Tag Archives: rationalist fiction

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 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 71: Imposter Syndrome

At first, all he feels is overwhelming hunger in the pit of his stomach, gnawing and burning and growing to encompass his whole being. He feels weakness next, a lethargy that makes him struggle to wake, struggle to open his heavy lids as the temperature grows, heating his skin like he’s a foot away from a bonfire.

He opens his eyes to see his bedroom lit by pale blue flames. The lampent hangs over his prone form, a fixed point in the universe that makes Red feel insubstantial and unreal, an intruder in its dreamworld rather than it a part of his.

Because it is a dream, he’s sure of that. It must be, even if he feels his heart pounding, even if his stomach is cramping with hunger, even if his sweat is soaking through his sheets, because the only way this could really happen is if Jason wants to hurt him, and they just started becoming friends, and even terrified and hungry, Red can compare how likely each reality state is and conclude that a dream is more probable.

Or maybe he just wants that to be true, because the alternative would somehow hurt more.

But it’s still a huge relief when Red gasps awake to the chime of his phone receiving a message, his eyes darting around his totally normal room, dimly lit by the warm sunlight streaming in through the shades and the electric glow of his phone…

He rolls over to dry the cold sweat from his face against his pillow, then reaches out and pulls the phone toward him.

The message was Rei letting everyone know to bring their phone or a laptop to their breakfast meeting. Red waits for his heartbeat to slow before he forces himself out of bed to shower. Now that he’s not stuck in the nightmare he can remember that they’re a common symptom of exposure to ghosts, and he resolves to only ask Jason if there’s still some residue from his encounter if he has another nightmare tomorrow. To keep himself from lingering over it, he focuses on the upcoming meeting.

This is his chance to really push for the idea he came up with last night. He spent almost two hours “boggling” over what minds are and how they work, occasionally stopping to look into some facts and research some theories until he formed a hypothesis that might explain the perfect shield with all the information he has in mind.

The ability to lie without detection could have something to do with partitions or some unique development of mental shields, but when Red followed his confusion down to its central kernel, it led him, as ever, to pokemon biology.

In this case, specifically the way pokemon with multiple brains think and feel and experience the world. Perhaps because of his own internal struggle with Past Red, there’s a sense that understanding that might be the key to both integrating his partitioned self and developing the perfect shield.

All he has to do is convince the others to let him work on it… or better yet, get someone else to help. A difficult task when at least half of his peers are open about their lack for respect for him.

His moderate success with Jason aside, he can’t help but feel like the lack of regard from the other students is well earned. He doesn’t feel as impressive as them, and he wonders as he turns the shower off and starts to dry himself whether he would have accepted Sabrina’s invitation if he and Blue hadn’t fought. He still remembers what he decided on the SS Anne, only to change his mind after his argument with Leaf. Maybe he really did come here too early.

The thought is so depressing that he quickly checks to see if his partition is still up and working. Confirming that it is doesn’t particularly cheer him.

He pulls his clothes on and makes his way down to the building’s third floor, which divides the upper apartments where the students live from the lower ones that serve as public meeting spaces and classrooms, then enters the kitchen to find most of Sabrina’s students already sitting around the large kitchen table or moving among the kitchen counters and cabinets fetching yogurt, cereal, fruit, and other breakfast staples.

He’s briefly distracted by the sight of Tatsumaki floating nuts and berries in an orbit around her head and into her mouth as both hands type on her phone, then goes to one of the fridges and starts pulling out food. They can each buy their own food to stock the cafeteria with, but generic groceries also show up courtesy of the money they make by teaching classes, which is also what covers their rent. This means that, though in some indirect way it is his effort that’s paying for it, he’s not actually purchasing the food that shows up in the fridge, which means Red can eat any unclaimed meat in it (mostly) guilt free.

He’s still layering bacon on his cream cheese, hummus, and guacamole bagel when the last student files in. Satori takes a look around as her torracat walks between her legs, then goes to the fridge to pull out a fruit salad for herself and a can of fish for her pokemon.

“Thank you all for coming,” Rei says as soon as the last of them is sitting at the table. Her own breakfast consists of a fruit smoothie, which she holds in one hand as the other taps at her laptop keyboard. “I hope you’ve all managed to spend some time thinking over the puzzle Sabrina has charged us with solving. Does anyone have any questions before we begin?” She looks around at everyone busy eating. “Great. I’ve prepared a document for us to use to share ideas and suggestions on how to proceed. Please follow the link I’m sending now.”

Red takes a big bite, then pulls his phone out as it vibrates and opens it one handed so he can click through to the shared document as he chews. It already has half a page filled out:

Rei

Hypothesis 1: Sufficient focus on projecting a false emotion or thought while shielding could result in others sensing something that feels real to untrained psychics.

Test 1: Psychic with best projection ability should practice projecting while shielding.

Test 2: Everyone else practices projecting false emotions/thoughts.

Hypothesis 2: Projecting multiple sincere things at once at varying intensity may allow someone to hide emotions and thoughts in plain sight.

Test 1: Everyone should practice expanding their projection abilities to see if others will eventually be unable to process everything they feel.

Hypothesis 3: If others are within range, it’s possible to “relay” something being sensed from someone else in a projection that feels genuine.

Test 1: Chain of 3-4 psychics take turns projecting and reading others at the same time.

Test 2: Psychic being read “assists” psychic projecting.

New words start forming as everyone else begins typing into the common document:

Daniel

With enough understanding of how mental shields or partitions work, the psychic might be able to only let certain emotions or thoughts through. We should

Jason

We don’t know the circumstances, but I’ve wondered before whether an unscrupulous medium could

Satori

Psychic may have unique dark/psychic brain like Inkay line.

A sudden paragraph from Rowan all at once, who clearly already had his thoughts typed out:

Rowan

The psychic may have switched between partitions that split their thoughts entirely from themselves. We don’t know how exactly this was discovered; maybe they induced amnesia to forget something, raised a partition around the emotion of not wanting to forget things, were asked a question about it, answered it honestly, then lowered the partition, which motivated them to remove the amnesia. Did some practice with this, think it may be possible. We should practice doing this and testing what we come up with to see if it would work.

Red has to force himself to stop reading their thoughts and start typing his own. He takes his notebook out and flips it open, then begins summarizing.

Red

Hypothesis: Psychic adapted this ability from a pokemon who has multiple minds.

Plan: Learn more about how pokemon with more than one brain process disparate information and resolve potential disagreements. Separate minds = separate trains of thought? Contradictory thoughts?

“Tatsumaki?” Rei asks, and Red looks up to see Rei watching the green haired girl. Red checks the document and notices she hasn’t written anything yet, despite still being on her phone.

“Got nothing,” the telekinetic says with a shrug, still orbiting food into her mouth every few seconds. “Not where my specialty lies.”

Rei doesn’t seem satisfied with that, but looks back at her screen without comment. He takes another bite of food, savoring the mix of flavors before he goes back to writing.

Test 1) Merge with doduo’s two minds at once, see if multithreading possible.

Red tries to think of what else to write, and gets distracted as one of the nuts floating around Tatsumaki jerks out of orbit and starts bobbing through the air toward Daniel. Tatsumaki frowns in concentration without looking up, and the nut stops and vibrates between them, twitching back and forth, before it suddenly flies at Daniel, only to stop at the last second right in front of his mouth for him to eat.

“Alright, it looks like everyone has written their ideas out,” Rei says, and Red quickly writes out his second test as Rei keeps speaking:

Test 2) Try to merge with separate seeds in exeggcute and figure out how single mind forms?

“…should discuss each, and choose which one to focus our attention on.”

Red feels his heart sink. This is what he was worried would happen; he doesn’t find it too likely that others would agree to work on his idea, but more importantly they shouldn’t all commit themselves to any single idea.

“Satori, would you like to expand on yours first?” Rei asks. Red checks and sees that she had stopped after a single line.

The girl shrugs, not looking up from her bowl as she spears each piece of fruit and chews. “Pretty simple. Think the psychic might be unique. Chimera between dark and psychic parents. Sensei can look into it.”

“What’s a chimera?” Jason asks.

“Mythical pokemon that are combinations of different species,” Red says. “Like, a pyroar’s head on a gogoat’s body with a seviper for a tail.”

“And that’s… possible, for people?”

“Fraternal twins that merge in the uterus,” Satori explains before sticking a piece of melon into her mouth.

Jason blinks, and Red imagines his own expression looks a lot like the medium’s. “What?”

“Wait, back up a step.” Tatsumaki says as she turns to Jason, tone playful. “You know where babies come from, right?”

“I’m a medium, not a monk,” he says, smiling slightly.

“Does that actually happen?” Daniel asks, tone skeptical.

Satori glances up, sees everyone looking at her, and looks down at her fruit again, fidgeting. “Yes. Very rarely.”

“‘When the absorption is incomplete, this results in the child having both complete sets of genes,'” Red reads from his phone, fascinated. “‘Which often results in patches of different colored skin, eyes of two different colors, and if the twins are of different genders…’ Oh.” Red minimizes the page, cheeks flushed.

“So what probability would you assign this particular circumstance?” Rei says, and Red can tell she’s fascinated and skeptical too, even as she tries to regain control of the conversation.

“Low. Dark and Psychic parents are rare, traits are mostly maternal.” Satori shrugs. “Might not be possible. Just an idea.”

“So we probably shouldn’t waste time on it,” Daniel concludes.

“But it is a good idea,” Red jumps in, looking at Satori. “It’s just not something we can test. I can do some research on the potential genetics involved, if you want, and we can present the idea to Sabrina when she’s back?”

Satori looks up at him briefly, then nods as she returns to her food.

“Thank you, Red,” Rei says, and types Red – Research on own time in red letters beside Satori’s idea. “Next let’s—”

“Hang on,” Red says. “I think… I want to make sure, before we discuss the others, that we’re going about this with the right attitude.”

Rei’s brow rises slightly, but she opens a palm in invitation to continue, and Red nods, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “My mentor at Pallet Labs, Dr. Madi, liked to tell a story about a group of five biochemists were tasked with creating a solvent for different pokemon webbings,” Red says. “They worked together to come up with hypotheses based on each one’s chemical makeup, from caterpie to galvantula, and tried formulating each solvent along the way. A month later they had found only two of them. One of the researchers was married to an engineer, and they vented their frustration over dinner.”

Everyone is more obviously paying attention now, even Satori’s phone is leaning against the table, and he considers asking them if they can guess what the engineer did before squashing that impulse. Not the time to mimic his teachers. “So the engineer decided to fill dozens of bowls with every liquid they could think of, then put samples in each to see which ones dissolve at all. Once they found one, it became much easier to isolate the chemicals that would have a reaction.”

“So you’re saying everyone should just pursue their own ideas?” Tatsumaki asks.

“Nah,” Daniel says. “He’s saying we should just get to experiments, not spend too much time thinking about what might be true.”

“Kind of both?” Red jumps in. “I think we should all come up with something testable for our ideas, like Rei and I did, and give each a try rather than committing to just one that everyone works on.”

“Not all of these can be proven with a single experiment,” Rowan says.

“They don’t have to be proven,” Red says, and has to resist the urge to explain how science works to a room mostly full of people who either already know or don’t care. He briefly wonders if he would have had the foresight to recognize that a few months ago. “Even something small that might falsify them would be a better filter to narrow down ideas of what to spend more time on. If they show promise, we keep going in that direction, but if not we table that hypothesis and focus on the others.”

Daniel shakes his head. “It would take a lot of time to even give that an honest attempt. Just look at your idea; even Satori takes days to fully merge with a pokemon.”

“And some of these ideas require multiple people to test them,” Rei adds. “Your analogy is well taken, Red, but we shouldn’t split our efforts entirely. I’d like to return to considering each idea as a group, and we can at least decide which are worth pursuing to a first stage test?”

Red hesitates, unsure if he should try challenging her again. No one else is speaking up, so after a moment he nods with a sinking feeling.

“Daniel, it looks like your idea is similar to Rowan’s. Do you want to go before him?”

“Sure. I know we’ve already been trying to figure this stuff out, but knowing something is possible changes things. I spent most of last night talking to Tetsuo about shields and how specific he can get with them. If there’s a way to just shield part of your thoughts, a sort of quasi-partition if you will, then that seems like it would do the trick all on its own.”

“Agreed, it makes sense as an avenue to explore.” Rei highlights his idea in the document. “Rowan?”

“Seems pretty self-explanatory. I’m probably the one with the best chance at figuring it out, if this is the way to do it, but if anyone else thinks it’s worth trying, go for it.” He glances at Red.

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. He does actually find Rowan’s idea interesting, but he’s avoided experimenting with new partitions while he’s still having so much trouble with his current one. Explaining that to Rowan led to a similar loss of interest from the older student as Tatsumaki learning that he can’t use telekinesis.

“So long as you don’t need anyone else,” Rei says, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t pursue the idea. But we may need you to test other hypotheses as well.”

The young man shrugs. “Anyone’s welcome to ask, and I’ll help out if I’m free.”

Red sees Tatsumaki roll her eyes and Daniel glance at Rei with a brow raised, but the blonde doesn’t argue the point, merely pursing her lips and writing his name next to his idea. Red wonders if she’s not pushing the matter because she doesn’t think it’s worth the argument or expenditure of social capital, or if she’s just glad for the excuse not to work with him.

“Jason?”

He starts to fiddle with his necklace. “My idea is obvious, given where my skills fall. It’s dependent on certain factors that should be easy enough to check once Leader Sabrina returns, but there are stories of mediums who do not cleanse the influence of Ghosts on the soul, but rather manipulate and channel it.”

“Is that something you’ve tried yourself?” Daniel asks, sounding skeptical.

“No, nor do I intend to.”

It takes a moment for people to understand the implication. Jason bears the surprised looks from around the table with a calm expression, though his fingers continue to move over the prayer beads at his neck.

Red is the first to speak. “Because you consider it wrong, or dangerous?”

“Both.”

Rei is frowning slightly. “Setting aside any modesty, my understanding is that you’re one of the most skilled mediums in the Indigo League. If it’s too dangerous for you…”

“We still don’t know who sensei was referring to,” Tatsumaki reminds her. “For all we know it was Morty, or—”

“Leader Matsuba is an honorable person,” Jason says, calm but firm, with only the slightest emphasis on the title. “And I did not mean dangerous in the sense you are thinking. You fear the axe to the tree, not the poisoning of the water.”

There’s another moment as the room absorbs that. “You’re talking about morally dangerous?” Daniel guesses, and Jason’s brow creases, but he doesn’t deny it. “Usually that’s covered under ‘wrong.'”

Red can see the frustration on Jason’s face as he tries to explain. “It is more… spiritually dangerous. An eroding of moral safeguards.” He looks around as if seeking understanding, and Red wishes he could support him, but he doesn’t get it either.

“Seems oddly specific to have a religious tenet against imitating the effects of surrealism to fool a psychic reading your thoughts,” Rowan says, not bothering to hide his skepticism. Daniel covers a snort by clearing his throat. “But if that’s written somewhere, that might indicate some precedence…”

“It is not,” Jason says, still clearly frustrated. “It is a personal belief. I have no intention of learning something that could cause such impure thoughts.”

Red suddenly thinks of the cleansing ritual, and it clicks. “Oh! I think I get it,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Stealing is morally ‘wrong,’ while learning how to better steal is ‘dangerous.’ It may not be wrong itself, but it is a moral danger.”

Jason smiles and nods, and Red smiles back. He’s glad he was able to help clear the communication gap, not least of which because it resolved his own frustration. The table is quiet a moment, and eventually Rei says, “But this is what sensei tasked us to do. If there is a chance that this is the route to the perfect shield, we must explore it.”

“Plus, if someone out there is doing it, knowing for sure and learning how could help us find a way to pierce it,” Daniel suggests, and Red remembers what Sabrina told him about psychic defense and offense being a continuous arms race.

Jason is quiet a moment, then says, “I can assist others in trying to learn it, if they believe it is necessary. I simply will not perform the experiments myself if it may result in me learning it.” His voice is firm enough that no one attempts to further persuade him, and after a moment Rei starts typing.

“Let’s skip that one for now, then, unless we think of a way one of us can test it.” She finishes typing the note next to his idea, then starts scrolling down the page, and when Red realizes that the two of their ideas are the only ones left his pulse speeds up. He doesn’t spot a trap so much as intuit that there is one; Rei is running this meeting very deliberately, and from last night’s conversation Red knows that she not only doesn’t particularly like or trust him, she thought Sabrina might suspect him as having the perfect shield.

If he were in her position… He would keep him from directing plans or research efforts, thinking that his idea would just waste time. And of course she would want her own ideas to get as much attention as possible, but he can’t tell what her strategy is. There are probably psychological biases at work here, something like anchoring or the peak-end rule, but he doesn’t know enough to tell how robust or applicable the research on them are, or how they might apply to Red’s idea going before or after all of hers.

The best he can figure, Rei has three hypotheses opposed to everyone else’s one, and each is detailed, so if she goes last they would probably end up spending more time on her ideas than everyone else’s put together, plus they would be ending on them, which could make her ideas feel more present when it comes time to decide how to assign them…

“Care to go next, Red?” Rei asks without looking at him.

And there it is. He can’t be sure she’s actually trying to be cunning, but one of the few things Red learned from pokemon battling that might be generalizable is not to let an opponent set the tempo of the match. He doesn’t have to know why she wants something to benefit from not letting her have it.

“Actually, do you mind if I go last?”

Rei meets his gaze for a moment, and Red just looks back, unsure if he would or should need to justify himself. After a moment though she just nods and scrolls back up on her laptop.

“As you wish. My first idea is the most straightforward, and too obvious to ignore. I’ve certainly never tried projecting something through my own shield.” She looks around. “Has anyone else?”

Everyone shakes their heads or stays silent, and Red wonders if others are trying it now, like him. It feels strange, like grabbing his own wrists and pulling in opposite directions, or, no, more like biting into his bagel and trying to convince himself it’s chocolate cake.

“Who’s the strongest projector among us?” Jason asks.

Everyone glances at each other until Daniel shrugs and flips his hand up. “I’ll take that title, I guess. We should probably test it to be sure, but I wouldn’t mind working on that.”

“We’ll see. If you can do it on your own time, you may be needed for another idea.” Rei writes his name next to it, but leaves off on specifying anything further. “The next is about, in essence, practicing double-think. Maybe a better way to put it is to hide signal in noise by holding such a wide scope of emotions and thoughts at once that some are hard to pick up in the mix. Would you take it, Tatsu?”

“Why?” Tatsumaki asks. “I don’t even think it would work. Hiding an emotion in a projection isn’t like hiding sugar in salt, if it’s there it’s because you feel it, and if you feel it they will too.”

“Don’t know if that analogy works,” Rowan comments. “I could see someone mixing just enough sugar in salt that it changes the taste, but not obviously enough that someone tasting it could identify how.”

She gives him a look. “I meant visually.”

“Then you should’ve said so, shouldn’t you?”

Tatsumaki mentally flicks one of her orbiting berries at him, which he stops midair. Five more quickly follow, and he’s forced to use his hands to block all but one, which bounces off his forehead. As always, Red watches these displays with a mix of wonder and envy. He wonders if either feeling will ever fade.

“Can we focus, please?” Rei asks, and the wobbling berries (which have been crushed by the opposing forces affecting them) suddenly shoot toward Tatsumaki for a moment before stopping in front of her.

“My deepest apologies, senpai,” Tatsumaki says as she guides the crushed berries into her mouth.

Her mocking tone doesn’t seem to bother Rei. “I believe the same multitasking skills that assist in your telekinesis might allow you to hold multiple emotions at once until some become nearly subconscious. Of all of us I believe you have the best chance to accomplish this, but if you don’t think it will work then perhaps I should take it.”

“What, you think I won’t give it my all just because I’m skeptical?”

“Yes,” Rei says, serenely unapologetic.

The green haired girl narrows her eyes at Rei, still chewing her berries. “For the record I see what you’re doing, but fine, I’ll take it.”

Rei nods and types Tatsumaki’s name next to her second idea. “My last hypothesis is that it may be possible for a psychic to project other people’s emotions, acting as a sort of mirror redirecting light.” Rei looks around the table. “Has anyone tried this one?”

“Red?” Jason asks, and they all turn to him. “Have you ever attempted to project a mental state you’ve copied to someone else?”

“No,” Red says. “But honestly, I don’t know if that part is necessary.” Part of him is worried that he’s going to be tasked with trying this idea out too, now that he’s set himself up as so helpful, but it is a good idea. Theoretically speaking, modeling someone else’s mental state should fool a psychic; it’s part of why he was interested in mimicking the one Leaf used to keep the abra from teleporting away, and he’s embarrassed he didn’t think of it himself. “If the psychic in question can copy mental states well enough themselves, they might not need a co-conspirator to fool someone merged with them.”

“Wouldn’t they need someone who knows what the right mental state would be?” Rei asks.

“Not… really…?” Red frowns, trying to think through the possible circumstances. “It’s hard to tell without knowing more about how the psychic is interacting with other psychics, and how deep the merger is.”

“You mean like if they’re meeting at a pokemon center, they can cover their thoughts by mimicking those of someone standing nearby with an innocuous mental state they can copy,” Daniel says. “But that would only work if the psychic observing them is doing it passively. Like, checking if they plan to rob the place. If they’re asking questions, the mood and thought content would be a blatant mismatch.”

“Maybe it’s possible to just mimic a mood?” Rowan asks “Like partitioning, someone asks you if you’re angry about something, and you copy just the sense of calm from someone nearby as you say you’re not. Even if the psychic is doing a full merge, they might not notice that the mood doesn’t belong to them, and the lie itself might not even spark any dissonance.”

Rei nods. “Does anyone disagree that this is worth pursuing?”

The room is silent, and Red knows what’s coming next… but to his surprise, Rei highlights it without asking him to work on it, and turns to Red expectantly. “Last but not least.”

Red smiles distractedly as he prepares his thoughts. Now is his chance to sell his idea, hopefully even get some of them to help—

“This one seems the least likely,” Daniel says, frowning at his phone screen. “No offense, Red, but even if we assume you can learn actual psychic abilities from pokemon, which need I remind you no one has done before, it would at least have to be something other pokemon could do. Are there any pokemon besides Dark types that can hide what they’re thinking or feeling?”

Red blinks, taken off guard by the first preemptive challenge to an idea, then mentally flips to the notebook page where he wrote out the counter arguments to his idea, trying to decide which question to answer first. “Well, for learning abilities from pokemon I’ve been able to tell if people are sleepy or not from merging with my drowzee, and—”

Daniel waves this off. “I mean real abilities, something unique, not things others can learn to do in other ways.”

“But that might be a matter of power,” Red says. “If psychic pokemon are just stronger than us—”

“We’ve talked about this,” Daniel says, like their talk was in any way conclusive. “There are few if any abilities besides maybe teleportation that are exclusive to Psychic pokemon, there’s nothing special about their psychic abilities, they’re just another type of pokemon with inhuman powers.”

“You’re drawing an arbitrary distinction between—”

“It’s not arbi—”

“Can I please finish a sentence?” Red asks, louder than he intended. Daniel’s brow rises, and he leans back in his chair, holding his hands up as if to say fine, fine.

Red takes a moment to calm himself, frustrated and hurt by the older boy’s aggressiveness, and what’s worse, the others’ silence. It’s so unfair, no one reacted like this to anyone else’s ideas, and everyone’s acting like this is normal…

He focuses on the sensation of his breaths, and lets his worry that he’s taking too long go as he breathes out. A second breath to let go of his fear of judgement. A third to… nope, the fear of judgement is back, and so he lets that go again, telling himself that if he comes out of this calmer he’d get more respect than if he’s still agitated. A fourth breath to let his mind wander back to his notebook and what he wrote there when preparing for rebuttals.

“So first, the idea of whether pokemon do things like this…” Red’s glad that his voice only sounds a little off. “Obviously we can’t know if they do or not. Most of our interactions with pokemon are after they’re caught and conditioned to be friendly and follow our commands. Very few people study wild pokemon behavior, and as far as I could tell only two of them were psychics. There’s just no way to know if this is something pokemon are capable of, psychic or otherwise.

“Second, we don’t know if this would even be considered a ‘real ability.’ It might be something like a Light Screen, which even our best telekinetics can’t do, or it might be something like Amnesia, which almost every psychic eventually can.”

“There’s a scary thought,” Jason murmurs, then gives Red an apologetic look. He doesn’t mind the interruption though, it wasn’t a challenge and Jason at least waited until he finished speaking. He holds an open hand out, and Jason shakes his head. “No, sorry, it would derail the conversation. There will be time to talk about implications after we know if it’s even possible.”

“You listed both psychic and non-psychic pokemon,” Rei says. “What makes you think a doduo would be relevant? Does merging with them cause some similar effect?”

“I actually don’t know,” Red admits. “Before last night I was curious, but since they’re not psychic merging with them hasn’t been a priority. I couldn’t merge with both minds when I tried.”

He looks at Satori, curious to see if she has, and one by one the others do too. “It’s possible,” she says, fidgeting at the attention. “Mostly the same sensorium, but distinct minds.”

“And from what I read, pokeball conditioning reduces disagreements,” Red adds. “But in the wild each mind is even more distinct. I thought that might be useful to study in relation to potential partitions, but since Rowan will be covering that already, I would focus mostly on exeggcute. I looked into it, and we have very little comparative understanding of how their minds work. Each seed has a distinct brain, but is barely sentient on its own, like a magnemite, just reacting to its environment. It only reaches intelligence similar to other pokemon when they each merge with each other, but losing a seed results in a loss of knowledge and memory. Last night I read that the team of neuroscientists and coders that enabled simulations to work on multi-brain pokemon spent more time on exeggcute than every other one put together.” He forwards the article to each of them, causing a series of chimes and buzzes around the table. “What if there’s something about the way the different minds interact and divide up functions that we could mimic?”

The table is quiet a moment, and Red braces himself. He doesn’t have to wait long before Daniel begins as if there hadn’t been any interruption to his earlier challenge.

“Another problem with this idea is that psychics have been merging with pokemon since forever. Wouldn’t we have known about this by now, if that’s what allowed it?”

“Exeggcute are difficult,” Satori says before Red can. “Hivemind. Risk of losing self, or dominating the clutch. It’s why Sabrina rarely uses them.”

“Plus,” Tatsumaki adds,”The whole idea of a perfect liar is that, you know, they wouldn’t be found out. We don’t know the circumstances that allowed whoever it was to come under suspicion.”

Red feels a swell of gratitude toward them, even if they’re not directly supporting the hypothesis itself. “Also, there are historical rumors of psychics ‘so powerful’ they can lie to other psychics. I don’t put much stock in them, most also get attributed other fantastic feats like speaking with the dead or levitating themselves, but… I mean if a human psychic started flying, those stories would suddenly warrant a bit less skepticism.”

The table is silent for a bit, and Red barely tastes his bagel as he finishes it, waiting for someone else to object. His gaze jumps to Rei as she stirs.

“What you propose sounds like cultivating the formation of another mind,” Rei says, “I’m wary this task would risk mental unhealth.”

Ouch. He wouldn’t take the implication so personally if she hadn’t already mentioned how much she dislikes his use of partition.

“A valid fear for the ungifted, perhaps,” Rowan says while Red is still considering his own response. “But are we not striving to become masters of our own minds? This sounds like a worthy challenge for those of our ability.”

Rei meets Rowan’s gaze. “I’m trying to be cautious, as anyone should when sailing uncharted waters.”

“If anyone feels uncomfortable attempting it,” Red cuts in. “They wouldn’t be forced to, of course.” It would be difficult working on it alone, but he will if he has to.

The table is silent for nearly a minute as everyone looks around, and finally Rei nods. “With no other comments, I believe we’ve finished what I’ll call our first evaluation round.” To Red’s relief, she highlights his idea. “As it stands, Rowan will be pursuing the use of partitions, Tatsumaki will be trying to drown signal in noise, and Daniel will be trying to project through a shield. That leaves four of us to either work on merging with pokemon that have multiple minds, or attempting to deceive through copied mental states.” She glances at Red. “It seems to me that the optimal division of labor would be for Satori and Jason to work on merging with pokemon, if they agree with that, while you and I work on mental states.”

Red blinks at her, unable to hide his surprise. He had been afraid that no one would want to work with him. Now Rei is offering to, despite what she said the night before…

…and all he has to do is let someone else take over his idea, while he works on hers with her.

It makes sense, and after a moment he realizes that he doesn’t want it to make sense. He can feel his brain struggling against the logic, looking for a way to make it not true, to allow himself to work on merging with pokemon and navigating multiple minds. Is it just because he wants to work on his project and better understand the idea of multiple minds? Or is he also struggling against the idea that he was unfairly judging her motives while running the meeting?

Once he realizes how dumb his brain is being, he forces himself to speak. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

Rei nods, and even smiles at him briefly before turning to Jason and Satori. “Objections?”

“No,” Jason says, while Satori shakes her head.

“Great.” Rei starts typing out the last assignments. “Does three days seem like a reasonable amount of time to meet again and see how we’ve progressed along each of our experiments?”

“I would request longer,” Satori says, which takes Red by surprise. After a moment he realizes he hadn’t expected her to care enough about his idea to actually give it a fair shot. She looks at Jason. “Unless three is enough?”

Jason is quiet a moment before saying, “I think I can do it in four.”

“Four, then,” Rei says, and closes her laptop. “Thank you all, and good luck. Red, would you mind staying a minute?”

Red nods as everyone else files out, Jason pausing to grab an orange from the fruit bowl on the way out. “What’s up?” he asks once they’re alone. “Do you want to start now?”

“Yes, but not yet.” She considers him a moment, and he senses one of her blunt statements coming a moment before it does. “I was wondering why you wanted to go last.”

Ah. He supposes they’ll be talking about this after all. He briefly considers making some excuse, like he just wasn’t ready to talk about his idea yet, but she chose to work with him, and he doesn’t want to lie for such a petty reason. “I just thought it might be easier to get people to want to work on my idea if it was last, instead of yours taking up the whole last part of the meeting.”

Her brow furrows briefly, and then she snorts quiet laughter. “I see. And here I was thinking that by saving my ideas for last, people would already be invested in the others.”

Red shifts slightly in his seat. “Ah.” He’s unsure whether that’s what the actual effect would have been, and more importantly, whether she’s being honest about her intentions, but he feels like an ass regardless. “I guess I must come off as pretty selfish…”

“I don’t know if I’d say that.” She folds her hands in a bridge below her chin, watching him. “I realized after your visit last night that the model of you that I had was incorrect. I assumed you were meek and reserved unless in an intellectual debate, but if that were true you would never have tackled a social problem head on like you did. Not particularly gracefully or skillfully, mind you, but with no harm done.”

Red feels his cheeks burning at the semi-compliment. “I have a friend who helped me to push past some social comfort zones, and also helped me realize my, uh… ‘hustle’ isn’t as good as it should be, for what I want to accomplish in life.”

“Well, today you ended up fighting for your own idea without letting your desires get in the way of the optimal strategy. Be sure to give yourself credit for that.” She gives a rare smile that’s full enough to show her teeth. “Do you have anything planned this afternoon?”

He’s still processing her comment, and it takes him a moment to answer. “No, my next class is tonight.”

“Then let’s meet at the cafe across the street so we can begin.”


Red stops at his room to get his shoes, then takes the stairs down to the bottom floor, leaping from the steps halfway down each flight. Yesterday he was worried that he would be largely ignored for this project, but his idea was given just as much consideration as anyone’s. He’d still prefer to be working on it himself, but the fact that the others are actually making an honest effort to test it really drives home how much his earlier worries seem to have been for nothing.

Of course, it’s not just relief that’s fueling his energetic movements. A mix of excitement and nerves sit uneasy with the bagel in his stomach as considers the fact that he’ll be spending extended time working with Sabrina’s most senior student. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself, of course, but he also has to make sure he doesn’t over-exert himself and erode the partition before nightfall. His lesson tonight is pretty basic, just some meditation techniques to novice psychics, but if Mopey Red takes over he might just stay in his room, or half-ass it.

The sun has just barely cleared the skyline to the east as he reaches the cafe and sits across from Rei beneath an umbrella’d table, where she’s typing on her laptop. He can see from the angle he approaches that she has one of those screens covering her monitor that blur anything on them when viewed from an angle. “Hey.”

“Hello. I’ve thought of some initial tests we can run. I’d like to use this opportunity to improve my own ability to mimic mental states in case the perfect shield requires a mix of skills that I can learn, but first let’s test the obvious.”

“Yeah, alright.” Red sits and scoots his chair forward, wiping sweaty palms on his pants.

“Pick someone to merge with,” she says, throwing a careless hand to the side. “I’ll ask you a question about your mental state or mood, and you report theirs as if it’s yours while I’m merged with you. If it passes as an honest remark, I would consider that mild evidence that this sort of technique could be used to build a perfect shield.”

Red slowly nods, suppressing his discomfort with her cavalier approach to merging with strangers. He should have seen it coming, really, how else would they do this? Instead he just closes his eyes and sorts through the mental impressions his psydar pulses give of those around him, trying to find one that stands out. He eventually identifies a mind with a distinctly restless signature, its attention jumping from one thing to another, and merges with it to feel the man’s nervous impatience.

Red spreads his awareness throughout his body and mind, locking down each part of the mental state and then releasing the merge along with a breath. “Okay… I’ve got impatience. Copying…” He feels the butterfree fill his stomach again as he mimics the experience and makes it his own. “Go ahead.”

He feels Rei’s mind merge with his before she asks, “Are you waiting for something?”

“Yes,” Red says, foot bouncing beneath the table. “I think.”

“Waiting for someone?”

That feels more true. “Yes.”

Rei withdraws her mind, and Red releases the mental state and opens his eyes to see her shaking her head. “Both answers were detectably off. You’ll have to practice getting a better handle on what the specifics of the emotion are.”

Red frowns slightly, unsure that’s relevant but unwilling to argue it after just one test. “Alright.”

“I’ll try now.”

Red waits for her to find a mental state to use, then waits some more as she sits with her eyes closed, probably attempting to mimic it. By the end of their first lesson together it was clear that Rei is better than most at adopting the skill, on par with Sabrina. Daniel is swiftly catching up and may even surpass her soon, but this extra practice will likely keep them neck and neck. There’s a part of Red that worries about his value fading once the others learn his techniques, which in turn drives him to work hard to learn theirs and keep developing his abilities. At least so far no one has made any progress on copying his mental shield.

“Ready,” Rei says, voice a little… brighter, than usual. Red closes his eyes and brushes her mind, then merges with it and immediately shares in her flimsy, fragile joy.

He’s been told that merging with him while he’s imitating a mental state is incredibly difficult to differentiate from when he’s not, but the reverse is certainly not true. To Red, sharing Rei’s emotions while she imitates someone else’s is like looking at a picture of a rainbow with a bright yellow filter over the image. With just a bit of analysis he can recognize all the emotions underneath, and while some are blurred and blended by the false mental state, he can still adjust for that and guess what the confusing mess of feelings are meant to be, for the most part.

“Are you happy?” he asks, trying not to delve too deep into Rei’s real emotions, but he can’t help but feel them too; tension, anticipation, something like calculation, all in minor amounts around her primary sense of DETERMINATION. He doubts he would have been able to recognize so much before his time in Saffron.

“Yes,” Rei says, and a new emotion blends with the others. Not even an emotion, really… more a sense that gets implanted into Red’s awareness as simple as a flashing light in his face, a sense of falseness. Of being aware of misleading or aware of artifice, and that feeling is connected to another related one that he wasn’t spending much time focusing on, but which now feels highlighted in some way…

And then her shield goes up, booting Red out of the merger. He must have gotten close to something private. Red opens his eyes to see Rei watching him. “No?” she guesses, and Red shakes his head. “How could you tell?”

“Well I could tell it wasn’t your real emotion, but even aside from that, some part of you was just so obviously aware that what you were saying wasn’t the truth. Maybe because I imagine it takes an enormous effort to maintain that overlay.”

Rei raises a brow, but accepts the compliment with a minor nod, perhaps because she recognizes his sincerity. “It does.”

“What about me? How did that feel?”

“Like your real emotions were your own. But for both responses, there was an added, almost contextual emotion of being deceptive.” She’s typing as she speaks, and purses her lips thoughtfully. “That might just be from you being a terrible liar.”

“You have no idea,” Red says, thinking of his attempt to cover up Pikachu’s unexpected evolution on the S.S. Anne.

She gives him a look he can’t quite decipher. “Something to work on, then.”

“You want me to work on becoming a better liar?”

“To solve this puzzle, yes. It’s possible this hypothetical psychic is just so naturally capable of deception that he simply deceives himself in the moment he’s speaking by modeling the mimicked mental state as his own. A lie isn’t a lie if the speaker believes it, after all. Ready to pick another?”

Red is still mulling her words over, and why they feel related to the flash of emotion he detected from her. She’s misleading him in some way. The question is whether it’s for an innocuous reason or not. Maybe he can learn more the next time they merge… “Yeah, one sec.” He closes his eyes and casts his thoughts about until he senses a mind flickering through intense emotions he can’t quite decipher. He merges with her and—

roiling anger, paralyzing indecision, beneath it all a twisted pain and self-loathing, despair pounding through him with every heartbeat—

“Red?”

He lets the merger go with a gasp, tears in his eyes as he reflexively looks in the direction of the mind. He sees a young woman with her hands balled up in her lap. She stares down at them with an absolutely desolated expression, and he wonders how she’s not already crying… but he felt that too, the sheer willpower going into her restraint not to lose control in public.

Rei turns to follow his line of sight, and Red suddenly wishes he didn’t look, didn’t reveal the girl to someone else. Rei may even now be merging with her mind to see what he felt, though there’s no physical reaction from her to indicate it if so. Maybe she’s skilled enough to recognize the emotions without a full merger.

This…

His imagination is in overdrive, providing not memories but extrapolated imagined circumstances from the emotional map of what she’s feeling, as if he can’t help but try to figure out what happened to make her feel that way. He’s glad he’s not a better psychic so that all he got were emotions rather than any images or thoughts, but the fact that he now knows this thing about her, incomplete as it is, bothers him…

This is wrong.

It also bothers him that it took this to remind him of that. He told Dr. Seward and Leaf that he’s worried about losing himself, and it’s not hard to imagine what Leaf or Blue or Aiko would think if he was doing this sort of thing regularly on their journey.

“Do you ever feel like this isn’t right?” Red asks, and Rei looks at him with blank curiosity. He waves a hand around. “This, the breach of privacy. If this were an actual scientific experiment, no ethics committee would allow us to do this.”

“Not particularly. People speak in public without knowing whether someone nearby has acute hearing, and everyone is aware that psychics exist in the world.”

“Hearing is passive, more like just sensing minds.” Which wasn’t passive for him before, of course. He remembers how much effort it used to take. But ever since he developed psydar it’s effectively automatic; he has only to wonder whether people are nearby or what someone is feeling and he’ll get a glimpse, though it still takes concentration to interpret what he senses most of the time. He imagines it’s much the same with other psychics who have been practicing longer. “But merging like this… it used to bother me more, before it got so easy to do myself.” He remembers how significant and important it had seemed when he signed the paper giving permission for Narud, but now that he’s in the world himself he can see the polite fiction for what it was.

“I don’t see what the alternative is,” Rei says, seeming puzzled. “Perhaps one in a hundred people could even notice that a psychic is merging with them, even if everyone is trained to defend against it. Any law that would try to restrict it is utterly unenforceable, and if people were aware of the degree to which we can sense them, and how often we do it…”

“I know.” It wouldn’t be as bad as if it got out that influencing people’s beliefs turns out to be possible, but it would still be pretty bad. “I’m not trying to make some sweeping normative judgement that everyone has to follow.” Mostly. “Just… It makes me uncomfortable, knowing such intimate things about people who have no idea that I know.”

“You’ll never even meet them again.”

“We can’t know that, and even still, it feels wrong.”

Rei is frowning at him, and after a moment he feels her mind brush his. He lowers his shield and projects his discomfort, as well as his nervousness for challenging her. Her frown deepens. “Hm. You’re not just trying to get out of working on this project.”

Red blinks, letting her feel his honest surprise as he says, “No, not at all! Is it that strange to care about this sort of thing?”

“I suppose I’ve forgotten how new you are to all this,” she says, and withdraws her mind from his before gazing silently off into the distance and leaving him to try and decide whether to take offense or not. “What do you propose, then?” she asks after a moment. “I can’t practice this on my own, and no one’s mimicry is as developed as yours. We may see benefits from practicing consistently using the already established mental states, but eventually we will need to try new ones.”

“I could take mental states from the others, when they’re not busy.”

“But they will know you’re doing it, which will contaminate their samples. It will be useful for testing the effectiveness of a willing accomplice, but not for the true hypothesis.”

Red knows she’s right, and sighs down at his hands. “I don’t know what the right answer is yet, but I’ll try to think of something.”

Rei is quiet for long enough that he starts to worry that he’s upset her, but he’s not going to go back on what he says. He’s just starting to think that he should ask if she wants to try with one of the previous mental states when she closes her laptop starts to put it in her bag. “I have a solution.”

“You do?”

“Your main complaint is that they are not consenting, correct?” She gets to her feet and starts walking, and he quickly follows her.

“Uh, yeah, basically.”

“Then we will go somewhere that will require implicit consent.”

It takes Red a few steps to get it. “The gym? Why would that require implicit consent?”

“Because we will put a sign up that makes it so. Over the cafeteria, for example, so that there is no disruption of the gym’s main functions.”

Red isn’t sure forcing people who want to eat to subject themselves to mental merger is justified, but he’s already made enough trouble for further objection, and just silently matches her quick stride. He supposes it’s a fair enough compromise, and he really should have thought of this before agreeing to help. He’s still grateful that she wants to work with him at all, considering what she said last night about…

…not trusting him.

Red regards the blonde from the corner of his eye as they walk. The sense he got from her before, of her seeming to be hiding something, and the way she dropped her shield to check whether he was just making an excuse, make it clear she still has reservations about him. Which makes sense… But then why work with him at all?

Unless she just wants to keep an eye on him.

As Saffron Gym comes into sight, he decides to just ask, knowing that she’ll detect something in his feelings the next time they merge anyway. “Is this all a test for you to ensure I’m not actually the psychic Sabrina was talking about?”

“Partially,” she says without pause or hesitation. Because of course she knew that he sensed it in her, and was just waiting for him to piece things together. “If your technique is the key to unlocking the perfect shield, I want to be there to notice the transition when it develops.”

A ball of dread and hurt forms in his stomach, heavy enough to slow his steps. She doesn’t slow with him, and Red forces himself to speed up again. “What about Rowan?” Red asks, then realizes before she can answer. “Nevermind. He wouldn’t let you in anyway, and I’m also capable of manipulating partitions, and…” He feels like such an idiot. “…you don’t know if he’s already capable of it from his practice last night, or even before that, but there’s still time to learn if I am.”

“You also happen to be the best suited for this particular experiment,” she says, tone only mildly conciliatory. “I’m not just using you to ensure that Sabrina is aware of potential perfect shields among her students.”

Red stops entirely, then watches her continue to walk without him. For a moment it seems she will just continue on and enter the gym alone, but then she slows, looks back, and stops as well.

What she said makes sense, but he doesn’t believe her. What he felt from her wasn’t an urge to protect, or serve, or even just curiosity. It was goal oriented toward her own benefit… and now that he knows she’s not being honest, he would be an idiot to take her words at face value.

They must look strange to the people passing by, a young boy and an elegantly dressed woman over twice his age, just staring at each other. Eventually he feels her mind brush against his. After he doesn’t shield, she merges with him, and he focuses on his feelings of indignation and challenge and skepticism and resolution.

He knows he’s the youngest of Sabrina’s students, and likely the weakest. But whether by accident or effort or some combination, he has unique abilities that she’s already admitted she finds valuable. Not to mention that he’s survived a pikachu swarm, helped stop a paras migration, and saved multiple lives from a Stormbringer. At his core, arrogantly or otherwise, he feels capable of at least being Rei’s peer, and if he was willing to leave his journey with Blue and Leaf after Blue stopped treating him as an equal, he’s not going to let Rei treat him as a subordinate, let alone a potential enemy.

After nearly a minute he feels Rei’s mind leave his and merges with hers instead so he can contemplate her own mental state, which he finds unshielded.

Wariness… uncertainty… suspicion… surprise… worry?

Rei finally brings her shield back up, and Red walks toward her until they’re standing an arm’s length apart. “What are you so scared of?” he asks, eyes shifting between hers.

Rei glances away, or rather just around them, checking that no one is in hearing distance, and when she speaks her voice is low. “Sabrina has a secret, and I want to find out what it is.”

Red’s brow rises. Whatever he expected, it wasn’t that. Rei has always seemed so loyal to the Leader. “The place she disappears to?”

“Yes. She’s been doing it for years, before she was even Gym Leader. I respected it for a long time, thinking she would eventually share it, but if she does it’s with none of her students except perhaps Rowan, or her gym Second and Third. Perhaps not even them.”

Red is frowning now. “What does this have to do with me, or the assignment?”

“I think every student Sabrina takes on has some specific purpose. She is expanding her skills to build toward something, I just don’t understand what. I thought when you arrived that your partition was a way for you to hide something relevant from the rest of us.” Her gaze is steady on his. “I can’t quite square all your behavior from last night and today with this hypothesis, or your emotional state and thoughts.”

Red feels… well, he doesn’t know how he feels. Uncomfortable to be talking about Sabrina behind her back like this. Worried that Rei is plotting something harmful… or worse, that Sabrina is. It’s all too much for him to quite process right now, and he glances at the gym behind her. “So you want to go to the gym because… what, you think there’s evidence there or something?”

“No, it’s a reasonable solution to your moral quandary. But the cafeteria is within my psychic range of the administrative offices where Tetsuo and Keiji are, and it will be a good excuse to study their shields.”

Red’s sense of worry inches toward panic, and he resists the urge to take a step back from her. “Why are you telling me this? If they or Sabrina merge with me—Wait. How do you manage not to give some sense of this away?”

“I have built a narrative around myself of being obsessive and curious about anything related to Sabrina. It was not difficult, since it’s true. The line between suspicion and curiosity is blurry enough that as long as they do not ask me direct questions about it, all is well.”

“Hang on, just… give me a moment.” Red’s heart is pounding, and he closes his eyes as he tries to take in this flip of circumstances and perspective. It takes a few deep breaths, and concentrating on the feel of the sun on his face and sound of the city around him, before his thoughts slow enough for him to realize his most important thing to update on is that Rei has revealed herself twice in the past few minutes to be someone who readily hides multiple purposes and motivations into her actions, and that she is telling him all this.

“You haven’t been checking my mental state,” Red says, opening his eyes. “What if I go tell Sabrina all this now?”

“I suspect I’ll be released as her student.” Rei shrugs. “My tutelage with her has hit large diminishing returns, and I was ready to leave months ago. Only my curiosity in this, and whatever abilities her new students might bring, interest me now.”

She could be lying, but if so he can’t see what the purpose would be yet. It’s hard to remind himself again that he’s talking to someone who’s (probably) smarter than him, and far craftier than he’s ever had a reason to try to be. “So what happens now? You recruit me into your investigation?”

“No, not unless you would like to join it. Now we simply have a better understanding of each other, and can more effectively work together. This is what you wanted when you came to my room last night, yes?”

Red doesn’t trust for a moment that this is her entire reason for sharing this, but he nods, still feeling like he’s struggling to keep his head above water. “Where you told me you can’t trust or respect people with partitions.”

“I’ve been biased by my experiences with Rowan and some others,” she admits. “I’m not claiming to trust you now. But I’m willing to extend some if you are.”

“Give me a minute.” Red closes his eyes and imagines the table from his dream. Okay guys, huddle up. We need to talk.

Future Red and Past Red show up at either side of the table, or rather, he imagines they do, and he does his best to model their perspectives as best he can with his partition up. This is a horrible idea, Past Red says. We’re here to learn to be a better psychic, not unearth some conspiracy.

But we did want to form better relationships with the others, Red points out. She’s not asking us to help her or anything.

Future Red shakes his head. She made us complicit by telling you what she plans. If you don’t report her now, we could get in trouble later if it’s discovered we knew. There’s nothing we gain out of this.

But maybe we could, Red thinks, and senses agreement from Past Red at the idea of fulfilling his previous goals. Future Red is more wary, but reluctantly agrees as well, and Red opens his eyes to see Rei patiently watching him.

“I want to help Satori and Jason with my idea, not just work on this one with you,” he says.

“Really? You’re turning this into a negotiation?” Rei shakes her head. “You make it seem like you have leverage. Would I have given you all that information if I feared you using it against me?”

“No,” Red says. “But this isn’t blackmail. You’re getting a lot more out of us working together, and I’m just trying to make things more equitable.”

Rei considers him a moment, then nods. “Very well.”

That was quick. “You should help us too,” he adds without thinking.

Her grin is brief. “Don’t push your luck, Verres.”

He grins back and shrugs. “Just saying, I’m pretty sure we’ll learn a lot from it, and you would be a huge help.”

“I’ve got my own projects to tend to. But you’re free to pursue both hypotheses as long as this one has priority.”

He holds a hand out, and after a moment she takes it. They shake, and walk side by side into the gym’s air conditioned lobby.

So we’re really doing this, huh? Future Red sighs. You’re getting blamed for this if everything goes sideways.

Works for me. If anyone asks I’ll just say I was spying on Rei’s activities for Sabrina.

There’s no way that would work.

Well you’d better hope so, because it’ll be your problem.

Rei leads them up to the administrative offices, where they find Tetsuo at Sabrina’s desk. The Gym Second looks up from his computer with a raised brow as they enter, then pauses whatever video he’s watching (sounds like a gym battle) and turns his attention to them.

“Hello Rei, Red. Was wondering how long it would take. What do you need?”

Rei looks at Red, and after a moment it’s clear she expects him to speak. Which is fair enough, since it was originally his request, but also feels unfair given the fact that she’s getting something out of the venue choice. He ensures his shield is secure and takes a breath. “Would it be okay if we put a sign on the cafeteria entrances? Something like, ‘Ongoing psychic experiment occurring inside, anyone entering is subject to unannounced emotional reading?”

Tetsuo frowns, leaning back in Sabrina’s chair slightly. “Just emotional merger?” Red isn’t sure if the Second is simply confirming, or wondering why they would need a specific place for that. He just nods, and Tetsuo rubs his neck. “Well, we sell nearly at-cost so it’s not like it’s a significant income stream, but I’m still hesitant to risk discouraging people from eating. Hungry trainers are less focused trainers. How important is this?”

“It’s… uh…” Red is aware of Rei still looking steadily at him, making it clear that this may have been her idea but it’s his concern. “It’s mostly a matter of principle,” Red says, struggling not to mumble.

“Hm.” Tetsuo taps his fingers on the table as he glances at Rei, then back at Red with measuring eyes. “We can set it between meal times, and put warnings up today so people can plan around it tomorrow and onward. I’m worried that people will continue to think it’s happening even after the signs go down, though.”

Red considers this a moment. “We can sit in an obvious place? So everyone can see us, and once we’re gone it’s more clear the experiment is over.” Red glances at Rei to check if she’s okay with that, then back at Tetsuo.

“Yeah, could work. Alright, you have my permission. Hope it’s helpful; most people who go in will probably be dark or psychics capable of shielding, but you may get a few people who see it as a thrill, so don’t be surprised if that influences what you end up with.”

“Right,” Red sighs. Having principles sucks sometimes. “Thanks.”

Tetsuo waves a hand as he turns back to his computer. “No problem.” Red has already turned toward the door when the Second starts his video again, then says, “Oh Verres, what’s your take on all this?”

Red turns back as the monitor is rotated to face him, and feels his face go blank as his curiosity is replaced by a stew of conflicting emotions.

Various scenes play out on the screen from different camera angles, trainers and their pokemon in the middle of some battles, and he quickly recognizes Blue dressed in the Vermilion Gym uniform, as well as others; Glen and Elaine are there, as well as Lizzy, Taro, and Chie, along with perhaps a dozen others whose names Red can’t remember or whom he never met.

It quickly becomes clear that the trainers are all involved in the same group battle, but not like any Red has seen before. Their surroundings aren’t a traditional pokemon arena, but a much wider area with what seems to be a rough ring of various objects, from boulders to tree trunks to the concrete barricades used during the storm.

“Figured he might head here next. Any idea if he’s planning to spread stuff like this to other gyms?”

It’s a natural question to ask. They started their journey together, were on the news together after catching the abra, and it’s not like they made some official announcement of why they split up. Or that they’re not talking anymore. He’s not sure what Blue tells others when the subject comes up, but for his part…

“I don’t really talk to him about trainer stuff anymore,” Red says. The camera shifts to show an overhead view, and Red can see now that one group of trainers form a small outward facing ring around a cluster of pokedolls in the middle of the battle area, while the rest are spread out around them in a wider ring facing in. “Been trying to stay focused on my psychic training and research.”

“Right. Figured with how much time you spend here that might change eventually.” He turns the screen back and intently studies whatever is happening on it. “Good luck with the experiments.”

“Thanks.” Red heads for the door, and Rei follows silently at his side.

“You really are a terrible liar,” she eventually murmurs as they walk through the halls.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your face, when Mr. Oak showed up on screen. Why the animosity? Didn’t you two grow up together?”

Red knows his shield was up the whole time, and he didn’t feel even a tentative probing. If she gathered that much just from his face, he really does need to learn to lie better. “We used to be friends,” Red says as they step into the elevator. He presses the bottom button first before correctly hitting the ground floor’s, distracted by thoughts of simpler times that feel particularly distant right now. “A long time ago.”

Chapter 70: Mind Boggling

It takes ten minutes for Red to notice he’s going about things all wrong.

What’s more concerning is that after realizing that, he can’t get himself to stop.

His foot bounces against the floor as his thoughts keep jumping to solutions. Hypotheses to suggest, experiments to run, ideas to research, crosscheck, pare down. It’s not until he’s pacing around his room that he realizes he needs to calm himself, and meditates to take a step back from his thoughts and examine them as they stream by, breath by breath.

The pressure to solve this feels immense. It wouldn’t just be an (almost) novel and groundbreaking discovery, it would also give him the credibility he needs to have more time with Sabrina, and to set more lesson goals with everyone.

But he’s not going to do that by just mass guessing, and that’s really all he’s done so far. Giovanni often points out on his blog that people shouldn’t commit all their resources to finding solutions until they have reason to be confident they understand the problem, and that’s something Red completely lacks.

If a non-psychic were to ask him to explain why it’s such a big deal that someone could have part of their mind think/feel something while the rest doesn’t, he’s not sure he could do it. He feels like he understands why it’s so bizarre, but “feels like” isn’t good enough, it’s following intuition, not knowledge, and while intuition can be valuable, it can also be misleading when not trained on good data. He doesn’t actually know why it’s so impossible, it just seems like it should be because that’s what he’s used to expecting from minds; a singular intention or thought process, with any internal conflict being apparent to psychic senses as internal conflict or dissonance.

He could do more research on the topic now, try to better understand brains and thoughts and minds and partitions (no, maybe not partitions, that would still be jumping to conclusions), but he feels too antsy to do something that passive.

As he continues to focus on his breathing, continues to examine the thoughts that come by and let them go with his exhalations, he starts to notice a pattern in what he’s worried about. It’s not just that he wants to solve the problem; what he keeps imagining are the others not listening to his ideas, or outright dismissing his feedback or participation. He knows it’s likely exaggerated, but he can see how the pressure to get this right comes in part from his social concerns.

Well, he did decide to focus on those too, didn’t he? Maybe he should try that first.

Red opens his eyes, then rises and goes to slip his feet into some sandals at the door before he makes his way to Rei’s apartment, gaze down. He isn’t used to being in a group with a hierarchy, and the more he thinks about it the more he dislikes it. He didn’t mind so much back at Pallet Labs, because it was clear there that he was subordinate and why. He wanted the adults to like him, but it was easy to get their approval and friendship; he just did whatever menial tasks they needed help on, happy to absorb all the knowledge he could along the way.

Compared to having to worry about and navigate the social politics among the other students, Red finds himself missing the equal footing he was on with Blue and Leaf, even if the memories with Blue are bittersweet. He knows Blue’s new traveling group will have a hierarchy, he felt it in those days when he went to train with them at the gym; those with more badges had more status, with Blue at the top despite only having two, and Red somehow just below him despite having none. Even with his privileged position it had felt strange, and he’s glad to be out of it, even if he can admit to himself that he sometimes misses the battling and camaraderie.

For Sabrina’s students, the hierarchy is less clear. Rei and Rowan seem the most respected, but they don’t seem to get along, and Daniel is often at odds with Satori and Jason, who Red feels are the most distant from everyone but Rei, including each other. And Tatsumaki is just… there, fairly respected but not interested in anyone. As for Red, he feels like he might have the best chance befriending Rowan or Daniel, but he doesn’t particularly like Daniel, and the most valuable friend he could make would likely be Rei. It makes him feel slimy, thinking of things that way, but he reminds himself that this doesn’t mean he’s not going to try befriending the others too, and he’s definitely not going to pretend to like her if he has no reason to.

Red steps in front of her door and takes a breath, patting down his hair and checking his clothes one last time, then drops his mental shields and knocks.

The probe comes immediately. Rei tests his mental presence, and upon finding it unprotected, merges for a moment to fully sample his mood before withdrawing.

“Enter.”

Red opens the door to Rei’s apartment, which is sparsely furnished but comfortable looking, with a pair of huge beanbags taking center stage. Rei is on one of them, sitting lotus position in what looks like silk shirt and pants that seem much more comfortable than her kimono, but still elegant and expensive, with a stylized xatu embroidered on them.

“Yes?”

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d have a moment to talk?”

“I hope this isn’t related to Sensei’s assignment.”

“No, nothing like that. Well, a little related, but we agreed not to discuss the issue itself.”

She nods, then gestures with an open palm. “Please, sit.”

Red walks over to the beanbag across from her, and sinks into its warm cover. “Thank you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

As if she hadn’t just checked. Red has gotten good enough at controlling his thoughts and purposefully redirecting them that he no longer worries about others reading secrets he has, which means that on occasion he’s willing to engage in “open communication,” where psychics leave their shields down so their conversation partner can sense whatever genuine emotions they want to show or thoughts they want to share. It’s occasionally broken up by shields coming up, or sudden flashes to a meticulously remembered image or song, but this is understood as an integral part of retaining some privacy, and the social norm is to not assume that the person is being dishonest in those moments.

It’s almost like learning a second language, but not one that’s mutually exclusive. Any non-psychic listening would think they’re just talking in unown, but would miss all the mental communication overlaying the spoken words and threading the silences between.

Normally it would be hard to voice what’s on Red’s mind without him worrying about sounding antagonistic, or petulant, or paranoid. But with his mind unshielded, he trusts that Rei can “hear” more than the words he speaks. “I’ve only been here about a month and a half,” he says, letting his emotions of uncertainty and curiosity and good intentions stay clear at the surface of his thoughts. “And I’ve never been in a setting like this before. So I know I might be jumping to conclusions. But I just thought I’d check whether you dislike me, in case I did something wrong?”

A hint of fear and hurt at the end makes it hard to keep his gaze on hers, and his shields down. He sees her own surprise, quickly schooled, and feels the tentative touch of her mind become more firm, reading both his anxiety and sincerity.

She takes a breath, then slowly lets it out. “I did not intend to be rude, and apologize if I have been,” she says with such careful tact that Red’s worry doesn’t decrease. “But I suppose it’s fair to say that I don’t particularly have an interest in speaking to you, or spending time with you.”

Despite having suspected as much, Red still feels hurt by hearing her say it, and has to remind himself that he’s being stupid, and obviously she has no particular reason to feel friendly or interested in him. “Oh. Okay.”

“But that’s not what you asked,” she continues, still meeting Red’s gaze and sending out a brief projection of apology. “Not wishing to befriend someone is different from disliking them, and it’s also fair to say that I disrespect you.”

Red blinks at her, says “Oh,” and then just sits there a moment, absorbing that. He’d planned for her to say something about him that bothers her, but it still feels disorienting hearing her put it so bluntly. He realizes that despite considering it as a possibility, he hadn’t actually expected it, and he struggles not to hide his sudden inner turmoil behind a shield. “Why?” he finally asks.

“You feel fake,” Rei says, voice and face still calm. “It’s hard to trust those who use a partition to lock away a part of themselves. It’s like talking to someone wearing a mask, except the mask is real, and they may have any number of them they can put on at any time. I do not believe Leader Sabrina was referring to you or Rowan when she mentioned a psychic who could evince false emotions, but I cannot completely dismiss the possibility.”

Red’s throat is dry. “I don’t… I didn’t choose this,” he whispers, stung by the unfairness of it even as part of him feels guilty. Past Red is definitely going to throw this in his face the next time they “chat.”

“Intention has little to do with it.” Rei shrugs, and he senses her regret. “Perhaps my opinion of you will change, when you have more control. In any case, it isn’t personal. As I indicated, I feel similarly about Rowan, who molds his mind intentionally.”

Red hesitates a moment. “I can bring my partition down, if you want to talk to…” He can’t say the real me. It doesn’t feel true, and would just be confirming Past Red’s perspective. “Me without it.”

“I see little point in that,” she says, apologetic. “Since you would not keep it down. It would be like speaking with someone else entirely.”

Red resists the urge to slump in his beanbag, knowing he’s radiating disappointment and closing himself off as he sighs and nods. “Well. Thank you for your honesty.”

“Of course. I do hope you resolve the issue soon.” Rei tilts her head slightly, considering him. “If I may ask… why do you want to be my friend?”

Red blinks. He hadn’t expected her to ask that, and he’s glad his shield is up so that none of the immediate thoughts come to mind. But he can’t keep it up while he answers if he wants to be taken fully honestly…

He thinks it over a moment, everything he knows about her as compared to the other psychics, and to his surprise actually thinks of something genuine. He lets his shield drop. “Other than the social benefits, you read Giovanni’s blog, and are one of the few others I know who actually tries to put the ideas there into practice. It would be nice to talk about it with someone…” again. His shield comes up as his thoughts turn suddenly to Aiko.

Rei smiles slightly. “Well, that seems a reasonable request. Perhaps we could, after Sabrina’s assignment.”

Red takes it as the dismissal it is, and says goodbye. He walks down the hall without really thinking for a bit, replaying what happened in his mind and wondering if there was something else he should have said. Eventually he’s back at his door, and only then remembers he planned to visit the others.

Tatsumaki and Daniel aren’t home when he knocks, so he goes down a floor to see Satori. There’s silence for a moment after he knocks, and once again he feels his peer mentally touch his thoughts before the door opens. Satori is dressed as she was at the meeting, her torracat padding around her skirt, its tail brushing her waist. Both look at him inquisitively, their heads cocked to the side at the same angle.

He quickly redirects his thoughts from the disquiet of the image.

“Hey!” She’s not inviting him in like Rei was. Maybe he should just cut to the chase. “So I was thinking, if we’re all going to be working together on this project, maybe we should get to know each other better? I don’t feel like I’ve got many friends here, and I would like more. Do you want to hang out a bit? I’m happy to do anything, or just chat while you go about your business, if it’s not private.”

Saying the words makes him feel anxious, and he does nothing to hide that feeling. He’s used to feeling excluded from the other kids at school, to feeling different, but it was easy not to let that bother him while he had Blue to hang out with. This is the first time he can remember that he’s actually come out and asked someone to be his friend. It makes him feel like a kid again, and he’s sure he appears even younger to Satori, whose closeness in age feels all the more significant suddenly.

Satori shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to finish a project with my pokemon, and find other people distracting.” She closes the door before he can respond, and without lowering her shield to express any regret or other emotional signal.

Red sighs, then moves on. He supposes it’s nice that she even answered, considering how much she generally keeps to herself and sensed his intentions through the door…

When he knocks on Rowan’s door and gets a muffled “Busy!” in response, he moves on without much regret. Rowan seems nice enough, but he often feels slightly off, making Red question his memory of who he interacted with before meeting the “new” Rowan, and ah yep that’s what Rei meant…

Red tries to think of something to talk about on the way to Jason’s, something they wouldn’t normally talk about during their lessons, since that clearly hasn’t helped. So far Jason has been trying to learn to mimic different mental states while Red attempts to get as good at detecting and deciphering emotions as Jason, and so far they haven’t had much success.

Or any, really. Their sessions have all ended in quiet frustration for both as they seem to keep talking past each other while trying to explain what they did in their own terms. Red tried being as precise and clear as he could, like “imagine that mental state and anchor it in your memory through what your body feels,” while Jason spoke through metaphor and symbolism, such as “follow the echo my emotions are leaving in the astral realm” which didn’t really mean anything to Red, no matter how much he tried to pin down what an “echo” is or feels like, or what the “astral realm” is. He’s wanted to ask the others if they find their lessons with Jason more productive, but worried he would seem incompetent or like he’s badmouthing his peer.

So clearly he needs another topic to focus on, and after a moment he finds one. Like Satori, Jason is a pokemon trainer in addition to a psychic. Maybe they could discuss that. He specializes in ghost pokemon, which Red thinks he would find interesting enough to talk about.

When he knocks on the door he doesn’t sense any mental probe from Jason, and the medium answers his door with a cautious look on his face, dressed in the same clothes as earlier in the day. “Hello. Did you come about our assignment?”

“No.” Red smiles, trying not to let his earlier failure color his attitude. “I was just hoping to talk for a bit, if you’re free.”

“I was just finishing a cleansing ritual.”

“Oh.” Red only has a vague idea of what that is; some spiritual practice to ensure an environment or person is free of negativity? He’s not sure if Jason is saying that the ritual is already finished, or if Red had interrupted. “I can come back later?”

He steps back, preparing to leave, but Jason’s frown stops him. “Are you projecting your emotions on purpose?”

Red blinks, then checks. His mind still isn’t shielded, but… “I don’t think I’m projecting them at all?”

“Ah.” Jason’s hand finds his prayer beads and moves over them as he sighs. “I suppose the ritual wasn’t working anyway, then.”

Red is about to ask how he would know if it had, then stops himself and focuses on his curiosity. “What do you sense?” he asks instead.

“It feels like you’re hurt and anxious,” Jason says matter-of-factly. “It confused me because you were smiling when I opened the door, so I thought you were trying to project those feelings to alert me that you need help.”

“Huh.” Red detected no mental merger at all, but this isn’t the first time Jason has shown that he can pick up complex and deep emotions from simple proximity, just the first time Jason is treating it as something out of his control.

He was hoping to avoid any discussion too similar to those in their lessons, but this doesn’t feel like something he can just ignore, and… maybe in a more casual setting like this, if he just stays open minded and curious, he can learn more about Jason’s perspective. “And your cleansing ritual is supposed to help keep you from feeling that?”

Jason nods. “It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes I do it wrong, or my spirit is too open to others. I’ll have to try again.”

“Can I… is it okay if I observe it?” He keeps his thoughts focused on his curiosity and interest in learning more about Jason’s views (and abilities, but he believes the two are linked so same thing (he wonders briefly if Jason feels any dissonance in him over that bit of rationalization, then focuses on the curiosity again)).

Jason looks surprised, and fidgets in place for so long that Red is about to apologize when he opens the door and steps back. Red enters to find a simple apartment much like his own, though with a strong smell of jasmine incense coming from a small shrine in the corner. The plumbing must have been done special, because beside it there’s a basin of running water flowing from the mouth of a small stone gyarados.

The whole thing is small as a bathroom sink, and Jason folds his legs beneath him to sit in front of it while Red sits on the floor to the side to observe.

“So,” Red says, as he watches Jason take the long wooden ladle in his right hand and dip it in the water. “I just came to talk because I realized we haven’t really spoken much outside of classes. I guess I got the impression you didn’t like me, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t just my insecurity speaking.”

Jason doesn’t respond, and simply pours the water over his left hand, then switches the ladle to it and pours some over his right, then switches again and pours into his cupped left. He brings the water up to his lips, then lifts the ladle so the remaining water pours down the handle and into the basin, and sets it face-down.

Red realizes he should probably have waited for the ritual to finish before saying anything, and just stays silent as Jason lifts a censer and moves it around himself. One hand stays on his prayerbeads, fingers moving from one to the next, and the other brings the censer first over his stomach, then his heart, then his throat, then his forehead, taking a deep breath of the incense each time. On the last exhale he puts the censer down and sits in stillness, eyes closed.

Red watches the medium’s face, the only motion of his body the steady rise and fall of his chest, and wonders what’s going on in his head. He knows better than to check in the middle of something like this, but the curiosity itches at him.

He never felt particularly comfortable with religious practices, but ever since he started learning to use his powers, and particularly practicing meditation, he began to see them differently. Even without any spiritual component, his own “rituals” to ground himself, or reflect on his internal state, or to execute a particular mental motion, are all useful to him, and result in real, tangible differences. And he knows how powerful placebos can be; maybe a lot of what Jason is capable of that Red isn’t genuinely comes from his different beliefs, or the meaning he ascribes to things like his clothing and prayers.

Red would like to think that any thoughts someone can have, however they have them, can be reasoned through and understood and shared by others. He would like to think that this applies to psychic powers too; that is why they’re all here teaching each other, after all, despite the fairly strong evidence of hard limits to what different psychics are capable of. But within those limits, he feels wistful regret at the idea that his method of thinking, as useful as it is to him, may forever keep him locked out of the kinds of insights and abilities that those like Jason have.

Until he remembers that he can just copy Jason’s mental state while he’s engaging in spiritual practice, if he really wants to understand it.

Red feels a creeping unease, and quickly brings his shield up. He’s never tried copying a mental state that was so fundamentally other. The closest thing was Leaf’s views on pokemon, and from what he remembers of the feeling, it was transformative. He can’t even say for sure that it didn’t permanently affect his views, though part of that is likely just entangled with his feelings for Leaf.

Still, does he want to risk some permanent change to his thinking that’s so… superstitious? What if some of it stays with him?

He tries to convince himself that it’s a silly concern, and that believing something temporarily, no matter how wrong it may turn out, doesn’t lead to bad epistemics. Hell, that happens all the time to him and his epistemics are great! Mostly, anyway.

But what if it’s more fundamental? What if it leads to the growth of certain neuron patterns that will make faith-based beliefs feel more justified?

Red shakes the thought away. He needs to talk to others before trying it, obviously. His ability to copy mental states isn’t entirely unique, there have been others with somewhat similar abilities that might be able to indicate probable outcomes. Maybe he can-

Jason’s eyes open, and he stretches slightly, rotating his shoulders with a sigh. “You’re shielding, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be okay to bring it down?”

Red takes a moment to refocus his thoughts, then does so. “Done.”

Jason closes his eyes, then opens them and nods. “Thank you. It worked.” He stands. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m f… actually, black tea would be good, if you have it?”

“I do.”

A few minutes later they’re facing each other on the couch, tea in one cup and juice in the other. Jason looks calm, but there’s something about his body language that makes Red feel like he’s nervous. One hand keeps twitching up from his cup, then returning to it, as if aborting impulses to touch his prayer beads.

Red tries to think of how to fill a silence that quickly feels awkward. He’s just about to repeat what he said earlier when Jason clears his throat.

“I do not think it was just insecurity,” Jason says, gaze down. “But I wouldn’t say I dislike you. It’s just that your way of thinking often feels painful for me.”

Red blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He hadn’t expected that. “Painful as in… physically, or emotionally, or…?”

Jason shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t always understand the difference. When people say physical pain, they seem to mean the result of being physically harmed. But if you describe emotional pain, there’s often a physical component, isn’t there?”

Red considers that, and feels an ache in his chest as he thinks of Aiko, or how much he wants to spend more time with Leaf, or the painful mix of anger and… something, that comes from thinking of Blue.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment. “I can see that. So… there’s a physical component to it, but it’s also tied to some emotional reaction?”

“That’s the closest I can come to explaining it.” Jason sips his juice. “It’s not just you though, I feel this way pretty often. I’ve been told it’s part of being a medium.” He shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s true.”

Red shifts in his seat. “Do you have any specific examples of what I’ve thought that felt harmful to your psychic senses?”

“They were not often thoughts themselves, more the underlying… perspective. And I don’t know that they are actually ‘psychic’ senses,” Jason says. “Elite Agatha said that what I do—what we do—it’s related to what psychics do, but distinct.”

“In what way?”

Jason gives him an appraising look, as if deciding how candid to be. “My connection is to the soul, not just the mind. But you don’t believe in souls.”

Jason still hasn’t uncovered his own emotions during the conversation, so Red isn’t sure how to take the statement, and he feels himself struggling not to respond in a challenging way. Is Jason trying to bait him into an argument, or just expecting one? He came here to be friendly, dammit!

“No, I don’t,” he finally says, speaking slowly. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it that can’t be explained by other things.” He’d resolved to stay curious, so that’s what he focuses on. “But I’ve never talked about it with a medium before. What makes you so sure?”

Jason blinks, gaze meeting Red’s for a moment before dropping again as he sips his drink. “Have you interacted with any Ghost pokemon?”

“No, but I was hit with a Ghost attack from a spinarak, once.” Even after all this time Red still occasionally feels a shadow of the pain and disorientation, though it’s not enough to really distract him.

Jason is shaking his head. “You need to be in their presence to understand.”

“You’re talking about surrealism.”

“I am. What do you know about it?”

Red recalls his research in Viridian Forest, after he caught his spinarak. “People often compare it to Pressure, though that just seems confusing, since it’s not as personalized or powerful, and only really affects you if you’re interacting with ghosts in some way rather than being around them.” And having recently experienced Pressure for himself, it’s hard not to dismiss anything else for not being as bad. “Common symptoms are headaches, disorientation, distrust of senses, all of which quickly goes away once their thoughts aren’t focused on the ghost anymore. It’s part of what makes it harder for non-psychic trainers to deal with ghosts, since it doesn’t seem to be worse for psychics and we’re already used to directing and focusing our thoughts and attention.”

Jason smiles slightly. “It sounds so simple, put like that. As I said, you need to experience it yourself to understand, which is another reason people often compare it to Pressure. But what do you make of surrealism, even having never experienced it? Doesn’t it mark such pokemon as different, in some way?”

Red shrugs. “Sure, and I think it’s significant.” It’s one of the main reasons he categorized Ghost as a substance over descriptive type: there’s clearly something fundamentally different about them. “But significant in what way is the question. It’s something we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we should jump to conclusions about its origin, or what it means about reality itself.”

“Hmm.” Jason slowly turns his cup in his hands, then sips from it. “I agree.”

Red blinks. “You do?”

“Yes. It makes sense, from your perspective, to be skeptical. I don’t believe as I do because I have answers to all the questions you’re carefully not asking. But my experiences are enough to point me along the way, and my faith acts as a bridge for the rest, to explain those experiences and overcome that skepticism.”

It sounds like the medium is using “faith” to mean the same thing Red would call a “theory.” It’s the first time he’s heard someone frame it that way… but scientific theories can be falsified, they contain specific claims about cause and effect that could be proven wrong. They’re not just an explanation that makes sense of phenomena, they allow people to make predictions about future ones.

He has to remind himself again that he’s not here to argue epistemics, but just learn more about his peer’s perspective. “By experiences, you mean your connection to Ghost pokemon,” Red guesses. “Did you really train one without a pokeball?”

“I didn’t train it,” Jason says, seeming a bit embarrassed by the myth of himself. “Only established a mental connection, without it attacking me. We formed what I would call a familiarity, if not a friendship.”

“That’s amazing. I mean with any wild pokemon, but with a Ghost in particular. How did you do it?”

Jason drinks as he considers the question, though surely he’s been asked it many times before. “I came to Kanto when I was about your age. I always wanted to be a trainer, but I already knew I was gifted, and my family considered that a stronger trait to explore, a more meaningful path. They hired a mentor for me to explore my gift, but I was still fascinated by pokemon, in understanding their thoughts and feelings. Lavender Town is a small, spiritual community, not particularly known for its trainers. I couldn’t find one to teach me, and while I could buy a pokeball and dex, there was no safe place I could reliably find pokemon that I would be able to travel to alone.”

“Except Lavender Tower,” Red says, smiling slightly.

“Except Lavender Tower,” Jason agrees. “The Rangers there ensure no wild Ghosts harm visitors or escape into the town proper, but there are often a few lurking somewhere inside, and it was easy to find them with my inner eye. After I experienced surreality for myself, sensed their strange minds, I became obsessed with Ghost pokemon in specific. There seemed a depth of mystery and meaning in their ‘otherness’ that I wanted to understand. I spent months being frustrated as they resisted my attempts to interact with them in a meaningful way, and even my psychic training did not help. Eventually I realized that perhaps I was the problem. That all of us are, that our view of them is what causes the tension in us, the disorientation, the pain. After all, they seem unharmed by interacting with us. Who was I to impose my flawed, human perceptions on them?”

Red slowly nods. “So you played with different perspectives until you found one that helped.”

Jason raises his brow. “No. I began studying religious beliefs, read the accounts of those like Elite Agatha and Leader Matsuba, and began practicing rituals to better connect with the spiritual world. And eventually I was able to look upon them without difficulty, and merge with them without tainting my spirit.”

“Huh.” Red drinks his tea and tries to accept the statements at face value, the mildly bitter flavor somehow calming. “But not everyone can do that, right? It’s also related to your abilities as a medium?”

“Ah, yes, I’m not claiming any unique piety or spiritual virtue. My gift enabled the connection in the first place.”

Red nods. Ultimately, there are three probabilities that he finds most likely. The first is that what Jason can do is semi-unique to him, whether it’s because of his connection to the “spirit world” or because he has a unique element in his psychic powers. The second is that the changes Jason underwent in his spiritual journey, the wisdom he gained, are just a perspective shift that could be learned, a lens to see the world through that could be put on and taken off. And the third is that his connection to Ghost pokemon and/or ability to sense deep emotions is something that operates on a level beyond intellectual understanding, something fundamental to the way he forms beliefs.

Maybe his own perspective would shed some light on it. “And what advice would you give, then, about Ghosts for those that don’t have your gift or faith?”

“The same as what I believe for myself. That we must resist our attempts to rationally understand them.” Jason shrugs. “More generally, that the very belief that we can truly understand anything is an illusion, though a useful one for our time in the material plane. But Ghosts are windows into something beyond the material, and so it is not useful to try and decipher them rationally.”

Red’s mouth twists to the side, torn between the multiple strong objections that rise up. And though it brings with it a flash of anger and sadness, Blue’s voice is clear in his head; Who cares if it sounds logical? If it works, it works.

And of course he’s right. Understanding the actual mechanism at work is important so he doesn’t believe extraneous things that are wrong, but if there’s a link between Jason’s epistemics and the outcome, Red has to be able to include that evidence in his theories, no matter how much it clashes with his own epistemics. It could be as simple as Leaf’s pure love of pokemon keeping abra from fleeing, but if it’s something deeper…

“I would like to learn more about your beliefs,” Red says. “And maybe even try to mimic your perspective psychically, eventually, if that’s alright with you.”

“You believe it’s my perspective, then, as Leader Sabrina does, and not my gift?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Red admits. “But it’s worth a try, and we’ve been having trouble during our lessons anyway, so I think better understanding your perspective could help with that too. Or at least, I’ve felt like we’ve had trouble?”

Jason nods, and finally brings his shield down for a moment, just long enough to signal a mirror of Red’s relief that it hadn’t just been him. “Alright. How would you like to begin?”

Red shrugs. “You’re the expert here. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

“I would never claim to be an expert.”

“Relative to me, I mean.”

“Still, the word has… baggage. As I said before, it was not through understanding but the release of the need to understand that I finally found connection.”

Red is about to argue that it’s just a semantic point, and that all “expertise” means in this context is the person who has accomplished the thing being discussed, but then he imagines someone calling him an expert on mirroring mental states and kind of gets Jason’s point. “You’re right, word choice can influence perspectives. So as we are both seeking humility together, what would be the first step toward recognizing the need to be humbled at all?” He hopes that made sense.

Jason spins his cup again, face thoughtful, then brings it to his lips and tilts it back, draining it and standing. “Experiences are more important than words. If you’ve never encountered a Ghost before, then experiencing surrealism for the first time might be best. We can go to the roof, and I’ll summon my pokemon there.”

Red swallows his sudden nervousness along with a mouthful of tea. The things he’s read about surreality don’t seem quite as harmless as a moment ago. But it wasn’t so long ago that he overcame fear of a different pokemon on a different roof, and this wouldn’t be worse than what Donovan’s skarmory could have done to him.

Red remembers the discomfort of the spinarak’s attack again, and feels a thread of fear. Probably. “Yeah, alright.”

The medium goes to put his cup in the sink, then slips his sandals on while Red finishes his tea. Once Jason retrieves his pokebelt and ties it on, they make their way to the rooftop, which is fairly small but only has a small number of spots taken up for registered teleportation, namely those of the students and Sabrina.

The sun is setting, but there’s still enough light to illuminate the city. The city, as far as most Kantonians see it; the biggest and most populous, home to both its most prestigious pokemon contest hall as well as the world famous Silph Corporation. It’s a culturally powerful place that he’s just starting to consider a “home” of sorts, and he draws some strength from the sight of it in the day’s last golden light, like nothing truly bad can happen to him while he’s standing here atop the shining city.

He recognizes how silly that feeling is, especially since he was just worrying about downloading superstitious wetware from Jason, and has to check his rationale for doing this again before he turns to his fellow psychic and nods. “Ready when you are.”

“Alright. I’m going to summon a gastly. Pull back your mental senses.”

And now he feels less ready. “Okay. Uh. I could also go downstairs and get my gas mask, or should I stay upwind of it, or…?”

“No, there isn’t enough wind to affect it, and as long as you can’t smell it you won’t be harmed. Just stay at least an arm’s length from the visible parts.” With that, the medium braces his arm and says, “Go, Gastly.”

The pokeball snaps open and a blinding flash of light leaps forth… but unlike with most pokemon, it doesn’t coalesce into a sensible shape. Instead the afterimage behind Red’s lids when he blinks appear to be a wide, irregular cloud.

What takes its place a millisecond later is about half as big, at least as far as he can see; a purple discoloration in the air that hangs about six feet above the rooftop. Only the center of it is opaque enough that he can’t see through it, and from within that purple mass he sees a dark orb with—

—two gleaming white voids—

—the glint of… fangs(?)—

—Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to get used to what he’s seeing. In videos, gastly appear to just be a black ball surrounded by thick purple gas, with wide, solid white and somewhat disembodied “eyes” over a pink pocket that holds what looks like two sharp canines, just floating in the blackness of the orb. But without the abstraction of simple images, his mind is struggling to make sense of what’s in front of him, which is… very much not that.

Except what else could it be? He closes his eyes, imagining the slightly cartoonish mental image of a gastly that he has in his memory, then opens them to see… something else, something that he can only vaguely recognize as having the same features as the mental image he was holding onto a moment ago. If he hadn’t known what they’re “supposed” to look like, he wonders if he would even make this much sense out of it.

After a handful of heartbeats, his gaze flinches away, the disorientation fading once he’s not looking directly at it. He has to swallow, throat dry, before he says, “All ghost pokemon are like this?” He reminds himself to be on the lookout for a headache or any other symptoms.

“In their own ways,” Jason says, pokeball still in hand. “The ones that possess some physical object are easier to perceive, but those with the gift can still see through to what they really are.”

“And what is that?” Red asks. He glances back at the gastly and feels a chill go down his spine. From the corner of his eye it had seemed like the black sphere’s “eyes” were staring aimlessly into the distance, but as soon as he looked at it, its gaze locked with his. Is that the surrealism? Has it already started?

“The spirits of pokemon.” Jason says as Red starts to shift his head from side to side, experimenting. Its “eyes” (he can’t even think of them with that word without a sense of skepticism) stay locked on his perfectly as he moves and when he looks away, its features return to vague impressions. “Instead of moving beyond our world after death, a ghost is a spirit that has imprinted onto things in it, such as a candle or doll, or in gastly’s case, the decomposing gasses emitted by corpses.”

Unfalsifiable, Red immediately thinks. Spontaneous pokemon genesis occurs in other places, labeling the ones that appear near dead bodies ‘Ghosts’ does nothing to distinguish whether that’s true from a world where their origin is any different from something like a magnemite.

But he’s here to learn about Jason’s perspective, not argue against it. It takes Red a moment to word his response through how unnerved he is by the gastly, even after looking away. “I’ve heard that hypothesis,” Red says. “But I don’t understand what differentiates it from one you’d consider false.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I’ve actually thought a lot about pokemon origins,” Red says, glancing at the gastly again, then away. It’s difficult, like the dark sphere is a black hole whose gravity is pulling at his attention, but not physically, just from simple fascination, or maybe a mix of fascination and fear, like leaning over the edge of a building despite knowing the sight will scare you. The call of the void, he’s heard it called, and that’s what the gastly looks like, a void in the world—

“Red?”

Red blinks. “Sorry, I… what was I saying?”

“Pokemon origins. Do you want me to withdraw it?”

“No, I’m fine.” He turns his body solidly toward Jason. “Right. So… if I’m understanding your beliefs correctly, magnemite could be spirits of pokemon that attach themselves to metal objects too, right? But they’re not Ghost pokemon.”

Jason shrugs. “There are many potential answers. I am a spiritualist, but find no religious doctrine more convincing than all others. I have heard that everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects, and some things may attain enough spiritual energy to become living things. Perhaps the gods are still active in the world and decide by their own whims, or perhaps there are rules they have written to guide such events in their absence that we may one day deduce. But the unnatural sensation evoked by surrealism makes it clear that only Ghost pokemon are the spirits of the already departed, rather than new souls like any others we encounter.”

“I feel like you’re…” Red stops himself. “Sorry. I’m confused. My brain is insisting that maybe it’s the substance that’s inhabited that matters. Like… imagine a world where ‘Ghost pokemon are spirits of dead pokemon’ wasn’t true. What would you expect to see different in that world, that couldn’t be explained by the ‘spirit of candles’ or ‘poison gas’ also attaining enough energy to become living beings, for example?”

Jason is quiet a moment, and Red lets him think, looking back at the gastly for a minute to try to get a handle on the way it looks. He wants to try using his powers on it to see what its mind is like, but he’s still having trouble getting his mind to see its parts as distinct things, and he should probably do that first.

Suddenly Red sees the Gastly’s “mouth” open, and calling the slimy, squirming thing that briefly comes out a “tongue” doesn’t even occur to him until after it’s back inside the sphere and he can retroactively process what he saw. He raises a hand to wipe some sweat from his forehead, even though it’s rather cool outside with fall well underway. He knows it’s from exposure to the gastly, which…

…is it getting closer?

Red suddenly realizes he can smell it, a sickly sweet, cloying scent, and panic blooms in his chest as he quickly takes a step back—

“Red, look at me,” a voice demands, and Red snaps his gaze around to Jason, who has stepped to the side so that Red can’t see the gastly in his peripheral. The medium looks calm despite suddenly sounding like an entirely different person, his whole stance feels different as he holds Red’s gaze with his own. But it’s nothing overt; Jason’s hands are folded in front of him, his shoulders are relaxed. It’s Red’s perception that has changed, his need for something stable and reassuring.

“Everything is fine,” Jason says, calm but firm, like he’s talking to a skittish ponyta. “You’re experiencing the first stage of surreality. Just focus on me, and breathe.”

Red does as he instructs, despite his confusion. The literature said that surreality would manifest as something minor at first, like a headache or increased pulse or sweating… right, he was sweating. How did he forget that symptom? No, he didn’t forget it, he recognized it as it was happening, but then the panic hit and he couldn’t connect the dots.

“Better?” Jason asks after a moment, watching him steadily.

Red nods. He feels back in control of his thoughts, though there’s a part of him that’s still thinking about the gastly, hovering just out of sight, and wondering if it’s creeping closer. “Yes, thanks. Even expecting it, it’s like it went straight to my automatic reflexes.” He steels himself, then turns his head to look at the gastly. Still far away.

“I’m not sure what I would see different,” Jason says, drawing Red’s attention back to him. Not sure what…? Oh, right, about different worlds. “I guess if it weren’t true, then I would expect there to be nothing uniform between the different Ghost pokemon compared to other pokemon that are not Ghost types. A candle and a cloud of gas have no similarity to justify belief that both should evoke surrealism.”

“But that uniqueness is what we use to classify Ghosts,” Red says. “It feels tautological to say that because they have this unique attribute, they must share this unique origin that we identify through this attribute. Especially when we don’t even know what the origin of other pokemon without that attribute is.”

“Then what is your answer? What would you expect to see in a world where Ghost pokemon are borne of dead spirits, rather than by the same process as other pokemon?”

“Weeeell,” Red says, dragging the word out as he organizes his thoughts. “First off, wouldn’t we see an infinite variety of Ghost pokemon? And wouldn’t their different species be more widespread? We don’t have any phantump here in Kanto, but we have plenty of woods and forests. If we just put a pile of screws and magnets around some pokemon graveyards, what would you expect to eventually see? Ghost magnemite, or ‘regular’ ones?”

The medium is quiet again as he thinks, and Red resists the urge to look at the gastly again. “I believe I see your point,” Jason finally says, speaking slowly. “Perhaps… magnemite are the spirits of pokemon as well, and their natures have been changed by the objects they bound to. Rotom at least are examples of ghost pokemon whose nature changes while inhabiting different ‘bodies.’ Though…” Jason frowns. “It’s not a strong example, given that even though they can leave those bodies behind and inhabit new ones, we have never seen any other Ghost pokemon do such a thing, and of course Rotom are limited to electronic device that do not mimic any other known electric pokemon.”

Huh. Red hadn’t expected the medium to refute his own argument so well. He begins to grow hopeful about the conversation. “Right, as you pointed out, there’s no consistent pattern between what Ghost pokemon are embodied as. Cloth, candles, gas, plants, clay, metal… they’re all different substances, and there are also pokemon like jellicent and oricorio and decidueye that seem to be living creatures. Or do those pokemon not feel the same to be around?” If they don’t cause surrealism, they probably shouldn’t qualify as Ghost pokemon in the first place…

“No, they do, though it’s even less strong than Ghosts that inhabit objects,” Jason says. “Here, let me show you one of those… Gastly, return!” The beam of light spreads not from the gastly’s dark core, but from somewhere on the edge of the visible cloud around it, pulling it away in a mass of red light. “Go, Lampent!”

The sky is starting to darken, but Red can still make out the twisted black lantern that appears a few feet above the ground, its core illuminated by a bright blue flame. Red prepares himself for more surrealism, but… it looks totally normal.

Except for the fact that it’s clearly suspended in midair for no reason. Red knows it’s a pokemon, intellectually, but the way it looks like a simple object makes it hard to square with the fact that it’s definitely not supposed to be doing that. And then there are the yellow glowing eyes on the round, clear “glass” of its body, but those are only unsettling if he looks at them too long.

“Huh. Yeah, this is less extreme. Instead of doubting my whole perception of it there’s just this one thing I’m fixating on. Which is weird, since there are other pokemon that float that don’t make me feel like this…” He walks a few steps to the side, then back, gaze on the lampent. The effect is a little worse as he changes his reference frame and the lantern stays suspended exactly where it is, making it seem slightly unreal, like a hologram or computer graphic overlaid onto reality…

“Oh, there’s the headache.” He quickly looks back at Jason and the pressure at his temples starts to fade. “So you were right, it’s hard to understand how different Ghosts are without experiencing surrealism for myself. But the degree is different enough that I feel like this could be a different thing entirely, if I didn’t know already to start out thinking both are Ghosts.”

Jason nods. “Your mundane senses are more easily fooled. Use your inner eye.”

Red scratches his neck, curiosity more than a match for his nervousness. “That would be okay?”

“Just don’t merge. You’ll understand why.”

Red nods and closes his eyes, wanting to focus as much as possible on what his “inner eye” senses. His range and precision have expanded over the past weeks, and he immediately becomes aware of not just the gale of emotions in front of him, but also Jason’s watchful and expectant mind, and Rei’s unshielded focus, and Rowan’s shifting mood as he sets up and brings down partitions in some exercise or experiment, and Satori’s mind as it interacts with both her swellow and torracat at the same time, and the less Red focuses on that disorienting jumble the better…

Good thing he has a gale of emotions in front of him to focus on.

It’s like standing in a crowded room, except it’s all coming from one single mind. The lampent feels unlike any other pokemon or human Red has encountered, its emotions more alien than even Bug pokemon.

Red is still relatively new to deciphering emotions without a merge, but he recognizes desire burning off the lampent like a bonfire sheds heat. There’s no question in Red’s mind of what he’s feeling, it wants something, and it wants it badly. He’s never felt anything so strong coming from a pokemon, the closest were fear from abra and when he was merged with Charmeleon and projected sakki

“It’s hungry,” Red says, opening his eyes and taking an involuntary step back as he withdraws his mind again. As soon as he says the word, he identifies the feeling in himself, or at least as close an equivalent as he can understand. He feels his stomach rumble and twist. Is it projecting onto him? “No, starving… why…”

“It had a caterpie recently,” Jason says. “But it’s never enough.”

Red expects the hunger to fade once he brings his shield up, but it doesn’t. Both arms are pressed over his stomach now, and he sucks in a breath, tries to meditate on the feeling, dissolve it, but it feels real, like he needs to find food now or his limbs will start to shake…

Then Jason is in front of him, wooden beads looped around the fingers of one hand as he passes it over Red’s head. Red feels the medium’s mind brushing his through his shield, Jason doesn’t try to merge. Instead the feeling of hunger starts to dwindle in time with the scrubbing motion of his hand around Red’s chest, until he abruptly feels fine.

It all took place in the space of a few heartbeats, and Red slowly straightens. “You felt things like that?” Red asks, letting out a shuddering breath as he eases his arms down and looks back at the lampent. “For months?”

“I had some help. My psychic teacher knew, of course, from the emotional residue that would be left on me, which you experienced. She taught me how to manage it, as all gifted trainers of Ghost pokemon must, but it wasn’t until I began walking a more spiritual path that truly cleansing it became a possibility.” He tucks the wooden beads away in a pocket. “And by enduring it more, I found my own ability to detect emotions improving, though…” He shrugs. “It was no longer always intentional, or always accurate.”

“Then maybe that’s what happened,” Red says, pulse finally slowing down as he breathes in and out. “Everyone talks about how Ghosts twist our powers and turn them against us, maybe yours have changed permanently to better sync with them.”

“Perhaps,” Jason says. “But I don’t believe all mediums have gone through the same things. If that’s a viable path, would you try it?”

Red frowns, considering a moment. “Not sure. I’d have to know more about the side effects. But in the meantime, I still want to try adopting your perspective.”

Jason nods and withdraws the lampent, which relaxes something in Red he hadn’t realized was tense. “My perspective is to simply remind myself of what I do not understand. It is a genuine humility that only feels forced insofar as it fights natural instinct to create explanations for things, to grasp at facts we have heard and knowledge we believe we have. Knowledge that, upon further examination, is revealed to be just symbols between minds to imperfectly share disparate shards of reality.”

Uh oh. They’re back at deep sounding phrases that Red can’t quite parse. “Alright… so what should I do to help fight those instincts?”

Jason shrugs. “Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise. When you truly realize how complex all this is,” he opens his hands out to the sides, “It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.”

Red frowns slightly as he grapples with such a fundamentally different ideology. Sure, the world is complex, from the mind boggling vastness of space to the alien world of subatomic particles, but impossible to understand? No. There’s humility, and then there’s surrendering to ignorance, and he can’t accept that. It’s not a conscious choice; he just knows it, as surely as he knows his name.

But a scientist should be willing to embrace uncertainty, so maybe he can reach some understanding of the same “fundamental humility,” with effort.

“I’ll consider that,” Red says after a moment, and bows. “Thank you for your time, and patience with me.”

Jason bows back. “Thank you for your vulnerability, and your trust.”


Red stays on the roof after and watches the sun set over Mt. Silver, thinking about what he experienced and the goal he set out to accomplish. He isn’t sure if he made a friend, but it feels like progress at least. Now he should try talking to Rowan too, or get to work on Sabrina’s assignment.

Instead his mind keeps turning back to what Jason said. The medium seemed so certain that they can’t understand anything, and it bothers him the more he thinks of it.

Part of him wants to go back down to his apartment and knock on Jason’s door, show him, like, a simple algebra equation, or do some basic physics experiment.

He doesn’t understand why it’s so important to him that Jason see the flaw in his perspective, as stated at least. Maybe it’s more nuanced in his head, but Red can’t help feeling that the older boy is wrong and needs to know why, even if in the meantime…

…in the meantime, he can interact with Ghost pokemon without surrealism while Red can’t. And he was able to argue against his own ideas, so he’s clearly not lacking basic reasoning abilities either. So whose perspective is actually more useful? Or maybe both are useful in their own ways…

Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise…

He sees the wisdom in that, so maybe it’s not as far a step from recognizing the value of humility to what Jason has accomplished, without quite swinging as far on the actual epistemics.

Red watches the last sliver of gold light fade behind the mountain, and twilight cloaks the city. He shivers at the sudden chill, and abruptly feels sure that there’s a gastly behind him. Floating toward him, ready to envelop his head, ready to open its mouth and bring out that “tongue”—

Red spins and sees nothing but the empty rooftop, and lets out his breath in something more than a sigh. Great, now he’s going to be jumpy about that for a while too…

“Red?”

Red yelps as he spins to find Tatsumaki on the roof with an abra. She withdraws her pokemon and steps off the teleporting platform, frowning at him. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” he says, breathing deep to slow his racing heart. “I just… met my first Ghost pokemon and… I guess it left an impression.”

“Yeah, they’ll do that.” She looks around. “It wasn’t a wild was it?”

“No, Jason’s. I wanted to know what it was like.”

“Good to get it out of the way in a safe way I guess.” She sticks her hands in the pockets of her collared dress. “So, got any ideas about sensei’s assignment yet?”

Red hesitates. “We’re not supposed to discuss it yet…”

“Whatever,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and heads for the door.

Red stares after her a moment, then blinks. “Wait! If you want, we can talk about other things—”

“Nope,” she says, and mentally opens the door ahead of her, then swings it shut after passing through.

Red sighs and heads for the door himself. He doesn’t know if he should have just said yes, but he’ll have to have something better before he tries befriending her again.

A quick check confirms that Rowan is still messing with his partitions. Red is fairly confident Rowan will have one of the more promising ideas in the meeting tomorrow. He wonders if Rowan himself feels any pressure over that expectation.

Daniel still isn’t back, so Red goes to his room, sits at his desk, and takes out his notebook so he can try to decipher the problem again.

Brains. Minds. Hiding thoughts and emotions under others.

How?

Red stares at the paper, rapidly tapping both ends of his pencil against the desk as he shifts it between his fingers.

Don’t spend resources searching for an answer until you’re justifiably confident you understand the question.

It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.

Red wonders what Jason would say to Leader Giovanni. What the Leader would say to him. When it comes to the mind, it’s true enough that currently there’s no real understanding it. Red isn’t going to solve the question of consciousness in (he checks the time) five hours. But he could at least check how confident he should be that he understands the question.

Red’s pencil moves to the page. He’ll start with what he knows… Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing in a specific order and shape. Feelings are experiences… of physical sensation… His pencil slows as he frowns. What are emotions, really? He could write something down, something that sounds right, like emotions are certain neurotransmitters and the felt effects they have on the body, but is that a useful definition? How does psychic power hide or sense neurotransmitters, let alone the feelings associated with particularly complex emotions?

He realizes that if he’s satisfied with that answer, he would just be “accepting his mind’s attempt to insist he understands something he doesn’t,” and decides to drill down to basics. What is a brain? A collection of billions of neurons, tens of billions, which encode sensory experiences and process thoughts and send commands through the nervous system by chemicals and electrical impulses.

Where do the impulses come from?

He doesn’t know.

Are all emotions from neurotransmitters, or are some purely in the brain, if that even makes sense?

Maybe it doesn’t. Especially since he just thought of another problem, maybe more fundamental…

What is a mind? A self-reflective emergent property of the processes of the brain, which experiences feelings and memories and desires as fuzzy, indistinct things that are somehow independent of the absoluteness of the brain. (Why are minds so fuzzy?) There’s some inherent disconnect between what the mind is aware of and what the brain does and stores. Optical illusions are strong examples of this, as is the idea of a subconscious, or waking from a dream with just an emotional reaction but no memory of what happened… Self-awareness likely comes somewhere between the top-down predictions that are being made constantly but that we’re unaware of and the bottom-up observations of reality…

Red stops and puts his pencil down, staring at the sheet a moment.

Sure, brains are probably the most complex thing in the universe, and may be the only thing literally impossible to understand given that the thing it’s trying to fully understand is itself, and if it were good enough to do that it would just become even more complex.

But Red would have guessed he could have answered more about brains if asked. Now all he can think of are irrelevant factors that don’t actually explain how it works…

…and he suddenly feels an inkling of something different, in his mind. A new track being laid, maybe even the start of a new perspective. He’d thought of space as mind bogglingly vast before, but really, everything is so complex that it boggles his mind to think about them in sufficient detail.

Is this what Jason meant? Is he touching the same frame of mind, at least a little?

Red flips to a new page and decides to try testing what he really understands about something basic. Not math basic, but… well, maybe, actually, especially if even basic things are mysteries to him when he looks deep enough.

What’s a comparison to what Sabrina’s asked them to do that’s not about psychic phenomena? Some other “impossible” problem, like… if someone told him there was a plant that grows without water, and asked him to figure out how, would he be able to? He’s not even sure how bizarre that might be compared to the perfect shield, but whatever, he’ll try it.

What does he actually know about what plants need to grow? He could say “photosynthesis” and haltingly describe how light contains energy (is energy) and certain wavelengths can be harnessed by certain plant cells, all wavelengths but green, actually… wait, do flower petals do photosynthesis? Doesn’t matter, so without nutrients from water, plants get some from light… wait, nutrients? Is that right? How would light have nutrients in it, nutrients are just a word that means the useful molecules and atoms for a certain life form. That stuff must be gotten from soil… but there are some plants that grow in water and off sunlight… is there carbon in water? No wait, duh, the air, they get carbon from the air… somehow… okay he just realized he has no idea how plants breathe, and again, what’s the light for? Energy? Instead of using sugar, their cells absorb energy from lightwaves and use it to extract and repurpose the nutrients (useful molecules) they need from the air, water, and maybe ground?

That… sounds right. So a plant that grows without water must be getting enough of the nutrients they need from the air and maybe ground. If there are absolutely fundamental nutrients in water, then maybe there’s a lot of moisture in the air and that’s how they get it. If the question is specifying there’s no moisture around at all then he would say that… the plant must somehow be able to build itself from other materials besides the ones normal plants need from water.

After a minute of thought, he nods. That would be his hypothesis. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a plant, anatomically, maybe it would just look like one, or be some unique cross between a plant and fungus, or something. Of course, his understanding of how plants work could be flawed in some way. It’s been a while since he learned plant biology, and if he’s wrong in any single belief, then the whole hypothesis could be way off, might not even make any sense.

He realizes that the moment before has passed. He’s no longer as uncertain about what he knows, and the idea of the world itself as bizarre and unknowable has faded somewhat as he feels more like, as little as he understands, there’s still a way to understand, a path that he could follow.

But maybe that’s an illusion too, of sorts, if he keeps “boggling” at things enough to get down to the atomic and subatomic level, where reality seems to genuinely stop making sense to brains that evolved on such a different scale.

Red smiles slightly and turns the page to start again with something else. He’s not sure if he’s on the right track to the exact mental state Jason lives in, but he’s glimpsed what might be a lens of his own, and that’s worth pursuing too.