Category Archives: Stories

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 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 spreads the pool faster, 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 from the other side 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 for a moment, 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.”

Elaine absorbs this silently for a moment a moment. “I guess that makes sense,” Elaine says. “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 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.

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. Ito 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.

Chapter 51: Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, Pichu!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Why?”

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

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

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

“Or magnemite?”

“Or-”

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

He shakes it. “Red.”

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

Red blinks. “Taller?”

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

“A week ago. You’ve read it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one way to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fresh insights, Verres?” the instructor asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, thanks.”

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it varies by pokemon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is she a Gym Member?”

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

“Neat, what business?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand. You must be very busy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Splendid. Thank you.”

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

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

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

“No sir!”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S’up Verres. You here to battle?”

“Hey guys. Yeah, meeting Aiko here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

Next the Prior Odds are 2:15, so

79 : 21
÷ 64 : 36
× 2 : 15

79 : 280

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

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

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

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

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

Aiko’s eyes widen. “Cool!”

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

Aiko winces. “Ooo, less cool.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much less,” Red confirms.

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

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

“Go, Charmander!”

“Go, Krabby!”

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

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

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

“Wide!” Aiko yells.

“Dodge!”

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

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

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

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

“Red! What happened?”

“Are you okay?

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

“Dodge!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You alright?” Aiko asks.

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

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

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

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

“Red?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Test!”

“Fast!”

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

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

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

“Do it!”

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

Do it.

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

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

“Dodge!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bwuh?” Glen says.

Red blinks. “Should I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 50: Comfort Zone Expansion

Leaf feels like a stranger as she enters the Vermilion Gym. Going to Pewter or Cerulean to watch Blue’s challenge matches was one thing, but it feels different entering one to participate in anything. She suddenly feels expected to know certain things or behave a certain way.

Red seems similarly uncomfortable at first, but warms up to the classes much faster. It isn’t until the personal fitness training class that she starts to have fun, running with Raff through an obstacle course like it’s just another day at the park, but with more interesting games to play. The newly evolved ivysaur has seemingly boundless energy, and has taken to his nickname without confusion. She had to explain it to Blue: Red understood right away, of course. She looks forward to when the pink bud on his back blooms in full and he comes into his name, but is happy to enjoy this intermediate form for as long as it lasts.

By the time they have their class on coordination and working with others, Leaf can see why Blue recommended she and Red attend. Neither of them get Objections in their first team building exercises, but by the end of it she does want to look into different gym cultures and policies to find out what the effects on the members and badge holders are, how the Leaders come to their philosophies, everything.

“I’m thinking of asking Blue if I can write the article on gyms after all,” she admits to Red between classes.

“Stay strong. Think of the pokemon that still need you to write about their well-being.”

She gives him the side eye. “Are you going to stop eating them if I write about it?”

He grins. “I might, if you write a sufficiently persuasive argument.”

Leaf tamps down her frustration at his flippancy. She knows he’s just trying to motivate her, and appreciates his support despite him not actually agreeing with her, but if she can’t even get her friends to take her ideas seriously, it’s hard to summon the motivation to get others to.

Still, maybe if she can demonstrate objective value from the perspective, like not scaring off abra, it’ll help. “I’ve been meaning to ask, the whole sensing what your pokemon feel… has it changed how you view them at all?”

Red shrugs. “A little? I mean, it makes it easy to remember that they’re living creatures that feel pleasure and pain, but at the same time their experiences aren’t as complex as ours. And my original point still stands: however tragic their deaths are, the ripple effects are still smaller.”

Leaf considers asking him to find some family of pokemon in the wild and see how they feel if one of their family members are taken away… but then considers whether that would change her mind, if it turns out the pokemon barely notice, or are sad for a while then get over it. More realistically, what if it differs by specie? Would that mean it’s okay to eat magikarp but not pidgey? Or pidgey but not miltank?

“A half measure is still better than nothing,” she finally says.

“That’s something I wanted to explore eventually too,” Red says as they approach the next class. “Mostly to see if there’s some correlation between pokemon who are easier to tame or grow attached to their trainer.”

They reach the group of trainers just as their instructor finishes setting up a poster board, his movements slow and lazy. Falling into line with the other students doesn’t feel strange any more either, and she knows that the clothes they provided is part of that, a way to make her feel intrinsic equality with her classmates, despite never stepping foot in a gym class before while others have multiple badges.

Their teacher is a tall, thin man with long curly dark hair and eyes that look baggy from lack of sleep. The impression is reinforced by the bored monotone in which he says, “Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to Tier Threat Assessment. My name is Leo Danton, and I work as the primary coordinator between Vermilion Gym and CoRRNet.”

He vaguely gestures to the billboard to his side, which depicts a map of some generic cityscape and the outlying suburbs, then the countryside around that. “Who here can draw a circle around a Tier 1 threat?”

Hands go up, and an older trainer walks over the marker dangling from the side of the paper to draw a circle around the city.

“Good. Where else could you draw one?”

The trainer pauses a moment, then carefully draws a circle between the suburbs to the west of the city and the edge of the map, where the road presumably leads to another town or city.

“And another?”

This time he draws one around the eastern suburbs.

“That’s enough. What made you choose those locations?”

“They’re somewhat constrained,” the trainer replies. “A Tier 1 threat is supposed to be localized, so… it puts an area at risk, but just that area.”

“And so you had to draw the boundaries somewhere, and conceptual boundaries like ‘city’ and ‘wilderness between towns’ made sense,” Trainer Danton says, somehow making it a question despite the lack of inflection.

“Ah, yeah. Basically.”

Their instructor nods and holds a hand out for the marker back, and the student returns to the group as Danton taps the poster board sheet with it. “Do pokemon know how to read maps?”

There’s silence for a moment, then everyone shakes their heads or says no.

“So what stops a Tier 1 threat from being, say, here,” he circles an area that captures part of the city and its nearby suburbs with his finger. “Or here?” He circles an area at the edge of the city that captures part of the suburb and part of the forests to the south of the city.

The class is silent for a moment, until Red raises his hand. “Habitat might? If the pokemon are rampaging in the forest, they might not leave the forest… or if they’re city dwelling pokemon, like the grimer and muk that overflowed Celadon’s sewers, they would be mostly concentrated in the city.”

Danton scratches the back of his neck, eyes up. “Not a bad answer. But while it’s true that even stampeding taurus will mostly stick to open fields rather than running through a nearby forest or into a city, towns can still be vulnerable, and other pokemon are less restricted. So what’s a Tier 2 threat? Anyone want to draw it?”

Leaf raises a cautious hand, picturing a circle with some arrows drawn away from it, but the instructor calls on someone else, who instead draws a growing outward spiral from the northern wilderness into the areas around it and the suburbs to the south, then even wider until the spiral goes to the edges of the pages and into the city itself. “It threatens all the nearby areas,” the trainer explains. “Either because it’s highly mobile, or because it’s a spreading threat that is likely to kick off other pokemon rampages or panics or migrations.”

“A textbook answer,” Trainer Danton says, and then seems to catch the wary look on the student’s face and says, “But correct.” He holds a hand out for the marker, and waits for the student to return to the class before looking them over. “Boundaries don’t exist in the real world. They’re all made up by us, concepts that only have meaning because we assign them. A lake can appear to be a boundary to a land dwelling pokemon, but some can swim. A mountain can slow them down, but others can dig through it. And then of course there are flying pokemon, who go where they will, or ghost pokemon, who, if their behavior isn’t as random as it appears, at least follow rules too obscure for us to easily predict.”

The class is quiet, and their instructor scratches at his neck a moment. “With that in mind, most people will call Tier 1 threats those that are confined to a certain location, even if the boundaries are fuzzy. Tier 2 threats, on the other hand, will spread from one location to another if left unchecked. Is that clear?” The class nods. “It shouldn’t be, unless you’ve all been working in this longer than I have. You, what’s the maximum flight distance of a pidgeotto without rest?” he asks an older trainer to the right of Leaf.

“Ah. Um.” The trainer’s surprise fades as their brow furrows. “Well, a flock can travel from one end of the region to the other in a day, and… Kanto is, ah, 200 kilometers across? So, at least that.” The trainer appears about to say something further, but then stays silent, gaze down.

The instructor waits a moment for him to continue, then says, “Good.” The trainer looks up with a surprised smile, and the instructor nods. “About the level of answer I expected.”

The trainer’s smile slips, but Danton is already pacing in front of the class, deadpan voice once again speaking with some force despite the monotone. “Estimates like that happen all the time in the field, even among professionals. Not everyone’s a Professor, and even they probably can’t remember all the relevant facts for any pokemon in any situation in the thirty seconds to a minute that trainers usually have to assess an incident and report its threat level. Tier 3 are fairly obvious, they’re events that are not just large and dangerous, but inherently mobile. Something that will spread destruction on a massive scale if not stopped or slowed down in some way.” He draws a line sideways near one edge of the map, then parallels it on the other edge, and begins to shade in the space between them before drawing a line in a particular direction. “Most of you are thinking of the Stormbringers, and that’s not an accident. The system was designed with them at the unambiguous top.” He snorts. “Naively, as it turned out. But that kind of threat is big and flashy and simple to diagnose. Sometimes an incident that looks like a Tier 1 ends up being a Tier 2, while other times a Tier 1 threat is misidentified as a Tier 2. Who can tell me why that’s a problem?”

The class is quiet. Leaf considers how people might bring the wrong pokemon to the situation, but Red raises his hand before she does. “Because the threat assessment helps make sure we don’t overcommit on Tier 1 events, or not commit enough on Tier 2.”

“Another textbook answer. But right. Rangers keep track of these things, to determine if events were accurately called or not. Anyone wanna guess how often they’re mislabeled?” Red’s hand is the only one to go up. After a moment the instructor says, “Anyone besides the Ranger’s kid?” Some people chuckle. “Nothing personal, Verres, but I want a guess, not someone who might have been told or looked it up.”

Red lowers his hand, and Leaf is glad to see he’s smiling slightly. “Why don’t we all guess, then? Write it down first? People are more likely to internalize being wrong if they make a concrete commitment first.”

Their instructor scratches his neck a moment, then shrugs. “Makes sense. Alright everyone, take out your phones or whatever you have on you to write out a pair of numbers. First, some basics. Let’s say there are 100 incidents reported as Tier 1 or 2 in a year in Kanto. How many of that 100 would you each say is Tier 1 or Tier 2?”

The class is quiet for a moment, probably trying to remember, as Leaf is, the last yearly breakdown of pokemon incidents she’d read. Was it something like twice as many Tier 1? That feels right.

Another trainer raises their hand first. “Maybe 70 Tier 1 and 30 Tier 2?”

“Close.” He turns to the poster board and begins writing. “Last year we had 44 events that were later estimated as Tier 1, and 25 that were Tier 2, so scaling that up to a hypothetical 100 events brings us to about—”

64 to 36, Leaf finishes in her head before the instructor writes it, already considering the next step. Of those 64 Tier 1, how many were reported as Tier 2? And of those 36 Tier 2, how many were reported as Tier 1? It’s a two pronged problem, since the end result would depend on the balance of the errors. If people were really good at estimating Tier 1 but bad at recognizing Tier 2, they might report something like 45 and 55, but if they’re bad at both, they might end up reporting 64 and 36, but all of the Tier 2 are reported as Tier 1. Or the opposite occurs.

Sure enough, Trainer Danton then says, “Okay, so write down how many of each do you believe were reported. You have a minute.”

Leaf thinks over the relevant factors. Red has talked about optimism bias enough, and she’s noticed it enough in her own estimations, that Leaf is inclined to list Tier 2 threats as underreported, and puts 70 and 30. Then she considers that once someone is in a scary situation, they might be more likely to panic, so Tier 2s might be overreported instead, and switches things back to 60 and 40.

Then she considers events she witnessed recently, and wonders who ended up reporting them first. Trainers? Experienced ones, if the Mt. Moon case, but maybe not in Viridian. Or were the Rangers there able to get the word out first? It would take a rather wide set of knowledge to accurately determine the risks involved in so many different scenarios. If newer trainers do some of the reporting, that might skew the numbers in both directions… but the question remains, which is skewed more? If anything, Tier 2 threats probably need more information to accurately diagnose…

She realizes that she should be thinking of these as percentages instead. If considering how accurate people are at estimating Tier 1 events specifically, there is some portion of false positive Tier 1s reported that are actually Tier 2, and false negative Tier 2s reported that are actually Tier 1…

She’s still working a few minutes later the instructor speaks up. “Okay, whatever you guys have now is good enough. Anyone confident in their answer?”

Most stay silent. Red looks like he wants to say something more and more as the seconds tick by, and as soon as Leaf finishes rechecking her math, she raises her hand.

“I think something like 45% of reported Tier 2 events are actually Tier 1s, and 25% of reported Tier 1 are actually Tier 2,” Leaf says after being called on. “Meaning we end up with 51 reported Tier 1 and 49 reported Tier 2, while in actuality there are 64 Tier 1 and only 36 Tier 2.”

There’s another moment of silence as everyone absorbs this, and Leaf feels her cheeks flushing as she realizes she may have taken the question more seriously than she was supposed to.

But the instructor just cocks his head, brow slightly raised. “Pretty close, among the general population. You came about it the right way, but Rangers are more accurate on average, though still likely to overreport Tier 2 relative to Tier 1. That’s how we end up with 33% of reported Tier 2 that are actually Tier 1, and 21% of reported Tier 1 that are actually Tier 2.” He turns looks over the rest of the class. “Anyone find that surprising? Had much more reported as Tier 1?” Most of the class raises their hands. “Who had more Tier 2?” Trainer Danton watches hands fall and rise.

He scratches his neck. “Both Rangers and trainers on average tend to overestimate how much danger they’re facing, but it’s worth keeping in mind different reasons for the error. When a trainer thinks a Tier 1 is a Tier 2, it’s likely because they’re scared. When they don’t realize that the Tier 1 they reported is actually a Tier 2, it’s likely because of simple ignorance of the pokemon or area and how badly things can spiral out of control, how far the damage can spread. Rangers probably have a different motivation, like them being the ones on the front lines, when deciding how many reinforcements to call in. Regardless of which direction you were off by, remember not to make the same mistakes when you’re the one making the call or hearing others do so.” Red’s hand has been inching up, then going back down, for the last minute or so, as different questions are asked. Leaf suppresses a smile as her friend tries to estimate when a natural break in the lesson will occur for him to ask his question. The instructor may be taking pity on him when he finally says, “Yes, Verres?”

“I wanted to ask, is there an official rubric to decide what level of threat an incident is? I’ve never seen one, but if Rangers can make ultimate determinations after the fact…”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” The instructor sighs. “It’s been discussed before, but none have had enough agreement to be endorsed officially, and the Powers That Be seem to think an inaccurate one would do more harm than letting trainers make their own decisions on the spot, with all the context and data available to them. The determinations the Rangers make are done by committee, and by necessity would likely include information those on the ground who first call them in aren’t always privy to.”

Red is frowning. “But there has to be some basic guidelines, at least?”

“If there wasn’t these classes would be a lot shorter. First let’s test how well you all do without them. Split into groups, and I’ll give you some scenarios.”

Red and Leaf immediately step closer together, and let the inertia of the others forming groups draw them into one of them. Once there are five groups with roughly even numbers, and everyone has introduced themselves, Trainer Danton takes a timer out, looks back and forth between them, then clicks it on.

“An earthquake dislodges the pokemon from Diglett Cave. They burrow under the ground in every direction, coming up at random places to create potholes in Vermilion’s outer suburban roads, shredding electrical lines and dislodging plumbing. They even cause small quakes that erode at housing foundations. Is this a Tier 1 event, or Tier 2?”

Leaf turns to her group. Their member with the most Objections is a young woman named Bretta with curly brown hair and glasses, and she looks thoughtful for a moment, then starts listing things rapidly.

“They’re moving in every direction, so may not be contained. Their quakes may set other pokemon off, causing additional rampages. I’m going with Tier 2. Objections?”

Red raises his hand. “Diglett rarely stray from their territory for long, even if threatened. The key to a Tier 2 should be whether trainer intervention is necessary to prevent a spread, not the size of the initial spread itself.”

“What about the other pokemon being displaced?” another trainer says.

“That’s an if, not a guarantee,” Leaf replies. “I don’t know the pokemon in this area that well, but are there any others that are likely to cause a chain reaction?”

“The forests around the city are full of pokemon that might rampage,” Bretta says again.

“We should default to Tier 1 if we’re not sure,” Red says. “They’re almost twice as common, so unless we have strong evidence that it’s a Tier 2, it’s safer to guess 1.”

“We don’t know if the instructor is following that probability with his examples though,” Leaf points out. “He might give us an equal amount of each, or split them the other way around.”

“Ten seconds left,” another trainer points out, watching her phone.

“Right, executive decision, Tier 2,” the group leader says. “Last chance for Objections.” She eyes the two trainers with a couple tokens.

“I still say Tier 1,” Red says, frowning slightly. “For the rec-”

“Time.” Trainer Danton lowers his stop watch and says, “Group leaders who voted Tier 2, raise your hands.” Three of the five groups do. “Congratulations, you just over committed and left the area’s trainers unprepared for the next nearby disaster. Anyone wanna offer your rationale?” He listens as they offer their reasons, points out how they’re not applicable, then restarts the timer. “Next, a storm surge hits the docks, flooding the closest districts and filling them with tentacool, chinchou, shellder, and others. Figure out a response in 30 seconds.”

This one is a bit easier to label a Tier 1, since eventually the storm would die down and the waters recede, putting no other areas of the city or beyond it in danger. Someone raises the possibility that there’s something non-obvious they’re missing, but time is called before they can discuss it and they end up going with Tier 1, which is correct.

“Next, a particularly long spring leads to local combee hives aggressively expanding. 2 minutes to decide.”

This one seems more obviously a Tier 2 to Leaf, but after a brief discussion, Bretta suggests Tier 1. “It’s not like they’ll go into nearby cities or mountains, if there aren’t enough flowers there.”

“They might try to though,” Leaf objects. “And they could upset the local populations there and cause a chain reaction that might spread further.”

This starts an argument about the likelihood of that, which Leaf only half listens to. Her argument was actually born from a different realization, that the harm caused to the other pokemon would be massive even if no other humans are affected. She knows that’s not the point of the Tier system, though, so she kept it to herself. Still, even if this is determined to be a Tier 1 attack, she’s pretty sure she would label it Tier 2 if she saw it in the wild, and she’s not sure if that should bother her or not. She knows she shouldn’t intentionally use the wrong criterion, but she can’t help but care about what she cares about.

Red raises a hand eventually, causing people to quiet and look at him.

“We have forty seconds,” he says. “Whether it’s a long term problem is less important than whether they need to be stopped before they spread into other areas in the first place. Leaf is right, the risk of a chain reaction is too big. I vote Tier 2.”

“Come on, combee causing a Tier 2?” Bretta says. “The Viridian Fire wasn’t even labeled that.”

“Well it should have been,” Red says. “I think whoever made that initial call got it wrong, they thought it was just a fire from some riled up pikachu. The extent of the rampage was the real threat.”

“And the other pokemon that started panicking too, or took advantage of the chaos,” Leaf adds, thinking of the shiftry that attacked Blue. “Viridian was lucky, because it had two gyms on either side of it. If things weren’t addressed as well, the carnage could easily have continued to spread.”

“Fifteen seconds left,” someone notes. “I’m with them, Tier 2.”

The others around the circle agree, and the group leader frowns. “Anyone got an Objection to gamble on it?”

No one speaks up, and Leaf feels frustrated for the first time at not having one. “I don’t need you to give me one, but if 2 is wrong, I’ll admit it was my idea publicly,” Leaf says.

“Time,” the instructor calls just then. “Who got Tier 2, raise your hands.” Leaf looks at Bretta, who keeps her hand down, looking vindicated until the instructor then says, “Good job. The rest of you just doubled the casualties by not committing enough.”

“Hang on,” Bretta says. “Why is this a Tier 2 but the diglett one wasn’t? They could have riled up other pokemon and spread the rampage further too.”

“Their disturbance would have been confined to the ground, and very few pokemon would be driven to rampage from that,” Danton says. “Observations of diglett movements in the past have shown minimal effect on displacement of other species.” He turns to the group at large, scratching his neck. “Don’t feel bad if you get these wrong. That’s what the class is for.” His tone is still so bland that it doesn’t come off as particularly reassuring, but he puts his timer away and flips to a new page on the board. “The basics to keep in mind in any incident are the following…”

Leaf starts writing as he lists them out:

1. What pokemon are involved?

2. How far can they travel?

3. What pokemon are in their travel zone?

4. How likely are they to fight vs flight?

5. How far can THEY travel?

6. And so on…

Leaf blinks as she finishes writing the last point, ellipses and all. As far as basic guidelines go, this isn’t much, but she understands the underlying idea: every situation will be different, so much so that accurately calling every event would require an encyclopedic knowledge of local pokemon and terrain. She hopes she never has to be the sole person making that call in Kanto, but resolves to spend half an hour every night studying the habitats around them in case she is.

“There are more specific general guidelines that each region’s Ranger Corp puts out. I suggest you all study them, but they’re still no replacement for familiarizing yourself with your surroundings. Yes, Verres?”

“Is the data of past incidents publicly available?” Red says. “I mean, after it’s been analyzed by the Rangers?”

“It is, and it can be a useful read too. A bit dry for most people. But remember that the analysis in them is reached after the facts are known. Unless you happen to be involved in the exact same kind of incident as one described there, it can be misleading to think it’ll prepare you for making those decisions yourself. Speaking of which…”

He turns to Bretta, voice and face as bland as ever when he says, “Those tokens you have, they don’t mean anything. When you leave this gym, people won’t remember how many you had. They’ll remember whether you accepted good ideas or held out for Objections. Just letting you know.”

He turns back to the class at large. “So the next step is to learn the most common types of pokemon attacks in a region, and how terrain can affect their chance of spreading…”

As Trainer Danton starts to list them, Leaf can’t help but notice Bretta out of the corner of her eye, face flushed and hands clenched as her jaw works. She can’t tell whether the older girl is holding in tears or anger, but eventually her hand jerks up and takes an Objection off her jacket before handing it to Leaf, not looking at her.

“I don’t…” Leaf whispers, then shakes her head. “Keep it.”

“Just take it,” Bretta hisses back.

“I’m not going to be here a lot, I don’t need—”

“I’ll take it,” Red whispers from her other side.

Bretta hesitates, and Leaf reaches out and takes the token before handing it to Red without comment. Bretta’s jaw stiffens, but she keeps her gaze on their instructor, and Leaf does the same, distracted as she tries to think of whether she should say something to the girl after class.

As soon as it ends, however, Bretta walks away, and Red is talking at her about statistics.

“What?” she asks after a moment as they walk toward the cafeteria. “Sorry, I was thinking about something else. Start over?”

“I think I finally get Bayesian probabilities,” Red says, voice excited. “Giovanni brings it up every so often—stop making that face, Leaf, regardless of what you think of him the blog is a good information source—and I only ever sort of got it, it was like holding onto water, I’d feel like I understood it one day but the next week I’d try applying it to something and forget the steps or misclassify the variables, but with determining the Tier of an incident it’s really obvious that we should be basing our judgement off of prior probabilities and adjusting them based on the specific instance’s evidence…”

It takes Leaf a moment to catch his train of thought, but as soon as she does her mind starts connecting what he’s saying with what she was doing in her calculations. “You’re talking about what you said earlier, bringing up how often Tier 1 or 2 is in general and weighing that in your decision of whether to judge a specific incident as Tier 1 or 2. So instead of saying ‘I’m 90% confident this is a Tier 2 incident,’ we’d first remember that only 36% of incidents in Kanto are Tier 2 and adjust downward in confidence.”

“Right! That’s why I wanted to know if Rangers have the figures by specific pokemon, because that would provide even more accurate prior probabilities to judge by. If you know that, of all incidents primarily involving beedrill8 out of 10 in the past have been Tier 2, then your prior should be 80% that one you encounter is Tier 2, and then you can adjust for whatever other factors you see that may make it a Tier 1 instead, like the swarm is between the coast and a mountain range.”

“Sure, or Tyranitar only having 2 Tier 1 incidents out of 17 over the last 10 years.” She remembers that number surprising her, as the hulking rock monsters tend to be slow and solitary creatures, however powerful. “That makes it fairly easy to default to Tier 2 unless there’s a really good reason to think it’s a Tier 1.”

“But the more important point isn’t about people deciding if an incident is Tier 1 or 2, it’s with the Rangers trying to decide whether to respond as if it’s a Tier 1 or Tier 2 when one gets called in, based on how often there are false Tier 1 or 2 called in!”

“But that’s obvious, isn’t it?”

Red gives her an odd look as they grab a pair of pre-loaded food trays. “Who taught you math?”

“My mom.” Leaf takes the container of cold cuts off hers and swaps it with an extra salad bowl from a different one, figuring some meat lover would be happy to take that one. “Why?”

“I think you don’t understand how much trouble most people have with it,” he says as they find a table. “Because that’s not obvious, I didn’t think to do it until after I realized how useful the prior would be in the first place.”

“But the Rangers are a professional organization, Red, there’s no way they don’t take that into account.”

“I hope you’re right, but I doubt it. As far as I know, Rangers don’t undergo any math classes during their training. Look, let’s say a non-Ranger reports a Tyranitar rampage as a Tier 1.” They sit down, and Red takes out his notebook. He tears a pair of sheets out and hands one to her with a pencil. “You’re the ranger in charge of deciding whether to treat it as a Tier 1, or send a full Tier 2 response. Try writing out your process for figuring out the chance it’s actually a Tier 1, I want to see if I can do it too.”

Leaf does so, eating one handed as she writes with the other. According to what Trainer Danton said…

P(T1): The probability of a Tier 1 Event overall is 64%.

And if 21% of reported Tier 1 events are actually Tier 2, then…

P(T1 | R1): 79% of Tier 1 reports are actual Tier 1 events.

While he already gave her the odds of a false Tier 2 report:

P(T1 | R2): 33% of Tier 2 reports are also actually Tier 1 events.

So, first she wants to find the probability of a Tier 1 Report in the first place. She writes out:

P(T1) = P(T1 | R1) * P(R1) + P(T1 | R2) * (1 – P(R1))

And takes her phone out to use its calculator as she starts plugging in numbers.

.64 = .79 * P(R1) + .33 * (1 – P(R1))

.64 = .79 P(R1) + .33 – .33 P(R1)

.31 = .79 P(R1) – .33 P(R1)

.31 = .46 P(R1)

P(R1) = .31 / .46 = .6739

So 67% of incidents are reported as Tier 1. Combining that with the probability of Tier 1 events, she can find the probability of a report being T1 whether the incident is T1 or T2.

P(R1 | T1) = P(T1 | R1) * P(R1) / P(T1) = 0.79 * 0.6739 / 0.64 = 0.8319

P(R1 | T2) = P(T2 | R1) * P(R1) / P(T2) = 0.21 * 0.6739 / 0.36 = 0.3931

Leaf feels tension in her shoulders and straightens so she’s not hunched over, hearing her mom’s lecturing voice in her head. She pauses to take a bite of an apple and glance at Red, wondering how far along he is. His brow is knitted with concentration, so she forgoes asking him and just goes to answering the final question:

Given that:

The probability of a Tyranitar Tier 1 Event, P(T1), is 2/17

The probability of a Tyranitar Tier 2 Event, P(T2), is 15/17

The probability of a Tier 1 Event being reported as Tier 1, P(R1 | T1), is 83%

The probability of a Tier 2 Event being reported as Tier 1, P(R1 | T2), is 39%

What is the chance a reported Tier 1 is actually a Tier 1, P(T1 | R1)?

P(T1 | R1) = P(R1 | T1) * P(T1) / (P(R1 | T1) * P(T1) + P(R1 | T2) * P(T2))

P(T1 | R1) = 0.83 * (2/17) / (0.83 * (2/17) + 0.39 * (15/17))

P(T1 | R1) = .0996 / (.0996 + .3441) = .221

For the final probability Leaf finishes, checks it over again, then puts the pencil down so she can focus on her food. “Okay, I’m done. What’d you get?”

After a minute, Red stops writing and looks up. “It’s 29% right? Rounding up.”

Leaf quickly checks her numbers again. “No, I got about 22%.”

Red buries his face in the crook of his arm on the table. “I had it for a minute there, I swear.”

Leaf covers her grin with her hand. “Hang on, let’s see what you did…” She takes his sheet and checks his final calculation just to make sure it’s not something simple, but sees a completely different setup:

2/17 Tyranitar are T1 = ~12%. If we have 100 Events with Tyranitar as main threat that means:

12 are Tier 1

88 are Tier 2

For every 100 Events reported as Tier 1

79 are actually Tier 1

21 are actually Tier 2

For every 100 Events reported as Tier 2

67 are actually Tier 2

33 are actually Tier 1

Group A: 8.52 Tyranitar are Tier 1 and Reported Tier 1

Group B: 3.48 Tyranitar are Tier 1 but Reported as Tier 2

Group C: 66.88 Tyranitar are Tier 2 and Reported as Tier 2

Group D: 21.12 Tyranitar are Tier 2 but reported as Tier 1.

Group A / (Group A+ Group D) = .2874

“Huh.” Leaf blinks. “I see what you were going for, but your probabilities are wrong.”

“What do you mean? Did I miscalculate them?”

“No, I mean you confused what the actual probabilities Trainer Danton gave us were. You just took the probability of a Tier 1 report being a Tier 1 event and treated it as the same thing as a Tier 1 event being reported as Tier 1. They’re not, that just tells you how many True Positive results there are. There are also False Positives and False Negatives for Tier 1 and Tier 2 events that change things.”

Red sighs. “I knew that, I just forgot to apply it. I may have mentioned math isn’t my strong suit.” He rallies after a moment. “But I’m going to get better at it. No more using that as an excuse. Today is already a day of expanding our comfort zones little by little, right?”

Leaf grins. “Right.”

“So what did you do instead?”

“I had to find the actual probability of Tier 1 reports first. Look, here…”

She shows him on her paper where she uses the formula P(T1) = P(T1 | R1) * P(R1) + P(T1 | R2) * (1 – P(R1)) to find P(R1).

“Once you have that, you can find what you really need to do what you were doing, the real rate of a given Tier 1 Event getting Tier 1 Report, or Tier 2, or the reverse.” She starts rewriting the given information, and underlines the key differences in what she found first:

The probability of a Tyranitar Tier 1 Event, P(T1), is 2/17

The probability of a Tyraniter Tier 2 Event, P(T2), is 15/17

The probability of a Tier 1 Event being reported as Tier 1, P(R1 | T1), is 83%

The probability of a Tier 2 Event being reported as Tier 1, P(R1 | T2), is 39%

“See how that’s different than “79% of Tier 1 reports are Tier 1 events?” she asks.

“I think so, yeah. Now I split them up into groups, right?”

“Right, if that helps you more than using the formula. Let’s also expand the number of events and be more precise…”

If there are 1000 Tyranitar events:

118 are Tier 1

882 are Tier 2

83% of the Tier 1 events will be reported as Tier 1, so:

Group A: 97.94 Tyranitar are Tier 1 and Reported Tier 1

Group B: 20.06 Tyranitar are Tier 1 but Reported as Tier 2

39% of Tier 2 events will be reported as Tier 1, so 61% will be:

Group C: 538.02 Tyranitar are Tier 2 and Reported as Tier 2

Group D: 343.98 Tyranitar are Tier 2 but reported as Tier 1.

After checking to make sure Group A and B add up to the 118 Tier 1 Tyranitar Events, and C and D add up to the 882 Tier 2 Events, she then finishes with:

Group A / (Group A+ Group D) = .2216

“Okay. I think I got it.” Red examines the numbers quietly for a moment. “Well, 22% isn’t that much higher than 12%. So it would still make sense to respond to a Tyranitar event as a Tier 2, even if it’s a little more likely to be a Tier 1 after someone reports it as one.”

“How many reports do Rangers usually get before they mount a response?” Leaf asks. “If the next few reports are also Tier 1, that would quickly bring the odds of it being at Tier 1 high enough that they should respond as if they’re accurate.”

Red shrugs. “They start mobilizing as soon as they get the report, but they continue to monitor the situation as that happens and adjust what they send as they coordinate with other Ranger outposts and nearby gyms. But they usually only get a handful of reports before everyone in the area knows about it and stops sending in new ones.”

“Huh. So they may not actually get a chance to update far enough for some really rare instances, if they were to second-guess the really rare events.” Something about that bothers Leaf, there should be a better solution…

“Let me try one with a different pokemon now,” Red says, grabbing a fresh sheet.

“Alright.” She hands him the pencil and watches him follow the steps she did. She’s in the middle of pointing out a difference when someone plops down on the bench to her left.

“Heyoo. This kid owe you money?”

Leaf looks up with a grin. “Aiko! What’s—oh.” She looks around with wide eyes as almost a dozen other trainers sit around them, Blue taking a seat next to Red.

“So?” Blue asks, as he digs into his food, mouth full. “H’wsha firsh deh?”

A teenager on Blue’s other side holds a napkin up to catch some of the food before it can spray across to Leaf and Aiko. “Swallow first, you small-town bumpkin. We’re civilized folk here.”

“Hi!” a girl to Leaf’s right says. “I’m Elaine. It’s great to meet you, I’m from Pewter, your article on the museum was awesome, are you writing another one?”

Leaf blinks. “Thanks! And hi, nice to meet you too, um, yeah I’m writing another, but not on Pewter—”

“Oh I figured, what’s it on?”

Blue finally swallows. “Hang on, I asked first.”

“Technically,” the boy to his right mutters.

“Hush, Glen. Spill, newbies. First day, how was it? Great, right?”

“Pretty great, yeah,” Leaf says, gaze lingering on Glen, who Red had said Blue was thinking of inviting with them on their journey. He’s kinda cute… “We were actually just talking about the latest class we took—”

“Red!” Blue exclaims, staring at his friend’s chest. “You got an Objection! Congratu-mph!”

Red’s hand shoves blindly up and covers Blue’s mouth. “Leaf gave it to me,” Red says, gaze still on his equations. “Now hush a minute, I need to get this right.”

“What’s with the math?” Aiko whispers to Leaf.

“Bayes’ Theorem,” Leaf says, still looking around at all the trainers, most of whom are watching them with interest.

“From Giovanni’s blog?” an older boy on Red’s other side asks. “Why are you—”

“Because literal lives may be at stake someday if I misjudge the severity of a Tier 1 or Tier 2 incident,” Red says as he finishes writing, then turns the paper toward Leaf and removes his other hand from Blue’s mouth.

Leaf studies the sheet. “You tried to shortcut the calculation of Group D, didn’t you?”

“Uh. Yeah. How did you know?”

“Your C and D add up to 100 instead of the frequency of Tier 2 events.”

Red curses and takes the sheet back to erase it while Blue shakes his head. “Literal lives at stake, and you shortcut.” Red tries to cover Blue’s mouth again, but he fends him off and turns to Leaf as their arms shove against each other. “Oh, I should introduce everyone… this is Glen, that’s Chron,” the boy to Red’s other side raises his hand. “Elaine introduced herself, and over there is Taro and his sister Chie…”

Most of them are eating and talking among themselves now, stopping as their names are mentioned to look up and smile at her. She tries to keep up with all the new names, ten in total, as her head spins from everyone talking over and under each other. Clearly this is what Red meant by the group Blue and Aiko had started hanging out with, but she didn’t realize it was this big.

“It’s nice to meet all of you,” she manages to say before Elaine starts asking questions about what she’s writing again, which Aiko interrupts by asking if she found a blog for her abra article, letting Leaf answer both at once.

“What about you, what have you been up to?” Leaf asks Aiko before she can get asked another series of questions. “Other than making the gym uniform look good, somehow.”

“Oh hush, you flatterer,” she says while taking Leaf’s untouched carrots and replacing them with her own shredded radish, which Leaf happily starts munching on. “I’ve been great, actually! My sandshrew evolved today, and I can say for sure as of this morning that we’re going ahead with the petting zoo/therapy idea! My dad and I finalized the business details with Mrs. Ino, we should start with a couple trial clients tomorrow!”

“That’s fantastic! And congrats on the sandslash.” Leaf wants to ask how her dad is doing, but isn’t sure how much private information Aiko has already shared with the others.

Red looked up from his paper upon hearing about the ranch, smiling wide. “We’ll be heading out on the cruise soon, but do you think we can go visit?”

Aiko beams at him. “You guys are always welcome.” She turns to the others. “The rest of you too, as long as you tell your friends and family.”

“If I’m going to be a walking billboard,” Glen says, “I demand payment in the form of petting cute pokemon.”

“Oh man, there are so many cute pokemon there,” Leaf says, grinning at him. “You should totally come with us.”

“And the billboard idea’s not bad,” Aiko says, examining him while tapping her chin.

“You’ve done it now,” Elaine says. “She’s got That Look. We’ll all be fitted with wearable boards by the end of the week.”

Blue snorts. “Not me. I can do some sign twirling though, if you want.”

“The wearable one would let you advertise while battling, though,” Leaf points out.

“No advertising during official League matches,” Elaine says. “You’re from Unova, right?”

Leaf blinks. “Yeah. I don’t watch the matches but I know trainers there wear company shirts and hats and bags all the time during recorded matches.”

“Well not here,” Blue says. “Because Kantonians aren’t sell-outs, right everyone?”

“Right!” the group shouts as one.

“I’m from Connacht,” Glen says. “I’m happy to sell out.”

“I’ll pay you five bucks to wear a shirt that says Connacht Sucks!” one of the other trainers from farther down the tables says. Leaf has already forgotten their name.

“Make it fifty!”

“Ten!”

“Fifty-five!”

“What?! Who taught you how to haggle?”

“My grandmother, and now it’s sixty for insulting her by implication!”

“Alright, time out!” Blue says, hands cutting the air to both sides. “This slight clearly has only one solution: duel at sundown.”

“Don’t let him boss you around like that,” Red says. “I like where the haggling’s going.”

“I’m curious if he’d actually take fifty now,” Chron says. “Also, you put the wrong denominator.” He points, and Red looks back down with a frown.

“The ship of fifty has sailed,” Glen declares, arms crossed.

“I’ll give you forty,” Aiko says, sounding completely serious. “To wear it around the city for two days.”

Glen hesitates.

“The ship of forty, apparently, is less decisive,” Blue says.

“And didn’t insult your grandmother’s haggling skills,” Aiko reminds him.

Leaf’s phone chimes, distracting her from the back and forth, and she lets the conversation flow around her as she takes it out to check if it’s anything important, enjoying the banter. She’s not used to big crowds of people, and would probably find it tiring if she had to deal with it all day, but she has to admit she can see the appeal.

Her slight smile fades as she sees who sent the email, and she quickly opens it, mind jumping between scenarios that would warrant him contacting her again, few of them good…

Hey Leaf. Your prediction came true: Zoey Palmer has been poking around. Reached out to me just today, asking a lot of the same questions you did in your last visit. I was honest, but didn’t mention anything beyond what she asked about, but she seemed suspicious of what Giovanni’s men are doing here. I’ll let you know if she reaches out again, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t. Hope you’re close to cracking this thing.

Stay safe,

Ryback

“Leaf? Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry, I’ve got to run.” Leaf sees the looks of curiosity and concern, and forces a smile.

“You’re not going to join us for Advanced Formations?” Aiko asks. “It’s one of the funnest classes!”

“Maybe another time. It was nice meeting all of you,” she says to the rest of them, then looks at Red and silently apologizes for leaving him alone. Their joint venture wasn’t as bad as they feared, however, and she thinks he’ll be fine. “Can I rely on you to make sure he learns that?” she asks Chron with a smile.

“Yes ma’am.” He salutes her, and it takes her a moment to realize he took her request seriously. What has Blue been doing to them? Or is it from my own fame?

“Thanks. Call you later,” Leaf says to Aiko, squeezing her shoulder in a quick hug, then heads out of the cafeteria.

She quickly goes to the Gym’s locker room to retrieve her things, then returns to the Trainer House, thoughts already on Ryback’s message and its implications as she bikes through the city. If Palmer is on the right track now, Leaf’s window of opportunity is shrinking. She needs to step up her game, which means finally pinning down her next step in the investigation of Yuuta’s death.

The Trainer House’s work room is quiet but for the clack of keys. It’s a bit crowded considering the time, but the various noises of the others doesn’t bother her. While Leaf has her own computer now, she’s found it easier to concentrate on work related things when she’s in a work related environment, and so her strategy for avoiding getting sucked into arguments online lately has been to put up as many barriers as possible for it. As long as she’s doing research on a public computer, and not logged into her own accounts, she doesn’t have to see all the notifications and messages that are no doubt piling up.

She thought of asking Professor Oak if he’s learned anything a few times over the past week, then realized if there’s something he’d wanted her to know he would have told her already. The next obvious choice was to ask Laura for help, but Leaf still isn’t sure that talking with another reporter wouldn’t violate the “agreement” she made with Giovanni, deceptive though he probably was when she made it.

So she started trying to answer the central question herself, the question Leader Giovanni implied was at the center of the mystery: who benefits from chaos in the dig site?

According to the Viridian Gym Leader, whatever had happened to Yuuta was an intentional act of sabotage for the dig or those connected to it. The strange thing is that the same could be said of Yuuta’s theft, so even if the person or people who killed him were not connected to him at all, there were still two attacks on the dig regardless of whether they were by the same people. She can untangle rivaling motivations later.

So the question she’d been investigating since leaving Cerulean was simple: Who benefits monetarily if the Mt. Moon dig falls apart?

Thankfully her investigation there did most of the legwork in answering that, and as it turned out once she put the data together, quite a lot of people would. The mountain, being a highly valuable pokemon habitat, had a lot of rules and regulations imposed on it that made it hard for most to do business there. This venture only worked because all three cities worked together to facilitate it, but that meant even more red tape, which made the costs go higher.

If it ends up working out, it will prove that projects like this are financially viable while still abiding by the uniquely high standards. Which means, Leaf both surmised and read others assert, those standards would likely be spread to any future digs that open on the mountain… or similar places. Which puts the organizations currently there who have already proven themselves capable in a much better position to take advantage of those later agreements.

Which means in a sense that any organization that tried to outbid the current ones working there, or couldn’t afford to, and even the private security company that competed with the “organizing gym” (the article didn’t specify which, but Ryback confirmed that it was Viridian’s), might all benefit if it falls apart. There are also fossil suppliers that would see their prices undercut if such a major new source of fossils became available to certain groups but not others… but such zero-sum thinking would implicate far too many organizations, and besides, Leaf doesn’t think a rivalry between paleontologists would get so cutthroat as to warrant murder.

Well, most of the time. Maybe. It might if the monetary sums are large enough.

In any case the web of suspects is still too large, so she moved on to the next layer:

Who benefits politically if the Mt. Moon dig falls apart?

Environmental groups who were against the dig. Politicians who want to embarrass their city’s Leaders… something she wouldn’t have considered before her journey, but which seems at least plausible now. Would someone like Mayor Kitto stoop to murder just to make Brock look bad? Probably not, but there’s no way Leaf has the whole picture. The only way she would get to the bottom of this is by assuming that whoever killed Yuuta had motivations that make sense. If that’s not the case then she’ll have wasted a lot of time, but she has to narrow the possibility space somehow.

Once she starts investigating them she can start striking out the ones that are unsupported or too improbable, but until now she’s still been in the mode of generating hypotheses rather than trying to prove or disprove any of them yet.

Her last additions were adding Mayor Kitto to the list, as well as Tonio and Mangal, the mayors of Cerulean and Viridian, and it struck her that if it was someone Misty interacts with they would have to be very stupid or careful to plot against her. Unless of course they’re Dark…

This is where prejudice comes from you know. Still, Leaf checks to see if any of the mayors are Dark, which is surprisingly easy to find out. Apparently any time a politician runs for office there are tons of people wondering what psychics think of them, which leads to a lot of activity on forums where psychics claim this or that mental state that the politician had while they were giving speeches meant whatever the psychic then extrapolated it to mean. Since an actual mental connection needed to be formed to pick up thoughts, however, only those unwilling to give up anonymity would admit to such a breach in privacy laws, which means their assertions of what politicians said were always in doubt.

Leaf loses an hour to that fascinating rabbit hole before she stumbles on the answer to her question as a matter of course: some group fighting for equal rights insisting that Dark people shouldn’t be discriminated against quickly led her to the revelation that apparently Kanto doesn’t have anyone in public office that’s Dark, since, as Leaf’s own suspicions supported, the capability of hiding something made them inherently suspicious in an arena where one could at least usually rely on psychics weeding out the most blatantly dishonest or emotionally unstable.

That just makes Leaf wonder whether someone good enough at concealing their inner mental states, or who didn’t feel any sort of guilt for lying, might not slip through. But that’s a question for another day, and right now she has her answer: Mayor Tonio probably isn’t in on the attack, and neither is Mangal, if Giovanni uses psychics to monitor the people he talks to regularly, which Leaf has no reason to think he doesn’t, stupid sneaky snake that he is…

Anyway. That leaves just Kitto, who she puts on one side of the suspect list. She starts to fill it out with everyone else who has a political reason to want the dig site to fail, and then starts filling out the financial side of the list until she can plot them in a venn diagram.

When she finishes, she has a list of nine names or organizations in the middle, with both political and financial motives. The real culprit may be in the purely financial or political motivation side, or even someone she didn’t even think of with personal or complex motivations, but with what she knows now, these seem best to investigate first.

And as for who she’s investigating, well, every staff member at the dig shouldn’t take too long…

She’s still engrossed in that when her phone chimes with a message from Red. It isn’t until she sees the time that she realizes her stomach is sending unhappy signals to her and has been for a while. Rather than meet up with the others, however, and as tempting as it is, she sends an apology and heads downstairs to grab food from the cafeteria so she can keep working until bed.

She moves through the Trainer House without seeing it, in a state of flow that makes her steps feel light. The temptation to check the forums and emails pops up occasionally, but is quickly carried away by her drive to look into the next staff member, and the next, and the next, into the late hours of the night.


Days pass, and Leaf barely leaves the Trainer House other than to give her pokemon some exercise. She returns to the Gym a couple times for classes that Aiko, Blue, or Red insist she joins them for, and it’s always hard to leave once she’s there, but before long the investigation calls her back. It’ll be worth it, she tells herself as she turns down another dinner invitation with a pang. Getting to the bottom of this will be worth it…

It goes slowly but steadily, and little by little she puts together a shortlist of dig employees that have worked for or with some of the primary suspects, including big names like the Cinnabar Archeology Institute, the Silph Company, and Rand Tanaka, an excavation magnate who recently got into politics and became the mayor of Celadon City: apparently he’d tried to get his city in on the action at Mt. Moon, but was unable to.

Normally this many potential leads would excite Leaf, and there is some of that, but as the days pass that excitement is tempered by a growing suspicion. Throughout her investigation, what she’s found are not just people who have reason to sabotage the dig, but also some who have reason to strike at Giovanni as well. Throwing his political weight behind a decision that limits Silph expansion in Viridian, speaking out against Tanaka’s campaign… What was it he said, while trying to convince her not to publish? I’ve learned to recognize the actions of an enemy, and I’ve made plenty of enemies. Something like that.

Not all the companies and people on the list have obvious enmity with Giovanni, but he’s been a powerful figure in Kanto for so long that it seems he’s interacted enough with almost all of them at some point that searching for his name and theirs brings something up.

At the time Leaf just believed that Giovanni was saying what he could to convince her not to publish. Calculated, sure, but only for that obvious goal. Since her investigation is guided almost entirely by the information he revealed to her, however, she’s started to consider again what his goal in that conversation was. If he wanted to throw her off track, he could have lied to her. Maybe he did, though if so there’s enough truth laced into what he said that she can’t easily ignore it.

Instead, it seems more and more like what he said was exactly what she would need to hear that, not only would she not publish the story, but if she continued researching it anyway, she would know where to look…

Until Leaf had to finally wonder if the Gym Leader intentionally told her everything he did, not just to keep her quiet about what little she knew, but also to increase her chances of finding more. After all, he professed to be searching for the culprit himself. Would he not also benefit if she found them?

The strangest feeling began to grip her as she worked day to day, like she was being watched. Leaf resisted the urge to look around often, calling herself silly. But she couldn’t ignore the source of the feeling: the eerie idea that she’s just a puppet whose strings are being pulled.

Does it matter? Won’t you want to find out even if Giovanni set you up to? In a sense he might be doing you a favor at the same time, making use of you in a way. He did talk with you as if forming a business agreement: in fact he even offered to repay you for services rendered!

Leaf scowls at that particular inner voice, distrusting its appeal. One thing’s for certain: her excuse to not tell Laura about what she’s getting into doesn’t feel justified anymore. Even without going into specifics, she needs the advice: she feels like a tympole swimming in the shadow of something large and hungry, and while she’s not scared, exactly, she wants to know for sure if she’s imagining it or onto something.

After finishing the list, she closes down her work at the public computer room and moves to a more private work room where she takes her laptop out and, after weeks of wanting to, calls Red’s mom to tell her everything. It feels good to have an excuse anyway, since aside from what she’s been working on, she hasn’t had the chance to talk to her much since they arrived in Vermilion, and she’s curious to know what Mrs. Verres has been up to.

“Hi there, Leaf!”

“Hey Laura! How’s it going?”

“Wonderful, dear! Everything’s great. Just great. What have you kids been up to?””

Well, Laura certainly seems more cheerful than usual. Maybe it’s from not having spoken in a while, but it makes Leaf loath to bring up something more serious, so she happily launches into a summary of her past couple weeks, including her visits to the gym and how surprisingly enjoyable she found it. This leads into Laura explaining that she recently started going to the Celadon Gym to learn how to train her new tangela, which led to them comparing notes about the differences between the gym cultures. Leaf is a bit surprised to hear that Laura is suddenly interested in training pokemon, but she supposes that the grimer attack may have made her feel unsafe living without any.

Eventually the conversation topics start to wind down, and Leaf runs out of excuses not to bring up her main reason for calling. “By the way, I have something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

Laura chuckles. “I figured as much, with how busy you all must be from the abra sale. What’s up?”

“It’s actually not related to that. There’s something I never told you…”

Leaf haltingly explains her investigation at Mt. Moon, the visit with Giovanni, her agreement with him, the research she’s done since then, and what made her finally decide to break it, listing the names of her primary suspects and the workers at the dig that they’re connected to.

“I just feel like I’m suddenly really vulnerable, like it’s not my investigation at all any more. I don’t know if I’m being paranoid or not, but I just had to check and see what you think. Even if he prodded me into continuing the investigation, should I?” Leaf waits a moment, hand nervously moving her computer mouse to open and delete various emails, barely seeing them. “Mrs. Verres? You there?”

“Yes. Leaf, can I call you back?”

Leaf’s hand stops moving. Laura’s voice was… completely different. Flat, almost angry. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Something just came up. I’m sorry, I’ll call you later.”

“Is—” Leaf stops as the call disconnects, then stares at her phone. She knows Laura’s anger probably wasn’t directed at her… maybe Giovanni, for tricking Leaf? Unless she’s being honest and something came up, maybe she got an email or something just hit the news…

Leaf opens some Celadon city news sites and scrolls for anything that might have happened within the past few minutes, then the past hour, then anything from earlier in the day.

There’s nothing. Maybe it was something even earlier that Laura’s been looking into that she got an update on. Leaf keeps scrolling, barely paying attention at this point as she passes by stories on politicians speaking for or against new housing policies, progress on repairing the city’s sewage system, some weirdo in a mask who escaped police by jumping between rooftops, a notice about construction being done to Cycling Road…

When half an hour passes and Laura still doesn’t call back, Leaf texts Red.

Hey, is everything okay with your mom?

What do you mean? I think so? Why what happened?!

Woops. Leaf quickly types, Nothing, sorry! I just called her and she acted really cheerful, then suddenly became super serious and said she’d call me back. That was half an hour ago.

Don’t scare me like that. Maybe something came up for work.

Yeah. Sorry for bothering you.

Leaf puts her phone down and stares at the wall, mind wandering, but her phone chimes again after a moment.

What was she cheerful about?

I didn’t ask. I guess she was just having a good day. That’s why the shift took me by surprise.

Why did you say she “acted” cheerful then?

Leaf is taken aback a moment, and checks to see that yeah, she did write that. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just the word choice that came out while typing.

You sure? She might have been in the middle of something, and pretended everything was fine so you wouldn’t feel like you were imposing.

It would be quite a coincidence if she just happened to get interrupted when Leaf brought something so important up. It’s possible I guess.

It’s possible” is a polite way to say you don’t think so 😛 I can check in with her if you’re worried.

No no, that’s okay! I just wanted to make sure I didn’t interrupt something important that you might know about.

Ah. We haven’t really talked much since I got to the city. Quick call after the arrival interview, and that was about it. Sorry.

Leaf remembers her conversation with Red after the surprise visit on the road from Cerulean, and reminds herself to check in with him later about whether he and his mom are doing okay. The thought makes her think of her own mom, and she decides to write to her while she waits for Laura to call back.

No prob. Thanks anyway! How’re you doing with Bayes?

I think I’m close to mastering his secrets.

Really?!

I think I’m close to comprehending one of his secrets. Possibly. Gotta get to a training session though, let’s go over it later?

Sure! TTYL!

She puts the phone away and starts emails to her mom and grandpa. She writes to her grandpa fairly often, so his goes by quickly as she mentions funny things that happened recently or new tricks she taught her pokemon, but she never had that kind of relationship with her mom, so writing to her is slower. Eventually Red’s idea for her to return home briefly and register a teleportation spot there comes to mind, and she gratefully decides to end the email by bringing that up as a possibility she’s considering.

After both emails are written and sent and she still hasn’t heard from Laura, Leaf decides to just switch to one of her other projects. She still needs to finish the piece on what she did while catching abra, so she gets to work on that.

It’s engrossing enough putting herself back in the moment that she actually forgets she’s waiting for Laura’s call by the time the phone rings, Leaf sees with a shock that it’s already past seven. Then a wave of disappointment hits her when she sees an unknown number. She leans back in her chair as she answers it, despondent.

“Hello?”

“It’s me, Leaf.”

“Laura!” Leaf bolts upright. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine. Sorry I took so long.”

Leaf frowns. Despite her words, Laura’s voice is as serious as Leaf has ever heard her. “What happened?” What happened to your phone?

“Listen… Leaf, do you trust me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then please, please don’t react the way I’m afraid you will to what I’m about to say. Please, trust that I have good reasons for it.”

Leaf’s heart pounds in her chest as she tries to imagine what’s coming and fails. “Okay. I’ll try.”

“You need to stop researching the murder of the Renegade.”

Leaf stares at the wall, face blank.

After a moment of thought, she continues to stare at the wall.

In that moment, a dozen ideas surface and then peter out, replaced by new ones.

I found something important

Dangerous

No she knew

Did she find it first?

Did I miss it?

Did she find it out today, after hanging up?

What was it?

Leaf’s blood runs cold as a new line of thought intertwines and brings up new possibilities.

Did Giovanni get to her first?

Threaten her?

Is she working with him?

“Leaf, do you trust me?”

“Leaf?”

The girl blinks. Takes a breath. “I’m here. What’s wrong, Mrs. Verres? Why do I need to stop?”

“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry, but you should know why I can’t.”

Leaf closes her eyes and rests her forehead on one hand. Somehow, some way, she has to find the time in her schedule to train against psychic intrusion. It won’t help if she doesn’t know it’s coming, but it’s better than nothing. Right now what she can’t stop thinking of is all the opportunities she gave up at the gym, to spend time with the others, to work on this story… just to be told, again, to walk away from it. “Laura… the past few days… I just spent most of my week on this, and more time before that, I… can’t just give up on this, Laura, not without knowing why. I can’t.”

“I understand, honey. Believe me, I do. I just can’t tell you yet. I need you to promise to stop looking into it for… I was going to say two months, but realistically it may take longer.”

Anger starts to make Leaf’s head pound, anger at being given such an unarguable ultimatum after being asked if she trusted her. “You’re treating me like a child again. Don’t say you’re not, I know you are, it’s something dangerous and you said you wouldn’t-

Leaf. Please, listen to me.” With an internal wrench, Leaf realizes that Laura sounds on the verge of tears. That’s not fair, that’s what mom used to do, you can’t use that against me too… “Don’t tell Red this, I’m only telling you because I understand how you feel, because you deserve to know… I’ll tell him on my own, I promise, I was just waiting until I could… could give reassurances…”

“Reassurances about what? What happened?”

“Remember what I told you? About getting involved in political things?”

“I do. I also remember what you said after: that I was already risking my life every day.”

“I was stupid to say that. No, more naive than anything. I’ve had my eyes opened rather rudely to just how much, recently. The tangela I got, that I started training with…”

Leaf frowns at the topic shift, still impatient to hear what had happened, then puts it together, eyes widening. “Oh, Swords of Justice,” she whispers. “Someone attacked you? Who? When?”

There’s silence on the other end, enough of it that Leaf’s imagination supplies some truly frightening scenarios of Laura being mugged, or worse… Her skin runs cold as she physically flashes back to the seconds of terror and minutes of numb shock that came from her encounter with Yuuta, but then Laura says “Not exactly,” almost begrudgingly, and Leaf has a moment of sweet, sweeping relief, followed by gratitude that Mrs. Verres didn’t lie, as tempting as it must have been. “But I got the tangela because I was informed, under no uncertain terms, that I needed to be prepared to defend myself. And I thought I listened, but I was wrong. I got hit in a direction I wasn’t really expecting, and I should have been. Do you understand? I’ve been in this industry for years, but I still had to take a hit, had to get hurt, for that training and experience to kick in. You have neither of those things. Yes, you’re going out there and risking your life in your journey, but you’ve trained for that. You haven’t prepared for this, not really. Please tell me you understand that, it’s not about your age, Leaf, it’s about what you’re prepared for. Small flare ups like Pewter were a good way to get experience, but not this, you walking into it thinking you’re ready would be like me deciding to go to… to Victory Road, for me to go through the caves at the Plateau after having my one pokemon for all of a week!”

Leaf’s eyes are closed, forehead against one palm. “Give me a minute, please. I need to think about this.”

“Of course, hon. Take your time.” Laura sounds nervous and distraught, but Leaf can’t think about that right now, she can’t let her mom’s… she can’t let Laura’s emotional state influence her decisions…

“I’ll call you back, I just need some time… is this number…?”

“No, not mine. It’s a friend’s I know is secure. I’ll be here for a little while though.”

Leaf wants to know more about the friend with the secure line and the need for it at all, but she just says “Okay,” and hangs up. Then she packs her things up, goes to her dorm room, and lies on the bed, eyes closed to examine her motivation as best she can.

It doesn’t take long to realize that her thoughts are circling without use. She needs to talk to someone about this, but realizes she can’t. Her mom and grandpa and Professor Oak would agree with Laura, and she promised not to tell Red, and Aiko… after what she told Aiko, how could she possibly say that she’s considering letting this go because it’s too dangerous?

It’s not about your age, Leaf, it’s about what you’re prepared for!”

And a part of her understands that, understands it very well, because isn’t that why she called Laura in the first place? Why have a mentor if she won’t listen to her at the time when she really, truly needs guidance, and her mentor is so clearly adamant?

Because it would hurt, to give this up. Again. To let this go, again, to let Zoey win… I found something, who was it, which of the people at the dig killed him… I have to know…

Leaf’s eyes burn, but she takes deep breaths until it fades. I’m stuck in a role, she realizes. This is what Laura was afraid of. I’m in the role of the hotheaded child who thinks she knows better.

Knows better than Mrs. Verres? Who’s spent years in the field, been through so much more? What are the odds, of that? What’s the prior, that a 12 year old who just started in a vocation would have better instincts, better insights? What are the sheerly lopsided odds against it?

Leaf calls Laura back, fingers moving slowly. “I won’t pursue it,” Leaf says, the words feeling leaden as they emerge.

“Thank you, Leaf.” The relief in Mrs. Verres’s voice is palpable, and oddly makes Leaf feel a little better about it.

There’s no one else in the dorm at the moment, but Leaf keeps her voice low anyway. “But you have to promise me that you’ll tell me what you discovered. You said two months, and I won’t hold you to that exactly, but I can’t promise I won’t get impatient eventually.”

“I understand. I can also promise that when all of this comes to light, you’re going to get the whole story, and credit for helping expose it. And it wasn’t something small, Leaf, I had a lot of information with little to connect it, but what you told me… you have to keep building your name, in the meantime, get some protection through recognition, build contacts, get more experienced. That way when the fallout comes, you’re ready to handle it.”

“Mrs. Verres,” Leaf says, trying and failing to keep her voice calm. “You’re not helping me beat my curiosity down to a manageable level.”

“Oh! Sorry! Okay, I’ll stop talking now. Thank you again, Leaf. Really.”

Leaf grunts something that may conceivably be taken as a goodbye and then flops onto her bed face down with a sigh. She stays there for a few minutes and tries to convince herself she’s done the right thing.

Only a few minutes, however: she has to get to work, after all, so she’s ready for whatever’s coming.

Chapter 49: The Paradox of Choice

Red goes to meet Kanto’s “Mistress of Psychic Pokemon” at a cafe in the richer western portions of the city, where the buildings are all clean and gleaming, and there are noticeably fewer construction projects going on. As Red navigates the busy streets on his bike, he calls Psychic Ayane to get some quick advice for keeping secrets hidden when meeting with a powerful psychic. Bill’s human storage activity is the only real bit of information he has that he doesn’t want getting out… and not just because it’s not his secret to tell.

“Besides, you’re a smart kid. I don’t actually have to explain how hard I can make your life if you give me reason to, do I?”

Red curses as the phone goes to voicemail, and doesn’t bother leaving a message, simply switching to the next best thing.

“Hello, Red! How’s Vermilion City? Did your Research license arrive?”

“Hi Professor!” Red half shouts as he weaves through some pedestrian traffic and onto the bike lane in the road. “Yes, it’s awesome, but sorry, no time to chat, important question!”

“One moment.” There’s the sound of footsteps, then a door closing. “Go ahead, Red. What’s wrong?”

“I’m meeting Leader Sabrina in about ten minutes. Any advice would be highly appreciated!”

Professor Oak is silent for the time it takes for Red to ride back onto some sidewalk and cut across a shopping strip, then asks, “How much do you know about Sabrina?”

“Nothing, really. Saffron Gym Leader, powerful psychic despite her age… uh… I think that’s it.”

“Do you know how she became Leader?”

Red recalls something Blue said about it at some point. “She beat the last one there, right? When it was a Fighting Gym?”

“Yes. People believe it was easier for her than it might normally be, since her affinity for Psychics gave her a natural advantage against the previous Leader’s Fighting pokemon. This is obviously not the whole story.”

“Right,” Red says as he checks the map and turning onto the road that leads to the cafe. “Otherwise someone who’s good with Dark pokemon would just move in on her instead. I figured Gym Leaders would use their best pokemon, and a mix of Types, if being challenged for Leadership, wouldn’t they?”

“You’re right, though for most, their strongest pokemon will often be the type their Gym focuses on. However, the battle between Sabrina and Leader Kiyo had layers beneath the surface. Kiyo was an enormously skilled trainer, but not a particularly effective Leader. He was adequate at best in teaching his Gym members, and his grasp of wider strategy outside of individual pokemon battles was… lackluster. There were a number of incidents that made people question his capability to protect the city, but anyone who challenged him for Leadership was beaten. He became more and more draconian as people turned against him, and his gym lost members. In battles with challengers, his pokemon began to cripple and even kill their opponents on a somewhat regular basis, until people completely stopped attempting to supplant him, not wanting to risk their pokemon.”

Red’s eyes widen. A Leader may not be the best at everything, but a competent one would at least raise up other trainers who can advise them well. One that lets their ego get in the way, and then loses control of their temper like that, or worse does it intentionally… That’s the kinds of things villains in shows did, almost as bad as being a Renegade. “What happened?”

“There was something of a final exodus among his gym members, and over time, Saffron city and the outlying areas were hit with a number of pokemon attacks it was unable to contain. The neighboring cities and local Rangers did their best to pick up the slack, but it got to the point that people began asking when the League would intercede: I happen to know that Elite Bruno was preparing to challenge Kiyo, and step down from the Elite Four to take over Saffron Gym, when instead Sabrina, who was well known by that point for her powerful psychic abilities and devastating psychic pokemon, stepped in.”

“And beat him.”

“And destroyed him. I don’t use that word lightly, Red: it should not have happened. Sabrina was a powerful trainer with a handful of badges to her name, and she had type advantage for most of her team, but Leader Kiyo was a monstrous opponent. He wouldn’t have kept his position for so long otherwise. His defeat was so complete that there were suspicions, even amid the relief of the city and region, that the fight was fixed, or that he or his pokemon were sabotaged in some way.”

Red is so caught up in the story he forgets to check the map in time, and doesn’t realize until after he passes the place. He curses under his breath and skids to a stop, then turns his bike around, breathing hard. “And what do you think?”

“My best guess? Nothing so blatant. But by the end, Kiyo was a broken man, and I believe Sabrina knew when that point came. She did not arrive in the city before her challenge: she had been there for months, meeting with gym members and ex-gym members, organizing trainers in the city during nearby incidents, even opening her own classes, both for psychics and for training pokemon, within the city.”

“So she did bring about his downfall, in some purposeful way.”

“I doubt she gave him the alcohol that he allegedly took to bed every night, but… yes, that’s my belief. And I suspect she had advice and financial aid from some other Gym Leader, possibly multiple. Those in the nearby cities certainly had incentive to no longer carry the extra weight. Whoever was involved, it does seem that Sabrina worked purposefully to undermine Kiyo until only his most obstinate and incompetent supporters remained, his Gym all but collapsed around him. Her preliminary matches were painful to watch.”

Red sees the cafe, and quickly stops and dismounts a block away. “Okay. I appreciate the history lesson, but I’m still not sure what to take away from this. I don’t think I have anything she wants enough to turn my friends against me or drive me to drink, but in general, I should be aware that she’s manipulative?”

“A strong word, but perhaps fair. And I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: I have met her a handful of times, and believe her to be a good person, or I would suggest you not meet her at all. What she did to Kiyo, if she did it, was perhaps the best outcome for the city, and likely necessary for the region to avoid the embarrassment of requiring League intercession. I still do not know if the plan was hers, or someone else’s… I was in contact with the League fairly often then, and do not believe any of them assisted her.” Professor Oak sighs. “But regardless of all that, yes, most powerful psychics appear, ah, ‘socially strategic’ to some degree: I suppose it’s inevitable when you have so much more information than most do about those you interact with. So whatever Sabrina wants from you, be aware that she can be subtle, even if she offers something that seems fair in return.”

“Got it. Expect to get something out of this, but watch out for manipulation, or a long con,” Red says, heart pounding both from the quick ride and anxiety over the coming meeting. He takes his helmet off, then shucks his knee and arm pads into the box with the bike.

“She probably won’t try and corner you in any way, but if she makes you want to give it to her, you will be easier to deal with. As long as the exchange seems equitable, well and good. But I thought it was worth warning you, either way.”

“I understand. Thanks, Professor.” He checks the time and sees he has four minutes left. “I gotta go.”

“Good luck, Red.”

Red hangs up, and only then remembers that he didn’t ask for advice on keeping her out of his head.

It’s okay. I can do this. He closes his eyes, and takes a few deep breaths, ignoring the few pedestrians that pass by and letting himself calm down little by little. Eventually his pulse returns to a normal rate, thoughts clearing as he feels more centered.

So. While I now have to worry about getting manipulated, my first priority is still to avoid spilling Bill’s secret. What do I know about keeping thoughts secure?

Few psychics are powerful enough to actually pick up words or full ideas from others’ minds, rather than just emotional states… but Sabrina is one of them, by all accounts. Still, the target has to be thinking about whatever it is for her to pick it up, and now that Red knows how psychic powers work, he understands that she would be joining her mind with his, which he would notice.

Or at least, that’s the common understanding. Red doesn’t actually know what the limits of psychic powers are, the best research is spotty and inconsistent, which means he doesn’t know what Sabrina’s limits are. If she can pick up more than just surface thoughts without merging their minds, it’s not in her interest to make that common knowledge.

Which means Red will need something to distract more than just his surface thoughts. He takes out his supply list and searches through it for anything that can help him. Whatever it is, it would preferably be something subtle, so he can’t just blare music into his earphones when he wants to…

Red is scanning through the Ts and pauses when he sees thumbtacks between thermos and toiletries. He remembers looking around his room and trying to come up with some obscure use for anything he saw that didn’t have too much mass, but he can’t remember what he thought justified bringing thumbtacks. Putting sheets of paper up on trees to leave directions? Something like that.

Red considers taking one out and putting it in the end of his shoe, carefully angled so he can prod himself with it if needed. If the pain registers on his face or in his mind, he might be able to play it off as having an injury… but that would be a lie, and she would probably be able to detect that if nothing else…

Forget painful things, do something pleasant instead. Maybe if he buys some cookies when he goes inside…

Red’s watch beeps, and he sighs. Out of time, and any benefits from further thinking would be marginal compared to potentially irritating her by arriving late. He quickly takes out some moist toilettes to wipe the dried sweat from his face and neck, then straighten his collar and puts his hat on. He stares at his reflection in a curtained window to make sure he looks presentable, then puts everything away and walks to the cafe.

The interior is bright and clean, its walls lined with colorful booths and its front counter displaying all sorts of delicious pastries. Red sees some of the booths are in alcoves with curtains over them, and wonders if anyone is in them: if not, the place is empty save for the young man working the counter, an older man in a long coat and woolen hat, and the Gym Leader sitting across from him.

Sabrina is immediately recognizable, even dressed casually in a pink tank top and white pants, her dark hair sweeping down and out above her shoulders. It feels weird seeing a Leader in a cafe, fancy as it is, and he hesitates at the entrance of the sitting area, not wanting to interrupt. She glances at him and holds a finger up, and he nods and steps back toward the front counter, scanning their menu for something to use as a distraction.

Ah! Perfect…

A few minutes later his chocolate milkshake is ready, and the cashier refuses any payment, gesturing to the Gym Leader. Red turns to see Sabrina’s guest rising from his seat. He takes her hand and bows, muttering something, then leaves. Red waits until he’s out of the shop, then approaches again, feeling nervous butterflies in his stomach. He recognizes that he’s feeling a little star struck, like he was upon meeting Bill, then quickly takes a sip of his drink, letting the cold, overwhelming sweetness fill his mouth. Damn. That’s good milkshake. He’ll have to be careful not to finish it too quickly.

“Hello, Mr. Verres.” Sabrina inclines her head, stirring tea in a porcelain cup with a lotus on it. “Please join me.”

Red sits across from her and meets her gaze for the first time. Despite knowing she’s somewhere in her mid-twenties, as soon as Red notices the unusual rose-quartz color of her eyes, he feels what he did with Psychic Narud: a sense of weight, of years layered on top of each other, that makes him suddenly feel like he’s in the presence of someone much older. Red shifts his gaze to her nose, wondering why he never felt something similar with Ayane or Ranna.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Leader. Thank you for the drink. How can I be of assistance?” He sips the milkshake again, letting the flavor fill his mouth and mind. He’s tempted to bring his mental shields up too, but decides against it: even if it would work on her, it would be too distracting to maintain, and she might even consider it rude.

“First, I’d like to congratulate you on your Researcher’s License,” Sabrina says. “I’m curious, do you intend to continue pursuing psychic phenomena in particular?”

“Oh. Thank you. Uh, for now, yeah. I don’t want to limit myself, if something else comes up I might change tracks, but I think it’s worth pursuing at the moment.”

“May I ask why?”

Red wonders how much detail he should go into. “That’s kind of a long answer.”

“You’re worried I’ll be bored, despite me specifically seeking you out to speak with?” Sabrina sips from her cup, smiling slightly.

Red blinks, processing this. The gym leader seems very much at ease, and her gaze stays mostly on him without feeling oppressive, occasionally letting her gaze wander to her cup, or the window behind him. Red makes himself relax, settling into his seat and going through a quick calming technique.

“Good awareness and response time,” she says, taking him by surprise and causing him to become flustered. “Oh, and now I’ve ruined it. I apologize.”

“That’s okay,” he says automatically, and tries to concentrate on relaxing again. It’s a little harder, but as he breathes in and out, he lets his mind wander to his research until it calms. “Well, the short version is I want to discover the origin of pokemon species. Any deeper and more fundamental understanding of them will help with that, such as what makes them so different. We know that natural selection creates variation in species, but there are also pokemon that seem to spontaneously arise out of their environment. So did the pokemon we know already do the same, in ancient history? Or did they come about from biological changes over time?”

“Biological changes. You mean coming from the same ancestor, such as mew?” she muses, sipping her tea.

“I was thinking of even simpler life forms, but if mew existed, and was really the first pokemon, then yeah, learning about psychic pokemon might be important.”

“Then your interest in psychics is incidental to your interest in biology.”

“A little. The type system often seems incomplete or misleading, but psychic phenomena, and the related Dark type, are something we humans seem to share with pokemon, so it’s probably fundamental in a way that, say, studying Fire or Plant pokemon wouldn’t be.” Also discovering how psychic phenomena work might help develop technology that mimics it and allow Bill to make something that spurs better machine understanding of human values mmmmm chocolate…

“Yes, I see.” Sabrina’s gaze is distant, and Red ignores her as best he can, gulping down his milkshake until he suddenly feels the sharp pain of brain freeze. He grimaces and stops drinking, one hand rising to rub his forehead.

Sabrina chuckles. “I apologize if that was on my account. I don’t mean to make you nervous, and have no intention of trying to connect deeper with your mind. If your emotional mood itself is what you fear me sensing, then we can end the conversation. I hope you didn’t feel pressured into coming.”

“Oh, no,” Red says as he puts his cup aside, cheeks flushed. “I’m just… still new to interacting with other psychics.”

“Why do you not simply use your shield? Or was I misinformed about your having one?”

Red shifts. “Would you mind me asking first, how did you find out about that?”

She smiles. “The psychic community is rather interconnected, for all our layers and divisions. My Third asked me if I ever knew of someone who could shield their mind while sensing others probing it, and I told him I had not and asked why. He reported that someone had asked him the same question, and from there it wasn’t hard to discover that Psychic Ayane’s new student had apparently exhibited the ability. Am I to take the question as confirmation of it?”

Red nods. “Yeah, I can do it. Or I did with Ayane, anyway. The reason I’m not using it now is I don’t know if it’s rude or not.” He hesitates, then says, “Or to be honest if it would do any good against a psychic of your caliber.”

“An understandable fear. But such a breach should be felt even by someone with a regular shield, and if such a thing were to happen, you could simply throw your drink in my face and run.”

She says it so matter-of-fact that Red grins. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh? And what would you do, then, if a psychic were to force a merge?”

Red considers this a moment, then purposefully remembers what it felt like to be attacked by his Spinarak. But while the memory isn’t pleasant, there’s no sudden, sweeping reliving of it. Using that as a double edged defense wouldn’t work.

But there is something that still has that power over him, however much he’s gotten better at dealing with it.

“I’d probably try drowning them in grief,” he says, smile fading. “Assuming I could tell they were doing it at all.” It’s not like she has an incentive to tell him the truth if she can breach people’s shields without them knowing…

Sabrina sighs, the age behind her eyes becoming more pronounced. “I see you understand why many psychics’ lives can be… difficult.”

Red is lost for a moment, then realizes she probably picked up on his suspicion. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Trust is a valuable thing, and it is completely understandable that others would withhold it from those who have power over them. But without it, true and meaningful relationships are difficult… and so the suspicion and discomfort that psychics face throughout their lives, particularly powerful ones, can often be quite isolating. Even from one another.”

Sabrina’s face is still calm, but there’s something in her words that makes him feel how personal this topic is for her. Red wonders who she’s thinking of, and feels wretched for being so suspicious of her even as he knows he shouldn’t, that this too can simply be an additional manipulation. Red suddenly wonders if she’s the reason the cafe is so empty. Who would want to sit for tea in the same room as the most powerful psychic in the region? “I didn’t mean to…”

“I know.” Right, she can probably sense his remorse too. But then she smiles, and the sense of sitting across from someone far older than she appears fades. “Believe it or not, it doesn’t often bother me so much, anymore. Today was just a particularly hard day. My previous meeting dredged up some painful memories.”

“Oh.” Red doesn’t quite know what to say to that. The Gym Leader appears to be confiding in him, which is probably as good a way as any to make him feel more at ease and trusting. He decides to reach out as well. “I know what that’s like.” And he explains, as briefly as he can, his partition and the difficulties it had caused him.

Sabrina’s gaze is sympathetic, but also speculative. “I don’t envy you the experiences, but… I can’t help but wonder what role they’ve played in your particular expression of your powers.”

Red frowns. “Because of the partition? Seems a stretch, unless you have a bigger sample size to draw from?”

“There are other psychics with unique, or at least very rare, extra abilities,” she says. “Whether they had experiences similar to yours, I don’t know. But this partition you describe is the root of a psychic’s ability to shield their mind while still using their powers. Normally it is something a psychic develops. To have it develop on its own, before you learn to control your powers, is what intrigues me.”

“What do you mean? And what sorts of extra abilities?” Red takes out his notebook, which seems to amuse Sabrina, who lifts her cup and sips as she thinks.

“Let’s see. Sufficiently powerful psychics can project not just feelings, but static images and monotone words to others, but Elite Lucian of the Sinnoh region has the ability to share moving pictures and a full range of sounds, as well as physical sensations and tastes and smells, into another’s mind. As far as I’m aware he is unique in this. He likes to use it to entertain his nieces and nephews, projecting mental movies of books he reads for them. An old woman I met once in a faraway region could move incredibly small objects, such as grains of sand, with a dexterity that most others cannot come close to. I watched her make beautiful mandalas in moments with her mind, and though I’ve practiced ever since, for all my strength I cannot emulate her. And I have a student whose psychokinesis can even reach through glass, which should be impossible. Seeing him do so broke all our previous understandings of the limit of telekinetic powers.”

Red listens in rapt fascination, scribbling each down for future investigation. Psychokinesis that can go through solid objects? “Is it just glass, or can he move things through other materials too?”

“Just glass, for now,” she says. “For various complicated reasons, it is difficult for him to find time to participate in experiments, but rest assured that we hope to get to the bottom of it soon.”

Red feels a stab of longing, he would love to be part of that research, his mind is already racing with ideas to test such a unique power’s limits… “And you? Do you have any powers like that? Unique abilities?”

Sabrina is quiet a moment, then says, “In a sense. Perhaps it is just my imagination, but… at times I can see psychic phenomena.”

Red’s eyes widen. “What does it look like?”

“Light,” she says, voice soft. “Light in many colors, often colors I can’t name, radiating off of a psychic in proportion to how much power they use. It’s… beautiful.”

“That’s amazing! Can you look at mine, tell me how strong it is?” Hell, he’s been looking for a way to measure psychic strength all this time, but if she could see it…

She shakes her head, smiling. “Unfortunately I can’t do it at will. It comes and goes.”

“Oh.” Red can’t hide his disappointment, and he puts a question mark next to that one. Still, worth looking into later. “Well, some of these abilities seem more unique than others. Like, Lucian or the woman’s, they’re just normal psychic powers with an unusual level of power or precision, right? But moving things from the other side of glass… that’s what I’m more interested in. Finding phenomena that break ‘rules’ are the ones most likely to teach us something really new about the world. Do you think I can meet your student some time? Or get their name?”

Sabrina smiles. “Perhaps someday, but he’s rather secluded, and quite busy.”

“Ah.” Someone like Bill then, who appreciates their privacy. He quickly takes another sip of the shake, careful not to drink too much. “I get it. Well, it’s still good to know that sort of thing is possible at least.”

“Indeed. The more psychic powers are explored, the more the ‘rules’ we believed inviolate, few though they were, are proving more flexible instead. It’s why your research has been so interesting to many… and your power.”

“Well, I think that has a lot to do with who’s trying to come up with the rules, to be honest.” Red shrugs. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the psychic community’s ability to create meaningful beliefs about how their powers really work.”

It takes two full seconds for Red to realize he just said that, out loud, to one of the leaders of that community, who no doubt contributed greatly to generating such beliefs.

The gaze the Gym Leader has fixed on him, one dark brow raised, is suddenly hard to ignore. “Oh? And you feel this way due to your few months of lessons and single experiment on psychic phenomena?”

Red swallows, trying to backtrack. “I mean… ah… it just all seems very… unscientific.”

“Hmm. Granted,” Sabrina says as she pours some more tea into her cup, and Red lets his breath out. “Most psychics aren’t scientifically oriented in the slightest, or seem positively allergic to such ways of thinking. But I have seen more researchers than you might credit, well-funded and highly motivated, attempt to unlock its secrets, and produce few results as well.”

Red thinks carefully before he responds, determined not to stick his foot back in his mouth. “Okay, I didn’t know about that,” he says at last. “If they’re really motivated to find stuff, and aren’t being held back by sacred or deeply ingrained beliefs that prevent them from thinking outside the box, then maybe making new discoveries about it will be harder than I thought. I’ll update in that direction, thanks for telling me.”

Sabrina looks amused. “You’re quite welcome. But you still mean to pursue it?”

“Well, sure. I mean, I’m going to be trying to understand my own powers as best I can anyway, along with pokemon. Ayane was a great teacher, and she seemed impressed by my progress. Maybe I can find out something new.”

“And what progress was that?” Sabrina doesn’t appear skeptical, more curious, but Red still feels nervous.

“Well. My shield isn’t the only thing that surprised her. Because of my partition, it’s hard for me to really use my powers for a significant amount of time. Or it was, anyway, I feel like it’s getting a bit easier. But still, my solution was to just try mimicking the mental state I experienced in her, then adjusting them as needed. And it seems to work pretty well.”

Sabrina’s curious look has sharpened into real interest now. “So in a way, it was your personal experiences and impairment that led to your unique shield.”

“Maybe? Earlier you said the partition was important to making a shield…”

“Partitioning one’s mind is how a psychic accomplishes many of their feats, such as selective amnesia, or shielding while still being free to project or merge with others. By arranging the ‘outer’ portion of your mind in the right pattern, you can keep your thoughts and feelings hidden while the rest of your mind engages in other activities.”

“But… the shielded portion isn’t responsive? Normally?”

“Correct. It is a separate part of your mind that remains inert so as not to reflect your hidden thoughts and feelings. To be able to sense something from it should defeat the purpose, but the way your powers developed, the partitioned mind seems particularly connected to yours regardless. My suspicion is that your partitioned mind is the conduit through which all your psychic abilities have been channeled. Your development of your powers has in truth been the development of a second partition, distinct from the one that has held in it the bulk of your grief, and so you have felt it less as that grief is shared more and more between them, and lessens on its own besides.”

Red considers this new metaphor, finding it plausible even as he has a sinking feeling. “Does that mean I’ll lose the ability to sense others while shielding, when the partition fades?”

Sabrina stirs sugar into her drink, face thoughtful. “Perhaps a new, intentional partition would retain the ability. If so then it should be teachable to others, and that is, in large part, why I asked to meet you.” She puts her cup down, then takes a consent sheet out of the bag beside her, voice becoming formal. “May I examine your ability, Psychic Red, and try to breach it?”

Red doesn’t have to consider this long: the conversation has put him much more at ease with her, as it was no doubt designed to do, and if in some way this would help contribute to the world’s understanding of psychic powers… he holds a hand out for it.

Sabrina watches him sign, then inclines her head as she takes it back and tucks it away. She shakes her dark hair back, hands rising to tie it up with a band from her wrist. “By your leave.”

Red turns to a fresh sheet near the back of his notebook and prepares to repeat the line-drawing he did with Ayane, wondering if Sabrina’s mind would feel significantly different than his teacher’s. He dutifully closes his eyes and concentrates on his breathing, slowly sinking into himself until his powers feel like a central part of him, prepared for use. He constructs his mental shield with deliberate slowness, wanting to make sure he gets it right, then says, “Okay, ready.”

There’s no sense of anything for a while, but eventually he recognizes the now familiar feeling of not being alone in his head, and starts drawing the line. He feels her mind slip around his, as expected, but instead of surrounding him or fading, the sensation changes. It becomes a sort of pattern imposed on his thoughts, like a drum beat that he has to tap his foot to, a rhyming couplet he keeps completing in his head.

Red’s closed eyelids tighten, and he begins to jaggedly run the pencil up and down as it keeps moving from one end of the sheet to the other, not thinking much anymore, simply trying to resist the urge to give in to the pattern as it focuses more and more, like he’s being swept away in some dance that he need only take the first steps to, and the rest will flow, he will flow, flow into the pattern and become it…

The careful hold he had over his shield falls apart, and Sabrina’s mind is suddenly there with his. He stiffens, feeling the sudden flood of grief… but then he merely feels happy, and excited, and curious, and—

she’s Projecting these feelings to keep the sadness away-

-then he’s alone in his head again, and he lifts the pencil away from the sheet and opens his eyes, staring at the Leader in wonder.

“What was that?” he asks, eyes wide.

“What did it feel like?” Sabrina asks, gaze lifting from the sheet of paper to meet his.

“Like… I was compelled into dropping my shield.” A word suddenly occurs to him, and his eyes widen. “Was that hypnotism?”

“Not far off. The mental shield works by arranging your thoughts in a certain pattern that is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, hard for psychic powers to recognize. By tricking the shielded mind into changing to a different pattern, particularly one I can recognize, it was made visible, and thus reachable, to my senses.”

“Is that hard to do?”

“I did not find it difficult, but perhaps others would.”

“Yeah, Psychic Ayane didn’t try anything like that. So I just have to think about a certain pattern and it will reveal hidden minds around me?”

“Most people cannot sense psychic minds probing for theirs while shielding. But with you—”

“I can sense your mind in the first place, so I’m getting it directly.” Red frowns. “Huh. My shield feels a whole lot less impressive, suddenly.”

“It’s a weakness, to be sure, but perhaps one you can train against. In the meantime, as long as others do not know how your shield works, it still holds an advantage.”

“Right. Wait, does that mean you just came up with that attack just now?”

Sabrina nods. “It seemed an idea worth testing.”

Well damn. And Red thought he came up with novel solutions quickly.

Then Red realizes that the advantage his shield possesses might vanish by the end of the day. “Er. Leader Sabrina… are you planning on telling others about my shield, or how you got through it?”

Sabrina’s eyes watch his, two chips of rosequartz. “Is there any reason I shouldn’t?”

Shit. “Well, it would make it a lot less useful.”

She shrugs a shoulder. “Then it is up to you to learn to defend yourself against it, if you can.”

“Ah. Right.”

Sabrina smiles, not unkindly. “You are a psychic now, Red. One of the ‘gifted,’ as others would say. It has ever been a race between offense and defense, among our kind, unregulated and vital to the continued development of our powers.”

Red sighs, then nods. “I need to hire another teacher soon, then. And figure out how to do that hypnotism thing, in case others learn my trick.” He glances at her, then away.

Sabrina’s smile widens. “You can ask.”

Red suddenly worries about thinking of Bill, which of course makes him think of Bill more, and quickly swallows a mouthful of his shake. “That was more than a surface impression,” he says after his senses are flooded with the sweet taste, trying not to sound accusatory.

“Our abilities do not work in a vacuum. When you are more used to sensing people’s moods and emotions, you will be able to guess their thoughts or desires more accurately in a way that appears to be true mind reading.”

Which is exactly what she would say even if she can actually read deeper. And now he’s back to being suspicious. But then why reveal the guess if she didn’t want him to suspect her?

Red takes a breath, then lets it out. This train of thought isn’t getting him anywhere, and he would still like to learn… “Can I inhabit your thoughts while you do it again?” Red asks.

“To be clear, you wish to merge with my mind as I repeat what I did so that you can try to mimic it, and thus become privy to my thoughts, as you were worried about me doing with you?”

Red tries not to fidget. “I know it’s presumptuous—”

Sabrina laughs. “Normally it would be. But, you indulged my interest, so I am happy to trade.” She closes her eyes, then says, “Begin.”

Red is surprised at her acquiescence for a moment, then suddenly more nervous than he can remember being in years. He feels simultaneously like he’s about to ask a girl to dance for the first time, while that girl is also a dancing master and judge and enormously important and influential figure besides.

Get a grip and just do it. It’s not like you’re about to pet a skarmory.

Somehow that thought is not helpful: he feels as though he’d rather be mauled by a skarmory than come off as an inept psychic to Sabrina, or worse, hurt her psychically in some way, laughable as that seems. But he notes the utter ridiculousness of that sentimentcalls himself a few pejorative names, and closes his eyes as he focuses on his breathing once again, before extending his mind outward.

He notices it immediately: the normal thrum a mind makes in the not-space between them is always distinct, once he focuses enough on how, but in this case the difference between someone walking by outside and Sabrina’s are like night and day. It’s not just because she’s psychic, he’s sure, he notices that as a separate quality: rather, the raindrops of Sabrina’s mind fall in a pattern that’s almost inhuman, its vibrations so distinct that as soon as he reaches out to enmesh with her and feel her thoughts and sensations, he’s swept up in the pattern.

a leaf spinning in the air, blowing in the wind, dancing gracefully from place to place, but looping in the same ways, forming a pattern of ideas—

For a while, Red simply lets himself follow it. He understands that it’s Projection, a simple and blatant sending out that brings back his metaphor of being about to dance with a girl. For that’s the metaphor that his mind latches onto, as his mind connects with Sabrina’s and follows the movement of her thoughts through eddies and whirls: a dance, one that the Leader gives herself to completely, an unabashed series of motions that she’s been immersed in since childhood.

And that thought is connected to others as her mind reflects his: a childhood that’s lonely, not understanding how different one is or why everyone treats her as other, only knowing in a uniquely intimate way that they do, even her non-psychic parents, and how those years of isolation make her relate to-

stillness so complete the ground below suddenly vanishes mid-step—

CRASH

Red blinks, finding himself on the floor and staring up dizzily as he reorients to where he is.

“Mr. Verres! Are you alright?”

Red looks around, taking a moment to come back to himself. “Fine…” He rolls onto his side out of his chair and gets up, checking for bruises. Just one on his shoulder. He smiles at Sabrina, who’s half out of her seat with concern. “I’m okay.” He turns to the barista, seeing the concern on their face even from across the room. “I’m fine!” Red realizes with detached interest that he didn’t feel the young man’s mind earlier, and wonders if he’s Dark, or a psychic who can shield his mind too.

He rights his chair, only noticing then that his chocolate shake fell over and is dripping off the other end of the table. Sabrina’s face is tight, and suddenly a flurry of napkins rises from the tables around them, descending like a flock of birds upon the mess to soak it up, the glass righting itself on the table.

“I’m terribly sorry about that, Mr. Verres.”

“What happened?” Red says as he slowly sits back down, eyes still on the moving napkins as they rise up, heavy with milkshake, to deposit themselves in his empty glass. It’s his first time seeing psychokinesis used outside of the basic lifting of objects that Ayane demonstrated in lessons, and it makes him feel both awed and frustrated at his own inability with it.

“I attempted to show you what a normal mental shield looked like, to see if you could mimic it. This closed my mind quite abruptly, which I imagine was a disorienting experience.”

“Yeah, it felt like… you know those dreams where you’re falling and abruptly wake with a start? Like that. But before…” Red smiles. “The hypnotic pattern thing, it was really cool. Like dancing with your thoughts.”

Sabrina’s eyebrows rise, and her consternation appears to fade a little. “I’m glad you got something out of it, at least.” She tilts her head. “Do you believe you can mimic it, now?”

“I’m not sure, but I can try if you’d like?”

“Please do, if you’re feeling up for it.”

So Red takes a breath and closes his eyes again, remembering what he sensed and locking down each part of it, bit by bit, until all that was left was the pattern. At first he tries mimicking the pattern she used, but it’s too difficult to remember properly without breaking, like knitting with cobwebs. He’s not sure if it’s his state of mind that’s off or if he just needs to experience it again to remember, but maybe it’s easier to try something more familiar to him… what if he follows a rhyme, some poem or couplet?

For some reason, the first thing the idea of forcefully concentrating on a rhyme brings to mind is something a classmate with a stutter used to repeat that stuck in Red’s head: Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.

Red frowns, eyes still closed as he tries to let his thoughts flow into a pattern, his own mental dance connecting one idea, one word, to the next to the next to the next, in effortless but repeating freeflow, the kind he experienced before. Just repeating the couplet isn’t enough, it becomes too rote, his mind wanders, he has to fully commit his thoughts to the pattern it makes, remove the words and let his ideas flow in that meter, and it’s hard, like lifting a door knocker that weighed a hundred pounds and trying to bang it at a particular rhythm (the metaphor coming to mind from his experience as a baby trying to lift a knocker while on his dad’s shoulder, to his general encouragement and laughter)…

…he THRUSTS his FISTS agAINST the POSTS and STILL inSISTS he SEES the GHOSTS…

Red wipes at his eyes, the grief finally rising to the point of distraction and breaking his concentration. He takes a moment to collect himself, and Sabrina says nothing as she finishes cleaning the spilled milkshake.

“Would you like another drink? On me, of course.”

“I’m okay, thanks.” Red looks around for a dry napkin to use, and one suddenly flutters over, causing him to smile as he plucks it out of the air and wipes his face. He would actually like something to drink, both for the sensation overload and to cheer himself up. Realizing that she probably picked up on that, he smiles. “Actually, maybe some masala chai?”

“Of course.”

By the time she returns with it, Red has enough presence of mind to feel awkward about a Gym Leader fetching him tea, even if she did inadvertently cause his first drink to spill. Just covering the milkshake that he bought wasn’t the same, but at least it gave him some time alone to recover, which he suspects was the real motivation anyway. “Thank you. So, did you feel anything? Was I doing it?”

“You were certainly doing something,” she says, and smiles as he snorts. “I think you managed to capture the mental state, the idea of what it means to form a mental pattern, but it will still take time and effort to replicate it, and psychic power to project it.”

“Oh yeah, it usually takes a lot of practice to get these right,” Red says, taking a drink and enjoying the warm mix of spices and flavors for a moment before he scalds his tongue a little, and begins to blow on it.

“It likely would from anyone else trying to learn it, so your shield still has value for a time at least. I am eager to see if it’s something others can learn. Perhaps your more valuable skill is in copying of mental states. If you haven’t tried teaching it to others, that must be the first thing you do.”

“You don’t think it’s a unique ability, then?”

“I hope it is not, and you should as well,” Sabrina says, sipping from her tea and watching him.

It takes Red a moment to get it. “If I can teach it, that means I have something valuable to offer other psychics.”

“Precisely.”

It takes Red another moment to put together the real reason for the meeting. “So… now that you’ve gone to such lengths to make sure I know the value of my ability, what do you want in exchange?” What she did is the opposite of what someone wishing to barter should do, and Red feels grateful for her transparency, as he knows he’s probably intended to. I guess this is what the Professor was talking about. It’s hard to call something manipulation if it’s just using your natural incentives and feelings… even watching for it, it can still get you.

Sabrina smiles. “Do you know why you can’t move someone’s arm with a mental connection? Why it would take direct psychokinesis?”

Red shakes his head, unsure of the relevance but curious.

“Because everyone’s body works differently, even among the same species. The broad strokes of our brains are similar, but when it comes to individually moving a single finger, the wiring is different. The best we can do is interpret the sensations of similar appendages and movements that we’ve experienced. But because all mental communication is symmetrical, a mirroring of mental states and thoughts and images and feelings, it is something that can be communicated on a level beyond conscious understanding, theoretically.”

Red considers the act of catching a pokeball. “Like learning something by muscle memory without really understanding the physics of it any better.”

“Precisely. Our brains are constantly calculating and making predictions at a bottom level, while simultaneously our mind, our attention, what we consider us, is observing and matching experiences against what our brain generates. Psychic abilities, in a way, allow the mind to pass information down to the brain in a different way, or allow the brain’s upper activities to be consciously applied to the basic, invisible level.

“But still, every mind works differently in subtle ways,” Sabrina continues. “I often think that the more minds a psychic meshes with, human or pokemon, particularly those with psychic powers themselves, the more agile and versatile their ability to interface with their powers, with their own brain in general, becomes. And so I value finding promising students, not just for their sake, but also my own.”

Red blinks, then blinks again. “You want me… as a student? Like, a personal student, or just a gym member?”

“I occasionally teach some of the more advanced classes at my gym, and tutor individuals, but that mostly relates to training Psychic pokemon. I mean one of my personal students, for the development of your psychic powers.”

“I… don’t have a lot of money,” he says, still reeling from the offer. After a moment he realizes, “Wait, that’s not true, I guess I have money now… sorry, I’m still getting used to that. Um. How much…?”

“We can discuss price later. And because you have a unique ability that I would like to learn as well, if it can be taught at all, I am willing to remove the fee of some lessons in exchange for what I would learn from you.”

“You want me to teach you?” he asks, flustered for a whole new reason.

Sabrina’s tone is patient. “Such lessons would mostly involve being able to observe your powers while you use them, and fully investigate how you use them, as I guide you through specific tasks.”

“Oh. Of course.” Red can feel heat in his cheeks.

“However, this is not an open offer yet. I still need to know if you understand your own powers enough to be ready for lessons as advanced as I would give.”

Red’s heart sinks. “I’ve only been really using my powers for a month, and I’m still dealing with the partition thing, and… I still can’t use telekinesis at all, so… probably not,” he finishes, voice quiet.

“I see.” Sabrina looks thoughtful. “Perhaps a few more months would be better, then. But you are the right age for students I begin teaching, so it’s not a matter of maturity or intelligence, but practice.”

“I can practice a lot,” Red quickly says. “I already practice once a day, at least!”

Sabrina blinks at him, then smiles. “And what else do you do once a day?”

“Well, I try to fit in some pokemon training every day, and I go over my personal notes, and keeping up with the latest research publications, and I’ve been trying to get some physical training in but I often forget…” Red trails off, feeling foolish. “Right.”

“It’s not impossible for someone to become a psychic and a trainer,” Sabrina says, voice kind. “But it is difficult and demanding. To try to fully dedicate yourself to your psychic abilities, and your pokemon training, and your research, and other projects… the phrase ‘fully dedicate’ quickly becomes meaningless.”

Red can’t help but feel disappointed, but he stifles the urge to argue that he can do more, try harder. He knows she’s right, but the opportunity to learn from Sabrina… he can’t pass that up, can he?

This is why we talked about goals, Red remembers. Do I value my development as a psychic more than I do my journey with Blue and Leaf? Or more than my research? I finally got my license, am I just going to put it aside now for who knows how many months or years?

“Would I have to come to Saffron Gym?” Red asks, some part of him still seeking a solution.

“If you would have a predictable schedule, it isn’t necessary,” Sabrina says. “I’ve registered teleportation sites all over Kanto, certainly in every city and town. But if you’re traveling, you would need to be capable of free teleportation and have a registered point in Saffron.”

“I can’t do free teleportation yet, but I have two abra,” Red says. It would mean unregistering Bill’s house though…

And you would need to be able to commit to appointments. Some exceptions can be made if an incident occurs, of course, but if you’re traveling between cities, your companions may have to wait for hours, or you would need to catch up to them another way. Generally speaking, most do choose to stay in Saffron, and if they’re also trainers, often become Gym members as well.”

Red gnaws his lower lip. “Is it okay if I have time to think about this?”

“Of course.” Sabrina says. “You may reach out when you have an answer. But try not to take too long: I may take other students in the meanwhile, and my time would become limited.”


Red spent the rest of his day in a bit of a daze, thoughts on the conversation and the choices ahead of him. He considers returning to the gym, then instead goes to the Trainer House to practice his psychic abilities, only trying his psychokinesis briefly before giving up on it again and focusing on sensing his partition. He still gets distracted occasionally by worries that he’s not trying hard enough, not making fast enough progress in that area as well.

Once night falls on the city, Red gratefully leaves to meet up with the others so they can celebrate the two birthdays and his Researcher license. His brain feels bruised, and he’s happy to occupy it with lighter things as the group travels to the Kalos district and checks out its various shops. They spend some time in the clothes stores to try out foreign fashions, then check out the video studio that offers them a ten second promo clip for each of them and one of their pokemon.

Red is too embarrassed at first, but after Leaf and Aiko appear to have so much fun trying out the various outfits and training their pokemon to pose properly, he and Blue decide to do one together, going completely over the top with a background animation of a fiery explosion on one side and a stormy sea on the other behind each of them, as Charmander and Maturin face off. They arrive in the lobby just in time to see Aiko’s clip show up, her and her Eevee dancing in a starlit sky, and then Leaf’s video of her doing a handstand with Bulbasaur holding itself up by its vines appears, which the others compliment her on until she blushes. Aiko and Leaf laugh at Red and Blue’s video, mimicking their poses as they leave and walking down the street in slow motion.

Eventually it’s time for Aiko to return home. She wishes them a happy birthday, congratulates Red again, and brings her abra out to teleport back to the ranch. After seeing her off, the trio continues through the district, focusing more on the restaurants now.

One of them seems to be advertising some kind of mid-meal pokemon battle entertainment. Leaf insists that they can go to it if Red and Blue want to, but Red knows it would ruin her appetite. He uses the exorbitant price as an excuse to turn it down anyway, and Blue remarks that the fights can’t be that good if they’re in the middle of a restaurant.

The night drags on as they pass one restaurant after another, unable to decide on anything among all the different, equally interesting choices available. Each suggests a different way to deal with it: Blue suggests just picking the next restaurant they come across, since they’ve all seemed pretty amazing, Leaf insists Blue or Red make the decision without consulting her, since it’s their night, and Red suggests listing their preferences and finding a preference that all of them share to use as their guide to choose.

Eventually Blue throws his hands up and says they can just go to different restaurants and get what they each want, which reminds Red that something which capitalizes on not having to make just one choice called buffets exist, and after a quick search on his phone they find one that offers a wide variety of Kalos dishes for a reasonable price. As an added plus it also happens to have small pens beside each table for their pokemon to eat in, as long as they’re well trained and not left unattended. After purchasing a table, the three release their starters into the pen, then take turns staying as the other two go back and forth from the buffet lines, each of them thoroughly sick of having to make choices and happy to just take everything they want.

Eventually, after multiple trips each, they’re all sitting together for an extended period, feeling absolutely stuffed. Blue lets out a sigh of contentment and tosses his last piece of seared magikarp to Maturin, turns to Red and says, “Well?”

Red doesn’t pretend to wonder what he’s asking about. “It was… interesting.”

Leaf looks between them. “What’d I miss?”

So Red launches into a brief recount of his conversation with Sabrina, including an even further summarized version of the story Professor Oak told him. By the end of it Leaf and Blue are staring at him in shock.

“You went to meet a psychic Gym Leader with a history of being manipulative? After what happened to me?” Leaf asks.

“You turned down Leader Sabrina as your psychic teacher?” Blue demands.

“I couldn’t have just walked away,” Red tells Leaf, then turns to Blue. “And being her student would mean giving up all this…” he trails off, doubt and uncertainty filling him again.

Blue rubs his chin. “There’s got to be a way to make it work. How long did she give you to change your mind?”

“Um. No specific time frame.”

“Try to figure something out before we leave Vermilion then,” Leaf says. “We’ve got the cruise convention coming up anyway, so it’s not like you could commit to anything before that.”

“Right.” Red didn’t consider that, and feels a little relieved that he can’t actually make a commitment for now.

That’s not really a justified motivation for indecision, Future Red complains. The actual factors aren’t likely going to change by then anyway, so you should still work on thinking of something now, even if you can’t make the commitment until later.

Sounds like a whole lot of your problem, Present Red replies. Tonight I’m supposed to be celebrating. He drowns out his future self’s response by having some more tasty garlic-cream potatoes. “Still,” he says, “As cool as it is to be noticed by someone like her, I wish I could turn that interest into a different kind of value.”

“I said something similar, earlier,” Leaf says. “About taking advantage of all this influence we have, even if we’re getting too many opportunities that we can’t take at the same time. Aiko made a pretty great suggestion, and I checked with the Coordinator schools to see if any would let me write an article for their sites. One agreed, so I’m typing up a piece on what I did with the abra, and hopefully afterward I can pitch a second article on deeper pokemon ethics themes. You should try something similar, Red.”

Red rubs his chin. “You mean, what, check if Sabrina’s Gym has a blog?”

“Or start your own,” Blue says.

Leaf nods. “You’ve got a spotlight on you: anything you put out that others can read, they will. The interest is going to fade if you let it, or if the things you write aren’t interesting, but if they are you can start building an audience. Whether you commit to being one of Sabrina’s students at some point or not, you could end up getting a different teacher if you become popular enough, or others find out about your unique abilities.”

Red is already considering what his first post would be. Perhaps a journal of sorts on his experiences with his powers, something that could formalize the concepts that are so frustratingly vague among psychic circles…

Red is grinning, fingers itching to get to writing. “That’s a great idea, Leaf, thanks!”

She smiles. “Just don’t spend too much time on it that you fall even farther behind on practicing with your powers, if that was a concern with Sabrina. It might be with other teachers too.”

“Right. I’ll try to slot it into my usual writing and review time.”

“Oh, and you should fill out your online profile,” Leaf says. “Yours barely has any info about yourself, you have followers now who probably want to learn more about you. It would help people know to give you credit for the things you discover.”

Red blinks. “Why would I have trouble with that?”

Leaf hesitates. “Try not to get mad, but… I mean, Blue and I were raised by Professors, from the outside a lot of people expect us to be the ones making most of the discoveries. I’ve been seeing people give us more credit than we deserve for the abra thing, even with the interview, and I think it’s because people don’t really know who you are, the way you think, how much time you spent on it.”

Red is frowning as she speaks, being more bothered by that than he thought he would be. “Ugh. Okay, I’ll flesh out my profile too.”

“Yesss,” Blue whispers, steepling his fingers together. “Join us, Red… join us… on the PR side!” Before Red can reply, Blue winces, one hand going down to rub his leg as Leaf glares at him.

“Are you trying to get him to change his mind?” she asks.

“It’s not public relations,” Red insists. “I’m just sharing the ideas I have and giving context for them, like how I learned things and what resources I use.”

Blue smirks. “Whatever, my point is you’ll be actively building a following and public image instead of just letting it develop on its own. That’s all I’ve ever been asking you to do, and it’s about time.”

Red refrains from insisting again that it won’t be like that. Mostly because he won’t know if it’s true until he has a chance to see if he actually feels some urge to shape his own narrative and persona in his public writing.

“Is it that bad, for you?” Leaf asks, clearly reading his hesitation.

“It’s… it just feels…” Red tries to put it into words. “It feels insincere. I don’t want to care what other people think of me.”

“But don’t you?” Leaf asks.

“No!” Red says reflexively, then says, “Well, a little, but only by people I respect too, like you guys, or Professor Oak, or Bill, or Sabrina…”

“So people who can do things for you,” Blue says.

“You can make anything sound cynical if you put it like that.”

“Well, I care what others think of me.” Leaf says, voice a bit too casual. “And I care what others think of you guys. I’m always aware that the things I say online may reflect on the two of you.”

That gives Red pause, and he takes a moment to find his true objection. “Doesn’t that ever… feel restrictive?”

“You’re not getting it,” Blue says. “It’s not about looking for people to like you, or even agree with you all the time. You’re looking for people to respect youand that means you’ll be doing things worth respecting. Like when I started helping out at pokemon centers, was that bad?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Or when I gave more abra to the centers and rangers?”

“Of course not—”

“So what’s the problem? I’m glad I started helping at pokecenters, it taught me a lot and I’ve been able to help a lot of people.” Blue’s voice is rising, face hard. “If I also got respect for it, isn’t that something people should be respected for?”

Red feels himself getting on edge from Blue’s tone, but… there’s a note of confusion as something in him agrees with Blue. It stops him from responding to his friend’s anger, and instead he frowns down at his plate for a moment. “I didn’t realize it bothered you so much.”

Blue huffs out a breath, hands rising to grip the back of his chair. “It doesn’t bother me, it’s just such a… it’s such a…”

“A cliché,” Leaf says, and they both turn to her. “All those shows and movies where people talk about being popular like it’s a problem, like being popular isn’t important, when it obviously is.

And Red remembers, somehow he forgot, he didn’t really think about it: as Leaf said, both she and Blue have lived their whole lives raised by Professors. Some of the people with the highest status in their regions. They witnessed firsthand the doors that opened for them, and while they both want to step out from under those shadows and make their own marks on the world, there’s no part of them that’s confused about the value of being respected by others, of having people who will listen when you speak, who will go out of their way to help you.

“Just look around.” Blue lets the chair go with one hand and starts raising fingers. “Gramps, Lance, Giovanni, hell, every Leader worth a damn… Doesn’t matter if you want to be a politician or a famous singer or whatever, being respected by a lot of people? It makes things easier. It opens opportunities, it gives you privileges that help you gain even more power.”

“Hold, please,” Red says, putting a hand up. “I need to process this.”

“Take your time,” Blue says, getting up. “I’m grabbing ice cream.”

Leaf grins. “Oo, yeah, the dessert buffet’s almost as big as the other foods. Want anything Red?”

He shakes his head, then takes his notebook out and starts jotting down bullet points as he thinks…

Is it okay to be driven by a desire to have others respect you? Why does it feel so… “slimy?” Is it just because of all the stories he’s absorbed over the years, all the narratives of heroes being humble and not seeking the limelight?

Or is it also because in his field, the ideal is that a person’s ideas change the world not through popularity, but their own merits? That’s a profession Blue didn’t list, being high status or low doesn’t help you discover new things about reality… a scientist can make a new discovery whether they’re in the public eye or some obscure research hobbyist… but he can’t deny that Blue’s right in pointing out that it’s easier to get the equipment, funding, and opportunities if you’re already popular and respected, not to mention easier to get others to pay attention to what you discover.

Red draws a box around those thoughts, then a line down to a new bullet point. Maybe there’s a deeper belief here, one that says something like “good actions are only good if they’re not done for self-gain?”

But the world is objectively a better place because Blue is the kind of person that wants to be respected. If Red could learn more, teach more people, and do the right thing more often because he wants to be the kind of person others respect, what’s the harm in that?

Red takes a deep breath and sinks deeper into himself as he tries to imagine the worst case outcomes.

The majority of people don’t always respect positive things, he thinks, remembering how people are so afraid to test human-pokeball interactions that they made it illegal to research it further. What if I get so attached to wanting status that I become afraid of doing the right thing?

Also, respect is fickle. I might have it today and lose it tomorrow because I didn’t do something people expected me to do, like condemn a politician loudly enough, even if I try to stay out of politics completely, or donate enough the next time I make a new catching technique because I need the money for something important.

Would he be worse off, in that case, than if he never gained their respect in the first place?

Possibly, he might not be expected to say anything if he’s not a public figure, if he just sticks to his research… he wants to be known for that.

But if his personal experiences can help others, shouldn’t he also share that too? Isn’t it okay to be known for that too? And if he sticks to just stuff he’s somewhat confident about, he won’t have to worry about getting drawn into unrelated things…

Or will he?

Red taps the page with his pencil a few times, then puts it down. The other two are still gone, and he tears a piece of pidgey meat into bits and tosses them underhanded toward Charmander, letting them sail up first so that his pokemon jumps for them. His pokemon’s growth has continued to increase his strength, allowing him to leap far higher than he used to. Once he proves he can leap as high as Red’s head, Red stops tossing the meat so high as he starts to notice nearby patrons looking nervously at his pokemon’s flailing, fiery tail.

Soon the two are back and begin digging into some ice cream and cake. They brought a third bowl and place it in front of him too, just a tiny scoop of ice cream and a tiny slice of cake, and he grins. “Thanks guys,” he says, and enjoys the offerings.

“So?” Leaf asks.

“I think I’m mostly worried about being in the public eye,” he says slowly. “I don’t want to have to think about how much status something will get me, or how much I might lose if I say the wrong thing.”

“If it’s going to happen anyway, isn’t it better to think about it?” Blue says. “Instead of blundering around?”

“If I’m worrying about that stuff it feels intrinsically like changing who I am for the worse. Or at least, being put into uncomfortable positions more and more. But maybe that’s just me confusing something that is bad, as a judgement, for something that feels bad, physically. When I try to simulate myself being interviewed again, like when we got to town, I feel squeamish.”

“You know, being a Professor will mean having to be interviewed now and then,” Blue says in a dry voice before sucking some ice cream off his spoon.

“That’s different though, I’ll be talking about my research.”

“So just talk about your research,” Leaf says. “You can write about whatever you want: just be aware that you’ll be occasionally judged for it, and sometimes attacked for it. But that’s how you learn, right?” Her tone has changed, become contemplative as she gazes into the distance. “You give your perspective, and others point out why they disagree with you… and if there’s merit there, you engage… and if not, you ignore it…”

“Easier said than done,” Blue mutters. “Have you seen online discussion? What am I saying, of course you have.”

“I… think I just thought of a new thing to write about,” Leaf says, with a slow smile. “Standards of discourse. Rules to productive online conversation, or something like that. Not everyone will care obviously, but if even 5% of people start to follow it, and it some sites begin adopting parts of it… Gah, there’s so many things to write about!”

“Oh, speaking of!” Blue says. “You should totally come to the gym tomorrow, Leaf. Not for pokemon battling, for the other trainings! It’s great, isn’t it, Red?”

Red is still trying to untangle his feelings. “I didn’t go to the classes yet, remember?”

“Right, shit. Well great, both of you can go to them together! It’s really amazing what Surge is doing here, I think you could get a great article out of it, Leaf.”

She looks surprised. “Why don’t you write it then? Don’t you have a bunch of ideas for how the gym system could be improved?”

“Writing’s not really my thing.”

“You share training tips with your followers, don’t you?” Red asks.

“Well sure, but that’s not formal or anything.”

Red grins. “You know, being Champion might mean having to write formal stuff now and then…”

Blue frowns. “Also, I’ve got training to do.”

“What, and we don’t?” Red asks.

“That’s different,” Blue protests. “I’m going for a badge.”

“It sounds like you don’t think it’s that important.” Red turns to Leaf. “Does it sound like that to you?”

Leaf nods, face sad as she fends off one of Bulbasaur’s vines as it tries grabbing the cake from her plate. “Too bad. All those trainers, not aware of how awesome Vermilion Gym is…”

Blue glowers at them. “I’m telling you, I’ll mess it up. It would be better if one of you wrote it.”

“It’s okay, Blue. We’ll help you,” Leaf says. “Won’t we Red?”

“You bet,” Red says after a moment, realizing that Blue might be legitimately insecure about his writing. “It’ll be good for… what’s it called? Public…” He snaps his fingers and holds a finger up, frowning. “Public…”

Blue rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “I’ll think about it. But you’ll come, Leaf? You guys will like the classes here, I promise.”

Leaf considers a moment, then nods. “Sure, why not. I’m not against gyms overall, I would have gone to Cerulean’s water classes, but I didn’t have any aquatic pokemon.”

“Great! And speaking of which, try to catch some Water pokemon before we leave the city and I’ll train you guys with them. Who knows when we’ll be near a beach again, after we leave.”

“I’ll check which ones are available around here.” A vine reaches around her chair and tries to sneak in from below, Bulbasaur now standing at the very edge of his pen. Leaf slaps the appendage away without looking, and her pokemon starts to make pitiful sounds, causing her to turn to him. “No! It’s bad for you!”

Her pokemon quiets, but somehow manages to continue to look pleading.

Leaf manages to look stern for another second, then melts. “Fine, I’ll get you something you can have.” She gets up. “Make sure he doesn’t eat my cake.”

But Bulbasaur just watches along with Red and Blue as Leaf goes back to the buffet tables and takes a small portion from a bunch of different desserts. She brings them back and holds the tray out to Bulbasaur. “Watch this, I’ve been trying to teach him… Bulbasaur, take one. Take one.”

“Aw, Leaf,” Blue says. “Why you going to go and inflict that torture on your pokemon too?”

Her pokemon reaches its vines out hesitantly, swaying it above the plate for a while as if about to sweep them all off… then one vine delicately curls around a small piece of honeycake and brings it to its mouth.

“Good boy Bulbasaur!” Leaf puts the plate aside and crouches to vigorously rub his head and ears. “Very good! Very good boy!”

Red is grinning as he watches Bulbasaur gambol about in his pen, and then grow even more excited when she takes a second treat from the plate to hand to him as a reward. “Who’s my best boy? Who’s the bestest-”

Her words are cut off by a burst of light that suddenly fills the restaurant. Red shields his eyes, heart leaping into his throat. Is this… did it just….

When the light clears, Leaf is staring in shock at an ivysaur that looks enormously pleased with itself.

“Bulbasaur…” she breathes, eyes filling before she grabs her pokemon in a hug, ignoring the broad new leaves from his bulb that get shoved into her face. She laughs as four vines instead of his usual two wrap around her. “I guess it’s time to give you a new name.”

Someone starts to clap at a nearby table, and soon the whole restaurant is applauding. Leaf looks around in surprise, then smiles and bows before she sits, cheeks flushed and her pokemon on her lap, though he doesn’t quite fit.

“Congrats Leaf!” Red says. He looks at Charmander, who’s roughly as big as the average charmeleon, and resolves to help his partner evolve before they leave on the cruise convention. It’s going to be a busy week…

“The perfect end to the evening,” Blue declares, and gets up, plates in hand as he heads for the dessert table again. “Now we all have something to celebrate.”

Chapter 48: Popularity

Leaf expected a media response. Leaf wanted a media response. Leaf prepared for a media response.

Leaf did not prepare for a feeding frenzy.

Within a day at Vermilion, the amount of interview requests the group gets is more than she can handle on her own. Red is particularly sought after, but he’s got his own flood of mail from professional catchers and researchers. Even the company that made the speakers they used reaches out to see if he would appear in a commercial.

The look on Red’s face was still worth a chuckle a couple days later, when the offer is extended to her and Blue, who also refuses, though he at least looks conflicted about it. Leaf talks it over with Laura and decides to accept and donate the payment, as long as they grant her some creative control to ensure it’s more of an informational guide that just happens to feature their speakers. That takes some back and forth, but ultimately they reach an agreement she can feel good about.

Blue ignores most of the media storm, and focuses on his challenge to the new gym. He used some of his money to buy a competitive rhyhorn, and trains it with Aiko in secret while he beats the gym’s first test match without using any Ground pokemon. The two plan out an expedition into Diglett Cave for after Red and Leaf are on their voyage, and as soon as they put a post up on the Looking For Group forums, there’s an immediate swell of interest to join.

“I think you’ve got groupies,” Aiko observes as the four have lunch together, eyes on their Looking For Members entry. “The other Diglett Cave parties aren’t getting half the response.”

Blue snorts. “Maybe they’re there for you.”

“Oh, please, no one even remembers my name.”

“No, seriously. They might be curious about who the mysterious girl traveling with The Pallet Three is.”

“No one is calling us that,” Red says, deadpan. “Please tell me you made that up.”

“‘Oaklings’ is the one I see a lot,” Leaf says, and Red groans. “Which seems like evidence that they’re coming for you, Blue.”

Blue narrows his eyes, and Leaf is careful to keep her face perfectly innocent.

“It’s too bad your name isn’t Green,” Aiko says, still studying the page. “You guys could have been The Primaries.”

“Oooh, or The Additives,” Red says, perking up.

“Laaame.”

“The Trichromes?”

“A little better. Sounds like a gang though.”

Blue ignores them, looking at the LFG page now too. “They might just think we have a way to catch a ton of diglett. You happen to have something like that, Red?”

“Um. Just stomp around and wait? I was under the impression you can barely walk through the tunnel without tripping over them.”

“Sure, but too many and you can get overwhelmed. The trick is to only attract a few at a time.” Blue strokes his chin. “What we’d need is some kind of adjustable diglett magnet…”

Red looks at Blue as if not quite sure whether he’s making an Alolan diglett joke, or if he really expects Red to come up with something like that for regular diglett. “Magnet. Right. I’ll look into that.”

It strikes Leaf as strange at first how this of all things seems to be the biggest story of their adventure so far. It wasn’t like they saved anyone’s lives, or helped stop some pokemon rampage. It wasn’t a new pokemon discovery, or even some significant new understanding of one, though Red’s research is getting a fair bit of publicity too.

What really drives home the impact of what they did is seeing groups form online to try to get people together and hunt abra. Large speakers quickly sell out in Cerulean and Saffron city, and have to be transported into local stores from elsewhere. People start to form groups online to hunt abra together, and their price on the market begins to decline before many more even get listed.

The secondary effects start to manifest a few days later, once a sizeable amount of abra are made available. Not just for trainers who normally wouldn’t be able to afford an abra, but also breeders, who in turn offer a reduced rate to anyone that doesn’t intend to use the abra for combat and just cares about their teleporting ability. Even the Celadon City casinos, who regularly offer rare pokemon as rewards, lowers the rarity and effective price of their abra.

Soon a whole new industry pops up: some entrepreneuring spirit, no doubt predicting a jump in demand for teleportation spots, begins advertising deluxe facilities that trainers can set as their “traveling homes,” with everything in their room being transferred from place to place by staff. Leaf can see the attraction of it, and that’s when it really hits her: the three of them changed things in Kanto, possibly the world, permanently.

Red acts as though this is obvious. “Let’s say 10% of trainers with abra have their lives saved by them over the course of their journey. Maybe it’s less, but it also may easily be more. Even if the amount of abra owners merely doubles in the next year, we’ve altered the course of a generation.”

“But it’s more than that,” Aiko says. “This could be the last generation to grow up with teleportation being a luxury. Even after the first wave of easy to catch abra are done, the amount of breeding stock that will be introduced to nurseries and ranches might make an even bigger difference in the long run.”

“Which in turn will affect the bike industry, and various riding pokemon’s worth,” Blue says, then shrugs. “For non-Dark trainers, anyway. And since the abra can only teleport its trainer, the markets will probably shift toward pokemon that can carry multiple people.”

All these possibilities and more make it hard to decide what project to focus on next. Leaf originally planned on spending her pre-voyage time in Vermilion looking into the Mt. Moon incident further and trying to figure out what Giovanni’s investigation is working toward, but there’s so much else that draws her interest… a geothermal plant accident on Cinnabar that causes power outages on a third of the island, new announcements about exhibits in the Pewter Museum, and particularly some leaked hints about what would be on the S.S. Anne tech expo that has her excited all over again for the voyage.

And then there’s the individual responses and forum discussions. It was hard enough staying out of the controversy and negative comments that sprang up from her Pewter article, and most of those weren’t even targeting her. For every post or thread full of positive or neutral conversation topics she sees, there are a few comments that stick out at her like angry welts:

Why is everyone throwing a ticket parade for them? Sure they gave a discount, but still made more than most do in a year from a couple day’s work. That’s charity, now?”

I worked my ass off to catch abra for the past few months, and now the market crashing thanks to these rich kids using their parents’ secrets to make a splash.”

Does anyone actually believe that Red came up with this strategy? They obviously put him front and center because of the sob story, while the professors’ kids did the actual work.”

Anger and disgust makes Leaf’s stomach churn throughout the days, and she can only hope the other two remain too busy to pay attention to such conversations. She knows she should stop following it all, but she somehow just… can’t. The comments dance in her head whenever she tries to do something else, like look into the investigation at Mount Moon, her mind throwing up responses and refining what she wants to tell them until she feels compelled to do so.

The ecological impact of this is going to be massive. These young trainers don’t think things through.”

-“Hi there! Red checked with Professor Oak and the nearby Rangers before we launched the plan, and their only concerns were physical safety of trainers. It’s possible that new ecological impacts will be seen if it becomes widespread, but for now the Rangers have said that the change in wild abra populations should not upset any local ecologies.”

-“Sure the rangers said that, they knew they’d get a bunch of them cheap. Professor Oak is just another short-sighted scientist who cares more about his research than the environment!”

Some are just nonsensical or contradictory even by the same users:

Tried the strategy, only caught five abra. These kids are bullshitting us, they were clearly farming them for a while and didn’t want to tell anyone so they could cash in first.”

-“I’m sorry you only caught a few! It might be important where you attempted the strategy. We happened to be in a big open area, where did you try it?”

-“What so you could come grab them here too? You probably already emptied the area out!”

Soon she’s only dropping in where the comments aren’t openly hostile or suspicious to clarify something about her own contribution or explain what she did to keep the abra from running in more detail. Unfortunately once she makes an appearance in a thread, the activity increases tenfold, and while many comments are still positive, the negative ones start popping up too, and those are the ones that keep Leaf distracted day and night.

Leaf eventually realizes she’s abandoning her own projects and pursuits to keep up with the conversations full time. She starts sleeping less, until she practically has to drag herself out of bed in the mornings and the thought of opening her email or browsers fills her with anxious dread… but she does it anyway.

On their fourth morning in Vermilion she sits at breakfast with Red and Blue, barely eating and listening with some bitterness as they talk about their latest successes and plans. Red’s abra paper cleared peer review, and a combination of double birthday and Research License celebration is scheduled whenever his arrives.

“…both journals, but I wasn’t sure if the focus on pokemon discoveries or psychic phenomenon was better. It felt like picking sides,” Red says. “Did you finish vetting the interview requests, Leaf?”

She jerks out of a light doze at the sound of her name. “I forwarded all of the ones I’ve finished,” she says after replaying what she last heard.

“What about the one from Celadon?”

“I didn’t look at any last night.”

“Oh. It was sent a couple days ago, though…”

“Well I said I forwarded the ones I looked over,” Leaf snaps. “If you don’t have it then what does that tell you?”

Red stares at her, eyes wide, as Blue raises a brow, chewing on a mouth full of noodles. Leaf sighs and rubs her face. “I’m sorry, Red, I’m just tired. I guess I might have missed that one. I’ll look for it after breakfast.”

“It’s okay,” he says, and everyone eats quietly for a moment before he says, “If there’s something you want to talk about though, you can tell us.”

“Nope.” Leaf tries to focus on her food, but the thought occurs that Red might be using his powers on her. She feels herself getting angry, then realizes she’s being stupid. She puts her fork down and clasps her hands, which gets their attention. “Actually, there is something. I know I volunteered to be the group’s media liaison, but I think it might be more than a one person job at this point.” Especially if she keeps spending too much time on the message boards… “Sorry, I should have brought it up sooner.”

“Nah, it’s our fault,” Blue says. “We should have checked to make sure you were doing okay.”

“Want us to pool some money together and hire a secretary?” Red asks.

Leaf blinks. “Isn’t that a bit extreme? It’ll probably die down in a few days, maybe a week.” Especially if she can just stop paying so much attention to the forums…

Blue shrugs. “Not if we play our cards right. If any of you come up with some amazing new discoveries or techniques, keep it under wraps until the media coverage dies down then drop it for a new cycle.” He pops an egg slice into his mouth. “Unless it would save lives, of course.”

“Um.” Red raises his hand. “Don’t know how much you’re joking, but can I register opposition to having an official PR strategy? It feels fake. Worse, manipulative.”

“We’ve been over this,” Blue says. “You can ignore public perception if you want to be another Bill, but public perception won’t ignore you.”

Leaf sees something flash over Red’s face, some mix of anger and pain that’s there and gone before she can fully process it. Blue doesn’t seem to have noticed, and before Leaf can bring it up Red sighs and nods. “I can’t commit to anything, but I’ll run whatever comes up by you guys, at least. I don’t want to mess up your plans.”

Leaf feels herself nodding off again, until a text jolts her back awake. “Speaking of plans, Aiko’s on her way,” she says, and stands. “We’re going to take a walk around the city, if either of you want to join us.”

They pass, and Leaf goes to the roof to meet Aiko as she ports in. She looks as tired as Leaf feels, but smiles when she sees Leaf. “Hey, you.”

“Hey.” Leaf waits for her to withdraw her abra, then starts walking side by side to the elevator and down from the roof of the trainer house. Leaf brings Bulbasaur and Buneary out while Aiko summons her Eevee and Sandshrew. The former was just returned to her with a clean bill of health yesterday, some genetic disorder with its lungs requiring a few days of treatment to get fixed. Aiko looks overjoyed at her pokemon bounding around with Bulbasaur, and explains how just a minute of that would have tired the eevee out before.

“I’m glad they were able to heal her,” Leaf says as she tosses a treat straight up, grinning when Buneary hops over her to eat it. “Any evolution plans?”

“I think Espeon or Umbreon would be best,” Aiko says. She stomps her feet every so often to send directions to her Sandshrew when it wanders too far or starts investigating something rather than keep walking. “I don’t like the idea of forcing one on her, but I might put all the stones in a circle and see which way she walks. If I do that every day and she picks the same one consistently, that should trigger that evolution eventually.”

“Getting that many stones will be an adventure in itself.”

“Yeah,” Aiko says with a smile, folding her hands behind her head. “An adventure I thought was years away. I can’t wait to get started.”

The city unfolds around them as they head toward the docks to the south, Vermilion’s beating heart. Unlike Cerulean North, whose beaches and vibrant boardwalks made it feel like one big tourist attraction, Kanto’s major port has a more industrial feel to it, helped along by the many construction sites they pass. The girls pause to watch some machoke carry girders away from a massive container box, the skeleton of the new building rising up to about the same level as the moderately sized buildings around it.

“This city’s busy,” Aiko says.

“The layout’s weird too.” Leaf looks around, but can’t put her finger on it. “Let’s go somewhere high.”

They head for the skyscrapers in the distance. After passing a few only to realize how close they are to taller ones nearer the shore, they finally choose one that’s about eighty stories. They return their pokemon, then go up the elevator and onto the roof and summon Crimson and Spearow, who fly above them as they look out over the city, enjoying the thrill of being so high up. The wind whips at their hair and clothes as they go from the railing on one side to another and study the layout of the city.

This close to the coast they can see mostly ocean to the south and the west, the harbors teeming with vessels of all shapes and sizes. Leaf can just make out some of the bigger pokemon being ridden as well. She takes a moment to enjoy the smell of the sea as flying pokemon soar around the city, trainers on their backs. The walk helped wake her up, and the wind and view up here does the rest of the job.

“Lots of new construction,” Aiko says after a moment from beside her.

“Yeah.” Leaf looks around. “At least half the buildings look like they’re being worked on, but they look fine. Maybe they were just finished?” Leaf is itching to go back downstairs and start asking the city’s residents if they know something.

“Look how much space the pokemon centers all have around them, too.”

“Same with those factories.”

“They’re really spread out in the city… that can’t be efficient.”

“There must be some reason they’re built that way. Less risk of losing them all from an attack?” Leaf watches the traffic from the harbor a while longer. “I wonder what the city was like before container technology took off.”

“Oh, way busier. It was the biggest shipping port on the whole island, not just for Kanto. Now that shipping stuff isn’t as big a deal, its purpose is more civilian. I think the city must still be adapting to that.”

“Is this your first time here?”

“Yeah. Before the ranch we lived in Viridian, never came this far south of Saffron. Dad didn’t have much interest in traveling afterward.”

“How’s he doing, anyway?”

Aiko’s face is carefully neutral. “Fine. He’s mostly ignoring what’s happening, hasn’t brought up my leaving every day, or responded when I talk about the stuff I’ve been doing.”

“Oh.” Leaf senses some deeper worry there, but doesn’t want to poke at it. “What about Psychic Ino?”

“So far I just showed him around the ranch and talked about the basics of what we can offer. Dad was as engaged as he gets while talking to him, which is promising. What about you, anything exciting coming up?”

“Too much. We’re getting dozens of emails a day from all sorts of people, and digging through them to find offers worth taking or opportunities is hard, there’s just so many choices, and wow as I’m saying all this it sounds like such a petty problem to have, I’m sorry.”

Aiko laughs. “No, you’re good. I’m glad I just have to focus on the gym right now, I don’t know how Blue is going to juggle his battles there with all the attention you guys are getting. Though I guess you’re helping out with that.”

“I think the conversation with the Professor and the others helped a lot. Without that we’d probably all feel overwhelmed not just by the volume but the choices themselves. I turned down the third Coordinator Academy that reached out to me today, and can’t help but feel like it’s a huge waste of goodwill and opportunity.”

“It sounds like one, yeah. Isn’t there anything else you can do with them that doesn’t require attending? Maybe offer to write a column on their site?”

“You think they’d go for that? Sounds like something they’d reserve for faculty, or at least alumni.”

Aiko shrugs. “What do you have to lose? You just need one of them to say yes. They want to know more about your unique relationship and bond with pokemon, right? You could be a voice against people eating pokemon.”

Leaf is nodding, the possibilities unfurling in her mind. “I could start with the abra catching, and if it gets a positive response… yeah, I think I can do that.” There’s a part of her, however, that worries about what responses she’ll get to such a post, and how much more time she’ll spend poring over them. Maybe she can make an anonymous account to respond to the comments with…

“I’d love to have enough influence to pull it off, if I could get around the whole media blitz.”

“What would you use it for?” Leaf asks, curious to know what drives the girl. “Are you on your journey for something in specific?”

“Besides trying to become Champion?”

“Is that all you care about though? I mean… I was surprised to find out you don’t eat pokemon either, since…”

“Since I battle with them?”

“I battle with them too.”

“You know what I mean. Or rather, I know what you meant. Why don’t you just ask it?”

Leaf puts her hand on her hat as the wind gusts, hair whipping around her. “I didn’t mean to offend—”

Aiko turns to her. “Do I sound offended?”

“A little, yeah.” That pisses the other girl off, and Leaf holds a hand up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to start a fight.”

The girl rolls her eyes. “This isn’t a fight. I’m good at battling, and I care about pokemon. That’s all there is to it.”

“But… what do you want?” Leaf asks. “I mean, let’s say you got the fame and glory and skillset, somehow, of a pokemon master. Would you still want to become Champion?”

“The journey to becoming Champion is important. That’s how I get stronger, how I learn more about training my pokemon and catching others. But yeah, becoming a Champion would help in something.” Aiko is quiet for a minute, then smiles. “It’s weird, I just realized I’ve never told someone else.”

“Well, I won’t laugh if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ve only just figured out mine.”

“Which is?”

Leaf extends an arm out toward the city. “Being a voice others respect, listen to. Find ways to improve human and pokemon relations. Get people to stop eating them, hopefully.”

“That’s great. You should push for mandatory end-of-life care for trainer’s pokemon, too. Most just keep them in their balls when they’re not capable of fighting anymore, or release them into the wild, unprepared, which is just another death sentence.”

Leaf smiles. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot since visiting your ranch, yeah.”

“But getting people to stop eating pokemon… that would be amazing. Almost hard to imagine.”

“Sometimes it seems like a pipe dream, but Red and Blue are shooting for the moon too. So whatever yours is, you’re in good company.”

Aiko nods. “I want to be a Tracker.”

“Oh.” Discovering new pokemon isn’t a particularly strange job, unless… “You mean you want to hunt for mythical pokemon?”

“Yeah.”

“Which ones?”

“All of them. Mew, Shaymin, Manaphy… my mom used to tell me stories about them. It’s stupid, I know. But since I was a kid I wanted to go on my journey so I could get stronger, make friends, discover new species. I want to travel the world, and maybe… be one of those trainers from the stories, the ones who cleverly put the clues together and found Jirachi and got wishes granted, or saved some forest and encountered Celebi and traveled through time…”

Leaf watches Aiko’s flushed face, her gaze out over the city. “I think I get it.” Red and Blue would even more, I think.

Aiko shrugs. “Even if they’re all made up and I never find any of the myths, hunting down leads and discovering even a couple new species would be amazing. Can you imagine? Being the first person to see a new pokemon, figuring out what it can do, how it acts, what it likes and dislikes…”

Leaf smiles. “That would be cool, yeah. But you do believe in the myths, right?”

“Some, yeah.”

“Why? I’m not scoffing,” Leaf quickly says. “You just seem really determined.”

Aiko hesitates a moment longer, then simply says, “I saw one.”

Leaf stares. “Saw… which one? Saw as in, saw in person? When? Where?”

“Ho-Oh. A Johto legend.”

“The Guardian of the Skies,” Leaf recites, remembering the stories she read when researching her book. A golden flame that endlessly reincarnates, rekindling life even from ashes…

“Yeah. Over here there are stories of a fourth seasonal bird, the avatar of Spring, embodying the fire of renewed life and leaving a rainbow in its wake. I think they’re the same bird, and I saw it a few years ago.”

“How many is a few?”

Aiko’s face darkens. “I don’t really expect you to believe me, I know memories can be unreliable. Obviously I could have been wrong, but… it was three years ago, early April. I was out in a pen taking care of some pokemon. Out of nowhere all the pokemon around started freaking out. It was terrifying, and then… I felt it too. It was like the air was heavy. Like a storm was about to burst out over us at any moment. I know it sounds weird saying this, but I felt a storm, inside. It made my bones feel like they were thrumming. I even looked up in case stormclouds had somehow snuck up on me, but the sky was completely clear. Instead I saw the bird.”

Leaf listens in rapt silence, the described sensations so powerful that she shivers in the warm sunlight as Aiko continues. “It was like a prismatic jewel in the sky, a rainbow of colored lights reflecting off its feathers. It wasn’t huge, maybe a little bigger than a full grown pidgeot, but it felt enormous, like craning your head up at a tropius in a forest, or looking at the shadow of a wailord swimming under a rowboat in the ocean. The air shimmered around it, and as it passed over us the heat it gave off was like a second sun, burning my skin.”

Aiko’s runs out of breath, then takes a deep one. Her face isn’t flushed anymore, now it looks pale, and Leaf sees a tremor go through the other girl.

“Maybe it’s just my memory exaggerating, maybe the pokemon freaking out was a coincidence, maybe I just saw a shiny fearow and was suffering from heat stroke. But I don’t think I would have made up that feeling, the Pressure. It’s too strong. Even if I just read someone’s account of what it feels like facing one of the Stormbringers and forgot, I don’t think my imagination is good enough for that. I think I really saw it, and I want to prove that it exists.”

“You didn’t take a picture, I guess?” Leaf asks with a weak smile.

“I didn’t even think about it until after it was long gone and I’d finished calming all the pokemon down. Thinking at all, about anything, was hard. I tried drawing it, but the details are all confused in my head, and I’m not a great artist.”

“What will you do if you find it?”

Aiko is quiet for a long time as they both look over the city. Leaf doesn’t think she’ll answer at first, too embarrassed or still shaken by her memory, but when she sneaks a peak she sees the other girl smiling slightly, watching their birds fly around them.

“There are a lot of stories about the avatar of Spring and Johto’s golden Guardian of the Skies. While the Stormbringers wreak death and destruction, the stories say Ho-Oh heralds greatness and brings life. Some say anyone who the bird appears to is blessed, while others say its feathers—”

“Bring back the dead,” Leaf says, thinking of the discussion with Amy, Red, and Blue back in Viridian.

Aiko shrugs, still looking up at the sky. “I’m not fooling myself. Magic like that isn’t real. Celebi, if it exists, probably doesn’t actually travel in time. Jirachi can’t grant wishes.”

“But even still…”

Aiko nods. “Even still. If the bird itself actually does exist, maybe the part about seeing it and being ‘destined for greatness’ is true too.”

Leaf smiles. And if the other stories about it just happen to be true…

They watch the city together, dreaming of the future.


Blue’s first impression of Vermilion’s gym was that it’s rather small and plain. Not plain the way Pewter’s is, that monolith of granite is at least distinctive. From the outside Vermilion’s looked just like it did in media, camouflage green walls with its sign in big bold letters of electric yellow. The inside resembled an office building’s lobby however, and as he registered and signed up for his challenge matches, he noted that the gym members all wore the uniforms he saw in pictures and videos.

It wasn’t until he walked through the rest of the small building and out the back entrance that he found himself in the “real” gym… a sprawling campus of outdoor training zones, arenas, and various squat, unadorned buildings. Blue always thought the military mannerisms and clothes of Vermilion’s gym members were mostly theater: no doubt the Leader ran a tight ship, but he figured at its core it would be similar to other gyms.

That first day, as Blue walked across the campus to start his challenge matches, saw a formation of gym members jogging side by side with their pokemon, passed a line of trainers practicing their pokemon’s aim and timing against targets, and heard the cries of battle commands mixed with shouted orders, he knew he’d been wrong. And he began to believe that he came to the right place to learn how to be a leader.

Unfortunately, by their fifth day in Vermilion he still hasn’t been able to schedule a meeting with the Unovan gym leader. After the first challenge battle, a straightforward fight against a pikachu and a mareep that seemed insultingly easy considering his two badges, he wasn’t able to request another until the following week. Until then, he’s been… “training.”

Blue stands at attention with the other new challengers in a field, eyes on the gym teacher in front of them. None of them are wearing the full uniform of the gym members, but they were each provided shirts and pants in various green and khaki colors. Just putting it on made Blue feel like he was part of something new, made his spine stiffen as he fell into formation with the others at the assigned time and place.

The first few days were spent learning basic presentation, then the importance of physical conditioning (AKA, lots and lots of running and some obstacle courses), then a few standard commands to position groups of pokemon in strategically useful ways. Today they finally have their first combat related lesson. Blue looks around, wondering where Aiko is… then spots her jogging toward them, already short hair tied back. Blue smiles at her, and she flashes one back before joining the rear line just as the instructor finishes unpacking some supplies and standing an easel up.

“Morning trainers, and welcome to Positioning 101,” the instructor says in a lazy drawl. The Gym’s Third, Sabra, is a tall young woman with dark skin, a buzz cut, and a perpetually half-lidded gaze. “This being your first official lesson, I’m going to introduce you to something you may have seen others carrying around.”

She opens a box full of plain wooden disks with the Thunder Badge symbol on them and a pin in the back. “These are your ‘Objections.’ Used to just be called ‘tokens’ when I started, but someone began calling them Objections and it stuck. Raise your hands with fingers out for each badge you have.”

Blue raises two fingers into the air. Most others raise at least one finger, while the majority show between two and four. An older woman with short greying hair is the only one with seven fingers up. Blue vaguely recognizes her from a battle match against Erica. Lin, that was her name. Had a crazy-strong slowking and heracross.

“Keep em up.” Sabra begins tossing Objections to each of them for their badge counts. The trainers quickly space themselves out to give themselves more room to catch, many beginning to smile or laugh as they grab the flying discs with one hand as the other keeps holding their fingers in the air. She leaves Lin for last, then holds seven discs up with a raised brow. Lin smiles and lowers her hands, palms out and fingers curled. The trainers back away from her as the instructor begins to fling discs in every direction, and Lin’s hands dart left, right, up and down, grabbing every one. The class applauds, and Sabra smiles.

“Alright, form up again. I want you all to pin those to the front of your uniforms, rows of four. Pay attention to who’s got how many, because as of this moment, while you’re on the Gym grounds, those with more than you are your superiors. Any group activities, they give the orders. Any strategy decisions, they have final say. Understood?”

Blue nods along with the others, brow creased. This feels like a predictable and limiting way to assign rank, but he trusts there’s more coming.

“Any dispute you have with someone else with an equal or higher rank than you can be settled by wagering a token,” Sabra continues. “Your superior gives an order you disagree with, you can put up a token to express that disagreement. They can then choose to take it and try your idea instead: if it works, you get yours back plus one of theirs. If not, they keep it. For two with equal rank, either can offer a token.”

Someone raises a hand, and Sabra nods to them. “What if neither does?”

“Then what are they arguing for? Not putting your money where your mouth is should make it clear you’re not worth listening to. If the deadlock continues, their punishment is their continued dysfunction as a unit.”

Someone without badges raises their hand, then asks, “What if someone doesn’t have any, or runs out?”

“Then they’d better hope their arguments are convincing on their own. You all can feel free to hand someone a token at any time if you’re impressed by them, or want to make a sociopolitical statement.”

“How many tokens do you have?” someone else asks.

The group chuckles, and Sabra smiles. “Infinity minus two. Any other questions about the Objections?”

“Is there a way to earn more, outside of wagers?” Aiko asks.

“We used to hand some out in classes if a student did something impressive, but eventually felt it was messing with the dynamic. In case it’s not clear, these tokens are just meant to physically represent a natural dynamic between people: trust. Trust in thinking, in experience, in leading ability, whatever. And trust doesn’t come from on high. Trainers are warriors, not soldiers. Outside of gyms or the Ranger Corps, trainers don’t have formal ranks or a chain of command: when we choose to follow someone, to listen to them in a crisis, it’s based on their accomplishments or how well they can convince us their idea is the right one. And the more they prove themselves the more trust they have. So while you’re in this gym, we’re going to make you as aware as we can of how you’re assigning your trust to others, and what it takes to earn some.”

Blue realizes he’s grinning and tones it down to a smile. He’s going to have to push Red to take a few classes here: he thinks his friend would enjoy this system. Hell he’d probably try to implement it among their group.

“So. You’ve got your Objections. Let’s see how you use them.”

Sabra marks an X on the poster board. “This is a dragonite. Fully grown, and mean. Rampaging in this direction.” She draws an arrow down, then some circles. “About to reach a town. You and your classmates are the only trainers around. Your objective is to prevent it from reaching the town if possible, and minimize civilian loss if not. Now. What’s the first question you’ve got to answer about any engagement?”

The class is still and silent. Blue listens to the distant yells and chants of trainers and other instructors, trying to think as a drop of sweat slides down his neck and the sun beats down on them. First he’d want to know what pokemon the others with him have. Next the terrain, anywhere they can surprise the dragonite from…

A gangly redhead raises his hand, one of the two five badge trainers. “How strong it is.”

“Good. What else?”

“What pokemon my allies have,” Blue offers, and the rest of the class begins pitching in ideas.

“How much time we have.”

“What are the objectives?”

“Has anyone fought a dragonite before?”

Their instructor nods along with each suggestion, then writes three words out:

Intel. Resources. Terrain.

“All good answers. More than anything else, you have to know what your enemy is capable of, what resources are at your disposal, and where you’ll be fighting. Any strategy you try to devise without one of these three things is going to be weak to the point of uselessness. So, you know your enemy, roughly. Here’s your terrain.” She draws some grass tufts and hills, then a forest to the side. “Now split into groups of… seven? Eight, and figure out a plan. You, there, you two here, you go with them. Reconvene in ten with a plan, as detailed as you can get it, and we’ll do a breakdown and judgement then.”

Blue is glad he’s not paired with Lin: little chance of getting an Objection from that veteran. He scans his group mates as they walk a distance away from the others and form a circle. One with one badge, two with no badges, one with two besides himself, two with three and the gangly guy with five, who speaks first.

“Hey everyone, I’m Cal. The only pokemon I have that can take some hits from a dragonite are a scizor and a golem.” He looks to the trainer on his right.

“Hi. Jen. I’ve got an ursaring that might take a few attacks. Other than that, a raichu or hypno to hit it from afar.”

“Glen. Got a snorlax to slow it down.”

Everyone perks up at that, and Blue whistles. Getting a snorlax by his third badge is either impressive or really lucky. “How old?” he asks.

“About twenty years.”

Not much grown, then. And snorlax aren’t all as physically tough as most people give them credit for, though they can shrug off most special attacks like no one’s business. “Any useful attackers?”

Glen gives him a skeptical look, but says, “A fearow that can harass it for a bit.”

Blue nods and lets it go. Cal seemed about to say something to Blue, then just nods at the next person in the circle, the other trainer with two badges.

“Lani. I’ve got a dewgong.” Everyone murmurs appreciation at that, Ice attacks being the only thing that can reliably take a Dragonite down fast. “Won’t have much mobility, but it can get some solid hits in if you can give it cover.”

“Blue. My strongest attacker is double resisted, so a wartortle with Ice Beam may be the only thing I can offer. The rest of my pokemon would really just be there to distract and harass.”

The two trainers with no badges look at each other. They appear related, and Blue guesses they’re on their journey together. “Chie and Taro,” the girl says for both of them. “I don’t know what we have that could do much. A jigglypuff to try to put it to sleep, a koffing to make some smoke and distract it… nothing that can really take a hit or do much damage.”

“Same here,” the boy with one badge says. “I only have a meowth, oddish, poliwag, and pidgey. I don’t think it would even notice them. Oh, I’m Vincent.”

“Okay,” Cal says. “So. We’ve got a golem and snorlax to tank it, scizor and dewgong to take it down. We can have… Jen? Jen, as flex. Maybe start with raichu or hypno, then put ursaring in if we need him. I guess I should ask, anyone else here feel confident dual battling? Okay, I think that’s our best bet then. We hit it hard with everything we’ve got and take it down before it has time to knock out our tanks. The three of you, try to keep your pokemon safe, but get a hit in when you can. Preferably with any status conditions.”

The others nod, but Blue is frowning as he tries to think of a better plan. There’s got to be something better the less useful trainers can do than just try to distract it and hope for the best: a dragonite in a rampage isn’t going to be slowed down by anything but a critical hit to an eye or wing.

“Any Objections?” Cal looks around. “Okay, so positioning. Those woods provide us cover, if we’ve got time we should check an area for wild pokemon then camp it until the dragonite is moving past. If we can engage inside it we’ll have extra cover, and the farther we fight from the town the safer it’ll be.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t all be in one place,” Blue says. “If it’s full grown it probably knows hyper beam. We should spread, minimize the risk of all being hit by one.”

“We won’t be able to coordinate as easily,” Cal says.

“So delegate. Trainers with melee pokemon will have to be closer anyway. Choose a lieutenant to call the shots for the ranged attackers.”

“Which would be who, you?” Glen asks.

“Whoever has the most experience among them, so Jen, probably.”

She looks surprised. “Yeah, I guess I can do that.”

“Hang on, I’m still not sold on splitting up in the first place,” Cal says.

Blue remembers his objection to splitting up back when Red suggested it in Viridian forest, and fights down his impatience. “Well, what are your problems with it?”

“It’s just trading one risk for another. I’d rather keep everyone together.”

Well, that’s helpfully vague. Blue decides not to press it and come off as insubordinate. “Okay, let’s go over positioning then?”

Taro frowns. “I thought we just did. In the woods, right?”

“He means of our pokemon,” Lani says. “I think.”

“Yeah. The instructor said to go into as much detail as possible. I figured we should try and go over where they are in relation to each other and ourselves.”

Cal shrugs. “Sure. So we’ll set up our tanks on the side where the dewgong is and keep it from getting past us to hit it, while you guys harass it from behind and try to get it to turn around.”

“If you set up in front of me it’ll be harder to hit the dragonite without friendly fire,” Lani says.

“And the rest of us will have to try and aim around you, from a distance.” Jen says. “Not great.”

“It’s the only way to prevent it from just going straight at the ranged,” Cal says.

Lani shakes her head, then kneels and plows a finger through the dirt to outline the forest, town, and path of the dragonite. “Dragonite are fast. I think it’s better to put some of the tanks on either side to avoid getting hit by our ranged, and to box it in. If we come at it all from one side, it could just flee and attack the town from the other.”

“Maybe,” Blue says. “But it’s not trying to attack the town. That’s just the direction it’s rampaging. If we hit it from one side it should turn to us.”

“Why not draw it away then?” Glen asks. “The objective was just to not let it reach town.”

“That seems like a technicality,” Jen says. “I’m not sure Sabra will accept it.”

“Agreed,” Cal says. “Besides, a rampaging dragonite is dangerous: pointing it in a different direction just puts others at risk.”

Blue considers as they argue, trying to imagine himself in the situation. It’s not hard to come up with strategies he would use to fight the dragonite if he was on his own, with access to the others’ pokemon, but even with a dewgong, golem, and scizor, he would be worried about his odds.

Being able to fight all together means they should win, even if they get sloppy, but they still want to win clean. No casualties, no risks. If they know the dragonite will stay engaged on them, it might be best to engage in a battle of endurance of sorts.

“We shouldn’t try to distract it,” Blue says, interrupting a discussion of the lower level trainers taking turns. “I think I have a better idea. We should set up a field medical line for you four.”

“No one listed any healing pokemon. Does anyone have them?” Cal asks.

“Even without any, we have potions, ether, and revives. If we’re not going to be useful in the fight anyway, even using your second and third choice pokemon is probably a better idea, if it means someone else is there to get your primaries back in shape. Switch your pokeballs to open access, and when one of your pokemon is hurt, withdraw and toss it to us. We can summon it, heal it, and throw it back while you keep battling with your others.”

The circle is quiet as they consider this, and Blue listens to the other two groups conversing as he looks from face to face. Some look doubtful, but the others…

“It also lets us split up, but not too far,” Jen says. “Melee, ranged, and medical forming a triangle point between them.”

Finally Cal nods. “Okay, yeah. That makes sense to me. Anyone else got an objection?”

No one does, and they spend the rest of the time discussing positioning. When Sabra calls time, they approach and go over everyone’s plans. The first team uses hit and run tactics to keep the dragonite distracted while Lin’s slowking attempts to overwhelm it mentally from a distance. The strategy seems simple on the surface, but they’d come up with a number of clever tactics to use as needed, which caused Sabra to nod approvingly and declare their plan a likely success. Lin hands an objection to one of the trainers in her group, who smiles wide and attaches it to their shirt.

The second team’s plan does indeed try to simply drive the dragonite away from the town, as Glen suggested. Sabra doesn’t seem to have a problem with the concept, focusing her criticisms specifically for their use of kiting tactics.

“Remember to take the temperament of the wild pokemon into account when trying to confront it. If this dragonite is looking for a fight, it may not be driven off by seeing the ground in front of it set ablaze or get rocks thrown at it. The only thing known to reliably deter a dragonite once its blood is up has been a powerful enough blizzard. Sorry, but your plan probably wouldn’t work.”

A trainer from that group with three Objections unpins one and hands it to their group’s leader with a slight frown. Sabra turns to Blue’s group, and Cal describes the plan. The instructor makes a thoughtful noise after he finishes. “Dedicating non-combatants to battlefield recovery is standard procedure for this gym. Do any of you know gym members, or read our forum?”

His group shakes their heads, a few of them glancing at him. Blue is as surprised as they are, and widens his eyes to exaggerate his innocence. It’s satisfying to know that he was able to come up with a gym-approved strategy on his own, and he wants to make sure people don’t think he “cheated.”

“Well, I’d say your plan should succeed as well. More casualties than the first group’s, probably, but they have stronger pokemon up front. Well done.” She waits to see if any objections are handed over. A few people glance between Cal and Blue, but Blue never offered an Objection: Cal had adopted his plan without him needing to. “So, this was your first taste of working in groups. Next we’re going to practice maneuvers that allow easy propagation of orders among group members.”

She flips the page on the poster board and starts writing out Priority 0, Priority 1, Priority 2…

“At the very least, you should have an understood shorthand for priorities for any group you’re a part of, large or small. Rangers use an increasing priority list, so we’ve adopted theirs as standard procedure. For those of you who don’t know how this works, it’s fairly straightforward: Priority 0 is considered the basic default behavior of everyone acting in the best interest of themselves and those around them, with their own understanding of events. Priority 1 supersedes it if issued, as the implication is that there is something more important that needs to be coordinated on and attended to, even if it does not appear obvious to every trainer why. Once a Priority 1 has been established, a Priority 2 will be issued if some new concern appears that supersedes 1. Once it is handled, 1 is considered still in effect: if the situation changes and Priority 1 is no longer important, then further orders should be labeled as the new Priority 1. Any questions so far?”

The group stays silent. Blue’s mind is already racing ahead as he tries to think through how the priorities are determined by each ranking officer. “Are the first few of these common knowledge before an encounter?”

“Generally yes, if they have time to prepare, any Ranger squad worth their uniform will have at least two or three Priorities already in place, so people know the initial goals. They would then add new ones if needed.”

The gangly boy, Glen, raises his hand. “What if you set two priorities already, then something new comes up that’s between them? Would you say something like Priority 2.5?”

“That’s exactly right. It’s a system that allows potentially infinite on-the-fly accommodation of new circumstances. While it could get awkward to continue fracturing orders, realistically I’ve never seen anything more than a 2.25 or 1.75.”

Aiko pokes her hand up. “What if a priority shifts position? Do you rearrange all of them?”

“No. If there are four priorities and Priority 1 becomes the new most important one, you would say ‘Priority 1 upgrade to 5,’ and after that refer to it as 5. The exception to this is Priority 0, which despite being below 1, is also partially outside the hierarchy. At any point, if the leader calls for Priority 0, they mean forget all the previous Priorities and do what you can to keep yourselves safe and act as you see fit. Sometimes, if things get FUBAR enough, it’s basically a way to say ‘every man for themselves.’ For this reason it’s sometimes called Priority Alpha.”

Someone mutters something, and Sabra raises a brow at them. “Got something to say?” The young man shakes his head. “Come on Trainer, spit it out. We’re all here to learn.”

“I was just saying that this seems unnecessarily confusing.”

She smiles. “A common comment. Who else agrees that this system is too complicated?”

A few people raise their hands, then a few more, until a little over half of the participants have their hands raised. Blue keeps his down: on the off chance she singles someone out to offer something better, he’d rather wait until he has one.

“Well it’s your lucky day, because trying to come up with a better system is your next assignment,” she tells the class at large, causing Blue to smile. “Keep in mind what this system does well, and what it does poorly, and how you’d want to improve it without losing its strengths. If you come up with something novel, who knows, we might even adopt it officially and send it to the Rangers. Same groups as before, fifteen minutes. Go on.”

Blue congregates with the others again, all of whom were more or less still together. They discuss the system’s strengths and weaknesses, then try to come up with things that address its strengths while ignoring its weaknesses. This results in people mostly just discussing what they like or dislike in the original system again, and Blue remembers too late that he should have suggested everyone think on their own for a few minutes. Cal gets everyone back on track by reminding them that they’re supposed to be actively trying to come up with new ideas, and Jen takes out some pen and paper, using it to write out what they come up with and list pros and cons.

Blue remembers doing something similar when they were Goal Factoring, and suggests trying to draw things out that way. He’s not sure if it’s meant for something like this, but the others seem interested. He guides Jen in the process, and at the very least writing them down helps the conversation avoid going in circles. They isolate each strength, then try to come up with a plan that captures it, then go down the list of strengths to see if they apply too before seeing if it avoids the weaknesses. Glen argues that they should check for avoiding negatives first, so they try that for a while, but end up spending most of their time debating over what an acceptable amount of “complexity” is.

They run out of time before really fleshing out a system, but Sabra doesn’t seem upset, and the other two groups fared similarly. “It wasn’t a lot of time, so I would have been surprised if anyone came up with something stellar, but at least you have an idea of what goes into trying to make something like this.” A bell rings across the campus, and Sabra begins taking down the poster board. “If you can come up with something on your own that you think beats the default, shoot me or another of the instructors a message any time. We’re always looking to improve our systems. Class dismissed.”

As the group begins disbanding, he heads over to Aiko. “That was pretty fun.”

She grins. “Yeah, way more interesting than just another training drill. Did you sign up for anything else today?”

Blue checks the schedule on his phone. “Terrain assessment 101, after lunch. You?”

“Same. Let’s see if we can get Red and Leaf to join us.” Aiko glances past him, and Blue turns to see Glen walking toward them.

“Hey, Blue. It was good working with you.”

“Hey, thanks.” Blue struggles to remember something specific Glen contributed that he can mention, and just settles on, “Same to you.”

“I was wondering, why didn’t you ask for an Objection from Cal? It was your idea we went with in the end.”

Blue considers his answer. One of the first lessons in Nobunaga’s journey to win the respect of others was his willingness to make use of all resources at his disposal, including his soldiers’ every skill and scrap of knowledge. People saw that, and respected it, and wanted to follow him because they knew he would hear them out and make full use of their potential, so that even if his goals or methods were often brutal or seemed extreme, they still believed he had given it and any objections they had full consideration.

“The objections are for when a leader disagrees with someone under them,” Blue says at last. “Cal heard our ideas out, thought them over, then decided on mine. He did what a good leader should do.”

“Huh. Makes sense. You’re a pretty chill guy.”

Aiko snorts, ignoring the look Blue shoots her. “Didn’t expect that?” she asks.

“Not really.”

“I know the feeling. I thought the rich kid of a world famous Professor would be full of himself, but Blue hides it well.” She gives him a fond look and rubs his hair. “One of the reasons I joined up with them.”

Blue’s face is flushed as he tries to come up with something to say, but Glen nods. “Well, I think you deserve recognition for it, even if Cal accepted your idea. I’ve never really been much for coming up with plans, so…” He unpins an Objection and hands it to Blue.

Blue stares at the offered wooden disk. “You don’t have to do that.”

“My choice, right? Sabra said.”

Blue hesitates a moment longer, then takes the disk. A “sociopolitical statement,” she said? “Thanks.” It’s not the same as earning one through someone accepting his plan, but… in some ways it’s better. Blue pins it to his shirt, then smiles at Glen. “Hey, want to grab lunch with us?”

Glen looks surprised and smiles back. “Yeah, sounds fun. Lead the way.”


Red lies in bed with Pichu on his stomach and admires his glossy new Researcher License, basking in the sense of contentment that fills him and trying it to ignore the melancholy note beneath it.

Three months since he set out on his journey. In some ways not much time, but he’s gone through so much that he feels like a completely different person than the Red who spent his days doing menial lab work or preparing for his journey with Blue. Now that the first step of his journey is complete, it feels like it was almost too easy… an idea that he imagines Past Red staring at in disbelief, then holding up a single sore-from-typing finger.

The peer review process had Red worried, but the data from his pokedex registrations were clear, as were his notes. He knows replication trials are being attempted already, particularly because of the new ability to acquire large amounts of abra for research. He looks forward to seeing their results, but his nervousness has mostly faded.

The past few days have been relaxing, in an odd way. Without his research to work on he spent most of his time practicing his psychic abilities and training his pokemon in the Trainer House rooms. Blue recently became insistent that Red come to the Gym and try some classes out, and Red surprised himself by not rejecting it out of hand. Why not take advantage of the gym’s facilities, if he’s training his pokemon anyway? He has an electric pokemon, after all.

Red finishes admiring his license, and wipes a tear away as he tucks it in his wallet. He wishes he could call his dad and tell him about his accomplishments. That would make the day perfect.

Instead he gets out of bed and heads for the Vermilion Gym to sign up for their next beginner’s classes, as he promised Blue. When he arrives and looks over the schedule, he spots one that particularly focuses on trainers that have electric pokemon and signs up for that too. Blue said their more advanced classes helped him a lot with Ion, and that he thinks his shinx is close to evolving. Maybe Pichu is too, but learning to better train him seems important either way..

He puts his name down for a double battle in the meantime, wanting to get more familiar with instructing two pokemon at once. Watching Blue and Aiko’s battle on the road gave him an idea that he’s been practicing since arriving at Vermilion, and he wants to try it out.

It takes a while for the matchmaker to find another badgeless trainer that’s interested in the same format, and Red uses the time training Cerulean. The abra will be getting a name change soon, since their voyage is in about a week; Red wants to make sure she’s registered to the city in case he gets super sea sick or the boat is hijacked by pirates or sunk by a gyarados. Cerulean’s mind is becoming more and more familiar to Red, who can almost feel through his pokemon’s psychic senses now. It’s particularly odd sending an impulse to use a psychokinetic burst, since the sensation is one that he’s been trying to do with his own powers for over a month now, and continues to utterly fail at.

Indiscriminate bursts of force seem to be Cerulean’s limit at first, but as Red becomes more comfortable in her head, he begins practicing with lifting small objects, first by inhabiting her senses as she levitates berries to eat, then by instructing her to catch the ones he tosses to her. Her senses are incredibly sharp, all except taste… though that might just be him not appreciating the berries on the same level she is.

Twenty minutes later he’s able to reliably instruct her to catch and hover berries mid-air. Best of all, he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by his grief. It’s there, a steady tide that saps his will and distracts him, but a short rest now and then seem to fully recover him, and the cumulative build up, if there is any, is slow.

Red reminds himself not to be too optimistic, but it feels like he’s finally developing his emotional endurance, or weakening the emotions behind his partition, or something. Maybe it’s just because he’s in such a great mood after getting his Researcher license, but either way, Red finds himself humming as he withdraws Cerulean to bring out Spinarak for some web shooting practice.

He’s in the middle of unclipping Spinarak’s ball when the door opens and a pair of trainers appear, along with—

“Blue?”

“Red!” His friend grins as he follows the two in, all three dressed in similar clothing. Blue has four wooden circles pinned to his chest for some reason. “You came!”

“I… yeah, I signed up for some classes. Thought I’d do a practice match while I wait. What are you doing here?” He realizes he’s being rude and looks at the other two. “Hey, I’m Red Verres.”

“We know,” the two trainers say at the same time, and Red realizes they’re brother and sister, probably twins. “I’m Chie, this is Taro. We saw you on the news.”

“We just finished our second class together,” Blue says. “The first was yesterday. They’re from Pallet Town too!”

Red’s brow shoots up. “Really? I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you…”

The boy, Taro, grins. “We moved to Lavender Town a couple years ago, started our journey a few months back. Haven’t gone far from the city yet, just toward the eastern coast and back, and to the north a bit.”

“So you wanted a double battle?” Chie asks, eyeing him warily. “Just you? But you don’t have any badges, right?”

“Yeah, but don’t let that fool you, he’s been in some scrapes.” Blue goes over to the wall and leans against it, arms folded. “This I gotta see. You two have no idea how long I’ve been trying to get Red into trainer battles.”

Red feels his cheeks flush as he tries to think of some defense, deny the unspoken charge that he’s a… ugh… battle trainer, now, just because he’s at a gym and signing up for trainer battles…

“Well, we’re happy to test ourselves against anyone that travels with Blue,” Taro says, and his sister smiles and nods, unclipping a pokeball.

…but he doesn’t want to insult them, and besides, he is here to become a better trainer first and foremost.

“So did you want to fight one of us using two of our pokemon at a time, or both of us using one each?” Chie asks.

“Um. I guess both of you together would be harder for me? So maybe individually—”

“No,” Blue says. “Red, two individual trainers will be better preparation for fighting wild pokemon. Taro, Chie, you guys should practice your coordination.”

“Sure!”

“You got it!”

Red blinks at the determination the two suddenly show. “Uh. Okay, sure.” He unclips two balls, wondering what’s gotten into them. “So, I’ve got four pokemon to fight with.”

“We’ll use two each then,” Taro says.

“First knockout?” Chie asks.

“Nah, all four,” Taro replies.

“Too risky, maybe two tops.”

“It’ll be fine, just don’t—”

“Three knockouts,” Blue says. “Or three blood. Whichever comes first. Either side that can’t fight with two pokemon is assumed done, as the other opponent can just get around them and attack the trainer while their pokemon is fighting. Ready?”

“Okay!”

“Ready!”

Red blinks again, then grins. “Sir, yes sir!” Whatever Blue’s doing in this gym, he’s not going to throw a wrench in it.

“Set… go!”

“Go, Charmander! Go, Oddish!”

“Go, Mankey!”

“Go, Drowzee!”

Red takes a moment to analyze his opponents, ensuring that his strategy is still sound, then-

“Hold First Ten!”

Three words that both his pokemon immediately respond to, Charmander tossing a smokescreen out from the end of his tail while Oddish spews Sleep Powder at the mankey, since drowzee tend to be very hard to put to sleep. Blue quickly pulls his gas mask off his backpack and tugs it on, but the trainers are too focused on the battle to worry about themselves.

“Mankey, Chop right!”

“Drowzee, Confusion right!”

“Charmander dodge!”

Charmander tries, but stumbles as the drowzee extends its arms and begins to sway. The mankey avoids the spores as it dashes forward, but thankfully it dove straight through the smokescreen to attack, and comes out just to Charmander’s left.

“Base!” Red yells.

“Chop!”

“Hypnotize Left!”

Charmander whips an ember at the mankey, who screeches in pain as it dives forward and delivers a blow to the fire lizard’s neck that sends it tumbling to the side. A moment later the Stun Spore Oddish sent out envelops the mankey, who begins twitching, its movements becoming jerky and erratic.

A moment later Red’s oddish keels over, and both he and Taro withdraw their pokemon together. Red watches Charmander get to his feet with relief as he sends out Whismur.

The smokescreen is fading as Taro summons a krabby, and Red grins, pulse kicking up. Excellent: two slow pokemon. “Down Two!” he yells, feeling a blaze of excitement as his pokemon snap to attention.

“Dodge!” Taro and Chie yell together, clearly unsure of what’s coming. But the krabby isn’t targeted at all, while the drowzee is too slow to avoid the burst of sound that Whismur sends at the drowzee, or Charmander flicking embers at it in rapid succession.

“Bubblebeam!” Taro yells as Chie withdraws her drowzee to send out a koffing. But Charmander didn’t pause after sending the embers out, instead immediately running toward the drowzee so that the bubbles pop harmlessly against the ground in its wake.

“Whismur, Supersonic Nine,” Red says, and his pokemon sends a new frequency of sound at the krabby. Charmander, meanwhile, is still executing his previous command, and Red watches in satisfaction as the fire lizard leaps at the koffing, claws extended.

“Sludge!”

“Bubblebeam!”

The krabby slams its claws on the ground instead, while Charmander takes a ball of poison to the face as it leaps toward the koffing, claws extended.

The koffing reels in the air as the fire lizard latches on, its extra weight bringing it down until the koffing inhales deep and rockets upward. Charmander falls, and Red’s heart is in his throat as he aims his pokeball and nabs him with the beam before he hits the ground. A surge of adrenaline makes him grin as he clips the ball and reaches for a new one as blood patters to the floor beneath the koffing, and Chie returns her pokemon too.

“Match end!” Blue yells, making everyone go still. He goes to the fan controls at the side and turns them on, causing them to whir to life overhead and suck up all the remaining gases and smoke. Red and Taro withdraw their remaining pokemon as Blue pulls his mask off. “Red wins, three knockouts to two. Nice job everyone.”

The excitement and adrenaline of the match is joined by elation. Not only was the first live test of his strategy a success, but he beat two trainers at once with it!

“What were those commands?” Taro asks as he clips his krabby’s ball to his belt and runs a hand through his hair. “You barely gave any!”

“I was wondering about that too,” Blue says. “Is this what you’ve been practicing all week?”

“Yeah. I got the idea after your battle with Aiko. Have you figured out her code yet?”

Blue shuts down the fans, other hand rubbing his hair. “No, but now that you mention it…” Blue’s gaze is distant. “You were using simple commands to convey strategies for working together. Strategies that work when they’re fighting alone too? Aiko’s commands furthered the same goal for each pokemon she put out…”

The twins are frowning, but Red grins. “Right. As long as the pokemon have some move that you can fit into a general strategy, you can carry the same command over and even link multiple pokemon to the same general goal, all with one obscure command.”

“And the opponent has to guess what you linked to which command,” Blue says, a mix of consternation and excitement in his tone. “You came up with all this by watching Aiko fight once?”

“Well, she did most of the work, I just built on the framework she provided. The hardest part was getting each pokemon to link a second command to their attacks.”

“Ero,” Blue mutters. “Erosion. And Ero 2 to cycle into a second stage of the strategy.”

“Wait,” Chie says. “I think I get it. Okay, so ‘Hold’ was the strategy, and you used attacks that would lower our accuracy or put us to sleep to do it, but what about the other words? Why both ‘First’ and the numbers?”

Red smiles and tilts his hat up to scratch behind his head. “I dunno, what were they?” He’s enjoying this, he realizes. Enjoying it the way he enjoyed the battle, something he never used to think he would. But testing his ideas in the field against other, thinking opponents… there’s something thrilling about it that’s even stronger than watching Blue’s Challenge matches, something more personal in the examination of the strategies and tactics used against other thinking opponents.

“There’s no way you recorded ten custom commands in both your charmander and oddish,” Blue says after a moment, and Red watches his face as his friend slowly gets it. “Those weren’t linked to the attacks themselves at all, were they?” He smiles, and turns to the twins. “I got it. How about you two? Figure it out if you can, then we’ll go over what you did in the battle.”

Taro and Chie glance at each other, then begin to talk quietly. Blue saunters over and holds a fist up, grinning. “Congrats on the win. We’ll get you some badges yet.”

“Let’s not go crazy.” But Red’s smiling as he bumps knuckles with him. “But thanks. My license came today too.”

“Nice! Double congrats. Guess it’s finally time to celebrate turning twelve for real, with an accomplishment like that.”

“Hey, you’re not doing so bad either,” Red says, glancing at the twins. “When did you get minions?”

Blue grins. “Privileges of rank and status. I’ll whip them into fighting shape so your rematch is more of a challenge. In return I can probably get them to do my laundry or something.”

Red laughs. “Try not to get used to it, unless you plan on having them join us too.”

“Would that be so bad?”

Red blinks, then studies Blue, who looks serious now. “I guess not,” he says slowly. “If it’s okay with Leaf and Aiko, it’s fine with me. Have they already asked?”

“Not them, no, but this other trainer, Glen, has been hinting about it. He’s got three badges, is old and strong enough to travel on his own, and he’s good at listening and following orders while still being creative in accomplishing them.”

“I… didn’t realize those were attributes we were looking for,” Red says, feeling odd. He always knew Blue one day planned to lead others… the whole of Indigo, eventually. Red just didn’t expect him to be working to make it a reality so soon.

“Hey, you’re the one that comes up with most of the smart ideas,” Blue says, cuffing his arm. “As long as you’re around to advise me, they can be both of our minions.”

Red shakes his head, smiling. “For PR purposes, I insist any minions I make use of be referred to as ‘research assistants.'”

“Now you’re getting it.”

They watch the two confer a bit longer, then Blue takes out his phone. “Gonna tell the others your license came so they can plan for the party tonight. Preference on restaurant?”

“There’s a Kalos district down by the southern pier that had some interesting looking places.” Red takes out his own phone to look up restaurants and notices he has new emails. He opens the app and skims them for anything important, eyes snagging at a particular sender: Sabrina Natsume, Gym Leader of Saffron and the strongest psychic in Kanto, received a couple hours ago.

Red quickly taps it and reads:

Hello, Mr. Verres. Congratulations on your recent research and accomplishments. I found the hypothesis suggested intriguing, and look forward to any future discoveries you uncover.

I’ve also learned that you are a Gifted with a particular gift. I will be visiting Vermilion on some business today, and would be interested in meeting with you to discuss your unique abilities and research. If you’re available, please meet me at the below address at 4:30 PM.

Red checks the time and sees that it’s almost 4, then plugs the location into his map to see how far it is, mind racing. Did Ayane reach out to Sabrina specifically, or did her asking around about his shield travel up the psychic community’s grapevine? Hell, considering the community, it might not have even been explicitly mentioned by her, but rather bounced from thought to thought.

About a twenty minute bike ride. He can make it, if he wants to…

Red lowers his phone, letting it sink in that one of the top five psychics worldwide wants to meet with him. Nervous? Me? No sir, no ma’am, nothing to be nervous about here…

Just as a precaution, he closes his eyes and considers everything he knows and feels in case there’s something he doesn’t want anyone else to find out. Sure, he has his mental shield, but trusting that would be foolish without knowing the extent of Sabrina’s abilities, which he’s not sure anyone can claim. Anything about my family? Friends? Have I broken any laws? Any new research opportunities? Secrets I’m keeping for others?

Shit. There’s one of those.

“You okay, Red?”

“Uh huh. I think I’m going to have to skip the classes I registered for though.” He replies to let her know he’ll meet her.

“Aw man, how come? You—”

“Sabrina wants to meet me in thirty minutes.”

Blue’s eyes widen, then he grins. “Leader Sabrina? Well what are you waiting for, go, go! I’ll let them know you can’t make the classes and sign you up for them tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” Red gets his bag. The twins are watching him with surprise. “Sorry, gotta go.”

“Is it direction?”

“What? Oh, my code.”

“Don’t tell them, Red!” Blue says. “It’s an advantage until they figure it out.”

Red shakes his head, smiling. “Yeah, they’re directions,” he tells the twins. “More precise than usual targeting, and faster.”

“Good idea!”

“Thanks for the battle!”

“Spoilsport!” from Blue. “Battle trainers don’t reveal their secrets!”

“You too,” Red tells the twins. “And I’m not a battle trainer,” he yells to Blue as he heads out the door. “I’m a Researcher!”