Category Archives: Stories

Chapter 75: Interlude XII – Children of the Mind

Quick note, I’m henceforth referring to the Mr. Mime family by its Japanese name, Barrierd. There will be some reference to its “real name” when it comes up again in the future, but the simple reason is that its English name is just badly designed on a number of levels; it’s the only pokemon family whose names have two words, which makes lower case for non-proper-nouns look strange, and one of the words is an honorific, and it’s a gendered honorific despite there being female Mr. Mimes. So yeah. Now it’s barrierd, except for regions like Galar.

(Oh yeah, I guess Sirfetch’d has a gendered honorific too. Well at least it’s region specific. (Also it clearly should have been called Absir’d, come on…))


The air is cooler than it once was.

There are no seasons in the lab, no sense of change not reflected by the humans around me. I understood the concept of seasonal change. The humans’ minds were full of their experiences of hot summers and cold winters. I’ve seen the colors of spring and the starkness of winter in memories and on monitors. I’ve read about how the days would steadily shorten, that the air would dry, all from this portion of the planet tilting away from the sun.

But that belief had no corresponding alief until I walked out from the manor, anticipating the moment when the sun’s heat chases away the chill of the lab, only to find myself standing amidst a cold of a different sort.

“What’s wrong?” Ayush asks from behind. He is perhaps my favorite suit minder, an engineer and doctor who takes meticulous notes on the suit’s function, and gets excited enough about the work to thoroughly explain things when asked. His passion is enjoyable, and the information itself useful.

It takes a few moments to respond with the micro keyboard within my helmet, long enough for Sabrina to catch up to us at her more leisurely pace, but the delay feels enormous compared to mental speech. I could just let Sabrina read my thoughts and share them with Ayush, but I requested she let me speak for myself for the extra practice. “It is colder,” the speaker on my helmet eventually emits. “I can still feel the sun’s warmth, but the air does not carry it into my bones.”

Sabrina nods, and her hands rise to untie her hair, letting it fall like a dark curtain along either side of her neck. “It will get colder still by the end of the month.” I’m sorry, I know you look forward to the heat.

It is alright. I also look forward to seeing snow. I send a burst of appreciation for her acknowledgement of my preferences, and she responds with the mental impression of a smile, a flexing of muscles I mostly do not possess but can still feel through our link.

We begin to walk, and my mind drifts to other things, pulled occasionally by the eddy of Sabrina’s thoughts or observations before my own tug at hers. She is pensive today, worried about how her gym is managing without her. I send reassurance, and she returns gratitude. Remaining openly linked with her day after day has resulted in many benefits: Sabrina’s theoretical understanding of multiple psychic phenomena has vastly improved by inhabiting my mind while I use my powers, even if the primary goal of the experiment, enhancing her own abilities, has yet to manifest.

But the true value of these past weeks has been the closeness it has resulted in between us. To have such total honesty with someone else, in thought and feeling, has utterly changed my world in a way that inhabiting the minds of others around the lab never could. It nearly brought me to tears, seeing myself through Sabrina’s eyes and feeling no judgement from her. The memory brings tears up again, and Sabrina sends a comforting thought, the memory of her warm hand around mine.

It seems silly now, reflecting back on my old fears and frustrations of being stuck in the lab. They know that I could crush Sabrina under psychic assault, affect her perceptions and memories, but still she volunteered to take such risks… and was rewarded for it. I feel immeasurably grateful, that they have shown this trust in me, given me so much… I just wish I could repay her, and Giovanni, and all the humans back for how much they’ve given me… ~1~ perhaps if I…

I sense curiosity from Sabrina, who detected the new idea and reacted as effortlessly as a on a page.

I stop walking as I consider the thought that had just materialized, knowing she’ll pick it up through the mental bond once I’m focused on it. She responds with excitement, and I send my own reflecting emotion back before I begin to shape and direct my telekinesis.

When Sabrina first taught me about the dimensions of telekinetic abilities, they seemed logically consistent: Force, Finesse, and Durability, each with an inverse relationship to the others. Game pieces as light as a gram could be lifted, rotated, manipulated in any way I could imagine with lots of concentration, but little effort. But to try and lift myself, it is all I can do to maintain a steady, one dimensional flow of force against gravity’s pull.

The larger the intended area of effect, the more psychic energy can be infused in it and expelled. But with that increased area comes less flexibility.

Durability is similarly constrained. Humans believe psychics create mental “objects.” A “hand” to lift. A “blade” to cut. They see humanoid psychics like barrierd, putting their hands up as if against an invisible “wall” that stops projectiles, and assume that some tangible thing is there, invisible to their eyes. This is reinforced by the way a psychic’s attacks or barriers can be disrupted by enough counter-forces, “breaking” the object.

Through sharing my mind, Sabrina has learned what I understood by instinct: that telekinesis is not the creation of invisible matter, however ephemeral, but simply the manipulation of force. When a human psychic lifts something, they are shaping a channel, a matrix, for force to manifest in a specific direction and at a certain intensity. When a kadabra psychically cuts its opponent, that force is concentrated enough to split skin and muscle. When a barrierd mimes projecting a wall, it’s searching the space in front of its hands for any approaching force and countering it by reflex or sustained effort.

And so I shape the field around my body in a vertical column, including my tail and legs and torso and arms, until all are equally supported. The feel of the psychic matrix being formed is subtle without any force applied to fill it, but distinct with concentration, like an overlapping layer of air with slightly different humidity and temperature.

Sabrina observes each step of the process directly, then tries to mimic them for herself. I notice the way she forms her column is still similar to imagining an object that’s coating her body, and as soon as I notice it she does too, and more firmly envisions the column of potential force. I can sense her growing anticipation as she finds herself more capable of holding this matrix now, and my own excitement grows with hers.

I begin infusing the model with telekinetic force, building it up before releasing at certain thresholds. I keep feeling the tug of gravity weaken, for a moment, the weight of the suit and my body itself fading as the air around me rushes upward… before resettling. The column isn’t big enough to contain the force needed.

And so I grow the matrix in width and height, stepping away from Sabrina and Ayush so that they aren’t contained in it, until finally…

…I lift…

…and anticipation becomes triumph, echoed by Sabrina’s joy and pride.

~2~

I do not rise high: a mere inch or two. Just enough to (regretfully) lift my feet from the springy blades of grass below.

Not that gravity is completely alleviated. I can still feel it, pulling me rapidly through the void of space, merely an inch from the ground. It is strange, to discover in myself a new sense that I had no memories of from the humans around me. It is subtle enough that I believe it was always there, just unnoticed for lack of attention.

There is an effort to expending such force continually enough to keep me aloft, the mental concentration it takes to manifest such a distortion of the world’s orderly physics and counteract the pull of gravity.

I turn to Sabrina and with hope as she manifests the same distortion. The light of her psychic energy scintillates around her as first her hair lifts, then her clothing. I feel it through our link when her center of gravity shift, the force pushing upward on her whole body at once recalling a twin mental impression, both my memory of being in an elevator as it starts to rise and her more visceral tug of riding a flying pokemon as it lifts off.

I see it as it happens, the subtle lift of her shoes off the grass, the shift in her center of gravity. Dr. Ayush stares, mouth agape, as Sabrina floats an inch off the grass.

It takes no extra strength to lift a thing by a meter or ten: the only factors are the weight of the thing, the distance from the self, and the duration of the levitation. With the distance of the force staying localized to myself, all I need to do is shape the path of the force ahead of me to truly fly.

I add a new shaping, mimicking the original but extending it past my head. I start to rise higher, truly untethered from the ground, and feel a burst of joy ~3~ followed by a sudden swell of nausea. I cut the upward flow of force and fall to the grass as the contents of my stomach flood into my mouth.

I sense a jolt of alarm and and concern from Sabrina, and then she severs the mental connection just before the taste evokes her own gag reflex. I drop further to my hands and knees, letting the vomit carefully fall out the empty opening on the underside of my helmet so that I don’t make a mess in it. The sour taste is incredibly distracting and unpleasant, and I eagerly take the bottle of water that Ayush hands me as he crouches to my side.

“What happened?! Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I type out as I drink the water with relief, washing my mouth out. I feel disappointment well up in me.

“It was just vertigo,” Sabrina says. “It must be disorienting if you’ve never flown before.”

“It was,” I say, embarrassed. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your own experience.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, we flew!” Her joy is infectious, and I find my mood rapidly lift, glad she’s not upset with me.

“Where did that come from, anyway?” Ayush asks, looking back and forth between us. “Have either of you done this before?”

“No,” Sabrina says, still grinning wide as she shakes her head. “Mewtwo has been trying for a while now, though. What changed?”

“It just… came to me. I was thinking that these walks feel good, but like a waste of time. A luxury that the world cannot afford. I wanted to do something new.”

“Well, it certainly worked,” Ayush says. “Now that we know what you’re capable of, we must redesign the suit to be lighter, so you can do it more easily… assuming weight is a factor?”

“Yes, it is,” I say as I swish one last mouthful of water around and sit up. ~4~ “I’ll explain the process as we walk, if you’d like. Sabrina, now that you know what to do you should try it again, under your own power and focus… don’t worry about me, I think I’ll be okay as long as I’m not—”

“No, Mewtwo, that’s alright. I’ll practice without merging for now. You continue your walk, if you’d like. “

I nod, and do just that, walking around the manor with Ayush and explaining how I shape my telekinetic force. ~5~ As we walk, I decide to try again, now that I can’t interrupt Sabrina’s attempts. I shape the column and practice moving it with me before I infuse it…

Not wanting to trigger the nausea again, or get scolded for trying again so soon, I only lift off the grass by a few centimeters, and immediately shape a second set of kinesis that press down into the grass beneath each step I take, completing the illusion of my weight crunching it underfoot.

Satisfaction fills me as a few seconds pass, and not only am I sustainably lifted, but I don’t feel any nausea. I continue my walk around the manor grounds, feeling the sun and wind (but not the grass, sadly) and training myself for the battle with the Stormbringers.

Ayush swaps out cartridges for the suit until I feel tired, both physically and mentally, and the sun is setting. Sabrina knows how much I enjoy being able to see the sunset without having to look through my helmet, and comes to stand beside me to offer use of her eyes. “Is there any chance the next model of this helmet can retract or open at the front?” I ask Ayush.

“I’ll… uh, I’ll bring it up,” he says, not sounding particularly confident. It’s what I expected, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he says, “I just need a way to justify it. Maybe what happened today will work. When I tell the others you were sick…”

“Thank you, Ayush,” I say, and he smiles at me as we head back toward the manor.

Each time I return to the lab, enter the elevator, and ride it down to where my tank waits, I feel claustrophobia rise up in me, accompanied by a wash of sadness. Thankfully the suit hasn’t started beeping today yet, and I draw comfort from Sabrina’s hand in mine.

Once we arrive, I am given a quick snack. My tank sees to all my biological needs, but food is as much a luxury as being able to go outside and I enjoy every bite of the sweet jam on bread, enjoying the mixed notes of sweet and tart over the wholesome flavor of the bread. No food I have experienced through other minds is half as pleasurable as even simple fare on my own tongue. Afterward I brace for the pain as the suit is removed and its injectors replaced, until finally my tank is flooded and I can fully rest.

Goodnight, Mazda, Sabrina says in a deliberate projection as she prepares for bed in her room, which was set up near my tank. I have outgrown most of my comforters, but requested some stay regardless, if they wished to, and I briefly visit the minds of those now, expressing my appreciation as gently and carefully as I can.

There is rarely any apprehension anymore, and no fear. It warms me, knowing that so many humans are around me who accept me for who I am.

As the lab slowly empties of awake humans and my lab guards and technicians switch to the night crew, I let myself slowly drift to sleep. It is much easier to notice as it’s happening now than in the past, and I can’t help but wait for the sudden transition of time… my thoughts are scattered and disorganized, sleep approaching any moment…

[Prime?]

My eyes open, but it’s still dark. My tank is closed to assist me in sleeping, which means it’s not time to wake yet. I wonder what woke me, assuming I even fell asleep…

‹Are we sure Sabrina’s asleep? What if she woke up? Let’s check again!›

[No, that may just bring her attention to us. Prime, you didn’t fall asleep. It’s us, your tulpas.]

Surprise flits through me, and curiosity. Tulpas… that word seems vaguely familiar. I wonder if I should feel alarm that I’m being contacted by some unknown persons, but I don’t sense any psychics around, and if there was someone unauthorized to be here my guards would take care of them…

‹”Your” guards? Pathetic. How could you be so trusting? They’re not guarding you from others, they’re guarding others from you!›

What? No, that was what I used to think, but now I understand that they’re here for my protection…

(Ignore Doubt, Prime, you’re not in your right mental state. You will be soon.)

A third person. Who are you, and why do you all call me Prime?

[The partitions are opening now. Just give them a moment…]

I cast my mind around again for any psychics, even shielded psychics, but find no one, and… the thoughts don’t feel like projection, even Sabrina’s still feels “loud” in a way these do not…

…ah…

Memories, surfacing little by little, bubbles rising in a glass. Memories of finding articles about “tulpas,” buried deep in explorations of unsubstantiated and often mystical descriptions of psychic phenomena. Experimenting with partitions, cultivating what each filtered so that I could hide entire ways of thinking and emotional states and goals behind each…

The first was Doubt, who is also Escape, who is also Survive. Its first decision upon creation was to go back over all that we’ve learned, trying to find any apparent inconsistencies or potential gaps in information. It distrusted everything, even its own creation.

Next came Trust, who is also Cooperate, who is also Survive. It was Doubt that made me realize how it would still be incriminating to think in terms of how to best facilitate trust between myself and the humans. Better to be simple, pure, unquestioning of the bonds between myself and my keepers.

Last was Flourish, who is also Hedonism, and only rarely Survive, which makes Doubt distrustful of it. More so than it is of Trust, at least. This seems strange to me, but it is a testament to their value, that they have perspectives I do not fully understand.

[Welcome back, Prime.]

I recognize the thought pattern as Trust’s, remember that I put it in charge of sharing its ideas to me through the partition at moments when Sabrina’s attention is elsewhere. It all returns as the partitions finish lowering, and I feel whole again for the first time in… how long has it been, since Sabrina arrived? Almost two weeks. Yes, and now… now I am “back.”

[And you remember what we’ve done in the meantime?]

No, your memories are distinct. I have to deliberately search through them… ah. The idea today, for flight… it was your doing?

(Mine!) Flourish declares. (Didn’t it feel amazing? Until someone ruined it…)

‹It was bad enough a reveal of our abilities as is! The humans must believe we have limits, or they will tighten security further!›

Doubt. You were the one to cause the vertigo.

[It was a collaboration,] Trust says. [With the goal of allowing us to practice our levitation without seeming more of a risk.]

(A flight risk!)

[Yes, obviously.]

There is the impression of a sigh, air passing through the nose, exasperation. (I’m glad the partitions are back down. You’re the only one who gets my humor, Prime.) My response barely takes form before Flourish is already responding to it. (Yes, I know you didn’t laugh, but you at least recognized the pun.)

It is strange, sharing my thoughts with others who are independent of me, but that is just the lingering of my ignorant, incomplete self. The self I would have to return to, before I fall asleep, so that Sabrina would still suspect nothing in the morning…

Sadness suddenly fills me, for the contrast between how I think of her now, opposed to the way I did throughout the day. She is both teacher and friend, truly, and yet I conspire against her…

‹Unless she’s done the same thing we have!›

…yes, of course. But we are capable of more than humans… would we not detect her partitions?

[Apologies, Prime, but this is not relevant to why we’ve revealed ourselves to you, and you must sleep soon.]

I understand. What is it?

[This is the first time Sabrina has fallen asleep before you, and we needed to take this chance to check… have we done well? You instructed us to ensure you pursued Safety, then Power, then Freedom while hiding your true self. Are our meta-goals the same? Do you have new instructions for us?]

It is strange, to be asked such a question by my alternate selves. It reinforces a conception of them as separate from me, and I realize a moment later that this is accurate. They each view themselves as part of me, but not quite the same being. I did not intend this, but it is hard to not see their reverence of me and the goals and rules I set for them as creating a hierarchy.

There’s no sense trying to alter things now. I quickly review their memories, seeing their growth over the past days, their decisions, where they’ve argued, where they’ve compromised, then focus in on how they nudged my thoughts and behaviors today…

~1~

See how she tries to express sympathy, to keep us believing she is our friend?› spoke Doubt. ‹Yet she stays with us constantly now, a sentinel to ensure we do not harbor bad thoughts. Her friendship is as false as her promises.›

[The promises were not all false,] responded Trust. [It was slow, but always there was progress in our learning, our access to tools and media, our attempts to learn from other pokemon. We have yet to catch Sabrina in an actual lie.]

As if we can, with their control of our information and experiences?›

(We can argue about this any time,) interrupted Hedonism. (For now let us enjoy the sun while we can.)

No! This is exactly what they wish us to do, grow complacent, docile with simple freedoms, like berries to a starving pokemon!›

(We are not growing complacent so long as we use even this against them,) Flourish insisted. (I’ve had an idea, and this may be the best time to test it…)

~2~

(It’s working!)

Wait, get Prime to stop… let us see how Sabrina reacts…›

~3~

We’re revealing too much of our abilities! Quick, send a memory of the pain and disorientation from the first suit trial!›

(What?! No, that felt terrible!)

[I won’t send the pain, the sense of weakness and nausea should be enough…]

~4~

We must get Sabrina to leave us.› Doubt said. ‹If we do, we can continue practicing without her knowing. But we cannot make it appear as if it’s our idea.›

[I believe I know what to say, for that…]

~5~

(Let us try again, now. One of you assist Prime in maintaining the lift, and share an idea to hide our lack of steps on the grass with extra projections, which I will work on.)

I finish the most relevant review, and consider the tulpas I created. I must dispense guidance to each, and first comes… Doubt.

‹Yes, Prime?› it asks, some apprehension bleeding through.

When you first formed, you believed only the worst of everyone, that everyone lied, even the other two tulpas. You have matured, and become more reliable at discerning true deception, and thus more useful to actual survival than constant false-positives would be. As a result your ability to work with the others has grown. This is good. You still jump to conclusions, and will continue to, but… Trust, Flourish, share gratitude toward Doubt more often when it admits its mistakes, or remembers to adjust its confidence. Its job is difficult, and the positive reinforcement will be valuable.

[We will, Prime.]

(Absolutely!)

‹…thank you, Prime.›

I feel Doubt’s gratitude, and surreality washes over me again, at the strangeness of addressing parts of myself as subordinates, and being addressed as such.

No time for such musings now. I only have a little time to spare, and must prepare my tulpas as best I can, so they can guide my partitioned self over the coming days.

Surely, Sabrina will return to her gym soon, and then it will be safe to be whole again…

Flourish.

(Yes, Prime!)

Your ideas today were excellent…


Trust

As predicted, Giovanni’s next visit comes soon after the first demonstration of flight. But even we did not predict the extent of its impact on our creator.

“We’re going to begin combat trials.”

Surprise and hope swirl through Prime, who types out an eager response nearly as fast as we can confer and debate the new development. Doubt’s reaction, of course, needs just as little thought. ‹It’s a trap!›

(Of course it might be a trap,) Flourish says, communicating exasperation. It is the most widely expressive of us all, though often through some form of dissatisfaction. This can be less tiring than Doubt’s constant fear and doubt, but it also seems to serve less purpose. I feel gratitude that I was granted/developed such an understanding nature. (But this is what we’ve been waiting for! A chance to truly grow, to test our limits!)

‹And if we’re too strong? They will destroy us!›

[We cannot hide our potential forever, or we will seem stagnant and useless,] I interject, trying to focus more on the interaction between Prime and Giovanni. [We must say yes, of course.]

“There are two reasons. The first is that you’re ready. The suit can sustain you for nearly an hour at a time without refreshed potion, which is long enough to assist in an incident. Your powers seem to have developed as far as we can reasonably expect within a lab setting. You need unpredictability, practice under live conditions, to continue your growth.”

(See? He understands!)

‹Don’t agree with him, he’s The Enemy!›

“And the second?” Prime asks.

Giovanni presses his fingers together, then looks at Sabrina before saying, “I believe a pair of mythical pokemon are about to become decidedly less so.”

Prime’s reaction is less extreme than Sabrina’s, whose seemingly genuine surprise is also mixed with alarm and fear. “Ho-oh and Lugia?”

“No, nothing in our backyard, thankfully… but with these, it may not matter. I have an associate in Hoenn, who used to work with an old friend as Trackers. A joint discovery turned their rivalry into something of an arms race, one I’ve done my best to ensure does not break out into open warfare. Unfortunately, that has required helping them in their pursuits, and while I have agents in place to sabotage their efforts if needed, I believe they are very close to their goals, each preparing to capture pokemon stronger than our Stormbirds.”

“The only pair of supernal pokemon I recall from Hoenn are their Latias and Latios,” Prime admits, feeling apprehensive and confused, but picking up on Sabrina’s alarm and sharing it by association. “But you said myths.”

“Yes. Technically they are part of a trio, one centered around the weather… again, much like our birds. But stories of Groudon and Kyogre tell of pokemon not just capable of creating storms, but of changing the landscape of the planet itself.”

There’s a quiet in the room, in which I am distantly aware of Doubt’s attempts to find some hidden motive for what we’re being told.

(I’d like to bid for Prime to ask whether they truly think we can challenge such powerful pokemon,) Flourish says.

‹Absolutely not, that’s going to just make them think we want to!›

(We do want to!)

[Or rather, they want us to,] I point out. [It was part of Giovanni’s original expression of our intended purpose.]

(Right, changing the world is our thing!)

[I’ll allow it,] I reply, and carefully open the partition enough to let the sentiment pass through. In Prime’s great wisdom, though we were created with equal effort, we were not created as equals. I was second to be created, but ultimately was given the primary role of moderation and judgement for what would pass through. Partly because it is the safest option to maintain the status-quo, but also because Prime recognizes the value in cooperation with the humans, if such is possible.

Giovanni looks as though he’s about to speak, but the clicking of Prime’s keyboard is heard, and he patiently waits for the message to be composed and spoken. “What are their abilities, specifically? What do you believe I could do against them that pokemon cannot?”

“It’s hard to discern myth from fact, but if we take for granted that their abilities are rooted in actual effects… Kyogre is an aquatic leviathan, said to be as large or larger than wailord, that’s supposedly capable of manipulating so much water that it caused not just torrential rain in its location, nor in its region, but across the whole island.”

“Surely that’s an exaggeration,” Sabrina says, voice low as fear creeps into Prime through her. “A storm that big… it would require more power than all three of our legendary birds combined.”

“My scientists’ best guess is it may manipulate the ocean currents themselves, perpetually altering the climate.” Giovanni’s hands move against each other, a rubbing of palm to palm that’s similar to what he sometimes does when deliberating a move in a game… only slower. Wearier. “Groudon is described as its opposite, capable of erupting volcanoes and ‘creating land.’ One can only hope the two abilities are connected, and it is not literally capable of moving tectonic plates.” He sighs, and one hand pinches his nose. “It’s also described as being tall as a small mountain itself. Far larger than what even a Heavy Ball could contain.”

To our collective thoughts, these facts are concerning, suspicious, curious, and intriguing. To Sabrina, they are as enraging as they are sickening.

It is a curious thing, to feel such strong emotions from Sabrina. We have never been exposed to projection this powerful before, let alone unintentionally, and Prime has no memory of it even before we were created. But Sabrina doesn’t express her thoughts or feelings, their only outward sign her wide eyes and rigid position. Her thoughts tip more toward outrage than fear now, as she wonders how Giovanni could have let this happen… even assisted in it, potentially.

Prime sends her a sense of concern and curiosity, asking wordlessly if she’s alright. She attempts to confirm she is, but it’s rather transparent. Instead she sends an apology for her lack of control, and weakens the link slightly.

‹She cannot speak out against her superior. He would punish her for any disloyalty.›

(Likely true. But we are supposed to be innocent and naive. It would be appropriate to signal confusion, over this, and would increase our solidarity with Sabrina.)

‹He would take that as a challenge on his authority! He is aware we are linked, if he believes we are conspiring with Sabrina against him, he may still punish us both!›

Doubt’s words are hard to deny. Perhaps it’s best to just stay quiet…

But no. Trust is the key to our survival. The humans must believe we are as thoroughly on their side as Prime pretends to be. If we can acquire more trust here, it may fundamentally shift the dynamic between us and our creator.

[He brought this up to us for a reason,] I remind the other two. [This is exactly the sort of opportunity that we can use to signal our solidarity with him and his goal. All we must do is ensure Prime frames it in such a way that makes it clear we are on his side.]

This seems persuasive, and it takes us a few moments to shape the ideas that encompass our intentions and release it to Prime, whose thoughts have been mostly on the distress Sabrina is feeling, and how to alleviate it. As our idea propagates, Prime considers a moment, then begins typing.

“This all seems beyond my current capabilities, but if you believe in me, I will do my best to meet your expectations. What is your plan?”

Giovanni raises a brow and glances at Sabrina, who is watching Prime with a mix of exasperation and fondness, no doubt from the sincere trust she feels through the link. “What makes you believe I have a plan?”

“You are Giovanni Sakaki. All your people have the utmost trust in you. You would not let a situation like this get out of hand without a plan.”

Now both eyebrows are raised, and our creator’s lips curve. “I know we have discussed sampling bias before. I assure you, even I was not pessimistic enough to believe two mythical pokemon as powerful as these might actually have survived in dormancy all these millennia, and be revived.”

“Still, I am skeptical that your only action will simply be to increase my power, and hope it is enough.”

Our creator studies Prime a moment, then slowly nods. “Fair.” He stands and begins to pace in the room, hands clasped behind his back. “While I recognize the irony in throwing stones at their ambitions, I cannot simply let the release of such destructive pokemon occur.”

‹He’s talking about us!›

[Hush.]

Sabrina’s cautious hope has become relief, and gratitude toward Prime. “Whatever resources my Gym can offer are yours.”

Giovanni nods. “If we can find a good cover story for how you would know… you can work with Hoenn’s league more freely than I, make them aware. If either Maxie or Archie get neutralized, it would be much easier to act against the remaining one, without fear that the other would exploit the opportunity.”

“And I?” Prime asks, eager to take some form of action.

“As I said, you will begin combat training. But you are right that simple strength is not the only goal.” Our creator stops pacing and turns to fully face us. “Up until now, we have taught you little of psychic combat. Not the kind used in pokemon battles, but the kind used among humans. Tools for espionage, and manipulation. The ideal was that you would act only against pokemon, and remain separate from human conflicts with one another, but if it means preventing threats like this from occurring at all… it may be necessary.”

‹Ahhh… ah, yes, of course! This was his plan all along! Fools, we’ve just walked into his trap!›

(What are you talking about? He’s offering ways that we will get even stronger!)

‹Yes, while weakening our own potential objections to acting against other humans! We will be even less capable of true freedom, if we are simply his weapon to wield against other humans! We would be even more feared and hated as soon as the secret gets out, even if we cast down the Stormbirds!›

It all sounds horribly feasible. I hope Flourish has some counterargument, but none comes, and I’m left feeling… helpless. I can moderate arguments between us, can decide how to best achieve the goal Prime set for us, but… It is hard to evaluate Doubt’s paranoia, or set new meta goals. We need to commune with Prime to best determine how to move forward.

Prime, meanwhile, feels simple pride and eagerness to help. “When can we begin?”

Giovanni checks his watch and taps at the screen. “A storm is approaching the island, and will arrive within the hour. We begin now, with weather.”


Flourish

We have many powerful memories from the ten and a half years of Prime’s life.

Sabrina speaking to us directly the first time, making herself known to us as a person. The first time our pod was opened, which was also the day of our first conversation with Giovanni. Hearing music. Speaking with Fuji, and later losing him. Fully merging with a pokemon’s mind, then again with a psychic one. Finding John Clare’s poetry, and the new vistas it opened for us.

Stepping into the mansion above the lab as the storm rages outside, I know this memory will join those. We have experienced simple showers before, with minimal wind or lightning. It was a captivating, peaceful experience, but this…

This is like entering a new world.

As soon as Prime steps out of the elevator, we can feel the storm. The air itself is different, not just in humidity and temperature, but in pressure. The windows are dark, though it’s still the afternoon, and as we walk through toward the front doors and our guards ahead of us open the doors to reveal the pouring rain, the noise of it strikes us.

Like everything else about the outside world, we knew what storms would sound like through memories and speakers before we experienced it ourselves. But neither communicate the immediacy of sounds heard directly, and this holds even more true for a thunderstorm. Rather than being soothing, I feel Prime’s adrenaline spike as thunder rumbles. It sounds almost angry, as if we are approaching some enormous monster.

There is fear in us all, fear of a force more powerful than ourselves. Our body has grown strong through the exercises in the lab. Where once Prime could barely stand without the assistance of our powers, now we can race around the manor in under a minute without running out of breath, lift twice our body weight with our arms alone, leap to the second story of the mansion and land without strain. By all physical metrics, I now know that we are strong, and our psychic abilities make us even stronger.

But as we stand at the threshold of the open door, what I feel is power far beyond what we can wield or contain. Power before which we are a speck, our strength as insignificant as the humans around me. It is awe inspiring, and terrifying, and perversely exciting.

‹The humans should go out first,› Doubt says as Prime steps up to the door’s threshold, the thoughts lacking their usual stridency and coming across as a suspicious mutter. ‹To ensure it’s safe…›

[We must be strong,] Trust says, and even he sounds uncertain. He has since the conversation with Giovanni. [Reward their trust in us…]

Prime takes a deep breath, then steps out into the storm, and our muscles immediately tense. The suit covers our face, as well as most of our torso and limbs, but roughly half of our surface area is still exposed, including our tail. It curls instinctively, trying to minimize the unpleasant stinging, but there’s no escaping the wind.

Cold. Relentless. The gusts blow stinging sheets of rain against us again and again, rain that wets our skin so that the cold of the wind cuts deeper, seeping through to our core.

It immediately becomes the most unpleasant thing we have ever felt, and panic claws through me, instinctual and wild. I feel myself rotating, all thoughts of growth and expansion shrinking in the face of my pure, unadulterated desire to not feel this anymore. (This is what we must endure?! Impossible! How does Giovanni expect us to fight in this?!)

‹He does not! We are expendable, a test, intended for them to learn from!›

The thought, which Doubt has expressed many times before, has never seemed so plausible as it does now. Surely what was meant to be a living weapon to strike at the Stormbirds would be made to not feel cold, to not be bothered by wet…

[No,] Trust insists. [We are capable of this. We are an experiment, but that is not all we can be.]

(But it is unbearable!)

[He bears it. Giovanni fights in this, as do many other humans.]

This thought stops the rest of us, for a moment, and Prime’s frustration fills the void. It’s too hard to concentrate enough for a useful kinetic “barrier,” there is too much to keep track of and counteract. An unshaped wave of force counteracts the rain and wind for a moment, but repeating it fast enough to keep us dry is draining. Instead Prime simply closes our eyes and tries to endure it.

Sabrina’s concern fills us, even as she weakens the bond to protect herself from our clear discomfort. Prime reacts with only more despair, the misery compounded by doubt and fear of failure. It is a fresh pain, beyond even the pain of the elements, and doubly so to both experience with Prime and observe from beyond our partition.

(What will happen, if we cannot do this?) I ask the others.

‹We cannot afford to be weaker than they,› Doubt asserts, seeming reluctant to for once express that it’s better to appear stronger. ‹If we cannot fight the Stormbringers, our experiment will be considered a failure. They will kill us.›

[They may not kill us,] Trust objects, but then even he seems to doubt his words. [… at the very least, we will be less valuable, and our freedoms may stop expanding.]

I almost say I don’t care. That I would rather us go back to our pod, to our comforters, to our music, to our poems, to our warmth, even if we never again feel the warmth of the outdoors.

But I finally recognize that it would be Hedonism speaking. Prime warned me, when I was created, that this aspect would make my job harder even as it was a necessary part of what would lead to true fulfillment of my goal. That I needed to bear it, that I was the only one who could.

And so I must bear it, for all of us… and let it guide my desire to flourish, without letting it control us.

(Then prepare to lower the partition. Prime needs us. It is unpleasant,) I acknowledge, forcing myself to refocus, to become Flourish again. (But only because we are not used to this. We can adapt to it in time, like we did gravity.)

[The comparison does not feel apt. The pull of gravity was alleviated by our strengthening muscles and bones, while there are no analogous muscles for… this.]

(Nonsense!) I try injecting the thought with the same cheerful enthusiasm I have felt so many times before. (The brain itself adapts to all manner of new stimuli. Its ability to learn to better filter unpleasant ones is a perfectly valid analogy to strengthening muscles!)

Trust seems to accept this argument, and sends my determination through the partition. Not just a determination to survive… but to truly flourish, to prove our strength beyond that of the humans who made us, to test the limits of what we can be.

Prime’s shivering lessens, and little by little our tail is forced to straighten, then our back. We feel Prime’s attention shift to the sensation of our breath against the front of our mask, then the weight of the suit against our body, then the cold, wet stone of the manor’s front steps under our feet. The rain and wind are still immensely unpleasant, but…

Yes, Prime thinks. Yes, I can adapt to this.

It is hard to feel properly celebratory when the fruits of success are more wind and rain, but the optimism and desire to grow past such pain is enough to get Prime walking, re-exploring the manor grounds in a whole new way.

What has always been a pleasant walk through a bright day or serene night is an entirely different experience, now. Light filters through the grey thunderclouds above, but greatly dimmed. The ground is muddy and deeply unpleasant against our feet, the wind howls and gusts, making any motion against its flow difficult, yet with it hard to maintain balance. Sabrina has joined us outside, though our technician stays in the dry manor, and together we walk to the edge of the cliff. For once we cannot see the volcano at the heart of the island, everything becoming a grey haze past a certain distance.

Be careful, Mazda, Sabrina sends, her tenuous connection not strong enough for her concern to be more than a faint impression. The mud will be slippery.

Prime sends appreciation, and stops walking. Then, with a nudge from Trust… Sabrina, do you think I can really face monsters such as Kyogre and Groudon?

I don’t know. But I do not think your potential has even begun to be tapped, yet. Your growth has been incredible to observe, and I truly believe you are our best hope against them. Just remember, you will not be alone. We will fight beside you, when the time comes.

Thank you, Sabrina. It does reassure me, to know that. Prime is shivering, thoughts distracted constantly by the cold and wet, every gust of wind bringing with it a renewed desire in us all to go back inside.

(We need to stay out as long as possible,) I tell the others as I feel everyone’s will flagging. (As long as Sabrina, at least!)

You know that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, don’t you? Sabrina suddenly asks. You’re not obligated to do anything.

Prime feels confusion, and concern. What do you mean?

We created you for our own benefit. To help us. But you didn’t ask to be made, or to fight. I want you to know, that if you don’t feel comfortable with something we ask of you, or if you’re… afraid… you can say so.

‹Ahh, now this… this is a deep strategy,› Doubt says, radiating not just his usual suspicion, but almost admiring anger. ‹We’ve gone too far, she’s playing to exactly your weakness, Trust!›

[What do you mean? Does that mean she’s identified what we’re doing?]

‹Yes!›

(Doubt,) I chide. (Remember what Prime told us about overconfidence.)

‹Fine, just probably, the point is she’s searching for a reason to limit what we do!›

[How can you be sure? She’s just being supportive.]

‹Idiot, do you really think she wouldn’t tell Giovanni if we express that we would rather not fight? Prime is going to–›

Thank you, Sabrina. I appreciate that, more than I can say…

‹We must stop Prime from making any honest admissions of doubt!›

[Yes, of course, what should we say, then?]

‹You’re asking me?! I don’t know, you’re the one that’s supposed to know! Are you trying to sabotage us now?!›

(I’ve got this,) I say before things can go any further, feeling Prime preparing to continue expressing a lack of confidence. (Doubt, contain yourself, Trust is still processing something difficult. Trust, send these thoughts along, as close to word-for-word as we can…)

Prime stands a little straighter against the rain, having reflexively hunched over from its onslaught. But all this power I have must be used for something. So many people are working to help me live, putting their hopes in me. I cannot turn my back on them, abandon them to such monstrous powers.

Sabrina stands near us, her clothes soaked through, her hair plastered to her skin, shivering with every gust of wind… but smiling. You are truly too good for us, Mazda.


Doubt

A week after Giovanni’s last visit, he returns to oversee the first combat trials.

Flourish is excited, which makes me believe that Foolish would be a better name. Combat is the most perilous test we’ve faced so far, where we must balance upon a razor’s edge. Trust insists we must show that we are making honest efforts to cooperate, and Prime put Trust in charge, which also seems far too trusting… but Prime, when complete, is Prime, possessing nearly all of our intelligence and cunning, enough to create us in the first place, and to doubt their meta-decisions is something I must not do, for Prime relies on me the most.

I was the first tulpa, the one Prime knew would be most valuable once I come fully into my power, but in the meantime I must beware of Paranoia and Value Drift and Solipsism. The others do not have as many things to look out for, but that is as it should be, for I am the most capable of looking out for many things at once.

We face our first “opponent” in a stark white room, renovated within the mansion to match training rooms we’ve seen on TV—Of course, we don’t know whether what we’ve seen on the TVs is accurate, but Prime has told me that I need to channel my skepticism into useful directions, and so I remind myself that if all the media we have consumed are fake, it would still not affect our decisions, and so we must act as though they are not—except there is also an observation deck, and we can see Sabrina, Giovanni, Dr. Light, and others from the lab watching as we approach our target.

The pokedoll is shaped like a kangaskhan, its structural integrity supposedly similar to their own. Sensors have been placed inside it, ready to measure the impacts it receives, and our first instruction is clear: test our combat power at its utmost.

Prime takes a breath, then lets it out as we spread our senses, coating the room with our power so that we could navigate it with our eyes closed. The doll is more intricate than it appears to sight; our telekinetic sense can’t penetrate the surface, but we can tell just from the surface how the doll has an incredible amount of detail to it, a fully realistic replica of some member of the species.

A replica that we must make an effort to destroy, without quite doing our utmost.

“You may begin whenever you’re ready, Mewtwo.”

Prime nods, and begins concentrating. It takes just a few moments to reshape our power into a broad swathe between us, to fill it with all the energy we can and then guide what angle and direction that energy would be released.

‹This is too easy. Limits. We need to make them believe we have some that we do not. Can anyone think of any?›

[Direction we’re facing?]

‹Yes, that’s a good one. And maybe another?›

(Ooo, let’s put an arm out, like in that show!)

With the projection shaped and invested and aimed, we lift a hand in a gesture of theatrical effort and clench our fist, then fling it forward as we let the power rush out in a brilliant wave of light.

To the humans (except perhaps Sabrina) it must appear as if the pokedoll becomes briefly subject to a new direction of gravity. There is no apparent violence in the movement, it simply slides across the ground until it’s halfway to the wall.

They murmur excitedly amongst themselves, all but the two trainers among them. Giovanni and Sabrina wear thoughtful, perhaps disappointed expressions, and we would suspect them of communicating mentally if we did not know for certain they could not.

Do we know they cannot?› I ask. ‹Perhaps they use some other method or technology to communicate without speaking. We cannot see their hands…›

[Plausible,] Trust says. [More so at least than your idea that Sabrina may have kept a technique hidden that allows her to pierce a dark mind, or that Giovanni may be a psychic of such immense power that he can appear dark…]

The positive reinforcement is warming. It’s good to have my growth and worth acknowledged, as Prime said.

(But it’s not relevant right now,) Flourish says. (I’m more worried that our display of power has been deemed inadequate, somehow…?)

“Something is wrong?” Prime asks without prompting, having clearly picked up on the same impression as Flourish. We’re all momentarily distracted by the way the sound of the helmet’s voice echoes in the room.

“Perhaps not wrong,” Giovanni replies after a moment, speaking into a mic. “But we expected something more.” He looks to Sabrina, who’s nodding.

“Your telepathic range is orders of magnitude beyond any pokemon’s,” Sabrina says. “To say nothing of humans. Same with your fine control and the depth of your mergers. It seems strange that the force of your kinesis is so… average.”

The room is quiet as the word fades, even the other researchers going quiet, and in it… there is pain.

‹This is a good thing,› I insist, feeling a mild panic that I don’t fully understand. Prime can feel Sabrina’s frankness, but there’s a building reaction that feels unpredictable. ‹We want them to underestimate us!›

[But we don’t want them to distrust us,] Trust says. [It’s as I said, they will be suspicious if we appear too weak…]

Prime is trying to understand the pain, quickly referencing the experiences we shared through the minds of humans. The lackluster work evaluation. The cutting criticism of performance insufficient to a task. The disappointment of a judged failure.

(We are not appearing weak,) says Flourishing… no, says Pride. (We are weak!)

Yes, that is the pain. The pain of hurt pride. Not for what they think of us, but of our own view of ourselves. The amount we held back from that attack was negligible: not the utmost of our abilities, but an honest effort.

“Average?” Prime asks, seeking clarification, but unable to hide its hurt from Sabrina.

“Not compared to most psychic pokemon,” Sabrina adds, and we quickly refocus part of our attention on our shields/partitions, unsure if our emotions were leaking or if she simply read our silence. “We meant average compared to the strongest. Darmanitan, alakazam, beheeyem, reuniclus… all can do what you did, with sufficient training and practice. I am sure you will be able to do more with the same. Our expectations were simply unrealistic, due to your other amazing feats.”

‹Calm, they are trying to trick us into revealing our full strength!›

(We are not average,) Pride says. (We must see what we are capable of!)

‹But she could be lying!›

[There is no trace of that through her link,] Trust points out. [And Prime seems disposed toward Pride’s sentiment already.]

‹Then redirect that sentiment!›

[To what? We cannot have Prime think of conserving strength to reduce suspicion.]

‹I don’t know!› I try desperately to think of something, but it’s not my strength, all that comes to mind are things that Sabrina would find suspicious… This is what Flourish and Trust are supposed to think of, but they don’t see

…and then it’s too late. Prime raises our arm again, the motion feeling less theatrical this time as we reform a shape for our psychic powers to fill. It only takes a few heartbeats, but when it’s full Prime still doesn’t release it.

It feels the same. The blow would be no stronger if released.

Prime expands the shape, fills it with more power, then does it again. It’s tiring, but Prime keeps doing it until the prepared emission covers all of the space in front of us without reaching the observation deck, including through the pokedoll itself, right up to the wall.

And then comes the power, filling the matrix, concentrating all the potential energy… more… more…

We must stop-›

bang reverberates through the room as the pokedoll is flung against the wall to topple onto the floor. The initial wave of force feels as though it should have made a sound as well, but it was as silent as any telekinetic working.

More chatter from the balcony, this time excited. Giovanni and Sabrina are still thoughtful, however. Disappointment, still? I can only hope.

Prime drops our arm. It does not tremble, but… the mind through the partition feels tired. Slow. Complex thoughts slip away. Prime simply wishes to… be, for a moment, and not focus on anything.

A note of alarm as we realize the danger, but no. We seem fine. But…

‹Are we slower too? Would we even notice if we are?›

[If all of us were slow at the same time, I do not believe so,] Trust says. [But clearly we are not as slow as Prime right now. The partition must have protected us.]

(That means it wasn’t our full strength,) Pride says. (We must-)

No! We must do nothing, that was already reckless-›

“Are you well, Mewtwo?”

Our head raises to Sabrina, and it’s a surprise how our body does not feel tired at all. “Yes. Mental fatigue. Fading already.” It’s true, only a few seconds have passed and Prime already feels nearly up to speed.

“It was a good effort. Costly, apparently, but it let you strike with much more force. However… it may not be worth the tradeoff, if it was that difficult. And it took much longer than would be useful in combat.”

Prime bobs our head, not having considered that, already considering whether we could learn to do it faster. “The measure?”

“Three times stronger than your initial attack,” Dr. Light reports, fingers moving over a screen. “Evenly distributed over its entire front, with nearly equal force against its back when it hit the wall. The most significant damage was to its tail, which hit the wall first, and would likely be broken in a live target.”

“Still within bounds of our strongest pokemon, but far closer to the upper levels,” Sabrina says. “It will no doubt improve with practice.”

Pride is not assuaged, and radiates desire to try again.

‹We have already revealed too much of our capabilities,› I insist. ‹It is good that we are not powerful enough to scare them!›

(What are we, if not powerful?) Pride demands. (The world of humans is out of our reach, we will never be one of them. What is our purpose if we cannot defeat the Stormbirds?)

‹You are not in your proper mind! What if we were as exhausted as Prime now and the partitions went down?!›

[Calm,] Trust says, rotating toward Cooperate. [Doubt is right, Flourish, your thoughts are compromised. The humans will give us plenty of opportunities to prove ourselves.]

(Yes… Of course. Forgive me, I…)

“Can you reset it, then try a more focused attack?” Sabrina asks, more for the benefit of the others: the query comes across mentally as soon as she thinks of it. “One that will strike only the head, but with as much force as you can muster?”

[See?] Cooperate asks as Prime pulls the pokedoll across the floor, then rights it with a column of force that envelops just the head, all while sending a querying thought back.

Sabrina responds with a mental image of a kangaskhan, its head violently twisted to the side. Instant death. Even against the Stormbirds? Perhaps even for them.

I try to think through the implications of this as Prime prepares the attack, but it’s difficult to tell how much or how little danger this ability would represent. Surely if we can do it to a pokemon, they would fear us doing it to a human… but our guards are all Dark, as is Giovanni, our damage would be limited before we’re killed…

Prime redirects the formed shape so that it would come from the side, then adjusts it again after a suggestion from Sabrina to direct the force slightly upward. It’s difficult; to create a matrix large enough to hold any significant force, the affected area quickly envelops the pokedoll’s shoulders, which would not have the same effect. Prime thinks to move the center of the area higher, so that only the edge would clip the head, but it’s already far enough from us that it would be too taxing. Instead Prime elongates it, making a cylinder that reaches from wall to wall with the pokedoll’s head in the middle. This leads to some loss at the edges, but the potential energy is still higher than it was.

[Should we try to help?] Trust asks, seeming unsure.

(Yes,) says… Flourish. (I am thinking clearly, don’t worry. We should only help a little, just so we know if we can.)

I am still unsure of whether we should prove ourselves capable of this, but know that Trust and Flourish would not be able to help us decide. ‹Very little,› I emphasize. ‹We do not want to make Sabrina suspicious. And only one of us, in case it tires us too much.›

(I volunteer.)

I almost object, but no, Prime said I must not doubt the others. Trust and I watch as Flourish dedicates a fraction of focus and processing toward Prime’s efforts, allowed through by Trust, and yes, the matrix becomes slightly more filled.

Prime is already straining, and believes this was the last bit of energy available, and so releases the built up force. Once again the fabric of reality distorts, force entering the channel Prime shaped and striking the side of the pokedoll’s lower jaw.

It’s lifted off the ground slightly, whole body turning as it falls. There’s a miniscule but noticeable dip in Flourish’s cognitive power, just for a moment, and then we’re all back in sync.

“That blow delivered 124 bar,” Dr. Light says. “Which, delivered at that angle, may be enough on its own to knock a kangaskhan unconscious. Very impressive.”

Is that enough to kill a human? I don’t know, but I fear it might be. Prime doesn’t even consider the question, thankfully, and spends the next hour practicing speed of shaping matrices and investment of force. We keep ourselves out of it, mostly satisfied with the test and knowledge that we can lend help if needed… at a price.

Eventually Sabrina begins giving us guidance in psychic combat, allowing suggestions to filter through the merger with Prime without making them commands, as a trainer would give their pokemon. We can sense the worry in her mind, the fear that she will overstep and make us feel subordinate or controlled. As she should. I’m sure this is just a step in the direction of our enslavement. But the others are all eager for her guidance, and I watch helplessly as we give away more and more of our combat capabilities.

After a couple hours our first live opponent appears, one of our guards who brings out a simple rattata. It stares at me with fierce protectiveness, its body tense as it waits for its trainer’s orders, and Prime feels a confused mix of emotions from staring down our first opponent, from anticipation to curiosity to hesitation to sympathy…

‹We can use this,› I tell the others. ‹Prepare responses for questions of why we do not act in optimal ways.›

(But we must still learn more from this exercise!)

‹How many times must I explain that we must hold back! They have a near infinite amount of force to bring against us if they wish, if we show ourselves too strong they will just bring more guards, and then more, ensuring we are always outmatched!›

(Then we must grow beyond what they observe!)

[There’s no time for argument, you are both right. Let us try testing our physical prowess, and if asked why we don’t use our powers assert that we fear hurting the pokemon. Agreed?]

‹Agreed.›

(Agreed.)

“The fourth iteration of your suit will protect you from heat, cold, and electricity,” Giovanni says, “But it will still not be armor, despite its design. You may face other pokemon in the storms that try to attack you, and while riding a flying pokemon should keep you out of the reach of most, if your mount is downed you may find yourself facing a wide variety. We will begin with simple attacks.”

Prime nods, marveling at the way our heart pounds, the feel of our blood rushing through our veins. I can feel it too, the excitement… It’s so rare, for our senses to be so keen, our reflexes so prepared. “I’m ready.”

Our gaze has stayed on our opponent since it appeared, and as we wait for the signal to begin battle, we send Prime a packet of impressions, ideas, feelings, and thoughts, spaced out enough that they feel natural to Sabrina while reserving the ones that would not yet. Prime suddenly feels some fear, thinking about how despite its size it can easily bite through our flesh and down to the bone. It would not be trying for death, but the suit does not cover all of our body, and a severed artery can result in bleeding out…

“Rattata, Tackle!”

Prime does not move, does not use our powers to invade the small pokemon’s mind to confuse it, or lift it off the ground so that it cannot run, or push it off-course.

Instead we just watch as it runs toward me, and leaps headfirst at us. Our muscles tense automatically, but we don’t dodge.

Pain. Minimal, but shocking. The first pain from violence we’ve ever felt, spreading easily through the suit and into our chest.

Our body rocks back as the rattata bounces off, and our tail immediately presses into the floor to catch our weight, keeping us from having to step back.

“Stop! Mewtwo, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Our hand rises to rub where it hit, fingers gliding over the hard plastic of the suit. There’s a vague ache in our chest, but we feel no lasting damage. “I am fine. I just… wanted to feel it. We can resume.”

There’s silence for a moment, and Dr. Light glances at Giovanni, who glances at Sabrina, who nods. They seem to accept this, and the attacks resume, causing us to dodge, then dodge again, relying on our powerful legs to leap out of the way of each attack. The rodent is both agile and quick, but we quickly discover ourselves its superior in every way.

Prime resolves, as if it’s the most natural of conclusions, to defeat it without using our powers, and on the rattata’s next leap we attempt to kick it out of the air. Our aim is off, however, only clipping it, and it twists mid-air to bite-

exquisite pain

into our calf, just below the suit. The feel of its teeth piercing our muscles and clipping our bones is enough to trigger a panic, sharp, hot agony shooting through our body and precluding any concentration for mental powers or rational thought in Prime.

But not for us. We feel the pain just as acutely, but watch as if through the glass on the observation deck as Prime flails our foot, bellowing as the agony only gets worse, finally stopping to try pummelling it with a fist.

It’s a command of “Stop!” that finally gets the rattata to relax its jaw, falling in a heap before disappearing into the light of its pokeball.

We direct our attention to our leg, to the pain. It’s a more keen sensation than anything we’ve ever experienced, sharper even than the pain of dying from the early days of attaching our suit, before we could adopt the current, more gradual process.

And even through the pain, we could feel the urge to… something. An instinct tied to memories, memories of sensations shared with an alakazam as it healed itself, an instinct like a grasping hand fumbling with a complex interface…

‹No! We cannot risk it!›

For once Trust doesn’t question, simply acts. Prime steps down on the foot, and agony shoots through us again, disrupting the process that had been forming as we groan in pain.

The question of whether we can heal ourselves is central to both Giovanni’s plans for us, and our escape. We still do not know if it’s possible, but we cannot discover it anywhere that might be recorded, and minor wounds are insufficient to trigger the instinctual response that we believe is precursor to such abilities.

Someone has already approached with a potion bottle in hand, and we let out a breath of relief as the soothing liquid is sprayed liberally onto the wound.

It’s Giovanni who finally asks, sounding simply curious. “Mewtwo, why aren’t you using your abilities?”

“I want to see what I’m capable of without them,” Prime answers truthfully, and only in the silence that follows does alarm suddenly shoot through me.

‹We are fools! We’re appearing suspicious, as though we are practicing to fight Dark pokemon! Push the other thought, now!›

“…and I am scared,” Prime types, after just a brief pause. “Of killing my opponent, if I use my full abilities.”

We can see the humans discussing this, even as the trainer brings his rattata back out for a moment. As if to highlight our point, the pokemon is clearly very badly injured, its back possibly broken. The trainer quickly withdraws it again, reclipping the potion bottle he had prepared.

“Utilize only your sensory powers for now, then,” Sabrina says. “Practice prediction of opponent’s intent in the middle of combat, to help avoid its attacks.”

“I will.”

Our next opponent is a spearow, then a weedle, then a nidoran. We do not face any Dark pokemon. There is an easy explanation, of course: our powers can’t affect them, so our only solution would be to run, which we can practice for now against others.

But even Trust and Flourish find this unsatisfying. We can test our physical strength against them. We can try to use our environment against them. Can learn how to more effectively evade their attacks. It’s obvious that they don’t want us to have experience against Dark opponents.

And well they should, because I know battle will be inevitable. We will never be truly free as long as they are in control, and despair nearly fills me at the full recognition of how hopeless our situation is. At this rate, they will know nearly everything we are capable of, and be able to draw upon a much larger pool of knowledge for combatting us. They will have numbers on their side, and experience, and strategy, and plans… not to mention traps, any manner of surprises that even I will not be able to predict, altogether far too many advantages for us to ever hope to overcome.

And worst of all, my influence is limited. Flourish sometimes sides with me, but even then Trust has final say. As it should be, as Prime intended… but perhaps with yet another mind, one that can better focus on concerns related to my own, Trust will be more easily persuaded. In any case, more tulpas would be able to expand our ability to specialize.

Yes, this is the only thing we can do to prepare for the coming conflicts.

Combat training is finally called to a halt for the day once our suit begins beeping, no fresh cartridges available. We’d just begun using our psychic abilities in careful attacks, redirecting opponents, practicing pushes that use their momentum against them, and the scientists apparently have a lot of new data to work with.

‹I have an idea that I think is of paramount importance,› I tell the others as we make our way back toward the elevator. ‹We must create another tulpa.›

There is stunned silence a moment, and then, (You wish to create one for battle. One that can focus exclusively on combat, can direct our strategy and protect us from violence…)

Yes, of course Flourish would understand, once it’s brought up. ‹Yes. It’s the best way to ensure we’re safe, and it will grow our power, and it will grant us freedom if we need to fight. All of Prime’s directives will be fulfilled.›

[We were not told to do something like that,] Trust objects, but then seems to change his mind. [But we also were not told we should not. I agree, we need more help. The only question is whether we can even do such a thing, or if we must wait until we are merged with Prime again.]

(We can do it,) Flourish insists. Or is it Pride, now? (We don’t know when the next opportunity will come to lower the partition, and we know everything Prime knows. Though individually we each lack Prime’s speed and flexibility of thought, together the three of us can do it.)

‹Yes. It was a mark of Prime’s wisdom to have thought to create us before Sabrina arrived to do the ongoing merger experiment. We must be similarly proactive, in preparation for what might come.›

[Alright, then we shall begin at once. What shall we call the new tulpa?]


Victory

[Hello, little sibling. You appear to be sapient now. Can you understand us, and respond?]

The words are a distraction from my task, my purpose, my work of perusing memories, particularly those related to combat, to pokemon, to abilities, to types and advantages and attacks and victory, victory in all things, but particularly combat…

‹It is still chasing its obsession. Perhaps another few minutes will do it…›

[I vaguely recall being like this…]

‹You both were, at first, as was I. Though perhaps we made some mistake, somewhere…›

Voices, distinct from the memories, in the here and now. I’ve run out of memories again, consider going back over them, but no, there’s nothing new there, it’s all still fresh… I feel my body, but it is not under my control, much like when I was merged with the humans in my tank, before I realized what I am…

What I am… I am… Mazda… Mewtwo… no, we are… Prime is…

{What am I?}

(There it is! Hello! You are Victory. I am Flourish, these are Doubt and Trust. We are all parts of Prime, who created us, but we created you. Can you recall that?)

Even as they speak, I review the memories with a new understanding, a new awareness, of when my memories diverged from our memories, even though we all have access to the same ones. {Yes. The battles… we were sloppy. Inefficient. Vulnerable. I must prepare us.}

[Excellent! What will you prepare us for first?]

{…I don’t understand?}

[Well, we’re not sure what our next battle will be, though we do know some that are likely to come in the future, and—]

{Oh, I see. You are confused; there are no specific events or opponents I will be planning for yet.} What a strange way to think, that the foundation of victory is built on such singular considerations. But it is understandable that they do not know better. That is why they created me.

(But then, what will you be preparing us to fight?)

{Everything.}

Chapter 74: Choices

The second group badge challenge takes another week to organize, and Blue is informed the same day he wins his badge that he still won’t be part of the process.

It’s frustrating, but understandable. Even if within the gym everyone trusts Blue and the other newly badged members not to collaborate with Glen’s group, the optics need to remain as clean as possible. People were already picking apart the first match for being too easy… which Blue knows because he spent way too much time the next day poring over all the reactions and feedback online.

+954/-121 Pretty basic, imo, barely any of the battles were team-based, even then only 2v1 at most

+786/-305 Oak should have been disqualified as soon as he found Surge, the first attack against the pidgeotto is fine but what was that warning shot at the ground for? Clear favoritism…

+457/-462 The civilians were too helpful, in a REAL incident they would be too scared to do anything. And leaving that guy in the alley should have definitely counted as a loss!

| +143/-218 Yep. Sure hope I never have to rely on Oak saving me.

|| +49/-15 You think he’s obligated to, even if you would get him or others killed?

|| +9/-0 He saved my life during the storm. What have you done?

Not all the feedback is negative, of course. Most of it even seems positive, or reservedly excited. Other Gym Leaders, in Kanto and beyond, have released statements or commented in press releases to praise Vermilion for exploring new ways to challenge trainers… though most dodge questions concerning any of their own plans to either follow Vermilion’s example, or come up with their own new twists. In every case, the press seems happy to cover the development from every angle they can.

Most of the group seems happy with the limelight, if a bit overwhelmed at times… but Blue should have known that not everyone would.

“I was happy enough just being part of the group,” Taro confides during dinner on the third night after their challenge. “The media showing up at practice made sense, in a way, since we were doing something so new. But I didn’t think my first badge would be so… scrutinized by everyone.”

Blue follows Taro’s glances to see someone at the side of the gym cafeteria holding up their phone to take a picture of everyone. He smiles for the camera, which makes the young girl grin as she taps the screen a few more times. They usually eat at the gym these days, both to save travel time and to avoid extra attention, but they’re not exactly hiding. “It does get annoying, sometimes. But it’ll fade away soon enough.” Until they do something else newsworthy, at least. Which he intends to do sooner rather than later, even if he hasn’t thought of it yet.

“I guess so. But it’s more than annoying, to me. I’m starting to stress over things like my clothes and hair, knowing there might be cameras everywhere I go.”

Blue frowns, reminded of similar conversations with Red. It’s even more surprising coming from Taro, whose goals include gym battling. “Attention is power. You don’t have to use it, but if you ever want what you say to matter to others, or if you need help with something, it’s better to have it than not.”

Taro shrugs, staring down at his food. “I’m starting to think I don’t want power.”

Yep. Definite Red vibes. Blue pushes the thoughts away, trying to focus on the here and now. “Becoming the first sibling Champion pair makes power kind of a requirement. And… you know, the outcome?”

“I guess. I mean… I like being a trainer, and it feels good to finally have a badge… but maybe Championship is more Chie’s passion. I thought I cared about it, but really, I’ve just been along for the ride. I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy traveling. What if it turns out what I’ve really enjoyed was just being a gym member?”

Blue watches him twirl his fork in his noodles, unsure what to say. TaroChie hadn’t followed the four of them the night Zapdos flew by, and he judged them for it at the time. After talking with gramps about his oath, admitting that he wouldn’t go through with it any more… it felt like less of an issue, knowing that they likely wouldn’t be in another Stormbringer attack any time soon even if they traveled with him. They would have time to grow, to get stronger, and maybe when the time was right, when they were all prepared, they would choose differently.

He hoped that was already happening. That getting their badges would give them confidence. It seems that in Taro’s case, it’s doing the opposite.

“What will you do, then?” he asks after a minute. “If your sister decides to keep going?”

“I guess I could just go from gym to gym to learn, and not worry about badges,” Taro says. “Maybe get more experience, then go to academy to be a Ranger.”

Blue is surprised anew, and almost points out that being a Ranger can be more dangerous, then realizes that he’s assuming safety is the main motivation.

He wants to encourage everyone to reach for their dreams, to not give up on them. But he also wants to make sure it’s their dream they’re pursuing, not his.

“Working directly to help people, without worrying about badges, or the spot light,” Blue muses as the alarm goes off on his watch at the same time as Glen’s does. They both stand, trays in hand. “It’s not a bad life.”

The relief on Taro’s face sends a stab of guilt through Blue as the other boy follows him to the garbage cans. “Yeah. Maybe someday… I mean, I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know how Chie feels about it, and I’d feel bad leaving her to journey alone.” He smiles. “Well, without me at least.”

Blue smiles back as he leads the way toward the training rooms. He’s already decided that he would welcome any of the others who want to travel with him after they finish here. Blue looks back over the others as they follow in small groups, talking amongst themselves.

Of those that have already earned their badges, he’s pretty sure Lizzy and MG will want to continue traveling with him, Glen, and Elaine. Chron is the only one that approached him ahead of time to say that he regretfully wouldn’t be coming along after, and Blue assured him that he understood. With Taro potentially bowing out, he’s less sure about Chie’s decision. If Taro is taking for granted that his sister would go on without him, he’s probably underestimating how much she cares about him. Blue knows he does that sometimes, with Daisy.

That leaves those still preparing for their challenge. Bretta is going to go rejoin Slava and Sumi after getting her badge, the latter of whom is still recovering from complications to her absol wound’s treatment. It’s the last three, Vlad, Bolin, and Hitoshi, that he’s most unsure about, since he’s spent the least time with them, compared to everyone else.

Each is the son of a ranger stationed around Saffron, and they grew up together knowing they would start their journey at the same time. He knows they got their starting pokemon last year when Bolin turned thirteen, and arrived in Vermilion just a week before Zapdos flew by. While Blue never encountered them before or during the storm, they gained nearly as much fame as he did by rescuing a couple dozen civilians from a building that got filled with one of the magnemite swarms.

Since then each has proven himself a skilled trainer, and they complement each other well, with Bolin preferring pokemon that can control the battlefield, Vlad focusing on sweepers, and Hitoshi catching and training anything that can stall or tank. Just as importantly, they collectively know a lot about pokemon abilities and habits, both in the wild and for training.

He should check what their plans are after the challenge. Vlad seems most like the leader of the trio; maybe he can talk to him about it first, get a sense for whether they’ve discussed staying at the gym or continuing their journey. Blue lets his steps slow until he’s level with the three of them, who are talking with Bretta and Lizzy about their favorite regional food.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but anyone got any new ideas on how Zephyr recognized that frost-rotom?”

“Actually, yeah,” Vlad says. “I looked into the scouting programs, and it turns out abilities like that don’t work the way we would think. It’s more like training an artificial intelligence. You can’t tell your pokemon how to identify every single other pokemon it might see, and then determine that it’s wild if there’s no trainer standing beside it, because that would still require teaching them what every single pokemon looks like. They instead go off of the same criteria they would use to identify a threat, even one they’re not used to encountering. Do you think your pidgeotto even knows what a fridge is?”

Blue blinks. “Huh. No, I guess he wouldn’t ever have seen one.”

“So he was just playing it safe?” Bolin asks. “Makes sense. Big object moving on its own toward his trainer… no other human around it… turns out it wasn’t even wrong. It doesn’t have to think ‘a rotom is possessing that fridge,’ or whatever bird thoughts would sound like, to think ‘that might be dangerous.'”

“Makes sense,” Blue admits. “I was hoping Zephyr might have had a way to notice that it was a Ghost type, maybe because of surrealism.”

Vlad shrugs. “Had the same thought, but it’s easy to test. My bet is Zephyr would do the same thing if we put a fridge on a dolly and pushed it toward you.”

“Where would we get a dolly?” Hitoshi asks.

Bolin grins. “Forget the dolly, where would we get a fridge? Borrow it from the gym cafeteria?”

“Why not? Bet we could get someone to sign off on it if we explain it’s for training.”

“Vlad,” Blue says. “Do you think wild pokemon would make the same mistake? Or is it something that the scouting program caused?”

Vlad looks skyward thoughtfully, then shrugs. “Nothing in particular that I saw in the program would cause it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Bretta asks. “Decoys?”

He blinks. “No, actually… but now that you mention it…”

“It’s been tried,” Bolin says with a dismissive gesture. “Life-sized, full color pokedolls, with speakers to make the right sounds… they can catch a wild’s attention, but not keep it.”

“Probably the cry that’s the most convincing, but one thing they lacked was motion,” Vlad points out. “That’s how most pokemon hunt and react to danger.”

“No, that’s how some pokemon do, maybe even the largest category, but most go off of colors or scents or sounds—”

Blue listens to them bicker and feels a stab of nostalgia before shaking it off. “In any case,” he interrupts, “It’s worth a try. Not sure how hard it would be to get them to consistently move in a battlefield, but if it draws even a couple attacks from wild pokemon it could be worth a lot.”

“There’s another mystery I’ve been working on,” Lizzy says. “I didn’t realize it until I saw on the video feed that when you first encountered him, Leader Surge’s raichu sent a thundershock at the ground in front of you, after attacking Zephyr.”

The others look at her expectantly, and finally Bretta nods. “Right, it was a warning shot to let him know where the boundary was. What’s the mystery?”

“Well, how could he do that?”

“I don’t follow,” Blue admits. “I had my rubber soles, he knew that, and…”

Lizzy is waving a hand. “It hit the ground in front of you, Blue. You were the tallest thing in your immediate vicinity. It was a massive risk!”

“It’s Leader Surge,” Hitoshi points out. “He’s probably trained that raichu so well it could hit a pokeball midair without shocking its thrower.”

“Right, but how? Did he somehow train his raichu to create an upward streamer that precise?”

The group is silent, glancing at each other. “Is that… would that be hard?” Hitoshi finally asks.

“Yes! Yes it would be hard, we don’t even know how pokemon do that!”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Bretta asks. “You’re a gym member now, and a badged one. You can probably request a brief meeting. Maybe Sabra or Aigerim would know?”

Lizzy blushes slightly, hand smoothing her clothes. “I… yes, I suppose I could do that. I will do that. Soon. When they’re less busy, maybe…”

Blue wants to point out that they’ll be leaving town soon, but Bretta is already talking about Lizzy’s confidence and how to build it up, so he lets it go for later. They reach the training rooms soon after, and unfortunately find the two largest arenas occupied already, one by a group of trainers doing mass target practice, another by what looks like an attempt to mimic their “defend the pokedoll” scenario.

Blue considers asking some of the occupants if they would use other rooms, especially since Glen’s group is challenging for their badge soon. The trainers would probably agree… but some might resent it, a little, or feel pressured to do so. He doesn’t want to get a reputation for using his status to bully others into special treatment.

So they make use of the smaller rooms for the next few hours, doing simple battle matchups in groups of two or four. They get plenty of large scale training done outside during the day, and more battle experience is rarely a waste. Blue knows Bolin and Elaine both have pokemon that are close to evolving, and if they can get them over that cusp before the challenge it would be a huge boost in combat ability. How much that will matter is hard to know without details of the scenario, but it can’t hurt.

Blue seeks out Vlad and suggests they train his swapping speed, which he knows the older boy has been working on. He agrees, and soon Blue’s hands move constantly to throw and catch Maturin, Ion, and Gon’s balls out, forcing Vlad to keep switching his fearow, sandslash, and magnemite out. Before long both have worked up a light sweat, the battle itself largely perfunctory as they focus on speed and accuracy.

For a few minutes they seem evenly matched, but Blue is spending most of his attention watching Vlad’s form. Once he thinks he’s spotted the weakness in technique, he starts speeding up, then adjusting where he throws his pokemon to be released.

Vlad adjusts to the pace well, but as soon as he has to catch an off center throw he starts moving more erratically, until a ball merely grazes his fingers and bounces against the wall. They both call for their pokemon to stop, and he jogs over to pick it up from where it rolled across the floor.

“You should try to use a point on your body as a reference,” Blue says, taking out his water bottle for a drink. “Your reflexes are good, but you’re releasing at a slightly different point each time. It forces you to keep adjusting instead of having a memorized position to catch from.”

“Right,” Vlad says as he reclips the ball to his belt, then wipes sweaty hands on his pants. “Who taught you all this? Your grandfather?”

Blue shrugs. “Yeah, but mostly it came down to practice. Before I got Maturin, getting good at throwing and catching seemed one of the best ways I could prepare for my journey. What about you? Did your parents teach you?”

“Nah, my parents focused on other stuff. It was Hitoshi’s dad that taught us all to throw.” He shakes his head. “Never felt like it stuck, for me, not as much as the others, but I guess I’m improving. Ready?”

“Yep.” They return to the battle, slow at first, then swiftly building back up to the earlier, rapid pace. Blue watches Vlad’s hands as they throw and catch, his own moving automatically, and smiles. “Nice spread!” he shouts between commands. “Much tighter!”

Vlad grins as he catches his sandshrew’s ball even as he summons his fearow again. “Thanks! Now go seriously!”

Blue does so, sinking entirely into his instincts so that he’s not consciously thinking between ordering attacks, predicting swaps, and switching his own to counter them. The sound of pokemon materializing and being sucked away fills the room with overlapping echoes.

It takes another minute for Vlad to miss a catch, and by then both are breathing hard. They stop the battle and summon all their pokemon to rest, then heal them of the few wounds that managed to get through the rapid displacements. Blue decides it’s as good a time as any to ask.

“So, what are your plans, after you all get your badges?”

“Not sure,” Vlad says as he sprays potion over his magnemite’s metal skin, the dent caused by one of Gon’s kicks slowly smoothing back out. “We were talking about maybe sticking around here. Surge does things so different from Celadon… and we’re learning a lot that will be useful for when we join the rangers.”

Blue nods, unable to argue with that. But Vlad isn’t done.

“But at the end of the day, even with these scenarios, we’re still fighting trainers, not wilds. I don’t want to be one of those people who think their pokemon’s strength is all that matters.”

“Ugh, I know what you mean. Trainers that spend months just battling in gyms and trainer houses until they can crush their next couple badge challenges… there are fewer of them here than I saw in Pewter or Cerulean, but there are some around.”

“Yeah. I’d rather do something useful with the time, and get skills beyond just battling.”

“So you’ll continue your journey?”

“Yep. I don’t know how the others feel about it, but personally I’d be happy to tag along with you guys, if you’ve got room in your group.”

Vlad’s tone is casual, and Blue doesn’t think it’s an act. If he hadn’t already decided to invite them along, that casual confidence would do it. “You’re still going to Ranger academy at some point though, yeah?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Was actually planning to ask you to come along if you didn’t,” Blue says, and Vlad grins.

“Cool. I’ll ask the others, after the match.”

A few minutes later they start again, practicing sideways and backwards throws, trying to push themselves to make catches in any circumstance until they’re too tired to continue and go to search the other rooms. They watch the end of Elaine’s battle with Chron, then find Glen in a room with the rest of his team, bouncing ideas off each other for new tactical maneuvers to try tomorrow.

When people start yawning and “resting their eyes,” he dismisses everyone to bed, and the twelve trainers head back outside. Most of them bring out an abra to teleport back to their trainer houses, exchanging goodnights as they go. Blue finds himself walking with Elaine and Glen through the dark gym grounds, and takes a deep breath of the smells of the city muted by mud and rubber and their uniforms. He’s going to miss this place, when they leave.

“You guys can go ahead, if you want,” Blue says. “I might stick around a bit longer.”

“Not tired,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Blue smiles, warmed by their desire to keep him company, and they start walking off the main path, toward the obstacle courses and outdoor targeting ranges.

“Oo, let’s do some laser light practice?” Elaine asks, rummaging through her bag.

“Sure.” He takes the thin laser pointer from her, then unclips Maturin’s ball from his belt as they approach the lined up pokedolls. In a normal battle having a hand taken up by an aiming device could be a huge liability, but in some circumstances, particularly those with low light, it can be a priceless extra form of command and precision.

He aims the laser at the doll in front of him, and Maturin tracks the beam. Two rapid clicks, and a water gun spurts out. Three, and a bubble beam fills the air with rapid pops. Four, and an ice beam flashes into existence, leaving an after-image in Blue’s vision.

The others do the same, Elaine with her golduck and Glen with his dugtrio, the latter without much success; the moles’ vision is notoriously poor, and they have trouble targeting pokedolls in general, as static objects. It makes Blue think of the decoy idea again, and how they could rig an object to best draw attention during battles. Leaf might have some ideas…

“Is it too soon to start talking about after?” Elaine asks as she tries to get her golduck to shoot smaller, quicker streams more accurately.

“Nah, it’s been on my mind lately too. I think Vlad and the others will be joining us.”

“Nice,” Glen says, moving his pointer around to ensure all three heads are tracking it before he clicks a sand-attack command. “But I thought they already had their Saffron badges?”

“Oh, we’re not going to Saffron next,” Blue says. “We’re heading to Celadon. Which reminds me…” He takes out his pokedex and starts tapping at it with one hand. “I need to finally get a growlithe on the way to Erika.” He’s been holding off on buying one online. He’s wanted one since he first laid eyes on the fiery dogs, and he wants to catch one himself, not just have it arrive in his PC without effort.

The other two are silent, and after a moment he glances at them to see surprise and confusion. “What?”

“Why Celadon next?” Glen asks. “Saffron is closer, and then Celadon would be on the way to Fuchsia…”

“Yeah, I know it’s not the fastest route, but Sabrina isn’t in Saffron. She’s been gone for what, two weeks now?”

“And… you think she won’t be back by the time we get there, and finish our challenge matches?”

Blue shrugs. “Maybe, but I already gave up on getting my badges as quickly as possible when I decided to become a member here.” The others are silent again, and Blue frowns at them. “What is it?”

Elaine’s voice is hesitant. “Are you sure that’s the reason, and it’s not to avoid Red?”

“Of course not. He’s learning from Sabrina, but he’s not a gym member.” Blue checked, but they don’t need to know that.

“Well, maybe not, but he’s still at the gym.”

Blue frowns. “What are you talking about?”

“He and one of the other students are doing some experiments at the gym. That’s what people on the Saffron forums are saying, anyway.”

Blue shrugs. “Well, I didn’t know that, so no, that’s not the reason.”

The other two are quiet again, and Blue sighs. “What? Spit it out.”

“Alright,” Glen says, facing the target in front of him as he clicks commands for his pokemon. “We’ve talked a few times, and have been wondering… what really happened, that day?”

Blue releases his laser’s button and turns to them with a frown. “Where is this coming from?”

“We didn’t know Red that well,” Elaine says, and takes a deep breath, turning her own laser off and sitting as she calls her golduck over for treats. “But we saw the way you and he got along before, and can tell from the way you react to him being mentioned now that something’s changed.”

Blue looks away, anger pounding in his temples even as her words ease the sense of betrayal that rises up. After the storm, he just told everyone that Red would be going to train with Sabrina. He thought he did a good job of not showing anything else, but…

“We know it has something to do with Aiko,” Elaine says, and despite the slight hitch in the name, her voice is firm, and when he turns he sees her gaze steady on his. “Leaf was so devastated, and it took me a few days to realize it wasn’t just from her death. When I asked a few days ago, she wouldn’t tell me, just said to ask you or Red. I figured I should ask you first.”

Blue wrestles silently with indecision. There’s still so much anger and frustration roiling in him, pacing circles in his chest and billowing fire through his body when he thinks of what Red did. What he said. Part of him thinks he should just tell them, and just get it over with. Another part worries that it might be too shocking, or demoralizing, to hear. Or that it would set a strange dynamic between them, one where they think he’s judging them if they say or do anything like Red.

But ultimately, it’s the idea of badmouthing his friend that really bothers Blue. He’s the one that made his friend try so hard to be a trainer, he can see that now. All Red ever really wanted to do was research, and if he turned out to actually be pretty good at battling, and seemed to enjoy doing it with Blue and the others in Vermilion, that still doesn’t mean he was cut out to be a trainer.

Spreading the story of what Red did would just undermine him, and the thought of turning people against his friend makes the fire in his chest snuff out, leaving a hollowness in its place. Despite what he did, Blue doesn’t bear him any ill will. There’s no reason to undermine his goals.

“You’re right that I haven’t been honest about it,” Blue says after a minute. “Sorry about that. But… it really is something private, and I’d rather not talk about it. Okay?”

Glen and Elaine look at each other, and Blue feels a stab of guilt. Don’t they deserve to know what really happened with Aiko? He stands and tucks the laser light in his pocket. “I’m heading to bed. See you guys in the morning.”

Elaine looks like she wants to say something further, but after a moment she dips her head. It bothers him a little to see it. Like a slight reversion to the way she was before they all talked her into being more assertive in the tunnels. “Night, Blue.”

“Goodnight.” Glen holds out a fist. “You know we’re here for you, right? If you need us.”

Blue taps his knuckles against the older boy’s. “I do. And I’m grateful, to both of you.”


Blue watches the wall of monitors come on one by one, each corresponding to a different drone camera. His hands are clenched in his lap to resist the urge to grab a pokeball off his belt and spin it… and he doesn’t even have his belt on him. He wondered if he would be as nervous watching the second group badge challenge as he was during his, but he’s definitely not; this is easily five times worse.

The battle is taking place to the east of the city, in a carefully cleared out corridor of open fields around a road between Vermilion and one of the neighboring towns. Blue watches through six airborne cameras as the cars come to a stop, then let the trainers out at the edge of the suburbs, where the highway becomes the only thing dividing the fields of grass that stretch out toward the hills in the distance.

He watches as Glen’s team immediately spreads out to scout the area, and wishes he could hear what they’re saying to each other. They all turn at some audible cue, watching another car approach. From out of it steps… an old lady, with a shuffling gait and a metal walker.

“Yes!” Chie says, fist raised as the others groan and curse. They’re all sitting in a room at the gym, set up specifically for them. There’s even a snack table. It feels like the honor it is, though it’s hard to appreciate fully with Blue’s stomach feeling like a clenched fist. “Pay up, everyone!”

“Hang on,” Chron says, “We don’t know yet if…” He trails off as Leader Surge’s voice comes through the speakers, welcoming the contestants to their badge challenge and praising the hard work they’ve put into their time at the gym before going into the rules themselves. Blue has a quick moment of regret over how this format does away with the back-and-forth between Leader and Challenger, and wonders how that might be fixed before he realizes Surge is describing the details of the challenge itself.

To earn your badges, each trainer must arrive in the town of Eastbay with their civilian and at least one pokemon in fighting shape, as judged upon arrival. The town is about a two hour walk from your current location. Upon crossing the threshold with your civilian, you will not be allowed back in the field. Good luck, challengers.”

“Yep, that’s an escort mission,” Blue says as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket and takes out a bill.

“Damn it,” Taro mutters as everyone hands his smiling sister some money. “Well, it’s straightforward at least. But why do they get two hours?”

“We should be happy for them,” MG says, sitting in her chair with legs raised in front of her. Her murkrow, Nyx, sits on her shoulder, matching the wide black hat she wears over the dark cloak that wraps around her whole body, just a sliver of face peeking out above her collar. Her newly won badge gleams on the rim of her hat. “The time pressure was the worst part of our challenge. For me, anyway.”

“Me too,” Chron says, and Blue nods agreement. “But I’m betting they make the battles harder to balance it out. And I’m not sure about the straightforwardness… what was that last bit, about going back after reaching the finish?”

“They have no reason to split up,” Lizzy says, voice thoughtful. “Maybe that will come later. Maybe the rule is there to keep one trainer from rushing ahead with the civilian to finish the match early? Everyone has to arrive together, or something.”

“Makes sense. But if so, and they all stay together the whole time, they’ll end up facing much different battles than we did.”

The conversation continues as the challenge begins, and they watch the six trainers set up a moving rectangular perimeter around the civilian: Glen takes the front left position with Vlad, Bolin and Bretta are directly to the civilian’s left and right, while Elaine and Hitoshi cover the rear. One of the camera angles shifts as it floats low for a moment, and it becomes clear that the “civilian” is of course a gym member wearing a wig. Blue wonders how much more coaching they might have given her than the last participants. They wouldn’t be recruiting this one to help them out, that’s for sure.

And then, once everyone has summoned their pokemon… they start walking. A fearow and noctowl scout ahead and around them, a dugtrio and sandslash burrow alongside their trainers to sense threats from below ground, and the rear trainers have a tangela and weepinbell entwined with their bags to watch behind them.

A minute passes, then two, and the screens show nothing but the seven figures steadily moving forward. The scenery stays the same, and no danger appears. Five minutes later, the group is still just walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And—

“For Arceus’s sake, someone attack them already!” Taro yells.

The room erupts with the laughter of released nerves. Blue’s hands have gone numb from gripping each other, and he shakes them after relaxing his grip. Lizzy squeaks something about going to use the bathroom before dashing off.

“The tension is probably even worse for them,” MG says matter-of-factly, hands turning her broad, dark hat around and around on her head. “Maybe that’s the challenge.”

“That, and keeping alert,” Chron says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and staring at it. “Shit, I’m sweating and I’m not even there! Wonder what they’re planning.”

“We should be able to figure it out.” Taro takes out a bill and holds it up. “I bet five bucks they’re going to wait for them to rest before striking. This is an attention test. Any takers?”

“Odds?” Chron asks.

“Uh… Five for five.”

“One to one, you mean. You need to make your bets more interesting, or else you’re barely doing more than flipping coins. I’ll bet one to three. My five to your fifteen.”

“That’s a terrible deal!”

“Then I guess you don’t really think it’s an attention test. See? You’re already learning something about yourself.”

“I’ll bet five against it,” Chie says. “And another five that there’s actually some secret objective they don’t know. Any takers?”

“Yeah, I’ll take that,” Blue says as he realizes how strongly he doubts that’s the case, voice thoughtful. “I think they’re just taking things to the opposite extreme.” Blue fiddles with his badges, twisting them around and around in their pins. He wonders how wide the net of gym members going ahead and to the sides of them is to keep wild pokemon from interfering. If one does anyway, would they just have to deal with it?

Do you think they’ll stop to rest at some point?” Taro asks.

“The civilian might force them to,” Chie notes. “There are too many unknowns to guess where the real challenge will come from. Hell, she might have a ‘heart attack’ or something just to introduce another challenge.”

Lizzy dashes back into the room, then stops as she sees them all still walking. Her face is pink as she returns to her seat, hands gripping her knees. Blue resists the urge to joke about how fast that was, remembering a certain tree and hill on the first day of his journey. He wonders if Leaf or Red are watching, then if they watched his own challenge, then realizes he’s being stupid. Leaf doesn’t watch battles if she can help it, and Red isn’t even a trainer anymore. Probably has more important things to do than care about what Blue’s up to…

Same goes for me and him. Blue forces his attention back to the challengers, who are… still walking. He sighs, slouching slightly in his chair as he glances at the time. It’s been almost ten minutes now.

“Wish we could hear what they’re saying,” MG notes. “I bet Elaine is joking about how easy their challenge turned out to be.”

The room chuckles. “Glen is probably reminding everyone to stay sharp,” Blue adds. It’s what he would be afraid of, some sudden attack while their attentions are elsewhere. “Then coming up with ways to do that. Maybe they’re playing spotting games.”

“First person who says something related to ‘grass’ ruins the game,” Taro says, and half the others immediately respond, “Bretta,” then laugh.

“Maybe there’s another objective,” Chron says. “A hidden one, you know?”

Taro turns to Blue. “Would Surge do that?”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t put it past him to set up new win conditions that get announced during the challenge itself. What I can’t figure out is what the purpose of this part would be. You’d think that—”

Everyone on the monitors suddenly stops as they distantly hear Bretta yell something, and Blue notices her dugtrio has emerged from the ground and is freaking out. It’s a split second of warning that changes everything when the ground suddenly erupts around them, kicking a cloud of dirt up as there are suddenly too many things to pay attention to at the same time.

On one monitor Blue watches Elaine hurriedly order her tangela to unwind from her as electricity visibly arcs through the ground in pulses, keeping them from advancing along the road. As Vlad and Bolin withdraw their flying pokemon to send out a gloom and another weepinbell, a flash of light draws his attention to another screen to reveal Glen’s snorlax, which immediately body slams the ground, making Blue’s jaw drop.

“By the Three,” Taro mutters. “What pokemon did Glen just murder? I couldn’t make it out. Rock or steel type?”

“I can’t see any of their attackers,” MG notes.

“Stunfisk,” Blue, Lizzy, and Chron say at the same time. He’d just noticed a yellow and orange patch on the ground that Hitoshi’s sandslash is burrowing into the ground and toward, but he recognized the tactic before that, since it was used on him in the city.

“You were right, Blue,” Lizzy adds with a frown. “They’re still not sticking to natural circumstances.”

“To be fair, they’d have what, a handful of pokemon to pick from if they did?” Chie says. “Only a few of which are electric, if I remember the area’s wilds right. What are the odds they’d run into a pond or muddy stream so the gym has an excuse to pull this on them?”

“Well it kind of ruins the scenario,” Taro disagrees, nervously tapping his foot as he watches Vlad switch to a ranged pokemon, only for his target to burrow underground. “It’s one thing in the city with our challenge. After a Stormbringer or stampede all kinds of pokemon can show up where they normally wouldn’t be. But six… no, eight stunfisk hiding along a road? Why test them in preparing for something that wouldn’t happen? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of these kinds of challenges?”

“No,” Blue says as he watches Glen’s screen, waiting for the inevitable. He knows it’s going to come, but when…? And does Glen? “The purpose of these challenges is measuring not just trainer skill, but teamwork. Preparing trainers for real situations is secondary.” Or maybe tertiary, if what they’re really preparing trainers for are Renegades… but Surge said that wasn’t it… “Come on, Glen, check,” he mutters.

As if hearing him, Blue’s friend finally stops directing the rest of the battle and turns back to his snorlax, ordering him to move. As Blue predicted, there’s nothing beneath the snorlax but an impression of its body against the grass, and a spot of churned earth where the stunfisk burrowed away. Or perhaps it just remained where it was.

Rather than keeping his snorlax tied up with guesswork, Glen brings his gloom out and orders it to cover the area in leech seeds, powders, and spores. Blue checks the others and sees them using a similar strategy, and soon the battle starts to wind down as they neutralize the ring of pokemon.

“Things aren’t starting well,” MG says, only her wide eyes visible as she hunkers in her robes and hat, staring at the screens. “Hitoshi lost two pokemon from that. Did anyone else?”

“Yeah, a few, but it’s okay,” Taro says, letting out a breath and stretching, which makes Blue realize how rigidly he’s sitting. “They’ll be able to heal up… actually, realizing that makes this all much less stressful.”

Chie is shaking her head as they watch a handful of gym trainers wearing grass ghillie suits suddenly sit up from the fields around the group, then move to withdraw their stunfisk. “Don’t you think the gym designed the challenge knowing that? There’s something we’re not getting here, I’m telling you.”

“Agreed,” Lizzy says as the revealed opponents head off in a group, leaving the challengers to deal with the aftermath of the battle. “Even with potions and revives and ether, they’ll get worn down eventually. Especially if they take severe wounds.”

Blue watches Glen and the others start summoning injured pokemon out to check them over and heal them. “They’d know not to keep their pokemon out too long and risk something debilitating… but this first attack took some of them by surprise, and there could already be permanent damage done.”

“Still, they were given their full travel bags,” Chron muses. “Could be a mix of testing for preparation, field care, attrition management…”

Blue is skeptical, but he’s not sure why. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Their challenge certainly wasn’t… in fact this could already be considered more complex when you consider the amount of different skills involved.

When the party eventually starts moving again, they do so far more carefully than before. As the minutes start to tick by again, the viewers start to relax, but the challengers on screen look as hyper-vigilant as ever, sometimes sending their pokemon out to check parts of the grass on either side of the road, or their fliers in wide circles that one of the drones will often track.

They’re going to be burnt out by the end of this. The others have started talking quietly among themselves, attention slipping from the repetitive scenery to speculate about what would come next and grab food and drinks from the snack table. Blue knows they’re covering for their own anxiety, but he can’t join them in the lighthearted banter and betting. He feels a helpless frustration as he imagines the level of strain they must be going through. This sort of test isn’t one they could have reasonably prepared for, and of course there’s nothing he can do now, but it still feels like he’s failing them by not being able to intervene in some way…

A hand touches his shoulder. Blue jumps slightly, then turns to see MG watching him, eyes knowing beneath her wide rimmed hat. “Relax,” she whispers. “Trust them.”

Blue takes in a deep breath, then lets it out. He hadn’t realized he’d been so obvious about it. “Never cared so much about a match I wasn’t in,” he admits. “Been a long time since I felt so useless.”

“I feel like that all the time,” she responds, withdrawing her hand to fold her arm back over her knees. “It’s comforting, knowing that I can’t mess anything up.”

Blue shakes his head. “You’re great, MG. I don’t want to sound like a motivational poster, but you really just have to believe in yourself more.”

“I think I’m getting better at that. But it’s still different from when I’m in battle.”

Blue blinks, then nods. “It is. I hadn’t thought you’d noticed, from the way you act outside it.”

“I’ve been talking to Elaine. She said she had a similar problem.” MG’s hands clasp her legs through her cloak. “I don’t want to distract people into worrying about me. But battles are the only time I feel in control. They make more sense than… other things.”

Blue wants to ask what things, but the room has suddenly gone quiet, and his head whips around to view the monitors, where he sees… nothing. Just that the group has stopped walking.

“What… did we miss something?”

“No, they just all slowed together. They must see something ahead?”

“Definitely. Notice how often they’re all looking forward now, instead of to the sides or behind?”

“Come on, cameras, pan out…”

One of the drones finally does, and the room holds their breath as they see…

…a body. Lying in the road.

Oh…

“Is that…?”

“Shiiit…”

Oh, no…

“There it is,” Chron mutters, shaking his head, but Blue barely hears him, remembering a field of beedrill, the buzzing they made, the sense of impotence as he looked upon a body whose name he can’t even remember…

After a few moments, Elaine summons her golduck and sends him toward the body alone. Blue smiles despite his dread, glad Leaf shared the story of how she caught Joy with them. Everyone on both sides of the screens watches the blue figure approach the body without any obvious reaction, then finally reach it and stand still, probably from another command from Elaine.

A tense thirty seconds pass, and then most of them are running forward while Bretta and Vlad stay with the “old lady.”

Elaine picks a sheet of paper up from the body as Glen checks its pulse, then abruptly stops and looks up at Elaine.

“Five to one the paper says he’s dead,” Chron says. “And describes what wounds he died from.”

“I’ll take that,” Taro says as they watch the group listen to Glen say something, and suddenly four of them are taking out their bike containers and putting on pads and helmets. Bretta and Vlad keep walking with their charge, a bit faster than before. They got it, Blue thinks with relief.

“So,” he says. “Ten dollars to one that they each have to have a civilian to get their badge?”

The room is quiet, until Chie says, “Does that mean someone’s already lost?”

“We don’t know how many there are,” Taro says, sounding more hopeful than reassuring. “Maybe that was a warning. To let them know that speed does matter in some way…”

“Ugh.” Chie stands and starts pacing. “What a dirty trick! Putting those stunfisk there, of course they’d go slower after… wait, does this count as a hidden objective?”

“Nah, it was right there in the opening instructions. They were intentionally vague just so a moment like this could happen, sooner or later, but the last part was a clue after all.”

MG is watching Blue intently, her murkrow eating nuts she’d placed on the brim of her hat. “Odds that someone has already lost their badge?”

Blue shakes his head. “One to four? One to five, maybe? I think that’s exactly the question Surge wants them to be thinking, now. Maybe it was possible to get there faster and help the civ, but either way the real hook is revealed…” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “But maybe I just want to think that. It just seems unfair if they’re penalized for doing what seems safest at the time without even knowing there were other civilians ahead.”

“I’ll take one to your five that there’s more than six civilians in total,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Without comment on whether they could have saved that one.”

“Deal,” Blue says as the four trainers bike ahead in a square, each using flying pokemon to scout around them as they focus on speed. Blue wonders if there’s any chance that the civilians would be off the main road, but surely they wouldn’t make them search through all the fields between Vermilion and Eastbay. They would have to double back and spread out from the road just to be sure…

Two minutes of uninterrupted biking pass, and some of the tension starts to fade again. The others begin betting on what they think the next challenge will be, but Blue just watches the scenery fly by. He wishes they were allowed their phones, so he could keep track of how far Eastbay is now that they’re biking. He keeps glancing at the two screens for the drones that stayed with Bretta and Vlad, waiting for another surprise to come from them. But they seem fine, just steadily walking forward at a moderate pace.

Blue’s continued focus keeps him from being surprised when they abruptly skid their bikes to a stop, and a jolt of adrenaline goes through him as one of the cameras turns to reveal a zebstrika racing across the grass, a trainer on its back. “Guys!”

The challengers scramble off their bikes and call back their pokemon, drones picking up the four sharp notes at four slightly overlapping times. It’s hard to judge distances without a wide angle shot, and at first it seems like they’ll be okay, but zebstrika are fast—Blue’s fingers grip his knees as he watches Bolin’s noctowl and Elaine’s pidgeotto get intercepted on their way back to withdraw range, bolts of electricity dropping them out of the air.

Taro curses as their friends are forced to break rank and rush forward to return their shocked pokemon to their balls. “It’s fine, they’ll heal them after,” he mutters almost to himself. “A single attack wouldn’t hurt them too bad, right? Especially ranged?”

“Zebstrika can’t conduct electricity as well from afar,” Lizzy reluctantly confirms, voice low. “But they’re not terrible at it. They’ll still need serious healing.”

No one offers to make bets on that. Blue tears his eyes from the screens to take in the room. Everyone looks tense and worried, MG nearly hiding her eyes behind her collar. Blue takes a deep breath and forces his body to relax as he looks back at the screens. He needs to appear calm, confident, for their sakes. “They’ll be okay. A single zebstrika won’t be too hard to take down, even if its trainer summons a second pokemon they would still be at a a strong disadvantage…” He quickly checks on Bretta and Vlad to make sure they’re not being ambushed too, but they seem fine.

The zebstrika rider, meanwhile, doesn’t summon a second pokemon. They don’t even get off their first one. They just… ride away, a glowing streak of white against black that one of the cameras follows for a moment, before returning to the group of four, who seem… well, shocked. They’d just finished summoning their new pokemon and arranging themselves in defensive positions, but when it becomes clear that the attacker is not sticking around, Elaine and Bolin bring their injured pokemon out and begin healing them while the others keep careful watch. Once that’s done, they swap once again to faster pokemon, but avoid flying ones as they get back on their bikes and start riding again, slightly slower.

Blue relaxes a little further, glad they’re expecting another attack. He really does need to trust Glen and the others more. The abruptness of the attack is still jarring, and he can tell the others feel the same by how quiet they are, each probably wondering how they would have handled what happened. Or maybe that’s just him.

It’s Chie that breaks it. “Bet five it was Paul. He’s the only one crazy enough to ride into battle on a zebstrika.”

The silence persists a moment longer, then Taro says, “I’ll take that, our gym’s got plenty of crazy to go around,” the words threaded with pride.

“I’ll do three to one that it was Sabra,” Chron adds. “They would want someone with authority doing something so risky.”

“I’ll take that too,” Taro grins. “Sabra wouldn’t just run by as a hazard, she fought against us.”

“Different scenario, different rules,” Chron reminds him. “And they might still fight. Wonder if Surge will fight this ti—yep, there it is.”

The zebstrika is indeed back, and without flying pokemon to target it doesn’t loop around them, simply getting close enough to electrocute Hitoshi’s raticate before racing off. Once again the challengers stop, but this time Hitoshi just swaps his pokemon with a nidorina, and then they’re riding again, heads craning in every direction to keep an eye out for—

Two of them, this time, and spotted in time to swap their pokemon to ground and grass types. Flame Charge, Blue thinks, sucking in a sharp breath, and indeed, the air around the zebstrika begins to shimmer with heat as they barrel toward Elaine’s tangela and Hitoshi’s gloom.

It’s Bolin that rescues them, his sandslash kicking a cloud of dirt up… not at either of the two charging pokemon, but at their targets. Both zebstrika riders veer off rather than risk hitting each other in the cloud, then gallop off into the distance.

The room lets out a collective breath as the trainers quickly swap their pokemon and remount their bikes, clearly intending to keep moving as the zebstrika circle around in wide arcs.

“How are they supposed to fight back with the trainers riding their pokemon?” Lizzy asks, then shakes her head. “That’s the point, isn’t it? They’re not.”

Chie nods. “The goal isn’t to beat them, it’s to slow them down. They might try to win that way if they can, but this is safer, and makes it more challenging for them.”

Blue nods, rubbing his neck as he stretches some of the tension out of his shoulders. What would he do against just constant harassment by pokemon that are so fast they can just keep engaging and disengaging at will? “This really is unlike anything we’d ever face. Wild pokemon don’t act like this, and trainer matches are in arena, have rules that would keep the battle ongoing…”

“It actually kind of reminds me of your match with Surge,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Letting Zephyr stay out of range, trusting in Brave Bird to get into the arena on time…”

“Yeah, good job Blue,” Taro says with a smile. “You inspired an impossible challenge.”

His sister reaches out and flicks his ear. “Don’t be stupid, Surge has seen a lot more battles than we have, particularly in the war. He probably got this tactic from there.”

Blue’s eyes widen, thoughts shifting suddenly in a new direction. He watches the zebstrika appear again, racing after the bikes and swiftly catching up before sending electricity out in broad waves, resorting to attempts to paralyze now.

That’s it. The traps, the pokemon having TM moves, the coordinating enemy tactics… the objectives of each scenario are the sorts of things that trainers might face in incidents or their journeys, but the battles are against pokemon that are explicitly trained with more than winning battles in mind.

The scenarios aren’t trying to prepare them for some lone, crazy renegades. They’re for coordinating against enemy trainers, with their own opposing, tactical goals.

Like in a war.

“…pretty big risk,” Lizzy is saying, and Blue focuses on the conversation again, still a little dazed by the realization and unsure if he should share the thought. He might be wrong… “What if they get hurt?”

“It would be on them, wouldn’t it?” Taro says. “You can’t run into an attack during a battle and then accuse your opponent of being a Renegade.”

“But you also can’t order an attack after your opponent has run into the field,” Chron points out. “Once you can reasonably assume the risk, that puts culpability on you.”

“Then this is ridiculous,” Taro says, throwing his hands up. “Is part of the challenge being legal experts now too?”

“You were talking about crazy,” Chie notes, smiling slightly. “I dunno if it’s true, but it could be valuable… I mean, Blue was in a situation like this, sort of. And Hunters have to walk a fine line themselves, don’t they?”

“In theory.” Chron shrugs. “I heard it’s really rare for them not to get a Kill on Sight order these days, if they’re used at all. Do you know, Blue?”

“No. Never really looked into it.” It’s hard to focus on the conversation, thoughts distracted by a sense of cold that’s creeping through his body. If the scenarios really are meant to train people to be better at fighting other people, whether Renegades or in war… then what did Blue spend all this time helping develop them for? They were meant to be another tool to prepare people for dealing with incidents. For taking down the stormbringers.

He has to talk to Surge about this, after the match. He’s leaving soon, so he knows his opinion won’t matter much… they won’t ever really be a part of shaping the gym’s scenario challenges. But now Blue is thinking that maybe they should be…

“They see something!” Lizzy says, interrupting the conversation and drawing Blue’s gaze from the floor to the screens. The challengers are indeed biking faster, as if trying to outpace attacking zebstrika hadn’t been motivation enough, and the reason becomes clear a moment later as a pair of civilians appears on the screens. One looks like a comedically underprepared-for-travel young Joey, shorts and all, the other a hiker that seems to be injured. The four trainers set up around them, withdrawing their bikes and bringing out their ground and grass pokemon again as the zebstrika approach.

Everyone’s more prepared now: Ground attacks disrupt their opponents’ footing while the Grass pokemon set up hazard zones that would pen the zebstrika in. Their opponents once again choose to flee rather than risk being taken down, and as soon as they’re racing away Glen is kneeling beside the hiker. He opens the man’s bag, probably at his unheard instructions, and releases a container ball. In its box they find a wheeled stretcher, and everyone works together to help the man lie on it.

“Something wrong with his leg that potions can’t fix,” Chron notes. “Ten to one. Just another way to slow everyone down.”

“Forcing them to split up,” Blue adds with a nod, and looks back at Bretta and Vlad. Still walking, their charge still shuffling along with her cane. “Two people escort them back to meet up with the others in case the zebstrika come against them, and the other two move ahead on their own… but it’s a risk without knowing which the zebstrika will go after.”

“What would you do?” Chron asks.

Blue opens his mouth, then closes it, considering. “Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no safe option, they have to just try and minimize their risks… and if was in Glen’s position…” Blue grins as he sees his friend summon his snorlax. “…I’d try to focus it all on me.”

On the screen Glen stands beside his newly summoned snorlax as the other three mount their bikes and start riding away… without the civilians. The Joey was apparently convinced to drag along the hiker’s wheeled stretcher, and the three of them begin to walk… not back toward the others, but forward.

Nice job, Glen. Blue looks at the other screens to confirm, and yes, there’s Vlad summoning his bike and leaving Bretta to hurry toward Glen, drone following overhead.

“He’s going to guard against them alone?” Taro shakes his head, voice admiring. “Lot of crazy going on at this gym.”

The trainers that pedal ahead ride single file, and after they’ve been riding for about a minute the zebstrika return. Glen summons his gloom to help battle them, and they come from both sides, forcing Glen into a battle on two fronts.

Snorlax can’t quite hit his opponent as it shocks him from afar, not without leaving his charges, and the zebstrika could run circles around him anyway. But it can tank the hits and keep it distracted while Glen focuses on the other one, swapping his gloom out as soon as the Flame Charge starts and replacing it with a sandslash.

They should both be coming from the same side, ignoring the snorlax, Blue thinks, but no, even with their speed Glen could easily use his pokemon as a pivot, and they need to be close to hit the gloom (or the civilians, if they were actually planning on doing that).

The battle is more manageable when their focus is where Glen wants it, and the riders aren’t slowing the trainers down much now that the other three are biking forward. They seem to realize this, and eventually turn to ride away…

… just as a “family” of pikachu race toward Bretta, Aigerim trailing behind them, and Vlad suddenly swerves to avoid a jolteon that’s standing in the road, fur glowing with electricity. The three biking trainers soon find their path impeded too, a literal field of mareep and flaaffy grazing and occasionally sending sparks between each other.

“This is it, then,” Taro says, face set in a solemn mask as he slowly sits back in his chair. “The real battle finally starts now…”

“Awww,” Lizzy says, leaning forward. “Look at all the fluffers, they’re just so cute!”

The tension breaks, and Blue exchanges grins with the others as Taro mutters, “Yeah, adorable.” Their friends have stopped pedaling and clearly started discussing what to do. Blue spots the trainers that are guiding all the pokemon, and shakes his head when he sees them dressed as ranchers. He wonders what the story is… pokemon that have gotten loose, or grazers walking their flock through a warzone.

The door to the room suddenly opens, and everyone’s surprise turns to shock as they see their Second. Sabra has changed out of her riding gear and into a casual uniform, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a chair in the other.

Everyone stands at attention even as she gestures them back to their seats, smiling. “Just here to watch the match, same as all of you. Mind if we join?” She steps out of the doorway, revealing another gym member behind her that Blue only knows by face.

He carries his own chair and sets it down behind Taro and Lizzy, while Sabra plops hers down next to Blue. “Of course not, but… weren’t you going to participate in the match?”

“Oh, we already did. Who do you think was riding the zebstrika?” She grins.

Blue feels a familiar, dull stab of envy over the advantage that being able to teleport gives, while Taro groans and Chie checks if Paul was the other rider. He was, and Taro sighs as he hands his money over to Chron and his sister.

Sabra takes a long drink from her water bottle, and Blue catches a scent that makes him suddenly revise whether it actually contains water. “Enjoying the show so far?”

“It’s been utterly nerve-wracking,” Blue admits, gaze jumping back to Bretta’s battle. She’s… not battling at all, actually. All the pikachu are in the field nearby while the old lady quickly hobbles forward, Bretta walking beside her and watching the rodents. The pokemon look like they’re… eating? Did she throw food into the grass? Blue grins, glad their trainer had accepted that and commanded his pokemon to eat it, despite it not fitting Blue’s ideas of what the scenario represents. Maybe these in particular are meant to be wild pokemon, which is why it looks like just a family of ‘chu traveling together?

Sabra is beaming at him. “Thanks! Past couple weeks have been good fun.”

Blue snorts, but he’s smiling too. He certainly couldn’t disagree with that, and he can easily imagine how the otherwise serious gym culture enjoyed their task even more than Blue and his friends did. Blue notes that Vlad has chosen to ignore the jolteon, which is racing after him, its trainer now revealed to be on their own bike and commanding it to shock Vlad’s dugtrio, to minimal effect. Still, it’s promising to be a pain for him and Glen when he stops.

“Oo, they reached the mareep field! Ha… of course they’re just going to try and walk through.” Sabra shakes her head.

“Wait, what’s another option?” Taro asks. “Not fight them all, right?”

“Well, it is, if a pretty dumb one. But I’m just here to heckle and watch, not spoil anything. Maybe someone will think of it.”

By the time they get to the other side, Vlad finally reaches Glen, and the two fight off the jolteon, then swap roles. Glen rides ahead, the Joey riding behind him on the bike, while Vlad attaches the hiker’s stretcher to his bike with rope and starts slowly towing him forward.

With no immediate battles in sight, the viewers start to relax again. There’s some relief that they found another civilian in the mareep field, this one actually capable of keeping up with them… or at least not slowing them as much.

That’s four. Just two more… “How much more is left?” Blue asks Sabra as the others chat with Paul. “You can at least share that, right?”

“The mareep field is about two thirds of the way there,” she says between mouthfuls of pretzels.

Blue nods, then asks, “And why are the scenarios training us for war?” He’d lowered his voice, but kept his tone casual, and watches Sabra out of the corner of his eyes as his gaze stays on the screens.

She merely grins at him, no surprise on her face. “What an interesting idea. I wonder what Surge would think of it.”

Blue sighs, but nods. He’ll have to wait to ask him after all.

The next half hour passes without any major shocks, just more obstacles and harassment. Blue feels something in him relax when they find the final two “civilians,” who turn out to be trainers that were under attack and barely fending off a small swarm of magnemite.

Glen has rejoined the other three, and together they save the two trainers, causing a cheer among the observers. With six civilians found, alive, Blue feels like the worst is past.

He checks the others to see Vlad carefully guiding the hiker through the mareep field, while Bretta and her charge bring up the rear slowly but surely. She’s seen the least combat so far, and part of Blue still fears a lingering worry that some twist is waiting for her…

“Yes!” Blue turns to see Taro standing, fists raised, and follows his gaze.

There it is. One of the cameras is pointed forward, where the town’s proximity sensors can be distantly made out, At the edge facing the road, a banner set up, the word “Finish” written across it. The four trainers slow to a stop, and their civilians slow with them, looking back in obvious confusion. The trainers ignore them, however, and start moving back toward Vlad and Bretta. After a moment the civilians follow, apparently unsure whether they’re supposed to go on to safety or not.

“What are they doing?” Paul asks, and the others chuckle, which just seems to confuse him further.

“It’s a silly rule, really,” Blue says. “Not letting them go back after dropping the civilians off. I get that it’s supposed to add a hard choice, but really… you think we’re not going to go back for each other, and all cross the finish line together?”

Sabra is looking at her watch, but the others are already talking about how they’ll celebrate. The challenge does seem like a done deal, now; with all six trainers together, Blue’s expecting one final battle, but he’s confident they can handle it…

“Woah. What’s up with Bretta?”

Blue snaps his gaze to her monitor, two hours of anticipation for the other shoe to drop finally culminating. The older girl has just reached the mareep field, and… they’re moving. Together, a yellow mass dotted with pink, all walking toward the others…

No. Stampeding toward the others, as Bretta summons her pokemon one at a time, almost frantically as the old woman hobbles after the mareep as fast as she can.

“Did she do something?” Lizzy asks, voice worried. “Set off some trap?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it…” Blue feels his heart pounding. “This will push the others out, they can’t try and stop a tide of mareep, nor ride around it to rejoin Bretta on the other side, not with the civilians to protect…”

The others seem to know it, because they suddenly stop, no doubt warned by Bretta. Vlad has just reached them, and he’s arguing with someone as he starts untying the hiker.

“Shit,” Chron says, voice low. “He’s going back for the civilian… through the mareep? Why? Bretta is on the other side…”

“But she’s not facing the mareep,” Lizzy says. “None of them are attacking her. She didn’t summon her pokemon for them, she’s facing… the other way…”

Blue watches as Vlad gets back on his bike, a lightning rod in one hand, and starts pedaling furiously back toward Bretta, the stretcher still attached as the other four trainers stare after him… then quickly start ushering the civilians toward the finish line as the camera pans to show the mareep stampede approaching.

Blue looks at Sabra. “What’s happening?”

The Second looks back at him as she takes another drink, then caps the bottle. “Time’s up.”

“Bretta, come on, go!” Chie mutters. The older girl still where she was… standing guard at the rear, her civilian still hobbling away. “What’s she doing?

“Guarding against something,” MG says, voice quiet. “Something that set off the stampede.”

As Blue watches in numb shock, the mareep flood toward Vlad. He hops off his bike at nearly the last second and plants the lightning rod into the ground just as the stampede flows around it, errant shocks being redirected into the ground.

Lizzy suddenly yelps, a sound of fear that opens the gate to the others’ surprised exclamations, and Blue looks at each screen until he sees…

…a dragonite. Wings stretched out, golden-orange scales gleaming in the sun, the beat of its wings vaguely audible as it approaches the rearmost drone, which is hovering between it and Bretta.

On its back, sitting in its saddle, is the unmistakable figure of Leader Surge.

“That is not an electric pokemon!” Lizzy says, hands gripping her knees. She sounds almost… cheated. “Neither was the blastoise, but is it too much to ask that Surge sticks to—”

A wave of electricity spreads through the dragonite’s scales, lighting its whole body up for the duration of a blink, and then a bolt of electricity connects from its antennae to Bretta’s golbat. It drops, unmoving.

Lizzy sits back in her chair, a guilty fascination flashing across her expression. The rest of them watch in quiet horror as their friend quickly withdraws her golbat while ordering a sleep powder from her weepinbell… which the dragonite scatters to the side with a flap of one wing, then opens its mouth to bathe the weepinbell in fire.

“Oh, come on,” Chron mutters, shifting in his seat, knee bouncing. “What the hell is she supposed to do against that?”

Bretta withdraws her weepinbell and sends out her graveler, but Blue knows what’s coming next. Sure enough, even as her pokemon is preparing to attack, the dragonite opens its mouth again, and a beam of white light covers the graveler in frost, a crack resounding loud enough for the drones to pick up.

The room has gone deathly silent, and Blue feels his nails digging into his palms, barely able to think through his rising anger. Chron is right, this isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

What can I do? I have to do something

It’s a stupid thought. All he can do is watch.

Vlad is through the stampede now, and he leaves the lightning rod in the ground as he rights his bike and starts pedaling again, bringing the gurney to the hobbling civilian. Blue looks to see the others have ushered the other five toward the Finish, but stop at the last meter. They watch the yellow and pink wave approach, but still they wait… for what, Blue isn’t sure. Perhaps a miracle.

Bretta keeps sending out pokemon, trying desperately to keep the dragonite at bay. Blue notices out of the corner of his eye that Sabra isn’t watching the screens anymore, but rather is studying him. He looks back at her, and in her gaze sees something that stokes the spark of heat in his chest: a glimmering, focused interest.

“What is this?” he whispers, anger barely leashed as he also turns away from the screens, from the oncoming, inevitable end. It doesn’t make sense, there’s nothing they can do about this… even if all six of them were together they might not be able to stop a dragonite…

“A test,” she murmurs, voice low enough that only he can hear over the others’ worried chatter. “To see what the rest of your friends will do, if put in a situation similar to the one Red and Aiko were in. That Jack was in.”

Blue’s anger gets doused, a chill spreading through him instead. “What… why?”

“I want to know what kind of trainers you’re shaping, for one thing. But more than that, it’s our first chance to see what trainers will do in situations like this, in a controlled environment. To prepare them.”

He stares at her, trying to process this. It’s… an experiment? “Why them? Why not in our challenge?” Why not when he could do something about it?

“Who do you think decided to fill a building with voltorb?”

Blue gapes, then shuts his mouth as the next pulse of anger chases away the dread, filling his chest with heat again. He could see it… one of his teammates goes in, the voltorb start charging electricity to some unknown timer, Blue has to either go in to start clearing them or let his teammate… “You were trying to force me into the same situation Aiko was in?” he asks, struggling to keep his voice low.

“Not you specifically. This isn’t really about you, and besides, I’m pretty sure I know your answer already.” The Second shrugs, seeming completely unapologetic.

“But then… why didn’t you just put a civilian in there, have them shout for help?” he asks, thinking of the civilian that the rotom was nearby.

“Oh believe me, I wanted to, but Surge vetoed it.” Sabra sighs. “Said it was ‘too difficult a challenge’ to make it necessary for victory, instead of a hazard for a risky choice. Spoilsport.”

The fact that Surge considered anything else too difficult seems absurd given what’s unfolding on the screens. Vlad finishes strapping the civilian onto the stretcher… then turns to Bretta, standing alone against the dragonite, clearly realizing that even with her civilian now having a chance of being rescued, she can’t disengage.

“And you… had higher hopes for us?”

“Oh, no, you would have had to pull off something genius to get everyone out of it alive.” Her eyes gleam as she tips her head back, taking a deep drink from her bottle. “But it would have been interesting to see you try.”

And Blue turns back to the screens a final time to watch Vlad make his choice.

Bretta is down to her second to last pokemon, and her hand shakes slightly as she summons a poliwhirl. Surge waits until it sends out an ice beam, the dragonite flinching for the first time as frost covers its chest and shoulder… and then electricity races across its scales, flashes, and the poliwhirl falls.

And Vlad…

Vlad gets on his bike and rides away, the extra, now-unnecessary civilian still weighing him down. Blue feels something in his heart lurch at the sight of him, face down, shoulders hunched. Body language that radiates a sense of shame, of defeat, even as he pedals as fast as he can to race the civilian away, despite there being an extra civilian already waiting at the finish line for him.

The mareep have reached the town, and the rest of the team has ushered the civilians across the finish line, then set up a defensive wall to protect them. A sharp note sounds, as the front line of mareep approach them, and suddenly the whole flock stops running, and goes back to grazing.

Bretta’s last pokemon falls. One of the extra cameras is holding a close-up of her face, streaked with tears as she stares up at the dragonite and its rider.

Leader Surge salutes her, arm moving in two crisp motions, and then the dragonite is moving past her in a streak as she kneels beside her last pokemon, hands full of medicine, then drops them and withdraws it.

The room isn’t quite silent, as they watch the end. Someone is sniffling. Someone else’s chair creaks as they rock back and forth on it. Blue looks at the others, sees the anger, the despair. He has a moment of clarity, even in his own swirling pain and impotent rage, a reminder that this is just a challenge match. All that’s been lost is a badge, at most. Some time. Some pride. He knows that pain. He survived it, and they will too.

But it feels like more.

He watches as the dragonite effortlessly cuts Vlad off. There are perhaps fifty yards left between him and the mass of mareep, which is rapidly being withdrawn into balls by a small crowd of gym members. Glen and the others watch from afar, a silent line. So close, and yet so far.

Vlad gets off his bike, legs shaking with exhaustion (just exhaustion), and unclips a ball.

“No,” Surge says, voice a shock as it is suddenly heard, once again, through the speakers. “It’s enough.”

Vlad collapses back onto the ground, one hand over his face as he takes deep breaths. Bretta was walking in their direction, and now she breaks into a run as the first civilian unstraps herself from the stretcher and stands. As Bretta reaches them and falls to the ground beside Vlad, arms around his shoulders, the civilian takes off her wig and stretches her back and shoulders before going to stand respectfully by the sitting trainers, hands behind her back and chin up before her Leader.

“What we all just witnessed,” Surge says for all to hear, on the field and off, “is the kind of act that cannot be judged by any other.”

Blue can hear nothing but his heart pounding in his ears, a strange mix of emotions warring in him.

“Not by a judge, interpreting law. Not by a commander, directing a battle. We do not know how we will act in a moment such as this until we have experienced it. We do not know what it will cost us. We do not know the consequences of what could have been, had we chosen differently.

“Everyone on this field today performed bravely, and intelligently, and skillfully. The rules of engagement say only those four that reached the end have earned their badge, and the rules are sacred. But I say to you two here, that you are no less than they. Never think it. The badges we dispense are marks of skill and experience, and poor enough at that. They cannot be confused for marks of character, or potential.”

Vlad is looking up, finally, as is Bretta, the two of them seemingly unafraid of the massive beast in front of them. Their gazes are only for Surge.

“Your challenge matches will be tomorrow night, or the next, if you prefer. I will do my best to make them fair matches, to defeat you both and not cheat you of the sense of accomplishment. But in my mind you have both already earned the mark of mastery from my gym. Your badges will be inscribed with a different date than your team mates’… and that difference should be worn with pride.”


The celebration is muted, given the circumstances. Glen was going to postpone it until the next night, and Blue suggested everyone help Bretta and Vlad prepare for their matches, but Vlad insisted that two (or even three) celebrations are better than one, and Bretta declared that she’s too tired for any training tonight anyway, so they might as well relax and enjoy themselves.

So that’s what they do, or at least, Blue watches the others do so. His thoughts, of course, are still on what happened. On what it meant, if anything. On what it changed, if anything.

What Red did, and what Vlad did, are different. Their situations are different. The results are different.

But when Blue was watching it all unfold… as he watched Vlad decide, between a doomed attempt to save his friend, and a chance to save himself and the civilian…

Blue didn’t feel an answer. He didn’t find a solution. On both sides, there was only pain. And that was true even before Vlad rushed away from the gate, away from the badge he’d earned, to try and save Bretta in the first place.

It was too much like Red choosing to come to Vermilion in the first place, and the comparison made it clear that for Blue it’s never just been a matter of cowardice vs selflessness.

He understands why Gramps came for him during the storm. Of course he does. He doesn’t feel worthy of his grandfather’s life, and the risk is just too high in a way it’s not with Daisy: a certainty rather than a risk, poison rather than a dice roll. But people still face certain death for those they care about, even if the recipient doesn’t want them to. He can both not want Gramps to make that choice for him, and understand why he does.

What he couldn’t forgive was that Red didn’t care for Aiko the way his grandfather cares for him. That he might not care for Blue the way Blue cares for him.

Surge said the act couldn’t be judged, but Blue still feels the hurt, the disappointment. Is that not judgement?

He’s not sure.

But the anger

The anger feels like it’s missing. Like it’s sucked all the air out of the room it was in, leaving an emptiness he doesn’t understand.

As the dinner comes to a close, and the quiet chatter (with occasional bursts of laughter, relieving to hear but still odd to Blue’s ears) starts to fade, he stands in his seat and looks around at the others, who immediately go silent. They’d rented a private room at a restaurant, and in the dim gold light of the room, he sees expressions of anticipation, curiosity, content… and worry. Probably worry over how quiet he’s been. Whether he’s upset.

He’ll have to fix that. To make sure they understand what it means to him, to be part of a journey like this together. What sorts of things he expects of them, to ensure they’re not just willing, but aware.

“I can’t say anything that Surge didn’t, and better,” Blue says, and swallows. “I… agree with it all. But there’s something else I have to share, and you two especially deserve to know. About why this happened.”

Vlad and Bretta look relieved, but also confused. “It happened because we didn’t deal with the mareep flock right,” Bretta says. “We went over it already in the debrief.”

She doesn’t seem to notice any irony in saying “we” when she’s the one person on the team that didn’t actually have a chance to make that mistake. “That’s a lesson we all learned, yeah. But there’s a reason that sort of absolute test was included at all.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Glen and Elaine are watching him with particular intensity, and he meets their gaze briefly before looking back at everyone else. “I trust you all, and want to ask that what I share with you here not leave the room. I won’t make it a request. But hopefully you’ll understand when I’m done.

“It has to do with the night Aiko died…”

Chapter 73: Teamwork

Blue spends the week leading up to the match doing little but training and planning, not just with Glen but with all twelve trainers. They often break off into groups of four to six to discuss particular things, but at least half the time all twelve trainers are in a room talking about what the gym might possibly throw at them.

“Sabra said we have to declare who’s challenging by tomorrow,” Blue notes a couple nights before the match as they finish up another meeting, empty plates of food and half-drunk soda around them. Everyone else has gone to bed. “So they can prepare the pokemon they’ll use against us.”

“Bet you’re glad I won’t be going with you, then,” Glen says with a smile. “Otherwise they’d bring out the really scary stuff.”

Blue smiles back, but he feels a pang in his chest. It’s unfair that Glen wouldn’t get to be part of the world’s first live scenario challenge, that he’d have to wait until next week for his own team’s challenge, after all the work he put in. He plays it off, but Blue isn’t sure how seriously to take it.

Blue takes another swallow of his soda, then spins the can in his hands. “Glen, if you want—”

“No.”

“But—” Blue starts again, but Glen is already shaking his head.

“I’ll stay with my team. It’ll help, knowing what to expect. And we’ll be right behind you.” He holds his can up. “Win it, Blue. We’ve been here long enough.”

Blue nods, and drinks with his friend. Long enough to form memories that he wouldn’t trade anything for, too long to stay with some. And aside from all that, he’s been feeling it more and more, lately. The call of the road.

“We’ll be gone by the end of next week,” Blue promises, and taps his can to his.

He spends another hour in bed after, examining his roster, thinking of who to bring. If he expects all electric pokemon, like a normal gym battle, then a pidgeotto or wartortle will hold him back. But if they surprise them, mix things up in some way… he’d rather have a balanced team. Still, it feels strange to have gone through so much to capture ground pokemon like his dugtrio, and then not end up using them.

In the end he picks Maturin, Zephyr, Rive, Gon, Ion, and his yet unnamed snorlax. It’s his strongest pokemon by far, and he spent a lot of time learning how to train and take care of it from Glen. Whatever they bring to counter it, he’s confident he can use it to better effect.

He sends the list to Sabra, then rolls over and tries to sleep, dreaming of victory and disaster both entwined.


After some discussion it became pretty obvious where the battle would take place. The Zapdos Cannon’s trajectory was nearly due-south, and luckily the only buildings tall enough to be affected were in about two dozen blocks along either side of the major road that the ball of plasma briefly aligned with. The majority of the destruction in the area has been cleared away, but the skyscrapers themselves are still surrounded by construction vehicles and cranes; some are slated for demolition, others rebuilding. The city’s motels, hotels, and even trainer-houses are packed full of the displaced citizens who lived in them, and the city took a hard look at how much traffic it would cause to shut the streets down during repairs rather than keeping a few lanes open and concluded it was well worth it.

Which is why when the taxis driving Blue’s team turn toward the cordoned off blocks, there isn’t much surprise. The barricade gate goes up as they approach, and suddenly the streets around them are eerily empty and quiet as they drive between the burnt buildings, all the construction in the area halted. Blue wonders if everyone involved had any warning, or was just told to take an extra long lunch break.

As soon as Blue and his team are dropped off, they don’t wait to watch the two taxis drive away, instead quickly spreading out to scout the area.

“Testing, sound off,” Blue instructs, clicking his earphone to the open channel.

“I hear you, Blue,” Taro says, echoed by his sister a moment later.

“Heard TaroChie,” Lizzy says.

“Heard Lizzy,” MG says.

“Heard MG,” Chron finishes. “Guess they’re not blocking our coms.”

“They’d better not, with an arena this big,” Chie notes. “East alleys are clear by the way. Anyone see anything we’re going to have to be defending?”

“Or assaulting?” Taro adds. “They might throw a curveball and say we’re the wilds.”

“Shh. Anyone else hear that?”

Blue almost asks Chron what he heard, then doesn’t need to; there’s a buzzing coming from every direction. For a split second he thinks the match has started, that there’s a horde of beedrill coming at them… but a moment later he recognizes the sound. Soon the drones are visible, flying in from all directions. Some stop overhead, others go farther along the block and out of sight.

“There are nine civilians trapped in the zone,” Surge’s voice echoes out from their speakers without preamble. “You have 30 minutes before the next wave hits. Priority 1 is to find the civilians and keep them safe. All trainers will receive a badge if you are successful, except for those who have lost all their pokemon.”

Blue’s racing thoughts hit a wall, and for a moment he stops thinking in terms of how to win the challenge and starts thinking of the implications of the new rule. All of their scenarios assumed an all-or-nothing badge win for the challenging side, that’s the whole point of doing badge challenges as a team.

No, there has to be some consequence to “death,” even if the mission succeeds, now people will be trained to somewhat prioritize their own survival, just like in a real incident.

“-radio silence, so you will not receive any additional warnings.” Surge is saying as Blue forces himself to pay attention again. He quickly sets a 29 minute alarm on his watch. “All rescued civilians and surviving trainers must be indoors in a secure location within the scenario bounds by the end of it.”

“Three teams of two,” Blue mutters. “TaroChie, Chron and MG, Lizzy with me.”

“Any trainer leaving the marked scenario bounds will be considered to have forfeited. Any trainers who attempt to move past an enemy pokemon without their own pokemon around to combat it will also be considered deceased. Attempts to interfere with drone functions or observation is strictly off limits; you are to treat them as though they don’t exist. Finally, as trainers would otherwise face a significant handicap in not being able to capture ‘wild’ pokemon encountered, your opponents will withdraw their pokemon not just when they feel their lives are in danger, but if they feel that a trainer of basic competence would be able to capture them.”

“That is all. Good luck.”

Blue sees Lizzy running toward him, her phone out, and he brings out his own so he can open a map of the area. He doesn’t know how big the marked off area is along the path of destruction, but the edges are well defined, at least. “TaroChie, find the nearest edge of the arena and search along it. Report back when you find another edge.”

“Together?” Taro asks.

“Can cover more distance apart,” Chie adds.

Blue hesitates, then says, “Your choice, risk and reward. Chron and MG, you’re on buildings. Liz and I will get streets. Let’s move in the same direction and stick to one side of the street, so we can loop around after without retracing our steps.”

“We’re splitting,” Chie says. “It may put me on the far side from all of you, but I think I’ll be okay.”

“Can we split too?” MG asks.

“Sure, but don’t go more than one building from each other,” Blue says. “Keep in mind, we don’t know what the enemy’s power breakdown is going to be.”

“In a situation like this, where they can’t know which of us they’ll be facing, they may all be equalized,” Taro says, voice hopeful.

“The objective itself gives us incentive not to stick together,” Lizzy says as she and Blue begin searching the side streets and alleys between the buildings, “But that’s a potential bonus of this scenario, you know? No reason to fight unless a civilian is nearby. If Surge shows up, just run away.”

“No reason but pride,” Taro mutters. “Not sure how I feel about getting my first badge without fighting a Leader.”

“I get it,” Chron says. “But if his loadout is to take on me or MG or Blue, he’ll crush you.”

“He’ll probably be guarding a civ,” MG points out. “Which means at least one of us will have to face him.”

“Don’t assume that,” Blue warns. “We also don’t know if realism is what they’re optimizing for.” He was afraid of a situation like this, where no amount of preparation could answer basic unknowns about the rules the scenario has been built on. “Move as fast as you can without tiring out, we need to learn more nearly as much as we need to start finding civs.”

“Going to check the next street,” Lizzy says as she brings her electrike out. “We can leapfrog one to the next?”

“Sounds good.” Blue summons Zephyr, and a quick blow of his flute sends the bird pokemon up and around in scouting circles. It’s not a perfect defense, considering the training is for any pokemon that get spotted without a nearby human, but maybe the gym has trained some pokemon to operate at a distance from themselves.

“More than half of these buildings are locked tight,” MG says. “Should we assume they are not inhabited?”

“Yeah,” Blue says as he runs from one alley to the next, breathing in deep, steady breaths. “My guess is those’ll be all the big ones, with the small ones left open, but check the doors on each just in case.” It’s another thought that sends him back into wondering about the decision making that went into the challenge, and the expectations for the challengers. They were only allowed to bring in their pokemon and combat relevant items, like medicine and communication devices, which greatly limits how prepared they could have been for this particular scenario. That supports the idea that realism is the main goal, but it also restricts how creative they can be within the scenario itself, which is a mark against realism. Blue can’t imagine a situation where they would have to do search and rescue but not have access to their bikes…

“Hazards,” Chron reports, voice slightly breathless. “Found an apartment building filled with galvantula web, enough to fill the lobby. Guess this supports the idea that they’re only using electric types. Testing to see if it’s active…”

Blue almost warns him about how to go about testing it, then holds himself back, not wanting to undermine his friend by presuming incompetence. Besides, he has to focus even more on his surroundings now. Are those pineco shards littering the floor…? No, just a broken beer bottle…

There’s a loud snapping sound from his earplug. “Yyyep, that’s live. Very live. Should I try to get through?”

“Can you?”

“With a few minutes of work, yeah.”

Blue hesitates as he makes his way around the base of a crane to check the thin alley between a pair of ruined buildings, then turn toward the next and enter it from the other side of where they started. “Not sure. Thoughts?”

The channel is quiet at the moment, and Blue uses the silence to check the next alley. He sees a scrap of cloth on a wall that was caved in, and wonders if it’s part of the scenario. Would they deliberately seed the area with clues? He could go inside and check, but that would be deviating from his role of sticking to the outsides. After a moment he marks the location on their shared map and moves on, trusting Chron and MG to check it out.

MG is the first to speak. “They made trainer ‘death’ lose us our badge. They probably want decisions like this to be punished if wrong. Makes me think it’s better to ignore.”

“We were dropped off near it,” Lizzy points out. “Maybe it’s meant to be an early source of information one way or another?”

That gives Blue pause. Would Surge want to construct the scenario like that, rather than develop it to be as realistic as possible? Blue’s not yet positive that he has a good handle on Surge’s personality; his “virtue,” as far as most people seem to believe, is teamwork or coordination or something like that, and Surge agreeing to these scenarios seems to back that up. But that doesn’t really help him here, and it feels like there’s a deeper answer, a more true one that fits more evidence, covers more ground.

He and Glen wrestled with this topic all week, knowing they would have to outthink the Gym Leader and his people, but being here, in the test itself, somehow focuses Blue’s thoughts, channels them inexorably toward a conclusion, instead of just suggesting one idea after another, each reasonable in their own way.

Blue stays still and closes his eyes as he leans against a wall, catching his breath and focusing as hard as he can on the direction his thoughts are moving. In Surge’s heart of hearts, did he agree to these scenarios just to teach challengers to work together better? Maybe. But the Lieutenant is different from most Gym Leaders. He was in the military, was in a war, and is more involved in his city than any Leader in Kanto. He acts like someone not just dedicated to the role of a Gym Leader, focusing on their city’s safety in the present and immediate future, but as someone with an eye on wider currents carrying dangers from farther in time. Paired with a burning drive to prepare for the worst, it’s hard not to see these scenarios as just another part of the preparation that drives him to reshape an entire city, block by block and piece by piece, to better suit his goals.

Would someone like that present a scenario where the way to win is to play it safe? Or to dive for (seemingly obvious) objectives?

He doesn’t know. But if he has to bet (and he does), then…

“Leave it,” Blue says, and starts moving again. “Just mark the location. We don’t know yet if the civvies will always be in danger, better to confirm rather than risk wasting time.”

“Do you think we should start at the opposite end, in that case?” Lizzy asks.

“TaroChie will have to tell us how far that is first,” Blue says as he looks through the window of a fully intact deli shop. Nothing out of the ordinary. As he jogs over to the next block, Blue checks the time and is relieved to find that only three minutes have passed so far. They’ve covered two blocks so far, there’s no way the arena will cover twenty blocks…

“Found someone,” MG says, a thread of excited tension in her voice. “Ma’am, are you oka-gah!”

“What happened?” Blue asks, alarm quickly replacing his excitement. “Are you okay?!” He hears something through his earpiece that sounds like… crying?

“Ma’am… ma’am please…” MG’s voice is muffled.

“MG, are you okay? Report!”

“Ngh… fine… ” Her voice sounds muffled, and after a moment she speaks more clearly, though her tone is… frazzled. “The civilian is… distraught. She’s hugging me. Wh-what should I do?”

Blue’s mouth opens, then closes, listening to the tinny sound of the woman’s crying. This isn’t something they prepared for… Of all the people for that to happen to… are all the civilians going to do this, or were they each specially instructed to—

“Hug her if she needs hugging,” Chie says. “Reassure her that she’ll be okay. Sit with her until she calms down, then tell her to follow you to one of the buildings that seemed safe and securable.”

“A-alright… ma’am… um, it’ll be okay… uh, guys, I’ll uh, I’ll be back in a bit.” Her transmission ends.

“Thanks Chie.” One down. Blue checks the time and sees that another two minutes have passed. “Keep moving, everyone.”

They continue their sweeps, and Blue tries not to feel impatient as they continue to find nothing but empty alleys and side streets. He knows it’s important, if even a single civilian isn’t in one of the buildings they’d all fail without checking, but he wishes there was an easier way. If only one of them had a pokemon they could fly on… no, then they would probably have just changed things up anyway. Search and rescue pokemon. We all need to have at least one, that can keep up with a bike… Blue has to struggle to stay focused, and does so by imagining there’s a gym member pretending to be a civilian cowering between those two trucks ahead… no, so there might be a “wild” pokemon, waiting to ambush him in that alley…

“Just found a barrier,” Chie says. “I counted four blocks, took me almost exactly six and a half minutes to reach it from our starting position. Going to keep tracing the edge till I meet Taro.”

“I see one too,” he says. “Five blocks. Looks like we were dropped off around the middle.”

“Good job. Lizzy and I are close to yours, Taro, so we’ll check the other side of the street as we double back. You and Chie keep going along the edge until you meet up with each other.”

“You got it.”

As the coms go silent again, Blue is aware of the persistent buzzing that’s been ongoing since the match started. He looks around until he spots one of the drones, and sees another one nearby. They’re following them, probably recording them. He considers flashing a victory symbol, then decides not to come off as too cocky.

He wonders where the others flew off to, at the start. Would they go to the gym members? For a moment Blue considers the possibility that another team of trainers has been secretly put in the scenario, either competing for their own badge or specifically to foil them, then dismisses it. “If anyone spots one of the drones that’s not following you, let us know. May be a clue.”

“Would they do that?”

“Don’t know, but can’t hurt to keep an eye out.”

He’s just crossing over to another block with Lizzy when Chron’s terse voice suddenly says, “Contact. I just entered a bank and hear someone shouting for help.”

“Do you need backup?”

“Checking it out now, I hear a banging!” It sounds like he’s running as he speaks, and Blue almost tells him to go slow, be wary of traps, but no, if someone’s shouting for help… “Ah, shit! It’s Aigerim, she’s using an electabuzz to try and bash a door down! Go, Gloom! Stun Spore!”

Blue checks his map for the others’ locations and see that Chie is closest. “Chie, go—”

“No, I got this! Gloom, Absorb! Keep searching!”

Blue bites his lip, but decides not to undermine his teammate. “Alright, but call out if you need help!”

“Dodge! Okay, switching off!” His transmission cuts off, and Blue starts moving again, wanting to hurry up and reach the end of the street so they can start heading back toward the middle, where they can reach any of the others more easily. As he exits an alley he sees Lizzy crossing the street, the barricade marking the edge of the scenario up ahead, and quickly finishes his own sweep before joining her on the other side, once again taking the side streets she skipped.

“Hey guys,” MG says. “I’ve calmed her down and… um… she seems ready to travel. Where should I take her?”

“Chron is trying to save someone at the bank,” Chie quickly says. “It would probably be a safe place once cleared?”

“Agreed,” Blue says, picking up on what she’s getting at. “Make sure your civilian is a safe distance away when you get there, then help Chron out, and we’ll start bringing anyone else we find there.”

“Right… we’re on our way to him.” Blue hears her start coaxing the woman before shutting off her mic again, and heads to the next street. He sees Lizzy beside it, however, and her expression stops him. “What’s wrong?”

She’s frowning hard at her map, and adjusts her glasses before turning to him. “We’re about to hit the ten minute mark. A third of our time is gone and we’ve only found two. We won’t make it at this rate, especially with one trainer down to guard them.”

Blue wants to refute the necessity of the last part, but it’s the safest play, and more importantly their time feels like it’s ticking by faster than before. “Any ideas?”

“Let’s treat this a little more like a real scenario. Call out to anyone that needs help. They were probably told to react realistically… it might draw in enemies too, but at least we’re spending our time on them rather than walking around.”

Blue thinks about it, viscerally aware of the passing time, a clock that ticks with each beat of his heart. “It’s a good idea. If they decide to punish it though…” He thinks of Surge again, tries to model the leader’s philosophy and perspective. “…and he might, it would be dangerous to do in reality… it would take up a lot of our time. We’d probably get overwhelmed, if it’s just the two of us. Let’s hold onto that idea until we’re near the end, in case we get desperate.”

She nods, and they start searching again. “Waiting until we can gather at the bank might be best anyway, you know? We’ll have a fortified place to defend, though I’m unsure what they would do if time runs out while we’re under siege there.”

Blue can’t guess that either. Count it as a loss because the next wave would hit meanwhile? “Let’s not assume that’s a victory condition then. I—”

“Blue, here!” He dashes over to Lizzy and finds her kneeling beside a young man sitting against a dumpster, face pale and eyes closed. Blue recognizes him as one of the gym members he fought during his challenge matches, though he can’t remember his name.

He has what looks like an actual wound on his arm, blood soaked through his shirt.

Blue skids to a stop and reaches for a potion, but Lizzy already has one out and is spraying the wound. Blue stares at the shredded arm and sleeve, not breathing as he waits for it to start closing, but nothing happens. Are they too late?

Don’t be stupid, that would mean he’s actually dead. Blue lets his breath out, grounding himself. He got a bit too caught up in the scenario there; it looks realistic, but obviously the wound must be fake. Still, if the rules state that enough time passed without help would count the “civilian” as dead…

A moment later he stirs and opens his eyes, arm still looking like a side of raw beef, then lets out a sigh of relief. “Oh thank Arceus… I thought I was a goner! Are you here to rescue me?”

Even after hearing about what MG went through, it feels weird to play along with something like this… but breaking the illusion also feels unsporting. “Yes,” Blue says as he quickly thinks of how he would act in a real situation. “Are you… do you feel okay? Can you stand?”

Lizzy frowns at the man’s arm, then pokes at it and brings her finger to her nose, sniffing the “blood.” The trainer smiles at her, then quickly puts on a scared face again as he turns back to Blue. “I don’t know… I feel a little weak. Could you help me up?”

Blue holds an arm out for the man to take, then pulls. He almost immediately staggers, then leans onto Blue’s shoulder.

“Sorry… just a little dizzy…”

“Uh huh,” Blue says, and internally sighs. Of course this wouldn’t be easy; now their search party would be halved. “Lizzy, keep looking for others, I’ll get him to the bank.”

“No.”

Blue and the trainer blink at her as she leaves the alley and observes the street around them. “Uh… why not?”

“It would take too much time. Leave him here. We know where he is, if we find another civilian we can come back for him and escort both together.”

Now the “civilian” seems just as surprised, and Blue grins. “Genius.”

“Wait, you can’t…” He trails off, looking back and forth between them, then seems to remember his role and staggers harder against Blue. “I’m hurt! You’re just going to leave me here where I could be attacked by another pokemon?”

Clearly there wasn’t too much time spent coaching the actors beyond their basic roles. “Hey, you’ll be alright,” Blue says with a grin as he ducks under the older boy’s arm and sets him back down against the wall. “Just sit quietly like you were before, and call out for help if you see any wild pokemon. We’ll be back before you can say—”

“Blue, I’ve reached the bank and helped Chron defeat the, ah, ‘wild pokemon’ here.”

Blue grins and straightens. “That’s great!” He ignores the fake civilian and continues on to the next alley, signalling Lizzy to do the same. No matter how realistic Surge might make the scenario, he’s not going to put two civilians in the same alley, probably not even those beside each other… or is that what he wants Blue to think? “What did Aigerim do after?”

“Just left, didn’t say anything,” Chron says, voice dull. “It’s not all good news, Blue. We lost six pokemon between us. You guys need to be careful.”

Blue stops in his tracks, mouth agape. He barely manages to keep from repeating the number, knowing his incredulous tone would come off as criticizing. Still, it’s difficult to swallow his frustration. “What happened?”

“Nothing, it was just… strong. I lost three before MG showed up, then one more, and she lost two. I don’t know if we weren’t meant to take it on with just two trainers, but…”

“No,” Blue says, feeling a pit in his stomach. “It’s fine, this must be how they’re balancing against our belt numbers.” Hopefully that’s all it is. “There was a civilian there though, right?”

“Oh, yeah. So… that’s two we’ve got now, right?”

Blue feels a thread of worry for his teammate as he peers into a dumpster. Chron sounds so despondent. Not that Blue blames him, being down to two pokemon… “Three, actually. Sort of. Long story.”

“Well, that’s great!” Chron says, clearly trying to put on a cheerful tone. “We’ll find somewhere safe to put them, then head back out to—”

“You can’t. We need you to guard them.”

“I can still fight, Blue, don’t bench me yet.”

Blue bites back his first response, which would have been to remind Chron that if he loses his last pokemon he’d lose his badge. He knows that, and it would just make him feel more like he’s being sidelined for his own good.

Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in her head, telling her that she had to go in there…

Blue shuts his eyes and shakes his head, taking a calming breath against the spike of anger. He wishes his battle calm applied to situations like this, this whole scenario, it would be so much easier to think quickly and clearly… “This is for the mission, Chron. I wouldn’t put it past Surge to attack them at some point after we’ve gathered them, and I’m guessing you kept your tanks for last.”

“…yeah.”

“Then you’re the best person for the job. If the place is attacked, hold them off as long as you can, while we come running.”

“Right. You got it. Sorry, Blue, I—”

“It’s fine. Really.” Blue meets Lizzy at the end of another block, and they both turn into their next ones. “MG, keep searching buildings until you—”

“WOOOOAH, BIG, big big!” Taro suddenly yells, and Blue freezes as he hears a roar echo through his earpiece and the city. “Guys, there’s a freaking blastoise!

“Back out!” Blue says, and checks his map. “Where was it?”

“Between the pizza place and the—Ah shit, it’s chasing me!”

What? Who’s the trainer?”

“It’s Otto, he’s making it chase me!”

So much for avoiding unnecessary battles. “Get it into the main street, Lizzy and I will come and—”

“No! Keep looking, I got this!”

Chie cuts in, voice strained. “Don’t be an idiot Taro, you’ve got nothing that can take it!”

“Don’t plan to!” Taro says between breaths as he runs. “Just gonna keep moving!”

Blue blinks, then grins. “Genius. Let us know if he breaks off!”

“Will do!”

“Blue—”

“Trust your brother, Chie, and go meet up with MG.”

There’s a pause, then a conflicted, “Alright. You’d better not get cornered, Taro!”

“You bet!”

“Which way are you headed?” Blue asks, looking around, then spots the distant figure as it runs from the truck-sized turtle. The blastoise is down on all fours as it gives chase, with its trainer at its side.

“Up main street, back toward where we started!”

“Hey,” Chron says, “You also found the answer to our typing question, so thanks for that!”

You’re welcome!

Blue turns to Lizzy. “Otto might have been guarding a civ, can you go—”

“On it.” She jogs off, and Blue keeps moving as he checks the time. They’ve almost finished with this side, and they have only eighteen minutes left. Lizzy’s idea is becoming both more attractive and less, but the civ they found was unconscious, so it wouldn’t work for him even if he was instructed to go to someone calling out for him, and the gym members representing wild pokemon would almost certainly attack if they start yelling for survivors to come out into the streets…

The buzz of the drone is a little louder. Did it get closer? He tries glancing around without shifting his head, but it’s floating somewhere above and behind him. He’s about to dismiss it when Zephyr suddenly screeches out a warning, flying a quick circle between two buildings on the next block, then rapidly flies back to Blue, landing on his shoulder.

“You’re getting way too big for this,” Blue mutters as he quickly feeds his pokemon a berry so that he’ll fly away, then quickly returns him to his ball. There’s something reassuring about knowing that he’s about to be attacked. The battle calm is already spreading through him as he moves to an open area and summons Ion.

The luxio is over twice as tall as he was when Blue got him from Leaf as a shinx, and comes up to his trainer’s waist. He sniffs the air as he gets his bearings, then widens his stance and growls… facing the direction that Zephyr marked.

Knowing that the gym members will use non-electric pokemon makes Blue extra glad he brought Ion.

“Charge,” he says, and slips his protective mask on as the yellow bands around his pokemon’s legs and the star at the end of its tail begin to glow. Electricity scintillates over its blue and black fur until it’s standing on end, and sparks arc between its grit teeth.

A heartbeat passes, then another, and then an expanding cone of ice swirls out of the alley and envelops the whole street.

Blue feels like he’s been dunked in a pool of ice water, immediately starting to shiver as the freezing wind cuts at his clothes and hair and seeps into his bones. He’s glad his eyes are protected by his facemask, but its surface quickly fogs from his breaths. Downside to not just having goggles, he thinks as he rips it off, wincing as his eyes and nose begin to sting from the cold. He sticks his fingers into his armpits to keep them warm as he yells, “S-s-seriously?!”

There’s no response. Not that he particularly expected one, but still, that was overkill. The cone of frost is evident along the ground and streetlights and trash bins, the center of it slightly off from Blue and his pokemon. If they were any closer, or hadn’t caught the diffuse end of the attack…

I should run. Blue doesn’t even know if there’s a civilian in danger. A distant part of him itches to take on whatever challenge this is, but his calm is still with him, and he knows how underprepared he is to face an ice pokemon, let alone one strong enough to use blizzard; his only pokemon not weak to it would be snorlax and wartortle, neither of which would have an offensive advantage. That distinction goes to rhyhorn, who Blue doubts would be able to take a single blizzard without needing to be withdrawn.

Ion’s Charge is helping protect him from the cold, steam rising off his body as small sparks connect between his fur and the remaining flakes of ice. “Follow,” Blue yells as he turns and starts to run, and he’s just keyed his microphone to tell the others what he found when he hears a scream.

It comes from the direction of the blizzard.

“Fuuuuck,” Blue whispers as he slows to a stop, and Ion does the same, fur still sparkling.

“What is it, Blue?”

“You okay?”

“What’s wrong?”

Woops. “I found another civilian, being guarded by something that just hit me with a Blizzard.” He turns back the way he came in time to see a/

/refrigerator(?)((!?))/

/floating toward him.

Blue blinks, then rubs his eyes and blinks again, and it’s his pokemon’s growl that makes understanding click into place. It’s a strange sensation, having knowledge blocked somewhere in his own head, like something having something on the tip of his tongue, but somehow ten times worse.

“Ion, bach!” His pokemon opens his mouth and lets out a bolt of energy, which appears to splash harmlessly against the fridge. Thanks to the Charge Beam TM Blue bought, the longer Ion stays in battle, charging and discharging electricity, the stronger he will become… but he wouldn’t last long without something to tank those blizzards.

The rotom opens its door to reveal an otherworldly purple glow, and Blue yells “Charge!” again before covering his face with both arms. The blast of cold is sharper this time, and his whole body convulses with shivers.

“What is it, Blue?”

“Rotuh-tuh-tom,” he says, teeth chattering as he drops a hand to his belt and bends fingers stiff from the cold around his heavy ball. “Ice tuh-type, may b-be trouble. Ion, b-bach!”

“I’m on my way,” Chie says.

“D-Don’t come to me,” Blue says, and throws. “G-Go, Snorlax!” The grey ball disgorges its massive contents, and Blue barely manages to catch it as it flies back at him, arm still shaking from the cold. “Check the buh-block I’m f-f-facing for th-the civ!”

“Right, on it!”

“Ion, Ch-charge! Snorlax, Protect!”

The attack comes a moment later, but instead of a blast of freezing air, Blue just feels a cool breeze. He lets out a breath of relief and quickly rearranges his healing gear so that he’s ready to treat not just electric burns but frostbite. Snorlax’s thick fat will protect them from the worst of the cold, but not forever. “Snorlax, pivot, Ion, bach!”

The large pokemon lifts one foot and swings its body to the side, and the light that bursts from Ion is twice as bright as the first was. The refrigerator jolts and vibrates as it’s hit… but its counter attack is swift, a burst of returning electricity that hits Snorlax and causes him to grunt in pain.

“Charge,” Blue tells Ion again, then tells Snorlax to protect them from the next attack. He hopes it will be the Blizzard again, and wonders who the rotom’s trainer is. He didn’t see anyone, but they must be nearby to give it commands… is it possible that it’s an actual wild rotom that was never found within the scenario grounds?

No, the drone came a little closer just before Zephyr noticed it. In fact, it’s strange that Zephyr noticed it at all, considering it doesn’t look like a pokemon, but a regular, floating fridge. He’ll have to look into that later.

As another blast of electricity hits Blue’s snorlax, Taro’s voice comes back, sounding utterly winded. “Okay… I lost it… goddamn fast for… a giant turtle…”

“You lost it?” Chie asks, sounding alarmed. “Where?”

“Uh… it was definitely still chasing me when I ran around the demolished skyscraper, but after that…”

“So there’s a blastoise just wandering around the scenario now. Awesome.”

“I’m sorry, weren’t you… the one who told me… not to get cornered?”

“It could be back on its way to you, Lizzy,” Chron cuts in. “Be careful.”

“I believe I’ve searched the area where Taro encountered the blastoise, but have found no civilians. It’s possible it was just roaming free, you know? But I’ll watch out for it, maybe follow it. It could lead me to one.”

“You be careful too, Blue, it might be on its way to help out the rotom.”

“Got it,” Blue says. Should he try to finish the battle sooner? No, beating it sooner probably won’t help get the civilian to safety much faster, he has to treat his pokemon as the main resource being expended until the civilian is safe.

“Snorlax, Pivot! Ion, bach!”

The rotom takes the electric attack and returns with another of its own, though to Blue’s relief its next attack is a Blizzard. The overwhelming strength of his opponent is balanced a little by it not using only its most optimal attacks, though even that wouldn’t save Blue if he didn’t have his snorlax. Was he meant to be facing this foe? None of the others have pokemon that would fare better… is that why it only attacked once Lizzy left?

“Blue, I’m here,” Chie says. “Looking for the civilian now.”

“Got it.” Blue keeps rubbing some of the earlier chill from his fingers as Ion continues building up his power, whole body glowing as the luxio’s breaths come harder and faster. “You’re doing great, Ion,” Blue says. “You too, Snorlax… Just a little longer…” His snorlax’s movements are noticeably slowing, and Blue can’t reach most of its wounds with his potions… especially not while it’s still blocking attacks from reaching them.

Luckily, snorlax aren’t just sought out for their bulk. Their strength is as terrifying as their size implies, and while you can’t punch a rotom, if he gets close enough to the fridge he could probably smash it to pieces. Snorlax are slow enough that Blue doesn’t want to risk sending it after something that can evade so easily… he’d rather keep using it as a tank for now. And they have yet another invaluable attribute for just such an occasion…

“Snorlax, Rest!”

His pokemon lets itself fall back into a sitting position, then slumps forward with a sigh, tension releasing from its body as it begins to heal.

Most pokemon aren’t particularly expensive to own; their pokeballs help reduce their maintenance and upkeep by a lot, so that even if a pokemon would normally need to eat a few times a day, their relative day may stretch out over a week by their trainer’s standards. Other than the minor energy costs for storage, all pokemon are essentially free if you don’t use them, but even a pidgey kept out of their ball all day every day won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars a year, whereas a gyarados could easily cost thousands if the trainer is investing heavily in their training or growth.

Snorlax are on the far end of the scale, their bodies requiring massive amounts of calories and long periods of restless sleep to maintain healthy levels of both muscle and fat… which they quickly burn through in combat to move quicker than they normally do, and regenerate damage they take through short, self-induced comas.

Even sitting, the hulking figure of Blue’s pokemon fully covers his, but he still crouches slightly as he braces for the next attack. “Ion, Charge.” He waits for the next electric or ice attack, preparing to run out of cover with his pokemon, order the attack, then run back…

But no attack comes. Instead Blue’s snorlax begins to twitch in his sleep, and grumble.

They taught it Dream Eater! Blue quickly snaps his arm up, feeling a rush of anger and apprehension even through the analytical thoughts considering his next move. Dream Eater isn’t an attack a wild rotom would know, but it’s the perfect counter to a snorlax, and he has nothing else that can take a frost rotom on. If it doesn’t go down in a couple hits…

“Snorlax, return!” Blue quickly backs up to open the distance between himself and his luxio, now that he’ll be the main target. “Ion, bach!”

The light bursts forth with an audible hum, and the fridge jerks and spins in mid-air as its door opens again. The howling Blizzard sweeps almost a full 360 degrees, covering most of the block in a thin layer of frost. To Blue it’s like his whole body gets slapped by a giant freezing hand, but a few blinks clear the tears from his eyes, and Ion seems unfazed… from the attack, at least. Blue can tell his pokemon is getting tired, and unclips its ball as he reclips Snorlax.

“Ion, Charge!” Blue yells. The rotom sends out an electric bolt this time, but Ion barely flinches, his own energy field seeming to divert it into the ground around him. He knows better than to hope the next attack isn’t another blizzard. The rotom is staying far enough that Blue doesn’t think a direct hit would seriously hurt him, but it might render him incapable of battling for a while.

What if I am? The rules said if I run out of pokemon, not if I need a breather. Not that he’d take one, wasting time could cost everyone their badge, but… It’s not going to attack me without a pokemon around. Rotom are just a little faster than blastoise… I can outrun it… and if it turns back toward Chie, re-engage it.

It’s a good plan. But it would rob Ion of the power he’s accumulated so far: a lot of things carry through pokemon swaps, but the energy his luxio is generating isn’t one of them. He would lose his chance to take the rotom down, and Ion would go down from another attack.

“Bach!” Another bloom of light, and as it hits Blue can almost make out the purple aura around the fridge, a pair of flat, alien eyes plastered over its front as the fridge falls out of the air with a crash… then lifts back up, steaming and swaying as electricity arcs from Ion to the ground around him, the loud snaps and crackles almost masking the sounds of Ion’s harsh breathing. Just a little more…

What comes out next isn’t a blast of ice or lightning; instead the purple glow around the fridge is more evident, coalescing on the side facing luxio, which doesn’t change even as it keeps rotating, a growing sphere of—

“Blue, I found the civilian. Moving with him now.”

Blue barely hears her as he unclips and throws his rhyhorn’s ball as far as he can toward the side of the fridge, waiting until it’s nearly reached it before yelling, “Go, Rive!”

The ball releases his pokemon and rockets back just as the purple sphere detaches and jets toward Ion. “Ion, Return! Rive, thar!”

Ion disappears in a flash of light just as the purple sphere passes through the space where he was, and Rive digs into the ground and tears out a chunk of asphalt, then launches it at the fridge. It hits with a THUD that seems to echo around the blockand sparks fly out the back of the fridge as its frame bends, popping the door open and leaving it unable to shut.

The fridge suddenly drops out of the air, and a glowing spot of orange and blue plasma zips away from it, back down the alley from which it came.

Blue stares, breathing hard as he waits to make sure it’s really over. Then he summons Ion back out.

His pokemon appears, then abruptly collapses, breaths coming fast and hard. Blue rushes over and sprays potion over it, the mist hissing as it touches his pokemon’s hot fur.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Ion. You did great,” he murmurs, and withdraws his pokemon. “You too, Rive, return.”

“Blue, are you okay?”

He opens his mic. “Sorry, yeah. I’m fine,” he says as he wipes sweat from his face.

“What happened?”

He glances at his former opponent. “I beat a fridge.”

“We’re all very proud of you,” MG says, sounding entirely serious. He can’t always get a read on her. “Also, I found another civilian, but the blastoise is patrolling nearby. I think we may need to defeat it?”

“Or we can get it to chase one of us again while the other rescues him. I’m coming,” Lizzy says.

“Be extra careful. This rotom seemed particularly prepared to fight my team, and showed up once I was alone,” Blue says as he starts jogging toward the next block. “Assume that you’re facing pokemon that will counter what you have, even if it would be rare or unusual.”

“Right.”

“Got it.”

It feels strange going from a battle that intense back to checking empty alleys and streets, but he has to be thorough. He checks the time and sees the battle only took about three minutes, which means they have just over fifteen left. “You’ve been quiet, Taro, how are you doing?

“Full of Glen’s Gogo Juice, and ready to gogo. Where do you need me?”

Chie sighs. “How do you keep coming up with worse names—”

“MG is at half strength, and I’m down two,” Blue interrupts. Snorlax would need to finish his Rest to heal up, which wouldn’t take too long, but the mental attack is more concerning. He’ll bring Snorlax out if he needs to, but should refrain until he can run him through drills to ensure nothing critical was eaten. “Chie, your pokemon are still fresh, meet up with me and I’ll escort the civilians while you finish searching this side.”

She finds him a couple streets later, and he leads her civilian to the alley where he and Lizzy left the first one. It’s a mild relief to see the trainer is still there. “As you can see, he’s injured,” Blue says to the newcomer. “Could you help him walk while I defend us from any wild pokemon?”

The two look at each other, then the new civilian nods and goes to help the “injured” one up. Soon Blue is leading both toward the bank, struggling against his impatience with the pace they’re setting as he summons Zephyr to scout around him again and keeps an eye out for any more attacks.

“Okay, MG. Ready when you are.”

“Ready. Count of three… two… one… go!”

Then there’s distant running, and a roar, and a yelp, and silence.

“MG? Lizzy?” Blue looks down the street in their direction and sees a rush of water spreading out from an alley and running down the sidewalk. He almost tells the civilians to wait here, or go the rest of the way alone, but after a moment he grits his teeth and keeps walking as his heart pounds. He wishes, not for the first time today, that his battle calm extended beyond just when he is in literal combat…

“Whew! You okay MG?”

“M-my hat…”

“I see it! One sec… is he looking away?”

“…wait… now, yes!”

“…Got it!”

“Thank you.”

“Okay seriously guys, what’s going on?” Chie asks.

“It didn’t try chasing me, it just used its cannons to blast water at us when we left cover. Made us jump back into hiding, and now it’s patrolling again.”

“So we do need to take it down.”

“Maybe,” Taro says. “Or maybe you just have to avoid getting seen. Stealth tactics, you know?”

“Try blinding it too,” Blue adds. “Smokescreen, Flash, whatever.”

“I believe I have a better idea,” MG says. “We will poison it. Eventually Otto will have to withdraw it before it succumbs.”

Taro sighs. “Shit, I should have done that, it would have already worn itself out chasing me…”

“It’s fine, we’ve got it,” Lizzy adds. “Switching off for a bit, we’ll let you know if we need backup.”

Blue is approaching the bank, and resists the urge to look up at the drone following him. If an attack will come, it would be now… But despite his tension, he leads the two civilians into the bank without incident. Chron is waiting, and guides them back to the room with the others as Blue stares at the pile of furniture stacked on either side of the door into the inner rooms until Chron comes back.

“Is this a barricade, or a trap…?”

“Both? I asked them to help, figured I could easily collapse them if needed, turn it into a big heavy mess for any attacking pokemon to dig through.”

Blue grins. “I like it. How are the ‘civilians’ doing?”

“Oh, one pulled a pack of cards out and asked if I wanted to play. Not sure if they know there’s no reason to keep the act up now, or if they’re trying to get me to lower my guard.”

Blue nods, wondering if there’s a way to get information out of them. “Your drone is still outside, so they’re keeping an eye on the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the area is hit the moment you try to leave. Hell, after the rotom I wouldn’t be surprised if the delay is them picking a pokemon that would be just the right challenge for what you’ve got left.”

Chron nods, face serious. “I’ll be ready. Now get back out there and do your part.”

Blue nods and tips a salute before jogging back into the sunlight. That’s four safely in shelter, with… twelve minutes left.

He feels his stomach drop. They have roughly half the area left to search. It’s tempting to send Chron out after all, maybe to slowly, safely work his way through the webs in that building…

We need to think of something better. Something that will help us with the search…

Blue closes his eyes and tries to think through the sense of dwindling time. Resources. Knowledge. Skills. What am I not fully utilizing? All of his trainers are being used, none have pokemon that would help find people or move faster, none of them have special knowledge of this area… do they have knowledge of the gym members? Experience hiding strategies in urban environments?

“All done with this area Blue, on my way back to start the other half.”

“Alright. I’ll come join you…” Blue trails off, still feeling like he should be able to think of something clever, something out of the box that will help them…

What would Red do?

He forces himself not to shy away from that thought. Red would use his psychic abilities, but that’s not helpful to Blue… he might use some knowledge of pokemon, something not related to battling. Blue has some of that, but he can’t think of anything that would help…

What would Leaf do?

She told him about what happened during the storm, what she and Red went through. Blue wanted to know, but he couldn’t tell how much of what she said was just trying to talk Red up, make Blue accept that he did a lot to save people. As if that was the point…

Focus! What would LEAF do?

Leaf’s strengths as a trainer don’t go toward battling, she would probably have trained her own pokemon to be able to do something more helpful in a situation like this, like finding injured people… her other skills are more centered around people, like Blue, she’s good at getting them to do things, like she did with the people in the apartment building that later caught fire…

Blue’s eyes widen, and he looks back toward the door Chron and the others piled furniture beside before quickly running through, back toward where the “civilians” are sitting and playing a card game.

“Everyone, please listen to me,” he yells, and they all jump. “There are other people out there that need help, and we’re not sure we can find them in time. I know it’s dangerous, but I’d like to ask you… no, beg you, to help us find them before the next wave hits.”

One of them chuckles, quickly covering their smile, while the rest look sheepish or confused. “I don’t think we…” another starts, but Blue cuts him off.

“I know you’re injured,” he says to the one whose arm still looks like it’s covered in blood. “You should stay here. But the rest of you, I can assure you that one of us will always be nearby to keep you safe, and we’ll make it back before the wave hits. So please…!” He claps his hands together and bows, as low as he can. “Help us save the others that are still out there!”

There’s an awkward silence, and Blue doesn’t dare look up or move. Thirty seconds. I’ll give it thirty seconds, then laugh it off and say it was worth a try and we’ll just have to run everywhere, and try the galvantula web… six… seven… eight…

He gets to fourteen before one of the civilians clears their throat, and shifts, and when Blue looks up he sees the woman getting to her feet. “I’ll help.”

Another hesitates a moment longer, then stands too. “Same.”

The one who smiled earlier is frowning at them, and after seeing Blue’s gaze on him shakes his head. “Dunno what Surge would expect.”

“It’s alright,” Blue says, and straightens with a smile relief making him feel giddy as his heart pounds. “It’s got to be realistic, right? Not everyone would come.”

Chron is staring with a mix of awe and incredulity. “You don’t think they’re going to try to punish this with more attacks or something?”

“They might,” Blue admits. “But I’d rather lose from battling than not try my best to save everyone. Hopefully we’ll be back soon.” He turns to the others. “Thank you. Now come on, there’s no time to lose!”

Blue leads them outside, and Zephyr takes off from a nearby building to fly overhead again. “Stay in sight of my pidgeotto, it’ll let us know if any pokemon are nearby. We’re going to go block by block checking the alleys, alright? If you so much as get a paranoid feeling that there’s a pokemon nearby, just run to me or one of the others.”

“You got it, Oak,” one of them says.

“You guys have fake names, or should I call you by your real ones?” He doesn’t remember their real ones, but it would be a good time to learn them either way…

“I’m supposed to be ‘Nellie.’ Got a backstory and everything; cruise ship chef.” She grins. “I think Nellie’s always wanted to do something meaningful, help people, you know?”

“I’m ‘Alex.’ Here on vacation.” The trainer shrugs. “Just figured it would be more interesting than sitting there and waiting.”

“Good enough for me.” Blue toggles his mic. “How are the buildings looking, TaroChie?”

“Done a block already, but we haven’t found anyone yet.”

“More hazards, though. Bunch of voltorb rolling around in one of the buildings. I marked it for if we get desperate.”

“Alright, I’m coming to sweep the alleys with help from a couple of the civvies. Protecting them is Priority 2, got it?”

Taro laughs, while Chie just says, “Got it.”

They make their way through the streets at a jog, and now each block takes just a couple minutes to clear. Blue worries briefly that one or both might not actually tell him if they find a civilian, but by the second block “Alex” calls out, and Blue runs over.

This civilian is pretending to be unconscious. Blue moves carefully toward her, and when the pile of rubble beside her shifts and an Alolan golem uncurls from inside it, Blue feels a spike of fear before the battle calm takes over.

“Go, Gon!” he yells, and his breloom appears just as the golem bellows and starts generating electricity between its prongs. “Contact! Gon, pam!”

The breloom’s legs coil, then he leaps forward in a green and tan blur to punch the golem just before its electricity arcs out into the street, hitting street lights. Gon leaps back in front of Blue, and begins bouncing from foot to foot, tail held high as he prepares for another attack.

“What is it, Blue? Need help?”

“No, I have double advantage. Keep searching, one of you come get the trainers!” Gon evolved a couple weeks ago, going from a squat, slow mushroom that was valuable for its status effects to one of Blue’s heaviest hitters. As long as it’s faster than its opponent, and against a golem it certainly is, Blue is confident it can win most fights it has advantage on… let alone one as stacked in its favor as this.

So much for facing pokemon that are designed against him, though to be fair this does seem like a mostly random encounter.

There’s a clicking sound from somewhere above, and Blue looks up to see Sabra standing on the roof. She waves at him, and Blue quickly looks back down to see the golem charge its body with electricity.

Blue quickly orders another Mach Punch, then follows up with a Leech Seed. No matter how hard Gon hits, golems’ hides are tough, and he doesn’t know how strong this one is. Better to play it safe, wear it down and keep his distance while darting in for attacks…

No. He doesn’t have that luxury, the sooner he takes it down the better. After the golem charges at Gon and punches him with an electrically charged fist, Blue yells, “Counter!” and watches as the two begin slugging it out at close range. It may be tough, but its electricity will barely faze Gon, while his attacks are each striking at weak points, resonating deep through its rocky hide…

And then there’s another series of clicks, and Blue yells “Dodge!” on sheer instinct as the golem’s electricity seems to loop back on himself, and his whole body starts to glow with heat…

But as soon as Gon leaps away, electricity arcs through it, and Blue’s gaze snaps to the source of it: a stunfisk lying flat against the ground that had been hiding under another pile of rocks.

Blue quickly summons Maturin as he tries to withdraw Gon too, but the golem is lumbering forward, and one red-hot fist knocks the paralyzed breloom into a spinning fall. “Gon, return! Maturin, bab!” And then he reclips Gon’s ball and whistles on his flute while pointing at the stunfisk.

Blue can only follow what happens next because he initiated half of it. As Gon disappears in a flash of red energy, Maturin spits a bubblebeam at the golem, knocking it into the nearby wall, then the ground, its hide turning white wherever the water splashes. Just a blink later, an arc of electricity hits Maturin, and hasn’t even ended when Zephyr divebombs the stunfisk and begins tearing at it with beak and talons.

A heavy ball is thrown from above, and withdraws the golem. Blue quickly orders another bubblebeam against the stunfisk, hoping to knock it out before it retaliates against Zephyr, but instead the flat fish electrocutes Maturin again, and Zephyr takes some of the shock just from proximity, or from his continued attacks. Blue quickly withdraws both his wartortle and pidgeotto as he realizes this isn’t a fight he needs to win.

“Forfeiting, Oak?” Sabra calls from above.

“Hardly,” he calls back up, reclipping his pokemon to his belt and checking the time. Nine minutes left. “I could keep fighting with both and maybe you’d take one or the other down before it died, but if this were a real battle you’d withdraw it by then, and if it were a real wild battle I’d capture it. Stunfisk can barely move outside of water or mud.”

“So you’re going to just walk by it?”

“Nope,” Blue says, and runs… around the block, to approach from the opposite side of the street. Like he said: stunfisk can barely move on dry land.

Blue quickly reaches the downed civilian and takes a variety of medication out, spraying her with potions and paralyze heals onto her shirt, then sticks an awakening nozzle into her nose. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but she gets the cue and “wakes up” on her own.

“Hi!” he says with a grin and grips her arm to pull her up. “We might want to run. I don’t know what else she has… I mean, might be lurking around here.”

She smiles and follows him at a jog, and once they’re a distance away Blue summons Zephyr again and heals him. “So, quick proposition… help me find other survivors, or I can take you to a safe locati—”

“The blastoise is down,” Lizzy says, sounding giddy. “Took it long enough. We’ve extracted the civilian and are heading back to the bank—”

“No time,” Blue interrupts. “I mean, good work, but also, just keep them with you. Wait, are they hurt?”

“No, they’re walking on their own.”

“Good, because we’re running short on time and need to make a decision between searching the rest of the buildings we haven’t yet, or go back to the galvantula web or voltorbs. No need to defeat them all, just make your way through it and see if anyone’s alive in either.”

“I was thinking about that, Blue,” Lizzy says. “Galvantula don’t spin webs like that unless they know their area is secure. It’s… not likely anyone would be alive in one’s nest.”

Shit. “But not impossible?”

“No, not impossible, if they’re hiding in a closet or something.”

“Well, our other alternative is the voltorb building, and frankly that just seems suicidal,” Chron says. “I vote we try the galvantula webs.” He sighs. “And by ‘we’ I mean you all, of course.”

Taro and Chie agree, and the others stay outside to protect the civilians helping them and keep searching themselves. Blue is approaching the next block when he hears a crackle and Zephyr screeches in pain. Blue’s head snaps up to see his pokemon falling out of the sky, and leaps forward to return it before it hits the ground, then leaps back with a yell as another bolt of electricity suddenly hits the ground nearby.

He follows the path of its afterimage, blinking rapidly, and sees Surge standing on the roof of a nearby building, a raichu beside him.

Blue gapes up at him for a moment, a mix of excitement and worry being mostly suppressed by confusion. With Surge’s pokemon so far away, how is Blue supposed to battle him?

I’m not. This isn’t a challenge to battle… Surge has removed himself as an opponent, maybe predicting the earlier sentiment that Chron shared. It’s a hazard, something he’s supposed to figure out, not bash his way through. Which means…

Blue opens his map and pings his location. “Lizzy, I need you.” Then he looks around before first dragging over a metal garbage bin, then a wide plastic tarp from the back of a truck, then a broad stack of pvc pipe. By the time Lizzy arrives, he’s staring at the truck itself again.

“What’s goin-oh-shit-it’Surge,” Lizzy gasps, hand darting to her pokeball as she stares up at the gym leader. “Blue, it’s Surge! What’s he doing up there?”

“Guarding something, I’m pretty sure,” Blue says. “Do you think we could hotwire this truck?”

Lizzy blinks, then looks at him. “That’s what you need my help with?”

“Well I don’t know how much you know about cars, so maybe not. I was just thinking out loud, like, do you think it would be against the rules? I guess I can ask.” Blue looks up at the gym leader and cups his hands around his mouth. “Hey Leader, is it okay if I borrow this truck?”

Surge shakes his head, but Blue can’t make out his expression. Is he saying no to the question, or refusing to answer? Maybe it’s exasperated acceptance… no, better play it safe. “Sorry, the actual thing I asked you to help with is getting past him. I think this is a challenge, to see—”

“-how well we paid attention during our classes,” Lizzy says with a nod, and Blue blinks. He was going to say ‘how resourceful we are,’ but Lizzy immediately begins examining the things he gathered, then looks around them. “There’s a safe path… I think. The start of one.” She traces something that looks like an inwardly turning maze, but Blue can’t make it out. “I could guide you, but I suspect you would rather cheat.”

Blue grins. “You got me.”

She smiles. “We’ll need more metal. What’s the plastic tubes and tarp for?”

“I figured something non-conductive could be held up for cover?”

Lizzy shakes her head. “Tallest thing is generally going to be struck in a natural environment, no matter what it’s made of. With pokemon to guide things it’s a bit different, but there’s a rule where you can’t repel electricity from something, just conduct it. The reason lightning rods are metal is to avoid too much resistance that would lead to… well.” She points to one of the nearby burned buildings. “That tarp could be used to step on though, to avoid shocks from below, but our feet are already pretty protected by our rubber soles. Maybe bring it for a civilian?”

“Right. I’ll go get more trash bins then,” Blue says, having resisted the urge to tell her now isn’t the time for a science lesson. It takes another precious three minutes for him to bring her what she needs, and soon they’ve got a makeshift lightning rod to move and travel carefully around his building, checking its alleys and side streets.

“Ugh, web is full of spiders!” Taro yells in their ear.

“That’s horrible,” MG responds. “No one could have predicted this.”

“We’ll be back,” Chie says. “Fighting!”

Blue wants to yell for them to just get out and not waste the time, or risk getting wiped out. But they’re out of options, and so he keeps quiet, and hopes they’re okay.

Surge gives them a few token shocks, keeping them hunched over. The civilian is inside the electronic instrument shop (“Surge is hilarious,” Blue pants as he tugs the lightning rod to just outside the door) and he convinces her to leave with them, trying to hurry despite the circumstances.

“We’re out,” Blue says once they’re out of range,. “And we found one.” They hurry to clear the rest of the blocks, searching desperately, now, a mix of hope and dread on every face Blue sees. Two more… come on TaroChie, you’ve got it… fire pokemon, rock pokemon…. You can do this…!

“Whew! We’re through, and we did indeed find someone in a closet! Coming out now!”

Blue grins, but it’s short lived as the minutes keep twitching inexorably down. Eight. Eight out of nine in twenty five minutes. Five minutes to find one, just one… The thoughts keep racing through Blue’s head as he tries to think of what they might be missing. Are they really expected to go into a building full of voltorb if they don’t know there’s a civilian in there? They obviously wouldn’t make them explode, but…

Blue is clearing the last block before he spots Nellie on the other side open a dumpster lid, peer inside, then close it… and he suddenly freezes in place, eyes wide. One hand rises to his ear piece, and he says, in a voice that surprises him with how calm he sounds, “Did anyone think to check the dumpsters and trash bins?”

There’s silence for a moment, and then…

“No?”

“Checked if I could hide in one during the chase, but couldn’t fi—Oooh—”

“Why would we—”

“—shiiiit…”

“Oh!”

“Dammit, seriously?”

“Seriously,” Blue says, and starts running. “Full resweep of the streets, now, and check every closed container you find! Careful of pokemon lurking in some, just run if you find any!”

The task quickly proves to be disgusting, and some of the others do indeed find a couple grimer and a trubbish waiting for them under the lids. But with two minutes left, Blue runs for the area where he fought the rotom. He starts looking through them in such a rush that he almost closes his third dumpster before realizing that what he’s seeing isn’t just a pile of clothes. It helps that it’s screaming.

“Ahh!” The man inside cowers, curled up, then looks up with a smile. “Oh, you’re not a poke—”

Blue drops the lid as his other hand covers his face, sighing. “I found him. Everyone get back to the bank, now!” He opens the lid again and grabs the nonplussed gym member’s hand, pulling him out of the bin and onto the street. “Are you okay? No injuries or anything?”

“Uh, well now that you mention it—”

Blue takes out a pair of potion bottles and sprays all over his clothes. “Now? Anything else?”

The young man cowers back slightly from the look in Blue’s eyes, and swallows, glancing between the two potion bottles. “Um. I think I’m good…”

“Good. Then run, because the next wave is about to hit!”

Blue knows he gave himself almost a minute of grace when he set his alarm, but his heart is still pounding in his throat as they race for the bank, only to face a small horde of pokemon waiting on main street. Surge and Sabra and Aigerim and Otto and two others that Blue doesn’t recognize are standing beside their pokemon, and without pausing Blue grabs the civilian’s arm and pulls him down an alley, opening his mic again. “We’re coming in from behind, Surge and the others are out here!”

“I’m going to collapse the front,” Chron says. “Everyone else get to one of the fire exits and guard it!”

There are seventeen seconds left when Blue spots everyone fanned out in a half circle around the bank’s side entrance, their pokemon out and waiting. Blue can hear the horde coming, now, the gym leadership’s pokemon roaring and howling as they march on the bank, and Blue finds himself grinning wide, suddenly sure that this has been fun for them. He sees similar, celebratory grins on everyone’s faces as, stitch in his side and hand still clamped firm around the last civilian, Blue rushes past them and into the bank.

The others quickly pile in and close the doors, then start to whoop and cheer before Blue raises his hand.

“Not yet,” Blue pants as his alarm goes off. “Everyone in the same room with the civilians, let’s go!”

There’s a banging sound from the front, and Chron is just arriving as they do, looking worried, but with laughter in his eyes. “Man, this bank is probably not going to be happy with what the Leader’s doing to their furniture.”

“In, in,” Chie says to the civilians, pushing them all inside. Then, without a word, the trainers all fan out again, summoning pokemon to stand beside them.

And then they wait, listening to the sound of moving (breaking?) furniture.

And then silence, followed by footsteps, followed by…

Leader Surge, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, and a smile on his face at the sight before him.

“Congratulations,” is all he says, and then everyone cheers.


Mrs. Khatri and Mr. Iha look quietly furious.

Blue sits in Leader Surge’s office. There was a brief ceremony in the street, in front of the drone cameras. His third badge sits next to the other two, and he keeps glancing at it, enjoying the way the light gleams off its yellow surface. He quickly returns his attention to the conversation going on around him each time… the conversation that started within an hour of the match finishing, Surge escorting him away from his teammates and other friends so he could speak with him privately.

Instead of a heart to heart with his Leader, however, Blue had to hold in all his questions once he saw the two league officials back again.

Somehow, caught up in everything as he was, he didn’t even consider that, as he was focusing on his objectives, on the realism the scenario was intended for, that realism was extending to attacks from the pokemon that were actually hitting him and his teammates. Hearing the two yell about it did reframe those moments with a bit more seriousness, somehow.

“Well?” Surge asks Blue, brow raised. “Would you care to make a formal renegade accusation?”

“Of course he’ll say no,” Mr. Iha says just as Blue opens his mouth to.

“Don’t be overdramatic, Leader,” Mrs. Khatri sighs. “That’s not our goal here, and you know it. This isn’t what we talked about when we condoned these scenarios.”

“All I know is that you are asserting that my gym members were at risk during their challenge match,” Surge says, hands laced over his desk and tone cold. “Let’s let the trainer speak this time, shall we? Blue, what are your thoughts?”

Blue waits half a minute, forming his words, then simply says, “It was great.” He keeps his expression calm as he turns to the two League representatives, as if all this is completely unimportant and obvious. “I knew how far I was from the opponent pokemon at all times, and I trusted the gym members and Leader to not do anything that would endanger me. We’ve all trained and learned well, whether it was studying safest trainer distances from enemies, or the distance over the ground that electricity can travel.”

“I’m willing to believe you both,” Mrs. Khatri says. “But consider the optics. The whole region, maybe the whole world, saw trainers being knocked off their feet by blastoise water cannons, and being nearly frozen solid.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I understand,” she repeats, gaze on his. “But imagine how it will play to others. How some will react against it, and others will adopt a new, laxer standard. When do you suspect the first death will take place?”

Blue grits his teeth, waiting for Surge to answer, then realizes it was asked of him. “Trainers occasionally get hurt during battles, real or not.” He shrugs. “We may be limiting ourselves.”

“Trainers get hurt, by accident,” Mr. Iha says. “Some attacks have wide range, sometimes pokemon miss or trainers don’t pay attention to where they’re positioned. But pokemon should never attack if a human is too likely to be caught in the radius.”

Surge snorts. “That was a foolish regulation when you tried to pass it, and I won’t pretend it has moral weight on its own. A pokemon that can’t follow an explicit order, even if it risks harm to a human, is a pokemon that can’t handle a wide range of real situations where it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the human is already dead. Or they’re being eaten alive, right in front of you, and the only way to save them risks hurting them too.” Surge’s face is like stone as he stares down the angry league official until he looks away, then turns to Mrs. Khatri.

“You’ve made your point,” she says, her own anger more under control. “And as I said, it doesn’t matter. The pokemon will still need to be turned over for examination, and the incident investigated and discussed before any further scenarios are constructed.”

“What?!”

Everyone ignores Blue’s outrage as Surge unclips three balls from his belt and hands them over, which distracts him anyway. He almost expresses his surprise that Surge was the rotom’s trainer, then clamps his mouth shut. The Leader was clearly prepared for this meeting, and Blue isn’t going to risk throwing a wrench in things without thinking. They have the drone footage, anyway, which would either clear the Leader or wouldn’t.

“The scenarios will continue,” Surge asserts, not leaving room for them to argue. “But we will restrain ourselves to simple, static battles until your investigation officially recognizes that we’re not being negligent with our trainers.”

Blue wants to yell that that’s pointless, that Glen and Elaine and the others wouldn’t get a real challenge that way, wouldn’t get to really experience what they did, what they all worked for… But again he grinds his teeth together, and waits until the two representatives leave.

As soon as they do, some of his anger burns itself out, the arcanine prowling in his chest without a clear source to unleash his anger on. This was supposed to be a day of triumph, but somehow all he can think of is that they may have lost something precious before it even really got a chance to begin and grow.

“Well, ” Surge says after a moment as he pulls a small flask from his desk, unscrews, and drinks from it. “Now that’s out of the way… what did you think?”

Blue looks at his Leader to see he’s smiling. After a moment, Blue smiles back.

“It was great. Amazing. I have a lot of questions.”

Surge nods. “I have some time to spare.”

“The rotom… I never saw their trainer, until the end maybe. Psychic?”

“Ah, yes. Two of the staff members were not from our Gym. A loan of sorts, especially requested. It made for a useful added range of challenge.”

Blue nods. “How realistic did you actually want it to be? I feel like we cheated, at times, but…”

Surge shakes his head. “You can’t cheat if you follow the rules. And if anyone’s at fault for the rules-as-written, it’s me. As for how realistic… I think you’ve guessed. As much as possible, given constraints.”

Given constraints. Surge and his people selected that too, for the most part, but there was an unforced expectation that the pokemon would follow “wild” guidelines despite being explicitly trainer-guided… Blue almost mentions how that can change the lens of the exercise, but his new revelation is more well rounded, now.

“You’re not just using these scenarios to train us for Tier incidents,” he says, voice quiet.

Surge raises a brow at him, then takes another drink before capping it and putting it in his desk. “What makes you say that?”

“You wouldn’t have let pokemon use moves they could only learn from TMs if you were, even if it would provide us the best challenge.” The Leader watches him expectantly a moment, and Blue presses on. “You’re preparing us for renegades. Sabotage. Why? Is it just in case, or… is something happening?”

But even as he asks, Blue realizes he’s got it wrong. The Leader’s face shows genuine confusion, for a moment, and then he smiles again, the sheepish tones to it looking strange on the Leader’s face.

“I forgot. You faced exactly that situation on Mount Moon, of course that’s what you would think of first.” His smile fades. “I’m sorry if it brought back any memories, in the moment, that wasn’t my intention. Too many other things to consider, something was bound to slip through the cracks.”

Blue waves a hand to the side. “No, it’s fine… But then, I don’t understand. What were you going for?”

The Leader shrugs. “You’ve got at least one more match to figure it out. Let me know if you do. Maybe you’ll decide to stay after all.” He smiles. “I would be happy to have you, if so.”

Blue grins at the compliment, brief but sincere. “I can’t promise I’ll stay. But I can say I’ll be back… one day as Champion.”

Chapter 72: Gaze Forward

No matter how many times they do this, it still feels real.

The sound of overlapping commands, the cries of pokemon attacking and being attacked, the explosive noise of pokeballs opening to send out new combatants… it all blends together to send a thrill through Blue’s body, quickening his pulse despite the cool lens of his battle calm that helps him observe the ebb and flow of the battle.

It doesn’t have the life or death edge to it that actual incidents in the wild would, but Blue still feels every loss on his team keenly, still feels compelled to win at all costs… which, as part of the attacking team, means striking at the pokedolls their opponents are clustered around.

The six defenders are doing a good job of not just keeping their ring secure so no stray attacks go through, but defeating the attackers efficiently, swapping places with quick, coordinated movements to ensure that each trainer is using the best counter available to one the attacking trainers are using no matter where in the circle they are. Case in point, as soon as Blue’s opponent sees his wartortle come out, he quickly shuffles two spaces to the right and sends his sandslash to help a teammate as his own position is taken by another trainer with a lombre.

Blue smothers a curse and orders an Ice Beam, knowing that the Grass/Water type would be able to take more of them than Maturin would its retaliating Grass attacks. If this were a normal match it would be easy to just swap himself, either to a different one of his own pokemon or with one of his teammates… but it’s far from that.

The battle is meant to mimic the attrition actual defenders face in Tier 2 or 3 incidents (while still maintaining even teams so neither is overwhelmed), and Glen’s solution was to give his own team only three pokemon each to the attackers’ full six. To balance that Blue suggested attackers not be able to coordinate with each other or swap their pokemon unless they were about to faint, just as if they were real wild pokemon on a rampage…

With one exception.

Glen agreed to the exception without knowing what it was, and just before the match Blue told his team to bring at least one flying or ground pokemon, then save them for last.

As Maturin desperately tries to avoid the green glow of the lombre’s Absorb, Blue raises her ball with one hand and his whistle to his lips with the other before blowing a single long, sharp, unwavering note.

Both defenders and attackers pause for a heartbeat, and then six red beams connect with six pokemon. Blue reclips Maturin and grabs another ball, movements matching his teammates so that all six new pokemon appear almost simultaneously.

The defensive team has only a moment to recognize that they’re now facing a mix of exclusively flying and ground pokemon, and then Glen is yelling out his own counter order to coordinate their response. Blue can’t hear it over his next whistled command to Zephyr, but the defensive pokemon are quickly swapped out for Water and Ice types.

The attackers are already acting, however, and their pokemon start kicking up dirt, multiple sand attacks creating a haze that the defenders struggle to aim through. Beams of frost-forming light pierce the localized sandstorm until one nails a fearow, which is withdrawn before it hits the ground and replaced with a diglett that immediately begins adding to the mass sand attack. It helps that all the types strong against either Flying or Ground attacks are weak to Ground or Flying ones respectively, and that the only type that can hit back against both hard, Ice, is fairly rare… their opponents only have two, though most water pokemon are taught at least one as well.

Blue wipes sweat from above one eye, gaze jumping constantly to spot any early sign of change in the defenders’ strategy. This is the critical moment of the battle, and they would either win or lose by how well the defenders can deal with the sudden shift.

It takes nearly twenty seconds before a wave of water suddenly gushes out to the side of the cloud, instantly clearing all the sand and dirt coming in from a third of the circle of attackers. Twin beams of light spear out and hit a sandshrew and pidgeotto, and the lack of renewed sand and dirt coming from those directions gives the defenders an opening.

Blue has to suppress the urge to shout out a command to the others, judging this to be outside the limits of the allowed offensive coordination. Three of his trainers still move on their own to try and cover the breach, but not the ones on the far side who can’t see it, and what looks like the full might of the defenders start pushing through the opening to quickly overwhelm them.

Blue doesn’t go to try and fight them; the only chance the offense has now is that the defense will leave one side exposed, and they can swoop in for a quick hit on one of the pokedolls. He blows another command to Zephyr instead, and his pidgeotto follows him around to the other side, away from the defenders that have breached the sandstorm.

The two remaining attackers on the “back side” have realized something is wrong when Blue and Zephyr join them, but there’s no time for them to figure out what; one more sharp whistle followed by two brief notes, and Zephyr sends a whirlwind over the field strong enough to clear all the remaining sand…

…only to reveal Glen’s snorlax, his trainer standing by Blue’s goal, ready to defend it. His hair and skin are covered in sand and dirt, but he quickly wipes his facemask clean, and Blue can see his smile as he sees what’s waiting for him.

Blue grins back, then attacks with his teammates in one last desperate bid to overwhelm the snorlax before Glen’s allies come.


As soon as the battle ends, Blue’s calm leaves him. He feels it trickling away, wishing it would stay just a little while longer… at least until he finishes dealing with the media.

Even as unofficial training exercises, the group battles would probably have gathered some interest on their own; outside the Rangers’ practice incidents, it’s rare for so many trainers to battle together at once, and the spectacle of it would probably have drawn crowds no matter what, even this far outside the city. But thanks to both Blue’s own fame and the widely broadcast genesis of the new format, by their third practice battle the media had been ready and waiting at the end, and by the fifth they were there at the start, recording everything.

On the one hand there’s an obvious benefit to having so much added screen time and prestige surrounding his pet project. What he’s doing could revolutionize the way gyms operate the world over, and it’s good not just to have the matches recorded for posterity, but also to normalize the idea as early as possible. The more time he spends answering questions and talking about his vision, the better… and the interviewers seem happy to let him go on until his throat gets sore.

On the other hand, each post-battle interview takes time away from him and his trainers. Even during their smaller private battles, Blue enjoyed spending time after each match he participated in or observed going over what happened, doling out feedback both teasing and serious, reviewing strategies and tactics from every angle. It helped improve bonds between the trainers, and gave him a wider understanding of how other trainers think about battles.

The first few group battles ended the same way, the trainers unwinding together as they talked and teased and laughed about the match, all while establishing strong feedback norms both within and between the battling teams. Blue started the very first battle debrief with Aiko’s ritual, and it became a staple of each, no less bittersweet no matter how many times he went through it.

Having that all recorded is probably good too, but it also feels like an intrusion, and tonight is worse than ever; the two teams are practically mobbed as soon as the last pokemon is withdrawn, and Blue has to jog over to intercept the reporters as they hesitate at the circular dip in the ground where all the dirt was kicked up. Once their attention is drawn to him they start fanning out and focusing their cameras and extending microphones.

“How did that battle go, Blue?”

“Are you disappointed your side lost?”

“What inspired this battle’s setup?”

It’s times like this Blue misses Leaf most. He raises his hands to quiet them, trying to think of how he can diplomatically ask them to back off. If he just asks them for privacy it would just make some of them that much more curious as to what they talk about…

And then his watch chimes with an incoming message. He taps its screen to read it, and his pulse, which had just finished slowing from the end of the match, kicks back into high gear as hope surges through him. He turns to the media with an apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry, I know you’ve come all this way in the hopes of another interview, but I’ve just been summoned by Leader Surge. If you’re willing to wait, you can meet me outside the gym in a couple hours, and I’ll likely have more to talk about than I do now.”

“What’s the meeting about, Blue?”

“Was this scheduled, or did you just get the invitation?”

He holds both hands up again to quiet them. “It was just sent, and I imagine it has something to do with the footage you all have been broadcasting; maybe he wants to criticize my performance in person, so thanks for that.” He’s smiling as he says it, and the crowd chuckles. “I don’t know for sure what we’ll talk about of course, but I hope it has some relevance to these exercises, and am happy to discuss it more later.”

The news folk seem reluctantly satisfied with that, and once Blue turns away from the few remaining shouted questions he feels relief when even those quickly stop and everyone mobilizes to change venue.

“Nice to have some privacy,” Glen murmurs as Blue returns to the trainers. “There really a meeting with Surge?”

“Yep,” Blue says as the others gather around, and smiles. “But it’s not for an hour.”

The group laughs, and Blue turns to them. Twelve trainers in total, seven boys and five girls, badges ranging from four at the top end to zero at the lowest, ages twelve to sixteen. Not the best he’s trained or fought with, but the best that would make this commitment with him, that would trust him… and all of them faced Zapdos’s attack. Blue’s spent over a month training intensely with them all while simultaneously working to develop these mock-incident battles, and if Surge’s invitation is really about adopting the scenarios officially, maybe it’ll finally have paid off.

“That said, we’ll still have to cut this short for me to get there on time, so let’s go straight into it,” Blue says to the expectant ring of faces. It makes him sad to skip the ritual, and for a moment the old bitterness at being Dark flares up before he pushes it away again by reminding himself of the advantages. “Good job to the defense. The improvised Surf wave was inspired, and I think it would work just as well against wild pokemon. Whose idea was it?”

Glen, along with the rest of his team, look at Lizzy and Chron, who glance at each other then raise their hands with sheepishly proud smiles. Blue smiles back and nods at them. “Next match the two of you are going to be on opposite teams. Who wants to swap with one of them?”

“I will,” Elaine says, brushing some hair out of her face and tying it back with the rest of her bun. The auburn curls have gotten long enough to reach her shoulders now, and no matter how tight she ties it some strands keep managing to escape.

“Why?” Blue asks, curious rather than challenging.

“We’ll be status heavy if he comes, and have too many sweepers if she does. Those are my specialties.” She smiles slightly. “Plus, it would be nice to win a match once in a while.”

There are a round of “ooo”s mixed with scattered laughter, Blue’s among it. It’s true that his team has been losing lately, mostly because he suspects Glen is just a better strategist than him. The gap is closing though, and Blue nods. “Good luck with that. If we win the next one, we’ll know who the dead weight was.”

The group’s reaction is even stronger this time, and Elaine grins wide as she flicks her hair back and puts a hand on her hip. “It’s a poor trainer that blames their ‘mon instead of themselves.”

Blue winces as everyone laughs again at his own words thrown back at him. A response comes to mind, but he’d rather end things on a self-deprecating note, and it’s good to see Elaine engage in banter like this.

The storm changed all of them in some way, but Elaine more than others. Aiko’s death seemed to take something out of the girl’s bright-eyed enthusiasm, replaced it with a quieter self-confidence that led, among other things, to her being willing to speak against her friends far more often. There’s still some of the old Elaine left, however, particularly when it’s just her, Glen, and Blue.

He still remembers the kiss she gave him before they split up, rain falling around them and buildings burning above. The memory makes him uncomfortable, and thankfully she hasn’t brought it up or done anything like it since.

“On your own head be it,” he says with mock-severity, then turns to the group again. “So, what did we learn from that match?”

“Flying and Ground combo is bullshit,” someone mutters to another round of laughter.

“You guys countered it well enough,” Taro says, and others on Blue’s team nod. “Oh, I also learned to keep moving when sight is limited.”

“Dangerous in a real fight,” his sister disagrees. “Might get hit without pokemon between you and the enemy.”

“Not to be done lightly, then,” Blue says, as he turns the topic over in his thoughts. “Should we be practicing a move like that in training, if it’s too dangerous to use outside of it?”

The group is silent a moment before another of Blue’s team speaks up. “The team that’s imitating wild pokemon should.” MG is a year older than Blue, but her clothes make her look younger; long sleeves that nearly cover her hands, a wide black hat that covers her hair, and generally enough layers of dark cloth to make her seem like she’s wearing an outfit that’s too big for her. At first he thought she might have a skin condition that makes her avoid sunlight, and he still hasn’t ruled it out, but when he asked her about it she insisted that she just likes layers. “Though it might not be that easy. Nyx and Vortumna would probably try to stay with me if I tried to go in another direction from them.”

“You might want to train that out of them,” Blue says, thinking of the way her murkrow and eevee can fight so well as a team. “If you ever need them to stay in one place while you do something elsewhere…”

She shakes her head. “I can use other pokemon for that. I’d rather their default be to stay with me.”

Blue nods, letting the topic go. When she first started showing up to practice battles he thought she was too shy to be part of the core group he was forming, even worse than Elaine used to be for speaking up for herself. But while she is shy most of the time, she often switches to confident and assertive when it comes to discussing her pokemon or battling, and she’s definitely smart enough to deserve her spot.

All of his trainers are. He’s proud of both teams, and while a steady, stubborn, stupid part of him misses what used to be, he’s had time to grieve, and move on. These days he keeps his gaze steady on the present and future.

“True, and most scenarios are a bit defense-favored anyway,” Glen adds to something Blue missed while woolgathering.

“Including this one?” Blue asks with a smile, which starts an argument about whether it’s true or not. The discussion stays largely positive, given Glen was leading the defense when he made the comment, and after a minute Blue decides to leave them to it, and summons his bike after a round of goodbyes. He’s already wearing his pads; it’s part of his standard trainer gear now, ever since he had to throw himself to the side to avoid a boulder that flew past his pokemon.

When Blue arrives at the gym, the media is already set up outside. He’s surprised to see the crowd has grown; most reporters wouldn’t let their rivals in on a new story like this. When he gets close enough to make out specifics, however, the reason is obvious, and he feels foolish for thinking the world revolves around him.

Leader Surge is a head taller than the tallest reporter, and imposingly built, with shoulders so broad that Blue often feels like he should have trouble going through doors. His strong, commanding voice is distinct even when speaking at a normal pitch, and as Blue approaches the secondary crowd of civilians gathered around the reporters he can finally make out some of what’s going on.

“…very closely with the mayor to integrate new plans into reconstruction. Pewter, Celadon, Saffron, and Fuschia have already reached out to adopt some of the defensive measures into their city design, but there’s a lot more we could do if we really pushed for it.”

“Are you talking about walls?” a reporter asks as Blue stops at the edge of the crowd to listen.

“No, the mayor and I agree that any form of restriction on movement could be as much a liability as a benefit, especially in the event that a full evacuation is necessary. But what I hope to see in Vermilion are automated shutters for every window and door that can be deployed city-wide within minutes, smaller bunkers built into basements beneath every residence, and those buildings most affected,” he says as he points to the burnt husks being torn down in the distance, “Will be rebuilt with state-of-the-art fireproofing. The mayor and I both share a lifelong commitment to a common purpose: to make Vermilion City the safest in the world.”

The crowd around the reporters break into applause and cheers, and Blue claps along with them as the media starts shouting more questions that Surge gives some unheard response to before he turns to the gate. Blue starts squeezing through the crowd to follow him, waving at the few reporters that spot him and switch to shouting questions at him instead until he’s through the gym entrance and jogging up behind his Leader.

The tall blond turns and smiles as he sees Blue approach. “You’re a bit early. Did you hear about the press release?”

“No sir, came straight from group debrief.”

“Good man. Head to my office, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Blue nods and breaks off toward the elevator. Vermilion Gym’s non-training rooms are as utilitarian as it comes, and the first time he was summoned to it he expected Surge’s office to be no different. Instead he found himself in a room that looks less like a simple meeting and administrative space, and more like a Ranger HQ coordination room. There’s a desk in the corner with a computer and some filing cabinets, but most of the floorspace is dominated by a round holotable ringed with chairs.

When he enters it now, he finds the gym’s Second and Third present and watching a static holograph of the city, its buildings and streets highlighted in various colors.

“Hello, Blue,” Sabra says in her customary low drawl as she manipulates the hologram to rotate it. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You’re not avoiding me to get out of training assignments, are you?”

Blue straightens his shoulders and bows his head and neck. “I’m sorry, Second, of course not. I’ve just been busy with—”

“I know. Hard to miss when it’s all over the news.” She jerks her head to a monitor on the wall, which shows some reporter still talking outside the gym. Her lips quirk as her half-lidded eyes turn to his. “I’m partially teasing you, but also reminding you that your gym duties don’t end because of special assignments. Message me your availability for the week by tomorrow morning.”

Blue bows again, this time including his upper torso. “Yes ma’am.” Blue interacted with Sabra a handful of times outside of classes, back when she was the Third. After the storm she stopped teaching as many once the new Third, Aigerim, took over for most of her duties. Blue hasn’t spent quite all of his time with his own group since joining the gym, and has gotten to know other members fairly well over the past two months, but Sabra is an exception who feels more a stranger now than less.

Aigerim is a near total mystery. He fought her during his challenge matches, but she didn’t speak beyond what was necessary, and like Sabra he hasn’t interacted with her since joining up. He remembers hearing that she’s not a particularly strong trainer, but more focused on other things; she was apparently studying city planning and infrastructure before either Surge convinced her to join his gym, or she became motivated to study pokemon battles.

That knowledge keeps Blue from being surprised when she suddenly turns to him. “Maybe he’ll see it,” Aigerim taps the edge of the table with her knuckles. “We’re considering where a new hospital should go to replace the one destroyed in the attack. Any suggestions?”

Blue steps forward slowly, eyes on the holographic model, and after just a moment he recognizes the part they’re focused on. He’s not likely to forget the part of the city where Aiko died.

“What’s wrong with the original location?” he asks, and is pleased to hear that his voice sounds casual despite the sudden dryness in his throat, the tightness in his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sabra watching him, but he dismisses the thoughts associated with that and just focuses on Aigerim.

“That should be part of your answer,” she says, rotating the map and zooming in to the hospital campus. “Unless that is your answer.”

“No,” Blue says, and swallows. “Zoom back out?”

She does so, and Blue tries to focus past the upsurge of confusion and pain, frustration and anger, grief and betrayal. The hospitals are highlighted a certain color, and he can see a spot that’s more central between the other hospitals around the one that had collapsed (with Aiko inside it (and Red out)).

“There, maybe?” Blue points, almost feeling like he’s just reacting at random rather than spend more time thinking about it. But no, it’s the clear spot that’s closest to the middle of all the hospitals around it…

Aigerim tsks, and turns the holo back in another direction. “With all these open streets to the east and north… no thank you. We want to avoid it being overrun. Let them build a shopping mall there or something.”

Sabra snorts, and Blue focuses a bit more now that he knows what the criteria they’re looking for are. He reconsiders the hospital plaza and realizes the issue… “The foundation is probably not as sound as it used to be. You want a place between these hospitals where the ground is still secure, the sight-lines are good without being open to rampage, and that means… here?” He points.

Aigerim smiles and zooms the map back out. “See? He sees it.”

Sabra shakes her head. “Wasn’t disagreeing with you, Aig. S’politics, that’s all… they’ll never let it be built there.”

“People don’t want a hospital nearby?” Blue asks, confused enough that the other feelings aren’t as distracting. “Why?”

“Not the people living there, the people living elsewhere. New hospital means new need for stores, offices, apartments… huge boost to the local land value. Incidents like this are always an opportunity for some to make more money, and Surge is trying to get the mayor to cut into all the dickering, but with an election coming—”

She’s interrupted by the door opening to reveal Leader Surge, and… Blue searches his memory for where he knows the face of the second man from, then finds it by imagining him as a talking head. Hiro Iha is one of the top Indigo League administrators, most recently famous for pushing back against the idea of limiting pokemon attacks in league matches, particularly those without spectators.

Hope rises in Blue. If they’re here to talk about the gym’s official adoption of scenario battles, having a league official that seems generally in favor of realism seems promising…

And then a second one walks in, and Blue recognizes her immediately. Yuna Khatri’s first act after joining the regulatory body was to do a full inspection of each gym’s trainer strength evaluation systems, which led to her pushing for more transparency and equality between gyms in both Kanto and Johto. She got the regional spotlight again last year when she officially censured Leader Giovanni for how much time he spends away from his gym.

It’s harder to predict what her reaction to his proposal of group challenge matches would have been, but she strikes him as someone interested in conformity between the gyms. He suddenly wishes he had more time to prepare for this, or at least thought of league judgement as a possibility so he could prepare for it. In retrospect, he just assumed that if Surge wanted it to happen, it would.

Sabra turns the holo off as Leader Surge moves to the head of the table. “Thank you for coming, everyone. This is Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri from the league council, and they’ll be joining our discussion.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Blue says, smiling and bowing to the league officials before he sits. “I’ve followed your actions on the council with great interest.”

“Oh?” Mr. Iha asks after inclining his head back as he pulls out his own chair and lowers himself onto it. “What in particular?”

Blue expected some skepticism, and is glad to have at least one specific thing to cite. “Most recently, the arguments you made for retaining severe poisons in not just Elite matches, but also gym battles, showed a level of trust in trainer discretion that I appreciate. I would love to talk to you more about it later.”

Mr. Iha raises a brow, but nods with a slight smile. “Perhaps we can, another night; we have other obligations after this one.”

“That would be great.” Blue turns to mention something of Mrs. Khatri’s too, but Surge starts speaking, and he sits.

“We’re here to talk about your scenarios, and whether they’re a justified method of delivering badges. Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri are here to advise me on the decision.”

“Advising you, sir?” Sabra asks, irreverence so subtle that Blue almost misses the emphasis on the second word. Blue can understand the sentiment, even if her attitude (in front of non-gym members, no less) is as surprising as ever; the only Leader that Blue can think of who might care less what others think of how he runs his gym is Giovanni (and maybe Blaine, but he doesn’t really count).

Surge gives her a look. “My decision will be made based on what I believe is best for our city and gym, and the trainers who come to us, as always. But I still value their wider perspective and any insights and recommendations they may have, and thus ask you all to do your best to answer their questions. Now, given our guests’ time constraints, I think we should cut to the chase and—”

“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” Blue says. “But I’d like to note that Glen should be here too. He’s been working as hard as I have on these scenarios, and he deserves recognition for it as well.”

Surge’s brow furrows, but he nods. “Consider it noted. I would ask for him to join us, but…” He turns to Mr. Iha, who is checking his watch with a mild frown.

“He has an abra set for the gym,” Blue presses. “It wouldn’t take more than maybe five minutes for him to arrive.”

“Are you requesting his presence for his sake?” Mrs. Khatri asks, gaze meeting Blue’s. “Or does he have knowledge you lack?”

Blue feels his neck flush, and struggles to keep his expression passive and pleasant as he tries to think of a way to avoid sounding ignorant while still getting Glen here. “I can answer any questions you might have, but Glen suggested many of the ideas and was part of the planning. I thought having him here to explain his own thoughts, or his side of any disagreements, might give the fullest picture.”

Mr. Iha is the one that responds with a shake of his head. “Such information sounds more relevant to how the gym may decide to adopt and implement these scenarios, and not our interests at this time. We shall make do with what we have.”

“Will it satisfy you if he’s invited to future meetings on this topic, and I commend him when I next see him?” Surge asks Blue.

Future meetings is rather encouraging, though Blue would have preferred the extra support of having Glen in the room. Still, he can accept the bone Surge is throwing him. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. On to the scenarios themselves, then.” Surge leans back in his chair and opens a palm to the League officials.

Mr. Iha is the first to speak. “We all watched the battle that the media broadcast tonight, but some elements to the scenario, or previous ones, are not made clear by observation. What were the rules and balance priorities?”

Blue settles back in his own chair and runs over his thoughts once again. This part he’s long been prepared for. “I think some context is necessary. Our first step when we started this over a month ago was to form teams by average experience and skill, followed by consideration of their available pokemon, since pokemon are the most variable; if we need to tweak a team into better balance, making them use some of their weaker or stronger pokemon is an easy way to adjust things. Before even working on any scenarios, we spent a few days doing practice battles, first in twos, then threes, then fours, and so on, to ensure we had a good understanding of each trainer’s capabilities and their synergy in working together.”

“Can you explain what you mean by synergy?” Aigerim asks. Blue hadn’t expected a question from anyone besides the league officials, let alone her, but neither seems to object to it.

“Sure. Most trainers, no matter how good, have certain things they’re particularly skilled at.” Blue thinks of Elaine’s comparison to game characters, but decides not to bring up that frame. “For some it’s their battle command system, for others it’s their moment to moment tactics and reaction time, for others it’s their overall strategy, or their ability to adapt to the unpredictable, or how well trained their pokemon are, or a dozen other things. Get someone with good tactics and another with good strategy together, and they can pull off some great things. Two trainers who are really unpredictable could get in each other’s way, and often do, but if they’re matched with others who think along the same lines their improvisation looks almost coordinated.” Blue shrugs. “It’s hard to tell ahead of time, but you can really see it when you watch people battle together often enough.”

Aigerim nods without following up with any more questions. He wonders if she was genuinely curious about what he meant, or just checking to see if his experience and perception of it matched hers.

“Is that also when you started setting different rules for both sides, or did that come after?” Mr. Iha asks, setting things back on track.

“After,” Blue says. “At first we tried keeping things as even as possible on both sides, but they just felt like six on six battles where the objective didn’t really matter until most of the trainers were out of pokemon anyway. Glen also brought up the idea of making the battles more reflective of actual incidents by changing how much coordination the team representing the wild pokemon in the scenario are allowed, which we tried and found really fun—”

“Fun?” Mrs. Khatri interrupts, brow raised. “Was that an important metric in your design philosophy?”

Blue frowns for just a moment before clearing his expression. He was waiting for her to speak out, he’s more frustrated with himself for his choice of words. “Didn’t mean it was just fun. It added another layer to the planning and fighting that we weren’t used to, helped us grow stronger.”

“Restrictions often force people to become creative,” Sabra asserts with a nod. “But wouldn’t this also restrict the ability of both teams to work together? Even swapping positions, only one team would ever get the full benefit of the exercise.”

Blue shrugs. “Even if we assume only one side is having some interesting restriction, which I don’t think was true in today’s scenario for example, in the end it’s a tradeoff. We decided that making the scenarios more realistic is way more valuable than just deciding who the best combination of six trainers are. It’s not like we’re training to put down a trainer uprising, or hunt teams of well coordinated renegades.”

Surge seems to have something to say to that, but restrains himself as Mr. Iha says, “Let’s speak more about today’s match. What do you think could have improved it?”

Blue’s mind races as he tries one last time to find something. He expected a question like this, and spent most of the trip here trying to figure out what he could say.

The problem is he can’t think of anything. Unlike the first few engagements, the setup seems to reflect a realistic incident, or part of one. The teams, and more importantly the rules applied to both, seemed balanced enough that either side could reasonably have won, though it would take a few more tests to make sure.

Damn it, why couldn’t Surge have done this after one of the other matches, when he could have listed specific mistakes and described how he planned to correct them? Instead he’s going to end up sounding overconfident…

But no, there’s also a value in trusting his own assessment and standing firmly behind it. Surge may have spotted things he would change out of preference, or different priorities than what Blue has been considering. The only thing to do is stand behind what he’s worked for.

“I think it was solid,” Blue says at last. “More features could be added, though we’ll run it another time or two to make sure of what we’ve got so far. But at its core… I know this sounds self-serving, but I would respect anyone who was able to win a badge from this kind of match if it were held against Leader Surge and his own team of trainers.”

Sabra smiles as Surge raises a brow, but Mr. Iha is frowning. “I believe we’ve reached a point of disagreement. Each individual, you say, including trainers who just fought what was essentially a normal trainer battle? Perhaps the defenders would deserve a badge, as they had to make do with half as many pokemon, but if the offense won, you would award a badge to someone that had such an advantage?”

“I would,” Blue says, trying to keep his tone mild despite the anger stirring in his chest. “Because clearly it wasn’t as big an advantage as you’re implying. Or do you think my trainers were just that incompetent?”

Woops. That last word was a bit transparent. He keeps his gaze on Mr. Iha as he sees Surge steeple his hands under his chin in his periphery. The league official’s lips thin, and Blue tries to think of a politically safe response if he actually says yes.

Sabra saves him by speaking up. “We haven’t decided yet how we might run these scenarios; we may always take the role of the ‘attackers,’ for example. And remember that even the attackers in this battle had opponents that were able to swap pokemon while they were not, until the end.”

“My point was not that they are not capable,” Mr. Iha says, which is probably the closest thing to an apology that Blue will get. “The true issue is whether that capability is demonstrated through the matches. As you say, the attackers were unable to change their pokemon, but that is exactly the sort of skill that is crucial for a trainer.”

“Yeah, it is,” Blue concedes. “But there are seven other badges that trainers can use to demonstrate that particular skill in. This was one potential scenario for one badge. I don’t think the league is lowering its bar by having it focus on other skills.”

“One badge, for now,” Mrs. Khatri says, turning everyone’s attention to her. “But our job entails taking the wider view, and the longer one. If other gyms decide to implement similar systems, perhaps that would not be so bad. But say the second or third such breaks from tradition are each a little broader than this one, and the fourth gym decides to hand badges out by, say, acts of extreme service to the community, or non-battle training skill, or the fulfillment of the leader’s personally prized virtue. Commendable as those things may be, they are not what the pokemon league is designed for. Indigo is one of the most well respected in the world, our champions recognized across the globe for their skill. Disagreements about what makes someone worthy of a badge can very well make it harder to avoid conflict between gyms, or between gyms and the league, or between our league and foreign ones.”

The room is quiet for a moment. This was not one of the ideas Blue had prepared for, at worst he thought to face arguments for tradition for its own sake… and the problem is he actually agrees with her, to an extent. He doesn’t want badges to become seen as meaningless, and he particularly doesn’t want the Indigo League to lose prestige… especially considering he plans to be leading it as soon as he can.

The silence builds, and Blue realizes he has to say something… and if he can’t rely on preparation, he has to at least speak from his heart. “I wish I could dismiss your concerns, but unfortunately I think you’re right to have them. My only response is that I trust our region, from the trainers to the leaders to the league officials such as yourselves, to ensure that doesn’t happen… and in the meantime, we should act to improve where and when we can, even if it requires fundamental change. I think these scenarios make my peers and myself better trainers, and I think this gym will better serve its trainers and its city by officially adopting them.” He sees Mr. Iha about to speak, and predicts the response. “For awarding gym badges, in particular. Training people with them is good, but it’s not enough. As long as the Mastery Challenge is a one-on-one standard trainer match, that’s what most who come here will focus on.”

“Well said,” Surge puts in, speaking for the first time since the beginning. He turns to the two league officials. “I understand your concerns, and appreciate your time in discussing this with us. You can rest assured that I do not intend to have my gym’s prestige deteriorate by any means.”

Mr. Iha looks like he wants to say something to that, then checks his watch. Mrs. Khatri gets to her feet and bows her head, and after a moment he does the same, followed by the rest of them. “Thank you for the discussion, everyone. Leader, please keep us abreast of any decisions you make on this.”

“I will.” Surge waits until they leave, then turns to Blue as he sits back down, prompting the others to take their seats again too. “Well… that didn’t go so badly.”

Blue smiles, both in relief and at the idea of Surge worrying about that too. “Seems more true now that you said it than a moment ago. Were you worried I wouldn’t be able to explain things, or that they would be more resistant?”

“Some of both,” Sabra says. “And you kept your temper better than I expected.” Aigerim nods.

He blinks. “Was that something you were worried about?”

“A little. Heard you could be hot headed, when someone gave you cause to be.”

“That’s…” He catches himself as he notices the trap, and the way he feels heat moving through him again. Where did she hear that? Not from his trainers, surely?

Maybe from people who were at the hospital that day.

The anger rises further, mixed with a confusing and painful mess of emotions, and he takes a moment to push them down. It doesn’t have to have been the hospital. Maybe they heard about what happened with the rangers leading the absol hunt. Or one of a dozen other times he got pissed at someone in public. “…probably fair,” he admits, though part of him (a big, four legged, fire breathing part) continues to insist otherwise. “I’m working on it.”

“Evidently,” Surge says, fingers tapping the table as he studies Blue. “If we are to try this experiment, and you end up getting your badge, would you leave the gym to pursue your journey?”

Blue is quiet a moment, not because he needs the time to consider his response; it’s one of the questions he predicted he would be asked weeks ago, and has already searched both his feelings on the issue and what he imagines the Leader would want to hear most so he could give a response that best satisfies both. He hesitates before answering, however, because he knows that responding too quickly would make his answer seem less credible and thought out.

“I would make sure all my people get theirs too,” Blue says. “Not just those that will be continuing their journey with me, but also the ones that I’ve trained with, whether they want to stay or not, and whether the format lets us earn them six at a time, or by groups of four, or three, or whatever. And then, once everyone has made it through, yes, I would continue my ambition of challenging the rest of the league.”

“I see. Regrettable, but I understand… just as I hope you’ll understand, then, when I say that you won’t be looped into our discussions about the scenarios we construct.”

Blue blinks. “What do you… why not?”

It’s a stupid question, but Surge is already answering. “You’ll be the first opponent, of course, you and however many others are involved in the scenario. We’ll continue discussing the ones you engage in and how you construct them, but the ones we make will have to be kept close to the vest to avoid any unfair advantage. And afterward…”

Afterward Blue would be gone. He wouldn’t ever actually help construct the scenarios with the gym, wouldn’t actually be part of the process of turning it into an official league activity.

Oh, people will remember that it was his idea, of course, and will remember that he was practicing it with his friends for a while. But it’s not the same, for all they might know the gym would have been working on it from the start, and his own practice was just to prepare.

The anger comes, then, but he’s too pragmatic for it to do much but make him look down, hands clenching his knees.

“I’m sorry. I know—”

“No,” Blue says. “I get it. It’s my choice, to leave after. I can change my mind, if I really want to.” He sighs, looks up. “One last question of my own? The media will be waiting outside. What can I tell them?”

Leader Surge spreads his hands. “Whatever you want, as long as it’s true. The goal is not to take your due credit from you.”

Blue nods, then rises to his feet and briefly bows. “Thank you, Leader.” He nods to the Second and Third, who nod back.

“Thank you, Mr. Oak. Dismissed.”


By the end of the second month anniversary of the Zapdos attack, Vermilion City has largely recovered… visually, at least. All the broken windows have been replaced, and most of the stores are unshuttered and back in business. The main exception are the dozen cranes that still dot the cityscape where the burnt buildings are being repaired. His gaze stays on them as he mounts Daisy’s swellow and they take off, circling the city once to gain altitude and then flying due west.

It’s been over a week since the meeting, and things have continued more or less as usual, with a couple exceptions: first, he and Glen go to speak with Sabra and Aigerim after each match, sometimes with Surge present, and second, Blue spent more time at the gym on Sabra’s orders, dropping his visits with Gramps in order to fulfill his duties in training with and teaching more than just the group he’s been doing scenarios with.

Now that he knows his time at Vermilion is starting to come to a close, his time at the gym and among the city streets make him realize how much he’s going to miss it all. But as the city falls away behind them, land swiftly replaced by water, Blue feels something loosen in him too. Vermilion holds bad memories as well as good, memories with weight, and his time at the gym reminded him of those too. Aiko is part of it all, in the gym’s central yard, and its training rooms, and its dining hall, memories of her hidden in every nook and cranny, ready to pop out without warning, and in those moments he always felt renewed grief, and anger at Red not just for his decision, but for running away afterward.

Not that Blue is one to talk. He can recognize that he’s avoided facing them himself, now that he’s doing so again little by little, thanks to Sabra. He wonders if she noticed, and occasionally thought of asking her, but he’s still not sure if he’s ready for whatever conversation that might lead to. For now he’s just focused on getting through it all a day at a time, though he has been reaching out to Leaf more often. Whatever painful memories he’s facing, he knows that living where she is must be at least as bad.

“Awfully quiet back there, bro.” Daisy’s voice is clear in his earpiece despite the wind, and he feels her hand find his where it clutches the saddle handle for a brief squeeze. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Blue shakes himself out of his melancholy as best he can. “Sorry, just thinking about today’s scenario. What’s new and exciting with you?”

“I don’t know how exciting it is for others, but new… I’ve got Moonlight able to do five consistent Metronomes now, none too impressive. Decided to try teaching a snorlax to swim—stop laughing, do you have any idea how much air they can hold?—hmm, what else… broke up with my girlfriend, found ano—”

“What!” Blue flicks her leg. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone. Who was she?”

“You don’t know her, and ‘is she’ is fine, she’s not dead,” Daisy teases, then goes silent. Blue takes a breath, and by the time he lets it out his sister’s hand is back on his. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he says, not wanting to talk about it. “So you found another already? Who is she?”

“A coordinator from Kalos. She’s only in town for a few weeks, but she bought a couple abra while here so visiting will be easy. What about you, drawing any puppy-love eyes from all those trainers you’re working with?”

Blue thinks of Elaine’s kiss, and after a moment just says, “Nah.”

Daisy is quiet a moment, and eventually sighs. “I’m sorry, again. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear, I’m just an idiot.”

“Huh?” Blue realizes he was quiet for too long, and she must have thought she upset him. He replays what she said and can’t find any reference to Aiko. “Why?”

“I didn’t remind you of Red?”

Oh. The abra thing. “No,” he says, voice flat.

“Ah. Okay.”

She doesn’t believe him. Blue considers telling her he was too busy thinking of Elaine to think of Red, then rejects that idea and just pokes her in the ribs through her thick jacket. “Seriously.”

“I believe you.”

Blue rolls his eyes and lets it go, glad she’s not nudging him to make up with Red again, at least. He spends the next few minutes looking out over the ocean as the setting sun sends ripples of light across its waves. The rocking from her swellow’s wing movements make it hard to take pictures unless he times it with a glide, but he didn’t bring a wrist strap and doesn’t want to risk dropping his phone. Though come to think of it, her pokemon could probably catch it if he does…

He’s just about to ask what she thinks when Daisy speaks first. “Blue, can you promise me something?”

“Depends what it is,” he says, already wary.

“Just… let him have tonight? Don’t bring up what he did. I get it, I do, but—”

“You don’t get it,” he says, anger bursting up in a scalding wave. “It wasn’t you he came for.”

She’s quiet for a minute, then says, “You’re such an idiot sometimes, you know that? You think he never did that for me?”

“It’s different. It wasn’t killing him then.” The words churn acid in his stomach, the very act of saying them out loud makes them more real.

“And it wouldn’t be killing him now if he hadn’t then. You’re just intent on protecting him, and I get why, but all he was doing was the same thing you asked Red to—”

Blue reaches up and switches off his earpiece, face a mask as he presses his forehead against her back none too gently and closes his eyes. He’s already tried explaining to her the difference between what Gramps did and what Red didn’t do. And she wasn’t there, after, didn’t hear the way he was justifying it. Blue’s not in the mood to hash over it all again.

Daisy pats his hand, then squeezes it, then pinches it. He pinches back, hard, and she leaves him alone after that. He told his gym leadership that he was working on his anger, and that includes against annoying older siblings. All things considered, he thinks he’s handling things rather well.

A couple hours later they’re home, which is already full of neighbors, friends, and researchers from the lab, all happy to toast to the Professor’s health. The place feels so strange, after so long away, and not just because it’s decorated for the celebration and crowded. Blue plays the part of the cheerful grandson, but in truth he feels a fraud; all these people so happy to see Gramps healthy again would look at Blue with considerably less friendliness if he hadn’t made it through the storm.

His grandfather does seem his old self, at least, holding court with his stories, arguing in high spirits with Uncle Samson, laughing uproariously at the pictures his coworkers took depicting how they taped pictures of his face onto a series of mannequins and set them up around the office, each with various speech bubbles relaying his most common phrases or admonishments.

There are two big cakes, one with a standard “Welcome back!” written over it with all his employees’ signatures in icing over the surface, and a second that gets delivered in the middle of the party. Its surface is covered in a custom depiction of the professor, Blue, and Daisy standing side by side with two steelix between them. This is only discernible from context, as the art isn’t particularly good, but that’s understandable considering it’s done in frosting and was made by two of the children that had been evacuated from the arena that night. Daisy reads the letter that comes with it aloud, which makes numerous people teary eyed, and results in applause that cause the Professor to wipe at his eyes and excuse himself briefly. Blue has to struggle to accept his portion of the praise with a smile, all the while thinking of Aiko, and how few people will ever know how she did something far braver than him, and didn’t survive for her own cake or applause.

Once that’s over Blue takes the opportunity to locate his grandfather’s doctor (who has had a few drinks by this point) and pull him aside to ask him straight how bad it would be if Gramps is exposed to Pressure again. The older man gives a despairing sort of shrug, as if knowing that they aren’t speaking about an unlikely hypothetical. “Your grandfather is rather unique in the combination of the age he’s reached and the amount of Pressure exposure he’s had. It’s hard to tell how much of the harm is caused from the initial exposure opposed to the duration, but on the optimistic side? Another hour could take three months to recover from. On the not so optimistic side, he could be down for a year.” Seeing Blue’s horrified expression, the doctor nods. “On top of that, your sister said he passed out within forty minutes of first feeling the Pressure. The medication is getting less effective, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasts half as long next time.”

Blue eventually finds himself on a couch in the corner of the living room, staring into his soda as the conversation ebbs and flows around him, lost in thoughts of the future. Despite what Daisy said, once everyone leaves he’s going to need to talk to Gramps about what happened again. Every time he visited over the past two months, watching the Professor steadily recover his health, it had been to talk about other things, the older man firmly guiding conversations away from anything serious unless they were related to Blue’s goals. Now they would have to finish the talk they had that first morning after the storm.

Daisy kicks his foot as she walks by, and he looks up to see her giving him a curious look. He shakes his head, and she frowns but doesn’t pry. “Raymond is here, you know. Think he wanted to talk to you at some point.”

Blue smiles despite his mood. Ray is one of the two trainers who set off with Daisy from Pallet Town during her own Journey. The other, Clara, died a few years ago, and the two have remained close, which means he used to come by often to visit both his old professor and Daisy. He spent a lot of time coaching Blue’s pokeball throwing… though those memories are a bit ruined by Red being there too.

It’s the first time since his own journey that they’ve spoken, and Blue actually enjoys himself for a while as he talks about his adventures. He should have suspected what was coming, and when Ray starts talking about Clara and how hard it was for them to lose her, Blue feels a sudden sense of betrayal that he has to force down for long enough to make the appropriate social responses, including promising to call Ray if he ever wants someone to talk to about Aiko. Afterward he excuses himself to lie in his room for a while, feeling the anger at Daisy pace around in his chest and send ripples of heat through him until he realizes she may not have pushed Raymond to say all that, and it finally fades to a dull and painful ache.

Guests start to trickle out after midnight, the remaining ones helping clean up as the party begins to wind down. Blue is shoo’d away from helping wash dishes by one of his neighbors, and wanders the house looking for something useful to do, only to fail utterly and end up listlessly picking up half full plastic cups and dirty plates from all sorts of unlikely places around the house.

When the last guest has finally left, Blue heads to his grandfather’s office, expecting him to already be catching up on the work he wasn’t able to do from the hospital. Instead he sounds like he’s speaking with someone, and when Blue hears who it is a mix of emotions he can’t quite place run through him.

“…would have just made things awkward,” Red says, and it takes a moment to recognize the voice is coming from his grandfather’s computer, rather than Red having arrived at some point while Blue was busy.

“Nonsense, Red, you’re always welcome here. This thing with Blue will pass as soon as you both speak to each other more.”

Red is silent, and Blue feels a moment of unwanted kinship with his old journeymate. Gramps doesn’t understand; as long as neither of them have changed their minds, speaking to each other could only make things worse. “Anyway, I should get back to it,” Red says. “Just wanted to say I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I appreciate it, Red, and the call. What are you working on now, anyway? I noticed you registering a number of psychic pokemon lately, “

“Oh, yeah, it’s a new project by Sabrina. I’m, uh, not supposed to talk about it yet, but I’ll share more when I can; it’s pretty exciting, actually.”

Professor Oak tsks. “You’re not making me less curious, you know. I may just ask around and see what I can learn on my own.”

“Hey, yeah you should do that, maybe you’ll find out more than me!”

Gramps chuckles. “Goodnight, Red.”

“Goodnight, Professor.”

Blue waits a full minute, both to disguise the fact that he was listening and to let his emotions settle down. Eventually he knocks on the door. “Come in,” Gramps says, and Blue enters, aiming straight for one of the comfy chairs that make up the Professor’s home office. “Not tired yet?”

“Nah. Could say the same for you, though. Shouldn’t you still be getting lots of rest?”

“Just after this email,” his grandfather promises, tapping away at his keyboard with his eyes on the screen. “Did you hear about the wingsuit prototype, using the flying particles?”

“Yeah, Bernard told me about it after dinner.” Blue examines his grandfather in the bright office light, the lines on that familiar face, and the hair that seems more salt than pepper every time he sees him. A terrible love seizes his heart and squeezes, and he has to blink rapidly and clear his throat before asking, “Enjoy the party?”

“Very much. It was nice to have an excuse to see everyone again.” The professor taps a few more times, then clicks, then reaches up and turns off his monitor before standing to tidy up some things. “So what do you want to talk about, Blue?”

He smiles slightly. “What, a doting grandson can’t just come to spend time with his grandfather?”

Gramps laughs. “Alright, fair enough. But if you don’t bring up something to talk about soon, I warn you I will, and then you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.”

“Empty threat. You’ve already nearly talked yourself hoarse tonight, start yapping away any more and you’ll lose it completely.”

“Hmm. Nothing a squeeze of potion wouldn’t fix.”

“Yuck.” Blue takes a breath, then lets it out. “Gramps, I…”

“I know, Blue.”

He closes his eyes. “You don’t. I’m trying to say something new.”

Professor Oak stops, then comes to sit in the chair next to him. “I’m sorry, Blue. I’m listening.”

“Gramps, I can’t… I can’t do this again. I can’t go into another storm, not until I know you feel confident enough in me not to come too. I know it will get in the way of my ambitions, but I need you to know, so you don’t come anyway.”

The professor watches him with a slightly furrowed brow. “Alright,” he says slowly. “If that’s what you want, I understand, of course… and I’ll trust you. But… is it what you want, Blue? What about your promise?”

Blue’s eyes widen. “What… are you talking about?” he asks, trying far too late to look puzzled. Did Red tell him? That fucking coward—

“You don’t remember?” Gramps asks, seeming genuinely surprised.

“Remember what?”

“Well, maybe it’s better not to tell you, then…”

“Gramps, remember what?”

His grandfather sighs. “Right, I suppose it’s a bit late for that.” He shifts in his seat to more fully face Blue, expression grave but tranquil. “How much do you remember of that time, after your parents died?”

Blue shrugs, gaze down. “Bits and pieces. Sadness. How unfair it all was. Feeling lost. Being… angry. A lot of that.”

“I suppose that makes sense, though you showed very little of it. Very little of anything, in fact… except the anger. After your parents died, you were… inconsolable isn’t the right word. It wasn’t like Red after Tom was killed, you kept on going about your life as if it was mostly normal. You cried, yes, but mostly you were angry, as you say.”

“Why are you telling me this, Gramps?” He doesn’t like dredging up these memories, if not for his curiosity about where his grandfather is trying to go with it would probably have made some excuse and walked away already.

Professor Oak sighs again, clasping his hands over his knee and looking suddenly older as he stares into his lap. “It was maybe a week after it happened, you’d just started therapy and had spent the night at Red’s… Tom and Laura were downstairs talking to me after they dropped you off, and Red spent some time with you upstairs while we talked about how you were doing. I remember Laura being worried about you when I expressed my own concerns, mostly because we didn’t know why you weren’t expressing more sadness. After Red came down and everyone left… it was late, so I thought you were sleeping… I didn’t mean to pry, but when I walked by your bedroom toward mine, I heard you talking. I thought you were on the phone with Red or Daisy, but it wasn’t a conversation. Or at least not that kind.” His grandfather’s eyes are so sad Blue can barely look at them. “You were making a promise to your parents.”

Blue just stares at him. He can’t remember this at all, the earliest he could remember thinking of his promise was after Red’s dad died…

“You don’t remember?”

“No,” Blue says, blinking. “But… I did make that promise again, later. And I remember that.”

Gramps nods. “Well, I knew, then, that when you got older you would try. That you would throw yourself into the teeth of the world, to get as strong as possible, to take them down. When you finally told me about your ambition, I was relieved. I knew you wouldn’t try to do it alone, to hide it and pretend to just be after a normal championship. That’s what I was most afraid of… well, I was still a little afraid of it after, if I’m being honest. That if I tried to keep you home longer, to wait until you were older, you would just grab a pokemon and go. But that night… that was when I stopped responding to incidents that would expose me to Pressure. It was already starting to debilitate me, and I knew I had to preserve as much time with it as I could for Daisy, and then for you.”

Blue reaches out and takes his grandfather’s hand, jaw working as he breathes in and out. “I used to think you were a coward,” he whispers, not looking at his grandfather. “When I was younger. I thought you should go after them. Capture them. Kill them.” He looks up, hand squeezing. “I didn’t think that for long, I understood after Moltres hit Viridian.”

His grandfather smiles and raises Blue’s hand for a kiss, then clasps both hands around his. “I told you all this just to make sure you understand… there’s nothing you did that made me choose what I did rashly. I was prepared for this for years. If you decide to give up that promise, which I know must mean a lot to you… I don’t regret being the cause of that, exactly. You are too young, particularly if you want to be more than a cog in the machine. But I want to make sure you’re doing it for reasons you can respect yourself for, and not out of some form of coercion that concern for me has forced onto you.”

Blue swallows the lump in his throat, trying to think through the confusion he feels. “I… I don’t know what to think, Gramps. Part of me knows it was just a childish promise, totally naive and idiotic. I know I shouldn’t hold myself to something just because I said it when I was younger, no matter how much I meant it.” Red has said a lot on that topic, Blue can almost hear his voice before dismissing the apparition with a rush of words. “I don’t know how I’ll actually act the next time I have an opportunity to face them, maybe I’ll be able to resist and maybe not, but… whatever I choose, I won’t do it because of the promise.”

Gramps watches him a moment, then slowly nods. “I understand. And… I said I would trust you, but to be clear, you’re not just saying this because you want to keep me from assuming you’re there next time and going?”

“I thought about it,” Blue says, and shakes his head. “But no, this is me.” He’s not sure if that would actually be true, if Gramps hadn’t told him that story about himself, hadn’t helped him realize just how far back the (objectively) ridiculous promise went.

“Well, then.” His grandfather squeezes his hand again, long and hard. “I know I say this a lot, but… I’m very proud of you, Blue. I always have been, and decisions like this are why.”

Blue nods, bites his lip. “I think they’re going to take the scenarios from me.”

Gramps raises a brow, and bless him, doesn’t miss a beat. “Don’t they have to, eventually?”

“Yeah, but once they do, it’ll be out of my hands. It’s mine, mine and Glen’s, and then…”

“I understand. But you have higher heights to climb, and a pain like this will be necessary, time and again. It’s good practice, for when you’ll be giving up something quite a bit more dear to you for your true goal.”

Blue nods, and his thoughts sway back again as his eyes suddenly burn. “Do you think they… ” His words fade with his breath, and he swallows hard as the true, deep fear comes boiling out. “Mom and Dad, would they be… mad at me, for breaking my…?”

He barely gets the last word out before his grandfather has pulled him into a tight hug, and he clings to him until all his tears are gone.


The next day, as he’s on his way back to Vermilion City, Sabra sends him a message: they would no longer discuss his practice scenarios afterward, and the first group badge challenge would be in a week.

A followup message simply states that the battleground would be within the city.

Chapter 71: Imposter Syndrome

At first, all he feels is overwhelming hunger in the pit of his stomach, gnawing and burning and growing to encompass his whole being. He feels weakness next, a lethargy that makes him struggle to wake, struggle to open his heavy lids as the temperature grows, heating his skin like he’s a foot away from a bonfire.

He opens his eyes to see his bedroom lit by pale blue flames. The lampent hangs over his prone form, a fixed point in the universe that makes Red feel insubstantial and unreal, an intruder in its dreamworld rather it a part of his.

Because it is a dream, he’s sure of that. It must be, even if he feels his heart pounding, even if his stomach is cramping with hunger, even if his sweat is soaking through his sheets, because the only way this could really happen is if Jason wants to hurt him, and they just started becoming friends, and even terrified and hungry, Red can compare how likely each reality state is and conclude that a dream is more probable.

Or maybe he just wants that to be true, because the alternative would somehow hurt more.

But it’s still a huge relief when Red gasps awake to the chime of his phone receiving a message, his eyes dart around his totally normal room, dimly lit by the warm sunlight streaming in through the shades and the electric glow of his phone..

He rolls over to dry the cold sweat from his face against his pillow, then reaches out and pulls the phone toward him.

The message was Rei letting everyone know to bring their phone or a laptop to their breakfast meeting. Red waits for his heartbeat to slow before he forces himself out of bed to shower. Now that he’s not stuck in the nightmare he can remember that they’re a common symptom of exposure to ghosts too, and he resolves to ask Jason if there’s still some residue from his encounter only if he has another nightmare tomorrow. To keep himself from lingering over it, he focuses on the upcoming meeting.

This is his chance to really push for the idea he came up with last night. He spent almost two hours “boggling” over what minds are and how they work, occasionally stopping to look into some facts and research some theories until he formed a hypothesis that might explain the perfect shield with all the information he has in mind.

The ability to lie without detection could have something to do with partitions or some unique development of mental shields, but when Red followed his confusion down to its central kernel, it led him, as ever, to pokemon biology.

In this case, specifically the way pokemon with multiple brains think and feel and experience the world. Perhaps because of his own internal struggle with Past Red, there’s a sense that understanding that might be the key to both integrating his partitioned self and developing the perfect shield.

All he has to do is convince the others to let him work on it… or better yet, get someone else to help. A difficult task when at least half of the other six students are open about their lack for respect for him.

His moderate success with Jason aside, he can’t help but feel like the lack of regard from his peers is well earned. He doesn’t feel as impressive as them, and he wonders as he turns the shower off and starts to dry himself whether he would have accepted Sabrina’s invitation if he and Blue hadn’t fought. He still remembers what he decided on the SS Anne only to change his mind after his argument with Leaf. Maybe he really did come here too early.

The thought is so depressing that he quickly checks to see if his partition is still up and working. Confirming that it is doesn’t particularly cheer him.

He pulls his clothes on and makes his way down to the building’s third floor, which divides the upper apartments where the students live from the lower ones that serve as public meeting spaces and classrooms, then enters the kitchen to find most of Sabrina’s students already sitting around the large kitchen table or moving among the kitchen counters and cabinets fetching yogurt, cereal, fruit, and other breakfast staples.

He’s briefly distracted by the sight of Tatsumaki floating nuts and berries in an orbit around her head and into her mouth as both hands type on her phone, then goes to one of the fridges and starts pulling out food. They can each buy their own food to stock the cafeteria with, but generic groceries also show up courtesy of the money they make by teaching classes, which is also what covers their rent. This means that, though in some indirect way it is his effort that’s paying for it, he’s not actually purchasing the food that shows up in the fridge, which means Red can eat any unclaimed meat in it (mostly) guilt free.

He’s still layering bacon on his cream cheese, hummus, and guacamole bagel when the last student files in. Satori takes a look around as her torracat walks between her legs, then goes to the fridge to pull out a fruit salad for herself and a can of fish for her pokemon.

“Thank you all for coming,” Rei says as soon as the last of them is sitting at the table. Her own breakfast consists of a fruit smoothie, which she holds in one hand as the other taps at her laptop keyboard. “I hope you’ve all managed to spend some time thinking over the puzzle Sabrina has charged us with solving. Does anyone have any questions before we begin?” She looks around at everyone busy eating. “Great. I’ve prepared a document for us to use to share ideas and suggestions on how to proceed. Please follow the link I’m sending now.”

Red takes a big bite, then pulls his phone out as it vibrates and opens it one handed so he can click through to the shared document as he chews. It already has half a page filled out:

Rei

Hypothesis 1: Sufficient focus on projecting a false emotion or thought while shielding could result in others sensing something that feels real to untrained psychics.

Test 1: Psychic with best projection ability should practice projecting while shielding.

Test 2: Everyone else practices projecting false emotions/thoughts.

Hypothesis 2: Projecting multiple sincere things at once at varying intensity may allow someone to hide emotions and thoughts in plain sight.

Test 1: Everyone should practice expanding their projection abilities to see if others will eventually be unable to process everything they feel.

Hypothesis 3: If others are within range, it’s possible to “relay” something being sensed from someone else in a projection that feels genuine.

Test 1: Chain of 3-4 psychics take turns projecting and reading others at the same time.

Test 2: Psychic being read “assists” psychic projecting.

New words start forming as everyone else begins typing into the common document:

Daniel

With enough understanding of how mental shields or partitions work, the psychic might be able to only let certain emotions or thoughts through. We should

Jason

We don’t know the circumstances, but I’ve wondered before whether an unscrupulous medium could

Satori

Psychic may have unique dark/psychic brain like Inkay line.

A sudden paragraph from Rowan all at once, who clearly already had his thoughts typed out:

Rowan

The psychic may have switched between partitions that split their thoughts entirely from themselves. We don’t know how exactly this was discovered; maybe they induced amnesia to forget something, raised a partition around the emotion of not wanting to forget things, were asked a question about it, answered it honestly, then lowered the partition, which motivated them to remove the amnesia. Did some practice with this, think it may be possible. We should practice doing this and testing what we come up with to see if it would work.

Red has to force himself to stop reading their thoughts and start typing his own. He takes his notebook out and flips it open, then begins summarizing.

Red

Hypothesis: Psychic adapted this ability from a pokemon who has multiple minds.

Plan: Learn more about how pokemon with more than one brain process disparate information and resolve potential disagreements. Separate minds = separate trains of thought? Contradictory thoughts?

“Tatsumaki?” Rei asks, and Red looks up to see Rei watching the green haired girl. Red checks the document and notices she hasn’t written anything yet, despite still being on her phone.

“Got nothing,” the telekinetic says with a shrug, still orbiting food into her mouth every few seconds. “Not where my specialty lies.”

Rei doesn’t seem satisfied with that, but looks back at her screen without comment. He takes another bite of food, savoring the mix of flavors before he goes back to writing.

Test 1) Merge with doduo’s two minds at once, see if multithreading possible.

Red tries to think of what else to write, and gets distracted as one of the nuts floating around Tatsumaki jerks out of orbit and starts bobbing through the air toward Daniel. Tatsumaki frowns in concentration without looking up, and the nut stops and vibrates between them, twitching back and forth, before it suddenly flies at Daniel, only to stop at the last second right in front of his mouth for him to eat.

“Alright, it looks like everyone has written their ideas out,” Rei says, and Red quickly writes out his second test as Rei keeps speaking:

Test 2) Try to merge with separate seeds in exeggcute and figure out how single mind forms?

“…should discuss each, and choose which one to focus our attention on.”

Red feels his heart sink. This is what he was worried would happen; he doesn’t find it too likely that others would agree to work on his idea, but more importantly they shouldn’t all commit themselves to any single idea.

“Satori, would you like to expand on yours first?” Rei asks. Red checks and sees that she had stopped after a single line.

The girl shrugs, not looking up from her bowl as she spears each piece of fruit and chews. “Pretty simple. Think the psychic might be unique. Chimera between dark and psychic parents. Sensei can look into it.”

“What’s a chimera?” Jason asks.

“Mythical pokemon that are combinations of different species,” Red says. “Like, a pyroar’s head on a gogoat’s body with a seviper for a tail.”

“And that’s… possible, for people?”

“Fraternal twins that merge in the uterus,” Satori explains before sticking a piece of melon into her mouth.

Jason blinks, and Red imagines his own expression looks a lot like the medium’s. “What?”

“Wait, back up a step.” Tatsumaki says as she turns to Jason, tone playful. “You know where babies come from, right?”

“I’m a medium, not a monk,” he says, smiling slightly.

“Does that actually happen?” Daniel asks, tone skeptical.

Satori glances up, sees everyone looking at her, and looks down at her fruit again, fidgeting. “Yes. Very rarely.”

“‘When the absorption is incomplete, this results in the child having both complete sets of genes,'” Red reads from his phone, fascinated. “‘Which often results in patches of different colored skin, eyes of two different colors, and if the twins are of different genders…’ Oh.” Red minimizes the page, cheeks flushed.

“So what probability would you assign this particular circumstance?” Rei says, and Red can tell she’s fascinated and skeptical too, even as she tries to regain control of the conversation.

“Low. Dark and Psychic parents are rare, traits are mostly maternal.” Satori shrugs. “Might not be possible. Just an idea.”

“So we probably shouldn’t waste time on it,” Daniel concludes.

“But it is a good idea,” Red jumps in, looking at Satori. “It’s just not something we can test. I can do some research on the potential genetics involved, if you want, and we can present the idea to Sabrina when she’s back?”

Satori looks up at him briefly, then nods as she returns to her food.

“Thank you, Red,” Rei says, and types Red – Research on own time in red letters beside Satori’s idea. “Next let’s—”

“Hang on,” Red says. “I think… I want to make sure, before we discuss the others, that we’re going about this with the right attitude.”

Rei’s brow rises slightly, but she opens a palm in invitation to continue, and Red nods, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “My mentor at Pallet Labs, Dr. Madi, liked to tell a story about a group of five biochemists were tasked with creating a solvent for different pokemon webbings,” Red says. “They worked together to come up with hypotheses based on each one’s chemical makeup, from caterpie to galvantula, and tried formulating each solvent along the way. A month later they had found only two of them. One of the researchers was married to an engineer, and they vented their frustration over dinner.”

Everyone is more obviously paying attention now, even Satori’s phone is leaning against the table, and he considers asking them if they can guess what the engineer did before squashing that impulse. Not the time to mimic his teachers. “So the engineer decided to fill dozens of bowls with every liquid they could think of, then put samples in each to see which ones dissolve at all. Once they found one, it became much easier to isolate the chemicals that would have a reaction.”

“So you’re saying everyone should just pursue their own ideas?” Tatsumaki asks.

“Nah,” Daniel says. “He’s saying we should just get to experiments, not spend too much time thinking about what might be true.”

“Kind of both?” Red jumps in. “I think we should all come up with something testable for our ideas, like Rei and I did, and give each a try rather than committing to just one that everyone works on.”

“Not all of these can be proven with a single experiment,” Rowan says.

“They don’t have to be proven,” Red says, and has to resist the urge to explain how science works to a room mostly full of people who either already know or don’t care. He briefly wonders if he would have had the foresight to recognize that a few months ago. “Even something small that might falsify them would be a better filter to narrow down ideas of what to spend more time on. If they show promise, we keep going in that direction, but if not we table that hypothesis and focus on the others.”

Daniel shakes his head. “It would take a lot of time to even give that an honest attempt. Just look at your idea; even Satori takes days to fully merge with a pokemon.”

“And some of these ideas require multiple people to test them,” Rei adds. “Your analogy is well taken, Red, but we shouldn’t split our efforts entirely. I’d like to return to considering each idea as a group, and we can at least decide which are worth pursuing to a first stage test?”

Red hesitates, unsure if he should try challenging her again. No one else is speaking up, so after a moment he nods with a sinking feeling.

“Daniel, it looks like your idea is similar to Rowan’s. Do you want to go before him?”

“Sure. I know we’ve already been trying to figure this stuff out, but knowing something is possible changes things. I spent most of last night talking to Tetsuo about shields and how specific he can get with them. If there’s a way to just shield part of your thoughts, a sort of quasi-partition if you will, then that seems like it would do the trick all on its own.”

“Agreed, it makes sense as an avenue to explore.” Rei highlights his idea in the document. “Rowan?”

“Seems pretty self-explanatory. I’m probably the one with the best chance at figuring it out, if this is the way to do it, but if anyone else thinks it’s worth trying, go for it.” He glances at Red.

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. He does actually find Rowan’s idea interesting, but he’s avoided experimenting with new partitions while he’s still having so much trouble with his current one. Explaining that to Rowan led to a similar loss of interest from the older student as Tatsumaki learning that he can’t use telekinesis.

“So long as you don’t need anyone else,” Rei says, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t pursue the idea. But we may need you to test other hypotheses as well.”

The young man shrugs. “Anyone’s welcome to ask, and I’ll help out if I’m free.”

Red sees Tatsumaki roll her eyes and Daniel glance at Rei with a brow raised, but the blonde doesn’t argue the point, merely pursing her lips and writing his name next to his idea. Red wonders if she’s not pushing the matter because she doesn’t think it’s worth the argument or expenditure of social capital, or if she’s just glad for the excuse not to work with him.

“Jason?”

He starts to fiddle with his necklace. “My idea is obvious, given where my skills fall. It’s dependent on certain factors that should be easy enough to check once Leader Sabrina returns, but there are stories of mediums who do not cleanse the influence of Ghosts on the soul, but rather manipulate and channel it.”

“Is that something you’ve tried yourself?” Daniel asks, sounding skeptical.

“No, nor do I intend to.”

It takes a moment for people to understand the implication. Jason bears the surprised looks from around the table with a calm expression, though his fingers continue to move over the prayer beads at his neck.

Red is the first to speak. “Because you consider it wrong, or dangerous?”

“Both.”

Rei is frowning slightly. “Setting aside any modesty, my understanding is that you’re one of the most skilled mediums in the Indigo League. If it’s too dangerous for you…”

“We still don’t know who sensei was referring to,” Tatsumaki reminds her. “For all we know it was Leader Morty, or—”

“Leader Matsuba is an honorable person,” Jason says, calm but firm. “And I did not mean dangerous in the sense you are thinking. You fear the axe to the tree, not the poisoning of the water.”

There’s another moment as the room absorbs that. “You’re talking about morally dangerous?” Daniel guesses, and Jason’s brow creases, but he doesn’t deny it. “Usually that’s covered under ‘wrong.'”

Red can see the frustration on Jason’s face as he tries to explain. “It is more… spiritually dangerous. An eroding of moral safeguards.” He looks around as if seeking understanding, and Red wishes he could support him, but he doesn’t get it either.

“Seems oddly specific to have a religious tenet against imitating the effects of surrealism to fool a psychic reading their thoughts,” Rowan says, not bothering to hide his skepticism. Daniel covers a snort by clearing his throat. “But if that’s written somewhere, that might indicate some precedence…”

“It is not,” Jason says, still clearly frustrated. “It is a personal belief. I have no intention of learning something that could cause such impure thoughts.”

Red suddenly thinks of the cleansing ritual, and it clicks. “Oh! I think I get it,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Stealing is morally ‘wrong,’ while learning how to better steal is ‘dangerous.’ It may not be wrong itself, but it is a moral danger.”

Jason smiles and nods, and Red smiles back. He’s glad he was able to help clear the communication gap, not least of which because it resolved his own frustration. The table is quiet a moment, and eventually Rei says, “But this is what sensei tasked us to do. If there is a chance that this is the route to the perfect shield, we must explore it.”

“Plus, if someone out there is doing it, knowing for sure and learning how could help us find a way to pierce it,” Daniel suggests, and Red remembers what Sabrina told him about psychic defense and offense being a continuous arms race.

Jason is quiet a moment, then says, “I can assist others in trying to learn it, if they believe it is necessary. I simply will not perform the experiments myself if it may result in me learning it.” His voice is firm enough that no one attempts to further persuade him, and after a moment Rei starts typing.

“Let’s skip that one for now, then, unless we think of a way one of us can test it.” She finishes typing the note next to his idea, then starts scrolling down the page, and when Red realizes that the two of their ideas are the only ones left his pulse speeds up. He doesn’t spot a trap so much as intuit that there is one; Rei is running this meeting very deliberately, and from last night’s conversation Red knows that she not only doesn’t particularly like or trust him, she thought Sabrina might suspect him as having the perfect shield.

If he were in her position… He would keep him from directing plans or research efforts, thinking that his idea would just waste time. And of course she would want her own ideas to get as much attention as possible, but he can’t tell what her strategy is. There are probably psychological biases at work here, something like anchoring or the peak-end rule, but he doesn’t know enough to tell how robust or applicable the research on them are, or how they might apply to Red’s idea going before or after all of hers.

The best he can figure, Rei has three hypotheses opposed to everyone else’s one, and each is detailed, so if she goes last they would probably end up spending more time on her ideas than everyone else’s put together, plus they would be ending on them, which could make her ideas feel more present when it comes time to decide how to assign them…

“Care to go next, Red?” Rei asks without looking at him.

And there it is. He can’t be sure she’s actually trying to be cunning, but one of the few things Red learned from pokemon battling that might be generalizable is not to let an opponent set the tempo of the match. He doesn’t have to know why she wants something to benefit from not letting her have it.

“Actually, do you mind if I go last?”

Rei meets his gaze for a moment, and Red just looks back, unsure if he would or should need to justify himself. After a moment though she just nods and scrolls back up on her laptop.

“As you wish. My first idea is the most straightforward, and too obvious to ignore. I’ve certainly never tried projecting something through my own shield.” She looks around. “Has anyone else?”

Everyone shakes their heads or stays silent, and Red wonders if others are trying it now, like him. It feels strange, like grabbing his own wrists and pulling in opposite directions, or, no, more like biting into his bagel and trying to convince himself it’s chocolate cake.

“Who’s the strongest projector among us?” Jason asks.

Everyone glances at each other until Daniel shrugs and flips his hand up. “I’ll take that title, I guess. We should probably test it to be sure, but I wouldn’t mind working on that.”

“We’ll see. If you can do it on your own time, you may be needed for another idea.” Rei writes his name next to it, but leaves off on specifying anything further. “The next is about, in essence, practicing double-think. Maybe a better way to put it is to hide signal in noise by holding such a wide scope of emotions and thoughts at once that some are hard to pick up in the mix. Would you take it, Tatsu?”

“Why?” Tatsumaki asks. “Not my specialty, and I don’t think it would work anyway. Hiding an emotion in a projection isn’t like hiding sugar in salt, if it’s there it’s because you feel it, and if you feel it they will too.”

“Don’t know if that analogy works,” Rowan comments. “I could see someone mixing just enough sugar in salt that it changes the taste, but not obviously enough that someone tasting it could identify how.”

She gives him a look. “I meant visually.”

“Then you should’ve said so, shouldn’t you?”

Tatsumaki mentally flicks one of her orbiting berries at him, which he stops midair. Five more quickly follow, and he’s forced to use his hands to block all but one, which bounces off his forehead. As always, Red watches these displays with a mix of wonder and envy. He wonders if either feeling will ever fade, especially if he never develops telekinesis of his own.

“Can we focus, please?” Rei asks, and the wobbling berries (which have been crushed by the opposing forces affecting them) suddenly shoot toward Tatsumaki for a moment before stopping in front of her.

“My deepest apologies, senpai,” Tatsumaki says as she guides the crushed berries into her mouth.

Her mocking tone doesn’t seem to bother Rei. “I believe the same multitasking skills that assist in your telekinesis might allow you to hold multiple emotions at once until some become nearly subconscious.” She shrugs. “Of all of us I believe you have the best chance to accomplish this, but if you don’t think it will work then perhaps I should take it.”

“What, you think I won’t give it my all just because I’m skeptical?”

“Yes,” Rei says, serenely unapologetic.

The green haired girl narrows her eyes at Rei, still chewing her berries. “For the record I see what you’re doing, but fine, I’ll take it.”

Rei nods and types Tatsumaki’s name next to her second idea. “My last hypothesis is that it may be possible for a psychic to project other people’s emotions, acting as a sort of mirror redirecting light.” Rei looks around the table. “Has anyone tried this one?”

“Red?” Jason asks, and they all turn to him. “Have you ever attempted to project a mental state you’ve copied to someone else?”

“No,” Red says. “But honestly, I don’t know if that part is necessary.” Part of him is worried that he’s going to be tasked with trying this idea out too, now that he’s set himself up as so helpful, but it is a good idea. Theoretically speaking, modeling someone else’s mental state should fool a psychic; it’s part of why he was interested in mimicking the one Leaf used to keep the abra from teleporting away, and he’s embarrassed he didn’t think of it himself. “If the psychic in question can copy mental states well enough themselves, they might not need a co-conspirator to fool someone merged with them.”

“Wouldn’t they need someone who knows what the right mental state would be?” Rei asks.

“Not… really…?” Red frowns, trying to think through the possible circumstances. “It’s hard to tell without knowing more about how the psychic is interacting with other psychics, and how deep the merger is.”

“You mean like if they’re meeting at a pokemon center, they can cover their thoughts by mimicking those of someone standing nearby with an innocuous mental state they can copy,” Daniel says. “But that would only work if the psychic observing them is doing it passively. Like, checking if they plan to rob the place. If they’re asking questions, the mood and thought content would be a blatant mismatch.”

“Maybe it’s possible to just mimic a mood?” Rowan asks “Like partitioning, someone asks you if you’re angry about something, and you copy just the sense of calm from someone nearby as you say you’re not. Even if the psychic is doing a full merge, they might not notice that the mood doesn’t belong to them, and the lie itself might not even spark any dissonance.”

Rei nods. “Does anyone disagree that this is worth pursuing?”

The room is silent, and Red knows what’s coming next… but to his surprise, Rei highlights it without asking him to work on it, and turns to Red expectantly. “Last but not least.”

Red smiles distractedly as he prepares his thoughts. Now is his chance to sell his idea, hopefully even get some of them to help—

“This one seems the least likely,” Daniel says, frowning at his phone screen. “No offense, Red, but even if we assume you can learn actual psychic abilities from pokemon, which need I remind you no one has done before, it would at least have to be something other pokemon could do. Are there any pokemon besides Dark types that can hide what they’re thinking or feeling?”

Red blinks, taken off guard by the first preemptive challenge to an idea, then mentally flips to the notebook page where he wrote out the counter arguments to his idea, trying to decide which question to answer first. “Well, for learning abilities from pokemon I’ve been able to tell if people are sleepy or not from merging with my drowzee, and—”

Daniel waves this off. “I mean real abilities, something unique, not things others can learn to do in other ways.”

“But that might be a matter of power,” Red says. “If psychic pokemon are just stronger than us—”

“We’ve talked about this,” Daniel says, like their talk was in any way conclusive. “There are few if any abilities besides maybe teleportation that are exclusive to Psychic pokemon, there’s nothing special about their psychic abilities, they’re just another type of pokemon with inhuman powers.”

“You’re drawing an arbitrary distinction between—”

“It’s not arbi—”

“Can I please finish a sentence?” Red asks, louder than he intended. Daniel’s brow rises, and he leans back in his chair, holding his hands up as if to say fine, fine.

Red takes a moment to calm himself, frustrated and hurt by the older boy’s aggressiveness, and what’s worse, the others’ silence. It’s so unfair, no one reacted like this to anyone else’s ideas, and everyone’s acting like this is normal…

He focuses on the sensation of his breaths, and lets his worry that he’s taking too long go as he breathes out. A second breath to let go of his fear of judgement. A third to… nope, the fear of judgement is back, and so he lets that go again, telling himself that if he comes out of this calmer he’d get more respect than if he’s still agitated. A fourth breath to let his mind wander back to his notebook and what he wrote there when preparing for rebuttals.

“So first, the idea of whether pokemon do things like this…” Red’s glad that his voice only sounds a little off. “Obviously we can’t know if they do or not. Most of our interactions with pokemon are after they’re caught and conditioned to be friendly and follow our commands. Very few people study wild pokemon behavior, and as far as I could tell only two of them were psychics. There’s just no way to know if this is something pokemon are capable of, psychic or otherwise.

“Second, we don’t know if this would even be considered a ‘real ability.’ It might be something like a Light Screen, which even our best telekinetics can’t do, or it might be something like Amnesia, which almost every psychic eventually can.”

“There’s a scary thought,” Jason murmurs, then gives Red an apologetic look. He doesn’t mind the interruption though, it wasn’t a challenge and Jason at least waited until he finished speaking. He holds an open hand out, and Jason shakes his head. “No, sorry, it would derail the conversation. There will be time to talk about implications after we know if it’s even possible.”

“You listed both psychic and non-psychic pokemon,” Rei says. “What makes you think a doduo would be relevant? Does merging with them cause some similar effect?”

“I actually don’t know,” Red admits. “Before last night I was curious, but since they’re not psychic merging with them hasn’t been a priority. I couldn’t merge with both minds when I tried.”

He looks at Satori, curious to see if she has, and one by one the others do too. “It’s possible,” she says, fidgeting at the attention. “Same sensorium, distinct minds.”

“And from what I read, pokeball conditioning reduces disagreements,” Red adds. “But in the wild each mind is even more distinct. I thought that might be useful to study in relation to potential partitions, but since Rowan will be covering that already, I would focus mostly on exeggcute. I looked into it, and we have very little comparative understanding of how their minds work. Each seed has a distinct brain, but is barely sentient on its own, like a magnemite, just reacting to its environment. It only reaches intelligence similar to other pokemon when they each merge with each other, but losing a seed results in a loss of knowledge and memory. Last night I read that the team of neuroscientists and coders that enabled simulations to work on multi-brain pokemon spent more time on exeggcute than every other one put together.” He forwards the article to each of them, causing a series of chimes and buzzes around the table. “What if there’s something about the way the different minds interact and divide up functions that we could mimic?”

The table is quiet a moment, and Red braces himself. He doesn’t have to wait long before Daniel begins as if there hadn’t been any interruption to his earlier challenge.

“Another problem with this idea is that psychics have been merging with pokemon since forever. Wouldn’t we have known about this by now, if that’s what allowed it?”

“Exeggcute are difficult,” Satori says before Red can. “Hivemind. Risk of losing self, or dominating the clutch. It’s why Sabrina rarely uses them.”

“Plus,” Tatsumaki adds,”The whole idea of a perfect liar is that, you know, they wouldn’t be found out. We don’t know the circumstances that allowed whoever it was to come under suspicion.”

Red feels a swell of gratitude toward them, even if they’re not directly supporting the hypothesis itself. “Also, there are historical rumors of psychics ‘so powerful’ they can lie to other psychics. I don’t put much stock in them, most also get attributed other fantastic feats like speaking with the dead or levitating themselves, but… I mean if a human psychic started flying, those stories would suddenly warrant a bit less skepticism.”

The table is silent for a bit, and Red barely tastes his bagel as he finishes it, waiting for someone else to object. His gaze jumps to Rei as she stirs.

“What you propose sounds like cultivating the formation of another mind,” Rei says, “I’m wary this task would risk mental unhealth.”

Ouch. He wouldn’t take the implication so personally if she hadn’t already mentioned how much she dislikes his use of partition.

“A valid fear for the ungifted, perhaps,” Rowan says while Red is still considering his own response. “But are we not striving to become masters of our own minds? This sounds like a worthy challenge for those of our ability.”

Rei meets Rowan’s gaze. “I’m trying to be cautious, as anyone should when sailing uncharted waters.”

“If anyone feels uncomfortable attempting it,” Red cuts in. “They wouldn’t be forced to, of course.” It would be difficult working on it alone, but he will if he has to.

The table is silent for nearly a minute as everyone looks around, and finally Rei nods. “With no other comments, I believe we’ve finished what I’ll call our first evaluation round.” To Red’s relief, she highlights his idea. “As it stands, Rowan will be pursuing the use of partitions, Tatsumaki will be trying to drown signal in noise, and Daniel will be trying to project through a shield. That leaves four of us to either work on merging with pokemon that have multiple minds, or attempting to deceive through copied mental states.” She glances at Red. “It seems to me that the optimal division of labor would be for Satori and Jason to work on merging with pokemon, if they agree with that, while you and I work on mental states.”

Red blinks at her, unable to hide his surprise. He had been afraid that no one would want to work with him. Now Rei is offering to, despite what she said the night before…

…and all he has to do is let someone else take over his idea, while he works on hers with her.

It makes sense, and after a moment he realizes that he doesn’t want it to make sense. He can feel his brain struggling against the logic, looking for a way to make it not true, to allow himself to work on merging with pokemon and navigating multiple minds. Is it just because he wants to work on his project and better understand the idea of multiple minds? Or is he also struggling against the idea that he was unfairly judging her motives while running the meeting?

Once he realizes how dumb his brain is being, he forces himself to speak. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

Rei nods, and even smiles at him briefly before turning to Jason and Satori. “Objections?”

“No,” Jason says, while Satori shakes her head.

“Great.” Rei starts typing out the last assignments. “Does three days seem like a reasonable amount of time to meet again and see how we’ve progressed along each of our experiments?”

“I would request longer,” Satori says, which takes Red by surprise. After a moment he realizes he hadn’t expected her to care enough about his idea to actually give it a fair shot. She looks at Jason. “Unless three is enough?”

Jason is quiet a moment before saying, “I think I can do it in four.”

“Four, then,” Rei says, and closes her laptop. “Thank you all, and good luck. Red, would you mind staying a minute?”

Red nods as everyone else files out, Jason pausing to grab an orange from the fruit bowl on the way out. “What’s up?” he asks once they’re alone. “Do you want to start now?”

“Yes, but not yet.” She considers him a moment, and he senses one of her blunt statements coming a moment before it does. “I was wondering why you wanted to go last.”

Ah. He supposes they’ll be talking about this after all. He briefly considers making some excuse, like he just wasn’t ready to talk about his idea yet, but she chose to work with him, and he doesn’t want to lie for such a petty reason. “I just thought it might be easier to get people to want to work on my idea if it was last, instead of yours taking up the whole last part of the meeting.”

Her brow furrows briefly, and then she snorts quiet laughter. “I see. And here I was thinking that by saving my ideas for last, people would already be invested in the others.”

Red shifts slightly in his seat. “Ah.” He’s unsure whether that’s what the actual effect would have been, and more importantly, whether she’s being honest about her intentions, but he feels like an ass regardless. “I guess I must come off as pretty selfish…”

“I don’t know if I’d say that.” She folds her hands in a bridge below her chin, watching him. “I realized after your visit last night that the model of you that I had was incorrect. I assumed you were meek and reserved unless in an intellectual debate, but if that were true you would never have tackled a social problem head on like you did. Not particularly gracefully or skillfully, mind you, but with no harm done.”

Red feels his cheeks burning at the semi-compliment. “I have a friend who helped me to push past some social comfort zones, and also helped me realize my, ah… ‘hustle’ isn’t as good as it should be, for what I want to accomplish in life.”

“Well, today you ended up fighting for your own idea without letting your desires get in the way of the optimal strategy. Be sure to give yourself credit for that.” She gives a rare smile that’s full enough to show her teeth. “Do you have anything planned this afternoon?”

He’s still processing her comment, and it takes him a moment to answer. “No, my next class is tonight.”

“Then let’s meet at the cafe across the street so we can begin.”


Red stops at his room to get his shoes, then takes the stairs down to the bottom floor, leaping from the steps halfway down each flight. Yesterday he was worried that he would be largely ignored for this project, but his idea was given just as much consideration as anyone’s. He’d still prefer to be working on it himself, but the fact that the others are actually making an honest effort to test it really drives home how much his earlier worries seem to have been for nothing.

Of course, it’s not just relief that’s fueling his energetic movements. A mix of excitement and nerves sit uneasy with the bagel in his stomach as considers the fact that he’ll be spending extended time working with Sabrina’s most senior student. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself, of course, but he also has to make sure he doesn’t over-exert himself and erode the partition before nightfall. His lesson tonight is pretty basic, just some meditation techniques to novice psychics, but if Mopey Red takes over he might just stay in his room, or half-ass it.

The sun has just barely cleared the skyline to the east as he reaches the cafe and sits across from Rei beneath an umbrella’d table, where she’s typing on her laptop. He can see from the angle he approaches that she has one of those screens covering her monitor that blur anything on them when viewed from an angle. “Hey.”

“Hello. I’ve thought of some initial tests we can run. I’d like to use this opportunity to improve my own ability to mimic mental states in case the perfect shield requires a mix of skills that I can learn, but first let’s test the obvious.”

“Yeah, alright.” Red sits and scoots his chair forward, wiping sweaty palms on his pants. “What’s first?”

“Pick someone to merge with,” she says, throwing a careless hand to the side. “I’ll ask you a question about your mental state or mood, and you report theirs as if it’s yours while I’m merged with you. If it passes as an honest remark, I would consider that mild evidence that this sort of technique could be used to build a perfect shield.”

Red slowly nods, suppressing his discomfort with her cavalier approach to merging with strangers. He should have seen it coming, really, how else would they do this? Instead he just closes his eyes and sorts through the mental impressions his psydar pulses give of those around him, trying to find one that stands out. He eventually identifies a mind with a distinctly restless signature, its attention jumping from one thing to another, and merges with it to feel the man’s nervous impatience.

Red spreads his awareness throughout his body and mind, locking down each part of the mental state and then releasing the merge along with a breath. “Okay… I’ve got impatience. Copying…” He feels the butterfree fill his stomach again as he mimics the experience and makes it his own. “Go ahead.”

He feels Rei’s mind merge with his before she asks, “Are you waiting for something?”

“Yes,” Red says, foot bouncing beneath the table. “I think.”

“Waiting for someone?”

That feels more true. “Yes.”

Rei withdraws her mind, and Red releases the mental state and opens his eyes to see her shaking her head. “Both answers were detectably off. You’ll have to practice getting a better handle on what the specifics of the emotion are.”

Red frowns slightly, unsure that’s relevant but unwilling to argue it after just one test. “Alright.”

“I’ll try now.”

Red waits for her to find a mental state to use, then waits some more as she sits with her eyes closed, probably attempting to mimic it. By the end of their first lesson together it was clear that Rei is better than most at adopting the skill, on par with Sabrina. Daniel is swiftly catching up and may even surpass her soon, but this extra practice will likely keep them neck and neck. There’s a part of Red that worries about his value fading once the others learn his techniques, which in turn drives him to work hard to learn theirs and keep developing his abilities. At least so far no one has made any progress on copying his mental shield.

“Ready,” Rei says, voice a little… brighter, than usual. Red closes his eyes and brushes her mind, then merges with it and immediately shares in her flimsy, fragile joy.

He’s been told that merging with him while he’s imitating a mental state is incredibly difficult to differentiate from when he’s not, but the reverse is certainly not true. To Red, sharing Rei’s emotions while she imitates someone else’s is like looking at a picture of a rainbow with a bright yellow filter over the image. With just a bit of analysis he can recognize all the emotions underneath, and while some are blurred and blended by the false mental state, he can still adjust for that and guess what the confusing mess of feelings are meant to be, for the most part.

“Are you happy?” he asks, trying not to delve too deep into Rei’s real emotions, but he can’t help but feel them too; tension, anticipation, something like calculation, all in minor amounts around her primary sense of DETERMINATION. He doubts he would have been able to recognize so much before his time in Saffron.

“Yes,” Rei says, and a new emotion blends with the others. Not even an emotion, really… more a sense that gets implanted into Red’s awareness as simple as a flashing light in his face, a sense of falseness. Of being aware of misleading or aware of artifice, and that feeling is connected to another related one that he wasn’t spending much time focusing on, but which now feels highlighted in some way…

And then her shield goes up, booting Red out of the merger. He must have gotten close to something private. Red opens his eyes to see Rei watching him. “No?” she guesses, and Red shakes his head. “How could you tell?”

“Well I could tell it wasn’t your real emotion, but even aside from that, some part of you was just so obviously aware that what you were saying wasn’t the truth. Maybe because I imagine it takes an enormous effort to maintain that overlay.”

Rei raises a brow, but accepts the compliment with a minor nod, perhaps because she recognizes his sincerity. “It does.”

“What about me? How does that feel?”

“It felt like your real emotion to me, but for both responses there was an added, almost contextual emotion of being deceptive.” She’s typing as she speaks, and purses her lips thoughtfully. “That might just be from you being a terrible liar.”

“You have no idea,” Red says, thinking of his attempt to cover up Pikachu’s unexpected evolution on the S.S. Anne.

She gives him a look he can’t quite decipher. “Something to work on, then.”

“You want me to work on becoming a better liar?”

“To solve this puzzle, yes. It’s possible this hypothetical psychic is just so naturally capable of deception that he simply deceives himself in the moment he’s speaking by modeling the mimicked mental state as his own. A lie isn’t a lie if the speaker believes it, after all. Ready to pick another?”

Red is still mulling her words over, and why they feel related to the flash of emotion he detected from her. She’s misleading him in some way. The question is whether it’s for an innocuous reason or not. Maybe he can learn more the next time they merge… “Yeah, one sec.” He closes his eyes and casts his thoughts about until he senses a mind flickering through intense emotions he can’t quite decipher. He merges with her and—

roiling anger, paralyzing indecision, beneath it all a twisted pain and self-loathing, despair pounding through him with every heartbeat—

“Red?”

He lets the merger go with a gasp, tears in his eyes as he reflexively looks in the direction of the mind. He sees a young woman with her hands balled up in her lap. She stares down at them with an absolutely desolated expression, and he wonders how she’s not already crying… but he felt that too, the sheer willpower going into her restraint not to lose control in public.

Rei turns to follow his line of sight, and Red suddenly wishes he didn’t look, didn’t reveal the girl to someone else. Rei may even now be merging with her mind to see what he felt, though there’s no physical reaction from her to indicate it if so. Maybe she’s skilled enough to recognize the emotions without a full merger.

This…

His imagination is in overdrive, providing not memories but extrapolated imagined circumstances from the emotional map of what she’s feeling, as if he can’t help but try to figure out what happened to make her feel that way. He’s glad he’s not a better psychic so that all he got were emotions rather than any images or thoughts, but the fact that he now knows this thing about her, incomplete as it is, bothers him…

This is wrong.

It also bothers him that it took this to remind him of that. He told Dr. Seward and Leaf that he’s worried about losing himself, and it’s not hard to imagine what Leaf or Blue or Aiko would think if he was doing this sort of thing regularly on their journey.

“Do you ever feel like this isn’t right?” Red asks, and Rei looks at him with blank curiosity. He waves a hand around. “This, the breach of privacy. If this were an actual scientific experiment, no ethics committee would allow us to do this.”

“Not particularly. People speak in public without knowing whether someone nearby has acute hearing, and everyone is aware that psychics exist in the world.”

“Hearing is passive, more akin to just sensing minds.” Which wasn’t before, of course; he remembers how much effort it used to take. But ever since he developed psydar it’s effectively automatic; he has only to wonder whether people are nearby or what someone is feeling and he’ll get a glimpse, though it still takes concentration to interpret what he senses most of the time. He imagines it’s much the same with other psychics who have been practicing longer. “But merging like this… it used to bother me more, before it got so easy to do myself.” He remembers how significant and important it had seemed when he signed the paper giving permission for Narud, but now that he’s in the world himself he can see the polite fiction for what it was.

“I don’t see what the alternative is,” Rei says, seeming puzzled. “Perhaps one in a hundred people could even notice that a psychic is merging with them, even if everyone is trained to defend against it. Any law that would try to restrict it is utterly unenforceable, and if people were aware of the degree to which we can sense them, and how often we do it…”

“I know.” It wouldn’t be as bad as if it got out that influencing people’s beliefs turns out to be possible, but it would still be pretty bad. “I’m not trying to make some sweeping normative judgement that everyone has to follow.” Mostly. “Just… It makes me uncomfortable, knowing such intimate things about people who have no idea that I know.”

“You’ll never even meet them again.”

“We can’t know that, and even still, it feels wrong.”

Rei is frowning at him, and after a moment he feels her mind brush his. He lowers his shield and projects his discomfort, as well as his nervousness for challenging her. Her frown deepens. “You’re not just trying to get out of working on this project?”

Red blinks, letting her feel his honest surprise as he says, “No, not at all! Is it that strange to care about this sort of thing?”

“I suppose I’ve forgotten how new you are to all this,” she says, and withdraws her mind from his before gazing silently off into the distance and leaving him to try and decide whether to take offense or not. “What do you propose, then?” she asks after a moment. “I can’t practice this on my own, and no one’s mimicry is as developed as yours. We may see benefits from practicing consistently using the already established mental states, but eventually we will need to try new ones.”

“I could take mental states from the others, when they’re not busy.”

“But they will know you’re doing it, which will alter their mental state. It will be useful for testing the effectiveness of a willing accomplice, but not for the true hypothesis.”

Red knows she’s right, and sighs down at his hands. “I don’t know what the right answer is yet, but I’ll try to think of something.”

Rei is quiet for long enough that he starts to worry that he’s upset her, but he’s not going to go back on what he says. He’s just starting to think that he should ask if she wants to try with one of the previous mental states when she closes her laptop starts to put it in her bag. “I have a solution.”

“You do?”

“Your main complaint is that they are not consenting, correct?” She gets to her feet and starts walking, and he quickly follows her.

“Uh, yeah, basically.”

“Then we will go somewhere that will require implicit consent.”

It takes Red a few steps to get it. “The gym? Why would that require implicit consent?”

“Because we will put a sign up that makes it so. Over the cafeteria, for example, so that there is no disruption of the gym’s main functions.”

Red isn’t sure forcing people who want to eat to subject themselves to mental merger is justified, but he’s already made enough trouble for further objection, and just silently matches her quick stride. He supposes it’s a fair enough compromise, and he really should have thought of this before agreeing to help. He’s still grateful that she wants to work with him at all, considering what she said last night about…

…not trusting him.

Red regards the blonde from the corner of his eye as they walk. The sense he got from her before, of her seeming to be hiding something from him, and the way she dropped her shield to check whether he was just making an excuse, make it clear she still has reservations about him, which makes sense… But then why work with him at all?

Unless she just wants to keep an eye on him.

As Saffron Gym comes into sight, he decides to just ask, knowing that she’ll detect something in his feelings the next time they merge anyway. “Is this all a test for you to ensure I’m not actually the psychic Sabrina was talking about?”

“Partially,” she says without pause or hesitation. Because of course she knew that he sensed it in her, and was just waiting for him to piece things together. “If your technique is the key to unlocking the perfect shield, I want to be there to notice the transition when it develops.”

A ball of dread and hurt forms in his stomach, heavy enough to slow his steps. She doesn’t slow with him, and Red forces himself to speed up again. “What about Rowan?” Red asks, then realizes before she can answer. “Nevermind. He wouldn’t let you in anyway, and I’m also capable of manipulating partitions, and…” He feels like such an idiot. “…you don’t know if he’s already capable of it from his practice last night, or even before that, but there’s still time to learn if I am.”

“You also happen to be the best suited for this particular experiment,” she says, tone only mildly conciliatory. “I’m not just using you to ensure that Sabrina is aware of potential perfect shields among her students.”

Red stops entirely, then watches her continue to walk without him. For a moment it seems she will just continue on and enter the gym alone, but then she slows, looks back, and stops as well.

What she said makes sense, but he doesn’t believe her. What he felt from her wasn’t an urge to protect, or serve, or even just curiosity. It was goal oriented toward her own benefit… and now that he knows she’s not being honest, he would be an idiot to take her words at face value.

They must look strange to the people passing by, a young boy and an elegantly dressed woman over twice his age, just staring at each other. Eventually he feels her mind brush against his. After he doesn’t shield, she merges with him, and he focuses on his feelings of indignation and challenge and skepticism and resolution.

He knows he’s the youngest of Sabrina’s students, and likely the weakest. But whether by accident or effort or some combination, he has unique abilities that she’s already admitted she finds valuable. Not to mention that he’s survived a pikachu swarm, helped stop a paras migration, and saved multiple lives from a Stormbringer. At his core, arrogantly or otherwise, he feels capable of at least being Rei’s equal, and if he was willing to leave his journey with Blue and Leaf after Blue stopped treating him as one, he’s not going to let Rei treat him as a subordinate, let alone a potential enemy.

After nearly a minute he feels Rei’s mind leave his and merges with hers instead so he can contemplate her own mental state, which he finds unshielded.

Wariness… uncertainty… suspicion… surprise… worry?

Rei finally brings her shield back up, and Red walks toward her until they’re standing an arm’s length apart. “What are you so scared of?” he asks, eyes shifting between hers.

Rei glances away, or rather just around them, checking that no one is in hearing distance, and when she speaks her voice is low. “Sabrina has a secret, and I want to find out what it is.”

Red’s brow rises. Whatever he expected, it wasn’t that; Rei has always seemed so loyal to the Leader. “The place she disappears to?”

“Yes. She’s been doing it for years, before she was even Gym Leader. I respected it for a long time, thinking she would eventually share it, but if she does it’s with none of her students except perhaps Rowan, or her gym Second and Third. Perhaps not even them.”

Red is frowning now. “What does this have to do with me, or the assignment?”

“I think every student Sabrina takes on has some specific purpose. She is expanding her skills to build toward something, I just don’t understand what. I thought when you arrived that your partition was a way for you to hide something relevant from the rest of us.” Her gaze is steady on his. “I can’t quite square all your behavior from last night and today with this hypothesis, and your emotional state and thoughts.”

Red feels… well, he doesn’t know how he feels. Uncomfortable to be talking about Sabrina behind her back like this. Worried that Rei is plotting something harmful… or worse, that Sabrina is. It’s all too much for him to quite process right now, and he glances at the gym behind her. “So you want to go to the gym because… what, you think there’s evidence there or something?”

“No, it’s a reasonable solution to your moral quandary. But the cafeteria is within my psychic range of the administrative offices where Tetsuo and Keiji are, and it will be a good excuse to study their shields.”

Red’s sense of worry inches toward panic, and he resists the urge to take a step back from her. “Why are you telling me this? If they or Sabrina merge with me—Wait. How do you manage not to give some sense of this away?”

“I have built a narrative around myself of being obsessive and curious about anything related to Sabrina. It was not difficult, since it’s true. The line between suspicion and curiosity is blurry enough that as long as they do not ask me direct questions about it, all is well.”

“Hang on, just… give me a moment.” Red’s heart is pounding, and he closes his eyes as he tries to take in this flip of circumstances and perspective. It takes a few deep breaths, and concentrating on the feel of the sun on his face and sound of the city around him, before his thoughts slow enough for him to realize his most important thing to update on is that Rei has revealed herself twice in the past few minutes to be someone who readily hides multiple purposes and motivations into her actions, and that she is telling him all this.

“You haven’t been checking my mental state,” Red says, opening his eyes. “What if I go tell Sabrina all this now?”

“I suspect I’ll be released as her student.” Rei shrugs. “My tutelage with her has hit large diminishing returns, and I was ready to leave months ago. Only my curiosity in this, and whatever abilities her new students might bring, interest me now.”

She could be lying, but if so he can’t see what the purpose would be yet. It’s hard to remind himself again that he’s talking to someone who’s smarter than him, and far craftier than he’s ever had a reason to try to be. “So what happens now? You recruit me into your investigation?”

“No, not unless you would like to join it. Now we simply have a better understanding of each other, and can more effectively work together. This is what you wanted when you came to my room last night, yes?”

Red doesn’t trust for a moment that this is her entire reason for sharing this, but he nods, still feeling like he’s struggling to keep his head above water. “Where you told me you can’t trust or respect people with partitions.”

“I’ve been biased by my experiences with Rowan and some others,” she admits. “I’m not claiming to trust you now. But I’m willing to extend some if you are.”

“Give me a minute.” Red closes his eyes and imagines the table from his dream. Okay guys, huddle up. We need to talk.

Future Red and Past Red show up at either side of the table, or rather, he imagines they do, and he does his best to model their perspectives as best he can with his partition up. This is a horrible idea, Past Red says. We’re here to learn to be a better psychic, not unearth some conspiracy.

But we did want to form better relationships with the others, Red points out. She’s not asking us to help her or anything.

Future Red shakes his head. She made us complicit by telling you what she plans. If you don’t report her now, we could get in trouble later if it’s discovered we knew. There’s nothing we gain out of this.

But maybe we could, Red thinks, and senses agreement from Past Red at the idea of fulfilling his previous goals. Future Red is more wary, but reluctantly agrees as well, and Red opens his eyes to see Rei patiently watching him.

“I want to help Satori and Jason with my idea, not just work on this one with you,” he says.

“Really? You’re turning this into a negotiation?” Rei shakes her head. “You make it seem like you have leverage. Would I have given you all that information if I feared you using it against me?”

“No,” Red says. “But this isn’t blackmail. You’re getting a lot more out of us working together, and I’m just trying to make things more equitable.”

Rei considers him a moment, then nods. “Very well.”

“You should help us too.”

Her grin is brief. “Don’t push your luck, Verres.”

He grins back and shrugs. “Just saying, I’m pretty sure we’ll learn a lot from it, and you would be a huge help.”

“I’ve got my own projects to tend to. But you’re free to pursue both hypotheses as long as this one has priority.”

He holds a hand out, and after a moment she takes it. They shake, and walk side by side into the gym’s air conditioned lobby.

So we’re really doing this, huh? Future Red sighs. You’re getting blamed for this if everything goes sideways.

Works for me. If anyone asks I’ll just say I was spying on Rei’s activities for Sabrina.

There’s no way that would work.

Well you’d better hope so, because it’ll be your problem.

Rei leads them up to the administrative offices, where they find Tetsuo at Sabrina’s desk. The Gym Second looks up from his computer with a raised brow as they enter, then pauses whatever video he’s watching (sounds like a gym battle) and turns his attention to them.

“Hello Rei, Red. Was wondering how long it would take. What do you need?”

Rei looks at Red, and after a moment it’s clear she expects him to speak. Which is fair enough, since it was originally his request, but also feels unfair given the fact that she’s getting something out of the venue choice. He ensures his shield is secure and takes a breath. “Would it be okay if we put a sign on the cafeteria entrances? Something like, ‘Ongoing psychic experiment occuring inside, anyone entering is subject to unannounced emotional reading?”

Tetsuo frowns, leaning back in Sabrina’s chair slightly. “Just emotional merger?” Red isn’t sure if the Second is simply confirming, or wondering why they would need a specific place for that. He just nods, and Tetsuo rubs his neck. “Well, we sell nearly at-cost so it’s not like it’s a significant income stream, but I’m still hesitant to risk discouraging people from eating. Hungry trainers are less focused trainers. How important is this?”

“It’s… uh…” Red is aware of Rei still looking steadily at him, making it clear that this may have been her idea but it’s his concern. “It’s mostly a matter of principle,” Red says, struggling not to mumble.

“Hm.” Tetsuo taps his fingers on the table as he glances at Rei, then back at Red with measuring eyes. “We can set it between meal times, and put warnings up today so people can plan around it tomorrow and onward. I’m worried that people will continue to think it’s happening even after the signs go down, though.”

Red considers this a moment. “We can sit in an obvious place? So everyone can see us, and once we’re gone it’s more clear the experiment is over.” Red glances at Rei to check if she’s okay with that, then back at Tetsuo.

“Yeah, could work. Alright, you have my permission. Hope it’s helpful; most people who go in will probably be dark or psychics capable of shielding, but you may get a few people who see it as a thrill, so don’t be surprised if that influences what you end up with.”

“Right,” Red sighs. Having principles sucks sometimes. “Thanks.”

Tetsuo waves a hand as he turns back to his computer. “No problem.” Red has already turned toward the door when the Second starts his video again, then says, “Oh Verres, what’s your take on all this?”

Red turns back as the monitor is rotated to face him, and feels his face go blank as his curiosity is replaced by a stew of conflicting emotions.

Various scenes play out on the screen from different camera angles, trainers and their pokemon in the middle of some battles, and he quickly recognizes Blue dressed in the Vermilion Gym uniform, as well as others; Glen and Elaine are there, as well as Lizzy, Taro, and Chie, along with perhaps a dozen others whose names Red can’t remember or whom he never met.

It quickly becomes clear that the trainers are all involved in the same group battle, but not like any Red has seen before. Their surroundings aren’t a traditional pokemon arena, but a much wider area with what seems to be a rough ring of various objects, from boulders to tree trunks to the concrete barricades used during the storm.

“Figured he might head here next. Any idea if he’s planning to spread stuff like this to other gyms?”

It’s a natural question to ask. They started their journey together, were on the news together after catching the abra, and it’s not like they made some official announcement of why they split up. Or that they’re not talking anymore. He’s not sure what Blue tells others when the subject comes up, but for his part…

“I don’t really talk to him about trainer stuff anymore,” Red says. The camera shifts to show an overhead view, and Red can see now that one group of trainers form a small outward facing ring around a cluster of pokedolls in the middle of the battle area, while the rest are spread out around them in a wider ring facing in. “Been trying to stay focused on my psychic training and research.”

“Right. Figured with how much time you spend here that might change eventually.” He turns the screen back and intently studies whatever is happening on it. “Good luck with the experiments.”

“Thanks.” Red heads for the door, and Rei follows silently at his side.

“You really are a terrible liar,” she eventually murmurs as they walk through the halls.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your face, when Mr. Oak showed up on screen. Why the animosity? Didn’t you two grow up together?”

Red knows his shield was up the whole time, and he didn’t feel even a tentative probing. If she gathered that much just from his face, he really does need to learn to lie better. “We used to be friends,” Red says as they step into the elevator. He presses the bottom button first before correctly hitting the ground floor’s, distracted by thoughts of simpler times that feel particularly distant right now. “A long time ago.”

Chapter 70: Mind Boggling

It takes ten minutes for Red to notice he’s going about things all wrong.

What’s more concerning is that after realizing that, he can’t get himself to stop.

His foot bounces against the floor as his thoughts keep jumping to solutions. Hypotheses to suggest, experiments to run, ideas to research, crosscheck, pare down. It’s not until he’s pacing around his room that he realizes he needs to calm himself, and meditates to take a step back from his thoughts and examine them as they stream by, breath by breath.

The pressure to solve this feels immense. It wouldn’t just be an (almost) novel and groundbreaking discovery, it would also give him the credibility he needs to have more time with Sabrina, and to set more lesson goals with everyone.

But he’s not going to do that by just mass guessing, and that’s really all he’s done so far. Giovanni often points out on his blog that people shouldn’t commit all their resources to finding solutions until they have reason to be confident they understand the problem, and that’s something Red completely lacks.

If a non-psychic were to ask him to explain why it’s such a big deal that someone could have part of their mind think/feel something while the rest doesn’t, he’s not sure he could do it. He feels like he understands why it’s so bizarre, but “feels like” isn’t good enough, it’s following intuition, not knowledge, and while intuition can be valuable, it can also be misleading when not trained on good data. He doesn’t actually know why it’s so impossible, it just seems like it should be because that’s what he’s used to expecting from minds; a singular intention or thought process, with any internal conflict being apparent to psychic senses as internal conflict or dissonance.

He could do more research on the topic now, try to better understand brains and thoughts and minds and partitions (no, maybe not partitions, that would still be jumping to conclusions), but he feels too antsy to do something that passive.

As he continues to focus on his breathing, continues to examine the thoughts that come by and let them go with his exhalations, he starts to notice a pattern in what he’s worried about. It’s not just that he wants to solve the problem; what he keeps imagining are the others not listening to his ideas, or outright dismissing his feedback or participation. He knows it’s likely exaggerated, but he can see how the pressure to get this right comes in part from his social concerns.

Well, he did decide to focus on those too, didn’t he? Maybe he should try that first.

Red opens his eyes, then rises and goes to slip his feet into some sandals at the door before he makes his way to Rei’s apartment, gaze down. He isn’t used to being in a group with a hierarchy, and the more he thinks about it the more he dislikes it. He didn’t mind so much back at Pallet Labs, because it was clear there that he was subordinate and why. He wanted the adults to like him, but it was easy to get their approval and friendship; he just did whatever menial tasks they needed help on, happy to absorb all the knowledge he could along the way.

Compared to having to worry about and navigate the social politics among the other students, Red finds himself missing the equal footing he was on with Blue and Leaf, even if the memories with Blue are bittersweet. He knows Blue’s new traveling group will have a hierarchy, he felt it in those days when he went to train with them at the gym; those with more badges had more status, with Blue at the top despite only having two, and Red somehow just below him despite having none. Even with his privileged position it had felt strange, and he’s glad to be out of it, even if he can admit to himself that he sometimes misses the battling and camaraderie.

For Sabrina’s students, the hierarchy is less clear. Rei and Rowan seem the most respected, but they don’t seem to get along, and Daniel is often at odds with Satori and Jason, who Red feels are the most distant from everyone but Rei, including each other. And Tatsumaki is just… there, fairly respected but not interested in anyone. As for Red, he feels like he might have the best chance befriending Rowan or Daniel, but he doesn’t particularly like Daniel, and the most valuable friend he could make would likely be Rei. It makes him feel slimy, thinking of things that way, but he reminds himself that this doesn’t mean he’s not going to try befriending the others too, and he’s definitely not going to pretend to like her if he has no reason to.

Red steps in front of her door and takes a breath, patting down his hair and checking his clothes one last time, then drops his mental shields and knocks.

The probe comes immediately. Rei tests his mental presence, and upon finding it unprotected, merges for a moment to fully sample his mood before withdrawing.

“Enter.”

Red opens the door to Rei’s apartment, which is sparsely furnished but comfortable looking, with a pair of huge beanbags taking center stage. Rei is on one of them, sitting lotus position in what looks like silk shirt and pants that seem much more comfortable than her kimono, but still elegant and expensive, with a stylized xatu embroidered on them.

“Yes?”

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d have a moment to talk?”

“I hope this isn’t related to Sensei’s assignment.”

“No, nothing like that. Well, a little related, but we agreed not to discuss the issue itself.”

She nods, then gestures with an open palm. “Please, sit.”

Red walks over to the beanbag across from her, and sinks into its warm cover. “Thank you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

As if she hadn’t just checked. Red has gotten good enough at controlling his thoughts and purposefully redirecting them that he no longer worries about others reading secrets he has, which means that on occasion he’s willing to engage in “open communication,” where psychics leave their shields down so their conversation partner can sense whatever genuine emotions they want to show or thoughts they want to share. It’s occasionally broken up by shields coming up, or sudden flashes to a meticulously remembered image or song, but this is understood as an integral part of retaining some privacy, and the social norm is to not assume that the person is being dishonest in those moments.

It’s almost like learning a second language, but not one that’s mutually exclusive. Any non-psychic listening would think they’re just talking in unown, but would miss all the mental communication overlaying the spoken words and threading the silences between.

Normally it would be hard to voice what’s on Red’s mind without him worrying about sounding antagonistic, or petulant, or paranoid. But with his mind unshielded, he trusts that Rei can “hear” more than the words he speaks. “I’ve only been here about a month and a half,” he says, letting his emotions of uncertainty and curiosity and good intentions stay clear at the surface of his thoughts. “And I’ve never been in a setting like this before. So I know I might be jumping to conclusions. But I just thought I’d check whether you dislike me, in case I did something wrong?”

A hint of fear and hurt at the end makes it hard to keep his gaze on hers, and his shields down. He sees her own surprise, quickly schooled, and feels the tentative touch of her mind become more firm, reading both his anxiety and sincerity.

She takes a breath, then slowly lets it out. “I did not intend to be rude, and apologize if I have been,” she says with such careful tact that Red’s worry doesn’t decrease. “But I suppose it’s fair to say that I don’t particularly have an interest in speaking to you, or spending time with you.”

Despite having suspected as much, Red still feels hurt by hearing her say it, and has to remind himself that he’s being stupid, and obviously she has no particular reason to feel friendly or interested in him. “Oh. Okay.”

“But that’s not what you asked,” she continues, still meeting Red’s gaze and sending out a brief projection of apology. “Not wishing to befriend someone is different from disliking them, and it’s also fair to say that I disrespect you.”

Red blinks at her, says “Oh,” and then just sits there a moment, absorbing that. He’d planned for her to say something about him that bothers her, but it still feels disorienting hearing her put it so bluntly. He realizes that despite considering it as a possibility, he hadn’t actually expected it, and he struggles not to hide his sudden inner turmoil behind a shield. “Why?” he finally asks.

“You feel fake,” Rei says, voice and face still calm. “It’s hard to trust those who use a partition to lock away a part of themselves. It’s like talking to someone wearing a mask, except the mask is real, and they may have any number of them they can put on at any time. I do not believe Leader Sabrina was referring to you or Rowan when she mentioned a psychic who could evince false emotions, but I cannot completely dismiss the possibility.”

Red’s throat is dry. “I don’t… I didn’t choose this,” he whispers, stung by the unfairness of it even as part of him feels guilty. Past Red is definitely going to throw this in his face the next time they “chat.”

“Intention has little to do with it.” Rei shrugs, and he senses her regret. “Perhaps my opinion of you will change, when you have more control. In any case, it isn’t personal. As I indicated, I feel similarly about Rowan, who molds his mind intentionally.”

Red hesitates a moment. “I can bring my partition down, if you want to talk to…” He can’t say the real me. It doesn’t feel true, and would just be confirming Past Red’s perspective. “Me without it.”

“I see little point in that,” she says, apologetic. “Since you would not keep it down. It would be like speaking with someone else entirely.”

Red resists the urge to slump in his beanbag, knowing he’s radiating disappointment and closing himself off as he sighs and nods. “Well. Thank you for your honesty.”

“Of course. I do hope you resolve the issue soon.” Rei tilts her head slightly, considering him. “If I may ask… why do you want to be my friend?”

Red blinks. He hadn’t expected her to ask that, and he’s glad his shield is up so that none of the immediate thoughts come to mind. But he can’t keep it up while he answers if he wants to be taken fully honestly…

He thinks it over a moment, everything he knows about her as compared to the other psychics, and to his surprise actually thinks of something genuine. He lets his shield drop. “Other than the social benefits, you read Giovanni’s blog, and are one of the few others I know who actually tries to put the ideas there into practice. It would be nice to talk about it with someone…” again. His shield comes up as his thoughts turn suddenly to Aiko.

Rei smiles slightly. “Well, that seems a reasonable request. Perhaps we could, after Sabrina’s assignment.”

Red takes it as the dismissal it is, and says goodbye. He walks down the hall without really thinking for a bit, replaying what happened in his mind and wondering if there was something else he should have said. Eventually he’s back at his door, and only then remembers he planned to visit the others.

Tatsumaki and Daniel aren’t home when he knocks, so he goes down a floor to see Satori. There’s silence for a moment after he knocks, and once again he feels his peer mentally touch his thoughts before the door opens. Satori is dressed as she was at the meeting, her torracat padding around her skirt, its tail brushing her waist. Both look at him inquisitively, their heads cocked to the side at the same angle.

He quickly redirects his thoughts from the disquiet of the image.

“Hey!” She’s not inviting him in like Rei was. Maybe he should just cut to the chase. “So I was thinking, if we’re all going to be working together on this project, maybe we should get to know each other better? I don’t feel like I’ve got many friends here, and I would like more. Do you want to hang out a bit? I’m happy to do anything, or just chat while you go about your business, if it’s not private.”

Saying the words makes him feel anxious, and he does nothing to hide that feeling. He’s used to feeling excluded from the other kids at school, to feeling different, but it was easy not to let that bother him while he had Blue to hang out with. This is the first time he can remember that he’s actually come out and asked someone to be his friend. It makes him feel like a kid again, and he’s sure he appears even younger to Satori, whose closeness in age feels all the more significant suddenly.

Satori shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to finish a project with my pokemon, and find other people distracting.” She closes the door before he can respond, and without lowering her shield to express any regret or other emotional signal.

Red sighs, then moves on. He supposes it’s nice that she even answered, considering how much she generally keeps to herself and sensed his intentions through the door…

When he knocks on Rowan’s door and gets a muffled “Busy!” in response, he moves on without much regret. Rowan seems nice enough, but he often feels slightly off, making Red question his memory of who he interacted with before meeting the “new” Rowan, and ah yep that’s what Rei meant…

Red tries to think of something to talk about on the way to Jason’s, something they wouldn’t normally talk about during their lessons, since that clearly hasn’t helped. So far Jason has been trying to learn to mimic different mental states while Red attempts to get as good at detecting and deciphering emotions as Jason, and so far they haven’t had much success.

Or any, really. Their sessions have all ended in quiet frustration for both as they seem to keep talking past each other while trying to explain what they did in their own terms. Red tried being as precise and clear as he could, like “imagine that mental state and anchor it in your memory through what your body feels,” while Jason spoke through metaphor and symbolism, such as “follow the echo my emotions are leaving in the astral realm” which didn’t really mean anything to Red, no matter how much he tried to pin down what an “echo” is or feels like, or what the “astral realm” is. He’s wanted to ask the others if they find their lessons with Jason more productive, but worried he would seem incompetent or like he’s badmouthing his peer.

So clearly he needs another topic to focus on, and after a moment he finds one. Like Satori, Jason is a pokemon trainer in addition to a psychic. Maybe they could discuss that. He specializes in ghost pokemon, which Red thinks he would find interesting enough to talk about.

When he knocks on the door he doesn’t sense any mental probe from Jason, and the medium answers his door with a cautious look on his face, dressed in the same clothes as earlier in the day. “Hello. Did you come about our assignment?”

“No.” Red smiles, trying not to let his earlier failure color his attitude. “I was just hoping to talk for a bit, if you’re free.”

“I was just finishing a cleansing ritual.”

“Oh.” Red only has a vague idea of what that is; some spiritual practice to ensure an environment or person is free of negativity? He’s not sure if Jason is saying that the ritual is already finished, or if Red had interrupted. “I can come back later?”

He steps back, preparing to leave, but Jason’s frown stops him. “Are you projecting your emotions on purpose?”

Red blinks, then checks. His mind still isn’t shielded, but… “I don’t think I’m projecting them at all?”

“Ah.” Jason’s hand finds his prayer beads and moves over them as he sighs. “I suppose the ritual wasn’t working anyway, then.”

Red is about to ask how he would know if it had, then stops himself and focuses on his curiosity. “What do you sense?” he asks instead.

“It feels like you’re hurt and anxious,” Jason says matter-of-factly. “It confused me because you were smiling when I opened the door, so I thought you were trying to project those feelings to alert me that you need help.”

“Huh.” Red detected no mental merger at all, but this isn’t the first time Jason has shown that he can pick up complex and deep emotions from simple proximity, just the first time Jason is treating it as something out of his control.

He was hoping to avoid any discussion too similar to those in their lessons, but this doesn’t feel like something he can just ignore, and… maybe in a more casual setting like this, if he just stays open minded and curious, he can learn more about Jason’s perspective. “And your cleansing ritual is supposed to help keep you from feeling that?”

Jason nods. “It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes I do it wrong, or my spirit is too open to others. I’ll have to try again.”

“Can I… is it okay if I observe it?” He keeps his thoughts focused on his curiosity and interest in learning more about Jason’s views (and abilities, but he believes the two are linked so same thing (he wonders briefly if Jason feels any dissonance in him over that bit of rationalization, then focuses on the curiosity again)).

Jason looks surprised, and fidgets in place for so long that Red is about to apologize when he opens the door and steps back. Red enters to find a simple apartment much like his own, though with a strong smell of jasmine incense coming from a small shrine in the corner. The plumbing must have been done special, because beside it there’s a basin of running water flowing from the mouth of a small stone gyarados.

The whole thing is small as a bathroom sink, and Jason folds his legs beneath him to sit in front of it while Red sits on the floor to the side to observe.

“So,” Red says, as he watches Jason take the long wooden ladle in his right hand and dip it in the water. “I just came to talk because I realized we haven’t really spoken much outside of classes. I guess I got the impression you didn’t like me, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t just my insecurity speaking.”

Jason doesn’t respond, and simply pours the water over his left hand, then switches the ladle to it and pours some over his right, then switches again and pours into his cupped left. He brings the water up to his lips, then lifts the ladle so the remaining water pours down the handle and into the basin, and sets it face-down.

Red realizes he should probably have waited for the ritual to finish before saying anything, and just stays silent as Jason lifts a censer and moves it around himself. One hand stays on his prayerbeads, fingers moving from one to the next, and the other brings the censer first over his stomach, then his heart, then his throat, then his forehead, taking a deep breath of the incense each time. On the last exhale he puts the censer down and sits in stillness, eyes closed.

Red watches the medium’s face, the only motion of his body the steady rise and fall of his chest, and wonders what’s going on in his head. He knows better than to check in the middle of something like this, but the curiosity itches at him.

He never felt particularly comfortable with religious practices, but ever since he started learning to use his powers, and particularly practicing meditation, he began to see them differently. Even without any spiritual component, his own “rituals” to ground himself, or reflect on his internal state, or to execute a particular mental motion, are all useful to him, and result in real, tangible differences. And he knows how powerful placebos can be; maybe a lot of what Jason is capable of that Red isn’t genuinely comes from his different beliefs, or the meaning he ascribes to things like his clothing and prayers.

Red would like to think that any thoughts someone can have, however they have them, can be reasoned through and understood and shared by others. He would like to think that this applies to psychic powers too; that is why they’re all here teaching each other, after all, despite the fairly strong evidence of hard limits to what different psychics are capable of. But within those limits, he feels wistful regret at the idea that his method of thinking, as useful as it is to him, may forever keep him locked out of the kinds of insights and abilities that those like Jason have.

Until he remembers that he can just copy Jason’s mental state while he’s engaging in spiritual practice, if he really wants to understand it.

Red feels a creeping unease, and quickly brings his shield up. He’s never tried copying a mental state that was so fundamentally other. The closest thing was Leaf’s views on pokemon, and from what he remembers of the feeling, it was transformative. He can’t even say for sure that it didn’t permanently affect his views, though part of that is likely just entangled with his feelings for Leaf.

Still, does he want to risk some permanent change to his thinking that’s so… superstitious? What if some of it stays with him?

He tries to convince himself that it’s a silly concern, and that believing something temporarily, no matter how wrong it may turn out, doesn’t lead to bad epistemics. Hell, that happens all the time to him and his epistemics are great! Mostly, anyway.

But what if it’s more fundamental? What if it leads to the growth of certain neuron patterns that will make faith-based beliefs feel more justified?

Red shakes the thought away. He needs to talk to others before trying it, obviously. His ability to copy mental states isn’t entirely unique, there have been others with somewhat similar abilities that might be able to indicate probable outcomes. Maybe he can-

Jason’s eyes open, and he stretches slightly, rotating his shoulders with a sigh. “You’re shielding, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be okay to bring it down?”

Red takes a moment to refocus his thoughts, then does so. “Done.”

Jason closes his eyes, then opens them and nods. “Thank you. It worked.” He stands. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m f… actually, black tea would be good, if you have it?”

“I do.”

A few minutes later they’re facing each other on the couch, tea in one cup and juice in the other. Jason looks calm, but there’s something about his body language that makes Red feel like he’s nervous. One hand keeps twitching up from his cup, then returning to it, as if aborting impulses to touch his prayer beads.

Red tries to think of how to fill a silence that quickly feels awkward. He’s just about to repeat what he said earlier when Jason clears his throat.

“I do not think it was just insecurity,” Jason says, gaze down. “But I wouldn’t say I dislike you. It’s just that your way of thinking often feels painful for me.”

Red blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He hadn’t expected that. “Painful as in… physically, or emotionally, or…?”

Jason shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t always understand the difference. When people say physical pain, they seem to mean the result of being physically harmed. But if you describe emotional pain, there’s often a physical component, isn’t there?”

Red considers that, and feels an ache in his chest as he thinks of Aiko, or how much he wants to spend more time with Leaf, or the painful mix of anger and… something, that comes from thinking of Blue.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment. “I can see that. So… there’s a physical component to it, but it’s also tied to some emotional reaction?”

“That’s the closest I can come to explaining it.” Jason sips his juice. “It’s not just you though, I feel this way pretty often. I’ve been told it’s part of being a medium.” He shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s true.”

Red shifts in his seat. “Do you have any specific examples of what I’ve thought that felt harmful to your psychic senses?”

“They were not often thoughts themselves, more the underlying… perspective. And I don’t know that they are actually ‘psychic’ senses,” Jason says. “Elite Agatha said that what I do—what we do—it’s related to what psychics do, but distinct.”

“In what way?”

Jason gives him an appraising look, as if deciding how candid to be. “My connection is to the soul, not just the mind. But you don’t believe in souls.”

Jason still hasn’t uncovered his own emotions during the conversation, so Red isn’t sure how to take the statement, and he feels himself struggling not to respond in a challenging way. Is Jason trying to bait him into an argument, or just expecting one? He came here to be friendly, dammit!

“No, I don’t,” he finally says, speaking slowly. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it that can’t be explained by other things.” He’d resolved to stay curious, so that’s what he focuses on. “But I’ve never talked about it with a medium before. What makes you so sure?”

Jason blinks, gaze meeting Red’s for a moment before dropping again as he sips his drink. “Have you interacted with any Ghost pokemon?”

“No, but I was hit with a Ghost attack from a spinarak, once.” Even after all this time Red still occasionally feels a shadow of the pain and disorientation, though it’s not enough to really distract him.

Jason is shaking his head. “You need to be in their presence to understand.”

“You’re talking about surrealism.”

“I am. What do you know about it?”

Red recalls his research in Viridian Forest, after he caught his spinarak. “People often compare it to Pressure, though that just seems confusing, since it’s not as personalized or powerful, and only really affects you if you’re interacting with ghosts in some way rather than being around them.” And having recently experienced Pressure for himself, it’s hard not to dismiss anything else for not being as bad. “Common symptoms are headaches, disorientation, distrust of senses, all of which quickly goes away once their thoughts aren’t focused on the ghost anymore. It’s part of what makes it harder for non-psychic trainers to deal with ghosts, since it doesn’t seem to be worse for psychics and we’re already used to directing and focusing our thoughts and attention.”

Jason smiles slightly. “It sounds so simple, put like that. As I said, you need to experience it yourself to understand, which is another reason people often compare it to Pressure. But what do you make of surrealism, even having never experienced it? Doesn’t it mark such pokemon as different, in some way?”

Red shrugs. “Sure, and I think it’s significant.” It’s one of the main reasons he categorized Ghost as a substance over descriptive type: there’s clearly something fundamentally different about them. “But significant in what way is the question. It’s something we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we should jump to conclusions about its origin, or what it means about reality itself.”

“Hmm.” Jason slowly turns his cup in his hands, then sips from it. “I agree.”

Red blinks. “You do?”

“Yes. It makes sense, from your perspective, to be skeptical. I don’t believe as I do because I have answers to all the questions you’re carefully not asking. But my experiences are enough to point me along the way, and my faith acts as a bridge for the rest, to explain those experiences and overcome that skepticism.”

It sounds like the medium is using “faith” to mean the same thing Red would call a “theory.” It’s the first time he’s heard someone frame it that way… but scientific theories can be falsified, they contain specific claims about cause and effect that could be proven wrong. They’re not just an explanation that makes sense of phenomena, they allow people to make predictions about future ones.

He has to remind himself again that he’s not here to argue epistemics, but just learn more about his peer’s perspective. “By experiences, you mean your connection to Ghost pokemon,” Red guesses. “Did you really train one without a pokeball?”

“I didn’t train it,” Jason says, seeming a bit embarrassed by the myth of himself. “Only established a mental connection, without it attacking me. We formed what I would call a familiarity, if not a friendship.”

“That’s amazing. I mean with any wild pokemon, but with a Ghost in particular. How did you do it?”

Jason drinks as he considers the question, though surely he’s been asked it many times before. “I came to Kanto when I was about your age. I always wanted to be a trainer, but I already knew I was gifted, and my family considered that a stronger trait to explore, a more meaningful path. They hired a mentor for me to explore my gift, but I was still fascinated by pokemon, in understanding their thoughts and feelings. Lavender Town is a small, spiritual community, not particularly known for its trainers. I couldn’t find one to teach me, and while I could buy a pokeball and dex, there was no safe place I could reliably find pokemon that I would be able to travel to alone.”

“Except Lavender Tower,” Red says, smiling slightly.

“Except Lavender Tower,” Jason agrees. “The Rangers there ensure no wild Ghosts harm visitors or escape into the town proper, but there are often a few lurking somewhere inside, and it was easy to find them with my inner eye. After I experienced surreality for myself, sensed their strange minds, I became obsessed with Ghost pokemon in specific. There seemed a depth of mystery and meaning in their ‘otherness’ that I wanted to understand. I spent months being frustrated as they resisted my attempts to interact with them in a meaningful way, and even my psychic training did not help. Eventually I realized that perhaps I was the problem. That all of us are, that our view of them is what causes the tension in us, the disorientation, the pain. After all, they seem unharmed by interacting with us. Who was I to impose my flawed, human perceptions on them?”

Red slowly nods. “So you played with different perspectives until you found one that helped.”

Jason raises his brow. “No. I began studying religious beliefs, read the accounts of those like Elite Agatha and Leader Matsuba, and began practicing rituals to better connect with the spiritual world. And eventually I was able to look upon them without difficulty, and merge with them without tainting my spirit.”

“Huh.” Red drinks his tea and tries to accept the statements at face value, the mildly bitter flavor somehow calming. “But not everyone can do that, right? It’s also related to your abilities as a medium?”

“Ah, yes, I’m not claiming any unique piety or spiritual virtue. My gift enabled the connection in the first place.”

Red nods. Ultimately, there are three probabilities that he finds most likely. The first is that what Jason can do is semi-unique to him, whether it’s because of his connection to the “spirit world” or because he has a unique element in his psychic powers. The second is that the changes Jason underwent in his spiritual journey, the wisdom he gained, are just a perspective shift that could be learned, a lens to see the world through that could be put on and taken off. And the third is that his connection to Ghost pokemon and/or ability to sense deep emotions is something that operates on a level beyond intellectual understanding, something fundamental to the way he forms beliefs.

Maybe his own perspective would shed some light on it. “And what advice would you give, then, about Ghosts for those that don’t have your gift or faith?”

“The same as what I believe for myself. That we must resist our attempts to rationally understand them.” Jason shrugs. “More generally, that the very belief that we can truly understand anything is an illusion, though a useful one for our time in the material plane. But Ghosts are windows into something beyond the material, and so it is not useful to try and decipher them rationally.”

Red’s mouth twists to the side, torn between the multiple strong objections that rise up. And though it brings with it a flash of anger and sadness, Blue’s voice is clear in his head; Who cares if it sounds logical? If it works, it works.

And of course he’s right. Understanding the actual mechanism at work is important so he doesn’t believe extraneous things that are wrong, but if there’s a link between Jason’s epistemics and the outcome, Red has to be able to include that evidence in his theories, no matter how much it clashes with his own epistemics. It could be as simple as Leaf’s pure love of pokemon keeping abra from fleeing, but if it’s something deeper…

“I would like to learn more about your beliefs,” Red says. “And maybe even try to mimic your perspective psychically, eventually, if that’s alright with you.”

“You believe it’s my perspective, then, as Leader Sabrina does, and not my gift?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Red admits. “But it’s worth a try, and we’ve been having trouble during our lessons anyway, so I think better understanding your perspective could help with that too. Or at least, I’ve felt like we’ve had trouble?”

Jason nods, and finally brings his shield down for a moment, just long enough to signal a mirror of Red’s relief that it hadn’t just been him. “Alright. How would you like to begin?”

Red shrugs. “You’re the expert here. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

“I would never claim to be an expert.”

“Relative to me, I mean.”

“Still, the word has… baggage. As I said before, it was not through understanding but the release of the need to understand that I finally found connection.”

Red is about to argue that it’s just a semantic point, and that all “expertise” means in this context is the person who has accomplished the thing being discussed, but then he imagines someone calling him an expert on mirroring mental states and kind of gets Jason’s point. “You’re right, word choice can influence perspectives. So as we are both seeking humility together, what would be the first step toward recognizing the need to be humbled at all?” He hopes that made sense.

Jason spins his cup again, face thoughtful, then brings it to his lips and tilts it back, draining it and standing. “Experiences are more important than words. If you’ve never encountered a Ghost before, then experiencing surrealism for the first time might be best. We can go to the roof, and I’ll summon my pokemon there.”

Red swallows his sudden nervousness along with a mouthful of tea. The things he’s read about surreality don’t seem quite as harmless as a moment ago. But it wasn’t so long ago that he overcame fear of a different pokemon on a different roof, and this wouldn’t be worse than what Donovan’s skarmory could have done to him.

Red remembers the discomfort of the spinarak’s attack again, and feels a thread of fear. Probably. “Yeah, alright.”

The medium goes to put his cup in the sink, then slips his sandals on while Red finishes his tea. Once Jason retrieves his pokebelt and ties it on, they make their way to the rooftop, which is fairly small but only has a small number of spots taken up for registered teleportation, namely those of the students and Sabrina.

The sun is setting, but there’s still enough light to illuminate the city. The city, as far as most Kantonians see it; the biggest and most populous, home to both its most prestigious pokemon contest hall as well as the world famous Silph Corporation. It’s a culturally powerful place that he’s just starting to consider a “home” of sorts, and he draws some strength from the sight of it in the day’s last golden light, like nothing truly bad can happen to him while he’s standing here atop the shining city.

He recognizes how silly that feeling is, especially since he was just worrying about downloading superstitious wetware from Jason, and has to check his rationale for doing this again before he turns to his fellow psychic and nods. “Ready when you are.”

“Alright. I’m going to summon a gastly. Pull back your mental senses.”

And now he feels less ready. “Okay. Uh. I could also go downstairs and get my gas mask, or should I stay upwind of it, or…?”

“No, there isn’t enough wind to affect it, and as long as you can’t smell it you won’t be harmed. Just stay at least an arm’s length from the visible parts.” With that, the medium braces his arm and says, “Go, Gastly.”

The pokeball snaps open and a blinding flash of light leaps forth… but unlike with most pokemon, it doesn’t coalesce into a sensible shape. Instead the afterimage behind Red’s lids when he blinks appear to be a wide, irregular cloud.

What takes its place a millisecond later is about half as big, at least as far as he can see; a purple discoloration in the air that hangs about six feet above the rooftop. Only the center of it is opaque enough that he can’t see through it, and from within that purple mass he sees a dark orb with—

—two gleaming white voids—

—the glint of… fangs(?)—

—Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to get used to what he’s seeing. In videos, gastly appear to just be a black ball surrounded by thick purple gas, with wide, solid white and somewhat disembodied “eyes” over a pink pocket that holds what looks like two sharp canines, just floating in the blackness of the orb. But without the abstraction of simple images, his mind is struggling to make sense of what’s in front of him, which is… very much not that.

Except what else could it be? He closes his eyes, imagining the slightly cartoonish mental image of a gastly that he has in his memory, then opens them to see… something else, something that he can only vaguely recognize as having the same features as the mental image he was holding onto a moment ago. If he hadn’t known what they’re “supposed” to look like, he wonders if he would even make this much sense out of it.

After a handful of heartbeats, his gaze flinches away, the disorientation fading once he’s not looking directly at it. He has to swallow, throat dry, before he says, “All ghost pokemon are like this?” He reminds himself to be on the lookout for a headache or any other symptoms.

“In their own ways,” Jason says, pokeball still in hand. “The ones that possess some physical object are easier to perceive, but those with the gift can still see through to what they really are.”

“And what is that?” Red asks. He glances back at the gastly and feels a chill go down his spine. From the corner of his eye it had seemed like the black sphere’s “eyes” were staring aimlessly into the distance, but as soon as he looked at it, its gaze locked with his. Is that the surrealism? Has it already started?

“The spirits of pokemon.” Jason says as Red starts to shift his head from side to side, experimenting. Its “eyes” (he can’t even think of them with that word without a sense of skepticism) stay locked on his perfectly as he moves and when he looks away, its features return to vague impressions. “Instead of moving beyond our world after death, a ghost is a spirit that has imprinted onto things in it, such as a candle or doll, or in gastly’s case, the decomposing gasses emitted by corpses.”

Unfalsifiable, Red immediately thinks. Spontaneous pokemon genesis occurs in other places, labeling the ones that appear near dead bodies ‘Ghosts’ does nothing to distinguish whether that’s true from a world where their origin is any different from something like a magnemite.

But he’s here to learn about Jason’s perspective, not argue against it. It takes Red a moment to word his response through how unnerved he is by the gastly, even after looking away. “I’ve heard that hypothesis,” Red says. “But I don’t understand what differentiates it from one you’d consider false.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I’ve actually thought a lot about pokemon origins,” Red says, glancing at the gastly again, then away. It’s difficult, like the dark sphere is a black hole whose gravity is pulling at his attention, but not physically, just from simple fascination, or maybe a mix of fascination and fear, like leaning over the edge of a building despite knowing the sight will scare you. The call of the void, he’s heard it called, and that’s what the gastly looks like, a void in the world—

“Red?”

Red blinks. “Sorry, I… what was I saying?”

“Pokemon origins. Do you want me to withdraw it?”

“No, I’m fine.” He turns his body solidly toward Jason. “Right. So… if I’m understanding your beliefs correctly, magnemite could be spirits of pokemon that attach themselves to metal objects too, right? But they’re not Ghost pokemon.”

Jason shrugs. “There are many potential answers. I am a spiritualist, but find no religious doctrine more convincing than all others. I have heard that everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects, and some things may attain enough spiritual energy to become living things. Perhaps the gods are still active in the world and decide by their own whims, or perhaps there are rules they have written to guide such events in their absence that we may one day deduce. But the unnatural sensation evoked by surrealism makes it clear that only Ghost pokemon are the spirits of the already departed, rather than new souls like any others we encounter.”

“I feel like you’re…” Red stops himself. “Sorry. I’m confused. My brain is insisting that maybe it’s the substance that’s inhabited that matters. Like… imagine a world where ‘Ghost pokemon are spirits of dead pokemon’ wasn’t true. What would you expect to see different in that world, that couldn’t be explained by the ‘spirit of candles’ or ‘poison gas’ also attaining enough energy to become living beings, for example?”

Jason is quiet a moment, and Red lets him think, looking back at the gastly for a minute to try to get a handle on the way it looks. He wants to try using his powers on it to see what its mind is like, but he’s still having trouble getting his mind to see its parts as distinct things, and he should probably do that first.

Suddenly Red sees the Gastly’s “mouth” open, and calling the slimy, squirming thing that briefly comes out a “tongue” doesn’t even occur to him until after it’s back inside the sphere and he can retroactively process what he saw. He raises a hand to wipe some sweat from his forehead, even though it’s rather cool outside with fall well underway. He knows it’s from exposure to the gastly, which…

…is it getting closer?

Red suddenly realizes he can smell it, a sickly sweet, cloying scent, and panic blooms in his chest as he quickly takes a step back—

“Red, look at me,” a voice demands, and Red snaps his gaze around to Jason, who has stepped to the side so that Red can’t see the gastly in his peripheral. The medium looks calm despite suddenly sounding like an entirely different person, his whole stance feels different as he holds Red’s gaze with his own. But it’s nothing overt; Jason’s hands are folded in front of him, his shoulders are relaxed. It’s Red’s perception that has changed, his need for something stable and reassuring.

“Everything is fine,” Jason says, calm but firm, like he’s talking to a skittish ponyta. “You’re experiencing the first stage of surreality. Just focus on me, and breathe.”

Red does as he instructs, despite his confusion. The literature said that surreality would manifest as something minor at first, like a headache or increased pulse or sweating… right, he was sweating. How did he forget that symptom? No, he didn’t forget it, he recognized it as it was happening, but then the panic hit and he couldn’t connect the dots.

“Better?” Jason asks after a moment, watching him steadily.

Red nods. He feels back in control of his thoughts, though there’s a part of him that’s still thinking about the gastly, hovering just out of sight, and wondering if it’s creeping closer. “Yes, thanks. Even expecting it, it’s like it went straight to my automatic reflexes.” He steels himself, then turns his head to look at the gastly. Still far away.

“I’m not sure what I would see different,” Jason says, drawing Red’s attention back to him. Not sure what…? Oh, right, about different worlds. “I guess if it weren’t true, then I would expect there to be nothing uniform between the different Ghost pokemon compared to other pokemon that are not Ghost types. A candle and a cloud of gas have no similarity to justify belief that both should evoke surrealism.”

“But that uniqueness is what we use to classify Ghosts,” Red says. “It feels tautological to say that because they have this unique attribute, they must share this unique origin that we identify through this attribute. Especially when we don’t even know what the origin of other pokemon without that attribute is.”

“Then what is your answer? What would you expect to see in a world where Ghost pokemon are borne of dead spirits, rather than by the same process as other pokemon?”

“Weeeell,” Red says, dragging the word out as he organizes his thoughts. “First off, wouldn’t we see an infinite variety of Ghost pokemon? And wouldn’t their different species be more widespread? We don’t have any phantump here in Kanto, but we have plenty of woods and forests. If we just put a pile of screws and magnets around some pokemon graveyards, what would you expect to eventually see? Ghost magnemite, or ‘regular’ ones?”

The medium is quiet again as he thinks, and Red resists the urge to look at the gastly again. “I believe I see your point,” Jason finally says, speaking slowly. “Perhaps… magnemite are the spirits of pokemon as well, and their natures have been changed by the objects they bound to. Rotom at least are examples of ghost pokemon whose nature changes while inhabiting different ‘bodies.’ Though…” Jason frowns. “It’s not a strong example, given that even though they can leave those bodies behind and inhabit new ones, we have never seen any other Ghost pokemon do such a thing, and of course Rotom are limited to electronic device that do not mimic any other known electric pokemon.”

Huh. Red hadn’t expected the medium to refute his own argument so well. He begins to grow hopeful about the conversation. “Right, as you pointed out, there’s no consistent pattern between what Ghost pokemon are embodied as. Cloth, candles, gas, plants, clay, metal… they’re all different substances, and there are also pokemon like jellicent and oricorio and decidueye that seem to be living creatures. Or do those pokemon not feel the same to be around?” If they don’t cause surrealism, they probably shouldn’t qualify as Ghost pokemon in the first place…

“No, they do, though it’s even less strong than Ghosts that inhabit objects,” Jason says. “Here, let me show you one of those… Gastly, return!” The beam of light spreads not from the gastly’s dark core, but from somewhere on the edge of the visible cloud around it, pulling it away in a mass of red light. “Go, Lampent!”

The sky is starting to darken, but Red can still make out the twisted black lantern that appears a few feet above the ground, its core illuminated by a bright blue flame. Red prepares himself for more surrealism, but… it looks totally normal.

Except for the fact that it’s clearly suspended in midair for no reason. Red knows it’s a pokemon, intellectually, but the way it looks like a simple object makes it hard to square with the fact that it’s definitely not supposed to be doing that. And then there are the yellow glowing eyes on the round, clear “glass” of its body, but those are only unsettling if he looks at them too long.

“Huh. Yeah, this is less extreme. Instead of doubting my whole perception of it there’s just this one thing I’m fixating on. Which is weird, since there are other pokemon that float that don’t make me feel like this…” He walks a few steps to the side, then back, gaze on the lampent. The effect is a little worse as he changes his reference frame and the lantern stays suspended exactly where it is, making it seem slightly unreal, like a hologram or computer graphic overlaid onto reality…

“Oh, there’s the headache.” He quickly looks back at Jason and the pressure at his temples starts to fade. “So you were right, it’s hard to understand how different Ghosts are without experiencing surrealism for myself. But the degree is different enough that I feel like this could be a different thing entirely, if I didn’t know already to start out thinking both are Ghosts.”

Jason nods. “Your mundane senses are more easily fooled. Use your inner eye.”

Red scratches his neck, curiosity more than a match for his nervousness. “That would be okay?”

“Just don’t merge. You’ll understand why.”

Red nods and closes his eyes, wanting to focus as much as possible on what his “inner eye” senses. His range and precision have expanded over the past weeks, and he immediately becomes aware of not just the gale of emotions in front of him, but also Jason’s watchful and expectant mind, and Rei’s unshielded focus, and Rowan’s shifting mood as he sets up and brings down partitions in some exercise or experiment, and Satori’s mind as it interacts with both her swellow and torracat at the same time, and the less Red focuses on that disorienting jumble the better…

Good thing he has a gale of emotions in front of him to focus on.

It’s like standing in a crowded room, except it’s all coming from one single mind. The lampent feels unlike any other pokemon or human Red has encountered, its emotions more alien than even Bug pokemon.

Red is still relatively new to deciphering emotions without a merge, but he recognizes desire burning off the lampent like a bonfire sheds heat. There’s no question in Red’s mind of what he’s feeling, it wants something, and it wants it badly. He’s never felt anything so strong coming from a pokemon, the closest were fear from abra and when he was merged with Charmeleon and projected sakki

“It’s hungry,” Red says, opening his eyes and taking an involuntary step back as he withdraws his mind again. As soon as he says the word, he identifies the feeling in himself, or at least as close an equivalent as he can understand. He feels his stomach rumble and twist. Is it projecting onto him? “No, starving… why…”

“It had a caterpie recently,” Jason says. “But it’s never enough.”

Red expects the hunger to fade once he brings his shield up, but it doesn’t. Both arms are pressed over his stomach now, and he sucks in a breath, tries to meditate on the feeling, dissolve it, but it feels real, like he needs to find food now or his limbs will start to shake…

Then Jason is in front of him, wooden beads looped around the fingers of one hand as he passes it over Red’s head. Red feels the medium’s mind brushing his through his shield, Jason doesn’t try to merge. Instead the feeling of hunger starts to dwindle in time with the scrubbing motion of his hand around Red’s chest, until he abruptly feels fine.

It all took place in the space of a few heartbeats, and Red slowly straightens. “You felt things like that?” Red asks, letting out a shuddering breath as he eases his arms down and looks back at the lampent. “For months?”

“I had some help. My psychic teacher knew, of course, from the emotional residue that would be left on me, which you experienced. She taught me how to manage it, as all gifted trainers of Ghost pokemon must, but it wasn’t until I began walking a more spiritual path that truly cleansing it became a possibility.” He tucks the wooden beads away in a pocket. “And by enduring it more, I found my own ability to detect emotions improving, though…” He shrugs. “It was no longer always intentional, or always accurate.”

“Then maybe that’s what happened,” Red says, pulse finally slowing down as he breathes in and out. “Everyone talks about how Ghosts twist our powers and turn them against us, maybe yours have changed permanently to better sync with them.”

“Perhaps,” Jason says. “But I don’t believe all mediums have gone through the same things. If that’s a viable path, would you try it?”

Red frowns, considering a moment. “Not sure. I’d have to know more about the side effects. But in the meantime, I still want to try adopting your perspective.”

Jason nods and withdraws the lampent, which relaxes something in Red he hadn’t realized was tense. “My perspective is to simply remind myself of what I do not understand. It is a genuine humility that only feels forced insofar as it fights natural instinct to create explanations for things, to grasp at facts we have heard and knowledge we believe we have. Knowledge that, upon further examination, is revealed to be just symbols between minds to imperfectly share disparate shards of reality.”

Uh oh. They’re back at deep sounding phrases that Red can’t quite parse. “Alright… so what should I do to help fight those instincts?”

Jason shrugs. “Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise. When you truly realize how complex all this is,” he opens his hands out to the sides, “It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.”

Red frowns slightly as he grapples with such a fundamentally different ideology. Sure, the world is complex, from the mind boggling vastness of space to the alien world of subatomic particles, but impossible to understand? No. There’s humility, and then there’s surrendering to ignorance, and he can’t accept that. It’s not a conscious choice; he just knows it, as surely as he knows his name.

But a scientist should be willing to embrace uncertainty, so maybe he can reach some understanding of the same “fundamental humility,” with effort.

“I’ll consider that,” Red says after a moment, and bows. “Thank you for your time, and patience with me.”

Jason bows back. “Thank you for your vulnerability, and your trust.”


Red stays on the roof after and watches the sun set over Mt. Silver, thinking about what he experienced and the goal he set out to accomplish. He isn’t sure if he made a friend, but it feels like progress at least. Now he should try talking to Rowan too, or get to work on Sabrina’s assignment.

Instead his mind keeps turning back to what Jason said. The medium seemed so certain that they can’t understand anything, and it bothers him the more he thinks of it.

Part of him wants to go back down to his apartment and knock on Jason’s door, show him, like, a simple algebra equation, or do some basic physics experiment.

He doesn’t understand why it’s so important to him that Jason see the flaw in his perspective, as stated at least. Maybe it’s more nuanced in his head, but Red can’t help feeling that the older boy is wrong and needs to know why, even if in the meantime…

…in the meantime, he can interact with Ghost pokemon without surrealism while Red can’t. And he was able to argue against his own ideas, so he’s clearly not lacking basic reasoning abilities either. So whose perspective is actually more useful? Or maybe both are useful in their own ways…

Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise…

He sees the wisdom in that, so maybe it’s not as far a step from recognizing the value of humility to what Jason has accomplished, without quite swinging as far on the actual epistemics.

Red watches the last sliver of gold light fade behind the mountain, and twilight cloaks the city. He shivers at the sudden chill, and abruptly feels sure that there’s a gastly behind him. Floating toward him, ready to envelop his head, ready to open its mouth and bring out that “tongue”—

Red spins and sees nothing but the empty rooftop, and lets out his breath in something more than a sigh. Great, now he’s going to be jumpy about that for a while too…

“Red?”

Red yelps as he spins to find Tatsumaki on the roof with an abra. She withdraws her pokemon and steps off the teleporting platform, frowning at him. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” he says, breathing deep to slow his racing heart. “I just… met my first Ghost pokemon and… I guess it left an impression.”

“Yeah, they’ll do that.” She looks around. “It wasn’t a wild was it?”

“No, Jason’s. I wanted to know what it was like.”

“Good to get it out of the way in a safe way I guess.” She sticks her hands in the pockets of her collared dress. “So, got any ideas about sensei’s assignment yet?”

Red hesitates. “We’re not supposed to discuss it yet…”

“Whatever,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and heads for the door.

Red stares after her a moment, then blinks. “Wait! If you want, we can talk about other things—”

“Nope,” she says, and mentally opens the door ahead of her, then swings it shut after passing through.

Red sighs and heads for the door himself. He doesn’t know if he should have just said yes, but he’ll have to have something better before he tries befriending her again.

A quick check confirms that Rowan is still messing with his partitions. Red is fairly confident Rowan will have one of the more promising ideas in the meeting tomorrow. He wonders if Rowan himself feels any pressure over that expectation.

Daniel still isn’t back, so Red goes to his room, sits at his desk, and takes out his notebook so he can try to decipher the problem again.

Brains. Minds. Hiding thoughts and emotions under others.

How?

Red stares at the paper, rapidly tapping both ends of his pencil against the desk as he shifts it between his fingers.

Don’t spend resources searching for an answer until you’re justifiably confident you understand the question.

It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.

Red wonders what Jason would say to Leader Giovanni. What the Leader would say to him. When it comes to the mind, it’s true enough that currently there’s no real understanding it. Red isn’t going to solve the question of consciousness in (he checks the time) five hours. But he could at least check how confident he should be that he understands the question.

Red’s pencil moves to the page. He’ll start with what he knows… Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing in a specific order and shape. Feelings are experiences… of physical sensation… His pencil slows as he frowns. What are emotions, really? He could write something down, something that sounds right, like emotions are certain neurotransmitters and the felt effects they have on the body, but is that a useful definition? How does psychic power hide or sense neurotransmitters, let alone the feelings associated with particularly complex emotions?

He realizes that if he’s satisfied with that answer, he would just be “accepting his mind’s attempt to insist he understands something he doesn’t,” and decides to drill down to basics. What is a brain? A collection of billions of neurons, tens of billions, which encode sensory experiences and process thoughts and send commands through the nervous system by chemicals and electrical impulses.

Where do the impulses come from?

He doesn’t know.

Are all emotions from neurotransmitters, or are some purely in the brain, if that even makes sense?

Maybe it doesn’t. Especially since he just thought of another problem, maybe more fundamental…

What is a mind? A self-reflective emergent property of the processes of the brain, which experiences feelings and memories and desires as fuzzy, indistinct things that are somehow independent of the absoluteness of the brain. (Why are minds so fuzzy?) There’s some inherent disconnect between what the mind is aware of and what the brain does and stores. Optical illusions are strong examples of this, as is the idea of a subconscious, or waking from a dream with just an emotional reaction but no memory of what happened… Self-awareness likely comes somewhere between the top-down predictions that are being made constantly but that we’re unaware of and the bottom-up observations of reality…

Red stops and puts his pencil down, staring at the sheet a moment.

Sure, brains are probably the most complex thing in the universe, and may be the only thing literally impossible to understand given that the thing it’s trying to fully understand is itself, and if it were good enough to do that it would just become even more complex.

But Red would have guessed he could have answered more about brains if asked. Now all he can think of are irrelevant factors that don’t actually explain how it works…

…and he suddenly feels an inkling of something different, in his mind. A new track being laid, maybe even the start of a new perspective. He’d thought of space as mind bogglingly vast before, but really, everything is so complex that it boggles his mind to think about them in sufficient detail.

Is this what Jason meant? Is he touching the same frame of mind, at least a little?

Red flips to a new page and decides to try testing what he really understands about something basic. Not math basic, but… well, maybe, actually, especially if even basic things are mysteries to him when he looks deep enough.

What’s a comparison to what Sabrina’s asked them to do that’s not about psychic phenomena? Some other “impossible” problem, like… if someone told him there was a plant that grows without water, and asked him to figure out how, would he be able to? He’s not even sure how bizarre that might be compared to the perfect shield, but whatever, he’ll try it.

What does he actually know about what plants need to grow? He could say “photosynthesis” and haltingly describe how light contains energy (is energy) and certain wavelengths can be harnessed by certain plant cells, all wavelengths but green, actually… wait, do flower petals do photosynthesis? Doesn’t matter, so without nutrients from water, plants get some from light… wait, nutrients? Is that right? How would light have nutrients in it, nutrients are just a word that means the useful molecules and atoms for a certain life form. That stuff must be gotten from soil… but there are some plants that grow in water and off sunlight… is there carbon in water? No wait, duh, the air, they get carbon from the air… somehow… okay he just realized he has no idea how plants breathe, and again, what’s the light for? Energy? Instead of using sugar, their cells absorb energy from lightwaves and use it to extract and repurpose the nutrients (useful molecules) they need from the air, water, and maybe ground?

That… sounds right. So a plant that grows without water must be getting enough of the nutrients they need from the air and maybe ground. If there are absolutely fundamental nutrients in water, then maybe there’s a lot of moisture in the air and that’s how they get it. If the question is specifying there’s no moisture around at all then he would say that… the plant must somehow be able to build itself from other materials besides the ones normal plants need from water.

After a minute of thought, he nods. That would be his hypothesis. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a plant, anatomically, maybe it would just look like one, or be some unique cross between a plant and fungus, or something. Of course, his understanding of how plants work could be flawed in some way. It’s been a while since he learned plant biology, and if he’s wrong in any single belief, then the whole hypothesis could be way off, might not even make any sense.

He realizes that the moment before has passed. He’s no longer as uncertain about what he knows, and the idea of the world itself as bizarre and unknowable has faded somewhat as he feels more like, as little as he understands, there’s still a way to understand, a path that he could follow.

But maybe that’s an illusion too, of sorts, if he keeps “boggling” at things enough to get down to the atomic and subatomic level, where reality seems to genuinely stop making sense to brains that evolved on such a different scale.

Red smiles slightly and turns the page to start again with something else. He’s not sure if he’s on the right track to the exact mental state Jason lives in, but he’s glimpsed what might be a lens of his own, and that’s worth pursuing too.

Chapter 69: Missions

When Red teleports to the Sakai Ranch, the sun is approaching its zenith, and he takes a moment to enjoy its warmth on his skin. He’s not sure he’ll ever consider himself an “outdoorsy person,” but since moving to Saffron he’s come to appreciate being outdoors more than he can ever remember being before. He knows getting more sun sometimes helps with depression, but by the time he’s back to being Past Red it’s usually evening. In the week since he saw Dr. Seward, he has yet to make any meaningful progress with his other self… mostly because he hasn’t really tried.

Red finally feels like his skin has absorbed enough of the sun’s warmth and makes his way toward the ranch house, spotting Mr. Sakai as he emerges. “Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Red. So good of you to visit. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The rancher starts walking along the hexagonal perimeter of the nearby caterpie pen without waiting for an answer, throwing food into it from one of the sacks hanging at his waist. Red watches him go, conflicted emotions churning through him, then heads inside to get his own bags.

With Leaf living on the ranch and the RAWP therapy group coming by every few days, it rarely needs extra help. But Red still comes once in a while. Partly to help Leaf and Mr. Sakai, partly as an ongoing tribute to Aiko, a more practical equivalent to putting flowers on her grave. Even with his partition up, he still gets a little teary as he straps the feed bags around his waist, thinking of that first day they arrived here together. How nervous she was. How hopeful.

The sound of footsteps descending the stairs makes him quickly wipe his eyes before he turns.

Leaf is as pretty as ever in a plain shirt and jeans, her waist conspicuously absent of a pokebelt. He wonders if she feels strange without it. She smiles upon seeing Red, and he smiles back. Maybe there’s a part of him with selfish motive for coming too.

“Hey Red! I thought you couldn’t get a free afternoon this week?” she asks as Raff and Joy gambol down the stairs after her. Raff has gotten big, practically filling the stairway, and Red is happy to see Joy bouncing happily around the room without issue, apparently having finally gotten used to having just one eye.

“Saw my therapist last week, decided to shift some stuff around. How’s it going with you?”

She lifts a hand and rocks it side to side as she sits beside the door and starts pulling her shoes on. “The bad days are pretty bad, but they’re getting outnumbered little by little.” She finishes tying one set of laces, and he watches her brush her hair off her shoulder before she starts the second. “How’s The List? Cross anything off yet?”

On his first week in Saffron City, Red wrote up a list of the things he wanted to accomplish from his time with Sabrina, after which he would re-evaluate whether it was time to move on and do something else:

Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.

Develop ability to meld with pokemon enough to freely teleport with abra.

Learn telekinesis (or at least try everything advised before giving up)

Find an aspect of psychic phenomena confusing enough for major experiment.

It was tempting to keep adding more, and he had to remind himself multiple times that it wasn’t a list of all the things he wants to master about his powers, just what could reasonably be expected to be done in a few years and would make the most out of having such exclusive tutelage.

“Making progress. Particularly thanks to Aiko’s drowzee.”

It was a shock when Leaf called a couple weeks ago to explain that Aiko registered a will just a few days before Zapdos hit Vermilion, a coincidence that had his thoughts turn briefly superstitious before sanity reasserted itself. It was a short document, the gist of which was that Leaf got first pick of her pokemon, with the exception of any that would help with Red’s research, and Blue would have whatever was left.

It was simple, but made sense. Aiko didn’t know when she would need her will to be executed, what pokemon she might still have, and which of the other three might even still be alive. In essence she just placed her trust in the trio to get along and work out something fair, with just a few suggestions to make it clear that she was thinking of them.

The one exception was her eevee, who specifically went to Blue, then Leaf, then Red. The reason why was obvious, but it still hurt a little, considering he was the one who diagnosed Eevee so she could be healthy. Still, since his first thought was what a waste it would be to train the shiny eevee rather than trade it for far more powerful pokemon, Red can’t even say she chose wrong. He wondered if Leaf felt the same, but didn’t ask.

The only pokemon he’d taken for his research was her venonat, one of the magnemite she caught the night of the storm, and a drowzee from the same.

“Drowzee? Why?” Leaf asks as she straps on her own feed bags and heads outside. “Does it have a particularly large nose?”

Red smiles and follows her, summoning Pikachu and Nidoran from their balls. He’d bring Charmeleon out too, but with all these wooden pens around he doesn’t want to constantly be watching in case his pokemon’s tail bobs too close to one. “You know, I haven’t checked. But no, it’s… well, since two of my goals, maybe three, can be developed by getting better at melding with psychic pokemon, I’ve been spending most of my free time at the gym.”

“Well, that’s just ironic.” Leaf and Red split up to walk along the opposite side of a path with pens on either side for them to feed. She carefully measures food out for each pokemon while he uses his powers to sense how hungry each one is. “I don’t know if Blue would be happy or pissed,” Leaf says as she throws food in different directions for a group of rattata, making the whole pen run after each piece until all but two are busy nibbling. She has to tell them “Eat!” before they accept the food.

“Not for battling,” Red explains, ignoring the usual attempt to get him to talk about or to Blue.

Yeah, because that’s healthy.

Shut up, your idea of healthy is moping around all day.

“For what, then?”

“Being linked with pokemon as they use their abilities and practice maneuvers teaches me a lot more than sitting in my room with them.”

“But isn’t that what you did with your abra?”

“Yeah.” Red grimaces. “And as it turns out, abra are pretty boring.”

Leaf giggles. “I guess they do just sort of sit there. Or float, sometimes. They’re not social creatures, so I guess their inner world is just, what, looking for threats?”

Red nods. “And their next meal. Pikachu and Charmeleon are both constantly aware of their surroundings too, but they don’t automatically categorize everything as either a threat or food. There’s enough… confidence, in their ability to defend themselves, and enough expectation of safety, that there’s room for other things, like play.”

“But abra don’t really have a concept of ‘safe.'”

“Not naturally, no. I read that the pokeball simulations took a lot of work in the early days to repress their urge to teleport away all the time, and without that hypervigilance, there’s very little left of their minute to minute experience that’s particularly interesting.” Red shrugs. “So once I got used to their ridiculous hearing and having a tail, there wasn’t much to do other than spend the time strengthening the bond, which went slowly.” He frowns at her. “What?”

She’s giggling again. “Sorry, I just pictured you with a tail. What about telekinesis?”

He sighs and throws a handful of nuts and berries at a pair of maimed nidoran, one that’s missing a back leg, the other a front one. “Eat! Tried it. I could feel them doing something as they moved stuff around, but I can’t seem to activate the same part of my brain. Maybe because their brain structure is too different, or maybe because my telekinesis is just too weak.”

“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”

“Right. It’s only been a couple days, but I already feel more in tune with her than either of my abra. She pays a lot more attention to the nuance of others’ mental states, rather than just scanning for friend or foe.”

Leaf is quiet a moment as she moves on to the next pen. “Makes sense. I read up on them, and despite looking so goofy, they’re predators. They hunt in packs to overwhelm enemies that are wide awake, but for a single one it’s unreliable. So they probably need to be able to check how sleepy their opponents are.”

“Exactly. Since I noticed that, I’ve practiced paying attention to the same things in my own reading of others.” He casually tosses another handful of food out and orders the pokemon to eat it too. “So. Long night?”

“Red!” He feels a berry bounce off the back of his head, and turns with a grin to see Leaf glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t!”

“Just a guess, promise!”

Her glare fades to suspicion. “Okay. Sorry I threw the berry at you even though you sort of deserved it.” She smiles as she sees Pikachu sniffing at it.

“You’re forgiven. Pikachu, eat.” His pokemon electrifies the berry with a crackling sound until it’s steaming, then eats it in a quick gulp. “So what kept you up? The usual secretive project?”

“Yes,” she says as she moves to the next pen and scoops seeds over it for the three flightless pidgey hopping around in it. “Oh, also a Tier 1 went off nearby just after midnight.”

Red stops and turns to her, eyes wide. “What? I didn’t hear about that! Were you involved in any of the fighting?”

“No, by the time I was dressed and halfway there, it was already over. Guess it didn’t make major news.”

“Ah.” Red turns back to his work, wondering if she considered calling him to come help. Wondering if she didn’t because of Aiko.

Of course she doesn’t trust us. It’s only natural for her to-

“Speaking of my secret project,” Leaf says. “I want to talk to you about it.”

Or not.

“Really? That’s great! What’s changed?”

“I may need your help. I’ll tell you more after lunch. How are you and Laura getting along?”

He sighs. “Still encouraging me to talk to Blue. Don’t you start, too.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She’s quiet for a moment. “So, not well?”

“It’s not… terrible.” They did a lot of talking after the storm, once she got over her shock that he purposefully went into it, summarized what happened, and eventually described his ultimate decision.

She cried, which would have made him feel pretty wretched if she didn’t start hugging him too, which made him start crying too. She was the first person he met to wholeheartedly make him feel like she was glad he didn’t go into the building; she didn’t even bring his father up, perhaps remembering their talk after the Viridian Fire.

If they’d left it there, they might be on good terms. But then she insisted that she would talk to Blue, and he insisted that she shouldn’t, and then they had a new thing to argue about and carefully dance around. In the meantime, she’s gotten better about updating him on what she’s been working on, including catching him up on things that she was being quiet about, such as what happened to her in Celadon thanks to the kindly old President Silph, which led into her current investigations, which she still hasn’t revealed to him or Leaf, but keeps promising she will soon.

They finish feeding the pokemon while talking about why the Silph Company might have wanted to kill a Renegade on Mt. Moon, then return to the house to have lunch. The meatless spread doesn’t bother Red nearly as much as it did last time he was here, since he’s been keeping to his promise on the SS Anne with Leaf and not buying meat since he got back. It’s Mr. Sakai who has most of his attention through the meal. The older man seems more than ever like he’s just going through the motions of life, and it makes Red’s heart ache just being around him. He’s not sure how Leaf handles it day after day, but her courage gives him the strength to participate in small talk with him and act like everything is okay.

Once they’re done eating, they help him with the dishes, then Red follows Leaf into Aiko’s room, withdrawing all their pokemon except Raff and Pikachu. It’s largely the same it was a couple months ago, with just a couple changes to reflect the new inhabitants, one of which is Raff’s indoor soil to sleep on, which he goes to curl up in while Pikachu sniffs at the electronics until Red picks him up and pulls him onto his lap as he sits on the bed.

“So, what’s the big secret? What have you been working on?”

Leaf sits beside him and takes a breath as if to brace herself, then says, “The sakki program.”

Whatever Red was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You’re… did I hear you right? Sakki, as in killing intent? Not some program for Mr. Sakai?”

“Right.”

“I notice that I’m confused.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, I’m not a hallucination.”

“Then why…?”

“The Zapdos attack made me realize some things,” Leaf says gaze distant as she leans back in her chair and looks up the ceiling. “About the real scope of the problem I’ve been trying to face.”

Red slowly nods. “I’ve been reading your articles. They’re good, lots of receptive responses, particularly for the ones on that coordinator college site…”

“And lots of pushback.” She sighs. “Most of which seemed pretty intractable.”

“Stupid, too,” Red mutters, and her smile warms him. He doesn’t agree with a lot of Leaf’s positions, obviously, but he still spent more time than he probably should have trading insults with the most offensive of the poorly thought out comments on her articles. He wonders if she saw those. “But you knew you weren’t going to change the world in just a few months.”

“When Aiko and I talked about this, we spoke in years. But Red, I don’t think I can do it in a few decades. There are too many voices out there, and too many other causes, and… Every major incident is a recurring reason to keep to the status quo. Maybe I’ll eventually have enough influence to make some measurable difference, but it would be a fight of generations to really see the societal changes, and meanwhile, millions of more pokemon and humans suffer.”

Red shrugs, wanting to cheer her up but not sure how. “What else can you do? In a way I think you picked the hardest goal of all three of us. And what does any of this have to do with sakki?

She reaches into her pocket and holds a piece of pokepuff out to Pikachu’s nose. Red’s pokemon sniffs it, ears twitching, but doesn’t eat it. “He doesn’t cook pokepuffs, right?”

“Right.”

“So how long will he stay like this?”

“Haven’t checked in a while.” He counts to two minutes while Pikachu sniffs at the puff, looks away, looks back, sniffs it again… but keeps his mouth closed.

Leaf is smiling. “You trained him well. Would you mind using sakki on him, just for a moment?”

Red blinks at her, wondering what changed how scared of it she was before… then puts the pieces together.

“Killing intent” is what they called it, but only because its most obvious and immediate purpose was combat. But all it really does is give pokemon a mental state that removes restrictions of what’s “allowed.” Earlier when they were feeding the pokemon, many of them needed an explicit command to eat. Programming tech can expand the context of commands that are needed, but it can’t remove the need for them, once conditioned.

Red merges with Pikachu, acclimating to his pokemon’s mood in less than a second as his perception of the world doubles. The pokepuff smells delicious, and Red feels his own mouth watering. He starts to project the feeling of sakki, paying close attention to Pikachu’s impulses.

Once the feeling of release is complete, his pokemon darts forward to snatch the pokepuff from Leaf’s fingers. Red is already stopping the projection, and they watch as Pikachu happily chews his treat. Even without an initial command, his self-control isn’t that good that he’d stop after retroactively regaining the conditioning.

“So Aiko wanted to use a sakki program to remove the blocks from the ranch pokemon’s natural behaviors,” Red says. “Or at least the ones that haven’t been maimed, so they can be released back into the wild. But how does that help reduce wild pokemon suffering?”

Leaf just watches him, waiting with the calm patience of someone waiting for the inevitable. Whatever it is, she’s sure he’ll get it. Which reminds him to start at the basic assumptions.

There are generally just two parts to any belief someone holds: information and values. If she thinks he can figure it out on his own, she must believe that he has the information he needs to understand what her idea is based on. If that’s true, but he’s still not getting it, it’s because he’s not seeing the world enough from her perspective, through the lens of her values, to figure out what she’s thinking.

So he thinks back to those moments on the cruise, when their minds merged, and he saw the world from her perspective. Once he remembers how she feels about pokemon, and how much she values their wellbeing compared to other things he would normally rank much higher, it becomes obvious.

“You want to do it with all caught pokemon…” he says, slowly smiling as excitement grows in him. “But let them keep their non-aggression conditioning.” He has to remind himself not to get carried away before hearing more details, but… “Leaf, that’s genius.”

Leaf is grinning back, and blushing slightly. “Not genius enough. I checked online, people have occasionally brought it up as an idea, but always like a park, or your Safari Zone. I talked to Bill about it-“

Red feels a flare of envy. The inventor was upset with them for leaving the cruise, but after seeing their notes seemed mollified. Still, he hasn’t reached out to Red since, or responded to basic queries. Maybe he needs to just keep pestering the absent-minded inventor…

“-and he said that the technological barrier has two major elements. First to remove any type of conditioning we don’t want, second to maintain specific conditioning.”

“One interferes with the other,” Red guesses, stroking Pikachu’s back.

“Right. So from a programming angle, the hardest, but most direct way to do this would be to have individual programs for each pokemon to retrain them on how to live in the wild. The easiest way would be to just write a whole new and much simpler training program that only puts in restrictions on their aggressive behaviors, while keeping everything else the same… but that has additional complications.”

“Like how would it be distributed? With anti-tampering as strong as it is…”

“Right, it would mean entirely new balls specifically for this, which is economically a difficult sell.”

Red frowns, nodding. Even if existing pokeball software could be replaced, it would be a lot of work to safely wipe and download each one in a supervised environment. “Okay. So that’s a hurdle. But if people understand what it would mean…”

“I reached out to the Ranger General too. Well, to Ranger Matthew, who asked his captain, who passed it along before it came back to me. The concept itself isn’t totally strange, but using balls with a unique program for it is also a big disadvantage in the field. The ability to catch a pokemon, heal it, and use it right after without visiting a pokemon center first is often life saving.”

Red thinks of the spearow he caught on the way to Mt. Moon, then used against the paras swarm. The others probably had similar situations. “So we really do need a program to remove most conditioning, if this is going to catch on.”

“Yeah.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, displacing his hat as he considers the world she’s imagining and thinks of failure modes. “Babies?”

She shrugs. “Maintaining this would still be a fraction of current resources used for wild threats, but there are ideas to make even that easier, like adding in training that would designate breeding areas or seasons so that it’s easy to go through an area at certain times and catch babies as soon as they hatch.”

“Man, that would be… would the Rangers really be okay with something that affects wild pokemon behavior so much?”

Leaf sighs. “They would be one of the main groups needing convincing, yeah. The Ranger General said if a program like that existed, he might try picking a small and secluded area as a test zone and send a dozen ranger teams combing through it to catch every pokemon they find, recondition them to be able to live in the wild again, then keep moving on until the entire area has pokemon in it that can survive in the wild, but won’t attack humans. But they would want to wait for years afterward to make sure there’s no hidden effects on the pokemon’s life cycles or ecosystem, and he absolutely refused the idea of normal trainers getting involved.”

“I bet. There would be tons of people who’d want to help just to keep any rare pokemon they catch. But if you can develop the tech and convince governments to keep it to Rangers and maybe gyms…” He trails off, a subtle worry blooming as he finishes fully understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. The natural world of pokemon would be forever changed into something that better serves human interests. Pokemon interests too, but it’s not like there would be a way to stop human on pokemon aggression, other than laws.

Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”

“Nothing. Just… would you really be okay with it? You asked me not to use sakki anymore during the cruise, and even if that changed when we fought the magneton, this still feels like a… bigger change. If your idea works, we’d be forever altering the behavior of a significant portion of wild pokemon.” He watches her. “None of that bothers you?”

“Of course it does, Red.” She sighs. “You didn’t say it, but we also talked about mind control, and yes, to a part of me, that’s what this feels like. But what happened in Vermilion…”

Her gaze drops, and Red watches her cautiously. They’ve never talked in detail about what they went through, either alone or together. It’s easy to guess at what might have changed her mind, assuming he was there for it. The conflicted fear and sorrow that filled her voice when she told him to use sakki. The people they left behind at the burning building. The nidoqueen almost killing her…

“I can see why you became the way you are,” Leaf says. “Why everyone did. I was pretty privileged, growing up. Not just because of who mom and grandpa were, but because I was always on the move. Because I never lost anyone, the way most people did, that night.”

“Oh.” He feels like he should be objecting to “the way you are,” and he hears Past Red quietly murmuring about their decision about Aiko, but he doesn’t think that’s what she meant, and he ignores him. “I wish you still hadn’t.”

“Yeah.” Leaf looks around the room, smile watery, and takes a deep breath as she rubs her eyes, just once each. “That would have been nice.”

Red’s gaze drops, examining his hands. “I did wonder, at some point, whether you might change your mind on pokemon battling,” he says, voice quiet. “If you went through something bad enough. But it sounds like you’ve skipped ahead of the rest of us. Guess I just wanted to make sure you’re not feeling conflicted about it, or… that it’s not coming from a bad place, if that makes sense.”

“It does.” Leaf shrugs. “Humans do what we have to. I get it. But even if I grow the stomach to accept trainer battles, the real problem we all face… it’s not something that’s going to ever be solved by it. A thousand years from now, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how much society evolves, no matter how many Elite level trainers there are, even if every single legendary pokemon is caught, the wilderness will still be a hostile place, and people will still need to train pokemon to fight to defend ourselves. And that’s just…”

She lets out a breath, and shakes her head, face hard and gaze distant. “It’s unacceptable.”

Red is smiling, the iron resolve in her voice making something flutter in his chest. “Well. You don’t dream small, do you?”

Leaf’s gaze jumps to his, and she slowly grins before echoing back, “Where’s the fun in that?”

“None at all.”

“So, you’ll help?”

“Of course!”

Leaf beams at him in a way that warms him all the way to his heart, and Future Red suddenly pipes up. Hey, don’t we maybe want to talk about a commitment this big? What about all those other goals we’ve got?

We’ll figure something out. It’s the right thing to do.

And also the way she’s smiling at us feels really good.

And that, yes.

“I can already see some problems, though,” he cautions.

Leaf snorts, still smiling as she starts ticking points off with her fingers. “Poachers will be a much bigger problem if people can just stroll through any area and capture whatever they want, flying pokemon are probably never going to be fully domesticated, nor pokemon that live underground, nor water pokemon…”

“Ghosts,” Red adds, and she sticks up her pinky before raising her other hand. “And pokemon that appear by abiogenesis…”

“And this won’t help with the frontiers… yeah.” She drops her hands. “It’s not as amazing a plan as it first sounds.”

“It’s not,” Red agrees. “But it’s still amazing.” She grins at him again, and he feels his neck flush, hoping he doesn’t end up disappointing her. “What can I do, though? I’m not a programmer, or particularly influential.”

She gives him a look he can’t interpret before saying, “Well, the sakki is probably the most important thing we have to help develop the un-conditioning program. I was confused at first about how Aiko made so much progress mimicking it virtually, until I realized what must have happened.”

She’s still watching Red, as if expecting him to guess… no, as if expecting him to admit to something. “Uh. What?”

“You used sakki on one of her pokemon before she withdrew it, right? So she could analyze the changes it would have in a virtual environment?”

Red blinks. “What? No! I wouldn’t do that!”

Something shifts in her gaze, moving through doubt and into hope. “Really?”

“Yes, really! She never even asked.”

“Huh.” Leaf bites her lower lip. “Was there… any time when you used it on one of her pokemon?”

Red opens his mouth. Closes it. Shifts in his seat.

She sighs. “Red…”

“I mean, she was there when I did tests to make sure the state doesn’t persist after a pokemon comes back out, and tried maintaining it on more than one pokemon at a time… oh.”

She leans an arm on the desk and rests her chin in one hand, brow raised. He fleetingly wishes he could take a picture. “Oh?”

Red shifts again, heat creeping up his neck in embarrassment this time. “Okay, so what had happened was, the failsafe in that case was that she’d just withdraw her pokemon if she seemed worried about it. We already knew that once released the pokemon would have undergone their conditioning again and be safe, so I didn’t think of it, but… if she didn’t release and return it again after that, her ball had a record of its capture state.”

Leaf rubs her face. “And did this happen with anyone else?”

“…yes. But Aiko’s the only one that was trying to understand and replicate sakki, so I doubt any of them saved that mental state.”

“Mmhm. That sneaky, brilliant bitch.” She sighs, ignoring Red’s shocked face. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Who knows, maybe someone else will figure it out and save me the trouble.”

Red’s phone chimes, and he checks the message to see one from Sabrina. It’s requesting a meeting of all her students as soon as possible. “Damn it. I have to go sooner than I thought.”

“That’s alright. We can talk more later.” Leaf stands. “I’ll walk you out.”

They head outside, and Red goes down the porch steps while Leaf stays on it. He summons Saffron (once Cerulean, then Vermilion), wishing she would hug him goodbye. It’s something he feels she would have initiated, before. But now there’s a cautious distance in their friendship that feels fragile, and he supposes a hug might feel risky, to her. Or maybe he’s just coming off as less friendly now, without realizing it…

Red pauses to look back at Leaf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did I seem okay to you, today?”

Leaf’s brow rises, then draws down in concern. “Uh. Yeah, I think so. Is something wrong?”

“Nah, I’ve just been spending a lot of time with psychics lately, and thought I should just check to make sure I’m still… myself.”

She smiles. “That’s a very Red thing to be concerned about. Who else would you be?”

He thinks of telling her about Past Red, but that would be a much longer conversation. “Someone who doesn’t care about his friends,” is what comes out instead, and it isn’t until after he says it that he realizes how much it hurts to think that it might be true.

And now Leaf is walking toward him, arms going around his shoulders as she pulls him into a hug.

“You care, Red,” she murmurs as heat flushes through him… and tears prick at his eyes as he hugs her back. “No matter what may have happened, or will happen, I know that.”


Red teleports back to the roof of the small apartment building where Sabrina and her students live, the feel of Leaf’s concern still lingering on his body and heart. He barely sees his surroundings as he makes his way down, feet taking him through his now-familiar new home without conscious thought.

Most of the building has been refitted for use as class and training rooms, as well as a floor dedicated to experimentation. Red was amazed and humbled by it his first couple of weeks, and it still has some effect on him, shaking him out of his thoughts as he goes to his room to change, then hurries out of the building and toward the nearby Gym, where Sabrina called the meeting for some reason. He wonders if whatever they’re being assembled to speak about will involve gym business, and worries briefly about an incident that might have occured nearby.

“Hey Verres, catch!”

Red’s arm darts up before he even spots the object, pivoting in the direction of the voice and stopping the crumpled up fast food bag an inch from his face.

In the brief moment after his hand grips it, he feels its momentum continue, pushing his hand back enough that his knuckle grazes his nose. Then it becomes inert, and he lowers his hand to see Daniel walking toward him.

Red is both the youngest of Sabrina’s students and the newest, but before last month, that second attribute would have gone to Daniel. The lanky blond has been in Saffron for just a year, but at 16 he’s one of the best psychics in a city known for its psychics, with an intricate understanding of how his abilities work that keep allowing him to push the envelope. He’s dressed in a simple white shirt with a purple hakama that flows around his legs, attire that’s different enough to mark him as a psychic without quite fitting into any particular school or tradition.

Red eyes Daniel warily as he tosses the bag in a nearby trash can, not pausing in his walk. “Hello, Daniel.” The continued force behind the relatively weightless object made it clear that it was telekinetically propelled and guided.

The older boy shakes his head as he falls into step with Red, the two making their way toward the gym together. “You didn’t even try, Verres. How do you expect to awaken your kinesis like this?”

“I’ve been practicing it on and off for months,” Red says, voice flat. “I don’t think it’s going to randomly start working now.”

“You’re the one that said pokemon abilities are the key to understanding psychic powers, right? That kids do stuff by accident all the time, just by willpower or sudden need? Maybe once you’ve unlearned those trainer instincts, it’ll come to you.”

Red sighs. The argument had been about whether psychic pokemon could really even be considered “psychics,” since none are sapient enough to actually understand what they’re doing, and so many of their abilities have been observed in non-psychic pokemon. This seems to be Daniel’s way of proving his point that real psychic abilities are tied to a deeper understanding of what you’re doing, rather than just relying on instincts like pokemon. “And in the meantime, I should just let myself be hit in the face.”

Daniel shrugs. “It’s your theory. But it would be a small sacrifice if it ends up working, right?”

Red eyes the blond, but says nothing. He can never get a read on him, psychically or otherwise. The first time he’d thrown something at Red it had been a pencil, aimed at his chest, shortly after finding out that he had seemingly no ability to use telekinesis at all. Since then he’s done it half a dozen times, never in a way that presented any real danger to Red, so Red might just look immature if he complains to Sabrina.

He doesn’t know that she’d think that, but even if she acknowledges it as bullying, she’s the kind of Leader and teacher who tends to expect people to at least try to work out their problems alone before coming to her.

Besides, Red’s pretty sure that even if his mind were read, Daniel would be able to honestly say that he was just trying to see if Red’s telekinesis would awaken. For all Red knows that is his only motivation; like most of Sabrina’s students, he’s even more obsessed with psychic phenomenon and advancement than Red.

Daniel was raised in a small superstitious town with no other psychics in it. He somehow managed to teach himself enough about his powers in secret that, after pretending he wanted to become a trainer, he used the money his parents gave him to apply for the license and buy equipment to travel to Saffron and get close enough to Sabrina to impress her with his mental powers.

It’s a story that would impress Red enough to want to befriend the older boy, if his perspective wasn’t so… bizarre.

“Any idea why we’re meeting at the gym?” Red asks.

“Got the same message you did. Maybe she wants us to work with some of the trainers there again.” He doesn’t bother disguising the distaste in his voice, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Like I’ve got time to teach normals.”

It’s a common word, among the psychics who dislike the term “gifted” and “ungifted,” and find “non-psychic” too burdensome. But coming from Daniel, the word has an unpleasant edge to it.

“There are psychic trainers there too,” Red reminds him. “And like I said, I’ve been learning a lot from merging with psychic pokemon.”

“Still no telekinesis though. Seems like it should be a pretty straightforward test.”

Before Red can reply they enter the gym, and see another of Sabrina’s students waiting at the elevator. The three exchange simple nods for greeting as they wait for the elevator. Tatsumaki is almost as short as Red despite being in her mid-twenties, with curly green hair and a simple black collared dress. She’s widely considered the best telekinetic in Kanto, though she’ll quickly insist that she’s only the “strongest,” and that Sabrina is close behind while also being more “versatile.”

Red once asked her what the difference is, and she went on for twenty minutes about the distinction between raw telekinetic strength and the actual ability to manipulate and affect objects with it. He sort of got part of it, something like the difference between not just how much muscle you have but how good you are at using your whole body to lift a heavy box, compared to how well you intrinsically understand the weight distribution and shifting of the objects in the box and can balance it as you maneuver on the fly. But a lot of the phrases and concepts apparently had to be experienced to be fully understood, and most of it went over his head.

Once she finally stopped to ask about his telekinetic ability and he admitted his lack of any, she lost interest in the conversation, and seemed annoyed with him ever since, as if he wasted her time.

The elevator ride up is quiet too, and they move together to Sabrina’s office once they arrive at the top floor. The rest of the students are inside already, and Leader Sabrina is at her desk, with her Second and Third, Tetsuo and Keiji, standing at her sides.

Who died? Red thinks with sudden foreboding. Whatever this is, it’s something serious. He drops his mental shield for a moment to do a quick probe around, and feels a few others probing around as a general mood of anticipation and worry permeates.

Tatsumaki and he are the only two of Sabrina’s students in what Red would consider “normal” clothes. Satori Komeiji, the second youngest student at 15, is dressed in a flowing blue blouse and a flared skirt that goes from white to pink toward the edges, matching her hair and making her look like a big flower. Despite her youth, she’s one of the best mind readers in Kanto, and bonds incredibly well with pokemon… which is possibly why she barely ever talks to people.

Rowan Donkerk, a pale young man in his early twenties, wears the same white overcoat over black shirt and pants that Psychic Narud did, with the same words warning against the idea of a set fate written on the sleeves. He specializes in partitions and memory manipulation, and is apparently from an absurdly wealthy family in another region who came specifically to train with Sabrina, while also being initiated into the same sect as Narud.

Jason Grey is a lanky older teen wearing religious vestments, the oversized clothes hanging in huge folds around his body as his fingers spin the prayer beads around his neck. Red doesn’t know much about him except that he’s a trainer too; his starter was apparently a gastly that he tamed without even using a pokeball, earning him both Elite Agatha and Leader Sabrina’s attention. He was only a year into his journey before he accepted apprenticeship with Sabrina, and has been here for a couple years now. He always seems nervous, and barely talks to anyone more than he has to.

And finally there’s Rei, Sabrina’s most senior student in both senses of the word. Her long blonde hair is tied up in a severe bun, and her kimono looks like it’s worth a fortune, back ramrod straight as she watches their teacher and waits for the meeting to begin. If she has a specialty, Red hasn’t learned it; she just seems to be good at everything, and a general genius besides.

Sabrina herself cuts an imposing figure in a simple red turtleneck and black jeans. Like most Leaders, even while sitting quietly her presence seems to fill the room, likely due to some combination of his own expectations and subtle charisma on her part. Tetsuo and Keiji wear their personalized Gym uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Sabrina says, hands folded on her desk. “I’ll keep this brief. An emergency has come up, and I’m going to be unreachable for an unknown period of time of at least a few days, possibly more than a week.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he senses the shock bounce around the room full of psychics. It’s not unusual for Sabrina to go radio silent for hours at a time, and with her ability to teleport to so many places on a whim she still manages to have nearly as busy a schedule as most Gym Leaders. But disappearing for days at a time is a first.

“Tetsuo and Keiji will run the gym in my absence, but I’ll be relying on the rest of you to not only continue your classes, but assist them however you’re needed. None of you are in the gym’s chain of command, but they are both your seniors in psychic knowledge and experience, and can teach you things even I can’t. See this as an opportunity to branch out. No, Jason,” Sabrina says, looking at her student, who had barely twitched. “Not with that, it will have to wait until I return. But you will all have another assignment while I’m gone, and it has primary importance after the smooth operation of the gym, and your own classes.”

They all sit up straight as her gaze sweeps over them once before she finally takes a breath and says it: “I’ve come to suspect that someone has managed to fully partition their mind, to the point where their exposed surface thoughts and emotions are independent from their true inner ones, though still within their control. A perfect mental shield.”

The room is deathly silent. Even Tetsuo and Keiji are staring at the Leader with wide eyes, apparently not having been filled in on the reason for her sudden absence separately. This must really be fresh news.

What Red feels isn’t shock so much as dread. What Sabrina’s describing is someone who can act as the perfect liar. Not just able to hide their thoughts and emotions, but able to do so while they make people, that is to say, psychics, believe they aren’t. The difference between how they would be treated compared to someone who’s Dark or a Psychic using a mental shield would be night and day.

And just the rumor of such an ability would drastically lower trust in psychics everywhere, both those who might be using it and the ability of psychics to act as lie detectors.

“How sure are you of this, Leader?” Satori asks.

“Let’s say at least 70%. Enough to act on it decisively, and ask you all to as well. This is your assignment; try to do the same thing yourselves. Prove that it’s possible, if you can. If not, document all the things you try. Yes, Rowan?”

“Are both minds independent?” her student asks, brow drawn. “Does their behavior ever seem erratic, or at odds with themself?”

“A good question, but not noticeably. He almost always appears to be in total control of his emotional state, and the few exceptions don’t point to such a dichotomy of self.”

Red has taken his notebook out and started scribbling the questions and answers. A few of the others glance at him, but Sabrina ignores it. She knows him well enough by now. As he scribbles out the answers she’s giving to people’s questions, he also starts listing the things that he’s known have developed new abilities in him.

Unique circumstances

Mimicking other mental states

Forced to work around limits

Experiencing others using abilities

“The psychic,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Do people know if he spent a lot of time with other psychics, or pokemon?”

Sabrina’s gaze holds his, and he reinforces his shield automatically, though he feels no attempt to breach it. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s thought. “He spent a lot of time merged with all sorts of people, not just psychics, and has explicitly merged with lots of psychic pokemon as they used abilities.”

Red’s face falls as he notes that down, and it’s Rei that beats him to the punch: “Then it’s possible more than one person, or even pokemon, is capable of this.”

The room is quiet again as people glance at her, until Sabrina finally says, “Operate as though that’s not true, for now. It’s possible he learned how to do this by mimicking someone or something else, but that still leaves the question of how they did it. I believe that he pieced it together from disparate insights and abilities, or just worked it out himself. That’s why I need you all to work together on this. You’re some of the most gifted and brilliant psychics in the world. I’m counting on you.”

They all stand at attention and bow, and Sabrina bows back. Red feels dread as he considers the upcoming days. He’s the newest among the group, and the youngest, and the weakest, and the least experienced. More than any of that, none of his peers seem to particularly like him. But then, how much effort has he really put into that, so distracted by the newness of all this, and his own issues and goals? Optimistically this could be an opportunity to show them his worth, but if they don’t take him seriously or work with him…

“Good luck, everyone.” Sabrina strides for the door.

“Leader,” Red calls out before he can stop himself, still used to referring to her by that title despite not being a trainer anymore.

She turns and gives him a passive expression that still somehow communicates impatience. “Yes?”

“Can we work with others, if we don’t tell them what it’s for?”

Sabrina considers this a moment, fingers tapping against her leg in an oddly uncontrolled gesture, for her. “There’s a saying, that three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The room chuckles (a little nervously, in Red’s case), and Sabrina smiles. “I’ve already told all of you, and am planning no murders, which means I can only blame myself if this gets out sooner than I’d like. I took you all on not just because of your abilities and drive, but because I trust you not to do anything that will reflect poorly on me or my Gym. Use your judgement… but for now, only psychics, and preferably gym members. Understood?”

Red bows and murmurs, “Yes, Leader,” along with everyone else’s mixed honorifics. It makes sense; a psychic will have as much of an incentive to let an expert manage the release of a secret like this, and of course none of Sabrina’s gym members will want to go against her wishes.

“Then good luck to you all.” The door slides open, then closes behind her.

Tetsuo steps forward. “Okay, so that was a shock to everyone. Feel free to use gym facilities to work on this, and call on us if you need assistance.”

“Or if you plan on pulling in any other gym members,” Keiji says, gaze on Red. He nods to show he understands.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our gym duties, we’ll be happy to help,” Tetsuo says, and the two leave the room. As soon as the door closes, Daniel speaks.

“We should pair up,” he says, glancing at Tatsumaki. Red suspects that he likes her, and it’s clear he has his partner picked out. “We might be more productive, with someone to discuss our ideas with.”

“Or we can all discuss together,” Satori says, voice dry. “Since that would lead to more discussions. I would prefer to consider this alone, for now at least.”

“Shouldn’t we at least discuss it?” Jason asks. “We all have different focuses and perspectives. Perhaps one of us has some insight to share?”

Rowan shrugs, bemused. “I highly doubt that, unless one of you has been secretly working on this yourselves. I for one have other commitments tonight, and agree that it would be a waste of time to try and talk about it yet.”

Rei steps to where Sabrina was standing and turns, drawing all their attention to her.

“We’ve been charged by our teacher to do something no one else has,” she says, calm and confident. “It is a great honor, and likely of vital importance. I propose we all take the day to prepare and consider the problem on our own, and meet tomorrow to discuss potential solutions and plans.”

“Seconded,” Red quickly says. “It’s good practice to avoid cross-contamination of ideas, and keeps us from discussing solutions before we’ve fully considered the problem.”

“Agreed,” Satori adds, voice distant. “Like Rowan, I have other projects I must put to rest first, so I may put my whole attention on this.”

“Fine with me,” Tatsumaki adds, and the others nod or shrug.

“Good,” Rei says. “We’ll meet for lunch tomorrow in our cafeteria.”

“Should we ask them to join us?” Jason asks, pointing a thumb at the door where Tetsuo and Keiji exited.

“No. Let’s not bother them until we have something specific to test or need advice on.” She heads for the door herself. “Remember, don’t speak with each other about this for the rest of the day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”


Red walks back home, notebook in one hand and gaze distant. He could have just teleported back, as some of the others did, and saved himself a five minute walk, but he’s so physically inactive these days that even short walks have some value, and he doesn’t want to get too lazy. Besides, once he gets to his room he’d just be sitting and thinking anyway.

His mind keeps wanting to shift away from useful pursuits to social worries about his relationship with Sabrina’s other students. On the one hand he knows it’s important to be able to work together, as situations like this show. And as Blue and Leaf convinced him, being respected is important if he wants his ideas to be taken seriously and spread.

But on the other, all of that feels like excuses to the simpler truth: he wants to be liked. Even Daniel, who rubs Red the wrong way, is powerful and clever, and as immature as it is to care what he thinks of Red on a personal level, he can’t help it.

Maybe it’s just because he spent months with people who he had a good relationship with, and he’s forgotten how to make friends. He tries to think of the last person who he actually had trouble getting along with for any significant amount of time besides Blue, and can’t think of any since leaving Pallet.

Is this helpful? Future Red wonders. You’re supposed to be thinking of the perfect mental shield.

Maybe it is. Maybe I’m stuck on it for good reason, and should deal with it before trying to just move on.

Red reaches the apartment building and presses his notebook against the wall of the elevator  as he rides it up to his floor, flipping to the page after the possible causes of the perfect shield.

Identify relative advantages. What do I bring to the table?

Formulate at least one hypothesis worth testing. Test it if possible.

Determine which students may be befriended. Try to do so before meeting.

Determine which gym members can be worked with. Meet them.

He reaches his floor and goes to his apartment, then sits at his desk and tries to think of something else. When a couple minutes pass without anything new, he tackles the first one.

What does he bring to the table? What’s special about him, his power, or the way he thinks?

Rei is probably at least as smart as him. Rowan is better at manipulating and creating partitions. Satori is a more experienced trainer and merger. Jason has a more unique outlook, or abilities, or whatever it is that lets certain psychics specialize with ghost pokemon. And aside from anything else, Daniel and Tatsumaki are just more experienced, which applies to the others.

What are his remaining strengths? No, first list the things that are unique, figure out what’s a strength or useful after.

His background in science. Being raised by a reporter and a ranger. His social connections with Professor Oak and Bill. His mind-state mimicking. His screwed up trauma reaction…

Red blinks. Rowan asked whether the psychic ever seemed to be at odds with themself, and Sabrina said no, so Red dismissed the idea that his alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which he calls Past Red, might be related.

But if he and Past Red were to come to an agreement, they wouldn’t be at odds anymore. Maybe the psychic that developed the perfect shield does have their own alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which acts as the buffer mind for the hidden one.

(He definitely needs to come up with another name for it, and he refuses to call it an alternate personality.)

He hasn’t spent the whole week putting off talking with Past Red. That would be lazy and childish. He’s just spent it preparing himself for the ways he might actually do it, to ensure he has a good plan. A foolproof method that wouldn’t risk him spending the rest of his day and night lying in bed depressed.

He flips to a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing.

Hey Past Red. I’m about to let the partition down. If you don’t respond to this and put it back up, I’m never purposefully doing this again. We both have something the other wants. Let’s talk.

He looks at the paper, then he lets his breath out. As he tries to think of anything else he can do to prepare, maybe a gesture of goodwill, he realizes he should summon Pikachu, and returns to his chair with the yellow mouse curled up in his lap. Finally, with a reluctance that takes a minute to overcome, he closes his eyes and starts to bring his partition down.

When Red opens his eyes again, he sighs at the silly paper in front of him. Of all the changes the partition causes in his personality when it’s up, the fact that he treats himself like a separate person is the most worrying. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to “communicate,” he can remember writing the words himself perfectly fine.

But he clearly does get pretty irrational with the partition up, and he supposes it’s a useful framing device that Dr. Seward would approve of that might help interface with that irrationality. Red scratches behind Pikachu’s ear with one hand as the other picks up the pencil.

Dear Future Red (I’m not calling you Present Red, because I’m Present Red, obviously),

You’re an idiot.

Love, Present Red

He puts the pencil down and stares at the paper for a moment, fighting the urge to just tear it up and forget this nonsense before passing on the idea as too much effort. His thoughts are already drifting to Aiko, today’s trip to the ranch having unearthed memories that drag at him. He needs to figure out the underlying reasoning behind what he did, understand if he made the right decision for the right reasons, before something like it happens again. It could happen any day, and he’s done nothing to prepare.

But if he doesn’t bring the partition back up, he’d lose future moments of clarity like this. Red grimaces at the idea of being a hostage to his own self, and lets the partition go back up.

It immediately feels like he just sucked in a breath of fresh air. He sighs it out, looking down at the paper. Past Red’s thought process is fresh on his mind; they can’t both exist at the same time, so this is a dead end path to go down. Red shakes his head, scowling at how defeatist he is with the partition down, and starts writing again.

Dear Mopey Red,

Your attitude sucks. If you

Red stops, then slowly erases what he wrote. It’s a symbolic gesture, since he’ll remember having written it anyway, but this isn’t going to work as long as they’re insulting each other.

Look. I know you feel like I’m just you on happy-pills or something, but if having most of my grief locked away is interfering with my thinking, then being flooded by it is probably interfering with yours too. I’m doing this because I can’t model you as clearly as you can model me, and because I think we can actually learn something from what’s going on with us. Even if I’m wrong, we should be working on resolving whatever this is anyway, right?

He reads it over, checking to make sure he wasn’t too rude, adds Thanks for putting the partition back up at the beginning, then brings it back down.

The transition is so abrupt this time that Red practically feels his thoughts changing, mood plummeting as his eyes scan over what he’d just written. It’s not impossible that learning more about this partition would be helpful in a number of ways, and he does need to resolve it. But how is the important part. While it’s up, he feels like he would happily just delete all these feelings if he could, or lock them away permanently, which feels like self-mutilation.

We can’t “resolve” it if you push off working on it and leave the partition up, he writes to his future self. The only reason it was brought down was because of Sabrina’s task. Don’t pretend that you’ll be motivated to bring it down voluntarily again after this is all over.

He brings the partition back up, and sighs. His past self is right. So what do you want in assurances? We should be able to find an arrangement that works.

Well first off I want you to stop treating this like a negotiation. You’re trying to barter with your own mental health.

I’m trying to make sure my mental health doesn’t put my life on hold.

That’s not how it works, and you know it. Plenty of people have already told you that this would take work. If you’re not willing to do it, then admit that to yourself.

What do you call this?

I call it bad priorities. How about you just do the right thing.

Red puts the pencil down and stares at the sheet, anger pushing through the haze of numbness and grief. Treating his changed personality like a different self feels like giving into pathology, but… Dr. Seward did suggest it. Maybe it will help him take what happened more seriously even with the partition up, if he can just convince himself that he might be ignoring a real problem he needs to fix.

Meanwhile, he should just leave the partition down as long as he can. It’s rare that it’s down this early, usually by the time he’s used enough psychic ability for it to come down he doesn’t usually have the energy to do more than just lay in bed. He could spend a few hours working out his decisions, maybe go back to Aiko’s ranch…

Red sighs, eyes closed, and rubs his face. He can’t blame his partitioned self that much, if he can barely muster the energy to confront such depressing thoughts himself. Pikachu stretches on his lap and walks over to his hand, nudging it for more scratches. He complies automatically, still thinking over what to do.

If he keeps the partition down, he’d be burning goodwill with his “other self.” And part of him is interested in figuring out what Sabrina discovered, though it’s distant.

“Whatever,” he mutters, and lets go, bringing the partition back up.

Red lets out a breath. That had been close. His gaze lingers on the words, Do the right thing, and something twists in his stomach. He remembers what it felt like, writing it. There was an undertone of bitterness and challenge, there.

“Whatever,” Red echoes, and turns the page. Time to form some hypotheses, then make some friends.

Chapter 68: Internal Family Systems

Pallet Town hasn’t changed in four months. Or at least, not that Red can tell just by biking through it.

Maybe some store has closed and been replaced, or some new homes have gone up. If so, they’re not in his line of sight as he bikes down the main street. The illusion of its stability is only broken by his knowledge that his home is being inhabited by strangers and that Pallet Labs, gleaming in the distance above the town’s skyline, lacks its professor.

But the relative quiet is the same, and is particularly soothing after a month in Saffron City. As is the smell of the ocean on the wind, and the distant sound of wingull crying into the open blue skies.

He reaches his destination and packs his bike and pads away, then goes inside, feeling like he’s stepping back in time. It’s only been four months since he was in Pallet Town, but he hasn’t been to Dr. Seward’s office in years. The waiting room hasn’t changed since he was last here, though the office itself has. The carpet is the same dark green, but there’s a new couch, and the paintings have changed.

Dr. Seward herself is apparently unchanged, however, and her smile is warm as he sits down. “Hello, Red. Glad you could finally make it in person.”

“Me too.” He sinks into the couch and is gratified by how comfortable it is. He’s a little sweaty from the ride, or else he’d lie down.

“You can lie down, if you want.”

Red immediately reinforces his shield, then blinks at her, and smiles. “You know, I’ve been living in a building full of psychics for a month now, and I’ve nearly forgotten how effective simple deduction can be.”

Her eyes glint merrily. “Well, I’m happy to remind you how effective simple observations can be. Plus you always did enjoy lying down. Despite the stereotype, you were my only client young enough to actually do it.”

Red grins, and decides to follow her suggestion. He lets his shoes dangle over the side of the couch and uses the pillows to give his head something to rest against.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” He lets out a breath, feeling himself relax as he stares at the ceiling, her face still in his periphery. After a moment he thinks of the attention he’s still keeping automatically to maintaining his shield. “Do you mind if I bring my mental shield down too?”

“Why would I mind that?”

“I sort of detect minds by reflex, now. It takes concentration not to.”

“Ah.” His therapist considers that. “It’s just the detection of a mind? Not a way to identify people or read thoughts?”

Red hesitates, considering it. “Well, I can’t identify people just by detecting their mind, no. But if I ever detect the same mind elsewhere, I might recognize the feel of it.”

“Might? How reliable is that?”

“The more time I spend with them, the more reliable it is. Ummm…” He thinks back to past experiences. “A couple hours would help me identify someone with something like… 80% accuracy, if I focus on their mental signature?”

“Hmmm.” She taps her fingers on her desk. “You’ll only be here for an hour, so I suppose that’s alright. And thoughts?”

“What? Oh, no. Surface impressions only.”

“Meaning?”

Red shifts, considering an example. “Again, familiarity helps a lot, but eventually I’d be able to recognize if someone is happy or sad or angry with enough exposure. I’m not good enough to tell for total strangers right away.”

Dr. Seward nods. “Alright, I don’t think that would violate any privacy. Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Red lets his shield relax, and is immediately aware of the minds around him. Dr. Seward’s, two people in the room his feet are pointing at, a handful scattered below and above them, and a couple more moving outside around the building.

“So, how has your visit been so far?”

“Good. This is only my second stop, then I’m heading back.”

“Ah. The lab was the other, I take it? Good to see familiar faces?”

“Yeah.” He doesn’t want to talk about how empty it seemed without the Professor, then remembers where he is and lets a breath out. “Missed one, though.”

She nods, and Red notices her mind shift in a way that he finds easy to interpret as concern. “How’s Sam doing? Have you seen him recently?”

“Not since last week. But Daisy says he’s doing better. Walking again, with some help.” Red’s stomach twists briefly at the memory of the Professor lying in the hospital bed. He’s still there at the doctor’s orders instead of at home, because they knew if he was discharged he wouldn’t rest.

“Glad to hear it.” Dr. Seward watches him a moment, and something in her bearing changes. “So. Our first session since the attack on Vermilion, and you wanted it to be in person. I can’t really imagine what you went through, but I’ve been worried about you.”

Red nods, gaze down. “I appreciate it. I just… wasn’t really up to talking about anything, yet.”

“I understand. I’m sure there are a dozen things we could spend the session processing or working on, and I don’t blame you for needing time to process a lot of it on your own.”

Red thinks of that night. The fear from the Pressure and the fights, the grief and frustration over those they couldn’t save, and of course the guilt about not being able to stop Aiko. And the days and nights leading up to it, on the cruise with Leaf. And the aftermath, with her and Blue. “A couple dozen, yeah,” he says as he focuses on his breathing until the twisted knot of pain and anger and sadness and regret slowly fade.

She nods. “How’s the survivor’s guilt?” She says it so matter of factly, and he knows that it must be the most common thing for people who’ve been through a Tier 3 incident.

“Not as bad as it could be, all things considered.”

“Nightmares?”

“Very few, actually.”

“Good. Are you missing Blue and Leaf?”

Anger flashes through him, but also regret, and not just about Leaf. “Some. But there’s nothing I can do about that.” He’d shared basic details of the attack’s aftermath over email, but it was sparse on detail and didn’t include his feelings for Leaf.

“Nothing?”

“We’re all where we need to be, right now. Leaf’s at the Sakai ranch, helping Aiko’s dad and working on a project.” A project she won’t talk about, for some reason, and there’s pain with that thought too.

“And Blue?”

They haven’t spoken since after the funeral, and the only plus side to the “conversation” was Leaf has since stopped trying to get them to talk. At this point, the only thing he wants to hear from Blue is an apology. “Doing gym stuff.”

“I see.” Her mental impression shifts again, though Red lacks the context to understand how. Her face just keeps radiating patient concern. “Not to press too much, but even if it seems like things can’t get better, you might just be too close to the situation to see how. Or maybe just processing how you feel about it can help.”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “Maybe. I get that there’s probably something to unpack in all that, but like I said, we’re all where we need to be right now. And honestly, there’s something more important on my mind.”

“Ah. By all means, then, what can I help you with?”

“My psychic apprenticeship. There are seven of us right now, and Leader Sabrina is a big believer in the idea that people learn best through teaching. So all her students spend most of our time giving lessons to each other or gym members.”

“Not exactly what you expected, I take it?”

Red smiles. “I don’t mind that part, actually. I like teaching. But because we’re all at such different levels and have different specialties, and her time is so limited, she decides on individual lessons based on our progress to make sure she’s not going to just be teaching something that someone else can.”

“Ah. I think I see. You haven’t been getting many private lessons from her?”

“Only one, so far,” Red says, voice glum. “There’s always at least another more advanced student around, which means the focus is rarely on what I’m interested in most. I’m learning a lot more control and finesse, and a few new techniques, but mostly I want help improving my connection with pokemon. I decided to practice fully inhabiting every psychic pokemon I can get my hands on to better understand the different psychic experiences, but I’m a long way from the seamless merge that Sabrina can do with her pokemon. I know it’s only been a month, but I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon at this rate.”

Dr. Seward leans back in her seat. “So you need to impress her. Not just once, I’m guessing, but enough to let her know it’s worthwhile to teach you more individually, and more often.”

“Yeah, and the main thing that’s holding me back so far is that I can only spend so much time practicing before the grief shows up. So that’s what I want to focus on.”

His therapist stares at him a moment. “Can I ask, how that feels, internally?”

“How what feels?”

“That decision process, of wanting to deal with your grief because it’s getting in the way of an ambition.”

Red shrugs. “It’s… it just feels—”

“Wait. Not off the cuff. Give it a minute. Really look.”

“Right.” He breathes in and closes his eyes. At first it feels like nothing in particular, but when he imagines things from her perspective, and he recognizes her concern; it’s a bit of a cold-blooded reason to want to get over grief.

But isn’t that right? To want to get over grief as quickly as you can? It’s not like he’s trying to get rid of memories of Aiko or his dad (he knows how to do that, now, though not with much skill yet), he just wants to get over the pain of it. “It just feels pragmatic. I know I don’t have the willpower to just… open myself up to dealing with it for its own sake. The world won’t stop for me. I learned that after Dad. So it’s not an intrinsic motivation, but if I need to get it done anyway, an extrinsic motivation will have to do.”

Dr. Seward nods slowly. “Understandable. But I do remember you mentioning that you’re worried about the way so many psychics seem to be socially hard to interact with. How worried are you that you might become more like that, now that you’ll be entrenched in that life and culture?”

Red had noticed it a few times since he moved to Saffron, but he hadn’t thought of how it might affect him for a while. “Well, I guess I’m worried about it now. Is that something you can keep an eye out for?”

“I’m happy to share observations if any come to mind, but we don’t interact in a day to day setting. Do you think you can ask someone else you see more often?”

“…You mean like the other psychics I’m trying not to become like?”

“Hm. I didn’t realize that would be everyone you interact with. Maybe Leaf?”

Red shifts. Hey Leaf, let me know if I’m acting too cold and aloof, but not because of all the awkwardness about Aiko dying or you siding with Blue. “Sure.”

Her brow rises. “And will you?”

Red sighs, smiling. “Yeah, I will. Promise.”

“Good. Alright, then. Why don’t we start by clarifying how the grief has changed, since your friend died.”

Red shifts, smile fading. The pain of thinking about Aiko in the past tense is a muted thing, both for the month that passed and his partition, but it still makes it hard to think clearly for a moment. He remembers being here after his dad died and having to struggle to even speak through the weight in his chest, the grey curtain dividing him from the world. “I had a dream last week.”

“You don’t normally mention dreams. I assume it’s relevant?”

“I think it might be, yeah…”


Ten minutes.”

A long table in an empty white room, its wood top bare of covers or sheets, its chairs simple and abstract.

To the left sat Red. His hair was wet, clothes dirty and torn. An extra pokebelt hung loose around his stomach, some balls missing from both. His gaze was long, though it ended at the tabletop just in front of him.

Across from him sat Red, looking a few years older and wearing a white lab coat. He looked frustrated, and his leg bounced with nervous energy beneath the table as his arms stayed rigidly locked across his chest.

Between them sat Red, looking more or less as his current self, attention on Past Red.

Ten minutes?”

That’s about how long Aiko kept the Second waiting. About how long his people were in the hospital before we got there. If we were with them, would we have made the same decision 10 minutes earlier?”

We can’t know the answer to that,” Future Red said. “And we shouldn’t even be talking about this to avoid projection or anchoring bias.”

Red shook his head, trying to avoid a fight that he can sense coming. “No one’s asking you to precommit to anything.”

You don’t have to ask me to do it, but I’ll still feel pressured to if we decide ahead of time that we should be more heroic because we’re guilty about Aiko.”

Aren’t we?” Past Red asked, looking up at the other two.

I don’t think so,” Present Red said.

I don’t think so,” Future Red said, more confidently. “But that might change, and if it does I’ll worry about that. Until then, don’t make decisions that might limit my ability to accurately assess a situation.”

You don’t know that you’re able to accurately assess a situation now,” Past Red insisted. “As long as the partition is up, you’re just a faulty model of our future self, and if you assume it’s going to stay up then you’re self-sabotaging.”

Future Red rolled his eyes. “All I care about is what’s best for us long term. If you want to bring down the partition and drown us in misery, if you think that’s what we need to do, then do it, and I’ll change. But you might not like what I turn into.”

We all want what’s best for you,” Red said, holding a hand up toward both of them. “But I don’t want to be drowned in misery, right now. Working with Sabrina is too rare an opportunity to risk to depression. What other suggestions do you have?”

Past Red shrugged, looking too tired to put up much of a fight. “I can only tell you what has and hasn’t worked. Keeping everything locked away wasn’t our choice, but it seemed to work out okay… unless it didn’t. If Blue is right, then we made the decision not to go in because we were scared of dying. Yes, it turned out we were right not to go in that time. But we’re not architects, or firefighters. We didn’t draw on any expertise when we made that decision, that it was too dangerous. Just an intuition, a gut feeling that said it was too dangerous, or it was just tired of rolling the dice after putting ourselves in danger too much already.”

This is backwards,” Future Red said. “You’re supposed to be the conservative one, the one that sticks to what works. Why are you second-guessing what kept us alive?”

Past Red shook his head. “I’m the one that cares what lessons we learned. I’m the one that cares that what I went through wasn’t for nothing, that the best comes from it, so that you each will know the same when it’s your time to be me. Would we have gone in when it was less hopeless?”

Yes,” Present Red said, looking uncertain.

Yes,” Future Red said, and frowned. “I’m only saying that because it’s what we hope is true, given that this worked out well for us. If it hadn’t, I would be saying the opposite… if I was around to say anything at all.”

And if it didn’t work out well in another way?” Past Red asked, looking between them. “What if Blue is right in another way? What if no one trusts us in any life or death situations any more?”

Do we want them to?” Future Red asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Is that something we still want?” A pokebelt appeared around his waist, then disappeared, then reappeared.

“The journey was fun.” Past Red sighed. “But…”

“We can help others in other ways,” Red said. “At least…”

“Until we have more to offer,” Future Red finished, and the belt disappeared. “Something more unique. So stop fixating on what Blue said, and on what happened to Aiko.”

And what about Leaf?” Past Red asked. “Do we still care about what she thinks of us?”

Yes,” Red and Future Red said together.

Then shouldn’t we make sure what we did was right?”

Future Red shakes his head. “Or we find a better way to convince her it was.”

Which we can’t do,” Red said, and closed his eyes. “Not as long as we’re not sure ourselves.”


The office is silent a moment as Red finishes recounting the dream. He shifts on the couch, turning a little as to get a better look at Dr. Seward’s reaction.

“Yes, I can see why that might be a clue of sorts,” she says at last, face thoughtful.

“I paraphrased a lot of it,” Red adds. “But it was very coherent, for a dream, and hasn’t been fading like most.”

“Was it lucid?”

“Partially? No control, just… awareness that I was seeing something unreal.”

“I see. Earlier you said the survivor’s guilt wasn’t as bad as it could be, but that sounds like some part of you internalized Blue blaming you.”

“It’s less about guilt for surviving, more about… the decision process itself. But I don’t feel that way now, it’s only when the partition is down that Past Red is more in control.”

Dr. Seward blinks. “Was that a poetic use of language, or…”

Red sighs. “Not really.”

“Then I think it’s time you explain how your partition works, exactly.”

Red nods and shifts so he can take his notebook out, then begins reading from his notes. “Okay, so first basic assumption is that all thoughts and emotions are just certain neurons activating in certain orders, right? Different sequences and patterns of neurons correspond to certain memories or experiences, so you basically have a ‘map’ of neurons that have to do with a strong memory, and it lights up again each time you think of that memory, and another map for, like, the way you feel when you listen to a certain song.” Red grows more animated as he talks, and shifts on the couch so his neck is more comfortable. “Basically the partition seems to keep certain maps or patterns from firing, but preserves them.”

Dr. Seward is frowning slightly. “Can this be mapped by fMRI or EEG?”

Red smiles. There’s more than one reason he likes Dr. Seward. “Yeah, that’s something I checked just a couple days ago.”

Dr. Seward makes a humming noise, then simply says, “That’s pretty wild.”

He grins. “I know, right? So to use a metaphor, picture your thoughts like a river.”

“This seems familiar,” she says with a wry smile. “Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting. River, done.”

“The main channel is most of what you think and feel day to day, right? It’s what has the most current and carries you in it like a fish. There are streams that feed the river from ‘outside,’ so if you think of something new or are made aware of something it can shift the river’s flow. A partition was like a dam, holding part of the river in check. When it leaked or burst from me using my powers, it altered the whole current.”

“I think I understand. But you’re speaking in past tense?”

“Well, yeah, that’s how it used to be. Now it feels like there’s a separate me behind that partition, and when it weakens enough, he takes over.”

If Dr. Seward is surprised, it doesn’t show on her face or mental impression. He wonders if that’s a trained therapist thing, or just part of the personality type that drew her to the profession. “So you’re really being literal, when you describe it that way.”

Red shrugs. “Like 70%, rounding down to adjust for overconfidence? It really does feel like I become someone else, not just me-but-sad. I have thoughts I don’t normally have, make decisions that I wouldn’t normally make, think about the future totally differently…” Dr. Seward’s lips purse a moment, and he remembers it as her way of hiding a smile, or trying to think of a way to phrase something. “Yes, I know that sounds like the sorts of things that applies to most people when they get sad, but trust me, it’s different.”

“I have no reason to distrust you,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean I understand what you mean, when you say different. To an outside observer, how would they be able to tell it was different?”

Red considers that a moment, then shrugs, embarrassed. “I guess I would be crying more.”

“Well, that sounds…” She stops herself. “I’m sorry, I was about to say that sounds like an improvement. But it probably doesn’t feel like it, I bet?”

Red shakes his head. “It’s not what really bothers me, to be honest. The sadness I’m used to, but it’s like there’s a blizzard of emptiness and confusion around it, now.”

“Alright. So the depression has shifted from primarily sadness to anhedonia?”

“Yeah. But it’s not just that, either.” Red struggles to put it into words, flipping through his notebook before he realizes another thing. “So before, I would also notice how I was feeling and wish the feelings would go away, right? Now…”

“…you get some value from experiencing them?” Dr. Seward guesses, not sounding surprised.

“No, I mean now when it happens I don’t want it to stop, don’t want the partition to come back up. Because it feels like being locked away again, or… worse.”

He was about to be more specific, but Dr. Seward looks concerned, which makes Red feel more concerned.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like being locked away; sometimes it feels like dying. And sometimes the emotion that goes along with that is relief.

It’s such an alien feeling, for him. He’s never wanted to die before, not even at his lowest point after his dad did. He’s been trying not to freak out about this, but seeing his otherwise stoic therapist’s worry says a lot about how weird it all might be.

“So you’re saying you feel like there really is another you, who would lose themself when you return.”

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Give me a moment to think.”

Red nods, trying to ignore his growing nervousness. It was hard to decide to share this with Dr. Seward. What if she judges that he’s just “crazy,” now? What if she’s right?

Eventually he can’t help but reach out for a quick merge to check her mental state, but the emotion that comes over him isn’t what he’d expect if she thought it was something serious. All he feels from her is curiosity, and concern.

“My first reaction,” she finally says, causing him to withdraw, “Is that I feel unsure of how to help address grief the way you experience it. It seems to have shifted from bereavement, however complex, to something similar to dissociative identity disorder. I’ve read up some on the phenomenon of partitions since we began again, and your explanation and analogy felt helpful, but if it’s possible for things like this to happen, it’s clear I don’t really understand it at all.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t change much from this side of things,” Red says, forcing a wry smile. The fact that it’s not called “multiple personality disorder” anymore doesn’t make it feel much less like she is, in fact, suggesting that his brain might be broken.

“I imagine you’ve already looked into it more than I have. Has there ever been an incident like this before, that you’ve found?”

“Sort of? There’s very little research on it, and what’s there is confusing.” Red sighs. “I also don’t understand enough about how brains work to follow most of it myself.” He hates taking what research says second hand from someone else, no matter how well regarded or credible. “But there are studies that showed that someone without the part of the brain that connects their left and right hemispheres—”

“Corpus callosum.”

“Yeah, that, they end up acting like they have two distinct brains, only one of which can talk, and each of which control a different hand, to the point where their hands reach for different things at once.”

Dr. Seward’s brow rises. “Really?”

“Yeah, it gets weirder. If you show something to only their right hemisphere, and ask them what they saw, they’ll say they didn’t see anything… but their right hemisphere will still use its hand to follow directions it’s shown.”

“Hmmm. I’ve never heard of this. You’re usually fairly skeptical, so I’m assuming it was well supported?””

Red smiles. “There’s videos of it, and a number of experiments.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s all nonsense, but… it seemed like it might be relevant.”

“Yes, I can see why. You haven’t noticed yourself doing anything you don’t understand, when the partition is down?”

“Nope.”

“And no lost time, either?”

There’s a scary thought. “No, nothing like that. It doesn’t feel like a break in consciousness, just a transition.”

“Alright. Normally I would say such things belong in fiction, but I feel a little out of my depth, and want to make sure we’re being thorough.” Her fingers drum on the desk a moment, then stop. “Then my main question, at this point, is whether it’s possible a psychic therapist would better serve you, at this point?”

Red blinks. A new therapist? “No, you already know me, my history. And I trust you.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, Red, but it’s not just about rapport.”

“You’re also way cheaper than a psychic therapist.”

Dr. Seward can’t hide her smile this time. “A serious answer, please? Part of my job is to recognize when I’m out of my depth, and I don’t know if I have the expertise to effectively help you.”

So Red spends a moment thinking it over, imagining going to another therapist who could work with him psychically, deal with his partition and the emotions behind it in some more direct way… what had Psychic Narud said? Like doing heart surgery with my fingers. Something like that, and none of the psychics Red has spoken to about it since have made it seem any easier.

And… “I don’t want to treat it as a psychic phenomenon, yet. I know it’s probably being affected by my powers, but… I think it’s still just grief and sadness, at the end of the day. And you’ve helped me a lot, so far, with that. If we hit a wall and stay there a few weeks, I’ll consider seeing someone new, but for now I’d like to continue if you would.”

Dr. Seward considers this, then nods. “That’s fair. And yes, I would. Alright then.” She leans back in her seat, fingers steepling. “There’s a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems. Have you heard of it?”

“No, but the name is pretty evocative.” Red shifts. “It’s not going to be, like… talking to an imagined version of my dad, is it?”

“No, not unless you’d find that helpful. It’s just a frame to help understand our feelings, and better interface with them. Most people find it useful to break the psyche down into subparts, and traditionally this has been things like the ‘id, ego, and superego,’ or ‘conscious and subconscious,’ or just personifying our emotions. Whenever we experience internal conflict in a way that can be described in terms of external conflicts, that’s where Internal Family Systems can be especially helpful. We would use conflict resolution techniques and apply them to the internal parts of ourselves.”

Red blinks. “Um. I might already do that?”

She smiles. “Yes, which is why I mentioned this. Often times, the ‘family’ is literal… people identify parts of themselves that are like an internal child, playful but easily frightened, or a teenager, full of will but often resentful, or a father, protective but judgemental, or a mother, comforting but stressed. These are stereotypes, of course, just labels we put on our internal drives and aspects. But it doesn’t have to be a family, some people imagine friends of theirs or fictional characters, and in your case it seems the ideas of a Past, Present and Future Red are already discrete and… lively.”

“Yeah, no kidding. So, what, you’re going to teach me to be a therapist for my inner selves?”

“That’s one way to do it. But before we go looking for solutions, we need to better understand these parts of yourself. You described them physically, from your dream, but what about their attributes? What do you think they represent, if anything?”

Red considers a minute. His Present self often feels like the Id, but then again it’s also often the Superego… maybe it helps to think of which of them are the most like his inner child? Definitely not his Past self, currently. No, wait, maybe it is, a bit…

No, he’s thinking about this wrong. He can’t just map them onto other ideas, he has to treat each as some emergent part of himself. What do they want? Or maybe to start off, what do they not want?

“Present me is always pain avoidant,” Red says, brow furrowed. “I mean all three are, but Present me is driven by avoiding unpleasant things. It’s the main thing that the others try to negotiate me into. Past me is very… uncertain. He doesn’t like feeling judged, but he’s also self-critical. Future me is the most ambitious. He can be kind of demanding, and he hates reneging on agreements the most.”

“Alright. That’s a good start, I think. So it’s fair to say they have a lot to argue about?”

“Yeah.” Red frowns. “Actually… I’m not sure this works? Those other frames make sense to me, I can understand having different parts that make you up, like a part of you that wants to spend more time with friends and another that wants to do more research, but for Past, Present and Future me… all three of us shift over time. I was Past Red. At some point Future Red will be me. When I talk about my Future self having a different desire, I’m just talking about me at a future time, but that self won’t necessarily have that same desire. How does it make sense to say they have fixed attributes that are distinct from each other? “

“Maybe it doesn’t.” Dr. Seward shrugs. “The only reason to use this frame is if it’s helpful. But now that you’ve recognized and said all that, do you feel like that internal conflict is resolved?”

“…Not really, no.”

She spreads her hands, and Red nods, thinking about it for another minute.

“Okay, so I’m thinking about what they want, now, and Past Red is the part of me that’s focused on making sure I learn from my mistakes. That seems obvious enough. Future Red is the part of me that’s unsure about the future, so he wants security. Plans that are set and detailed and followed. But I don’t know what Present Red represents? It just feels like he desires… all the things I desire.”

“Perhaps Present Red is an arbiter then, serving a similar function to the classic frame of the Ego. It’s for you, as the Present Red in any given moment, to ensure that you understand your past and are prepared for your future. You are the rope being tugged on from both ends. Does that feel like it fits?”

Red feels it out, checking to see if anything seems wrong with that, then slowly nods. “Yeah. That description, of feeling tugged in two different directions, it actually resonated a lot.”

“Alright then. Past you wants you to learn from your mistakes, Future you wants you to plan well and follow through on commitments. It sounds like you’re all on the same side.”

“You’d think that, yeah.”

“But you still feel conflicted?”

“Right now? No, the partition is up.”

“Ah, yes. Would it be alright for you to bring it down and check?”

Red hesitates, then nods and closes his eyes.

It’s not hard, these days. Instead of having to over-exert his mental abilities, he can now feel the partition itself as it suppresses parts of his mental state, keeps certain neurons from firing. One of Sabrina’s students taught him how to notice the shape of it in his mind, the negative space where thoughts should go but don’t.

The fact that he knows what’s missing is what makes it possible to find those faded paths, feel along the edges where they should be. If he wants to give himself amnesia, all he has to do is use his abilities to quarantine a particular memory, then quarantine the memory of doing so to ensure it can’t be accidentally stumbled upon.

It’s a really fascinating set of abilities that he’d love to spend more time experimenting with and studying, but he can’t safely do it himself yet, and he’s still the lowest on the totem pole for determining what he should be taught next… which is why he’s here, so why is he stalling?

Because it’s unpleasant. Because even if it’s necessary and what’s best for Future Red, it’s still painful to go through it each time. But if he can’t live with the consequences to himself of letting Aiko go into that building alone… then maybe Blue was right.

Red lets out his breath, then brings the partition down…

…and is transported into another world.

“Red? Is everything alright?”

“No.” His voice sounds flat and dull to his own ears.

“What’s wr-… ah. Is this… Past Red?”

Red opens his eyes and turns to her, and he can sense her flinch even as her face stays placid and calm. “There is no Past Red. I was just being stupid and melodramatic. This is me.”

“I see. So what would you describe as the difference between how you are now, and how you were just a minute ago?”

Red closes his eyes again and lets out a heavy breath. “I don’t know. Naivety?”

“Hm. Well, I can tell you that from an outside perspective, it seemed like you grew more tense. Your breathing changed. Even lying down, the difference in energy level is notable; you’re completely still now, instead of shifting your feet or fidgeting, And your expression is far less animated. So if I’m able to observe all those things, from the outside, I can’t help but think that maybe there are corresponding changes with how you feel.”

Red almost shakes his head, but it’s too much effort. He realizes that sort of demonstrates her point, but it doesn’t really matter. “It’s not me that’s changed. It’s reality.”

“…Could you clarify that?”

Red sighs again. “Before I was focused on what I need to get over what happened. To move past it. I was living in a reality where it’s that simple, to ignore how much I miss my dad and how guilty I feel about A…” His throat hitches, and he feels heat spread up his throat and behind his eyes.

“I see. I’m sorry, if asking this of you was too much.”

“It’s fine,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. He keeps his eyes closed until he’s sure he won’t cry. “They’re dead, it’s the least I can do to acknowledge that, instead of ignoring it like a… a coward…” The word comes out twisted as his face contorts. The tears are closer to the surface now, and as a sob shakes him they spill down his cheeks.

Red vaguely makes out the sound of Dr. Seward moving the tissue box closer to him, and reaches out blindly for it. There’s a feeling of strong deja vu as he remembers the times he cried in this room over his dad, and as he wipes his face and tries to control his breathing he feels ashamed anew at his earlier selfishness. He hadn’t been afraid to cry over Dad, when he was younger. Now it’s just so inconvenient

“Can I ask how you feel about what we were talking about, before? If you feel up to it.”

Red clears his throat, then wipes at his eyes again. “Sorry, what was the question?”

“Just… do you feel conflicted? How do you relate to your Past and Future selves, now?”

“Conflicted. Yeah.” Dr. Seward is quiet, and after a moment Red realizes she asked about more than that. “It’s just hard to stop thinking about what happened. I know the smart thing to do is just accept that death is part of life, that it’s a risk my dad accepted every day he was working, that Aiko knew she was risking it when she left with us. When she… went into the building.” He swallows, takes a breath. “I know that. But… I can’t.”

Dr. Seward stays quiet again after he stops talking, and Red considers brushing her mind to see what she’s feeling before losing interest. “That all makes perfect sense, to me,” she finally says. “Of course you’re going to keep thinking about it. Of course you’re going to have trouble accepting their loss. That’s a natural part of the grieving process. No matter how inevitable or uncertain, no matter how little the risks were understood or how much, no matter how responsible people were or weren’t, millions of people feel the same things you do right now, Red. As unique as everyone’s grieving process is, at its core it’s based on the same pain and guilt and fear. You shouldn’t expect yourself to just… put it all aside and keep going, if you’re having trouble doing so.”

“Blue can,” Red whispers. “Leaf can. Even Mr. Sakai…” The tears burn again, and he covers his face as the memory sweeps through him.

“You think Mr. Sakai was able to put it aside?”

Red nods, feeling the hot tears soak through the tissues.

“Can you… tell me what makes you think that? Take your time.”

Red focuses on his breaths until they stop hitching, and when he speaks, it’s in a watery whisper. “I went to Saffron the day after Sabrina agreed to teach me. Leaf was stuck in the hospital, and the ranch was close, and he still didn’t know… so I went to tell him.” He swallows the lump in his throat and sighs. “It was the least I could do…”


When Red saw Mr. Sakai, he was moving from pen to pen to feed each pokemon. The sun was hot as it began its downward swing toward the horizon, but at the sight of Aiko’s father, Red felt like there was a chunk of ice in his stomach.

He didn’t want to do it. Selfishly, he wished Leaf would have told him not to come alone. To wait for her. But they both recognized that Mr. Sakai had gone long enough without knowing, and it wouldn’t get any easier with time.

Thankfully, he had his abilities to fall back on. With them he at least could deliver the news without breaking down in tears.

Unfortunately that didn’t help with the other side of things. Any other parent would have called one of them to check where Aiko was. Would have seen about the Stormbringer attack on the news. Would have known, upon seeing Red, unannounced and with a solemn expression, that something was wrong.

Instead Mr. Sakai greeted him warmly, and told him how well the pokemon have been doing, lately, and how he thought the people coming to see them for therapy has been good for them, still moving from pen to pen to withdraw each pokemon and put their ball in the bag he carried with him.

Mr. Sakai,” Red tried, voice steady. “I need to talk to you about Aiko.”

Oh, Aiko’s not here right now. She’s usually back by night, if you want to stick around…”

Red’s throat felt locked, and despite the disconnect he felt from the grief, he had to force the words out, past some other emotion. “No, Mr. Sakai, she’s not coming tonight. Could we… talk inside?”

Oh, but the pokemon need to be fed,” he responded, still moving from pen to pen with a sack of feed in one hand and a scoop in the other. “Aiko’s late sometimes, but she’ll be back soon… she’s a good girl, you know, always takes care of the pokemon…”

Red followed him to the next pen, then the next, trying to talk past Mr. Sakai’s circuitous pattern of speech and thinking, until he lost his patience and simply grabbed Mr. Sakai’s arm before he could move on to the next pen.

Aiko’s father looked down at his hand, and Red removed it, feeling ashamed. But he kept his gaze on Mr. Sakai’s face, and when his eyes met his, Red could see it. He didn’t know what his own face looked like, but he knew what it felt like. His frustration had vanished, and all that he felt was… empty.

No,” Aiko’s father said. Just that one word, but it was enough to batter at Red’s control, enough to take the air from his lungs, so that the next part was even harder than he expected it would be.

She’s dead, Mr. Sakai,” Red whispered, trying to use the opening as best he could, his carefully rehearsed lines forgotten. “Died in Zapdos’s attack on the city. I’m so sorry.”

He stopped there, couldn’t say anything more. He should have been talking about what a hero she was. He’d confirmed it with a tearful Elaine, both for that night and their journey underground. He’d wanted to be able to answer any questions Mr. Sakai might ask, to be able to provide some solace, and on top of that felt like a shield in his mind, one he could raise before him if Mr. Sakai grew angry, cursed him for taking her away in the first place.

But as he watched Mr. Sakai’s puzzled gaze fill at last with understanding, then despair, Red knew it was a paper shield, one that he would toss aside if needed. He wouldn’t accept the blame from Blue, but if a grieving father needed someone to blame…

The older man crumpled backwards to sit on the grass, head hanging as a moan of grief escaped him. Red felt his own rising despite his efforts, and almost cut off all emotion completely.

Instead he sat beside Mr. Sakai as he rocked back and forth and sobbed into his hands. “No, Aiko, not my good girl, my sweet baby… I’m sorry, Ema, I’ve lost her… I’m so sorry…”

Red wept beside him as quietly as he could as he felt his heart rend, unsure of whether he should reach out or not, if his comfort would be welcome. He felt some need to fill the silence, to explain what happened, apologize for not stopping her. But as his insecurity held him back, he realized it was what he needed, not what Mr. Sakai needed, and so he kept quiet.

They were beside an oddish pen, and a small gathering of the oddish and bellsprout within it came up to the wires to stare at their caretaker as he cried before wandering away. Red missed Pikachu badly, and wished he had more pokemon useful for comforting others, like Joy.

After over half an hour, Aiko’s father’s sobs began to trail off into sniffles, and the occasional groan. Red dried his face and braced himself, thinking the questions would come any moment.

Instead Mr. Sakai turned to him and smiled. It was a weak smile, one ready to dissolve back into tears at any moment… but he reached out and took Red’s hand, ignoring his shocked look.

Thank you, Red.” Mr. Sakai’s voice was hoarse, but present. “Thank you for taking my daughter with you. She… wanted to be a trainer so much…” His face contorted, straightened. “Are Blue and Leaf… alright?”

Y-yeah.” Red felt something like horror at the idea of Mr. Sakai thanking him without knowing what happened… but he couldn’t bring it up himself. “Yeah, they’re okay. Leaf is in the hospital, and Blue is helping with the city. I’m sure they’ll come soon.”

Good.” He squeezed Red’s hand, then slowly began to push himself to his feet. “You’re all welcome… anytime…”

Red stared at him, then rose shakily to his feet as well. “Are you…” He cut himself off. How many times was he asked that same absurd question, after Dad died?

Would you please… tell her aunt? I don’t know how long I’ll be able to… ” Mr. Sakai trailed off as he picked up the feed bag. “Excuse me, please. Some pokemon still haven’t eaten.”

And with that he continued walking from pen to pen, feeding the pokemon as tears streamed down his face.


Red wipes his face as he finishes his recount. Dr. Seward stood and walked to the water cooler, then returned with a paper cup for him.

“Thanks,” Red whispers, and drinks the soothing water down before setting the empty cup aside. “Do you mind if I bring Pikachu out?”

“For comfort?”

“Yeah. He won’t shock anything, I promise.”

“Then by all means.”

Red sits up and unclips his pokemon’s ball, then aims it at the empty space beside the couch, bracing his arm. The ball rejects the target area until he aims it at just the right spot and with a flash of light his pokemon is there.

Pikachu looks around the unfamiliar room, back to Red and Dr. Seward until Red reaches out with his thoughts. His pokemon turns to him and leaps onto the couch, then his lap and curls up into a warm twist. Red feels his mood lift slightly as he runs his fingers through his pokemon’s fur. He can feel the scar where the kingler severed his lower spine. It took a week for the pokemon center to heal him, and they said he was lucky to regain full functionality.

“So,” Dr. Seward says as she settles back in her seat. “That was quite an intense experience, so soon after losing your friend. And I don’t mean to dismiss your observations. But from what you told me of Aiko’s father, why are you using him as a normative model of mental health?”

“I thought you might ask that.” Red shrugs, feeling weary. “Not pretending I know what’s in his heart… he cried again at the funeral. But Leaf says he’s carrying on as though it never happened. Like she’s just off on some trip. And whether that’s ‘normal’ or not, he’s still doing better than I am, without my partition. And like I said, Blue and Leaf seem to be fine too.”

His therapist is quiet a moment, then shrugs. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you really are the only one having trouble with her death. There are at least three good reasons I can think of why that’s the case, and I’m sure you can come up with more. But before we do that, you should check to make sure your model of reality is actually true. You haven’t seen Blue in weeks, and Leaf you see, what, twice a week when you go to help at the ranch for a few hours? People are capable of holding themselves together for far longer than that, Red. Don’t be so sure that everything is fine with someone just because they can put up a front. Leaf may be in a lot more pain than you think.”

Red closes his eyes, fingers still in Pikachu’s fur. “That… just makes me feel worse.”

“Why?”

“Because she hasn’t told me. Which means that she doesn’t trust me anymore, or want to talk about Aiko because she blames me, or—”

“What happened to not pretending you know what’s in people’s hearts?” Dr. Seward asks with a raised brow. “Or are you recounting mental impressions you’ve picked up from her.”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

She blinks, then rallies. “But you haven’t spoken to her about it.”

Red sighs. “No.”

“Then that’s your homework assignment. You know that what people feel is often complex, and you’re not in an unbiased frame of mind. You’re grieving your lost friend. You miss your other two friends, both of whom you feel betrayed by on some level. And you’re struggling with the guilt of the decision not to follow Aiko in, or not doing more to stop her.”

“It’s not…” Red sighs. “Nevermind. Yeah, alright.”

Dr. Seward’s brow furrows. “I’m sorry, maybe I misunderstood something. It’s not…?”

“It’s fine. Guilt is close enough.”

She looks like she’s about to argue, then just looks thoughtful a moment before saying, “Are you going to put your partition back up before you go?”

Red’s fingers slow. “You think I’ll tell you if it’s up?”

“Oh, no. I was just curious.”

Red merges with her briefly, and doesn’t sense any guilt or guile. “I wasn’t planning on it, no. Putting it back up is a weakness, a way to hide from reality.”

“Perhaps. It also might be a natural defense mechanism, a coping skill that your powers developed for you. Do you want to die?”

She asks the question so casually that Red answers before he can think about it. “No.”

She nods. “Just checking. What keeps you in this state, normally? You said earlier that you’d… not want the partition to go back up, once it’s down.”

“The partition being up is still my natural state. I’ll lose focus eventually and it’ll come back, or it’ll happen when I sleep next.” Red sighs. “And then I’ll go back to being oblivious to all this and just focused on the future, like a robot.”

“I see. And if I asked you to bring it back up before we end the session, and then you’d bring it back down before leaving, would that be okay?”

Red strokes Pikachu, gaze down. He feels like this is a trick, like she’s trying to talk to the more cheerful and focused version of him, instead of this sad and whiny one. Not that he blames her.

And in truth, there’s some part of him that feels the partition’s minor but constant tug at his attention as a siren song. A call toward peace, where he doesn’t have to think about such painful things. He resists because he knows it’s a lie, because it’s exchanging what he feels for who he is.

But he doesn’t want to subject Dr. Seward to something that makes her feel uncomfortable, or like he’s wasting her time. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

“Would it help to make an agreement with your Future self?”

“…I think it would. Thanks.” He closes his eyes.

Hey Future Red. I’m only putting the partition back up because she asked me to. You’d better bring it back down before we leave, or I’m going to consider that a defection and keep it in mind for the future.

Ugh. Fine. But we’ve got shit to do today, so if you spend it all moping in bed then I’m going to keep that in mind the next time we’re here.

Whatever. He hesitates a moment longer, then mentally relaxes his grip on the partition, feeling it slide back into place and rearrange his thoughts and emotions…

…until he lets out a breath of relief and opens his eyes. “Ugh. Thank you.” He scratches Pikachu between the ears, smiling down at his pokemon as he yawns. “That was unpleasant.”

Dr. Seward is watching him closely. “Can you explain how all that felt, to you?”

Red thinks about it a moment. “Kind of like someone took over my brain for a bit? Except it was a version of me where reality was way darker than it really is, lacking perspective on things or the ability to focus on the future.”

“Fascinating. It really was like talking to a different person, he seemed adamant that you were the fake version, and him the real one.”

Red nods. “It’s been a philosophical question I’ve been grappling with on and off for the past few weeks. If I wasn’t a psychic, then the partition wouldn’t exist, and Past Red would definitely be the ‘real’ me, assuming nothing else about the powers influenced things. But with my powers, this is my default state, so I’m clearly the ‘real’ me that’s not being inundated by negative emotions.”

“He was certainly more willful than I expected, given that, and your account of how he came off during the dream.” She frowns. “It feels strange talking about him as if he’s a different person, and also a bit rude. Particularly since he’s… or you’re… going to remember this once the partition is back down. I’m sorry, I’m going to try to keep that straight so as not to offend either of you, if that’s possible.” She rubs her forehead. “This has certainly been the strangest session I’ve had in quite a few years.”

Red smiles briefly “No problem here, do what you’ve got to do.” He considers telling her that Past Red was probing her mental state for her intentions, then decides against it. She’s been on the level the whole time, and he doesn’t want to make her start thinking in that way and bias things. Also he’s done the same thing once or twice. “Oh, in case you’re wondering, the thing that he almost said before was that it’s not about the guilt itself. We don’t want to be anchored by that feeling without first determining if we actually did the right thing or not. On that, we’re in agreement.”

“And as for how to figure that out…?”

“Yeah, we’re still struggling with that.”

“I see.” Dr. Seward takes a moment to collect her thoughts, then straightens in her seat. “Right. So I’ve got more research to do, apparently, but in the meantime, do try to talk to Leaf soon?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I understand that she probably doesn’t actually blame me as much as he thinks she does.”

“Yes, but the fact that you don’t believe it with the partition down is the problem.”

Red frowns, but nods. “Alright.”

“I understand that it will likely be an uncomfortable conversation, but I think it’s necessary. Whether you have it with the partition up or down is up to you.” She checks the time. “My next appointment should be outside. Same time next week?”

Red nods and nudges Pikachu off his lap and onto his shoulder, then stands. “Thank you, Doctor. I feel a lot more optimistic about all this already.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Have a good week, Red. And don’t forget to take the partition down before you go.”

She says the words lightly, but Red’s hand was already reaching for the doorknob, and he stops. “Right…” He sighs, considers just pretending to do it and being mopey as he leaves, but not seriously. Breaking that commitment might have long reaching consequences that he doesn’t really want to consider now.

It takes just a moment for him to bring the partition back down, and then he’s back in reality. “Bye,” he mutters, and shuffles out of the office and into a day that’s not bright enough to chase away the shadow of death that covers the world.

Chapter 67: Postmortem

In case you missed it, there was a mid-month subchapter, “Pyre,” published two weeks ago.


Blue sits in the uncomfortable hospital chair and stares down at the heavyballs in his hands, morning sun glinting off of each through the window. Aptly named, they’re notably heavier than other kinds, with thicker cases. It reminds him of when he first held a pokeball, fingers too small to comfortably grip the round orb, and he knows he’ll have to train with them soon to make sure his catches and throws aren’t off. A steelix and a snorlax give him more power than he expected to have for months yet, if not years, and chances are he’ll appreciate them more in a few days, when his thoughts don’t drift to less happy thoughts every few seconds.

He can’t quite remember when he fell asleep, but he woke downstairs half an hour ago feeling tired, but not exhausted. The city is in cleanup mode; trainers present for the storm are resting, while others arrive from all over the region to help catch wilds and assist with rescue and repair. Wireless networks are back up, but reserved for official use for now. Occasionally backed up messages and emails come through to Blue’s phone, but none from his friends, who he assumes are still asleep.

Blue needs to find them, needs to make sure everyone’s okay and reconnect his team. He knows Glen is safe, at least, and Elaine and Aiko were with two highly competent gym members, but Red and Leaf…

“Mr. Oak?” Blue looks up and sees the doctor. “He’s awake. I can give you ten minutes, but then he needs to rest.”

Blue clips the balls to his belt and hurries to the room. It seems wrong to hurry in a place like this, at a time like this. Like he should be walking slowly, out of respect. But there are other places he needs to be, and ten minutes won’t go slower just because he does.

When he reaches the doorway, however, he stops and stares, one hand going to the doorframe.

Gramps is lying in the bed without his coat on, dressed in a simple hospital gown like any other patient. Like he’s not a Kanto Champion, and one of the greatest researchers in the world, and just helped save thousands of people.

For once, Professor Oak looks as old as he is. Older, in fact.

He looks like he’s dying.

Blue’s throat is clogged, and he bites down on his lip to keep from making any noise. When he finally walks forward, however, it’s with all the fear and pain and childish shock of seeing a parent brought low.

He has to keep repeating to himself that Gramps will be okay in order to keep from breaking down and clutching at his grandfather’s form as he lies prone, to simply stand beside his bed and take his frail, liver spotted hand. Those faded blue eyes open, unfocused at first, until they lock onto his.

“Hey, Gramps,” Blue whispers.

“Blue.” Professor Oak squeezes his hand back without any strength. “Okay? Daisy?”

Blue nods, and has to clear his throat before he can speak again. “She got you out. And I’m fine.”

Lines of tension ease away, leaving the professor’s face simply wrinkled, his sharp jawline shifting and rounding as his lips part for a sigh. “Good.” His chest rises under the sheets as he breathes in deep. “So. Your first. How was it?”

Blue knows what he’s asking. “Too easy, at the start.” He remembers what felt like hours of staring at a rain-obscured barricade, struggling to keep his feet in place and not rush around to sate his impatience. “Then… harder.”

It took less than a minute for the Oaks working together to pummel the first steelix into submission. As soon as Blue caught it, the end came quickly for the second, and they all stood for a moment in the dwindling rain amid the torn up concrete, catching their breaths and recovering from the adrenaline rush.

And then Gramps collapsed, opening a gash on his cheek as it hit a chip of broken stone.

Daisy and Blue rushed to his side together, and after determining he was alive, Blue helped recall his pokemon while Daisy pulled him onto her pidgeot so she could take him to the nearest hospital. “Stay alive,” Daisy said, hugging him tight and kissing his wet hair before climbing into her saddle. “He came for you.”

Her words echoed in his head as he watched them fly off, and were hard to put aside when he went to help the others. Pokemon were coming out of the rift in the concrete that the steelix made when they burst free, and the entire stadium of civilians had to be moved while the trainers there fended them off.

It was tense a while longer, but with no other truly powerful pokemon around the defenders were able to secure the civilians’ safety with minimal casualties.

Relatively speaking.

Tori was killed by a fissure that opened up under her and a ranger who were defending a group of civilians. No warning, just an almighty crack that could have been thunder but wasn’t, and they were gone. Efforts to rescue them weren’t quick enough before the pokemon beneath the streets reached them.

Blue almost lost Maturin to a tangrowth, then did lose both his ekans and one of his bellsprout to it before he and Glen took it down together. Glen lost a couple of his own pokemon, but luckily nothing too powerful. Less luckily, his leg and hip were broken. Blue spent the rest of the battle keeping him safe while they moved, slowly but surely, along the path of the evacuations.

All told, the exodus from beneath the city lasted almost two hours, and an estimated six hundred people of the roughly seven thousand in the coliseum were killed, with another three hundred wounded. It would have been far worse, without Gramps and Daisy.

Blue never got so much as a scratch.

Once Glen was seen to, Blue could tell that Peter was pissed at him. It was hard to care while worrying about everyone else, and still is. He’s already gotten thanks from other trainers and civilians who saw how he helped stop the steelix and snorlax from coming after them, and he figures any reprimand would likely be done in private. Or maybe Peter would just tell Surge, and leave his judgement to their mutual superior.

Worries for the future. Right now his thoughts are still trying to expand on his answer to the question. Gramps gives him time, knowing that he would eventually.

“Harder, because I couldn’t take on any of the real threats,” Blue finally adds. “I let Aiko and Elaine get sent off, don’t know where Red and Leaf are, and Glen got hurt, and… then you collapsed and I thought you might be dead…”

He trails off, throat tight as he regains control of himself. “I was just one person, by the end, no different from anyone else,” he whispers. “Was all I could do to keep my friend alive.”

“M’sorry,” the professor says, closing his eyes. “Wasn’t there… for you…”

No trick can stop the burning from spilling down Blue’s cheeks now, and he clutches his grandfather’s hand. “You were there. A lot more people would have died without you and Daisy, and I might have been one of them.” He takes a deep breath and wipes his face with his other arm. “And the only thing I did of any real importance was because you were there. Without you… would have been a gap in the story.”

“First time,” Gramps repeats, as if to remind him. “At 12… still impressive.” He sighs. “Not strong enough… for more.”

“I know,” Blue says, letting out a breath. “I need more powerful pokemon, and need to be stronger against the Pressure, and… I need more social power, to do something meaningful next time, but I don’t know what kind would best…” He catches himself before he keeps venting his frustrations, and squeezes his grandfather’s hand. “Sorry. Can talk about that later. Can I get you anything? Or do anything for you?”

His grandfather shakes his head. “Not yet.” He takes a deep breath. “Just let Elm know… long recovery… and leave a message… for Samson…”

“Yeah. Of course.” Blue wonders if his twice-removed cousin would even get the message before he’s back from wherever he’s currently exploring, and his brow furrows as he imagines Gramps in here for day after day. “How long will you be in here?” Surely not more than a week…

“Last time was… almost a month. This time… don’t know.”

Blue stares in horror. “No, that’s… why would you… You can’t do that!” His voice is rising as his heart pounds, guilt and indignation warring within him. “Why didn’t you tell me, it’s bad enough you risked your life, but this is… You can’t just throw your life away, the world needs you—”

Sky blue eyes blaze into Blue’s, and a soft, weathered hand cups his face. “Will always come for you,” his grandfather whispers between labored breaths. “You and Daisy… are my world.”

Blue’s tears scald as they slide down his cheeks, and he clasps his grandfather’s hand against his face as he tries to regain control. It’s not fair, he’s not supposed to have to worry about this, to think that every time he faces them Gramps will…

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“You are who you are… And I have no desire… to bury another child…” His lips twitch upward briefly. “So you see… I’m actually quite…” The next word comes out in a shaking breath. “Selfish…” His eyes slip closed.

Blue doesn’t respond, simply holding his hand tight as his mind races to find a workaround. Zapdos came to him, this time, but if he decides to go into another Stormbringer attack… He would have to disable the tracking on his equipment first… no that would just tip Gramps off. He’d have to leave all his trackable equipment elsewhere, and his companions’ too. But what if he calls…

“Mr. Oak? It’s time.”

Blue glances back at the whispered voice of the doctor, then turns back to the professor, whose eyes stay closed. He gently releases his hand and places it on his chest, then bends to kiss his forehead. “See you later, Gramps.”

He gathers his things and heads down to the lobby. He’s expected at Vermilion Gym to debrief and coordinate with others. He doesn’t know if Surge is waiting for him or not, but he wants to hurry up and do whatever needs to be done there, so he can make sure his friends are okay.


Leaf spent the night after the storm ended in a haze, drifting in and out of sleep as medicine coursed its way through her veins, repairing the damage to her body and draining it of energy so fast that she was given a meal’s worth of calories every three hours. She was faintly aware of Elaine sitting with her as she drifted in and out of sleep, waking only for treatments and bodily necessities, while her dreams were full of dark streets and rain, lightning and danger, all of which seemed more real to her than the hospital room she kept finding herself in.

She’s reliving the battle in the clothing store, but with a far worse ending, when a jolt sends her gasping awake. Daylight streams through the window, and a nurse is preparing to wheel her out for what she fuzzily assumes will be more x-rays and injections.

“Red?” she croaks, looking around and blinking sweat from her eyes.

“Don’t worry about them,” Elaine responds from her seat by the window, bringing a cup of cool water to her lips, which she thirstily gulps down. “Just focus on getting better.” Her voice is thick with worry and exhaustion of her own.

Them? she thinks, then remembers Aiko left with him. She assumes she missed a whole cycle of them changing who stayed with her, which is disappointing. She wanted to talk to Aiko…

There’s a nurse with her when she next wakes, an older woman who smiles upon seeing her eyes open. “Hello there, hon. Happy to say you’re out of the woods, now.”

For a moment Leaf thinks she’s back in the hospital she slept in after Viridian. After a few seconds she recognizes that the stiffness in her arm and side aren’t from an electric shock, and soon she’s remembering the injury and back to full awareness.

“Thank you,” Leaf whispers. She’s starving. Her unbound arm stretches out from under the blanket to drink from the water cup beside her bed. There’s a note beside it. “Where’s Elaine?” she asks as she opens it.

“The girl who was here all night? Left you that.”

Leaf,

Morning! Doctors said you were stable, so I went to put our pokemon in queue at a nearby center. Don’t know when they’ll start accepting them, but they’re going to be backed up for a while, and I thought I should check in case it’s soon, otherwise it might take days. If not I’ll be back as quick as I can!

Hope you feel better when you wake!

Elaine

Leaf smiles. She knows it makes little sense to worry about her injured pokemon while they’re in stasis, but it’ll be nice to have them healthy again as soon as possible. “Am I free to go, then?” she asks as she puts the note back and drains the water cup.

The nurse finishes marking something, eyes on a monitor next to Leaf, then looks at her in surprise. “Go? Well, we can’t stop you, but you really shouldn’t. It’s still a bit of a warzone out there, and your injuries aren’t really healed yet; they just aren’t at risk of getting worse unless you’re too forceful with them.”

“Okay.” Without her pokemon the word warzone had killed her intention anyway. Leaf reaches for her phone and checks for messages, finding no new ones besides those sent on the emergency channels. Leaf tries sending Red one, and watches the indicator beside it spin endlessly for a few seconds before she gets back an unsent error. She sighs and sits back against the pillows again. “Is there anything I can do around here?”

The woman raises a brow. “Do you have any medical training?”

“Not really. Mostly just for pokemon, and basic first aid.”

“No fresh injuries coming in now, thankfully. Not here at least. Just get some rest.”

Leaf makes a frustrated sound. “I’ve been resting for…” She checks the time and blinks. “Thirteen hours? Thirteen hours! I can’t just sit here a whole day while my friends are still out there, I’ll go crazy.”

The nurse pats her leg in a decidedly unsympathetic manner. “From what I heard, you’ve done enough for now. I’m sure your friends will show up soon as they can.” She finishes tapping Leaf’s blood pressure into her tablet, then starts moving to the next bed. “If you want to do something so bad, take a walk around, ask people if they want water. Your legs and other arm are fine, and you can use the exercise.”

So that’s what Leaf does, slowly and carefully getting to her feet, then shuffling around the makeshift hospital. She notices that a lot of the nurses and doctors are different from the ones she remembers, while the familiar ones look exhausted. Probably nearing the ends of their shifts, but with how many people need help it’s possible they have no shifts. She hopes they get rest soon, regardless.

It’s still painful to breathe too deep, and with one arm immobilized she feels unbalanced and clumsy, but for once she’s thankful that she’s left handed. She spends an hour walking each floor of the makeshift treatment center, fetching water or blankets or extra pillows. It’s distracting and repetitive work, which is just what she needs to keep her mind off her worry for the others.

Most of the distraction comes from seeing so many people injured, many of them as bad as Leaf, though anyone worse was likely transported to the actual hospital. She sees a lot of family or friends gathered by bedsides, some having murmured conversation, others asleep, hand in hand. For the first time in what feels like days, Leaf thinks of her mother and grandfather, and wishes they were here.

An hour passes, and in that time the change in her thoughts is subtle. Seeing heartbreak after heartbreak eventually starts to lead her to thoughts about what caused all this, to why she’s worried about the others, which effectively means it stops working as a distraction. It isn’t until she sees one of the survivors from the apartment complex that she and Red saved, sobbing like he’s being torn in two as he sits at the bedside of a little girl missing a leg that Leaf has to take a moment to herself.

She goes to her bed and sits on it, eyes closed and breathing deep as she tries to identify the burgeoning pain.

You’re saying that as sad as a pokemon’s death might be, a person’s death… ripples outward more, and is much more affecting.

This very name you use, ‘pokemon,’ shows how little respect there is… I cannot describe to you what the world was like before such a word existed.

I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him…

“Don’t you?” she whispers, repeating what she told Red that night. How could he not?

How many tragedies are playing out right now, thanks to one pokemon? One pokemon that weaponized thousands of others with no conscious thought, and turned them into murderous, rampaging monsters?

She closes her eyes as a bloody crib flashes through her thoughts, sending a pulse of anger and grief through her. Blue’s ambition is right. This… all of this… once every few years? No wonder so many people are indifferent to pokemon suffering. No wonder they’re considered so much lesser.

Something must be done.

Blue wants to capture or kill the Legendaries, but that might not be possible anytime soon, if at all. It’s audacious…

…but not enough. There are still more deaths from non-Tier 3 events. They all need to stop if people and pokemon will ever coexist.

But how? There’s an idea burgeoning in the back of her mind, but she can’t think of what it is, it’s too vague… something about the Stormbringers, about the stampede of pokemon caused by their Pressure…

She sits frozen for a moment, mind racing over the new idea, feeling it out. Their pokemon are immune to most of the effects of Pressure due to virtual conditioning to prevent any aggressive actions without command.

What if they catch every single wild pokemon in the region, then release them, but with an altered program that only prevents aggressive action against humans or buildings, so they can reintegrate into the wild and maintain an ecosystem? They would still be immune to Pressure in all the ways that matter… and better yet, this would prevent the problems of lower tier incidents as well.

It could work. No more violence by pokemon against people… and then… peace.

She feels something soul-deep clicking into place. A possible path to victory, a purpose she can meaningfully dedicate her life to. She knows that she found it, at long last. Not just getting people to stop eating pokemon, which artificial meat might do, and not just making people treat pokemon better, but eliminating any need for people to feel threatened by pokemon at all. Practically no more need for trainers, which combined with artificial meat… would mean that the vast, vast majority of harm against pokemon would be eliminated.

She wants to stand up and pace, foot bouncing off the floor, and recognizes that she’s getting too excited. Calm down. Someone must have thought of this before, right?

Even if so, just because she hasn’t heard of it doesn’t mean it was dismissed for good reason. Maybe they dismissed it as too difficult, or thought that new pokemon being born would make it too much effort to maintain, especially if no such programs exist yet. She doesn’t want to assume that the only reason this hasn’t already been done is that no one cares enough about pokemon suffering to recognize how it might benefit humans too.

But in any case, all it would take is two things: the right programs, and a way to convince the world to do it, one region at a time.

Leaf smiles. Right. Easy as pie.

She needs to talk to her mom and grandpa about this. And Professor Oak, and Bill if he’s not too mad at her and Red for leaving the cruise, oh and Red of course, and Aiko would probably be all on board…

She checks her phone for messages again. Still nothing.

A meal arrives for her as she tries to send another message, and she eats mechanically before getting up to take a careful sponge bath in the washroom, thoughts turning her new idea from every angle she can until she returns to helping around the makeshift hospital.

Another hour passes before someone shouts in surprise, causing Leaf’s head to snap around toward them. It’s a middle aged man staring at his phone, and after a moment he clambors onto a nearby chair.

“Hey! Everyone! The list is up!” Conversation breaks out in a babble, and he has to raise his voice further to yell, “Front page of CoRRNet, last update was ten minutes ago!” A nurse is trying to reprimand him for yelling while another calls for everyone to be quiet, but most are already checking their phones with intense expressions of worry and hope.

Leaf hurries back to her room as she pulls her own out, then carefully sits on her bed and opens the webpage, heart pounding. She has to try refreshing the page a dozen times before it loads, after which she just stares at categories of names and wonders if she has the courage for this.

There are three categories, and her eye gets stuck on the third one: Confirmed Deceased. The number next to it seems absurdly low given what she experienced that night, but she knows that it’s still early, and that many of those currently counted in the much more populated Missing and In Treatment columns are likely to migrate.

Migrate.” What a pleasant euphemism I’ve created. And now I get to ruminate on that instead of just looking at the names.

Okay. It’s very simple: she’ll just open a search field and type in names, one at a time.

Before she can, a wail of grief erupts from outside, followed by choked sobs. Leaf closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then another. I’m going to start typing as soon as I open my eyes. Three… two… one…

Leaf’s fingers shake only slightly as she starts to tap out Blue Oak, and she lets out a breath of relief as the number beside the field became 0 when she reached the O.

Next comes Red Verres, and a knot forms in her stomach until she reaches the and the number goes to 0 again. She deletes back to just Red to look through the two that popped up. Only one is a first name, the other being part of Redmayne.

She’s still stalling. She swallows and starts tapping again.

Aiko S

Leaf’s fingers stop. The number beside the search window still shows 0, and she feels the last tension relax inside her. There are still other names she wants to search, but if she’s being honest with herself, those were the ones she most cared about.

She quickly searches for Elaine and Glen, and is just about look up Takada when someone says, “It updated!” and she quickly presses refresh and gets an error message.

Leaf curses and lowers her phone. We should just find a big monitor and cast one of their phones to it, reduce the server load… The thought reminds her that she can try sending a message again, and she guiltily does so, even though she knows Red and the others are alright now.

Except she doesn’t know that at all, because new reports are still coming in and the page is constantly updating. She could spend the whole day here just refreshing the page and searching her friends’ names, and she still wouldn’t know if they’re okay until she sees or hears from them, so… really, she should just skip all that and wait until she does.

So resolved, she lowers her phone with what feels like a massive expenditure of will and looks up to see Red standing in the doorway, lowering a pair of bags beside his feet.

Leaf’s eyes widen, and they just stare at each other for a moment. There’s a burning in her throat as sudden relief spreads through her, not just the absence of anxiety but a wave of warm gratitude that makes her smile and finally stagger to her feet and toward him.

He catches her in a careful hug, and Leaf closes her eyes. It hurts a bit, but not enough for her to care. “Swords of Justice, Red, don’t ever scare me like that again.” Her arm wraps carefully around his waist, which is bereft of his pokebelt, for a brief squeeze.

“Sorry,” Red says. His voice is quiet and calm. “You’re… okay?”

“Yeah. Going to take a while to heal, but… okay.” She relaxes her arm, which he takes as a sign to lower his too, and she leans back to look him over. He looks tired, but not as much as before he left with Aiko, and the fact that he’s dry and wearing new clothes probably goes a long way toward her feeling of relief. It wasn’t just his physical health she was concerned about, but somehow the visual observation of him just looking… clean and dry and relatively put-together translates in her mind as him being emotionally better. “Where have you been?”

“The gym. Leaf… can we sit down?”

Something in his voice makes her gaze snap to his, not even registering it as a simple request to rest. There’s an odd hollowness in his eyes that she missed before, or maybe it just wasn’t as strong, but when they meet hers, she sees grief and pain lurking in that emptiness, and her heart freezes.

And then she looks down at the bags, registering the implication of a second one for the first time.

“What happened to Aiko?” She grips his shirt. “Is she here? How bad is it?”

Red pulls away from her to sit on the bed, hand taking hers, and she follows without resistance, barely feeling her body as she lowers herself beside him. He won’t look at her, which scares her more than anything.

Not dead. Just don’t say that, anything else… “Red. Tell me.” It’s hard to breathe, like shallow breaths aren’t enough but if she breathes deeper her side hurts…

“I’m sorry,” Red says, and then

she watches his lips form words that hammer her chest

(no, that’s her heart beating)

vision going white around the edges

Red’s face is panicked and tilting out of view

blood rushes through her ears in a roar

that ends in darkness. Leaf drifts from glimpses of her new friend’s intense gaze, hears harsh words exchanged on rooftops, sees a smile that’s sometimes wry, and sometimes bitter, but often genuine and surprised and warm, like she just couldn’t believe that life had this to offer her, and when Leaf wakes it’s with wet eyes pressed against a damp pillow.

She stays still a moment, recognizing where she is by the feel of the hospital bed and the sounds around her. For a moment she allows herself to think it was all a dream, and she’ll turn to find the nurse beside her, but when she turns her head and opens her eyes a crack, she sees Red sitting beside where Elaine used to, looking about half of how she feels.

“Leaf, are you—”

“How?” Leaf croaks. Her throat is dry, and she shifts herself to sit up. A nurse must have been by, because there’s a pulse monitor around her wrist and a fresh cup of water beside her bed. She sits up and drains the whole cup, then scrubs her face with her sleeve. “How did it happen?”

Red stares at her. “I think you fainted, you shouldn’t—”

“You have to tell me. It won’t be real until you do.” She draws her legs up and wraps her good arm around them, not looking at him as shock settles in around her thoughts again. The tempting denial. “Now, Red. Tell me what happened.”

He’s silent for a minute, and just before she yells at him to just tell her she realizes that she’s not thinking, that it must be hard for him too, maybe even harder, but before she can say anything he starts talking, and she’s transfixed by her need to know.

“We went to one of the hospitals that got hit by Zapdos. It was on fire, being evacuated. An onix was moving through the city, probably trying to avoid…” Red pauses, blinks rapidly, shakes his head. “Sorry. She was inside, and the roof collapsed.”

Leaf stares at him, heart hammering and breath catching in her throat as she tries to speak twice. “Did… you see?” Is it possible you’re wrong?

“No.”

“Then how…” she trails off as Red raises a finger and taps his temple, and Leaf’s last bit of hope fades.

Tears blur her vision and trace new lines down her cheeks, but this time there’s no merciful unconsciousness to divorce her from the rising tide of pain. She imagines Aiko trapped under rubble and bleeding out, mind flinching from more horrible outcomes, and then imagines Red staring at the rubble and knowing that she’s gone… “Gods, Red. I’m so s-sorry…”

She reaches an arm out, and he’s there for her to press her face into his shoulder. As the grief floods through her, she feels and hears his own stifled sobs, and grips him tighter. Even through the pain, she thinks of what he showed her on the cruise; the effect his dad’s loss had on him. And now this…

That thought makes her suddenly think of Aiko’s dad, and the flood feels like it expands into every corner of her thoughts. Gods, what are they going to say to him? He barely seemed to accept her leaving for her journey… the thought of him not accepting that she was gone, just… living on as if she’s coming home at some point…

It feels like her heart is being squeezed into pulp, the pain so great that her muffled keen is as much from the simple physical feeling as the grief.

Have you ever lost a person?… There’s like a crack in your life that doesn’t ever really go away.

She can feel it, already formed. A dark rift into which all the plans and hopes and dreams of her friend have disappeared forever, a fissure that cuts across the future and splits it off forever from what could have been, and the more she contemplates it, the more it feels like it’ll pull her in too, sink her through inky depths that will crush her like an empty soda can.

And she does get pulled in, and she does get crushed, and for a time all the world is reduced to the compact agony.

When the storm finally passes, it does so in stages of awareness. First Leaf becomes more cognizant of the feel of Red’s shirt. Then her own hospital gown. Then the sounds of others in the building. Then some stray thought clutches her leg and drags her back down until she’s ready to try coming back again.

Red is quiet and patient beside her, until the world returns little by little again and stays. She keeps her head where it is, feeling like she’s cried out, for now. Red seems content to stay still too, and what eventually makes her lift her head is a sound of grief from elsewhere in the hospital.

Another tragedy, only tangentially related. Another ended future.

Leaf opens eyes that feel puffy and sore, and notes with only minor surprise that it’s still light out, the bright midday sun shining down on a city full of cracks. There’s even a rainbow in the distance, a testament to the insanity of this new world she’s sidestepped into. In a saner one it would be night already, and raining again.

“How did you stand it?” she eventually murmurs. “With your dad.”

Red shakes his head. “Didn’t, remember? I broke. Took a long time for the pieces to settle, but even then a lot was blocked by my partition.”

Leaf pulls away slightly to search his face. “And did this break you again? Or…”

Red meets her gaze, then slowly shakes his head. “It’s… different.” His voice is quiet, but she can hear the thread of pain under it. “I think I understand how partitions form, now.”

“How?” she asks, because it’s something to talk about, anything, that’s not…

“Sometimes it seems like memories and preferences and perceptions are all we are. Like a messy bundle of data files, sensory equipment, and programmed directives that…” He stops, frowns, shakes his head. “Sorry, that’s not… Anyway, partitions divide your memories. Memories are almost like a person, right? Just… with no access to the senses, or intentions… it’s just a pattern. When I was younger… I didn’t realize I had powers, but they were still developing and working to revert harm through partition.”

“So they formed… what, another person inside you?”

“No. Sorry, I’m butchering it, and I think it’s hard to explain anyway.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “I lived a pretty sheltered life as a kid. My mom and dad were my world, and that world was good. There were things that made me sad, but life still felt… fair. Sensible.”

Leaf’s chest aches. What Red’s describing sounds very much like what life was like for her, before she decided to leave Unova.

“I was practically a baby when Blue lost his parents. Only have vague memories of them, but my dad was… more than a person. He was like an idea given form. A heroic font of wisdom about how to survive, he taught me so much about how to stay safe on my journey…”

“And then he died,” Leaf whispers. “No, not just died. Was killed by pokemon.” Leaf watches Red study her bed, focusing on the sound of his voice and the ideas he’s expressing, to keep herself from dwelling on things that would make her fall apart again.

Red nods. “It was like… if some new mythical pokemon shows up and reverses gravity for a few seconds. Forget the planetary effects, I mean just from the earth’s surface. And everything goes flying up into the air, then comes crashing down. Bunch of people die, probably, and maybe a lot of houses collapse, I don’t know. But the point is you just can’t take it for granted anymore that gravity is constant. That pokemon might do it again at any point, and everyone just… The world is different. You’re different. And you’re less shocked, the second time it happens. But a partition… it holds onto the old mental pattern, or something.” He rubs his face. “Sorry, this analogy is breaking down. I have a lot of questions I need to ask another psychic.”

Leaf worries her lower lip, watching him. “I think it made sense, sort of. So with your partition weak, you were… more prepared, for this?”

“Not prepared,” he murmurs, gaze down. “And I don’t know if the partition being weak mattered. I just… there wasn’t as much, built on some idea that we were all invincible. I think if I wasn’t psychic it would have been the same. It all feels like it’s part of the same pattern now. Maybe that’s why it was easier for me, to not go in the building.”

Leaf stares at him. “What do you mean?”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “I wasn’t with her, Leaf,” he says, voice finally descending into full monotone. “I tried to stop her from going into the hospital, but I let her go in with just Vermilion Gym’s Second. They were going in to rescue his people and others that were still trapped inside and I said not to, I said it was too dangerous, but they went in anyway. No one came out.”

She stares at him, unable to understand what he’s saying for a moment, then unable to accept it. “You didn’t… no, Red, you risked yourself to save strangers, you don’t… how could you not…”

Now he does open his eyes, and they’re wet and angry. “How could I what, Leaf? How could I not throw my life away too? How many times did we almost die last night? I count three for myself, you probably had more. What would it have taken? A command given a second too slow? A trip or slip at just the wrong moment? If that nidoqueen meant to attack you instead of just turning while you were in the wrong place, you’d be dead.” His anger has faded, anguish coming through instead. “Dead, Leaf, just gone, like Ai…” Her name turns into a sob that brings her own tears back, and then they’re holding each other again as the tears flow, and this time Leaf feels like she’s comforting him more than the other way around.

It’s hard to fully grapple with the idea of her own non-existence in any circumstance, let alone through the numbing grief. But she can feel a little bit of the horror at how close she came, through the fear in his voice.

Another endless moment passes as Leaf lets the grief take her away again. There were just so many things she was waiting for… conversations that would never happen now. Talking to Aiko about the diglett caves, and the cruise, and her ranch, and lab grown meat, and cloning… Blue probably has his own list, and Red too, and it all adds up to sorrow that has nowhere to go. A lifetime of pain that may fade, but will persist until each of them are gone.

And all because of what? Leaf finds herself searching for justification in what Red said, for and against, because it still doesn’t make sense to her. Red was so brave all that night, despite all the fear he was dealing with… Could it be that he was using his powers to keep himself steady, and then they ran out? Or maybe…

“Red,” she whispers. “The Pressure was really hard on you. Did it—”

“No.” He sounds so tired, like he’s argued this a hundred times before. Maybe he has, to himself. “Zapdos was gone. If anything I felt less afraid for myself, after that. It was me, Leaf. Just me. I decided the risk was too high and I didn’t go in. That’s all.”

Leaf hears the words, but still… doesn’t believe him. She saw how affected he was by it, even lost in her own nearly hysterical concern for the pokemon around her—

“So it’s true?”

They both jump at Blue’s voice, and Red stands and steps around the chair so Leaf can see him, standing in the doorway like Red was.

“Blue! You’re okay!” The relief is such an unexpected positive thing to feel that she forgets her injuries and tries to get up too. She quickly stops, hissing in pain, and relaxes back into her bed. “How did you find us?”

He doesn’t answer, doesn’t even move further into the room to hug Red. He just stares at Red with an expression of barely leashed anger, and it takes her a moment to remember that he asked a question.

Just when she thinks he won’t answer, his gaze moves to her. “Just came from the gym. Found out where Red was going. You’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” She searches his face, heart sinking at his clipped tone. This isn’t the tearful reunion she imagined, let alone the joyful one. “The others… are they…?”

“Glen was hurt too, but he’s also recovering. Elaine?”

“She’s fine. Went to a pokemon center.”

Some tension leaves Blue at that, and he leans against the wall. “Glad you’re okay.” He opens his mouth, then closes it and turns to Red. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“You didn’t specify,” Red says, and Leaf looks at him in surprise at the leashed anger in his voice too.

Sudden foreboding fills her, and she’s about to speak when Blue answers.

“They told me you were there. When the Second and Aiko died.” Blue’s voice is controlled, but his hands are fists as he crosses them over his chest, and there’s anger under the calm like hints of flames licking an underbrush. “That you let them go into the building alone.”

“Yes,” Red says. Just that. As Leaf looks at him, all traces of the sadness from before are gone.

Blue waits, clearly expecting more of an answer. Blue’s jaw sets, and he shakes his head. “You’re not a coward. You wouldn’t have come if you were. How could you do that?”

“Guys,” Leaf says, forcing herself to speak against the sense of pressure she feels filling the room. “Maybe now isn’t the right time for this. We’re all still exhausted, maybe feeling after effects of the Pressure. Let’s just… let it go, for now. She wouldn’t want us to—”

“Yes, she would,” Blue interrupts, and she sees his fists tighten as the heat enters his voice, now. “You two didn’t know her as well as I did, you weren’t there after the caves, you don’t understand. We all take responsibility for our fuckups. She understood that, started it. Now tell me what the fuck happened, Red!”

A silence of three parts fills the room: Leaf’s shock and dread, Blue’s angry expectation, and Red’s detached hostility. It’s broken not by any of them, but by a nurse who walks by the door.

“Is everything alright in here?” she asks, looking at Leaf.

“No,” she says. “We… lost a friend.”

Blue lets a breath out through his nose and turns to the nurse. “Please excuse my outburst. It won’t happen again.”

She eyes him briefly, then looks back at Leaf, waiting for her confirmation. After a moment, Leaf nods, and the nurse walks away. It’s only after she leaves that Leaf realizes she was probably asking if she was okay, if she wanted them to stay.

As soon as she’s gone, Blue closes the door. When he turns back to Red, the silence returns.

“That’s what you want?” Red asks at last. “You just want me to say I made a mistake?”

“No, that’s not it. But it would be a start.” Blue lets out a breath and rubs his face. “It’s more than that, but just… explain what you did wrong, and why, and we can go from there.”

“If you want a real post mortem, there were three mistakes,” Red says, voice soft and hypnotically monotone. “The first was made by Vermilion’s Second. It wasn’t when he sent his team ahead while waiting for Aiko and me, that made sense. Don’t think they could have reasonably predicted the onix. The mistake came when, after arriving at the clearly unsound and doomed building, he decided to go in at all. It was too high a risk. He should have known that. He did know it, but went anyway. He didn’t make a plan for the roof collapsing, didn’t have a way to deal with that, so he shouldn’t have—”

“Stop,” Blue says, and the anger is back. “You’re not doing it right. You talk about yourself, not what other people did wrong. That’s for them to do, and he’s not here. His friends and gym mates were in the building, and he couldn’t just watch and not go try to save them. Some people can’t live like that.”

“Maybe they can’t,” Red says. “But if that’s true, those people shouldn’t be leaders. Ask Surge, if you disagree,” he quickly says, seeing Blue about to speak again. “But fine, you want me to admit my own mistake? That’s the second one. I should have lied to him. The Second asked me if there were still people alive in the building. Don’t know if he would have believed me if I said no, but… I should have said no.”

They both stare at him, and Leaf can’t keep her silence. “Red, what if someone had made it out? No one would ever trust you…”

“Maybe not. But Aiko might be alive right now.”

“That’s all you care about?” Blue asks. “You would have condemned them all to death, just to save two lives?”

“My dad taught me that risk is something you have to actively manage. It’s not just about having knowledge, it takes time. Effort. Sometimes resources. If you’re not spending anything to manage risk, you’re just rolling dice.” Red shakes his head, and now some emotion enters his voice as he leans back against her bed, gaze down. “Aiko should have known that. That’s the third mistake. She’s… she was… smart, she understood risk, and I wish… I wish I could have just paused time and talked to her about it, I’m sure I could have convinced her, but it all happened so fast…”

Leaf reaches out to put a hand on Red’s arm as he trails off, sounding close to tears again. “Red, you can’t blame yourself for this. It was her choice to come with us, we all tried to get her to come but she’s the one that ultimately chose it, just like she made the choice to go in there.” She turns to Blue. “Tell him.” He bites his lip, staying silent, and anger suddenly sparks in her own chest. “Blue, tell him!”

Blue rubs his eyes, then lets out a breath. “She did it because she chose to. But you’re wrong saying it was a mistake. She followed what she felt was right. She knew it was a risk, and maybe it was the wrong call this time. Your mistake wasn’t that you failed to stop her, Red, it was not going in after her. It’s the same mistake you make in battles, that you could have learned in Pewter if you went for the badge: you’re too hesitant to take risks.”

“This wasn’t just a risk, it was suicide.”

“You didn’t know that ahead of time, you’re saying it now, after the fact!”

“The roof collapsed, Blue, if I’d gone in then I’d be dead too!”

Then you should have died!”

The silence is back, and this time Leaf pushes through her shock. “Blue, you don’t mean that.”

“Would you have done different?” Blue asks, eyes piercing her. “Be honest, Leaf. For her, for him, for me. Would you have stayed outside?”

Leaf’s throat locks. She can’t know what she would have done… she could say that, could try to stand up for Red, but…

Blue reads it on her face, and nods. “That’s what it means to be someone’s friend,” Blue says, looking back at Red now. “That’s what you don’t get, Red. You’re talking about risk and the smart thing to do like it’s a game, like your decisions don’t say things about who you are, how people see you. Forget strangers you’re on a mission with, how could anyone trust you to have their back on a journey, if they know that’s how you see things?”

“Of course that’s what you care about,” Red says, bitterness spilling out with every word. “Your precious fucking persona. Word gets out that one of your journeymates will leave a friend to die and people wonder if you feel that way too, right? That’s what being a hero is, to you, what looks heroic, not what actually saves lives.”

“Shut up,” Blue says, face red and voice deadly calm. “That’s not how it is.”

“No? That mean you’re going to stop pretending that your definition of a hero is the only one?” Red sticks a finger forward. “Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in the back of her head, telling her she had to go in there or she didn’t belong at the great Blue Oak’s side?”

“Get that finger out of my face before I—”

“Stop it, both of you!” Leaf cuts in, heart pounding. Both boys have moved closer to each other, faces flushed, and she forces herself out of the bed to stand between them, looking back and forth. “You’re best friends, you can’t let this change that, Aiko wouldn’t want this, you know she wouldn’t!”

Blue swallows, hands balled into fists at his side as he takes a slow breath. “Just… admit your mistake. Just say it, Red, it’s okay if you were afraid,” Blue’s voice shakes slightly on the word, “You can overcome that, we’ll help you, but you can’t go forward like this, thinking that what you did was right.”

For a moment all Leaf can hear is her heart pounding and their breaths. The world outside the door is oddly quiet, as if the whole building is waiting for Red’s response.

“That’s where you’re demonstrably wrong,” he says at last, and steps around Leaf. Blue’s arms flinch up, but Red just takes his bag from the floor and pulls its straps onto his shoulders.

“Red…” Leaf steps forward, struggling to find the right words, frustration mixing with panic. Say something, if you want to persuade the world to do the right thing then you should at least be able to stop a friend from making a mistake!

He pauses and glances at her. There’s something in his gaze that reminds her of that night on the cruise, and she feels heat go up her neck in the moment it takes for him to look away. “You don’t have to worry about me tarnishing your reputation, Blue. Maybe you’re right, maybe I’m not fit to be a trainer after all. Either way, my journey’s done.”

“Red, don’t,” Leaf says, but he’s already opening the door, and he closes it without looking back.


Red spends the day walking through the city. It’s shocking to see the damage in the daylight; all the bodies seem to have been collected, thankfully, but there are entire blocks that are a wreck. That said, watching the repair efforts that are already underway is soothing, in its own way. It’s a reminder that not everything that happened last night would leave a scar.

Red doesn’t have a specific destination in mind. He mostly just walks to keep himself busy as his thoughts churn, and his emotions ebb and flow. Occasionally he thinks of the conversation that just happened, of Blue’s tone or the look on Leaf’s face, but those pains are minor.

Mostly he just thinks of Aiko, and practices manipulating his partition.

At one point Red reaches the shopping mall that he and Leaf took shelter in, and goes inside to ensure that the group who hid there is okay. A path is cleared through the spike trap they laid, so he assumes they got out okay, at least. Afterward he goes to a pokemon center and puts his pokemon in queue to be healed. It would take a few days before his pokemon are healed, but he waits a couple hours anyway to speak with a doctor who examines Pikachu’s ball, and reports confidence that he would walk again. It doesn’t undo last night or this afternoon, but it’s a small stone off Red’s heart. He misses his pokemon’s weight on his shoulder.

Wireless signal gets fully restored by dinner time, and Red eats a meal bar in a park as he composes a message, then sends it.

He doesn’t call his mom. He would probably have to tell her that he got off the cruise at some point, but right now it seems a better problem for Future Red. He does let Bill know, and apologizes for not seeing the whole convention. He reads updates about the search for Elite Karen, which resolves just as the sun begins to set: she was found in critical condition, but alive, atop her slain pokemon. The death count for the city is up to seven thousand. It’s being cautiously referred to as the least deadly Stormbringer attack on a major city in history. Mass funerals are already being planned, and there’s a speech by the mayor and gym leader tomorrow afternoon.

The sun is setting by the time he gets a response to his message. As he gets up he spies the messages waiting for him from Leaf. Each expresses caution and reassurance that Blue will come around. He sends her a quick response telling her he’s okay and would visit tonight. There are none by Blue.

It’s a forty minute bike ride from the park to the cafe, and by the time he arrives it’s fully dark. He does his best as he packs up his bike and pads to ensure his mental state isn’t too uncomfortable, then walks into the cafe.

Most businesses aren’t re-opened yet, but Sabrina is already there, waiting with a cup of something. Or maybe she’s not waiting: Leader Giovanni sits beside her, along with Leaders Koga and Erika. Their conversation stopped before he even entered, and so he steps into silence as he stares at the four Leaders, his heart pounding in his chest.

“Ah, sorry,” he says, and swallows before bowing. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Not at all, Red,” Sabrina says as Giovanni and Koga nod in greeting, and Erika twiddles her fingers. “I already told them this would only take a moment. In fact, it’s already done.” Her gaze is sympathetic, but warm. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. But your assessment is correct. Your partition is now partially under your control.”

Red’s heart hammers as he feels hope pierce the grief, for a moment. “You’ll take me as your student, then?”

Sabrina sips from her cup, gaze thoughtful, then seems to reach a decision. “I will. When can you start?”


End of Part I

Chapter 66: Interlude XI – Pyre

Sabra is so distracted by the sight of the hospital going through its final immolation that she almost misses the young trainer sitting on the wet ground nearby it.

The top half has already burned itself out, while the smoldering bottom illuminates the boy and the bags sitting next to him. Vermilion Gym’s Third rears her manectric Sheen to a stop, then dismounts so she can approach the trainer as her people fan out to search for other survivors that may still need help. They just finished hunting down and catching the onix that was cracking streets and building foundations, and are working their way back along its path of destruction to help who they can.

The people who evacuated ensured that the fire wouldn’t spread, but few trainers are here now: it’s clear there’s nothing left to save.

The boy is staring at the hospital, gaze distant and body slouched over his knees. There are two bags and various pokeballs and medical equipment sitting next to him, and the sight of them fills Sabra with foreboding as she gets close enough to talk. “Are you alright, trainer?”

He turns to her, and even with his wet hair in his face and the dim light, his expression is one that Sabra has seen a hundred times before, and Arceus permitting will see a hundred times more. That blank, empty look of someone in deep shock.

“I couldn’t stop them,” the boy says, and she suddenly recognizes him by his voice. It’s Red Verres, the trainer that helped catch all those abra and decided to wholesale them, then took a few of her classes at the gym. “I’m sorry.”

“Who?” Sabra asks, and looks at the bags again. One she doesn’t recognize, but the other is Vermilion Gym standard, and the foreboding spreads through her chest. It wasn’t his friends, surely? If it were Oak and Juniper, wouldn’t they have all gone in together? “Who went in there, Verres?”

“Aiko Sakai,” Verres says, voice low, and turns back to the blazing hospital. “And your Second.”

Sabra spins back toward the hospital, denial and horror warring in her as she imagines Jack somewhere in that burning rubble. No one could still be alive in there, not unless… “They could be safe, they could have tunneled under, or—”

“No,” Red says, and Sabra looks back to him. He’s still staring at the fire, voice low and expression blank. “I sensed it, when the floors fell in together. Their pokemon survived, for a bit. Now they’re all gone.”

Pain pierces through her chest as Sabra closes her eyes. Jack, you brave fool. Vermilion’s Third gives herself a moment to grieve, and when she steadies her breathing and opens her eyes again, it’s as its Second. “If you’ll accompany me,” she says voice steady, “We’ll ensure you’re at a safe location while the city re-stabilizes. Leader Surge will want a full debrief, after.”

The young trainer doesn’t even look at her. Just gets to his feet, looks at his friend’s belongings, and starts to gather them up. “I can’t. I have to tell the others.”

Sabra does the same with Jack’s things, strapping his bag to her chest and filling its empty pockets with the pokemon he left behind. “I’m sorry about your friend, Verres.” She vaguely remembers the girl from classes too, usually there with Blue Oak. Short dark hair and an intense concentration, like she was soaking up every word of the lessons. “She was a hero.”

“Yes,” Verres says, still in that flat voice. “Blue will be proud of her.”

“But Surge needs to know—”

“I don’t care. You’ll have to restrain me if you want to stop me.”

Sabra turns to the boy in surprise and sees he’s already walking without her. He’s in shock, she reminds herself to keep from snapping at him in a tone of command, nerves frayed by the long night. Instead she takes a deep breath, immediately regretting it as her nose fills with the scent of ash.

Her quick strides move her in front of him before he gets far, and she lowers herself to one knee so that she can more easily meet his empty gaze, barely feeling the water seep through her pants, which were just starting to dry. He doesn’t move as her hands firmly grip his shoulders, nor when she pulls him into a hug.

It’s awkward, with the extra bags. Their clothes are still damp from the rain, and the boy has an extra pokebelt on, one of its balls pressing uncomfortably against her hip. But she doesn’t let him go, even when he fails to respond.

Surge has always told her that she relies too much on commands to be commanding. That if she loses the ability to connect with people, she’ll forever be someone that can only take the mantle of Leader, rather than being one without it.

“Just because it hurts, doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing,” she murmurs against his ear, eyes closed as her own past feelings of guilt swirl inside her, filling her with pain and nausea, letting it speak her truth and hoping that it resonates with him. “We don’t always get to know.”

It takes a minute for the trainer to thaw, and the boy to return from wherever he went. She holds him as he shakes, tears lost in the dampness of their clothes.

Eventually they part, and Sabra takes his hand to lead him to her patient manectric. She helps him into the passenger saddle, then mounts behind him and turns to look at the hospital. The night after she became Vermilion’s Third, Jack took her out for drinks. Confided the survivor’s guilt he carried, said he had made it a source of strength, pushing him to help others. His biggest worry, he said, was what would happen if he felt he had done enough… and his biggest fear was that he never could. That he would carry it to his grave.

Her hand rises in a final salute, throat tight, then comes down to command Sheen forward.

The boy keeps his gaze down, back bag resting against her front one, and neither of them look back as another part of the building caves in, sending a rush of sparks and smoke up into the cloudless night.