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Chapter 42: Making Do

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

Wait, and watch, and listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue snorts. “We’ll see about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi professor!”

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

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

“Heya gramps.”

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

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

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

“Thanks!”

“So?” Blue asks. “What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Giovanni–”

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

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

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

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

“Sure, gramps.”

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

“Will you be watching?”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

Leaf nods. “Thank you, Professor.”

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

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

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

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


“Challenger, Blue Oak, second badge.”

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

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

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

Which is, of course, the point.

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

“Blue! Hey, BLUE!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Mister Oak. Are you ready?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready… Set… Go, Swanna!”

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

“Go, Ion!”

“Swanna, return!”

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

“Ion, Bite!”

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

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

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

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

“Go, Swanna!”

“Return! Go, Ion!”

“Return, go, Mars–”

“Return, Ion, go–”

“Epa!”

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

“Asa!”

“Withdraw!”

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

“Maturin, Bai!”

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

“Swanna, alf!”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

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

What the fu-

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

-uuoh SHIT “Maturin, return!”

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

“Gust!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Return, go, Bellsprout!”

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

-and feels it brush his fingertips.

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

“Ova!” Misty yells.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, Starmie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Starmie, return!”

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

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

“Go, Marshtomp!”

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

“Ap!”

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

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

“Go, Io-”

“Pause,” Misty says over the loudspeakers.

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

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

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

“And your shiftry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready to continue, Challenger?”

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

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

“Three… two… one… Go, Star-”

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

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

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

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

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

Four to one! “Spark!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Return! Go, Maturin!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop,” Misty says, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red thinks it over. “Better TM capabilities?”

“Nope.”

“True replication?”

“Would be nice, but no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you tell them?”

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

“Pokeballs that can capture humans are illegal-”

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

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

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

“Breathe, Red. Calm down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha! A bigger risk than dying?”

“Not just a risk to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

regretresolutionfearshame-

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

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

“It’s fine.” Bill says.

“It’s just, my mom–”

“I get it.”

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

Shame…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And do you?”

Red swallows. “Yes.”

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

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

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

Chapter 40: Interlude – And Every Common Sight

Damn them. Damn them all.

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

We think we found a way to bring you out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How brief? When will it be ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

 

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest that I loved the best

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

 

I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where woman never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep, as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie

The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To defy you?”

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

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

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

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

“You suspect Silph?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not completely.

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

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

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

Some of which are more subtle than others.

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless, I persist. The alternative is unthinkable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mazda. They are ready.

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

Begin.

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

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

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

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

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

Mazda! You’ve fallen, are you okay?

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

-pain, stabbing-

-despair-

-can’t think-

Mazda!

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

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

-hurts-

Get up!

sleep, please-

No, Mazda, you’ll die!

die

don

‘t wa

nt

I

d

on’t w

ant

to die!

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

Mazda, breathe! You have to breathe!

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

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

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

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

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

I’m free.

“Ma-Mewtwo, are you alright?”

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

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

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

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

“Aaa. Iah. Aahaheaea.”

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

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

Mazda?

I cannot speak, Sabrina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The helmet, can you see clearly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He should return to his system,” one of the scientists says, and fear immediately rises up, sharpening my attention. “The suit is running dry soon anyway.”

“No. Not yet.”

“Your first excursion was a success,” Giovanni says. “There will be others.”

I back away from them, then remember the others are around me. I’m trapped, and soon I’ll be trapped in truth, trapped back in my prison… I can’t. I won’t.

My power begins to cover the room, feeling everything, preparing. But there are too many holes, empty shapes where the humans and pokemon are. Years of plotting fill my mind as I think of ways to defeat them. I can lift the machinery, shatter glass, make a shield of metal around me…

Then Sabrina is beside me, hand taking mine. Her fingers are warm. Her face is calm.

It’s okay, Mazda. Trust us.

I stare at her. The closest thing to a “friend” I have known, my teacher and companion. But not the true friend that Fuji was. Still one of my jailors. No, I cannot trust her.

But I can pretend to, and bide my time.

I nod, and return to my prison. The technicians approach me and begin to remove the suit. I prepare for the pain to return, eyes closing as it wells up in me, burns through my limbs. Then the needles stab into me again, sharp pains that quickly fade and take the deeper, burning ache away.

When I open my eyes again, the glass is back around me. The chamber fills with liquid, and I watch the others as they look the suit over. Watch as they pack it back away, as my head becomes submerged and I begin to float again. I must trust that they will return, to test out new versions of it. To learn more about me.

I will give them what they want. I will act obedient, grateful. And in return they will deliver to me the tool of my escape.


Days pass, and my mind knows obsession. The experience of being outside my prison, the freedom, the sensations, are all I can think of. I begin to move in my tank, exercising sore and atrophied muscles. On the second excursion I can move around the entire room before tiring, and on the third my suit runs out of potion without me doing so. The scientists are fascinated by my muscular growth, and the technicians work to increase the suit’s capacity.

I’m asked hundreds of questions, tested in dozens of ways. I eat food for the first time, the taste of simple bread bringing ecstasy with the intensity of experiencing it myself. Eventually I’m allowed more complex foods, and each brings new rapture.

It’s a period of much excitement and discovery for all, and reminds me of the early years, when everything was still new and filled with hope. I even dream, once in awhile, that this will be a new chapter, that the past ten years of waiting were not malicious. Two things keep me from succumbing to hope.

First is the constant presence of the guarding trainers and their pokemon. They surround me at all times, on every excursion, never relaxing, constantly vigilant.

Second are the moments between. The moments when I am near death.

I can feel it, each time I transition from the pod to the suit. My body, dying. My will to live, rising… and something very much like my powers, responding. It is hard to focus on through the pain, and only lasts for a few moments. The first time it happened, I barely noticed it, and was too distracted afterward to remember.

But in those few moments between being disconnected from my pod and connected to the suit, my body is beginning to heal itself.

It takes all of my willpower, not to reveal this information. Not to insist that we wait before putting the suit on next time, that I’m given a chance to heal myself and study the process. I cannot afford to give up such a secret. If I am ever to escape this prison, I must be able to take my captors by surprise in some way.

But that is the easy belief. Beneath it lies the deeper motivation: fear.

Each time the liquid drains from my cell, I fear the pain to come. Each time the glass rises, I wonder if they will put the suit on in time. If my last sight will be them rushing forward before the agony robs me of my senses.

It is a weakness in me, this fear. I will have to overcome it, or forever be a slave.


Wow. This one looks different.

Sabrina and I watch as the technicians remove the second iteration of the suit from its boxes. I can’t make out the finer details yet. How so?

Smaller. More refined. You’ll see.

The liquid from my cell begins to drain, and as it finishes I stand on both feet, unaided by my telekinesis. My body feels strong. Whole. An illusion of sorts, as the pain to come will demonstrate.

I can see the pieces more clearly now as the humans approach with them. Sabrina was right. This suit looks more angular, each piece about the same size, but more shaped. The helmet particularly is different. It doesn’t seem as though it covers my entire head, and there are two grooves in the top that appear to be there for my horns.

“Was this designed for me?” I type out.

“Yes,” Giovanni says. “It’s time to bring you outside this room, so you can meet the others in the facility. I thought you would wish to project a more refined image, than the bulky original allowed.”

“This will reveal more of me. That one made me look more human.”

“Your difference is not something to be hidden. You must take pride in your appearance, be comfortable with your uniqueness.”

The idea is familiar, from one of the books I read. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” A good sentiment, from one human to another. Harder for an abnormal creature such as myself.

But perhaps they are right. And this new suit, it does look more like armor than anything.

Ready?

Ready.

The pain is bad as ever, though my awareness more tenacious. Once again, I feel my body failing, and once again, I feel a response, deep within. I can just barely glimpse the workings of my body through my mental senses, before the armor is attached, the unique potion infusion resumes, and it’s once again lost.

This new suit, this armor, is heavier than the last, despite being more compact. But my body is stronger now, and I barely notice the weight. As the humans move away, there’s an expression on their faces that is hard to interpret. I don’t know that I’ve seen it in others before… not quite fear, not quite fascination. Something between.

Giovanni’s face, however, I can read: satisfaction. I’m tempted to ask for a mirror, but decide against it. I have not seen myself in ten years, since that first occasion.

You look very imposing.

I wonder if she picked up on my feelings, and refocus my mental mask. Is that desirable?

Perhaps? It’s impressive, to say the least.

Hm. I begin to walk, tail held out for balance. The armor does not chafe or hinder my movements at all, and I can lift my arms without the attached parts pulling against each other. “Good,” I type. “I am ready to leave.”

The room is silent. I have become so attuned to my body these past weeks that I can feel my pulse, my heart pounding in my chest. Will they let me go? Or is there some new obstruction?

But they are merely waiting for Giovanni’s signal, and when he nods, the guards at the door move aside. One presses keys on the pad, and after a few moments, the door opens.

I immediately move for the doorway, aware of my time limit. How far can I go, before the suit runs out? Can I reach the surface?

A small crowd follows, some technicians and researchers, doctors and guards, as well as Sabrina and Giovanni. Those in front lead the way through branching halls with doors. Mundane as it is, I find myself entranced. These are new parts of the facility that I have spent my whole life in, mere steps away. I must remember the layout.

Straight forward, then left along a curving wall, then right and straight through to another curve. This time the layout of the doors on either side looks familiar, and I stop following the guards ahead to approach one.

I ignore the others’ hesitation, their alarm. My focus is entirely on the door ahead of me. One arm rises, clad in its dark armor, and my fingers close in a fist that taps the door. I feel… apprehensive. Which one is this? How will they react? What should I say?

The door opens to reveal some living quarters, and a young man standing in the doorway. Gyokusho. He came to the facility just a few years ago, my newest comforter. I often enjoy inhabiting his mind as he draws, immersed in the soothing flow of creativity and focus.

He stares at me now in shock/fear. A glance to the others behind me seems to reassure him, and one hand rises to his messy dark hair, patting it down. “Hello, sir. Uh, everyone…” His gaze returns to me. “You. H-hello.”

My mind reaches out for my keyboard, then stops. I left it behind. I consider speaking into his thoughts directly, but do not want to further frighten him.

Sabrina.

Yes?

Please tell him… thank you. For his drawings. Tell him I enjoyed the fletchling-in-flight, very much.

She does so, and Gyokusho’s face turns an alarming shade of red. He bows, thanking me profusely. I bend my waist as well, tail lifting up for balance.

Curious, I extend my mind and enmesh it with his. Awe. That’s the emotion the others felt. Some fear, some surprise, some intimidation, combined into… awe. I connect deeper, until I can see through his eyes.

When I first saw myself, I looked monstrous. Deformed. Wrong.

When I see myself now, I look alien. Mysterious. Other.

Dangerous.

I pull back. Turn away. Walk on.

Another door, another knock. This comforter is Megan, who listens to sounds of the natural world and meditates. She is intimidated, unsure what to say. Sabrina conveys my thanks again, and I move on to the next, and the next.

It is so strange, to see them in person. I’ve spent so much time in their minds, yet each meeting is a reminder of how utterly unfamiliar they are with me.  How representative are they of the rest of the facility?

And why did Giovanni choose this design? Why give me a sinister appearance, rather than a friendly one?

I will ask him later. Perhaps I can discover it myself, and better learn how his mind works.

The last door. Eva. She’s nearing the end of her shift, about to get back to her research. When she comes to the door, she’s still thinking of the poetry she was reading.

Shock, fear, awe. Reassurance. The familiar pattern. And then…

“Mewtwo wants to express its gratitude, for the poems. It particularly enjoyed Wordsworth, and thanks you for directing its attention to him.”

Delight, and beaming, radiant happiness. “Oh! You’re quite welcome, Mewtwo! Wordsworth is particularly dear to me.” Memories, fleeting and bittersweet, of time spent with her late mother. “What was your favorite, from him?”

I consider a moment. Her answer is clear in her mind, Daffodils, but mine is different.

Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” Sabrina echoes.

Surprise, and sadness. “I see.” Eva musters her courage. “You favor the more melancholy poems, then? I hope you don’t identify too much with them.”

“I don’t believe I know that one,” Giovanni says, speaking for the first time. “Can you recite it for us?”

“Ah, well, it’s rather long,” Eva says, alarmed at being put on the spot by her boss.

This conversation is extending beyond what I planned, but I am unsure how to end it. Instead I simply bow to her, and walk away.

The others seem surprised, but they begin to follow, two moving quickly to stay in front of me. Eva waves goodbye, flustered and confused. I catch her final train of thought before withdrawing from her mind:

Ihopeyoucanenjoythehappieronesaswell…

The tour of the facility continues. I pay less attention to the people along the way, and focus on memorizing the layout, learning first-hand how to navigate its corridors and rooms, find stairs and elevators that lead ever upward. The elevators feel a bit like being trapped at first, but the feeling of motion dispels the fear.

Two floors. Three floors. Five. Seven. Each is larger, wider, than the last. Here is the cafeteria, where my name, Mewtwo, was first mentioned. There is Dr. Fuji’s old office, long since become Dr. Oswald’s. I walk on, drawing stares and whispers, push myself to move faster. My mind keeps going to the armor’s limits, how much time I have remaining.

Finally, we reach the eighth level. I can feel the gaping emptiness above, the funnel of minds below. It’s disorienting, as if the floor has moved below my feet. What would it be like to leave this place completely? To leave all these minds, my whole world, behind?

Suddenly the void above is terrifying. I stand at the last set of stairs and stretch my powers to their limits. Nothing. Not even pokemon. My chest feels tight. Breath short. Sudden thoughts, irrational. That this is the whole world, this lab. That all I’ve known is a simulation. That up these stairs, past the two guards waiting at the top, lies empty space, where I’ll float forever into oblivion.

Someone coughs. People shift in place, nervous. How long have I been standing here? I must move forward.

A hand wraps itself in mine, slim and warm. Five thin, tan fingers, fitting oddly around my sickly white paw, its three fingers thick and clumsy.

We shall go together.

Her eyes are clear. I nod, and climb, and squeeze her hand.

At the top of the stairs there is a door. The guards open it, and pass through with their pokemon. We follow, and emerge in…

Another building. Different from the lab, with tiled floors and stone walls. “The mansion,” where many of the facility’s Dark staff live. It is rarely thought of by the others, just fleeting images and impressions in people’s minds as they pass through and into the lab. I look around at the spacious rooms and ornate halls, see others standing at balconies and in doorways. Guards or scientists or doctors from my room, who are off duty. Come to watch.

Sabrina tugs on my hand, leads me down the hall. I see…

Brightness.

Green and blue.

Windows. I cannot look away. Her hand tugs mine again, making me move, and I follow through doors…

So bright. The light is hot against the exposed parts of my skin, through the visor of my helmet.

The smells. Grass and sea salt. We are on a cliff by the ocean. The world is azure and navy and green and white.

This feeling against my skin. Wind. I step down stone stairs until soft blades of grass crush beneath my feet.

And the world is…

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

It’s okay. I’m here.

My hand, squeezing Sabrina’s too hard. I cannot keep looking up, I cannot stop looking up. The sky is too big, Sabrina, it is too big, I will fall up into it, and she is crying, and squeezing my hand back as I keep staring up until I cannot see, the tears pour down my face beneath my helmet as I feel the wind and the sun and curl my toes in the grass below, above, the vaulted sky.


Time passes. I know not how much.


The suit is beeping. Someone speaks, saying I must return. Sabrina says nothing. Only holds my hand.

“We must go back, now, Mewtwo.” Giovanni’s voice, now, so sure. So reasonable. “Or you will not be able to return to your pod on time.”

I cannot return. I cannot leave this place, this new world.

I know what I have to do. Lift myself, fly away. If the pokemon kill me, so be it. If the lack of medicine kills me, so be it. I will die free.

I begin to breathe harder. Sabrina says something in my mind, that we will be back again, soon. I know Giovanni watches, somewhere behind me. This new armor, this suit, what else is in it? Countermeasures? Poison, should I try to run? A way to track me, bring me back?

My body trembles. Muscles locked. Mind open. Powers spread. I must take off the armor. Fly away. No, fly away, then take off the armor mid-air. No, I need time to heal myself. Kill everyone first, bring down the building… I cannot get a grip on it, the walls are too strong to slip my mind around-

No, not that. It’s me. My will is not strong enough.

I don’t want to die.

“Mewtwo.”

Mazda…

I don’t want to die.


I am too weak.

I return.

Chapter 39: Hearsay

Leaf gets off the bus, and finds herself in the shadow of Mt. Moon as it blots out the sky. She and the most of the other disembarking passengers make their way to the pokemon center at the foot of the mountain, a bastion of peace and comfort for travelers on their way up or down its slopes. The majority of the crowd heads for the front desk, but Leaf finds the cafe and looks around until she spots a familiar face at one of the tables.

“Hey Ryback.” She slides into the chair across from him.

“Hi, Leaf. Good to see you again.” The paleontologist tucks his phone away and lifts his coffee cup. “Get you something?”

“I’m okay.” She takes out her notebook and puts her phone on the table in case she needs to start recording. “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem at all. We owe you guys a lot. I saw that interview you did, very modest.”

She opens her mouth, then closes it when she realizes she’s about to say something modest again. “Well, I won’t pretend I’m not here to bank on that gratitude a bit.”

“Figured as much. You said this was about a story you want to write, but did you need to come halfway up the mountain to talk about it in person?”

“I’m hoping I can convince you to take me farther up the mountain, actually, if the conversation goes well.”

He raises his brow. “I’m listening.”

“First things first. Would you mind telling me everything that happened when you left us at the Outpost that night? Off the record. I just want to get a sense of things.”

Ryback shrugs. “Sure. Let’s see, was dark by the time I got back up to camp, and I missed the meeting with all the bigwigs. Went to check with the cleanup detail, then helped Rob look over the damage at a couple of the digs as best I could with just the lamplights. When the meeting ended I spoke with the site leader-”

“Dr. Zapata, right?”

“Right. Told her you guys were safe and asked how the meeting went. Got a summary, helped her with some new security protocols that were decided on. That took up the rest of the night, I think, and I went to bed after updating our logs.”

Leaf watches the older man’s face the whole time he speaks, listens to his voice. She doesn’t know if it’s her imagination, but he sounded… too bland. Not rote, exactly, just emotionless. Consciously emotionless.

“Can you give me some timestamps for all that?” she asks when he’s done.

“Sure. Got there around 8:20, met with Dr. Zapata about an hour later. Coordinating the new security was finished around 10:30, was in bed by 11.”

“So about two hours, all told.”

“Yep. Is that important?”

“Just getting a rough sense of things.” Leaf finishes scribbling the numbers down on her timeline, and glances at the note she made back in Cerulean. Red got his notification about Yuuta’s execution at 11:17PM. Assuming Leader Misty began the execution proceedings after leaving the meeting around 9:30, two hours would be almost four times longer than the average she looked up beforehand.

Zoey was right: there’s something off about this.

“Do you know what the Leaders did after the meeting?”

“Giovanni stuck around to talk to people, but I believe Brock left shortly after.” Ryback’s face darkens. “Misty stayed to oversee Yuuta’s execution. I stayed away from that. Didn’t know him that well, but a year of working together… it’s still hard to think about.”

“Yeah, I get it. Do you know if she did anything before that though, or is that all she stayed for?”

“I think that was it. But I wasn’t involved, like I said.”

Leaf nods. “Do you know who was involved, that I could talk to? Ranger Sasaki, maybe Paul?”

“Yeah, probably them,” Ryback says. He doesn’t look quite so distant now that her questions are narrowing in, and she catches him looking at her speculatively before he takes another sip. “Sasaki’s not at the site now though, you’d have to go to her outpost. I don’t mind giving you a lift to talk to Paul, but he won’t be off duty for another few hours. You really want to go all the way up the mountain just for that?”

“If he doesn’t have the information I need, then I’d like to be able to ask others.”

“And what information is that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I do, actually,” she says. Ryback’s eyebrows rise, and she smiles. “Sorry Ryback, but I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

The paleontologist turns his cup in his hands. “That bad, is it?” he asks eventually.

Leaf is quiet a moment. Zoey Palmer made one thing clear about the story leads she shared: they’re not gifts, where Leaf has exclusive rights to publish on them and Zoey has to ignore them. She gave Leaf a helping hand, pointed her in directions to investigate, but ultimately if Zoey felt she had a story to publish, she would publish it. Leaf is on a timer.

A headline flashes in Leaf’s mind, one of Zoey’s more famous pieces. It revealed corruption in one of the League’s safety boards, but rather than just singling out the corrupt overseers and asking for better oversight, it insinuated widespread corruption that just didn’t seem founded by the facts at hand. Nevertheless, it fed into a lot of anti-League sentiment and increased her readership immensely.

She can’t even accuse Zoey of impure motives. She seems to believe what she writes, and just happens to focus on the stories that fit her ideology. Which means that great reporter though she is, Leaf is worried about the same thing happening here. She doesn’t want people like Ryback and the others at the dig site, the mission of the site itself, to be smeared by whatever a bad actor or two were doing.

“I don’t know how bad it is, actually,” she says at last. “But I think from what I suspect, it’s the kind of thing you couldn’t have missed if you knew enough to help me. Which means either you don’t, or you purposefully left it out of your summary of the night, probably because you were told to. So if I do end up piecing the information together, I don’t want you to be involved unless you choose to volunteer it, which you didn’t. So, the less you know the better.”

Ryback chuckles. “Thanks for the consideration, Leaf, but assuming there is some conspiracy going on, if I fly you up there and you start asking around about whatever you want to know, wouldn’t the people think I’m involved anyway?”

Leaf smiles.


“An article on the dig site?” Dr. Zapata asks. Leaf can hear her frown over the phone. “Didn’t the interview you did recently already cover everything?”

“I don’t mean the incident,” Leaf says. She’s standing outside the Center, watching Ryback smoke a cigarette by the edge of the mountain. “I want to do a piece on the site itself, the people who work here. I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about the importance of projects like this, and it ties into my article on the Pewter museum.”

Leaf holds her breath as the director silently considers. “Alright, I have no problem with it,” Dr. Zapata finally says. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s duties, you have my permission to ask around and interview whoever consents.”

“Thank you! I’ll try and stay out of anyone’s way, but I have one more favor to ask.”

“Yes?”

“Is there a room I can rent, by chance? It would save me a lot of time if I can spend a few nights there.”

“Hmm. I think that can be arranged. We’ve replaced the damaged buildings and added another two to house some extra staff, but they won’t all be here until the end of the week. You can take one of those until Friday: no need to pay for the bed as long as you keep the room in good order, but any meals you take in the cafeteria will cost you.”

“That’s fine, thank you! I’m on my way up.”

“Safe travels.”

Leaf closes the call and waves to Ryback, who begins walking back toward her. Twilight is beginning to fall around them, and she feels a chill coming on the air as the sun starts to set behind Mount Silver in the distance.

Ryback flicks the smoldering butt into a trash bin. “So?”

“She said it’s okay.”

“Well, alright then. Anything you need to do before we’re off?”

She tightens her backpack straps. “Ready when you are.”

The flight up the mountain is exhilarating, and only mildly terrifying. Leaf has only ever flown on a pokemon once before, and it was a fairly tame, straight shot between cities. She clutches the pommel of the pidgeot’s rear saddle as the wind whips her hair and clothes around, even shielded from the front by Ryback’s body. The pommel grip is more for comfort than anything, since the straps around her waist and legs do most of the work of keeping her secure.

Eventually she feels safe enough to look around without getting vertigo. Her coat keeps the worst of the air’s chill away, and her goggles keep her eyes safe as she marvels at the sweep of the land beneath them, sloping down from the mountain. She cranes her neck to see the distant gleam of Cerulean City, and the bay beyond it.

They climb in sweeps and fits, gliding between updrafts and only flapping to get through dead air. When they finally reach the dig site, Leaf closes her eyes and braces herself as the pidgeot brings them down. The landing is surprisingly soft however, just a couple hops and a few flaps of its wide, long wings.

It takes her a few minutes to get her land legs back, during which she thanks Ryback and asks him if he wants to give her an interview for the article.

“Sure, I guess so,” he says as he strokes his pidgeot. “I figure you’ll slip whatever questions you really want to know in with all the other stuff, but if others decide to do it too, no harm in that. Let me know when you get four or five of them already.” After another minute of grooming and feeding, he seems to know when his pokemon has gotten enough rest, because he steps away and withdraws it in one smooth motion. “Come on, I’ll show you around… again.” He smiles. “The buildings this time, ‘stead of the dig. Our last tour got a bit interrupted, anyway.”


Leaf starts interviewing people that very night, just taking the time to find her room and put her stuff away before wandering around the break rooms and introducing herself. Some of the people recognize her from the incident or Zoey’s interview, and a few express interest.

“Security is pretty standard,” an ACE trainer says, scratching his neck. “Talking about it shouldn’t be an issue, though I’ll have to get it cleared.”

“Sure! I read your Pewter piece, after I saw your interview about the attack.” The geologist smiles. “I’d be happy to talk about the kinds of fossils we’re finding here!”

“Oh, yes, worked plenty of digs like this in my time,” says an older man who introduced himself as Albert. “This one’s run better than most, for sure. That night was tragic, but don’t let it give you the wrong impression. Zapata runs a tight ship compared to some of the idiots I’ve worked for.”

Leaf smiles and nods and writes down names and availability times, then moves on to the next building, then the next, until she has over a dozen volunteers ranging over every aspect of the dig.

Well, every aspect but one. The new security from Viridian, specifically tasked with guarding the dug up fossils, don’t seem keen on the idea. They’re friendly enough, some mingled with the other site staff, but most kept each other’s company. There’s a definite air of separation to them that probably comes from only being on-site for a couple weeks, and not knowing anyone else that well.

Since they weren’t on-site the night of the incident anyway, Leaf isn’t particularly interested in them, but it might seem strange if she doesn’t ask them too. She’s a bit relieved that they all say no, since it frees her up to pursue others. She’s serious about the dig site article and plans to write it as well as she can, but her “real” story is looking more and more substantial as the night goes on.

Buried in the general questions she asks are a few that help her narrow down who’s in a position to know if something unusual happened with the renegade’s execution. Ranger Sasaki isn’t on site, as Ryback said, but she’ll be the last person Leaf speaks to, once she has a better idea of what to ask.

She checks in with Laura as she prepares for bed, summarizing everything she learned and listening as her mentor lists out all the possibilities.

“The most important thing to clarify is whether Yuuta is actually dead,” Laura says. “That’s the primary fact that shapes the story. In all likelihood he is, and maybe there was some other problem. But if he’s alive…”

“You think he escaped? That they’re trying to save face?”

“Or he turned out to be someone important, politically.”

“That would be…” Leaf tries to find the words and fails. “I don’t know, ‘irresponsible’ doesn’t seem to cover it. If it were just one person who had to keep the secret, maybe, but this many?”

“How many is ‘this many?’ Remember not to jump ahead of what you know. At the very least, who needs to be in on this?”

“Misty. Ranger Sasaki. Maybe a couple ACE? They might have been intimidated, had their jobs threatened…”

“Right. So it’s possible he’s alive, one way or another. But more likely he’s dead, and there’s something else that caused the delay.”

“Or the same things caused it. He tried to escape, or there was some last minute intervention attempted by someone high up, both of which failed.”

“Sure. What else could have taken up the time?”

Leaf slips under the covers, cold feet grateful for their warmth as she fluffs the pillow behind her head and lies back with a sigh. “Umm. An interrogation? Some questions they wanted to ask him about his plan or conspirators?”

“If there was more than one person working the job, that could be worth hiding. Especially if it was someone from ACE. Make sure you check the staff roster just to make sure no one was quietly taken off it since the incident.”

“Will do.” Leaf yawns. “What about Yuuta? Should I look into him myself too?”

Laura chuckles. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. You should get some sleep.”

Leaf is about to argue, then realizes how tired she is. “Alright. Have a good night.”

“You too, hon.”

Leaf closes the call and tries to sleep. Her thoughts are too busy racing from one topic to the next to settle down however, and eventually she pulls her phone back out and opens it to browse the web and distract herself from her story.

At first she stays on the lighter stuff, happy to to be entertained by amusing pictures and videos. But eventually she starts checking more serious topics, and before long her sleepiness is gone as she reads about a scandal with some Silph Co. executive in Fuschia, a Zapdos sighting north of Pewter, and…

She sits up, pulse spiking. There’s a Tier 1 occurring in Celadon, right now. She taps the headline and scrolls up as the live thread continues to update with pictures, public messages, and a running tally of suspected casualties.

She watches a short video clip, shaky and far off, of someone recording a living wave of sludge pouring over a street below their apartment. A flood of grimer and muk, rising out of the city’s canals and sewers, covering the streets with poisonous waste as they spread outward.

Leaf quickly calls Laura back, heart in her throat. “Laura! Are you okay? I just saw-”

“I’m fine, Leaf, I’m safe. It’s on the other side of the city from me.” Laura’s voice sounds breathy, and Leaf hears the sound of feet on stairs. “Thanks for calling hon, but I’ve got to go.”

“Go, go where? Are you evacuating?”

“No, I’m heading to the roof to get a better view!” Laura says.

“You’re what?

“I’ll be perfectly safe, don’t worry, I just want to see it myself if it does get this far, in case I end up writing about it!”

“But-”

The sound of a door being slammed open. “I’m here. Go to bed Leaf! Don’t tell Red, he’ll just worry! Goodnight!”

The call ends, leaving Leaf frozen for a moment before she pulls up her internet and checks a map of Celadon. It’s the largest city in Kanto, so it’s hard to guess where Laura might be, but the hazard zone that’s currently marked on the map only takes up about a tenth of the city in red, with a quarter in varying shades of yellow and orange. She could be anywhere in the other three-fourths of the city… hopefully that’s what she meant by the “other side of the city.”

Leaf gets out of bed and starts pacing, eyes glued to the live update feed. She wants to call Red, but his mom asked her not to… she doesn’t know if he’s asleep or not, but she’s sure his work training all the abra to prepare them for his experiment is exhausting, and she really shouldn’t worry him and make him lose sleep over nothing…

She should sleep too, she knows that. But… how can she, knowing what’s going on there?

Memories flood her mind, first of the attack on the mountain, then the forest fire. There are trainers and civilians and pokemon in Celadon right now, fighting and dying, and there’s nothing she can do about any of it.

Not that there ever was in other pokemon attacks she heard about, of course. She even had people she cared about caught up in them. She worried then and she’s worried now, but that’s not what has her pacing around the room. It’s a sense of frustration, a desire to do something that she never felt before becoming a trainer.

After being in emergencies herself, and gaining some measure of power… it feels wrong, somehow, to not be part of one. To not be helping.

She thinks of Red and Blue’s promise to each other, to go and help if any of the Storm Birds attack a nearby town or city. Before she thought they were a bit crazy, and just hoped they could find some other way to help out while avoiding any danger.

Now, though, she knows she’ll be right there with them, running straight into harm’s way.

Leaf is exhausted, but she can’t force herself to sleep. She wishes she could have Joy sing to her, but the noise would travel through the walls, and anyway she wouldn’t be able to get her back in the ball afterward.

But maybe Joy can help another way. Leaf summons her wigglytuff, and wraps her in a hug, closing her eyes and sighing as her pokemon cuddles back against her. Its fur is so soft and warm that Leaf feels the knot of worry inside her relaxing slightly.

When she was young, after dad left, she took to sleeping cuddled up with Wilby, the family’s herdier, to keep the bad dreams away. Her mom had complained about Wilby getting hair all over Leaf’s bedsheets, but relented when she saw how much more well rested Leaf was afterward.

Wilby may be back in Unova, but Leaf has her own pokemon now. “Okay, Joy,” she says, returning to bed with her pokemon and tucking them both in. “Just rest here with me a bit.” Her pokemon seems happy to cuddle up under the blankets, and after a moment of shifting around to get comfortable, deflates her body into a soft, malleable pile of fuzz.

Before long Joy’s wide eyes slip closed, and Leaf feels herself drowsing beside her. The occasional worry continues to shoot across her thoughts. Is the rampage over now? Did it spread to other parts of the city?

She reaches for her phone on the nightstand, but her hand drops to her chest as she’s finally pulled down into a warm, comfortable sleep.


“So you switch off with two others?” Leaf asks a paleontologist the next morning.

“Yep.”

“Is there a time slot you each have?”

“Yeah, normally Fara takes sunrise to lunch, I’m the afternoon guy, and Will has nights.”

She scribbles this down. “Got it. So, what do you usually do on your time off?”

Later, with an ACE on security: “Do you all run drills if something goes wrong?”

“Of course, once a week,” the woman says. “That’s why the response was so quick during the attack. We specifically had a plan in place in case pokemon burrowed up from under us.”

“Of every kind?”

“No, just those that could dig. We didn’t foresee a paras colony driving some pokemon that could dig in front of them to the surface. Obviously a mistake, in retrospect, but we’re better prepared now.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, you all did fantastically regardless. So what’s the chain of command up here?”

Later still, with a geologist: “How do you guys decide where the fossils go?”

“Oh, that’s all done by the funders once we report what we’ve found. They hash it out among themselves, then pass down the orders.”

“Do they ever ask for advice, or suggestions?”

He laughs. “No, not really. We give some anyway, and they actually do listen once in awhile. They’re paying us for our expertise, after all.”

Leaf nods and scribbles, then moves onto another topic, another interview, where she can scribble and nod some more. Hour after hour, with whoever’s on a break or off the clock for the day.

She’s a bit tired from last night, but luckily she didn’t lose the habit of waking up early while in Cerulean, since the dig site is up and working by the crack of dawn. Leaf rose to find her wigglytuff fast asleep beside her, and woke Joy up for some breakfast before withdrawing her and calling Laura, who assured her she was fine. Leaf checked the news of the incident, a bit relieved that the casualty list wasn’t bigger, then prepared for her day of interviewing the site staff.

Schedules. Routines. Duties. Again and again, Leaf asks who does what, where, and when. She builds her picture of the dig site piece by piece, until she has a good idea of what the site should look like on any typical day.

The problem, of course, is that the one she cares about most was anything but typical. She slips questions in here and there to probe what each person she talks to was doing on the night of the attack, who they were with and when. The more she knows, the easier it’ll be to reconstruct what happened.

In terms of her major questions, her first real clue came from Albert. He was in the meeting with the Leaders, and confirms that Misty went to see Yuuta right after, which in turn confirms Leaf’s timeline.

“Do you know who went with her?” Leaf asks, barely able to contain her excitement.

“Well, the Ranger went, but other than that, don’t think anyone else from the meeting did.”

So it’s down to Misty and the Ranger… and whichever ACE was in charge of watching Yuuta.

But when she tries to get that info, however subtly, there’s nothing. She pokes and prods a bit more than she intended, but it isn’t until she asks to see the staff roster that Dr. Zapata sends a message asking to see her.

Leaf goes to her office with some trepidation, knocking on the door and entering when prompted. “Hello, Director. Is something wrong?” Leaf asks as she slides into the chair across from her desk.

The older woman finishes typing something on her computer, then turns to Leaf and adjusts her glasses, leaning back a bit. “To be honest, Leaf, I’m not sure. How has your stay been so far?”

“Good. Informative. I’ve been learning a lot about the site, the people who work here, the mission. Did I bother someone or interfere with their job?”

“No, no complaints. I’m glad you’ve been finding your stay productive. I do have some concerns, however.”

Leaf folds her hands in her lap. “Yes?”

“I asked a few of the people you spoke with what you talked about. I hope you don’t mind, but I was curious. At first it all seemed fine, but then one or two people came forward themselves, either people you interviewed or those nearby who overheard. Can you tell me why you asked Mr. Pao about our site’s recruitment practices?”

“Oh, sure.” Leaf relaxes a little. This was far off from what Leaf feared. “I was curious to know what it takes to be hired here, the kinds of qualifications that are needed.”

“And this is important to the article?”

“Probably not. I actually don’t know if most of the stuff I’ve been asking about will be in it yet, but I want to get as complete a picture as I can before I start writing.”

“I see.” The director is quiet for a moment. “And the questions on our ‘chain of command?’ It sounds like you were quite extensive.”

Hm. That question was a bit harder to answer. “I’m sorry Director, I don’t understand. What’s this about?”

“When you asked for permission for this project, it sounded like you were interested in a day-in-the-life sort of article, or a general kind of human interest story with the dig site set as the focus. I agreed because I didn’t see the harm in it, and because you helped us during the attack. But ultimately, you’re a stranger to me.” The director’s gaze is intense, and Leaf struggles not to blink or look away. “And if a stranger came to the site and asked the sorts of questions you’ve been asking, I would assume something much different about their intentions than a simple article on paleontological digs.”

Leaf’s throat is dry. “What would you assume they were writing about instead?”

“Do you know what corporate espionage is?”

Oh. Relief makes Leaf struggle not to smile. “I do, yeah. But I don’t have any ties to anyone that might be interested in that sort of thing. I wouldn’t even know who was interested in the kind of information I’ve been asking about.”

“And the monthly personnel files you requested, from the first day of the dig? This expedition is partially funded by Pewter. Why not check the-”

“-public records, I did, but they’re not recent or organized, and it’s just a lot less convenient.”

Dr. Zapata taps her fingers on her desk. “Whatever we give you would be stripped of all but the basics, to protect privacy. Just names and dates.”

“That’s totally fine. Does that mean you can do it?”

“What I want to know first is what you want to do with the info.”

“I just want to know who might have left, maybe contact them too. See where they are now, what they’re doing. Kind of draw connections between other, similar projects.” Leaf feels she’s close to babbling and shuts up.

“So you’re not headhunting?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Alright. I’ll send the files over by tomorrow.”

Leaf’s brow rises. “Thank you.”

Dr. Zapata smiles briefly. “I think you’re probably on the level, but I had to at least ask you myself. I was a trainer once, long ago. I know not to underestimate kids who go on their journey as young as you and your friends.”

Leaf flushes, both from the praise and a bit of shame. She doesn’t want to deceive the director, but… she’s not actually lying. And besides, if the story’s going to come out either way, she’d rather be the one to break it than risk Zoey’s broad strokes. “Is that all?”

“One last thing. Can you promise me that you really will be publishing an article on the dig site? I don’t care if it’s flattering or not, I can take a bit of disappointment. I just want your assurance that you’re not compromising the integrity of the site.”

Leaf manages a smile. “I promise.”

“Then you can go. Thank you for your time.”

“No problem. Night.”

Leaf closes the door behind her, thoughts racing. She’s relieved the director is so far off the mark with her suspicions, but it’s clear that Leaf will have to be as careful as she can moving forward.


“Usually I go through the day’s discoveries and catalogue them, cross check the request lists we have from our various funders. Once that’s sorted, there’s some quality assurance to do, in case someone gets clumsy between removal and storage.”

Leaf nods and scribbles. “Does that happen often?” she asks Rob.

“Oh, not particularly.” The Unovan paleontologist smiles and takes a sip of his beer. He has a full head of grey hair and a goatee that reminds her of her grandpa. They spent some time talking about cities they lived in back home before getting into the interview, sitting on fold-out chairs in front of his residence quarters as they watch the dig site wind down for the night. “Most of the fossils take a day or two to get fully up out of the ground though, so accidents do happen.”

“Gotcha. Wow, it must have been rough for you the day of the incident then, huh?”

He grimaces. “‘Rough,’ hell, that’s one way to put it. Not that it was the worst thing that happened that day, not nearly, but the damage to some of the digs was a huge headache. Took me most of the week to get a handle on it, and we lost a couple weeks of work, all told.”

“Ouch. When did you start damage control?”

“That very night! While everyone was cleaning up from the battle, me and a couple others were securing the digs. Most were okay, thankfully, but a couple were hit by the wave of paras, and of course the one at ground zero was completely destroyed. I had to get Zapata’s permission to go down into the mountain and look for anything salvageable before they plugged the hole up.”

“And did she give it?”

“Yeah, once she was out of her meeting. Just said I had to bring some ACE with me, but that was a chore and a half in itself.”

Leaf manages not to visibly perk up, pencil only pausing for a moment before she says, “How come?”

“Well, I had to wait for them to finish whatever they were doing. Their own meeting, looked like. Went to them right away, but Leader Misty and the ranger had them all holed up in a building, talking about something.”

“Huh. I wonder what it was.”

Rob shrugs, drinking again from his bottle. “No clue. I just hung around until they were done, then talked to Paul about going down in the hole. He said okay, and a few of us did some prep and went down.”

“How did he seem?” Leaf asks.

“Who?”

“Paul. How did he seem, after the meeting?”

“Distracted. Upset. We were all high strung that night.”

Leaf nods, gaze unfocused as she watches a machoke roll a boulder out of a hole. “I remember.”

He chuckles. “You kids went through a lot too, stopping Yuuta like that…” His smile fades, and after a moment he lets out a heavy breath, taking another swallow. “Ahh, let’s not talk about that. Bad business.”

“Yeah, no problem. Would you mind telling me who was at the meeting with Leader Misty though? I’m curious about it, want to know who I can talk to later.”

“Oh, sure, sure. Let’s see, ah, there was Paul of course, Kenny, Mei…” He goes on to list over a dozen names before he trails off. “Probably some others, but I didn’t really pay attention at the time.”

“That’s plenty, thanks. Do you mind if I ask you about it later, check some names with you?”

“Alright, but you could just ask them, couldn’t you? I’m sure they’d remember better.”

“I will! But I won’t be meeting them until tomorrow, and I have the list in my room. I can just text you some names to check, if that’s okay.” Leaf smiles. “So, what happened once you went down into the hole?”

He smiles back. “Ah, that was rough, let me tell you. The smell! Burnt fungus and dead bugs everywhere…”


“Hey there,” Leaf says to the group of ACE Trainers. “Mind if I join you?”

The four security staff look at her in surprise, then shrug or nod as Leaf approaches. They’re set up away from the dig site, three guys and a woman of various ages, all standing across from practice dolls as they train their pokemon in the morning sun.

“Thanks,” she says, and takes out her own pokedoll. “Go, Ruby!”

Her new venonat appears, fresh from its virtual conditioning. She begins to run Ruby through her paces, giving her treats often and restraining the urge to pet her fuzzy body. Not because it’s uncomfortable, though some dislike the texture, but she read that bug pokemon don’t often like the feel of being stroked when they’re still new to their trainers. Instead Leaf uses lots of verbal praise, especially when Ruby finally manages to link two commands in quick succession.

Leaf takes a moment to look around as her venonat eats its pokepuff. Two of the ACE are coordinating their growlithe and magmar together, while the other two train their butterfree and weepinbell separately.

She recognizes the woman as one of the ACE who helped with Yuuta. Leaf watches her train her magmar, but doesn’t approach or speak with her. After Ruby finishes properly following every order twice in a row, Leaf withdraws her and sends out Ledyba. She puts her venonat’s ball in her bag instead of her belt, since her recent captures put her over the belt’s limit of six.

At first she was irritated with the arbitrary limit, seemingly modeled after the standard League maximum that would never have any impact on her. Now she has to admit that the space between the balls on her belt are just wide enough to avoid any fumbling, and that adding extra slots, as some belts do, would come with drawbacks, such as being unable to sit in a chair without removing it. For now carrying the extras in her bag works okay, but it would eventually become unwieldy, and she’s not sure if she’ll turn to alternate solutions or just keep her active team limited to what she can carry with her. Blue, who is already approaching two dozen pokemon, has already deposited the ones he doesn’t plan on using for his match against Misty.

Leaf begins practicing some aerial maneuvers with her ocarina. Part of her hopes the noise doesn’t bother the other trainers, but she would welcome the excuse to begin conversing with them if someone brings it up. None do however, and she keeps to herself, merely waving goodbye when everyone begins to pack up and head back to the site. A couple wave back, including the woman.

She goes again the next day, hoping the same people are there. She’s happy to see they are, with one new addition. Leaf once again asks permission to join them. They agree, and she begins training with her pokemon again, intent on practicing some more complicated attacks that she knows her pokemon will struggle with.

For example, venonat only naturally use Stun Spore when facing down threats they want to escape from, which makes it hard to train them to do it on command. Leaf manages to get hers to use it on the mannequin by attaching a rope around the doll’s middle and dragging it toward her pokemon as Ruby keeps retreating, but Sleep Powder is a bit tricker. Venonat tend to use it on pokemon they want to feed on. Apparently the mannequin isn’t particularly appetizing.

“Sleep Powder!” Leaf commands again, brushing some hair out of her eyes as the wind blows from behind her. Ruby just shifts in place, antennae swaying as she tries to find some succulent morsel to incapacitate and suck the life from. “Ruby, Sleep Powder! Come on, I’ve got berries right here, but you need to put it to sleep first. Sleep Powder!”

Five minutes of this and Leaf doesn’t have to pretend to be frustrated. Eventually one of the ACE trainers notices. Not the one Leaf recognizes, which would be ideal, but the butterfree trainer. He watches Leaf and Ruby, then steps forward with his hand out.

“May I?”

“Oh, sure!” Leaf hands him the berries. “Thanks. I’m not sure what to do, the ‘dex says not to feed them and just keep the berries nearby so they get hungry, but…”

“Well, the quickest way to train them is to find some natural prey to offer,” he says. “The berries work okay, but since they don’t need to put them to sleep, you gotta really make them hungry to prime them.” He begins to mash up the berries with his fingers, then steps toward the pokedoll and spread the sweet innards all over the foamy exterior. He wipes his hands clean on its head, then steps back. “Okay, now try.”

Leaf sees Ruby’s attention focused on the pokedoll and waits. Maybe she’ll do it on her own… but after a few moments pass, Leaf says, “Ruby, Sleep Powder,” and the venonat hops forward, shimmying out a cloud of spores.

“Good job, Ruby! Good girl!” Leaf quickly throws a handful of berries in front of her pokemon before she decides to jump on the pokedoll and be disappointed. “Thank you,” she says to the ACE.

“No problem. Let me know if you need any more help.” He returns to his own training. Leaf does the same, but when everyone begins wrapping up for the day, instead of trailing behind like she did yesterday, Leaf approaches them and keeps pace.

“Hey, thanks again for the help. I’m Leaf.” She extends her hand.

He takes it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Omar, this is Mei, Alex, Nora and Jean.”

All people who were in the mysterious meeting, according to Rob. “I think I remember you,” Leaf says, waving to Nora, who nods.

“Yeah, she told us you were the one that stopped Yuuta,” Alex says.

Leaf smiles. “I had some help.”

“The thing you’re writing, is it why you were here that day?” Nora asks.

“No, my friends and I were just passing through. Curious about the fossils, but the idea for the article came after.”

“Well, you saved us all a lot of grief. You’re welcome to join our training anytime, after what you did,” Nora says.

Leaf flushes slightly as the others agree. She counted on Dr. Zapata feeling grateful to allow her up here in the first place, but hadn’t realized how much more that counted toward the site’s security. Maybe she can use that, be a bit more direct when questioning them.

“Do you usually train daily?” Omar asks.

Leaf smiles. “I try to, though sometimes it turns into more of a play day.” A couple of them chuckle. “I didn’t plan on it while I was up here, but after the Tier 1 in Celadon…”

The group nods, faces grim. “And we thought the cleanup here was bad,” Jean mutters. “Whole city probably stinks. Fuckin’ mess, that’ll be.” He catches dirty looks from a couple of his peers. “What?”

“It’s okay,” Leaf says, grinning. “I’ve heard the word before. My grandfather cursed like a Ranger recruit, and I spent most of my life with him. Mom wasn’t pleased when I picked it up.”

“Well, if you hang out with ACE grads long enough, we give the Rangers a run for the cursing.”

Leaf chuckles along with the others. “Sounds fun. Speaking of which, do any of you know Daniel? I was hoping to see him again, but he doesn’t seem to be on site. Is he okay?”

Everyone is quiet for a moment, and Leaf keeps her face innocently curious. Daniel was the only ACE Trainer that was listed as a staff member before the incident and not afterward who wasn’t on the casualty list. Maybe coincidence, or maybe something more. He also wasn’t at the meeting, as far as Rob could remember. Leaf never met him, but there’s no reason any of them would know that.

“He’s on break, I think,” Jean says at last. “Took some time off.”

“Oh, alright. Any of you have his email? It’s not important enough for a text, just wanted to say hi.”

The silence is longer this time. Leaf watches them out of the corner of her eyes, seeing people glance at each other. As if everyone’s waiting for someone else to answer.

“Yeah, I think I can find it,” Nora says. “I’ll get it to you later.”

“Thanks. Here’s my number.” She extends her phone toward Nora, who does the same, and they tap their screens to swap info as they approach the outer buildings at the site. “See you guys tomorrow!”

Leaf walks back to her room, gaze distant as she keeps replaying the expressions of the others in her head. It might just be her imagination, but those pauses were a bit too long, their expressions too emotive, for someone asking about a coworker who simply took some time off. She just wishes she knew what they were thinking and feeling.

Leaf has never felt any particular envy of psychics before, outside of wanting to bond with pokemon better. But now she has to admit that it would be a valuable ability for a reporter to have. She wonders if Zoey is one, keeping it secret so as not to tip off people she talks to and interviews. Laura might even be an untrained, low level psychic, if Red went so long without realizing he was one. Isn’t it a maternal trait?

In any case, not every good investigator has had psychic powers, however much it would help, and she’ll just have to confirm her hunches the regular way: corroboration of facts.

It seems strange that someone would be removed from a staff listing just because they took some time off work. The list of site staff must include others who took time off, even from the security staff. If she can find someone else and see if they were removed for the time they were gone, that would help.

As for why they would lie… Leaf can’t outrule the possibility that Daniel Levi was somehow involved with Yuuta. Wasn’t there talk of him not being a sole actor? If Daniel and Yuuta worked together, maybe he ran after the execution, afraid he would be found out. Or maybe he helped Yuuta escape.

Leaf has been asking around as subtly as she could, and she can’t figure out who was watching Yuuta during the meeting on the night of his execution. Paul was the last person she knows was with him, unless he lied to her when he recounted his night. But he never named who took his place, and Leaf didn’t want to press the point at the time, still wary of asking questions that would get back to Director Zapata.

It’s possible she’ll have to now. Maybe whoever replaced him was the last person with Yuuta before Misty and Sasaki saw him. Maybe there was another exchange of the watch. Either way, Leaf is willing to bet her hat that the meeting with the ACE Trainers had to do with Yuuta. Maybe Daniel was missing because he was still watching him, or maybe not. Finding out what happened to him, where he is now, is the most important step.


“I mean, seriously, where does she get off, always telling me to be careful?” Red asks. “She’s not even a trainer, and she’s running around a Tier 1 for a story?”

“Mmhm.” Leaf shifts her phone to the other shoulder, reminding herself to buy some new earphones. She sits on her bed, gaze on her laptop screen as she reviews her timeline for the night of the paras attack. She has a chain of supervision written out for who was watching Yuuta, trying to narrow down potential possibilities. “I think she just stayed on the roof, though. It was probably safe up there.”

“Yeah, right, until the grimer start climbing up the walls.”

Leaf grins. “Really? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Hey, it happens!”

“I think you’re being a bit overprotective of your mom, which is, you know, totally understandable, but her building is like twenty stories up, and I’ve never heard of them going that high.”

“They can go through windows on the second or third floor and then take the stairs.”

“Right.” She plugs in an alibi corroboration from her notes with one of the ACE Trainers, putting him and another away from Yuuta at the relevant time. “In which case staying in her room would probably have been worse.”

Red grumbles something. “So how’s the research going?”

“Okay,” she says, and gives him a summary of what she’s learned so far. “I’m starting to appreciate how hard it is to figure things out by eye testimony. Some people who claim to have been at the same place at the same time are giving me very different reports of who they saw, or when they did things.”

“Yeah, hearsay is the least reliable form of evidence in court for a reason. I’m glad I rarely have to consider it for the things I’m working on.”

“Mmhm.” Leaf frowns at a pair of notes that put the same person on opposite sides of the dig. Are there two Michaels on site? She pulls up the staff roster. “How are our abra, anyway?”

Red sighs. “They’re fine, but figuring out a way to test their psychic strength is proving difficult. All they can do is teleport! I’m starting to think I’ll have to buy a TM to teach them some kind of attack. It’s not a bad investment, in any case. Think I should ask Bill if he has one lying around?”

Leaf barely hears him, distracted by a notification. It’s an email from Nora. “Hey Red, mind if I call you later?”

“Uh, yeah, no prob.”

“Thanks, bye.” She ends the call and stares at the message, which just contains an email address. Ostensibly Daniel’s.

Leaf lowers her phone and looks at her timeline again. She goes back to the beginning, checking through the whole thing again as one hand goes out to stroke Bulbasaur, who’s sleeping in his potted plant beside her bed.

Even if one or two people misremembered things… there are three facts she can clearly put together.

One, Daniel was the one watching Yuuta. Near certainty: there’s no one else it could be, unless multiple people all gave her bad info, accidentally or otherwise.

Two, Daniel disappeared afterward. No one, not any of the ACE Trainers, not any of the other dig employees, reports seeing Daniel all night. She’s less certain about this one: there’s a chance he didn’t disappear, but was for some reason detained, and those that detained him kept it secret or made everyone else keep it secret.

Three, Yuuta is dead… and was before Misty even got to him.

This one she’s the least sure about: maybe 70% at most. From the time that passed between the two meetings, it seems clear there wasn’t nearly enough for a full interrogation by the psychic Leader. Leaf still doesn’t know what she met with the site security about, but if Yuuta had escaped, the more likely outcome would have been an immediate manhunt.

Of course, there are other possibilities. Maybe Misty quickly sensed that Yuuta collaborated with one of the security, and called the meeting to find out which one. But there’s no account of returning to Yuuta after, and it still begs the question of where Daniel was. Maybe he stayed with Yuuta, but in that case what happened to him afterward? No, it seems more likely that he was involved somehow. Maybe Daniel ran and left Yuuta alone in the room, but then who was left to watch him during the meeting?

So. Daniel was likely gone by then. And Yuuta was likely dead, and thus not in need of supervision.

It seems solid. But Leaf knows she has to account for unknown unknowns, and drops her confidence down. Maybe 60%. Maybe 55%. She could be wrong in ways she hasn’t even considered.

Speaking of which… she opens Nora’s message and considers Daniel’s email address. Part of her was expecting the email not to arrive, for Nora to just conveniently forget to send it. Now that she has it, she’s wondering if she really is way off. Nora wouldn’t share it if something serious happened with Daniel, would she?

Then Leaf realizes she’s being silly, since just having the address is meaningless if Daniel isn’t in a position to respond. Leaf still has to follow through.

She types up a quick message, glossing over how she knows him and hoping that if she claims to remember meeting him briefly, he’ll just think he forgot in all the chaos that day. With such a thinner relationship however, instead of trying to check in on him she instead informs him of the article she’s writing and asks if he’s free to answer some questions for her.

Leaf reviews the letter twice to make sure it’s vague and innocent enough. She knows she’s being paranoid, but she can’t help but wonder who else might actually read the email besides Daniel.

Finally she sends it and gets back to the alibis. There are a lot of ACE trainers who she never managed to talk to, and she tries to figure out a way to get the info out of them to corroborate her theory.

She’s still thinking it over when an email notification interrupts her. Leaf stares at the screen, then slowly clicks the icon.

It’s from Daniel. Less than three minutes since she sent her own email, a little over five since Nora sent her the email address at all, and she already has a response.

It’s not paranoia if there really is a conspiracy, right? She knows she’s being silly. It’s a little past nine in the evening, plenty of people are up and have their phone at hand. Besides, Nora probably sent it after getting an “okay” from him in the first place, so he was up and not busy and expecting Leaf’s email. And the reason the others were so odd when talking about him wasn’t that they’re all in on some conspiracy: they’re likely just as in the dark as Leaf is, but know something weird happened with him.

The message, distilled to basics, is simple: “Hello, all’s well, a bit busy for any questions at the moment, thanks anyway.” It leaves nothing to really follow up with, and after reading it a few times, Leaf closes the email and goes back to stroking Bulbasaur. Her leg begins to bounce in place, and eventually she frowns, stretches, and starts to pace.

Let’s assume that was really Daniel and he’s fine and not on the run or anything. How does that fit into what’s probably true? Maybe Daniel didn’t actually work with Yuuta. Maybe he was dismissed for something else.

She looks back at her timeline. It starts as a single line, but branches off into multiple smaller ones after a major division splits it in two… the point at which Yuuta is either executed, or not, whichever the case may be. There are facts she’s still gathering to confirm which path is the right one, but until she finishes getting all the answers at the dig site, she didn’t dare risk contacting Ranger Sasaki to check about things like the execution itself or the transportation of Yuuta’s body.

Now, however, it seems she has few other options. Leaf believes she has the right cards: it’s time to play her hand, and see what a bit of bluffing can get her.


“Thank you for meeting with me, Ranger,” Leaf says as she enters Sasaki’s office the next morning. It took her about an hour to make her way down the mountain to the outpost. A can of repel, and Bulbasaur walking along beside her, kept away any wild pokemon, though she did have to send Crimson out to chase away some spearow that were circling them.

“Of course, though I only have a few minutes.” The Ranger offers her a seat in front of her desk.

“I’ll get right to it then. I just need to corroborate some facts for an article I’m writing on the dig site.”

“Alright.” Sasaki sits down, her serious eyes lightened by a smile. “What can I help you with?”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Calm. Resolute. “First, I should say I know about Yuuta.”

Sasaki blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“I know about Yuuta. And Daniel Levi. I just want to confirm whether you have any leads, or if you have any comment you’d like to make before I publish the story.”

The two stare at each other, Leaf’s heart pounding in her chest. Don’t break eye contact, don’t look unsure.

“I’m sorry,” Sasaki repeats, slowly this time. “I don’t know what you’re referring to.” There’s no confusion on her face however: all hint of a smile is gone, and there’s nothing but resolute blankness before Leaf.

“I want you to know that I’m not here to embarrass anyone,” Leaf says, and has to take a breath to make sure her voice remains steady. “I first heard about this from others who were intending to look into it. I thought if I got the facts first, I could publish a story that just stuck to what’s true, and won’t unfairly implicate others who had nothing to do with it.”

Leaf meets Sasaki’s stare as best she can, wondering if the Ranger understands. If she had any part in the cover up, she would be implicating herself… but saving those who weren’t involved.

“Alternatively,” Leaf says. “If there’s a good reason for what occurred… something that would make publishing a story on it a bad idea… that’s something I’d like to know too. Can you confirm for me first that Leader Misty did execute Yuuta, as reported?”

“Miss Juniper.” Ranger Sasaki pauses, opens her mouth, then closes it and takes a moment before speaking again. “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. If you have some accusation to make, or believe something improper was done, I would urge you to report it to the authorities, along with any evidence you may have.” She checks the time. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.”

Frustration pins Leaf to her seat, trying to find something else to say. Eventually she stands and bows. “Thank you for your time.”


The walk back to the dig site is uneventful, giving Leaf plenty of time to ruminate on her disappointment. She wants to mope about it to Laura, but her phone goes to message, so Leaf just plays the brief conversation back over and over and wonders what else she should have done or said.

When she reaches her residence building, a man in a dark suit and tie is sitting in a fold-out chair beside the door. He stands as she gets closer, and she recognizes him from pictures online: Leader Giovanni.

“Um,” she says.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper. If you have a minute, I believe it’s time we spoke.”

Leaf stares. Her mind is drawing a blank on what an appropriate reaction to this should be, which leaves her with the most honest one: utter bafflement.

How long is a flight to here from Viridian? some part of her wonders. Or was he just in the area when Sasaki messaged him?

No one who passes by is rude enough to stop and stare, but Leaf notes that their strides slow, their heads turning constantly as they catch sight of the legendary trainer. “Shall we go inside?” Giovanni says after another few moments, and Leaf flushes, nodding and leading the way to her room.

She sits on her bed, leaving the one chair for him. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you,” she says. Obviously. She casts about for something to say, still trying to get her bearings. “Were you in the area, or…?”

Giovanni sits in the spindly desk chair as if it’s a comfortable recliner, one leg crossed on the other knee, hands folded over them. His eyes are dark and piercing, and Leaf finds herself staring at his nose instead of meeting his gaze. “In a sense. I was passing through Pewter to discuss the recent Zapdos sighting when Ranger Sasaki messaged me.” He takes a phone out of the pocket of his suit, shifting it enough for her to get a peek at the lid of one of the balls on his belt. It’s unlike any she’s seen before, chrome grey with a circle of yellow around the top.

Leaf’s pulse quickens at his words. “Am I in some kind of trouble?”

He places the phone against his knee, screen facing him, and his gaze moves down to it. He occasionally taps, but doesn’t seem distracted from their conversation. “No, not at all. The ranger is under the impression that you have reason to believe something improper was done regarding the renegade you helped capture.”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Now is her chance to get some answers. She wishes it was Misty she could confront instead of Giovanni, but then, the Cerulean Leader is a psychic, so maybe this is for the best. Plus, she’s not sure if Giovanni actually knows anything or is involved, and if not he could be an ally.

She decides to start with the safest assumption. “I have reason to believe that Yuuta wasn’t executed by Leader Misty.”

Giovanni is quiet a moment, staring at his phone. Without looking away from it, he says, “Who do you believe executed him?”

“I don’t think he was.”

Now Giovanni looks up, briefly meeting her gaze. “Then what do you think happened to him?”

“My best guess is that he was already dead by the time she reached him. I think one of the site security, Daniel, was involved somehow. There’s also a chance that he escaped, but I don’t think that’s as likely.”

Giovanni is back to looking at his phone, fingers moving as he asks, “Why not?”

“Because the danger of a loose renegade is too big a thing to keep covered up. And I don’t think Leader Misty would do that, just to save face.” Leaf pauses, considering her words. “I hope not, anyway. But if you’re interested, maybe we can get to the bottom of things. You have a lot more power and influence, you could… ask around…” Leaf trails off as Giovanni continues to watch his phone. His inattention is starting to make her feel slighted, but also embarrassed for feeling as if her suspicions are worth the undivided attention of a Gym Leader.

No, these are more than suspicions. Don’t waver. “If not, I may just write up my article with the questions unanswered. I’d rather not, though.”

Giovanni looks thoughtful, as if weighing her words. Or maybe just reading an email. Eventually he looks up again, catching Leaf by surprise and holding her gaze. “Tell me honestly, Miss Juniper, do you care about the truth, or getting a story published?”

“I… are those two mutually exclusive? I care about the truth, obviously. But unless there’s a really good reason to keep it hidden, the truth only has value if others know about it.”

Giovanni watches her another moment, then looks back to his phone. Leaf feels herself relax a bit, but most of her body is still tense. She knows he’s not a psychic, Blue mentioned that he was Dark when discussing ways he looked up to him, but she still feels as though he can look right into her.

“I couldn’t convince you not to publish such an article?”

“I’d have to know why first.” Shit. It seems Giovanni is in on things, meaning he’s not a potential ally after all. Her stomach floods with acid as she remembers Laura’s warning about getting into political topics with her articles. This is a man who could make her life very unpleasant if he chooses to: losing access to the dig site is  suddenly the least of her worries.

“Telling you in and of itself is part of the problem,” he says. “If you deem the reason insufficient, it would be worse than telling you nothing and letting you publish your article of half-truths. Would you be willing to take my word that there is a good reason to keep silent for at least a period of six months? I can offer some compensation for the time you’ve spent investigating, if so. Perhaps even purchase your investigation data, as it may contain things useful to us.” He’s still staring at his screen, even as he offers to bribe her into silence. Leaf is too distracted by the sudden rush of conflicting emotions to fit any sense of annoyance into things.

Does she trust his word? A part of her balks at the idea of expressing any lack of faith in him, but she pushes past that sentiment. The whole point of journalism, if it’s to have any civic value, is to make things so that people don’t have to just trust their leaders.

The problem is she does trust him. Mostly. At least, she believes that he has good intentions, and that he believes there’s a good reason not to publish the article. She knows that him offering to pay her is supposed to be sinister, if this were a cartoon or movie or book, but really, if his intentions are good, he’s just being considerate. It’s a token of respect, for her time and effort.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and means it. “I would love to take your word for it, even without any payment. But I can’t if there’s any chance I’d look back and regret the decision. And… there’s one more thing I have to be honest about. There are others who are looking into this story. I don’t think even if I stay silent, they would, which would make the whole agreement pointless for you.”

“You can tell me who they are, and I can make the same offer to them. Is it Shunichi Morri? Mara Hawthorne? Zoey Palmer? Jon Urich?” He pauses between each name, still staring down at his phone.

Leaf steels herself. “I’m sorry, I won’t confirm or deny anyone. I learned of it in confidence.”

Leader Giovanni is silent for a long time, gaze down, fingers occasionally typing. Leaf swallows, hands folded together in her lap to keep them from moving restlessly about.

“Thank you for your honesty,” he says at last. “And I respect your convictions. I believe I’ll take a gamble, and tell you some of what is going on, in the hopes that you find our reasoning sufficient.”

Leaf hardly dares breathe. She reminds herself that she can’t automatically trust what he tells her.

Giovanni’s gaze is still on his phone, but his speech is clear and sure. “Renegade Yuuta is dead. Leader Misty didn’t have the chance to execute him, or even interrogate him: as you said, he was already killed when she arrived. The suspect is still at large. Mr. Levi is still being investigated, and is under house arrest. He was in charge of watching Yuuta at the time, and claims he was distracted by a false message asking him to report to his superior, Paul Newcomb. There was in fact such a message on his phone, but it came from a number that wasn’t Mr. Newcomb’s, programmed in as a second line. Both claim it was without their knowledge.”

Leaf gives herself a moment to process it all, repeating it to herself to commit it to memory. Now that she knows she was right (assuming he didn’t lie), her mind explodes with questions on the killer. What motive would someone have to kill a dead man? To prevent them from giving information away, of course. But the timing was too perfect, it had to be someone on site, right? “Any other current suspects?”

“None that I’m willing to share. But you understand why we do not want this information to come out during an ongoing investigation, I trust.”

Leaf frowns. If someone else still working around here is under investigation… “If the idea is to keep the investigation secret, why not make it public, charge Daniel, and make the murderer believe they got away with it?”

“That was suggested. Leader Misty was against the idea. She questioned him herself, and for now believes him innocent. She doesn’t wish to tarnish his name with a formal charge, even if it’s later recanted. Instead he has been removed from employment, and any investigations will reveal that he was lax in his duties. As in truth he was, to some extent.” Giovanni is still looking at his phone, tapping something into it.

Leaf’s thoughts keep racing, unable to help herself from trying to figure out which of the people she spoke with or saw around site might be it. She thinks of the new security at first, the ones who all refused to talk to her, then reminds herself that they weren’t here at the time. “Not to mention that there are also financial interests, including from your cities, that would be hurt if the whole site fell under suspicion, right?”

Giovanni’s gaze flicks up from his phone to meet hers. There’s a hint of a smile there, warming his strong, stark features for a moment. “Perhaps. I should say that Leader Misty is rather irritated with you, believing from your actions here and the impression you left on Leader Brock that you’re something of a trouble maker. I, however, believe that Professor Oak chooses his trainers more carefully than that.”

“I’m the daughter and granddaughter of Professors too, you know,” Leaf says, feeling slighted again. “Neither of them raised me to be reckless.”

“As you say. Indeed, I am counting on it. Now I must ask again for you to be honest with me, Miss Juniper. Does this satisfy your curiosity and ethical misgivings? Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf still isn’t sure, really. It sounds reasonable, but even if Yuuta is dead, letting a co-conspirator stay at large is almost as bad as letting a renegade run free without telling the public. He might well be another renegade! Certainly he’s a murderer, and a skilled one.

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure I agree. There’s still someone dangerous out there, possibly at this very dig site. The people here deserve to know.”

Giovanni is silent again. Leaf waits, watching him watch his phone screen for a moment, then look up at her. She’s getting better at meeting his gaze.

“I understand your concern,” he says. “So here is another bit of truth that I hope will change your mind. I do not believe Yuuta’s murderer was working with him.”

Leaf’s eyes widen. “What? Why not? If he wasn’t worried about what Yuuta would say, or what Misty would sense when interrogating him, why bother?”

“Because their goal was exactly as you said earlier: to throw a wrench into the plans of those with interest in this endeavor. To cause a scandal, call for investigations, and embarrass the Leaders who are invested in this. To admit that this occurred at all would be giving them exactly what they seek.”

Leaf feels the pieces fall into place. “Your people! The ones in charge of fossil security, that’s not all they’re here for, they’re investigating the others too, aren’t they?” She wishes this was all on the record! The plot just keeps thickening, but Leaf feels her skepticism rising again too. “This person, he or she took an enormous risk just to sabotage the dig. They must have known that an opportunity like Yuuta would come up, too. How are you so sure that they weren’t actually working together? It seems much more probable that they were working with him and just wanted to tie up a loose end.”

Leader Giovanni smiles. This one is less brief, but it doesn’t touch his eyes, and leaves his face hard and cold. “When you live a life such as I have, Miss Juniper, you learn to recognize the actions of an enemy. And those such as myself have plenty of enemies. Now, I’ve shared quite a lot with you, as a token of trust. I ask a third time for your honesty.” His eyes seem to be boring into hers. “Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf meets his gaze, just barely, but inside she feels the shift. There are too many reasons not to now, she can’t in good conscience do something that might cause harm or mess up an investigation.

But maybe she doesn’t have to admit that just yet. She won’t publish, but she can keep fishing for info. “I still want to know more about how you can be so sure of their motives. Has something like this happened before?”

Giovanni is no longer looking at her, however. His gaze is back on his phone, silently reading whatever is on it. Leaf realizes suddenly that for all his activity on it, the phone hasn’t vibrated or made any sound since they entered the room.

The Gym Leader finally slips his phone in his jacket pocket, and he looks… satisfied. “I’m afraid that’s all the time I have, and there are other matters that need my attention. Thank you for speaking with me, Miss Juniper.” Before she can respond, he’s standing and headed for the door.  “Leader Misty will be pleased to know she was wrong about you, and I trust I can count on your discretion in this matter. It would not go unrewarded.”

“What?” She’s on her feet too, taken off guard as he opens the door. “But I-” It closes behind him, cutting her off mid-sentence.

Leaf is left standing in her room, staring after him and feeling as though she missed something.


I was super tempted to end the chapter at the second line of dialogue in the final section, “I believe it’s time we spoke.” Not just because of all the busyness of the holidays, but for the sheer cliffhanger value. Consider me finishing the section here rather than another chapter my new year’s gift to all of you 🙂 Happy 2017!

Chapter 37: Resolve

Blue looks exhausted when Red and Leaf find him at the Trainer House in Cerulean North, but he still exudes a self-satisfied pride, even sprawled on a couch.

“You did it, then?” Leaf asks as she and Red sit in the nearby chairs. “Finished the screening matches?”

“Hit the top. Misty’s Second wasn’t in town, still gotta schedule a match with her, but then I can go for the badge. I think I’ll be ready in a couple weeks.”

“Congrats!”

“Harder than Pewter, huh?” Red asks.

“Yeah. A lot of that was just testing me to make sure I wasn’t some scrub with a pidgey wasting everyone’s time. These people went hard. Very first match was against Amy.”

Red smiles. “Our Amy? From Viridian? Cool, how’s she doing?”

“Good. She got her badge already, staying on at the Gym for a bit. Sends her regards.” His eyelids are drooping down.

“You should head to bed,” Leaf says as Red checks the time. Only nine, but they’re still on a traveling sleep cycle, getting up and bedding down with the sun. “We can talk tomorrow.”

“No, I want to hear what you guys did first. What did Bill want?”

Red and Leaf exchange a look. “Uh. A soda, basically.”

Blue stares.

“Also maybe something else,” Leaf says. “He forgot. But he showed us around a couple of the labs and we talked about a bunch of stuff.”

“But he approved the plan,” Red says. “Said we have a week to practice before we try for real. There’s something else I want to talk to you guys about, though…” He leans toward Blue. “You know how your sister is competing in the Pokemon Coordinator Contest next week?”


August 1st

It takes most of the morning for Red to search the local advertisements and find a psychic who matches his budget. With the coming windfall, he can afford to spend some now if it’ll give him a leg up. As he waits for a response, he tries meditating again. His ability to focus isn’t much better than the first time, but he keeps practicing throughout the day, determined to make some measurable progress from one day to the next.

He also looks over the map of Bill’s property the inventor sent him. After calculating how far the sound of the Wigglytuff’s singing will travel, he scrolls through the map from one corner to the next, trying to find a location with the ideal conditions: the right amount of empty space surrounded by naturally obstructing hills or trees, but with more open space beyond that for the ring of sound. He wants to do it as close to the Ranger Outpost or Bill’s house as possible, and quickly narrows his options down to three possibilities.

He takes a quick break for lunch, meeting Blue and Leaf at a nearby cafe to show them his notes and hear about their respective days, training at the gym and reading the local news. They also check the clefairy markets together, carefully marking the ones they want to buy and timing who will buy which of them when, spacing out the purchases. Afterward it’s right back to the Trainer House for more meditation practice. He picks his clefairy up from the transfer PC in the lobby, putting it immediately into storage. Much as he’d like to meet his new pokemon, he reminds himself not to get attached.

That night he finds a private workroom in the Trainer House and stares at his phone, working up his courage. This will be painful, and manipulative. But he has to tell her sooner or later, and this is when he can make the most good come of it.

Red takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair, gripping it for a moment between his fingers. Then he drops his arms, picks up his phone, and dials his mom.

The pleasantries go by quickly, and soon he finds himself stumbling over his words.

“What is it, hon? Spit it out.”

Red takes a deep breath, and explains what he learned from Narud, including how the “psychic partition” that might be keeping him from fully getting over his dad’s death.

“Oh, Red… hon, I’m so sorry… I know you must be thrilled that you’re a psychic. After you were so excited from learning grandma was one… I remember how disappointed you were. But…” He can hear the tearful breath she takes, and feels a stab of guilt. “This thing with your father…”

“I know. It’s… a lot to take in. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but there’s definitely something stopping my powers from manifesting, and the feeling of that Night Shade… I’m scared, mom. I don’t want to face something like that again, or worse… have the partition break down like Narud said, and… relive losing dad again…” Red wipes a tear away, voice hoarse as pain and loneliness wells up inside him. In a way, it’s a relief to know that he’s not lying to her. He shoves the feelings down, waiting until he has control of himself again before he continues. “I really think I need to get a handle on this now.”

“Of course, sweetheart. Of course. What can I do?”

“I need lessons. I need to start learning how to use my powers. It’s expensive, though.”

“How much is each lesson? I can pay for them-”

“No! Thank you, but… I just need access to my account.”

“Oh no, Red, not your savings. I’ll be okay hon, I have some extra saved up. Let me help you with this. Just tell me how much you need and I’ll send it to you.”

Dammit. If she pays for the lessons directly, he can’t get the clefairy. He was hoping to get another two before the contest, but it would totally empty his account, and take a bit of borrowing from Blue or Leaf: he has almost exactly $1,800 to his name. Not enough for two clefairy and psychic lessons… It would be better to wait on the lessons until after he sells the clefairy. But he can’t empty his account without showing a bill to his mom, and he did want to start the lessons as soon as possible.

Well, buying one extra clefairy is better than none. “I’m still looking for the best deal, and some of them give bulk rates if I schedule more than one session at a time. Other lessons may be cheaper if I buy them on short notice, when they have a sudden opening from a cancellation. I did a lot of negotiating with psychics in Pewter for my paper, and I have to be careful to make every dollar count to get as many lessons as I can.”

“I still want to help, Red. I can’t let you pay it all yourself, you might need that money for your travels!”

Red sighs. “Okay, how we go a half and half then? Let me use my savings while I’m in Cerulean, and I’ll send you the bill afterward, so you can put half back in my account whenever you have a chance.”

“You’re such a sweetheart. Alright, if that makes you happy. I love you, Red.”

Red runs his fingers through his hair as he rests his forehead on his palm, eyes closed. “Thanks, mom. I love you too.”

He spends the rest of the night reading local CoRRNet reports to brush up on wild pokemon in the area, and falls asleep with herd movement patterns floating behind closed eyelids.


August 2nd

Psychic Ayane is dressed very casually compared to Duran or Ranna. Her purple hair is cut short around her ears, her navy top is a simple shirt that bares a bit of her midriff, and her matching navy pants end just below her knees. She looks ready to go for a jog or have a pokemon battle rather than sit cross-legged and meditate, and yet that’s exactly what she does once Red signs the consent form.

“Our first lesson will involve Reception,” she says once they’re both seated across from each other in lotus position. Red finds it less uncomfortable than he did the first time, and wriggles his toes as he lets the tenseness out of them, hands facing upward briefly before he flips them over to mirror Ayane’s. “I don’t know how your ‘block’ operates, but it shouldn’t interfere at all with this aspect, if you were able to feel a psychic mind touch yours before.”

“I did, but it… wasn’t a pleasant experience,” Red says, taking measured breaths to prepare himself and slow his racing heart.

“I’ll attempt to be as gentle as possible,” she assures him, and closes her eyes. He does the same. “Are you ready?”

“Uh… give me a second.” Inhale… two… three… four… exhale… two… three… four… inhale… “Ready…”

“First, I want you to understand what I’m doing. My mind is aware of others who pass nearby me, but that awareness is not connection. It’s the difference between seeing someone in your periphery vision and locking eyes with them. By focusing on one of the minds I sense, I can project toward it. Beginning… now.”

Even braced for it, Red feels his skin break out in bumps as the “second mind” appears next to his own, almost entangled with it. He tries to focus on his breathing past the vertigo. After a few seconds pass, the sensation isn’t any better, but it stops growing worse. He feels like he’s balancing on a tightrope with one foot in the air.

“Are you able to continue, Mr. Verres?”

“Yes,” Red says between breaths. He keeps his voice quiet, his eyes closed. Sweat lines his brow and drips down the back of his neck. Every thought he has feels like it echoes, rebounding off the second mind beside his own, transferred along gossamer strands that connect them. “Is this… normal…?”

“No. Whoever told you about your partition was correct. Virtually all of your powers are being used to simply maintain it, and drawing them away to other tasks, even automatic ones like forming a connection, is taxing you beyond your endurance.”

“Should… we stop…?” Red asks, breath hitching between the words as a his stomach cramps. He expects a flashback to the spinarak’s attack to come at any moment, but it seems like the aftereffect really has faded. Maybe he should start training it now and make sure.

“Not unless you want to.”

“No.”

“Alright. I’m going to send across a feeling. I want you to tell me what it is.”

Red tries to prepare himself as he continues to focus on his breathing. He’s proud of himself for not quitting despite the strain. This isn’t so bad, actually, and now that he has the hang of it and knows what to expect, he’s sure he can handle more. In fact, this whole ‘partition’ thing probably isn’t a big deal either, with a few weeks of training he’ll be able to get rid of it and-

Oh.

“Optimism,” Red says, breathing out, then in again. “Confidence?”

“Hope,” Ayane says, smiling. “Good. Next.”

Red breathes out, wondering if he’ll notice his thoughts changing as they’re not influenced anymore. He’s vaguely worried about the notion that his emotions are being manipulated by an outside force: as if having biases isn’t bad enough, his unrealistic expectations of fixing his mental block in just weeks seem silly in retrospect, Narud implied it would be much harder… wait, is she projecting the opposite of hope now? Despair? Or is he just returning to his baseline? It’s so frustrating not knowing if his emotions are his own, if he could just think clearly for a moment he’d be able to-

His breathing is too fast, he’s not focusing on it anymore. He can’t slow it down though, a hot flush going up his neck. “Frustration?”

“Anger. Very good. Next.” Her words are clipped, and he opens his eyes to see her expression is cold. As he watches her however, her face relaxes into a more calm expression. He closes his eyes again so he doesn’t cheat by observing her.

He’ll have to write about all this, a journal, to keep the experience of cycling through emotions from outside influence fresh. It would be amazingly useful for awareness therapy and techniques, he’s surprised more psychics don’t go into therapy, though if they’re a standard subsample of the population there’s no reason to think any more of them would be interested or qualified for the job than non-psychics, proportionally. Still, it’s got to be easier for them, right? He wonders if a psychic therapist would have helped him more when he was young. He liked his therapist, but he would have discovered he was a psychic much earlier if one had tried something like this with him…

Breathing slowly in and out isn’t so difficult now. His shirt is sticking to his back with sweat and his stomach is still fluttering with nerves, but Red barely notices as he thinks about various applications of psychic powers in exploring the mind. Eventually he remembers he’s supposed to be trying to think of what emotion he is experiencing, but honestly he doesn’t feel anything unusual. He wonders if this is a “control” test, if she’s not projecting anything to see how he reacts. Should he peek? How long would she wait before he doesn’t get it? Maybe he just has to admit it himself.

“Don’t feel anything,” Red says between breaths. “Supposed to?”

“Yes.”

Red frowns, trying to focus harder. What is it? What’s he missing? He should list his emotions.

I’m uncomfortable, physically. I’m nervous and anxious, but that’s the partition thing, I don’t think it’s changed. I’m a little frustrated, but not a lot, yet. Am I less frustrated than I would otherwise be? Is she projecting calm? Is calm even an emotion? It’s just the absence of other emotions, isn’t it? Can you project null-emotions?

His thoughts run along those lines for another dozen breaths, and he finally shakes his head. “I give up.”

“Curiosity.”

Red opens his eyes to see her smiling slightly. “Curiosity is… an emotion? Nevermind… ‘course it is. I feel silly… but in my… defense…” He takes a deep breath to get the next part out all at once. “I’m pretty naturally curious all the… time,” he gasps, one trembling hand rising to wipe sweat from his forehead before he returns it to his knee.

“I sensed that, yes. That’s why I tried it. Remember, projections are stronger, more naturally communicated, if you build upon what is already there.”

“Noted.” The feeling of balancing on a high wire becomes more pronounced as he feels his mind wobbling, trying to shy away from the second consciousness. It’s so strange having the feeling of two minds without actually getting input from the second one at all… just echoes and undetectable projections. “So… next?”

“Are you able to continue?” He gives a jerky nod. “Alright then.”

They run through another few emotions before Red feels his whole body start to shiver uncontrollably, at which point Ayane withdraws her mind and he sags, breathing hard. His muscles feel loose and watery, his mind like it’s in a soft shelled egg.

“Well done,” his instructor says. “I didn’t expect the lesson to be so taxing on you, but you were still able to recognize most of them. Improving awareness is the first step: when you’re training your abra, being able to recognize when the emotions you feel are your own and when they’re your pokemon’s is vital.”

“Is the connection necessary?” Red asks as he slowly regains his composure. “If my partition is stopping me from passively sensing other minds around me, does that also stop me from receiving emotions from my pokemon?”

“No. Your pokemon will attempt to merge its mind with you regardless. It’s instinctual, a part of how they communicate and interact with others. Now at least you will know what to expect.”

Red grimaces and lifts one hand to his collar to peel his shirt away from his sweaty back. “If it feels like this, I’m not going to be able to train my abra at all. It was hard enough just sitting still. Are my powers like undeveloped muscles? Can I overcome this with practice?”

Ayane’s fingers drum on one knee. “Your ‘psychic muscles’ are not weak. They are constantly contracted, like a fist that has been closed around a ball for years. It has become stuck in position, any movement painful. In time it will become easier.”

“But too much relaxation and I’ll drop the ball?”

“Yes. You must learn to either juggle, or put the ball down.” She purses her lips. “That analogy doesn’t quite work anymore.”

Red smiles. “Yeah, it’s coming apart a bit. I think I get it though. The ball is fragile. Dropping it is bad, putting it down is safer. Any idea how to do it?”

“The simplest way is to learn how to manipulate your own memories, and simply clean out whatever is behind the partition. But that can take years to learn well. You can pay someone else to do it for you, if you trust them and are not averse to side effects. I would advise against this option unless your need is desperate. The safest route is to relax it little by little, adapt, repeat.”

“And how long would that…?”

Ayane spreads her hands. “As long as it takes.”

Red nods wearily. “Well, better get started then.” He straightens and puts his hands back on his knees, taking a deep breath. “Ready when you are.”


August 3rd

“Time!”

Blue presses the button on his aquascope, signalling Maturin to swim back to the surface. His squirtle rockets back up with a powerful kick of her legs and swish of her tail. Blue raises his eyes from the goggles in the scope, losing sight of her beneath the water just in time to see her round blue head breaking the surface of the pool. She opens her mouth wide, panting for breath.

“One minute rest, then back down. Set your own mark.”

Blue sets the timer on the aquascope, then tosses his pokemon a berry, which she quickly snaps out of the air. As she rests, Blue looks around to see how the others are doing.

The training room is filled with a series of isolated pools, each with a trainer standing beside them, aquascope in hand. Their pokemon bob at the surface of their pools, catching their breath from being submerged during their underwater exercises. Among the numerous classes designed for teaching them how to train their pokemon underwater, this one is particularly for amphibian pokemon, who also need practice staying under for extended periods of time.

Blue was having trouble getting Maturin to stay underwater for long enough to be a reasonable threat to water-breathing pokemon. This class is supposed to help him ease the squirtle into staying down longer and longer, but he finds the pace frustrating. He used a simulation program to try and train Maturin to stay underwater longer, but it only helped a little.

When the timer hits 0, Blue sends his pokemon back down along with the other trainers. He gives Maturin various commands to practice while she’s submerged, and keeps his eye on the timer that’s counting up now, waiting for the five minute mark. Squirtle can stay underwater for much longer if they don’t move much, but to fight down there, she needs to be able to stay submerged for as long as possible.

Blue presses his eyes to the scope to see Maturin swimming through the series of hoops spread out in the narrow, but deep, pool. He uses various buttons on the handle to send clicks through the water, directing his pokemon down one hoop, then up through another two.

“Time!”

Blue pulls his head up in irritation to check the timer. Only five minutes. He’s sure Maturin can stay down longer.

As the other pokemon begin appearing on the surface however, he can see the instructor looking at him, and presses the button to recall Maturin back up. His pokemon takes deep breaths and snatches more berries out of the air, then lies on its back and gurgles as it swims in lazy circles.

“Another one minute break!” The instructor yells out to the room, then walks toward Blue. He’s an older man, trimmed beard going grey, only one arm coming out of his shirt sleeves, the other folded and pinned around a stump. “Trainer Blue, was it?” he asks when he gets close enough, voice low so as not to carry to the closer trainers.

“That’s me.”

“You didn’t bring your pokemon back up right away. First time here, right?”

“Yeah. She seemed fine.”

“Seemed fine, sure. Pokemon worth a damn follow orders, even if it’s painful or dangerous. What do you want, your squirtle to come up without you telling it to? Not going to get it to learn that way. Worse, it might stay down. Get itself hurt trying to please you.”

Blue frowns at Maturin, who ducks her head into the water and kicks her legs to do a quick dive before coming back up. “She’s smart enough not to do that.”

“Hey, it’s your pokemon. I guess you’d know.” The instructor’s voice doesn’t change tone, and Blue fights down his defensiveness.

“When do we do practice matches?” he asks.

“Aquatic combat is lesson seven. In this gym we do things in the right order. Relax, you’ll be there by the end of the week.” He claps Blue on the shoulder and heads up the aisle to inspect and speak with the others.

Blue looks at Maturin again to make sure she’s okay, and snorts as she spits a harmless spray of mist up at him. He chucks her another berry and tries to fight down his impatience as the timer hits 0 and he tells her to go down again.

He’s committed to putting in the time at this gym and training his pokemon right: a first time win against Misty is the only way to make up for his loss against Brock. The new narrative he would shape about learning from his mistakes wouldn’t work if he commits too early and loses against Misty again.

But he can’t afford to spend too much time taking the safe route that he loses momentum either.

In Pewter he learned a bit from the lessons, but the most progress was made by finding good training partners. Blue examines his neighbors. One is a guy about his age, a serious look on his face as he trains a seel. The other is an older girl with a totodile that looks nearly as bored as he does. He waits till after the lesson is finished, then withdraws Maturin and approaches her.

“Hey. I’m Blue.”

She turns to him in surprise. “Hi. Mary.”

“This is my first time at one of these. Do you know if the pace picks up eventually? I think my pokemon can handle more.”

“No, this is my first one too,” she says as she withdraws her pokemon. “I know how you feel though, this is a lot more basic than I thought it would be.”

“I guess they have to make sure everyone has the fundamentals first,” Blue says. “I like learning from battles, personally.”

“You want a water match? With me? I’ve never done one before. I’m guessing neither have you, if you’re here.”

“Yeah, but we’ll both be rookies, so it should be okay.” He can see her hesitation, and smiles. “Nah, you’re right. Maybe later.” He turns away, looking for someone else to approach.

“Hey, wait.” He looks to see her smiling back. “You’re on.”


August 4th, Morning

Leaf throws the ball at her pokemon as hard as she can. “Bulbasaur, Catch!”

Bulbasaur wraps a vine around the ball mid-air as it sails overhead, slinging it back and around to reduce its momentum without letting it go. Leaf opens her left palm wide, leather glove stretching the mesh between her fingers, and raises her bare right hand. She snaps her fingers, then points at her glove. “Throw!”

Her pokemon whips the ball at her hard enough to make her palms sting through the protective leather, and she grins. “Good boy!” She laughs as her pokemon gambols around a bit, rear feet kicking at the air. She waits until he calms down, then throws the ball back without another “Catch!”

The sky is bright and blue above the park, acres of grass and trees acting as an island of nature in the heart of the city. The past few days of reading made Leaf a bit stir-crazy, and she decided to take the day off to stretch her muscles and train her pokemon.

Of course, the best training is more like playing.

Another half hour of catch, then a jog with Scamp running at her heels and Crimson looping around overhead as she tosses berries to each. Her phone occasionally buzzes, and she checks her messages to see if anyone important enough has messaged her.

Her current problem is simple. She wants to write another article, something with enough depth and importance to shift attention away from the ongoing situation in Pewter. But she has no leads beyond what she can pick up from news stories that are already published. The obvious solution is to get some from the local reporters, but they’d expect something in return.

Luckily, she happens to have something to trade. She just needs a good offer first.

By noon she’s hungry and exhausted. She brings all her pokemon out to rest for a bit, then heads back to the Trainer House. Her mind is on the shower waiting for her upstairs when a woman stands up from one of the couches in the entrance hall and approaches her.

“Hello Miss Juniper. My name is Zoey P-”

“Palmer, yeah, I know who you are,” Leaf says, smiling. It seems today might be her lucky day. “I’ve been reading your articles since I got to town. It’s good to meet you.”

The reporter raises an eyebrow. “I’m flattered. Assuming you liked them?”

“Yeah, they were great.” Leaf expected an email or phone call like all the other reporters used, but clearly Miss Palmer prefers the more personal touch. “Were you waiting for me?”

“I was. Do you have a minute to talk? Maybe have coffee or lunch? My treat.”

“I’d love to. I’m sorry, I don’t know how long you’ve been waiting, but could you give me another twenty minutes? I was just on my way up to shower and change my clothes.”

The reporter checks her phone, then says, “Of course. If you don’t mind, I’ll send you the address of a nearby cafe, and you can meet me there when you’re ready.”

“Sure. See you there.”

Leaf gets the address and rushes through showering and drying off, sitting on her bed in her towel and looking through her notes. She’s been hoping for something like this to happen all week, and wants to make sure she doesn’t mess it up. She was planning on going over the maps Red sent her for the abra hunting, but she’d have to do it after the meeting.

Ten minutes later she finds the reporter sitting outside the cafe. Leaf sits across from her, reminded of the immersive hologram at Bill’s house. “Hi. Sorry for the wait.”

“No problem. I ordered us some tea.”

“Thank you.” Leaf takes a sip from the mug in front of her, happy to discover that it’s chilled. She takes a moment to study the older woman. Miss Palmer wears thin and stylish sunglasses, and is dressed in a grey blazer that makes her look very professional and casual at the same time as she leans back in her chair, tea cradled in both hands on her lap. Leaf tries to mimic her casual posture, and wonders if she’s sitting too straight. She ends up staying mostly the way she is rather than fidget too much.

“I’ll let you find something to order, and then we can talk. I’m sure you’re curious to know why I asked you here.”

“I think I have an idea, actually. And I’m ready to order whenever the waiter arrives.” Leaf gives the menu a perfunctory look through, then puts it aside. She’s glad she can get a good salad fairly easily in most places in the city, but today she’s in the mood for something else. Especially since the reporter offered to pay.

Miss Palmer smiles. “I see. Were you expecting me?”

“Not you specifically, though I hoped for someone of your caliber. I have a friend, kind of a mentor, and your name was one of the names she suggested.”

“Why didn’t you reach out to me directly, then?”

“I figured it’s better not to be the one to ask.”

“You figured right.” She sips her tea, then returns it to her lap. “Well, this does put a different spin on things. When I realized that no one managed to get an interview out of you yet I figured you were just oblivious, but you were filtering, weren’t you? And the Oak kid not giving interviews either, is that related?”

“We have an agreement,” Leaf says. “Besides, he’s been busy.”

“Of course. Well, I guess I’ll cut to the chase then. What are your conditions?”

Leaf takes another sip of her tea, then puts the mug down and adds some sugar. “I want leads,” she says simply.

“Ah. That’s not a small thing to ask of a reporter, as I’m sure you know.”

Leaf remains silent, tasting her drink, then adding a bit more sugar and putting the rest away. The waiter arrives, and Leaf orders some avocado and cucumber rolls.

After Miss Palmer orders and the waiter leaves, the reporter pours herself some more tea, taking her time. Leaf doesn’t rush her, and finally, after putting the kettle back, she speaks. “First, tell me something. Are you here to stir up trouble in my city, too?”

Leaf remembers what Laura said about getting a feel for a journalist by their work. What kind of person is Zoey Palmer? Leaf thinks back over what she read, the articles and interviews, the passion in some of Zoey’s work that’s not there for most of it. It’s like she thinks the only story worth putting real effort into is the kind that pisses someone in power off.

“If trouble needs to be stirred,” Leaf says at last.

Miss Palmer smiles and takes her sunglasses off, folding them and placing them on the table, piercing blue eyes meeting hers. “Good answer.”


August 4th, Evening

The House common rooms is packed on Saturday night, with trainers of all ages gathering around the wide TV screens as the Pokemon Coordinator Contest gets underway. Some of them cheer on their favorites, while others exchange bets or just watch and chat. The trio managed to arrive early, and claimed seats in the middle of a couch directly in front of a screen. As more and more people crowd in around them, Red and Blue keep the encroaching bodies on either side from further squishing them together as Leaf sits between them with a bowl of popcorn in her lap.

Red enjoys the opportunity to relax with his friends, but even as he applauds and cheers for the various performances along with everyone else, a part of him is impatient to see how well their investment is going to pay off. He takes popcorn with his right hand as his left keeps his phone out, watching as the prices of various pokemon fluctuate after each performance. Most only get a mild bump: the highest so far was a 7% bump for ninetales after a trainer sent hers jumping through self-made spinning wheels of fire mid-air, and about a 10% jump for magneton, electabuzz, and raichu after a trainer used his to put on a laser-light show with eerily accurate electric bolts to pre-arranged equipment around the stage, accompanied by music and coordinated with a conductor’s baton.

By the time Daisy and Moonlight are next, the crowd is eager to see what could top that. Contest workers completely clear the stage to open up as much room as possible, then unpack some containers and assemble six large, colorful pinwheels in a circle around the middle.

Red and Blue clap along with the audience as his sister takes the stage, and the conversations of the girls around them suddenly shift to Daisy’s dress: a slim but complex, layered gown in various shades of pink that makes her look like a fairy princess. “Ooo, she looks gorgeous!” Leaf says, leaning forward. Red is similarly entranced. She’s done something with her hair, looping it back behind her head in the outline of wings. Red feels a warm glow in his chest as the remaining spark of his crush briefly rekindles.

The judges introduce her, then signal for her to begin. She releases Moonlight with a flourish, sending the ball straight up into the air so precisely that it smacks back into her open palm a moment later, arm staying straight up until her clefairy flutters to the stage from mid-air, with its small wings.

The crowd is absolutely silent as trainer and pokemon turn to face each other. The camera focuses on Daisy’s face as she closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and begins to sing.

There’s no amplification in the exhibition center. Instead her microphone transmits directly to the earpieces of the thousands of viewers in the contest hall, and directly to the live feed. For Daisy and Moonlight, there’s just the strength of her own voice, and shortly after, Moonlight’s, her own microphone attached around her neck.

Red tunes out the occasional murmurs of everyone around them as he lets himself get drawn into the trainer and pokemon’s haunting song and perfectly choreographed (if silly looking) dance. It quickly becomes clear as she and Moonlight hop around in a circle that Daisy’s dress, frilly though it is, has been tailored to avoid impeding her movement at all.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says, and points, and a moment later a gust of wind from Moonlight sets one of the pinwheels spinning. As it does, gleaming sparkles of every color are flung out into the air, falling slowly in a rainbow haze.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says again a few moments later, in the exact same pitch and tone, and a second pinwheel is blasted with wind.

Red feels his excitement and awe growing as a third gust is sent out, then a fourth. If the metronome ability is dictated by the way the word is said, then Red expected a few mess ups along the way, like his mom reported from seeing Daisy practice. Six pinwheels, for six gusts of wind… but in a row? Yes, there’s the fourth…. Then the fifth…

Murmurs of surprise and disbelief are growing around the room as the trainers all watch Daisy instruct her pokemon to use the notoriously random and unpredictable Metronome ability with consistent, pre-planned results. Red grins wide as the sixth pinwheel is hit, sending its own shimmering lights into the air. The first pinwheel is still spinning, though it’s slowing down, and there’s a period of about ten seconds where the trainer and pokemon dance and sing in the middle of a dazzling cloud of multi-colored sparkles.

As the pinwheels slow to a stop one by one, Daisy and Moonlight’s song quiets before finally reaching an end, and there’s a moment of silence and stillness as the last of the glimmering sparkles fade away.

Then the Trainer House and contest hall explode in applause and cheers at the same time. Blue sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles, and a buzz of conversation quickly breaks out as people discuss what they just saw. The panning cameras in the contest hall show faces that aren’t just dazzled but shocked, and Red can hear the wonder in the voices around him.

“-six times, can’t believe-”

“-trick maybe? New TM?”

“-obviously chose a safe move to demonstrate, but what else can she-”

“-can’t wait to try it-”

Red grins at his phone’s screen as the prices of clefairy quickly jump beyond the small increase they got just from Daisy’s reveal of what pokemon she was using. He tracks the cheapest offers and watches the prices going up as some of the lowest ones get quickly bought out and others are taken down and relisted. $983… $1,022… $1,127… $1,232…

Leaf leans over to watch, still applauding. “How’re we doi-woah.”

“Yeah,” Red says as he puts his phone away and finally relaxes, a giddy feeling in his stomach as he grabs some popcorn. “That’ll do.”

The last price he saw at the bottom of the listings was $1,312, and the highest were over $3,000. Blue bought four clefairy, Leaf three, and Red used his savings and borrowed whatever leftover cash the other two had to get himself two, giving him a total of three. Three clefairy that he could sell for at least $4,000.

“That’ll do just fine.”


August 5th

“You’ve been practicing,” Psychic Ayane says as soon as he opens the door to let her in.

Red smiles, breath trembling slightly as he exhales. As far as greetings go, it’s gratifying that she noticed right away. “Wasn’t easy.”

“No, I don’t imagine so.” She follows him into the room and sits, folding her legs beneath her. Red does the same, carefully. His body isn’t weaker when he’s like this, but it’s harder to control appropriately, as if the signals from his brain are being occasionally scrambled on the way. “I commend your progress, but is it wise to tire yourself just before our lesson?”

Red shakes his head. “I didn’t just start. I’ve been like this all morning.” He breathes in deep as he settles into place.

Her eyes widen. “Explain. And calm yourself before you do, please.”

Red grins and does so, breath coming out in a whoosh as his mind and body relax. “It was simple enough, once I put the hours in,” he says.

When her mind was entangling itself with his to project onto him, it weakened his partition automatically as it drew his psychic ability away. After their second session, when she taught him about how the state of one’s mind could be influenced by the perception or memory it experienced, he saw the connection with his experience of his spinarak’s attack, and how just thinking about the effects made a weaker form of them trigger.

“You called it an ‘impression,’ but I felt like that wasn’t giving it enough credit,” Red says. “When we think of something sour, like biting into a lemon, our jaw doesn’t ache because of a memory. We’re actually re-experiencing it. There’s a physical response from a physical change in our brains. So I figured that if thinking about the Night Shade was enough to mimic the feeling, it must also have mimicked the mental state of whatever it did to my psyche. Why not apply the same thing here and imagine entangling our minds, even while you were gone?”

“That shouldn’t work,” Ayane says, brow furrowed. “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.”

“Well, a couple things. First, maybe this was easier than other things would be because, like you said, I’m not actually using my powers, I’m just relaxing them. Second, I didn’t just ‘imagine’ it. It took me the better part of the past two days, hours of concentrating, to really immerse myself in each individual feeling I had, all of which I could vividly remember.”

“I… see. I suppose it is not so unusual compared to the other feats I have seen those with the Gift accomplish. My surprise is mostly to see it from a novice who is new to even basic meditation.”

Red shrugs a shoulder. “I actually found it a lot easier than meditating, honestly, because I had a clear goal. I know theoretically what the end state of meditation is supposed to be like, but I can’t just force myself to think that way because I haven’t before. This, on the other hand, I have, so it wasn’t hard to alter my perspective.”

“Is altering your mental state something you do often, in other contexts?”

“I guess you could say that. Modelling different thoughts and feelings is an important part of being a rationalist.” Red smiles. “And I’ve always had a good imagination.”

Ayane’s lips quirk. “Perhaps it is a ‘gift’ of your own, then, that you bring separately into the wider expression of your Gift. In any case, it is good to see such progress. Have you noticed any improved stamina for maintaining the relaxation?”

Red’s smile fades. “Not really? It’s hard to tell. I got used to maintaining it for longer, but the effects feel about the same, and I have to take breaks when it gets bad.”

“Ah. Is it possible then that rather than manually weakening your partition, you simply trained yourself to mimic the physical symptoms?”

Ice floods Red’s stomach. “I… didn’t think of that. I don’t think that’s the case though, it really does feel like…” He realizes how silly he sounds. “Can you check?”

“Certainly. Enter the state again, and I’ll begin.”

Red nods and closes his eyes. He focuses on his breathing, then begins to shift his consciousness into what he’s been calling “balancing on a tightwire.” He goes down the mental checklist that he wrote out in his notebook after his first lesson and memorized after his second when Ayane told him about impressions and he decided to try inducing it himself.

First the sensation of the second mind approaching his, taking up residence in his own, separate and alien. A thrill of nerves goes up his spine as he imagines it there, in his head, watching, waiting…

Then the feeling of it echoing him, muted reflections of what he thinks and feels over threads like fiberglass wires…

Red’s breath stutters in his throat as he finally feels his mind tilt and his skin horripilate. He focuses on his breathing and waits until he feels stable, then says, “Ready.”

The pseudo-mind he imagined is almost immediately replaced by a real one, twisting in his thoughts as he lets out a shuddering breath. So, I can still tell when a real psychic mind is connecting to mine. Good.

“Is there any additional strain?”

“No, it’s fine,” Red says between breaths as he opens his eyes. “Same as usual.”

“Excellent. And your thoughts do not seem as distracted or unstable.”

“Really?”

“Haven’t you noticed that your speech isn’t as impaired?”

He blinks. “I haven’t really been talking while trying it before. Huh. I guess it really has been helping. This is great!”

She nods. “It’s quite encouraging. Now, let us continue our lesson… oh? You have something else in mind?”

Red feels chagrin at the reminder that she can sense the surface of his thoughts. “If you don’t mind… now that I know I’ve successfully mimicked a brain state, would you mind if I try some others to see if I can do the same for them?” He takes out his notepad and pencil. “I want to try and collect as many as I can to practice them between lessons.”

“Hmm. These ‘brain states’ are the result of your mind exercising its powers in a different way. I would have to draw them into another configuration for you to experience a new one.”

“Is that bad?”

“There are very few positive ones I could invoke in you, and even fewer I could teach without you first mastering your own powers. Of those remaining, all are much more taxing, and would likely result in your partition breaking.”

“Well, why not just teach me enough reception to project your own mind in another state, so I can copy that?”

Psychic Ayane’s fingers tap her knees. “I believe there are one or two, yes. But improving your active reception enough to receive thoughts in more fidelity is an advanced technique, and might also require your powers to be taxed too heavily. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather continue learning to strengthen your passive reception awareness first? It’s a vital foundation for any psychic’s ability to interact with their pokemon, or other psychics.”

Red hesitates, then nods. “Okay, I guess you’d know best. But maybe at the end of the lesson we could try one?”

Ayane smiles. “As you wish. I believe I can think of one that might be interesting to you.”


August 6th

“Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle materializes next to the pool and burbles in excitement upon seeing it.

“Looks like we had the same thought,” Mary asks with a smile from the other side of the training room. She takes out a dive ball and summons her totodile from it.

Blue reclips his new dive ball to his belt. “Yeah. I was planning to get her ball to one eventually anyway, and I’m coming into some money soon, so this was a good excuse to do it.”

“Did you just pick it up? I thought you’d be here earlier.”

“Sorry about that, I was running an errand for a friend.” Red had him and Leaf doing drills in preparation for the abra catching. Three trainers running around Cerulean Park with earplugs in as they made hand signs at each other and their pokemon had certainly drawn a lot of stares. “Ready?”

“Yep. Third hit again?”

“What do you say we make it first blood?”

She glances at him in surprise as she puts her bag on the ground and kicks off her sandals. “Trying a new attack?”

“No, just want to get her used to more dangerous fights.”

“Sure, I guess.”

Blue smiles. The two of them have jumped leagues ahead of the other newbies at the Gym, even with some some mistakes early on. He empties his pockets and shucks off his shirt and sandals too, then puts his goggles on and bites down on the mouthpiece of his oxygen tube. After giving her a thumbs up, he jumps into the water feet first.

The water is cool without being cold. Blue breathes out through his nose, bubbles rising to the surface as he sinks lower. He looks up and sees Mary adjust her own oxygen mask, then dive in across from him and kick down to the floor. Once she’s there, she flashes him a thumbs up.

Blue returns it, then lifts the clicker from his necklace where it sits next to his flute. Their pokemon swim about on the surface until he brings Maturin down with a few quick clicks. Mary uses a copper tube that rattles when she shakes it. Over the past few days he’s seen her become more and more adept with it, spinning it through her fingers like a baton to send particular commands.

Their pokemon swim down in front of them and get into battle positions. Blue presses a button on his mask and starts the timer for Maturin, then presses another one for his own. He flashes Mary another thumbs up, and when she returns it, the battle begins.

Three quick clicks, and Maturin thrusts forward headfirst. Mary swipes her tube to the left, and her totodile dodges to the left as Maturin sails by. A quick forward shake of the tube and he goes after her, mouth wide.

Blue nudges the button on his clicker to change its pitch and presses it down, prompting Maturin to duck into her shell. Blue swims forward and up to get a better look as the totodile tries to snap at Maturin’s underbelly. With a click from Blue, Maturin swipes a leg out to nudge her out of harm’s way.

Blue’s pulse is steady as he breathes in through his mask and out through his nose, watching, waiting. They’re approaching a wall of the pool, and Blue knows he can’t let it limit Maturin’s mobility. He waits through another two bites, looking for the perfect opportunity…

There. Maturin’s head has rotated toward the totodile just as he goes in for another bite, and Blue clicks to direct her into a tackle.

Mary is ready with a shake, and her totodile shoots straight up and over Maturin. His bite is a bit too slow to catch the squirtle’s tail, but he immediately follows her, and Blue is forced into another Withdraw. At least he got away from the wall.

The timers continue to count up past the two minute mark, an eventual cap on the duration of the match: if either pokemon has to go up for air, they lose… but ending it before it gets to that point is the safest way to ensure neither trainer feels pressured into keeping their pokemon down for too long.

Blue continues to avoid and defend, playing to his pokemon’s strength to counteract the more offensive totodile’s. If he felt sure of his pokemon’s lung capacity, he’d have the advantage… but he’s not, and in their last match he was forced to send Maturin up before Mary sent her totodile.

The next snap of the totodile’s jaws almost catches Maturin’s foot as it kicks out to spin her away from him, and Blue realizes he’s still playing as if it’s a contact match. He needs to risk a hit to get first blood, but he can’t do it on Mary’s terms.

Blue’s next clicks send Maturin into a dive, barely dodging the totodile as it snaps forward. Blue changes the pitch and clicks twice, and Maturin’s mouth opens wide to expel a cloud of bubbles that slowly rise.

Mary swipes her rod to the right. Her pokemon tries to abort his dive by swerving to the right as well, but two of the bubbles pop as they catch him on the foot and thigh. The force of them sends him tumbling off course in a spin, and Blue quickly clicks to send Maturin after him.

The totodile twists around and snaps at Maturin, catching her on the shell over her foreleg, while Maturin bites his arm. The two get into a quick and vicious tussle that sends air bubbles up as Blue and Mary immediately signal their pokemon to disengage. Instead the two continue to struggle against each other, and a trickle of red begins to diffuse into the water around them. After they ignore a few more orders, Blue tells Maturin to Withdraw, and the squirtle immediately pops her head and limbs back into her shell. Mary’s totodile disengages after that, and swims back to her, trailing blood from its arm. Mary quickly returns her pokemon to its ball, then heads for the surface.

Blue examines Maturin to make sure she’s not hurt, then lets his breath out all the way and starts swimming up, signalling Maturin to follow.

After he pulls himself up the ladder, he takes out his mask and lifts his goggles, wiping his wet hair away from his eyes. “Good girl,” he tells Maturin, and snaps for her to come out of the water. She leaps out onto all fours, and he feeds her a berry before withdrawing her. “He okay?” Blue asks as he turns to Mary, and his eyes widen as he sees her glaring at him.

“What’s wrong with your pokemon?” she asks, crouched beside her totodile as she sprays potion on his arm.

“Hey, woah, what are you talking about? It wasn’t her fault!”

“His arm’s broken! We said first blood!”

“Yeah, and I told her to come back, same as you did with him. Their blood was up, it happens.”

“You had to get her to Withdraw before she would listen. He had no trouble pulling away once his arm wasn’t trapped in her beak.”

Blue feels confusion turn to anger, almost baring his teeth as the heat sears through his chest, hands balling into fists. He almost hears an arcanine’s growl, and for a moment thinks he might have actually made the sound.

Calm down. Don’t make an enemy here. Mary’s been a good training partner up until now, and he doesn’t want to spoil that. More, he doesn’t want her to leave thinking he can’t control his pokemon, maybe even telling others not to train with him. He takes a deep breath, and lets it out in a searing wave. “Look… I’m sorry. It’s the first time something like that happened. Let’s get him to a pokemon center, okay?”

Mary looks away from him and finishes examining his wound. The mark of Maturin’s beak on his arm is still visible, but it’s mostly healed, and continues to fade as they watch. The totodile still holds its arm out awkwardly however, and Mary kisses its snout before standing and returning it to its ball. “You don’t have to come,” she says, voice curt as she gathers her things.

You agreed to first blood, you shouldn’t have if you weren’t ready for your pokemon to get hurt. “I want to.” Waste of time… He takes another deep breath. “Please.”

Mary glances at him as she slings her bag over her shoulder. “Fine,” she mutters, and heads for the door, sandals squeaking on the wet tiles.

Blue quickly grabs his things, breathing out again as the prowling arcanine in his chest lies back down. His lip twitches as he follows her out. At least we won.


August 7th, Morning

Leaf sits across from Zoey at another restaurant, inside at a booth this time, reading the article the reporter wrote about Leaf’s account of the Renegade incident. Leaf’s pulse speeds up as she reaches the narrow miss of the graveler’s explosion, and feels again her dread and helplessness as she waited for help to arrive while the Renegade was asleep, constantly looking over her shoulder. The recount of the witnessing even brings back the sickness in her gut and claustrophobia, and she has to force her shoulders to relax as she finally passes the tablet back to the reporter.

“It’s good,” Leaf says.

“I know that.” Zoey spreads butter on her toast. “Is it acceptable?”

“Yes, I meant that in both senses,” Leaf says.

“Fantastic. Then on to my part of the bargain.” Despite her general brusqueness, Zoey turned out to be a warm interviewer, guiding Leaf through the events at her own pace, asking for detail on points that she felt were too detached even when she ended up cutting down to the basics where Leaf meandered a bit. Leaf learned a lot from being on the other side of the notepad this time… though she did have her own out too, which the reporter had smiled at but not commented on.

Leaf eats from her fruit bowl as she considers the questions on her mind. Their agreement had included more oversight from Leaf over the final article than Zoey had wanted, and in return she was allowed only two leads, and not even exclusive rights to them.

It wasn’t greed, Zoey insisted, that kept reporters and journalists from sharing details of stories they’re working on. Or not entirely greed, anyway. There’s obvious rivalry and desire to get rewarded and recognized for one’s hard work, but there’s also professional integrity: when she works on stories that matter, Zoey said, she wants them done right, not botched by someone looking to make a quick headline with some sparks rather than taking the time to ensure it starts a blaze.

So if Leaf wants to get solid leads with lots of info on them, she’ll have to prove that she’s not going to just grab a scrap of info and run with it. And doing her own research in preparation for what sorts of questions she’d ask is part of that.

“So there are four stories that I think are important and potentially worth digging into,” Leaf says, taking a folder out of her bag and placing it on the table. “I have their notes in here. If we talk about a story and you mention something that’s already in here, I’m not going to count it toward my two.”

Zoey bites into her toast, hard to read behind her sunglasses. She took them off during the interview, but apparently prefers them even while indoors. “Sounds like you’re ready to fish for info at no cost.”

Leaf smiles. “I just want to make sure I get something I can use. You’re welcome to check them over to make sure I’m not over reaching.”

Zoey offers her palm, and Leaf smiles. “After you’ve told me something about one of the stories.”

Zoey smiles back. “Deal. What’s the first story you want to hear about?”

Leaf considers her options a moment. “What’s the deal with the Silph and Cerulean General merger that so many people are concerned about? From what I read it seems like there’s some corruption going on behind the scenes, but I didn’t dive into the legalese. I don’t want to commit more time to it unless I know something important is going on.”

“That one’s a bit dense, yes. Silph’s market share is already growing dangerously close to monopoly status, and even if it brings lower prices in the short term, people are concerned at how easy they seem to find it to get laws changed to their benefit.”

“There’s no actual proof of backroom dealing, though?”

“Some hints, but not enough for anyone to take action.”

“What about the Harton scandal? The timing was convenient.” Harton was a member of the regulatory board who had emails leaked showing him attending illegal pokemon fighting rings.

Zoey lifts her cup of juice and takes a sip. “You put that together?”

“It wasn’t hard. I just made a list of all the people in positions of power and checked if anything happened to them or their families. I was thinking of blackmail being followed up on, but that one seemed more direct.”

Zoey nods. “Yes, it’s suspicious. Harton won’t talk though. If he was brought down for getting in their way, there must be something more they have on him that he’s worried about.”

Leaf sighs. “That’s about what I had on that. You can check if you want.”

Zoey flicks her hand to the side. “I gave you nothing even if you didn’t have anything. Not a bad story to pursue, but I’ve got nothing on it, or I’d be doing it myself.”

“Well, I’ll probably still do some digging just in case. Let’s see, what else…” She taps her foot against her chair leg as she spears some honeydew on her fork and bites into it.

“I was expecting something a bit more high profile, especially if you’ve been paying attention to my stories and recent activity. Like the Leader’s disappearance on the day of your adventure.”

“What, the rumors of a dangerous pokemon sighting?” Leaf shakes her head. “I’m not really interested in that.”

“Misty and her Second go off the radar for hours just as a Tier 1 event takes place on Mt. Moon, and you’re not interested?”

“Not really, no. I don’t know what they were doing, but I’m sure Misty had good reasons.”

“And good reasons not to tell the public?”

Leaf frowns. “She’s your Leader. If you don’t trust her to have the best interest of your city at heart… I mean, who can you trust?”

Zoey laughs, an oddly merry sound considering her normal tone. “Ah, youth. Here I had you pegged as a proper cynic. You’ve still got a ways to go it seems.”

“Hey, I’m not saying they’re perfect or anything. But really, what are you expecting? Do you actually have any evidence that she was doing something shady? Because if so, then yeah, I’m interested.”

Zoey shakes her head, voice lowering slightly. “Nothing on that, yet. But our dear Leader isn’t as guileless as you might think.”

Leaf leans forward, voice lowering slightly to match hers. “Okay, that sounds like a story. What do you mean?”

Zoey spreads butter and jam on another piece of toast, taking her time. Leaf fights down her impatience, seeing the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face. Rushing her wouldn’t help anything.

“I wasn’t going to bring this up,” Zoey says at last. “Not unless you asked about it specifically, though I admit I would be very shocked if you did. This is not only private knowledge, it’s from a proper private source whose career is at risk if it gets out.”

Leaf takes out her notepad and flips it open. “You have my interest.”

“I don’t know if I should bring you in on it. It’s rather close to you.”

Leaf’s pulse picks up. What could she possibly mean by that? “No need to draw it out, okay? I admit to intrigue. You’ve built suspense up properly. Now what is it?”

Zoey is quiet again, chewing on her toast. Leaf feels her impatience growing again, and just as she feels like she won’t be able to keep quiet a moment longer, Zoey says, “The Renegade’s execution. Do you have the notice?”

“No, my friend Red received it. He was one of the witnesses.”

“Check the time on the alert. Then find out what time the meeting that Misty attended on the mountain ended. You’ll find your answer there.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding. Is the reporter saying that the notice was sent early? Late? “Why not just tell me?”

“Like I said, I got this information from a source who risked a lot to tell me. I can’t jeopardize that.”

“But you’re saying something was off about the execution. Okay. That’s ominous and all, but I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”

“It’s a story,” Zoey says, tipping her head forward so she can peer over her sunglasses. “Trust me. A hell of a story. Now, what else do you want to ask about?”


August 7th, Evening

Red’s sits in lotus position with his eyes closed on the floor of the workroom he used with Psychic Ayane, and goes down the mental list.

First identify the pain.

He’d nicked his arm with a small cut, just small enough to sting without bleeding.

Then identify the “path” the pain is travelling.

Ayane had described this as a glowing yellow light in her mind’s conception of her body, but to Red it’s more of a pulsing, jangling vibration of a long, imaginary nerve connecting the cut to his brain, even though he knows that isn’t how nerves work.

Picture the path. Ease the discordance. Feel it fade.

Red doesn’t actually follow that step, though. Instead of feeling his pain fade, he remembers the sensation of feeling Ayane’s pain fade, and what her mind was doing as she did. The way her mind seemed to split itself, the way her stream of thought, far too faint and swift for Red to pick up on, bent around a sudden dark spot in the sparking, twisting thundercloud of her mind.

Red smiles at the memory, sweat dripping down his face. Being able to sense another mind is so cool. Even if it makes him nauseated. And feel a lurking emptiness in his mind that threatens to boil over at any moment. And even if he often feels like he’s just imagining everything he perceives.

Why does that matter?” Ayane said. “You think in metaphors all the time. Is it so strange your powers would manifest in them?”

No,” Red admitted. “But I was kind of hoping for a peek into some objective truth with them.”

Ayane merely smiled and said, “Then perhaps it is seeing the two as incompatible which is at the heart of your difficulty.

Which was a fancy way of saying not much at all, other than maybe there is no objective reality, and screw that mystic nonsense, thanks very much.

But either way, when he felt her mind shift into its new arrangement, the pain from the pinching hairclip on her finger did indeed fade away to nothing.

Red mimics that mental state now, mind teetering into what he dubbed “many mirrors and a dim room.” That last part was the important one, and he feels it when he separates the part of himself feeling the pain from the rest of his mind, and dims it, until suddenly the stinging pain is gone.

Ha! Red grins wide even as his mind slips past some tipping point and he snaps back to himself, the stinging back in his arm and an empty, cold void rising up in his mind.

He leans forward and throws up into the bucket he placed in front of him.

Head and heart pounding, he slumps onto his side, still smiling as he breathes deep and waits for his pulse to slow. He did it. He used his powers to change something in the world, even if it was just his perception of his own body. “Mind over matter” is more than just a motivational phrase to him, now.

His elated giggles are interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Blue and Leaf walking in. They both immediately rush over, making noises of alarm that makes his head hurt.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, ow,” Red says as Blue lifts him into a sitting position. “Oh, that does help, actually, thanks.”

“Red!” Leaf cries out. “You said you’d be careful!”

“I was! I put the bucket here, didn’t I?”

Blue snorts and shakes his head. “Idiot. Is that why you had us meet you here, in case you made yourself too sick to move?” He puts the nearby lid on the bucket and nudges it to the corner of the room with his foot.

“No, I just wanted to use whatever time I had before we met.” Red reaches to the side and unscrews the top of a water bottle, drinking once to wash the taste out of his mouth and a second time for his thirst. He feels clammy with sweat, but more mentally stable, now.

“Do you want to postpone this?” Leaf asks as she sits in one of the chairs.

“No.” Red struggles to his feet and sinks into another chair, while Blue finds his own between them and turns it backward, tilting it against the edge of the table. “We’re ready.” Red takes the sheets of paper out of his bag on the table and spreads them out in front of his friends. “We have our location, our pokemon picked out, and our backup on board. Tomorrow afternoon, Operation: Abra is a go.”

Chapter 35: Deception

Leaf wakes up the next morning with a sick feeling in her gut. She went to sleep late last night, engrossed by every new comment that showed up on a half dozen different news and community sites.

People condemned the vandals, or supported them, or made unrelated arguments and accusations, seeming to fit the events into whatever narrative they happened to believe. It was dizzying trying to keep up with it, especially with only token comments from anyone official, who would probably wait until morning before making a more complete statement. Just like Leaf knew she should. Eventually she forced herself to turn off her phone and tossed and turned for an hour before drifting off to troubled sleep.

But things don’t seem any clearer this morning when she grabs her phone and immediately begins browsing the sites again, still rubbing the gum from her eyes. She absorbs all the comments that people left overnight, and it gets harder not to respond, especially when they bring her up directly, misrepresent her arguments, or outright put words in her mouth. She knows that running around trying to put fires out might just feed them, especially when groggy and stressed.

She checks the time to see if it’s too early to message Laura, and frowns to see that it’s only 6:18 AM. She shouldn’t, especially since she already knows what Red’s mom would say: keep your head down, let it blow itself out, make a statement when things are calmer. Her heart aches when she sees the pictures, reposted again and again, of the glass doors and windows of the museum smashed in, spray painted symbols of Pewter’s predominant religion on the wall beside it. She thinks of all the people who worked there who she met, who took time out of their day to speak with her, like Dr. Brennan, and regrets bringing such trouble into their lives.

I’m not responsible for this. The people who did it are, and maybe the ones who egged them on.

Easy to say. Hard to fully accept.

She finally forces herself to close her phone again, and gets out of bed to shower and prepare for the day. She starts thinking of things to say, statements to make. An apology first, for clearly angering so many people. A plea for peaceful discourse. Would that make her sound too weak? Should she care? She wonders how Mayor Kitto feels about her now. Probably wishes she’d never come to Pewter.

She leaves the public bathrooms wanting to just crawl back into bed and draw the covers over her head. But when she gets back to her room and, against her better judgement, checks her phone again, she sees something that makes her smile.

It’s an organized message, from over a dozen Pewter churches. They openly condemn the vandalism, and its perpetrators, and plead that the city discuss its differences without anger. A small group of volunteers have already helped clean the graffiti, and the overall tone of the conversations does seem to have shifted slightly since the message went out.

Leaf feels a hundred pounds lighter as she closes her browser and messages Red and Blue, then puts her phone away and gathers her things. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as she thought.

She meets the boys downstairs for breakfast, then they pay at the front and head to the nearby pokecenter. The sun is still rising, and Cerulean West is rising with it. People in work clothes, often with a cup of coffee in one hand, busily move from place to place before the crowds start congesting the roads. Blue’s on his phone as he walks behind Red and Leaf, who talk about the trip to Cerulean North. It isn’t until they reach the center that Blue stops dead and stares at her. “What the hell happened to your following, Leaf?”

“Oh. Uh. Something happened in Pewter.” She flushes. She hadn’t sent Blue the news article last night, thinking he wouldn’t be as interested.

“The museum was vandalized,” Red explains, then looks at her. “I didn’t want to bring it up, figured you might be upset about it.”

“I am. Just trying to see how things turn out.”

“See how things turn out?!” Blue points his screen at her. “Your following doubled overnight! Doubled! How are you not riding this wave? You should be typing until your fingers are sore!”

“Whoa, no,” Red says. “Bad idea. You might cause more drama, it’ll look like you’re making it about you.”

“She can’t just say nothing, it’ll look callous-”

“Guys,” Leaf interrupts. “I was planning on asking Laura, when we’re getting our pokemon. Think she’s awake now, Red?”

“Yeah, she’s an early riser. We’ll let you get your pokemon first so you can call her after.”

“Thanks.” They walk in and go to the line reception hall, a sizeable line already formed as the pokemon trainers prepared for their day. “Or I guess I can do it now. Save my spot?”

They agree, and Leaf wanders over to an empty table to make the call. She breathes deep to settle her nerves as the phone rings, and mostly succeeds by the time Laura picks up. “Good morning, Leaf. Is everything okay?”

“Morning Laura! Yep, everything’s fine. Sorry for the early call.”

“Not a problem, I’m just moving into my new apartment and trying to figure out where to open each container ball. What’s on your mind?”

“Well…” Leaf gives Laura what was intended to be a quick summary, but she keeps thinking of new comments she read or thoughts she had to add to it, until she finally trails off with, “And now I’m thinking it might be best to answer after all, since there was such support-”

“No,” Laura says. “It’s great that there’s been positivity too, but you should still keep out of it. This may be one of the hardest things you learn to do Leaf, so listen carefully. When you’re just a private citizen, you can make all the posts in forums you want. You can have dozens of conversations a day about everything you think of or are interested in. But once you step into the limelight, once you’re in any way a public figure, your whole perspective has to change. And from what I’m seeing right now with your following, you’re definitely a public figure. A minor one, mostly just in one city, but still.”

Leaf listens and tries to really absorb her words. “Okay, yeah. I knew that, I guess I just had to hear you say it too. So not even an apology, right?”

“No, not even that. You did nothing wrong. You just wrote an article, and nothing in it was inaccurate or misrepresented anyone. No offense Leaf, but it shouldn’t even have grown as big as it did. It likely wouldn’t have without the mayor shining a spotlight on it.”

“I know. I bet he’s wishing he didn’t, now.”

Laura makes a sound that Leaf can’t quite interpret. “Regardless, the best thing you can do right now, with things as they are, is ignore it… and get to work on your next article.”

Leaf blinks. “What? Oh. Not on the museum, on something else, right? Keep the momentum going.”

“Exactly. If you’re going to be a journalist, even part time, you have to always be moving on to the next thing. Your job isn’t to pick a hill and fight on it until the bitter end. If you ever want to go into politics, that’s the time to make ideological stands. As a journalist, your job is to investigate and report.”

Leaf is silent for a moment. Does she want to be a journalist, really? She set out to just write something that might make a difference about something she cared about. That’s basically what journalists do, but… after all that happened, is it something she’s willing to keep going through over and over? Or is it just going to be like her other interests, a short lived passion that drives her to try something new, learn new skills, then get bored and move on?  She thinks about the book she was planning on writing about local myths in Kanto, and how she has little interest in that anymore.

On the other hand, Leaf’s mind is already racing through ideas for what she could write another article about. It’s an exciting feeling, and she enjoys the idea that she might have made a difference, even if it had some negative consequences. If this is going to be another short lived passion, she’ll at least ride it until it peters out, not bow out early because a few windows got broken. “Okay, so I’ll start looking for a new thing to write about. What if someone asks me about it, though? No comment?”

“If you’re ever in front of a camera or in an interview with someone, you can comment on it. But you have to be careful. Again, public figure versus private are two very different things. Now that you have a following, you can’t just think about what you say… you also have to think about what people will hear.”

“Like that preacher.”

Laura’s tone darkens. “Exactly like him. Thankfully he’s getting some backlash over it, from the other priests even. We’ll see what he does in response. But regardless, stay out of it. I’m saying that in my official capacity as your mentor.”

Leaf smiles. “Don’t worry, I’m convinced.”

“Good. I’ve got some friends in Cerulean, maybe someone has extra leads they don’t have time to investigate. One of them might be a good start for a story, if you don’t find something else that interests you.”

“That would be great. Thanks, Laura.”

“Of course, hon. Give Red and Blue my love, and enjoy Cerulean!”

“I will. Bye!”

Leaf closes the call and flips the phone around and around in her hands for a moment, thinking. She feels better about things now, like she doesn’t have to hurry up and respond to the situation. She can just take her time and-

The phone rings and vibrates in her hand, startling her into almost tossing it up. She looks around to make sure no one saw, then checks the caller ID. Hm. Unrecognized.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Leaf, how are you?”

Leaf blinks. “Mayor Kitto, hi. I’m… fine, thanks, and yourself?”

“Good, thanks for asking.” The mayor sounds busy, and Leaf imagines him at his desk of paperwork, talking with her via headset while he types with one hand and flips through a folder with the other. “Listen, I know you’re probably busy with your travels. I just wanted to let you know there’s been an incident-”

“Oh gods, another one?” Leaf’s stomach is cold.

“What? Oh, you know about the museum then? Sorry, that’s what I meant.”

“Oh! Yeah, I saw the report last night.”

He chuckles. “Still keeping an eye on our fair city? I’m happy to hear it. Well, that makes this conversation much shorter. I was wondering when you plan to respond? I have a press release in a couple hours, and was hoping to-”

“Respond? To who?”

“To… the situation. In general. You were going to make a statement of some kind, right?”

Leaf is suddenly very, very glad she called Laura when she did. If she’d had this conversation first, she’d feel compelled to assure the mayor that she would, despite having no idea what to say. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Wouldn’t I just make things worse somehow?”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s going to be anything more from this, some folks just got carried away. There’s been a great coming together this morning, and I’m sure you could help with that.”

Leaf frowns. She is glad for the show of solidarity, and if she makes a clear statement of appreciation for that, it could push back a bit against the idea that she’s trying to stir up the city, which is something she saw a number of times from her detractors . Maybe he’s right… “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Wrong? No, everything’s fine. Why?”

Mayor Kitto doesn’t sound busy any more, voice thoughtful. “I’m sorry, I guess I just assumed this would be something you’re interested in. Was I wrong to involve you in all this, Leaf? I hope I didn’t misread your intentions.”

Leaf rubs her brow with one hand. She wishes she had a moment to think, things feel like they’re speeding up again. “No, I’m g-glad that you mentioned my article.” She almost said grateful, which she was, but… it suddenly didn’t feel prudent to say. “I just want to make sure I’m not doing more harm than good.”

Kitto is quiet for a moment, then says, “I understand. You’re a smart woman. Trust your instincts, and I’m sure you’ll do the right thing. Thanks for your time, Leaf.”

“And you, Mayor.” She ends the call with relief, and begins to spin her phone around and around in her hands again. After a moment she puts it on the table and stares at it distrustfully from there.

Damn it all. She was ready to move on after talking with Laura, but now she’s not quite as sure of herself. She rests her elbows on the table and puts her face between her hands, gaze distant. If she distrusts the mayor’s motives, she shouldn’t do something he wants her to without knowing them. She knows that Laura, at least, has her best interests at heart. So why is she still torn on this?

Because it’s hard to leave it behind, she realizes. That’s what Laura meant. The limelight could be an addictive thing, especially for someone that will rely on attention for their work.

She wouldn’t be doing it for attention, though, if she does it at all. She’d be doing it to help…

Leaf abruptly stands up and pockets her phone. She needs to focus on something else. The sooner she finds a new topic to catch her interest, the sooner she can put the temptation to stay involved in Pewter behind her.

As she heads back toward the guys, she wonders what engaging stories Cerulean City might be hiding.


Cerulean North is much wider than West, stretching all along the coast of the bay. Blue watches it approach from his seat on the roof of the bus, breathing in deep as he catches a glimpse of the coast through the high rises. He imagines he can smell salt on the air, and knows it’s just his imagination. He just misses the beach in Pallet.

Red and Leaf are standing with their hands on the railing, watching the city slowly grow around them as the bus weaves its way toward the heart of Cerulean North, where Blue will find its Gym.

Blue’s fingers trace the lids of his pokeballs for Kemuri, Gon, Maturin and Ion. A shiftry, a shroomish, a squirtle and a shinx… to beat one of the most powerful Water Type trainers in the world, and a powerful psychic at that. Blue doesn’t think he’s ready yet: his loss in Pewter still weighs heavily on his mind. But the only way to regain his momentum is to take Misty out in their first fight, to defeat her utterly if he can, with pokemon to spare.

He doesn’t know if that’ll be possible with his current lineup. Gym Leaders select the strength of their pokemon and the complexity of their strategy based on the number of badges their challengers have, but the jump in difficulty between getting one’s first and second badges is much higher than any other. Ideally that wouldn’t be the case, but Leaders would always pull the most punches against someone untested, and showing that you’re capable of beating one of them is enough for the rest to scale back the majority of their safety precautions.

Blue is going to need stronger pokemon before he faces Misty. No, not new ones that would take awhile to train and become familiar with… he’ll need his pokemon to be stronger.

He’ll need some of them to evolve.

“Not interested in seeing the view, Blue?” His attention snaps up to see Leaf smiling at him from the balcony.

“Been here a couple times before with gramps and Daisy.” And apparently once with his parents when he was very young, though he doesn’t remember it as well as Daisy does.

Red drops back into the chair beside him, arms over his head to grip the back of it as he stares up at a highrise they pass. “Did you ever meet Misty?”

“Sort of. We had dinner with her once just after she became Leader. I was pretty young though, don’t think I spoke much.”

“Do you know what her virtue is?” Leaf asks.

“No, like most Leaders, she doesn’t talk about it. But speculation online is that she favors adaptability. Being able to change to sudden circumstances. That or clever use of the environment.”

Red frowns. “Is this an actual thing? You’d think it would be pretty easy to find out about.”

Blue shrugs a shoulder. “To be honest it’s more of a tradition than a rule. Some Leaders probably don’t care as much about it. And it can only give you a path to take for victory. It’s not the only one.”

“Brock trained you in Bide because you demonstrated his, right? Might be worth figuring out, in case she gives you something too.”

“I’ll see what I can learn from her gym members.” The bus enters the city’s main street, stopping to let some people leave and others board. Blue sits up in his seat, watching for the road that will lead to the gym. “The battles themselves might give me some idea.”

A couple stops later, Red and Leaf get off when the bus reaches Cerulean North’s Trainer House. They wish Blue good luck, and agree to meet him for dinner. Blue nods along to whatever suggestions they make, forgetting them a moment later when the bus pulls away. As the gym approaches, all Blue can think about are the upcoming battles.

Pokemon evolve over time as they grow older, but their growth is accelerated when they’re in combat. If he wants to evolve his pokemon, putting them into combat is the best way to do it, but in the wild there’s always the risk of danger. A gym is the best place to get lots of fighting experience safely.

The problem is, that would require Blue switching his pokemon constantly, regardless of efficiency. Not only will it make combat harder, but it would make him appear less skilled than he is, which might make it harder for him to climb the ranks quickly and challenge Misty.

The buildings abruptly fall away to either side as the bus turns a corner, and the coast of Cerulean Bay fills the horizon. Blue stands, hands gripping the seat in front of him, as the gym comes into sight. Unlike Pewter, with its solid walls of imposing grey, Cerulean Gym looks like one giant stadium from the front, round and expanding outward with each floor, metal and glass gleaming in the sunlight.

The sight makes Blue’s heart feel like it’s expanding in his chest, and he smiles as the gym grows to fill his vision. It’s only been a couple weeks since he beat Brock, but an eventful couple weeks, and he feels like it was forever ago. Finally, he’s back where he belongs.

The bus pulls up to the front of the parking lot, and Blue slings his bag over his shoulder and goes down the stairs with the other trainers and tourists. The reception hall is large and ostentatious, with signs pointing to different stadiums and training rooms. At the center is a large aquarium filled with water pokemon, and Blue can’t help but wonder how safe it is, which is of course the point. There are few better ways to showcase how well the gym can train their pokemon than to put a bunch of them on display in a public area and trust that all will be well.

Blue steps up to the aquarium, where an eight or nine year old kid has their face pressed up to the glass. A school of goldeen part around a seadra going in the opposite direction, while on the other side a tentacruel floats serenely by, any pokemon around it giving a wide berth to its many trailing limbs. Defensive pokemon like tentacruel would be the main struggle for him, its Poison typing able to counter Gon’s Grass. If Blue’s forced to use Ion too soon, the shinx wouldn’t be able to take a less defensive pokemon by surprise for a quick knockout.

“Hey!” Blue turns in surprise to find the kid staring at him. “You’re Blue Oak!”

Blue blinks. He hadn’t expected his first fan encounter to be with someone so young. Was he following trainers at that age? He grins. Of course he was. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Wooow, I saw your fight with Brock online! That last attack was so cool, I was scared your squirtle got crushed! Did you know it would be okay the whole time? When did you get to Cerulean? Are you here to challenge Misty?”

Blue finds himself striking a pose without meaning to, shoulders straight and chin up, legs slightly apart. “I’m here to beat Misty. Can I count on your support?”

“Yeah, for sure! Oh man, when are you going to challenge her? I want to be there!”

Blue fights the sudden urge to say something stupid, like Tomorrow. “Well, we’ll see how long it takes me to get through her gym members. Are you going to be in town long?”

“Oh, yeah, I live in Cerulean East. I come here all the time.”

Blue looks around. “You’re not here on a field trip, are you? Why aren’t you at school?”

The kid suddenly hesitates. “I’m here with my… mom. She’s… in the bathroom.”

“Mmhm.” Should he reprimand him? He’s got to set a good example if kids this young are already following him, but hell, who didn’t skip classes now and then? “Don’t worry, I used to do the same all the time.” Blue winks at the sudden look of relief on the kid’s face. “I’ll be sure to post the date of my challenge, so if you keep following me you’ll definitely see it.”

“Alright! I hope you get to her soon!”

“Me too, kid. What’s your name?”

“Dennis!”

“Alright, Dennis. I’m going to start my battles soon. Why don’t you head back to school and pretend you got out of bed late? That way you’re less likely to get in trouble before my match.”

“Yeah, alright! Good luck Blue!”

Blue gives a two finger salute, then heads toward the registration desk feeling lighter than air.

What was it Lance once said? “The path to strength is a path of hardship. To fear failure is to fear becoming strong.” So what if it’s a greater risk? He’s got a bag full of medicine to keep his pokemon fighting, and all day to beat Misty’s subordinates. If he can’t win with a handicap, he can’t prepare for the true challenges ahead.

He knows it’s stupid to feel any more confident just because he met some starstruck fan, but by the time he reaches the counter and slaps his trainer ID down on it, he’s still grinning.

Half an hour later, he’s standing in the first stadium, a basic training room with small arena floating in a pool of water that fills its floor, one pokeball spinning in each hand as he waits for the other door to open.

He already let Maturin test the depth of the brackish water and soak up as much as she could. He used the Pewter gym’s water rooms to train her in aquatic combat as much as he could, but its facilities were much more limited than Cerulean’s. He plans on putting them to good use while he’s here.

The other door opens, and a trainer walks in. Blue stops spinning the balls and stares. “Amy!”

The older teen winks. “Heya Blue. How’s it going?”

“I… what are you doing here?”

“Ouch, right in the ego.” She’s grinning as she mounts her platform and stands opposite him. “I’ve been here for almost a week now. Does that mean you’re not following me?” Amy starts taking out some aquatic training equipment and placing them beside the standard ones hanging on the edge of the railing.

“I am, yeah, I just… I’ve been busy.” And he’d been following her brother Donovan much more closely, only checking in on her a couple times since they left Viridian.

“I know, it was all over the news, same day I beat Misty. Do we need to start coordinating our plans, or can you just agree to not hog all the press with heroics next time I win a badge?”

Blue grins. “We can try, but it wasn’t really something I planned. No promises.”

“Figures. So, let’s do this thing, yeah? I’m sure you’re in a rush to make your mark here too.”

Blue clips and unclips balls around his belt, shoulders tensing. “Ready when you are. What are the rules?”

“Beat me. Go, poliwhirl!” The blue amphibian materializes on the stadium, skin glistening. Its clear stomach shows the swirling pattern of its internal organs before it falls onto all fours, black eyes blinking around. “This is my only decent water pokemon so far,” she explains. “I decided to join the Gym to improve my training of him and my others.”

Blue hesitates, hands hovering over each ball. “So I just have to beat this one?” From what he saw of Amy, she’s a crafty battler. He doesn’t want to underestimate her just because she’s using a single pokemon.

“Yep.”

“And I can use as many pokemon as I want?”

“Standard six. Now quit stalling and summon.”

He smiles. “Right.” That decides it. He reclips Gon’s ball and unclips Zephyr’s. “Go, Zephyr!”

His pidgey comes out standing on the platform, and as Blue catches its ball he sees the look of confusion on Amy’s face. “A flying type? Really?”

“Really.” He takes his whistle out and blows on it, causing his pokemon to take off and begin circling the arena, feeling his attention narrowing to the battlefield. The next time he breathes out, he feels his body calming, heartbeat slow and steady, every nerve ready to react.

Amy frowns, then shrugs and snaps her fingers. Her poliwhirl immediately dives into the water around them, disappearing from sight as Amy expands a metal stick and puts one end in the water, fingers poised over the buttons on the handle. “Good luck hitting him from up there. Ready, set, go!” She presses a button.

Blue whistles the command to dodge, and Zephyr flips into a sideways roll as the poliwhirl bobs up and spits a stream of water at him. Before Blue can make another command the pokemon is gone, and Zephyr continues to circle the arena. Amy keeps clicking buttons, and soon the poliwhirl appears again at the other end of the arena. Zephyr dodges another Water Gun, diving to return the attack only to find the spot of water empty and placid.

Blue whistles again to warn his pokemon away, causing him to climb altitude just as the poliwhirl appears again and shoots. The next few seconds are a rapid series of attacks and dodges, Zephyr skimming the water with his talons just as the poliwhirl ducks under again, only to come up a few meters away to fire back at the spot Zephyr was a moment before.

Blue keeps blowing on the whistle, dodge, attack, climb, left, attack, dodge, circle, trying to catch the poliwhirl with a lucky strike. Amy is focused on the match, but she doesn’t have to do as much, and he can tell from her occasional looks at him that she’s wondering what he’s doing. Her pokemon isn’t going to run out of water any time soon, and it’s faster than pidgey is.

Once Zephyr starts to tire, the shots of water begin to get closer and closer, until one clips his wing and knocks him out of the air. Zephyr recovers quickly, but Blue catches his pokemon with a return beam and quickly sends out Joey. His rattata seems confused, never having been in a stadium or training room before, but as soon as the poliwhirl leaps up from the water for its next attack, Joey dodges to the side without Blue even needing to prompt him.

“What are you doing, Blue?” Amy suddenly asks, drawing his attention to her. One hand is on her hip as she stares at him, brow furrowed. “I know you have two Grass pokemon.”

“You think I’m going to tell you my strategy just like that?” He grins.

She narrows her eyes. “So you do have a strategy? Because from here it looks like you’re not taking me seriously.”

“Nope, totally part of my plan. Promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that. It better be good.” She returns to commanding her poliwhirl, a slight frown still on her face.

Blue has less of a chance to counter her attacks from on land, but a rattata’s reaction speed is better than pidgey’s, and he manages to cleanly dodge each of the poliwhirl’s attacks, which continue to be simple Water Guns. This goes on for for a solid two minutes before Amy speaks again.

“If you think you’re going to lure me onto land, we’ll be here all day. I thought you’d be in a rush to reach Misty, after how quickly you Challenged Brock.”

“Maybe I learned some humility from losing to him,” he says, which makes her snort and command another Water Gun.

Blue is happy to keep dodging as long as he can, but as another minute drags by, he fights the urge to grow complacent. A drop of sweat rolls down his neck as he keeps his eyes on the battlefield, preserving his voice by only giving a few oral commands when needed. There’s no safe spot on the arena to hide, and since Amy’s pokemon can go to either side of the arena in moments, the closer his rattata is to the middle the more time it has to dodge attacks where even a fraction of a second makes a difference.

When Joey’s next dodge brings him closer to the side the poliwhirl is however, Amy presses something different, and her poliwhirl rises out of the water in a small wave. No time to dodge. “Quick Attack!”

His pokemon lashes out and strikes the poliwhirl just before the water crashes down around him, but Amy’s pokemon is too distracted by the strike to follow up properly. As soon as Joey rolls to a stop and shakes himself off, Blue orders another Quick Attack just as Amy sends her poliwhirl back into the water. It turns and shoots a water Gun that Joey just barely has time to dodge.

“Close,” Blue says once Joey is back in the center, ready and waiting. His heart pounds in his throat as he watches his pokemon for any sign of injury.

“Yep. Think your rattata is smart enough to stay away from the edge now?”

“Guess we’ll see.”

Amy grins and sends another volley of attacks at Joey, who does indeed keep more to the middle with his leaps. Blue keeps an eye on the water just in case there’s any obvious amounts of blood from the wound he inflicted, but the wound must have been a shallow one. He wouldn’t win this on a light tap.

Surely her pokemon is getting tired by now? He can’t tell if it’s attacking any slower, but Joey is finally starting to feel the past few minutes of constant movement. Blue watches the shots of water hit closer and closer, and debates trying an attack before Joey gets too slow…

No. Now is the time for patience, not decisive action. He’ll stick to his plan.

It happens a few Water Guns later: the poliwhirl bobs up and spurts a jet that nails Joey square in the face. The rattata’s light body goes tumbling back, and Blue withdraws him immediately. Good job. He reclips the ball, and chooses another.

“If you send out another pokemon that’s just going to dodge over and over, I’m going to just leave and declare you the loser,” Amy says, voice flat.

Blue grins. “No you won’t. You already said all I have to do is beat your poliwhirl. You didn’t give a time limit, and you’re not going to go back on that now.” He hopes. “Go, Zubat!”

This is ridiculous!” Amy glares at him as his pokemon materializes and begins fluttering around the room. “What can you possibly mean to do with that?”

“That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”

She scoffs. “Fine, have it your way.” And with that the fight is on again, the poliwhirl bobbing out of the water to spit a stream at his zubat.

Thankfully it’s as hard to hit as Zephyr was, and has its own projectile of sorts. “Zubat, Supersonic!”

His pokemon hovers in place and sends a tight beam of sound, inaudible to Blue or Amy, at the poliwhirl just as it ducks beneath the water. Blue can’t tell if it was affected or not, the move is unreliable even in the best of circumstances, but now at least he has a chance to fight back.

As the battle continues, Amy becomes visibly more cautious. Her gaze never leaves his pokemon as she presses buttons again and again, directing her poliwhirl around the arena to shoot and duck and circle around again. Blue tries to time the gap between each shot, but she keeps things unpredictable, sometimes coming up just a few seconds later on the same side of the arena, another time staying under for almost a minute before appearing at the corner nearest Blue.

Time is on her side, and she knows it. Her pokemon is in its element, barely using any energy to swim from place to place, more or less at its leisure. Meanwhile, his zubat is fluttering madly about, no stalactites or other objects on the ceilings or walls to rest on, even if that wouldn’t make it a sitting target. Blue begins to wonder if Amy’s also spacing out some of the attacks to let any confusion that might linger from a Supersonic fade. If he’s being optimistic, he can interpret her occasional button pushes that don’t result in anything as her pokemon being too disoriented to follow orders, but she’s also probably just moving it from place to place, or even trying to mislead Blue. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of the buttons on the handle didn’t do anything.

Some would call that paranoid. If there’s one thing Blue has learned from watching a thousand competitive trainers battle, it’s never to underestimate the depths they’ll go to hide their methods and mislead opponents.

He’d like to think he learned the lesson well.

“Zubat, Supersonic!”

Zubat sends another beam of sound down, but instead of dodging away as Blue expected, Amy’s poliwhirl just shoots another Water Gun, then another and another. His zubat is hit by the second and fourth, and Blue quickly withdraws it before looking at Amy’s poliwhirl.

This time its confusion is clear, the pokemon swimming left and right, then turning over to kick its webbed feet into the air for an ineffective dive. Amy keeps pressing the same button over and over, waiting for her pokemon to snap out of it.

This is his chance. But is it time yet? He could send Kemuri out now, get a quick Razor Leaf in…

“Go, Ekans!”

His pokemon appears on the stadium and uncoils. Its tongue flicks out as it gets its bearings, then turns to the poliwhirl still floating in the water. “Acid!”

Amy presses a button, and her pokemon ducks beneath the water. “Seriously?” She asks, hand on a hip. “You’re using your fourth slot for an ekans?”

Blue shrugs. It won’t leave room for Maturin, Gon and Kemuri, but if Blue’s right, he won’t need both of his Grass types. “I’m the one that should be indignant,” he says. “You were faking that confusion, weren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she asks, pressing a button, and Blue quickly yells for his pokemon to dodge as the poliwhirl attacks again.

Blue smiles. She’s attacking so soon again to prove that she didn’t get lucky with her poliwhirl diving at just the right moment. He’ll likely never know whether her poliwhirl was ever really confused or not, but it wouldn’t have changed his plans if he did.

The battle continues more evenly matched than ever, with Amy’s poliwhirl having to dodge the sprays of acid his ekans shot out of its mouth every time it was attacked. His pokemon isn’t as good at dodging as the others, but he’s able to do some damage before he takes a couple hits and Blue withdraws him. Amy’s poliwhirl has visible burns on its skin from small splashes of acid.

“Two left,” Amy says. “It’s now or never.”

Blue nods. It’s time. “Go, Kemuri!”

Amy presses a button as soon as Blue’s pokemon appears, and when the poliwhirl bobs to the surface, it grips the sides of the arena and stares at the plant pokemon in unwavering concentration.

“Kemuri, dod-”

A beam of white light flash-freezes the ground as it traces a path upward toward Kemuri. Blue’s pokemon reacts too slowly to completely avoid it, and ice covers one of its leafy arms.

Ha. Blue knew she had an ice move just waiting for him to bring out a Grass Type. Now he knows better than to use Gon for his sixth pokemon. The shroomish wouldn’t have stood a chance, with his stubby legs.

As it stands, even Kemuri wouldn’t be able to keep up… but Amy’s poliwhirl is hurt, and must be at least a bit tired by now.

The poliwhirl dives out of sight, then reappears on the other end of the arena, preparing to shoot another beam. This time Kemuri dodges it, and the match becomes a game of whack-a-diglett as Blue’s shiftry leaps from place to place, avoiding Ice Beams and swiping at the poliwhirl with his unfrozen arm. His Leaf Tornado would be practically worthless while it thawed, and Blue is tempted to focus on dodging until it does. But if he gets taken out without doing any damage, Blue would be in a tight spot. He needs to either finish things now, or weaken the poliwhirl enough for Maturin to finish it off.

For now though they appear to be at a stalemate. Each time the poliwhirl tries to fire off another beam, Kemuri reaches it before it can and swipes, forcing it to dive back under. Poliwhirl aren’t naturally capable of ice attacks, which means Amy used a TM to teach it… and while it’s useful to have the wider coverage, especially against Grass types, it would never be as efficient or effective with the attack as an Ice pokemon.

Blue’s pulse jumps as the poliwhirl suddenly shoots out a Bubblebeam on its next surface. A rapid popopopopop fills the stadium as the stream of exploding bubbles strikes Kemuri and slows it down. “Kemuri, d-”

“Poliwhirl, Ice-”

“-odge!”

“-Beam!”

His pokemon abandons its forward momentum and throws itself to the side as the poliwhirl stops its attack and concentrates on another beam of freezing white light. It catches his pokemon in the side, and Blue knows it’s now or never. “Razor Leaf!”

Shivering and half covered in frost, Blue’s pokemon spreads the leaves of one hand and swings it, sending the sharp tips of each flying out like spinning shuriken. Amy’s poliwhirl is just ending its attack when they strike it, and the pokemon immediately ducks under the water, which darkens with its blood.

Blue quickly withdraws his pokemon and waits while Amy taps a button on her controller, pokeball in her other hand. They wait in tense silence for a few moments, and then her poliwhirl jumps out of the water and lands on the stadium, glistening skin retaining most of the water so that barely any drips onto the floor.

Amy hops onto the stadium floor and inspects her pokemon’s wounds. Blue can see the bleeding gashes along its arm and to the side of one bulbous eye. They appear to be superficial wounds, not enough to take it down if this was a real fight in the wild, but…

Amy turns to him. “What have you got left?”

“I was going to use my squirtle,” he says, and wonders if he should mention his shinx. It would make quick work of her pokemon, maybe would have even beat it while it was fresh, but he’d rather not reveal it until he faces Misty, just in case…

Amy deliberates a moment, then nods. “Okay, you win. But I want to know why it took you so long to bring your shiftry out,” she says as she takes out a potion and sprays her poliwhirl’s injuries. She murmurs something to it as she feeds it a poffin, then withdraws her pokemon and leans against the wall of her platform, arms crossed. “Spill.”

Blue feels himself relax as soon as she admits defeat, and leans against his platform railing as his battle calm slowly leaks away, replaced with a giddy relief. “I was partly trying to draw out the match,” he admits. “It was a great chance to give my pokemon some combat experience.” Part of him is a little disappointed he didn’t get a chance to send Maturin out. “But there was more to it than that. I watched your fight with Misty, and I knew I had to test for a range of attacks. I didn’t want you surprising me with a reverse coverage move the way you did her.”

The corner of her mouth twitches upward. “I thought you said you weren’t following me?”

He grins. “Those were your words, I just said I’ve been busy. But not too busy to watch Misty’s most recent battles, considering my plans to challenge her and all. I didn’t know you stayed after, that was an actual surprise, but I was happy to let you assume it also meant I didn’t see your battle.”

“Hmph. Well, as irritating as it was, you definitely earned the victory.” She cocks her head a bit, considering him. “You’ve got what it takes to go far, Blue. I look forward to seeing your Challenge.”

Her calculating look strongly reminds him of his sister. The two of them would probably get along, now that he thinks of it. Daisy tends to treat him like a kid more often than not, but once he shows his competence in an area, she respects him as an equal, more or less. It’s something he appreciates. “Thanks. For the match, too.”

“No problem. You going to hit the pokemon center?”

“No, I’ll be ready for the next battle in a minute.”

She raises a brow, but doesn’t comment. “Alright, I’ll go let them know. Good luck.”

Blue sits down and opens his bag, taking potion and ether bottles out so he can start healing his pokemon up for their next opponent.


Red sits cross-legged on his bed at the Trainer House, eyes closed and earphones on. The soothing sound of the ocean rushing against the shore fills his ears, and he can almost feel the hot sand and sunlight, almost smell the salt as he imagines himself on the beach…

Wait, no, he’s supposed to be focusing on his breathing. He banishes all thoughts of the beach and just focuses on drawing air in slowly through his nose… but now memories of going to the beach crowd in, playing in the sand with the Oaks or walking between his mom and dad along the beach, his small hands in theirs… His mom’s face, so happy, and his dad, looking at him with love-

Red’s eyes snap open. He sighs, and he reaches out to stop the sound loop playing on his phone before searching for a new one. Again.

It’s been two hours since he checked into the Trainer House with Leaf and came up to claim a bed. She said she was going to buy a laptop, then go around town talking to the locals. Red was curious what she was up to, but just agreed to talk to her later. He was eager to try meditating again, this time without distractions. Unfortunately, after doing some basic practice with an audio guide’s voice, he was failing at doing it on his own, which the websites for practicing sensitives insisted was necessary.

He already went through various online suggestions: acoustic music, which he found too distracting, the sound of rain and far-off thunder, which made him sleepy, and the crackle of a fireplace, which brought back more memories of camping with his dad.

Meditation never worked for Red before. He couldn’t stop the racing thoughts that ran through his head long enough to relax or clear his mind… despite his therapist telling Red he wasn’t actually supposed to clear his mind, that that was impossible. How did she put it?

Imagine a river,” his therapist said, sitting in lotus position across from him. “It is your mind. In it, your consciousness, the thing that you call Red,” she extended a finger and touches it between Red’s eyes, “is the fish that swims surrounded by its water, your thoughts. You swim sometimes left or right, up or down… but you follow the river’s flow, barely aware of it. Only when you try and resist the current and swim upstream are you fully conscious of the effect the river has on your behavior.”

So, meditation is going to help me control the current?”

No, that is impossible. The river is you, but its current is shaped by things that are not you. The riverbank, the rocks in the earth, the rains. You cannot control the world around you. You can only react. While our eyes are closed, and we focus on our breathing, you will think random thoughts. You will hear things that draw your attention. A door closing in another office, or a phone ringing. They will distract you, return you to the river’s flow. Your job is to stay above the current. To sit on a rock in its waters, letting them flow around you, through you, wet without being submerged. When a thought flows by, pick it up, examine it… then let it go. Return to your breathing, your awareness of your body, and you will be at peace, no matter how the river rages.”

Red drums his fingers on his knee, then decides to give it a shot. He queues up a looping river soundtrack, and soon his ears are filled with the babbling of a brook, and the soft sigh of the wind through leaves above. When no memories immediately intrude, Red closes his eyes and tries to focus on his breathing again.

Breathe in… He draws the cool air into his lungs, slowly, counting to three.

Breathe out… He feels it exit his nose in a steady trickle, over the course of another three seconds.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

This is dumb.

The thought comes unbidden, despite his desire to focus on the meditation. Red finds it frustrating that even without intrusive memories, his mind is still offering up distractions.

Breathe in…

I should be working on getting published.

Breathe out…

Or just training with one of my po-no, focus!

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Red is suddenly aware that his left foot is a bit uncomfortable, tucked under his right knee the way it is. He adjusts it slightly, then tries to go back to the breathing. Focus on the feeling of air moving through your nose and lungs. Nothing else. Just feel that.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

The sound of the river is calming. He can almost picture himself there, and decides to do exactly that. First just the river, its banks green and surrounded by forest. Then he places a big, mostly flat rock in the middle of the river, just large enough for a boy to sit on it. He watches the water split around it, lapping occasionally at the edges. Finally he places himself on the boulder, sitting as he imagines he looks now.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Without audio or visual distraction, he’s able to focus entirely on his thoughts and sensations. The feeling of his shirt on his skin, the pressure on his lower legs, the soft pillow against his back. His mind keeps wandering to Blue and Leaf and his mom and Professor Oak and Daisy and his dad, but in a way that gets more and more diffuse, easy for him to ignore and refocus on his breathing.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Eventually he feels like he’s as focused as he’s going to get, and starts ramping up his awareness. First he focuses on the crown of his head, and, imagining a ring of light, slowly traces it down to his neck, heightening his awareness of each part it passes. When it reaches his mouth he feels his tongue stuck to the roof of it, and relaxes his jaw to let it fall. It feels strange though, and after a moment he realizes he stopped moving the ring down, too distracted by the odd sensation of forcing his tongue to find a comfortable position so he can’t constantly feel it.

He sighs and opens his eyes again. There are a couple others in the room with him, one lying on their bed and reading, the other talking on their phone. Red considers taking an earplug out to hear what they’re saying, then banishes the impulse as sheer nosiness born from akrasia.

He forces himself to close his eyes and try again, picturing the river, the rock, himself, returning to his slow, steady breaths. This time when the ring reaches his mouth, he just lets it fall open a little, leaving his tongue in a comfortable and unobtrusive position.

Unfortunately now he keeps thinking of how he looks to anyone passing by, who would probably think he fell asleep. He almost closes his mouth, then decides against it. What should he care what strangers think?

…But now he’s busy thinking that just thinking about how he shouldn’t be distracted by what other people are thinking is distracting hi-

Breathing, focus on the breathing. In… out… in… out…

He finally moves the ring of light farther down, past his chin and neck, over his chest. He becomes aware of his heart beating, and even more aware of the expansion of his lungs, before his stomach starts to distract him. It’s been a few hours since breakfast, and he’s getting a bit hungry…

Red tries to move past the sensation, but now his mind keeps wondering what he’ll have for lunch, and whether he should ask Leaf to join him, and if he should try again when he’s full. After five minutes he decides to start all over, returning to his breathing, then imagining the river, then starting the ring of light at his head and moving it down his ne-

Bing!

Red’s eyes snap open as the river sound is interrupted by the received message alert. He sighs and checks it, surprised for a moment to see that over an hour has passed since he began meditating.

His irritation vanishes when he realizes the email is from a publishing journal interested in his study.

Trainer Red,

We found your paper on the research boards looking for peer review and publication. We find your hypothesis and results fascinating, and would like to volunteer our services. If you find this agreeable, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Yours Truly,

Advanced Research Publications

Red grins as he starts composing a response. He cautions himself not to be too optimistic, but still, it’s hard to be less excited at the prospect that today he might get his Researcher’s license. Well, not today, but from a chain of events that start today.

Once he sends his response, Red grabs a snack bar from his bag and starts munching on it as he paces, thoughts of lunch with Leaf forgotten. He notices the odd looks from the others in the room and goes out into the hallway to pace instead, checking his phone every so often even though he knows it will alert him when one arrives.

He’s looking at his screen when it does, and his grin slowly fades as he reads it. He stares for a moment, thumbs hesitating over the response keyboard. He starts typing a few times, only to delete what he wrote a few words in, until he finally just calls the number in the email signature.

“Hello, Advanced Research Publications, how may I direct your call?”

“Hi. Uh. I got an email about interest in publishing my paper, and had a few quest-”

“Please hold.”

Red listens to the waiting music with a slight frown, and continues pacing the hall. After a moment he realizes he’s still holding his snack bar and tucks it in his pocket. Of course it was all too good to be true. But still, he has to know for sure…

“Hello, this is Donald, how can I help you?”

“Hi. I’m Red Verres, I received an email about publishing my paper… I had some questions, if you wouldn’t mind?”

“Okay Red, give me one moment…” Red hears typing, and stops pacing so he can lean against the wall as he waits. “Yeees, I see. Well, what did you want to know, Red?”

“The email, it asked for… money. A lot. I just wanted to clarify, is this a submission fee, or a publication fee?” Please say publication…

“Submission, but I can assure you that we only send such offers to those we have great confidence in reaching our standards.”

“Are the offers made post peer review?” What an odd order of operation…

“No, technically that will still need to be done. But if you’re worried, we offer a very dynamic review process. And if the submission fee is a bit too high, we offer reductions if you have volunteer reviewers that will work with us.”

Red blinks. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I heard that right. Did you just say volunteer reviewers? I pick them? To review my own paper?”

“Absolutely. We at ARP believe in an open access scientific community.”

“So I can just have my two friends submit their reviews?”

“As long as they have a Researcher’s license, we welcome their expertise.”

“Oh, well, that makes everything better.” Red clenches his teeth and takes a calming breath. It does help, but not by much. He holds out hope that maybe this isn’t as bad as he thought. “So is this submission fee in lieu of a publishing fee?”

“There is a minor publishing fee too, as we’re not subscription based. Our papers are offered free for all on our website, to ensure that your research has the highest chance of being read and cited.”

Red relaxes a little. That’s a bit more reasonable, then… and he does want people to read it, after all. “Well, how much is the publishing fee?”

“Eight hundred. But you can pay it in installments, and if you agree to review papers for our journal, we can reduce it for each journal you review, down to three hundred.”

Red’s hand rises to cover his eyes. “Because once I get published, I’ll have my Researcher license, and can review others to get their papers published too.”

“Exactly! If you’d like to submit your paper with reviewers, I can go ahead and email you the proper forms. If you have trouble finding reviewers, we can put you in contact with some who-”

“Yeah, sure, just email me whatever. Thanks.” Red hangs up and sighs. Thanks for not getting my hopes up, Past Red.

Anytime, Future Red.

Red feels like complaining to someone, and squashes the impulse to call his mom or Professor Oak. Leaf might be more acceptable, but he doesn’t want to distract her from her work. Instead he simply goes back to his room and finishes his snack bar as he lies on his bed and renews his search for journals to submit to. Journals that aren’t pyramid schemes churning out unvetted papers.

After Red submits to a few more places, he considers trying meditation again, and instead decides to scroll through recent research discoveries. There are some neat findings on different metal compositions in “Steel” Type pokemon that keep him engrossed for an hour, which leads him to some of the latest papers on interregional pokemon diversity. Red thinks back to his conversation with Professor Oak about there being no psychic rattata, and his recent readings about sensitives versus psychics.

Of course, it’s possible for there to be rather large differences in pokemon from different regions. Over millennia, natural selection is a powerful force for change. There may be no rattata that are Psychic Types, but in the Alolan islands there are Dark ones. Not just that, their raichu are Psychic, their exeggutor aren’t, their meowth are Dark, and their marowak have powers normally associated with Ghost Type pokemon. The regional differences there prove that whatever trait causes pokemon to become a type like Psychic or Dark can be introduced into a genetic pool, or manifest after enough mutation.

Red thinks of pokemon like noctowl and spinarak, who have some limited psychic powers, but aren’t considered Psychic Types. Maybe someday, somewhere in the world they’ll have developed what rudimentary powers they have, and be considered full Psychic Types.

If so, Red hopes whoever discovers them has the sense to call them something new. He wonders if researchers like Darwin debated what to call them when they discovered such variations in their travels. Red’s not sure why the alternate evolutions from Alola are still called “raichu,” “exeggutor,” “marowak” and “meowth,” rather than given their own names like others, such as gallade and froslass.

Semantic confusion aside, discovering his own variation would make for an amazing discovery. Journals would pay him to publish that paper.

Red takes out his notebook and makes a reminder to read more into pokemon breeding. If he can identify the strongest psychics in spinarak populations, maybe he can breed the first ever Bug/Psychic spinarak.

He could start reading about it now, but he has enough on his plate. With reluctance, he puts such thoughts aside and gets back to work on his abra plan. He starts drafting proposals to put on the city’s message boards to attract other trainers.

What really irks him is that he’s going to have to share the method with others. It would get out eventually, he knew, and it should, if it would lead to more people being able to catch and study abra. But it would have been nice to get some exclusive benefit out of the idea first, instead of sharing it with a dozen others, aside from Leaf and Blue.

But then, is that really necessary? Surely they don’t need a dozen. Red abandons his current draft and decides to work out exactly how many people it would take to safely enact.

He quickly realizes that while stronger trainers would require less of them, they would still need a lot of them in any case just to cover the full area necessary. What he needs is to find a place that doesn’t need so much caution, so that more trainers aren’t necessary. Or even a place near a Ranger Outpost around Cerulean Bay, where the abra are found…

Something tugs at Red’s memory. Blue. Something Blue said, recently. About abra? No, about the area. Land around Cerulean Bay is incredibly expensive to own, and a lot of it to the west is untamed, while the north…

The north.

Red sits up and calls Professor Oak.

“Hello Red! I was just going to have lunch, do you mind if I call you back?”

“No problem Professor, but I just have a quick question.”

“Yes?”

“I need to talk to Bill.”


“Thank you!” Leaf waves at the taxi as it makes a u-turn, driving off back down the singular road that goes all along Cerulean Bay. Beside her, Red looks around at the verdant fields on one side of them and the shocking blue of the water on the other. He can just make out the mountains from here, those around Moon to the west and the smaller range to the north.

“This place is so pretty,” Leaf says as the wind whips her hair back. She raises a hand to shove her hat down more securely, and slowly turns to take it all in. “I’m surprised more people don’t live here.”

“I guess that’s one of the perks to being able to afford all this land.” Red steps off the road and onto the small path through the long grass. In the distance, he can just make out a building that looks far too wide to be a single person’s house. “Lack of neighbors, if you don’t want them.”

“Makes you wonder why he invited you.” Leaf sprays herself with some repellant, then offers it to Red, who does the same. “I mean I’m happy to come along, but couldn’t you guys just talk on the phone?”

“Once he knew what I wanted, he insisted.” Red shrugs. “I’m just happy to get to meet him.”

They make their way toward the house, which slowly resolves itself into several distinct shapes. Technically the house can be referred to as a cottage, relatively small and quaint looking, but it’s connected to so many wider, more modern buildings around it that the whole thing can easily be referred to as complex. Red spots a proximity sensor stuck in the ground to their left as they get within a kilometer of it, and wonders what Bill does if there’s a real threat in the area. From what he understands, the tech-genius has never distinguished himself as a particularly powerful trainer.

They just reach the clearing around the buildings when Leaf suddenly grabs Red’s arm and pulls him to a stop. “Red, look!

Red follows her finger, and feels his heart jump into his throat. In the distance, right near the front door of one of the side buildings, there’s the unmistakable pink and fluffy form of a clefairy. The squat bipedal pokemon is just standing there, and Red quickly grabs a pokeball out of his pocket.

“Should we summon something?” he whispers.

“Might scare it off,” she says, holding her own pair of pokeballs now. “You go left.”

He nods, and the two split off to either side, moving slowly and quietly. Red can hear his heartbeat as he takes step after careful step forward, the wind threatening to blow his cap off as he stays carefully upwind of the pokemon.

Won’t matter, their hearing is much stronger than their smell, maybe Leaf should summon her Wigglytuff after all…

But the clefairy continues to just stand there as they approach, and Red gets close enough to see it’s looking right at him. He freezes, waiting for Leaf to approach it from the other side, when suddenly-

“About time. What took you guys so long?”

Red stares.

Leaf stares.

The wind blows Red’s hat off, and he doesn’t move.

The clefairy is still looking directly at him, voice surprisingly loud considering the distance between them, and all too human.

“Come on in, I need your help with something.” It turns and starts walking toward the front door.

Red stares after it, then turns slowly to Leaf, whose face is as blankly shocked as he imagines his is. It feels like his brain is broken. His mouth moves silently for a moment, then can only emit a flat, calm, “What.”

 

Chapter 34: Redefining Priorities

As Ryback predicted, the mountainside is rife with wild pokemon as they make their way to the nearest ranger outpost. Thankfully four pokemon are enough to scare off most they come across, and the one geodude foolish enough to throw a rock at them is killed instantly by a blast of water from Ryback’s poliwhirl.

“Was that necessary?” Leaf asks, face pale.

“Seriously, that would have been an easy catch.” Blue frowns at the geodude, whose entire body has turned a cracked, mottled white. He’s clearly wondering if he should try to catch it anyway.

“No distractions,” Ryback says without breaking stride. “The last thing we need is to call attention to ourselves with a prolonged fight.” The paleontologist continues to to set a brisk pace, clearly intending to get them to safety before the sun sets.

Red privately agrees, and jogs to keep up with him. He remembers that the nearest ranger outpost isn’t far in absolute distance, but the mountain road twists and turns so much it would take them the rest of the day to get there if they’re lucky. Charmander follows on all fours, looking better for the rest he got earlier, but Red still doesn’t want to tax him any more than is necessary with wild encounters.

Luckily they only encounter a few more, which are ended just as swiftly. A sandslash gets scared off by Maturin and the poliwhirl’s Water Guns, and a pair of zubat swoop down at them only to be chased off by an Ember and a cloud of Sleep Powder from Charmander and Bulbasaur.

About an hour into their travels, Ryback’s and Red’s phones chime. Red checks his and sees an email with an attached form from Ranger Sasaki. They stop for a quick rest, and the two open the forms, which ask for virtual signatures to verify Witnessing the Renegade branding. Red hesitates a moment, then signs it. The document is simply a confirmation of what occurred, not a second chance to Witness or absolve Yuuta. He has no extra information or new arguments anyway, just a sense of lingering unease.

By the time the sun sets, they reach an outpost that’s on high alert. Even with the sensors at its perimeter, four rangers stand guard around the building.

“This is where I leave you,” Ryback says as they withdraw their pokemon. He shakes each of their hands. “Get some well earned rest tonight, and stay safe on your way to Cerulean.”

“You’re not going to spend the night?” Leaf asks. “Maybe have that drink?”

He smiles. “No, I should fly back soon. It’s going to be all hands on deck for awhile.”

“Well, thanks for the escort,” Red says. “And the fossils. Especially mine.”

“Don’t mention it. Just be sure to message me if you end up visiting Cinnabar. I’d be curious to know if they can work with them.”

The trio agree, and say goodnight. After Ryback takes off on his pidgeot, they introduce themselves to the Rangers inside, then go to the visitor’s room and put their bags beside their cots before going to the dining room. There are a couple other trainers there, and they exchange polite small talk as they eat. No one seems interested in prolonged conversation, least of all Red, whose eyes are already drooping by the time he finishes his granola bars and apple. After he visits the bathroom and returns to their beds, he’s happy to see that everyone’s preparing for lights out.

While the rest of the visiting trainers take turns washing up, Red sends his mom an email summarizing what happened and assuring her that they’re all okay. He underplays his role in the fighting so as not to worry her, and after a moment decides against telling her about losing his pokemon. He knows it would be more likely to result in a phone call, and he’s not in the mood tonight.

Red takes his journal out and flips back to the questions he wrote the first night of their journey, about trainer’s bonds with their pokemon. He re-examines his observations and questions in light of how he feels now, taking the time to really focus on his pain and sadness.

Observation: I’m feeling remarkably attached to my pokemon after such a short time with them.

Question 2: Does it affect my objectivity when regarding them in other ways?

Red frowns. He can’t really say that it does. He wouldn’t hesitate in the future to use his pokemon in defense of wild attacks, even if it means losing them… though the thought of losing Pichu or Charmander does make him feel a particularly sharp pain.

But more than the pokemon he lost, his thoughts are on the people who died. Who they were, how they died, the people they left behind. He even finds himself thinking that way about Yuuta, Renegade though he is, and still alive, for now. .

Red flips to a new page and taps it with his pencil, then writes at the top, Is sympathy for renegades normal? After a moment’s thought he adds under it, Should I care?

The questions aren’t idle. He doesn’t know what makes someone become a Renegade, but it makes sense that being more sympathetic to them might be a warning sign. He certainly never saw the question addressed in public discourse, which signals to him that it’s a taboo topic. He can’t be the only one to wonder it, but maybe others have already learned that it gets them strange looks and hostile responses if they air their concerns.

He wonders if he should ask Leaf. She seems to care about things like this more than he does, or at least have thought about them at length, unlike Blue. Red writes himself a reminder to ask her privately, then takes his phone out and starts to search online forums for similar questions. For a moment he hesitates with the word Renegade in the search bar, remembering conspiracy theories where people’s search topics are aggregated to catch illegal activity, then decides to press on. All he’s doing is asking questions, and he can always say he’s looking for academic curiosity.

Just as he starts to browse the results page, however, his phone chimes and vibrates in his hands, causing him to jump. He calms his racing heart by reminding himself it’s probably just his mom. He considers ignoring it until tomorrow, then sighs and closes his search page to check.

It’s a message from CoRRNet, a formal one telling him that that Leader Misty has reviewed the Witnessing and that the execution was carried out. It goes on to thank him for his service, but Red turns off his phone before finishing it, gaze up at the ceiling.

“You okay?” Leaf asks from the cot to his left. Blue looks over from their other side, still flossing his teeth.

“Yuuta,” Red says, and debates a number of ways to finish the sentence before simply saying, “It’s done.”

The other two are silent, and Red wonders if now, at last, they’d speak about it. Instead the last trainer straggles back in and asks if everyone’s ready for him to turn the lights off. The rest of the room agrees, and people begin exchanging goodnights. Red lies down and pulls the covers over himself with some relief, feeling too tired to get into the topic anyway.

Instead of falling asleep though, his thoughts churn in slow circles, replaying the day’s events and always ending with Yuuta’s Witnessing. Thinking about his potential friends, his family. How they would get the news. How they would feel. How he would, if it were him. How he felt after dad died.

Red tosses and turns as the room around him slowly goes quiet and still, with the occasional rustling and shifting. He can hear Blue snoring before long, though Leaf seems just as restless as him.

Eventually he realizes that if he’s not going to get any rest, at least he should be productive. He slips out of bed and tiptoes between the cots until he can emerge into the brightly lit hallway. Rangers at outposts sleep in shifts, with a third of the staff resting at any given time, but when he passes the sleep quarters, the doors are open and the beds are empty. The outpost would be on high alert until the mountain calms down from the recent influx of rampaging wild pokemon.

Red goes to the dining hall, where a pair of rangers are eating quietly. He nods to them and sits at the table with his phone out, staring down at the screen.

Ever since he finished his spinarak research, he’s felt conflicted and aimless. Finding a journal to publish it would take a lot of time and energy, and he knows he has to do it at some point, but he hasn’t been able to find the motivation between everything that’s been going on. He could blame the distractions and dangers of travelling, but the truth is his heart isn’t in it. After spending so much time and effort getting funding for his project, even the idea of delving back into more paperwork saps his will.

So. First step is admitting the problem: he’s been procrastinating. And the reason is simple. Despite the potential, far off rewards, at the end of the day, what interests him is learning and testing ideas, not getting published. He wants a Researcher license so he can have more resources to do science, but it’s hard to motivate himself if it means hours of ancillary work.

Now what’s he going to do about it? There’s no point in wishing for a better work ethic, and trying to force himself to just “buckle down” and do it might not be the most effective way to move forward. What he needs is a compromise.

A new project to focus on. Yes, that would do it. Work that he can feel energized by but won’t take up all his time. That way he can swap between the work that’s less fun and the one that’s more exciting.

“You okay, kid?”

Red looks up to see one of the rangers looking at him. “Huh?”

“You’ve been sitting there zoned out for ten minutes.”

Red smiles. “Sorry, yeah. Just tired.”

“Don’t push yourself so hard. If you’re tired get some sleep.”

“Thanks.” Red looks back at the empty search bar on his screen, still smiling. Sleep? How could he sleep now? His mind is fully awake and burning with ideas for his next research project.

Psychics. He still thinks they hold the key, or at least one of the keys, to understanding pokemon, humans, and reality as a whole. He needs to keep his research focused in that direction, and that means studying psychic pokemon directly. Spinarak aren’t even psychic in the strictest sense, they just have some shared abilities. If he really wants to learn what sets psychics apart, he needs to study full-fledged psychic pokemon.

The problem is, trainers with psychic pokemon are rare. He won’t be able to ask for dozens of volunteers to bring him test subjects. He’s going to need to get a fair amount himself.

And around Cerulean City, that means one thing: he’s going to need a lot of abra, one of the hardest pokemon to catch in all of Kanto.

Red begins to research, not stopping until well into the night.


Thanks to increased ranger and trainer activity, by morning the mountain’s threat level returns to normal, and the next few days of travel go by quickly. Red begins to drink more tea, and even coffee where it’s offered free, though the bitter taste is a chore to “acquire.” Still, it helps him get extra work done at night and stay alert during the day. If Blue or Leaf notice the bags under Red’s eyes, they don’t mention it.

Their thoughts are occupied on other things in any case. Leaf’s follower count doubled after the mayor’s interview, then doubles again by the end of the day as her article gets more and more hits. By the next morning she has almost as many as Blue, despite his own bump of notoriety. Leaf begins to occasionally read comments to her article out loud, and after the three discuss them a bit, write a response. At one point she calls Red’s mom to ask if she should respond to a popular priest’s post, and after tailoring her reply over the course of a day, the subsequent jump after posting it makes her following surpass the youngest Oak’s.

To Blue’s credit he doesn’t begrudge her the increased fame, and only trains that much harder while on the road, determined to be ready to take the Cerulean Gym by storm the way he did Pewter’s. He promises Red and Leaf that he won’t be challenging Misty on his first day there, but will only make it clear that he can if he wants to.

“Is Kemuri your lead, or your trump?” Red asks as he watches Blue run through drills with the shiftry during one of their rest stops.

“If I can sweep with him, I will,” Blue says. “But I know they’re going to throw some bulk at me, and I’ll have to wear that down with Gon and Maturin first. Ion will be the trump; if I don’t reveal an Electric Type right away they might think I don’t have one. Thanks again for him, Leaf.”

“Of course. Just make sure you treat him right.” Leaf tosses nuts for Scamp to catch and bring back to her without eating them, rewarding him each time with a different nut than the one she threw.

“No worries there, I’ve got big plans for this little shinx. I was pretty disappointed about not getting a pikachu in Viridian.” He eyes Red’s pichu as she sits perched on his hat. “She’s still afraid to walk around on her own?”

Red shrugs. “Or she just likes to be on high places.”

“Well, I hope she evolves soon. They’re featherweights until they do.”

“She’ll evolve when she’s ready.” Red reaches a hand up and rubs the electric mouse’s fur.

“They need to feel safe and cared for before they can,” Leaf says. “She’s obviously going to be a challenge in that respect.”

“Well, she had a pretty traumatic capture,” Red says. “And I don’t plan on putting her in real combat until she does evolve, so it might be awhile anyway.” After losing his rattata and spearow, Red feels particularly protective of his pichu now. He still hasn’t named his pokemon, and part of him is wondering if he’s resisting simply so it isn’t harder if he loses them. It’s a thought he doesn’t have time to contemplate now, so he just writes himself a reminder for later. Flipping through the pages, he’s starting to feel overwhelmed by all the things he needs to take the time to research and think about. For now though, he’s set on focusing on his next research project and getting his last one published.

Red rarely traveled when he was younger: since his dad was so often away from home and his mom wasn’t a trainer, he mostly stayed in Pallet Town unless Professor Oak brought him along on one of their family trips. As such, he’s been to almost as many cities and towns in the past month as in the rest of his life combined, and when they finally catch sight of Cerulean City a few days after leaving the dig site, Red feels a growing sense of excitement to finally visit the famous tourist spot.

As the trio make their way down the slopes of the mountains, Cerulean City stretches out ahead of them like a sprawl of loosely tossed metal and glass. Unlike Viridian or Pewter, with their tightly packed buildings and busy streets, Cerulean is spread out, with four major pockets of high rises and the occasional skyscraper divided by wide green suburban areas. Within a day they’re walking through outlying residential neighborhoods that are similar to other cities, but as soon as they pass into the first urban areas, Cerulean West, the soul of the city becomes clear.

The sidewalks are wide and flanked by shops, restaurants, and stalls that an assortment of people seem constantly on their way in or out of. Double decked busses are a continuous presence on the roads, shuttling people to and from every which way. Through the bottom levels’ windows Red can see people looking bored or engrossed in their phone or a book, while the people on the top are often standing and taking pictures of their surroundings. He knew Cerulean got thousands of visitors a day, but he expected them to be more concentrated in Cerulean North along the coast of the bay.

But as they make their way through the city to find a shopping mall to replenish their supplies, it becomes obvious that the shining beaches aren’t all the city has to offer. They pass an ostentatious theater house on one side advertising two musicals and a play, then a high priced department store with glass walls. Some people have small pokemon with them, hanging off of shoulders, in backpacks, or at the end of leashes, and others are using the streets to ride their pokemon in the reserved lane. As they pass a music store, a famous pop star suddenly appears beside them, singing her heart out. Red stares over his shoulder, amazed at how far localized hologram technology has come.

“Hey Blue, you know we’re rooting for you, right?” Red says. “You go in there, and you get that badge. But, you know, if you don’t…”

“Right away…” Leaf says, face pressed up against the window of a bike store as they walk by.

“If it takes you a try or two…”

“Or three…”

“It’s okay, you know? We’re here for you.” Red puts his hand on Blue’s shoulder, gaze distracted by a street magician who throws a huge velvet cloth over a machoke, then whisks it off to reveal two machop, one standing on another’s shoulders. “You take another month if you need.”

“Or two…”

Blue shrugs Red’s hand off with a grin. “You guys go nuts. If we have to stick around that long, I’m going to Nugget Road and trying for some gold. Or better yet, hunting through the tall grass along the bay. There are some prime catching spots up there.”

“Well, we’re definitely going there before you challenge Misty,” Red says. “I know what my next research subject is going to be: abra.”

Blue laughs. “That might take you more than a couple months.”

Leaf frowns. “I looked them up after seeing the Renegade’s, but they weren’t listed as too rare.”

“Finding one’s not the problem, you can probably see a dozen in a day. Catching them is.”

“They’re natural teleporters?” Leaf asks, eyes wide.

“From birth.”

“Not to worry, my friends, for I,” Red says, “Have a plan.”

“A plan, you say.” Leaf rubs her chin.

“A clever plan.”

“Tried and true?”

“Well, no. That’s what makes it so clever. As far as I could tell, no one else has tried it.”

“Sooo, it’s more of an experiment.”

“Yes. A clever experiment.”

“Uh oh,” Blue mutters.

“Hey, most of them have been fine. I’ve spent the past few nights researching this, and I really think it’ll work.”

“It’s not going to get us surrounded by pikachu is it?” Leaf asks. “Because that clever plan worked a bit too well.”

“Don’t worry, there aren’t any pikachu around here,” Red says as he steps briefly onto the street to go around a light pole.

Leaf narrows her eyes. “That was a suspiciously narrow defense.”

“Fine, so there’s a non-zero chance that the experiment will have negative consequences. Such is the life of a trainer. Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

“I don’t have one, and neither do you.” Leaf frowns as someone jostles her while walking by.

“Okay, where’s your spirit of intellectual curiosity?”

She smiles. “Well, yeah, I am curious.”

Blue raises a hand. “I’m not.”

“Ah, but you have a spirit of adventure.”

Blue hesitates, then lowers his hand. “Yeah, alright. If it works, we’d make bank, and I want to buy a bike. So what’s the plan?”

They turn a corner and see the shopping mall on the other side of the street. “I’m glad you asked…”


The problem, Red explains as they restock their toiletries and basic traveling staples, is that there are few attacks that can connect faster than thought. In order to get close enough to even hit an abra with anything that might hold it still, you’d already have to be in range of their psychic senses, and from there they just need the slightest excuse to teleport away. Even sufficiently aggressive thoughts not directed at them have been known to scare them off.

To catch one, you either need to be a Dark trainer with a Dark pokemon who gets lucky enough to stumble onto one (“Huge waste of time,” Blue says as they reach the supermarket floor. “Wouldn’t waste a day of training with Kemuri just to maybe catch one.”), or you need a way to stop them from teleporting before they even realize you’re there… without getting close enough for them to detect your thoughts.

“Sound,” Leaf says as they pick out fresh fruit and head over to the boxes of meal bars. “You want to use Wigglytuff to put them to sleep from a long distance.”

“Yeah, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Red grabs a couple boxes of peanut-butter covered granola, then decides to try a honey-glazed one too.

“I was going to say, we can’t just walk around with a singing wigglytuff and hope that we find an abra. Besides being a hazard to others, we’d also be mostly defenseless against any wild pokemon that aren’t affected by the singing.”

“Not just that,” Red says as they make their purchases and take a moment to store them in their food Containers. “Others have tried things like it before.”

According to his research, abra can detect incoming threats by the responses of surrounding pokemon. For example, if an abra detects all the pokemon to the west of it losing consciousness one by one in its direction, it’ll teleport away.

If it detects pokemon losing consciousness in every direction around it, it’ll teleport away.

If it detects a stronger mental presence, it’ll teleport away.

If it hears the wind rustle some leaves and drop an apple to the ground, it’ll teleport away… presumably because it thinks it might be a Dark pokemon sneaking up on it.

“It just goes to show how strong a force natural selection can be,” Red says. “When you have such a powerful survival tool against so many deadly predators and threats, the abra that are quickest to use it are the most likely to survive and breed and pass that skittishness down. Especially when there’s virtually no downside.”

“They’re light sleepers too,” Blue says as they take the elevator up to the trainer supply floor. “So what’s the plan?”

“We can’t go running around hoping to find them. We need them to come to us.”

A few years ago, a professor tagged some abra and released them back into the wild to track their movements. It took awhile to find something that would be taken along with the teleportation intact, but eventually she was able to monitor the abra as they popped around a field day to day, foraging and breeding and escaping danger.

“But there wasn’t any pattern, right?” Leaf asks as she puts some potions in her shopping basket.

“How’d you know?”

“They wouldn’t still be so hard to catch if there was.”

“Yep, no pattern at all.” Except for one: newly born abra tended to teleport back to fewer places, confirming the idea that abra could only teleport to places they’ve been before. But there was nothing to indicate how they chose, in the moment, where to go.

Blue picks up a small pouch of pokeballs and tosses another to Red and Leaf. “So how does that help us?”

“It doesn’t,” Red says, catching his and putting it in his basket. “It was pretty demoralizing, to be honest. But it did lead me to the core of my idea: if we can’t predict where they’ll teleport, we need to control where they don’t. Picture a field, with a random amount of abra sprinkled through it, teleporting around. What happens if you and a wigglytuff start walking eastward as it sings?”

“They’ll start teleporting away as pokemon begin to lose consciousness near them in that direction,” Leaf says. “But not in a controlled direction, so some might go north or south instead of all east. If we had more than one wigglytuff, couldn’t we try to come from all directions and herd them into a middle area? Assuming we don’t have to worry about other trainers or resistant pokemon attacking us.”

“It could work, but since we only have yours, I have a better idea,” Red says. “Picture the field again-”

“Can you just tell us?” Blue interrupts as he compares the labels on two antidote bottles. “I’m a bit busy. Better yet just draw it.”

Red smiles and takes out his phone to sketch a picture with his finger. Leaf leans over to watch over his shoulder, which causes Red to mess up a few times, distracted by the feel of her hair brushing his arm.

Once the square field is drawn, Red makes a circle in the middle. “This is us with your wigglytuff in the middle, and the radius of its singing. What if we put speakers here, here, here…” He draws Xs around it, six in total, then draws circles around those. “With each playing the sound of a mightyena, or houndoom. Any abra in that area will teleport away in a random direction, and with so many zones repelling them, we’ll eventually get some that land in the middle with us, where they’ll be put to sleep before they can recognize the danger.” He finishes drawing and shows it to Blue.

“Hmm. Alright, first questi-”

“We’ll put out a localized message to see if any trainers are in the area, and warn them away. Then we’ll sync the speakers to emit their sound at the same time. The two of us will rotate around Leaf’s wigglytuff with our earplugs in searching for any pokemon that come into range of its singing. Leaf will stay with her, so we can message her to stop the singing right away if we’re attacked by a pokemon that’s not affected by it, and to catch any between us.”

Blue frowns through his explanation. “Okay, sixth question. Or seventh. Whatever. Who’s paying for these speakers?”

“I already looked up the price, I can buy them all if you guys don’t want to. Catching just one abra would make up for the cost.”

“I’ll buy two,” Leaf says as they make their way to the checkout counters. “I think this might actually work.”

“Yeah, count me in too. On one condition.” Blue puts his basket on the tray and starts the autoscan, then swipes his card. “You gotta ask gramps what he thinks of it.”

“Waaay ahead of you, buddy.”


Wait, you’re not going to try this alone, are you?”

Of course not, Professor!”

I’m including Blue and Leaf in that ‘alone,’ Red.”

I… Yeah. I knew that. Obviously.”

Listen to me Red, under no circumstances are you to execute such a wide scale public experiment without oversight. Do you understand?”

I’m shocked that you’d think so little of me, Professor. Shocked.”

Don’t make me call your mother.”


Blue sighs. “So much for keeping the method a secret, if it works.”

“Wouldn’t be able to do that anyway, if we’re alerting the area,” Leaf says, and turns back to Red. “Sooo, we’re calling the Rangers?”

Red finishes withdrawing his purchases and snaps his Container ball closed. “We’re calling the Rangers!”


“We can’t help you.”

Red’s heart sinks at the ranger’s flat, uncompromising tone. He shifts his phone to the other ear, trying to keep pace with Blue and Leaf as they walk toward the nearby Pokemon Center. “You don’t have to help us, I just thought-”

“You want us to spread ourselves out over a radius so wide we wouldn’t even be able to see each other, while you set up an audio hazard zone, purposefully, in the middle of where we’d all be.”

“It’s just a precaution. We wouldn’t be doing it if we actually think something bad will happen.” Red sees Blue and Leaf glance at him, clearly able to guess how the conversation is going. “Isn’t it better to be on-site ahead of time just incase?”

“It’s too big a job for our outpost alone, and we’re not calling in rangers from another one just to watch your experiment. We have to be ready for actual emergencies, not manufactured ones. Just playing the mightyena cries might cause a panic or rampage across the whole field.”

“No, I looked into that, see, none of the pokemon here have mightyena listed as a natural predator except abra, so they won’t-”

“Kid. The answer’s no. Get a bunch of trainers together and coordinate something if you can, but we can’t do the job alone.”

Red feels heat creeping up his neck, and clenches his teeth before he says something stupid. “I understand. Thanks anyway.” He closes the call with a grunt of disgust.

“Told you I should have called,” Blue says. “You didn’t even mention that I have a badge.”

Red sighs. “You know what the worst part of this is?”

“That we just spent sixty bucks each for the speakers we can’t use?”

“No, there are plenty of other uses for them. I was thinking of getting some ever since we used sound to scare the ‘chu off in Viridian.” Red’s down to a hundred fifty bucks after their shopping was done, which isn’t as bad as he was expecting when he thought he’d have to buy them alone. “The worst part is, if I decided to go out into the wild and open a jar of honey to attract hordes of pokemon, no one would bat an eye. I mean, some might advise against it, but it’s an accepted practice for skilled trainers. But experiment with something new that can’t possibly be more dangerous than what’s already an accepted strategy…”

Leaf smiles. “To be fair-”

“I know, I know, I don’t actually know what’ll happen. That’s why it’s an experiment.”

“What now, then? Try to get other trainers to help?”

Red sighs. “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Red watches night drape itself over the city like a reluctant curtain, sad to end another day over the bustling metropolis. Cerulean is more than ready for the dark however, and the streets light up with colorful signs and backlit storefronts. They’re near the local downtown now, where the city is most compact before spreading back out into the suburbs all around it. “Maybe I’ll put a post up in the city forum, see if anyone’s interested by tomorrow or the next day.”

“Well, it’ll take us the morning to get to Cerulean North anyway,” Blue says. “I’m going to hit the gym in the afternoon, so I won’t be free until the next day.”

“And I’ve got a backlog of correspondence to get to when I have access to a real keyboard. I think I’m going to get a laptop tomorrow on our way up.”

“Yeah, alright.” Red sighs, thinking of the long night and day ahead of continuing his attempts to get his research published.

They reach the Center and drop off their pokemon, then head to the nearby Trainer House and file into the crowded lobby to register themselves. After some quick meals in the mess hall, the trio says goodnight at the elevators and head upstairs to drop their spare clothes in the laundry rooms and take some long-awaited showers.

Afterward, Red flops onto his bunk bed and takes out his phone as his hair dries. Blue climbs the ladder to the bed above him to drop off his bag, then climbs back down.

“You’re not going to train, are you?” Red asks. He thought Blue dropped all his pokemon at the Center.

“Nah, Sabrina’s taking a Challenge Match tonight. I’m going to the lobby for the big screens. Wanna come?”

“I’m okay, thanks.” Red watches Blue leave, then stares blankly at his phone’s display of another publishing journal. Eventually he realizes he’s not reading it, mind still on Sabrina, the most powerful human psychic in the region, and possibly the world. He frowns and opens a new page.

Something different, tonight. If he’s going to catch an abra soon, he needs to start training his psychic powers, what little he can without a tutor. He doesn’t know how his “block” will interact with his own psychic pokemon trying to communicate with him, but he needs to be as prepared as possible.

Red starts searching for pages that detail rudimentary psychic powers and how to practice them. He keeps scrolling down lists to try and find something as basic as possible, but finds nothing that he thinks he’s capable of.

Eventually he finds a page titled “How to tell if you’re ‘sensitive,'” and opens that. From what Narud said, Red is a full psychic, just without access to his powers, not a sensitive, someone with powers so weak that they’re mostly nonexistent. Still, maybe for practical purposes he should consider himself one for now, and see if there’s anything here that might help.

He reads through some pages detailing different sensations a person might have, or circumstances they might find themselves in, that could tell them if they’re a sensitive. Red occasionally gets a familiar sensation upon reading some of them, like the feeling of being “connected” with someone, even a stranger, or always feeling like he could tell what their emotional state was.

He’s probably just fooling himself through confirmation bias though. Anyone in the room with Yuuta would have been able to “feel” the man’s desperation, that was just an expression anyway. He can’t consider interactions with his mom relevant, she’s family and he spends more time with her than anyone. And for some refuting evidence, he can think of a dozen times at least when he misread even his closest friend, Blue…

…who’s Dark. Huh. I guess I haven’t really given that a chance to fully register, after finding out I was psychic. He puts his phone down and closes his eyes, taking a moment to think back on their friendship and update all the experiences he can remember through the new lens of the two semi-recent discoveries.

If Red’s been operating off of subtle, psychic cues from people his whole life, but not getting any from Blue, then that would account for some of their arguments. Not all, of course, or even most. Maybe even not any: he certainly has no evidence that his impressions of people’s emotions are anything more than his imagination. But it’s still something to keep in mind moving forward.

Red keeps looking through the various sites and pages detailing the difference between sensitives and non-sensitives, and the even bigger gulf between psychics and sensitives, which the sites (often run by psychic groups) always seem to couch in sympathetic tones. “The poor dears,” Red mutters, drawing a glance from a pair of trainers walking by his bed. No matter what they do, the sites don’t quite say, they’ll never be true psychics.

Red can see why that might be a common question or hope, but it still comes off as patronizing to him, as someone who finds himself caught in such an odd middle-space. He knows he’d find it irritating if he was just a sensitive. No one likes being looked down on by a group that considers themselves obviously superior. It’s especially problematic since they’re the ones that are shaping the narrative.

In fact… Red changes his search terms, and suddenly finds sites with a very different framing. Most look less “official,” but there are dozens of blogs and pages dedicated to exploring their own theories of sensitives versus psychics. According to many of them, the one isn’t a “weaker” form of the other, but a different one altogether, the way Ghost pokemon attack people’s “emotions” and Psychics attack their “thoughts.”

Red frowns. That divide always seemed strange to him, but if it’s true, then obviously practicing psychic techniques wouldn’t help a sensitive. The problem is, these sites seem full of unsupported claims and mysticism masquerading as science. He can’t find any research backing them, and eventually gives up and returns to the more “reliable” sites.

Red eventually finds one that recommends meditation and awareness exercises to any sensitive interested in exploring their powers, and he decides to attempt them. His therapist suggested meditation when he was younger, but it hadn’t really worked for him then. Now it might be worth a second try.

He looks around at the room, where a dozen other trainers are chatting quietly or preparing for bed, and decides it’s quiet enough. He plugs in his earphones and waits for the soothing voice to begin walking him through it-

-only to have the phone’s message chime directly in his ear.

Red’s eyes fly open and he curses as he pulls the earplugs out. After a moment his scowl fades, and he sits up to read the article Leaf linked him to.

There’s an embedded video of Leader Brock, but Red doesn’t have to play it, as the caption under it reads “Leader Brock urges peace and unity as recent public politics turn violent.” Apparently the Pewter Museum was vandalized a few hours ago, and just this morning the religious leader Leaf wrote the open letter response to called on Pewter’s faithful to reject its lies, and the propaganda of “foreign influences.”

“Well,” Red says as he scrolls down to see the vitriolic comments, some defending Leaf’s article and calling for an investigation, but many more condemning her, the mayor, and the museum. “Shit.”

Chapter 33 – Interlude: Double Binds

The coliseum was colder than she imagined, colder than she thought she could endure. Hail pelted her thick coat and bounced off hastily donned goggles. Harsh winds tore words from lips made numb by their assault. The metal of her pokeballs bit at her fingers with icy teeth. And all the while, she grinned until her cheeks felt frozen in their new position.

She had thought she was ready. She had thought she was prepared for any obstacle, any twist.

She never imagined that Elite Lorelei would schedule their Challenge match during a blizzard, on top of an indoor glacier.

Misty had never felt so alive.

Remember, you may forfeit at any time,” Lorelei said in her ear before the battle began. “I will not call the match if one of your pokemon is killed.”

Misty responded by sending her poliwrath out to pummel the Elite’s opening cloyster. Its shell was hard as steel, but just as vulnerable to her pokemon’s precise, powerful strikes. Her poliwrath shrugged off its returned attacks and eventually took it down, which began a flurry of swaps and trades. A jynx took down her poliwrath with a mental blast, then got felled itself by Misty’s jellicent. Lorelei sent out a weavile, but Misty was ready with the withdraw this time. Wishing she still had her poliwrath, Misty sent her blastoise out to tank the sweeper. Her pokemon was able to hold its own for awhile, unable to land a solid blow but protected by its thick shell, but the hailstorm was slowly wearing it down, and Misty finally ordered a Body Slam to try and catch the weavile by surprise.

Her pokemon fell onto all fours and thrust itself forward like a battering ram, but slipped on the ice of the glacier and veered a bit to the side. The weavile nimbly flipped itself out of the way, then dashed in for another attack-

-until her blastoise spun on its belly and aimed a cannon right at it for a full on Hydro Pump.

Lorelei didn’t miss a beat, and sent a lapras out that took her blastoise down with a thunderbolt. Misty quickly sent out her starter and lifelong friend, Celest. She grinned as her starmie easily outsped the lapras and hit it with psychic blasts until it was withdrawn, Recovering to heal from the returned electric attacks.

Her first Challenge against the Elite Four, and she was already ahead of the game, with four pokemon against Lorelei’s remaining three. Lorelei may have been a master of Ice pokemon, but Misty had always favored Water types herself, and was more than prepared for the environment and matchup.

A shard of hail slid down her neck, making her shudder and chilling her overconfidence. She mentally directed Celest into the water around them, then linked their minds. Years of training with her starmie allowed her to seamlessly interpret the pokemon’s bizarre senses and alien thoughts. If Lorelei sent out a non-aquatic pokemon, Celest could do hit and runs attacks from the safety of the water, and if the Elite sent out an aquatic pokemon she wouldn’t be able to follow the battle or command her pokemon as well as Misty. With a mental nudge, Celest began rotating around the glacier at high speed as the two surveyed their surroundings through the starmie’s psychic field and waited for Lorelei’s next move.

Lorelei lifted an aquascope from behind her platform walls and walked to the edge of the ice before sending her dewgong into it. She sent the long metal pole of the scope into the water and began fiddling with the controls, moving the camera at its bottom to follow the action as she began sending commands to her pokemon through high frequency clicks.

So much for that idea, Misty thought as she hastily ordered her pokemon to construct a Light Screen. Dewgong’s Water and Ice attacks would be ineffective against Celest, whose ability to naturally cure status effects would help in the outside chance that she was frozen, but the dewgong’s Signal Beam would be especially effective against the psychic starfish.

Instead the dewgong thrust itself at Celest horn first. Misty gasped and doubled over in pain as they were hit by three hundred pounds of blubber sheathed muscle. She quickly commanded Celest to construct a kinetic Barrier around itself as she slowly straightened. Her starmie wouldn’t be able to take another hit like that: she hadn’t expected Lorelei to train her dewgong as a physical attacker, and now the tempo of the battle was on the Elite’s side.

The dewgong hammered Celest again, but its attack was dampened by the Barrier, and Celest just barely clung onto consciousness. Misty ordered Celest to Recover, and her torn flesh began to close and heal, just a hair faster than Lorelei could undo with the next attack. She kept up the assault regardless, and Misty kept Celest in recovery mode, bearing the shared pain through gritted teeth. Once Celest was fully healed she would be strong enough to take a couple hits in a row as she struck back-

Misty felt Celest’s Light Screen fading and saw the trap a second before it was sprung. A second was enough time to react, enough time to command Celest at the speed-of-thought to stop healing and refresh the Light Screen. But with either action equally likely to end in ruin, indecision decided for her.

The Light Screen faded just as Celest finished fully recovering, and in that instant a new pitch of clicks spread through the water. The dewgong blasted Celest with a beam of discordant sound, causing Misty to clutch at her head as the psychic connection broke. She blinked spots out of her eyes as she tried to fight down her panic. Celest was down there, alone and injured… she reached out with her mind to try and re-establish a connection, but sensed nothing but pain and confusion from her starmie.

Misty still had three other pokemon. She could accept the loss of Celest and still use her next three to try for a victory. But that would mean letting her starter stay down there and get pummeled into unconsciousness, or worse-

I forfeit!” she yelled, and within seconds the machines generating the hailstorm shut down as the audience filled the stadium with noise. Misty rushed to the edge of the glacier, stripping off anything water sensitive and taking out her headset before diving into the icy water. She kicked down until she spotted Celest and unclipped its dive ball to return it.

As she kicked back to the surface and climbed onto the glacier, she knew her attempts at becoming Champion were done. Years spent preparing and she had choked in the very first match against the League, had thrown the battle rather than risk harm to her pokemon. Someone so soft could never be Champion. Her hand caressed Celest’s cold ball as she walked to the bridge leading off the glacier, chin held high for the cameras as her spirit withered within her.

Later, as she sat alone outside the Indigo Plateau compound, Lorelei found her. Misty didn’t know how, didn’t question it. She simply continued staring up at the stars as the Elite sat on the bench beside her. They shared a silent handful of minutes before the older woman spoke.

You did a noble thing in there. I hope you’re not still beating yourself up over it.”

Misty didn’t respond, not trusting her voice. Pity was something she wasn’t sure she could take right now, though she wasn’t sensing any from the surface of Lorelei’s thoughts. The woman’s mind was tranquil as a falling snowflake.

“I’ve been following your trainer profile for awhile, you know.”

That got her attention. “I never saw-” Misty stopped herself. Of course Champions and The Four would use fake accounts to follow random trainers. She found herself blushing at the thought of an Elite spending time personally watching her journey, and cursed her weakness for the dozenth time.

Lorelei smiled, far warmer than any she showed in the arena. “You have a good heart. A good head, too. That defense of Cerulean Bay? Masterful.”

That was… a group effort.”

As far as the media portrayed it, yes, but those with the proper channels can learn more personal stories. From my understanding, everyone on the north coast of the city owes their life to you.”

Misty’s face was red as her hair now, and she knew it was ruining her attempt to glare at Lorelei. “Do you give this pep talk to all the failed challengers?”

Just the ones I think have potential.”

Potential for what? Champion?”

To make a difference.”

Misty frowned. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I wasn’t about to throw myself off a cliff or become a hermit or anything.”

Lorelei shook her head. “Not good enough. By this time next year, if you’re not someone’s Second or a Director for CoRRNet, I’ll be very disappointed.”

Misty was ready to get pissed again, but the words stuck in her throat. Gym Second? It’s not that she never considered it, but she’s not Leader material. She has no deep ties to any communities, never joined a Gym… hell, she spent half of her journey travelling alone because she preferred it to being around others. “Where would I…?”

The Elite stretched and got to her feet. “That’s up to you, dear. I just wanted to make sure you don’t waste a single day stuck on this. You had to come here. And you had to lose. To learn something about yourself, down to your core. And to find something new to strive for. That was part of your journey, not the end of it.”

Misty hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I get that. I… thank you, Elite.”

Call me Lorelei.”


The crowd erupts in cheers as Misty’s wartortle is knocked out. “Nice job,” she says into her mic with a grin, then switches its output to the stadium speakers as she withdraws her pokemon. “Well done, Challenger. I only have three pokemon left, which means we’re entering our Lightning Round. What do you say to picking up the pace a bit?”

The young woman on the opposite end of the arena leans against the railing of her platform. “I remain ready to beat you at twice the speed, Leader, or even thrice it if you’d like.”

The audience gives a collective “oooh” as Misty laughs. She likes this Challenger. In the past week of battling Misty’s Gym members, Amy has shown herself to be a competent trainer with a good sense of humor and showmanship. She would fit right in at Cerulean, if she decides to stay.

But that doesn’t mean Misty’s going to make getting her badge easy for the girl. “Thrice the speed it is! Referees, prepare the buzzers! If either of us spends more than half a second without a pokemon out, the match will be forfeit. Ready? Set! Go, Nomo!”

Her quagsire appears on a sand island between their two raised platforms. The two are surrounded by water, and beyond that the open ocean to the north and Cerulean City to the south. Her gym was built just off the beach of Cerulean Bay, with various stadiums constructed at natural points along the coast. Their audience sits in raised bleachers of easily transported plastic and aluminum, and the arena has no roof, opening their battle to the sky.

Amy withdraws her raichu as Nomo sends a Mud Slap at it, and replaces it with an ivysaur who sends Razor Leaves back at the tentacruel Misty replaces her quagsire with. The Gym Leader’s hands never stop moving, withdraw and summon and switch and withdraw and summon and switch, as she and her challenger shout commands.

“Osu, Ice Beam!”

“Modius, Psyshock!”

“Ruby, Night Slash!”

“Pepen, Sludge Bomb!”

“Nomo, Mud Slap!”

“Tetra, Razor Leaf!”

“Osu, Ice Beam!”

Tentacruel against hypno against crawdaunt against skuntank against quagsire against ivysaur until Misty’s back to her tentacruel, who narrowly misses the Challenger’s ivysaur with her beam as Amy replaces it with her hypno again. Their pokemon are slowly worn down from the constant attacking and switching into hits that were aimed at others.

Misty already took down Amy’s butterfree and tangela, but crawdaunt, tentacruel and quagsire are Misty’s last three pokemon, while Amy still has the raichu she used to knock out Misty’s wartortle. If Misty loses her quagsire Nomo, she’ll have no check against the Electric Type. But being Water/Ground means Amy’s ivysaur would massacre it if she keeps it in play. Misty needs to take out the ivysaur to have a chance.

“Pepen, Sludge Bomb!”

“Nomo, Mud Slap!”

Tentacruel into ivysaur, crawdaunt into hypno, quagsire into skuntank, ivysaur, tentacruel, hypno, crawdaunt, skuntank, quagsire, ivysaur, tentacruel, hypno, crawdaunt, skuntank, quagsire… throw, catch, swap, throw, catch, swap, never more than half a second between one getting withdrawn and the next coming out, setting the pattern, establishing expectation, then-

“Pepen, Sludge Bomb!”

Misty swaps Nomo in to tank the poisonous sludge again, but when Amy moves to withdraw her pokemon in anticipation of the next attack, Misty waits for the ball to leave her hand and immediately withdraws her quagsire and sends her tentacruel out instead.

Amy has less than half a second to decide to either summon her ivysaur into the trap or refuse to voice the command and forfeit. In truth no time to make a new decision at all, only to continue hers or let indecision decide.

“Go, Tetra!”

The ivysaur materializes, and its ball rockets back toward its owner. As Misty speaks her next command, half the eyes in the stadium follow it. One of the camera crew (probably Kara, whose reaction speed is superb) actually tracks it on a big monitor as everyone waits to see if Amy can return her pokemon fast enough.

“Osu, Ice Beam!”

“Tetra, return!”

The stadium erupts as the wavering white-blue light hits the ivysaur and immediately covers its skin and plants in frost before its pokeball’s red beam connects to withdraw it. The rapid battle resumes with barely a missed beat, but now Misty’s just waiting for the ivysaur to come back out, weakened and ready to be picked off.

“Go, Modius, Psyshock!”

“Ruby, Night Slash!”

“Pepen, Sludge Bomb!”

“Nomo, Mud Slap!”

The ivysaur returns and is hit by the earthy projectile, but this time it’s too hurt to shrug it off and stumbles, patches of frost making its movements stiff.

“Tetra, Mega Drain!”

Oh no you don’t. “Go, Osu!”

Her tentacruel materializes just as in time for the ivysaur to begin sapping its life… and instead the plant pokemon staggers away, veins filled with a poison even its own can’t combat.

“Tetra, return!”

Three to three now, but the battle is decided. Misty plays conservatively, scoring free hits every time Amy is forced to swap in her raichu by using Nomo to negate its attacks. Little by little Misty’s pokemon catch up in the war of attrition… until Amy takes her own gamble.

“Luxi, Slam!”

The raichu dashes forward and throws its weight into Nomo, who’s already nearing the end of his endurance.

“Nomo, Mud Slap!”

“Luxi, Quick Attack!”

The pokemon duke it out for a few tense seconds, and then Nomo falls and doesn’t get back up.

“Nomo, return! Go, Osu!”

“Luxi, Thunderbolt!

“Osu, Acid!”

Electricity crackles, sending her tentacruel’s many limbs flailing until it lies still, but the raichu squeals in pain as it rolls in the dirt. Amy quickly withdraws it, and sends her skuntank out against Misty’s newly summoned crawdaunt.

“Poison Jab!”

“Crab Hammer!”

“Sludge Bomb!”

“Bubblebeam!”

Down goes the skuntank, and now the stadium is deathly quiet as Amy sends her Psychic pokemon out against Misty’s Water/Dark.

“Ruby, Night Slash!” Her pokemon rushes forward to deliver the final blow, safe in its immunity and trusting its thick shell to take any physical attacks the hypno tries-

“Modius, Focus Blast!”

The stadium explodes with noise and Misty stares in shock as the psychic pokemon drops its pendulum, cups its palms toward the onrushing crawdaunt… and with a sudden tensing of its body, causes her pokemon to collapse.

Trained psychic though she is, Misty couldn’t make out the attack. She knows others who claim the move looks like a blinding sphere of blue light, a bullet of ki that blows its opponent’s “energy” all out of balance, but to her it was just a gesture.

Regardless, the results are clear, and Misty quickly withdraws her pokemon. “Congratulations, Challenger!” she says, voice drowning out the crowd over the speakers. “An absolutely masterful surprise attack, kept hidden until the perfect moment! Cerulean Gym hereby recognizes you, Amy Brennan, with the Cascade Badge, for demonstrating adaptability and quick thinking to surprising circumstances. Your journey will place you in many environments, present you with many choices. May what you’ve learned at our gym and our city keep you safe from life’s unexpected tides.”


Misty hops off Nessa as the lapras brings her to the shore at the bottom of the cliffs, then pats her pokemon’s long blue neck and withdraws her. She’s on one of the few patches of sand sloping up to form a beach, and waves crash against the rocks to either side as she walks up the dunes and makes her way to the southern side of the cliffs above her.

After meeting with Amy for some private congratulations and a membership offer to her gym, Misty got a message from her Second asking her to come to the cliffs northwest of Cerulean City. Ariya reported that she found a new cave that wasn’t on any maps, and Misty asked her Second to wait so she could take a quick rest and join her in investigating.

The climb from the beach to the cliffs is rough, but the view from the top is worth it. Mount Moon rises up to the west and Cerulean City stretches out to the southeast. She can just see Nugget Bridge to the east, but the curving path around the cliff quickly obscures it. The wind carries the salt of the ocean up to her as it crashes against the cliffs below.

The walk is a bit longer than Ariya suggested, but the refreshing breeze and gorgeous scenery holds Misty over until the path takes a sharp curve around the cliff face and trails down to a small plateau. Ariya is there with her feraligatr Renekton out, both facing a massive, uneven hole in the rocks.

Misty’s Gym doesn’t have a formal dress code, but if anyone could convince her to institute one, it would be her Second. Today Ariya is dressed in black fishnet leggings, a side slit mini-skirt, and a tank top that bares her midriff. It’s not the immodesty that bothers Misty, who regularly wears swimsuits to challenge matches and some public appearances, but the lack of protective clothing in the field, and the influence it might have on the younger, more impressionable trainers more interested in looking cool than protecting themselves. At least Ariya’s boots are always serviceable.

“Big,” Misty says upon reaching them.

“Told you. I’m thinking a rhydon, tried to bust through and caused the rest to collapse. Problem is, no rubble.”

Misty walks over to the cliff and looks down. “Rocks must have been blown clear, fell into the sea. No blast marks either?”

“Nope. This is how I found it.”

“Have Dorin check for any reports of people hearing explosions anyway.”

Arya nods and sends a quick text before tucking her phone back away. “Would have to be in the past few days. The last satellite mapped this area a week ago. No hole.”

“Convenient. Ready?”

“After you, fearless Leader.”

Misty sprays herself with a can of repel, then summons Celest and mentally orders the starmie to lift itself into the air as they enter the cavern. With another mental command the red jewel at her center blazes bright and gives Misty and Ariya their first look inside.

The hole was punched through the wall of a wide cavern stretching off to their right and left. The ground slopes down straight ahead into water, with stalactites and stalagmites giving it the appearance of a hungry mouth.

“Cheerful,” Ariya says. “I’ll take the left path.”

“No, we’re sticking together. This is a solutional cave.” Misty walks over to the wall and runs her fingers over it. “Limestone. Acids in the water dissolve it and cause it to drip over time, which forms the stalas.”

“Right, I knew that.”

Misty smiles. “Point is, it’s not some new tunnel dug by pokemon. It took centuries to form. I think we’re in a natural habitat.”

“Ahh, shit. Think there are other exits?”

“If there were before I think we would have found out by now. Better check though. Right first.”

They make their way through the cave slowly, stepping around the rough protrusions in the ground as their pokemon take up the front and rear. Renekton is surprisingly light-footed, scales making the lightest of rasps against the ground as he steps with a lazy reptilian grace. Misty keeps an empty pokeball in one hand. She splits her attention between her footing and using Celest’s massively stronger psychic senses to look out for threats. Pokemon flicker by in her peripheral awareness, most underneath them in the water, some others above them through the ceiling, where apparently the cave extends upward.

The tunnel twists and turns and splits multiple times, giving them glimpses of wider caverns full of water and small islands of rock, boulder filled trenches, and whole tunnels filled with veins of gleaming ore. Misty keeps them moving, turning aside from any sense of pokemon in the distance and taking only the right sides at forks.

Before long however they sense pokemon directly ahead, and without another path to turn to. A nest of golbat and zubat roost above. Most are asleep, but some are merely dozing, curious about the sounds the Leader and her Second make, loud as shouts to their sensitive ears. The repel confuses their sense of smell, but there’s no disguising the warm blood beneath their skin. Though Celest has no way to interpret the sensory input she’s receiving, Misty can almost feel the saliva pool in the golbat’s elastic mouths, and it takes a moment for her to realize she can hear it falling in a steady patter up ahead.

She holds a hand up to pause Ariya, heart pounding. If it wasn’t for Renekton’s looming, dangerous presence, the roost might have attacked by now. Misty and Celest make their way back, past Ariya and Renekton, and begin leading them back to the entrance. After five minutes Ariya whispers, “What was it?”

“Golbat, a lot of them. This place is definitely a habitat, and not a new one.”

They take the path back to the entrance, then try the left hand path for another half hour. When the ground splits, half sloping up and the other sloping down into a pool of water, they stop and follow the twists and turns of the cavern back toward the entrance. As they do Celest picks up a mass of minds from aquatic pokemon below them, goldeen or magikarp. The school of fish is a wash of brief, indistinct thoughts, pinpricks of light that swim in shifting clouds… and then suddenly break apart in panic as something massive charges through the water, full of hunger and rage.

“Hey, you okay? Misty?”

Ariya’s hand is on Misty’s shoulder, and she realizes she and Celest have frozen. “Yeah. There’s a gyarados right under us.”

Her Second’s eyes are wide in the crimson light. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

They move quickly after that, trusting the safety of the backtracked path and Celest’s sensory field to alert them of danger. An odd triplet of minds suddenly approaches from one of the side tunnels, and Misty picks up the pace, moving them past its tunnel just as it enters theirs and begins to follow them.

“Magneton behind us,” Misty says.

“Are you shitting me, a magneton? Here?” Ariya snaps her fingers in a quick pattern, and Renekton sidles up closer to them. “Should we take it down?”

“Not worth the risk of attracting others. We’re almost out.” Misty can feel her pokemon tiring from keeping itself levitated for so long, and is happy to see the gleam of sunlight in the distance.

Until the sunlight gets obscured by a humanoid figure emitting a powerful psychic field.

“Focus or split?” Ariya mutters.

“Split,” Misty says, and immediately orders Celest to construct a Light Screen as the alakazam’s mental field meets theirs. It uses brief, sharp jabs of psychic power to probe for weaknesses, and Misty keeps Celest on the defensive as Ariya turns to face the oncoming magneton, prompting Renekton to do the same.

It enters the ruby light of Celest’s glow. As its prongs begin to glow with electric charge, Ariya snaps three fingers. Renekton roars as his muscles flex and swell. Superpower. An ability that would allow Renekton to deliver a devastating physical blow, which would hopefully take the magneton down in one hit since it would leave Renekton weaker afterward.

A bolt of electricity fills the cavern with light and the smell of ozone. Renekton roars in pain this time, but when Misty blinks the after-image out of her eyes she sees him still standing, partially protected by Celest’s Light Screen. Renekton charges forward on all fours to attack the magneton, and Misty turns her attention to the alakazam.

She doesn’t waste time trying to beat the devastatingly powerful psychic at its own game, and commands Celest to attack with a Bubblebeam. The tight stream of water jets out at the alakazam, only to crash against its own defenses.

The alakazam has the measure of Celest now, and presses the attack. Celest can hold her own defensively, but alakazam are weak to physical attacks, and that’s not starmie’s forte. Misty considers summoning a second pokemon, but her concentration is already nearing its limit. Another bolt of electricity lights the cavern behind her, but she doesn’t turn, trusting Celest’s Light Screen to help keep Renekton safe as crashing fills the cavern and the feraligatr roars again.

We need to end this now, before more pokemon show up. What she needs is a more powerful water attack. Starmie don’t hold much inside themselves, but there’s another source nearby.

“Ariya?”

“This fucker is quick, still haven’t hit it!”

“Screen is fading, do I need to refresh it or can you hold out for a second?”

“I’ll bait another one, then you can let it go.” There’s some snapping, and then, “Now!”

Another flash of electricity, and Misty lets the screen fade as she fully merges her mind with Celest’s. She can’t quite make her pokemon understand her, can’t quite imbue it with her intelligence or interpret its instinctual use of its abilities… but she’s spent years guiding Celest and understanding how to influence the starmie’s natural inclinations.

“Going dark!”

Celest zips around the corner and into the pool of water, taking the light with her. The starmie begins to spin and suck in as much water as she can. As she bloats in in size, she lifts herself and the water around her, launching out of the pool to crash over the alakazam in a crushing wave.

Misty rushes forward and locks a greatball onto the dazed psychic. It recovers enough to send a telekinetic blast at the exhausted Celest, pinning her to a stalactite before Misty throws her ball and captures it.

The pain in misty’s chest brings her to her knees, and she forces herself to concentrate as the crimson light around them begins to blink with Celest’s fading life. Her pokemon is in pain and exhausted, and Misty can’t mentally get her to free and heal herself. The ceiling isn’t high though, and Misty summons her blastoise and orders him to stay still on all fours.

Misty quickly climbs onto his back and uncouples their minds before yanking her pokemon off the impaling stalactite, anticipating another blast of electricity and rushing to get the Light Screen back up before it comes. Instead she hears a thud and a crack as she unclips a Full Restore from her belt and sprays it over her pokemon.

Renekton roars in victory over his fallen foe, and Misty smiles as Celest’s gem regains its full, bright glow. She strokes its spongy limbs and sends it mental thoughts of comfort and pride.

There’s a flash as Ariya captures the magneton, and Misty slides off her blastoise’s shell to withdraw him before collecting the alakazam’s ball. She goes to see if there’s anything she can do to help with Renekton, but Ariya is already spraying him with medicine.

“Nicely done, both of you.”

“Nothing to it. This big lug could use a few more shocks, maybe they’ll speed him up.” She rubs Renekton’s toothy snout, and the feraligatr growls in pleasure.

They leave the cave, relaxing once they’re back outside. Misty withdraws Celest and waits for her nerves to calm as she thinks, eyes closed and face turned toward the sun. “This place is going to need a quarantine,” she says.

“Yeah, no shit. Those pokemon were tough as any I’ve seen in the wild.”

“Fully wild habitats are rare in regions these days. Even the Safari goes through occasional cullings.”

“How long do you think it would take to clean this place out a bit?”

“Months. Or we could just try to close it up again, but in the meantime no one goes in, no matter how many badges they have.”

“You want the Rangers on it, or our people?”

Misty hesitates. “If there are other entrances, we’ll need the Rangers.”

“With pokemon that powerful in there? You said it yourself, if there were, I think we’d have found out about it by now. And hey, think of how much stronger we’ll get with access to monsters like those. I never knew I wanted a magneton, but I’m sure I’ll find some uses for it.”

Ariya’s right, but Misty doesn’t want to make the decision for selfish reasons. Then again, if the Rangers show up then word’s going to get out. People will try to get in, make their own entrance if need be. Better to keep it quiet for now…

“Set up a rotation, only people you know can handle it.” Misty’s phone chirps at her, no doubt updating with messages she was sent while in the cavern sans signal.

“Yes’m. Shouldn’t be a lack of interest, once they know what they have the chance to catch. What should we do if someone else comes by?”

Misty takes her phone out to check her messages. “Unless an Elite or Champion shows up, just let them know it’s off limits, League business.” She blinks at the screen, then curses.

Ariya’s raises her brow. “What’s up?”

“I’ve got to go. Something happened on Mt. Moon.”


Misty enters the press room at a brisk pace, back and gaze straight. There aren’t many reporters in attendance, but she still sees a face she hoped not to. Zoey is a good journalist, or at least that’s what people tell her, but as Gym Leader Misty just finds the woman a pain in the ass. Her only consolation is that Mayor Tonio would be at the mic a lot longer than her, whenever he arrives.

The cameras are already filming when she mounts the steps to the podium. As she waits for the room to quiet down, she pulls a notecard from her sleeve and places it by the microphone, where the raised edges hide it from view. She can feel the general wash of emotions from everyone, a faint breeze of anticipation and anxiety against her mind. There’s also a sense of hunger that she’s come to recognize, mostly from journalists and Challengers: ambition.

“Hello, and thank you for coming,” she says when the room is silent. “An hour ago I learned that a Tier 1 Emergency was taking place on Mt. Moon. A paras colony began a mass migration that spilled out onto the mountain when pokemon within it broke through the surface as they fled. Unfortunately, the location they emerged was a paleontological dig site on the southern mountain face, which had 37 staff members and 16 security on site at the time of the incident.

“Thanks to the efforts of the scientists and security on site, and the immediate response of nearby trainers and Rangers, the threat was contained, pushed back, and eradicated before it could spread and necessitate a full scale response like that of the Vermilion Forest fire. It was a monumental feat of bravery and skill, and all of Cerulean thanks them.”

She can see the reporters readying to ask questions, and heads them off. “Unfortunately, there were a number of casualties. It is with great sorrow that I report the loss of Kazuo Soto, Fareed Newell, Irina Fujita, Dawson Haulover, Agustin Santiago, Mary Ashcroft, and Cerulean’s own Tetsu Akita. Today we honor their memories, and their sacrifice, without which many more lives would surely have been lost.

“There is one more piece of news. Rangers and on site security have confirmed a Renegade branding in the aftermath. The geologist apparently took advantage of the crisis to try and steal the dig’s fossils, nearly killing two of the site’s defenders in the process.”

Cold silence dominates the room as everyone tries to process such an evil act. Misty allows it to linger, her own revulsion lending new steel to her voice and gaze.

“I want to assure everyone in this city that I will be leaving for Mt. Moon shortly so that I can learn of his crimes, ensure they were appropriately Witnessed, and then oversee his execution personally.”

The crowd is quiet for a moment longer, and when it’s clear that she wouldn’t say anything more, begin shouting questions. Misty glances at the door, which she’s hoping the mayor will walk through at any moment. Damn the man, he had more time to prepare than she did.

“One question at a time, please. I’ll be leaving for the mountain soon, but will answer as many as I can. Yes, Mia?” she asks, picking a reporter at random.

“When will the name of the Renegade be made public?”

“The Rangers will release it when they see fit, as usual. They haven’t even told me. Jordan?”

“Will you be calling for an evacuation of the mountain?”

“Right now the Rangers have already placed Mt. Moon on high alert, and every trainer, merchant and Center staff should be aware of the event. The Rangers have increased their patrols of the mountain to search for any hints of an ongoing threat, but so far have reported none. Tyrisha?”

“Are you mobilizing the gym, Leader?”

“Every member is on standby in case the Rangers call for help. Alan?”

“What aid are we sending to the dig site?”

“That’s a question for Mayor Tonio, who should be here soon.” I’m going to strangle him. She’s running out of opportunities not to call on Zoey, who sits patiently with her hand raised. Better get it over with. Zoey’s known to ask tough questions, and if Misty ends up having to call on her and does so last it would signal reluctance. “Yes, Zoey?”

“Thank you, Leader. The initial alert went out almost three hours ago, now. Why did it take so long for our city to respond?”

Dammit. She doesn’t want to so much as hint at the existence of the cavern. “Unfortunately I was investigating a report of wild pokemon outside the city during the initial alert, and had no cell reception.” Her heart sinks as she realizes that would almost certainly invite more questions. I should have prepared an excuse for this.

“Why didn’t your Second mobilize the Gym?”

“One question each, please. Frank?”

“Same question, Leader.”

“Ariya was with me. Peter held the Gym, and reported that he began mobilization at a medium priority. Due to the distance he knew only psychics with a teleporter and trainers with fliers would arrive on time to help, and two members of the Gym did leave for the mountain before the crisis was passed. Yes, Paula?”

“Where were you and Ariya investigating? Was there another incident today?”

“No, thankfully we were able to address the issue.” Misty is grateful that Paula asked two questions so she could ignore the first. Zoey has her hand up again, but luckily so do others. “Sachio?”

“Was anyone injured?”

“No. Mia?”

“What prompted the investigation?”

“A routine patrol brought up a concern.” She’s dodging, and knows it shows. For a Leader and their Second to personally investigate something would make it anything but a “routine” concern.

Zoey’s hand is still in the air, ready to ask where it took place that didn’t have reception, and at that point Misty’s choices will be to either look like she’s making excuses, which makes her weak and potentially suspicious, or to give away details that could expose the cave.

No win, don’t play. “I’m sorry, but that’s all the time I have-”

The door opens and the mayor walks in. “-so please direct any remaining questions to Mayor Tonio.” Asshole. A few seconds earlier and she wouldn’t have had to appear like she was running, but at least he arrived in time for a clean transition.

She slips the card in her sleeve and hands the podium over to the Mayor with a quick smile and nod, then turns on her heel and strides out of the room. “Dial Ariya,” she says after putting her earpiece in. “Report?”

“I’ve got Molly and Ryuso here, they’ve been briefed. What’s up on the mountain?”

“You’ll figure it out a soon as you check the news. I’ll fill you in later with the rest, just head back to the Gym and take over for Peter.”

“Yes’m.”

Misty ends the call as she exits the building and summons her swanna, Nimbus. “Hey boy, ready for a ride?” She straps herself into his harness and puts her goggles on just as the door behind her opens and Zoey walks out, clearly looking for her and just as clearly surprised to see her already leaving. Misty gives an apologetic smile and wave, then takes off toward the distant mountains before the reporter can open her mouth.


The sun is beginning to set as Misty and Nimbus reach Mount Moon and start to climb altitude. The air turns chilly with the fading light and lower pressure, and Misty buttons her coat as a shiver wracks her form.

The dig site is easy to spot from the air, and she hunches down and banks toward it. When they get closer she can see the aftermath of the battle still being cleaned up, and feels a pang of guilt for having missed it. She might not have made it on time even if she hadn’t been in the cavern, but this could clearly have been much worse.

She begins a slow, circling descent until she can land in front of the dig’s largest building. She takes a moment after dismounting to let her legs get used to standing and walking again, then knocks on the door and enters.

The inside is spacious, with a long table and chairs taking up half of the room and the rest left open with counters and cabinets. The building clearly serves as a meeting hall for staff, and Misty spies the site director Dr. Zapata, some of her people, and a ranger at one end of the room while Leader Giovanni and Leader Brock hold their own council at the other. She takes her gloves off and slips them in her coat pockets as she walks to her peers.

“Ah, Misty. Thank you for coming,” Giovanni says.

“Hello Giovanni, Brock. It’s good to see you two again.”

Giovanni inclines his head. “I only wish the circumstances were better.”

“Me too. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“It’s no trouble. We were just about to begin. Let’s speak again after.” Giovanni heads toward the table, and the dig site staff take the cue and do the same. Dr. Zapata takes the head seat at one end, and her people sit around her.

“Glad you could make it,” Brock murmurs to Misty as they follow Giovanni.

She smiles. “You know I wouldn’t leave you alone with him if I could avoid it.”

He grins back. When Leaders meet there are almost always important decisions made about their shared territory, and any not present for those discussions tends to lose out. On top of that, though neither would admit it, on their own it’s easy to be intimidated by the Viridian Leader, and go along with whatever he says. When they’re together though, it’s not as hard to challenge or push back against him from time to time. If Giovanni ever resented the younger Leaders that shared his borders banding against him, he never showed it.

When Misty first became a Leader she felt like something of a fraud around the others. It wasn’t so bad with younger ones like Brock, or later Erika when she took over Celadon, but Koga, Blaine, Surge, and even Sabrina were all so serious and intimidating. And then there was Giovanni, for whom becoming Champion was just a footnote in his legend. Now, after leading Cerulean for almost five years, she feels much more comfortable in her position, but is still occasionally humbled by the fact that they share the same title.

Leader Giovanni takes the other head seat, and Brock goes to the one on his left while she sits at the Champion’s right. She wondered if Erika would come, as she’s the fourth Leader to share borders with them, but technically the mountain range doesn’t extend to Celadon, so she must have bowed out.

“Thank you for joining us, Leaders,” Dr. Zapata says. “We’ve all had a harrowing day, as you can imagine, and we appreciate your presence on such short notice.”

“Of course,” Giovanni says. “My sincerest condolences for your losses, and my thanks for your bravery and sacrifices.” Brock and Misty murmur their agreement, and Dr. Zapata bows her head.

“Thank you. As soon as we’ve finished cleaning the site, I’ve announced a week of mourning and rest before work resumes. I hope by then to have a new security plan in place to assure our financiers and ensure another incident like this isn’t repeated, or is better defended against.”

The others with her nod their agreement, all but one, who sits in distracted silence. Misty recognizes him, the ACE trainer in charge of security for the site. Pete? Palmer? Something like that. She doesn’t need her powers to tell he’s not happy about the topic of conversation. Anxiety, pride, and shame radiate off him in a tightly controlled spiral that fluctuates with his breaths.

“Understandable. First, let us review the facts,” Giovanni says. “The parasect colony was migrating through the mountain, resulting in a wave of fleeing pokemon. One of the forefronts of that wave broke through the weakened ceiling under one of the dig sites. Tragically, two personnel were immediately killed then. I think we can all agree, this is where our review must begin.”

Brock leans forward. “Your seismographs. Why didn’t they give warning of the attack?”

One of the site employees speaks up. “They did, but the person tasked with monitoring them claims that he was not with them at the time. He was later branded a Renegade for using the attack as an excuse to try and steal the fossils, but in any case, it was an unforeseeable failure in site security.”

“Unforeseeable,” Brock says, and looks around. “Does anyone disagree?”

“Perhaps it would be better to ask what you plan to do different, moving forward,” Giovanni says.

“Two people assigned to monitor it, and one must be present at all times, of course,” Dr. Zapata says. “We’ve already begun such a system.”

“Allow me to make a suggestion, then. Update your equipment and send its output over local wireless. Install apps to allow remote monitoring at all times, with alerts for signals over a threshold.”

Dr. Zapata looks surprised. “Does equipment and software exist for such small vibrations? We’re hoping to detect things far more subtle than even the lightest earthquakes.”

Giovanni makes a careless gesture with one hand. “I believe one of my people has spoken of something similar. I will check and ensure you have access to it later tonight. If not, I will try and finance its creation. It would no doubt be a widely useful technology in any case.”

“That… would be very helpful, Leader. Thank you.”

“Next, then. The response to the incident was immediate and effective: removal of the hazardous spores. Unfortunately another person was killed by the moving cloud. What happened?”

A woman speaks up next. “I was the one that made the call, Leader. We had moments to recognize the threat and act before it could spread further and make any coordinated response impossible. I recognized the risk and gave warning of our intentions, then cleared the spores when we received only affirmative messages of safety. Mary… wasn’t one of those to respond, either to say she was clear or not. It’s hard to tell from the—her—remains, but I assumed that anyone unable to respond would already be hurt too badly to be saved by waiting any longer.”

“Understandable. Does anyone here disagree with that decision or its reasoning?” No one answered, and Giovanni nodded. “We shall say no more about it then. Next…”

The conversation goes on, examining each point of the attack, their response, and the result. Though ostensibly the meeting was to ensure the future safety and well-being of the site employees and improve their security, Misty could feel the tension and occasional fear of those on the other side of the table. She understood. Even though they were here to help and not cast blame, it never feels good to have your decisions and actions scrutinized by others, especially those in authority, and especially decisions made in a crisis.

At one point Misty senses a spike of anger and indecision from one of the dig employees, an older man with his arms crossed. She waits for the current speaker to finish before saying, “If I could take a moment, I’d like to say that so far it sounds like everyone here did an admirable job responding to the threat. I want to thank you again for your efforts, and reiterate that this meeting is to help improve preparations in case something similar happens again.” She locks her gaze on that of the older man. “Don’t be afraid to say something if you have a suggestion or comment: you’re among friends.”

He drops his eyes when she finishes speaking, and after the other members of the table murmur their agreement and thanks, looks up. “I…” He hesitates. “I had a thought. Earlier. Didn’t want to accuse anyone of anything. Still don’t. You’re right, everyone did a fine job. Seen a lot of Tier 1s over the years. This was kept local, very local. A fine job.”

He frowns, and seems to be searching for words. The table waits. Finally he says, “Hell, I’ll just spit it out. Some of the trainers, they were using balls to capture pokemon as they fought. Sometimes it’s understandable, ‘course it is, you have a moment to catch something you take it. Sometimes it’s even the best choice strategically. But a lot of trainers were wasting time and energy weakening pokemon rather than killing ’em. Using status effects and baiting attacks on a particularly strong or rare pokemon, while a dozen more walk by, a threat to those around them.

“Like I said, I don’t want to get no one in trouble, or accuse anyone. But I just thought I’d say it, make sure it was out there. Maybe we could tell the Rangers, put up a PSA to remind people. I dunno. Just thought I’d say.” He’s quiet a moment, then nods to himself.

Giovanni steeples his fingers. “Thank you, Misty, and you, Albert, wasn’t it? A good point. As you said, it’s an understandable impulse, but one that bears vigilance against. I’ll personally speak with the mountain’s Director, and see about some coverage for it in an upcoming issue of The Daily Trainer.”

The conversation only goes on another few minutes, and as it wraps up Misty prepares to address the issue she’s concerned about. Giovanni glances at her and lifts a finger from the table, almost imperceptible. He knows what she’ll ask, and apparently wants to address something first. She nods.

“As we conclude, I would like to make one final suggestion,” he says. “When we began this venture, the question of security was broached and, for the time, properly addressed. I want to thank you, Paul, and the rest of your people, for their good work.”

The table murmurs agreement, and the ACE Trainer looks at Giovanni in some surprise, and to Misty’s senses, trepidation. “Thank you, Leader.”

“However. In light of this incident, I’d like to, once again, formally offer Gym services to assist in the security of the site.”

The table is quiet. Paul’s face reddens, but he doesn’t speak. Giovanni’s hands move apart and together, tapping his fingertips. “Let me be clear. I in no way blame Paul or his organization for anything that occurred today. But as some of you may remember, I offered the extra personnel initially, and was voted down by my peers and some of you sitting here. At the time I was eventually convinced that showing such favoritism for a project like this could set an undesired precedent. Now, however, I believe that this incident would clear up any potential misunderstandings by the public, and allow us to ensure the continued safety of the site employees and its assets. I understand that many fossils were almost stolen, and would have been if not for the timely intervention of some assisting trainers. That risk must be minimized as thoroughly as possible.”

Misty and Brock exchange glances. She can read the Pewter Leader’s misgivings, and still shares them herself. “I’m sure that Paul and his people will be extra diligent in watching the fossils,” Misty says slowly. “And I don’t know whether I can commit anyone to such a task.” She thinks of the staff she’ll already be committing to watching the new cavern.

“Nor I,” Brock says. “We’re still assisting in the aftermath of the Viridian Forest fire.”

“I understand,” Giovanni says. “My gym is prepared to staff it ourselves. And I have no doubt as to the efficacy of ACE training. Your people will continue to be employed, Paul, and I will be adding a bonus to their salaries. I was planning to do so regardless. To ensure there is no reduction in perimeter vigilance, however, my people can commit exclusively to guarding the fossils, and allow yours to do their jobs unhindered.”

Paul’s tension slowly leaks away, and while he still feels upset, he eventually says, “Thank you, Leader. That’s very generous of you.”

“I hope that’s agreeable to everyone?” Giovanni spreads his palms. “This endeavor can be the first of many profitable ventures on these mountains, and I merely wish to ensure it has every chance to achieve full success.”

Those around the table begin to nod and voice their agreement, and Misty feels any further objections dying on her lips as even Dr. Zapata capitulates. She feels the wry amusement from Brock and raises her brow at him. Fight, or give in? Brock merely lifts his shoulders in a minute shrug and says, “With all that in mind, I can only agree, of course.”

Misty sighs. “Agreed.” This is often how it is with Giovanni: he can speak eloquently, head off objections, satisfy pride, and, just to add icing on the cake, throw around money wherever necessary to ease people’s resistance and just in general be so gracious that disagreement becomes impossible.

She can even almost believe that it would be a good thing, though she knows the political consequences will come up again and again for years if similar projects come about. The amount of power it grants Viridian Gym is massive. Cerulean and Pewter can gain a share themselves, of course… if they’re able to commit the resources. Which, of course, they can’t.

“Good. Now that’s done with, I believe Misty had one more topic to address?”

“Yes, thank you. I think it’s time at last to speak of the Renegade.” The mood of the room immediately plunges, and Misty throws up some light defenses to keep their emotions from washing over her too much. “I would like to know all the details, if you please.”

The Ranger lifts her head. “I believe I can cover that, Leader.” She explains the situation in concise terms, voice bland as she recounts the Witnessing. Misty is surprised to hear that Blue Oak was one of the trainers to be attacked by and help stop the Renegade. She wasn’t aware Sam’s grandson has begun his journey already.

“Thank you, Ranger. Is there any reason this Yuuta hasn’t been seen by a psychic yet?”

“He was too quick to suggest it himself for me to trust the results, and given his actions I didn’t think it was necessary. You are welcome to examine him if you wish, Leader. Will you be the one to oversee his execution?” She looks between Misty, Brock and Giovanni. “I assumed I would have to transfer him to one of your cities, but with all three of you here…”

“Yes, I can oversee it. I’ll meet with him as soon as we finish here.”

“Understood. Just find me when you’re ready.”

Giovanni looks at her, then to the rest of the table. “Does that cover everything? Any further questions? Well and good. Thank you all again. If anyone needs to speak with me, I will be outside for awhile. A good evening to the rest of you.”

People begin speaking as they leave the table, and the three Leaders rise together and head for the door. Night has fully fallen on the mountain, and Misty stares up at the stars, so bright and rich this far from the city lights.

Giovanni follows her gaze. “Beautiful, are they not? They are at their clearest on mountain tops.” He turns to her and Brock. “I hope I didn’t put either of you out too much tonight?”

“It’s your money and your people,” Brock says, and Misty nods. “If you judge it to be the right thing to do, we can only bow to your wisdom.”

“You have my thanks. Do let me know if there’s anything you need help with regarding the Renegade, Misty.”

“Same,” Brock says.

“I think I’ll be alright. I just want to make sure things go smoothly.” Misty buttons her coat back up as the chill night air seeps in. Overseeing Renegade executions was an unpleasant part of being a Leader for the first year or so, but over time it became easier, especially as she began to see the results of their actions more and more. Now she just sees it as an unhappy responsibility of her office, and strives to ensure she gives each case its due consideration to ensure justice is done. “We got lucky that he was stopped. If those two trainers hadn’t been passing by… but of course one of them was an Oak, so I guess it’s to be expected.”

“Indeed,” Giovanni says. “None of that man’s line have ever had normal journeys. Trouble seems to find them, or perhaps they simply stand out in troubling circumstances more than most.”

“That’s the truth of it,” Brock says. “Blue was in the forest during the fire. I met him before speaking with you. He was widening the firebreak and helped take down a whole family of shiftry. Caught one, too, and used it to get my badge.”

“Wait, he already beat you?” Misty says. “I didn’t realize he was on his journey that long.”

“Oh, he just began it. I think it was a month ago?”

Misty whistles. “That fast, yeah, I should have figured. I guess he’s coming for me next? Should be fun.”

“Don’t be so sure. I’m still digging up my main arena after he revealed a strategic flaw in its design.”

Giovanni chuckles, a rare sound. “Yes, that sounds like an Oak. After his sister, we should expect great things from him.”

“His companions aren’t without note either,” Brock says. “One is seeking to become a Professor, the other some sort of journalist or politician.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of them,” Giovanni says. “If they continue to follow the young Oak on his journey, I look forward to meeting them all.” Misty nods as the door behind them opens, and some of the site workers come out. “If you’ll excuse me, Brock, Misty. Until next we speak.” Giovanni walks off to speak with Dr. Zapata.

Misty sees the Ranger come out and turns to Brock. “Call you later? We’ve got some things to discuss.”

“You got it. Safe travels.”

“You too.” Misty approaches Ranger Sasaki. “I’m ready.”


The Renegade sits tied to his chair apparently unconscious. Ranger Sasaki frowns as she finishes opening the door and sees the rest of the room. “Someone was supposed to be stationed here. You do your thing, Leader, I’m going to go speak with whoever had the last-” The ranger stops and stares as Misty walks up to the Renegade, her heart pounding. “What’s the matter?”

The man in front of her looks asleep, but even asleep there are flickers. Physical sensations, emotional reactions to dreams, something that she should be able to pick up this close. She puts her fingers under his nose, then presses them to his neck.

“Don’t say it…”

Misty drops her hand away, mind racing. “We’d better go speak to them together, Ranger. He’s already dead.”

Chapter 4: The Efficient Market Hypothesis

 

World domination is such an ugly phrase. I prefer to call it world optimisation.


Gringotts Bank turned out to be an imposing multistoried building made of snow-white marble. It was located partway down Diagon Alley, near an intersection with something called Knockturn Alley, and towered over the neighbouring shops. Its architecture seemed subtly different than the “muggle” British buildings the wizarding world seemed to mimic, but Harry had never studied architecture enough to pinpoint how.

He was also too distracted by the pair of goblins standing at the bank’s ornate double doors.

They were dressed in perfectly tailored uniforms of scarlet and gold, and discreetly examined everyone that walked by the bank. Harry knew they were goblins the way he’d have known a dragon if he saw one: they matched the description of countless fantasy novels in most metrics, if not all. Far from green skinned, the short humanoids were almost as pale as the marble behind them, but they had elongated, pointed nose and ears, extremely long, dextrous looking fingers, and slanted, piercing eyes.

Harry tried not to stare as he and Professor McGonagall approached the stairs leading up to the door. It took all his self control to keep his questions to himself however: here were living beings, apparently just as sapient as humans, but clearly from a drastically different genealogy! He wondered how much their DNA resembled humans, and if the two species were close enough genetically to interbreed. A handful of goblin bones would probably drive Richard Dawkins into an academic frenzy, let alone sight of the real thing.

Above the great double doors was a gold and mahogany plaque bearing the symbol of an ornate key, the word “Gringotts” inscribed on it. Below that were the words Fortius Quo Fidelius.Harry consulted his scattered Latin; Stronger Through Loyalty?

“Good morning,” he said to the goblins, who bowed in response. The doors appeared to be thick, heavy marble, but one of the goblins gripped its lower handle and swung it open with ease, though he appeared no more muscular than Harry. Mental note: size does not correlate with strength in the magical world.

Harry and Professor McGonagall walked through the doors side by side, and the goblin behind them closed it. They were in a small entrance hall that was mostly empty, though curiously there were a pair of fireplaces to either side. In front of them was another set of doors, these silver, also flanked with goblins. As Harry approached, he saw writing engraved on it:

Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.

Harry swallowed. It should have seemed silly, something out of a nursery tale… but standing in what seemed literally a goblin stronghold, the words conveyed a quiet, self-assured threat that sent a shiver up Harry’s spine. Further note: do not get on a goblin’s bad side.

“Greetings Madame McGonagall,” said the goblin to their right, voice reedy and accented with a dialect Harry had never heard before. “Greetings Master Potter.”

“Greetings,” Harry said, and glanced at Professor McGonagall curiously.

“I informed the bank that we would be arriving today, so they would have your family vault key readily located,” she explained. “It hasn’t been accessed in a decade.”

“Ah. Well, thank you for keeping my inheritance safe for me,” Harry told the goblin. He felt rather awkward claiming money from parents he had never met, but knew he would need it for school supplies that were sure to be very expensive. How much would a genuine magic item go for in the muggle world? People already paid exorbitant prices on claptrap that didn’t even work; the tooth cleaning potion he’d seen in a shop window would probably sell for hundreds of pounds, maybe thousands. He hoped he would be able to afford his wand and books at least.

“Merely our duty, Master Potter,” the goblin said, and bowed again. Was it Harry’s imagination, or was there a slightly mocking tone to the goblin’s words?

The goblin opened the door, revealing a long hall filled with goblins and wizards. The latter mostly stood in queues, while the former walked about with an air of urgent business or stood behind podiums and desks that placed them a head above their clients. A rather obvious bit of over-compensation, but Harry didn’t blame them in the slightest.

All this Harry saw through what appeared to be a thin film of water, falling gently from somewhere above the other side of the doors and trickling into a narrow grate on the floor.

“It’s called the Thief’s Downfall,” Professor McGonagall said, seeing Harry’s hesitation. “It washes away many forms of magical disguise, and will ensure we are who we appear to be. Your scar will become visible after we pass through, but I’ll obscure it again when we leave.” The witch walked through the water, then turned to wait for him.

Harry took a breath and stepped through, eyes shut and shoulders tight as he anticipated a cold bath. The water was lukewarm however, and quickly evaporated. Within seconds he felt completely dry, and he opened his eyes in astonishment, hands running through his hair.

Professor McGonagall gave him a brief smile, then led the way to a podium labeled “Special Appointments.” Harry followed, trying not to stare at any one thing too long. He saw a witch weighing a jingling pouch in her hand, goblins writing on long sheets of parchment with feathered quills, and a wizard handing an emerald the size of Harry’s fist to his goblin teller, who took out a monocle and examined the gem.

The goblin they approached seemed older than the others, head mostly bald and hair long and white, with small spectacles perched on his long nose. “Yes?” he asked without glancing up from the parchment he was examining.

“Harry Potter is here to access his vault.”

There was a slight pause, and the goblin’s eyes flicked upward at Harry. “You have the key?”

Professor McGonagall pulled an iron key out of her sleeve, the letter P engraved at its handle. She held it over the desk.

The older goblin took the key, squinting at it for a moment and running his thin fingers over the engraving before handing it back. “Very good.” The goblin reached to the side and picked up a bell, which he rang in a deliberate pattern: ding-a-dong, ding-ding, dong-ding! “Griphook will guide you.” He rolled his parchment up a bit and continued reading. Harry saw that it extended all the way down to the floor. He wondered why a society that clearly had access to books would still use scrolls. Perhaps it was a goblin thing, along with their aversion to fountain pens.

Griphook proved to be a youngish goblin, with relatively smooth skin and full dark hair slicked back over his head. He bowed after approaching them. “Madame McGonagall. Master Potter. Follow me, please.”

The goblin led them out of the main hall through a side door, which opened into a downward staircase. The stairs were clean white marble at first, but soon changed to dark stone, and the glowing chandeliers gave way to flaming torches. Harry knew they must have been enchanted, as there was no smoke, which would have filled the tunnel without some airway to escape through.

I’m walking down a goblin tunnel, Harry thought with a renewed touch of unreality. The tunnel soon leveled off, and then the walls fell away to reveal long, twisting paths with rail tracks along the floor. Mine carts sat on short tracks that branched off the main lines, and Griphook led them to one.

“Please step aboard, Master Potter.”

Harry met the goblin’s gaze. “Mister will suffice, thank you.” Harry remembered vacationing with his parents at an expensive hotel once. They’d been waited on by the staff with an overwhelming deference that was enjoyable, but in an occasionally uncomfortable way. Though the thought of having servants (or better yet, minions) was appealing on a number of levels, he didn’t quite feel comfortable being called “master” by another race. Especially not coupled with the vaguely mocking tone he sensed from the goblins, though perhaps that was merely a difference in mannerisms or accent that didn’t quite translate well. “And my full name is Potter-Evans-Verres.”

The goblin peered back at him for a silent moment, then another. Harry didn’t drop his gaze, and the goblin finally inclined his head briefly. “As you say, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres.”

Harry followed Professor McGonagall onto the trolley, ignoring her speculative look. He noted the lack of hand rails or seat belts, and began to feel nervous as Griphook stepped in and closed the side hatch. “Is this really the safest way to conduct a banking transaction?”

“No,” Griphook said with a wide grin, revealing sharp teeth. He pulled a key out of his vest pocket, identical to the one Professor McGonagall had, and inserted it into a keyhole at the back of the trolley. “But then, it wouldn’t be much good if it was.” He twisted the key, and the mine cart shuddered, rolled slowly onto the main track, then zoomed forward at what only felt like roughly half the speed of sound.

Harry’s yell of surprise was soon lost behind them as the wind whipped it from his lips, and he gripped the sides of the cart until his knuckles turned white. He gave Professor McGonagall an accusatory glare, and the witch merely raised an eyebrow, arms crossed nonchalantly over her chest as her lips twitched at the corners. Harry grit his teeth and slowly drew his hands back to his sides, ignoring the lurching sensations in his stomach as the cart rocketed through the twisting caverns, down, down, down.

Of course, they’d assure it’s safe if you have the proper means to travel it, Harry chided himself. They passed by glittering crystal outgrowths, various sized vault doors, and through another Thief’s Downfall, this one much bigger and ice cold, though he once again dried in seconds.

Harry raised his voice over the clatter of the wheels. “Do all wizards keep their money here?”

“All that care about their gold!” Griphook replied.

“Gold?”

“And silver, and bronze!” Professor McGonagall called out. “The gold coins are called Galleons, the silver Sickles, and the bronze Knuts. It’s twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle, seventeen Sickles to a Galleon!”

Harry was still processing the implications of this as they shot around a particularly wide corner, and his next question was interrupted by a burst of fire that illuminated the darkness around them. Harry twisted his head around, but the chamber was already out of sight. “What was that?” he yelled back at Griphook.

“Just a dragon!” Griphook said with a smirk, and Harry couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. His mind raced in a whole new direction, monetary matters temporarily tabled.

Soon after, the cart began to slow, its deafening rattle quieting little by little until it finally took one of the branching paths. The trolley coasted along it and reached a relatively small vault door with no markings on it. Griphook hopped out of the cart and walked up to the door, then inserted the same key he’d put into the trolley cart. A second keyhole was parallel to it, and Professor McGonagall inserted her, or rather Harry’s, key into that one. They twisted together, there was a heavy metal clunk, and the door swung inward.

Harry stepped inside the brightly lit marble room and felt his jaw unhinge in a gape.

Heaps of gold Galleons. Stacks of silver Sickles. Piles of bronze Knuts. More money than he’d ever seen in one place, all in the form of gleaming treasure that would make Bluebeard jealous.This… is all mine?

Harry was vaguely aware of Professor McGonagall leaning casually against the wall, eyes intent. Watching him. Well, that made sense. Being plopped in front of a giant heap of gold coins was a test of character so pure it was archetypal.

Harry closed his mouth. First things first… get an estimate of how much money he was actually looking at, in a way he could understand. “Are these coins the pure metal?” he asked Griphook.

“What?” the goblin spat from the doorway, voice harsh. “Are you questioning the integrity of Gringotts, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres?”

“No,” said Harry, “not at all, sorry if that came out wrong, sir. I just have no idea at all how your financial system works. I’m asking if Galleons in general are made of pure gold.”

“Of course,” said Griphook.

“And can anyone coin them, or are they issued by a monopoly that collects seigniorage?”

Griphook grinned. “Only a fool would trust any but goblin coin!”

“In other words,” Harry said, “the coins aren’t supposed to be worth any more than the metal making them up?”

Griphook stared at Harry. Professor McGonagall looked bemused.

“I mean, suppose I came in here with a ton of silver. Could I get a ton of Sickles made from it?”

“For a fee, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres.” The goblin watched him with glittering eyes. “For a certain fee. Where would you find a ton of silver, I wonder?”

“I was speaking hypothetically,” Harry said. For now, at any rate. “So… how much would you charge in fees, as a fraction of the whole weight?”

Griphook’s eyes were intent. “I would have to consult my superiors…”

“Give me a wild guess. I won’t hold Gringotts to it.”

“A twentieth part of the metal would well pay for the coining.”

Harry nodded. “Thank you very much, Mr. Griphook.”

So not only is the wizarding economy almost completely decoupled from the Muggle economy, no one here has ever heard of arbitrage. The larger Muggle economy had a fluctuating trading range of gold to silver, so every time the Muggle gold-to-silver ratio got more than 5% away from the weight of seventeen Sickles to one Galleon, either gold or silver should have drained from the wizarding economy until it became impossible to maintain the exchange rate. Bring in a ton of silver, change to Sickles (and pay 5%), change the Sickles for Galleons, take the gold to the Muggle world, exchange it for more silver than you started with, and repeat.

Wasn’t the Muggle gold to silver ratio somewhere around fifty to one? Harry didn’t think it was seventeen, anyway. And it looked like the silver coins were actually smaller than the gold coins.

Then again, Harry was standing in a bank that literally stored your money in vaults guarded by dragons, where you had to go in and take coins out of your vault whenever you wanted to spend money. The finer points of arbitraging away market inefficiencies might well be lost on them. He’d be tempted to make snide remarks about the crudity of their financial system…

But the sad thing is, their way might actually be better.

On the other hand, one competent hedge fundie could probably own the whole wizarding world within a week. Harry filed away this notion in case he ever ran out of money, or had a week free.

Meanwhile, the giant heaps of gold coins within the Potter vault ought to suit his near-term requirements.

Harry stepped forward, and began picking up gold coins with one hand and dumping them into the other.

When he had reached twenty, Professor McGonagall coughed. “I think that will be more than enough to pay for your school supplies, Mr. Potter.”

“Hm?” Harry said, his mind elsewhere. “Hold on, I’m doing a Fermi calculation.”

“A what? ” said Professor McGonagall, sounding somewhat alarmed.

“It’s a mathematical thing. Named after Enrico Fermi. A way of getting rough numbers quickly in your head…”

Twenty gold Galleons weighed a tenth of a kilogram, maybe? And gold was, what, ten thousand British pounds a kilogram? So a Galleon would be worth about fifty pounds… The mounds of gold coins looked to be about sixty coins high and twenty coins wide in either dimension of the base, and a mound was pyramidal, so it would be around one-third of the cube. Eight thousand Galleons per mound, roughly, and there were around five mounds of that size, so forty thousand Galleons or 2 million pounds sterling.

Harry smiled with a certain grim satisfaction. It was too bad that he was right in the middle of discovering the amazing new world of magic, and couldn’t take time out to explore the amazing new world of being rich, which a quick Fermi estimate said was roughly a billion times less interesting.

Still, that’s the last time I ever mow a lawn for one lousy pound.

Harry wheeled from the giant heap of money. “Pardon me for asking, Professor McGonagall, but I understand that my parents were in their twenties when they died. Is this a usual amount of money for a young couple to have in their vault, in the wizarding world?” If it was, a cup of tea probably cost five thousand pounds. Rule one of economics: you can’t eat money.

Professor McGonagall shook her head. “Your father was the last heir of an old family, Mr. Potter. It’s also possible…” The witch hesitated. “Some of this money may be from bounties placed on You-Know-Who, payable to his ki- ah, to whoever might defeat him. Or those bounties might not have been collected yet. I am not sure.”

“Interesting…” Harry said slowly. “So some of this really is, in a sense, mine. That is, earned by me. Sort of. Possibly. Even if I don’t remember the occasion.” Harry’s fingers tapped against his trouser-leg. “That makes me feel less guilty about spending a very tiny fraction of it! Don’t panic, Professor McGonagall!

“Mr. Potter! You are a minor, and as such, you will only be allowed to make reasonable withdrawals from -”

“I am all about reasonable! I am totally on board with fiscal prudence and impulse control! But I did see some things on the way here which would constitute sensible, grown-up purchases…”

Harry locked gazes with Professor McGonagall, engaging in a silent staring contest.

“Like what?” Professor McGonagall said finally.

“Trunks whose insides hold more than their outsides?”

Professor McGonagall’s face grew stern. “Those are very expensive, Mr. Potter!”

“Yes, but -” Harry pleaded. “I’m sure that when I’m an adult I’ll want one. And I can afford one. Logically, it would make just as much sense to buy it now instead of later, and get the use of it right away. It’s the same money either way, right? I mean, I would want a good one, with lots of room inside, good enough that I wouldn’t have to just get a better one later…” Harry trailed off hopefully.

Professor McGonagall’s gaze didn’t waver. “And just what would you keep in a trunk like that, Mr. Potter -”

“Books.”

“Of course,” sighed Professor McGonagall.

“You should have told me much earlier that sort of magic item existed! And that I could afford one! Now my father and I are going to have to spend the next two days frantically hitting up all the secondhand bookshops for old textbooks, so I can have a decent science library with me at Hogwarts – and maybe a small science fiction collection, if I can assemble something decent out of the bargain bins. Or better yet, I’ll make the deal a little sweeter for you, okay? Just let me buy -”

Mr. Potter! You think you can bribe me?”

“What? No! Not like that! I’m saying, Hogwarts can keep some of the books I bring, if you think that any of them would make good additions to the library. I’m going to be getting them cheap, and I just want to have them around somewhere or other. It’s okay to bribe people with books, right? That’s a -”

“Family tradition.”

“Yes, exactly.”

Professor McGonagall’s body seemed to slump, the shoulders lowering within her black robes. “I cannot deny the sense of your words, though I much wish I could. I will allow you to withdraw an additional hundred Galleons, Mr. Potter.” She sighed again. “I know that I shall regret this, and I am doing it anyway.”

“That’s the spirit! And does a ‘mokeskin pouch’ do what I think it does?”

“It can’t do as much as a trunk,” the witch said with visible reluctance, “but… a mokeskin pouch with a Retrieval Charm and Undetectable Extension Charm can hold a number of items until they are called forth by the one who emplaced them -”

“Yes!” Harry’s excitement made him shift from foot to foot, eyes alight. “I definitely need one of those too! Batman’s utility belt of holding! Never mind my swiss army knife, I could carry a whole tool set in there! Or books! I could have the top three books I was reading on me at all times, and just pull one out anywhere! I’ll never have to waste another minute of my life! What do you say, Professor McGonagall? It’s for the sake of children’s reading, the best of all possible causes!”

“…I suppose you may add another ten Galleons.”

“And a little spending money, like you mentioned earlier. I think I can remember seeing one or two other things I might want to store in that pouch.”

Don’t push it, Mr. Potter.

“But oh, Professor McGonagall, why rain on my parade? Surely this is a happy day, when I discover all things wizarding for the first time! Why act the part of the grumpy grownup when instead you could smile and remember your own innocent childhood, watching the look of delight upon my young face as I buy a few toys using an insignificant fraction of the wealth that I earned by defeating the most terrible wizard Britain has ever known, not that I’m accusing you of being ungrateful or anything, but still, what are a few toys compared to that?”

You,” growled Professor McGonagall. There was a look on her face so fearsome and terrible that Harry squeaked and stepped back, knocking over a pile of gold coins with a great jingling noise and sprawling backwards into a heap of money. Griphook sighed and put a palm over his face. “I would be doing a great service to wizarding Britain, Mr. Potter, if I locked you in this vault and left you here.”

And they left without any more trouble.


Hey everyone. This has been a lot of fun, and the feedback has been very gratifying. I’m probably going to stop here: chapter 5 is where I felt the quality began to reflect the rest of the story, and I’d have little to add to it. I might revisit this to provide more context for certain later events (Harry shopping for his wand, for example), but in the meantime I think these chapters do the job of smoothing out the introduction of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. If you somehow found yourself here while being unaware of that fanfic and want to read more, you can continue the story at hpmor.com

Chapter 3: Comparing Reality To Its Alternatives

 

“But then the question is – who?”


“Now remember Harry, you’re not under any obligation to be here.”

“I know Mum.”

“If you want to come home, just give me a call and I’ll pick you right up.”

“Yes Mum.” As if I’d turn back now.

Petunia Evans-Verres looked at Harry in the rear-view mirror of the car as if she could easily guess his thoughts, and seemed troubled by them. He’d spent the past few weeks in a mild frenzy, first interrogating her for what little direct experience she had about magic (“No Mum, tell me what you’ve seen, not what you’ve guessed or read about.”) then doing independent research, which had quickly proven fruitless. Any books on magic he found involved complicated rituals to bring about some minor, vague misfortune, or wishing yourself riches and happiness through “positive attraction,” or some other such unfalsifiable feel-good fluff. Nothing remotely close to lifting a man off the ground with a couple words and the wave of a stick, let alone turning into a cat, and no mention of a “Hogwarts” anywhere.

Clearly all the real magic was kept out of bookstores or libraries by some organized effort, a notion he found both troubling and thrilling. On the one hand, he was about to be part of a massive, worldwide conspiracy the likes of which he’d only read about in fiction. On the other hand, the reality of a group of people capable of secretly enforcing such a conspiracy was mildly terrifying. He wondered how omnipotent they really were, and whether non-magic authorities were involved in the coverup.

Finally, the day before yesterday another message had arrived at their house. Professor McGonagall had supplied them with a time and an address where Harry could meet her to obtain his school supplies. So this morning Harry’s mum had driven him to London, uncharacteristically quiet and nervous. Harry assumed she was worried he would make a bad impression, but he was determined not to get into any trouble that might jeopardize his acceptance into the magical world. If the past few weeks had confirmed anything about his nature to himself, it was that he couldn’t stand being aware of a mystery and not having the means to solve it. Just imagining going on with his life without learning more about magic… any scientific field he went into would drive him mad as he considered the true nature of reality that he’d caught a glimpse of.

Once they arrived at the appropriate address, Harry’s mother parked beside a row of shops. Harry stepped out of the car and looked around, and his mother rolled down her window.

“Well,” Petunia said after a pause, looking up and down the sidewalk. “I don’t see Professor McGonagall… though we are a bit early. Where do you suppose the place is? ‘The Leaky Cauldron,’ wasn’t it?”

Harry turned in a slow circle, scanning the shops along the street. Nothing looked like a place that would sell magic wands, even as a joke. There was a fashionable clothing store, a hair boutique, an ice cream parlor, some fast food restaurants, a book shop (which he quickly jogged into, looked around a bit, then left), a pub – “There,” he said, and pointed to The Leaky Cauldron, a quaint brick building tucked between the book shop and a record store “Maybe she’s already inside.”

“Hm?” Harry’s mother looked vaguely in the direction he’d pointed. “Did you say you saw her?”

Harry began to point again, then stopped and looked at his Mum, then back at the pub. She was looking right at it. “What do you see between that bookshop and the record store?”

“What do you mean, dear? In the alley?”

Alley? From Harry’s perspective, the walls of The Leaky Cauldron were pressed up against its neighbors. “You don’t see the pub right there?” he asked, pointing straight at it again.

“No,” Petunia said. “You mean to tell me there is one?”

Harry felt an electric thrill go up his spine, and simply couldn’t help himself. He approached a nearby couple as they walked by the car. “Excuse me, I’m afraid I brought the wrong prescription with me this morning and can’t quite make out the store signs. Could you read them to me please, from right to left?” He gestured.

The man gave him a curious look, but the woman began listing names. Harry watched her eyes as she named the bookshop, then the record store, without mentioning the Leaky Cauldron. It looked as though her gaze simply passed over where it was without registering it.

“Thank you.” He returned to his mother, shifting his weight from foot to foot with nervous energy as he stood beside the car and examined the pub. “It’s not just you. They couldn’t see it either.” Here it was. Proof, however subtle, that he wasn’t like other people. The now-familiar sense of disorientation came over him, and his mind raced with possibilities for how the cloaking worked. Harry wondered what would happen if he threw a rock out of the pub’s window. Would the glass suddenly become visible to the people on the street? It was all he could do to not rush to the pub and begin experimenting with his mother’s perception.

If wizard folk could do things like this, it was no wonder Harry couldn’t find any books about them. He wondered now if a massive conspiracy was really needed to hide records of the magical world. What if non-magic folk couldn’t even see the books? What else had he seen in his life without realizing no one else could? Maybe some other safety mechanism was in place, like he needed to know the name of the pub as well-

“Good morning, Mr. Potter.”

Harry spun around and beheld Professor McGonagall in all her witchy glory, seeming utterly unconcerned with the odd looks she was getting from passersby.

“Good morning Professor,” Harry said. “Why can’t Mum see The Leaky Cauldron?”

“It’s enchanted against muggle notice.” The professor turned to his mother. “Good morning Mrs. Evans-Verres. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“Not at all, we’d just arrived.” Petunia looked back at Harry, still with that same nervousness she’d had all day. “Well, I’ll be back this evening to pick you up. Be good, Harry.”

She kissed him goodbye and drove away. He watched her go, then turned to Professor McGonagall. “What’s a ‘muggle?'”

Professor McGonagall’s lips twitched. “It’s good to see you again too, Mr. Potter. Muggles are what we call those without a drop of magic in them. Shall we?”

Harry followed her toward the pub. “Ok, so Dad’s a muggle, but Mum too? Her sister was a witch, doesn’t that mean she had some magic in her family?”

“Oh, no, if her parents were both muggles then she was a muggle too,” Professor McGonagall explained in her prim, scottish voice. “What you’re thinking of is what we call a ‘squib.’ Though children of a witch and wizard, they cannot do magic themselves, poor things, but they can perceive many magical things and use enchanted items.”

Harry was trying to filter this information through his understanding of genetics, but was distracted partway as they entered The Leaky Cauldron. Harry whipped his head around to see if anything of note happened as they did, but couldn’t detect any invisibility field descending on him, and no one in the street seemed to notice two people suddenly disappear.

The inside of the pub was a bit dark and shabby, with wooden tables scattered about the shadows and a grubby bar that dominated the far wall. About a dozen people were inside, most dressed in various colored robes.

“Good morning Professor McGonagall,” said the barman with a smile.

“Good morning Tom.”

“Is there anything I could get for – Good Lord.” He peered at Harry, gaze drawn to his forehead. “Is this… can this be…?”

Harry leaned towards the bar of the Leaky Cauldron as best he could, though it came up to somewhere around the tips of his eyebrows. A question like that deserved his very best.

“Am I – could I be – maybe – you never know – if I’m not – but then the question is – who?”

“Bless my soul,” whispered the old barman. “Harry Potter… what an honour.”

Harry blinked, then rallied. “Well, yes, you’re quite perceptive; most people don’t realise that so quickly-”

“That’s enough,” Professor McGonagall said. Her hand tightened on Harry’s shoulder and began to steer him toward the back door. “Don’t pester the boy, Tom, he’s new to all this.”

“But it is him?” quavered an old woman sitting at the bar. “It’s Harry Potter?” With a scraping sound, she got up from her chair.

“Doris -” McGonagall said warningly. The glare she gave the room was enough to stop most others from doing more than muttering amongst themselves and staring, some paused halfway out of their seats.

“I only want to shake his hand,” the woman whispered. She bent low and stuck out a soft, wrinkled palm, which Harry, feeling confused and more uncomfortable than he ever had in his life, carefully shook. Tears fell from the woman’s eyes onto their clasped hands. “My granson was an Auror,” she whispered to him. “Died in seventy-nine. Thank you, Harry Potter. Thank heavens for you.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry said automatically, and then shot Professor McGonagall a frightened, pleading look.

Others began to approach them again, and Professor McGonagall slammed her foot down. It made a noise that gave Harry a new referent for the phrase “Crack of Doom”, and the other bar patrons once again froze in place just as the general rush was about to start.

“We’re in a hurry,” Professor McGonagall said in a calm voice.

They left the bar without any trouble.

“Professor?” Harry said, once they left. They were in a grassy courtyard surrounded on all sides by high brick walls. He had meant to ask what was going on, but oddly found himself asking an entirely different question instead. “Who was that pale man, by the corner? The man with the twitching eye, slumped in his seat?”

“Hm?” said Professor McGonagall, sounding a bit surprised; perhaps she hadn’t expected that question either. “That was Professor Quirinus Quirrell. He’ll be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts this year at Hogwarts.”

“I had the strangest feeling that I knew him…” Harry rubbed his forehead. “And that I shouldn’t ought to shake his hand.” Like meeting someone who had been a friend, once, before something went drastically wrong… that wasn’t really it at all, but Harry couldn’t find words. “And what was… all of that?”

Professor McGonagall was giving him an odd glance. “Mr. Potter… do you know… how much have you been told, about how your parents died?”

Harry returned a steady look. “My parents are alive and well, thank you. They’ve told me that my genetic parents were killed in a car accident when I was one year old.”

“An admirable loyalty,” said Professor McGonagall. Her voice went low. “Though it hurts a little to hear you say it like that. Lily and James were friends of mine.”

Harry looked away, suddenly ashamed. “I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “But I have a Mum and Dad. And I know that I’d just make myself unhappy by comparing that reality to… something perfect that I built up in my imagination.”

“That is quite wise of you,” Professor McGonagall said quietly. “But your genetic parents died very well indeed, protecting you.”

Protecting me?

Something strange clutched at Harry’s heart. “So it… wasn’t a car crash? What did happen?”

Professor McGonagall sighed. Her wand tapped Harry’s forehead, and his vision blurred for a moment. “Something of a disguise,” she said, “so that this doesn’t happen again, not until you’re ready.” Then her wand flicked out again, and tapped three times on a brick wall…

…which hollowed into a hole that dilated and expanded and shivered into a huge archway, revealing a pedestrian street on the other side. A long row of shops advertising everything from actual cauldrons to “dragon liver” were clearly visible, and wizards and witches bustled about from store to store, some even trailing children dressed in small, brightly colored robes.

Harry didn’t blink. It wasn’t like anyone was turning into a cat.

“Welcome, Mr. Potter, to Diagon Alley.”

And they walked forwards, together, into the wizarding world.

Here, Harry was sure, was the true testament to the effectiveness of magical secrecy. A whole long, winding street of London City completely unknown by its inhabitants. Only powerful magic or political agreements of the highest order could keep airplanes or satellites from taking note of such a place. Here were merchants hawking Bounce Boots (“Made with real Flubber!”). There were goggles that would turn anything you looked at green, and a lineup of comfy armchairs with ejection seats for emergencies. Some of the buildings were merely a story or two high, while others had multiple floors and were oddly structured, as though relying on magic to keep them upright.

Harry’s head kept rotating like it was trying to wind itself off his neck. It was like walking through the magical items section of an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulebook (he had no one to play the games with, but he did enjoy reading the rulebooks). Harry desperately didn’t want to miss a single item for sale, in case it was one of the three you needed to complete the cycle of infinite wish spells.

Then Harry spotted something that made him, entirely without thinking, veer off from the Deputy Headmistress and start heading straight into the shop, a front of blue bricks with bronze-metal trim. He was brought back to reality only at Professor McGonagall’s voice.

“Mr. Potter?” she said.

Harry blinked, then realised what he’d just done. “I’m sorry! I forgot for a moment that I was with you instead of my family.” Harry gestured at the shop window, which displayed fiery letters that shone piercingly bright and yet remote, spelling out Bigbam’s Brilliant Books. “When you walk past a bookshop you haven’t visited before, you have to go in and look around. That’s the family rule.”

“That is the most Ravenclaw thing I have ever heard.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Mr. Potter, our first step is to visit Gringotts, the bank of the wizarding world. Your genetic family vault is there, with the inheritance your genetic parents left you, and you’ll need money for school supplies.” She sighed. “And, I suppose, a certain amount of spending money for books could be excused as well. Though you might want to hold off for a time. Hogwarts has quite a large library on magical subjects. And the tower in which, I strongly suspect, you will be living, has a more broad-ranging library of its own. Any book you bought now would probably be a duplicate.”

Harry nodded, and they walked on.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great distraction,” Harry said as his head kept swivelling, “probably the best distraction anyone has ever tried on me, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about our pending discussion.”

Professor McGonagall was silent for a time. “Your parents – or your mother at any rate – may have been very wise not to tell you.”

“So you wish that I could continue in blissful ignorance? There is a certain flaw in that plan, Professor McGonagall.”

“I suppose it would be rather pointless,” the witch said tightly, “when anyone on the street could tell you the story. Very well.”

And she told him of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord, Voldemort.

“Voldemort?” Harry whispered. It should have been funny, but it wasn’t. The name burned with a cold feeling, ruthlessness, diamond clarity, a hammer of pure titanium descending upon an anvil of yielding flesh. A chill swept over Harry even as he pronounced the word, and he resolved then and there to use safer terms like You-Know-Who.

The Dark Lord had raged upon wizarding Britain like a wilding wolf, tearing and rending at the fabric of their everyday lives. Other countries had wrung their hands but hesitated to intervene, whether out of apathetic selfishness or simple fear, for whichever was first among them to oppose the Dark Lord, their peace would be the next target of his terror.

(The bystander effect, thought Harry, thinking of the Latane and Darley experiment which had shown that you were more likely to get help if you had an epileptic fit in front of one person than in front of three. Diffusion of responsibility, everyone hoping that someone else would go first.)

The Death Eaters had followed in the Dark Lord’s wake and in his vanguard, carrion vultures to pick at wounds, or snakes to bite and weaken. The Death Eaters were not as terrible as the Dark Lord, but they were terrible, and they were many. And the Death Eaters wielded more than wands; there was wealth within those masked ranks, and political power, and secrets held in blackmail, to paralyse a society trying to protect itself.

An old and respected journalist, Yermy Wibble, called for increased taxes and conscription. He shouted that it was absurd for the many to cower in fear of the few. His skin, only his skin, had been found nailed to the newsroom wall that next morning, next to the skins of his wife and two daughters. Everyone wished for something more to be done, and no one dared take the lead to propose it. Whoever stood out the most became the next example.

Until the names of James and Lily Potter rose to the top of that list.

And those two might have died with their wands in their hands and not regretted their choices, for they were heroes; but they had an infant child, their son, Harry Potter.

Tears were coming into Harry’s eyes. He wiped them away in anger or maybe desperation. I didn’t know those people, not really, they aren’t my parents now, it would be pointless to feel so sad for them –

When Harry was done sobbing into the witch’s robes, he looked up, and felt a little bit better to see tears in Professor McGonagall’s eyes as well.

“So what happened?” Harry said, voice trembling.

“The Dark Lord came to Godric’s Hollow,” Professor McGonagall said in a whisper. “You should have been hidden, but you were betrayed. The Dark Lord killed James, and he killed Lily, and he came in the end to you, to your cot. He cast the Killing Curse at you, and that was where it ended. The Killing Curse is formed of pure hate, and strikes directly at the soul, severing it from the body. It cannot be blocked, and whomever it strikes, they die. But you survived. You are the only person ever to survive. The Killing Curse rebounded and struck the Dark Lord, leaving only the burnt hulk of his body and a scar upon your forehead. That was the end of the terror, and we were free. That, Harry Potter, is why you are often called ‘The Boy Who Lived,’ and why people want to see the scar on your forehead, and shake your hand.”

The storm of weeping that had washed through Harry had used up all his tears; he would not cry again.

(And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry’s art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it.)

Harry detached himself from Professor McGonagall’s side. “I’ll – have to think about this,” he said, trying to keep his voice under control. He stared at his shoes. “Um. You can go ahead and call them my parents, if you want, you don’t have to say ‘genetic parents’ or anything. I guess there’s no reason I can’t have two mothers and two fathers.”

There was no sound from Professor McGonagall.

And they walked together in silence, making their way through the streets of wizards, witches, and their children.

Chapter 2: Everything I Believe Is False

“Of course it was my fault. There’s no one else here who could be responsible for anything.”


Oddly enough, it might have been easier explaining to his dad that an owl had grabbed the letter after all.

“What? Mrs. Figg?” Professor Evans-Verres’s shock was spectacular. Harry empathized completely. He sat at the table between the living room and kitchen, somewhat in a daze.

“Did she say what time they would be coming?” Petunia asked. She checked the pot roast and ran her hands over her hair, as if expecting someone to ring the doorbell any minute.

“We’ve known Mrs. Figg for ten years,” Harry’s dad said. “She’s a perfectly reasonable woman, why on earth would she-”

“No Mum, she just said they’d be here in a ‘jiffy or two.’ I don’t know how far they’re coming, but it’s probably not going to be…” Harry trailed off as he realised that, given the hypothesis being tested, it might well be before the pot roast was done. He tried to remind himself that was silly, teleportation would break so many laws of physics there might as well not be any, but ever since he’d heard the word “Hogwarts” come out of Mrs. Figg’s mouth, his brain didn’t seem to be working properly. A part of his mind took note of his dad’s comment about knowing Mrs. Figg for ten years. Had she moved here the year Harry had been adopted? That seemed significant, if he could only wrestle his mind into considering how.

“Maybe she sent the letters,” Dad said. He began to to pace the limited floorspace of the living room, feet stepping around books with the unconscious ease of memory. “Or she’s part of the same cult your sister was in-”

“Well better set an extra place just in case.” Mum put a stack of plates in front of Harry, and he set the table for four, placing each fork and knife with an inordinate amount of attention. Dad’s theories made sense of course, more sense than his did, but his strange certainty continued to color all his thoughts as he set out the cups.

Dad suddenly gripped the back of the couch, face horrified. “We let her babysit you!”

A knock at the door froze them all in place.

Dad was the first to thaw. He straightened, squared his shoulders, and walked to the front door, dignity fully reinforced by his casual tweed homewear.

Mum wiped her hands on a towel and followed, and Harry rushed after them, wondering if it would be Mrs. Figg and knowing somehow that it wasn’t. Dad peered through the peephole and recoiled as if stung. Harry’s anticipation redoubled.

“Yes, who’s there?” Professor Evans-Verres’s voice did not tremble.

“Professor Minerva McGonagall,” said a formal, Scottish voice, and Michael twitched. Harry wondered why, until his dad opened the door.

Professor McGonagall was an older woman, perhaps in her sixties, with greying hair in a severe bun and square spectacles perched on her nose. She looked every inch the professor she claimed to be, but for two things: she wore a black robe of some rich fabric, and her hat was decidedly pointy.

Harry grinned. His father’s mental image of “professor” had just been severely abused.

“Come in, please,” Petunia said with a smile. “Supper’s almost ready, if you’re hungry.”

“I ate, thank you.” Professor McGonagall said, and walked inside. Harry and his parents stepped back to let her through.

“I’m Petunia Evans-Verres, so nice to meet you…” The two walked down the hall, leaving Harry and his dad by the door. Harry closed it, then exchanged a look with his father.

“What do you reckon?” he whispered. “Time to call the white coats?”

Dad snorted and clapped him on the shoulder with a grin. “Come on, let’s get this foolishness done with.” They followed the women into the living room.

“Got an experiment in mind?” Harry asked. He was still feeling off balance. That strange certainty was stronger now, as if this were all a formality, and he already accepted that the woman in their house was a witch, without quite being able to grasp what that would mean in a practical sense.

“I can’t imagine anything I would come up with that she wouldn’t make an excuse for,” his father said, still keeping his voice low. Harry nodded, and decided to be forthright with their guest, who stood expectantly in the living room. She eyed the multitude of books with what looked to be an admiring air, which Harry found reassuring.

“Good evening Professor McGonagall. As I’m sure you’re aware-” Harry stopped. He actually wasn’t sure what she was aware of. Had she received his letter? What had Mrs. Figg done, read it to her over the phone? Perhaps she had stopped next door to retrieve it before coming here… Harry stifled his questions and began again. “I’m Harry Potter-Evans-Verres. We were surprised by your letter, and have some doubts about its validity. Mum says she’s seen magic before, but neither Dad nor myself have. If you could demonstrate the quality of your magic to us, that would be a good first step.”

Professor McGonagall was watching Harry with an amused expression as he spoke. “Of course, I would be happy to.” She pulled a thin wooden stick out of her sleeve with practiced grace, and Harry blinked. He hadn’t seen the shape of it against the material, and it should have fallen out if it wasn’t held there somehow. “Is there something specific that would persuade you?”

Still preoccupied with her sleight of hand, it took Harry a second to realize she was holding a “magic wand,” and he said the first thing that popped into his head: “Can you shoot fire out of that?”

“Harry!” Mum said with some alarm, and Professor McGonagall’s lips twitched in a brief smile.

“I could, but I think that would be dangerous.” She glanced pointedly at their surroundings. “How about something less destructive?”

“Of course,” Harry said, cheeks red. “Er… did you fly here? I didn’t hear a car, and unless you live nearby I can’t imagine how else you got here so quickly. If you could just… hover a bit? That might help. Wait, on second thought, levitate Dad.”

Professor Evans-Verres gave Harry an approving nod, and stepped forward to face their guest with his arms crossed. Professor McGonagall lifted her wand, and Harry realized his mistake. “Wait!” he said. She lowered her wand, raising an eyebrow. “I want to make sure we do this right.” He thought about it for a second while everyone watched him.

“Now, just to be clear,” Harry said to his Dad. “If the professor does levitate you, when you know you haven’t been attached to any wires, that’s going to be sufficient evidence. You’re not going to turn around and say that it’s a magician’s trick. That wouldn’t be fair play. If you feel that way, you should say so now, and we can ask her to do something else instead.”

Dad nodded, smiling good-naturedly. “Agreed.”

“And you, Mum, your theory says that the professor should be able to do this, and if that doesn’t happen, you’ll admit you’re mistaken. Nothing about how magic doesn’t work when people are sceptical of it, or anything like that.”

Mum glanced at Professor McGonagall’s wand and nodded.

“Is that sufficient, Mr. Potter?” Professor McGonagall said. “Shall I go ahead and demonstrate?”

“Sufficient? Probably not, but it should do for now,” Harry said. Once he saw her methodology he could better decide how to isolate her actions and their relation to the result… assuming there was a result. Did he really expect his father to start floating? “Proceed, please.”

“Is there anything you’d like me to do?” Professor Evans-Verres said, still smiling. “Think light thoughts, perhaps?”

“No need, thank you,” Professor McGonagall replied, and then, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Harry looked up at his father. “Huh.”

His father looked down at him. “Huh.”

There was a silent pause that Harry knew he would always remember… the moment when his world utterly changed. Everything was still, as if suspended in crystal: he and his mother, staring in shock, the witch holding her wand pointed up at his father, who hung a respectable three feet off the ground in complete defiance of gravity.

And then Professor Verres-Evans looked back at Professor McGonagall and said in a voice Harry had never heard him use, “All right, you can put me down now, thank you.” His father was lowered carefully to the ground, and the moment was ended. The universe continued on as it had before.

Harry ruffled a hand through his dark hair. Maybe it was just that strange part of him which had already been convinced, but… “That’s a bit of an anticlimax,” Harry said. “You’d think there’d be some kind of more dramatic mental event associated with updating on an observation of infinitesimal probability-” Harry stopped himself. Mum and the witch were looking at him oddly. Dad slowly sat down, not even bothering to move the book from the chair as he stared at the piece of wood in Professor McGonagall’s hand. “I mean, with finding out that everything I believe is false.”

Seriously, it should have been more dramatic. His brain ought to have been flushing its entire current stock of hypotheses about the universe, none of which allowed this to happen. But instead it just seemed to be going, All right, I saw the Hogwarts Professor wave her wand and make Dad rise into the air, now what?

The witch was smiling benevolently upon them, looking quite amused. “Would you like a further demonstration, Mr. Potter?”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “Though I should probably ask you to do it again just to ensure experimental reliability, we’ve performed a definitive experiment. That wasn’t some trick with mirrors, it wasn’t hypnotic suggestion, he actually lifted off the ground, we all saw it… but…” Harry hesitated. He couldn’t help himself. Actually, under the circumstances, he shouldn’t be helping himself. It was right and proper to be curious. “What else can you do?”

“Besides shoot fire, you mean?”

Dad looked as alarmed as Mum had a moment ago.

“Yes, besides that.” Though Harry actually would love to see it. He was starting to get excited. Would he really be able to fly? Conjure fire at will? How? Did he accelerate the atoms in the air until they combusted? Maybe I use my body heat to-

Professor McGonagall turned into a cat.

Harry scrambled back without thinking, backpedalling so fast that he tripped over a stray stack of books and landed hard on his bottom. His hands came down to catch himself too late, and there was a warning twinge in his shoulder as the weight came down unbraced.

At once the small tabby cat morphed back up into a robed woman. “I’m sorry, Mr. Potter,” said the witch, sounding sincere, though the corners of her lips were twitching upwards. “I should have warned you.”

Harry was breathing in short gasps. It felt like a dam had broken in his mind. His voice came out choked. “You can’t DO that!”

“It’s only a Transfiguration,” said Professor McGonagall. “An Animagus transformation, to be exact.”

“You turned into a cat! A SMALL cat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That’s not just an arbitrary rule, it’s implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signalling! And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can’t just visualise a whole cat’s anatomy and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?”

Professor McGonagall’s lips were twitching harder now. “Magic.”

“Magic isn’t enough to do that! You’d have to be a god!”

Professor McGonagall blinked. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been called that.

A blur was coming over Harry’s vision as his brain started to comprehend what had just occurred. Here was the shock he’d been expecting, all the stronger for its delay.

The whole idea of a unified universe with mathematically regular laws, that was what had been flushed down the toilet; the whole notion of physics. Three thousand years of resolving big complicated things into smaller pieces, discovering that the music of the planets was the same tune as a falling apple, finding that the true laws were perfectly universal and had no exceptions anywhere and took the form of simple maths governing the smallest parts, not to mention that the mind was the brain and the brain was made of neurons, a brain was what a person was

And then a woman turned into a cat, so much for all that.

Harry’s head hurt.

A hundred questions fought for priority over his lips, and the winner poured out: “And what kind of incantation is Wingardium Leviosa? Who invents the words to these spells, nursery schoolers?”

“That will do, Mr. Potter,” Professor McGonagall said crisply, though her eyes shone with suppressed amusement. “If you wish to learn about magic, I suggest that we finalise the paperwork so that you can go to Hogwarts.”

“Right,” Harry said in a daze. Paperwork. Some things never changed, it seemed, even in a world of magic. He pulled his thoughts together and stood up. The March of Reason would just have to start over, that was all; they still had the experimental method and that was the important thing.

“Are you alright darling?” Mum said, putting a hand on her husband’s shoulder.

Professor Evans-Verres did look rather pale. He patted her hand. “I – I think so dear, thank you.” He then brought her hand to his lips in a rare show of public affection. “And… I’m sorry.”

Petunia smiled and squeezed his hand. “That’s alright. I was just as doubtful with Lily, and I didn’t have half as many good reasons to be as you.”

Dad smiled at her, then looked at Harry. “I’m sorry to you too, son. You were right. ‘The final arbiter is observation,’ indeed. I don’t know if I can quite take all this in properly, but…”

Harry had choked up a bit, and now smiled back at his parents. “I had some help, or I would probably have been just as doubtful. Maybe it’s a wizard thing. I’ll explain another time.” He turned to Professor McGonagall, who he now remembered was also the Deputy Headmistress to Hogwarts. A real school for wizards and witches. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like, with professors like this. “I’m ready. How do I get to Hogwarts?”

A brief laugh escaped Professor McGonagall, as if extracted from her by tweezers. “I won’t be whisking you away by magic, if that’s what you’re expecting. As the letter said, term starts September 1st. I will come again and explain how transportation will occur, as well as help you obtain your school supplies.”

“Hold on a moment, Harry,” his father said. “Remember why you haven’t been going to school up until now? What about your condition?”

Professor McGonagall turned to face Michael. “His condition? What’s this?”

“I don’t sleep right,” Harry said. He waved his hands helplessly. “My sleep cycle is twenty-six hours long. I always go to sleep two hours later, every day. 10PM, 12AM, 2AM, 4AM, until it goes around the clock. Even if I try to wake up early, it makes no difference and I’m a wreck that whole day. That’s why I haven’t been going to a normal school up until now.”

“One of the reasons,” said his mother. Harry winced. He didn’t want his potential future teacher and Deputy Headmistress to have a biased opinion of him.

Even if it might be a bit deserved? asked his inner self-critic.

It could be important for the teachers to know, commented his utilitarian side. Remember when our science project-

Shut up or they might not teach us magic! said his Id, and the other parts of Harry promptly fell into agreed silence.

McGonagall gave a long hmmmmm. “I can’t recall hearing about such a condition before…” she said slowly. “I’ll check with Madam Pomfrey to see if she knows any remedies.” Then her face brightened. “No, I’m sure this won’t be a problem – I’ll find a solution in time. Now,” and her gaze sharpened again, “what are these other reasons?”

Harry sent his parents a glare, then straightened his shoulders. “I,” he said with deliberate gravity, “am a conscientious objector to child conscription. On grounds that I should not have to suffer for a disintegrating school system’s failure to provide teachers or study materials of even minimally adequate quality.”

Both of Harry’s parents burst out laughing. “Oh,” said Harry’s father, eyes bright, “is that why you bit a maths teacher in third year?”

She didn’t know what a logarithm was!

“Of course,” seconded Mum. “And biting her was a very mature response.”

Dad nodded. “A well-considered policy to address the failings of a disintegrating school system.”

“I was seven years old! How long are you going to keep on bringing that up?”

“I know,” said his mother sympathetically. “You bite one maths teacher and they never let you forget it, do they?”

Harry turned to Professor McGonagall as his father chuckled. “Are you sure you can’t just whisk me away now?”

“Quite sure.” Professor McGonagall’s restrained smile threatened to burst into a grin at any moment. “And there is to be no biting of teachers at Hogwarts, is that quite clear, Mr. Potter?”

Harry scowled at her. “Fine, I won’t bite anyone who doesn’t bite me first.”

“Better not ask him to build a volcano either,” Dad suggested, and his mother began howling with laughter. “Not unless this school of yours is magically fireproof.”

Dad!” Harry yelled, cheeks burning.

“Well,” Professor McGonagall said. “I think, under the circumstances, that I should avoid taking you to purchase your study materials until a day or two before school begins.”

“What? Why? The other children already know magic, don’t they? I have to start catching up right away! I promise not to burn down the school!” It occurred to him exactly a second after saying it out loud that his having to say it was not particularly encouraging.

“Rest assured, Mr. Potter,” replied Professor McGonagall, “Everyone at Hogwarts will begin with the basics, and the school is quite capable of teaching its students without risk of self-destruction. On the other hand, I suspect that if I leave you alone for two months with your schoolbooks, even without a wand, I will return to this house only to find a crater billowing purple smoke, a depopulated city surrounding it and a plague of flaming zebras terrorising what remains of Oxford.”

Harry’s mother and father nodded in perfect unison.

Mum! Dad!