All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 97: Raw Data

“You’re coddling it.”

Blue turns away from his abra and the pokedoll it’s attacking to frown at Koichi, who’s watching them from the edge of the arena pit with a passive expression. The ex-Gym Leader has clearly just finished showering and changing into his streetwear, duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

Blue spends a few seconds deciding whether he should dismiss the statement with a simple “thanks for the advice,” or just ignore it altogether. Koichi is clearly on his way out of the rapidly emptying dojo, and as far as Blue has seen in his time at the dojo, quickly backs off from any indication that his presence isn’t wanted.

But the bait is too strong, particularly since Blue is still having trouble training Tops; the abra is growing, but not quickly, and still hasn’t shown any real connection to Blue. Just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food is what Red said, and so far that still seems to be the case. They solved the orientation problem by buying a device that emits a constant, high frequency sound that Tops can hear, then training Tops to keep himself between the sound and enemy pokemon, but it would involve a lot of movement on Blue’s part if he needed to use it in a real battle.

“What do you mean?” he finally asks.

“I watched your battle, earlier. You’re not letting your abra get hurt. Just hit and swap.”

“Of course not, it can barely fight!”

Koichi seems about to say something, then closes his mouth, shrugs, and starts heading for the exit.

Blue watches the broad shouldered man leave, fighting his instinct to follow. In his first week at the dojo he attended one of Koichi’s fighting lessons (in part out of curiosity and in part because he wanted the ability to ask for him to leave the dojo), but it was pretty tame; the ex-Leader taught a range of jiu jitsu kata, ramping up in speed and complexity until the veterans were warmed up and the novices (including Blue) weren’t able to match them. After that Blue was paired up against other novices so they could try and disable each other’s ability to either reach for their belt or move away.

It didn’t go well. Blue would bet on his reflexes over nearly anyone else’s, but few of the motions he learned were familiar, and muscle memory has to be trained. As a result he ended up getting knocked on his ass a lot, or hitting the mat face first while one of his arms was forced into some painful position.

Before long he was struggling to keep his anger and frustration off his face, and thought of pretending he had somewhere else he had to be so he could leave early. He tried to justify the urge by convincing himself that the “novices” he fought were enjoying humiliating him… but as they all swapped partners, he couldn’t see any difference in how he was being treated compared to the others; if anything, a couple of his sparring partners were overly apologetic and concerned after they took him down.

Blue was also distracted by the way Koichi himself went from pair to pair to give pointers and occasionally demonstrate something. In his place, Blue would have avoided any contact with others rather than risk someone claiming injury and using it as a reason to boot him from the dojo. Instead the ex-Leader seemed focused on his work, and though he didn’t appear to take pleasure in it, he also showed no impatience or anger. Each movement seemed, to Blue’s untrained eye, to use just the right amount of force.

After his lesson Blue begrudgingly recognized that he had no grounds to ask for the ex-Leader’s removal. He also better understood why learning to lose is such a valuable thing to do; he saw it in the other students, the way their acceptance of their failures allowed them to keep trying things they knew they would fail at, again and again, until they succeeded.

Blue used to be like that. He can’t remember when, exactly, he lost it, but he’s determined to get it back.

Still, he doesn’t trust Koichi, and he’s kept an eye on him just in case he spots something that, even if it’s not reasonable grounds for removal, would give some hint to what he’s really doing here. This could be another opportunity to do so.

“Wait. What were you about to say?”

Koichi turns back to him, then asks, “What do you know of adverse improvement?”

“It’s what makes pokemon grow faster when they fight.”

“That’s a definition. I asked what you know about it. How it works.”

Red might know, but Blue only studied it for a bit before concluding that the practical effects were pretty straightforward. “No.”

“It’s not just about fighting, and not just for pokemon. Humans experience it too.”

Blue raises a brow. “Uh. I feel like I’d know about that… or are you actually only, like, 20?”

Koichi shakes his head. “This is the problem. You learn part of the whole, and misunderstand. You’ve journeyed for a year now, yes?”

“Almost.” About a couple months short, which reminds him that it will be Leaf’s birthday soon…

“And yet some of your pokemon, those you’ve had since the beginning, are nearly as strong as those who have been training for years. Why?”

Blue crosses his arms, starting to get impatient. “Because they’ve seen a lot of battles and spent a lot of time in training, like I said. What’s the part I don’t understand?”

“That part. Your answer is incomplete; you’ve been fighting with your abra a lot, and yet it is not growing. Most abra do not grow quickly from battle. What makes them different?”

Blue finally starts to actually consider what the ex-Leader is saying, and remember that he’s speaking to someone so good that they nearly had to be dethroned by an Elite.

What does he know that I don’t?

“Just to be clear, how obvious is this supposed to be?” Blue asks after a moment. “I can say stuff like ‘they usually run from battle’ or ‘they don’t naturally know any attacks,’ but it sounds like you’re talking about something most trainers don’t know.”

Koichi considers a moment, then puts his bag down and walks over to lean against the wall around the arena’s edge. “It’s not a conspiracy. People just don’t like to talk about it, and when they hear it most will reject it out of hand. People who talk anyway become… unpopular. But it weakens us when we train pokemon that aren’t aggressive.”

Blue lowers himself to sit on the edge of the balcony, feet dangling above the pit of the arena as he tosses some berries down to Tops. The abra sniffs, then begins to crawl around to find them. “So being aggressive? That’s the secret?”

“You were skeptical that it works for humans too. What do you think?”

Blue bites his lower lip, thinking of all the times he fought with Red or some others at school. It wasn’t often, maybe half a dozen times, but he didn’t notice any growth spurts after…

Oh. You’re coddling it. “It’s about being injured? Badly?”

“It’s about life-and-death struggle. Triumph against something that seeks to kill you.”

Blue frowns. “I dismissed that, it’s too common. Beating wild pokemon—”

You don’t beat them. Your pokemon does.”

He remembers his shiftry (with the usual painful flashback to that moment in the tunnels, the crunch and snap of woody flesh) and the way he had trouble training it right after capture. The pokedex has been updated now so that information is front and center, but it’s an unusual enough situation that he’s not sure how often it might come up. Still, he can’t remember feeling afraid for his life even then, though he does remember the weary triumph once his plan to catch it worked.

“How do you know it works on humans?”

“Grew up in a rough neighborhood. The point is, abra are hard to train because they have no fighting instinct. They need to learn what it’s like to get hurt, and not run away. To be in a real fight for their life, then overcome it.”

Blue wants to reject the idea out of hand, but he knows that’s coming from his personal dislike of Koichi. He’ll have to check what the ex-Leader is saying, maybe ask Gramps, but… he hasn’t been able to get much help from Red lately since he’s been working on his teleportation thing, and if true then this is a solid lead.

“You said trainers pretend this isn’t true? Not just keep it secret, I know many would do that for an advantage, but you were openly trying to talk about this and no one listened?”

“Yes. I saw the new mentality spreading during my own journey, the idea that pokemon should be treated as friends, not hurt more than necessary—”

“That a problem for you?” Blue asks, feeling a shadow of Leaf and Aiko’s imagined anger.

Koichi’s already neutral expression goes flat. “Meaning I like hurting things?”

“Or don’t care. You didn’t just beat your challengers’ pokemon, you were brutal to them.” Blue wonders where Duncan is, and whether this conversation is only happening because they’re mostly alone. There are a few others spread out around the dojo practicing on the various equipment or courses, but no one’s within earshot.

“I was—” Koichi cuts himself off, then takes a breath. “I was wrong to do that. But I’m not a sadist.”

Blue watches him for a moment. The first time he spoke there was something else there, the first real emotion Blue’s heard from the ex-Leader. “So why did you do it?”

Koichi takes another breath, letting it out more slowly. “Told myself it was because I needed to show people I was right, that more dangerous battles would make their pokemon grow faster. It’s why I fought my way to Leader to begin with. Thought I could learn the political stuff, the city strategizing, the logistics, all the rest of what came with it. I was wrong, and I was too prideful to ask others to help. Pride was at the root of it all. I wanted to show everyone, the Leaders, the Professors, the Elites, that they weren’t as strong as they could be.”

Blue just listens, rapt. As far as attempts to justify himself go, this isn’t as self-sympathetic as he expected, and it’s fascinating just hearing the other side of such an infamous story, true or not. “Until Sabrina showed up.”

Koichi’s jaw tightens, just for a moment. “Yes.”

Looks like storytime is over. “That’s it? Just ‘yes?’ You wanted to prove a point, and she proved you wrong. Or are you going to blame type disadvantage for your ace?”

“She didn’t—” Again Koichi cuts himself off, and Blue catches the anger there before the ex-Leader’s face goes blank again. “I am grateful to Sabrina for putting an end to my destructive spiral.”

“Come on, just say what you wanted to say.”

“You would not believe me.”

“Then why are you bothering to talk to me at all?”

Koichi doesn’t seem to have an immediate answer to that, and after a moment he sighs. “I have no evidence. But Sabrina’s alakazam was far more powerful than it should have been given her age and experience as a trainer. I believe a skilled enough psychic could train their pokemon more quickly by projecting the necessary feelings onto them during battle.”

Blue’s eyes widen even as he shakes his head. “No way. If that were true the strongest psychics would dominate all the Leagues. Even if Sabrina’s in the top percent…” He trails off as he remembers that most psychics don’t become trainers at all, making the actual number who might try this out fairly low. And there are six of them currently in the Indigo League… the thought feels less crazy the more he thinks of it, but he pushes against it anyway.

Koichi must read something in his expression, because he shakes his head. “Told you. People don’t want to believe it.”

“It’s not that.”

“You weren’t thinking of how doing this might make people turn on you?”

This time it’s Blue who doesn’t have a response. He still remembers the reaction from his training partner in Cerulean Gym, when Maturin got a little too bloodthirsty. While most people aren’t as against trainer battles as Leaf, no one looks kindly on pokemon being badly hurt in a trainer match, whether their own or someone else’s, even when the stakes are really high…

Which, if Koichi is right, would put him in an impossible situation. Some might listen, test it themselves, and find it true… but anyone who admitted to putting their pokemon through harsher battles for strength might get huge public backlash… even agreeing that it’s possible would make people suspicious.

If word gets out that Blue even thinks this might be true, most people would assume he’s been doing it from the start. Especially combined with rumors of him hurting his shiftry or opponents’ pokemon… It could destroy his reputation.

Red can probably do it.

Blue’s breath stills for a moment. Red may not be as good as Sabrina yet, but he can do things she can’t, and he’s smart. If Blue had to put money down, he’d bet on his friend figuring it out, assuming he’s driven to… and he would be, it could be a huge discovery…

…but he also might not understand the damage it would do to try and publish it. It would make him a powerful trainer, might make Blue’s pokemon even stronger, but even without pokemon getting excessively hurt when a psychic does it, just publishing a paper on it could damage Red’s career if people thought he was advocating for it, or even if he was making it more likely for people to do in secret…

Blue’s eyes close. He can’t do it. His friend has no sense for PR or navigating the social side of the world, if Blue suggests something like this to him it could ruin him. He has to think things through to protect his friend from himself… also, Leaf would be pissed at them if it leads to people letting their pokemon get more hurt on purpose. It would be even worse if people learn the idea came from Koichi.

Speaking of which…

Blue opens his eyes. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Koichi regards him with a slight frown. “You asked.”

“No, originally you came to me and told me I was doing it wrong.”

The older man shrugs. “I can’t unknow what I know. You’re struggling with something, and I’m here as a teacher.”

“That’s it? You just wanted to help?”

“Yes. I understand that might be hard to b—”

“Stop, spare me that stuff. I’m not even saying it’s not true, let’s just take for granted that I distrust you but am willing to listen and am not just looking for excuses to get you kicked out of the dojo, alright? Saves time.”

Blue might be imagining it, but it seems like some tension leaks out of Koichi’s stance. “Fine. You pressed me because you didn’t believe my answer, and now want me to give you another. But I have nothing else to say, whether to convince you or not. Believe what you want.”

Blue watches Koichi and tries to decide whether the ex-Leader is trying to manipulate him. Erika would say to follow the status differential; if Blue were to follow his advice, champion it (whether before or after becoming Champion), and weather the storm of public opinion afterward, Koichi would be vindicated. Blue would essentially be gambling his own status to redeem the ex-Leader, to some degree at least.

But Koichi isn’t doing a lot of talking. He could try to convince Blue that of anyone out there, an Oak has the best chance of surviving the social backlash, especially if he can get Gramps on board. He’d play on Blue’s goals, point out how much stronger trainers would be if they used this knowledge. But maybe he recognizes that talking too much and trying to convince him too hard would be a bad move against someone as suspicious as Blue.

And, of course, the older man might just be sincere. More bitter than he’s letting on, but not trying to do anything but live out a quiet, useful life with the skills he has.

Duncan would say he should split and commit to both possibilities; that Koichi is just trying to help, and that Koichi is trying to manipulate him. In the latter case, he shouldn’t be too credible about this, or indicate whether he’ll follow the advice, or else Koichi might use his openness to the idea as blackmail. Hell, this whole conversation could be recorded. But he also shouldn’t close himself off to the possibility of future help… Koichi is, ultimately, a great teacher, and if he has some bits of unpopular or hidden truth among many other bad ideas, Blue wants to learn them.

“I’ll think about it,” is all Blue says. “I don’t believe it, something like that would be talked about more even if it’s wrong, but thank you for trusting me with it.”

Koichi’s surprise is as subtle as his other expressions, a mild lift of his eyebrows. Then he simply nods, and picks his duffel bag up to leave again.

Blue watches him go, then turns back to the arena pit where Tops is, the last piece of food uneaten beside him. The abra, like most of his kind when sitting still, looks like he could be asleep. When he evolves he would stand on his hind legs, his tail would grow and thicken, and he would become swift and dangerous, particularly given the metrics Blue had analyzed when he picked him out from among all the other abra they caught. If he can get Tops to become an alakazam, he would truly be a monster, probably stronger than Sabrina’s.

But for now he just looks like a child napping after a meal, chin drooping down toward his chest, so passive and unwilling to fight… no human in history has ever been killed by an abra, and the thought of ensuring Tops gets hurt more during training just to strengthen him faster makes something twist in Blue’s gut.

He would truly be a monster…

Maybe he could test it with a different pokemon…


Red wakes about an hour before his alarm to rapid knocks on the door. A quick pulse of psydar tells him it’s Tatsumaki outside, and once he gets his bearings, pulls his clothes on, and opens the door, she barrels in, rubbing her hands together and pacing his room, looking simultaneously more exhausted and animated than he’s ever seen her.

“I feel it,” she says without preamble. “It’s a, there’s a… a field, a remote projection of the telekinetic sense. It’s like it’s accessed through some extra mind or something, or like an environment separate from air—”

Red’s alarm quickly shifts to excitement, tiredness fading as he takes her words in. “Wait, slow down. You felt what, exactly?” He reaches for his notebook, remembers it’s by his bed, then invites her to sit as he gets it. Instead she just keeps pacing.

“The field! But not a field, just the kinetic… ugh!” She throws her hands up. “I don’t know why I came here first, you’ve never felt it!”

“Aaand we’re breathing,” Red says, hoping it works as he takes a deep breath himself. Not because he’s annoyed, he’s too excited to be. He slowly lets it out, then breathes in again, and this time Tatsumaki matches him, slowing her steps until she’s standing still. After a third breath she’s still frowning slightly, but she seems calmer. “Okay, just… describe it.”

She does so, using terminology Red has studied but never experienced. From what he understands she’s talking about something like the field that psychics use to guide the telekinesis they then empower, the imagined shape in reality that they want to push force through.

By the time she’s done, Red’s barely contained excitement is close to spilling over, and he’s grinning wide. “Okay, this is it, this is exactly what I thought might happen! Thank you so much, now we need to do it again just to make sure, then see if you can teach someone else to do it, and—”

“Verres, wait! There’s more, I already did it more than once, I first felt it a few hours ago.” Tatsumaki begins to pace again, and Red realizes she’s been working through the night. “I’ve been playing around with it since, trying to see if I could find the extra space myself, and I can, it’s like it’s been there the whole time and I didn’t even notice it because it’s so sideways!

“Is that…what does that mean?” Frisson races over him as his excitement and awe mix. “Are you saying you can teleport?”

“What? No, it’s unbound psychokinetic sense! Look!”

She leaves the apartment, closing the door on a baffled Red who stares blankly at it for a moment… then realizes what she’s about to do a second before the lamp on his desk scoots a finger’s breadth closer to him.

Red still startles, but he’s grinning by the time she comes back in. “That’s awesome!”

“It’s more than awesome, it sets a new precedent! Sabrina mentioned knowing someone who could do it, but I didn’t think I could actually learn it. I tried for a year before giving it up as just some individual quirk… but now, who knows what other special abilities might be transferable?”

Red feels a nudge through the partition. “Have you told anyone else yet?”

“No, Sensei needs her sleep and no one else here has as much a right to know as you.”

The words warm him, but he’s already thinking of what to do next, scribbling down his thoughts as soon as they form. “Okay, so we’ve confirmed that psychokinetic senses are used to teleport… but that would imply pokemon have massive telekinetic range, and yet—”

“No, distance still reduces the force you can fill the field with, remember? Personally I can’t make sense of things further away than I used to, there’s something out there but it’s like fumbling through the dark with thick gloves on. But when I have a fresh memory of what’s nearby it’s easier, and through glass it’s no problem at all. Well, not no problem, it took me hours to manipulate the field once I could even sense things, that’s what I’ve been working on this whole time, but it’s not harder once you know how.

“Huh. So… they’re all different, distinct abilities, then? One to sense minds, another to sense things, and another to project force… but we’ve been confusing the sensing things with the projecting force up until now?”

“Something like that, sure. That’s why I’m going to focus on trying to extend my clarity of things far away. It probably has nothing to do with the ability to teleport, but still, what if it’s a piece of the puzzle?”

Her excitement is contagious, and for a moment they just grin at each other before she says, “I’m going to compare what I sense with what my pokemon do next, and when Sensei is up I’m sure she’ll have more ideas. You get to work on whatever this does for indoor teleportation.”

“Right. Wait, shouldn’t you, uh, sleep first?”

The look she gives him is answer enough, and then she’s gone like her namesake, the slam of Red’s door probably loud enough to wake someone else. Red sits on his bed and wonders why he’s not happier. His hypothesis just got a massive part of it validated, he feels vindication and excitement but… something’s off…

A nudge reminds him of the question his unpartitioned self had him ask, and a moment later…

…it’s down, and he lets out a slow breath. One more step toward figuring out how to teleport indoors, and another potential jostle to the house of cards.

It’s been two weeks since his meeting with Giovanni, and most of his “free thinking” time since then has been spent alternating between replaying the Leader’s words over in his head to try to figure out what they meant for the future, trying to focus on how he can maximize the odds of the best outcome.

He talked to Dr. Seward about it without revealing anything specific, and she took the idea of him having dangerous knowledge that might lead to massive changes in society with what would be flattering equanimity if he wasn’t sure she’d have the same reaction to him saying he learned how to turn into a pokemon.

Do you know what a good outcome here actually looks like?” she asked. “Imagine you wake up tomorrow and this problem is completely resolved. What does that look like? How would you first notice?”

He recognized the “miracle question” from previous sessions, but this one was harder to answer. He wouldn’t notice it upon waking up; it wouldn’t affect his morning routine, or what he’s doing with his life, or who he interacts with. He would just be…

Safety,” he finally realized. “I would feel safe about the future, about doing my research and not worrying about the outcome.”

She slowly nodded, gaze sympathetic. “It’s a tall order, and hard to achieve in a world like ours. I know you’re talking about social safety more than anything, and that’s something you don’t yet have a good sense for. So what can you do to improve that?”

The memory sends Red to get his laptop. As Leaf’s project continued to find new successes in the Safari Zone, more people have been talking about it. He knows that sooner or later someone else might make the connection, that the house of cards might fall before Giovanni and Sabrina and others are ready for it, and premorteming what happens then led him to recognize another area he’s failed to take into consideration.

Other psychics.

He doesn’t know what the world will look like once the truths get out, but he remembered reading in history how dark humans used to leave towns and villages together to form their own if the persecution got bad enough. It twists his gut to think about ways this might play out today, even if things don’t get that extreme, but it’s possible he’ll need to rely more on other psychics than his friends and family, or if he assumes that they’ll stick by him, that other psychics will need him after being unable to rely on theirs.

So Red opens his contact list to find the psychics in Indigo that he hasn’t yet reached out to, does a bit of research on their social media, then starts a new message:

Hey there! Sorry to bother you out of nowhere like this, I saw that you do verification work for a number of cities and wondered if you’d be up to chat about it? I haven’t learned much about what that work is like, and am curious to know what your day to day is like…

Not everyone responds, and he knows fewer would if he wasn’t famous, but he’s still surprised how easy it’s been to make new friends.


Leaf wakes on her birthday to warm sunlight seeping in through the curtains, and allows herself a luxurious stretch and a few minutes of peace before she reaches for her phone. She looks around the room, and realizes how much more it feels like her room now. Aiko feels present without filling the space around her, and the mix of their aesthetic tastes more in harmony than discord.

It’s just a number, but she’s Aiko’s age now. It’s a number they never would have shared, and by next year even that will be gone.

She smiles at the slight sound of Raff snorting in his sleep, then reaches for her phone at last. Two lovely messages from her mother and grandpa are at the top of her notifications, as they’ve already been up for half a day back home. She basks in their love for her, sends them thank you messages, then finds the well-wishes from strangers that have already poured in.

Most are short and to the point, but some are longer, and every so often a new one pops up. There are quite a few direct expressions of appreciation from people who have benefited from the abra catching trick, as well as messages from those whose lives she helped save in Vermilion, or their friends and relatives. Many of the crew at Mount Moon send her a message as well, the longest by Ryback, and she even gets one from Mayor Kitto and Dr. Brenner.

She reads all of the ones by people she remembers meeting, then the longer ones from strangers, then starts to skim the rest, chest filling with warmth until she feels like she’s overflowing. Reality is waiting for her outside the door, but the outpouring of affection makes her feel, for the moment at least, like everything is right in the world.

A year ago today she’d woken up determined to leave for Kanto, no matter what her mother said. She hadn’t been sure it was the right decision; only that it was the decision she would be the most disappointed in herself for not making, in the years to come. The months since then have been filled with fear and pain and grief, but whatever the future holds, reading everyone’s messages of gratitude for her existence, she feels confident that it was the right choice, and worth the hardships.

When she feels like she can’t hold any more positivity, she swings her legs out of bed, showers, changes, and heads downstairs to start the chores…

…only to find that the supplies are missing.

Leaf frowns, wondering if Mr. Sakai started without her (he does that, sometimes, particularly if he wakes up early and has trouble going back to sleep), but all the supplies are missing, despite the therapy group not being scheduled for today. She hurries outside, only to stop as she steps on the porch, grinning so wide her face hurts.

Spread out around the ranch are half a dozen people with bags, summoning the pokemon into their pens and then filling the new feeders that were placed in the ones that have already gone through the first version of the “release” program. She spots Maria right away, thanks to her wide black hat and the honchkrow flying above her like a shadow given wings; the quiet girl spent a week surrounding it with duskstones once it grew too big to roost on her shoulder or head. Leaf identifies the others through their pokemon too; Zephyr is flying a wide circle around Blue, and she spots various other flying pokemon above Elaine, Glen, and… Jason?

She looks around but doesn’t see Red, then realizes he might be in the back of the ranch. She starts walking to the nearest person to help, then decides she’d just take the gift and instead moves around the building to see who else is here.

Red is indeed there by the pond, as is Lizzy. Mr. Sakai is there too, watching them with one hand loose on his hip and a puzzled expression.

“Leaf, did we hire new workers?”

“No, Mr. Sakai, it’s Red, Blue, and the others.” Her sympathetic smile suddenly fades, and she looks at him side eye. “I wonder how they got in to take the supplies…”

He manages to keep the act going for another moment, but then the corner of his lip hitches upward. Leaf hugs him, and he slowly wraps his arms around her. “Happy Birthday, Leaf. Thank you, for everything.”

She feels her eyes burn, and they stay together for the few minutes it takes for Red and Lizzy to finish and approach.

“Happy Birthday, Leaf!”

The synchronized chorus makes her grin again, and she hugs them one at a time. Afterward they travel around the barn collecting the others for more of the same, and when she returns inside she sees that Mr. Sakai has been setting out breakfast.

The eight of them talk as they eat, catching each other up on their various projects and future plans. The gifts come out after, all from one big container box except for Elaine’s, which is an improv Coordinator Contest party game stored in its own container ball. Each is wrapped up in such fancy paper that Leaf takes her time unfolding it from the boxes, the first of which contains a pocket-sized book of puns from Glen, the next some incense from Jason, then a long coat from Maria (black, of course), and from Lizzy a machine she’s never seen before.

“It’s basically a low level EM emitter,” she explains, beaming. “Well, the prototype for one, with some tweaks. From my tests it should be like a soothing bath for most nearby electric pokemon.”

Leaf grins as she looks it over, noting the basic switch and painted on settings by the dial. “Lizzy, this is awesome! Thank you!”

“Don’t forget to send me data on how well it works. And for which pokemon. And for how long!” Blue elbows her. “You know, if you want.”

“Me too,” Red adds.

“Of course I will.”

Blue meanwhile is lifting out a bigger box than the rest, and she carefully opens it to reveal an incubation canister… with a pearly white egg inside. “From Gramps and Daisy and me,” Blue says with a smile. “You’ll have to wait to see what it is.”

There are a couple dozen pokemon that have already come to mind. “Ahh, this isn’t a gift, it’s torture!” She slaps his arm, then gives him another hug before turning at last to Red, who holds out a smaller package than the rest.

“From my mom and me.”

The box is too thin to be anything she can think of, and she curiously peels back the layers, noting that Red is studiously avoiding eye contact. The box beneath is fancy, and she quickly opens it before sucking in a breath. Inside is a thin gold chain with three gems; a firestone, waterstone, and leafstone, each the size of her pinky nail.

“They’re pretty cheap when they’re that small,” he says before she pulls him into a tight hug.

Leaf can feel his heart beating against her chest, and kisses his cheek before pulling back. “It’s beautiful.”

His whole face is pink, but he manages to meet her gaze and smile. “Figured it would look good for the next Cruise Convention.”

She grins. “Has Bill asked us to go again?”

“Nah, but I figured we can try to get on without him.”

“Ahh, there’s the status swing,” Blue says as he slings an arm around his friend’s shoulder with one arm and uses the other to wipe a “tear” from his eye. “I’m just so proud…”

Red struggles out from under his arm as the group laughs, and Leaf turns to the others. “Thank you, everyone.”

“No problem,” Elaine says, scooting her chair to give Red and Blue’s ongoing struggle more space. “What do you want to do next?”

“Hmm.” Leaf picks up the ball for the improv game and studies the decorated lid with a smile. “I wouldn’t mind trying this out?”

They head to the front of the ranch and set it up; inside the container ball is a huge unfolding foam stage with various equipment for tricks and performances, as well as a foldout “judge’s table.” A brief debate ensues over who would be the first three judges, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria doesn’t volunteer; instead she, Leaf, Red, Elaine, and Glen are the first contestants while Blue, Lizzy, and Jason end up sitting at the table.

Mr. Sakai is their lone audience member, sitting on the porch and holding up a sign provided by the game that simply reads “You’re the best!” There are others too, all of which he has stacked beside him, and after a moment Leaf decides to start releasing some of her pokemon to sit with him. Soon the rest of them do too, and they have a small “crowd” gathered to watch, though most are more interested in exploring the porch. Mr. Sakai looks happy with Joy snuggled up to one side of him and Raff on the other.

For their first contestant, Maria has her honchkrow catch balls out of the air as she juggles them, then drop them back down for her to catch again and keep juggling. The juggling is more impressive than anything the pokemon does, as she sometimes manages seven balls at once and the number keeps changing, but her pokemon seems to be well coordinated in taking the balls and dropping them at each of her whistles. Leaf applauds hard once she’s done and the judges hold up scores of 7, 7, and 8.

“That was great, I had no idea you juggled!”

“It’s how I taught myself coordination, before my journey,” Maria says, looking embarrassed but pleased. In the bright sunlight, without her hat to hide under, it’s easier to remember she’s a few years older than Leaf.

“How have you been?” she asks as they watch Glen summon his dodrio, then begin attaching colorful streamers around each head. “Are you still studying with Jason?”

“Yes. It’s been a fascinating challenge to develop a new sense.” They watch the dodrio start to twist its necks around in hypnotizing patterns until the colorful tassels tied to them start to form a whirling rainbow. They applaud as the judges show 9, 7… and 5 from Blue. Glen sends a rude gesture to him, who shouts back “Function over form!”

“It’s just receptive though, right?” Leaf asks as the two begin bickering over whether the maneuver would be useful in confusing enemies while Elaine takes the stage. “Isn’t that what being sensitive—sensitive? A sensitive?—means?”

“Jason doesn’t agree with the implications of the label. He says sensitives might not be able to do the more ‘external’ things that a full psychic or medium can, but that I can learn some of the rituals he does, if I’m willing.”

“I assume you are?”

“Yes. His religious beliefs are very different from what I was raised with, but I find his sincerity… calming.”

Leaf files the potential subtext away for later. “You do seem more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you.” It’s a tactful way to put it; Maria seemed to be opening up before what happened at the Casino, but afterward returned to the reserved girl Leaf first met… worse, she had a frazzled energy, and seemed to be missing a lot of sleep. The boys didn’t seem to notice, but Elaine admitted to being worried too.

She’s looking worried again as she takes a glance around the green lawn. “Uh, just to check, is it okay if this place gets a little dug up?”

They all turn to Mr. Sakai, who shrugs. “Grass regrows.”

It’s a simple statement, but Leaf still feels an echo of grief.

Elaine flashes a thumbs up, and summons her dugtrio. Leaf shakes the pall off and watches as Elaine’s dugtrio leaps into the ground, grass and dirt flying for a second before it disappears beneath the soil. Elaine starts to stomp her feet, and soon her pokemon begins to dig a pattern out, pausing every so often to dig deeper before coming up at another spot.

It seems random at first, but Leaf realizes after a moment that it’s spelling something. She starts to move, and the judges get up and start to walk around as well, until they’re more or less gathered in the right place to see the letters T I N.

“What does it say?” Mr. Sakai calls. It’s always odd to hear the otherwise quiet man raise his voice.

“Trainer in need!” Glen calls back as he studies the globally recognized acronym. “This could be really useful if you’re stuck underground, though I guess it would only work if you’re close enough to the surface for your pokemon to hear you…”

“Could use speakers against the wall? Might attract wilds though…”

The judges at least seem fairly impressed, and hurry back to their table to hold up a 9, 8 and 10. The applause goes on for longer than ever, and Elaine’s face is red by the time she returns from the stage.

“I was processing a lot,” Maria says as Red moves to take her place, and it takes Leaf a moment to remember what they were talking about. “Maybe most of what’s helped has been the meditation, the time to just sit with my thoughts and the ability to slow them when I need to. But it feels easier to think through the fears.”

Leaf wants to ask what fears, but isn’t sure if this is the right setting to get into something potentially heavy. So she just says “I’m glad to hear it,” as Red mounts the stage and calls Pikachu over before turning to the judges.

“Remind me if psychic powers are allowed in coordinator competitions?”

Blue cups his hands around his mouth. “You know they’re not!”

“But we’ll allow it!” Lizzy adds.

“What?!”

“I want to see what he does!”

Jason murmurs something, which prompts an “Of course you’d say that,” from Blue, and as they argue it out Leaf watches Red play with Pikachu, letting him run up and down his arms, bouncing off the ground to come back to Red and race to the other side as he spins.

He also looks more relaxed than ever, and it suits him. He could be quiet and thoughtful when they were starting their journey, but those times were rarer than the nervous energy that seemed to be his norm. He still gets it sometimes, along with the passionate zeal that sends him scribbling in his notebook or talking too quickly about all sorts of things, but from where she’s standing he seems more in control of himself.

It feels good watching him play with Pikachu, a warm, buzzing ball in her chest, similar to how she felt upon seeing his gift. She’s not sure what to do with the feeling, but she enjoyed the way his face flushed at her kiss.

It was also a huge relief to be able to call him after David asked to be looped in. The meeting with Sabrina seemed to help ease David’s concerns, and the next day he told her that Giovanni even sent him a message complimenting him on his discovery and thoughtful response. That part gave her a mixed feeling, but it seemed to further reassure her friend, and things have gone back to normal between them. The project’s success with tauros has galvanized the team like none of their previous ones did, and they’ve moved ahead to kangaskhan since, which David’s been a great help on.

She and Red have helped each other out in so many situations that it seems obvious that she’d feel like she can rely on him, but there’s something extra comforting about the memory of how quickly he was able to bring such powerful people in to help them. It’s something she would have expected from Blue’s social skills, but thought Red wasn’t deft at. Or rather, knew Red wasn’t deft at… but he’s grown.

His and Pikachu’s movements become more energetic, and Leaf wonders if he’s actually doing his performance already before Red suddenly strikes a pose, subtly different from the others. He crouches down, arms in a reverse V, and Pikachu runs up the left, past his head, then down his right just as Red jumps up and lifts his arm, his pokemon leaping off his upraised palm as Red launches him skyward.

The argument at the judge table stops as the yellow rodent flies through the air like an emolga, limbs and tail outstretched, and halfway through the arc a blinding flash of electricity hits the ground beneath it, paired immediately with a (relatively) quiet clap of thunder.

There’s a moment of surprise, and then Leaf whoops and applauds along with the others. Beyond the difficulty of teaching Pikachu such a powerful attack, it was a simple trick, but it must have taken some practice… and it looked cool. Leaf could imagine Red developing it after picturing some obscure situation where it would be exactly the sort of thing he needed.

Lizzy and Jason give it a 9 and a 7, but Blue looks torn between being impressed and suspicious. “I used my powers!” Red admits with a smile. “But just to get the timing right on the attack!”

Blue sighs and holds up a 6. “This is with a penalty!”

“I’ll take it!”

It’s finally her turn, and she calls Raff over and takes a pokeball out, expanding it before holding it out to her ivysaur.

He stretches his vines out to take it, and when she points he turns and starts to stretch them further in front of him until the ball is being held a solid four meters forward.

It’s not quite steady, and there’s no wild pokemon to test it on, but it’s approaching something close to what the best trained rangers can pull off with theirs. She bows to their applause and the 7, 7, 9 she receives, and then she, Glen, and Red take the judge seats.

Jason’s exhibition is hard to judge, as it involves two gastly swirling together and blending into what looks like one, a spinning dark ball with too many staring “eyes” and shining “teeth” and hanging “tongues.”

“I have no idea how hard that is,” Red admits, looking a little queasy. Glen gives an 8, and Leaf shamelessly copies him, followed by Red. Jason seems happy enough with it.

Lizzy takes a minute carefully positioning two of her magnemite around her, then stands between them, says a command Leaf can’t hear from here, and suddenly what looks like a cage of electricity surrounds her. Leaf isn’t the only one to cry out in alarm, but Red is grinning, and after a moment Leaf realizes Lizzy is too. Somehow the electricity seems to be arcing around her like a hundred glowing hairs without touching her.

It only lasts for a few seconds, but it’s enough to earn her three 9s. Blue starts to set up as everyone talks about what she did and how.

Leaf notes that Blue looks more serious than he has so far, or maybe just nervous. As they quiet down to watch, he stands at one end of the stage with Maturin, takes a deep breath, then barks a command.

His pokemon spews a stream of water out in front, strong and heavy enough to create a long line of it along the ground. She then shoots out an ice beam, freezing the water along the ground, and Blue takes a running start and leaps onto it.

He holds his arms out as his shoes skid along the ice, body balancing first one way, then the other as he slides nearly to the end of the stage… then stumbles and falls off it.

It’s not a far distance, just enough for him to tumble once before he comes to a stop, but everyone starts toward him before he sits up, hands out to show he’s alright.

Leaf sighs in relief as she sits back down, and Glen is frowning beside her. “Well I was going to give him a 1 as payback unless he clearly beat Elaine or Lizzy, but now it would just feel mean.”

“Hey, maybe it was supposed to happen,” Red suggests, and holds up a 7. “Still looked cool.”

“Cool,” Leaf repeats and nudges him, then holds up a 6. “But impractical.”

“Eh, I guess it deserves a 5.” Glen holds his card up, and people applaud as Blue finishes brushing himself off and calls Maturin to him and heads toward the pond.

They decide to follow him, leaving the game out for now, a small herd of pokemon following and chatting until they’re all spread out beside the water, watching as their various aquatic pokemon swim in it while some others go to drink. Blue seems subdued, and Leaf eventually decides to ask if he’s really okay, which quiets everyone.

“Yeah.” He looks around, grimaces, then shrugs. “Just annoyed. I did it once perfectly, wanted to practice it more, get it so I could do it three times in a row… but also wanted to be okay with failing. Still feels bad.”

“You knew it might fail, and you tried it anyway,” Glen says, voice firm. “I think that’s progress.”

“Feel like I’m missing some context,” Jason muses, and Mr. Sakai nods, though his gaze is on the pokemon.

“Been struggling with public failure lately. Learning to fight at the dojo helped, I think, and the whole vibe there is pretty good for not judging people who fail at things.”

“What does that feel like, anyway?” Red asks with a slight frown.

“What?”

“Judging people for failing.”

“What kind of question is that? Everyone does it.”

Red shakes his head. “I know people don’t get prestige if they don’t succeed. I get why success matters to how you see someone. Accomplishments matter to me, too. But why would someone be judged for trying something hard and failing? I just don’t get it.”

Blue shrugs, looking peeved. “I don’t know what to tell you, Red, that’s just how it is.”

“Not for me.”

“Well sorry we can’t all be as smart as you.”

The words come out sharper, and Leaf’s heart starts to pound. This is it, they’re going to get into another fight…

But when Red speaks, his voice is more curious than angry. “Do you respect people less when they challenge for a gym badge and fail than if they never challenge at all?”

Blue seems too thrown off by the question to hold onto his scowl. “That’s… no. If they’re at least trying… I get why you don’t, Leaf, I’m just saying that if someone puts themselves out there, to most people that’s worth respecting.”

“So everyone doesn’t look down on all failure.”

“Gym Battles are hard,” Glen says. “They get more respect from trying than they lose from losing.”

Red nods. “Seems like the same thing to me.”

Leaf’s pulse has relaxed, and she enjoys the conversation and breeze as she watches the pokemon play in the pond. At one point she takes out her phone to see what messages she’s missed, and spots more birthday wishes from Natural and Laura and some of the Safari rangers and programmers, and as the warmth fills her again she feels it replace the lingering panic that came from Blue’s sharp tone.

For today, everything’s fine.


It isn’t until after lunch that the alerts come, almost simultaneously, something like five then six then eight shrill tones all at once.

Most of them freeze. Blue twitches, then catches the glass that Maria drops when she jerks in surprise. Glen is walking with the birthday cake, which they voted to eat now instead of after dinner by a slim margin, and stumbles, which almost sends it flying until he lunges his arms out and bends his knees to stabilize. Red has a moment to appreciate the look of surprised pride on his face, and then he registers what he’s hearing and sees everyone else do the same.

The knowledge plunges his whole body into dark, cold depths, erasing all the warmth of the day from his skin, snuffs it out within his chest, washes it from his cheek where Leaf’s lips imprinted some. Dark and wet and cold, aching feet and a hoarse throat and the feel of cloth slipping from his fingers.

“No,” Mr. Sakai breathes from where he’s sitting. “No.”

It unfreezes some of them, and Leaf reaches out to take the thin man’s hand as Glen straightens and Blue puts Maria’s glass down, taking his phone out with the other hand.

“No,” Mr. Sakai repeats again, and Red realizes he’s not afraid or despairing so much as confused, looking around at them all as if asking why they don’t understand. “It’s Spring.”

The words bring both relief and confusion. Had they all assumed it would be another Stormbringer? It was the highest alert, and as he looks around again he sees that most of them had…

But not Blue, who’s already frowning at his screen.

Zapdos was late, maybe this time it’s early…

“Is it local?” Glen asks, and steps behind Blue to look. “They would use that alert if we need to evacuate…”

“It’s from Cinnabar Island,” Blue says, which makes everyone stare in surprise.

“The volcano?” Elaine whispers.

“No, it’s… it says pokemon attack, but there’s no tier estimate.”

“What pokemon?”

“They don’t know.” Blue drags his gaze from his screen to look around the table. “It’s a new species.”

Chapter 96: Moral Reasoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he’s about to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I assumed you would want sincerity.”

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

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

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

“Have you been there before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want people to get hurt.”

Same reaction, maybe even a little more faint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some are. Perhaps you’ll meet them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giovanni nods. “Is 11% enough, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G?

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

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

“H-hello, Bill.”

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

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

“I… uh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably because they’re helping fund or research it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re still troubled.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maria.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What alternatives?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does he feel so hollow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 95: Eliminate the Impossible

“So I think I’ve got it,” Red says to Sabrina and her students as soon as she enters the dining room where the rest of them are gathered.

Everyone’s attention sharpens on him as she smiles and takes her seat at the head of the table, but no one’s thoughts feel particularly surprised; they probably assumed as much, given this is the first time he called an “urgent meeting” and they all know what he’s been working on.

But lack of surprise isn’t the same as lack of skepticism, and he feels Daniel’s as he asks, “You’ve replicated it?”

At one point it might have irritated Red, but he understands it, and is too excited to be annoyed. He can tell that excitement is having an effect on the room overall. “No, but I have a hypothesis that fits all the facts, and I know how to test it. But I can’t do it myself, which means I need you guys.”

All of us?” Tatsumaki asks as she orbits a variety of lollipops around her head, occasionally guiding one into her mouth for a moment. “I can’t even do free teleportation.”

“We don’t know for sure that it’s necessary,” Satori comments. Her torracat has grown since he arrived in Saffron, and now that it’s unable to fit in her lap while she sits in a chair, she instead sits on the floor so it can curl around her.

Red nods. “I don’t think it is, and the more people are willing to try the higher the chance of the test working.”

“Uh… I don’t think that’s how science works,” Rowan points out, and a moment later his expression shifts from skepticism to avarice. “But if there’s a chance we can get it to work, we’re in!”

Red waits before responding, and sure enough the young man’s expression changes again, this time to an aloof disinterest. “Assuming your explanation makes any sense, of course.”

Jason gives Rowan a concerned look, but doesn’t comment. It’s become normal for the partition specialist to do this even in public now, and Jason told Red that when he expressed his concern to Sabrina, she simply shrugged and said that as long as he doesn’t become dysfunctional or dangerous in some way, it’s his mind to evolve as he sees fit. “I’m also curious by what you meant,” the medium says, attention shifting back to Red. “Why can’t you test it yourself, given that you’ve done it already?”

“Why don’t you just explain your theory?” Sabrina interjects. “In case that answers the question, and potentially others.”

Red nods and uncaps one of the markers for the whiteboard against the wall. “When I first learned about the inconsistencies in teleportation, it didn’t make any sense to me that an abra wouldn’t teleport somewhere they’d already registered and teleported to if someone built something there, even if it wasn’t an enclosed space. It felt particularly weird to me because they could teleport from spaces that are more enclosed than the places they’d teleport to. The problem was with my mindset; I was stuck on teleportation as a mechanical process that I could observe. But why think that when I can’t even observe psychic phenomena?” He’s writing as he talks, and feels the pulse of interest from Sabrina. “Noticing my confusion wasn’t enough, I had to really boggle at what I was ‘seeing’ when teleportation occured.” This time it’s Jason whose mind touches the room with understanding. “And once I did, I wrote out every factor I could think of that might contribute to the process of teleportation.”

He finishes the last assumption, then steps back for all of them to read.

Assumption 1: Pokemon will only teleport to places they have been before, imprinted as “safe,” or that their trainer has been before.

Assumption 2: Teleportation is a single discrete action: either it works or it doesn’t.

Assumption 3: Pokemon teleport by simple memory of locations.

Assumption 4: The melded psychic experiences everything their pokemon experiences.

The room is quiet. Even those that seemed the least invested are intrigued by the puzzle he’s challenged them with, and Red feels it when Sabrina gets it. It makes sense, given their interview.

But she doesn’t say anything right away, letting the others think it through as well, and within a minute Satori speaks. “They’re checking for safety?” Her hand brushes her torracat’s back, and she nods before he can confirm it. “Yes, it makes sense. I should have thought of that.”

She says it without any particular self-recrimination, but Red feels enough for both of them. It’s so obvious in retrospect, the sort of thing he bets Leaf would have figured out right away if she was psychic, or if he’d explained the process and problem in detail to her. “Exactly. Every teleporter develops the ability as a safety response, the entire process of ‘registering’ a location is a deliberate check for safety. Of course they won’t teleport somewhere that’s significantly different from when they registered it, and we should know that from the way they won’t teleport into space that’s already occupied.”

Daniel frowns. “That’s a mechanical limitation, a physical impossibility. We don’t sense any fear when they fail… or refuse, I guess… oh. But you’re saying either way, you think there’s a sense that the abra is using to check.”

“A sense that humans can’t recognize,” Sabrina adds, smiling. “Just like the ability to see psychic light.”

“But you didn’t sense any deliberate check when you returned to your old bedroom?” Jason asks.

“No, I didn’t sense anything unusual.” He’s gone over and over that memory, those brief few seconds between recognizing something was odd, understanding what was different, hoping he could freely teleport, then attempting to… but though he spent the entire time fully merged with his abra, he just got the customary check of familiar safety for a teleportation that, this time, was coming from his own memory instead of the abra’s. “But there’s another thing that I keep thinking of. The way you described teleportation’s psychic colors, Sensei, that it shifts to galo before emitting a burst of it. If I’m right about the way the colors reflect distinct psychic abilities—”

“Then psychokinesis is involved,” Tatsumaki says. “And you believe you didn’t sense it because you’re ‘missing’ that ability.”

“Right. I think my memory of my room as a safe place was strong enough, as the only reference frame, to overcome my abra’s instinct. Once it got there, though… I mean, I probably freaked it out with my celebration, and then there was a stranger there… or maybe it’s as simple as realizing it was teleporting to an indoor space, which I didn’t focus on as part of my memory of it. Or something else I’m not thinking of, because I’m still not sure what exactly abra prioritize. But it makes sense, right?”

He looks around the room. Everyone seems thoughtful, and finally Sabrina nods. “As a hypothesis, yes. Still, as Jason said, you’re the one who did it. Why would we succeed in sensing something you haven’t?”

“For now I want to confirm this hypothesis. If I am, doing it again should be easier for everyone.”

“Should it?”

Daniel frowns at Sabrina. “What, you think only Verres can do it?”

“Why not? He has a unique psychic ability, and he has done a few things that no other psychics have. It’s reasonable to tie each of those accomplishments to that ability—not to say you haven’t worked hard, Red—and it’s highly unlikely that he would be able to do yet another seemingly impossible thing that’s unconnected to that uniqueness.” She folds her hands, gaze meeting Red’s. “Is there any reason to believe we could do this without your absolute mirroring?”

Red caps the marker and puts it away, then sits. “Well, for one thing, I think you might be putting too much weight on the ability over the mindset. I know this is an argument we’ve had before,” he says with a glance at Jason, who smiles. “But even if my quirk isn’t learnable, we shouldn’t assume that everything I can do with it is only able to be done through binary capability. I believe you, Jason, Daniel, and Satori have all become almost as good as I am at mirroring, Sensei.”

Sabrina considers this a moment, then nods, and looks to her students on either side of the table. “As of now, this is our collective priority. Whatever else you’re working on, do it in your off hours. Yes, that includes you Tatsumaki and Rowan. That you can’t do free teleportation yet is just a matter of practice. If it’s possible for a human to recognize what their pokemon is doing at the moment of teleportation, I believe it will likely require the same level of deep merge that leads to free teleportation, so just consider it a bonus benefit to work you’d have to do anyway.”

Jason rotates the beads around his neck. “We should record all our attempts, just in case each psychic can only do this once.”

“Better yet, carry one of these in a pocket.” Red takes out small tracking devices, copies of the one Professor Oak gave him after learning about Red’s feat. “It’s hard to determine pokedex location by height unless it’s extremely high or low, so unfortunately mine’s record could be explained by me teleporting onto my roof. With these there will be digital records of the exact coordinates you teleport to. Combined with video footage, it should be easy to prove that you ended up indoors at the moment of teleportation.”

Everyone takes theirs, some putting it into their pocket right away while others, like Sabrina, examines it. “Are they always on?”

“Uh, I think so, yeah.”

Tatsumaki’s orbiting candy falters for a moment, and she immediately takes hers back out of her pocket and puts it on the table with a frown. Sabrina smiles and sets hers down as well. “For the sake of privacy, then, let’s leave them in this room. Just come to pick one up if you’re going to try indoor teleportation. Any questions?”

Red looks around, but everyone seems lost in thought. Jason is the first to stir and look at him. “So we are simply going to be attempting to merge fully with our pokemon as they teleport, and search for any sense being used besides those we’re familiar with?”

“Essentially. Or maybe approach it from the other direction, and try teleporting somewhere unsafe while merged with your abra to see what it feels.” He hesitates. “I did this a lot for my other experiments, but I can’t recall feeling anything from mine. Still, replication would be good.”

Another silence descends, and after a minute Sabrina nods. “Dismissed.” People begin to leave, the last of which is Sabrina, who smiles. “Well done, Red.”

“Thank you, Sensei.” It’s a relief to finally have something to show for the days of agonizing over this, even if it’s not a full replication yet. He feels good about this hypothesis, though… “You’ve been teleporting longer than anyone else here, so if you don’t end up sensing something while deliberately looking for it, I may have to consider the idea that it’s not something they consciously do. Do you know anyone who can merge with a pokemon so deeply that even their subconscious thoughts are felt?”

“Isn’t that a contradiction? Surely it would be mirrored in the subconscious as well.”

Red sighs. “Probably. Still, maybe upon reflection someone would notice.”

“Perhaps. I’ll reach out to Elite Agatha, as well as Leader Morty.” And with that she’s gone, and he’s alone.

Red sinks his head on his arms, letting himself rest for a minute. The meeting went well, and he finds himself hungry; he hasn’t really eaten much lately, and particularly didn’t eat much during dinner at the ranch last night.

He feels a wave of sadness just remembering it, and forces himself to stand and walk to the fridge. He might as well eat now, and figure out what he should do while the others test his idea… maybe get back to finding a way to merge with wild unown…

Red barely has time to assemble his sandwich, however, before he gets a call, and smiles as he sees Leaf’s name. “Heya! How’s your—”

“Red, how soon can you come to Fuchsia?”

It takes a moment for Red to register her words, but her tone is enough to have his smile fade and his heart leap. “What’s… I’m not sure, the flights take… no, I can teleport to Vermilion and fly from there… thirty minutes?” He feels his pulse in his neck as adrenaline spreads through him, thoughts of Stormbringers or lower Tier events racing through his mind. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Sorry, it’s… not that kind of emergency. But, um. There’s someone here who wants to talk to you, and it’s probably best done in person.”

The words should calm him, but his mind is already racing through all the sorts of conversations that might have her sounding like this…

He feels a moment of disorientation as the partition weakens enough for his hidden memories to surface, all the secrets he’s keeping hidden even from himself popping up alongside his fear and worry about being discovered. He ignores it as best he can and brings all of his attention to bear on figuring out how much trouble he might be in.

That Leaf is the one who called him narrows it down pretty fast; it can’t be Bill’s secret, or his ability to lie, or what happened under the Casino, and that only leaves one thing. They talked about what might happen if someone gets suspicious about the part of Aiko’s code that originated from sakki, and if Leaf is asking him to come talk then whoever brought it up must not have been satisfied…

Which means it’s time to enact some of the plans he made while pre-morteming this eventuality.

“Can you speak freely?” he asks.

“More or less.”

Meaning she’s probably not around someone right now, but she doesn’t want to trust anything to the phone. “How much do they know?”

“Nothing, just suspicious. And it’s not everyone, just one guy, David.”

“He needs an explanation?”

“Yeah. A good one.”

Meaning not just more evasions. “I’m in the middle of something,” Red says after a moment of thought. “Could it wait until tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yeah, I think so. Are you… okay?”

“Fine.” Is she picking up on the partition being down even over the phone? No, probably just predicting that he would be panicking. “Worried, but we’ve been lucky it hasn’t happened sooner, really. How about you?”

“I don’t know. Also worried, maybe more than worried. The project is showing such promise… plus I have no idea how people will react. Red, is there something I’m forgetting?”

He hesitates, realizing what she’s really asking is whether he has a plan she doesn’t know about. “No, but can you trust me to hold off on explaining for now?”

“I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

And that our stories match. That’s a reasonable worry that he didn’t consider, since he assumed… “You can’t avoid talking about it for a day?”

“I think it would be easier without a complete brush-off.”

“Okay.” Shit. “Alright, so… does he know you’re reaching out to me?”

“I just said I had to make a call.”

“Right. So you can confirm that he’s not the first one who knows, which is true, and he’s probably guessed, and you can let him know that he’ll get the full story tomorrow, but past that it’s probably best to just say it’s classified.”

There’s silence on the other line, for a moment too long, then another.

“Leaf?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, no, obviously, I just…guess I’m still wrapping my head around this…”

There’s something in her voice, not quite an uneasiness, but enough hesitation to make him reevaluate how his confidence and words must seem to her. Like there is a conspiracy, maybe, that she’s been kept out of. “I already got my panicking out of the way when I premortemed this. I sound more confident than I am, and if you have a better idea I’m open to it, but I’m going to talk to Sabrina.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. “And you think she’ll…”

“I hope so.”

“Right. I don’t have a better idea, so… good luck.”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

As soon as the call with Leaf is done, he calls Sabrina, hoping she hasn’t left the building.

“Yes, Red?”

“Hi, uh, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Right this moment, yes.”

There’s a pause. “I’m on my way back down.”

“No, I’ll come to you, if that’s alright? You’re in your rooms?”

“Yes. That’s fine, come on up.”

She sounds distracted, even worried, so Red says goodbye and closes the call with one hand as the other grabs his sandwich. He eats it as he walks to the elevator, and it’s gone by the time he reaches Sabrina’s room, untasted and forgotten as soon as he’s sitting on her comfortable couch while she sits on the other end, watching him with worried, searching eyes.

“So, yeah, like I said, there’s something I need to tell you.” His heart is beating fast and hard, and he takes a calming breath. “Part of me wishes I’d told you sooner, but I was hoping it could wait until you learned how to perfectly lie.”

Before he first met Sabrina, when her amazing psychic abilities and trainer skills were just abstract things to him, what he most admired about her was how quick she is. “Like you have.”

She says the words with just a faint undercurrent of emotion, surprise without shock, curiosity without disbelief. When Red simply nods, Sabrina takes a breath, expression wavering a moment, then firming. “Show me.”

Red knew this day would come, and made the partition he needs weeks ago. He closes his eyes, dropping his shields and setting it up in just the right way as he brings all the other partitions up…

His next breath is easier, and he opens his eyes to find Sabrina watching him intently. What was she waiting for again?

Tell her to ask you where you met.

Red blinks, then frowns as the thought from his unpartitioned self automatically sends his thoughts toward his first meeting with the Gym Leader. What’s so strange about that?

Tell her.

“Uh. Ask me where we met?”

He feels her thoughts touch his, senses her curiosity and trepidation, and underneath them an even deeper worry that borders on fear, which she’s doing her best to control and doesn’t show at all in her face or tone. “Where did we meet, Red?”

He does his best to ignore her shared feelings and just focus on the truth. “Here in Saffron.”

He feels her shock, so strong that her expression actually shows it, eyes wide as she sucks in a sharp breath. The merger deepens, and he feels his hands tighten on the arms of his seat… no, her hands on her seat, even as his own confusion starts to blend with the worry he felt.

She doesn’t believe him, but why? He can clearly remember their first meeting here, the way he bowed to her and thanked her for having him as a student… wait, how did they… right, text messages. She texted him before he went on the S.S. Anne, and…

…something’s missing. He can’t remember his decision to accept. He can’t even remember their conversation, the details of the agreement… and still he can feel Sabrina’s surprise, feel it shifting to calculation and admiration and even her own worry, all combined with a deep bitterness over—

The merger ends, leaving him with vague impressions of her friend, the one she lost during the incident. He can’t make sense of them beyond the understanding that she was both afraid of and for her friend, and that she assigned them to learn how to lie to a psychic for his sake. There’s more, her friend wasn’t normal…?

Then it hits Red that he amnesia’d his memory of meeting Sabrina away, and it’s hard to think of anything but what else he’s forgetting, before suddenly the memories all flood back, each partition dropping until he’s his full, unpartitioned self again. He lets out a heavy breath as he puts his shields back up.

Sabrina just watches him for a moment longer, slowly regaining control of herself. Eventually she slumps in her seat, looking more tired than he’s seen her since just after she got back from Hoenn. “When did you learn how to do this?” she asks, voice soft, and Red suddenly gets the sense that a wrong answer here might ruin everything.

“Not until after Rowan taught me how to use my new partition to induce amnesia.”

It takes her a moment. “After the incident.”

It’s not a question, but he still says, “Yeah.” She seems relieved, but… “Though—”

“There’s no way to know that for sure, yes. But I believe you. I remember how your thoughts felt, upon my return, and if you could do this then, and only pretended to need to learn from Rowan… well, perhaps you would have in order to throw off suspicion for just this moment, but such thinking is virtually endless.”

Red swallows, then nods, deciding not to question it. Her gaze is distant, and he instinctively lowers his shield to touch her thoughts, but her own shield is firmly up.

She’s learned enough about his sensitive shield to feel it, however, and seems to shake herself as she refocuses on him. “I have many questions, of course, but this isn’t what you actually wanted to talk to me about.”

“No. But uh, it could probably be talked about first? If it needs to be?”

“Let me hear the rest first. If it’s important enough to derail this, then it should be derailed.”

“Right. So um. I can… psychically… make a pokemon lose all its conditioning.”

Sabrina stares at him a moment. She seems about to speak, pauses, then asks, “When you say all its conditioning…?”

“The actual mental state,” Red says, pulse painfully quick, “Is a total freedom to do anything. No limitations, just… acting on instinct.”

Sabrina closes her eyes, lets out a deep sigh, and covers her eyes with one hand as she rests her head against it. She doesn’t speak for nearly a minute, and Red just quietly watches her, feeling more and more like this might have been a mistake. He tries to think of what to say, but his thoughts are circling uselessly, and he has to resist the urge to take his notebook out to try and give them a direction to move in.

“Who else knows?” the Gym Leader finally asks.

“Blue, Leaf, and a handful of others who were training with him in Vermilion.” He feels a touch of unease giving up their names, but he understands why she’s asking. “I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t gotten out by now.”

“Battle trainers are almost as good at keeping secrets as psychics.” She finally lifts her head up, face weary but gaze calculating. “You used it under the casino?”

Part of him had hoped she wouldn’t guess that, and yet again he’s not surprised by the speed of it. Their survival against trained renegades must have looked miraculous by most experienced eyes. He takes a breath, then says, “Yes.”

“I appreciate your candor, especially knowing that you could convincingly lie about it if you chose.”

She doesn’t seem shocked or horrified. “And I appreciate that you asked, knowing that I could have.” He clears his throat, wishing he’d asked for some water. Well, no reason not to get it now. “Could I have something to drink, please?”

The question has some effect on Sabrina that Red can’t quite place, and she nods and goes to the fridge to fill a pair of glasses. He shifts, uncomfortable in the near-silence. It’s one thing he appreciates about these apartments, the whole building set aside just for them to ensure enough distance for both audial and psychic privacy.

He wonders if he’ll be asked to leave, like Rei, then reminds himself that he’s risking much worse than that and feels his stomach flip. He starts to second guess himself for admitting what he did to the renegades’ pokemon, but no, he can’t “come clean” now and risk it coming out later.

Sabrina returns with a glass for him, which he takes with thanks and begins to drink from. Once she’s seated and sipping from her own glass, he wonders if he should say anything else. Her expression is still deep in thought, and he decides to let her process this at her own pace.

Perhaps a minute passes before her gaze returns to him, and she simply asks, “What do you want from me?”

It’s a strange thing to ask, given what he revealed, but at the same time Red understands why she’s asking it. “I’m not sure,” Red admits. “I’m not asking for protection, exactly. I just thought… this is something that’s going to affect all of us, and I trust you to know better than me what the best way forward is. I figured you had a plan for something like this—”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, you were asking us to figure it out, the perfect lie I mean. You must have been prepared for the knowledge to leak in case we did?” Unless she expected to compel them all to silence, somehow, which… might not have been too difficult, come to think of it.

Sabrina watches him a moment, then gives a slight smile. “Yes. But this is… rather different.”

“I know. I hope it’s not too much at once.”

“It may very well be. That psychics can lie to other psychics will destabilize a pillar of society, and turn suspicion against many powerful people who are in part where they are because of that lack of suspicion.” He almost asks if that includes her, but no, she won her position through battles. “The ability to turn pokemon against humans will turn that suspicion into fear. Given the circumstances that force this topic to come up, I believe the best option, for now, is to share the latter without the former. Is there any way to plausibly make it so that your ordeal beneath the Casino is when you first discovered the full extent of this ability?”

“I don’t think so,” Red says. “The others who saw it—”

“In Vermilion, yes. But surely they didn’t understand the full implications? Or else Blue Oak commands far more respect and loyalty than I imagined.”

“Um. Maybe it’s a bit of both? I haven’t asked about it, really, to avoid drawing people’s attention to it.”

“Understandable. But the program?”

“Yeah, that’s hard proof I’ve been doing this for a while. But… it is true that the Casino is the first time I actually used it on someone else’s pokemon in battle. I didn’t know what it would do, how guidable they would be once the sakki was on them… I was just… desperate.”

He relives those moments again, the pain and darkness, the fear, both his own and Lizzy’s and Elaine’s and Leaf’s and—

“I understand,” Sabrina says. “And it will help that you used it explicitly in self defense, against renegades.”

Hope and fear tug at opposite ends of his stomach as he imagines actually telling people what happened. “Then… you think I should go public?”

“Perhaps. This is not a decision to be made lightly, and I’ll probably spend the rest of the week speaking to some other trusted…” Sabrina trails off as he fidgets, then sighs, face resigned. “Unless you have more bad news to share first?”

“There’s… someone who might need to be talked to by tomorrow.”

“Ah. The real reason you decided to speak to me now.”

She still sounds more resigned than upset. “Yeah. One of the coders working on Leaf’s new program doesn’t buy the idea that our friend Aiko wrote it anymore, or thinks it’s potentially dangerous… I’m not sure what to do, but I figured if a Gym Leader told him it was being looked into and handled…”

“You want me to mislead him into thinking this was all sanctioned. To imply that those at the highest levels of the region know about it, and to set his worry aside.”

Red forces himself to meet her eyes as he nods, feeling cold sweat on the back of his neck. Her tone was flat, and he can’t help but think that this is it, the moment she’ll tell him no, that this isn’t right, that he’s on his own…

Instead the Gym Leader merely continues to speculatively search his gaze. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

He tries not to let her curiosity make him too hopeful. “Ever since I could do so while hiding it from my partitioned self.” For weeks he essentially rode around in his own head as a mostly-silent passenger, observing and adding the occasional thought or suggestion in reply to his partitioned self’s thoughts or concerns while the majority of his focus was on what to do about all this… not just for his own sake, but for all psychics. Part of his planning included worst case scenarios, including using all his money to flee the islands, undergo disguising surgery, and live out his life in another part of the world.

Desperate, foolish thoughts. But some were also constructive, and eventually he reached a conclusion that was difficult to accept, and frightening, but inescapable.

“First I thought of what the main problem is with us, psychics I mean, having these new powers, and the answer is it makes people feel unsafe. What makes people feel safe are governments and leagues, rangers and leaders. I think people may not be sure how to react, but will take their cue from those they already trust to keep them safe. So we mostly don’t have to worry about convincing the average person to not worry about psychics… I mean, I think they will anyway, and that will still cause problems, but… mostly we just have to convince those in charge?”

“I see. A reasonable plan, though it raises the crux of the problem. Do you know what an infohazard is?”

“Yeah, Giovanni talked about them. Something that, once you know it, causes you harm.”

“Essentially. What do you think of the concept?”

“To be honest, I didn’t really agree with him. It’s largely theoretical, right? Like, I know some argue that certain lines of thought can qualify by leading people into an existential crisis, but… there’s nothing we know of that will reliably cause people, in general, harm through simple exposure. Maybe we could call certain lies infohazards, like if people are led to believe something will heal them that ends up hurting them, but the implication, from what I remember, is that infohazards are about real knowledge, or knowledge that could be real.”

“And you don’t think real knowledge shouldn’t be known.”

Red hesitates, recognizing the trap. “I guess I haven’t acted like someone who believes all truth should be known. I… used to believe that. I think I still do, but…” Bill mentioned that he’s sabotaged other projects that he worried might create a general artificial intelligence before they figured out how to align it properly. That would make knowledge of how to build one, without the proper safeguards, an infohazard, wouldn’t it? “It’s not that I think the truth would harm people, it’s that I’m worried about how they’ll act because of it.”

“Is that terribly different?”

“Yes!”

“Even if they’re right to act that way?”

Red’s breath hitches, and he sinks his face into his hands as he’s forced to confront the thought he’s put off again and again.

What if society would be right to fear psychics?

It was bad enough when the possibility of perfect liars was raised. At worst that would just make psychics as untrustworthy as darks; Blue told him about the ex-Fighting Gym Leader being at the dojo he’s training at, and that he felt guilty for thinking that if only the man wasn’t dark he could more easily trust him by just getting a psychic to tell Blue if Koichi is sincere.

But the sakki is different. And Leaf’s fears, about influencing people’s beliefs… he can’t just pretend to know that it’s not possible, or that everything would turn out alright.

What if psychics shouldn’t be allowed to be Leaders, or trainers, or even researchers?

And what if he’s responsible for ending all of that?

There’s a tearing sensation between his ribs, and the sob that escapes him feels like it rips a hole in his chest. He begins to block the flood of emotions, to cut himself off from them and keep himself from breaking down in front of Sabrina, but a moment later he feels her hand on his hair and he’s lost, fear and dread and grief washing through him.

“I d-didn’t… I-I didn’t m-mean to—”

“Shh, I know. I know.”

She pulls him against her side, and for a time he just cries out all the fear and loneliness and dread he’s kept behind multiple partitions since he killed the renegades.

There’s no hiding from it anymore. He may have used their pokemon to do it, they may even have deserved it, but he used pokemon to kill them, sure as if he’d given the verbal command. If he’s not branded a renegade, it would only be by technicality.

And it’s worse than that, so much worse, because he has the potential to do more harm than any renegade that ever lived. He doesn’t even need to train a pokemon to break its conditioning, doesn’t even need to leave evidence.

And if he has the ability to teach others how to do the same thing… people who might actually use it for evil purpose… hell, if just knowing it’s possible leads to a psychic renegade figuring it out themselves and using it to secretly kill people, maybe dozens of people, maybe hundreds…

Maybe he should be feared.

Maybe they all should.

Please, I’m sorry, I just wanted to do research!

What keeps coming back to him, again and again, is Yuuta’s face as the votes for his branding were voiced, his pleading as Red first hesitated, then gave in and sealed his fate.

Counting him, Red’s killed three people. He failed to save Aiko, and the people in the apartment building, and all of that pales in comparison to how many psychics he’s condemned because he didn’t stop to think about the consequences of what he was doing. Because he found something new and exciting and he experimented with it in front of others, released an infohazard into the world with no way to contain it.

I just wanted to learn!

“Shh…” Sabrina strokes his hair as he tries to apologize again, which only results in him crying harder, face buried in her shoulder as he clutches her tight. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

The words are a liferaft that he clings to along with her, and for a time the fear and grief consumes him, all of him but the shard that holds onto her, feeling her hand in his hair. He wants his mother, but she’s not here, and he’d be afraid to tell her even if she was. So he accepts Sabrina’s comfort, and lets himself believe her words.

Little by little he calms enough to even his breathing, and by the time the tears have stopped he feels embarrassed. He loosens his grip, and Sabrina gently pulls away, then returns with some tissues, which he takes to wipe his face, cheeks burning.

She sits across from him again, seemingly unconcerned by the wet patch on her shoulder, and takes another sip of water as she lets him finish resettling himself. Once he drinks from his own glass he feels ready to continue.

“Thank you, Sensei. If there’s… I’ll do whatever you suggest, if…” He clears his throat and drinks again before setting his glass down. “What should I do?”

Sabrina is quiet for what feels like the longest minute of Red’s life, and when she finally speaks it’s only to say, “Nothing.”

Red raises raw eyes to stare at her. “You mean…?”

“Just that. I appreciate your trust, and am glad you came to me. There may be some hard days ahead, and some difficult choices, but… right now, anything else you do has to be incredibly, carefully, extensively calculated.”

“But… the programmer—”

“I’ll speak with them,” she says, and for the first time since he heard from Leaf, something in his chest unclenches. “Your plan, generally speaking, is a good one. I would like to make it as true as possible, however, which means we’ll be speaking with some others about this.”

Some of the tension returns as he considers what that might entail, but of course he expected it even if Sabrina agreed with his plan. “Other than you, the second safest person I considered telling was Professor Oak—”

“The Professor?” Sabrina asks, brow furrowed. “Really?”

“Uh, yeah. He’s always been very supportive of me, and I know he’d want to help.”

“Ah.” Sabrina’s face clears. “That’s understandable, but…”

“What?”

“If your criteria in telling me is that I have just as much to lose and am already comfortable with keeping potential truths hidden for safety, the Professor fits the opposite profile. He’s not gifted, has no gifted family, and is dedicated to seeking and disseminating truth. Worst of all, he’s not dark, and might reveal the information at an inopportune time… to a psychic, it’s true, but we can’t assume all of them would be as careful as we need to be.”

Red bites his lower lip. He had worried about whether the Professor would feel duty-bound to spread the knowledge… and whether he would judge Red more for not sharing what he learned to do more than for what he did with it. “It’s been hard to justify not telling him already. Keeping him out of the loop while pretending it’s an official secret feels… wrong.”

“I understand. How about this; we ask another, similarly respected leader first, and see what they think?”

There’s only a couple others who Red can think of, in Kanto at least, who meet that bar. “Who…?”

“Leader Giovanni. I plan to tell him regardless, but I think you should meet with him as well. In fact, I was considering introducing you to him before the Hoenn incident derailed so many plans.”

What? Is that what Sabrina meant when she spoke about rewarding loyalty? “But… I mean, I would be honored to meet him of course, but… he doesn’t have any psychic family either, and… he also seems committed to spreading the truth.”

“He’s committed to spreading reason,” Sabrina corrects. “Which often involves spreading truth. But I’m very confident he will see the reason in withholding this particular truth, for now, and being strategic in how it’s spread.”

It takes Red a moment to realize where that confidence likely comes from, but when he does it’s enough to make him feel like he’s fully waking up, finally, from the emotions that overwhelmed him:

There are other secrets the Gym Leaders know that they keep from the general public.

Of course there are. It was the height of egotism for him to think he was the only person to ever discover something new and dangerous. Hell, he learned a dangerous truth that he kept hidden before he discovered his own, and he suddenly wonders how many others know Bill’s secrets. The most analogous one that he didn’t even consider was the existence of pokeballs that can hold humans.

But he did consider it to some degree, specifically wondering whether someone else had discovered sakki. It’s part of what made him feel so guilty, imagining that someone was out there using it for evil, and that by keeping his own discovery of it secret he was selfishly guarding his own safety rather than ensuring people could better protect themselves. He just didn’t really believe it, because…

Because it seemed so horrifying? Because it would compel him to act?

He’s not sure, but either way he feels ashamed of the thought, and all he says is, “If you think he’s the right person to tell next, then I’m ready.” Normally the thought of getting to talk with Leader Giovanni would be exciting, make him run for his old notebook to review all the questions he’d like to ask him… but right now, all he feels is a cold stone in his gut as he imagines what the man he respects so much will think of what he’s done. And what Professor Oak would, when the truth finally reaches him and he realizes Red didn’t trust him enough to tell him first.

Sabrina clearly picks up on this, and responds with a wave of reassurance as she stands. “I’ll arrange the meeting. Meanwhile, just try to relax, and let Leaf know that I’ll contact her.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Okay.” He knows it’s a dismissal, and so he finishes his water and stands as well.

“You have a meditation class soon, don’t you? If you need to cancel it—”

“No, I’ll be alright.” Red closes his eyes, and when he opens them again the world feels lighter, his body less tired. He smiles at Sabrina. “Thank you again, Sensei.”

She’s looking back at him with mild fascination. “What exactly are you thanking me for? What do you remember of our conversation?”

“Uh… your help? You said you’d talk to Leaf about the programmer.” He remembers crying, can still feel the rawness in his eyes… “It was a big relief, because… I’ve been worried about how people will respond to sakki.” It is scary to think that they might cancel Leaf’s program or be angry about what Red might do with it, and though his stomach clenches with worry as he imagines Professor Oak’s eventual disappointment or condemnation, he’s a little surprised by the severity of the regret and fear he remembers. Of course, that’s the point of his unpartitioned self using it to keep them productive.

He feels Sabrina probe his feelings, and allows the mild merge before she withdraws. “I see. Very well, then, you seem fit to teach. I’ll speak with you later.”

Red nods and returns to his room, where he calls Leaf. “Hey.”

“Hey, Red. Thanks for calling me back so fast.”

“Of course. How’d it go?”

“Alright. He seemed suspicious, but willing to wait. We’re… friends, or at least I hope we still are. He’s willing to extend a bit of trust.”

“Great. Sabrina says she’ll talk to you soon.”

“Oh, thank the Swords.” Leaf sounds almost faint with relief. “So… does that mean she’s going to be the one revealing the discovery?”

“I’m not sure, actually, but she’s all filled in. She’s going to talk to other people now, sort of feel them out… I have to get ready for a class, but she’ll probably be able to answer your questions better.”

“Okay, thanks for talking to her. I feel better already, though I know it was a lie at the time… ugh. We should talk more, later, I know you have to go.”

“Definitely.”

They say their goodbyes and Red hurries to shower and change for his lesson, which is an intermediate class on meditating where he teaches the psychics and non-psychics how to identify negative thoughts, particularly those with a negative emotion attached, and find related, countervailing positive thoughts and emotion. Then they learn to sit with negative emotions, examining their source and function while practicing calming techniques until, little by little, growing comfortable with them before switching to the positive, then back, and back again, until it’s easy and effortless, until they can hold both feelings together.

It’s often as useful for him to practice techniques like this as it is for his students, and never before more so than today. By the time he’s done he feels even calmer about everything than he did after his talk with Sabrina.

That calmness lasts right up until he reaches his room, and sees Rei standing outside his door.

Nice Guy Anti-FAQ

“Nice Guy” is a pejorative label used almost exclusively to make fun of men who express frustration at the “unfairness” of the romantic world for good, kind-hearted guys. It comes from the saying “Nice guys finish last,” and many have attempted to defend the perspective and insist that the frustrations and beliefs at its core are genuine reflections of reality.

As someone who struggled with these sorts of thoughts in high school (classic story of self-believed nice guy in unrequited love with a girl whose boyfriend seemed to be mistreating her) but then quickly outgrew it (remained friends with girl through her breakup with first boyfriend and finding actually nice new boyfriend), I view the debate surrounding the worldview and its components with a mix of frustration and sympathy. So I thought I’d write this to help clear the air a bit, and hopefully convince some Nice Guys that their beliefs are largely the result of biased perspectives and limited information, so that they can also grow past them.

(Note that girls can be “Nice Guys” too. Plenty of girls have found themselves to be essentially invisible to guys romantically, despite being nice and caring and giving them a shoulder to cry on as the guys pined after other (often less nice) girls.  This post is going to keep the genders static for simplicity, but most of it can be applied to the reverse situation as well.)

0. What is a Nice Guy?

1. Why Do Girls Date “Assholes”?

2. Why Do Girls Claim to Like Nice Guys?

3. Why Do Girls Complain to Nice Friends?

4. Why Bother Risking the “Friendzone”?

5. Why Are Nice Guys Mocked?

6. Why Should I Believe Any of This?

0. What is a Nice Guy?

Everyone’s going to have different definitions of this, but the ones I find most useful/true tend to use some combination of the following tenets:

1) A guy who believes that being kind, polite, or caring are overall detrimental traits for dating.

2) A guy who believes that the things women claim to care about romantically (like being treated well) are not what they actually care about.

3) A guy who believes that women complaining about their dating life to nice male friends who want to date them are being hypocritical.

4) A guy who believes that being just friends with girls they are attracted to is either impossible, or too painful to be worth having them in their life (fear of the “Friend Zone”)

Additional tenets I often see attributed to Nice Guys that I don’t think are necessary to be one:

5) A guy who believes being friendly and spending money on girls obligates them to sex.

6) A guy who thinks women are only valuable for sex.

I only ever briefly held beliefs 1-2, and knew plenty of others who held 3-4 as well, but I don’t believe 5-6 are “core” parts to being a Nice Guy, and think the majority of the hate/disgust people have toward Nice Guys usually focus on their expressions of 5-6.

Explaining why 5-6 are harmful and obviously wrong beliefs is beyond the scope of this FAQ, and hopefully not necessary to most reading it. However, some combination of 1-4 are somewhat more understandable beliefs that are often the result of biases (sample, confirmation, and others) and pain/frustration/loneliness. Since 5-6 are the beliefs that cause the most harm to others, they’re the ones that tend to get the most attention, but when people assume that anyone who believes in 1-4 also believes 5-6, that makes conversations around the topic of “Nice Guys” hard to navigate.

1. Isn’t Tenet 1 true? I know plenty of girls who date assholes, and lots of them won’t date their nice male friends!

So there are two separate beliefs that combine to form the first tenet.

First, yes, you know plenty of girls who date “assholes.” Most people do. I’ve also heard girls talk about guys who date “bitches.” And guys who date assholes and girls who date bitches. Simple truth is, shitty people exist of all genders, and they are capable of finding someone to date them.

Sometimes the person they date is similarly shitty. But sometimes the sweetest, kindest people you know also date people who treat them poorly, or treat others poorly. Maybe because they don’t see how shitty they are, or they’re dependent on them in some way, or they have amazing sex, or because they don’t have the self-esteem to think they deserve better, or because they hope their SO will change, or because they’re afraid of being alone, or internalized societal messages about needing a “protector” (which can be confused for aggressive jealousy), and so on.  People stay in relationships for a lot of reasons, but there are plenty of people who break up with shitty boyfriends and girlfriends too.

So let’s be clear: if someone ever told you that people only date nice people, they misinformed you. At best they were overly optimistic. At worst they probably just wanted to encourage you to be nice. It was probably your mother. Try not to hold it against them.

But just because a rule you were taught turns out not to be true doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

If Nice Guys just believed that being nice isn’t a positive aspect for dating, that would be one thing. Still wrong, but less wrong. To think it’s actually a detriment requires a second data point that seems to support this belief: that these girls have nice male friends, but they won’t date them instead of the assholes.

So, “some girls date assholes while not dating their nice friends instead” becomes “being nice is a detriment to dating.” It’s a leap in logic, but at least you could see why someone who only focused on these two bits of data would conclude that… especially if the nice guy is observing examples of niceness “losing.” An example of this is if a nice guy asks a girl out, gets a “no,” and accepts that, then sees another guy get a “no,” keep asking, and eventually gets a “yes.”

But again, it’s due to an artificial rule: the belief that being nice is the most important feature, translating to thinking that if you don’t choose the nicest person to date, then you must not care about niceness.

But “Nice” is not all you need to date someone. I wouldn’t even say it’s much of a positive. If I’m being brutally honest, if you consider “nice” to be one of your best features, you’re not saying much about yourself. Most people looking for a partner to go through life with consider “nice” to be a baseline attribute. Some combination of mutual attraction, interests, values, humor, and more are all higher on the list of what “matters” for most people. Again, not because niceness doesn’t matter, but because anyone not nice is often filtered out fairly quickly.

But again, Nice Guys who believe Tenet 1 don’t just think “Niceness isn’t the most important thing,” which is true. They believe it’s completely irrelevant at best, and a detriment otherwise.

Guys who believe that women who won’t date their nice friends must not care about niceness have only to ask themselves the same question: would I date a nice girl who I don’t find interesting or attractive?

Any guy reading this who says yes: think long and hard about every female friend and acquaintance you have and have ever had, every single one that was at all nice to you, and ask yourself if you’d really date them all just because they showed an interest in dating you.

Not just go on a date with them. Not just have sex with them a few times. I mean commit to a relationship, say at least a few months.

If that seems unfair, remember that not everyone has the same priorities as you. Assuming that girls should be willing to just “give a guy a chance” despite not being interested in him romantically is assuming that the girl is interested in casually dating someone she doesn’t see a future with. And any guy who asserts that girls should do that anyway, “just in case,” is just setting himself and his peers up for heartbreak.

Some guys will still say, yes, they would definitely date a nice girl who expressed an interest in them no matter what other factors about that person are true, and will believe they mean it. And for some this will be true.

To those people, I say kudos! To you, niceness is the most important factor for dating. That’s great!  

But not everyone is like that. To plenty of people, it’s just not the most important factor, and they can no more force themselves to prioritize niceness above all other traits than you could force yourself to prioritize something else in who you’re attracted to.

In any case, even conceding that niceness isn’t the most important factor for dating for most people, that still doesn’t prove that niceness is a detriment for dating.

For that to be true, women need to actively turn away from niceness. They need to see two guys, equal in every way, but one is nice and one isn’t, and say “I’d prefer the one that treats me poorly, please.”

Again: I’m not saying this isn’t possible. People are weird. Some people get off on degradation, and others just don’t trust someone who isn’t as selfish as they are.

But if it’s your default assumption for how “most” people think and feel, or how women think and feel distinct from how men think and feel, then it’s probably worth unpacking what you think “niceness” even is. Not everyone agrees on it; on one extreme end, some guys see the disgust people have for macho-male sexuality and catcalls and unsolicited dickpics, and internalize “niceness” as not ever showing any romantic interest for fear of being “creepy.” On the opposite extreme, some people think being nice means being a doormat, having no boundaries, accepting anything other people do to you and making any sacrifice to fulfill even the smallest of gestures for the person you like.

Finding the balance between being confident in yourself and considerate of the people around you isn’t always easy, but studies show that both often affect the perceived attractiveness of potential partners.

2. If Tenet 2 isn’t true, why do women say they care about guys who are polite and nice caring, but date guys who treat them so poorly?

Again, some women do this, yes. As for why, the short answer to this is that people are complicated, and don’t always know what they want… but to be clear, deciding that you know better than they do what they want is the trap that many Nice Guys (and just generally unpleasant people) fall into.

The longer answer has to do with expectations versus reality.

People tend to have an ideal image of what their romantic partner would be like: attractive, romantic, funny, competent, generous, educated, etc. A lot of this is informed by things people are told are important by their parents, or peer group, or popular culture, and I can’t emphasize enough how damaging romantic movies are here. Most people are told at some point that porn is an unrealistic portrayal of sex, but it’s less commonly explained how misleading “romance” movies are in portraying healthy relationships. Hell, in The Notebook the couple goes out together for the first time because the protagonist threatens to kill himself in front of the girl if she doesn’t agree to go on a date with him… while she’s already on a date with someone else. 

So yeah, some people end up with very confused ideas of what healthy, stable attraction and love look like, or what kind of attributes to look for in a partner.

But however they come by them, people ultimately form an ideal set of attributes that they will explicitly think or say they want. Some are generally applicable, others are more specific, like “Went to an Ivy League school” or “Plays an instrument,” but far less common are ones like “Went to Harvard,” or “Plays piano.”

Then, as they meet people who satisfy enough of their ideals to date, they make compromises. It’s okay that they’re not into the traditional romantic stuff. Or, it’s okay that they don’t give to charity. As they continue to date, there are often other things they didn’t expect they’d care about, and learn to appreciate. They get comfortable dating them. They know each other, have shared habits and friends and maybe even a shared apartment. Eventually they might even fall in love.

Maybe some time passes and the guy lets himself go a bit. Less focus on his appearance, gaining some weight. Or the girl spends less time studying or working, and lowers her aspirations. Or simple time changes their perception: his humor, at first unique and witty, now seems cynical or repetitive. Her competence at her job, at first impressive, now seems middling at best.

But if they love each other, they keep dating anyway. One or two things slipping a bit aren’t usually enough to break a relationship. Hell, even everything slipping a bit usually isn’t enough. Once people fall in love, it tends to take a long, steady decline in multiple areas for sufficient will to arise to change their pattern.

So here’s the thing: “niceness” is one of those areas.

Maybe the guy wasn’t really that nice to begin with, but they pretended. Forced himself to go to family events, held back criticisms of her, stopped himself from yelling at the waiter who got his order wrong, went out of his way to do nice things on all the major holidays, took her on dates because it was expected.

Or maybe things just changed. He doesn’t want to see her family as often anymore because he’s gotten to know them and doesn’t particularly like them, or vice versa. He doesn’t really care how her day at work was anymore because he finds her talking about it repetitive and trivial. He gets angry when she buys something expensive without talking about it first because now they have shared accounts.

If she saw these behaviors at the start of their relationship, she might not have gone on a second or third date. But once they’ve been dating for months or years, once love is in the picture and they live together and have a mutual friends and pets and even have kids together, it gets harder and harder to justify breaking things off and upending their lives and being single again, just because he’s not as “nice” as she’d like.

This isn’t just a story. This sort of thing happens all the time. I see it among couples that come in for counseling, know people who complain about it as a growing irritation they have for their SO. Unfortunately, it can even go on past the point of just not “being nice” to verbal or physical abuse. Sometimes people take years to leave a relationship that’s long since become toxic.

So, are girls lying if they say they like nice guys, even though they’re dating someone not all that nice?

No. But “I like nice guys” or “I want to date nice guys” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date someone if they aren’t nice,” any more than “I like funny girls” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date an unfunny girl.”   For some people it does mean that, but even then, people compromise on their ideals all the time… especially for love.

And if you’re thinking “But what about girls who date guys even though they’re an asshole right away?” then you’re forgetting the first part of all this: people are complicated. Some think they can make them better people through dating them. Others have low self-esteem and don’t feel like they deserve people to be nice to them all the time: they’re just grateful that the boy is nice to them some of the time.

And ultimately, some really don’t care all that much about niceness. If these people say they do, they’re lying, either to themselves or others. It happens.

But that doesn’t mean all or even most girls are that way.

3. Okay but Tenet 3 is obviously true. Girls complain about their boyfriends to their nicer male friends all the time. Don’t they know they’re being hypocritical?

Let’s say a girl complains about how her boyfriend ruined their dinner when he tried to make it, and the friend she’s talking to is a great cook. Is that hypocritical?

Let’s say she complains about him not applying to a better job he said he would, to a friend who’s successful in their profession. Is that hypocritical?

If someone suggested that a girl should break up with her boyfriend because he’s a bad cook, and date the guy who’s a great cook instead, they’d be dismissed as ridiculous. But many seem to take it for granted that, if a girl is unhappy with her boyfriend’s not getting her a great gift on her birthday, or dismissing her interest to see a movie together, or not being nice to her family, everything else about him shouldn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I think kindness should be valued far above cooking skill or professional aspiration. But it seems apparent that not everyone feels that way. And even if they do, as explained above, most girls who say they like niceness and kindness aren’t lying just because their boyfriends aren’t always as nice or kind as their male friends might be.

There are just other factors that are apparently strong enough to make them stay in the relationship. People complain about their SO to friends all the time. When a girl complains about lack of niceness to a nice friend, whether that nice friend wants to date her doesn’t change what she wants, and isn’t hypocritical.

Also, it needs to be said that if you’re a nice male friend of a girl you’re attracted to, and you think her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her and you would treat her much better, you should at least consider that you might be affected by some bias. Not just the “obviously I’m a better person than someone I have reason to dislike” bias, I mean things like confirmation and sample bias too. Some people are more likely to complain about their SOs to friends than talk about how great they are. But just because you’re only hearing about the negative things doesn’t mean that’s all there is.

Of course, if a girl knows her male friend wants to date her, talking to him about her boyfriend is probably not the most tactful thing to do. But that’s why it’s important for people to have mature discussions about boundaries if certain things bother them.

4. Why bother? Tenet 4 isn’t about objective facts, it’s about feelings, and if there are unrequited romantic feelings, isn’t that friendship just going to be painful and pointless?

This question could take a whole book to answer thoroughly (or at least it did when I tried), but the short answer to this is “it depends on the people involved.”

Friendship is great. Ideally, everyone should be open to more friendship. But friendship can come with costs. To end a friendship is basically saying “I don’t value what you bring me enough to justify what you cost me.” Which you should be able to say, especially if they’re abusive or shitty friends.

But sometimes what a relationship costs you is not always someone’s fault.

Unrequited love sucks. Really, really sucks. Comparing it to the loss of a loved one isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off either. It’s a whole stew of terrible feelings all mixed into one ongoing emotional torture: desperate hope, crushing loneliness, acidic jealousy, etc. It eats at your self-esteem, your self-worth. It sucks the joy out of things, concentrates them all in one place.

To get through that, to endure it, for the sake of a friendship is perhaps more than anyone should be expected to do. But I do encourage people to at least try to do it, because I’ve done it twice, and I’m glad I did both times. It helped me grow as a person and left me with two (or more, if counting their spouses) great lifelong friendships. I encourage others in the hopes they can benefit from them and keep their friendships too.

But I don’t judge someone for deciding not to put themselves through that. Because maybe it’s just not true for everyone, or every situation: maybe for some it’s a never-ending spiral of darkness.

But that’s unrequited love. If you like someone, have a crush on them, are attracted to them, or pretty much any feeling that basically amounts to “I would like to date this person, they make me feel good and warm and happy,” but they just want to be friends? It’s really hard to understand why that friendship would be “pointless” just because it never evolves into a relationship. If you’re heterosexual, and your best same gender friend admitted to attraction to you, you would probably be really badly hurt if after saying you don’t share their feelings they said “Whelp, guess this friendship is all worthless then if we’re never going to have sex, bye forever.” 

So tenet 4 really comes down to the two individuals. For example, someone shouldn’t stay in a relationship where they’re being strung along, or where the other person is being insensitive to their feelings for them. This is where mature conversations need to be had: if you’ve never admitted how you feel and can’t bring yourself to say “Please don’t tell me about that guy you hooked up with last night, I have feelings for you and hearing about that feels like a stab to the gut,” or a less vulnerable version like “I’m still sorting out my feelings for you and things like this make it harder.” Otherwise it’s unfair to expect them to know better.

Ultimately, no one should feel obligated to stay in a friendship they don’t want to continue, for whatever reason. Where it becomes a problem is when, rather than a guy admitting that he ends his friendships with girls because he doesn’t want to deal with the negative emotions that are stirred up by them dating others, he blames the girl for not choosing to date him.  

So yes, Tenet 4 is true… for most people most of the time. But it’s not an absolute, and without Tenets 1-3, it’s far less harmful. What causes Nice Guys to get flak for the belief is the way it turns to blaming women.

5. Why are Nice Guys mocked by women/men?

Again, hopefully I don’t have to explain why Tenets 5 and 6 are wrong and get judged poorly by others here. There’s no definition of “nice” that covers treating people like sex dispensers or believing they owe you things they never agreed to. 

But there are a number of common threads I see in criticisms of Nice Guys that relate to Tenets 1-4, and now that I went over them a bit, I want to address why they elicit the reactions they do from others.

Women in general tend to dislike Nice Guys because their beliefs stereotype women and undermine their agency: Tenets 1-2 amount to “girls don’t like nice guys and if they say they do they’re wrong or lying.” Of course there are girls who like “bad boys,” and some who currently don’t may have done so when they were younger, but treating “girls prefer assholes” as a rule of dating makes women out to be either too dumb to understand themselves (the way the speaker can supposedly so clearly see through them) or too insincere to tell guys what they really want.

This is the equivalent of women saying that men “only care about looks.” Sure, it’s true for some men, even many men. But there are plenty of guys who genuinely care about their partners for more than just their looks, but who get irritated at women for assuming guys only care about sex.

Women tend to dislike Tenets 3 and 4 because they essentially make women out to be callous manipulators who go around breaking nice guys’ hearts for sport. Even if no malice is assigned to them by the guys, a lot of girls know first-hand how painful it is to have good friends cut them off just because the girl doesn’t want to date the guy, which is rarely acknowledged by the guys who are so focused on their own pain. 

Even if the guy wants more than sex, and wants an actual romantic relationship, the distinction between friends and dating often comes down to flirtation and sex first, which means women have to deal with being “Relationship Zoned,” and only treated as worth friendship if it will lead to something more.  Any guy who doesn’t think it sucks to meet someone and become friends with them only to get the cold shoulder as soon as they find out you have an SO needs to practice his empathy. When it happens constantly, some women get understandably bitter.

Generally, men and women feel safe acknowledging that people shouldn’t feel forced to stay in friendships if they don’t want to. Most agree that even if it sucks, it’s no one’s fault if a guy likes a girl who doesn’t like him back, and staying friends with the girl is too painful. Again, what reliably brings out the mockery and anger is when Nice Guys make out girls to be the bad guys for not being able to force themselves to like someone, or not giving their Nice Guy friend “a chance.” Some people feel okay with going on dates in an exploratory way, and might be willing to do so; others are afraid it will change the friendship, as it often can. 

Also, rejecting guys can be scary. No matter how nice someone seems, it’s always a risk for women, and even if the guy doesn’t start insulting them or physically attacking them, it could lead to the guy cross-examining them about what “went wrong” or asking for another chance. For most people it’s just easier to not open that door.

Men who dislike Nice Guys tend to fall into two camps. The first generally disagrees with their beliefs, and finds them immature or sexist… in other words, not actually “nice.” They also might be guys who are, you know, nice and sweet and kind too… but have girlfriends, and so are living proof that “girls only date assholes” is just not true. So the perpetuation of the “nice guys finish last” myth kind of strikes a lot of guys as implicitly insulting, as if to say that they must not be as nice as all the single guys who want to date their girlfriends. 

On top of that, guys who see Nice Guys complaining about how being nice doesn’t get them girlfriends tend to think that they’re only in it for sex/romance, and don’t actually care about the girls as people, so they find them somewhat hypocritical.

Another type of men who mock Nice Guys generally agree with their beliefs, but mock their decision to “stay nice” and be “beta” while encouraging them to abandon niceness. These tend to be advocates of Pick Up Artist communities who try to “game” women into sex, or Red Pillers who believe that women are biologically programmed to only care about looks and bank accounts, and insist that Nice Guys need to wake up to “reality” and embrace their (often harmful) definition of masculinity or gender relationships rather than whining about how unfair it all is.

The latter group, by the way, is a mixed bag in terms of value to guys. A lot of what they preach is basic positive stuff that everyone could benefit from: Get fit. Develop hobbies and interests. Have more confidence. Don’t put people on pedestals. These are all good pieces of advice to guys or girls who are romantically frustrated. The problem comes in when they sell this advice (which, again, is very basic and they did not invent) alongside suggestions for predatory dating practices, representations of females as biologically driven gold-diggers incapable of love, and promotion of one-size-fits-all ideals of good relationships.

And finally, there are just some people who mock “Nice Guys” because they’re mean people who like to make fun of others, or because they have bad listening skills/reading comprehension and see all expressions of loneliness as  entitlement to others’ affection, even if none of the 6 tenets were invoked. Sorry about those people. They suck.

6. So now what? I’ve got these beliefs that you say aren’t true, I’m just supposed to believe you over my experiences?

I don’t expect anyone to believe a stranger on the internet, but I hope I can help people understand why even first-hand experiences can lead us to false beliefs if they’re not carefully examined.

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. A number of our mental biases come from the mind’s tendency to take a subset of information and experiences, and turn them into a general rule. This is useful when you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, and seeing a couple people die after eating a spotted mushroom or wandering into the forest at night leads you to believe that “those mushrooms are poisonous” and “that forest is full of predators.”

Some of these beliefs turn out to be true, others false, but humans aren’t just pattern-seeking, we’re also risk-averse. Whether true or false, the beliefs we form off of anecdotal evidence are more likely to be be stubborn about updating if they help us avoid or minimize risk of being hurt.

So let’s look at how some romantic stereotypes form:

“Girls like to play hard-to-get” or “Girls find you more attractive when you aren’t seeking them.”

There’s a core element of truth in both of these: namely, desperation tends to be unattractive. Some people fall for each other immediately, but for people who take time to slowly warm up in their attraction, coming off “too strong” is definitely a negative. But they’re also somewhat contradictory.

So here’s a thing that happens sometimes which might cause those beliefs:

Alice is friends with Mike. Mike likes Alice, and wants to be more than friends. He makes some subtle hints, but Alice misses all of them, too caught up in her attraction with John. A year later, John is with someone else and Alice has begun to see Mike as more than a friend. Mike, however, has already given up on Alice, and is interested in someone else. When Alice brings up her attraction to Mike, he becomes upset that she “only likes him now that he’s not interested in her.”

Alice is hurt: she genuinely didn’t know Mike used to like her. Mike is hurt: he thinks she’s just playing with his emotions. In the best case scenarios, their friendship survives, and maybe Mike still feels enough for her to give the relationship a try. But if he really has moved on, he might become bitter about the year of unrequited feelings he had. He might be more likely to believe that “women like to play hard to get.”

Another thing that might happen is that women who have been hurt before, and/or heard lots of stories of guys who seem interested at first eventually get bored of their partner and move on, only feel safe with someone who expresses constant, passionate interest, such that they inadvertently (or even purposefully) turn dating into a competition for their affection. Even worse, many people advise women not to ever be the one to call or text first, in order to filter for guys who are genuinely excited about you, rather than a convenient person to sex zone (a common female concern , likely as common as the nice guy concern).  It’s also more of a risk for women to be “too interested” first, as this might attract guys who will prey on their interest to use them; the way some guys worry about girls taking advantage of them for their money, most women worry about guys taking advantage of them for sex.

“Girls can have any guy they want, while guys have to jump through hoops to get a girl’s attention!”

There is, again, a core of truth in this, if you ignore a lot of factors that I’ll get to in a minute: As almost anyone who’s ever been on a dating site can attest to, even controlling for attractiveness, men and women have very different experiences. A reasonably attractive woman’s week-to-week experience on a dating site is essentially sorting through messages to find the few articulate, interesting, and/or amusing ones from guys they find attractive. Even a reasonably attractive guy’s day-to-day experience is messaging a dozen women and hoping one of them responds.

Some guys take this as definitive proof that dating is easier for women. I know these are often separate people from those that complain about being labeled as “only after sex,” but it’s still a point worth addressing. Many will refer to popular videos that show a guy going around asking random women on the street for sex and getting no positive responses, while a woman doing the same thing gets plenty.

And if sex is all that guys and girls care about, then it’s true: girls can get sex much easier than guys can.

But there’s a mismatch of expectations and standards here. The average man’s starting standard for “enjoyable sex” is far lower than the average woman’s. A healthy, sober guy will reach orgasm almost every time they have sex. But even though a girl’s enjoyment of sex doesn’t require orgasm, even if it’s not a goal, the sex can still be far less enjoyable for a wider variety of reasons.

(Research suggests that, on average, women are more sexually aroused by stimuli that include “mood” rather than men, who tend to be more easily stimulated by the merely physical or visual.)

Most guys who believe that women can get sex whenever they want fail to consider that women are far less likely to want sex whenever guys want. That’s not just a remark about sex drive, by the way: there are plenty of women who have higher libido than men. The point is that to find sex with a stranger or even new acquaintance desirable, even an attractive stranger/acquaintance, tends to be harder for women. Even if we ignore societal pressures against being a “slut,” even if we ignore the various different physical risks to women, they still can’t know whether the man is even skilled or generous enough in bed for the women to enjoy the experience.

It’s kind of like giving someone a Lifetime Pass to a particular movie theatre that plays movies at random, and mostly only gory horror movies, with a low chance of playing something else. But not everyone enjoys horror movies. In fact some find them, well, horrifying.  

And for guys who love almost all movies, including gory horror movies, to look around and see women getting free movie tickets seems pretty unfair. It’s also hard to always see the strings attached: or rather, to see how often what you think are gestures of niceness and friendliness turn out to be strings. To paraphrase Chris Rock, encountering “Wanna grab some lunch? How ‘bout some dick?” and “Wanna see a movie? Wanna see my dick too?” almost every time a guy interacts with you can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright dehumanizing when one gets to the point where they have to constantly think about whether people are being friendly with them to just get some sex.

To simplify, a lot of guys imagine women being able to just walk into a video store, peruse the aisles, and walk out with the high quality movie of the exact genre they want. The reality is more like being constantly barraged with DVDs of random movies in varying quality. Even if such a service were available to them, they have to want what’s on offer to enjoy it.

So even the attractive girls on dating sites who don’t want a short term relationship, or don’t want to date someone who’s more interested in sex than in finding an interest they both share and can talk about, or actually want a romantic relationship with someone they can form a connection with… Their inboxes might as well be empty most days too.

To reiterate, I’m not saying it’s not easier for women to get sex, or even to find a relationship. I’m saying it’s not easier for women to be happy.

You can’t act like women don’t like the attention. I know a girl who’s leading three guys on at the same time, makes them pay for everything, and still complains about not being able to find a “nice guy!”

Yep, I believe it. I’ve known women who went from one relationship to another, cheating constantly and leeching off their boyfriends. I’ve also known guys who spent their entire relationship broke and jobless, living off their girlfriends’ love for years while doing drugs and being abusive all the while.

Selfish people exist. Toxic people exist. See above about why people date others who treat them poorly.

The point of this isn’t to say that these situations don’t happen: it’s to show how judging a gender by its worst members is, well, the definition of prejudice. Saying “Girls don’t like nice guys” or “Girls like getting attention” is no different from saying “Guys just care about sex” or “Guys don’t date to marry, they just marry whoever they’re with when they’re ready to settle down.”

There are too many arguments that essentially boil down to “guys and girls are just different!” by people who are not psychologists, let alone neurologists or evolutionary psychologists, and when you look for sources what you find tend to be dating manifestos or gender philosophies masquerading as science from decades ago.

This happens on the extreme end of the female side as well, whether it’s from cynical older women warning their daughters about how men are pigs or radical misandrists blogging about how all sex is rape.  It’s worth pointing out not just because it should be called out on both sides, but also as a way to empathize: if you as a guy dislike it when people judge you by the worst of your gender, you should be capable of understanding why women feel the same way.

In truth, there are some research-backed differences between men and women, as linked to above. But the differences are not always biological, they are not nearly as absolutist and generalized as many assert, and they are often not even restricted to “men” and “women!”

One of my favorite non-fiction writings by Isaac Asimov was a letter in which he described the relativity of wrong, explaining that someone who says the earth is a sphere is actually incorrect: it’s an oblate spheroid, with mass concentrated more at the equator than the poles. But someone who says it’s a sphere is not as wrong as someone who says that the earth is flat. 

Similarly, someone who says men and women are “the same” is wrong. But they are a whole lot less wrong than those who insist that men and women’s inborn psychological differences can be used to reliably predict any individual’s behavior or motives.

Almost every woman I know is like this. You’re talking about “unicorns,” but they’re the rare exception, and I’m never going to find one that isn’t already taken.

Beliefs about large numbers of people that don’t have some kind of falsifiable % put on them are kind of worthless.  Even if we accept for the sake of argument that most women don’t like nice guys, the word “most” can mean anything from 99.999% to 50.001%, and not bothering to distinguish between the two means you’re okay with potentially being wrong as often as a coin flip.

It’s been said that luck is statistics taken personally, and in truth it is possible for someone to justifiably believe that girls who actually prefer nice guys are exceptions.  Just by the sheer numbers involved in the amount of people around the country and world, there will be some Nice Guys who go through their early life encountering a majority of women who embody the worst stereotypes of the gender—guys whose mother, sisters, and early romantic interests all make them more likely to accept the idea that women are just interested in attractive assholes. 

When such beliefs are formed and reinforced so early and consistently, it can be hard to see past the confirmation bias that develops as a result. But, again, it’s possible that this happens even in a model of reality that says that most women are not like that.

By contrast, the reverse circumstance isn’t broken by counterexamples. For people with lots of female friends who are dating genuinely nice guys, the idea that being nice is detrimental to dating doesn’t get proven by examples of abusive guys who have chains of girlfriends, or girls who claim to want nice guys but keep dating assholes.

This is all bullshit. I’m a smart, kind guy who’s in decent shape, has a good career, and a variety of hobbies. If girls actually care about that stuff, why can’t I get a girlfriend?

Oof. That’s rough buddy. I’d like to start by giving you a hug, because the place you’re in is shitty. I know how lonely it is, how frustrating. How the bitterness and desperation is sometimes your only defense against the pain.  It really, really sucks, and this next part is going to seem cold. So bring it in.

/hug

Ready?

The universe is an unfair place.

There are no soul mates. (Thankfully.) People are not destined to have fulfilling, lifelong romantic relationships, let alone entitled to finding such partners by the time they’re 20, or 30, or 40. 

Maybe the perfect woman for you is on the other side of the planet. Maybe she lives in your apartment building, but you’ll never cross her path or have anything interesting to say to start a conversation that leads to a relationship.

Some people will meet their future wives or husbands in grade school, be married by college, and die within a year of each other when they’re in their 80s. Others will die within a year of being married. Others will never find a relationship that lasts longer than a few years. Others will never find a relationship at all. That’s life.

And if you’re about to say that you’re not talking about happily-ever-after, you’ll settle for just any relationship, just to have someone want to hug you and cuddle you and kiss you and love you for a month, a year, anyone, well, the above still applies.

Relationships are random. They correlate to things like physical appeal and intelligence and fun personalities and whatnot, but you still need to run across someone who’s attracted to you first. If you’re not okay with meeting online or doing long-distance, they need to be in your area. And even if you’re compatible, you need to meet at the right time where you’re both looking for a relationship, rather than being, say, 10 years old, or 13 and 18 years old, or in the middle of a different relationship already, or about to move away for college or a new job and not thinking about dating right now.

So if you’re 23, or even 33, or even 50, and haven’t ever had a girlfriend before, it might not be because of anything in your control. You might have just rolled a sequence of bad dice. With enough people rolling enough dice, it happens. I’m not saying this to minimize your pain, but it’s worth noting that some kids die of bone cancer before they’re even teenagers. The universe doesn’t care.

Take solace in that, if you can, because while there certainly are things people can do to improve their odds, blaming yourself can lead to some unhealthy depression and anger, and blaming women is the quickest way to ensure you’re stuck alone. Cold comfort though it may be, I believe that recognizing the unfairness of the universe is one of the ways you can potentially move past blaming yourself or others, and start really considering the problem in ways you can maybe do something about.

Because here’s the thing: if you really are a smart, kind guy of average attractiveness (or even below average attractiveness) who has a stable career but is frustrated by lack of romantic prospects? I’ll bet you a thousand dollars to one that I can find you someone who will be willing to date you within a year.

How? By lowering your (probably unrealistically high) standards. That’s all. 

They probably won’t be someone you initially consider attractive. And they might not have any skills for employment. They might suffer from some physical or mental disability. They might have totally different taste in music and movies and hobbies. And come to think of it, they might not even be all that nice, when you really get to know them.

How much do each of those things matter, to you? Think about it.  What are you willing to settle on, if all you really want is someone who loves you? Because this is an important thing to consider, when addressing the question of what the world owes us (nothing) compared to what we expect of it (quite a lot, probably, when we actually examine what we want). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lot, but as the Buddha said, expectations, suffering, etc.

OKCupid used to have a research wing that analyzed the behavior of those on the site, and what they’ve found is that men tend to rate women as more attractive, on average, than women tend to rate men… but that men predominantly message women on the higher end of the attractiveness scale, while women are more willing to message men who are lower on the attractiveness scale.

Really think about that the next time you consider who among your female acquaintances and friends you’re romantically pursuing, opposed to which ones you’re ignoring that might be interested in you. And then think about whether you’d be willing to date the ones you’re not considering, if they expressed interest in you. Because while having standards is good, and having high standards is admirable, having high standards while bemoaning the lack of choices available to you is just bad math.

Tangential to the Nice Guy myths are a lot of others that deal with this perceived romantic imbalance between genders. Guys who refer to highly attractive women when they say “If only some girl would give me a chance,” or “Girls can get all the sex they want at any time,” while ignoring the existence of women below their  attractiveness threshold, whose experience might better match their own frustrations.

So is it really all that strange that you haven’t found a girlfriend yet, if the only girls you’re considering and pursuing are all on the higher end of all the various criteria you consider important?

And remember, this isn’t an argument of “people can only date within their attractiveness level,” it’s an argument of “don’t form beliefs about a gender solely off of members of it you’re disproportionately focusing on.”

And if none of that applies to you, then you still might just have rolled a series of critical fail rolls. Hopefully you’ll regress to the mean soon; it feels cliché, but it’s still true that the more effort you put in the more likely the dice are to be in your favor.

But if it does apply to you, reconsider what you think you know about what girls “really” want and why, and consider more carefully what you really want, and why.

Chapter 94: Tilt

After sharing what he learned from Sabrina with the Pallet Labs so they could explore evidence of psychic-color-cones, Red spends an afternoon reading through and typing up a copy of the notebook he’s been writing in since he began his journey, all the way from the beginning. Once he finishes, he begins a new one with a list of experiments he wants to run next.

There are a lot of old ideas that are still appealing and interesting to him, all the way back from the first night leaving Pallet Town where he wondered about the bonds that form between people and their pokemon. But ultimately he has to cut things down to what seems immediately relevant to his psychic research, which leaves him with a handful:

First, what’s up with teleportation and walls? Seriously, does it involve traveling through actual space or not? Own experience with it doesn’t shed any light on conundrum. Experiments are unusually rigorous for psychic research, likely due to practical value, but no underlying mechanism is understood.

Second, medium cleansing ritual? Jason and Agatha’s advantages with ghost may be inborn, a matter of mindset/training, or due to some seemingly random things they both do. Counterexamples are psychics with ghost affinity from cultures without medium practices, but still worth testing.

Third, if psychokinesis particles distinct from psychic ones can the difference be measured? One travels farther? One pierces walls. (Can an object be levitated over a dark pokemon?) Glass limitation mental, according to Sabrina’s report…

Those he can’t test himself, unfortunately, but he’s already enlisted Tatsumaki’s help with it. She seems less standoffish than she used to, maybe because of familiarity, or maybe because of what he’s accomplished since arriving at Saffron. In any case she’s definitely interested in developing her abilities, and seems to regard his experiments as a way to possibly do that, since it was his experiments and practice with Rei in mirroring a state of mind while projecting it at the same time that saved them in Lavender. Even if all the research fails to reveal anything new about the fundamental nature of psychic phenomena, some of it might still produce useful findings.

He knows he could blow through them in a couple days if he wants to, but instead forces himself to formally write a short paper on each, which means a preregistered methodology and hypothesis, recordings of each attempt, documenting the data, and evaluating the outcomes.

At first he’s able to find this an exciting and interesting process, one where he feels proud for embodying the virtues he (likes to think he) holds, eager curiosity coupled with methodical rigor.

By the second week he finds himself procrastinating and putting off new experiments because of the attached process, and almost anything else he can do feels more appealing than writing another damn paper.

After five days of barely getting any work done he has a therapy session, and decides to take a break from grief work to instead bring up his flagging work enthusiasm. Dr. Seward invites him to talk a bit about what motivates him to do it the hard way, and after saying a few things about demonstrating good research practices and appearing “virtuous” to Professor Oak and others, he feels an upwelling of indignation that grows every time he thinks about the body of literature that does exist, and how limited it is. It bothers him how lacking real psychic research is, and how many seem unbothered by that.

Dr. Seward listens to him rant about how few psychics document their experiments and how few scientists are psychic or approach their beliefs about psychic powers with the same attitude they treat other scientific pursuits for a while before dryly suggesting that this might be something he can lean into for motivation. This turns out to be surprisingly effective.

Also effective are more practical ways to reinforce diligent work, such as scheduling calls with other young researchers to work at the same time and then discuss what they did afterward, as well as setting pseudo-public deadlines for sharing his completed work with others. Dr. Seward warned it might backfire and just add more paralyzing pressure, but instead it turned out to be particularly motivating as each deadline approached.

Another thing that slows him down are the requests by others for help in their own research, along with the people who reach out to ask questions about his own work, or just for advice. At first he was more than happy to help share his thoughts or explain something about his experiments, but it starts to get repetitive and tedious to repeat the same things to different people, especially since the volume of them has only continued to rise. He spends some time fretting over it, then remembers the idea they had in Vermilion of hiring a secretary and decides this is another problem that money can solve for him. It takes a while to find one and come up with a system by which he wants his incoming messages filtered and grouped, but once he does it feels like he gained at least an hour a day.

Still, some of the experiments just take time, particularly the ones that can (and should) be split up into stages. Red tests the cleansing rituals by first trying to merge with gastly while in the shower, in case simple contact with running water is what matters. When this has no apparent effect on the invasive emotional spillover, he pulls his thoughts back and leaves the shower, dries, writes out his experience, then dresses in a robe and sits on the floor with a water bowl, censer, and ladle, imitating everything he saw Jason do as best he can without making any attempt to change his mental state. Once the ritual is done he tries again, with no effect, and then repeats the ritual, again to no apparent effect.

After that he tries deliberately invoking the boggling mentality that he developed while trying to mirror Jason’s, essentially emptying his mind as best he can of any preconceptions and just being as receptive as possible. This does seem to make things easier, though it’s hard to quantify, and when he tries to combine it with the ritual he doesn’t notice any difference. Still, he dutifully writes up another separate paper for all five.

The teleportation experiments are the most time consuming, as he first has to get enough large pieces of cardboard to form an enclosure, then keep trying different configurations of walls and ceilings around either himself or his teleportation point. A lot of it involves just replicating what previous experiments have done, but he also tries his own mix of adjustments, such as leaving a shape just big enough for the abra to move through, then just big enough for himself.

He also has to let his abras rest, as they can’t teleport more than a few times in a row without getting exhausted. He cycles through them, bringing everything with him to each location they’re registered at and setting things up all over again, and by the time he ends up back in Saffron he has a small audience of four abra recuperating out of their balls as he finishes up the experiments he planned.

None of it works. Whatever limitation decides that abra can’t teleport into even semi-enclosed places, it seems airtight (so to speak). He knows it’s not just a mental limitation too, there’s an experiment with someone who didn’t know that teleportation isn’t supposed to work indoors that still didn’t work when it was tried, and all this just makes him boggle all over again at how weird teleportation is, and how fundamentally unlike other “psychic powers.” He even catches himself trying to justify why it’s actually a Ghost ability before realizing that he’s just falling into the same “typing” heuristic he keeps criticizing others for; considering it a Ghost ability doesn’t actually help explain anything about how it works.

After a couple days he moves on to another aspect of teleportation that’s been thoroughly experimented on: what counts as “attached” for what gets teleported with a pokemon or person. Plenty of people have tried to break the “one person per pokemon” teleportation barrier (the monetization value of “commercial teleporting” is less now that abra are relatively cheap, but it would still be a multi-billion dollar industry), but no one’s understood yet what the pokemon itself is thinking when it distinguishes its trainer and their clothes or bags and a stranger.

Red thinks he might as well try it, and spends hours merged with his abra as they teleport, both alone and with him, then with him and various volunteers of varying psychic ability. They definitely distinguish individuals with minds; he can hold a potted plant in his free hand and get teleported with it, but not a bellsprout. The best he can put into words, as he writes his paper, is that abra distinguish their trainer as “family.” The familial bond is safe and important, what allows them to carry their children to safety until they’re old enough to teleport themselves.

When he tries it with his mother, however, she doesn’t get teleported with him, and he finally decides to throw in the towel. He’s spent nearly a week on teleportation experiments alone, and the only thing he’s gotten out of it is that full, deep merging with any of his abra now feels completely familiar and effortless.

By the second week of April he has nearly a dozen papers written that cover each of his brief exploratory experiments, all without a single real breakthrough or meaningful result. He stares at them a while, neatly listed in the pokedex under his name beside his few previous studies, and can’t help but wonder if people will think he’s just trying to pad out his list of papers. He decides to take a break from research for a few days and goes to bed early, feeling a little fried and at a loss for what to do next.

Until, that is, his following training session with Blue, when his friend brings Zephyr out to show off his new and final form.

“Congrats, Blue!” Red smiles as the pidgeot has to bend his neck a little to scoop the fruit out of Blue’s palm. The plumage on his head has grown nearly as long as Red is tall, and it’s strange to remember the way he used to fit comfortably on Blue’s shoulder. “Been battling with him a lot lately?”

“Yeah, the dojo we’ve been training at, which you still need to come check out by the way, has plenty of Fighting types. He’s just barely big enough to ride, the learner’s license guy said to make sure he keeps growing as I do since I’m just below the comfort mark.”

“Weight isn’t a problem?”

“Nah, look at those wings! He can Sky Drop a machamp. So long as he grows a few meters in the provisional period, I can get the full license.”

“Nice.” As Red gives Zephyr a pet, he remembers Leaf’s surprise way back when they started their journey that a specific gym leader was responsible for flying licenses in Kanto. That regulation was one of many that changed after the Hoenn incident; after Leader Surge said he was too busy to maintain the duty, Indigo’s interregional government decided to spread the responsibility out to the new Travel Agency it was in the process of rolling out to oversee issues arising from all the added teleportation sites people were registering. “You must be excited to start getting around faster.”

“Hell yeah. It’s no teleportation, but being able to head to Aiko’s ranch, or even swing by home for a visit any time I want, for free? Not to mention exploring new places, since Glen and Sumi already have their license, Sumi is actually an amazing flier already, she’s been teaching the rest of us how to do really tight turns and … what’s up?”

“Huh?” Red asks, torn from suddenly racing thoughts. I could reach out to the network… maybe pay some taxi pilots a retainer…

“You’ve got that look, like you just remembered something.” Blue grins. “Or just had an idea?”

“Yeah,” Red says, and grins back. “Is Sumi’s flier big enough to carry two?”


The answer is no, but it turns out not to matter. Some quick research shows that ever since the unown started randomly flying around the islands, even single riders have trouble catching them. While not particularly fast, they are maneuverable; unlimited by things like mass and wind and the safety of their rider, and able to change directions at the speed of thought, most trainers can’t keep them in range long enough to even get a lock, let alone hit them with a ball.

Which means that while Artem’s coordination of unown sightings pays off in a big way, even if one of the volunteers watching the skies in Lavender or Pallet or Cerulean or somewhere else Red has a teleport registered calls him tomorrow, the hard part would still be ahead of him.

Sending pokemon to injure them until they can’t maintain their flight is what most trainers have attempted, but it’s difficult to get pokemon to consistently target the unown, since their abstract shapes don’t register as threats and they don’t fight back. No one’s ever had to fight unown before, so it’s never been an issue, but even with new programming to train pokemon to attack them it’s hard to reinforce the behaviors in meatspace.

None of which matters for Red, since he doesn’t want to injure or capture the unown; he wants to merge with them while they do whatever it is they’re doing.

“That means no stunning, sleeping, confusing, freezing, not even a big weighted net to keep them in place,” Red says. “What do you think? Is there any flier in particular you’d recommend?”

“Hmm.” Dr. Madi sips his coffee with one hand as the other taps at his keyboard computer to bring up test data that hasn’t been entered into the pokedex yet. In the process of discovering the mechanics of pokemon flight, his old supervisor became one of the leading experts on Flying types (and other pokemon that fly without the particle). He’s continued to run experiments that broaden their understanding of them, which made him an obvious person to ask after his appointment with Dr. Seward brought him back to Pallet Town. It’s a Saturday morning, so the labs are quieter than usual, but it still feels nostalgic for Red to be here again. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since he came to pick up his charmander… “Well, swellow and crobat are pretty agile, though keeping you in range of the unown for a prolonged period may be taxing. How well would you be able to guide them?”

“Honestly, not well once the merge starts,” Red admits. “Which is why I first thought of being a passenger.”

“I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but what about a helicopter?”

“I did, yeah… I could give a pilot a bunch of abra, have them register in the same places I am, have them constantly available for who knows how long so they can drop everything and teleport with me to a sighting, summon the helicopter there, and take off, but as a first option it’s— ”

“Expensive,” Madi acknowledges, voice sympathetic as he continues to scan the spreadsheets showing max speed, acceleration, turning arc, and other factors of various pokemon in various weather conditions and with different amounts of weight. “How close is your charmeleon to evolving?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. It’s nearly my height?”

“That’s a shame. Charizard are pretty fast, and they’re not as slowed by riders as bird pokemon.”

Red frowns, trying to ignore the stab of doubt over his choices. Maybe he should be training his pokemon more, or at least the ones that would be too expensive to buy evolved versions… particularly since he just spent weeks on experiments with nothing to show for them. But that’s hindsight speaking, and he’d still want to perform the experiments at some point if he hadn’t done them now, and doing them sooner means others who are curious might save time not attempting themselves (though a few others should try just in case) and—

“Hey, what about aerodactyl?”

Red blinks. “Aren’t they super expensive?” He expects a ping of aversion from Unpartitioned Red, these days most major expenditures either get a nudge for or against, but this one seems to evoke ambivalence. The impression he gets instead is that having a super-fast flying pokemon might be worth the price, if it stands out from others…

“Yep, and not recommended for first time fliers. But they’re absurdly fast and maneuverable given their weight, so if you can find a pilot with one—”

“—a second passenger wouldn’t affect them much. That sounds perfect.” He hesitates. “Do any trainers with aerodactyl work for taxi companies?”

“I’ve never heard of one,” Dr. Madi admits. “They may be ideal for multiple passengers, but they don’t have the stamina for long trips, and the margins on short ones probably aren’t too high since they take a lot of upkeep. You’d probably make more as a pilot just selling it for a more common mount. They haven’t been around long enough to be with any retired trainers, but there might be some with injuries that make them unsuited to battle? Best I can think of for now.”

Red nods and checks the time, then stands. “I should head out. Thanks for this.”

“Of course. If I get any other bright ideas, I’ll pass them along. Good to see you again!”

Red waves and heads out the door, then through the echoing white halls until he can take an elevator down to the rear exit. Beyond it lies rippling green fields where most of the lab’s pokemon are bred, raised, studied, and trained, and as he walks out into the crisp afternoon air he summons Pikachu and Charmeleon so his pokemon can frolic around the new environment as they walk together.

He didn’t spend much time here before his journey, instead learning to feed and care for the lab’s pokemon in more controlled settings, but he knows the general layout. It takes about ten minutes to find one of the breeders who supervised his basic care training, Sophie, who smiles as he reaches the ramada where her outdoor office is set up.

“Been a while, Verres. Didn’t expect to see you back as a buyer so soon.”

“Still wouldn’t have, but Blue twisted my arm.” He smiles to show that it didn’t take much twisting.

“Sounds like a win-win to me, keeping you in the family business while ensuring you get a good deal. Hey there little fella!” She bends to scratch pikachu’s fur, fingers gentle as they trace the scar along his back. “Not so little, really. And there’s Earnest… or whatever you’re calling him now?”

“Uh, just Charmeleon still. His nickname was Earnest?”

“That’s right, you weren’t around long enough to take care of the rarer pokemon. Yeah, he really got focused on whatever he was doing compared to his siblings.”

Red wonders if he should try the old nickname on, but it doesn’t feel right, somehow. “Is his family out today? Maybe he can visit them.”

“Oh, no, they tend to like staying in their caves during winter, so we rarely bring them out unless it’s time for mating or a new brood.” She stands, and Pikachu skips back over to Red while Charmeleon investigates the wooden pillars of the ramada. “The others are out and about, though.”

He sends a mental nudge to his pokemon to come along as he follows her to the lake first, where various water pokemon swim below and along the surface. A pair of attendants are nearby, one running tests on the water whom Red recognizes and waves to, and a new face who’s running health checks on a poliwag. Among the various pokemon around them, it’s easy to spot the three squirtle playing atop and around the floating brown shell of a blastoise, which draws his attention to the rest of the family nearby; specifically the two wartortles lazing around in the shallows.

“They’re usually more energetic, racing around the lake, but—”

“They get less active when it’s colder,” Red completes with a smile, and Sophie nods.

“It’s been nice to have a few days without groundsnow, so we’re letting them enjoy it while they can. Shelby’s on the left, Snaps on the right.”

“Thanks.” He already received a file on each of them, their history and measurements and stats, the sorts of documents he spent a lot of time writing up as an intern. “And it really doesn’t matter which one I take?”

“From what I understand, your discount agreement would give us first right on breeding and resale, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Then nah, either works.”

Red almost asks which of them seems more attached to their family, but that’s the sort of thing he can check himself, and is part of why he wanted to come meet the pokemon rather than just going off the data. So he sends an impulse to Pikachu and Charmeleon to stay away from the lake (not that Charmeleon needs it, but Pikachu is curious and Red doesn’t want him to alarm the Water types) and walks over to his two potential new partners as he sends his thoughts out, feeling a bit like he did last time he was at the Lab to pick his starter.

Red can tell even without merging that both pokemon are fairly relaxed, in the general mental state he’s familiar with from helping out at Aiko’s ranch. As he gets closer their attention shifts to him, but without any alarm or fear, just curiosity… and from Snaps, a touch of wariness, Red thinks.

He confirms it by doing a proper merge, first with Snaps and then Shelby. Snaps, the senior of the two, is more prepared for potential hostility. Not expecting it, just… prepared. Shelby meanwhile is already just accepting him as part of the scenery, more interested in sniffing for food. There’s none of the protective wariness in him that his brother has, and for a moment Red deliberately focuses on the feeling of family as he swaps between the two. Which is more likely to miss them? Which would enjoy the potential excitement of going off to see new places more?

There’s no clear answer. The pokemon clearly have emotional states, but that kind of abstract imagining is beyond them. There’s only the now, and in the now both are content… one slightly more so than the other, or rather he would be if he had some tasty algae to snack on.

“I’ll take Snaps,” Red says, and as Sophie goes to speak with the caretaker, thoughts of letting Snaps “say goodbye” come and go; he’s not sure even a projection would help communicate what’s about to happen properly, and might just agitate the family without purpose. He reminds himself that the pokemon will be back to visit.

Hopefully.

“Return!”

The wartortle is sucked back into its dive ball, which gets handed to Sophie, and they make their way toward the small grove near the edge of the enclosed area. Red swaps Charmeleon for Butterfree before they start wandering through it to look for the saurs. The parents aren’t currently out to act as a convenient beacon, but Sophie explains that lately the family has found a patch of grass that they enjoy getting sun in and soon they reach a clearing where three ivys and four bulbas are being fed by another caretaker Red doesn’t know.

The oldest ivysaur is a female that’s even larger than Raff, her bud reaching as high as Red’s chin. She’s nearly twice the price as her siblings, not just for her age and gender but also considering her stats; higher agility and less prone to tiredness than the average at her age. Still, he doesn’t want to jump from being too tight with his money to too loose with it, so Red only gives her sleepy mind a cursory merger before focusing on the younger two.

One comes up to Red as their emotions blend, and he shares the ivysaur’s curiosity at the new smells he brings with him. Red hasn’t had enough experience with ivysaur mergers to share the smells themselves, but he can tell that’s what the ivysaur is reacting to.

He holds his hand out for it to sniff while the other ivysaur just continues munching on berries. Neither of them seem quite as playful and curious as Raff, though the one that approached him is closer… but he’s not sure that’s what he should be aiming for; it’s not like he has the time to play with them the way she does. Or rather, it’s not like he makes the time the way she does.

The two are roughly equal in combat capability and price, so he decides to go with the more stoic one, in case someone more like Leaf comes along looking for an ivysaur. Its nickname is Shade (apparently it liked to stick close to its parents when it was younger), and once the caretaker returns it to its ball and hands it to Sophie, they make their way back to her office, pausing a couple times as Butterfree or Pikachu examine some tree or flower bush.

“Do you guys plan on breeding any aerodactyl, by any chance?” he asks. “Ones that would be for sale?”

“Ha! Oh, you’re serious.” She shakes her head with a grin. “Not on my watch. They’re ridiculously fickle breeders. There’s the dedicated hatchery on Cinnabar Island, of course, but they only sell a couple every year at most.”

Red decides not to distract himself by researching aerodactyl more and falling into his massive knowledge hole on pokemon breeding so he can solve an indirect problem that might solve the real one. Not just yet, at least. “Crobat?”

“Already fully evolved? Would cost you quite a bit. What do you need such fast fliers for?”

His explanation carries them all the way back to her ramada, where she sets up the PC for the trades and takes his pokedex to transfer ownership after he signs the appropriate documents. “Huh. Wanting to stay in range of a flying pokemon without hampering it…” She shakes her head. “Definitely not a normal problem, though some of the field researchers might have ideas even if Madi didn’t.”

“Yeah, I made a forum post to solicit advice. When I think back to other field experiments I’ve tried, like using spinarak webs to catch pokemon while I slept in Viridian, or the sounds from Dark pokemon to scare abra into a trap, I was playing off of the natural tools and weaknesses the pokemon had. But unown don’t have any natural predators, and they don’t behave like any other pokemon.”

“Have you tried reaching out to Rangers, see if they’ve had to do things like this before while herding pokemon, maybe?”

“Herding? Huh.” He makes the payment, part of him wincing slightly at the cost, then lines the balls up to begin the new owner training programs. “That’s a good idea… ” He thinks of Blue and his friends maybe all flying together to pen the unown in… but they’d have to keep up with them too, and in the air the unown would be able to evade in three dimensions rather than two.

Still, it is a good idea. “Thanks, I’ll look into it.”

“No problem. Take care, Verres, and don’t be a stranger.”

“I’ll try. I mean, I will, and I won’t—”

She laughs and waves him off, and he clips his new pokemon to the empty spots he left on his belt then returns Pikachu and Butterfree before he waves goodbye and unclips Saffron’s ball to teleport back.

After a moment he changes his mind. He’s not in a rush, with nothing else planned for a few hours, and he should practice free teleportation again, as he usually does when he has some spare time. So he swaps Saffron for Pallet, then prepares to teleport to the roof of the town’s Pokemon Center so he can practice in relative privacy.

As soon as he merges with Pallet, however, he notices something odd.

Abra minds are fairly unique in a lot of ways, one of which is that they’re both the most and least confused upon being summoned out of their balls. Programming helps most pokemon get over the disorientation of going from one location to another in a relative instant, but abra are very used to it, only really startled by abrupt shifts in temperature and light; this in turn is exacerbated by abra’s naturally extreme awareness of what environments are new to them. Their first order of business when in a new environment is to assess for safety, then “imprint” the location in a way that allows them to teleport back to it if needed.

Pallet definitely hasn’t been to this location before, and yet he’s not treating it like a new location. Red almost dismisses this—they’re still within Pallet Town, after all, so maybe the smells and sounds are similar enough—but no, he’s spent too much time looking out for the exact note of confusion he feels to ignore it that easily.

Part of the extreme ease and depth of his merger with his various abra after his experiments came from bringing each to different locations and teleporting back to the same one over and over and over again from just a couple meters away. It made it extremely clear that even slight differences in location register as different, and how. And really, there’s virtually nothing about this place that’s similar to the roof of the Pallet Pokemon Center.

What makes sense to Red, given just how sensitive abra are to location, is that they’re not using familiar senses at all, but rather something else entirely that tracks their position in space relative to a fixed point. Hell, even a higher elevation is enough to trigger a sense of vague unease in the abra until they know it’s safe. He’s not sure what they are using, maybe they’re orienting to something like their first remembered location or the center of the earth itself, but given that teleportation somehow manages to alter not just their location but their orientation and velocity from one moment to the next (objects on the earth’s surface are rotating faster closer to the equator than the poles, and yet teleportation works across continents without negative effect (in fact some of the first experiments with teleportation involved testing farther and farther “leaps,” with synchronized timing to measure whether it took any longer based on distance crossed))…

All these thoughts flash through Red’s mind in a wordless few instants, along with the now-familiar doubled sensations of his and his abra’s bodies, summing up to a simple, clear note of unambiguous confusion.

His abra shouldn’t feel familiar in this location.

But he is.

Which means it’s not the abra’s own sense of location that’s giving it the sense of familiarity and safety.

It’s Red’s.

Which means…

Red grins, and closes his eyes, and focuses on the most clear, most definitively safe environment, the most solid spacial point in his memory.

Teleport, he commands, the thought instantly shared between him and his fully merged abra, and he feels the shift in every sense, from warm sunlight and cool wind on two sets of skin to nothing, from dim light through closed lids to relative blackness, from grass to carpet, from outdoor smells to dust and linen, from faint sounds to absolute quiet.

Even months removed, he knows these smells.

Red starts laughing before he even opens his eyes, and sees his room around him, just as he left it. He picks Pallet up and hugs him, dropping the merger as he spins them around in an excited dance.

They did it. They did it. Free teleportation!

He laughs again, dancing in a small circle as he lifts his stoic abra up and down, so excited that he doesn’t hear the rapid footsteps until his door suddenly gets yanked open and he turns to stare at the shocked and frightened face of a stranger.

Oops. Too late he remembers that his mom rented the house out, sans their bedrooms. This must be the tenant staying in the guestroom.

“You… how…?!”

“I’m so sorry!” Red is still grinning like a fool as he puts his abra down and bows. “I didn’t mean to scare you! I’ll go right away, I just got so excited and didn’t think… I just figured out I can freely teleport!”

The man is still staring at him, mouth hanging open, and Red is about to reassure him that he’ll leave right away and not do this again when the man looks at the window, then him. “But… but we’re indoors!”

Red blinks at him, then looks around, grin fading.

The door was closed. The window was closed.

He teleported into an entirely enclosed space.

Somehow he forgot that he’s not able to do that.


“Oh yes, must have been a dozen of them,” the old man says to Leaf, eyes bright. “Leaping from roof to roof so quick, I thought they were pokemon!”

“A dozen, huh?” Leaf dutifully writes this down, suppressing both her excitement and her skepticism. “You were able to count them?”

“Ah, no, I just meant there were a lot, you know, more than a few!”

“And did they move as a group, or single file?”

“Mm, single file, you know, each leaping one after the other.”

“I see. And I’ve heard they each wore long red scarves, is that true?”

“Oh yes!” The man nods confidently. “That’s why I thought they were pokemon! Scarves were red as a greninja tongue!”

“And did you call anyone?”

“Eh? Ah, no, they were gone so fast. And I thought, well, there’s no law against jumping on rooftops, is there?”

Disturbing the peace, maybe, or trespassing? “Not specifically, that I’m aware. Anyway, I should head out. Thanks for your time.”

“Oh, sure. Come on back if you have any more questions, I’m here most nights.”

David sees Leaf stand and finishes his drink, then joins her at the bar’s doorway. They summon their pokemon together, her ivysaur and his meowstic, and as they walk along the street David casually asks, “You made up the part with the scarves, I take it?”

“Yeah. Something about him made me skeptical.”

“A bit too happy to have someone to talk to, I’d say.” David’s tone is sympathetic. “Older guy like that, sitting alone in a bar, probably used to being the one who strikes up conversation until the other person leaves.”

“Probably.” Leaf sighs. “Still, it’s possible he did see something. After all this time, I was bound to find someone eventually, right?”

“Or you were bound to ask enough people that, statistically, someone’s going to lie about it.”

Leaf nods and glumly follows the middle aged man down the sidewalk toward the next bar. It’s the third week of her almost nightly “tours of the city,” and after starting from the middle and working her way south first, she’s now making her way up toward the northern district, which seems to have a more active nightlife.

Overall, it’s hard to say whether all this time has been worthwhile. As Captain Takara noted, she’s too famous these days to get away with being a “curious foreigner” the way she was in Pewter, which combined with the nature of the investigation means she’s had to bury the questions she’s really interested in among all sorts of others about the city. In the past three weeks she’s heard people grumble about how the city’s reconstruction from the Hoenn incident is taking too long, praise the mayor’s new business initiatives, and whisper all sorts of theories about why crime in the city has been so low.

Not that everyone whispers about it, plenty of people attribute it to some change in policing or random chance, but the ones that do are the most interesting. As it turns out, there are a handful of rumors about people going around chasing gangs out of the city and stopping crime through vigilantism, but no one has claimed to be a first-hand witness until the man she met tonight.

Of course, Leaf could ask the local police about it. But even assuming they’d talk to her, that might draw attention that she’s trying to avoid… and besides, she’s still wary of talking to them after what happened in Celadon.

It took about a week, four nightly trips through the city in total, for Ranger Kyra to figure out what Leaf is really interested in. They’d gotten to know each other a bit in that time, enough for Leaf to trust the older woman and confirm what she’s really looking into. The ranger seemed curious, but not especially so, which Leaf has been grateful for. Her willingness to continue to chaperone Leaf has also been appreciated, and it took another week of Leaf insisting on treating her to dinner before the ranger accepted.

Kyra’s schedule can be erratic, however, and David has come to fill in the gaps for nights when she’s not available. He’s a programmer in his early 30s that attends the daily conferences, one of the people Leaf initially met online as he began to collaborate on her project with Natural and the others. It’s been nice getting to know him in person; he’s not a trainer, is also new to Kanto, and he’s always happy to teach her about anything related to computers or programming, or what it’s like working for Devon Corp. While he hasn’t particularly seemed to enjoy himself in the group’s brief trips into the Safari Zone, he seems happy enough to walk the city with her for a few hours at a time (and plenty of opportunities to rest). He expressed an interest in seeing more of Fuchsia last week, and when she explained that she travels the city whenever Kyra is available to chaperone, he offered to accompany her on the nights when the ranger is busy.

They reach another bar and Leaf spends half an hour talking to another couple people before David suggests they call it a night, which sends a sudden stab of dread through Leaf. “Could we, uh, visit one more?” He raises a brow, and she immediately feels bad. She’s always been worried about imposing on his or Kyra’s time before. “Nevermind, you’re right.”

“What’s up?”

“Nothing—”

“Hey.” Leaf looks back at him to find his patient, kindly gaze on hers. “You were distracted at the meeting today, and looked like you didn’t sleep well. Now this. Something going on at home?”

Leaf bites her lower lip, sighs, then nods. David takes her shoulder and steers her back into the bar, and this time they sit at a table together. “What’s up, Leaf? Is Mr. Sakai having a bad day?”

She closes her eyes, feeling tears well up briefly. “You can say that. Today was Aiko’s birthday.”

“Oh.” He lets out a breath. “Shit. I’m sorry, kid.”

She nods, eyes still closed. Aiko’s aunt reached out last night to see how she and her brother were doing, and Leaf cautiously reported that he seemed to be fine; nothing unusual that morning or during dinner.

He was not fine this morning.

“His sister came to spend the day with him. She doesn’t usually spend much time at the ranch, she’s got her own life, but she said they should mourn together.” Leaf lets out a watery breath. “Anyway, she’s probably waiting for me to get back before she heads home. Maybe even expecting me for dinner, so I should go back.”

“Hold on. If she’s still with him then she probably won’t mind another few minutes. How are you doing?”

Leaf takes a moment to let the question stir her emotions up, gives them a chance to radiate out like spikes from her chest, to sink her head heavily onto her folded arms. “Not great,” she admits in a low croak. It was easy to keep the feelings away, as long as she kept focused on other things. But returning to the ranch… to that room, to the likely sounds of weeping… or somehow worse, silence…

I’m sorry, Aiko…

“That’s understandable,” David says, voice low and soothing. “I’d be surprised if—”

“It’s not that,” she forces out, his sympathy somehow making it worse. “It’s… I feel like I’ve moved on. It’s been five months, and… I can’t forget her, I’m living in her room, having meals with her dad every day, but…” Guilt twists in her, and she forces the admission out. “I forgot it was her birthday. She told us back when we were celebrating Red and Blue’s, and I remember making vague plans around then, but… until her aunt called yesterday…”

She feels hesitant fingers touch her shoulder, then squeeze. “That’s nothing to blame yourself for. Hell, even my dad doesn’t remember my birthday most years unless my mom reminds him. You didn’t even get the chance to celebrate one with her, right?”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling a sob rise in her throat before she pushes it back down.

“Have you spoken to your friends about it?”

“No. They’re busy, Blue’s got to catch up on his training after working on his flying license, and Red’s still trying to replicate the indoor teleport…” It was an amazing discovery, one that only a few people actually believe happened. There’s the one witness, of course, and she trusts Red, but to most people it’s just too unusual to be believed until he can do it again in controlled conditions, especially since the witness might have simply been tricked; she’s seen comments online about how he probably opened the window from outside, snuck in, then closed it behind him. It was his house, after all.

“Mhm. Well, I know your friends are busy guys, but I gotta think they would want to be with you if you were feeling like this. Is there something more to this?”

She shakes her head again. “I don’t want… it hasn’t been that long since…” She’s talked to David about some things, but not this. No one outside of Blue’s close friends knows how bad things got between him and Red. How fragile their rekindled friendship might be. “They haven’t said anything. I don’t want them to feel guilty too, if they forgot.” It’s not a lie, at least, just a lesser reason.

“But you miss her. And the only person you can share that grief with is her father, who didn’t know her the way you did. That’s gotta be a lonely feeling, Leaf. It’s okay not to put others first at times like this.”

Probably. But it’s not worth bringing back that distance between them, that anger and hurt. “Maybe.”

David lets out a sigh and squeezes her shoulder again before drawing his hand back. “We can stay out as long as you’d like, kid. I’m not in a rush to get home.”

“No.” She rubs her eyes and lifts her head up, sniffing. “I should go. But thank you, David. Really.”

He hesitates, gaze searching her face, then nods, and they head outside. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And… feel free to call me, if you need to chat or something.”

“I will.” Maybe. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, kid.”

She brings her abra out and teleports back to the ranch, letting the salty air of Fuchsia out in a gust before taking in a fresh breath of the open fields around her. When she turns toward the ranch, she sees lights on upstairs and wonders if Kasumi is still here. When she goes inside, however, she hears different voices upstairs, and hurries up the steps, heart leaping.

“—think I heard… yep, there she is.”

Red and Blue are setting the table, wearing simple, somber clothes; Red’s usual hat and jacket are conspicuously missing, and Blue is wearing a simple black button up shirt. Neither are wearing their pokebelts, and she remembers that bright colors, particularly red, are considered inappropriate for mourning here.

She turns to see Mr. Sakai and his sister in the kitchen. Both their eyes are puffy, and Aiko’s father is moving slowly, face drawn as he shuffles from place to place, but he looks at her as he sets the food down, and gives a watery smile. “You’re just in time. Don’t forget to wash up before it gets cold.”

Leaf’s paralysis breaks as she nods and hurries to do so, then quickly changes and takes her belt off before joining them. The meal is somber as everyone eats the bowls of simple rice with beans and chopped vegetables, and once they’re done Kasumi lifts her glass, eyes wet.

“To my niece. She always had something kind to say, and worked so hard—” Her voice breaks, and she takes a breath. “I never knew just how hard.”

They drink, Leaf through a tight throat, and then Blue goes next, voice low and intense. “To Aiko, who saved my life, and others’, when we were underground. For teaching us a new way to own our mistakes, and learn from them.”

They drink again as fresh tears line her family’s faces, and Leaf’s vision blurs. She wipes them clear, and speaks as clearly as she can, though her voice is rough, and wavers at the start. “To my friend, who made me feel less alone in what I cared about, and who shared her d-dreams with m-me.”

Leaf can barely swallow, and it’s like a dam breaks in her chest, all the grief of Aiko’s death suddenly fresh again. She can hear the others weeping too, and it takes a few minutes before quiet descends, and Red clears his throat.

“To Aiko. Whose determination moved us all. And was only matched by… by her heart.”

They sip their drinks again, and Leaf has to clear her eyes again as she thinks of the way Aiko broke down and cried when she received her refurbished pokedex, and the quiet patience in her voice when she told her father she was leaving. She knows Red must also be thinking of how she died, and wants to hug him, but holds herself back for now.

Mr. Sakai is quiet for so long that Leaf almost thinks he won’t speak, until he whispers, “To my daughter. She never complained. About the work. Or me. She just wanted. More.” His mouth works, silently, and then he repeats, “More,” and drinks, and sets his glass down, tears slipping from under closed lids.

They sit in silence for a while, and Leaf stares at the table, wishing she could hug Joy, wondering if there’s something else it would be appropriate to do. She’s bone tired, and part of her wants to go to bed, but the thought of whose bed it is causes fresh tears to flow for another indeterminate while.

Kasumi is the first to stir, and starts to clean the table. Blue stands too, and a hollowed-out looking Red, whose partition, she suddenly intuits, has likely been down all night as he lets himself fully be with his grief. Mr. Sakai stands to help, but his sister quickly ushers him to his bedroom, and they hear quiet murmurs, and some brief, joint sobbing.

The three work quietly to clear the table and wash the dishes before Kasumi returns. “I think he’s asleep,” she murmurs, and reaches out to hug Leaf, then Red, then Blue. “I’ll stay on the futon tonight, to see how he is tomorrow. If he follows the pattern of how he was after Ema… his wife… tomorrow he’ll likely be back to normal, more or less.”

There’s a heaviness in her voice, but no bitterness. “Is there anything else I can do…?”

“No, dear, you’re doing more than enough. And you two. Thank you all for coming.”

“Of course,” Blue says, and Red nods before they go to collect their things. Leaf helps her set up the futon, then follows Red and Blue downstairs to say goodbye.

By some unspoken signal, as soon as they’re outside and under the stars, they move for a group hug. For a while they just stand quietly together under the stars, as they did in this same place that night nearly half a year ago before she and Red went off to sea, and Blue and Aiko and the others went below the earth. The last time they were together, before the storm that blew them apart.

It’s Leaf that breaks the hug, not because she wants to, but because she knows the other two won’t. Not as long as they think she might still need it. She takes a few deep breaths, then clears her throat. “When did you guys…?” Another stab of guilt, that they remembered and she didn’t…

“Miss Sakai asked if we were free for dinner around noon,” Blue explains. “Got here maybe half an hour before you did.”

Red picks up on her surprise, whether psychically or just by her expression. “You didn’t know? You weren’t planning on bearing this alone, were you?”

“I didn’t…” Leaf forces the words out. “She’s the one that reminded me, yesterday. I didn’t think…”

“Idiot,” Blue says, but affectionately. She can’t tell if he guessed why she didn’t bring it up to them. “How’s everything down south? Going okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine. Another test tomorrow, on tauros.” They’ve been experimenting with a handful of pokemon, each one needing custom code. It still makes Leaf feel ill, sometimes, particularly when she remembers how angry she used to get at pokemon experimentation… but at least she knows this really is for the pokemon’s sake as much as humans’.

“Cool. You guys still going to need us?”

“I think so. That’s still the plan, I mean, last I heard.”

“Well, we’ll be there. Can come down anytime, now.”

“I’ll head down sometime this week,” Red says. “After that, same.”

“How’s the teleporting going?”

Red makes a face. “I know I should just be happy I can do free teleportation now—”

“Or any teleportation,” Blue mutters.

“—that too, sorry. It’s just, figuring out what I did, exactly, and failing to replicate it, has kind of sucked the fun and victory out of it. After duplicating the exact steps and conditions leading up to it failed, even I’m starting to doubt what I experienced, like maybe the window was open and me teleporting in made it fall closed or something, even though I know that shouldn’t make any difference, I tested for stuff like that, so did others.”

“It has to be something with your state of mind, right?”

“That’s what I keep thinking, but I’m having trouble figuring out what it is. My best guess is not knowing for sure it’ll work, so it can only happen the first time someone teleports, but it’s hard to find psychics who haven’t done it at least once these days, ironically, and when I tried it with a non-psychic it didn’t work. Having psychics invoke amnesia also didn’t work, maybe because they can’t do it to their pokemon and that’s important too somehow, but using a new pokemon also didn’t work.”

There’s a threadbare frustration in his voice that makes Leaf reach out a hand to squeeze his arm. “You’ll get it, sooner or later. Don’t run yourself ragged meanwhile.”

“He hasn’t been sleeping much,” Blue adds.

“Hey, that’s not…” Red trails off as they both stare at him, and he sighs, running a hand through his hair before admitting, “…entirely true. Once I fall asleep I get enough hours, as long as there’s no alarm, but I’ve had trouble with racing thoughts at night. It’s hard to move on to anything else, with this kind of discovery teasing me just out of reach. But I found a workaround yesterday, actually.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I just make myself forget I did it, when I want to sleep.”

Blue shakes his head. “I don’t care if it’s sour grapes or what, that will never stop being creepy to me.”

“You should meet Rowan sometime. Speaking of which, I’ve got a meeting to get to.” He doesn’t make a move to leave, however, and neither does Blue. After a moment Red awkwardly asks Leaf, “You’ll be by tomorrow for your session with Sabrina, right?”

They’re reluctant about leaving me alone. She remembers the way she cried upstairs, and feels a prickle of embarrassment… but just a prickle. “I will. Come by again anytime. You know you’re always welcome.”

They take the dismissal, and hug her again once each before Blue summons Zephyr and mounts up, taking off with big, buffeting gusts of wind. Red summons an abra, and Leaf raises a brow. “Now that you don’t need one for each city, have you sold the others off?”

“Not yet, they might still come in handy.” For experiments, she guesses. “You’re going to ask me about the nicknames, aren’t you?”

“Just saying, doesn’t make sense to stick with the labels if you just use one to go everywhere. And don’t you dare stick the one you keep with that!”

“What, Everywhere? It’s a bit presumptuous, unless I take a year or two to travel.” His smile fades after a moment. “You’ll really be okay?”

“I will. And if I’m not, I promise to call.”

“Good. I’m just a thought away, you know?”

That makes her smile for the first time all night. “You are. Come by soon, Raff still hasn’t met your ivysaur.”

“I will. Night, Leaf.”

“Goodnight, Red.”

She watches him disappear, and hugs herself as she lets her eyes slip closed, lets the emotions sink in and fill her for a moment as the tiredness returns. Today took her by surprise, in a lot of ways. Life in the past few months got so busy, so full of new emergencies and new normals, new experiences and new routines, that things like simply mourning her lost friend felt like something that happened to a different her, in another world. Now that she’s here, she wonders how long before the grief feels distant again, and she’s back in the stream of day to day, with just the occasional sad thought or extra long night staring up at the ceiling.

Not long. Maybe it would take a couple days, but things are moving fairly quickly at the Safari Zone, and teaching Sabrina and other psychics her mental state has been challenging, and exploring Fuchsia always brings some novelty even if it doesn’t bring her any new answers. Soon this pain would scab over again, and feel like a footnote of her life again instead of tangible, immediate reality.

Maybe she would even be like Mr. Sakai, back to “normal” as soon as she wakes in the morning.

Leaf walks back to the porch, but instead of climbing the stairs simply sits, rubbing her arms against the chill as she decides to stay out a little longer.


When Leaf arrives at the meeting the next day, there’s just a couple empty seats left, and she quickly goes to the one next to David. “Morning,” she says with a tired smile as she pets the white tuft of fur between his meowstic’s ears. “Before you ask, yes, I’m okay, thanks. And thanks again for the talk last night. Didn’t get much sleep, obviously, but my friends did end up coming over.”

“That’s good,” David says, studying her face a moment before he turns back toward his screen, looking distracted.

Leaf blinks, wondering if she’s being rude. She meant to express gratitude and reassure him, but maybe he thinks she’s giving him the brush off. She really didn’t sleep much last night, and is having trouble trusting self-assessments or thoughts. “How was your night?”

“Fine. Just did some work.”

Maybe she’s misreading him too. Or maybe he really doesn’t want to talk right now. She lets it go until later, knowing he can’t complain if she pokes him to open up a bit after he did the same, and soon the meeting starts.

Warden Takara reviews the plan to cordon off an area of the Zone, release a captured and re-programmed tauros into it, observe its behavior, and slowly but surely give it more freedom as they expose it to more scenarios, including socializing with wild tauros eventually. It’s no different than what they’ve done already with rattata and nidoran and venonat, but tauros are significantly more rare, powerful, and aggressive, which makes the stakes higher and adds additional considerations. The programmers in the room, and those watching through livestream, have a few hours to do some final overview of the code while the researchers and rangers review the planned activities and safeguards.

Leaf is something of a general purpose member of the team, being only somewhat knowledgeable in each of the various fields at play. Sometimes she feels like she’s only really here because the whole thing was her idea, but no, that’s just her tiredness and negative thoughts at work. She’s made suggestions that the others have found valuable, and at the very least is the closest thing to a “manager” the project has, since she knows everyone working on it and has been following all the changes and versions from the beginning.

She decides to review the new changes pushed last night, and finds another thing to bring up to David. “Hey, nice work with this new error-control segment. Looks a lot more elegant and thorough.”

David gives an awkward laugh, “It was nothing. I just… had some free time, thought I should try to do more, you know? Feels like I haven’t been pulling my weight.”

“That’s not true at all.” Leaf hides her frown, though she can’t help but keep watching David, troubled. He’s usually somewhat overmodest, but there’s still an off note in what he said, or the way he said it.

Maybe she should poke him now rather than later. If something’s wrong, she owes it to him to help if she can.

“Hey, mind if we take a walk? I want to talk about something.”

He looks surprised, and hesitates, which only worries her more. Finally he nods, and they slip outside the conference room, taking a brief walk down the hall toward one of the sitting areas by the big windows facing the Zone. They sit in awkward silence for a minute as he strokes his pokemon’s fur before Leaf realizes she’s supposed to say something.

“Sorry. I’m only at like 70% right now, and this seemed like a better idea before I did it. If you don’t want to talk I’ll understand. I just… you helped me last night, so… if there’s anything I can do…”

David’s face is blank at first, the expression sitting oddly in his otherwise easygoing features. He scratches the stubble along his jaw, then lets out a long, slow sigh.

“Right. So. Here’s the thing, Leaf… I didn’t want to bring this up until I had something more concrete, but I noticed something odd about the pokemon you registered at the start of all this.”

It’s Leaf’s turn to force her expression blank, while inside her pulse kicks into high gear, some of the tiredness fading as adrenaline hits her system. “Odd?”

“I think some of the others have too, but no one’s really wanted to talk about it. And when I looked into their code… well, I wondered how you got it to be so similar to wild pokemon’s without the very program that the data was used to create.”

Shit. She thought they covered their tracks well, but… “As I said, Aiko was the one who was working on this before I picked up the torch. It was just an idea, when I thought of it, she’s the one that—”

“It’s a convenient excuse, and I’m not saying it’s not partially true, at least. I believe she was working on it, and somehow found a way to alter the conditioning, or rather gave the pokemon permission to ignore it. But… I’m sorry, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead. But I don’t care how genius your friend was, a team this big is still struggling to replicate her work? We’ve made strides, done it even better in some ways, but that kind of blanket sidestepping of the conditioning is too clean.” David sets his jaw in a stubborn angle, fingers tight in his meowstic’s fur. “I don’t know who she’s acting as the cover for, if it’s Bill or one of the others on the team or someone else entirely, but what she or they were doing was dangerous. I think you’re trying to make the best of that work, but until I know who was behind it, it feels suddenly like we all might just be getting used.”

Leaf keeps her expression as neutral as she can while thinking over her contingencies. She thought it would be Bill or Natural who first noticed and asked her about this, but as David said, maybe they noticed but didn’t care. Or maybe they’re more willing to believe that a young and determined programming genius was able to pull off what the sakki did. It was always a risk, but one she knew had to be taken if this project would be possible within a decade, rather than however long it would take for her to learn to duplicate the effects on her own without asking anyone else for help. Assuming that was even possible for someone with her programming talent; she’s no Bill. She’s not even Aiko.

“Are you going to quit?” she asks, voice quiet. If he does, he might go to the media, or raise his concern with Warden Takara… or even go to the police.

He lets a breath out. “I’m not sure. But I want to know the truth, and I’m pretty sure you know it.”

Leaf keeps her gaze on the window, trying to hide her fear. Here’s the first card, tilting out of position. What Red feared might happen as soon as the full scope of what psychic abilities can do gets known to the general public, what he realized he’d inadvertently started when the others in Blue’s training group learned about sakki. She thought it might be one of the others that let it slip, or hoped they’d have more time. Time to get farther with the program, show the good it can do.

Maybe it wouldn’t change much. Psychics are already afforded a lot of trust, combined with a lot of careful litigation and oversight to prevent abuse. Maybe this would just cause more of the same.

Or maybe it would bring the whole house down.

Chapter 93: Qualitative Research

“What’s he doing here?”

The words felt hot and spiky in Blue’s head, but come out cold, a controlled burst of contempt that causes the ex-Leader to flinch. Not much, just a tightening around his eyes, a momentary deepening of the perpetual frown his lips seem set in. Or maybe that’s anger of his own, and Blue is giving himself too much credit.

Duncan doesn’t respond, nor does he seem particularly upset. He simply looks at Koichi, as if waiting for the man to answer himself.

After a moment, he does. “Same as the others. I am here to teach, and to learn.” As in recordings Blue watched long ago, Koichi’s voice is deep, coming out of his thick chest with force behind every word… but there’s something else there, too, that he never heard in the old videos. Something almost hesitant.

“There’s nothing you have to teach that anyone should learn.”

Koichi’s eyes tighten again, and this time he drops his gaze. It’s Duncan who asks, “Do you really believe that?”

Blue rounds on him, anger joined by a sense of betrayal. He was starting to like Duncan, but defending Koichi, letting him in here to begin with…

He notices that Glen is back, approaching from the side and looking at Koichi with confusion. As a non-Kanto native his friend probably doesn’t even know who he is, and it reminds Blue that maybe Duncan doesn’t fully understand either. “Of course I do. He’s everything a Leader shouldn’t be, ran Saffron like a petty warlord who conquered it for status and had no idea how to actually rule, and worse, wasn’t willing to share power when it became obvious he needed help from others. The League almost had to step in before Sabrina beat him.”

“You won’t find anyone here who disagrees that he was a terrible Leader in many ways,” Duncan says, voice calm. Of course he knows who he is, others here would have told him… “But you keep saying ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’… you really can’t think of anything of value he might have to teach? Multiple things, even?”

It feels like he’s arguing with Red, suddenly, and the thought shifts Blue from anger to suspicion. He’s set up and walked into enough verbal traps to recognize that tone, and once he’s looking for it he sees what Duncan is getting at. “What, battling? Sure, he’s a great trainer. So what? There are plenty of them.”

“And how much time do they spend training others directly? The ones in Gyms or the Rangers have a lot of other duties, and those outside of them charge quite a lot, if they’re not busy with other things themselves. Koichi has been teaching here for weeks, completely free of charge.”

“And that makes it okay? Free lessons don’t matter if what’s being taught is dangerous, if anything that makes it worse!”

“Dangerous how? You think I’m okay with the things he did while Leader? You think anyone here is?”

The words take Blue aback again, calmly stated but still with an underlying iron. Putting it that way forces him to pass judgement on the people around him, people he’s never met, and forces him to think it through. Does he think that? If not, what is he actually worried about?

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Blue admits. “So why don’t you explain what’s going on here, exactly?”

Duncan seems to relax a little, then turns his body slightly so that he’s not facing Blue as much as he is both him and Koichi. “I’ll let him speak for himself. Just wanted to make sure you were in the right mindset to listen.”

Koichi’s eyes are still tight in his otherwise impassive face, but when Duncan nods at him the older man takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “As I said before, I am here to teach and learn. Not just karate and pokemon battles. I can teach others how to avoid the mistake I made. How to avoid becoming the kind of Leader I was.”

Blue stares at him, then glances at Duncan. Multiple things to teach. Right. “You think I’m in danger of becoming this guy?”

“I didn’t say that,” Duncan says. “Few people would, and I doubt you’re one of them. But different mistakes can still benefit from the same lessons.”

“Your anger is justified,” Koichi says, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “I do not ask you to release it. It is natural that the things we do will reflect on us, and I did those things, and I do not have… excuses. Reasons, but misguided ones. Nothing that offers mitigating circumstances. I was a flawed person who caused harm rather than accept my shortcomings, and even though I’ve been given another chance, I know I will have to face suspicion and anger like yours forever, as part of the price for what I did. I only want the chance to become someone else. To be the someone else that I have already begun to become.”

Blue studies the ex-Leader, trying to decide if the words are part of some rote apology. His expression is closed, his tone awkward, but Blue doesn’t hold that against him; a smoother speech would have been just as suspect, and Koichi always came off as a proud and confident man.

But it’s not particularly convincing, either. “So you’re telling me you’re not trying to get back into a position of authority?”

“Yes. After I was removed from the gym, I realized that I could let my anger and self-loathing keep me cut off from the world… as I did, for months afterward… or I could try to return to it. So I gathered my money and opened my own school. Even offering free classes, I had no students. I sought battles, went from incident to incident, to show that I still had value, both to others, and to myself. Despite my help, I was given no respect, no esteem. Those whose lives I saved thanked me, but hesitantly, and uncomfortably. I was tolerated at best… useful, instrumentally, but left alone at the end of each day.”

The words still came stilted, with pauses of varying length between sentences, and this one goes on for so long that Blue thinks Koichi will stop despite the way his jaw flexes. Eventually it stubbornly sets, and he continues. “When it became clear to me how far the shadow I cast had spread… to other regions, through new generations, always my past would come out sooner or later… for months, I fell into true despair. I had few family members left who would speak with me, but I was eventually convinced to seek help. I realized my belief that what happened to me was an unfairness in the world, rather than the result of my own mistakes, was keeping me from growing. From acting to atone for the harm I caused.”

“That’s what this is supposed to be? Atonement?”

“Yes,” Koichi says, gaze down. “My leadership weakened Saffron City, and cost its trainers valuable time, and effort, and pokemon. I knew the gym would not trust me, for good reason. But when I saw the call for instructors here… I had to try.”

“Being new to the region, I didn’t know who he was,” Duncan says. “It came up in seconds from a background check, of course, but the fact that he was offering to work for free, to accept any rules imposed, made me take it seriously.”

Blue looks at Koichi again, then away, unsure how to feel. This whole thing feels wrong, but… he can’t argue against the points they raise. It would be a waste for someone of Koichi’s skill as a trainer to not teach, was a waste even before he was ousted.

And if he really is trying to change, to be a better person…

Blue realizes a small crowd has joined Glen in watching from a distance. Not obviously, just a handful of people lingering within listening distance without any obvious activity to do. He wonders, suddenly, if this is a test by Duncan… but if so, is it for him, or for Koichi? Maybe both?

Either way, he said he wanted Blue to learn to lose. He’s not sure if Duncan knows what Surge’s gym is like, but it definitely taught him the value of admitting when someone makes a better argument. Still, Blue’s not sure he’s convinced.

“Maybe this isn’t the right place to have this conversation,” Blue offers.

“It’s alright,” Duncan says. “One of the conditions to his staying here is that at any time, if someone’s been here a week, takes one of his classes, and still wants him to leave, he leaves.”

Blue glances at Koichi, whose gaze is on the floor. “Just like that?”

“Just like that. There’s an exception for people who battled him as a Leader, but I’m the one that carved that out to avoid some understandable attempts to get revenge.”

It seems like a stressful condition to work under, but it does more to appease Blue’s worry than anything else, and it’s not hard to remind himself that Koichi deserves it. “Well, I guess it’s not my business unless I stay, then.”

Duncan smiles and turns to Koichi. “Thanks.”

The ex-leader nods and walks away. Blue frowns at his broad back, then looks at Duncan. “Was that me learning to lose?”

“In part, maybe. The way I see it, he teaches that just by being here, since the first lesson is learning what being humbled looks and sounds like. Not ‘humble’ in the milquetoast way we often say it, the cool humility everyone feels good about, I mean having actively been humbled, and continuing to actively be humble, as a verb.”

“Assuming he’s not just pretending.”

“That’s where split-and-commit comes in. If someone gets accused of something that they deny doing, but no evidence was gathered yet, you could find any number of reasons to either believe or doubt the accusation, and you’ll probably be influenced by things like how likeable they are, or how credible the accuser, or how much pressure you’re under to believe or doubt. I’d rather take both possibilities seriously and commit to either that turns out to be true.”

“This isn’t like that, though. He did do those things, it’s on video, he admitted it!”

Duncan’s eyes flash anger before his expression goes blank, and he lets out a slow breath. “That’s not what you said. The accusation that he’d deny is that he’s pretending about wanting to make amends for what he admitted he did. Like that didn’t occur to me. Like I just didn’t imagine that he might be faking sincerity, or decided to ignore it anyway. You see how that’s treating me like an idiot, right?”

It takes Blue a moment to beat back his defensiveness. It’s possible Duncan made a mistake, of course, but if so he didn’t do it thoughtlessly. “Yeah. Sorry. So… you’re saying that when he showed up, you decided to treat both possibilities like they were true. Maybe he’s being sincere, so you’ll give him a chance, or maybe he’s not, so you’ll watch him carefully and not give him power and put conditions on what he does?”

“Right. I get why some might not want to take the risk, but I’ve got plenty of people here who can watch him and tell me if he’s causing a problem. If I decided to just turn him away it would have been because of fear of public backlash, not because I honestly think he’s one of the actually irredeemable people. Maybe he is, but he’s at least willing to put the work in to make up for it, which is more than I can say for most people who fuck up. Either way it’s been long enough that he deserves a chance to prove himself.”

It is, Blue has to admit, a sort of courage that he’s not sure he has. One he’s not sure he can afford, if he wants to be as widely respected as he needs to be; a single wrong call, and his judgement would be questioned forever.

But if Koichi’s training turns out to save a dozen lives, and those dozen lives save a dozen more… if some of them are the sort of people who sign on to Blue’s goals, or someone with Koichi’s skills can help those goals succeed…

It’s hard to know for sure ahead of time, and he realizes how strange it is that he’s willing to risk his life repeatedly to gain people’s respect, but not his reputation if he might lose it. Dying a martyr is better than the alternative, but it would still make him a failure if he doesn’t take the birds down with him.

Glen approaches at last, looking warily between Blue and Duncan. “So, uh. Guess I missed some stuff?”

The redhead smiles. “Just some trampolining and a challenge. You came in time for the exciting part.” He starts leading them away. “Everything go okay on your end?”

“Oh, yeah, you guys are all set… wait, challenge as in a battle? Now?”

“Yep. We’ve got a second building around the block where our battle arenas are, too dangerous to have them in here.”

As they follow him toward the exit, Glen turns to Blue. “Guessing this was your idea?”

“Kind of a mix. I challenged him, he added stakes. If I win I get one of his pokemon. If he wins I stay for at most three months.” He’s less enthusiastic at the thought than he was before seeing Koichi. What if there are others like him here? Or someone even worse?

“Three months! You expect getting a Challenge match to take that long?”

“Maybe. But this place seems interesting enough to check out in any case, and training my abra will also take a while.” He’d probably lose a lot of Duncan’s respect if he backs out now, but going from “worrying what everyone thinks of me” to “worrying what one person thinks of me” only seems like a minor improvement… and assuming Duncan meant what he said before, he wouldn’t want Blue to stay if he felt he was misled anyway. Plus, if he ends up training here then he’d have the right to ask for Koichi to leave if he thinks he’s out of line.

What decides him, ultimately, is that he already shook on it. Going back on his promise to battle any Stormbringer incident was bad enough, and stepping away from this commitment wouldn’t feel nearly as justified, despite some part of him trying to find similarities in how much he knew what he was committing to beforehand. He’s received far too many trainer challenges to feel bad about not accepting them all, but he’s never backed down from one once he has.

Yes, he’d go through with the challenge, and as he said, if he loses then the dojo letting Koichi in would suddenly be more directly his concern. Duncan at least earned a bit of trust in pinpointing what Blue’s been struggling with so well, and offering good advice.

He considers his friend a moment, and what it would mean to have a more honest relationship. “Think it would be good for all of us, really.”

Glen’s back stiffens, for a moment, before relaxing. He doesn’t respond as they follow Duncan out into the brisk afternoon air, then down the sidewalk.

“They’re doing some cool stuff,” Blue continues, a little more cautiously. “And with the extra focus on physical training—”

“I know,” Glen says. Their voices are low, but not so low that Duncan probably can’t hear them from up ahead now that they’re away from the noise of the dojo. “Already thought about it. Figured, if we’d be here a while anyway… but I don’t want you to stay here just for me. If you were thinking of going on to another gym, you should.”

It feels like a fist squeezing between his ribs, but Blue forces himself to say, “I was.”

Glen lets a long breath out. “Right. I get it.”

“That doesn’t mean I—”

“Blue, you can’t stay here just for me. Let’s be honest, what we did in Vermilion was good, even great, but you didn’t need me in Celadon even before I was… hurt.” Glen swallows. “You can’t stay just for me. You’ve got too much else to do, and I need to find my own way to keep up. You can’t let pity—”

“Stop, Glen. You were a hero in Celadon, I want you with me, it’s not pity.” Blue struggles to find the words, wishing he’d taken some time to think about what he wanted to say… “And what does that even mean? I don’t know why everyone gets so hung up over pity, like who came up with a bad word for caring about each other, like people aren’t supposed to support those they care about, it’s fucking dumb. You’re a great trainer, and if you need some time to get back to a hundred percent, I’d be an idiot to go without you.”

They walk in silence for a minute, passing by more warehouses until they see another one of the dojo logos above the door of a building up ahead. “Thanks,” Glen mutters, voice rough. “But we both know that there are costs to you holding still too long, and we don’t know how long it’ll be before I’m back to normal. I know you’ve got some good reasons to stay, like training your abra, and maybe doing stuff here… but if you put managing my feelings over your goals, I don’t want that, just… don’t you dare lose this battle for an excuse to stick around for my sake.”

They reach the door, and Duncan turns to them as he opens it, smiling slightly. “Puts me in a bit of an awkward spot if I win, now.”

“It’s fine,” Blue says. “You can just say that by losing I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m free to leave whenever.”

“Right, of course. That was my plan all along.”


A gentle chime partially pulls Red out of his meditation, the alarm tone specifically chosen to avoid making the transition as jarring as his morning one. He takes in one last breath, reaches out to lift his pencil over his notebook, and begins to pull his partition down.

Strangely, the clearest mark of his growing psychic skill is that it’s no longer as easy or quick as it used to be. Before, as long as he hadn’t stretched himself too far, it would lower or snap back into place almost immediately, like clenching and relaxing a fist. Now it takes explicit effort to move it either up or down, though not much.

Doing it this slowly, there’s no clear point at which he stops being his partitioned self and starts to be his whole self. Emotions shift first, the world taking on a different “hue,” but he still feels mostly like himself, aware of the changes and confused about why they’re happening, except he knows why they’re happening, they just feel so incongruous to his thoughts that they surprise him every time. Then the new thoughts follow, memories and insights he’s blocked from his partitioned self, and it would feel okay to label this the moment of transition, except there’s still some stability left over, a protective wall that the partition gives him by keeping things at a safe, dissociative distance.

When that ends, it’s always hard to tell if it was fading little by little or abruptly or in stages. Still, he takes a moment to confirm that his thoughts and mood are “stable,” and that he’s still grounded in his breathing, before lowering the partition that holds the Lavender memories away.

Not all of them, and not all at once. Over the past few weeks he’s managed, little by little, to isolate exactly what he’s looking for, so that all he gets when he eases it down is—

twisting, inverted, chaotic swirling glimpses of

Red blows his breath out, doing his best to let the thought go.

mourning

snow

and

sky

and

Deep breath in…

despair, gone, lost

And out.

swarm

see

fade

see

swarm

see

fade

Pain steadily grows in Red’s temples, and he feels the world tilt under him as his thoughts are swept away in the memory. The shape in his mind is clear, but the disorientation pulls until he’s forced to partition the memory away again.

It’s not as hard as it was last time. The steady breathing continues to ground him for just long enough even as he feels his focus unravel. For a few breaths he just lets his scattered thoughts continue to roil and shiver and vibrate along every strand of thought that forms, each one dissolving a moment later, until he starts to feel himself stabilize.

He looks down at his notebook, where he’s written in an untidy scrawl,

twistyinsidesnow skysad maro?lookfade

Then checks the last page from when he tried this yesterday:

look ingfade to worldistorted seefadesad towergroundsky fade

And the one before that:

seeskyfade warpedwhitefade swarmseefade

Nothing really new, but he still takes the time to write out each individual word, then does his best to connect them where they seemed to be part of the same thought, even if they weren’t written back to back. It feels a bit wrong, like he’s trying to force random data to fit a pattern, but it’s possible that the deeper meaning was scrambled in the first place by his own imperfect experience… and it’s not like it makes any real sense as written, or like he’s taking the letters and trying to form new words with them.

Once he’s finished however he still has no idea what any of it means. Luckily, he doesn’t need to figure it out on his own.

After searching online and explicitly asking around, he was able to find other psychics who have merged with wild unown and noticed odd flashes of… something, that they normally don’t get any hint of with captured unown, and doesn’t seem present in any accounts of mergers with wild unown from before the incident. No one else has yet reported an experience quite as difficult as Red’s, but they probably didn’t merge with them through a rampaging ghost either.

Still, with enough people sharing what they glimpsed he’s hoping they can gather enough common points to find some real patterns. If he’s lucky, they might even get some clues to understanding what exactly happened at the tower, and whether it had anything to do with the unown. If it turns out to be a coincidental three-way-merger Red is going to be disappointed, but not by too much given that this seems useful enough. There’s already enough similarities in what the others have reported that they’re learning new things about the unown.

Red can’t remember the experiences himself with his partitions up, but from their collected notes, the impressions of “looking” or “seeing” definitely feel, as much as the various psychics’ human brains can understand them at least, to be purposeful. It makes sense that a pokemon existing as, essentially, a huge eye would primarily be focused on looking at things, but it isn’t as passive as how people experience “looking at the world” to be, while still not quite being the focused searching that happens when looking for something particular. It’s been a hard distinction to draw, but with enough consensus that it’s very clearly there, and all the more startling when compared to the neutrality Red gets from his own tamed unown.

This raises an old mystery: what are they doing, exactly? There’s no apparent feeling of analysis, of evaluation, of checking what’s seen against something else. As one of the psychics put it, ‘”They don’t seem to be looking for something, just actively observing what’s around them… almost like a camera programmed to constantly swivel so it’s taking in as much of its environment as possible.” It would make more sense if they were identifying food or threats, but neither seems to be the case.

And then there’s the feeling of loss, of fading… it’s no wonder they’re untrainable given they have virtually no capacity for memory, not even retention of the things they see. But still, there’s something distinct about the feeling compared to the loss of moment to moment memories his tame unown has. Almost like the memories of the things seen are constantly being lost as they’re being acquired.

It’s hard to consider all this and not want to bring his partitions down so he can re-examine his memories of his own encounter, but treating it like exposure therapy, sampling them while in a relaxed state and processing them a little at a time, seems to be helping his unpartitioned self deal with the memories more easily. Or at least that’s the impression his unpartitioned self is sending him right now… and that he’s not up for another try anytime soon.

It’s a frustrating pace to be forced to investigate something so fascinating, but luckily there’s no shortage of those. Red finishes writing up his observations until another alarm goes off, then gets dressed and returns his various pokemon to their balls except Pikachu, who walks beside him as he heads to the gym for his appointment with Sabrina.

He’s been there pretty frequently in the week since Blue and his friends came to town, but Red’s been too busy to join them as often as he did in Vermilion. They also apparently found a “dojo” in town that Blue won a hitmonlee from in a battle against its pseudo-leader, and despite Blue insisting it’s “your kind of place,” Red hasn’t found the time to check it out just yet. He still remembers his first conversation with Sabrina, and is wary of taking on too many different projects. He already has plenty, some of which are too important to drop, like teleporting to Celadon to accompany the police now and then as they search for more renegades in the city.

It’s not as stressful as he thought it would be, probably because he’s gone out a dozen times already and they still haven’t found anything. He’d feel worse about dropping his guard if he didn’t get the same impression from the officers; one even commented over lunch that after what happened at the casino, anyone else hiding labs or renegades in the city would be an idiot to keep them there, and Red doesn’t think whoever hired them was an idiot. Well, not that kind anyway.

It’s also been strange seeing the effects of that night continue to play out. Once people’s attention began to shift from rescue to recovery to prevention, there was some to spare for ‘lesser threats,’ and as it turns out secret renegade organizations are not something people feel particularly less threatened by than giant world changing legends.

Red can see their point, given his own journey. He’d read that most trainers only encounter renegades once or twice in their whole career; for his group to have had direct contact with two within their first year is a hell of a statistical anomaly, and fits in with a broader uptick in Renegade judgements across the island. Given what happened in Hoenn and Celadon, the question of whether something big is going on, something that’s causing more and more people to encounter renegades, is hard to avoid asking.

And the idea being floated as an answer, that renegades are organizing and fighting together, is almost completely novel, more familiar as the plot of some action film than reality… until now.

So there’s been a push in multiple cities within Kanto and Hoenn to relax regulations on weapons for self-defense. Red knows that Maria and Lizzy and Glen have avoided attempts to pull them into advertisements or interviews aimed at pushing certain products, but sooner or later someone’s going to offer something they can’t refuse.

No one’s calling for allowing civilian pokemon to use subduing attacks, but grey areas exist for unaimed attacks like Sing (which Red finds rather frightening given what the consequences of being judged to have misused it might have been for Leaf) and the price of jigglypuff, and others who can disable with singing, already fairly high, have skyrocketed. Red wonders if another renegade attack would tip things over the edge toward non-police pokemon having such training.

Meanwhile a revolution in self-defense weapons has accelerated; stun guns and sleep spray have new designs that give them longer effective range, with commercials explicitly billing them as a way to target a renegade from behind one’s own pokemon. The obvious question, of course, is why a renegade wouldn’t just use one themselves, but Red still bought his own pair just in case. They might even be effective against certain pokemon, though in an actual battle it’s hard to imagine something more useful for his hands to be holding than balls, either in preparation to capture or swap his own.

He’s not really expecting to face another Renegade anytime soon, but he wasn’t the first time either, and it’s a small expense compared to the stronger pokemon and items he’s been watching the auctions for.

Before long he’s back out of the cold and inside the gym lobby. As he’s about to head upstairs, he sees on one of the monitors that Sabrina is still in a Challenge match. He joins the small crowd to watch as her opponent sends a houndoom out against her exeggutor. Rather than swapping away from the double type disadvantage, she has her pokemon set up Reflect and Light Screens as it tanks a flamethrower, then sends it on a stomping tantrum that results in a dual-KO. When another Dark pokemon comes out, this time a shiftry, Sabrina meets it with an alakazam that starts to use her signature battle technique: rapid dodges that seem almost precognitive, while sending back attacks from every direction.

Focus Blast after Focus Blast is shot at the shiftry as it dances from foot to foot, trying to get an attack of its own in while avoiding defeat. It doesn’t last long, nor does the next pokemon, and within minutes Sabrina has won the match.

Red dutifully claps alongside the other onlookers, then heads for the elevator rather than sticking around for the post-match speeches; he’s heard enough of them by now. Some of the other students have speculated that she’s just trying to get through the backlog as quickly as she can by ensuring each match is over quickly, only using three pokemon at most and fighting aggressively without quite tipping over into recklessness. It’s hard for Red to blame her after seeing how tired she is all the time, but he wonders whether those at the gym who come to battle her feel cheated of a “real match,” and reminds himself to ask Blue next time he sees him.

He leans against the wall beside her office door and reviews the questions he’s prepared as he waits. Ten minutes later Sabrina arrives, and Red raises a hand in greeting. “No rush if you want some time alone first?”

“I’ll live. Come on in.” She unlocks the door and enters, and he follows her in before moving toward the more comfortable sofa chairs to the side of her office rather than her desk. After sitting he watches her unlatch and hang up her pokebelt before joining him with a slow sigh.

“Long day?” Part of him is worried about asking such a personal question, but over the past month he’s become more comfortable with Sabrina. She surprised him after the incident, and again in Lavender, with her seemingly genuine concern for him, and has treated him less like a student and more like a friend since. Actually, if he thinks further back to just before the Hoenn legends awoke, the change really started after her return from the hiatus, when he told her about Rei. “Or another long night?”

“The latter. I seem to have lost the ability to influence my dreams, which is a problem when so many are nightmares. Thankfully I can still end them quickly, but that leaves me awake more often than not.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but I rarely dream. That I remember, at least.”

She smiles. “It’s alright, I appreciate the thought. So, you said you had some questions that might help your research?”

“Yeah.” It was Dr. Madi, still mentoring him from Pallet Labs, who suggested he try some qualitative studies into his confusions and curiosities if he’s stuck on what experiment to run on next, and he has been meaning to circle back to some of the things Sabrina mentioned when they first met. Reviewing all the information available left him with a lingering dissatisfaction over the way the other psychics have studied things, and that means he needs to start at the basic observations and see if he can’t ask the right questions to point him in a new and interesting direction. “Before I try designing new studies, I figured I should make sure I understand what we know as best I can. Could you tell me more about the colors you’ve seen when observing psychic phenomena?”

Sabrina considers him a moment, then nods. “Alright. Keep in mind that the experiences are brief and inconsistent, and impossible to accurately record. I’ve tried categorizing what I see, but it’s… difficult, even after I studied some color theory while trying to make sense of it. Do you know any?”

“Uh… blue and red makes purple? That sort of thing?” An old memory hits him, suddenly, of Blue’s mom once calling that out to get them to come to dinner. “Well, what I learned in school. Pigment primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow, and represent the colors we see when light bounces off something. Light primaries are red, blue and green, and represent colors from directly luminous sources. For light, white is the combination of all colors, while black is the absence. For pigment, it’s the opposite.”

“A good enough place to start, but as is often the case with the things we learn as children, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Ultimately, light exists as various different wavelengths, and our eyes have ‘rods’ that detect brightness of light, and ‘cones’ that detect the wavelength… or more accurately, the proportion of different wavelengths, independent of intensity.”

“Wait, explain that?”

“Intensity of light affects the signal our cone sends us when we perceive a wavelength. It’s an imprecise analogy, but think of heated metal. As you heat it, it will shift from dark, to a dull red, to a brighter red, to orange, to yellow, to white, and even to bluish white if it’s sufficiently hot. The same way heat intensity changes the color of light given off, light intensity affects the signal our eye sends us when it perceives a wavelength, and those signals are how we actually perceive color. That’s why we need two cones, at least, to have any consistent perception of color.”

Red nods, hand moving automatically to take notes. He’s not sure the relevance of this yet, but realizes that researching light should have been one of the things he did as soon as Sabrina told him how she sees psychic phenomena. “Is that why monochrome is called that, despite being black and white?”

Sabrina smiles. “Perhaps. So, to be more accurate, it’s not the signal that our cones send us that truly represents color; it’s the proportion of signals. Each cone can perceive limited, but overlapping, sections of the full light spectrum, and sends a signal for each wavelength it perceives depending on how far from its most sensitive, optimal wavelength it is. The first cone may send a strong signal when a wavelength closer to its optimal is received, while the second cone sends a faint signal, and that proportion is, ultimately, color. Most humans have three cones for red, blue and green light… that is, three cones which are optimally attuned to react to three specific wavelengths of light, and to a lesser degree will react to similar wavelengths on either side of those three. Purest red is seen when the ‘red wavelength’ is sending the ‘red cone’ the strongest signal, and the other two cones are barely responding at all to that wavelength. Colors outside those our cones are attuned for are seen as mixtures, which is why yellow can be achieved by either perfectly mixing red and green light, or by overlapping a circle of red light and a circle of green light. The same signal proportion is sent to our brain, and so the same color is seen. Where the signals are most oddly mixed, we occasionally see colors that don’t ‘exist’ as independent wavelengths, such as purple.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Red asks. “Purple isn’t a real color?”

“As a ‘color,’ purple exists as much as any other, since all colors are just our attempt to classify perceptions of different combinations of wavelength intensity. But there is no individual wavelength of light that we perceive as purple; the closest, as seen when observing light split by a prism, is blue, followed by violet.” Sabrina holds a hand up to stall his next question. “It is easier, remember, to think of wavelengths, and wavelength combination proportions, as being perceived as colors, and not think of colors as ‘having’ wavelengths.”

Red slowly nods. “Wavelengths are the territory, colors are the map. So if we only see purple when given a signal proportion of, say, 3-0-3 from our three cones, but there’s no single wavelength that will give that signal proportion, a combination of two different signal proportions, like 0-0-3 plus 3-0-0, or 1-0-2 and 2-0-1, will turn into what we see as purple.”

“Precisely, and this is why the color spectrum is often depicted as a circle, with red and blue wrapping back toward each other to show purple between them. To us, nothing else exists past those wavelengths, but the combined wavelengths at either edge is how pure purple is achieved.”

“Huh. So does that mean you have a fourth cone? Or is that impossible?”

“Tetrachromats do exist—”

“They do?! What color is their fourth cone attuned to?”

“Yellow.”

“Oh.”

She smiles. “Not as exciting as you expected?”

“Yeah, I mean… I can already see yellow, so… or at least I think I can? Wait, no, I get it,” he says as her smile widens. “If they have a yellow cone, that means they can see a single wavelength signal proportion as yellow, instead of only being able to see yellow as a combination of red and green? So they can better differentiate more shades of yellow than I can, and probably more combinations of colors where yellow is included.”

“Correct, though it’s worth noting that this ability is limited by technology. If you and a tetrachromat look at any image on a phone or computer monitor, you would see the same things, as they all are made to work by displaying some combination of red, blue, and green light. The test for tetrachromacy must be done in person, and the benefits are minor; ultimately they can see all the same colors we can, but some will be more ‘vibrant’ than they are for us. Only a small percent of women have the yellow cone, and of them an even smaller percent have it active. I am not one of them, nor do I have any other fourth cone myself. But my mind has learned to recognize the signal that those brains attached to the appropriate cones do receive.”

Red blinks, finishes writing, then looks up. “What do you… pokemon?”

“Yes. Many pokemon, primarily psychics, have a fourth cone that detects a wavelength of light we not only have no name for, but which exists outside the spectrum of light we can perceive.”

“Like ultraviolet?”

“Actually, humans have a lens in our eye that explicitly blocks ultraviolet light. It’s not particularly safe, but some who have had it removed due to cataracts reported seeing ultraviolet light, which they interpreted as a whitish-blue-violet color… which we might be mistaken to assume is one we can observe as well, if rarely. Again, it’s hard to really know without having the subjective experience ourselves.”

“But what they see… it’s just their blue cone lighting up?”

“More or less. An attempt to interpret a new wavelength proportion that activated on the edge of its receptive limits, such that the other two cones were not active at all. This leads me to the hard part of what I’ve tried to do, which is make up new words for the colors I’ve seen.”

“So they really are entirely new colors.”

“You’re striking at the heart of the problem already. What does that mean, a ‘new color?’ Think of the color spectrum again, as it’s often depicted. Where would you place ‘gold’ on it?”

Red stops writing for a moment, frowning. “Dark yellow? But no, that’s not really it. It’s… a ‘deep’ yellow… I mean, I’m trying to use words to describe it, but if I saw a full spectrum I could probably point to it? Somewhere in yellow-brown… but the material itself adds something that light probably can’t imitate.”

“Brown is another good example. When painting you can mix all three primary colors, but brown light is like purple in that it doesn’t exist as a single wavelength proportion cone signal. To create it you’d have to play with what colors do exist until you have something our eyes see as brown, but that still does not make brown a distinct wavelength.”

“Okay,” Red says, writing quickly. There has to be a shorter way to say single-wavelength-proportion-signal…

Non-imaginary color? Unpartitioned Red suddenly offers.

No, that would imply that purple is made up…

Numbers can be imaginary and still be ‘real’ enough to solve equations involving negative square roots, don’t see why colors can’t be “real” and “imaginary.”

Red blinks, feeling an odd mix of indignation and excitement. He’s heard the term, but doesn’t actually know what an imaginary number means… Have you been studying math without me? Are we better at math now than we used to be?

Later, focus.

Right. Sabrina is watching him patiently, but he’s aware that he’s using up her valuable time. “So the distinct wavelengths are hard to describe without using common color reference points. And you tested to ensure they weren’t ultraviolet or infrared light? Oh, this led to that research on testing psychic emissions, right?”

“Yes, other than a very slight heat change that was incredibly hard to detect from background fluctuations, we couldn’t discern psychic light at all. The closest thing I could find to try and put a name to the colors I was seeing came through studying chimerical colors. Just like our rods can get overloaded by bright lights, leaving an afterimage, our cones can become fatigued from oversaturation, leaving colored afterimages in opposing shades. In this way we can see impossibly saturated and dark colors, or add an illusive glow to colors, that don’t properly exist in any spectrum. It’s hard to describe, but if you search online you should find some images to stare at for long enough that you’ll see them yourself.”

“Got it.” Red finishes writing, then reviews what he’s written to make sure he isn’t missing anything. “So here’s the first main question I have, that I don’t think needs an answer to whether the colors are really ‘unique’ or not… did you notice any marked difference between the colors around someone when they were using telepathy, and the colors around an object being kinetically manipulated?”

Sabrina nods. “The names I’ve come up with for them, telo, galo, and kino, are as similar as, say, blue, indigo, and purple, but still distinct, and of course there are other shades between them.”

Red hurries to scribble the answer down so he can jump to his next question, excitement kicking his pulse into high gear. “And did you have any guesses for why the colors were different?”

“No, though I did notice patterns for which is produced when, if that’s what you’re asking. Kino tends to be visible around objects being manipulated by kinesis, as the name implies. Similarly, telo can be seen around creatures using projection. And galo surrounds ghosts nearly constantly, but is also sometimes emitted by other pokemon.”

“Have the number of different cones in the species you’re merged with been identified? Are we sure that psychic pokemon only have one extra cone?”

“No, even if I merge with a psychic, we don’t have a reliable way to emit single-wavelength light that matches those colors directly; we can only activate psychic phenomena and notice the blends.”

“But biologically, we could study those cones and determine how many different ones they have, right? How are different types of cones counted, there must be a way to distinguish them…”

Sabrina spreads her hands. “I’m afraid that’s outside my area of expertise. ”

Red makes a note for the Professor. It should be easy, right? Either by dissection or looking at a pokemon’s code… Based on what she explained about cones and color, his guess is that there are two “psychic” cones, and the ghost color, galo, is the combination of telo and kino, because ghosts are almost constantly using both kinesis and telepathy…

But he can’t jump to conclusions just because they fit his hypotheses. Even if he’s right, there are still other potential explanations besides the idea that the two forces are fundamentally different. “Okay, so… what would you say to the idea that you’re seeing different colors because you’re seeing entirely different phenomena?”

“It feels like a leap,” she says, seemingly unsurprised by his hypothesis. “They’re two very different types of abilities, it makes sense that they emit different energy signatures. And ghosts, of course, are a different sort of being entirely, that sometimes uses these abilities, similar to other pokemon. But no color is unique to a Type, as far as I could tell.”

“Just imagine that I’m right, for a second. Does anything you’ve seen disprove that? Do you have alternative hypotheses?”

Sabrina frowns slightly. “Every gifted can…” She trails off, gaze softening. “I’m sorry, most psychics have access to both types of abilities, and I still believe you could with more time and practice, or a new learning technique. If your model was correct, shouldn’t there be two distinct types of people, with only a few with access to both?”

It always comes back to labels, Red muses as he thinks over the conversation about Types he had with the others on their first day, and the debate online about whether “sensitives” count as psychics or not. After putting out a general question online, he’s found two other “real” psychics like himself, able to project and use partitions and everything, who don’t seem to have even a bit of telekinesis. It felt good to commiserate with them, and they were intrigued by his hypothesis of the two powers being entirely separate. When he suggested that they might find themselves having an affinity with Ghosts, one confirmed that he already works as a consultant for his region’s ghost troubles, as they don’t have a culture of “mediums” there, and the other seemed wary but willing to try interacting with them. “I’m not saying the powers are… ‘unrelated,’ exactly. But what if I just can’t use psychokinesis, at all, and never can? What else would you want to know, suddenly?”

“I would want to know if the opposite exists, people who can use only kinesis but have even less awareness than a sensitive.”

“There are pokemon like that,” Red points out as he writes. “How do you factor them in?”

“I don’t,” Sabrina says, voice frank. “Even setting aside the question of whether we should be categorizing humans together with pokemon, our strongest kinesis isn’t even a match for their weakest. Telepathically we’re a little more evenly matched with some, while still being vastly outstripped by most. That some pokemon can use kinesis but not telepathy seems more related to the fact that some pokemon can levitate without obvious methods of flight.”

“Heh. I’ve started calling that the ‘pokemon are just weird’ explanation.”

Her lips quirk. “It’s not a satisfying scientific response, I know, but there are too many mysteries remaining for the comparison you’re drawing to feel justified, to me.”

“But you think we can learn some things about ourselves from studying them, right?”

“I think you’ve proven that we can, and I don’t mean to dismiss the comparison out of hand. Obviously my own ability to see these colors came from enough mergers with psychic pokemon. But again, we understand so little about how pokemon use even their non-psychic abilities… until I observe someone with only telekinetic power and understand what the experience of using it is like, it feels premature to call it a distinct ability altogether.”

“Well, I didn’t even realize I was psychic until my journey started. I know that was due to special circumstances, but the tests are clearly fallible. Would someone with only kinesis even know they are psychic, if they were the reverse of me?”

“That… is an interesting point.” Sabrina tucks some hair behind her ear, gaze distant for a minute as she thinks. “With the standard set of tests we have now, I’m not sure. The kinesis specific tests should theoretically work for someone who hasn’t experienced any telepathy yet, but… first, they might not even be tested at all in that case, and second, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to manipulate things telekinetically without being familiar with telepathy already. Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that it would come instinctually to anyone without the latter. I’ll have a word with the Indigo testing organizations, make sure we’re being more deliberate. Thank you for highlighting that, Red.”

“Happy to.” He sees her check the time, and guesses, “That could be it for today?”

“If that’s all your questions on that topic, yes, I think I’d appreciate some time to rest before my next appointment.”

“Of course, though… I mean, I have a lot more questions. They can wait though! Actually… if it’s easier, I can just leave them with you to answer in your own time?”

Sabrina considers. “I think that’s doable, yes.”

Red smiles and tears a page out of his notebook before handing it to her. He watches her brow rise as she looks down the list of questions, and quickly adds, “No pressure, of course, and if any of them are too complex to write out that’s fine.”

“It’s very thorough, and some of these I don’t have an answer to, while others I might be able to check. I can answer this one now, at least: teleportation starts as telo but shifts to galo just before leaving a burst of it.”

Red blinks. “But… you said ghosts all show galo most consistently, right? But no ghosts can teleport… though that marowak ghost did shift around the room… no wait, that was just its image following the ‘bone’ body… right? I have to check with Blue again…” He sees her smiling at him and quickly bows. “Thank you for your time!”

“You’re welcome, Red. It was interesting, and I hope it leads to some new discoveries. I’ll send you my answers when I can.”


The sun is setting over Fuchsia City as Leaf flies over it, but there’s still enough light to see how different it is from the others she’s been to. Being so distant from the other major cities in the region gives it far less of a need to cater to tourists than Cerulean, and makes it less of a port city than Vermilion. There still are some docks and tourist spots, but they’re intermingled with residences, and there’s wide stretches of public access to the beach.

Perhaps that’s also because there’s so much beach. The city clings almost like an afterthought to the peninsula’s northwestern coast, sprawling densely along it in both directions while the wilderness covers the rest. Where normally the tall buildings might give way to suburbs, however, here they just stop, with perhaps a kilometer of more clear space before the massive wall begins.

Normally, fences and walls are the things Leaf expects to see in small towns. Some strategies help them work better, such as shaped funnels to guide pokemon that wander nearby into guard posts rather than resort to their claws or teeth, but with all the pokemon that can dig under or fly or climb over them it’s often considered more trouble than it’s worth to concentrate forces rather than keep them spread and react to proximity alerts from sensors.

And while she can make out the different Ranger stations here and there, colored panels arranged to form numbers on the rooftops so they can be identified from the air, even without knowing about the Safari Zone beforehand it would be clear to Leaf that she’s looking at something designed to stop people, not pokemon.

The ranger in the saddle ahead of her taps his mount, and Leaf’s stomach lurches as the pidgeot tips its wings and starts to glide down in a wide, exhilarating loop. She closes her eyes for a dozen rapid heartbeats to keep from growing dizzy, then feels the bird lurch as it hops off the ground, glides a bit more, then lands, kicking up a plume of dirt as it shakes its massive wings one last time, then folds them.

Leaf slides down the back of the bird, then waits for the pilot to join her before helping her unlatch the saddle. Ranger Kyra smiles in thanks and lets her finish, moving instead to getting the pidgeot some food and water. Once it’s back in its ball they move together toward the nearby two story border checkpoint.

The wall is even more imposing from the ground, as is the knowledge that on the other side is mostly untamed wilderness. The rare pokemon discovered here, combined with the way the peninsula is shaped, struck some Ranger General as a unique opportunity to create a piece of wilderness that can be more-or-less preserved, its population more purposefully regulated. As long as they control the relatively narrow connection to the rest of the island, the only new pokemon that enter are those that can fly, burrow, or swim.

It’s the perfect testing ground for Leaf’s program.

The inside is nicer than she expected, more like a Trainer House lobby than the Ranger outposts she’s visited, maybe because there’s less expectation that they might get destroyed. One of the rangers is even stationed at a wide reception desk, and doesn’t seem surprised to see her.

“Miss Juniper is here to see Captain Takara,” Kyra says anyway, and the man nods and picks up his phone before confirming they can go up. Two short flights of stairs later and she’s being led through some hallways and to a wide meeting room. On the other side there are glass windows (one-sided, she read) that show the open fields on the other side of the wall. A moment later another door opens and a tall woman walks in wearing the special insignia of the Safari’s chief officer.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper,” she says, and holds out a surprisingly calloused hand for Leaf to grip. “Welcome to Fuchsia, and the Safari.”

“Thank you, it’s nice to finally see it. This is where we’ll be hosting the conference?”

“Yes, it gives us a bit more control over who might try to listen in. Word got out, as it often does, and it’s starting quite a buzz. Are you staying in the city, or…?”

“No, I’ll just set up a teleportation point for tomorrow.”

“Better that way, I think. If you get recognized, expect to be hounded. In fact, I’d like you to set your teleport point on our rooftop.”

Leaf looks at the sober captain in surprise. “Is the media coverage that intense?” She thinks she can handle a few reporters, she’s been dealing with them for long enough…

“It is, but that’s not the main reason I’m being cautious. You’re a celebrity in your own right, and anything involving the Safari tends to attract extra attention from those who want to learn its secrets. I don’t exactly expect you to get kidnapped, but you’ve attracted enough trouble that I’d rather stay on the safe side. I was going to suggest, if you were to stay the night, to just use one of the rooms here.”

“Oh.” Leaf isn’t sure how seriously to take all this, but she’d appreciate the concern more if it didn’t interfere a bit with her plans. “I uh, was actually planning a trip to the city tonight before I teleported home.”

Takara’s brow furrows. “Visiting someone?”

“No, no, just… exploring.”

“Hmm. It might be better to wait until the conference and experiment to be over.”

Leaf tries not to look like a spoiled kid by insisting otherwise, and ducks her head for a moment in thought. She could wait for all this to be done, but (if things go well) that could take weeks. She’s already learned all she could remotely for Laura’s investigation, and waiting even longer would just be wasting time.

“I hate to ask this,” Leaf says, tone apologetic but firm, “But could someone accompany me to the city if it’s that big a concern? I appreciate that you want to make sure I’m okay, but I don’t intend to live in fear, and unless you’ve heard of some specific threat…?”

“No, nothing specific. But the last time some researchers visited the Zone one had his computer stolen, and the time before that a breeder had her drink at a bar spiked. She was physically fine, but couldn’t account for a few hours of time.”

“I see.” So much for the city’s lower crime rates, though for something this targeted she supposes the usual criminals and deterrents aren’t a factor. “I have to admit that’s a bit more worrying. Still, it’ll be dark soon, and no one knew I was coming tonight. I might not get another chance like this once the conference starts.”

Takara sighs, then nods and turns to Kyra. “You’re relieved for the night, other than to accompany her through the city. Ensure she teleports home by midnight.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Satisfied?”

Leaf smiles. “I am, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

The captain nods and shakes her hand again. “Tomorrow, where we’ll see if this crazy idea of yours really works.”

Leaf goes to the roof first, enjoying the sight of the Safari’s fields and forests and lakes in the golden light of sunset, then sets her teleport point and heads back down and toward the city, chaperone in tow, to see what she can learn about its potential resident ninja family from a bit of casual conversation.

Chapter 92: Authenticity

Blue hoped that riding on Soul would get less uncomfortable with practice, and while it has to some degree, his legs are still sore and his back still stiff when they arrive in Saffron.

But when he dismounts people stare, particularly nearby kids, and maybe they still would have if he’d ridden his bike once they recognized him, but it’s much easier to notice him on the arcanine in the first place compared to on a bike wearing a helmet.

So he does his best to stand straight despite the aches and pains until he finishes removing Soul’s saddle and rubbing him down, the big red mutt panting hard as he looks around, gaze sharp and nose twitching. As Blue runs the brush over Soul’s heaving sides, Bretta and Liz finish packing their bikes and gear away and enter the Trainer House first, followed by Sumi and Slava, who are arguing over when to take their day trip to Johto via the city’s magnet train station.

Elaine seems to linger, moving purposefully slowly to match Glen’s pace, and Blue tries to ignore the stab of sympathy that guts him. For as long as he’s known him, Glen could bike farther and faster than any of them, and would barely be winded by the time they arrived wherever they were going.

Now he’s moving like he has to think through every action, and there’s a slight tremor in his hands.

If Glen notices that Elaine is going slowly for his sake he doesn’t say anything, simply withdrawing his container once his bike and pads are in it and then following Slava and Sumi. Elaine gives Blue a look he can’t quite decipher, but he nods to her, recognizing the pain at least.

A young girl whispers something to her parent, who nods, and she runs over. “Excuse me, can I brush him?”

She’s staring at the arcanine with wide eyes, but she seems absolutely fearless of it, and Blue smiles. “Go ahead.” He hands her the brush, and she uses both hands to run it along his fur as he directs her. “Do you like Fire types?”

“Yeah! What’s his name?”

“Soul.”

“Is he your sweeper?”

Blue grins, recognizing a future competitive trainer. “More of a bruiser. He helped me beat Erika.” He opens his jacket to show the four badges within.

“Cool!”

Once Soul’s fur is gleaming, and he’s had a chance to catch his breath, Blue takes the brush and tells her she can pet him, if she wants to. She grins wide, and Blue laughs as she sinks her whole body face-first into the arcanine’s fur, seeming to enjoy the heat he gives off. Blue feeds his mount some strips of steak and lets him lap at a container filled with water until the girl’s mom recognizes that he’s done and tells her it’s time to go. They both thank him as he withdraws Soul and waves goodbye.

His legs feel like two pieces of aching rubber by now, but he manages to keep it together long enough to walk into the Trainer House and casually lean against the wall beside everyone where they’re lined up to get their room assignments.

A lot more work than riding a bike, but worth it.

As he lets his wobbly legs rest, his gaze tracks the people in the lobby, most of whom take a moment to look them over. But while a few linger on him, many of the looks are perfunctory, gazes quickly returning to the screens around the room. Blue glances at the nearest one, which shows Brendan and May helping with the resettlement and construction work that’s still ongoing in the Sevii Islands.

Blue knew they were coming to the region, showing off the speed of their legendary pokemon… no, that’s not charitable. It’s a mission of unity across the islands, a thank-you tour for the help the other regions gave to Hoenn… symbolic, mostly, but he can’t exactly judge them on that.

It still depresses him, watching them fly around on such powerful and unique pokemon, though he’s as riveted as anyone else in the room. New info about Latios and Latias is sparse, even all these weeks later. Apparently Brendan and May never caught them in balls, and claim that they’re not “tame” so much as “curious, sometimes playful, and occasionally in a helpful mood.” The psychic dragons won’t do certain things no matter how much they’re “asked,” including let anyone else approach them; the two trainers are still trying to understand what they’re willing to do and what they’re not, with the help of various researchers and professors.

Eventually the segment ends, transitioning to a review of the trainers currently making their way through Victory Road. Blue checks the names that show up, and smiles as he sees Donovan has hit third place, with Reza now in first with only a couple losses on his record. His legs feel a little more up to walking, and he steps behind Glen at the back of the line.

“Well?” his friend asks. “Meeting with Sabrina today, or tomorrow?”

“No plans yet. Haven’t even reached out.”

“You going to just say hi when we visit Red?”

It crossed his mind. “If she’s there, sure. I plan to check the gym classes and everything first, though.”

Glen snorts. “Sure, don’t want to seem too presumptuous. How’s the movie deal coming?”

“Gave my interview to the writers the day before yesterday.”

“Congrats, man. How much did you exaggerate?”

“Hey, Red and Leaf are going to give their side of the story too, remember?”

Glen nods. “So just for the parts they weren’t there for.”

Blue grins. “Those are the parts you’re there for, so we can agree to overlook each other’s exaggerations if you want. Who do you want to play you?”

“Myself, obviously. No one else is handsome enough.”

“Now who’s being presumptuous? You don’t know what kind of talent we can pull in.”

“Alright, if you can get Daniel O’Clery, he can play me.”

Blue recognizes the name from some movie Leaf and Aiko wanted to see back in Vermilion. The pain there is briefer and duller than it might have been a month ago, and doesn’t completely drain his amusement. “Isn’t he like, 25?”

“Eh.” Glen shrugs, accent growing thicker for a moment as he reaches the counter and hands over his ID. “I’m strangely fine with it.”

Once they’ve all gotten their room assignment, they make plans to meet for dinner and break toward the boy and girl dorms. Blue drops his things off in his bed, then enjoys a long shower, thoughts still on the first thing Glen asked him before they started talking about the film. Despite how lighthearted the exchange was, Blue can’t help but wonder whether his friend is jealous.

Blue remembers his justifications for Challenging Erika ahead of everyone else, and for going to Lavender while they finished getting their own badges. He still thinks they were the right call.

But then Glen failed to get his fifth badge.

For the first few days after waking from his coma, Glen was still sleeping a lot, and when he was awake he was often confused, not remembering the earthquake at all. He threw himself into physical therapy like a man possessed, and regained a lot of his coordination and stamina… but not enough to beat Erika.

His decision to move on from Celadon without trying again, even though Erika said she would allow a rematch within a week, shocked Blue. Glen insisted that he could return easily and get his badge later, and that meanwhile he didn’t want to slow everyone down. But despite his words, Blue noticed him withdrawing into himself more than he used to, not joining in with the friendly ribbing as often.

Blue tried to talk to him about it a couple times, but his friend brushed it off. It’s Elaine who helped him understand; from Glen’s perspective, he’s glad he helped save Maria and the rest of them, even if he can’t remember it, but he lost weeks of his life, weeks in which the whole world changed around him, critical decisions made and groups formed, and worst of all…

Worst of all, he fell behind. When they met, Glen had three badges to Blue’s two. They earned Surge’s more-or-less together, but when he woke, Blue was finished with Celadon Gym and Glen wasn’t. If he hadn’t stuck around, if he hadn’t gone on his trip to Lavender, if he’d just shot straight for his next badge, Blue would have overtaken him entirely by now.

Instead Glen is stuck needing to rematch Erika, and there’s a non-zero chance Blue will have beaten Sabrina by the time he gets his fifth badge. If their roles were reversed, it would be eating at Blue.

And while Glen isn’t quite as competitive as Blue is, he’s close enough that Blue can guess that he’s worried he won’t be able to keep up.

Worse than that is Blue’s hidden worry that he won’t.

Blue sighs and turns the water off, then dries himself and changes before heading back to the room. “Message came in for you,” Slava says from where he’s sitting on his bunk. Glen is lying in his bed, eyes closed, and Blue does his best to ignore the drawn look on his friend’s face.

“Thanks.” He hangs the wet towel on the bedpost, then checks his phone.

“Well?”

Blue turns to Glen, whose eyes are still closed. He briefly debates playing dumb, then says, “She asked if I’m free within the hour.”

Glen holds his hand up, eyes still closed, and Slava sighs and fishes some bills out of his wallet before handing them down to Glen. “Bet every gym leader has you on watch, now. Soon as someone sees you enter the city alarms start going off at the gym. Emergency meetings get called, protocols laid out…”

“Ha, ha. You make me sound like a Stormbringer.”

“About as disruptive,” Slava says. “Going from the last two gyms.”

“But less destructive,” Glen allows. “You’ve only destroyed one arena.”

“When did I… Oh. To be fair Brock did the destroying himself, I just showed him why it was necessary.”

Glen snorts. “Bet Misty feels relieved you didn’t try anything there.”

“Or left out,” Slava adds. “Could send her a shirt. ‘Blue Oak came to my gym and all I got was a lousy badge challenge.'”

Blue rolls his eyes, but he’s grinning. “I’m gonna go, hopefully I’ll be done in time to make the meetup.”

“Right, see you later.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Blue starts pulling socks and shoes on. He realizes how nice it is to get off his feet for a moment, and mutters, “Shit.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just not looking forward to getting back in the saddle.”

Glen tosses him the money Slava lost. “So take a cab!”

Blue tosses it back. “I can’t take a cab the first time I show up at the gym.”

“You’re right, what will the history books say?”

Slava shifts his voice to resemble a documentary narrator. “‘The Young Oak, butt still sore from his journey—'”

“Bye guys.”


Blue takes a cab, but only until he’s a couple blocks away from the gym. Then he finds an alley to summon and saddle Soul in, puts on his riding gear, and rides the rest of the way. He arrives at the gym with a flourish, Soul skidding to a halt in a patch of snow, and Blue waits until his pokemon has melted it before he dismounts and strips them both down again as people who stopped to stare continue walking by.

Keeping his gaze straight, as if unaware of the looks he draws, Blue strides in and toward the front desk. He doesn’t even have to introduce himself before the receptionist gives him directions toward Sabrina’s office. He takes the elevator to the top, walks down a fancy hallway that reminds him of a high class hotel, and after a “Come in,” he enters to see the Gym Leader at her desk typing on her computer. It’s a fairly lavish room; nothing that can match Erika’s outdoor office, of course, but not as utilitarian as Surge’s either.

“Good to see you again, Leader,” Blue says, and represses a sigh of relief as he sinks into a very cushy chair in front of her desk.

“And you, Mr. Oak,” Sabrina says, gaze still on her monitor. “First things first; this is a courtesy meeting. What you’ve done at Vermilion and Celadon make it so that not meeting you would seem like a snub, and after how long you spent with Erika in particular, I don’t imagine that was unintentional.”

Blue isn’t quite sure how to take that; it works in his favor, obviously, but if she’s highlighting that it’s just a courtesy… “Well, I appreciate you playing along.”

“I don’t mean to imply you’re not special, this isn’t a power move,” she says, still focusing on her paperwork. “It feels strange being formal with you after everything that happened in Lavender. I’m just explaining why I’m not going to accept a Challenge from you anytime soon.”

“Ah.” Shit. “Even for membership?”

“You don’t need membership to do what I assume you’re planning to do here.” Her gaze flicks toward him. “Do you actually want it?”

“Dunno, actually.” In some ways it would be a downgrade from what he was at Celadon Gym, where he operated in a unique and unstructured unofficial capacity, but he didn’t really expect other gyms to let him have the same status. “Depends how long I’ll be here, and it might help to understand how your gym works from the inside. I figured you’d be too busy to work together more closely.” And from what he’s heard this gym is more traditional, like Brock and Misty’s; a primary focus on pokemon training, with special classes for Psychic types, and some extra unique classes for the trainers themselves based on what Sabrina and her people value or are specialists in.

Sabrina’s virtue is supposedly Discipline, but he’s always thought that felt among the more tacked-on ones… though being in her presence has him thinking twice, as she continues to work even as they converse. He remembers Leaf saying Giovanni does something similar, and wonders why Erika didn’t do it; it’s very effective at making him feel less special than he did before, despite her frank acknowledgement otherwise. Though maybe that’s just from knowing he’s not going to get an early match.

“Whatever you do, I’m afraid it won’t involve me. I still have a lot of work to catch up on, and what happened in Lavender didn’t help things. If you want to change the culture at my gym, I trust Tetsuo and Keiji enough to curtail whatever you might do that concerns them, or that they think would concern me.”

“Right.” Damn it, that means he’d have to answer to and negotiate with two people rather than one… and they would be deferring to a hypothetical Sabrina rather than asking the real one. No matter how well they could predict what she might say, they’re going to be extra conservative, and his charisma in arguing his points will be much less effective.

She’s watching him rather than her monitor, now, probably guessing at his thoughts even without her powers working on him. “Not that I’m trying to drive you away, but you still need three more badges aside from this one. You could always come back later.”

“The others I have left are all pretty far, and other than Viridian, this is the last badge that everyone in the group is missing.” And I can’t teleport. He largely feels that he’s left behind his bitterness about being dark, especially given the advantages it’s given him, but if he could just register an abra here he could pop back over whenever Sabrina might have an opening. As it is…

“Well, you’re also welcome to save me for last,” Sabrina says with a brief smile, focus back on her computer screen. “Most dark trainers do.”

“I’ve considered it,” he admits. “But—”

“That’s all the more reason not to, for you. Making your most difficult badge any easier isn’t your style, which means it’s Giovanni you’ll be challenging last, right?”

“Heh. Guess I’m not that hard to read, dark or not.”

“You’re definitely part of a type, and it’s not about being dark. I’m sorry I can’t do more for your aspirations, at the moment, but I think you’ll manage well enough.”

It sounds like a dismissal. Blue tries to think of something else he can say, then just nods, suppressing a sigh. “Thank you for the meeting.”

“You’re welcome. I look forward to our match, whether it comes sooner or later.”


The next few days pass quickly as the group attends some basic classes at the gym, along with some low level challenge matches. Red meets up with them on occasion to catch lunch and do some training, and a couple days after they arrive Jason and Maria return from Lavender. The group seems happy to see Maria again, who has changed somewhat; after the casino it was like she lost a lot of the confidence she’d gained over the months of journeying with Blue, but there’s a new serenity to her, or rather an old one gained anew.

The classes are interesting, a lot of them about how to better anticipate an opponent’s moves when they can read your pokemon’s thoughts and feelings, or even yours. The latter parts apply less to Blue, of course, but to offset that advantage, he starts attending Dark classes to train his abra and the gastly he received in thanks for his help at the tower.

It doesn’t go well.

He tried a few times on his own, following some guides online. An abra’s second strongest sense is sound, followed by smell, so he named his Tops and began taking him out of his ball to wear in a back harness when he’d walk around the Celadon gym on occasion, letting him get used to Blue’s smell, the sound of his voice, and the feel of his body as a physical thing. It worked, to some extent; Tops doesn’t startle when touched by Blue, responds to commands pretty well, and will sniff around to find him if Blue sits quietly in the same room with him… though Blue suspects that’s mostly just for food.

But he doesn’t orient to him at all. The ‘dex says that abra don’t instinctually act to protect others, and having a protective orientation—the kind of passive, automatic inclination that results in things like shifting to stand between a trainer and any sensed enemies—is difficult for them. Without that, in real combat, even the much suppressed instinct to flee simply leaves Tops paralyzed with fear no matter how gentle and encouraging Blue tries to be, or how much of his own fear he tries to inject into his voice.

“Yep,” Red confirms on Blue’s fourth day in Saffron. “To Tops’s senses, you’re not really there. You’re just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food… sorry, sometimes means food is going to appear.”

“Great,” Blue grumbles. They’re sitting in Red’s apartment at the building Sabrina’s students live in, both of their abra sitting on the rug using their weak kinesis to push a ball back and forth between them. Pikachu and Eevee are napping in the corner, and they can distantly hear Maturin splashing around in Red’s tub. “So what do I do?” Tops is the abra he chose to keep from the dozens he, Leaf, and Red caught north of Cerulean; in the top percent of all the pokedex metrics. He could grow into an incredibly powerful pokemon… but none of that matters if he won’t fight for Blue.

Thankfully Red knows him well enough not to suggest training a different psychic pokemon instead, one less dependent on its sixth sense. “Well, there are classes at the gym specifically for this sort of thing…”

“I know, I went to one.”

“Just one?”

“Yeah. I don’t want to show up again and still have no idea what I’m doing, you know?”

Red blinks, brow furrowed. “It’s… a class specifically for this, though. You think you’re going to look bad in front of other dark trainers struggling with the same thing?”

“I might not look bad, exactly, but I won’t look good. At least Tops will follow my voice commands; my gastly won’t even do that half the time!”

“What happened to not wanting to discourage others? I’d say seeing Blue Oak struggle a bit would be very encouraging to a lot of people with the same problem.”

Blue runs a hand through his hair. He’s right, Blue knows that, but… things have changed. “Struggling is fine. But if I try and fail…”

Red is frowning at him. “See, this is what I was worried about. You’re more worried about PR than you are the truth.”

“What? No I’m not, I’m not lying to anyone.” He remembers his trip to the gym, suddenly, but no, that’s different, all he did was show what people would have seen if the summon had just come a couple hours later… “I’m just making sure I’m prepared, so I don’t fail.”

“So you don’t fail publicly.

“What, I’m supposed to just parade around my failures?”

“That would be pretty awesome, actually. Just record the whole process, from start to finish, and show how you learn from it. It would probably help a lot of people.”

Blue watches Tops invisibly nudge the ball back toward Red, who uses his hand to roll it toward Bill, who shoves it back toward Tops. Blue is sitting in the third point of the triangle behind Tops, hoping to get him used being between Blue and danger. “I’m being stupid, aren’t I?” It feels like a tug-of-war is going on between his chest and stomach. Sabrina’s decision, understandable as it is, has been bothering him, probably more than it should have.

“Yeah, but you’re smart enough to know it, which is the first step toward wisdom. Now use your wisdom to tell me what you think of my new prospective purchases.”

“Right.” Blue takes his phone out to pull up the list of pokemon Red sent him as candidates to round out his belt. “Okay, so first off, your Grass and Water choices are obviously solid, but they’ve got to be expensive, even if Gramps is giving you a discount. Is he?”

“Didn’t ask for one.”

“Now who’s being dumb? In any case, for a lot less you could get pokemon almost as good. Gloom are going for like, a twentieth the price of ivysaur, and a poliwhirl would make a decent land Water replacement for wartortle.”

“I already have a weepinbell and kingler, so I’m not just trying to fill slots, but focusing on getting stronger additions that I’m not likely to catch myself. I’m fine with paying more for things I’m unlikely to ever replace, and as a plus to getting these in particular, I’d have you and Leaf to help give me advice on training and raising them.”

Blue nods. “Well, see if you can get a discount anyway. As additions to your team they’re definitely good ones. Can’t say I wouldn’t like having a set myself.”

“I thought you were over not buying pokemon?”

“I am, this is just a price thing as I weigh what I’ll need going forward. I’m happy enough with Soul, and don’t particularly need Fire types for anyone else coming up, nor Grass until Giovanni, and for him I’d want something that can deal with Steel too.” Giovanni would almost certainly use excadrill.

“Can’t you use some Ground TMs on venusaur?”

Blue’s brow shoots up. “You really have been looking into their battle potential, huh?”

“I mean, yeah, if I’m going to spend this much money…”

“I get it, no need to get defensive.” He grins. “Was just impressed. You’re right, you could, but torterra’s would be stronger, and it could set up more field hazards. Nothing against venusaur, it’s got its own strengths, I’m just talking about team comp… but this is off topic, the competitive scene’s a different world from what you’re prepping for.”

“Yeah. So any objections?”

“Nah, your reasons are solid.”

“Cool, because I had one more bonus reason.”

“What’s that?”

Red smiles, rolling the ball back and forth between his palms, then sending it to Blue’s abra. Tops’s ears twitch as he hears the ball approaching, and he holds his paws out to send it away with a burst of kinesis. “Long term investment. I won’t be using all my pokemon often, which means I can rent them out to breeders.”

Blue chuckles. “Putting your money to work, huh?”

“Yeah. I figure they’ll pay for themselves within a few years.”

“Clever.” Blue scrolls down the list of pokemon Red’s considering buying, as well as evolution items. He spots moonstone, probably to help Red’s nidorino evolve, but… “I don’t see thunderstones for Pikachu?” The pokemon in question twitches from where it’s napping, looks over at them, then curls up again.

“Right, I was thinking I’d keep him in this form and start ordering some food from Alola.”

“Ah.” Yeah, the islands’ psychic raichu would serve Red better, but… “It might take a while, considering he’s gone his whole life without it so far.”

“I know, but I figure it’s worth a try, and a year of it isn’t much more expensive than the thunderstone would be.”

Blue nods and keeps looking down the list. “Nothing in the real top end, that I’m seeing?”

“Yeah, goes back to the whole variety thing. Strength is nice, but I can’t get both if I blow the whole budget on a dratini or larvitar.”

“I get it. Hm. Having trouble with your tanks?”

“Yeah. Nidoqueen is bulky, and venusaur would be too, but—”

“They’re still more bruisers, yeah. Well, how about tangrowth?”

“I already have enough Plant types.”

“Shuckle?”

Too tanky, unless you disagree?”

“Nah, you’re right, against wilds most pokemon will just ignore them once they’re in their shell… you could get a forretress, or steelix, or, of course, a chansey or snorlax, but not sure if you have the budget for one on top of the ivysaur and wartortle. Maybe if you get a bulba and squirtle and raise them yourself?”

“Maybe. I don’t do as much training these days, and part of the point of this was to spend money I have a lot of to save time that I don’t.”

Blue nods, and then there’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” Red calls, and Leaf enters with a smile.

“Hey Leaf! Shit, is it time already?” Red gets to his feet and withdraws Bill, and Blue does the same with Tops.

“No, but I figured it’s better to be early than late.”

“Right, yeah, hang on, let me go get dressed…”

He disappears into his room, and Leaf goes over to pet Pikachu, who twitches an ear. “Heya Blue.”

“Heya Leaf. Is this your first time here for the, uh reflection lessons?”

“Mirroring, yeah.” She frowns as she hears the splashing. “Is someone else here?”

“Maturin.”

Leaf grins. “Not much chance for bathing in trainer houses, huh?”

“Yeah, she enjoyed swimming at the Celadon Gym, figured she’d miss it.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“At the gym, if you want to say hi later.”

“Maybe, depends how long this takes. I’ve got a question, by the way… any idea how long before you’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Uhh, no. That’s… up in the air, actually. Sabrina said she won’t be taking my challenge anytime soon.”

“Oof, sorry.”

“Why?”

“Weeeell… there’s been a bit of a breakthrough with my program.”

She’s grinning, and Blue stares. “Wait, really? What? When?!”

“Not long ago, I wanted to tell you guys in person…” Red emerges from his room, expression making it clear he heard everything. “More and more people have been working on it, sharing code and building off each other’s work, and my friend Natural pushed an update that I tested out on Dewy a few days ago.”

“Dewy?” Blue asks. “One of the ranch pokemon?”

“Yeah, a rattata that was so strongly conditioned by its capture program that it basically stopped doing anything unless it’s ordered to. Just stands there, waiting for a command to eat or follow or fight.”

“And it worked?” Red asks, voice low with awe.

Leaf swallows, eyes misting. “It worked. Dewy started… started moving around, and sniffing… sniffing the others… and when I put food in his pen he ate it, all on his own…”

“Leaf, that’s amazing!”

“Congratulations!”

Leaf waves them off, smile watery. “I hardly did anything compared to all the people who’ve been working on it lately. But, oh, it gave me so much hope…”

“So could Dewy be released, now, theoretically?”

“Theoretically, yes. There’s still a lot of testing to do, to see how much of his wild behaviors are back… and it’s not a general program, it was specifically built for Dewy. From what I understand of Natural’s code he just took what we needed from new scans of it after you used sakki, Red, and slotted them in.”

“Ah,” Blue says, and turns to Red. “So you’d need to do that with every pokemon that they want released, so they could design a new program for each one…”

“Uh, I’ve kind of already been doing that,” Red says a bit sheepishly. “But don’t downplay this, Leaf, it shows it’s possible, proves that it works, that pokemon can be not just permanently unconditioned, but quickly and cheaply!”

Leaf nods. “The Rangers are very excited, and want to try it out in the Safari Zone in a couple weeks.”

“Why the Zone?” Red asks.

“Only ‘controlled’ wild environment, I’m guessing,” Blue says, and Leaf nods. “Is that why you asked when I’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Yes. They want to keep it an internal matter, for a while, but from the conversation I had with them, a few trusted trainers could be called in as supplemental assistance.”

Blue tries not to get too excited, but… “Protected access to Safari? Hell yeah, I’d help.”

“You’d still have to follow the rules.”

“I know, I know. Still, if it means getting a shot at the inner zone, I’d be crazy to pass up on it.” Then he remembers… “What about the others?”

Leaf looks apologetic. “I’m not sure. I asked, and they said they’d let me know later… they know who you are, obviously, but maybe if you vouch for others… I think it might depend on how many. It can’t look like we’re taking advantage.”

“Right. Of course.” A leaden ball forms in his gut as he thinks about going on yet another adventure without the others… without Glen, who might not be up for it.

In the beat of silence that follows, Red clears his throat. “We should probably head out.”

“Yeah.” Leaf smiles. “I’ll let you know when I hear more.”

“Great. Thanks, Leaf. And congrats again.”

They collect the rest of their pokemon and head out, parting ways at the elevator. Blue wraps his scarf around his neck as he walks out of the apartment building, feeling snow drift down onto his hair, and walks aimlessly down the street for a while, just letting his thoughts wander as his feet do. The sun is directly overhead, keeping Blue from getting too cold, and after a few minutes he decides he’s hungry, going to a nearby cafe and ordering a sandwich and smoothie.

As he waits for his food, a few people recognize him, and one even comes up to ask for his autograph. Blue gives it with a smile, and soon a couple more people approach. He chats with them about their day; one works at Silph and has a son who’s on his journey, another is a trainer with two badges who’s been following his journey “from the start,” and the third is an artist and avid League fan who shows him some shirts she’s designed, one depicting the entire island chain united under the words What Comes Next, another showing his win in Celadon, Soul glowing on the field as his head tips back in a roar. It’s surreal, in a way, but by the time he leaves with his food his feet feel light as air.

Once he finishes eating he decides to call Glen, who picks up after a couple rings.

“Hey, how are things at the gym?”

“Not bad when I left, but I’m not there, actually.”

“Want to head over?” Blue was thinking of taking another class for dark trainers, but despite what he said to Red the idea robs him of most of his good mood. He’d rather do a class with Glen.

“Uh, maybe a bit later? I’ve actually got a meeting first…”

“Ooo, a meeting, huh?” Is Glen being vague on purpose? He doesn’t sound embarrassed, exactly… “What kind?”

“One of the groups I met through What Comes Next. They do training, both for people and pokemon.”

“What, here in Saffron? Why aren’t they part of the gym?”

“Apparently they, uh, have a different philosophy.” Blue can hear his friend’s shrug. “Anyway, it seemed worth checking out. A big focus on self-development and supporting each other, not too different from what we do. And what we did at Vermilion.”

Blue frowns. “How did I not hear about this before?”

“Well, they only formed up after the incident. They reached out to me about my energy drinks once I linked my site to the forums, and I only got to know more about them in the past few days.”

Right, and Blue’s been busy with other things since then. He vaguely remembers Glen boasting about someone being interested in his formula, before Lavender, but he never followed up on it. “So you’re going to see them now?”

“Yeah, I figured while I was in town, why not, right?”

“Right.” He thinks about the classes he could go to, particularly the one for dark trainers, then makes his decision. “Well, want some company?”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.” He needs to reconnect with Glen, get more involved in his side projects. Blue unclips the container ball with his bike in it. “Just tell me where to meet you.”

The address Glen gives leads him to a wide, unmarked two-story building in the warehouse district that seems to take up an entire block. Or at least it appears unmarked at first; when he gets closer he sees a small banner above the door showing a vaguely draconic silhouette wrapped around a fist.

“Dragonfist?” Blue asks. “Sounds like a superhero. What did you say this place was, again?”

“A place to train. The guys in charge use a lot of Dragon and Fighting types.”

Dragon and Fighting? Weird combo, Fighting pokemon can cover Dragon’s Ice weakness while the Dragon pokemon cover everything else, but the same could be said for Rock, or even better, Fire… but this place might be important to Glen, to his continued recovery, so Blue keeps his thoughts to himself as Glen opens the wide double doors.

Blue is immediately hit with a unique combination of smells; floor polish and sweat, metal and wood and foam, and over it all the faint aroma of some lemon-scented cleaning product. Blue walks in and finds the temperature not much warmer than the outside, and looks around to see the entirety of the warehouse is open around him, with just a few sectioned off rooms at the corners and along the walls, and no second floor.

Blue feels a wave of nostalgia for Surge’s gym as he sees people moving through obstacle courses or training their pokemon. A door opens to Blue’s left as someone walks into the corner room, and through it he catches a glimpse of people deep in some discussion as a pair of them stand in front of poster boards. It really does feel like he entered a small gym.

Except there’s less pokemon training than in a gym, and more the sorts of things he’d expect to find in a fitness club. Exercise weights, for one thing, and the obstacle course isn’t being run with pokemon, just people moving in a uniquely efficient and fluid way…

“It’s called parkour.”

Blue turns to see a vaguely familiar Unovan boy approaching, not much older than himself, with bright red hair and lean, muscular build. “I think I’ve seen a few videos of it online.”

The boy grins. “Yeah? Which ones?”

It’s the grin that completes his memory. “I think I’ve seen you in one or two of them, actually.”

“If any were in Lumiose City, probably. I spent some time in Kalos before I came here.” He clasps hands with Glen. “Thanks for coming by.”

“Thanks for inviting me. Hope you don’t mind me bringing my friend.”

“I’m—”

“Blue Oak. I’ve seen some videos of you, too, specifically Glen and your Vermilion matches, after I found his site. I’m Duncan Sabien.” He holds his hand out, and Blue grips it. “Kiyo is in that office, Glen, if you wanted to talk to him about the bulk orders before anything else.”

“Right.” Glen turns to Blue. “It’ll just be some boring stuff about ingredients and shelf life… why don’t you hang here till I’m back?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll keep him company,” Duncan says, and Glen nods and jogs off. As Blue watches him go, his gaze once again starts to take in the sheer variety of activities being practiced. His heart leaps as he sees movement above, and cranes his neck up to see people walking and climbing along the beams that crisscross beneath the roof.

The motion was someone falling until just their hands grip the suspension bar, and his heart leaps into his throat as the figure swings back and forth, then releases herself forward in a somersault.

Before Blue can cry out the woman plummets… then bounces back up into the air and catches hold of another scaffold, applause breaking out as she pulls herself back up.

“Trampoline,” Duncan explains, seeming to enjoy his shock.

“That was intentional? Why?”

Duncan seems about to respond, then pauses. “That answer has layers. The surface one is that we get a lot of people here who work as stunt doubles in movies, or who want to.”

“Huh.” He watches as someone else drops down, then bounces back up. “Okay, that makes sense. What’s the second layer?”

“Some are working to get over a fear of heights.”

Blue blinks. “And that works?”

“Sometimes. The third layer is preparation. I’ve been pushing for trampolines to be included in more standard trainer kits.” He sees Blue’s raised brow. “I know, there’s already a lot of competition for what’s worth the mass to carry. But even large trampolines are relatively light, and just think of how many times you’d have benefited from having one to get somewhere higher!”

Blue purses his lips. “Honestly, can’t really think of a time.”

“Really? What about helping people get down from a high place more easily, or saving them from a bad fall?”

“Uh… my friend fell out of a tree once, but there wouldn’t have been time to take a trampoline out and set it under him.”

“Oh.” Duncan shrugs, seeming a bit disappointed. “Well, it still might come in handy someday. Plus, there’s another layer.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s sooo fun!”

Blue laughs. “I’ve actually never even been on one.”

The other boy turns to him with sudden wide-eyed intensity, and Blue abruptly knows what’s going to happen next.

A minute later they’re at a big trampoline, waiting for a couple people in line ahead of Blue to finish some impressive mid-air twists, flips, and corkscrews, sometimes multiple in the same jump. Blue starts to get excited, and once it’s his turn he slips his shoes off and braces his legs before carefully stepping out onto the taut elastic mat. It barely sags beneath him even once he reaches the center.

“Okay, so what do I do?”

“You know what to do. Don’t worry about the stuff you saw, just enjoy yourself first!”

Blue hesitates, then bounces his weight a bit, then a bit more, until his feet start to leave the mat with each movement.

Feeling a little more confident, he bounces harder, then bends his knees and leaps up, stomach lurching as he hangs in the air for a second, then drops back down and does it again, then again, until he’s purposefully trying to go higher each time.

It is fun, engaging muscles he doesn’t often use and evoking a feeling of freedom that’s hard to understand. Maybe it’s just something about being able to jump so high, higher than he ever could on his own no matter how hard he trained…

He decides to try a maneuver someone before him did, angling himself to fall onto his back so he can bounce back up onto his feet. He doesn’t bounce as high as he thought he would, however, and ends up half-falling awkwardly onto his side.

“Keep your back straight when you fall,” Duncan instructs as Blue pushes himself back up and starts bouncing again. “And lift your legs, knees slightly bent. Right, like that. Arms to the sides… there you go. You want your whole back to hit the mat at the same time.”

It takes Blue a few tries, during which he lands in awkward crouches or stumble-bounces to the sides, but ultimately this is nothing compared to the fine motor control he developed learning his pokeball tricks. Soon he shifts every muscle of his body until he gets them just right, bouncing effortlessly from back to feet, then even swapping to do it with his chest and stomach, understanding that he wants to do the opposite and spread-eagling just right to bounce his torso and hips all at once.

“Nice! Want to try a kaboom next?”

“A what?”

“Backflip from the back drop.”

“Sure!”

“Okay, this time slap your heels down and tuck your knees to your chest just after your back lands, and use the momentum of your feet bouncing up to flip yourself over.”

Just then, however, Blue notices the small crowd that’s gathered to watch. He thinks of how he tumbled around during his mistakes and is tempted to stop instead… but no, that would look bad too.

Instead he brings all his focus into his body, feeling the way it shifts as he bounces onto his back, then again, not trying the kaboom just yet as he imagines the timing…

…then drops his heels and tucks his knees as they flip up and over, arms pinwheeling as he lands on his feet. His balance is off, and his next bounce sends him toward the edge, but he manages to catch himself and vault onto the pads around the trampoline rather than faceplant.

There’s some scattered applause, and Blue grins and bows before he goes to put his shoes back on.

“Not bad for a first try,” Duncan says.

“Thanks.” There’s something in the other boy’s gaze, though, something assessing. Blue almost asks if everything’s okay, but the redhead is already turning to take a water bottle and a towel from a cubbyhole beneath the trampoline and handing them to Blue, who thanks him again and moves to sit as he wipes his face and drinks.

His legs feel a bit rubbery, but not as bad as when he was riding on Soul. As he recovers, he looks around the warehouse again and notices large words stencil-sprayed above the entrance in block-letters. It’s written in Unown, but he doesn’t recognize the words. “What’s that?”

“Être fort pour être utile,” Duncan says in a Kalosian accent. “Be strong, to be useful.”

“Personal motto?”

“The motto of a man I admire. For us it’s more of an oath, kind of the base layer under everything here; what we do to improve ourselves is in service to society.”

Blue grins. “I like it.”

“I thought you might. Of course, there are other ways to be useful, which is why we focus on learning too, on knowledge and wisdom and reason. But if a Stormbringer hits this city, every extra person who can defend themselves is one less person that will need to be defended… and who can help defend others.”

“I couldn’t agree more. The only thing I don’t get is… why this separate club? Why not join a gym, or train as rangers?”

“Eh. Rangers serve a very specific set of roles, and gyms have their own rules and cultures. I wanted to make my own, let others experiment more, try things really outside the box if it seems like it might work. Some gyms are more open to that sort of thing, but this seemed easiest.”

Blue looks around, brow raised. “I doubt anything about setting all this up was easy. And you did it in what, two months?”

“Easiest to get what I really want, rather than a facsimile.” Duncan clarifies. “Besides, the League hierarchy has enough power as it is. You never know when parallel structures might come in handy.”

Blue grins. “So this is a gym, basically.”

“Oh, no, the League charter is very clear that there can only be one gym per city.” Duncan smiles as he looks around, then points, and Blue sees a small group of men and women practicing kicks and punches, even sparring in hand-to-hand combat. “As far as the city is concerned, this is a dojo.”

Blue laughs. “Does that mean you aren’t going to challenge Sabrina, someday?”

Duncan shrugs. “Maybe. If I prove my methods are better. She’s in charge during a major crisis, of course, but as long as we can still respond to nearby incidents on our own and she’s not making major mistakes…”

Blue nods, suddenly excited about something new. “You must be a pretty strong trainer, given your philosophy.”

“At least strong enough to pull my weight.” He smiles. “You want to battle.”

“I would love to battle.”

“One question, first.”

“Shoot.”

“Why did you freeze up, before you tried the kaboom?”

Blue turns to Duncan to find the other boy watching him with that assessing gaze again. “What do you mean? I just wanted to practice the backfall a bit more first.”

“You wanted to get it right the first try.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Duncan nods, eyes weighing him a moment longer before he looks away. “I see.”

“See what?” Blue asks, starting to get a bit irritated.

“Before you saw the crowd you were… happy. Playing. You were focused on getting things right, too, but it was fun for you. Once you saw people watching, it was like a light went out. You did it on your first try, but not perfectly, and instead of trying again, trying until you got it right, you just stopped.”

“I was tired.” The words come out automatically, defensively, and the look Duncan gives him is so scornful that Blue’s anger flares until shame at his own evasion extinguishes the flame. “But you’re right, that’s not why I stopped.”

“The stuff you’ve done, it’s clear you’re cultivating a legend. I don’t know what for, or what the ending to the story you’re trying to tell is. Most obvious guess is being Champion, but in a way where that’s just a step rather than the goal. And you probably can become Champion. You’ve clearly got the talent.”

“Thanks,” Blue says. “Though I feel a ‘but’ coming.”

“That’s quite a gift,” Duncan says, lips quirked, then nods toward the obstacle course nearby. “See that girl there?” Blue watches the indicated young woman vaulting up and down a series of low walls. Her body seems to almost float above hands and feet that propel her up and down from one side of the wall to the other as nimbly as a mankey. “She was panting and struggling for weeks, and ended up on the ground more times than I could count. You’re a natural athlete with amazing coordination, but you’re not good enough to do what she’s doing now without kissing the mat a few times, and if that would stop you from trying then your talent isn’t as valuable as her grit.”

“You think I can’t do hard things?”

“No, but I know fear when I see it. I doubt it’s just stage fright, not with how you act on camera. So it’s got to be fear of fucking up when you haven’t had time to prepare, to practice. Or, to be more specific, to rehearse.”

Blue’s anger returns, along with a trace of bitterness. “It’s different, for her. People aren’t going to remember how much she messed up.”

“I literally just told you about it.”

Blue waves his hand. “You know what I mean. Three people came up to me for an autograph just an hour ago while I was getting lunch. This is… it’s not the same.”

“It’s not the same because you’re trying to get people to think a certain way about you. You’re cultivating an image, a pseudo-relationship with you as their future Champion.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Just one problem: if you’re not being honest with someone to preserve a relationship, it already doesn’t exist.”

“What?” Blue looks at him, pulse speeding up. Did Glen mention something…?

“The relationship, the one you think you’re preserving with the lies or evasions, it’s already gone. Maybe it never existed at all, and all you’ve ever had was a front. You have to look for the natural overlaps between you and others, and build from there. Nothing else is sustainable. Whatever you ask has to be asked freely, openly, and whatever people give you, the same.”

Blue drops his gaze, studying the pattern on the black rubbery ground. “I know.”

“Do you?”

“Yes! I just… I can’t meet everyone, one on one. I can’t spend time with them all, show them—”

“Doesn’t matter. One person or a hundred, it’s the same thing. Was I right before? About you wanting to be Champion, not just for the title, wanting to do something with the position?”

“I… yeah.”

“Then as long as you’re afraid of the region seeing who you truly are, whatever you hope to get is already beyond your reach. If you just want fame and fortune, sure, people will throw that at you whether you wear a mask or not. But if you’re actively keeping an illusion going instead of building from what’s real…” Duncan shakes his head. “You’re rolling the dice, again and again. On a long enough timeline, they won’t come up in your favor.”

Blue’s stomach twists. “What I’m trying to do… it’s important. And hard. No one’s done it before. What if I’m not good enough?”

“Then you have to really look at whether you should be the one doing it. Or else you’re just sabotaging the thing you claim to actually be fighting for.” He nods at the people doing parkour again. “We make videos, sometimes, showing off all the cool stuff we do here to put online, like the ones you saw. But we also make videos of people messing up as they learn. It doesn’t look as cool, so they don’t get as many views. But if we don’t show both sets of videos, we’re not being honest about what we’re asking of people.”

“And you want the right sort of people to come,” Blue guesses, smiling slightly. Red would like this place.

“Right. Other places I’ve been part of would get people who just saw all the cool stuff, came to try it, got frustrated, and left. We get a lot fewer of those. And sure, maybe some people get scared off, think it’s too hard for them, when if they had come they might have stuck it out. But it’s a tradeoff either way, and I care more about not wasting the first group’s time, and ours, than scaring off the second group. If they’ve got the heart for it, they’ll come.”

The words are like a bucket of ice water on Blue’s head. If they’ve got the heart for it… Isn’t that what he tried to do when Zapdos came? He thought he’d learned this lesson, from Amy, and TaroChie, maybe Vlad and the others… But it’s not quite the same.

“Ever since the incident, everything seems… too much,” he murmurs. “My goals were big even before then, I knew people would think I was insane for what I planned to do, but I was determined to do it anyway.”

“Seems like you still are.”

“Yeah. But it doesn’t feel like enough, after what happened. don’t feel like enough.” Blue turns to Duncan, who’s still watching the people in his dojo. “Is this, for you? Enough?”

The redhead is silent for a while, scratching at a scab on his knee. When he finally answers, his voice is low too. “I wonder that myself, sometimes. I don’t have all the answers, and what you asked earlier, about challenging Sabrina… becoming a real Leader… I’m not sure if it’s what’s right, for me. I could be wrong, but I suspect it would just feel like more of the same. Quantitatively bigger but… not enough to become something fundamentally more, or meaningfully different. But if there is something bigger I should be doing, I don’t know what it is, yet. All this…” He gestures at the dojo. “Raising the competence waterline… it feels like the best I can do, for now, while I figure it out. I still mess up. Still learn from it. As long as that’s true, maybe it’s the best I can do for now.”

“It’s already more than most.”

“One person doing more than most won’t fix the world.”

“Right. For that you need others.” Blue takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out as something eases in him. “I’m glad I came here.”

“Me too. You can buy a trampoline at the entrance on your way out.”

Blue laughs. “That’s what all this has been about, huh?”

“Trampolines won’t fix the world either, but they’re still worth carrying around.” Duncan’s smile fades to something more serious. “You’re welcome to join us here whenever. You and the rest of your people.”

“Heh. Looking to absorb us?”

“Would that be a bad thing?”

“No. It might be just what we need. Or maybe just what I need. For a little while, at least.”

Duncan is watching him. “How about this; if I win our match, you don’t leave until I say you’re ready to leave, or three months, whichever comes first.”

Three months?! Well, he might have to wait that long to face Sabrina anyway… but it would be longer than he’s stayed in any city before, and if Leaf is right about the Safari Zone… “And if I win?”

“You get one of the pokemon I fight you with, your choice which.”

Blue blinks. It’s an elegant wager, ensuring that the harder he makes it for Blue, the more he puts on the line… “One of your dragons?”

“Fuck no,” Duncan laughs. “I’m not crazy.”

Blue laughs too, and holds his hand out. “Deal.”

They shake on it, and stand to walk toward the open arena at the center of the stadium. Along the way they pass some trainers all dressed in karate gi beside their fighting pokemon, listening to a tall, muscled man instruct on something. As they get closer the students all bow, and the man bows back before everyone begins to disperse, and Blue frowns, then slows to a stop as he catches sight of the side of the man’s face. “Is that…”

“Oh, perfect timing. Let’s put our match on hold for a minute… hey, Koichi!”

Blue stares in growing anger at the man who failed utterly in his role as Saffron Gym Leader, but brutally clung to it anyway until Sabrina bled him of his supporters and dethroned him.

“Koichi, this is Blue Oak,” Duncan is saying, and despite the heat in his chest Blue has to resist the urge to step back as the man’s stony expression turns toward him. He’s in his early forties, but looks older, deep lines creasing his face and grey hair starting to lighten the black at his temples. Despite that, his body is as thickly muscled as a machamp’s, and he looms over six feet tall as he approaches. “I’d like him to learn how to lose, and I can’t think of a better teacher.”

Chapter 91: Interlude XVIII – Discoveries

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 cause was mysterious even to psychic doctors, and that made it extra frightening. In the end, everyone’s made of blood and bone, tissue and ligaments, cells and atoms. According to Agatha, Red’s injury was to his “soul.”

“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 in her usual blunt tone, then handed Laura a tissue along with her tea before putting a hand on her shoulder. “Just keep his thoughts 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 thoughts 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.”

“Mom!”

“You disagree?”

“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 one. 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 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?” 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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Yeah, alright.”

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?”

“Right! 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. For generations they retained secret techniques for assassination, espionage, and pokemon training, until enough descendants jut walked away from that life for the clan to die out, or transition to more modern lifestyles. Inevitably someone would decide to sell their family secrets for book deals or something, but there hasn’t been a new one revealed in, oh, thirty years or so. Still, 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, nothing that I could find, at least.”

Laura blinks, hope deflating for a moment. “Then 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 ten 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.”

“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 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, who clears his throat. “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 got 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, with the plan 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 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 from Tom’s death. 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.”

“Tell me!”

He munches on a chip, then nods. “Remember that psychic particle I theorized existing, hidden in the ‘other’ classification of pokeball data?”

“Vaguely?”

“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—”

“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 to Saffron 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.

“New mon?”

“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.'”

Cleanliness Orientation

For Alice, a clean home means it’s been dusted, vacuumed, and window-wiped sometime in the past week, with all the dirty laundry in their hamper and all the clean clothes already folded and put away, no dishes in the sink, no visible garbage poking out the top of cans, and no visible stains anywhere.

For Bob, a “clean home” isn’t incompatible with having some clothes draped on furniture (but not the floor), some dishes in the sink and some garbage in bags by the door; he’ll take them out all together at some point soon. The bed doesn’t need to be made, the bookshelf doesn’t need to be dusted… that stuff’s just extra work.

For Carol, as long as nothing is rotting or liable to trip someone, it’s “good enough.” Sure, it may not be “clean,” but it’s livable and safe and with two kids and a dog running around that’s all she feels she’s got the energy for. She may do some extra cleaning if guests are coming over, but she doesn’t stress about it day to day.

David doesn’t have kids or a dog, he’s just not bothered by the state of his home. He works 10+ hours a day, and spends most of his time at home in bed, watching TV, or on the computer. The pile of dirty laundry by the door and the stain on the couch aren’t hurting anyone, nor is the perpetual pile of dirty dishes in the sink; he rinses them first, after all, and he can clean them as he needs them.

And still others live with the perpetual stink of pet urine that’s steeped into the carpet, boxes of junk crowding the halls and living spaces, and other stuff that makes a therapist called to the house for crisis intervention go “Oh…”

But let’s put that last category aside. Even within the range of what would generally be considered “normal,” whether you’re the kind of person who feels a need to scrub the toilet every week, the kind of person who is now wondering when the last time they scrubbed their toilet was, or somewhere between, the chances that you’ll end up sharing your living space or life with someone who has exactly the same ideas of clean as you are fairly small.

Of course “exactly the same” isn’t necessary. Most people can get along okay as long as they fall within the same general range of turnover for chores.

But deeply ingrained in all of us is a sense of what “clean,” “fine,” or “messy” looks like, feels like, smells like. And it’s not just a matter of taste or preference; something about our nature and nurture have instilled a sense of normalcy to certain environments. The affordance widths tend to be lopsided toward cleanliness, as most people are comfortable in environments cleaner than their baseline, but if it goes too far it can still be stressful (if that seems weird to you, imagine the feeling of being in a very rich stranger’s mansion and being told to make yourself at home while every move you make is under careful watch).

How does the orientation frame help?

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed or experienced the following type of interaction:

Bob: I thought you were going to clean the kitchen last night?

Alice: Uh… I did?

Bob: The top of the fridge wasn’t dusted.

Alice: Well I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.

Bob: Can you do it now?

Alice: It feels pointless. No one’s regularly going up there for anything.

Bob: It’s still bad for our health to have dust build up in the house.

Alice: Says who?

Bob: *googles it* See?

Alice: *googles it too* No, look, see?!

In reality, a google war isn’t a bad outcome; at least the question is being put to some objective measure, and evidence might even soften one or the other’s position. If Bob is Alice’s parent, the answer in most cases is “Because I said so.”

Assuming research is brought into it, however, what Bob might discover is that regardless of what the research says, he can’t actually feel comfortable unless the fridge is dusted, while Alice discovers that also regardless of the research, the risk is so small that the hassle of getting a footstool and wiping the top of the fridge still feels like an onerous and pointless chore. 

But “This is a pointles chore” is different from “This is making X happy,” and even that is different from “This is making X comfortable.” Recognizing that the issue is more important for one person than the other can short-cut the debate entirely.

Of course it might raise a more important point: whose responsibility is it to appease Bob’s orientation? Again, if Bob is the parent, the default is probably going to be “everyone’s.” If they’re roommates, Bob might feel bad asking others to accommodate him if the thing he needs feels too far outside the “expected norm.” That might also apply to a romantic relationship, though Alice might also accommodate Bob knowing he would do the same for her.

It can also be tempting to think “Well it’s not a lot of effort, really, especially compared to cleaning the whole kitchen. Why make a big deal about it?” But doing a chore that feels necessary vs one that doesn’t can have a huge impact on motivation, and when it comes to something that needs even more regular maintenance, like making the bed, or affects the way you live day to day, like eating somewhere besides the table, conforming entirely to another person’s preferences in every way can be a very onerous ask.

For some people the idea that how clean a house should be is as “important” as whether or not the relationship is monogamous or how involved extended family is silly, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong. Most people find it much less important, both on an emotional and a consequential level. Not all orientations are created equal, and cleanliness is much closer to the “preference” side of the spectrum than extended family, let alone sexuality.

But if you consider how consistently your living environment will be around you day to day, it can be a bit easier to see why this is something that can be important to use the orientation lens on, and why the expectation that others “just relax” or “just do more” can miss the mark on what they’re actually asking of each other.

Extended Family Orientation

In an ideal world, everyone comes from lovely, supportive families that accept whoever they marry and get along with their new in-laws and respect the couple’s boundaries and wishes for how their children will be raised.

Unfortunately, in the real world, many people want little or nothing to do with their families once they’re adults, in-laws regularly make snide or condescending comments whenever they visit, and statistically speaking your own parents probably don’t respect your boundaries, let alone those of your partner.

Some people have great relationships with their family, and don’t understand how anyone could not want to visit on holidays or have grandparents involved in child rearing. Others get along okay with their parents while recognizing their flaws, but feel awkward about how adamantly their spouse dislikes them, or vice-versa. Bad enough if holidays are the only times tensions rise; what if you live near one or both sets of parents? Can they drop in any time? Who’s responsible for telling them they can’t, if someone’s not comfortable with that?

Unlike sexual or romantic orientation, I believe family orientation is mostly the result of nurture rather than nature. Some cultures, particularly Western ones, are very individualistic; “I married you, not your family” is a phrase you might hear fairly often in couples counseling. But other cultures have a very strong family orientation, such that it’s taken for granted that multiple generations will live together; when you marry someone, you are in a very real sense joining their family, not just creating a new independent unit.

In addition to the effects of culture are the effects of upbringing. A loving and nurturing family will make it easy for people to want to involve family in their lives even after they grow older and start their own. A mixed upbringing or family with some good and bad members or memories may make some extended enmeshment feel acceptable, but not too much. And a traumatic upbringing will make people want to never see their family again, or (sadly often) feel guilted into doing so by those family members or their culture while continuing to suffer… though it might make someone very happy to spend time with their partner’s family, if it’s less dysfunctional.

There are some real, hard questions that need to be answered in this space. Not just how involved in potential children’s lives will they be or how often you’ll visit whose family, but also how will you care for family members if they get old/sick? Will they live with you? How much will you be expected to bend to family’s preferences vs standing firm on your own? How much should you contribute to bailing family out of poor financial decisions? How much is “appropriate” to tell your family about your relationship?

When two people have very different orientations on this it can cause endless drama, and that gets worse if one side’s family is actually abusive or manipulative in ways that they’re used to and find hard to notice.

How does the orientation frame help?

Communication and clear expectations are key to navigating these issues in general, and just speaking your preference and inviting your partner’s perspective on how much or little you prefer extended family be involved in the new family you create together can be very valuable.

Some people are very open about this (“If my family doesn’t like you we have a problem,” or “I don’t want to see my family ever again”), and if that’s the case, respecting those orientations is important. It isn’t necessarily mutual; some people are okay with their partner’s family but not their own, might even prefer them. But respecting your partner’s boundaries when it comes to family involvement, particularly their own, can head off a lot of difficulties.

This is an orientation where change is possible to some degree, because it’s predicated in large part on extrinsic factors. Most people would want supportive, loving, interesting people in their life. Most people do not want selfish, hurtful, boring people in their life, but will make an exception for family because they’ve been conditioned to think it’s okay or normal. If you notice your partner’s orientation is very closed to extended family involvement, noticing why that might be the case can be very useful; if it’s something that can be changed, changing it might help their orientation soften. 

But don’t try to change their mind without at least recognizing the cause of it, and notice that the frame of “orientation” still points to something intrinsic; even with perfectly fine and positive family members on both sides, some people are more private than others, or more introverted, or more independent.