back onto the track. “But okay, let’s say you do know you’ll be cloned if you die. You wouldn’t go charging into dangerous situations, would you?”

Red considers that as he takes another drink, still warmed by her words. “I’m not sure, actually. If there was really no cost, and by putting myself in danger I could save others… but wait, if that was possible for me I guess everyone would also be able to be revived. Or cloned. Whatever.”

Leaf is frowning at him as she jogs by. “Don’t you think there’s something perverse about that? Would we even value life if it was that easy to replace?”

“Yes? It’s not like we’d be suddenly okay with someone’s backup being wiped out in that circumstance. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ would just have a different meanings.” He watches her move around the track, waiting until she’s opposite him to rejoin. “Wouldn’t you want to be immortal?”

“If it was actual immortality that I could end whenever? Sure. But clones… I don’t know. It just feels like that’s not me anymore. And if copies of me are just using up resources that other people could be using, that seems really narcissistic. No offense.”

“Some taken. But…” Red shrugs as he runs. “I like myself… uh, mostly. I like my values. I like my goals. I want them to continue, even if it’s through a clone. I guess maybe I am a narcissist?” That thought is unpleasant, but he can’t deny the truth of what he said. “Though I think that word means more that you don’t care about others… I wouldn’t kill someone else to make a clone of me.”

“Why wait until you’re killed at all, then? Why not just clone yourself, if the tech is available to do it out of inert matter?”

Huh. Now that they’re talking hypothetically, the possibilities of what the new poketech would let them do if they ever fix the problems with storing humans would allow cloning humans… What a weird world that would be.

But not one he feels intrinsically opposed to. “I think I could get along with myself,” Red says. “And that way I could have one of me focus on research, one of me focus on training, and one of me focus on my psychic abilities.”

“And how would the yous decide which does which? Drawing lots? If you can’t decide between them now, why would your clones be okay with only doing one over the others, and not eventually get upset at being stuck with one?”

Considering that takes Red’s attention for awhile, trying to model himself as a version of himself that is aware of other versions who are going to go off and do other important work so that he can focus on training/research/psychic abilities. He thinks he’d be okay with that, as long as he can keep checking in with his other selves to see what they’ve learned and maybe work together sometimes…

His musings are interrupted by a sudden knock at the door. Red and Leaf both slow to a stop, their pokemon immediately halting beside them. The trainers exchange a look, then reach for their pokeballs.

“Wait,” Red suddenly whispers, and bends down to pick Pichu up. “Too loud.”

Leaf picks Alice up, and they quickly head to their rooms to put their pokemon away as a knock comes again. Despite his nonchalance to Leaf when they first came on board, he suddenly imagines a dozen potential consequences to breaking the rules of the cruise, including having their pokeballs taken away for the remainder of the journey, or being barred from attending any further exhibitions.

“Stay,” Red says to Pichu. “Rest.” He pours some berries on the ground from the pouch at his waist, then takes the whole belt off and puts it in an open container box before returning to the living room to grab Metapod and stick it in his closet. Leaf is closing her door by the time he comes back out, and the knock repeats, louder, as they move together to answer the door. Red opens it and sees the boat steward from their first day standing there with his fist still raised.

“Hi… Paul,” Red says, remembering after a moment before he has to look at the name tag. “What’s up?”

The young man glances back and forth between the two smiling, sweaty, somewhat winded trainers. “Good evening. We’ve received noise complaints, from both those below and above your suite, over the past few nights.”

Oops. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“Normally your conduct in your own rooms would be your own concern,” Paul says, voice a bit stiff. “But due to age…”

“Oh!” Leaf says, and Red turns to see her blushing furiously. It makes her look particularly pretty. “Oh, no, it’s… look…”

She takes a step back, surprising Red, who’s confused at both the implication and her sudden decision to show off their ad hoc gym.

The steward stares at the transformed living room, eyes widening. “Was your room… not to your liking?”

“It’s just a place for us to work out,” Red says.

“We have facilities onboard…”

“Privately.”

“Of course.” Paul is giving Red a level stare, and he wonders if the young man is remembering what they wanted before and putting two and two together… “I’ve been asked to ensure nothing untoward is occurring, however.”

Nothing untoward?’ Do people really talk like that? “Um. Sure.” Red steps aside too, watching Paul walk in and frown at the obstacle course. He tries to imagine it from his eyes, and wonders if it just looks like a jumbled mess from the angle of the doorway.

The steward goes over to the furniture, examining the expensive looking couches and cushions. “And just the two of you have been climbing and running over these?”

“Yes,” Leaf says before Red can wonder if there’s any telltale marks of their pokemon’s claws cutting at the material. “I’m sorry, I didn’t consider the potential damage to them from how rough we were being.”

Paul’s gaze lingers on the edge of one couch, fingers running over the top, then he walks around the room, making Red nervous when he approaches Leaf’s door in case Alice makes some sound, or he decides to investigate it. Instead he continues past to the bar, where he takes in the small mountain of empty containers there. Red is suddenly glad they only opened one alcoholic drink, long buried by all the juice bottles and soda cans.

“Did we drink too much?” Red asks.

Paul turns to them just as a muffled thrumming and crackling comes from Red’s room. “What was that?” he asks, turning to Red’s door.

“I left my TV on,” Red blurts out, causing Paul to turn back to him as a panicky voice in his head wonders if Pichu fried something. Hopefully not the TV…

“You left your TV on,” Paul says, not a question.

“Right.” Red tries not to look nervous or glance at Leaf.

“While you exercised.”

“Yeah. For the… background ambiance.”

Both Leaf and Paul stare at him, now, the silence suddenly incriminating.

“Wait, no,” Red says, cursing himself for being a terrible liar. “I think that was my alarm going off on my phone, actually. I forgot all about it. That’s why I set it. So I wouldn’t forget… to send an email.”

“I see.” Paul’s hand rises to rub his eyes briefly. “Would you mind if I check your room, sir?”

“Check my room?” Red asks as he suddenly sends his powers out toward Pichu, enmeshing their minds and pushing past the sensations it sends him as he hurriedly sends his vague fear at his pokemon. Not mindless fear, that might make him lash out at anyone who walks into the room, but specifically the social fear of awkwardness, of some indistinct threat. It’s easy to project the desire to curl up and hide… “Not at all!” Red lunges forward before Paul can reach for his door knob so that Pichu smells him coming through the door first, still sending the impulse to hide and be quiet as he opens the door and holds it wide for Paul’s inspection.

Paul is frowning at him, but after a moment steps into the room and looks around. Thankfully there’s nothing that looks electrocuted, and on top of that all the berries from the ground are gone. The steward eventually steps back into the living room.

“Thank you. Please try and be more considerate of the other guests, and refrain from any more indoor athletics.” He glances at the windows. “And try not to leave the windows open for too long. The salt and wet isn’t good for the furniture.”

“Of course!”

“We’re sorry for making trouble,” Leaf adds. “But actually, now that you’re here… would you mind passing a message along to the captain, or telling us how we could speak to him? It doesn’t have to do with any of this! Totally unrelated. We just have something that may be important to ask him.”

Paul gives her a skeptical look that’s so subtle it must be trained, but merely dips his head. “I’ll inform the Chief Steward and let him decide to pass the message along or not.” He examines the obstacle course once more as he walks past it, and Red is suddenly glad they keep the window open. The ocean breeze is nice, and it’s useful for pokemon waste removal, but the smell of the ocean is also more than a match for flushing out not just their sweat, but any scent of their pokemon. “Have a good night.”

“Night!” they chirp, and Red relaxes his projection as soon as the front door closes behind the steward.

Red and Leaf look at each other, and their overly wide, cheerful smiles slowly shrink into more relieved and real ones as they relax and lean against the walls on either side of the door.

“Red, you are the worst liar!”

“I refuse to feel bad about that.”

“You left the TV on?

He turns back to his room. “What was that, anyway? He must have been cooking one of the berries, but I thought I trained him not to do that indoors…” They both go to Red’s room, and he looks around to ensure again that there’s no damage. “Pichu, here,” he whispers, tapping his leg.

A pair of black and yellow ears emerge from under his bed, and Leaf gasps as Red stares at the shape of them. They’re long, and thin, and—

“Your timing is just the worst,” Red says, hands on his hips, but he’s grinning wide as his newly evolved pikachu finishes wriggling out from beneath the bed and runs up his bare leg. “Gah! Nails! Sharp!”

Leaf giggles as she watches him dance in place until his pokemon reaches his shorts, then pulls itself up his shirt to rest on his shoulder and start nuzzling his cheek. “Shh! Do you want Paul to come back?”

Red grumbles and carefully repositions Pichu… Pikachu, so that he’s settled more comfortably on his shoulder. “Good point. I’m not sure if we actually fooled him.”

“Yeah. It sucks that we can’t train with them anymore, but at least this happened first. Congratulations, Red!” She scratches the fur between Pikachu’s ears, and laughs as he runs along her arm to her shoulder instead.

Red goes to check on Metapod just in case he has a butterfree now too, but the dull green pokemon is still sitting where he left it. He sighs. “Well, they can stay out until morning, at least.”

“Yeah. Let’s go put the living room back together and try out some new sodas.”

Red falls asleep easier, that night, though his dreams are full of versions of himself, all talking with each other and fighting over who would get to be the one that stays with Leaf and the others on their journey. Each time he thinks he’s won, his perspective shifts to a different clone, and the argument starts anew.

Chapter 56: At Sea

Red wakes on the morning of the cruise and quickly staggers into the shower so he can wash the grogginess away. They added an extra hour when setting their alarms to make sure that, short of some city-wide catastrophe, they’d have plenty of extra time to make it, but he doesn’t want to get complacent because of that. He dries his hair as quick as he can, noticing that it’s getting shaggy and making a quick memo to cut it when he returns, then gets dressed and heads down to the Trainer House lobby to meet Leaf, constantly checking the time and traffic on the route there to see how much wiggle room they’ll have before boarding starts.

The elevator doors open, and Red is about to step forward when he looks up from his phone and sees Leaf, causing his forward momentum to halt as his heart thuds in surprise. Instead of her normal travel clothes, she’s dressed in an elegant black dress that leaves her tanned arms and knees bare, and her hair falls in a straight and shining curtain to her upper back.

She turns at the sound of the elevator opening, then frowns. “Really, Red?”

Red twitches, eyes guiltily jumping to her face. “I ah… I was…”

“You’re wearing that? We’re going on a swanky cruise! Don’t you have any dress clothes?”

Red blinks. “Dress clothes! Yes! I thought… that I’d change there…” His cheeks are burning as the elevator doors start to close. “Be right back…”

He rushes back to his room, suddenly glad his mom convinced him to pack a few sets of some nicer clothing. After a few months on the road, the thin material of the button-up shirt and khakis makes him feel vulnerable… particularly once he puts his hat on, then takes it off upon realizing that it looks very out of place. Come to think of it, his white and red hiking shoes clash a bit too, but he doesn’t have anything else.

Red quickly tries combing his hair into something neat, but eventually gives up on it once it’s passable and goes back downstairs with some trepidation. Thankfully Leaf smiles when she sees him. “Much better.” Her eyes flick down to his shoes, but she doesn’t comment, and soon they’re heading out onto the street to find their cab.

To distract himself from looking at her, Red takes his phone back out as they ride and starts checking his sites while he can; internet signal on the ship will be spotty, and he’ll hopefully be too busy to want to surf the net anyway.

What immediately catches his eye is a trend of headlines in his science news sub that follow a certain theme:

Study finds link between psychic ability and pokemon size.

New research on “psychic particle” shows link to gender.

Are psychics from certain regions stronger?

“Leaf, have you seen these?”

She leans over to read from his tilted screen. “Huh. They’re all from the same couple of journals, too. You think they’ve been sitting on this stuff for a while?”

“Maybe…?” Red starts reading the abstracts, his frown growing into a scowl. “I recognize these journals… they’re the ones that just churn out publications. One of them tried to get me to buy in after Pewter!”

“That bad, huh?”

He’s too preoccupied to respond to her tone. “Oh come on, look at this one, Psychic powers may be linked with nose size. Nose size! Off of a single correlation found in drowzee!”

“Do they mention that it’s just drowzee in the article?”

He opens the full text and does a search. “Yeah. Barely though. And people are already talking like it extends to woobats and spoinks.”

“Hmm.” Leaf reaches out and pinches his nose. “Sorry Red, looks like you’re not a natural.”

He bats her hand away. “This is serious, Leaf! They’re citing me!”

“What, all of them?” She looks impressed. “Oh, you poor thing, how horrible.” His scowl completely fails to affect her as she gets on her phone and starts tapping on it. “I’m more interested in how they’re all coming out at once.”

Red goes back to flicking from paper to paper, looking at their methodology. Evaluation of component parts… new interpretive technology… uncategorized matter, as shown by Verres experiments…

It doesn’t take long for Red to figure it out; some of the smaller labs must have gotten together and churned through hundreds of captured pokemon data, applying Pallet’s new scanning tech to categorize it legibly, then used some algorithm to search through the massive amounts of data and spit out correlations that would be publishable. Barely.

“I need to talk to someone about this,” Red says. “See if there’s something I can do…”

“No time,” Leaf says, slapping his arm. “We’re here!”

Red glances out the window just as the buildings on either side of the street fall away to reveal the massive, curving city harbor. Traffic picks up as they approach the docks where the SS Anne is waiting, with an intimidating amount of security already set up for early boarders.

Red and Leaf thank their driver, then take their tickets out as they strap their bags on and make their way toward the line. “So what did Bill say?” Leaf asks.

“About what?” Red asks, mind still on the articles.

“Last minute instructions?”

Red blinks. Right, Bill did say he’d send something like that… “I didn’t see anything…” He checks again, then sends Bill a quick message. He probably should have done that earlier, but he got distracted…

There’s no response by the time they reach the front of the line, and their tickets are closely scrutinized once the cruise agent sees the two of them. Red starts to feel nervous as they speak into their phone briefly, and then he and Leaf are taken out of the line while someone calls Bill to confirm that he gave his tickets to them.

“Still no response,” Red says, checking his phone. “What if he’s in some kind of work frenzy? Or asleep?”

“Just be patient. We’ve got time to work whatever confusion there is out.” Leaf seems utterly calm and unconcerned, and he does his best to mimic her, impressed by her confidence or acting ability. Eventually he decides to cheat a little, and mirrors her mental state. Turns out she’s not acting at all, and soon the nervousness in his stomach fades.

Eventually they’re let on and told to enjoy their stay, much to Red’s relief. Once they’re on board, however, it quickly becomes clear that they’ll continue to draw scrutiny for awhile yet; within the first hour they spy a few attendees in their mid to late 20s, but no one near as young as them, and dozens of others far older. They draw a number of looks as they make their way to their cabins.

“Yeah, arriving in my travel clothes might have been a mistake,” Red mutters as he sees all the people wearing fancy suits and dresses.

Leaf smiles. “Maybe they’ll stare less once we put our bags away.”

It’s a good point; both have their fully loaded travel bags with them, while everyone else’s luggage apparently fits in a container ball or two at their belts. Red sees that most attendants have pokeballs too, though none others have six like he and Leaf.

Their rooms are in the same hallway, with another door dividing them. Red wonders who the neighbor between them is, then enters his door and is taken aback by how fancy it is, even after seeing the other cruise attendees. He has a king sized bed, a huge wall monitor, and his own bathroom. Before Red can check out what looks like a whole separate room, the door opens and Leaf pokes her head in. “We have a living room!”

Red blinks, then follows her to see that the door between them actually leads to a shared common space that’s twice as big as his bedroom and just as luxurious. He walks around the couches to inspect a bar stocked with not just alcohol, but a variety of soft drinks and juices. “Think anyone’s going to come and take the booze, now that they know we’re underage?”

“Psh, whatever. We’re old enough to be trainers, we’re old enough to drink.” Leaf inspects one of the bottles, then puts it back. “That said, I’ve never liked the taste.”

“You’ve had wine?” Red asks, impressed.

“Beer, mostly. Grandpa gave me a sip now and then. He seemed to like the faces I’d make.”

“Well, we can always experiment.” Red takes his phone out to snap a picture to Blue, then changes his mind. He doesn’t want to look like he’s bragging. Instead he checks the headlines again.

“Come on, let’s go explore.”

Red follows her out into the common areas, where a number of guests have already settled in to have snacks, play pool, or just sit and chat. The rear deck has an outdoor swimming pool that’s currently unused, and there’s a fitness center that they can see a single person already making use of, lifting weights at one of the machines.

“Must be getting his daily workout in,” Leaf says. “Think they have pokemon training rooms here?”

Red looks around until he spots someone in the staff uniform and approaches him, glancing at his name tag. “Hey, Paul? Quick question, do you guys have rooms for pokemon training?”

The young man blinks. “No, sir. No pokemon battling is allowed onboard. This is a boat.”

“Not for battling, I mean for just training.”

“And… what would training entail?”

“You know, training.” Red makes a careless gesture. “Like… target practice, or…”

He trails off at the expression on Paul’s face. “Sir… this is a boat.

Red opens his mouth to say something about how they’re not going to be training a tyranitar or anything, then closes it, recognizing the futility.

“We can run around with them though, right?” Leaf asks, sounding worried. “Just to get some exercise?”

He hesitates. “I think it might be better not to, ma’am. It might upset the other guests.”

“What if I did it early in the morning? Or late at night?”

“I could ask the captain, and leave a message for you with his answer.”

“Please do.” Leaf gives Paul her room number, and watches him head off with a troubled look on her face. “A whole week without being able to take a run with Raff would drive me nuts.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay,” Red says. “If not, we can just move the couches around to set up an obstacle course in our living room.”

Leaf eyes him uncertainly. “Really?”

“Why not? They gave us all that room, we might as well use it.”

She grins. “Come on, let’s go watch cast off.”

Leaf leans against the railing to watch the people boarding the ship, and Red mimics her. He recognizes a few faces here and there from various tech companies, but most are utter strangers to him, probably the high and mighty among the business world.

Eventually the last few walk up the ramp, and the crew starts the process of unmooring the vessel. The ship shifts beneath his feet as it starts to move away from the pier, and Red looks up at Vermilion City to watch as it starts to slowly shrink.

“It looks so big, from this angle,” Leaf says, voice quiet.

“Yeah.” Red managed to see more of the city than Pewter or Cerulean, but there’s still whole districts and neighborhoods he hasn’t set foot in. “It’ll be weird coming back to a city after leaving it, for once. Want to explore a bit more when we get back?”

“It’s a date.”

Red’s cheeks heat at the choice of words, and he wonders whether it was intentional or not. He’s tempted to use his powers to check, and before he can really reconsider or stop himself his mind brushes hers.

Cheerfulness. Excitement. Impatience. Some other stuff. Nothing like what he’s feeling.

Red withdraws and chides himself for breaching her privacy, minor as it had been. He didn’t even get any kind of answer, really… and what kind of answer was he looking for, exactly?

“We’ve got an hour to schmooze before the welcome speech,” Leaf says, breaking him out of his thoughts. “Want to go check out the breakfast buffet?”

“Sure.” A moment’s indecision, then Red offers her his arm. She takes it with a grin, and his pulse kicks up as they walk toward the nearest dining area. Red knows he’s going to miss Blue and Aiko, but right now he’s absurdly happy that the coming week will just be him and Leaf.


The main dining hall is packed for the welcome speech, which is itself fairly uninteresting to Red. Some talk about the history of the Cruise Convention, thanks to all sorts of people and organizations, blah blah. He perks up a bit when the day’s schedule is finally revealed to the participants, eyes scanning the big screen as he quickly jots down everything mentioned. Without any further instructions from Bill, he just has to make do with what he was told before, and take notes on all the tech he sees… and particularly any on storage technology. He wonders if the inventor even remembered that the cruise was today, or that he sent them.

Eventually the host reminds everyone that recordings are strictly prohibited, and then the lights come on and people start to make their way to various exhibitions.

“See you at dinner!” Leaf says as she springs up. “Unless you want to see the artificial meat replication exhibit too?”

Red considers it, then realizes he just wants to spend more time with Leaf and shakes his head. “I think Bill will be more interested in the simulation stuff.”

“Oh yeah, I was going to check that one out during the third time slot.”

Red checks his notes. “I think I’m going to be at the ‘battle tech demo,’ whatever that is.”

“Ugh. Pass. I guess I’ll see you later!”

“Later!” Red watches her go, then gets up and makes his way to the room where the simulation technology is being showcased. It starts a few minutes after he arrives, and Red quickly jots down the basic premise; the makers are working on something that would allow a trainer to virtually interact with their stored pokemon in real time, rather than just use pre-set programs that borrow their likeness.

“Once your voice and appearance are uploaded, you then provide samples of hair, skin, sweat, and clothing so that your pokemon can ‘smell’ you,” the presenter says as he moves his hands in a petting motion, encased in their shimmering gloves, while on the screen they see him petting his pokemon up close within the artificially rendered battle arena. “For all practical purposes, you’ll be able to train your pokemon in any way you can imagine, short of actual human simulation!”

The following hour is spent going over technology specs and business models and compatibility with various existing software for training. A lot of it goes over Red’s head, but he dutifully writes down as much as seems important, feeling a bit like he’s in one of his nightmares about going to school and finding out there’s a test the next day on material he’s never seen before. Oddly enough he never had nightmares about the test itself, though occasionally he’d get ones where he finds out it was the day before and he missed it.

He wants to ask how the simulation will handle situations that have never occurred before. After some initial stage fright, he forces himself to raise his hand along with everyone else asking about investment opportunities and production plans and visual fidelity. Time runs out before he’s called on, however and Red drops his hand to applaud along with everyone else. The tech will probably be a big hit among civilians and parents who want their kids to get some practice interacting with pokemon virtually, but he can’t imagine that professional battle trainers or coordinators would be able to push the envelope with it.

As the lights turn on, the presenter starts talking about the demo they’d be offering after dinner to those interested (and able to pay), and Red follows most of the crowd out as he checks the schedule, then heads to another auditorium. This one’s pretty interesting too; the stage has a pokeball mounted on the end of a robotic arm, with a camera and speakers on the end.

“So picture one of these at every corner of your house,” the presenter says as the screen shows them what the camera sees. “Pokemon comes nearby?” A rattata mounts the stage and approaches the arm, which immediately swings around to point the ball at it. Soon there’s a ping, then the arm throws it and captures the tamed rattata. “No problem, right?”

Red can see there’s some interest in the crowd. This tech has been around for awhile, though its reliability is still an issue, and it doesn’t work for pokemon in the air or that come underground, limiting its uses. This one seems more refined and flexible than the others…

The presenter replaces the ball. “What about this one?” The sound of wings comes from behind them, air blowing Red’s hair, and everyone looks up to see a pidgey flying above, no doubt released by one of the assistants. The arm once again homes in on it as it gets close, pings a lock, then throws, quickly, accurately, catching the pidgey mid-air. The people below it flinch as the ball drops, but it suddenly zips back toward the arm as some thin fiber is reeled into the center. There’s applause this time, and the presenter takes the ball off, then turns it to show them the custom shell.

“More accurate, responsive, and reliable than any on the market. But wait, there’s more!”

A third ball is placed on the robotic limb, and another rattata is sent toward the stage. This time the ball doesn’t lock on to catch it; it releases an oddish. “Sleep Powder,” a voice commands from the arm, and the oddish sends some spores at the rattata, who quickly slumps to sleep. The arm withdraws the oddish, and the audience applauds again, louder.

“Did I say every corner of your house?” the presenter asks. “Well now imagine a line of them around every town and city in the region! With seismic sensors and longer arms, our tech will be deployed by private citizens, governments, gyms, and rangers to finally bring us all what we’ve been dreaming of: peace of mind.”

More applause, more questions, more notes, and then it’s off to the third presentation room, which has a pair of rattata facing each other on stage as if ready for a battle, and their trainers each wear some kind of headgear with a screen in front of one eye that reminds Red of Bill’s gear. He quickly finds his seat as the presenter steps to the front of stage.

“Welcome everyone! We at Game Freak are happy to unveil our newest generation of simulation technology; rather than a VR game, we’ve been working on an AR program that will revolutionize pokemon battles the world over. For almost a decade now we’ve seen more and more professional trainers using some form of Heads Up Display to augment the amount of information they have during a battle. But what if we could give more immediate data about the pokemon battles themselves…?”

Red watches as the big screen lights up to show a split of what the two trainers see on their small visors. The clear glass displays a green bar floating beside each of their pokemon, and Red grins as he sees where this is going. Blue is going to FLIP! Sure enough, as soon as one of the rattata is ordered to tackle the other, the hurt pokemon’s bar goes down slightly on both trainers’ screens.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not pre-rendered. It’s a live calculation being made based on factors like species, mass estimation, contact type, velocity of contact type…” The rattata that was attacked is ordered to use Double Edge, a far more powerful version of the standard tackle. Red winces slightly at the bone-jarring impact that sends one of the rattata tumbling out of the small arena. Its trainer follows it with her vision, so that they can see its “health” drop quite a lot. Meanwhile, the attacking rattata’s trainer keeps his vision on his own pokemon, whose health has also dropped some smaller amount. Half? A little less? It’s hard to be sure with such a small bar and no numbers.

“Currently, the technology relies on the careful testing and simulating of pre-registered pokemon that have fought dozens of times. Useful for trainers to have a visual representation of how hurt their own pokemon are while training. But that’s just what the launch product will feature.” The presenter paces the stage as the monitor changes from a perspective of the two trainers’ HUD to recorded footage from dozens of other tests. “Imagine what the analysis of millions of hours of battle footage from hundreds of thousands of battles, not just in our labs but also in the wild or gym arenas, will eventually let it do. We predict that within a year of widespread use, our algorithms will be able to provide an estimation of damage for every attack by any pokemon against any pokemon, not just based on how and where it was struck, but by aggregated data from every time that pokemon has been struck by that attack by that opponent in recorded history.”

Red applauds with everyone else, though his gaze stays on the rattata that was tackled out of the arena as its trainer gives it some quick care before returning it to its ball. Watching the pokemon take such a powerful attack just to demonstrate some tech made him feels a pang of something he imagines is close to what Leaf feels when she watches trainer battles. He knows it’s silly, testing the technology would require all sorts of actual pokemon fighting each other, and it’s no less important than the training people put their pokemon through while not being recorded or analyzed.

After a moment he begins to applaud a bit harder, already thinking of all the ways this tech could make pokemon battles safer, and give trainers in the wild an edge in determining not just how close their own pokemon are to serious injury, but how careful to be with an opponent that might die before it’s caught.

The next couple exhibits are less interesting to him, one on travel technology and another on refined compression. Red does his best to follow along for the sake of the note taking, and practically forgets that he’s on a ship until he steps outside of the last one and sees that night has fallen on the ocean around them. He heads toward the dining hall to meet up with Leaf and compare notes. He notices that a lot of the people in the various lounge areas and then the dining hall are on their phones or laptops, and wonders how strict the NDA really is. It’s probably expected that many of them would already start talking with their various teams, as long as the information doesn’t reach the press before the companies are ready to go public.

He half expects Leaf to already be typing up an article about the meat production, but instead he spots her still at the notebook writing stage. It takes Red a few minutes to decide what to eat with all the options that are on display, and he finally decides to grab a little of everything before heading to the empty spot at her table.

“Hey. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?” he asks.

“Exciting, yeah,” she says. “Sorry, in a bit of a flow… talk after?”

Red stifles the little stab of hurt. “Sure.” He frowns at himself. Since when did he start feeling hurt from Leaf being productive? They spent whole weeks barely talking to each other, each lost in their own projects.

Red takes his phone out to work on one of his, but is distracted by the notification of new trending articles. It must be from while they were still in reception range…

He opens it and starts to read. Sure enough, more garbage. Psychic particle correlated with glucose… Psychic ability may be reduced by low melanin… Red blinks. Psychic power found to correlate with amount of gut bacteria?! He had made that exact joke, back in Viridian Forest!

Red feels himself getting angry again. All this “knowledge” is useless; it’s like overlaying a graph of “deaths by wild pokemon per year” and another of “amount of pop music videos created per year.” Whether they’re correlated in a positive or negative direction, the information tells you nothing about any causal link between them.

What’s worse is the imprecision of the headlines. He has to delve into each one’s methodology to figure out what exactly is meant by “psychic ability” each time the phrase is used. In Red’s papers, he was careful both times to specify in the title what was actually tested: strength of fear based mental projection for the spinaraks, and psychokinetic lifting strength for the abra. These headlines are all just treating psychic abilities like one unified thing, even as they specifically draw correlations between the Other category and various other metrics, then take his research about Other being linked to stronger psychokinesis as justification for the importance of their “study!”

The sheer amount of these things that have come out in the past couple of days is itself a problem. He sees comments by people already complaining about how it’s clogging up news feeds. Sites that allow for user voting have thankfully responded swiftly, consolidating them all to mega-threads or downvoting them into oblivion, but that latter just risks a negative response to any future claim of measurable basis for psychic phenomenon!

If someone had asked him yesterday whether he’d ever be upset at his research being cited in dozens of papers, he’d have said the more the merrier. But… not like this. His work is being used to justify all sorts of sensationalized nonsense.

“Red?”

He blinks and looks up. “Huh?”

“I asked if you’re ready to go?”

Red looks around. The dining hall is mostly empty, as is his plate. He barely remembers what he ate. “Yeah, sorry.” He gets up, and she follows. “Did you finish your notes?”

“Yeah. You looked really focused on something, so I didn’t want to bother you.”

He would have preferred the interruption to just getting more and more upset by headlines, but he can’t think of a way to say so. He doesn’t want to bring up the articles again, after she dismissed his anger earlier.

Instead they walk the halls of the ship in silence, until Red forces himself to think of something else. “I just realized, we never signed a non-disclosure agreement or anything when we got on board… are we allowed to talk about this stuff to anyone, or post about it online?” he asks. “Since they don’t want us recording anything…”

Leaf shrugs. “The majority of guests here are potential investors and collaborators. You only make someone sign an NDA if you have leverage over them or want it, which would be pretty counter-productive for the people the companies here want to work with.”

“We’re kind of an exception to that, though, right?”

“True. That might be why we had some trouble getting on board. But they let us on, so I don’t think they’ll have much to complain about if I write about some of the stuff we saw.”

When they get back to their room there’s a note waiting on Leaf’s door. “We can let out ‘small’ pokemon at the pool area, but not in the halls, and not if it would ’cause a disturbance,'” Leaf reads. “Well, that’s something I guess.”

The expression on her face belies her casual tone. It bothers Red that he won’t be able to spend much time with his pokemon for a week, but he knows that Leaf really values the time she spends working out and playing with them. “So, is Plan B a go?”

Leaf’s slow smile brightens the hall. “Really? I thought you were joking about that. We really shouldn’t, they might get upset…”

“So? What are they going to do, kick us off the boat?” Leaf snorts, and he shrugs. “At worst maybe one of the staff finds out and we just put everything back where it was.”

“Alright, twist my arm why don’t you!” They go inside, then take a look around. “Let’s see, if we push all the furniture into the middle we’ll have a decent amount of space to run laps in…”

“Yeah, and we can move those two couches back to back for a three-step obstacle, then stack the cushions for a small wall to climb.”

“Yeah…” She’s quiet for a moment as she looks around the room, and for a moment he’s afraid she’s going to tell him to just forget about it. Then she turns to him with a grin. “Think they’ll give us extra pillows if we ask for them?”

He grins back. “Can’t hurt to ask.”


An hour later, the living room is transformed. To an untrained eye it may just look like they’ve just strewn things about at random, but the end result was each pillow, couch, cushion, leg rest, and garbage bin carefully placed from multiple tests and iterations. There didn’t end up being quite enough space for a satisfying outer track, so instead they set up a pair of parallel courses that go up and down the length of the room twice so that they can swap back and forth as they reach each end.

Red leaps forward with wide side to side movements, bare feet landing on cushions that get progressively higher until he reaches the end, hands reaching up to brush the ceiling, then coming down to balance his landing. Pichu leaps straight from the highest cushions to Red’s shoulder, and he turns and steps to the side to start on the other track, which uses the couches as a three step, followed by the coffee table that he falls onto his belly to crawl under while Pichu leaps off his shoulder and races ahead to his bedroom door, which is propped open so he can jump and grab the top, brace his feet on the handles, and leap back onto the start of the other track, usually just as Leaf and Raff finish it and leap up the couches.

Red starts to work up a sweat after a few iterations, but they’ve found the right rhythm to keep moving at a steady pace. After the training courses at Vermilion Gym, all the running isn’t too strenuous. “So how was the ball-made meat?”

“Good!” Leaf crawls under the table as Raff jumps up to run atop it. “It’s been so long since I had any that it tasted strange, but I think that was just me. The fake oddish tasted better, and the others there seemed to like it!”

“So you’re going to write a piece,” He huffs out a breath as he lands. “On that?”

“Yeah! I already talked to some of the engineers… they’ve been making meat for years now, but it was never economic or tasty enough.”

“Does it come out precooked?”

“They make both! I tried to get some for you, but they said you can get some at lunch tomorrow!”

“Will do!” Red uses his hands to vault over the couch without his feet touching it this time and stumbles, reminding himself to use more force on the next lap. “What about the other exhibits?”

“Nothing too exciting. Some new aerial surveillance and signal relaying drones for better emergency control. Useful for things like the Viridian Fire.”

“Or to start settling more of the wilderness. The automatic pokeballs will help with that too, so that it’s easier to set up defenses.”

“Yeah,” Leaf says, and he hears her slap the ceiling behind him before she asks, “This whole island chain isn’t totally inhabited, right?”

“No. There’s been talk of Kanto and Johto working together to push out past Mount Silver for new settlements, though some are worried they would be too far, and form a new region.”

“Why does that matter?”

Red shrugs as he runs. “Some political thing I guess. Never really got it.” He notices that Pichu’s energy is flagging, and unclips his ball. “Pichu, return!” He reclips the ball and unclips another without slowing down, bracing his arm as he points it to the empty space beside the bar area. “Go, Nidoran!” His pokemon materializes, and Red says “Follow!” as he reclips the ball and starts leaping across the pillow path again. “But I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. Dad used to say there aren’t enough extra people yet who would want to live on the frontier until it stabilizes. What about around Unova?”

“The frontiers around it have been slowly expanding,” she says. “But there was a big setback a couple years ago. Thundurus hit one of the cities there, forced it to be abandoned, and there were calls to stop trying to push further for a bit.”

“Damn,” he pants. “And what do you think? Should they have?”

“I guess it made sense, at the time.” She leaps over the couches, and takes a deep breath before diving under the table. “But… eventually… I hope… we try again!”

“Same.”

The conversation lulls after that, the sounds of their movements and breaths filling the silence. The room is starting to feel hot and stuffy, and Red suddenly breaks from the course to go open the window, letting in the cool night air and smell of the ocean. He scratches Nidoran behind its ears, then approaches the obstacle course again and waits for Leaf to get to the opposite side before jumping back in. Nidoran has some trouble with the table, electing to run around it instead of trying to go under like red or over it like Raff, and waits at the other end for Red to come out, somehow managing to look impatient. “Cheater,” Red accuses as he pushes himself back up.

“Do you think our ancestors ever imagined something like this?” Leaf asks eventually. “That we’d grow so much, connect with each other across the globe, start pushing out?”

“Maybe in a different way. Like a single empire sweeping across the island or continent, eradicating pokemon along the way.”

Red can hear the frown in Leaf’s voice. “That’s horrible.”

“Yeah. But much as we might treat them poorly now, people had even worse perspectives on pokemon before we were able to catch them.”

“I know. Grandpa talks about what it was like growing up, and even then it wasn’t so bad as in his grandparents’ days. But people’s minds are changing, same as our tech. So as long as both keep changing…” Leaf runs out of breath, and on his next lap, Red sees that she’s stepped to the side to rest.

He slows to a stop, then goes over to the bar and considers the options there. His hand hovers over the wine, curious, but then he grabs some juice for him and Leaf, as well as water and a bowl. He returns to the couch and hands hers over, then pours some water in the bowl for their pokemon.

“Do you think one drives the other?” he asks as he takes a swallow, enjoying the way the breeze from the window feels on his sweaty face. “Like, people are more accepting of other cultures today than they used to be, but part of that comes from the ability to learn about and talk to people around the world, and travel being so much easier. If the tech for fake pokemon never advanced, would people’s morals have changed eventually?”

“I’m not sure,” she says slowly. “There are other issues where it looks like cultures made moral progress without new tech, like most regions try to rehabilitate criminals rather than just punish them.”

“Unless they’re Renegades.”

“Sure, but even they’re killed more humanely now than they used to be, most of the time. So I want to think attitudes on eating pokemon might have changed on their own, but… morals are kind of a luxury, aren’t they? Like I know that people can only worry about not eating pokemon because they have other things to eat, now. Back then it was all about survival. But maybe they would eventually have realized what they were doing was wrong, but necessary.” She glances at him. “Taking for the sake of argument that eating pokemon is wrong.”

Red shrugs. “I don’t want pokemon to suffer on ranches, I just… don’t really care if they do, I guess.” He frowns. “It sounds bad, when I say it out loud.”

“Mmhm,” Leaf says with a raised brow, sipping her juice.

“They’re just really delicious.”

“I get it.”

“Like really-

“Stop!” she says, pushing his shoulder… but she’s smiling. “You’ll try the fake meat tomorrow?”

“Promise. I’ve got nothing against it.”

“But will you stop eating real meat after?”

Red tries to picture avoiding all meat. The food at Aiko’s was pretty tasty… but… “Is it… going to be available on the market?”

“Of course!

“When?”

“Soon.”

“…How soon?”

“Red!”

“I’m trying to be realistic!” he protests. “I don’t want to give an overconfident promise and then break it.”

“What about what we talked about in Vermilion? Can you at least keep to fish or something? Or just cut out any beef?”

“I think I can do that, yeah.”

Leaf turns to him. “Really?”

She looks so excited that Red smiles, warmth filling his chest. “Yeah. You know what, I’ll try it all. As soon as the cruise is over, I won’t buy any more meat that’s not grown in a ball.”

“Yay!” She wraps an arm around him and hugs him, causing heat to flush through his body and up his face. “You know it’s not actually grown in pokeballs, though, right? It’s just using the same tech.”

“Ah. Makes sense,” he mutters as she releases him, quickly raising his bottle for another drink.

“What about not eating any on the cruise too?”

“Oh come on, they’re already dead!”

“Fine, fine…”

She’s still smiling, and the sight makes Red smile again too. “Fair warning that I might change my mind after I run out of my own stocks.”

“Oh I know. But at least you’ve tried, then. And maybe you can just cut out one type at a time, see what works.”

“Yeah.”

They sit together in silence for awhile, and Red slowly regains his energy. He takes Pichu out so he can do the same, and watches as his two pokemon explore their surroundings. Now that he’s not following the order to run around with Red, Nidoran looks the most spooked. His nose keeps twitching toward the open window, and Red wonders if he’s ever smelled the ocean before.

“It reminds me of home,” he says suddenly. “The scent.”

“Were you on boats often?”

“No. But on a clear day you could smell the salt in the air from right outside my door.”

“That sounds lovely. I wasn’t there for long enough to notice.”

“We should go back sometime, when we can fly on our own pokemon. I know my mom’s not there anymore, but it’s strange to think that we’re going all over the region, and the place that Blue and I are most familiar with is the one you spent the least time in. Plus Aiko hasn’t been there at all, and she’d probably get a kick out of Pallet Lab’s ranch.”

“That would be cool, yeah. I’d like to see where you and Blue grew up. Maybe someday I can give you guys the tour of Unova.”

Just imagining it makes Red happy, and he smiles at her. “I don’t know if I mentioned it, but… I’m really glad you joined us, Leaf. I can’t really imagine the journey so far without you.”

Leaf’s looks surprised, then pleased. She picks Raff up off the floor and puts him on her lap so she can inspect his fronds, and Red notices that the ivysaur is positioned so that his plant hides her face. “Well. That was sweet. And I feel the same, of course.”

The warmth stays with him for the rest of the night.


Red wakes to the smell of the ocean, eyes opening slowly as he moves one sore limb at a time. Eventually he checks his phone and sees that it’s near noon. All the presentations are between lunch and dinner, so he should probably get up soon.

Instead he browses on his phone for a bit, first checking to see if he has any messages from Bill or Blue, then drawn irresistibly back to see if any new “research” on psychic particle or predictors has been published. There are some, and Red’s remaining sleepiness quickly fades as he searches through the headlines for anything remotely interesting.

Eventually biology forces him out of bed, and from there it’s easier to put the phone away and get dressed. He goes through the transformed living room afterward, and spots the note on Leaf’s door telling him that she’s already out “schmoozing.”

Shaking his head at her energy, he takes a walk around the outside of the ship, curious about what the other guests are doing and trying to avoid the temptation to look online again. He passes by various lounges, indoor and outdoor, and sees a lot of people either on their laptops, or in small groups and talking. Each time he tries to listen in as he walks nearby, it quickly becomes clear that they’re discussing some technology or aspect of business or investment that is way over his head, and he moves on before they can wonder whether he’s eavesdropping, interpreting the looks he gets as more wary or aloof than curious or inviting.

Red starts to feel a bit isolated as he walks from one floor to the next, seeing all the people involved in their interesting conversations that he can’t take part in. Eventually he starts to specifically look for Leaf, until he realizes he can try to use his powers to pick her mind out. He needs to practice anyway, and it’s been awhile since he tried a broad reading of his surroundings.

As he walks through a hallway and extends his senses outward as far as he can, he suddenly staggers and leans against a wall. His range is larger than before, and he senses minds in three dimensions for the first time. It feels like he’s standing in a storm, the mental impressions so spread out that their position is like a whole new level (or dimension, rather) of information for him to process. He doubts he could identify Leaf’s familiar signature even if she happens to be nearby. What jumps to his attention instead is the two psychic minds in the room above him. And a couple to his left… there are six in total… No, seven… nine… twelve… in all directions…

Red’s eyes fly open, withdrawing his senses as he recovers from the strain. After a moment he walks to the nearest room where he sensed psychic minds and looks around at the crowd of people in various types of casually formal attire, trying to spot anyone with more obviously psychic clothing. He sees nothing.

Why are there so many psychics here?

Red starts to wander again, occasionally extending his senses out to find psychics in the same room as him to try and identify them. Their minds quickly vanish however, blocking themselves from his senses, and he eventually gives up, not wanting to be rude even if his curiosity is burning. Also now he has to worry about thinking the wrong thoughts at the wrong time… how could so many rich and important people be okay with this many psychics around? Maybe they don’t know… he should find someone to ask about it…

“Good afternoon, everyone!” Red jumps as the PA system comes on. “This is your five minute reminder that lunch will be starting soon in the dining hall. That’s also where the programs listing this afternoon’s presentations can be found. Please make your way there if you’d like a copy!”

Red watches the mass migration begin, though some people seem content to wait where they are for awhile longer, at least. He considers asking one of them, but decides to find Leaf first, now that he knows she’s likely to head to the lunch room. He should warn her of the psychics’ presence as soon as he can, since he knows how wary she is of them after meeting Giovanni. Red decides to try and maintain his mental shield as best he can. It’s a good way to get some extra psychic practice in, anyway.

He doesn’t see her upon arriving at the dining hall, and goes to wait in line for the buffet, mind holding the default-mental-state shield in place as best he can while looking around. There’s a booth in the corner of the room where the artificial meat creators are offering samples, and he heads over after filling his plate.

“Hello! Interested in getting a taste of the future?”

“Yeah, my friend was raving about you guys last night.”

“You must be Red,” one of them says with a smile. “We told her that you might enjoy them more fresh. What can I get you?”

Red looks at the options. “Ah… pidgey nuggets?” He watches as they carefully serve him three. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Leaf is now, would you?”

“Haven’t seen her yet today, sorry.”

“Same.”

“No problem. And thanks!” He goes to find an empty table so that he’s easy to spot (and not because he doesn’t know anyone here and would feel awkward sitting beside them) and shakes some salt on his mashed potatoes, keeping an eye on the doors as he continues occasionally reinforcing his shield. Someone takes the chair to Red’s left, sitting with a contented sigh before they ask, “Could you pass that when you’re done, please?”

“Sure.” He gives it a couple more shakes, then turns and hands it to the president, founder, and CEO of Silph Corporation holy shit. The old man is wearing a simple button up shirt, suspenders, a red bowtie, and a kindly smile. A cane rests against the table, a white hat beside his plate.

“Thank you,” Mr. Silph says as he takes it from Red’s frozen hand. The Silph president gives it a few shakes over some strawberries on his plate, then places it aside. “Adds a bit of a tangy taste,” he confides upon seeing Red’s still-shocked expression. “You should try it, Mr…”

“Verres. Red Verres.” Red hurriedly wipes his hand and offers it before he thinks of how presumptuous it might be.

“Kazue Silph.” He takes Red’s hand in a firm grasp.

“I know! It’s an honor to meet you! I use your products all the time!” Tone it down, Red.

“Ah, a trainer!” The president’s eyes search Red’s briefly, then he releases his hand to begin eating. Red starts to dig into his food too. “I’d heard there was a young journalist on board, and thought it might be you.”

“Oh, no, that’s my friend Leaf.” He looks around for her again, then turns back to the company president. “She’s a trainer too, though.”

“I see. Well, I suspect she’s finding a lot of material to write on. Quite the interesting exhibits, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, yeah. Is Silph going to be presenting something too?”

“No, this year we’re strictly on the hunt.” He smiles. “Which technology are you the most excited for, so far?”

Red considers it a moment, then says, “Probably the remote pokeballs? In the sense that it’s the one that seems like it has a lot of potential to save lives.”

“Yes, that seems likely. Now, what about one that you predict most of your peers will purchase?”

Ah. I’m a one-boy consumer panel. The thought reminds him that he should put his shield back up, and he takes a moment to do so while considering his answer. “Probably the AR visor,” he eventually says. “I don’t see how that won’t be a huge hit, unless it just doesn’t work reliably. I’m tempted to invest in it myself, if I have enough money to matter.”

“Yes, that was my choice as well, assuming something else doesn’t come along that seems more commercially viable. Though these fake meats are intriguing.” He pokes his fork at a thin slice of some steak that Red assumes was ball-grown too. “Have you tried them yet?”

Red shakes his head, then takes a cautious bite of his pidgey nugget, chews, swallows. “It… tastes like pidgey,” he says.

Mr. Silph cuts a piece of his steak and tastes it, brow rising. “And this like tauros.” His jaw works as he chews. “A bit tough. Care to trade some for one of your nuggets?”

“Oh, sure!” They do so, and sit for a moment chewing the pseudo-meats. “A bit dry too, right?” Red asks after a moment. “Or is that from the way it was cooked?”

“No, you’re correct. Perhaps from insufficient fat generated in the meat.” He takes a sip of wine, and Red follows his example with his water. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be able to correct it eventually. In either case, the price of food will soon get much lower.” He eats the last of the steak, with some apparent satisfaction.

“Which means more money for people to spend on Silph products,” Red says, smiling.

Mr. Silph winks and takes another sip. “So, if you’re not here as a journalist or investor, what brought you to the Cruise Convention? It’s not often we have mere trainers here, let alone those so young.”

“Well, I’m actually a Researcher too,” Red says.

“Ah! Verres you said, yes? I thought your name was familiar. Something about psychic pokemon? There are quite a number of papers coming out now that cite you.”

Any pleasure Red might have had at being recognized fades at the reminder. “Yeah.”

“Something wrong?”

“No, nothing.” He makes an effort to look cheerful as he starts eating again. “The accomplishment just feels a little muted, after seeing all the derivative discoveries that came out from a mindless algorithm.”

“Nonsense. As a Researcher, shouldn’t the information be celebrated, regardless of the source?”

Red frowns. “But all of it… or at least, the vast majority of it that I saw, it’s meaningless. They didn’t actually try to test specific hypotheses, they just threw a bunch of data into a computer and picked out the correlations that fell below the .05 or .01 threshold. It’s just… noise, noise that they get attention for without providing any real knowledge. Just look at the news sites, jumping all over every correlation and sensationalizing them!”

The older man snorts. “Believe me, there is no love lost between myself and the press. Incentives, Mr. Verres, are what the world runs on, even more than money. And the incentives of journalism are inherently destructive toward any values of truth or clarity.”

Red feels a bit of indignation at that, considering both his mother’s profession and Leaf’s current activities in the field. The Silph president chews some food while Red tries to think of a polite way to disagree, unable to before the older man continues. “But that is the nature of a free society. As with all things, we must understand the role they play, and avoid them as one would a beedrill nest, while attempting to extract what value they provide as best we can. The same goes for these mass produced studies. The incentives in science are to publish, and so publications are the first metric that matters, and so all else that matters falls under it in importance. True, the majority of them will be ultimately meaningless. But as a matter of efficiency, finding these correlations the way they have seems to have a minimal associated cost. Why not see it as a filter? A filter through which diligent researchers such as yourself may eventually gain some value, as you examine the data and consider new hypotheses?”

Red doesn’t have an immediate answer to that, and takes a moment to think through his objection as he eats. “That sounds good when you phrase it that way,” he eventually admits. “The problem is that it’s sucking the air out of the room. All the researchers that are now trying to pick through the results are wasting time and energy and grant money on things that aren’t directed by any intelligence.”

“That seems like a perfect opportunity for those with intelligence to stand out,” President Silph says, eyeing Red candidly as he eats. “Ignore these publications and continue on with your research as though they had not surfaced. Unless your ambition is already satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?”

“No,” Red says with conviction. “No, I’ve got a lot more work to do.”

“Then take the advice of an elder, not in age, but in facing adversity. Those things that vie for your attention, but do nothing to further your goals, should be cut out from consideration. Talent is easy to find, Mr. Verres. Great success comes first and foremost from the discipline to make productive use of your time.”

“You’re right,” Red says, frowning at his plate. “I know it’s better to focus on my next project than worry about the impact of the last one. Not unless the impact was from a mistake I made.”

“Do you think you made one?”

“Not really…?”

“Then there you have it. Let others chase false gold while you seek your own fortune.”

Red smiles. “Is that a personal motto?”

“I suppose so,” Mr. Silph says as he finishes his wine. “If a man can have more than one, it has a nice ring to it. But my real personal motto is ‘Every minute should be spent at least as deliberately as every dollar, and every dollar as deliberately as the first you ever made.’ And on that note, I see them putting the afternoon’s schedule out, and so my allotted lunchtime is over. But it was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Verres.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin, then gets to his feet. “Perhaps we’ll talk again.”

Red hurriedly swallows his mouthful. “The pleasure was mine, Mr. Silph. Thank you for the advice.”

“Advice is also easy to find. Remember: discipline.” He puts his hat on and strides with purpose toward the exit, taking a folded program from the table by it. Red watches him go, then resolves to put his attention for the rest of the meal where it should have been; deciding what he’s going to do when he returns from the cruise.

At first consideration, the question might be what research he’ll conduct next. But in truth, there’s a higher level question he has to answer, a choice centered around what goals he’s going to pursue. Is he a trainer at heart? A researcher? A psychic? Sabrina made it pretty clear that he’d have to stop being a trainer or researcher while studying with her, to have enough time for his lessons. If he decides to put one of those on pause, then becoming her pupil is the right choice. If he decides to just keep practicing his powers on his own for now, he should stay on his journey, where he can make progress in all three.

He takes his notebook out and writes:

Trainer – Increased survival skills, new sources of fortune? protect others

Researcher – Learn secrets of the universe, leverage for fame and fortune, discover origin of species/change the world

Psychic – Lots of mysteries to explore, unique skills and insights, accelerated self growth

Red stares at the words. Taken as they are… he can’t imagine not continuing his research. He spends too much time thinking about things, working to test them, he doesn’t know if he could stop himself from trying even for a few months. And if he’s going to do it anyway, it would be a waste to never try and publish what he finds. And his psychic powers are a force multiplier; the things he gets from developing them are useful to practically everything he can think to do.

It seems the aspect he loses the least in giving up… is his trainer activities. It makes sense. He’s not going for badges, he’s not trying to be a Ranger, and while he does enjoy training his pokemon, and teaching them unique commands or getting them to pull off strategies… it’s not like he’s amazing enough that only he can protect others in ways no one else can.

Red leans back in his chair, gaze unfocused as he feels the decision crystallizing. It’s a little surprising how quickly he decided it, after waffling so much before.

Well, that’s it, then. He’ll tell Sabrina that he’ll become her student.

Which means he should keep practicing his powers. He lets his mental shield slip, then picks his spoon up and tries to feel the shape of it with his powers. His rock is in his bag, and maybe he just has some kind of block against beginner level techniques…

Red’s still trying to sense the shape of the handle past where his fingers are when he spots Leaf walk into the cafeteria, talking to a pair of women with her notebook out. That’s not all I’d be giving up.

The thought comes like a strike to his chest, concentration scattering as he suddenly imagines actually leaving the others in their travels. A hollow sort of fear fills him, a preemptive loneliness that he immediately backs away from.

Leaf spots him and waves, then says goodbye to the other two to get food and join him.

“Hey! How was your morning?”

“Pretty short, but eventful,” he says, amazed at how steady his voice is given the sudden hole between his ribs. He latches onto the imagery and uses his powers to quickly contain it, cut off its effects on him for now, keep hidden the sudden insight at the center of it. “What have you been up to?”

“Interviews!” Leaf puts her notebook on the table and starts to eat. “Lots of them. Everyone here is excited to talk about their work, it’s like trying to drink out of a firehose.”

Red smiles at the mental image, and her excitement. “I’m glad you’re getting a lot of material. Maybe you can solve a mystery for me. Do you know why there are so many psychics here?”

Leaf pauses with her fork halfway to her mouth, then looks around. “How many are there?”

“Right now?” He quickly checks, trying to juggle the two different effects as grief starts to creep through all his use. “Um. Over a dozen in the dining hall.”

She lets out a whistle. “That is a lot. Are they all clustered together? Like maybe they’re from some organization.”

“No, as far as I can tell they only ever group in two or three at most.”

“Are they ever in groups of just psychics, though?”

“I don’t… remember?”

Leaf flips to a new page of her notebook. “Draw it out.”

“From memory?”

“No, where they are right now. Maybe we can get some ideas.”

He picks her pencil out of the spiral slowly. “It’s kind of hard to figure out people’s exact positions…” And he doesn’t know if he can maintain his concentration on the thing he’s containing in his chest that he can’t let out, particularly when the more familiar grief starts to come in force.

Red buys time by drawing a rough approximation of where the tables around them are, then starts to focus on one table at a time, quickly sending his senses out to glimpse the minds at each before drawing circles and stars around where the minds are at each table. Like pings of radar, giving him a quick and fleeting glimpse of sensations that he then tries to remember and draw meaning from, all from minimal use of his powers.

It’s hard, at times, to get a good read on exact position for each mind within a cluster, but he doesn’t worry too much about that. Instead he tries to make sure he only counts the people at each table rather than letting any minds from one blur into another table’s “zone.” He uses visual confirmation when he can to make sure each table has the right amount of people, though the occasional Dark mind throws him for a loop sometimes.

By the time Leaf has finished eating, he’s sketched out about three layers of tables in every direction. The grief is manageable, and his chest-vault is secure. He stares at it while Leaf looks over his shoulder.

“Not clustered, but also never alone,” Leaf points out.

“And symmetrical,” Red says. “Look, every time there are two in one place, there are two non-psychic minds with them. Or three… the individual psychics break the pattern, but even they’re never totally alone.”

“That might be unrealistic to expect, given how outnumbered they are,” Leaf points out.

“Yeah. Feel comfortable asking someone?”

“Sure. Who are you going to talk to?”

“Uh… well, I don’t really know anyone here.”

Leaf raises a brow. “Neither do I, Red. What you do is, you go up to them and introduce yourself—”

He rolls his eyes. “I just feel awkward doing it.”

“You mean you haven’t spoken to anyone else here yet?”

“Of course I have,” he says automatically. “I spoke to… a couple of the people from the ball-meat company—”

“—please don’t call it that—”

“—and,” he says with some pride, “I may have had lunch with President Silph just before you arrived.”

“Really? That’s awesome! What did you want to talk to him about?”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “Career advice,” he says at last.

Leaf gives him a level look.

“He was actually very helpful.”

“Uh huh. So what did he want from you?”

“I think he just wanted my demographic more than me. But he was nice enough. Not a fan of journalists though, apparently.”

“Well, that’s no surprise. Most rich and/or famous people aren’t, given how easy it is for some hack to just write whatever they want about them and have thousands of people lap it up without interest in any kind of clarification or rebuttal.”

The bitterness in her tone takes him by surprise. “That’s fair, I guess.”

“Sorry, famous grandpa, remember? Anyway, Silph has more reason than most, lately.” She chews her food, eyeing him speculatively. “Did you tell him your last name? Because he might be a little miffed from the article your mom published.”

Red stares at her. “What article?”

“You don’t read your mom’s articles?”

“Hey, I’ve been busy. Do you read everything your mom puts out?”

“…Fair. Anyway, your mom wrote about some corruption from Silph employees not long ago. Bribing a mayor and stuff.”

“Huh.” Red considers the conversation in light of that. “I did tell him my name, but he didn’t seem to react to it. Not in that way, he actually recognized it from the science side of things.”

“Oh. Well maybe he doesn’t pay much attention to articles about his company. I’m sure there are a lot, and he’s probably busy.”

“He did give that impression, yeah.” Red shrugs. “I’ll ask my mom what she thinks after the cruise.” Maintaining the block around whatever’s in his chest has gotten slightly harder as the grief starts to build up at last. Just the mention of his mother makes him terribly homesick, for no particular reason. He clears his throat. “So what’s on the agenda today?”

“Presentations for some kind of holo-communication device, automated potion dispersal? What does that mean… uh… improved scuba equipment, trainer coordination software…” She starts to take notes of questions she wants to ask of each presenter, forehead creased with concentration as she works.

Red just stares at her, the words fading from his comprehension as he feels a warmth in his chest… She’s really pretty when she’s so focused. Red blinks, a sudden sinking feeling mixing with the warmth as the block around his chest suddenly cracks open, and the insight spills out to suffuse his thoughts.

“Red?”

“Hm?” His gaze snaps to hers.

“You okay? You spaced out a bit there, and looked like you just remembered something too late.”

It takes a moment for Red to shake his head. “Nothing important, just trying to figure out what Bill would want us to attend the most.” Just realizing that I have a crush on you, Leaf, you’re smart and pretty and confident and good, and I like spending time with you, and-

“Right. I guess we’ll just have to split up again to attend as many as we can.”

and leaving you is going to be the hardest part of going to learn from Sabrina, and I’m just realizing all this as I’m about to leave you, and now I don’t want to. “I guess so, yeah…” The block is completely gone, and now he feels hollow inside, even as he tries to convince himself that it will just be for a few months, maybe a year at most, that she would be fine with Blue and Aiko, that he would still be able to talk to her and occasionally see her… “That’s probably for the best.”

Chapter 55: Accountability

She remembers this feeling.

Not from before, when they fought the absol the first time. She was too distracted during that fight to process what she was experiencing or connect it to any memories, simply trying to push through it as best she could. It wasn’t until she heard the Ranger’s explanation that she linked the two feelings from her recent and distant past together.

Fear. Deep as her bones, practically vibrating them as she trembled and bent, made herself small as she could… even while staring up at that shimmering glow, that terrible beauty, every feather a gem of a different color. Fear like a weight… like pressure… compressing every part of her, inside and out.

But there are differences. There’s no heat prickling along her skin like something alive. The fear itself isn’t as sharp, the pressure isn’t as heavy. She can move. She can run. She can speak.

She can fight.

Aiko prepares to face an onix for the first time, feeling the vibration of its oncoming arrival beneath her feet. She wanted to go with Blue and Elaine, but has nothing tanky enough to contribute to their team. One of the trainers that came with them from Golden Hills, Payton, went with them instead, so she stays with Bretta’s group and doesn’t look back, even as the sounds of battle start behind her.

Instead she alternates between watching the tunnel and her sandslash. Dune is clearly on edge: his claws are slightly embedded into the ground to feel vibrations, and his sharp scales stick out in all directions. “It’s almost here,” she tells the others. “Plan?”

“Aiko, right?” Bretta says from beside her. “Sumi usually tanks while Slava and I hit them from afar.”

“Try to draw it in,” Sumi says from the far left. “We’ll hit it from the sides and—”

Even with the growing rasp of stone on stone to give them warning, the onix barrels into the open chamber frighteningly fast and grinds to a stop as it sees the half circle of trainers and pokemon blocking the way to its eggs. To Aiko’s eye it’s half again as big as the one Blue fought for his badge, but standing so close makes it seem tall as Aeosis. It raises itself to look imperiously down at them, then roars again, the sound a physical assault on her eardrums that drowns out her first command to her sandslash.

As soon as it ends, Aiko backs up and yells “Dune, Trap!” through the ringing in her ears. An answering roar comes from behind her as the other parent attacks her friends, but Aiko puts it out of her mind, trusting them to handle it.

The biggest difference of all, that. She and her pokemon aren’t alone anymore.

As her pokemon starts to crawl slowly backward, quills fully extended, the onix tries to pick its target between it and Bretta’s bayleef. It crawls further into the cavern, not spotting Slava’s poliwhirl or Sumi’s hariyama at its sides, and as soon as it looks like it’s about to lunge, the trainers all speak at once.

“Tarro, BB!”

“Pol, Submission!”

“Dune, Fast!”

“Bayleaf, Leech Seed!”

Their pokemon attack within a heartbeat of each other, and the onix twists hard to the side to avoid most of the scatter shot of seeds, but staggers and groans as the length of its body gets sprayed by the poliwhirl’s bubblebeam while their melee fighters use the distraction to reach it. Dune digs his claws into a boulder segment about halfway along the onix’s body just before it rolls to the side to break the hold of the hariyama that grabs it from behind. The violent motion displaces both attackers… along with four thin wedges of rock that tear off with a grinding crack.

The onix roars in pain this time, and snaps its body sideways to keep its injured segment unexposed. Aiko predicts that it will sweep its tail toward them, but like in their last absol fight, a command gets caught in her throat, fear for her pokemon suddenly suffocating her, and she watches in horror as the rocky whip sweeps out and hits Dune and Sumi’s hariyama, sending them flying back.

The hariyama is heavy enough that it doesn’t go far, but Dune hits the ground and bounces before he rolls up against the wall, trembling. Aiko wants to run to her pokemon, but can’t leave the others.

“Go, Dugtrio!” Her freshly registered pokemon appears, and she yells “Fast!” before remembering that she hasn’t trained it in her personal commands yet.

The onix is more wary now, the brief opening gone as it begins to use its shovel-like lower jaw to scrape up wedges of rock and dirt, then fling them at the attackers. Aiko spends another moment paralyzed with indecision: Bretta said to draw it into the chamber, but it’s not chasing after her bayleef, instead attacking the pokemon from a distance while it stays on guard against the hariyama.

Slava tries to get close enough for his heavy ball to register while the onix scrapes up another mouthful, but leaps back or to the side every time the onix moves too quickly or looks like it’s going to turn to him. Aiko can see his arm trembling, and knows the Pressure is getting to him too.

He needs an opening. “Dugtrio, Dig!” As her dugtrio starts to burrow and prepare for a sneak attack, the other pokemon keep shooting seeds and water at the onix to keep it ducking and weaving and ensure they can dodge its rock throws.

Sumi’s hariyama lunges close enough to start slamming its palms into the onix, and it staggers under the blows, body rolling to avoid the attacks and moving away from the tunnel opening. Slava and his poliwhirl scramble back to avoid getting crushed, but in the midst of it all he still holds the ball steady enough for it to get a lock. As soon as the ping sounds, he throws.

Aiko doesn’t know if it’s from some effect of the Pressure or the unfamiliar weight of the ball, but the throw doesn’t have enough force behind it. The heavy ball clunks to the ground just in front of the onix’s rolling form, and gets crushed a moment later.

“The entrance!” Ranger Miko yells from behind them. “Cut it off!”

They startle and turn to see the absol racing toward them. The two rangers and the other Golden Hills trainer, Abdu, give chase, their pokemon clearly chosen for speed to try and keep up as the absol bounds around the outer edge of the cavern. It can’t escape with the onix fighting at the exits, but unlike when they fought it earlier, it has the room to maneuver, and uses it to slip away from the pursuing pokemon between the occasional precise strike.

And now it’s making its winding way toward them, and the newly cleared tunnel opening.

Aiko has a moment to wonder if it’s not better to just let it go, weighing the current risk against yet another confrontation, but Sumi is already moving. She withdraws her hariyama and runs up the incline to throw and re-summon it at the tunnel entrance ahead of her. “Guard!”

The absol is already at the foot of the incline, and instead of bounding up toward the hariyama, leaps to the side, its horn piercing Sumi as it runs by. Blood flicks across the cavern floor like water off a snapped towel.

Aiko sees her fall, hears Slava and Bretta cry out, as if from a great distance, her heartbeat pounding in her ears as fear suddenly chokes her. The absol is bounding her way, its red eyes almost glowing as they bear down on her and… her body… won’t move…

Her hand grasps feebly at her pokeballs, trembling and indecisive over who to summon, knowing she has nothing that can stop it. I can’t die, some part of her yells, but even in her head it sounds panicked and whiny rather than defiant. Dad’s waiting for me!

At the last second she throws her body weight to the side in an awkward sprawl that does nothing to keep the absol’s horn from slashing across her torso.

Aiko feels the sharp edge cut through her armor mesh and grate over her ribs just before Abdu’s stantler collides with the absol and knocks it away, her blood speckling its white fur. Aiko loses track of what happens next, eyes screwed shut in pain as she hears Ranger Miko yell “Stay focused on the onix!”

Aiko tries, but there’s so much pain, and the blood… Her hands are sticky with it as she tries to hold her wound closed and lie still, breathless screams escaping through clenched teeth. The fear and pain take turns pounding through her consciousness for what feels like hours, and when relief finally comes she still gasps and clutches at her bloody side, fingers probing the new flesh in a panic and shuddering as fresh pain is felt along her ribs.

“Stop, hey, stop!” Hands grab her wrists. “Let it finish healing!”

Aiko opens her eyes to see Abdu’s concerned face. She takes a shuddering breath and holds it as she lets him finish bathing her wound with the headless potion bottle. She realizes she’s about to pass out and slams her hands against the floor, the fresh pain forcing things back into clarity as she starts to take deep, calming breaths. The gradual pain relief makes her shudder, dizziness slowly fading.

Aiko suddenly remembers Sumi and cranes her neck to the side. She sees Ranger Miko tending to her, and snaps her attention back to the onix, which is only being kept in check by Bretta and Slava’s poliwhirl and bayleef now. Both are visibly tiring, however, and despite the leech vines and grey splotches riddling its form, the rock snake still moves quickly, paternal rage driving it through the pain.

The poliwhirl’s next burst of water is suddenly weaker than the previous ones, and it stops shooting any new ones after that. As Slava quickly swaps his pokemon out, the onix takes advantage of not being on the defensive to strike… and roars in pain mid lunge. It twists back upon itself, then starts to crash its body against the wall. Everyone stares in confusion, and for a moment Aiko thinks it’s under some mental attack… until she remembers her dugtrio. She feels a sudden, piercing pain in her chest as the onix stops thrashing: in the dim light, she can vaguely make out the thick gouges in its hide… and the red stain on the wall it had been rubbing against.

She’d sent it to its death without even getting the chance to know it. All to buy a few extra seconds.

Aiko pushes herself to her feet, knees shaking. “I’m fine,” she tells the concerned Abdu. “I’m fine, help them!” He nods and heads toward the onix, and Aiko starts to move as fast as she can toward Dune despite the ache in her left ribs.

Her sandslash is still lying by the wall he fetched up beside, and she lets out a breath that’s half a sob as she sees that he’s still alive. She kneels and looks her pokemon over, making soothing noises as she strokes his snout. Oddly, comforting him makes her fear more bearable, even as her heart aches for the pain he must be in. Four scales were broken off with a dozen more on that side that are cracked where the tail hit, and a bruise is spreading along his middle. She fumbles for a potion bottle, cursing herself for not getting it out earlier, and starts to spray it over his injuries, flinching as something crashes against a cavern wall behind her. Next she takes a towel out to quickly wipe the onix’s thick, gel-like blood off Dune’s claws so she can make sure they weren’t damaged by its hide.

She finds nothing, but by the end of her inspection Dune still appears to be having trouble breathing. She wishes she had Red’s ability to feel what her pokemon are feeling, and considers just withdrawing him. But no, the fight is still ongoing, and she has nothing else that can do much. Her krabby and oddish might distract an onix for a bit, but… her hand shakes as she thinks of that massive body crashing down on them.

She gets out a syringe and fills it with potion. “I’m sorry, Dune, you’ll have to fight a little longer…” She steadies her hand with a deep breath, then injects some potion into his blood to help with potential organ damage. As she waits for it to work, her eyes scan the diffuse light that fills the cavern to see how Blue and Elaine are doing. Their graveler and shiftry are still fighting the onix, along with Payton’s kingler.

As she watches, her heart begins to lift. The three pokemon are effectively keeping the onix penned into the tunnel entrance, and each time it sticks itself out too far for some maneuverability, Blue orders Kemuri forward for a quick slash or two before leaping back out of range. They’re wearing it down, she can see it, another couple minutes and—

Tremors suddenly shake the cavern as a grinding cacophony reverberates around them. The onix seems to have decided that two dimensions isn’t working in its favor, and the front half of its body is disappearing underground as it spins itself like a slow drill. If she wasn’t already crouching beside Dune she would probably have fallen to her knees.

Blue’s group is knocked off balance, and barely have a chance to react before the ground crumbles beneath his shiftry. Aiko watches as if in a nightmare as the onix pulls it out of sight, Kemuri’s hoarse cough of pain mixing with Blue’s yell of rage as Elaine grabs his arm to keep him from running toward the hole. A moment later there’s a cracking sound, and the onix emerges, splinters of wood and leaves showering around it.

Blue tears free of Elaine and rushes forward to stand impossibly close to the emerging onix, one arm out… and a ball held facing it. Aiko hears the distant ping just before Blue pelts it at the center of the onix’s body.

Even at this distance, Aiko sees something wrong before he even releases the ball. She’s watched and faced Blue in dozens of battles now, and can count on one hand the times his stance was sloppy, his aim off, his follow-through weak. She’s studied him closer than she’d ever admit out loud, and sometimes he seems more like a machine than a person, body executing perfect catches, throws, and swaps without any wasted motion or energy, almost making it all look effortless.

This throw is like watching a different person. His arm trembles, he releases the ball a hurried heartbeat early, and the throw has too much force, sending the ball just over the onix’s body as it lunges forward. Payton’s kingler stops it cold before it can crush Blue, its massive claw clenching between two boulders near the onix’s rear as its claws dig into the ground. The onix whips around only to have a bubblebeam spewed in its face, and Blue manages to stumble away and summon Maturin.

Aiko releases a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She’s starting to feel like she’s in a nightmare, everything’s going wrong and she’s just sitting here, afraid to send a potentially injured pokemon to his death. She should have stayed above ground, let Glen come down, he’s more experienced, has stronger pokemon. Ranger Fischer was right. She’s not strong enough to be down here, to be part of a group like hers—

My team members are more than they appear on paper.

Blue. He believed in her. Professor Oak did too. She may not have the experience of a veteran trainer, but her pokemon are just part of what she brings to a group.

A trainer who only trains their pokemon will never become great, Giovanni had written in his first Rationally Thinking post. It is the mind that directs the pokemon. A trainer who only trains their body will never become great. It is the mind that guides the body. Train your mind, and you may triumph even when your body or pokemon are insufficient.

Red taught her how to meditate once, when she saw him practicing some psychic ability. She doesn’t think she can get into the right state of mind with the chaos and Pressure all around her, but she still closes her eyes and lets her thoughts scatter as she concentrates on the feeling of air rushing in with a deep breath.

A sharp pain in her ribs makes her let it out, but she pulls in another, a little more shallow, then blows it back out, slow as she can, trying to calm herself so she can focus her thoughts one step at time.

Needs: Survival. Capture threats.

No. Just survival. Run. Regroup. Return.

Onix would chase. Need to remove their need to be here. What happens if the eggs disappear? Would only stay to defend if they’re being moved. But then other would chase the mover.

There’s a loud crash, and lots of yells, some in pain. Aiko gives into the fear hammering at her mind by huddling into herself, not caring how it looks to others as long as she can appease the fear enough to concentrate. The Pressure makes it hard to think, her thoughts on the verge of scattering as her heart hammers and every loud noise of the battles makes her flinch. But once the chain of ideas starts linking together, not even the fear can stop it.

What are their needs? Think like them. Food. Dryness. Safety for self and eggs. They want to protect them, eliminate threats. If we can’t leave, and we can’t beat them, we need them to leave. Apex predators. Not scared of any pokemon cries. What do they fear?

Water.

Aiko’s eyes snap open. The beginning of an idea is there.

Flood the chamber. Not enough water. Make it sound like it’s flooding? Play rainfall noise from speakers? Get up high, spray water from above? Would that just confuse them?

She discards the idea. Too much effort. Focus. What are they feeling? What’s the experience of the Pressure to them? Protective rage? Acute fear for their eggs?

Aiko turns to the clutch of eggs near the center of the room. Each one is about the size of a small adult curled into the fetal position, and weighs almost as much as solid stone. Aiko doubts she could move faster than a waddle with one, assuming she could even lift it for long. She could try putting them in containers, but to the onix that would just appear as if they’ve vanished, and enrage them further. Maybe they could strap some onto the backs of strong pokemon and have them run… but she can’t think of a pokemon that can both carry the egg and outrun an onix with its weight, let alone one that they have with them.

So they can’t move the eggs themselves. Which means she needs the onix to want to do it. She knows they can swallow their eggs and regurgitate them later if they need to be moved.

I don’t need to flood the whole chamber.

She recoils from the idea of hurting the baby onix, and reminds herself that it would be too hard to break through the shells anyway. If she just pretends to try, that might get the parents’ attention, but they might just fight that much harder to reach and kill her.

No, she needs to make them afraid to leave them here. She can’t flood the chamber, and she won’t hurt the eggs, but could she at least make it look like the eggs are at risk in a way that forces them to move them?

Aiko starts to dig through her bag until she finds the container ball that holds all her water. “Dune, follow.” She moves toward the eggs, and her hands shake as she releases the box, then tosses the lid off and stares at the rows of bottles that take up roughly half of its space. Not enough. “Dune, follow!” She pushes herself to her feet and they run to where Elaine and Blue are fighting, pain radiating from her ribs with every step. One or more is probably cut or fractured, every breath painful as she tries to draw in enough to speak loudly. “Guys! Need your bags! Water!”

To her relief neither ask questions, simply shrugging out of their straps so their packs fall to the floor as they continue to give orders to their pokemon. Aiko starts rooting around in them until she finds the right containers, then runs back to her box and opens theirs beside it, looking at the bottles and canteens within. Blue has all of Maturin’s water in here too. And it still won’t be enough!

Aiko looks around the chamber and spots Bretta and Slava’s bags, dropped to their sides at some point in the battle. It would take forever to find the right containers… unless…

Aiko dashes across the cavern toward Sumi, grabbing her team’s bags along the way. “Sorry just borrowing them!” she gasps over her shoulder, unsure if they heard her but unable to yell louder with the pain in her side. Ranger Miko is still with her, an open medkit and bloody gauze pad to the side, along with a pair of scissors. The girl’s shirt and jacket have been opened and cut, revealing a line of flesh that’s been mostly wiped clean of blood. A pale pink scar runs from the center and down at a diagonal.

The ranger’s attention seems completely focused on the potion she’s injecting into the girl’s chest, but as soon as Aiko arrives she speaks without looking up. “Trainer, can you take over—”

“No, sorry, I have a plan to get the onix to leave!”

The ranger’s eyes flick up at her for just a second. “How?”

“Water, enough to put the eggs at risk and make the onix leave with them.”

A tense moment passes as she finishes injecting the potion, then nods as she tosses the syringe aside and grabs another pre-filled one from the open kit beside her. “What do you need?”

“Can she talk? Sumi! Are you awake?”

Sumi’s eyes flutter open, and she nods, face covered in sweat.

Something in the ranger’s shoulders loosens. “You’re lucky to be alive, hon. I thought it pierced your heart, might have just clipped it. Try not to move.”

Aiko feels a flood of relief, for more than one reason. “Listen,” she half-yells over the renewed crashes and shouts of the battles behind them. “I need your water, all of it, and the rest of your group’s. Do you know where they keep theirs? Can you point to them?” She holds up their bags.

Sumi stares at her in confusion, and Aiko isn’t sure if she heard her.

The nearby onix roars again, and as soon as it ends Aiko raises her voice, both in frustration and to account for the ringing in their ears. “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR TEAM KEEPS THEIR WATER?!”

Sumi blinks, slowly, then inclines her head a few degrees.

“Point them out to me!” Aiko starts taking every container ball out of the bags, watching Sumi until one finger weakly raises. She repeats the process with the other two. “Thank you. Ranger?”

“Left lower pocket, bottom ball.”

Aiko grabs it and stuffs her pockets, then runs back toward the eggs, tossing the trainers their bags along the way. “Sorry!” She pauses as the absol and pursuing pokemon pass close by, ready to run if it turns toward her. It dodges closer to the wall to avoid a gout of flame from the ranger’s ponyta, however, and Aiko takes the opportunity to dash to the center of the cavern where she left the first boxes.

Once the four new ones are all out, she pops the tops off and checks to make sure they’re the right ones. Rows of water bottles and canteens face her, three of them even including ten gallon jugs for recharging water pokemon. Enough. It has to be. She drags the boxes around to form most of a half-circle, all of them more or less pointing at the clutch of eggs, then collapses beside the first one, one hand clutching her ribs as the other starts uncapping bottles, jugs and canteens one after another.

She’s just finished the third box when Blue suddenly yells “Heads up!”

She turns in time to see the three rocks sail up to crack along the roof of the cavern, then fall in a spread that forces Bretta, Slava, and Abdu to retreat with their pokemon or risk being crushed. The onix they were fighting uses the opportunity to twist around along the wall and grab Bretta’s bayleef in its jaws before it can go far.

Aiko shuts her eyes, but still hears the horrible crunch, the cut off bleat of pain, and a cry of grief that chills her blood.

“Aiko!”

She turns to Elaine and sees that the onix has finally broken free of Blue’s group, perhaps scared by how close she is to its eggs, perhaps smelling the water and panicking, and is barreling toward them.

Toward the eggs, and toward Aiko, who’s between them.

Aiko feels the world narrowing to the feel of her heart in her throat, the rumbling beneath her feet, and the sight of the scarred and mottled onix. She tries pushing through to command Dune to try a Sand Attack to distract and disorient it, but her voice comes out in a breathless whisper.

Her pokemon leaps forward, and for an instant Aiko thinks he heard her anyway. But no, instead of trying to blind the onix, he simply dashes at it head on, injury slowing him too much to be of any use.

Aiko’s hand snaps up, pokeball aimed. “Return!” The beam catches her pokemon just before he’s out of range, and he disappears. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it alone. The others can care for her pokemon. In her last seconds, she takes out the heavy ball, hand trembling as she holds it up, knowing it won’t lock on time but preparing herself for another attempt at a dodge that might buy her an extra second…

There’s a thud behind her, and the sound of rushing water, followed by another, then another. She turns to see Payton kicking the boxes over, all the caps opened while she was busy watching the fight.

Bags of food and various trail rations spill onto the cavern floor, and along with them come gallons and gallons of water. Some of the bottles and canteens fall out as well, but this only quickens the spread of the pool, and once she kicks her boxes over as well, the pools begin to converge and expand even faster. Some patches of the ground absorb the water, but most of it is solid, and soon there’s a rushing tide spreading outward… most of it is heading straight for the clutch of eggs.

No roar sounds, no cry of alarm or fury. One second the onix is bearing down on her, and the next it’s juking its body toward the clutch of eggs. The rock snake begins to swallow her eggs whole, one after the other, and a rumbling from the other side precedes the father arriving to help as the water begins to reach them.

Aiko is tempted to raise her heavy ball, but even as she debates the risk of it, unsure of what one will do if their mate suddenly vanishes, they’re already done and fleeing toward the exit that the mother came from. Elaine scrambles to get out of their way, returning her graveler as she goes.

There’s a moment of relative silence as their rumbling retreat echoes behind them, but it’s quickly broken by one of the Rangers: “Cover the exit!”

The absol is leaping after the departing onix, almost reaching the opening before Elaine can re-summon her pokemon. The kingler scuttles toward it, apparently out of water, but the absol is able to run around it easily until the ponyta chases it off with another burst of flame, causing it to juke toward the other exit.

But Bretta, Slava, and Abdu are already converging on it, and as one of the rangers tries to intercept it along the way, it’s forced to dodge to the side again and again. Aiko has summoned her oddish, and a cloud of spores makes the absol leap back just as twin orders of “Wrap!” send two sets of vines from two different tangela lashing out at it, Elaine and Payton standing side by side as their pokemon grab at the absol’s neck and legs.

It begins to thrash wildly to untangle itself, and before it can a bolt of electricity hits it from Ranger Seishi’s jolteon, one leg severed during the chase. The absol sags against the tangela’s insulated vines, and they unwrap from it a moment later as three different pokeballs ping a lock, throw, and hit it, the first opening to pull it inside.

In the space of a heartbeat the Pressure fades to nothing, and Aiko feels its absence like a breath of renewed life, looking around at the others as they blink and gasp in air as if waking from a nightmare.


They spend a few minutes making sure everyone is okay and collecting their things. Half of the trainers got injured in some way that Aiko didn’t notice, the worst beside Sumi and herself being Blue, who lost an entire pant leg with the skin on one side a bloody abraded mess, and Payton, whose arm got dislocated somehow. Aiko is given another shot and advised to be careful on the way up until she can be checked out at a proper medical facility.

Sumi takes longer to stabilize enough for the rangers to feel safe with her moving, and even then they summon a stretcher for her. Aiko sees Blue go to the hole his shiftry disappeared down, great ball in hand. She feels a moment of hope, but after a few long breaths staring down the hole, Blue reclips the ball and turns away, eyes down. She wants to comfort him, but her gaze moves to the red stain along the wall, the vague, crushed form below it, and tears press against her eyes and spill down her cheeks. Elaine is suddenly there to put an arm around her shoulder, and Aiko gratefully turns her face to her shoulder, trying not to sob so that her ribs don’t hurt any more.

“I’m okay,” she whispers. “Hooo, I’m okay, I’m okay… Are you okay?”

“Yep.” Elaine says, squeezing her shoulder.

“It just… hit me, I guess. How close we came.” Blue approaches with some napkins and one of the water bottles that didn’t empty. “Thanks. I’m sorry, about Kemuri…” She wipes at her face.

Blue lets out a deep breath, hand brushing through his hair, then nods. “Gonna help with the cleanup.” He wanders away, and Aiko sees a couple other pokemon bodies that she missed during the battle. She wonders if he’ll want to bury Kemuri, but from the way he walked away from the hole she can’t imagine there was much left of the shiftry to gather in a container. Like her dugtrio.

The combined smell of various different kinds of blood in the cavern is suddenly hard to take, and she feels her gorge rise. “Gonna get some air,” she says, realizing how stupid it sounds but trusting Elaine to know what she means. Her friend nods, and Aiko makes her way carefully to the tunnel entrance so she can lean against the wall inside it and breathe a bit more easily, closing her eyes.

For the first time, she wonders to herself whether she’s ready to be a trainer yet. Maybe her dad was right. Maybe she should have stayed longer… trainer battles are fine, and the earlier fights were okay, if a bit terrifying, but losing pokemon like this… she’s not sure she can take that.

“Hey.” She turns to see Ranger Miko standing at the entrance. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Aiko wipes at her face. “Just need a moment.”

“Alright. Let us know if your side is hurting you more. And good job, Trainer. You saved lives today.”

The ranger leaves before she can respond, and after a moment Aiko closes her eyes and rests her head against the wall again, trying to get the images and sounds of pain and death to stop.

When they’re finally ready to head back up, everyone moves with a slow, quiet pace that lets Aiko replay what happened what feels like a hundred times, sometimes focusing on different details in particular, other times just running the same jumbled flash of highlights in a loop. The ranger’s praise wars with her own self-recriminations for how badly she choked, and her shame only grows as they travel up and up, and she has time to remember her mistakes again and again.

They’re about halfway to the surface when they hear noises coming from ahead, and everyone quickly prepares themselves as best they can for a fight. She offers to take the front of the litter from Slava, who’s behind her, and he accepts, carefully transferring the poles to her before moving up the line, hand on a pokeball.

A minute later Aiko distantly sees light appear around the corner up ahead, then hears Elaine shout Glen’s name. The relief in her tone matches Aiko’s, and she smiles for the first time in what feels like days as she sees their friend is the first to round the corner, looking at them in surprise.

“Hey guys, I brought the cavalry!”

“The absol was captured,” Ranger Miko says. “The cavalry should about-face.”

“Woah, nice job!”

“Now, trainer. We have injured.”

“Oh. Shit.” He turns around, causing the person behind him to do the same, then the person behind them, presumably along the rest of the procession. “Hey, pass on the message that we’re going back and see if whoever’s on the end feels confident to lead the way?”

“I got it,” Elaine says, ducking and squeezing her way through the crowded tunnel to help the new arrivals reverse course.

Slava reaches out to take the litter poles back, pointing out that she’s injured too, and Aiko lets him without protest. Her side doesn’t hurt as much now that she’s not running around, but it still feels tender, and the weight of the litter had been making her ribs ache. The rest of the journey feels quicker, and once they reach the surface, the rangers move off together to debrief and call an ambulance as the two groups begin to intermingle, sharing the details of what happened below.

Aiko and Blue let Elaine fill Glen in, the talkative girl somewhat subdued in her storytelling. Blue stares at the ground, one hand rubbing the now empty greatball at his side. After a moment he seems to realize what he’s doing and unclips it with a sigh, taking his pokedex out to wipe its registration before he shrinks it down and tucks it in his pocket.

“You doing okay?” she asks.

“Sure.” He shrugs. “Just coming to terms with it. Kemuri put me through a lot, after I caught him. But he came through for me time and again. He was good at playing up injuries, faking enemies out, you know? I was hoping throughout the fight that he’d come back up at the right moment, or that I’d find him down there after. Hurt, but, you know, mostly okay. He’s come back from… not worse, but pretty bad.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, feeling wretched. If she’d just thought of using the water earlier…

“It’s my fault,” Blue says. “All of this is. If I’d just thought to message them myself instead of assuming they’d listen to the rangers, or just checked my phone earlier…”

Aiko blinks. “What? That’s ridiculous, you couldn’t have known. But… if I hadn’t gotten so affected by the Pressure, or if my pokemon were stronger, we might have captured ours and come help. I was useless.” Blue is giving her a strange look, and she sees Elaine and Glen have stopped talking to stare at her too. “I mean before the water thing. If anything I should have thought of it sooner.”

“Huh,” Elaine says. “So that’s what that’s like.”

“What?”

“Hearing someone else blame themselves for something silly.’

“It’s not silly!” Aiko says, too loud. She lowers her voice. “I froze up down there. More than once.”

“You think I didn’t?” Blue says. “I missed an onix from close enough to spit on it!”

“Oh, are we throwing a pity party over here?” Bretta asks, and they turn to see her and Slava walk up to them, Payton and Abdu close behind. “I love these, it always turns into a game of one-upmanship for how terrible you think you are so you can feel better about hating yourself.”

“That’s not it,” Aiko says, suddenly angry. Don’t they understand? “It’s not about that, it’s about making sure you own your shit! I screwed up, okay? I did good things too, sure, but I still was too weak. I have to do better next time.”

Everyone’s quiet for a moment, and Aiko stares defiantly at each of them, daring one of them to tell her she’s wrong. It’s Blue that speaks first. “You’re right. You screwed up.”

She meets his gaze, keeping her chin high. Of course Blue gets it. “Yeah. I did.”

“I did too. Will you tell me off for it?”

“I…” She takes a breath. “You screwed up, Blue. Keep track of others better. And whatever shook you down there, learn to deal with it. That throw was yours to miss.”

“Guys…” Elaine says, sounding nervous, but Blue holds a hand up.

“You’re right. I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko nods. “Me too.”

Blue smiles. “We’ll help each other.”

“Yeah.” She smiles back.

There’s silence for a bit, and then Slava says, “I mean, if no one else is going to call me on it, I screwed up a pretty easy throw too.”

Aiko turns to him, considering. “I saw. Wasn’t sure if you wanted in on this.”

“Whatever this is,” Bretta mutters.

“I think I do,” he says, slowly.

“Then…” Aiko turns to face him fully. “Work on your throws. Because if you’d made that catch, Bretta wouldn’t have lost her bayleef. And Sumi may not have gotten hurt.”

There’s another silence, this one a bit more shocked, but Slava nods, grey eyes meeting hers steadily. “I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko smiles. “I’ll help. If you want. Though Blue can probably help more?”

“Of course.”

“I do. Thanks.”

Bretta looks at the three of them with some trepidation. “Um. Well. Obviously, I’m the most terrible one—”

“No, not like that,” Aiko says. “Without exaggeration. Just… be clear.”

Bretta frowns at the ground, brow creased. “I… fucked up. Big time. For leading you guys down there instead of going to the rangers’ meeting. For not reaching out to Blue. If Sumi hadn’t messaged him, we might all… be dead…”

“Yeah,” Slava says, voice quiet. “But we chose to follow you, so that’s on us a bit too.”

“I think I’m supposed to own this,” Bretta half-asks, turning to Aiko.

She consults her gut feeling, then shrugs. “You both screwed up. You both should take 100% of the responsibility, for yourselves.”

“That math doesn’t add up,” Payton says.

“But it feels right.” She turns to them. “Doesn’t it? I’m honestly checking, I’m not really sure what I’m doing here and mostly playing it by ear.”

That gets a round of chuckles, but Bretta and Slava both nod. “100%,” he says. “We’ll help each other do better.”

“Yeah.” Bretta’s hands rise to rub at her face. “We owe that much to Sumi.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Elaine says.

“Friends,” Aiko corrects, voice quiet.

Bretta meets her gaze a moment, pain leaking through her brave mask. Aiko wishes she hadn’t said anything for a moment, but then the girl nods. “You too. And I owe you guys an apology. I was a bit of a jerk, earlier. If I’d just offered for us all to go together… well, I came over in the first place to say… Your group is heading back to Vermilion Gym after this, right?”

Blue looks around at the others, who nod. “Yeah.”

Bretta rummages through her bag and takes out a handful of Vermilion Gym Objections. “Take these. You guys saved us down there. Already thanked these two. Any time we’re in a bind in the future… well, I know who I’m listening to.”

“Mine and Sumi’s too,” Slava says, holding out more. “She wanted to thank you guys.”

Aiko flushes as she sees the handful of tokens, trying to find some way to refuse them. “Aiko, you definitely don’t get to say no,” Bretta says to her. “Or I’m going to get mad about you spilling all my water. You think it grows on trees? Nuh uh. Opposite.”

That brings a weak smile, but Aiko still hesitates to take them. “You should have some,” she tells Abdu and Payton, “You didn’t have to come down with us—”

“We’ve already been to Vermilion,” Abdu says with a smile.

“You saved my life, both of you—”

“You saved all of ours,” Payton says with firm conviction. “I just came to help.”

“Goddammit, I’m trying to do something nice here,” Bretta interrupts. “Just take the damn tokens! Except for you, Glen. You were late.”

“Oof, there’s the guilt again,” he says. “Do I get to call myself weak for getting airsick?”

Aiko studies him briefly, unsure if he’s making fun. “Do you think it’s something you can improve on?”

“I… don’t know. I can try. I will try.”

“Then yes.”

“Alright then. Sorry I let you guys down.”

Elaine looks close to tears. “You didn’t… no, sorry, I know, I guess you guys… have to… but I… I don’t…”

“You were fine,” Blue says, and smiles. “Better than fine. You don’t have to look for some mistake just to fit in.”

“Oh, but… I felt so rushed, I know I was making mistakes but… I couldn’t seem to stop myself or think faster…”

“Well, I don’t want to take that away from you, if you really feel like you need to be held accountable for it,” Blue says. “But from what I saw, you did great, Elaine. Maybe reserve… this sort of thing… for when you make a mistake that you can point harm to, in specific?”

“I’m sure there will be future opportunities, if that makes you feel better,” Glen says.

Elaine smiles slightly. “It does, a little. Okay.”

“Well,” Abdu says. “I felt left out, but couldn’t think of anything concrete either. Did anyone see me screw up?”

“Nah, you did good, this time,” Payton says. “Me, though, I’m pretty sure getting distracted by the other fights cost the ranger his jolteon’s leg. I hope it can get re-attached, I feel wretched about it, especially for a pokemon that loves to run that much.”

“You’ll do better next time,” Aiko says, the words now having the feel of ritual.

“I’ll help,” Abdu says, completing it, and Payton nods.

Bretta and Slava are still holding the tokens, and Blue finally steps forward and takes them. “I’ll divide them up later, when people are feeling less down on themselves.”

“Good,” Bretta says. “Except Glen.”

“You can give some of mine to Glen,” Slava says, handing his to Blue. “I get airsick too.”

They hear the ambulance arriving then, its large tires and shock suspension helping it drive easily over the wild grass, and as a group they go to watch Sumi get loaded into it.

“Intravenous potions not working?” Glen asks quietly.

“No,” Slava says. “Some part of the injury isn’t getting reached, or it healed wrong. There’s internal bleeding, and her pulse is still irregular.”

One of the rangers points to Aiko after Sumi is loaded up, and an EMT turns to her. “Ma’am? Do you need help boarding?”

Aiko blinks. “Me?”

“You were badly injured,” Abdu says. “Play it safe, hm?”

A hand gently pushes at her back. “Go,” Blue says. “Make sure you’re okay. We’ll see you in Golden Hills.”

She checks the time, wondering how long it would take. She only has a few hours before she returns to the ranch, but the tenderness she still feels when she breathes too deep makes her abandon her protest. “Alright. See you guys there.”

She climbs into the ambulance back to sit across from where Sumi is lying down. “Slava?” the girl asks without opening her eyes.

“N-no, it’s me. Um. Aiko.”

“Is he…”

“Just a sec.” She pokes her head out. “Hey, Slava, she wants to talk to you.”

He jogs over and steps in. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Slava,” Sumi says between shallow breaths, voice quiet. “I heard… surgery… if something happens… my pokemon…”

“Hey, don’t talk like that,” the boy says, voice lowering as he takes her hand. “And I told you not to sign them to me. You know I screw everything important up. Let your sister have them.” He squeezes her hand. “And all that’s beside the point, because you’ll be fine.”

Aiko realizes too late that she should probably give them some privacy, but there’s not enough room to maneuver past him now. Sumi’s eyes open, and she looks at him from beneath heavy lids. “Promise…”

“I promise you’ll be fine.”

There’s the sound of the driver door opening and closing, and then the engine starts up. “Promise.”

He glances at Aiko, who sees pain and fear and doubt in his gaze. Say yes, she mouths. He lets out a breath. “Alright, I promise, if it stops you from worrying. I’ll look after them. If something happens. Which it won’t.”

Her eyes slip closed again. “Thank you…”

“See you soon, okay? You’ll be out by dinner time. We’ll skip it for ice cream. Sound good?”

Sumi doesn’t respond, and after a moment her hand goes limp. Slava stares at her, fingers moving up to her wrist. Aiko’s heart catches, but then he lets out a breath, and he glances at Aiko. “Look after her on the way?”

“Yeah, of course,” she says, though she’s not sure what she could do.

“Thanks. See you in a bit.” He looks at Sumi again, then backs out of the cabin, and one of the EMT enters and closes the back behind him. The ambulance starts to move, and Aiko reaches out to take Sumi’s hand as the tech starts hooking her up to the machines. Her fingers squeeze weakly back.

Aiko wonders what the girl’s relationship with Slava is like, that she’d trust him with her pokemon over family. She thinks about her own, and the thought she had when she withdrew Dune. Who would she want to have her pokemon, if something happened to her? Her dad, so he could take care of them on the ranch? Or her friends, who might use them for battles, put them at risk… but maybe get their lives saved by them, let them see more of the world?

It’s a hard question, and she feels a mix of guilt and pain over her dugtrio again. She hadn’t even gotten the chance to know it, but it was hers, she had captured it from the wild and was responsible for it. It hurts to think about, but if she continues being a trainer, it won’t be the last pokemon she loses. Is she really prepared for that?

Her thoughts run in circles throughout the trip back to town, and she holds Sumi’s hand all the way to the operating room before she’s led off to get a CT scan.


Aiko wakes with a start, scream trapped in her throat as she thrashes a moment, then realizes where she is and collapses back onto the hospital bed, closing her eyes. Three ribs cut and cracked, no organ damage thankfully. It took about an hour and a half to diagnose and treat her, then she was told to rest for a bit.

How long was I out? She looks out the window, and curses when she sees it’s dark out, swinging her legs off the bed and stumbling to her phone. A quick glance at the time while she calls her dad tells her she ended up sleeping another two hours.

“Hey Dad? Hey! I… fine, everything’s fine! I just took a nap… yeah, long day… mmhmm.” Aiko pulls her shoes on. “Yep, I’ll be right home! No, I’ll take care of that when I get there! Yeah. Right. Mmhm. See you soon. Love you.” She closes the call and takes a moment to breathe, forehead pressed against the phone screen. He sounded a little alarmed, a little worried, but seemed to take her assurances at face value. No anger for not calling, no suspicion that something bad had happened. She knows that’s not normal, but she’s a bit grateful for it, at the moment.

Aiko shakes herself and goes to use the washroom, worrying about Sumi all the while. The nightmare is stubborn in leaving too, keeping part of her in the cavern, paralyzed by fear as her friends and pokemon die one by one. Her hands tremble slightly as she washes them, and she practically attacks the towel to dry them off, angry with herself.

She needs to be stronger if she’s going to be a trainer. Her pokemon need to be stronger too, better trained. She thinks of the program she was working on at home, to help her pokemon fight more naturally on command, the way Red can make his. Whatever objections Leaf has, Aiko will do her best to pay attention to, but… she’ll take any advantage she can get if it will keep her pokemon and teammates alive.

Aiko collects her things and checks out with the nurse by the elevator, then makes her way to the waiting room below. She hears their voices before she arrives, and recognizes Abdu’s voice.

“Shit man, forget that. You get Giovanni out of the way before your fourth badge, maybe your fifth or sixth, but seventh is a bad idea. Eighth is just arrogant.”

“I’ve been called worse,” Blue says.

“You’re exaggerating.” Slava. Aiko relaxes a bit, knowing he wouldn’t sound so casual if something had happened to Sumi. “It’s not as bad as saving someone like Brock for last. Blue got it right going for him first, no one’s crazy enough to take Aeosis on.”

“I don’t blame them, after today,” Elaine says.

“Aeosis is one pokemon,” Payton says. “Sure he’s stupid-strong, but Giovanni is Giovanni. You really want to face him at his best?”

Blue snorts. “It’s not his best, challenging him for Gym Leadership will be his best. But it’s the best I’ll likely get, since I don’t plan on ever doing that. I want to beat him when he’s being at least somewhat serious.”

“Is this a pride thing? Or a fame thing?” Elaine asks. “Because I think if you can beat Aeosis, or even Sabrina’s alakazam, what’s it called, Sin?”

“Sync.”

“Sync, right, if you fight and win against them you probably get more buzz.”

“Maybe, but… look, Brock and Sabrina are great trainers, with amazing pokemon. All the Leaders are, but yeah, there are a couple with even greater pokemon that elevate them. But I want to beat the greatest trainer in Kanto, even if he has no single pokemon as strong as theirs. If anything I think that makes him more formidable. There’s no one point of strength, you just have to straight up beat him team against te—”

Blue stops talking as he sees Elaine and Glen stand up, and turns. “Aiko!” They rush over to take turns hugging her, being careful of her ribs, but she squeezes them tight, smiling.

“They told us you were just resting and everything went fine, but it’s been a while,” Elaine says. “We were worried.”

“I’m okay.” She looks at Bretta and Slava. “Any news?”

“She’ll live,” Slava says, and a weight rolls off Aiko’s chest, though some of it returns at his next words. “They’re worried about permanent damage though. Its horn went past her heart and nicked her spine.”

“We’re probably going to spend the night,” Bretta says. “They already explained how you go home to help your dad out, so don’t worry. We’ll be in town when you port back tomorrow.”

Aiko lets out a breath and nods. “Alright. Message me if you hear anything new.” She turns to Payton and Abdu. “You two staying too?”

“Yeah, it’s too late to travel anyway.” Payton smiles. “We’ll see you tomorrow, say goodbye before you all head back to Vermilion.”

“Oh, by the way,” Blue says. “Rangers came by, thanked us for our service and all that. Even though they’re the ones that caught the absol, the town’s bounty is going to be split among us, along with a bonus from the rangers for helping them acquire a pokemon that will be so important to research.”

“Except for Glen,” Bretta says with a sweet smile, causing him to snort.

“Your share comes out to about $2,500,” Blue says.

Aiko blinks. “Oh. Uhh. Wow. Okay. Great.”

“Yeah. And we’re having a small funeral for our pokemon tomorrow.”

Aiko’s feelings keep rollercoasting, and she swallows past the lump in her throat, then clears it. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll be there.” She turns to the room. “It was great meeting all of you, even if the circumstances were… you know.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“Night, Aiko.”

“Take care.”

Elaine hugs her again, briefly, and Aiko waves to everyone as she steps away… then stops and turns back. “Oh, I almost forgot… have you spoken to Red and Leaf? Do they know?”

“Nah, I figured I’d wait until they reached out. Don’t want to bring them down, you know? They’re probably enjoying a fun, peaceful cruise.”

Chapter 54: Into the Black

“Diglett!”

Blue’s mouth is open, but it was Elaine who shouted, beating him to the warning by a second as she turns to face the oncoming rumble of digging pokemon, hands reaching for her pockets.

Blue is faster there, having grabbed two bottles of pokemon repellent the moment he recognized the sound of the oncoming pokemon and realized its implications. The renewed jolt of adrenaline cuts through his confusion for a moment, and his voice is steady as it follows Elaine’s warning. “Elaine, stay on the absol! You and Glen on dexes, Aiko with me on repels!” He begins spraying Elaine down, keeping the triggers pressed until the cans are empty and she’s liberally coated, then tossing them aside and getting another two out for Aiko.

She’s already spraying Glen, who keeps his focus on the absol, though he’s taken his pokedex out and is holding it up. “Tell me when!” Glen says. “Machoke, Submission!”

Blue glances to the side to see the absol dance out of the machoke’s reach, then turns his attention back to his task. The rumbling is louder, and the first diglett shows up far to their right, popping out of the wall and dropping to the ground before dashing toward the opposite wall, giving the five battling pokemon a wide berth. Blue knows they won’t all be so skittish, however, and even as he finishes spraying Aiko down, he reaches into Glen’s bag pockets for two of his repel cans and runs a quick line between the four of them and the diglett that are now arriving in twos and threes from all along the wall and ceiling.

Blue starts spraying a double line of repellant along the cavern floor, and Aiko summons a container box and leaps onto it, just as diglett start pouring out of the dozen or so indents along the floor, wall and occasional hole in the ceiling. “Now!” Blue yells as their furry brown bodies and sharp claws start scrambling toward them, and from behind Glen and Elaine’s pokedexes come the echoing screeches of a pidgeot and a fearow.

The sounds are incredibly loud in the small cavern, drowning out the rumbling of the diglett. They leave Blue’s ears ringing, but he immediately sees the effect on the tide of diglett: they begin scrambling for the closest hole, often fighting against each other to see who would fit in them first, while some of the bigger ones start to make their own.

Unfortunately the dugtrio among the horde are less frightened, and while most scramble around and away from the four smelly trainers, two of them come straight at them.

“Ba!” Blue yells, and Maturin spits a handful of bubbles out in a spray that catches one of the dugtrio and knocks it back with the explosive pop. “Bab!” The bubblebeam focuses on the other one and hits it away too, but a third turns from the side and dashes at Elaine until Aiko’s oddish shoots a cloud of spores at it. It stumbles to a stop, sneezes, then turns to face the new threat, movements slower.

Blue turns to focus on the other two again, pokeballs trying to get a lock as Maturin spits water and bubbles again and again to fend them off. One dives below the ground, and Blue has a moment of relief until he feels the ground vibrating below the box they’re standing on. Dust rains from the ceiling, and more diglett are still pouring out of the wall. A particularly large one joins the dugtrio in attacking them, and when the dugtrio that caused the quake pops back up to their left, Blue quickly swaps an empty ball out to summon Gon. The shroomish manages to hold it off, but with its three heads and quick movements, it’s almost impossible to really stop.

Worse than that, with three pokemon out Blue can barely pay attention to Kemuri, and within moments both he and Aiko’s split focus is punished by a cry of pain from her sandslash, then another from Kemuri.

“Low Kick! Machoke’s tiring fast!” Glen calls out.

“Ours here too,” Aiko says, and a moment later her oddish is pierced by a dugtrio’s long claws. “Shit, return! Go, Sneaker!”

Shit is right. The diglett have finally stopped coming out of the wall, and most have fled, but there are three dugtrio and a big diglett still in the chamber with them, popping in and out of the ground to attack their pokemon from various angles. Blue can see Maturin is running out of water, and with Kemuri busy he doesn’t have any other pokemon that can really stand up to the diglett as well. Worst of all, the constant shocks to the cavern have begun sending dust and pebbles down on them.

“We can’t hold like this,” Blue yells between commands. A dugtrio gouges a chunk of Gon’s fungal dome off, and Blue quickly jumps off the box with a potion in hand to spray his pokemon, unable to risk returning him just yet. He leaps back onto the box as Aiko shouts a warning, and barely avoids the spew of rocks and dirt that one of the dugtrio aims at him. Blue drops the potion bottle without re-attaching it and takes an empty pokeball out, hand steady but heart pounding in his throat. Could really use that battle calm about now. “Gon, sal! Guys, how’s the absol?”

“We still can’t pin it down! We’ll have to let it go!” Elaine says.

Blue grits his teeth. If they let it go now, it won’t return to this chamber after being caught here, especially with all the repel they’ve sprayed. But if they keep fighting like this someone is going to lose a pokemon soon, or worse…

Frustration wells up, turns black and bitter inside him. He should just order them to stop holding back, to finish it off. Better that than letting it get away and losing it. Hell, it’s already injured, it might just end up killing itself, like the pikachu in the forest did.

The memory brings up another one: catching Kemuri the way he did, the shock and horror of those with him. Gramps telling him in Pewter later to be more careful how he does things. We came here to capture it, not kill it. We’ll have another chance.

“One more attempt, all together!” He shouts at last. “Try to get a lock and throw, then give it a path to leave!”

“On three, then!” Glen yells. “One…. Machoke, Vital Throw! Two…”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

“Sneaker, Fast!”

“Three!”

As one, Blue and Aiko wheel around on their box and dash toward their pokemon penning the absol in, pokeballs extended. Blue takes a deep breath, aims at the leaping, slashing blur of black and white, and as he lets the breath out, holds the balls as steady as he can as he tracks its movements.

He hears three pings, one after another, and throws both balls without being sure if the locks were his own or someone else’s. The others throw their balls too, but the absol, still evading the machoke’s grabs, leaps back onto the wall of the cavern, its claws gripping the stone for a moment to avoid the half a dozen pokeballs and great balls… all but for one, which hits it in the leg, bounces off…

…and tumbles to the ground. It wasn’t one that locked on.

Blue doesn’t waste another second, merely turning and running back for the box as he takes in the situation. Their pokemon are scratched and bleeding, Maturin even retreating to her shell unprompted, which let two of the dugtrio gang up on Gon, who’s desperately shooting out cloud after cloud of spores in every direction to keep them away. “Let it go, give it a path to go! Guard our backs Glen and Elaine! Kemuri, here! Lar!” he says and points to the dugtrio that are raking dirt at Gon to keep his spores from reaching them. “Maturin, Ba!”

His wartortle sticks her head out, relieving him immensely, and half-heartedly spits some bubbles out at the dugtrio as they retreat from the shiftry’s sudden arrival, its remaining appendage slashing at them. Those damned extra heads see the bubbles coming however and they avoid them—

—only to face Elaine’s psyduck on one side and Glen’s gloom on the other, water and vines slapping them aside. “It’s gone,” Elaine says as she steps up beside Blue. “Leapt up to the higher passage!”

Blue stifles his disappointment and focuses on the battle as best he can. Before long, the four of them working together turn the tide, and once Blue catches the first Dugtrio, the other two quickly get nabbed too.

It’s the last, large diglett that somehow manages to avoid them long enough to dive back underground for a prolonged period. They all tensely wait for it to reappear, during which Blue tries to catch his breath. They only fought for a couple minutes at most, but he feels wrung out. He just has to stay vigilant a little longer to finish the last one…

Instead of the diglett reappearing, however, there’s a burst of light that suddenly shoots out from one of the holes in the ceiling above them. They all stare up at it in shock.

“Did it just—” Elaine starts, then yelps in surprise as a rumbling shock runs through the ceiling, sending more dust and chips of stone raining down on them.

“Oh, come on!” Aiko shouts as a grinding, trembling groan continues through the cavern. “Now?

“Just run!” Blue yells as he hurries to withdraw his pokemon and pick up the balls that have dugtrio in them before he breaks for the side passage they originally came from. The others quickly join him, Aiko pausing just to withdraw the container box they were standing on before running to the rest of them, arms full.

The tremors slow to a stop as they run down the tunnel, Glen and his butterfree in front to illuminate the path. Blue imagines the cavern collapsing behind them with an earthy roar, but thankfully everything eventually becomes silent but for the sounds of their quick steps and heavy breathing.

Once they reach another small cavern that branches in multiple directions, Blue calls for a stop. The party slows, then collapses against the walls or to the floor as they catch their breath.

“Everyone okay?” he asks. “Injuries?”

“Scrapes and cuts from earth shards,” Aiko says. “Okay otherwise.”

“I’m okay too,” Elaine says, and Glen echoes her. Blue finally pays attention to himself, hands roaming over his legs and torso to make sure he didn’t get cut by something without noticing it.

“Do you need help healing yourself?” Glen asks Aiko, who hasn’t moved to heal her cuts and bruises.

“No, I’m just… still recovering.” She lets a shuddering breath out. “That was intense, in more ways than one.”

“More than it should have been,” Glen says, and everyone murmurs or nods their assent. Blue lets himself slide to the floor of the cavern. The others follow suit, and Blue wipes cold sweat from his forehead as he rests his eyes for a moment, limbs and mind almost gelatinous with fatigue.

He plays the fight back in his memory as best he can, trying to remember what exactly happened and when. The whole thing felt off from the very beginning. Blue assumed it was just his frustration that the absol hadn’t actually eaten all the meat, had noticed that it was off somehow and went silent for other reasons. Despite that, and the absol’s amazing evasion and quickness, they still would have worn it down… if not for the stampede of diglett arriving when it did.

“So just to be clear,” Glen says after a minute. “And not to blame anyone prematurely… but did we screw up?”

“Nothing in the dex said that diglett were attracted to absol mating calls, or beef,” Blue insists. “I double checked. There’s never been any reports filed about that, unless someone discovered it in the time since we entered the caves.”

“Someone might have,” Elaine suggests. “Us.” She lazily lifts both fists above her head. “Yaaay…”

“No, it can’t have been the calls,” Aiko says. “Those were broadcast from a different part of the caves than where we fought it, remember? And none of the diglett went after the meat. Could have been the sound of the fighting, but… that didn’t happen in our last fight with diglett. No new ones from nearby showed up to join in.”

“And there were a lot of them,” Blue says. “So many being close enough to hear seems unlikely.”

Glen drags a finger through the dirt beside him, brow creased. The ensuing silence is unbroken except for the flapping of his butterfree’s wings, and after a moment he holds a hand up and gestures, which brings his pokemon down to rest on his arm. He takes a poffin from his bag and feeds the glowing bug. “So I think it might be time to revisit the topic of absol and bad luck, because I don’t know what else to call what just happened.”

“Well, of course it was bad luck,” Aiko says. “But that doesn’t mean the absol caused it.”

“Yeah, true.”

“Hell of a coincidence, though,” Blue says, fingers drumming against his knee.

She looks at him in surprise. “You don’t think it was the absol, do you?”

Blue shrugs. “I think after what we just saw, I’m open to talking about it.”

“Seriously? With a sample size of one, we’re really going to reconsider whether bad luck exists?”

Glen shrugs. “I’m not one of those trainers who wears lucky socks or anything, but sometimes something looks like bad luck and is really caused by something else, you know? People can psych themselves out, or get overconfident, or something.”

“The car crash thing again? People are nervous because there’s an absol nearby, so they, what, forget how to drive?”

“Something like that.”

“Come on, we’re talking about a horde of pokemon attacking. That’s not something you can put in the same category.”

Blue looks at Elaine while the other two argue, and sees her silently biting her lower lip. She seemed to support the idea of absol causing bad luck, back in town. She didn’t really defend the idea much though. “What do you think, Elaine?”

“Hm? About what?”

“The absol. The diglett arriving when they did.”

Her gaze darts around to the three of them, seeming to rest on Aiko for longer than usual. She hesitates a moment longer, then says, “I think… it was really bad luck. Too much. If it was anything less, we probably would have been okay, still. So—”

“That’s just hindsight bias,” Aiko says. “We happened to be unable to handle that, but if there was another one or two trainers with us, we could have still caught it. Do you really think more diglett would have shown up if, like, Red and Leaf were here? Or the ceiling would have come down?”

Elaine opens her mouth, then closes it and shrugs, looking down again.

“What I’m more interested in is the way our pokemon—”

“Hang on,” Blue says, interrupting Aiko. “You didn’t let her finish.” He turns back to Elaine. “What were you going to say? ‘So’…?”

“It’s nothing.”

Blue studies her, some inkling of intuition kicking in. Elaine is usually really talkative, but he remembers her seeming unusually withdrawn a few times yesterday. He’s still getting using to traveling with people other than Red and Leaf, who are always quick to speak their mind, even if it means getting into an argument. But he can’t remember Elaine ever arguing with anyone.

“Elaine, you know it’s okay if you disagree with us, right?” Blue asks.

Her eyes widen, and she nods. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Do you?” Aiko asks with frown.

“What?”

“Still disagree? About absol and luck.”

“I… um. I think… I guess maybe not… I mean, but, it’s hard to be sure, you know?” Even in the relatively dim light of the butterfree’s wings, Elaine’s face seems to be flushing rather violently.

“You don’t have to be sure,” Glen says. “But are you leaning more toward yes or no, right now?”

“Mm.” Elaine nods.

“Is that a yes?” Aiko asks, voice dripping skepticism.

Elaine hesitates, then shakes her head.

“Aiko,” Blue starts, “Your tone—”

“I know, I know.” She considers Elaine briefly, then says, “Hey, Elaine. I think tangela are stupid pokemon. Don’t you?”

Elaine’s eyes widen, and she looks down between her feet. “Um. I… I don’t think… I mean they’re not… super smart I guess… but I like them,” she finishes, voice trailing to a whisper at the end.

Glen whistles quietly, and turns to Blue. “Good catch.”

“Wow, yeah.” Aiko’s voice softens. “Elaine, I don’t really think that about tangela, you know? I was just trying to get a rise out of you. Do you really not feel comfortable arguing with us? Or is it me? Am I pushing too hard?”

“Probably a little,” Blue says. “But I think she’s been holding back from contradicting any of us.”

Elaine looks up at the three of them, blushing harder than ever. She shrugs. “I just don’t like fighting?”

“Are you not sure about that either?” Aiko asks, then winces. “Shit, that was meant jokingly. I’m sorry, Elaine, I’m not trying to pick on you. I may be missing some social filters.”

“It’s okay. I just really like you guys.”

“Psh. So?” Blue asks. “I argue with Red all the time, and he’s my best friend. Arguing with us won’t make us like you less.”

Elaine’s hands flutter around her knees briefly. “It’s not just that, I don’t know a lot, compared to you guys—”

“Elaine,” Glen cuts her off. “We literally wouldn’t be here right now without you. None of us have ever gone trailblazing or spelunking.”

“That’s different. I know what I’m good at, and I just don’t like to argue about things I don’t know about.”

“That’s great,” Aiko says. “Really, I wish more people were like that, but in situations like this, where none of us really knows, it’s okay to speak your mind.”

“In fact, we need you to,” Blue says. “We’re only at our best as a ‘party’ when we can pool our ideas, not just our skills.” Elaine smiles slightly, and Blue smiles back. “We won’t get mad at you or make fun of you if you tell us what you think. Will we?”

“Nope,” Glen says.

“Absolutely, and I’m sorry if I come off that way,” Aiko says. “I’ll try to get better with that, if you try to speak up more often when you disagree?”

Elaine’s smile widens. “I think I can try. I mean, I will.”

“Great,” Blue says. “We can start with absol. You seemed to support the idea of them causing bad luck, back in town. Can you try to give us a summary of what you think about them causing bad luck?”

“Um. Okay.” She rubs her legs, frowning down at her shoes. “So. What I was thinking of in town was that a lot of trainers have mentioned how hard they are to catch, right? And, I mean yeah it was fast, and dangerous, but we almost had it before the diglett came. It’s not that strong, like, if we had a fighting pokemon that was faster than a machoke we probably would have gotten it, you know?” Elaine’s words are speeding up as she talks, her customary enthusiasm leaking into her expression and tone. “So maybe there’s more going on, some of it that’s hard to measure or even notice at the time. Like a pokeball that malfunctions at just the wrong time?”

“Wait,” Aiko says. “You really think that’s what happened to the ball that hit it?” Elaine’s smile fades slightly, but Aiko is already making a sound of frustration. “Damn it, sorry, let me try that again. Do you… I mean, I thought the ball that hit it just didn’t lock on.”

Blue is about to add that he thought that too, but holds back so it wouldn’t feel like they’re all ganging up on Elaine. He really wants her to start arguing back, almost more than he wants to get to the bottom of the absol mystery, right now. He can’t head the team effectively if one of the members is too worried about upsetting anyone to speak their mind.

Luckily, after Elaine takes a moment to think it over, she shrugs and says, “It was my ball, I’m pretty sure. And I thought I heard it ping. But I guess I could be wrong?”

Aiko opens her mouth, then closes it again. “I think you may be too,” she says, slowly. “But I didn’t know it was your ball, so… you might know better than I do. But… okay, so let’s just talk about luck for a moment. Luck isn’t a force of nature, you can’t just… just increase or decrease the random events in the world to favor a certain outcome. That would imply that there’s some higher, conscious being or force that’s tilting things a certain, very, very specific way. Like the absol couldn’t have just caused a cave-in on us, it would have trapped itself. Or if it caused the cave-in and it somehow left it a way free, what does that even say about reality? What if the cavern is literally unable to collapse a certain way? Does the absol somehow know that? Because something’s got to.” Aiko seems to stop herself from continuing and turns to Blue and Glen. “Was that okay?”

“I think it was fine,” Glen says, and Blue nods, looking at Elaine.

“It was fine!” she says. “Um. Give me a second?”

“Sure!” Aiko takes a potion out of her bag and begins to spray her wounds as she waits, and Blue stretches his limbs out, feeling a bit more like himself now that he’s caught his breath and the adrenaline is wearing off. He sees the others stretching and adjusting themselves to be more comfortable too.

“Okay,” Elaine says after a minute. “So maybe it’s not something like a force in the world, but something that just looks like it? I felt really odd while we were fighting it, like everything I was doing was rushed, like I didn’t have any… I don’t know how to describe it, but sort of like I was watching myself act on fast forward. What—”

“I felt something like that too!” Blue says, sitting up. “Shit, sorry, I interrupted.”

“It’s okay! What was yours?”

“It’s not like yours, but it’s close. It was more like something was wrong, like whatever I thought of or did was slightly off. It kept me from really focusing.”

“Hey, yeah,” Glen says. “That’s kind of how I felt too. But more like I was… not doing my best? No, that’s not right. Like I was letting you guys down. Like I was going to screw things up for everyone. And my machoke just kept missing it, I think it only got one solid hit in, and that just made the feeling worse…”

They all look at Aiko, who’s frowning at her arm as she sprays a cut there, then wipes the blood away with a paper towel. “Nothing like that,” she says. “I just felt… afraid. That’s all. Almost paralyzed. Like I had to push through my fear to do anything.”

“This sounds like a mental attack, right?” Elaine asks. “What if absol have some mental effect to make people clumsier or less focused?”

“But I’m Dark,” Blue points out. “It would have to be a Ghost or Dark attack, and I’ve never heard of an attack like that.”

“Something more passive,” Glen suggests. “An ability that works like an aura.”

Blue frowns. “That sounds like a legendary pokemon ability. Absol are rare and dangerous, but not that much.”

“And this could all just be expectations,” Aiko says, sounding only slightly exasperated. “What you’re describing are normal feelings people have in tense situations.”

“No,” Blue says with a frown. “Hang on, I think they’re right, actually, it wasn’t normal. I can’t really explain why, but something about the battle was harder for me than any other…” He trails off, suddenly doubting himself. That’s not strictly true, is it? He’s lost his battle calm before… “I think.”

“If the effect is so different for all of us, though,” Elaine says after a moment of silence, “It would be really hard to know for sure. And not all absol might have the ability! Other pokemon might too, but without… ah, expectations, like you said,” she turns to Aiko, “It would be even harder to notice, you know?”

“So it’s something that feeds off of confirmation bias?” Aiko asks, brow raised.

Elaine raises her hands up “Maybe? I mean it could be some of that, the confirmation bias, yeah, but what if it’s not? I mean… could you imagine how many people might have reported something similar and been dismissed because others thought of another explanation? That would be really frustrating!”

“But wait, now we’re talking about something else,” Aiko says. “Or do you think the car crashes might be explained by this too? If so, why would the same effect that does that make the diglett come to that area? How far reaching does this go?”

Blue retreats from the discussion for a bit, simply listening and frowning slightly as he tries to consider both sides. Aiko sounds like Red in most of their arguments, but Elaine is saying a lot of the same stuff Blue would normally, and he tries to think through why he’s more willing to side with Aiko in this case. Is it just because he doesn’t want to believe that a Dark pokemon can actually cause misfortune to those around them? He knows what Red would say about that.

“That’s it, we’re tabooing the word ‘luck,'” Aiko says suddenly.

“Tabooing?” Elaine asks.

“It’s a way to keep from getting caught up in semantics. We’re not allowed to use that word in the discussion anymore, we clearly mean different things when we say it, and are just getting more aggravated every time that happens.” She lets out a breath. “Or I am, anyway, so let’s just focus on what we’re actually trying to say instead of tripping over that word again and again.”

“Oh, that’s like a game! What would you say instead, then?”

Aiko stops to think, then continues slowly. “If this power or ability or whatever exists, it has to be something guided. It can’t just be some diffuse, aimless effect that happens at random but also keeps benefiting the absol. Otherwise it could just as easily hinder itself with the things it causes. So it must be through some specific mechanism, something under conscious control, like clouding someone’s mind or sending a tremor through the ground or whatever.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Elaine says, after some visible consideration. “My main point is just… that it might exist, so we have to be ready, you know? We shouldn’t just assume it’s all in people’s heads, we have to be ready for something unexpected to happen. More than we usually would, I mean.”

Aiko nods. “I can get on board with that, if we can figure out how you prepare for something so… vague.”

“Do you think the rangers know something?” Glen asks. “They must have experience hunting absol, even if it’s not made official.”

“But then why not make it official?” Aiko asks. “If they can really influence events or people like this, they should be paying a lot of attention to it.”

“Well, they’re paying attention to it. They’re just not labeling it an incident, which… I mean, fair enough, right? If not all absol can do this, they can’t consider it a major incident every time one appears just in case. What has this one really, provably done?”

“What has it really done,” Blue muses, thoughts drifting as something tickles the back of his memory. He picks a pair of small stones up and begins to roll them around each other in his palm, trying to pin the association down. Something he overheard Gramps talking to a ranger about. Was it Red’s dad?

“You say something, Blue?” Aiko asks.

“Hm?” He looks up to see the others watching him. “Just remembering something. I think Gramps was arguing with Red’s dad about some risk to Pallet town. Gramps was asking him why they hadn’t classified it as an incident yet, and Red’s dad said the pokemon hadn’t done anything yet. I don’t remember what they were, I think a full nido family was migrating. The rangers knew if they marked it publicly they would have a bunch of trainers trying to catch them, and that might actually start a rampage, whereas if they left them alone they’d just move on.”

“Trying to balance their priorities between protecting the ecology and people,” Aiko says with a nod. “But for a single absol…”

“Maybe it’s not the absol they’re worried about,” Elaine says. “Maybe it’s the diglett. I mean look what happened to us.”

“But people fight diglett in the tunnels all the time! And besides, they’re coordinating some people to find the absol. They just don’t want a bunch of people around, wasting their time.”

“Whose time? The trainers, or the rangers?” Glen asks. “I mean, if this doesn’t happen a lot with absol, but there’s a persistent superstition about them causing catastrophes, they probably get a lot of false-positives. They can’t react to them all like they’re real incidents.”

The group is silent at that. Blue wonders how much that would factor into his own decisions if he were in charge, and has to admit it would. “So this is a kind of covert op, for them? A way to address the potential incident without actually making it one prematurely?”

“If that’s true, what qualifies?” Elaine asks. “If this absol is actually a Tier 1 incident, we shouldn’t be trying to capture it on our own. We have to warn the others!”

Aiko makes a face. “But warn them of what? Say we felt scared or worried? Tell them about the diglett? They’d probably just think we messed up and attracted them somehow. Or got unlucky, like anyone would expect. Even if we assume this absol can… exert some power that makes things go in their favor, what will our warning them even do? They’re probably already being careful.”

“What do you think we should do?” Blue asks her.

Aiko hesitates. “Well. Heal up, first. Give our pokemon some rest. Then… go back to the chamber and track it again. The blood trail will make it easy. We might get it this time, we can heal our pokemon much faster than the absol will recover on its own.”

Blue considers it a moment, then looks at Elaine and Glen. “What do you guys think?”

“I’m okay with giving it another shot,” Glen says. “It can’t have gone too far, after a fight like that.”

Elaine is clearly uncomfortable contradicting them again. Blue waits, giving her time to speak her own mind, already thinking about the journey back up, until she lets a breath out and says, “Okay, yeah. Let’s try it. And I’m not just saying that to avoid arguing,” she adds with a smile before Blue can say anything.

He grins. “Alright then.”

They get to their feet, and Blue and Elaine help Aiko and Glen set up a triage station that they can release their pokemon at, one at a time, for healing. Once that’s done, they let their pokemon stay out of their balls and make sure they’re fed, rested, and especially in Maturin’s case, well-watered.

“Alright, let’s try and be prepared for anything,” Blue says as they make their way back to the chamber and Aiko brings Sneaker out to start tracking it by the blood it left. “If we spot it, we’ll try to set things up so seemingly random chance can’t make any sort of difference. It’s probably looking for a place to rest…”

They confirm that it never came back into the chamber after going up the elevated path, and bring container boxes out to climb up. The ceiling is low for the next ten minutes of winding travel, and eventually Blue stops seeing any spots of blood on the ground. It’s a relief to know that they it didn’t end up dying of its wounds, and thankfully the lack of blood doesn’t stop Sneaker.

“You said it had to have stopped soon, right?” he eventually mutters.

“Yeah, their stamina isn’t amazing,” Glen says as he holds his butterfree up to light the path ahead, the ceiling too low for it to fly. “Maybe it took a quick breather here and there, but it can’t have gone much farther… we might even find it asleep…”

Blue keeps track of the time as they follow the path as quick as they can, back to marking their choices and consulting Elaine’s maps. The one theme that’s quickly obvious is that the absol was descending; within fifteen minutes, they’re deeper than they’ve ever been, and the corridors are getting less and less easily navigated.

Blue is starting to worry that they’ll reach a point they can’t squeeze through when instead they reach a large opening in part of the floor and wall, almost like a gash.

“Huh,” Elaine says. “This isn’t on the map.”

“Ominous,” Blue mutters as they watch Aiko’s raticate step up to the hole and sniff at it, then start to crawl through until Aiko commands it to stop. Elaine kneels down and touches the edges of the opening, then shines her headlamp into it. They see the floor not too far below; what to them looks like a hole in the floor is actually an opening somewhere along the edge of a wall and ceiling.

“It’s not super new, I don’t think. This area of the tunnels hasn’t been mapped for almost two years.”

“Ok, so the absol didn’t cause this, probably. If we go in there though, we won’t have the map to guide us, right?”

“Yeah.”

Blue lets out a breath. “Let’s make extra sure to mark this area up, then. Also, Glen, tie some rope around that stalagmite? It looks like we could climb back up if we need to, but it might come in handy.”

One by one they go through… and emerge into a tunnel that’s much wider than the network they just left.

“Uh oh,” Elaine says.

Everyone immediately turns to her.

“Uh oh, as in, ‘Uh oh, this place actually is on the map?'” Glen tries, voice hopeful.

“That’s more of an ‘oops,'” Aiko suggests. “Maybe she means something like ‘Uh oh, my phone is losing charge.'”

“I think I’ll take ‘Uh oh, I’ve had the map upside down all along,'” Blue sighs. “What’s up, Elaine?”

“Well.” She’s looking around the tunnel. “The smoothness here is concerning?”

“Smooth?” Aiko walks to a wall and runs a hand over it. “It’s rough to me.” She tests her footing. “Even the ground.”

“I guess I should say the… Evenness. No stalactites up there, or stalagmites around us, even at the corners. I think this is an onix tunnel.”

“Ha-haaa, well, look at the time,” Glen says. “We just hit nope-o-clock. I change my vote, Blue. This is bad luck if I’ve ever seen it.”

Blue is rubbing his eyes, trying to decide just how big a deal this is. “Aiko, Sneaker’s sure it came down here?”

“Yeah. Also… um. He’s been getting excited. I think we’re close?”

They all turn to the raticate, and Blue sees it’s true: her pokemon is practically moving in circles as it keeps trying to follow some path only it can sense, noticing she’s not with him, and turning back, only to start tracking the absol again.

“Okay. Glen, was that actually a vote to abort?”

“Shit. I guess not… not without even hearing an onix. These could be old tunnels, right?”

“Yeah,” Elaine says. “I mean it’s been here awhile. We could just go another fifteen minutes or so?”

They agree, and start to move out again, everyone on even higher alert as they follow the raticate down the tunnel, leaving an arrow on the wall. Blue feels the tension in every part of his body, ears trained for the slightest sound of rumbling. He keeps a close eye on the time too, intent on not going past the fifteen minutes, but in the end it only takes eleven.

The air changes again as they reach an opening to a wide open chamber that’s pitch black beyond the relatively dim light of Glen’s butterfree. The ground slopes down from where they are at a sharp angle that Blue is not eager to go down in the dark.

Aiko’s hand shoots out and stops Glen from reaching up to activate his headlamp. He looks at her curiously, and there’s a sudden snapping sound as Elaine activates a delayed glowstick.

“Get ready,” she says… and throws.

Three seconds pass. Four. Five… six…

It ignites mid-air, just before hitting the ground and bouncing, a flare of green that reveals most of the chamber for a handful of heartbeats.

The absol is the first thing Blue notices, the only splash of white in all the grey and brown and black. It appears to be lying on its haunches in an alcove against the wall.

The second thing Blue notices is more a collection of things. Boulders, coiled in a loose circle. Its head isn’t facing them, thankfully, so Blue doesn’t see it, but he knows what he’s looking at: an adult onix.

The third thing was also a collection. Eggs.

The flare of light dies, and Blue feels his whole body tense like a coiled spring, ready to throw himself back the way they came or unclip a pokeball. Instead, as seconds pass and nothing happens, his breath comes out in a long, low rush, and he can hear the others’ rapid breaths past his heartbeats.

“Okay,” Blue mutters, and starts to inch backward. “Bad luck it is. New plan: call for backup. Let’s get the hell out of here.”


It takes a bit less than an hour to reach the surface, Elaine guiding them to a tunnel entrance that’s much closer than the one they entered through. Returning to the fresh air and sunlight has a restorative effect that no amount of rest in the tunnels did, and everyone takes a moment to rest before they begin to get out their lunches. If nothing else, Blue reflects, it’s nice to smell something besides stale air, stone and all the repellant they sprayed themselves with. He sends a message to Ranger Tanaka and Ranger Fischer as he eats, flagging their location with CoRRNet’s generic ask-for-reinforcements button.

Normally there would be an incident page for him to put it on, but since one was never formed for the absol, Blue can’t easily let everyone else involved in the hunt know. He does at least send it to Bretta too so that her group is aware, since they’re the only others involved in the hunt that he knows of. Any motivation to gloat feels tempered by the fact that they did not, in fact, capture the absol.

He expects there to be some delay before they get back to him, assuming they’re below ground and out of reception range, but before he can even finish a granola bar he gets a call back from Fischer. “Hey, you’re not in the tunnels?”

“I’m coordinating the hunt from above ground. Where are you, Mr. Oak? What happened?”

“Like I said, we found the absol, injured it, but it got away,” Blue says. “The details are a bit of a story. Are you stationed at Golden Hills, or in the field?”

“In the field. Just tell me now.”

So Blue begins describing their hunt and encounter. Before he gets to the surprise assault by the diglett, however, the Ranger interrupts. “Hold on, this was just the four of you, then? The group you were with last night?”

Blue steels himself. “That’s right.”

“Mr. Oak, Ranger Tanaka and I made it clear that we did not think your group was suited to hunt this absol.”

“You did, Ranger, and we respectfully disagreed with your assessment. As I tried to explain, my team members are more than they appear on paper.” He catches the smiles the others exchange, particularly Aiko. “Which is why we almost caught it.”

“Almost is hardly a source of confidence. What is your team doing now?”

“Eating. Resting.”

“You could have stayed underground and done that. Does this mean you’ve given up the hunt?”

“That’s complicated.” Blue says. “It was bleeding when we let it go, and our team’s tracker was able to find it before even without that. After wearing it down, I’d say we could get it for sure… but there was a bit of a complication.” Blue trails off, seeing if the Ranger will play along and reveal some extra knowledge.

Fischer is silent for a few breaths, then says, “And yet you surfaced and alerted us. What am I missing, Mr. Oak?”

“Well, to start with, something strange had happened when we fought it. It’s hard to describe. Some sort of mental disorientation, combined with becoming… suspiciously and almost lethally unlucky.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone, and when Ranger Fischer finally speaks again, his tone is less irritated, more detached. “Unlucky.”

“Yeah. A massive horde of diglett and dugtrio arrived and attacked us.”

“Massive?”

“More than thirty. Probably less than a hundred.”

Blue expects skepticism, even outright disbelief. Instead the Ranger just says, “That huge spike on the seismographs was you, then. It’s impressive that your team made it out alive.”

This just got a lot easier. He catches Aiko watching him, and he gives her a thumbs up. The others see it too and look relieved. “If we weren’t the type to prepare for as many surprises as we could, I don’t think we would have. Assuming what happened was in some way under its control, we don’t want to risk anything like it happening again.”

“And you have no need to, now that we know where to look. You did well in finding it, and—”

“Actually, Ranger, even the more experienced groups hunting it would have trouble… especially now.”

“Now…?”

“Now that it’s resting right next to an onix nest.”

Silence. The rest of the team is clearly distracted as they eat, waiting for Blue’s reaction. He tries to look confident, even as he expects Fischer to tell them to stand down and give up the hunt.

“Your team rides bikes?” Fischer asks at last.

“Yes?”

“The location you sent is half an hour from the Golden Hills pokecenter. Head there.”

Blue frowns. “Ranger, again with all due respect, we’re not going to—”

“Not to stay. I’m recalling our teams and meeting you there.”

Blue blinks, skepticism warring with relief. “Okay, we’ll be there,” he says after a moment. “See you soon.” He hangs up. “We’re meeting at Golden Hills.”

They quickly pack everything back away and switch their spelunking gear out for bike pads and helmets, then head to town. Blue was expecting to have to convince the Rangers or other groups to work with them based on what they saw, but it seems that might not be so hard. Still, he tries to think over and refine the plan they came up with as best he can.

By the time the party reaches the pokemon center, Ranger Fischer and a few other trainers are already there. Blue notes a stormy expression on Fischer’s face as he spots them and approaches, and quickly sticks a hand out.

“Ranger, good to see you again. We’re ready to give our report, here or elsewhere.”

Fischer’s gaze flicks down to Blue’s hand, then back up to meet Blue’s before he gives his hand the briefest of squeezes. “Elsewhere. We’re waiting on others to join us, though it’s hard to know for sure how many were within range to get the message. We’ll wait another fifteen minutes, then begin.”

“Sure thing.” Blue watches him turn away, and lets a breath out. Some part of him was still expecting a public browbeating.

“I don’t think he likes you.”

“Yeah, well, he’s only half the problem. We need to convince those other trainers to take us seriously.” He looks at the other three. “Do any of you think you’d like to do the talking in there?”

“Don’t be silly,” Elaine says. “You’re Blue Oak. If they’re going to listen to any of us, it’s you.”

“Just making sure I’m not hogging the limelight.”

“You are,” Glen says, and claps his shoulder. “But after leading my own group of trainers for a few years, I’m happy to have someone else to blame if things go wrong.”

Aiko grins. “We’re right behind you.”

Eventually they’re all ensconced in a common office meeting room at the administrative wing of the center, a large oval table taking up most of the space inside. There isn’t enough room for all the trainers who came, and since Blue anticipates doing some speaking during the meeting, he decides to stand near where the Ranger is sitting rather than take some of the seats. Aiko, Elaine, and Glen take his cue and stand beside him, and the other trainers naturally space themselves out in groups in the rest of the room so that it’s just Ranger Fischer and Blue’s party at the “front” facing everyone else.

“Hello everyone. I’ve called this meeting because new information came in about the target that changes the nature of the hunt. I was hoping everyone else could make it here on time, but better to act on what we know with whomever we have.” He gestures to Blue and the others. “These trainers encountered the absol. I’ll let them give their report.”

Blue steps forward and recounts the encounter as best he could, focusing mostly on its speed and precision, every movement either evading one of their attacks or bounding close for a quick but meaningful strike. He also described the feeling of unease and second-guessing himself, and how it made him ready for the unexpected arrival of the diglett horde. His phone chimes in his pocket while he’s talking, and he quickly dips a hand in it to silence it, embarrassed.

“We’d already come up with countermeasures for facing too many of them elsewhere in the tunnel, and quickly emptied some repel cans and began playing the hunting cries of pidgeot and fearow. Even below ground where none should have been, the smell and sounds were enough to drive most of them away so that we could fight the few dugtrio that stuck around, but we couldn’t split our attention well enough to capture the absol and defend ourselves at once. We had to let it go and leave the cavern before the diglett shook it to pieces.” Blue pauses, seeing some skeptical faces. One seems about to speak up when Blue turns to a trainer that looks puzzled instead. “You have a question?”

“Huh? No… well, yeah, I guess. Do we even know if it’s still alive?”

“Yes, we followed it again after some delay. It was able to find a place to rest, but unfortunately it had another stroke of luck, and happened to pick a location right by an onix nest.”

Murmurs and swears fill the room. “You escaped an attack by an onix family too?” one of the skeptical trainers asks before Blue could continue or call on someone else.

“Of course not,” Blue says, voice even as he meets the speaker’s gaze. “The onix appeared to be sleeping, so we retreated.”

“Why not just capture it while it was sleeping and get the absol?” he persists.

“Because of the feeling we had earlier, when we fought it. We were worried it would rouse the onix if we got any closer.”

“Because of a feeling?”

“Let’s focus on that in a moment,” Ranger Fischer interrupts. “Given your experiences, does your team have a plan, Mr. Oak?”

“Yeah. Our idea is pretty simple, but it will take a lot of work. We lead everyone down and check if the absol is still there, then do everything we can to ensure it can’t surprise us in any way we can predict. Have people on standby so that if it manages to get away somehow, we have another team standing by to cut it off, then more teams after that. We’re working off the assumption that it will make things as inconvenient as possible for anyone who faces it, but only in realistic ways. It shouldn’t be able to pull one trick, then another a couple minutes later, then another a couple after that.”

“How many onix were there, exactly?” Someone asks.

“Just the one that we saw, and a bunch of eggs.”

“Then why not just overwhelm it? Even with the onix, the lot of us could split up and probably capture it in moments, then focus on the onix together.”

“Too many eggs in one basket,” Blue says. “We want to avoid any one piece of bad luck, however unlikely, from preventing us all from catching it.”

Another trainer speaks up. “So you’re really suggesting it might… what? Cause all our pokeballs to glitch or something?”

“Or the eggs would start hatching,” a guy by the door says before Blue can answer. “Or the other parent could show up.”

“Come on, what are the odds of that?”

“It could bring the whole ceiling down,” another suggests.

“We should all get some luck charms…”

“Get off it, how would an absol even do something like that?”

Blue watches the room erupt into arguments and tries to find a good moment to step in. After that last line, however, it’s Elaine who steps forward. “We’re not sure.” Everyone turns to her. She clasps her hands behind her to keep them from fidgeting. “It’s not… we don’t really know what we’re dealing with, you know? We’re just trying to be careful. The diglett it summoned against us—”

“Summoned?” someone asks, voice incredulous.

Elaine’s hands wring together at the small of her back, and she bites her lower lip. Aiko watches with a creased brow and opens her mouth, but Blue slightly shakes his head, and she subsides with a frown.

“Not literally, maybe,” Elaine says at last. “But something like it might happen again. It doesn’t seem like an accident that it found an onix nest to rest by.”

“Sorry, but this seems ridiculous,” one of the older trainers says, ignoring the dirty looks by some other trainers. “Absol just can’t do stuff like that. If things happened the way you say they did, you guys got unlucky a couple times, but—”

“I agree with you,” Aiko says before Blue can respond. “I don’t think the absol can control luck either. But even if you think we’re wrong, we will find it again, and we’re going to play it as safe as we can. You can be part of that or try your own luck. It’s up to you. But the other things it did were definitely real, and anyone who hunts it has to know about it. Our pokemon felt it too, I think. They were less able to coordinate than they should have been, and tired more quickly.”

Ranger Fischer speaks up. “Yes, that brings us to the most important point of the encounter.” Blue watches the ranger warily, wondering if he’ll cast doubt on what they felt. “Could you each describe what it was like, facing the absol? Psychologically?”

“Sure.” Blue repeats his experience, highlighting that it was very unusual for him. Aiko goes next, followed by Elaine and Glen.

“Thank you all.” Fischer turns to the rest of the room. “Some of you may find these descriptions familiar, in some way. You may be embarrassed to suggest why. If so, raise your hands.” He smiles, perhaps acknowledging the difficulty of asking embarrassed people to single themselves out. “Please trust that this is important.”

The room is silent and still. Blue has just enough time to wonder what the hell Fischer is talking about, and then a hand goes up. It’s an older trainer, late twenties or early thirties. Two more raise their hands, then another two. All are at least a decade older than Blue, and in total make up about a third of the room’s population.

“Thank you. It’s hard to know for sure, with this sort of thing.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “What I’m about to reveal to all of you can be considered cutting edge information, and also, by the same token, incredibly unreliable. The Rangers have had a suspicion about certain pokemon, and the strange abilities that are at times attributed to them. One ability in particular is worrisome, if we’re right. We’ve coordinated with researchers to try and confirm our theories, but so far we’ve had no luck.”

“Pressure,” one of the trainers who raised their hand says, and even through his shock, Blue hears a sharp intake of breath from Aiko, barely audible. “That’s what you think they’re describing? What Rangers have been suspicious about? Non-legendary pokemon that have it?”

“Yes. Pressure, or something very like it. A different variation of the same power, perhaps. Reports are incredibly rare, and only a handful of non-legendary pokemon have been suspected, such as spiritomb and weavile. Like absol, most of them are Dark Types, and most of the ones encountered don’t seem to have it. If it exists, it’s a tiny subset of a tiny subset of pokemon. In absol’s case, we don’t know to what degree this ability is related to stories of bringing misfortune. Perhaps they’re entirely coincidental. But from the sensations reported by these four, combined with the frenzied behavior of the wild diglett, we’ve decided to approach the situation as if it’s true. My preference would be to wait until Ranger Tanaka and the other trainers who responded to the bounty have resurfaced before mobilizing, but it may disappear in that time. A squad of rangers is arriving soon, and they, combined with any of us here who are willing, will move out by nightfall.”

The ranger is going on about compensation for any trainer who does capture the absol and is willing to trade it to the Rangers for study, but Blue is still trying to wrap his mind around all the implications of what he’s hearing. He wishes Red were here, wants to hear what he would make of this. Blue has spent years chasing down stories of what it felt like to face the Stormbringers and the terrifying Pressure they exert, knowing he would have to experience it himself one day. More, to endure it again and again, as few others do.

To think, that he may have actually felt it without even realizing it. A weaker form, sure, but there’s a sense of exhilaration in knowing that he survived a brush with such an ultimate challenge.

Until he remembers that even this lesser form totally robbed him of the calm clarity he’s come to rely on in battles. A chill works its way up his spine, and his heart begins to pound as he remembers that feeling of constant unsureness, second-guessing, feeling off balance. How can he face the Stormbringers like that? How much worse would the real thing be?

“—Storm Birds, then it may be cumulative in the same way, even if to a lesser degree,” Fischer says, snapping Blue’s attention back to him. “Therefore, those of you who have faced them before may want to assist in other aspects of the hunt. Those of you who will assist in the hunt, please meet back here by 6 PM. I thank the rest of you for your time and efforts thus far.”

The room stirs to life, and a few trainers rush up to the Ranger with questions. A few of those leaving glance at the four of them, but Blue barely notices, hands curl into fists as fear and uncertainty steadily grow inside him.

The first exposure was worth it, gave me a taste of what facing them will be like. But if each exposure weakens tolerance… How many fights do most trainers get with the birds before they start getting overpowered? Ten, maybe fifteen? Gramps has gone against them 23 times, the last one being against Moltres when Blue’s parents were killed. He used to think that Gramps never fought the Stormbringers anymore because he didn’t want to risk orphaning him and Daisy, but there are rumors that he was nearly crippled from the after effects, and was warned off ever attending another by his physician. None of them ever bring it up.

Blue doesn’t plan on needing 23 attempts to bring Kanto’s legends down, but the effects will start to catch up to him long before then. Catching one absol isn’t worth risking that happening a single day sooner than it has to.

I should have finished it off in the tunnels, he thinks, gut souring with anger at himself. I was too worried about looking bad, and let a really dangerous pokemon go… now this…

“Blue?”

He blinks at Aiko’s whisper, and realizes that the room is mostly empty, and the others have been waiting on him at the doorway.

“Sorry,” he mutters, and follows them out, trying to get his priorities straightened.

“I was saying, I usually head home by sunset if I can,” Aiko says. “If the plan is to go down at 6, I don’t know if… I mean, I don’t want to leave you guys…”

“It’s okay,” Glen says. “With everyone else there, we should be fine.”

Elaine nudges him with her elbow. “I think she’s probably also just not wanting to miss out on the experience with us. Missing major bonding moments with friends sucks!”

Aiko smiles. “Right, that.”

Glen shrugs. “If it makes you feel better, we’re about to become cogs in a machine. You were there for the important stuff.”

“To be honest,” Blue says cautiously, “Maybe we should all step back.” Everyone stares at him. “We did the important part. We even marked the path we took. The others can find it, catch it.”

“Well. That’s kind of unexpected,” Elaine says. “I thought you’d want to be there for sure.”

“Are you feeling okay, Blue?” Aiko asks. “You’re not just saying that for my sake, right?”

“I’m fine. And no, though that makes it even easier to decide not to go.” He tries to think of a reason not to tell them the truth, and can’t find one. He owes them that much at least. “I won’t blame any of you for not wanting to go, but I think I’d just rather not ‘use up’ whatever resilience I have to Pressure, if that’s what it really is.”

“Oh. Right, I didn’t think of that,” Glen says. “Your vow…”

“We could stay back,” Elaine suggests. “Be one of the last fallback positions. Probably won’t even need to face it.”

“That’s… not a bad idea,” he says slowly. He tries to think of whether he loses face more if he suggests staying out of danger compared to just not being there at all. All the momentum he gained of associating himself with this capture might go to waste if he’s not there for the finale, but he also doesn’t want to come off as a coward. “Let me think about it?”

The others nod, and he heads for the entrance of the pokemon center to call Gramps and ask his advice. It isn’t until he turns the screen on and sees the missed messages that he remembers putting it on silent during the meeting.

14:31 Hey, we just surfaced and got your message. And Fischer’s. Talking about heading back down where you guys came up, since we’re nearby. You guys still there, or did you go to the meeting? Do you know if it’s important?

14:52 We found the entrance. Let me know if you’re still topside, so we can join up. Or at the meeting. Whichever.

15:01 Going down. Maybe we’ll run into you!

The messages are from someone named Sumi. Blue stares at them in blank confusion for a moment before it turns to sudden horror. He quickly looks up the trainer’s profile and confirms that it’s the girl who was with Bretta last night. The one who had almost said something, then wished them luck. A cheerful notification at the side informs him that she’s Following him, and has been since his match in Pewter.

Blue’s eyes skip back to the latest timestamp. Almost ten minutes ago. He knows he’s too late even as he calls her number, but he still finds himself closing his eyes and praying that she picks up, that they did some last minute preparation before going out of cell range…

The call goes to voice message. “Hey, it’s Blue,” he says as he quickly strides back into the Pokemon center. “If you get this, call me! Don’t go back down alone, the situation has changed. Just… we’re all at Golden Hills…” He realizes that might not still be true by the time they resurface, and ends the call there as he spots the others.

“Blue! What’s wrong?” Aiko asks.

“Fischer still in there?”

“I think so? He hasn’t left…”

Blue opens the Staff Only door behind the front desk and jogs through the halls, drawing stares. My fault, this is my fault… If he’d just remembered to message Bretta to let her know he was heading to Golden Hills instead of assuming she’d follow the Ranger’s message… Blue begins to go faster, practically running through the pokemon center. He hears the others pick up their pace to match behind him.

Fischer is still there with a few other trainers, looking at some underground map on his laptop. They all turn as Blue bursts in. “Ranger! Three trainers are on their way to the absol. They don’t know what’s down there, we marked our path and they’re headed straight for it!”

The Ranger’s brow furrows. “How do you know this?”

“Look!” He shoves his phone at him. “My phone was on silent, I just saw these… they must have come up while we were in the meeting.”

Fischer stares at the screen with a blend of confusion and indignation. “You sent them the coordinates?”

“Yes, at the same time I did you! I wanted to see if they would join up, this was before I knew where you were or that you would organize this meeting… why isn’t there an incident page for this, so updates can be posted there?” Frustration and impatience is building up in him as he tries to do the math. If they went down ten minutes ago, and it took Blue’s group half an hour to get here, then by the time they reach the tunnel entrance again, they’ll nearly be at the onix nest. Assuming they don’t get lost. Please get lost…

“What’s the big deal?” one of the fucking stupid trainers nearby comments. “They’ll see the onix and stay back, right?”

Blue rounds on him and barely manages to keep from shouting. “They don’t know about the Pressure. They might not hold back. The absol might not even still be there, hell, it might go back up and encounter them on the way!”

Ranger is typing on his laptop. “I’m calling everyone from the meeting back again. We’ll have to move up the timetable and be prepared to go with who we have.” He looks up. “Oak, your team knows the path best. I’ll requisition aerial flyers from town to take you ahead of us to try and catch up to them. Leave someone at the entrance for the rest of us.” He turns to the others in the room. “Who here will go with them? Then go, now! I’ll get as many flyers as are available. Do any of you not have Heavy Balls?” He unclips a pouch at his belt without waiting for an answer and takes a ball bag from it to toss to Blue, whose hand snaps up to grab it automatically. “There are four in there, along with some others. Use what you need to. I expect the rest back.”

Blue stares at him, but the Ranger has already activated his earpiece even as he keeps typing. Blue’s phone pings a moment later with the mutual pickup spot, and after another moment’s hesitation, he turns to the rest of his party.

The three of them return his gaze steadily, ready and waiting for his lead. Their trust fills him with determination.

“Let’s go,” he says, and leads the way back out of the center.

Back toward the dark depths.


The tunnels feel more claustrophobic as the party descends into them the second time, the footing more treacherous as they try to move as fast as they can while maintaining some level of vigilance. For Blue, at least, his mind is mostly on how far ahead Bretta’s group is, and what they might do if they reach the onix chamber.

The flying mounts met them at the edge of town and took off with minimal preparation. There were six of them, which meant two of the trainers who followed them from the center had to stay behind. Blue didn’t waste any time and simply chose the oldest and third oldest looking ones, skipping over the idiot. The riders helped each of them into the rear saddles on their pidgeot and gave them quick instructions on what to do and not do during flights, then they were off.

Blue normally enjoys flying, but his stress and impatience robbed the experience of any pleasure, the birds seeming unbearably slow and uncomfortable. Still, they made it to the entrance in under five minutes, wasting just one more getting unstrapped and putting their gear on. Glen was given a sick bag before the flight that Blue saw him still clutching in one hand when they landed, though it was thankfully empty. Still, he was pale and clammy, and offered to be the one to stay behind and lead the rest of the arrivals. Normally Blue would have argued; he had some of their strongest pokemon, and the machoke in particular would be useful against both the onix and absol. But the two strangers they’d brought, combined with the two rangers that were waiting for them at the entrance in response to Fischer’s broadcast, made it so that speed was what they really needed most. They left him to recover at the entrance.

As they descend deeper and Blue starts to remember some of the tunnels they’re traveling through, he keeps expecting to hear an onix roar from somewhere below and ahead. Thanks to the flights they’re just twenty minutes behind Bretta’s group, maybe twenty-five max. If they can descend at twice the other group’s speed… if they were slowed by diglett attacks at all (their own group has encountered none)… if, if, if. It feels like a long shot, but Blue hopes they’re at least smart enough to spend a few minutes strategizing, if they end up attacking at all.

The occasional rumblings in the earth around them keep his anxiety up, but he feels a surge of relief when they find the gap in the floor and still don’t hear anything like a battle.

“We’re close,” Elaine tells the others, whose names Blue has already forgotten. “Just down here, then a few more minutes…”

They lower themselves into the onix tunnel and start to move toward the cavern at a jog. Blue wants to call out, but restrains himself, eyes straining to see past the edges of the light provided by one of the rangers’ jolteon. Almost there… almost…

“Is that light?” someone says.

Blue nearly stumbles, and a couple of the people in their group make sounds of surprise at the unexpected appearance of light around the bend in the tunnel up ahead. Soon after, a quiet shout of “Who’s there?” reaches them.

“Bretta? Sumi?”

Oak?!”

Blue is grinning with relief as the light gets brighter. The three trainers meet them at the curve in the tunnel, a magnemite floating beside them, its eye glowing. All of them look shocked at the size of the group in front of them, or perhaps just by their very presence.

“What… where were you, we followed your marks but—”

Blue steps past Bretta and pulls Sumi’s hand between his, bowing over it. “Thank you for messaging me. I’m sorry I didn’t respond on time. We got here as fast as we could… thank you,” he says, voice low.

“I… you… welcome?” the trainer squeaks, looking thoroughly confused.

Blue grins and releases her hand, taking in the sight of the three of them, then looking back at the rest of the group, who are leaning against the wall or sitting down, breathing hard to recover from their rapid pace. Most are smiling, Aiko and Elaine looking outright giddy with relief.

“It’s a long story. Let’s get out of here, and we can explain,” he whispers.

“Get out? Why? We’re about to catch the absol!” Bretta says, also keeping her voice down even as she gesticulates back behind her.

Blue shakes his head. “Too dangerous. There’s… it has a sort of Pressure-like ability, and the onix there, it might wake it up—”

“Woah, woah, slow down,” the guy beside Bretta says. “Pressure? From an absol? And what onix? It’s just lying by itself in a big cavern.”

Blue stares at him.

“We think it’s asleep,” Sumi offers, gaze searching his face. “Hopefully, I mean, and not dead. It was weird, finding it here, but not you guys, we thought maybe this was a second one that showed up after you left…”

“No onix?” Aiko asks.

“No?”

Blue feels uneasy.

He looks back the way they came, then at the rest of the group, then peers at the dark cavern ahead. “How long have you guys been here?”

“Uh. Maybe five minutes?”

“Was there any sound of tunneling when you got here?”

“Yeah, how did you know? It was moving away, though.”

Blue wipes suddenly sweaty palms on his pants, then lowers himself to listen to the ground.

And hears the rumbling.

He gets up and starts walking toward the onix chamber.

“Hey, what—”

Nine pairs of feet follow him, some of them scrambling to keep up as he breaks into a jog. The sense of unease grows as he approaches the big, dark chamber, and he stops in front of it, the others almost colliding with him as they do the same.

Blue,” Bretta hisses, grabbing his arm. “What is going on?” She jumps as Elaine snaps a glowstick and throws it. “What was… did you just…?”

“Do you guys feel it?” Blue murmurs.

“No,” Elaine says.

“Yes,” Aiko says.

“I… yes,” one of the trainers from Golden Hills confirms. “A little. Arceus, it’s real.”

What’s real?!” Bretta whisper-shouts.

The glowstick flares into light just then, and they all get a dozen heartbeats of light to see the big empty chamber… empty save for the absol, right where it was, and the eggs in the center.

“There.” Elaine points them out. “They… left them?”

“Holy shit, those are eggs?” Sumi takes a telescope out of her pocket and looking through it just before the light dies.

“Everyone, get ready,” Blue says. His eyes had locked onto the absol, then moved over the whole chamber quickly and spotted it: the hole in the wall that hadn’t been there before. He imagines he can hear the rumbling now. “Elaine, got any of those that last longer?”

“Yep. They’re not as bright though. I’ll throw a bunch around.”

“Am I right to assume that you’re planning an attack, Trainer Oak?” one of the rangers asks. Seishi, Blue remembers. Ranger Seishi. Learn their names. “We were told this would be search and rescue.”

“I think we’re the ones that might need rescuing. This is a trap. We’ve already walked into it.”

The other ranger (Miko) immediately drops to the ground and presses her ear to the stone, as Blue did. “Seismic activity. It’s increasing.” The first ranger immediately reacts to his partner’s words by taking out more of the sticks Elaine is holding and beginning to help her in tossing them around the big cavern, and behind them.

“I hear it,” Bretta says, sounding surprised. “Does anyone else hear it?”

“No… wait, yes!” another trainer says.

“Can’t we run?” Elaine asks.

“I think one is coming from behind us,” Blue says. “Took us what, six minutes to get here from the hole? If we fight it in that narrow tunnel…” He already has his shiftry’s ball out, and summons Kemuri manually as Aiko and Sumi do the same with their pokemon, followed quickly by everyone else. “We’ll be crushed like bugs.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” the guy with Bretta says as he summons a poliwhirl. “And I’m going to go with ‘pissed off’ instead of ‘scared’ if someone doesn’t explain it soon.”

“Onix nest,” Aiko says. “When we came here before, there was one parent. Now there’s none. The absol used its Pressure to make it leave… and then when it hit the end of its range, it came back? Or…”

“Or it found its mate and is returning with them,” Ranger Seishi says as Blue turns back the way they came and starts spraying repel along the ground. It won’t stop an onix, but just in case anything else comes too. Some others quickly start to mimic him, and Blue leaves it to them, using the rest to spray himself, then turning toward the now-mostly-lit chamber to see if the absol reacted. It’s standing up now. “Onix often leave their nest if they sense a threat and return with their mate, trusting their eggs to endure a while.”

“It… what? Guys… a pokemon can’t do that,” Bretta’s friend says, sounding half incredulous and half pleading. “I mean… that kind of planning…”

“It’s the bad luck,” a trainer that came with them says miserably as the rumbling starts to get really pronounced. Blue can’t remember his name, and really hopes that doesn’t end up getting someone killed. “Them coming now, of all times? No way that’s coincidence. I should have gotten that stupid charm.”

“I don’t think it’s a plan, or luck,” Aiko says, voice seemingly detached, almost musing, unless you pick up on the hint of barely restrained fear beneath the surface. “Or anything like luck. I think it’s just… what it does when it feels threatened. Or constantly. And what it does is shake boxes, and stay out of the way of what that results in better than those around it. And that often just looks like it has really great luck. Or everything around it has really bad luck.”

“Everyone, state your names again,” Blue says before anyone else can respond. The cavern is as bright as it’s going to get, as Elaine and the ranger seem to have run out of glow sticks. “We need to be able to get each other’s attention quickly. I’m Blue.”

They name themselves. The guy in Bretta and Sumi’s group is Slava, and the two trainers from Golden Hills are Payton and Abdu.

“We have to capture that absol,” Ranger Miko says, stepping up beside Blue and looking at the absol as it watches them from the other side of the chamber.
“It’s too dangerous to leave unattended.”

“More than you think. It’s incredibly agile, and getting close to it causes effects similar to Pressure. It’s probably going to try and stay away from us until the onix get here, then run for it, maybe striking at us along the way.”

“Then those of you with fast pokemon to keep it in check, come with Ranger Seishi and I. The rest of you, try to capture the onix if you can, but if not…” Miko glances at Kemuri. “Do what you need to survive.”

“Right.” Blue sets aside his desire to fight the absol again. He pulls the bag of pokeballs out and hands out all the Heavy Balls in it, keeping one for himself. If he misses a throw at an onix, he doesn’t deserve a second try. “Someone with a tanky pokemon, with me! They’re almost here!” He rushes down the slope into the cavern, heading for the other tunnel as the Rangers head toward the absol with Payton.

As he reaches the bottom of the slope, the full force of the Pressure is suddenly there all around him, unease and confusion making him feel as though tragedy is imminent, as though there’s something he’s missing, and there’s no time to consider what it might be, or wonder if the effect is stronger than last time, or if that’s just expectation or if there’s even a difference, because that’s when the first onix roars from within the new hole in the wall, and the other one responds from somewhere back the way they came, and all that matters is survival.

Arguing with Adults

This is a quick summary and mash-up of the sorts of things I often tell kids about arguing with adults, particularly their parents and sometimes their teachers.
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Quick disclaimer, a lot of what I’m talking about here is using generalized assumptions, like that your parents are mostly responsible adults, and love you, and have some sense of fairness, and are not suffering from mental illness, and are not in some altered state of mind due to drugs or alcohol. This may not be the case for all of you all the time, and I’m sorry about that. For those of you it does apply to, try not to lose sight of how lucky that makes you. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it at least might allow some of this advice to come in handy.
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Before talking about how to win arguments, it’s vital to understand power imbalances and learning to lose. When you learn self-defense, one of the first things they teach is learning when not to fight at all. If you take a martial arts course so you can go around beating people up, you’re going to get in trouble one way or another. Similarly, you have to be capable of recognizing arguments that are winnable and those that are not, so you can pick your battles.
Your parents have power in your house, and you don’t. Your teachers have power at school, and you don’t. That means sometimes you have to be ready to lose an argument, even if it means admitting to and apologizing for something that wasn’t entirely your fault, or being the bigger person and apologizing first even when it’s not fair. When you’re older and driving, and a cop pulls you over and tells you you were speeding when you know you didn’t speed, would you argue with them? What do you think would happen next? Arguing with adults as a child can be similar. This does not mean you should not have any pride, or just always admit to things you didn’t do to avoid arguments. It just means that sometimes the real time to fight is later.
If you forget that you’re arguing with someone who has more power than you, you’re more likely to say or do things that will get you in trouble. On the other hand, if you learn to pick your battles, you can earn trust by admitting defeat on things, which will be important in arguments that you can potentially win. Kids who always drag every argument out no matter how many times their parent says “no” quickly lose the impact of fighting hard for something when it really matters and might make a difference.
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An extension of that is situational awareness, particularly of status imbalances. Parents and teachers don’t just have more power than you, they also demonstrate status differences that are socially reinforced between adults and children in general. If you’re not polite or don’t show respect, even if you have a good reason not to, adults will often get more upset with you than they would if another adult did the same thing.
This is especially true if other adults or children are present: if you are rude to your parents around their friends or while out in public, their embarrassment will often make them more angry with you, and they may feel like they have to be more strict or else be seen as “bad parents.” If you contradict or are rude to your teacher around other students, they may feel as though they have to respond with stronger punishment to show that they are in charge and that the other students have to respect them. Do not forget the social context you’re in when arguing with adults. Try and be polite and respectful, even if you are angry, or you will make arguments even harder to win.
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With those two things in mind, the most important thing to remember when arguing with anyone is different priorities and values. It is almost impossible to win an argument with anyone if you do not understand their perspective, including what they want or care about, and why. When arguing with your parents, you have to recognize that they have different concerns and goals than you do. To use some simple examples and generalize a bit, they want you to be safe, your grades to be high, and your chores to be done, likely in that order. Most parents don’t care how well you do in your video games, or how much you want to spend the weekend with your friends. This is not the same thing as not wanting you to be happy: I didn’t list that above because happiness is hard to measure, while those other things are not.
The point is that their priorities are often skewed toward what they believe is best for you and the family in general, right or wrong, and yours are more often skewed toward what will make you happy. A more severe example is that, compared to how much your parents want to be able to afford the bills, they may care very little how much happier you will be if you get to eat out, or can have those shoes or clothes you want. To reduce conflict and improve your ability to reach compromises or win an argument, it helps a lot when you can demonstrate that you understand what they want and don’t shy away from it just because it is not what you want. Show that you actually can take their priorities seriously, and it can be a lot easier to build up the trust needed to convince them to give you leeway sometimes.
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You will almost always be entering an argument with baggage. You are going to be judged by what you’ve done or failed to do in the past. More, you will often be judged by what they believe you’ve done or failed to do in the past, regardless of whether you argue that they’re wrong. And even more than that, you may be judged by what your siblings or classmates have done, mistrusted by association. It’s not unheard of to be judged by what complete strangers do that your parents heard about and are now worried you will do.
All of which sucks. But the one thing you have control over is your behavior, and how well you have earned trust on your own. I can’t promise that everyone will always care about this, but I have often seen how much arguing with bad baggage is like fighting on quicksand. Your behavior sets an expectation of you, and that expectation will either be in your favor or against you. Trust is important in arguments. If you make a habit of saying you’ll do something and then forget to do it, you lose the trust needed to negotiate in future arguments.
So when you’re trying to decide whether to do something or ignore something that will upset someone, particularly your parents, you have to weigh not just the short-term gain you get by doing it, but also the long-term difficulty it will cause you in future conversations and arguments when your parents or teachers are unable to trust you as much as you or they might want.
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Building up all that trust is important, because it’s the cornerstone of any negotiation. This is the actual work of winning an argument with adults. It may not seem like negotiation is the right word for all kinds of arguments, and it may not be for every single one, but you might be surprised by how many arguments ultimately can be described as negotiations, or can be reframed as one to help reach a positive conclusion. Kids often argue with their parents about what they’re allowed to do, or what they want, and if the parent is resistant, it’s usually because they are being asked to give something up or compromise something they want, even if it’s invisible or not a big deal to the kid.
When you ask to stay up late, from their perspective you’re actually asking them to risk your health or ability to get up on time tomorrow morning, to risk an argument and being late to school or them late to work. Even if it’s on a weekend, you’re asking them to let you change your sleep schedule, which may carry over to Monday morning. These are the things you are negotiating for. These considerations are what parents often think about all the time.
You have to have something else to offer in return, and I’m not talking about something like money. It might be extra chores that you offer to do, but you can instead also offer your well-being in other ways. If you’re doing well in school, you have more leeway to say something like “I really need some extra time to relax after this week.” What I’ve observed is that parents are easier to talk into the things their kids want when the kid has good grades, does their chores, and is well behaved in general. This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that these are things your parents want for and from you, and so they are what you have to negotiate with.
This also extends to more important arguments about, say, your future career, or your romantic lives, or your religious choices. These are areas where what you want to be happy and what your parents want for you are at odds because of different expectations about the world and different information. Arguments like these, including those about some scientific fact or political belief, can also be framed as a negotiation of sorts: the thing you’re negotiating for is often respect.
Parents want to make sure that you understand and respect their knowledge and experiences and perspective (whether it’s wrong or not), and offering them that respect as best you can, doing your best to make sure you show that you understand where they’re coming from, can often help a lot in such arguments, even if you still end up disagreeing forever. Which is okay too: it’s normal for parents and kids not to agree about everything. There are some arguments that you will never win with your parents, but should never feel the need to lose, either.

(Edit: for those who want more on this, r!Animorphs writer Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, has a video out where he goes even more in depth on the topic. Definitely worth checking out!)

Chapter 53: Out of the Blue

“Hey guys, get in here!”

Blue, Elaine, and Glen look at each other, then head to Aiko’s room, where their fourth member is sitting on her bed and staring at her phone. Her backpack is beside her, a few final items remaining to be put away before they leave. Blue and the others woke up early to help around the ranch so she had time to prepare for the trip, and they were almost ready to head out.

“What’s up?” Blue asks, sitting on the bed beside her to peer at her phone screen.

“I got an alert from a group I’m following,” she says with an excited grin. “Look! An absol was spotted in the caves not too far from here!”

Elaine takes her pokedex out as Blue peers at the phone to read the news articles there. A renegade was caught in Cinnabar, Zapdos was spotted flying out at sea to the southeast of Pallet Town, hopefully its last flight for the summer, some new potion formula is entering final testing stages, and, yep, there’s the absol sighting not too far from here, above one of the branching networks of the Diglett Caves.

Though actually a network of tunnels that honeycomb throughout north-western Kanto, the “caves” in the name refer to the entrances that connect to openings above ground, both natural and not, that are big enough for people to enter. The most popular and most well mapped tunnel is the one that goes all the way from Vermilion City’s eastern outskirts to just south of Pewter, traveling a winding route beneath the cities, towns, forests, and mountains along the way, but the whole network is so full of diglett that any attempts to turn it into a paved road were ultimately abandoned. “By the time we get to the nearest entrance though…”

“I know, it might be gone. But since we were just going to catch pokemon from anywhere in the caves, can we check that area anyway? Absol are one of the pokemon I’ve wanted to track for years, and they’re hard enough to find even in the mountains! For this one to come down, make a hunting ground in the tunnels, means it’ll probably stay in the area for a week or two, depending on when it first arrived there.”

“Well, this is the fastest path to the caves,” Elaine says, tracing a route on her map app and sharing it with them. “But this one has the highest chance for encountering wild pokemon along the way.”

They study the route, then look at each other. “Comes down to time,” Blue says. “Do we want to spend it getting pokemon along the way, or in the caves?”

“Anything you guys want that’s along the way?” Aiko asks.

“Not me,” Glen says. “It’s mostly just common forest and plain pokemon.”

Blue expects Leaf to jump on that pun, then remembers she’s not here. “Yeah, nothing particularly rare or strong. I’d rather get to the caves faster. Sounds like we’re okay with the fast route, unless you’ve got a strong objection, Elaine?”

“Nope! And in that case,” Elaine says as she brings up another route. “This is an even faster way to get into the network, but it’s a part of it that’s really rough going, tight passages, lots of elevation changes, but, you know, still passable, if we’re okay with that?” She looks around at them.

Glen frowns as he checks between her map and the public one. “This isn’t coming up in my recommended routes.”

“I got it from a hiker or trailblazer group I’m in, can’t remember which. Was looking through them last night.”

“Huh. Do you do that often?” Blue asks.

She shrugs. “I like exploring, playing around with route options most people don’t take, you know? It’s exciting to go places that most others haven’t been before, and it’s not always more dangerous, just usually more time consuming or tiring. Sometimes they can even be time saving too, depending on your goals.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Blue says, impressed. He taps his pokedex against his leg as he considers it, then looks to the others. “I’m for it, as long as we have the right supplies. Want to check and make sure, Elaine?”

She does while they finish getting ready again, and ends up making a list of gear the other three need to pick up at a town near the tunnels. Soon they set off from the ranch with her in the lead, bikes sticking to the main road for now. Blue quickly realizes that as the youngest member of the group, he has to pedal harder than he’s used to just to keep pace with the others. Soon his lungs are burning, and he steadily drops back to the rear of the procession.

Blue takes a hand off its handle to rake the sweaty hair out of his eyes, trying to breathe deeper despite the stitch in his side. I won’t be the first one to call for a break. Bad enough that he’s fallen behind, at least he can justify that as being their rear guard in case any pokemon come barreling after them.

The morning passes without any surprise attacks, however, and just as Blue begins to feel his energy truly waning, Glen calls back, “Elaine, good place for a rest stop?”

“Outpost a minute north-east of us!”

Glen turns and they follow, Blue counting the seconds down as he breathes deep and lets himself slow little by little. The others pull ahead, but soon enough they clear the Ranger Outpost’s perimeter, and slow to a stop. The trees and tall grass clear away past the proximity sensors, and they can see the Outpost itself on a hill in the distance.

“Let’s take a rest here,” Glen says as Blue catches up to them. The lanky older boy looks barely winded, face sweaty but chest rising and falling evenly as he dismounts and takes his pack off, rummaging through it.

Aiko and Elaine follow suite, making noises of relief as they put the kickstands up on their bikes and stretch. Blue tries not to breathe too loudly as he does the same, then slowly collapses to the ground, leaning against his backpack with his hands between his knees. His lungs feel raw on the insides, and he’s reaching for his water when a hand holding a bottle enters his field of vision.

“This’ll help us hydrate faster,” Glen says, and Blue sees he’s already handed bottles out to the other two.

“Thanks.” Blue uncaps the slightly opaque liquid and gives an experimental sip. Mostly salty, slightly sweet, with a slight hint of some citrus fruit. Maybe it’s just how thirsty he is, but it’s oddly satisfying, and he quickly takes a few big gulps.

“Mm, what is this stuff?” Aiko asks, smacking her lips.

“Basically a homemade sport drink,” Glen says. “A little less sugar, but same result.”

“It’s not bad! Actually pretty good!” Elaine says, having already finished her bottle. “You’re into more than just pokemon health I guess?”

Glen looks pleased. “Yeah, you know, there’s some stuff you learn that applies to both.”

“Does that mean you can patch us up too, if we get injured?” Aiko asks.

“Oh, sure. That’s the first thing I focused on learning, actually.” Glen shrugs. “There are so many different kinds of pokemon that learning to care for them all will take years—”

“Tell me about it,” Aiko mutters.

“—but taking care of humans isn’t so different from taking care of most Normal Types.”

“I picked some stuff up when I was helping out at the hospitals in Pewter,” Blue says. “Beyond the basic first aid I set out with, I mean. Wouldn’t mind learning more though, if you’re up for teaching some tonight?”

“Oooh, me too me too!” Elaine says, hand raised. “I love getting new skills from party members.”

“Party members?” Aiko asks.

“Well, sure, like in games. You’re the Breeder, Glen’s the Medic, I’m the Explorer, and Blue’s the Battler.” She smiles. “Everyone has their strengths!”

“Aren’t we all Battlers?” Glen asks. “I mean, we’re all going for badges, at least…”

Elaine waves this off. “Oh, sure! We all multiclass. I was just focusing on our different specialties. Blue double invested in battling though, that’s why it’s his.”

Blue frowns. “That’s not… inaccurate…” He guesses there wouldn’t be a “class” for what he’s actually trying to focus on, since “Leader” is more of a title.

Glen shrugs. “I don’t mind teaching what I know, though,” He looks at Aiko. “From the look of your nursing station I bet you know at least as much as me.”

“Maybe not. My focus has been more on rearing and natural health complications rather than injuries.”

“See?” Elaine points. “Breeder!”

Aiko smiles. “Well, maybe if we find this absol I can add Tracker to the classification. Or am I only allowed two?”

“Oh, not at all, I mean, look at Professor Oak, he’s like a level 10 for four different classes—”

“There are levels?

“Oh yeah, and unique Specializations, and Prestige titles, and—”

“Speaking of finding the absol, everyone ready to head out again?” Blue asks. Aiko shoots him a thankful look as she hops to her feet, and Blue smiles at her as the others do the same. His knees are still a bit sore, but his energy is back, and soon they’re on their way again.

Glen once again sets the pace by dint of his age, but he’s either more tired than he seemed or more aware that the others had trouble keeping up, because the new pace he sets is a bit easier to match. Blue still has to push himself, but at lunch Glen once again hands out the bottles, which they gratefully accept. Once Blue has recovered a bit and everyone’s various bodily needs are taken care of, he decides to bring up their strategy for the caves.

“Elaine.” She looks at him as she finishes the last of her lunch. “You’re running a tangela, graveler, drowzee, psyduck, fearow, and grimer, right?” She nods, and he turns to Glen. “You brought your snorlax, donphan, machoke, gloom, quagsire, and…?”

“Butterfree.”

“Right.” Glen has the most pokemon of all of them, enough to actually have a solid group of “favorites,” which in his case seem to be slow, physically tough pokemon that hit hard. It’s good that he brought the gloom and butterfree to adapt to where they’re going and what they’ll be facing there.  “Aiko, you have your raticate, sandslash, venonat, eevee, oddish, and krabby?”

“Yep. And your abra.” She smiles.

“You memorized all that?” Elaine asks, eyes wide.

Blue nods. “Gotta know what I’m working with to plan. I brought my wartortle, pidgeotto, shroomish, shiftry, shinx, and rhyhorn. So we have a pretty wide spread of water, grass, ground, bug, and flying pokemon, with a few others thrown in. Considering the close quarters we’ll be in, I think we should plan for a Diamond or Straggle depending on how tight the tunnels are,” Blue says, citing the formations they’d practiced at Vermilion Gym. “Shiftry can fight well in tight spaces, so Kemuri can make a strong front for either. With a tangela or donphan to tank, Aiko’s raticate or sandslash can go for the quick damage.”

“Straggle makes sense, if the path is twisty,” Glen says. Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but stops herself. Glen doesn’t notice. “But for the absol, when there’s enough room, I think we should use a Pivot instead of a Diamond, with my snorlax as the anchor.”

Blue gives Elaine a moment to respond, but she just bites her lower lip, brow furrowed. “We have a good set of agile attackers,” Blue finally says. “So it should work out. But I’ve never tried it before. Any of you?” Glen’s the only one to raise a hand. “Okay, let’s practice it then, while you lead us through it.”

They set up pokedolls and summon their pokemon. Glen’s snorlax is still small for its species, but plenty big enough to completely hide all four of them if they stand directly behind it as Glen calls out the timing for their attacks. Soon Blue gets the rhythm of it down and offers his own suggestions, which they take turns trying as one of them acts as the attacker with their own pokemon. The pressure on Glen’s snorlax lets up as Blue times their attacks so that he’s never fighting on his own, and soon none of the attackers are able to get a hit on any of them but the snorlax, even Blue when he tries it himself and Elaine, Aiko, and Glen practice calling the shots.

“I’ve been trying to premortem this,” Aiko says, face sheened with sweat as she sits beside Eevee and catches her breath. “Chingling and bronzor are really rare, but there are some down there. What about attackers that come from above?”

“Having someone dedicated to watching above us should make sure we’re not caught by surprise,” Blue says.

She nods. “What about protection from ground attacks?”

“Well, we’ve got some powerful ground pokemon already,” Glen says. “If they try to dig under the barriers, our ground attacks will finish them quickly, or send them running.”

“Right, but I’m talking about minimizing risk. We can still get hurt from those attacks if the diglett are near us.” Elaine is about to speak, but Aiko continues before she can. “Oh, I guess depending on the terrain, we can stand on container boxes.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Blue says. He waits for Elaine to say something again, but she stays silent. She notices him staring at her and smiles slightly, so he smiles back and moves on. “The most important thing is to make sure that we don’t keep them in one place for too long, or else their attacks will damage the area of the tunnel we’re in,” he says, citing the tips and advice he read up on while in Vermilion. “Fight until too many arrive, then retreat together to another chamber. If they cause a cave in, well, we have pokemon that can dig us free.”

“Let’s still try to avoid that,” Aiko says. “If we stay down too long and I can’t teleport back for the night… my dad would worry,” she says, clearly settling for an inadequate choice of words.

“Don’t worry, I don’t think any of us are interested in being trapped below ground, even with enough supplies to live through it.” The others nod. Blue realizes he feels less winded from their practice battles, and checks the time. “Another five minutes of rest, or should we go now?”

They vote for another five minutes, and Aiko unclips a couple pokeballs, summoning her eevee and raticate. “Will we make it to a cave before nightfall? Jump!” Her pokemon leap in place, practicing their ability to avoid ground attacks. She tosses them a couple pokepuff pieces. “If not, we should slow down. My legs are already aching and I’d rather they still be functional when I head back. Jump!”

Blue looks at the map to see their progress so far. He blinks, amazed by how much ground they’ve covered: they’re east of Saffron City now. “Between Elaine’s route and how fast we’ve been going, we’ll actually reach the town by the cave entrance we’re aiming for by sunset.” He looks around at them. “Since we’ll be spending the night outside the cave anyway for Aiko to teleport home, slowing down seems like a good idea. We’ll even be able to look around for some pokemon before we lose the light.”

“Ooo, yeah, there are some cool pokemon around there,” Elaine says. “Got a favorite in mind?”

“Yeah, kind of.” Blue smiles. “I’ve wanted an arcanine since I was a kid… begged Gramps to get us a growlithe, but he always said no.”

“Silly Professor,” Aiko remarks with a shake of her head. “Not getting you a fire-breathing dog.”

“I know, right?”

“Well, I’m okay with it, since we won’t be entering the caves today anyway. Jump! Good job!” She feeds them the rest of the pokepuff, then returns them to their balls. “Let’s get going!”


The sun is starting its downward arc when they reach the town of Golden Hills, which helps make its name more than just a geographic reference. It’s a relatively small town, just one pokemon center and trainer market, but oddly empty even given that: virtually no traffic, foot or otherwise, and stores that seem empty of customers, or even workers at times.

But what sends a faint chill up Blue’s spine are the ofuda hanging from most doors and windows that they pass. The kanji covered strips of paper flutter in the breeze, amplifying the relative silence somehow.

Aiko whistles. “Anyone know if this place is always like this?”

“What are those?” Glen asks. “I’ve seen them in other places before, but never this many.”

“Wards against evil spirits and bad luck,” Blue says. “Or to purify or exorcise… things like that.”

“So many, though, was there like an incident with Ghost pokemon here recently or something?” Elaine asks, face pale. “Because I’m okay with camping out if there’s any chance of it happening again.”

“None of us got Ranger alerts to warn us away, right?” Blue asks, and the others shake their heads, Glen checking his phone again with a frown. “Let’s just ask someone what’s up.”

They soon spot a woman walking in the opposite direction, her primeape walking at her side, occasionally hopping onto trash cans or clinging diagonally to light poles before scurrying back to her. “Hey there,” Glen says with a wave. “Can you tell us what’s been going on around here?”

She slows and holds a hand to her side in a gesture, causing the primeape to settle restlessly by her feet. “Just arrived? I guess they haven’t put it out after all. Town is under siege, so to speak.”

Blue looks around at the silent, mostly empty streets. “Under siege from…?”

“The absol,” she says, and Blue feels a resigned sort of understanding, with an undercurrent of dull anger. “One was spotted outside town this morning, and there have been a number of incidents since. Lots of minor tremors, a few car crashes, a house fire, some wild pokemon incursions. That sort of thing.”

“Has anyone died?” Blue asks, trying not to sound exasperated.

“A couple have, yeah,” she says, surprising him. “Council put a bounty on any absol after someone in town fell down the stairs and broke their neck. Then a trainer who went after them was killed. Now they’re trying to tell the Rangers to declare a state of emergency, but last I heard they were resistant.”

“You don’t seem worried,” Aiko notes.

The woman shrugs. “Pao will protect me. And I’m not afraid of bad luck.” She lifts a chain out of her shirt to show them a protective charm. “You guys should probably pass through quickly, though, unless you have your own protection.”

“Right. Thanks,” Blue says, and watches her as she walks on, a slight frown on his face. When he looks at the others he sees Aiko looking thoughtful and Elaine worried.

Glen, however, just looks confused as he reads from his pokedex. “I don’t get it. Absol can only learn Fire attacks through TM and can’t learn any Ground attacks. Why is the town blaming earthquakes and house fires on one?”

“You don’t have absol in your region?” Aiko asks. Glen shakes his head. “Most folk around here think they cause bad luck. Less superstitious sort just consider them harbingers of misfortune.”

“And the Rangers don’t agree, I guess?”

Blue anticipates Red’s answer before remembering that he’s not here. Instead it’s Aiko who says, “It’s obviously just confirmation bias. Rangers probably get a dozen reports every time an absol shows up somewhere, but have looked at the stats and seen that the amount of car crashes or whatever are normal for that day and time, or maybe it’s a slight outlier but people only notice when an absol is around.”

For the third time that day, Blue notices that Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but doesn’t. She’s normally so talkative that he starts to worry that something’s wrong. She does still seem worried… “You okay, Elaine?”

“Hm?” She blinks at him. “Oh. Fine, sure. You bet!” She smiles.

“You just seemed like you had something on your mind.”

“Ah, well…” She fidgets. “I was just thinking, like, what about the quakes?” Elaine asks. “And the fire?”

“There are diglett tunnels nearby!” Aiko says. “Maybe the quakes led to the fire… they probably encouraged some of the wild pokemon incursions too.”

Glen nods. “Or… I mean, people are clearly nervous. Not paying as much attention as they should be. That might be what caused the fire, the accident with the stairs, some of the crashes too.”

Elaine looks back and forth between them, then down. Blue frowns. He doesn’t want to push her to speak if she doesn’t want to, but something about her body language bothers him.

In the ensuing quiet Blue realizes that Aiko is looking at him, and raises a brow. “What?”

“What do you think?” Aiko asks.

“Not sure, to be honest.” Blue turns and starts walking toward the pokemon center again, and a moment later he hears the others follow. “I’ve heard all this stuff before, you know?”

“About absol?”

“About any Dark pokemon. Absol are particularly feared, but most people here think all Dark pokemon are bad luck or cause misfortune in some way.”

“Here being…?” Glen asks.

Aiko ticks them off with her fingers. “Kanto, Johto, Iwate, Hoenn, Okayama, Sinnoh… the whole island chain, and most of the smaller islands around them. In the native language, the word for the type is actually closer to ‘Evil’ than ‘Dark.'”

“Oof. That must be rough for people who are Dark. But for absol specifically, you don’t think it causes bad luck?”

Blue shrugs. “If absol can purposefully cause bad luck in some way, no trainer has been able to figure out how to get them to do it.”

“Right,” Aiko says. “Nor any coordinator.”

That seems to settle the discussion, but Blue glances to the side where Elaine is walking, unsure of why he’s so concerned about her. He sees her frowning down at the ground and the feeling grows. He tries to place it, to understand what’s bothering him about her silence.

He doesn’t figure it out before they reach the pokemon center, a fairly small building with just a waiting room and front desk open to the public. They pass a few groups of trainers in the waiting room to reach the counter, where the receptionist takes the pokemon they’ve been training with over the past couple days. Aiko goes first, then Glen, who then answers the health related questions for Blue and Elaine’s pokemon as well, giving a far more detailed description than Blue would have been able to.

They find a bench to sit down at and begin strategizing for their venture into the tunnels. Aiko starts to explain how they should each take a few minutes to come up with ideas on their own, but soon they’re interrupted by a pair of Rangers walking into the room and looking around.

“Can I get everyone’s attention a moment?” The older one says, and the dozen or so other trainers all focus on them. “Thank you. As you may have heard, the town council is asking the nearest Ranger Outposts for a response to the recent… incidents, around town. We’ve not yet deemed the situation worth a full alert or mobilization, but as a bounty has now officially been placed on any absol caught in the region, we’ve been dispatched to coordinate with any trainers preparing to hunt the creatures. If that includes you, come speak with us sometime this evening. Thank you.”

They go to sit at another table nearby. Blue shares a look with the others, and they all rise to approach the two rangers arriving between two other groups of three trainers each.

Blue listens in as the three in front of them list their pokemon and experience exploring or fighting in caves, then get instructions to meet the Rangers here the following morning. Once they step away, Blue approaches.

“Mr. Oak,” the ranger says, extending a hand. “Good evening. I’m Tanaka, this is Fischer. Here to lend your aid?”

Blue shakes it with a smile, glad as always to be recognized. “We are. This is Glen, Aiko, and Elaine. We came to track the absol before even hearing of the incidents around town, so the timing works out pretty well.”

“Well, we’re happy to have you. What experience does your group have with the diglett caverns?”

“It’ll be each of our first time there.”

“And other caves or tunnels?”

“None here.” Glen and Aiko shake their heads, and Blue sees Tanaka’s brow crease until Elaine raises her hand. “I took a few routes through Mt. Moon.”

“Main passages?”

“Just one of the four.”

Tanaka’s expression relaxes. “Excellent. Available pokemon?”

They list them, and Tanaka’s frown is back. “Well, you’re well equipped to handle the common tunnel natives, but Glen is the only among you that seems prepared for the absol.

“We can prepare around that,” Blue says. “Give support for his machoke.”

“How many badges do each of you have?” Ranger Fischer suddenly asks.

“Two,” Blue says, and Elaine nods.

“Three,” Glen says, and Aiko holds up a single finger.

Fischer looks at Tanaka, who nods. “It sounds like you four may be better off helping above ground. Your experience below ground is sufficient,” Fischer says to Elaine, then turns to Glen. “And I’m sure your machoke would be able to handle the absol, especially with support. But though you two doubtless have your own merits,” he says to Blue and Aiko, “You’re unsuited to this hunt. We would gladly accept your help with a perimeter or in defense of the town, but won’t be taking you below ground.”

Blue is silent for a moment, feeling the disappointment and frustration of those behind him, as well as their trust in him to say something, to make this right… “I understand your judgements, sir, but believe you’re mistaken.” Ranger Fischer’s eyes narrow ever so slightly at that, and Blue mentally kicks himself for the word choice. He remembers the dismissal from the one in Viridian Forest, when he got angry about not being let in on the action. But this is different. It’s not about pride, I know we can do this. “What I mean is, there’s more to us than what might show up on paper. We have knowledge and skills that make us more than capable to participate in this hunt.”

Tanaka speaks up before Fischer can. “As my partner said, we welcome any assistance you can give us, including knowledge. But I think he’s right to say that you’re not experienced enough, as a group. If you would like to split up for the duration of this hunt and accompany other groups, that of course is another option.” He looks at Aiko apologetically. “I’m afraid that with just one badge, I can’t in good conscience extend the same offer to you. Please know this has nothing to do with your potential as a trainer.”

“But I…” Aiko’s voice trails off, and Blue turns to her. He’s surprised to see the normally forceful girl look down and nod, face dejected. She wants to be a Hunter, he almost says, but refrains, knowing it won’t change their minds.

Instead he just nods to the rangers and leads the others away, to a bench farther from the rangers. Everyone is quiet and dejected until Blue says, voice low, “We’re still going.”

Aiko’s head snaps up, hope filling her face. “But…”

“The rangers tend to know what they’re doing, but these two are wrong in our case. I believe Elaine can tell us what we need to know to get us through the tunnel, that you can track it, Aiko, and that you can take it down, Glen. The four of us are going to find and catch this absol.”

Aiko nods, smiling, and Glen flashes a thumbs up. Elaine is biting at her lower lip, warring emotions on her face. “I think we can too, but… to go against their orders…”

“What orders?” Blue asks with a smile. “It’s not an official incident, remember? They’re just coordinating trainers in the area. Well, if we hadn’t come here tonight we may not have even spoken to them, and we’d still be going down there in the morning. Trust me, we’ll be okay.”

Elaine smiles back. “I do. Thanks for trusting me too.” She seems about to say something else when she notices three trainers approaching, and they all turn their attention to the newcomers.

Blue recognizes them as the three that were in line behind them, and one of them beyond that, from Vermilion Gym, an older girl with curly brown hair named Bretta who’s there for her fifth badge. They’ve trained together a couple times between their challenge matches, so he knows she’s a good trainer, if a bit stiff necked.

“Hey Oak. Came for the bounty too, huh?”

“We were in the area, actually,” he says, and nods to the other two, a guy and girl that are also about Glen’s age. They nod back. “You guys got the okay to go down tomorrow, then?”

“Yep. I couldn’t help overhearing some of your talk with Tanaka and figured, hey, I know you can hold your own. Plus, if you have some plan for finding the absol the way you grabbed all those abra, would make all this go faster.”

Blue feels a ripple of heat through his chest. She’s directing the invitation specifically at him, ignoring the others. He knows it makes sense, if she’s assuming that they’re staying up, but she could have at least offered to merge their groups. Worse than that, she’s slighting Red by assuming that Blue was the one who really came up with the abra trick. It’s a sentiment he’s heard before, though never in Red’s presence. It’s galling to have to turn away the status and prestige of it again and again.

“Actually, it’s Aiko here who’s going to track it for our group,” he says. “Thanks anyway.”

She frowns, turning to the others for the first time. “You’re the one with experience underground?”

“Nope. That’s her,” she says, pointing to Elaine.

Bretta looks back and forth between them. “Well, we can take the two of you instead, then, if you think you can handle it.”

Blue is tempted to speak up again, but holds himself back so his companions can speak for themselves. “I don’t think you heard Blue right,” Aiko says after a moment. “We’re all going down together.”

“Even with the rangers telling you not to?” The guy behind Bretta says, and shakes his head. “I’ve hunted Absol before, they’re no joke, you know? Stealthy, fast, and lethal when they go for a strike. There’s no shame in staying above ground, letting trainers with experience grab it.”

There may not have been before, but with that tone? Blue looks at the others to make sure none are showing any second doubts, then turns back to the trio, trying to insert some finality in his tone. “We’ll be okay. Thanks.”

Bretta looks back and forth between them, then shrugs. “Your choice I guess. Hope I see you back in Vermilion.”

“Right. Same to you.”

Bretta and the boy walk away, while the other girl lingers a moment, seeming about to say something else. When she notices that the others haven’t stopped, she just turns back to them and says, “Good luck.”

Blue smiles. “You too.” He watches her hurry to catch up to the other two, then looks at his group mates… or his party, as Elaine would put it.

“Frankly?” Glen says after they’ve gone. “I’m a little miffed I wasn’t asked.”

“It’s ’cause they never tasted your energy drinks,” Elaine says with a grin.

“Or seen you in battle,” Aiko adds.

“Nah, I’ve actually battled Bretta a couple times,” Glen says, scratching his jaw. “I can’t tell if she really dislikes me, or has a crush on me.”

“Definitely one or the other, huh?” Aiko asks.

“Definitely.”

“Aiko,” Blue says, causing her to turn to him. “It’s not long until you get called to get your pokemon and head home. Do you need us to get anything, for you to track the absol?”

“Right, yeah. I’ve trained Sneaker to track pokemon. His nose is really good for finding specific species by dander from others, if the conditions are right.”

“What conditions?” Blue asks.

“The trail has to be relatively new, of course, more than a week gets iffy, with the chances dropping rapidly by the end of the second. Windy days are harder to track on, which isn’t a problem underground, but dryness also makes things difficult, which may be depending on where in the tunnels we end up. But as long as we find a place that the absol was likely to be around some time recently, I think we can find it… just need some fur, urine, and scat samples.”

“We can pick some up at the pokemart,” Glen says. “Anything else?”

“That’s all I’ll need, I think.”

“Okay then,” Blue says. “Then let’s go over the rest of our strategy, for real this time.”

“You have something in mind,” Glen comments, not a question.

Blue smiles. He does, in fact: Bretta’s the one that reminded him that, while he already misses having Red and Leaf around to generate ideas and bounce them around, he can at least show that he picked something up from the way they think. “As a matter of fact, I do…”


The next morning finds the town less deserted as people head to work or school, but there’s still less than there should be, and people move with nervous energy, as if worried about being outdoors for too long. The town’s “Trainer House” is more like a small apartment building, and as soon as Aiko teleports there, they head for the cave entrance that Elaine picked out. Blue expects it to be a barely visible fissure in the hilly countryside, lost and forgotten about by most, and while it does turn out to be hard to find, when they reach the entrance they see a string taped to either end of the opening, more ofuda hanging from it across the opening.

They store their bikes, but keep their pads and helmets on as they take out the gear they bought last night: reflective jackets with inserted trackers, headlamps attached to straps. Blue brings Ion out, having already used the Flash TM on him. The others have at least one pokemon that have learned it too, in case Ion needs a rest or has to be returned, but for now the others take out their raticate, gloom, and psyduck for the tight passage.

Once they’re all ready, Elaine ducks beneath the string and leads the way with her oddish, with Blue and Ion just behind. The shinx’s fur begins to glow as the light fades behind them, and soon they’re traveling entirely by Ion’s illumination, which reveals a tunnel that’s narrow, but smooth.

The four don’t talk other than to warn of changes in footing, occasionally helping each other move over or around obstacles. Everyone’s too busy listening for tremors or the sound of tunneling pokemon to disturb the silence. They reach a fork, and Glen uses a can of iridescent paint to spray an arrow back the way they came in case their electronic map is lost or damaged. The hissing sound is loud and echoey in the long, narrow tunnels.

Blue quickly loses his sense of direction, but they keep marking the tunnels as they go, and he has to trust Elaine to guide them so he can focus on his job: keeping his attention shifting between walls, floor and even ceiling, particularly paying attention to the indents in the stone or soil. Holes, in truth, though only those along the ceiling are empty, the others mostly filled with dirt or rock left behind by whatever tunneled through them. Luckily they don’t appear to be in a part of the network with a high traffic of pokemon, or else they’re all scared off by the noise they make as they constantly change pokemon to fit through the passages.

They take another left at a fork where the ground abruptly drops off, helping each other climb down the steep slope, then travel another minute past a thin stream of water before they find a honeycomb of narrow passages that they have to crouch through, practically walking on hands and knees at one point. Blue has never felt claustrophobic before, but traveling through the dark, narrow corridor, earth and rock on every side, he could practically feel the weight of the ground above him. He hears distant rumbling and isn’t sure if it’s his imagination, then realizes he can feel it through his hands, a faint vibration.

Just some pokemon traveling deep underneath, he assures himself, but still he crawls faster, almost bumping up against Elaine’s rear before she finally reaches the end and stands up. He pushes himself up and quickly shuffles forward to clear the area, then wipes a hand across his face, feeling sweat there. Soon Aiko and Glen are out too, and Blue wants to ask if they’re okay, but refrains, not wanting to appear nervous himself. It isn’t until they reach a central chamber with multiple, large corridors away that he feels like he can relax a bit, a sentiment he reads on the others’ expressions as they bring out their larger and stronger pokemon.

The sounds of pokeballs releasing is explosively loud in the small chamber, the echoes traveling down every passageway. Glen’s snorlax seems even more massive than usual in such a tight space, but it still has plenty of room to maneuver if needed, though some of the thinner corridors might give it issue.

“This is it,” Elaine says. “The closest central hub beneath the places the absol has been seen above ground.”

“Great job, Elaine. Looks like it’s your show now, Aiko,” Blue says.

She nods and takes the baggie of absol dander out. “Sneaker, smell.” Her pokemon goes rigid, and its nose begins to twitch and wriggle as Aiko opens the bag and holds it close. After a few moments of deep, strong sniffs from her raticate, Aiko seals the baggie up and puts it in a container ball. “Sneaker, track!”

Sneaker drops onto all fours and begins to rapidly rove over the rocky floor of the tunnel, long tail held up as he sniffs and snorts. The others scramble out of his way, constantly moving to avoid him as he goes this way and that.

“Nothing here,” she says after a minute.

“Okay,” Elaine says. “This way to the next one.”

They follow her, continuing to mark their way at every turn, until they reach another hub for Sneaker to check, then another, each with no luck. As their first hour beneath the earth passes, Blue starts to feel a nagging worry that they picked the wrong tunnel to enter from. Ion has been swapped out for Glen’s butterfree, who flaps above them, wings glowing with a bright white radiance that fills the chambers and lets him see similar expressions on the others’ faces, Aiko’s most of all.

He’s in the middle of reminding himself to trust his party members as they wait for Glen to finish spraying a new path choice when he hears a distant sound. Blue focuses his attention on his ears, eyes closed. Once Glen stops spraying, he notes that it’s still getting louder. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and opens his eyes to see that the others have heard it too.

They quickly move back into the more open area between the branching tunnels and bring out their grass and water pokemon, standing with their backs to each other.

Blue doesn’t dare blink as he keeps his eyes moving from one hole to the other in the rock around them. He quickly takes his pokedex out and taps it to a pre-saved page, finger hovering over one of the buttons as his heart pounds in his chest. His mind is racing at first, but as the scratching gets louder and louder, the battle calm descends, steadying his hands and voice. “Anyone got a lock on where they’re coming from?”

“Check your pokemon,” Aiko says. “Some senses are better than ours. I got nothing from oddish.”

“Same from Gloom,” Glen says.

Blue’s gaze snaps to Maturin, whose head seems turned to the right somewhere. “Between me and Glen?”

“I think Psyduck hears them there too,” Elaine says. “Hang on…” He hears her shift around behind him. “Yeah!”

“V formation,” Blue orders, and steps with Glen to face that direction, while Aiko and Elaine move forward and to the sides. He thinks through what’s about to happen and suddenly moves around Glen. “Aiko, swap with me. Elaine, Water Guns first, bubbles when they’re in range of the—”

The diglett appear, two, three, five, popping out of a hole at about chest level, while another three struggle to come up from an indent where the tunnel slopes up to its left. Their small brown bodies move quickly once in sight, darting this way and that on barely visible pink paws as they scramble for new indents to disappear through.

“Gaw!” Blue yells as the others give their own commands, and battle is joined, jets of water and puffs of pollen filling the cave as the diglett dodge or get blasted back. One darts through the cloud of pollen and goes for Aiko’s oddish, claws extended, but it has to dodge to the side as bubbles burst from Psyduck’s mouth.

Blue still holds his pokedex in one hand while the other holds a pokeball, expanded and aiming for any diglett that’s holding still too long. All the while he keeps an eye on the three coming from the side even as multiple ripples go through the ground and send him to one knee, taking the pain rather than risk looking away. His suspicion is confirmed when a pair of large claws emerge and push the dugtrio’s thick body out of the hole, its three heads tracking multiple enemies at once before it picks the oddish as its target.

“Bab!” Blue yells, and a stream of fizzing water jets out from Maturin with a crackling series of pops as the bubbles rake the ground and body of the dugtrio, knocking it to the side. It rolls back onto its paws and retaliates with a rake of one strong claw, chunks of the ground shooting forward and pelting Maturin with jagged shards.

The pain is enough to make her next attack miss, and the dugtrio uses the time to dash at Glen’s gloom. Blue chucks a pokeball at it, not bothering to lock on, just wanting to distract it. It pegs the dugtrio in the back, causing it to whirl around, then pop into an indent.

“Brace yourselves!” Aiko calls out before Blue can, and another series of rippling quakes, stronger than the last, makes the whole cavern shake, momentarily unbalancing them and their pokemon. The diglett are barely affected, however, and suddenly their pokemon are at risk of getting surrounded.

“Tighten up!” Glen says, and they step into a diamond formation again. “Gloom, Mega Drain!”

“Absorb! Where’s the ‘trio?” Aiko asks.

“I’m looking!” Blue keeps his neck craning around. “Ba!” Maturin’s bubbles cause a couple diglett to run, but one manages to scratch Glen’s gloom, forcing it to stop draining another one and turn to face its new attacker, who dances back out of reach and dives into another indent.

Blue is about to shout a command to fill the indent with water when another quake sends a shock up his legs, causing his ankles and knees to ache as his arms windmill for balance. Dust and pebbles rain around them. We need to finish this soon, Blue thinks, and considers tapping the dex screen. Then he sees the dugtrio poke its heads up and dash out of its hole and toward him.

Still in the envelope of icy calm, Blue stares the three heads down over the new pokeball that’s suddenly in his free hand, tracking it and waiting for the ping as he distantly hears Glen yell out in warning. He realizes it’s not going to make it on time just as the dugtrio leaps, and Blue steps to the side and turns his body sideways, avoiding all but one claw. It shreds through his jacket’s undermesh, only to snag in the one below his shirt and send a flare of pain through his side.

The weight of it spins Blue around and lands him on his rear. He scrambles back and prepares to press the dex as the dugtrio approaches, then leaps again—only to see it get sprayed with water from an advancing Maturin, who plants herself solidly in front of Blue as the dugtrio tumbles to the ground.

Blue makes his decision and closes the pokedex, jamming it in his pocket as he gets to his feet. We can do this, he thinks, just as the dugtrio raises its heads and gives a triple cry of pain and rage. The closest three diglett who saw what happened suddenly pause in their attacks on others, then turn toward Maturin.

Oh shit. “AoE on her!” Blue yells as he dives to the side to put Elaine’s psyduck between him and the dugtrio. “Maturin, Wa!”

The diglett all converge on Maturin, burying her in a pile of brown fuzz and slashing claws. Blood flicks out, and a moment later a double cloud of yellow and blue particles covers the lot of them as Aiko and Glen command their pokemon to blanket the area with sleep powder and stun spores.

As the diglett pile begins to slow and stiffen, Blue watches Elaine’s psyduck blast the dugtrio again and again as it tries to attack it, then scrambles for one of the indents. Her pokeballs are aimed and ready when it gets penned in by another burst of spores by the gloom and oddish over the escape routes, and as the dugtrio pauses momentarily, unsure which way to go, five pokeballs ping in rapid succession and are thrown: two by Elaine, one by Glen and Aiko, and one by Blue, who has risen to a crouch.

It’s impossible to tell which one catches it, once the flash fades and the five balls roll across the ground in different directions, their attention is immediately on the rest of the diglett.

Those that weren’t stunned or put to sleep turn to flee through some indent or the other, and the trainers quickly capture the remaining three. Blue quickly withdraws Maturin, stomach clenched at the sight of all the blood even as he swaps in Gon.

The four trainers and their pokemon are still and alert, breathing hard as they look around for any sign of continued attack. By the time a full minute has passed, they’ve all relaxed to varying degrees, and finally Blue returns Gon to his ball, glad the shroomish can stay fresh after all. “Everyone okay?”

“Fine,” Glen says, then goes to check his pokemon, potion in hand. “Gloom looks okay too.” He gestures his butterfree to come down and rest on his arm, then feeds her a berry while murmuring some praise.

“We’re good,” Elaine says, spraying a nasty cut along psyduck’s stomach, then wiping her pokemon clean of blood and dirt with some wet naps.

“Same here.” Aiko gingerly touches her oddish’s grassy shoots where a couple have been ripped, then feeds her pokemon.

Blue nods, then checks his wound. The majority of the claw stopped by the armor mesh, leaving just a shallow hole between two ribs. Glen notices and comes to help him clean and spray it.

“No pain when you breathe?” Glen asks as he finishes.

“Nah, it didn’t hit the rib.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah.” He lifts Maturin’s ball and summons the wartortle. Blood stains his pokemon’s shell, but once he’s woken his pokemon up and gotten her to extend her limbs for healing, he smiles in relief, something in his chest relaxing. Her worst wounds are from the dugtrio, meaning she must have withdrawn on time before the diglett reached her. He suspects all the blood on her shell is theirs, the pokemon having cut each other in their frenzy.

He makes sure she’s fully healed, then rubs her shell and makes sure she eats and drinks her fill before joining the others in gathering the thrown pokeballs, particularly the ones with diglett in them.

“One for each of us,” Blue says. “Nice job, everyone. Thanks in particular for saving Maturin.”

“Of course. She did great against the ‘trio,” Aiko says.

“Good callouts, by the way,” Glen says. “Very smooth fight.”

“Yep!” Elaine is practically hopping with leftover energy. “Calls for a victory dance, I’d say.” They all watch her take her phone out and tap at something. “Oh, let me bring the volume down… Ready?”

“Uhh. What are we readying for?” Aiko asks.

“Victory dances! You guys don’t do that?” She looks around at them with a bright smile.

“No,” Blue says. “Best I can give you is a fist bump?”

“Hm. Well, that’s kind of like a pose. Just do poses then. Ready?” Before anyone can respond, she taps the screen again. A cheerfully triumphant jingle (set at low volume, but nevertheless filling the cavern) sounds, and they all watch her perform a spin, then widen her stance and hold a V up with one hand, grinning wide.

They all stare at her. After a few seconds, Blue tentatively extends a fist, and Glen stretches his own out to tap it. Aiko covers a giggle with one hand as the other joins theirs.

Elaine drops her hand. “Good first attempt,” she says, grinning. “Next time, add some pizzazz!”

“Will do,” Blue says. “Assuming ‘next time’ is also in a deep cave far away from any witnesses or recording devices, but also pitch black.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“…is it?”

“This one’s the dugtrio,” Aiko interrupts with a smile, and winks at Blue when he meets her gaze. “Should we RNG who it goes to?”

“Hang on, let me check…” Blue takes the ball and examines the lid, but to his disappointment doesn’t find his initials on it. “Damn, not one of mine.”

“You marked yours? Not a bad idea,” Glen says, looking at the diglett balls. “This one’s yours, then.” Glen grins as he holds it out. “Guess you’re excluded from the dugtrio pool.”

“Hang on, says who?”

Aiko puts her hands on her hips. “Would you have claimed the ‘trio if your ball hit it?”

Blue grumbles and takes the diglett as the others laugh. In truth he’s feeling pretty good about their first team battle, and watches with a smile as Glen assigns himself as 1, Aiko as 2, and Elaine as 3, then rolls a 3 sided die on his phone. The dugtrio goes to Aiko, who attempts a mimic of Elaine’s victory twirl and V, much to the other girl’s delight.

As everyone registers their new pokemon, Blue says “Be right back” and ducks into a side tunnel to change out of his torn clothing. He puts on fresh shirt and jacket, then returns to the others. “Alright, let’s take a quick rest, then get back to it. Meanwhile, what did we learn from that fight? Nice job mentioning our pokemon’s senses,” he tells Aiko. “Definitely going to keep that in mind.”

She nods. “I liked our formation, it did a great job of keeping them boxed in.”

“Right!” Elaine says. “Though their ability to pop into the ground was annoying.”

“Right, that,” Blue says. “If we ever have time to prepare a battle area ahead of time for some reason, we should plug those holes somehow, maybe fill them with leech seeds or powders.”

“Would it be worth using your earlier idea?” Glen asks Aiko. “Taking container boxes out and standing on them?”

“Maybe,” Aiko says. “Would probably save some joint pain during those quakes. But I just realized that unless you guys each have a whole container full of stuff you don’t care about losing, we risk losing things we need if we have to evacuate the chamber.”

They talk for another few minutes, at some point taking snacks out and turning the rest into an impromptu food break. Once everyone feels ready to move on, they resume their journey down the tunnel they were going to take.

Twenty minutes of stumbling up an incline, crouching below another short passage, and inching around a small underground lake later, they’re in another hub cavern, almost a dozen paths extending from it in every direction, and this time when Sneaker sniffs the baggie and runs around, his movements are different.

“He’s got something,” Aiko says as her pokemon starts to spend more and more time at one of the tunnel entrances. “I think it might… Sneaker, stop!”

Her pokemon aborts the mad rush forward it had just begun, and looks back over its shoulder at her, tail lashing back and forth.

“Okay then,” Blue says, adjusting his bag straps. “Let’s go.”

They follow the raticate from one tunnel to the next, staying on high alert for any pokemon that might make an appearance, absol or otherwise. Thankfully absol are fairly large, and none of the passages are too narrow for them to follow the scent as it takes them deeper down beneath the earth.

Occasionally Sneaker reaches a fork where he can’t seem to decide which way to go. Aiko confers with Elaine when this happens, looking the map over to see where the different paths lead and using other factors to make a decision. She instructs Glen to mark their choice with an open circle in addition to the arrow, and on the two occasions where they lose the trail and head back, has him draw an X through it.

“I think we’re getting close,” Aiko says as this begins to happen more and more often.

“Do we know if we’re following its most recent trail, or its most common one?” Blue asks.

“No, it could be either.”

“So we could be about to stumble onto it, or reach its nest?”

“Yeah. It might be there, though, they don’t have a set sleep schedule and this one might be nocturnal, since the sightings were all near sunset or sunrise.”

They make an extra effort to move more quietly. Blue can feel the renewed tension in the others and himself as they make their way through a curving tunnel, and in the deeper silence he picks up the distant sound of running water.

They reach another wide chamber and slow to a stop as Sneaker starts to walk in circles. The stream Blue heard is there, a tiny river flowing from a hole in one wall, down a shallow slope and into a crack at the other end.

“Back to the last fork?” he whispers.

“No, look.” Aiko points to Sneaker, who’s sniffling around at the far wall. “I think this is it!”

Blue sucks in his breath, taking a renewed look around, eyes trying to pick out any clues as they slowly move through the chamber. They all start to spot them at once, now that they’re paying attention.

“Some fur, here!”

“Scratch marks, yeah—”

“You smell that?

“Sh!” Blue says, and everyone quiets. They stand in silence for a moment, listening to nothing but the trickling water. Blue looks to their pokemon, who seem relaxed, curious about their surroundings. Sneaker is still snuffling at the ground excitedly, and Aiko hushes him by feeding him some poffin and stroking his fur. Glen’s gloom goes to drink from the stream, and soon the other pokemon joins it. “Okay, I guess it’s not around.” He takes his bag off, and the others do the same as he examines the other paths. There are three in total, including the one they came from: one that’s set high up in the wall, high enough that Blue would need a boost to pull himself up to it.

“So, we found the nest. That means Plan A, right?” Glen asks after a minute.

“On it,” Aiko says, and picks through her bag for the right container ball. It was difficult finding an easily carried food that absol would particularly enjoy that other pokemon down here wouldn’t, and they eventually settled on raw beef, since diglett aren’t carnivores and they’re the most common pokemon in the caverns. They help Aiko lay the meat out, enough for an adult absol to eat as a meal, and laced with just enough tranquilizer to put it to sleep for four to five hours.

“Might be a long wait,” Aiko says once they’re done. “We don’t know how long ago it left. We might have just missed it.”

The others look to Blue, who considers their options. “We have to vacate the area anyway so we don’t scare it off,” he says. “Assuming our presence hasn’t already. We can go up and hang out for a bit, then come back down to check every hour. But if we’re leaving the area anyway, I say we do Plan B too. Elaine, where’s the closest above-ground entrance? Not the one that we came in through, right?”

“Let me see… Umm… no, there’s a closer one… it’s not one humans can navigate though. Too tight in some places.”

“Too tight for an absol, even?”

“Hard to tell. Don’t think so?”

“Okay.” He bends down to scoop up some of the absol fur off the floor. “Lead us there.”

Plan B was a combination of what Aiko has learned about tracking pokemon and what Blue imagined Red would do if he was with them. They follow the path Elaine takes them for long as they can, eventually reaching a tunnel that tightens down and down until they could maybe crawl through it. Instead they put more laced meat there, then make their way back to the last defensible spot. Blue hands the fur to Aiko, who puts it in an empty container ball, then uses a pokedex app to scan the container contents. “Female,” she says after a moment.

They set up portable speakers, connect them to their pokedex… then begin to play a male Absol mating call in both directions, one toward the tunnel leading to the surface, the other back towards its nest.

Glen brings his machoke and snorlax out, while Elaine summons her tangela and Aiko her sandslash. Blue brings Ion out for light, and Kemuri out for battle. As soon as the shiftry notices its surroundings it becomes visibly agitated. His pokemon has come a long way from the unruly beast it first was, however, and he’s grown as a trainer as well. A stern command for “relaxed readiness,” followed by some pokepuff as a reward, and soon the shiftry is still.

“Let’s plug up these indents, just in case” Blue says, and they busy themselves making the chamber as diglett proof as they can while counting down an hour so they can check the bait.

The mating call repeats every minute, on the minute, a crooning, purring sound that echoes through the tunnels, almost like the breathing of some giant feline. It’s soothing in a way, and Blue has to work to keep himself alert… until a second cry quickly follows the first, and snapping him to full attention. Blue immediately ends the speakers’ autoplay, and they all sit or stand rigid where they are, ears strained.

“That wasn’t an echo, right?” Elaine eventually asks, just before the cry repeats itself.

Blue presses the play on his dex again, mouth dry. The male mating call is sent out again, and they all begin to slowly prepare themselves. The next response is closer, then closer still, and Blue wonders if it’s coming from the nest chamber yet. After the next call is sent out, there’s no response. Blue waits another minute and sends it again, heart in his throat. Still nothing.

“Aiko,” he whispers. “Keep going?”

“Let’s check the bait. It’s had enough time to put her to sleep, now…”

They pack everything up and withdraw all their pokemon but the shinx, sandslash and tangela, then move out, as quickly but quietly as they can. Soon they reach the nest. As Ion sheds light on the chamber, they see the absol.

Fur as white as a cloud, almost glowing, with a face and horn and tail black as pitch, seeming to absorb the light. Its red eyes study them as they enter, not moving from the corner where it’s standing, whole body tense. The meat in the chamber has been nibbled at, but it’s hard to tell how much was eaten.

Their pokemon tense as they spot the stranger, and Blue gestures to the sides. Aiko and Elaine spread out to cover the other two entrances, while Blue and Glen unclip their shiftry and machoke’s balls. “We’ve got it,” Blue breathes, not daring to blink in case the white and black shape vanishes or moves. “Just don’t—”

Blue stops.

Something’s wrong.

His hair is standing on end. His heart is pounding. He tries to clear his thoughts, think about what feels so strange. It’s not tension, or fear. It’s… something more primal. He tries to remember everything he heard and read about absol, suddenly paying more attention to the more “superstitious” accounts. People saying they felt death’s hand on their shoulder. People saying they felt doom staring them in the eyes.

People saying they felt a sense of wrongness.

“Get it together, Blue,” he whispers, and realizes a moment later that he spoke out loud.

“What?” Glen whispers back.

Blue shakes his head and grips his pokeball tight, wanting to summon Kemuri but not wanting to start the fight without realizing what’s wrong… But maybe once it starts and he has his battle calm, things will be clearer…

The calm. That’s what’s missing. He should feel calm by now. Cold. Focused. Not… this.

Blue quickly triggers his pokeball’s silent release and snaps his arm out to summon Kemuri, Glen does the same beside him. Their pokemon appear in a double flash of light… then tense, staring at the absol.

The absol stares back.

Blue licks his lips. The others are waiting for his lead. Why isn’t he ordering an attack? Why does he feel… trapped?

What’s wrong with me?

“Blue?” Glen whispers. “You okay?”

“Glen, do you feel weird?”

“What?”

“How do you feel, right now?”

His friend’s lips part. He blinks. His throat works. Even before he responds, Blue knows: he feels the same way.

What’s wrong?

Doesn’t matter. They have to catch it, now, while they have the advantage.

“On three,” he whispers. “One… two…”

He hears something.

“Low kick!” Glen says, just as Blue shouts, “Wait!”

The machoke blurs into action as soon as the command is given, however, and far faster than Glen can call out for it to stop, the absol leaps to meet it, and battle is joined.

Fuck,” Blue says, still not even sure why this feels like a mistake, they have it trapped… “Lar!” he commands, and Kemuri leaps forward to help with a Razor Leaf.

The absol is a blur of white and black as it avoids the machoke’s kicks, so fast that she slips between his legs and attempts to hamstring him with her horn. The machoke bellows in pain and pivots to kick at her again with his good leg, but she dances back… then has to dodge to the side as Kemuri’s sharp leaves slice a line along its side.

Aiko and Elaine send their pokemon in next, driving the absol into the corner of the chamber again. It leaps and slashes with its horn and tail like a propeller, severing leaves and vines from the shiftry and tangela, sending blood arcing from the sandslash and machoke, then leaping back in the next movement so that the return blows are just glancing. Elaine gives up on trying to entangle it with vines and sends out sleep powder, but the absol simply leaps between the machoke and shiftry, too fast for them to stop it and forcing the sandslash to intercept it. A part of Blue notices that their pokemon aren’t as coordinated as they should be, and chalks it up to their enemy’s bizarre movement patterns, the way it seems to change its mind constantly mid-action, giving the impression that it will strike one way while attacking another and avoiding a blow at the same time.

There’s still no battle calm, Blue’s heart pounding in his throat as he yells commands to Kemuri and the others. He still feels like something is wrong. But despite that, and the absol’s absurd grace, Blue can see that they’re winning. Less than a minute has passed since the battle started, but little by little, the absol is being forced back, taking hits that are forcing it to be more and more defensive. They step closer as their pokemon close the net a little more, their balls held out to try and get a steady lock.

“Almost got it,” he says to the others. “Slow and steady…” He takes a deep breath as he watches the absol back up another step, looking for an opening, then leaping toward Kemuri. “Lar!” He yells, and his shiftry swings out to score another hit and force her toward Aiko’s sandslash, who swipes at her. The absol skitters back, bleeding from four or five shallow wounds. Not enough to kill her, but enough to slow her down… they just have to catch her now. They try to aim around their pokemon as the absol continues to feint left and right.

It’s as Blue is straining his ears to listen for the ping, already half congratulating his team for their capture and chiding himself for his earlier worry, that he hears something else.

Blue’s head turns, seemingly in slow motion, and he looks past the alarm that slowly spreads across Glen’s face to Aiko’s sandslash. It’s bleeding from two deep cuts, practically vibrating with restrained tension… but it’s not looking at the absol.

It’s looking all around them, head jerking one way, then the other.

Blue crouches to one knee and places a hand against the ground… and feels the vibrations that are now constant, and growing. He hears the scratch and scramble of digging that’s coming from seemingly every direction.

Panting, bleeding, coiled like a spring, the absol still seems to stare at Blue from between their pokemon, her red eyes like twin blood moons, her gaze an omen of coming doom.

The diglett are coming.

Chapter 52: Departing

Before leaving Vermilion to visit Aiko’s ranch again, Red and Leaf register an abra to the city for their return trip. Red has to overwrite Cerulean’s teleportation point, and ignores Leaf’s scowl as he renames the abra to Vermilion. He expects her to say something about it, but she’s been quiet ever since she finished her recent research binge. Red picked up the thread of frustration and sadness in her thoughts when he asked how the investigation was going and she just said it hit a dead end, so he’s been giving her space, knowing how frustrating it is to put so much work into something and fail.

Blue packs more than they do, since he and Aiko plan to travel to the Diglett Caves after visiting her ranch. Glen and Elaine decided to join them too, so on the morning before the cruise, Red, Blue, Leaf, Glen, and Elaine pile into an extra large taxi to begin their trip to meet her there. Red spends most of the drive to the southern subway entrance writing out his process of exploring his powers, while Leaf and Elaine go over the article about her abra catching and Blue frowns through a piece on the Vermilion Gym’s unique culture and teachings. Glen has a pair of headphones on as he watches recordings of his recent matches.

They’re underground and shooting past Saffron City when Red finishes. “Aaand, done,” he says as he writes out the last line. “Who wants to hear it?”

“Wait till we’re topside,” Elaine says, voice raised over the clatter of the train, and points to her ear.

Red nods and does some quick editing before they arrive at the northern terminal, then stands and files out with everyone. The five of them jog up the stairs and into the sunlight, then make their way past the crowd to find an empty space where they can bring their bikes out.

“Okay, what have you got?” Elaine asks as they walk.

“And is it something people without powers will actually understand?” Blue asks.

“Yeah, I think so. That’s partly what I’m curious about… tell me if this makes sense to you guys.” He clears his throat. “‘There are five general trends to my developing new abilities. First, I had to gain awareness of my own cognitive states. Once I knew the usual things that make me angry or upset or excited, it’s easier to recognize them when they occur. Second, I cultivated different dispositions and thought patterns. Focusing a lot on the experience of certain moods or feelings or thought processes, and what triggers help me get into them, lets me more easily inhabit them when I want to.'”

“Oh!” Elaine snaps her fingers. “That sounds a lot like… uh… what was it…”

“Hold up, E, let him finish first,” Glen says.

“Right! Sorry!”

Red smiles. “No prob. Third… ah, ‘Third, I practiced deliberately moving from one mental state to another. This usually included reminding myself of memories and sensations that triggered a change, and focusing on each aspect of the state until I was firmly in it. Fourth was retraining my cognitive reflexes, so that as soon as I noticed a trigger for a mood or thought pattern I didn’t want to inhabit, I could actually do step three. As an example, if I noticed myself getting upset, like when my voice gets raised or my pulse kicks up, I could deliberately invoke a state of mind that’s calmer. And fifth was kind of an umbrella step, working over time to deeply integrate the thoughts and responses above to slowly move them from conscious thought to automatic.'”

Red looks up at the others, who each have some range of thoughtful expressions on. He takes this as a good sign over something like confusion, but still feels a bit anxious to hear what they think. “Is that confusing? These are just the bullet points, there’s more explanation for each, obviously.”

“Might be too much all at once to process,” Leaf says. “Maybe it would help reading it.”

Red passes his phone to her while Elaine makes a humming sound. “You know, I actually liked it a lot, it was really interesting, I think I can even try some of it out myself, even though I’m not psychic I mean, I think it might work anyway, it reminded me of something, like I said earlier.”

Red blinks, still getting used to her verbal stream-of-consciousness. “What part?”

“Right, so like that thing about noticing yourself getting upset, that’s like, really important to calm yourself down in general, you know? And I can remind myself of pleasant things and maybe not be as upset if I just think of them for a while instead?”

“Oh, yeah. I used to deliberately think ‘I notice I am upset’ to start my mind going through my flowchart for figuring out why, and calming down that way. Now I just invoke the desired mental state psychically, but the principle is the same.”

“No, I think she means something else,” Glen says. “Like, that sounds more cerebral, she’s talking about something more like meditating on the emotion itself to invoke it. Right?”

Elaine smiles and shrugs. “Maybe?”

Red considers this. “I think the flowchart actually is more meditative than it seems, but I get the point. Is it something you can do without psychic powers? Like, deliberately go into a different mood than the one you’re in?”

“Sure,” Blue says. “I can think of things that make me angry or happy and feel those things again.”

“Music does that well too,” Glen says.

Red nods. “Kind of like that, yeah. If you can remember something from a show or your life that makes you feel a certain way, you can re-experience it, a little at least. That works for inspiring quotes and things people tell you too. With my power I can just do it more deliberately.”

They’re finally far enough from the market to take their bikes out and put on all their equipment. Red summons Metapod and Bellsprout and puts them in their usual positions, then checks on Bellsprout’s mood to make sure he feels secure before they begin to slowly make their way through the rest of the crowds and toward the open road.

“What was that thing you were going to say?” he asks Elaine. “It reminded you of something?”

“Right! Um. I don’t remember. Some kind of therapy?”

“Oh, yeah, the skills at the root of a lot of that are similar to the ones taught by cognitive-behavioral therapy. That’s why I’m hoping they’re useful even to those without powers.”

“I’ll try it and see,” Leaf says as they clear the crowd and begin to pedal. “I think I’m practicing the same core skill, with the mindset that keeps the abra calm.”

The rest of the ride goes by quickly, and Red’s thoughts drift to what’s ahead. Aiko told them that there’s a partnership of three therapists that come to the ranch, and they each usually have two to four kids for each visit, which are more like all-day series of activities rather than the hour-or-two therapy sessions Red is used to. When Red asked about funding, Aiko delighted Leaf by explaining that she reached out to a local pokemon welfare organization, and they agreed to help fund the treatment as part of an exploratory program to raise awareness of pokemon’s benefits in areas other than combat, industry, or food.

They reach the ranch before noon, and dismount to walk through the paths between the grid of pokemon pen clusters in search of Aiko. Red can see two adults in the distance to either side, each with a group of children, but they’re too far to hear or see what’s going on with them.

Aiko spots them first, jogging down a path that connects to theirs with a wide grin. “Hey everyone!” She calls over the pens between them. “Welcome!”

As soon as they’ve exchanged greetings, Elaine’s rapidfire questions about the ranch keep Aiko occupied, letting Blue, Red, and Leaf show Glen around. After a quick tour of the grounds, Aiko mentions that they should probably leave those visiting the ranch alone for now, and they make their way into the house and upstairs to say hello to her dad and put their bags away.

Mr. Sakai isn’t inside, however. Instead some young men and women are in the kitchen and living room, each wearing a shirt with the logo of a pokeball with a heart stamped on it. Above it is written Regional Alliance for the Welfare of Pokemon. Red tries the acronym out in his head with different stresses. Rawp. RAwp. RAWp.

It looks like they’re preparing lunch for everyone at the moment, and a new round of introductions is made as they catch sight of the trainers. “We’re here to help out, if we can,” Leaf says to the guy that seems to be in charge, a lanky Unovan with bleached hair named Adom. “Do you guys have anything for us to do?”

“Cool, yeah.” He wipes his hands on his jeans and shakes her hand. “So, we’ve got this almost taken care of, but let me think. You’re all trainers, right? Okay, so the next event starts in a few minutes, and can always use more hands. The kids are going to be wandering around looking for pokemon to learn about and interact with, but they need to be supervised, you know? Sound like something you can do?”

They agree that they can, and the group dumps their bags in Aiko’s room and take turns washing up before they go back downstairs with Adom and the others. Everyone splits up to find kids to chaperone, but Aiko tags Red to come with her. He follows her with a curious look.

“I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” she asks once they’re outside. “My dad should have some kids with him, so I figured we can take a couple off his hands… and while we do, could you do a quick check on him? With your powers I mean. Let me know if he’s… you know, how he’s doing?”

“Oh! Sure, yeah.” Red can still remember the distinct sense of Mr. Sakai’s heavy, slow thoughts. He casts his mind out to its limit as they wander the paths around the ranch’s pens, but his range isn’t that far, and they have to rely on their vision to finally spot him near the ranch’s small lake. When they approach they hear him speaking to a young girl next to him. She’s holding a bidoof in her lap, looking both excited and nervous.

“Oh. Hello, Aiko. Red.”

“Hi Dad. We’re not interrupting, are we?”

“No, no. We were just over into how Asha likes her coat to be brushed.” He returns his gaze to the bidoof and the girl. “Now, you can see by the tail that she’s very relaxed right now… try stroking her back…”

The girl does so, slowly and gently, and the bidoof nestles closer against her. The girl’s eyes widen, and her fingers sink a little deeper into its fur.

Red opens his mind to those around him, sensing their different rhythms and beats. Aiko’s mood is engaged and ready, the girl’s tinged with hesitant wonder, while Mr. Sakai…

His mind still feels ponderous, but there’s something calm about it, now, too. Relaxed, rather than lethargic. No, not just relaxed, something more…

Red realizes with a start that there’s a fourth human mind nearby. He steps to the side a bit and sees a younger boy hiding behind Mr. Sakai and looking with dull eyes at the bidoof. Red briefly entangles with the boy’s thoughts and gets a brief sense of his apathy, mind wandering beneath a numbing cloud of grief.

Aiko crouches beside the girl. “Hello. What’s your name?”

The girl doesn’t look up from the bidoof, merely continuing to stroke it.

“Asha is one of my favorites. Want to know a secret about her?”

The girl’s eyes flick up to her, then back down.

“You just scratch a bit behind her right ear. She loves it when you do that.”

The girl keeps petting the bidoof for a few moments… then reaches a hand out and scratches its ear.

The round, furry body squirms, and it emits a croon of pleasure, the sound surprisingly deep and rough. The girl freezes for a moment, then smiles for the first time. Red senses the boy’s curiosity increase, but not enough to overcome his apathy or come any closer.

Seized by an urge to help lift that haze, Red goes over to the boy and kneels down too. “Hey there. I’m Red. Want to go look for some other pokemon to play with?”

The boy looks at him solemnly, then shrugs, gaze down.

“Okay. Let’s go this way?” He looks up at Mr. Sakai, who stands.

“A fine idea. I’ll see you two at lunch.”

Red isn’t sure if he should take the boy’s hand or not: he looks about seven, and might resent being treated like a baby, but as soon as Mr. Sakai leaves he moves over to Red, practically clinging to his legs without touching him.

Red starts walking, passing by the various pokemon in their pens as he keeps skimming the boy’s mood. He’s careful not to go too deep and get caught up in the grief he feels mirrored there, aware of how even the brush of it beckons his own toward the surface.

“So, let’s see… over here there’s a meowth that I’m surprised is staying in its pen, to be honest. It likes to find precious metals and eat them, which makes the coin on its head grow. That’s why this one’s coin is so small. Do you want to pet it?” The boy is silent, so Red moves on to the next pen. “Here’s a stantler that was unfortunate enough to have its horns cut off, probably by some poachers…”

Red goes from pokemon to pokemon, tossing out whatever trivia he can remember about each. The boy’s mental state barely fluctuates through all this. Red’s descriptions become more and more listless as he trudges from one pen to another. Eventually he stands before a sentret, one of the most boring pokemon around. He tries to think of something interesting to say about it, grief dulling the colors of the world as he wonders what the point of all this is…

Red blinks. That thought wasn’t one of his normal ones. He realizes he’s been too immersed in the boy’s thoughts, even at a surface level. He draws back into himself and shakes the gloom off. What was he doing? Right: sentret. Interesting facts.

The sense of boredom returns, and this time it’s his own. Sentret aren’t particularly interesting, even to him. But he remembers being young enough that, before battle trainer culture irritated him quite so much, he was himself more interested in things about pokemon’s battle abilities or survival traits than other facts about them.

Red clears his throat, hoping the boy isn’t weirded out by his long silence. “Um. This is a sentret. They like to stand on their tails so they can see farther and know if danger is coming.” He tentatively brushes up against boy’s mind again as he moves on to the next pen. “Here’s a baby doduo. Only one head sleeps or eats at a time, so it can’t be taken by surprise. Over there is a female nidoran, it doesn’t have a horn like the males but its spines are poisonous…”

Little by little, he feels mild curiosity bud in the boy’s mood, tendrils of it spreading out until his boredom is somewhat alleviated. Red warms up to the new angle, glad he has a near endless supply of facts about a pokemon’s dangerous abilities, which are always at the surface of a journeying trainer’s thoughts.

“And this is a venonat, it likes to stun its prey and then suck the blood out of them—”

A sharp spike of fear comes from the boy, and Red flinches. Was that one too close to some bad memory? Red realizes that he doesn’t even know the boy’s background, or what brought him to the ranch… He may have gotten a bit carried away. Maybe it’s better to stick to safer descriptions after all.

“Do you, ah, want to try feeding any of the pokemon we’ve seen so far?”

The boy shakes his head. Red feels at a loss for a moment, then decides to just be forward. “Sorry if I said something scary. Do you want me to keep talking about what makes pokemon dangerous, or should we stick to what makes them cute?”

It doesn’t seem like an answer is forthcoming, but the boy eventually wanders back over to the pen with the silcoon attached to a bush in it and points.

“You want to know more about them?”

The boy shakes his head.

“You… want to touch it?”

The boy nods.

Red swallows down his discomfort with bugs and sits cross-legged beside the hatch. “Alright. Just be careful where you put your hands, okay? Nowhere near the eyes.” Red carefully extracts the silk cocoon from the bush, then lifts it out of the pen and holds it on his lap. The red eyes of the pokemon peer sleepily out of the slits in its white outer layers.

The boy peers at it in fascination. His hand moves up, trembles, goes back down.

“Go ahead, you can touch its back,” Red says, and demonstrates. “I know it’s big, but it won’t attack you. ”

The boy tentatively reaches out and feels the compact outer layers of silk, then smiles.

Red smiles back. “Feels weird, right?” The boy nods, and Red remembers his own hesitation to touch the skarmory on the roof, followed by his fascination with how its metallic feathers felt beneath his hand. “Pokemon are amazing, you know? Dangerous, but amazing. Do you want to be a trainer someday?” The boy nods. “Cool. Want me to tell you more about silcoon?”

He nods, so Red does, and they sit there with the silcoon until someone calls out that it’s time for lunch. Red puts the pokemon back in its pen, and they make their way back to the house, where the boy walks toward the crowd of other kids, still without saying a word. Red watches him go, and senses his mood quickly returning to what it was earlier. Red hopes he helped somehow regardless.

The bottom floor appears to have been converted into a dining area, the center filled with a buffet and tables set on either side for eating. A pair of lines form on either side so everyone can grab their food, and as Red waits he spots the head therapist who’s leading the initiative on the other side. He keeps an eye on her, and once he fills his plate, he goes over to where she’s sitting.

“Hello. You’re Mrs. Ino, right?”

The therapist smiles. “I am.”

“I’m Red Verres.”

“Hello Mr. Verres. It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a confidentiality-respected lot about you from Dr. Seward.”

Red grins. “Nice to meet you too. I wanted to thank you for helping put this together.”

“Oh, no thanks needed. It’s the sort of opportunity I’ve been dreaming of.”

“Have you been using pokemon in your practice for long?”

“Years. The difference here is like night and day though: this allows such a better environment for groups and children to connect and support each other, as well as providing more variety of pokemon for them to interact with. Things look promising, so far.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I actually wanted to offer my help, too.”

“Oh?”

“I’m psychic.” He taps his temple. “Still learning, but I can get a quick read on emotional states pretty easily now. If there’s someone who you’re having trouble reaching, maybe I can give a hint for what can help?”

To Red’s surprise, Mrs. Ino looks taken aback. “Oh, no, I’m afraid not, Red.”

“Oh. How come?”

Her brow creases. “If you’ve been through therapy, Red, you should know.”

It takes a moment for him to realize. “OH. No, sorry, I think I gave the wrong impression… I won’t be actually reading their thoughts.”

“I’m afraid it would still violate confidentiality.”

“But…” Red takes a moment, wanting to make sure he words it right. “It’s just like reading an expression. It’s imprecise, but a bit deeper and more nuanced.”

“Yes, I understand that you see it that way. But people are used to having their expressions read. Most develop some level of control over what they show, and at least are on an even footing with the person reading their expression. I’m sorry, but I have to ask you to refrain from using your powers on any of the clients here.” Her eyes suddenly widen. “You haven’t done so already, have you?”

Red blinks, and without thinking says “No, that’s… I came to check with you, first. That’s why.”

Her expression softens. “Good. Well, I appreciate you wanting to help, and it’s not a bad idea, you just need to make sure they’re consenting first. You don’t happen to have any of the appropriate paperwork?”

“Oh, uh, no, I just thought of it while I was here. But I’m sure they have a printer here?”

“No need, it would be for their parents. I was just hoping to look it over, and perhaps bring it up with the others. I can get it later.”

Red nods, feeling awkward. “Right. Well. Thanks for your time.”

“Of course. I’ll see you around, I’m sure.”

He nods again and wanders away, eyes down. He finds a secluded place to sit, fork moving aimlessly through his food.

Why did I lie?

To avoid getting in trouble, obviously. But was he wrong to? He hadn’t meant any harm, and no harm has been done. He should have asked for permission first, but admitting to it now wouldn’t help anything. It would just make psychics look bad.

Like lying does?

Guilt and indignation make Red put his plate down and rub his face. Just weeks ago he was thinking about how unfortunate but understandable it is that psychics are treated with suspicion. Now he’s acting in exactly the way that justifies suspicion of psychics! How did he make such a shift so quickly?

The thing is… he really does feel like using his powers this way is as natural as reading expressions. It’s become a reflex, just as someone said it would… was it Ayane, or Narud? He hopes it wasn’t Narud.

And then Red wonders if he would find Narud as irritating if he met him now. Is he turning into a haughty elitist?

“Heya.” Red looks up as Aiko sits beside him. “Not a fan of the food?”

“Huh? No, just thinking.”

“Ah. Well, I’m happy to interrupt. Your face looked a bit horrified for a second there.”

He smiles and forces himself to take a bite of the stuffed mushroom. He finds himself once again surprised by how tasty the food here is, and begins to eat with more gusto. “How was the girl you were talking to?”

“Okay, I think? It’s been awhile since I interacted with kids, but she seemed happy enough to just play with the bidoof and learn about them.” She shrugs as she eats, then lowers her voice a bit. “So. How’s my dad doing?”

The conversation with Mrs. Ino still fresh on his mind, he wonders for a moment whether he should feel guilty about this too. But… well, it’s not like Mr. Sakai is a patient, and Aiko just wants to help her dad.

“Better,” Red says, trying to remember the sense he got of Mr. Sakai’s mood. He opens his senses and finds the rancher’s mind again from the other side of the room. “He’s more relaxed than distant. Something about all this makes him feel… comfortable in a way that he wasn’t before.”

“Oh, good.” Tension leaves Aiko’s frame in a rush. “I know it’s a lot of extra work for him, I was hoping it wouldn’t cause him more stress, he seems more lively, but—”

“Aiko. It’s fine.” Red smiles. “I think he’s doing okay.”

She breathes out and finally seems to really relax against her seat. “Okay. Yeah. Thanks Red.”

“Is there something in particular that makes you worried about him?”

“Not really. I guess I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?” She dips some carrot sticks in dressing by the handful and munches on them all at once. “The past few weeks have been great… meeting you guys, learning at the gym, making friends… and still being here so I know my dad’s okay… I just don’t know how long it can last.”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

Aiko shrugs, dragging the remains of the carrots through more dressing. “Because it has to, someday. I won’t always be able to pursue my goals while porting back home every few hours. I don’t want to rush things, though. As long as Dad’s not reacting badly to me being out of the house so often, maybe in a few months I can try missing lunch now and then, with forewarning. Maybe by then he’ll even be able to talk about it with me.”

Red considers this. “A few months seems like such a short time, but a lot has changed for Blue, Leaf, and I in the past few. I hope you’re right. It would be nice to have you around more.”

She smiles at him. “It would be nice to be around you guys more too. I can’t wait to test out your new fighting style again.” One of the staff from the organization walks by. “Oh, I wanted to talk to them about something. See you later?”

“Sure.” He watches her go, then continues eating, thoughts quickly returning to what he was worrying about before. He takes his notebook out and begins to eat with one hand as he writes out his worries and reminds himself to come up with measurable aspects of “haughtiness,” and get feedback on his own soon.

By the time Red finishes his food, lunch is winding down. Red stuffs his notebook in his back pocket and gets up to throw the rubbish away as the kids and therapists file outside. He spots his friends helping clean up the buffet.

“Blue! Have I been acting different, lately?” he asks as he lends a hand.

“Uh. Can you be more specific?”

“Like, have I been becoming, ah, haughty, or elitist?”

Blue’s brow rises. “Why, no, Red, you haven’t been becoming either of those things.”

Red’s relief is interrupted by the slight stress on the word becoming, and he switches a stack of paper plates from one hand to the other so he can punch Blue’s arm. “Whatever, from your perspective have I been acting that way more than usual?

“Nah, you’re about all that stuff as ever. Difference is you’ve actually got some reason to be, these days.” Blue finishes tying off a full garbage bag, then punches his arm back. “Hey, we’re going to go do some training battles away from the ranch, maybe catch some pokemon nearby. You in?”

“What, everyone?”

“Yeah. Well, Leaf’s probably staying, but Aiko’s coming. There’s going to be some group therapy stuff here, so we aren’t needed for a while.”

Red hesitates, not wanting Leaf to feel left out. But he really wants to explore his powers in battle more before the cruise, and he and Leaf will have plenty of time to hang out and chat once they leave.

“Yeah, I’ll come!”

They help finish the cleaning, then run up to grab their stuff with Glen, Elaine, and Aiko before heading off the ranch and riding toward an empty field by the road, distant from any of the tall grass or woods where pokemon might be lurking. Regardless, they keep their eyes peeled for any pokemon along the way, but other than some pidgey and spearow flying in the distance, don’t spot anything new to catch.

They put their bikes away and begin discussing what to do. Red asks for some time alone first, so Elaine and Blue pair off to train his rhyhorn against her graveler, while Aiko pits her sandslash against Glen’s donphan. Having worked their way through the gym’s lower ranks over the past few weeks, everyone’s preparing for their battles against Surge by strengthening the Ground Types that will be their most valuable pokemon.

Each MVP can’t be expected to take Surge alone, however, as the Leader is sure to have countermeasures among his team. Which is why they keep their ground types for last, and start their battles with other pokemon that can take on whatever their major Ground Types would be weak against.

Red is only aware of this in his periphery, however, as he spends his time practicing with Charmeleon against a pokedoll. Right away, Red can tell that his pokemon’s new form is faster, muscles stronger, claws sharper: the doll’s thick outer layer, already much abused over the past months by the scratches of a charmander, are soon deeply scored and at places torn out in chunks.

“Stop! Back.” Red frowns at his pokedoll. He’ll have to get a tougher one, but maybe the fire retardant on this is strong enough for that at least. He rubs Charmeleon’s head as he returns to him, fingers moving around the bony spur at the center. He’s a little sad that he can’t rub the whole top of his pokemon’s head as easily anymore, but Charmeleon seems to appreciate it anyway, so Red continues and feeds him a pokepuff for good measure.

Instead of cooking the puff, as Red expected, Charmeleon simply gobbles it up. As he chews, smoke escapes through his teeth, and Red grins. Charmeleon aren’t quite capable of breathing out streams of fire, but the internal organs and physiology are at least more developed now, and his pokedex has been running a program to try and take advantage of it for other attacks.

First to make sure the doll is up to it though. “Ready, Charmeleon. Ember!”

Charmeleon flicks his tail and sends a bright glob of fire onto the doll. It burns there for longer than Charmander’s did, and when it fades the pit it leaves behind seems bigger, but overall the doll failed to burst into flames or melt, which is all Red needed to know.

“Charmeleon, Fire Fang!”

His pokemon leaps forward and bites onto the doll’s shoulder, worrying at it with vicious tugs of his strong neck. “Back!” Red watches as Charmeleon’s sharp teeth dislodge from the material for any sign of smoke or burning. He steps closer, calming his pokemon’s distress with a hand gesture, and examines the teeth marks carefully. There might be some extra scarring, but he can’t tell if it’s from a previous attack.

Red kneels to find rear sections of the doll that are less damaged. He spots a mostly unblemished part of the pokedoll’s thigh, studies it carefully, then gestures Charmeleon over. He points to that section of the doll, and says “Fire Fang!”

Charmeleon chomps on it again, and again Red tells him to back off before studying the spot. Nothing but teeth marks.

Red stands and brushes the grass from his pants with a sigh. Seems his pokemon isn’t grown enough yet. He watches the battles of the other four in the distance for a bit, thinking. Or maybe…

Red closes his eyes and reaches out with his thoughts, refreshing his sense of his pokemon’s new mood and senses. After his explanation of what he did with Charmander yesterday, he tried out the new mental state of full permission with each of the pokemon he had with him. Surprising no one, Metapod and Pineco had no immediately dangerous instincts beneath all their conditioning, though the latter was more wary and ready to defend itself if needed. Bellsprout was similar, though there was something more there as well, too alien for Red to understand. Spinarak just felt hunger, neutral and merciless, while Nidoran was the first one that had a similar level of identifiable vicious instincts bubbling beneath the surface, similar to Charmander’s. His abra, Bill, was extremely skittish. Red didn’t dare project the full acceptance state to it, certain it would teleport away if he did.

It was Pichu that turned out to be the most interesting: what Red sensed from him was something his mind interpreted as a live wire running through his thoughts, a vibrating alertness that seemed safe to unleash in battle, so he tested it against Aiko… until he began to lose. Then Red felt a desperation in pichu’s instincts that closely mirrored the charmander’s viciousness, and quickly forfeited before his pokemon could act on it, so swept up in how it felt that he forgot that he had to actually give it permission to unleash it.

Now that he has his newly evolved pokemon in front of him again, he realizes that Charmeleon is the most unsettling to entwine with. Red has been developing more and more proprioception through his link with his pokemon, their sense of their own bodies, where their limbs are at any given time, as well as their innate sense of balance, and Charmeleon feels tense in a way that none of his other pokemon do. Like his wires are all drawn near their snapping points, even while relaxing. Like he could explode into deadly action at any moment.

Red senses that coiled tension now, and once he feels fully melded with Charmeleon’s thoughts, he opens his eyes, backs up to a safer distance, and points at the spot again. “Fire Fang,” he says while projecting a feeling of letting loose.

Charmeleon pounces on the pokedoll and tears a mouthful of its dark material off. Red quickly releases the projection, but he has to call “Stop!” for Charmeleon to quit chewing at the material. Red, mindful of the advice to never try and pull anything away from inside a Charmeleon’s mouth, takes out a pokepuff and places it on the ground beside him. “Eat,” he says, pointing at it, and his pokemon finally lets the dark material drop from his jaws so Red can inspect it.

No visible blemish besides the teeth marks, rougher though they are, and he still didn’t see any smoke. Ah well. It seems his pokemon isn’t ready for that attack yet.

Just as he has that thought, he sees Charmeleon cook the food in his mouth yet again, as if taunting his failure. Red shakes his head and gets some industrial glue out to place the piece back where it was torn out of the pokedoll, then returns it to its container ball.

Once Charmeleon has finished eating, Red gives his head another quick rub, then returns him as well and goes back to the others. Glen and Aiko have already finished their match, while Blue and Elaine are still pitting their final pokemon against each other.

The graveler uses its hands to grip the ground as the rhyhorn charges it, tanking the hit and then throwing its own body weight against its opponent. The grind of stone-against-stone fills the air as they clash again and again, a test of endurance more than anything.

Eventually Elaine commands her graveler to back up, and Red predicts what she needs the distance for: “Graveler, Rollout!”

“Rive, Ba!” Blue yells.

Rather than try to dodge the graveler as it throws itself into a roll directly at it, building momentum all the while, Blue’s rhyhorn lifts its legs and slams them onto the ground. The effect is somewhat reduced by the soft, grassy terrain, but the shockwave still makes Red and the others brace their legs, while the graveler loses most of his momentum and barely budges Rive when he slams into him. A quick “Atah!” by Blue has his pokemon lower his head to hook his horn beneath the graveler, preparing for a toss, but when Elaine claps her hands in a quick pattern above her head, its four arms grip the rocky head around the neck and snout.

“No—”

“What the—”

“Way,” Red finishes as he, Aiko, and Glen watch the graveler twist, roll backward, and lift the rhyhorn over itself to slam it onto the ground beside it, using its own body as a pivot and driving them all to their knees briefly.

“Was that a Seismic Toss?” Aiko asks as everyone scrambles back up. Elaine calls her graveler back, and they all watch Rive to see if he gets back up. After a few shaky attempts, the rhyhorn manages to right himself, though his movements have slowed.

“Yeah, must be a TM.” Glen rubs his neck. “I guess that’s her trump card for when Surge brings out a magnemite or magneton.”

“Does that happen often?” Red asks.

“Oh, yeah. From the videos I saw, anyway: it’s one of the few electric pokemon that can hold up well against both Rock and Ground attacks, once it’s floating.”

Soon Rive and the graveler are squared off again, and their attacks continue. Blue is careful not to let his rhyhorn get slammed a second time, fighting much more defensively to compensate for his pokemon’s slower movements. Elaine’s attempts at a more aggressive fight seem to fall flat every time, however, and soon her graveler’s movements are even slower than the injured rhyhorn’s.

“Something’s wrong,” Aiko says, tense. “Her pokemon shouldn’t be tiring this fast.”

“Yeah, it’s acting like it’s been fighting for hours over the past few minutes,” Glen says. “Or…” He turns to Red. “Can you check it?”

Red nods and closes his eyes, mind reaching out to sense those around him. It takes a moment to distinguish the graveler and the rhyhorn, and he waits until their next clash is past before he merges with it—

Red doubles over and clutches his stomach, nausea sweeping through him. “Sick,” he gasps as Glen’s hands catch him. He withdraws his mind and breathes deep to settle his stomach, head spinning.

“Oh, shit,” Aiko says. “We have to stop the match.”

“She’s still fighting, though,” Glen points out. “Her pokemon isn’t down.”

“It’s got no chance though, look.”

Red takes another deep breath and glances up, trying to focus. He sees Aiko’s point: the graveler is teetering as it lumbers toward Rive, its movements sluggish. Even injured, Blue’s pokemon easily avoids the attack.

“Right, I’ll call it,” Glen says, and steps forward as he takes a deep breath to shout out… just as Elaine holds her greatball out and says, “Graveler, return!”

Blue relaxes, then jogs to his pokemon, potion in hand. Elaine stares at her greatball with a frown, and Glen moves toward her. Red and Aiko follow. She looks up as they approach and smiles.

“Hey guys. I guess Graveler was more tired than I thou—”

“It wasn’t that.” Red says. He’s watching Blue finish healing his pokemon, then rub its rocky head and return it to its ball. Was it something he did? “Your pokemon was sick.”

Elaine blinks. “What? How do you, never mind, psychic, right, oh that’s terrible, but he was fine earlier, maybe I fed him something bad do you think? I’m so stupid—”

Aiko puts a hand on her shoulder. “It’s alright, I’m sure he’ll be fine. Things like this happen sometimes. You can’t always know. Just make sure to go to a center rather than heal him yourself.”

Elaine looks torn between her worry and Aiko’s reassurance when Blue approaches. “Hey, great fight, Elaine.” He looks around. “Why the long faces?”

“Red says the graveler was sick,” Glen says.

Blue blinks. “What? How do you know?”

“I checked mentally, near the end of the match when it was slowing down. It had some really painful nausea.”

“Oh,” Blue’s face clears, and he smiles at Elaine. “Don’t worry, he wasn’t sick. He’s just poisoned.”

Everyone stares at him. “Poisoned,” Glen repeats. “Poisoned from—”

“Oooh,” Aiko says.

Everyone looks at her, Blue grinning slightly.

“Oh, shoot!” Elaine says, worry transforming to frustration. “I missed something, didn’t I? When was it?”

Blue shrugs and folds his hands behind his head. “Quite a mystery. Let me know if you ever figure it out.”

“Poisoned by a rhyhorn,” Glen muses. “I’m sure if I look it up I’ll find something… I didn’t see anything like a Toxic attack…”

Aiko is frowning slightly at Blue. “Were you guys fighting to incapacitation? That might have taken awhile, her graveler could have gotten badly hurt.”

“Relax, I was watching closely,” Blue says. “I would have called it soon myself if Elaine hadn’t withdrawn.”

Aiko looks slightly mollified. It still surprises Red how quick the others are to take Blue’s word for things and follow his lead, probably because Red’s so used to arguing with him about practically everything for years.

He suddenly has a glimpse of a possible future, the one that they’ve been working toward: Blue, Champion of Indigo, treated as a modern legend, respected by all, traveling the regions and making changes with an army of loyal followers behind him… while Red, a hopefully just as respected Professor, is one of the few people willing and able to call him on his shit, even while he supports him.

The thought makes Red smile briefly, which Blue catches and raises a curious brow to. Red shakes his head, and Blue shrugs.

“Well, if you guys figure it out, let me know. Either way, good match Elaine.”

“Thanks! Did you see the Seismic Toss coming?”

“I was banking on it, actually. I knew you’d need something against a magneton.”

“What about you?” Aiko asks. “Poison attacks won’t help against them.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve got another trick ready for that.” The others try to guess it, but Blue just shakes his head. “So what’s next? We got time for another match?”

Aiko checks. “Yep, one more pair.”

“I’ll sit out,” Glen offers. “Red hasn’t had a chance to fight yet.”

Elaine grins. “Ooo, yeah, I want to watch you use Battle Bond again!”

Red blinks at her. “Use what?

“The thing! Your psychic thing!”

Glen shakes his head. “It’s not called Battle Bond.”

“Yeah, I don’t—”

“It’s called Limit Break.”

Red looks back and forth between them as they start to argue, then turns to Aiko, bemused.

“We tried coming up with names for it,” she explains. “Special techniques need names, right?”

“Ah.” He tries to think of something to say, but is distracted by her anticipatory look. “Um. Did you also have a suggestion, then?”

“Yep! Ultra Instinct! You know, from—”

“I got it, yeah. Isn’t that trademarked, though?”

She shrugs. “Unleashed Instinct?”

That… doesn’t sound bad. Red opens his mouth to say so when Elaine jumps in to denounce the amount of syllables and lack of alliteration, which draws Aiko into the argument, which seems utterly unconcerned with Red’s ideas or preference.

“Well, at least they’re having fun with it,” he tells Blue, who to his relief hasn’t gotten involved.

Blue shrugs. “I figured I’d let them argue till they’re sick of it, then just call it its real name and they’ll accept it.”

Red sighs. “And what is the real name for telling a pokemon to give up their conditioning?”

“The kind that’s useful in battle?” Blue’s lips quirk, smile sharp as the blade of a dagger. “Sakki.

Killing intent.

Red shivers in the warm sunlight, and has no retort.


Leaf helps feed and care for the pokemon with the rest of the workers from RAWP, then sits down to relax as the kids and therapists go off to do group sessions. She’s not there for long before she spots Adom sitting in a corner with his laptop and headphones on. She doesn’t want to disturb him, but is curious to know more about his organization, so just checks the comments on her abra article while she waits for him to seem less busy.

To her surprise, when he takes his headphones off and stands, he makes his way over to her and plops down on the nearby couch.

“Hey. So I just read your abra article—”

Leaf blinks.

“—and I was wondering what you think about using it with other psychic pokemon. You warned people not to try it without taking safety precautions, but if they do it right do you think someone could, like, just walk up to a drowzee too?”

“I don’t know, really. I didn’t want to guess, since I haven’t had the chance to try it with other species.”

He nods. “You probably should, soon. It would really boost the utility people can expect to get from trying to mimic it though. Assuming others can learn it. I’m going to try to, anyway.”

“Oh, great! Will you document it?”

“Yeah, that’s the idea. With abra first, of course, since they’ll just teleport away if I don’t get it right, but if you do get a chance to try it with other species, the sooner you test it out so we know if it’s possible, the better.”

He’s right. Leaf should have tried it with other psychic pokemon before she wrote the article… she can only hope others who try it are as sensible as Adom and won’t try to walk up to a sigilyph or woobat and risk getting attacked.

“Damn. I should have thought of this myself, and now there’s no time to test it before tomorrow…”

“What’s tomorrow?”

“Oh, Red and I are going on the Cruise Convention.”

Adom’s face lights up. “Are you really? You should definitely test this out before you go if you can, but are you going to write an article on one of the exhibits?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Sweet. Which one?”

“I’m not sure yet. Aren’t they really secretive about what’s going to be shown?”

“Sure, but I thought you might have connections, through your mom or Oak.” He pauses, face thoughtful. “Hm. Okay, can you keep a secret for like, 12 hours?”

Leaf raises a brow. “Are you telling me you have connections?”

“Depends.” He leans forward. “Can you?”

Leaf grins and leans forward too, though no one seems close enough to hear them. “Yeah, I never reveal my sources.”

“Okay, so you should find Dr. Marcus Post’s exhibit on the first day. He’s going to be demonstrating the results of the artificial meat production he developed with pokeball tech.”

“Shut up! Seriously?”

Adom leans back with a smile at Leaf’s expression. “Yep. Attend it early so you can be one of the first to write about it.”

“How do you know this?”

“Just some connections in the pokemon welfare world. If it takes off commercially… you know?”

“Right, it would be huge! This is great, I was wondering whether I’d find something good to write on… and I can start research and outlining tonight.”

“Yeah. I figured it would do well following the abra piece.”

“For sure. Thanks for telling me! How long have you been involved in pokemon welfare, anyway?”

“A couple years, with this organization.”

“That’s great. Do you feel like it’s making a difference?”

Adom cocks his head, gaze up, hand teetering side to side. “Sometimes. It’s rewarding, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time or abilities. I think there might be other things to work on that have more impact, or address different, more pressing issues.”

“Yeah, I can understand that.” Leaf thinks of her own constant shift from one project to another. The brief trip into journalism has been great so far, but she wonders how long it’ll be before she discovers something else that seems more important. “So what’s your next duty after the group therapy finishes?”

“The kids are going to be divided into those that are afraid of pokemon and the ones that are here for depression or grief. The first group will get more direct one-on-one exposure and learning, while the second gets to choose from activities. So I’ve got a lapras that I’m going to offer rides on at a nearby lake.”

“Oh, cool! Is there anything I can help with?”

“If you have any pokemon you think they’d enjoy interacting with, we can list it in the announcements too.”

“Hm. Joy is probably the safest bet. She’s just so soft and squishy.”

“Yeah, I can see that being a big hit. We’ve got a stoutland that’s great for hugs too.”

“Oh man, I love stoutlands! My grandpa has one…”

The two talk about Unovan pokemon until one of Adom’s peers pokes her head in and signals him, causing him to excuse himself. Leaf looks up any potential nearby psychic pokemon besides abra she can use as a test until Red and the others return. Aiko runs upstairs to take a quick shower and change while the others relax for a bit, and Leaf fills them in on what’s happening next. They start to discuss what pokemon they have that might enjoy being played with. Glen’s snorlax is tame enough to be safely fed, and it’s a rare enough pokemon that a lot of kids might be interested in interacting with it. Red, Blue, and Elaine decide to just help out or watch the existing activities.

Mrs. Ino recommends that Joy be available to the kids that are afraid of pokemon after losing a loved one or witnessing an attack. Leaf is only too happy to summon her cuddle partner and let the kids bask in her shining eyes, cheerful smile, and soft embrace. There are three of them, the youngest a boy of five or six, and two girls aged 9 and 10. The older girl holds the boy’s hand as the three stare at Leaf’s wigglytuff.

“It’s not a danger?” the boy asks, sounding younger than his age.

Leaf thinks of the field of sleeping pokemon that she and the others had nearly walked into. “She won’t hurt you,” Leaf says instead. “Her name is Joy. See how happy she is? She can fight, like most pokemon, but she doesn’t like to.”

“What does she like to do instead?” the older girl asks. She seems the least afraid of the three, but her hand is holding her brother’s tight.

“She likes to sing, and eat, and give hugs. See?” She wraps her arms around her pokemon, who as always is overjoyed to squeeze her back. “This is how some pokemon are, if they’re not threatened. They’re just happy to get along with others.”

“But only the captured ones, right?”

Leaf considers this, trying to stay honest without scaring them further. “Some pokemon are really peaceful even in the wild… but only the captured ones are really safe. I promise that Joy won’t hurt you, if you want to give her a hug.”

None of them move to, and Leaf remembers the quick guidelines she got: don’t force anything, just let the option to interact be there for them. So she decides to start talking about her favorite pokemon, and the activities she enjoys with them: running around and playing fetch with her ivysaur, sending her recently evolved pidgeotto into complex aerial maneuvers with her ocarina, and of course cuddling up to Joy while reading or falling asleep, as she’s doing now.

Soon enough some of the kids are happy to take turns hugging her too. All at least pet her soft fur, and a few even feed her.

Leaf is in great spirits by the time night begins to fall, and everyone goes around to feed and withdraw the pokemon for the evening, then prepare to leave the ranch. She says goodbye to the kids and therapists, then the RAWP members, thanking Adom again for the tip and telling him to keep in touch. Once everyone’s gone, she heads upstairs to take a shower, then she goes to Aiko’s room to put her clothes away in her bag, expecting it to be empty. Instead she finds her friend there.

The mechanical parts that had cluttered it before are more or less neatly shoved into a corner now, with the majority of the roomspace dominated by supplies that are arranged around her travel bag. Aiko is on her computer, pokedex hooked up to it while she looks over some code.

“Hey. What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just working on a new idea I had while talking with the others downstairs.”

Leaf puts her dirty clothes in their container, then sits on her bed while she brushes her hair. “What on?”

“Trying to design a new sim for the pokedex. One that links a command word with the state of mind Red projects onto his pokemon, to let them temporarily forget their conditioning.”

Leaf’s eyes widen. “Red’s what?!

“Oh, right, you may not have heard…”

Leaf listens with mounting horror at what Aiko is casually describing as a valuable combat technique. “But… but what if it hurts the other pokemon, or attacks a trainer?”

“He’s being really careful with it,” Aiko assures her. “We’re still testing boundaries and effects, and he still won’t use it with his Charmeleon because he’s worried about the harm it might cause.”

Leaf doesn’t understand how careful they can really be with something this dangerous, but she knows Red’s methodical nature wouldn’t allow for something too irresponsible. Even still… “If something like that becomes widespread, it’ll cause pokemon to be even more hurt in battles. How can you be okay with that?”

Aiko turns her chair to face Leaf, brow creased. “This again?”

“What again?”

“You implying I don’t care about pokemon enough. What do you think the point of training even is? To make them more deadly for when we need them to be. This is just an extension of that.”

Leaf’s feels her pulse speed up. “Oh, please, like any regional league is going to ban something like this. They barely restrict dangerous attacks, how would they even know you were using something like this?”

“That can change, some day.”

“Sure. Some day. Meanwhile how many more pokemon are going to accidentally get killed in battles?”

Aiko throws her hands up. “What do you want us to do, just ignore it? For all we know other psychics are already using this, and just keeping it secret! We’re lucky Red isn’t like other battle trainers and told us!”

“Lucky. Of course. And here I was just thinking about how responsible he is, but he probably told the whole gym about this already, didn’t he?”

“No! Just the group.”

“You, Elaine and Glen?”

Aiko fidgets. “A few others too.”

“Aauugh!” Leaf buries her face in her arms. “This is what I get for chasing my story and not being around!”

“Leaf, you’re not thinking this through. Why do you think I want to make this something the pokedex can teach?”

She raises her head. “For your own pokemon to use it?”

“Sure, but not just that!” She sweeps an arm around her. “All this? It’s because pokemon are so incapable of living in the wild after being caught. If we don’t take care of them, they’ll either sit in storage for years or get released and die. Being able to remove conditioning temporarily might let us remove it permanently, so they can return to their natural habitat again if no one wants them.”

This gives Leaf pause, but her frown doesn’t lessen any. “But that’s not how most people are going to use it!”

“They might, if you can convince them to!”

Leaf is silent awhile, and they both stare at each other, faces flushed. “Do you really think I can?” she asks at last, once her breathing is slowed.

Aiko comes to sit on the bed beside her, hand taking hers. “After everything you’ve done in just a few months? I know you can.”

Leaf thinks of the Mt. Moon article and feels her face flush, for a different reason this time. “I think you’re a bit biased.”

“Nah, you’re just modest.”

Leaf almost admits her recent decision right there, almost lays the whole thing on Aiko to judge… but decides to just take the compliment, not wanting to burden her friend. “Even if you’re right, it’ll still take years. I don’t think I’ll do it fast enough to stop something like this from becoming widespread.”

Aiko snorts. “Well if you’re worried about me cracking this in my daily hour of spare time anytime soon, don’t be. It’ll probably take me twice as long to get it right.”

Leaf smiles and squeezes Aiko’s hand. “Now who’s being modest? Caught and raised your own pokemon, by yourself, and got a badge, all while helping out around here? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have it done by the time I’m back, and the Thunder Badge to boot.”

“Well, at least that last one seems likely.” Aiko lets out a breath. “Before you guys came I thought it would take another two years to get my next badge. Come back soon, okay? Or if you end up loving life on the sea, at least tell me so I know which boat to stick a tracker to and worry about.”

Leaf leans her head on Aiko’s shoulder and smiles. “It’s a promise.”


Blue is sitting on the porch as the stars come out, feeding Ion and planning out the trip tomorrow. He checks message boards for others looking to group up, sending notices and listing his party’s pokemon as he rubs Ion’s black fur. It’ll be his first time really leading an outing, explicitly in charge rather than the more equal footing he feels he’s on with Red and Leaf, despite their lack of badges. He wants to make sure everything goes perfectly, and tries to think of what might go wrong ahead of time as best he can.

Lack of supplies… cave-in… Tier 3 event…

He’s still there when Red comes out with his backpack on. “Ready to go?” he asks.

“Yeah, I already said bye to the others. Leaf is upstairs with Aiko still.” Red sits beside him, and Blue watches as his friend cautiously extends a hand to his shinx to let it get sniffed, then begins to stroke his fur. “When are you guys heading to the caves? In the morning?”

“Not right away. We want to give Aiko as much time as possible between teleports back, so we’ll try to time our arrival for when she has to come back at noon.”

“Makes sense.” Red is quiet a moment, and while Blue is comfortable with the silence, he gets the impression Red wants to say something.

“Battle went well,” he says first in case that’s it, referring to Red’s match with Glen. Red lost, but it was a close thing. “You’re still not committing enough to secure the wins.”

Red shrugs. “I was trying to test something out, mostly. It would have been dangerous to let it loose too much, so I didn’t really care about winning.”

“Well, testing stuff is fine. Just keep in mind that we’re training to win our fights. Not just for badges, but so we’re used to winning against wilds too.”

Red turns to him. “How come you didn’t tell everyone what your rhyhorn did, then?”

Blue blinks. “What?”

“Why do you keep things like that secret? Take risks? Your battle with Elaine reminded me of why I don’t like battle trainers.”

Blue feels a spark of heat in his chest. “What’s that supposed to mean? What did I do wrong?”

“Her graveler could have gotten hurt, Blue.”

“I was watching—”

“You don’t know her pokemon as well as she does. You should have told her that was a possibility before you started.”

“So you’re an expert on battle etiquette now, are you?” he asks, voice cold.

Red opens his mouth, closes it. Rubs his face. Takes a breath. “I’m saying this wrong. I wanted to say, first, that I’m really impressed with the way you’ve grown lately. The way you act around the others, help them improve. But your battle with Elaine today still felt like the old you.”

“The old me. Meaning what?” But part of Blue knows, thinks of the time Maturin hurt his training partner’s pokemon in Cerulean… what was her name, again?

“The you that cared more about winning than helping others win too.”

Blue feels the fiery form inside him prowling, wanting to snap back at Red’s accusations. Instead he tries to focus on the compliment his friend was giving him, and give one back. “Red, you’re a smart guy. You’re actually good at battling too, despite your mistakes. But this is something you just don’t get.” Blue holds a hand up to stall Red, searching for the right words. “I’ve been reading the book Gramps gave me, and it’s been teaching me how to think differently about what it means to lead others… but it’s also been confirming something for me: the importance of winning. I can’t become Champion if I don’t win, and I can’t win if I don’t hold things back. I want Glen and Elaine and Aiko and Amy and everyone to be right there with me on Victory Road, but…” His hand throbs, and he realizes that it’s curled into a tight fist. “I almost lost against Elaine, Red. I didn’t mention the attack ahead of time because I didn’t plan to use it ahead of time.”

Blue struggles with his shame and stubborn defiance in the following silence, until Red asks, voice soft, “Is it that big a deal, if you don’t win against a friend? What, you think she’ll respect you less?”

Blue shakes his head. “That’s not it. In the end I still need to know I can win, even if it looks like I can’t. So that one day, in that final battle, in front of the world, when it matters most, I know what works. Against anyone. Even Elaine. Even you. If I win there, I can teach all my secrets afterward. If I lose…” He stops, unable to put it into words, the feeling inside him, the hollow fear. “We’ll just be stuck again,” he says at last, hoping his friend understands.

Blue can see Red struggling to put something into words as well, his frown creasing his whole face as he runs his fingers beneath his hat. “But what makes that different? What sets you apart, if you follow that path? Don’t you want to be a Champion that leads?” Red asks. “Keeping secrets is important in battles, I get that, but… I think you have a real chance to set a different standard.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean do you want to prove you’re the best of this particular generation of trainers? Or do you want to be the best, like no one ever was?”

“You’re not about to break into song, are you?”

Red doesn’t smile. He stretches his hands out, arms wide. “This is it, Blue. This is your chance to do something really different. I think you’re halfway there, but not fully. I think you can do more: prove that you can win, reveal your secrets, and then win again anyway.”

Blue considers this for a moment, but the lurking fear, the waiting doom, is quickly there again. Red just doesn’t understand… “I can’t risk that.”

“You can’t risk that you’re not that good?”

“I can’t risk that no one is that good! And then someone else comes along, using my secrets and keeping theirs, and they beat me and all I’ve proven is what a swell guy I am. People won’t follow me just for being nice, Red.”

His friend is quiet for a beat. “I would,” he whispers.

Blue feels a lump in his throat, swallows past it, smiles. “Sure, I know that. Not everyone’s as smart as you though.”

Red smiles at that too, and a silence falls on them after that doesn’t feel uneasy, but still seems crowded with unresolved issues. Blue tries to think of what to say, reaching for some assurance…

“I’m worried about splitting up,” Red says first, surprising him with the topic change. “You’ll be careful, right? While Leaf and I are gone?”

Blue raises his brow. “Sure I will. And I’ve got the others to watch my back now too. It’s you guys I’m worried about, off on your own for a week, surrounded by eggheads—”

Red snorts. “There will be other trainers there too, you know.”

“Mmhm. Second stringers, or people years past their prime. Just saying, if a swarm of wingull attacks the boat and kills everyone, it would make for an embarrassing headline.”

“Heh. I think we could handle that. If not, we can just teleport back.”

Blue glances at him. “Could you?”

“What?”

“Teleport back, while the people on the boat are in danger?”

Red is silent for a moment. “I guess not. Not if I thought I could do something about it.”

Blue chuckles. “Speaking of still not being fully there yet…”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what we promised we’d become, one day. You remember, right? Professor doesn’t mean just researcher. Champion doesn’t mean just a strong trainer.”

“Heroes.”

“Right. The kinds of heroes that would stop the Stormbringers, eventually. Isn’t that what all this is for?”

“I remember.” Red shifts. “Still have to survive long enough to get there, though. To reach the hill I’m willing to die on, so to speak.”

Blue shakes his head, staring off into the dark sky, its stars shining down at them. “Heroes don’t get to choose their battles, Red. That’s what makes them who they are. What makes them as strong as they need to be.” There’s silence for a while, and in it Blue senses his friend’s disagreement again, the weight of unspoken words. He feels momentarily uneasy as he thinks of the way Red didn’t want to climb the tree for the pineco, and the way he argued against going to the incident on their way down here the first time… but then the way Red set up the smokescreen at the beedrill field, and stood against the paras on Mt. Moon. He’ll get there.

The door opens, and Leaf comes out. “Heya.”

“Hey.” He stands, and so does Red. Blue smiles, wrapping an arm around his friend’s shoulder for a quick hug. “I’ll think about what you said. Thanks for believing in me enough to say it.”

Red smiles back. “Same to you.”

He hugs Leaf next. “Take care of him, alright?”

“Nanny duty again,” Leaf sighs, but she squeezes him back, hard. “Watch out for the others.”

“That’s the plan.”

They stand around a moment longer, smiles fading but lingering, searching for something else to say. Something feels lodged in his chest. The last time he felt something like it was in the forest, watching them in the circle of light before he ran off for help. It’s silly, comparing the two situations. Blue knows it’s just a week, knows they’ve spent that much time barely seeing each other in cities before, but it still feels different, this geographic separation. He sees it in their eyes too as they summon their abra.

“What do you guys say?” he asks at last, holding a hand out, palm down. “Oaklings forever?”

Red groans, Leaf laughs, and that’s how they leave him: standing in the cool night air as they teleport away in a blink, leaving no trace but the warmth of their hands around his.

Guardian – Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t answer my question.”

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

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

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

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

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

Terra glances at him, brow raised.

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

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

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

“It’ll do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s working if so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terra, yes. And our bargain?”

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

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

“How about a peace treaty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, they have to speak truth.

Exaggerating then, goading me into–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“…nightmares of her grandfather’s hands…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No more or less than all memories do.”

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

“Again, I must warn you that–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bravo. Your pithy rejoinder has convinced me.”

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

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

“I think I can fulfill the Role.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well. He can’t judge them too harshly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puck’s brow rises.

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s true is already so…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you been dissatisfied with my service?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Puck.”

The fae looks over his shoulder, eyebrow raised.

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

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

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

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