The memorial service for the fallen rangers and pokemon takes about an hour. Laura sits beside Red and his friends throughout it, and waits at a respectful distance afterward as he says goodbye to Blue, Leaf, and Jean. The quiet girl, Maria, has apparently decided to stay in town for a while and learn more from Jason, who in turn is spending some time with his family. She gives Blue a hug before he climbs onto the back of his arcanine, then Leaf, who hugs her back and gives Red one last smile before teleporting away, and then it’s just her and her son, walking back to her apartment through the snow.
She’d be a lot happier about Red asking to stay with her for a while if she wasn’t involved in such a potentially dangerous investigation.
But he wants to stay close to the tower while research continues on whatever new ghost they discovered, and after yet another close call, she can’t send him away. She eventually got used to waiting for Tom to heal after he was injured in the line of duty, but she isn’t sure she’ll manage it for Red. Maybe it’s different with children, or maybe because losing Tom made it clear that she could lose her son too. But at least the physical injuries Tom and Red endured up until now were understandable.
Red’s latest injury was whole new territory for her, and for him, and for other psychics as well, according to Agatha. After they first brought him to her place, Leaf and Blue sat with Red in his room while Laura cried silent tears into her hands and the Elite made tea for her in her own kitchen (which she would have been more embarrassed about at any other time).
Thankfully the symptoms weren’t worrisome, so far at least, but the causes were as unique to him as his mind, and mysterious even to other psychics in a way individual biology, as much as it complicates medical treatment from time to time, would never be to medical doctors. In the end, everyone’s made of blood and bone, tissue and ligaments, cells and atoms. Red’s injury was to his “soul,” or so Agatha asserted in her dry, no-nonsense tone that seemed so at odds with the subject matter.
“Or his mind, if you prefer that word. According to the brain scan his hardware’s fine, but the software’s got a bug in it,” the Elite said, and handed her a tissue along with her tea before putting a hand on her shoulder. “Just keep his mind off it as best you can, Laura. I’ll check in on him from time to time, make sure he’s healing right.”
She didn’t have the words to express her gratitude, and still feels a mix of hope and shame that the Elite would take such a personal interest in her son’s wellbeing, old friend of Sam’s or not. They’d only met a few times over the years, and never had particularly long or intimate conversations. But selfish as it felt, she didn’t even consider turning the offer down, simply nodding and drying her tears so she could put on a brave face for the children.
Children. More than their official emancipation months ago, it’s their accomplishments that make the word feel like it no longer quite fits.
That, and other things.
“So,” she says as they walk, trying to keep her voice casual. “I’m glad you and Blue are getting along so well again.”
Red gives her a surprised look, but nods. “Yeah, since Celadon things feel mostly back to normal.” He shrugs. “We still haven’t talked about it, but I don’t feel like we need to.”
Laura shakes her head, remembering Leaf’s exasperation when they discussed it once. Boys. She might normally caution against letting things like that stay buried where they might blow up again at an unexpected moment, but she has another focus right now… Keep his mind off it, Agatha said. Easy enough, while they’re together at least. “You and Leaf seem to be getting along well too.”
She’s sure she kept her tone the same, and she didn’t feel him brush her thoughts with his psychic senses (though she knows that’s unreliable), but the look he gives her is still one of cautious resignation. “Mom…”
“She’s a very smart young woman.”
“Of course not.” Now he’s blushing, much to her delight.
“You should have invited her over to lunch. We can get some fishless sushi.” Laura worries sometimes about Red’s decision to follow Leaf’s diet; much as she respects Leaf’s beliefs, it’s hard to trust that supplements could really cover everything a growing body needs, so she’s happy that Red is willing to eat pokemon as long as she’s already buying it anyway. But she’s happy to cater to Leaf’s preference if it gets the two to spend more time together.
“She has stuff to do at the ranch.”
“Of course.” Laura nods approvingly. “A very hard worker, too. Why not ask her to come by for dinner then?”
She sees him hesitate, considering it, and innocently adds, “I’ll be busy after dinner anyway, if she wants to stay for longer.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” he says, cheeks still pink, and she takes it as a victory.
Once they get home she fixes some lunch for them, surprised by how much she enjoys it. She’s never been much of a homebody, and was always happy to let Red make food for himself once he resolved to learn how. Still, for an hour at least it’s like they’re back in simpler times, and she cherishes it while she can.
Then his plate is clean and he’s off to the guest room to work on his research with a quick “Thanks!” and that’s also like old times. She makes sure there’s leftover food in the fridge in case he gets hungry, then goes to put her pokebelt back on.
“I’m heading out to meet a friend, I’ll be back in a few hours!”
“Okay! Love you!”
She smiles, says, “Love you too,” and holds onto the warm feelings until she’s fairly sure she’s out of his psychic range. Only then does she let her thoughts shift to her upcoming meeting.
In the time since she arrived in Lavender, she’s only gotten one communication from the mysterious researcher. A few days after she paid a courier to slip the initial message under his door, she saw a slip of paper on his porch and waited until the dead of night to get it while wearing a mask, worried all the while that some neighbor would report her to the police for robbing him. Once she circled the town a few times to make sure she wasn’t followed, she checked the note to discover it was the same one she’d left, and turned it over to read:
Thank you for your concern, but I am fine. My only wish is to be left alone.
This was not the worst potential outcome, not even close, but it also wasn’t a great one, as it means she can’t get more information without violating his stated preference… and because it doesn’t actually distinguish his situation from one where he’s forced to live that way. Maybe he really is an extreme loner, or maybe he wants to be left alone because of some threat.
She had a courier slip one more note under his door with the contact information of a specially purchased burner phone on it, “in case you change your mind,” then went back to watching his house from afar. Maybe he would try to leave town, disappear somewhere else. That would be informative on its own; wanting to be left alone is one thing, but moving to an entirely different place just based on what Laura has done so far is not, by Laura’s estimation at least, something done by someone with nothing to hide.
But he stayed where he was, and as far as she could tell from some occasional surreptitious monitoring, made no major differences in his routine. Eventually the cost of the hotel she was staying at began to feel excessive, and she had to make the choice between going back to Celadon or finding an apartment in town.
She went with the latter. Without her job to go back to, living in the city would be expensive, and while she could try getting work at another agency, none would be more willing to fight the legal and financial pressure Silph has been focusing on her. The lawsuit she’s dealing with is bad enough that she doesn’t blame them… it’s not often that she has to do anything directly but ask for extensions and go to brief hearings, but even aside from the time and money cost it causes constant stress whenever she thinks about it.
Sure, there are some sites and organizations that have reached out in support and asked her to join them. But all of them are either too small to fund this sort of long-term investigation, or too big for her to trust with such a sensitive investigation. Sam’s money is helping keep her afloat, but she has to be careful how she spends it to make sure it’s not wasted.
So she left the hotel and got a short lease at an apartment. Cheaper for a long stay, and more importantly, it was a public move. If she’s being tracked, which she has no reason to think she’s not, then Silph will see she’s taken up residence in the same town the secretive researcher is living.
Silph might think that’s a coincidence, but she doubts it. Overall it’s a risky move, but she doesn’t have a lot of options, and if he or the researcher react, Laura might learn something.
And, of course, it let her continue to spend hours outside his place every day, hoping to get a picture.
Laura reaches the cafe and slips inside, wrinkling her nose as she passes under the strong smell of the ofuda hanging above the door. She looks around as she unwinds her scarf, then smiles and walks toward the familiar head of salt and pepper hair.
Sam looks as tired as she’s ever seen him, not counting the times he was recovering from Pressure. The difference is the spark in his eyes, the curve of his outer lips, even while he stares at his computer screen in concentration… like he can’t quite manage a frown while he’s so excited.
“Anything new?” she asks as she bundles her coat and scarf in her lap and sits.
“No, just reading over reports.” He picks up his coffee mug and sips from it without taking his eyes off his screen. “Did you know that proportionally, the Tower and outlying graveyard have more ghosts around them than gravesites with the same or even more buried bodies? Or had, I should say.”
“I did not,” Laura says, and waves off the waitress when she comes by with a questioning look. “Though it seems obvious now that you mention it, since cities would have much bigger graveyards but none are ‘known’ for having lots of ghosts around them. Is that helpful?”
“Probably not for this mystery, but I definitely want to get more eyes on this place to monitor how quickly the population regenerates. Maybe we can learn something about what makes it special.”
“Higher frequency of visitors, maybe? It’s both a cemetery and a tourist site.”
“Mhm. Or it could be the altitude, or something about the material used to build the tower, or maybe it’s all built on some spiritual leyline like Agatha says.” He sighs and lowers his monitor with a click. The cover has some faded stickers of pokemon on it, placed there years ago by Blue. “Still can’t tell when she’s pulling my leg. So, you said you finally got a clear shot? I thought he never leaves, keeps the curtains drawn, all that stuff?”
“Normally, yes, and I don’t mind telling you that it made for some very boring stakeouts. But a little over a week ago…” She finds the photo on her phone, then hands it to him. Sam leans forward to examine the face of the mysterious researcher. “Apparently the one thing he can’t get from home is a dentist visit.”
Laura took the photo after magnifying her camera as much as it could go, but her setup was far enough to not be seen from his house, or anyone else watching his house, so what she ended up with is a photo that still shows the researcher from a distance. The man looks to be a Kanto native in his fifties, mostly bald, with a fringe of white hair that goes around the back of his head. He’s wearing a simple blue button up shirt that outlines a skinny frame.
He has an old fashioned wide brimmed hat on, similar to the one Mr. Silph wears, and his eyes are downcast, as if deep in thought… or perhaps from being unused to the bright sky above.
For a long moment, Sam just stares at the photo. Laura watches his face, the tension in the brow, the narrowing eyes, the press of his lips. It’s a look of both intense examination and hope.
And, as Laura watches, dawning amazement.
“Sam?” she asks after a minute.
“It…” He trails off, licks his lips, takes another sip of coffee. “It could be,” he whispers. “It could be him.”
Laura blinks, then blinks again. Him. Not one of them. “Dr. Fuji?” she murmurs, unable to hide her skepticism. What would the odds be, that among all the scientists and researchers that are supposedly missing, the one that Sam knew best, the one that he specifically mentioned to her at the beginning, would be the one she found first? He’s not the only one from Kanto, and Laura didn’t even know it might be him when she came here…
“Yes. I can’t be sure, of course. If it is him, it’s been at least twenty years since I’ve seen him, and it shows. He hasn’t aged well.” Sam meets her gaze. “But… there’s something familiar about him.”
Laura’s skepticism is joined by sympathy. She understands that Sam wants it to be him. That he blames himself for not doing more to be there for his old friend, for not trying harder to find him when he fell off the radar. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I hope it is.”
Sam returns his gaze to her phone, then slowly hands it back. “How far is he from here?”
“About a ten minute walk.” Her stomach sinks. “Why?”
“I want to go see him.”
Laura takes a moment to pick her words. “That’s a terrible idea.”
Sam’s brow rises, and then he smiles. “What was the first thing you thought to say?”
“It wasn’t coherent, just a wordless sense of panic.”
“Ah. That bad?”
“Sam, I’ve spent the past months trying to learn as much as possible without risking scaring him off or letting Silph know I’m aware of him. I don’t know if they’ve got the place under constant surveillance or not, but if you show up there…” He’s Samuel Oak, he’s probably not afraid of being targeted, and for good reason. Maybe he could get away with it where she couldn’t. But… “We just don’t know enough about the situation. You might get him killed.”
He looks away, not ashamed or upset, just thoughtful, and sips from his mug. She considers getting some coffee herself, or better yet some tea given the way her stomach is churning, and then he turns back to her.
“Alright. You’re the expert here, and if you think it’s not the right time, I trust you. But what’s your projection for when it will be the right time? Do you have a plan for how you’ll know it’s okay to take bolder action?”
“That’s what I wanted your help with. I did some basic attempts at matching the face online to an identity, but had no luck. If you think this is him, I can try to reach out to people who might have seen him more recently than you, get some extra confirmation.”
“But what does that change? Particularly if he’s there by choice, as I believe he would be. If Silph is hiring scientists to work off the record for them, particularly in secret, it makes sense to kidnap those no one would miss, or who would be written off… but they might also target those with nothing else to lose, who would welcome a sense of purpose, security, even seclusion.”
“Which includes Fuji.” Not that she blames him. If she’d lost Tom and Red… she doesn’t even want to think about it.
“That’s my guess. What do we do if it’s true? I don’t want to invade his privacy if he’s there voluntarily, but there may be others who aren’t.”
Laura nods. “The way he’s situated it would make sense if different people were siloed so they don’t know anything about each other’s situation… but they still might pass information along to each other, even innocuously. He might not even realize others need help, nor how valuable what he knows could be. But your question was what it would change, and honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe you knocking on the door, strutting the white coat and the Professor title is the safest way to learn more.” She’s smiling as she says it, and can see he’s torn between denying the characterization and feeling caught out. “But I’d like to at least see what I can find out first. Whoever he is, he’s been safe in that house until now, and there’s no reason to think that’s about to change, especially if my note didn’t scare him off.”
Sam takes in a breath, then lets it out with a nod. “Okay. I’ll be teleporting back here every few days for a while yet, so once you’ve done all you think you can, let me know.”
“I will. Just give me as much information as you can about Fuji and those who knew him, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
After Sam leaves she orders some tea to go and heads to the local library, where she spends the next few hours working. She trusts Red, but still doesn’t want to risk him picking up on what she’s working on. The less he knows the safer they’ll both be.
She spends some time refreshing herself on the public information available on Dr. Fuji, especially any personal details that might be on the net that the Professor didn’t mention. Fuji never had much of a social media presence, and if there are any obvious clues that the man in town is him, she can’t find them. She examines the old pictures available and can’t tell if she really sees the similarities or if Sam’s confidence is influencing her. Eventually she moves on to examining the pictures of other missing researchers until night falls (earlier every day, it seems) and heads home through the dark, snow-covered streets, her hands tucked into the pockets of her coat for warmth.
She arrives to find a strange black shape floating around her living room.
“Hi, Mom. I bought an unown,” Red explains. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with his eyes closed, along with the young researcher she met at the funeral, Artem.
“Hello, Mrs. Verres.”
“Hello, and I see that, Red.” Now that it has turned around, at least, its round, unblinking eye facing her for a moment before it keeps turning away. “Is that a G, or a V?” She knows those two look nothing like the written letters, for whatever reason, but she can’t recall which is which.
“G,” Red says. “I keep them straight by remembering that the one with a little sideways V on it isn’t V.”
“Sideways?” Artem asks.
“Well, there’s only one position where it’s oriented like a V, and in all the others it’s either tilted or upside down… you’re right, I should say ’tilted.'”
Laura can see why these two became friends. “So why get a G?” It’s still floating aimlessly around, there’s something distinctly creepy about the way it floats aimlessly around… and she can hear it, too, a faint vibration in the air. Or is that just in her head?
“It was the cheapest one on auction at the time. About two thousand.”
Laura blinks. “That was the cheapest?”
“They went up in price for a while after the Hoenn thing,” Artem explains. “But have been dropping after that as more of them have been found and caught and people get bored of them not doing anything interesting.”
She watches the expensive pokemon float around some more as a small remnant of her past self worries that she made a mistake in granting his financial independence so young… but no, she knows he can afford this, and likely had good reason to buy it. “And is yours?”
Red sighs and opens his eyes. “Not really.” He rubs his face, while Artem checks the time, then starts writing in the notebook he has in front of him. “It feels different than the ones I sensed at Lavender.”
“Maybe because they were wild,” Artem muses as Laura finally moves to hang her pokebelt by the door and take her shoes off.
“Or maybe because they were with others.” Red stands and goes to the counter to pour some tea into a cup, then brings it to her.
“Oh, thank you Hon.” Her hands are still cold from the walk, and just holding the warm cup is pleasant. “Does that mean you might buy more?”
“It would be a waste if the difference is in whether it’s wild versus captured. I’m going to try meeting up with others who have one, first, then let Artem borrow it for his experiment.”
She turns to the other researcher. “What will you be testing?”
“Whether they create pokemon. Honestly, I’d barely call it an experiment, I just plan to put a bunch of unown in a room with a pokeball, some magnets and screws, a bag of trash, you know, things that some pokemon seem to have originated from, and observe them for a few months.”
She raises a brow and sips her tea. “Months? Continuously?”
“I’ll have help, others to swap with and make sure someone’s always watching the camera feed.” He shrugs. “I know it’s really unlikely, but it seems like an obvious thing to try that no one has.”
“It’s definitely worth testing,” Red says. “I just wish I could be of more help.”
“You’ve done enough, particularly since I know you’re still skeptical of all this.” Artem pockets his notebook, then stands and moves to take his own pokebelt from the hook by the door. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, let’s grab lunch.”
“Alright. Goodnight, Mrs. Verres.”
“Goodnight, Artem.” She moves to the door to close it behind him, then slide the deadbolt in. When she turns back around she feels a stab of worry at the sight of Red rubbing his temples. “Another headache?”
“Maybe you should hold off on using your powers for a few days.”
He shakes his head. “It’s not that. It’s these memories… remember when I told you about the way I kept re-experiencing my spinarak’s attack, in Viridian Forest? It’s like that, and I’m able to protect myself better now, but it’s also a much stronger effect, and… I can’t keep myself totally cut off from the memories when there might be clues in them.”
“Clues about where the marowak ghost came from?”
“Right. I didn’t get the chance to really merge with the unown outside the tower, but touching them at all meant I could recognize when I merged with the marowak that… it was connected to them, somehow. I hadn’t really thought about it because I was keeping the memory away, but the more I let myself remember the more I realize Artem might be right.”
He’s watching his unown with troubled eyes, and Laura feels some apprehension. “You don’t think it’s likely to spawn a pokemon out of my table or something, do you?”
“Hm? Oh, no. Probably not. But look at it a moment… doesn’t it seem…” His voice lowers. “Almost deceptively simple? And that eye, always watching…”
Laura raises a brow, concern shifting in a different direction. “Oookay, Red, I think it’s time to take a break.” She puts her hands on his shoulders and squeezes, feeling the tension there. “Why don’t you withdraw it so we can get some dinner? Maybe watch a movie? I think we can both use a break from work.”
As he does so, her phone rings, and when she checks it she sees Leaf’s number. “Hello, L—”
“Hi Laura! Um, are you home?”
“I… yes, Red and I are here.”
“Okay, I’m teleporting over, be there in like, fifteen minutes!”
Laura blinks, then grins. “You’re joining us for dinner?”
“Okay, see you soon!”
“See you!” The call ends.
“Was that Leaf?” Red asks, pokeball still in hand. He sounds annoyed.
“As if you don’t know,” Laura says. “Why didn’t you tell me you invited her, Red, I barely have time to figure out what to serve—”
“But I didn’t!”
Laura blinks. He doesn’t sound annoyed now, or even embarrassed. Just confused. “Do you know why she’s coming, then?”
“No, I haven’t spoken to her since she left. I thought you invited her without telling me.”
They share a baffled silence for a moment, and Laura feels a vaguely familiar feeling in her thoughts. “Red Verres, are you reading my thoughts?” It’s times like this she wishes she’d given him a middle name.
“Sorry,” he says as the feeling quickly fades. “I thought you might have been teasing me, but if you’re serious, I’m a little worried.”
“Me too.” She replays Leaf’s tone in her head. Chipper, maybe even excited. She wonders for a moment if someone tricked Leaf, impersonated Red or Laura and told her to come… but why would they?
Then Laura gets it, and sees understanding come over her son’s face a moment later. “The investigation.”
Worry is joined by excitement, suddenly, and chases away Laura’s lingering tiredness. “Has she mentioned anything lately?”
“No, but we worked on it a bit on the day before we came here. We were narrowing down lists…” He trails off, then takes out his phone and starts tapping at it. “Do you think something happened that might have given her a new clue?”
“Let me know if you find something. I guess we’re ordering food in, tonight.”
But twenty minutes later he doesn’t seem to have found anything. Leaf arrives just after the food does, apparently having underestimated how long it would take for her to bike over in the snow. She starts to take off her scarf and coat, then stops to gratefully accept the hot mug of tea Laura brewed, then sets it down after a swallow to keep shedding layers.
“Leaf, slow down,” Laura says as she starts opening the various containers of food and sets them on the table. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“I know, just… excited,” Leaf gasps, still breathless from her ride over. She pulls her boots off, then sits with a sigh and takes a longer swallow of the tea. “Sorry for dropping by like this, but—”
“It’s fine,” Red says before Laura can, and she turns away to hide her smile at Red’s tone, picking silverware out of the drawers. Red joins her a moment later to take them from her and to the table, and she turns to get them plates. “This is about the investigation, right?”
“Yeah! Hang on, let me…” Leaf stands again and takes out a container ball, and a minute later Laura’s old battered laptop with the original files is on the table. “Okay, so I should start at the beginning… um… right, I got to the ranch, and as I started doing some chores, I was thinking about what happened here. Eventually that included wondering about Jason and Agatha compared to Red and Sabrina, and the way we classify them ‘psychic’ or ‘medium’ based on their specialties despite not really having a strict idea of what makes one different from the other.”
“Alright,” Laura says as she sets the plates out. “With you so far.”
“And then I thought about the way we label people’s skills in general, you know? And a sort of joke I made to Red, a few days ago, about how the person who visited you was a ninja hacker spy, or a hacker ninja spy, or whatever. And a thought occurred, something small like ‘huh, what made me start calling her a ninja,’ like I get why but I never really did anything with that thought, you see?”
“I think I’m starting to,” Laura says, hope expanding in her chest.
“I’m not,” Red admits with a frown. “Unless you’re saying… there’s actual ninjas still hanging around Kanto?”
“It’s not as strange as it sounds,” Laura explains. “Once in a while over the past couple hundred years some records would surface of a ninja clan, a group of families that survived since the times of the warlords, usually revealed by descendants that walked away from that life, or grew up in it as it was transitioning to more modern lifestyles. For generations they retained secret techniques for assassination, espionage, and pokemon training. There hasn’t been a new one revealed in, oh, fifty years or so, but there’s always speculation about how many are still around—”
“—since obviously those that are still ‘active’ are going to keep their existence secret.”
“Exactly.” She turns back to Leaf. “Did my contact do something that matched one of those ninja records?”
“No,” Leaf says. “Nothing that I could find, at least.”
Laura blinks, the hope deflating like a punctured balloon. But Leaf is still smiling. “Then what… You think it is a new one?”
“I’m not sure, but… I decided to narrow the search down to Fuchsia City, just based on the records of where the data first started coming from.” Leaf shows Laura the time and location stamps on the initial files, and she nods. “Could be unimportant, of course, but it seemed worth focusing on for a while at least. So once I had this thought, I started looking through forums and blogs and news aggregators that mention the city, just generally looking for anything that might stand out, you know, but also using the word ‘ninja’ in the search… and look!”
She opens her phone, now, and shows Laura a collection of screenshots. Red gets up and comes around to look as well.
First a snippet on some biker forum warning people to stay away from Fuchsia, describing a “shadowy figure” that attacked him and moved “like a ninja.” Laura swipes to the next picture to see another similar post, and another after that. She goes back to look at the details and sees these are spaced out by months, each by someone different, all light on details or agenda other than to share a general message: stay out of Fuchsia if you know what’s good for you.
A new gang, Laura thinks, until she sees the fourth screenshot, which shows a headline about crime in Fuchsia being down. One that’s keeping outsiders away…? She remembers hearing news about this here and there over the past year, but her assumption had always been that Fuchsia was having a good few months, or a good year, or that Fuchsia’s tourism was doing a PR blitz, or that the media was focusing on some stats over others to make a story. Common crime reporting was never really an interest of hers.
But as she swipes to the next picture (a breakdown of what kinds of crime were lower: theft, robbery, assault) and the next few (a series of headlines on corrupt politicians and businessmen being arrested or exposed) she recognizes this is more than just some criminals policing their own.
“And the dates for some of that stuff? It matches some of the Fuchsia data in the files, or is close to when information sources cut off.”
“How long did it take you to find all this?” Laura asks. It’s only been about twelve hours since Leaf left Lavender…
“Not long, most of it is other people’s work. I’m not the first person to notice all this, there’s a conspiracy site where others were already putting it all together… and more, a lot more, but that’s the verifiable stuff once I excluded all the rumors.”
“Some of the biker gangs were saying some renegade is going around killing or kidnapping their friends, while others claimed to have been among those attacked, and had their pokemon stolen. Some even claim it’s Koga who’s doing it, though there’s little agreement on the details… each incident sounds more fanciful than the last, with just a couple common themes.”
“So maybe one group got attacked, and the others took the story and added their own details to it?”
“That’s what I thought, yeah. There are also strange stories about why some important people in business or government suddenly quit and moved to another city, but nothing substantial.”
“Wait,” Red says. “Just to be clear, combining all this with our guess that the ninja hacker started her war against Silph in Fuchsia, the new hypothesis is… she isn’t just going after Silph, she’s a general-purpose vigilante?”
“Or she’s part of a group operating in Fuchsia,” Laura says. “One that decided to chase Silph past the borders of their city, and sent her to meet me. Or maybe she’s got more autonomy than that, and decided to chase Silph herself. Leaf, this is an amazing potential story all on its own. A ninja clan living in Fuchsia and cleaning up the city… well, given everything else going on, movie studios might be more interested than news sites, but it’s a great find.”
“Thanks! Like I said though, this is mostly other people’s work, they just didn’t have the other pieces to point them in the right direction. I’m thinking of reaching out to some of the people involved, even the bikers, and see what I can learn that they didn’t put online.”
Laura feels a stab of worry, but Leaf is already raising her palm. “I know, Laura, I’ll be careful. I already bought a burner phone and downloaded a voice modulator.”
Somehow hearing about the precautions makes Laura more nervous rather than less, but… she’s the one that involved Leaf in all this to begin with, knowing that she’d be safer under guided investigation than impatiently trying to find stuff out on her own.
Besides, she’s pretty sure Leaf stole something from the Casino and then lied to the police about it. Laura shouldn’t assume Leaf can’t be cunning on her own… though that particular example makes Laura nervous for different reasons. She hasn’t confronted Leaf about it because she wants the girl to trust her and be honest with her on her own… and because if she’s wrong, she imagines it would be terribly hurtful to Leaf that Laura didn’t trust her.
“Alright. Good idea wanting to talk about this in person, and if you’re going to keep an abra registered to the town for a while then feel free to come by whenever to update me.”
Leaf smiles. “I will. You should buy an abra too, Laura. You’re carrying a pokebelt around anyway, and now that the first generation are starting to hatch at the new breeding farms the prices are going to start dropping again.”
Laura thinks about her narrow budget and nods. “I’ll think about it.”
“No, you won’t. I’ll buy you one, Mom, Leaf’s right, it would just be dumb not to get you a couple in case of emergencies. I should have done it earlier.” He looks at Leaf. “Really, we should all have been spending money more freely than we have been.”
“Why haven’t you?” Laura asks.
“I guess I didn’t really internalize how much potential to earn more I have now. Even after the abra sales, it felt like… this one big windfall that I was lucky to get, and had to save for getting rare pokemon for research, or emergencies.”
“I had a similar thought,” Leaf admits. “We were in Vermilion after we got the money, and things were fine until Zapdos attacked. Then I went to the ranch and it felt like I might need the money for my project.”
“I get why Blue tries to avoid it, he doesn’t want people to think he just bought his way through the badges, but really he should be buying more pokemon just to have for traveling safely. Maybe that’s not as big a deal for him now, with the strong pokemon he has and the size of the group he travels with, but I’m definitely going to buy some stronger pokemon to round out my belt.”
Now that’s a use for money she can approve of. She looks at Leaf, who’s packing the laptop back away and says, “You are staying for dinner, right?”
“Oh!” She seems to suddenly notice the third place set for her. “I thought it was just an obvious cover, I didn’t mean to impose on family time…”
Laura looks at Red. His cheeks pink, but he gets the hint. “You’re not imposing at all.”
Leaf smiles and sits, and Laura beams at him as she starts serving food. For tonight at least, her worries about the investigation are easy to ignore.
Two weeks pass while Red stays with Laura, occasionally teleporting away to Saffron for some psychic business or Celadon to help the police there hunt Renegades. Laura wasn’t exactly thrilled with that news, but the fact that he would be constantly with police and gym members reassures her, as does the recognition that he likely wouldn’t be asked to actually help apprehend anyone if they find someone.
He also keeps meeting with Artem and Jason as the investigations into the incident at the tower continue, while Laura does her best to prepare for a confrontation with the researcher. Overall they settle into a comfortable and peaceful pattern, though there are some moments of excitement that send Red in and out of the apartment for days, such as when someone discovers the code for an artificial pokemon in the data that was recovered under the Rocket Casino. Much of it is over Laura’s head, but between Red and Artem’s excited conversation she gathers that it’s an attempt to combine and expand on the process of TM editing and reverse-pokemon-storage to code an entirely new, if incredibly simple, organism into being from scratch.
They also spend some time together doing more pleasant things, like watching movies at night and discussing current events during meals. Sometimes she has to practically drag Red away from his research to give himself a rest, and sometimes he falls asleep with his head on her shoulder halfway through the film while his pikachu curls up on his lap. She doesn’t mind.
There are less pleasant evenings as well. Cerulean City gets hit by a Tier 2 incident after a snowstorm displaced a family of dragonite who killed over a hundred people before Brock, Misty, Sabrina and Erika captured them. She and Red followed the news together, and she could tell that a part of Red wanted to go help. She asked him if he had friends in the city, and he said no, but that Blue and Leaf did. She still remembers his insistence that he’s not like his father, and his actions have shown that more than once. But, glad as she was that he didn’t rush off into danger, there was also a feeling of melancholic gladness in knowing he’s not as different as he thinks.
Her own investigations continue apace, though maybe not swiftly enough to keep Sam from getting a little antsy. And given what might be at stake, she doesn’t blame him. A few times, she almost asks Red to take a walk with her. To pass by the researcher’s house, and ask him what he senses from inside.
It would be unethical. She knows that, just as she knows that involving Red that way would be twice as bad as hiring some psychic without scruples. If she’s willing to do something like that, she might as well have asked her investigator to bend some laws. Using a psychic isn’t even necessarily safer, if the researcher turns out to be a sensitive like her, and notices someone touching his thoughts.
So she keeps that thought to herself, and dismisses others like having Red around when they finally confront the researcher to do for her what Leaf suspects Giovanni had a psychic do for him. High as the stakes might be, she’d never forgive herself if something happened to Red because of her, and there’s no other psychic she trusts. She considers asking Sam if he trusts someone, maybe even someone like Leader Misty or Sabrina, but she’s worried what his reaction might be. They would have to do this the right way.
One day she finds Red just sitting at the table with a round, smooth stone in his hand. She goes about her business, taking a bottle of salsa out of the fridge and getting some chips to snack on while she works, but once she’s finished preparing some dip and he’s still sitting still she feels a bit of concern, unsure if he fell asleep in his chair.
“Taking a break?”
He opens his eyes and sighs. “Not really. I think I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough.”
“Red, that’s wonderful!” She decides to eat here instead, and offers him some chips, which he takes, but without any real enthusiasm. She studies him closer, concern returning stronger than before. “You’re not acting like it’s wonderful. Are you having one of your bad days?” It’s a question she used to ask him a lot, once he finally started recovering. Inconsistently, but it was still a huge relief compared to the way he acted before. It feels strange asking that question again after so long, but she knows it fits with whatever he’s going through better than she realized at the time.
“No, it’s not that. I meant it when I said I think I had a breakthrough. I’m just struggling with what it means.”
He munches on a chip, then nods. “Remember that psychic particle I theorized-existing, hidden in the ‘other’ classification of pokeball data?”
“Someone at Pallet recently noted that unown have a lot of it. She was right, I checked with my own, and it struck me that they’re the simplest pokemon we’ve ever encountered, so simple that they almost feel artificial, even more so than porygon—”
“That’s what people are calling the Casino’s artificial pokemon. Its body is really simple, and from some images people generated from the data to imagine what it would look like if given real form, it almost looks like a low resolution image of a creature rather than a real one.”
“Maybe because they didn’t finish it?”
“Maybe. We’ll see if it’s viable soon enough. Anyway, unown are like porygon: the bare necessities for a complex living organism. But they have tons of ‘other,’ even more than ghosts!”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Laura admits. “Unown may be biologically simple, but they’re obviously psychic, right? They move by floating around, and the way they communicate… assuming that’s what they’re doing…”
“But the same thing can be said of gastly. It’s not enough to explain the difference, or at least, not while we know so little about how their psychic abilities work and the relationship with the particle. When I merged with the unown and put it in a dangerous situation, it tried to get away, but didn’t fight back.”
Laura nods, already having learned after they started showing up randomly that unown are one of the rare few pokemon that don’t fight at all. “And?”
“And it should! It has telekinesis. I feel it using it to float around, so it’s not like it can’t, and it clearly recognizes threats… it just doesn’t care. Which struck me as weird when I considered that Charmeleon’s ‘other’ increased when I gave him the TM for Shadow Claw, and all the abra in my experiment also increased theirs when I used the Psychic TM on them.”
“So? Just because unown have the ability to fight doesn’t mean they have the instinct to.”
“Sure, maybe they evolved to use their powers just for evasion, like abra. But the thing is, all those papers that came out noting random correlations between ‘other’ and different things? They found nothing to publish on unown. Because unown are almost entirely uniform. It’s actually incredible how similar they are to each other, even the different letters… some have slightly different mass, but they’re so simple we can actually factor out the differences and compare their abilities incredibly well.”
“Alright.” She dips another chip and munches on it, watching him as he turns the rock over in his hands. “So what does this have to do with that?”
“I can’t do telekinesis. Like, at all. I’ve merged with a dozen different psychic pokemon and even a couple other people as they used their own, and I’m just not able to do it.” He sets the rock down and takes another chip. “The thing is, most ghosts can’t either unless you use a TM on them.”
“Alright. I think I follow all that, but I’m still not sure what it has to do with…”
“Jason and Agatha also aren’t particularly good at it.”
“Huh. Does that mean you’re not actually a psychic? You’re a medium, like them?”
“I don’t know. I glimpsed something fundamentally different in the way Jason and Agatha interact with ghosts, but I think it’s just about their beliefs compared to their abilities. When I met Jason and Maria, yesterday, I could tell that Maria has developed to be more than just sensitive; she has very weak psychic abilities too. Still, she was able to mimic Jason’s mental state when interacting with his ghosts as easily as I could with my mirroring ability. I might be like them, but with such a different frame of mind that I’m more like other psychics.”
“I think I get it. If ghosts and psychics are just different concentrations of a pair of phenomena… and there are some other pokemon that can naturally use Ghost type attacks but not Psychic ones, or vice versa… you’ve been measuring two different things?”
“From the very beginning. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean what does telekinesis really have to do with other psychic powers, other than that they’re both controlled mentally? That spinarak outlier in my first experiment must have been one that was really, really weak at kinesis but not weak at projection. So its ‘other’ looked way too small for how powerful its Night Shade was.”
“Do any TMs work on unown?”
“No.” Despite the answer, he seems pleased she asked the question. “That’s part of the problem, they’re too simple, and they have no fighting instinct anyway, so who would bother developing one? So I need to find another way to test my new theory.”
Laura nods, then realizes something. “You don’t seem to be having headaches any more.”
“Getting better. Agatha and Jason have been teaching me some stuff, and Dr. Seward helped me manage some more of my feelings so I don’t need to rely as much on the partitions.”
“That’s great.” She puts a hand on his. “I don’t know if I say this enough, Red, but when I think of all you’ve accomplished in such a short time… well, we’ve already had the conversations about your safety, and I know we still disagree over the incident with the clefairy, but I still wanted to say that I’m very proud of you. Your father would be too.”
He ducks his head. “Thanks, Mom.” His hand squeezes hers back, then he looks up. “Is there a ‘but’ coming?”
She laughs. “No. Or at least, there wasn’t, but now that you ask… how much longer do you think—”
“Oh, yeah, I’m heading back in a couple days, I think. Blue is heading there, and—”
“No need to explain at all, I was just curious.” She smiles, relieved and saddened, and that night after they watch a movie and he goes to bed she makes her final preparations.
The day Red leaves it snows over Lavender again. Laura has finished speaking to everyone she can find who knew Dr. Fuji and showed them the picture of the researcher. About a third of them say it might be him. The other two-thirds say they think it is, but can’t be positive. One woman, his old neighbor, starts to tear up as soon as she sees it. “I’m so glad he’s okay,” she says in a watery voice. “That poor man, I thought he’d…”
“You’re sure it’s him?” Laura asked, heart hammering.
“Oh, yes. He’s changed, but those eyes… I’d recognize them anywhere.”
You could hardly make out his eyes in the photo, but Laura thanks her for her time and assures her that she’ll pass along well wishes.
She meets Sam outside the pokemon center he uses as his teleportation point, and they travel together to the researcher’s house. He’s dressed in a hat and trench coat rather than his usual white, and she in a sweater to keep off the chill. His gaze seems to note her backpack, in which she’s stored containers holding all the possessions she brought to Lavender, then snag on her pokebelt.
“Red bought me an abra. Took a quick trip to Saffron to register it there.” Her feet crunch over the thin layer of ice on the sidewalk. “How’s the research coming? You look better rested, which I take to mean it’s slowing down.”
He grins. “I may have gotten a stern talking to from some of my staff. I wanted us to join the race to create the first living porygon, but was convinced we were stretching ourselves too thin already, and that the fact that I was even seriously considering it was a sign that I needed more sleep.”
“I’m glad you listened.”
“Oh, I still needed some prodding after that, but the point was well made. How about you, any progress with the lawsuit?”
“Next court date is in a week, where the judge will rule on whether I have to show a third party arbiter what I’ve been researching to determine whether it falls under the category of things that need to be turned over. I’m trying not to think about it.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but—”
“I know, it’s not really your area.”
“And President Silph isn’t my biggest fan at the moment after I built and handed out so many of his company’s goggles, though how much I’ll care about that after this visit depends on what Dr. Fuji has to say.”
Assuming it is him, Laura doesn’t respond. She doesn’t want him to get his hopes up, but it all still seems too convenient, and the thought makes her antsy. Still, they’re going to go through with it regardless, and she’s been as cautious as she could.
When they arrive at the house, Laura sees the car idling across the street. The sight of it reassures her, though she tries not to feel overconfident. If whoever’s in the house needs to be rescued, the car can help them make a getaway. If, however, they react poorly or call for help, she and Sam can teleport away.
Laura hangs back while Sam steps up to the door and knocks. The street is quiet, snow already piled up on the lawns and making an effort to cover the walkways. The sun is still up, giving the day a grey light through the clouds, and Laura’s breaths are loud in her own ears.
After a minute, Sam knocks again, louder.
“Does he ever answer?” Sam asks, not bothering to keep his voice down.
“No.” The ofuda from weeks ago is still above the door, though the ink on it has faded and the cold has sapped any scent that might have remained.
The Professor waits another minute, then knocks once more and says, “Minoru. It’s Sam.”
The world is silent. Laura glances around, heart still pounding as she continues to imagine the person inside calling someone, who sends the police or worse…
“I’m fairly sure it’s you in there,” Sam continues. “And I’m not going away until you tell me to, or prove me wrong.” There’s a beat of silence, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there when you needed me. I know it’s no excuse, but I—”
The door opens, and Laura, who has been feeling a bit like she should maybe step away and give Sam some privacy, snaps her head around in shock as the researcher stands in the doorway staring at him.
The silence returns, heavier than ever, until Sam sighs, “Minoru.”
“Sam.” The older man’s face creases, and he takes a deep, shuddering breath. “You came.”
And then he seems to notice Laura, and blinks watery eyes at her before he says, “Ah. You’re the one who left the note?”
Laura swallows, then steps forward, hand out, while the other slips into her pocket and presses the record button of her microphone. “Laura Verres. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Fuji.”
He stares at her hand, then breathes in and reaches out to take it. His grip is even weaker than Red’s, like he’s being extra careful not to exert too much force. “The pleasure is mine. With just a few minor exceptions, it’s been a long time since I met someone new… and a longer time since they knew who I was.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Sam says. “To figure out what’s happened to you and the others. Are you alright, Minoru? Is someone keeping you here?”
“Ah. That’s… no, no. I’m here of my own will.” He smiles at them, though there’s something about it that pricks at Laura’s already suspicious thoughts.
“Does that mean it’s safe to speak inside?” Laura asks, and holds up a note she’d prepared ahead of time. Surveillance? If there’s a camera in the doorframe or something they would probably see it, but there’s nothing she can do about that.
But the researcher doesn’t seem alarmed, or even to really take the precaution seriously. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I’ve long since lost all my manners… come in, come in out of the cold…”
Laura and Sam exchange a look, then do so. It’s strange being on this side of the door; the small house looks fairly clean, though it has a musty smell that makes Laura want to open some windows.
Well, why not? She does so, looking around for any clues, though to what she’s not sure.
“Can I get you anything?” Dr. Fuji is saying. “Tea? Coffee?”
“No, I’m alright… Minoru, how did you end up here? What happened to you, all those years ago?”
Laura has finished opening some windows a crack, which lets the icy air in but immediately helps the air feel clearer. “Sorry, I have my own question first… Dr. Fuji—”
“Ah, ‘Doctor’ sounds so formal for an old man in a house. I haven’t been a proper researcher in years. Call me Mr. Fuji.”
She’s not sure that’s how that works, and by Sam’s frown he’s unsure how to take the comment as well. “As you wish, Mr. Fuji, I have a question… are you really him? Could you say something that Sam would recognize only you would know?”
“What a strange thing to say. Who else would I be?”
“That’s what I would like to know,” she says evenly. “If you could, please?”
“Ah, very well. A question, Sam?”
“The last time we spoke, by voice, what did you say to me?”
The man frowns and scratches his neck. “You realize that was nearly ten years ago? To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest. Something about not worrying about me, I’d guess… I was in a bit of a dark place, back then.”
Sam looks at her, and she can tell the answer wasn’t quite satisfying, but also didn’t really confirm anything. “Alright, I’ll pick something more memorable. What did you tell me, when I tried to talk to you after Amber died?”
Fuji flinches back like Sam punched him, gaze dropping to the floor and lower lip trembling briefly. “I was out of line, Sam. I was hurting, too much to see that you, you were just… just trying to help…”
The Professor’s face softens, and his voice is gentle as he lays a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It’s alright. I forgave you for it long ago. Just tell us, so she can be sure.”
Fuji nods, and turns to her, though his gaze stays elsewhere. “I couldn’t think straight, after my Amber died. Sam tried to empathize, told me about losing his own little girl… I said… I said he still had his grandkids, and he didn’t understand. Would only understand when he lost them too.”
His voice has dwindled to a whisper by the end, eyes filling with tears, and Sam grips his shoulder a bit more tightly, then guides him to the small table in the kitchen to sit, while Laura searches for some tissues, shock quickly shifting to sympathy. She makes do with a roll of paper towels, which Fuji takes with a mumble of thanks and wipes his face.
“Thank you for confirming that,” she says. There’s a chance he told someone else, of course, ideally it would have been some minor thing he’d have no reason to tell anyone rather than a big regret that he might have shared while feeling guilty, but the reaction seems genuine enough, and she hadn’t been that skeptical once she saw the way he reacted to seeing the Professor. That’s where her real curiosity, and caution, feels focused. “I have to ask, now… were you expecting us? Or at least, the Professor?”
How are you the one I found? she doesn’t ask, again thinking of the unlikely odds that led her here given the scope of what she’s been investigating.
“Oh, not exactly,” Fuji says, and folds the paper towel into neat squares. “But I hoped! I spread rumors about myself, you see, on the web. Little things, here and there, to remind people of me, to get someone to wonder if I was still alive, to wonder where I’d gone, all without saying it clearly myself. I thought, if anyone like Sam saw them, he might have the interest and the clout to dig me up.”
Sam and Laura stare at him in shock, for a moment, then each other, then back to him. Laura hadn’t even considered that, and she should have, as it’s the obvious reverse question: Why were you the one Sam brought up when he started this investigation?
“Did something happen, then?” Sam finally asks. “You needed help, but couldn’t just message me directly?”
“Yes, you see, I have a friend I’ve been worried about, and I couldn’t risk someone knowing I reached out directly. But now that you’ve found me, that’s all changed. I can tell you about the most horrible thing I’ve ever worked on, in secret, for years.”
Laura isn’t sure she understands why anything would have changed just by them finding Fuji—it sounds like he’s speaking of retaliation, but he said he’s not here under duress—but Professor Oak is already asking, “What is it?”
Fuji leans forward, mouth set in a grim line and eyes gleaming with anger. “There’s no official name yet, but for now it’s just called the ‘Master Ball.'”