Category Archives: Pokemon: The Origin of Species

106: Interlude XXII – Tools

Michio’s arms moved in automatic gestures, folding and tucking clothes as fluidly as though he were throwing kunai or pokeballs. It was still not fast enough.

That’s it, then? You’re leaving?”

His mother’s voice was soft, all her anger spent. He expected his father to come, but perhaps they’re not trying to change his mind anymore. The thought was a relief, but he kept his expression blank as he continued packing.

You should have told me.”

We never lied to you.”

You said we were preventing war. Not doing a criminal’s dirty work.”

That criminal’s wealth and connections gives her as much power as any Leader, more. She serves integral functions in the regional government, with full awareness of what she is by a number of politicians. She is just as focused on preventing war, and just as legitimate as we are.”

Michio stopped and turned to his mother. “You don’t believe that.”

No, but in the eyes of society, we are just as criminal as she. That our philosophy is different, that we refrain from holding power, is immaterial.”

Not to me.”

His mother was silent at that, and Michio finished packing his shirts and pants and began emptying his sock drawer by the time she asked, “Where will you go?”

I will stay in Indigo. For now, at least. After that, I am not sure.”

Will you come back at least once, if you decide to leave for good?”

Michio’s hands slowed, for just a moment. “Yes.” He speeds up again. “I’m not doing this with anger in my heart, despite what Father said. I just know I can not stay anymore.”

I understand.” Mother’s voice was low. “You are not the only one who has wished for more say in what we do, how we do it.”

Wished for. But done nothing.”

It is not our way to be both judge and executioner. To wield dark arts and rule would—”

Then I will not wield dark arts, or I will not rule. But in either case, I will at least do something in the world besides further the aims of others. I will not be a tool.”

Oh, Michio.” His mother sat on the side of his bed, and he kept his gaze from the compassion in hers as he finished packing his clothing box and closed the lid, then absorbed it into its container ball. “We are all tools of society, one way or the other. My parents did not force me to kill, any more than we forced you. There were many tools I could have fit in my hands, but none felt as natural, nor as important. Even the most moral of men must keep a hidden blade if their rivals do, and—”

“—’the hidden blade can reach beyond the brandished sword.’ I know, Mother. But if staying concealed means that is all we can be, then it will never feel ‘natural’ to me.” He began to fill the second storage box with the thirteen tools and weapons his parents gifted him on each of his birthdays. He was five before he began training with the first handful, all small, simple things that even a child could kill with. His fingers traced the handles of his small kunai set, then folded the leather into a roll and clipped it to his belt rather than putting them in his box. “The world needs leaders who know what lurks in the shadows, if we are to ever leave them behind.”

Will you go after this woman, then? Try to topple her criminal empire?”

If that’s what needs to be done.”

And the one that comes next? Or the multitude that fill the vacuum that gets left behind?”

If people find out—”

They will raise an outcry, and something will be done to show that the law is the law. But the powerful will continue to do what must be done, and within a year, perhaps two, the attention will fade, and all will return to normal.”

Michio frowned. “I know that I do not know much of how the world works, yet. But I will learn. I will not bury my head just because it is difficult.” His camping gear goes into his third storage box; it will be a long trip from the hidden village to the nearest city, but one he has made many times before. Still, this time he will not have…

His gaze moved to his belt hanging by the wall, and the pokeballs on it. In the rest of society, children are expected to catch and teach their own pokemon, to naturally scale the power they wield to their experience and skill as a trainer. In Kanto, the average age for new trainers to get their license is fifteen, but he was given fully evolved pokemon, and trained in how to command them, from the age of nine.

Still, he could not bring them with him. Though they’ve been his partners for years, they ultimately belong to the village… and were trained to attack humans and pokemon alike. If he were branded a renegade with them the investigations might lead back to the village, and if he chose the traditional path instead, he could not use them for the trainer battles he would be expected to win in his journey for power.

Which means he would be traveling alone.

He zipped his bag closed, slung it over his shoulder, and stepped up to the door. He took the belt off the hook, then pointedly unclipped each ball on it, placing them on his dresser before he clipped it around his waist. Then he reached for the door and began to slide it open.

Michio.”

He paused, and took a slow, centering breath before he turned back toward his mother, expecting one last insistence that he reconsider, or perhaps a final hug goodbye.

Instead the hands she held out to him were cupped under a pokeball. “I believe it is customary to gift a young novice with a pokemon, on the first day of their journey.”

Michio stared at the ball, then met his mother’s gaze, chest tight. There was sadness and worry in her eyes, but also a spark of something humorous, and warm.

He could take this simply as a mother’s desire for her son to be safe. But he knew it was more than that. It was a blessing, perhaps not of his goals, but of his will to achieve them, even if it meant leaving his home and family.

It was more than he dared hope for, and Michio lowered his head in a deep bow as he took the ball from her and clipped it to his belt. “Thank you, Mother.”

Go in peace, my heart. Go find your freedom.”

I go to find more than my own. Someday, I will free us all to be the tools we most wish to be. I swear it.”


Kyo Koga sits in his dojo and studies the kunai laid out in front of him as he waits for his daughter. His hands pass over each tool, and he occasionally takes one out of its sheath to pass the whetstone over it. The motions and sounds are soothing, meditative, and allow him to carefully inspect each as if seeing them for the first time, understanding their unique functionality with full appreciation.

The rightmost one is thin as a needle, and incredibly easy to hide in the sleeve. Another is thicker and leaf-shaped, capable of blocking as well as striking, and weighted for throwing. Another has serrated edges, thick on one side and thin on the other… so many variations on a theme, together creating a suite of tools specialized for a variety of purposes. Each made small enough for a child to wield, yet still able to fit in an adult hand.

These are not the ones he took with him from the hidden village he was raised in. Those he lost in battle, fighting alongside his pokemon in a way that most normal trainers would find wasteful and dangerous. And it’s true; even the most powerful crossbow would barely hurt many pokemon, would be utterly ineffective against entire Types, and those it might seriously wound are often too quick for all but the most expert marksmen to hit at all. The combat techniques his ancestors passed down were created in a time before pokeballs made anything else a human might hold in their hands during battle obsolete.

But they had another purpose too, a purpose that created the hidden villages centuries ago, and kept them relevant. Humans are not tough. Humans are not quick. Pokemon were trained to defend their humans even from other humans in historic times, but they had to recognize a threat to stop it, and a kunai from the shadows could be more deadly than a pokemon.

His gaze is drawn to the wall, where a hanging scroll depicts a tangela and machoke grappling in the forefront, with two katana wielding samurai locked in battle beside them. He was forced to learn many things in his first year leaving his village, transforming himself from Michio of the Endo clan to
“Kyo Koga.” The Koga clan was outed a decade before he was born, and had the size and power to survive the backlash. Now instead of training assassins and spies, it is famous for running historical museums, commercially successful martial arts dojos… and adopting those who leave their still-hidden villages, claiming them as distant family members to provide new, legal identities.

It has not been an unpleasant life, being Kyo. He has done much of what he set out to do, and his failures sting less with each passing year, or are not yet final. He even found a wife, birthed a daughter, raised her to be strong, clever, ambitious. It is something he has often been as proud of as his Gym Leadership, when he allows himself pride.

And he has not killed since he was sixteen. That above all else, he feels pride in. More than he would have expected, when he was young and angry enough to leave the village behind, but not yet sure if he would renounce its methods.

He picks another blade, this one broader, flatter. The first kunai were farming tools, or so he was taught. Simple equipment that could be used for not just cutting and stabbing, but digging or prying. In those days, adaptability held more value than specialization. But as humans began to work together in larger numbers, as technology advanced, a handful of specialists became far more valuable, until new, even narrower specializations continued to branch from the old ones…

…and yet people were still capable of doing more. With technology, everyone can calculate more complex mathematics more easily than most people in his great-grandparents’ age. Everyone can cook as many recipes as a master chef, heal better than the greatest pre-potion physicians.

The role of a ninja was no different. His grandparents were spies and assassins who barely used pokemon, but his parents’ generation could and did incorporate them into nearly every skillset. Thieves and spies became hackers, assassins and scouts became trainers.

If a tool for creation can be reforged into a tool for killing, then he has done his best to prove that the reverse is also true. And if his mother was right, and humans must all be tools of society, the same should apply to them.

The door slides open, and Anzu walks in with the same expression she’s had around him in private since he caught her returning home that night; a mask of neutrality over prepared defiance, and wariness. It hurts every time, to see it on her face, aimed at him. Just as he knows it must hurt her, to see his disappointment.

“Is something wrong, Father?”

“All the usual things.” He gestures, and she steps further inside and closes the door behind her. “Spar with me.”

The frown-line she inherited from her mother appears. “Spar… hand-to-hand?”

“Yes. Like we used to.”

“I’m not… I don’t have time for this.”

“What do you have time for?”

“Ensuring this gym keeps its integrity, as you well know.”

“Tell me anyway.” He stands and tucks his gi, then tightens his belt and moves to the center of the room. “As we spar.”

She sighs, then removes her shoes and joins him. They stand across from each other, bow, and begin to circle one-another.

He allows himself to take in her stance, her balance as she moves, watching for any sign of an impending attack… then meets her gaze and launches his opening salvo. “Do you really care about the changes Oak is making to the gym, or are you just upset that he is the one doing it, and not you?”

Anzu’s face shifts to a mix of surprise and anger, and he steps forward and strikes all in one motion, fist to torso and foot to shin. She backsteps, almost too slow, and he uses the kick to step forward and strike again.

She sidesteps and counters, and for a moment Kyo’s mind is blank, body moving in an automatic flow of strike, block, twist, counterstrike. He has superior reach and strength, but she is quicker, which means normally they can both keep each other from landing solid strikes, but she is still on the backfoot, and within seconds he lands an open palm against her stomach.

She takes it well, falling backward and down, slapping the ground and rolling back to her feet to be ready for his followup. He doesn’t chase, however, instead relaxing to regain his breath so she can too.

“It’s been a while since I fell for that,” she finally says.

“You’ve lost your focus.”

She understands immediately. “I was doing fine until you forced me into a contest.”

Kyo raises his brow. “I must be a powerful hypnotist, to have planted such ambition in Blue Oak’s head.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do not. He began his journey a year ago, started changing gym cultures by his third badge. Many have wondered how he would affect the ones he had yet to visit, and even how those who journeyed with him would affect those he already had.” Kyo begins circling her again. “Had you been paying attention, you would have seen him coming. Seen this coming.”

Anzu’s body tenses, but he doesn’t attack, and after a moment she visibly takes a breath to center herself before she begins to circle as well. “Excuse me for not spending all my time following each celebrity trainer’s journeys. Besides, I’m handling this just fine. He can’t beat me, and he knows it.”

“I see. So you believe he will soon give up, then, and leave?”

His tone is neutral, but she detects the irony. “Whatever deal you made with him, it’ll become obvious something’s wrong if he doesn’t challenge for his badge soon. He might try to spin it as a victory somehow, say he’s ‘planted the seeds of change’ or whatever, but I still have more students than he does, and more members. I’ve shown what the future of this gym will look like.”

Kyo does not regret the deception he recruited Oak into; that Anzu would fall for it at all is further evidence that she’s not ready. But he does regret the necessity, and wishes that they could be as close as they used to be again, aligned in both means and ends.

Perhaps that’s what makes him say what he does next so bluntly:

“All you’ve shown is that you’re not fit to run it.”

Again the flinch, and again he strikes. She counters seviper with zangoose, then drops into sandile and forces him to hop back a step, turn, kick.

She grabs his foot and wrenches, but he merely spins with it, other leg kicking as he catches himself on his hands and vaults back when she releases him to dodge. She begins to speak, but he’s not done, and two steps puts him back within her guard, keeping her backstepping as he throws strike after strike. His arms soon ache with the force of her blocks, but he’s forced her to the edge of the room, and when she tries to sidestep around him he ducks her strike and sweeps her legs.

She jumps, but not quick enough, and her whole body jerks toward the ground as his leg catches her ankle. Once again she slaps and rolls away, and once again he doesn’t follow.

“What the hell does that mean?” she asks once she catches her breath.

“It means that you’re still not taking this seriously.” He straightens. “I can tell from your movements. You’re still training your body rather than your pokemon, still focused on your crusade rather than securing your position in the gym beyond challenge.”

“I told you, I’ve beaten Oak—”

“Wrong.” Kyo shakes his head. “You are about to be defeated so thoroughly that you cannot even conceive of how, and thus can do nothing to stop it.”

Now he truly has her attention, at last. “What are you talking about? If you’re about to throw blatant endorsement behind him—”

“No, I had no part in what’s coming. I only allowed him to try his ideas here, and yes, even offered him an early challenge if he proved your superior in either leadership or training.”

His daughter stares at him, jaw clenched. “And?”

“I thought he failed, until yesterday, when he came to tell me of his latest breakthrough.” Kyo gives his daughter a small, wry smile, still feeling some awe at what he was told… and what he saw. “He’s going to challenge you tomorrow, Janine, and he’s going to win.”

Kyo isn’t sure how Oak would feel about him sharing this information; when the boy asked permission to use an untested battle technique in his gym, and explained what it was, Kyo asked for a demonstration more out of skepticism than adherence to safety standards. It was, all things considered, a more than considerate request; while accepted practice for experimental or risky techniques, it’s not required to show the Leader themselves any that might grant significant advantage if revealed in combat. Oak could have gone to Kyo’s Second or Third.

Instead he was shown something truly paradigm shifting, something that would change the entire meta of pokemon battles the world over. And yet Oak still shared it because it was new, and… perhaps… as a show of respect. Kyo was right to recognize him as a radical reformist, but was surprised by the show of wisdom of his deference.

Or at least, the wisdom to know that showing deference would be appreciated, which in this case is close enough.

Anzu’s eyes are narrowed, her mind clearly racing over possibilities both feasible and outlandish. “He can’t possibly have closed the gap that much…” Despite her words he can see her doubt growing. “Not unless he’s been hiding his true ability this whole time… If he bought some Elite level pokemon—”

“I will not reveal any more. I’ve told you this much because you are my daughter, and despite everything I still want you to succeed, but I am still acting as I would if I did not know. I cannot put my thumb on the scale by giving you answers. Only advice, if you have the humility to receive it.”

She hesitates, clearly still processing his confidence in her impending loss. He can tell that she is tempted to keep challenging it, perhaps even dismiss it entirely. Instead she takes another breath to center herself, then sits. “Alright. I told you I still value your teachings, and I meant it. What have I missed?”

He folds his legs beneath him, breathing in to organize his thoughts for what may be one of the most important conversations of his life. “First, I wish to better understand something. What are you so afraid will happen, if Oak succeeds in changing this gym?”

Anzu frowns at the new angle of conversation, but after a moment sighs and says, “That he’ll turn it into some cheap Ranger school knock-off.” Her jaw sets. “The League is about improving and evaluating the strength of the trainer as an individual, not as a group. That is what I’m fighting to protect, as much as to show I’m worthy of Leadership.”

“Does the League not exist to protect the people? Do its trainers not rely on each other to do that?”

“Of course they do.” She sighs. “I’m not against these ‘group scenarios’ in principle. I just don’t believe it should be what Gyms are for. If Oak were forming his own school or working with the Rangers, I might even support him. Instead he’s leeching off the existing system, the prestige of the gyms he visits, to force his ideas into the mainstream. It’s not right.”

“Spoken with true conviction. And yet this desire is not strong enough for you to commit everything you have to it.”

“I told you, I won’t just stand by while villains act freely in our city. What I’ve uncovered—”

“Has nearly gotten you arrested.” They haven’t spoken about that night in Celadon when she narrowly escaped the police. He’d hoped it would make her more cautious, and it seemed to… for a while, at least. “Or worse.”

His daughter’s face goes blank. “I’m being more careful now. Working with others, letting them investigate… but after what I’ve learned, I can’t just let it stand. Not just because I’m being challenged, not when I can handle both. And I can. Whatever Oak showed you, I’ll beat it—”

Kyo feels the anger flare up again, and almost snaps at her that this is exactly the arrogance that would get her killed, or bring ruin to the gym—

“—and I’ll take down the renegade conspiracies at the same time, with or without your blessing!”

—and instead blinks, staring back into his daughter’s angry gaze. “What are you talking about? You said you were investigating Silph.”

“And I have been. But Silph was connected to others, and I’ve allied with the people investigating them to learn more. Those renegades under the Celadon casino were just the most public.”

A coldness is spreading through Kyo’s stomach, and despite himself he asks, “What have you learned?”

“Oh, now you’re curious again?”

“Janine, please. What have you learned?

He’s surprised her again, and he sees uncertainty in her gaze before she looks away, then back. “You said you’d stop me if I went too far. Is that what this is? You’re worried I’ll cross the line to fight an even greater evil than corrupt businessmen?”

The thought occurred to him, but… “That is not my worry at this moment. I swear it.”

His daughter still seems worried, but nods and begins explaining what she’s learned from her new allies. First of Silph’s rivalry in securing access to fossils and the renegade-thief that was murdered before his execution, then of missing and hidden scientists from around the world, and then stolen technology with foreign renegade guards.

Until she finally ends with their tentative conclusion; that Silph, though itself guilty of crimes, appears at times to be in contention with an actual criminal empire.

And so the coldness in Kyo’s stomach has spread, because he recognized these movements, these actions, these strategies. They were altered to be more clever, harder to detect, but also more ambitious… and more protected, if even other gym leaders are potentially involved.

It seems he has run out of time.

“Father?”

Kyo looks up from where his gaze had been staring through the earth into the void beyond, and sees his daughter’s concerned gaze on his. All of her hostility has faded, leaving her angular face appearing softer than he’s seen it in a long time. It may be the first time she’s completely dropped her guard around him in years, and he feels an urge to go to her, draw her into a hug. Not just to protect her, but also to reassure.

She’s not just concerned about what his reaction means for her. Whatever she sees in his face, it concerns her for him.

And so Leader Koga takes a deep breath, centering himself in the feel of the air rushing into his lungs, then back out. He tried running from his past, believing he would be able to, eventually, confront it on his own terms. And yet now that the parallels between himself and his daughter become clear, he smiles a bitter smile at how obvious it now is what he’s been doing wrong.

“I am alright, Anzu.”

“I know you are worried for me, but if there’s something else…”

“There is, yes.” Kyo takes another breath, lets it out slowly, and cups his hands over his knees. “First, I must apologize. I was… not at my best, the last time we spoke about this.” The night he put a tracker on her, hoping against hope that he was wrong, that she was not responsible for the rumors of a vigilante in his city… “I was angry. And… frightened for you. But I never fully explained why.”

Her expression shifts back to a wary confusion. She expects him to go back to trying to discourage her. Instead he sighs. “What I mean is, I never told you why I left my village.”

“You did, when I was young. You had an argument with grandfather…” She trails off, face going blank and weight shifting back onto her ankles. “Was all that a lie?”

“It was not the whole truth. That argument was… long, and bitter, but it wasn’t just a philosophical difference.” He searches for the words, thinking back to who he was two decades ago, dusting the memories off. “I was taught that the life of the ninja was a necessary evil. That every warlord had agents that worked in the shadows, and that every region must have the same, or else fall to the others willing to use such practices. And it’s true that, for most of my young life I saw my family work to do good. What I said about my village tracking spies, hunting renegades, even training legitimate hunters… all that was true. Not everyone in the League and Council knew, but many did, and that was enough for us. So long as someone else told us what was needed to protect our region, we did it, even if others would consider it immoral.”

“And you said you weren’t satisfied with that.”

“I wasn’t. What I’ve told you before, about wanting to make a real change, about feeling like a tool, it was all true. Your grandfather called me selfish, and I… may have compared him to a tamed poochyena.” Anzu snorts, but Kyo still feels the ember of shame flare in his chest, even after all these years. “It… got worse from there, but it was only a part of the problem. What truly led to my departure was learning that those giving us orders… were not all as pure as I thought. Organized crime had its own channels of power and influence, and sometimes our services were sold to them, often for mutual exchanges of favors.”

Anzu stares as if seeing him for the first time, and it’s a struggle to not drop his gaze from hers. “The village did work for criminals? Did you do work for them?”

“Yes.” The word burns on the way out. “Worse, I didn’t leave immediately, when I learned. I was young, only went on missions with others. I trusted my mentor when they said it was rare, but necessary. When I was older, I saw it more and more, realized it was not an occasional exception. And still I stayed, thought there was something we could do about it. But when I began talking seriously about refusing such orders, or even making them public… the village elders insisted it wasn’t our place, your grandfather among them. And that’s when I realized what it truly meant, to view oneself as a tool.”

His daughter listens to his confession in silence, and he sees lingering confusion in her eyes… but also compassion that he’s not sure he deserves. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“I made an oath, Janine. Anzu. When I left the village.” His hands are clenched, and he relaxes them with his next breath. “My life and freedom, and in exchange, I would not reveal anything that might cause problems for the village. I didn’t even tell your mother, though she knew there were secrets I had to keep, and said… that they didn’t matter.” Grief claws at his insides, for a moment, as deep and black as the months following her death, but a few breaths later the pain is back to a distant, dull ache. Most of his attention is already wondering if this was a mistake, if Janine will tell someone…

But he has been released from his oath by Janine’s own discoveries. If anything this might reduce the odds that the public becomes aware of the villages. He sighs. “I know it will sound like an excuse, but it was simpler to say that I disagreed with the philosophy. You’ve known what my ambition is. Now you better understand why.”

“But could you stop them, even as Champion? If they have that much influence—”

“It will be difficult, yes. And dangerous. I have made what preparations I can, and plan to make more once I am part of the Elite.” For one thing he’ll have even more influence than he’s gained by being the leader of Fuchsia; all the work he’s done with the stewards of the Safari Zone has won him many friends among the Rangers, which would be key. “And of course, I’ve made you as safe as I could.”

“By teaching me what you learned,” Janine says, voice low, and now it’s her gaze that wavers, then drops. “Which I then used to put myself, and you, at risk.”

The stir of hope in his chest makes it a little easier to breathe, though it’s tinged with bitterness. His oath would have exacted a greater cost than he expected, if all he had to do to convince his daughter all this time was tell her of this…

But if he had, then she may never have discovered this, which means he wouldn’t have learned of it.

“You were doing what you thought was right,” Kyo says, the words strangely hard to say. He’s not sure why, when he believes them. Perhaps it’s just his pride.

“I was.” Anzu stirs, then straightens her spine. “And if anything, this makes it more obvious that these people need to be stopped. If they’re not just using renegades, but hiring ninja, working with council members… did you ever learn who was in charge?”

She’s leaning forward now, the familiar glint back in her eyes, and he knows that it’s a lost cause. She won’t back down from her path. It was foolish of him to ever think she might.

But that doesn’t mean his concern was misplaced.

“No,” he says honestly. “She was referred to only as The Madame, and her reputation for ruthlessness made her more feared by criminals than the Rangers, League, and Hunters put together.”

Janine frowns, but not in a way that seems aimed at him. “Alright, I’ll ask around, see what I can learn.”

“Janine—”

“Father, I know you—”

“Wait, please.” He takes a breath, wondering why this feels so hard to say. Perhaps because it would come off as an endorsement, an encouragement of her taking actions that might bring her harm…

He remembers his mother, handing him a pokeball with his starter. He’s always imagined that was something she felt compelled to do, out of love, despite her disagreement with his choice. But perhaps she was as conflicted, handing him that ball and knowing what he would do with it, as he is now, with these words balancing on the tip of his tongue.

“I think you should continue.”

“What?” She blinks, blinks again. “You… really?”

“I have always believed in your conviction, but… I also thought you simply needed something to challenge you. A sign that your efforts were needed somewhere, at a time when the Gym had no challenges left to offer you.”

“And now?” Anzu asks, voice cautious.

“Now I believe you should follow your conscience, wherever it leads you. But my position is the same as it’s ever been; a Leader cannot also be a concealed dagger. My ambition is to end such duplicity and abuse, and even if you disagree, on a practical level I say you cannot commit wholly to your mission and the gym’s demands, and excel at both sufficiently. You know this gym’s virtue. You must pick.”

Anzu seems taken aback, and he sees her hurt and disappointment before her face closes down. “So nothing’s changed, after all.”

“Much has changed,” he disagrees. “But Blue Oak is still here, and has devoted all of what he is to changing this gym and defeating you. That has not changed, and I would not stop it if I could. He has closed the gap on you, fairly, and it is the result of your split focus. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will defeat him, and show that I am underestimating you. But if not, then remember this conversation. Remember what it means, to hone one weapon at the expense of all else. It can leave you limited, but it can also make you strong, so long as you focus your energy where it is most needed.”


Kyo makes his announcement the next day, before Oak can find Janine for his challenge.

“When I gave Blue Oak the opportunity to extend what he began in Vermilion, to teach what he and his journeymates developed, I did it knowing this would disrupt the culture of our gym. A culture of personal excellence, of competition and support, of discipline and respect. A culture I am proud to have developed and fostered.. But that was in a different time. A time before the world changed, thrice over. And I knew, sooner or later, we would have to change as well…”

He goes on to explain that, while he still believes in the concept of a gym that trains and evaluates individuals, he has been impressed by what Oak and his journeymates have demonstrated. Similarly, he heaped praise on the way his daughter and other gym members have given more of themselves to training others, sharing techniques and providing guidance above and beyond that which other gyms in the region could boast.

“…value of competition, of challenging our preconceptions, and devoting ourselves to what unique skills and ideas we can develop and spread.” Kyo takes a moment to find Oak in the crowd, then Anzu at the other side of it. “I wish to encourage more competitions like this, to reward more trainers for trying new things. To that end, to ensure no one is discouraged from trying such projects if it delays their Challenge. I am announcing that any trainer who contributed in some meaningful way to the culture of Fuchsia Gym, as judged by any member of the gym leadership, may Challenge for Membership or Mastery without going through the preliminaries.” He’s mostly just building on what Surge has implicitly allowed, but it feels like a turning point in the region to make it an explicit rule. Another ratchet along the path to further incentivize diversity and specialization. “Up until recently, the niche that this gym has filled seemed enough. But the world is changing, and so must we… whether that means using new strategies, or improving on what has served us well thus far.”

Kyo bows his head to his audience, who bow back, all at various degrees, then begin to disperse or talk among themselves. He steps down from the podium and reaches Oak just as the boy is approaching Anzu, who is waiting with her arms crossed. “I know,” she says before either can speak. “Another battle. I accept.”

Oak doesn’t seem particularly surprised, though he does give Kyo a look he cannot interpret. “Alright. Ready when you are.”

“Let’s get it over with.”

“I will act as referee,” Kyo says, and leads the way to the battle arenas before either can object. They draw many curious looks, but only Oak’s friends are bold enough to approach, no doubt also interested in watching the battle, until the boy shakes his head and they fall behind.

“Six on six,” Janine says as they take the elevator down to one of the private arenas, and Kyo smiles. Without knowing what Oak’s trump card is, she’s giving herself the maximum range to have an answer available for it. “To the faint.”

Oak simply shrugs and nods, and when the doors open both pass by the PC and head straight to their platforms. Kyo takes a moment to deactivate the cameras in the room, then goes to stand at the side of the arena. “Are you both ready?” They nod, hands on their pokeballs. “Set…”

“Go, Mal!” Anzu shouts, again making the safe choice. Her toxapex is her most defensive pokemon, useful to scout out what Oak might do—

“Go, Rive!”

Oak’s newly evolved rhydon drops onto all fours as soon as it appears, which means his “Ras!” command sends it barreling forward within a second, horn tearing up the earth ahead of it as it spins.

“Bunker!”

Mal’s hard shell contracts around her, spines jutting out, but Oak’s pokemon is already slowing as pieces of stone start to break off its own hide, floating lazily around Anzu’s pokemon. Oak is ready for when the Baneful Bunker ends, yelling “Rad!” as Janine shouts “Scald!”

The Drill Run hits first, and at such close range Mal gets trampled even as she sprays boiling water all over Rive. Kyo is glad to see both trainers withdraw their pokemon at the same time; toxapex are tough enough that Mal would likely be okay, but with such an all-encompassing injury the chance of a critical organ being hit is high enough that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As for Rive, it’s possible with the right training or items for it to withstand that sort of hit from a toxapex; most of a toxapex’s body is oriented to defense, which means even with TMs they can only expel a little water or poison per attack. But Oak isn’t risking it either, and both send out their next pokemon within a breath.

“Go, Brutus!”

“Go, Nin!”

Janine’s venusaur gets cut by the stones as soon as it appears, roaring in pain, while Oak’s golbat dives in for a Wing Attack. Janine quickly swaps Brutus out for her crobat, which takes even more damage from the stones but easily defeats Oak’s lesser evolution before blowing the stones away in a gust of wind.

Normally, this would be the point at which Anzu’s victory would be inevitable. All of Oak’s remaining Ground types would be checked by Anzu’s crobat and venusaur, and while his wartortle may be strong enough to take down the crobat with a well aimed ice beam, it’s ultimately a tossup which would defeat the other, particularly since a single Cross Poison could wear Maturin down even if Oak battled defensively.

Combined with the fact that Anzu still has her tentacruel ready and waiting to further wear the wartortle down, Oak doesn’t have many options. Apparently he had spent time before their last match training his wartortle’s physical combat skills, but the gap between his pokemon and Anzu’s was still too large, particularly since she made sure to train plenty of Fire/Fighting pokemon to break through Steel types her enemies might bring against her.

What Oak has needed, all along, is Poison’s only other weakness; a Psychic type, one strong and fast enough to take down even a blaziken. But even if he somehow managed to train one of his abra enough to evolve and fight well, Anzu’s Drapion would be there to stop it cold.

All this, his daughter knows. And yet she’s still being wary, because he told her Oak would defeat her. He’s not sure what she’s expecting, perhaps a dragonite or tyranitar, but when the kadabra appears she freezes, for a moment, almost long enough for Blue to command his pokemon to attack.

And then she does the obvious thing, and swaps her crobat for her drapion. The purple and black scorpion rears up with a roar, tall as two men and long as three, towering over the kadabra.

“Tops,” Oak says, voice firm. “Eam.”

The kadabra’s eyes suddenly lock onto its opponent as Anzu commands her pokemon to fling toxic spikes all over the arena. She’s still acting defensively, still preparing for some surprise, but she can’t prepare for what comes next. As he warned her, it’s completely outside of her conceptualization space.

“Pa.”

Seeing it a second time still sends frisson down Kyo’s spine; the drapion’s body vibrates like a tuning fork as the invisible wave of psychic force crashes over it, causing it to stagger.

It took a long time for scientists to discover why Psychic attacks do so much damage to Poison pokemon. It was debated for decades, until the leading hypothesis emerged; the unique vibrations that run through a body when hit by psychokinetic force are similar to the vibrations caused by most Ground attacks.

Gas, acid, venom, sludge, whatever the form the “poison” takes in a pokemon’s body, it’s always kept separate from their vital organs. Internal bleeding is harmful to any creature, but combining toxic substances into the blood or surrounding tissue, even in a body resistant to them, causes more damage than would normally be sustained, in essence turning the pokemon’s own weapons against itself.

And so they all watch as the towering Dark/Poison pokemon sways in the aftermath of its first telekinetic attack, body twitching as pain spreads through it. To his pride, Anzu recovers from the unprecedented attack by shouting “Night!” within moments, but the kadabra is faster, and the next wave of force makes the drapion shudder, then topple.

Anzu’s hand darts out to withdraw it, and Kyo watches as his daughter’s limbs twitch to select her next pokemon, then pause, twitch again… then stop. He can only imagine what she’s feeling; confusion, shock, fear. Perhaps even awe.

And what she’s thinking, beyond how did he do that, is that she has no pokemon to respond with. Her crobat is the only thing that could outspeed his kadabra, but he can switch into a magneton, and both his wartortle and kadabra could defeat the blaziken she would send in to defeat that.

It all plays out in Koga’s head, strike and counterstrike, and he knows the same is happening in Anzu’s, and likely Oak’s as well. There is always some chance of surprises, a miss or critical strike, a clever deception or unusual tactic… but in cases like this, among trainers as skilled as they, that chance becomes smaller and smaller.

Oak waits, patient. He knows he’s regained the advantage, but he’s still being cautious as well. If Kyo hadn’t warned his daughter, if she’d treated this like any other match, Oak may have won already against a more reckless strategy… or he could have lost, if she treated his kadabra like it was any other threat.

Either way, he’s not taking his victory for granted. It speaks volumes about his battle philosophy, as well as his general worldview, that he did not start with the kadabra. He was feeling her out as well, making sure he wasn’t walking into any surprises of her own. Anzu did that to herself, in part, by working so hard to keep changing her strategies up. Generally a good thing, but the best opponents will always find a way to adapt, even if the thing they adapt to is unpredictability itself.

Nearly a minute passes before Anzu finally lets her hands drop.

“How?”

It is, perhaps, the most defeated Kyo has ever seen his daughter. And to ask an opponent trainer for their secret, so directly… to ask a rival for it…

Oak glances at Kyo. “I thought you might have told her,” he admits. “Sorry for doubting you.”

“I told her you would defeat her. That is all.”

Oak nods, then turns back to his opponent. “I’m happy to tell you, Janine. Really,” he adds at her clear surprise. “I only did this with the help of others, and they’re not battle trainers. They don’t believe techniques should be kept secret, and in this case I agree. It’s too important.”

“You could have revealed it in your Challenge match,” she says, voice tinged with confusion and wonder. “The whole world would have seen you do the impossible while winning a badge.”

“Oh, I’m definitely still planning to do that,” Oak says with a grin. “I’m not that altruistic. Sure, you can tell people first if you want, but that would just draw a bigger crowd and more hype. The plan right now is for Red and Satori to make an announcement about it in a week or so, since they’re the ones that actually discovered it, and if I show it off first, then great, more hype for them. In any case, I’d have shared it with your father before battling him. Not looking to humiliate anyone, and I’m pretty sure I can beat him even with him knowing.” Oak turns to him again and bows his head. “No disrespect intended.”

“None taken,” Kyo says with a raised brow. “I hadn’t selected my lineup for your mastery challenge yet, but among my fifth badge lineups I tend to prepare for at least a couple psychic pokemon on the challenger’s team, even if they are Dark.”

There’s been some debate over whether it’s fair to adjust a challenge lineup in that way; should leaders aim for a relatively consistent experience across badge levels, or adjust teams to the individual challenger? The Indigo League has no official policy, so some Leaders will use the exact same lineup for each number of badges (replacing them once they grow too strong) while others make minor adjustments based on the trainer’s pokemon, and yet others will tailor their lineups to maximally challenge particular trainer personalities and strategies.

Perhaps it comes from being Dark himself, but Kyo has always believed that challenges are meant for trainers to prove their growth, not just benchmarks to check-off… which means Dark trainers must learn to compensate for their more limited options, rather than expect others to adjust accordingly. Wild pokemon certainly wouldn’t.

Or, in the young Oak’s case, create new options.

“That doesn’t mean you should take the battle as a formality,” Kyo continues. “It may well be, but I find myself excited by the unique puzzle you’ve presented. It will be an honor to be the first Leader to test the new meta.”

Oak grins. “That, and you’ll have to prepare for the changes it will bring to future Challenges.”

“As you say.” Kyo’s own smile feels wry, but it’s still genuine. “Here we have been plotting the future of this Gym, and yet with this discovery, Poison as a type has lost nearly as much as Dark has.”

“No, it’s too early to be so fatalistic. There must be limits.” Anzu turns back to Oak. “It seemed to take your pokemon time to prepare for its attacks. Was it similar to charging a Solar Beam, or more like a Swords Dance…?”

“Neither, actually. In our training, Tops always has to spend some time seeing through the Dark pokemon’s aura first, but once he has, he doesn’t seem to have trouble seeing them until the Dark pokemon is recalled and resummoned.”

“When you say ‘seeing’…”

“Or sensing, whatever. Apparently the eyes are important though. Red and Satori even called it ‘Miracle Eye,’ which seems really dramatic coming from two non-battle trainers.” Oak smiles. “I was actually impressed.”

Anzu is frowning at him. “You’re continuing to show more humility than I expected.”

“How’s that?”

Kyo catches Anzu’s glance. “I believe she means that this seems, so far, like it was not your accomplishment. And if I know my daughter, it feels unfair to her, to be beaten by a trick you did not even help develop… or more accurately, it feels unfair to have her capabilities as a potential leader questioned over such a thing.”

Anzu shifts her weight, and Oak considers this a moment before shrugging. “Alright, well, it was my idea that got them looking into it, if that helps? And there’s another new training technique that I’ve been using which helped make Tops so strong so quick, though I’m not ready to share what that is yet.”

Anzu’s frown deepens, and when she turns to him, Kyo keeps his voice as gentle as he can as he quietly asks, “And what new insights have you inspired in others, in your quest to become the best Leader you could?”

He sees it hit her in stages: confusion, recognition, denial… and then a growing desperation as she tries, and fails, to come up with anything.

Kyo sighs. He’d hoped, still, that there was something he’d missed.

Oak looks back and forth between them, brow furrowed. “I’m missing something.”

“Indeed. Have you figured out the virtue of our Gym yet?”

“I think so, especially after your speech. People online said it was about discipline, focusing on your goal at the exclusion of all else, but once I got here and spent some time with the older gym members, it seemed like that wasn’t quite it.” Oak points his thumb at Anzu. “It’s what you were upset with her about, right? Lack of focus. But that’s a means, and a sloppy one. The real thing is the blend of means and end. Having a niche and leveraging it as hard as you can.”

“I refer to it as ‘specialization.’ When I was young, my father told me a tale of a blacksmith who discovered a forging technique to create a sword that would never break, and would easily shatter other swords… but only against other swords. It would be a weapon for disarming, never killing, as striking any armor or even a bone would irreparably damage the blade. Many samurai thought the man who mastered this sword would forever be at a handicap, unable to end a threat, whether human or pokemon. But for one swordsman, it was elegance itself. A blade that could only ever cut one thing would allow him to truly devote himself to a fighting style that focused on cutting that thing, mind, body and spirit.”

Oak slowly nods, leaning against the railing of his platform. “I get it. So now you decide if your gym is going to specialize in the sort of thing my friends and I have been exploring, or double-down on what it was before, with what Janine’s been doing.”

“No,” Anzu says before he can respond. “Father has already made his decision. I lost. You win.”

She doesn’t sound bitter about it. If anything she sounds… lighter, than she did before. Something between resigned and accepting.

Oak, meanwhile, looks conflicted. Kyo wonders if he’s thinking of admitting that he never intended to lead the gym, but instead he says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so focused on besides all this, but if it’s that important to you… maybe you need to settle it before you can really focus on being a leader.”

She turns back to him. “What are you saying?”

“I mean, I’ll probably need another year or so to become Champion.” Oak makes the utterly audacious claim with a completely straight face, and after what Kyo has seen in the past two days, he finds little skepticism in himself. “Maybe by then you’ll be done with whatever else you’ve been working on, and be kicking so much ass here that I’ll decide to go to another gym instead. Hell, I still haven’t been to Cinnabar. Might be even cooler than Fuchsia. Or maybe by then I’ll change my mind about being a gym leader altogether, especially if they start changing without me having to micromanage.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Anzu says, though she sounds more stoic than angry. “I’ve been arrogant, and that has to have consequences. I may have more support in the gym now, but I can see that you’ll just keep working at that until you find a solution to it too, while I… won’t give up my other project. Can’t.”

Even though it’s what he wanted, it still hurts to hear her say it. To hear the pain, just below the surface of her calm voice. But he’s proud of her, as well, and almost says so when Oak snorts.

“So why not work together? You’re acting like it’s all or nothing, and I don’t get why.” Anzu is silent, but her eyes shift to him, and Oak catches it. “Oh. Well, no disrespect, Leader, but without knowing what you’ve got against whatever else she’s working on, if it’s important enough to get someone like Janine to give up her dream of succeeding you, I’d just as soon make sure I can beat her when she’s not distracted, instead of beating her just because she is.”

Kyo watches Oak, meeting those steady eyes, while in the corner of his vision he sees Anzu… relaxing. Regaining some of her confidence, her poise, and most of all, her hope.

And he decides that the young Oak might be more than a simple tool as well. However much he’s grown to reach where he is today from when he started his journey, he likely has only just started along the path to who he will become.

Someone, perhaps, that Kyo will feel is worthy to follow. Someone who will help expose the corruption, rather than accept it.

“I think,” the leader says, “We should all speak more on this, after our match. There is a story I would like to tell you about my upbringing, and my ambition. And after that, Janine may feel more comfortable sharing her own.”

Anzu is staring at him in open shock, but Oak just raises his brow… then surprises Kyo by sighing and rubbing his eyes.

“Alright, but… first I gotta tell you guys about this thing called ‘meta-honesty’…”

105: Meta-Honesty

“Stop!”

Blue stops, brow raised, as Red sighs and starts rubbing his face, muttering that it’s too early for this. “Uh, okay, I wasn’t expecting that part to be what you had a reaction to…” They’re in a training room beside the one where Satori is currently merging with his abra, where he led Red after Red arrived and Satori explained her discovery. All Blue said once he closed the door behind them was I need to tell you something…

“It’s a secret, isn’t it?” Red asks, voice resigned. “Not like a personal secret, the kind that might get me or others in trouble if I spread it around?”

Blue stares. “…yeah, how did you—” Did Red already figure out how to see into dark minds himself? No, that’s ridiculous, no way he would keep that to himself…

“It’s been that kind of week. Month.” Red frowns. “Season.”

“Wait, what other secrets do you—”

“Hush! Before we talk about this we need to work out meta-honesty rules.”

“Seriously? I just drop the biggest psychic discovery of our lifetime on your lap, and you want to—why are you giggling?”

It takes a moment for Red to stop, still grinning as he shakes his head. “Ask me again later. You’re right, part of me really wants to ask Satori a million questions and get to testing dark aura stuff out, but… if that’s not considered a secret but whatever you were about to tell me is, then it’s really important we talk about how to talk about it.”

Blue doesn’t expect the dark aura stuff to be kept secret forever exactly, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like it kept under wraps for a bit. The same goes for Koichi’s theory, if it turns out to be true. Blue sighs and leans against the Fuchsia training room wall, settling in for a lecture. “Alright, go ahead. What’s meta-honesty?”

“Hang on, we should get Leaf here too, we were talking about this just a few days ago…” Red takes out his phone and starts typing.

“Wait! Uh, I’m not sure…” Blue can’t imagine Leaf being okay with the idea of making pokemon fear for their lives, even artificially, and suddenly feels unsure about whether he should tell Red after all; if he’s not willing to keep it from Leaf, then… “Okay I think I get why talking about how to talk about secret stuff is important.”

“If you don’t want Leaf to know I probably won’t tell her, but…” Red puts his phone away. “Yeah, that’s part of what we should go over. I’ve been reading about this online and it turns out there’s a whole lot of disagreement about what makes for a good policy on what amount of honesty is the right amount.”

“Doesn’t that just depend on how many secrets someone has, and why they keep them?” Blue shrugs. “It’s that thing you said once about trust, right? You either trust someone to not lie, or you trust them to have a good reason to lie, or you don’t trust them at all.”

“But what if two people disagree about what a good reason to lie is? They might think they trust each other in the deep way, but then find out that the other person lied about something they wouldn’t have thought. The best outcome is they understand why there was that confusion and don’t hate each other, but they might still think they’re on the same page but not be. If I think we’d both share any info about each other that someone tells us, and you don’t think that, I would take you not telling me stuff meant no one said anything to you, while you would think people might be telling me stuff that I’m just not telling you.”

“Sure, so we talk about it… okay it would be hard to talk about every situation…”

“Or what if there are competing vows of secrecy? If my mom tells me something about you, and she doesn’t know I tell you everything anyone says about you—”

“That’s something you’d say before she tells you though, right? If she doesn’t say it’s supposed to be a secret first, that’s on her.”

“But she can’t tell me what the secret is about first without revealing information that I might share if I say no! She might ask ‘Can I tell you a secret you won’t share?’ But then what, I’m supposed to say ‘Yes, but only if it doesn’t put someone’s life in danger, or if it’s not about Blue, or if it’s not something I think the scientific community should know, or if it doesn’t interfere with this secret project I have…’ You see?”

Blue does, and it’s getting harder to ignore the obvious implications. “How many secrets have you been keeping, exactly?” Red just looks at him until Blue holds his hands up in surrender. “Fine, don’t tell me, but if Leaf has a bunch too I’m going to end up feeling left out.”

Red rolls his eyes and starts pacing. “We can also think of it in terms of tiers. Like, there are some people who you’d have no secrets from, usually someone’s spouse, so it’s expected that if someone tells one something the other will hear about it. The next tier is close friends, where you’d expect someone to tell them something that they’d want to know. But then there’s also tiers for who secrets get told to. If you know me as someone who always holds on to secrets no matter what, then you might tell me a secret that someone else told you, breaking their trust, because you trust it won’t go further. So a meta-honesty strategy might be to say ‘I don’t tell your secrets to anyone of a lower tier than you,’ and then you have to explain what sorts of people or specific people that excludes—”

“Which itself might give stuff away, yeah, got it. But really, the thing I’m telling you isn’t even a secret, it’s just… it might be sens… if it’s even tr… stop that.” Red stops singing and uncovers his ears, and Blue sighs and rubs his eyes. “Okay, I give up, just tell me what to do.”

“What?” Red seems genuinely horrified. “Blue, it doesn’t work like that, I can’t just—”

“You can if I trust you, right? Like the real trust.”

The look on Red’s face makes Blue waver, for a moment, wondering how bad a secret Red can possibly be keeping… if he knows a renegade or…

And then he remembers, and mentally kicks himself..

They never really talked about Aiko again, or that whole situation. Not that they’ve been avoiding it or anything, it just hasn’t come up… they haven’t battled in the same incident since Lavender, and Red did great there, and he’s been active in helping at incidents…

But no, bravery was never the problem. He knows what Red would say; it’s about calculating risk, and if Blue’s being honest he has wondered, now and then, how Red decided on which incidents to go to, and who he was fighting alongside at them, and what lengths he’d go to to save them if they were in trouble.

Okay, so maybe he doesn’t trust Red completely. Blue shifts his weight, then sighs. “Look, that’s a different thing.”

“What is?” Red asks, voice cautious.

“The thing about… the burning building. It’s not about who you are, it’s… I mean it is about who you are, but not like…” Blue trails off, realizing as he says it that he might actually be wrong.

What if it is the same thing? What if Red kept or spilled a secret that was the equivalent of not running into a burning building to save a friend?

Blue tries to imagine what that would be, and immediately comes up with the reverse of the secret he was about to share. If Red discovered something about Dark types that would hurt Blue, but felt compelled to share it anyway… no, that’s not quite right. If Red knew a secret that had a small chance of saving someone but would, say, ruin his scientific career if it was wrong… no, that’s not fair, it’s just hard to imagine a secret that would put his life at risk.

Red is just watching him, expression hard to read. Anxious? Wary? Blue sighs and runs a hand through his hair. They should probably have talked about this again at some point, but it just seemed… easier, not to. “I can’t imagine you doing something with secrets that would break that trust, is what I’m trying to say.”

Red is quiet for a moment, then sighs. “But there are things I could do that you can’t imagine, that would break the trust. Which means it’s not the second layer, it’s not trust in me, it’s trust in your models of me.”

“Well shit, Red, no one’s perfect,” Blue says, starting to get annoyed. Here he is trying to tell Red how much he… no, wait, he gets it. “I mean, I’m not either, so okay, say you’re hiding a secret that I can’t even imagine you hiding and it totally changes who I think you are. I’d still know you were doing what you thought was best, even if I disagreed.”

That seems to surprise Red, for a moment. “So… you wouldn’t regret it? Trusting me?”

“That… come on, how am I supposed to know that? If you fuse all the Stormbringers into some crazy three headed mega-Legendary that destroys all of Indigo, yeah, I’ll probably regret trusting you a little bit!

Red stares at him a moment, then cracks a smile. Soon it’s a grin, and Blue finds himself grinning back as Red begins to giggle. “That’s stupid. How would that even work, fusing pokemon together?”

don’t know, I’m just saying—”

“Would it have six wings?”

“Of course it would have six wings, and three tails—”

“No, one tail, but it’s like, all their tails blended together—”

“And six legs—”

“What? No, that’s dumb—”

“Oh sure, that’s dumb. It’s my idea you know—”

“Yeah well I’m the scientist, and it’s my hypothetical mad-scientist creation. What would it even need six legs for?”

“For its long body!”

“Long body!” Red laughs. “Like a caterpie!”

“Not like a caterpie you idiot, like a bird body, just long! Where else would the six wings go?”

“I don’t know, the same joint?”

“So says the scientist. You are picturing each head on its own neck though, right?”

“Of course, like a dodrio.”

“Alright, at least we’re on the same page there.”

Silence descends, broken by the occasional chuckle, and eventually Blue shakes his head and sighs. “What were we arguing about again?”

“Were we arguing?” Red shrugs, smile fading. “I’m glad, for what you said. I just… I don’t know. I guess I’m afraid you’ll…”

“Yeah,” Blue says, voice soft, and clears his throat. “I get it. I just don’t know if, like, I should apologize, or—”

“No, it’s okay. It would be unfair of me to ask for that level of trust. We were always on different pages, I think, we just never had reason to know it.” Red grimaces. “Actually, that’s not… totally true.”

“What do you mean?”

“When we started our journey, I was thinking we weren’t ready for a Stormbringer attack. I… haven’t thought of this in a long time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought about ways to keep us from one before we were ready.”

Blue stares at Red, anger and indignation rising up… then fading as he lets his breath out. “Yeah, well. That was shitty of you, not telling me how you really felt. But I’d be a hypocrite if I thought less of you for feeling that way at all, given that I—” The words get stuck in his throat, and he clears it. “After Vermilion, I changed my mind about going to every Stormbringer battle. It wasn’t what I thought it would be like, and we…”

We might have died.

Even after they lost Aiko, he feels rejection of that in his core. It’s possible, sure, but he doesn’t really believe it. Not if they stuck together…

Meanwhile Red is looking surprised, and relieved. “We would have been even less prepared.”

“Right. So we might not have been on the same page then, but we could be, someday, right?”

He’s not sure what he’s asking, really. He’s not sure what he’d do if Red says no. But he still feels conflicted and confused about how much he trusts Red, and how much he should. On the one hand he needs Red to be okay with hearing about Koichi’s theory if he’s going to get his help.

Not a great reason to share such a dangerous secret, really. And maybe he doesn’t need Red’s help, but it would take longer without it, and meanwhile he’s losing the soul of the gym, splitting it in two factions instead of making it a unified, stronger whole.

“We could be, yeah,” Red says, and his voice is soft too before he seems to shake himself. “And this is a good first step, I think. Talking about what honesty means for us.”

“Right. So, okay.” Blue sits on the ground, hands on his knees, and after a moment Red mirrors him, legs crossed. “How do we figure this out?”

“Well… first off, as a baseline, I think this quote makes for a really good starting point, though the person who wrote it might be really horrified by what we’re trying to do here… ‘Don’t lie when a normal highly honest person wouldn’t, and furthermore, be honest when somebody asks you which hypothetical circumstances would cause you to lie or mislead—absolutely honest, if they ask under this code. However, questions about meta-honesty should be careful not to probe object-level information.'”

“How the hell is anyone supposed to know what a ‘normal highly honest person’ would say? What if someone straight up asks if you know an embarrassing secret about your friend?”

“Well, there’s something called glomarization. ‘I can neither confirm nor deny that.'”

“I’m going to feel like an asshole if I go around saying that all the time.”

Red rolls his eyes. “You can also just say ‘no comment.'”

“And sound like a slimy politician?”

“Add whatever charm you want to it, the point is that you can set a policy of what sorts of things you won’t answer specifics to, and as long as you stick to it you won’t leak info or lie.”

“Right, but I can’t just start saying that if I have something to hide. Like if someone asks what I did last night, and I was in a secret meeting, if I say ‘the usual’ or ‘nothing special’ that implies I was training or hanging out with friends.”

“Yeah, that is a problem.” Red shrugs. “You could say ‘either I did the usual, or I don’t want to tell you what I did.” This time it’s Blue’s turn to stare at Red until he gives in. “Look, I’m not saying this is easy. But if you set an expectation—”

“Red, if you just say that at the end of everything you’ve reinvented lying with extra steps. Of course people might not want to tell someone what they did! That’s taken for granted in ‘nothing much!'”

“Privacy is different from… hm. I guess if it’s ambiguous and they’re just assuming… alright we’ll come back to that one as a general principle, but between the two of us at least, we’re on the same page about it, right? Our idea of two honest people talking will assume ‘or I don’t want to tell you’ is attached to the end of statements, and won’t get mad about jumping to conclusions?”

“Sure, I guess. Social convenience can’t answer everything though, right? What about white lies?”

Red shrugs. “My model of a ‘highly honest person’ doesn’t directly lie about something non-private for anything short of someone’s life being at risk.”

“Yeah. Okay, so… we both agree that a highly honest person doesn’t do white lies.”

“And that we know ourselves to want to be that honest, and know each other to be?”

Blue thinks about it for a moment. “I can’t actually remember the last time I said one.”

Red laughs. “Yeah, me neither.”

“I came close, with Glen. Not sure if it counts, when you’re really not sure what you feel but want to support someone… anyway, he wouldn’t have it.”

“I think if you’re unsure, and you don’t mention that you’re unsure, it’s still a white lie. I mean, no one can be absolutely sure, of course, but…” Red trails off, looking thoughtful. “I guess people can start including probability estimates—”

“Absolutely not. No one’s going to do that.”

“I—”

“Try it, Red, you’ll get sick of it in a week, and look like a total weirdo to everyone. And most people aren’t going to take it well if they ask if you believe in them and you say ‘I’m 87.34219—'”

Red’s glare is ruined by his twitching lips. “A number that high should be reassuring.”

“‘—12173% sure that you will, in most cases and circumstances—'”

“Okay, okay! So it’s unrealistic to be precise about reassurance. But still, I don’t think it’s a white lie if you’re reasonably sure and just say yes? Like if you’d bet 3:1 odds on it? Can we commit to that baseline?”

“Sure, but we can’t make a public commitment like that, right? Everyone’s going to assume we’re hiding things already.” Blue studies his friend, wondering again what secrets he’s been holding on to. Was he told something, or did he discover something new with his psychic research? It would be ironic if it turned out to be the same thing Koichi did. He’s not sure Red would have the social awareness to keep that secret, though. He may have… no, he definitely would have told Leaf, who would have even more to say about not spreading the news.

Red also could have told Sabrina, of course, and she would be perfectly positioned to explain it to him. Blue tries to replay his conversation with her about all this, but is distracted by Red’s sigh.

“I know. Someone online named Raymond even suggested a meta-honesty holiday where everyone posts their rules about metahonesty at the same time so there’s no reason to think that posting your rules about it indicates you’re hiding something. But for now at least, we can talk about ours.”

“We still haven’t talked about keeping secrets.”

“In what sense?”

“Does a highly honest person keep secrets for others if they know they’ll have to lie about it if asked?”

“Probably not. They’d probably let everyone know, or at least their close friends and family, that if a secret is shared with them they might glomarize but they won’t directly lie. And if there are some exceptions to that, depending on the situation, they should say that too.”

Blue considers this. “Should we invite anyone else to this? There are things I’d keep from Glen and Elaine, even Gramps and Daisy, but not a lot.”

“Okay, see, that’s good info. Uh, I’m not sure how to check this without getting object-level information…”

“No, none of them know the secret, mostly because they’re not dark or psychic. That’s another reason I’m not sure Leaf should know.”

Red groans and slaps his forehead. “Blue! I assumed that was why you weren’t sure she should come in the first place, now that I know that’s an extra reason, I can pretty well guess what this is about!”

Oops. Still… “Doubt it, unless you already know somehow.”

“Well I won’t try guesses out loud so I don’t get any extra info. Also, I think I’m still going to invite Leaf. Even if she doesn’t end up hearing the secret, it’s the perfect time to coordinate the meta-honest conversation, and each of us already knows why we might have secrets of some kind that having this conversation won’t trigger any extra suspicion.”

Blue considers this. “So, obviously you could be holding a secret about someone’s research that you helped with, and you’ve already worked with a couple Leaders, one about Renegade stuff, so it makes sense that you might have learned some things you can’t share while helping hunt for them in Celadon.”

“Right, and you might be keeping science related secrets for your grandfather, or secrets from the Leaders you’ve been talking in private with. Leaf might be keeping science related secrets for her family too, plus she’s done some journalism, so if she says she can’t reveal something people might just assume that it’s from a source for a story.”

“Huh.” Blue considers his journeymates and wonders if any of them could use him as an excuse. Probably not. “That sucks for normal people.”

“What, not having plausible deniability that people would take for granted?”

“Yeah.” Blue frowns. “I kind of want to bring the whole gang in, now. Seems important, in case…”

“Yeah, I should probably pull Jason in too, and Satori…”

Twenty minutes later they’ve sent out messages, dragged a protesting Satori away from the training hall, and holed themselves up in Blue’s room, which has just enough space for everyone, but not really enough space for everyone and their pokemon. Which means there are a lot of them on people’s laps or shoulders, which helps keep the chaos down a little, though Leaf’s buneary keeps hopping away from her to play with Satori’s torracat whenever Leaf lets her petting lapse.

“Alright, everyone, settle down,” Blue says. His two newest journeymates from Saffron, Jamil and Viraj, are the first to sit up and focus. It’s been interesting watching the way his fame has affected new people who join his group; both are really eager to prove themselves, and he expects they’ll settle down and relax by the time he finishes in Fuchsia and maybe picks up some new newbies. “We’ve got a scenario in a couple hours, and this might take a while.”

“Just to be clear,” Red says once everyone’s (mostly) paying more attention to him than their pokemon. “We’re not here to exchange secrets. Everyone got that?”

The group glances at each other, then nods.

“We’re just here to talk about how to be honest with each other, even if we sometimes have things we can’t share. And, if we have secrets that we feel morally compelled to share, at some point, how do we do that ethically.”

“Which you may not!” Leaf adds. “Either have them or ever feel it’s okay to share them. But just in case, this can be useful to do.”

Blue still sees some expressions that might be nervous, or skeptical. “If anyone wants to not be part of this, you don’t have to. You won’t lose points with me, and again, we’re not sharing any juicy gossip or anything so you’re not missing out.”

No one moves.

“Right,” Leaf adds. “This might just be boring for people who have no secrets, and irrelevant to people who have no intention of ever sharing them. So it makes sense for either sort of person to leave.”

The room is silent again, until one of Blue’s newer journeymates raises a hand. “But… if we’re not here, we won’t get secrets shared with us, if someone decides to share them, right?” Jamil looks around. “Because we won’t know the code, or whatever? Etiquette?”

Red looks pained. “That’s not…”

“It’s a fair question.” Leaf shrugs. “I can only speak for myself, but if I ever have secrets that I don’t want to lie about, or if I have to share information in a way that does its best not to violate trust put in me, it would be easier if I know someone’s meta-honesty norms and they know mine.”

“Same,” Glen says. “And it makes sense to me that someone would say that whether they have some major secret or not, since I feel the same way and don’t.”

Lizzy frowns. “Well I also don’t mph—!”

“Please hush,” Maria says, hand over her friend’s mouth. “It will reduce plausible deniability for everyone else who does not also say it.”

The others start looking around too. Some look suspicious, others look confused, and others, like Maria, look distinctly nervous. Then again, it’s Maria, so that doesn’t really tell Blue much…

But Jason is giving her concerned looks, and she’s been spending a lot of time with the psychic… medium… whatever.

Red sighs. “Trying to guess who here has a secret and who doesn’t isn’t really in the spirit of this. And yes, avoid saying anything that would pressure everyone else into saying the same thing to avoid suspicion. We’re here to find ways to talk about this stuff without having to say things like that without lying.”

“Sorry,” Glen says sheepishly.

Blue pushes his own curiosity aside and nudges Red. “Just get started, huh?”

“Right, so to recap what Leaf, Blue and I talked about already…”

Blue listens as Red goes over everything again, including stuff from a conversation he had with Leaf (who reveals she’s made a simple script for showing the higher number of multiple anonymously entered), the questions they asked each other and what they were unsure of. He’s actually getting better at lecturing, Blue has to admit. Maybe it’s because the topic is so juicy, or maybe it’s all the teaching he’s been doing in Saffron.

In any case, the room is rapt, and once Red finishes and asks for questions so far, practically everyone raises their hand.

“Society has some things we accept people keeping secrets about, right?” Elaine asks when pointed to. “Like, there’s stuff we consider personal and private, that everyone has a right to.”

“Yeah, good point. There’s also, like therapists and priests, who are expected to keep secrets for others even if it seems bad to do so, unless it crosses some specific lines…”

“Private companies keep projects secret, governments keep security risks secret,” Glen adds.

“Family,” Satori says, a cup of strong tea in her hands. “Spouses. Expecting one spouse to keep secrets from another would be difficult, unless they had already discussed this.”

Red nods. “There’s a few things everyone just sort of accepts are okay secrets for people to keep, and part of what makes them okay is that people know, more or less, what sorts of secrets will be kept by whom.” He shrugs. “It seems like that’s outward facing, at least?”

“But would it be okay if, say, a therapist said ‘I can’t tell you about that, therapy stuff,’ if it’s not?”

“No,” Red says, shaking his head. “Also depending on the question, saying that even if it is therapy stuff would probably be revealing information they shouldn’t.”

“But then, going back to that thing you guys weren’t sure about as a general principle… is it okay to not say why you can’t tell someone something, and let them assume it’s therapy stuff?”

Red hesitates. “I… think so?”

“The alternative would be bad,” Leaf says. “If being maximally honest includes having to correct people’s misconceptions, it would be easy for a bad actor to exploit that.”

“Right.” Red looks around. “Jason, think you had your hand up next? Different question?”

“The numbers,” Jason asks, turning to Leaf. “If the consequences of not keeping things secret seems too high, why not check with the one who originally shared it first?”

“It would be good to, for sure. But that might not be possible, if it’s time sensitive.” Leaf worries her lower lip. “Also, sometimes just telling someone if it’s okay to share a secret with someone, in enough detail to check if they’re okay with it, could break the trust of the one who told you the secret.”

There are some looks around the room that show clear skepticism, or maybe intrigue, but Jason just nods. The next few questions go over how people should evaluate their priorities, which is pretty personal and hard to make rules for, and how to balance different kinds of responsibilities to different people.

“Sharing secrets can also be dangerous for the listener,” Elaine says, and something about how forcefully neutral her tone is makes Blue suddenly wonder if Elaine of all people is holding some big one. Aiko used to tease her for how expressive her face is, how eager she is to talk about any ideas she has… “How do you warn someone just how bad the danger might be, without giving some stuff away?”

“That’s a good question,” Red says, and then lapses into silence, glancing at Leaf, who’s focused on her buneary, frowning thoughtfully. Blue has no idea what to say either, so he looks at the rest of the room, which is mostly silent.

“Maybe we should have invited someone who keeps secrets for a living?” Lizzy asks, and looks at Red. “Your mom’s probably kept a lot of secrets for her job, right?”

“Yeah, but… well…”

Leaf sighs. “It’s fine, Red, let’s just call her.”

Blue thought Red was just embarrassed to bring his mom into things, but it seems Leaf knows something he doesn’t. Probably related to the secrets talk they already had… he wonders if they’ll tell him what it was about, and if not, what made them able to talk to each other about it but not him.

Red dials his mom, then puts his phone on speaker. “Good morning, Sweetie. To what do I owe the early pleasure?”

“Hi Mom, you’re on speaker phone with, uh, a lot of people. Are you free for a bit?”

“Sure, I can chat. Who, exactly…?”

“Blue—”

“Hey, Aunty.”

“—Leaf—”

“Hi, Laura!”

“—guys, this’ll take too long if you all… Glen, Elaine, Maria, Lizzy, Jason, Satori, and, uh, sorry—”

“Jamil.”

“Viraj.”

“—Jamil and Viraj, new friends of Blue’s, are all here too.”

The phone is silent for a moment before Aunt Laura speaks again, voice cautious. “Hello, everyone. What can I do for you all today?”

“Okay, so… we’ve all just been talking about some stuff.” Leaf covers her face, and Red nudges her with his elbow, which causes her to nudge him back until he holds his palms up in surrender. “Uh, meta-honesty stuff, basically, like, how to be honest without lying when there are some secrets you’ve got to keep, right?”

“O…kay…”

“And anyway a question came up, if you had to tell someone a secret, but the secret is dangerous for them to know, how do you make sure they know how dangerous it is before agreeing to hear it?”

The whole room is silent, until Lizzy’s flaafy lets out a baa.

“What was that?” Aunt Laura asks.

“Uh, our pokemon are here too.”

“Oh. Red, are you… should we…”

“No, I’m not in trouble. We could talk in private first, but honestly, this is just a question we were wondering and thought you’d know. No one is about to reveal any dangerous secrets.” Leaf elbows him again, and he elbows her back. “I’ll let you know first if I plan to.”

“…okay. So. No information given but the risk profile, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, so… infohazards come in a number of forms, but I want to dispel the myth that probably just popped up in your heads, which are sometimes called cognitohazards. As far as I know, there aren’t any so bad that just learning them will cause the one who knows it permanent harm. Obviously I might say that even if not true to keep overly curious people, like my son, from going looking to test this.”

The room chuckles, and Red looks like he wants to object before he stops himself, looking torn.

“But in this case I can say, under the umbrella of meta-honesty, that I don’t know of any that act like that. I could be wrong, but the closest things to cognitohazards I’ve encountered are spoilers for movies and gross pictures.” Glen snorts, and Blue can hear the slight smile in Aunt Laura’s voice. “And minds can get used to even really gross things, over time. Still, it’s true that some ideas can lead to people having a few sleepless nights, maybe some existential dread now and then. On top of that, some people might turn down a lucrative job or stop being friends with someone if they learn of secret immoral behavior. I think considering that ‘harm’ is debatable, they still have a choice in the matter and by that standard any unpleasant knowledge would be considered a cognitohazard, but it’s still worth flagging as a concern.

“Next are infohazards related to behavior, and those can be further split into active vs passive. Some information is dangerous to share because it would allow bad people to actively do bad things more easily. Think of some technique for training renegade pokemon more easily, or an easy to recreate combination of household chemicals that would make a clear, odorless, lethal gas.

“A passive infohazard isn’t risky because of what people might do with the information, but just from having it. This seems to be more the sort of thing you all are talking about, since the danger is to the person being told the secret.”

They hear the sound of water bubbling, and after a few moments it fades before liquid is poured. Blue feels a nudge as Eevee settles up against his leg, and pets her as he glances around to see everyone else staring as intently at the phone as he was. The pokemon are picking up on their trainers’ moods, becoming more wary and protective.

“So, that danger itself can come in two major forms, which I call social and targeted.

“Social infohazards are secrets that, if people knew you had it, would cause problems for you. This usually arises from expectations that the information puts on you if you don’t act; for example, if you’re told that a friend is being cheated on, and you don’t tell them, you might be judged for it if it’s found out. This can also include more serious social issues, of course, like being told of renegade activity and not reporting it.

“Targeted infohazards paint a target on your back. These are secrets that might bring harm if people even just believe you might know it, maybe because they notice your behavior changed, maybe because a psychic senses that the person who told you the secret did so. We have to be really careful of these when investigating organized crime, of course.

“For both of these, the goal is to ensure the person learning the secret is aware of what they’re risking. So you ask them that. You go over all the different risks associated with secrets to make sure they have an idea of what could happen, so they can decide what they’re comfortable with.”

Red is frowning. “But…”

“I know. That’s where my own invention comes in; after you go over the different kinds of hazards, you make a new category. I call it a penalty infohazard. You ask them what the limit they’re willing to pay you in damages is, if the secret were the kind that would cost you money if it got out. Not if they reveal it, just if it got out at all.”

Leaf laughs. “Oh, that’s clever!”

Lizzy nods. “If they say they’re okay with cognitohazards and social infohazards but not targeted ones, and you don’t tell them the secret, they know which it was. But with this extra category that’s an automatic no for them…”

“Right,” Aunt Laura says. “They can’t know if their number just wasn’t high enough, regardless of what kind of secret it is. It’s content-neutral, so it could invalidate their willingness for any of them.”

“For people who know the trick, though,” Maria says. “Would this still work?”

“It’s not a trick, though I understand why you’d say so. There are in fact some secrets that would cause financial loss if they became public knowledge, like, say, a pokemon you have a lot of that’s about to lower drastically in value. Everyone got that?”

Red looks around to see everyone nodding. “We got it. This was great, thanks, Mom!”

“Thanks, Laura!”

“Thank you!”

The rest of the room choruses their appreciation, and Red’s mom is back to sounding a bit apprehensive. “You’re very welcome, I think. Let’s talk soon, alright Red?”

“Sure thing. Have a good day!”

“You too. Love you. Goodbye everyone.”

They say goodbye, and Red ends the call and sits back, looking deep in thought.

“Well,” Leaf says once people start shifting. “I think we’ve got a lot to chew on from all this, and most of you have to go soon, right? And I’ve got some morning chores to get to…”

“Yeah,” Blue stirs, then gets to his feet and stretches. “And I still haven’t had breakfast. Let’s meet at the dining hall, everyone.”

His journeymates start withdrawing their pokemon and say their goodbyes to Leaf and the psychics before heading out the door. “The plan is still on,” he tells Satori. “I just need to talk to Red first. Why don’t you go get some sleep until then?”

The sleepy girl looks like she’s about to argue, but only yawns instead before giving a resigned nod. She follows Jason and Maria out, leaving him with Red and Leaf.

When he turns to them they’re staring at each other, and he gets the feeling again of missing something. They’ve all had their own projects, their own social circles, their own schedules, but ever since the Hoenn incident he’s gotten used to feeling like they’d be on the same page about important stuff again. He knows he’s been particularly focused on his own stuff lately, but… if the two of them were not just holding their own secrets, but also sharing them while excluding him…

Sure, he was about to tell Red a secret that would leave Leaf out. But only until they figured out if it worked.

“Okay guys, what’s been going on with you two?”

“What? Nothing,” Red says, too quickly. “What do you mean?”

Leaf rolls her eyes, though she’s smiling as she glances at Red’s flustered expression. “There’s some stuff Red may have discovered that might be relevant to something I’ve been working on.”

“If it’s important enough that you had to design that number thing, I want in.” If it’s just about the tech Leaf’s been working on to recreate sakki he doesn’t think that would be necessary, and besides he already knows about it. The only other recent big thing that’s been going on are those crazy psychic dreams, but he has no idea what that might have to do with Leaf.

Red frowns. “That’s not… we just had this whole talk—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not saying I’ll be pissed if I’m kept out of the loop.” He’d be irritated, maybe a little hurt, if he’s being honest. “I’m just flagging it, you know? If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“Of course,” Leaf rubs her buneary’s ears. “We just have to figure out if there is something first. I’ve sent a message to a certain someone who might shed some light on things, but they haven’t responded yet.”

“And my own research has been inconclusive too,” Red says, tone so careful that Blue can’t help but force a gasp, which makes Red turn to him in panicked surprise.

Blue’s laugh sets Leaf to giggling, and Red’s scowl quickly breaks into chuckles of his own, and Blue feels a little better. Maybe from the sign that they haven’t shared secrets yet, are still figuring out if they even have one to share, or maybe just from the laughter.

“Ah, fuck it.” He’ll take his chances, so long as they’re willing to. “I have to go, but first… let’s do the thing Aunt Laura mentioned. What sorts of secrets are you guys okay with hearing?”

Leaf and Red exchange looks, then look away, expressions growing thoughtful on Red’s part and cautious on Leaf’s. He gets Eevee’s ball and plays fetch with her for a bit while they think, thinking over his own. Being Dark means he doesn’t have to worry about most of the things people hearing secrets do… though come to think of it, given what Satori told him this morning, that might not always be true.

The thought is a strange one, and an exciting one, and a frightening one too. He’s had years to get used to the idea that he’ll never be able to teleport, never be fully trusted by some people. He’s barely had one to start to appreciate the value he’s gotten in return.

But he’s jumping to conclusions. For now, he should take for granted that secrets are safe with him. Which means…

“I’m okay with cognitohazards,” Red says. “I mean, I can just amnesia it if I need to, but even without that.”

“Big surprise there,” Leaf says with a smile, then nods. “Me too. If something is true, I want to know it. I trust myself to deal with the implications of it, and living in blissful ignorance… I mean, if I’m in a really fragile place, emotionally, maybe I’d want to wait a bit. But outside of that, I’m game.”

“Same,” Blue says. “Also fine with the rest of it.”

“Even target hazards?” Red asks, brow raised, at the same time that Leaf asks, “Even Social…?”

Blue chuckles along with them, then shrugs. “Yeah, both. I get it, I’m careful with my image, but… I’d rather know what sorts of social blowups are potentially around me. As for becoming a target… I’m an Oak. I’d like to see who thinks they can get away with putting one on my back. If one of you is in trouble, I’d want to help.”

They’re silent at that, for a moment, then Leaf sets her buneary down and stands to walk over for a hug. He returns it, only feeling a little embarrassed until Red joins them a moment later. He almost tells them not to make such a big deal out of it, but his friend’s expression looks deeply moved, and Blue decides to just shut up and let them hug him for a bit.

Blue’s embarrassment is just starting to grow when Red and Leaf pull away, and he clears his throat. “Uh, money stuff… I guess I’d rather not pay more than ten thousand? Not without some details of how important the secret is, I guess, which maybe those ‘how bad is this’ numbers are helpful for too.”

“Five thousand for me,” Red says. “And, uh… I’m fine with the other kinds of infohazards too.”

“Same,” Leaf says. “Except, don’t tell me active infohazards that might be dangerous in the wrong hands. I don’t trust my mental defenses that well. And, oh, I think I’d be okay with paying more. Let’s say ten thousand too.”

Blue frowns. “Hey, I didn’t mean to—”

“We did this wrong from the beginning,” Red says. “We should have written our answers out, then shared them. But I don’t regret it. Everything you said… these probably aren’t my standards for everyone, but for you guys, yeah. I’d want to know if you were in trouble too.”

“Same,” Leaf says.

Blue can’t help but grin at them. They’re still connected. He shouldn’t have doubted them.

Though now he has a problem. His secret is one Leaf can’t hear, but if he tells her that, she’ll know what kind it is. The number thing doesn’t work, he realizes, if they share them publicly like this and the person not okay with a certain kind of secret gives a higher number than the other.

Red’s right, they did it wrong. But he doesn’t regret it either, and in this case it’s an easy fix, thankfully. He’ll point out the extra flaw to them later.

“Right, I’m off to eat, then. Got a scenario after, so… let’s talk more later?”

“Sure.”

“You got it.”

They collect their pokemon and head out together. Once they’ve teleported away, Blue messages Red and tells him to come back in a few hours.

They’ve got some training to do.


It’s surprisingly hard for Red to remember what fearing for his life is like.

Not impossible, of course. A few situations stand out more than others, and with some concentration he can practically relive the moments of desperation. But the older the memories, the less sharp they are… with two exceptions. The night of the storm, with Pressure beating against his mind like a drum of fear, and the night of the incident, trapped in the casino rubble, desperation filling every moment.

“The real trick is projecting those feelings onto an abra without them teleporting away,” Red explains as he takes a break and Blue sprays some ether onto a berry and feeds it to Tops. “Being indoors helps ensure they can’t, and the pokeball conditioning makes them somewhat less likely to want to… around a normal trainer, at least. Since he can’t sense you, running away is still registering as the best option. Keeping him focused on fighting is difficult, he’s already fighting an instinct that says the best thing to do when in danger is make use of the nearly foolproof defense mechanism it’s had since birth.”

“I get it,” Blue says. “If this is too hard on you—”

“I can do it,” Red insists, and takes a deep breath. They’d only been at it for an hour, and while they can test the theory with another pokemon, abra would show the clearest signs of unusually quick growth. “I just need to find the right balance.”

Hearing about Koichi’s theory was fascinating, and horrifying. He understands immediately why Blue didn’t tell Leaf; as he’d guessed, it had to do with pokemon welfare, but on top of that, it’s definitely a secret she would regret leaking if some psychic picked it up from her.

The implications, if it is true… well, he’d think about those later, once they have some data.

“Balance,” Blue muses. “Maybe not, if you mean balanced fear. Try a memory of when you were sure death was close, but you fought anyway.”

Red considers this, then sorts through every brush with death in his memory again, from the pikachu swarm in Viridian, to lying injured in the Rocket Casino basement as the renegades approached, to the pack of growlithe that nearly burned him to a crisp during one of the recent attacks near Saffron.

He sinks into those moments as best he can. Fear so strong he could taste it, metallic and suffocating. A trembling in his limbs, tightness in his chest, the urge to move fighting paralysis. He was able to make himself, time and again; he just needs to communicate why in a feeling that abra understands, particularly since fighting back for him involved doing things abra don’t, and abra fighting involves doing things he doesn’t.

If only abra had some killer instinct, but the sakki would be worse than useless here, and Red can’t exactly send his own, since…

“You just realized something.”

“I, uh… may have, yeah. Do you… want to kill pokemon when you fight them? Or hurt them, even?”

Blue furrows his brow, and after a moment shrugs. “Once in a while, after one of my pokemon gets hurt, or killed.”

And now Red remembers…

…”It has lightscreen!” Leaf yelled, and he knew her well enough to hear the way she was pushing past her heartbreak over the pokemon they’d just lost, past the Pressure making her feel guilty for fighting at all…

…”Be ready,” Red said, voice rough as his blood sang with a rage more primal than anything he’d felt before as he/Charmeleon opened their mouths and breathed death at their enemy…

…a time when he wanted his opponent not just disabled or captured, but dead. It wasn’t his feeling, not really, but he felt it as much as he could through his bond with Charmeleon, and maybe that’s enough.

Can abra feel rage? He supposes there’s one way to find out.

But rage wouldn’t be enough, according to this theory; what matters is the genuine fear for his life. Luckily, while being bonded with Charmeleon under the effects of sakki would normally wipe that away, the Pressure ensured he still felt it.

The only problem is he never deliberately created a memory of that mental state, which means he can’t perfectly reproduce and project it. He’d need to find another source of Pressure…

He almost asks Blue if he can reach out to the rangers he helped catch the absol, see if they’d let them run an experiment with it, then realizes it wouldn’t matter; he wouldn’t feel the same way he did in Vermilion, Pressure feels different depending on context and what you’re feeling in that moment. The best he can do is try to project from the memory.

“I’m going again,” Red says, and takes a deep breath before recalling that mental state as best he could… then merges with Tops and projects it onto the abra, who starts to tremble. Red’s own body twitches in sympathy, voice strained as he says, “Go.”

“Tops, Pa!”

Red feels the attack get sent out in a burst of confusing sensations (as always, he can almost feel what a pokemon is doing when it uses kinesis… almost) coupled with fear… and something else, something that’s not quite rage, but it’s enough to keep the abra focused on its opponent.

Red’s Drowzee twitches from the attack, barely hurt… but, for the first time, hurt, while the abra was in a state of mortal fear.

He lets the emotions go with a rush of breath, wiping sweat from his brow and smiling in triumph as he opens his eyes and sees Blue grinning just as wide as he slaps Red on the back. “I knew you could do it. Let’s see how many blasts it can send out like this!”

Red nods, and focuses on the abra again, doing his best to ignore the trembling in abra’s limbs as he remerges their minds. If this actually works, he could train his pokemon faster without putting them in mortal danger.

He can be ready, the next time a friend needs him to be stronger.

Chapter 104: Secrets

“Sabrina seems tired.”

Red glances at Rei, who sits casually in the carseat beside him with her gaze out the window, then looks back at his notebook and finishes writing out his thought before closing it with a sigh and a nod. “I haven’t seen her this exhausted since after the Hoenn incident.”

He’s still not sure what his relationship with Sabrina’s ex-student is these days. “Co-conspirator” seems the best one that fits; they’re not exactly friends, not exactly peers, and not exactly coworkers, but once in a while Giovanni or Sabrina want something done that requires a psychic, and both seem happy to offer their employee/student to the other if the job requires more than one, or if the other is busy. It’s often a great learning opportunity, and many of the tasks involve putting Red in new situations, facing new challenges for his growing abilities. He’s helped test young psychics in Viridian to see if they had the Gift and get a sense of their abilities, and once even helped diagnose someone who was hit with a mental attack. It felt strange handing someone the same form Psychic Narud gave him a year ago.

Today they’re interviewing psychics who have had The Dream.

It’s hard not to think of the words in capital letters after they’ve shown up in the media that way for weeks, and some part of Red insists this is totally normal given how momentous it all is.

He barely paid attention to it all until it started hitting entire cities, and then Agatha’s interview made it impossible to ignore as the “new central narrative of their time,” to quote some pundit or the other… and if he’s being honest, he’s getting a little sick of living through so many of those, even if this one is relevant to his interests.

Maybe he just wants some breathing room before the next massive and/or mysterious potential calamity rears its head.

Last week was the anniversary of the start of his journey, and the three of them all went back to Pallet to have a small but warm celebration with his mom, Daisy, and the Professor… as well as a surprise visit from Leaf’s mother and grandfather, who were fun to finally meet. Once he (more or less) finished peppering them with questions and answered a number of theirs (it was mildly shocking, despite everything, to hear that both Professors had read not just his papers but the loose collection of writing that passed for his blog), the conversation turned to what’s been going on in Kanto and throughout the island chain, which the Junipers of course followed on two different levels.

Eventually Leaf asked if it’s always been like this and she only just started noticing once she started her journey, and Daisy complained that her journey only had one world-changing discovery during it, while Professor Oak admitted that his own coincided with a fair few, but not so close together, which Cedric agreed with. Leaf’s mother said hers had basically none, which in retrospect she’s rather happy about.

None of course were anything like the Hoenn incident. It’s hard to know how much of what’s happened since can be truly traced back to it, and whether the incident itself was the result of some other series of events set in motion long ago, but Red wonders how much of his life is going to end up shaped by it.

“It set her back a lot,” Red says. “And then there was the ditto thing.”

“So you think it’s just been catch-up?” Rei says.

“She’s finally finished her Challenger backlog.” Red remembers mentioning her shift in focus to Blue a few weeks ago, who just smiled and implied it was part of some deal he’d struck with her. “It’s kept her busy on top of everything else.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

He turns to see her eyes on him now, and lowers his shields enough for a tentative probe that senses her curiosity, layered over a deep worry. “I don’t think she’s had it yet, if that’s what you mean. Not unless she’s sleeping in other cities, or she got it without the rest of us.”

“She could have been one of the initial ones, when it was just going to powerful psychics.”

Red smiles. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Believe what?”

“That it was just going to ‘powerful’ psychics at first, because you consider yourself one and you didn’t get it either.”

Rei smiles back in acknowledgement. “The only alternative that makes sense is fame, and yet we’re supposed to believe one of the most famous psychics in Kanto didn’t get it?”

“Why would she lie?”

“To you, you mean?”

“To anyone, at this point.” Red doesn’t ask why she’s so curious, given that her days of obsessing over Sabrina are supposed to be behind her; he’s been curious too.

“What if she got a different dream than everyone else?”

“Has that happened to anyone?”

“Would we know if it had?”

“Wild speculation, then.”

“If you have a better hypothesis…”

The car slows to a stop, and they step out in front of a small house with a white picket fence and a well kept lawn. Cerulean South is just as Red remembers it, mostly suburbs that stretch out in every direction, and he feels a quick squeeze in his chest as he sees the road he, Blue and Leaf traveled down to the bike store where they met Aiko.

But just a quick one, and then he’s breathing again as they walk up to the house and ring the bell.

It takes a minute for the young man to answer, and when he does it’s with a furtive look through the chain link lock before he opens it more fully.

“Hello,” Rei says. She always does the talking at first; she’s older and looks more professional, which makes sense to older folk, and she’s also not famous, which means those people who know Red by sight (mostly younger psychics) are less likely to ask him questions about himself if he’s not the one who starts talking. Instead he just focuses on his notebook unless he has a question to ask. “Mr. Garcia? I’m Rei, we spoke on the phone.”

“Yes, come in, please…”

They enter the man’s home and sit on his couch. Red accepts tea, mostly because it seems like the sort of thing that would calm their host’s obvious nerves. His features are drawn, his gaze constantly either a million miles away or darting nervously around, and he twitches occasionally, head tilting in an almost desperate attempt to hear something, or convince himself he can’t hear anything.

Red’s seen it all before, but not this bad. The Dream can often have that effect on people, but usually it’s temporary, particularly since a lot of psychics just amnesia themselves of it; there’s been a rush on lessons for that and other lessons in Saffron as laypsychics who’ve only marginally explored their powers are suddenly much more interested in ensuring it’s not used against them again.

“So,” Rei says after declining her own offer of tea. “Tell us what you hoped Leader Sabrina could do for you.”

“Well, I’m ah, not sure. I’m a sensitive, like I said, not a full psychic… I ah, wish I could just… forget, you know? If it’s possible at all… I heard it’s possible… I thought surely, she could…”

The pleading in his tone makes Red’s stomach clench. He still remembers what Narud said about one psychic giving another amnesia; like surgery done with fingers, or similar. Whatever Mr. Garcia heard, it’s clearly not as deterring… or maybe his experience is just that bad.

“It’s possible,” Rei says, tone neither flat nor sympathetic, merely delivering logistical information. Red asked her once, way back when they were trying to crack “perfect lying” together, why she doesn’t try being more friendly, and she gave him an assessing look and said that she forgets how young he is sometimes, and he decided not to ask for clarification until he could figure out whether he said something insulting or if she did. “But it would be a risky procedure that most psychics would not wish to attempt, even skilled ones. We will, however, ensure Sabrina knows of your suffering.”

“Thank you.”

“Meanwhile, we would like to learn what we can about your experience in more detail.”

“Yes, yes of course. Well, to start it’s been… ah, like I said, the first dream, in Goldenrod… it was bad, but not, you know. Wrecked my concentration for the rest of the week, but the important business was already done… drank a bit more after the meetings to help me sleep, and by the time I came home, it was… easier. To put it behind me.”

Garcia swallows, then drinks some tea, swallows again. “The second time was like… it was… it’s like, because I tried so hard to forget before, I got punished. And now it’s etched in there.” He taps his temple. “To make sure I don’t, this time.”

“But the dream itself was the same?” Rei asks as Red makes a note to point out whether recognizing that a whole city got it clearly points to bad luck rather than any evidence of fault. “Please think over your answer, and don’t hesitate to voice uncertainty; you’re the only person we know of so far who has experienced it twice, and even the slightest difference may be useful to us.”

“It… I’m sorry, I’ll take a moment…” He closes his eyes, mouth set in a firm frown as Red finishes making another note about how they should put out a general call for psychics to record themselves while sleeping in case they talk in their sleep during the dream.

As the silence stretches out, Red can’t help but send out a tentative, instinctual psychic feeler that picks up on something like… pain.

Red almost pulls back, but Garcia doesn’t shift to any of the exercises he mentioned knowing to reduce unwanted psychic contact, so he feels the way Garcia is struggling against strongly aversive thoughts.

Not painful the way an embarrassing memory or recollection of grief is painful… more the pain of dread, of a potential hopelessness that’s only held at bay by a lack of close examination. Once he understands it, Red quickly pulls his thoughts away as Garcia starts to speak again. “I think so, it’s… hard to tell, but the second time was… more forceful. It was like… things were clearer, but… maybe that’s just because I—”

“Remember, no filter, no second guessing. Just share whatever notions come up. Yes or no: was it more forceful?”

“Y-yes.”

“Was it more desperate?”

“Y…no. I’m not—” He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “If I have to choose, no. Not more desperate. I’m not sure how that fits with it being more forceful, but…”

“It’s alright. Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense.”

“Did it feel like the same projector?” Red asks, writing the question out as he says it. “I know that’s hard to tell from just two samples, but again as best you can tell—”

“Yes, same projector. Their thoughts were… distinct. Strong. It really was like hearing words, not just getting ideas and impressions. I’m more sure than I would be with just anyone.”

Red frowns as he makes a quick note, then flips to another page and crosses out one of his hypotheses before returning to his current one. “And… was the order of the dream the same? Like did it all happen in the same sequence of words, impressions, feelings, whatever?”

“Oh. No?” Garcia considers another moment, then shakes his head. “N-no. It was subtle, and… some things stayed in the same order, but I have… two versions in my head, for the sequence of both.”

“But nothing was added to the second one, or obviously missing?”

“No.”

He’s getting more confident, which is heartening to see, but thinking about the dream does seem to still cause discomfort. Rei probably sensed it too, one way or the other, because she gives him a sympathetic smile before saying, “We have one last request, if you’re feeling willing. We’d like to experience this dream ourselves as best we can, despite not having had it.”

Garcia understands immediately, knuckles turning white as he clenches his hands around each other. “Oh… I…”

“Preferably twice each, so that Red and I are not merged at once and influencing each other’s impressions.”

“I… I think I…”

Red feels a tightening in his chest as the man’s stutter gets worse, and with rising alarm realizes the older man is on the verge of tears. “Hey, uh, I think it’s okay actually. From what you’ve described it doesn’t seem like it was different enough to be really necessary.”

Garcia’s whole body sags, and he takes a deep breath. “A-alright, then.”

Rei’s irritation is only evident mentally, but all she says is, “I believe that’s all, then. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing,” Red quickly adds. “Uh, I mean I’m not claiming to know anything here that you don’t, but if you’re thinking that any of this is, like, a punishment or something…” Red remembers, suddenly, the young man in Vermilion City during the storm, who felt Zapdos’s pressure as divine punishment for something he was guilty about and grieving over. “Since entire cities got it both times you did, I think it’s probably just bad luck?”

“Luck,” Garcia sighs. “Right.” He sounds… tired, rather than relieved.

Before Red can decide to add something else or not Rei gets to her feet, and he quickly finishes his tea before joining her while Garcia pushes himself up as well, seeming a little surprised that it’s actually over so quickly. After unlocking the door he pauses and turns to them, seeming to build up his courage. “You will… tell Sabrina? Or… others, about my…”

“Yes, of course.”

“Th-thank you. I’ve been getting… desperate, lately. Had th-thoughts of… of training a drowzee, to… to—”

A shot of alarm races through Red as he realizes what’s being confessed, thoughts scrambling for something to keep the man from admitting he’s thinking of breaking a renegade law, until to his relief Rei puts a hand on Garcia’s shoulder, gently squeezing. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Sir. We’ll do our best to figure something else out.”

It’s the most compassionate thing Red’s ever seen her do, and the man looks ready to cry again as he bobs his head, then whispers, “Thank you.”

Rei gives his shoulder a light pat before pulling her arm back, and he opens the door for them. Red gives one last small wave, and then they step out of the house and start walking in a random direction together, simply seeking privacy to discuss what they learned before each teleports back to their respective cities.

“Thoughts?” Rei asks after a minute.

“I’m becoming more and more convinced Agatha was right with her first guess,” Red says. “When I look at the evidence, the best explanation that fits is that an individual is doing all this.”

“Go on.”

Red reviews his notes, ticking each point off on a finger. “It’s never repeated in a city, and it’s never hit the same place twice once it stopped targeting individuals. Why do that? The second dream wasn’t exactly like the first in minor details but not major ones—”

“Allegedly.”

He frowns at her. “Come on, in that state could we really have trusted what he re-experienced?”

“Perhaps not, but it still might have been valuable.”

Red thinks through all the previous times he experienced the memories of someone’s dream through merger and shrugs. “I can’t imagine how, given the way it all fades into a background blur of impressions for me anyway.” Which, after seeing Mr. Garcia, he suddenly feels thankful for. He doesn’t feel like he particularly needs another traumatic experience in his life right now, curious as he is to know what having the Dream himself would be like.

“Mm. Well, you’re right that trauma responses are hard to predict. I’m sorry, I interrupted you as you were saying…”

Red checks his notes again. “Right, there’s also the ramp up from individuals. It’s like someone hoped that just telling some important people would be enough, at first.”

“There’s nothing stopping a hypothetical spirit or god from being mistaken about something, or poor at planning.”

“Sure, but what actual value does that explanation add, then? It’s meant to answer the question of how someone can know what the dream insists is true, and how they can transmit it like this. But if it seems like it’s making errors similar to what a human would anyway, then we shouldn’t be as impressed. Whatever sent the dreams either didn’t realize they would be hitting the same person twice in Cerulean, or they didn’t care, or they didn’t have the ability not to and still cover the city.”

“Your focus is on the wrong part of the explanation. There’s no actual reason why a non-human entity should be expected to not fall into any of those categories.” Rei shrugs. “Your models implicitly assume any non-human entity is infinitely more benevolent or capable along some dimension, rather than more capable along one or two, and that seems irrational to me.”

Red scratches his neck as he tries to fit the concept of it into his brain. It feels wrong somehow, but he can’t really think of why, and has to admit it might just be expectation. “Alright, yeah, that might be fair. I still say it’s more likely to be a human with a uniquely powerful projection though.”

“Which you believe they’re hiding because it would mark their circumstances more similar to yours.”

Red shrugs, not bothering to deny it. It’s hard not to sympathize with someone who has a unique psychic talent that others might fear, even if they weren’t putting themselves at risk to spread some vital truth… or rather, something they believe is a vital truth. He doesn’t know how they became aware of the Dream’s threat themselves, but it must have been convincing enough to have them risk their own anonymity, which is an extra weight on how persuasive the threat is.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far more reasonable to me that a human wouldn’t want people to know who they are than a spirit or whatever. If anything knowing it’s not a person would make the message more convincing, so if they understand anything about human psychology—”

“Which they might not.”

“—sure, which they might not, but then how did they know to target the most famous psychics first? Even putting aside the projector’s city-wide power, some people just don’t like the spotlight, which yes I personally relate to, but it’s still true.”

“Mm. Isn’t there a movie being made about you?”

“Hey, that was Blue and Leaf’s idea. I can feel uncomfortable about it and still agree it’s a good idea.”

“But surely the rational thing to do would be to become comfortable with it once you recognize it’s a good idea?”

“No, I can have different parts that each have a valuable perspective on something, and I can feel a certain way and still recognize—oh you’re messing with me aren’t you.”

“Just a little.” Rei slows to a stop and unclips a pokeball, and Red matches her. “I’m off to Viridian. Do let me know if Sabrina has anything interesting to add.”

“Same to you with Giovanni.” He wonders if she actually would, given he’s her boss rather than her teacher, but if she does he’s happy to reciprocate, assuming it’s nothing he thinks Sabrina would mind being shared. “Until next time.”

A few minutes later he’s knocking on Sabrina’s office door, then entering as she calls out to come in. The Leader does look tired, and more than a little distracted… but there’s something else, too. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s almost like she has more drive than she used to. He’d be worried she’s entering a manic phase if she wasn’t still so clearly in control of herself.

“So?” she says as he sits and accepts his second tea cup of the hour. “Is it bad?”

“Very, Sensei. I know it shouldn’t be done lightly, but if you saw him yourself I think you’d agree that he needs help.”

She sighs. “I’d rather wait at least a week to see if he starts to recover on his own, particularly if he can find a psychic therapist, but after that… I’ll see what I can do. Any new insights into the dreams themselves?”

“I can send you my notes—”

“Your takeaway is good enough for now.”

Red nods. “Nothing really meaningful. He says it’s more urgent now, but… that could just be from having had it before.”

“Of course. Well, it was worth a try—”

“Actually, Sensei, there is something else, but it’s not directly from Mr. Garcia.” She raises a brow and gestures for him to continue. “I’ve been thinking about this since Agatha’s interview, and after talking to Rei about it I’m pretty convinced that this doesn’t seem to be a supernatural source.” He quickly summarizes his points from before, then adds, “I didn’t mention this to her, but if it is a psychic with a unique ability, or a semi-unique one, like we talked about… well, would you have any guess for who it could be?”

Sabrina’s gaze shifted away from him at some point while he was talking, and she’s still looking into the distance, hands steepled on the desk. Red waits, though he does send out a psychic feeler to confirm that her shield is fully solid.

What’s unsettling Red at this point isn’t how long it’s taking to answer, but why she didn’t just lie.

She should have, if she’s protecting someone’s identity. Spending this much time thinking over her answer, however, would make it hard to believe if she said no now, even if she claimed to just have been searching her memory; she doubtless has had this thought already before he brought it up.

And she should know this, and yet she’s still seemingly paralyzed by some thought or emotion or decision.

“Sensei,” Red says after a moment of mustering his courage. “Why do you think you didn’t get the dream?” It’s the closest he can come to asking if Rei was right about Sabrina lying about it.

The Leader’s eyes flick to his, then away again, then back, and this time they hold. “I don’t know. But I suspect it’s because the one sending the dreams is… one of my ex-students.”

Even expecting it, the confirmation halts Red’s breath for a moment, then sends his pulse racing as new questions start to crowd his thoughts. “Have you… mentioned them before?”

“Yes, though I didn’t mention they had this ability. Because they didn’t, at the time. But it still seems likely to be them.”

“Who are they?”

“Not someone you would know.”

Something suddenly clicks, and Red asks, “The one who disappeared after Hoenn?”

Sabrina stares at him for a moment, then another, again too long. “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t…” It takes him a moment to piece together the intuition. “You’ve been a certain way, ever since then. Half grieving, I think.” He recognized it well enough, good as she was at controlling it. “But you’re not anymore. I thought it was just because of the new mystery of the dreams, but… how do you… why do you suspect it’s them?”

“The best evidence I have is that I didn’t get the dream, and that Saffron hasn’t either.”

Red blinks. “You think they’re avoiding you? Does that mean they were never really lost?”

“It’s… hard to say. I thought we were on good terms. But given all this… how much trust could there really have been?”

Red doesn’t know what to say to that, besides, “At least they’re alive.”

“Maybe. And I could be wrong, of course. It could be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to sleep all night, just in case it’s Saffron’s turn next, but it’s hard to fall asleep when I’m anticipating what might happen if I do.” She shrugs. “I can amnesia the expectation to help me fall asleep, of course, but I want to experience it knowing what it is, wake from it with my full memories intact.”

Red tries to decide whether he should be tactful or inquisitive at the moment, but he’s still not sure what might be comforting rather than presumptuous; he doesn’t know enough about the situation, or their relationship, and asking might be digging. “Blue and I were, you know, on the outs for a while. Maybe there’s still a chance of mending bridges? Especially if you don’t know why they’re upset with you…”

“I can guess.” Sabrina smiles. “I appreciate it, Red, but the situation is rather complicated, and I’m not really in the mood to discuss it. Ask what you want to ask.”

Red smiles back, a bit self-conscious but also grateful. “Do you know what they want? Why they’re doing this?”

“If you’re asking whether I think we can trust the dream, it’s hard to tell without having the dream myself, but… yes. I think so. Whatever they learned, it was enough to make them put themself at serious risk.”

Red leans forward. “I was right then? It’s someone like me?”

For some reason that makes her laugh, brief but with a startled quality that makes it warmer. “Not like you, no. But not entirely unlike, in terms of secrets.”

“Maybe I can reach out to them, let them know what we’ve been planning!”

Again Sabrina pauses, expression sobering before she sighs. “If you can find a way to contact them, I wish you luck. But they might avoid you out of principle given that you know me. And no, I can’t tell you any more about why that is. I’m sorry, Red, I don’t mean to be mysterious, but some things are private.”

“I understand.” Mostly. “Still, if they have any other friends that you haven’t checked with recently…?”

Sabrina shakes her head. “They’ve lived a fairly isolated life. Most of their interactions with others came from their psychic abilities, which were quite powerful. Since they weren’t taught not to invade people’s privacy, they had many acquaintances that they knew quite well, but never got particularly close to any of them.”

“Sounds lonely.” Something about this description is tickling the back of Red’s mind, and after a moment he gives a wan smile. “Reminds me a bit of the story Leaf’s been writing, actually.”

“She writes fiction too?”

“Yeah, been publishing it online. I don’t know where she finds time, but it’s about a half-human psychic pokemon who’s sapient and gets raised in a lab—”

The next few moments can be measured in heartbeats, but feel eternal.

Sabrina’s eyes went wide at the words half-human psychic pokemon, wider than he’s ever seen them, wider than when he told her his secrets, and she sucked in a sharp breath at raised in a lab, mouth going slack.

It lasts just a second before her lips close, her features smooth, and her posture shifts back toward relaxed attentiveness, all so smoothly he would have missed it if he blinked.

“—that learns… about people through…” Whatever Red was going to say next has been blown out of his mind by the shock of seeing Sabrina react so strongly, and the suspicion of what she’s just done.

Red, you are the worst liar!

It’s barely even a decision, in the end.

And then…

“…through those working in the lab around it.”

“Interesting,” Sabrina says, and sips her tea. “That does sound lonely, yes.” Sabrina’s gaze is distant again, and after a moment she frowns and shifts. “I’m sorry, Red, I’ve just remembered a call I need to make. Thank you for the debrief.”

“Oh, sure.” He’s still curious about her student, but whether there’s really a call or not, he knows a dismissal when he hears one and heads to his room for a shower.

He’s just taken his shoes off when the partition drops, along with the amnesia’d memory of Sabrina’s reaction.

“Oh shit,” Red breathes as he drops onto his bed. “Holy shit. Holy fuck.”

Sabrina’s student was a lab experiment.

There are labs studying psychics, probably helping develop unusual psychic powers.

Because of course there are.

And of course Sabrina would know about them maybe she even comes from one that’s why she can see psychic colors sometimes and she amnesia’d herself mid-conversation because she was reacting too much so it must be super secret, way more secret than what they’ve already told each other, and holy fucking shit what is he going to do with this information?

Who did she suddenly remember she had to call?

What would she do if she knew Red knows?

Suspects. I don’t know anything.

Her reaction replays in his memory, and he feels something twisting in his gut. He could be wrong, but… he doesn’t think Sabrina would have reacted like that to just an unusual or interesting story idea. Maybe he’s wrong about a lot of it, maybe it’s not ongoing and just somewhere she and her friend were raised together or something. Hell, Sabrina might have helped shut it down.

But the idea of a psychic going around secretly projecting a warning instead of outing himself makes even more sense, with this explanation.

He’s halfway through taking out his journal when he realizes it might be a terrible idea to write any of this out, then remembers that there’s someone else he should be talking to and pulls out his phone.

“Hey Leaf, are you free? Yeah I’m fine, just want to talk. In person. Yeah, been a while since we hung out at the ranch, right? Exactly. Great, see you soon!”

A minute later he’s on the roof, and a few seconds after that he’s at the ranch. He looks around, then starts pacing as he waits, then summons Charmeleon and practices some battle maneuvers. After two months of fairly frequent battles with wild pokemon, his starter now stands as tall as his shoulders, tail long enough to curl around its body. It’s a little disconcerting, sometimes, to be able to meet that fierce blue gaze so easily now.

“Been a while since I could keep berries out of your reach, huh boy?” He feeds Charmeleon some poffins, other hand rubbing the base of his pokemon’s crest bone. “Not that I ever really could, with your climbing powers.”

Charmeleon gives a crooning-growl as he licks Red’s palm clean, and then there’s a distant pop as Leaf arrives nearby.

“Hey, Red!” She withdraws her abra and walks over with a worried smile and furrowed brow. “I’m assuming I interpreted that call right and this isn’t just a hang out?”

“Yeah.” It’s always good to see her, and while the circumstances don’t allow him to take much time enjoying her company, he can’t help but just smile for a moment, happy to see her and be near her. She also looks tired, and he knows that along with all her other work, she’s been helping with local incidents too. It makes him worry about her, but he knows she can take care of herself. So he sends her that mental impression, and she returns his smile.

Over the past few months they’ve had a few more moments like the one at his mom’s apartment after the tower, moments where he felt like he could say something, or should say something, about how he feels. But instead he’s just projected parts of it, careful to use his partitions to keep from sending the whole thing at once. It feels easier not to break his promise and check how she feels as long as he can be open about his own, now and then. She’s also seemed to appreciate it, so the idea of doing anything more explicit feels… scary. “Sorry, were you busy? Because—”

“I can chat for a bit,” she says as she unclips a pokeball. “Though I have to get back soon for a meeting.”

“How soon? This might be important.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. “I can probably make it there so long as I leave within about twenty minutes? I can’t really risk more, since it’s with my Fuchsia friend…”

Ah, Mom’s informant. “And you can’t really call and tell them you’ll be late, yeah… well, that should be enough for covering the basics at least. It’s about your story.”

Leaf’s hand pauses from where it’s moving from her belt to an outstretched position. It’s only for a moment, but he was watching it, and her voice is carefully controlled when she says, “Go, Raff!” and then “What about the story?”

It’s a struggle not to send his senses out, to sample her mood at least. He and Sabrina’s other students have taught Leaf what they could for completely non-psychic defenses, and she’s good at them, so a full merger might not be particularly helpful anyway if she’s actively trying to keep him out.

Still, he’s curious enough to almost try before reminding himself that he promised not to. The thought that Leaf might lie to him feels like a stone in his gut, probably all the heavier because of how many things he’s been keeping from her.

He watches her take out a training tool (and toy), basically an elastic and tough cord that pokemon can play tug-of-war with. It’s mostly meant for fighting pokemon, but they’ve found that others enjoy it too; both starters are already looking at it with anticipation, and a quick command from their trainers has them gripping the ends in their mouths and pulling.

Normally they’d be cheering their pokemon on, but there’s an awkward silence between them now, and after another moment Red decides to just be straightforward. “Alright, so I’m not really sure how else to say this, and I get that there might be some things you can’t tell me. But… uh… is your story inspired by something you’ve been looking into?”

Leaf raises a brow. “When you say ‘looking into,’ what exactly do you…”

She trails off, and, before Red can say anything, sighs and rubs her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do this part well with friends. It feels gross.”

“I know what you mean,” Red says, maybe a bit too earnestly. “I’m sorry too, I don’t know how else to ask, but I think it’s important. When you started it you said it was just something you were experimenting with to help people empathize with pokemon better, and I’m not saying that’s like, a lie or anything, but if, uh, if there really were like, secret labs training psychics—”

“Oh!” Leaf bursts into laughter, and for a moment Red feels sweeping, glorious relief… until her laughter cuts off, and her eyes widen as she stares at him. “Oh… Swords of Justice, there are secret psychic labs—

“No no, that’s double counting!” Red holds his palms out, one still slick with Charmeleon’s saliva. “I have no evidence that there are, if you just made it up then it’s probably nothing, it’s just… uh, maybe I shouldn’t say—”

“Red this is important!”

“I know, but—wait, is it important because you do know something, or—”

She tries once again to keep her face blank, but Leaf is no Sabrina, and after a moment she mutters “Fuck!” and covers her face with both hands. “We never tell anyone about this.”

“Agreed. Definitely not going in the second movie.”

She starts giggling, and then they’re both laughing as Charmeleon and Raff continue to tug at the rope, jaws occasionally gnawing for better purchase.

“This… is why society needs… meta norms around secrets,” Red says between breaths.

“Oh yeah,” Leaf gasps, arm across her belly.  “Or else just asking what someone’s meta-honesty-norms are would give information away!”

That sets them laughing again, and once it finally tapers off, they stare at each other for a moment until Red gives a helpless shrug. “So who goes first?”

“The one who has the least risky secret, I think.” She gives a wry grin. “Should we use a number scale?”

“You know what, sure, why not. What’s a 1?”

“A 1 is like, your friend will be exasperated at you for being a gossip. And a 10 is… something that will destroy the world if it gets out, I guess?”

Red’s smile slips, then fades entirely. “Right. And a 5 would be something that… brings about a region’s downfall?”

“That sounds more like, uh, an 8?”

“I think that would be all regions, if a 9 is… what, all life is at stake, but the planet will probably be fine?”

“I guess that sounds right. So a 7 is one region’s downfall, and a 6 is… multiple cities?” Leaf frowns. “If we keep doing this it’s going to make the number itself a metadata leak.”

“We could give the numbers to someone who doesn’t know what they represent, then just have them tell us whose was higher? They might get curious though, then we have to lie to them—”

She snorts. “Blue would probably roll his eyes but not ask questions. Also it would be easy to just write a script that would do it for us.”

“Right—wait, I’m an idiot, I can just amnesia myself after you tell me something if it doesn’t relate to what I thought!”

“Permanently?”

“Uh… not really…”

Charmeleon growls and falls onto all fours as Raff, feet digging into the ground and leaves rustling, starts to pull the rope harder. The flame on Charmeleon’s tail flares, and Red is alarmed enough to merge with his pokemon to check if he’s still in a playful mood. “Uh, not sure why but he’s maybe getting a bit too riled up for this.”

“They do get more competitive the closer they are to evolving. You should find some other charmeleon for him to play with.”

Close to evolving. He knows his pokemon just has a couple of feet of growth left before that becomes possible, but hearing it put that way makes it seem right around the corner. “Yeah, will do. Meanwhile…” He unclips two balls and holds one up as he sends a calming wave through his merger until his pokemon relaxes and lets the rope drop from his jaws, “Charmeleon, return! Go, Ivysaur! And before you say it, yeah, I still haven’t named him, sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me.” Her teasing expression fades as she checks her phone. “I really do have to go soon. Look, you’re right, your powers make telling you first the obvious right choice. But if you do decide not to tell me afterward, it’s going to be hard to justify why I shared the info with someone, and I won’t be able to lie about that either. Do you understand?”

“You’re saying it might draw more people into it.” And that whoever she wouldn’t be able to lie to, it would be someone as close to her as he is. While he’d like to think that’s not actually true, he knows there are plenty of others she would probably feel just as bad lying to, like Blue or his mom.

Red lets out a breath, rubbing his face. “Yeah, I get it. I’m actually still processing some stuff that I did actually learn and I’m not sure what the full scope of everything is. Maybe it’s better to actually just… both forget this for now?”

“That… might be the responsible thing to do, yeah.”

They both stand silently for a moment, staring at each other, and he doesn’t need to merge to guess her thoughts: “Responsibility sucks sometimes.”

“It sucks so much!”

“But we can both keep looking into it right?”

“Oh, totally! And if we find something out that wouldn’t be breaking someone’s confidence—”

“We could share that,” Red finishes, and smiles. “I wasn’t exactly looking for another project, but maybe my mom can h—really?

“I’m leaving!” Leaf declares, withdrawing Raff and summoning her abra while turning her back on him. “Goodbye Mr. Verres!”

“Wait, at least tell me—”

“Fuchsia!”

“—aaand she’s gone.” He turns to his ivysaur, who just unceremoniously lost his play partner, and picks up the other end of the chord. “Well boy, now we just have to decide if we should ask the Professor. If you win, I won’t.” Ivysaur cocks his head, then braces his feet against the ground… only to drop his end of the rope as soon as Red pulls.

He stares at the slack rope for a second and shrugs. “Well, guess that settles it. Just need to figure out some meta norms around secrets first… and hopefully not get any new ones to hold onto meanwhile.”


“I want to help.”

Blue blinks sleepily at the violet-haired girl standing outside his door. “Help with… Satori, right? Help with what?” It’s barely seven in the morning, and he went to bed around midnight after a strategy debate on how to better protect Fuchsia’s northern and southern tips went long past dinner, followed by a long walk and training session with Eevee beneath the full moon.

Satori doesn’t look like she got much sleep either. “Your project.” Her torracat is sniffing in the direction of his room, and takes a step inside before suddenly stopping and stepping back, probably from some mental nudge.

He rubs some sleep from his eyes. “I have a few of th—oh! My abra?”

“Yes. Red said you’re trying to do something like a reverse of my own goal, and suggested collaborating with Jason. He showed me your email about searching for psychic pokemon that have adapted defenses against Dark pokemon, and I began experimenting. I believe your abra would make a good test subject, first to—”

Blue’s sleepiness is rapidly fading as he tries to keep up with the exposition dump, and by the end he’s grinning. “Yeah, got it, one minute!” He slides the paper door closed and takes a step toward his dresser, then turns back and opens it again. “You’re free now, right? That’s why you came in person?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, one sec.” He closes the door and hurries through his morning routine, sending a message to his friends with one hand as he brushes his teeth with the other. Once he checks his schedule and confirms that he doesn’t have anything for a couple hours, he steps out while buckling his pokebelt on. “Let’s head to the training rooms. And start at the beginning for how you got involved.”

“Very well,” she says, and falls into step beside him as he strides toward the stairwell, being careful not to go down them too loud given how many others are probably still sleeping. Living in the gym’s trainer compound is nice in some ways and annoying in others. “But I don’t know what constitutes the beginning, for you.”

“By reversing your goal you mean you’re trying to keep your bond when your torracat evolves into a Dark type, right?” Blue vaguely remembers hearing about this and thinking this would be great for psychics but unlikely to help Dark people. “How does this help with that?”

“As I said, your email to Red was thought provoking, along with his and Jason’s investigations into how ghost and psychic phenomena are related. I began merging with a wider range of psychic pokemon specifically to see if any have unique defense mechanisms against Dark types that haven’t yet been exploited in light of the… how did you put it? ‘The self-perpetuating blindspot of not using Psychic types against Dark opponents?'”

He’s not sure he’s ever used the phrase ‘self-perpetuating,’ but… “Close enough. You found one?”

“Xatu was the first lead. Did you know they have natural anti-Ghost defenses?”

“I know wild ones can have Ghost attacks, sure. But it doesn’t really help them against Dark pokemon, since they shrug off most Ghost attacks anyway.”

“From a battle trainer’s perspective, this may be true. But it means you would focus on their Flying attacks instead, if you had to fight against one, yes?”

“Well, yeah. And I’d have to be pretty desperate to use a xatu to fight anything that would resist even that.”

“As you say.” They step into the bright morning air and start to make their way across the gym compound, where a few other early risers are already doing various chores or training their pokemon. “But Jason and Red have been making strides in delineating the boundary between psychic and medium abilities, without consideration of combat utility, and it’s become more clear how the ability to use Ghost attacks at all is a sign of some difference between one psychic and another.”

“Like a ‘ghost sense’ instead of just a psychic one? Wait, this is one of the first things Red researched with the spinarak, right?” He only remembers it because it came up in the notes Red sent to the production company making the movie about their journey. “He didn’t realize there’s not just one type of psychic particle at the time.”

“Only tangentially related; it would not have been evident through that alone, or his later research with the abra. But after a conversation with Sensei he became convinced that this sense is more broad, and may be visual.”

“Visual?” Blue frowns, hopes sinking. “I don’t get how that would be better than just using their eyes, if they have them? My abra knows I exist by now, or at least knows something like me exists even if it can’t sense my thoughts. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For both of us.”

“Meowstic were the key; despite the similarities, both genders have different natural capabilities, complemented by expanded sensorium. Extended mergers with females showed broader electromagnetic range, as well as what we’re now calling spiritual sense. This does in fact help them detect dark pokemon from a distance, though it is hard to interpret this reliably, and they still can’t use their psychic abilities on them; only attacks of other kinds.”

“Got it, so if we figure out what female meowstic do, and someone creates a TM that imitates it—”

“This morning I managed, through my male meowstic, to see a dark aura.”

Blue stops cold on the threshold to the front door, then turns to look at her. “What the hell is a ‘dark aura?'”

She holds a hand out and waves it vaguely around him. “An energy field that I believe you and Dark pokemon ambiently have, which presumably keeps you from being affected by psychic abilities. What some Dark pokemon can project from themselves in attacks.”

“How do you even… wait, does Red know about this?”

“I left him a message. He should see it when he wakes, but I was too impatient to wait.”

He almost comments about how her impatience didn’t keep her from waking him up, but he’s glad she did. After a moment he steps aside so she can leave the building as well, then starts walking again. “How has this not been figured out before?”

“Gifted do not generally look through our pokemon’s vision.” She sounds mildly apologetic, almost embarrassed. “It is… disorienting, to see through multiple eyes, more so than other senses being expanded. On occasion it can be valuable for brief periods, but our preference is to keep our senses separate while linking our thoughts for communicating impulses and notions. If we link to psychic pokemon, of course, then their psychic senses are where we focus our attention, as they are as useful to them as vision is for us. It also feels more like a natural expansion rather than taking more focus the way paying attention to another set of eyes or ears does.”

The second half of this doesn’t mean much to Blue, and he tries to reorient to the bottom line. “So… okay so, you were saying meowstic can see dark auras, but psychics don’t use their eyes so they don’t know that?”

“Not ambiently, or else of course someone would have noticed by now. It takes intense concentration. Xatu can as well; as I said, they were the first lead, but we were unsure what they were reacting to due to their spiritual sense, and they do not naturally hunt dark pokemon.”

“But the spiritual sense isn’t necessary?”

“No, male meowstic demonstrated it’s not, as only females have it. And if it’s not for them—”

“It might not be for abra.” They’re almost to the training rooms, and Blue is already running his fingers over Tops’s ball. “What do I need to do?”

“First I’m going to get used to merging with your abra. But I suspect your abra will actually need to evolve to learn this.”

Blue stops for the second time in two minutes, frowning, then pulls his phone out. “Then evolving him just became a priority.”

“Who are you calling?”

“Red. Trust me, he’s going to want to be awake for this… and there’s something I think he can uniquely help with.” Sorry buddy. He’d hoped to protect his friend from the potential fallout of Koichi’s training philosophy, if it turns out to be true, but…

If he’s honest, he’s been starting to lose confidence in his ability to beat Janine. Sure, he might get the battle with Koga anyway, since he’s fulfilling his end of the bargain… but if he doesn’t leave Fuchsia a stronger gym than he found it, if his ideas aren’t at least somewhat adopted… he’s going to feel like a failure.

We’ll figure this stuff out together.

Chapter 103: Interlude XXI – Warnings

+WorldNews, +UnovaNews, +KantoNews, -Celebrity, -Civic, -League

00h 27m 58.7k – New tangela evolution discovered in Sinnoh; Rowan claims “pattern” found

01h 44m 108k – Tier 2 declared in Vermilion, Surge calls for aid

00h 55m 73.3k – “Less ditto found every day” claims Cinnabar ranger

13h 32m 319k – Nacrene city on high alert after string of unown spotted

05h 13m 49.2k – Suspected renegade activity in Castelia, seven dead

17h 53m 101k – Fifth psychic reports shared dream of unown danger, joins warning against research…


Kazue Silph has three rules he never breaks.

The first is never to go into business with family or friends. At many points along his journey, from a small business owner to a major chain to the predominant market in the Indigo regions, he’s had friends, relations, and friends of relations reach out to present him with job applications, joint business proposals, and investment opportunities. He turned them all down without consideration, though he was happy to pass along those that seemed promising to other companies. He’s given away millions of dollars over his lifetime, but always with no strings attached and no expectation of return or service.

A successful business, he learned early on, must always be about efficiency, first and foremost. It can, within limits, have values, but personal sentiment or favoritism will act as a rot, and even deep family bonds can be ruined over the smallest, most impersonal business decisions. He’s spent considerable energy and time ensuring nepotism is as difficult as possible within his corporate culture, but he believes the policies have paid for themselves.

The second rule is to always work toward what the market needs, not what it wants. There have been plenty of enticing opportunities to expand his business into other areas beyond trainer supplies, but to do so would have risked redirecting money from a sure bet to an area other competitors were already crowding, and likely with a much wider talent pool available. At best the company would make more money; at worst they would chase fads and lose not just money, but time and focus, which are much more valuable to him.

Society would always need trainers to survive, and trainers would always need supplies. Everything else he shifts production or resources to would reduce their availability and quality, and cause more trainers or their pokemon to die. Money is just a byproduct of the real value business can create for society, but the resources and power to change the world requires focus.

The third rule is the most important: never make a business decision while angry.

“Send him in,” President Silph says, and a few moments later the door opens to admit Lance, the Champion of Indigo.

Kazue still had a full head of hair, if a bit thin on top, when Lance began his Johto journey. While the businessman’s trainer days were long behind him, it seemed obvious that a child of the famous Dragon Clan, descendents of one of the region’s oldest warlords, with a dratini as his starter, would go far. So he paid little attention to Lance showing up on the news throughout the years, thinking that fame pointed cameras in the young dragon trainer’s direction as much as merit… until he and his journeymates deflected a Beast on their own with a clever, and risky, use of a controlled landslide.

After that it was less surprise than it otherwise might have been when Lance reached Victory Road just a couple years after starting his journey. The reigning Champion has shown the same mix of daring and careful calculation in office that first made him catch Kazue’s attention.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Lance says as he comes to stand in front of the President’s desk and bows, then places his hands on the back of a seat rather than taking it. “Neither of us has much time to waste, so I’ll get to the point.”

Kazue puts on an expression of polite curiosity. “I appreciate that, Champion. What can I do for you?” The fact that the meeting was requested to be in-person makes it fairly clear what this is about, but he still can’t admit that without giving out information; he’s not positive which piece of technology, exactly, has leaked to the Champion, though given the recent news, he’s fairly confident he knows.

The thought makes his pulse quicken, and he takes a deep breath to calm himself. At the end of the day, this is just a business meeting like any other.

“I’m sure by now you’ve heard that other regions are allowing pokemon genesis research. I have been struggling against those who would have Indigo follow their example, but I cannot deny that we would be at a distinct disadvantage if their efforts bear fruit, especially given some private information I’ve been made aware of. I’ve begun negotiations with the other island regions to potentially coordinate some limited, focused, and safe efforts by the various Leagues. Cynthia is currently the only holdout, but I am confident that she will change her mind in time.”

“I applaud your ability to adjust to new circumstances,” Kazue says. “Though if your goal is to stay abreast of other regions, you know my thoughts on regulation and innovation. It is one thing to win a race begun late, another to win it while hobbled.”

“I won’t deny the practical effects of your philosophy, especially given your many accomplishments. But our goal is not explicitly to be the first to create new pokemon, and if we learn how to by unleashing another event like the ditto outbreak, the cost could well exceed the reward if we don’t manage to contain it. Other regions may gamble with their people’s wellbeing, but Indigo will not.”

Lance punctuates the media-perfect speech with a sharp smile, yellow eyes gleaming with something predatory. “And of course, we are not incapable of learning from others’ mistakes.”

Kazue returns his smile, reassured to see the glimpse of the Champion’s ruthlessness applied to matters beyond pokemon battles. “Or benefiting from them more directly.”

“Which is why I knew you would understand when I heard you’ve been developing a pokeball that could catch the Stormbringers. Perhaps even Rayquaza, should it ever attack.” Lance’s shoulders straighten. “I want you to make it available for the League, and only the League.”

President Silph taps his fingers against his desk as he meets that fierce yellow gaze for a moment, then says, “No.”

To his credit, the Champion is an adept negotiator for one who has never worked in the world of business, and doesn’t even blink. “We’re prepared to help negotiate and support some reasonable changes to regulatory laws and taxes, as long as they’re not preferential to your company.”

“Tempting as that would normally be, it isn’t enough. Those laws should be changed for the good of the region, while you’re asking me to give up what I expect to be the most powerful technological achievement of the past decade. Do you even know how much it’s valued at?”

Lance only hesitates for a moment. “Potentially, priceless.”

“Correct. But potential is hard to put a number on, so I’ll reveal that our estimates put the final auction for the first masterball to end, at least, in the hundreds of millions.”

The Champion pauses a moment to absorb that, and Kazue lets him. They both know the League couldn’t afford more than a few at that price, not without drastic cuts in trainer assistance programs… that or a dozen other smaller initiatives and regulating bodies fit under the umbrella.

“You would truly sell such a powerful tool, and potential weapon, to the highest bidder? With no consideration of whether they will be able to even properly utilize it?”

Kazue does not often waste time lecturing people on basic economics anymore, but for those as powerful as a region champion, he’s willing to make an exception on the off chance Lance will be persuaded. “That is what the market is for, Champion. The masterball is worth far less in the hands of a mediocre trainer than it is in a skilled one, and thus those who are skilled, or those willing to patron a skilled trainer, will be willing to pay more for it.”

“And what of their character or goals? Money doesn’t distinguish a Leader from a Renegade.”

Kazue spreads his hands. “Money doesn’t, but you’re suggesting we distribute it by trust, and money can often be a way to quantify trust. Stock investment, providing grants, even the basic act of hiring are all ways of using money to show confidence and trust.”

“An untrusted person may gain access to a lot of money through deceit or antisocial deals.”

“They would have to be deceitfully trustworthy first, for the financier to believe in them, which can be said of those considered altruistic as well.” Kazue shrugs. “We can debate philosophy if you wish, Champion, but my answer is still no. I will not make yet another product, designed and built by some of the greatest scientists and engineers of our era, into an object of charity, limiting the return both for them and our investors.”

Lance frowns slightly. “You’re thinking of the goggles. I understand if you’re frustrated—”

“Frustrated? Perhaps.” Kazue flicks a hand to the side as if drying it of water. “There, I have set it aside. What else do you believe I am, Champion?”

Rather than walk into the trap, Lance remains silent, wariness transmuted by status and dignity into a patient, puzzled frown. But it cannot save him; he is the one who needs something from Kazue, and so all his attempt to save face can do is waste their time.

Lance is a skilled negotiator, but even Kazue’s clerks would be able to smell the need on him; to the President’s experienced eye, this goes even beyond that. Lance isn’t just in need, he seems desperate in some carefully controlled way, and Kazue wants to know why. Knowledge is valuable, and if Lance is actually afraid of something, he likely has good reason to be.

A company can have values, after all, and still survive. If Indigo is in danger, it is more than fiduciary duty that would compel Kazue to act; with major operations in every city of Kanto and Johto, Indigo is Silph, and Silph is Indigo.

“I believe you are standing on principles,” the Dragon Master says at last, “that I may be blind to. But there must be some arrangement we can reach—”

“I understand that you came yourself as a sign of respect.” Kazue keeps his voice firm, but not angry. Never make a business decision angry. “But you are wasting both of our very valuable time. Delegate this task to someone better suited to negotiation, or else drop the charade that you are here to barter as an equal.”

That upsets the Dragon Master, and Kazue holds up an apologetic hand to soften the blow; just as he doesn’t want to make a decision angry, he doesn’t want those he negotiates with to either. True positive-sum trades cannot be those regretted once emotions cool, and anger often drives people to justify negative-sum interactions. “I mean this only in our current situation, and perhaps in our projected, ongoing interactions. Time and again, regions have treated corporations like mine as little more than pokemon; useful tools to be trained into providing valuable goods and services for them. Our ability to trade freely is limited, as if our method is completely unrelated to our outcomes, and when we lobby to attain more freedoms from regulations that would allow us to be more efficient, we are called corrupt, or treated as though we are attempting to corrupt.”

“Your grievances—”

“No, Champion. Not grievances, not frustrations. Principles was closest. You came into this room and asked me to limit the profit we could earn by our invention, as if profit is a choice, as if it comes from coercion that I might refrain from. Our plan is an open auction, which makes every dollar we might gain the result of free, individual choices. You object to this?”

“I do.”

“Then you show the common belief, on some level, that profit itself is an unjust pursuit, simply because the excess value a seller accrues can be counted, while the value a customer gains cannot. Have you considered whether we plan to simply use masterballs ourselves rather than sell it? Hire the best trainer we can find as an employee, and then sell the captured legendary? Until you understand why that is not our plan, you will not understand why your approach today has been wrong from the start.”

To his credit, Lance takes a moment to absorb all this, and Kazue lets him. If he didn’t hold some respect for the Champion he wouldn’t have bothered with the lecture, and it seems that Lance recognizes this himself before he stirs and takes a breath.

“As you said, our time is valuable,” he finally says. “If there is truly nothing that would convince you to do this, then I will accept it. If there is something you want, and it’s within my power and mandate, I can at least try.”

“As a first step, tell me what has you so concerned. Not the vague reasons, the specific predictions or warnings you have reason to believe are true.”

Lance sighs, but to Kazue’s satisfaction seems to have taken his words to heart by simply saying “The psychic dreams that have been reported in the media. There are more, and by trusted sources.”

Meaning by those among the League, probably. “I confess to not having considered the articles worth reading.”

“I don’t blame you, but the simple version is that there is a threat that appears bigger than any other we’ve yet faced, coming at an unknown amount of time.”

“One that will need legendary pokemon in the hands of trainers to defeat,” Kazue guesses. It should be terrifying, but all he feels is tired… and frustrated. For a moment he thought Lance might have learned of whatever experiments Giovanni has been working on, thus freeing Kazue to act on that knowledge without breaking their agreement.

Instead it seems yet another threat is on the horizon, and he finds he is unsure how to internalize an even bigger threat than the Hoenn titans represented. The company suffered massive losses as a result of the incident and aftermath, though they were lucky enough to be able to weather the storm better than others. Of course they were asked to provide humanitarian aid afterward, and of course they did… which just further limited the scope of new, expensive projects they had planned to start developing as the Silph Scope and masterball entered their last stages.

He told marketing to create an ad about that, perhaps earn the company some understanding of what the losses would result in in terms the public would understand, even be dismayed by. But the death count was high enough that he was convinced it would be taken poorly. Still, he feels it like a rock in his boot to think of all the potential lives that might be lost just because they end up developing such powerful technologies any later.

Sakaki understood, of course. Commiserating with him after the Hoenn incident was one of the few times lately that Silph felt they were genuinely allied again in years.

But that hasn’t changed the arc of their partnership, and for that Silph does feel regret. There are far too few equals for those in their position, and further fewer in such different areas of influence that candid conversation is possible.

“It seems likely, yes.” Lance is quiet for a beat. “I know enough about negotiation to understand that I’ve just made my position worse.”

“True enough. If other regions know this, my expectation of how much others will be willing to bid is even higher than expected. I do appreciate the candor, but it only highlights how—”

“There’s more. But it hasn’t been made public.”

“Neither has what you just told me.”

“This is different.”

Kazue’s hands come together as he considers the Champion for a moment. “You want a concession first. Because it has potential business applications?” Not that the previous revelation didn’t, but they would be relatively invisible compared to, say, a secret that would lead to Silph pivoting more visibly in anticipation to some new technology or threat.

“I’m not a businessman, but I know that all knowledge has value… and if I trust you to do one thing, it’s to make use of such information to generate more for your company.”

It’s a compliment, but a backhanded one given the way the Champion once again frames this as a bad thing. Or maybe he’s just worried about favoritism.

Kazue closes his eyes for a moment and breathes in and out until the anger fades to sullen coals. “And if corporations like mine do have the opportunity to use this information to create new products, or refine those we have, don’t you think this would benefit the region as well?”

“Of course. But I must consider how others would react as well.”

“I can have an NDA on my desk and signed within three minutes. I understand wanting a stronger negotiating position, but—”

“No, you don’t.” Lance’s whole body language has shifted, lost something, gained something. The Champion is back in control, somehow, and Kazue feels his first trickle of apprehension; he’s made a mistake somehow, underestimated something… “I don’t fully understand your perspective and values, or the wisdom of them. But nor do you mine, and so I must ask; is there anything that would change your mind? Have you spent even five minutes considering it?”

Kazue’s hands clench, then unclench as he takes another breath. “I thought I made myself clear—”

“You did, and so I’ll skip to the bottom line. We cannot allow these ‘masterballs’ to be sold to another region. Any bidding must be limited to Indigo.”

Calm, he must remain calm. “This meeting is ov—”

“In what world,” Lance says, and his voice is calm, deep and solid as the earth. “Did you think the League would not treat another region gaining a Legendary pokemon as an existential risk?”

“Another region, Champion?” He hates the quaver in his voice, the barely contained fury sounding like weakness. “Or another trainer? There are only a handful of organizations in Indigo who could outbid the League, and who below you would you trust with it?”

“If the League wins the bids, the masterballs will belong to the League. Someone else may prove themselves the strongest trainer by then.”

The words are stated without hubris or irony, and for a moment the absurdity almost makes Kazue laugh. “You’re only the strongest battle trainer. An experienced hunter—”

“Would have no experience fighting Legendary pokemon.”

Calm, calm, calm. “You can’t do this. The charter—”

“Your lawyers are the best money can buy, so I’m sure they were right to inform you that the courts would decide in your favor given what you knew at the time. I’m also just as sure that will change once the new information is revealed.”

Kazue chokes back the wild threats that come to mind, knuckles white around the arms of his chair. Before he can regain control of himself, come up with something else to say, the Champion has released the back of the seat and straightened.

“I’ll send a more skilled negotiator to discuss what we can do for you in return, in thanks for this great service to Indigo’s safety. In light of what you’ve shared about the true cost this limitation will have, I’ll be sure it’s not our most skilled negotiator.” Lance’s smile is warm, the bow of his head respectful, and then he leaves, cape just barely clearing the door before it closes.

Kazue sits frozen for a minute, part of him still in shock at what the Champion had said, another part disbelieving that he had let it happen, and another racing through things he should have said, things he could do to deny the enemy their prize, to protect against such flagrant abuse in the future. Threats to shut down the masterball research, to suspend operations of any kind, would have to be a last resort so long as he can’t trust the information not to be stolen or leaked the way the goggles schematics were.

After five minutes have passed his alarm chimes to indicate his next appointment, and his hand moves automatically to alert his assistant to reschedule his afternoon. He almost makes the call to Sakaki then, but decides to go to his private spa for a soak and massage first.

Never make a business decision angry.


Divxddd: yo

Divxddd: what i miss

Jigglethesepuffs: these sad fools still have hope

Divxddd: lol

Passifist: Hey they can turn it around

Ioutrankyou: assuming Tal wakes the fuck up and GUARDS

Ioutrankyou: THE

Ioutrankyou: HOOP GODDAMN U TAL JUST INTERRUPT ONCE IN UR LIFE

Divxddd: looooooooooooooooool

Jigglethesepuffs: that was a nice juke tho

Divxddd: true

Ioutrankyou: GOD

Divxddd: hey wheres kit doesn’t he have money riding on this one

Ioutrankyou: DAMN

Ioutrankyou: aojaifhasldqkjajkalfagbqiasklsadj

Passifist: Kit’s napping said to wake him before the last match ends

Jigglethesepuffs: Think this is it

Jigglethesepuffs: unless they pull off a miracle

Passifist: ya

Passifist: i’ll call him

Ioutrankyou: its absurd that Tal still has a contract

Ioutrankyou: absolutely absurd

Ioutrankyou: this guy’s worse than half the pugs I run into

Divxddd: Half the pugs you run into aren’t playing against pros

Ioutrankyou: doesn’t matter

Ioutrankyou: garbage excuse to not do basic shit

Ioutrankyou: even you could have guarded that

Divxddd: lol thanks I think

Passifist: Well that was weird

Jigglethesepuffs: ?

Passifist: Kit’s up but he’s freaking

Divxddd: lol must have bet a lot

Jigglethesepuffs: freaking about what?

Passifist: no not about the game not sure tbh was saying something about a dream

Passifist: nightmare i guess

Divxddd: bout what?

Passifist: think he’s been reading too many creepypastas

Passifist: something about unown are going to merge into a supermon or something

Divxddd: you know given how this year’s going that’d fit

Jigglethesepuffs: wait I think I read that one

Ioutrankyou: guys

Ioutrankyou: guys i think its happening

Ioutrankyou: holy shit did you SEE THAT

Ioutrankyou: HELL YEAH

Divxddd: woah

Ioutrankyou: HELL

Ioutrankyou: YEAH

Passifist: replaying, I missed it

Jigglethesepuffs: same

Ioutrankyou: fuck you Liquidforce

Ioutrankyou: cheap ass surf spamming scrub

Ioutrankyou: tried to hide in the grass as blastoise lol get rekt

Jigglethesepuffs: Alright that was solid

Divxddd: ya

Divxddd: gonna take a few more of those to even odds though

Passifist: So I just looked it up, cuz it sounded familiar to me too

Passifist: Its not a creepy, i mean there are tons about unown but this is different, there’s been dozens of psychics all over the island who are saying they had a dream like this

Divxddd: like what

Passifist: unown creating or summoning some mega mythic pokemon that wipes us all out

Divxddd: Kit should make sure he pees before bed

Divxddd: been doing it for years, never get nightmares anymore

Ioutrankyou: he should get the fuck on is what he should do

Ioutrankyou: missing all the good shit

Jigglethesepuffs: isn’t Kit psychic?

Divxddd: wait, really? is he?

Passifist: Ya he is

Divxddd: woah

Ioutrankyou: so what?

Divxddd: bit of a coincidence

Ioutrankyou: no it’s not

Ioutrankyou: i mean yeah, that’s all it is

Ioutrankyou: bet plenty of non-psy had that nightmare too after hearing psychs being drama queens about it

Ioutrankyou: unown are creepy af

Ioutrankyou: dreams don’t mean shit

Divxddd: our dreams don’t, but psychics might

Ioutrankyou: ffs

Passifist: looks like it wasn’t just random psychics to start with, it’s been big names

Passifist: some wrote out what they dreamed without comparing notes

Ioutrankyou: again, so what

Ioutrankyou: some similar phrases and all the differences will get ignored

Ioutrankyou: come on people this is basic shit

Jigglethesepuffs: funny you mention that

Jigglethesepuffs: there is actually one thing in particular that they all seemed to remember, including the ones that wrote their dreams down

Divxddd: ?

Kitandpals: “it is coming”

Ioutrankyou: fucking finally

Divxddd: yooo that’s creepy as fuck

Ioutrankyou: hey log on, we can get a queue going in case the match ends soon

Jigglethesepuffs: you okay Kit?

Kitandpals: no

Kitandpals: i don’t know

Kitandpals: it was so vivid, i’m still shaking

Ioutrankyou: well log on anyway you’re still better than a pug would be

Passifist: dude stfu a sec

Passifist: you didnt hear him

Passifist: do you want to do voice Kit?

Ioutrankyou: u stfu

Kitandpals: I dot know

Kitandpals: *don’t

Ioutrankyou: all acting like fucking babies over a goddamn dream

Ioutrankyou: and TAL IS NOT BLOCKING

Ioutrankyou:THE GODDAMN

Ioutrankyou: HOOP

Jigglethesepuffs: what else do you remember?

Ioutrankyou: AGAIN

Jigglethesepuffs: if it’s okay to ask

Ioutrankyou: FFS

Divxddd: its over

Ioutrankyou: yeah fuck it

Ioutrankyou: gonna hop in a game

Ioutrankyou: you guys coming or what

Kitandpals: Not sure. Confusing, shifting sights

Kitandpals: unown

Kitandpals: a whole world of them

Ioutrankyou: sigh

Kitandpals: and there was amin there

Kitandpals: *a mind

Ioutrankyou: there’s no use dwelling on it, play a match and take your mind off it instead

Kitandpals: crazy thoughts, hungry thoughts

Kitandpals: wanted what it saw to be more like it

Divxddd: what it saw?

Kitandpals: our world

Jigglethesepuffs: damn

Passifist: What’s “it?” How do you know it’s coming?

Kitandpals: dont now

Kitandpals: *don’t know

Ioutrankyou: alright I’m in queue and hopping channels you guys join me when you’re done w/ group therapy or wtvr

Jigglethesepuffs: Ignore him Kit

Divxddd: Imma join queue too but staying here this is fascinating

Kitandpals: I don’t know. It was like big capital letter words n my head

Kitandpals: It was all really clear its not fading but the words are most clear like someone said them outloud and woke me up but there was no one in my room and it didn’t sound like a voice it was just the words

Kitandpals: I don’t know what to do or feel right now I’m fucking scared guys

Kitandpals: It still feels so real

Jigglethesepuffs: You’ll be okay, there are others who had the same dream

Kitandpals: I know but

Jigglethesepuffs: they seem okay

Kitandpals: that makes it worse

Kitandpals: that makes it so much worse


The streetlights make Saffron look like a series of washed-out photos through the drizzle, every color faded and every corner shadowed. Masaki Terasoma (codename: Looker) walks from one snapshot to the next, hands on pokeballs beneath his damp coat and eyes wandering restlessly. Lea keeps her nose in the air, the mightyena’s dark coat making her nearly invisible in the gloom as she sniffs for any alarming scents, while his toxicroak slinks through the void between streetlights like the smudged thumbprint of some sloppy darkroom attendant. Above them Sever flies in nearly silent loops as the crobat listens for anything and everything that might come for them.

Some might say having three pokemon as bodyguards in the middle of the Saffron City is paranoid. If it wasn’t three in the morning, he would probably be getting plenty of odd or concerned looks from fellow pedestrians. But there aren’t any of those, because late night meetings reduce foot traffic, which makes it easier to spot if someone’s following or preparing an ambush.

Paranoid was left behind months ago; Looker has been in Kanto for nearly four months and there have already been three attempts on his life. Or at least, it’s safest to assume there have been.

It’s hard to tell, exactly, what counts and doesn’t. Whoever picked the locks on his hotel room (scrape marks along the doorframe around the latch, likely caused in frustration when the door still refused to open) may have just been trying to rob him, or even just rob the room without knowing who was in it. The fearow flock that swarmed him midflight to Saffron may have been a coincidental attack by wilds (ratio of fearow to spearow matched average records of local flocks). And the peanuts might have ended up in his food by accident; the chef seemed genuinely apologetic and embarrassed (and background check showed nothing of interest).

And yet, safe as he may be, part of him clings to the notion that he’s being targeted. Illogical as it is, he wants evidence, ethereal as it would be, that he’s on the right track. That he’s finally found something important.

Which is why he was suspicious when he got the message asking for a private meeting a few weeks ago. It was relayed from a relatively trustworthy local source, but sources could be compromised. It didn’t tell him to come alone, but did specify that he only bring along someone he completely trusts, which could have been a clever psyop meant to lower his guard, since he doesn’t trust anyone completely.

But there was an obvious choice. Agent Matsuda (codename: Notebook) has only been with Interpol for a few years, but he has an impressive record stamping out corruption in Indigo before then; if he’s compromised, Looker could only hope it’s in directions other than the ones that would impact their mission here.

Of course, if he participated in a generations-spanning interregional renegade network, “sponsoring” detectives like Matsuda is exactly the sort of thing he’d do to get someone trustworthy on the inside of investigations. But he knew the investigation would require some risk, and if he couldn’t depend on his local partner then he’d likely be dead already anyway.

That meeting was more fruitful than he dared hope at the time. This second may be even more so.

“Building looks clear,” Notebook says in Looker’s earpiece once he’s about a block away from his destination, and he mutters acknowledgement before walking past it, then around, then back, until he can do a full circuit of the warehouse himself.

Only then does he send his mightyena in, and a moment later he hears two barks, followed by three, followed by another three.

“One person. Female. Two pokemon. Going in.” Looker turns off his mic and sends a whistle to Sever to circle the building before entering with his toxicroak.

Laura Verres is standing with her back to a wall, arms folded across her stomach. He can tell she’s nervous from across the room, but it’s the normal amount of nervous, the expected amount, and so he only gives the warehouse the usual sweep before approaching her and her tangela. Her primeape is lurking on the stacked boxes above, the quiet snort of its breaths punctuating the echo of his steps.

“Good to see you again, Detective.” Her voice is soft as the rain on the pavement outside, and he notes with approval that she’s also keeping both hands on the pokeballs at her belt. “Wasn’t expecting a response so soon.”

Looker shrugs. “Your lead was better than you had any reason to expect. Fuji’s story doesn’t add up.”

Her face remains calm, but he sees something in her eyes. Triumph? Hurt? Maybe something else too. He doesn’t know her well enough to tell for sure, but he knew during their first meeting that part of her hoped she was wrong about the old scientist; he respected the fact that she went through so much trouble to check anyway.

“Tell me.”

He considered not, of course, unsure what she would do with the information. But an investigator is only as good as their sources, and given what she’s managed to piece together on her own, Laura Verres could turn out to be quite a valuable source indeed.

Still, the same things that tend to make sources valuable can often make them volatile.

“I will, once I get some assurances.”

“I won’t report it, if that’s what you mean.” She seems more exasperated than offended. “So far as he’s concerned, I’ll act as I normally would, and continue helping him spread his ideas. But there are others I’ve gotten involved, or have considered getting involved, and if he’s dangerous in some way, or being around him is, I need to know.”

“You mean Leaf Juniper. Possibly your son as well?”

“Just Leaf.”

“That story she’s putting out online, is that involved in all this somehow?”

Verres raises her brow. “You’re reading webserials now?”

“I like to be thorough.” Her brow is still raised, and he shrugs. “Alright I skimmed it. If it’s some kind of code, I can’t make heads or tails of how.”

“Me neither. He’s been pretty worked up about it though, so it may just be something he really believes in. So, is he dangerous?”

“If he is, you’ll leave this entirely in our hands?”

“Of course not. But so far as acting on your information goes, it’s your info, and I’ll respect that… assuming you’ll try to do the same in return.”

“You know I can’t promise that.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it if you tried. I’m not looking for a promise, just a sense that you care.”

Looker nods. He similarly wouldn’t have believed her if she claimed to be willing to subordinate herself entirely to Interpol; he’s starting to believe she’s one of the rare breed of true investigative reporters, willing to put their career and safety on the line to uncover the truth, and they don’t tend to trust police, no matter how separated from the source of potential corruption they’re investigating. “I looked into some financial records that are far more extensive than your source managed to take. Fuji’s been off the grid for nearly fifteen years, but he’s only been on Silph’s ‘payroll’ for about half of that.”

“You could have missed it, if they changed up how they paid for everything.”

“Could have, yeah. But that’s also around the time he started dropping those breadcrumbs that Professor Oak picked up. So my two main guesses are, either he suddenly had a change of heart about working for Silph around the time Silph changed how they were managing him, which could make sense depending on how and why. Or, that’s actually the point when he started working for Silph at all.”

“Which would mean he did what for the years before that? Vacation?”

His smile is as wry as her tone. “Maybe. But this pattern isn’t new.”

It takes her a moment, eyes darting between his, then to the side, then back. “The renegades under the casino.”

“And others, in other regions. Sometimes it’s easy to make up job histories, particularly for random civilians. Gets harder for those who have been in the public eye—”

“—or with a specific set of skills that only a handful of organizations would hire for. The researchers there?”

“Right. Most are from other regions, but of all the people hired to work on secretive projects, some seem to be less ‘hired’ and more…” He shrugs. “Kidnapped? Recruited? Traded?”

“It’s nothing illegal though, is it?”

He grimaces “No. We’ve stretched the laws in Celadon because of the Renegade involvement, but those paper trails all lead to other regions, some of which are less cooperative with interpol and others which are, frankly, too corrupt for me to trust.”

Laura shakes her head. “Whoever was involved in that can’t be involved with Silph if it was stealing from them. How sure are you that it’s connected to what’s happening with Fuji? It feels like you’re making some leaps.”

He crosses his arms. “There’s no reason the strategy would be limited by one particular organization, or even type of org. If an even moderately competent person or group could be doing something without risk that would be an advantage to them, it’s best to assume they are doing it until there’s reason to believe they’re not. But,” he says to forestall a predictable rebuttal, “That’s part of why I need your help. You’re in the best position to learn something more about Fuji’s history and situation, maybe get him to guess about some of the other missing scientists. I don’t believe he’s been as silo’d as he says, and anything you can tell me might shed light on the others, even if they worked for a different organization. If so I’ll let you know.”

“I don’t know how much longer I have. Silph may not have any proof that Fuji’s broken NDAs, and I don’t know if they have any more legal screws to turn that they haven’t already, but they could just move him to another location, or order him to stop talking to others.”

“Why would he listen? Didn’t his whole rebellion start in the first place because he doesn’t want to keep helping them? And with Oak involved now, they must know it wouldn’t go well for them if they try to do anything public.”

“He seems to think it’s important that he stay on the project.” She gives a helpless shrug. “Says he has to be involved, even if he doesn’t think it’s right… that anyone else ‘might get it wrong,’ which I guess he sees as even worse somehow?”

Looker considers that, then gives a begrudging nod. “I can see it. Alright, then do what you can and we’ll try to find out more on our end.”

“I tried looking it up, but couldn’t find a straight answer; what’ll happen to Fuji, if he’s worked with renegades and hasn’t told anyone?”

Looker snorts. “Indigo’s twisted itself around and around on this one. Short answer is, as long as he hasn’t seen renegade activity with his own eyes or heard a direct confession or report of it, he’s clear. If he has and hasn’t reported it, it’s aiding and abetting.”

“You don’t sound happy about it.”

“Nothing personal against Fuji, I have no idea what he’s done or seen yet, just think it gives people too much wiggle room. But there are worse problems with the whole system.”

“Such as?”

It still amazes him that so few people see it, even those like Ms. Verres, who has no history with the gyms, and is skeptical of those in power by trade. “That as long as someone has seen something and reported it, they’re totally clear.”

Laura frowns. “There would be records, an investigation…?”

Looker thinks back to the cool, assessing gaze of Leader Erika when she stared him down in the police department, pushed him to limit his efforts even after learning that her city had renegades hidden in it. “That assumes the leader or ranger starts one.” He sees the realization hit, and his grin is hard. “Hell of a loophole, isn’t it? All anyone has to do is find one corrupt leader or ranger, and a whole city could take turns telling them when they see any renegade activity and be totally safe from the law.”


Joining us tonight is Elite Agatha, one of the foremost experts on mental and spiritual phenomena. We’re honored to have you on the show, Elite, and grateful for any light you can shed on this growing mystery.”

By that you mean you want some reassurance, right?”

Well… If possible, I think a lot of our listeners would appreciate that, yes. With everything that’s been happening over the past few months…”

Of course. This is just one more thing to worry about in a year where every season seems to bring a new one. But I’m worried that for most people, it’ll be one too many.”

One too many…?”

One too many worries. It’ll bounce off, slide into ‘someone else’s problem.’ Even if there weren’t so many other major changes to adapt to, this is nothing tangible, nothing they can do anything about. Just a vague worry that some people they’ve never met are having bad dreams. Unfortunately, since it may well be the most important thing to worry about, I’m not sure I’d want to reassure people even if I could, which I can’t, so it’s all moot anyway.”

To be clear, you’re saying that you believe these dreams are more of a threat than Rayquaza, the renegades, ditto—”

And everything else happening in other regions, yes. And that’s because it’s unknown, utterly unknown. We have no idea why it’s happening, if it’s pointing to something real, or if we should trust it even if it is.”

I see.”

Do you, really? Because you’re not gibbering in the corner, so I have doubts. Maybe you will once the interview’s over and you can take your professional mask off, eh?”

I… suppose I should say instead that I think I see. Maybe you could explain that last part, about trusting it?”

I don’t think it’s sunk in for everyone that this is the most public and obvious sign in living memory that humans are not alone in the universe. Whether it’s a spirit, a god, or even beings from another world or dimension, this message is coming from something other.”

You really believe that?”

At first, no. I thought it was just some particularly powerful projector, a psychic good at projecting that is, creeping around outside the houses of famous psychics while they slept. Simplest explanation to fit the evidence, at the time… but now? No psychic in recorded history could send a dream to an entire town at once. Could be this is the first. I’m sure that’s what Oak would say. But then, why would they? I think it’s something else, and that something else is sending us a warning.”

I see.”

Now you do, yes, or are starting to. Looking a little pale. Need some water?”

I’ll be alright, Elite, thank you… I suppose the next obvious question is, whether it’s a person or something else, why would the dreams lie? In either case, actually. What do you think the dream projector wants?”

If their intentions are honest, it’s clear to me they’re sending us a warning about the unown. Whether they want us to kill them or capture them or stop experimenting with them, I can’t say. It may be possible they don’t know themselves. Or perhaps it’s a test.”

And if not honest?”

Then we should do the opposite of the thing they want us to do, of course. But there’s a third possibility that’s more likely, and less clear; they may just be too alien for an idea like honest or dishonest intentions to be relevant questions. Their message may itself not reflect something real or meaningful to us.”

I s… I think I see. Why just the islands?”

Maybe the threat is focused here. Maybe we’re the only ones that can stop it.”

Have you had the dream yet, Elite?”

Oh yes, weeks ago. Kept quiet, figured saying anything would play into the hands of whoever did it, but now it seems moot.”

And you feel convinced of its authenticity?”

Assuming they’re not deceitful, I’m convinced the projector believed what they projected, if that’s what you mean. Spirit or alien or god, they could still be wrong, or mad.”

Doesn’t seem like a particularly good option either.”

No, but I’d take a few sleepless nights for the world’s gifted over getting eaten by the thing it’s afraid of.”


Cyrus stands above the Ruins of Alph, eyes roaming in a steady pattern in the skies above for unown that might appear. Being so close to Violet City, Alph has been more active than most unown ruins, practically crawling with mystics and researchers, thrill seekers and protestors, so catching any that appear closer to the ground is difficult. Many seem convinced they’ll be the ones to figure out the secret of the unown, but it’s clear that no one knows what they really are, and without that knowledge they’re flailing in the dark.

Unlike Cyrus, who has never seen more clearly.

It was the dream that showed him the way, as he knew it would. There’s been no apparent rhyme or reason to when and where they would appear, but once he realized it wasn’t repeating at a location he came to Violet City, a major metropolis where resident psychics haven’t reported experiencing it yet. He visited the ruins by day, capturing unown with a steadily improving success rate, and going to bed early each night to ensure he slept through as much of it as possible.

He only had to wait eleven days before it came to him, and every other psychic in the city. And what he saw filled him with a deep existential terror… until he woke to reflect, and felt only awe.

Unlike the rest of the world, whose hysteria has only continued to increase. It wasn’t so bad when news articles popped up speculating about what it meant for a handful of famous psychics around the islands to get the same nightmare; a curiosity to be talked about over lunch with friends, and grist for the conspiratorial corners of the internet.

Then whole towns and cities of psychics began to get it, and the net went wild with speculation, fueled in no small part by the more pedestrian psychics themselves, who lacked the restraint and uncertainty of their betters.

But with Elite Agatha’s interview, even governments have started taking it seriously… in opposite directions. Some are calling for a complete ban on not just pokemon genesis, but unown research altogether, while others are pushing for more research to counter the hypothetical threat.

Even worse, there’s no rhyme or reason to who falls on which side of the battle lines; there are researchers and Professors on both, as are Leaders and Elites within the same region trying (for the most part) and often failing to dance around the issue. Meanwhile politicians are shuffling further and further toward the edges as they try to keep up with a public that, despite Agatha’s prediction, has turned out to be quite worried about a supernatural existential threat that they can neither see nor hear.

But all of that pales in relation to what it’s done to psychics, who have been drawn forcefully into the center of the cultural crossfire. Each one he knows has been peppered with questions about the dreams by everyone else, whether they’ve had them or not. No one seems to be blaming psychics themselves yet, but he’d almost prefer that over the desperate fear that’s allowed a few unscrupulous “mystics” to cash in on the phenomenon.

He resisted at first from pitting his voice against the chorus. But seeing so many wallowing in fear and skepticism was unbearable when he knew he could offer them something else.

Hope.

All his life he’s known something was wrong with the world. With the people in it. With the way society has managed, against all odds, to survive…through the pain and suffering of children they send into the thresher’s maw of nature, itself an indiscriminate charnel house of pain and grief.

Cyrus’s older brother was full of hope and will and an unstoppable drive to see the world. He was dead just a few months into his journey, shattering their parents so thoroughly his grandfather had to put the pieces back together, leaving Cyrus to handle his own shock and grief. Therapy was no help, insisting that he express his feelings while also pushing the idea that it was something to be accepted, what their family was going through. Like it was okay, as long as it was normal.

It wasn’t okay. None of it was. But no one understood that; they thought they did, thought they were all grieving for the same reasons, but Cyrus’s grief wasn’t sufficient. Only action would stop the pain, and not just his.

But his parents never truly recovered, turning into weeping and hollow versions of themselves, fearfully hypercritical of anything he tried to do to prepare for his own journey. When his psychic powers developed he realized that no amount of knowledge or preparation would convince them that he would not fail as his brother did… and yet he was still young enough to think that if he could be good enough, be happy enough despite his own grief, he could remind them they still had a son left. That life could still be good. He would try projecting his joys to them, his hope and desire for things to get better.

It was never enough.

His hair began to gray as a teenager, and few enough things in life gave him any joy that he stopped trying for his parents’ sake. Still, he thought perhaps he could do it for others; where his powers had failed, perhaps other methods would succeed. He joined organizations dedicated to helping those recovering from grief and injury, made connections among different professions and organizations, began forming interdisciplinary teams to identify what would keep people from having as much trauma after crises, or help them recover faster.

Sometimes it seemed he could do some good, here and there. They identified people’s needs that added resilience, things like robust social networks and economic safety, and did their best to facilitate and reinforce them where they could. But most regions had their own unique traumas, whether seasonal or unpredictable, citywide or erratic in destructive scope, and every tragedy would undo much of their work.

It took him years to realize that no matter how much good someone experiences, sometimes a single bad enough day can ruin their lives. For those not sufficiently chained by the biological drive to live, bad enough events can end them.

And still he tried, will flickering and fading, until he read a book by the author Terry Pratchett, in which a character said:

I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother floatzel with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. And even as I watched, the mother dived into the water and came up with a plump magikarp, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby buizel, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”

For the first time in his life, it was like someone else was speaking to him. Showing that he wasn’t alone in recognizing how broken the world was, and how flawed whatever powers or forces brought it into existence this way.

Because there’s so much that could be better, if just a single thing were different. And he despaired, not at the duty to become the creator’s moral superior, but to ever having the ability to change what it had wrought.

He thought insufficient knowledge was the answer, at first, then insufficient will to move on, then an overabundance of emotion; that people felt their pains too deeply. He considered trying to become the most powerful trainer in the world, or a politician able to unite every region under his rule, or starting a religion that could inflame the hearts and minds of all humanity… but still it seemed there was nothing that could possibly change the fundamental problems in the world.

The flame inside him, still driving him to find a way to fix the crack in his family, began at last to gutter and die.

Until the Hoenn titans arose, and changed his conception of what was possible.

Each had the power to change the world in an extreme way. Each showed a lack of ability to regulate, a lack of intelligent deliberate purpose. Humanity panicked because they thought their world came close to ending, but no one seems to have understood the potential for what almost happened.

A new world’s beginning.

A worse one, perhaps, with so much water or sunlight that more suffering became the baseline. But any society born or acclimated to such a world would surely also consider it the norm, and take for granted that its ending would be tragic.

None would have traded their world for this one, better though it is. Perhaps they would, for a world without flaws.

Many regions have myths of ancient and powerful gods and spirits, masters of some (occasionally competing) domains of reality. But few carry the deep implications of Sinnoh’s. He grew up on stories of Dialga and Palkia creating Time and Space, of Uxie, Mesprit and Azelf gifting humanity knowledge, emotion, and willpower, of Arceus creating all of reality itself with a thousand arms.

Like most others, he believed them myths, or legends gone from their world. Hoenn’s myths turned out not just to be real, but still present, and even stronger than the stories indicated.

What new reality could Sinnoh’s create, if guided by a human mind?

The secret, he’s sure, lies with the unown. It wasn’t widely spread how the Hoenn incident ended; people assumed Rayquaza saved them by chance, or out of benevolence, and that the registeel, regirock, and regice there were released by the earthquakes. All of which may be partially true.

But Cyrus was hired to help those in Hoenn after the incident, where he met and counseled a boy named Wally. The boy’s shields were extraordinary for his age, but they meant nothing once his feelings of guilt overcame him.

Cyrus assured the boy that he did nothing wrong, and meant every word. The glimpses of genius that allowed Wally to influence the living myths were hard to understand, but it was enough, combined with the dreams to know what he had to do.

There’s another pop, and then that entrancing sound from somewhere distant, almost too faint for him to hear… but not for his golbat.

Wing Attack.

His pokemon darts away, faster than those of any competing unown hunters in the area. He runs by them as he chases his pokemon, vaulting low walls and weaving between pillars as the others are still looking around for the unown. It’s remarkable how few thought to train their pokemon specifically to find the sound they make, and of those who did, how few chose pokemon well known for speed and hearing.

He passes by a researcher who’s using a loudred to orient to the unown’s noise, but by the time she sends her pidgeot after it there’s already a small black figure falling in the distance. His golbat follows it down, occasionally batting at it with his wings to keep it from recovering and flying away, and Cyrus expands a ball as he gets close.

He thought it would take weeks, maybe months, to shake off the decade of rust on his trainer skills. In the years since his younger self trained daily, determined to prove himself to his parents, the only pokeball he held was the one with his teleporter in it.

But the fire in him now is stronger than that ever was, and weeks of retraining his body were almost a formality; the skills of throwing and catching, of split second evaluation and decision, were all there waiting for him, and the two balls expanding in his palms feel like they never left.

The pidgeot and his golbat almost collide as they both attempt to batter the unown down. The researcher behind him is still catching up to him, and he sends a mental command ahead for his golbat to Supersonic it. As the bird veers away, one wing flapping so hard it nearly flips over and crashes into the ground, he reaches the unown and points the lenses forward, nudging his golbat to keep it in range until he hears the two pings and throws.

By the time the researcher arrives he’s already leaving with his new C unown. It’s his third one, but that’s alright; what Wally did required one of each, but he has greater plans.

Plans that will birth a new world.

Chapter 102: Conviction

Hey everyone, traveling again this month and next, so edits and updates may be a bit delayed. To my Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarussian readers, all I can say is that I hope this chapter provides a spot of light in the darkness, and that you’re all here again next month, and many more after. That goes for all of us, I guess.

Slava Ukraini.


Chapter 102: Conviction

Once Red and Artem shared their ideas with the other unown researchers in the What Comes Next network, and consensus arose on how paired researchers and psychics weren’t even necessary given how many people would be at the ruins in general, the next question became which ruins they should visit. Kanto has so few that they debated going to Johto instead, but Red’s free teleportation would make the most remote trip the most valuable for return visits, so he decides to go for the most isolated while Artem hops on a train heading westward.

Which is how Red ends up once again on a boat to the Sevii Islands, this time a small skiff rather than a luxurious cruise ship. The sky is gray with pockets of blue where the sun occasionally shines through, and he expects rain at some point, but all he really has to do today is make it to the island and set a teleport spot, so he didn’t let the weather deter him.

The Tanoby Ruins are hard to spot from a distance, but as they round the southern bend of Quest Island the ship’s captain helpfully points to the tiny islets the ruins are nestled on from east to west.

“Monean, Liptoo, Weepth, Dilford, Scufib, Rixy, and Viapois. Most of the buildings have fallen apart to time or pokemon or some storm or another, but each has at least one main chamber that’s underground or built into a cavern.”

“And that’s where the unown spawn?”

“Sure, but not just there, they’ll pop up all around here. ‘Specially lately; used to be I’d get just one or two jobs per month to bring people to the ruins instead of a dozen, and the rest of the trips were for trainers heading to the battle tower.”

Red turns to where it sticks up from the northern end of Quest Island. “That’s one of those places for underground pokemon battles, right? I mean, figuratively.” He remembers Blue talking about it once or twice; most regions have one, usually far from any major cities where the leagues have less direct influence.

“Well, it’s a bit too obvious for even that, eh? But they’re not ‘sanctioned,’ true enough. With just enough land here to build a small town, but no one interested in living near unown ruins, it made the perfect spot for it.”

“Right. I guess it would be unsettling to have one pop into your room one night.” After hearing the sounds they make firsthand, and spending a few hours listening to recordings of all kinds just in case he discerned some hidden pattern, he’s not sure cheap land would entice him much either, even with the ability to teleport offsetting the isolation.

As if summoned by the topic, Red sees Pikachu’s ears twitch, and follows his pokemon’s gaze to the sky, where a distant black shape floats by. It’s too far for him to make out its noise or even what letter it is, let alone do a mental merge, but he can at least track the direction it seems to be going in, and takes his pokedex out to add the trajectory to the WCN app, where thousands of thin lines show other projected routes for observed unown, including how many and what letters. Once he’s done he slides the timescale back, first a few days, then a few weeks, and finally to when the app was created a few months ago, watching lines vanish and reappear.

Still no pattern that he can make out. But hopefully getting a better understanding of where they’re going beyond the regions’ borders will help. After he floated the idea around, others have already tested and confirmed that most freshly appearing unown have a few moments of lingering memory of where they were before, making it clear that they’re teleporting in from somewhere else rather than being “born” that very moment.

He’s still playing with the map as the captain cuts the boat’s speed and starts to aim it toward the docks at the base of the nearest islet. Red does one last mental sweep to make sure there aren’t any dangerous pokemon around, then calls Wartortle back to the boat and returns him to his ball. “Thanks for the ride.” Red steps onto the dock, then resummons Wartortle so he can rest before bringing Kadabra out too. Pikachu finally jumps onto the dock beside him, sniffing around before dashing off to explore the rocky path that leads up to the rest of the tiny island.

“Sure you don’t want me to stick around? Know you said you can teleport back, but if you want to visit the other islands…”

“My pokemon can take me, just didn’t want to risk the long swim over.”

“Alright then, good luck to you.”

Red waves as the captain puts the boat in reverse and eases it away from the dock, then focuses on his kadabra, who’s doing a mental sweep of its surroundings. Unlike its younger form, Kadabra isn’t inclined to flee at the first sign of danger, his mood more of a careful wariness. Red lets his pokemon finish getting used to their surroundings, then deepens the merger and connects all the information from his own senses together with his current emotional state.

Firm stone beneath his feet, the strong scent of the ocean, the sound of the waves, sun on his skin, the feeling of excitement from being here, so far from the mainland and ready to explore the ancient mystery of the ruins… all of it merges into a unique memory that he can recall and use to return at will.

Once he feels like he has the memory down in sufficient detail, and enough time has passed that it feels like a memory and not his current experience, he walks a few steps off the dock with Kadabra, then puts a hand on his pokemon’s shoulder, focuses, and teleports back to the dock.

Satisfied, he checks on Wartortle, gives him some extra treats and water, then leads the two up the path, where Pikachu is still scouting ahead. A path has been cut into the side of the islet to ensure it’s not too steep a climb, but he’s still breathing hard by the time he makes it to the top and takes in the ruins for the first time.

Brown, mossy stones jut out of the ground in various places, some seemingly at random, others clearly the remains of some building’s foundations. A few structures are still standing, but even those have holes in the walls, and none have roofs. He can faintly make out the ancient etchings in some of the stones, thin unown shapes of all kinds forming words that can no longer be understood.

Sitting on one of the worn stone walls is a girl dressed in a purple shirt and beige cargo pants, attention on the sketchpad in her lap. She looks a few years older than Red, and beside her sits a houndoom on one side and a jolteon on the other, while a sandslash rests half-submerged behind her.

There’s also a kabutops walking around them all, maybe on patrol for threats. As Red and his pokemon approach, it glances over and seems to take their measure before the girl says, “Relax, Tops.”

Despite her pokemon all being natives her accent is distinctly Galarian. Her kabutops (seemingly grudgingly) returns to its patrol, while the rest of her pokemon stay relaxed, with just the houndoom raising a head to glance at Kadabra before lowering it onto its paws again.

The girl smiles, and he’s just starting to wonder why she looks familiar when there’s a pop sound, and an O unown appears between them, a few meters off the ground and to Red’s left.

They both react together, Red rushing forward while the girl leaps off the crumbling wall, pulling a ball off her belt (wait, what?) as he expands two from his pouch. Their pokemon startle as well, though with no clear threat the two trainers swiftly leave them behind; Red almost sends a mental command for Kadabra to use Confusion if the unown starts to fly away, but the unown is simply doing a slow rotation midair, giving them both time to reach it from nearly opposite ends.

“Don’t catch it!” she yells.

“You can go first!” Red yells back as he runs under it to cut off a potential escape route. “I just need to merge with it!”

“Okay, just don’t do anything to scare it off!” She braces her arm. “Go, Pidove!”

The gray bird appears in front of her, and she quickly kneels to tie something to its feet. Red decides to save his confusion for later and just focuses on the unown’s thoughts, hoping he can pick up some traces of memory of where it was before…

The now-familiar “window” opens in Red’s mind, showing him a second visual field of what the unown sees… which, as usual, he can barely process.

Inside what looks like their single large pupil are in fact multiple, all crowded together to give a uniquely kaleidoscopic vision where multiple different perspectives, with varying range and color sensitivity, are crowded together. It also doesn’t help that the unown’s circular body keeps spinning in circles even as the eye rolls.

Still, even all that isn’t enough on its own to really give Red difficulty; what does is the sucking sensation that the other creature’s “mind” seems to constantly experience, a drain that Red’s unpartitioned self recognizes as somehow similar to what it’s like to partition memories. Except the unown’s memories aren’t going behind partitions, so far as he and other psychics can tell; just fading.

This has always been taken as the experiential side-effect of not having much memory capacity. Still, Red expected it to feel more passive, or like the fragmenting of a dream, or simply vanishing from one moment to the next. Instead the impression of his thoughts being pulled is distinct, attention not just collapsing but compressing to fit his sensorium into the unown’s limited body. He quickly releases most of the merger so that his mind settles almost entirely back in his own senses, then begins regulating the merger the way he’s practiced with his own unown, purposefully degrading the “window” of its vision until it’s a flat, low resolution monochrome.

He’s just in time to catch the last of the unown’s pre-current memories before they’re gone, but what he sees is an unrecognizable blur that vaguely looks like… the top of a forest?

And then he hears a quick musical trill, and turns to see the girl playing a blue ocarina. Her pidove flies up toward the unown, whose circular body spins away midair, and the chase is on.

But the pidove doesn’t attack, instead just following its slower prey as the unown loops around in erratic arcs above their heads, until finally its wanderings take it too far for Red to maintain the merger.

The eerie noise it emitted takes another moment to fully fade, or maybe that’s just in Red’s head. He stares after the two pokemon for a moment, wondering if the girl is going to call her pidove back… but instead she’s tucking her ocarina away, and miniaturizes its ball to put in her pocket instead of her belt (which seems to have customized pokeballs for the other five, tops alternating purple and yellow). “Thanks for not catching it.”

“Uh, no problem.” Red thinks back to that glimpse he got of the unown’s memory, trying to remember some detail that would help discern where the forest was. But there were no mountains, no lakes, no coastlines, no landmarks at all. A total bust. “I figured you’ve probably been here waiting for a while anyway, but… what about your pidove? What was that command you played?”

“Just something I’ve been working on to track the unown.” She walks back to where she was sitting by her pokemon and Red follows, watching as she picks her notepad up and brushes dirt off the pages. “Aw, shinx. It smudged.”

He catches a glimpse of a color pencil sketch and turns toward where she was facing to confirm that she’s been drawing the chain of tiny islets to the west, sunbeams peeking through the clouds to highlight the ruins on each. She must have been sitting here since morning to catch them all as they occurred, maybe multiple days. “Sorry.”

“Not your fault.” She smiles at him and holds a hand out. “Nice to finally meet you, Red. I’m Lulie.”

Red shakes it, mind automatically jumping to make the connection with her Galarian accent. “ReasonisFun? What are you doing in Kanto?” She has a sizeable following online, but in fairly different circles than Red, who only met her once she got involved in What Comes Next.

“Why wouldn’t I be, it’s where all the fun stuff is happening!” She considers a moment. “Tragic and dangerous too, of course, but you’re not about to leave, are you?”

“No,” he admits. He’s still going to most nearby incidents to help out while Cinnabar continues to stabilize, and though it often messes with his schedules and sleep, he hasn’t considered stopping. “But that’s because all my friends are here.”

“That’s fair. But I’ve got friends here too, from back when I first visited.” She takes a new pokeball, also the default red, out of her bag and clips onto the empty space on her belt where her pidove was. “Besides the pokemon, I mean, though I think they’re happy to be back home.”

Red looks at her pokemon again, then back at her. “You’re not psychic, are you?”

“Nah, I’m just good at reading vibes.”

He can’t tell if she’s joking or not, but now he’s curious about her pokeballs. If she’s color coding, he’d expect the houndoom to be in a red ball, but the only one on her belt is the one that she just put there. “Purple are for your houndoom and kabutops, yellow are for sandslash, jolteon, and…?”

“Two out of four. Yellow are Jolteon, Houndoom, and Agarment, while purple are Slashy and Tops.”

It takes him a moment to realize Agarment breaks the nicknamed/non-nicknamed pattern rather than being a pokemon he’s never heard of. “What’s Agarment?”

“Abra.”

Her deadpan delivery is betrayed by a slight twinkle in her eyes and curve to her lip that makes him replay everything, and then he laughs. “That’s terrible, and also Leaf is going to love it. Just to make sure, Slashy is the sandslash?”

“Yep, and Tops the kabutops.”

“My friend Blue has an abra named Tops.”

“Huh. Weird name for an abra.”

Red snorts and decides not to tell her about how long all his abra spent named after their teleportation sites just yet. “So what’s in the regular ball?”

“Another pidove. Your post back in April about how to herd or follow unown on mounts got me thinking a few steps ahead; what if we can just figure out where they go instead, and find them there? There are plenty of pidove in my hometown, and they’re excellent long distance fliers with incredible memories. So I caught a bunch, trained them to follow unown, and bought a bunch of trackers.” She takes her pokedex out (also purple, with yellow trim around the screen and buttons) and taps a few times before showing him…

A personalized version of the WCN map, thick colored lines indicating where her pokemon have tracked the various unown she’s sent them after. Three of them are still being drawn in real time, blinking every second as the fronts stretches further out, often in loops or bends. “Woah. How far will it go?”

“The weakest I caught was still able to fly over a thousand kilometers in a day.”

“This is great! If there’s a pattern, we might even be able to follow it and get a confirmed sighting of them creating pokemon!”

“Sure, that too.” Lulie starts picking her colored pencils back up from where they rolled around. Her jolteon stretches its neck out to pick one up that rolled near it, then holds it up for her, and she smiles as she rubs its head and takes it.

Red helps her pick up the rest, then sits next to her as he continues studying the flight paths. “By ‘that too,’ you mean there’s something else you’re doing it for?”

“To better understand their behavior in general. I’m not sure what getting a confirmed sighting of a pokemon appearing near an unown would actually do at this point.”

“Well I know the evidence seems really convincing, but it would still be important to get observed confirmation!”

“Why?”

Red blinks. “Why… is observation necessary for confirming a hypothesis?”

“Would seeing the pokemon appear near an unown do that?”

Her tone is light and curious, and it makes him smile as he remembers all the times her curiosity online has led to people, himself included, stepping back from their reflexive responses to think things through more carefully. “Ah, no. It wouldn’t ‘prove’ anything, because we can’t prove things like that by observation. But it would lend confidence to the idea, and make our predictions stronger.”

“How?”

“We’d have at least one confirmed example that pokemon can be created by… no, that they could appear near where unown are.”

She grins at the correction. “Sure, but again, what would that change?”

“Hmm. Well right now we don’t know for sure if that can happen. Once we see it, we would.”

“Pokemon probably appear all the time near rocks, and we don’t think rocks have anything to do with it unless it’s a Rock type. I get that unown are much rarer than rocks, so it feels less coincidental if an unown is near a pokemon that appears, but ‘pokemon could appear near unown’ isn’t a useful scientific theory.”

“I think I get what you’re saying; we can’t prove stuff, black swannas can exist, and all it would take is one pokemon appearing nowhere near an unown to invalidate the idea. But until that happens…”

“You believe it would increase the odds of it being true. But induction isn’t how science is done.”

The sudden confidence is a sharp contrast to the earlier curiosity, and his skepticism blooms in response. “What makes you say that?”

She gestures at the ruins. “Why are you here?”

It takes him a moment to realize she’s not changing the subject. “To study the unown.”

“You can do that through books.”

“Right, I want to learn something new about them. Make new observations.”

“Keep going. Did someone tell you to learn something new about them? Is someone paying you?”

“No, I… want to know because I’m curious.”

“Huh.” Lulie looks up briefly, hand absently rubbing her houndoom’s back. “I feel like my curiosity always comes from somewhere, but I’m not sure if that’s actually true… it also sometimes feels like it’s just there, as a passive thing that doesn’t require a specific trigger. But as an emotion, it’s variable; sometimes I feel mild curiosity, sometimes strong curiosity. Is it different for you?”

“No, that sounds about right. Sometimes I see or hear things that make me notice a mild curiosity, but the strongest emotional response always comes from things that might be related to specific topics, like psychic phenomenon or the origin of species.”

“So why are you here, specifically, studying the unown in particular? The way you’re framing things is that you want to know something, right?” He nods. “But science is never going to give you proof that you’re right. So what is it you’re actually trying to do here?”

Red frowns. “Science may not be able to prove a specific model right, but it can prove which are false so we know which are less wrong.”

“Exactly!” she exclaims with a wide grin, and he’s not the only one who startles. “Woops, sorry boy.” She strokes the houndoom’s head, then turns back to Red. “So according to Popper, science—”

“Wait, according to who?”

“Karl Popper. He was a philosopher who wrote about the problem of induction, and why falsifiability is what distinguishes science from non-science. What makes science so powerful is its ability to falsify some set of competing theories, which means you first need at least two competing explanations to do science. If the explanation you have fits all the observations, then more evidence won’t make it any more true, so there’s no value in any further confirming evidence.”

“I know falsification is important, of course, but… he was against any retesting at all? What about peer review?”

“When someone runs an experiment to falsify something it can be important for others to check their work, of course. But if the theory properly explains the phenomenon, what’s the point of doing another test? You’d only do that if it doesn’t match some observation, which again means there’s a problem. That’s what motivates all scientific advances: solving problems. Sometimes practical, like how to build a better pokeball, sometimes theoretical, like where pokemon come from.” She smiles. “So what explanation are you here to test?”

He sits beside her to think about it, and she lets him, going back to her sketching. Red pulls a tin spoon out of his pocket and tosses it toward Kadabra to play with, watching for a while as his pokemon catches it midair and begin to levitate and bend it around. Red watches him for a bit as he spends a few moments appreciating how nice it is to meet someone else willing to launch into conversations and debates like this. He knows Blue would hate it, and remembers the way others have reacted when he did similar, but he’s already really glad he came to this island in particular.

Once Kadabra is regularly cycling through its mental exercises, Red starts to consider his potential explanations for pokemon genesis, then discard them one by one.

Unown create pokemon around them by accident, no other factors are important.

Unown create pokemon around them given certain other conditions.

Only groups of unown create pokemon around them… only certain amount of unown…

“Ugh,” he says after a minute. “Everything I come up with can’t be falsified by observation. I could come up with some more deliberately rigid explanations, but I have no reason to believe they’re true yet.”

“Noticing that is an important first step! There’s no time to test or critique every hypothesis or argument, which is why coming up with good potential explanations, ones that would actually help us discard it or competing theories, is such an important part of the process. That’s why all the greatest scientists are celebrated for their creativity in coming up with good explanations to test, or clever experiments to isolate the false variations of similar ones.”

Red considers this a moment, and realizes she’s right. It also gives him a new lens through which to view his own fumbling experiments, and how lacking a meaningful explanation for the potential experimental outcomes in his “psychic particle” experiments limited the value of what he was actually testing against. By contrast, his most recent discovery of indoor teleportation was accidental, but forming a gears-level explanation from the ground up was so useful that it not only could help reproduce the effect, it also helped Tatsumaki use kinesis through walls.

“I think I get it. So what are the explanations that you’re hoping to test against, if you can?”

She turns to another page in her notebook, then shows it to him so he can read:

1) The knowledge of pokemon biology is contained in meteorites that carry their genetic material from other worlds.

2) Unown are a conduit for knowledge from another world. That knowledge is what creates the new pokemon, which already exist in that other world.

3) Unown contain the knowledge to create new pokemon themselves, and different combinations of letters combine with different surroundings objects to spontaneously create life.

4) Living pokemon genetics contain the knowledge of ancestral pokemon, and some environments or circumstances trigger a reversion.

5) Pokemon genetic knowledge did not evolve anywhere, created by unimaginably intelligent designer—but then where did designer originate?

Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to decide where to start before picking, “You believe in parallel worlds?”

“Well sure, it’s the best explanation for what happens to single photons in the double slit experiment.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that. Something to do with quantum mechanics, right?” He almost asks why it’s the best explanation, then decides he doesn’t care as much right now and can look it up later. “So if pokemon come from other worlds, what does it mean that unown contain the ‘knowledge’ to create them? I’ve been inside their heads, so to speak, and they’re even dumber than magikarp.”

“I know you know what memes are from that lecture you gave everyone about Pokemon types–”

“–it wasn’t a lecture, I was just saying–”

“–it was totally a lecture, Red, it was like ten thousand words, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I actually enjoyed it! But the comparison of memes to genes is more apt than I think even Dawkins knew; he wanted to describe ideas the way we understand genes, but really it’s genes that are the embodiment of memes. When I say ‘knowledge,’ I don’t mean just memorized facts. Real knowledge is any information that preserves and replicates itself.”

“Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be able to be learned,” Red murmurs, trying to think of what this has to do with pokemon… “Ah, that’s what you meant by the comparison to genes. They contain ‘knowledge’ about biology. How many bones to grow, where, how thick, what shape, it’s all in the genes, along with skin, muscle tissue, metabolism, everything. If it doesn’t survive the environment it’s in and outcompete others, the genes die, and the knowledge of how to turn atoms into those particular biological containers, die with them.”

“You’re quick,” Lulie says with a smile. “I thought you would be. See, a good explanation doesn’t have adjustable parts. If pokemon appear around an unown, one explanation is that the unown ‘created’ it, but that’s no different than saying that pokemon are naturally occurring around the unown, or that Arceus created them and unown are just its eyes in our world, or that all the unown are parts of a different god who did it and Arceus had nothing to do with it. Until you have a way to test specific explanations with observations that will leave better ones standing, the observations themselves aren’t guaranteed to create any new or real understanding.”

Red slowly nods, watching Pikachu walk over to Jolteon for some mutual sniffs. “So the actual process is to first notice there’s a problem, which can be as simple as when two things you think you know, or see, contradict. But instead of following that with observations to make hypotheses, I should first come up with explanations.”

“You do come up with explanations first. All observations, all learning, is theory laden. We form explanations for things constantly, consciously or subconsciously, and what we think we know affects how we interpret information and make sense of it.”

“Right. That’s why two people can hear the same facts about something that happened, but come up with totally different explanations for why it happened, and their models might actually update in opposite directions.” That always annoyed him; it just seems wrong for two people to get the same information and not move closer to agreement rather than farther.

“There are other factors too. Sometimes two people will observe the same exact thing happen in front of them, but their attention is on different things.”

“And they’ll remember different things, which will also lead to different expectations going forward, which in turn might lead to biases.”

“You mean like confirmation bias?”

“Worse. If someone only sees or reads things that reinforce a certain belief, that might make it harder to accept something that seems to disagree with all they already believe. But taking awareness into account too… what if they don’t even register the counterevidence as counterevidence at all? That would be pretty rare though, like the starting perspectives would have to have diverged drastically, or the information about something they’ve developed a lot of attentional blind spots around.”

“Ugh. Sounds like what happens in politics a lot.” She sighs. “But yeah, this is why it’s important to think not just of what models people have of reality, but also where their awareness naturally goes. Every expectation we have is the result of an explanation our mind is using to predict what will happen next.”

“Yeah, that’s what predictive processing–” A distant pop makes them both leap up again, this time without spilling Lulie’s notebook.

“I don’t see it,” she says, spinning around to look in every direction as she unclips her red pokeball and takes another tracker out of her pocket. “You?”

Red’s senses are already stretched outward, and he starts running around the ruins in case it’s inside one of the buildings. By the time he senses it behind one of the crumbling houses it’s already flying up and away, not giving him time to glimpse its memories.

The ocarina sounds behind him, and Lulie’s second pidove launches into the air after the already-distant black speck.

Red jogs back over to her as she minimizes the ball and swaps it for another full one from her bag. “How many of those things have you got?”

“Just eight left. Never was able to send more than seven out in a day, but so long as it doesn’t rain I’m hoping I get lucky.”

“Will the pidove come back here, or do you go to them?”

“Depends; the ones that follow unown out over the ocean will turn back when they’re near their halfway flight time and rest on the roof of the battle tower until I pick them up. The ones that end up going more north or west will make their way to Cinnabar, Pallet, or Fuchsia.”

“Nice. Have you posted about this yet?”

“Just started, now that I can show how effective it is.”

Red grins. “With your following, this’ll take off big.” He should probably buy some pidove… not that they’re anywhere near as rare or hard to catch as abra, but they’re also not native to any of the island regions. “So which of your hypotheses are you expecting to invalidate by tracking them?”

“Oh, I’d be surprised if any of them would. Personally I think it’s too early to falsify any by observation until we have a better understanding of all sorts of things. Whether unown are somehow a carrier for the genetic knowledge pokemon contain or not, I’m also interested in the unown themselves for their own sake. Why they act the way they do, the unique properties they have, what sort of environment, if any, they evolved in. Exploratory research is useful to create new theories or decide which to test.”

“I totally get that, it’s why part of me is so frustrated by the research ban.”

Lulie shrugs. “Only matters if I intend to do that sort of research in a region that’s banned it. There are others that are just going ahead, you know.”

Red worries his lower lip. “Yeah, but… what if it really is dangerous?”

“Then that’s just another problem we’ll have to solve.”

Her words resonate within him, stirring the part that had been mostly, if uncomfortably, appeased by his talk with Giovanni. He wants it to be true. Would have probably agreed a year ago, and he knows it’s the sort of thing Blue would say.

But…

“I feel like that’s the sort of thing Archie and Matsubusa believed.” Salvage teams still haven’t found the stolen submarine to confirm Archie’s death, and neither renegade leader or any of their people have been seen or heard from, despite being Interpol’s most wanted criminals for months. “That they could figure out how to revive Groudon and Kyogre, and if there were any problems controlling them they’d figure that out later.”

“Yeah.” Lulie’s smile has faded, and she looks pensively up at the sky as her hand reaches back to stroke Slashy’s snout. “To be clear, I’m not saying all knowledge should be spread to everyone. All problems are solvable, but that doesn’t mean we’ll figure the solutions out on time. Still, the research should be done. If someone besides those two had learned what they did, maybe they could have stopped them or the legendaries even sooner.”

The parallel to the other regions already continuing with unown research goes without saying. “So, we should be trying to research whatever we can, and if something dangerous is discovered, then we shouldn’t share the knowledge until we can reasonably ensure it’s safe?”

“That seems nearly impossible. I’d say that it’s more about who you trust to tell than anything.”

Well, he can hardly argue with that given what he’s already decided, twice. Still, Red sits silent, thoughts turning to what they’re doing here as he uses psychic commands to train his pokemon in agile movement around the ruins. What’s more potentially dangerous, her tracking, or his memory searches? He has no idea. Red told Artem he’s not trying to sneak around the ban, but while what he’s doing isn’t technically research into pokemon genesis, they don’t know that it won’t contribute to it.

What would he do, if he discovered something important here? He couldn’t tell Sabrina or Giovanni, and even Professor Oak might feel compelled to obey their Champion, despite disagreeing. And he can’t just rely on himself to know what others might do with his research, since any piece of knowledge might be the key to another’s discovery.

But that’s true of any research, really… as he already learned, the hard way. Hell, even Tatsumaki’s discovery might just be another thing that people get scared of psychics about. The list is getting rather long, all things considered, and after a certain point it may just be a choice between stop doing anything he finds important or risk discovering something that might lead to bad stuff happening.

“Still bothered?”

Red turns to see Lulie watching him, and despite her not being psychic the words weren’t a question. Good at reading vibes, huh? He lets his senses withdraw from Kadabra’s and throws a treat out for his pokemon. “I guess I’m just trying to come to terms with the risks of all this. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, actually; figuring out what ways any of my research might lead to bad outcomes.”

“Well, I understand why, but while you’re at it, why not also figure out what ways any of your actions might lead to bad outcomes?”

“What, all of them?”

“Sure. Is there any reason to only care about research in particular?”

Her tone makes it clear she’s suggesting something intentionally impractical to make a point, but Red just gives her a wan smile. “Let’s just say I have good evidence that my research is more likely than not to cause problems, compared to all my non-research actions.”

Lulie’s eyes widen slightly, and this time she’s the one that stays silent, drawing pad forgotten as her eyes turn upward. Red merges with his pokemon one at a time, sending them through the ruins, treating it as an obstacle course, until finally she looks back at him and says, “I feel like you just admitted something rather personal, and important, and you believe it enough that I don’t feel inclined to doubt it. So, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, I think.” Really he shouldn’t have said it at all, if he’s being as cautious as he should be, but somehow he trusts her not to gossip. Some of his own “vibe” reading, maybe.

“I’ll admit to being curious, but understand if that’s all you want to say. Meanwhile, I should remind you of the good you’ve done too.” She pats the yellow ball at the back of her belt. “I was only able to afford Agarment here because of you.”

“I had some help. But… yeah, I think I did need that reminder.” He tries to let that sink in, and once it does he feels himself breathe a little easier, his worries about being a walking infohazard for psychics fading a bit. Much as it might feel lately like all he’s done is discover dangerous things, he knows he’s done more than that. “Thanks.”

“Anytime. So what’s your plan to figure out where pokemon come from?”

Red smiles. “Finding ways to test your ideas seems good, actually. The fourth one reminded me of ditto.” Part of him still stubbornly insists that metamon is the better name, but there’s no denying the tide has turned in the past few weeks. “There are stories of clefairy coming from the moon and ghosts from the afterlife, but as far as we know, minior are the only pokemon that aren’t really from our planet at all, right? Or at least, they form in the stratosphere before falling to earth. Has anyone tested whether ditto can transform into them?”

“You’re thinking, what, that because they’re not from the planet, they’re a completely different genetic branch from whatever ditto can imitate? Hmm.” She checks her pokedex, brings up the page on ditto, and starts to scroll. “Nope, they haven’t gotten around to testing that one yet.”

“Then it’s time I write up some competing theories of my own.”

Lulie grins. “And meanwhile, what’s your plan with the unown?”

“Well, I know you’re against knowledge by induction, but I still think it can be valuable. Let’s say unown really are important, in some way, to new pokemon appearing. If we want to get a sense of the range in which new pokemon might be spawned, then obviously just one observation wouldn’t do much; we wouldn’t have any sense of how relatively close or far it is from the potential maximums, or minimums for that matter. But with a hundred observations, unless there’s absolutely no trend at all, we could get a frequency curve that could be very useful.”

Lulie just stares at him a moment. “You want to make a hundred observations of pokemon genesis, when no one’s even managed one yet?!”

It starts to drizzle as they argue, and Lulie withdraws her houndoom as they find shelter beneath some trees, chatting late into the day and building up their knowledge together, one data point at a time. When Red finally says goodbye and teleports home, it’s with new conviction.

He wouldn’t experiment in any way that might create pokemon… but he would continue trying to learn where they come from, and decide what to do with that information later if he has to.


The division within Fuchsia gym starts slowly, and without any deliberate effort on Blue’s part.

For one thing, he and his friends are famous enough to naturally attract aspiring trainers wherever they go, to the point where he finds himself having trouble actually keeping track of everyone these days. It takes effort to spend “personal time” with others beyond Glen, Elaine, Lizzy, and Maria; he feels the most comfortable being himself around them. But he pushes himself to do it anyway, remembering how important it was to befriend each of them on a more equal level. He wonders where he’d be now if he hadn’t gone to the Saffron dojo that day; maybe worried to even attend classes.

Novelty also likely plays some factor in how popular their group becomes; after finally having the blessing from a gym leader to do what he wants, Blue can at last continue what they started in Vermilion. While he starts iterating on the Objection system, Glen and Elaine work together to develop a set of group training scenarios; Search and Rescue, Hold the Line, and Titan Takedown.

(That last one is the most unique, and soon draws the most sign-ups. Since they don’t have actual legendaries to practice on, the scenario features an asymmetric battle between one trainer using their most powerful pokemon and three to five using weak ones. Though it comes with an added risk to the pokemon involved, people seem as genuinely excited to try to work together taking down the “Legendary” as they do to play the villain; much debate was had over whether they should be able to ‘catch’ it, and in the end Blue decided that since no legendary has been caught yet, they would battle as though taking them down is the only option.)

And then of course there was Koga’s speech, and the way he occasionally visits to observe the “unofficial” classes they run with anyone that wants to try the scenarios. It’s hard to compress all the things they learned in Vermilion into a few lectures and practical tests, but the scenarios are different enough from regular battle matches, and the experience of those at the gym so wildly varying, that they make safety the priority and let the participants learn most of the rest live.

But still, all of that could be seen as auxiliary gym activities… until a couple weeks after starting, Janine began to post notices of private, one-on-one battle training. Not just with her; most of the veteran members of the gym also make themselves available, and far beyond what’s normally available in most gyms. Not only do they double their available times for single matches and coaching, they also post their training times, and stage them in public places where anyone who wants to observe can do so… always coincidentally at the same times that the group scenarios or lessons are scheduled.

It feels like years ago, now, but Blue still remembers what Red told him just before leaving for the cruise convention… along with the burning conviction that’s so rare to see in his friend.

“This is your chance to do something really different… prove that you can win, reveal your secrets, and then win again anyway.

The memory has nudged him, now and then, to say more rather than less, to show his secrets not just to those in his inner circle, but to the world, in the hopes that it strengthens every trainer without costing him his dream. It still feels like a gamble, every time, but one that on net he’s glad he takes.

But he hasn’t tried to preach something similar, knowing it would bring a lot of backlash from other battle trainers; for all that he’s accomplished, he’s still young, and the more experienced trainers would believe he’s just trying to get others to show him their secrets in exchange for his own paltry few.

And yet without really intending to, it seems he’s managed to push the Fuchsia gym culture onto a path that might normalize that mentality. Janine knows she can’t beat him in offering more than what gyms traditionally do, but she can double down on that tradition, with added perks.

Which is why, while some trainers are attending both, there’s been a definite drop-off since Janine’s lessons started, to the point where they’re actually having trouble forming teams for each scenario with the smaller pool of skill and pokemon available.

All told, despite Janine beating him twice more since their first match, Koga’s plan is working out wonderfully, and the Leader is sure to allow him to Challenge soon.

“So why do I feel like I’m losing?” Blue complains to Elaine as they make their way to the training rooms to practice with their psychic pokemon. Blue hasn’t given up on getting Tops into fighting shape, and doesn’t plan to, but he has to admit that a kadabra alone wouldn’t bridge the gap between him and Janine. “And I don’t just mean because I am, obviously.”

“Let me guess,” Elaine says. “At this point even getting the badge and leaving would feel like failure?”

He grunts acknowledgement. And for multiple reasons too, not least of which is that he’s losing hope that the starting animosity from Janine will turn into a more friendly rivalry over time. For reasons he can’t quite understand, if anything the Leader’s daughter seems to actually hate him more now, despite his attempts to apologize for their rough start and befriend her. “The worst part is, her training will actually help people become stronger than ours. Not in every situation, but in their ability to win trainer battles and gym challenges. And that means the scenarios will die out as soon as we leave.”

“Makes sense to me. How many people get a gym’s badge in a year, a few dozen at most? Meanwhile, you’re the first person to change the culture of a gym without being its Leader. Of course you want to keep stacking that story.”

Blue sighs as they enter the elevator and start heading down. “I only want to because I’m right though. The Indigo League’s been around for nearly a century, if focusing on individual trainer strength was enough to keep the region safe then someone would have taken a Stormbringer down by now.”

“Preaching to the choir,” Elaine gently reminds him. “But however wrong it may be to focus on individual trainer strength alone, we can’t deny that her training will help with both trainer battles and wild battles.”

“Well, no, but ours helps against trainer battles too!”

“Mmm. If I were to think up numbers for it, which I have, I’d say her training boosts Battle Power against trainers by 10, and ours against wilds by 10. But while ours boosts power against trainers by 2, maybe 3, hers boosts power against wilds by at least 5.”

Blue frowns. “Are you pulling those from a game?”

“Nope.”

“Alright, well—”

“I’m describing how it’ll be reflected in my game.”

“You’re making a game? I’m in it?”

“Of course!”

“Wait, if it’s your game why not give my training a boost?”

“I can’t do that, silly, it has to be realistic. There are modifiers for the two of you, but I think they come out about equal, and then she’s got a Second and Third on her side.”

Which has certainly tempted Blue to go to the lessons himself, as a sort of “we’re not so proud that we don’t think we can learn from you too” (not to mention the help it would be in his own battles against them), but they’re still working out the schedule rotation and he needs to be present for most. “I still think our scenarios should boost trainer battles by more. They’re not even battling wild pokemon!”

“Neither are we, just pretending they’re wild.” She pats his shoulder as they pick a training room and close the door behind them. “It’s okay, Blue, you have plenty of other perks.”

“I do?”

“Yep! First off, you have Showman, which gives you advantage when speaking in front of a crowd, which gives you a higher chance at earning bonus reputation. You also have Battle Calm, which—”

“Wait, how did you…?”

Elaine blinks. “How did I what?”

Blue feels the back of his neck burning. “Uh, nothing. Just something I’ve heard before, I think?”

“Maybe! I thought I made it up, but you’re always super chill when you fight, so I gave you immunity to reaction penalties from stress.”

“Is that… good?”

“Yeah, it’s one of your strongest perks! That and the Legendary Reflexes and Heroic Name—”

“Okay, okay, I’ve got a lot of perks. I’m satisfied.” He smiles and unclips Tops’s ball. “Thanks. Where are you finding the time to even make a sim, anyway?”

“It’s not digital, it’s a tabletop RPG! You know, pencil and paper, character sheets, stuff like that. It’s what I’ve been working on with Marcus.”

“Oh. I thought you guys were, you know. Dating or whatever.” He half expected that’s why Marcus was so quick to join up with them in Saffron, but he couldn’t exactly call the older boy out on it, especially since he’s actually a good trainer.

“Ah. No.” Her cheeks are pink as she unclips a pokeball too, and Blue is about to summon Tops when she says, “I’ve, um, got my sights set on someone else.”

Shit. Blue still remembers that kiss on the cheek during the storm, now and then, and hoped it was nothing meaningful. That didn’t stop him worrying about it off and on for months, of course, and yet he still has no idea what to say. “Um.”

“But I’m pretty sure he just sees me as a friend.”

“Right.” He doesn’t dare be too relieved, yet, and sure enough…

“Maybe because he’s still focused on another girl. I know it’s stupid to keep hoping, and I’m not rooting against them, exactly…”

“Wait. Another girl?” Does she think he and Leaf…? Or maybe—

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“It is?” Blue asks, feeling a little faint. He’s been talking to Maria a lot lately to get extra help training their psychic pokemon, but—

“Well, thought it was. He talks like Bretta is going to ask him out any day now, or else he will.”

Oh!” The relief is short-lived as Elaine gives him a quizzical look, and now it’s his turn to blush. “Right,” he quickly adds, hoping it’s a more normal response. And then, for good measure, “Yeah.”

“You think Glen’s still focused on her too, then?”

He should just lie. It would be so easy. But what if he’s wrong? In this case he wouldn’t just look foolish, he’d be misleading his friend.

“I actually have no idea,” he admits after a moment, very badly wanting to summon his pokemon and start the training. Instead he starts tossing the ball back and forth. “And it doesn’t seem like my business.”

“Right.” She starts to play with her ball too. “I just thought you were at least keeping track of things like that. For, you know. Drama-avoidance reasons.”

Blue grimaces, but says nothing. He’s read about the way romance among journeymates could lead to problems between them (despite the incomprehensible insistence of basically every movie to shoehorn it in, which is one of the many reasons he prefers films about trainers his own age) but the whys and hows have always been a mystery to him, and he’s never really wanted them not to be. As far as he can tell, romance just makes people go crazy in fairly random and uninteresting ways.

Sometimes heroic ones, too, but those would always be more interesting without the romantic motivation, to him, and observing the ups and downs of Daisy’s romantic life so far has convinced him further that the whole thing is more trouble than it’s worth, even if things seem to be going well with her current girlfriend so far.

She’s still looking at him, though, and finally he says, “I’m just trying to focus on what would make everyone a better trainer. So long as it’s not causing a problem, meddling with people’s personal lives would just be a distraction, for me and others.”

“I get that. And I do appreciate it. But you’ve earned the right to nudge, now and then, you know? If you think it’s getting to be more of a distraction than saying something would.”

Is she asking him to tell her to stop thinking about Glen? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing someone would be able to do, at least according to movies, but then they’re not reliable in all sorts of other ways. “I’m younger than everyone else in the group. Why would I have any more to say on this than you all?”

“It’s not that you would, exactly. I mean, I don’t think people are going to ask you for dating advice. But if it’s affecting our training, I expect you to notice, and… well, we wouldn’t want to disappoint you.” She shrugs. “I guess I should just speak for myself, but if you think I’ve been slipping behind because I keep trying to make sure Glen is keeping up…”

She’s right, he has noticed that. He just didn’t say anything because he figured she’s doing it out of friendship. “Would you do the same for others in the group?”

“I’m not sure. Lizzy and Maria, probably? Maybe not the newcomers, if I’m being honest. I like Marcus and Alex, but I didn’t spend that much time at the dojo, so I’m still getting to know them.”

Blue nods. “You are, a bit. Falling behind I mean. But you’ve been improving in other ways too, and… there are more important things than pokemon training sometimes.” He sighs. “Honestly, it’s been a bit of a relief. I’d probably be doing it more myself if you weren’t.”

She lets out a breath, then nods. “Well. That does make me feel better. But I’m actually worried this is all just my past debt coming due for all the motivation I got after meeting him.”

“What do you mean?”

Elaine gives him a faint smile. “You probably didn’t realize, because we all met at around the same time, and… you didn’t know me too well at the start. But a big part of why I was always so eager to work hard and do more was… I wanted to impress Glen. I mean, I wanted to be impressive so that he’d notice me. Not to say I didn’t care what you thought too, or about getting a badge, or being a good trainer. All of that mattered to me. But I never felt so… energized, and cheerful, and focused.”

“You were pretty energetic back then, but you still are, too, most of the time. I just figured, you know… the things we’ve been through, they haven’t really left any of us unchanged.”

“Sure, that’s been part of it too. After what happened to Glen beneath the Casino… I could barely think straight until he woke up. But I’ve also been feeling some heartache, and occasional jealousy, and… trying not to let that get in the way of things has been hard.”

Blue frowns, staring at his abra’s pokeball. How did he miss that? “Sorry. Not just because that sounds like it sucks. I had no idea.”

“Don’t be, I wanted to keep it hidden. I might have just confessed to Glen if I wasn’t so worried about making things awkward and ruining things for the group. But I’ve been wondering… what if I stop trying to help Glen and still can’t keep up? It’s harder to motivate myself to train these days than it is to work on a game about training. Doesn’t that mean I’ve lost it?”

Blue’s stomach clenches at the thought that Elaine might quit, after everything she’s been through. Everything they’ve been through. But… “Elaine, if you’re worried I’m going to be upset—”

“Of course I am, but it’s not just that. When I think of how badly Aiko wanted to be a trainer, and how much good we’ve done, it makes me feel like… I have to keep going, for her sake. And if I could stop others from dying like that, but instead I just spend my days in Pewter making games…”

Blue knows he’s supposed to say something here, something like she wouldn’t want you to be a trainer for reasons like that. But he’s still shaken by the idea that he missed something so big in Elaine’s journey, and it threatens to throw everything he thinks he knows about her and even the others in his journey into doubt.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse to keep her with him.

More alarming is the thought of what else his friends might be going through that he might be totally blind to. Maybe he’s too young to understand the romance stuff, but while he still wishes it weren’t something he had to think about, at least now that he knows how blind he’s been he can ask Daisy for help. But if he’s mishandling the situation with Janine, which it seems he is, it could be for another reason that’s totally invisible to him.

How would he even know how to find out?

Pull yourself together. His friend is still standing silent in front of him, and he can worry about his own problems later. There are a few things he doesn’t feel or relate to that he’s managed to at least accept are real for others, and he reaches for some of that borrowed wisdom now.

“Maybe you just need a break,” Blue says at last. “We’ve been going pretty hard for months, and all the recent wild battles are wearing a lot of people down.”

“Not you.”

Blue snorts. “You said it yourself, a while back; I “double specialized” in pokemon battles, or something like that, right?”

But Elaine just gives him a sad smile. “I know you, Blue. You want equals with you, on your way to the top. If I spend a few months at home just fooling around, is there really going to be a place for me on your journey again? I don’t mean you’ll tell me to go away, but in your heart, will I still be an equal?”

“No one is,” he says, the words coming out before he can think. “I’m sorry, that’s not—”

“No, it’s okay.” She reclips her pokeball and walks over to the wall, pressing her back against it and sliding down, then patting the floor beside him. “Tell me.”

Blue suddenly wishes they were talking about romance again, but… she trusted him with her deep fear. He can’t do less.

He goes to sit beside her, rolling Tops’ pokeball between his hands. “I don’t know why I said that. I was trying to make you feel better, but it came out… bitter.”

“It’s okay to notice you’re not like others, Blue. In a few ways, at least. I’m just worried that’s going to keep you from finding real companionship.” She sighs. “But I guess it would, if those few things are important enough to you.”

Some leader he is; now she’s the one comforting him. But this isn’t even a loss, and… it’s Elaine. She’s been with him as long as anyone besides Red and Leaf, and through even more together.

“I know it might not be actually true,” Blue says. “I mean, there are probably a few trainers out there as good as me. Glen might actually be one of them, if not for…” He swallows down the ball of bitterness and sadness.

Elaine is looking at him in something like pity, but also worry. “Give him more time, Blue, he’s trying so hard, and—”

“I know. That’s part of why I admire him so much. But even people who are as good as I am at battles don’t have the same ambition, and without that it feels… different. I’ve met so many people I respect and admire and have learned from, including you, by the way, people with skills I don’t have, and insights, and all that good stuff. But for what matters most… it feels like sooner or later I’m going to walk a different path, or they will.” He smiles at her. “So don’t feel bad about going home for a bit, Elaine. You’re special to me, but not that special.”

She hugs him, and he returns the gesture, unsure if he’s made things better or worse until she says, “Just… don’t count us out yet. When you get to the top, and put out the call… we’ll be there, even if we couldn’t walk the whole way with you.”

“What if that just gets you killed?” Blue whispers, again without meaning to.

Elaine pulls back to meet his gaze. “Is that why it bothers you so much? When people can’t keep up, or fall behind?”

Blue shrugs, looking away. “I knew a long time ago that I’d be leading friends into danger they might not survive. Everything up until now, it’s… not weeding people out, exactly? Not consciously, at least. But I know that I don’t want people to come just because they like me, or are afraid of disappointing me. I want them to come because they believe as much as I do that taking the Stormbringers down is more important than anything, and are strong enough to actually make a difference rather than dying for nothing.”

For a second he thinks she’s going to hug him again, but then she just punches his arm and stands up. “Don’t borrow so much guilt ahead of time, Blue. It’s very noble of you, but it’s patronizing as hell.” She walks back to the arena. “Go, Ekans!”

Her pokemon appears and coils around, tongue flicking out. Blue gets to his feet as well, wondering if he should say something else, but then just goes to stand across from her and summon Tops. The purple snake goes absolutely still except for its tail, which rattles, and Blue watches his abra’s ears twitch, its body trembling with the effort not to teleport away despite its type advantage.

“You’re stronger than you think,” he mutters, wishing for the thousandth time that he was psychic. “I’ve just got to show you.”

“You talking to me, your abra, or yourself?”

“All of the above.” He takes the two sound emitters out of his pocket and holds them out to the sides, letting Tops orient to his position before beginning to tap out an attack. “And the rest of the world, too.”

Chapter 101: Gauntlet

“Those of you who have been to Vermillion or Cinnabar Gyms may think you understand battle safety. This intro class is to assure you that you do not.”

The instructor is dressed in a version of the Fuchsia gym uniform that indicates his status, and stands with his hands behind his back facing the two dozen students kneeling and sitting around him on one of the Gym’s larger rock gardens. Blue sits beside his friends and tries to focus on the lesson as people keep glancing at him.

“Vermilion likes to talk about the unpredictable nature of electricity. They teach good lessons on how various objects will attract or resist it, and on judging the amount of raw power a pokemon who can call down lightning can harness. Cinnabar Gym will hammer on similar points; that trainers of Fire pokemon must understand heat in all its forms, the way it rises and spreads, the temperatures at which various materials will combust. They do this because both electricity and fire are dangerous forces even when used by your own pokemon.”

Blue shifts his weight, still getting used to sitting seiza on the small wooden benches the gym has scattered around. They’re cushioned, which is nice, and keep his weight off his ankles, but they also throw off his sense of balance unless he sits properly. He sees Glen and Lizzy having the same problem, though Elaine and Maria seem fine. Conscious of eyes on him again, he does his best to keep his shoulders square and his back straight.

“What you’ll learn here is different. Whether your pokemon deals in poison, venom, or acid, the most important thing is not the ways your environment might affect their attacks; it is your opponent’s biology itself. There will be a few classes on ensuring wind patterns for poisonous gas, on which acids will be neutralized by what sorts of terrain and which will still be dangerous, but the majority will focus on how to tell when your opponent is close to death.” The instructor looks around, maybe checking to see if anyone isn’t paying attention, which seems unlikely after dropping that word. “This is important for wild pokemon you hope to catch, but also, of course, for trainers you face who may not be as well versed in determining just how close to irreparable damage they are… particularly if they’re too focused on winning, or are used to taking risks that paid off for them before.”

This time Blue isn’t sure if people are looking at him or if he just feels like they are.

“However, this responsibility comes with a perk.” Now the instructor is looking at Blue, who snaps out of a chain of memories his words brought up. “Oak here, at least, knows one way to use that to his advantage.”

I do?

He just smiles, mind racing until he focuses on which of his battles would be common knowledge first and works through those, after which it quickly becomes obvious. “Psychological warfare.”

“Precisely. Using poison pokemon or attacks in and of itself will often make an opposing pokemon or trainer wary. More than any other type, Poison types excel at zone control.” He turns to the easel beside him and starts drawing on the poster board. “Most pokemon will avoid smog or acid or spores, but that means even a miss can help you limit their mobility by careful planning. A master of Poison pokemon knows that time is their ally; setting up traps to catch even the most wary opponent takes patience, as does using defensive positioning to stay safe while they wear themselves out.”

He finishes drawing a few arena shapes, then starts indicating by cloudy shapes how smog could be used in each. Blue dutifully takes notes along with everyone else, and then they break into groups to try what they’ve learned. None of his pokemon can create poisonous smog, which leaves him to practice using Shimmer’s poison powder for aerial dispersal and toxic spikes from his newly evolved forretress for the ground. He’s practiced zone control with the others before, but not alone, since he figured if he was fighting alone other tactics would be better than dragging the fight out.

He can see the value of it now, however, and continues working out his strategies while deliberating on which of his pokemon can most complement and benefit from an opponent with restricted movement. Slower ones are an easy enough answer, but he’s sure there are better possibilities…

Eventually the class ends, and Blue chats with his friends for a few minutes before saying goodbye. He misses spending time with them between classes, but he’s been going to meet Koga every day since he arrived, which is part of why everyone at the gym has been paying more attention to him than they normally might. They seem to keep waiting for him to speak up in classes or activities and poke at why things are done a certain way, or suggest something else entirely be done.

So far, he’s managed to keep himself from any of that. The path he’s taking in Fuchsia so far starts with humility and reception; Koga advised him that it would make the most favorable impression, and Blue is sure the Leader meant both for his Gym members and for himself.

Not that he hasn’t had ideas already, of course…

“Well? Found some way to save the gym yet?”

Blue turns to find Janine leaning against a pillar, arms crossed. She’s wearing the gym uniform, but has a purple scarf around her neck, and he smothers a smile as he takes a breath and fully faces her, hooking his hands in his pockets. He wondered how long it would take before his first meeting with her, and knew it had to come from her initiative.

“Save it from what?”

“Whatever Father thinks is so wrong that he’ll break from a decade of careful preservation and refinement.”

“That sounds like something you’ll have to bring up with him.”

“Don’t play dumb. You two worked on that speech of his together.”

He wondered if she’d bring that up; the other reason people keep looking at him, he suspects. “What makes you say that?”

She rolls her eyes. “‘Our gym needs to both preserve the traditions that have served us so well, while still adapting to the challenges of our new age?’ He might not have said your name, but saying it after you show up and having all these meetings makes it a clear endorsement of what you’ve been doing at the other gyms.”

Blue crosses his own arms, now, brow raised. “Is that a problem?” He’s genuinely curious; despite what he agreed to, he doesn’t particularly want to become the Fuchsia Gym Leader, which means that if Koga’s worry that Janine will likely succeed him if he leaves the gym is accurate…

…she’ll be one of the Leaders under Blue’s purview as Champion, while Koga is one of his Elites. Ideally he leaves the city with a good working relationship with both of them.

“We’ve done just fine without them,” is her only response, and Blue can’t help but raise his brow.

“Huh. I didn’t expect you to be more traditional than your dad.”

“Is that a problem?”

She gets his inflection down perfectly, and he can’t help but grin before shrugging. “Only if it keeps Fuchsia from being better. You can’t think everything’s perfect as it is, right? How do you know I wouldn’t point to the same things you would?”

Janine snorts. “If that were so, Father wouldn’t be paving the way for you. He’d have just listened to me already.”

Blue watches her for a moment, then nods. “Alright, I get it now.”

“Get what?”

“Why he doesn’t want you to be Leader.”

She hides the flinch well, but he still sees it. Maybe he shouldn’t have confirmed it so blatantly, but he’s not interested in beating around the bush for weeks either.

“And why’s that?”

“If he wanted you to know, he’d tell you. Figure it out yourself; you don’t need me, after all, remember?”

He walks away, half expecting her to follow but not needing her to; he made his point, and knows a perfect exit line when he says it.

Ideally, he leaves the city with a good relationship with both of them. Meanwhile he’s probably going to piss off one or the other sooner or later.

Still, it’s gratifying when she steps up beside him (surprisingly quietly, he didn’t hear her move) and matches his strides. “It won’t matter what my father wants if I beat him and undo any changes you make anyway.”

He shrugs. “By then I’m hoping you’ll see the benefits, and keep the ones that work.” Now. “If not, I’ll just have to beat you and take Leadership myself.”

Janine’s gait doesn’t falter, but Blue catches her shocked look in his periphery before she laughs. “What kind of con are you running here, Oak? Everyone knows you’re aiming for Champion.”

No use trying to hide that. “You’re right, I’m going to become Champion first. Then I’m taking a page out of Giovanni and Brock’s book, and settling in somewhere I can make a bigger local impact.”

She doesn’t have an immediate response to that, and her expression is schooled as they pass over a bridge that crosses the moat surrounding the small island where the main arena is located. Blue’s shoes scuff the sand on the other side, but Janine’s steps are as silent as before, and he looks down to watch how she shifts her weight onto each foot, trying to imitate her.

If she notices she doesn’t comment, instead looking around as he stops. “Did you bring me here for a match?”

“Just thought it would help avoid eavesdroppers.”

She frowns. “Why Fuchsia?”

“Why not Fuchsia? It’s as far out of the way as you can get without going to Cinnabar, so I wouldn’t be bumping elbows with others. It’s got the Safari Zone, which is a pretty damn important resource to protect and is likely going to only get more important as my friend Leaf’s project develops. And it’s just a beautiful city. I miss the Pallet Beaches.”

She didn’t seem to expect him to have an answer to that, or maybe she’s just having trouble believing they’re having this conversation. He watches her jaw flex, then relax. “This is my home.”

The words come across as a threat, not a plea. “Kanto is mine, and Fuchsia is in it. Why would I leave it in the hands of someone stuck in the past?”

“Oh fuck off, you don’t even know me.”

“And you know me?”

They stare each other down across the middle line of the arena, and after a few seconds he sees the older girl get it. Maybe not all of it, but enough that her eyes suddenly narrow, and dart to the arena, then around them.

There are people watching them. Not blatantly, but curiously, as they make their way from one place to another. No doubt wondering if they’re going to battle, or just what they’re talking about.

Either way, the word will spread.

“If I were to challenge you to a match right now,” Janine asks, voice low. “It would puncture whatever story you think you’re building here.”

“Funny thing, a few weeks ago I would have agreed with you. Now?” He unclips a ball and carelessly spins it on a finger while his other hand rises to cup around his lips, like he’s imparting some secret. “Even when I lose, I win.”

He’s exaggerating a little. The thought of losing to Janine, particularly in such a public way, makes his stomach clench. But it’s incredibly unlikely that he’ll beat her his first time, not without more intimately understanding her strategy and tactics. So long as he can get her to agree to more than one match, and frame the narrative properly, what is he really losing that’s worse than his loss to Brock was? And that “failure” turned out to be quite an opportunity.

She watches him balance the spinning pokeball, then walk it across his knuckles once it slows, and knows that she understands that turning away now would make it look like she’s the one that declined a battle challenge.

“This sort of pageantry has no place in a proper Gym,” she says after a moment, sounding like she’s talking through half-grit teeth. “It might have worked for you in the others, but it won’t matter here. And all I need to do to stop you from making it matter here is being the better trainer, which I am.”

“No, you’re just the stronger one. Maybe you’re even better than the Third or Second, maybe even better than your dad. But better than me?” He bounces the ball to his other hand and starts tossing it back and forth. “That’s going to take more than just one battle to determine.” He smiles. “Or else you can enjoy being Leader for a couple years before I come back for the title.”

For a moment as her expression hardens he thinks he might have overstepped, and then she grins, and something in the shape of it makes him know he did. “Three on three, to the faint.”

Shit. “Of course.” Practice matches don’t tend to skirt the line for major injury that close, but negotiating now would make him seem less serious about all this. Besides, it’s not like she’s going to maim his pokemon just to discourage him.

“We’re not doing it here, though. ”

…Is she? “Afraid of an audience?”

Janine just snorts as she walks away, and after a moment Blue follows, sending a quick message to Koga to cancel their meeting. Once he puts his phone away he watches Janine as they walk, reevaluating her with everything he’s learned.

Not as interested in public perception as he hoped, and also quicker to anger. Not that he’s one to talk. Still, it makes sense that she’s taking it as a personal attack rather than a friendly rivalry. She’s got the skill to feel justifiably patronized by him throwing a gauntlet down without even getting to know her or the gym.

Now he just has to make sure she doesn’t break his nose when she throws it back.

One of the first things he did after speaking with Koga was look up Janine’s most used teams. From what he could tell, and what she might know of his pokemon, she’s likely not going to use her anti-Psychic and Ghost pokemon, since he doesn’t have any that are fighting fit for a battle like this. On the other hand he hasn’t been shy about using his Ground types, so even if he doesn’t have to worry about her skuntank or drapion, she’s still got plenty of choices; he particularly noticed how well she tends to use toxicroak and roserade to take down anti-poison walls and weezing as a status inflicting wall of her own, with scolipede and crobat to act as sweepers.

Not the easiest list to narrow down, but he came as prepared as he could be.

They enter the main training hall and head to the elevators. Even their doors match the simple, warm wooden aesthetic, but once they’re inside it’s cool blue metal, and a few moments later they step out into a corridor as hi-tech as any other in Kanto. Janine steps over to the PC beside the door, and he looks away while she logs in and swaps the pokemon at her belt.

Once she’s done Janine leads him past the training rooms, some of which Blue has already spent time in, and toward the arenas. “Will you need any water for your team?”

“No,” he says, surprised by the offer and wondering if she picked a team for either arena type, or if she’s just that confident. Maybe he should have said yes to increase the odds of her bringing a tentacruel out for his magneton… but Rive would be at a huge disadvantage, and he doesn’t have enough of a water roster to really make up for it.

So they enter an earthbox arena, similar to the one where he fought his challenge matches in Pewter. Janine turns the fans by the door on to keep any smog from escaping before they put their masks on and take their positions on the platforms.

“Ready. Countdown if you are.”

“Sure.” He had some lines prepared for a public battle, but they’d be a bit silly to say here, particularly given how upset she might be. He feels the battle calm descend as he takes deep breath, mind focusing on nothing but the fight ahead. “Three, two, one, GO AEGIS!”

His forretress materializes together with Janine’s Galarian slowbro. Huh. Unexpected, but I’ll take it. As a Poison/Psychic pokemon it won’t have much to use against Bug/Steel.

“Sa!” he shouts to Aegis into a spin, bits of her metal carapace breaking off and flung onto the enemy side of the field, where the slowbro responds by—

—belching out a stream of fire.

Blue’s hand is already out to withdraw Aegis as she twitches and spasms, cursing under his breath. Galarian slowbro are the only pokemon in the whole family to not disproportionately favor special attacks, so of course she used a TM to teach it one anyway for exactly situations like this, where her opponent would assume it’s a physical attacker.

Thankfully he has a decent response as Rive comes out next, immediately shaking off the sludge that gets shot over the rhyhorn’s rocky hide. Blue knows better than to respond with a Ground attack when she’s still probably got a weezing or roserade to swap into, so he goes for Rock Throw, which scores a satisfying hit against the weezing she replaces her slowbro with.

“Smog!”

“Tar!” The attack misses, but Blue is prepared for a drawn out slugmatch. Sooner or later one of these attacks will poison Rive and start the clock ticking, and she’ll probably use Will-o-Wisp to add a burn soon as well, but if he can last long enough that she sends out a—

“Shadow Ball!”

Blue’s thoughts pivot, entire battle strategy reforming as the “wall” reveals itself to be another special attacker. He has no one better to switch into the oncoming ghost attack, and so he just lets his pokemon resume its offensive as it’s hit by the dark sphere. The rock throw lands with a satisfying thud, but Rive lets out a grinding roar of anguish as it endures the mental assault, visibly trembling and twitching. Combined with the potential for poison he’ll have to be withdrawn soon, but that weezing needs to go down

“Tar!”

“Go, Blaziken!”

What

Rive ejects another chunk of its rocky hide at the newly summoned enemy, who mostly shrugs the blow off. Blue’s battle strategy attempts to flip again, but there’s nothing for it to flip to.

Part of him suspected she might use a non-Poison pokemon to throw him for a loop, this isn’t exactly a standard gym battle and they never set a rule that she’d have to use only Poison types, but… a blaziken? Why pick that? Sure it gives her more options against any Steel walls he might have, but it’s just as susceptible as Poison pokemon would be to Ground or Psychic attacks…

…which makes it one of the last type combinations he’d expect her to use.

The blaziken is already rushing forward to attack, leaving bloody footprints over the spike-laden ground, and Blue has a split second left to decide between trying a Ground attack or swapping, and after the last two fakeouts he’s half convinced this is one too so he goes with his gut and yells “Ba!” as he grabs the handrails for stability.

The shockwave knocks the blaziken to its knees and coats it with earth, but it rolls forward and kicks Rive hard enough to send cracks through his hide and Blue has to swap to Nin, even knowing that as soon as he does—

“Return! Go, Slowbro!”

“Sas!”

“Psychic!”

The cone of supersonic noise only hits for a moment before his golbat is pummeled out of the air. Slowbro tend to be resistant to confusion, but he’s got no better play than to hope for the best, and it’s at that thought that reality hits him and he withdraws Nin.

“I concede.” The words hurt coming out more than he expected; he didn’t even take down a single pokemon. Hell, he barely damaged them. Despite what he said aboveground, part of him is still very glad he didn’t get handed such a total loss in front of others. “Nice moves.”

Janine just withdraws her pokemon and vaults the wall of her platform, heading for the door without a word as she takes her mask off.

“Thanks for the lesson,” he says, making sure his sincerity is at the forefront of his tone as he removes his too and hurries to join her.

She pauses, seems to debate a moment, then turns her head toward him as he catches up. “What lesson?”

“Expect the unexpected.”

Janine snorts and keeps walking, but doesn’t make any particular effort to leave him behind. “That should be basic to any competent trainer.”

“Poison is usually a defensive type, and you went with an offensive team even when it looked like it could be otherwise. More specifically, you chose pokemon that aren’t your usual best so I don’t get experience fighting your real team next time.”

“You still think there’ll be a next time, after that?”

“Sooner or later.” He shrugs. “Up to you which it is.”

He can’t see her expression, but he does his best to take her silence as a victory.


“Just focus on what you want for them,” Leaf says to the room full of psychics, eyes closed as she follows her own instructions. “Your pokemon are your partners. They rely on you, and care for you more than their own lives. They’ll always be there for you, and never let you down. Think of how much you’d care for a person that was so devoted, what you’d want for them. To be safe, and avoid suffering. To be happy, and flourish, and reach their full potential.”

Her hand strokes Raff’s head as she speaks, and she feels her affection for him grow as he nuzzles her palm. She hopes the feeling is helpful to Sabrina’s students, who are trying to learn to memorize and generate the same level of deep emotional care that allowed her to help with the marowak ghost. By their fifth session she was worried the lessons would get repetitive—or at least, her part in them, she’s not sure what they do when she’s not around—which is why she started alternating the focus of each. She started with her feelings about pokemon in general, then switched to what she felt for the abra that seemed to work to keep them from fleeing, then her memory of what Red projected from her to the marowak ghost, painful as that was to remember.

Since she’s not psychic herself she has no way to even check if they’re making progress, which is why she started asking them to fill out daily forms of how they feel about pokemon before they go to bed each night. Just a number is enough, though she invited them to expand on it with any thoughts they notice that seem new or unusual.

Today she’s hoping to broaden everyone’s connection to their own pokemon, through the deep love she feels for hers, under the hypothesis that there might be some spillover effects to pokemon that aren’t theirs. Not that it would be bad for them to care about their own pokemon more too, but she’s curious about the barrier between how much affection people feel for their pokemon compared to others. She still remembers the conversation with Red and Blue at the start of their journey, and while some of the quick and strong bonds people form does seem like an obvious consequence of ownership and familiarity and affection, the same way people care about their friends and family more than strangers, it still seems like the dropoff for other pokemon is sharper than it should be (could be?).

She knows it’s possible, at the very least, thanks to her own feelings, and those of people like Natural and others who have reached out to her over the past year, some even admitting that reading her writings on the topic changed the way they feel about pokemon, even those that aren’t theirs… though she hasn’t noticed anyone who doesn’t have pokemon mention such a change, so far at least. All of which makes it hard to resist using this opportunity to try getting some deeper understanding of the bond between people and pokemon.

Still, she tries not to lose sight of the real reason she’s here… even if she finds it strange that psychics, of all people, might need these lessons.

“I don’t need to tell you that the creature in front of you is as real as you are; unlike most people, you can intimately feel its suffering, its joy. Let yourself lean into whatever natural desires you have to protect your own pokemon from harm, and imagine the pokemon you want to project onto is a future pokemon of yours.” She spends some time moving through those mental motions herself, first picturing each of the pokemon she caught before she caught them, then imagining how she feels about them now, followed by thinking of what new friends she might make in the coming years. “If you can imagine that, and how you will probably feel about them, it might help you embody a similar feeling sooner, before you’ve even caught them.”

Doing these lessons has had an interesting effect on her own experiences. A similar thing happened when she wrote about her feelings and philosophy about pokemon; making them so explicit forced her to delve into the content of every shade and nuance of emotions that felt natural to her, every notion and thought that might tangentially be related to or build the worldview. It was surprising how each article kept revealing more depth and detail to what she already seemed to feel or “know” to herself, or at least refined it.

After all that, she didn’t think her feelings about pokemon had a new way to grow. But doing the same thing even more directly, communicating the ideas to people right in front of her, out loud, while focusing on the sensations in her body as she does it… all seems to layer a richness over the expanded awareness she got from making the ideas explicit for the articles.

The experience has made the lessons worthwhile all on their own, and she draws in a slow breath as she imagines all the friends Raff has yet to make once she introduces him to them, how much joy he seems to get when playing with other pokemon, and feels her love for him swelling to fill her chest.

“Your pokemon have a lot to teach you about enjoying life, and seeing it from new angles. You just have to be willing to spend the time with them. Share yourself with them, figuratively or literally, and listen, and feel.”

She lets the last of the breath out, and opens her eyes, to check the time. Two minutes to go, which is close enough. She gives everyone another minute in the silence, then says, “That’s it for today. I hope it was helpful.”

“Very,” Satori says, and gives Leaf a rare smile, hand stroking her torracat. “Thank you, Leaf.”

Leaf grins. “You’re welcome.” She likes Satori; she’s distant, a bit like MG—Maria—used to be, but she seems to be more invested in the classes than anyone else, and not just because it might help her with her own personal project of creating such a strong bond with her pokemon that it would persist beyond its Dark evolution.

She stays behind while everyone else leaves, intending to catch up with Jason, but is surprised to see Rowan waiting too. He’s usually first out the door beside Tatsumaki and Daniel. Her surprise turns to shock when she gets a closer look and sees he’s quietly weeping.

“Are you well, Rowan?” Jason asks, and while there’s concern in the medium’s voice, there’s also a note of something like caution. Leaf noticed that the others treat Rowan a bit oddly, but she’s not sure she really gets why.

“Yes,” Rowan says, and takes some tissues from inside his robe to mop at his eyes. “I’m just… it’s beautiful, what you can do, Leaf. I think… I might have understood it, for once.”

“Oh, are these happy tears?” She grins, relieved. “That’s wonderful, Rowan!”

“Yes…” He hugs his espeon, who waves her tail, split ends twitching. “Yes, it is… I’m so lucky to have my pokemon, and I know I can do better for them…”

Leaf beams at him, but notices that Jason doesn’t seem as thrilled. She only has a moment to wonder why before Rowan suddenly takes a deep breath, then lets it out and bounces to his feet with a grin.

“That was great,” he says, wiping impatiently at his eyes. “I’m going to see how easily I can remember that series of partitions and do it again.” His espeon rubs at his leg, and his grin fades a little as he quickly withdraws it. “Thanks, Juniper.”

“Uh, you’re welcome,” she says, but he’s already leaving, and closes the door behind him without another word. She turns to Jason, who’s staring after Rowan with a resigned expression, and Satori, who is stroking her torracat with a slight frown. “Was that…?”

“As he said, his partitions,” Satori says. “Personality editing. It’s been… disconcerting, at times, but Sensei says he has not done anything obviously harmful yet, and it is his mind to experiment with as he sees fit.”

Jason nods. “I believe he’s trying to catch up to Red, in terms of creating new forms of partition manipulation, but in his own way.”

“Ah.” She’s not sure she totally got all that, but she can ask Red later. He hasn’t come to her lessons yet, which has been understandable, though also a little disappointing. His unique abilities mean he needs them the least, but at the same time she thinks that philosophically he’s the most likely to actually change his perspective if he spends more time focusing on these things. “What about you, did you two find it helpful?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Satori says with a smile. “I believe I will be ready to evolve Pela sometime in the next month or two.”

“Oh, that’s great!”

“I have too,” Jason adds. “I’ve found this compassion you generate similar to what I’ve found helpful to embody when dealing with Ghost pokemon, and it is interesting to add another layer onto that, from another angle.”

“That sounds great. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, but I have to head out now. Let’s catch up later?”

“I’d like that.”

“Take care, Leaf.”

“You too!”

She withdraws Raff and heads out, but instead of going to the roof to teleport she makes her way down to the street while taking her phone out to order a cab to Lavender Town. She registered her second one to Fuchsia once she started going there regularly, and Sabrina gave her an abra registered to Saffron as part of her thanks for the lessons to her students, but cheap as abra have gotten Leaf didn’t expect to see Laura often enough to justify getting another to keep her Lavender teleport.

It’s not the price that bothers her so much as the implications of owning so many abra. She likes to get to know her pokemon, and the ones she takes care of at the ranch, understand their personality, but there are only so many hours in a day, and abra are… not the most interactive pokemon. She feels bad enough for Psyguy, whose whole life seems to be feeding and sleeping and teleporting her when she needs him (along with her occasional attempts to engage him in play, which he just seems confused by), and even worse for how little she’s engaged Aiko and Sabrina’s abras, defaulting them to a “life” spent mostly as oblivious energy. Acquiring yet another one before she even gets to know the others would feel neglectful.

So she gets in the cab when it arrives and sits back for the ride, catching up on her messages and checking the news along the way. Today it’s full of reports and articles about the latest pokemon discovered in Sinnoh; yanma don’t normally have an evolution, but a couple days ago one trainer’s suddenly evolved into an undiscovered species. At first people thought it was like the temporary evolution of Steven’s pokemon, but it didn’t revert back, and today another trainer’s evolved into the same one.

All told, “yanmega” is the ninth new pokemon that’s been discovered since the Hoenn incident, more than half of which have been somewhere on the island chain. It seems to confirm the idea that the increased activity of unown is what’s causing new pokemon to appear, which generates interest even for non-researchers… though less excited interest, and more fearful. Most articles she’s seen (not aimed at battle trainers at least) concern the chances of another major incident like what happened on Cinnabar, or even Lavender.

To the relief of many, the marowak ghost appears to have been one of a kind so far. The ditto, meanwhile, were uniquely capable of hiding and disrupting the ecosystem until there were enough of them to cause a stampede. Most new pokemon aren’t powerful or generated in high enough numbers to cause such an immediate and major shakeup of their environment; there have even been theories that the majority of new pokemon that come into existence aren’t noticed by humans at all because they’re killed off somewhere in the wilderness before anyone encounters them. It would also explain why the majority of the past few decades’ discoveries have been pokemon generated from manmade objects or ecosystems.

Still, at this rate of genesis the odds of new pokemon causing Tier 2 or higher incidents may rise until they’re a seasonal incident, at least somewhere in the world. Various regions haven’t finished recovering from the ecological shifts Groudon and Kyogre caused, and if the ditto had shown up in Hoenn, where the worst of it is still running the local rangers and league ragged, there’s no way they would have contained it properly. Not without outside help, which would open those regions up to similar risks from even their own “normal’ incidents.

All of it puts more weight on her project going well. So much so that sometimes she has trouble sleeping at night, or even playing with her pokemon, worrying over how she should be spending that time making sure she’s doing all she can. For a project that’s already far bigger than her, and beyond her capabilities in many ways, that leaves her mostly double and triple checking her own work and trying extra hard to catch up in the areas she’s still learning.

It’s also made her work in the investigation feel less important, even while it’s more interesting (and exciting). For now she has a good excuse; she did manage to actually learn things, after all, even if some of it was less from competence and more perseverance. But after she shares what she’s learned with Laura, she knows she’ll go back to worrying about whether the investigation into the conspiracy, big and important as it feels, actually matters compared to all the human and pokemon lives that would be improved by completing the program.

She wonders if this is how Blue feels all the time. If so, it could explain why he’s so focused on his goal, even more than she and Red, with their various side projects. Is it pleasant for him, living like that? Does he ever have other things he wishes he could do, or do they not even register to him in the first place? Somehow she never thought to ask him.

Well, nothing’s stopping her now, and she’s almost there anyway. Leaf writes him a message, then reads it over while imagining his perspective as best she can before doing some edits to make sure it doesn’t come across as patronizing, then hits send as the cab stops.

“Thanks,” she says as she gets out, then starts walking the last couple minutes beyond the road to where Laura’s new house is; she apparently decided to change her rental to one that’s a little ways beyond the town proper. The walk gives Leaf time to appreciate the changes around her since the last time she was here.

Lavender Town in the springtime is much prettier, but more than that its entire vibe has changed from a quiet place for mourning to a lively community. She imagines that has as much to do with the circumstances as the weather, but either way it’s nice not to be hit by any particularly strong memories from that visit.

It helps that she also keeps her gaze from lingering on the tower. She considered visiting the rangers at the tower while she’s here, but isn’t sure if she wants to face the memories there just yet… not while she still wakes from nightmares, now and then, of burnt and bloody cubone and marowak bodies piled like garbage…

She resolves to decide how she feels after she speaks with Laura.

When she reaches the right house and knocks, Red’s mother opens the door almost immediately and gives her a hug before inviting her in and serving lunch while Leaf summons her three abra.

Laura starts with small talk as they eat delicious meatless burritos, which gives Leaf the opportunity to surreptitiously study Laura up close. Red’s mother seemed distracted the last few times they spoke; Leaf imagined it was due to other parts of the investigation going well, but trusted her to share it when she’s ready.

Now Leaf wonders which of them is having more trouble sleeping; Laura looks more tired than Leaf’s ever seen her.

Tired, but focused. The fact that Leaf asked for an in-person meeting at all made it clear something important happened. By the time she refills both of their tea cups, she gets a message on her phone, then nods to Leaf and says, “Okay, we’re good to talk.”

Leaf blinks. “Did you just…?”

“Anti-spying measures,” she says with a small smile as a door opens somewhere in the house. A moment later a handsome dark skinned man with a goatee and a shaven head walks into the dining room, hands latching his pokebelt on. “Thanks, Asim.”

“Of course. Nice to meet you, Miss Juniper.”

“Um. Hello,” Leaf says trying to keep from staring. She doesn’t recognize the name or his accent. “Um. Who…?”

“Just a friend of Sam and mine.” Laura turns to him. “This shouldn’t take too long.”

“No rush, I’m going to the trainer house to see if anyone’s worth a match or two.” He nods to Leaf, then walks past them and out the door.

Leaf stares after him, then looks at Laura, who just gives her a small smile.

“Like I said, just a friend. He helps make sure we don’t have any unwanted listeners.”

“He’s psychic?”

“And good with tech. So what brought you here? News on the ninja clan?”

“Not… exactly.” She takes a breath. “I, uh, met your informant.”

Laura’s eyes widen, and Leaf quickly summarizes what happened (still embarrassed by the fact that the informant got the drop on her, though she knows that’s absurd if they really are a ninja and probably even if they’re not). She expects Laura to chastise her for the risk she took, but instead she just seems too preoccupied by the revelations her old informant passed along.

“Silph’s battling an organization that’s separate from the informant,” Laura murmurs. “And also has worked with… which means… Leaf, what do you think would have happened if Yuuta wasn’t killed? Assuming he didn’t spill any information either way.”

“Well… nothing, I guess. If we assume that he didn’t have anything else to reveal, the case would have just… faded, right? If someone hired him to steal the fossils, we’d probably never find out.”

“Right. And if that was the point?”

“Then… Silph killed Yuuta so people would investigate who hired him? But why not just tell people?” Leaf blinks. “Oh. Because if it’s an organization they’re also allied with… that would be an act of war. Instead of… whatever weird alliance they have.”

“Or the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. No organization is truly monolithic; I actually believe Silph when he says he doesn’t know about some of the stuff that was revealed. Why would he? He’s got a business to run, and a massive one.”

“That’s another thing, though; who’s big enough to be a real rival to Silph? Is Devon operating in Kanto?”

“Only minimally. It’s a good question, and there are a few companies I’ve looked into, but none fit the sorts of things that were found to be stolen under the Casino.”

“Have we learned anything else about them, by the way? Who worked there, what they were doing?”

Laura smiles. “You think they’d tell me?”

“Have you asked?”

“Leaf, I’m a reporter! Even self-employed, the police don’t talk to us, not unless someone’s got a chip on their shoulder, or some agency is screwing things up so badly that one of their officers or detectives wants to leak something that’ll put pressure on them to shape up.”

“What if you offer to trade info or something? There’s got to be something in all the data we got that could be useful to them.”

Laura opens her mouth, then closes it, frowning slightly. Leaf waits, expecting to hear some answer as to why that isn’t workable, and finally Laura sighs and drinks some tea as she rubs her forehead. “I… may have a bit of a fear of talking to the police over any of this.”

“Wh—oh.” Leaf feels like an idiot. “Sorry, I totally forgot.”

“No, it’s nothing to be sorry about. You’re raising good points, and I haven’t… actually considered the idea. Just avoided the possibility out of fear.” She shakes her head. “There’s no reason to think that Silph has people in every police department, but my gut insists it’s not worth the risk.”

“Your gut is probably right. I was just saying stuff, I didn’t just forget what you went through, I didn’t consider the risk. And it’s not like I’ve been totally open with the police.”

Laura chuckles, but upon remembering the events that led to her saying that, Leaf’s thoughts are already considering a new possibility.

“Hey, what about Looker?”

“The Interpol detective? He’s probably safe enough, but they’re not going to have much to say or do with something like this, not unless we had evidence of interregional crime.”

“What if we do, and just don’t know it?”

Laura blinks. “That’s… possible. But for the best chance of them connecting any dots they might have the other half of, I’d have to hand over everything.” She thinks for another moment, then nods. “I’ll think about it. Thank you, Leaf.”

She beams, feeling happy to have helped. They talk some more about what possible points of investigation Leaf could use to find out more, and after a while Leaf smiles.

“You know, I was half expecting you to say this is all too dangerous and to walk away from it.”

Laura smiles. “Would you have listened? Sorry, that’s unfair. You’ve been, overall, very sensible.”

Thank you.”

“Even if you did get caught and are lucky my informant just wanted to chat.” Leaf squirms, and Laura laughs. “But overall, I trust you to know what you can handle. You’ve been through a lot since we last talked about this, and I’m the one that asked you to look into my informant in the first place. I’m not going to pull you out just as you get results.”

“But they don’t want me to keep looking into them. What if they get mad?”

Laura shrugs. “You might learn something just by working together. Just be careful; they were right to say your earlier investigation probably tipped Silph and any other interested parties off. In fact, be sure to keep looking like you’re looking for them, otherwise—”

“People might think I succeeded, instead of thinking I gave up.” Leaf smiles, happy for the explicit encouragement to keep working in the investigation. “I’ll be careful. More careful, I mean.”

“I know you will. That’s why I’ve agreed to introduce you to my newest informant, assuming you agree.”

Leaf blinks. “Your… what, the one that lives here? When? Today?”

“Sure, if you have time and he’s up for it.”

“Oh, yeah! Totally!”

Laura smiles and stands, taking her phone out. “I’ll step into the other room and call him, if you don’t mind cleaning the dishes?”

“Sure!”

Leaf hops up and gets to work, excitement making everything go twice as fast. She finishes before Laura returns, then goes to check in on her pokemon. Psyguy nibbles the food she offers, but the other two don’t seem hungry.

When Laura returns, she goes to latch her pokemon belt on, and Leaf automatically moves to do the same. “He said yes?”

“He did.”

“Who is he?” Leaf asks, excitement building as she withdraws her abras. The rooftop meeting with the informant has a surreal feel in her memory, and she’s getting it again as she thinks of how much deeper into the investigation she’s about to be admitted. She’s not sure how many people she’d admit this to, but while Leaf has always known she enjoyed learning new things, she’s also found she likes knowing secret things. Not just any gossip, but important things. It feels wrong, somehow, but she can’t deny the sense of importance she feels as they step outside and Laura locks the door behind her before leading them toward the town.

“His name is Dr. Fuji. He’s a little… odd.” Laura’s voice is cautious, but also sympathetic. “He’s been through a lot, and has lived a secret, isolated lifestyle for years. In a way he reminds me of Mr. Sakai, though not in any obvious way.”

Leaf’s excitement starts to cool as the reality of the situation reasserts itself. “What’s he been hiding from? Silph?”

“No, that’s… more complex. He’s apparently been working for Silph, but only because he doesn’t trust anyone else to work on the project and get it right.”

“What project?”

Laura doesn’t turn her head, but Leaf sees the way her eyes glance around them again, clearly a reflexive check as her voice lowers further. “He calls it a masterball. A pokeball that combines and surpasses all the specialized tech of the others.”

Leaf blinks. “You mean… higher mass limit than even heavyballs, and longer lock on range than quickballs?”

“Effective underwater, elemental protection, the works.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It is. They’re meant to be a weapon against legendaries, not just the Stormbringers but in case of another Hoenn incident.”

Despite her words, Laura’s voice is grim, and Leaf frowns at her. “So what’s the problem?”

“It’s also meant to completely overwrite the pokemon’s identity. It would turn them into biological machines; no trace of anything but basic survival instincts and reflexes.”

Leaf feels a chill race up her spine. Masterball… It would be a lobotomy, as good as death. Why…?

But she knows why. If it’s meant for legendaries, the goal would be to minimize any chance whatsoever of them not being conditioned. Particularly after Groudon apparently shook off whatever conditioning came from his own capture.

Or maybe that’s just how he acted even with it.

It takes Leaf another moment to remember that most people don’t care about pokemon the way she does, and only then does she really get it.

“Would that… work on people too? Would that be legal?

“That’s Dr. Fuji’s worry. It’s not meant to, of course, which is how it might skirt the laws; changing its coding enough to capture a human in the first place is already against the law. But there’s very little incentive to do that with a normal ball, given what it does to people…”

“Until now.”

Perhaps next someone will make a ball big enough and catch the earth, or throw it far enough and catch the sun. It is folly.

“There’s more, other tech involved that Dr. Fuji doesn’t have full knowledge of. He thinks it’s going to also incorporate new material being developed to be resistant to psychic abilities.”

Leaf’s shock chases away the previous thoughts. “That exists?” Would a helmet of it protect someone from a psychic? Maybe only from the sides or back?

“He seems to think so, but… I’m honestly a little unsure.” She lets out a breath. “Investigations like this are always difficult.”

“Like… this?”

“With an unreliable informant. Oh, I believe him about most things, or I wouldn’t be in so deep. But most isn’t all, and getting any details wrong could be disastrous, not just at the point where a story gets published but even before that.”

“Is he just unreliable because he’s… depressed? Or is it something else?”

“You’re thinking of Mr. Sakai. Like I said, it’s not that bad. If Dr. Fuji is ever obviously out of touch with reality, I haven’t seen it. But he does have mood swings, possibly from years of isolation. Sometimes depression, other times a manic energy, but not a happy one. Intense, even angry at times.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry, I never felt any sense of danger from him. I can’t really imagine him hurting anyone. And maybe he’s completely justified in what he’s feeling. But from the perspective of a neutral observer, he’s too unusual to be a credible single source.”

They reach the house, and after a quick knock and a brief wait, Leaf gets her first look at Dr. Fuji.

The old man who opens the door is pale and skinny, with tufts of white hair around a bald crown. He blinks at them a moment, then peers beyond them, then steps back to invite them in without a word.

Leaf enters and stands awkwardly to the side, unsure of whether she should introduce herself until he closes the door and turns to her. “Leaf Juniper.”

“Hi, yes. Dr. Fuji. Nice to meet you.”

He takes her proffered hand, but carefully, and releases it quickly. “You’ve got Cedric’s eyes.”

“You’ve met my grandpa?”

“Just once, long ago.” He turns to Laura. “Thank you for coming, Laura.”

“Of course,” Laura says, and takes his hand as well. “I’ll put some tea on, shall I?”

The older man frowns. “Nonsense, you’re my guests. I’ll make the tea.”

“No offense, Doctor, but your tea is a little… overly suited to your tastes.”

“Hmph. You’re saying I steep it too much.”

“You’re just a little out of practice playing host.” She smiles. “You can practice on me the next time I come by, but let’s spare Leaf that while you two get acquainted.”

Dr. Fuji sighs, but nods. “That would be lovely, thank you.”

She sweeps past toward the kitchen, and after a moment Fuji follows, leading Leaf past the entrance parlor, where laundry is drying over the couch and chair… or at least she assumes that’s why they’re there. The house in general looks like someone’s been living in it for years without company, though she sees signs of recent half-hearted cleaning; there’s a broom and dustbin leaning against the corner, and the dining room table is half covered in a mess of books and plates and pokeballs and half covered in those same things, but stacked into piles.

It’s only once she reaches the table that she sees the pokemon; a cubone, a lickitung, and a pikachu are in the living room, which seems to have been converted into a playpen for them.

“Aww,” she says, grinning as she approaches the pikachu, then pauses. “May I?”

“Please. They’re friendly, and don’t often get new company.”

Leaf crouches and reaches out to pet the ‘chu, who nuzzles her hand, sniffing curiously. This area, she notices, is relatively clean, considering the fact that pokemon live in it. “What’s his name?”

“Custard.”

She grins. “Because he’s yellow and sweet, or because he likes to eat it?”

He chuckles. “Both.”

“How long have you had them?”

“Oh, a few years. I… needed company, you know.”

“I do.” Now the lickitung approaches, and she hesitates as its tongue waves around in front of her. She’s always been a little grossed out by them, and feels herself wanting to step away from its reaching tongue.

But she knows it uses the tongue because its other senses are so bad, and watching its dull black eyes look to her right and left as it wags its tongue closer and closer makes her feel a well of sympathy for it. She reaches a hand out to stroke its tongue, and while it’s no less gross than she expected (though drier, thankfully), the way it seems to relax upon exploring her hand makes her feel good about the decision.

“Most don’t find them a very pettable pokemon,” Dr. Fuji says, handing her a wetwipe from somewhere on the table, which she gratefully takes despite knowing their tongues emit antibacterial enzymes (when they’re not emitting a paralyzing one for battle, at least). “Do you have one?”

“No, this is actually the first I’ve met. I just… felt sorry for it.” She tosses out the wipe, then goes to greet the cubone, which is sitting in the corner, eyeing her warily. “Is this…”

“One of those from the tower incident, yes. I only acquire pokemon who aren’t fit for combat, despite the best efforts of pokeball training… this one seems to have been particularly traumatized by the loss of its parents.”

Leaf closes her eyes a moment, reliving those soul-rending moments in the tower, seeing the heaps of bodies, hearing the mournful cries… and then she takes a breath, and crouches down to gently stroke its bonelike “mask.” It goes still for a moment, then uses its club to push her hand away.

It makes her heart ache, and she wants to pet it again somewhere else, find the right thing that’ll help it relax… but instead she just carefully stands and steps away to show she’s not a threat, then goes to play with Custard again. As she does she sees the older man smiling at her.

“You certainly live up to your reputation.”

“Do I? Which one?”

“Laura told me you were with her son in Vermilion, when Zapdos hit it. And your experience in Celadon, when Groudon woke… I can only imagine how frightening that must have been.” He watches her as she rubs the pikachu’s fur. “I’d understand why you might not want to write about such experiences. But I am curious to know how you feel about legendary pokemon, whether your compassion has limits, given their destructive power.”

Leaf takes a moment to collect her thoughts. She’d been a little prepared by what Laura told her about Fuji’s concerns for the master ball project, but that just means she has to find a new way to put her thoughts into the relevant words. “Honestly, I have struggled with that. It’s not like they chose to be the way they are, and they’re not… I mean, there are some pokemon that are, for lack of a better word, cruel. It’s their nature, they didn’t choose that either, but getting them to stop hurting others would require changing what they are. So far as we know, legendary pokemon don’t seem to be ‘trying’ to cause pain, they just… do.”

Laura joins them with a tea tray and biscuits, and Dr. Fuji insists on pouring for them. Leaf takes one of the rich chocolate cookies and dips it in her tea as it cools. It’s so tasty she eats nearly the whole thing in two bites, then looks down at Custard, who sniffs at it. A quick glance at Dr. Fuji confirms it’s okay, and the pikachu eats it from her hand, cheeks showing just a brief flicker that sends a pang of ghost pain down the side of her body that Red’s pikachu shocked when she caught it nearly a year ago.

“I understand,” Dr. Fuji finally says. “Or, I think I do. Let me know if I have it wrong. Your ideal solution, given all the power in the world, would be to render them harmless. Not just them, but all pokemon, if you could. No more need to capture them, let alone fight them.”

Leaf nods. “Yes. And not just harmless to us, to each other. Make it so everyone can subsist on other diets.”

“Interesting… and very possible, given the extent of TM technology. But it would be a massive undertaking, to change their genetic code as well such that their children would retain it. And these pokemon would need to be more ecologically fit, to outcompete and outbreed their unaltered competition… unless you hope to capture every pokemon in the world.”

She smiles. “I’m idealistic, but still sane, I think.”

“Idealistic is too often a pejorative. What you are is ambitious, and I salute you for it.”

“Hear hear,” Laura murmurs, and lifts her cup as he lifts his.

Leaf feels warmed by more than the tea as she takes another biscuit. “Well, I have less ambitious plans for the meanwhile.”

“So I’ve heard. But are they similarly concerned for the welfare of the legendary pokemon?”

“Not directly. For those with Pressure, I hope my plan will remove the effects on wild pokemon, though, so… without the stampedes, it’ll be easier to just hunker down and let them pass.”

“Would you want them captured or killed, eventually?”

Leaf meets Dr. Fuji’s gaze, biscuit soaking in her tea. “If they’re captured by the masterball, it sounds like they’d be as good as dead. Worse, that sort of reprogramming would be used for more than just legendaries.”

Dr. Fuji gives her a slow nod, but doesn’t say anything more, still waiting for her answer.

Leaf has felt tested since the beginning, but nervous as she is about disappointing, she’d rather fail in a way that makes it clear she doesn’t think the question has an easy answer than “guess the password” with a belief she doesn’t have. So she sighs and strokes Custard’s fur.

“I don’t know. I guess I was being a bit naive with what I said about the Pressure… even without stampedes, the storms would do a lot of damage, so people will probably always want to capture or kill them. And the storms would still kill a lot of wild pokemon, especially if they’re not stampeding to stay ahead of them.” She eats her tea-soaked biscuit, which helps a bit. “I don’t know if there’s a good answer. I want to believe every problem has a solution, but… if I care about people, and wild pokemon, including the legendaries… I can’t come up with an answer that doesn’t rely on technology we don’t yet have.”

“I agree,” Fuji says, and gives a sigh of his own as he stares into his cup. “The masterball will be used if it’s completed. It may even work, and I can’t say that it would be a worse thing than killing them, or that that itself concerns me at all. In fact, I might breathe easier in a world where the legendaries were dead than captured… particularly if the masterball is used. But you understand the true problem. It is hard to root for my own project’s success, knowing what the next use will be once the Stormbringers are caught. Or perhaps even before.”

Leaf frowns, unsure what else they might be used for—the Beasts, maybe, or Titans if their mass storage limit is really that much higher?—but instead she focuses on her real curiosity. “So what can we do to help? If you’re being forced to work on it…”

Dr. Fuji shakes his head. “At this point, my contributions are minimal. It will be finished with or without me, and even if its creation is completely stopped, someone else will create it sooner or later.”

“Is that a sure thing? The recent unown research ban—”

“It’s not the same. Silph has poured too much time and money into this to let it go without a fight… and what’s more, they believe in the project. This isn’t just a better pokeball, to them. It’s the road to peace and safety, for the whole region.” He shrugs. “They’ll charge millions for each, because that’s what they’re worth. But the first ones made will be made for the legends, and the public has no reason to care for those. The what ifs and maybes for after won’t matter to them if it brings an end to our worst nightmares.”

The table is silent after that, and Leaf stares at the biscuits, suddenly not hungry for another one. She sips her tea, finds it at the right temperature, and drinks the rest. When she’s done, she still doesn’t have any thought of what to say, and Laura is just as quiet.

“So that’s it?” she asks at last. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but…” She’s not used to hearing about a problem just to give up on it, either, and if there’s really nothing they could do about this one, why did he ask to meet her?

“I’m curious to know,” Dr. Fuji says, “How you would feel about a person with the power of a legendary.”

Leaf blinks. “Well… my friends and I talked about this a while back. Who could be trusted with that much power, how other regions would react to even a Champion having one…”

“Not a human with a legendary pokemon. That could be taken from them. A human with legendary powers.”

Leaf blinks again, frowns. “Like in Power Force?”

“Power…?”

“Oh, it’s a show, um, a cartoon, where certain people get the powers of pokemon. Not a legendary, but…”

“Yes, like that. Would this person deserve the rights of any other person?”

“Of course!”

“Even if they could use those powers for great harm, without being caught?”

Leaf hesitates again. “That’s… how would we even know if they did or not? Or how wouldn’t we know, if they were that powerful?”

“I don’t mean caught as in knowing it’s them. Apprehended. Stopped.”

She looks at Laura, who seems as curious about the line of questioning as she is. “I don’t know. I think at that point they’d be treated like a Renegade anyway, so their rights would be basically gone?”

“Yes. I think so too.” Dr. Fuji refills her tea cup, then Laura’s, then his. “What about a pokemon as intelligent as a person?”

Leaf takes another biscuit. “I thought about this too. With all the new pokemon appearing, some of them breaking rules that we thought existed… and Latias and Latios seem really smart… I would hope at that point it would be obvious to even the most stubborn speciesist that they should be treated like people, but I know there would probably still be some insisting on a divide.”

“So if such a pokemon were to arise, you would insist it be given all the rights of a human, despite its power?”

“Well, yeah! If it’s intelligent enough to communicate with us, and has even somewhat human values, it should be possible to treat it just like anyone else.”

“What if it hurts people anyway? Would you be in favor of capturing it?”

She frowns. “If it hurts people it should be treated like a person that hurts people. We know what pokeballs do to humans, and should assume it would do the same thing to it. So no, absolutely not, and it shouldn’t take empathy toward pokemon for others to realize why that would be wrong.”

Dr. Fuji suddenly smiles. “I imagined you would feel that way, but it’s still good to hear it. Now I must ask…. would that be something you’d be willing to try and prevent?”

Leaf blinks. “If I can. Do you think there’s something else I can do, besides what I am already?”

“Perhaps. You see, I think fiction has an incredible power to open our eyes to new perspectives, empathize with people beyond those we normally might. To that end, I’ve spent some time writing a book. A novel, written from the perspective of an incredibly powerful pokemon with human level intelligence, struggling with its place in a world of unintelligent pokemon and powerless humans.” He shrugs. “I have a few drafts, here and there, but I think it’s missing something. I’m not much of a writer, I’m afraid.”

Leaf has read stories written from a pokemon’s perspective before; it’s a particularly popular type of children’s story. But this sounds like something different, more mature. “That sounds great, Doctor, but… why me? I’m flattered, but… I’ve written about mythology, articles and blog posts, news stories, but never fiction.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Laura says, speaking for the first time since the tea was served. “Your writing is excellent, and you’re a fast learner. You also know how to set scenes and write dialogue in engaging ways. Your first draft wouldn’t be a masterpiece, but few are, and you can certainly write well enough for that.”

“You also don’t have to commit to anything now,” Dr. Fuji says. “But if you have time to read over some of what I’ve written, maybe give some feedback, I’d appreciate it. I think you have what it would take.”

Leaf looks back and forth between them, then drops her gaze as she considers it. She thought she was past adding new pursuits and learning new skillsets, now that she found what she believes is her real, true life project. And she’s already been worrying about how she can justify spending time on things other than it…

But this seems like something really valuable, and maybe even something she’s uniquely qualified to do, or at least particularly qualified. People have wondered for millennia if they’re alone in the universe, imagined of finding others capable of higher thought… sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear. If she can help people empathize with such a pokemon, maybe by the time one is discovered, she could avert a truly terrible disaster.

She smiles, giving Custard one last scratch between his ears, then looks back up at Dr. Fuji. “I’m in. I also have an idea; the pokemon should be a Psychic type. I have some friends who I think could help get the authenticity down, and it could also help with the reader practicing empathy through the pokemon learning it.”

Dr. Fuji is grinning wide, and toasts her with his tea cup. “Miss Juniper, you’ve read my mind.”

Chapter 100: Collaboration

All in all, the research community doesn’t take the news well.

“I don’t understand how the Professor can be okay with this!”

Artem paces around Red’s room, more riled up than Red’s ever seen the older researcher. The mood is infectious, and even while keeping his psychic senses to himself Red struggles to stay seated and just let his legs bounce.

“It’s not that he’s okay with it. It’s just that he can’t overturn the Champion on his own, not when it comes to safety from pokemon.”

“Since when did research fall under that?”

Red raises a brow. “Since the research involved potentially creating pokemon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing, opens his mouth, closes it, scowls, and resumes pacing as he mutters, “We were being careful.”

We were, sure. Not that it wasn’t cool to see the idea catch on and spread like that, but once others started doing it, there’s no way everyone was. ”

“So you agree with the decision?”

“Didn’t say that.” Red runs a hand through his hair. “It would be one thing if we knew for sure that unown could create pokemon, but continually fail to understand or replicate it.” It’s not like he hasn’t had plenty of experience with that. “But suspecting without being able to test…”

Red grimaces as the wordless frustration spreads through his chest. Artem sighs and nods before resuming his pacing, and Red tries to focus on what he should do now.

If the origin of pokemon is really just another type of pokemon, Red’s work would be far from over, since the obvious next question would be where unown come from. But at least he’d have a direction to look in; it would make all the other avenues that have been hovering at the back of his thoughts—abiogenesis, natural selection, panspermia—discardable, freeing up thought and research time toward an avenue with an actual expectation of answers somewhere along the path. Figuring out where one creature comes from, no matter how unusual, is a very different thing from figuring out where the thousands of others do.

In truth though, with his partition down Red is more conflicted than he lets on. With full access to all his memories, the news that research would be restricted due to potential danger makes him think of his own secrets. They may not fall as cleanly into the Champion’s purview (the sakki, maybe, but the rest would likely be a civilian matter), but it does show that people like Lance are willing to keep potentially dangerous truths from being known.

It should make him feel better, particularly when he remembers his response to Giovanni that day, after being asked what it would take for Red to hide a discovery on the origin of species:

If someone learned how to make their own pokemon, for example… they might create a legendary, or a dozen…

His own words make it hard not to understand the Champion’s perspective. But Artem doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a real discussion just yet, which is understandable given he spent so much time on the unown experiment just to be told he can’t continue it.

Still, sitting here being gloomy about it won’t help anything. “On the plus side, there’s no ban on experimenting with metamon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing and turns to Red, frown shifting as his lip twitches upward. “You mean ditto.”

“Metamon is the better name,” Red insists. “Ditto already means something.”

“So does farfetched, but context makes it clear what people mean.”

“Well, Professor Oak says metamon.”

Artem rolls his eyes. “I swear if this turns into another barrierd situation—”

“Hey, we’re not Unova.” Sorry Leaf. “And metamon isn’t nearly as bad as ‘Mr. Mime.'”

“I don’t care how bad the name is, I just want it to be consistent.

“I get it, but name quality matters too. If we leave everything to popular preference we’re more likely to get stupid names, like Sirfetch’d.”

“Wait, what would you call it?”

“Absir’d.”

“…Alright, that is better. But metamon isn’t.”

“Is too. And,” he goes on before they get caught in a loop, “The fact that they can transform into any pokemon opens a lot of questions about their biology that might still teach us something about pokemon. It’s hard not to get excited about that.”

“Sure, but we’ll have to wait for those who have one to discover everything.” He eyes Red. “Unless the Professor…?”

Red’s fledgling optimism fades as he shakes his head. “There are only a couple dozen that were captured, and they’re all being very carefully distributed. The lab has one, of course, but…”

Artem sighs and keeps pacing. Red is a little relieved his friend didn’t ask why Red isn’t there already.

It’s been a while since Red felt torn about his decision not to work at Pallet Labs. Now that he’s got some original research under his belt, and more citations than nearly any other first year researcher, the idea of going home feels less unearned (though he still feels annoyed by how that happened even after the churned out correlation studies ended up being a bit useful). He’s been back many times since the day he learned free teleportation, and the more often he goes the more he finds himself missing the clean halls, constant sound of friendly debate in the cafeteria, and easy access to the various experts all working on their own interesting things. He could be satisfied, he thinks, accepting a junior position there and knowing it wouldn’t just be from nepotism.

But it would still be a junior position, helping others in their research. Sure, he’d have a voice at the table, and knows the others there well enough to be fairly confident his thoughts will be respected. In a way it would be a dream come true.

Just not the dream.

And he doesn’t need to be at the lab to send them his ideas, which he’s already done. Instead he has to pursue the ideas that he’s uniquely suited to, create new opportunities in the field that those in the labs can’t.

“You know,” Red says after a moment as he pulls his phone out to check the announcement again. “This says no one’s allowed to experiment with unown creating pokemon. But it doesn’t say we can’t study them at all.”

“What, are you suddenly fascinated by the sounds they make?”

“No, but I’m also not trying to sneak around the ban either. I was just thinking, what would I want to do if we discover that the unown do create pokemon?”

“Right, find out where the unown come from. But what new info do we have to figure that out?”

“Not new info, but the network is still there. We’ve been using them to track unown movements and they took it upon themselves to try monitoring for abiogenesis. I bet they’re as frustrated as we are, but still interested in doing something meaningful if they can. We should give them a new direction before they move on to something else.”

Artem’s pacing slows, face thoughtful. “Something besides tracking them, you mean? We’ve gotten lots of good data from that, but it’s the kind of work that requires hundreds of people all contributing data little by little, nothing active or exciting. And we still don’t have any insights from it yet, other than confirming that they originate and congregate at ruins.”

“Yeah, and we can’t follow them beyond the regions to check if there are others in the wilderness, but we might be able to tell if we find enough psychics willing to camp out at ruins and monitor any that appear.”

“You think, what, they’re the same ones leaving the regions and teleporting back?”

“Either that or the number of unown in the world is rapidly increasing, and has been for years. It’s not absurd to think of, but it would be good to test both ideas if we can.”

“So the psychics monitor memories of the appearing unown, while others go along for recording and protection?” Artem scratches the light stubble growing along his jaw. “Yeah, maybe… we could also—”

Red’s heart jumps into his throat as their phones buzz, the sound impossible to mistake for anything else. Before he can take his out to check the notification, Artem already has his in hand.

“Tier 1 east of Pewter. Some trouble coming down from Mount Moon.” He looks at Red, not needing to ask the question; he knows Red has been there, and so can teleport over.

With so many trainers busy on Cinnabar Island, or recovering from the battles there, the rest of Indigo has rallied to help at the various incidents that have popped up in the days following. Psychic trainers who can freely teleport have been in particularly high demand, as CoRRNet has struggled from the lack of able trainers to spare sending extra to Tier 1s, especially since, with many of the strongest trainers in the region kept busy, the Tier 2s have needed more quantity to make up for the weaker participants.

Which is why in the past week Red has assisted with two different Tier 1 incidents and one Tier 2. He’s mostly been acting as support, but still battled his share of wilds at each.

And saw his share of casualties.

“I should go,” he says, throat dry. Artem nods and hurries to gather his things, and Red pulls up his checklist to make sure he doesn’t forget anything.

“I’ll start scouting for interest.” His friend sounds guilty, and Red knows he’d come if he could. “Maybe see if there’s a few people in WCN who have explored any ruins before.”

“Sounds good.” Energized electronics, crammed canteens, pouch of pokeballs… His travel bag hasn’t seen much use since Lavender, but maybe he should put a battle bag together for sudden incidents. “I’ll make a post about it once I get back.”

“Cool.” Artem is standing by the door, shifting his weight. “I’ll be nearby, probably.”

“See you soon then.”

“Right. Be careful, yeah?”

Red forces a smile. “I’ll try.”

Artem nods, closes the door, and Red is alone.

He closes his eyes, skin flushing hot and cold, and quickly summons his ivysaur before he lets himself drop onto his bed, taking deep breaths as he stares between his feet, anxiety and dread swirling through his stomach and up his chest.

Some days, when his depression is bad enough, it can get hard to remember all the ways he’s improved over the past few months. Other times, however, it’s very clear how much easier it is for him to function without his partition up. He even occasionally thinks he’s close to being truly “healed,” or at least no longer really debilitated by his grief.

Until last week. It was the first time he didn’t have his partition up when an incident alert came, the first time he had to decide whether to go into a dangerous situation or not with the full weight of his memories quickly helping him imagine everything that could go wrong.

The resulting panic attack quickly disabused him of the idea that he’d gotten through the worst of Aiko’s death.

As his Ivysaur walks over and presses against his legs, Red feels himself curling into a ball, whole body drenched in sweat as he forces his breathing to stay a steady, even cycle. He tries to ground himself, first in his body, then in his setting, eyes moving over everything he sees, hears, feels… I’m sitting on my bed, I don’t need to leave, nothing is attacking me…

His ivysaur’s bulb is close to his face, and Red takes a deep breath of the unique scent, using it as yet another grounding point and reminder that he’s safe. One of the first things he did when he got ivysaur and wartortle was spend some time with Blue and Leaf, learning from their experiences with their own pokemon, but before buying them he also researched what unique value he might have access to, both as a psychic and for his own different goals and lifestyle than theirs. His collaboration with the What Comes Next group in Celadon gave him the idea of aromatherapy.

He reaches down to stroke behind his pokemons’ ears, and Ivysaur gurgles happily as it settles against him. He’d like to bring Pikachu out too, but while much more cuddly, the mouse is also more attuned to Red’s stress, and got very twitchy during his last panic attack.

So he just sits with his Ivysaur for a while, waiting until the feeling of safety is more concrete and he can breathe easier. It takes a few minutes before he feels more solid and present in his body, but the ball of anxious dread is still in his stomach, and the thought of getting up to go to the Tier 1 makes it spread, disrupting his breaths for another few cycles.

If it was just a risk of danger, Red’s pretty sure he would be able to talk himself into going. What really keeps him paralyzed is the idea that he might be put in another situation where he has to make an impossible choice. Memories of Aiko running ahead of him, of Leaf’s shock and Blue’s anger, crowd his thoughts, and it’s hard not to just bring his partition back up.

He can get through this if he gives his less traumatized self more control. With the partition up it’s so much easier to be optimistic, to just not think of those possibilities and focus on what he wants or needs to do.

But that’s a solution from his less integrated days. If he gives up control now, his partitioned-self would probably suggest he try working it out anyway unless Red amnesias this whole incident, which he’s not willing to do. Partitioned Red would notice something off anyway; he can hide the emotions, but not his body’s lingering reaction to them..

It’s a relief to be on the same side, even if they still disagree about things. Sometimes partitioned Red will even do things like read guidelines used by firefighters for determining safety levels for burning buildings, or emergency triage protocols, both for the knowledge and because he knows his unpartitioned self cares about it.

More than that; while sometimes it can trigger stressful memories or what-ifs to read about life-and-death scenarios, when his partition is up and he’s just experiencing things through it, the overall experience of reading guidelines the professionals use is actually rather soothing.

It also opened up opportunities, according to Dr. Seward.

Once Red feels a bit more grounded again, he takes his phone out and plays one of the recordings from past him with his partition up.

“Hey Red. If you’re listening to this one it’s probably because you’re feeling stressed about another tough choice you might have to make.” He remembers nudging his partitioned self to keep things vague in case he ever needs to listen to these around others. “Maybe just thinking about what people will think of you, in general. I get it. I mean I don’t get it as much as you do right now, but I remember those feelings too, and they suck.” He hears his past self sigh. “It’s okay to be scared of making the wrong call, or being shunned for whatever choices you make when all the options suck. I can’t promise it’ll be okay, but… just try to remember why we’re doing this, alright? It’s because we can make a difference. We’ve done it before, saved a lot of lives, prevented more cracks in the world. Maybe someday it will make more sense for us to be like Bill, but we’re also learning too much from field work to give it up now. Remember Lavender? That sucked too, but how much further back would we be if we hadn’t been there? Not to mention what might have happened to the others. We developed psydar because we had to during the storm…”

The twisted ball in his stomach relaxes little by little as Red listens to more examples, things that were harder to remember when his mind was crowded by all the potential bad outcomes. He even smiles as his past self mentions that they wouldn’t even know they were psychic if they hadn’t been blasted by their spinarak.

“…end of the day, just focus on what you can decide when you can decide it. Remember what Giovanni said about allowing himself to be human? Whatever you’re struggling with right now, maybe not doing it is the right answer. Maybe doing it is, but in a certain way that some others won’t understand. Whatever the case, as long as you can keep learning from the decisions, that’s what matters most. And… no matter what you decide, you know that some people will always be on your side. Mom, the Professor, Dr. Seward… Leaf, probably…”

Sabrina too, and probably Giovanni. But partitioned Red doesn’t know about why that would be, and it’s enough to be reminded that the category of people exist at all.

“…and me. I may not always understand, because, you know, the amnesia. But whatever we deal with, we’ll do it together. Good luck.”

Red lets out a long breath as the knot finishes unraveling until it’s just a weight in his stomach. He still dreads what’s ahead, but it doesn’t feel like more than he can handle, or like it will automatically end in catastrophe.

Aware that every minute passing is another he could be helping at the incident, Red still takes a moment to gather his thoughts and introspect on whether he wants to respond in some way. Dr. Seward said writing would let him remember things more clearly, voice was the most convenient and added more emotional data, and video was the least convenient but maximized the potential impact. So he starts a video recording and aims the camera at himself, trying to push down his self-consciousness and muster a smile.

“Hey, Red. If you’re listening to this one, you’re, uh, probably wondering if you’ll ever feel better about whatever’s stressing you out right now. I just want you to know, whatever you feel… you probably have a good reason to feel it. It’s okay to be worried. But you’re going to feel better. It just happened to me. It’ll happen to you too. Oh, and partitioned Red, if you’re listening to this to remember what it was like to feel panicked so you can make another recording that might help… the mention of people who will stick by us was really good. There are some others too, so feel free to just say that, ‘and others too,’ as an extra reminder, in case I’m further gone next time. I know that probably feels annoyingly mysterious, but… you get it. Thanks again, for everything.”

Red ends the recording, gives it a name, then takes another deep breath and feeds Ivysaur a poffin before withdrawing him and grabbing his hat on the way out.


Leaf smiles as she sees the dots appear in the distant sky, hand tilting her hat to keep the setting sun out of her eyes. The flying pokemon and their riders quickly grow as she watches, and she waves once they’re close enough for her to make out who’s who. Blue and Elaine are in the front, and wave back before starting their descent to the Trainer House roof.

It’s amazing seeing how big Zephyr has gotten, particularly since he and Crimson used to be the same size. Leaf thinks her pidgeotto is close to evolving after a particularly intense battle south of Fuchsia yesterday, but she’s not sure Crimson will catch up anytime soon unless things get worse around here.

Nearly two weeks after the battle at Cinnabar City, most of the Fuchsia gym members are still helping reclaim the island, which means more and more locals have been called on to help the rangers. She’s in the city too often not to help out when she can, though thankfully that’s only meant a couple battles so far.

Each lost life feels extra harsh, with her project underway, and each day that passes before it finishes feels heavier.

She grips her hat tight as Blue and the others land, waiting for the buffeting wind to fade before she runs over to hug them as they dismount. “Welcome to Fuchsia!”

“You weren’t kidding, the Safari is beautiful.” Elaine looks back out toward the wilderness to the northeast as her hands move automatically to unsaddle her mount. “We saw so many pokemon as we flew over, whole herds of tauros and a family of kangaskhan, and I think I saw a dragonair in one of the far lakes…”

“You said there’s a chance we’ll be able to get admission at some point?” Maria asks. It’s been a while since Leaf saw her without her big floppy hat, but she seems to be trying out sunglasses as a new fashion choice, which, when combined with her dark clothes and flying helmet, makes her look like the world’s youngest (and cutest) member of a biker gang.

“I think it’s especially likely now, assuming the project stays in the sweet spot… well, kind of bitter spot… of needing more support, without losing so many rangers to other duties that it’s put entirely on hold.” Leaf holds her hat again as Glen and a couple of people she doesn’t recognize descend, then gives him a hug once he hops down. “Glad you could make it,” she says, happy as always to see him moving so much more smoothly these days.

“Not getting left behind just yet,” he says with a distractingly charming grin.

“I thought field tests would still be a ways off?” Blue asks as he finishes caring for Zephyr and withdraws him.

“Before, yeah, but our timelines also got thrown up in the air, what with the new pokemon.”

The fact that they turned the second half of her birthday into a tense and frightening night, and caused horrifying amounts of pokemon and human death, didn’t stop part of her from getting excited about the possibilities ditto/metamon might represent.

They copy the pokemon’s natural instincts, but not its conditioning! she texted Natural as the information on them trickled out. Not just one type of pokemon, every pokemon they transform into!

If we can figure out how, maybe we can code it. It was early morning for him, which is normally when he would still be asleep, but he’d been as glued to the news feed as her. We need a copy of its pokeball data from someone that caught one.

They might not release that to the public.

Then we’ll get it another way! Maybe the project will have enough pull to get a copy?

And so it did, a new wing being formed specifically to focus on the new pokemon’s potential application to their goal. It was staffed by an even broader pool of talented programmers who coordinated with various labs and other organizations trying to learn more about them, not to mention figure out how to train them. The Rangers were even able to secure a specimen for the team to examine, on occasion.

Natural in particular went into a frenzy once he got a copy of the ditto’s code, though he wasn’t on that team, being a relative unknown who kept his personal life private. Leaf was uneasy about that, and considered asking him how he got the code, but after what she trusted him with following the incident she’s not sure she’s one to throw stones. In truth she was more worried about the way his sleep schedule seemed to shift later and later each day as he obsessed over the new pokemon, but other than basic check-ins she’s had too many other things on her plate to also start managing how others use their time.

Like her plan to uncover the Fuchsia ninja clan, assuming it exists.

After walking the city and talking to locals didn’t get her anywhere, she decided the best way to find Laura’s informant, or at least someone who might work with them, is to set a trap.

Her reasoning is simple: there’s no way whoever’s been regularly stopping criminal activity in Fuchsia would do so by just randomly wandering the streets and waiting until they spot something. Not unless there really is a whole clan running around the city every night, and that would make it harder to stay unnoticed.

At first she thought they must have someone inside various criminal organizations feeding them info, but that wouldn’t explain the corporate crimes that get stopped too. And it’s not like all major crime gets stopped, and if there’s a pattern to it, it’s not one Leaf or Laura could figure out.

She considered reaching out to some of the gangs herself, maybe just posting on their message boards to see if anyone would be willing to talk off the record about their experiences. Laura talked her out of it, since the gang members would see it as a trap and anyone working with the ninja who might be monitoring their forums would get tipped off that someone’s looking into them.

But there was nothing stopping Leaf from making a few fake accounts and leaving cryptic hints about a planned robbery.

Leading to that idea was the realization that Laura’s informant isn’t primarily motivated to take down Silph; the vendetta was borne out of a desire to protect Fuchsia. Which means they’re probably more likely to react to something that could be a big enough threat to the city.

In practical terms, that means a handful of potential high-value targets; government buildings, pokemon centers, entrances to the safari zone, and of course the gym. Most criminals wouldn’t be crazy enough to hit the latter, and there’s not much value to them in government buildings… well, not unless it’s something much higher level than the sorts of street gangs that were already chased out of the city. The Safari Zone is one option, but that might involve the Rangers, and Leaf doesn’t want to set up a false crime that, if seen by anyone and reported, would waste their already limited time and resources.

That doesn’t leave much; a lot of valuable pokemon might be stolen from a pokemon center, of course, but they have moderately high security. Same with robbing supplies from trainer markets, or any other store that might have lots of high value items…

…but upstream of all of them are the warehouses that goods get shipped to when they enter the city.

So Leaf spends the night with Blue’s group, showing them around the city and getting to know the trainers that Blue picked up in Saffron until the sun sets and it’s time to say goodnight. Instead of teleporting back, however, Leaf makes her way to one of the warehouse districts by the docks, where storage balls containing everything from Silph merchandise to Pokemon Center supplies are being held before distribution.

It only took a bit of footwork to scout out where the best vantage points to intervene in any attempted robberies would be, and after that she just had to find a place she could set herself to watch for anyone that might use those vantage points.

This turns out to be the roof of an apartment building nearby, which only takes a few minutes of fumbling with her bag outside to enter as someone else does. Once settled on the edge of the roof, she lifts her binoculars to watch the warehouse district.

The city is well lit, but not in the places she needs to be watching, and so she reaches up to switch to thermal imaging.

The world immediately darkens as most of the ambient light disappears, leaving a smattering of dots that glow bright white as they move from place to place. Each is a person or pokemon, their silhouettes surprisingly sharp in contrast to their surroundings, though there are a few fire pokemon that give off so much heat she can barely tell their species. There are also far more flying pokemon than she would guess, and for a moment she just stares at them, zipping above the city like shooting stars.

Then she turns back to her target, or at least where she thinks it should be; some buildings are dimly visible, but many are cold dark blocks. It takes another switch back to normal vision to make sure she’s looking in the right places, then she swaps back to thermal to settle in and watch the darkness for anything unusual.

Before long it becomes easier to find landmarks. While street lamps are stationary white pinpricks rather than glowing illuminators for their surroundings, she can still track their positions, and any ventilation in the buildings tends to be hot enough to glow too.

It’s a fascinating alternative way to see the city, and she wonders with a jealous pang if this is the sort of thing Red and other psychics see when they fully merge with pokemon that have different ways of seeing the world than humans.

The thought has her summon Raff to keep her company, and once he’s settled beside her she puts one earphone in to listen to a podcast on aerial coordination maneuvers as she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits, stretching her arms one at a time, then her legs.

And then waits some more.

The next episode (matching poffin flavors to different pokemon tastes) has just started when a mechanical voice behind her says, “Leaf Juniper.”

She yelps and drops the binoculars, rolling onto her back and preparing to command Raff to defend her when she realizes who’s standing right behind where she was perched.

Leaf scrambles to her feet, pulse pounding in her ears, but the figure just stands there, watching from behind their mask. Just a few inches taller than Leaf, and just as Laura described, wearing a dark outfit that makes their silhouette hard to discern.

“Are you… how did you…?” Raff, the useless lump, sniffs curiously at the newcomer, then settles back into place.

“You’re not the only one with binoculars. Also thermal imaging, I’m guessing?” The voice is disguised by the filter, but Leaf can still hear the amusement. “When I saw you up here, just a single white spec sitting perfectly still for half an hour, I thought you might be a cop, or one of Silph’s people. But you’re working for Laura Verres, aren’t you?”

“I…” Claiming not to know who Laura is would be stupid, gods this whole thing was stupid, Laura was right she’s not ready for this sort of thing… “I’m here alone. I mean, on my own. I was… following a tip, about some criminal activity—”

“Liar. You’ve been asking around the city about me. Kind of annoying, given you also caught Silph’s attention with that. Or did you not consider that people who know more than random drunks might take your interest as evidence itself?”

Leaf swallows, not even needing to answer. She hopes her blush isn’t visible through those dark goggles, but if they see infrared then her face is probably burning like a charizard’s tail. “Sorry.”

“You’ll make it up to me,” the figure says with complete confidence. “After all, we have the same enemy, even if you don’t know it yet.”

This utterly fails to set Leaf at ease. “We do?” Oh, right.. Get your head in the game, Leaf. “We do. You want to take Silph down.”

“I want him taken down,” the masked figure corrects. “I don’t care who does it. Thought Laura would, figured legitimate means might do the trick, but he’s got too much power for that.”

“I won’t do anything Laura wouldn’t. Can’t, even.”

“Oh really? Would Laura have stolen data from the lab under the Casino?”

“What are you talking about?” Leaf asks, after what she hopes is a just-long-enough pause. Her heart, which had been starting to slow a little, is kicking in her chest again like an angry ponyta.

“Or maybe Laura had a hand in that too. She was with you at the station, after.”

This is just speculation. Unless… Leaf’s blood turns to ice as she remembers, too late, that the person in front of her might be a psychic. Just because the one that ran from the police in Celadon was dark doesn’t mean this is the same person!

“You don’t have to admit to anything,” the figure says as Leaf considers a number of dramatic options for escaping, including just running past the figure. “I’m just here to let you know, we can work together… if you’re more careful, going forward, than you have been. Or else you’re just likely to cause more problems for me.”

“What do you want me to do?” Leaf asks, focusing as best she can on the exercises Red taught her to throw off psychics.

“For now, nothing. Your investigation in Fuchsia is over. But in exchange, I have a new target for you.”

Leaf hesitates. “Silph?”

“Not quite. That info that got leaked from the Celadon lab put some pieces together; I used to think there were a lot of organizations Silph was working with and against, but now? Now I think they might be mostly all the same one, and the relationship has been souring.”

“What? Why would Silph work with another organization and against it at the same time?”

“That’s what we’re going to figure out. Who, exactly, Silph’s been battling in the shadows… and whether the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”


After his initial meeting with Sabrina, Blue expects Koga’s invitation on his second day in Fuchsia to be a similarly blunt dismissal of any attempt to jump the line or alter his gym culture. From what he’s seen online and heard from others, it’s the most traditional gym in Indigo, and when he arrives on site he gets that impression immediately reinforced.

Even the buildings feel like a piece of ancient culture, each one built in the old style of wood and paper walls that made reconstruction easy after pokemon attacks, with large open spaces between the administrative entrance building and the various classrooms around the compound. Between them are small ponds, rock gardens, and various types of arena. He knows there are modern training facilities underground, but the overall effect is a mix of the utilitarian Vermilion and cultivated Celadon gyms, particularly since the uniform he sees on various gym members is a dark montsuki embroidered with the gym badge.

Though the ambiance is different from either. There are a few distant sounds of battle coming from various directions, but there’s no drill instructors yelling orders, nor pockets of people engaged in quiet conversation. Overall his walk toward the center of the gym feels… peaceful.

The Leader’s building is much like the others, though it’s raised a little higher and looks more detailed and stylized. As he approaches, Blue pauses outside of it to watch as a pair of non-trainer gym employees clean an arena, carefully digging up sections stained with acid or toxic sludge and safely disposing them in a marked canister before replacing the arena floor with fresh soil. Some of the arenas are stone, but those would put ground types at a disadvantage, and this gym no doubt expects to see many of them from people coming prepared to counter the Poison type focus.

Blue’s fingers brush the balls on his belt. If Rive evolves into a rhydon and Tops into a kadabra, he’ll have a solid pair of offensive counters for Koga, and with a magneton or two he’ll have powerful defensive counters…

But it’s Nin that he thinks will really be his ace. If he can get the golbat to evolve into a crobat, it’ll be able to resist Koga’s Poison types while still being able to sweep.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been training Nin or Rive much since he was preparing to face Sabrina. Such an abrupt switch in focus feels strange without the payoff of having gotten a badge, but her offer was too good to pass up.

He has his suspicions about whether she actually intends to experiment with Koichi’s theories, or if she already knows the outcome and is just putting him to a test before she reveals what she knows. Of course that would only make sense if there’s some truth to it, unless she’s just yanking his chain… but he didn’t get that vibe from her.

Instead she seemed to be assessing him in a way that no other leaders have, including Erika. Whatever she has in mind for him when he returns to her gym, he has a feeling it’s more than just the answer to his question and a Mastery Challenge.

He makes his way inside the Leader’s building and finds himself in an entrance hall with space for boots and coats, along with a small nook with a flowerpot in it. The whole area makes him feel like he’s stepping into someone’s home, not a Leader’s office. What if someone’s in a rush to get from one place to another?

Well, in those cases they probably just ignore it.

Right. Everything’s so peaceful here that he’s having trouble imagining it in a state of emergency, but at the end of the day it is a gym, and a pretty respected one at that. Koga’s held his gym longer than any other Leader in Kanto besides Blaine, and like Blaine is relatively isolated compared to the rest of the Leaders, making the amount of land under his protection larger than most. Fuchsia does have an unusually high concentration of Rangers nearby to help with threats to the city, but most have a primary duty to the Safari Zone rather than nearby incidents, which means it’s up to the Gym Members to form the backbone of any defense of the city and nearby towns.

Koga is a man that not only commands respect, but deserves it. Blue takes a breath, preparing himself to return to the demeanor and perspective he learned in Erika’s gym, turning himself into more of a refined trainer, or at least one who’s able to demonstrate appropriate respect. Not that any Leader is likely to put up with disrespect, but how the respect is shown matters.

Finally he knocks on the wooden portion of the door, then opens it at the “Enter” that comes through to find Koga himself sitting at a low table with his legs folded beneath him, tea set on another table beside him while his attention stays focused on a laptop monitor. No receptionist, no waiting room. Just a large living quarter, and a few other rooms along the walls.

By most metrics of evaluating status, it’s the most humble he’s ever seen a gym leader. But like all the others, something about the man in front of Blue is more than what he appears. The calm strength in his posture, the sense of both focus on his work while being aware of his environment, the simple comforts of his surroundings, all reinforce Blue’s knowledge that he’s walked into the room of a man of power.

He wonders, vaguely, when he’ll start having that effect on people, and then wonders for the first time if he already does to some degree.

“Welcome to Fuchsia, Trainer,” Koga says once Blue has closed the door behind him. “Please sit.”

“Thank you, Leader.” Blue bows his head as he sits, mirroring Koga’s posture and hoping the conversation doesn’t go on too long; seiza hurts his ankles.

“Tea?”

“What kind?”

“Shincha. Fresh, not stored from a previous season.”

As if that matters, since storage puts things in stasis anyway. Still, it’s pricey stuff, and Blue bows his head again to show his thanks. “I would love some.”

Koga pours Blue a small cup, turning away from his computer for the first time since Blue entered. “You’re resting too much weight on your legs.” Once Koga puts the pot down, one hand lifts the cup toward Blue while the other taps his own stomach, eyes meeting his. “Engage your core to hold your weight up.”

Blue straightens as he takes the saucer. “Like this?”

“Less rigid, or your shoulders will soon grow tired. Do not focus on just one part of yourself; let your awareness spread through your body, while holding your goal gently in mind, and you will find a position that feels more natural.” He sips his tea as Blue tries to follow this advice, then nods and turns back to his monitor. “You can also sit zazen, if you would prefer. I know the rumors about me, but I don’t judge people by things as inconsequential as that.”

Blue considers a moment, then says, “I might, if this starts feeling bad. For now I want to try getting this right.”

Koga nods again, takes another sip of tea, then puts it down and types something out on his laptop. Blue blows on his tea as he waits, breathing in occasionally to enjoy the rich scent until the Leader finishes, then closes the laptop and gives Blue his full attention. “So. Are you just here for a Mastery Challenge, or do you have some other interest in my gym?”

Blue smiles as the Leader opens their conversation with a trap he prepared for. He also learned at Celadon how well a cup of tea can help give extra thinking time, and so takes a sip and runs through his prepared response before he sets the cup down.

“I won’t pretend I wasn’t running from one badge to the next when I started my journey. And obviously once I slowed down it was to get more involved in Vermilion and Celadon. But at Saffron I focused on developing myself and my pokemon, and forming new connections. That’s all I want here; if it turns out your gym has more to teach me than others, I’m open to staying longer, and if you’re interested in what I’ve done at previous gyms, I’m of course happy to talk about that anytime.”

Koga’s gaze is as intense as Sabrina’s, and after a moment he asks, “Does that mean you would say no to an early Mastery Challenge?”

Well, shit.

It’s got to be a bluff. There’s no way Koga, of all Gym Leaders, is going to let Blue jump straight to a badge match after just arriving…

“You’re skeptical. Perhaps it will help if I clarify that this is not a free offer; there is a problem I cannot solve myself, and cannot ask anyone from my gym to solve. You are an outsider who may actually possess the traits and skill necessary. What I propose is a straightforward exchange.”

Blue hides his smile behind another sip of tea, fighting to control his excitement before he lowers his cup again. Forget the early badge challenge, there’s no way he’s turning down the chance to solve a problem for a Gym Leader!

“I wouldn’t be opposed in principle,” he says, voice level. “But I’d like to hear more about the problem, first.”

“It’s my daughter. Janine is intelligent, resourceful, strong willed… and arrogant. She acts as though her position as future Leader of Fuchsia is guaranteed, and yet her focus has fractured. She has neglected the duties of a potential Leader for her own priorities of what a Leader ‘should be,’ without yet even experiencing the demands of the position.”

Blue listens in carefully concealed fascination, aware that he’s being confided in and unsure why. Koga doesn’t strike him as the sort of man who’d share personal family drama to just anyone… how desperate is he, exactly?

“Respectfully, Leader, couldn’t you just…”

“Defeat her? For another few years at least, yes. But those are years she is spending unwisely, and eventually she will have an opportunity to ascend to Leadership that I will have no say in.”

“What, you think she’s going to Challenge another Gym Leader?”

“Perhaps, if she grows impatient enough. But we would both prefer she replace me in Fuchsia, assuming she is worthy.” Koga takes another sip of tea, gaze dropping for just a moment before returning to Blue’s. “And my own plans are being delayed, so long as she is not.”

Blue blinks. “You want to retire? No… you plan to ascend. How many powerful pokemon have you been hiding, exactly?” He’s too excited by the even juicier gossip he just got freely handed (which of course he wouldn’t be sharing with anyone, if he wants the positive relationship with Koga that’s clearly being offered) to maintain his respectful calm, thoughts already racing over all the current Elite’s teams. “If you think you have a chance, I’d bet on you over Bruno and Will.” The Johto psychic replaced Karen after her injury against Zapdos, and while he’s strong, Koga probably has some good counters against him. “Maybe Lorelei too. But you’d have to be hiding something really monstrous to beat Agatha or Lance.”

Koga merely watches him, brow slightly raised, and Blue grins and holds a hand up. “Not that I’m actually expecting an answer. Either way, I’m looking forward to the matches.”

“Matches that will happen sooner, if I have reason to believe Janine defeating my Second would be cause for celebration.”

“Right.” Blue straightens his back, feeling a mild ache on his ankles and waist, and does his best to consider the situation from Koga’s perspective. “So if you need me to talk to her… I mean, I’ve got ideas for what gyms should be more like, and would be happy to pitch her on it. But that’s no guarantee, so I’m guessing it’s not what you want. It also doesn’t sound like you expect me to get stronger than her anytime soon, to demoralize her or whatever.”

“If you are capable of becoming her equal, or better, and that demoralizes her, then I won’t consider that a failure on your part.”

Blue would call that cold, but… he gets it. “But you don’t think that’s likely.”

“No. You are a skilled trainer, but I judge Janine will still be your better for a while yet. That doesn’t mean you cannot provide a decent challenge to her, however, and I may be wrong about your potential. What matters is not whether you can, however; it’s whether she thinks you can.” Koga pours himself more tea, then offers it to Blue, who lets him refill his cup. “Especially if I make it clear I expect you to.”

Blue raises a brow, then finally gets it. “You’re going to make it seem like I’m your successor.”

Fuchsia’s gym leader nods. “I expect you to be working hard while here regardless. Combined with my public favor, I suspect she will quickly realize that you can, in fact, surpass her, and hope this will force her to reprioritize the path to Leadership itself. I want her to be so busy training her pokemon and others’, bonding with gym members, studying gym logistics, all the things it takes to become a Leader, that she has no time for anything else. Will you do this?”

“To be clear, you want me to lie about my intentions here? Make it seem like I am considering staying and becoming Leader?”

“Yes,” Koga says, no shame in his voice. “And if Janine focuses on her gym duties again, or you beat Janine in a pokemon battle even once, I will allow you to Challenge… for Mastery, of course, but also Membership, if your time here does change your mind.”

Blue smiles. It’s not quite the agreement and role he forged with Erika, but it’s unique and prestigious in its own way, and he’s got no objection to some deception for a good cause.

Also, this would make three secret agreements with three different Leaders. He may not be able to show them off, but it still feels as good as getting a badge when he repeats what he said to Sabrina: “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 99: Interlude XX – Change

Gifted.

It was a concept Natsume carried with her as close as her name for as long as she could remember. There was no “talk” about the gift, no explanation for what it was, what it meant. She learned about it the same way she did how to hold a spoon, by simple observation and gentle guidance. She learned how to bend the spoon the same way, around the time she was learning her letters. In their home, there was barely any talking at all; why use words, when sending and sharing feelings and notions was so much more direct?

Losing them was like losing parts of her mind. Learning to live without them was impossible without relearning how to learn.

She stayed, for a while, with a man who had a kind and perpetually worried face. She could feel that he cared for her, but it was abstract compared to her parents’ love, and laced with worry and grief. He took care of her, tried to encourage her to speak more, but he wasn’t like her. His mind was like a picture; her mental fingers touched it without being touched. It wasn’t what she needed.

Eventually someone came who was, and little by little she regrew around the parts that were missing, felt their absence without suffering their lack… though there was suffering, too, as she was made, little by little, to understand what she’d lost. The kind man, who she later understood was her father’s brother, held her many nights as she cried.

But still she barely spoke, making her wants and needs known through her gift. She pitied those who had to resort to speech for all their communication needs, felt no desire to use it herself. Every word felt like dragging meaning and feelings and thoughts from a deep pit, misshapen and painful. Each time she managed it felt like leaving her parents further behind. No one seemed to understand; even others like her were too immersed in the world of the ungifted, preoccupied by concepts of separation and privacy.

You cannot simply immerse yourself in another’s thoughts without asking,” her sensei explained, the words emphasized by a projected sense of support and patience. This was not their first conversation on the topic, but he never became upset with her. “Even asking is considered rude, and even if they say yes, they will not mean forever. If you keep trying, people will not want to be your friends.”

So? She asked without words, sending back her wariness of such people. Why would she want to be their friend, if she couldn’t understand them and they didn’t trust her?

The next session she was introduced to the empty people. A creature that looked like a man, but with nothing inside; who spoke without thought; who smiled without feelings.

It was all she could do not to run, screaming, from the room.

What kept her rooted in place was the utterly horrifying thought that perhaps the man was, in fact, a real person… and that the fault lay in her own gift. If the man was real and it couldn’t sense what he was feeling or thinking, how could she trust it to tell her what anyone really thought or felt?

How could she trust her memories of her parents’ minds, and what they shared with hers?

She’d pitied non-gifted, for not knowing. For having nothing but hope, some words, some gestures, to believe in their parents’ love. It seemed far sadder than her own losses, to never feel that love directly, know it as true as her own.

Once her own certainty was stripped from her, chaos reigned. Order was all that could save her, and so she threw herself into her gifted lessons, took every idea she was given and turned it around in her thoughts, examined it from every angle, and when her brain felt too small to hold it all she used paper, and when the paper too small she taught herself to type, and from there she had access to the whole of the world’s knowledge, sterile and abstract as it still seemed without a mind behind it.

She had little interest in other subjects, but some of the research involved psychology and history and math, and so she threw herself into learning those too, which involved learning still more things first. It was slow, and difficult, and she realized she needed a sensei for something other than her gift, and so, painfully, began practicing her speech.

Eventually, frustrated in part by the lack of others’ ability to communicate clearly, she developed a more direct way to transfer a concept from one mind to another. Her sensei was surprised, then delighted and proud. No one had done something like this before, apparently, and suddenly the way she was treated changed.

Before she had been considered slow and stupid and broken, because she didn’t talk, because she didn’t want to talk. Now people were interested in her, intrigued, excited. More gifted wanted to meet her, to experience what she could do. She was introduced to psychic pokemon minds, which felt even easier to communicate with, and lauded as a prodigy.

It wasn’t long after that before the man appeared.

He was another empty person, but his dark eyes still seemed to peer into her mind when he met her gaze and asked her what she wanted, and what she would do to get it. She answered honestly, and he told her about a special, private school for the gifted, one of his philanthropic projects that combined cutting edge research with an environment that fostered both personal and psychic growth.

She was only eight, but she agreed immediately, and after a couple conversations, her uncle did too. She said goodbye to her second home and went to her third with eyes forward.

She had to learn everything anyone knew about the gift, everything everyone knew, and if that wasn’t enough she’d learn more. She’d figure out how it works and how accurate it is and in the end she would know that the love her parents felt toward her was real.


Had it not been for the Hoenn incident, the battle for Cinnabar City would be the most frightening in Sabrina’s life.

Part of that is how unknown the stakes are; failing in Hoenn would end civilization on the island, perhaps the world, and while the danger posed by the shapeshifters doesn’t seem quite as obviously large, they still seem likely to change the world if left unchecked.

But that’s abstract, a fear for the lulls and space between breaths. In the moment, her old enemy chaos reigns once again.

Sabrina watches from atop her bronzong as the trainers fight below her, alert for another discrepancy among the minds of the wild pokemon attacking them. She senses one just as a raticate starts to turn into an ivysaur, and sends a psychic blast from Bronzong down on the imposter, keeping it disoriented until a nearby trainer can swap to a magmar and bathe it in flames.

But the distraction costs them when a sandslash, normal to Sabrina’s senses, emerges under the magmar, pulling it underground and out of withdraw reach. Sabrina quickly has her bronzong confuse the wild pokemon long enough for the suffocating magmar to counterattack, the glow visible through the soil for a moment. But even with the sandslash dead it struggles to breathe or dig its way free, and she quickly withdraws her mind rather than feel its suffocation, the trainer too busy fighting another wild to save it.

She sends a pulse of mental comfort and resolve to her, a holding-shared-grief-for-later, and then there are other threats to face. Sabrina sends out attack after attack through her bronzong for another minute, then guides it higher. The bell-shaped pokemon slowly rotates beneath her feet as it ascends, giving her a wider view of the battle.

The stampede is staggered, each wave coming from a different direction and composed of a varying mix of pokemon. The perimeter they’ve set up is between the city’s proximity sensors and the most dense portion of its suburban borders, as tightly knit as they could make it while leaving as few buildings unaccounted for as possible. All have been evacuated, but the property damage would still be substantial.

Luckily, with the whole island turned out and extra assistance from various gyms, there are enough people at hand to keep each other in line of sight. The dark makes it harder to coordinate which parts of the perimeter need extra help, but that’s what watchers like Sabrina are for.

“Another cluster heading east. Reduce to one trainer per ten meters, everyone else head there.”

“Two growlithe heading west, form a wall.”

“Trainers by the grocery store, weaker pokemon out first. If you’re out then rotate with others.”

There’s too much happening at once to stay on top of it all, and she alternates between going high enough to see the pools of light beyond the perimeter and low enough to help with the battles again, trying to keep her attention on the big picture. Every few minutes she wonders how the other sections are doing, if they’ve already broken or let some of the transforming pokemon through, before she pushes those thoughts away with long practice to focus on what’s in front of her.

Trust is hard for you. I understand. I’ll never be able to prove myself with my mind, but neither will most people in the world; there isn’t enough time to merge with them all. So you’ll have to learn to live with that uncertainty, if you want to be part of a society that trusts each other to try and keep everyone safe.”

They fail. Often.”

Yes. At many things. If people didn’t, trust wouldn’t be necessary.”

High again. “Incoming group of magmar, prepare for a few changers among them!”

Low again as a trainer is killed to disorient the group of identical magmar until others can catch them.

High again to scan the line and say, “Another mixed wave, return to standard.”

Back to low, then high, again and again, until her bronzong is moving slower with exhaustion and the trainers are down to their last few healthy pokemon when she finally sees nothing coming in the furthest lights.

“I think we’ve got a breather,” she says as she guides her pokemon down to settle on the roof of a tourist shop. “Rest up and heal, prioritize Water types.”

She hops off her mount, legs a little wobbly, and sprays some ether onto its metal body. The dim light makes it hard to tell how quickly it’s absorbed, but she can sense when Bronzong’s thoughts quicken and clear. Its body is too alien to feel as though it’s her own, but she can still sense the thrum of energy that goes through it, and decides to give it a minute of real rest rather than immediately climbing back up to start patrolling again..

She uses that time to meditate, slipping quickly and neatly into the calm, quiet place that’s always waiting for her inside, when she looks for it. For some it’s a grassy field, for others it’s their bedroom, but for her it will always be a memory more than a place; an immersed and complete sense of love between her parents and her.

Sometimes, particularly when she was younger, she would wonder if she only imagined it. But when she’s reliving it, it feels as real as anything.

Her muscles begin to relax, and her racing heart is just beginning to slow when her phone chimes an alert for a high priority call and kicks it back into high gear. She lets out a frustrated sound and quickly opens a new channel on her earpiece. “Yes?”

“Hey Sabrina. Word from the boss.”

Archer. The last time she spoke to the administrator it had been to browbeat him for the way his subordinates in the Casino started killing civilians who fell into it; Giovanni said he already dressed him down, but she felt that one of her students nearly getting killed also gave her the right, and she didn’t have much sympathy over the fact that he lost a number of people he worked with daily there, and nearly died himself.

Just thinking about what happened that night brings up a flash of anger, but she controls it with long practice. She doesn’t know everything Giovanni has going on around the region and beyond it, but he’d assured her that Tahu was helping weed out the truly dangerous renegades, rather than just those who were unlucky or made mistakes.

She didn’t touch base with Giovanni before coming to the island, but he would know this is where she’s needed, just as she knows he’s likely been busy coordinating his people to learn as much as they could about what’s happening however possible. Having one of his top administrators reach out to her at a time like this is like having him reach out directly, given how busy they both are.

“Is everyone at the mansion safe?”

“For now.” She lets out a breath, but the next words make her suck it in again. “The pokemon can imitate humans, but not clothing, and according to Naoto they don’t get much smarter.”

Sabrina tries to control her expression before remembering that there’s no one around. If Naoto has access to one of the new pokemon, and they’ve already been experimenting with them… “Archer, was this us?”

“Don’t know any more than you. Boss wanted to coordinate letting the secret out ASAP.”

She grits her teeth, then lets another long breath out. Now isn’t the time to pursue this, the priority has to be getting the information out. It wouldn’t be the first time they had to invent a reason for her to know something Giovanni deemed valuable to the public, but it would be tricky in a situation with such a new threat, particularly since all her movements on the island have been fairly public… unless… “There’s a ‘rescue’ planned?”

“Yep, a guy named Kota is riding to your part of the perimeter on a gogoat.”

Sabrina knows Kota; most of the lab workers would only leave the grounds for vacations, but Kota’s a Cinnabar native, and would regularly travel to the island’s various towns or the city on errands. When she first visited the lab a decade ago he was already in his mid-40s, and she’s worried about someone his age pulling a stunt like this.

But after a moment’s thought it’s obvious why they chose him. A ruse like this would shine the spotlight on whoever’s involved for a bit, and they’d want to keep scrutiny off everyone else at the mansion and lab. So she just says “I’m on it” and hops onto her bronzong, hoping another wave doesn’t arrive meanwhile.

Luckily her section of the perimeter is spared, and after a few minutes she spots Kota riding up the main street. She sets down in his path, far enough that they won’t be seen by the defenders on the perimeter, and he slows to a stop beside her.

“Good to see you again, Sabrina,” Kota says with a wan smile as he takes his cap off and scratches his short white hair. “You know the plan?”

They’ve never exchanged more than a dozen words, but the familiarity doesn’t bother her; Kota was never one for formalities or titles, and even acts like Giovanni and he are old friends. “The basic gist. You have one, then?”

He pats a pokeball on his hip. “Rhea caught it. They did what experiments they could on short notice, took samples, all that.”

“What do we know?” How much she’d be able to find a reason to share is a different matter, but it’ll help to learn as much as possible. Plus, she’s curious.

“They can transform once they touch something, and they can transform into people, but they don’t get smarter, just stare and smile and babble a bit. They tried teaching it basic language, but nothing worked, and Naoto said it’s basically still a pokemon.”

“Basically?”

“He said it’s also kind of like a baby, but…” Kota shrugs. “Seemed uncomfortable, didn’t want to talk about it much.”

Kota doesn’t seem uncomfortable, which is interesting given it’s presumably him that it copied, or soon will, but since he’s a deft hand at psychic shielding she can’t tell how much of his calm is a mask. “How long can they hold a form?”

“Not sure. Once this one pulled at its restraints a few times it transformed back into the jelly and slipped out of them. Also, there’s almost no cooldown on switching, a few seconds, maybe.”

“Does it have to switch once it touches something new?”

“Ah, no, they tried forcing them to transform into weaker pokemon. Mostly didn’t take, though the boss said they might be ‘judging by size or something like it,’ which, yeah, we only used stuff like caterpie and rattata. There’s testing, and there’s being stupid, am I right?”

Sabrina absently nods, mind already racing through all she’s learned and what she can do with it. “Let’s keep this simple, then. One breaks through as some kind of flier, dives at you. Transforms, doesn’t seem like a threat right away, gives you time to call it in. Less coincidence of me finding you, and I’ll have an excuse to merge with it while it’s in human shape.”

“Sure thing, just tell me when and where. Oh, and Naoto did say if you plan to merge with it to warn you that it can be, ah, ‘unsettling’ is the word he used. Like I said, he seemed uncomfortable talking about it.”

“And you? Did you get the chance to merge with it?”

“Oh, sure, but I’m not in the same class as you two, you know. All I got was surface stuff.”

She just nods, unsure how to react to Naoto’s warning. On the one hand, she’s had much more experience merging with pokemon than he has. On the other, he knows that, and he warned her anyway. “There are buildings people are using to act as spotters nearby. You have a flier?”

“Nope, scared of heights,” he says matter-of-factly. “The roof of that motel isn’t too high though, and I think I can make it up there from the inside.”

Sabrina follows his gaze, worried about cameras but also feeling an itch to get back to the perimeter before another wave hits. “Make sure there’s no surveillance up there, and if there are then find another place nearby.”

“Not my first mission, girl.” When Sabrina turns back to him in surprise, he just winks. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll listen in on the chatter, and when the next wave starts to quiet I’ll call out. Work for you?”

She nods, more amused than chastened. “Works for me.”

“Righto. C’mon boy.” He squeezes his thighs and tugs on its reins to guide it toward the motel, and Sabrina guides her bronzong up and toward the perimeter. She looks back in time to see Kota withdraw his gogoat at the motel entrance, then walk inside.

She spends the next few minutes floating along the perimeter, occasionally touching down to check in on trainers and make sure everyone is okay. She trusts most to have called for support if they weren’t, but it also helps improve morale, and she can tell by the intermittent brushes with the many minds below her that tonight morale is in high demand.

She reaches one end of her section before doubling back, listening as new waves hit the other parts of the city perimeter. By the time she reaches the opposite end her people have spread out twice to cover new gaps in other sections. “Command, my line’s looking pretty thin,” she says after switching channels. “We should retreat to close up more.”

“Copy that, Sabrina, we’ll put out the order as soon as the latest wave hitting the western perimeter is over.”

And if we get hit meanwhile? “Understood.” She swaps back to her local frequency and tries to think of ways to plug the gaps, but every alternative to the straight line she considers would have the opposite effect, or leave other parts randomly exposed…

Ten minutes later another alert goes out, and this one is headed between her section and the one to its west, which is being headed by Ariya. Cerulean Gym’s second is already in the thick of it when Sabrina arrives, and the sight of the oncoming pokemon through the pools of light outside the perimeter makes her swear under her breath, heart hammering despite her efforts to focus on deep, steady breaths.

It looks like the whole island is coming at them.

“Command, we need support now. There’s no way my people will be able to keep this wave from breaking through!”

“Local sectors are moving in to reinforce now.”

Sabrina doesn’t respond, already heading off the attack by landing between two trainers and summoning every pokemon on her belt: kadabra, barrierd, xatu, hypno, swoobat. Nothing too strong, nothing that would be disastrous if turned against them, but hopefully enough to buy them some time… particularly with her merging with them all at once.

The experiments with exeggcute that led to Red’s new partition had other effects for her and her people; each time they practiced merging with the exeggcute together, it became easier to do alone, and that in turn made it easier to merge with multiple other pokemon at once.

She links with each mind one at a time, incorporating their thoughts without merging senses, which feels strange to do with so many relatively smart pokemon, like having six sets of awareness without six sets of senses to feed them information. It’s not her preferred way to do battle, but she can’t handle even three full mergers at once, let alone six, and all she needs them to do is synchronise their actions.

Only a few seconds have passed since she summoned her team, but the first pokemon in the wave are nearly in striking range. REFLECT, she sends, and a dome of force propels a leaping raticate back through the air. LIGHT SCREEN, and the pokemon around her team are coated in a shimmer, the closest thing that humans can detect of what Mazda sees.

The rest crash into the barrier, some immediately spilling around while others try to crawl under. She has her bronzong snipe those while leaving the rest to the other trainers, particularly Ariya, whose pokemon surgically focus on taking out the fire types before they get too close.

For the third time today at least, Sabrina wishes she had her strongest pokemon with her. Not just for their power, but for the familiarity of their minds, the ease of impulse and response and reaction that all blends nearly seamlessly together.

But she has to make do with pokemon from her 4-badge teams, and so the barriers start to falter after just a dozen seconds. She disconnects from her kadabra just before he gets attacked, trusting him to defend himself or die trying, and instead focuses on finding the not-right minds, the doubled-instincts that give away the transforming pokemon.

There, and there, and a third under…

She almost misses the one above, a simple pidgey that flies lower to the ground than any normal one would. It’s passed the perimeter and almost out of range before bronzong slaps it down so hard its wings break, and she knows with resigned certainty that others will have made it past where she’s not as close, let alone other parts of the perimeter without powerful gifted.

Trust them, even though some will fail. If you crave certainty so much, then be certain, but certain in different things; that they will fail your trust, that you will fail your trust, but also that you will only ultimately succeed if you trust them anyway. Not individuals who betray you, but the masses who haven’t, yet, and the ones who you think might have.

Words that helped her when she was young and in despair. Words that helped her make sense of Rei’s betrayal, and see past it to continue working with her in some mutually beneficial fashion. Words she hoped would help Mazda, when they felt even more isolated than she ever did.

They were enough for her. Clearly they weren’t for Mazda.

“Pidgey on the ground behind us,” she calls out. “It’s a transformer, capture it before it shifts!” She can already feel its thoughts changing, the second layer of instincts melting away. She needs to go capture it, before it gets away—

Its thoughts suddenly vanish, and she almost turns around in alarm and surprise—did it transform into a Dark pokemon?—before someone calls out, “I got it!” and she realizes no, it was just a dark trainer doing as she asked, keeping her and Ariya free to focus on the battle in front of them.

She’s lost two of her pokemon now, but thankfully she’s been able to single out the transformers enough that none of them got copied. A scream of pain to her far left indicates that not everyone was so lucky, or maybe they’re just breaking through on the strength of the stampede alone; Ariya leaves to attend to it, and Sabrina realizes she’s been down on the ground too long, lost sight of the overall battle.

A few more precious seconds spent stabilizing the area, then she withdraws her pokemon (even the dead ones, in case the enemy can transform from corpses, no one’s tested that yet as far as she knows) and lifts off again. The perimeter seems secure, though it’s thinner where the scream came from, and she urges her bronzong in that direction despite its renewed weariness.

Later, she wordlessly promises through her own growing fatigue. Rest later.

Bronzong’s thrum beneath her is mournful, but it continues on.

Once Ariya’s section is stabilized Sabrina returns to hers, and though it was hit less directly, she ends up losing three more trainers before the wave is done. She only sees one of them fall, the rest just candles in the sea of minds that get snuffed out.

The gaps between each of them have grown to the point that most are exhausted running back and forth to any area new clusters approach, and when she finally feels safe enough to call for rest, a few of the trainers sag into sitting or kneeling positions before they start summoning their pokemon to let them rest and heal too.

Sabrina almost forgets Kota in her own desire to be still a minute, but his voice on the general channel snaps her back to attention. “Hey, I’ve got one here! On the motel roo-SHIT!”

Despite knowing it’s an act, she feels a kick of adrenaline as she commands Bronzong back into the air. “I’m on my way,” she barks on the open channel. “Everyone else hold position!”

Even expecting it, the sight of the extra Kota on the roof beside the real one is disturbing, though she’s not sure if it would be more or less so if he wasn’t naked. Its expression sends a deep unease down her spine to settle in her stomach, and its thoughts are a strange mix of instinctual impulses to search and touch things, and… simply put, arousal, or rather, searching for things that would be mateable.

She doesn’t waste words once she arrives, simply hopping off her bronzong when it gets close enough and unclipping a great ball from her belt before realizing that it wouldn’t work.

She freezes, long enough for the copied Kota to turn to her, eyes wide and mouth flapping open and closed, and she can faintly hear the wet babbling sounds it makes as it takes a step toward her, arms reaching.

Sabrina immediately takes a step back and cuts her mental link from it, almost sending an impulse to her bronzong to attack it before remembering that this wouldn’t work either. We should have thought of this, we were too distracted—

The real Kota suddenly steps up to the copy with a folding chair and slams it over the head with a crack.

Sabrina jumps, and it takes a moment to remind herself that it’s not a person, as evidenced by its reaction; rather than crumple or fall, the copied Kota sways for a moment, skull visibly dented as blood starts pouring down its neck. Its expression goes from a mindless smile to a slack puzzlement, then screws up and puckers until it looks alarmingly close to bursting into tears.

Until Kota smashes the chair down again, and this time it collapses into a pile of purple goo about as high as her knees and wide as a coffee table. Sabrina stares at it, then quickly holds the ball out toward the goo until she hears the ping, and throws.

She half expects the greatball to get stuck in the gelatinous form, but instead it bounces off, sending a ripple through it for the brief moment before it all disappears in a flash.

She looks up at Kota, who’s examining the chair, expression calm. The blood that was on it a moment ago has turned into a cloudy pink stain that’s flaking off even as she watches.

“Was worried I dented it,” he says matter-of-factly as he sets it down. “So, what did it feel like? The inside of its head, I mean.”

She feels her neck grow warm and climbs back onto her bronzong. “I have to get back.” As soon as the bronzong is in the air, she clicks through each channel to get a sense of what’s happening and hears—

“—too big,” Taira says. “Scouts say this is the final wave, but it’ll be bigger than the rest.”

“If they hit us, we’ll collapse,” Misty says, voice frank. “We weren’t prepared to take on the whole island.”

“Us too,” Sabrina adds. “My trainers struggled with the last wave, and I’m sure some have been getting through.”

“Bring the hammer down,”Blaine says.

“Leader, are you sure—”

“Nearly. All points, confirm no sightings of long-range transformation.”

“None,” Sabrina says. “Contact only.”

“Same here”

“And here.”

The confirmations come from every sector, and finally Blaine says, “Good enough.”

“Understood,” Taira says, voice crisp. “Stand by for aerial bombardment.”

Sabrina feels a mix of relief and dread, and switches to the local channel.”Hold fast everyone. Help is on the way.”

They wait together in the dark, the wind swirling her hair around her face as her gaze stays on the distance, straining to make out any sign of movement. If the horde comes first… if the support doesn’t make it in time… everyone below her would likely die. And so would she, if she commits herself to helping.

Trust them anyway.

The first sign are the flashes of light. She turns to see lines of energy illuminating the sky, raining death down in blooms of yellow and orange. More and more of them umbrella up, and before she can register how close they’re getting, a trio of dragonite fly by so fast that they strip leaves from trees.

A moment later the Draco Meteors start to land closer by, the explosions demolishing houses and stores… and pokemon by the dozen. Some of the explosions are in thick enough clusters of pokemon that she can make out the survivors at the edges who scatter in every direction.

A trio of salamence goes by next, and then another three dragonite. By the time the last explosion fades, Sabrina has remembered to breathe, and it’s in relief as much as anything, even as she prepares to fight, because now that no dragonite spontaneously arose from the wilds she knows they’ll be okay.

The remnants of the stampede are far fewer, and less coordinated than before, and are repelled without much difficulty. Once it’s all over, Sabrina informs command that she’s caught one of the new pokemon and will give a debrief soon.

Once that’s done, she uses her secure line to Shaw.

“Something go wrong with Kota?” he asks by way of hello.

His voice sounds rougher than usual, but as he dispensed with pleasantries she decides to get to the point too. “No. What’s going on over there, Shaw?”

He pauses a moment. “You talk to the boss?”

“He’s busy.” Probably. “I’m on my way, just thought I’d ask first.”

“Might not be a good idea.”

“I won’t be missed—”

“No, I mean your teleport point might be over rubble right now.”

Sabrina pauses, surprise mixing with her growing anger. “This was us, then?”

“What? No. Not on purpose, at least.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll teleport elsewhere and fly over.”

He sighs, says “Right,” and ends the call, which surprises Sabrina. Despite her confident words, she’d expected more pushback, and technically Shaw outranks her when it comes to the mansion and lab.

Your teleport point might be over rubble.

She shakes her head, then starts searching for a working PC to refill her belt. She also calls Naoto, hoping her fellow gifted will fill her in along the way.


The first thing she notices at the mansion are the hooded light posts set up around the new, massive, rubble filled hole where most of it used to be.

That’s the second thing she notices.

The posts keep the area illuminated without making a noticeable glare from a distance, allowing those stationed around it to remain vigilant for new signs of the transforming pokemon. There are precious few non-dark, non-psychic people left on-site, but Sabrina can sense the worry threading through their thoughts as she searches for Shaw.

She finds him and the rest of the remaining mansion residents set up in a series of storage structures, each just barely large enough to accomodate the people or things in them.

“Expect a massive hunt over all of Cinnabar,” Zach says. “The Rangers were talking about dividing the island up into square-kilometers for thorough searches of any nests.”

Shaw grimaces, flexing the fingers of one hand in a way that makes it clear it’s the one he temporarily lost. The doctors weren’t able to reattach his eye, apparently, but while the older man isn’t particularly handsome, the eyepatch does add a dashing flair to his strong, square features. Or maybe she’s just looking for bright spots; the news of what happened here tonight still leaves her feeling off-balance, her earlier anger evaporated. “Even pulling strings, there’s a lot of risk someone outside the know will be assigned the land containing the mansion.”

“Depends how they divide things up,” Sabrina says as she steps forward, the others making room for her. “Gym members and rangers will make up most of the search parties. Between Erika, Blaine, Giovanni and I, we can probably get this sector.”

“Probably isn’t good enough, but we’ll hope for that and plan for failure.” He studies her a moment. “Is there something else you needed here, Leader?”

Using her title means he’s pissed with her, or just feeling in need of distance. She can understand, given the night he’s had. “No. I’m just… I wanted to see it.” It sounds so frivolous, said out loud, but she spent ten years traveling back and forth to the island, and it’s hard to wrap her head around it all just being… gone. Not just in disrepair, temporarily vacated, but wiped out, nothing but the ruined remains of the mansion above crushed rock and concrete…

Shaw seems to understand, however, and simply nods. “Don’t worry, we’ll leave someone here for it, just in case it comes back.”

Mazda wasn’t on her mind just then, and she stares at him, unsure what he meant by the comment. She and Shaw were never close; her own familiarity with Mazda saw to that. She understands it, understands his professional opposition and distrust of her, but this seemed almost cruel.

Unless it wasn’t meant to be.

Trust them anyway.

Sabrina forces herself to nod back and step away, walking until she finds herself at the edge of the rubble. Once she’s there, facing the hard reality of what happened and what it means for the future, she realizes that some part of her really held out hope that, somehow, things might go back to the way they were… or maybe, a better way. That she and Mazda could move freely about together, and travel back to the mansion or lab once in a while, for old times’ sake.

As she lets the last of the fear and tension of the night’s battles go, weariness and sadness take their place, and the memories start to wash over her. The first time Mazda flew. The first time they walked out into the sunlight, hand holding hers, and cried, as human as any of them. The first time she named them, and their gratitude and fascination at having a name rather than a label. Their fear and anger and grief, when Dr. Fuji left. Their pain at being stuck for so long in one place, only accessing the wider world through memories and screens.

The first time they spoke together, mind to mind. How thrilled and nervous she was, how in awe of the strange creature that could only communicate through psychic connection.

The kinship she felt, for this being that was so like her younger self.

How much of that was a lie?

She closes her eyes against the tears until the burn fades. She can’t know when Mazda first learned how to hide his true feelings, but she has reasonable guesses. Sometime after his desperate threats, almost certainly. Sometime before their last meeting, obviously, unless he formulated his entire escape plan and decided to go through with it spur-of-the-moment, once the opportunity presented itself.

Why didn’t you trust me?

A stupid question, but one she can’t help thinking time and again. The more she’s relived those final months, the more she thinks Mazda developed the ability to lie around the time they became more optimistic about the future, more positive in general. At the time she thought it was just the increased freedom the suit provided them, the increased time spent outside, the proof that the lab was, little by little, working toward their freedom.

But of course that’s exactly when such a ruse would be most beneficial to begin. She thinks everything that came before was genuine, but she also wants to believe it, and she knows better than to put too much trust into such a pleasant theory. For all she knows, Mazda was never her friend at all.

Trust them anyway…


It takes three days to do a complete, sector by sector sweep of the island. Three days of teleporting to Cinnabar as soon as the sun rises, then back home after a nightly debrief. Once again she suspends all her duties and classes to attend to the emergency, and tries not to think of all the work that’s continuing to pile up without her. At least she has a public excuse this time.

They do manage to have Erika’s gym cover the sector of the mountain with the mansion on it, which the Leader personally oversees and reports finding nothing on. Sabrina could tell Erika had questions about it, but they’re all in the dark about some things.

Two more nests are found, but after the last section of the island is swept and no new outbreaks of the transforming pokemon are found, they feel confident that, for now at least, the situation isn’t about to explode. The island stays on high vigilance, however, and a region-wide League meeting is scheduled to discuss next steps.

They’re rare enough that Sabrina only remembers it happening once in her past six years as the head of Saffron. All eight Gym Leaders are present, along with Champion Lance, Ranger General Taira, and Professors Elm and Oak. The latter looks simultaneously more tired than he did at the Lavender Tower debrief, and more excited. She can sense it more than see it, a buzzing energy that lifts her own spirits and sharpens her focus, but he has a spring in his step as he and Elm set up the computer and projector for his presentation. Without any Seconds, assistants, or other staff in the room it feels almost empty compared to how often each of them has their own people around.

“Hello everyone,” he says once everything is done, and what little chatter there is between Brock, Misty, and Erika fades. “Since it will get annoying to keep referring to the new pokemon without a name, the first order of business is semantic.” He sighs. “As usual, the race began on the net before anyone even fully knew what we were naming, but on the bright side the most popular ones aren’t too bad.” He clicks on the first slide, which shows trendlines for a dozen different words on the net. “As of now the leading three are ‘metamorph,’ ‘metamon,’ and ‘ditto.’ That last one is pulling ahead, so I’m going to abuse my power over this meeting and try to normalize my own preference.”

A light chuckle makes its way around the room as the Professor clicks to the next slide, which is labeled “Metamon Biology.”

“Metamon are, in almost every way, a defiance of classification. Their entire bodies appear to be made up of cells that follow basic instincts: copy, mate, feed, reproduce, and that last part is different from the second. But rather than each cell being independent, they make up individual organisms; one piece of a metamon that gets cut off will wither and die, though we’re not entirely sure why, as they don’t have a circulatory system or consistent organs that would indicate why separation would be deadly.”

“But the reports say they reproduce by separating bits of themselves,” Lance says, brow furrowed. “What makes those bits different?”

“Still unknown. It’s not just lack of organs that make them a mystery; their bodies seem to be made up of stem-cells that they can repurpose at will once they’ve sampled the DNA of another living organism, but that alone is an insufficient explanation for how they can so precisely mimic their targets. When transforming into, say, a blastoise, parts of them simply liquify into something that resembles water as close as their biology will allow, ready to be weaponized through their attacks. This costs them mass, of course, but seems to have no effect on their overall health.”

“Where did they come from?” Giovanni asks. “Not geographically, I know we’re still searching through those caves, but do we have any idea what substance they arose from?”

“None,” the Professor says, and sighs. “Their own DNA is an absurd, impossible, chaotic mess that we’re still trying to understand, with fragments of plant, mammal, reptilian, avian, and even mineral life forms. At first we thought that was just a result of their transformations, but even freshly born metamon are like that… though the parent may be passing the accumulated DNA of its transformations down.”

“The science of all this is fascinating,” Koga says, sounding sincere. “But I hope you will forgive me moving to other matters, such as the likelihood that this pokemon will be trainable.”

The Professor runs a hand through his hair. “We’ve only had a couple days, but what we’ve confirmed is that we’ve found a true nightmare scenario, worse than falinks and even exeggcute. These things have one mind, such as it is, but their copied form introduces an entirely new set of instincts that their original ones get channeled through. There’s little enough for the training programs to build on when they’re in their basic form, and trying to get them to retain it once they transform is going to take a while.”

“But it’s possible,” Sabrina says, not quite a question.

“I’m not ready to declare it impossible, but it would take a major breakthrough to do it anytime soon. Luckily Bill has grown fascinated by the challenge, but he said it’s too soon to give estimates… which, knowing him, means it’s on the order of months at least.”

“Containment,” Blaine says, voice hard. “I want my island back. What do we need to do?”

“Catch them all,” Oak says, face devoid of humor. “A single metamon could potentially start duplicating if it can find a mate, though thankfully not just any mate will do, which is why we have some chance of actually doing it.”

“Meaning?”

“Remember what I said about mating and reproduction being different; from the two small nests we found in the wild, we can confirm that the eggs created by the copied pokemon appear to create normal children of the species the metamon mated with. Their own reproduction only occurs afterward, in a parasitic process of separating a portion of themselves into the eggs to absorb the embryo and grow into a new metamon.”

“So they can only reproduce if they mate with egg-laying species?” Erika asks.

“That’s our current guess, though they can mate with others.” He clears his throat. “In fact, when placed in a contained habitat with a single pokemon, as long as no other pokemon of the opposite gender were around, the metamon first copied the pokemon, then transformed into the opposite gender of the same species.”

The room is silent for a moment before Misty mutters, “The net’s going to have a field day with that one.”

“Say again, Misty?” Lance asks from the other side of the table.

“Just thinking of the possibilities, Champion.”

A chuckle works its way through half the room, and Professor Elm raises a hand. “Just to clarify, they can probably be impregnated or impregnate non-egg-laying species as well. But if so, their transformation almost certainly keeps any children from coming to term, which is why laying fertilized eggs would be their fastest method to duplication.”

Ranger General Taira leans forward, face thoughtful. “There are plenty of those, to be sure. While obviously a threat to the local wildlife, this species represents boundless potential opportunity. The implications for breeding alone… under careful monitoring and observation, the destructive post-mating behavior could be interrupted such that each ditto—sorry, Professor, metamon—doubles our breeding stock for rare pokemon.”

“Good as that is, the real prize would be using these things against legendaries,” Erika says. “They’re equalizers the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

The room is quiet again, but Sabrina doesn’t detect any real surprise this time. No one in the room would be where they are if they weren’t the sort that would already have considered it.

“It would be hard to get one close enough to touch a Stormbringer or Beast,” Misty muses. “But the Titans…”

“Surely they couldn’t become that bi—”

Blaine claps his hands together, and everyone turns back toward him. “Doesn’t matter. Too dangerous without knowing how long they can stay transformed and whether they copy abilities like Pressure.”

“Aren’t they weaker than the copied pokemon, though?” Misty asks. “Can we confirm that yet?”

“We can,” Professor Oak says. “And reasonably predict it. They retain the same mass when they transform, and so copies of smaller pokemon are more likely to be tougher than the original, while larger pokemon are less so, sometimes drastically less. A copied snorlax collapsed after a single hit that barely fazed the original.”

“But they can obviously mimic the properties of other pokemon,” Koga says. “Fire, electricity, claws as sharp as any genuine pokemon. A group, all wielding these metamon, might be able to take a titan down.”

Surge stirs. “If their mass stays the same no matter how big they get, they’ll be able to be returned to their ball, and if the transformations persist… you’ll have trainers with legends on their belts.”

“Leaders and Elites, surely,” Brock says, brow furrowed.

“You think that will matter to their neighbors once those legends are used to expand their borders?”

“Gentlemen,” Erika says before Brock can respond. “While this debate is arguably long overdue, perhaps we should table it until we have a better idea what we’re dealing with. If these metamon can transform into pokemon that powerful, and they can persist in that form for long, then we should definitely have that conversation, but meanwhile there are other things we need to discuss.”

“One in particular,” Blaine says. “Had my people check outposts all over the island, spotters, ranger cams, looked over everything. Unown were spotted flying patterns near the caves a week ago.”

“Shit,” Misty mutters.

“Experiments are still being done in controlled settings,” Professor Oak adds. “But combined with what Wallace reported after Hoenn, at this point the odds of coincidence are shrinking.”

“What experiments? Where?”

“Independent, mostly. The What Comes Next initiative has been bearing fruit, or rather in this case, has grown branches from which fruit can grow. The researcher that assisted in Lavender, Artem, took it upon himself to study an unown Red purchased in isolation with objects for weeks at a time.”

“So far there has been no effect,” Elm says. “But this kickstarted a community effort; people have been collecting different number of unown with a variety of objects to see if any of them result in abiogenesis, and if so how many were required, what sorts of objects, how long it took…”

Blaine frowns. “Even if none do, it would not disprove the hypothesis.”

“Worse,” Giovanni says. “If certain letters are needed, there will be millions of combinations untested. If letters relate to objects, billions. If environments outside the lab are needed—”

“—it’s even worse than that,” Oak interjects, voice wry. “Maybe only wild unown can do it, and even with the right combination of letters and objects we won’t see anything. All that is why no lab could justify such an expensive and time consuming line of research, not while being thorough. But people are doing it anyway, because it’s important, and someone has to, just in case.”

There’s a contemplative silence, and then Erika stirs. “A bounty. Collectively paid by multiple institutions, for the first individual or group that demonstrates it with sufficiently scientific documentation.”

“Hmph.” Blaine shakes his head. “Less a bounty and more a lottery.”

“And yet it will encourage more to try, at no cost if none succeeds.”

“It’s a good idea,” Elm says. “Though we should be cautious not to incentivize it too much, and draw excessive time and effort away from more promising avenues.”

“Something that can be decided later, by those with the knowledge and interest,” Lance says. It’s the first time the Champion speaks besides his question to Misty, and his strong voice always takes Sabrina by surprise for how deep it is. His gaze sweeps the room before he adds, “Assuming it’s allowed at all.”

A third silence, contemplative, approving, surprised, disapproving, a medley of subtle undercurrents combined with each. She can feel Professor Oak struggling to hold himself silent, though his face has gone blank.

No one else speaks, either out of deference or curiosity, and after a moment the Champion continues. “With respect to the Rangers’ ethos,” he nods at Taira, “by my perspective the world has too many pokemon in it already. The ability to purposefully create more could lead to massive destabilization, particularly if any of them lead to the creation of new pokemon as strong as legendaries. Hoenn should stand as a reminder, as Giovanni said afterward, of our fragility.”

The words are delivered well, but underneath it there’s something pained and angry. Sabrina wonders if any of the others suspect just how much their Champion has been struggling with his helplessness in Hoenn. She knows others there that day feel some portion of it too, herself included, but not like Lance.

It cracked something in him. Resulted in something other than change or growth, something destabilizing.

She’s no therapist, but she recognizes it from her own feelings ever since she learned that Mazda left.

For now he’s hiding it as well as she is, however, and so she hasn’t mentioned it. If another few months pass and he doesn’t seem to be improving, she will. Maybe visit Steven and Cynthia, get a sense for how they’ve been.

“I agree with your caution,” Taira says. “While our mission includes the protection of pokemon ecosystems, few rangers are happy when new species arise, as they tend to destabilize habitats until some new equilibrium is reached. That said, knowledge is power, and we don’t like being surprised either, as happened in Lavender Tower. If we knew for sure that wild unown can create new species, it would make sense to put effort and resources into tracking their movements, maybe disrupting swarms.”

“Won’t matter if we disrupt them in the wild while people are churning new pokemon out in labs,” Surge says. “The habitats will be safe, sure; up until a region uses it to expand their territory or something breaks free.”

Sabrina doesn’t look at Giovanni, though she badly wants to know what his expression is. Probably blank, or thoughtful, but she still itches for a glimpse, however misleading, into his true self.

“It’ll make little difference if we disrupt them within our regions if they’re still creating new mons out in the wild,” Misty says. “Assuming the Hoenn incident is what ‘woke’ them, we need to figure out how to put them back to sleep.”

The fourth silence, and this one goes on the longest. Lance’s expression is thoughtful, and when he looks at Professors Oak and Elm, he sighs. “I imagine you have things to say.”

“Only,” Professor Oak begins, then pauses, tone thoughtful. “Only that it would be a mistake to believe that if we do not pursue this knowledge, no one will.”

Professor Elm nods, but Giovanni shakes his head.

“It’s another clock,” he says, voice dull. As always Sabrina isn’t sure how much of what he shows is what he wants to show, but news of Mazda’s escape was the only time she heard his tone hold such… defeat. “Another race against time, and each other. Sam, what if this is it? Not the legendaries, not the myths, not even these new transformers. If unown are the source, or close enough to be the same, and we let that power out into anyone’s hands… it would be a new age, beyond anything we could predict. We haven’t even found the tools to survive this one, and you would have us leap into another before we even know what it would mean?”

Professor Oak has listened with brow furrowed as he watched Giovanni. Now he clasps his hands, staring down at them. “And you propose we study them in secret first? Look before we leap, or slide, into that new age?”

“I propose we not give a power to everyone that is beyond anyone’s ability to predict.”

“Some might have said the same of pokeballs.”

“And for all the lives they’ve saved, uncounted more might never live if we fumble now.”

Sabrina listens quietly, as fascinated as anyone in the room. This is the closest she’s seen Giovanni come to justifying his methods in public, not counting that sufficiently vague What Comes Next video.

“And who would lead this secret research?” Sam asks, sounding genuinely curious.

But Sabrina senses something more.

He knows.

No, he suspects… something. She can’t tell more without a merger, but Misty’s in the room, and she’s not one of theirs.

Giovanni doesn’t need any warning from her, however. “The League. They’re the only ones who are trusted enough by the public, and who might take things slow enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Everyone looks to Lance, whose gaze is distant. She can sense him dipping further into the memory of Hoenn that ever hovers in the back of his mind.

He shakes it off with a shake of his head. “For now, we have to focus on Cinnabar. Further research into the unown will be halted until we have a more firm plan on what it might lead to.”

Various people look disappointed or relieved, but before anyone can say otherwise Lance turns to Blaine. “Let’s go over our plans to secure Cinnabar, and track if any of the new species has left the island…”

Sabrina listens with only half an ear, thoughts on the argument Giovanni made. Keeping dangerous knowledge secret is what he’s worked so hard for, but all the while he’s tried to, carefully, use it for good.

And he has. Inventions through his collaboration with Bill and Silph, secret as those are and rocky as the latter has become lately. Research that’s been leaked from dangerous methods, made clean by independent, “lucky” breakthroughs. Targeted interventions around the region, putting people where they need to be, rehabilitating renegades…

But they’ve also resulted in the deaths beneath the casino, and probably more. She suspects he had some hand in the Hoenn incident, though she knows(?) he also genuinely tried to stop it. And Mazda…

She can’t regret that they exist. And any blame for how things ended were as much to do with her as Giovanni. She should have done more, showed more trust, argued more on their behalf…

Sabrina’s gaze stays on Giovanni as he listens, also seemingly distracted, to the containment plans. Sooner or later they would have to reveal the secrets Red shared with her, and she wouldn’t be able to hide behind the fact that Giovanni told her it was the right thing to do.

She has to be able to believe it herself, argue it herself, and if necessary, reflect back his own words: Trust them anyway.


Once all is said and done on Cinnabar, she heads back to her Gym to see that Tetsuo and Keiji have managed her schedule for her, bless them both. She thanks them sincerely, reminds herself to give both another raise, and goes to her first meeting of the day.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Oak.”

“Good evening, Leader. How was Cinnabar?”

His voice is a mix of sympathetic and fascinated and frustrated, and she smiles despite herself. “I was wondering if you would show up, actually. Riding your arcanine, maybe trailing an army of extra recruits.”

Blue shrugs, looking both embarrassed and pleased. “We were in the middle of celebrating Leaf’s birthday when the alerts went out. Ended up crowding around the TV to watch the battle for the city, spent the night stressing and worrying about what would happen next. Wanted to help, of course, but Zephyr isn’t ready to fly that far, and all the commercial transport was busy.”

She nods. “Well, while the sentiment is appreciated, it wasn’t pleasant. There will be plenty more opportunities for heroism in your future, I’m sure. In any case, what did you want to speak about? I can’t assure you complete confidentiality, of course, but I’ll do my best within what I deem reasonable.”

He’d specified in his request that he had a potentially dangerous question involving training his abra, which had of course intrigued her Second, but the request for confidentiality had made it hard to insist he discuss it with one of those lower in the gym’s hierarchy first. If whatever he’s considering needed to be kept private, he’d of course want to reduce how many people he told it to.

If she hadn’t already invited Blue to speak with her when he arrived in the city she would wonder if he’s just angling for private training lessons or tips, but entitled as he might have become through fame and glory, she doesn’t think that’s his style, and his group has done enough novel things that she immediately took the request as a serious indicator that he might have discovered something new, and dangerous.

Inside, some small part of her protests that she’s holding enough secrets, that one more may just be too many, that the more she takes the higher the chance she lets one slip. A year ago she would have said she was the best psychic in the world at shielding and keeping secrets; even mergers rarely led to glimpses of anything she didn’t want to let out. But Red, Mazda, even Rei were all humbling reminders that there’s always someone more capable. Rei managed to focus her attention so powerfully on what she wanted that Sabrina couldn’t read beyond what seemed obvious, and Red’s empathic reception was so strong that she’s sure he got a glimpse of her feelings toward Mazda when they met, even if he didn’t understand the context… and as for Mazda…

She shakes off the line of thought to dull the stab in her chest. If she can learn to mold her partitions the way they and Red did, she can hold as many secrets as she needs to.

“First I should probably check… do you know that Koichi is in the city?”

Sabrina feels her brow rise, and takes a moment to reorient her thoughts. “I did, yes. Mr. Sabien came to me when considering whether to allow him to teach at the dojo.” It only takes a moment for her to connect the dots. “Ah. He’s tried spreading his ideology again, then? And you’re considering trying it for your abra.”

“Considering is a strong word…”

“I’m sympathetic, Blue, truly. But even if you can get your abra to grow stronger, faster, what’s the point if you’re still struggling to get it to protect you?”

“Well, I was thinking about that, and realized maybe I don’t have to.”

Now she doesn’t try to hide her surprise. “You want to train a pokemon explicitly for trainer battles?” It’s not unheard of, of course, but is frowned upon enough that she doesn’t expect it of someone so high profile. It also can revoke a trainer license, in rare cases where the person’s focus turns more to gaining money or status than becoming a stronger trainer; the League decided long ago not to subsidize those simply trying to game the system.

But it makes sense to do for a particular pokemon, if he doesn’t expect it to easily acknowledge his presence enough to protect him against wilds…

“I think I can get it to follow its own instincts in wild battles well enough.” He sounds a little offended. “I don’t plan on being dead weight.”

“Of course, I apologize for the implication,” she says, and means it. “Even still, you’d never be able to use it to its full potential.”

“You mean as well as a psychic could.”

It’s such a strange thing to say, a redundant thing, that she just raises a brow, waiting for him to elaborate. But he doesn’t break his gaze from hers, and eventually she just sighs. “I’m not here to coddle your ego, Blue. Everything I’ve experienced has shown that psychic pokemon are most effective when used by psychics. What other explanation do you have for why they’re so rare among non-psychic Leaders and Elites?”

“I’m not doubting it’s easier to get a psychic pokemon to its peak fighting power, as a psychic. But if everyone gives up because they’re told to, how much should I really care about what others failed to do?”

She considers this a moment, then nods to acknowledge the point. “It’s not my place to tell you what you can and can’t do. Part of every generation’s journeys is to ascend beyond the expectations of what came before. So long as you abide by the rules of my gym, you can continue to train here on whatever you wish.”

“Is that an answer to my question, then?”

“You never actually asked it.”

Blue frowns, but nods and breathes out. “Is it true? Do pokemon get stronger, faster, when they believe they’re fighting for their life?”

She was wondering if he’d also imply the accusation she’s sure Koichi levelled against her using such methods in her meteoric rise to topple him, but as far as she can tell he sounds simply curious.

She’s not one of those psychics (like Tahu) who will claim to be good at “reading people” even without use of their gift; for her, dark humans have always been an endless enigma, some part of her still insisting there’s nothing inside them but autonomous meat (the thought brings an image of the copied Kota’s empty smile, and she flinches away from the memory of its mind before swiftly hiding it behind amnesia for now). Even Giovanni isn’t an exception; rather, he’s the one person that proves how capable of guile and subterfuge humans can be, the epitome of why dark people are untrustworthy.

Except she does trust him, because she has to. Not to be “good,” but to have things that he cares about, things that he will do anything to pursue, behavioral trends that she can model and predict with some accuracy. That she happens to agree with his goals and not mind his methods is beside the point; she knows he’s a liar, that he’s likely lied even to her. But everyone lies, and most do it for far lesser purpose.

She plans to look afresh on Giovanni’s goals and methods regardless, and wonders suddenly if she should do the same of Blue.

“Do you know how I lost my parents?” she asks, seized by a whim.

Blue’s expression shifts from surprise to caution, and whether that’s sincere or not, she finds herself modeling his reaction as wary. “Only that they were killed by pokemon. Your bios don’t have much info on your childhood other than that you were raised by your uncle, and were a psychic prodigy from before you could even speak.”

Her lip quirks. She’s tried a few times to correct the public record on what she was like as a child, but ironically she’s never been able to find the words. “Not just any pokemon. It was Raikou.”

Blue’s eyes narrow, for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

She simply nods her thanks, as is expected, and wonders, as always, what the tell signified, senses reaching reflexively, uselessly out. “I’ve heard about your goal. Your real goal, beyond becoming Champion.”

The way his body goes still is another tell, but it’s not tension so much as… relaxing, she thinks. “And you understand.”

It’s not a question, though it should be. For all he knows she’s bringing it up because she wants to warn him off a path of vengeance, or caution him against overly ambitious goals. Blue doesn’t spend time with her the way he reportedly did Erika and Surge, and she hasn’t spoken to Red about anything like this.

“I do,” she says, and tries to imagine what Blue Oak would be like in ten years. Or even five.

Strong enough to beat Lance?

Maybe.

Willful enough to keep trying until he does?

Yes. And she wouldn’t be the first to underestimate the young Oak. In five years, the unown question would likely be resolved, one way or another.

But what if he reaches Victory Road in three?

Or two?

Or one?

She’s one of the few things in his way. What if she decided not to be? What would Blue do with the power and prestige of a Champion?

And who as Champion would respond better to the revelations of what Red, and maybe other psychics, can do?

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says, sounding more cautious than anything. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“So I haven’t.” She spends a minute studying the young man in front of her, which he seems unbothered by, weighing possible choices, possible futures, before saying “I’m afraid it’s not one I can answer, as I haven’t tested it myself.”

“Ah.” He nods, and dark as he is for once she can understand what he’s feeling as well as if she could see the barrier rise between them. “Of course.”

“But maybe I will, in time.”

He blinks.

“After all, the world is becoming more dangerous. We might need every edge we can get.”

“Yeah. So then—”

“I also want to apologize for not going through my backlog of challenges as quickly as I’d originally estimated.” She feels even more guilt over that now, maybe because of the mention of Koichi. Is she being as neglectful of her duties in Saffron as he was? Putting too much onto her subordinates, rather than not enough?

She’s been spending some of the time she could have been catching up on her backlog searching for Mazda. She’d teleport to various places around the island and fly around, casting her mental senses as wide as they would go in the hopes of finding them.

A hopeless plan, and one that would likely end badly if she found them; it’s not as though they couldn’t find her, if they wanted to.

And still she continued, hoping she’d sense them, even if they fled after. Just to know for sure that they survived. That they’re okay.

No more. She has to come to terms with what happened, even if she never gets closure. “I’ve been busy,” she says, but “How about this. You keep training here, if you’d like, until I finally get through my backlog. Or, you can go down to Fuchsia, and challenge Koga.”

He’s frowning at her, but not, she thinks, in anger. “I guess I could do that.”

“You think you could beat him, I take it.”

“Of course.”

“Then do so. By the time you come back, maybe I’ll have had time to not just work through my backlog, but also try out Koichi’s crazy idea. Sound good?”

And there’s that smile, which she knows as sure as anything her gift has ever shown her is real; not just hungry, but grateful. The smile of someone who has found an ally in their life’s goal. “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 98: Interlude XIX – Remnant

At first it seems to be a stampede like any other.

The rangers are assembled and outside nineteen seconds after the first wave of assorted forest pokemon trip the proximity alarms, more than enough time to summon their pokemon and watch the approach. Ira and Rashard summon their fliers and take off, Rashard in the direction the pokemon are coming from so he can give advance warning of what else is on the way, Ira straight up and then in a circle around the outpost in case more are moving past it beyond the sensors.

Outpost C17 is situated on one of the plateaus on the side of the volcano facing Cinnabar City, its sensors spread out to the slopes on every side. All the trees and brush within the perimeter have been cleared, but the various paths leading up and down the mountain have more growing beyond them, and it’s from between the dense pines along the western slope that a variety of pokemon are streaming toward them.

Ira looks around to make sure nothing else is surrounding or moving past them and waits for his bird to make a full circle before tapping his headset to swap to Rashard’s private channel. “Swarm coming from the northwest, looks like the front of the wave.”

“There’s some muk and magmar coming,” Rashard responds on the general line, and Ira sees the rangers below start swapping a few pokemon to prepare for them. “Not just a couple, there’s… a whole cluster of magmar moving together!”

Ira frowns even as he gently guides his charizard into a slightly wider circle. Magmar are rare, and territorial; they barely tolerate their own hatchlings sticking around too long. What’s a whole group of them doing moving together in a swarm?

And what caused a swarm of such mixed pokemon? Cinnabar only grew from a town to a city once the island was declared mostly safe from any particularly destructive or temperamental species… they didn’t feel an earthquake, and if a magma pocket is seeping out somewhere the magmar wouldn’t be running…

He shakes off the line of thought; it’s Rashard’s job to figure that out. His is to focus on the area around the outpost, and get the word out.

He sets his earpiece to the local CoRRNet channel. “This is C17 to adjacent posts, we’ve got a possible Tier 1 in progress, anyone else seeing anything?”

“Confirmed C17, stand by… C16’s not picking anything up on proximity.”

“Ditto that for C18.”

“C19 here, we’ll send eyes out just in case. Do you want preliminary support?”

Ira is already completing his first lap now and sees that the fighting has started, tanks in front keeping the front line engaged and turning those that come after against each other while a few others contain those that try to go around… but the next wave coming looks even bigger. “If you guys are clear, we can use the help.”

“You got it, sit tight Ira.”

“Thanks man.” He spots a family of rattata dashing past unchallenged, but doesn’t swoop down until an arcanine leaps around a blast of water from Steven’s blastoise and just keeps running past; if it gets to a more densely wooded area and starts a fire, it would start a whole new wave.

It takes just a few seconds to catch up to the arcanine, but that’s enough time for it to start bounding down a narrow mountain road. As he closes in, Ira considers his options. It’s not advised to fight while mounted on a pokemon unless you don’t have any choice; the weight of the rider tends to disrupt their ability to maneuver and dodge, and of course you might get killed by attacks from the wild pokemon.

Instead he looks ahead until he spots a relatively straight part of the path, then uses his legs to guide his mount into a silent glide as he expands a greatball and holds it out, leaning over as far as his saddle straps will let him. As long as the arcanine doesn’t change directions it’ll be captured in fifty meters… thirty… twenty… ten…

The ping of the lock makes the arcanine’s head jerk around, fire already dripping from its fangs as Ira throws the ball and slaps Brightwing’s back to send them into a dizzying bank and climb. He feels the heat through his boots for just a moment as Brightwing roars, more in challenge than pain; her wings keep flapping smoothly and he judges the damage not too bad. When he twists around to look, the arcanine is gone.

He sees the glint of the greatball bouncing down the path and sends Brightwing into a dive, one hand held up to catch the ball as it rolls off the cliff and into the open air. It lands in his palm with a satisfying smack, and he tucks it into a saddlebag as he guides Brightwing back up toward the plateau, one hand stroking the shoulder bone at the base of her wing. That’s my girl.

As he climbs he continues the sweep around, checking to see if anything else got by while he was distracted. All he spots are more field and forest dwellers, and when he returns to the scene of the battle he sees more rangers are there now, another couple flying in from nearby even as he circles overhead.

But even with the reinforcements, the rangers are being beaten back.

“What the hell…?” Ira cranes his neck for another look at what looked like Steven’s blastoise fighting another blastoise. Where would it have come from? “Rashard, we’ve got a blastoise here.”

“The fuck did that come from?”

“You didn’t see it?” Is it possible it came from somewhere else while he was chasing the arcanine?

“They’re kind of hard to miss, man.”

Renegade attack? No, there’s no one on the ground but rangers.

He changes direction anyway and swoops closer to the sparse trees at the edge of the plateau, but just sees more of the same pokemon coming. When he wheels back around, however, he gets another shock; there are now two araquanid fighting each other.

There are no wild araquanid in Kanto.

“Hey, there’s a wild araquanid here now!”

“Are you shitting me? You sure that’s not David’s?”

“It’s fighting David’s!”

“Well it didn’t come from this direction, all I’m seeing are natives!”

Ira curses and swaps to the general channel, then winces as his ear is assaulted by the frantic voices of those below.

“I’m telling you it changed right in front of me!”

“Must be a zoroark!”

“In Kanto?!”

“It’s not reverting!”

“Electric types out, now!”

“Left side is being overwhelmed!”

“Hey, hey, I just saw it, that rattata turned into a raichu!”

Steven watch out!”

The wild raichu(?!) sends a burst of electricity out in every direction. Steven’s blastoise and the one it was fighting both get shocked, and Ira reins his pokemon into a hover, wings flapping hard to keep them airborne as they watch the chaos unfold below. He can barely believe what he’s seeing even as he watches it happen; about a third of the pokemon brought out to counter the wild opponents swiftly end up facing copies of themselves, seemingly just as strong.

The other wild pokemon are still trying to rush through while attacking everything in their path, and within a few wingbeats, Ira sees the first ranger fall. The sight snaps him out of the shock, and even with the reinforcements still on the way he realizes with a chill that this situation isn’t in their control.

Protocol is clear: they’re facing something completely unknown, and even small surprises can be catastrophic, let alone whatever the fuck this is.

When he finally gives the order his voice is loud and strong, immediately silencing everyone else on the channel.

“Code White! Retreat to Cinnabar City!” He swaps to the local outpost channel. “All points, retreat to Cinnabar City, we have a Code White!”

The rangers below shift to a fighting retreat as they make their way back to the relative shelter of the outpost. Ira sees that the hopefully-only-injured ranger is being carried by two others, then trusts those below to take care of themselves as he swaps back to just Rashard’s channel. “How far out are you?”

“Midway up and they’re still coming. Think I see signs of spread, too, mostly south.”

Ira turns Brightwing that way. “Still nothing unusual?”

“Nothing Code White worthy, just some odd clumps. What are you thinking?”

“Honestly man, I have no idea what I just saw. If it was an illusion it was a damn convincing one, and if not then…” Then what? What did he actually see? “Somehow pokemon are changing into others as they fight. If that’s true…”

“Anything we throw against them, they’ll just turn into. Damn. You know what that means?”

“That we need to keep our strongest pokemon away from them,” he says as the thought occurs, heart sinking into his stomach. Without Blaine and the others at the gym being able to go all-out, there’s no easy end in sight.

“That too, but look… the pokemon we’re seeing below, how many of them have already changed into whatever they fought?”

Ira feels another chill, this one reaching all the way up to the nape of his neck. He looks down to watch a family of rattata race through some undergrowth, far from the outpost and anyone that would stop them.

Or what looks like a family of rattata.

“New plan,” Ira says. “We’re going to search until we find something that’ll help command figure out what’s going on. Rest when you need to; it’s a marathon now, not a sprint.”

“Aye aye, Sir.” Rashard has a few years on him, and ever since they were growing up together has tended to act as an older brother. Even after they moved to Kanto to do the gym circuit together, he’s never taken Ira too seriously, doling out any praise with an ironic or patronizing tone.

Despite that, there’s no irony in his tone now, and for some reason it reminds Ira of a night a few years past, not long after they both stopped chasing badges to start families. His friend, slightly tipsy as they shared drinks on his porch, put an arm around his shoulder and confided that he knew Ira could have reached the top if he kept going. That he’s got the heart and mind of a champion, even if he never has a plaque on Indigo Plateau.

That’s what Ira thinks of as he flies Brightwing in the direction his friend went, hoping whatever storm has come to the island is one he and his people are ready for.


At first, the fact that Shaw got to keep his job after Mewtwo’s escape seemed too good to be true. Part of him even wanted to argue with Giovanni, do the honorable thing and resign, but the smarter part told him to shut up and accept it, especially since he did everything he could short of breaking the chain of command to keep the experiment from leaving the island alive.

It was only in the weeks that followed, when he wasn’t assigned another position and the lab repairs remained a low priority, that he considered the idea that keeping this position may be the punishment.

If so, it’s not one Dr. Light shares, though for a while after the escape her position seemed even more perilous than his. By the time Shaw returned from searching for the experiment (or its drowned corpse) her physical injuries had long since been treated, and she was just sitting in the mansion staring ashen-faced into the distance. He knew Giovanni only reserved extreme punishments for failures in character rather than competence, but Shaw imagined she shared his uncertainty over whether the situation counted as one or the other. Sabrina was no help, seeming too shocked and upset over Mewtwo’s escape to care much about what Giovanni’s response would be. Privileges of her station as a fellow Leader, he supposed.

Instead, when the boss finally had the chance to come to the island, he just calmly listened to their reports, gave curt feedback, praised them for doing the best they could in an unforeseeable circumstance, and left with the most basic of instructions: keep the location secure and recover any data left over. Once the latter was done, Dr. Light and her staff, along with most of his, were transferred to other facilities.

That was months ago, and the remaining skeleton crew in the mansion above the ruined lab still hasn’t received news of what they’d be doing next. Giovanni said there aren’t spare resources for a full repair operation, which Shaw took to mean that without Mewtwo there the lab had lost most of its value.

The payments for him and his people are still coming through, however, and they have more free time to visit the city, so it’s not all bad. Sometimes Shaw wonders if they’re just there in case Mewtwo returns, and other than a sense of restlessness and vague ongoing worry, things could have been much worse.

So of course they eventually become much worse.

“Report.”

Giovanni’s voice and expression are as calm and collected as ever. Shaw used to wonder sometimes if the man ever feels anything, but after the experiment escaped, before he came to take their full reports, he saw it on the video call: the anger that made the Leader’s jaw rigid, the futile frustration that had his hands clenching and unclenching. Worst of all was the way one hand kept going up to rub over his short hair; seeing Giovanni Sakaki make such obvious self-soothing gestures was a bit like seeing the Leader without his clothes on.

But the loss of the experiment was (probably) the worst day of Giovanni’s life, and whatever is happening on Cinnabar now doesn’t warrant any of the tics Shaw observed that day. At least, not yet.

“What do you know so far?”

“All that’s reached us is that some new pokemon is creating a threat of unknown proportions. Is it Mewtwo?”

“No, not from what we’ve picked up on the CoRRNet radio chatter; they’re saying pokemon are transforming into other pokemon. Called for a ‘Code White,’ whatever that is, and are evacuating to the city.”

Giovanni’s hands steeple, brow furrowing as he stares down at the table. “Newly formalized protocol following the Lavender incident. Code White means more than just encountering an unknown pokemon; it’s for circumstances that go entirely against any expectation or plan. A blank canvas… which this circumstance would fit. They’ve confirmed the transformations? Multiple eyewitnesses?”

“That’s what they’re saying. So what are the protocols, exactly?”

“The rangers will do everything they can to protect people in the local area without engaging. They’ll call for experts immediately, and formulate a plan with at least one Leader, one Professor, and one Ranger of at least rank 7 or above present.”

Pretty weighty, then. Shaw approves. “Should we assist?”

“If a dozen trainers might tip the balance, yes. Continue to monitor the situation, but your priority is still keeping the mansion and lab secure.”

“Yes Sir, though…” Shaw’s hand below the table counts the pokeballs in his pouch through the leather. He doesn’t try to stop his own nervous tic; whatever’s happening on the island has the feel of something big, and he doesn’t like not knowing what to expect. “The two may be related.”

Giovanni’s surprise is only expressed in a heartbeat of silence. “How?”

“Remember that weird activity Min reported over the past few days?” He doesn’t actually know if Giovanni reads every single report he gets in that short a timespan, but it feels polite to start with that assumption; the seismographer was pretty insistent that her readings were important, so Shaw flagged the report as such. He trusts his people, or they wouldn’t still be on his team, even in potential exile.

“The increased amount of pokemon tunneling?”

“Right. From tracking subterranean movement, her thought was that some sandshrew were using the labs as a nesting site.”

There’s a beat of silence before Giovanni says, “From what I recall she was worried that the more sandshrew dig around the labs, the higher the chance of widening cracks and destabilizing the structure. What’s the connection to the Code White?”

“It’s not the worry I’m second-guessing, it’s the initial hypothesis itself. It was based on the fact that a larger number of pokemon have been recorded tunneling away from the lab than toward it.”

This time Giovanni’s response is immediate. “You think a new pokemon might have appeared in the lab and began transforming into wild sandshrew that they encountered there.”

“We left a lot of blood, tissue, and bone samples down there. I know the experiment never showed any sort of shapeshifting abilities, but… you pay me to be paranoid, Sir.”

“I do.” His boss studies his interlaced fingers for a moment, then looks up. “Have Min review the data again, this time comparing intensity of the vibrations. If a portion are smaller—”

“Already done, Sir.” Shaw knows his boss used to hate being interrupted, but he encourages people to do so if they have a good reason, and only reprimands them if they don’t. “There are smaller readings, so there are at least some newly hatched sandshrew, but there are also more large readings than there should be.”

Giovanni’s fingers squeeze for a few breaths, then relax. “More than just paranoia, then. Which means we need to move to confirm or falsify this quickly. Take a preliminary repair crew down to bring power back online, specifically for the lights and cameras. You have two psychics still there, correct? Take one to scan for danger. Do not bring any pokemon down with you.”

Shaw’s stomach clenches for a moment at the thought of one of his pokemon being turned back against him. “Yes, Sir.”

“Any direct observations would be useful, and if you can capture a specimen then do so, but don’t engage any groups, and retreat at the first casualty.”

“Understood.”

“And Shaw… nice work, and be careful. I’ll be awaiting your report.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Giovanni ends the call, and Shaw quickly relays their new orders to his people, picking those with the most non-pokemon combat skills to form the away team of the 15 people left under his command. Once they’re gearing up and Min has started reviewing the data, he goes to visit the closest thing to a peer he has left at the mansion.

Zach’s room in the mansion is dark, with curtains drawn over all the windows and the only light coming from the monitors. Shaw’s Chief Information Officer was one of those who lived in the lab below, and had to give up a lot of personal equipment when they abandoned it. He spent a lot of time after relocating to the mansion making sure his room was just right, and only recently stopped sending a new request for more computers, furniture, monitors, and various other things every day. The last few times Shaw was here things even seemed to stop subtly moving from one place to another.

When Shaw enters the room/office, the balding young man is walking on a treadmill set beneath his standing desk as he types, gaze moving between four monitors; two horizontal ones flanked by two vertical. Shaw would like to blame their location for the fact that the man is wearing pajamas as he works, but he regularly did so while they were in the lab as well; the one time Shaw brought it up, Zach got (or acted) offended and insisted they were his “work pajamas.”

He’s good enough at his job that Shaw decided not to raise the issue again, particularly since he didn’t have a good answer to Zach asking who, exactly, he was supposed to be trying to impress; they both knew Giovanni wouldn’t care.

“Here about the Code White?” Zach asks with barely a glance. “It’s a mess, isn’t it? Think it’s our fault? Told you we should have burned the whole place out if we weren’t using it. Not because I thought this would happen, but it’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

“I do, but it wasn’t my call.”

“Sure, of course, I get it. Sucks when a higher up won’t let you do what you know is best, right?”

Shaw resists the urge to sigh. “If this is about having everyone switch to your operating system—”

“It’s not mine, it’s open source—”

“—the answer is still no. It would require too much retraining, and meanwhile the loss of efficiency and increased errors aren’t worth the benefits.”

Zach shakes his head, and the treadmill speeds up as his frustration makes him walk faster. “That attitude is exactly why it’s so important to break the hold Bill has on commercial PCs, not to mention, you know, closing the security risk of using an OS created by one of the world’s best hackers—”

“If Bill wants to screw with us he’d be able to do it in a dozen different ways I know about and probably a hundred more I don’t. And,” he quickly adds as Zach prepares to respond, “This isn’t what I came to talk about. We’re heading into the lab to see if it’s the source of whatever’s out there.”

That slows the CIO’s steps. “Damn. You bringing the power back on?”

“Floor by floor, so I need you to shut things off as we go and give us warning if the cameras pick anything up in rooms besides ours.”

“Right. Yeah, you got it, just give me a minute to prepare.”

“You’ve got ten.”

Zach is already focused on the task, and Shaw leaves him to it so he can finalize his own preparations. The mansion’s armory isn’t too dissimilar from the type you’d find in a ranger outpost, with a wide variety of suppression tools like sleep powder bombs, stun guns, and net launchers, but there are a few more dangerous tools available too.

He picks up a tactical crossbow and tests the string tension. Its 60 kilo draw power might stop a sandshrew with a single broadhead bolt, but not a sandslash… the real reason he’s thinking of bringing it is in case it helps against whatever might be turning into sandslash. Is it just a visual resemblance, or does it perfectly imitate their tough hide?

He puts the crossbow back and picks up a powdergun instead. A dead specimen might still be valuable, but a live one would be their best way to find weaknesses.

Shaw meets his assembled team at the hatch above the stairwell they used to escape the lab: Leon, an ex-ranger who started looking for more lucrative work; Rhea, a renegade from some impoverished region she doesn’t like to talk about; Naoto, a psychic psychologist and police consultant from Hoenn that Shaw used to work with before he got into some trouble with the law; and Kit, the only electrical engineer from the lab that was left behind. Like most of the tech folk, he’s one of those in Giovanni’s employ who joined up because he wanted to be part of something greater than himself.

Lopez and Min are also there, the former to guard the door and close it if anything looks like it’s coming up and the latter to watch the seismometer for them and act as coordinator. Shaw makes sure everyone is ready, though they look practically naked with empty pokebelts. He has Naoto do one last check for any minds below, then sprays his own repel on and tells Kit and Leon to open the hatch.

A pitch black square greets them, and Shaw snaps some glowsticks and tosses them in. As they bounce and roll their way down, Leon heads down alone with a netgun in one hand and an air quality monitor in the other.

“We good?” Shaw asks once he reaches the lowest glowstick.

“Oxygen is a bit low, but still safe to breathe for now.”

“Alright, let us know if it noticeably dips any further so we can re-evaluate. Rhea, watch our back and ceiling. Naoto, maximum spread, call out any changes at all. Same to you, Min. And Lopez…”

Shaw is quiet for long enough that his second raises a brow. “Boss?”

“When any of us come back up… ask us something only we would know.”

“Shit. Tell me that was a joke.”

Shaw looks around at the others and notes the extra signs of fear or nervousness. Other than Kit, whose eyes are wide as pokeballs, the rest are good at hiding theirs, but Shaw has had a lot of experience judging body language, and some are automatic. “There’s no report of them copying humans yet, but I’ve got no reason to think they can’t.”

“Wait, wait,” Naoto says. “You think copying a human would make them sapient?”

“I’d rather be prepared for the possibility.”

“What if they get our memories too?” Rhea asks, voice calm despite her ashen face.

Leon gives a brittle laugh from below, the stairwell making the sound echo slightly. “Then we’d be pretty fucked, wouldn’t we? They could already be impersonating any of us.”

It’s not often that Shaw realizes he hasn’t been paranoid enough. “Clothes. They may not be able to copy that, not without making it part of them. Everyone take off a shoe.”

“So we’re going in with full horror-movie logic?” Kit asks as he sits down to pull a shoe off. Others start to unlace their boots or tug one off while standing, Leon coming back up to join them.

“Right, and we assume whatever can go wrong might go wrong.” Shaw examines each shoe one by one, not really sure what he’s looking for but assuming that the transformed body parts wouldn’t be able to maintain their shape if detached. “My premortem for how we’re most likely to fail are that they’re dark in their natural form, so we won’t detect them until they’re already on us. But we have no idea what they’re capable of, so past the initial encounter any number of things might happen, and we have to be prepared for each.” Shaw finishes running a nail along Lopez’s shoe, watching a faint white line appear in the material. If it’s an exact molecular copy of the object then that doesn’t mean anything, but there’s only so much he can do in that case anyway. He hands it back, then takes his own off for them to pass around. “Any last questions?”

“Priorities?” Leon asks.

“Personal safety, team safety, team member safety, power regeneration. That’s until we find something useful; if we manage to capture something we’ve confirmed is one of them, then getting that ball back up here will become the top priority.”

“Damn. Don’t think I can remember when personal safety took priority.”

“Situations like this, if something goes wrong the chances are it goes very wrong, and one person escaping to report what they saw matters.” He gets his shoe back and laces it on. “Anything else? Let’s move, then.”

They descend, passing from one island of bright white light to the next as Shaw steadily throws a new glowstick down every half a minute. The path gets claustrophobically tight at some points where temporary repairs they made on the way out have eroded over time. Luckily they only need to make it to the first floor before they can leave the stairwell, and once they reach the doorway Shaw cracks two glowsticks at once, then tosses both through as soon as Kit opens the door.

Naoto still hasn’t detected any minds nearby, and so they file through afterward and take their first look around. Everyone is silent, perhaps remembering the entrance to the lab back when they used to travel through it every day or two. A thin layer of dust has settled over everything, and the floor is littered with various objects displaced from the security desks by the quakes.

As they approach the scanners, Shaw sees Kit reflexively start to put his gear onto the non-functional conveyer belt. “Nothing wrong with keeping good habits,” he says to alleviate some of the young man’s embarrassment. “Zach, how’s the signal strength?”

“Fine,” Zach says through his earpiece. “Four by four, maybe four by three?”

“We’re passing by entrance security now, let me know if I drop to two on either.”

A few more glowsticks and the rest of the floor is fully lit. Shaw feels a knot of tension release once they confirm that there’s nothing on the floor with them, and only then do they make their way to the next floor, where the first backup generators can be accessed.

There were a lot of conversations, debates, and arguments about the lab design back when it was being built, and even afterward as it was expanded. While he didn’t quite get what he wanted (an admittedly extremely expensive and space consuming full power station on each floor that could supply energy to the whole lab) he’s glad that Giovanni at least agreed that an independent grid on each floor would come in handy. Using batteries instead of pokemon is a tradeoff in efficiency and longevity, but in a situation like this it turned out to be a lucky break that he’s grateful for.

“Bringing power back on floor one now,” Shaw says as Kit installs the battery. It takes a few seconds for the lights to start turning back on, followed by various appliances and, unfortunately, an alarm—the one for a structural integrity warning.

“Zach!”

“Yeah, yeah, most subsystems are booting back up! One more sec… okay!”

The alarm shuts off, leaving merciful silence behind. The others relax, and Leon mutters, “Hope that didn’t spook whatever was below us.”

Shaw looks around until he spots a camera dome. “You have eyes?”

“Just got them, though a few cameras aren’t working. Do a quick tour to make sure nothing’s on fire, would you? Water system’s got nothing, and that alarm went off because of cracks in the foundation; any more damage to the structure might bury you guys in there.”

With that cheerful thought they walk the first floor again, more quickly this time but with a careful eye toward the walls and ceiling. There are cracks, but nothing big enough to signal imminent danger yet.

Once they finish Shaw takes out a container to restock on glow sticks, then leads them to one of the internal stairwells to head down to the next floor. A drop of sweat traces a brow, and he wipes it away knowing that more will follow, both because of the hot, stale air and the ongoing tension. If they make it as far as the main generators it would be a relief to get the climate controls back online, assuming it’s still functional.

The second floor goes much like the first, though there are more cameras broken here and one of the stairways has filled with dirt, the pressure of which was enough to spill through its door to fill a hall. They head back to the one they used and go down to the door that leads to the third floor, which is when Naoto pauses.

“Pokemon are about two floors below us.”

“Inside, or out?”

“Both. Sandshrew family for sure, but… a few of them are… strange. Twelve in total.”

“Strange how?”

“It’s hard to describe. Wild pokemon are all sensations and instincts and emotional reflexes at once, but for these they all seem… layered.”

“Alright, let us know the moment one is heading upward. Weapons ready everyone, and step softly.”

Leon opens the door, and they immediately notice the difference in air quality. “Oxygen’s getting low,” he says, holding the monitor through the gap.

“Masks on.” Leon closes the door and everyone spends a few minutes taking out and equipping personal air masks. Shaw sets a 40 minute timer to give them some warning for when their tanks will start to get low, and Leon, seeming happy to have a hand free, waits for a confirming nod before he opens the door again, more fully this time.

When Shaw tosses the glowsticks through, they immediately see the difference in this part of the lab. Desks and chairs have claw marks on them, some completely broken by whatever roughhousing they were subjected to. There’s scat on the ground and more holes in the walls, as well as the floor now, broken concrete and soil scattered around each.

“Watch your step,” Leon says, voice dry even through the muffle of his mask. Shaw takes care with his next set of glowsticks not to drop any down to the next level, but as they travel further it starts to get difficult to find even footing.

“Running through this would be dangerous,” Rhea notes.

“There’s a supply closet nearby,” Kit says. “Should be mops and brooms in there.”

Leon shakes his head. “If we start cleaning we’ll be down here for hours.”

“It’s a good idea,” Shaw says before a debate begins. “And it doesn’t have to take that long. All we need to do is clear a path for now; we’ll have more people with us if we need to turn this floor into a staging ground.”

So they detour to the supply closet and Shaw, Leon, and Kit begin to sweep while Naoto and Rhea keep their hands free and eyes outward. It should feel ridiculous, or at least surreal, but all Shaw feels is vulnerable; his gaze keeps getting drawn to the holes in the ground, and he gives them as wide a berth as possible, spraying more repel along the floor by each. Even with Naoto on lookout, he can’t help but feel like they know too little about what they’re facing to really be safe.

“Zach, how are the floors above us looking?”

“Zero activity. Which, you know, is why I haven’t said anything.”

Shaw does his best to suppress his annoyance. “I’m making sure we’re still connected.”

“You’re still coming through about four by three.”

I never checked Zach’s clothes. Or the others in the mansion, but now’s not the time to indulge such a tail risk, particularly since he doesn’t even know whether a sapient clone is possible, or whether clothing can’t be copied and separated. He feels the paranoia rising up and focuses it on what he can control right now. “Min?”

“Nothing new yet; a couple small vibrations leaving, one that entered, but all still below you.”

“Any news from Cinnabar?”

“Blaine has mobilized the gym,” Lopez reports. “The island has almost fully evacuated to the city, and some rangers found the origin point for the stampede that started all this. It’s not far from here, near some caverns.”

Shit. “If any sandshrew tunnels connect them to the lab…”

“It’ll be a while before anyone’s ready or willing to explore inside it,” Lopez says. “But yeah, it might be a problem. Is there anything we can do about it right now?”

“No,” Shaw admits after a moment as he rubs a hand over his forehead. One thing at a time. “But let Giovanni know.”

As they sweep a path to the power room they near the cafeteria and start to find empty food bags and cans scattered all around. “This explains why they’re nesting,” Leon says as he sweeps some ramen bags to the side. “There was enough food stored to last us for a month if we got stuck down here.”

“Does that mean they’ll abandon this place when they’ve eaten it all?” Rhea asks.

“Maybe, but we have a bigger problem meanwhile.” Distant and muffled though Naoto’s voice is, the worry in it still makes Shaw tense. “This much available food would put most pokemon in a prolonged breeding mode.”

Shortly after that ominous pronouncement they reach the power room and bring the floor power back online… except this time most of the lights don’t switch on.

“Zach?”

“I’m barely getting any cameras either. Some of the lines must have gotten cut.”

“It might be safer to shut it down,” Kit murmurs. “Though we haven’t seen any exposed wires…”

Shaw considers it, but just for a moment. “I’ll take what I can get for now, and the battery won’t last long anyway. Just be careful what you touch, everyone.”

“Still, this changes things,” Rhea says. “Without power this floor isn’t particularly safe as a fallback point, and if the one below it is similar then there’s less reason to go floor by floor.”

“I’d rather confirm that each floor is clear before we go below it.” Shaw’s fingers start counting pokeballs in his pouch again. “Even a few extra cameras might help Zach spot something useful.”

Still, the lack of a secure fallback point would be a problem if they need to run. Shaw starts tossing glowsticks through the holes in the floor as they make their way back along the path they cleared to the stairs, and when they go down and open the door there’s already light waiting for them.

“The ones below us can sense us moving now,” Naoto warns.

“Any coming up?”

“No, but I can faintly sense the ones below them now too… there are a lot, Shaw. Dozens, two or three floors down, maybe in between floors too.”

“Would playing predator sounds keep them away?”

“No,” Leon says. “Not with their nest below and so many of them. It’s more likely to prompt a mass attack.”

He figured as much, but had to make sure. “Alright everyone, keep walking slow and gentle. The glowsticks should keep them away, but we’re going to walk wide around any holes in case some get adventurous, or in case copied versions don’t share the same aversion to light.”

They’re passing through the major labs now, broken glass littering the floor along with more signs of sandshrew habitation. It takes a few extra minutes to sweep a weaving path wide around the various holes in the floor, especially because Naoto keeps pausing, which makes Shaw’s pulse jump as he prepares to order them to flee.

But they make it to the backup generator without incident. Unfortunately once the battery is removed from its container ball and plugged in, they once again only get a handful of lights, along with another alarm.

“Which one is that?” Leon asks, voice barely audible over the din.

“Insecure containment of hazardous materials!” Kit yells back before Shaw can answer. “We should be fine with the masks!”

Shaw leans his broom against the wall, hands itching to hold more useful weapons as he looks to Naoto, whose eyes are closed in concentration. “Zach?”

“I’m working on it!”

The generator room’s light is on, but beyond it is darkness broken only by glowsticks in the hall beyond and some of the rooms they passed through. Shaw watches that darkness until his eyes burn from lack of blinking, only letting his lids drop once the alarm cuts off.

“Got it! The damn thing was—”

“Not now! Naoto?”

“They’re on high alert,” the psychic says, voice strained. “Lots of… vigilance and panic… they’re worried about their eggs and hatchlings…”

“No one move,” Shaw says, wishing for the dozenth time at least that he had a pokemon on his belt, just one… “We wait until they relax.”

If only he could do the same. Every minute that ticks by has his muscles grow more tense rather than less, particularly after Naoto comments, “They’re moving, but not toward us yet.”

“Where?”

“Just… wandering. Restless.”

Another drop of sweat stings his eye. Shaw does his best to blink it away, then checks his oxygen. About half gone, meaning the 28 minutes left on his timer has less of a buffer than he initially wanted it to. “Slow, deep breaths everyone.”

Another five minutes pass before Naoto lets a slow breath out. “I think… they’re starting to relax. But not all of them.”

“We’ll wait another five minutes.”

It only takes two before Min speaks up. “Incoming vibrations on your level.”

“Which side? How many?”

“Northeast, at least two big ones, at least three small, maybe as many as seven in total.”

Not where they are, but close. “If we wait here and they come through, we might get surrounded. We’re making our way back to the stairs. Quick and quiet, let’s move.”

They start to walk, Shaw leading the way from one glowstick to the next as he tosses more of them out. Behind him he hears someone spraying repel along their path, and they reach the stairwell just as they hear the scratching of claws against concrete.

They close the door and spray more repel along the floor, then take a moment to catch their breaths. “See anything, Zach?”

“Yeah, new hole just got dug in the wall not far from the second chemical lab. Four sandshrew, two sandslash.”

“Do they look… normal?”

“So far as I can tell.”

So nothing conclusive yet. He turns to the others. “How much air does everyone have? I’m at 31%.”

They sound off, Kit being the lowest at 27 and Rhea the highest with 35. Shaw resets his timer to fifteen minutes. “Alright, new plan. If they leave we head down one more floor, otherwise we head back up to rest and resupply. Naoto, you said the majority of minds are two below us, on the experiment’s floor?”

“Yes, I think that’s where the nests are, unless there’s more below that.”

“Then we’re going to go down one, find a hole, and take a peek through it before running back up. Giovanni said to be careful, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to catch any by surprise down here.”

No one says anything, but Shaw can tell they’re relieved even through the masks. After a couple minutes Naoto says, “They’re heading down, somewhere in the middle,” and Shaw leads them to the next floor.

“This is it everyone. Weapons ready, prepare for engagement.” Shaw waits for everyone to hold up their weapons, then nods to Leon.

The ex-ranger opens the doors, and Shaw throws twice as many glowsticks through as usual, all four in different directions and distances. They spot a sandshrew right away thanks to the farthest glowstick, and it immediately retreats, scurrying away from the light.

Shaw spots a hole and heads straight for it, sweeping away more broken glass, loose paper, and pokemon droppings. He kicks aside a chair that’s in the way, then drops his broom and steps right up to the hole to drop a glowstick in as the others set up a perimeter around him.

What he sees takes a moment to register, and as his eyes widen and his breath stops, a visceral horror claws up his stomach and out of his throat in a sound of fear and disgust he wouldn’t recognize as coming from him if he didn’t feel the lingering desire to shut his eyes and turn away.

“Incoming!” Naoto yells, snapping Shaw out of his paralysis. “There, there, and there!”

“Move!” Shaw releases a pair of pokedolls, then follows the others back the way they came. A sandslash rushes out of the dark from their side until Leon’s netgun sends it rolling across the ground in a tangled heap, claws slashing at the thin steel chains until they start to snap. Another crawls out of the hole Shaw was looking down and immediately attacks the pokedolls he left behind, while a third starts tunneling out of the floor by the stairs, only to get blasted in the face with sleep powder from Rhea.

“Capture it!” Shaw yells as he stops by the netted sandslash, blasting it with his own sleep spores before holding a greatball out. It’s just pulling free when the powder kicks in, and his greatball snatches it out of the remains of the net.

“Move, Shaw, more coming!” Naoto yells as he tosses his own empty netgun aside and pulls out a pair of stunspore bombs, tossing both down a corridor that looks empty to Shaw.

He snatches his greatball up and runs for the stairway, where Kit releases another pokedoll to give Rhea cover as she captures the sandslash slumped in the new hole.

Once he’s through the door Leon slams it shut, and they’re all racing up the stairs as Min calls out seismic activity warnings.

A minor quake sends them all stumbling to the sides of the stairwell, and sends an ominous groan through the concrete around them. “Up, hands on the railing!” Shaw hooks his weapon to his belt and holds onto the rail beside him as he pumps his shaking legs up the stairs.

Once they get to the top floor, gloriously well lit and relatively free of debris, they start running for the main staircase out. “Vibrations in pursuit, passing through the third floor now!” Min yells.

“Lopez, we’re coming up!” Shaw makes sure everyone is on the stairs before he shuts the lab doors behind him and follows. “Open the hatch!”

For a moment they’re still running in the dim light of the stairwell, and then bright sunlight is shining down around them. Once he’s through he collapses beside the others in the grass, tearing his breath mask off and gulping in lungfuls of clean air.

Lopez bangs the trapdoor closed behind them… then turns on Shaw with a stun gun aimed for his chest. “What’s something only Shaw would know about me?”

Even through his lingering horror and exhaustion, pride and relief are enough to make him grin. “That you… got reprimanded twice… for late reports… during the last Interregional Coordinator Contest.”

Lopez frowns, then lowers the stungun. “Shit, all of the answers are going to embarrass me, aren’t they?”

Leon laughs, and that sets the others off. Still breathing hard, Shaw pushes himself up to face the only one who’s still looking worried, gaze on her screen. “Are they still coming?”

“I think they stopped at the second floor. A couple might have gone up from there, but no more are moving further.”

“I’ve got them on camera,” Zach says. “They’re milling around, but don’t seem to be about to pursue.”

Shaw lets himself relax even more, enjoying the cool air on his sweaty face as Leon asks if Lopez is going to ask the rest of them questions.

“None of us lost sight of each other while we were down there,” Kit says.

“Still, orders are orders.”

Lopez frowns, then holds his stungun up again, aimed at Leon this time.

“Orders rescinded,” Shaw says, and pushes himself up. “Kit’s right, and we need to report in. Anyone injured?”

They shake their heads and start rising too. Rhea’s gaze studies his face as she brushes grass off her pants. “What did you see, Shaw?”

The question brings him back to that moment, and his stomach clenches. “It looked like a sandshrew nest, but… wrong. A second after the glowstick landed, they all started… changing. Melting into some pink and purple goo, even some of the babies. It… or maybe they… were everywhere, surrounding the eggs… inside the eggs, one of them was feeding on the yolk of one while another detached some of itself into one…”

He trails off while the others stare in shock and horror and disgust. “You saw all that in a few seconds?” Leon asks, voice low. He doesn’t sound skeptical.

“I saw it all in a moment. The rest of the time was… processing.” Shaw thought his time working homicides and watching the results of all the failed experiments that came before 3.14 would have kept him from feeling what he’s feeling now, but the queasy disgust only grows the longer he thinks about it, and he starts walking toward the mansion, shaking his head to clear the images away. “Come on. Giovanni needs to… know about this.”

Giovanni needs to do something about this is what Shaw almost said, holding his tongue at the last moment. He trusts his boss with a lot more than his life, but he knows the cold and ruthless pragmatism that drives him. There’s a chance the Gym Leader would see this as an opportunity, but if he orders Shaw to do anything other than destroy what’s down there to the best of his ability, then for the first time in over a decade Shaw would have to disobey.

He hopes the loss of the experiment taught Giovanni some humility, some understanding that he can’t control everything, and for some things shouldn’t even try. He knows Giovanni has to reach further than anyone else dares to do what has to be done.

But after what he saw, and what it might mean for the world if it isn’t stopped, Shaw won’t let him make the wrong call a second time.


Cinnabar City is home to about 90% of the island’s population, and it doesn’t take long for the shelters to fill with the other 10 (or at least, the other 9.999). By the time the rangers have finished corralling people from the various tourist lodges, pokemon centers, farms, and fishing villages around the island, the sun is a few hours away from setting, and Ranger Wendy has had a chance to fully examine the city’s defenses, as well as evaluate its preparation for the first official Code White.

It is, she notes for her report to the Ranger Union, probably one of the best places to have encountered an unknown phenomenon of this scale.

She’s only been stationed in Kanto for a few months as part of her regional exchange training and she’s fairly impressed with the local talent. They’re not as good as Almia’s rangers, of course, but the ones on Cinnabar are a cut above the rest. Being so uniquely isolated means everyone stationed here needs to be more than fairly impressive; when substantial backup is at best a few hours’ flight away, the locals end up handling most things on their own.

Fortunately, it seems they can. Unfortunately, the point of a Code White is they have no idea how to compare what’s happening to “most things.” With wild pokemon transforming into the ones they fight, including full access to their abilities, the usual tactics and strategies go out the window.

But the isolation is probably also what led to Cinnabar Gym’s unique culture; there aren’t many places with a mandatory draft for times of emergencies, but without neighbors to turn to, Leader Blaine asserted decades ago that those who want to live on Cinnabar have to be ready to defend it, and the city’s mayor and population agreed.

“All of which is to say,” Wendy summarizes to her phone as she joins the crowd of rangers, gym members, and others making their way into the meeting hall, “Whatever happens here, I think they’ll have the numbers to deal with it.”

On the screen, Principal Lamont tugs at his beard, brow creased. Normally Wendy would be reporting to her mentor, but with the seriousness of the situation she was transferred directly to the head of Almia’s ranger academy. “That’s assuming numbers end up being what’s needed. Are Oak and Taira there yet?”

“Yeah, he teleported straight in, so we’ll be good to go with whatever plan they’ve got. Honestly though, I’m not sure what they’ll be able to add. Seems obvious that we have to avoid using any strong pokemon, and let the newbies step in on this one.”

“Well, sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. Ditch the uniform and grab a coat, Professor. Unless of course you’re just motivated to show off what you can do?”

Wendy rubs her neck as she feels it grow warm. “I know, I’m just here to help with small stuff and learn from the locals, but this is too big to sit aside on!”

Her old principal chuckles. “And the best way you can think to help is by fighting?”

She bites her lower lip as she heads up the stairs into the meeting hall. Principal Lamont has been teaching rangers since the Union first started; she knows that question was meant to get her to think about what her actual mission is. “Only if there’s no way to coexist with them. So… I should probably be thinking of that, first.”

He smiles. “Good luck, Wendy. I know you’ll make Almia proud.”

“Thank you, Sir. I’ll report back soon.”

“See you then.”

He ends the call, and Wendy tucks her phone away to enter the building. The location doubles as a pokemon contest hall, which means there’s plenty of seats for everyone; she runs up to the balcony level and squeezes through bodies until she reaches one near the front so she can see which big names are already on stage.

Leader Blaine is there, along with Professor Oak and Ranger General Taira. It’s Wendy’s first time seeing the Kanto Ranger General, who stands a little taller than the Professor, and nearly as tall as Blaine, while his shoulders are hunched at least. Her short black hair combined with her black and red uniform makes her an imposing contrast to the two older men.

Particularly Leader Blaine, with his bald head shining in the bright lights and the cane planted between his feet. She’s heard it’s just an affectation, that he can move as quick and limber as the slightly younger Professor. Others say one of his legs was incurably injured and continues to pain him, but that he just powers through it when he needs to. Either way, combined with his white coat and round spectacles, and the knowledge that he was an accomplished researcher before heading Cinnabar Gym, it’s hard not to see him as more of a professor than a gym leader.

Until a few minutes pass, and the seats are nearly full, when he raps his cane against the floor once, twice, three times. By the third, the hall is so silent that Wendy can hear her own breaths.

“Code White protocols have been met,” Blaine says, voice leathery but strong. “There’s new data to share.”

With a gesture behind him, where a dark skinned ranger standing to the side of the stage approaches, greatball in hand. He seems a bit nervous, or maybe just taken aback by the Leader’s abruptness. Wendy certainly is; she heard Blaine didn’t like to waste words, but she expected at least a small introduction or speech.

“Hey everyone, I’m Ira,” the ranger at the front of the stage says. “I was at C17 when—”

“Speak up, man,” Blaine says. “And get to it.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ira takes a breath, then holds up the greatball. “When I threw this ball, it caught an arcanine. Once I got back to the city I had a chance to scan it. It looked like an arcanine in the dex, but there was something wrong. It was classifying it as a new species, with lots of the genetic—” Blaine clears his throat, and Ira glances at him, then shrugs. “Point is, this is what it turned into a few seconds out of the ball.”

He braces his arm and releases the greatball’s contents in a flash. When it clears, there’s… a puddle of purple goo on the stage.

Wendy leans forward, along with half the hall, trying to understand what she’s looking at. A baby grimer? No, it’s too light, more of a pinkish-purple…

A moment later it quivers and swirls, forming a vaguely lumpy blob. There are murmurs throughout the hall now as the blob seems to wag its upper half around, and the cameraman at the foot of the stage steps right up against it to get a closeup.

“For those that can’t make it out, it’s got a pair of small black eyes, something like a mouth, and that’s it. As far as I can tell it has no internal organs, and while it didn’t try to attack me, it doesn’t follow basic commands or do much of anything, really.”

“Technicians are working with another specimen already,” Professor Oak says. “We’re hoping to push a pokedex update by the end of the night so it can identify these things when they’re caught, but the training algorithms might take longer, since we have no idea how its physiology works, let alone the neurology.”

Wendy feels a bit of jealousy that some people have already caught the new pokemon while she’s been sitting in a safe outpost by the coast, but reminds herself of what Principal Lamont said. She’s a ranger, not a trainer; she should be focusing on more than capturing and battling.

If she stops viewing the strange blob as a threat or battle resource, what else could it be? Well, obviously it would be massively valuable scientifically… that company that’s been trying to perfect cloning technology must be pulling their hair out right now.

She’s still thinking of it as a resource though; rangers are supposed to value pokemon for their role in the ecosystem, and ways they can enhance human lives. I guess it’s kind of cute, in a living plush-doll sort of way? She’s not sure what hugging one would feel like, but as long as it’s not cold and slimy…

“Tactical data is limited,” Blaine says. “For now, assume this thing is anywhere on the island. Assume it can get off the island. Any trainer engaging in any battle against a wild pokemon has to be ready to swap to a counter to whatever they send out, then swap to a counter to that, until we know how quickly or often they can change forms.”

“Also,” Professor Oak adds, “To answer the question I imagine is on everyone’s mind… we don’t know yet if they can turn into humans. But from what we’ve studied of the data so far, the transformation is not perfect. It would be a mistake to call it superficial; so far they’ve mimicked every power their targets possessed. At the same time, once injured—or for those who’ve transformed into tougher pokemon, once their hide is pierced—they seem more frail than their targets.”

“That may not be consistent,” Leader Blaine says. “Data is too limited to jump to conclusions.”

Professor Oak holds a conciliatory hand up. “Of course. But combined with the logic that a complete transformation would result in them losing their ability to change further, I’m advising against paranoid speculation. Our next test once we have a new subject is to cut some fur or nails from it before it transforms back to this state, to see if it reacts with pain, or if the removed matter reverts sooner. In addition, the fact that the copied pokemon do not act like their trained counterparts suggests that they copy our pokemon’s instincts, but not their memories.”

“At this point we’re considering a full quarantine for Cinnabar,” General Taira says. Her voice is velvet wrapped around an iron fist, bringing to mind the ancient clan of warriors and leaders she shares a name with. “But less drastic methods are still being debated. In the meantime, all efforts are going to be aimed at city patrols and perimeter defense.”

Wendy is only half-listening. Transforming pokemon that share all their target’s instincts… the transformation isn’t permanent so they aren’t really clones like that company wants to make…

People are talking among themselves all around her while the Ranger General shares instructions on how to form groups and receive orders for local defense, then the tentative plans for moving outward once they’re sure the city is safe.

“One last thing,” Ranger Ira says. “My friend and I tracked the first stampede that we know for sure had these things in it to a series of caverns. We’ve marked it on the map; it may have come from somewhere else and moved there, or came into existence at more than one place at the same time, but we’ve sealed the caverns off by collapsing the entrances and there’s a rotating shift watching it to make sure we know if anything else comes out. If you have a strong flier and want to sign up for that, come find me.”

“Dismissed,” Leader Blaine says, and people start standing and streaming out. Wendy, however, has a sudden thought, and dashes down the stairs and to the stage. Nothing gained by being timid she reminds herself when her worries catch up with her feet, and moves faster against the outflowing tide of bodies.

Oak and Blaine are talking about something while Ira and Taira talk about something else. Neither pair seems to notice her, probably because a lot of others are milling around the stage talking or looking for an opportunity to speak with them. Instead Wendy climbs onto the stage and approaches her fellow Rangers, which gets their attention.

Taira’s gaze is like a pair of legweights, and Wendy falters for a moment before taking a deep breath and soldiering on. “Good evening, Ma’am.” She gives her best salute.

The Ranger General’s response is casual, almost dismissive, but her voice is only curious. “Yes, Cadet?”

“Wendy, Ma’am,” she says, though the Ranger General’s tone didn’t invite details. “From Almia. I had a thought… why are we concerned about these pokemon?”

It’s Ira that answers, tone quizzical, but also serious. “I saw what these things can do against a prepared line of trainers. It might be easier when we know what we’re facing, but unless they have a weakness they’ll always be nearly as strong as anything we send out against them.”

“Yeah, I get that. And, Sir, I’m not trying to minimize how rough that must have been for your people… but these pokemon seem like they’ll naturally adapt to any ecosystem. We don’t know what set off the stampede today, but it might not have been because of them. Is it possible that the best move here is to just… let them be?”

The two are silent for a moment, and Wendy realizes that the Professor and Leader are also watching her, now. She feels her neck grow warm again, but doesn’t lower her gaze.

Eventually Taira’s lips quirk into a slow smile. “Almia, you said? Is Principal Lamont still there?”

“Uh, yes Ma’am, he is.”

“He taught you well, Cadet. It’s certainly something we’ll keep in mind… but first, we need to make sure they aren’t disrupting the ecosystem, and we need to make sure everyone is prepared to face them.”

“Of course, Ma’am.” Well, she said her piece. Now all she can do is try to help out. “Um, also, you said for Ensigns and below to report to their direct superior, but I’ve been here on exchange and have just been rotating…”

“I’ll take her, if that’s alright with you, Ma’am.”

Taira nods to Ira, then looks back at Wendy one last time. “Take care, Cadet Wendy.”

Wendy salutes again, then follows Ira off the stage, heart soaring. She did her duty as a ranger, and now she’ll get to see some action; whatever the days ahead have in store, she’ll make Almia proud.


“That was when we decided to retreat and consider our options. Any suggestions as to what we do now would be appreciated, but it’s my assessment that this location is no longer defensible without a coordinated effort to reclaim and rebuild the lab… or, barring that, purge it entirely.”

Naoto listens as Shaw’s pronouncement is met with silence from the various heads of the other departments in the organization. Maybe it’s taking them a moment to absorb what they’ve heard, or maybe they’re waiting for Giovanni to speak first. The teleconference is without video, so none of them have any body language to go off of, but the quality of the silence feels weighty, and Naoto imagines Giovanni staring down at his steepled fingers, brow slightly furrowed.

Or maybe he’s muted himself so he can shout some curses or smash a chair. Surely at some point enough setbacks would provoke a passionate response from their dark leader?

Naoto was a psychologist before he attempted one too many studies that skirted the ethical line. He was fascinated by the way people’s thoughts and feelings changed from little things in their environment, slight differences in tone or expression. Being able to share his subjects’ thoughts and moods gave him unique insights into what they really felt, rather than relying on absurdly noisy self-report surveys, or clumsy and time consuming brain scans.

He’s grateful that he was able to find employment with Giovanni’s organization after his curiosity got the better of him a few too many times. It’s all thanks to Shaw; the security chief vouched for him to the Gym Leader, said they’d worked together before, which they had, and that Naoto would be “invaluable.” After the nightmare of seeing his career and life descending into ruins, the word was like a shot of pure hope through his veins. Getting the job, in the end, was more; a rebirth, in a lot of ways. A change of name, some changed physical features, a new history, a new life.

And not a bad life, for all its limitations. The work has been fascinating, in its own way, even if the constant presence of dark colleagues, not to mention their utterly opaque leader, has been a constant itch that he’s found hard to live with at times. Right now, other than two people on perimeter watch and one to keep an eye on the hatch, the remaining dozen people at the mansion are gathered in the meeting room, all of which are dark. Combined with the lack of visual stimuli, the itch to know what everyone is thinking is nearly unbearable.

But he has borne it, and resisted the urges to return to his previous experiments. After Shaw put his own dependability on the line for him, Naoto knew he couldn’t let him down, nor the Leader they both serve that he’s come to respect as well, in his own way.

“Can we fill the air system with spores?” comes a suggestion at last. Dr. Light, of course, is familiar with the lab.

“Same problem as trying to just burn them out,” Shaw says. “We might catch some, but the rest will retreat into the surrounding earth.”

“Flood it?” comes a voice Naoto doesn’t recognize.

“Might work, if we had a lake we could redirect.”

“What if we use their transformation properties against them?” someone asks. “Send in nothing but voltorb and electrode?”

“A chain reaction?” Giovanni muses. “Risky. Even assuming it works for some, others might survive and escape… not to mention it would probably bring the whole lab down on anyone in there. Perhaps as a last resort.”

“We could drop poisoned food on the lower levels?” Kit asks, voice low, and Shaw nods and repeats the suggestion.

There’s silence for a moment, then Giovanni says, “A good idea if we had more time, and if we already had a sense of what poison wouldn’t be detected by sandshrew while being potent enough to incapacitate whatever these things are for a prolonged period. The one you caught, Rhea, will be thoroughly examined, but in the meantime we need other options that ensure their destruction.”

“So you agree with purging the lab entirely, Sir?” Shaw asks. If Naoto was forced to guess (and he can’t help himself anyway) he’d say Shaw is… relieved.

Not that he blames him. From what Shaw reported seeing, Naoto can’t imagine sleeping soundly in the mansion ever again.

“I do. Regardless of how the battle for the island as a whole turns out, we cannot allow more of these things to breed in secret. There are a number of ways we could potentially contain them, but not quickly and not quietly; with the island on high alert, new construction or renovation below the mansion would be noticed.”

“I agree, Sir,” Shaw says. Yep, definitely relieved. “Which is why I’d like to suggest we use the lab’s failsafe.”

Silence again from the telecom, while everyone in the room goes still. Naoto wonders if they’re finally going to learn what doom was hanging over them all those years…

“Shaw.” It’s Dr. Light, and she sounds… frightened? “Are you sure?”

The chief of security’s lip twitches. “I am, Doctor. What’s down there is… worse than the experiment, I think. Maybe worse than anything else humanity has faced.”

“Can someone explain what they’re talking about?” another voice Naoto doesn’t recognize asks. Not surprising given how segregated their cells are; he wonders how many people are in other research labs, if any, and how many are just on Giovanni’s personal staff or part of the Viridian Gym.

“There’s enough explosive packed into the walls of the lab to utterly demolish it,” Giovanni explains. “And probably collapse the mansion into the ground.”

Silence again, and then, “Okay, seems like a good option. How does that work, exactly?”

“Dr. Light and I both have keys that could trigger it,” Shaw says.

“Then why not just evacuate and… wait. Are you talking about a literal key?”

“I am.”

The call is silent again as Lopez swears under his breath, and Rhea’s hands clench into fists. “Shaw,” Leon mutters, only for their boss to cut him off with a sharp chop of his hand.

“It was meant to stop whatever the lab created from escaping,” Shaw continues after a moment. “This feels like it qualifies.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Shaw,” Dr. Light. “We still don’t know for sure what from the lab might have caused it to appear, or if it even originated there at all. If you blow up the lab we may never know!”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t know.”

“That’s the most thickheaded—”

“Doctor.” The word comes out almost tenderly, and if Naoto didn’t know better he’d think there had been something between her and Shaw. “Thank you. But it’s the only way to be sure.”

For his part, Naoto feels an odd tearing in his chest. If Shaw is serious, and he’s understanding the system right, he plans to walk down there and just blow himself up.

The man who gave Naoto a second chance would go to his death to keep the island, and possibly the world, safe. Of course he would; that’s what his job has been all this time.

It’s not fair.

“Before things get any more dramatic,” someone says, voice holding a slight drawl. “It sounds like those things are basically loose on the island at this point. It’s unfortunate for the local ecology, but destroying this ‘nest’ will not stop the spread that has already begun.”

“Just because it won’t eradicate them doesn’t make it worthless,” Shaw says. “It may slow the spread to a manageable level, give the rangers a fighting chance to contain it entirely.”

“I still think—”

“Hey, it doesn’t matter!” Zach explodes, voice definitely loud enough to be picked up on the call. Naoto was so focused on himself that he didn’t realize how much tension the CIO must have been holding in. “Whose dumb idea was it not to make the damn thing remote? Give me an hour and I’ll whip up a way to do it from a distance! No one has to die!”

If anyone else had spoken out of turn, let alone (probably) insulted Shaw or Giovanni, they would probably have been swiftly led out of the room, but Zach can get away with more than most. Probably because he’s still wearing those damn pajamas, and getting mad at him would just feel strange. “It was a tradeoff,” Shaw says. “The risk of external trigger was too high. I don’t want to die, but I would be pretty surprised if you could make this thing work remotely in a week, let alone an hour.”

“Oh please, a little servo to turn a key—”

“Is just the last step. The key has to be turned within seconds of a password being put in, a lever being cranked, and a living-body-temperature handprint being placed on a scanner, along with a voice command and a retinal scan.”

Coming from anyone else, Naoto would think Shaw was exaggerating. Zach practically vibrates with mixed feelings that he would normally be fascinated to try to dissect, but after a moment he just sags back, hand over his eyes.

“You’re sure about this,” Giovanni says in the ensuing silence.

It’s not spoken like a question, but Shaw still nods. “Yes, Sir.”

“If this is from some sense of guilt, I want you to know that I am ultimately the one who—”

“No, Sir. With respect, it’s just… the right call. It’s our mess. We need to clean it up, no matter what.”

No one seems to know what to say to that.

“The stampede has spread through a quarter of the island, and will reach the city soon,” Giovanni finally says. “Once all eyes and ears are on it…”

The Gym Leader just trails off. Maybe even he has never asked someone to literally sacrifice themselves before, or had to find the words to accept it. Or maybe he just feels guilty. Naoto’s heard how ruthless Giovanni can be, but he and Shaw go way back, and by all accounts their boss doesn’t like wasting good talent.

Good talent. Like that’s all Shaw is.

“Wait,” Naoto says, throat dry and voice low. Too low for anyone but Rhea beside him to hear, let alone Shaw or Giovanni.

“That will give you time to evacuate the mansion,” Giovanni says. “And perhaps time for us to come up with an alternative—”

“Wait!” This time everyone turns to him. He swallows and takes a deep breath. “Wait, just… hold on a fucking minute, alright? If there are explosives in the walls, why don’t we just… you know, set them off with other explosives?”

“They’re secured against that,” Shaw says, voice patient. No, controlled. He’s hiding what he’s feeling, Naoto knows he can’t be this accepting of his own death, no matter how he’s acting. “The chance of them going off by accident was reduced as much as possible, and even if some of them are set off, the rest will just vaporize rather than explode.”

“How do you even know the explosives will all work, then? Half of the security cameras and lights were down!”

“It can be set off from three different floors, including the third, where damage was just starting to get bad. Ultimately I don’t know for sure, but even if some were damaged I think enough will work.”

“You hope enough will work, so you’re going to bet with your life. Well fuck that! I’ve got a better idea: let me do it.”

Shaw stares at him, neck muscle jumping.

“Weren’t you listening?” Zach asks, voice a mix of bitterness and contempt. “You need a—”

“Yeah, I heard, I need his hand and his eye, right? And some codes or whatever.” He turns back to Shaw. “Fine, so tell me the codes and give up a hand and eye. Not your life, you noble ass. Hell, if I get them back to you fast enough you can probably even get them reattached!”

“This is getting morbid,” someone on the call mutters. “Who is that, anyw—”

Their voice gets cutoff, and a moment later Giovanni says, “Continue, Naoto. I take it from that last remark you’re not talking about trading your life for his?”

“Of course not. I’ll just do what you dark people can’t, and teleport out.”

He almost smiles at the stunned looks on everyone’s faces.


It takes all the ground pokemon they have half an hour to dig a hole straight down into the top floor of the lab. It’s enough time to evacuate the mansion, though they end up leaving much behind, and enough time for their local doctor, with assistance from some others who teleport in, to set up a makeshift hospital nearby and perform some quick surgery.

“Once we remove the hand, put it in this pouch to keep it warm,” one of them explains to Naoto, who’s feeling a little light headed after being handed a small glass jar with his friend’s eye floating in it.

“Right, pouch. Sure.”

“You alright? If you need to throw up, or some medication for lightheadedness, say so now.”

“No, I’m good,” he says, like a fool, then, “Yes, actually, that would be great.”

He says his “goodbyes” once they get word that the city is fighting off the stampede, which mostly comes in the form of everyone wishing him good luck while not saying that there’s a high chance he fucks up and gets himself killed. Rhea hugs him, which comes as a surprise, as does Kit, which doesn’t, as does Leon, which does even more. Zach grabs his hand and shakes it, once, without saying anything, then walks away. At least he changed his clothes.

Finally he’s standing beside Shaw’s bed, fully geared out, ready to run to the trapdoor and down the stairs. “The eyepatch looks pretty cool,” he offers.

“Come here, you idiot.” Shaw pulls him into a hug sitting up from the reclining chair. “Thank you,” he whispers, and Naoto squeezes him harder.

“You bet. See you soon, huh? I’m looking forward to your applause.”

Shaw shakes his head, but he’s grinning as he pulls back. There’s one last minute of waiting as Zach swaps between all the cameras on the first few floors, then says, “You’re clear.”

They’ve numbed Shaw’s arm, so he doesn’t feel it when they cut his hand off. Naoto doesn’t even look, just holds the pouch out until he feels the weight of it inside, seals it, then runs for the square of darkness in the grass below the darkening sky while everyone else rushes away from the plateau the mansion is on.

At first it’s easy; down the main stairs, into the first floor. Through the first floor, no sandshrew or weird blobs in sight, around the big hole in the ground that’s his ticket out of here.

Assuming there’s at least half a second of delay between the key turning and the explosives going off, anyway. No one actually seemed to know, or at least they weren’t saying if they did.

Down the inner stairwell, past the second floor, and into the third, where the air is much clearer thanks to the giant hole in the ceiling that lets in the beautiful colors of the sky above. May be the last time I see it, he uselessly thinks as he follows the directions to where Shaw told him the secret compartment would be.

He’s just approaching it when he feels the two sandshrew and the sandslash approaching, their minds sharp with focus… on him. They heard his rapid, heavy footsteps, and are coming to fend off the intruder.

He releases a pokedoll, then summons his tangela. It was given to him as part of his job, years ago; he’s never been a real trainer, but Giovanni expects nearly everyone in his employ to at least have some capability to defend themselves. Despite his lack of diligence, he’s done his duty with Moss over the years, and feels a sharp pang of regret as he summons her for the last time.

“Defend,” he yells, voice cracking, and then he’s using the key to open the heavy plate guarding the interface to the explosives. Once it’s off and falls with a clang, he sticks the key in the final spot so it’s ready to be turned, summons his abra, and says, “Ready!”

Zach starts reading commands to him, and he types them out into the keyboard embedded in the wall. Once that’s done he carefully takes out the glass jar and turns it so that the eye gets scanned, then starts typing the next part.

It’s around then that the sandslash arrives. He doesn’t look back as he feels the ground tremble and crack beneath his feet, knowing Moss will take care of him, and if she doesn’t they’re both likely dead; more are coming.

He hears the fighting intensify behind him as the two sandshrew arrive, and despite himself looks back as he opens the pouch and takes Shaw’s hand out, trying not to think about how it feels.

Instead he’s greeted with the sight of Moss being savaged by her three attackers, though she’s holding her own all the same, vines keeping them restrained and regrowing almost as fast as they cut and chew.

One of them, however, is rapidly turning pinkishpurple.

Naoto looks away and shoves the hand against the pad, his own fingers holding Shaw’s in place so it gets scanned. Meanwhile his other hand triggers the recording of Shaw’s verbal command from his phone. Once the screen asks for the last command, he shoves the hand and phone into his pouch and starts typing…

…just as a vine wraps around his ankle.

He doesn’t stop, each finger moving slow and steady to make sure he doesn’t mess up as his whole body twitches with adrenaline and fear, distantly wondering if he’d have freaked out by now if not for the drugs.

The final command finishes just as the vine around his ankle loosens and fades away. Naoto grabs the key, puts his hand on his abra’s head, and looks back one last time, unable to help his curiosity.

What he sees makes him scream, twist the key, and send the impulse to teleport to his abra.


His teleport point is close enough that he hears the explosion almost immediately, and it’s the first real sign that he survived.

The next is his gorge rising, causing him to throw up on the grass, eyes shut against the last image he saw. His whole body is shaking, and he lets himself collapse beside his puke, letting himself not care about anything for a while.

The sound of running feet makes him grope for the jar, afraid suddenly that he crushed or forgot it, but there it is, cool and solid. He hands it to someone without looking, feels them take the pouch off his waist, and lets another pair of hands lift him up and wrap a towel around him as he just shakes and breathes.

Some time passes before he feels well enough to notice that he’s surrounded by people who are just sitting with him. Most are staring at the dust cloud, which is mostly invisible in the rapidly darkening sky.

“It worked?” he croaks, and someone hands him water, which he eagerly drinks.

“It worked,” Leon says. “Half the plateau sank in. Mansion’s still standing, somehow, but it’s wrecked to hell.”

“Half the plateau,” Naoto distantly repeats. “Good.”

He prays that will be enough to kill it, but knows he’ll still see the copy of himself in his dreams, staring at him with wide, blank eyes, mouth twisted in a strange, wide smile.

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.”


Congrats to /u/blasted0glass and /u/davidgretzschel (and probably some others I missed/forgot) on Reddit for correctly figuring out the essentials of why teleportation didn’t work indoors 🙂