Tag Archives: fanfiction

Chapter 82: Interlude XIV – Titans II

Ramin always considered himself lucky, even supernaturally so, which is why he took it as a form of cosmic irony that he ended up under the Rocket Casino.

First he was lucky in his career; if he’d been born in a region like Kanto, with its extreme response to Renegades, he would likely have been killed when he finally got caught assassinating members of rival tribes. Instead his regional government passed him to their global underworld contacts, and he was offered a very simple choice: death, or oaths of servitude made under the watchful eye of a falgir.

The second stroke of luck came when he was sold across the world to a master who needed more than just disposable warriors. He thought at best he would end up in some barracks, far from society as he awaited a kill-order. Instead, he received training. Not just for killing, both with and without pokemon, but also logistics, first aid, even cultural training to help him better acclimate to his new region.

And finally, after years of serving as a guard at various locations, he was eventually assigned a plum position under a casino in the biggest city in the region.

On paper he’s a guard for the casino’s money, but in fact the floor it’s held is above his, where the administration offices are. That floor itself is below another dedicated to storage and machine repairs; anyone trying to sneak downstairs would be caught and returned to the surface at that floor. It and the one below it were recently searched through by the police, who thought the missing Silph tech was there. They didn’t find anything.

They might have if they went down one more floor to where Ramin works, where the prototype is being held.

The secret lab’s electrical draw is hidden in plain sight by the casino’s, and the engineers and scientists who work there come to the casino as employees of it. It’s the perfect cover, and while Ramin’s shifts are still boring guard work, afterward he gets to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Well, almost everything; his social life is restricted by necessity, but he enjoys going to the movies and watching local pokemon matches. He’s even ahead in the office’s fantasy league; he drafted one of his countrymen, Reza, and the young dragon master is tearing his way through Victory Road. On most days he can pretend he’s just an overqualified security guard.

Today has not been one of those days.

The earthquake splits the ground like a loaf of bread, and Ramin’s luck stays with him through the collapse of the ceiling; the crack that caused it went through the whole basement of the casino, and his station in the third sublevel is to the side of where the rubble ends up. At first, through the wrenching roar of concrete and metal, Ramin thought the whole casino was coming down on their heads. Dust filled the halls and he felt a chunk of something bounce off his shoulder, but when the shaking ends (for the moment) he’s still alive and unhurt.

“Archer, you there?” he asks after coughing his lungs clear, hand triggering his earphone again and again without response. He switches channels. “Maddie? Roark? Anyone reading this?” He waits another few breaths, but gets only silence. The building’s wireless must have been knocked out.

Still, he can vaguely make out the sound of people moving through the walls, coughing and yelling for help.

Ramin looks around in the emergency lights, then starts moving through the halls. He briefly considers bringing out his machamp to have it smash through a wall, but the building is unstable enough that he doesn’t take the risk.

Instead he finds a spot close to the voices and presses his ear against it, hearing them talk through the drywall.

“Are you okay?”

“I… I don’t think so… my leg… it h-hurts…”

“Oh gods… don’t move, I think it’s broken…”

Ramin steps back, a cold certainty slowly filling him.

Those weren’t voices he recognized. Which means it’s not just the floor above his that crashed down, but floors all the way up to the casino itself.

As if to punctuate the point, the walls and floor vibrate around him again for a few seconds, and once it ends the emergency power comes on… followed by the annoying jangle of slot machines.

Ramin strokes the pokeballs at his waist, deep in thought.

His orders are clear. Anyone who makes it this far down without authorization is a liability, and has to be eliminated.

But the earthquakes add a level of uncertainty; these are random civilians, not spies or investigators. And when rescue operations start, they’ll discover these lower levels anyway…

Another miniquake sends vibrations through the building, and he steadies himself against the wall, waiting to see if anything else would collapse.

When it doesn’t, he makes his decision and starts moving through the halls to find the survivors, hand settling on his golem’s heavyball. Soon he finds a passage to the other side of the wall where he heard the voices, and he summons his pokemon.

“Shh… do you hear that? It sounded like a pokeball… is someone out there?!”

“Yes,” he calls out. “I’m here. Just stay still, I’ll get you out in a minute.” He turns to his pokemon and gestures. “Dig.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” the other voice says, and he hears quiet weeping as his golem starts to pull chunks of concrete and drywall out of the way. Ramin waits until the hole is big enough, then reaches in to help the people inside come out. Both are covered in dust and blood, one from a gash on her head, the other from a badly broken leg.

“Thank you,” he whispers between gasps of pained breath as Ramin eases him down on the ground beside the woman. “I thought… I thought we…”

Ramin pulls his hand from the man’s and pats his shoulder. “Just rest. Help is on the way.”

He goes to stand behind both prone figures, then points to both and snaps his fingers.

His golem takes a chunk of concrete in each hand and smashes them down to crush the ribcage of the man and the head of the woman.

The stench of blood is faint under the dust, and Ramin withdraws his pokemon, stomach churning. It’s been years since he had to kill anyone. He wishes it had been longer.

It had been nice, pretending to just be a security guard.

But it had to be done. Archer or Giovanni might pull some strings, take control of the situation. They’ve pulled off wonders before, they can do it again. Even if the lower levels are revealed, their purpose could be spun… as long as there aren’t contradicting reports from survivors about what was down here.

Ramin listens as he walks around the rubble at the center of the lab. He hears more voices, and starts searching for the easiest way to reach them to check if they’re Casino employees.

If not, the least he can do for the unfortunate survivors is make their deaths quick. Luck, as he discovered himself years ago, can only take you so far.


The battle against the sea god rages, and the sea rages with it.

Leader Surge watches from above as Groudon continues to strike at Kyogre, assisted from the newly created shore by over two dozen trainers. Their pokemon stand at the edge of the ocean so that whenever Kyogre tries to circle around its nemesis, it would be struck by bolts of lightning, beams of concentrated sunlight, and blasts of draconic energy. The attacks don’t seem to do much, on their own, but neither does Kyogre ignore them entirely, and even a minor flinch is often enough to give Groudon the opportunity to turn and attack it again before it slips away.

Surge’s clothes, instantly soaked upon arriving at his only teleportation point in Hoenn, dry within minutes of flying into the sunlight surrounding the battle. The harsh heat raises a perpetual mist off the ocean around the battling titans, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to have a sunburn by the end of all this. He almost hadn’t made it, the rain growing in intensity until it’s nearly a solid, constant layer of water that pushed him and his swanna down, and he doesn’t think most non-Water/Flying pokemon would be able to even make it over such a long distance. Other Leaders and Elites from around the island have already arrived, but few along the island chain are as focused on Electric or Grass types, which leaves few that can be particularly effective against Kyogre.

Ships would help give him somewhere to land and attack from, but there’s only one that’s arrived through the choppy seas, and it seems to be engaging in combat against something else below the water, the occasional explosion sending sprays of water up through the air.

Normally Surge would have his pokemon summon lightning down on their foe, but with the clouds above cleared away they would have to draw from the much further clouds, and there’s little chance Kyogre would still be where the bolt was aimed by the time it comes. Instead he scans the positions of the trainers as they shift to attack the sea god wherever it appears, trying to spot a fulcrum in the battle.

What they’re lacking is zone control. Kyogre gets beaten away quickly whenever it appears, but then it flees to a safer distance, only reentering the range of the trainers assisting Groudon when forced to by Groudon’s attacks. What he needs to do is limit its mobility, and force it into the attack zones of the other trainers more often.

He sends Cirrus into a dive, landing far from the battle and giving her a moment to rest as he climbs down, stumbling slightly as another tremor sweeps the earth.

The ground is rough under his boots, black and grey and brown rocks that constantly shift under him. His swanna clearly dislikes it, lifting one foot, then the other to get more comfortable, and he takes a moment to calm her, reminding himself to check her feet for cuts once this is all over.

Surge quickly digs through the saddle bag, swapping balls from his belt with those inside it. He brought almost every pokemon he owns, unsure what would be needed and what wouldn’t, and soon has his three magnezone and two magneton clipped to his waist alongside Cirrus’s.

After spraying some Ether into the swanna’s bill, he climbs back into the saddle and takes off, staying low enough to skim the ocean once they’re over it. He waits until they’re far enough to make sure he’s covering an area the other trainers’ pokemon can’t reach, then starts pausing to release his magneton and magnezone in a half-circle around Groudon, giving them orders to stay above the water and attack any pokemon that approach.

Twice he has to dodge massive waves that rise rapidly around him, threatening to slap him down into the ocean. He can’t tell if they’re guided by Kyogre, but a part of him mourns the pokemon he’s summoning into such a mess. Even if they don’t draw the ire of the sea god, their magnetic levitation is hard to sustain for long, and he has no way to recover them once they sink underwater.

Before he even finishes summoning the last one, he hears the distant, rapid cracks of an ongoing electric discharge and looks over his shoulder to see one of his magneton pouring electricity at Kyogre as it surfaces to blast Groudon with another volley of water. It only sends a couple jets out before submerging again, flinching away from the electricity, and he feels a savage grin stretch over his face…

…until it breaches again, jaw open wide to grab his pokemon out of the air and sink back underwater with it.

“No!” Surge almost loops back to return his other pokemon, but after a moment grimly releases his last one instead, jaw clenching so hard his teeth hurt.

It’s hard to get attached to artificial pokemon; they’re not cute, or cuddly, or easy to anthropomorphize. But they have personalities, all the same. Differences between them that he noticed after training a dozen magnemite to find the strongest ones, not just in electric power but those least willing to quit when things get tough.

All of his pokemon are soldiers, hard working and loyal. None are expendable, but each’s full value can only be measured by what they accomplish. Against an enemy like this, it’s not hard to calculate that even a minor chance to take it down is worth their lives.

But it’s not easy, either.

“Choke that fucking fish, boys,” Surge mutters as he reclips the last ball to his belt and signals Cirrus to climb. “Then cook it from the inside out.”

If they do, however, it’s not enough to take the monster down. A few minutes later it reappears amidst a tidal wave that seems to grow out of nothing in seconds. The leviathan is glowing gold and blue, its roar as loud as the waves as it crashes the full force of the ocean directly into the trainers and their pokemon on the shore.

Many of them get washed away, but some get pulled back by the tide, and Surge immediately dives toward them. He watches Kyogre eat one of the struggling shapes, then swiftly retreat as Groudon sends a spike of earth out at it. He dearly hopes it was a pokemon, but the shape he angles toward is a person for sure.

He holds an arm out and bends over the side of his pokemon, hand skimming the water until he reaches the trainer. He grabs his hand and pulls, guiding Cirrus with his legs so that the swanna flaps hard enough to lift them out, then flies over land, where Surge unceremoniously drops the trainer and wheels back around.

That’s when he sees the two shapes blurring in a zigzag pattern through the air until they stop in midair. The pokemon, whatever they are, are levitating without moving any body parts, and both have trainers atop them.

What strikes him most, even above his confusion over trainers riding such unfamiliar species, is the fact that neither pokemon has a saddle. Once his outrage as a flying license examiner fades (he doesn’t know what Winona is teaching Hoenn trainers but it’s not his responsibility) he guides his swanna down toward them and takes a megaphone from his hip.

“Whoever you two are, you here to help?”

As he gets closer he realizes the pokemon look nearly identical; the smaller one is red and white, the bigger one blue and white. Same pokemon, probably, with a different male and female form. The two trainers turn toward him, and he notices one is a girl and one a boy. The girl raises a fist, thumb up.

“We’re focusing on the big fish first. Drive it away or kill it and we think we can take down the other more easily. Understand?”

They look at each other, seem to talk for a moment, and then their pokemon drop out of the sky in steep dives that make Surge’s stomach rise in his throat. How are they staying on…?

The pair go straight for the water and start firing pulses of purple energy into the waves, illuminating Kyogre’s shape with each wash of draconic plasma. It responds with a volley of high pressured water, too fast to be dodged… but no, the pokemon was already moving before the attack formed.

Psychic type, Surge realizes. They knew exactly where it was beneath the water, and even if the trainer was psychic and sensed the attack coming, their mounts’ reflexes were too smooth for them not to be connected too. As for a second type, those Dragon Pulses looked powerful. Too powerful for them not to be Dragons too, by his guess.

Are there any Psychic/Dragon pokemon in Hoenn?

He’s never heard of such a thing, not throughout the entire island chain for that matter. And they look strong enough that he would have if they were normal pokemon from some obscure region. Which means they’re something else.

There are so many myths of pokemon, some individuals, some spoken of in pairs or groups of three or more, and he doesn’t have time to sift through them all. What matters right now is that they’re here, and seem to be under the control of the trainers riding them.

“Come on, girl, let’s not get left behind,” he says, and guides Cirrus down so he can get Zeus from his bag, a new note of hope thrumming through his chest.


For Glen, it’s the night of the storm all over again.

Celadon and Vermilion are very different cities, but with this much rain coming down those differences are barely noticeable. Thunder doesn’t boom over the city (the lack of lightning in general is strange, given how strong the storm is) but earthquakes make up for it, both in noise and danger. And while there’s no Pressure, praise be to Arceus’s golden hula hoop, the same fear it evoked twists like a knife in his gut every time he thinks of Blue or the others dead.

He tries not to, given how much focus he needs to ride his bike through the wet and shaking streets. There are a lot more people out than that night, and a lot less pokemon thankfully, but at least then he knew what was going on. Now there’s just confusion, and fear of watching any more of the swaying buildings topple before whatever is causing all this stops.

“Hey, coming through!” he yells over the sound of the rain, and the crowd ahead parts to let him and the others ride between them. As they blur by an intersection, he spots a gaggle of doduo and dodrio running down the street, feathers sodden as their heads try to duck under each other for shelter from the rain.

Not my problem, he reminds himself for the third time at least. He slows to take a corner, feeling his tires skid slightly and leaning his body to stay upright, then flashes a look behind him to make sure the others are okay.

MG always looks strange without her wide hat on, pale face strained under her dark helmet as she struggles with the same puddle of water. Slava’s bike wobbles under him too, and he uses a foot to stabilize himself before pedaling harder to catch up. He looks back himself to make sure Sumi is okay, but she glides her bike around the corner in a smooth arc, looking worried but focused, and Glen turns forward again. Normally he bikes faster than the others unless he consciously slows himself down, but even in these conditions they have no trouble keeping up.

They all want to make it in time to help, even if that means passing by half a dozen other situations that need help too. That is the biggest difference from that night, ultimately; their purpose isn’t to save the city. It’s to save their leader.

His headset rings, startling him, and he jabs at his ear to answer it. “Lizzy?”

“No, it’s Elaine, did you reach—no of course you didn’t—”

An emergency vehicle flashes by, sending twin sprays of water out in its wake. “We’re a few blocks away,” he says once the scream of the siren fades. “You alright?”

“I’m fine, I had the thought to reach out to Professor Oak while I was getting ready to join you guys, but he didn’t answer, and I saw… Glen, there are giant pokemon fighting in Hoenn! Groudon and Kyogre, they’re myths from the region, that’s what’s causing all this!”

Glen doesn’t have attention to spare being properly shocked, mind jumping instead to the implications. “They’re doing all this… from there?” Meaning this isn’t natural, meaning it won’t stop until they’re stopped…

“Yeah, and people are going to fight them, a call went out from Professor Birch for all Gym Leaders and above on the islands who have a teleport point near there to come help. Lance went, along with Surge and Sabrina, and—”

“And Oak. Shit!” The curse is mostly from spotting a muk pulling itself out of a sewer drain up ahead, but once he’s zig-zagged his way past it and checked to make sure the others have too, the sentiment remains. He’s glad the heavy rain blocked the smell. “What about Daisy?”

“I left her a message, no answer yet. I’m heading out the door to the casino now. I’ll see you there!”

“Be careful,” he says, and curses again once the call ends. So much for getting help from the big guns.

The Casino looks totally fine from the outside, though there’s a massive crack running through the streets that goes right under the building, some sections open enough to have formed deep puddles. Glen leads the others to a skidding stop under the front door’s awning, and doesn’t bother storing his bike before rushing inside.

The interior is dimly lit with red emergency lights, a few glowing pokemon, and the flashing of slot machines… many of which are in a massive hole in the ground.

“Holy shit,” Sumi gasps, breathing hard and clutching at a stitch in her side. It’s only then that Glen realizes his own tiredness, the burning ache in his chest and legs, but there’s no time to stop; he can see a line of people and pokemon, working together to pull rubble and furniture out of the hole and stack it to the sides out of the way.

“Lizzy!” he calls out as he rushes forward. “Bretta!”

“Here!”

They pick their way down the slope until they reach her. “Where’s Lizzy?” MG asks.

Bretta wipes her sweaty curls from her face. “She said she’s going to get the power back on… there’s stairs that lead down to the employee areas, I think she went there, but it might be blocked off too, and she doesn’t have anything to dig with.”

Glen is still looking around at the pile of rubble, and after a moment realizes why Lizzy left. It’s hard to see anything, the digging would probably go twice as fast if they had real light. “I’ll go help her. You guys help here.”

“I’m coming with you,” MG says, and Glen mentally reviews her pokemon, then nods and scrambles up the side of the hole again, cutting a hand on a jagged piece of something and scraping his leg against the edge as he pulls himself back out. He checks the cut to make sure it’s not deep, then races for the stairwell.

Once reaching it he finally has to pause for breath, and MG slumps against the wall beside him, breathing hard too. He fumbles out his potion bottle and sprays his hand, then takes out his canteen for a deep drink before passing it to the side without looking.

She takes his energy drink for a swallow, then hands it back. “Do you think he’s alive?” she asks after a moment, making him turn to her. Her voice is calm, but there’s something in it, the vibration of a tightly wound thread.

Glen looks away, takes another drink of the salty-sweet liquid, then caps the canteen as he shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.” The quaver is more pronounced, now, and her next breath is too sharp. “That hole—”

“I don’t know how anyone could have survived that, if he was in it.” The words feel like stones coming up his throat. “But if he had a moment to prepare… to react… he might be okay.” He remembers the sight of all that broken rubble and furniture, packed deep into the ground, and amends, “He might be alive.”

Be alive, Blue. Glen closes his eyes, thinking of his friend’s expressive face, his sharp smile, his alert eyes as he watches a pokemon match, the aliveness he brings to everything he does. Blue Oak is someone who knows what he wants, and goes all in after it.

More than that, he pulls others in his wake, uses their energy and somehow gives them back more in return. He certainly turned Glen into something more than he ever expected of himself when he came to Kanto. He just wanted to be a good trainer, and figure out what other trainers were lacking most so he could get it to them. Now…

Now he feels like a leader in his own right. Like he might have the potential to actually make it all the way to the top, the same way Blue does. He can’t wait to reach that top with his friend, to challenge him there as an equal.

“Ready?” he asks, and MG nods, pushing away from the wall and following him down the stairs.

Be alive, because I can’t do this without you.


Steven watches as Kyogre gets hit dead-on by Groudon’s next beam attack, and disappears for what feels like the hundredth time beneath the waves.

After what feels like half an eternity, but is likely less than a minute, it doesn’t resurface.

Eventually Groudon roars, back arching up, and begins to stomp the ground with its feet and tail. The sunlight intensifies around them, going from uncomfortable to mildly painful, and the earth shakes as new ground boils up from under the water.

Steven toggles his earpiece, covering his open ear with his other hand better hear through it. “Drake, report.”

“I think we’ve defeated the pirates, Champion. We can’t detect their submarine anymore, and they took a pretty heavy hit a few minutes ago. They’ve either sunk or retreated.”

“And Kyogre?”

“It’s still on the sonar, but… it’s sinking, sir.”

Steven closes his eyes for a moment, feeling a rare and treasured moment of… relief? Hope? He can’t tell. “Thank you, Drake. Stand by and keep watch on it.”

“Aye, sir.”

The shaking stops, and he looks up to see Groudon has finished its victory dance, or whatever that was, and begun walking forward again, unchallenged.

Steven looks around at his fellow trainers, injured and exhausted by heatstroke and the occasional bone crushing waves. Gym Leaders, Elites, even a few fellow Champions from around the islands are here, interspersed with some random rangers and trainers who were nearby and wanted to help… and of course, the renegades.

A moment later the Legendary Eon Duo flies down to hover overhead, a familiar pair of trainers on their back. He’s not sure where the crazy teenagers found them, or how they caught them, but he’s glad they’re here.

“Alright, folks. Easy part’s over. I’ve just heard that Kyogre is sinking, its allies driven off or dead, which means we need to take on the big guy now.”

Matsubusa stirs. “Are we certain? If it still lives…”

“Confirming that might take hours. Point is it looks to be out of the fight.”

“The rain clouds,” Professor Oak says, pointing. Steven turns to look, and yep, they’re thinning at the edge of where the sun shines through. He turns back to the professor, who is already summoning a snorlax and blastoise to join his pidgeot and venusaur. “So, Ground, maybe Ground/Fire?”

“Sounds about right,” Cynthia says, and summons a garchomp and milotic to join her roserade. She glances at Lance, whose three dragonite watch her garchomp with the gaze of predators on the hunt. “You’re not swapping anyone?”

“I’d rather it be aiming up than focusing on things on the ground,” the current Indigo Champion says, and pulls the hood up on his cloak. “But I’ve got a kingdra and Alolan exeggutor if needed.”

“Finally found a use for that overdramatic cloak, huh?” Steven asks.

Lance grins under the shadow of his hood. “Jealousy is unbecoming.”

Steven chuckles. “Wouldn’t say no to an umbrella. Let’s get this done so I can find one, huh?” He turns to the trainers that have finished gathering around them. “Let our pokemon go in first. Keep your own hitting it from a distance if you can, and be ready to dodge if it’s so much as looking in your direction. That Super Hyper Beam comes fast.”

“Super Solar Beam,” Professor Oak corrects. “The lack of precharge time comes, I think, from the abundance of sunlight. My venusaur is benefiting from it too.”

“But it isn’t spamming it,” Lance says. “Groudon Beam might need to recharge, like a Hyper Beam.”

Steven snorts. “We’re not calling it that.”

“Says you.”

“Yes, says me, it’s my region’s world-ending monster, I’m naming its attacks.”

Cynthia clears her throat. “Perhaps we could decide this after it’s dead.” She looks pointedly at all the Gym Leaders and trainers watching them bicker.

“Right.” Steven turns toward Groudon’s retreating back, wondering if it even has a destination in mind, or is just setting out to cover as much of the ocean in land as it can. “Time to see if your theory is correct, Matsubusa.”

He pulls the orb out of his pocket… and immediately yelps and drops the shining red sphere, which shatters on the ground.

Before it was just the safe side of burning, but his pants and the general heat around him kept him from noticing how much hotter it’s grown; it felt like holding a live ember. He watches the bright red pieces scatter on the ground, then looks up to see everyone (aside from Matsubusa, whose face is a picture of shocked dismay) staring at him as he holds his hands up.

“In my defense, that’s actually what I meant to do. Just not like that.” He thought he’d need to have his pokemon smash it.

“Steven, your rings,” Cynthia says, and he follows her gaze to see what they were really staring at; the gems on his rings are glowing again, and the light doesn’t fade.

He stares at them, awe standing his hair on end. The gems on his rings are, in fact, mineralized bits of metagross and aggron, which is why he came up with such silly names for them when his father gifted them to him as a child. After a moment he summons his two strongest pokemon, two pokemon he’s been fascinated by all his life, and approaches them, glowing rings held out.

“Steven, what are you—”

A collective gasp is heard as his pokemon begin to glow… and grow.


The roof of the Sky Pillar is completely dry.

It’s one of the least surreal details in an overwhelmingly surreal day, but Wallace still takes a moment to stare after he steps out of the stairwell, clearing the way for Wally to climb up after him. When they first approached the tiny island it was strange enough seeing the structure on it illuminated by sunlight in the otherwise dark and rainy horizon. The thin golden beam made it easier to spot, but Wallace was too busy struggling through the oddly heavy rain and tumultuous waves to do more than just write it off as a coincidental shift in the weather.

But in the time it took for them to fight their way through the various ghosts and bats that make the tower their home, he would have expected the clouds to shift and cover the island.

Instead the bright hole in the sky remains fixed over the island, allowing them to look around in wonder at the dark, rainy world that surrounds them. With such limited visibility, the horizon is an endless ocean in every direction, like the whole world has already been swallowed by some restless, primordial sea. It’s a beautiful, if haunting, sight, and he fights the urge to pull out his phone to take a picture.

Instead he turns back to the structure he’s standing on. In the near pre-historic days of its construction, the Sky Pillar would have been a monumental feat; five floors is nothing by modern standards, but back then it may well have been the tallest structure in the world. He’s not even sure how the people of ancient Hoenn got the building materials to this tiny, distant island in the first place, let alone constructed it.

Of course, its age means a lack of certain features. There’s no hatch for the stairwell, so Wallace orders his starmie and milotic to guard the entrance in case anything comes out after them, then walks over to the kid, who’s already at the center of the tower’s roof, putting his bag down and unzipping it.

It’s too late to say something like “are you sure this will work,” because of course he’s not and they’re about to find out one way or another. But he wants to. He, a middle aged man, a Gym Leader, wants reassurance from a 13 year old. It would be embarrassing, if this particular 13 year old hadn’t solved a riddle that archaeologists around the world spent their entire professional careers trying to crack.

So instead he just says, “Let me know if I can help,” and guards the stairway. The pokemon here were some of the strongest wilds he’s ever seen, a good indicator that this island has been basically abandoned for decades, at least.

“I think I’m good,” Wally says as he starts pulling pokeballs out, each with a sticker on it. Even with the world ending, the boy takes the time to place each ball in order. Apparently Wally spent the past year of his pokemon journey collecting the things, even travelling all the way to Johto to confirm his landmark theory, so a bit of obsessiveness is understandable. Still, considering how many people may be dying right now and the risk that an ancient Ghost pokemon might pop up after them to eat their minds, Wallace has to bite his tongue to keep from hurrying him.

Only once all are out in a circle around the boy does he toss the bag behind him outside the circle of balls, and start summoning his pokemon one after another.

A… B… C…

The unown appear in flash after flash of light, their bizarre forms floating in midair like voids in the world. They don’t have any actual surreality, like ghosts, but their very existence evokes a similar feeling, like someone’s black-and-white drawings have come to life. Or “life,” rather. Dissections have proven that the unown are living beings; that they have flesh and blood, that the round eye that makes up most of their mass is in fact connected to a brain of sorts, distributed through their simplistic nervous system. But they don’t act like other living beings, simply appearing out of seeming thin air, floating randomly about, then disappearing again.

As far as Wallace knows, Wally is the only trainer in the world to have personally captured all of them. A few months ago that wouldn’t be true; obsessive patience would be enough for anyone to do it, hypothetically, and a few of the more zealous and rich pokemon collectors have bought and traded and captured their own set before.

But Wally’s discovery of an additional two unown, and how to get them to appear, is what sets him, and his collection, apart.

… H… I… J…

Wallace watches as they hover in midair, bobbing gently with the wind… no, there is no wind, and even if there were it wouldn’t be shifting them all in different directions like this. And yet they continue to behave like balloons, all invisibly tethered to a fixed point in space, never far enough from it to risk touching each other.

And the noise of them…

Even over the distant sound of the rain and waves all around them, Wallace can hear the unown. A constant wheedling in the air, like a dozen vibrating tuning forks, the intermingling warbles and chirps and pops like static from a radio… and interwoven through it all, just faint enough to be practically imagined, are snatches of what sounds like distorted, babbled human speech.

…N… O… P…

Someone once set a recording device at some ruins for days until they captured enough samples to turn into a haunting song of sorts (someone else then took the sounds and applied enough autotuning to actually make pretty catchy club music). With so many in one place, however, no amount of editing could salvage the whispered, cacophonous scream that’s building with each summoned pokemon, just shy of overwhelming thanks to how quiet it remains.

…X… Y… Z…

It’s a sound that could drive someone insane, if they had to listen to it long enough.

Wallace watches Wally take a deep breath, and then…

…?… !

The last two shapes complete the loop around the boy…

…and abruptly, like a speaker whose plug was pulled, the cacophony cuts off.

Wallace feels the hair on his neck stand on end at the abrupt silence, a silence that seems to mute the background noise of the rain and waves rather than make them clearer. The unown have also stopped moving, all except the last two. Wallace still has trouble believing what he’s seeing; as far as he’s aware, no one has ever seen punctuation marks as unown before Wally discovered them, not even in the ancient carvings of the Cave of Origins that he grew up near.

He spent years studying them as a child, a familial calling that was passed down to him as soon as he was old enough to read. There were times he resented the extra lessons, the stale and cryptic history he was forced to learn rather than being able to go diving or exploring the Caves themselves… but he applied himself anyway, because it was expected of him, and because it was interesting in its own way, a puzzle of sorts.

It’s how he discovered how to find and enter the Sky Pillar. It’s how he recognized the importance of Wally’s discovery.

They’re not punctuation marks… maybe humans just used them as punctuation because we didn’t know what else to do with them…”

“I can feel it,” Wally says, voice taking on the distant tones of a psychic engaging his powers. “You were right, they’re reacting to the location… this is a place of power, for them… a place where things are… thinner…”

The ? and ! unown have closed their eyes, and with a flick of his fingers, Wally sends them levitating higher. A wave of his arms sends the other unown in front of him, suspended in the air, and it only takes a moment for Wallace to recognize the pattern.

It’s the layout of a keyboard, floating mid-air.

…we think in language, so they were treated like letters to form words… but as symbols they can mean so much more than a single sound…”

Wally begins to “type,” his fingers twitching, and Wallace watches unown shiver in the air as if plucked by invisible strings. He doesn’t seem to be typing out words, but rather exploring each symbol, then combining them.

The ? and ! unown wait at the sides, still as keyholes into another world.

“I think I can do it,” Wally says after minutes pass, his young voice uncertain. “But…”

“But what?” There’s no answer, and Wallace leaves the stairwell to kneel beside Wally, hand on his thin shoulder. “Wally?”

The boy twitches, then turns to him. Wallace stares into the eyes of the boy who shares his name, the boy who started his journey three years ago with nothing but a ralts, and now is one of the strongest psychic trainers in the region… but still a child, unsure. Afraid.

“The vaults,” he whispers. “I can feel them… all three.”

Wallace lets out a breath of relief. “It’s working, then?”

“Yes, but… the earthquakes are opening them!”

Wallace’s pulse jumps at the boy’s sudden alarm. “What do you mean? You’re the one that opened them, to let the unown out.”

“No, there’s more! They were guarding the barrier, keeping the unown in… I mean, out. In themselves, out of our world. But they held more, I think… and if I do this…” His eyes focus on Wallace’s. “Leader, I’ll wake them!”

“Wake who?”

“The titans!”

Wallace stares at the boy in growing comprehension, and does his best to mask his horror. “Titans, here? In Hoenn? Like the ones in Sinnoh?”

“I-I don’t know if they’re the s-same. They were sleeping, and sealed… they’ll go back to sleep on their own, and they’re normally trapped… but if I wake them with the quakes opening their chambers, they’ll break out!”

Wallace closes his eyes, feeling twice his age. Regirock, Registeel, and Regice aren’t the worst catastrophes a region could face; they’re slow, and predictable, and don’t cause Pressure or summon storms.

They’re just indestructible, massive, and utterly implacable in moving in whatever direction they desire.

Unleashing three such permanent blights on their region… could they do such a thing? Do they have the right? Does anyone?

“Rayquaza’s coming?” Wallace asks, eyes still closed.

“Yes. It’s already close. Too close. I won’t be able to finish on time…”

“That’s alright. Just… do your best. And Wally…” He opens his eyes, meets that frightened gaze again. “You didn’t know. If anyone asks, it was me. I told you to do it. Understand?”

Wally’s eyes widen. “I can’t… Leader, you—”

A tremor goes through the earth. They can hear it, see the shockwave of it travel through the ocean…. but the island is untouched, the force parting around the tower like it’s not even there. Not a single stone tremors with its passing.

“Am I?” Wallace asks. “Your Leader.”

Wally’s lip trembles, but after a moment he nods.

“Then repeat after me: you didn’t know.”

“You… I… I didn’t know.”

“I made you do it.”

“You… m-made me…”

His throat works, and Wallace squeezes his shoulder. “Good man.” He stands. “Now get to work.”

The Gym Leader watches the boy begin tapping into an ancient force greater than himself. The collective power of humanity… or at least that’s what the ancient humans thought… wielded in “prayer,” not to stop a god, not even to give it a command… but just to nudge it, a little. To plant an impression, an idea, an urge.

At just the right time, sometimes that’s all it takes to change the world… for a price.

As Earth and Sea both raged, their war did wake the Sky

With ancient hunger stirred, it came with rending cry

To feast on all it saw, and claim anew the sun

Till sacrifice was made, and peace at last was won

Wallace is going to have to have a long talk with Steven, when this is all over.


Dr. Light stares at her computer monitor, face set in a position of calm concentration for the sake of anyone that passes by her office door even as her heart sinks into her stomach. The air conditioning broke down ten minutes ago, and she still feels her blood running cold.

She hadn’t lied to her employees about the flowchart. It’s what she’s looking at now, color coded and interactive; a simple two dimensional image could never hold all the information this does, and as she goes through it yet again, pruning trunks and branches with each click, the colors start to shift first to the bright red of emergency lights, then darken to dried blood.

They’re down to one generator, and both stairwells are in some state of collapse. They can dig their way out, need to dig their way out, because the elevators are damaged too. Most of the flowchart doesn’t specify why the bad things are happening, however, there’s no room for context that assumes things might steadily get worse, so as their situation continues to deteriorate, she keeps going through the flowchart, ending in more and more extreme responses that still fail to address worse situations they quickly find themselves in.

Dr. Light can’t even get mad at the flowchart, though she wants to. There are systemic situations mapped, involving enemy action, the volcano erupting, a normal series of earthquakes, the specimen attempting to escape, a mutiny by some members of the staff… whoever designed this thing put a lot of thought into it.

They just didn’t think of… this. Which means it’s up to her to decide the best path forward.

“Begin data hardcopy transfers,” she tells Isaac, reading off her screen. “Once each is done, wipe it before powering down.” The head of technology nods and rushes out the door; electronic communication is down throughout the lab. She turns to her operations manager. “Kim, get everyone prepped for evacuation. Nothing that doesn’t fit in a bag, leave their hands free, understand?”

Shaw, their head of security, is shifting his weight as he waits for his orders. She knows what he’s expecting. She just doesn’t want to say it.

Where the hell is Sabrina? Giovanni can’t teleport, but at a time like this, with communication down, the psychic should be here, giving insight into the experiment’s thoughts. Lending weight to any decisions made about it.

Shouldering some of the responsibility for potentially making the wrong call.

Dr. Light feels a surge of self-disgust at the thought, and puts her computer to sleep to preserve power. Maybe Sabrina is upstairs already, stuck with no way in. “What’s the last word on the mansion?” Shaw’s job pertains to both external and internal threats, which means he has the direct line to their people on their off-shifts at all times.

“Got out an order to evacuate and set up a perimeter before the landline went down.” He watches her, face calm but body shifting again. “Been trying occasionally, but no new messages have come through. My people down here are prepared for any further orders.”

She knows what he wants: a decision about the specimen.”Speak plainly, Shaw, there’s no one here but us.” It’s a consideration that all the Dark members of the lab have had in the back of their minds for the past decade: what they say around their non-Dark peers, who may at that very moment be an unknowing host to the experiment.

“If we evacuate, we need to kill it,” he says, face calm even as the walls tremble around them. He shifts his weight to stay on his feet, and she clutches the edge of her desk to keep her chair from moving.

“You don’t like Gyokusho’s suggestion, then?” she asks, voice wry. “Or did you mean to kill it after it helps save our lives?”

“This isn’t the time for sentim-“

“Shut up, Shaw, I meant what I asked and nothing more.”

He holds her steady gaze for a moment, then nods. “Whether we use it to get out or not, it needs to die. It’ll be dead in a few hours anyway without the lab, and no one knows what it might do if it gets desperate.”

“Killing it might set this project back a decade, maybe more. None of the followup experiments are sapient, we still haven’t isolated what sets this one apart, and all that aside, Giovanni might just kill us anyway if we end his project without a good reason.”

“We’d have to survive first for him to kill us,” Shaw points out, still calm. “Either way, the worst case scenario is that it survives while we don’t.”

Dr. Light’s jaw clenches. “We’re lucky its life support hasn’t been damaged yet, considering how badly ours is doing, and if we die it’ll be because they go down or the whole place gets buried. In either cases it’ll be dead too.”

“Only if we assume its capabilities are what it presents them as.”

She doesn’t call him paranoid. It’s a perspective their boss endorses, she knows that, and one that runs through her mind often as well. She suspects he selected both her and Shaw for their positions because they’re both cynics. Pessimists, even; she’s been told, back in the days before she joined this operation, that her outlook gets in the way of having better “people skills.” Probably cost her a promotion or some opportunities for collaboration once or twice.

But in this organization that shit doesn’t matter so much as seeing things clearly, and she’d like to think Giovanni chose her well.

Which means she knows better than to confuse relentless pessimism with wisdom.

She agreed with him, an hour ago when the engineer asked what would be done if they had to evacuate. The plan has always been to default to killing the experiment if they’re ever in a situation where they can’t be very confident, by similar prior circumstances, that they can contain it.

There are no priors on this circumstance, however, and while back then she’d lied to the engineer without a thought, automatically and (she hopes) convincingly, the safe route gained some extra complications once the rest of the lab became at risk.

Their life support systems are failing; far faster than they should be, and they have to dig their way out, amidst an earthquake, without collapsing the whole lab on themselves. She’s one of only three people in the lab who now knows that they’re likely all going to die within the hour, even if the earthquakes miraculously stop.

Unless…

Unless she rejects the “safe” option, and takes a risk on the experiment. Let it out of its pod, let it don the armor that will preserve its life for up to four hours, then let it help them dig their way out with its psychic powers.

It’s been training in them for weeks, and its ability to sense through another pokemon’s senses is, of course, as unparalleled as its ability to do the same with humans’. If anyone can guide their diggers to make an escape route for them without bringing the whole place down, it can.

Dr. Light considers Shaw for a moment, then sighs. “I understand your worry. But the facts are undeniable. It’s been years since it so much as ‘raised its voice,’ let alone threatened anyone. More than that, it never took a single one of those traps you and the boss set up to see if it would try to escape. And we just had Sabrina here for weeks, sharing its brain for every waking minute, without any sign that it’s planning to betray us or hurt anyone… her exact report is that it’s happy, now that it can go outside and take a more active role in its purpose.”

“Sabrina could be compromised,” he says, voice flat.

She decides to let the comment pass, because she gets it and now isn’t the time. “Look. I know it’s your job to push for safe over sorry, but here’s the bottom line. Whatever new and exciting horror came out of Hoenn to cause all this shit shows more than ever why we need this project to succeed. Gyokusho is right; it’s a resource, and while normally crappy platitudes like ‘every crisis is an opportunity’ make my eyes practically roll right out of my skull, this crisis is an opportunity to test it, really test it, for the first time. And we’re going to use it. And we’re not going to kill it unless it makes us.”

Shaw’s back is stiff, but he nods. “By your orders, ma’am.” He turns to leave.

“Shaw.” The security lead pauses at the door to look back at her. “Once we’re topside, have your people bring out their best.”

There’s paranoia, then there’s preparation; she doesn’t know the details, but she does know that the experiment’s guards have pokemon they never summoned around it, pokemon that it wouldn’t expect if it ever tried to fight its way out.

“All of it, Doctor?”

“All of it. No point in holding anything in reserve now, when there might not be a tomorrow.”

Shaw’s second nod is less stiff, and then he leaves.

Dr. Light sighs and rubs her face, then starts backing up her computer as another quake goes through the lab. She puts in the code to have it wipe itself afterward, then starts packing her things. Anything important for work goes into one container, while she puts her personal effects in a second ball. It doesn’t take long; despite working here for over a decade, and having this office for roughly half that time, she hasn’t accumulated much beyond a few decorations.

She finally has a moment to breathe. To wonder, and worry, about the future.

Where would they go, after this? What would they do? Shaw was right to say that they likely can’t save the experiment once its suit is empty; they could have made redundancies, of course, but keeping it reliant on the lab was the point. Without the experiment, they would normally focus more of their resources on the problem of replicating its success, rather than leaving that to the secondary lab.

But without their lab… lab that’s been not just their place of employment but their home…

What would be left for them? It’s not like they can just find other jobs and reintegrate into wider society, after years of secluded living. She’s aware that it takes a strange sort of person to be okay with living above a lab far from civilization for years, but she’s been happy here. It’s her home.

This isn’t the time for sentiment, Shaw said, and she sighs, then nods and tucks the container ball into her bag. Survival first.

Dr. Light grabs the memory drive from her computer, tucks it into her pocket, and leaves her office for the last time, heading toward the experiment’s room at a quick pace as people move about the lab to prepare their own escape.

She braces herself as she reaches the experiment’s room. In the early days it was always a strain, being in its presence. So closely watching her words, her expression, even her tone. Ensuring she does nothing that might upset it.

It’s gotten easier over the years, but she still takes a moment to rehearse what she’ll say, what her goal is. There’s a state of being that she found in herself for her dissertation defense, a way to be firm without being rigid, focused on her goal while effortlessly able to adjust to any unexpected questions or challenges. She’s found it similarly useful since then, when around either Giovanni or the experiment.

It’s what she mentally wraps around herself before she opens the door and walks in, another quake rocking the lab as she crosses the threshold. Dust drifts down from above, and she glances up to see a long crack in the ceiling. A few meters closer to the pod and it might be dead, she thinks as a cold fist squeezes around her heart, then lets the thought go as she approaches the experiment’s tank.

“Good evening, Mewtwo.”

Its violet eyes were tracking her as soon as she entered, and she forces herself to meet them as it psychically types out its response, each word spoken a moment after. “Good evening, Doctor. Is it a good one? Everyone seems rather frightened.”

“No, I suppose it’s not. Have you learned why?” A delicate way to refer to the experiment’s constant, effortless violation of people’s privacy, the sort that any normal workplace would have had mass protests and strikes and walkouts over. She’s made her peace with it, as she has so many other things, but then it’s easier for her and the other administrators than the normal staff.

“Something about the Hoenn myths rising from the dead. Giovanni predicted thidaxq-” The lab shakes around them, rattling the various electronics and toys surrounding the experiment’s pod, and it stops typing for a moment as she leans against the glass, feeling it vibrate against her palms. Once the shake is past, the typing continues. “Predicted this, or something like it. Not so soon, however.”

This is news to her, despite what she said to the others, earlier. All she says, however, is, “Anything else?”

“Many believe they will die. Are we in that much danger?”

The experiment’s electronically assisted pseudo-voice isn’t monotone; to her ear, the deep, baritone voice sounds calm, powerful, even somber, with properly inflected questions that make it seem like it’s really talking, sometimes, like if it stepped out of the tank this is the voice that would come from its lips.

But even still, it’s not a human voice. It’s easy, while listening to it, to think of an emotionless machine, rather than a living creature that, by all reports, truly does feel things as deeply as any person. Looking at its alien visage doesn’t help; the experiment’s eyes can narrow or widen, but its brow is not expressive, and the muscles of its face are too taut to allow much expression beyond slight curves of its lips.

Not enough, all told, for her to tell what it feels as it says those words. To tell if it’s afraid, or if the calm words she hears, the calm expression she sees, reflect an inner calm, an inner certainty, that it will survive no matter what happens to the rest of them. She wishes, for a moment, that they never got rid of its old heart monitor; annoying as the beeping might be, at least she could tell if its pulse has sped up.

“We are. But you can help, if you’re willing.”

“Of course,” he responds without pause. “Whatever I can do.”

“I want to warn you, Mewtwo, that this may be the last time you leave this pod,” she says, wishing fervently that Sabrina were here. Saffron City better be sinking into the center of the fucking earth… “The suit can sustain you for a couple hours, and we have refills for a few more. Maybe we can jury-rig more after that. But the lab is being abandoned in case it all comes down on us, and if it does once we leave… you’ll likely die before we can reach and repair your pod.”

The experiment is quiet, for once without an immediate response. She can practically feel the others around her, lab techs and security guards all holding their breaths. Or maybe that’s just her. The lab itself seems to be waiting, no tremors or quakes interrupting the quiet.

“How likely is it you’ll survive, without my help?” he asks after what feels like a minute.

The question makes her feel better, somehow. It shows a level of self-preservation that she trusts more than she would blind self-sacrifice. “Not high. We’ll try anyway, of course, but at this point we’re desperate.” We must be, to let you out in a situation like this. “If you’d rather stay inside, not risk getting cut off from the pod, I’ll understand. But you’d be at just as much risk of the lab’s power going out while we’re gone, or the room collapsing.”

“I understand. I’ll take my chances, with the rest of you.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath, and nods. Some small part of her had continued to hope that the decision would be taken out of her hands. If the experiment refused, she would have had to kill it rather than leave it alone down here unobserved. Instead she gestures to the techs to get his suit, then has them begin copying and wiping the servers.

A few minutes later the pod is being drained and opened, and the experiment is disappearing under piece after piece of the dark grey metal. The sight isn’t as frightening as it once was, though watching it fight does quicken her pulse.

Once the last piece of armor is on, the technicians scatter to wipe the lab in earnest, leaving her, the experiment, and the four security trainers. Shaw isn’t here, likely with the extra men they keep stationed around the lab, and as another shake makes the lights flicker she hopes they’re ready at the stairwell.

“I’m ready.” The experiment flexes its knobby fingers beneath their gauntlets, then waits respectfully for the security to lead the way. The man waits for her nod before moving forward, and she follows alongside the experiment, wondering if it really believes the security is here to protect it rather than protect others from it. Sabrina said it did, but such naivete seems at odds with a creature so intelligent.

Not that we haven’t been carefully raising it to believe what we want it to. It wouldn’t be the first sheltered, intelligent being to believe in patent absurdities. A lot of people manage it incidentally.

Still, the thought bothers her the whole walk up the unblocked internal stairwells until they reach the top floor of the lab, which is itself ten meters from the ground floor of the mansion. There she sees the crowd waiting in the halls.

Hope and fear flash across their faces as they see her and the experiment approach, but she keeps her gaze forward, trying to look calm and in control as they approach the work being done at the less blocked external stairwell. “Tenshin, report.”

“Yes, Doctor.” He tugs a pair of plugs out of his ear and detaches the seismometer from the door, then wipes his brow. “We think the major breach is between the fourth and fifth floor, which is where enough earth spilled in to fill the stairwell.”

“It should have stopped there, shouldn’t it?” she asks with a frown. “Once the dirt reached the cracks?” It’s not water, thank the gods. She’s not sure if it’s possible to make an undersea lab, but if that were an option she’d rather get sucked into a greatball, thanks very much.

“Normally, yes, but pokemon have been approaching the structure ever since the earthquakes started. It turns out they’ve been damaging our equipment, perhaps as much as the earthquakes themselves.”

Dr. Light opens her mouth to curse, instead turning the motion into a deep breath. “Are you telling me we’re under attack?” There are flowchart contingencies for that. “Why wasn’t I told?”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, I may have been unclear… we’re not actually sure how much damage they’ve done. It’s nearly impossible to sense them with all the noise, and they don’t seem to be trying to actually breach the structure. They’re just… around. Another chaotic element.”

She rubs sweat from her eyes. “So how is this related to the breach?

“There are others, smaller ones where the soil isn’t spilling out fast enough to block the way yet, but the broken concrete is. The pokemon might grow agitated when we approach and widen the holes, but even if they don’t, if we move the concrete—”

“The soil could bury us.”

He nods. “Another problem is what happens when we get near the top,” Tenshin says, looking up. “The moisture in the soil is going to turn things muddy, which is harder for most of our pokemon to dig through. We have a few Ground/Water types specifically for that purpose, but the switch will be difficult to time.”

Dr. Light nods, then just stares at the wall in thought. The others know her well enough to wait silently as she plays scenarios out in her mind, imagines each of them going wrong, focuses on whether they’re preventable, then repeating the process…

“Mewtwo.”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“How much dirt could you move at once?”

“I’m not sure. Soil is difficult. Lots of small particles with little friction or cohesion.”

She knew all that, but was hoping he’d say it’s easier for him. “So handfuls, or something more? Could you put up barriers that would block it?”

“Not reliably. But there is something else I could do, with your permission?”

She glances at him as another quake hits, this one bad enough to send a few people to their knees or against the wall. The experiment himself shifts his footing and tail, but seems otherwise unbothered. “What is it?”

“From this close, I can sense the pokemon around the stairwell, and possibly drive them away.”

A slight chill goes down her spine despite the heat. She turns to look down each hall of the intersection and sees more people have gathered, ready to leave. Not the time to ask what its range is and panic people. Sabrina confirmed that it could read everyone in the lab, but she never asked about what the limits were past the walls. Was it about distance, or intervening substance, maybe?

Does it know about the explosives? Could it sense them?

An idea occurs. “How many people are left in the lab that aren’t here?”

“Twenty-seven that I can sense. Most are on their way.

“Is the generator room still within your range? Is anyone there?”

“It is, but not unless they’re dark.”

They would be, she knows some brave souls are going to stay down there as long as they can to keep giving them air and light as long as they can. She turns to some engineers who aren’t dark. “Florent, Abi, go swap with whoever is there. Mewtwo will let you know when it’s time to come up.”

There’s fear in their gaze, both glancing at the experiment, but then they nod and hurry back downstairs. She’s already turning back to it. “Upstairs, in the mansion. Can you reach anyone there?”

“Yes, all the non-dark, non-psychic staff are in my range.”

And now she has a better sense of its range. It’s not too paranoid, she thinks, to recognize that it could have been the one that made the pokemon damage the stairwells. It doesn’t particularly matter, now. “Search their thoughts for anything that might seem relevant or helpful. Can you communicate with them?”

“I can, though it would be—”

Another quake makes everyone shift, and a loud crack from somewhere in the facility makes a few people cry out in fear. Dr. Light’s heart is hammering in her throat, but she keeps her gaze on the experiment. “It would be?”

“Difficult for them.”

Right. And even assuming they don’t freak out, they might not be believed. None of the leadership isn’t dark. “Try anyway, if you find someone who seems calm and receptive. Tell them our situation as best you can.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath and runs through her list of available resources again, making sure she’s not missing anything. “Alright, then. Let’s get to work.”

Once the work begins, it goes surprisingly smoothly. The pokemon are sent through first with their trainers to clear the rubble and hold it in place, with the experiment using their pokemon’s senses to report what they feel and ensure nothing they do causes further damage. Eventually people start making their way up through the cramped, humid, dark stairwell, every tremor and shake sending dirt down on them until they reach the collapsed top…

…where those on the surface have already dug their way down, clearing the rest of the way. Dr. Light is at the head of the last group to leave, along with the last two engineers, the experiment, and the last two security guards.

There’s a lingering sense of celebration when she emerges, applause breaking out as people stand around in the pouring rain, just happy to see their peers alive… until everyone stops, and stares, and she knows the experiment has stepped out from the ground behind her.

The experiment doesn’t seem to notice, or care; its attention is on the security guards’ pokemon, both those that were with it downstairs and those from the other shifts who are moving to carefully surround it. They’ve brought out their best, weavile and greninja and hydreigon and krookodile. They’d probably be bringing out tyranitar and incineroar if it weren’t raining.

Even now they’re acting carefully, facing outward as if forming a perimeter to protect the experiment from anything that might come at it from the darkness and rain, trusting the others outside the perimeter to watch their backs. But still she watches the experiment with a feeling of unease, watches its helmet slowly turn to her… then tilt up, letting the rain hit its visor with the sharp plink of water on metal and glass.

Dr. Light swallows the dryness in her throat. The cold rain, drenching as it is, feels amazing on her sweaty skin, but she’s unable to even take a moment to celebrate the fresh air and lack of impending doom. “Thank you, Mewtwo. I believe we all owe you our lives. Are you… do you need anything? Are you tired?”

“No, Doctor, I am quite well. I believe I’ll take a walk.”

Shit. Shit shit shit. “I think maybe you’d better wait, Mewtwo. The situation’s uncertain, and…” She almost says Sabrina isn’t here, but that hasn’t always been a requirement.

“I’ve taken walks in the rain before. Earthquakes are new, but what’s the worst that happens? If these may truly be my last few hours of life anyway… surely you wouldn’t deny me that?”

It’s a trick. She knows it’s a trick, knows it deep in her bones.

No, that’s just fear talking. Her options are simple: deny it, and force its hand if it refuses to comply, or… if it’s not a trick…

Deprive the experiment its final wish before it dies. Even assuming it’s not a trick, would that be enough to anger it, make it force her hand?

No. There’s still a chance that the earthquakes end, that they can return downstairs and repair any damage and save it. She tries to hold to that, even as she reaches into her pocket to slide her fingers around the remote for the failsafe built into its suit.

“I hope they won’t be, but yes, you’re right. May I accompany you?”

“Of course, Doctor. I’d hoped you would.”


In three caves deep in forgotten temples of Hoenn, rock and metal and ice shift, and lights glow in patterns ancient and terrible.

Chapter 81: Interlude XIII – Titans

The worst thing about learning that a myth turned out to be true, is learning it also turned out to be incomplete.

Professor Birch stares transfixed at the sight of the titan on his monitor, eyes moving restlessly over it. Armor plates cover its body from head to tail, even redder than a crawdaunt shell, and every step of its two massive lower claws seems to rumble the earth. It looks like it would more naturally crawl on all fours, but instead it stands with a forward hunch, wide tail beating a secondary rhythm behind it with each stride. Though the helicopter is flying high enough to stay safely away from it, he can tell that it’s fast, faster than anything so big has a right to be. But that’s not what keeps him watching in horrified fascination.

When the footage first started airing, Groudon looked a little taller than a house. Now it looks as wide as one, and its head would probably tower over his three-story lab… and it’s still growing. But that’s not what keeps him breathlessly watching either, even as he feels his home shake around him with the quakes that continue to ripple through the region.

The helicopter’s footage abruptly wobbles as turbulence hits it, and a moment later the lingering sunlight that had illuminated Groudon is covered by a downpour, enough rain to make the titan only barely visible. It stops, flexes its body, and roars, the sound piercing through both the rain and the helicopter’s propellers. Between the red scales, Birch sees light flare, like magma deep within Groudon’s body, and within moments the rain cuts off to a trickle, and sunlight returns to reveal it.

There’s a moment of disorientation as the cameraman swings the lens up to the sky, clearly wanting to capture on video the way the rain clouds race away from Groudon in a ring. Even in the middle of setting, the sunlight somehow seems to blaze through the atmosphere, making the pokemon’s scales shine when the cameraman brings it back into focus.

And even that is still not what keeps Birch from the dozens of things he should be doing right now, including silencing his phone’s regional warning, which has been blaring nonstop, rather superfluously all things considered.

What keeps Birch glued to his screen is what’s happening around the legendary pokemon. The copter caught up as it was approaching the coast, and at first it seemed like it would just walk straight into the sea.

Instead, new earth rose up to meet its steps as it approached the water, magma boiling the sea into steaming clouds before solidifying under its stomping claws. The beach now extends nearly a kilometer further than it used to, and the group of trainers (he assumes they’re rangers, but they’re hard to make out) that were chasing after it are clearly having trouble traversing the rough, newly risen ground.

Professor Birch wouldn’t believe what he’s seeing if he hadn’t already run through every dream check he knows, including slapping himself across the face. Now that he knows he’s awake, all he can do is stare in horror as the colossal pokemon wreaks havoc on his region.

It stomps down onto all fours, and a few seconds later he feels the quake hit his house; not the constant tremors that have been ongoing, but a real earthquake strong enough to make the whole house rock back and forth.

His phone shakes to the edge of his desk, then off it, and after a moment he realizes it’s also ringing in between the harsh buzz of the alerts. He hears it continuing to ring under his desk, and half shifts, half falls off his chair to get onto his knees, cursing his gut as he shuffles forward to grab it before it vibrates further out of reach.

“Hello?”

“Birch, where are the kids?”

“Norman!” Birch’s head rises too fast as he pulls back, and he smacks it on the underside of his desk. The stunning pain makes him bite back another curse as he settles a hand on ground to steady himself. “They were in Sootopolis an hour ago!”

“They’re not answering their phones!”

Fear jolts through the professor, and he pushes himself up only to fall back onto his hands and knees. “You think they…” He trails off, not needing to finish the question. He distantly hears glass breaking downstairs, and recognizes that the quake is still ongoing and he should get out of the building.

Instead he looks around, then shuffles on his free hand and knees toward his headset, looping it around his neck and turning it on so he can jam his phone into his pocket and shuffle back toward his computer.

After everything their kids have been through on their journey together, would Brendan and May be staying safely out of the way at a time like this?

Or would they be racing toward the crisis, hoping to help stop it?

“Where are you?” he asks as he climbs onto his chair, which wobbles but stays mostly in place.

“We’re forming a perimeter around Petalburg, local pokemon are panicking!”

Birch’s heart sinks the rest of the way down into the pit of his stomach. Hoenn sees its fair share of rampages, some even reaching Tier 3 status, but despite its size it’s not like Kanto or Johto, with their Birds and Beasts, or Sinnoh with its Titans. He always felt a mix of relief and guilt when he considered how much less stress he’s had to deal with, growing up and becoming Professor of such a relatively safe region. He’s not a battle trainer, never has been, let alone ex-Champion like Oak and Rowan.

Thirty-five years of relief and guilt, all wiped away in a matter of minutes as he stares at the monster that’s been slumbering under their “safe region.” A titan all their own, and one that’s affecting the entire island, skipping the mostly-theoretical 4 to reach a true Tier 5 event.

“Birch, are you there?”

“Yeah.” The Professor forces himself to minimize the window and pins his vibrating keyboard in place with one wrist as his other grabs his thankfully corded mouse to pulls up the pokedex tracker. Hundreds of dots populate the map of Hoenn, and he clicks his most recent filter on. “The kids are…” He trails off, blinking.

“Are what, Birch?”

“I don’t understand, they’re… it must be glitching.” He clicks each dot to confirm he’s filtering the right three trainers. “They’re not with each other, it says Wally is at some tiny island while Brendan and May are flying over the sea.” He watches the dots move across his screen in real time, which is absurd given the distance involved.

Norman lets out a gust of breath, and mutters something that sounds like a prayer. “Thank Arceus, for a minute I thought… When did they get fliers?”

“They never registered any.”

“So they’re hitching a ride somewhere? Hang on, I need to take th-“

The sound cuts out as Norman puts him on hold, and Birch realizes that the quaking has finally trailed off. He opens the tab with the chopper’s live feed again and sees that Groudon is back on its hind legs, striding toward what looks like a new island that’s forming in the distance. The coast stops pushing out in every direction as magma stops rising at its edges, all of it concentrating on what looks like a land-bridge to the newly rising surface.

He gets another call of his own from Littleroot’s mayor and ignores it as he switches back to the tracker, cycling through a few other filters to ensure they’re working properly. Most of the other trainers he’s keeping tabs on are about where he expects them to be, so why—

“Birch,” Norman says, now outside from the sounds in the background. “Thanks for letting me know, I have to—”

“Norman, the kids are moving fast. Faster than any pokemon I know of.”

“What are you saying, they’re on a jet?”

Birch watches as the dots move independently from each other. “Two jets, more like.”

“Where would they… where the hell are they going?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Birch hedges, his heart pounding as he watches the dots move, erratically but steadily, in a particular direction. “They’re not moving in a straight line, but… it looks like they’re headed to…”

The Gym Leader’s voice is barely controlled. “No, they can’t be… they have to know there’s nothing they can do!”

Birch would have agreed with him even a year ago. But the things those three have gone through since they started their journey… “They’re not kids anymore, Norman,” he says as he sets his own fear aside. Well, Wally is, but thankfully they seem to have left him behind… how did he get to that island, anyway? “And this is their home, their world, too.”

He hears Norman let out a gust of breath. “I haven’t been the best father, Birch. I know that. But I can’t leave my gym.”

“I understand.” He just wishes he could go himself… that he wasn’t so soft, so weak…

He blinks as a thought occurs. This is a Tier 5 event. Surely the other regions…

“And I’m going to do everything I can to help them,” he finishes, already taking his phone out to make some calls.

“Thank you, Birch. I have to go.”

“Good luck, Norman.” Birch closes the call, then hovers his finger over Sam’s number before skipping it to call Lance first. Oak nearly died just a couple months ago, and he doesn’t know if these things create Pressure yet.

As the phone rings, he looks back at the screen and feels a fist form in his stomach, crushing the mild hope that had risen.

Groudon is definitely bigger than the last time he looked. And unless its density is surprisingly low, a heavy ball is no longer enough to contain it, if it ever was.


Up until the floor of the casino cracked like the shell of her favorite cream-filled chocolate egg, Lizzy’s primary worries involved the power plants. Even minor quakes could cause major problems for the more delicate types of infrastructure work, and her sister is overseeing construction of a new site to the north of Lavender Town.

Because of that worry, she expected the power to go out at any moment, and so already has her magnemite summoned and glowing by the time the air fills with crashes and screams, slot machines and people sliding into the dark depths of the earth.

Bretta clearly had other concerns, because she uses the same time to grab Lizzy’s arm to yank her toward the corner of the casino. The two of them run around card tables and chairs, some empty as people flee in a panic, others still occupied by people either paralyzed by fear or desperately trying to hold onto tokens that threaten to spill all over the shifting tables and floor.

Feeling the ground tilt under her feet as she runs is one of the scariest things Lizzy has ever experienced, including everything that happened in Vermilion, but they find firmer footing as soon as they reach the corner of the building. She turns back just as the emergency lights kick in and the quake subsides to a steady series of vibrations again.

The red-tinted casino is in shambles, the destruction centered around a rubble-filled crater close to the food court and rippling outward in a slope. The cries of the injured and scared are, unfortunately, still competing with the cheerful jangle of many slot machines, because of course a casino would put its game machines on the emergency power supply…

“Where’s Blue?” Bretta asks, looking wildly around.

“He was at the slots over there,” Lizzy says with a gesture, and her blood runs cold as she sees nothing but a pile of machines and broken rubble.

Most people are running for the exits, but Lizzy and Bretta turn to stare at each other, and in that moment she thinks of Aiko, crushed by a roof, then Bretta, standing alone against Surge on a dragonite.

“Don’t—” is all she manages before Bretta grabs her shoulders.

“Get the others—”

You get the others, let someone else be the hero for a—”

Another quake hits, rocking them on their feet. It’s not as powerful as the last one, but they still hear things breaking outside the casino.

“You think it’ll be any safer out there?” Bretta asks. “I have the pokemon for this, you don’t.”

“Every minute we argue is one they might suffocate.” Fear makes her whole mouth taste like copper, her heart beating so hard she can feel her pulse in her throat, but she keeps her gaze on Bretta’s, and the fear she sees mirrored there keeps her anchored. “I’ll call them while you start, but I’m not leaving.”

Her friend scowls at her, then hugs her tight. She hugs her back, and then they’re moving toward the rubble as Lizzy gets her phone out.

“Liz?”

“Glen! Are you still at the gym?”

“Yeah, things are a mess—” There’s another quake, and he shouts, “Watch out, up top!”

“What’s going on there?” she asks as Bretta summons a sandslash and sets it to digging. The two of them start working together to haul tables and chairs out of the pit.

“One of the buildings nearby collapsed against another. Pieces of it keep shaking loose when another quake hits.”

Lizzy curses as she strains to flip a slab of tile from the broken floor, feet slipping under her. “Ngh… figures…” She gasps with relief as someone reaches her and helps, and looks around after to see more people bringing pokemon out to start digging.

“What about you, everyone okay?”

“No, Blue got buried in—”

What?!”

“—the floor of the casino, ow, don’t yell, Glen!”

“Is he… sorry!… do you need help?”

“Help would be nice,” she says faintly, and looks up at the roof as another mini-quake trembles through the earth. Luckily it doesn’t look like the ceiling is damaged at all, but another big one might change that. “Is the power out there too?”

“Yeah, through the whole city, looks like.”

Come on, Sis, get on it. “I need to focus on this… if you guys have a chance to come…”

“Yeah, we’re on our way,” Glen says. “Hang in there, Lizz, and be careful.”

Relief courses through her. She knows part of her should feel guilty; there are other people in danger, and they might need everyone’s help more… but the idea of Blue down there, in the dark, injured…

“We need more light over here,” someone calls from another part of the hole, and Lizzy goes still as a new thought hits her:

Comparative advantage.

Hers is not digging through rubble.

“Bretta,” she says as she scrambles toward her friend. “They’re on their way, but I’ve got to go. I’m leaving my magnemite.”

“Go where?” Bretta grunts as she lifts a stone her pokemon cut in two, then hands it to someone else. People are forming a chain to move the rubble.

“To get the power back on.”


Petrel finishes climbing up the hatch and into the roof, taking his first breath of fresh air in over a day. He’s gone longer without it before, but the past 24 hours in Team Aqua’s headquarters have been hard to get through considering all the dead bodies in it.

He lets the rain pelt his face for a few precious minutes, treating it like a brisk shower to fight his tiredness, then pulls himself the rest of the way out of the hatch and lets it close behind him with a clang. The battle that raged through the headquarters left not just bodies, but broken machinery that allowed the base to function as a submarine port, and they just managed to finish repairing enough that it stopped taking on water when the quakes started. His muscles ache and his thoughts feel slow with exhaustion from both the battle and the cleanup, but he knows he has to report in before he can rest, now that he finally has a moment to get outside the base’s communication blocks.

He pulls his earphone out of his pocket and turns it on, then speaks Giovanni’s private number by memory, keeping his eyes closed as the storm rages above and the base continues to occasionally vibrate from the quakes beneath him.

It’s been months since he was stationed here, long enough to make some friends among Archie’s people, even if he didn’t quite buy into their mission. Giovanni didn’t ask him and the others to come here and convert, though; just keep tabs on things, gather intel, and help however they could.

Now the whole region is going to hell, tremors still occasionally rocking the headquarters as they struggle to keep things stabilized, and he hasn’t received any new orders from Archie in a day. He needs to know what’s expected of him, and the boss needs to know what happened here, if he doesn’t already.

Giovanni responds at the fifth ring. “Lambda?”

“Hey, Boss,” Petrel says and lets out a breath of relief that he got through.

“You’re alive.” There’s relief there, but also tightly reined frustration. “I requested immediate alerts of any battles between Magma and Aqua, including major breakthroughs in the search for Kyogre or Groudon, even if it would blow your cover. Now all three of these things have happened, and I only found out about it in the past few hours.” Giovanni audibly takes a calming breath. “I’m happy you survived so I can ask you directly… what happened?”

“Sir…” Petrel licks his lips and tastes something bitter in the rain. “We were kept entirely out of the loop on any new developments after the orbs were retrieved on Mt. Pyre. Since then we’ve been stationed at Aqua’s headquarters without anything to do until it came under attack yesterday.”

“Magma?”

“Yeah, but others showed up too.”

“There’s no gym in Lilycove…” Giovanni trails off, then guesses, “Norman and Birch’s kids?”

“And others,” Petrel confirms. The trainers were at Mt. Pyre too, among others that nearly managed to stop Archie and Maxie from getting the orbs that reawakened Groudon and Kyogre. “A shorter boy with green hair, a—”

“They were working with Magma?”

“I don’t believe so, Sir. I had a quick look at the security feeds, and they came in after. Magma came straight for us, but they fought only when challenged, and seemed to be after something else. Videos didn’t capture what.”

Giovanni is silent for a moment, and Petrel’s hand finds his side, still tender from where a Vine Whip cracked his rib. Potions applied to the surface only help so much with damaged bones.

“I don’t see any relevance there,” Giovanni finally says, voice terse, which Petrel thinks is the boss’s way of saying he has no idea what to make of it either. “Get me a copy of that feed and I’ll look over it myself. Moving on; Groudon and Kyogre have been resurrected, within a day of each other. That cannot be coincidence, Aqua and Magma must have known where to find them already and kept that knowledge hidden. Has there been any word from Archie or anyone else from within the inner circle?”

“No, Sir, not since yesterday.”

“Then it’s possible they’re all dead. How are the others there reacting?”

“There’s an air of confusion and uncertainty here, but no one is panicking or acting as though they’ve heard something definitive.”

He hears Giovanni let out a breath. “Alright, then. If Archie or any of his inner circle live, they’ll have the orb with them. Chances of getting it at this point seem low, but I need a copy of their research on it.”

That would be more difficult. “The research lab is still being heavily guarded,” he says to ensure he knows what the boss is asking of him.

“Do anything you have to, Lambda. You’re coming home after.”

A rush of relief eases some tension deep within him, and Petrel swallows the thanks that rise to his lips. He should feel worse about having just been told to kill the members of Team Aqua that get in his way, some of whom he’s even grown to like and respect, but right now all he feels is glad he has permission to get the hell out of the region that still feels like it’s being shaken apart under him. “Yes, Sir. Should I pull everyone on this, or do they have their own orders?”

“This is the new priority. The fate of the world may rest on what we can discover in that research, even if it won’t come quick enough to save Hoenn.”


The end of the world, Steven Stone reflects as he mounts his skarmory and commands it to take off from the roof of the Sootopolis Gym, should not be so wet.

Oh, there are stories of the world ending in water, of course. From this very region, in fact. There are also myths that warn of the world ending in the pure oblivion of Arceus’s final Judgement, or all of life being drained away and turned to stone, or its light eaten away to leave them in eternal darkness. Fire, that’s a popular one too, as well as ice.

But water is just… undignified. He feels dampness seeping down his neck and reaches back to tug his collar more firmly against his skin. Even suits specifically tailored to be water resistant don’t look particularly impressive while sodden, and no one’s hair looks better wet, not even Wallace’s.

He wonders if it’s normal to worry about how your hair looks during the end of the world, then reassures himself that the world probably isn’t actually ending; just Hoenn, and maybe a few of the closer regions.

Though the sun is still in the process of setting, the massive rain clouds turn the sky nearly as dark as night… or they would, if not for the circles in the clouds that keep growing and shrinking. The visible beams of sunlight they let through turn the horizon into a gorgeous dance of light and shadow, but the largest, steadiest sunbeam illuminates a scene that makes it hard to focus on the beauty of it all.

Cold as stone. He heard it a number of times growing up (and once from a boyfriend during their breakup) for how unexcitable he was, whether from good things or bad. Once Devon Corporation started to grow internationally, his father changed the family name to Stone to reflect their beginnings in gem mining and excavation; Steven inherited his interest in studying rare minerals, particularly the evolutionary stones.

But his dad gets angry, and excited, and frightened, and passionate. No one’s ever compared his dad to a stone, not that Steven has heard at least. The calm… that seems to just be him. Excitement, fear, anticipation, anger… all things he understands in abstract more than any stirring in his chest. Losing his mother caused some, as did becoming Champion.

Steven’s pulse, a slow and steady thing even in the heat of battle, has barely changed since the earthquakes and rainstorms began. Even learning about the sudden appearance of the mythical pokemon didn’t change that.

It’s only when he sees them that he feels it, the thumping against his ribs, his pulse vibrating in a dozen different places throughout his body, sharpening his focus until every detail seems to burn into his memory.

The red one is practically glowing in the sunlight, or maybe it’s the body itself that’s glowing beneath the scales. It’s stopped traveling as it fights the other one, whose shape is only visible when it surfaces as a pattern of gleaming white and red lines and circles along its body and fins.

Steven watches as waves rise up higher than a stadium, then crash against Groudon, trying to sweep it out to sea. It roars in defiance, the sunlight seeming to brighten as it stands its ground, then stomps its tail down. A spike of earth juts out of the water, barely missing Kyogre as it dives back under. A moment later it resurfaces on its opponent’s other side, multiple jets of water shooting out to pelt Groudon.

The impact of each jet is audible even above the rain and waves, but Groudon stays upright, then hits the ground again. Boiling magma sends a cloud of steam up near Kyogre, who swiftly retreats from what must be a much larger pocket of heat under the ocean. Steven quickly banks his skarmory to the side to avoid the hot steam as it spreads upward, unable to tear his gaze from the battle below.

He thought he’d seen what pokemon could do when he visited Kanto and fought against Articuno. The power they held, power enough to bring a city to its knees.

What he’s seeing now are two pokemon who are turning the planet itself into weapons against each other, and everything happening to his region and those around it is just collateral damage.

Badump, badump, badump. His heart is pounding, his breaths uneven, and despite everything, he finds himself smiling as he raises a hand to his headset.

“I have them in sight. Still no Pressure.” Unless this stirring excitement counts.

“Roger that, Champion,” Drake says. “I’m five minutes away.”

“Three minutes,” Phoebe reports.

“Ten.” Glacia’s teleport point turned out to be the furthest.

Ten minutes before they’re at full force to engage, since Sidney won’t be joining them. As the only Dark member of the Elite Four there’s no way he’d be able to reach them anytime soon, which led him to defend Lilycove instead. It’s the first time the Elite being Dark has really felt like a liability, but they’ve never faced a threat that’s needed every member of the League before. He’d like to call in every Gym Leader too, and their Seconds and Thirds, but they’ve got their own troubles to deal with; there’s barely a town in Hoenn that isn’t facing rampaging pokemon, not to mention damage from the earthquakes and heavy rain.

He watches the battle for a few more moments, a plan slowly forming. “Some good news, this thing might just be a Ground type. As long as we stay high and mobile to avoid any rocks or steam clouds it sends up, we might be able to t—”

Groudon’s whole body suddenly flares with light, and a beam of superheated air escapes its mouth with a roar, sending clouds of steam up from a whole stretch of the ocean. “Nevermind,” Steven says once his ears have stopped ringing. “It just… did something, like a Solar Beam super-charged by a Hyper Beam, but also hot enough to flash-boil the sea.”

“Didn’t sound like you had much warning, either,” Phoebe comments.

“Barely a second.” Which means they need to get off their pokemon to fight it. “Going to find a place to land.”

Steven scans the area around Groudon for something safe, and notices a group of about a dozen people, close enough to stay within the circle of sunlight while far enough to avoid any of the massive waves that occasionally rise up to batter Groudon. He angles his skarmory to land in front of them. “There seem to be rangers already nearby,” he says. “Touching down now.”

“Rangers?” He can hear Drake’s frown in his voice. “CoRRNet didn’t report anyone nearby…”

“Yeah, looks like I spoke too soon again,” Steven says as he lands. They’re dressed in red and black, but they aren’t rangers. Rangers don’t hide their faces, and he’s seen these uniforms before; on the renegades that he helped fight off at the Mossdeep Space Center.

“You,” he says as he slides off his skarmory’s back and summons his aggron and metagross, “Should count yourselves lucky that I have a bigger concern right now than a pack of renegades, which are words I never thought I’d say, and leave while you can.” His pokemon both shine silver in the bright sunlight as they face off with the dozen pokemon in front of him, taking on battle stances despite the tremors that constantly undermine their footing. Steven trained both to overcome their weaknesses as much as he could, and they’re the only ones he trusts to take a hit from something that powerful.

The pokemon he’s facing are heavy on Dark, Poison, Fire, and Ground types, with what looks like the leader fielding the biggest camerupt he’s ever seen. He steps forward, one hand on his pokemon’s orange fur.

“Hello, Champion.” His voice is modulated by his mask, the upper half of his face a visor that shows just a glimpse of the eyes behind it. Most of the glass is covered in some display too small for Steven to make out. “I understand your animosity, but believe it or not, we are here to help.”

Steven smiles, a distant part of him noting that his clothes are already dry, and that the sunlight is actually uncomfortably hot against his skin now that he’s holding still. “I won’t pretend this isn’t a desperate situation, but it’s not quite desperate enough to accept help from people I can’t trust.” Groudon slaps the ground again, and everyone’s knees bend as they brace and shift to withstand the tremor. “You have sixty seconds to get out of range before I blow the lot of you to oblivion. Fifty-nine… fifty-eight…”

The group is silent, or rather their leader is, and they all wait on his cue. Probably incredulous that he thinks he can stop them all himself, and he wonders if they’ll call his bluff.

Of course, “bluff” is the wrong word; he prefers “delay tactic.” Not that it might not be interesting to see how many of them his boys could take down, but he needs to save his pokemon’s strength if he can help it, and some of the pokemon they’re fielding are powerful enough that he’d actually lose.

Steven keeps counting, carefully not taking his eyes off the leader to check if Phoebe or Drake have arrived yet. He reaches “twenty-four” before their leader pulls a red orb out of his pocket.

Even in the harsh sunlight, the orb is visibly lit from within. Steven prepares for an attack, but instead the leader just says, “This was the tool to awaken Groudon, and also a way to control and empower it.”

Steven briefly wonders if they’re purposely delaying too, but the bait is too good not to bite. “You want me to believe you’re not only responsible for summoning that thing, but you’re actually controlling it?”

“Summoning, yes, but unfortunately control was lost. It seemed like our custom programs had tamed it upon capture, but during our tests it began to grow, subtly at first. It soon became too large to be contained in any ball, and shortly after stopped listening to even basic commands.”

“So you raised a pokemon that myths describe as a god, tried to run experiments on it, then were surprised when it escaped?” Steven shakes his head. “Jirachi’s tears, haven’t you people seen any movies?”

“Life is not a movie. You have ample reason not to trust me, but consider this: Kyogre was not our doing, and we did everything we could to stop it from rising as well.” Another quake nearly drowns out his next words, and he raises his voice to be heard over it. “We were attempting to be prepared for this eventuality!”

Steven shifts his feet and balances himself with his arms until the quake is past. “I don’t see how two island-destroying titans are better than one.” Steven takes his eyes off the group for just a second to glance at Groudon, who is advancing again on newly risen land. “Them killing each other would be too lucky, and meanwhile Hoenn is being torn apart and drowned.”

“If Groudon were not here, Kyogre’s power would go unchecked. Glaciers would be melting around the planet, releasing enough water to submerge every coastal city in the world, and—”

Phoebe lands beside him on her oricorio, its violet feathers practically pink in the sunlight. He really hasn’t seen any movies, Steven thinks. Or he’s watched too many League matches and thinks monologuing is a part of serious pokemon battles.

“Disperse.” The normally cheerful Alolan girl’s tone is flat as she summons her pokemon. Not surprising, considering he was still broadcasting everything he said to the others; they all know who’s responsible, now. Her palossand immediately forms a wall out of the hardened earth beneath them, and her marowak’s spinning bone burns brighter than he’s ever seen it, making it even harder than usual not to get unnerved. “You will not be asked again.”

The tension among the group has visibly increased, all except for the leader and the two contrasting figures on either side of him. But still no one moves to leave, and after a moment the leader slowly returns the orb to his pocket to free up his hand. And now we fight, Steven thinks, resignation stronger than any other feeling. Drake will be arriving within a minute, and with the three of them even a group this big doesn’t stand a chance. What a waste.

Instead of reaching for his pokebelt, however, the leader raises his hands to his mask… and unclasps it.

There’s a stir of surprise by those around the man, and even Steven takes a moment to understand what he’s seeing as the terrorist drops the mask to the quaking ground. A moment later he presses something on his visor, and reveals his upper face as well.

“Matsubusa.” Steven stares at the famous paleontologist as the pieces fall into place, irritation a mild prickle under his skin. “Studying them wasn’t enough, you had to prove they were real?”

“I knew they were real,” Matsubusa says, calm voice tinged for a moment with pique. “I had to ensure they were controllable, before someone else woke them with other intentions. Don’t be foolish,” he suddenly snaps, and it takes Steven a moment to realize he’s talking to his own people, whose hands are rising to their masks.

Soon they’re falling to the ground, one after another, and when the large subordinate to his left responds it’s out loud. “We will follow you to the end. You should have known that.” Steven isn’t sure if they’re a man or woman, but he vaguely recognizes their round face and wide smile from somewhere… One of dad’s employees?

“Our odds of survival do drop,” the girl to his right says in a detached tone as she shakes her hair out after pushing her own visor back, along with the hood that was covering her hair. “But it was not high enough to matter, if we do not survive together.”

Steven watches with mild fascination as Maximilian Matsubusa’s face, always calm on camera, twitches with barely controlled emotion. He wonders what the other man, who so often seems similar to himself in the way he emotes, must be feeling now, and Steven finds himself a little envious. Not of the loyalty shown, which he expects he would receive as well in a similar circumstance, but in the way it so clearly overwhelms the normally stoic man.

“This is touching, really,” Phoebe says, her voice just a hair less cold as Drake finally lands to Steven’s other side, his salamence kicking up a mild windstorm as it touches down. “But we don’t need your help.”

“You do,” the girl says as their leader regains control of himself. “If we leave now, there’s a chance it will weaken. Perhaps you will be able to defeat it, but then Kyogre will remain unchecked. How will you stop something this powerful, but underwater?”

Steven exchanges a glance with Phoebe, then Drake, who looks mad enough to Draco Meteor them all right now. The older man spits to the side from atop his dragon. “I can stop it, aboard the Tidal.”

The first henchman to speak shakes their head. “Your ship, while impressive, is not a match for the God of the Sea on its own, let alone one being assisted by a group of pirates in the stolen Explorer.”

Steven feels his irritation growing as he learns how connected the crime spree that has plagued his region was. “Of course that was related to all this. Next you’ll tell me Professor Birch is leading that group?”

“Birch?” The man(?) sneers. “That close-minded fool laughed at the idea that either could be resurrected.”

“Their leader is a pirate named Archie Aogiri.” Matsubusa looks like he bit into a lemon. “We used to work together, until he stole my research.”

“So both of them were awakened on purpose,” Phoebe says, her disgust plain. “You made it sound like Kyogre was going to rise on its own, and resurrecting Groudon was insurance.”

“I knew Archie, and I knew Kyogre was real. This outcome was entirely predictable.”

“With eighty-seven percent probability,” the girl to his left adds.

“Uh huh.” Phoebe’s hands are still on her pokebelt. “So where is this Archie now? Underwater, making Kyogre stronger with another of those gems?”

“We suspect so,” Matsubusa says, “As Kyogre has been growing in strength as well.”

“Then you’re saying he should be our target.” Steven turns to Drake, who nods.

“The sea’s in as fine a mood as I’ve ever seen her, but if he’s down there, we’ll find him and flush him out.” Drake salutes, then turns his salamence and guides it into a running leap before it soars off.

Steven turns back to the group and realizes the rain is approaching them, and glances at Groudon, who looks farther away. It’s hard to tell given that it’s still growing. “Is it taking the sunlight with it?”

“In a manner of speaking. It seems to create a localized high temperature atmosphere that—”

“Forget I asked, we need to move.”

“Then you’ll let us help?”

Steven considers the other man for a moment. “I don’t believe you’re being honest with me. Or maybe you’re just telling the story in a way that makes you look good, and gets us to focus on your rival.”

“Collateral,” Glacia suggests in his ear.

Steven almost nods, and wonders if she’s in sight of them yet. He holds out his hand. “If you really mean to help, give me the orb.”

Matsubusa stares at him, then slowly takes the red sphere back out of his pocket.

The round henchman stirs. “Maxie—”

“He’s right,” Matsubusa interrupts, and steps forward past his pokemon. The camerupt tries to stay ahead of him until he gestures with his hand, settling it in place. “We hold some responsibility for what has occurred. If this will help us make it right…” Despite his words, as he steps past Steven’s pokemon the Champion can see the reluctance on his face. Matsubusa gazes into the glowing gem for another moment, then slowly, regretfully, drops it into his hand.

It’s warm. No, hot. Burning, but without any real pain. Steven stares into the depths of the sphere, fascinated. It’s not a ruby, he’s almost sure of that; too flawlessly round, and not transparent at all, somehow. There’s a shape within it, gleaming gold… he can almost make out what it is…

“Steven,” Phoebe says, and something in her voice makes him turn to her. “Your ring…”

He follows her gaze as he turns his hand over, and sees the gem on his ring is glowing, a rainbow flame swirling at its center. “Huh.” He feels a mild awe stir in his chest, and looks up at Matsubusa to see naked shock on his face.

“What kind of gem is that?” the paleontologist whispers.

“Aggronite,” Steven says. He shifts the orb to his left hand, and the gem on his ring continues to glow for a moment, then slowly returns to normal… and as he suspected, the gem on the ring of his left hand has started glowing instead. “And metagrossite.”

“I’m not… familiar, with those names…”

“Yeah, I kind of made them up.” He pockets the orb. “Well, we’ll figure out what that’s about later. Your people will follow our orders, understand? I can’t guarantee amnesty after this crisis is passed, but first we need to make sure it does pass.”

“Understood, Champion,” the other man says, still clearly preoccupied by what he saw. “We’ll focus on Kyogre first, then?”

“I’d rather take out the one we can more easily get, especially if it will stop the quakes… but if taking this orb away from Groudon will make it grow weaker, then yes, we’ll help it beat Kyogre first.”


At first, Kawabata Gyokusho thinks Cinnabar’s volcano is erupting.

It’s an alarming thought, but not a catastrophic one. The lab was purposefully built here, after all, with every eventuality planned for, and more added in the years after 2.351 awoke and its capabilities became known. They ran simulations and drills, and even if the entire island gets covered in magma they could still survive in the lab for over a week as they use their pokemon to dig themselves out.

But instead of rising into an eruption, the shakes dip and rise and continue in sporadic bursts that make the whole structure groan throughout the day. The lab is equipped with the best seismometers in the world, sensitive enough to tell them if a diglett is moving anywhere in the mountain the lab is built into in case the experiment tried to drive other pokemon to attack the lab in an effort to free itself, but the data they’re getting from them don’t point to any local source.

It becomes clear that something unnatural is happening when the evening shift begins and the quakes start to chain into each other more rapidly. Eventually there’s a crack that everyone in the lab can feel through the floor, and things go downhill from there. Still, it’s only when the alarms start to go off that the fear hits.

Being one of the lab’s engineers shielded him from panic when the power cut out, and even when the elevator shaft collapsed. But the alarm he’s hearing now isn’t one he knows. It’s not the fire alarm, or the invasion alarm, or the subject escape alarm. Those would all be better, because by process of elimination, he can now guess what this alarm is.

When Kawabata joined the lab, the end of the interview process included an additional offer to be one of Mewtwo’s comforters if he was willing to live in the lab rather than the manor above. The idea that his free time could serve the double purpose of giving Mewtwo–then just the subject–a source of peace and positivity seemed a form of charity, something he was happy to do considering how little it impacted his own happiness; he’s always been one of those apparently unusual people who enjoy being inside as much as possible.

The downside was that, if something happened, he would likely have no chance of surviving. Every scientist, engineer, guard, cook, and plumber in the lab feels the sword hanging over their heads. You can forget it, most days, sometimes even for as long as a week or a month. But sooner or later you remember, and the fear returns, for a few minutes at least.

Fear of the final fail-safe.

They don’t all know what it is, of course. Or at least, the non-psychic, non-dark employees don’t. But they have guesses. Poison gas in the air supply. Bombs rigged in the walls to bury them in rubble. Things that would kill everything in the lab, in case it’s invaded by a hostile force set on capturing their research.

And, since the subject awoke, probably also in case it goes rogue.

But it isn’t trying to escape, and they’re not being invaded. The creators of the lab thought through a lot of possibilities, but did they imagine ceaseless, ongoing earthquakes that would make it seem like those things were happening?

Kawabata is prepared to die if it means keeping such a powerful pokemon from falling into the wrong hands, or becoming another perpetual Tier 3. They all are, or they wouldn’t be working here.

But dying to a freak accident… worse, the subject dying to it, erasing all their progress over the years, removing humanity’s best chance at defeating the Stormbringers and other legendaries? Something in him rebels against the thought.

It’s been months, but he remembers the day he met it like yesterday. They were all informed that the subject would be let out of its room for the first time, but he hadn’t expected it to just show up at his door, with Sabrina and Giovanni and Dr. Light all there with it, looking into his room as it complimented a drawing he didn’t ever name except in his own head.

The sight of it stayed with him ever since, and he resisted the itch to draw it for a long time, until finally one night he gave in… only to get a distinct feeling of sadness, and quickly destroyed the drawing. He knew that it had been with him, then, and that it didn’t like the way it looked.

The subject has occasionally touched his mind since then, always at seeming random, to express gratitude and appreciation for the things he draws. Not being remotely psychic himself, he never knew it was there until he suddenly felt himself experiencing an emotion with no apparent cause.

He never told anyone that he had an invisible friend when he was young, and he hasn’t admitted that it’s been a bit like having one again… except real, this time. He’d think things at it, wonder how it felt about stuff going on around the lab that it surely also experienced through others. It never responded to his thoughts in words, but it was still like a conversation.

It’s dangerous to think that way. There are people that aren’t spoken of by name in the lab, past employees who left the project for reasons that are never spelled out. But negative space can form a picture too, and eventually it became clear that there’s more than one reason no one gets too close to the subject.

But letting it die just so they can all live, when it didn’t do anything wrong… worse, letting it die rather than letting it help save itself, and them all… it feels wrong. More, he can’t imagine that Giovanni would want something like that.

Which means he has to do something about it.

The alarm cuts off before he finishes putting a fresh voltorb in one of the backup power banks, then comes back on as he goes down the diagnostic list to ensure the transformer is undamaged, then cuts off again by the time he reaches Dr. Light’s office. There’s already a crowd there, and Kawabata stays near the back and listens as the project leader’s harried voice drifts over the sound of the quakes.

“—a station to get to, get to it,” she says. “We ran those drills for a reason, and nothing that’s happened so far is outside the scope of Giovanni’s predictions.”

“The Sevii Islands are sinking!” someone calls out.

“Well we’re not on the Sevii Islands, are we?” she shoots back.

“Director, are you saying Giovanni actually knew that Groudon and Kyogre would rise?”

Dr. Light makes a disgusted sound. “I know this situation is freaking everyone out, Leo, so I’m going to ignore the fact that you just asked me to reveal information that might be above your security cl—”

Another quake hits the lab, dimming the lights and causing a round of cursing as people are nearly knocked off their feet. Kawabata leans against the wall, feeling it vibrate under his hand.

“What I will reiterate,” Dr. Light continues once it fades, “Is that Giovanni and our security team predicted many circumstances, there’s a goddamn flowchart and everything, and we are still within the part that translates to not abandoning the lab while there’s still a chance of salvaging it.”

“Have we been in contact with him lately?” someone asks.

“He checked in when everything started,” Dr. Light says. “We reported what was happening and he told us to stay the course.”

“That was before the power lines were damaged,” someone points out. “Have you tried raising him since?”

“Yes,” Dr. Light admits after a moment. “There was no answer, probably because he has other fires to put out!” she yells to be heard over the new outbreak of comments. “I’m not repeating myself again, people. Get to work or I’m going to start writing names.”

The iron in her voice quells the air of potential mutiny, if not quite the panic. The two fears clash silently for a moment, and then the crowd starts to disperse.

Kawabata almost leaves with them, but after a moment his resolve hardens. He has something legitimate to report, and he can use it to lead into the conversation. He steps into the office once the last person leaves, and weathers the glare Dr. Light aims at him with a salute.

“Oh put your hand down, Gyokusho, what is it?”

“Ma’am, the backup generator is online—”

“I’ve noticed.”

“—but it’s the second-to-last undamaged one we have.”

Her lips purse. “The others are being repaired?”

“Yes Ma—” Another quake pitches him forward, and he catches himself on the desk as Dr. Light grabs it to steady herself too. After it fades he straightens. “Yes Ma’am, but… in these conditions… with the ongoing damage, there’s no way to predict how long we can maintain this. It could be hours, it could be minutes.”

Dr. Light closes her eyes, hands massaging her temples, and he waits in silence as an after-tremor rattles the lab.

“The stairwells are still unblocked?” she asks at last.

“One of them is,” he says. “The other has some damage, but is still passable with a bit of work.”

“If they collapse while people are in them, those people will die,” she says. “If we all stay in here, we can dig through once the quakes pass.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He bites his lip, but he can see the same thought in her weary eyes. If the quakes pass. They’ll have to eventually, of course, but it’s already been an hour. They might not survive another.

“You have an alternate suggestion,” she guesses. Maybe hopes.

Still, he hesitates. “Ma’am, what happens if we do evacuate? I mean what happens to… the subject?” He almost said Mewtwo, but one of the “superstitions” in the lab is that thinking of it directly can summon its attention. He doesn’t believe it, exactly… and yet.

“We take it with us, of course,” she says. “Its suit can sustain it for nearly four hours now, long enough that hopefully all this would be over and it can return to its pod.”

“I see.”

He doesn’t believe her.

She spoke with such authority, such conviction. Like it was the most natural answer.

But a moment ago even the simplest responses came out with… more. Call it grumpiness, for she could be grumpy, or stress, as they’re all stressed, but there was something that was there and gone between responses, and…

He shouldn’t be thinking about this. He shouldn’t be thinking about how, if they have to abandon the lab, there’s almost certainly a part of that flowchart that insists on ending the subject’s life… or that if it gets to that, she might just trigger the whole lab’s destruction.

It can’t be allowed to come to that.

“Ma’am,” he says, swallowing his nervousness. “What if it helped?”

The office is silent, or as silent as it can be while they hear the dim sounds of frenzied activity through the stone walls and ceiling. “Helped how, Gyokusho?”

“I’m not sure,” he says. “But it can coordinate people, right? And move or hold up debris, maybe it can even sense a quake when it’s coming, or help secure infrastructure…”

“Perhaps,” she says. “But its room is the safest, most secure area of the lab. Letting it out in such an uncertain situation to move about the building would be putting at risk the very thing we’re all trying to protect.” The lights flicker as another quake hits them, and she dismisses him with the words, “Still, thank you for the suggestion.”

“Of course, Ma’am.” He leaves the office at a jog to check on the generators again, still worrying over what he said, and what the director didn’t say.

Mixed in with those worries are a feeling of gratitude, and it isn’t until he reaches the power room that he recognizes it as separate from himself.


The director of the Hoenn Weather Institute is having a bad year.

First a bunch of criminals ransacked the place and stole some of their very rare, very valuable castforms.

Then the regional grant money was cut to help shore up “other deficits,” as if their losses didn’t qualify as a deficit worth shoring up.

Then his wife left him, probably because he started drinking again. He only did that to deal with the stress of knowing the board is probably going to vote him out once the year is over.

And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, or perhaps out of sympathy for his troubles, the world decided it might be time to just get it all over with… through torrential downpours and earthquakes, of course, so he’ll probably be blamed for this too. He can hear his soon-to-be-ex-wife already… Didn’t see the storm of the century coming, with all that fancy equipment? Working late with a bottle that night?

He was, as a matter of fact, but his subordinates weren’t, and they didn’t tell him shit about any of this. Which is why, while everyone runs around in a panic through the building, he is already drunk as a croagunk on the roof, where tables are set up for people to eat on their lunch breaks or after work. A wide umbrella keeps off the rain as he watches the anomalous weather shift and spread throughout the region, both on his laptop and right in front of his eyes.

The weather has turned particularly bad around the mountain they’re set on, and he can see a helicopter struggle to fly in the downpour. Doesn’t make sense, he thinks for the fifth time as he takes a long pull of bourbon, feeling the burn slide down his throat as he watches the rain come down in sheets. Barely any wind. This much precipitation is absurd on its own, of course. Entirely wrong time of year for it besides, but what does he know, he’s just a self-pitying fool with poor administrative skills and…

The helicopter is spinning out of control. The director watches in sickened fascination as it struggles to stay aloft, then to land, and raises his bottle in mournful salute as it falls too quickly into the distant hills, a brief flash of light signalling its end.

His other arm rises to wipe his face as he curses the umbrella for not catching all the rain. Once his eyes are clear, he looks back at the laptop, feeling hollow inside as he sees rain clouds continuing to spread over every region on the island, and beyond them. Satellite comparisons show the ice at the planet’s poles are already noticeably shrinking, and there’s rising ozone depletion just south of Sootopolis, right above the biggest gap in the clouds. It’s nonsensical, the atmosphere thinning should be at the poles for the ice there to be melting… there’s no reason they should be melting at all, unless… he switches to measures of the ocean currents, stomach churning as he sees the graph of the temperature rising.

Doomed, he thinks, and raises the bottle to his lips again only to find it empty. He tosses it over his shoulder without a second thought and stares at the screen with eyes that see nothing… not even the thin line that’s forming in the clouds above Hoenn, parting the swirling white like a knife to cut its way toward the hole in the atmosphere.

Chapter 80: Nonviolent Communication

The earthquake hits after breakfast, interrupting the morning feedings.

Leaf does her best to calm the pokemon around her that have been released already. It doesn’t take much, since not panicking is part of basic pokeball training upon capture, but many of the pokemon here were abandoned because the automated conditioning didn’t take as well as their trainer liked, and they lacked the patience to enforce it manually. A few of the more skittish pokemon are clearly distressed, so she quickly withdraws them.

After she gives Raff a puff for staying so calm, she checks the news feed, which pinpoints the epicenter off the southern coast of Hoenn. Leaf whistles, knowing the size of the quake must be enormous to be felt this far along the island.

Luckily it was close enough to the coast that there’s no tsunami warning. She forces herself to look away from videos and pictures of toppled buildings and cracked streets so she can call Aiko’s dad about whether they should keep to the schedule.

“Hmm, there may be aftershocks,” he muses from the other side of the ranch, and she hears him scratch at his stubble through the phone. “Or some reaction from local wilds…”

She knows he’s always trying to let the pokemon live as much of a normal life as possible, but one thing she’s been working on with him has been giving himself a break when there’s a justified reason. “We can catch up on some of the medical exams today instead?”

“Yes… yes, that should do nicely. Alright, let’s bring them back inside.”

“You got it.” She starts working her way back to the ranch, carefully dividing which pokemon have already been fed and which haven’t. Mr. Sakai devised a great system for keeping track of the “real time” for each of the ranch’s pokemon, rotating them on a schedule so that they can live (mostly) normal sleep/wake cycles despite having to go into their pokeballs most of the night. The most difficult are the nocturnal pokemon, but he’s made efforts to ensure they at least get a couple full “days” a week as well. Leaf finds herself once again admiring not just the dedication, but the thought he’s put into being the best pokemon caretaker that he can be. Despite running a relatively small ranch, she thinks he is one of the best; if he weren’t so focused on ensuring as many pokemon are as well cared for as possible, he could be making a lot more money breeding and raising rare species favored by the wealthy. The real money is in pokemon strong in battle, but that’s too far from his values to be realistic. Still, even just catering to the tastes of pokemon collectors he could easily be running a ranch three times as big.

It’s a thought that preoccupies Leaf often, wondering if there isn’t a more effective way for Mr. Sakai to fulfill his altruistic values. Even with the extra money and help they’ve been getting from the therapy groups, the expenses still continue to creep up as new pokemon are found or left with them, lacking any other home. Leaf even went looking through Aiko’s computer, and found a file listing her friend’s ideas to keep the ranch solvent for her then-hypothetical journey, including taking on a few more rich clients and hiring an extra worker or two with most of the money. A lot of the ideas were crossed out in red, which Leaf took to mean that Aiko brought them up to her dad and got rejected, or were unworkable for some other reason that Leaf doesn’t have the context yet to understand.

She even brought the idea up with Natural during one of their “calls.” Her fellow Unovan also admired Mr. Sakai’s dedication, but was confused about why he didn’t just work for some rich person and then use the money he makes to hire more people to raise the pokemon, and Leaf explained that Mr. Sakai has a hard time trusting others to take care of the pokemon well if he’s not directly involved. Still, it was a good idea, and one that Leaf isn’t sure she had the complete answer to.

Thinking of Natural makes Leaf decide to check if he’s still online, or in bed already. She smiles as she sees him available, and sends him a message before turning the automated speech app on; Natural said his computer’s microphone and camera don’t work, so instead Leaf uses a text-to-voice program to listen to him when he sends her a message.

(It was a bit strange learning this, strange enough to make her think that maybe Natural is hiding something about himself, but she quickly learned that Natural is a bit strange in a lot of ways; whatever reason he might have to lie about this, it’s clearly part of something very personal, or something he’s ashamed about.)

“Heya!” Natural says in the voice she picked out for him(?), a rural northern Unovan accent that reminds her of a friend she made while visiting some cousins there. “Thought you’d be feeding still?”

“Was, we had a quake,” Leaf says as she returns some metapod to their balls.

“Scary?”

“A little, but not as much as back home, knowing Landorous isn’t here.”

“Yeah I’ll bet. Also, just in case you’re curious, I may have gotten past the Rocket Casino’s security.”

Leaf stops walking, mouth gaping in shock. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, but then it turned out to be a shell and I got a message asking me to submit an application if I want a job in cyber security. These guys clearly spent good money to make sure the secret stays safe.”

Leaf chuckles and starts walking again. “I’m still not sure why they’re keeping it such a secret. If it really is a new species, it’s not like people are going to be *less* interested if they know what it looks like or something. It makes me lean toward the idea that it’s actually a scam of some kind.”

“I’m more worried about what they might be doing to it while no one’s watching, if it’s not,” Natural responds, and the auto-generated voice has shifted its tone to a sadder one that lets Leaf know he added a sad face to the message.

She bites her lower lip, not having considered that. “You think they’re what, running experiments on it?”

“Why not? Either it’s something new and they want to learn all they can about it before it’s in public, or it’s some mutation they’ve created to pretend is a new pokemon, like a forced regional variant.” That was a hypothesis floated by a few researchers, though most Professors have been keeping their speculation to themselves. Her own mom and grandpa have apparently been debating it among themselves, and Red guessed that the silence from the experts was a mix of scientific humility and not wanting to be so publicly wrong about something.

Leaf doesn’t want to think that people can be so cruel as to try to force pokemon through enough selective generations that they change that drastically. For one thing, the changes wouldn’t be the result of any adaptation, which lowers the chance that they’re useful to the pokemon, and for another the breeding pool would likely be limited, leading to a lot of harmful mutations. Her stomach twists into a knot as she thinks about what would have likely happened to all the pokemon along the way, let alone how they might be treating the new discovery. “That’s horrible.”

“Yeah. I’m going to keep trying on this end. I wish I was there.”

Despite her new worries, Leaf smiles slightly. “What would you do from here, break into the casino and try to find it?”

“Of course not.” There’s a pause. “They probably aren’t holding it there anyway.”

“But if they were…”

“Yeah, I’d try at least.”

Leaf laughs, which she knows the program will translate symbolically. She can never tell how seriously to take these kinds of boasts… Natural talks a lot about the things he’d “like to do,” and they’re all so grandiose that it would be easy not to take him seriously if he was less incredibly knowledgeable about pokemon, programming, politics, and all sorts of other things.

At the same time he can be surprisingly uninformed about other things, which on the whole makes her think of him as about her age. He actually reminds her of Red sometimes, though with very different interests and values.

“Maybe I should go and scope it out, just in case,” Leaf muses. She’s mostly given up on the idea of being an investigative journalist, but unlike the previous passions she’s moved on from, she still feels the itch to find out more about what’s going on around her and write about it. Probably because she’s still helping with Laura’s investigation.

“Really?” The automated voice is excited, and Leaf imagines the open-mouthed smile that Natural must have added.

Leaf hesitates, wondering suddenly if she should. She is curious about the contest itself too, particularly the math involved. The casino announced the rules the day after the contest itself; normally people buy tokens and use them to bet in the machines and card tables for more tokens, which can then be traded in for prizes. It’s a clever way to get around gambling laws, which are way stricter here than in Unova. But for the contest, a new type of token was created to distinguish between those bought and those won. Instead of trading the tokens in for prizes, they can instead join the contest lottery, and put their tokens toward a personal “pool” of lottery tickets.

Each token in their pool would increase the chance that they get the grand prize. Or rather, it would increase the chance that they get first pick of prizes, and then second, and so on, but Leaf can’t imagine the first winner not picking the mysterious new pokemon, even with a dratini available as an alternative; unless someone gets phenomenally lucky, the amount that will make a first prize win likely will far exceed the cost of just buying a dratini outright.

Though notably, there’s no minimum needed for any of the prizes, so however unlikely it would be, someone could win a single token, submit it to the lottery, and walk away a month from now with a pokemon that might be worth millions.

And since it has to be won tokens, the vast majority of each one submitted for the contest likely cost the players many more dollars to win, unless they can beat the odds on some of the few games with an element of skill. Leaf saw some estimates of how much money is spent at the Casino compared to the value of the prizes awarded and was shocked. It makes it especially diabolical that the tokens that would be won and submitted to the lottery wouldn’t be used for any prizes other than those of the contest.

Whoever came up with the system knew exactly how to maximize the amount of money the casino would rake in. It’s already drawn a lot of criticism and calls for investigation to see if the contest breaks any laws, though the Casino insists its lawyers have ensured it does not. Maybe it would be a good use of her time, getting a ground floor look at the contest. Writing about something so controversial would further boost her readership, and besides, she has a personal angle on one of the few individual contestants who have already announced their intention to participate…

“Yep, really,” Leaf decides with a smile. “If anyone asks, I’ll just be there to lend Blue some support.”

“That’s awesome! Hey, if they have a public wifi you could even let me try some MITM attacks through your phone!”

Leaf blinks as the voice pronounces each letter of the acronym, then frowns slightly at the idea of letting Natural use her as the literal middleman for Man in the Middle hacks, even if part of her appreciates the wordplay. “Uh… wouldn’t that be traceable to me?”

“Hm, good point… oh, you could just buy a burner phone and leave it on somewhere nearby!”

He sounds so earnest that Leaf laughs as she tracks one of the pidgey, who keeps hopping around as she tries to withdraw it. “Someone’s been watching too many spy movies.”

“It would totally work. Just buy it with cash, and don’t register any personal data on it.”

Leaf finally withdraws the pidgey and tucks it in the bag, feeling conflicted between her own desire to do something and her worries about doing something like… this. She’s not sure, however, if she’s hesitating because it’s illegal, because it’s risky, or because it still feels “wrong” in some way, even in comparison to the good it might do?

She reminds herself that she doesn’t actually know Natural. It’s hard not to feel like she does, with the automated voice and how much they’ve talked and worked together and share values, but wanting to impress him isn’t the same thing as doing whatever he asks without thinking. There’s got to be a way for her to investigate the casino without putting her trust in someone she’s never met.

“Still there, Leaf?”

“Yeah, just thinking…” She trails off as she gets a call, and smiles as she checks the screen. “I’ll think about it, talk to you later, I gotta go.”

“Okay, I should go to bed anyway. Night!”

“Sleep well!” She ends the app, then answers the call. “Hey Blue, I was just talking about you. How’s it going at the gym and casino?”

“Pretty good,” her friend says. “But I actually called for something else, and don’t want to get sidetracked… I uh, wrote a thing to send to Red.”

Leaf stops walking, so surprised she can only say, “You did?”

“You don’t have to sound so shocked,” he grumbles. “I just thought you should read it over, before I send it. To see how it sounds.”

“Of course!” She thinks of telling him how proud she is, but knows that would probably sound patronizing. “I’m really… glad.”

“Yeah, well. Read it first. I started it when I got to Celadon, but it took a few days to get to where it is, so I might have gotten too… rambly. Or something. I need fresh eyes on it.”

She’s a little worried now, and suddenly remembers what a gut-punch it was for Laura to tell her she had to rewrite her whole article on the Pewter Museum after she worked on it for so long. That was way less personal to her than this is for Blue, plus she was a lot more used to writing her thoughts out, and the idea of revision. If her feedback is too harsh, he might just avoid the whole thing for another couple months. “I’ll look it over tonight,” she promises.

“Cool. Yeah. Thanks. Anyway, I’ll call later to catch up, I need to go to a class… I think you’d like it here, by the way.”

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“The gym members are as often focused on coordination as battling, and the whole place is very pokemon friendly,” he says, and she can hear him going down some stairs. “The gym’s basically a huge park for them, and even more than Vermilion the classes focus on social stuff, status and influence and group dynamics instead of things related to battling and incident response.”

“Huh.” Part of her sighs at the idea that he thinks she’d consider the gym “pokemon friendly” just because people let their pokemon out to play there, but she knows he means well. The truth is, before she worked on the ranch and met Natural she probably would have considered that a sign of pokemon friendliness. Now, though, she’d need to see them actually doing more to care for pokemon that aren’t just their own before she’s so charitable.

Still, it would probably be a fun place for them to explore. She can tell Raff in particular is getting a bit bored of the same environment; the ivysaur has begun following docilely after her during her rounds, rather than bounding from pen to pen excitedly investigating each one. Though today he’s actually much more energetic than usual, prancing around with apparently boundless energy. “The classes do sound interesting. Plus I saw the uniforms online, and they look super pretty.”

“Oh, yeah, there’s a whole system for those actually… remind me to tell you later.”

“Will do, bye! Oh, one more thing! Can I come visit you soon, and would you do an interview on the casino contest?”

“You’re still into that sort of thing?” he asks, and then his surprise shifts to suspicion. “It’s not going to be a hit piece is it?”

“Would I do that to you?”

Blue chuckles. “Not without asking first, which is more than I can say for everyone else who’s reached out so far. Yeah, of course. Come by whenever you want, though you don’t have to interview me in person, do you?”

“Nah, but I want to see what’s going on for myself too.”

“Alright, looking forward to it.” She hears a door open. “Gotta go, talk to you later.”

“Later!” She closes the call, and wipes sweat from her brow as she checks the message she receives from him. It’s a copy of his letter to Red.

Excitement burns in her chest, as well as a queasy worry lower down. She said she’d look it over tonight, but after months of silence, she’s too curious to see what Blue finally says. She sets the bags down and leans against a fence to scan the message.

Hey Red

Leaf stares at the two words, then sighs and rolls her eyes. Boys.

I’m guessing you’re probably still mad at me. I’m still working out how I feel about everything, but I want to make sure you know that, if you took what I said as meaning I wished you were dead, I didn’t mean that. I meant that even knowing that would happen, taking that risk is what I would have done for her and you, and I was upset that you didn’t. But in case it needs to be said I’m obviously glad you didn’t die too.

Hope Saffron is treating you alright. Maybe I’ll see you there soon.

Blue

Rambly, he said. Leaf shakes her head and reads it over again, pulse still quick with anticipation. This… isn’t terrible. It’s not great, she’d give it even-odds at barely improving things between them at best versus upsetting Red even more, but two things seem really promising; the way he said he’s working out how he feels, rather than that he’s mad too, and the tentative idea of seeing Red soon.

She wonders if she should call Blue later and talk about it, or just send back an edited version and see what he thinks. He might be embarrassed by having to explain himself or talk through the choices, but she also wants what Red ends up seeing to come as much from Blue as possible.

She decides to wait until she can talk to him again, and continues withdrawing the rest of the pokemon as she dials Red, who answers after just one ring.

“Hey Leaf, what’s—”

“What are you doing tomorrow? Also hi.”

“Uhh…” Red seems taken aback by the excitement in her voice. “I’ve got a class to teach, after that some training with another student here, and then I’m free?”

“Cool, cool cool.” She withdraws a rattata and carefully places its ball in the nearly full bag. “Want to go to the Rocket Casino for crimes?”

“For… our own crimes, or someone else’s?”

“Good question. I want to use your psychic powers for espionage because I think they may be doing unspeakable things to the new pokemon.”

There’s a pause, and after a moment Red sighs. “Leaf, is this an elaborate ruse to get me to talk to Blue?”

She scoffs. “Nothing elaborate about it if so, I’m literally asking you to go with me to the place where he’s likely to be.”

“That’s not a denial.”

“I’m just upset by how weak you think my cunning is.”

“Still not a denial.”

“Fine. Red, along with enjoying your company, I swear, I primarily want to exploit you for your powers.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Also, no.”

“Hm. I respect your boundaries,” Leaf says as she finishes withdrawing the last rattata. “But also, Reeeeed why noooot?

“First of all, why would people at the casino know anything? Second, if they did, they probably have psychics of their own to make sure they’re not being read, like on the cruise. Third, weren’t you the one that made me promise not to use my gift like that?”

“Yeah, but this is different! It’s for a good cause!”

She can hear his smile. “And my other objections?”

“I know,” she sighs. “You’re probably right. Still, aren’t you curious about how the contest is going?”

He’s silent for a moment, then sighs. “Yeah, actually, I am. It’s the first new pokemon discovery since before I can remember, but this is such a weird way for one to be revealed…”

“So? What’s holding you back?” When he’s silent for a moment, she has a moment of wondering if she should nudge him… normally she wouldn’t, but knowing that Blue is going to be sending his letter soon, she wants Red to say yes to the visit before he gets it. It will feel more meaningful then. “Is it because you might run into Blue?”

“So what if it is,” he mutters, sounding more grumpy than upset.

“Red… you can’t avoid him forever,” she says, picking her words carefully as she taps a pattern on the fence around a tree to get the various bug pokemon in its branches to come down. “He’s going to be in Saffron soon enough, and what will you do then? Avoid going to the gym in case you bump into him?”

“Ugh. No, that would just make me seem like more of a coward.” He sighs. “I know you’re right, I just… I don’t know what I’d say if I saw him, and I don’t want to get into another fight.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she assures him. “If either of you start a fight, I’m just going to grab the offender by the ear and drag them away. The potential indignity of it should be a useful deterrent.”

He chuckles, then sighs. “Fiiine, I’ll take some time off.”

“Wow, way to make a girl feel special,” she teases.

“Oh… sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“I know, I’m just giving you a hard time. Seriously though, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“I do! Want to, I mean.”

“You’re sure? You’d tell me if I pressured you into it?”

“Of course.” He’s silent for a moment, then says contemplatively, “Or would I? Maybe I’d make up some excuse at the last minute.”

She laughs. “Shut up, you would not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You’re a terrible liar.”

“Yeah, well, I might have a superpower for that now.”

“Red, you can’t say stuff like that! Now how will I know if the excuse is real?”

“Should have thought of that before you didn’t respect my boundaries. Everything’s up in the air now. Who knows how I feel?”

“Red!”

He gives a sinister laugh that he must have practiced at some point and ends the call, leaving her to laugh to herself. The lingering worry she felt fades with the relief and joy that came from him teasing her back. She takes it as moderate evidence that he actually didn’t feel pressured to come, and strong evidence that he’s okay with her teasing him, too.

For a long while she wasn’t sure how to think about the feelings she sensed from Red on the boat, or even whether to poke at it at all. What she eventually realized is that it doesn’t matter. She should act like she didn’t sense it, because it wasn’t hers to sense; he didn’t choose to let her know it, and when he does, then they can talk about it.

Not that she knows what she would say, exactly, since she doesn’t really know what he would say. But she’s thought through a few different outcomes after thinking over how she feels about Red.

She likes him. He’s a great friend, one of her favorite people in the world really, despite their differences.

But does she like him? She’s not sure. She looks forward to seeing him, and enjoys teasing him. It’s cute when he blushes and tugs on his cap and looks away.

And he was very brave, during the storm. Despite all the horrible things she saw earlier that night, what she remembers most is the shock of being hit by the nidoqueen’s tail. The worry, as she lay on the street and felt pain start burning through her, that she was dying. And with it, the sound of his voice calling her name, and the sight of his worried face as he carried the half of the stretcher that had her head on it through the rain. That last thing in particular, makes her feel warm and fuzzy inside.

…but does that mean she likes likes him? Or would she feel that way for anyone who did that, like Blue or Glen?

Glen is definitely more handsome, but he’s older than she is, and she hardly knows him, plus she thinks he’s got something for Bretta. It’s a harmless crush. Blue is cuter than Red too, but it doesn’t really register for her beyond an observation. Maybe because she can’t imagine them having any sort of deeper relationship; they’re too different. But her and Red…

She could see it. Maybe. Potentially.

Leaf continues to muse on it as she finishes with the pokemon, then returns to the house, sighing with relief to be out from under the sun, which was feeling oppressively hot today. She starts doing some of the easier medical check-ups until Mr. Sakai joins her, and she listens carefully as he teaches her more about the pokemon she hasn’t worked with yet. She knows she has a lot to learn before she’s as good at this as Aiko, but she enjoys learning about it. Even beyond the subject itself, it makes her feel closer to her friend, and she thinks Mr. Sakai enjoys teaching it, too. It’s just another way he could be using his time more efficiently, if she could find a way to convince him to… though part of her worries it’s arrogant of her to think that way, and that she should just let him live the life he chooses.

After lunch she gets to work on her “renaturalization” program, which is at the stage of preparing for its first experiment. Red helped a lot by asking for the least docile pokemon on the ranch, then melding with each and determining which ones responded quickest to sakki. While Red was fascinated by what that meant for the effectiveness of simulation training, and started working on a design for a research paper that could predict it without using psychic abilities, Leaf began working on tailoring the program for the three pokemon whose natural instincts were closest to the surface, keeping in mind Bill’s suggestion to focus on proof of concept.

She’s taken more of a backseat role on the project now that the other programmers Bill put her in contact with like Natural are helping, but she’s the one with the access to sakki, and to so many test subjects…

Leaf’s fingers slow, and she closes her eyes.

Test subjects.

It’s the first time she’s thought of them in those terms, and a weight forms in her stomach as she dwells on the implications. How much has she changed from the girl who argued with Red and Blue on the first night of their journey? Normally changing her mind about something is a thing she’d celebrate, but it feels like a betrayal, to recognize that she’s willing to risk seriously messing up these pokemon’s minds for the sake of the project. Even knowing that it’s the goal she cares about, not fame or money, doesn’t help with the guilt.

The first is Scarf, a rattata with a white blotch that extends around his neck who keeps gnawing on rocks and chipping his teeth. Hoppy is a nidoran who jumps around manically every time she eats, no matter how much her trainer tried to get her to stop, and Stoffle is a yungoos someone brought all the way from Alola who was abandoned because he kept trying to escape any enclosures he was in.

Scarf. Hoppy. Stoffle. Not just test subjects; individual, sentient creatures who want to live, want food and companionship and freedom, just like her.

She starts typing again, but her heart isn’t in it, and she has to force herself to keep working, one line of code at a time, as her thoughts drift to Blue’s letter, and to Red’s potential reaction, and to what Natural asked her to do, and what might be happening to the newly discovered pokemon. If he wasn’t asleep right now she would message Natural, ask him how he resolves the contradiction of being angry at the Rocket Casino while working on a project like this, but she guesses what his answer would be; the same one hers is, ultimately. It’s for their own good. It’s for what’s best for everyone. “The ends justify the means.”

After an hour she feels like she barely got any work done, and opens Blue’s letter to read it over again. She sends him a message to call her when he’s free, then switches to working on the task Laura gave her, running down a few more leads that come up empty before Blue reaches out.

“Okay, ready for some feedback?” she asks upon opening the call. “Also how was your class?”

“It was good, and uh, should I be taking notes, or…? How much feedback are we talking here?”

“Weeeell…”

Blue chuckles, which surprises Leaf. “Hang on, this might actually be a good time… there’s a thing I learned a couple days ago that helps with communicating.”

Leaf blinks. “Go on…”

“Not sure how it’ll work on the phone, but part of it should. One of the exercises in the class was one where you would get to be as openly honest with me as you want, and all I’m allowed to do at the end is thank you for sharing what you feel.”

“Huh. That seems… neat?” He wasn’t kidding about the unusual classes. She feels some cautious optimism. “It’s for, what, getting used to negative feedback?”

“And positive, actually, for people who have trouble taking compliments.” She can hear a bit of smugness as he says, “Go ahead, admit it. You’re impressed.”

Leaf grins. “I have been worrying about how careful I should be to try not to scare you off messaging Red, compared to giving you full, honest feedback…”

“The second. I want the real deal.”

“You’re sure?”

“A hundred percent.”

Leaf lets out a breath. “Alright, so is there… something we need to do first to prepare, or…?”

“Well, normally we’d spend like half an hour easing into being comfortable with our discomfort and making neutral comments about things we feel or observe and stuff, but I want to try just getting to the useful part.”

She grins. This sounds more like the Blue she knows. “Alright.” She starts spinning around in her chair as she stares up at the ceiling. “Sooo—”

“Oh, wait, I should mention… you’re not allowed to start statements with ‘you.’ Also, no judgements. And you should start with what you see, and how it makes you feel. And also what ‘need’ is leading to that feeling. And instead of assuming what I feel, you can ask questions as a way of guessing. Also—”

“Hang on,” Leaf says as she starts typing under his letter. “This is a lot. Could you repeat all that?”

He does. “Also, last thing, but make concrete requests, if you can.”

She finishes writing up the list. “Okay, so no ‘you’ statements, no judgements, state observations and feelings and needs, ask clarifying questions about how you feel, and make concrete requests.” She smiles. “Was part of this communication class about how to communicate the content of the class?”

He chuckles. “No, I’m winging that part.”

“I figured, but good job.

“We’ll see. I’m ready. Hit me with what you got.”

Leaf reads the letter again. “Okay, so… I see three things that made me feel really good about this letter. One was the straightforward way you said you didn’t want him to die. Two was the way you admitted that you’re unsure of how you feel, which I’m guessing was showing vulnerability, on your part?”

She thinks he might say something about the way she keeps emphasizing certain words, but he just says, “Yeah.”

“Well, I think that’s good. Third was saying you might see him soon. That’s a great note to end it on. Oh, there’s a fourth thing,” she says as she rereads it again. “You didn’t include any ‘you’ statements, you just focused on how you felt. I’m guessing the classes helped with this?”

“Yep. Alright, now let me have the bad parts.”

“Okay, so… I saw you making an effort to justify your position, and I feel like that might just extend the argument. I’m guessing you still feel a need to justify your position, and think there might be time for that, later, but maybe not as part of the apology? Uh, I don’t know if one of my own needs is related here, other than just… a desire to have you guys be friends again. But it feels unfair of me to push that on you.” She reviews the guidelines. “Oh, something concrete… maybe change the part that comes off as judgemental of what he did?”

“I…” He takes a breath. “I don’t feel like I was being judgemental, there. Just explaining what I felt and meant by what I said. I thought, I don’t know, like it might not seem sincere, if I just said ‘hey nevermind what I said before, I didn’t mean it.’ Or it would make me seem…”

“Like you were being cruel, before?” she guesses, voice soft. “I get it. And maybe you’re right, some explanation may be better than none. Just… maybe don’t word it in a way that might make him feel guilty?”

Blue sighs. “Alright, yeah. I’ll try. Thanks. What else?”

“Hm… well, also, I see a lot of… hedging? Maybe that’s the wrong word, but parts like ‘if you took’ and ‘in case it needs to be said’… I feel it might be better if you just take for granted that he did feel that way, and it does need to be said? I’m guessing you said it because you may feel a need to explain why you didn’t say this earlier? Sorry, I’m not sure if I broke a rule with that last part.”

“It’s fine,” he says, voice low. “I’m looking over it again, and I should probably take off the ‘obviously,’ part too, right?”

I think it would help,” she says, smiling as she feels optimism spreading through her. This is going much better than she expected.

“Right. Okay, I’m going to edit it again when I get back to my room. Assuming that’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Oh, wait, one more thing… I feel like the tone is a little… too casual, maybe?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well… I guess it makes it seem like you guys spoke a few days ago, and that this was a small issue. I worry that might feel a bit… dismissive?”

“Well what should I do? I’m not exactly tearing my hair out over here.”

“I know, and I know you’re already showing vulnerability with the letter. I’m just worried that he might see it as if you’re not treating it seriously. It might upset him more if you don’t acknowledge it as a big deal?”

“Oh.” Blue actually chuckles. “This is where I can actually say, thank you for your feedback, Leaf, but I think you’re off.”

She blinks. “Really?”

“Totally. Guys aren’t like that.”

She raises a brow, leaning back in her chair. “Oh you’re not, huh?”

“Yeah, or maybe just me and Red aren’t. We’ve gotten into so many fights and then made up, and every time, it was just… casual. One of us would reach out to the other about something like nothing happened, and we’d put it behind us.”

Leaf frowns. She’s not sure she understands boys well enough to gainsay him, but Red isn’t like most boys she’s met, or most anyone, really. That said, he has known Red much longer than she has. “Well… this is a different situation though, so… maybe just add in that you missed him, or something?”

He’s silent for a minute, before finally saying, “Yeah, I’ll think about it. Thanks again.”

She smiles. “You’re welcome. Alright if I come by tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? Sure, yeah. I should be at the casino before it gets dark.”

“Cool, see you then!”


Red arrives in the afternoon the next day, and the first thing he says after he returns her hug is, “You knew Blue would send that letter last night.”

“I hoped he would,” she corrects, barely able to contain her excitement. “And? How was it? Can I see it?”

“You haven’t already?”

“Just an early draft. You’re not mad that he would take the time to make sure that he said the right thing and that I helped him make sure he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth, are you?”

Red frowns as he summons Pikachu, who comes over to say hi to her and Raff. “When you put it that way I guess not. As long as he meant what he said.”

“He did,” she assures him as she scratches Pikachu’s ears, then leads them inside. “And he didn’t know you were coming, either.”

“Wait, shouldn’t he?”

“Why?”

“Well, I don’t want him to feel ambushed or anything.”

“So let him know. You guys are talking now, you don’t need me to be the intermediary,” she says with a nonchalant confidence she doesn’t quite feel as they start up the stairs.

“Right.” He’s quiet for a moment as he follows her up. “Thanks, by the way.”

“You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same.”

“Of course. Hi, Mr. Sakai.”

“Hello Red.” Aiko’s dad is in the kitchen, setting some salad bowls on the counter between them. “It’s good to see you again. Lunch will be ready soon.”

“I’ll be out in a minute to help,” she tells him, and leads Red to the room to show him the research on Laura’s case while she picks out the pokemon she’ll be bringing with her. She enjoys Red’s wide-eyed stare as he sees the signs of her investigation: two walls covered in printouts and note cards and a map of Kanto and Johto, various colored pins covering it that are tied to cards with string. She could have recreated most of it digitally, but something about working with the large, physical representation helped her.

Also she always wanted to do something like this. Natural may have seen too many spy movies, but she watched quite a few political thrillers starring investigative journalists after Pewter.

“You did all this already?” He traces the string as it loops around pins from one city to another, arrows indicating the direction of the path and timestamps at each spot.

“Most of that was done the first few days after your mom came, actually. I’ve hit a bit of a wall since then… check out that board.” She points to where she posted a bunch of printed out article headlines.

Red scans the headlines. “They’re all from Fuchsia?”

“Yeah. I’m almost sure that whoever did all this started there, so I pulled up all the weird things that have been going on in the city up to a couple years before the first file was taken… particularly if it had to do with Silph.”

“Because you think it might be an ex-employee or something, right?”

“Or even a current employee, but… there’s nothing that seems to fit. No one jumps out as having motive, opportunity, and means, or even two out of three.”

He’s silent for a minute, staring at the wall thoughtfully as he scans each news article and the short bios of the people involved that she pinned nearby. “Do you know what the streetlight effect is?”

“Sure, that’s the thing where you keep looking for evidence where it’s easiest to find it.”

“Yeah. I get why you started looking at Silph employees, but if they’re not working out, why not expand the search?”

“To what? Even if I start just looking at something like ‘Fuchsia residents,’ that’s still hundreds of thousands of people, and I don’t have leads or information about them the way I do Silph employees.”

Red nods. “Which is what you meant by you hit a wall… yeah, that’s tough. Sorry, nothing really coming to mind. I’ll let you know if it does.”

“Thanks. I plan to meet your mom soon to give her what I’ve got.” She holds up two balls. “Your nidoran evolved, right? Did you bring him?”

“Yep.”

She puts her own down, selecting her ariados instead. “Who else do you have? Besides the abras, I mean on your belt.”

“I’ve got Charmeleon, Pikachu, Butterfree, Drowzee, Kingler, and, uh, Nidoqueen.”

Leaf nods and clips both her ariados and her magneton to hers, where they join Crimson, Raff, Joy, and Ruby. Red always seems awkward about mentioning the nidoqueen around her, and she’s not sure if it’s for her sake or his own hangups about having a pokemon that nearly killed her. “I’m ready when you are, then.”

After they eat lunch and help clean up, they head outside and summon their bikes. Leaf is so excited to be on the road again that even the sight of a cloudy sky doesn’t bother her; there was a small chance of rain in the forecast, but the clouds are light and fluffy. She gives Red a wide smile as they summon Crimson and Butterfree and start riding south.

They talk through their headsets as they ride, catching up more on what’s been going on since they last spoke. Red tells her that Sabrina has been spending her time back getting through weeks of backlogged Challenge matches (this probably wouldn’t be news to anyone else, but he knows how little she pays attention to gym stuff) while he and the other students focus on the new discoveries related to multi-mind psychic links. He also tells her about how the oldest student was forced to leave after she tried to use the experiment to learn more about Sabrina, and how that led to Sabrina’s cryptic comment about trusting him more.

“Does that mean you’ll be let into the inner circle of psychics now?” Leaf asks. “Learn if they’re making us all like hummus?”

“What? Oh, the operant conditioning thing… wasn’t it fruit?”

“Whatever. Are you?”

“Making you like hummus or fruit?”

“I already like hummus and fruit,” she says, grinning. “Answer the question! Are you or are you not part of a secret psychic society?”

“Not,” he says, grinning back. “But I may be soon, I guess? We haven’t really talked since she got back because of how busy she’s been.” He looks up. “Is the sky getting darker, or is it just me?”

Normally she might think he was trying to change the subject, but she still thinks Red would be honest with her, that he’s too honest a person in general not to be, and the cloudy sky is looking darker. “Do you want to head back?” she asks, wondering if, like her, being in the rain now makes him think of the storm. Makes him feel the panic again, the anger, the grief, the desperation.

“Do you?”

“It feels so good to travel again…” She shrugs, pedalling a little faster. “I think we can make it before it starts raining.”

He doesn’t disagree, and just follows her as she veers them toward the main road, keeping her gaze flicking between the tall grass to the side and the sky as it continues to darken. There’s less traffic than she remembers the last time they took this road south, and part of her can’t help but wonder if the explosion of abra ownership over the past few months is responsible. It’s comforting, knowing that they can get out of any dangerous situation within a minute, and she’s been training her abra so that it would eventually evolve and have a place on her belt, though even with Red’s help it’s been difficult. She wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in combat against any but the weakest pokemon.

In truth she’s a little worried about combat in general, after over two months without being in any battles. She’s been happier, not having to think so much of her pokemon’s combat abilities… not having to think of their value as weapons. But she’s also felt a little guilty, knowing that others still are, and that she and her pokemon have been able to live a comfortable, peaceful life because rangers and gym trainers are prepared to fight for their safety. It’s something she never really understood, before she was a trainer herself, and especially before the storm. The tension of that guilt mixing with her aversion to battling often spurs her on to finish her grand project as quickly as possible.

They do indeed reach the train station before it starts to rain, and spend the trip westward talking about movies they’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, by the time they reach Celadon, a deluge is coming down over the city.

“Glad we didn’t get caught in that,” Leaf says, peering out a window of the train station. They’re well into fall now, so she knows this isn’t a Stormbringer; from what she read, Moltres’s “firestorms” are storms in name only. Still, it’s far beyond the potential showers that were forecasted, and she feels a flutter of anxiety move through her stomach, the sound of the rain on the roof bringing her back to the apartment building where she found the dead baby and its mother.

“Let’s give it some time,” Red says, gaze on his phone. “Apparently stormclouds have been forming all around the island today, but they’ve been fading quickly elsewhere.”

“Weird. Okay, I’m alright with waiting an hour, then we’ll just take a cab.” She really wants to explore the city in daylight, but there’s only a few hours of that left anyway. She checks the news as well, and notices a lot of others doing the same around them. “No good explanations for what’s up with the weather. Everyone just seems… confused.”

“I’m seeing something about the ocean currents acting oddly around the islands,” Red says, brow drawn. “I never really studied planetary science, so I’m not sure what that means.”

“Well, now seems like a good time to find out.” They sit side by side, Pikachu and Raff playing with some toys she brought as they read articles about how the density and temperature and salt content of different parts of the ocean affect the climate of the landmasses around them. It’s interesting, if not particularly useful in understanding what’s happening, and nostalgic of the time they used to spend researching things together. As they sit together in companionable silence, she finds her thoughts drifting occasionally to the feelings she sensed from him, and smiles as she catches him glancing at her between his own bouts of deep focus on what he’s reading.

“What?” he asks once, cheeks pink as he notices her watching him again.

“You seem more… grounded, than before,” she says, because it’s true. “Therapy going well?”

He lowers his phone to his lap. “Yeah, actually. And… some other stuff I’m still getting used to.”

“Stuff you’d be interested in talking about?”

“Um. Maybe not yet?” He looks so apologetic. “It’s a little weird.”

She might normally find this to be a terrible tease, but he’s so earnest that she just nods. “Of course.” For a moment she wonders if it has to do with how he feels about her, but no, he wasn’t blushing enough for that. “Did you figure out how the current affects rainfall?”

“No, I was looking more into how often they have any kinds of drastic changes…”

The research continues to pass the time until the rain lets up, which is over half an hour after they arrived. They emerge along with everyone else who was waiting in the station into an overcast but incredibly large city, and they do their best to take in the sights as they make their way through the wet streets toward the casino.

The Rocket Casino takes up an entire block while only being a single story tall, giving it an unusually grand flair. “Don’t most casinos double as hotels?” Leaf asks as she eyes the glowing sign, the tall red letters spelling out the name in sharp glowing font.

“Do they? Not around here.”

“Hmm. In Unova they do, but maybe because you win real money, and they want to make it easier to stay in the building.”

“Yeah, this is more like an arcade,” Red says as they walk into a lobby area, the noise of the casino proper muted by glass double doors. “Not that it’s not still a Skinner Box, but just less of one, maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“This contest changes things,” he says as he looks around. “Randomized rewards is the easiest way to make a behavior addictive. Normally at least there are discrete reward tiers for what you win… someone could, say, shoot for 15,000 tokens to buy a bike or some pokemon of middling rarity. The open-ended lottery stacks random on random. Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re making more than the casinos in Unova off this.”

They reach the end of the lobby’s hallway, ignoring the machines that would let them create their own game cards and pre-load them with money. As soon as they push through the final set of doors, they’re assaulted with bright colorful lights, jangling, overly cheerful music and sounds, and the steady din of conversation, punctuated by the occasional cheers or applause.

They wander the floor for a while, observing all the people playing slots or cards or roulette. The advertising for the contest is ubiquitous, banners and posters showing a dark silhouette with a question mark in it, the shape different in each poster. In the corner some news station is recording, with the casino floor serving as the backdrop to the reporter. Leaf wonders if Laura would be covering this if she was still in Celadon and not working on her current project, or if she would consider it uninteresting.

The thought reminds her of the other reason she’s here, and she turns to Red. “So? What does your psydar say?”

He glances at her. “What makes you think I’m using it?”

She grins. “The Red I know wouldn’t be able to help himself?”

His responding smile is subtler than she expected, and his only response a cryptic, “The fact that you said that makes it funny in and of itself.”

“Okay, Mr. Mysterious, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let’s just say I’ve been debating with myself about whether to do it. Obviously I’m curious, but I don’t know if I want to get distracted by the issue just yet.”

“You want to find Blue first?” she asks, and at his nod she loops her arm around his and squeezes affectionately. He stiffens in surprise, but she ignores that and leads him toward a crowd she’d spotted earlier. “That’s sweet, and also solvable. Pretty sure we can find him by looking for a spectacle.”

He’s not the center of the first crowd’s attention, or the second, but at the third she spots him from a distance, staring intently at the screen of his machine. One hand is poised over the middle of five buttons under virtual spinning wheels, the images on them a blur. The two already stilled ones show a big red R of the same style as the casino logo. As they reach the edge of the crowd to watch, his arm twitches, and the wheel stops to show another R.

There’s a stirring among the audience, some whispered murmurs, but they quickly quiet as his hand moves to the next button. The noise of the casino seems almost muted by the tension building with every passing second.

Blue is still as a statue, hand on the last button. Leaf realizes she’s holding her breath, just as still as Blue is, and then a tremor goes though the floor, strong enough that all the machines vibrate.

A collective gasp and cry of alarm rises from around the casino, and Leaf sees Blue jerk back from the machine, but the last wheel is already showing a pokeball, two spots away from the R.

“Ah, shit,” someone beside Leaf mutters as the machine starts jangling out a cheerful tune, highlighting the 4 Rs and showing a rising payout. Leaf looks up to see the rewards listed at the top; three Rs is worth 15,000 tokens, four is 40,000 but the fifth would have bumped the payout to 100,000.

Blue shakes his head, but she can’t tell if his look of frustration is for himself or the machine, whether he pressed the button or the brief quake caused it. Still, when people start clapping, he turns with a smile and bows to them, which doubles the applause. Leaf grins and starts clapping too, which draws his gaze to her… then to Red beside her, who’s also clapping politely.

He goes still a moment, then turns and withdraws his card from the machine as the payout finishes. The crowd seems to realize he’s done for now and disperses, some of them muttering worriedly about another quake after yesterday’s. As Blue approaches slowly, almost cautiously, Leaf quickly checks her phone to see where the earthquake was this time. Still near Hoenn, but again luckily not far off the coast. She feels a stab of sympathy for the extra damage it must have caused.

“Hey,” he says, voice casual. The generic greeting can apply to both of them, but he’s looking at Red, so Leaf just smiles and waves as she puts her phone away, her pulse still faster than normal as she anxiously watches them.

Red is mirroring Blue’s cautiously casual look as he nods. “Hi. Tough luck, with the machine.”

“Yeah, well. I’ll make up for it, once the tremors stop.” He briefly glances at Leaf, smile wry. “She drag you here?”

“A little,” Red says with a small smile of his own, and Leaf puts her hands on her hips, scowling with mock indignation. “But I was also interested in seeing what’s going on with the contest. And… it’s good to see you again.” The words are hard to make out over the ambient noise of the casino, but Red’s gaze stays on Blue. “Thanks, for the letter. It meant a lot.”

Blue nods, hand rubbing his neck. “Yeah. No problem. I… should have sent it sooner.”

Silence descends, both of them looking increasingly awkward, and Leaf, torn between yelling at them to hug it out and smothering her grin, decides to take pity on them. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Oh, Bretta and Lizzy are here somewhere. Most of the others are at the gym doing some qualifying matches..”

“You already have?” Red asks.

“Not exactly. You guys eat yet? We can grab some food while I explain…”

“Sounds great,” Leaf says, and Blue starts leading them toward the food court. Leaf flashes Red a smile, and his responding one is hesitant but wide. As they reach the tables set up between various miniaturized restaurants, Leaf’s attention is caught by the monitors hanging on the walls, half of them tuned to a weather station.

Instead of focusing on the earthquake, it shows Hoenn, Fiore, Johto, Kanto, Almia, Oblivia, Sinnoh, all the regions along the island chain, obscured by storm clouds.

“Be right back,” she says, and looks for a window before jogging over to it. The din of the casino blocks any noise from the storm, but she can see it, waves of rain lashing against the glass and a sky as dark as night, hours early.

She heads back to the others, who are watching the screens. “Look bad out there?” Red asks without glancing away from the monitors.

“Yeah. Glad we made it in when we did.” All three of them watch the screens for a moment, and she wonders if they’re thinking of Zapdos too. Or of Aiko.

“Hey, let’s head back early,” someone nearby says, and Leaf turns to see a young man at a table whose gaze is fixed on the screens as well.

“Nah, it’s pouring out there,” his friend says. “Besides, it’s been coming and going all day. It’ll probably clear up again soon.”

“Or it’ll keep getting worse, right now it’s just rain. What if it turns into a hurricane?”

“That’s not how that works, man. Relax, they’d tell us if it was an emergency.”

Leaf bites her lower lip, wondering how Mr. Sakai is doing on his own. She knows it’s silly to worry about him, just because he’s in his own world sometimes doesn’t mean he can’t take care of himself. Still, she feels guilty (and a little exasperated) that the first day she’s taken off from the ranch in weeks is one where the weather is so weird.

“Come on,” Blue says, jarring her from her thoughts. “Let’s get some food.”

They go to their chosen vendors and reconvene at one of the tables. Red offers to swap some of his salad with hers, which she accepts, and Blue pours sauce over his nuggets before tearing his gaze from the monitors again. “So yeah, when I got here Erika asked me to come by for a chat…” He summarizes the conversation as they eat, then goes on to explain what he’s been doing since. “Without preliminary matches to go to, I’ve been learning more about the gym culture and practices instead. Like the kimonos… they’re color coded to communicate things.”

“More than just rank?” Red asks.

“Oh yeah, rank is the least of it. Colors can also indicate what you’re looking for that day, so people can know to approach you with requests to battle or to leave you alone or whatever, without you having to say anything. Also, like, if someone is in a relationship, and what kind of relationship.”

Leaf blinks. “Meaning… romantic relationships?”

“Yep. You can sew on patches or designs that mean different things.”

“Well… How many different things could there be?” she asks, confusion mixing with a fascinated curiosity.

“That’s what asked, and she said she’d tell me when I’m older.” He rolls his eyes. “Anyway, the most interesting part is that the gym isn’t only full of battle trainers. That’s another thing you can know by their robes… some are coordinators, but others are medics, trackers, even roles that have nothing to do with pokemon at all. ‘Facilitators’ help organize groups and projects and resolve conflicts. ‘Strategists’ work on preparing the gym to defend the city, and coordinate with rangers or other gyms. There’s even a couple ‘accountants’ dedicated to helping trainers with their finances!”

“Wow,” Red says. “Researchers too?”

“Oh yeah, obviously. At first I thought they just wanted to be self-sufficient in a lot of ways that other gyms aren’t, but then I found out it’s more about recognizing different types of status and domain expertise, too. People aren’t just defined by one thing, they have levels in multiple.”

“Bet Elaine loved that,” Red says with a grin, and Blue laughs, nodding. Leaf watches them, smiling at the simple, positive interaction. The lingering anxiety she felt in her chest finally starts to fade.

This is working. She was skeptical of what Blue said, but it turns out he was right that they’re good enough friends to slip back into the flow of things, even after a major fight. Though the apology still needed to happen first, and if Aiko or anything related to that night comes up… well, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it, but hopefully with the stuff Blue has been learning lately, and Red’s time in therapy, they can have a more healthy conversation.

“What about Saffron?” Blue asks, mouth full. “What’s it been like?”

“Oh, not nearly as interesting,” Red says. “For non-psychics, or trainers of non-psychic pokemon, I think it’s mostly just a regular gym. Sabrina’s got a lot of other things on her plate, so…” He shrugs. “I guess she focuses on stuff other than the gym culture.”

“Yeah, it’s not all great here. Erika spends so much time on her gym as a community that there’s little actual unique training insights, that I’ve seen so far at least.” He shrugs. “But I also meant, how’s the place been for you, as a psychic?”

“Oh, that’s been great! Learned a lot about my powers, made a couple new friends, had my first encounter with ghosts, which was… memorable. Merged and experimented with new pokemon. Recently we tried a thing with exeggcute—”

The casino rumbles again, and the din of conversation fades, leaving just the cheerful sound of the games. Leaf pauses, a tomato slice falling off her fork as she holds onto the table and waits for the rumbling to subside.

It doesn’t.

“Guys,” Red says as the table starts to vibrate, and cries of alarm spread through the casino.

Leaf looks at Red, who’s staring at one of the monitors. She follows his gaze and sees a live report of the earthquake they’re feeling now, once again centered off the coast of Hoenn… and far more widespread.

Real alarm shoots through Leaf just as she hears a scream. Her head whips around to watch people scrambling away from a part of the casino, and she looks up to see chandeliers swinging from the ceiling, dropping individual shards.

“Turtle up,” Blue barks, pushing away from the table and unclipping a ball. Leaf and Red move together toward him, and a moment later his snorlax is out, while Red summons his nidoqueen.

There’s a brief moment of instinctual terror, as she’s suddenly standing beside the pokemon that broke multiple of her bones a few months ago, but Leaf pushes the feeling aside as she reviews what pokemon she has. None would be particularly useful for this.

The two pokemon fill most of the empty space near the food court, towering over all of them, and she braces against Red and Blue as the ground continues to rumble under them. “Tent,” Blue commands, and Red closes his eyes. The snorlax moves first, leaning forward and extending his arms over them, and a moment later the nidoqueen does the same thing, locking arms with the snorlax so that the two of them form a protective cover over the trio.

“Over here,” Leaf yells to others who are scrambling for cover, and gestures for them to join them. If parts of the ceiling come down they’ll be safe… she’s grateful now that it is a one story building…

“Guys,” Red says, and she turns to see his eyes are still shut, and his expression confused. “There’s… the ground…”

“Spit it out!” Blue yells as a young couple joins them under their pokemon.

“There’s something weird about the ground,” he says, eyes snapping open in alarm. “I think there are lower floors!”

Leaf is still trying to process this when the air is filled with an almighty crack, and part of the casino collapses inward, the ground tilting and sliding out from under them.

Chapter 79: Status Effects

Hey everyone, welcome back. Hope you’re all staying as safe as you can, and that the chapter helps pass some social-distancing time pleasantly. Until next month, take care of yourselves, and each other.


Have you thought that it might not be obvious to him?

Leaf’s words come back to Blue time and again during the trip to Celadon City, despite all the distractions along the way. Bretta rejoins them at the station in Saffron, along with Slava and a recently discharged and physically rehabilitated Sumi, and the eight of them take the subway to the western edge of the city before taking out their bikes to travel the rest of the way; no part of Kanto’s mainland has as many fire pokemon as the area around Celadon, and they all want at least one for their battles against Erika’s gym.

It’s strange traveling with such a large group. Four didn’t feel that much different than three, but with eight they can stagger their nightly watches so that everyone can alternate getting a full night’s sleep, and it makes finding and capturing wild pokemon easier than ever. Their size also scares off every pokemon that sees or hears them coming, but Elaine guides them to areas that are less traveled, then works with Sumi to track down growlithe, vulpix, and houndour dens.

Of course, they still proceed carefully and plan out their encounters. But the fact that they outnumber their targets in every battle makes things much easier than catching pokemon was with a party of three or four, as does the strength of the group’s pokemon, and now, as night slowly falls and he holds his new arcanine’s ball in the lamp light of their camp, he can’t help but feel…

“Disappointed?” Bretta asks as she eases down beside him. Glen is feeding his new vulpix, MG has her earphones in as she watches a video in her bedroll, Elaine is showing Slava and Sumi her favorite game, and Lizzy is talking quietly with her sister as she walks around the camp’s perimeter.

“A little,” Blue admits. Bretta has changed since her badge matches, humbled in a way that he finds hard to know how to interact with compared to the girl who used to challenge him more than anyone else. But one thing that they all gained from Vermilion was a feeling of being safe with vulnerability around each other, and it was Leaf that helped him notice how little he’s opened up to them about personal things. “Arcanine was kind of my ‘spirit pokemon’ for years. I’ve been imagining the kind of epic battle that I’d have when I finally caught one for so long…”

“Only for it to turn out to be about twenty minutes of planning followed by a thirty-second battle that went without a hitch,” Bretta finishes, smiling slightly.

Blue sighs. “I gave exactly one command to Maturin. It was just… kind of anticlimactic, you know?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Bretta shrugs. “But I’m not complaining. I get why most trainers don’t travel in groups this big, we barely got any real battle or capture experience today, and didn’t encounter a single pokemon that we didn’t track… and at the same time, it feels like what we needed, after everything. Sumi in particular needed something easy to get her confidence back.”

“Yeah.” Blue watches the recently healed trainer smile at something Elaine says, their faces lit by her screen. It’s the first time since she joined up with them that she seems to have relaxed, and he suspects that she didn’t get much sleep the past two nights. “Makes sense. I’m happy no one got hurt, really, and if it hadn’t gone so quick we might not have had time to find the vulpix and houndour packs too.” He’d missed his chance at a vulpix yesterday, but got a houndour just before they broke for camp instead, which he’s definitely satisfied with. He thought he’d be lucky if he got just one fire pokemon, and even if it’s weaker than some of his other pokemon the houndour will still be a huge help against Erika’s gym, and Sabrina’s eventually. “I just feel like if all my captures are going to be like this from now on, why not just buy my pokemon? It would leave more pokemon for you guys to catch.”

It had been luck that he ended up with an arcanine; Glen, Slava and Bretta got growlithes during the main battle, while Lizzy got the first parent. Standard procedure dictated they wait to see if the other parent would appear, since capturing a whole family of any species that live in packs while leaving a dad or mom could trigger it to start rampaging in search of them. After rolling higher than the others Blue half expected the other arcanine not to show up, maybe already killed or captured by someone else, but less than an hour later it appeared with the thoroughly cooked remains of a persian hanging from its jaws. It barely had time to drop its meal before their combined attacks hit it, and seconds later it was caught.

(Unsure what to do with the persian remains, a brief debate had broken out before those with weaker stomachs wandered off a distance while their new captures were summoned to eat as a family. Blue voted that they try to feed them all together as often as makes sense, moving forward; he thinks Leaf and Aiko would approve.)

“True, it would have been cool to get an arcanine,” Bretta says. “But I think it still matters, that most of your pokemon have you listed as their original trainer, especially if they’re going to be part of your core team.”

“The alternative is I buy battle-bred pokemon for my team.” Blue shrugs. “I don’t want to, I’m sure there are enough people who think I’m just buying all my pokemon anyway, but…”

“Well, not that you should care what others think, but I say save your money for the pokemon you probably won’t be able to catch. Unless you plan to stay in Fuchsia for months?”

Blue smiles and shakes his head. There are some trainers whose strategy revolves around capturing all the strongest pokemon they can before getting into any of the harder challenge matches, but even if he’s mostly given up on having a record-making run on the League, he doesn’t have time or money to waste hoping against hope for a chansey or scyther or kangaskhan or dratini.

“Then, speaking for myself at least, I’m happy with what happened today. Besides, you’ll be kicking yourself for wasting money if that whole pokemon cloning thing takes off anytime soon.”

He snorts. “That would make the divide between those who have money and those that don’t even bigger. I wonder if they would get banned from League matches…”

The conversation continues until the others start going to bed, and Blue offers to swap for tonight’s first watch, knowing he’ll be up late anyway. His thoughts eventually turn back to Red, and his conversation with Leaf. He checks Red’s online profile, scrolling idly for any indication of how he’s doing, but his updates are all impersonal things, shared articles and academic questions about psychic phenomena. Not a single casual slice of life post, not even a meme!

Blue eventually closes the tab, feeling an odd mix of frustration and sadness. He never did learn how to engage his following. There were plenty of comments and discussion in his posts, but not nearly as much as he deserved, given his accomplishments.

Celadon looms in the distance long before they reach it, sprawling impressively around the buildings that reach to the sky in the afternoon light. He remembers being awed the first time he saw it; Pallet Town seemed so small by comparison, and he wished that they could live here instead, with its constant activity and wide range of pokemon training halls, coordinator contests, and of course the gym that was more like a giant indoor/outdoor garden.

Now he finds himself focusing more on how to navigate all the hustle and bustle of a city that’s twice the size of Viridian, Pewter, Cerulean, and Vermilion, with so many cars on the road that there’s a separate bike lane that often has its own traffic stops and jams. By the time they make it to the gym’s front office, it’s late enough that they decide to just register for pre-Challenge matches and classes in the coming days. Afterward they head to the Celadon Department store and spend a couple hours restocking their supplies, eating at the food court, and buying some new training tools.

As he looks for a saddle harness, excited about finally having a pokemon he can ride on, Blue spots the wall of various whistles and thinks back to when he was trying them out with Red and Leaf at the Viridian mall on the second day of their journey…

Have you thought that it might not be obvious to him?

He shakes the thought away, bothered by the thought that, even if he was largely right in what he thought, what he said was wrong, or he said it the wrong way. He knows why it keeps pricking at him; his pride doesn’t want to admit it.

Instead he distracts himself by going to the floor where new products are being showcased, including tech from the Cruise Convention. The GameFreak exhibit is particularly interesting, and he’s sufficiently absorbed by the virtual demonstrations until the rest of the group is ready to leave.

They’re large enough that when they reach the Trainer House, people stop and take notice as they line up to register for a room, and the attention only increases as they’re recognized. He’s come to expect that, by now, and so walked in with his back and shoulders already straight, face calm. Glen, Elaine, Bretta and Lizzy all also seem used to it by now, though Slava and Sumi are clearly taken aback by the attention, and MG never seems comfortable with public scrutiny unless she’s battling.

“See you guys in the morning,” Blue says once he gets his room assignment, and heads off ahead of the others to put his pack away and shower. Afterward he lies in bed and just lets himself rest, thoughts shifting from how nice it feels to be in a bed (stiff and basic as it is) to the upcoming gym battles, to all the messages and mail he should be answering but hasn’t been. Losing Leaf as a travel partner is rough, but losing her as a group PR manager is almost as bad. Somehow of all the people in his new, bigger party, no one’s particularly skilled at managing things like that. But then, none of them were raised by Professors either, and the limelight is new to them.

He spends half an hour doing the best he can, waiting to see if Glen or Slava were assigned to the same room as him. Eventually he gets bored and goes downstairs to train his new arcanine and houndour, letting them get used to his commands and testing their reaction time and attack pools.

As he suspected, his houndour is fairly weak, unable to even do a Fire Fang yet, let alone a Flamethrower. It will need a lot of training to be effective against the kind of pokemon Erika would bring out for a 4th badge Challenge and Sabrina for a 5th.

Arcanine on the other hand seems ready to go, particularly with the TMs he picked up to cover for his weaknesses. He didn’t realize it during the battle, everything happened so fast, but his arcanine is actually rather scarred, not disfigured or crippled, but with jagged marks along its chest and face that make it clear it’s survived some scraps.

“Overall, you look intimidating as hell,” he murmurs as he sits down beside his pokemon and pats the ground so that the arcanine sits beside him. He reaches up and runs his fingers through its warm, thick fur. “So what should I name you?”

He never picked one out, despite everything. Had some ideas, but it felt wrong to settle on something before he even met his pokemon. He’ll have to before his arcanine’s debut with Erika, but that gives them time to get to know each other.

“Something anger related would fit,” he muses. “But maybe you’re not an angry sort. Don’t want to project that onto you.”

His new pokemon rolls a big gray eye toward him and huffs out a breath before looking away. Not rebellious, but not eager to please, either.

“That’s alright, big guy. You’re not a puppy, and I won’t treat you like one.” Blue keeps his fingers moving to find a spot the big canine likes, letting his eyes drift closed as the smokey smell of its fur surrounds him. “But I do want to make sure you’re happy, so let me know if this starts working for you.”


The Trainer House cafeteria is oddly silent as he walks in the next morning, still a bit groggy from his late night in the training room. Most people on their phones or tablets watching what looks like a news report. He didn’t get an alert for any incidents, but still feels his pulse kick up as he gets his food and joins the three other early risers in the party, Elaine, MG and Slava, who are all watching it too.

“What’s going on?” he asks, leaning over to see Celadon’s mayor addressing a crowd.

Slava pulls an earplug out. “Police raided the Rocket Casino this morning.”

“Alright…” He blows on his porridge, glancing around to find most people still watching their screens. “So why is this a big deal?”

“The warrant was for stolen property, but there’s a rumor that it was actually a new kind of pokemon.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Police didn’t find anything, and the mayor is saying… she’s in communication with the owner of the casino and President Silph.” Slava’s brow shoots up. “Who was the one reporting stolen property, apparently? To try and get to the bottom of it.” People start taking their headphones out or putting their phones down as the interview apparently ends.

Blue quickly takes out his phone and checks his local news feed, then scans the story. The rumor apparently originated from something Rocket Casino announced this morning: a new promotional campaign aimed at trainers, with pokemon as the prizes. The list is full of common catches, but also… abra… clefairy… pinsir… scyther… dratini…

Abra have dropped in price until they’re about as cheap as clefairy, and while both are still valuable pokemon, pinsir and scyther are protected species only found in Fuchsia’s safari zone… and dratini which go for tens of thousands of dollars easy, if you’re not picky about any of its attributes.

But that’s not what has his heart racing.

Mystery Grand Prize! A brand new, never before seen pokemon, offered exclusively by the Rocket Casino!

A new pokemon.

Red must be flipping out…

A confusing mix of emotions chase the thought again, and he grimaces as Leaf’s words come back to him, quickly scrolling to the comments.

Lots of skepticism, of course, and guesses as to what they might be offering that would technically count as a new species while not actually being one. There are also people who are mad at them for offering the supposed new species as a reward for trainers, and not selling it directly to researchers, but as someone points out, the promotional ad didn’t specify battle trainers, and coordinators and researchers are likely to be attracted to the casino for it too.

“It’s got to be fake, right?” Slava asks. “Your grandpa would know if a new pokemon was caught, it would have to be recorded in the dex.”

“There’s precedent,” MG points out. “New evolutions that were never seen before. The pokemon’s conditioning still carried through, so they were safe to live with, but the pokedex couldn’t identify them until new code was written. And pokemon revived from fossils.”

“Right.” Slava frowns. “Rocket Casino wouldn’t have a revival lab though, so if it’s real it must be a new evolution. It’s just a casino though, where would they even get a newly evolved pokemon? Any trainer that discovered one would make more money selling it to some lab or corporation, wouldn’t they?”

“It could be something else entirely.” MG shrugs, spinning her fork in her noodles. “I’m just saying it’s not impossible. But a casino might actually pay the most for it, when you consider how many people will come to try and win it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Elaine asks. “I know that look.”

He pushes away the urge to speculate about the “new pokemon.” It could be immensely useful for battling just from the fact that it would be a mystery to everyone else, but he has more practical goals in sight. “I’m thinking that regardless of how true the Grand Prize turns out to be, this is a chance to get a scyther… or even a dratini.”

“It’ll take a lot of luck to win anything good,” Slava says, voice doubtful. “Or else they wouldn’t bother, right?”

“Most of the games are chance, yeah,” Blue says, and grins. “But not all. There was one I remember where you hit a button to stop each slot in the machine… it really just came down to reflexes. Gramps only brought us there once, but I made out like a bandit, turning twenty bucks of tokens into nearly three hundred in just a couple hours. Traded them in for a new sim headset. If it’s still there, it might be worth trying, depending on how the rules are set up.”

The rest of the group joins them one at a time as Blue looks into the contest rules as he eats. Apparently it’s a lottery, with each token turned in adding to your chances of winning. He’s in the middle of forwarding the site to Leaf and Gramps to ask what they think when he suddenly gets a message from…

“Hm.” Blue frowns at his screen, rereading the message twice. “So, I just got invited to meet with Leader Erika? Did anyone else?”

“I’m going to go ahead and guess no,” Glen says, not sounding surprised as he blows on his porridge. “You know her?”

“We’ve met before. You know how she worked with Gramps on some Grass pokemon research during her journey? She’s gone to the lab once in a while since then, helped with other discoveries. Even came to the house a few times when I was younger.”

“What’s she like?” Sumi asks as she pours extra syrup over her pancakes. She admitted that a few days out of the hospital hasn’t been enough to satiate how much she missed unhealthy food. “In interviews she always seems so… serene. I can never decide if it’s just a persona or not.”

“I always thought she just takes a big whiff of a bellossom before going on camera,” Slava says, and the table chuckles. “I’m serious, she always has some flowery Grass pokemon nearby, I just assume she’s constantly buzzed.”

“Well she didn’t always have them out at the house,” Blue says. “I think ‘serene’ is a good way to describe her, though. And her commitment to traditional culture isn’t just a gimmick, that’s just how she is. Or it was around us, at least.”

“Isn’t the gym a bit cultish?” Lizzy asks, seeming a bit nervous. “I heard they have to sit around in circles where you can say whatever you want to each other and the other person has to accept it, and all the members get in relationships with each other all at the same time, and they worship nature—”

“Those are just rumors,” Bretta dismisses. “I have a friend who became a member, and she’s mostly normal.”

“Mostly?”

“Erika didn’t say what she wants?” Elaine asks Blue.

“Nah. Probably just wants to catch up in private; the last time I saw her was shortly after she became Leader here, and Gramps brought us on a family trip to congratulate her in person. I was like eight or something, so all of my conversations with her are pretty hazy.”

“I bet it’s more than that,” Bretta says as she absently slaps Glen’s hand away from her strawberries. “The articles I read always make Erika seem like she plays a very passive leadership role outside of times of crisis. She might want to check and see if Blue plans to challenge her methods like he did Surge.”

“Ooo, good point.” Elaine smiles at him. “Are you?”

Everyone turns to look at him expectantly, and he blinks at them, mouth full. He takes a moment to chew and swallow, then wash it all down before he says, “Yes.”

The table erupts with laughter and cheers, and Slava leans forward with a grin. “Nice, I was hoping to get in on the scenario action. They looked fun.”

“Up until they were super stressful,” Lizzy mutters, and glances at Bretta, whose expression is stoically placid.

“It depends on how things look here,” Blue says, trying to keep the conversation moving. “What I said to Surge during my challenge is how I honestly felt, and I think it’s the natural consequence of what he was trying to teach. Maybe it would be good if every gym did the same thing eventually, but no others are prepared to actually start implementing it right now, and I think it might actually be better if they didn’t.”

“So you’re really planning to upend every gym?” Slava chuckles. “You’re going to be the most controversial Champion ever.”

You have no idea, Blue thinks. “It would be a big change in practice, but I think it’s the natural evolution of what the gyms are supposed to be for now. As for how they get upended… I’m not sure yet. There are a lot of different ways it can go.” He looks around at them. He’s been thinking about this for months now, but he wants them to be excited about the idea, to feel involved in it. “What do you guys think?”

Glen nods, face thoughtful. “Right now the idea is that every trainer making the circuit learns something different from each gym. Group battles would become Surge’s thing, but there are probably other things the others could do.”

“Like Gym battles based on coordination?” Bretta muses. “No, that would blend the two too much… but maybe with a particular goal in mind, like capturing pokemon with fake balls.”

“Misty’s gym already has a very different terrain, maybe they can lean into that more…”

Sumi smiles. “I’ve always thought it was a bit silly, that each gym sticks to a specific type for the Challenge matches. They should focus on different battle strategies instead, like Brock doesn’t just use Rock pokemon but tanks in general, and Erika focuses on status effects… well, I guess she does that anyway, but again being limited to just Grass pokemon holds it back.’

“I don’t know,” Elaine says, face thoughtful. “I mean of course it’s not the most realistic, but it gives trainers a clear-cut sense of how to prepare for each Gym, and a sense of continuity with others who went before and after them. It adds consistency.”

“It also gives people who have aspirations other than battling a reason to go to specific gyms,” Lizzy points out. “I learned a lot about Electric pokemon at Vermilion, the navy sends a lot of its people to Cerulean to train their Water pokemon, Koga is a region-wide expert on training people for Poison containment and management… if Gyms stopped focusing on single types, we would need new institutions to pick up a lot of the slack, probably with less efficient results.”

“She didn’t say Gyms can’t still focus on specific types,” Bretta says. “Just that the Challenge matches shouldn’t. Maybe for the first badge or two, but after that, there should be a different focus, something more useful.”

Elaine nods. “If the first few badge matches were focused on Type, that would preserve most of the value I see in them…”

The conversation continues from there until everyone finishes eating, and Blue makes his way ahead of the others to meet up with Erika before the first class they signed up for begins.

The city is even busier in the morning, and biking seems like it will barely save more time than walking. He kind of wants to ride his arcanine, but on his way to meet a Gym Leader probably isn’t the best time to try it for the first time, so he decides to just walk, which lets him compare the city’s layout to his foggy memories of it. Before long he gets a message from Leaf about the Casino’s rare pokemon lottery, which reminds him that he never finished sending his own text to her and Gramps about it.

Think imma go for it, he quickly sends as he walks. Can u run the numbers and tell me if its worthwhile?

Blue walks a block before he gets a response, and blinks at the size of it.

Blue everyone and their mother is going to be “running the numbers,” you won’t be able to find a single forum post on it without a dozen models in the comments, famous statisticians will probably be in the news because they’re offering a NEW POKEMON and I bet Celadon gets swamped with professional gamblers who were hired by labs and collectors and who hire professionals themselves to help them run their own numbers and guess OTHER people’s numbers because there’s a NEW POKEMON being offered and you are CRAZY if you think you can win it.

But good luck! 😀

Also check out this article on a new training method for faster response time from training.

Blue smiles. Will do but later got a surprise meeting with erika

Woah, why?

Dunno

You said you’ve met her before haven’t you?

Yeah couple years ago also visited the gym when she became Leader

Don’t forget to compliment her on how much it’s grown.

Blue rolls his eyes. OK Leaf

Get it?

Yeah Leaf I got it

Because it’s a garden

Blue closes his phone, but he’s smiling. Part of him was worried she’d bring up the Red thing again, ask him if he’s reached out yet. And he will. Soon.

What he thinks of then isn’t Red and his annoyingly fussy habits, but Aiko having a lot of the same ones, including setting an alarm so as not to forget something as soon as she thinks that she should do something later. His smile falls away, and for a moment the city around him feels a little grayer, the bustle of its people a little overwhelming. But he takes his phone out, and sets an alarm for the evening to remind himself. Once he’s done he takes a breath and keeps going, steps a little quicker.

Erika’s Gym is as unique as Surge’s in its own way. Like its southern neighbor, most of Celadon Gym’s classes and arenas are outdoors, but where Surge spread obstacle courses and track fields between his administrative buildings, Erika inherited a sprawling outdoor garden between the few administration buildings, complete with small ponds, gazebos, and vine-wrapped pergolas over walkways and open air arenas for when it rains.

Blue’s not sure what would have happened to the gym if someone who didn’t want to focus on Grass pokemon beat the last Leader (Bug pokemon would probably work too, thematically), maybe they would just use a different part of the city as the Gym and leave the current one as a satellite area, but Erika was the previous Leader’s Third before she Challenged for Leadership and won, and kept most of the Gym’s culture and staff in place when she took over.

When he arrives at the front office, which is indoors but full of potted plants and a glass back wall that makes it seem like it blends effortlessly into the start of the garden behind it, a gym member approaches and asks him to follow her. The gym’s uniform is as far from Surge’s monotone khakis as they could be, each member wearing a kimono that ranges from brightly colored, floral patterned yellows and reds and violets, to solid colored navy and crimson and jade. He remembers reading about the ranks that the different hues and patterns denote at some point, but he’s forgotten practically all of it, as it seemed silly. Now that he’s been a gym member himself, he’s more interested in the hierarchy Erika inherited and how she changed it, if she did at all.

He walks through truly stunning gardens full of artfully grown trees and flowerbeds, stone paths and bridges over rivers, past fields where trainers practice and classes are in session. What impresses him most compared to the last time he was here is how it does continue to impress him. Everything from the floral patterns to the arrangement of the trees to the cobblestone pathways looks meticulously planned for maximum aesthetic value, whereas he remembers the place being a lot more… humble. There were flowerbeds, but they didn’t line walkways as a guide, which he understands from the signs that show up at each intersection, pairing the flowers around it with the destination he would reach if he followed them. There was topiary, but it didn’t include life-sized venusaur and tangrowth and a tropius that towers over the dining hall beside it. Compared to Surge’s gym the overall effect should seem wastefully lavish, but somehow it all gives Blue the impression not just of beauty, but control. A will to bend nature to human whims and preferences.

Maybe he’s reading too much into it, and Erika just likes everything to look pretty. But if not, it’s a perspective he can get behind, and it feels like a valuable bit of information on what kind of Leader she is. He’ll find out if it’s right soon enough.

He’s eventually led to a gazebo by a lake, where the Gym Leader waits for him alone. From a distance it looks like a simple wooden structure, but as he gets closer he sees that the timber has a dark finish and is elevated to make it stand out from the others they’ve passed, varied in appearance though those were. The ring of seats inside it are cushioned, and the table in the center has been carved into the likeness of a torterra, a real bonsai tree growing out of the top in stark contrast to the monitor and keyboard that was also worked into the shell, though somehow it doesn’t look out of place.

Erika, dressed in a kimono with a pale green top and red skirt, isn’t using her computer at the moment, however; instead she has a bayleef on the seat beside her, and seems to be grooming or examining its neck buds as it eats from a dish on the table.

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Oak,” the Gym Leader says once he’s closer, and inclines her head to the girl that brought him, who bows and leaves. Blue picks a seat near the entrance, which is as close to across from Erika as he can get. At 27 she’s the youngest member in the Indigo League, and he remembers being star-struck by her the last time they met. There’s a little of that younger Blue still in him, but with three badges in his vest he feels a lot more prepared to meet her gaze as an equal, to see her as a person, to consider how she acts out her superior role rather than as someone fundamentally above him. “I’m glad you finally made it back. You did promise you’d return to, ah, ‘take the whole gym down in a day,’ was it?”

Blue grins, pleased she remembered his youthful boast even as it reminds him of what happened in Pewter. He guesses that’s intentional, but her smile doesn’t seem to be mocking. “I’m glad to finally be back.” And then, because it’s true, “The place has really grown.”

She nods her thanks. “As have you, in more ways than one. Tea?” She lifts a pot from its tray next to her keyboard, and when he nods pours him a cup.

He reaches forward and takes it. “Thanks.” He tries to smell what kind it is, but the bayleef’s sharp, spicy scent makes it hard to smell anything else. He thinks of what Slava said and has to smother a grin.

“How’s your grandfather? I was glad to hear of his recovery, and sorry I couldn’t see him.”

“He’s doing alright, you know. So far so good.”

“I’m glad. And Daisy?”

“Busier than ever. I don’t know how she finds the time, between her clients and the classes she started teaching and all the extra stuff she’s been up to.” Like helping Red’s mom with something that she wouldn’t tell Blue about, no doubt expecting him to dig into it on his own in an attempt to get him to talk to Red. “How’s your sister? The one that was training her smeargle to paint her?”

Erika’s polite smile widens. “You remember that?”

“Sure,” he says, and shrugs as he blows on his tea. “Won’t pretend to remember a lot of your visit or what was talked about, but it was a funny story.”

“She has yet to succeed, but continues to enjoy the attempts.”

Blue nods and takes a sip, tasting a stronger version of the smell that surrounds him, and realization hits as Erika finishes gently scraping bits of dry leaf off her pokemon’s buds and opens the top of the tea pot to add them to it. “Uh. Is this… safe?” He’d been about to ask a stupid question, and changed it at the last moment to one that he hopes doesn’t make him seem too cowardly or ignorant.

“Quite safe,” she says, and takes a sip from her own cup before starting to gently unfurl a different bud on her pokemon’s neck. It turns from its food for a moment to nuzzle her face, and she grins and pets its neck until it returns to its meal, letting her start harvesting again. “I’ve been cultivating Amber’s family line since before I was a Leader, and it’s a hobby that I rarely have time for anymore. Still, I’m hoping to bring the tea to market by the end of the year, assuming it breeds true for one more generation.”

Blue already feels more alert and focused, far more than he would have by just the scent of the bayleef, which at least he knows tend to have a caffeinating effect. He puts his cup down, looking into it as he gathers his thoughts.

He expected small talk, but wonders when it will build up to something more, if it ever does. “This place really has changed from what I remember. I like it.”

“I’m glad, though I imagine you also have questions about it?”

“Yeah, actually.” Blue looks around. “The kimono colors and patterns, do they mean something? Rank, or duties, or…?”

“They do, but more than that,” Erika says with a smile. “It’s not information we share with those outside the gym, however. That said, I’ll confirm guesses you get right, so long as I don’t think you’re doing so at random.”

“Alright, sounds like a fun challenge.” He’s encouraged by the implication that he’ll be able to talk to her again, if not like this then at least through private messages.

“I have a question for you, now. What was the most important thing you learned at Vermilion Gym?”

Blue raises a brow. “That’s a tough one. I know I wasn’t there long compared to most gym members, but it was pretty packed.”

“I won’t hold you to an answer,” she assures him. “But I’m guessing something came to mind, at the question?”

“Yeah, sure.” He shrugs. “What it means to lead others, I guess. It’s not a single thing, but as a… package deal, that was pretty valuable.”

“And do you feel you’ve mastered it?”

“Oh, no. I was talking to a friend recently about how much more I have to learn about it, actually.”

Erika seems pleased by that, but her next words make the atmosphere of the conversation suddenly feel much less relaxed. “And yet you still challenged the authority of the Leader there.”

Blue studies Erika’s face, but she doesn’t seem to be judging him. “I didn’t really see it that way, at the time. But yeah I guess I did. Where it made sense to.”

The Gym Leader nods. “Wisdom is a hard trait to define in any one way, but knowing when to be humble before institutional knowledge and when to trust your own instincts and reasoning is a big part of it, in my view. What do you know, that you don’t know?”

Blue isn’t sure if the question is rhetorical, but the feeling that this isn’t just a casual chat is pretty solid now, and he’s more eager than before not to waste the opportunity. “A lot, really. I have questions that seem like they don’t have real answers, about… a few different things. If I had to pick one, it would be about the way I relate to the others in my group.”

“Understandable,” she says as she tips another palm full of dry bits of leaf into a small bowl beside the pot. “Did you pick that in specific because you know what my specialty is, as a Leader?”

Blue blinks. “No. Uh, I mean… I know what it is in relation to pokemon battles, obviously.”

She flashes him a grin. “What is it?”

“Status effects. Goes hand in hand with focusing on Grass types, but I’m not sure what that has to do with… oh.” He narrows his eyes at her. “Are you about to make a pun?”

“I am,” she says, sounding pleased. “And you have no room to complain, given your earlier compliment.”

“That was my friend Leaf’s fault.” Blue sighs. “I guess you can say she—”

“Planted the seed?”

Blue grins despite himself. “She’ll be tickled by that. So, your specialty as a Leader is status, both in and out of the arena?”

“It is, so far as I can judge such things at least. So let me quiz your understanding of status… why did I call you here?”

Blue half expected this question, and has been considering this since he got the message. With her recent remarks, the answer is obvious. “It’s a status move. You’re inviting me directly to talk so we can form a relationship right away. You as the mentor, of course, and me as the up-and-coming star student.”

“And uniquely so,” she says as she tips more dried leaf into the bowl, takes a sip from her cup, studying him over the rim. “There’s no public perception of you being particularly close to Brock or Misty in your time there, and as for Vermilion Gym, your position is widely perceived as being against Surge. The collaboration began with your challenge to him, and then he took that challenge and threw it back at you, and you rose to the occasion before moving on with a victory none who came before could claim.”

Blue slowly nods. He can see it the more she talks, a flower unfolding petal by petal. “Even if no one else knows what we talk about, and it only happens this once, you create some intrigue by just talking in private with me… but if we continue meeting, and that perception grows, then I’m an extra rose in your garden. Every time I get status, you’d get some too.”

“More than that; I am actually teaching you.” She grins. “Perhaps someday you’ll learn all I know and surpass me, which is a prestige all teachers aspire to. If not, then you will always know that you can turn to me to learn more, even if you someday become my peer or superior in other ways.”

“When,” he corrects her, though he’s grinning too. This is shaping up to be a fantastic conversation, though part of that might just be the effects of the tea.

“When,” she allows, and takes another sip of tea. “In any case, I believe you’re the kind of person who will feel gratitude and show it, as long as the advice is genuinely useful. We may even develop a true friendship. I’m certainly motivated to see if it’s possible.”

“Yeah, works for me.” In a way, it’s everything Blue wanted, no, expected to someday hear from a gym leader. An acknowledgement of not just his skill, but the usefulness of a positive relationship with him. It’s the kind of relationship he always knew he’d need to accomplish his goals. But…

“I have to ask,” he says after a moment. “Why do it like this? We already had history, you could have just called me over to chat, arranged another meeting later, let things grow normally.”

“Well, for starters you already have plenty of relationships that grew organically. I want ours to be unique in some way, and this is a simple way to do so. It’s a risk of course, but I judged you would be the kind of person who appreciates it. I don’t believe I was wrong.”

Blue smiles. “Nope. And the second?”

She shrugs a shoulder. “In such relationships, with such power dynamics involved, everyone is already aware of the most basic implications, at least… but they’re rarely acknowledged. That the older person has more accrued power, that the younger person has more potential power. That the richer has more resources to draw on, while the poorer may at some point have need of them. That the Leader has responsibilities that take precedence over friendships, while the Professor’s grandson will likely be loyal to his family. It’s tiring, sometimes, having to guess as to what people are thinking, how much is influencing their decisions. When I can, it’s something of a relief to foster relationships where status is acknowledged, and can be brought up and discussed without worry of offending someone.”

Above anything else she’s said already, Blue feels the most flattered by that. Which may be its intention, of course, but… it’s true. He does think it would be a relief, to have things like that acknowledged and obvious in the relationship. It always made him feel a little awkward sometimes, how much more money he had than Red, how much Red clearly idolized his grandfather… he doesn’t really think it’s the reason they were friends, their families practically raised them together and they became friends long before Red got so interested in pokemon research. But it was always in the back of his mind, and he would be surprised if it never occurred to Red, though not as much as others. Smart as he could be, he’s always been a bit of an idiot about stuff like that.

“Thanks for trusting me with this,” Blue says. “As far as it goes, I’d like to talk about what I’m here for.”

“Not just a badge,” she guesses.

“I won’t be upset if I just get a badge,” he says. “But yeah, I don’t mind admitting that if I see something here that I think can be done better, it would be great to get more momentum.”

Erika nods, and grins at him. “Then allow me to present my counter-offer. You battle me for your badge tonight. No qualifying matches. No tests. Just straight to the Challenge.”

Blue blinks at her, mouth opening to ask what? and then closing because he heard her perfectly well. Instead he thinks through the implications of the proposal, given what they talked about earlier.

From a public perspective, it would be a huge deal for him. If he wins, it would be the fastest anyone has ever gotten a badge after arriving at a gym, faster even than he hoped to get his Pewter badge.

But…

It would just be too sad, to have walked in here and gotten to step ahead of everyone else. If it was still just him and Leaf and Red, he might have said yes, thinking the others would be just as happy moving on to the next city earlier than expected. And if he hadn’t lost to Brock, he might have said yes despite having barely any time to train with his fire pokemon, overconfident in his own abilities.

Instead he turns her question over and over in his thoughts as she continues to add bits of dry leaf to the tea pot, considering it from as many angles as he can, until he finally asks, “Why?” He’s pretty sure of his answer, but he wants to know her reasoning first, just in case.

“For one thing, it takes your momentum and makes it serve both of us,” Erika says. “Let’s be honest, there’s no reason to make you do any preliminary matches. My Second and Third might give you some trouble, but I’m confident you would beat them both. Thus, we would save everyone some time, and you get a chance at your badge quickly, while I get recognized as someone who spotted a rising star and helped him shine. On top of that, with all due respect, I don’t want you to wreck my garden.”

Blue blinks, thinking of some of the damage he and the group did to gym grounds and fields outside the city during their scenarios. “Are you speaking figuratively, or…?”

“Both. I don’t suspect you would like my Gym culture. Perhaps you’d have suggestions, and I’m happy to entertain them… in private. Well as Surge handled the situation, I have no intention of letting you posture on stage and call me out in public.”

“I wouldn’t,” Blue quickly says, and then realizes that it’s just happened: she’s exercising her status over him, and he feels a need to submit to it. After what she said he was expecting a more collaborative friendship, though she didn’t say they were there yet: this is still a meeting between a student and teacher, at best. She’s pressuring him to demonstrate that he knows it’s her Gym, to acknowledge her superiority within her domain. Not subtly, but then, she doesn’t need to be subtle about it right now, when they just talked about it so explicitly.

That bothers him, because he can’t allow himself to think that way, even for people he likes and respects. Even if she has everything figured out, he has to assume there’s something she might be doing that can be improved, or else he’s just another challenger or member, and not her future Champion. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it without talking to you about it first. I’m not out to embarrass anyone, I just want to make Kanto as strong as I can.”

“I admire that. Truly. And I wish you well.” Her gaze moves to his, and she smiles. “But not here. This is my garden. I cultivated it to meet my values, to be the thing in the world I devote my life to protecting. Look around you. Do you think there’s a single bush here that I haven’t taken time to ensure the quality of?”

That sounds like a huge waste of time to Blue, but he knows better than to say that; no one values honesty that much. Well, except maybe Gramps, but Erika’s not him. “Well, with all due respect as well, Leader, I’ll have to decline. It’s a generous offer, but I came to your garden with others, and even if I get my badge I would stay for their sake.”

“And? Let’s not pretend you’re not their leader, regardless of whether some have more badges than you, or stronger pokemon. You getting your badge in such an unprecedented way would further cement that, and increase their prestige as well for being a part of your group.”

Blue looks at his tea, then takes another sip, feeling the spicy, autumn-breeze flavor fill his senses. “I was told once that my dream isn’t the bright beacon I want it to be. That it sucks the oxygen out of the room, demoralizes others instead of keeping them striving to be their best. I worked hard to push the other way, in the past couple months, but this feels like it would be just turning things back around.”

“You are not the same person you were two months ago, nor was your legend. Perhaps your journeymates wouldn’t mind as much as you think. It might even make them feel proud to be on the journey with you, train that much harder to keep up and feel worthy of it.”

He could see that. He could see Elaine’s glee, hear Glen’s congratulations, feel the quiet awe of Lizzy and Slava and the others…

…but he could also imagine Glen’s hidden disappointment. They were as close to partners as they could be in Vermilion, co-leaders designing the scenarios together. He’s probably wondering if that’s over, now that they’re not doing it anymore. Elaine has grown so much more confident, gotten so much better at speaking her mind, but he thinks she still holds back sometimes when she disagrees with him, despite his efforts to make sure everyone feels like they have a voice. Slava and Sumi weren’t in Vermilion with them for the storm or badge, they probably already feel like outsiders… it’s bad enough to have two “groups” in the group, getting his badge ahead of the others would propel him into a third all by himself.

“I’ve been reading this book Gramps gave me,” he says as he turns his tea cup in his palms. “Nobunaga’s Ambition. I’m not much of a reader, but it’s Gramps, you know?”

Erika grins. “I do. If Professor Oak tells you to read something, you read it.”

Blue nods, “Still, it’s been slow going. It’s an interesting enough book, all about how a warlord very nearly united the island—”

“I know of Oda Nobunaga,” Erika says, her smile a bit wry now. “Every Leader and Elite on the island has probably read that book at one point or another. Not that it’s widely advertised, so you’re not to blame for not knowing that, and I’m not surprised your grandfather didn’t mention it when he gave it to you.”

“Ugh. Yeah, he probably didn’t want it to… what’s he always call it, ‘anchor’ me or whatever.” He’s still annoyed. He would definitely have made more time to read it if he knew that, and why hadn’t Gramps given it to him before his journey, when he had more free time? Well, other than maybe because he didn’t read anything that didn’t have to do with pokemon battles back then… “Anyway, I’m not far in it, but there was a thing about how leaders always stand at the top alone, right? It’s a bit different nowadays unless you’re Champion, but you still have your domain, and the decisions about what to do in it are all on you, or else you’re not really in charge. Even the League can’t come down here and tell you what to do differently, not unless you’re really screwing things up, and then they’d just Challenge you and crush you and run things themselves.”

Erika nods, watching him curiously as her bayleef butts its head against her hand for more pets, expertly avoiding the sharp edges of the broad leaf growing from its forehead.

“I don’t want to be that kind of Champion, but I also can’t leave things the way they are. I can’t, not if I want to do everything I need to do. But… I don’t know how to get the right balance of power. If I accept your offer, I’m one step closer to the leader who leads alone. If I don’t…”

“I understand,” Erika says, and takes on a lecturing tone. “That’s the volatile nature of power, of status, and why some cultures had many names for the different types, names that have been mostly lost with the global adoption of Unown.”

“Names like?”

Auctoritas, the power you wield over someone when they respect you. A celebrity has this, but it should not be confused with mere social status; it can effect real change, if wielded properly. Potestas, the power that comes from a more official position, such as a judge has, irrespective of their popularity and enforced by the state. Imperium, the highest ability to command, those who have no equals within their domain, such as a Leader or Champion… which, as you noted, are hierarchical, but not quite overlapping. A Champion cannot dictate what a Leader does within their gym, though both of their authorities are not just potestas, but often blended with auctoritas as well, and so there is still some blurring in the balance of power.”

Blue feels like he should be taking notes, but instead he just drinks more tea and leans forward, fascinated. This is the kind of thing he was looking for, the kind of thing he tried explaining to Red once, but without the right words…

“When your face is often broadcast in the news, your auctoritas grows significantly compared to those who are never in the public eye. Your advice becomes heeded because obviously you must be successful in some regard to have been given a microphone.” She smirks slightly. “With that form of status, you can draw attention where you will, amplify your preference and leverage public support against an official to some degree. If they have potestas but lack auctoritas, they will likely retain their position up to a point, even as they lose influence… until they are effectively crippled, if the difference becomes drastic enough. After that point, they will often lose potestas as well.”

“Can’t the same be said of imperium?” Blue asks, wondering if this is what she fears. If it’s what Surge feared, in some way, when Blue openly challenged his Gym’s methods.

“Not often. Auctoritas is often a precursor to potestas, but not always, and rarely is it a factor for imperium, in our culture at least. But once you gain imperium you gain auctoritas, whether you want it or not. Some official positions generate status all on their own, just by holding them. To gain more auctoritas than someone with imperium, especially within their own domain, is exceedingly difficult. A Professor who tried to advise a Champion would likely be respectfully listened to, but if they challenged them, their words would have very little actual weight, unless they were once Champion themselves, and even then the lack of imperium would affect the interaction.”

Blue nods, thinking things over as the distant sounds of the gym drift to them on the breeze. In Vermilion Gym the noise of others battling and training was constant, but here all the greenery dampens it… and of course there aren’t any drill instructors yelling. The muted noises of others in the distance just add to the peaceful atmosphere.

“You’re saying auctoritas is important, but only up to a point,” he finally says. “That I need as much as I can get, but not to push it, not to spend it carelessly against someone who holds imperium.

“Such is my advice, as someone who holds imperium to someone who does not,” Erika says, and smiles. “Self-serving as it is, I trust you see the wisdom in it.”

“I do,” Blue says, and means it. “Thanks. But I’m still not going to take you up on your offer.”

Erika’s brow rises, but she nods. “Even if I extend it to the rest of your group?”

Shit, that’s a tougher one, and he should have thought to ask for it himself. He hesitates, unsure if he can decide something like this for them…

But no, he has to, since she wouldn’t say yes to the others but not to him if he bows out… and he wouldn’t do it himself even if they all wanted to. “Even then.”

“Interesting. Say more?”

“It’s not just about the auctoritas. I need to set an example by how I acquire it. I need others to want to follow in my footsteps, and not just people who are like me, with all the privileges I’ve had. Most trainers are not going to be able to walk into a gym and get invited to a quick Challenge match.”

“You’re worried about the perception of nepotism.”

“More than that. Most people probably wouldn’t think it’s that direct, I mean obviously you know Gramps but most Leaders do. It’s… if I earn more status that way, it just makes what I do seem that much more a result of my circumstances, even if it’s built on my previous accomplishments. Each achievement needs to feel fair. I know I can’t actually make that true, but I can at least turn down obviously unfair ones.”

Erika slowly nods, quietly working as she thinks. Finally, she tips another palm full of herbs into the bowl and smiles. “I agree. And I’m still not going to set up preliminary matches for you.”

Blue blinks. “But… if—”

“Instead, you’re going to study my gym. We’ll continue to meet each day to discuss what you think of it. Perhaps you come up with some suggestions I find worth implementing, but regardless, we won’t make a secret of what you’re doing. It will cement you instead as… oh, let’s say a student of gym culture, or even an Apprentice Gym Adviser.”

Blue laughs. “There’s no such thing as Gym Advisers, are there? Except maybe League officials?”

“No, not by that title at least. You’ll be the first, which is why you’ll be an apprentice.” Her eyes gleam merrily. “Even if you’re the foremost Gym Adviser in the world, you still have to start at the bottom. You’ll do some preliminary matches, of course, but with this new lens over it. And best of all…”

“Everyone in my group can get in on it,” he says, grinning wide as he considers it, and laughs again, delighted by the idea. He could do this. In fact, he’s excited to do it. And if they play it right, they’ll arrive at the next gym with people already expecting them to put on the same hat, whether the Leader collaborates or not.

“Well then, Leader Erika…” He holds up his cup, and she clinks hers against it. “Consider us hired.”

Chapter 78: Merger

Hey everyone, doing an unusual PSA: For those that haven’t been paying much attention to the coronavirus, I think it’s worth mentally preparing for a chance that you or someone in your friends/family will get badly sick sometime in the next couple months, and physically preparing for society to slow down for a bit. If even 15% of people are too sick to leave the house at the same time, that’s entering Great Depression levels of unemployment. Many aspects of “normal life” will be disrupted even for those who are not sick.

That doesn’t mean panic, or prepare for an apocalypse. I still plan on going about my normal life in that time, assuming things don’t take a sudden turn for the worst.

But at the very least, if you can afford to buy some extra necessities up front, I think it’s worth doing. Get an extra month’s supply of non-perishable food, toilet paper, laundry detergent, various basic medications, etc. Don’t take any PTO for the next few weeks in case you need to take it later while sick or to help a sick family member. Make a habit of regular, thorough hand-washing while in public and before meals.

I don’t tend to be alarmist, in general. Living in the hurricane capital of the US means I have a practice balancing on the tightrope of preparing for potential disasters that often end up being no big deal, and what I’ve learned is that being reasonably prepared is often worth more than just the peace of mind it provides.

Hope you all enjoy the chapter, and many more to come.


Most gyms have two dedicated clinics: one for pokemon, and one for people. Neither is as fully equipped or staffed as a hospital or pokemon center, but they can still do a lot, and are particularly useful to the gym staff when they have a lot of challenge matches booked back to back.

All the other gyms try to have at least one medically trained psychic on staff, but Saffron is the only Kanto gym with a third, smaller clinic specifically dedicated to psychic healing, with six full time staff rotating shifts.

It’s Red’s first time in it, and he looks around at the soothing wallpaper (a bright blue sky with silver clouds, the vague impression of swablu hidden in the curving lines) and comfortable looking couches and futons as they’re ushered into the waiting room by the Gym Second.

Red spent the walk here with his shields firmly up, but he’ll have to drop them soon to be checked, and he doesn’t want Rei’s secret to be at the top of his thoughts. If only he could induce amnesia in himself already… But no, he’s had enough practice by now to keep his thoughts in order.

There are two doctors on shift, so Rei and Cyr get called in to be checked first. Daniel, looking like he’s not sure why he’s here, says he’s going to get something from the vending machine, leaving Red, Tetsuo, Jason, and Satori. The latter two are quietly comparing notes about their experience with the merger, while Tetsuo is typing something into his phone…

…and Red is still holding an emergency meeting with Past and Future Reds.

Okay, let’s map out where this goes, Future Red says. Outcome 1, we end up linked to the exeggcute again, the cookie thing was an accident or prank from whoever but we accidentally think of Sabrina or Rei, and the secret comes out. Outcome 2, we manage to control ourselves well enough that we don’t think of either of them, but Rei is the one that was testing the waters with that cookie thing and she thinks of Sabrina to get to whatever secrets Tetsuo knows about her, outing our own complicity along with hers. Option 3, it was a prank or accident, and we control ourselves, and nothing bad happens. Two out of three, not looking good. I say we tell Tetsuo now.

Red frowns. That’s not how math works. We need to know how likely each of the three outcomes is.

Good luck quantifying any of that, since we can’t actually know how well the automatic sharing can be guarded against until it happens again, and by then it would be too late if we’re wrong. I guess you could just ask everyone if they were responsible again, then estimate whether they’re being honest.

Maybe that’s what Satori and Jason are talking about. He turns to them, focusing on their whispered words.

“-would have noticed,” Jason murmurs. “Influence from the seeds would have been easy to predict, if we knew ahead of time which one we had.”

“I believe mine was concerned with the future,” Satori says. “It was difficult to stay grounded in the present rather than have my thoughts keep turning to what would come next… but only in the short term.”

Jason makes a thoughtful sound. “Now that you say that… I thought I was just interested in experiencing the exeggcute’s understanding of its environment, but perhaps that was driven by the seed’s desire.”

“Were you focused on threats?” Red asks, joining the conversation more overtly by turning his body toward them.

Jason considers this a moment, then bobs his head. “Yes, now that you mention it. There was an extra vigilance of anything else in the room, but as there were only humans, nothing would have struck it as a threat.”

“Yeah.” Red turns to Tetsuo. “Sir, do you recall any particular drive or focus that might have come from your seed during the merger?”

Tetsuo holds up a finger, other hand still typing for a moment, then lowers his phone and considers the question. “I believe mine was the memory of the exeggcute. It felt like it kept comparing the present against moments it previously experienced, checking for similarities to food that it located, or danger that it encountered. Is this relevant to what happened, or just curiosity?”

“Both? I’m wondering whether the seed that was seeking food led to the… whatever it was, the hyperfocus on cookies.”

Satori nods. “That is my guess as well. The merger became so complete that the focus of the exeggcute’s seed became the focus of the psychic, and they projected that focus onto the rest of the seeds, and their attending psychics. Had the exeggcute not been withdrawn, I’m not sure how long it would have continued.”

“Well that’s a clear risk,” Tetsuo asks, frowning slightly. “Any further experiments will have to have someone on standby, and with a time limit for them to withdraw even without sign that things went pear shaped in case there isn’t one.” He turns to Red. “What was your seed’s focus?”

Red is still mulling over his first question, and is distracted as he tries to recall. “Nothing jumped out at me,” he admits. “Which maybe excludes food and… what was the last one?”

“Coordination, particularly for mobility,” Satori says. “But they were not moving, and so it might make sense to not have noticed this.”

“There’s also flux,” Jason reminds him. “Which may be even less noticeable? Or more, if there was rapid change.”

Red nods, frowning slightly. Neither of those are ringing a bell. “Well, I definitely didn’t notice any desire for food or finding it up until the thought of cookies overwhelmed me, so I think I was either flux or coordination.” Which means there’s a 50% chance that Rei’s seed was the one focusing on food.

His thoughts drift from there until he realizes he’s not doing anything productive, and invokes his model of Future Red again. Concentrate on the goal, Future Red reminds him. How does knowing all this help?

Maybe it doesn’t. But Cyr probably didn’t make a mistake like this, and that means Rei is the only likely suspect, outside of Daniel pranking. Which he probably wouldn’t admit to until after everyone is checked out and okay, if then.

Maybe Rei wasn’t trying to test things. Maybe she just got overwhelmed by the seed’s desire once she merged that deep with it.

Sure, maybe. And maybe that happened while she was trying to project a thought about Sabrina. Does it change anything? Even if it wasn’t her, she would be an idiot not to try to take advantage of it to learn what Tetsuo knows about Sabrina now. And she is the one that invited him to join, then suggested he take Daniel’s place.

All of which might be moot if he doesn’t join them again. Or if they don’t allow the experiment again. Which he should probably find out before making any major decisions…

He expects to hear something from Past Red about that, but his most self-critical self is still oddly quiet.

Are you forgetting that it’s not an actual voice of a separate person, just an automatic mental process that just happens to manifest as such?

No, but then why are you here and he’s not?

…point.

Red frowns slightly as concern starts to tickle at the back of his mind… and then becomes an urge to lower his partition, as odd as that feels. He doesn’t even bother verbalizing an internal agreement, just lowers the partition and lets the world sink into a mildly more greyscale version of itself…

Holy…

…and he’s suddenly free, free to act, free to be. It’s like stepping through a mirror and realizing he was the reflection all along, and suddenly instead of being stuck in the narrow bounds of the reflection, there’s more room beyond the edges of the mirror.

In this case, the extra stuff is his memories of what he was thinking and doing during the exeggcute merger. Namely, how the part of him behind the partition “woke up” and started experiencing the exeggcute seeds’ connections to each other, which he then tried to model by changing the partition to match it so both his partitioned and unpartitioned selves would continue to exist in parallel rather than one at a time.

Except they aren’t new memories, because he remembers having them all along, living through them. He’s Red, and there’s only one of him, now. His partitioned self is just a specific type of thought pattern, focusing on certain emotions and perspectives while avoiding others. Namely, his depressed ones.

(…shit.)

“Red? Are you alright?” Jason asks, and not just because Red has gone rigid, is staring into the distance with wide eyes. His shields are down, and he knows he must be giving off a very strange signal to the medium’s unique psychic senses.

We have to test it. Even through the pain and grief and sadness that comes from lowering his partition, he knows this is important, that his other self is right to be freaking out, because this might change everything

(Wait,) Future-Present-Happy-(Partitioned?) Red says, and still clearly in shock that he finds himself in this position, and there’s a sense of disorientation—

“Red, if you’re okay, say something.”

—that he is the partitioned one, and Red feels a brief surge of vindication that itself quickly gets swept aside in the thrill of the moment. (Hang on… is this it? If we can lie without detection now, and they find out… we’ll never be trusted!)

If we can lie now and they find out later that we didn’t say anything, they’ll trust us even less, Red thinks, and holds a hand up to reassure Jason and the others, all of whom are staring at him now. “I’m fine.” He feels their minds probing his, trying to test if he’s okay, but his shield is up, he can do that much easier now than he normally can when his partition is down. They can tell something is off, though, Jason in particular… “Just had to take my partition down for a moment…”

“That’s what usually happens when you do?” Jason asks, sounding mildly alarmed, and this is already an emergency, because now Red has to lie to answer him or tell the truth…

“Sorry,” Red says, and stands. “Going to head to the bathroom.” He walks off before they can respond, and hopes no one tackles him for a forced mental screening because of what happened with the exeggcute.

(Not that they’d be entirely wrong to, if this were a movie we’d be acting exactly like someone hiding something… because we are!)

Red realizes he’s sweating through his shirt as he enters the hallway, and wipes at his brow as he walks by Daniel, ignoring the older boy’s curious look. He heads straight for the bathroom, glad it’s a private one, and locks the door before going over to close the toilet lid and sit on it.

“Take it slow,” he murmurs, then thinks to pull out his notebook, hands trembling just a little. He needs to better understand what happened…

Exeggcute work by something like multiple partitions around a common mind, he writes. During merger, I felt myself “awaken” behind my partition, and adjusted it to match what the exeggcute use. As a result, my partition seems both stronger and weaker.

His handwriting is barely legible, and he scratches out a few words to rewrite them as he takes a few calming breaths.

Notable effects:

With partition up, Partitioned Red can’t model current self even a little. But I still remember events from then, the same way I used to.

With partition down, Partitioned Red is more present- (Ha. Present. Should tell Leaf that…) -and feels more independent. I can also create a shield better, as if it’s still up. (I’m helping with that.) He seems to be helping with that.

Do I still exist when the partition is up, the way he does when it’s down?

Red stares at the words, sweat sliding down his neck. It had been a philosophical question before, but now… it feels too real, knowing that Partitioned Red is so “alive” with it down.

That doesn’t make any sense, though. With the partition down, they should be more merged, shouldn’t they?

(Bring the partition back up, see if you can say something now that we’re expecting it.)

Red considers this for only a moment before he realizes something extraordinary, and quickly writes it down.

Can sense Partitioned Red’s sincerity. Does it work both ways?

He barely finished thinking the thought before the answer was obvious.

Yes. We’re not actually separate minds; we both know everything each other knows. Like doduo?

No.

(No.)

There’s no disagreement. Different ideas are propagating back and forth, different thoughts, different perspectives (Partitioned Red thinks this is much cooler than he does) but… they are, in fact, of one mind.

Until…

Red nods, and doesn’t waste any more time worrying about whether he can trust his other self, which is itself a huge relief. He brings the partition back up…

…and feels some part of him fall away, folded up in the origami of his mind. The partition has never felt more real to him, or more nuanced: he can sense the thoughts traveling through it, just like he could sense them moving in the web of the exeggcute.

But nothing’s coming back…

He brings the partition back down and takes a deep breath, the sterile scents of a clean bathroom helping slow his racing pulse.

Before, having the partition up was cutting away parts of himself, then seamlessly reattaching them so that he could recall what he did and thought without those parts, but not change any of it… and all the while, that lesser version of himself would be gone.

Now he feels like the partitioned portion of his mind is never actually going away. Partitioned Red is there when it’s down, and he’s still there when it’s up. (That still doesn’t make any sense? What does it change, concretely?)

He considers a moment, then writes out a math equation, 157 x 248.

(Too complex, you won’t have pen and paper.)

Right. He scratches out the last numbers, leaving 15×24. It’s a problem he feels like he can figure out with just a few moments of effort, without the answer immediately coming to mind. He quickly brings the partition back up.

Red stands up and stretches, then goes to wash his hands, then examines his pale face in the mirror, doing anything but letting himself think about the numbers. He wonders what the others must be thinking of the way he left so abruptly. If he decides not to tell them, he can just pretend he had a sudden stomachache, but he still has to figure out if he should reveal what he knows about Rei, independent of this development… oh, and the mental exam to check for any lasting effects from the exeggcute merge is certainly going to reveal all this.

He wipes sweat from his neck, worry churning through his stomach at the added constraint. As if he doesn’t have enough to worry about… Okay, that should be long enough. He brings the partition back down, and immediately knows the answer is 360.

Red sits back down on the toilet lid, amazed by the sudden double memory; one of freaking out about what happens when he leaves the bathroom, the other doing some quick mental math and freaking out about what happens when he leaves the bathroom.

The memories are utterly entwined. There really weren’t two of him while the partition was up: there was just him, with part of him unaware of the other, larger part that contained him.

A circle in a slightly larger circle.

This is big. He doesn’t know if it would allow him to hide lying or not, but it’s still a unique psychic phenomenon, as far as research he’s read covers, at least. Maybe someone like Rowan has already discovered it.

Rowan. He needs to talk to the local partition expert. But first he needs to find a way through the current predicament…

(Yes, ground-breaking mystery later, time-sensitive social crisis first.)

Red rubs his eyes, already feeling the exhaustion returning, the cloud of sadness that makes nothing seem more attractive than going home and pulling the covers up over his head…

(Hey! Time-sensitive social crisis!)

Red frowns. If Partitioned-Red isn’t like a separate person, just a line of thought that’s based on a model of himself without the depression or grief, a part of him whose priority focus is on goals, then Future Red is probably the better name for that part of himself. But when the partition is up the Future Red being referred to is a very different one. It’s like a nesting doll, really, and…

…and thinking about this isn’t helping, just distracting him from the far less pleasant and more important problem facing him.

He wets some toilet paper and wipes at the dried sweat on his neck and forehead, wishing he could just pause everything for an hour to think. No, that’s not his actual wish. His actual wish is to not have to deal with this at all.

One foot in front of the other. Something he had to learn to do when Dad died, and it was hard at first, but it helps. Red starts writing a basic outline of his situation just to keep his thoughts moving in a constructive direction.

Problem 1: Should I reveal Rei’s goals or try to guard against them coming out during the examination?

Problem 2: Should I admit to/test new partition’s potential ability to lie?

Resources: ? Leverage? None. Get some?

Allies:

Red pauses, considering his peers. Maybe Jason would back him up, if he says he’s fine without wanting a full psychic screening? And if he doesn’t reveal Rei, maybe she would help cover him up for the partition. But he can’t ask for advice from any of them on how to address either problem without giving things away… And despite the progress he’s made with befriending them, he doesn’t know how far he can actually trust them.

Not the way he once could Leaf or Blue during their journey. But this is what he chose, and at the end of the day, he’s alone here…

(No we’re not!)

Red blinks, then frowns. You don’t count.

Instead of responding with words, he just gets an impression, a memory, of Dr. Seward’s calm voice telling him that she’s available if he ever needs her, to not hesitate to call in an emergency, and him believing her.

…this isn’t that kind of emergency. She can’t help with this.

(So call someone who can! Why do you think we can’t trust Leaf the way we used to?)

Another memory, this one much more recent. Of Leaf hugging him, and telling him she doesn’t blame him.

(She cares about us. So does Professor Oak, and Mom. We’re not alone.)

It’s true. He knows it’s true, even if he instinctively recoils at the idea of reaching out to them for help. He’s a mess right now, and much as he hates the idea of just boxing all his negative emotions up, he doesn’t want to force them to deal with them…

(Then let me do it!)

Red stares down at the tiles, considering it. That… might actually be an option. What does he lose by putting the partition back up? Now that he feels his own persistence through the intervening time, it doesn’t feel like cutting off part of himself. And this is an important thing to solve, one his feelings of grief and pain and loneliness (And anger, can’t forget that now that we recognized it!) are just distracting him from.

Alright. There’s a sense of surprise from his partitioned self, but now that it’s obvious how useful it would be he doesn’t waste any more time, letting the partition rise back into place between blinks.

He still feels anxious, but the weight of the broader worries is off his shoulders. He calls Leaf after a moment to review what he’s going to say, hoping she’s not busy.

“Hiya Red, what’s up?”

“Hey, Leaf.” Red clears his throat. “Got a minute?”

“Yeah, what’s going on?” Her tone instantly changed at the sound of his, and just hearing her concern makes him feel a little better.

“I need… advice, I guess. I’m about to throw a lot at you, so um, save questions until after?”

Leaf is silent for a moment, then says, “Okay, I’m sitting down. What’s going on?”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “So long story short, before Sabrina left town she tasked us with figuring out if a psychic can develop a way to lie even to another psychic. While we’ve been working on that, I made friends with her oldest student, Rei, who admitted to me that she’s only been staying as Sabrina’s student because she wants to know what she’s been up to with all her secretive trips.” Red runs out of breath, and sucks in a new one. “About an hour ago we all got together to link up with an exeggcute—really cool, by the way, I have to tell you about that later—and I figured something out about my partition from the way they network with each other, it’s like a single mind with six sub-parts, and now my unpartitioned self is more… it’s hard to describe, I guess it’s fair to say more distinct while also being more connected?”

“Wow. Uh. Is that… good?”

“Yeah, it is actually. I feel more like a single person than I did before, even though the division is more clear. Hard to describe, like I said. But here’s the thing…”

“You think you can lie to other psychics now?” Leaf guesses, voice low with awe. Or maybe fear.

“If I had to bet? No, I don’t think so. Things can cross the partition, and we both know everything each other knows as long as it wasn’t figured out while the partition is up. As far as I can tell, at least. But… I don’t know, and I feel like I should check, right? Shouldn’t I?”

“…wow. Okay. Ooookay… Red, that’s… I think I get why you called…” Leaf’s voice is both worried and thoughtful, and it’s easy to imagine her expression; brow drawn in concentration, eyes alight and constantly moving as she paces. “It’s like what we talked about on the ship, you’re worried about how other psychics will treat you…how the world will treat psychics… But wait, if Sabrina wanted you guys to figure this out, you can’t keep this to yourself! Whatever she asked about it for, it might be important!”

“Uh. Yeah, she said she thinks there’s a psychic who can…”

What?! Red!”

“Okay, yes, now that you mention it, I obviously shouldn’t keep this to myself,” he says as he rubs his eyes. “Is it at least okay to wait until she’s back, do you think?”

“Maybe. But if there’s something you can do in the meantime, it sounds like she expected you to do it.”

Red sighs. “Yeah.” He doesn’t like the answer, but he can’t think of another argument, so he tables thinking about it for now. “So what about Rei, then? I’d feel really bad about betraying her.”

“Yeah, that sounds tougher. What made it suddenly come up? Like why are you deciding whether to tell others now instead of earlier?”

“Oh! Right, I didn’t mention that part… someone did something during the exeggcute merger that made everyone think about a certain thing, and now I’m worried that, whether it was Rei or not, or an accident or not, Rei might use it to learn something about Sabrina from the gym Second, who was with us.”

“Huh. Well, if you’re such good friends with her, why not just talk to her about it first?”

Red blinks, then shifts. Did he use the word “friend?” He can’t remember. “Well, I wouldn’t say we were friends exactly.”

“Oh.” Red can hear Leaf’s frown. “Then… why would she tell you something like that?”

“Uh. That’s another long story… I guess it was basically just a way to understand each other’s motives while working together.”

“And… she didn’t swear you to secrecy, or anything?”

“No. Actually she even said she didn’t care if I told others, or at least made it seem like not a big deal.”

Leaf is silent for a moment. “What exactly is the problem then?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean why not tell others?”

Red’s the one who frowns now. “Why would I? it’s not like she’s doing anything illegal or even against any rules. I don’t even have any evidence she did anything!”

“Right, but if she’s not your friend, and she admitted this to you and said you could tell others, what’s wrong with just letting others know you’re worried about it?”

For some reason Red has trouble grappling with the question, though on some level he knows it’s simple. “It would cause a lot of drama?”

“It sounds like you’re already caught in some. Is that the actual reason?”

Red doesn’t have an immediate answer to that, and as he ponders it, he notices a feeling… like…

Like…

His phone chimes, and he checks it to see a text from Jason. Rei and Cyr are fine, Tetsuo said rest of us should still be checked to be sure. He and Satori went in, we’re next. He doesn’t ask if Red is okay, but Red can read the concern between the lines. He texts back a “thanks” as he says, “Leaf, can I call you back?”

“Sure. You alright?”

“Yeah, I just have to think about it and don’t want you to wait.”

“Alright. I’ll be here.”

“Thank you. It means a lot.” He ends the call, then gets as comfortable as he can on the toilet seat before he closes his eyes.

Focusing is a new enough tool to still be at the top of his mental toolbox, but even after taking a moment to review his options it still seems like the right one for the job, given Leaf’s question. But he doesn’t want to do it while the partition is up and part of himself is closed away.

There’s still a moment of hesitation, a moment of not wanting to give up his autonomy, of fear at a set of new values and potentially different goals suddenly becoming his new normal, but knowing for sure that he’s the partitioned one, the Red in the mirror, and that the broader, unpartitioned Red is still a conscious presence while all this is happening, is enough to make him just drop his reservations, and the partition along with them.

Red feels the depression come, but he’s still too engaged in the crisis to let it consume him. He takes a few moments to calm himself so he can try focusing on the felt-sense again.

(Think about telling people about Rei’s plans, then point to where the feeling is.)

What are you, Therapist Red now?

(Sure, why not. Just focus, would you?)

You mean-

(Yes it’s very funny that the word means two different things. Concentrate!)

He closes his eyes and imagines talking to Tetsuo in private, mentioning what Rei told him… then points to his stomach.

(Describe it.)

It’s like… a pair of wringing hands, twisting in my guts…

(Is it on our side or against us?)

That’s not a hard one. It’s a fear response, right? So on our side?

(Is it? Check. Out loud.)

Red rolls his eyes behind closed lids, but clears his throat and, focusing on the felt-sense, murmurs, “I’m afraid to tell Tetsuo.”

The feeling in his stomach barely reacts, but there’s a tightness in the back of his neck that he suddenly becomes aware of.

(Okay, so that’s true too, but it’s not the feeling in our stomach.)

Red frowns slightly. What could it be, then? Feelings of sadness keep trying to intrude, and he has to redirect his attention away from thoughts of Aiko as he tries to focus on the wringing-hands in his stomach again. “I… don’t want to be seen as a traitor?” That caused some reaction, the hands in his stomach squeezing tighter. “I don’t want Sabrina to feel like I betrayed her…” Huh. The feeling is weaker again. “I… don’t want Jason to think badly of me?” he guesses, thinking of the closest thing he has to a friend among the students. But no, that reaction was even smaller than the Sabrina one…

Red’s frustration serves as an opening to the grief over Aiko’s death, the anger and hurt from Blue’s recriminations, and his uncertainty over Leaf’s reaction, though thankfully some of the sting of that is gone when he reminds himself of what she said at the ranch… he wishes he could just put those feelings aside for a moment so he can concentrate…

Woah. That’s not a thought he usually has with his partition down.

(Not my fault.)

No one else in there right now. He knows Partitioned Red is right, though. He didn’t feel any kind of influence from his other self, the way he can send impulses and thoughts through the partition.

Which means… maybe it’s related to what he was thinking of, rather than a distraction from it?

(What does Aiko have to do with Rei?)

And then it seems obvious. “I don’t want to betray her,” he murmurs, and feels the hands tighten in his stomach… though there’s something more. “I don’t want to… be seen as someone who betrays his friends.”

Pain, pain in his upper chest, related to but distinct from the icy pain between his ribs, and a block in his throat that makes his next breath shaky. The part of him modeling his partitioned self is reflecting his thoughts with feelings of skepticism and curiosity.

Red sighs. “Thank you,” he murmurs to the feeling in his chest. “I understand the concern, now. I can better figure out what to do, and… make sure that we don’t lose anyone else, or… look like I don’t care about my friends to my friends.”

The hands in his torso relax their grip on each other little by little as he speaks, but don’t change or fade away. He wonders why not, but realizes a moment later that the concern is still there. He’s only done half the job in identifying it and reassuring all parts of himself that it’s something he’ll address.

(Okay, so… first question. Is Rei actually our friend? Would betraying her secret actually make us a “bad friend?”)

If he thinks of the initial interaction that resulted in him being told the secret, the obvious answer is “no.” She even told him he could tell others, and it wouldn’t be a big deal!

But… after that, while they worked together, they became closer. She was more open with him, stayed after their assigned experiment time to chat about their pasts and views on psychic phenomena. He’s not sure if that’s quite enough to be called “friendship,” but what does he know about making friends? All he can do is compare the relationship to others, and the closest it resembles is how he and Jason have gotten to know each other better over the past month. He definitely feels like he knows her more than Satori, for example, who he’s also spent time with lately, let alone any of the other students.

(I don’t think just knowing someone well is the same as being their friend. No, this has more to do with what we want.)

It’s true. He wants to be Rei’s friend. Because she’s smart, and competent, and well known. He wants her to think positively of him.

Put like that, it’s not really friendship. It’s admiration, mixed with something much more self-serving. It’s a little sad, that he would probably be even more reluctant to betray her if he liked her more, on a personal level, or if she was a generally friendlier and bubbly person rather than a mostly distant and aloof one. Or, as long as he’s being honest, more helpful to his goals.

(The felt-sense also worries about how others see us, which is irrational, since they might think we’re more moral for sharing her plans.)

He frowns, fingers rubbing his temples. Maybe he needs to look at this another way… He could use Internal Family Systems too. Future Red might have more to say.

But no, that lens doesn’t feel like it fits for this situation. Instead of Past, Present, and Future Red, he thinks of another example Dr. Seward mentioned: Child, Teenager, and Adult. His “inner child” is probably the one that’s most worried about being disliked and not having any friends, but he’s not sure how well the other two inner-selves would fit. His “inner teenager” just feels like himself, now. It’s interesting to think that when he’s older that will change, that some shard of his current self might crystallize into a complex reference point of stereotypical behavior and perspectives, and he gets distracted for a moment wondering what they would be.

(Tick-tock, tick-tock…)

Right, another time. Maybe if he models his different interests arguing about what he should do? Inner Psychic, Researcher, Trainer? No, those don’t map well for this kind of decision. Maybe a more literal internal family system, like Child, Mother, Father…

That one feels right. The Child is the easiest, since it’s the same as before: worried about making friends. Scared of being disliked. What effects would that have on the system? If there were siblings they might be annoyed, but if the Child is crying and the only two others are parents, the Mother… is comforting it, first and foremost. Telling it that things will be okay. That even if they lose friends, they’re not friends that matter. And that it… he… should just focus on doing what’s right, and he would get the right kinds of friends as a result.

He thinks of his actual mom, the primary influence in his internal concept of what an archetypal “mom” would do, and knows Laura Verres would put extra emphasis on the “do what’s right” part. More specifically, thinking of their last argument, she would say honesty is important. Which is ironic given that she sometimes lies to uncover hidden truths for her work…

(Well, we did think that we can just say we were trying to learn more about her plans first, remember?)

Huh. He does remember that. It’s rare that he thinks of himself as particularly cunning, especially given how bad at lying he is, but maybe he inherited some of it from his mom after all.

As for his inner Father, the stereotypical archetype that comes to mind is someone focusing on more concrete advice than the Mother. Less comfort and guidance, more practical suggestions, like…

…like dad…

Pain spreads through his stomach, making him feel the hole there in a way he hasn’t for a while. It’s been overshadowed by everything with Aiko, and before that he got good at looking away from it without his partition up.

But now… now he feels like he has to be able to do this. To honor his dad, the kind of man Tomio Verres was, Red can’t let the time he spent with him go to waste. If he can’t model his dad’s advice when he needs it most, what did Tomio spend so much time teaching him for?

Red absently reaches up to brush tears from his eyes, and searches through his memories of his dad for anything that might help in this situation… and once again he feels something from his partitioned self. A resonating, a melding, a borrowing of strength through neural pathways less bent by grief. It makes thinking about his dad painful, but not damaging, like carefully picking through broken glass, feeling light cuts that sting rather than bleed.

Surprisingly, he also finds himself thinking of Professor Oak, and advice he’s passed down, though most of that relates to pokemon and science (and, on one memorable occasion, bike riding while indoors, which he turned out to be rather against). It makes sense, given that he was a father-like figure to Red too. He knows his dad wouldn’t see it as a betrayal, at least.

So, what would Tomio Verres and Samuel Oak say, in a situation like this?

The Professor would say that collaboration is an important skill for a scientist, and remind him that he may need the good graces or positive regard of the people he’s working with for future opportunities. Red’s learned that well enough, from his own experiences. And his dad… he would want Red to be prepared. To have a backup plan, no matter what he chooses.

Red’s phone buzzes, and he checks the screen, knowing what he’ll see: They just came out. Our turn to get checked.

Red could pretend he’s sick, or stay a bit longer, but that would make them worry about him. Maybe make them suspicious that something is wrong.

(We can go back slowly, but we have to decide, one way or another.)

Red nods, and stands. Be honest. Make friends. Be cooperative. Have backup plans. Even without anything concrete in mind, he feels better about what he’s walking into as he slowly makes his way to the sink and starts washing his hands, thoughts on his next steps.


When Red returns to the waiting room, Tetsuo is still there, but everyone else has left. Red sees that the door to the second room is standing open for him, but slows as he approaches.

The gym’s Second looks up from his phone. “Alright, Red?”

“Sort of.” Red clears his throat. “I actually need to talk to you about something. Let me go get checked out first, though.”

Tetsuo raises a brow, but nods, and Red enters the psychic doctor’s room. It looks more like a therapist’s office than anything, with a couch set across from the psychic inside instead of a chair, and Dr. Zhang smiles at Red as he sits. “Welcome, Mr. Verres. Please feel free to lie down if you’d be more comfortable. We’re just going to run through some basic diagnostic exercises to make sure you haven’t been strangely affected by the merger.”

Despite everything, some of Red’s nervousness fades. Memories of Dr. Laurie in Pewter had him expecting someone with terrible bedside manners. “I’m okay sitting, thanks,” Red says, and swallows the lump of nervousness in his throat. “I, um… have a fairly unique condition…”

“I know about your partition,” Dr. Zhang assures him as he gets out a file that Red suspects is about him, and uncaps his pen.. “Would bringing it down for a few minutes be harmful, or affect your ability to participate?”

A month ago Red would have said yes, but… “It’s actually down already.”

“Oh, great! Then let’s begin. I’m going to do a simple projection, alright? Just tell me what you feel.”

Red closes his eyes, makes sure his shield is down, then waits in a haze of anxiety, thoughts darting from one worry to another. Without something else to focus on, he feels the storm start to gather in his head, the frost slowly spreading through his chest, and his thoughts start drifting more and more to that night, to the pain of Aiko’s loss, of Blue’s judgement…

There’s a flicker of something else, so foreign that even though it’s a barely noticeable blip of emotion, it still stands out. “Happiness,” Red says, voice a little dull to his own ears.

“Great. Next, why don’t you project something to me?”

“Um. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“With my partition down, the things I feel are… not pleasant.” Didn’t he say he knew about the partition? What did he actually hear about it?

“I see. Well, I appreciate the concern, but I can assure you I’ll be able to bear it for a moment.”

“Alright,” Red says, and wonders if he should bother trying to muster up another emotion to project. His experiments with Rei taught him how to efficiently channel someone else’s emotions, but the other minds around him are psychic, which would be detected. Instead he just shoves most of what he’s currently feeling toward Dr. Zhang and hopes it’ll be unpleasant enough that they can move on.

The doctor lets out a sharp breath, and Red stops the projection. There’s a moment of silence before the other psychic clears his throat. “Impatience, and anxiety, and depression?”

Part of Red feels like apologizing. (That would be me.) But it’s too much effort, and he just says, “Yep. Next?”

Dr. Zhang is quiet a moment, then makes a mark on the sheet. “Your file stated you haven’t managed any telekinesis yet, so we can skip that and just do a brief merger when you’re ready.”

Here it is. Red gives a determined nod, and shifts his attention to his breathing, filling his thoughts, the whole of his attention, on the cold air entering his nostrils, filling his lungs, then leaving in a warmer stream. A moment later he feels the doctor’s mind surrounding his, then briefly overlapping…

Breathing in… and out…

…and despite everything, he feels the man’s confusion, then curiosity, then amazement, as he notices something odd about Red’s mind.

(Whelp. So much for that idea.)

Red lets his breath out in a rush, knowing his disappointment and resignation are evident, and brings his shield up before the shallow merger becomes something more. Plan B it is.

He opens his eyes after and sees Dr. Zhang blinking at him. “Was that… what was that?”

“It’s a side effect from my partition,” Red says, and though he wants to move on, curiosity gets the better of him. “What did it feel like?”

Dr. Zhang takes a moment to think, fingers tracing his cheek. “It was like your mind has an extra layer around it.”

Red thinks again of a circle within a slightly bigger circle. “Yeah, that feels about right.”

“Would you mind if you put your partition up, so I can…?”

Red hesitates. “Do we have to?”

Dr. Zhang seems to come back to himself, and shifts, looking a little embarrassed. “No, as long as that existed before your merger with the exeggcute, your assessment is complete. I’m sorry, that was unprofessional of me.”

Red feels a twinge of guilt, and not just because he’s not telling the doctor about how it was the result of the merger. What he picked up from the doctor was genuine curiosity. A desire to know, to learn.

And it takes just another moment to realize that Red can’t keep this sort of thing secret. Maybe he can become better at lying or being cunning at some point, but right now, it’s too important a potential discovery, and even if he’s afraid of people being afraid of him… sharing what he knows feels right.

“Well… to be honest, my partition wasn’t like this before. It changed, and I’m not fully sure of the extent of how yet. It always used to feel like there were two personalities in me, but now they feel more merged. I feel more whole, with the partition down, and… the part of me behind it can multitask even with it up.”

Dr. Zhang is staring at him in amazement. “That’s utterly fascinating, Red. You’re doing something that I don’t believe most psychics even know is possible.”

Red blinks. “Most? Did you know it was possible?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. I’ve read about such things, but they were… well. They seemed a little hard to believe. More so even than stories of multiple personality disorder, the evidence for which is entirely anecdotal.”

Red’s interest rises again, and it feels like he’s remembering how he felt during his journey again, always excited to talk to new people in each place they visited who studied any of the fields he was interested in. How did he almost pass up the opportunity to talk to a psychic doctor?

(Thanks, Dad.)

“Could you share whatever you read with me? And maybe I can come back and talk to you about it, soon?”

“I’d like that,” Dr. Zhang says with a smile, and pulls his mouse and keyboard to himself. “I’ll see if I can find it now. Good luck, Red.”

“Thank you!” He stands and bows, then leaves the office to find Tetsuo on the phone with someone in the waiting room. Red sits beside him and waits, still processing what happened.

“Hey, I’m done here. I’ll head down now.” The Gym Second closes the call, then turns to Red. “All good?”

“Yeah. Um, I know you just said… Sorry, but do you have time to talk for a minute?”

“Sorry, not really.” He stands and stretches. “This experiment ended up taking way more time than I planned. But we can walk and talk, or make an appointment for tonight?”

“Uh, I need to talk about something private. And… it’s kind of time-sensitive.”

Tetsuo pauses halfway out the door to frown at him. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Red shifts his weight, wondering if he would have pursued it this much or just given up before, with his partition down.

Tetsuo sighs and reverses course, going into Dr. Zhang’s office. “Sorry to intrude, Wen, but would you mind if we borrow your office? Red says he needs to talk in private and I have somewhere I need to be soon.”

“Of course. I can take an early lunch.” Dr. Zhang still seems somewhat distracted, and gives Red a significant look that he can’t interpret as he leaves.

(He probably thinks we’re going to tell Tetsuo about our… us. About… me. About this?)

Red ignores this and sits on the couch again, while Tetsuo leans against the desk, arms crossed. “Alright, what’s so important?”

“Um…” Shit, he was planning to build up to this tactfully, but now he feels rushed and unsure how to begin. “Well… about what happened today… I think someone might have done it purposefully.”

Tetsuo frowns. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking that too.”

Red blinks. “You have?”

“Sure. Do you think the conversation stopped just because you had to use the bathroom?”

Red feels a flush rising up his neck. “I didn’t really think about it. Was kind of distracted.”

Tetsuo’s smile is wry. “Right. Anyway, I asked Cyr what the focus of his seed was when he got out, and he said it was flux, which makes it seem pretty obvious that Rei’s seed was the one that focuses on getting food. What I want to know is why it ended up happening, and if she did it on purpose, what that purpose might have been. And no offense, but since you’re not Rei, I’m not sure what you have to offer besides guesswork.”

Red sits a little straighter. Here it is. “Rei actually admitted a motive last month, when we started working together. She said… that she wants to know what Sabrina is up to.”

The words hang in the room between them, and Tetsuo blinks, then blinks again. Something in his posture changes, one kind of tension leaving as another, more subtle one takes its place, and after a moment he brings a hand up to rub his mouth.

When he finally speaks, his eyes are still on the wall, “With cookies?”

Red’s own tension bleeds away a little. Despite the words, Tetsuo’s tone wasn’t skeptical. Confused, and curious, but not doubting. “I think that was the test, or just an accident from her first full merger with everyone—”

“—directed through her seed’s desires, yes. So you believe she would have thought of Sabrina instead, and that’s why she asked me to join you all, then join the group?”

(This is easier than we thought.) “Yeah. Basically.”

He’s frowning slightly. “There are a couple problems with this idea.” Now he sounds skeptical. “First, how could she know what the effect would be? Mergers with exeggcute are rare, and group mergers like this even rarer.”

“Maybe she didn’t know exactly,” Red says with a shrug. “But Satori knew something like it was possible, remember? And even though Rei is smart enough to make an educated guess like this, it didn’t actually work out the way she thought. But… well, I do remember feeling how the exeggcute hivemind worked, getting a sense of what it would mean to be a part of it.”

He sighs. “Yeah, me too. Okay, the second problem is that Rei has been Sabrina’s most dedicated pupil. Why would she risk her position here by trying something like this at all? Furthermore, why did she tell you of all people? No offense, but…”

“I know,” Red says. “But I am curious, and driven to test my theories, and it was… kind of a bargaining chip, I think? She said she doesn’t have much to lose, so I guess she thought getting me on her side would be doable.”

Tetsuo’s earlier impatience seems to be gone, and he thinks for nearly a full minute in silence, the clock above the door quietly ticking the seconds away. When he finally stirs, his gaze meets Red’s. “Alright, so even with a mental check to prove you’re being truthful about what she said to you, we still have no proof that she actually did anything with the experiment on purpose. Being curious about Sabrina’s activities isn’t a crime. Having the food-focused exeggcute seed doesn’t prove she did anything purposefully, and her not bringing it up after could have been embarrassment. We’d have to check her for honesty, which is a big breach of trust on our part and could damage the relationship if we’re wrong, not to mention lead to legal recourse if she feels offended enough. What we need is something more obvious. Do you know of anything else she’s done?”

Red shakes his head, a part of him still feeling antsy about talking about Rei like this behind her back. He keeps thinking of the way she dismissed the worry of him telling others. Why do that, unless she really didn’t care about him revealing her? It feels like he’s missing something. “No, but she also mentioned that she was testing your shield?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much expected among peers, though.” He smiles slightly at Red’s surprise, and he leans away from the desk to head for the door, clapping him on the shoulder. “Thanks for telling me this, Verres. Not much to do about it now, but at least I know to make an excuse to not participate in the next attempt, in case she tries it again. If you can think of a way to prove Rei’s intentions, let me know.”

“There’s going to be another attempt, then?” Red asks, glad the experiment will continue.

“I’ve already started the review process, now that we know it’s safe so far. We’ll probably need the legal team to write up some waivers for anyone willing to try again, but I see no reason to cut it off, especially since the outcome was so unique.”

“Wouldn’t that be a way to prove it, though?” Red asks. “If she manages to do it right, and force everyone to share thoughts about Sabrina?”

“Sure, yeah,” Tetsuo raises a brow. “But I’m not going to risk what I know getting shared, and she probably won’t do it without me in the merger.”

Red blinks at the implied admission that there’s something to know about Sabrina. “Couldn’t you just induce amnesia first?”

The Gym Second purses his lips, shakes his head. “The private things she’s shared with me are too tied into who she is, and our relationship. It’s a good idea, but keep thinking.” He claps Red’s shoulder, then leaves Red alone in the office.

(You forgot to tell him about how maybe we can lie now.)

Red sighs, and goes to find Cyr. Tomorrow. For now he has some questions about exeggcute mergers…


It takes a few days for Tetsuo to get the experiment approved, and Red uses that time to practice with the new form his partition has taken. A quick experiment proved that Red can’t lie against a psychic any better than before, though Red can’t help but think that he’s getting close.

Rei acts as normal as ever, and seems impressed by how he rarely brings his partition up anymore. When he wakes with it up, there’s barely any hesitation left to bring it back down, and the longer he spends with it down the easier it is to feel the protective layers of his unpartitioned thought patterns, grounding him in his goals and work rather than letting his negative thoughts and feelings overwhelm him. Jason helps him get a handle on these too, and Red asks for another exposure to his pokemon to see if the partition helps against surrealism. It doesn’t.

Red still has bad moments, times when he can’t focus and just lies in bed, thinking over the night of the storm, remembering the feel of Aiko’s clothes between his fingers before she tore away. Remembering with a hollow ache the sense of her and the others’ minds snuffing out as, barely ten minutes after they went in, the ceiling of the floor they were on collapsed over them.

He remembers these moments, lives them again… but doesn’t get lost in them. He has the tools, now, to ground himself in his current time and observe his thoughts and feelings from a distance, the way Dr. Seward taught him to do with the earlier parts of the night. His journaling helps too, when he can find the motivation to do it, and having Partitioned Red’s thought patterns, his “voice,” operating so independently in his head… it helps.

So does talking to Leaf about what he’s going to do about Rei, both over the phone and when he goes to help with her own project. He feels more comfortable staying longer than he did before, rather than worrying that he’s imposing, and he has more time to spend with his pokemon as they bike around the ranch and into the outlying fields a little. It feels good, brings back positive memories, and he can tell she misses it too.

It’s on one of these nights, after they’re back in Aiko’s room where she codes and he writes in his journal as their pokemon recover from their exercises, that their conversation weaves back and forth between her next goal of sustained wild behavior in captured pokemon and his worry over how he can prove what Rei is up to before she sabotages the next experiment. And in that weaving, Leaf off-handedly suggests a solution that makes Red forget everything else for a moment.

It’s devious. Seemingly risk-free. And when he messages Tetsuo about it, the Gym Second agrees almost immediately.


Once everyone’s schedules sync up, they all meet at the gym again. Tetsuo has waivers waiting, and then they travel down to the practice room together.

Everyone sits next to their seeds, with Daniel standing behind Tetsuo with the exeggcute’s pokeball ready to withdraw it again.

“Alright everyone, let’s take things slow,” Cyr says. “Make sure your merger with your seed is stable before exploring their connection to each other. Any questions?” He looks around, and nods, then closes his eyes.

Red does the same before he concentrates his senses on the seed in front of him. It’s harder than last time; for one thing he’s anxious about whether Rei is going to try something again. For another, even with the progress he’s made over the past few days, using any psychic powers with his partition down is still more difficult. He expected his partition being down to make his psychic abilities stronger, and maybe it has, but if so it’s not noticeable yet. Thankfully, he knows from his practice over the previous days that merging with his pokemon isn’t additionally complicated by his partition being down.

Which is why it surprises him when, as the merger starts to finally take hold, he finds that the changes he made to the partition to change it into this new form have actually helped to make the merger more effective. He has a matching native experience for the type of partition that the exeggcute cluster uses to keep each seed distinct while its overmind utilizes information and processing from each.

Red feels himself smiling as he finishes the merger, marveling at the new feeling of his partitioned self immersing itself in the seed’s unique experience, while his attention remains distinct and elevated. As he feels the seed’s simplistic body, looks through its eyes, and notes the flow of its attention…

Threat assessment. No question; the seed is constantly using the exeggcute’s collective psychic senses to scan for the presence of other pokemon around them. It’s tense because of the battling pokemon it senses in the nearby rooms, but thankfully it also uses each outward-looking seed’s eyes to ensure that there are no threats in the immediate area.

Red decides to try and map the connection to the other seeds a little, and finds himself being drawn along the mental web that each seed sends pulses through. It’s… beautiful, really. He feels the draw to get pulled into it tugging at his attention, but resists by simply keeping his own broader mind focused while his partitioned one stays immersed. It’s like multithreading with his partition up, though he can’t do it nearly this efficiently without borrowing the exeggcute’s instincts. Nor would he be able to maintain his distance if the others weren’t merging with each seed.

(Not yet, at least. Growth mindset!)

There’s not enough evidence that “growth mindset” actually works.

(Well it definitely won’t with that attitude.)

Red sighs. His more optimistic side is right, in this case; he wants to be able to do this when not merged, which means he’s going to practice it, and he might as well believe it’s possible at least so as not to discourage himself. As long as that doesn’t falsely encourage him beyond a point when he should give up—

SABRINA

Images of the gym leader fill his thoughts, as do his thoughts and his impressions of her, his curiosity of her secrets, his worry about Rei trying to find them, his admiration of her, all as one big ball of thoughts and impressions… and as they’re pulled toward the mental web, his broader self is still separate, and instinctively acts to block them from leaving to join the web.

What he isn’t strong enough to do is stop everyone else’s from flooding him, and he sees Sabrina in five whole new lights.

Mentor – respect – gratitude – disagreement…

Hope – learn – collaborate…

Obsession – admiration – curiosity – desire…

That last one is Rei. He can tell because of the flash of memory that comes with it, of when Rei met Sabrina, years ago. She was so proud… and she does admire Sabrina, but somewhere along the way her desire to know more, and frustration at being locked out, started to color all their interactions.

Each thread is distinct at first, then blurs together, then becomes distinct again, pulses of thought gathering again and again. The part of Red not overwhelmed expects the flow of memories from the others’ experiences with Sabrina to end at any moment, but it’s hard to tell how much time is passing, and each wave of thought that doesn’t end in the exeggcute being withdrawn makes him doubt what he’s experiencing even more. Does an exeggcute’s sense of time change when it syncs?

The thoughts continue to cascade in and out, and he finally realizes with dawning horror that their assumption had a fatal flaw. They expected something obvious to happen, like last time, that would let the person not merged know to withdraw the exeggcute. They’d set a timer, as discussed, but it was for twenty minutes, and Red has no idea how much of that time has passed already. He might be the only one that can put a stop to it before people start passing out from psychic exhaustion, or whatever other consequences might come from this.

He briefly contemplates putting his partition up, but no, that would immerse him entirely in the merger: it’s one-directional, and his broader, whole self would simply be diminished as part of it is locked away. Maybe he can learn to change that at some point, but for now a simpler solution comes to mind.

If part of my mind really is working independently… There’s no reason I can’t have his part use my powers too, right?

It’s hard. Harder than even his first psychic exercises were, harder than he can recall anything being. If it were just about power, it would be like trying to lift a car, and utterly beyond him, but it’s not. It’s focus and finesse, tracing a line of woodgrain along the whole length of a room without looking elsewhere, and he knows he can do it if he could just… concentrate…

Legend – admiration – curiosity…

Teacher – desire to please – pride – desire to overcome…

Some of the memories are embarrassing, like the time Sabrina apparently lectured Daniel for being too dismissive of others’ ideas. Red feels that embarrassment reverberate through the mental web… Daniel thinks of how he has been trying to change, to overcome that… and a moment later comes surprise from Rei, confusion over why Daniel is part of the merger, before thoughts of Sabrina overwhelm everything again.

Guess the jig is up. Not that it matters, now… he just has to end this before anyone gets hurt.

Red rallies his thoughts and tries to think of a solution, something besides just trying again, and suddenly realizes that if being inundated with thoughts of Sabrina is too distracting, he needs to be as calm and unaffected as possible to concentrate through it.

It takes only a moment to remember Rei’s mental state, the cool, calm, detached mood that seems to occupy the majority of her waking hours. With it comes a portion of the extraordinary focus she brings to her powers, and soon he’s extending a thin, gossamer thread of mental energy toward the seventh person in the room… the seventh mind he can sense, the one not in the merger.

Tetsuo. He’s sitting in the circle, in front of one of the exeggcute seeds, but it was Daniel who merged with it instead of the Gym Second, completing the trap without even offering real bait.

Red feels his thoughts slipping around the edge of Tetsuo’s mind. The older man is wary, but patient. He’s watching for signs of distress, but doesn’t see any yet. Red can’t think of something to draw his attention to, so instead he just concentrates on Sabrina as hard as he can (easy enough to do) and projects THAT bundle of mental noise at him.

A moment later the tenuous thread snaps, and Red feels his psychic exhaustion threaten to break his link with the exeggcute on its own… but before that can happen, there’s the electric crackle and snap of the exeggcute being withdrawn into its ball, and everyone immediately falls over or backward, some of them groaning or clutching their heads.

Red and Rei are the first to recover, and as he sits up, he watches her expression shift from tired shock, to calm resolve. She meets his gaze, and there’s no accusation there. Just knowledge.

Red looks away. He knows he shouldn’t, that what she did was reckless and underhanded, not to mention it risked their research. But he still feels an irrational shame. He could have just told her, couldn’t he? He could have just let her know he’d told Tetsuo, and… and she would have just left…

(Or, she would have just not done this, and found another way to try to get Sabrina’s secrets.)

“Is everyone okay?” Tetsuo asks, and Red feels him scan each of them. No one is strong enough to shield, for the moment, but he simply dips in and out long enough to make sure no one is in serious pain. For Red’s part, he feels like he can sleep for a day, but he’s a lot less discombobulated by the experience than the others probably are.

“What the hell was that?” Daniel complains, rubbing his arm where it hit the floor when he fell over. Convincing him to join the merger again instead of Tetsuo was the hardest part of this otherwise simple plan. Red suspects he only managed to do it because Daniel was curious about what was going on, and because he didn’t want to feel like the only student who had come that couldn’t manage it.

“Rei?” Jason asks, hand on his prayer beads. “Did you do this?”

“It was her,” Satori confirms, frowning at her peer. “She is much stronger than she’s let on. Perhaps stronger than Sabrina?”

“Perhaps,” Rei says, voice cool and calm.

Daniel snorts. “Right, sure, but what was the point of this?” He looks between Red and Tetsuo. “If you knew this would happen—”

“We didn’t know.” Tetsuo hands the pokeball to Cyr. “Thank you for the use of your pokemon, trainer. This has become a private matter, and it would be best if you go to ensure you and your pokemon are well.”

“I think he’s earned the right to be here,” Jason says, troubled gaze moving from Tetsuo to Rei, then back.

“No, that’s okay,” Cyr says, voice a bit strained as he looks around with wide eyes. “I’ll go… you can fill me in later.”

Jason nods, and Cyr struggles to his feet, tests a few steps, then waves to them and hurries out.

“Okay, just us inner circle folk now,” Daniel says as he shifts to sit against the wall. “Spill.”

Red is about to speak, but it’s Tetsuo who answers, summarizing everything without making it seem like Red is responsible. Which may make sense, but surprises him. He keeps waiting for someone to turn to him with a judging glare or betrayed look, but no one does. Most of them are watching Rei by the end, waiting for her reaction.

She continues to sit calmly for a moment after he finishes, then simply says, “You’ve caught me. Well done. I’ll tender my resignation, and go pack my things.” And just like that, she gets to her feet.

“Hold it.” Tetsuo’s voice is hard, and everyone turns to him. Red feels a sudden foreboding, the anger in the Gym Second’s face unmistakeable. “You think it’s just going to be that easy? Five people were just subject to what could be considered a psychic attack just now. A psychic pokemon attack.”

Red stares at Tetsuo for a moment, not understanding, then feels ice flood his veins. “What?”

Tetsuo doesn’t answer, gaze staying on Rei, and when Red looks back he sees some of the older student’s composure has finally cracked. Her face is pale, eyes wide as she swallows. “That’s not… no one would—”

“No one would? Let’s poll the room.” He looks around, expression remorselessly flat. “Who here thinks purposefully utilizing a pokemon’s abilities against humans for personal gain falls under Renegade crimes?”

The room is silent, and Red can feel his heart pounding against his ribs. He never thought… he didn’t mean for this…

“Might need to be investigated at the very least,” Daniel says, and his expression shows his disdain quite clearly.

Flashbacks of Yuuta come to Red, of everyone turning to face him, to make him pass the final judgement, and he forces himself to speak past the block in his throat. “Wait! Everyone just… hang on. Let’s just calm down and not rush into anything we can’t stop.” Red swallows. “Rei didn’t know it would hurt anyone. We even have the last experiment, it provided evidence that… that it was safe…”

“We did sign waivers for risk of harm,” Jason says, voice troubled, but Tetsuo shakes his head.

“They didn’t cover intentional injury.”

Red licks his lip. “But… it’s not like she was trying to hurt anyone, or trying to get money, it was just…”

“Red,” Rei says, and her voice is like a calm lake, with just a ripple moving over its surface. He looks at her, unable to slow his breaths, and her eyes are so guarded they’re as empty as a doll’s. “It’s okay.”

“What do you— “

“It’s fine. Really.” She turns back to Tetsuo. “I trust that Sensei will be a fair and merciful Leader. I’ll stay, and confine myself to my rooms, until she returns to judge me herself. You can check my intentions yourself, if you’d like.”

Tetsuo stands, then walks to her. The four other students sit and watch, frozen as statues, as Sabrina’s senior student and Second lock gazes from an inch away… two breaths… five… eleven… Red tries to slow his breathing and his pulse, but his emotions are a stew right now, and if he tried focusing he’d name a dozen different felt-senses.

No one was supposed to die!

(They won’t Brand her for this,) Partitioned Red says, and the thought is mixed with both confidence and doubt. (She’s right, at the very least Sabrina wouldn’t want the negative publicity… maybe she’s banking on that.)

“Alright,” Tetsuo says, and steps away. “You’ll go to your building and stay there until Sabrina returns. If at any point anyone notices you’re gone, I go straight to the Rangers. Clear?”

“Clear,” Rei says, and some tension seems to come out with the word. Her posture remains straight, however, face calm.

“Everyone else, upstairs to get checked out again. We can discuss this privately after we’ve all gotten some rest.”


The days following Rei’s house arrest are strange ones. For one thing the sense of a power vacuum is hard to ignore; Red expects Rowan or Tatsumaki to step in, or even Daniel. The other two senior students seemed shocked by what happened, but no one seems to want to step into the leadership role the way they might have if Rei had just left, or even if she’d been Branded. There’s a lingering sense of disquiet among the other students, one that most of them cover up for by focusing on their research.

Red wonders a dozen times over the next two days if he should go talk to Rei, dismissing it each time as a terrible idea. He talks to Jason and Satori instead, and Leaf, and his mother. Both assure him that he did the right thing, that it’s not in his control if she’s investigated, and his mom even reminds him that he can just vote against her Branding if it comes down to that. He can tell they’re worried about him “relapsing,” but after that first day his sense of guilt isn’t as strong as general anxiety over what would happen next.

Which turns out to be, just a few days later, Sabrina returning to her Gym.


Red is watching the mayor of Celadon give a speech about a police raid of the city’s Rocket Casino when he hears a knock at his door. His mental sense reflexively goes out, and he scrambles out of bed when he realizes it’s Sabrina.

“Just a second!” he says as he hurries to get presentable, then opens the door a bit nervously.

The Gym Leader looks very tired, but none the worse for wear for her long absence. “Hello, Red. Is it okay if I come in?”

“Of course, Sensei! Welcome back!”

“Thank you.” She sighs as she enters and drops unceremoniously into his computer chair, leaving him to sit on the edge of his bed. “How have you been?”

“Ah… I think that’s my line?” he asks with a nervous smile. “Is everything… okay?” He’s not sure how else to address the extensively long absence.

“Well enough,” she says, voice containing some amusement. “We can skip the smalltalk, if you’d like. I’m just here to say hello, apologize for being gone so long, and make sure I’m caught up on anything I should know.”

“Oh, yeah! Sure. Um. How much did Tetsuo…”

“Everything.” She smiles, and it’s a warmer smile than he’s ever seen from her. “I have a lot of piled up Challenge matches ahead of me, and a lot of paperwork, and a lot of teaching for all of you, and I need to figure out what I’m going to do about Rei. But before all that, I should thank you, Red. You showed not just loyalty, but cleverness, and restraint, and unusual skill, far beyond your experience. None of them would be nearly as valuable without all the others, and from my own selfish evaluation, loyalty most of all. I wish I had been here, but from all accounts you exemplified everything I prize in a student, and I can’t even take credit for most of it. So… thank you, Red.”

Red is blushing, and he’s not sure what to say. He feels a strong urge to deflect some of the praise, tell her how he had help, but he knows she’s not going to accept it anyway, so he just nods, and humbly says, “Thank you, Leader. I mean… you’re welcome.”

She grins briefly. “Your partition has changed. How much did that have to do with what you managed?”

“A lot,” he admits, relieved that they’re moving on to something important. “I don’t know how much time you have, but there’s a lot I have to talk about with you… I think I’m really close to being able to actually, you know.” He lowers his voice. “Lie. Dr. Zhang sent me some articles about a thing called a ‘tulpa’… I think I have something similar, and if I learn amnesia… that would be the key.”

Sabrina leans forward, all signs of her earlier casual demeanor gone. “It’s funny you should mention that… Rowan said something similar. I think it’s time the two of you had some private lessons with each other… and I’ll be there too occasionally, of course.” She nods, seemingly to herself, then stands. “Come, let’s go pay him a visit. You can explain to both of us together.”

“Alright.” He goes to strap his sandals on, a worry still drifting through the back of his thoughts. He knows he has to ask her… “Sensei?”

“Call me Sabrina, please.”

“Um. Alright. Sorry if this isn’t my business, but… I have to know, what will happen with Rei?”

The Leader gives a careless shrug as she leads Red out the door and down the hall. “It was terrible betrayal, more toward her fellow students than me, so of course she can’t stay. But I think once I speak with her, we can work something out without getting the Rangers involved… unless one of you wants to file a complaint yourself.” She eyes him over her shoulder, dark hair rippling down her back. “Do you?”

“No!” He smiles, feeling a knot in his chest relax for the first time in days. “I’m glad to hear that. Thank you.”

“Of course.” She sighs. “The saddest part is, she was so close to learning what she wanted to know…”

Red blinks. “What do you mean?”

Sabrina glances at Red as they enter the elevator and smiles. “You’ll find out soon enough, Red. Like I said, loyalty is something I value above all.”

Chapter 77: Focusing

“I’m guessing by that you don’t mean ‘concentrating really hard?'” Red asks.

“Correct,” Dr. Seward says with a smile. “If anything I imagine you could teach me a thing or two about better concentration. No, ‘Focusing‘ is a technique designed by a man named Eugene Gendlin. He was one of the first humanistic therapists, and it’s meant to help people better understand themselves.”

Red nods, feeling a mix of hope and wariness as he settles back against the couch. “Well, that sounds like the sort of thing I need, so I’ll try it.”

Dr. Seward’s office has become familiar to him again over the past few months. He feels comfortable here, though not quite “at ease,” given that they often talk about difficult or sensitive topics, and at some point during a session he knows he’ll be asked to bring his partition down, which despite the progress he’s made lately is still… difficult, sometimes.

The “journaling” has helped. It’s more like having a written conversation with someone, and much more mentally taxing, but they have ground rules, now. It’s hard to always tell, but he thinks Past Red has benefited from the past few sessions, where he spent most of the time doing trauma work: recalling the night of the storm in a safe environment where he could stop and be reminded of coping skills when things got overwhelming, and where Dr. Seward could help him unpack how he felt about what happened, the choices he made, and what they mean to him now.

Last session they reached the fire itself, and Dr. Seward stopped Past Red with almost half the session left so they could learn something new before continuing. They spent the rest of the time talking about other things, such as the ground rules for bringing the partition up and down throughout the week, and whether he felt more positively inclined to his “fake self.” Red is getting better at recalling the emotional states that he had with his partition down, and is still able to remember the distinct mix of grudging acceptance when Past Red admitted that things are getting a little better.

“So, first some background,” Dr. Seward says. “There are a lot of different lenses, or models, through which you can view yourself, and your mind, and how you make decisions. In the Focusing model, it can help to think of yourself as the executive decision maker who has a council of advisors. There are many of them, some obvious and some not, some internal and some external. Your past experiences, taken in total, can be conceptualized to make up one, perhaps even your most important one, or most commonly used. But it’s not alone: if you’re doing something new, in particular, you may rely on other advisers, such as things you read online, or are taught by others. And they can be divided up; maybe some of your past experiences differ from others, so you’d have two advisers giving you different advice. Is this tracking so far?”

“I think so,” Red says. “Is this all to say that Past and Future Red are just advisors like any others?”

“No, though that’s one lens you can take. Focusing is more about advisors you aren’t aware that you have.”

Red considers that a moment. “Cultural conditioning? Things I consider so normal that I don’t even question them?”

Dr. Seward smiles. “That’s a good one, but also not the one Focusing, well, focuses on. Let’s consider an example. When is the last time you were afraid of something you had no good reason to be?”

Red thinks of Jason’s ghost pokemon, then dismisses it; he had obvious reasons to be afraid of them. But he remembered a more fitting example that night, from a different roof. “The second day of my journey, I met a trainer whose brother had a skarmory. He let us pet it. I knew it was tamed, but being in its presence… it was still really hard to take the steps forward and actually touch it.”

Dr. Seward nods. “That sort of irrational fear is very common. When I was young, I loved going to the beach. One day there was a story about a sharpedo attack near Cinnabar, and despite how incredibly rare such things are, and Cinnabar being miles and miles south of here, I still didn’t want to go in the water for a whole month when my parents would take me to the beach. I could even see others swimming nearby, perfectly safe!”

Red smiles slightly. “Yeah, I went after Leaf and Blue. It was pretty embarrassing.”

“Do you remember what it felt like?”

“Sure. I was worried—scared, really—and embarrassed, and also curious.”

She nods along until he’s done, then asks, “But how did all that feel?”

Red blinks. “I’m… not sure.” But even as he says it, he understands. “It felt like… my heart was pounding, really hard. And I was sweating. And… my feet wouldn’t move. They felt numb, or stuck, or something, like I literally lost control of them.”

“I see. So you used words like worried, and scared, and embarrassed, and curious. I would probably use the same words for my own experience, minus the curious part. We would both use the same words, and understand what each other meant, for the most part. But my own experience of those words, in the moment, was completely different. I felt my feet, I distinctly remember that, because the sand was hot; it was my legs that felt out of control, they wouldn’t stop shaking. I felt heat in my face, more than just from the sun, because I was so ashamed. And there was a ball in my gut.” She closes her hand in a fist over her stomach. “Like a clenched fist. I felt sick, like I was going to throw up at any moment.”

Her description is vivid enough that he feels a shadow of what she describes as well, and Red nods as he gets it. “One of the other psychic students, Jason, actually made me think about this not long ago, when he mentioned that emotional pain usually has a physical component for him.” Red starts to feel some of the excitement of encountering a new concept, a new way of thinking, and it clicks in some way, his thoughts racing ahead through the new doors it opens in his mind. “We use the same words when we describe our emotions, but we often feel something very different from each other. Like describing what it feels like to share a pokemon’s senses with a non-psychic… no matter what I say, it won’t actually make you know what I’m actually feeling.”

It’s strange, he knew this from what he’s felt while sharing senses from other people too, the way they feel fear or anger or even happiness differently in their bodies. He just never put dedicated time into really thinking about it. “So how does this help? Is there something different about how I experience emotions compared to Past Red?”

“That’s an interesting thought worth exploring, but not the main point. Remember what I said about advisers? Your body is one of them. It has information that you’re not always consciously aware of. It’s common to think of your body as just a meat puppet being guided around by your brain, and there’s a lens through which that’s true. But this meat puppet sends plenty of chemical and electric signals to your brain, which is very much not in control of most of its functions. You can’t decide if you’re hungry or not, your body informs you of it. You can’t decide if you’re scared or not; things that might reasonably be dangerous may not frighten you, while things that you know should not be can still trigger a fear response. So what is guiding what, exactly?”

Red considers this, weighing the times he’s had feelings that he couldn’t explain or were poorly calibrated against the times he has “trusted his gut” and been glad he did… “Maybe this fits less for me, since I can actually stop myself from feeling something, with my powers. But I get what you’re saying: I can’t control the release of adrenaline in my blood, or dopamine in my brain. So I can accept that my body is an advisor, though not a particularly good one, outside of things like whether it’s time to eat or use the bathroom.”

Dr. Seward nods. “The point is not that it should always be promoted above other advisers, only that you should be aware of it and seek its counsel when the advice of the others doesn’t seem complete. The practice is new to me, but from the literature and what I’ve tried so far, I’ve come to accept that the body knows things about you that your conscious mind does not, or can not always fully articulate. I don’t mean that literally, as if your body has its own set of thoughts, but it seems quite plausible to me that it reacts to what is in the subconscious, if that helps as a way to describe it.”

“Yeah, it does.” He’d wondered, sometimes, whether his alternate selves actually “exist” in his mind while he’s not thinking of them or having their thoughts intrude on his. It’s not like when he brings his partition down he has a sudden memory of Past Red being “awake” and observing everything he does and says, it’s much more integrated than that, a new set of perspectives on events that abruptly snap into focus. Ideally, he would like to be able to have both sets of perspectives at once (or all three if he counts Future Red), able to switch between them as easily as considering different hypotheses without committing to or being blinded by any (as much as is possible, at least). “So how do I tap into that knowledge?”

“By paying attention to what your body feels, and how that feeling changes. Normally I’d have you do some exercises to help you become aware of your felt-senses, as Gendlin calls them, but you’re already very familiar with mindfulness and paying attention to such things, so we’ll see how it goes if we dive right in. We’ll still start with something simple, however. What’s something you don’t fully understand about yourself? A reaction you have, an indecision, a confusion, something about yourself or your experiences that you have trouble untangling?”

Red considers for a minute, and his thoughts first jump to his complex feelings about Rei, and her plans to investigate what Sabrina has been up to. They’ve gotten along better than he expected, over the past month. Once she started treating him as a peer, if not quite an equal, he noticed her demeanor changing, little by little, relaxing enough to show an analytical perspective and dry humor that makes her company not entirely unpleasant. He thinks he’s noticed her becoming more friendly and relaxed around him as well, which makes it harder to decide whether he should act on his loyalties to Sabrina.

But using that example would involve bringing up things he shouldn’t be talking about, confidentiality or no confidentiality, so he dismisses it… and finds himself thinking of Leaf. His stomach immediately lifts into his chest, and he feels a mix of happiness and the lingering remnants of anxiety. It’s gotten a lot better, since they last spoke and she told him she didn’t blame him.

“You were right, by the way,” he says absently, eyes closed in thought. “About asking Leaf how she felt. I should have done it earlier.”

“Yes, you should have, but I’m glad that it helped. Do you want to unpack those feelings? I forgot to mention, you don’t only need to do Focusing on unpleasant things.”

He quickly shakes his head, cheeks burning. He hasn’t admitted his feelings for Leaf to his therapist, but he could tell that he doesn’t need to.

Next his thoughts go to his mom. His worry for her, the risks she’s taking in her investigations. He’s proud of her, but also afraid that she’ll get arrested or thrown in jail or worse. Still, there’s nothing complicated or unresolved about those feelings. They’re complex, but they make sense to him.

“I can’t really think of anything,” he says after another minute.

“Hmm. I wonder if you thought of something that you were considering bringing up, but thought it would be silly, or not important enough, or embarrassing? Remember that this doesn’t have to be a deep or difficult problem first, it’s just for practice.”

“Right.” He shifts, thoughts going back to Leaf, and realizes he’s being silly. “I guess… I could talk about how I feel about Leaf.”

“Alright,” she says, face and tone giving nothing away but calm acceptance. “Go ahead and begin meditating, and let me know when your awareness is spread through your body.”

Red nods, grateful that he doesn’t have to immediately launch into trying to find words for his feelings, and closes his eyes as he takes deep breaths, focusing on the feel of the air rushing into his nose and lungs, then back out, cold at first, then warm. He works his awareness down from the top of his head, relaxing tension in his shoulders and neck as he keeps breathing in and out, adjusting his hips to be more comfortable, crossing then uncrossing his ankles. It takes little more than ten seconds to feel fully relaxed, and to have most of his awareness and thoughts confined to how his body feels.

“Ready,” he murmurs.

“Good. Now, think of Leaf… imagine spending time with her, of being around her, of talking to her… and when it seems clear, point to where those feelings are.”

Red’s hand moves without thinking toward his sternum, right between his stomach and chest. “Here.”

“Describe them.”

“Um. It’s like… I guess hope, and—”

“Remember, you’re describing sensations. Avoid any emotion words.”

“Right.” He swallows, concentrates on his awareness of his body. “There’s a… lightness. In my chest. And my stomach? Like a balloon, expanding outward, around my heart. Oh, and my skin feels warm.”

“Okay. So a sense of lightness in your torso, between your stomach and chest, like a growing balloon. And warm skin. Is that right?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it pleasant?”

“…Sort of. It hurts a little too. Like the pressure from the balloon is pressing against my heart and lungs. It’s not continually expanding, it just… feels a bit too big.” As he says it out loud, the sensations feel more real, the ache sharper and the “air” in it more distinct… “The balloon is filled with… flapping wings. Or something. The air isn’t static.”

“Are they like butterfly wings, or bird wings, or bat wings…?”

“Um. Bird wings. Light, and ticklish, like feathers.”

“I see. Sounds like that part feels good?”

“Mostly.”

“So there’s a balloon of what feels like feathery wings stirring air in your torso, which is pressing outward a little painfully, but feels mostly good. Does that sound right?” Red nods. “Okay. I want you to just sit with that feeling for a while. Get used to noticing it. If it starts to fade, think of times you’ve spent with Leaf again, or the thought of seeing her soon.”

“Alright.” His attention does slip away from the “felt-sense” every so often, but it’s not hard to bring it back, and the more he sits with it the more fine details and texture become evident, and the more tangible it feels, until he almost pokes at his sternum in case it feels any different.

“I’m going to ask you some questions about the feeling, now, and they might not make sense, but just try to answer them anyway. First… does this feeling seem like it’s on your side, or against you?”

Red almost asks what she means, then remembers he’s supposed to try anyway. “Well, it feels like…” He’s not sure what being on his side would mean, but he knows what it would feel like if it was against him: he’s had experience there. “I don’t feel threatened or scared by it, or angry about it… and… I don’t dislike having it… so it seems like it’s on my side, I guess?”

“I see. What do you think it wants for you?”

“Um.” He tries to think about that and keeps getting error messages. “Um. I don’t know. I guess for me to just… spend more time with her.” He can feel his face burning.

“That would make you happy.”

“Y-umm, yeah… I think so…”

“Alright then, let’s see if we can better understand what this feeling actually is.” She smiles slightly. “I don’t mean deciding whether to put the L word on it or not, but rather figuring out what the individual parts are that make this feeling up, or what the effects of this feeling are on you.”

Red takes a deep breath. “Okay. How?”

“As we touched on before, the word itself, ‘focusing,’ wasn’t chosen to refer to concentration. Think of it like adjusting a microscope, trying to get a clearer image. The adjustments will be done by speaking things out loud, hypotheses you could say, and you’ll check the clarity of the image by paying attention to what you feel. If it feels clearer, if it changes in any way, if it fades, even if it stays the same, that’s information. Ready?”

“I think so?”

“It’ll become clearer once we try, and we’ll start simple. I want you to say out loud something like, ‘Being around Leaf makes me happy,’ and ‘I want Leaf to care about me,’ and ‘I want Leaf to respect me,’ and focus on that felt-sense, and tell me what happens, if anything.”

Red squirms slightly, feeling the urge to call the whole thing off. This isn’t really harder than wandering up to a group of strangers and trying to join their conversation, however, so instead he thinks of that for a moment as he breathes, thinks of how well it turned out, then focuses on Leaf again and says, “Leaf makes me happy. I want-“

“Not so fast. Just focus on that a moment. And you can try putting it into your own words after, but first try the exact phrase I used.”

“Okay. What was it again?”

“‘Being around Leaf makes me happy.'”

“Right.” He takes another breath and turns his attention inward again. “Oh. There’s a new, uh, ‘felt-sense’ in my lower stomach. It’s… wiggly.”

“Was it there before, and you didn’t notice? Or is it actually new?”

He thinks back. “I think it showed up when you asked me to say the stuff out loud.”

“Understandable. Well done on noticing it. If you can, let your awareness take in both, and report any changes in either as you repeat the phrases.”

“Okay.” He takes a moment to let his awareness spread to fill his whole torso, glad he’s had so much practice pinpointing multiple sensations at once, then swallows and forces himself to say, “Being around Leaf makes me happy.” He pauses, evaluating, comparing… “The squirming got worse, for a moment. And the wings… flapped faster?”

“Okay. Next was ‘I want Leaf to care about me.'”

“I want Leaf to care about me.” He doesn’t really feel anything. “I want Leaf to care about me more… I like when Leaf shows she cares about me…” Still nothing. He shakes his head. “Feels the same.”

“That’s fine. ‘I want Leaf to respect me?'”

“I want Leaf to respect me. I want Leaf to respect me… also nothing. Or maybe… the feeling is fainter? I might just be losing focus, give me a second.” He takes a breath and focuses on being with Leaf again, pictures her smile, until he feels the flapping wings against his ribs. “I want Leaf to respect me. No. No change.”

“Try some variations. Whatever makes sense.”

“Alright. Um. I want Leaf to… respect me… to like me… to admire me…” He pauses. “I want Leaf to admire me. Yeah. There was another flutter at that, a stronger one.”

“Let’s invert it. What are you afraid of?”

The thought comes immediately, and Red swallows. “I’m afraid Leaf doesn’t admire me. That she judges me. That she’s disappointed in me.” He thinks of that morning in her room at the hospital, of the night before on the S.S. Anne, and has to take a deep breath, hand going to his chest to rub. “It hurts more. Like it’s pushing the air out of my lungs.”

“Okay. Maybe that’s enough for now. We can take a break if you’d like. But if you want to keep going… remember the last time she expressed that she does admire you, and see if that eases the pain.”

Red nods, eyes still closed, and concentrates on his visit, on her telling him she didn’t blame him. The pain fades a little, but… It’s not the same. He’s glad she cares about him and doesn’t blame him, but that’s not where the pain actually came from. He can think of times when she said something admiring or praised him, but there are other things, more serious things…

“Red?”

“Sorry, it’s… it helped a little, but there’s more.”

“Do you want to keep going?”

He almost says no, but he does want to better understand this feeling… “Yeah.”

“Then keep voicing hypotheses around whatever is confusing you, and see if anything resonates.”

“Okay. I want to… I’m worried Leaf doesn’t respect me… no… I’m worried Leaf doesn’t respect my beliefs?” He sighs, shifts on the couch. “I feel close, the wings are lighter and the pain is sharper.”

“How about the wiggling in your lower stomach?”

“Oh.” He concentrates a second. “Mostly gone. I think that was embarrassment… woops, sorry.”

He hears her smile. “You don’t have to apologize, and yes, that seems likely. So worrying she won’t respect your beliefs was closer?”

“Yeah, but it’s not quite it.”

“It can be hard to really understand how something feels, particularly something complex. You’ve made progress on this, and it was only meant to be practice. I’m happy to continue it if you want, but maybe it would help to try something else for now. That might help whenever we or you loop back to this.”

“Yeah. Alright. Should I open my eyes?”

“Yes, go ahead. Maybe get up and stretch a bit, let yourself relax.”

Red smiles at the idea that lying down with his eyes closed hasn’t been “relaxing,” but she’s right, he feels somewhat fatigued, a little like when he uses his powers too much. He opens his eyes slowly, and takes a deep breath as he sits up, rotating his shoulders and neck. “I get what you meant, now.” He puts a hand over his chest. “The idea that there’s something deeper to my emotions that I’m not consciously aware of, beliefs tied into them that the body is reacting to. It’s actually kind of fascinating.”

“I’m glad you think so, because we’re going to try Focusing on Aiko next.”

His smile fades. “Right. Partition up, or down?”

“You tell me.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, dreading the answer but knowing it makes sense. “Alright. Give me a minute.” He makes another circuit around the couch, stretching his arms across his chest one at a time, then brings pikachu out and lies back down, opening his arms and letting his pokemon leap onto his chest. “You’re getting a little big for this,” he says, and shifts the mouse’s weight closer to his stomach so he can take deep breaths.

Red strokes Pikachu’s fur as he curls up on his stomach, then closes his eyes and lets his breathing even out as he focuses on relaxing again. It’s harder this time, knowing that soon he’s going to be drowning in emptiness and sorrow.

“What if he can’t feel anything?” he asks, knowing he’s reaching for a reason not to do it but trying anyway. “He might be too overwhelmed.”

“Then we’ll try with the partition up. But I think you’ll be okay.”

Breathe in, breathe out. He concentrates on the warmth radiating from Pikachu through his stomach, and relaxes his body outwards from there until his attention is diffuse.

Then he brings his partition down, and it’s like his whole body gets submerged in chilly water, only Pikachu’s warmth lingering and keeping his attention in his body instead of on the thoughts that immediately rise up.

“Red? Is it done?”

He must have reacted in some way. Despite everything, he almost says no. Almost brings the partition up, intentionally for once, afraid of what he might find in this new technique. If his body is telling him something right now, it’s that he’s a cold and hollow being.

“Yes,” he says instead, knowing that if he doesn’t, his partitioned self would use it as an excuse to keep from trying things like this again. I keep saying I want to get to the bottom of this, to work on it. I would be a hypocrite if I backed out now… not to mention Partitioned Red is going to hold it over me. He makes an effort to inject some emotion into his voice. “Ready.”

“Okay. Think about that night, and point to where in your body you feel something.”

Red’s breathing becomes shallower as her words bring back mental images and feelings, tightens muscles along his whole body and sends fear burrowing up through his guts like a diglett. “I… everywhere. Back is tight. Neck is cold, hands are cold stomach is… ball of… of nerves… chest—”

“Breathe, Red. Focus on your lungs. Breathe in… and out… in… and out… in… and out, that’s it… in… and out…”

Red keeps focusing on his breathing to take his mind off the mental images of the dead and dying, the feeling of hopelessness and fear, the crushing fear when Leaf was nearly killed… Pikachu clearly picks up on his distress, and shifts to pad around on his torso until he reaches his collar, fur tickling Red as he nuzzles his neck and jaw. It helps him focus on Dr. Seward’s words.

“That’s it… Keep going. Remember the tools you’ve been using when we talk about that night, and use them whenever you need to. You can do this.”

Red nods, and starts cycling through the other coping skills she reminded him of. They’ve never called what he goes through when discussing that night PTSD, and he’s not sure if it’s because his symptoms aren’t strong enough or if Dr. Seward just doesn’t think it matters to label it, but by this point he has enough anchors to calm himself quickly: thinking of the civilians they failed to save makes him think of the civilians they succeeded in saving, which chains into the pokemon they saved, which chains into the feel of Leaf hugging him in the rain. This is interrupted briefly by the sight of Leaf being batted away by the nidoqueen’s tail again, but he quickly replaces that image with the latest one of her at the ranch, alive and healthy, and he adds a new memory to the end of the chain: Leaf telling him that she doesn’t blame him.

“Okay,” he murmurs after his body feels at least somewhat relaxed again, and he shifts Pikachu back toward his stomach, where he’ll be somewhat less distracting. “I’m ready to… try again.”

“Alright. Let’s be more specific… just think about Aiko herself, and try to only focus on the two most powerful felt-senses. Just point to where your feelings are most noticeable.”

He nods, and thinks of Aiko, picturing her face. The first sensation is immediate, and he points to his chest. “Weight. Heavy.” His finger rises to his head. “Swirl.”

“Swirl?”

“Don’t know… like… a swirling mess, noise, confusion. Hard to think.”

“Okay. So there’s a heavy weight on your chest—”

“In.”

In your chest, and a swirling in your head. Making it hard to think, hard to breathe?” Red nods. “Alright, then. I know it’s unpleasant, but let’s sit with those feelings for a minute, and see if you notice anything else about them. You’re doing great, Red.”

Red keeps breathing, and keeps thinking of Aiko. The day they met, their conversations about her joining them, her laughter during one of Red and Blue’s arguments (extra stabbing-twist in the stomach, there then gone), her beaming pride when her eevee beat Red’s nidoran… the look on her face that night…

Tears prickle at his eyes, and he fights to stay present with the feelings in his chest and skull. It’s easier to picture them, now. A plate of metal over his ribcage, crushing his lungs. A swirling blackness between his ears, a microcosm of Zapdos’s storm that a part of him is forever stuck in. “The swirl is a storm,” he says, voice thick. “The storm. Rain. Wind. Lightning. Darkness.”

“I see. So, are these feelings on your side, or against you?”

“How could they… against me. They hurt. They’re…” His throat tightens, and he squeezes his eyes even more tightly shut. “I want them to go away. I’m just like him, I’m weak, I don’t want to think about them, I just want them gone…”

“Easy… stay with me, Red. Breathe. In… Focus on the air in your lungs… out. Good, again… and out. It’s completely understandable that you want these feelings to go away. But remember, they’re something your body is trying to tell you about yourself, that’s already true. That doesn’t mean they’re right, only that until you understand what they really are, what they really mean, there may always be some piece of the puzzle missing.”

Red keeps breathing, and clutches at Pikachu, who nuzzles his fingers. A distant part of him worries that he’s hurting his pokemon, which leads to him worrying about whether the conditioning would suppress any reaction if he is, and he relaxes his grip, forces himself to go back to stroking. “I think they’re against me,” Red says, voice flat, but calmer this time.

“Alright. Let’s see if we can focus on the chest one first. Do you remember what to do?”

He nods, shifts, clears his throat, then whispers, “I feel sad about Aiko dying.” The pain in his chest intensifies, and he makes a sound of discomfort as he shifts on the couch.

“I’m sorry, I’m guessing that made it worse. What else?”

Red knows what else. He knows he has to say it, despite his worries about anchoring. He takes a breath, then just blurts it out: “I feel guilty.”

The room is quiet a moment, and Red’s brow furrows. He focuses on Aiko, on the feelings inside him, and says it again, more slowly. “I feel guilty about Aiko… uh… I feel guilty about not stopping Aiko?”

“Red? Found something?”

“Nothing’s changing.”

“Well, maybe you don’t feel particularly guilty then. Didn’t you say that to me, on your first visit back?”

Red opens his eyes to look at her, letting the felt-senses fade from his awareness. They’re still there, though; now that he’s noticed them, put words to describing how they feel, it’s easier to notice them as distinct feelings. “I’ve been avoiding thinking of it as guilt because… I know it’s not evidence for whether I should feel guilty.”

“Right, I remember now. Dealing with it as guilt might be a mistake, and bias your views on what you chose. But from what you’re saying now, it seems like you don’t actually feel any.”

Red blinks at her. “But… I have to, don’t I?”

Dr. Seward shrugs. “Do you?”

Red slowly leans his head back, thinking of how he feels. He can’t actually be free of guilt, can he? Wait, there it is… no, that’s guilt about not feeling guilt…

He makes a sound of frustration and shifts, unpleasant emotions roiling in him. “I don’t know, it’s hard to think straight about it.”

“Well of course. That’s partly why we tried this in the first place. Would you like to continue? Maybe identifying what those feelings really are will help clarify things.”

Red rubs his face, feeling exhausted already. He just wants to go home and curl up and take a nap… but if he does, the partition will be back up when he wakes, and he’s not sure if Future Red would try this again. He might just claim victory at the lack of guilt and use that as an excuse to keep not thinking about things, no matter what he says otherwise. “Yeah,” he sighs, and closes his eyes. “I’ll try…”

Again he sinks into his body’s senses, feeling a note of annoyance at having to do it all yet again, which he doesn’t have to voice to imagine Dr. Seward’s reminder that therapy is work, and not always pleasant work. She would tell him to take a break if he’s feeling overwhelmed, but he’s not, really, just impatient, despite the fact that he reaches a mindful state and focuses on his felt-senses even faster than last time.

“Ready. What do I do?”

“Try again. Focus on the plate of metal in your chest, find things that resonate with it or change it.”

“Okay. I feel sad about Aiko’s dad…” The feeling gets worse. No surprise there. “I feel… I wish I had known her better.” Again, the metal gets heavier. “I wish I could have saved her…” Nothing. Or almost nothing, there was something wrong with the words themselves as he said it, and now he feels tears prickling at his eyes as the more correct words come to mind. “I… regret not being able to… to stop her—oh!” One hand moves to the spot just below his ribs, suddenly distracted from the unpleasantness.

“Red?”

“Sorry,” he gasps, prodding with his fingers as he breathes deep. “The metal plate is… it moved?”

“Moved how?”

“Not moved, actually, it… uh… wait, it’s gone… back to normal, I mean.”

“Say it again.”

“Right. Give me a minute…” He focuses on the heavy weight in his chest, and thinks of that moment where she ran away, when she literally slipped from his fingers… he could have tackled her, if he had held her for just a few minutes she’d be alive…

Red wipes his eyes distractedly, feeling it more clearly this time. “The metal plate… melted. I didn’t have to say it out loud, just thinking about how I could have saved her… it became a… a hot ball in my stomach and a cold… ” He focuses on the sensation. “Cold gaps between my ribs.”

“That sounds painful?”

“Not… as much,” Red admits.

“Alright. Let’s sit with these for a moment, then say things about the new felt-senses?”

Red takes a few deep breaths, drawing his attention back to the distinct feelings in his stomach and chest and head as best he can through the distraction they each cause.

“Any new details or textures?” He shakes his head. “Then let’s try focusing on just the stomach sensation first, the hot, heavy ball. Is it still there?”

“…Yeah.”

“Try testing more words against it, see if something fits.”

Red nods and considers his options a moment. What’s close to guilt? “I feel… shame. About not trying to save Aiko.” Nothing. “I feel inadequate… I feel weak…”

“Maybe it’s time to branch out again. Try thinking about something related to Aiko, something connected to your strongest emotions about her, without quite being her.”

What immediately comes to mind by the end of her second sentence is Blue, and the ball in his stomach becomes heavier and hotter. “Blue,” he says, and now it’s easier to predict which words match the feeling. “I feel angry at Blue. The ball is hotter, it’s like… dripping metal in my stomach…”

“Okay. Why are you angry at Blue?”

“I’m angry at Blue for making her feel like she needed to prove something.” The ball starts dripping more, filling his whole stomach with molten iron. “I’m angry at Blue for judging what I did while he wasn’t there, didn’t see what actually happened. I’m angry at Blue for blaming me instead of…” He wipes at his eyes, sniffing back a sob. “Instead of c-comforting me…”

Dr. Seward shifts the coffee table with the tissues closer to him with her foot, and he reaches out blindly to take some, wiping at his face. “That sounds very painful,” she says, voice light as a feather.

“Y-yeah…”

“How does the ball feel now?”

“It’s gone. Melted into a pool.”

“Mm. Is that better?”

“…yeah.”

“Okay. That’s what’s called a ‘shift,’ a change in your understanding of what your body is telling you about your feelings that results in a change in what your body feels. It can take some time to process that new signal, to live with it and see how it feels, so let’s leave it be, for now, and go to the cold sensation you described between your ribs. I’m curious to know if that seems easier to put words to, now?”

Red wipes his eyes once more and swallows, trying to concentrate… “Yeah, I… think so. It’s f… I mean… I feel afraid… that he’s right…” His eyes clench tighter, and he breathes out. “It’s worse now. Like bits of ice are stabbing my lungs.”

“I see.” Dr. Seward is quiet a moment. “This is probably a good time to point out that these are a lot of painful sensations that you’re experiencing, painful emotions to process, and I want to acknowledge how hard it is to experience them the way you have. I want to also check and see how you’re doing, if you want to take a break or even stop for the day.”

“No.” The word comes out before he really thinks about it. It is painful, and exhausting but now he feels close to something, something like the shift in his stomach. And he wants to know. It’s something about himself that he can’t see, and he wants to see it, wants to see every part of him, shine a light in every corner of the dark machinery that grinds and ticks and spins under the surface to make him the way he is. “Let’s keep going.”

“Very well. So you’re worried he’s right, but also don’t feel guilty. It makes me wonder what you worry he’s right about, specifically?”

Red takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain to focus on the cold ice instead. “I’m afraid he’s right about me being a coward…” Nothing. “I’m afraid he’s right about… me not caring enough about Aiko.” Also nothing… no, there was a shift, but he can’t tell how… “There was something there.” Red swallows and takes another breath. “I’m afraid Blue is right that I don’t care about anyone more than myself.” Nothing again. “I’m afraid… Blue is right about me not caring about my friends…” Still nothing. Maybe he imagined the shift…

“It looks like you’re getting a little frustrated?”

“A little. It’s there, I just can’t get it to respond…”

Dr. Seward laughs. “It’s very like you, to learn about this just thirty minutes ago and already expect to be an expert at it. But it can take time to tease the right words out, and find something that resonates with felt-senses.”

Red frowns, but sighs and nods. “So what do I do?”

“Let’s table it, if that’s alright with you, and go back to a previous question now that we have more of an understanding of what these felt-senses might mean. The hot, heavy ball in your stomach which melted into a pool of liquid metal… now that you know it represents your anger at Blue, does it feel like it’s on your side, or still against you?”

Red forgot that question, and now that he reconsiders it the answer seems obvious. “On my side. It’s a protective anger.”

“It seems that way, yes. I’d like you to try thanking it.”

“…thanking the feeling?”

“Yes. And reassuring it. If it helps to combine this exercise with Internal Family Systems, imagine there’s an Angry Red who has been trying to get your attention this whole time because he’s seeing something unfair and wants to protect you from it.”

It happens effortlessly as she speaks: Angry Red is wearing his journey outfit, jeans and jacket and hat, and has his arms crossed, foot tapping in the empty space of Red’s inner world.

He felt another shift, too, as she spoke, a ripple in the liquid metal pool, and the image of Angry Red clarifies something. “I think he’s angry at me too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A little. Like… angry that I’m letting myself get so affected by what Blue said.”

“And does that resonate with you? The whole you?”

Red lets out a slow breath. “Yeah. It does.”

“Whenever you’re ready then.”

Red swallows and shifts, making Pikachu flick his stomach with his tail. Red gives him a scratch along his scar, then moves his hand from his fur to his lower stomach, above the internal pool. “I… don’t know what to say?”

“Sure you do.” He can hear the small smile in her voice. “You’ve been talking to yourself for years.”

Red takes a breath, nods, and says, “Hey, Angry Red. Thanks for… uh. Being angry. About the Blue thing-“

“More specific?”

“Right, sorry. Angry Red… thank you for being on my side, and for caring that Blue was unfair, and helping me notice that.”

“Good. Now reassure it, him, that you get what he wants you to do, and you’ll do your best.”

“Okay…” He directs his attention to Angry Red, who has stopped tapping his foot. “I hear you. I’ll do my best to not let it affect me, and to make sure Blue knows that what he did wasn’t right, if the opportunity comes up. Oh.” Red shifts. “He didn’t like that part.”

“Wants you to be more proactive about it?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Makes sense. He wants the injustice corrected. How do you feel about it?”

He doesn’t want to. He really doesn’t want to. The thought of talking to Blue at all, let alone about this, makes him instinctively flinch, his stomach burn, his ribs ache with cold.

But… He’s right. I am angry about it, and I should talk to him about it, even if it’s the last time I do.

“…I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but I’ll work on it. And,” he adds with sudden inspiration, “I know you’ll remind me, and keep me from letting his words affect me, in the meantime. I’m glad you’re here, to do that. Thank you.” They aren’t just words into empty air, by the end: Angry Red seems as real to him as Future Red, and as he recognizes the truth of what he’s saying, the molten pool in his stomach slowly starts to fade, until…

Red opens his eyes, voice full of wonder as he rubs his stomach. “It’s… gone. Not entirely but I can barely feel it, unless I concentrate really hard.”

“Excellent work, Red.” Dr. Seward is smiling wide, voice full of pride that makes him feel warm. He suddenly realizes he feels different in more than one way, and quickly checks his partition.

It’s still down. But… the world doesn’t seem as overwhelming and hopeless as it did before minutes ago.

“I’d like you to practice this in the coming week,” Dr. Seward goes on, writing some notes. “There are a lot of other feelings you might want to explore, and insights into even unrelated ones can be helpful in unexpected ways. But if you want to tackle some new felt-senses, like the storm in your head, you can, or we can wait until you’re here again. Either works.”

“Alright.” Red slowly sits up, holding onto Pikachu so that he’s still in his lap by the time he’s upright.

“There are a few books you might find useful on it… the shortest is just called ‘Focusing,’ by Gendlin himself.” She finishes writing them on a sheet of her notepad and tears it off to hand to him. “If you do try it, take lots of notes.”

“I will.” He folds the paper and slips it into his pocket, still unused to how… different he feels. He can still feel the swirling confusion around his thoughts, the pain in his chest, heaviness in his limbs, and more… but he’s got something new, along with it all, and he doesn’t need Focusing to recognize it.

Hope.

“Thank you, Doctor.” He bows. “It was strange, but I’m glad you shared it with me.”

She smiles. “It’s my pleasure, Red. I had a feeling you’d take to it, and there are few more satisfying feelings in this job than seeing a client take a new model or toy with eager hands, and run with it. I think it’ll take you far.”


When Sabrina charged them with their task and left the city, she said she would be gone for a few days, “possibly more than a week.” That left things rather open ended, and so after two weeks without her return, there was a low level of worry among the other students, unstated but more than noticeable for a group of psychics. After a month, they called a meeting with Saffron’s Second and Third, who admitted that they’ve had occasional messages from their Leader and thus knew she was still alive, but still had no idea when she would return.

By Red’s most recent visit to Aiko’s ranch (he still thinks of it as hers, rather than her father’s or even Leaf’s) the wider world took notice. Luckily no new wild pokemon incident have hit the city or its surrounding routes, but a Gym without its Leader can’t grant badges. And so a steady queue of people who qualified to challenge Sabrina simply continued to grow, while others took the mentions of her absence as good reason to head elsewhere first. It helped that Cerulean, Celadon, and Vermilion were so nearby, so that trainers on their journeys had such an abundance of alternative choices.

Still, the practical effect is that the gym becomes steadily emptier week by week, until Red barely sees anyone as he enters the cafeteria on the day after he learns Focusing. And now it’s not his or Rei’s fault, since their experiment ended long ago.

Tetsuo was right in predicting that non-psychic, non-dark people in the cafeteria would be rare that first week, and if not rare, mostly expressing curiosity or fear or challenge, but they still managed to get some variety during their experiment, including people so caught up in their thoughts or conversation that they didn’t even notice the signs. A game quickly developed between Red and Rei in predicting who fell into what group as they came in.

There were a few unusual cases; one trainer approached them to see if they could detect the spirit haunting her. Rei agreed to check, and reported finding nothing, which seemed to just upset her until Red had a flash of inspiration and asked for her number, promising to pass it along to someone who specializes in such things and fairly confident that Jason would be happy to reach out. Another trainer kept his gaze on Rei as soon as he walked in, and she quickly warned Red not to merge with him, a hint of pink in her cheeks. Red was tempted, but the fact that a psychic with nearly a decade of experience over him said not to do something ultimately proved enough to keep him from doing it. He turned the event into a conversation starter with Past Red about their general risk aversion, and how they felt about it, which turned out to be a rich vein for debate (not all of it civil) that continues off and on to the present.

Among the experiment’s other benefits, Red got better at discerning Rei’s emotions through her mimicked mental states, until her mimicry improved at an even faster rate. Regardless of its fidelity however, unlike Red she was never able to retain more than a few by memory at a time, and each one became less “real” when she adopted a new one (or maybe just as more time passed from her original exposure to them). By the time the experiment ended and they reported that branch of investigation a failure to the others, he noted clear improvements in getting faster and more efficient at mimicking and maintaining a different mental state, and could hold onto them for longer before he started to feel depression color his mood.

Unfortunately, neither of them got any better at concealing the inner awareness (meta knowledge?) of being deceitful. Even when asked questions as simple as the flavor of ice cream they tasted while merging with someone else eating ice cream, there was sincerity, but always side-by-side with anticipated failure and tricking self and tricking others… One of his biggest takeaways from the experiment was how insufficient language could be to describe internal states, there being so few words for experiencing multiple emotional states at once. As if the range of emotions are discrete integers, rather than a spectrum along multiple axes, some of which intercross and form all sorts of new patterns…

“Morning, Red,” Jason says, regrounding Red in the present as he sits at the medium’s table with his tray of food.

“Morning Jason, Satori.”

Satori nods to him, feeding her torracat with one hand as the other holds an ice cream cone to lips as pink as her hair. Normally a pokemon standing on the table probably wouldn’t be allowed, even from one of Sabrina’s students, but with the place as empty as it is no one seems inclined to talk to her about it.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Red says to Satori. “I know torracat’s evolution is Fire/Dark, and with how much time you spend linked with your pokemon I was wondering—”

“Why no everstone to keep it from evolving?” Satori guesses. “My half-sister, Koishi, is Dark. I’m trying to learn how to pierce the veil between us.”

Red blinks. “You’re trying to… learn how to interact with Dark minds?” He grins. “You don’t dream small.”

“It isn’t ambition, but loneliness,” Satori says between licks of ice cream.

Red withholds the further praise he was about to add, which now feels like it might be insensitive. But Rei isn’t the only of his fellow students he’s made some strides in getting to know over the past few weeks, so he just nods and starts eating his vegetable burrito. “So you’re hoping your familiarity with him will help once he evolves. I’m sure it’s not your only plan, though?”

“Correct. I’ve been practicing connecting with other dark pokemon.”

“Huh. How do you check for progress meanwhile?”

“I see Koishi on weekends, and have a list of tests to check for incremental changes.” She turns her ice cream and takes another lick. “I can share it with you, if you’re curious.”

Red smiles. “That would be awesome, thanks!”

“It’s no trouble.” She scoops up another handful of pokeblocks for her torracat to eat from her hand. “How is Past Red?”

“Better, actually.” She and Rowan are the only people besides Dr. Seward that refer to his unpartitioned self as a separate individual. “I saw my therapist yesterday, and learned a new technique that actually helped a little, with what we’ve been going through.”

“Your aura is different, then,” Jason says, frowning slightly. “I thought I was imagining it.”

“Oh, hang on.” Past Red, this is just for Jason and maybe for us to learn something, please put the partition back up soon. Red brings the partition down…

…and feels his features settle, his posture shift, his appetite wane. The cafeteria fades to a blur of unimportance past their table, his attention drawn away by feelings of pain and sadness and…

…that’s it.

Fascinating,” Jason says, watching Red with wide eyes. “It’s minor, but your emanations are distinctly more harmonious than the last time I sensed you without your partition.”

“Huh.” I’m… not sure how I feel about this.

Could probably try Focusing on it, Future Red chimes in.

That’s going to get annoying quick. But it is strange to get independent verification that something has changed in his internal state. It feels too “neat.” Like doing some exercise and getting a letter the next day informing you of how much muscle mass you gained.

But after another moment’s consideration he knows that feeling is silly. If he has a fever and takes medicine for it, the fever goes down, and he can measure that. The only reason it feels strange to have his emotional health confirmed by an outside source is that he’s not used to it… not just in general life, but specifically from therapy when he was younger. He remembers noticing a trend of positive changes after looking back at who he was weeks later, especially when they reviewed his progress during sessions. Having near-instant gratification from mental health treatment feels like it goes against what it’s “supposed” to be, a long, complicated process with ups and downs…

Maybe he’s being stubborn, and he should just accept that sometimes a new intervention really can have immediate, positive effects…

…or maybe he’s being overly optimistic, and forgetting that feeling better a day after therapy doesn’t mean he will two days after, that by next week he won’t regress again…

“Hm.” Jason plays with his prayer beads, and Red remembers where he is, raising his shield. Or at least attempting to, it’s always harder for him than Future Red. “As fascinating as it is experiencing your mood shifts, I feel compelled to ask if you’re alright?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just…” Red shakes his head, then sighs and lets his partition come back up. His next breath seems to fill his chest more than the one before, and he smiles at Jason to assure him he’s fine as he takes a bite of his burrito. “Sho, whatsh the plan today?” He swallows. “Message said we’re doing something new?”

“We’ve found a gym member we’d like to bring into the experiment. He’s a fairly strong psychic with experience merging with his kadabra and starmie for battles… and has recently made a lot of progress merging with his exeggcute.”

Red perks up. Satori and Jason made progress with doduo during their weeks of working on multiple-mind merger, but it eventually hit a dead end. Even when Satori inhabited both minds at once, she became able to hold two different views together without any apparent dissonance to Jason and Red’s probes. Making contradicting statements isn’t quite lying, but it’s closer than any other attempt they’ve made so far… But even that was only for certain topics, such as which direction she was looking or other physical effects of merging with two different minds at once.

Exeggcute are the next logical step, a multi-mind pokemon that also happens to be psychic. Tests have shown that each seed can learn what one-another knows at the speed of psychic thought, but that they don’t all simultaneously know the same things. If some pokemon might be the key to learning how to keep knowledge truly partitioned within the same mind, Red thinks it’s them. Two weeks ago he asked Satori and Jason if they felt up for a group attempt at merger, and by the end of the discussion Jason said he would look for promising candidates to invite into the experiment.

“That’s great! What’s his name?”

“He’s coming in now.” Satori says, and Red turns to see a young man, maybe mid-twenties, entering the cafeteria and heading straight for them after a quick glance around. “Red, meet Alex Cyr. Alex, Red Verres.

“Call me Cyr,” the trainer says, shaking Red’s hand as he sits beside him. “Heard a lot about you, online. It’s a pleasure.”

Red smiles. “Then you have the advantage, and I get to ask you to tell me more about you.”

“Ha! Fair enough. Let’s see, four badge trainer, ten year psychic, three year law student—”

“Law student?” Red asks, surprised. “Don’t think I ever met a psychic law student. Or a trainer who went into law… what made that happen? And how do you find the time?”

Cyr grins. “Well, my pokemon training has been on a slow pace lately, which helps. With Sabrina being out of town, I only come to the gym a couple times a week while I focus on my studies.”

“And the why?”

He shrugs. “Became a bit fascinated by interregional government affairs since I came to Kanto, what with the whole Indigo League thing you’ve got going here. Got me wondering how much help a psychic might be in helping resolve conflicts and mediate things at the governmental level.”

“Huh. Cool.” Red smiles. “Okay, we’re probably closer to even footing now. Thanks for joining us on this.”

“Happy to be here, really. It’s just the kind of experimental stuff I was hoping to find at Sabrina’s gym…” His eyes widen as he trails off, and Red follows his gaze. “Who is that?”

“Rei’s joining us too?” Red asks, surprised, and turns to her as she reaches the table. “Thought you had ‘other projects’ to fill your time?”

“I do,” the blonde says, not sitting. “But I know Tatsumaki wouldn’t come, and Rowan is still stubbornly doing his own thing, so I can’t risk getting lumped together with them as uncooperative. Besides, an experiment like this needs the best of the best.”

Red matches her wry smile. “Well, it’s good to have you.” Despite their new familiarity, they still feel much more like respected colleagues than friends. Part of that was her general continued aloofness and lingering wariness of his partition, but another part was his own wariness of the plans she revealed to try to learn Sabrina’ secrets.

It only came up once or twice, and Red has mostly gotten over his worry about his knowledge of it being revealed, as he found his suspicion of Rei is actually far more dominant than any guilt toward Sabrina, and with all the practice he’s had redirecting his thoughts is far more likely to show if he needs it to.

“Hey,” Cyr says, and stands as he holds his hand out to Rei. “Nice to meet you…”

Red turns back to his burrito as they introduce themselves, knowing that look by now. Rei got a lot of admirers approaching the table they’d set up at during the experiment, and he never saw her engage with any of them beyond simple politeness. “So does this mean the last person is…”

“Daniel,” Jason confirms. “Is that okay?”

Red shrugs, smothering his sigh. “I’ll deal.” While he’s gotten closer to the present half of Sabrina’s students, he hasn’t made much progress with the other half, and Daniel remains as smugly arrogant as ever. Red finishes his food by the time the older boy enters, and Jason gets to his feet and does one last introduction.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s get started,” Rei says, smoothly taking charge of the proceedings in a way Red might have resented a month ago. Everyone nods, and they move as a group toward the elevators. Empty as the gym is, the six of them stand out in a number of ways, and Red is aware of how everyone they pass turn to stare.

He takes his mind off the stares by debating whether he should try to talk to Daniel about why he’s here. On the one hand, it would be the friendly thing to do. On the other, it might cause some disharmony right before they plan to work together.

“Surprised you came to this,” Red finally comments, deciding that he’s going to be distracted if he doesn’t bring it up.

His fellow psychic snorts, looking around the gym. “I don’t think it’ll amount to anything, but the sooner it’s tried the sooner we can move on to other things.”

Well, that settles that. Red wants to ask if that means he’ll give it his best shot, but decides that might come off as less than friendly. If only one of the others had agreed to come… but Rowan could be remote in his own way, and Tatsumaki would only care a little more than Daniel.

They reach the elevator, which takes them just a couple floors down before the doors open at the first level of training rooms, and they find the Gym Second waiting.

“Hello, everyone,” Tetsuo says, gaze jumping between them. “I thought I’d come observe your experiment, if that’s alright.”

Everyone seems taken aback except for Rei, who turns to them. “I figured it would be good to have someone else with us, who wouldn’t be participating, in case something goes wrong.”

“Wrong?” Daniel asks. “You think there’s something unsafe about this?”

“Maybe not in the traditional sense,” Tetsuo says. “But mergers with exeggcute are still largely uncharted territory. Better safe than sorry… and the last experiment you guys ran here cost the gym some money, so I want to be sure I can attest to exactly what’s going on.”

Red nods and smiles. “Makes sense to me.” He’s happy to have another experienced trainer and psychic in the room, regardless of the reason. Future Red feels nervous that the experiment might get aborted early, but the rest of him recognizes that if it is, it would probably be for good reason.

Cyr leads them to a private training room, then takes a pokeball out and summons his exeggcute into the middle of the bare floor.

They appear gathered in a small pile, each of the six round bodies touching. Red remembers reading about how they were the hardest pokemon to be coded for balls, since technically they’re six distinct bodies. The saving grace was that, individually, none have much of a mind to speak of, their mental presence nearly non-existent. Only once a cluster of six has psychically linked do they show pokemon level intelligence, and it’s stranger than even other pokemon with multiple heads, like dugtrio or magneton. Instead exeggcute psychically operate as one mind.

“My first psychic teacher told me that merging with a pokemon is more difficult the more different their physiology,” Red says as the group goes to sit by each of the individual seeds, which arranged themselves in a close-knit hexagon after what was likely a mental command from Cyr.

“Mostly true,” Satori says. “But complexity matters as well, and there are no pokemon more physically simple than an individual exeggcute seed. It also helps to have a guide.” She adjusts her hairband, then looks at Cyr expectantly.

“Right.” The young man shifts to sit more comfortably, face thoughtful. “So, physically, you want to prepare yourself to feel their smallness, and their roundness, and their rigidity. They have only five senses: touch, sight, taste, vestibular, and psychic. The first thing you will likely notice is their outer shell, which is where nearly all their nerves are. Imagine yourself as just your head, with your stomach taking up half the space of your brain, only able to move by muscle contractions of your face, which is now spread around your whole head. Let yourself feel that discomfort and distinct lack of control or presence. The world is large and confusing, each nutrient difficult to acquire, and predators are everywhere. Only in numbers are you safe, and only in numbers can you readily acquire food, so seeking and finding others of your kind is a priority above every other impulse. When alone, it might be the only impulse.”

Satori speaks with her usual assertive, if distant, tone, and everyone’s attention shifts to her. “We will keep them close enough that they have enough intelligence to not be overwhelmed by that impulse, and instead each will barely be an individual at all, but rather have an assigned function, all working toward maximizing different goals.”

Cyr nods. “Those goals generally are food acquisition, threat monitoring, mobility coordination, memory, future planning, and flux.”

“Flux?” Jason asks.

“Ah, um, it changes a lot, between small, miscellaneous tasks. It’s a little hard to describe… kind of a mix of processor and RAM, if that analogy works for you?” Jason shakes his head. “Hmm, probably won’t matter unless that one’s yours, and then you might experience it for yourself.”

“Are certain seeds more suited at one task than another?” Rei asks, looking down at hers.

“IIII’m actuallyyy… not sure? They all shift to combat mode when in a fight, but…” Cyr sees Red’s mouth opening and closing like a fish as he tries to find a spot to jump in without being rude. “Do you know?”

“Their neurology is incredibly malleable,” Red says with the relief of being able to clarify something for someone. “They each adapt as needed: when they’re in combat, all the seeds shift to focus on survival in various ways, both combat and escape, though pokeball conditioning mostly eliminates that, but even outside of it, they definitely alter their focus if one of them gets separated or finds a new cluster. That said, there might be natural affinity toward particular tasks; a lot of exeggcute breeding is about testing for that, so that a cluster can be made up of seeds that are each perfectly attuned to their task.”

“Yep, sounds about right,” Cyr says. “Any questions? Everyone ready to give this a try? Great.” He tosses the exeggcute’s pokeball to Tetsuo, who’s sitting by the door. “Then here we go…”

He closes his eyes, and Red does the same as he lets his psychic senses stretch out. The other five minds around him are way more distinct than the exeggcute stretched out between them, and it’s even harder to focus on the specific node that’s his seed in front of him. It’s slippery, in the sense that his focus keeps getting distracted toward the wider, stretched out brain that the whole exeggcute shares.

He can sense the thoughts, the sensations, as they bounce and reverb and echo from seed to seed, brain to brain. He drags his attention to the single node in front of him, trying to block out the web connecting it elsewhere, the stream of thoughts that keep pulling him into a chaotic mix of minds. He just has to keep bringing his attention back to the seed, picking up new things little by little… the feel of its round body, simultaneously claustrophobic and comfortingly simple… the bemused neutrality of its emotional landscape as it sits motionless, surrounded by people/seeds who are attempting a double merger (impossible, paradox, absurd)… the thoughts aren’t remotely human, aren’t really thoughts, but just a fundamental confusion and lack of prior experience or understanding to draw upon to act on what’s occurring. If he concentrates a little more, he can even understand where that baffled silence is coming from… which seed keeps getting pinged and returning static, causing the seed/himself to keep looping… and looping… and looping… Red needs to try to take in more of the network, but every time he tries the echoed impulses of the other seeds feel like they drown out his own thoughts, and he can only barely sense the other minds connected—

“Ugh,” Daniel says, jolting Red out of his merger and making him look at the blond. Daniel has been quiet since they entered the training room, but now he’s shaking his head. “This is pointless.”

“It’s not pointless,” Red says, irritated by his concentration being broken. He checks the time and is surprised to see half an hour has passed. It felt like five minutes, tops. “I was getting somewhere.” He looks around at the others to see them nodding.

Daniel looks around at them with clear annoyance. “I didn’t say I couldn’t merge, but they’re just… empty. What’s supposed to happen here, exactly?”

“We’re not exactly sure,” Jason says. “But it will probably take more than a little effort to do a true merge with them, and that’s when we’ll experience a little more of what it’s really like to have a multifaceted mind.”

“I have an idea,” Rei says, and turns to the gym’s Second. “Tetsuo, could you take Daniel’s spot, while he stands by for safety?”

Tetsuo looks surprised, but shrugs after a moment. “Why not.” He goes over to Daniel, who looks like he’s trying to think of an argument, then seems to realize he’s getting an out and just takes the empty pokeball, leaning against the wall as the Second takes his spot.

Before long they’re all merging again, and Red is starting to get desires from his seed. Sunlight. Soil. Moisture. He thinks his is the one in charge of finding sustenance for the cluster, but there’s none of that stuff here, and little by little he notices a change happening as the impulses shift toward something else. He’s curious what, but it feels like it’s beyond the scope of his seed, in another node, being fed by it. He tries to follow it and gets lost in the echoing empty noise again, and again, and again, before retreating and trying to sink deeper into the merge. He starts to share its eyesight, which is fairly poor, seeing the shape of himself sitting beside it, seeing the shape of the others as the seed turns… he wants to—

COOKIES

the fuck?—

It’s all he has time to think, more sentiment than words, and then his mind is full of images and tastes and smells of cookies, not just those he automatically recognizes as his memories and concepts, but others too, five others to be exact, each a myriad of colors and shapes and textures and tastes, some similar, some unique—

The unmistakable sound of a pokemon being withdrawn, and the link is abruptly gone. Red opens his eyes to see the others look around in bewilderment. It takes a moment for him to register where he is (not cookies), who he is (not cookies) and then he turns to see Daniel standing with the pokeball outstretched, a puzzled, even concerned look on his face.

“Are you all, uh, alright?”

“What the… hell was that?” Cyr says, rubbing his lips, then blinking hard.

“Everyone okay? Sound off,” Tetsuo says, clearly recovering from his own experience.

“I’m fine,” Jason says, spinning his spirit beads.

“Fine,” Satori says. “Hungry for cookies.”

The group chuckles slightly, except for Rei and Tetsuo. “In an unnatural way?” Rei asks.

“No, no. I’m not obsessed or anything.”

“Good. I’m also fine,” Rei says. Red nods, and Cyr flashes a thumbs up. Rei seems to relax a little, then looks around. “So… best guesses for what happened?”

“What actually happened, first of all?” Daniel asks.

The group looks at each other, then Jason speaks up. “I suddenly got inundated with thoughts of cookies. Every sense and memory just felt overloaded with it.”

The others are nodding, and Red turns to Daniel. “Why did you withdraw the exeggcute?” He’s glad his tone is curious, not accusatory.

“You all went stiff, at the same time. More still than usual. A few of you started… chewing at nothing.” Daniel lets out a breath. “It was a bit freaky.”

“I bet,” Tetsuo mutters. “You did the right thing.”

Red nods, and the others join in to thank him. Daniel seems unsure what to do with the praise, and just shrugs.

“So, do we try again?” Rei asks.

“Not until we know what happened,” Tetsuo says, voice firm. “I’ve never heard of anything like it, and—”

“I have an idea,” Red says. “Um. I think someone managed to actually fully merge with the whole exeggcute cluster. I was trying, over and over, and kept falling short. Whoever did it must have been thinking of cookies at the time, and… that’s what propagated to all the other seeds.”

There’s silence at this, and Satori slowly nods, while Rei looks blankly curious. “Did anyone feel like they managed it?” she asks.

Everyone is silent. “We might be able to tell who it originated from, by thinking over what we thought or felt first more carefully,” Tetsuo says.

“Mind if I check if my exeggcute is okay?” Cyr asks, hand up for his ball, and Daniel floats the ball to him mentally. “Thanks.”

“Shields up, everyone,” Tetsuo says, and a moment later Cyr looks around, gets nods from them, and summons his pokemon again.

The exeggcute seems totally fine and normal, still clustered together in a hexagon. “Doing a quick check,” Cyr says, and a few seconds later he nods, smiling. “It’s fine.”

“Now what?” Satori asks, arms around her knees as she looks at the exeggcute contemplatively. “I’d like to do it again. It was novel.”

“There’s a lot to consider,” Jason says. “And before we try again, we may also want to check us all to ensure we don’t have any lasting desire for cookies.” He’s smiling slightly, but he also seems serious.

“I second that,” Tetsuo says, and gets to his feet. “Let’s debrief at the clinic, and ensure everyone is checked over. I’ll have to revise the safety evaluation of this experiment and check with our ethics team, but maybe by tomorrow we can try again, if everything is as fine as it seems.”

Red is disappointed, but gets up with everyone else, still playing over the experience in his memory (like an echoing thought, out and back, bouncing, searching… okay, time to stop evoking that particular comparison). What confuses him the most is how someone could be unaware of being the one that thought of cookies first. He even looks at Daniel, a suspicion blooming in his mind. Would the blond sabotage an experiment just because he wasn’t part of it anymore? He does seem in good spirits, now that everyone is okay…

“Good thing it was cookies that someone thought of,” Daniel says with a sly smile that only grows Red’s suspicion. “There are more embarrassing and sensitive thoughts that would have been strange for everyone to share from everyone else…”

“Well great,” Cyr says, as they reach the elevator and he presses the floor where the medical wing is located. “Now that you’ve said that, it’s almost certainly going to be something like that next time…”

Red’s next breath is steady. He holds it a moment longer than he should, then lets it out slowly.

He doesn’t look at Rei.

He doesn’t look at Tetsuo.

He keeps his eyes forward, barely hearing the sarcastic reply by Daniel or the murmurs between Satori and Jason, still feeling Daniel and Cyr’s words like a punch to the gut as his body advises him in no uncertain terms that he has dangerous knowledge, and needs to figure out what to do with it.

Aaah, shit, Future Red thinks as the pieces fall into place. That sneaky… I told you this would come back to bite us. So what are we going to do?

Past Red is silent, and Present Red has no idea.

Chapter 76: Chrysalis

Two months after she moved in, Leaf still wakes aware that she’s in a dead girl’s bed, in a dead girl’s room, in a dead girl’s house.

She stares at the ceiling for a minute, listening to the quiet of the house around her. It’s been years since she stayed in a private room for months at a time. Even those weeks in Pewter and Cerulean and Vermilion were spent in trainer houses, the bunkbed filled rooms shared with a dozen others. Waking up in the same bed day after day without the sounds of others waking up and moving around and talking quietly… just her and her thoughts… it’s nostalgic, bringing back memories of when she was too young to travel everywhere with mom and grandpa.

She eventually reaches for her phone and checks her messages, spending a minute (or ten) scrolling through her news feeds and reading comments from her latest article. Each scroll of her finger triggers a minor dopamine hit that finishes waking her up, but also tugs her attention toward the wider world outside the room, until she starts to get restless enough to get out of bed and into the shower.

Afterward she joins Mr. Sakai for breakfast, the bereaved father still treating her presence like it makes total sense for a virtual stranger to take up residence in his daughter’s room. She’d spoken with Aiko’s aunt, gotten her blessing, for whatever that’s worth, but at the very least Leaf doesn’t get the impression that Mr. Sakai ever confuses her for Aiko. That would be too cruel, and she’s been wary of any signs of it. Instead the rancher simply treats her like a perpetual guest, feeding her at every mealtime and accepting her help with the managing of the pokemon.

“Remember not to make dinner today, Mr. Sakai,” Leaf says as she clears the table. “We’re having guests, and I’ll be ordering food for everyone.”

“Guests? How wonderful. More children to see the pokemon?”

“No, Blue and his friends are coming by.” She’s glad she reminded him. The longer she lives with Aiko’s father, the more surprised she is by how relatively functional he is. She does find him weeping quietly as he works from time to time, but as long as his wife or Aiko aren’t brought up he often seems fine. She helps take care of the pokemon and looks over the ranch finances (which are a little better these days, thanks to the extra income from the therapy groups), but he does the laundry, keeps the house clean, orders food to the ranch, all with steady competence day to day.

The clearest areas the gaps appear are in any changes to the schedule. If she’s not around to help, he prioritizes the pokemon’s care over his own or the household’s, and she’s come to suspect that for Mr. Sakai, the easiest way to cope with his losses is to simply act as if each day is the same. To be lost in the repetitive habits of predictable schedules and (relatively) thoughtless chores. The few times she’s seen how he acts when he has nothing to do, she was a little frightened by how lost he looked, sitting at the table and staring blankly at the wall, or wiping down the already clean kitchen counters, or simply falling into an exhausted, but fitful, sleep.

Once the table is clear they go outside to summon the pokemon into their pens. She brings Raff and Crimson out so they can walk and fly beside her as she makes a circuit around her half of the ranch, then returns to her room (Aiko’s room) a few minutes shy of her scheduled call. Raff goes to rest on his soil bed by the window, which she opens so Crimson can fly in and land on the perch she set up on the wall. She already sees the invitation waiting on her screen when she arrives. “Hi Bill,” she says after accepting the call and turning on her mic.

“Eva found six errors in the simulated program,” the inventor says. Leaf doesn’t get offended by the lack of niceties or smalltalk anymore; if anything it makes it easier to interact with him, since she doesn’t have to worry that he’ll ask about her or how her day went, or the other sorts of questions that sometimes make it hard to talk with others these days.

“That doesn’t sound so ba-“

“Then it crashed.”

Leaf sighs. “You did that on purpose.”

“Crushing unfounded optimism is just one of my many public services. You’re welcome, and also, pay attention. Your scope is way too big. Untraining commands is hard enough. Reinstituting wild behavior is worse. Keeping certain pieces of conditioning is just not something you can do right now.”

Leaf sits up, jaw clenched. “I know you’re not telling me to give up.” He’d agreed to look over what she’s developed so far, and she expected harsh criticism, but…

“I am actually, on that goal and plan of attack. But you’ve got other options.”

She opens a document to take notes. “I’m listening.”

“Reverting newly caught pokemon’s brainstates to what they were when caught would be… well, easy for me, at least achievable for you, if time consuming. It’s low hanging fruit that no one’s developed because there’s been no incentive to. But it would make a good learning opportunity, and be a stepping stone.”

“A stepping stone to releasing already caught pokemon?”

“Thanks to that fascinating sample of yours that I’m still curious about the origin of, yes, though without a saved version of their brain-states it’s going to take an immense amount of work applying it to each pokemon. As I said before, keeping any bit of conditioning makes the whole thing exponentially harder, but this also showed that carving out specific exceptions moving forward may be more doable. And by doable I mean maybe half a decade of effort by a dozen of the best TM programmers around, taking into account QA and some unexpected complications.”

Leaf rubs her eyes with the heels of her palms. “But it would work?”

“Theoretically, yes, but my point is don’t focus on that right now. Just aim for simple reversion. It’ll be an achievement you can call your own, draw attention to your project, get people thinking about it. Whatever you decide, this is about all the time I can put into it. I’ve already sent out a notice to some of my circles, maybe it’ll help connect you with others who find it interesting.”

Leaf lowers her hands. She shouldn’t be ungrateful. He’s done so much for her and Red already, and didn’t even get all that upset when he found out they left the cruise early, though he did point out how stupid it was, in the same impersonal, distracted voice that indicated that he wasn’t trying to berate them, only pointing out a fact. “Right. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Bill says, voice wry, and Leaf realizes her thanks didn’t sound particularly thankful. “Trust me, you’re better off without me being more involved. Even if I had the time, which I don’t, and the interest, which I also don’t, my version of this would be way different than what you’re envisioning.”

“What do you mean?”

“The easiest way to do what you want is to just create a brainstate of a pokemon with all its wild behaviors intact, add an additional set of conditions against harming humans, and then just apply that brainstate to all pokemon of its species that are released.”

A chill goes down Leaf’s back. “That’s… you would just be mentally cloning one pokemon over and over. Effectively killing all the others…”

“Yep, and I know you’ve got problems with that, which is why me not doing it is better for everyone,” he says, a little impatiently. “Well, except for people who might die to wild pokemon between when my hypothetical version would be complete and yours.”

Leaf swallows her retort. “Couldn’t we just… save their mental state upon capture, and use that?” It would delete each pokemon’s experiences between capture and release, which is also a form of erasure, a killing of the pokemon that they become to replace them with who they were, but that wouldn’t matter for balls designed specifically to pacify wild pokemon, who would be released immediately after capture anyway.

“Sure, yeah, but now you’re back to writing a program that applies the right conditioning dynamically to each individual, which is a lot more work. However you want to tackle it, you’ve got some options and my advice for which to choose. Hopefully someone reaches out soon, but meanwhile I’d get more samples if you can.”

“Alright. Thanks, Bill. Really.”

“Welcome. Good luck.”

And then he’s gone, and Leaf is leaning back in her(/Aiko’s) chair. That was… disappointing, but not as bad as it could have been.

Still, she’s going to have to reconsider her priorities now that she has a better idea of the difficulty of the task and what the short term rewards would be. She doesn’t know nearly enough about programming to do the hard work with any sort of efficiency on her own, which means she’s going to be mostly reliant on others as she does her best to learn quickly… but she still remembers the resolution she made a while back, where no matter how much her goals might change, she’d never regret improving herself. If she can identify her programming skills as lacking, she should focus on improving them while she waits to be contacted.

So that’s what she does for the rest of the morning, occasionally stopping to play with some of her pokemon. She’s getting to know Aiko’s better, and they’re integrating well with her pokemon in their games and tests. She knows the transfer of ownership doesn’t delete their memories of their previous trainers, just makes them seem long ago while adding bonding memories with their new ones. It’s preferable to the alternative, but she can’t help but wonder if they miss Aiko at all, and gets teary-eyed as she strokes Aiko’s oddish’s grassy leaves, wondering if they might even think they were abandoned.

After lunch she’s back to working on her programming, and a couple hours go by before she hears pokemon outside getting excited by something. She gets up to look, and grins as she sees Blue and the others biking down the dirt paths that wind around the various pens. She quickly saves her work, then runs down the stairs and out onto the porch.

Blue is just stepping off his bike when she reaches them, and seems surprised as she pulls him into a hug. After a moment he hugs her back, still breathing hard from his pedaling. He smells like the road to her, a mix of biking gear and sweat and dirt, nostalgic scents that make her realize how much she misses their journey together.

The others start removing their own gear and stowing it away, and she releases Blue so he can do the same, smiling wide. “It’s great to see you again.”

Blue looks a little embarrassed, but returns her smile as he unbuckles his helmet. “You too. You cut your hair!”

“Wanted to try something new.” She goes to hug Elaine as well, who grins at her.

“Hey Leaf! It looks great.”

“Thanks!”

“Take notes, Blue,” Glen says as the older boy strips off his knee pads, then stretches his arms out for his own hug. “Compliment, don’t just notice. Pixie cut really suits you, Leaf.” Leaf feels her cheeks warm as she steps over to him, while Blue grumbles something. “Doing alright?” Glen murmurs, giving her a brief squeeze before letting her go.

“One day at a time.” She steps back and waves to the others, who return the gesture. Leaf vaguely remembers Lizzy, but not the other girl, who she first took to be wearing a rain poncho or something, but turns out to have on a long, dark cloak that she had gathered around her waist to be able to bike. “Hello, I’m Leaf Juniper.”

She takes her wide-brimmed hat off a moment to unbuckle the helmet she’d been wearing under it. “I know. Heard all about you. I’m MG. Don’t think you’d have heard much about me.”

Leaf glances at Blue, who just smiles. “Well, I’m looking forward to doing so. Are MG your initials? Or is your name Emgee?”

“Neither.”

Leaf waits for more, then simply nods and turns to the final member, who has just finished putting her bike in its box. “Hey, Lizzy.”

“Hello, Leaf.” The tall girl puts the lid on and returns the container to its ball, then looks around them as she stretches and walks over to the nearby pen that holds some sentret, each standing on their tail to get a better look at the newcomers. “This place seems very nice,” she says as she rubs one of their bellies, making it chirp.

Leaf grins. “Yeah.” She looks at Blue. “I thought there’d be others?” She didn’t watch the matches, but did read about the two groups that were practicing scenarios with Blue, and of course read about the results.

“Bretta went ahead of us to rejoin some friends. Everyone else decided to stay at the gym.”

There’s a story there, Leaf senses, a neutrality to Blue’s tone that feels forced, but she just nods for now and lets them finish packing up their things before leading them to the house. The weary travelers take turns showering and introducing themselves to Mr. Sakai, who seems to be having one of his better days, taking the introductions in stride as he helps clear parts of the bottom floor for people to sleep that night. Leaf goes around getting everyone’s orders for dinner, talking with everyone about their trip here and plans for when they arrive in Celadon. She wonders why they aren’t going to Saffron first, but figures she can guess.

While Blue is in the shower and MG and Lizzy go to help Mr. Sakai with the pokemon as they take a tour of the ranch, Elaine and Glen find Leaf while she’s putting the dinner orders in. “Hey. So… Blue told us.”

It takes a moment for Leaf to understand what they mean. “Yeah?” she asks, a little wary. “What did he say, exactly?”

Elaine smiles slightly. “We’re not fishing, Leaf.” Her smile fades. “He explained how Red was with Aiko when she ran into the building, but didn’t go in after her. How he and Red fought, and… how they disagreed about what Red should have done.”

“He was a little more detailed,” Glen adds. “Said Red accused Blue of making Aiko so worried about looking heroic that she risked herself recklessly to live up to his ideals. And that he told Red that if going in to help her would mean death, then he should have been willing to die.”

“Is it true?” Elaine asks, voice low and gaze earnest.

Leaf feels her heart twisting, and takes a deep breath before letting it out as she finishes putting the dinner order in. She’d wondered whether Blue would ever tell them. She’s glad he finally did, but she’s not sure what it means for him. She gets the confirmation, then puts her phone away and gives them her full attention. “Yeah. There was more, but… that seems a fair enough way to summarize it.”

“And how do you feel about it all?” Glen asks, voice cautious, which in turn makes Leaf cautious.

“I think both of them are wrong in their own ways, and judging how others decide things like that… doesn’t always have a clear answer.”

To her relief, Glen smiles. “That’s basically what Surge said.”

Leaf blinks. “Wait, Surge talked about it?”

“Not directly,” Elaine explains. “Sorry, I thought you knew… we’re explaining this out of order. Surge’s speech was related to what happened in the second scenario. We can tell you about it later, but we think Blue told us the story in the first place because he’s struggling with what Surge said.”

Glen sighs. “It’s almost like he wanted everyone to make up their own mind about whether he was right or not, and for us to feel free to leave if we disagreed.”

“Or if we’re worried he’d get mad at us for disagreeing,” Elaine adds, and Glen nods. “It’s not that simple, of course, but everyone who was going to stay still decided to… except Vlad and his friends. I don’t think their changed decision is related, but we’re worried Blue took it pretty hard.”

Glen nods. “He’s been a little off ever since. Would you talk to him, sometime tonight?”

Leaf nods, worry churning in her stomach. “Of course. Thanks for letting me know.”

Their obvious relief and hope makes her worry grow, but also infects her with some hope too. When the status quo seemed so hopeless, a change like this might result in something good. They go to help take care of the pokemon, and Blue joins them outside eventually. With everyone working together it goes by much more quickly than usual, and once they’re all back inside Leaf innocently asks about the badge scenarios while they wait for the food to arrive.

The others take turns filling her in on what happened, first during Blue’s group challenge, then during Glen’s, from both the participants’ and the observers’ perspectives. Despite her aversion to watching the matches, it’s fun listening to them relate what happened with occasional bursts of suppressed excitement at the thrilling bits (and some occasional arguing about details of what actually happened, which usually ends with Lizzy reminding people that there’s footage available or Blue jumping in to push the narrative along). The conversation extends through dinner, and for the most part Leaf is able to avoid thinking of the combatants’ pain… up until the end of the second match, when Blue’s subdued description of the dragonite brutally one-shotting each of Bretta’s pokemon makes Leaf’s hands curl into fists.

“And that was it,” Glen concludes as they start to clean the table. “Surge made a speech about how what happened couldn’t be judged, and they got their single challenge matches the next day. They were intense, but both got their badges too.”

Suddenly Mr. Sakai, who had been silently listening throughout the conversation (or else deep in his own thoughts), speaks up from the kitchen. “Was he talking about Aiko?”

Everyone goes silent. Leaf exchanges looks with Blue and Elaine and Glen, trying to decide what to say… she’d told him what happened to Aiko within the first month of living here, aware that it was a risk but wanting him to know she’d died while attempting to save others.

Before she or Blue find something to say, Leaf is surprised to hear MG respond, despite being the most quiet of the group. “Yes, Sir. Aiko’s actions are part of what inspired the gym to teach this lesson. I never met her, but I wish I had. She’s very inspirational to me.”

“Oh.” That’s all he says. Just that. None of them break the ensuing silence, listening to the quiet sounds of his movements in the kitchen, and when he leaves it a minute later, Leaf feels her heart twist as she sees him silently weeping. “I’ll go to bed now. Goodnight, everyone.”

Their subdued goodnights follow him down the hall, and they’re all silent again until they hear the door close.

“Did I say the wrong thing?” MG asks, hat completely hiding her features and voice fragile as a cobweb.

“No,” Leaf immediately says. “No, I think that was perfect. Thank you.”

The hat shifts in a nod, and Elaine gets to her feet. “Anyone want tea or cocoa or something?”

A few hands go up, including MG’s, and Leaf gets up to help her while Blue suggests the group get more comfortable. By the time they finish making the drinks they find the others spread out in the living room, on the couch and floor talking about lighter things. Once everyone has their mugs, Leaf perches on the end of the couch and decides to poke a potentially delicate subject during the next lull in the conversation.

“So… I was under the impression that the scenarios you guys were practicing with were to help against pokemon incidents… but some of the things you described in the Challenge matches were definitely not that?”

Smiles spread around the group, and Glen chuckles. “Should have figured you’d see it. Yeah, they kind of took it in a different direction than us. Don’t think it’s a secret, or at least it won’t stay one for long after all the chatter that’s been going on over the net…”

“It’s why Vlad decided to stay longer,” Elaine says, voice confident, and Leaf glances at Blue to see him shift in his seat. He doesn’t contradict her, however. “When he heard what Surge was preparing everyone for… He and his friends decided to stay at the gym with the others.”

“What, the thing about hard decisions?”

“No,” Blue says, and she turns to see his gaze intense on hers. “The scenarios are to prepare trainers for war.”

Sudden cold spreads through Leaf’s veins as she stares back at him, hardly believing what she heard. War. An ugly word, where she’s from, divisive and often taboo in polite company. Her grandpa in particular spoke of those times with a venom she never heard about any other topic. He’d lost friends in it, spoke out against it at the time and was shunned by the whole Unovan government and League while it was going on. Almost left the region, according to Leaf’s mom, who never spoke much about those days other than when she taught Leaf about it in her history lessons. It’s a scab on the region’s legacy, not quite old enough to become a scar, still itching and bleeding out occasional silence and harsh words between friends and family and neighbors who hold opposite views of it.

“Kanto is preparing for war?” she whispers, and her first thought, which she would later spend a restless hour in bed reflecting on, is of how fast she can leave the region.

Blue shakes his head, and the relief warms her as much as her tea. “Nothing specific. Surge is just sure that war is coming, one way or another, and wants to prepare people.”

Leaf’s brow is furrowed. “And… what do you guys think?” She looks at Glen and MG in particular, the other non-Kanto natives.

Glen rubs his face, sighing. “It seems crazy.”

Lizzy nods. “The Indigo League is larger than practically any other region in the world, definitely the biggest on the island. Who would be crazy enough to attack us?”

“Only Hoenn or Sinnoh are close enough,” MG says from beneath her hat, a cup of cocoa in her hands. “And only they would benefit.”

As the others start to discuss it, something tickles at Leaf’s memory with growing urgency, like she’s forgetting something important. She thinks it has to do with something her mom or grandpa must have said at some point, but only once she gives up on that line of thinking does the answer come to her in a flash, the words of an old woman on a bench as they fed their pokemon together. And who will this trainer be? What new calamities will they bring, with the power of a god in their pocket? Kingdoms have warred for less, long before mankind’s reach exceeded its grasp.

“Blue,” she says, and something in her tone makes everyone turn to her. “If you had the chance to catch one of the Stormbringers… and the alternative was to kill it. What would you do?”

He’s silent a moment, everyone watching him. “I’ve thought about it before,” he admits. “If I’m being honest, I want them dead. But… it would be too big an advantage to give up, when going after the others. I’ve often thought that I don’t actually need to beat all three. Just getting Zapdos might be enough to take the other two down because of type advantage, though capturing any of them would be a big help against at least one of the others. And not just them. Could take them from region to region, hunting down the legendaries…”

“And who would own them?” Lizzy asks, and her tone makes it clear she made the connection.

Blue nods. “Thought about that too. Who I’d trust…” She sees him realize it too, his thoughtful expression shifting to one of surprise, then growing resignation, until he sighs. “Fuck. You’re talking about war… It’s not just who I’d trust, but who’d trust me, or whoever else has one. Even if we know we won’t attack someone…”

“But people would be even less likely to attack a region with a legendary on someone’s belt,” Elaine protests.

“Yes,” MG says quietly. “Until they can get their own.”

The group is quiet a minute, and Leaf’s tea no longer warms her. Blue looks far more tired than he did a few minutes ago, gaze distant and unfocused.

“We should probably head to bed,” Elaine says after a minute of silence. “Can talk about this more tomorrow.”

The others murmur their agreement, exchanging goodnights with Leaf before heading downstairs where they laid out their sleeping mats. Leaf gives Blue a significant look, and he nods at her. She goes to brush her teeth and prepare for bed.

She’s just finishing up when she hears a quiet knock at her door, and goes to open it. Blue walks in looking very solemn despite his pajamas, a complex smile on his face as he looks around at Aiko’s room. “You’ve made it your own.”

“Partly.” She goes to sit on the bed, and for a moment it seems like he might go to the computer chair, but then he joins her. She’s glad he does. “How you feeling? Don’t want to keep you up if you’re too tired.”

“Naw. I’m fine.” He takes a pokeball out of his pocket, and summons Aiko’s eevee. Its silver fur gleams as it materializes, looking around the subtly changed room, and Leaf suddenly wishes she hadn’t changed anything, for a moment, until it turns to hop onto the bed with them. It settles down in a furry coil between them, and both of them reach out to scratch its thick fur together.

“Still haven’t named her?” Leaf asks, voice quiet.

“No. Aiko wanted to wait until she evolves… makes sense to me.”

Leaf nods. “Any thoughts on that?”

“Yeah. But we’ll see.” He looks at her. “I was thinking it over, and I think there’s only one way.”

She blinks at him, unsure if he’s still talking about Eevee. “One way to…?”

“Every region needs its own legendary under a trainer’s control. That way no region would want to mess with them. They could just send their trainer over and wreak nearly as much havoc in revenge.”

Leaf stares at him, then slowly nods. It’s horribly elegant in its simplicity. “I guess that might do it…”

“You think it’s a bad idea,” he says, clearly reading her hesitation.

“Not in the way you mean. There are stories, in Unova, of the power that legendaries give to one side of a war or the other. If people know that’s how others might act, whoever catches one might try to act first to keep others from getting a legend of their own.”

He sighs and nods. “I know. I just can’t think of how else war could be avoided forever. At some point, someone’s going to catch a legendary. I’d rather it be me, but if I just go around grabbing them all up… it’s too much power to put in one person’s hands. And too risky to assume no one else would get them at some point. I’d have to kill them all, just to stop anyone else from getting one.”

Leaf is reminded somewhat of her and Red’s conversation with Bill in his lab, the inventor’s sabotage of other projects for fear of the first AGI being enough to destroy or dominate the world if developed poorly or by the wrong sort of person. “You might be right. That’s not actually what I wanted to talk about, though.”

“What, then?” He’s watching her with simple curiosity for a moment, and then wariness sets in. She can practically feel his walls going up, the connection between them growing brittle, and if he wasn’t Dark she would think she was a latent psychic like Red. “Oh.”

“Not that,” she quickly says. “Not directly, at least. I actually want to know more about the gym’s reaction to Aiko, what Surge said. I feel like people were tiptoeing around it out there, probably because Mr. Sakai was around, but… yeah. What’s going on with that whole thing?”

Blue looks slightly reassured. “Well, there are a few layers to it, the way Sabra explained it,” he says, voice low. “How Aiko and Jack’s deaths kicked things off. I don’t know if you remember, or if I ever told you, but Peter, one of the gym members who was leading my group that night… I defied his orders to go help Gramps and Daisy. He was mad, but didn’t make a big stink about it. I guess it would have been weird to, in light of everything. He just told Surge, expecting him to decide if a punishment would be fitting. And combined with what Jack did, and what Red didn’t… apparently, Surge wasn’t actually sure. He invited the upper tiers of the gym to meet a few nights to talk. About sacrifice, and expectations.”

“They never had before?” Leaf asks, skeptical and intrigued.

“Not like this. Surge’s policy was always for people to follow orders and think of the broader mission, but apparently he always talked to people who broke with that policy in private, and never punished them much. It was treated as a grey area, an inconsistency that no one really knew how to speak about at the gym. But there were a lot of others in the city who had similar stories from that night, and Sabra said once the conversation started more and more came out, it wasn’t centered on Jack or Red or me.”

Leaf considers this a moment. “And that’s when the idea to have it happen in the scenarios came from?”

Blue nodded. “My scenarios were the first chance the gym had to really play with the idea. Play with different circumstances, prepare people for the aftermath. Test whether it can be trained.”

“Whether what can?” Leaf asks, wishing she could write about all this, suddenly. It would make for a fascinating article, even a book, but she’s not sure she can spare the time anymore.

“The ‘heroic impulse,’ as Surge calls it.” Blue’s gaze is distant. “The thing that makes you move toward danger to save others, without even thinking about it.”

“To help people be more willing to do it?”

“No. He said that’s already possible. But to do it better. To not make it an impulse, anymore, to think about the odds, evaluate the broader mission, decide if it’s really what you should do.”

Leaf is silent, thinking about what Blue must be feeling right now. Surge meant train as restrain, in some cases. Blue was essentially told by the Gym Leader that Red may have made the right decision. Not necessarily that Blue made the wrong one, in going to help Professor Oak and Daisy, but… “I take it you disagreed?” she says lightly.

Blue shakes his head, and Leaf feels her heart leap. Could this be it? The resolution to Red and Blue’s fight?

“I don’t know anymore,” Blue sighs. “Surge is coming at it from the angle of someone in the military. He had the idea of focusing on the broader mission literally drilled into him. But the gym itself teaches that trainers aren’t soldiers. Maybe that’s a bad thing in his view, but to me it’s not. Someone who will always follow orders rather than do what they think is right with the information they have in the moment… I can respect it. I get why Surge is for it, I get why it makes sense as a Leader, or just someone who leads, to want others to do it. But I don’t think I can trust someone like that. They’re giving up their responsibility to someone else.”

Leaf considers this a moment, wondering what her own answer for this would be and whether she should nudge things back in the direction of Red’s decision, and then she realizes the implications of what he said. “Wait, Blue, don’t you want people to do that, once you become Champion? If you make a plan to take down a Stormbringer, wouldn’t you want the trainers working with you to follow the plan, rather than run off to do their own thing?”

“I always thought that’s what it meant, being a trusted leader. It’s not fair, really, that things turned out so well when I went to help Gramps and Daisy. When people break from a plan like that in a combat situation… I think most of the time it actually causes more problems.”

“Most of the time,” she echoes. “But you’re not most people, and it wasn’t a usual circumstance. So… I guess you can just trust that the people you’ll be leading will make their own decisions, unless you specifically want to train them not to and see how that goes?”

“But I don’t want to lead people like that. I want to inspire them to do what’s right, and trust that they’re each capable of figuring out what that is, moment to moment. If someone sees someone in danger in front of them… it feels like I’d be asking people to not get mad if someone punches them in the face, if I told them to ignore that, or not to pick up money on the street. Especially if it’s a friend that’s in danger.” Blue shakes his head, looking frustrated. “But I also want to know that I can depend on them to trust a plan they’re given, and not deviate too much from it.”

She stares at him. “You’re not just talking about a handful of trainers following you on your journey.”

“No. To take down the Stormbirds once I’m Champion, I’ll need dozens, maybe hundreds, that I can rely on like that.”

“That sounds…” She doesn’t want to say impossible. “Unlikely.”

He rubs his face. “I know. I know. I just… don’t know what to do.” He lowers his hands, staring at the wall. “When we were traveling to Vermilion, I thought I could learn about leadership from Surge’s gym. And I did… in more ways than I imagined. But even if I have fewer questions now, the new ones feel harder than ever to answer.”

Leaf can’t remember ever hearing such vulnerability in Blue’s voice before, and realizes suddenly that he isn’t just catching her up on what he’s been doing. He’s unloading his frustrations to someone he trusts, but also isn’t in charge of. Someone who can listen without him worrying about having to look strong for.

She takes her hand from Eevee’s fur and puts an arm around his shoulders. “So you’re facing problems that seem bigger than you can solve, with no one that seems to know how to solve them, and trying to figure out how to get it done as you go. That about right?” He nods, and she nods too, smiling slightly. “Welcome to the club.”

Blue is silent a moment, then chuckles. “It’s good talking to you again. How’s Operation Pacify going?”

“We don’t have to talk about my problems just yet, if you still want to vent.”

“I think I’m done for now. Thanks. And I have been curious. Sorry I haven’t had time to check in until now.”

“I get it.”

“No, really. It’s bothered me a few times, and I’ve been trying to find a good way to apologize for it.”

She raises a brow. “For what?”

“Leaving you? Making it hard for you to stay?” He shrugs, looking uncomfortable. “Red ran off to Saffron… sorry, I didn’t mean ran like that, just… at least he can teleport in every so often and help out, while I decided to stay in Vermilion for way longer than we expected, without talking to you about it ahead of time… and then you got stuck helping Mr. Sakai—”

She pulls her arm back and sticks a finger out at him. “Let’s get something straight, Blue Oak. I didn’t get stuck helping at the ranch. I could have stayed in Vermilion, or gone with Red, or hell even gone back to Unova if I wanted. Mom asked me to often enough, and I was even considering a quick visit after the cruise, before the storm hit. I chose this instead.”

Blue puts a hand up in apology. “You’re right, I know you did. But you still came to Kanto expecting a journey, and we… I guess it feels like our shit got in the way, and we let you down.”

“You did, but not in the way you’re thinking.” He looks surprised, but she keeps going. “I don’t need you feeling sorry for me, or guilty for me not staying, or whatever you’ve been worrying about. I’m here because I think it’s important, as important as what you’re doing. Understand?”

Blue looks at her a moment, then slowly nods. “Right. Yeah, that was… pretty shitty of me, actually. Sorry.”

She’s satisfied to see Blue look properly chagrined, and decides to ease up a bit, smiling as she pokes him in the side. “For?”

“…for apologizing?”

“Good. Apology accepted.” She starts scratching Eevee again.

He smiles back, and they sit in companionable silence until Leaf feels brave enough to guide things back toward Red’s decision. “So the gym was testing to see if people can be trained not to abandon the mission and save their friends?”

“Mostly, but not that simple. Like I said, it’s also to have a place to explore how people act in different situations, and prepare them for what it’s like to be in those situations… and handle how others might react.”

He’s not looking at her, and after a moment Leaf gently prompts, “Like with you and Red?” There’s a moment of silence, and then Blue nods, and a lot of her tension fades. “And how are you handling that?” she asks, hope rising. This could be it, they might finally—

“Nothing’s changed.”

“What?!” He jumps slightly, and she lowers her voice, glaring. “What do you mean ‘nothing’s changed?'”

“I mean I don’t see what’s different, now. He’s learning from Sabrina, I’m going for badges… it’s not compatible.”

“You’re not this dense, Blue. Who cares what you two do? I’m talking about your friendship!”

“The friendship he wouldn’t even risk his life for?”

Leaf’s glare melts into something that’s a mix of exasperation and sorrow, and she puts her hand over his, stopping his fingers’ movements in Eevee’s fur for a moment. “Blue… I watched him run up to a nidoqueen in the middle of that storm, after two hours of helping others, to save a complete stranger. I told you all this before, but it’s like you don’t believe me.”

“‘Course I do,” Blue mutters.

“Then why do you think he wouldn’t risk his life for yours?”

Blue shrugs a shoulder. “I think he would… if it’s safe enough.”

The bitterness in his voice makes her sigh. “Blue… you have to decide if this is about how much he cares about you, or whether he’s willing to save others. If it’s the latter, then you’ve already decided that all this doesn’t matter, right? You won’t be traveling together, he’s not on a pokemon journey. Why keep the fight going? I know you miss each other.”

She can see him struggling with it, and hope makes her pulse race. When he meets her gaze, she sees wary curiosity there. “It doesn’t bother you? That he might not have cared about Aiko?”

“If I believed that, yeah. Of course it would. The whole thing makes me feel sad and confused and yes, sometimes angry at him.”

“How do you deal with that?”

The hope is slowly returning. This is the farthest they’ve ever gotten, talking about it. “I wasn’t there. That’s how I deal with it: reminding myself that I don’t know what he saw, and how he felt. I might have gone in after her. I think I would have. But I didn’t go through what he did, I don’t know how the Pressure was affecting them—”

“The Pressure was gone by then, it—”

“Let me finish, Blue. I know the Pressure was gone, but there are aftereffects, right? My point is that you don’t know how he felt, and why he didn’t go in. Maybe he’s really just a cold computer that was weighing risk and reward all night, and Aiko didn’t make the cut. But I don’t believe that, and you can’t just decide that’s the case.”

Blue is quiet a moment, either processing what she said or checking to ensure she’s done. “He doesn’t have to have been cold about it,” he eventually mutters. “I know he felt torn up. But he justified it, after. He stood by the decision.”

“And that’s bad? He can’t just genuinely have a different view?”

“He can,” Blue says. “But I don’t see how he can also care about me. Those two things… they can’t fit together in my head. Maybe he cares as far as he can, but then his caring and mine, they mean two different things. That’s what made me so… angry, then. Now I don’t feel angry about it, just sad.”

She waits a moment, then asks the real question that she’s been wanting to. “Do you think there’s any chance of talking to him about it? Being friends again?”

Blue shrugs. “That’s up to him, more than me. I wasn’t the one that—”

“Blue,” Leaf interrupts. “Come on. I was there, remember? You said he should have died. Yes, he said some things he shouldn’t have too, but anything after that was tainted, and you were the one that set the ultimatum.”

“Wasn’t an ultimatum, he took it that way—”

“Blue. Tainted, remember?”

She watches him squirm, face shifting between stubbornness and shame. “Didn’t mean it that way,” he finally whispers, so low she can barely hear him. “Of course I’m glad he’s not dead.”

“I know.” She puts her hand over his. “I know you would have died for him. And believe it or not, I think he’d risk it for you too. But he wouldn’t do what he thought was certain death for Aiko. Do you need him to be willing to for you? Not by your measure, but by his.”

Blue is quiet for nearly a minute. “I don’t know,” he mutters at last.

“Not to journey together, but just to be friends.

He sighs. “No. Probably not.”

Leaf’s heart is in her throat, and it’s a struggle not to squeeze his hand tighter. “And do you think it’s possible that he doesn’t think it’s obvious that you’re glad he’s not dead?”

Leaf watches a little more of his stubbornness melt away, heart pounding, and it’s hard to stay quiet and let him answer at his own pace, hard not to just shake him and demand he apologize.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Success! “So… you think you can tell him that, maybe?”

Blue rubs his face with his free hand. “I’ll think about it.”

Leaf almost yells at him again, but instead she takes a controlled breath and reminds herself not to push him. Instead she just squeezes his hand, and leans her head against his shoulder, and they sit in silence until Eevee’s snores prompt Blue to head to bed.


The group leaves for Celadon the next day amidst bittersweet goodbyes. A part of Leaf wants to join them, to be surrounded by her peers again, on the road seeing new places.

But another part of her is looking forward to the coming quiet of the ranch again, and she knows she’s still not ready. Not ready to leave Aiko’s bed, her room, and the mission that she’s come to consider both of theirs, building on her work and started from different directions, but which she knows her friend would have agreed with. She still has too much work to do here.

Once they’re gone and Leaf returns to work on her articles and programming, she finds a new distraction bubbling up to the surface of her thoughts every so often.

She wants to tell Red what she and Blue talked about. She itches to, a constant pull on her attention. At the very least, she wants to tell him what Blue said about being glad he’s not dead. She fantasizes about it, even, about just calling Blue up and telling both of them to just shut up a moment, that all she wants Blue to do is just say that one thing, just that, and for Red to just listen and respond, only to that, and then they can go on with their days and that one thing might be enough of a difference to get the ball over the edge and rolling downhill.

But she can’t. Because she told Blue she wouldn’t, and they might not be ready. Blue might screw things up by adding something else, or muttering it, or Red might be having a bad day or have been bottling up anger about what Blue said that he can’t keep in, or something that just makes things worse instead of better, and she’ll have been the cause of it, and both of them would trust her less.

Instead she tries to just focus on her work, which gets harder as the week creeps by day to day and she gets closer to Red’s next visit… right up until the day before, when Laura texts her out of the blue to ask if it’s okay to visit when Red’s there too.

With everything that’s happened, Leaf nearly forgot about Laura’s promise. Nearly. Her imagination supplied all sorts of outlandish plots over the past few months, each methodically repressed to keep her from investigating them without Laura’s approval, and now they all come roaring back to the forefront of her mind as she responds with a simple question: Is it time?

The response comes back almost immediately, and Leaf grins, sends an affirmative, then starts reviewing her old Mount Moon research to refresh herself on what Laura will want to talk about.


“You’re sure this is okay?” she asks Red as they walk past the pens and into an open area at the outskirts of the ranch. “It won’t be too tiring, on top of the other stuff you’ve been doing?” Other stuff that he’s been fairly hush-hush about, but she knows it involves using his powers, which still makes him sadder.

“We’ve got what, an hour before my mom gets here? I should be fine, this is just more practice of what I’d be doing anyway.”

Red looks like he’s been doing well. Better than the last couple times she’s seen him, at least. “How’s therapy been?”

He glances at her. “Alright. Pretty good, actually. I’m learning ways to talk to myself better when I get sad.”

“Oh, neat. Like what?”

“I guess you could call it journaling. We’re actually talking pretty often now, and making deals with each other. Not often, but more than before.”

Leaf’s not sure she really gets what he means by all that, but she can sense he’s not too comfortable talking about it yet, and they’ve reached an open area. So she just nods and hands him the bag of pokeballs, then opens her own bag of food, placing some granola on the ground as he summons the first pokemon.

Leaf knows what Red has probably been thinking, as they walked out here. At the very least, what he was thinking when she asked him to do this, told him her plan. She doesn’t think he’s judging her, but she wouldn’t be surprised if some part of him was considering her a hypocrite, though she knows she might just be projecting. Overall, she appreciates that he hasn’t said anything about it, and she feels justified in being grateful for his silence given that she would be shocked if he didn’t at some point remember their argument about pokemon testing.

Not that what they’re doing is the same as testing chemicals on rattata or measuring the damage done to pokemon by various attacks in a laboratory setting to better understand type advantages. Nothing they’re doing here is painful, and theoretically would cause no lasting damage.

Theoretically being the key word, there. She wouldn’t do it if she suspected otherwise, but she can’t be absolutely sure, and so she watches with apprehension as the first pokemon Red summons, a rattata (of course) sniffs at the food she put down, but doesn’t eat it. He hands her the ball, and she aims it at the pokemon, and waits… until suddenly the rattata eats the food unprompted, and she quickly withdraws it into its ball.

The next pokemon is a spearow that’s missing a wing, then an oddish, then another rattata, this one missing a leg. Some of these pokemon might be able to be released back into the wild, if this experiment works. For the others, being back in the wild would be a death sentence even if they could regain their wild instincts, but they still make useful trial samples. She doesn’t plan on releasing any of them without Mr. Sakai’s permission, of course, she’d asked for permission to even try this… though she’s not sure how meaningful that permission being granted was.

Still, two different flavors of guilt work through her as she withdraws pokemon after pokemon, and half of her keeps reminding herself that it’s fine, that Red has used sakki on a number of pokemon already for combat and none seem to have any negative side effects while the other half points out that if it was really that safe, she could just use her own pokemon.

By the time she’s withdrawn a dozen pokemon, Red looks barely strained at all, and smiles reassuringly at her as she ties the bags closed. She smiles back in what she hopes is a reassuring way as they return to the ranch, and maybe it was the smile or maybe it was something else, but as they walk Red sends her reeling with a simple question:

“Do you blame me for what happened to Aiko?”

She stops walking and turns to him. “What?”

His gaze is down, steps slowing to a stop. “Sorry, I know that was random. I’ve been meaning to ask it for a while and… the urge came up, and I didn’t want to lose my nerve. You can say yes, I won’t get mad. It’s important for me to know.”

The frustration of not being able to tell him what Blue said returns and peaks, but paired with it is her own desire to be clear, here, her own caution in how she expresses her feelings. Luckily, she’s thought about this a lot, and practiced how she would say it in her head.

“No,” she says first, because she thinks that’s important. “I don’t blame you at all, Red. You didn’t make her who she was, or force her into coming along with us or going into the building.” She wonders, briefly, if he’s reading her mind. He promised he wouldn’t, but she can’t help but think of it. She starts walking again. “But I’m guessing that’s not what you mean by ‘blame?'”

Red nods, still looking downward as they pass pen after pen of maimed or abandoned pokemon. “Do you think I should have gone in with her?”

“I wasn’t there,” she says, and realizes suddenly that she should have told Red this earlier too. She was judging Blue for not telling Red how he really felt, for not clarifying, and here she had waited for him to ask her this instead of making it clear herself. They’ve still been friendly, so it hadn’t seemed like as big a deal, but she knew on some level that he wondered, and she had just… let him go on wondering, because it would have been awkward and uncomfortable to talk about it and risk the status quo. “I don’t know exactly what happened, or how you were feeling. That’s the position I’m taking, because it’s the right one. I don’t have any right to judge you, and I don’t. That’s the truth, Red.”

He looks at her at last, and she can see how much her answer means to him… even as she can see that it’s not wholly satisfying, either. And she can guess why: it’s not absolution she’s offering, or even agreement with his philosophy. “More than that,” she adds, “I don’t know myself enough to really answer any better. I thought I did, that day, and I’m sorry if things I said came off as judgemental. But with more time to think about it… I just don’t know, and I’m not sure I will anytime soon. But it doesn’t matter, for me. For us. It doesn’t matter to our friendship.”

Red absorbs this a minute, then nods. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”

“You’re welcome.” I’m sorry I can’t say more, I’m sorry I can’t get Blue to say more yet, but soon… “We’ve got another half hour, feeling up for some medical checks?”

He is, and they go through a dozen before his phone chimes, and they go outside. Laura arrives on the back of a familiar swellow, and Leaf waves at Daisy, smiling. Blue’s sister waves back at them, but as soon as Laura is clear of her pokemon’s downdraft she yells, “See you in a few!” and takes off again without even dismounting.

Red’s mom spends a minute hugging him, until he becomes visibly uncomfortable and squirms. She lets him go, smiling, and Leaf is a little embarrassed but mostly pleased when she gets the same treatment.

“It’s great to see you both again.” She tucks her sunglasses into her satchel, and looks around the ranch. “Is Mr. Sakai here?”

“He’s at the pond taking care of the water types. We have a little while before he’s done, and we eat.” They finish heading toward the house, and go upstairs to the living room table. Laura excuses herself to use the bathroom, and Red and Leaf sit at the table alone for a minute. They wait quietly, and Leaf can see the same pent up anticipation in Red as she feels herself. She gets up and fills three glasses of water for all of them, and has to keep herself from tapping her foot when she sees Red’s bouncing under the table.

Laura returns and sits down, thanking Leaf for the water and taking a long drink. When she lowers the glass and sees the two of them watching her, she smiles slightly, folds her hands, and grows serious. “What I’m going to reveal to you both is potentially incredibly dangerous, not just for you but also others beyond myself. I’m trusting you for two main reasons. First, you may already be at risk, to the point where ignorance will be more dangerous than knowledge. We were lucky I hadn’t told you anything by your cruise, Red, but President Silph wouldn’t be likely to expect you to stay ignorant forever. The second reason is because I need help.”

Leaf nods, trying to tamp down her excitement. She’d been hoping for this, not just an explanation but something she could do to help. “Of course. Whatever you need.”

Red nods. “What’s changed?”

Laura sighs. “Well, the most relevant part is that I got fired.”

What?”

“Oh, Laura!” Leaf takes her hand. “I’m so sorry!”

Red’s mom is grinning as she squeezes Leaf’s hand. “Thank you, but it’s fine, really. Well, not fine, but I saw it coming. I work freelance, but the station that’s been funding this whole project has been put under a lot of pressure lately, and my boss couldn’t keep it going anymore without results for the higher ups… results that I wasn’t ready to show, since they would jeopardize the real stories. Normally we might have been able to convince them of that, but I suspect the funders started getting leaned on too. The station’s asking for whatever I’ve collected so far, and I refused. They’re taking me to court over it.”

None of this seems to indicate to Leaf that anything is “fine,” and from Red’s expression he feels the same. “What are you going to do?” Red asks.

She shrugs. “I’ve already retained an attorney, and there’s no way they expect things to get resolved anytime soon. I’m not dismissing this as just an intimidation tactic, but I do think that’s the main goal. The point is that it makes it much harder to find another funder and work on this as easily. Sam is doing what he can, but I still had to let some of my people go, and I could use your help, Leaf.” She looks at Red. “I won’t say no to yours too, Red, but I don’t expect it. I’m mostly telling you this because I promised, and because I think it’s safer for you to know.”

Red still looks troubled, but nods, and Leaf takes the opportunity to move things along. “I’m happy to help, obviously. Can you tell us what you learned, now? And what learned?”

Laura takes a breath, then nods, and begins to talk. About Silph Corporation, her secretive informant, and the broader mystery of the missing researchers that Professor Oak had clued her in about months ago. Red looks somewhat overwhelmed, but Leaf already knew enough that even with the presence of a masked source that climbed up to Laura’s balcony what the hell she just feels moderately whelmed… until the connection to the Mount Moon renegade that she and Blue stopped becomes clear, and she understands why Laura told her to stop looking into it.

“He worked for Silph at one point,” Leaf said, eyes wide. “You think Silph killed him!”

But Laura shakes her head. “Practically anyone who’s worked in Kanto has worked for Silph. I don’t think Silph hired Yuuta. I think he was a weapon aimed at them… but I’m not sure by whom. There are still a lot of pieces missing, but it’s become clear that Silph is fighting a shadow war against others. Maybe competitors, maybe someone else, but not just the government. There’s a network of shell companies and operatives that Yuuta might have been one of, except we can’t see any reason for Silph to have harmed his own interests that way. We have reason to believe he was killed by Silph, though.”

“Wait,” Red says. “Silph wasn’t responsible for Yuuta but… they still killed him? Why? He was already going to be executed, and if he wasn’t working for them, why worry about him saying something first?”

“Maybe they would be hurt by things he knew even if he wasn’t working for them,” Leaf says. “Or maybe it was revenge, or… a warning to others?” She frowns and looks at Laura. “Has something like this happened before?”

“Not that I’ve seen so far, but I’ve got someone looking into it.”

“What are you doing now?” Red asks. “Are you still in Lavender Town?”

Laura nods. “Looking into someone there that’s working for Silph. It might be one of the missing researchers.”

“And me?” Leaf asks. “What am I going to be working on?”

Laura takes a battered old laptop out of her bag and slides it over to Leaf. “This has a copy of the files my informant shared with me. Don’t transfer them anywhere else, keep it disconnected from the net,
and wipe its drive if you so much as suspect that someone is after it.”

Leaf takes the laptop a little reverently. “Is that… likely?”

“No, or I wouldn’t be putting you or Mr. Sakai at risk like this. I’ve done everything I can to avoid giving any indication that I’ve been here or have worked with you. But not everyone I’m working with is the most trusting sort, and the paranoia of those I’m investigating can stretch far. Keep your web searches from being too conspicuous, just in case.” Leaf is about to repeat that she still doesn’t know what she’s working on, when Laura says, “I want you to find out who my informant is.”

Leaf’s blinks. “The one that Silph was after?”

“Yep.” Laura smiles. “I’m not the most trusting sort either, and her identity might be vital to figuring out more about who all the players are in this game, even beyond who she’s working for or with. It might also help me work out a way to contact her.”

Leaf nods, thoughts already bending toward this new puzzle as her hand moves over the laptop’s battered cover. “Got it.”

“Anything I can do?” Red asks. “I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to, but just in case…”

They hear the door downstairs open, and Laura closes her bag and tucks it away. “Nothing I can think of now, but I’ll let you know if I think of something.” She unclips a container ball from her belt, then aims it at the floor before discharging its box.

Mr. Sakai enters the room just as Leaf and Red are helping Laura put the food she brought on the table, and as they eat Mr. Sakai tells them that he thinks the blind poliwhirl in the pond is pregnant. Leaf smiles at his excitement, but part of her worries about the cost of raising the new pokemon. Some might get sold eventually, but few people would want to buy them newborn. It makes her empathize anew with the kinds of worries Aiko must have dealt with her whole life.

Still, even with those worries and her enjoyment of the extra company, it’s hard not to be impatient as she waits for everyone to finish eating, then continues to talk with Red and Laura about the informant and Laura’s interactions with her until Daisy calls to let Laura know she’s arriving. Leaf gets another hug before she leaves, and then it’s her and Red again.

“Guess I should head out too,” Red says once his mom and Daisy are just a speck in the air. He turns to her, and she can see the concern in him. “You’ll be careful with this stuff, right?”

Leaf smiles. “Of course. I know Laura only gave me this particular job because it’s safer than investigating Silph, or whoever hired Yuuta.” It’s a lot harder to be upset about that protectiveness than she would have been before losing Aiko. And it was scary to hear about what happened to Laura in Celadon. “I’m just happy to be doing something useful, and so potentially interesting.”

Red nods. “Well, let me know if I can help with this too. And… thanks, for what we talked about earlier.”

Leaf hugs him, and feels his hesitation before he returns it. She still thinks about it, occasionally… the experience of how he saw her during their experiment on the cruise. Remembering it feels strange, self-conscious and almost embarrassed without quite being unpleasant, but she doesn’t know how to respond to it, and so she just continues to treat him like she normally would if she hadn’t glimpsed it. “Anytime, Red. And same to you, with your projects. I know we don’t have a lot of psychic pokemon here, but if you need someone to bounce ideas off of, feel free to reach out whenever.”

He smiles. “I will. Goodnight.” He summons his abra, and she has one last urge to tell him about Blue, suddenly, and then he disappears in a blink.

Leaf stands in place for a moment, regretful and conflicted, then shakes her head and rushes upstairs to get to work.

She starts by reading through the information on the laptop, resting it on her stomach as she lies in bed and devours the information in each case folder. It takes her the rest of the afternoon, and her thoughts are swirling with all the illicit acts the Silph Corporation might be involved in as she feeds and withdraws the pokemon. By the time she finishes and warms up the leftovers, she has an idea for how to approach the problem, and boots up her own laptop as soon as she’s back in her room. She decides to keep Aiko’s computer clean of anything related to this, just in case, but as long as she keeps things vague enough, her own computer should be fine.

Leaf decides to separate the information into three categories: what she knows, what she suspects, and the hypotheses that she plans to gather information for or against. But she makes no clear delineation on her worksheet: instead each are placed on a spectrum of confidence intervals.

Farthest to the right, where the confidence is closest to 100%, are direct observations: Laura said the informant was Thin and Short. A little more leftward, not quite at 90%, is that she’s almost assuredly Female, judging from both Laura’s impressions and President Silph’s identification, which they can trust insofar as he seems at least as motivated in finding out who she is.

Just behind that is the word Dark. Perhaps Leaf is overconfident about this, placing the word somewhere around the 80% mark, but there are two fairly strong indicators: one is that the informant didn’t immediately teleport away while being pursued, which is only moderate evidence in and of itself, given that making others believe that she’s Dark when she’s not might be the exact reason to do it. Perhaps more importantly, being Dark presents several clear advantages to anyone doing the kind of work she does, and this one has been exceptionally successful. Leaf lists Psychic? just behind Dark, as it would certainly help her with the kind of work she did as well, but also get a complication penalty for adding yet another skill to her already impressive repertoire.

That’s where things get murky. From what she’s accomplished so far, Leaf lists Hacker and Burglar at around the 70% mark. Leaf’s met a lot of extraordinary people while traveling with her grandpa and mother, but never someone on the far side of the law. If selecting for someone who’s training with a purpose like this in mind, it makes sense for someone to have trained in both climbing buildings and computer security. But assuming that the woman who put on the mask and snuck into Laura’s apartment is the same person who gathered all the information would be a mistake. Laura did say the informant seemed genuinely inexperienced, so maybe they were working with someone else, as the more expendable apprentice or “face” of the group.

Which would mean, of course, that it’s a collaborative effort, and not only does she not need to have all the associated skills herself, but there might be other noise in the evidence available. Leaf has been mostly ignoring that consideration for now, as it would still be valuable to identify the masked informant regardless.

By the time she goes to brush her teeth and shower, she realizes that location is what she should start researching first, and she hurries back to examine the raw files Laura was given. There are folders where the data is collected with purpose, such as divided by crime or funding or common employees, but the original flashed hard drives that all the info comes from are there too, which means she can look at the latest files on each, and determine not just where each Silph computer was hit, but when.

After a couple hours of work, she starts plotting each hit on a map of Kanto multiple times to create a time graph. Once she plays it forward to watch as the thefts occur, the cluster becomes clear. Fuchsia city. That’s when the first theft of information occurred, and the most.

She’s so pleased to have found something useful from her first night working on it that she doesn’t realize how late it’s gotten, or how many messages she’s missed. She saves her work and gets into bed, deciding to quickly skim them before she falls asleep.

Amidst the messages from Blue’s journeymates, some of her followers and readers, and new responses to her articles, a new email from an unknown source catches her attention. In it is a simple message:

“Hello. I heard about your project from Bill, and found it really interesting! I didn’t realize there were others so dedicated to reducing pokemon suffering. I live in Unova, and don’t really get out much, but if you’re working by remote collaboration anyway, I’ve been studying pokeball programming and would like to help.”

Leaf smiles, excitement banishing her tiredness. It would be morning in Unova now, and… yes, they’re still online. She opens an instant message window.

Hi, this is Leaf (obviously). Thanks for reaching out! I don’t know if you knew, but I’m from Unova too 🙂 How long have you been involved in pokemon welfare?

Hi Leaf 🙂 Yeah, Bill mentioned who your family is. I guess you could say I’ve been raised in it… my dad taught me to help raise and take care of pokemon from a young age, and I’m a little socially isolated, so I sort of consider them brothers and sisters.

Leaf smiles. It’s one of the sweetest things she’s ever heard. Sounds amazing! What interested you in the project? And what’s your name?

I’ve been independently working on ways to safely release pokemon into the wild after capture, so it seemed like a good fit 😉 Sorry for not introducing myself earlier! My name is Natural. It’s very nice to meet you!

Chapter 75: Interlude XII – Children of the Mind

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

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


The air is cooler than it once was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I lift…

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

~2~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?! Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Prime?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…ah…

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

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

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

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

[Welcome back, Prime.]

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

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

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

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

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

Doubt. You were the one to cause the vertigo.

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

(A flight risk!)

[Yes, obviously.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

I understand. What is it?

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

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

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

~1~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~2~

(It’s working!)

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

~3~

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

(What?! No, that felt terrible!)

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

~4~

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

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

~5~

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

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

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

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

[We will, Prime.]

(Absolutely!)

‹…thank you, Prime.›

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

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

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

Flourish.

(Yes, Prime!)

Your ideas today were excellent…


Trust

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

“We’re going to begin combat trials.”

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

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

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

[We cannot hide our potential forever, or we will seem stagnant and useless,] I interject, trying to focus more on the interaction between Prime and Giovanni as Prime finishes expressing eagerness and then asks for the reason behind the sudden change. [We must say yes, of course.]

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

(See? He understands!)

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

“And the second?” Prime asks.

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

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

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

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

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

The only sound in the room is the beeping of my monitored heartbeat. Through my own surprise, I am distantly aware of Doubt’s attempts to find some hidden motive for what we’re being told.

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

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

(We do want to!)

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

(Right, changing the world is our thing!)

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

Giovanni looks as though he’s about to speak, but the clicking of Prime’s keyboard is heard, and he patiently waits for the message to be composed and spoken. “And you believe I can stop them? What are their abilities, specifically?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‹He’s talking about us!›

[Hush.]

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

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

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

“As I said, you will begin combat training. But you are right that simple strength is not the only goal.” Our creator stops pacing and turns to fully face us. “No matter how powerful a pokemon is, unless they are Dark their mind remains a weak point. Up until now, we have taught you little of psychic combat. Not the kind used in pokemon battles, but even the kind used among humans. Tools for espionage, and manipulation. The ideal was that you would act only against pokemon, and remain separate from human conflicts with one another. Perhaps you can find a way to neutralize pokemon as powerful as these through mental attacks. But if it means preempting such threats from occurring at all… it may be necessary for you to utilize such attacks against people.”

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

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

‹Yes, while turning us into a clandestine weapon against other humans! We will be even less capable of true freedom if the truth gets out, even more feared and hated by the public than the Stormbirds! Even casting them down would not earn us goodwill if we are perceived as a more powerful threat!›

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

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

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


Flourish

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

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

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

This is like entering a new world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(But it is unbearable!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‹Yes!›

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Direction we’re facing?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‹But she could be lying!›

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

‹Then redirect that sentiment!›

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must stop-›

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you well, Mewtwo?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Yes… Of course. Forgive me, I…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I volunteer.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Then we must grow beyond what they observe!)

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

‹Agreed.›

(Agreed.)

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

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

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

“Rattata, Tackle!”

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

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

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

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

“Stop! Mewtwo, what’s wrong?”

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

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

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

exquisite pain

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

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

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

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

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

‹No! We cannot risk it!›

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Victory

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

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

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

[I vaguely recall being like this…]

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

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

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

{What am I?}

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

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

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

{…I don’t understand?}

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

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

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

{Everything.}

Chapter 74: Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, how could he do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’ll continue your journey?”

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

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

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue frowns. “What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And—

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

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

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

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

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

“Odds?” Chron asks.

“Uh… Five for five.”

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

“That’s a terrible deal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What… did we miss something?”

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

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

“Come on, cameras, pan out…”

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

…a body. Lying in the road.

Oh…

“Is that…?”

“Shiiit…”

Oh, no…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like in a war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you do?” Chron asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Woah. What’s up with Bretta?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I do? I have to do something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you… had higher hopes for us?”

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

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

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

And Vlad…

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

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

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

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

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

But it feels like more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not sure.

But the anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 73: Teamwork

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Heard TaroChie,” Lizzy says.

“Heard Lizzy,” MG says.

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

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

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

“Shh. Anyone else hear that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is all. Good luck.”

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

“Together?” Taro asks.

“Can cover more distance apart,” Chie adds.

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

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

“Can we split too?” MG asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you?”

“With a few minutes of work, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MG, are you okay? Report!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got it.”

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

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

“Would they do that?”

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

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

“Do you need backup?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry… just a little dizzy…”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…yeah.”

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

“Right. You got it. Sorry, Blue, I—”

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

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

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

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

What? Who’s the trainer?”

“It’s Otto, he’s making it chase me!”

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

“No! Keep looking, I got this!”

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

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

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

“Will do!”

“Blue—”

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

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

“You bet!”

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

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

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

You’re welcome!

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

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

The buzz of the drone is a little louder. Did it get closer? He tries glancing around without shifting his head, but it’s floating somewhere above and behind him. He’s about to dismiss it when Zephyr suddenly screeches out a warning, flying a quick circle between two buildings on the next block, then rapidly flies back to Blue, landing on his shoulder.

“You’re getting way too big for this,” Blue mutters as he quickly feeds his pokemon a berry so that he’ll fly away, then quickly returns him to his ball. There’s something reassuring about knowing that he’s about to be attacked. The battle calm is already spreading through him as he moves to an open area and summons Ion.

The luxio is over twice as tall as he was when Blue got him from Leaf as a shinx, and comes up to his trainer’s waist. He sniffs the air as he gets his bearings, then widens his stance and growls… facing the direction that Zephyr marked.

Knowing that the gym members will use non-electric pokemon makes Blue extra glad he brought Ion.

“Charge,” he says, and slips his protective mask on as the yellow bands around his pokemon’s legs and the star at the end of its tail begin to glow. Electricity scintillates over its blue and black fur until it’s standing on end, and sparks arc between its grit teeth.

A heartbeat passes, then another, and then an expanding cone of ice swirls out of the alley and envelops the whole street.

Blue feels like he’s been dunked in a pool of ice water, immediately starting to shiver as the freezing wind cuts at his clothes and hair and seeps into his bones. He’s glad his eyes are protected by his facemask, but its surface quickly fogs from his breaths. Downside to not just having goggles, he thinks as he rips it off, wincing as his eyes and nose begin to sting from the cold. He sticks his fingers into his armpits to keep them warm as he yells, “S-s-seriously?!”

There’s no response. Not that he particularly expected one, but still, that was overkill. The cone of frost is evident along the ground and streetlights and trash bins, the center of it slightly off from Blue and his pokemon. If they were any closer, or hadn’t caught the diffuse end of the attack…

I should run. Blue doesn’t even know if there’s a civilian in danger. A distant part of him itches to take on whatever challenge this is, but his calm is still with him, and he knows how underprepared he is to face an ice pokemon, let alone one strong enough to use blizzard; his only pokemon not weak to it would be snorlax and wartortle, neither of which would have an offensive advantage. That distinction goes to rhyhorn, who Blue doubts would be able to take a single blizzard without needing to be withdrawn.

Ion’s Charge is helping protect him from the cold, steam rising off his body as small sparks connect between his fur and the remaining flakes of ice. “Follow,” Blue yells as he turns and starts to run, and he’s just keyed his microphone to tell the others what he found when he hears a scream.

It comes from the direction of the blizzard.

“Fuuuuck,” Blue whispers as he slows to a stop, and Ion does the same, fur still sparkling.

“What is it, Blue?”

“You okay?”

“What’s wrong?”

Woops. “I found another civilian, being guarded by something that just hit me with a Blizzard.” He turns back the way he came in time to see a/

/refrigerator(?)((!?))/

/floating toward him.

Blue blinks, then rubs his eyes and blinks again, and it’s his pokemon’s growl that makes understanding click into place. It’s a strange sensation, having knowledge blocked somewhere in his own head, like something having something on the tip of his tongue, but somehow ten times worse.

“Ion, bach!” His pokemon opens his mouth and lets out a bolt of energy, which appears to splash harmlessly against the fridge. Thanks to the Charge Beam TM Blue bought, the longer Ion stays in battle, charging and discharging electricity, the stronger he will become… but he wouldn’t last long without something to tank those blizzards.

The rotom opens its door to reveal an otherworldly purple glow, and Blue yells “Charge!” again before covering his face with both arms. The blast of cold is sharper this time, and his whole body convulses with shivers.

“What is it, Blue?”

“Rotuh-tuh-tom,” he says, teeth chattering as he drops a hand to his belt and bends fingers stiff from the cold around his heavy ball. “Ice tuh-type, may b-be trouble. Ion, b-bach!”

“I’m on my way,” Chie says.

“D-Don’t come to me,” Blue says, and throws. “G-Go, Snorlax!” The grey ball disgorges its massive contents, and Blue barely manages to catch it as it flies back at him, arm still shaking from the cold. “Check the buh-block I’m f-f-facing for th-the civ!”

“Right, on it!”

“Ion, Ch-charge! Snorlax, Protect!”

The attack comes a moment later, but instead of a blast of freezing air, Blue just feels a cool breeze. He lets out a breath of relief and quickly rearranges his healing gear so that he’s ready to treat not just electric burns but frostbite. Snorlax’s thick fat will protect them from the worst of the cold, but not forever. “Snorlax, pivot, Ion, bach!”

The large pokemon lifts one foot and swings its body to the side, and the light that bursts from Ion is twice as bright as the first was. The refrigerator jolts and vibrates as it’s hit… but its counter attack is swift, a burst of returning electricity that hits Snorlax and causes him to grunt in pain.

“Charge,” Blue tells Ion again, then tells Snorlax to protect them from the next attack. He hopes it will be the Blizzard again, and wonders who the rotom’s trainer is. He didn’t see anyone, but they must be nearby to give it commands… is it possible that it’s an actual wild rotom that was never found within the scenario grounds?

No, the drone came a little closer just before Zephyr noticed it. In fact, it’s strange that Zephyr noticed it at all, considering it doesn’t look like a pokemon, but a regular, floating fridge. He’ll have to look into that later.

As another blast of electricity hits Blue’s snorlax, Taro’s voice comes back, sounding utterly winded. “Okay… I lost it… goddamn fast for… a giant turtle…”

“You lost it?” Chie asks, sounding alarmed. “Where?”

“Uh… it was definitely still chasing me when I ran around the demolished skyscraper, but after that…”

“So there’s a blastoise just wandering around the scenario now. Awesome.”

“I’m sorry, weren’t you… the one who told me… not to get cornered?”

“It could be back on its way to you, Lizzy,” Chron cuts in. “Be careful.”

“I believe I’ve searched the area where Taro encountered the blastoise, but have found no civilians. It’s possible it was just roaming free, you know? But I’ll watch out for it, maybe follow it. It could lead me to one.”

“You be careful too, Blue, it might be on its way to help out the rotom.”

“Got it,” Blue says. Should he try to finish the battle sooner? No, beating it sooner probably won’t help get the civilian to safety much faster, he has to treat his pokemon as the main resource being expended until the civilian is safe.

“Snorlax, Pivot! Ion, bach!”

The rotom takes the electric attack and returns with another of its own, though to Blue’s relief its next attack is a Blizzard. The overwhelming strength of his opponent is balanced a little by it not using only its most optimal attacks, though even that wouldn’t save Blue if he didn’t have his snorlax. Was he meant to be facing this foe? None of the others have pokemon that would fare better… is that why it only attacked once Lizzy left?

“Blue, I’m here,” Chie says. “Looking for the civilian now.”

“Got it.” Blue keeps rubbing some of the earlier chill from his fingers as Ion continues building up his power, whole body glowing as the luxio’s breaths come harder and faster. “You’re doing great, Ion,” Blue says. “You too, Snorlax… Just a little longer…” His snorlax’s movements are noticeably slowing, and Blue can’t reach most of its wounds with his potions… especially not while it’s still blocking attacks from reaching them.

Luckily, snorlax aren’t just sought out for their bulk. Their strength is as terrifying as their size implies, and while you can’t punch a rotom, if he gets close enough to the fridge he could probably smash it to pieces. Snorlax are slow enough that Blue doesn’t want to risk sending it after something that can evade so easily… he’d rather keep using it as a tank for now. And they have yet another invaluable attribute for just such an occasion…

“Snorlax, Rest!”

His pokemon lets itself fall back into a sitting position, then slumps forward with a sigh, tension releasing from its body as it begins to heal.

Most pokemon aren’t particularly expensive to own; their pokeballs help reduce their maintenance and upkeep by a lot, so that even if a pokemon would normally need to eat a few times a day, their relative day may stretch out over a week by their trainer’s standards. Other than the minor energy costs for storage, all pokemon are essentially free if you don’t use them, but even a pidgey kept out of their ball all day every day won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars a year, whereas a gyarados could easily cost thousands if the trainer is investing heavily in their training or growth.

Snorlax are on the far end of the scale, their bodies requiring massive amounts of calories and long periods of restless sleep to maintain healthy levels of both muscle and fat… which they quickly burn through in combat to move quicker than they normally do, and regenerate damage they take through short, self-induced comas.

Even sitting, the hulking figure of Blue’s pokemon fully covers his, but he still crouches slightly as he braces for the next attack. “Ion, Charge.” He waits for the next electric or ice attack, preparing to run out of cover with his pokemon, order the attack, then run back…

But no attack comes. Instead Blue’s snorlax begins to twitch in his sleep, and grumble.

They taught it Dream Eater! Blue quickly snaps his arm up, feeling a rush of anger and apprehension even through the analytical thoughts considering his next move. Dream Eater isn’t an attack a wild rotom would know, but it’s the perfect counter to a snorlax, and he has nothing else that can take a frost rotom on. If it doesn’t go down in a couple hits…

“Snorlax, return!” Blue quickly backs up to open the distance between himself and his luxio, now that he’ll be the main target. “Ion, bach!”

The light bursts forth with an audible hum, and the fridge jerks and spins in mid-air as its door opens again. The howling Blizzard sweeps almost a full 360 degrees, covering most of the block in a thin layer of frost. To Blue it’s like his whole body gets slapped by a giant freezing hand, but a few blinks clear the tears from his eyes, and Ion seems unfazed… from the attack, at least. Blue can tell his pokemon is getting tired, and unclips its ball as he reclips Snorlax.

“Ion, Charge!” Blue yells. The rotom sends out an electric bolt this time, but Ion barely flinches, his own energy field seeming to divert it into the ground around him. He knows better than to hope the next attack isn’t another blizzard. The rotom is staying far enough that Blue doesn’t think a direct hit would seriously hurt him, but it might render him incapable of battling for a while.

What if I am? The rules said if I run out of pokemon, not if I need a breather. Not that he’d take one, wasting time could cost everyone their badge, but… It’s not going to attack me without a pokemon around. Rotom are just a little faster than blastoise… I can outrun it… and if it turns back toward Chie, re-engage it.

It’s a good plan. But it would rob Ion of the power he’s accumulated so far: a lot of things carry through pokemon swaps, but the energy his luxio is generating isn’t one of them. He would lose his chance to take the rotom down, and Ion would go down from another attack.

“Bach!” Another bloom of light, and as it hits Blue can almost make out the purple aura around the fridge, a pair of flat, alien eyes plastered over its front as the fridge falls out of the air with a crash… then lifts back up, steaming and swaying as electricity arcs from Ion to the ground around him, the loud snaps and crackles almost masking the sounds of Ion’s harsh breathing. Just a little more…

What comes out next isn’t a blast of ice or lightning; instead the purple glow around the fridge is more evident, coalescing on the side facing luxio, which doesn’t change even as it keeps rotating, a growing sphere of—

“Blue, I found the civilian. Moving with him now.”

Blue barely hears her as he unclips and throws his rhyhorn’s ball as far as he can toward the side of the fridge, waiting until it’s nearly reached it before yelling, “Go, Rive!”

The ball releases his pokemon and rockets back just as the purple sphere detaches and jets toward Ion. “Ion, Return! Rive, thar!”

Ion disappears in a flash of light just as the purple sphere passes through the space where he was, and Rive digs into the ground and tears out a chunk of asphalt, then launches it at the fridge. It hits with a THUD that seems to echo around the blockand sparks fly out the back of the fridge as its frame bends, popping the door open and leaving it unable to shut.

The fridge suddenly drops out of the air, and a glowing spot of orange and blue plasma zips away from it, back down the alley from which it came.

Blue stares, breathing hard as he waits to make sure it’s really over. Then he summons Ion back out.

His pokemon appears, then abruptly collapses, breaths coming fast and hard. Blue rushes over and sprays potion over it, the mist hissing as it touches his pokemon’s hot fur.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Ion. You did great,” he murmurs, and withdraws his pokemon. “You too, Rive, return.”

“Blue, are you okay?”

He opens his mic. “Sorry, yeah. I’m fine,” he says as he wipes sweat from his face.

“What happened?”

He glances at his former opponent. “I beat a fridge.”

“We’re all very proud of you,” MG says, sounding entirely serious. He can’t always get a read on her. “Also, I found another civilian, but the blastoise is patrolling nearby. I think we may need to defeat it?”

“Or we can get it to chase one of us again while the other rescues him. I’m coming,” Lizzy says.

“Be extra careful. This rotom seemed particularly prepared to fight my team, and showed up once I was alone,” Blue says as he starts jogging toward the next block. “Assume that you’re facing pokemon that will counter what you have, even if it would be rare or unusual.”

“Right.”

“Got it.”

It feels strange going from a battle that intense back to checking empty alleys and streets, but he has to be thorough. He checks the time and sees the battle only took about three minutes, which means they have just over fifteen left. “You’ve been quiet, Taro, how are you doing?

“Full of Glen’s Gogo Juice, and ready to gogo. Where do you need me?”

Chie sighs. “How do you keep coming up with worse names—”

“MG is at half strength, and I’m down two,” Blue interrupts. Snorlax would need to finish his Rest to heal up, which wouldn’t take too long, but the mental attack is more concerning. He’ll bring Snorlax out if he needs to, but should refrain until he can run him through drills to ensure nothing critical was eaten. “Chie, your pokemon are still fresh, meet up with me and I’ll escort the civilians while you finish searching this side.”

She finds him a couple streets later, and he leads her civilian to the alley where he and Lizzy left the first one. It’s a mild relief to see the trainer is still there. “As you can see, he’s injured,” Blue says to the newcomer. “Could you help him walk while I defend us from any wild pokemon?”

The two look at each other, then the new civilian nods and goes to help the “injured” one up. Soon Blue is leading both toward the bank, struggling against his impatience with the pace they’re setting as he summons Zephyr to scout around him again and keeps an eye out for any more attacks.

“Okay, MG. Ready when you are.”

“Ready. Count of three… two… one… go!”

Then there’s distant running, and a roar, and a yelp, and silence.

“MG? Lizzy?” Blue looks down the street in their direction and sees a rush of water spreading out from an alley and running down the sidewalk. He almost tells the civilians to wait here, or go the rest of the way alone, but after a moment he grits his teeth and keeps walking as his heart pounds. He wishes, not for the first time today, that his battle calm extended beyond just when he is in literal combat…

“Whew! You okay MG?”

“M-my hat…”

“I see it! One sec… is he looking away?”

“…wait… now, yes!”

“…Got it!”

“Thank you.”

“Okay seriously guys, what’s going on?” Chie asks.

“It didn’t try chasing me, it just used its cannons to blast water at us when we left cover. Made us jump back into hiding, and now it’s patrolling again.”

“So we do need to take it down.”

“Maybe,” Taro says. “Or maybe you just have to avoid getting seen. Stealth tactics, you know?”

“Try blinding it too,” Blue adds. “Smokescreen, Flash, whatever.”

“I believe I have a better idea,” MG says. “We will poison it. Eventually Otto will have to withdraw it before it succumbs.”

Taro sighs. “Shit, I should have done that, it would have already worn itself out chasing me…”

“It’s fine, we’ve got it,” Lizzy adds. “Switching off for a bit, we’ll let you know if we need backup.”

Blue is approaching the bank, and resists the urge to look up at the drone following him. If an attack will come, it would be now… But despite his tension, he leads the two civilians into the bank without incident. Chron is waiting, and guides them back to the room with the others as Blue stares at the pile of furniture stacked on either side of the door into the inner rooms until Chron comes back.

“Is this a barricade, or a trap…?”

“Both? I asked them to help, figured I could easily collapse them if needed, turn it into a big heavy mess for any attacking pokemon to dig through.”

Blue grins. “I like it. How are the ‘civilians’ doing?”

“Oh, one pulled a pack of cards out and asked if I wanted to play. Not sure if they know there’s no reason to keep the act up now, or if they’re trying to get me to lower my guard.”

Blue nods, wondering if there’s a way to get information out of them. “Your drone is still outside, so they’re keeping an eye on the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the area is hit the moment you try to leave. Hell, after the rotom I wouldn’t be surprised if the delay is them picking a pokemon that would be just the right challenge for what you’ve got left.”

Chron nods, face serious. “I’ll be ready. Now get back out there and do your part.”

Blue nods and tips a salute before jogging back into the sunlight. That’s four safely in shelter, with… twelve minutes left.

He feels his stomach drop. They have roughly half the area left to search. It’s tempting to send Chron out after all, maybe to slowly, safely work his way through the webs in that building…

We need to think of something better. Something that will help us with the search…

Blue closes his eyes and tries to think through the sense of dwindling time. Resources. Knowledge. Skills. What am I not fully utilizing? All of his trainers are being used, none have pokemon that would help find people or move faster, none of them have special knowledge of this area… do they have knowledge of the gym members? Experience hiding strategies in urban environments?

“All done with this area Blue, on my way back to start the other half.”

“Alright. I’ll come join you…” Blue trails off, still feeling like he should be able to think of something clever, something out of the box that will help them…

What would Red do?

He forces himself not to shy away from that thought. Red would use his psychic abilities, but that’s not helpful to Blue… he might use some knowledge of pokemon, something not related to battling. Blue has some of that, but he can’t think of anything that would help…

What would Leaf do?

She told him about what happened during the storm, what she and Red went through. Blue wanted to know, but he couldn’t tell how much of what she said was just trying to talk Red up, make Blue accept that he did a lot to save people. As if that was the point…

Focus! What would LEAF do?

Leaf’s strengths as a trainer don’t go toward battling, she would probably have trained her own pokemon to be able to do something more helpful in a situation like this, like finding injured people… her other skills are more centered around people, like Blue, she’s good at getting them to do things, like she did with the people in the apartment building that later caught fire…

Blue’s eyes widen, and he looks back toward the door Chron and the others piled furniture beside before quickly running through, back toward where the “civilians” are sitting and playing a card game.

“Everyone, please listen to me,” he yells, and they all jump. “There are other people out there that need help, and we’re not sure we can find them in time. I know it’s dangerous, but I’d like to ask you… no, beg you, to help us find them before the next wave hits.”

One of them chuckles, quickly covering their smile, while the rest look sheepish or confused. “I don’t think we…” another starts, but Blue cuts him off.

“I know you’re injured,” he says to the one whose arm still looks like it’s covered in blood. “You should stay here. But the rest of you, I can assure you that one of us will always be nearby to keep you safe, and we’ll make it back before the wave hits. So please…!” He claps his hands together and bows, as low as he can. “Help us save the others that are still out there!”

There’s an awkward silence, and Blue doesn’t dare look up or move. Thirty seconds. I’ll give it thirty seconds, then laugh it off and say it was worth a try and we’ll just have to run everywhere, and try the galvantula web… six… seven… eight…

He gets to fourteen before one of the civilians clears their throat, and shifts, and when Blue looks up he sees the woman getting to her feet. “I’ll help.”

Another hesitates a moment longer, then stands too. “Same.”

The one who smiled earlier is frowning at them, and after seeing Blue’s gaze on him shakes his head. “Dunno what Surge would expect.”

“It’s alright,” Blue says, and straightens with a smile relief making him feel giddy as his heart pounds. “It’s got to be realistic, right? Not everyone would come.”

Chron is staring with a mix of awe and incredulity. “You don’t think they’re going to try to punish this with more attacks or something?”

“They might,” Blue admits. “But I’d rather lose from battling than not try my best to save everyone. Hopefully we’ll be back soon.” He turns to the others. “Thank you. Now come on, there’s no time to lose!”

Blue leads them outside, and Zephyr takes off from a nearby building to fly overhead again. “Stay in sight of my pidgeotto, it’ll let us know if any pokemon are nearby. We’re going to go block by block checking the alleys, alright? If you so much as get a paranoid feeling that there’s a pokemon nearby, just run to me or one of the others.”

“You got it, Oak,” one of them says.

“You guys have fake names, or should I call you by your real ones?” He doesn’t remember their real ones, but it would be a good time to learn them either way…

“I’m supposed to be ‘Nellie.’ Got a backstory and everything; cruise ship chef.” She grins. “I think Nellie’s always wanted to do something meaningful, help people, you know?”

“I’m ‘Alex.’ Here on vacation.” The trainer shrugs. “Just figured it would be more interesting than sitting there and waiting.”

“Good enough for me.” Blue toggles his mic. “How are the buildings looking, TaroChie?”

“Done a block already, but we haven’t found anyone yet.”

“More hazards, though. Bunch of voltorb rolling around in one of the buildings. I marked it for if we get desperate.”

“Alright, I’m coming to sweep the alleys with help from a couple of the civvies. Protecting them is Priority 2, got it?”

Taro laughs, while Chie just says, “Got it.”

They make their way through the streets at a jog, and now each block takes just a couple minutes to clear. Blue worries briefly that one or both might not actually tell him if they find a civilian, but by the second block “Alex” calls out, and Blue runs over.

This civilian is pretending to be unconscious. Blue moves carefully toward her, and when the pile of rubble beside her shifts and an Alolan golem uncurls from inside it, Blue feels a spike of fear before the battle calm takes over.

“Go, Gon!” he yells, and his breloom appears just as the golem bellows and starts generating electricity between its prongs. “Contact! Gon, pam!”

The breloom’s legs coil, then he leaps forward in a green and tan blur to punch the golem just before its electricity arcs out into the street, hitting street lights. Gon leaps back in front of Blue, and begins bouncing from foot to foot, tail held high as he prepares for another attack.

“What is it, Blue? Need help?”

“No, I have double advantage. Keep searching, one of you come get the trainers!” Gon evolved a couple weeks ago, going from a squat, slow mushroom that was valuable for its status effects to one of Blue’s heaviest hitters. As long as it’s faster than its opponent, and against a golem it certainly is, Blue is confident it can win most fights it has advantage on… let alone one as stacked in its favor as this.

So much for facing pokemon that are designed against him, though to be fair this does seem like a mostly random encounter.

There’s a clicking sound from somewhere above, and Blue looks up to see Sabra standing on the roof. She waves at him, and Blue quickly looks back down to see the golem charge its body with electricity.

Blue quickly orders another Mach Punch, then follows up with a Leech Seed. No matter how hard Gon hits, golems’ hides are tough, and he doesn’t know how strong this one is. Better to play it safe, wear it down and keep his distance while darting in for attacks…

No. He doesn’t have that luxury, the sooner he takes it down the better. After the golem charges at Gon and punches him with an electrically charged fist, Blue yells, “Counter!” and watches as the two begin slugging it out at close range. It may be tough, but its electricity will barely faze Gon, while his attacks are each striking at weak points, resonating deep through its rocky hide…

And then there’s another series of clicks, and Blue yells “Dodge!” on sheer instinct as the golem’s electricity seems to loop back on himself, and his whole body starts to glow with heat…

But as soon as Gon leaps away, electricity arcs through it, and Blue’s gaze snaps to the source of it: a stunfisk lying flat against the ground that had been hiding under another pile of rocks.

Blue quickly summons Maturin as he tries to withdraw Gon too, but the golem is lumbering forward, and one red-hot fist knocks the paralyzed breloom into a spinning fall. “Gon, return! Maturin, bab!” And then he reclips Gon’s ball and whistles on his flute while pointing at the stunfisk.

Blue can only follow what happens next because he initiated half of it. As Gon disappears in a flash of red energy, Maturin spits a bubblebeam at the golem, knocking it into the nearby wall, then the ground, its hide turning white wherever the water splashes. Just a blink later, an arc of electricity hits Maturin, and hasn’t even ended when Zephyr divebombs the stunfisk and begins tearing at it with beak and talons.

A heavy ball is thrown from above, and withdraws the golem. Blue quickly orders another bubblebeam against the stunfisk, hoping to knock it out before it retaliates against Zephyr, but instead the flat fish electrocutes Maturin again, and Zephyr takes some of the shock just from proximity, or from his continued attacks. Blue quickly withdraws both his wartortle and pidgeotto as he realizes this isn’t a fight he needs to win.

“Forfeiting, Oak?” Sabra calls from above.

“Hardly,” he calls back up, reclipping his pokemon to his belt and checking the time. Nine minutes left. “I could keep fighting with both and maybe you’d take one or the other down before it died, but if this were a real battle you’d withdraw it by then, and if it were a real wild battle I’d capture it. Stunfisk can barely move outside of water or mud.”

“So you’re going to just walk by it?”

“Nope,” Blue says, and runs… around the block, to approach from the opposite side of the street. Like he said: stunfisk can barely move on dry land.

Blue quickly reaches the downed civilian and takes a variety of medication out, spraying her with potions and paralyze heals onto her shirt, then sticks an awakening nozzle into her nose. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but she gets the cue and “wakes up” on her own.

“Hi!” he says with a grin and grips her arm to pull her up. “We might want to run. I don’t know what else she has… I mean, might be lurking around here.”

She smiles and follows him at a jog, and once they’re a distance away Blue summons Zephyr again and heals him. “So, quick proposition… help me find other survivors, or I can take you to a safe locati—”

“The blastoise is down,” Lizzy says, sounding giddy. “Took it long enough. We’ve extracted the civilian and are heading back to the bank—”

“No time,” Blue interrupts. “I mean, good work, but also, just keep them with you. Wait, are they hurt?”

“No, they’re walking on their own.”

“Good, because we’re running short on time and need to make a decision between searching the rest of the buildings we haven’t yet, or go back to the galvantula web or voltorbs. No need to defeat them all, just make your way through it and see if anyone’s alive in either.”

“I was thinking about that, Blue,” Lizzy says. “Galvantula don’t spin webs like that unless they know their area is secure. It’s… not likely anyone would be alive in one’s nest.”

Shit. “But not impossible?”

“No, not impossible, if they’re hiding in a closet or something.”

“Well, our other alternative is the voltorb building, and frankly that just seems suicidal,” Chron says. “I vote we try the galvantula webs.” He sighs. “And by ‘we’ I mean you all, of course.”

Taro and Chie agree, and the others stay outside to protect the civilians helping them and keep searching themselves. Blue is approaching the next block when he hears a crackle and Zephyr screeches in pain. Blue’s head snaps up to see his pokemon falling out of the sky, and leaps forward to return it before it hits the ground, then leaps back with a yell as another bolt of electricity suddenly hits the ground nearby.

He follows the path of its afterimage, blinking rapidly, and sees Surge standing on the roof of a nearby building, a raichu beside him.

Blue gapes up at him for a moment, a mix of excitement and worry being mostly suppressed by confusion. With Surge’s pokemon so far away, how is Blue supposed to battle him?

I’m not. This isn’t a challenge to battle… Surge has removed himself as an opponent, maybe predicting the earlier sentiment that Chron shared. It’s a hazard, something he’s supposed to figure out, not bash his way through. Which means…

Blue opens his map and pings his location. “Lizzy, I need you.” Then he looks around before first dragging over a metal garbage bin, then a wide plastic tarp from the back of a truck, then a broad stack of pvc pipe. By the time Lizzy arrives, he’s staring at the truck itself again.

“What’s goin-oh-shit-it’Surge,” Lizzy gasps, hand darting to her pokeball as she stares up at the gym leader. “Blue, it’s Surge! What’s he doing up there?”

“Guarding something, I’m pretty sure,” Blue says. “Do you think we could hotwire this truck?”

Lizzy blinks, then looks at him. “That’s what you need my help with?”

“Well I don’t know how much you know about cars, so maybe not. I was just thinking out loud, like, do you think it would be against the rules? I guess I can ask.” Blue looks up at the gym leader and cups his hands around his mouth. “Hey Leader, is it okay if I borrow this truck?”

Surge shakes his head, but Blue can’t make out his expression. Is he saying no to the question, or refusing to answer? Maybe it’s exasperated acceptance… no, better play it safe. “Sorry, the actual thing I asked you to help with is getting past him. I think this is a challenge, to see—”

“-how well we paid attention during our classes,” Lizzy says with a nod, and Blue blinks. He was going to say ‘how resourceful we are,’ but Lizzy immediately begins examining the things he gathered, then looks around them. “There’s a safe path… I think. The start of one.” She traces something that looks like an inwardly turning maze, but Blue can’t make it out. “I could guide you, but I suspect you would rather cheat.”

Blue grins. “You got me.”

She smiles. “We’ll need more metal. What’s the plastic tubes and tarp for?”

“I figured something non-conductive could be held up for cover?”

Lizzy shakes her head. “Tallest thing is generally going to be struck in a natural environment, no matter what it’s made of. With pokemon to guide things it’s a bit different, but there’s a rule where you can’t repel electricity from something, just conduct it. The reason lightning rods are metal is to avoid too much resistance that would lead to… well.” She points to one of the nearby burned buildings. “That tarp could be used to step on though, to avoid shocks from below, but our feet are already pretty protected by our rubber soles. Maybe bring it for a civilian?”

“Right. I’ll go get more trash bins then,” Blue says, having resisted the urge to tell her now isn’t the time for a science lesson. It takes another precious three minutes for him to bring her what she needs, and soon they’ve got a makeshift lightning rod to move and travel carefully around his building, checking its alleys and side streets.

“Ugh, web is full of spiders!” Taro yells in their ear.

“That’s horrible,” MG responds. “No one could have predicted this.”

“We’ll be back,” Chie says. “Fighting!”

Blue wants to yell for them to just get out and not waste the time, or risk getting wiped out. But they’re out of options, and so he keeps quiet, and hopes they’re okay.

Surge gives them a few token shocks, keeping them hunched over. The civilian is inside the electronic instrument shop (“Surge is hilarious,” Blue pants as he tugs the lightning rod to just outside the door) and he convinces her to leave with them, trying to hurry despite the circumstances.

“We’re out,” Blue says once they’re out of range,. “And we found one.” They hurry to clear the rest of the blocks, searching desperately, now, a mix of hope and dread on every face Blue sees. Two more… come on TaroChie, you’ve got it… fire pokemon, rock pokemon…. You can do this…!

“Whew! We’re through, and we did indeed find someone in a closet! Coming out now!”

Blue grins, but it’s short lived as the minutes keep twitching inexorably down. Eight. Eight out of nine in twenty five minutes. Five minutes to find one, just one… The thoughts keep racing through Blue’s head as he tries to think of what they might be missing. Are they really expected to go into a building full of voltorb if they don’t know there’s a civilian in there? They obviously wouldn’t make them explode, but…

Blue is clearing the last block before he spots Nellie on the other side open a dumpster lid, peer inside, then close it… and he suddenly freezes in place, eyes wide. One hand rises to his ear piece, and he says, in a voice that surprises him with how calm he sounds, “Did anyone think to check the dumpsters and trash bins?”

There’s silence for a moment, and then…

“No?”

“Checked if I could hide in one during the chase, but couldn’t fi—Oooh—”

“Why would we—”

“—shiiiit…”

“Oh!”

“Dammit, seriously?”

“Seriously,” Blue says, and starts running. “Full resweep of the streets, now, and check every closed container you find! Careful of pokemon lurking in some, just run if you find any!”

The task quickly proves to be disgusting, and some of the others do indeed find a couple grimer and a trubbish waiting for them under the lids. But with two minutes left, Blue runs for the area where he fought the rotom. He starts looking through them in such a rush that he almost closes his third dumpster before realizing that what he’s seeing isn’t just a pile of clothes. It helps that it’s screaming.

“Ahh!” The man inside cowers, curled up, then looks up with a smile. “Oh, you’re not a poke—”

Blue drops the lid as his other hand covers his face, sighing. “I found him. Everyone get back to the bank, now!” He opens the lid again and grabs the nonplussed gym member’s hand, pulling him out of the bin and onto the street. “Are you okay? No injuries or anything?”

“Uh, well now that you mention it—”

Blue takes out a pair of potion bottles and sprays all over his clothes. “Now? Anything else?”

The young man cowers back slightly from the look in Blue’s eyes, and swallows, glancing between the two potion bottles. “Um. I think I’m good…”

“Good. Then run, because the next wave is about to hit!”

Blue knows he gave himself almost a minute of grace when he set his alarm, but his heart is still pounding in his throat as they race for the bank, only to face a small horde of pokemon waiting on main street. Surge and Sabra and Aigerim and Otto and two others that Blue doesn’t recognize are standing beside their pokemon, and without pausing Blue grabs the civilian’s arm and pulls him down an alley, opening his mic again. “We’re coming in from behind, Surge and the others are out here!”

“I’m going to collapse the front,” Chron says. “Everyone else get to one of the fire exits and guard it!”

There are seventeen seconds left when Blue spots everyone fanned out in a half circle around the bank’s side entrance, their pokemon out and waiting. Blue can hear the horde coming, now, the gym leadership’s pokemon roaring and howling as they march on the bank, and Blue finds himself grinning wide, suddenly sure that this has been fun for them. He sees similar, celebratory grins on everyone’s faces as, stitch in his side and hand still clamped firm around the last civilian, Blue rushes past them and into the bank.

The others quickly pile in and close the doors, then start to whoop and cheer before Blue raises his hand.

“Not yet,” Blue pants as his alarm goes off. “Everyone in the same room with the civilians, let’s go!”

There’s a banging sound from the front, and Chron is just arriving as they do, looking worried, but with laughter in his eyes. “Man, this bank is probably not going to be happy with what the Leader’s doing to their furniture.”

“In, in,” Chie says to the civilians, pushing them all inside. Then, without a word, the trainers all fan out again, summoning pokemon to stand beside them.

And then they wait, listening to the sound of moving (breaking?) furniture.

And then silence, followed by footsteps, followed by…

Leader Surge, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, and a smile on his face at the sight before him.

“Congratulations,” is all he says, and then everyone cheers.


Mrs. Khatri and Mr. Iha look quietly furious.

Blue sits in Leader Surge’s office. There was a brief ceremony in the street, in front of the drone cameras. His third badge sits next to the other two, and he keeps glancing at it, enjoying the way the light gleams off its yellow surface. He quickly returns his attention to the conversation going on around him each time… the conversation that started within an hour of the match finishing, Surge escorting him away from his teammates and other friends so he could speak with him privately.

Instead of a heart to heart with his Leader, however, Blue had to hold in all his questions once he saw the two league officials back again.

Somehow, caught up in everything as he was, he didn’t even consider that, as he was focusing on his objectives, on the realism the scenario was intended for, that realism was extending to attacks from the pokemon that were actually hitting him and his teammates. Hearing the two yell about it did reframe those moments with a bit more seriousness, somehow.

“Well?” Surge asks Blue, brow raised. “Would you care to make a formal renegade accusation?”

“Of course he’ll say no,” Mr. Iha says just as Blue opens his mouth to.

“Don’t be overdramatic, Leader,” Mrs. Khatri sighs. “That’s not our goal here, and you know it. This isn’t what we talked about when we condoned these scenarios.”

“All I know is that you are asserting that my gym members were at risk during their challenge match,” Surge says, hands laced over his desk and tone cold. “Let’s let the trainer speak this time, shall we? Blue, what are your thoughts?”

Blue waits half a minute, forming his words, then simply says, “It was great.” He keeps his expression calm as he turns to the two League representatives, as if all this is completely unimportant and obvious. “I knew how far I was from the opponent pokemon at all times, and I trusted the gym members and Leader to not do anything that would endanger me. We’ve all trained and learned well, whether it was studying safest trainer distances from enemies, or the distance over the ground that electricity can travel.”

“I’m willing to believe you both,” Mrs. Khatri says. “But consider the optics. The whole region, maybe the whole world, saw trainers being knocked off their feet by blastoise water cannons, and being nearly frozen solid.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I understand,” she repeats, gaze on his. “But imagine how it will play to others. How some will react against it, and others will adopt a new, laxer standard. When do you suspect the first death will take place?”

Blue grits his teeth, waiting for Surge to answer, then realizes it was asked of him. “Trainers occasionally get hurt during battles, real or not.” He shrugs. “We may be limiting ourselves.”

“Trainers get hurt, by accident,” Mr. Iha says. “Some attacks have wide range, sometimes pokemon miss or trainers don’t pay attention to where they’re positioned. But pokemon should never attack if a human is too likely to be caught in the radius.”

Surge snorts. “That was a foolish regulation when you tried to pass it, and I won’t pretend it has moral weight on its own. A pokemon that can’t follow an explicit order, even if it risks harm to a human, is a pokemon that can’t handle a wide range of real situations where it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the human is already dead. Or they’re being eaten alive, right in front of you, and the only way to save them risks hurting them too.” Surge’s face is like stone as he stares down the angry league official until he looks away, then turns to Mrs. Khatri.

“You’ve made your point,” she says, her own anger more under control. “And as I said, it doesn’t matter. The pokemon will still need to be turned over for examination, and the incident investigated and discussed before any further scenarios are constructed.”

“What?!”

Everyone ignores Blue’s outrage as Surge unclips three balls from his belt and hands them over, which distracts him anyway. He almost expresses his surprise that Surge was the rotom’s trainer, then clamps his mouth shut. The Leader was clearly prepared for this meeting, and Blue isn’t going to risk throwing a wrench in things without thinking. They have the drone footage, anyway, which would either clear the Leader or wouldn’t.

“The scenarios will continue,” Surge asserts, not leaving room for them to argue. “But we will restrain ourselves to simple, static battles until your investigation officially recognizes that we’re not being negligent with our trainers.”

Blue wants to yell that that’s pointless, that Glen and Elaine and the others wouldn’t get a real challenge that way, wouldn’t get to really experience what they did, what they all worked for… But again he grinds his teeth together, and waits until the two representatives leave.

As soon as they do, some of his anger burns itself out, the arcanine prowling in his chest without a clear source to unleash his anger on. This was supposed to be a day of triumph, but somehow all he can think of is that they may have lost something precious before it even really got a chance to begin and grow.

“Well, ” Surge says after a moment as he pulls a small flask from his desk, unscrews, and drinks from it. “Now that’s out of the way… what did you think?”

Blue looks at his Leader to see he’s smiling. After a moment, Blue smiles back.

“It was great. Amazing. I have a lot of questions.”

Surge nods. “I have some time to spare.”

“The rotom… I never saw their trainer, until the end maybe. Psychic?”

“Ah, yes. Two of the staff members were not from our Gym. A loan of sorts, especially requested. It made for a useful added range of challenge.”

Blue nods. “How realistic did you actually want it to be? I feel like we cheated, at times, but…”

Surge shakes his head. “You can’t cheat if you follow the rules. And if anyone’s at fault for the rules-as-written, it’s me. As for how realistic… I think you’ve guessed. As much as possible, given constraints.”

Given constraints. Surge and his people selected that too, for the most part, but there was an unforced expectation that the pokemon would follow “wild” guidelines despite being explicitly trainer-guided… Blue almost mentions how that can change the lens of the exercise, but his new revelation is more well rounded, now.

“You’re not just using these scenarios to train us for Tier incidents,” he says, voice quiet.

Surge raises a brow at him, then takes another drink before capping it and putting it in his desk. “What makes you say that?”

“You wouldn’t have let pokemon use moves they could only learn from TMs if you were, even if it would provide us the best challenge.” The Leader watches him expectantly a moment, and Blue presses on. “You’re preparing us for renegades. Sabotage. Why? Is it just in case, or… is something happening?”

But even as he asks, Blue realizes he’s got it wrong. The Leader’s face shows genuine confusion, for a moment, and then he smiles again, the sheepish tones to it looking strange on the Leader’s face.

“I forgot. You faced exactly that situation on Mount Moon, of course that’s what you would think of first.” His smile fades. “I’m sorry if it brought back any memories, in the moment, that wasn’t my intention. Too many other things to consider, something was bound to slip through the cracks.”

Blue waves a hand to the side. “No, it’s fine… But then, I don’t understand. What were you going for?”

The Leader shrugs. “You’ve got at least one more match to figure it out. Let me know if you do. Maybe you’ll decide to stay after all.” He smiles. “I would be happy to have you, if so.”

Blue grins at the compliment, brief but sincere. “I can’t promise I’ll stay. But I can say I’ll be back… one day as Champion.”