Hey everyone, early chapter for February due to me being out of town this weekend, which means edits will be delayed. Hope you enjoy it!

(Also, Focusing is a real thing that you don't need psychic powers to learn or utilize. I find that clients often consider it one of the most valuable things I can teach them, and encourage anyone who's interested to look into it.)


Chapter 77: Focusing

"I'm guessing by that you don't mean 'concentrating really hard?'" Red asks.

"Correct," Dr. Seward says with a smile. "If anything I imagine you could teach me a thing or two about better concentration. No, 'Focusing' is a technique designed by a man named Eugene Gendlin. He was one of the first humanistic therapists, and it's meant to help people better understand themselves."

Red nods, feeling a mix of hope and wariness as he settles back against the couch. "Well, that sounds like the sort of thing I need, so I'll try it."

Dr. Seward's office has become familiar to him again over the past few months. He feels comfortable here, though not quite "at ease," given that they often talk about difficult or sensitive topics, and at some point during a session he knows he'll be asked to bring his partition down, which despite the progress he's made lately is still… difficult, sometimes.

The "journaling" has helped. It's more like having a written conversation with someone, and much more mentally taxing, but they have ground rules, now. It's hard to always tell, but he thinks Past Red has benefited from the past few sessions, where he spent most of the time doing trauma work: recalling the night of the storm in a safe environment where he could stop and be reminded of coping skills when things got overwhelming, and where Dr. Seward could help him unpack how he felt about what happened, the choices he made, and what they mean to him now.

Last session they reached the fire itself, and Dr. Seward stopped Past Red with almost half the session left so they could learn something new before continuing. They spent the rest of the time talking about other things, such as the ground rules for bringing the partition up and down throughout the week, and whether he felt more positively inclined to his "fake self." Red is getting better at recalling the emotional states that he had with his partition down, and is still able to remember the distinct mix of grudging acceptance when Past Red admitted that things are getting a little better.

"So, first some background," Dr. Seward says. "There are a lot of different lenses, or models, through which you can view yourself, and your mind, and how you make decisions. In the Focusing model, it can help to think of yourself as the executive decision maker who has a council of advisors. There are many of them, some obvious and some not, some internal and some external. Your past experiences, taken in total, can be conceptualized to make up one, perhaps even your most important one, or most commonly used. But it's not alone: if you're doing something new, in particular, you may rely on other advisers, such as things you read online, or are taught by others. And they can be divided up; maybe some of your past experiences differ from others, so you'd have two advisers giving you different advice. Is this tracking so far?"

"I think so," Red says. "Is this all to say that Past and Future Red are just advisors like any others?"

"No, though that's one lens you can take. Focusing is more about advisors you aren't aware that you have."

Red considers that a moment. "Cultural conditioning? Things I consider so normal that I don't even question them?"

Dr. Seward smiles. "That's a good one, but also not the one Focusing, well, focuses on. Let's consider an example. When is the last time you were afraid of something you had no good reason to be?"

Red thinks of Jason's ghost pokemon, then dismisses it; he had obvious reasons to be afraid of them. But he remembered a more fitting example that night, from a different roof. "The second day of my journey, I met a trainer whose brother had a skarmory. He let us pet it. I knew it was tamed, but being in its presence… it was still really hard to take the steps forward and actually touch it."

Dr. Seward nods. "That sort of irrational fear is very common. When I was young, I loved going to the beach. One day there was a story about a sharpedo attack near Cinnabar, and despite how incredibly rare such things are, and Cinnabar being miles and miles south of here, I still didn't want to go in the water for a whole month when my parents would take me to the beach. I could even see others swimming nearby, perfectly safe!"

Red smiles slightly. "Yeah, I went after Leaf and Blue. It was pretty embarrassing."

"Do you remember what it felt like?"

"Sure. I was worried—scared, really—and embarrassed, and also curious."

She nods along until he's done, then asks, "But how did all that feel?"

Red blinks. "I'm… not sure." But even as he says it, he understands. "It felt like… my heart was pounding, really hard. And I was sweating. And… my feet wouldn't move. They felt numb, or stuck, or something, like I literally lost control of them."

"I see. So you used words like worried, and scared, and embarrassed, and curious. I would probably use the same words for my own experience, minus the curious part. We would both use the same words, and understand what each other meant, for the most part. But my own experience of those words, in the moment, was completely different. I felt my feet, I distinctly remember that, because the sand was hot; it was my legs that felt out of control, they wouldn't stop shaking. I felt heat in my face, more than just from the sun, because I was so ashamed. And there was a ball in my gut." She closes her hand in a fist over her stomach. "Like a clenched fist. I felt sick, like I was going to throw up at any moment."

Her description is vivid enough that he feels a shadow of what she describes as well, and Red nods as he gets it. "One of the other psychic students, Jason, actually made me think about this not long ago, when he mentioned that emotional pain usually has a physical component for him." Red starts to feel some of the excitement of encountering a new concept, a new way of thinking, and it clicks in some way, his thoughts racing ahead through the new doors it opens in his mind. "We use the same words when we describe our emotions, but we often feel something very different from each other. Like describing what it feels like to share a pokemon's senses with a non-psychic… no matter what I say, it won't actually make you know what I'm actually feeling."

It's strange, he knew this from what he's felt while sharing senses from other people too, the way they feel fear or anger or even happiness differently in their bodies. He just never put dedicated time into really thinking about it. "So how does this help? Is there something different about how I experience emotions compared to Past Red?"

"That's an interesting thought worth exploring, but not the main point. Remember what I said about advisers? Your body is one of them. It has information that you're not always consciously aware of. It's common to think of your body as just a meat puppet being guided around by your brain, and there's a lens through which that's true. But this meat puppet sends plenty of chemical and electric signals to your brain, which is very much not in control of most of its functions. You can't decide if you're hungry or not, your body informs you of it. You can't decide if you're scared or not; things that might reasonably be dangerous may not frighten you, while things that you know should not be can still trigger a fear response. So what is guiding what, exactly?"

Red considers this, weighing the times he's had feelings that he couldn't explain or were poorly calibrated against the times he has "trusted his gut" and been glad he did... "Maybe this fits less for me, since I can actually stop myself from feeling something, with my powers. But I get what you're saying: I can't control the release of adrenaline in my blood, or dopamine in my brain. So I can accept that my body is an advisor, though not a particularly good one, outside of things like whether it's time to eat or use the bathroom."

Dr. Seward nods. "The point is not that it should always be promoted above other advisers, only that you should be aware of it and seek its counsel when the advice of the others doesn't seem complete. The practice is new to me, but from the literature and what I've tried so far, I've come to accept that the body knows things about you that your conscious mind does not, or can not always fully articulate. I don't mean that literally, as if your body has its own set of thoughts, but it seems quite plausible to me that it reacts to what is in the subconscious, if that helps as a way to describe it."

"Yeah, it does." He'd wondered, sometimes, whether his alternate selves actually "exist" in his mind while he's not thinking of them or having their thoughts intrude on his. It's not like when he brings his partition down he has a sudden memory of Past Red being "awake" and observing everything he does and says, it's much more integrated than that, a new set of perspectives on events that abruptly snap into focus. Ideally, he would like to be able to have both sets of perspectives at once (or all three if he counts Future Red), able to switch between them as easily as considering different hypotheses without committing to or being blinded by any (as much as is possible, at least). "So how do I tap into that knowledge?"

"By paying attention to what your body feels, and how that feeling changes. Normally I'd have you do some exercises to help you become aware of your felt-senses, as Gendlin calls them, but you're already very familiar with mindfulness and paying attention to such things, so we'll see how it goes if we dive right in. We'll still start with something simple, however. What's something you don't fully understand about yourself? A reaction you have, an indecision, a confusion, something about yourself or your experiences that you have trouble untangling?"

Red considers for a minute, and his thoughts first jump to his complex feelings about Rei, and her plans to investigate what Sabrina has been up to. They've gotten along better than he expected, over the past month. Once she started treating him as a peer, if not quite an equal, he noticed her demeanor changing, little by little, relaxing enough to show an analytical perspective and dry humor that makes her company not entirely unpleasant. He thinks he's noticed her becoming more friendly and relaxed around him as well, which makes it harder to decide whether he should act on his loyalties to Sabrina.

But using that example would involve bringing up things he shouldn't be talking about, confidentiality or no confidentiality, so he dismisses it… and finds himself thinking of Leaf. His stomach immediately lifts into his chest, and he feels a mix of happiness and the lingering remnants of anxiety. It's gotten a lot better, since they last spoke and she told him she didn't blame him.

"You were right, by the way," he says absently, eyes closed in thought. "About asking Leaf how she felt. I should have done it earlier."

"Yes, you should have, but I'm glad that it helped. Do you want to unpack those feelings? I forgot to mention, you don't only need to do Focusing on unpleasant things."

He quickly shakes his head, cheeks burning. He hasn't admitted his feelings for Leaf to his therapist, but he could tell that he doesn't need to.

Next his thoughts go to his mom. His worry for her, the risks she's taking in her investigations. He's proud of her, but also afraid that she'll get arrested or thrown in jail or worse. Still, there's nothing complicated or unresolved about those feelings. They're complex, but they make sense to him.

"I can't really think of anything," he says after another minute.

"Hmm. I wonder if you thought of something that you were considering bringing up, but thought it would be silly, or not important enough, or embarrassing? Remember that this doesn't have to be a deep or difficult problem first, it's just for practice."

"Right." He shifts, thoughts going back to Leaf, and realizes he's being silly. "I guess… I could talk about how I feel about Leaf."

"Alright," she says, face and tone giving nothing away but calm acceptance. "Go ahead and begin meditating, and let me know when your awareness is spread through your body."

Red nods, grateful that he doesn't have to immediately launch into trying to find words for his feelings, and closes his eyes as he takes deep breaths, focusing on the feel of the air rushing into his nose and lungs, then back out, cold at first, then warm. He works his awareness down from the top of his head, relaxing tension in his shoulders and neck as he keeps breathing in and out, adjusting his hips to be more comfortable, crossing then uncrossing his ankles. It takes little more than ten seconds to feel fully relaxed, and to have most of his awareness and thoughts confined to how his body feels.

"Ready," he murmurs.

"Good. Now, think of Leaf… imagine spending time with her, of being around her, of talking to her… and when it seems clear, point to where those feelings are."

Red's hand moves without thinking toward his sternum, right between his stomach and chest. "Here."

"Describe them."

"Um. It's like… I guess hope, and—"

"Remember, you're describing sensations. Avoid any emotion words."

"Right." He swallows, concentrates on his awareness of his body. "There's a… lightness. In my chest. And my stomach? Like a balloon, expanding outward, around my heart. Oh, and my skin feels warm."

"Okay. So a sense of lightness in your torso, between your stomach and chest, like a growing balloon. And warm skin. Is that right?"

"Yeah."

"Is it pleasant?"

"...Sort of. It hurts a little too. Like the pressure from the balloon is pressing against my heart and lungs. It's not continually expanding, it just… feels a bit too big." As he says it out loud, the sensations feel more real, the ache sharper and the "air" in it more distinct… "The balloon is filled with… flapping wings. Or something. The air isn't static."

"Are they like butterfly wings, or bird wings, or bat wings…?"

"Um. Bird wings. Light, and ticklish, like feathers."

"I see. Sounds like that part feels good?"

"Mostly."

"So there's a balloon of what feels like feathery wings stirring air in your torso, which is pressing outward a little painfully, but feels mostly good. Does that sound right?" Red nods. "Okay. I want you to just sit with that feeling for a while. Get used to noticing it. If it starts to fade, think of times you've spent with Leaf again, or the thought of seeing her soon."

"Alright." His attention does slip away from the "felt-sense" every so often, but it's not hard to bring it back, and the more he sits with it the more fine details and texture become evident, and the more tangible it feels, until he almost pokes at his sternum in case it feels any different.

"I'm going to ask you some questions about the feeling, now, and they might not make sense, but just try to answer them anyway. First… does this feeling seem like it's on your side, or against you?"

Red almost asks what she means, then remembers he's supposed to try anyway. "Well, it feels like…" He's not sure what being on his side would mean, but he knows what it would feel like if it was against him: he's had experience there. "I don't feel threatened or scared by it, or angry about it… and… I don't dislike having it… so it seems like it's on my side, I guess?"

"I see. What do you think it wants for you?"

"Um." He tries to think about that and keeps getting error messages. "Um. I don't know. I guess for me to just… spend more time with her." He can feel his face burning.

"That would make you happy."

"Y-umm, yeah… I think so..."

"Alright then, let's see if we can better understand what this feeling actually is." She smiles slightly. "I don't mean deciding whether to put the L word on it or not, but rather figuring out what the individual parts are that make this feeling up, or what the effects of this feeling are on you."

Red takes a deep breath. "Okay. How?"

"As we touched on before, the word itself, 'focusing,' wasn't chosen to refer to concentration. Think of it like adjusting a microscope, trying to get a clearer image. The adjustments will be done by speaking things out loud, hypotheses you could say, and you'll check the clarity of the image by paying attention to what you feel. If it feels clearer, if it changes in any way, if it fades, even if it stays the same, that's information. Ready?"

"I think so?"

"It'll become clearer once we try, and we'll start simple. I want you to say out loud something like, 'Being around Leaf makes me happy,' and 'I want Leaf to care about me,' and 'I want Leaf to respect me,' and focus on that felt-sense, and tell me what happens, if anything."

Red squirms slightly, feeling the urge to call the whole thing off. This isn't really harder than wandering up to a group of strangers and trying to join their conversation, however, so instead he thinks of that for a moment as he breathes, thinks of how well it turned out, then focuses on Leaf again and says, "Leaf makes me happy. I want-"

"Not so fast. Just focus on that a moment. And you can try putting it into your own words after, but first try the exact phrase I used."

"Okay. What was it again?"

"'Being around Leaf makes me happy.'"

"Right." He takes another breath and turns his attention inward again. "Oh. There's a new, uh, 'felt-sense' in my lower stomach. It's… wiggly."

"Was it there before, and you didn't notice? Or is it actually new?"

He thinks back. "I think it showed up when you asked me to say the stuff out loud."

"Understandable. Well done on noticing it. If you can, let your awareness take in both, and report any changes in either as you repeat the phrases."

"Okay." He takes a moment to let his awareness spread to fill his whole torso, glad he's had so much practice pinpointing multiple sensations at once, then swallows and forces himself to say, "Being around Leaf makes me happy." He pauses, evaluating, comparing… "The squirming got worse, for a moment. And the wings… flapped faster?"

"Okay. Next was 'I want Leaf to care about me.'"

"I want Leaf to care about me." He doesn't really feel anything. "I want Leaf to care about me more… I like when Leaf shows she cares about me…" Still nothing. He shakes his head. "Feels the same."

"That's fine. 'I want Leaf to respect me?'"

"I want Leaf to respect me. I want Leaf to respect me… also nothing. Or maybe… the feeling is fainter? I might just be losing focus, give me a second." He takes a breath and focuses on being with Leaf again, pictures her smile, until he feels the flapping wings against his ribs. "I want Leaf to respect me. No. No change."

"Try some variations. Whatever makes sense."

"Alright. Um. I want Leaf to… respect me… to like me… to admire me..." He pauses. "I want Leaf to admire me. Yeah. There was another flutter at that, a stronger one."

"Let's invert it. What are you afraid of?"

The thought comes immediately, and Red swallows. "I'm afraid Leaf doesn't admire me. That she judges me. That she's disappointed in me." He thinks of that morning in her room at the hospital, of the night before on the S.S. Anne, and has to take a deep breath, hand going to his chest to rub. "It hurts more. Like it's pushing the air out of my lungs."

"Okay. Maybe that's enough for now. We can take a break if you'd like. But if you want to keep going… remember the last time she expressed that she does admire you, and see if that eases the pain."

Red nods, eyes still closed, and concentrates on his visit, on her telling him she didn't blame him. The pain fades a little, but… It's not the same. He's glad she cares about him and doesn't blame him, but that's not where the pain actually came from. He can think of times when she said something admiring or praised him, but there are other things, more serious things…

"Red?"

"Sorry, it's… it helped a little, but there's more."

"Do you want to keep going?"

He almost says no, but he does want to better understand this feeling... "Yeah."

"Then keep voicing hypotheses around whatever is confusing you, and see if anything resonates."

"Okay. I want to… I'm worried Leaf doesn't respect me… no… I'm worried Leaf doesn't respect my beliefs?" He sighs, shifts on the couch. "I feel close, the wings are lighter and the pain is sharper."

"How about the wiggling in your lower stomach?"

"Oh." He concentrates a second. "Mostly gone. I think that was embarrassment… woops, sorry."

He hears her smile. "You don't have to apologize, and yes, that seems likely. So worrying she won't respect your beliefs was closer?"

"Yeah, but it's not quite it."

"It can be hard to really understand how something feels, particularly something complex. You've made progress on this, and it was only meant to be practice. I'm happy to continue it if you want, but maybe it would help to try something else for now. That might help whenever we or you loop back to this."

"Yeah. Alright. Should I open my eyes?"

"Yes, go ahead. Maybe get up and stretch a bit, let yourself relax."

Red smiles at the idea that lying down with his eyes closed hasn't been "relaxing," but she's right, he feels somewhat fatigued, a little like when he uses his powers too much. He opens his eyes slowly, and takes a deep breath as he sits up, rotating his shoulders and neck. "I get what you meant, now." He puts a hand over his chest. "The idea that there's something deeper to my emotions that I'm not consciously aware of, beliefs tied into them that the body is reacting to. It's actually kind of fascinating."

"I'm glad you think so, because we're going to try Focusing on Aiko next."

His smile fades. "Right. Partition up, or down?"

"You tell me."

Red runs a hand through his hair, dreading the answer but knowing it makes sense. "Alright. Give me a minute." He makes another circuit around the couch, stretching his arms across his chest one at a time, then brings pikachu out and lies back down, opening his arms and letting his pokemon leap onto his chest. "You're getting a little big for this," he says, and shifts the mouse's weight closer to his stomach so he can take deep breaths.

Red strokes Pikachu's fur as he curls up on his stomach, then closes his eyes and lets his breathing even out as he focuses on relaxing again. It's harder this time, knowing that soon he's going to be drowning in emptiness and sorrow.

"What if he can't feel anything?" he asks, knowing he's reaching for a reason not to do it but trying anyway. "He might be too overwhelmed."

"Then we'll try with the partition up. But I think you'll be okay."

Breathe in, breathe out. He concentrates on the warmth radiating from Pikachu through his stomach, and relaxes his body outwards from there until his attention is diffuse.

Then he brings his partition down, and it's like his whole body gets submerged in chilly water, only Pikachu's warmth lingering and keeping his attention in his body instead of on the thoughts that immediately rise up.

"Red? Is it done?"

He must have reacted in some way. Despite everything, he almost says no. Almost brings the partition up, intentionally for once, afraid of what he might find in this new technique. If his body is telling him something right now, it's that he's a cold and hollow being.

"Yes," he says instead, knowing that if he doesn't, his partitioned self would use it as an excuse to keep from trying things like this again. I keep saying I want to get to the bottom of this, to work on it. I would be a hypocrite if I backed out now… not to mention Partitioned Red is going to hold it over me. He makes an effort to inject some emotion into his voice. "Ready."

"Okay. Think about that night, and point to where in your body you feel something."

Red's breathing becomes shallower as her words bring back mental images and feelings, tightens muscles along his whole body and sends fear burrowing up through his guts like a diglett. "I… everywhere. Back is tight. Neck is cold, hands are cold stomach is… ball of… of nerves… chest—"

"Breathe, Red. Focus on your lungs. Breathe in… and out... in… and out… in… and out, that's it… in… and out…"

Red keeps focusing on his breathing to take his mind off the mental images of the dead and dying, the feeling of hopelessness and fear, the crushing fear when Leaf was nearly killed... Pikachu clearly picks up on his distress, and shifts to pad around on his torso until he reaches his collar, fur tickling Red as he nuzzles his neck and jaw. It helps him focus on Dr. Seward's words.

"That's it… Keep going. Remember the tools you've been using when we talk about that night, and use them whenever you need to. You can do this."

Red nods, and starts cycling through the other coping skills she reminded him of. They've never called what he goes through when discussing that night PTSD, and he's not sure if it's because his symptoms aren't strong enough or if Dr. Seward just doesn't think it matters to label it, but by this point he has enough anchors to calm himself quickly: thinking of the civilians they failed to save makes him think of the civilians they succeeded in saving, which chains into the pokemon they saved, which chains into the feel of Leaf hugging him in the rain. This is interrupted briefly by the sight of Leaf being batted away by the nidoqueen's tail again, but he quickly replaces that image with the latest one of her at the ranch, alive and healthy, and he adds a new memory to the end of the chain: Leaf telling him that she doesn't blame him.

"Okay," he murmurs after his body feels at least somewhat relaxed again, and he shifts Pikachu back toward his stomach, where he'll be somewhat less distracting. "I'm ready to... try again."

"Alright. Let's be more specific… just think about Aiko herself, and try to only focus on the two most powerful felt-senses. Just point to where your feelings are most noticeable."

He nods, and thinks of Aiko, picturing her face. The first sensation is immediate, and he points to his chest. "Weight. Heavy." His finger rises to his head. "Swirl."

"Swirl?"

"Don't know… like… a swirling mess, noise, confusion. Hard to think."

"Okay. So there's a heavy weight on your chest—"

"In."

"In your chest, and a swirling in your head. Making it hard to think, hard to breathe?" Red nods. "Alright, then. I know it's unpleasant, but let's sit with those feelings for a minute, and see if you notice anything else about them. You're doing great, Red."

Red keeps breathing, and keeps thinking of Aiko. The day they met, their conversations about her joining them, her laughter during one of Red and Blue's arguments (extra stabbing-twist in the stomach, there then gone), her beaming pride when her eevee beat Red's nidoran… the look on her face that night…

Tears prickle at his eyes, and he fights to stay present with the feelings in his chest and skull. It's easier to picture them, now. A plate of metal over his ribcage, crushing his lungs. A swirling blackness between his ears, a microcosm of Zapdos's storm that a part of him is forever stuck in. "The swirl is a storm," he says, voice thick. "The storm. Rain. Wind. Lightning. Darkness."

"I see. So, are these feelings on your side, or against you?"

"How could they… against me. They hurt. They're…" His throat tightens, and he squeezes his eyes even more tightly shut. "I want them to go away. I'm just like him, I'm weak, I don't want to think about them, I just want them gone..."

"Easy… stay with me, Red. Breathe. In… Focus on the air in your lungs… out. Good, again… and out. It's completely understandable that you want these feelings to go away. But remember, they're something your body is trying to tell you about yourself, that's already true. That doesn't mean they're right, only that until you understand what they really are, what they really mean, there may always be some piece of the puzzle missing."

Red keeps breathing, and clutches at Pikachu, who nuzzles his fingers. A distant part of him worries that he's hurting his pokemon, which leads to him worrying about whether the conditioning would suppress any reaction if he is, and he relaxes his grip, forces himself to go back to stroking. "I think they're against me," Red says, voice flat, but calmer this time.

"Alright. Let's see if we can focus on the chest one first. Do you remember what to do?"

He nods, shifts, clears his throat, then whispers, "I feel sad about Aiko dying." The pain in his chest intensifies, and he makes a sound of discomfort as he shifts on the couch.

"I'm sorry, I'm guessing that made it worse. What else?"

Red knows what else. He knows he has to say it, despite his worries about anchoring. He takes a breath, then just blurts it out: "I feel guilty."

The room is quiet a moment, and Red's brow furrows. He focuses on Aiko, on the feelings inside him, and says it again, more slowly. "I feel guilty about Aiko… uh… I feel guilty about not stopping Aiko?"

"Red? Found something?"

"Nothing's changing."

"Well, maybe you don't feel particularly guilty then. Didn't you say that to me, on your first visit back?"

Red opens his eyes to look at her, letting the felt-senses fade from his awareness. They're still there, though; now that he's noticed them, put words to describing how they feel, it's easier to notice them as distinct feelings. "I've been avoiding thinking of it as guilt because… I know it's not evidence for whether I should feel guilty."

"Right, I remember now. Dealing with it as guilt might be a mistake, and bias your views on what you chose. But from what you're saying now, it seems like you don't actually feel any."

Red blinks at her. "But… I have to, don't I?"

Dr. Seward shrugs. "Do you?"

Red slowly leans his head back, thinking of how he feels. He can't actually be free of guilt, can he? Wait, there it is… no, that's guilt about not feeling guilt…

He makes a sound of frustration and shifts, unpleasant emotions roiling in him. "I don't know, it's hard to think straight about it."

"Well of course. That's partly why we tried this in the first place. Would you like to continue? Maybe identifying what those feelings really are will help clarify things."

Red rubs his face, feeling exhausted already. He just wants to go home and curl up and take a nap… but if he does, the partition will be back up when he wakes, and he's not sure if Future Red would try this again. He might just claim victory at the lack of guilt and use that as an excuse to keep not thinking about things, no matter what he says otherwise. "Yeah," he sighs, and closes his eyes. "I'll try…"

Again he sinks into his body's senses, feeling a note of annoyance at having to do it all yet again, which he doesn't have to voice to imagine Dr. Seward's reminder that therapy is work, and not always pleasant work. She would tell him to take a break if he's feeling overwhelmed, but he's not, really, just impatient, despite the fact that he reaches a mindful state and focuses on his felt-senses even faster than last time.

"Ready. What do I do?"

"Try again. Focus on the plate of metal in your chest, find things that resonate with it or change it."

"Okay. I feel sad about Aiko's dad…" The feeling gets worse. No surprise there. "I feel… I wish I had known her better." Again, the metal gets heavier. "I wish I could have saved her…" Nothing. Or almost nothing, there was something wrong with the words themselves as he said it, and now he feels tears prickling at his eyes as the more correct words come to mind. "I... regret not being able to… to stop her—oh!" One hand moves to the spot just below his ribs, suddenly distracted from the unpleasantness.

"Red?"

"Sorry," he gasps, prodding with his fingers as he breathes deep. "The metal plate is… it moved?"

"Moved how?"

"Not moved, actually, it… uh… wait, it's gone… back to normal, I mean."

"Say it again."

"Right. Give me a minute…" He focuses on the heavy weight in his chest, and thinks of that moment where she ran away, when she literally slipped from his fingers… he could have tackled her, if he had held her for just a few minutes she'd be alive…

Red wipes his eyes distractedly, feeling it more clearly this time. "The metal plate… melted. I didn't have to say it out loud, just thinking about how I could have saved her… it became a… a hot ball in my stomach and a cold... " He focuses on the sensation. "Cold gaps between my ribs."

"That sounds painful?"

"Not… as much," Red admits.

"Alright. Let's sit with these for a moment, then say things about the new felt-senses?"

Red takes a few deep breaths, drawing his attention back to the distinct feelings in his stomach and chest and head as best he can through the distraction they each cause.

"Any new details or textures?" He shakes his head. "Then let's try focusing on just the stomach sensation first, the hot, heavy ball. Is it still there?"

"...Yeah."

"Try testing more words against it, see if something fits."

Red nods and considers his options a moment. What's close to guilt? "I feel… shame. About not trying to save Aiko." Nothing. "I feel inadequate… I feel weak…"

"Maybe it's time to branch out again. Try thinking about something related to Aiko, something connected to your strongest emotions about her, without quite being her."

What immediately comes to mind by the end of her second sentence is Blue, and the ball in his stomach becomes heavier and hotter. "Blue," he says, and now it's easier to predict which words match the feeling. "I feel angry at Blue. The ball is hotter, it's like... dripping metal in my stomach…"

"Okay. Why are you angry at Blue?"

"I'm angry at Blue for making her feel like she needed to prove something." The ball starts dripping more, filling his whole stomach with molten iron. "I'm angry at Blue for judging what I did while he wasn't there, didn't see what actually happened. I'm angry at Blue for blaming me instead of..." He wipes at his eyes, sniffing back a sob. "Instead of c-comforting me…"

Dr. Seward shifts the coffee table with the tissues closer to him with her foot, and he reaches out blindly to take some, wiping at his face. "That sounds very painful," she says, voice light as a feather.

"Y-yeah…"

"How does the ball feel now?"

"It's gone. Melted into a pool."

"Mm. Is that better?"

"...yeah."

"Okay. That's what's called a 'shift,' a change in your understanding of what your body is telling you about your feelings that results in a change in what your body feels. It can take some time to process that new signal, to live with it and see how it feels, so let's leave it be, for now, and go to the cold sensation you described between your ribs. I'm curious to know if that seems easier to put words to, now?"

Red wipes his eyes once more and swallows, trying to concentrate… "Yeah, I… think so. It's f… I mean… I feel afraid… that he's right…" His eyes clench tighter, and he breathes out. "It's worse now. Like bits of ice are stabbing my lungs."

"I see." Dr. Seward is quiet a moment. "This is probably a good time to point out that these are a lot of painful sensations that you're experiencing, painful emotions to process, and I want to acknowledge how hard it is to experience them the way you have. I want to also check and see how you're doing, if you want to take a break or even stop for the day."

"No." The word comes out before he really thinks about it. It is painful, and exhausting but now he feels close to something, something like the shift in his stomach. And he wants to know. It's something about himself that he can't see, and he wants to see it, wants to see every part of him, shine a light in every corner of the dark machinery that grinds and ticks and spins under the surface to make him the way he is. "Let's keep going."

"Very well. So you're worried he's right, but also don't feel guilty. It makes me wonder what you worry he's right about, specifically?"

Red takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain to focus on the cold ice instead. "I'm afraid he's right about me being a coward…" Nothing. "I'm afraid he's right about… me not caring enough about Aiko." Also nothing… no, there was a shift, but he can't tell how… "There was something there." Red swallows and takes another breath. "I'm afraid Blue is right that I don't care about anyone more than myself." Nothing again. "I'm afraid... Blue is right about me not caring about my friends…" Still nothing. Maybe he imagined the shift…

"It looks like you're getting a little frustrated?"

"A little. It's there, I just can't get it to respond..."

Dr. Seward laughs. "It's very like you, to learn about this just thirty minutes ago and already expect to be an expert at it. But it can take time to tease the right words out, and find something that resonates with felt-senses."

Red frowns, but sighs and nods. "So what do I do?"

"Let's table it, if that's alright with you, and go back to a previous question now that we have more of an understanding of what these felt-senses might mean. The hot, heavy ball in your stomach which melted into a pool of liquid metal… now that you know it represents your anger at Blue, does it feel like it's on your side, or still against you?"

Red forgot that question, and now that he reconsiders it the answer seems obvious. "On my side. It's a protective anger."

"It seems that way, yes. I'd like you to try thanking it."

"...thanking the feeling?"

"Yes. And reassuring it. If it helps to combine this exercise with Internal Family Systems, imagine there's an Angry Red who has been trying to get your attention this whole time because he's seeing something unfair and wants to protect you from it."

It happens effortlessly as she speaks: Angry Red is wearing his journey outfit, jeans and jacket and hat, and has his arms crossed, foot tapping in the empty space of Red's inner world.

He felt another shift, too, as she spoke, a ripple in the liquid metal pool, and the image of Angry Red clarifies something. "I think he's angry at me too."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. A little. Like… angry that I'm letting myself get so affected by what Blue said."

"And does that resonate with you? The whole you?"

Red lets out a slow breath. "Yeah. It does."

"Whenever you're ready then."

Red swallows and shifts, making Pikachu flick his stomach with his tail. Red gives him a scratch along his scar, then moves his hand from his fur to his lower stomach, above the internal pool. "I… don't know what to say?"

"Sure you do." He can hear the small smile in her voice. "You've been talking to yourself for years."

Red takes a breath, nods, and says, "Hey, Angry Red. Thanks for… uh. Being angry. About the Blue thing-"

"More specific?"

"Right, sorry. Angry Red… thank you for being on my side, and for caring that Blue was unfair, and helping me notice that."

"Good. Now reassure it, him, that you get what he wants you to do, and you'll do your best."

"Okay…" He directs his attention to Angry Red, who has stopped tapping his foot. "I hear you. I'll do my best to not let it affect me, and to make sure Blue knows that what he did wasn't right, if the opportunity comes up. Oh." Red shifts. "He didn't like that part."

"Wants you to be more proactive about it?"

"I think so. Yeah."

"Makes sense. He wants the injustice corrected. How do you feel about it?"

He doesn't want to. He really doesn't want to. The thought of talking to Blue at all, let alone about this, makes him instinctively flinch, his stomach burn, his ribs ache with cold.

But… He's right. I am angry about it, and I should talk to him about it, even if it's the last time I do.

"...I'm not sure if it's a good idea, but I'll work on it. And," he adds with sudden inspiration, "I know you'll remind me, and keep me from letting his words affect me, in the meantime. I'm glad you're here, to do that. Thank you." They aren't just words into empty air, by the end: Angry Red seems as real to him as Future Red, and as he recognizes the truth of what he's saying, the molten pool in his stomach slowly starts to fade, until...

Red opens his eyes, voice full of wonder as he rubs his stomach. "It's… gone. Not entirely but I can barely feel it, unless I concentrate really hard."

"Excellent work, Red." Dr. Seward is smiling wide, voice full of pride that makes him feel warm. He suddenly realizes he feels different in more than one way, and quickly checks his partition.

It's still down. But... the world doesn't seem as overwhelming and hopeless as it did before minutes ago.

"I'd like you to practice this in the coming week," Dr. Seward goes on, writing some notes. "There are a lot of other feelings you might want to explore, and insights into even unrelated ones can be helpful in unexpected ways. But if you want to tackle some new felt-senses, like the storm in your head, you can, or we can wait until you're here again. Either works."

"Alright." Red slowly sits up, holding onto Pikachu so that he's still in his lap by the time he's upright.

"There are a few books you might find useful on it… the shortest is just called 'Focusing,' by Gendlin himself." She finishes writing them on a sheet of her notepad and tears it off to hand to him. "If you do try it, take lots of notes."

"I will." He folds the paper and slips it into his pocket, still unused to how… different he feels. He can still feel the swirling confusion around his thoughts, the pain in his chest, heaviness in his limbs, and more… but he's got something new, along with it all, and he doesn't need Focusing to recognize it.

Hope.

"Thank you, Doctor." He bows. "It was strange, but I'm glad you shared it with me."

She smiles. "It's my pleasure, Red. I had a feeling you'd take to it, and there are few more satisfying feelings in this job than seeing a client take a new model or toy with eager hands, and run with it. I think it'll take you far."


When Sabrina charged them with their task and left the city, she said she would be gone for a few days, "possibly more than a week." That left things rather open ended, and so after two weeks without her return, there was a low level of worry among the other students, unstated but more than noticeable for a group of psychics. After a month, they called a meeting with Saffron's Second and Third, who admitted that they've had occasional messages from their Leader and thus knew she was still alive, but still had no idea when she would return.

By Red's most recent visit to Aiko's ranch (he still thinks of it as hers, rather than her father's or even Leaf's) the wider world took notice. Luckily no new wild pokemon incident have hit the city or its surrounding routes, but a Gym without its Leader can't grant badges. And so a steady queue of people who qualified to challenge Sabrina simply continued to grow, while others took the mentions of her absence as good reason to head elsewhere first. It helped that Cerulean, Celadon, and Vermilion were so nearby, so that trainers on their journeys had such an abundance of alternative choices.

Still, the practical effect is that the gym becomes steadily emptier week by week, until Red barely sees anyone as he enters the cafeteria on the day after he learns Focusing. And now it's not his or Rei's fault, since their experiment ended long ago.

Tetsuo was right in predicting that non-psychic, non-dark people in the cafeteria would be rare that first week, and if not rare, mostly expressing curiosity or fear or challenge, but they still managed to get some variety during their experiment, including people so caught up in their thoughts or conversation that they didn't even notice the signs. A game quickly developed between Red and Rei in predicting who fell into what group as they came in.

There were a few unusual cases; one trainer approached them to see if they could detect the spirit haunting her. Rei agreed to check, and reported finding nothing, which seemed to just upset her until Red had a flash of inspiration and asked for her number, promising to pass it along to someone who specializes in such things and fairly confident that Jason would be happy to reach out. Another trainer kept his gaze on Rei as soon as he walked in, and she quickly warned Red not to merge with him, a hint of pink in her cheeks. Red was tempted, but the fact that a psychic with nearly a decade of experience over him said not to do something ultimately proved enough to keep him from doing it. He turned the event into a conversation starter with Past Red about their general risk aversion, and how they felt about it, which turned out to be a rich vein for debate (not all of it civil) that continues off and on to the present.

Among the experiment's other benefits, Red got better at discerning Rei's emotions through her mimicked mental states, until her mimicry improved at an even faster rate. Regardless of its fidelity however, unlike Red she was never able to retain more than a few by memory at a time, and each one became less "real" when she adopted a new one (or maybe just as more time passed from her original exposure to them). By the time the experiment ended and they reported that branch of investigation a failure to the others, he noted clear improvements in getting faster and more efficient at mimicking and maintaining a different mental state, and could hold onto them for longer before he started to feel depression color his mood.

Unfortunately, neither of them got any better at concealing the inner awareness (meta knowledge?) of being deceitful. Even when asked questions as simple as the flavor of ice cream they tasted while merging with someone else eating ice cream, there was sincerity, but always side-by-side with anticipated failure and tricking self and tricking others… One of his biggest takeaways from the experiment was how insufficient language could be to describe internal states, there being so few words for experiencing multiple emotional states at once. As if the range of emotions are discrete integers, rather than a spectrum along multiple axes, some of which intercross and form all sorts of new patterns…

"Morning, Red," Jason says, regrounding Red in the present as he sits at the medium's table with his tray of food.

"Morning Jason, Satori."

Satori nods to him, feeding her torracat with one hand as the other holds an ice cream cone to lips as pink as her hair. Normally a pokemon standing on the table probably wouldn't be allowed, even from one of Sabrina's students, but with the place as empty as it is no one seems inclined to talk to her about it.

"I've been meaning to ask you," Red says to Satori. "I know torracat's evolution is Fire/Dark, and with how much time you spend linked with your pokemon I was wondering—"

"Why no everstone to keep it from evolving?" Satori guesses. "My half-sister, Koishi, is Dark. I'm trying to learn how to pierce the veil between us."

Red blinks. "You're trying to… learn how to interact with Dark minds?" He grins. "You don't dream small."

"It isn't ambition, but loneliness," Satori says between licks of ice cream.

Red withholds the further praise he was about to add, which now feels like it might be insensitive. But Rei isn't the only of his fellow students he's made some strides in getting to know over the past few weeks, so he just nods and starts eating his vegetable burrito. "So you're hoping your familiarity with him will help once he evolves. I'm sure it's not your only plan, though?"

"Correct. I've been practicing connecting with other dark pokemon."

"Huh. How do you check for progress meanwhile?"

"I see Koishi on weekends, and have a list of tests to check for incremental changes." She turns her ice cream and takes another lick. "I can share it with you, if you're curious."

Red smiles. "That would be awesome, thanks!"

"It's no trouble." She scoops up another handful of pokeblocks for her torracat to eat from her hand. "How is Past Red?"

"Better, actually." She and Rowan are the only people besides Dr. Seward that refer to his unpartitioned self as a separate individual. "I saw my therapist yesterday, and learned a new technique that actually helped a little, with what we've been going through."

"Your aura is different, then," Jason says, frowning slightly. "I thought I was imagining it."

"Oh, hang on." Past Red, this is just for Jason and maybe for us to learn something, please put the partition back up soon. Red brings the partition down…

...and feels his features settle, his posture shift, his appetite wane. The cafeteria fades to a blur of unimportance past their table, his attention drawn away by feelings of pain and sadness and…

...that's it.

"Fascinating," Jason says, watching Red with wide eyes. "It's minor, but your emanations are distinctly more harmonious than the last time I sensed you without your partition."

"Huh." I'm... not sure how I feel about this.

Could probably try Focusing on it, Future Red chimes in.

That's going to get annoying quick. But it is strange to get independent verification that something has changed in his internal state. It feels too "neat." Like doing some exercise and getting a letter the next day informing you of how much muscle mass you gained.

But after another moment's consideration he knows that feeling is silly. If he has a fever and takes medicine for it, the fever goes down, and he can measure that. The only reason it feels strange to have his emotional health confirmed by an outside source is that he's not used to it… not just in general life, but specifically from therapy when he was younger. He remembers noticing a trend of positive changes after looking back at who he was weeks later, especially when they reviewed his progress during sessions. Having near-instant gratification from mental health treatment feels like it goes against what it's "supposed" to be, a long, complicated process with ups and downs...

Maybe he's being stubborn, and he should just accept that sometimes a new intervention really can have immediate, positive effects...

...or maybe he's being overly optimistic, and forgetting that feeling better a day after therapy doesn't mean he will two days after, that by next week he won't regress again...

"Hm." Jason plays with his prayer beads, and Red remembers where he is, raising his shield. Or at least attempting to, it's always harder for him than Future Red. "As fascinating as it is experiencing your mood shifts, I feel compelled to ask if you're alright?"

"Yeah, sorry. Just…" Red shakes his head, then sighs and lets his partition come back up. His next breath seems to fill his chest more than the one before, and he smiles at Jason to assure him he's fine as he takes a bite of his burrito. "Sho, whatsh the plan today?" He swallows. "Message said we're doing something new?"

"We've found a gym member we'd like to bring into the experiment. He's a fairly strong psychic with experience merging with his kadabra and starmie for battles… and has recently made a lot of progress merging with his exeggcute."

Red perks up. Satori and Jason made progress with doduo during their weeks of working on multiple-mind merger, but it eventually hit a dead end. Even when Satori inhabited both minds at once, she became able to hold two different views together without any apparent dissonance to Jason and Red's probes. Making contradicting statements isn't quite lying, but it's closer than any other attempt they've made so far… But even that was only for certain topics, such as which direction she was looking or other physical effects of merging with two different minds at once.

Exeggcute are the next logical step, a multi-mind pokemon that also happens to be psychic. Tests have shown that each seed can learn what one-another knows at the speed of psychic thought, but that they don't all simultaneously know the same things. If some pokemon might be the key to learning how to keep knowledge truly partitioned within the same mind, Red thinks it's them. Two weeks ago he asked Satori and Jason if they felt up for a group attempt at merger, and by the end of the discussion Jason said he would look for promising candidates to invite into the experiment.

"That's great! What's his name?"

"He's coming in now." Satori says, and Red turns to see a young man, maybe mid-twenties, entering the cafeteria and heading straight for them after a quick glance around. "Red, meet Alex Cyr. Alex, Red Verres.

"Call me Cyr," the trainer says, shaking Red's hand as he sits beside him. "Heard a lot about you, online. It's a pleasure."

Red smiles. "Then you have the advantage, and I get to ask you to tell me more about you."

"Ha! Fair enough. Let's see, four badge trainer, ten year psychic, three year law student—"

"Law student?" Red asks, surprised. "Don't think I ever met a psychic law student. Or a trainer who went into law… what made that happen? And how do you find the time?"

Cyr grins. "Well, my pokemon training has been on a slow pace lately, which helps. With Sabrina being out of town, I only come to the gym a couple times a week while I focus on my studies."

"And the why?"

He shrugs. "Became a bit fascinated by interregional government affairs since I came to Kanto, what with the whole Indigo League thing you've got going here. Got me wondering how much help a psychic might be in helping resolve conflicts and mediate things at the governmental level."

"Huh. Cool." Red smiles. "Okay, we're probably closer to even footing now. Thanks for joining us on this."

"Happy to be here, really. It's just the kind of experimental stuff I was hoping to find at Sabrina's gym…" His eyes widen as he trails off, and Red follows his gaze. "Who is that?"

"Rei's joining us too?" Red asks, surprised, and turns to her as she reaches the table. "Thought you had 'other projects' to fill your time?"

"I do," the blonde says, not sitting. "But I know Tatsumaki wouldn't come, and Rowan is still stubbornly doing his own thing, so I can't risk getting lumped together with them as uncooperative. Besides, an experiment like this needs the best of the best."

Red matches her wry smile. "Well, it's good to have you." Despite their new familiarity, they still feel much more like respected colleagues than friends. Part of that was her general continued aloofness and lingering wariness of his partition, but another part was his own wariness of the plans she revealed to try to learn Sabrina' secrets.

It only came up once or twice, and Red has mostly gotten over his worry about his knowledge of it being revealed, as he found his suspicion of Rei is actually far more dominant than any guilt toward Sabrina, and with all the practice he's had redirecting his thoughts is far more likely to show if he needs it to.

"Hey," Cyr says, and stands as he holds his hand out to Rei. "Nice to meet you…"

Red turns back to his burrito as they introduce themselves, knowing that look by now. Rei got a lot of admirers approaching the table they'd set up at during the experiment, and he never saw her engage with any of them beyond simple politeness. "So does this mean the last person is…"

"Daniel," Jason confirms. "Is that okay?"

Red shrugs, smothering his sigh. "I'll deal." While he's gotten closer to the present half of Sabrina's students, he hasn't made much progress with the other half, and Daniel remains as smugly arrogant as ever. Red finishes his food by the time the older boy enters, and Jason gets to his feet and does one last introduction.

"Now that we're all here, let's get started," Rei says, smoothly taking charge of the proceedings in a way Red might have resented a month ago. Everyone nods, and they move as a group toward the elevators. Empty as the gym is, the six of them stand out in a number of ways, and Red is aware of how everyone they pass turn to stare.

He takes his mind off the stares by debating whether he should try to talk to Daniel about why he's here. On the one hand, it would be the friendly thing to do. On the other, it might cause some disharmony right before they plan to work together.

"Surprised you came to this," Red finally comments, deciding that he's going to be distracted if he doesn't bring it up.

His fellow psychic snorts, looking around the gym. "I don't think it'll amount to anything, but the sooner it's tried the sooner we can move on to other things."

Well, that settles that. Red wants to ask if that means he'll give it his best shot, but decides that might come off as less than friendly. If only one of the others had agreed to come... but Rowan could be remote in his own way, and Tatsumaki would only care a little more than Daniel.

They reach the elevator, which takes them just a couple floors down before the doors open at the first level of training rooms, and they find the Gym Second waiting.

"Hello, everyone," Tetsuo says, gaze jumping between them. "I thought I'd come observe your experiment, if that's alright."

Everyone seems taken aback except for Rei, who turns to them. "I figured it would be good to have someone else with us, who wouldn't be participating, in case something goes wrong."

"Wrong?" Daniel asks. "You think there's something unsafe about this?"

"Maybe not in the traditional sense," Tetsuo says. "But mergers with exeggcute are still largely uncharted territory. Better safe than sorry… and the last experiment you guys ran here cost the gym some money, so I want to be sure I can attest to exactly what's going on."

Red nods and smiles. "Makes sense to me." He's happy to have another experienced trainer and psychic in the room, regardless of the reason. Future Red feels nervous that the experiment might get aborted early, but the rest of him recognizes that if it is, it would probably be for good reason.

Cyr leads them to a private training room, then takes a pokeball out and summons his exeggcute into the middle of the bare floor.

They appear gathered in a small pile, each of the six round bodies touching. Red remembers reading about how they were the hardest pokemon to be coded for balls, since technically they're six distinct bodies. The saving grace was that, individually, none have much of a mind to speak of, their mental presence nearly non-existent. Only once a cluster of six has psychically linked do they show pokemon level intelligence, and it's stranger than even other pokemon with multiple heads, like dugtrio or magneton. Instead exeggcute psychically operate as one mind.

"My first psychic teacher told me that merging with a pokemon is more difficult the more different their physiology," Red says as the group goes to sit by each of the individual seeds, which arranged themselves in a close-knit hexagon after what was likely a mental command from Cyr.

"Mostly true," Satori says. "But complexity matters as well, and there are no pokemon more physically simple than an individual exeggcute seed. It also helps to have a guide." She adjusts her hairband, then looks at Cyr expectantly.

"Right." The young man shifts to sit more comfortably, face thoughtful. "So, physically, you want to prepare yourself to feel their smallness, and their roundness, and their rigidity. They have only five senses: touch, sight, taste, vestibular, and psychic. The first thing you will likely notice is their outer shell, which is where nearly all their nerves are. Imagine yourself as just your head, with your stomach taking up half the space of your brain, only able to move by muscle contractions of your face, which is now spread around your whole head. Let yourself feel that discomfort and distinct lack of control or presence. The world is large and confusing, each nutrient difficult to acquire, and predators are everywhere. Only in numbers are you safe, and only in numbers can you readily acquire food, so seeking and finding others of your kind is a priority above every other impulse. When alone, it might be the only impulse."

Satori speaks with her usual assertive, if distant, tone, and everyone's attention shifts to her. "We will keep them close enough that they have enough intelligence to not be overwhelmed by that impulse, and instead each will barely be an individual at all, but rather have an assigned function, all working toward maximizing different goals."

Cyr nods. "Those goals generally are food acquisition, threat monitoring, mobility coordination, memory, future planning, and flux."

"Flux?" Jason asks.

"Ah, um, it changes a lot, between small, miscellaneous tasks. It's a little hard to describe… kind of a mix of processor and RAM, if that analogy works for you?" Jason shakes his head. "Hmm, probably won't matter unless that one's yours, and then you might experience it for yourself."

"Are certain seeds more suited at one task than another?" Rei asks, looking down at hers.

"IIII'm actuallyyy... not sure? They all shift to combat mode when in a fight, but…" Cyr sees Red's mouth opening and closing like a fish as he tries to find a spot to jump in without being rude. "Do you know?"

"Their neurology is incredibly malleable," Red says with the relief of being able to clarify something for someone. "They each adapt as needed: when they're in combat, all the seeds shift to focus on survival in various ways, both combat and escape, though pokeball conditioning mostly eliminates that, but even outside of it, they definitely alter their focus if one of them gets separated or finds a new cluster. That said, there might be natural affinity toward particular tasks; a lot of exeggcute breeding is about testing for that, so that a cluster can be made up of seeds that are each perfectly attuned to their task."

"Yep, sounds about right," Cyr says. "Any questions? Everyone ready to give this a try? Great." He tosses the exeggcute's pokeball to Tetsuo, who's sitting by the door. "Then here we go…"

He closes his eyes, and Red does the same as he lets his psychic senses stretch out. The other five minds around him are way more distinct than the exeggcute stretched out between them, and it's even harder to focus on the specific node that's his seed in front of him. It's slippery, in the sense that his focus keeps getting distracted toward the wider, stretched out brain that the whole exeggcute shares.

He can sense the thoughts, the sensations, as they bounce and reverb and echo from seed to seed, brain to brain. He drags his attention to the single node in front of him, trying to block out the web connecting it elsewhere, the stream of thoughts that keep pulling him into a chaotic mix of minds. He just has to keep bringing his attention back to the seed, picking up new things little by little… the feel of its round body, simultaneously claustrophobic and comfortingly simple… the bemused neutrality of its emotional landscape as it sits motionless, surrounded by people/seeds who are attempting a double merger (impossible, paradox, absurd)... the thoughts aren't remotely human, aren't really thoughts, but just a fundamental confusion and lack of prior experience or understanding to draw upon to act on what's occurring. If he concentrates a little more, he can even understand where that baffled silence is coming from… which seed keeps getting pinged and returning static, causing the seed/himself to keep looping… and looping… and looping… Red needs to try to take in more of the network, but every time he tries the echoed impulses of the other seeds feel like they drown out his own thoughts, and he can only barely sense the other minds connected—

"Ugh," Daniel says, jolting Red out of his merger and making him look at the blond. Daniel has been quiet since they entered the training room, but now he's shaking his head. "This is pointless."

"It's not pointless," Red says, irritated by his concentration being broken. He checks the time and is surprised to see half an hour has passed. It felt like five minutes, tops. "I was getting somewhere." He looks around at the others to see them nodding.

Daniel looks around at them with clear annoyance. "I didn't say I couldn't merge, but they're just… empty. What's supposed to happen here, exactly?"

"We're not exactly sure," Jason says. "But it will probably take more than a little effort to do a true merge with them, and that's when we'll experience a little more of what it's really like to have a multifaceted mind."

"I have an idea," Rei says, and turns to the gym's Second. "Tetsuo, could you take Daniel's spot, while he stands by for safety?"

Tetsuo looks surprised, but shrugs after a moment. "Why not." He goes over to Daniel, who looks like he's trying to think of an argument, then seems to realize he's getting an out and just takes the empty pokeball, leaning against the wall as the Second takes his spot.

Before long they're all merging again, and Red is starting to get desires from his seed. Sunlight. Soil. Moisture. He thinks his is the one in charge of finding sustenance for the cluster, but there's none of that stuff here, and little by little he notices a change happening as the impulses shift toward something else. He's curious what, but it feels like it's beyond the scope of his seed, in another node, being fed by it. He tries to follow it and gets lost in the echoing empty noise again, and again, and again, before retreating and trying to sink deeper into the merge. He starts to share its eyesight, which is fairly poor, seeing the shape of himself sitting beside it, seeing the shape of the others as the seed turns… he wants to—

COOKIES

the fuck?—

It's all he has time to think, more sentiment than words, and then his mind is full of images and tastes and smells of cookies, not just those he automatically recognizes as his memories and concepts, but others too, five others to be exact, each a myriad of colors and shapes and textures and tastes, some similar, some unique—

The unmistakable sound of a pokemon being withdrawn, and the link is abruptly gone. Red opens his eyes to see the others look around in bewilderment. It takes a moment for him to register where he is (not cookies), who he is (not cookies) and then he turns to see Daniel standing with the pokeball outstretched, a puzzled, even concerned look on his face.

"Are you all, uh, alright?"

"What the... hell was that?" Cyr says, rubbing his lips, then blinking hard.

"Everyone okay? Sound off," Tetsuo says, clearly recovering from his own experience.

"I'm fine," Jason says, spinning his spirit beads.

"Fine," Satori says. "Hungry for cookies."

The group chuckles slightly, except for Rei and Tetsuo. "In an unnatural way?" Rei asks.

"No, no. I'm not obsessed or anything."

"Good. I'm also fine," Rei says. Red nods, and Cyr flashes a thumbs up. Rei seems to relax a little, then looks around. "So… best guesses for what happened?"

"What actually happened, first of all?" Daniel asks.

The group looks at each other, then Jason speaks up. "I suddenly got inundated with thoughts of cookies. Every sense and memory just felt overloaded with it."

The others are nodding, and Red turns to Daniel. "Why did you withdraw the exeggcute?" He's glad his tone is curious, not accusatory.

"You all went stiff, at the same time. More still than usual. A few of you started… chewing at nothing." Daniel lets out a breath. "It was a bit freaky."

"I bet," Tetsuo mutters. "You did the right thing."

Red nods, and the others join in to thank him. Daniel seems unsure what to do with the praise, and just shrugs.

"So, do we try again?" Rei asks.

"Not until we know what happened," Tetsuo says, voice firm. "I've never heard of anything like it, and—"

"I have an idea," Red says. "Um. I think someone managed to actually fully merge with the whole exeggcute cluster. I was trying, over and over, and kept falling short. Whoever did it must have been thinking of cookies at the time, and… that's what propagated to all the other seeds."

There's silence at this, and Satori slowly nods, while Rei looks blankly curious. "Did anyone feel like they managed it?" she asks.

Everyone is silent. "We might be able to tell who it originated from, by thinking over what we thought or felt first more carefully," Tetsuo says.

"Mind if I check if my exeggcute is okay?" Cyr asks, hand up for his ball, and Daniel floats the ball to him mentally. "Thanks."

"Shields up, everyone," Tetsuo says, and a moment later Cyr looks around, gets nods from them, and summons his pokemon again.

The exeggcute seems totally fine and normal, still clustered together in a hexagon. "Doing a quick check," Cyr says, and a few seconds later he nods, smiling. "It's fine."

"Now what?" Satori asks, arms around her knees as she looks at the exeggcute contemplatively. "I'd like to do it again. It was novel."

"There's a lot to consider," Jason says. "And before we try again, we may also want to check us all to ensure we don't have any lasting desire for cookies." He's smiling slightly, but he also seems serious.

"I second that," Tetsuo says, and gets to his feet. "Let's debrief at the clinic, and ensure everyone is checked over. I'll have to revise the safety evaluation of this experiment and check with our ethics team, but maybe by tomorrow we can try again, if everything is as fine as it seems."

Red is disappointed, but gets up with everyone else, still playing over the experience in his memory (like an echoing thought, out and back, bouncing, searching… okay, time to stop evoking that particular comparison). What confuses him the most is how someone could be unaware of being the one that thought of cookies first. He even looks at Daniel, a suspicion blooming in his mind. Would the blond sabotage an experiment just because he wasn't part of it anymore? He does seem in good spirits, now that everyone is okay...

"Good thing it was cookies that someone thought of," Daniel says with a sly smile that only grows Red's suspicion. "There are more embarrassing and sensitive thoughts that would have been strange for everyone to share from everyone else…"

"Well great," Cyr says, as they reach the elevator and he presses the floor where the medical wing is located. "Now that you've said that, it's almost certainly going to be something like that next time…"

Red's next breath is steady. He holds it a moment longer than he should, then lets it out slowly.

He doesn't look at Rei.

He doesn't look at Tetsuo.

He keeps his eyes forward, barely hearing the sarcastic reply by Daniel or the murmurs between Satori and Jason, still feeling Daniel and Cyr's words like a punch to the gut as his body advises him in no uncertain terms that he has dangerous knowledge, and needs to figure out what to do with it.

Aaah, shit, Future Red thinks as the pieces fall into place. That sneaky… I told you this would come back to bite us. So what are we going to do?

Past Red is silent, and Present Red has no idea.