“You’re coddling it.”
Blue turns away from his abra and the pokedoll it’s attacking to frown at Koichi, who’s watching them from the edge of the arena pit with a passive expression. The ex-Gym Leader has clearly just finished showering and changing into his streetwear, duffel bag slung over one shoulder.
Blue spends a few seconds deciding whether he should dismiss the statement with a simple “thanks for the advice,” or just ignore it altogether. Koichi is clearly on his way out of the rapidly emptying dojo, and as far as Blue has seen in his time at the dojo, quickly backs off from any indication that his presence isn’t wanted.
But the bait is too strong, particularly since Blue is still having trouble training Tops; the abra is growing, but not quickly, and still hasn’t shown any real connection to Blue. Just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food is what Red said, and so far that still seems to be the case. They solved the orientation problem by buying a device that emits a constant, high frequency sound that Tops can hear, then training Tops to keep himself between the sound and enemy pokemon, but it would involve a lot of movement on Blue’s part if he needed to use it in a real battle.
“What do you mean?” he finally asks.
“I watched your battle, earlier. You’re not letting your abra get hurt. Just hit and swap.”
“Of course not, it can barely fight!”
Koichi seems about to say something, then closes his mouth, shrugs, and starts heading for the exit.
Blue watches the broad shouldered man leave, fighting his instinct to follow. In his first week at the dojo he attended one of Koichi’s fighting lessons (in part out of curiosity and in part because he wanted the ability to ask for him to leave the dojo), but it was pretty tame; the ex-Leader taught a range of jiu jitsu kata, ramping up in speed and complexity until the veterans were warmed up and the novices (including Blue) weren’t able to match them. After that Blue was paired up against other novices so they could try and disable each other’s ability to either reach for their belt or move away.
It didn’t go well. Blue would bet on his reflexes over nearly anyone else’s, but few of the motions he learned were familiar, and muscle memory has to be trained. As a result he ended up getting knocked on his ass a lot, or hitting the mat face first while one of his arms was forced into some painful position.
Before long he was struggling to keep his anger and frustration off his face, and thought of pretending he had somewhere else he had to be so he could leave early. He tried to justify the urge by convincing himself that the “novices” he fought were enjoying humiliating him… but as they all swapped partners, he couldn’t see any difference in how he was being treated compared to the others; if anything, a couple of his sparring partners were overly apologetic and concerned after they took him down.
Blue was also distracted by the way Koichi himself went from pair to pair to give pointers and occasionally demonstrate something. In his place, Blue would have avoided any contact with others rather than risk someone claiming injury and using it as a reason to boot him from the dojo. Instead the ex-Leader seemed focused on his work, and though he didn’t appear to take pleasure in it, he also showed no impatience or anger. Each movement seemed, to Blue’s untrained eye, to use just the right amount of force.
After his lesson Blue begrudgingly recognized that he had no grounds to ask for the ex-Leader’s removal. He also better understood why learning to lose is such a valuable thing to do; he saw it in the other students, the way their acceptance of their failures allowed them to keep trying things they knew they would fail at, again and again, until they succeeded.
Blue used to be like that. He can’t remember when, exactly, he lost it, but he’s determined to get it back.
Still, he doesn’t trust Koichi, and he’s kept an eye on him just in case he spots something that, even if it’s not reasonable grounds for removal, would give some hint to what he’s really doing here. This could be another opportunity to do so.
“Wait. What were you about to say?”
Koichi turns back to him, then asks, “What do you know of adverse improvement?”
“It’s what makes pokemon grow faster when they fight.”
“That’s a definition. I asked what you know about it. How it works.”
Red might know, but Blue only studied it for a bit before concluding that the practical effects were pretty straightforward. “No.”
“It’s not just about fighting, and not just for pokemon. Humans experience it too.”
Blue raises a brow. “Uh. I feel like I’d know about that… or are you actually only, like, 20?”
Koichi shakes his head. “This is the problem. You learn part of the whole, and misunderstand. You’ve journeyed for a year now, yes?”
“Almost.” About a couple months short, which reminds him that it will be Leaf’s birthday soon…
“And yet some of your pokemon, those you’ve had since the beginning, are nearly as strong as those who have been training for years. Why?”
Blue crosses his arms, starting to get impatient. “Because they’ve seen a lot of battles and spent a lot of time in training, like I said. What’s the part I don’t understand?”
“That part. Your answer is incomplete; you’ve been fighting with your abra a lot, and yet it is not growing. Most abra do not grow quickly from battle. What makes them different?”
Blue finally starts to actually consider what the ex-Leader is saying, and remember that he’s speaking to someone so good that they nearly had to be dethroned by an Elite.
What does he know that I don’t?
“Just to be clear, how obvious is this supposed to be?” Blue asks after a moment. “I can say stuff like ‘they usually run from battle’ or ‘they don’t naturally know any attacks,’ but it sounds like you’re talking about something most trainers don’t know.”
Koichi considers a moment, then puts his bag down and walks over to lean against the wall around the arena’s edge. “It’s not a conspiracy. People just don’t like to talk about it, and when they hear it most will reject it out of hand. People who talk anyway become… unpopular. But it weakens us when we train pokemon that aren’t aggressive.”
Blue lowers himself to sit on the edge of the balcony, feet dangling above the pit of the arena as he tosses some berries down to Tops. The abra sniffs, then begins to crawl around to find them. “So being aggressive? That’s the secret?”
“You were skeptical that it works for humans too. What do you think?”
Blue bites his lower lip, thinking of all the times he fought with Red or some others at school. It wasn’t often, maybe half a dozen times, but he didn’t notice any growth spurts after…
Oh. You’re coddling it. “It’s about being injured? Badly?”
“It’s about life-and-death struggle. Triumph against something that seeks to kill you.”
Blue frowns. “I dismissed that, it’s too common. Beating wild pokemon—”
“You don’t beat them. Your pokemon does.”
He remembers his shiftry (with the usual painful flashback to that moment in the tunnels, the crunch and snap of woody flesh) and the way he had trouble training it right after capture. The pokedex has been updated now so that information is front and center, but it’s an unusual enough situation that he’s not sure how often it might come up. Still, he can’t remember feeling afraid for his life even then, though he does remember the weary triumph once his plan to catch it worked.
“How do you know it works on humans?”
“Grew up in a rough neighborhood. The point is, abra are hard to train because they have no fighting instinct. They need to learn what it’s like to get hurt, and not run away. To be in a real fight for their life, then overcome it.”
Blue wants to reject the idea out of hand, but he knows that’s coming from his personal dislike of Koichi. He’ll have to check what the ex-Leader is saying, maybe ask Gramps, but… he hasn’t been able to get much help from Red lately since he’s been working on his teleportation thing, and if true then this is a solid lead.
“You said trainers pretend this isn’t true? Not just keep it secret, I know many would do that for an advantage, but you were openly trying to talk about this and no one listened?”
“Yes. I saw the new mentality spreading during my own journey, the idea that pokemon should be treated as friends, not hurt more than necessary—”
“That a problem for you?” Blue asks, feeling a shadow of Leaf and Aiko’s imagined anger.
Koichi’s already neutral expression goes flat. “Meaning I like hurting things?”
“Or don’t care. You didn’t just beat your challengers’ pokemon, you were brutal to them.” Blue wonders where Duncan is, and whether this conversation is only happening because they’re mostly alone. There are a few others spread out around the dojo practicing on the various equipment or courses, but no one’s within earshot.
“I was—” Koichi cuts himself off, then takes a breath. “I was wrong to do that. But I’m not a sadist.”
Blue watches him for a moment. The first time he spoke there was something else there, the first real emotion Blue’s heard from the ex-Leader. “So why did you do it?”
Koichi takes another breath, letting it out more slowly. “Told myself it was because I needed to show people I was right, that more dangerous battles would make their pokemon grow faster. It’s why I fought my way to Leader to begin with. Thought I could learn the political stuff, the city strategizing, the logistics, all the rest of what came with it. I was wrong, and I was too prideful to ask others to help. Pride was at the root of it all. I wanted to show everyone, the Leaders, the Professors, the Elites, that they weren’t as strong as they could be.”
Blue just listens, rapt. As far as attempts to justify himself go, this isn’t as self-sympathetic as he expected, and it’s fascinating just hearing the other side of such an infamous story, true or not. “Until Sabrina showed up.”
Koichi’s jaw tightens, just for a moment. “Yes.”
Looks like storytime is over. “That’s it? Just ‘yes?’ You wanted to prove a point, and she proved you wrong. Or are you going to blame type disadvantage for your ace?”
“She didn’t—” Again Koichi cuts himself off, and Blue catches the anger there before the ex-Leader’s face goes blank again. “I am grateful to Sabrina for putting an end to my destructive spiral.”
“Come on, just say what you wanted to say.”
“You would not believe me.”
“Then why are you bothering to talk to me at all?”
Koichi doesn’t seem to have an immediate answer to that, and after a moment he sighs. “I have no evidence. But Sabrina’s alakazam was far more powerful than it should have been given her age and experience as a trainer. I believe a skilled enough psychic could train their pokemon more quickly by projecting the necessary feelings onto them during battle.”
Blue’s eyes widen even as he shakes his head. “No way. If that were true the strongest psychics would dominate all the Leagues. Even if Sabrina’s in the top percent…” He trails off as he remembers that most psychics don’t become trainers at all, making the actual number who might try this out fairly low. And there are six of them currently in the Indigo League… the thought feels less crazy the more he thinks of it, but he pushes against it anyway.
Koichi must read something in his expression, because he shakes his head. “Told you. People don’t want to believe it.”
“It’s not that.”
“You weren’t thinking of how doing this might make people turn on you?”
This time it’s Blue who doesn’t have a response. He still remembers the reaction from his training partner in Cerulean Gym, when Maturin got a little too bloodthirsty. While most people aren’t as against trainer battles as Leaf, no one looks kindly on pokemon being badly hurt in a trainer match, whether their own or someone else’s, even when the stakes are really high…
Which, if Koichi is right, would put him in an impossible situation. Some might listen, test it themselves, and find it true… but anyone who admitted to putting their pokemon through harsher battles for strength might get huge public backlash… even agreeing that it’s possible would make people suspicious.
If word gets out that Blue even thinks this might be true, most people would assume he’s been doing it from the start. Especially combined with rumors of him hurting his shiftry or opponents’ pokemon… It could destroy his reputation.
Red can probably do it.
Blue’s breath stills for a moment. Red may not be as good as Sabrina yet, but he can do things she can’t, and he’s smart. If Blue had to put money down, he’d bet on his friend figuring it out, assuming he’s driven to… and he would be, it could be a huge discovery…
…but he also might not understand the damage it would do to try and publish it. It would make him a powerful trainer, might make Blue’s pokemon even stronger, but even without pokemon getting excessively hurt when a psychic does it, just publishing a paper on it could damage Red’s career if people thought he was advocating for it, or even if he was making it more likely for people to do in secret…
Blue’s eyes close. He can’t do it. His friend has no sense for PR or navigating the social side of the world, if Blue suggests something like this to him it could ruin him. He has to think things through to protect his friend from himself… also, Leaf would be pissed at them if it leads to people letting their pokemon get more hurt on purpose. It would be even worse if people learn the idea came from Koichi.
Speaking of which…
Blue opens his eyes. “Why are you telling me all this?”
Koichi regards him with a slight frown. “You asked.”
“No, originally you came to me and told me I was doing it wrong.”
The older man shrugs. “I can’t unknow what I know. You’re struggling with something, and I’m here as a teacher.”
“That’s it? You just wanted to help?”
“Yes. I understand that might be hard to b—”
“Stop, spare me that stuff. I’m not even saying it’s not true, let’s just take for granted that I distrust you but am willing to listen and am not just looking for excuses to get you kicked out of the dojo, alright? Saves time.”
Blue might be imagining it, but it seems like some tension leaks out of Koichi’s stance. “Fine. You pressed me because you didn’t believe my answer, and now want me to give you another. But I have nothing else to say, whether to convince you or not. Believe what you want.”
Blue watches Koichi and tries to decide whether the ex-Leader is trying to manipulate him. Erika would say to follow the status differential; if Blue were to follow his advice, champion it (whether before or after becoming Champion), and weather the storm of public opinion afterward, Koichi would be vindicated. Blue would essentially be gambling his own status to redeem the ex-Leader, to some degree at least.
But Koichi isn’t doing a lot of talking. He could try to convince Blue that of anyone out there, an Oak has the best chance of surviving the social backlash, especially if he can get Gramps on board. He’d play on Blue’s goals, point out how much stronger trainers would be if they used this knowledge. But maybe he recognizes that talking too much and trying to convince him too hard would be a bad move against someone as suspicious as Blue.
And, of course, the older man might just be sincere. More bitter than he’s letting on, but not trying to do anything but live out a quiet, useful life with the skills he has.
Duncan would say he should split and commit to both possibilities; that Koichi is just trying to help, and that Koichi is trying to manipulate him. In the latter case, he shouldn’t be too credible about this, or indicate whether he’ll follow the advice, or else Koichi might use his openness to the idea as blackmail. Hell, this whole conversation could be recorded. But he also shouldn’t close himself off to the possibility of future help… Koichi is, ultimately, a great teacher, and if he has some bits of unpopular or hidden truth among many other bad ideas, Blue wants to learn them.
“I’ll think about it,” is all Blue says. “I don’t believe it, something like that would be talked about more even if it’s wrong, but thank you for trusting me with it.”
Koichi’s surprise is as subtle as his other expressions, a mild lift of his eyebrows. Then he simply nods, and picks his duffel bag up to leave again.
Blue watches him go, then turns back to the arena pit where Tops is, the last piece of food uneaten beside him. The abra, like most of his kind when sitting still, looks like he could be asleep. When he evolves he would stand on his hind legs, his tail would grow and thicken, and he would become swift and dangerous, particularly given the metrics Blue had analyzed when he picked him out from among all the other abra they caught. If he can get Tops to become an alakazam, he would truly be a monster, probably stronger than Sabrina’s.
But for now he just looks like a child napping after a meal, chin drooping down toward his chest, so passive and unwilling to fight… no human in history has ever been killed by an abra, and the thought of ensuring Tops gets hurt more during training just to strengthen him faster makes something twist in Blue’s gut.
He would truly be a monster…
Maybe he could test it with a different pokemon…
Red wakes about an hour before his alarm to rapid knocks on the door. A quick pulse of psydar tells him it’s Tatsumaki outside, and once he gets his bearings, pulls his clothes on, and opens the door, she barrels in, rubbing her hands together and pacing his room, looking simultaneously more exhausted and animated than he’s ever seen her.
“I feel it,” she says without preamble. “It’s a, there’s a… a field, a remote projection of the telekinetic sense. It’s like it’s accessed through some extra mind or something, or like an environment separate from air—”
Red’s alarm quickly shifts to excitement, tiredness fading as he takes her words in. “Wait, slow down. You felt what, exactly?” He reaches for his notebook, remembers it’s by his bed, then invites her to sit as he gets it. Instead she just keeps pacing.
“The field! But not a field, just the kinetic… ugh!” She throws her hands up. “I don’t know why I came here first, you’ve never felt it!”
“Aaand we’re breathing,” Red says, hoping it works as he takes a deep breath himself. Not because he’s annoyed, he’s too excited to be. He slowly lets it out, then breathes in again, and this time Tatsumaki matches him, slowing her steps until she’s standing still. After a third breath she’s still frowning slightly, but she seems calmer. “Okay, just… describe it.”
She does so, using terminology Red has studied but never experienced. From what he understands she’s talking about something like the field that psychics use to guide the telekinesis they then empower, the imagined shape in reality that they want to push force through.
By the time she’s done, Red’s barely contained excitement is close to spilling over, and he’s grinning wide. “Okay, this is it, this is exactly what I thought might happen! Thank you so much, now we need to do it again just to make sure, then see if you can teach someone else to do it, and—”
“Verres, wait! There’s more, I already did it more than once, I first felt it a few hours ago.” Tatsumaki begins to pace again, and Red realizes she’s been working through the night. “I’ve been playing around with it since, trying to see if I could find the extra space myself, and I can, it’s like it’s been there the whole time and I didn’t even notice it because it’s so sideways!”
“Is that…what does that mean?” Frisson races over him as his excitement and awe mix. “Are you saying you can teleport?”
“What? No, it’s unbound psychokinetic sense! Look!”
She leaves the apartment, closing the door on a baffled Red who stares blankly at it for a moment… then realizes what she’s about to do a second before the lamp on his desk scoots a finger’s breadth closer to him.
Red still startles, but he’s grinning by the time she comes back in. “That’s awesome!”
“It’s more than awesome, it sets a new precedent! Sabrina mentioned knowing someone who could do it, but I didn’t think I could actually learn it. I tried for a year before giving it up as just some individual quirk… but now, who knows what other special abilities might be transferable?”
Red feels a nudge through the partition. “Have you told anyone else yet?”
“No, Sensei needs her sleep and no one else here has as much a right to know as you.”
The words warm him, but he’s already thinking of what to do next, scribbling down his thoughts as soon as they form. “Okay, so we’ve confirmed that psychokinetic senses are used to teleport… but that would imply pokemon have massive telekinetic range, and yet—”
“No, distance still reduces the force you can fill the field with, remember? Personally I can’t make sense of things further away than I used to, there’s something out there but it’s like fumbling through the dark with thick gloves on. But when I have a fresh memory of what’s nearby it’s easier, and through glass it’s no problem at all. Well, not no problem, it took me hours to manipulate the field once I could even sense things, that’s what I’ve been working on this whole time, but it’s not harder once you know how.”
“Huh. So… they’re all different, distinct abilities, then? One to sense minds, another to sense things, and another to project force… but we’ve been confusing the sensing things with the projecting force up until now?”
“Something like that, sure. That’s why I’m going to focus on trying to extend my clarity of things far away. It probably has nothing to do with the ability to teleport, but still, what if it’s a piece of the puzzle?”
Her excitement is contagious, and for a moment they just grin at each other before she says, “I’m going to compare what I sense with what my pokemon do next, and when Sensei is up I’m sure she’ll have more ideas. You get to work on whatever this does for indoor teleportation.”
“Right. Wait, shouldn’t you, uh, sleep first?”
The look she gives him is answer enough, and then she’s gone like her namesake, the slam of Red’s door probably loud enough to wake someone else. Red sits on his bed and wonders why he’s not happier. His hypothesis just got a massive part of it validated, he feels vindication and excitement but… something’s off…
A nudge reminds him of the question his unpartitioned self had him ask, and a moment later…
…it’s down, and he lets out a slow breath. One more step toward figuring out how to teleport indoors, and another potential jostle to the house of cards.
It’s been two weeks since his meeting with Giovanni, and most of his “free thinking” time since then has been spent alternating between replaying the Leader’s words over in his head to try to figure out what they meant for the future, trying to focus on how he can maximize the odds of the best outcome.
He talked to Dr. Seward about it without revealing anything specific, and she took the idea of him having dangerous knowledge that might lead to massive changes in society with what would be flattering equanimity if he wasn’t sure she’d have the same reaction to him saying he learned how to turn into a pokemon.
“Do you know what a good outcome here actually looks like?” she asked. “Imagine you wake up tomorrow and this problem is completely resolved. What does that look like? How would you first notice?”
He recognized the “miracle question” from previous sessions, but this one was harder to answer. He wouldn’t notice it upon waking up; it wouldn’t affect his morning routine, or what he’s doing with his life, or who he interacts with. He would just be…
“Safety,” he finally realized. “I would feel safe about the future, about doing my research and not worrying about the outcome.”
She slowly nodded, gaze sympathetic. “It’s a tall order, and hard to achieve in a world like ours. I know you’re talking about social safety more than anything, and that’s something you don’t yet have a good sense for. So what can you do to improve that?”
The memory sends Red to get his laptop. As Leaf’s project continued to find new successes in the Safari Zone, more people have been talking about it. He knows that sooner or later someone else might make the connection, that the house of cards might fall before Giovanni and Sabrina and others are ready for it, and premorteming what happens then led him to recognize another area he’s failed to take into consideration.
He doesn’t know what the world will look like once the truths get out, but he remembered reading in history how dark humans used to leave towns and villages together to form their own if the persecution got bad enough. It twists his gut to think about ways this might play out today, even if things don’t get that extreme, but it’s possible he’ll need to rely more on other psychics than his friends and family, or if he assumes that they’ll stick by him, that other psychics will need him after being unable to rely on theirs.
So Red opens his contact list to find the psychics in Indigo that he hasn’t yet reached out to, does a bit of research on their social media, then starts a new message:
Hey there! Sorry to bother you out of nowhere like this, I saw that you do verification work for a number of cities and wondered if you’d be up to chat about it? I haven’t learned much about what that work is like, and am curious to know what your day to day is like…
Not everyone responds, and he knows fewer would if he wasn’t famous, but he’s still surprised how easy it’s been to make new friends.
Leaf wakes on her birthday to warm sunlight seeping in through the curtains, and allows herself a luxurious stretch and a few minutes of peace before she reaches for her phone. She looks around the room, and realizes how much more it feels like her room now. Aiko feels present without filling the space around her, and the mix of their aesthetic tastes more in harmony than discord.
It’s just a number, but she’s Aiko’s age now. It’s a number they never would have shared, and by next year even that will be gone.
She smiles at the slight sound of Raff snorting in his sleep, then reaches for her phone at last. Two lovely messages from her mother and grandpa are at the top of her notifications, as they’ve already been up for half a day back home. She basks in their love for her, sends them thank you messages, then finds the well-wishes from strangers that have already poured in.
Most are short and to the point, but some are longer, and every so often a new one pops up. There are quite a few direct expressions of appreciation from people who have benefited from the abra catching trick, as well as messages from those whose lives she helped save in Vermilion, or their friends and relatives. Many of the crew at Mount Moon send her a message as well, the longest by Ryback, and she even gets one from Mayor Kitto and Dr. Brenner.
She reads all of the ones by people she remembers meeting, then the longer ones from strangers, then starts to skim the rest, chest filling with warmth until she feels like she’s overflowing. Reality is waiting for her outside the door, but the outpouring of affection makes her feel, for the moment at least, like everything is right in the world.
A year ago today she’d woken up determined to leave for Kanto, no matter what her mother said. She hadn’t been sure it was the right decision; only that it was the decision she would be the most disappointed in herself for not making, in the years to come. The months since then have been filled with fear and pain and grief, but whatever the future holds, reading everyone’s messages of gratitude for her existence, she feels confident that it was the right choice, and worth the hardships.
When she feels like she can’t hold any more positivity, she swings her legs out of bed, showers, changes, and heads downstairs to start the chores…
…only to find that the supplies are missing.
Leaf frowns, wondering if Mr. Sakai started without her (he does that, sometimes, particularly if he wakes up early and has trouble going back to sleep), but all the supplies are missing, despite the therapy group not being scheduled for today. She hurries outside, only to stop as she steps on the porch, grinning so wide her face hurts.
Spread out around the ranch are half a dozen people with bags, summoning the pokemon into their pens and then filling the new feeders that were placed in the ones that have already gone through the first version of the “release” program. She spots Maria right away, thanks to her wide black hat and the honchkrow flying above her like a shadow given wings; the quiet girl spent a week surrounding it with duskstones once it grew too big to roost on her shoulder or head. Leaf identifies the others through their pokemon too; Zephyr is flying a wide circle around Blue, and she spots various other flying pokemon above Elaine, Glen, and… Jason?
She looks around but doesn’t see Red, then realizes he might be in the back of the ranch. She starts walking to the nearest person to help, then decides she’d just take the gift and instead moves around the building to see who else is here.
Red is indeed there by the pond, as is Lizzy. Mr. Sakai is there too, watching them with one hand loose on his hip and a puzzled expression.
“Leaf, did we hire new workers?”
“No, Mr. Sakai, it’s Red, Blue, and the others.” Her sympathetic smile suddenly fades, and she looks at him side eye. “I wonder how they got in to take the supplies…”
He manages to keep the act going for another moment, but then the corner of his lip hitches upward. Leaf hugs him, and he slowly wraps his arms around her. “Happy Birthday, Leaf. Thank you, for everything.”
She feels her eyes burn, and they stay together for the few minutes it takes for Red and Lizzy to finish and approach.
“Happy Birthday, Leaf!”
The synchronized chorus makes her grin again, and she hugs them one at a time. Afterward they travel around the barn collecting the others for more of the same, and when she returns inside she sees that Mr. Sakai has been setting out breakfast.
The eight of them talk as they eat, catching each other up on their various projects and future plans. The gifts come out after, all from one big container box except for Elaine’s, which is an improv Coordinator Contest party game stored in its own container ball. Each is wrapped up in such fancy paper that Leaf takes her time unfolding it from the boxes, the first of which contains a pocket-sized book of puns from Glen, the next some incense from Jason, then a long coat from Maria (black, of course), and from Lizzy a machine she’s never seen before.
“It’s basically a low level EM emitter,” she explains, beaming. “Well, the prototype for one, with some tweaks. From my tests it should be like a soothing bath for most nearby electric pokemon.”
Leaf grins as she looks it over, noting the basic switch and painted on settings by the dial. “Lizzy, this is awesome! Thank you!”
“Don’t forget to send me data on how well it works. And for which pokemon. And for how long!” Blue elbows her. “You know, if you want.”
“Me too,” Red adds.
“Of course I will.”
Blue meanwhile is lifting out a bigger box than the rest, and she carefully opens it to reveal an incubation canister… with a pearly white egg inside. “From Gramps and Daisy and me,” Blue says with a smile. “You’ll have to wait to see what it is.”
There are a couple dozen pokemon that have already come to mind. “Ahh, this isn’t a gift, it’s torture!” She slaps his arm, then gives him another hug before turning at last to Red, who holds out a smaller package than the rest.
“From my mom and me.”
The box is too thin to be anything she can think of, and she curiously peels back the layers, noting that Red is studiously avoiding eye contact. The box beneath is fancy, and she quickly opens it before sucking in a breath. Inside is a thin gold chain with three gems; a firestone, waterstone, and leafstone, each the size of her pinky nail.
“They’re pretty cheap when they’re that small,” he says before she pulls him into a tight hug.
Leaf can feel his heart beating against her chest, and kisses his cheek before pulling back. “It’s beautiful.”
His whole face is pink, but he manages to meet her gaze and smile. “Figured it would look good for the next Cruise Convention.”
She grins. “Has Bill asked us to go again?”
“Nah, but I figured we can try to get on without him.”
“Ahh, there’s the status swing,” Blue says as he slings an arm around his friend’s shoulder with one arm and uses the other to wipe a “tear” from his eye. “I’m just so proud…”
Red struggles out from under his arm as the group laughs, and Leaf turns to the others. “Thank you, everyone.”
“No problem,” Elaine says, scooting her chair to give Red and Blue’s ongoing struggle more space. “What do you want to do next?”
“Hmm.” Leaf picks up the ball for the improv game and studies the decorated lid with a smile. “I wouldn’t mind trying this out?”
They head to the front of the ranch and set it up; inside the container ball is a huge unfolding foam stage with various equipment for tricks and performances, as well as a foldout “judge’s table.” A brief debate ensues over who would be the first three judges, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria doesn’t volunteer; instead she, Leaf, Red, Elaine, and Glen are the first contestants while Blue, Lizzy, and Jason end up sitting at the table.
Mr. Sakai is their lone audience member, sitting on the porch and holding up a sign provided by the game that simply reads “You’re the best!” There are others too, all of which he has stacked beside him, and after a moment Leaf decides to start releasing some of her pokemon to sit with him. Soon the rest of them do too, and they have a small “crowd” gathered to watch, though most are more interested in exploring the porch. Mr. Sakai looks happy with Joy snuggled up to one side of him and Raff on the other.
For their first contestant, Maria has her honchkrow catch balls out of the air as she juggles them, then drop them back down for her to catch again and keep juggling. The juggling is more impressive than anything the pokemon does, as she sometimes manages seven balls at once and the number keeps changing, but her pokemon seems to be well coordinated in taking the balls and dropping them at each of her whistles. Leaf applauds hard once she’s done and the judges hold up scores of 7, 7, and 8.
“That was great, I had no idea you juggled!”
“It’s how I taught myself coordination, before my journey,” Maria says, looking embarrassed but pleased. In the bright sunlight, without her hat to hide under, it’s easier to remember she’s a few years older than Leaf.
“How have you been?” she asks as they watch Glen summon his dodrio, then begin attaching colorful streamers around each head. “Are you still studying with Jason?”
“Yes. It’s been a fascinating challenge to develop a new sense.” They watch the dodrio start to twist its necks around in hypnotizing patterns until the colorful tassels tied to them start to form a whirling rainbow. They applaud as the judges show 9, 7… and 5 from Blue. Glen sends a rude gesture to him, who shouts back “Function over form!”
“It’s just receptive though, right?” Leaf asks as the two begin bickering over whether the maneuver would be useful in confusing enemies while Elaine takes the stage. “Isn’t that what being sensitive—sensitive? A sensitive?—means?”
“Jason doesn’t agree with the implications of the label. He says sensitives might not be able to do the more ‘external’ things that a full psychic or medium can, but that I can learn some of the rituals he does, if I’m willing.”
“I assume you are?”
“Yes. His religious beliefs are very different from what I was raised with, but I find his sincerity… calming.”
Leaf files the potential subtext away for later. “You do seem more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you.” It’s a tactful way to put it; Maria seemed to be opening up before what happened at the Casino, but afterward returned to the reserved girl Leaf first met… worse, she had a frazzled energy, and seemed to be missing a lot of sleep. The boys didn’t seem to notice, but Elaine admitted to being worried too.
She’s looking worried again as she takes a glance around the green lawn. “Uh, just to check, is it okay if this place gets a little dug up?”
They all turn to Mr. Sakai, who shrugs. “Grass regrows.”
It’s a simple statement, but Leaf still feels an echo of grief.
Elaine flashes a thumbs up, and summons her dugtrio. Leaf shakes the pall off and watches as Elaine’s dugtrio leaps into the ground, grass and dirt flying for a second before it disappears beneath the soil. Elaine starts to stomp her feet, and soon her pokemon begins to dig a pattern out, pausing every so often to dig deeper before coming up at another spot.
It seems random at first, but Leaf realizes after a moment that it’s spelling something. She starts to move, and the judges get up and start to walk around as well, until they’re more or less gathered in the right place to see the letters T I N.
“What does it say?” Mr. Sakai calls. It’s always odd to hear the otherwise quiet man raise his voice.
“Trainer in need!” Glen calls back as he studies the globally recognized acronym. “This could be really useful if you’re stuck underground, though I guess it would only work if you’re close enough to the surface for your pokemon to hear you…”
“Could use speakers against the wall? Might attract wilds though…”
The judges at least seem fairly impressed, and hurry back to their table to hold up a 9, 8 and 10. The applause goes on for longer than ever, and Elaine’s face is red by the time she returns from the stage.
“I was processing a lot,” Maria says as Red moves to take her place, and it takes Leaf a moment to remember what they were talking about. “Maybe most of what’s helped has been the meditation, the time to just sit with my thoughts and the ability to slow them when I need to. But it feels easier to think through the fears.”
Leaf wants to ask what fears, but isn’t sure if this is the right setting to get into something potentially heavy. So she just says “I’m glad to hear it,” as Red mounts the stage and calls Pikachu over before turning to the judges.
“Remind me if psychic powers are allowed in coordinator competitions?”
Blue cups his hands around his mouth. “You know they’re not!”
“But we’ll allow it!” Lizzy adds.
“I want to see what he does!”
Jason murmurs something, which prompts an “Of course you’d say that,” from Blue, and as they argue it out Leaf watches Red play with Pikachu, letting him run up and down his arms, bouncing off the ground to come back to Red and race to the other side as he spins.
He also looks more relaxed than ever, and it suits him. He could be quiet and thoughtful when they were starting their journey, but those times were rarer than the nervous energy that seemed to be his norm. He still gets it sometimes, along with the passionate zeal that sends him scribbling in his notebook or talking too quickly about all sorts of things, but from where she’s standing he seems more in control of himself.
It feels good watching him play with Pikachu, a warm, buzzing ball in her chest, similar to how she felt upon seeing his gift. She’s not sure what to do with the feeling, but she enjoyed the way his face flushed at her kiss.
It was also a huge relief to be able to call him after David asked to be looped in. The meeting with Sabrina seemed to help ease David’s concerns, and the next day he told her that Giovanni even sent him a message complimenting him on his discovery and thoughtful response. That part gave her a mixed feeling, but it seemed to further reassure her friend, and things have gone back to normal between them. The project’s success with tauros has galvanized the team like none of their previous ones did, and they’ve moved ahead to kangaskhan since, which David’s been a great help on.
She and Red have helped each other out in so many situations that it seems obvious that she’d feel like she can rely on him, but there’s something extra comforting about the memory of how quickly he was able to bring such powerful people in to help them. It’s something she would have expected from Blue’s social skills, but thought Red wasn’t deft at. Or rather, knew Red wasn’t deft at… but he’s grown.
His and Pikachu’s movements become more energetic, and Leaf wonders if he’s actually doing his performance already before Red suddenly strikes a pose, subtly different from the others. He crouches down, arms in a reverse V, and Pikachu runs up the left, past his head, then down his right just as Red jumps up and lifts his arm, his pokemon leaping off his upraised palm as Red launches him skyward.
The argument at the judge table stops as the yellow rodent flies through the air like an emolga, limbs and tail outstretched, and halfway through the arc a blinding flash of electricity hits the ground beneath it, paired immediately with a (relatively) quiet clap of thunder.
There’s a moment of surprise, and then Leaf whoops and applauds along with the others. Beyond the difficulty of teaching Pikachu such a powerful attack, it was a simple trick, but it must have taken some practice… and it looked cool. Leaf could imagine Red developing it after picturing some obscure situation where it would be exactly the sort of thing he needed.
Lizzy and Jason give it a 9 and a 7, but Blue looks torn between being impressed and suspicious. “I used my powers!” Red admits with a smile. “But just to get the timing right on the attack!”
Blue sighs and holds up a 6. “This is with a penalty!”
“I’ll take it!”
It’s finally her turn, and she calls Raff over and takes a pokeball out, expanding it before holding it out to her ivysaur.
He stretches his vines out to take it, and when she points he turns and starts to stretch them further in front of him until the ball is being held a solid four meters forward.
It’s not quite steady, and there’s no wild pokemon to test it on, but it’s approaching something close to what the best trained rangers can pull off with theirs. She bows to their applause and the 7, 7, 9 she receives, and then she, Glen, and Red take the judge seats.
Jason’s exhibition is hard to judge, as it involves two gastly swirling together and blending into what looks like one, a spinning dark ball with too many staring “eyes” and shining “teeth” and hanging “tongues.”
“I have no idea how hard that is,” Red admits, looking a little queasy. Glen gives an 8, and Leaf shamelessly copies him, followed by Red. Jason seems happy enough with it.
Lizzy takes a minute carefully positioning two of her magnemite around her, then stands between them, says a command Leaf can’t hear from here, and suddenly what looks like a cage of electricity surrounds her. Leaf isn’t the only one to cry out in alarm, but Red is grinning, and after a moment Leaf realizes Lizzy is too. Somehow the electricity seems to be arcing around her like a hundred glowing hairs without touching her.
It only lasts for a few seconds, but it’s enough to earn her three 9s. Blue starts to set up as everyone talks about what she did and how.
Leaf notes that Blue looks more serious than he has so far, or maybe just nervous. As they quiet down to watch, he stands at one end of the stage with Maturin, takes a deep breath, then barks a command.
His pokemon spews a stream of water out in front, strong and heavy enough to create a long line of it along the ground. She then shoots out an ice beam, freezing the water along the ground, and Blue takes a running start and leaps onto it.
He holds his arms out as his shoes skid along the ice, body balancing first one way, then the other as he slides nearly to the end of the stage… then stumbles and falls off it.
It’s not a far distance, just enough for him to tumble once before he comes to a stop, but everyone starts toward him before he sits up, hands out to show he’s alright.
Leaf sighs in relief as she sits back down, and Glen is frowning beside her. “Well I was going to give him a 1 as payback unless he clearly beat Elaine or Lizzy, but now it would just feel mean.”
“Hey, maybe it was supposed to happen,” Red suggests, and holds up a 7. “Still looked cool.”
“Cool,” Leaf repeats and nudges him, then holds up a 6. “But impractical.”
“Eh, I guess it deserves a 5.” Glen holds his card up, and people applaud as Blue finishes brushing himself off and calls Maturin to him and heads toward the pond.
They decide to follow him, leaving the game out for now, a small herd of pokemon following and chatting until they’re all spread out beside the water, watching as their various aquatic pokemon swim in it while some others go to drink. Blue seems subdued, and Leaf eventually decides to ask if he’s really okay, which quiets everyone.
“Yeah.” He looks around, grimaces, then shrugs. “Just annoyed. I did it once perfectly, wanted to practice it more, get it so I could do it three times in a row… but also wanted to be okay with failing. Still feels bad.”
“You knew it might fail, and you tried it anyway,” Glen says, voice firm. “I think that’s progress.”
“Feel like I’m missing some context,” Jason muses, and Mr. Sakai nods, though his gaze is on the pokemon.
“Been struggling with public failure lately. Learning to fight at the dojo helped, I think, and the whole vibe there is pretty good for not judging people who fail at things.”
“What does that feel like, anyway?” Red asks with a slight frown.
“Judging people for failing.”
“What kind of question is that? Everyone does it.”
Red shakes his head. “I know people don’t get prestige if they don’t succeed. I get why success matters to how you see someone. Accomplishments matter to me, too. But why would someone be judged for trying something hard and failing? I just don’t get it.”
Blue shrugs, looking peeved. “I don’t know what to tell you, Red, that’s just how it is.”
“Not for me.”
“Well sorry we can’t all be as smart as you.”
The words come out sharper, and Leaf’s heart starts to pound. This is it, they’re going to get into another fight…
But when Red speaks, his voice is more curious than angry. “Do you respect people less when they challenge for a gym badge and fail than if they never challenge at all?”
Blue seems too thrown off by the question to hold onto his scowl. “That’s… no. If they’re at least trying… I get why you don’t, Leaf, I’m just saying that if someone puts themselves out there, to most people that’s worth respecting.”
“So everyone doesn’t look down on all failure.”
“Gym Battles are hard,” Glen says. “They get more respect from trying than they lose from losing.”
Red nods. “Seems like the same thing to me.”
Leaf’s pulse has relaxed, and she enjoys the conversation and breeze as she watches the pokemon play in the pond. At one point she takes out her phone to see what messages she’s missed, and spots more birthday wishes from Natural and Laura and some of the Safari rangers and programmers, and as the warmth fills her again she feels it replace the lingering panic that came from Blue’s sharp tone.
For today, everything’s fine.
It isn’t until after lunch that the alerts come, almost simultaneously, something like five then six then eight shrill tones all at once.
Most of them freeze. Blue twitches, then catches the glass that Maria drops when she jerks in surprise. Glen is walking with the birthday cake, which they voted to eat now instead of after dinner by a slim margin, and stumbles, which almost sends it flying until he lunges his arms out and bends his knees to stabilize. Red has a moment to appreciate the look of surprised pride on his face, and then he registers what he’s hearing and sees everyone else do the same.
The knowledge plunges his whole body into dark, cold depths, erasing all the warmth of the day from his skin, snuffs it out within his chest, washes it from his cheek where Leaf’s lips imprinted some. Dark and wet and cold, aching feet and a hoarse throat and the feel of cloth slipping from his fingers.
“No,” Mr. Sakai breathes from where he’s sitting. “No.”
It unfreezes some of them, and Leaf reaches out to take the thin man’s hand as Glen straightens and Blue puts Maria’s glass down, taking his phone out with the other hand.
“No,” Mr. Sakai repeats again, and Red realizes he’s not afraid or despairing so much as confused, looking around at them all as if asking why they don’t understand. “It’s Spring.”
The words bring both relief and confusion. Had they all assumed it would be another Stormbringer? It was the highest alert, and as he looks around again he sees that most of them had…
But not Blue, who’s already frowning at his screen.
Zapdos was late, maybe this time it’s early…
“Is it local?” Glen asks, and steps behind Blue to look. “They would use that alert if we need to evacuate…”
“It’s from Cinnabar Island,” Blue says, which makes everyone stare in surprise.
“The volcano?” Elaine whispers.
“No, it’s… it says pokemon attack, but there’s no tier estimate.”
“They don’t know.” Blue drags his gaze from his screen to look around the table. “It’s a new species.”