Tag Archives: rationalist writing

Chapter 96: Moral Reasoning

A spike of alarm sends Red’s pulse thudding through his ears as Rei turns to fully face him, then offers a respectful nod. He stares at her across the short hallway between the central corridor and where she’s standing in front of his door, and all he can think to say is, “Hi.”

“Hello, Red.” She’s no longer dressed in the elegant kimonos she used to, instead wearing a formal suit that, combined with the pokebelt at her waist, makes her look more severe and professional. Despite that, a pair of colorful kanzashi still accessorize her hairbun. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Uh… yeah.” Is it? “What are you doing here?”

She raises a brow. “Sabrina didn’t tell you?”

He blinks, then takes out his phone and checks his messages. There is indeed one from the Gym Leader:

I’ve informed Giovanni, who wants to speak with you. He’s sending a familiar face to bring you to the meeting; after Rei left my school she began working for him. Don’t be alarmed, and let me know when you’re back.

“Yeah, she did.” Red didn’t wonder much about what happened to Rei after she left, mostly just relieved that she didn’t get a renegade brand. “How did you…?”

“End up working for Leader Giovanni? Sens… Sabrina recommended me.”

“Huh.” I notice that I am confused. “And you’ve been happy with that? I thought you’d want to continue your psychic studies.”

“I’ve found other ways to do so. What I really wanted was to learn Sabrina’s secret, as I told you.”

“Right.” Red remembers that day clearly, when they were walking toward the gym together to propose the idea of merging with people who entered the cafeteria. The way she so casually admitted it to him, someone she’d previously admitted to not trusting. “So… does that mean you have?”

Rei just smiles. “Are you ready to go?”

Fair enough. “Uh, give me a minute.” He walks past her to enter his room (feeling a little awkward about closing the door behind him without inviting her in) and quickly changes into warmer clothes, still thinking about the last time he saw Rei. She seemed willing to accept her fate so long as she got to talk to Sabrina before leaving the school, and if Sabrina actually recommended she work for Giovanni… well, it seems Rei’s trust in her was rewarded even more than he originally thought. It’s one thing to forgive someone for working against you, but to then recommend them to a prestigious job?

He notices his confusion again, and wonders what Rei might have offered for a chance to learn her secret, and what it has to do with the Viridian Leader.

Maybe he’s about to find out.

Red grabs his pokebelt and snaps it on before rejoining her. “So, where are we headed?” he asks as he locks the door behind him.

“I know you can do free teleportation now, do you have a strong enough memory in Viridian?”

He thinks of his rooftop meeting with Donovan. “I think so.”

“Good.” She heads for the elevators, and he follows. “Congratulations, by the way, on that and the indoor teleportation.”

He glances at her. “So you believe I did it?”

“From what I remember, the pursuit of knowledge was as close to a sacred value as you hold. Unless you’ve changed radically since I left, I don’t believe you’d lie about something like that.”

“Uh, no. I wouldn’t. Thanks.” As they enter the elevator it starts to really sink in that Rei is here, beside him. Instead of what happened afterward, he flashes back to the look she gave him when she realized that he had outed her, so calm and accepting, only to turn pale with fear as Tetsuo accused her of being a renegade… “Rei, listen—”

“It’s alright,” the blonde says, voice and face serene as ever. “I told you before that you were free to tell the others, and you still kept my intentions private until my actions spurred you to share them. I can’t say the resulting house arrest was a pleasant experience, with what was hanging over me…” She trails off, for a moment, before taking a breath. “But I was mostly confident that if I made my case, after such an extreme act, Sabrina would listen. I hold no grudge against you; in a way you were my backup plan.”

“I… what?”

“If I approached her directly, she might have just denied everything. My hope was that her discovering that I was willing to tell someone else about my suspicions would make her too worried about what else I might have told others, who I would have even more reason to trust than you.”

He can’t help but stare at her as the elevator doors reopen. “That’s… really manipulative.” A coal of anger starts to burn in his chest when he thinks of how much he agonized over whether he should tell the others…

“Do you hold a grudge against me? If you didn’t before, does this change things?”

“I…” They’re walking on the roof, now, and could really stop at any point to teleport. So he stands still to consider the question, searching his feelings for nearly a minute. She doesn’t rush him, though her outfit doesn’t seem particularly suited to the cold.

What did Rei do to him, really, that he should be angry with her? She didn’t lie, even if she didn’t tell the whole truth. She put him in an awkward position, but not out of malice, and if asked ahead of time whether he would want to know something true even if it makes him uncomfortable he would have said yes. So in the end…

“I guess I don’t. Even knowing this. Though,” he admits after a moment’s further thought. “That may be because of leftover guilt.”

“Or maybe you just lack the confidence to hold a grudge. Have you ever?”

Red thinks of Blue, and the months he spent angry with him. “Yes.”

“Truly? Someone’s apologized to you for a harm they’ve done, and you refused to forgive them?”

Red blinks. “Is that… what a grudge has to be?”

“It’s the only way I know to differentiate it from feelings of justified anger, though some grudges may be justified as well. I suppose it depends how sincere the apology is, or how unforgivable the harm.”

Red eyes her, unsure where she’s going with this. “You haven’t apologized.”

“And you haven’t expressed anger. In any case, we’re allies now, so I’m glad to hear you don’t hold any ill will. If an apology would help, then I’m sorry I disrupted your exeggcute experiment.”

Allies? Red supposes it’s true, given the risk to all psychics, but he feels like she means more. Wait, does she even know about that? How much did Sabrina or Giovanni tell her? “Just for that?”

“I assumed you would want sincerity.”

This has been a weird day, and it’s probably going to get weirder, so Red decides to just nod. As he said, he can’t bring himself to feel angry with her anyway. “Apology accepted. I still managed to learn a lot from it, in any case.”

“I would be happy to hear more about it, sometime, as well as other ways your powers have developed. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” He unclips his abra’s ball and summons it. “We’re going to Viridian Gym?”

“Have you been there before?”

“No, but I can teleport to the roof of the southern Trainer House.”

“I’ll meet you there, then. Our final destination is in the city, but not the Gym.”

With that she summons her kadabra and teleports away. It takes Red a minute to feel through his memory of those moments when he met Donovan’s skarmory. It’s difficult at first because his remembered fear gets in the way of communicating the safety his abra needs to teleport, but eventually he can concentrate enough on the triumph and safety he felt afterward that…

…and with a brief wrenching sensation, they’re suddenly there.

Red looks around and finds himself alone on the trainer house roof, admiring the city for a moment. Back when he first became able to teleport, it took him a while to get used to how awesome it was to be able to instantly travel to another city, and after his first free teleportation he’s been too focused on reproducing it to enjoy the ability. Now, however, knowing he has a few minutes at least until Rei meets him here, he closes his eyes again, focusing…

And a moment later he can smell the ocean. He opens his eyes to find himself at the Pallet Beach, just a fifteen minute walk from his old home. The piers are still being repaired after the incident, and the water line is higher than it used to be, but the boardwalk is the same, and he’s still filled with nostalgia as he looks around and takes in the sights and smells. After a moment he returns his abra and makes his way toward a colorful stall along the winding path that divides the shrubs and grass to the north from the sand dunes.

He waits in the short line behind a young woman with a growlithe at her side, its red coat covered with a yellow jacket that declares it an emotional support pokemon. Her hand never leaves its fur as she steps forward and orders a drink in a hesitant tone, and once they’re both gone and Red orders a hot chocolate, he summons Pikachu. The two walk over to a bench, and he spends a minute petting and playing with his pokemon’s ears before just sipping his drink and looking around again, noting all the things that have changed since he was last here with his mom and dad.

It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, thinking about it. He wonders if it’s the partitions keeping him from feeling the grief, and after a note of reassurance from his unpartitioned self, lets them drop.

The world shifts, but not by much. The memories grow edges, but not sharp ones. He thinks of riding on his dad’s shoulders while walking toward his smiling mom, and finally feels… okay.

Not great. But instead of the debilitating emptiness of a hole in his chest, his sadness feels less sharp, and mixed with a bittersweet joy.

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, deciding to keep his partitions down for a while longer, just getting used to being in full control of himself again after his brief but intense chat with Sabrina. In a way he’s enjoying the fruits of months of private, lonely labor.

If a year ago someone had offered him the ability to think about two things at once, he would have promised virtually anything as payment. Being “awake” behind his partition every day, riding around in his own head as his partitioned self interacts with the world, isn’t quite that… but it’s nearly as good. He doesn’t think as quickly or as efficiently, for one thing, and the two “threads” can’t communicate with each other particularly well when the partition is up. He also gets bored fairly easily, with nothing to read or do besides think and revisit his memories, and ends up spending a number of hours each day just coasting along with his partitioned self, almost like playing a full-body sim that he has restricted control over.

So, nearly as good… and good enough, for what he needed. Enough to let him spend hundreds of hours over the past couple months processing his memories, his life, his feelings, without interrupting his day to day life. Enough to better understand his grief, both over his dad and Aiko, and the differences between them.

The most important difference is that he has more today than he had when he lost his dad. Tomio Verres represented one of the three pillars holding up Young Red’s reality, and what Red finally realized after his grief over Aiko reopened the same wound is that the pillar was more than Tomio himself, both as an individual and in his role as Red’s father. It meant more than just safety either.

The pillar was confidence that the world made sense. It was the bedrock belief that the world was understandable, that danger in it could be studied, planned for, and warded against. When it fell, when even his father’s seemingly endless font of knowledge and preparation and strength wasn’t enough, it showed him that no one’s was, that the world was intrinsically a random and dangerous place, and that his mother or Blue or the Professor or even all of Pallet Town could disappear next, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.

The counterswing he went through was entirely too strong an update, given that it resulted in him essentially giving up on learning or doing anything ever again. Once his partition unknowingly developed, and he started attending sessions with Dr. Seward that helped keep the worst of it at bay, he had space to think again. It was easier to regain an interest in the world, and his passion to learn everything he could about not just pokemon but everything could be seen as, in part, a desire to avoid having the same thing happen again.

Red runs his fingers through Pikachu’s fur as he sips his chocolate and thinks over the structure of his life now. He has more pillars, for one thing, and though few are as thick and sturdy, the multitude of them make for a more robust structure. Thinking of losing his mom, or Professor Oak, or Blue or Leaf, or his other friends and mentors, all make his stomach clench and his breath come shorter… but the world would keep spinning, and there would still be more to it. His desire to know the world wouldn’t be any less. His curiosity over pokemon, how they work, where they come from, wouldn’t disappear. His passion to understand his own mind, how it works, how it fails and how to improve it, wouldn’t feel any less important. If anything it might get stronger.

All these pillars might wobble or crack if enough of the other supporting structures in his life changed. But the weight would resettle again, over time.

Unfortunately, realizing all this doesn’t help him understand whether he swung too far after accepting Professor Oak’s offer, particularly since one of those new pillars is what’s being shaken now. What would his younger self say if he knew that his need to understand and learn more about how reality works might cause all psychics to be shunned from society? No more trusting them for determining renegade guilt, no more psychic trainers with their unique abilities and flexible traveling, no more psychic doctors…

If young Red had reason to believe it, he might well have turned down Professor Oak’s offer.

And Red knows—or rather, he feels—that that can’t be the right answer either. Whatever the consequences, he rebels at the very idea that wanting to learn more about the world, for any reason, is wrong.

But it scares him. The thought of facing Giovanni, of owning up to what he’s done, of being told by the Leader what the consequences would be, feels more frightening than anything he’s ever done in his life, dulled by the passing of time as they’ve been.

And in part that’s because he knows that the Viridian Gym Leader wouldn’t say something thoughtlessly or without due confidence. If Giovanni says he has crippled psychics throughout society, turned people against them, made them unlikely to ever be trusted as trainers again, or worse…

He takes a deep breath, rubs Pikachu’s head, and sips his hot chocolate again, guiding his attention to the taste of it spreading over his tongue and the feel of his pokemon’s fur. The grief and sadness over Dad and Aiko may never fully leave him, but he has finally managed to come to terms with them. In one sense it’s too bad he’s just replaced them with another crisis, but in another way it’s just in time. He’ll need to spend more time moving forward as his whole self, and the lessons he’s learned along the way to reaching this point are the same ones that he has to use to keep himself from falling apart again.

So he enjoys his hot chocolate, for a minute, and practices relaxing his pulse each time a spike of stress sets his heart to pounding, grounding himself in the flow of breathing the familiar scents in… and out. In… and out.

When he feels more stable, he swaps Pikachu for Abra and teleports back to Viridian. Even knowing it will happen, he marvels over the fact that the flimsy thermos cup and the hot chocolate in it came with him, and spends his elevator trip down thinking over the obscure and convoluted rules of teleportation, and whether the others are working on testing his hypothesis yet… until that train of thought is soured by recognizing how proving indoor teleportation might just make things worse. Would psychics not be allowed into people’s homes anymore if people knew there are some who can teleport through walls? Should he tell Sabrina and the others to stop trying to prove it?

No, Sabrina’s thought about that already, surely. But she didn’t know about the perfect lying or sakki then… for all he knows she’s already told the others to hold off on their tests.

The lingering taste of chocolate is suddenly cloying, and he tosses the cup in a nearby trashcan. He wants to stomp his foot and scream over the unfairness of it all, and is tempted to bring his partitions back up, but instead he just closes his eyes and focuses on what he’s feeling, trying to get a better handle on why the thought of calling Sabrina and telling her they shouldn’t test his hypothesis makes him feel so conflicted.

Cold air against his skin… the press of the ground against his feet through his shoes… his hair brushing his forehead… and a vague, wriggling cloud in his torso, somewhere between his stomach and his heart. When he asks himself if it’s on his side or against him, neither feels quite right. He tries speaking out loud, muttering some prompts under his breath as he stuffs his hands in his pockets to keep them warm.

“I don’t want to set people against psychics.”

He feels the words resonate, but not in a strong sense.

“I don’t want people to get hurt.”

Same reaction, maybe even a little more faint.

“I don’t want people to be scared of me?”

No reaction. He says it again, surprised, imagining people’s frightened reactions… but no, he doesn’t think this is something they’d react badly to. In retrospect that’s obvious, since they’ve already heard his claim and haven’t. Maybe if they see it happen, feel it’s more real, that would change.

He’s not sure what else to ask, for a moment, and then imagines making the call again, feels the cloud expand, the wiggling sensation strengthen.

Red swallows, and whispers, “I don’t want to stop the research.”

The cloud “tightens,” turns into a ball of lead in his stomach, and he knows that’s it. He doesn’t want to give up on knowing if his hypothesis is right, doesn’t want to give up on whatever other secrets might come from this discovery. Proving the distinction between telekinetic and telepathic powers? Better understanding the Lavender ghost’s abilities?

And he’s already claimed to have done it. If he gives up now, people will think he’s a liar… or someone else will discover it anyway, and keep it secret.

He’s still mulling over how reasonable this is when a car pulls up to the sidewalk with Rei inside. Red enters beside her, and she inputs a new address that sends the car back onto the street.

Despite her sitting quietly, Red’s thoughts are derailed by her presence, old curiosities returning (and acting as a welcome distraction). “So what do you do, these days?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say much about my work for Giovanni.”

So much for allies. “But you’re still interested in research, right? Or, I mean, developing your abilities?”

She smiles slightly. “I am, yes. And part of my work gives me the opportunity to do so.”

“Anything interesting you’d be free to share?”

“Screening,” she says, and shrugs. “I have a talent for beating psychic shields, and I’ve been training it further.”

Red remembers her desire to sneak through the Saffron Gym Second and Third’s shields, and how Tetsuo dismissed this as expected. “Who have you been testing yourself against?”

“Some other Viridian Gym members. Outside of Saffron, this city has the most psychics in the Indigo League.”

Red knew that thanks to the networking he did for his research, but… “Are they a challenge, for you?” Most psychic trainers don’t spend as much time developing their abilities as non-trainers.

“Some are. Perhaps you’ll meet them.”

The car leaves the city proper and enters the suburbs to the east, more and more space growing around each building until they’re passing some of the larger homes surrounded by rolling green hills on every side. The car turns toward one, and follows a winding path up a hill, past the perimeter sensors, and to the front of a three story manor built in the traditional style. Once the car parks, they step out and up the patio steps, passing a pair of people trimming the hedges on either side. Red almost fails to register them, gazing up at the house in a mix of worry and anticipation, but for the fact that their belts have ultra balls and they don’t register to his psydar, which is when he belatedly realizes he’s been taken to Giovanni’s private home.

He sends his senses out further and finds a few others spread out through the building, but sees no one else as Rei leads him down a hall and up some stairs. Eventually she stops at some double doors and silently gestures him past. Red takes a breath, then walks past her and opens the doors.

The room feels like a blend of Professor Oak’s home and lab offices, with a dark but colorful patterned rug, and round, cushy brown seats, but mostly unadorned walls and much of the room taken up by various computers and a couple different replicators. A single portrait is hung on the far wall, and when Red gets closer he sees with some surprise that it looks like a real painting.

Within the frame is a mature woman with short grey curls, dressed in an elegant kimono and just enough jewelry to make her look rich without seeming ostentatious. The painting itself seems like enough for that; the background makes it clear that the portrait is modern, being set in the current room, which must have been quite an expense considering its size and how much easier a photo would have been. The woman’s gaze is piercing, mouth set in a grim line, as if impatient for the artist to finish their work.

She also bears a resemblance to the man below it; the Viridian Gym Leader is seated in the same functional leather chair as the one in the painting, though it’s set behind an open leg desk made of some dark wood. The other similarity is the cream-furred persian lounging at their feet; it’s hard to tell its age, but thanks to pokeball tech it could be the exact same one. Red wonders if the woman is Giovanni’s mother, or perhaps grandmother, and notes his own surprise. The Leader doesn’t seem like a particularly sentimental person, and while Red’s never heard anything about his family other than that they were old money, and in retrospect that makes it more curious how absent they’ve been in the public eye.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Leader,” Red says once he’s standing before the desk. “Properly, I mean.”

“I’d hoped it would happen sooner rather than later.” Giovanni gestures to one of the two chairs in front of his desk, and Red sits, finding the seat as comfortable as it looks. “I meant to speak with you more after the event in Lavender, but as usual something got in the way. I believe we have briefly spoken before, however.”

“Right, when I was in Viridian Forest.” Red sent him a thank you message for that the next day, but hadn’t gotten a response, and wondered if he’d even remember it. It’s hard not to fanboy and start babbling about how much he admires Giovanni, but the intimidation he feels from speaking with the Leader so privately helps keep him in check, along with the knowledge of what they’re here to discuss. “So… um. How much do you know? I mean, what can I do for you?”

“You’re wondering why I invited you here after you already told Sabrina everything. It’s an understandable worry, but in case it helps you relax, it’s not because I intend to interrogate you. If you could lie to her, you could lie to anyone.”

Giovanni’s smile is faint and wry, but Red feels himself relax a little. He’d also been wondering, briefly, if he’ll feel anyone try to skim his surface thoughts or emotions like Leaf accused Giovanni of doing to her, but even aside from the point just made, it would be stupid to try that on a trained psychic.

Unless the ability to merge with someone without them feeling it is another secret psychic technique that’s been carefully concealed from the public.

Red can hardly argue with that possibility, and resolves to keep his shield up. “So… what did you want to talk about?”

“A number of things, starting with…” Giovanni turns back to his monitor and drags the mouse around for a moment, clicking, then rotates the screen toward Red, who sees…

A breathtaking sight. Low quality as it is, the view of the earth from space, or rather a portion of the southern hemisphere from what must be a satellite in moderately high orbit, makes Red forget where he is for a moment, lost in the whirls of cloud over ocean and the peeks of brown and green land beneath them. It’s a sight that always fills him with wonder, an engrossing sense that there’s so much more to the world than what he’s seen, a tantalizing reminder of all the unexplored places and undiscovered pokemon still waiting beyond the reach of civilization.

He almost misses the thin, wavy line above the nearest cloud, dismissing it at first as a hair on the screen or an artifact of the photographing process. When he recognizes what it is, for a moment he feels a surge of horror until he remembers that the distance to the camera is what’s making it look so relatively large; according to the reports Rayquaza’s body is longer than any other pokemon’s, but not visible-from-space long.

“When…?”

“Three weeks ago. There are only a few hundred satellites with cameras in orbit, many of them less than a decade old and each immensely valuable to all sorts of different goals and projects. But since the incident, for the first time in history each one of them, controlled by regions all over the world, have been coordinating on this one task. We needed to know where it went, and whether what happened in Hoenn is really over. It hasn’t been spotted below cloud cover since then, however, and seems content to just… float around in the upper atmosphere. Perhaps that’s where it’s been all this time, but we’re still hoping to learn more about it, particularly in case it’s been permanently re-awakened in some sense that we haven’t yet seen.”

Red wonders why he hasn’t heard about this, then realizes the connection. “This is being kept private?”

“As best we can. It was considered… better, for morale, that people move on with their lives rather than stay in fear of death dropping from the sky at any moment.” Giovanni shrugs, tilting the monitor back toward himself and staring at it for a moment. “More than they already do, at least.”

Red can see the argument for that, but… “But you don’t believe that. That’s what you were warning about, in your speech. What comes next.”

The Leader’s lips curl in a slight smile. “Hard as this may be to believe, I am not as confident as I may often appear. I try, in fact, to only act as confidently as I feel. Any more or less would be deception of one sort or another, and while deception can be useful, in this case… I genuinely do not know. Perhaps a reprieve from fear will allow people to better recover and rebuild. You and your friends’ efforts, for example, have turned my words into more of a reality than I’d dared hope at the time. But perhaps that absence of fear will lead to complacency, sooner or later.” He clicks on his mouse again, then folds his hands and turns his full attention back to Red. “You see the problem.”

Red does. “Sometimes secrets are kept because we’re not sure if the truth will cause more harm.” It’s a relief to get more confirmation that, while he can’t know for sure if his secrecy was the right choice, he at least doesn’t know for sure that it was the wrong one either. “So how do we tell which one is which? Isn’t the default inaction going to bias us toward secrecy? Especially if it comes at a cost to ourselves?”

Giovanni’s smile doesn’t grow, but it does seem a bit warmer. “I see why Sabrina trusts you, and I’m glad you trusted her.” His smile fades as he steeples his fingers and sighs, and Red suddenly realizes something a bit alarming. From what Leaf described, and what Red saw at the Lavender meeting, the Gym Leader is constantly reading and responding to messages through his phone. Having Giovanni’s full attention adds even more pressure and import to a conversation Red already thought was maxed out on both. “That is to say, you’re asking the right questions. I wish I had better answers. I’ll pose another question to you in return; if there is something that will do much good, but carries some risk, should you do it?”

“Uh… that’s what trainers do every day, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. But what if the risk is to others?”

Ah, right. Psychic research that might get all psychics driven out of society, for example… He feels a renewed stab of guilt. “I guess it depends on how much risk, and how much good. Leaf clearly feels that what she’s doing is the most value that the sakki can do—”

“Hold that thought. The name, you chose it?”

“Oh. Uh, no, Blue did. There was actually a lot of argument about what it should be called, but the first applications were seen in battle, so…”

Giovanni nods. “It’s certainly… intimidating. But for the purpose of reducing people’s fear of it as much as possible, why not pick another?”

Red blinks. He hasn’t even considered renaming the sakki… but it makes sense. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“You don’t want it named after yourself, I take it?”

“I… guess that depends on how it’s perceived? But of course I can’t know that ahead of time…” Red shakes his head, feeling more regret than he feels comfortable with. “Better not. It’s not like my name is famous enough to help it be less scary.”

Giovanni nods. “The work Miss Juniper is doing with it seems promising, if we can connect it to that instead of battling. Though the technique is psychic in origin, its mass-produced state will make its most common occurrence and association the capability of releasing pokemon back into the wild… something to do with ‘freedom’ or ‘instinct’ seems appropriate.” He sees Red’s smile, and raises a brow. “Yes?”

“Nothing, just… one of the suggestions when people were talking about it was ‘ultra instinct.'” Giovanni doesn’t seem to get the reference, and Red feels heat creep up his neck. “Not that I think we should call it that… um… nothing really comes to mind.”

Giovanni nods. “Something to think about. I apologize for the interruption; you were saying, about risk and value?”

It takes Red a second to remember through his embarrassment. “Right. Leaf would probably say, if it works to help people safely release pokemon, it might be worth the suspicion it puts psychics under. But… she doesn’t know about the ability to lie, which would also keep psychics from being cleared in suspicious circumstances.” He lets out a slow breath. “I guess if it leads to her ultimate vision coming true, and most wild pokemon actually become tame… then that would be worth it. The amount of lives it would save…” He thinks of Dad, and Aiko, and the boy in Viridian whose name he’s already forgotten. “Even if it leads to psychics being unable to become trainers anymore or something, it’s hard to imagine that leading to more death or suffering for people, not to mention the pokemon themselves.”

“You say ‘if.’ But many things are possible, and—”

“Rational beliefs are based on what’s probable,” Red finishes, and shares a brief smile with the Gym Leader. “I’m not really a math person, but even if I was I’m not sure how I’d calculate the odds of her plan working against the risks. It’s not like she’s inventing, like, a megapotion or something that is guaranteed to save lives if only she can get the formula right.”

“Let us take some straw examples, then. I presume you would balk at sending one person in to save nine if there was a less than 10% chance of success?”

Red stares at Giovanni, trying to decide if he made that comparison in ignorance or not. The Gym Leader’s expression hasn’t changed at all, and after a moment Red wonders if it matters. It’s an important question, and the presumption is correct, as he proved with his own actions. “Yes,” Red says quietly.

Giovanni nods. “Is 11% enough, then?”

“I… on paper, yes.” Red’s heart is beating faster, and he feels Aiko’s shirt slip from his fingers as she pulls away from him…

Focus. He uses his partition, just a little, and takes a deep breath, grounding himself. “Yes, it makes sense to take that risk if there was a way to know the numbers that precisely.” When trying to put a number on his past self’s confidence that he couldn’t save Aiko and the others, it had been much worse. But then, he was deliberately grading himself harshly, knowing he had no real experience in recognizing when a building might collapse due to earthquakes and fire. “But I wouldn’t force anyone to do it.”

“Ah, but would you agree to the risk if there was a chance of collateral damage?”

Red blinks. “What do you… like, on top of the risk to the person doing the saving?”

“No, perhaps the person doing the saving is at risk, but at no higher a rate than others who would normally not be in danger. So let us suppose that if nothing is done, the nine will die, and if something is done, the nine will likely die, but may not, and the one who must act to try and save them has an 89% chance of costing someone their life in the attempt, evenly distributed among all people in the city.”

“That’s… harder. I get that in some situations you can’t really ask permission, and… I mean, if it’s a risk to everyone then what do you do if even one person says no? There’s no way Rangers could function if every rescue attempt they made with any risk at all to others couldn’t be done.” He hesitates. “Though… 89% is really high.”

“How low does it need to be, before the risk is acceptable?”

“I’m not sure.” He tries to think it through. “To be clear, whether there’s collateral damage is only dependent on whether they try to save the nine, but those dice are rolled independently?”

“Correct. It is not a guarantee that nine lives will be saved, only a near guarantee that an additional person will lose their life if the attempt is made, and a guarantee that nine lives will be lost if no attempt is made. If you want the full odds, it would be a slightly more than 1% chance that both the nine are saved and no collateral life is lost, and a slightly less than 80% chance that both the nine lives are lost and the collateral life is lost if the attempt is made.”

“And a roughly 10% chance that either the nine die but the one doesn’t, or the one dies but the nine don’t.” He sighs. “It’s still worthwhile, on paper, but even if each person in a city has a low chance of being the unlucky one, it may be unreasonable to ask them to be okay with the risk, for such a low chance of saving the nine… there would be externalities, like, people would be afraid of rangers and scared of cooperating with them out of worry that being more involved increases their own chance of death, whether that’s true or not…” Red rubs his temples, not wanting to admit defeat but not wanting to babble and waste the Leader’s time. “I… don’t know.”

He feels like he’s failing an important test, an opportunity to prove himself… but Giovanni simply nods. “There aren’t always easy answers. Let me propose another alteration: what if no one in the city is safe?”

“You mean… instead of putting one person at risk to save nine… anyone can be one of the nine? I’m not sure how that… hm. I guess no one would feel ‘safe’ even if the chance wasn’t taken… so now there’s an 11 percent chance that only one person dies, and people might feel more okay to risk the 80% chance of one additional death, since it’s unlikely to be them, while the reduction from nine to one death feels more likely to save them… Yeah, I guess… that does change things.”

“From the way you reasoned, it seems it only changes things because it changes how people are likely to decide for themselves. But would you make this decision for them, if it was up to you instead of them?”

Red thinks it over, and after a moment identifies the hesitation he feels. “Would they know it was me?” He hates himself for asking, but it feels relevant to the reason he’s here.

“Yes,” Giovanni says, and while his voice is as confident and strong as ever, his gaze is sympathetic. “Each time nine people die, some portion of the city might blame you for not taking the risk. When an extra person dies, all their families might hate you for taking the risk that killed their loved one, wondering whether they were the tenth. And while people might celebrate those rare occasions where only one person dies, or the even rarer full victory, the gratitude would be impersonal. No one will know for a fact that you saved them or their loved ones, only understand in a vague way that their lives had been in some minimal danger.”

Red’s heart is beating faster again as he thinks of Mr. Sakai. In a way, Red is really very lucky that Aiko’s father is the way he is. If he had been more… present… if he had a stronger reaction, blamed Red… it might well have shattered him completely.

“It is a difficult decision,” Giovanni continues, voice slightly quieter. “And the margins are awfully low… over a hundred iterations of this, the choice to take the risk each time would save roughly ten people over simply standing back and letting the nine die each time. If nine hundred people are going to die over the years anyway, would ten lives saved matter so much? Especially if it might cause people to hate you?”

Red clenches his hands, staring down at the floor as he thinks of what he told Leaf their first night together. That each death isn’t just a single event, that they send cracks throughout families, friend circles, communities. Depending on who it is, a single death can ripple out through the years, leaving children lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling all day, spouses crying into their arms at the dining room table when they think their child is asleep…

“Yes,” Red whispers. “They would matter. It would be… worth it.”

Giovanni is silent for a moment. When Red glances up, the Gym Leader’s gaze is on his own hands, still steepled. “So I believe as well. For good or ill, the thought of just standing aside… it is not in me.” His gaze rises to Red’s. “Nor is it in you, I think.”

Red’s heart clenches, suddenly feeling he’s misrepresented himself, that Giovanni didn’t know… “I… no, I… in Vermilion, my friend was…”

“I know what happened to Miss Sakai and Mr. Riley. It was a small part of a rather exhaustive post-incident debrief, but it’s not every day that a Second dies, and Leader Surge was understandably distraught.”

Red has trouble imagining the tall, muscular Unovan that way, but he knows that’s stupid of him. Even Giovanni probably cries now and then, as hard as it is to imagine. “Oh.”

“You weren’t blamed, if that’s what you’re thinking. ”

It hadn’t been, but his next breath still comes a little easier. “That’s a relief to hear. But then, why do you think I wouldn’t…?”

“I could mention your style of thinking and argument, but in truth it’s your actions that speak the loudest. Not just your other activities during the storm, which I looked into after you arrived at the cafe to become Sabrina’s apprentice, but something from even further back. Can you guess what it is?”

Red thinks back over his journey, a little bewildered. Could it be something he did in Viridian Forest, or on Mt. Moon? But no, that’s just more of the same and less impressive than the night of the storm…

Giovanni’s lips quirk. “If it helps, I’m cheating, just a little.”

Cheating? He thinks of Leaf’s accusation again, and feels a moment of panic—can his mind be read through his shield and without him noticing, then none of his secrets are safe—until he remembers that he already revealed all his secrets.

But that’s not quite true, is it? Or rather, he didn’t reveal everyone’s secrets.

Red feels his eyes widen, and Giovanni nods and reaches out to activate the holo-phone on his desk. “Call Masaki S.” There’s a brief ringing as the projectors light up and display a hovering sphere with the symbol of a phone on it, which rapidly shifts to a nearly-full hologram of Bill’s head. Red can only see the back of it, or at least most of the back of it; the hologram fades to a bluish fuzz for the actual back of his head and shoulders.

Bill appears to be looking down at something, shoulders moving in such a way that Red can imagine his arms busy typing, which makes sense given that he can faintly hear the clacking of keys. “What’s up, G?”

G?

“Hello, Sonezaki. We have a guest; say hello, Mr. Verres.”

Bill looks up at Giovanni, then around, and finally turns; the base of the projector rotates with him so that the camera is pointed up at Red, who realizes Bill can see him through his eye screen.

“H-hello, Bill.”

“Red, hey. You’re getting looped in, huh?”

The words slow the shock that had still been spreading through Red as he wondered how Giovanni knew about Bill’s secret, instead revealing the obvious. He hadn’t known through Red, but through Bill.

“I… uh…”

“Figured you might be eventually. By the way, don’t even think about porting indoors here uninvited, if you can really do it. I’ve got security systems, you know?”

The words are said mildly, even carelessly, but Red feels his neck flush. “I won’t! I would never—”

“Yeah, yeah. You know there are bets on whether you really figured it out? I’m going to make bank on you being right, which would be nice if not for the fact that I expect I’ll have to spend more than that rebuilding my lab if someone invents a material that blocks it. I was tempted to work on it myself but thankfully I don’t let people walk around here, let alone psychics, and there are others who are going to be motivated to figure it out, and I’ve got more important shit to do. Speaking of which, what’s the call for?” he asks as he turns back to Giovanni, not giving Red time to respond to the stream of new revelations and thoughts.

“I just wanted to confirm that, as far as you know, Red still hasn’t revealed your work on human capture.”

“Yep, not a bit of it’s shown up anywhere online, not even rumors. And that’s a bit surprising given all the rumors there are about me, or the team of people pretending to be me, or the mental upload I supposedly did after dying years ago, or whatever. Far as I know he hasn’t breathed a word, unless it’s in those written journals of his, which would be the safe way to do it, but I’m not sure he’s that sneaky. Also he still lacks any motive.”

“Thank you. I’ll let you continue your work.”

“Late- wait, there was something I… Eva, any memo for G? Right! You still owe me that schematic.”

The Gym Leader’s lips purse slightly, though Red can’t tell if it’s amusement or irritation “I’m working on it.”

“I’m sure you are, but a timeline would be nice.”

“Six months at the most, on pain of a donation to the DS.”

“Ha, that’ll do it. Cool, later then.”

The hologram vanishes, and Red is left blinking and full of questions. He settles on the last one. “DS?”

“Disciples of the Storm. A cult that worships the Stormbringers.” The disgust in his voice is dry, but pronounced.

Red has vaguely heard of them; apparently their numbers have swelled beyond Kanto after the Hoenn Incident, new branches reviving worship not just there but in various other regions, whether they have weather affecting legendaries or not. The “storm” is metaphorical for some, apparently. “Why would you—oh! A deterrent for future you?”

“Quite a powerful one. I’ve found donations to good causes less motivating as a punishment to myself; it’s too easy to think, well, the money is going to a good cause, and so my failure feels less punishing.”

Red is still working through the implications of Giovanni knowing about Bill’s research, and now he’s additionally surprised by the knowledge that the Gym Leader needs to make these sorts of deals with himself at all. He always seems so driven, so iron-willed… “Who else knows?”

“A few others among the rich and powerful. Does that surprise you?”

“A little. It seems like the more people know the secret, the harder it would be to keep.” And Bill seemed adamant that anyone else knowing would put the project, not to mention himself, at risk… why would others deserve to be stored upon their death, and not Red’s mother?

Probably because they’re helping fund or research it.

Giovanni, meanwhile, is once again giving him a wry smile. “You might be surprised how big a secret can be kept, if everyone involved has aligned interests and sufficient motivation. A higher purpose can be a powerful thing, and for those unmoved by such, selfishness is often sufficient. Granted, extreme measures are often necessary; Bill’s ability to police virtual communication, or rather his assistant’s, is invaluable in ensuring certain people don’t heed the very human desires to confide in their loved ones or boast to improve their status. Still, there’s always a chance of disaster. Like all things, it’s a matter of balancing risk with reward.”

“But… how do you know others don’t also have the technology, and use it less ethically?” It’s one thing for Bill to create his own safety measures, but Red reminds himself that there’s a reason the research has been banned so far.

“We don’t.” Giovanni shrugs. “All I know is that some things are too important to do recklessly, and should be stopped when that recklessness is identified, while others of importance carry risk inherently. But which is which… you see? It’s the same problem, just worded another way. How many lives could we save, if we solve this particular problem? Should we still take the safest route? How many must be at stake to take riskier ones?”

“I get it,” Red says, voice low. “And because I didn’t tell anyone about Bill’s tech… you decided I could be trusted?”

“I decided it was safe to let you know that you are not, in fact, the first person to discover something potentially destabilizing about our society who decided to keep it secret,” Giovanni says. “Whether research is done in secrecy because of stigma attached to the methodology, or because of the potential outcome, it would be absurd to believe that all the things which would benefit society also happen to be things that are publicly acceptable.”

Red stares at the desk for a moment, thinking through the Leader’s words. It’s hard not to find truth in them, but… Trusting some people to make these calculations and take these risks only makes sense in theory. In reality, people do things for selfish reasons, and it would be foolish to assume that everyone is like Bill and Giovanni. “And if there are psychics influencing people’s thoughts? Or research that was doing more harm than good, or might lead to discoveries that would be used unethically? Who decides if that’s worth revealing to the public or not?”

“Those of us who know,” Giovanni says, palms out to the sides as if it’s the simplest thing. “Any one of us can blow the whistle if we believe the world should know.”

Of course. Red didn’t consider that, though it’s the most obvious answer in retrospect, and makes him feel better the more he considers it.

It also, however, drives home the fact that he’s now part of a real conspiracy. It’s not a psychic conspiracy, since people like Giovanni and Bill know, but he’s not sure Leaf would feel too reassured by that. Giovanni is dark and Bill isolates himself from the world, so he doesn’t really have to worry about someone making him enjoy hummus. Which isn’t to say they don’t have other reasons to worry about that sort of thing, but it’s not likely to feel as immediate a worry for them as it is to others. Anyone else in the conspiracy may be similarly shielded.

On the one hand that feels like it might make them more objective, but on the other it also might make them underestimate the risk. Their priorities are different, and while he trusts people like Giovanni to have good ones, that’s not the same thing as having the best ones, or the “right” ones.

“You’re still troubled.”

“Yes, Sir. I understand that he’s not psychic or dark, so the risk of him leaking info to a psychic is too high, but… does that mean there are no plans to tell Professor Oak? How long should I expect to keep secrets from him? Not Bill’s, I mean mine.”

It strikes an off chord in Red that the Professor would be excluded from knowledge like this. Not just because he knows the Professor would love to know it, and not just because he knows the Professor would feel hurt that he didn’t tell him. The truth is that he trusts Professor Oak, and his mother as well, to do what’s right.

Giovanni sighs. “Believe me, Red, when I say that I have deeply regretted not being able to recruit Sam to help with some of these problems, or at least to hear his thoughts on them. But the security risk is just too great; he spends much of his time meeting people around the region, and is too much in the spotlight for any major change in behavior to go unnoticed.”

“Right. That makes sense, but what about certain rangers or police? In Saffron I was helping look for more renegades hiding in the city, and while I don’t think there are any there, there’s no telling how many other secret labs there might be, doing research that people feel so protective of they’ll use renegades to keep it secret.” He wondered if some of the missing researchers his mom has been investigating would be found among the dead there, either held against their will or hired by whoever was running the lab, but if so he hasn’t heard about it.

Giovanni simply nods. “I do in fact plan to let the right people in law enforcement know. As for your friends, Blue and Leaf… do you trust them enough to share this?”

“I do,” he says, relieved that Giovanni isn’t asking him to keep it from them, too. “Though I’m not sure if Blue would be okay with not telling the Professor, and Leaf isn’t dark or psychic…” He rubs his face, feeling lost again.

The day Red reported Rei, he hid in the bathroom to try to reason out what he should do and invoked his internal models of the people he respected and trusted… and they gave him good advice. He did it again a few other times, and each time it felt like it helped, even if just to reassure him that his lack of confidence in what he should do was understandable and that making a mistake would be okay.

But while he was preparing for all this from behind his partition, as Partitioned Red went about his normal life, he found the mental models of others fell silent. Whether because the stakes are so big, or because his actions are too unlike any other he’s done before or can remember others doing, or something else, it seems he’s just utterly unable to model their reactions.

He never realized how much he depended on those inner models until they’ve gone so silent. Even thinking about abstract principles or guidelines they’ve reminded him of before, like be prepared or ask for help felt inapplicable or limited to what he’s already done.

The thought of what his parents, mentors or friends would say in a situation like this is just too inherently unthinkable. Maybe because he imagines they would find the idea of him doing what he did unthinkable. And that felt worse than even condemnation.

His thoughts trail off as he remembers Maria, and what happened under the casino. “I… forgot, there’s someone else… when I told Sabrina that some of the trainers traveling with Blue know about sakki, I forgot to mention that one of them knows what I did under the Casino.”

Giovanni’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t respond. Red’s stomach starts to do flips and somersaults as the silence stretches out, the Gym Leader’s expression revealing nothing of his thoughts. One hand reaches down to scratch his persian’s back, causing its tail to curl and sway, and he gazes distantly past the wall to their side with a slight crease between his brow. It strikes Red, suddenly, that the room has no windows. Not that all rooms need them, but he always imagined rich people setting up their offices in rooms with good views whenever possible.

Red finally feels like he has to speak, but when he opens his mouth Giovanni holds up a finger and Red keeps his silence. It takes another tense minute before the Gym Leader stirs.

“I can’t guess which of the girls it might be, and so doubt any others could without more information. The police who interviewed them might, but they haven’t raised any flags that I’m aware of. Who is it?”

“Maria.”

“Hm. The quiet one with the hat, yes? She seems to have held the secret so far. Well enough that I think it will keep, for now.” He resettles in his seat. “Back to your friends. It’s understandable to feel conflicted, even guilty, for not sharing things with them. I feel it often myself, when keeping things from my fellow Leaders.”

Red’s curiosity kindles. “Do you… do that often? I mean, is it always about dangerous research, or…?”

It takes a moment for Red to realize how presumptuous he’s being, but Giovanni just smiles. “One thing I can share is that there is a project I attempted that might have defeated the Stormbringers. It required me to keep a number of connected scientific discoveries secret, as I didn’t trust others with them.”

Even now, Red feels a flare of indignation at the idea of keeping novel research private, especially given the potential scope of the discoveries if they made the Leader believe they could stop a legendary pokemon. It takes him a moment to remember how hypocritical he’s being, and by the time he does Giovanni has already registered his reflexive outrage.

“I know this flies in the face of your deepest values, and I have to admit that the project backfired… but not as badly as it could have, and I still believe I was right to keep the discoveries secret.”

“But how could you know that was the right call? There’s no way to know what millions of other researchers and trainers might be able to do with something you discover… if the discoverers of pokeball tech had kept it secret, we might all still be in the dark ages!”

“A solid point, but the counter-example is experiments for human storage. The risk of misusing technology is bad enough, but combined with the risk of causing new research to be banned and handed to criminal elements makes it seem obvious to me that some discoveries are better kept secret, for a while at least.”

“How long is a while?” Red says, worry doing more to tone down his indignation than his conscious attempts. He considers just shutting down his emotions to have the conversation rationally, but knows better; once the feelings returned, they would clash all the more with whatever he thought.

“I honestly don’t know,” Giovanni says, and leans back in his seat, gaze distant. “The world has become too attached to the status quo. Humanity was so weary of losing lives just to reach a relatively safe stability that, upon reaching it, it has turned timid. Rather than risk losing what we’ve gained, we look away from the cost to keep our slow and steady growth, and tell ourselves it will inevitably lead to a better world. The current rate of death and suffering is not accepted because we think it is correct, but because it is safer and more convenient to us than the alternatives.”

“What alternatives?”

“For one, the way we send our children out on journeys, somewhat prepared but unguarded. Why do you think we do that, instead of sending an adult with each?”

“I asked my dad that, when I was younger… I mean, I asked him if he would be coming with me when I became a trainer. He said he would do his best to prepare me, but that I would have to rely on my friends and myself, and that the rangers were out there to help in emergencies…” Red remembers feeling afraid, when he asked, and then reassured, and even excited. The idea of being away from home, adventuring with friends… he’d heard so many stories of people like Professor Oak and Giovanni himself doing the same thing. “Now I know it’s also from a lack of available trainers. There just aren’t enough people available to guard every group starting out in their journeys.”

“And did you ever consider whether that might itself be solved, if we take extra care for a generation or two and reduce the rate of new trainers but increase our population? Cede some territory to the pokemon that would encroach in that time, retreat from a few towns, and focus on retaking them later?”

“I… no.” It’s odd, now that it’s pointed out to him, how much he took for granted that trainers should start young. Even now some part of him rebels at the idea of having been thought incapable of going on his journey with Blue and Leaf without an adult watching.

Survivorship bias. Quite literally. “So… you’re saying society is focused too much on traditions?”

“Not just tradition for its own sake. It’s focused on maintaining a way of life that is nearly a paradise compared to what my grandparents experienced, and thus rejects any risk of losing it, even if it means literally feeding some portion of our children and siblings and parents to monsters.”

Red rubs his face again, feeling unprepared to argue this. He knows he can’t win a debate with Giovanni, a third of everything he knows feels like it came from him. But the twisty felt-sense in his stomach is hard to ignore, particularly since he knows what it means, or something like it. It’s how he felt when he thought of Rei’s plans to learn Sabrina’s secrets.

“I think it’s hard to predict what will happen with new research,” Red says, picking his words carefully. “So I don’t want to blame someone for getting a decision wrong, one way or the other. I don’t think I can tell someone if they’re choosing right or not, but if you don’t trust society as a whole to make the choice, then… it feels like society has no reason to cooperate with you? Bill can afford to live in his secluded home and focus on research because society as a whole is protecting him and creating things he needs. He’s definitely contributing back, maybe more than anyone else, but… it feels wrong to benefit from the group’s efforts while secretly undermining the agreements that make the group function.”

Giovanni is quiet for another minute, and Red starts to worry again that he’s said the wrong thing. What if Giovanni thinks he’s having second thoughts about reporting Bill’s secret?

Red reminds himself that this is the man who wrote about how curiosity should never be penalized, and how asking questions should never be taken as an indication of beliefs.

Unless, of course, that’s just how he wants to be seen in public. If he’s willing to break some principles, why think he won’t break them all?

But no, people can have values opposed to public laws. It took people of personal principle to stand up to the laws requiring all city inhabitants to follow any orders by Leaders and develop the civil branch of government.

“Another fair point,” Giovanni finally says. “But it does not change my lack of trust in the public’s ability to choose the path of least harm.”

Red latches onto that last phrase and rifles through his memory. “I know you’ve written about this, that reducing total harm and maximizing good as best we can is the ultimate moral imperative, but… isn’t that the sort of reasoning that leads some people to become renegades? We need certain unbreakable rules, right? How do you decide which to follow?”

“It depends what you mean by ‘unbreakable rule.’ For deontologists this is how all moral structure is built, whether the rules are from society or divinity or some inherent logic they believe leads to the most consistently moral world. By contrast, someone who follows virtue ethics has only their own internal moral compass as a guide, and determines what they must never do by the virtues they endorse… but neither can give particularly compelling arguments for why some laws or virtues should trump others.” Giovanni shrugs. “Personally, I’ve found that when you dig deep enough, all the most widely followed moral systems are ultimately not just consequentialist, but utilitarian. Even a religious deontologist, when pressed, will insist that their rules are those that will maximize well-being and minimize suffering, if only on a spiritual level or in another plane of existence. Both they and virtue ethicists are simply establishing shortcuts to guide them to what they believe will lead to the best world, particularly if everyone follows the same methods… and I find the idea of taking shortcuts in moral reasoning lazy at best and cowardly at worst.”

Did he basically just admit that he doesn’t see anything wrong with going renegade?

No, he just said that he would determine if it was wrong on his own, in each situation. After all, if Indigo went to war with another region the label would basically just be determined by whom you were using your pokemon to attack. Red distantly remembers reading about protests that occurred back when Surge became Leader, as some considered those who fight in wars to be little better than renegades.

“I don’t know if I could live like that,” Red admits. “It’s been exhausting trying to constantly determine if I’ve been doing the right thing on just a handful of occasions over the past year. Doing it with everything… don’t you worry about being wrong?”

“Of course, but one hopes the same can be said of any conscientious deontologist or virtue ethicist. It can be tiring to constantly wonder what truly constitutes the ‘most good’ and the ‘least harm,’ and when I was younger I struggled with decision paralysis many times. But I have learned to allow myself to be human; I reserve most of my deliberation for decisions that are the most important, and acknowledge that I will make mistakes. I commit to learn from them and update my understanding, so that I can do better. I do not see how the other moral systems, whether rigid or similarly flexible, are superior in any way other than convenience, and in maintaining a desirable status quo rather than risking change to it.”

It’s Red’s turn to quietly think for a minute as he tries to process what he’s heard. He’s not sure why he’s trying so hard not to be convinced; in essence what he wanted was to be told he’s done the right thing. But this feels like something more, a swing that might be too far.

But rather than acting as an authority, Giovanni is instead telling him not to accept someone telling him he did the right thing, even Giovanni. To instead think for himself and make his own determination.

But is accepting that argument itself just trusting an authority figure in another way? Especially if he’s already made this decision beforehand?

This is ridiculous. If he told us to just accept his word that it was okay, we’d probably be doubting that too.

Red acknowledges this, and also knows that Giovanni has been pushing for people to take on moral responsibility for their actions for years, and so is not just tailoring his response to Red’s situation. Still, this is the first time Red has felt so unsure about what that actually means, and if he ultimately can’t trust himself to make the decision…how can he trust himself to know that he can’t?

The thought threatens to send him into another spiral of meta-doubt, so he takes a deep breath and does his best to put the thought aside as he reaches for his curiosity, finds it, and wraps it around himself like a cloak. As long as he stays curious, stays open to learning, he believes he can move forward.

Where does this philosophy potentially break down? Where has it broken down for him? Or better yet…

“Is there anything you’ve seen or heard of that made you doubt this model?” he asks as he returns his gaze to the leader sitting patiently in front of him. The thought that he’s taking up a lot of Giovanni’s valuable time occurs, and he quickly reminds himself that the Leader asked him to come and could end the conversation whenever he wants. “Or a situation you’ve thought of that you’re still struggling to reach a decision on, even allowing yourself to make mistakes?”

“Of course. One thing that must be said for deontology and virtue ethics is that they make coordination problems much easier, assuming you can trust the other person to follow their code or virtues.”

“So… you’ve had trouble coordinating with other consequentialists?”

“I have, but notably less, I think, than two opposing deontologists would, or even two virtue ethicists with different virtues, though I’m less sure about the latter.”

“I think I get it, but… can you give an example?”

“I would prefer to keep such dealings private, but I can provide an impersonal one.” Giovanni holds up two hands, palms up. “The leaders of the two renegade groups in Hoenn faced their own coordination dilemma. Both knew that the other was researching a mythical pokemon. They had a commitment to leave each other alone, but it was dependent on both sides agreeing not to seek the actual means of reviving those pokemon. However, once they did discover the how, both also didn’t want to leave the means lying around for anyone else to take… and didn’t fully trust the other to honor the agreement. They hid how far along their research and efforts were from even their own teams, as they knew any apparent effort to secure their discoveries would be seen as defection from the ultimate agreement and invite retaliation.”

Red listens in rapt fascination, wondering why the motives and actions of the two renegade groups are still largely a mystery to the public if Leaders already know this much. “Why didn’t they just reach out to…” He trails off as the realization hits him. “If they contacted the League or Rangers about their enemy, the other side would have done the same.”

“And both would have been hunted down rather than listened to, as they had already defected from the overarching rules of society.”

“But it still would have stopped the incident! I can understand not wanting to destroy your research even if you know it can lead to a catastrophe, and can even understand not trusting it to the public… but if their calculation led to the incident, it’s hard to imagine a worse outcome!”

Even as he says it he knows it’s not true, and Giovanni raises a brow. “I believe your imagination is now supplying you with many counterexamples. As I said, this seems to me a failure of consequentialist thinking, when two people with power individually believe they are doing the right thing and have no common rule or virtue to turn to. It’s hard to know how close to true catastrophe we really came… but we did survive. Had someone else found the means to summon Groudon, would they have joined the effort to subdue it once they lost control? If the Hoenn League had the power of such pokemon at their apparent command, do we know they wouldn’t attempt to use it against a neighbor? Hard to imagine, perhaps, of those we know and trust… but they will one day be replaced, and sooner or later someone else might have seen them as weapons of war.”

Red takes another minute to process this before Giovanni speaks again. “Now I present the question back to you: is there any truth you could learn about the origin of species that would make you hide it?”

Red blinks at the sudden turn in the conversation, and tries to imagine that scenario. What comes to mind is the reaction in Pewter, after Leaf’s article came out. What if he learned something so shocking to people that they violently rejected it, or it caused some regions to go to war with each other? It seems bizarre to him, but he knows better than to assume that no one would have a strong reaction over a big enough truth.

“I’m not sure. I want to know it for my own sake, and think the world would be better off with the knowledge. There’s no telling what we might learn along the way, or how such a deep truth might affect our technology or training habits… I think something that fundamental might help us learn enough to be really safe from pokemon, even the legendaries.”

“So you believe it could, in fact, save the world.”

Red feels heat creep up his neck, but he knows Giovanni isn’t making fun of him. “I do.”

“Then nothing would persuade you not to release that discovery?”

“I guess it depends on what the implications might be, or whether the knowledge itself is dangerous. If someone learned how to make their own pokemon, for example… they might create a legendary, or a dozen.”

“So if the potential for destruction is too high, compared to ways to help humanity fight or subdue pokemon…”

Red reluctantly nods. “Then… yeah, I might keep it secret. Also, if Leaf gets her way, or Blue gets his… maybe it won’t be as necessary, and it would just be knowledge for its own sake.”

Giovanni nods, and Red finally feels like he has, at last, passed some sort of test.

So why does he feel so hollow?

“There are projects that I’m working on that you may be able to assist with,” Giovanni says, confirming Red’s suspicion. “And I believe you would benefit from them as well, if you are interested. You would, unfortunately, have to commit to secrecy about anything you learn unless cleared by others first.”

Red wants to ask how Giovanni can trust such a commitment, since Red might change his mind at any time if he thinks it would do more good, but then remembers his earlier comment about how anyone in the conspiracies can just speak out if they wanted to. “I… can I think about it?”

“Of course. I know you’ll be busy for the near future, in any case, and I’ll have to factor your new revelations into my plans as I decide how to safely disseminate the information and come up with a plan for eventual public knowledge.”

Red feels such immense relief at the Leader’s words that he sags back against his seat. There’s fear, too, and he wants to ask how Giovanni will go about it, wants to be more reassured… but he doesn’t want to seem as insecure as he is, and it’s enough to know that someone else, someone older and wiser and with good intentions, is handling it. “Thank you.”

“The gratitude is mutual. I know that, unlike your friends, you would prefer a less public life if it meant you could pursue your quest for knowledge, and respect you immensely, not just for keeping the secrets as well as you have, given your values, but for putting your desires aside to do what’s right, even if it costs you everything. I for one hope that it does not, and that you can someday enjoy the life of research you desire.”

Red feels his cheeks warm at the effusive praise, and finds his gaze returning to Giovanni’s. “What would you do, if you could? I mean, if you didn’t have to be…” He gestures vaguely around, meaning not just the office but the city and region beyond. “All this?”

Giovanni’s brow rises, and his gaze falls to his persian as he reaches down to scratch it again. The large cat begins to purr, and for a minute the deep, rhythmic thrum is the only sound in the room.

“I wonder that myself, sometimes,” Giovanni finally says. “What I would be in a world at peace. A world without any remaining uncharted wilds, where every god has been captured or killed, where people can live as long as they’d like. I’m not sure I have a good answer, but… I think, in another life, I might have been an explorer.”

Red smiles, imagining it for a moment before his confusion hits. “But if all the wilderness is charted…?”

“Oh, I think there will always be more to explore, don’t you?” Giovanni smiles. “After all, if pokemon really do come from another world… who’s to say we couldn’t reach it ourselves, someday?”

Chapter 82: Interlude XIV – Titans II

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

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

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

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

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

They might have if they went down one more floor to where Ramin works.

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

Today has not been one of those days.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

Ramin steps back, a cold certainty slowly filling him.

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

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

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

His orders are clear. Anyone who learns of the lab without authorization is to be eliminated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Not that he can go as all-out as he’d like to. Ships would help give him somewhere to land and attack from, but there’s only one that’s arrived through the choppy seas, and it seems to be engaging in combat against something else below the water, the occasional explosion sending sprays of water up through the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not easy, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there any Psychic/Dragon pokemon in Hoenn?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here!”

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

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

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

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

Once reaching it he finally has to pause for breath, and MG slumps against the wall beside him, breathing hard too. He fumbles out his potion bottle and sprays his hand, then takes out his canteen for a deep swallow. The salty-sweet flavor of his energy drink feels reviving all on its own, and he passes it to MG without looking.

“Do you think he’s alive?” she asks after she hands it back. Her voice is calm, but there’s something in it, the vibration of a tightly wound thread.

Glen looks at her, then away, tipping the canteen up for another drink before he caps it and shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“And Kyogre?”

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

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

“Aye, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Says you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Steven, what are you—”

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


The roof of the Sky Pillar is completely dry.

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

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

Instead the bright hole in the sky remains fixed over it, allowing them to look around in wonder at the dark, rainy world that surrounds them. With such limited visibility, the horizon is an endless ocean in every direction, like the whole world has already been swallowed by some restless, primordial sea. It’s a beautiful, if haunting, sight, and he fights the urge to pull out his phone to take a picture or video. It would make a fantastic piece of art, a landscape wraparound for his living room…

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

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

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

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

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

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

A… B… C…

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

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

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

…H… I… J…

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

And the noise of them…

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

…N… O… P…

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

…X… Y… Z…

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

Wallace watches Wally take a deep breath, and then…

…?… !

The last two shapes complete the loop around the boy…

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

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

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

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

They’re not punctuation marks… maybe humans just used them as punctuation because we didn’t know what else to do with them, just knew they weren’t like the others…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And fear.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wake who?”

“The titans!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I?” Wallace asks. “Your Leader.”

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

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

“You… I… I didn’t know.”

“I made you do it.”

“You… m-made me…”

Wallace squeezes his shoulder. It feels so thin under his hand. “Good man.” He stands. “Now get to work.”

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

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

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

With ancient hunger stirred, it came with rending cry

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

Till sacrifice was made, and peace at last was won

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t the time for sentim-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their life support systems are failing; far faster than they should be, and they have to dig their way out, amidst an earthquake, without collapsing the whole lab on themselves. She’s one of only three people in the lab who now knows about the CO buildup from broken heater exhaust pipes. With the vents to the surface all blocked, the whole lab will be dead within the hour, even if the earthquakes miraculously stop.

Unless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of it, Doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good evening, Mewtwo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The soil could bury us.”

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

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

“Mewtwo.”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“How much dirt could you move at once?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is, but not unless they’re dark.”

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

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

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

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

“I can, though it would be—”

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

“Difficult for them.”

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

“Yes, Doctor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chapter 81: Interlude XIII – Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

“Birch, where are the kids?”

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

“They’re not answering their phones!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Birch, are you there?”

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

“Are what, Birch?”

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

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

“They never registered any.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Birch. I have to go.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get the others—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Liz?”

“Glen! Are you still at the gym?”

“Yeah, things are a mess—” There’s another quake, and she hears someone near him shout “Watch out, up top!” before there’s a crashing sound.

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

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

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

“What about you, everyone okay?”

“No, Blue got buried in—”

What?!”

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

“Is he… sorry!… do you need help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparative advantage.

Hers is not digging through rubble.

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

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

“To get the power back on.”


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

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

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

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

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

Giovanni responds at the fifth ring. “Lambda?”

“Hey, Boss,” Petrel says, and can’t help but smile.

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

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

“Magma?”

“Yeah, but others showed up too.”

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

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

“They were working with Magma?”

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

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

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

“No, Sir, not since yesterday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three minutes,” Phoebe reports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven watches with mild fascination as Maximilian Matsubusa’s face, always calm on camera, twitches with some barely controlled feelings. Max has always seemed similar to himself in the way he emotes, or rather doesn’t, and Steven finds himself a little envious. Not of the loyalty shown, which he expects he would receive as well in a similar circumstance, but in the way it so clearly overwhelms the normally stoic man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forget I asked, we need to move.”

“Then you’ll let us help?”

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

“Collateral,” Glacia suggests in his ear.

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

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

The round renegade stirs. “Maxie—”

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

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

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

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

“What sort of gemstone is that?” the paleontologist whispers.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of the final fail-safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which means he has to do something about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve noticed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

He doesn’t believe her.

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

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

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

It can’t be allowed to come to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The helicopter is spinning out of control. The director watches in sickened fascination as it fights to stay aloft, then to land… but it’s falling too quickly, and he raises his bottle in mournful salute as it drops into the distant hills, a brief flash of light signaling its end.

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

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

Chapter 80: Nonviolent Communication

The earthquake hits after breakfast, interrupting the morning feedings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scary?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if they were…”

“Yeah, I’d try at least.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still there, Leaf?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? How come?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would I do that to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Red

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

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

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

Blue

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

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

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

“Hey Leaf, what’s—”

“What are you doing tomorrow? Also hi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not a denial.”

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

“Still not a denial.”

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

“Well, that’s a relief. Also, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh… sorry, I didn’t mean…”

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

“I do! Want to, I mean.”

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

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

She laughs. “Shut up, you would not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You’re a terrible liar.”

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

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

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

“Red!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could see it. Maybe. Potentially.

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

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

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

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

Test subjects.

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t help her feel better.

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

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

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

“Weeeell…”

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

Leaf blinks. “Go on…”

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

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

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

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

“The second. I want the real deal.”

“You’re sure?”

“A hundred percent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I figured, but good job.”

“Guess we’ll see. I’m ready, hit me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

She blinks. “Really?”

“Totally. Guys aren’t like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool, see you then!”


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

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

“You haven’t already?”

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

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

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

“Wait, shouldn’t he?”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Of course. Hi, Mr. Sakai.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever. Are you?”

“Making you like hummus or fruit?”

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

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

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

“Do you?”

“It feels so good to travel again…” And she wants Red and Blue to finally talk to each other in person again. She shrugs, pedaling a little faster. “I think we can make it before it starts raining.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do they? Not around here.”

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

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

“Maybe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence descends, both of them looking increasingly awkward, and Leaf, torn between yelling at them to hug it out and watching to see how long it goes on, decides to take pity instead. “Where’s everyone else?”

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

“You already have?” Red asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than just rank?” Red asks.

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

Leaf blinks. “Meaning… romantic relationships?”

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

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

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

“Wow,” Red says. “Researchers too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 78: Merger

Hey everyone, doing an unusual PSA: For those that haven’t been paying much attention to the coronavirus, I think it’s worth mentally preparing for a chance that you or someone in your friends/family will get badly sick sometime in the next couple months, and physically preparing for society to slow down for a bit. If even 15% of people are too sick to leave the house at the same time, that’s entering Great Depression levels of unemployment. Many aspects of “normal life” will be disrupted even for those who are not sick.

That doesn’t mean panic, or prepare for an apocalypse. I still plan on going about my normal life in that time, assuming things don’t take a sudden turn for the worst.

But at the very least, if you can afford to buy some extra necessities up front, I think it’s worth doing. Get an extra month’s supply of non-perishable food, toilet paper, laundry detergent, various basic medications, etc. Don’t take any PTO for the next few weeks in case you need to take it later while sick or to help a sick family member. Make a habit of regular, thorough hand-washing while in public and before meals.

I don’t tend to be alarmist, in general. Living in the hurricane capital of the US means I have practice preparing for potential disasters that often end up being no big deal, and what I’ve learned is that being reasonably prepared can be worth more than just the peace of mind it provides.

Hope you all enjoy the chapter, and many more to come.


Most gyms have two dedicated clinics: one for pokemon, and one for people. Neither is as fully equipped or staffed as a hospital or pokemon center, but they can still do a lot, and are particularly useful to the gym staff when they have a lot of challenge matches booked back to back.

All the other gyms try to have at least one medically trained psychic on staff, but Saffron is the only Kanto gym with a third, smaller clinic specifically dedicated to psychic healing, with six full time staff rotating shifts.

It’s Red’s first time in it, and he looks around at the soothing wallpaper (a bright blue sky with silver clouds, the vague impression of swablu hidden in the curving lines) and comfortable looking couches and futons as they’re ushered into the waiting room by the Gym Second.

Red spent the walk here with his shields firmly up, but he’ll have to drop them soon to be checked, and he doesn’t want Rei’s secret to be at the top of his thoughts. If only he could induce amnesia in himself already… But no, he’s had enough practice by now to keep his thoughts in order.

There are two doctors on shift, so Rei and Cyr get called in to be checked first. Daniel, looking like he’s not sure why he’s here, says he’s going to get something from the vending machine, leaving Red, Tetsuo, Jason, and Satori. The latter two are quietly comparing notes about their experience with the merger, while Tetsuo is typing something into his phone…

…and Red is still holding an emergency meeting with Past and Future Reds.

Okay, let’s map out where this goes, Future Red says. Outcome 1, we end up linked to the exeggcute again, the cookie thing was an accident or prank from whoever but we accidentally think of Sabrina or Rei, and the secret comes out. Outcome 2, we manage to control ourselves well enough that we don’t think of either of them, but Rei is the one that was testing the waters with that cookie thing and she thinks of Sabrina to get to whatever secrets Tetsuo knows about her, outing our own complicity along with hers. Option 3, it was a prank or accident, and we control ourselves, and nothing bad happens. Two out of three, not looking good. I say we tell Tetsuo now.

Red frowns. That’s not how math works. We need to know how likely each of the three outcomes is.

Good luck quantifying any of that, since we can’t actually know how well the automatic sharing can be guarded against until it happens again, and by then it would be too late if we’re wrong. I guess you could just ask everyone if they were responsible again, then estimate whether they’re being honest.

Maybe that’s what Satori and Jason are talking about. He turns to them, focusing on their whispered words.

“-would have noticed,” Jason murmurs. “Influence from the seeds would have been easy to predict, if we knew ahead of time which one we had.”

“I believe mine was concerned with the future,” Satori says. “It was difficult to stay grounded in the present rather than have my thoughts keep turning to what would come next… but only in the short term.”

Jason makes a thoughtful sound. “Now that you say that… I thought I was just interested in experiencing the exeggcute’s understanding of its environment, but perhaps that was driven by the seed’s desire.”

“Were you focused on threats?” Red asks, joining the conversation more overtly by turning his body toward them.

Jason considers this a moment, then bobs his head. “Yes, now that you mention it. There was an extra vigilance of anything else in the room, but as there were only humans, nothing would have struck it as a threat.”

“Yeah.” Red turns to Tetsuo. “Sir, do you recall any particular drive or focus that might have come from your seed during the merger?”

Tetsuo holds up a finger, other hand still typing for a moment, then lowers his phone and considers the question. “I believe mine was the memory of the exeggcute. It felt like it kept comparing the present against moments it previously experienced, checking for similarities to food that it located, or danger that it encountered. Is this relevant to what happened, or just curiosity?”

“Both? I’m wondering whether the seed that was seeking food led to the… whatever it was, the hyperfocus on cookies.”

Satori nods. “That is my guess as well. The merger became so complete that the focus of the exeggcute’s seed became the focus of the psychic, and they projected that focus onto the rest of the seeds, and their attending psychics. Had the exeggcute not been withdrawn, I’m not sure how long it would have continued.”

“Well that’s a clear risk,” Tetsuo asks, frowning slightly. “Any further experiments will have to have someone on standby, and with a time limit for them to withdraw even without sign that things went pear shaped in case there isn’t one.” He turns to Red. “What was your seed’s focus?”

Red is still mulling over his first question, and is distracted as he tries to recall. “Nothing jumped out at me,” he admits. “Which maybe excludes food and… what was the last one?”

“Coordination, particularly for mobility,” Satori says. “But they were not moving, and so it might make sense to not have noticed this.”

“There’s also flux,” Jason reminds him. “Which may be even less noticeable? Or more, if there was rapid change.”

Red nods, frowning slightly. Neither of those are ringing a bell. “Well, I definitely didn’t notice any desire for food or finding it up until the thought of cookies overwhelmed me, so I think I was either flux or coordination.” Which means there’s a 50% chance that Rei’s seed was the one focusing on food.

His thoughts drift from there until he realizes he’s not doing anything productive, and invokes his model of Future Red again. Concentrate on the goal, Future Red reminds him. How does knowing all this help?

Maybe it doesn’t. But Cyr probably didn’t make a mistake like this, and that means Rei is the only likely suspect, outside of Daniel pranking. Which he probably wouldn’t admit to until after everyone is checked out and okay, if then.

Maybe Rei wasn’t trying to test things. Maybe she just got overwhelmed by the seed’s desire once she merged that deep with it.

Sure, maybe. And maybe that happened while she was trying to project a thought about Sabrina. Does it change anything? Even if it wasn’t her, she would be an idiot not to try to take advantage of it to learn what Tetsuo knows about Sabrina now. And she is the one that invited him to join, then suggested he take Daniel’s place.

All of which might be moot if he doesn’t join them again. Or if they don’t allow the experiment again. Which he should probably find out before making any major decisions…

He expects to hear something from Past Red about that, but his most self-critical self is still oddly quiet.

Are you forgetting that it’s not an actual voice of a separate person, just an automatic mental process that just happens to manifest as such?

No, but then why are you here and he’s not?

…point.

Red frowns slightly as concern starts to tickle at the back of his mind… and then becomes an urge to lower his partition, as odd as that feels. He doesn’t even bother verbalizing an internal agreement, just lowers the partition and lets the world sink into a mildly more greyscale version of itself…

Holy…

…and he’s suddenly free, free to act, free to be. It’s like stepping through a mirror and realizing he was the reflection all along, and suddenly instead of being stuck in the narrow bounds of the reflection, there’s more room beyond the edges of the mirror.

In this case, the extra stuff is his memories of what he was thinking and doing during the exeggcute merger. Namely, how the part of him behind the partition “woke up” and started experiencing the exeggcute seeds’ connections to each other, which he then tried to model by changing the partition to match it so both his partitioned and unpartitioned selves would continue to exist in parallel rather than one at a time.

Except they aren’t new memories, because he remembers having them all along, living through them. He’s Red, and there’s only one of him, now. His partitioned self is just a specific type of thought pattern, focusing on certain emotions and perspectives while avoiding others. Namely, his depressed ones.

(…shit.)

“Red? Are you alright?” Jason asks, and not just because Red has gone rigid, is staring into the distance with wide eyes. His shields are down, and he knows he must be giving off a very strange signal to the medium’s unique psychic senses.

We have to test it. Even through the pain and grief and sadness that comes from lowering his partition, he knows this is important, that his other self is right to be freaking out, because this might change everything

(Wait,) Future-Present-Happy-(Partitioned?) Red says, and still clearly in shock that he finds himself in this position, and there’s a sense of disorientation—

“Red, if you’re okay, say something.”

—that he is the partitioned one, and Red feels a brief surge of vindication that itself quickly gets swept aside in the thrill of the moment. (Hang on… is this it? If we can lie without detection now, and they find out… we’ll never be trusted!)

If we can lie now and they find out later that we didn’t say anything, they’ll trust us even less, Red thinks, and holds a hand up to reassure Jason and the others, all of whom are staring at him now. “I’m fine.” He feels their minds probing his, trying to test if he’s okay, but his shield is up, he can do that much easier now than he normally can when his partition is down. They can tell something is off, though, Jason in particular… “Just had to take my partition down for a moment…”

“That’s what usually happens when you do?” Jason asks, sounding mildly alarmed, and this is already an emergency, because now Red has to lie to answer him or tell the truth…

“Sorry,” Red says, and stands. “Going to head to the bathroom.” He walks off before they can respond, and hopes no one tackles him for a forced mental screening because of what happened with the exeggcute.

(Not that they’d be entirely wrong to, if this were a movie we’d be acting exactly like someone hiding something… because we are!)

Red realizes he’s sweating through his shirt as he enters the hallway, and wipes at his brow as he walks by Daniel, ignoring the older boy’s curious look. He heads straight for the bathroom, glad it’s a private one, and locks the door before going over to close the toilet lid and sit on it.

“Take it slow,” he murmurs, then thinks to pull out his notebook, hands trembling just a little. He needs to better understand what happened…

Exeggcute work by something like multiple partitions around a common mind, he writes. During merger, I felt myself “awaken” behind my partition, and adjusted it to match what the exeggcute use. As a result, my partition seems both stronger and weaker.

His handwriting is barely legible, and he scratches out a few words to rewrite them as he takes a few calming breaths.

Notable effects:

With partition up, Partitioned Red can’t model current self even a little. But I still remember events from then, the same way I used to.

With partition down, Partitioned Red is more present- (Ha. Present. Should tell Leaf that…) -and feels more independent. I can also create a shield better, as if it’s still up. (I’m helping with that.) He seems to be helping with that.

Do I still exist when the partition is up, the way he does when it’s down?

Red stares at the words, sweat sliding down his neck. It had been a philosophical question before, but now… it feels too real, knowing that Partitioned Red is so “alive” with it down.

That doesn’t make any sense, though. With the partition down, they should be more merged, shouldn’t they?

(Bring the partition back up, see if you can say something now that we’re expecting it.)

Red considers this for only a moment before he realizes something extraordinary, and quickly writes it down.

Can sense Partitioned Red’s sincerity. Does it work both ways?

He barely finished thinking the thought before the answer was obvious.

Yes. We’re not actually separate minds; we both know everything each other knows. Like doduo?

No.

(No.)

There’s no disagreement. Different ideas are propagating back and forth, different thoughts, different perspectives (Partitioned Red thinks this is much cooler than he does) but… they are, in fact, of one mind.

Until…

Red nods, and doesn’t waste any more time worrying about whether he can trust his other self, which is itself a huge relief. He brings the partition back up…

…and feels some part of him fall away, folded up in the origami of his mind. The partition has never felt more real to him, or more nuanced: he can sense the thoughts traveling through it, just like he could sense them moving in the web of the exeggcute.

But nothing’s coming back…

He brings the partition back down and takes a deep breath, the sterile scents of a clean bathroom helping slow his racing pulse.

Before, having the partition up was cutting away parts of himself, then seamlessly reattaching them so that he could recall what he did and thought without those parts, but not change any of it… and all the while, that lesser version of himself would be gone.

Now he feels like the partitioned portion of his mind is never actually going away. Partitioned Red is there when it’s down, and he’s still there when it’s up. (That still doesn’t make any sense? What does it change, concretely?)

He considers a moment, then writes out a math equation, 157 x 248.

(Too complex, you won’t have pen and paper.)

Right. He scratches out the last numbers, leaving 15×24. It’s a problem he feels like he can figure out with just a few moments of effort, without the answer immediately coming to mind. He quickly brings the partition back up.

Red stands up and stretches, then goes to wash his hands, then examines his pale face in the mirror, doing anything but letting himself think about the numbers. He wonders what the others must be thinking of the way he left so abruptly. If he decides not to tell them, he can just pretend he had a sudden stomachache, but he still has to figure out if he should reveal what he knows about Rei, independent of this development… oh, and the mental exam to check for any lasting effects from the exeggcute merge is certainly going to reveal all this.

He wipes sweat from his neck, worry churning through his stomach at the added constraint. As if he doesn’t have enough to worry about… Okay, that should be long enough. He brings the partition back down, and immediately knows the answer is 360.

Red sits back down on the toilet lid, amazed by the sudden double memory; one of freaking out about what happens when he leaves the bathroom, the other doing some quick mental math and freaking out about what happens when he leaves the bathroom.

The memories are utterly entwined. There really weren’t two of him while the partition was up: there was just him, with part of him unaware of the other, larger part that contained him.

A circle in a slightly larger circle.

This is big. He doesn’t know if it would allow him to hide lying or not, but it’s still a unique psychic phenomenon, as far as research he’s read covers, at least. Maybe someone like Rowan has already discovered it.

Rowan. He needs to talk to the local partition expert. But first he needs to find a way through the current predicament…

(Yes, ground-breaking mystery later, time-sensitive social crisis first.)

Red rubs his eyes, already feeling the exhaustion returning, the cloud of sadness that makes nothing seem more attractive than going home and pulling the covers up over his head…

(Hey! Time-sensitive social crisis!)

Red frowns. If Partitioned-Red isn’t like a separate person, just a line of thought that’s based on a model of himself without the depression or grief, a part of him whose priority focus is on goals, then Future Red is probably the better name for that part of himself. But when the partition is up the Future Red being referred to is a very different one. It’s like a nesting doll, really, and…

…and thinking about this isn’t helping, just distracting him from the far less pleasant and more important problem facing him.

He wets some toilet paper and wipes at the dried sweat on his neck and forehead, wishing he could just pause everything for an hour to think. No, that’s not his actual wish. His actual wish is to not have to deal with this at all.

One foot in front of the other. Something he had to learn to do when Dad died, and it was hard at first, but it helps. Red starts writing a basic outline of his situation just to keep his thoughts moving in a constructive direction.

Problem 1: Should I reveal Rei’s goals or try to guard against them coming out during the examination?

Problem 2: Should I admit to/test new partition’s potential ability to lie?

Resources: ? Leverage? None. Get some?

Allies:

Red pauses, considering his peers. Maybe Jason would back him up, if he says he’s fine without wanting a full psychic screening? And if he doesn’t reveal Rei, maybe she would help cover him up for the partition. But he can’t ask for advice from any of them on how to address either problem without giving things away… And despite the progress he’s made with befriending them, he doesn’t know how far he can actually trust them. Not the way he could Leaf or Blue during their journey.

But this is what he chose, and at the end of the day, he’s alone here…

(No we’re not!)

Red blinks, then frowns. You don’t count.

Instead of responding with words, he just gets an impression, a memory, of Dr. Seward’s calm voice telling him that she’s available if he ever needs her, to not hesitate to call in an emergency, and him believing her.

…this isn’t that kind of emergency. She can’t help with this.

(So call someone who can! Why do you think we can’t trust Leaf the way we used to?)

Another memory, this one much more recent. Of Leaf hugging him, and telling him she doesn’t blame him.

(She cares about us. So does Professor Oak, and Mom. We’re not alone.)

It’s true. He knows it’s true, even if he instinctively recoils at the idea of reaching out to them for help. He’s a mess right now, and much as he hates the idea of just boxing all his negative emotions up, he doesn’t want to force them to deal with them…

(Then let me do it!)

Red stares down at the tiles, considering it. That… might actually be an option. What does he lose by putting the partition back up? Now that he feels his own persistence through the intervening time, it doesn’t feel like cutting off part of himself. And this is an important thing to solve, one his feelings of grief and pain and loneliness (And anger, can’t forget that now that we recognized it!) are just distracting him from.

Alright. There’s a sense of surprise from his partitioned self, but now that it’s obvious how useful it would be he doesn’t waste any more time, letting the partition rise back into place between blinks.

He still feels anxious, but the weight of the broader worries is off his shoulders. He calls Leaf after a moment to review what he’s going to say, hoping she’s not busy.

“Hiya Red, what’s up?”

“Hey, Leaf.” Red clears his throat. “Got a minute?”

“Yeah, what’s going on?” Her tone instantly changed at the sound of his, and just hearing her concern makes him feel a little better.

“I need… advice, I guess. I’m about to throw a lot at you, so um, save questions until after?”

Leaf is silent for a moment, then says, “Okay, I’m sitting down. What’s going on?”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “So long story short, before Sabrina left town she tasked us with figuring out if a psychic can develop a way to lie even to another psychic. While we’ve been working on that, I made friends with her oldest student, Rei, who admitted to me that she’s only been staying as Sabrina’s student because she wants to know what she’s been up to with all her secretive trips.” Red runs out of breath, and sucks in a new one. “About an hour ago we all got together to link up with an exeggcute—really cool, by the way, I have to tell you about that later—and I figured something out about my partition from the way they network with each other, it’s like a single mind with six sub-parts, and now my unpartitioned self is more… it’s hard to describe, I guess it’s fair to say more distinct while also being more connected?”

“Wow. Uh. Is that… good?”

“Yeah, it is actually. I feel more like a single person than I did before, even though the division is more clear. Hard to describe, like I said. But here’s the thing…”

“You think you can lie to other psychics now?” Leaf guesses, voice low with awe. Or maybe fear.

“If I had to bet? No, I don’t think so. Things can cross the partition, and we both know everything each other knows as long as it wasn’t figured out while the partition is up. As far as I can tell, at least. But… I don’t know, and I feel like I should check, right? Shouldn’t I?”

“…wow. Okay. Ooookay… Red, that’s… I think I get why you called…” Leaf’s voice is both worried and thoughtful, and it’s easy to imagine her expression; brow drawn in concentration, eyes alight and constantly moving as she paces. “It’s like what we talked about on the ship, you’re worried about how other psychics will treat you…how the world will treat psychics… But wait, if Sabrina wanted you guys to figure this out, you can’t keep this to yourself! Whatever she asked about it for, it might be important!”

“Uh. Yeah, she said she thinks there’s a psychic who can…”

What?! Red!”

“Okay, yes, now that you mention it, I obviously shouldn’t keep this to myself,” he says as he rubs his eyes. “Is it at least okay to wait until she’s back, do you think?”

“Maybe. But if there’s something you can do in the meantime, it sounds like she expected you to do it.”

Red sighs. “Yeah.” He doesn’t like the answer, but he can’t think of another argument, so he tables thinking about it for now. “So what about Rei, then? I’d feel really bad about betraying her.”

“Yeah, that sounds tougher. What made it suddenly come up? Like why are you deciding whether to tell others now instead of earlier?”

“Oh! Right, I didn’t mention that part… someone did something during the exeggcute merger that made everyone think about a certain thing, and now I’m worried that, whether it was Rei or not, or an accident or not, Rei might use it to learn something about Sabrina from the gym Second, who was with us.”

“Huh. Well, if you’re such good friends with her, why not just talk to her about it first?”

Red blinks, then shifts. Did he use the word “friend?” He can’t remember. “Well, I wouldn’t say we were friends exactly.”

“Oh.” Red can hear Leaf’s frown. “Then… why would she tell you something like that?”

“Uh. That’s another long story… I guess it was basically just a way to understand each other’s motives while working together.”

“And… she didn’t swear you to secrecy, or anything?”

“No. Actually she even said she didn’t care if I told others, or at least made it seem like not a big deal.”

Leaf is silent for a moment. “What exactly is the problem then?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean why not tell others?”

Red’s the one who frowns now. “Why would I? it’s not like she’s doing anything illegal or even against any rules. I don’t even have any evidence she did anything!”

“Right, but if she’s not your friend, and she admitted this to you and said you could tell others, what’s wrong with just letting others know you’re worried about it?”

For some reason Red has trouble grappling with the question, though on some level he knows it’s simple. “It would cause a lot of drama?”

“It sounds like you’re already caught in some. Is that the actual reason?”

Red doesn’t have an immediate answer to that, and as he ponders it, he notices a feeling… like…

Like…

His phone chimes, and he checks it to see a text from Jason. Rei and Cyr are fine, Tetsuo said rest of us should still be checked to be sure. He and Satori went in, we’re next. He doesn’t ask if Red is okay, but Red can read the concern between the lines. He texts back a “thanks” as he says, “Leaf, can I call you back?”

“Sure. You alright?”

“Yeah, I just have to think about it and don’t want you to wait.”

“Alright. I’ll be here.”

“Thank you. It means a lot.” He ends the call, then gets as comfortable as he can on the toilet seat before he closes his eyes.

Focusing is a new enough tool to still be at the top of his mental toolbox, but even after taking a moment to review his options it still seems like the right one for the job, given Leaf’s question. But he doesn’t want to do it while the partition is up and part of himself is closed away.

There’s still a moment of hesitation, a moment of not wanting to give up his autonomy, of fear at a set of new values and potentially different goals suddenly becoming his new normal, but knowing for sure that he’s the partitioned one, the Red in the mirror, and that the broader, unpartitioned Red is still a conscious presence while all this is happening, is enough to make him just drop his reservations, and the partition along with them.

Red feels the depression come, but he’s still too engaged in the crisis to let it consume him. He takes a few moments to calm himself so he can try focusing on the felt-sense again.

(Think about telling people about Rei’s plans, then point to where the feeling is.)

What are you, Therapist Red now?

(Sure, why not. Just focus, would you?)

You mean-

(Yes it’s very funny that the word means two different things. Concentrate!)

He closes his eyes and imagines talking to Tetsuo in private, mentioning what Rei told him… then points to his stomach.

(Describe it.)

It’s like… a pair of wringing hands, twisting in my guts…

(Is it on our side or against us?)

That’s not a hard one. It’s a fear response, right? So on our side?

(Is it? Check. Out loud.)

Red rolls his eyes behind closed lids, but clears his throat and, focusing on the felt-sense, murmurs, “I’m afraid to tell Tetsuo.”

The feeling in his stomach barely reacts, but there’s a tightness in the back of his neck that he suddenly becomes aware of.

(Okay, so that’s true too, but it’s not the feeling in our stomach.)

Red frowns slightly. What could it be, then? Feelings of sadness keep trying to intrude, and he has to redirect his attention away from thoughts of Aiko as he tries to focus on the wringing-hands in his stomach again. “I’m afraid of Rei…” No, nothing. Something with Rei, though, feels important. “I’m worried about Rei’s reaction?” It still feels half right at most. What would the reaction he’s worried about be? What would motivate it? “I.. don’t want Rei to see me as a traitor?”

There. The word traitor caused some reaction, the hands in his stomach squeezing tighter. “I don’t want Rei… no, I don’t want Sabrina to feel like I betrayed her…” Huh. The feeling is weaker again. “I… don’t want Jason to think badly of me?” he guesses, thinking of the closest thing he has to a friend among the students. But no, that reaction was even smaller than the Sabrina one…

As Red’s frustration grows he feels the grief over Aiko’s death creeping in, along with the linked anger and hurt from Blue’s recriminations, and his uncertainty over Leaf’s reaction, though thankfully some of the sting of that is gone when he reminds himself of what she said at the ranch… he wishes he could just put those feelings aside for a moment so he can concentrate…

Woah. That’s not a thought he usually has with his partition down.

(Not my fault.)

No one else in there right now. He knows Partitioned Red is right, though. He didn’t feel any kind of influence from his other self, the way he can send impulses and thoughts through the partition.

Which means… maybe it’s related to what he was thinking of, rather than a distraction from it?

(What does Aiko have to do with Rei?)

And then it seems obvious. “I don’t want to betray her,” he murmurs, and feels the hands tighten in his stomach… though there’s something more. “I don’t want to… be seen as someone who betrays his friends.”

Pain, pain in his upper chest, related to but distinct from the icy pain between his ribs, and a block in his throat that makes his next breath shaky. The part of him modeling his partitioned self is reflecting his thoughts with feelings of skepticism and curiosity.

Red sighs. “Thank you,” he murmurs to the feeling in his chest. “I understand the concern, now. I can better figure out what to do, and… make sure that we don’t lose anyone else, or… look like I don’t care about my friends.”

The hands in his torso relax their grip on each other little by little as he speaks, but don’t change or fade away. He wonders why not, but realizes a moment later that the concern is still there. He’s only done half the job in identifying it and reassuring all parts of himself that it’s something he’ll address.

(Okay, so… first question. Is Rei actually our friend? Would betraying her secret actually make us a “bad friend?”)

If he thinks of the initial interaction that resulted in him being told the secret, the obvious answer is “no.” She even told him he could tell others, and it wouldn’t be a big deal!

But… after that, while they worked together, they became closer. She was more open with him, stayed after their assigned experiment time to chat about their pasts and views on psychic phenomena. He’s not sure if that’s quite enough to be called “friendship,” but what does he know about making friends? All he can do is compare the relationship to others, and the closest it resembles is how he and Jason have gotten to know each other better over the past month. He definitely feels like he knows her more than Satori, for example, who he’s also spent time with lately, let alone any of the other students.

(I don’t think just knowing someone well is the same as being their friend. No, this has more to do with what we want.)

It’s true. He wants to be Rei’s friend. Because she’s smart, and competent, and well known. He wants her to think positively of him.

Put like that, it’s not really friendship. It’s admiration, mixed with something much more self-serving. It’s a little sad, that he would probably be even more reluctant to betray her if he liked her more, on a personal level, or if she was a generally friendlier and bubbly person rather than a mostly distant and aloof one. Or, as long as he’s being honest, more helpful to his goals.

(The felt-sense also worries about how others see us, which is irrational, since they might think we’re more moral for sharing her plans.)

He frowns, fingers rubbing his temples. Maybe he needs to look at this another way… He could use Internal Family Systems too. Future Red might have more to say.

But no, that lens doesn’t feel like it fits for this situation. Instead of Past, Present, and Future Red, he thinks of another example Dr. Seward mentioned: Child, Teenager, and Adult. His “inner child” is probably the one that’s most worried about being disliked and not having any friends, but he’s not sure how well the other two inner-selves would fit. His “inner teenager” just feels like himself, now. It’s interesting to think that when he’s older that will change, that some shard of his current self might crystallize into a complex reference point of stereotypical behavior and perspectives, and he gets distracted for a moment wondering what they would be.

(Tick-tock, tick-tock…)

Right, another time. Maybe if he models his different interests arguing about what he should do? Inner Psychic, Researcher, Trainer? No, those don’t map well for this kind of decision. Maybe a more literal internal family system, like Child, Mother, Father…

That one feels right. The Child is the easiest, since it’s the same as before: worried about making friends. Scared of being disliked. What effects would that have on the system? If there were siblings they might be annoyed, but if the Child is crying and the only two others are parents, the Mother… is comforting it, first and foremost. Telling it that things will be okay. That even if they lose friends, they’re not friends that matter. And that it… he… should just focus on doing what’s right, and he would get the right kinds of friends as a result.

He thinks of his actual mom, the primary influence in his internal concept of what an archetypal “mom” would do, and knows Laura Verres would put extra emphasis on the “do what’s right” part. More specifically, thinking of their last argument, she would say honesty is important. Which is ironic given that she sometimes lies to uncover hidden truths for her work…

(Well, we did think that we can just say we were trying to learn more about her plans first, remember?)

Huh. He does remember that. It’s rare that he thinks of himself as particularly cunning, especially given how bad at lying he is, but maybe he inherited some of it from his mom after all.

As for his inner Father, the stereotypical archetype that comes to mind is someone focusing on more concrete advice than the Mother. Less comfort and guidance, more practical suggestions, like…

…like dad…

Pain spreads through his stomach, making him feel the hole there in a way he hasn’t for a while. It’s been overshadowed by everything with Aiko, and before that he got good at looking away from it without his partition up.

But now… now he feels like he has to be able to do this. To honor his dad, the kind of man Tomio Verres was, Red can’t let the time he spent with him go to waste. If he can’t model his dad’s advice when he needs it most, what did Tomio spend so much time teaching him for?

Red absently reaches up to brush tears from his eyes, and searches through his memories of his dad for anything that might help in this situation… and once again he feels something from his partitioned self. A resonating, a melding, a borrowing of strength through neural pathways less bent by grief. It makes thinking about his dad painful, but not damaging, like carefully picking through broken glass, feeling light cuts that sting rather than bleed.

Surprisingly, he also finds himself thinking of Professor Oak, and advice he’s passed down, though most of that relates to pokemon and science (and, on one memorable occasion, bike riding while indoors, which he turned out to be rather against). It makes sense, given that he was a father-like figure to Red too. He knows his dad wouldn’t see it as a betrayal, at least.

So, what would Tomio Verres and Samuel Oak say, in a situation like this?

The Professor would say that collaboration is an important skill for a scientist, and remind him that he may need the good graces or positive regard of the people he’s working with for future opportunities. Red’s learned that well enough, from his own experiences. And his dad… he would want Red to be prepared. To have a backup plan, no matter what he chooses.

Red’s phone buzzes, and he checks the screen, knowing what he’ll see: They just came out. Our turn to get checked.

Red could pretend he’s sick, or stay a bit longer, but that would make them worry about him. Maybe make them suspicious that something is wrong.

(We can go back slowly, but we have to decide, one way or another.)

Red nods, and stands. Be honest. Make friends. Be cooperative. Have backup plans. Even without anything concrete in mind, he feels better about what he’s walking into as he slowly makes his way to the sink and starts washing his hands, thoughts on his next steps.


When Red returns to the waiting room, Tetsuo is still there, but everyone else has left. Red sees that the door to the second room is standing open for him, but slows as he approaches.

The gym’s Second looks up from his phone. “Alright, Red?”

“Sort of.” Red clears his throat. “I actually need to talk to you about something. Let me go get checked out first, though.”

Tetsuo raises a brow, but nods, and Red enters the psychic doctor’s room. It looks more like a therapist’s office than anything, with a couch set across from the psychic inside instead of a chair, and Dr. Zhang smiles at Red as he sits. “Welcome, Mr. Verres. Please feel free to lie down if you’d be more comfortable. We’re just going to run through some basic diagnostic exercises to make sure you haven’t been strangely affected by the merger.”

Despite everything, some of Red’s nervousness fades. Memories of Dr. Laurie in Pewter had him expecting someone with terrible bedside manners. “I’m okay sitting, thanks,” Red says, and swallows the lump of nervousness in his throat. “I, um… have a fairly unique condition…”

“I know about your partition,” Dr. Zhang assures him as he holds up a file for a moment, then uncaps his pen. “Would bringing it down for a few minutes be harmful, or affect your ability to participate?”

A month ago Red would have said yes, but… “It’s actually down already.”

“Oh, great! Then let’s begin. I’m going to do a simple projection, alright? Just tell me what you feel.”

Red closes his eyes, makes sure his shield is down, then waits in a haze of anxiety, thoughts darting from one worry to another. Without something else to focus on, he feels the storm start to gather in his head, the frost slowly spreading through his chest, and his thoughts start drifting more and more to that night, to the pain of Aiko’s loss, of Blue’s judgement…

There’s a flicker of something else, so foreign that even though it’s a barely noticeable blip of emotion, it still stands out. “Happiness,” Red says, voice a little dull to his own ears.

“Great. Next, why don’t you project something to me?”

“Um. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“With my partition down, the things I feel are… not pleasant.” Didn’t he say he knew about the partition? What did he actually hear about it?

“I see. Well, I appreciate the concern, but I can assure you I’ll be able to bear it for a moment.”

“Alright,” Red says, and wonders if he should bother trying to muster up another emotion to project. His experiments with Rei taught him how to efficiently channel someone else’s emotions, but the other minds around him are psychic, which would be detected. Instead he just shoves most of what he’s currently feeling toward Dr. Zhang and hopes it’ll be unpleasant enough that they can move on.

The doctor lets out a sharp breath, and Red stops the projection. There’s a moment of silence before the other psychic clears his throat. “Impatience, and anxiety, and depression?”

Part of Red feels like apologizing. (That would be me.) But it’s too much effort, and he just says, “Yep. Next?”

Dr. Zhang is quiet a moment, then makes a mark on the sheet. “Your file stated you haven’t managed any telekinesis yet, so we can skip that and just do a brief merger when you’re ready.”

Here it is. Red gives a determined nod, and shifts his attention to his breathing, filling his thoughts, the whole of his attention, on the cold air entering his nostrils, filling his lungs, then leaving in a warmer stream. A moment later he feels the doctor’s mind surrounding his, then briefly overlapping…

Breathing in… and out…

…and despite everything, he feels the man’s confusion, then curiosity, then amazement, as he notices something odd about Red’s mind.

(Whelp. So much for that idea.)

Red lets his breath out in a rush, knowing his disappointment and resignation are evident, and brings his shield up before the shallow merger becomes something more. Plan B it is.

He opens his eyes after and sees Dr. Zhang blinking at him. “Was that… what was that?”

“It’s a side effect from my partition,” Red says, and though he wants to move on, curiosity gets the better of him. “What did it feel like?”

Dr. Zhang takes a moment to think, fingers tracing his cheek. “It was like your mind has an extra layer around it.”

Red thinks again of a circle within a slightly bigger circle. “Yeah, that feels about right.”

“Would you mind if you put your partition up, so I can…?”

Red hesitates. “Do we have to?”

Dr. Zhang seems to come back to himself, and shifts, looking a little embarrassed. “No, as long as that existed before your merger with the exeggcute, your assessment is complete. I’m sorry, that was unprofessional of me.”

Red feels a twinge of guilt, and not just because he’s not telling the doctor about how it was the result of the merger. What he picked up from the doctor was genuine curiosity. A desire to know, to learn.

And it takes just another moment to realize that Red can’t keep this sort of thing secret. Maybe he can become better at lying or being cunning at some point, but right now, it’s too important a potential discovery, and even if he’s afraid of people being afraid of him… sharing what he knows feels right.

“Well… to be honest, my partition wasn’t like this before. It changed, and I’m not fully sure of the extent of how yet. It always used to feel like there were two personalities in me, but now they feel more merged. I feel more whole, with the partition down, and… the part of me behind it can multitask even with it up.”

Dr. Zhang is staring at him. “That’s utterly fascinating, Red. You’re doing something that I don’t believe most psychics even know is possible.”

Red blinks. “Most? Did you know it was possible?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. I’ve read about such things, but they were… well. They seemed a little hard to believe. More so even than stories of multiple personality disorder, the evidence for which is entirely anecdotal.”

Red’s interest rises again, and it feels like he’s remembering how he felt during his journey again, always excited to talk to new people in each place they visited who studied any of the fields he was interested in. How did he almost pass up the opportunity to talk to a psychic doctor?

(Thanks, Dad.)

“Could you share whatever you read with me? And maybe I can come back and talk to you about it, soon?”

“I’d like that,” Dr. Zhang says with a smile, and pulls his mouse and keyboard to himself. “I’ll see if I can find it now. Good luck, Red.”

“Thank you!” He stands and bows, then leaves the office to find Tetsuo on the phone with someone in the waiting room. Red sits beside him and waits, still processing what happened.

“Hey, I’m done here. I’ll head down now.” The Gym Second closes the call, then turns to Red. “All good?”

“Yeah. Um, I know you just said… Sorry, but do you have time to talk for a minute?”

“Sorry, not really.” He stands and stretches. “This experiment ended up taking way more time than I planned. But we can walk and talk, or make an appointment for tonight?”

“Uh, I need to talk about something private. And… it’s kind of time-sensitive.”

Tetsuo pauses halfway out the door to frown at him. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Red shifts his weight, wondering if he would have pursued it this much or just given up before, with his partition down.

Tetsuo sighs and reverses course, going into Dr. Zhang’s office. “Sorry to intrude, Wen, but would you mind if we borrow your office? Red says he needs to talk in private and I have somewhere I need to be soon.”

“Of course. I can take an early lunch.” Dr. Zhang still seems somewhat distracted, and gives Red a significant look that he can’t interpret as he leaves.

(He probably thinks we’re going to tell Tetsuo about our… us. About… me. About this?)

Red ignores this and sits on the couch again, while Tetsuo leans against the desk, arms crossed. “Alright, what’s so important?”

“Um…” Shit, he was planning to build up to this tactfully, but now he feels rushed and unsure how to begin. “Well… about what happened today… I think someone might have done it purposefully.”

Tetsuo frowns. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking that too.”

Red blinks. “You have?”

“Sure. Do you think the conversation stopped just because you had to use the bathroom?”

Red feels a flush rising up his neck. “I didn’t really think about it. Was kind of distracted.”

Tetsuo’s smile is wry. “Right. Anyway, I asked Cyr what the focus of his seed was when he got out, and he said it was flux, which makes it seem pretty obvious that Rei’s seed was the one that focuses on getting food. What I want to know is why it ended up happening, and if she did it on purpose, what that purpose might have been. And no offense, but since you’re not Rei, I’m not sure what you have to offer besides guesswork.”

Red sits a little straighter. Here it is. “Rei actually admitted a motive last month, when we started working together. She said… that she wants to know what Sabrina is up to.”

The words hang in the room between them, and Tetsuo blinks, then blinks again. Something in his posture changes, one kind of tension leaving as another, more subtle one takes its place, and after a moment he brings a hand up to rub his mouth.

When he finally speaks, his eyes are still on the wall, “With cookies?”

Red’s own tension bleeds away a little. Despite the words, Tetsuo’s tone wasn’t skeptical. Confused, and curious, but not doubting. “I think that was the test, or just an accident from her first full merger with everyone—”

“—directed through her seed’s desires, yes. So you believe she would have thought of Sabrina instead, and that’s why she asked me to join you all, then join the group?”

(This is easier than we thought.) “Yeah. Basically.”

He’s frowning slightly. “There are a couple problems with this idea.” Now he sounds skeptical. “First, how could she know what the effect would be? Mergers with exeggcute are rare, and group mergers like this even rarer.”

“Maybe she didn’t know exactly,” Red says with a shrug. “But Satori knew something like it was possible, remember? And even though Rei is smart enough to make an educated guess like this, it didn’t actually work out the way she thought. But… well, I do remember feeling how the exeggcute hivemind worked, getting a sense of what it would mean to be a part of it.”

He sighs. “Yeah, me too. Okay, the second problem is that Rei has been Sabrina’s most dedicated pupil. Why would she risk her position here by trying something like this at all? Furthermore, why did she tell you of all people? No offense, but…”

“I know,” Red says. “But I am curious, and driven to test my theories, and it was… kind of a bargaining chip, I think? She said she doesn’t have much to lose, so I guess she thought getting me on her side would be doable.”

Tetsuo’s earlier impatience seems to be gone, and he thinks for nearly a full minute in silence, the clock above the door quietly ticking the seconds away. When he finally stirs, his gaze meets Red’s. “Alright, so even with a mental check to prove you’re being truthful about what she said to you, we still have no proof that she actually did anything with the experiment on purpose. Being curious about Sabrina’s activities isn’t a crime. Having the food-focused exeggcute seed doesn’t prove she did anything purposefully, and her not bringing it up after could have been embarrassment. We’d have to check her for honesty, which is a big breach of trust on our part and could damage the relationship if we’re wrong, not to mention lead to legal recourse if she feels offended enough. What we need is something more obvious. Do you know of anything else she’s done?”

Red shakes his head, a part of him still feeling antsy about talking about Rei like this behind her back. He keeps thinking of the way she dismissed the worry of him telling others. Why do that, unless she really didn’t care about him revealing her? It feels like he’s missing something. “No, but she also mentioned that she was testing your shield?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much expected among peers, though.” He smiles slightly at Red’s surprise, and he leans away from the desk to head for the door. “Thanks for telling me this, Verres. Not much to do about it now, but at least I know to make an excuse to not participate in the next attempt, in case she tries it again. If you can think of a way to prove Rei’s intentions, let me know.”

“There’s going to be another attempt, then?” Red asks, glad the experiment will continue.

“I’ve already started the review process, now that we know it’s safe so far. We’ll probably need the legal team to write up some waivers for anyone willing to try again, but I see no reason to cut it off, especially since the outcome was so unique.”

“Wouldn’t that be a way to prove it, though?” Red asks. “If she manages to do it right, and force everyone to share thoughts about Sabrina?”

“Sure, yeah,” Tetsuo raises a brow. “But I’m not going to risk what I know getting shared, and she probably won’t do it without me in the merger.”

Red blinks at the implied admission that there’s something to know about Sabrina. “Couldn’t you just induce amnesia first?”

The Gym Second purses his lips, shakes his head. “The private things she’s shared with me are too tied into who she is, and our relationship. It’s a good idea, but keep thinking.” He claps Red’s shoulder, then leaves Red alone in the office.

(You forgot to tell him about how maybe we can lie now.)

Red sighs, and goes to find Cyr. Tomorrow. For now he has some questions about exeggcute mergers…


It takes a few days for Tetsuo to get the experiment approved, and Red uses that time to practice with the new form his partition has taken. A quick experiment proves that Red can’t lie against a psychic any better than before, though Red can’t help but think that he’s getting close to whatever is needed to make that possible.

Rei acts as normal as ever, and seems impressed by how he rarely brings his partition up anymore. When he wakes with it up, there’s barely any hesitation left to bring it back down, and the longer he spends with it down the easier it is to feel the protective layers of his unpartitioned thought patterns, grounding him in his goals and work rather than letting his negative thoughts and feelings overwhelm him. Jason helps him get a handle on these too, and Red asks for another exposure to his pokemon to see if the partition helps against surrealism. It doesn’t.

Red still has bad moments, times when he can’t focus and just lies in bed, thinking over the night of the storm, remembering the feel of Aiko’s clothes between his fingers before she tore away. Remembering with a hollow ache the sense of her and the others’ minds snuffing out as, barely ten minutes after they went in, the ceiling of the floor they were on collapsed over them.

He remembers these moments, lives them again… but doesn’t get lost in them. He has the tools, now, to ground himself in his current time and observe his thoughts and feelings from a distance, the way Dr. Seward taught him to do with the earlier parts of the night. His journaling helps too, when he can find the motivation to do it, and having Partitioned Red’s thought patterns, his “voice,” operating so independently in his head… it helps.

So does talking to Leaf about what he’s going to do about Rei, both over the phone and when he goes to help with her own project. He feels more comfortable staying longer than he did before, rather than worrying that he’s imposing, and he has more time to spend with his pokemon as they bike around the ranch and into the outlying fields a little. It feels good, brings back positive memories, and he can tell she misses it too.

It’s on one of these nights, after they’re back in Aiko’s room where she codes and he writes in his journal as their pokemon recover from their exercises, that their conversation weaves back and forth between her next goal of sustained wild behavior in captured pokemon and his worry over how he can prove what Rei is up to before she sabotages the next experiment. And in that weaving, Leaf off-handedly suggests a solution that makes Red forget everything else for a moment.

It’s devious. Seemingly risk-free. And when he messages Tetsuo about it, the Gym Second agrees almost immediately.


Once everyone’s schedules sync up, they all meet at the gym again. Tetsuo has waivers waiting, and then they travel down to the practice room together.

Everyone sits next to their seeds, with Daniel standing behind Tetsuo with the exeggcute’s pokeball ready to withdraw it again.

“Alright everyone, let’s take things slow,” Cyr says. “Make sure your merger with your seed is stable before exploring their connection to each other. Any questions?” He looks around, and nods, then closes his eyes.

Red does the same before he concentrates his senses on the seed in front of him. It’s harder than last time; for one thing he’s anxious about whether Rei is going to try something again. For another, even with the progress he’s made over the past few days, using any psychic powers with his partition down is still more difficult. He expected his partition being down to make his psychic abilities stronger, and maybe it has, but if so it’s not noticeable yet. Thankfully, he knows from his practice over the previous days that merging with his pokemon isn’t additionally complicated by his partition being down.

Which is why it surprises him when, as the merger starts to finally take hold, he finds that the changes he made to the partition to change it into this new form have actually helped to make the merger more effective. He has a matching native experience for the type of partition that the exeggcute cluster uses to keep each seed distinct while its overmind utilizes information and processing from each.

Red feels himself smiling as he finishes the merger, marveling at the new feeling of his partitioned self immersing itself in the seed’s unique experience, while his attention remains distinct and elevated. As he feels the seed’s simplistic body, looks through its eyes, and notes the flow of its attention…

Threat assessment. No question; the seed is constantly using the exeggcute’s collective psychic senses to scan for the presence of other pokemon around them. It’s tense because of the battling pokemon it senses in the nearby rooms, but thankfully it also uses each outward-looking seed’s eyes to ensure that there are no threats in the immediate area.

Red decides to try and map the connection to the other seeds a little, and finds himself being drawn along the mental web that each seed sends pulses through. It’s… beautiful, really. He feels the draw to get pulled into it tugging at his attention, but resists by simply keeping his own broader mind focused while his partitioned one stays immersed. It’s like multithreading with his partition up, though he can’t do it nearly this efficiently without borrowing the exeggcute’s instincts. Nor would he be able to maintain his distance if the others weren’t merging with each seed.

(Not yet, at least. Growth mindset!)

There’s not enough evidence that “growth mindset” actually works.

(Well it definitely won’t with that attitude.)

Red sighs. His more optimistic side is right, in this case; he wants to be able to do this when not merged, which means he’s going to practice it, and he might as well believe it’s possible at least so as not to discourage himself. As long as that doesn’t falsely encourage him beyond a point when he should give up—

SABRINA

Images of the gym leader fill his thoughts, as do his thoughts and his impressions of her, his curiosity of her secrets, his worry about Rei trying to find them, his admiration of her, all as one big ball of thoughts and impressions… and as they’re pulled toward the mental web, his broader self is still separate, and instinctively acts to block them from leaving to join the web.

What he isn’t strong enough to do is stop everyone else’s from flooding him, and he sees Sabrina in five whole new lights.

Mentor – respect – gratitude – disagreement…

Hope – learn – collaborate…

Obsession – admiration – curiosity – desire…

That last one is Rei. He can tell because of the flash of memory that comes with it, of when Rei met Sabrina, years ago. She was so proud… and she does admire Sabrina, but somewhere along the way her desire to know more, and frustration at being locked out, started to color all their interactions.

Each thread is distinct at first, then blurs together, then becomes distinct again, pulses of thought gathering again and again. The part of Red not overwhelmed expects the flow of memories from the others’ experiences with Sabrina to end at any moment, but it’s hard to tell how much time is passing, and each wave of thought that doesn’t end in the exeggcute being withdrawn makes him doubt what he’s experiencing even more. Does an exeggcute’s sense of time change when it syncs?

The thoughts continue to cascade in and out, and he finally realizes with dawning horror that their assumption had a fatal flaw. They expected something obvious to happen, like last time, that would let the person not merged know to withdraw the exeggcute. They’d set a timer, as discussed, but it was for twenty minutes, and Red has no idea how much of that time has passed already. He might be the only one that can put a stop to it before people start passing out from psychic exhaustion, or whatever other consequences might come from this.

He briefly contemplates putting his partition up, but no, that would immerse him entirely in the merger: it’s one-directional, and his broader, whole self would simply be diminished as part of it is locked away. Maybe he can learn to change that at some point, but for now a simpler solution comes to mind.

If part of my mind really is working independently… There’s no reason I can’t have his part use my powers too, right?

It’s hard. Harder than even his first psychic exercises were, harder than he can recall anything being. If it were just about power, it would be like trying to lift a car, and utterly beyond him, but it’s not. It’s focus and finesse, tracing a line of woodgrain along the whole length of a room without looking elsewhere, and he knows he can do it if he could just… concentrate…

Legend – admiration – curiosity…

Teacher – desire to please – pride – desire to overcome…

Some of the memories are embarrassing, like the time Sabrina apparently lectured Daniel for being too dismissive of others’ ideas. Red feels that embarrassment reverberate through the mental web… Daniel thinks of how he has been trying to change, to overcome that… and a moment later comes surprise from Rei, confusion over why Daniel is part of the merger, before thoughts of Sabrina overwhelm everything again.

Guess the jig is up. Not that it matters, now… he just has to end this before anyone gets hurt.

Red rallies his thoughts and tries to think of a solution, something besides just trying again, and suddenly realizes that if being inundated with thoughts of Sabrina is too distracting, he needs to be as calm and unaffected as possible to concentrate through it.

It takes only a moment to remember Rei’s mental state, the cool, calm, detached mood that seems to occupy the majority of her waking hours. With it comes a portion of the extraordinary focus she brings to her powers, and soon he’s extending a thin, gossamer thread of mental energy toward the seventh person in the room… the seventh mind he can sense, the one not in the merger.

Tetsuo. He’s sitting in the circle, in front of one of the exeggcute seeds, but it was Daniel who merged with it instead of the Gym Second, completing the trap without even offering real bait.

Red feels his thoughts slipping around the edge of Tetsuo’s mind. The older man is wary, but patient. He’s watching for signs of distress, but doesn’t see any yet. Red can’t think of something to draw his attention to, so instead he just concentrates on Sabrina as hard as he can (easy enough to do) and projects THAT bundle of mental noise at him.

A moment later the tenuous thread snaps, and Red feels his psychic exhaustion threaten to break his link with the exeggcute on its own… but before that can happen, there’s the electric crackle and snap of the exeggcute being withdrawn into its ball, and everyone immediately falls over or backward, some of them groaning or clutching their heads.

Red and Rei are the first to recover, and as he sits up, he watches her expression shift from tired shock, to calm resolve. She meets his gaze, and there’s no accusation there. Just knowledge.

Red looks away. He knows he shouldn’t, that what she did was reckless and underhanded, not to mention it risked their research. But he still feels an irrational shame. He could have just told her, couldn’t he? He could have just let her know he’d told Tetsuo, and… and she would have just left…

(Or, she would have just not done this, and found another way to try to get Sabrina’s secrets.)

“Is everyone okay?” Tetsuo asks, and Red feels him scan each of them. No one is strong enough to shield, for the moment, but he simply dips in and out long enough to make sure no one is in serious pain. For Red’s part, he feels like he can sleep for a day, but he’s a lot less discombobulated by the experience than the others probably are.

“What the hell was that?” Daniel complains, rubbing his arm where it hit the floor when he fell over. Convincing him to join the merger again instead of Tetsuo was the hardest part of this otherwise simple plan. Red suspects he only managed to do it because Daniel was curious about what was going on, and because he didn’t want to feel like the only student who had come that couldn’t manage it.

“Rei?” Jason asks, hand on his prayer beads. “Did you do this?”

“It was her,” Satori confirms, frowning at her peer. “She is much stronger than she’s let on. Perhaps stronger than Sabrina?”

“Perhaps,” Rei says, voice cool and calm.

Daniel snorts. “Right, sure, but what was the point of this?” He looks between Red and Tetsuo. “If you knew this would happen—”

“We didn’t know.” Tetsuo hands the pokeball to Cyr. “Thank you for the use of your pokemon, trainer. This has become a private matter, and it would be best if you go to ensure you and your pokemon are well.”

“I think he’s earned the right to be here,” Jason says, troubled gaze moving from Tetsuo to Rei, then back.

“No, that’s okay,” Cyr says, voice a bit strained as he looks around with wide eyes. “I’ll go… you can fill me in later.”

Jason nods, and Cyr struggles to his feet, tests a few steps, then waves to them and hurries out.

“Okay, just us inner circle folk now,” Daniel says as he shifts to sit against the wall. “Spill.”

Red is about to speak, but it’s Tetsuo who answers, summarizing everything without making it seem like Red is responsible. Which may make sense, but surprises him. He keeps waiting for someone to turn to him with a judging glare or betrayed look, but no one does. Most of them are watching Rei by the end, waiting for her reaction.

She continues to sit calmly for a moment after he finishes, then simply says, “You’ve caught me. Well done. I’ll tender my resignation, and go pack my things.” And just like that, she gets to her feet.

“Hold it.” Tetsuo’s voice is hard, and everyone turns to him. Red feels a sudden foreboding, the anger in the Gym Second’s face unmistakeable. “You think it’s just going to be that easy? Five people were subjected to what could be considered a psychic attack just now. A psychic pokemon attack.”

Red stares at Tetsuo for a moment, not understanding, then feels ice flood his veins. “What?”

Tetsuo doesn’t answer, gaze staying on Rei, and when Red looks back he sees some of the older student’s composure has finally cracked. Her face is pale, eyes wide as she swallows. “That’s not… no one would—”

“No one would? Let’s poll the room.” He looks around, expression remorselessly flat. “Who here thinks purposefully utilizing a pokemon’s abilities against humans for personal gain falls under Renegade crimes?”

The room is silent, and Red can feel his heart pounding against his ribs. He never thought… he didn’t mean for this…

“Might need to be investigated at the very least,” Daniel says, and his expression shows his disdain quite clearly.

Flashbacks of Yuuta come to Red, of everyone turning to face him, to make him pass the final judgement, and he forces himself to speak past the block in his throat. “Wait! Everyone just… hang on. Let’s just calm down and not rush into anything we can’t stop.” Red swallows. “Rei didn’t know it would hurt anyone. We even have the last experiment, it provided evidence that… that it was safe…”

“We did sign waivers for risk of harm,” Jason says, voice troubled, but Tetsuo shakes his head.

“They didn’t cover intentional injury.”

Red licks his lip. “But… it’s not like she was trying to hurt anyone, or trying to get money, it was just…”

“Red,” Rei says, and her voice is like a calm lake, with just a ripple moving over its surface. He looks at her, unable to slow his breaths, and her eyes are so guarded they’re as empty as a doll’s. “It’s okay.”

“What do you— “

“It’s fine. Really.” She turns back to Tetsuo. “I trust that Sensei will be a fair and merciful Leader. I’ll stay, and confine myself to my rooms, until she returns to judge me herself. You can check my intentions yourself, if you’d like.”

Tetsuo stands, then walks to her. The four other students sit and watch, frozen as statues, as Sabrina’s senior student and Second lock gazes from an inch away… two breaths… five… eleven… Red tries to slow his breathing and his pulse, but his emotions are a stew right now, and if he tried focusing he’d name a dozen different felt-senses.

No one was supposed to die!

(They won’t Brand her for this,) Partitioned Red says, and the thought is mixed with both confidence and doubt. (She’s right, at the very least Sabrina wouldn’t want the negative publicity… maybe she’s banking on that.)

“Alright,” Tetsuo says, and steps away. “You’ll go to your building and stay there until Sabrina returns. If at any point anyone notices you’re gone, I go straight to the Rangers. Clear?”

“Clear,” Rei says, and some tension seems to come out with the word. Her posture remains straight, however, face calm.

“Everyone else, upstairs to get checked out again. We can discuss this privately after we’ve all gotten some rest.”


The days following Rei’s house arrest are strange ones. For one thing the sense of a power vacuum is hard to ignore; Red expects Rowan or Tatsumaki to step in, or even Daniel. The other two senior students seemed shocked by what happened, but no one seems to want the leadership role the way they might have if Rei had just left, or even if she’d been Branded. There’s a lingering sense of disquiet among the other students, one that most of them cover up for by focusing on their research.

Red wonders a dozen times over the next two days if he should go talk to Rei, dismissing it each time as a terrible idea. He talks to Jason and Satori instead, and Leaf, and his mother. All assure him that he did the right thing, that it’s not in his control if she’s investigated, and his mom even reminds him that he can just vote against her Branding if it comes down to that. He can tell they’re worried about him “relapsing,” but after that first day his sense of guilt isn’t as strong as general anxiety over what would happen next.

Which turns out to be, just a few days later, Sabrina returning to her Gym.


Red is watching the mayor of Celadon give a speech about a police raid of the city’s Rocket Casino when he hears a knock at his door. His mental sense reflexively goes out, and he scrambles out of bed when he realizes it’s Sabrina.

“Just a second!” he says as he hurries to get presentable, then opens the door a bit nervously.

The Gym Leader looks very tired, but none the worse for wear for her long absence. “Hello, Red. Is it okay if I come in?”

“Of course, Sensei! Welcome back!”

“Thank you.” She sighs as she enters and drops unceremoniously into his computer chair, leaving him to sit on the edge of his bed. “How have you been?”

“Ah… I think that’s my line?” he asks with a nervous smile. “Is everything… okay?” He’s not sure how else to address the extensively long absence.

“Well enough,” she says, voice containing some amusement. “We can skip the smalltalk, if you’d like. I’m just here to say hello, apologize for being gone so long, and make sure I’m caught up on anything I should know.”

“Oh, yeah! Sure. Um. How much did Tetsuo…”

“Everything.” She smiles, and it’s a warmer smile than he’s ever seen from her. “I have a lot of piled up Challenge matches ahead of me, and a lot of paperwork, and a lot of teaching for all of you, and I need to figure out what I’m going to do about Rei. But before all that, I should thank you, Red. You showed not just loyalty, but cleverness, and restraint, and unusual skill, far beyond your experience. None of them would be nearly as valuable without all the others, particularly loyalty, from my own selfish evaluation. I wish I had been here, but from all accounts you exemplified everything I prize in a student, and I can’t even take credit for most of it. So… thank you, Red.”

Red is blushing, and he’s not sure what to say. He feels a strong urge to deflect some of the praise, tell her how he had help, but he knows she’s not going to accept it anyway, so he just nods, and humbly says, “Thank you, Leader. I mean… you’re welcome.”

She grins briefly. “Your partition has changed. How much did that have to do with what you managed?”

“A lot,” he admits, relieved that they’re moving on to something important. “I don’t know how much time you have, but there’s a lot I have to talk about with you… I think I’m really close to being able to actually, you know.” He lowers his voice. “Lie. Dr. Zhang sent me some articles about a thing called a ‘tulpa’… I think I have something similar, and if I learn amnesia… that would be the key.”

Sabrina leans forward, all signs of her earlier casual demeanor gone. “It’s funny you should mention that… Rowan said something similar. I think it’s time the two of you had some private lessons with each other… and I’ll be there too occasionally, of course.” She nods, seemingly to herself, then stands. “Come, let’s go pay him a visit. You can explain to both of us together.”

“Alright.” He goes to strap his sandals on, a worry still drifting through the back of his thoughts. He knows he has to ask her… “Sensei?”

“Call me Sabrina, please.”

“Um. Alright. Sorry if this isn’t my business, but… I have to know, what will happen with Rei?”

The Leader gives a careless shrug as she leads Red out the door and down the hall. “It was terrible betrayal, more toward her fellow students than me, so of course she can’t stay. But I think once I speak with her, we can work something out without getting the Rangers involved… unless one of you wants to file a complaint yourself.” She eyes him over her shoulder, dark hair rippling down her back. “Do you?”

“No!” He smiles, feeling a knot in his chest relax for the first time in days. “I’m glad to hear that. Thank you.”

“Of course.” She sighs. “The saddest part is, she was so close to learning what she wanted to know…”

Red blinks. “What do you mean?”

Sabrina glances at Red as they enter the elevator and smiles. “You’ll find out soon enough, Red. Like I said, loyalty is something I value above all.”

Chapter 74: Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since then each has proven himself a skilled trainer, and they complement each other well, with Bolin preferring pokemon that can control the battlefield, Vlad focusing on sweepers, and Hitoshi catching and training anything that can stall or tank. Just as importantly, they collectively know a lot about pokemon abilities and habits, both in the wild and for training.

He should check what their plans are after the challenge. Vlad seems most like the leader of the trio; maybe he can talk to him about it first, get a sense for whether they’ve discussed staying at the gym or continuing their journey. Blue lets his steps slow until he’s level with the three of them, who are talking with Bretta and Lizzy about their favorite regional food.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but anyone got any new ideas on how Zephyr recognized that frost-rotom?”

“Actually, yeah,” Vlad says. “I looked into the scouting programs, and it turns out abilities like that don’t work the way we would think. It’s more like training an artificial intelligence. You can’t tell your pokemon how to identify every single other pokemon it might see, and then determine that it’s wild if there’s no trainer standing beside it, because that would still require teaching them what every single pokemon looks like. They instead go off of the same criteria they would use to identify a threat, even one they’re not used to encountering. Do you think your pidgeotto even knows what a fridge is?”

Blue blinks. “Huh. No, I guess he wouldn’t ever have seen one.”

“So he was just playing it safe?” Bolin asks. “Makes sense. Big object moving on its own toward his trainer… no other human around it… turns out it wasn’t even wrong. It doesn’t have to think ‘a rotom is possessing that fridge,’ or whatever bird thoughts would sound like, to think ‘that might be dangerous.'”

“Makes sense,” Blue admits. “I was hoping Zephyr might have had a way to notice that it was a Ghost type, maybe because of surrealism.”

Vlad shrugs. “Had the same thought, but it’s easy to test. My bet is Zephyr would do the same thing if we put a fridge on a dolly and pushed it toward you.”

“Where would we get a dolly?” Hitoshi asks.

Bolin grins. “Forget the dolly, where would we get a fridge? Borrow it from the gym cafeteria?”

“Why not? Bet we could get someone to sign off on it if we explain it’s for training.”

“Vlad,” Blue says. “Do you think wild pokemon would make the same mistake? Or is it something that the scouting program caused?”

Vlad looks skyward thoughtfully, then shrugs. “Nothing in particular that I saw in the program would cause it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Bretta asks. “Decoys?”

He blinks. “No, actually… but now that you mention it…”

“It’s been tried,” Bolin says with a dismissive gesture. “Life-sized, full color pokedolls, with speakers to make the right sounds… they can catch a wild’s attention, but not keep it.”

“Probably the cry that’s the most convincing, but one thing they lacked was motion,” Vlad points out. “That’s how most pokemon hunt and react to danger.”

“No, that’s how some pokemon do, maybe even the largest category, but most go off of colors or scents or sounds—”

Blue listens to them bicker and feels a stab of nostalgia before shaking it off. “In any case,” he interrupts, “It’s worth a try. Not sure how hard it would be to get them to consistently move in a battlefield, but if it draws even a couple attacks from wild pokemon it could be worth a lot.”

“There’s another mystery I’ve been working on,” Lizzy says. “I didn’t realize it until I saw on the video feed that when you first encountered him, Leader Surge’s raichu sent a thundershock at the ground in front of you, after attacking Zephyr.”

The others look at her expectantly, and finally Bretta nods. “Right, it was a warning shot to let him know where the boundary was. What’s the mystery?”

“Well, how could he do that?”

“I don’t follow,” Blue admits. “I had my rubber soles, he knew that, and…”

Lizzy is waving a hand. “It hit the ground in front of you, Blue. You were the tallest thing in your immediate vicinity. It was a massive risk!”

“It’s Leader Surge,” Hitoshi points out. “He’s probably trained that raichu so well it could hit a pokeball midair without shocking its thrower.”

“Right, but how? Did he somehow train his raichu to create an upward streamer that precise?”

The group is silent, glancing at each other. “Is that… would that be hard?” Hitoshi finally asks.

“Yes! Yes it would be hard, we don’t even know how pokemon do that!”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Bretta asks. “You’re a gym member now, and a badged one. You can probably request a brief meeting. Maybe Sabra or Aigerim would know?”

Lizzy blushes slightly, hand smoothing her clothes. “I… yes, I suppose I could do that. I will do that. Soon. When they’re less busy, maybe…”

Blue wants to point out that they’ll be leaving town soon, but Bretta is already talking about Lizzy’s confidence and how to build it up, so he lets it go for later. They reach the training rooms soon after, and unfortunately find the two largest arenas occupied already, one by a group of trainers doing mass target practice, another by what looks like an attempt to mimic their “defend the pokedoll” scenario.

Blue considers asking some of the occupants if they would use other rooms, especially since Glen’s group is challenging for their badge soon. The trainers would probably agree… but some might resent it, a little, or feel pressured to do so. He doesn’t want to get a reputation for using his status to bully others into special treatment.

So they make use of the smaller rooms for the next few hours, doing simple battle matchups in groups of two or four. They get plenty of large scale training done outside during the day, and more battle experience is rarely a waste. Blue knows Bolin and Elaine both have pokemon that are close to evolving, and if they can get them over that cusp before the challenge it would be a huge boost in combat ability. How much that will matter is hard to know without details of the scenario, but it can’t hurt.

Blue seeks out Vlad and suggests they train his swapping speed, which he knows the older boy has been working on. He agrees, and soon Blue’s hands move constantly to throw and catch Maturin, Ion, and Gon’s balls out, forcing Vlad to keep switching his fearow, sandslash, and magnemite out. Before long both have worked up a light sweat, the battle itself largely perfunctory as they focus on speed and accuracy.

For a few minutes they seem evenly matched, but Blue is spending most of his attention watching Vlad’s form. Once he thinks he’s spotted the weakness in technique, he starts speeding up, then adjusting where he throws his pokemon to be released.

Vlad adjusts to the pace well, but as soon as he has to catch an off center throw he starts moving more erratically, until a ball merely grazes his fingers and bounces against the wall. They both call for their pokemon to stop, and he jogs over to pick it up from where it rolled across the floor.

“You should try to use a point on your body as a reference,” Blue says, taking out his water bottle for a drink. “Your reflexes are good, but you’re releasing at a slightly different point each time. It forces you to keep adjusting instead of having a memorized position to catch from.”

“Right,” Vlad says as he reclips the ball to his belt, then wipes sweaty hands on his pants. “Who taught you all this? Your grandfather?”

Blue shrugs. “Yeah, but mostly it came down to practice. Before I got Maturin, getting good at throwing and catching seemed one of the best ways I could prepare for my journey. What about you? Did your parents teach you?”

“Nah, my parents focused on other stuff. It was Hitoshi’s dad that taught us all to throw.” He shakes his head. “Never felt like it stuck, for me, not as much as the others, but I guess I’m improving. Ready?”

“Yep.” They return to the battle, slow at first, then swiftly building back up to the earlier, rapid pace. Blue watches Vlad’s hands as they throw and catch, his own moving automatically, and smiles. “Nice spread!” he shouts between commands. “Much tighter!”

Vlad grins as he catches his sandshrew’s ball even as he summons his fearow again. “Thanks! Now go seriously!”

Blue does so, sinking entirely into his instincts so that he’s not consciously thinking between ordering attacks, predicting swaps, and switching his own to counter them. The sound of pokemon materializing and being sucked away fills the room with overlapping echoes.

It takes another minute for Vlad to miss a catch, and by then both are breathing hard. They stop the battle and summon all their pokemon to rest, then heal them of the few wounds that managed to get through the rapid displacements. Blue decides it’s as good a time as any to ask.

“So, what are your plans, after you all get your badges?”

“Not sure,” Vlad says as he sprays potion over his magnemite’s metal skin, the dent caused by one of Gon’s kicks slowly smoothing back out. “We were talking about maybe sticking around here. Surge does things so different from Celadon… and we’re learning a lot that will be useful for when we join the rangers.”

Blue nods, unable to argue with that. But Vlad isn’t done.

“But at the end of the day, even with these scenarios, we’re still fighting trainers, not wilds. I don’t want to be one of those people who think their pokemon’s strength is all that matters.”

“Ugh, I know what you mean. Trainers that spend months just battling in gyms and trainer houses until they can crush their next couple badge challenges… there are fewer of them here than I saw in Pewter or Cerulean, but there are some around.”

“Yeah. I’d rather do something useful with the time, and get skills beyond just battling.”

“So you’ll continue your journey?”

“Yep. I don’t know how the others feel about it, but personally I’d be happy to tag along with you guys, if you’ve got room in your group.”

Vlad’s tone is casual, and Blue doesn’t think it’s an act. If he hadn’t already decided to invite them along, that casual confidence would do it. “You’re still going to Ranger academy at some point though, yeah?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Was actually planning to ask you to come along if you didn’t,” Blue says, and Vlad grins.

“Cool. I’ll ask the others, after the match.”

A few minutes later they start again, practicing sideways and backwards throws, trying to push themselves to make catches in any circumstance until they’re too tired to continue and go to search the other rooms. They watch the end of Elaine’s battle with Chron, then find Glen in a room with the rest of his team, bouncing ideas off each other for new tactical maneuvers to try tomorrow.

When people start yawning and “resting their eyes,” he dismisses everyone to bed, and the twelve trainers head back outside. Most of them bring out an abra to teleport back to their trainer houses, exchanging goodnights as they go. Blue finds himself walking with Elaine and Glen through the dark gym grounds, and takes a deep breath of the smells of the city muted by mud and rubber and their uniforms. He’s going to miss this place, when they leave.

“You guys can go ahead, if you want,” Blue says. “I might stick around a bit longer.”

“Not tired,” Glen says, and Elaine nods.

Blue smiles, warmed by their desire to keep him company, and they start walking off the main path, toward the obstacle courses and outdoor targeting ranges.

“Oo, let’s do some laser light practice?” Elaine asks, rummaging through her bag.

“Sure.” He takes the thin laser pointer from her, then unclips Maturin’s ball from his belt as they approach the lined up pokedolls. In a normal battle having a hand taken up by an aiming device could be a huge liability, but in some circumstances, particularly those with low light, it can be a priceless extra form of command and precision.

He aims the laser at the doll in front of him, and Maturin tracks the beam. Two rapid clicks, and a water gun spurts out. Three, and a bubble beam fills the air with rapid pops. Four, and an ice beam flashes into existence, leaving an after-image in Blue’s vision.

The others do the same, Elaine with her golduck and Glen with his dugtrio, the latter without much success; the moles’ vision is notoriously poor, and they have trouble targeting pokedolls in general, as static objects. It makes Blue think of the decoy idea again, and how they could rig an object to best draw attention during battles. Leaf might have some ideas…

“Is it too soon to start talking about after?” Elaine asks as she tries to get her golduck to shoot smaller, quicker streams more accurately.

“Nah, it’s been on my mind lately too. I think Vlad and the others will be joining us.”

“Nice,” Glen says, moving his pointer around to ensure all three heads are tracking it before he clicks a sand-attack command. “But I thought they already had their Saffron badges?”

“Oh, we’re not going to Saffron next,” Blue says. “We’re heading to Celadon. Which reminds me…” He takes out his pokedex and starts tapping at it with one hand. “I need to finally get a growlithe on the way to Erika.” He’s been holding off on buying one online. He’s wanted one since he first laid eyes on the fiery dogs, and he wants to catch one himself, not just have it arrive in his PC without effort.

The other two are silent, and after a moment he glances at them to see surprise and confusion. “What?”

“Why Celadon next?” Glen asks. “Saffron is closer, and then Celadon would be on the way to Fuchsia…”

“Yeah, I know it’s not the fastest route, but Sabrina isn’t in Saffron. She’s been gone for what, two weeks now?”

“And… you think she won’t be back by the time we get there, and finish our challenge matches?”

Blue shrugs. “Maybe, but I already gave up on getting my badges as quickly as possible when I decided to become a member here.” The others are silent again, and Blue frowns at them. “What is it?”

Elaine’s voice is hesitant. “Are you sure that’s the reason, and it’s not to avoid Red?”

“Of course not. He’s learning from Sabrina, but he’s not a gym member.” Blue checked, but they don’t need to know that.

“Well, maybe not, but he’s still at the gym.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He and one of the other students are doing some experiments at the gym. That’s what people on the Saffron forums are saying, anyway.”

Blue shrugs again. “Well, I didn’t know that, so no, that’s not the reason.”

The other two are quiet again, and Blue sighs. “What? Spit it out.”

“Alright,” Glen says, facing the target in front of him as he clicks commands for his pokemon. “We’ve talked a few times, and have been wondering… what really happened, that day?”

Blue releases his laser’s button and turns warily to both of them. “Where is all this suddenly coming from?”

“We didn’t know Red that well,” Elaine says, and takes a deep breath, turning her own laser off and sitting as she calls her golduck over for treats. “But we saw the way you and he got along before, and can tell from the way you react to him being mentioned now that something’s changed.”

Blue looks away, anger pounding in his temples even as her words ease the sense of betrayal that rises up. After the storm, he just told everyone that Red would be going to train with Sabrina. He thought he did a good job of not showing anything else, but…

“We know it has something to do with Aiko,” Elaine says, and despite the slight hitch in the name, her voice is firm, and when he turns he sees her gaze steady on his. “Leaf was so devastated, and it took me a few days to realize it wasn’t just from her death. When I asked a few days ago, she wouldn’t tell me, just said to ask you or Red. I figured I should ask you first.”

Blue wrestles silently with indecision. There’s still so much anger and frustration roiling in him, pacing circles in his chest and billowing fire through his body when he thinks of what Red did. What he said. Part of him thinks he should just tell them, and just get it over with. Another part worries that it might be too shocking, or demoralizing, to hear. Or that it would set a strange dynamic between them, one where they think he’s judging them if they say or do anything like Red.

But ultimately, it’s the idea of badmouthing his friend that really bothers Blue. He’s the one that made his friend try so hard to be a trainer, he can see that now. All Red ever really wanted to do was research, and if he turned out to actually be pretty good at battling, and seemed to enjoy doing it with Blue and the others in Vermilion, that still doesn’t mean he was cut out to be a trainer.

Spreading the story of what Red did would just undermine him, and the thought of turning people against his friend makes the fire in his chest snuff out, leaving a hollowness in its place. Despite what he did, Blue doesn’t bear him any ill will. There’s no reason to undermine his goals.

“You’re right that I haven’t been honest about it,” Blue says after a minute. “Sorry about that. But… it really is something private, and I’d rather not talk about it. Okay?”

Glen and Elaine look at each other, and Blue feels a stab of guilt. Don’t they deserve to know what really happened with Aiko? He stands and tucks the laser light in his pocket. “I’m heading to bed. See you guys in the morning.”

Elaine looks like she wants to say something further, but after a moment she dips her head. It bothers him a little to see it. Like a slight reversion to the way she was before they all talked her into being more assertive in the tunnels. “Night, Blue.”

“Goodnight.” Glen holds out a fist. “You know we’re here for you, right? If you need us.”

Blue taps his knuckles against the older boy’s. “I know. Thanks, to both of you.”


Blue watches the wall of monitors come on one by one, each corresponding to a different drone camera. His hands are clenched in his lap to resist the urge to grab a pokeball off his belt and spin it. He doesn’t even have his belt on him. He wondered if he would be as nervous watching the second group badge challenge as he was during his, but he’s definitely not; this is easily five times worse.

The battle is taking place to the east of the city, in a carefully cleared out corridor of open fields around a road between Vermilion and one of the neighboring towns. Blue watches through six airborne cameras as the cars come to a stop, then let the trainers out at the edge of the suburbs, where the highway becomes the only thing dividing the fields of grass that stretch out toward the hills in the distance.

Glen’s team immediately spreads out to scout the area, and Blue wishes he could hear what they’re saying to each other. They all turn at some audible cue, watching another car approach. From out of it steps… an old lady, with a shuffling gait and a metal walker.

“Yes!” Chie says, fist raised as the others groan and curse. They’re all sitting in a room at the gym, set up specifically for them. There’s even a snack table. It feels like the honor it is, though it’s hard to appreciate fully with Blue’s stomach feeling like a clenched fist. “Pay up, everyone!”

“Hang on,” Chron says, “We don’t know yet if…” He trails off as Leader Surge’s voice comes through the speakers, welcoming the contestants to their badge challenge and praising the hard work they’ve put into their time at the gym before going into the rules themselves. Blue has a quick moment of regret over how this format does away with the back-and-forth between Leader and Challenger, and wonders how that might be fixed before he realizes Surge is describing the details of the challenge itself.

To earn your badges, each trainer must arrive in the town of Eastbay with their civilian and at least one pokemon in fighting shape, as judged upon arrival. The town is about a two hour walk from your current location. Upon crossing the threshold with your civilian, you will not be allowed back in the field. Good luck, Challengers.”

“Yep, that’s an escort mission,” Blue says as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket and takes out a bill.

“Damn it,” Taro mutters as everyone hands his smiling sister some money. “Well, it’s straightforward at least. But why do they get two hours?”

“We should be happy for them,” MG says, sitting in her chair with legs raised in front of her. Her murkrow, Nyx, sits on her shoulder, matching the wide black hat she wears over the dark cloak that wraps around her whole body, just a sliver of face peeking out above her collar. Her newly won badge gleams on the rim of her hat. “The time pressure was the worst part of our challenge. For me, anyway.”

“Me too,” Chron says, and Blue nods agreement. “But I’m betting they make the battles harder to balance it out. And I’m not sure about the straightforwardness… what was that last bit, about going back after reaching the finish?”

“They have no reason to split up,” Lizzy says, voice thoughtful. “Maybe that will come later. Maybe the rule is there to keep one trainer from rushing ahead with the civilian to finish the match early? Everyone has to arrive together, or something.”

“Makes sense. But if so, and they all stay together the whole time, they’ll end up facing much different battles than we did.”

The conversation continues as the challenge begins, and they watch the six trainers set up a moving rectangular perimeter around the civilian: Glen takes the front left position with Vlad, Bolin and Bretta are directly to the civilian’s left and right, while Elaine and Hitoshi cover the rear. One of the camera angles shifts as it floats low for a moment, and it becomes clear that the “civilian” is of course a gym member wearing a wig. Blue wonders how much more coaching they might have given her than the last participants. They wouldn’t be recruiting this one to help them out, that’s for sure.

And then, once everyone has summoned their pokemon… they start walking. A fearow and noctowl scout ahead and around them, a dugtrio and sandslash burrow alongside their trainers to sense threats from below ground, and the rear trainers have a tangela and weepinbell entwined with their bags to watch behind them.

A minute passes, then two, and the screens show nothing but the seven figures steadily moving forward. The scenery stays the same, and no danger appears. Five minutes later, the group is still just walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And—

“For Arceus’s sake, someone attack them already!” Taro yells.

The room erupts with the laughter of released nerves. Blue’s hands have gone numb from gripping each other, and he shakes them after relaxing his grip. Lizzy squeaks something about going to use the bathroom before dashing off.

“The tension is probably even worse for them,” MG says matter-of-factly, hands turning her broad, dark hat around and around on her head. “Maybe that’s the challenge.”

“That, and keeping alert,” Chron says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and staring at it. “Shit, I’m sweating and I’m not even there! Wonder what they’re planning.”

“We should be able to figure it out.” Taro takes out a bill and holds it up. “I bet five bucks they’re going to wait for them to rest before striking. This is an attention test. Any takers?”

“Odds?” Chron asks.

“Uh… Five for five.”

“One to one, you mean. You need to make your bets more interesting, or else you’re barely doing more than flipping coins. I’ll bet one to three. My five to your fifteen.”

“That’s a terrible deal!”

“Then I guess you don’t really think it’s an attention test. See? You’re already learning something about yourself.”

“I’ll bet five against it,” Chie says. “And another five that there’s actually some secret objective they don’t know. Any takers?”

“Yeah, I’ll take that,” Blue says as he realizes how strongly he doubts that’s the case, voice thoughtful. “I think they’re just taking things to the opposite extreme.” Blue fiddles with his badges, twisting them around and around in their pins. He wonders how wide the net of gym members going ahead and to the sides of them is to keep wild pokemon from interfering. If one does anyway, would they just have to deal with it?

Do you think they’ll stop to rest at some point?” Taro asks.

“The civilian might force them to,” Chie notes. “There are too many unknowns to guess where the real challenge will come from. Hell, she might have a ‘heart attack’ or something just to introduce another challenge.”

Lizzy dashes back into the room, then stops as she sees them all still walking. Her face is pink as she returns to her seat, hands gripping her knees. Blue resists the urge to joke about how fast that was, remembering a certain tree and hill on the first day of his journey. He wonders if Leaf or Red are watching, then if they watched his own challenge, then realizes he’s being stupid. Leaf doesn’t watch battles if she can help it, and Red isn’t even a trainer anymore. Probably has more important things to do than care about what Blue’s up to…

Same goes for me and him. Blue forces his attention back to the challengers, who are… still walking. He sighs, slouching slightly in his chair as he glances at the time. It’s been almost ten minutes now.

“Wish we could hear what they’re saying,” MG notes. “I bet Elaine is joking about how easy their challenge turned out to be.”

The room chuckles. “Glen is probably reminding everyone to stay sharp,” Blue adds. It’s what he would be afraid of, some sudden attack while their attentions are elsewhere. “Then coming up with ways to do that. Maybe they’re playing spotting games.”

“First person who says something related to ‘grass’ ruins the game,” Taro says, and half the others immediately respond, “Bretta,” then laugh.

“Would they put in a secret objective?” Chron asks.

Taro turns to Blue. “You know Surge best.”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t put it past him to set up new win conditions that get announced during the challenge itself. What I can’t figure out is what the purpose of this part would be. You’d think that—”

Everyone on the monitors suddenly stops as they distantly hear Bretta yell something, and Blue notices her dugtrio has emerged from the ground and is freaking out. It’s a split second of warning that changes everything when the ground suddenly erupts around them, kicking a cloud of dirt up as there are suddenly too many things to pay attention to at the same time.

On one monitor Blue watches Elaine hurriedly order her tangela to unwind from her as electricity visibly arcs through the ground in pulses, keeping them from advancing along the road. As Vlad and Bolin withdraw their flying pokemon to send out a gloom and another weepinbell, a flash of light draws his attention to another screen to reveal Glen’s snorlax, which immediately body slams the ground, making Blue’s jaw drop.

“By the Three,” Taro mutters. “What pokemon did Glen just murder? I couldn’t make it out. Rock or Steel type might have survived?”

“I can’t see any of their attackers,” MG notes.

“Stunfisk,” Blue, Lizzy, and Chron say at the same time. He’d just noticed a yellow and orange patch on the ground that Hitoshi’s sandslash is burrowing toward, but he recognized the tactic before that, since it was used on him in the city.

“You were right, Blue,” Lizzy adds with a frown. “They’re still not sticking to natural circumstances.”

“To be fair, they’d have what, a handful of pokemon to pick from if they did?” Chie says. “Only a few of which are electric, if I remember the area’s wilds right. What are the odds they’d run into a pond or muddy stream so the gym has an excuse to pull this on them?”

“Well it kind of ruins the scenario,” Taro disagrees, nervously tapping his foot as he watches Vlad switch to a ranged pokemon, only for his target to burrow underground. “It’s one thing in the city with our challenge. After a Stormbringer or stampede all kinds of pokemon can show up where they normally wouldn’t be. But six… no, eight stunfisk hiding along a road? Why test them in preparing for something that wouldn’t happen? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of these kinds of challenges?”

“No,” Blue says as he watches Glen’s screen, waiting for the inevitable. He knows it’s going to come, but when…? And does Glen? “The purpose of these challenges is measuring not just trainer skill, but teamwork. Preparing trainers for real situations is secondary.” Or maybe tertiary, if what they’re really preparing trainers for are Renegades… but Surge said that wasn’t it… “Come on, Glen, check,” he mutters.

As if hearing him, Blue’s friend finally stops directing the rest of the battle and turns back to his snorlax, ordering him to move. As Blue predicted, there’s nothing beneath the snorlax but an impression of its body against the grass, and a spot of churned earth where the stunfisk burrowed away. Or perhaps it just remained where it was.

Rather than keeping his snorlax tied up with guesswork, Glen brings his gloom out and orders it to cover the area in leech seeds, powders, and spores. Blue checks the others and sees them using a similar strategy, and soon the battle starts to wind down as they neutralize the ring of pokemon.

“Things aren’t starting well,” MG says, only her wide eyes visible as she hunkers in her robes and hat, staring at the screens. “Hitoshi lost two pokemon from that. Did anyone else?”

“Yeah, a few, but it’s okay,” Taro says, letting out a breath and stretching, which makes Blue realize how rigidly he’s sitting. “They’ll be able to heal up… actually, realizing that makes this all much less stressful.”

Chie is shaking her head as they watch a handful of gym trainers wearing grass ghillie suits suddenly sit up from the fields around the group, then move to withdraw their stunfisk. “Don’t you think they designed the challenge knowing that? There’s something we’re not getting here, I’m telling you.”

“Agreed,” Lizzy says as the revealed opponents head off in a group, leaving the challengers to deal with the aftermath of the battle. “Even with potions and revives and ether, they’ll get worn down eventually. Especially if they take severe wounds.”

Blue watches Glen and the others start summoning injured pokemon out to check them over and heal them. “They’d know not to keep their pokemon out too long and risk something debilitating… but this first attack took some of them by surprise, and there could already be permanent damage done.”

“Still, they were given their full travel bags,” Chron muses. “Could be a mix of testing for preparation, field care, attrition management…”

Blue is skeptical, but he’s not sure why. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Their challenge certainly wasn’t… in fact this could already be considered more complex when you consider the amount of different skills involved.

When the party eventually starts moving again, they do so far more carefully than before. As the minutes start to tick by again, the viewers start to relax, but the challengers on screen look as hyper-vigilant as ever, sometimes sending their pokemon out to check parts of the grass on either side of the road, or their fliers in wide circles that one of the drones will often track.

They’re going to be burnt out by the end of this. The others have started talking quietly among themselves, attention slipping from the repetitive scenery to speculate about what would come next and grab food and drinks from the snack table. Blue knows they’re covering for their own anxiety, but he can’t join them in the lighthearted banter and betting. He feels a helpless frustration as he imagines the level of strain they must be going through. This sort of test isn’t one they could have reasonably prepared for, and of course there’s nothing he can do now, but it still feels like he’s failing them by not being able to intervene in some way…

A hand touches his shoulder. Blue jumps slightly, then turns to see MG watching him, eyes knowing beneath her wide rimmed hat. “Relax,” she whispers. “Trust them.”

Blue takes in a deep breath, then lets it out. He hadn’t realized he’d been so obvious about it. “Never cared so much about a match I wasn’t in,” he admits. “Been a long time since I felt so useless.”

“I feel like that all the time,” she responds, withdrawing her hand to fold her arm back over her knees. “It’s comforting when I know I can’t mess anything up.”

Blue shakes his head. “You’re great, MG. I don’t want to sound like a motivational poster, but you really just have to believe in yourself more.”

“I think I’m getting better at that. But it’s still different from when I’m in battle.”

Blue blinks, then nods. “It is. I hadn’t thought you’d noticed, from the way you act outside it.”

“I’ve been talking to Elaine. She said she had a similar problem.” MG’s hands clasp her legs under her cloak. “I don’t want to distract people, make them worry about me. But battles are the only time I feel in control. They make more sense than… other things.”

Blue wants to ask what things, but the room has suddenly gone quiet, and his head whips around to view the monitors, where he sees… nothing. Just that the group has stopped walking.

“What… did we miss something?”

“No, they just all slowed together. They must see something ahead?”

“Definitely. Notice how often they’re all looking forward now, instead of to the sides or behind?”

“Come on, cameras, pan out…”

One of the drones finally does, and the room holds their breath as they see…

…a body. Lying in the road.

Oh…

“Is that…?”

“Shiiit…”

Oh, no…

“There it is,” Chron mutters, shaking his head, but Blue barely hears him, remembering a field of beedrill, the buzzing they made, the sense of impotence as he looked upon a body whose name he can’t even remember…

After a few moments, Elaine summons her golduck and sends him toward the body alone. Blue smiles despite his dread, glad Leaf shared the story of how she caught Joy with them. Everyone on both sides of the screens watches the blue figure approach the body without any obvious reaction, then finally reach it and stand still, probably from another command from Elaine.

A tense thirty seconds pass, and then most of them are running forward while Bretta and Vlad stay with the “old lady.”

Elaine picks a sheet of paper up from the body as Glen checks its pulse, then abruptly stops and looks up at Elaine.

“Five to one the paper says he’s dead,” Chron says. “And describes what wounds he died from.”

“I’ll take that,” Taro says as they watch the group listen to Glen say something, and suddenly four of them are taking out their bike containers and putting on pads and helmets. Bretta and Vlad keep walking with their charge, a bit faster than before. They got it, Blue thinks with relief.

“So,” he says. “Ten dollars to one that they each have to have a civilian to get their badge?”

The room is quiet, until Chie says, “Does that mean someone’s already lost?”

“We don’t know how many there are,” Taro says, sounding more hopeful than reassuring. “Maybe that was a warning. To let them know that speed does matter in some way…”

“Ugh.” Chie stands and starts pacing. “What a dirty trick! Putting those stunfisk there, of course they’d go slower after… wait, does this count as a hidden objective?”

“Nah, it was right there in the opening instructions. They were intentionally vague just so a moment like this could happen, sooner or later, but the last part was a clue after all.”

MG is watching Blue intently, her murkrow eating nuts she’d placed on the brim of her hat. “Odds that someone has already lost their badge?”

Blue shakes his head. “One to four? One to five, maybe? I think that’s exactly the question Surge wants them to be thinking, now. Maybe it was possible to get there faster and help the civ, but either way the real hook is revealed…” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “But maybe I just want to think that. It just seems unfair if they’re penalized for doing what seems safest at the time without even knowing there were other civilians ahead.”

“I’ll take one to your five that there’s more than six civilians in total,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Without comment on whether they could have saved that one.”

“Deal,” Blue says as the four trainers bike ahead in a square, each using flying pokemon to scout around them as they focus on speed. Blue wonders if there’s any chance that the civilians would be off the main road, but surely they wouldn’t make them search through all the fields between Vermilion and Eastbay. They would have to double back and spread out from the road just to be sure…

Two minutes of uninterrupted biking pass, and some of the tension starts to fade again. The others begin betting on what they think the next challenge will be, but Blue just watches the scenery fly by. He wishes they were allowed their phones, so he could keep track of how far Eastbay is now that they’re biking. He keeps glancing at the two screens for the drones that stayed with Bretta and Vlad, waiting for another surprise to come from them. But they seem fine, just steadily walking forward at a moderate pace.

Blue’s continued focus keeps him from being surprised when they abruptly skid their bikes to a stop, and a jolt of adrenaline goes through him as one of the cameras turns to reveal a zebstrika racing across the grass, a trainer on its back. “Guys!”

The challengers scramble off their bikes and call back their pokemon, drones picking up the four sharp notes at four slightly overlapping times. It’s hard to judge distances without a wide angle shot, and at first it seems like they’ll be okay, but zebstrika are fast—Blue’s fingers grip his knees as he watches Bolin’s noctowl and Elaine’s pidgeotto get intercepted on their way back to withdraw range, bolts of electricity dropping them out of the air.

Taro curses as their friends are forced to break rank and rush forward to return their shocked pokemon to their balls. “It’s fine, they’ll heal them after,” he mutters almost to himself. “A single attack wouldn’t hurt them too bad, right? Especially ranged?”

“Zebstrika can’t conduct electricity as well from afar,” Lizzy reluctantly confirms, voice low. “But they’re not terrible at it. They’ll still need serious healing.”

No one offers to make bets on that. Blue tears his eyes from the screens to take in the room. Everyone looks tense and worried, MG’s eyes wide above her collar. Blue takes a deep breath and forces his body to relax as he looks back at the screens. He needs to appear calm, confident, for their sakes. “They’ll be okay. A single zebstrika won’t be too hard to take down, even if its trainer summons a second pokemon they would still be at a strong disadvantage…” He quickly checks on Bretta and Vlad to make sure they’re not being ambushed too, but they seem fine.

The zebstrika rider, meanwhile, doesn’t summon a second pokemon. They don’t even get off their first one. They just… ride away, a glowing streak of white against black that one of the cameras follows for a moment, before returning to the group of four, who seem… well, shocked. They’d just finished summoning their new pokemon and arranging themselves in defensive positions, but when it becomes clear that the attacker is not sticking around, Elaine and Bolin bring their injured pokemon out and begin healing them while the others keep careful watch. Once that’s done, they swap once again to faster pokemon, but avoid flying ones as they get back on their bikes and start riding again, slightly slower.

Blue relaxes a little further, glad they’re expecting another attack. He really does need to trust Glen and the others more. The abruptness of the attack was still jarring, and he can tell the others feel the same by how quiet they are, each probably wondering how they would have handled what happened. Or maybe that’s just him.

It’s Chie that breaks it. “Bet five it was Paul. He’s the only one crazy enough to ride into battle on a zebstrika.”

The silence persists a moment longer, then Taro says, “I’ll take that, our gym’s got plenty of crazy to go around.” The words are threaded with pride.

“I’ll do three to one that it was Sabra,” Chron adds. “They would want someone with authority doing something so risky.”

“I’ll take that too,” Taro grins. “Sabra wouldn’t just run by as a hazard, she fought against us.”

“Different scenario, different rules,” Chron reminds him. “And they might still fight. Wonder if Surge will fight this ti—yep, there it is.”

The zebstrika is indeed back, and without flying pokemon to target it doesn’t loop around them, simply getting close enough to electrocute Hitoshi’s raticate before racing off. Once again the challengers stop, but this time Hitoshi just swaps his pokemon with a nidorina, and then they’re riding again, heads craning in every direction to keep an eye out for—

Two of them, this time, and spotted in time to swap their pokemon to ground and grass types. Flame Charge, Blue thinks, sucking in a sharp breath, and indeed, the air around the zebstrika begins to shimmer with heat as they barrel toward Elaine’s tangela and Hitoshi’s gloom.

It’s Bolin that rescues them, his sandslash kicking a cloud of dirt up… not at either of the two charging pokemon, but at their targets. Both zebstrika riders veer off rather than risk hitting each other in the cloud, then gallop off into the distance.

The room lets out a collective breath as the trainers quickly swap their pokemon and remount their bikes, clearly intending to keep moving as the zebstrika circle around in wide arcs.

“How are they supposed to fight back with the trainers riding their pokemon?” Lizzy asks, then shakes her head. “That’s the point, isn’t it? They’re not.”

Chie nods. “The goal isn’t to beat them, it’s to slow them down. They might try to win that way if they can, but this is safer, and makes it more challenging for them.”

Blue nods, rubbing his neck as he stretches some of the tension out of his shoulders. What would he do against just constant harassment by pokemon that are so fast they can just keep engaging and disengaging at will? “This really is unlike anything we’d ever face. Wild pokemon don’t act like this, and trainer matches are in arena, have rules that would keep the battle ongoing…”

“It actually kind of reminds me of your match with Surge,” MG says, voice thoughtful. “Letting Zephyr stay out of range, trusting in Brave Bird to get into the arena on time…”

“Yeah, good job Blue,” Taro says with a smile. “You inspired an impossible challenge.”

His sister reaches out and flicks his ear. “Don’t be stupid, Surge has seen a lot more battles than we have, particularly in the war. He probably got this tactic from there.”

Blue’s eyes widen, thoughts shifting suddenly in a new direction. He watches the zebstrika appear again, racing after the bikes and swiftly catching up before sending electricity out in broad waves, resorting to attempts to paralyze now.

That’s it. The traps, the pokemon having TM moves, the coordinating enemy tactics… the objectives of each scenario are the sorts of things that trainers might face in incidents or their journeys, but the battles are against pokemon that are explicitly trained with more than winning battles in mind.

The scenarios aren’t trying to prepare them for some lone, crazy renegades. They’re for coordinating against enemy trainers, with their own opposing, tactical goals.

Like in a war.

“…pretty big risk,” Lizzy is saying, and Blue focuses on the conversation again, still a little dazed by the realization and unsure if he should share the thought. He might be wrong… “What if they get hurt?”

“It would be on them, wouldn’t it?” Taro says. “You can’t run into an attack during a battle and then accuse your opponent of being a Renegade.”

“But you also can’t order an attack after your opponent has run into the field,” Chron points out. “Once you can reasonably assume the risk, that puts culpability on you.”

“Then this is ridiculous,” Taro says, throwing his hands up. “Is part of the challenge being legal experts now too?”

“You were talking about crazy,” Chie notes, smiling slightly. “I dunno if it’s true, but it could be valuable… I mean, Blue was in a situation like this, sort of. And Hunters have to walk a fine line themselves, don’t they?”

“In theory.” Chron shrugs. “I heard it’s really rare for them not to get a Kill on Sight order these days, if they’re used at all. Do you know, Blue?”

“No. Never really looked into it.” It’s hard to focus on the conversation, thoughts distracted by a sense of cold that’s creeping through his body. If the scenarios really are meant to train people to be better at fighting other people, whether Renegades or in war… then what did Blue spend all this time helping develop them for? They were meant to be another tool to prepare people for dealing with incidents. For taking down the Stormbringers.

He has to talk to Surge about this, after the match. He’s leaving soon, so he knows his opinion won’t matter much… they won’t ever really be a part of shaping the gym’s scenario challenges. But now Blue is thinking that maybe they should be…

“They see something!” Lizzy says, interrupting the conversation and drawing Blue’s gaze from the floor to the screens. The challengers are indeed biking faster, as if trying to outpace attacking zebstrika hadn’t been motivation enough, and the reason becomes clear a moment later as a pair of civilians appears on the screens. One looks like a comedically underprepared-for-travel young Joey, shorts and all, the other a hiker that seems to be injured. The four trainers set up around them, withdrawing their bikes and bringing out their ground and grass pokemon again as the zebstrika approach.

Everyone’s more prepared now: Ground attacks disrupt their opponents’ footing while the Grass pokemon set up hazard zones that would pen the zebstrika in. Their opponents once again choose to flee rather than risk being taken down, and as soon as they’re racing away Glen is kneeling beside the hiker. He opens the man’s bag, probably at his unheard instructions, and releases a container ball. In its box they find a wheeled stretcher, and everyone works together to help the man lie on it.

“Something wrong with his leg that potions can’t fix,” Chron notes. “Ten to one. Just another way to slow everyone down.”

“Forcing them to split up,” Blue adds with a nod, and looks back at Bretta and Vlad. Still walking, their charge still shuffling along with her cane. “Two people escort them back to meet up with the others in case the zebstrika come against them, and the other two move ahead on their own… but it’s a risk without knowing which the zebstrika will go after.”

“What would you do?” Chron asks.

Blue opens his mouth, then closes it, considering. “Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no safe option, they have to just try and minimize their risks… and if was in Glen’s position…” Blue grins as he sees his friend summon his snorlax. “…I’d try to focus it all on me.”

On the screen Glen stands beside his newly summoned snorlax as the other three mount their bikes and start riding away… without the civilians. The Joey was apparently convinced to drag along the hiker’s wheeled stretcher, and the three of them begin to walk… not back toward the others, but forward.

Nice job, Glen. Blue looks at the other screens to confirm, and yes, there’s Vlad summoning his bike and leaving Bretta to hurry toward Glen, drone following overhead.

“He’s going to guard against them alone?” Taro shakes his head, voice admiring. “Lot of crazy going on at this gym.”

The trainers that pedal ahead ride single file, and after they’ve been riding for about a minute the zebstrika return. Glen summons his gloom to help battle them, and they come from both sides, forcing Glen into a battle on two fronts.

Snorlax can’t quite hit his opponent as it shocks him from afar, not without leaving his charges, and the zebstrika could run circles around him anyway. But it can tank the hits and keep it distracted while Glen focuses on the other one, swapping his gloom out as soon as the Flame Charge starts and replacing it with a sandslash.

They should both be coming from the same side, ignoring the snorlax, Blue thinks, but no, even with their speed Glen could easily use his pokemon as a pivot, and they need to be close to hit the gloom (or the civilians, if they were actually planning on doing that).

The battle is more manageable when their focus is where Glen wants it, and the riders aren’t slowing the trainers down much now that the other three are biking forward. They seem to realize this, and eventually turn to ride away…

… just as a “family” of pikachu race toward Bretta, Aigerim trailing behind them, and Vlad suddenly swerves to avoid a jolteon that’s standing in the road, fur glowing with electricity. The three biking trainers soon find their path impeded too, a literal field of mareep and flaaffy grazing and occasionally sending sparks between each other.

“This is it, then,” Taro says, face set in a solemn mask as he slowly sits back in his chair. “The real battle finally starts now…”

“Awww,” Lizzy says, leaning forward. “Look at all the fluffers, they’re just so cute!”

The tension breaks, and Blue exchanges grins with the others as Taro mutters, “Yeah, adorable.” Their friends have stopped pedaling and clearly started discussing what to do. Blue spots the trainers that are guiding all the pokemon, and shakes his head when he sees them dressed as ranchers. He wonders what the story is… pokemon that have gotten loose, or grazers walking their flock through a warzone.

The door to the room suddenly opens, and everyone’s surprise turns to shock as they see their Second. Sabra is wearing a casual uniform, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a chair in the other.

Everyone stands at attention even as she gestures them back to their seats, smiling. “Just here to watch the match, same as all of you. Mind if we join?” She steps out of the doorway, revealing another gym member behind her that Blue only knows by face.

He carries his own chair and sets it down behind Taro and Lizzy, while Sabra plops hers down next to Blue. “Of course not, but… weren’t you going to participate in the match?”

“Oh, we already did. Who do you think was riding the zebstrika?” She grins.

Blue feels a familiar, dull stab of envy over the advantage that being able to teleport gives, while Taro groans and Chie checks if Paul was the other rider. He was, and Taro sighs as he hands his money over to Chron and his sister.

Sabra takes a long drink from her water bottle, and Blue catches a scent that makes him suddenly revise whether it actually contains water. “Enjoying the show so far?”

“It’s been utterly nerve-wracking,” Blue admits, gaze jumping back to Bretta’s battle. She’s… not battling at all, actually. All the pikachu are in the field nearby while the old lady quickly hobbles forward, Bretta walking beside her and watching the rodents. The pokemon look like they’re… eating? Did she throw food into the grass? Blue grins, glad their trainer had accepted that and commanded his pokemon to eat it, despite it not fitting Blue’s ideas of what the scenario represents. Maybe these in particular are meant to be wild pokemon, which is why it looks like just a family of ‘chu traveling together?

Sabra is beaming at him. “Thanks! Past couple weeks have been good fun.”

Blue snorts, but he’s smiling too. He certainly couldn’t disagree with that, and he can easily imagine how the otherwise serious gym culture enjoyed their task even more than Blue and his friends did. Blue notes that Vlad has chosen to ignore the jolteon, which is racing after him, its trainer now revealed to be on their own bike and commanding it to shock Vlad’s dugtrio, to minimal effect. Still, it’s promising to be a pain for him and Glen when he stops.

“Oo, they reached the mareep field! Ha… of course they’re just going to try and walk through.” Sabra shakes her head.

“Wait, what’s another option?” Taro asks. “Not fight them all, right?”

“Well, it is, if a pretty dumb one. But I’m just here to heckle and watch, not spoil anything. Maybe someone will think of it.”

By the time they get to the other side, Vlad finally reaches Glen, and the two fight off the jolteon, then swap roles. Glen rides ahead, the Joey riding behind him on the bike, while Vlad attaches the hiker’s stretcher to his bike with rope and starts slowly towing him forward.

With no immediate battles in sight, the viewers start to relax again. There’s some relief that they found another civilian in the mareep field, this one actually capable of keeping up with them… or at least not slowing them as much.

That’s four. Just two more… “How much more is left?” Blue asks Sabra as the others chat with Paul. “You can at least share that, right?”

“The mareep field is about two thirds of the way there,” she says between mouthfuls of pretzels.

Blue nods, then asks, “And why are the scenarios training us for war?” He’d lowered his voice, but kept his tone casual, and watches Sabra out of the corner of his eyes as his gaze stays on the screens.

She merely grins at him, no surprise on her face. “What an interesting idea. I wonder what Surge would think of it.”

Blue sighs, but nods. He’ll have to wait to ask him after all.

The next half hour passes without any major shocks, just more obstacles and harassment. Blue feels something in him relax when they find the final two “civilians,” who turn out to be trainers that were under attack and barely fending off a small swarm of magnemite.

Glen has rejoined the other three, and together they save the two trainers, causing a cheer among the observers. With six civilians found, alive, Blue feels like the worst is past.

He checks the others to see Vlad carefully guiding the hiker through the mareep field, while Bretta and her charge bring up the rear slowly but surely. She’s seen the least combat so far, and part of Blue still fears a lingering worry that some twist is waiting for her…

“Yes!” Blue turns to see Taro standing, fists raised, and follows his gaze.

There it is. One of the cameras is pointed forward, where the town’s proximity sensors can be distantly made out, At the edge facing the road, a banner set up, the word “Finish” written across it. The four trainers slow to a stop, and their civilians slow with them, looking back in obvious confusion. The trainers ignore them, however, and start moving back toward Vlad and Bretta. After a moment the civilians follow, apparently unsure whether they’re supposed to go on to safety or not.

“What are they doing?” Paul asks, and the others chuckle, which just seems to confuse him further.

“It’s a silly rule, really,” Blue says. “Not letting them go back after dropping the civilians off. I get that it’s supposed to add a hard choice, but really… you think we’re not going to go back for each other, and all cross the finish line together?”

Sabra is looking at her watch, but the others are already talking about how they’ll celebrate. The challenge does seem like a done deal, now; with all six trainers together, Blue’s expecting one final battle, but he’s confident they can handle it…

“Woah. What’s up with Bretta?”

Blue snaps his gaze to her monitor, two hours of anticipation for the other shoe to drop finally culminating. The older girl has just reached the mareep field, and… they’re moving. Together, a yellow mass dotted with pink, all walking toward the others…

No. Stampeding toward the others, as Bretta summons her pokemon one at a time, almost frantically as the old woman hobbles after the mareep as fast as she can.

“Did she do something?” Lizzy asks, voice worried. “Set off some trap?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it…” Blue feels his heart pounding. “This will push the others out, they can’t try and stop a tide of mareep, nor ride around it to rejoin Bretta on the other side, not with the civilians to protect…”

The others seem to know it, because they suddenly stop, no doubt warned by Bretta. Vlad has just reached them, and he’s arguing with someone as he starts untying the hiker.

“Shit,” Chron says, voice low. “He’s going back for the civilian… through the mareep? Why? Bretta is on the other side…”

“But she’s not facing the mareep,” Lizzy says. “None of them are attacking her. She didn’t summon her pokemon for them, she’s facing… the other way…”

Blue watches as Vlad gets back on his bike, a lightning rod in one hand, and starts pedaling furiously back toward Bretta, the stretcher still attached as the other four trainers stare after him… then quickly start ushering the civilians toward the finish line, two of them helping the Hiker walk. The camera pans to show the mareep stampede approaching.

Blue looks at Sabra. “What’s happening?”

The Second looks back at him as she takes another drink, then caps the bottle. “Time’s up.”

“Bretta, come on, go!” Chie mutters. The older girl still where she was… standing guard at the rear, her civilian still hobbling away. “What’s she doing?

“Guarding against something,” MG says, voice quiet. “Something that set off the stampede.”

As Blue watches in numb shock, the mareep flood toward Vlad. He hops off his bike at nearly the last second and plants the lightning rod into the ground just as the stampede flows around it, errant shocks being redirected into the ground.

Lizzy suddenly yelps, a sound of fear that opens the gate to the others’ surprised exclamations, and Blue looks at each screen until he sees…

…a dragonite. Wings stretched out, golden-orange scales gleaming in the sun, the beat of its wings vaguely audible as it approaches the rearmost drone, which is hovering between it and Bretta.

On its back, sitting in its saddle, is the unmistakable figure of Leader Surge.

“That is not an electric pokemon!” Lizzy says, hands gripping her knees. She sounds almost… cheated. “Neither was the blastoise, but is it too much to ask that Surge sticks to—”

A wave of electricity spreads through the dragonite’s scales, lighting its whole body up for the duration of a blink, and then a bolt connects from its antennae to Bretta’s golbat. It drops, unmoving.

Lizzy sits back in her chair, a guilty fascination flashing across her expression. The rest of them watch in quiet horror as their friend quickly withdraws her golbat while ordering a sleep powder from her weepinbell… which the dragonite scatters to the side with a flap of one wing, then opens its mouth to bathe the weepinbell in fire.

“Oh, come on,” Chron mutters, shifting in his seat, knee bouncing. “What the hell is she supposed to do against that?”

Bretta withdraws her weepinbell and sends out her graveler, but Blue knows what’s coming next. Sure enough, even as her pokemon is preparing to attack, the dragonite opens its mouth again, and a beam of white light covers the graveler in frost, a crack resounding loud enough for the drones to pick up.

The room has gone deathly silent, and Blue feels his nails digging into his palms, barely able to think through his rising anger. Chron is right, this isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

What can I do? I have to do something

It’s a stupid thought. All he can do is watch.

Vlad is through the stampede now, and he leaves the lightning rod in the ground as he rights his bike and starts pedaling again, bringing the gurney to the hobbling civilian. Blue looks to see the others have ushered the other five toward the Finish, but stop at the last meter. They watch the yellow and pink wave approach, but still they wait… for what, Blue isn’t sure. Perhaps a miracle.

Bretta keeps sending out pokemon, trying desperately to keep the dragonite at bay. Blue notices out of the corner of his eye that Sabra isn’t watching the screens anymore, but rather is studying him. He looks back at her, and in her gaze sees something that stokes the spark of heat in his chest: a glimmering, focused interest.

“What is this?” he whispers, anger barely leashed as he also turns away from the screens, from the oncoming, inevitable end. It doesn’t make sense, there’s nothing they can do about this… even if all six of them were together they might not be able to stop a dragonite…

“A test,” she murmurs, voice low enough that only he can hear over the others’ worried chatter. “To see what the rest of your friends will do, if put in a situation similar to the one Red and Aiko were in. That Jack was in.”

Blue’s anger gets doused, a chill spreading through him instead. “What… why?”

“I want to know what kind of trainers you’re shaping, for one thing. But more than that, it’s our first chance to see what trainers will do in situations like this, in a controlled environment. To prepare them.”

He stares at her, trying to process this. It’s… an experiment? “Why them? Why not in our challenge?” Why not when he could do something about it?

“Why do you think we filled a building with voltorb?”

Blue gapes, then shuts his mouth as the next pulse of anger chases away the dread, filling his chest with heat again. He could see it… one of his teammates goes in, the voltorb start charging electricity to some unknown timer, Blue has to either go in to start clearing them or let his teammate… “You were trying to force me into the same situation Aiko was in?” he asks, struggling to keep his voice low.

“Not you specifically. This isn’t really about you, and besides, I’m pretty sure I know your answer already.” The Second shrugs, seeming completely unapologetic.

“But then… why didn’t you just put a civilian in there, have them shout for help?” he asks, thinking of the civilian that the rotom was near.

“Oh believe me, I wanted to, but Surge vetoed it.” Sabra sighs. “Said it was ‘too difficult a challenge’ to make it necessary for victory, instead of a hazard for a risky choice. Spoilsport.”

The fact that Surge considered anything else too difficult seems absurd given what’s unfolding on the screens. Vlad finishes strapping the civilian onto the stretcher… then turns to Bretta, standing alone against the dragonite, clearly realizing that even with her civilian now having a chance of being rescued, she can’t disengage.

“And you… had higher hopes for us?”

“Nah, you would have had to pull off something genius to get everyone out of it alive.” Her eyes gleam as she tips her head back, taking a deep drink from her bottle. “But it would have been interesting to see you try.”

And Blue turns back to the screens a final time to watch Vlad make his choice.

Bretta is down to her second to last pokemon, and her hand shakes slightly as she summons a poliwhirl. Surge waits until it sends out an ice beam, the dragonite flinching for the first time as frost covers its chest and shoulder… and then electricity races across its scales, flashes, and the poliwhirl falls.

And Vlad…

Vlad gets on his bike and rides away, the extra, now-unnecessary civilian still weighing him down. Blue feels something in his heart lurch at the sight of him, face down, shoulders hunched. Body language that radiates a sense of shame, of defeat, even as he pedals as fast as he can to race the civilian away, despite there being an extra civilian already waiting at the finish line for him.

The mareep have reached the town, and the rest of the team has ushered the civilians across the finish line, then set up a defensive wall to protect them. A sharp note sounds, as the front line of mareep approach them, and suddenly the whole flock stops running, and goes back to grazing.

Bretta’s last pokemon falls. One of the extra cameras is holding a close-up of her face, streaked with tears as she stares up at the dragonite and its rider.

Leader Surge salutes her, arm moving in two crisp motions, and then the dragonite is moving past her in a streak as she kneels beside her last pokemon, hands full of medicine, then drops them and withdraws it.

The room isn’t quite silent, as they watch the end. Someone is sniffling. Someone else’s chair creaks as they rock back and forth on it. Blue looks at the others, sees the anger, the despair. He has a moment of clarity, even in his own swirling pain and impotent rage, a reminder that this is just a challenge match. All that’s been lost is a badge, at most. Some time. Some pride. He knows that pain. He survived it, and they will too.

But it feels like more.

He watches as the dragonite effortlessly cuts Vlad off. There are perhaps fifty yards left between him and the mass of mareep, which is rapidly being withdrawn into balls by a small crowd of gym members. Glen and the others watch from afar, a silent line. So close, and yet so far.

Vlad gets off his bike, legs shaking with exhaustion (just exhaustion), and unclips a ball.

“No,” Surge says, voice a shock as it is suddenly heard, once again, through the speakers. “It’s enough.”

Vlad collapses back onto the ground, one hand over his face as he takes deep breaths. Bretta was walking in their direction, and now she breaks into a run as the first civilian unstraps herself from the stretcher and stands. As Bretta reaches them and falls to the ground beside Vlad, arms around his shoulders, the civilian takes off her wig and stretches her back and shoulders before going to stand respectfully by the sitting trainers, hands behind her back and chin up before her Leader.

“What we all just witnessed,” Surge says for all to hear, on the field and off, “is the kind of act that cannot be judged by any other.”

Blue can hear nothing but his heart pounding in his ears, a strange mix of emotions warring in him.

“Not by a judge, interpreting law. Not by a commander, directing a battle. We do not know how we will act in a moment such as this until we have experienced it. We do not know what it will cost us. We do not know the consequences of what could have been, had we chosen differently.

“Everyone on this field today performed bravely, and intelligently, and skillfully. The rules of engagement say only those four that reached the end have earned their badge, and the rules are sacred. But I say to you two here, that you are no less than they. Never think it. The badges we dispense are marks of skill and experience, and poor enough at that. They cannot be confused for marks of character, or potential.”

Vlad is looking up, finally, as is Bretta, the two of them seemingly unafraid of the massive beast in front of them. Their gazes are only for Surge.

“Your challenge matches will be tomorrow night, or the next, if you prefer. I will do my best to make them fair matches, to defeat you both and not cheat you of the sense of accomplishment. But in my mind you have both already earned the mark of mastery from my gym. Though your badges will be inscribed with a different date than your team mates’… that difference should be worn with pride.”


The celebration is muted, given the circumstances. Glen was going to postpone it until the next night, and Blue suggested everyone help Bretta and Vlad prepare for their matches, but Vlad insisted that two (or even three) celebrations are better than one, and Bretta declared that she’s too tired for any training tonight anyway, so they might as well relax and enjoy themselves.

So that’s what they do, or at least, Blue watches the others do so. His thoughts, of course, are still on what happened. On what it meant, if anything. On what it changed, if anything.

What Red did, and what Vlad did, are different. Their situations are different. The results are different.

But when Blue was watching it all unfold… as he watched Vlad decide, between a doomed attempt to save his friend, and a chance to save himself and the civilian…

Blue didn’t feel an answer. He didn’t find a solution. On both sides, there was only pain. And that was true even before Vlad rushed away from the gate, away from the badge he’d earned, to try and save Bretta in the first place.

It was too much like Red choosing to come to Vermilion in the first place, and the comparison made it clear that for Blue it’s never just been a matter of cowardice versus selflessness.

He understands why Gramps came for him during the storm. Of course he does. He doesn’t feel worthy of his grandfather’s life, and the risk is just too high in a way it’s not with Daisy. The certainty of it, a growing poison rather than the roll of dice. But people still face certain death for those they care about, even if the recipient doesn’t want them to. He can both not want Gramps to make that choice for him, and understand why he does.

What he couldn’t forgive was that Red didn’t care for Aiko the way his grandfather cares for him. That he might not care for Blue the way Blue cares for him.

Surge said the act couldn’t be judged, but Blue still feels the hurt, the disappointment. Is that not judgement?

He’s not sure.

But the anger

The anger feels like it’s missing. Like it’s sucked all the air out of the room it was in, leaving an emptiness he doesn’t understand.

As the dinner comes to a close, and the quiet chatter (with occasional bursts of laughter, relieving to hear but still odd to Blue’s ears) starts to fade, he stands in his seat and looks around at the others, who immediately go silent. They’d rented a private room at a restaurant, and in the dim gold lights he sees expressions of anticipation, curiosity, content… and worry. Probably worry over how quiet he’s been. Whether he’s upset.

He’ll have to fix that. To make sure they understand what it means to him, to be part of a journey like this together. What sorts of things he expects of them, to ensure they’re not just willing, but aware.

“I can’t say anything that Surge didn’t, and better,” Blue says, and swallows. “I… agree with it all. But there’s something else I have to share, and you two especially deserve to know. About why this happened.”

Vlad and Bretta look relieved, but also confused. “It happened because we didn’t deal with the mareep flock right,” Bretta says. “We went over it already in the debrief.”

She doesn’t seem to notice any irony in saying “we” when she’s the one person on the team that didn’t actually have a chance to make that mistake. “That’s a lesson we all learned, yeah. But there’s a reason that sort of absolute test was included at all.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. Glen and Elaine are watching him with particular intensity, and he meets their gaze briefly before looking back at everyone else. “I trust you all, and want to ask that what I share with you here not leave the room. I won’t make it a request. But hopefully you’ll understand when I’m done.

“It has to do with the night Aiko died…”

Chapter 73: Teamwork

Blue spends the week leading up to the match doing little but training and planning, not just with Glen but with all twelve trainers. They often break off into groups of four to six to discuss particular things, but at least half the time all twelve trainers are in a room talking about what the gym might possibly throw at them.

“Sabra said we have to declare who’s challenging by tomorrow,” Blue notes a couple nights before the match as they finish up another meeting, empty plates of food and half-drunk soda around them. Everyone else has gone to bed. “So they can prepare the pokemon they’ll use against us.”

“Bet you’re glad I won’t be going with you, then,” Glen says with a smile. “Otherwise they’d bring out the really scary stuff.”

Blue smiles back, but he feels a pang in his chest. It’s unfair that Glen wouldn’t get to be part of the world’s first live scenario challenge, that he’d have to wait until next week for his own team’s challenge, after all the work he put in. He plays it off, but Blue isn’t sure how seriously to take it.

Blue takes another swallow of his soda, then spins the can in his hands. “Glen, if you want—”

“No.”

“But—” Blue starts again, but Glen is already shaking his head.

“I’ll stay with my team. It’ll help, knowing what to expect. And we’ll be right behind you.” He holds his can up. “Win it, Blue. We’ve been here long enough.”

Blue nods, and drinks with his friend. Long enough to form memories that he wouldn’t trade anything for, too long to stay with some. And aside from all that, he’s been feeling it more and more, lately. The call of the road.

“We’ll be gone by the end of next week,” Blue promises, and taps his can to his.

He spends another hour in bed after, examining his roster, thinking of who to bring. If he expects all electric pokemon, like a normal gym battle, then a pidgeotto or wartortle will hold him back. But if they surprise them, mix things up in some way… he’d rather have a balanced team. Still, it feels strange to have gone through so much to capture ground pokemon like his dugtrio, and then not end up using them.

In the end he picks Maturin, Zephyr, Rive, Gon, Ion, and his yet unnamed snorlax. It’s his strongest pokemon by far, and he spent a lot of time learning how to train and take care of it from Glen. Whatever they bring to counter it, he’s confident he can use it to better effect.

He sends the list to Sabra, then rolls over and tries to sleep, dreaming of victory and disaster both entwined.


After some discussion it became pretty obvious where the battle would take place. The Zapdos Cannon’s trajectory was nearly due-south, and luckily the only buildings tall enough to be affected were in about two dozen blocks along either side of the major road that the ball of plasma briefly aligned with. The majority of the destruction in the area has been cleared away, but the skyscrapers themselves are still surrounded by construction vehicles and cranes; some are slated for demolition, others rebuilding. The city’s motels, hotels, and even trainer-houses are packed full of the displaced citizens who lived in them, and the city took a hard look at how much traffic it would cause to shut the streets down during repairs rather than keeping a few lanes open and concluded it was well worth it.

Which is why when the taxis driving Blue’s team turn toward the cordoned off blocks, there isn’t much surprise. The barricade gate goes up as they approach, and suddenly the streets around them are eerily empty and quiet as they drive between the burnt buildings, all the construction in the area halted. Blue wonders if everyone involved had any warning, or was just told to take an extra long lunch break.

As soon as Blue and his team are dropped off, they don’t wait to watch the two taxis drive away, instead quickly spreading out to scout the area.

“Testing, sound off,” Blue instructs, clicking his earphone to the open channel.

“I hear you, Blue,” Taro says, echoed by his sister a moment later.

“Heard TaroChie,” Lizzy says.

“Heard Lizzy,” MG says.

“Heard MG,” Chron finishes. “Guess they’re not blocking our coms.”

“They’d better not, with an arena this big,” Chie notes. “East alleys are clear by the way. Anyone see anything we’re going to have to be defending?”

“Or assaulting?” Taro adds. “They might throw a curveball and say we’re the wilds.”

“Shh. Anyone else hear that?”

Blue almost asks Chron what he heard, then doesn’t need to; there’s a buzzing coming from every direction. For a split second he thinks the match has started, that there’s a horde of beedrill coming at them… but a moment later he recognizes the sound. Soon the drones are visible, flying in from all directions. Some stop overhead, others go farther along the block and out of sight.

“There are nine civilians trapped in the zone,” Surge’s voice echoes out from their speakers without preamble. “You have 30 minutes before the next wave hits. Priority 1 is to find the civilians and keep them safe. All trainers will receive a badge if you are successful, except for those who have lost all their pokemon.”

Blue’s racing thoughts hit a wall, and for a moment he stops thinking in terms of how to win the challenge and starts thinking of the implications of the new rule. All of their scenarios assumed an all-or-nothing badge win for the challenging side, that’s the whole point of doing badge challenges as a team.

No, there has to be some consequence to “death,” even if the mission succeeds, now people will be trained to somewhat prioritize their own survival, just like in a real incident.

“-radio silence, so you will not receive any additional warnings.” Surge is saying as Blue forces himself to pay attention again. He quickly sets a 29 minute alarm on his watch. “All rescued civilians and surviving trainers must be indoors in a secure location within the scenario bounds by the end of it.”

“Three teams of two,” Blue mutters. “TaroChie, Chron and MG, Lizzy with me.”

“Any trainer leaving the marked scenario bounds will be considered to have forfeited. Any trainers who attempt to move past an enemy pokemon without their own pokemon around to combat it will also be considered deceased. Attempts to interfere with drone functions or observation is strictly off limits; you are to treat them as though they don’t exist. Finally, as trainers would otherwise face a significant handicap in not being able to capture ‘wild’ pokemon encountered, your opponents will withdraw their pokemon not just when they feel their lives are in danger, but if they feel that a trainer of basic competence would be able to capture them.”

“That is all. Good luck.”

Blue sees Lizzy running toward him, her phone out, and he brings out his own so he can open a map of the area. He doesn’t know how big the marked off area is along the path of destruction, but the edges are well defined, at least. “TaroChie, find the nearest edge of the arena and search along it. Report back when you find another edge.”

“Together?” Taro asks.

“Can cover more distance apart,” Chie adds.

Blue hesitates, then says, “Your choice, risk and reward. Chron and MG, you’re on buildings. Liz and I will get streets. Let’s move in the same direction and stick to one side of the street, so we can loop around after without retracing our steps.”

“We’re splitting,” Chie says. “It may put me on the far side from all of you, but I think I’ll be okay.”

“Can we split too?” MG asks.

“Sure, but don’t go more than one building from each other,” Blue says. “Keep in mind, we don’t know what the enemy’s power breakdown is going to be.”

“In a situation like this, where they can’t know which of us they’ll be facing, they may all be equalized,” Taro says, voice hopeful.

“The objective itself gives us incentive not to stick together,” Lizzy says as she and Blue begin searching the side streets and alleys between the buildings, “But that’s a potential bonus of this scenario, you know? No reason to fight unless a civilian is nearby. If Surge shows up, just run away.”

“No reason but pride,” Taro mutters. “Not sure how I feel about getting my first badge without fighting a Leader.”

“I get it,” Chron says. “But if his loadout is to take on me or MG or Blue, he’ll crush you.”

“He’ll probably be guarding a civ,” MG points out. “Which means at least one of us will have to face him.”

“Don’t assume that,” Blue warns. “We also don’t know if realism is what they’re optimizing for.” He was afraid of a situation like this, where no amount of preparation could answer basic unknowns about the rules the scenario has been built on. “Move as fast as you can without tiring out, we need to learn more nearly as much as we need to start finding civs.”

“Going to check the next street,” Lizzy says as she brings her electrike out. “We can leapfrog one to the next?”

“Sounds good.” Blue summons Zephyr, and a quick blow of his flute sends the bird pokemon up and around in scouting circles. It’s not a perfect defense, considering the training is for any pokemon that get spotted without a nearby human, but maybe the gym has trained some pokemon to operate at a distance from themselves.

“More than half of these buildings are locked tight,” MG says. “Should we assume they are not inhabited?”

“Yeah,” Blue says as he runs from one alley to the next, breathing in deep, steady breaths. “My guess is those’ll be all the big ones, with the small ones left open, but check the doors on each just in case.” It’s another thought that sends him back into wondering about the decision making that went into the challenge, and the expectations for the challengers. They were only allowed to bring in their pokemon and combat relevant items, like medicine and communication devices, which greatly limits how prepared they could have been for this particular scenario. That supports the idea that realism is the main goal, but it also restricts how creative they can be within the scenario itself, which is a mark against realism. Blue can’t imagine a situation where they would have to do search and rescue but not have access to their bikes…

“Hazards,” Chron reports, voice slightly breathless. “Found an apartment building filled with galvantula web, enough to fill the lobby. Guess this supports the idea that they’re only using electric types. Testing to see if it’s active…”

Blue almost warns him about how to go about testing it, then holds himself back, not wanting to undermine his friend by presuming incompetence. Besides, he has to focus even more on his surroundings now. Are those pineco shards littering the floor…? No, just a broken beer bottle…

There’s a loud snapping sound from his earplug. “Yyyep, that’s live. Very live. Should I try to get through?”

“Can you?”

“With a few minutes of work, yeah.”

Blue hesitates as he makes his way around the base of a crane to check the thin alley between a pair of ruined buildings, then turn toward the next and enter it from the other side of where they started. “Not sure. Thoughts?”

The channel is quiet at the moment, and Blue uses the silence to check the next alley. He sees a scrap of cloth on a wall that was caved in, and wonders if it’s part of the scenario. Would they deliberately seed the area with clues? He could go inside and check, but that would be deviating from his role of sticking to the outsides. After a moment he marks the location on their shared map and moves on, trusting Chron and MG to check it out.

MG is the first to speak. “They made trainer ‘death’ lose us our badge. They probably want decisions like this to be punished if wrong. Makes me think it’s better to ignore.”

“We were dropped off near it,” Lizzy points out. “Maybe it’s meant to be an early source of information one way or another?”

That gives Blue pause. Would Surge want to construct the scenario like that, rather than develop it to be as realistic as possible? Blue’s not yet positive that he has a good handle on Surge’s personality; his “virtue,” as far as most people seem to believe, is teamwork or coordination or something like that, and Surge agreeing to these scenarios seems to back that up. But that doesn’t really help him here, and it feels like there’s a deeper answer, a more true one that fits more evidence, covers more ground.

He and Glen wrestled with this topic all week, knowing they would have to outthink the Gym Leader and his people, but being here, in the test itself, somehow focuses Blue’s thoughts, channels them inexorably toward a conclusion, instead of just suggesting one idea after another, each reasonable in their own way.

Blue stays still and closes his eyes as he leans against a wall, catching his breath and focusing as hard as he can on the direction his thoughts are moving. In Surge’s heart of hearts, did he agree to these scenarios just to teach challengers to work together better? Maybe. But the Lieutenant is different from most Gym Leaders. He was in the military, was in a war, and is more involved in his city than any Leader in Kanto. He acts like someone not just dedicated to the role of a Gym Leader, focusing on their city’s safety in the present and immediate future, but as someone with an eye on wider currents carrying dangers from farther in time. Paired with a burning drive to prepare for the worst, it’s hard not to see these scenarios as just another part of the preparation that drives him to reshape an entire city, block by block and piece by piece, to better suit his goals.

Would someone like that present a scenario where the way to win is to play it safe? Or to dive for (seemingly obvious) objectives?

He doesn’t know. But if he has to bet (and he does), then…

“Leave it,” Blue says, and starts moving again. “Just mark the location. We don’t know yet if the civvies will always be in danger, better to confirm rather than risk wasting time.”

“Do you think we should start at the opposite end, in that case?” Lizzy asks.

“TaroChie will have to tell us how far that is first,” Blue says as he looks through the window of a fully intact deli shop. Nothing out of the ordinary. As he jogs over to the next block, Blue checks the time and is relieved to find that only three minutes have passed so far. They’ve covered two blocks so far, there’s no way the arena will cover twenty blocks…

“Found someone,” MG says, a thread of excited tension in her voice. “Ma’am, are you oka-gah!”

“What happened?” Blue asks, alarm quickly replacing his excitement. “Are you okay?!” He hears something through his earpiece that sounds like… crying?

“Ma’am… ma’am please…” MG’s voice is muffled.

“MG, are you okay? Report!”

“Ngh… fine… ” Her voice sounds muffled, and after a moment she speaks more clearly, though her tone is… frazzled. “The civilian is… distraught. She’s hugging me. Wh-what should I do?”

Blue’s mouth opens, then closes, listening to the tinny sound of the woman’s crying. This isn’t something they prepared for… Of all the people for that to happen to… are all the civilians going to do this, or were they each specially instructed to—

“Hug her if she needs hugging,” Chie says. “Reassure her that she’ll be okay. Sit with her until she calms down, then tell her to follow you to one of the buildings that seemed safe and securable.”

“A-alright… ma’am… um, it’ll be okay… uh, guys, I’ll uh, I’ll be back in a bit.” Her transmission ends.

“Thanks Chie.” One down. Blue checks the time and sees that another two minutes have passed. “Keep moving, everyone.”

They continue their sweeps, and Blue tries not to feel impatient as they continue to find nothing but empty alleys and side streets. He knows it’s important, if even a single civilian isn’t in one of the buildings they’d all fail without checking, but he wishes there was an easier way. If only one of them had a pokemon they could fly on… no, then they would probably have just changed things up anyway. Search and rescue pokemon. We all need to have at least one, that can keep up with a bike… Blue has to struggle to stay focused, and does so by imagining there’s a gym member pretending to be a civilian cowering between those two trucks ahead… no, so there might be a “wild” pokemon, waiting to ambush him in that alley…

“Just found a barrier,” Chie says. “I counted four blocks, took me almost exactly six and a half minutes to reach it from our starting position. Going to keep tracing the edge till I meet Taro.”

“I see one too,” he says. “Five blocks. Looks like we were dropped off around the middle.”

“Good job. Lizzy and I are close to yours, Taro, so we’ll check the other side of the street as we double back. You and Chie keep going along the edge until you meet up with each other.”

“You got it.”

As the coms go silent again, Blue is aware of the persistent buzzing that’s been ongoing since the match started. He looks around until he spots one of the drones, and sees another one nearby. They’re following them, probably recording them. He considers flashing a victory symbol, then decides not to come off as too cocky.

He wonders where the others flew off to, at the start. Would they go to the gym members? For a moment Blue considers the possibility that another team of trainers has been secretly put in the scenario, either competing for their own badge or specifically to foil them, then dismisses it. “If anyone spots one of the drones that’s not following you, let us know. May be a clue.”

“Would they do that?”

“Don’t know, but can’t hurt to keep an eye out.”

He’s just crossing over to another block with Lizzy when Chron’s terse voice suddenly says, “Contact. I just entered a bank and hear someone shouting for help.”

“Do you need backup?”

“Checking it out now, I hear a banging!” It sounds like he’s running as he speaks, and Blue almost tells him to go slow, be wary of traps, but no, if someone’s shouting for help… “Ah, shit! It’s Aigerim, she’s using an electabuzz to try and bash a door down! Go, Gloom! Stun Spore!”

Blue checks his map for the others’ locations and see that Chie is closest. “Chie, go—”

“No, I got this! Gloom, Absorb! Keep searching!”

Blue bites his lip, but decides not to undermine his teammate. “Alright, but call out if you need help!”

“Dodge! Okay, switching off!” His transmission cuts off, and Blue starts moving again, wanting to hurry up and reach the end of the street so they can start heading back toward the middle, where they can reach any of the others more easily. As he exits an alley he sees Lizzy crossing the street, the barricade marking the edge of the scenario up ahead, and quickly finishes his own sweep before joining her on the other side, once again taking the side streets she skipped.

“Hey guys,” MG says. “I’ve calmed her down and… um… she seems ready to travel. Where should I take her?”

“Chron is trying to save someone at the bank,” Chie quickly says. “It would probably be a safe place once cleared?”

“Agreed,” Blue says, picking up on what she’s getting at. “Make sure your civilian is a safe distance away when you get there, then help Chron out, and we’ll start bringing anyone else we find there.”

“Right… we’re on our way to him.” Blue hears her start coaxing the woman before shutting off her mic again, and heads to the next street. He sees Lizzy beside it, however, and her expression stops him. “What’s wrong?”

She’s frowning hard at her map, and adjusts her glasses before turning to him. “We’re about to hit the ten minute mark. A third of our time is gone and we’ve only found two. We won’t make it at this rate, especially with one trainer down to guard them.”

Blue wants to refute the necessity of the last part, but it’s the safest play, and more importantly their time feels like it’s ticking by faster than before. “Any ideas?”

“Let’s treat this a little more like a real scenario. Call out to anyone that needs help. They were probably told to react realistically… it might draw in enemies too, but at least we’re spending our time on them rather than walking around.”

Blue thinks about it, viscerally aware of the passing time, a clock that ticks with each beat of his heart. “It’s a good idea. If they decide to punish it though…” He thinks of Surge again, tries to model the leader’s philosophy and perspective. “…and he might, it would be dangerous to do in reality… it would take up a lot of our time. We’d probably get overwhelmed, if it’s just the two of us. Let’s hold onto that idea until we’re near the end, in case we get desperate.”

She nods, and they start searching again. “Waiting until we can gather at the bank might be best anyway, you know? We’ll have a fortified place to defend, though I’m unsure what they would do if time runs out while we’re under siege there.”

Blue can’t guess that either. Count it as a loss because the next wave would hit meanwhile? “Let’s not assume that’s a victory condition then. I—”

“Blue, here!” He dashes over to Lizzy and finds her kneeling beside a young man sitting against a dumpster, face pale and eyes closed. Blue recognizes him as one of the gym members he fought during his challenge matches, though he can’t remember his name.

He has what looks like an actual wound on his arm, blood soaked through his shirt.

Blue skids to a stop and reaches for a potion, but Lizzy already has one out and is spraying the wound. Blue stares at the shredded arm and sleeve, not breathing as he waits for it to start closing, but nothing happens. Are they too late?

Don’t be stupid, that would mean he’s actually dead. Blue lets his breath out, grounding himself. He got a bit too caught up in the scenario there; it looks realistic, but obviously the wound must be fake. Still, if the rules state that enough time passed without help would count the “civilian” as dead…

A moment later he stirs and opens his eyes, arm still looking like a side of raw beef, then lets out a sigh of relief. “Oh thank Arceus… I thought I was a goner! Are you here to rescue me?”

Even after hearing about what MG went through, it feels weird to play along with something like this… but breaking the illusion also feels unsporting. “Yes,” Blue says as he quickly thinks of how he would act in a real situation. “Are you… do you feel okay? Can you stand?”

Lizzy frowns at the man’s arm, then pokes at it and brings her finger to her nose, sniffing the “blood.” The trainer smiles at her, then quickly puts on a scared face again as he turns back to Blue. “I don’t know… I feel a little weak. Could you help me up?”

Blue holds an arm out for the man to take, then pulls. He almost immediately staggers, then leans onto Blue’s shoulder.

“Sorry… just a little dizzy…”

“Uh huh,” Blue says, and internally sighs. Of course this wouldn’t be easy; now their search party would be halved. “Lizzy, keep looking for others, I’ll get him to the bank.”

“No.”

Blue and the trainer blink at her as she leaves the alley and observes the street around them. “Uh… why not?”

“It would take too much time. Leave him here. We know where he is, if we find another civilian we can come back for him and escort both together.”

Now the “civilian” seems just as surprised, and Blue grins. “Genius.”

“Wait, you can’t…” He trails off, looking back and forth between them, then seems to remember his role and staggers harder against Blue. “I’m hurt! You’re just going to leave me here where I could be attacked by another pokemon?”

Clearly there wasn’t too much time spent coaching the actors beyond their basic roles. “Hey, you’ll be alright,” Blue says with a grin as he ducks under the older boy’s arm and sets him back down against the wall. “Just sit quietly like you were before, and call out for help if you see any wild pokemon. We’ll be back before you can say—”

“Blue, I’ve reached the bank and helped Chron defeat the, ah, ‘wild pokemon’ here.”

Blue grins and straightens. “That’s great!” He ignores the fake civilian and continues on to the next alley, signalling Lizzy to do the same. No matter how realistic Surge might make the scenario, he’s not going to put two civilians in the same alley, probably not even those beside each other… or is that what he wants Blue to think? “What did Aigerim do after?”

“Just left, didn’t say anything,” Chron says, voice dull. “It’s not all good news, Blue. We lost six pokemon between us. You guys need to be careful.”

Blue stops in his tracks, mouth agape. He barely manages to keep from repeating the number, knowing his incredulous tone would come off as criticizing. Still, it’s difficult to swallow his frustration. “What happened?”

“Nothing, it was just… strong. I lost three before MG showed up, then one more, and she lost two. I don’t know if we weren’t meant to take it on with just two trainers, but…”

“No,” Blue says, feeling a pit in his stomach. “It’s fine, this must be how they’re balancing against our belt numbers.” Hopefully that’s all it is. “There was a civilian there though, right?”

“Oh, yeah. So… that’s two we’ve got now, right?”

Blue feels a thread of worry for his teammate as he peers into a dumpster. Chron sounds so despondent. Not that Blue blames him, being down to two pokemon… “Three, actually. Sort of. Long story.”

“Well, that’s great!” Chron says, clearly trying to put on a cheerful tone. “We’ll find somewhere safe to put them, then head back out to—”

“You can’t. We need you to guard them.”

“I can still fight, Blue, don’t bench me yet.”

Blue bites back his first response, which would have been to remind Chron that if he loses his last pokemon he’d lose his badge. He knows that, and it would just make him feel more like he’s being sidelined for his own good.

Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in her head, telling her that she had to go in there…

Blue shuts his eyes and shakes his head, taking a calming breath against the spike of anger. He wishes his battle calm applied to situations like this, this whole scenario, it would be so much easier to think quickly and clearly… “This is for the mission, Chron. I wouldn’t put it past Surge to attack them at some point after we’ve gathered them, and I’m guessing you kept your tanks for last.”

“…yeah.”

“Then you’re the best person for the job. If the place is attacked, hold them off as long as you can, while we come running.”

“Right. You got it. Sorry, Blue, I—”

“It’s fine. Really.” Blue meets Lizzy at the end of another block, and they both turn into their next ones. “MG, keep searching buildings until you—”

“WOOOOAH, BIG, big big!” Taro suddenly yells, and Blue freezes as he hears a roar echo through his earpiece and the city. “Guys, there’s a freaking blastoise!

“Back out!” Blue says, and checks his map. “Where was it?”

“Between the pizza place and the—Ah shit, it’s chasing me!”

What? Who’s the trainer?”

“It’s Otto, he’s making it chase me!”

So much for avoiding unnecessary battles. “Get it into the main street, Lizzy and I will come and—”

“No! Keep looking, I got this!”

Chie cuts in, voice strained. “Don’t be an idiot Taro, you’ve got nothing that can take it!”

“Don’t plan to!” Taro says between breaths as he runs. “Just gonna keep moving!”

Blue blinks, then grins. “Genius. Let us know if he breaks off!”

“Will do!”

“Blue—”

“Trust your brother, Chie, and go meet up with MG.”

There’s a pause, then a conflicted, “Alright. You’d better not get cornered, Taro!”

“You bet!”

“Which way are you headed?” Blue asks, looking around, then spots the distant figure as it runs from the truck-sized turtle. The blastoise is down on all fours as it gives chase, with its trainer at its side.

“Up main street, back toward where we started!”

“Hey,” Chron says, “You also found the answer to our typing question, so thanks for that!”

You’re welcome!

Blue turns to Lizzy. “Otto might have been guarding a civ, can you go—”

“On it.” She jogs off, and Blue keeps moving as he checks the time. They’ve almost finished with this side, and they have only eighteen minutes left. Lizzy’s idea is becoming both more attractive and less, but the civ they found was unconscious, so it wouldn’t work for him even if he was instructed to go to someone calling out for him, and the gym members representing wild pokemon would almost certainly attack if they start yelling for survivors to come out into the streets…

The buzz of the drone is a little louder. Did it get closer? He tries glancing around without shifting his head, but it’s floating somewhere above and behind him. He’s about to dismiss it when Zephyr suddenly screeches out a warning, flying a quick circle between two buildings on the next block, then rapidly flies back to Blue, landing on his shoulder.

“You’re getting way too big for this,” Blue mutters as he quickly feeds his pokemon a berry so that he’ll fly away, then quickly returns him to his ball. There’s something reassuring about knowing that he’s about to be attacked. The battle calm is already spreading through him as he moves to an open area and summons Ion.

The luxio is over twice as tall as he was when Blue got him from Leaf as a shinx, and comes up to his trainer’s waist. He sniffs the air as he gets his bearings, then widens his stance and growls… facing the direction that Zephyr marked.

Knowing that the gym members will use non-electric pokemon makes Blue extra glad he brought Ion.

“Charge,” he says, and slips his protective mask on as the yellow bands around his pokemon’s legs and the star at the end of its tail begin to glow. Electricity scintillates over its blue and black fur until it’s standing on end, and sparks arc between its grit teeth.

A heartbeat passes, then another, and then an expanding cone of ice swirls out of the alley and envelops the whole street.

Blue feels like he’s been dunked in a pool of ice water, immediately starting to shiver as the freezing wind cuts at his clothes and hair and seeps into his bones. He’s glad his eyes are protected by his facemask, but its surface quickly fogs from his breaths. Downside to not just having goggles, he thinks as he rips it off, wincing as his eyes and nose begin to sting from the cold. He sticks his fingers into his armpits to keep them warm as he yells, “S-s-seriously?!”

There’s no response. Not that he particularly expected one, but still, that was overkill. The cone of frost is evident along the ground and streetlights and trash bins, the center of it slightly off from Blue and his pokemon. If they were any closer, or hadn’t caught the diffuse end of the attack…

I should run. Blue doesn’t even know if there’s a civilian in danger. A distant part of him itches to take on whatever challenge this is, but his calm is still with him, and he knows how underprepared he is to face an ice pokemon, let alone one strong enough to use blizzard; his only pokemon not weak to it would be snorlax and wartortle, neither of which would have an offensive advantage. That distinction goes to rhyhorn, who Blue doubts would be able to take a single blizzard without needing to be withdrawn.

Ion’s Charge is helping protect him from the cold, steam rising off his body as small sparks connect between his fur and the remaining flakes of ice. “Follow,” Blue yells as he turns and starts to run, and he’s just keyed his microphone to tell the others what he found when he hears a scream.

It comes from the direction of the blizzard.

“Fuuuuck,” Blue whispers as he slows to a stop, and Ion does the same, fur still sparkling.

“What is it, Blue?”

“You okay?”

“What’s wrong?”

Woops. “I found another civilian, being guarded by something that just hit me with a Blizzard.” He turns back the way he came in time to see a/

/refrigerator(?)((!?))/

/floating toward him.

Blue blinks, then rubs his eyes and blinks again, and it’s his pokemon’s growl that makes understanding click into place. It’s a strange sensation, having knowledge blocked somewhere in his own head, like something having something on the tip of his tongue, but somehow ten times worse.

“Ion, bach!” His pokemon opens his mouth and lets out a bolt of energy, which appears to splash harmlessly against the fridge. Thanks to the Charge Beam TM Blue bought, the longer Ion stays in battle, charging and discharging electricity, the stronger he will become… but he wouldn’t last long without something to tank those blizzards.

The rotom opens its door to reveal an otherworldly purple glow, and Blue yells “Charge!” again before covering his face with both arms. The blast of cold is sharper this time, and his whole body convulses with shivers.

“What is it, Blue?”

“Rotuh-tuh-tom,” he says, teeth chattering as he drops a hand to his belt and bends fingers stiff from the cold around his heavy ball. “Ice tuh-type, may b-be trouble. Ion, b-bach!”

“I’m on my way,” Chie says.

“D-Don’t come to me,” Blue says, and throws. “G-Go, Snorlax!” The grey ball disgorges its massive contents, and Blue barely manages to catch it as it flies back at him, arm still shaking from the cold. “Check the buh-block I’m f-f-facing for th-the civ!”

“Right, on it!”

“Ion, Ch-charge! Snorlax, Protect!”

The attack comes a moment later, but instead of a blast of freezing air, Blue just feels a cool breeze. He lets out a breath of relief and quickly rearranges his healing gear so that he’s ready to treat not just electric burns but frostbite. Snorlax’s thick fat will protect them from the worst of the cold, but not forever. “Snorlax, pivot, Ion, bach!”

The large pokemon lifts one foot and swings its body to the side, and the light that bursts from Ion is twice as bright as the first was. The refrigerator jolts and vibrates as it’s hit… but its counter attack is swift, a burst of returning electricity that hits Snorlax and causes him to grunt in pain.

“Charge,” Blue tells Ion again, then tells Snorlax to protect them from the next attack. He hopes it will be the Blizzard again, and wonders who the rotom’s trainer is. He didn’t see anyone, but they must be nearby to give it commands… is it possible that it’s an actual wild rotom that was never found within the scenario grounds?

No, the drone came a little closer just before Zephyr noticed it. In fact, it’s strange that Zephyr noticed it at all, considering it doesn’t look like a pokemon, but a regular, floating fridge. He’ll have to look into that later.

As another blast of electricity hits Blue’s snorlax, Taro’s voice comes back, sounding utterly winded. “Okay… I lost it… goddamn fast for… a giant turtle…”

“You lost it?” Chie asks, sounding alarmed. “Where?”

“Uh… it was definitely still chasing me when I ran around the demolished skyscraper, but after that…”

“So there’s a blastoise just wandering around the scenario now. Awesome.”

“I’m sorry, weren’t you… the one who told me… not to get cornered?”

“It could be back on its way to you, Lizzy,” Chron cuts in. “Be careful.”

“I believe I’ve searched the area where Taro encountered the blastoise, but have found no civilians. It’s possible it was just roaming free, you know? But I’ll watch out for it, maybe follow it. It could lead me to one.”

“You be careful too, Blue, it might be on its way to help out the rotom.”

“Got it,” Blue says. Should he try to finish the battle sooner? No, beating it sooner probably won’t help get the civilian to safety much faster, he has to treat his pokemon as the main resource being expended until the civilian is safe.

“Snorlax, Pivot! Ion, bach!”

The rotom takes the electric attack and returns with another of its own, though to Blue’s relief its next attack is a Blizzard. The overwhelming strength of his opponent is balanced a little by it not using only its most optimal attacks, though even that wouldn’t save Blue if he didn’t have his snorlax. Was he meant to be facing this foe? None of the others have pokemon that would fare better… is that why it only attacked once Lizzy left?

“Blue, I’m here,” Chie says. “Looking for the civilian now.”

“Got it.” Blue keeps rubbing some of the earlier chill from his fingers as Ion continues building up his power, whole body glowing as the luxio’s breaths come harder and faster. “You’re doing great, Ion,” Blue says. “You too, Snorlax… Just a little longer…” His snorlax’s movements are noticeably slowing, and Blue can’t reach most of its wounds with his potions… especially not while it’s still blocking attacks from reaching them.

Luckily, snorlax aren’t just sought out for their bulk. Their strength is as terrifying as their size implies, and while you can’t punch a rotom, if he gets close enough to the fridge he could probably smash it to pieces. Snorlax are slow enough that Blue doesn’t want to risk sending it after something that can evade so easily… he’d rather keep using it as a tank for now. And they have yet another invaluable attribute for just such an occasion…

“Snorlax, Rest!”

His pokemon lets itself fall back into a sitting position, then slumps forward with a sigh, tension releasing from its body as it begins to heal.

Most pokemon aren’t particularly expensive to own; their pokeballs help reduce their maintenance and upkeep by a lot, so that even if a pokemon would normally need to eat a few times a day, their relative day may stretch out over a week by their trainer’s standards. Other than the minor energy costs for storage, all pokemon are essentially free if you don’t use them, but even a pidgey kept out of their ball all day every day won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars a year, whereas a gyarados could easily cost thousands if the trainer is investing heavily in their training or growth.

Snorlax are on the far end of the scale, their bodies requiring massive amounts of calories and long periods of restless sleep to maintain healthy levels of both muscle and fat… which they quickly burn through in combat to move quicker than they normally do, and regenerate damage they take through short, self-induced comas.

Even sitting, the hulking figure of Blue’s pokemon fully covers his, but he still crouches slightly as he braces for the next attack. “Ion, Charge.” He waits for the next electric or ice attack, preparing to run out of cover with his pokemon, order the attack, then run back…

But no attack comes. Instead Blue’s snorlax begins to twitch in his sleep, and grumble.

They taught it Dream Eater! Blue quickly snaps his arm up, feeling a rush of anger and apprehension even through the analytical thoughts considering his next move. Dream Eater isn’t an attack a wild rotom would know, but it’s the perfect counter to a snorlax, and he has nothing else that can take a frost rotom on. If it doesn’t go down in a couple hits…

“Snorlax, return!” Blue quickly backs up to open the distance between himself and his luxio, now that he’ll be the main target. “Ion, bach!”

The light bursts forth with an audible hum, and the fridge jerks and spins in mid-air as its door opens again. The howling Blizzard sweeps almost a full 360 degrees, covering most of the block in a thin layer of frost. To Blue it’s like his whole body gets slapped by a giant freezing hand, but a few blinks clear the tears from his eyes, and Ion seems unfazed… from the attack, at least. Blue can tell his pokemon is getting tired, and unclips its ball as he reclips Snorlax.

“Ion, Charge!” Blue yells. The rotom sends out an electric bolt this time, but Ion barely flinches, his own energy field seeming to divert it into the ground around him. He knows better than to hope the next attack isn’t another blizzard. The rotom is staying far enough that Blue doesn’t think a direct hit would seriously hurt him, but it might render him incapable of battling for a while.

What if I am? The rules said if I run out of pokemon, not if I need a breather. Not that he’d take one, wasting time could cost everyone their badge, but… It’s not going to attack me without a pokemon around. Rotom are just a little faster than blastoise… I can outrun it… and if it turns back toward Chie, re-engage it.

It’s a good plan. But it would rob Ion of the power he’s accumulated so far: a lot of things carry through pokemon swaps, but the energy his luxio is generating isn’t one of them. He would lose his chance to take the rotom down, and Ion would go down from another attack.

“Bach!” Another bloom of light, and as it hits Blue can almost make out the purple aura around the fridge, a pair of flat, alien eyes plastered over its front as the fridge falls out of the air with a crash… then lifts back up, steaming and swaying as electricity arcs from Ion to the ground around him, the loud snaps and crackles almost masking the sounds of Ion’s harsh breathing. Just a little more…

What comes out next isn’t a blast of ice or lightning; instead the purple glow around the fridge is more evident, coalescing on the side facing luxio, which doesn’t change even as it keeps rotating, a growing sphere of—

“Blue, I found the civilian. Moving with him now.”

Blue barely hears her as he unclips and throws his rhyhorn’s ball as far as he can toward the side of the fridge, waiting until it’s nearly reached it before yelling, “Go, Rive!”

The ball releases his pokemon and rockets back just as the purple sphere detaches and jets toward Ion. “Ion, Return! Rive, thar!”

Ion disappears in a flash of light just as the purple sphere passes through the space where he was, and Rive digs into the ground and tears out a chunk of asphalt, then launches it at the fridge. It hits with a THUD that seems to echo around the blockand sparks fly out the back of the fridge as its frame bends, popping the door open and leaving it unable to shut.

The fridge suddenly drops out of the air, and a glowing spot of orange and blue plasma zips away from it, back down the alley from which it came.

Blue stares, breathing hard as he waits to make sure it’s really over. Then he summons Ion back out.

His pokemon appears, then abruptly collapses, breaths coming fast and hard. Blue rushes over and sprays potion over it, the mist hissing as it touches his pokemon’s hot fur.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Ion. You did great,” he murmurs, and withdraws his pokemon. “You too, Rive, return.”

“Blue, are you okay?”

He opens his mic. “Sorry, yeah. I’m fine,” he says as he wipes sweat from his face.

“What happened?”

He glances at his former opponent. “I beat a fridge.”

“We’re all very proud of you,” MG says, sounding entirely serious. He can’t always get a read on her. “Also, I found another civilian, but the blastoise is patrolling nearby. I think we may need to defeat it?”

“Or we can get it to chase one of us again while the other rescues him. I’m coming,” Lizzy says.

“Be extra careful. This rotom seemed particularly prepared to fight my team, and showed up once I was alone,” Blue says as he starts jogging toward the next block. “Assume that you’re facing pokemon that will counter what you have, even if it would be rare or unusual.”

“Right.”

“Got it.”

It feels strange going from a battle that intense back to checking empty alleys and streets, but he has to be thorough. He checks the time and sees the battle only took about three minutes, which means they have just over fifteen left. “You’ve been quiet, Taro, how are you doing?

“Full of Glen’s Gogo Juice, and ready to gogo. Where do you need me?”

Chie sighs. “How do you keep coming up with worse names—”

“MG is at half strength, and I’m down two,” Blue interrupts. Snorlax would need to finish his Rest to heal up, which wouldn’t take too long, but the mental attack is more concerning. He’ll bring Snorlax out if he needs to, but should refrain until he can run him through drills to ensure nothing critical was eaten. “Chie, your pokemon are still fresh, meet up with me and I’ll escort the civilians while you finish searching this side.”

She finds him a couple streets later, and he leads her civilian to the alley where he and Lizzy left the first one. It’s a mild relief to see the trainer is still there. “As you can see, he’s injured,” Blue says to the newcomer. “Could you help him walk while I defend us from any wild pokemon?”

The two look at each other, then the new civilian nods and goes to help the “injured” one up. Soon Blue is leading both toward the bank, struggling against his impatience with the pace they’re setting as he summons Zephyr to scout around him again and keeps an eye out for any more attacks.

“Okay, MG. Ready when you are.”

“Ready. Count of three… two… one… go!”

Then there’s distant running, and a roar, and a yelp, and silence.

“MG? Lizzy?” Blue looks down the street in their direction and sees a rush of water spreading out from an alley and running down the sidewalk. He almost tells the civilians to wait here, or go the rest of the way alone, but after a moment he grits his teeth and keeps walking as his heart pounds. He wishes, not for the first time today, that his battle calm extended beyond just when he is in literal combat…

“Whew! You okay MG?”

“M-my hat…”

“I see it! One sec… is he looking away?”

“…wait… now, yes!”

“…Got it!”

“Thank you.”

“Okay seriously guys, what’s going on?” Chie asks.

“It didn’t try chasing me, it just used its cannons to blast water at us when we left cover. Made us jump back into hiding, and now it’s patrolling again.”

“So we do need to take it down.”

“Maybe,” Taro says. “Or maybe you just have to avoid getting seen. Stealth tactics, you know?”

“Try blinding it too,” Blue adds. “Smokescreen, Flash, whatever.”

“I believe I have a better idea,” MG says. “We will poison it. Eventually Otto will have to withdraw it before it succumbs.”

Taro sighs. “Shit, I should have done that, it would have already worn itself out chasing me…”

“It’s fine, we’ve got it,” Lizzy adds. “Switching off for a bit, we’ll let you know if we need backup.”

Blue is approaching the bank, and resists the urge to look up at the drone following him. If an attack will come, it would be now… But despite his tension, he leads the two civilians into the bank without incident. Chron is waiting, and guides them back to the room with the others as Blue stares at the pile of furniture stacked on either side of the door into the inner rooms until Chron comes back.

“Is this a barricade, or a trap…?”

“Both? I asked them to help, figured I could easily collapse them if needed, turn it into a big heavy mess for any attacking pokemon to dig through.”

Blue grins. “I like it. How are the ‘civilians’ doing?”

“Oh, one pulled a pack of cards out and asked if I wanted to play. Not sure if they know there’s no reason to keep the act up now, or if they’re trying to get me to lower my guard.”

Blue nods, wondering if there’s a way to get information out of them. “Your drone is still outside, so they’re keeping an eye on the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the area is hit the moment you try to leave. Hell, after the rotom I wouldn’t be surprised if the delay is them picking a pokemon that would be just the right challenge for what you’ve got left.”

Chron nods, face serious. “I’ll be ready. Now get back out there and do your part.”

Blue nods and tips a salute before jogging back into the sunlight. That’s four safely in shelter, with… twelve minutes left.

He feels his stomach drop. They have roughly half the area left to search. It’s tempting to send Chron out after all, maybe to slowly, safely work his way through the webs in that building…

We need to think of something better. Something that will help us with the search…

Blue closes his eyes and tries to think through the sense of dwindling time. Resources. Knowledge. Skills. What am I not fully utilizing? All of his trainers are being used, none have pokemon that would help find people or move faster, none of them have special knowledge of this area… do they have knowledge of the gym members? Experience hiding strategies in urban environments?

“All done with this area Blue, on my way back to start the other half.”

“Alright. I’ll come join you…” Blue trails off, still feeling like he should be able to think of something clever, something out of the box that will help them…

What would Red do?

He forces himself not to shy away from that thought. Red would use his psychic abilities, but that’s not helpful to Blue… he might use some knowledge of pokemon, something not related to battling. Blue has some of that, but he can’t think of anything that would help…

What would Leaf do?

She told him about what happened during the storm, what she and Red went through. Blue wanted to know, but he couldn’t tell how much of what she said was just trying to talk Red up, make Blue accept that he did a lot to save people. As if that was the point…

Focus! What would LEAF do?

Leaf’s strengths as a trainer don’t go toward battling, she would probably have trained her own pokemon to be able to do something more helpful in a situation like this, like finding injured people… her other skills are more centered around people, like Blue, she’s good at getting them to do things, like she did with the people in the apartment building that later caught fire…

Blue’s eyes widen, and he looks back toward the door Chron and the others piled furniture beside before quickly running through, back toward where the “civilians” are sitting and playing a card game.

“Everyone, please listen to me,” he yells, and they all jump. “There are other people out there that need help, and we’re not sure we can find them in time. I know it’s dangerous, but I’d like to ask you… no, beg you, to help us find them before the next wave hits.”

One of them chuckles, quickly covering their smile, while the rest look sheepish or confused. “I don’t think we…” another starts, but Blue cuts him off.

“I know you’re injured,” he says to the one whose arm still looks like it’s covered in blood. “You should stay here. But the rest of you, I can assure you that one of us will always be nearby to keep you safe, and we’ll make it back before the wave hits. So please…!” He claps his hands together and bows, as low as he can. “Help us save the others that are still out there!”

There’s an awkward silence, and Blue doesn’t dare look up or move. Thirty seconds. I’ll give it thirty seconds, then laugh it off and say it was worth a try and we’ll just have to run everywhere, and try the galvantula web… six… seven… eight…

He gets to fourteen before one of the civilians clears their throat, and shifts, and when Blue looks up he sees the woman getting to her feet. “I’ll help.”

Another hesitates a moment longer, then stands too. “Same.”

The one who smiled earlier is frowning at them, and after seeing Blue’s gaze on him shakes his head. “Dunno what Surge would expect.”

“It’s alright,” Blue says, and straightens with a smile relief making him feel giddy as his heart pounds. “It’s got to be realistic, right? Not everyone would come.”

Chron is staring with a mix of awe and incredulity. “You don’t think they’re going to try to punish this with more attacks or something?”

“They might,” Blue admits. “But I’d rather lose from battling than not try my best to save everyone. Hopefully we’ll be back soon.” He turns to the others. “Thank you. Now come on, there’s no time to lose!”

Blue leads them outside, and Zephyr takes off from a nearby building to fly overhead again. “Stay in sight of my pidgeotto, it’ll let us know if any pokemon are nearby. We’re going to go block by block checking the alleys, alright? If you so much as get a paranoid feeling that there’s a pokemon nearby, just run to me or one of the others.”

“You got it, Oak,” one of them says.

“You guys have fake names, or should I call you by your real ones?” He doesn’t remember their real ones, but it would be a good time to learn them either way…

“I’m supposed to be ‘Nellie.’ Got a backstory and everything; cruise ship chef.” She grins. “I think Nellie’s always wanted to do something meaningful, help people, you know?”

“I’m ‘Alex.’ Here on vacation.” The trainer shrugs. “Just figured it would be more interesting than sitting there and waiting.”

“Good enough for me.” Blue toggles his mic. “How are the buildings looking, TaroChie?”

“Done a block already, but we haven’t found anyone yet.”

“More hazards, though. Bunch of voltorb rolling around in one of the buildings. I marked it for if we get desperate.”

“Alright, I’m coming to sweep the alleys with help from a couple of the civvies. Protecting them is Priority 2, got it?”

Taro laughs, while Chie just says, “Got it.”

They make their way through the streets at a jog, and now each block takes just a couple minutes to clear. Blue worries briefly that one or both might not actually tell him if they find a civilian, but by the second block “Alex” calls out, and Blue runs over.

This civilian is pretending to be unconscious. Blue moves carefully toward her, and when the pile of rubble beside her shifts and an Alolan golem uncurls from inside it, Blue feels a spike of fear before the battle calm takes over.

“Go, Gon!” he yells, and his breloom appears just as the golem bellows and starts generating electricity between its prongs. “Contact! Gon, pam!”

The breloom’s legs coil, then he leaps forward in a green and tan blur to punch the golem just before its electricity arcs out into the street, hitting street lights. Gon leaps back in front of Blue, and begins bouncing from foot to foot, tail held high as he prepares for another attack.

“What is it, Blue? Need help?”

“No, I have double advantage. Keep searching, one of you come get the trainers!” Gon evolved a couple weeks ago, going from a squat, slow mushroom that was valuable for its status effects to one of Blue’s heaviest hitters. As long as it’s faster than its opponent, and against a golem it certainly is, Blue is confident it can win most fights it has advantage on… let alone one as stacked in its favor as this.

So much for facing pokemon that are designed against him, though to be fair this does seem like a mostly random encounter.

There’s a clicking sound from somewhere above, and Blue looks up to see Sabra standing on the roof. She waves at him, and Blue quickly looks back down to see the golem charge its body with electricity.

Blue quickly orders another Mach Punch, then follows up with a Leech Seed. No matter how hard Gon hits, golems’ hides are tough, and he doesn’t know how strong this one is. Better to play it safe, wear it down and keep his distance while darting in for attacks…

No. He doesn’t have that luxury, the sooner he takes it down the better. After the golem charges at Gon and punches him with an electrically charged fist, Blue yells, “Counter!” and watches as the two begin slugging it out at close range. It may be tough, but its electricity will barely faze Gon, while his attacks are each striking at weak points, resonating deep through its rocky hide…

And then there’s another series of clicks, and Blue yells “Dodge!” on sheer instinct as the golem’s electricity seems to loop back on himself, and his whole body starts to glow with heat…

But as soon as Gon leaps away, electricity arcs through it, and Blue’s gaze snaps to the source of it: a stunfisk lying flat against the ground that had been hiding under another pile of rocks.

Blue quickly summons Maturin as he tries to withdraw Gon too, but the golem is lumbering forward, and one red-hot fist knocks the paralyzed breloom into a spinning fall. “Gon, return! Maturin, bab!” And then he reclips Gon’s ball and whistles on his flute while pointing at the stunfisk.

Blue can only follow what happens next because he initiated half of it. As Gon disappears in a flash of red energy, Maturin spits a bubblebeam at the golem, knocking it into the nearby wall, then the ground, its hide turning white wherever the water splashes. Just a blink later, an arc of electricity hits Maturin, and hasn’t even ended when Zephyr divebombs the stunfisk and begins tearing at it with beak and talons.

A heavy ball is thrown from above, and withdraws the golem. Blue quickly orders another bubblebeam against the stunfisk, hoping to knock it out before it retaliates against Zephyr, but instead the flat fish electrocutes Maturin again, and Zephyr takes some of the shock just from proximity, or from his continued attacks. Blue quickly withdraws both his wartortle and pidgeotto as he realizes this isn’t a fight he needs to win.

“Forfeiting, Oak?” Sabra calls from above.

“Hardly,” he calls back up, reclipping his pokemon to his belt and checking the time. Nine minutes left. “I could keep fighting with both and maybe you’d take one or the other down before it died, but if this were a real battle you’d withdraw it by then, and if it were a real wild battle I’d capture it. Stunfisk can barely move outside of water or mud.”

“So you’re going to just walk by it?”

“Nope,” Blue says, and runs… around the block, to approach from the opposite side of the street. Like he said: stunfisk can barely move on dry land.

Blue quickly reaches the downed civilian and takes a variety of medication out, spraying her with potions and paralyze heals onto her shirt, then sticks an awakening nozzle into her nose. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but she gets the cue and “wakes up” on her own.

“Hi!” he says with a grin and grips her arm to pull her up. “We might want to run. I don’t know what else she has… I mean, might be lurking around here.”

She smiles and follows him at a jog, and once they’re a distance away Blue summons Zephyr again and heals him. “So, quick proposition… help me find other survivors, or I can take you to a safe locati—”

“The blastoise is down,” Lizzy says, sounding giddy. “Took it long enough. We’ve extracted the civilian and are heading back to the bank—”

“No time,” Blue interrupts. “I mean, good work, but also, just keep them with you. Wait, are they hurt?”

“No, they’re walking on their own.”

“Good, because we’re running short on time and need to make a decision between searching the rest of the buildings we haven’t yet, or go back to the galvantula web or voltorbs. No need to defeat them all, just make your way through it and see if anyone’s alive in either.”

“I was thinking about that, Blue,” Lizzy says. “Galvantula don’t spin webs like that unless they know their area is secure. It’s… not likely anyone would be alive in one’s nest.”

Shit. “But not impossible?”

“No, not impossible, if they’re hiding in a closet or something.”

“Well, our other alternative is the voltorb building, and frankly that just seems suicidal,” Chron says. “I vote we try the galvantula webs.” He sighs. “And by ‘we’ I mean you all, of course.”

Taro and Chie agree, and the others stay outside to protect the civilians helping them and keep searching themselves. Blue is approaching the next block when he hears a crackle and Zephyr screeches in pain. Blue’s head snaps up to see his pokemon falling out of the sky, and leaps forward to return it before it hits the ground, then leaps back with a yell as another bolt of electricity suddenly hits the ground nearby.

He follows the path of its afterimage, blinking rapidly, and sees Surge standing on the roof of a nearby building, a raichu beside him.

Blue gapes up at him for a moment, a mix of excitement and worry being mostly suppressed by confusion. With Surge’s pokemon so far away, how is Blue supposed to battle him?

I’m not. This isn’t a challenge to battle… Surge has removed himself as an opponent, maybe predicting the earlier sentiment that Chron shared. It’s a hazard, something he’s supposed to figure out, not bash his way through. Which means…

Blue opens his map and pings his location. “Lizzy, I need you.” Then he looks around before first dragging over a metal garbage bin, then a wide plastic tarp from the back of a truck, then a broad stack of pvc pipe. By the time Lizzy arrives, he’s staring at the truck itself again.

“What’s goin-oh-shit-it’Surge,” Lizzy gasps, hand darting to her pokeball as she stares up at the gym leader. “Blue, it’s Surge! What’s he doing up there?”

“Guarding something, I’m pretty sure,” Blue says. “Do you think we could hotwire this truck?”

Lizzy blinks, then looks at him. “That’s what you need my help with?”

“Well I don’t know how much you know about cars, so maybe not. I was just thinking out loud, like, do you think it would be against the rules? I guess I can ask.” Blue looks up at the gym leader and cups his hands around his mouth. “Hey Leader, is it okay if I borrow this truck?”

Surge shakes his head, but Blue can’t make out his expression. Is he saying no to the question, or refusing to answer? Maybe it’s exasperated acceptance… no, better play it safe. “Sorry, the actual thing I asked you to help with is getting past him. I think this is a challenge, to see—”

“—how well we paid attention during our classes,” Lizzy says with a nod, and Blue blinks. He was going to say ‘how resourceful we are,’ but Lizzy immediately begins examining the things he gathered, then looks around them. “There’s a safe path… I think. The start of one.” She traces something that looks like an inwardly turning maze, but Blue can’t make it out. “I could guide you, but I suspect you would rather cheat.”

Blue grins. “You got me.”

She smiles. “We’ll need more metal. What’s the plastic tubes and tarp for?”

“I figured something non-conductive could be held up for cover?”

Lizzy shakes her head. “Tallest thing is generally going to be struck in a natural environment, no matter what it’s made of. With pokemon to guide things it’s a bit different, but there’s a rule where you can’t repel electricity from something, just conduct it. The reason lightning rods are metal is to avoid too much resistance that would lead to… well.” She points to one of the nearby burned buildings. “That tarp could be used to step on though, to avoid shocks from below, but our feet are already pretty protected by our rubber soles. Maybe bring it for a civilian?”

“Right. I’ll go get more trash bins then,” Blue says, having resisted the urge to tell her now isn’t the time for a science lesson. It takes another precious three minutes for him to bring her what she needs, and soon they’ve got a makeshift lightning rod to move and travel carefully around his building, checking its alleys and side streets.

“Ugh, web is full of spiders!” Taro yells in their ear.

“That’s horrible,” MG responds. “No one could have predicted this.”

“We’ll be back,” Chie says. “Fighting!”

Blue wants to yell for them to just get out and not waste the time, or risk getting wiped out. But they’re out of options, and so he keeps quiet, and hopes they’re okay.

Surge gives them a few token shocks, keeping them hunched over. The civilian is inside the electronic instrument shop (“Surge is hilarious,” Blue pants as he tugs the lightning rod to just outside the door) and he convinces her to leave with them, trying to hurry despite the circumstances.

“We’re out,” Blue says once they’re out of range. “And we found one.” They hurry to clear the rest of the blocks, searching desperately, now, a mix of hope and dread on every face Blue sees. Two more… come on TaroChie, you’ve got it… fire pokemon, rock pokemon… You can do this…!

“Whew! We’re through, and we did indeed find someone in a closet! Coming out now!”

Blue grins, but it’s short lived as the minutes keep twitching inexorably down. Eight. Eight out of nine in twenty five minutes. Five minutes to find one, just one… The thoughts keep racing through Blue’s head as he tries to think of what they might be missing. Are they really expected to go into a building full of voltorb if they don’t know there’s a civilian in there? They obviously wouldn’t make them explode, but…

Blue is clearing the last block before he spots Nellie on the other side open a dumpster lid, peer inside, then close it… and he suddenly freezes in place, eyes wide. One hand rises to his ear piece, and he says, in a voice that surprises him with how calm he sounds, “Did anyone think to check the dumpsters and trash bins?”

There’s silence for a moment, and then…

“No?”

“Checked if I could hide in one during the chase, but couldn’t fi—Oooh—”

“Why would we—”

“—shiiiit…”

“Oh!”

“Dammit, seriously?”

“Seriously,” Blue says, and starts running. “Full resweep of the streets, now, and check every closed container you find! Careful of pokemon lurking in some, just run if you find any!”

The task quickly proves to be disgusting, and some of the others do indeed find a couple grimer and a trubbish waiting for them under the lids. But with two minutes left, Blue runs for the area where he fought the rotom. He starts looking through them in such a rush that he almost closes his third dumpster before realizing that what he’s seeing isn’t just a pile of clothes. It helps that it’s screaming.

“Ahh!” The man inside cowers, curled up, then looks up with a smile. “Oh, you’re not a poke—”

Blue drops the lid as his other hand covers his face, sighing. “I found him. Everyone get back to the bank, now!” He opens the lid again and grabs the nonplussed gym member’s hand, pulling him out of the bin and onto the street. “Are you okay? No injuries or anything?”

“Uh, well now that you mention it—”

Blue takes out a pair of potion bottles and sprays all over his clothes. “Now? Anything else?”

The young man cowers back slightly from the look in Blue’s eyes, and swallows, glancing between the two potion bottles. “Um. I think I’m good…”

“Good. Then run, because the next wave is about to hit!”

Blue knows he gave himself almost a minute of grace when he set his alarm, but his heart is still pounding in his throat as they race for the bank, only to face a small horde of pokemon waiting on main street. Surge and Sabra and Aigerim and Otto and two others that Blue doesn’t recognize are standing beside their pokemon, and without pausing Blue grabs the civilian’s arm and pulls him down an alley, opening his mic again. “We’re coming in from behind, Surge and the others are out here!”

“I’m going to collapse the front,” Chron says. “Everyone else get to one of the fire exits and guard it!”

There are seventeen seconds left when Blue spots everyone fanned out in a half circle around the bank’s side entrance, their pokemon out and waiting. Blue can hear the horde coming, now, the gym leadership’s pokemon roaring and howling as they march on the bank, and Blue finds himself grinning wide, suddenly sure that this has been fun for them. He sees similar, celebratory grins on everyone’s faces as, stitch in his side and hand still clamped firm around the last civilian, Blue rushes past them and into the bank.

The others quickly pile in and close the doors, then start to whoop and cheer before Blue raises his hand.

“Not yet,” Blue pants as his alarm goes off. “Everyone in the same room with the civilians, let’s go!”

There’s a banging sound from the front, and Chron is just arriving as they do, looking worried, but with laughter in his eyes. “Man, this bank is probably not going to be happy with what the Leader’s doing to their furniture.”

“In, in,” Chie says to the civilians, pushing them all inside. Then, without a word, the trainers all fan out again, summoning pokemon to stand beside them.

And then they wait, listening to the sound of moving (breaking?) furniture.

And then silence, followed by footsteps, followed by…

Leader Surge, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, and a smile on his face at the sight before him.

“Congratulations,” is all he says, and then everyone cheers.


Mrs. Khatri and Mr. Iha look quietly furious.

Blue sits in Leader Surge’s office. There was a brief ceremony in the street, in front of the drone cameras. His third badge sits next to the other two, and he keeps glancing at it, enjoying the way the light gleams off its yellow surface. He quickly returns his attention to the conversation going on around him each time… the conversation that started within an hour of the match finishing, Surge escorting him away from his teammates and other friends so he could speak with him privately.

Instead of a heart to heart with his Leader, however, Blue had to hold in all his questions once he saw the two league officials back again.

Somehow, caught up in everything as he was, he didn’t even consider that, as he was focusing on his objectives, on the realism the scenario was intended for, that realism was extending to attacks from the pokemon that were actually hitting him and his teammates. Hearing the two yell about it did reframe those moments with a bit more seriousness, somehow.

“Well?” Surge asks Blue, brow raised. “Would you care to make a formal renegade accusation?”

“Of course he’ll say no,” Mr. Iha says just as Blue opens his mouth to.

“Don’t be overdramatic, Leader,” Mrs. Khatri sighs. “That’s not our goal here, and you know it. This isn’t what we talked about when we condoned these scenarios.”

“All I know is that you are asserting that my gym members were at risk during their challenge match,” Surge says, hands laced over his desk and tone cold. “Let’s let the trainer speak this time, shall we? Blue, what are your thoughts?”

Blue waits half a minute, forming his words, then simply says, “It was great.” He keeps his expression calm as he turns to the two League representatives, as if all this is completely unimportant and obvious. “I knew how far I was from the opponent pokemon at all times, and I trusted the gym members and Leader to not do anything that would endanger me. We’ve all trained and learned well, whether it was studying safest trainer distances from enemies, or the distance over the ground that electricity can travel.”

“I’m willing to believe you both,” Mrs. Khatri says. “But consider the optics. The whole region, maybe the whole world, saw trainers being knocked off their feet by blastoise water cannons, and being nearly frozen solid.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I understand,” she repeats, gaze on his. “But imagine how it will play to others. How some will react against it, and others will adopt a new, laxer standard. When do you suspect the first death will take place?”

Blue grits his teeth, waiting for Surge to answer, then realizes it was asked of him. “Trainers occasionally get hurt during battles, real or not.” He shrugs. “We may be limiting ourselves.”

“Trainers get hurt, by accident,” Mr. Iha says. “Some attacks have wide range, sometimes pokemon miss or trainers don’t pay attention to where they’re positioned. But pokemon should never attack if a human is too likely to be caught in the radius.”

Surge snorts. “That was a foolish regulation when you tried to pass it, and I won’t pretend it has moral weight on its own. A pokemon that can’t follow an explicit order, even if it risks harm to a human, is a pokemon that can’t handle a wide range of real situations where it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the human is already dead. Or they’re being eaten alive, right in front of you, and the only way to save them risks hurting them too.” Surge’s face is like stone as he stares down the angry league official until he looks away. Once he does, Surge turns to Mrs. Khatri, who seems less inclined to get into a staring match.

“You’ve made your point,” she says, her own anger more under control. “And as I said, it doesn’t matter. The pokemon will still need to be turned over for examination, and the incident investigated and discussed before any further scenarios are constructed.”

“What?!”

Everyone ignores Blue’s outrage as Surge unclips three balls from his belt and hands them over, which distracts him anyway. He almost expresses his surprise that Surge was the rotom’s trainer, then clamps his mouth shut. The Leader was clearly prepared for this meeting, and Blue isn’t going to risk throwing a wrench in things without thinking. They have the drone footage, anyway, which would either clear the Leader or wouldn’t.

“The scenarios will continue,” Surge asserts, not leaving room for them to argue. “But we will restrain ourselves to simple, static battles until your investigation officially recognizes that we’re not being negligent with our trainers.”

Blue wants to yell that that’s pointless, that Glen and Elaine and the others wouldn’t get a real challenge that way, wouldn’t get to really experience what they did, what they all worked for… But again he grinds his teeth together, and waits until the two representatives leave.

As soon as they do, some of his anger burns itself out, the arcanine prowling in his chest without a clear source to unleash his anger on. This was supposed to be a day of triumph, but somehow all he can think of is that they may have lost something precious before it even really got a chance to begin and grow.

“Well, ” Surge says after a moment as he pulls a small flask from his desk, unscrews, and drinks from it. “Now that’s out of the way… what did you think?”

Blue looks at his Leader to see he’s smiling. After a moment, Blue smiles back.

“It was great. Amazing. I have a lot of questions.”

Surge nods. “I have some time to spare.”

“The rotom… I never saw their trainer, until the end maybe. Psychic?”

“Ah, yes. Two of the staff members were not from our Gym. A loan of sorts, especially requested. It made for a useful added range of challenge.”

Blue nods. “How realistic did you actually want it to be? I feel like we cheated, at times, but…”

Surge shakes his head. “You can’t cheat if you follow the rules. And if anyone’s at fault for the rules-as-written, it’s me. As for how realistic… I think you’ve guessed. As much as possible, given constraints.”

Given constraints. Surge and his people selected that too, for the most part, but there was an unforced expectation that the pokemon would follow “wild” guidelines despite being explicitly trainer-guided… Blue almost mentions how that can change the lens of the exercise, but his new revelation is more well rounded, now.

“You’re not just using these scenarios to train us for Tier incidents,” he says, voice quiet.

Surge raises a brow at him, then takes another drink before capping it and putting it in his desk. “What makes you say that?”

“You wouldn’t have let pokemon use moves they could only learn from TMs if you were, even if it would provide us the best challenge.” The Leader watches him expectantly a moment, and Blue presses on. “You’re preparing us for renegades. Sabotage. Why? Is it just in case, or… is something happening?”

But even as he asks, Blue realizes he’s got it wrong. The Leader’s face shows genuine confusion, for a moment, and then he smiles again, the sheepish tones to it looking strange on the Leader’s face.

“I forgot. You faced exactly that situation on Mount Moon, of course that’s what you would think of first.” His smile fades. “I’m sorry if it brought back any memories, in the moment, that wasn’t my intention. Too many other things to consider, something was bound to slip through the cracks.”

Blue waves a hand to the side. “No, it’s fine… But then, I don’t understand. What were you going for?”

The Leader shrugs. “You’ve got at least one more match to figure it out. Let me know if you do. Maybe you’ll decide to stay after all.” He smiles. “I would be happy to have you, if so.”

Blue grins at the compliment, brief but sincere. “I can’t promise I’ll stay. But I can say I’ll be back… one day as Champion.”

Chapter 72: Gaze Forward

No matter how many times they do this, it still feels real.

The sound of overlapping commands, the cries of pokemon attacking and being attacked, the explosive noise of pokeballs opening to send out new combatants… it all blends together to send a thrill through Blue’s body, quickening his pulse despite the cool lens of his battle calm that helps him observe the ebb and flow of the battle.

It doesn’t have the life or death edge to it that actual incidents in the wild would, but Blue still feels every loss on his team keenly, still feels compelled to win at all costs… which, as part of the attacking team, means striking at the pokedolls their opponents are clustered around.

The six defenders are doing a good job of not just keeping their ring secure so no stray attacks go through, but defeating the attackers efficiently, swapping places with quick, coordinated movements to ensure that each trainer is using the best counter available to one the attacking trainers are using no matter where in the circle they are. Case in point, as soon as Blue’s opponent sees his wartortle come out, he quickly shuffles two spaces to the right and sends his sandslash to help a teammate as his own position is taken by another trainer with a lombre.

Blue smothers a curse and orders an Ice Beam, knowing that the Grass/Water type would be able to take more of them than Maturin would its retaliating Grass attacks. If this were a normal match it would be easy to just swap himself, either to a different one of his own pokemon or with one of his teammates… but it’s far from that.

The battle is meant to mimic the attrition actual defenders face in Tier 2 or 3 incidents (while still maintaining even teams so neither is overwhelmed), and Glen’s solution was to give his own team only three pokemon each to the attackers’ full six. To balance that Blue suggested attackers not be able to coordinate with each other or swap their pokemon unless they were about to faint, just as if they were real wild pokemon on a rampage…

With one exception.

Glen agreed to the exception without knowing what it was, and just before the match Blue told his team to bring at least one flying or ground pokemon, then save them for last.

As Maturin desperately tries to avoid the green glow of the lombre’s Absorb, Blue raises her ball with one hand and his whistle to his lips with the other before blowing a single long, sharp, unwavering note.

Both defenders and attackers pause for a heartbeat, and then six red beams connect with six pokemon. Blue reclips Maturin and grabs another ball, movements matching his teammates so that all six new pokemon appear almost simultaneously.

The defensive team has only a moment to recognize that they’re now facing a mix of exclusively flying and ground pokemon, and then Glen is yelling out his own counter order to coordinate their response. Blue can’t hear it over his next whistled command to Zephyr, but the defensive pokemon are quickly swapped out for Water and Ice types.

The attackers are already acting, however, and their pokemon start kicking up dirt, multiple sand attacks creating a haze that the defenders struggle to aim through. Beams of frost-forming light pierce the localized sandstorm until one nails a fearow, which is withdrawn before it hits the ground and replaced with a diglett that immediately begins adding to the mass sand attack. It helps that all the types strong against either Flying or Ground attacks are weak to Ground or Flying ones respectively, and that the only type that can hit back against both hard, Ice, is fairly rare… their opponents only have two, though most water pokemon are taught at least one as well.

Blue wipes sweat from above one eye, gaze jumping constantly to spot any early sign of change in the defenders’ strategy. This is the critical moment of the battle, and they would either win or lose by how well the defenders can deal with the sudden shift.

It takes nearly twenty seconds before a wave of water suddenly gushes out to the side of the cloud, instantly clearing all the sand and dirt coming in from a third of the circle of attackers. Twin beams of light spear out and hit a sandshrew and pidgeotto, and the lack of renewed sand and dirt coming from those directions gives the defenders an opening.

Blue has to suppress the urge to shout out a command to the others, judging this to be outside the limits of the allowed offensive coordination. Three of his trainers still move on their own to try and cover the breach, but not the ones on the far side who can’t see it, and what looks like the full might of the defenders start pushing through the opening to quickly overwhelm them.

Blue doesn’t go to try and fight them; the only chance the offense has now is that the defense will leave one side exposed, and they can swoop in for a quick hit on one of the pokedolls. He blows another command to Zephyr instead, and his pidgeotto follows him around to the other side, away from the defenders that have breached the sandstorm.

The two remaining attackers on the “back side” have realized something is wrong when Blue and Zephyr join them, but there’s no time for them to figure out what; one more sharp whistle followed by two brief notes, and Zephyr sends a whirlwind over the field strong enough to clear all the remaining sand…

…only to reveal Glen’s snorlax, his trainer standing by Blue’s goal, ready to defend it. His hair and skin are covered in sand and dirt, but he quickly wipes his facemask clean, and Blue can see his smile as he sees what’s waiting for him.

Blue grins back, then attacks with his teammates in one last desperate bid to overwhelm the snorlax before Glen’s allies come.


As soon as the battle ends, Blue’s calm leaves him. He feels it trickling away, wishing it would stay just a little while longer… at least until he finishes dealing with the media.

Even as unofficial training exercises, the group battles would probably have gathered some interest on their own; outside the Rangers’ practice incidents, it’s rare for so many trainers to battle together at once, and the spectacle of it would probably have drawn crowds no matter what, even this far outside the city. But thanks to both Blue’s own fame and the widely broadcast genesis of the new format, by their third practice battle the media had been ready and waiting at the end, and by the fifth they were there at the start, recording everything.

On the one hand there’s an obvious benefit to having so much added screen time and prestige surrounding his pet project. What he’s doing could revolutionize the way gyms operate the world over, and it’s good not just to have the matches recorded for posterity, but also to normalize the idea as early as possible. The more time he spends answering questions and talking about his vision, the better… and the interviewers seem happy to let him go on until his throat gets sore.

On the other hand, each post-battle interview takes time away from him and his trainers. Even during their smaller private battles, Blue enjoyed spending time after each match he participated in or observed going over what happened, doling out feedback both teasing and serious, reviewing strategies and tactics from every angle. It helped improve bonds between the trainers, and gave him a wider understanding of how other trainers think about battles.

The first few group battles ended the same way, the trainers unwinding together as they talked and teased and laughed about the match, all while establishing strong feedback norms both within and between the battling teams. Blue started the very first battle debrief with Aiko’s ritual, and it became a staple of each, no less bittersweet no matter how many times he went through it.

Having that all recorded is probably good too, but it also feels like an intrusion, and tonight is worse than ever; the two teams are practically mobbed as soon as the last pokemon is withdrawn, and Blue has to jog over to intercept the reporters as they hesitate at the circular dip in the ground where all the dirt was kicked up. Once their attention is drawn to him they start fanning out and focusing their cameras and extending microphones.

“How did that battle go, Blue?”

“Are you disappointed your side lost?”

“What inspired this battle’s setup?”

It’s times like this Blue misses Leaf most. He raises his hands to quiet them, trying to think of how he can diplomatically ask them to back off. If he just asks them for privacy it would just make some of them that much more curious as to what they talk about…

And then his watch chimes with an incoming message. He taps its screen to read it, and his pulse, which had just finished slowing from the end of the match, kicks back into high gear as hope surges through him. He turns to the media with an apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry, I know you’ve come all this way in the hopes of another interview, but I’ve just been summoned by Leader Surge. If you’re willing to wait, you can meet me outside the gym in a couple hours, and I’ll likely have more to talk about than I do now.”

“What’s the meeting about, Blue?”

“Was this scheduled, or did you just get the invitation?”

He holds both hands up again to quiet them. “It was just sent, and I imagine it has something to do with the footage you all have been broadcasting; maybe he wants to criticize my performance in person, so thanks for that.” He’s smiling as he says it, and the crowd chuckles. “I don’t know for sure what we’ll talk about of course, but I hope it has some relevance to these exercises, and am happy to discuss it more later.”

The news folk seem reluctantly satisfied with that, and once Blue turns away from the few remaining shouted questions he feels relief when even those quickly stop and everyone mobilizes to change venue.

“Nice to have some privacy,” Glen murmurs as Blue returns to the trainers. “There really a meeting with Surge?”

“Yep,” Blue says as the others gather around, and smiles. “But it’s not for an hour.”

The group laughs, and Blue turns to them. Twelve trainers in total, seven boys and five girls, badges ranging from four at the top end to zero at the lowest, ages twelve to sixteen. Not the best he’s trained or fought with, but the best that would make this commitment with him, that would trust him… and all of them faced Zapdos’s attack. Blue’s spent over a month training intensely with them all while simultaneously working to develop these mock-incident battles, and if Surge’s invitation is really about adopting the scenarios officially, maybe it’ll finally have paid off.

“That said, we’ll still have to cut this short for me to get there on time, so let’s go straight into it,” Blue says to the expectant ring of faces. It makes him sad to skip the ritual, and for a moment the old bitterness at being Dark flares up before he pushes it away again by reminding himself of the advantages. “Good job to the defense. The improvised Surf wave was inspired, and I think it would work just as well against wild pokemon. Whose idea was it?”

Glen, along with the rest of his team, look at Lizzy and Chron, who glance at each other then raise their hands with sheepishly proud smiles. Blue smiles back and nods at them. “Next match the two of you are going to be on opposite teams. Who wants to swap with one of them?”

“I will,” Elaine says, brushing some hair out of her face and tying it back with the rest of her bun. The auburn curls have gotten long enough to reach her shoulders now, and no matter how tight she ties it some strands keep managing to escape.

“Why?” Blue asks, curious rather than challenging.

“We’ll be status heavy if he comes, and have too many sweepers if she does. Those are my specialties.” She smiles slightly. “Plus, it would be nice to win a match once in a while.”

There are a round of “ooo”s mixed with scattered laughter, Blue’s among it. It’s true that his team has been losing lately, mostly because he suspects Glen is just a better strategist than him. The gap is closing though, and Blue nods. “Good luck with that. If we win the next one, we’ll know who the dead weight was.”

The group’s reaction is even stronger this time, and Elaine grins wide as she flicks her hair back and puts a hand on her hip. “It’s a poor trainer that blames their ‘mon instead of themselves.”

Blue winces as everyone laughs again at his own words thrown back at him. A response comes to mind, but he’d rather end things on a self-deprecating note, and it’s good to see Elaine engage in banter like this.

The storm changed all of them in some way, but Elaine more than others. Aiko’s death seemed to take something out of the girl’s bright-eyed enthusiasm, replaced it with a quieter self-confidence that led, among other things, to her being willing to speak against her friends far more often. There’s still some of the old Elaine left, however, particularly when it’s just her, Glen, and Blue.

He still remembers the kiss she gave him before they split up, rain falling around them and buildings burning above. The memory makes him uncomfortable, and thankfully she hasn’t brought it up or done anything like it since.

“On your own head be it,” he says with mock-severity, then turns to the group again. “So, what did we learn from that match?”

“Flying and Ground combo is bullshit,” someone mutters to another round of laughter.

“You guys countered it well enough,” Taro says, and others on Blue’s team nod. “Oh, I also learned to keep moving when sight is limited.”

“Dangerous in a real fight,” his sister disagrees. “Might get hit without pokemon between you and the enemy.”

“Not to be done lightly, then,” Blue says, as he turns the topic over in his thoughts. “Should we be practicing a move like that in training, if it’s too dangerous to use outside of it?”

The group is silent a moment before another of Blue’s team speaks up. “The team that’s imitating wild pokemon should.” MG is a year older than Blue, but her clothes make her look younger; long sleeves that nearly cover her hands, a wide black hat that covers her hair, and generally enough layers of dark cloth to make her seem like she’s wearing an outfit that’s too big for her. At first he thought she might have a skin condition that makes her avoid sunlight, and he still hasn’t ruled it out, but when he asked her about it she insisted that she just likes layers. “Though it might not be that easy. Nyx and Vortumna would probably try to stay with me if I tried to go in another direction from them.”

“You might want to train that out of them,” Blue says, thinking of the way her murkrow and eevee can fight so well as a team. “If you ever need them to stay in one place while you do something elsewhere…”

She shakes her head. “I can use other pokemon for that. I’d rather their default be to stay with me.”

Blue nods, letting the topic go. When she first started showing up to practice battles he thought she was too shy to be part of the core group he was forming, even worse than Elaine used to be for speaking up for herself. But while she is shy most of the time, she often switches to confident and assertive when it comes to discussing her pokemon or battling, and she’s definitely smart enough to deserve her spot.

All of his trainers are. He’s proud of both teams, and while a steady, stubborn, stupid part of him misses what used to be, he’s had time to grieve, and move on. These days he keeps his gaze steady on the present and future.

“True, and most scenarios are a bit defense-favored anyway,” Glen adds to something Blue missed while woolgathering.

“Including this one?” Blue asks with a smile, which starts an argument about whether it’s true or not. The discussion stays largely positive, given Glen was leading the defense when he made the comment, and after a minute Blue decides to leave them to it, and summons his bike after a round of goodbyes. He’s already wearing his pads; it’s part of his standard trainer gear now, ever since he had to throw himself to the side to avoid a boulder that flew past his pokemon.

When Blue arrives at the gym, the media is already set up outside. He’s surprised to see the crowd has grown; most reporters wouldn’t let their rivals in on a new story like this. When he gets close enough to make out specifics, however, the reason is obvious, and he feels foolish for thinking the world revolves around him.

Leader Surge is a head taller than the tallest reporter, and imposingly built, with shoulders so broad that Blue often feels like he should have trouble going through doors. His strong, commanding voice is distinct even when speaking at a normal pitch, and as Blue approaches the secondary crowd of civilians gathered around the reporters he can finally make out some of what’s going on.

“…very closely with the mayor to integrate new plans into reconstruction. Pewter, Celadon, Saffron, and Fuchsia have already reached out to adopt some of the defensive measures into their city design, but there’s a lot more we could do if we really pushed for it.”

“Are you talking about walls?” a reporter asks as Blue stops at the edge of the crowd to listen.

“No, the mayor and I agree that any form of restriction on movement could be as much a liability as a benefit, especially in the event that a full evacuation is necessary. But what I hope to see in Vermilion are automated shutters for every window and door that can be deployed city-wide within minutes, smaller bunkers built into basements beneath every residence, and those buildings most affected,” he says as he points to the burnt husks being torn down in the distance, “Will be rebuilt with state-of-the-art fireproofing. The mayor and I both share a lifelong commitment to a common purpose: to make Vermilion City the safest in the world.”

The crowd around the reporters break into applause and cheers, and Blue claps along with them as the media starts shouting more questions that Surge gives some unheard response to before he turns to the gate. Blue starts squeezing through the crowd to follow him, waving at the few reporters that spot him and switch to shouting questions at him instead until he’s through the gym entrance and jogging up behind his Leader.

The tall blond turns and smiles as he sees Blue approach. “You’re a bit early. Did you hear about the press release?”

“No Sir, came straight from group debrief.”

“Good man. Head to my office, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Blue nods and breaks off toward the elevator. Vermilion Gym’s non-training rooms are as utilitarian as it comes, and the first time he was summoned to it he expected Surge’s office to be no different. Instead he found himself in a room that looks less like a simple meeting and administrative space, and more like a Ranger HQ coordination room. There’s a desk in the corner with a computer and some filing cabinets, but most of the floorspace is dominated by a round holotable ringed with chairs.

When he enters it now, he finds the gym’s Second and Third present and watching a static holograph of the city, its buildings and streets highlighted in various colors.

“Hello, Blue,” Sabra says in her customary low drawl as she manipulates the hologram to rotate it. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You’re not avoiding me to get out of training assignments, are you?”

Blue straightens his shoulders and bows his head and neck. “I’m sorry, Second, of course not. I’ve just been busy with—”

“I know. Hard to miss when it’s all over the news.” She jerks her head to a monitor on the wall, which shows some reporter still talking outside the gym. Her lips quirk as her half-lidded eyes turn to his. “I’m partially teasing you, but also reminding you that your gym duties don’t end because of special assignments. Message me your availability for the week by tomorrow morning.”

Blue bows again, this time including his upper torso. “Yes ma’am.” Blue interacted with Sabra a handful of times outside of classes, back when she was the Third. After the storm she stopped teaching as many once the new Third, Aigerim, took over for most of her duties. Blue hasn’t spent quite all of his time with his own group since joining the gym, and has gotten to know other members fairly well over the past two months, but Sabra is an exception who feels more a stranger now than less.

Aigerim is a near total mystery. He fought her during his challenge matches, but she didn’t speak beyond what was necessary, and like Sabra he hasn’t interacted with her since joining up. He remembers hearing that she’s not a particularly strong trainer, but more focused on other things; she was apparently studying city planning and infrastructure before either Surge convinced her to join his gym, or she became motivated to study pokemon battles.

That knowledge keeps Blue from being surprised when she suddenly turns to him. “Maybe he’ll see it,” Aigerim taps the edge of the table with her knuckles. “We’re considering where a new hospital should go to replace the one destroyed in the attack. Any suggestions?”

Blue steps forward slowly, eyes on the holographic model, and after just a moment he recognizes the area they’re focused on. He’s not likely to forget the part of the city where Aiko died.

“What’s wrong with the original location?” he asks, and is pleased to hear that his voice sounds casual despite the sudden dryness in his throat, the tightness in his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sabra watching him, but he dismisses the thoughts associated with that and just focuses on Aigerim.

“That should be part of your answer,” she says, rotating the map and zooming in to the hospital campus. “Unless that is your answer.”

“No,” Blue says, and swallows. “Zoom back out?”

She does so, and Blue tries to focus past the upsurge of confusion and pain, frustration and anger, grief and betrayal. The hospitals are highlighted a certain color, and he can see a spot that’s more central between the other hospitals around the one that had collapsed (with Aiko inside it (and Red out)).

“There, maybe?” Blue points, almost feeling like he’s just reacting at random rather than spend more time thinking about it. But no, it’s the clear spot that’s closest to the middle of all the hospitals around it…

Aigerim tsks, and turns the holo back in another direction. “With all these open streets to the east and north… no thank you. We want to avoid it being overrun. Let them build a shopping mall there or something.”

Sabra snorts, and Blue focuses a bit more now that he knows what the criteria they’re looking for are. He reconsiders the hospital plaza and realizes the issue… “The foundation is probably not as sound as it used to be. You want a place between these hospitals where the ground is still secure, the sight-lines are good without being open to rampage, and that means… here?” He points.

Aigerim smiles and zooms the map back out. “See? He sees it.”

Sabra shakes her head. “Wasn’t disagreeing with you, Aig. S’politics, that’s all… they’ll never let it be built there.”

“People don’t want a hospital nearby?” Blue asks, confused enough that the other feelings aren’t as distracting. “Why?”

“Not the people living there, the people living elsewhere. New hospital means new need for stores, offices, apartments… huge boost to the local land value. Incidents like this are always an opportunity for some to make more money, and Surge is trying to get the mayor to cut into all the dickering, but with an election coming—”

She’s interrupted by the door opening to reveal Leader Surge, and… Blue searches his memory for where he knows the face of the second man from, then finds it by imagining him as a talking head. Hiro Iha is one of the top Indigo League administrators, most recently famous for pushing back against the idea of limiting pokemon attacks in league matches, particularly those without spectators.

Hope rises in Blue. If they’re here to talk about the gym’s official adoption of scenario battles, having a league official that seems generally in favor of realism seems promising…

And then a second one walks in, and Blue recognizes her immediately. Yuna Khatri’s first act after joining the regulatory body was to do a full inspection of each gym’s trainer strength evaluation systems, which led to her pushing for more transparency and equality between gyms in both Kanto and Johto. She got the regional spotlight again last year when she officially censured Leader Giovanni for how much time he spends away from his gym.

It’s harder to predict what her reaction to his proposal of group challenge matches would have been, but she strikes him as someone interested in conformity between the gyms. He suddenly wishes he had more time to prepare for this, or at least thought of league judgement as a possibility so he could prepare for it. In retrospect, he just assumed that if Surge wanted it to happen, it would.

Sabra turns the holo off as Leader Surge moves to the head of the table. “Thank you for coming, everyone. This is Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri from the league council, and they’ll be joining our discussion.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Blue says, smiling and bowing to the league officials before he sits. “I’ve followed your actions on the council with great interest.”

“Oh?” Mr. Iha asks after inclining his head back as he pulls out his own chair and lowers himself onto it. “What in particular?”

Blue expected some skepticism, and is glad to have at least one specific thing to cite. “Most recently, the arguments you made for retaining severe poisons in not just Elite matches, but also gym battles, showed a level of trust in trainer discretion that I appreciate. I would love to talk to you more about it later.”

Mr. Iha raises a brow, but nods with a slight smile. “Perhaps we can, another night; we have other obligations after this one.”

“That would be great.” Blue turns to mention something of Mrs. Khatri’s too, but Surge starts speaking, and he sits.

“We’re here to talk about your scenarios, and whether they’re a justified method of delivering badges. Mr. Iha and Mrs. Khatri are here to advise me on the decision.”

“Advising you, Sir?” Sabra asks, irreverence so subtle that Blue almost misses the emphasis on the second word. Blue can understand the sentiment, even if her attitude (in front of non-gym members, no less) is as surprising as ever; the only Leader that Blue can think of who might care less what others think of how he runs his gym is Giovanni (and maybe Blaine, but he doesn’t really count).

Surge gives her a look. “My decision will be made based on what I believe is best for our city and gym, and the trainers who come to us, as always. But I still value their wider perspective and any insights and recommendations they may have, and thus ask you all to do your best to answer their questions. Now, given our guests’ time constraints, I think we should cut to the chase and—”

“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” Blue says. “But I’d like to note that Glen should be here too. He’s been working as hard as I have on these scenarios, and he deserves recognition for it as well.”

Surge’s brow furrows, but he nods. “Consider it noted. I would ask for him to join us, but…” He turns to Mr. Iha, who is checking his watch with a mild frown.

“He has an abra set for the gym,” Blue presses. “It wouldn’t take more than maybe five minutes for him to arrive.”

“Are you requesting his presence for his sake?” Mrs. Khatri asks, gaze meeting Blue’s. “Or does he have knowledge you lack?”

Blue feels his neck flush, and struggles to keep his expression passive and pleasant as he tries to think of a way to avoid sounding ignorant while still getting Glen here. “I can answer any questions you might have, but Glen suggested many of the ideas and was part of the planning. I thought having him here to explain his own thoughts, or his side of any disagreements, might give the fullest picture.”

Mr. Iha is the one that responds with a shake of his head. “Such information sounds more relevant to how the gym may decide to adopt and implement these scenarios, and not our interests at this time. We shall make do with what we have.”

“Will it satisfy you if he’s invited to future meetings on this topic, and I commend him when I next see him?” Surge asks Blue.

Future meetings is rather encouraging, though Blue would have preferred the extra support of having Glen in the room. Still, he can accept the bone Surge is throwing him. “Yes, Sir.”

“Good. On to the scenarios themselves, then.” Surge leans back in his chair and opens a palm to the League officials.

Mr. Iha is the first to speak. “We all watched the battle that the media broadcast tonight, but some elements to the scenario, or previous ones, are not made clear by observation. What were the rules and balance priorities?”

Blue settles back in his own chair and runs over his thoughts once again. This part he’s long been prepared for. “I think some context is necessary. Our first step when we started this over a month ago was to form teams by average experience and skill, followed by consideration of their available pokemon, since pokemon are the most variable; if we need to tweak a team into better balance, making them use some of their weaker or stronger pokemon is an easy way to adjust things. Before even working on any scenarios, we spent a few days doing practice battles, first in twos, then threes, then fours, and so on, to ensure we had a good understanding of each trainer’s capabilities and their synergy in working together.”

“Can you explain what you mean by synergy?” Aigerim asks. Blue hadn’t expected a question from anyone besides the league officials, let alone her, but neither seems to object to it.

“Sure. Most trainers, no matter how good, have certain things they’re particularly skilled at.” Blue thinks of Elaine’s comparison to game characters, but decides not to bring up that frame. “For some it’s their battle command system, for others it’s their moment to moment tactics and reaction time, for others it’s their overall strategy, or their ability to adapt to the unpredictable, or how well trained their pokemon are, or a dozen other things. Get someone with good tactics and another with good strategy together, and they can pull off some great things. Two trainers who are really unpredictable could get in each other’s way, and often do, but if they’re matched with others who think along the same lines their improvisation looks almost coordinated.” Blue shrugs. “It’s hard to tell ahead of time, but you can really see it when you watch people battle together often enough.”

Aigerim nods without following up with any more questions. He wonders if she was genuinely curious about what he meant, or just checking to see if his experience and perception of it matched hers.

“Is that also when you started setting different rules for both sides, or did that come after?” Mr. Iha asks, getting things back on track.

“After,” Blue says. “At first we tried keeping things as even as possible on both sides, but they just felt like six on six battles where the objective didn’t really matter until most of the trainers were out of pokemon anyway. Glen also brought up the idea of making the battles more reflective of actual incidents by changing how much coordination the team representing the wild pokemon in the scenario are allowed, which we tried and found really fun—”

“Fun?” Mrs. Khatri interrupts, brow raised. “Was that an important metric in your design philosophy?”

Blue frowns for just a moment before clearing his expression. He was waiting for her to speak out, he’s more frustrated with himself for his choice of words. “I didn’t mean it was just fun. It added another layer to the planning and fighting that we weren’t used to, helped us grow stronger.”

“Restrictions often force people to become creative,” Sabra asserts with a nod. “But wouldn’t this also restrict the ability of both teams to work together? Even swapping positions, only one team would ever get the full benefit of the exercise.”

Blue shrugs. “Even if we assume only one side is having some interesting restriction, which I don’t think was true in today’s scenario for example, in the end it’s a tradeoff. We decided that making the scenarios more realistic is way more valuable than just deciding who the best combination of six trainers are. It’s not like we’re preparing to hunt teams of renegades or something.”

Surge seems to have something to say to that, but restrains himself as Mr. Iha says, “Let’s speak more about today’s match. What do you think could have improved it?”

Blue’s mind races as he tries one last time to find something. He expected a question like this, and spent most of the trip here trying to figure out what he could say.

The problem is he can’t think of anything. Unlike the first few engagements, the setup seems to reflect a realistic incident, or part of one. The teams, and more importantly the rules applied to both, seemed balanced enough that either side could reasonably have won, though it would take a few more tests to make sure.

Damn it, why couldn’t Surge have done this after one of the other matches, when he could have listed specific mistakes and described how he planned to correct them? Instead he’s going to end up sounding overconfident…

But no, there’s also a value in trusting his own assessment and standing firmly behind it. Surge may have spotted things he would change out of preference, or different priorities than what Blue has been considering. The only thing to do is show his trust in the work they’ve done.

“I think it was solid,” Blue says at last. “More features could be added, though we’ll run it another time or two to make sure of what we’ve got so far. But at its core… I know this sounds self-serving, but I would respect anyone who was able to win a badge from this kind of match if it were held against Leader Surge and his own team of trainers.”

Sabra smiles as Surge raises a brow, but Mr. Iha is frowning. “I believe we’ve reached a point of disagreement. Each individual, you say, including trainers who just fought what was essentially a normal trainer battle? Perhaps the defenders would deserve a badge, as they had to make do with half as many pokemon, but if the offense won, you would award a badge to someone that had such an advantage?”

“I would,” Blue says, trying to keep his tone mild despite the anger stirring in his chest. “Because clearly it wasn’t as big an advantage as you’re implying. Or do you think my trainers were just that incompetent?”

Woops. That last word was a bit transparent. He keeps his gaze on Mr. Iha as he sees Surge steeple his hands under his chin in his periphery. The league official’s lips thin, and Blue tries to think of a politically safe response if he actually says yes.

Sabra saves him by speaking up. “We haven’t decided yet how we might run these scenarios; we may always take the role of the ‘attackers,’ for example. And remember that even the attackers in this battle had opponents that were able to swap pokemon while they were not, until the end.”

“My point was not that they are not capable,” Mr. Iha says, which is probably the closest thing to an apology that Blue will get. “The true issue is whether that capability is demonstrated through the matches. As you say, the attackers were unable to change their pokemon, but that is exactly the sort of skill that is crucial for a trainer.”

“Yeah, it is,” Blue concedes. “But there are seven other badges that trainers can use to demonstrate that particular skill in. This was one potential scenario for one badge. I don’t think the league is lowering its bar by having it focus on other skills.”

“One badge, for now,” Mrs. Khatri says, turning everyone’s attention to her. “But our job entails taking the wider view, and the longer one. If other gyms decide to implement similar systems, perhaps that would not be so bad. But say the second or third such breaks from tradition are each a little broader than this one, and the fourth gym decides to hand badges out by, say, acts of extreme service to the community, or non-battle training skill, or the fulfillment of the leader’s personally prized virtue. Commendable as those things may be, they are not what the pokemon leagues are designed for. Indigo is one of the most well respected in the world, our champions recognized across the globe for their battle skills. Disagreements about what makes someone worthy of a badge can very well make it harder to avoid conflict between gyms, or between gyms and the league, or between our league and foreign ones.”

The room is quiet for a moment. This was not one of the ideas Blue had prepared for. At worst he imagined facing arguments for tradition for its own sake… and the problem is he actually agrees with her, to an extent. He doesn’t want badges to become seen as meaningless, and he particularly doesn’t want the Indigo League to lose prestige… especially considering he plans to be leading it as soon as he can.

The silence builds, and Blue realizes he has to say something… and if he can’t rely on preparation, he has to at least speak from his heart. “I wish I could dismiss your concerns, but unfortunately I think you’re right to have them. My only response is that I trust our region, from the trainers to the leaders to the league officials such as yourselves, to ensure that doesn’t happen… and in the meantime, we should act to improve where and when we can, even if it requires fundamental change. I think these scenarios make my peers and myself better trainers, and I think this gym will better serve its trainers and its city by officially adopting them.” He sees Mr. Iha about to speak, and predicts the response. “For awarding gym badges, in particular. Training people with them is good, but it’s not enough. As long as the Mastery Challenge is a one-on-one standard trainer match, that’s what most who come here will focus on.”

“Well said,” Surge puts in, speaking for the first time since the beginning. He turns to the two league officials. “I understand your concerns, and appreciate your time in discussing this with us. You can rest assured that I do not intend to have my gym’s prestige deteriorate by any means.”

Mr. Iha looks like he wants to say something to that, then checks his watch. Mrs. Khatri gets to her feet and bows her head, and after a moment he does the same, followed by the rest of them. “Thank you for the discussion, everyone. Leader, please keep us abreast of any decisions you make on this.”

“I will.” Surge waits until they leave, then turns to Blue as he sits back down, prompting the others to take their seats again too. “Well… that didn’t go so badly.”

Blue smiles, both in relief and at the idea of Surge worrying about that too. “Seems more true now that you said it than a moment ago. Were you worried I wouldn’t be able to explain things, or that they would be more resistant?”

“Some of both,” Sabra says. “And you kept your temper better than I expected.” Aigerim nods.

He blinks. “Was that something you were worried about?”

“A little. Heard you could be hot headed, when someone gave you cause to be.”

“That’s…” He catches himself as he notices the trap, and the way he feels heat moving through him again. Where did she hear that? Not from his trainers, surely?

Maybe from people who were at the hospital that day.

The anger rises further, mixed with a confusing and painful mess of emotions, and he takes a moment to push them down. It doesn’t have to have been the hospital. Maybe they heard about what happened with the rangers leading the absol hunt. Or one of a dozen other times he got pissed at someone in public. “…probably fair,” he admits, though part of him (a big, four legged, fire breathing part) continues to insist otherwise. “I’m working on it.”

“Evidently,” Surge says, fingers tapping the table as he studies Blue. “If we are to try this experiment, and you end up getting your badge, would you leave the gym to pursue your journey?”

Blue is quiet a moment, not because he needs the time to consider his response; it’s one of the questions he predicted he would be asked weeks ago, and has already searched both his feelings on the issue and what he imagines the Leader would want to hear most so he could give a response that best satisfies both. He hesitates before answering, however, because he knows that responding too quickly would make his answer seem less credible and thought out. Or maybe it would make it seem more earnest and true, but if Surge is worried about him outright lying then he has bigger concerns.

“I would make sure all my people get theirs too,” Blue says. “Not just those that will be continuing their journey with me, but also the ones that I’ve trained with, whether they want to stay or not, and whether the format lets us earn them six at a time, or by groups of four, or three, or whatever. And then, once everyone has made it through, yes, I would continue my ambition of challenging the rest of the league.”

“I see. Regrettable, but I understand… just as I hope you’ll understand, then, when I say that you won’t be looped into our discussions about the scenarios we construct.”

Blue blinks. “What do you… why not?”

It’s a stupid question, but Surge is already answering. “You’ll be the first opponent, of course, you and however many others are involved in the scenario. We’ll continue discussing the ones you engage in and how you construct them, but the ones we make will have to be kept close to the vest to avoid any unfair advantage. And afterward…”

Afterward Blue would be gone. He wouldn’t ever actually help construct the scenarios with the gym, wouldn’t actually be part of the process of turning it into an official league activity.

Oh, people will remember that it was his idea, of course, and will remember that he was practicing it with his friends for a while. But it’s not the same, for all they might know the gym would have been working on it from the start, and his own practice was just to prepare.

The anger comes, then, but he’s too pragmatic for it to do much but make him look down, hands clenching his knees.

“I’m sorry. I know—”

“No,” Blue says. “I get it. It’s my choice, to leave after. I can change my mind, if I really want to.” He sighs, looks up. “One last question of my own? The media will be waiting outside. What can I tell them?”

Leader Surge spreads his hands. “Whatever you want, as long as it’s true. The goal is not to take your due credit from you.”

Blue nods, then rises to his feet and briefly bows. “Thank you, Leader.” He nods to the Second and Third, who nod back.

“Thank you, Mr. Oak. Dismissed.”


By the end of the second month anniversary of the Zapdos attack, Vermilion City has largely recovered… visually, at least. All the broken windows have been replaced, and most of the stores are unshuttered and back in business. The main exception are the dozen cranes that still dot the cityscape where the burnt buildings are being repaired. His gaze stays on them as he mounts Daisy’s swellow and they take off, circling the city once to gain altitude and then flying due west.

It’s been over a week since the meeting, and things have continued more or less as usual, with a couple exceptions: first, he and Glen go to speak with Sabra and Aigerim after each match, sometimes with Surge present, and second, Blue spent more time at the gym on Sabra’s orders, dropping his visits with Gramps in order to fulfill his duties in training with and teaching more than just the group he’s been doing scenarios with.

Now that he knows his time at Vermilion is starting to come to a close, his time at the gym and among the city streets make him realize how much he’s going to miss it all. But as the city falls away behind them, land swiftly replaced by water, Blue feels something loosen in him too. Vermilion holds bad memories as well as good, memories with weight, and his time at the gym reminded him of those too. Aiko is part of it all, in the gym’s central yard, and its training rooms, and its dining hall, memories of her hidden in every nook and cranny, ready to pop out without warning, and in those moments he always felt renewed grief, and anger at Red not just for his decision, but for running away afterward.

Not that Blue is one to talk. He can recognize that he’s avoided facing them himself, now that he’s doing so again little by little, thanks to Sabra. He wonders if she noticed, and occasionally thought of asking her, but he’s still not sure if he’s ready for whatever conversation that might lead to. For now he’s just focused on getting through it all a day at a time, though he has been reaching out to Leaf more often. Whatever painful memories he’s facing, he knows that living where she is must be at least as bad.

“Awfully quiet back there, bro.” Daisy’s voice is clear in his earpiece despite the wind, and he feels her hand find his where it clutches the saddle handle for a brief squeeze. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Blue shakes himself out of his melancholy as best he can. “Sorry, just thinking about today’s scenario. What’s new and exciting with you?”

“I don’t know how exciting it is for others, but new… I’ve got Moonlight able to do five consistent Metronomes now, none too impressive. Decided to try teaching a snorlax to swim—stop laughing, do you have any idea how much air they can hold?—hmm, what else… broke up with my girlfriend, found ano—”

“What!” Blue flicks her leg. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone. Who was she?”

“You don’t know her, and ‘is she’ is fine, she’s not dead,” Daisy teases, then goes silent. Blue takes a breath, and by the time he lets it out his sister’s hand is back on his. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he says, not wanting to talk about it. “So you found another already? Who is she?”

“A coordinator from Kalos. She’s only in town for a few weeks, but she bought a couple abra while here so visiting will be easy. What about you, drawing any puppy-love eyes from all those trainers you’re working with?”

Blue thinks of Elaine’s kiss, and after a moment just says, “Nah.”

Daisy is quiet a moment, and eventually sighs. “I’m sorry, again. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear, I’m just an idiot.”

“Huh?” Blue realizes he was quiet for too long, and she must have thought she upset him. He replays what she said and can’t find any reference to Aiko. “Why?”

“I didn’t remind you of Red?”

Oh. The abra thing. “No,” he says, voice flat.

“Ah. Okay.”

She doesn’t believe him. Blue considers telling her he was too busy thinking of Elaine to think of Red, then rejects that idea and just pokes her in the ribs through her thick jacket. “Seriously.”

“I believe you.”

Blue rolls his eyes and lets it go, glad she’s not nudging him to make up with Red again, at least. He spends the next few minutes looking out over the ocean as the setting sun sends ripples of light across its waves. The rocking from her swellow’s wing movements make it hard to take pictures unless he times it with a glide, but he didn’t bring a wrist strap and doesn’t want to risk dropping his phone. Though come to think of it, her pokemon could probably catch it if he does…

He’s just about to ask what she thinks when Daisy speaks first. “Blue, can you promise me something?”

“Depends what it is,” he says, already wary.

“Just… let him have tonight? Don’t bring up what he did. I get it, I do, but—”

“You don’t get it,” he says, anger bursting up in a scalding wave. “It wasn’t you he came for.”

She’s quiet for a minute, then says, “You’re such an idiot sometimes, you know that? You think he never did that for me?”

“It’s different. It wasn’t killing him then.” The words churn acid in his stomach, the very act of saying them out loud makes them more real.

“And it wouldn’t be killing him now if he hadn’t then. You’re just intent on protecting him, and I get why, but all he was doing was the same thing you asked Red to—”

Blue reaches up and switches off his earpiece, face a mask as he presses his forehead against her back none too gently and closes his eyes. He’s already tried explaining to her the difference between what Gramps did and what Red didn’t do. And she wasn’t there, after, didn’t hear the way he was justifying it. Blue’s not in the mood to hash over it all again.

Daisy pats his hand, then squeezes it, then pinches it. He pinches back, hard, and she leaves him alone after that. He told his gym leadership that he was working on his anger, and that includes against annoying older siblings. All things considered, he thinks he’s handling things rather well.

A couple hours later they’re home, which is already full of neighbors, friends, and researchers from the lab, all happy to toast to the Professor’s health. The place feels so strange, after so long away, and not just because it’s decorated for the celebration and crowded. Blue plays the part of the cheerful grandson, but in truth he feels a fraud; all these people so happy to see Gramps healthy again would look at Blue with considerably less friendliness if he hadn’t made it through the storm.

His grandfather does seem his old self, at least, holding court with his stories, arguing in high spirits with Uncle Samson, laughing uproariously at the pictures his coworkers took depicting how they taped pictures of his face onto a series of mannequins and set them up around the office, each with various speech bubbles relaying his most common phrases or admonishments.

There are two big cakes, one with a standard “Welcome back!” written over it with all his employees’ signatures in icing over the surface, and a second that gets delivered in the middle of the party. Its surface is covered in a custom depiction of the professor, Blue, and Daisy standing side by side with two steelix between them. This is only discernible from context, as the art isn’t particularly good, but that’s understandable considering it’s done in frosting and was made by two of the children that had been evacuated from the arena that night. Daisy reads the letter that comes with it aloud, which makes numerous people teary eyed, and results in applause that cause the Professor to wipe at his eyes and excuse himself briefly. Blue has to struggle to accept his portion of the praise with a smile, all the while thinking of Aiko, and how few people will ever know how she did something far braver than him, and didn’t survive for her own cake or applause.

Once that’s over Blue takes the opportunity to locate his grandfather’s doctor (who has had a few drinks by this point) and pull him aside to ask him straight how bad it would be if Gramps is exposed to Pressure again. The older man gives a despairing sort of shrug, as if knowing that they aren’t speaking about an unlikely hypothetical. “Your grandfather is rather unique in the combination of the age he’s reached and the amount of Pressure exposure he’s had. It’s hard to tell how much of the harm is caused from the initial exposure opposed to the duration, but on the optimistic side? Another hour could take three months to recover from. On the not so optimistic side, he could be down for a year.” Seeing Blue’s horrified expression, the doctor nods. “On top of that, your sister said he passed out within forty minutes of first feeling the Pressure. The medication is getting less effective, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasts half as long next time.”

Blue eventually finds himself on a couch in the corner of the living room, staring into his soda as the conversation ebbs and flows around him, lost in thoughts of the future. Despite what Daisy said, once everyone leaves he’s going to need to talk to Gramps about what happened again. Every time he visited over the past two months, watching the Professor steadily recover his health, it had been to talk about other things, the older man firmly guiding conversations away from anything serious unless they were related to Blue’s goals. Now they would have to finish the talk they had that first morning after the storm.

Daisy kicks his foot as she walks by, and he looks up to see her giving him a curious look. He shakes his head, and she frowns but doesn’t pry. “Raymond is here, you know. Think he wanted to talk to you at some point.”

Blue smiles despite his mood. Ray is one of the two trainers who set off with Daisy from Pallet Town during her own Journey. The other, Clara, died a few years ago, and the two have remained close, which means he used to come by often to visit both his old professor and Daisy. He spent a lot of time coaching Blue’s pokeball throwing… though those memories are a bit ruined by Red being there too.

It’s the first time since his own journey that they’ve spoken, and Blue actually enjoys himself for a while as he talks about his adventures. He should have suspected what was coming, and when Ray starts talking about Clara and how hard it was for them to lose her, Blue feels a sudden sense of betrayal that he has to force down for long enough to make the appropriate social responses, including promising to call Ray if he ever wants someone to talk to about Aiko. Afterward he excuses himself to lie in his room for a while, feeling the anger at Daisy pace around in his chest and send ripples of heat through him until he realizes she may not have pushed Raymond to say all that, and it finally fades to a dull and painful ache.

Guests start to trickle out after midnight, the remaining ones helping clean up as the party begins to wind down. Blue is shoo’d away from helping wash dishes by one of his neighbors, and wanders the house looking for something useful to do, only to fail utterly and end up listlessly picking up half full plastic cups and dirty plates from all sorts of unlikely places around the house.

When the last guest has finally left, Blue heads to his grandfather’s office, expecting him to already be catching up on the work he wasn’t able to do from the hospital. Instead he sounds like he’s speaking with someone, and when Blue hears who it is a mix of emotions he can’t quite place run through him.

“…would have just made things awkward,” Red says, and it takes a moment to recognize the voice is coming from his grandfather’s computer, rather than Red having arrived at some point while Blue was busy.

“Nonsense, you’re always welcome here. This thing with Blue will pass as soon as you both speak to each other more.”

Red is silent, and Blue feels a moment of unwanted kinship with his old journeymate. Gramps doesn’t understand; as long as neither of them have changed their minds, speaking to each other could only make things worse. “Anyway, I should get back to it,” Red says. “Just wanted to say I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I appreciate it, and the call. What are you working on now, anyway? I noticed you registering a number of psychic pokemon lately, “

“Oh, yeah, it’s a new project by Sabrina. I’m, uh, not supposed to talk about it yet, but I’ll share more when I can; it’s pretty exciting, actually.”

Professor Oak tsks. “You’re not making me less curious, you know. I may just ask around and see what I can learn on my own.”

“Hey, yeah you should do that, maybe you’ll find out more than me!”

Gramps chuckles. “Goodnight, Red.”

“Goodnight, Professor.”

Blue waits a full minute, both to disguise the fact that he was listening and to let his emotions settle down. Eventually he knocks on the door. “Come in,” Gramps says, and Blue enters, aiming straight for one of the comfy chairs that make up the Professor’s home office. “Not tired yet?”

“Nah. Could say the same for you, though. Shouldn’t you still be getting lots of rest?”

“Just after this email,” his grandfather promises, tapping away at his keyboard with his eyes on the screen. “Did you hear about the wingsuit prototype, using the flying particles?”

“Yeah, Bernard told me about it after dinner.” Blue examines his grandfather in the bright office light, the lines on that familiar face, and the hair that seems more salt than pepper every time he sees him. A terrible love seizes his heart and squeezes, and he has to blink rapidly and clear his throat before asking, “Enjoy the party?”

“Very much. It was nice to have an excuse to see everyone again.” The professor taps a few more times, then clicks, then reaches up and turns off his monitor before standing to tidy up some things. “So what do you want to talk about, Blue?”

He smiles slightly. “What, a doting grandson can’t just come to spend time with his grandfather?”

Gramps laughs. “Alright, fair enough. But if you don’t bring up something to talk about soon, I warn you I will, and then you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.”

“Empty threat. You’ve already nearly talked yourself hoarse tonight, start yapping away any more and you’ll lose it completely.”

“Hmm. Nothing a squeeze of potion wouldn’t fix.”

“Yuck.” Blue takes a breath, then lets it out. “Gramps, I…”

“I know, Blue.”

He closes his eyes. “You don’t. I’m trying to say something new.”

Professor Oak stops, then comes to sit in the chair next to him. “I’m sorry, Blue. I’m listening.”

“Gramps, I can’t… I can’t do this again. I can’t go into another storm, not until I know you feel confident enough in me not to come too. I know it will get in the way of my ambitions, but I need you to know, so you don’t come anyway.”

The professor watches him with a slightly furrowed brow. “Alright,” he says slowly. “If that’s what you want, I understand, of course… and I’ll trust you. But… is it what you want, Blue? What about your promise?”

Blue’s eyes widen. “What… are you talking about?” he asks, trying far too late to look puzzled. Did Red tell him? That fucking coward—

“You don’t remember?” Gramps asks, seeming genuinely surprised.

“Remember what?”

“Well, maybe it’s better not to tell you, then…”

“Gramps, remember what?”

His grandfather sighs. “Right, I suppose it’s a bit late for that.” He shifts in his seat to more fully face Blue, expression grave but tranquil. “How much do you remember of that time, after your parents died?”

Blue shrugs, gaze down. “Bits and pieces. Sadness. How unfair it all was. Feeling lost. Being… angry. A lot of that.”

“I suppose that makes sense, though you showed very little of it. Very little of anything, in fact… except the anger. After your parents died, you were… inconsolable isn’t the right word. It wasn’t like Red after Tom was killed, you kept on going about your life as if it was mostly normal. You cried, yes, but mostly you were angry, as you say.”

“Sure, I remember all that.” Not that he particularly wants to. “And?”

Professor Oak sighs again, clasping his hands over his knee and looking suddenly older as he stares into his lap. “It was maybe a week after it happened, you’d just started therapy and had spent the night at Red’s… Tom and Laura were downstairs talking to me after they dropped you off, and Red spent some time with you upstairs while we talked about how you were doing. I remember Laura being worried about you when I expressed my own concerns, mostly because we didn’t know why you weren’t expressing more sadness. After Red came down and everyone left… it was late, so I thought you were sleeping… I didn’t mean to pry, but when I walked by your bedroom toward mine, I heard you talking. I thought you were on the phone with Red or Daisy, but it wasn’t a conversation. Or at least not that kind.” His grandfather’s eyes are so sad Blue can barely look at them. “You were making a promise to your parents.”

Blue just stares at him. He can’t remember this at all; the earliest he can recall putting the thoughts into words, into saying them out loud, was to Red after his dad died…

“You don’t remember?”

“No,” Blue says, blinking. “But… I was thinking about it then, I know that. And I did make that promise again, later.”

Gramps nods. “Well, I knew, then, that when you got older you would try. That you would throw yourself into the teeth of the world, to get as strong as possible, to take them down. When you finally told me about your ambition, I was relieved. I knew you wouldn’t try to do it alone, to hide it and pretend to just be after a normal championship. That’s what I was most afraid of… well, I was still a little afraid of it after, if I’m being honest. That if I tried to keep you home longer, to wait until you were older, you would just grab a pokemon and go. But that night… that was when I stopped responding to incidents that would expose me to Pressure. It was already starting to debilitate me, and I knew I had to preserve as much time with it as I could for Daisy, and then for you.”

The words his chest like stones. Blue reaches out and takes his grandfather’s hand, jaw working as he breathes in and out. “I used to think you were a coward,” he whispers, not looking at his grandfather. “When I was younger, I thought… thought you should go after them. Capture them. Kill them.” He looks up, hand squeezing. “I didn’t think that for long, I understood after Moltres hit Viridian.”

His grandfather smiles and raises Blue’s hand for a kiss, then clasps both hands around his. “I told you all this just to make sure you understand… there’s nothing you did that made me choose what I did rashly. I was prepared for this for years. If you decide to give up that promise, which I know must mean a lot to you… I don’t regret being the cause of that, exactly. You are too young, particularly if you want to be more than a cog in the machine. But I want to make sure you’re doing it for reasons you can respect yourself for, and not out of some form of coercion that concern for me has forced onto you.”

Blue swallows the lump in his throat, trying to think through the confusion he feels. “I… I don’t know what to think, Gramps. Part of me knows it was a childish commitment, totally naïve about what exactly it would mean, not just in the moment but for my other promise, my real goal of taking them down. I know I shouldn’t hold myself to something just because I said it when I was younger, no matter how much I meant it.” Red has said a lot on that topic, Blue can almost hear his voice before dismissing the apparition with a rush of words. “I don’t know how I’ll actually act the next time I have an opportunity to face them, maybe I’ll be able to resist and maybe not, but… whatever I choose, I don’t think I’ll do it just because of the promise.”

Gramps watches him a moment, then slowly nods. “I understand. And… I said I would trust you, but to be clear, you’re not just saying this because you want to keep me from assuming you’re there next time and going?”

“I thought about it,” Blue says, and shakes his head. “But no, this is me.” He’s not sure if that would actually be true, if Gramps hadn’t told him that story about himself, hadn’t helped him realize just how far back the (objectively) ridiculous promise went. It’s one thing to commit himself to what others think is impossible, and he’s still sure that capturing or killing the Stormbringers is the most important thing, the only really important thing, he can do… but he won’t live to do it if he rolls the dice every time they hit a town or city meanwhile.

“Well, then.” His grandfather squeezes his hand again, long and hard. “I know I say this a lot, but… I’m very proud of you, Blue. I always have been, and decisions like this are why.”

Blue nods, bites his lip. “I think they’re going to take the scenarios from me.”

Gramps raises a brow, and bless him, doesn’t miss a beat. “Don’t they have to, eventually?”

“Yeah, but once they do, it’ll be out of my hands. It’s mine, mine and Glen’s, and then…”

“I understand. But you have higher heights to climb, and a pain like this will be necessary, time and again. It’s good practice, for when you’ll be giving up something quite a bit more dear to you for your true goal.”

Blue nods, and his thoughts sway back again as his eyes suddenly burn. “Do you think they… ” His words fade with his breath, and he swallows hard as the true, deep fear comes boiling out. “Mom and Dad, would they be… mad at me, for breaking my…?”

He barely gets the last word out before his grandfather has pulled him into a tight hug, and he clings to him until all his tears are gone.


The next day, as he’s on his way back to Vermilion City, Sabra sends him a message: they would no longer discuss his practice scenarios afterward, and the first group badge challenge would be in a week.

A followup message simply states that the battleground would be within the city.

Chapter 69: Missions

When Red teleports to the Sakai Ranch, the sun is approaching its zenith, and he takes a moment to enjoy its warmth on his skin. He’s not sure he’ll ever consider himself an “outdoorsy person,” but since moving to Saffron he’s come to appreciate being outdoors more than he can ever remember being before. He knows getting more sun sometimes helps with depression, but by the time he’s back to being Past Red it’s usually evening. In the week since he saw Dr. Seward, he has yet to make any meaningful progress with his other self… mostly because he hasn’t really tried.

Red finally feels like his skin has absorbed enough of the sun’s warmth and makes his way toward the ranch house, spotting Mr. Sakai as he emerges. “Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Red. So good of you to visit. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The rancher starts walking along the hexagonal perimeter of the nearby caterpie pen without waiting for an answer, throwing food into it from one of the sacks hanging at his waist. Red watches him go, conflicted emotions churning through him, then heads inside to get his own bags.

With Leaf living on the ranch and the RAWP therapy group coming by every few days, it rarely needs extra help. But Red still comes once in a while. Partly to help Leaf and Mr. Sakai, partly as an ongoing tribute to Aiko, a more practical equivalent to putting flowers on her grave. Even with his partition up, he still gets a little teary as he straps the feed bags around his waist, thinking of that first day they arrived here together. How nervous she was. How hopeful.

The sound of footsteps descending the stairs makes him quickly wipe his eyes before he turns.

Leaf is as pretty as ever in a plain shirt and jeans, her waist conspicuously absent of a pokebelt. He wonders if she feels strange without it. She smiles upon seeing Red, and he smiles back. Maybe there’s a part of him with selfish motive for coming too.

“Hey Red! I thought you couldn’t get a free afternoon this week?” she asks as Raff and Joy gambol down the stairs after her. Raff has gotten big, practically filling the stairway, and Red is happy to see Joy bouncing happily around the room without issue, apparently having finally gotten used to having just one eye.

“Saw my therapist last week, decided to shift some stuff around. How’s it going with you?”

She lifts a hand and rocks it side to side as she sits beside the door and starts pulling her shoes on. “The bad days are pretty bad, but they’re getting outnumbered little by little.” She finishes tying one set of laces, and he watches her brush her hair off her shoulder before she starts the second. “How’s The List? Cross anything off yet?”

On his first week in Saffron City, Red wrote up a list of the things he wanted to accomplish from his time with Sabrina, after which he would re-evaluate whether it was time to move on and do something else:

Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.

Develop ability to meld with pokemon enough to freely teleport with abra.

Learn telekinesis (or at least try everything advised before giving up)

Find an aspect of psychic phenomena confusing enough for major experiment.

It was tempting to keep adding more, and he had to remind himself multiple times that it wasn’t a list of all the things he wants to master about his powers, just what could reasonably be expected to be done in a few years and would make the most out of having such exclusive tutelage.

“Making progress. Particularly thanks to Aiko’s drowzee.”

It was a shock when Leaf called a couple weeks ago to explain that Aiko registered a will just a few days before Zapdos hit Vermilion, a coincidence that had his thoughts turn briefly superstitious before sanity reasserted itself. It was a short document, the gist of which was that Leaf got first pick of her pokemon, with the exception of any that would help with Red’s research, and Blue would have whatever was left.

It was simple, but made sense. Aiko didn’t know when she would need her will to be executed, what pokemon she might still have, and which of the other three might even still be alive. In essence she just placed her trust in the trio to get along and work out something fair, with just a few suggestions to make it clear that she was thinking of them.

The one exception was her eevee, who specifically went to Blue, then Leaf, then Red. The reason why was obvious, but it still hurt a little, considering he was the one who diagnosed Eevee so she could be healthy. Still, since his first thought was what a waste it would be to train the shiny eevee rather than trade it for far more powerful pokemon, Red can’t even say she chose wrong. He wondered if Leaf felt the same, but didn’t ask.

The only pokemon he’d taken for his research was her venonat, one of the magnemite she caught the night of the storm, and a drowzee from the same.

“Drowzee? Why?” Leaf asks as she straps on her own feed bags and heads outside. “Does it have a particularly large nose?”

Red smiles and follows her, summoning Pikachu and Nidoran from their balls. He’d bring Charmeleon out too, but with all these wooden pens around he doesn’t want to constantly be watching in case his pokemon’s tail bobs too close to one. “You know, I haven’t checked. But no, it’s… well, since two of my goals, maybe three, can be developed by getting better at melding with psychic pokemon, I’ve been spending most of my free time at the gym.”

“Well, that’s just ironic.” Leaf and Red split up to walk along the opposite side of a path with pens on either side for them to feed. She carefully measures food out for each pokemon while he uses his powers to sense how hungry each one is. “I don’t know if Blue would be happy or pissed,” Leaf says as she throws food in different directions for a group of rattata, making the whole pen run after each piece until all but two are busy nibbling. She has to tell them “Eat!” before they accept the food.

“Not for battling,” Red explains, ignoring the usual attempt to get him to talk about or to Blue.

Yeah, because that’s healthy.

Shut up, your idea of healthy is moping around all day.

“For what, then?”

“Being linked with pokemon as they use their abilities and practice maneuvers teaches me a lot more than sitting in my room with them.”

“But isn’t that what you did with your abra?”

“Yeah.” Red grimaces. “And as it turns out, abra are pretty boring.”

Leaf giggles. “I guess they do just sort of sit there. Or float, sometimes. They’re not social creatures, so I guess their inner world is just, what, looking for threats?”

Red nods. “And their next meal. Pikachu and Charmeleon are both constantly aware of their surroundings too, but they don’t automatically categorize everything as either a threat or food. There’s enough… confidence, in their ability to defend themselves, and enough expectation of safety, that there’s room for other things, like play.”

“But abra don’t really have a concept of ‘safe.'”

“Not naturally, no. I read that the pokeball simulations took a lot of work in the early days to repress their urge to teleport away all the time, and without that hypervigilance, there’s very little left of their minute to minute experience that’s particularly interesting.” Red shrugs. “So once I got used to their ridiculous hearing and having a tail, there wasn’t much to do other than spend the time strengthening the bond, which went slowly.” He frowns at her. “What?”

She’s giggling again. “Sorry, I just pictured you with a tail. What about telekinesis?”

He sighs and throws a handful of nuts and berries at a pair of maimed nidoran, one that’s missing a back leg, the other a front one. “Eat! Tried it. I could feel them doing something as they moved stuff around, but I can’t seem to activate the same part of my brain. Maybe because their brain structure is too different, or maybe because my telekinesis is just too weak.”

“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”

“Right. It’s only been a couple days, but I already feel more in tune with her than either of my abra. She pays a lot more attention to the nuance of others’ mental states, rather than just scanning for friend or foe.”

Leaf is quiet a moment as she moves on to the next pen. “Makes sense. I read up on them, and despite looking so goofy, they’re predators. They hunt in packs to overwhelm enemies that are wide awake, but for a single one it’s unreliable. So they probably need to be able to check how sleepy their opponents are.”

“Exactly. Since I noticed that, I’ve practiced paying attention to the same things in my own reading of others.” He casually tosses another handful of food out and orders the pokemon to eat it too. “So. Long night?”

“Red!” He feels a berry bounce off the back of his head, and turns with a grin to see Leaf glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t!”

“Just a guess, promise!”

Her glare fades to suspicion. “Okay. Sorry I threw the berry at you even though you sort of deserved it.” She smiles as she sees Pikachu sniffing at it.

“You’re forgiven. Pikachu, eat.” His pokemon electrifies the berry with a crackling sound until it’s steaming, then eats it in a quick gulp. “So what kept you up? The usual secretive project?”

“Yes,” she says as she moves to the next pen and scoops seeds over it for the three flightless pidgey hopping around in it. “Oh, also a Tier 1 went off nearby just after midnight.”

Red stops and turns to her, eyes wide. “What? I didn’t hear about that! Were you involved in any of the fighting?”

“No, by the time I was dressed and halfway there, it was already over. Guess it didn’t make major news.”

“Ah.” Red turns back to his work, wondering if she considered calling him to come help. Wondering if she didn’t because of Aiko.

Of course she doesn’t trust us. It’s only natural for her to-

“Speaking of my secret project,” Leaf says. “I want to talk to you about it.”

Or not.

“Really? That’s great! What’s changed?”

“I may need your help. I’ll tell you more after lunch. How are you and Laura getting along?”

He sighs. “Still encouraging me to talk to Blue. Don’t you start, too.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She’s quiet for a moment. “So, not well?”

“It’s not… terrible.” They did a lot of talking after the storm, once she got over her shock that he purposefully went into it, summarized what happened, and eventually described his ultimate decision.

She cried, which would have made him feel pretty wretched if she didn’t start hugging him too, which made him start crying too. She was the first person he met to wholeheartedly make him feel like she was glad he didn’t go into the building; she didn’t even bring his father up, perhaps remembering their talk after the Viridian Fire.

If they’d left it there, they might be on good terms. But then she insisted that she would talk to Blue, and he insisted that she shouldn’t, and then they had a new thing to argue about and carefully dance around. In the meantime, she’s gotten better about updating him on what she’s been working on, including catching him up on things that she was being quiet about, such as what happened to her in Celadon thanks to the kindly old President Silph, which led into her current investigations, which she still hasn’t revealed to him or Leaf, but keeps promising she will soon.

They finish feeding the pokemon while talking about why the Silph Company might have wanted to kill a Renegade on Mt. Moon, then return to the house to have lunch. The meatless spread doesn’t bother Red nearly as much as it did last time he was here, since he’s been keeping to his promise on the SS Anne with Leaf and not buying meat since he got back. It’s Mr. Sakai who has most of his attention through the meal. The older man seems more than ever like he’s just going through the motions of life, and it makes Red’s heart ache just being around him. He’s not sure how Leaf handles it day after day, but her courage gives him the strength to participate in small talk with him and act like everything is okay.

Once they’re done eating, they help him with the dishes, then Red follows Leaf into Aiko’s room, withdrawing all their pokemon except Raff and Pikachu. It’s largely the same it was a couple months ago, with just a couple changes to reflect the new inhabitants, one of which is Raff’s indoor soil to sleep on, which he goes to curl up in while Pikachu sniffs at the electronics until Red picks him up and pulls him onto his lap as he sits on the bed.

“So, what’s the big secret? What have you been working on?”

Leaf sits beside him and takes a breath as if to brace herself, then says, “The sakki program.”

Whatever Red was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You’re… did I hear you right? Sakki, as in killing intent? Not some program for Mr. Sakai?”

“Right.”

“I notice that I’m confused.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, I’m not a hallucination.”

“Then why…?”

“The Zapdos attack made me realize some things,” Leaf says gaze distant as she leans back in her chair and looks up the ceiling. “About the real scope of the problem I’ve been trying to face.”

Red slowly nods. “I’ve been reading your articles. They’re good, lots of receptive responses, particularly for the ones on that coordinator college site…”

“And lots of pushback.” She sighs. “Most of which seemed pretty intractable.”

“Stupid, too,” Red mutters, and her smile warms him. He doesn’t agree with a lot of Leaf’s positions, obviously, but he still spent more time than he probably should have trading insults with the most offensive of the poorly thought out comments on her articles. He wonders if she saw those. “But you knew you weren’t going to change the world in just a few months.”

“When Aiko and I talked about this, we spoke in years. But Red, I don’t think I can do it in a few decades. There are too many voices out there, and too many other causes, and… Every major incident is a recurring reason to keep to the status quo. Maybe I’ll eventually have enough influence to make some measurable difference, but it would be a fight of generations to really see the societal changes, and meanwhile, millions of more pokemon and humans suffer.”

Red shrugs, wanting to cheer her up but not sure how. “What else can you do? In a way I think you picked the hardest goal of all three of us. And what does any of this have to do with sakki?

She reaches into her pocket and holds a piece of pokepuff out to Pikachu’s nose. Red’s pokemon sniffs it, ears twitching, but doesn’t eat it. “He doesn’t cook pokepuffs, right?”

“Right.”

“So how long will he stay like this?”

“Haven’t checked in a while.” He counts to two minutes while Pikachu sniffs at the puff, looks away, looks back, sniffs it again… but keeps his mouth closed.

Leaf is smiling. “You trained him well. Would you mind using sakki on him, just for a moment?”

Red blinks at her, wondering what changed how scared of it she was before… then puts the pieces together.

“Killing intent” is what they called it, but only because its most obvious and immediate purpose was combat. But all it really does is give pokemon a mental state that removes restrictions of what’s “allowed.” Earlier when they were feeding the pokemon, many of them needed an explicit command to eat. Programming tech can expand the context of commands that are needed, but it can’t remove the need for them, once conditioned.

Red merges with Pikachu, acclimating to his pokemon’s mood in less than a second as his perception of the world doubles. The pokepuff smells delicious, and Red feels his own mouth watering. He starts to project the feeling of sakki, paying close attention to Pikachu’s impulses.

Once the feeling of release is complete, his pokemon darts forward to snatch the pokepuff from Leaf’s fingers. Red is already stopping the projection, and they watch as Pikachu happily chews his treat. Even without an initial command, his self-control isn’t that good that he’d stop after retroactively regaining the conditioning.

“So Aiko wanted to use a sakki program to remove the blocks from the ranch pokemon’s natural behaviors,” Red says. “Or at least the ones that haven’t been maimed, so they can be released back into the wild. But how does that help reduce wild pokemon suffering?”

Leaf just watches him, waiting with the calm patience of someone waiting for the inevitable. Whatever it is, she’s sure he’ll get it. Which reminds him to start at the basic assumptions.

There are generally just two parts to any belief someone holds: information and values. If she thinks he can figure it out on his own, she must believe that he has the information he needs to understand what her idea is based on. If that’s true, but he’s still not getting it, it’s because he’s not seeing the world enough from her perspective, through the lens of her values, to figure out what she’s thinking.

So he thinks back to those moments on the cruise, when their minds merged, and he saw the world from her perspective. Once he remembers how she feels about pokemon, and how much she values their wellbeing compared to other things he would normally rank much higher, it becomes obvious.

“You want to do it with all caught pokemon…” he says, slowly smiling as excitement grows in him. “But let them keep their non-aggression conditioning.” He has to remind himself not to get carried away before hearing more details, but… “Leaf, that’s genius.”

Leaf is grinning back, and blushing slightly. “Not genius enough. I checked online, people have occasionally brought it up as an idea, but always like a park, or your Safari Zone. I talked to Bill about it-“

Red feels a flare of envy. The inventor was upset with them for leaving the cruise, but after seeing their notes seemed mollified. Still, he hasn’t reached out to Red since, or responded to basic queries. Maybe he needs to just keep pestering the absent-minded inventor…

“-and he said that the technological barrier has two major elements. First to remove any type of conditioning we don’t want, second to maintain specific conditioning.”

“One interferes with the other,” Red guesses, stroking Pikachu’s back.

“Right. So from a programming angle, the hardest, but most direct way to do this would be to have individual programs for each pokemon to retrain them on how to live in the wild. The easiest way would be to just write a whole new and much simpler training program that only puts in restrictions on their aggressive behaviors, while keeping everything else the same… but that has additional complications.”

“Like how would it be distributed? With anti-tampering as strong as it is…”

“Right, it would mean entirely new balls specifically for this, which is economically a difficult sell.”

Red frowns, nodding. Even if existing pokeball software could be replaced, it would be a lot of work to safely wipe and download each one in a supervised environment. “Okay. So that’s a hurdle. But if people understand what it would mean…”

“I reached out to the Ranger General too. Well, to Ranger Matthew, who asked his captain, who passed it along before it came back to me. The concept itself isn’t totally strange, but using balls with a unique program for it is also a big disadvantage in the field. The ability to catch a pokemon, heal it, and use it right after without visiting a pokemon center first is often life saving.”

Red thinks of the spearow he caught on the way to Mt. Moon, then used against the paras swarm. The others probably had similar situations. “So we really do need a program to remove most conditioning, if this is going to catch on.”

“Yeah.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, displacing his hat as he considers the world she’s imagining and thinks of failure modes. “Babies?”

She shrugs. “Maintaining this would still be a fraction of current resources used for wild threats, but there are ideas to make even that easier, like adding in training that would designate breeding areas or seasons so that it’s easy to go through an area at certain times and catch babies as soon as they hatch.”

“Man, that would be… would the Rangers really be okay with something that affects wild pokemon behavior so much?”

Leaf sighs. “They would be one of the main groups needing convincing, yeah. The Ranger General said if a program like that existed, he might try picking a small and secluded area as a test zone and send a dozen ranger teams combing through it to catch every pokemon they find, recondition them to be able to live in the wild again, then keep moving on until the entire area has pokemon in it that can survive in the wild, but won’t attack humans. But they would want to wait for years afterward to make sure there’s no hidden effects on the pokemon’s life cycles or ecosystem, and he absolutely refused the idea of normal trainers getting involved.”

“I bet. There would be tons of people who’d want to help just to keep any rare pokemon they catch. But if you can develop the tech and convince governments to keep it to Rangers and maybe gyms…” He trails off, a subtle worry blooming as he finishes fully understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. The natural world of pokemon would be forever changed into something that better serves human interests. Pokemon interests too, but it’s not like there would be a way to stop human on pokemon aggression, other than laws.

Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”

“Nothing. Just… would you really be okay with it? You asked me not to use sakki anymore during the cruise, and even if that changed when we fought the magneton, this still feels like a… bigger change. If your idea works, we’d be forever altering the behavior of a significant portion of wild pokemon.” He watches her. “None of that bothers you?”

“Of course it does, Red.” She sighs. “You didn’t say it, but we also talked about mind control, and yes, to a part of me, that’s what this feels like. But what happened in Vermilion…”

Her gaze drops, and Red watches her cautiously. They’ve never talked in detail about what they went through, either alone or together. It’s easy to guess at what might have changed her mind, assuming he was there for it. The conflicted fear and sorrow that filled her voice when she told him to use sakki. The people they left behind at the burning building. The nidoqueen almost killing her…

“I can see why you became the way you are,” Leaf says. “Why everyone did. I was pretty privileged, growing up. Not just because of who mom and grandpa were, but because I was always on the move. Because I never lost anyone, the way most people did, that night.”

“Oh.” He feels like he should be objecting to “the way you are,” and he hears Past Red quietly murmuring about their decision about Aiko, but he doesn’t think that’s what she meant, and he ignores him. “I wish you still hadn’t.”

“Yeah.” Leaf looks around the room, smile watery, and takes a deep breath as she rubs her eyes, just once each. “That would have been nice.”

Red’s gaze drops, examining his hands. “I did wonder, at some point, whether you might change your mind on pokemon battling,” he says, voice quiet. “If you went through something bad enough. But it sounds like you’ve skipped ahead of the rest of us. Guess I just wanted to make sure you’re not feeling conflicted about it, or… that it’s not coming from a bad place, if that makes sense.”

“It does.” Leaf shrugs. “Humans do what we have to. I get it. But even if I grow the stomach to accept trainer battles, the real problem we all face… it’s not something that’s going to ever be solved by it. A thousand years from now, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how much society evolves, no matter how many Elite level trainers there are, even if every single legendary pokemon is caught, the wilderness will still be a hostile place, and people will still need to train pokemon to fight to defend ourselves. And that’s just…”

She lets out a breath, and shakes her head, face hard and gaze distant. “It’s unacceptable.”

Red is smiling, the iron resolve in her voice making something flutter in his chest. “Well. You don’t dream small, do you?”

Leaf’s gaze jumps to his, and she slowly grins before echoing back, “Where’s the fun in that?”

“None at all.”

“So, you’ll help?”

“Of course!”

Leaf beams at him in a way that warms him all the way to his heart, and Future Red suddenly pipes up. Hey, don’t we maybe want to talk about a commitment this big? What about all those other goals we’ve got?

We’ll figure something out. It’s the right thing to do.

And also the way she’s smiling at us feels really good.

And that, yes.

“I can already see some problems, though,” he cautions.

Leaf snorts, still smiling as she starts ticking points off with her fingers. “Poachers will be a much bigger problem if people can just stroll through any area and capture whatever they want, flying pokemon are probably never going to be fully domesticated, nor pokemon that live underground, nor water pokemon…”

“Ghosts,” Red adds, and she sticks up her pinky before raising her other hand. “And pokemon that appear by abiogenesis…”

“And this won’t help with the frontiers… yeah.” She drops her hands. “It’s not as amazing a plan as it first sounds.”

“It’s not,” Red agrees. “But it’s still amazing.” She grins at him again, and he feels his neck flush, hoping he doesn’t end up disappointing her. “What can I do, though? I’m not a programmer, or particularly influential.”

She gives him a look he can’t interpret before saying, “Well, the sakki is probably the most important thing we have to help develop the un-conditioning program. I was confused at first about how Aiko made so much progress mimicking it virtually, until I realized what must have happened.”

She’s still watching Red, as if expecting him to guess… no, as if expecting him to admit to something. “Uh. What?”

“You used sakki on one of her pokemon before she withdrew it, right? So she could analyze the changes it would have in a virtual environment?”

Red blinks. “What? No! I wouldn’t do that!”

Something shifts in her gaze, moving through doubt and into hope. “Really?”

“Yes, really! She never even asked.”

“Huh.” Leaf bites her lower lip. “Was there… any time when you used it on one of her pokemon?”

Red opens his mouth. Closes it. Shifts in his seat.

She sighs. “Red…”

“I mean, she was there when I did tests to make sure the state doesn’t persist after a pokemon comes back out, and tried maintaining it on more than one pokemon at a time… oh.”

She leans an arm on the desk and rests her chin in one hand, brow raised. He fleetingly wishes he could take a picture. “Oh?”

Red shifts again, heat creeping up his neck in embarrassment this time. “Okay, so what had happened was, the failsafe in that case was that she’d just withdraw her pokemon if she seemed worried about it. We already knew that once released the pokemon would have undergone their conditioning again and be safe, so I didn’t think of it, but… if she didn’t release and return it again after that, her ball had a record of its capture state.”

Leaf rubs her face. “And did this happen with anyone else?”

“…yes. But Aiko’s the only one that was trying to understand and replicate sakki, so I doubt any of them saved that mental state.”

“Mmhm. That sneaky, brilliant bitch.” She sighs, ignoring Red’s shocked face. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Who knows, maybe someone else will figure it out and save me the trouble.”

Red’s phone chimes, and he checks the message to see one from Sabrina. It’s requesting a meeting of all her students as soon as possible. “Damn it. I have to go sooner than I thought.”

“That’s alright. We can talk more later.” Leaf stands. “I’ll walk you out.”

They head outside, and Red goes down the porch steps while Leaf stays on it. He summons Saffron (once Cerulean, then Vermilion), wishing she would hug him goodbye. It’s something he feels she would have initiated, before. But now there’s a cautious distance in their friendship that feels fragile, and he supposes a hug might feel risky, to her. Or maybe he’s just coming off as less friendly now, without realizing it…

Red pauses to look back at Leaf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did I seem okay to you, today?”

Leaf’s brow rises, then draws down in concern. “Uh. Yeah, I think so. Is something wrong?”

“Nah, I’ve just been spending a lot of time with psychics lately, and thought I should just check to make sure I’m still… myself.”

She smiles. “That’s a very Red thing to be concerned about. Who else would you be?”

He thinks of telling her about Past Red, but that would be a much longer conversation. “Someone who doesn’t care about his friends,” is what comes out instead, and it isn’t until after he says it that he realizes how much it hurts to think that it might be true.

And now Leaf is walking toward him, arms going around his shoulders as she pulls him into a hug.

“You care, Red,” she murmurs as heat flushes through him… and tears prick at his eyes as he hugs her back. “No matter what may have happened, or will happen, I know that.”


Red teleports back to the roof of the small apartment building where Sabrina and her students live, the feel of Leaf’s concern still lingering on his body and heart. He barely sees his surroundings as he makes his way down, feet taking him through his now-familiar new home without conscious thought.

Most of the building has been refitted for use as class and training rooms, as well as a floor dedicated to experimentation. Red was amazed and humbled by it his first couple of weeks, and it still has some effect on him, shaking him out of his thoughts as he goes to his room to change, then hurries out of the building and toward the nearby Gym, where Sabrina called the meeting for some reason. He wonders if whatever they’re being assembled to speak about will involve gym business, and worries briefly about an incident that might have occured nearby.

“Hey Verres, catch!”

Red’s arm darts up before he even spots the object, pivoting in the direction of the voice and stopping the crumpled up fast food bag an inch from his face.

In the brief moment after his hand grips it, he feels its momentum continue, pushing his hand back enough that his knuckle grazes his nose. Then it becomes inert, and he lowers his hand to see Daniel walking toward him.

Red is both the youngest of Sabrina’s students and the newest, but before last month, that second attribute would have gone to Daniel. The lanky blond has been in Saffron for just a year, but at 16 he’s one of the best psychics in a city known for its psychics, with an intricate understanding of how his abilities work that keep allowing him to push the envelope. He’s dressed in a simple white shirt with a purple hakama that flows around his legs, attire that’s different enough to mark him as a psychic without quite fitting into any particular school or tradition.

Red eyes Daniel warily as he tosses the bag in a nearby trash can, not pausing in his walk. “Hello, Daniel.” The continued force behind the relatively weightless object made it clear that it was telekinetically propelled and guided.

The older boy shakes his head as he falls into step with Red, the two making their way toward the gym together. “You didn’t even try, Verres. How do you expect to awaken your kinesis like this?”

“I’ve been practicing it on and off for months,” Red says, voice flat. “I don’t think it’s going to randomly start working now.”

“You’re the one that said pokemon abilities are the key to understanding psychic powers, right? That kids do stuff by accident all the time, just by willpower or sudden need? Maybe once you’ve unlearned those trainer instincts, it’ll come to you.”

Red sighs. The argument had been about whether psychic pokemon could really even be considered “psychics,” since none are sapient enough to actually understand what they’re doing, and so many of their abilities have been observed in non-psychic pokemon. This seems to be Daniel’s way of proving his point that real psychic abilities are tied to a deeper understanding of what you’re doing, rather than just relying on instincts like pokemon. “And in the meantime, I should just let myself be hit in the face.”

Daniel shrugs. “It’s your theory. But it would be a small sacrifice if it ends up working, right?”

Red eyes the blond, but says nothing. He can never get a read on him, psychically or otherwise. The first time he’d thrown something at Red it had been a pencil, aimed at his chest, shortly after finding out that he had seemingly no ability to use telekinesis at all. Since then he’s done it half a dozen times, never in a way that presented any real danger to Red, so Red might just look immature if he complains to Sabrina.

He doesn’t know that she’d think that, but even if she acknowledges it as bullying, she’s the kind of Leader and teacher who tends to expect people to at least try to work out their problems alone before coming to her.

Besides, Red’s pretty sure that even if his mind were read, Daniel would be able to honestly say that he was just trying to see if Red’s telekinesis would awaken. For all Red knows that is his only motivation; like most of Sabrina’s students, he’s even more obsessed with psychic phenomenon and advancement than Red.

Daniel was raised in a small superstitious town with no other psychics in it. He somehow managed to teach himself enough about his powers in secret that, after pretending he wanted to become a trainer, he used the money his parents gave him to apply for the license and buy equipment to travel to Saffron and get close enough to Sabrina to impress her with his mental powers.

It’s a story that would impress Red enough to want to befriend the older boy, if his perspective wasn’t so… bizarre.

“Any idea why we’re meeting at the gym?” Red asks.

“Got the same message you did. Maybe she wants us to work with some of the trainers there again.” He doesn’t bother disguising the distaste in his voice, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Like I’ve got time to teach normals.”

It’s a common word, among the psychics who dislike the term “gifted” and “ungifted,” and find “non-psychic” too burdensome. But coming from Daniel, the word has an unpleasant edge to it.

“There are psychic trainers there too,” Red reminds him. “And like I said, I’ve been learning a lot from merging with psychic pokemon.”

“Still no telekinesis though. Seems like it should be a pretty straightforward test.”

Before Red can reply they enter the gym, and see another of Sabrina’s students waiting at the elevator. The three exchange simple nods for greeting as they wait for the elevator. Tatsumaki is almost as short as Red despite being in her mid-twenties, with curly green hair and a simple black collared dress. She’s widely considered the best telekinetic in Kanto, though she’ll quickly insist that she’s only the “strongest,” and that Sabrina is close behind while also being more “versatile.”

Red once asked her what the difference is, and she went on for twenty minutes about the distinction between raw telekinetic strength and the actual ability to manipulate and affect objects with it. He sort of got part of it, something like the difference between not just how much muscle you have but how good you are at using your whole body to lift a heavy box, compared to how well you intrinsically understand the weight distribution and shifting of the objects in the box and can balance it as you maneuver on the fly. But a lot of the phrases and concepts apparently had to be experienced to be fully understood, and most of it went over his head.

Once she finally stopped to ask about his telekinetic ability and he admitted his lack of any, she lost interest in the conversation, and seemed annoyed with him ever since, as if he wasted her time.

The elevator ride up is quiet too, and they move together to Sabrina’s office once they arrive at the top floor. The rest of the students are inside already, and Leader Sabrina is at her desk, with her Second and Third, Tetsuo and Keiji, standing at her sides.

Who died? Red thinks with sudden foreboding. Whatever this is, it’s something serious. He drops his mental shield for a moment to do a quick probe around, and feels a few others probing around as a general mood of anticipation and worry permeates.

Tatsumaki and he are the only two of Sabrina’s students in what Red would consider “normal” clothes. Satori Komeiji, the second youngest student at 15, is dressed in a flowing blue blouse and a flared skirt that goes from white to pink toward the edges, matching her hair and making her look like a big flower. Despite her youth, she’s one of the best mind readers in Kanto, and bonds incredibly well with pokemon… which is possibly why she barely ever talks to people.

Rowan Donkerk, a pale young man in his early twenties, wears the same white overcoat over black shirt and pants that Psychic Narud did, with the same words warning against the idea of a set fate written on the sleeves. He specializes in partitions and memory manipulation, and is apparently from an absurdly wealthy family in another region who came specifically to train with Sabrina, while also being initiated into the same sect as Narud.

Jason Grey is a lanky older teen wearing religious vestments, the oversized clothes hanging in huge folds around his body as his fingers spin the prayer beads around his neck. Red doesn’t know much about him except that he’s a trainer too; his starter was apparently a gastly that he tamed without even using a pokeball, earning him both Elite Agatha and Leader Sabrina’s attention. He was only a year into his journey before he accepted apprenticeship with Sabrina, and has been here for a couple years now. He always seems nervous, and barely talks to anyone more than he has to.

And finally there’s Rei, Sabrina’s most senior student in both senses of the word. Her long blonde hair is tied up in a severe bun, and her kimono looks like it’s worth a fortune, back ramrod straight as she watches their teacher and waits for the meeting to begin. If she has a specialty, Red hasn’t learned it; she just seems to be good at everything, and a general genius besides.

Sabrina herself cuts an imposing figure in a simple red turtleneck and black jeans. Like most Leaders, even while sitting quietly her presence seems to fill the room, likely due to some combination of his own expectations and subtle charisma on her part. Tetsuo and Keiji wear their personalized Gym uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Sabrina says, hands folded on her desk. “I’ll keep this brief. An emergency has come up, and I’m going to be unreachable for an unknown period of time of at least a few days, possibly more than a week.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he senses the shock bounce around the room full of psychics. It’s not unusual for Sabrina to go radio silent for hours at a time, and with her ability to teleport to so many places on a whim she still manages to have nearly as busy a schedule as most Gym Leaders. But disappearing for days at a time is a first.

“Tetsuo and Keiji will run the gym in my absence, but I’ll be relying on the rest of you to not only continue your classes, but assist them however you’re needed. None of you are in the gym’s chain of command, but they are both your seniors in psychic knowledge and experience, and can teach you things even I can’t. See this as an opportunity to branch out. No, Jason,” Sabrina says, looking at her student, who had barely twitched. “Not with that, it will have to wait until I return. But you will all have another assignment while I’m gone, and it has primary importance after the smooth operation of the gym, and your own classes.”

They all sit up straight as her gaze sweeps over them once before she finally takes a breath and says it: “I’ve come to suspect that someone has managed to fully partition their mind, to the point where their exposed surface thoughts and emotions are independent from their true inner ones, though still within their control. A perfect mental shield.”

The room is deathly silent. Even Tetsuo and Keiji are staring at the Leader with wide eyes, apparently not having been filled in on the reason for her sudden absence separately. This must really be fresh news.

What Red feels isn’t shock so much as dread. What Sabrina’s describing is someone who can act as the perfect liar. Not just able to hide their thoughts and emotions, but able to do so while they make people, that is to say, psychics, believe they aren’t. The difference between how they would be treated compared to someone who’s Dark or a Psychic using a mental shield would be night and day.

And just the rumor of such an ability would drastically lower trust in psychics everywhere, both those who might be using it and the ability of psychics to act as lie detectors.

“How sure are you of this, Leader?” Satori asks.

“Let’s say at least 70%. Enough to act on it decisively, and ask you all to as well. This is your assignment; try to do the same thing yourselves. Prove that it’s possible, if you can. If not, document all the things you try. Yes, Rowan?”

“Are both minds independent?” her student asks, brow drawn. “Does their behavior ever seem erratic, or at odds with themself?”

“A good question, but not noticeably. He almost always appears to be in total control of his emotional state, and the few exceptions don’t point to such a dichotomy of self.”

Red has taken his notebook out and started scribbling the questions and answers. A few of the others glance at him, but Sabrina ignores it. She knows him well enough by now. As he scribbles out the answers she’s giving to people’s questions, he also starts listing the things that he’s known have developed new abilities in him.

Unique circumstances

Mimicking other mental states

Forced to work around limits

Experiencing others using abilities

“The psychic,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Do people know if he spent a lot of time with other psychics, or pokemon?”

Sabrina’s gaze holds his, and he reinforces his shield automatically, though he feels no attempt to breach it. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s thought. “He spent a lot of time merged with all sorts of people, not just psychics, and has explicitly merged with lots of psychic pokemon as they used abilities.”

Red’s face falls as he notes that down, and it’s Rei that beats him to the punch: “Then it’s possible more than one person, or even pokemon, is capable of this.”

The room is quiet again as people glance at her, until Sabrina finally says, “Operate as though that’s not true, for now. It’s possible he learned how to do this by mimicking someone or something else, but that still leaves the question of how they did it. I believe that he pieced it together from disparate insights and abilities, or just worked it out himself. That’s why I need you all to work together on this. You’re some of the most gifted and brilliant psychics in the world. I’m counting on you.”

They all stand at attention and bow, and Sabrina bows back. Red feels dread as he considers the upcoming days. He’s the newest among the group, and the youngest, and the weakest, and the least experienced. More than any of that, none of his peers seem to particularly like him. But then, how much effort has he really put into that, so distracted by the newness of all this, and his own issues and goals? Optimistically this could be an opportunity to show them his worth, but if they don’t take him seriously or work with him…

“Good luck, everyone.” Sabrina strides for the door.

“Leader,” Red calls out before he can stop himself, still used to referring to her by that title despite not being a trainer anymore.

She turns and gives him a passive expression that still somehow communicates impatience. “Yes?”

“Can we work with others, if we don’t tell them what it’s for?”

Sabrina considers this a moment, fingers tapping against her leg in an oddly uncontrolled gesture, for her. “There’s a saying, that three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The room chuckles (a little nervously, in Red’s case), and Sabrina smiles. “I’ve already told all of you, and am planning no murders, which means I can only blame myself if this gets out sooner than I’d like. I took you all on not just because of your abilities and drive, but because I trust you not to do anything that will reflect poorly on me or my Gym. Use your judgement… but for now, only psychics, and preferably gym members. Understood?”

Red bows and murmurs, “Yes, Leader,” along with everyone else’s mixed honorifics. It makes sense; a psychic will have as much of an incentive to let an expert manage the release of a secret like this, and of course none of Sabrina’s gym members will want to go against her wishes.

“Then good luck to you all.” The door slides open, then closes behind her.

Tetsuo steps forward. “Okay, so that was a shock to everyone. Feel free to use gym facilities to work on this, and call on us if you need assistance.”

“Or if you plan on pulling in any other gym members,” Keiji says, gaze on Red. He nods to show he understands.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our gym duties, we’ll be happy to help,” Tetsuo says, and the two leave the room. As soon as the door closes, Daniel speaks.

“We should pair up,” he says, glancing at Tatsumaki. Red suspects that he likes her, and it’s clear he has his partner picked out. “We might be more productive, with someone to discuss our ideas with.”

“Or we can all discuss together,” Satori says, voice dry. “Since that would lead to more discussions. I would prefer to consider this alone, for now at least.”

“Shouldn’t we at least discuss it?” Jason asks. “We all have different focuses and perspectives. Perhaps one of us has some insight to share?”

Rowan shrugs, bemused. “I highly doubt that, unless one of you has been secretly working on this yourselves. I for one have other commitments tonight, and agree that it would be a waste of time to try and talk about it yet.”

Rei steps to where Sabrina was standing and turns, drawing all their attention to her.

“We’ve been charged by our teacher to do something no one else has,” she says, calm and confident. “It is a great honor, and likely of vital importance. I propose we all take the day to prepare and consider the problem on our own, and meet tomorrow to discuss potential solutions and plans.”

“Seconded,” Red quickly says. “It’s good practice to avoid cross-contamination of ideas, and keeps us from discussing solutions before we’ve fully considered the problem.”

“Agreed,” Satori adds, voice distant. “Like Rowan, I have other projects I must put to rest first, so I may put my whole attention on this.”

“Fine with me,” Tatsumaki adds, and the others nod or shrug.

“Good,” Rei says. “We’ll meet for breakfast tomorrow in our cafeteria.”

“Should we ask them to join us?” Jason asks, pointing a thumb at the door where Tetsuo and Keiji exited.

“No. Let’s not bother them until we have something specific to test or need advice on.” She heads for the door herself. “Remember, don’t speak with each other about this for the rest of the day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”


Red walks back home, notebook in one hand and gaze distant. He could have just teleported back, as some of the others did, and saved himself a five minute walk, but he’s so physically inactive these days that even short walks have some value, and he doesn’t want to get too lazy. Besides, once he gets to his room he’d just be sitting and thinking anyway.

His mind keeps wanting to shift away from useful pursuits to social worries about his relationship with Sabrina’s other students. On the one hand he knows it’s important to be able to work together, as situations like this show. And as Blue and Leaf convinced him, being respected is important if he wants his ideas to be taken seriously and spread.

But on the other, all of that feels like excuses to the simpler truth: he wants to be liked. Even Daniel, who rubs Red the wrong way, is powerful and clever, and as immature as it is to care what he thinks of Red on a personal level, he can’t help it.

Maybe it’s just because he spent months with people who he had a good relationship with, and he’s forgotten how to make friends. He tries to think of the last person who he actually had trouble getting along with for any significant amount of time besides Blue, and can’t think of any since leaving Pallet.

Is this helpful? Future Red wonders. You’re supposed to be thinking of the perfect mental shield.

Maybe it is. Maybe I’m stuck on it for good reason, and should deal with it before trying to just move on.

Red reaches the apartment building and presses his notebook against the wall of the elevator as he rides it up to his floor, flipping to the page after the possible causes of the perfect shield.

Identify relative advantages. What do I bring to the table?

Formulate at least one hypothesis worth testing. Test it if possible.

Determine which students may be befriended. Try to do so before meeting.

Determine which gym members can be worked with. Meet them.

He reaches his floor and goes to his apartment, then sits at his desk and tries to think of something else. When a couple minutes pass without anything new, he tackles the first one.

What does he bring to the table? What’s special about him, his power, or the way he thinks?

Rei is probably at least as smart as him. Rowan is better at manipulating and creating partitions. Satori is a more experienced trainer and merger. Jason has a more unique outlook, or abilities, or whatever it is that lets certain psychics specialize with ghost pokemon. And aside from anything else, Daniel and Tatsumaki are just more experienced, which applies to the others.

What are his remaining strengths? No, first list the things that are unique, figure out what’s a strength or useful after.

His background in science. Being raised by a reporter and a ranger. His social connections with Professor Oak and Bill. His mind-state mimicking. His screwed up trauma reaction…

Red blinks. Rowan asked whether the psychic ever seemed to be at odds with themself, and Sabrina said no, so Red dismissed the idea that his alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which he calls Past Red, might be related.

But if he and Past Red were to come to an agreement, they wouldn’t be at odds anymore. Maybe the psychic that developed the perfect shield does have their own alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which acts as the buffer mind for the hidden one.

(He definitely needs to come up with another name for it, and he refuses to call it an alternate personality.)

He hasn’t spent the whole week putting off talking with Past Red. That would be lazy and childish. He’s just spent it preparing himself for the ways he might actually do it, to ensure he has a good plan. A foolproof method that wouldn’t risk him spending the rest of his day and night lying in bed depressed.

He flips to a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing.

Hey Past Red. I’m about to let the partition down. If you don’t respond to this and put it back up, I’m never purposefully doing this again. We both have something the other wants. Let’s talk.

He looks at the paper, then he lets his breath out. As he tries to think of anything else he can do to prepare, maybe a gesture of goodwill, he realizes he should summon Pikachu, and returns to his chair with the yellow mouse curled up in his lap. Finally, with a reluctance that takes a minute to overcome, he closes his eyes and starts to bring his partition down.

When Red opens his eyes again, he sighs at the silly paper in front of him. Of all the changes the partition causes in his personality when it’s up, the fact that he treats himself like a separate person is the most worrying. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to “communicate,” he can remember writing the words himself perfectly fine.

But he clearly does get pretty irrational with the partition up, and he supposes it’s a useful framing device that Dr. Seward would approve of that might help interface with that irrationality. Red scratches behind Pikachu’s ear with one hand as the other picks up the pencil.

Dear Future Red (I’m not calling you Present Red, because I’m Present Red, obviously),

You’re an idiot.

Love, Present Red

He puts the pencil down and stares at the paper for a moment, fighting the urge to just tear it up and forget this nonsense before passing on the idea as too much effort. His thoughts are already drifting to Aiko, today’s trip to the ranch having unearthed memories that drag at him. He needs to figure out the underlying reasoning behind what he did, understand if he made the right decision for the right reasons, before something like it happens again. It could happen any day, and he’s done nothing to prepare.

But if he doesn’t bring the partition back up, he’d lose future moments of clarity like this. Red grimaces at the idea of being a hostage to his own self, and lets the partition go back up.

It immediately feels like he just sucked in a breath of fresh air. He sighs it out, looking down at the paper. Past Red’s thought process is fresh on his mind; they can’t both exist at the same time, so this is a dead end path to go down. Red shakes his head, scowling at how defeatist he is with the partition down, and starts writing again.

Dear Mopey Red,

Your attitude sucks. If you

Red stops, then slowly erases what he wrote. It’s a symbolic gesture, since he’ll remember having written it anyway, but this isn’t going to work as long as they’re insulting each other.

Look. I know you feel like I’m just you on happy-pills or something, but if having most of my grief locked away is interfering with my thinking, then being flooded by it is probably interfering with yours too. I’m doing this because I can’t model you as clearly as you can model me, and because I think we can actually learn something from what’s going on with us. Even if I’m wrong, we should be working on resolving whatever this is anyway, right?

He reads it over, checking to make sure he wasn’t too rude, adds Thanks for putting the partition back up at the beginning, then brings it back down.

The transition is so abrupt this time that Red practically feels his thoughts changing, mood plummeting as his eyes scan over what he’d just written. It’s not impossible that learning more about this partition would be helpful in a number of ways, and he does need to resolve it. But how is the important part. While it’s up, he feels like he would happily just delete all these feelings if he could, or lock them away permanently, which feels like self-mutilation.

We can’t “resolve” it if you push off working on it and leave the partition up, he writes to his future self. The only reason it was brought down was because of Sabrina’s task. Don’t pretend that you’ll be motivated to bring it down voluntarily again after this is all over.

He brings the partition back up, and sighs. His past self is right. So what do you want in assurances? We should be able to find an arrangement that works.

Well first off I want you to stop treating this like a negotiation. You’re trying to barter with your own mental health.

I’m trying to make sure my mental health doesn’t put my life on hold.

That’s not how it works, and you know it. Plenty of people have already told you that this would take work. If you’re not willing to do it, then admit that to yourself.

What do you call this?

I call it bad priorities. How about you just do the right thing.

Red puts the pencil down and stares at the sheet, anger pushing through the haze of numbness and grief. Treating his changed personality like a different self feels like giving into pathology, but… Dr. Seward did suggest it. Maybe it will help him take what happened more seriously even with the partition up, if he can just convince himself that he might be ignoring a real problem he needs to fix.

Meanwhile, he should just leave the partition down as long as he can. It’s rare that it’s down this early, usually by the time he’s used enough psychic ability for it to come down he doesn’t usually have the energy to do more than just lay in bed. He could spend a few hours working out his decisions, maybe go back to Aiko’s ranch…

Red sighs, eyes closed, and rubs his face. He can’t blame his partitioned self that much, if he can barely muster the energy to confront such depressing thoughts himself. Pikachu stretches on his lap and walks over to his hand, nudging it for more scratches. He complies automatically, still thinking over what to do.

If he keeps the partition down, he’d be burning goodwill with his “other self.” And part of him is interested in figuring out what Sabrina discovered, though it’s distant.

“Whatever,” he mutters, and lets go, bringing the partition back up.

Red lets out a breath. That had been close. His gaze lingers on the words do the right thing, and something twists in his stomach. He remembers what it felt like, writing it. There was an undertone of bitterness and challenge, there.

“Whatever,” Red echoes, and turns the page. Time to form some hypotheses, then make some friends.