The earthquake hits after breakfast, interrupting the morning feedings.
Leaf does her best to calm the pokemon around her that have been released already. It doesn’t take much, since not panicking is part of basic pokeball training upon capture, but many of the pokemon here were abandoned because the automated conditioning didn’t take as well as their trainer liked, and they lacked the patience to enforce it manually. A few of the more skittish pokemon are clearly distressed, so she quickly withdraws them.
After she gives Raff a puff for staying so calm, she checks the news feed, which pinpoints the epicenter off the southern coast of Hoenn. Leaf whistles, knowing the size of the quake must be enormous to be felt this far along the island.
Luckily it was close enough to the coast that there’s no tsunami warning. She forces herself to look away from videos and pictures of toppled buildings and cracked streets so she can call Aiko’s dad about whether they should keep to the schedule.
“Hmm, there may be aftershocks,” he muses from the other side of the ranch, and she hears him scratch at his stubble through the phone. “Or some reaction from local wilds…”
She knows he’s always trying to let the pokemon live as much of a normal life as possible, but one thing she’s been working on with him has been giving himself a break when there’s a justified reason. “We can catch up on some of the medical exams today instead?”
“Yes… yes, that should do nicely. Alright, let’s bring them back inside.”
“You got it.” She starts working her way back to the ranch, carefully dividing which pokemon have already been fed and which haven’t. Mr. Sakai devised a great system for keeping track of the “real time” for each of the ranch’s pokemon, rotating them on a schedule so that they can live (mostly) normal sleep/wake cycles despite having to go into their pokeballs most of the night. The most difficult are the nocturnal pokemon, but he’s made efforts to ensure they at least get a couple full “days” a week as well. Leaf finds herself once again admiring not just the dedication, but the thought he’s put into being the best pokemon caretaker that he can be. Despite running a relatively small ranch, she thinks he is one of the best; if he weren’t so focused on ensuring as many pokemon are as well cared for as possible, he could be making a lot more money breeding and raising rare species favored by the wealthy. The real money is in pokemon strong in battle, but that’s too far from his values to be realistic. Still, even just catering to the tastes of pokemon collectors he could easily be running a ranch three times as big.
It’s a thought that preoccupies Leaf often, wondering if there isn’t a more effective way for Mr. Sakai to fulfill his altruistic values. Even with the extra money and help they’ve been getting from the therapy groups, the expenses still continue to creep up as new pokemon are found or left with them, lacking any other home. Leaf even went looking through Aiko’s computer, and found a file listing her friend’s ideas to keep the ranch solvent for her then-hypothetical journey, including taking on a few more rich clients and hiring an extra worker or two with most of the money. A lot of the ideas were crossed out in red, which Leaf took to mean that Aiko brought them up to her dad and got rejected, or were unworkable for some other reason that Leaf doesn’t have the context yet to understand.
She even brought the idea up with Natural during one of their “calls.” Her fellow Unovan also admired Mr. Sakai’s dedication, but was confused about why he didn’t just work for some rich person and then use the money he makes to hire more people to raise the pokemon, and Leaf explained that Mr. Sakai has a hard time trusting others to take care of the pokemon well if he’s not directly involved. Still, it was a good idea, and one that Leaf isn’t sure she had the complete answer to.
Thinking of Natural makes Leaf decide to check if he’s still online, or in bed already. She smiles as she sees him available, and sends him a message before turning the automated speech app on; Natural said his computer’s microphone and camera don’t work, so instead Leaf uses a text-to-voice program to listen to him when he sends her a message.
(It was a bit strange learning this, strange enough to make her think that maybe Natural is hiding something about himself, but she quickly learned that Natural is a bit strange in a lot of ways; whatever reason he might have to lie about this, it’s clearly part of something very personal, or something he’s ashamed about.)
“Heya!” Natural says in the voice she picked out for him(?), a rural northern Unovan accent that reminds her of a friend she made while visiting some cousins there. “Thought you’d be feeding still?”
“Was, we had a quake,” Leaf says as she returns some metapod to their balls.
“A little, but not as much as back home, knowing Landorous isn’t here.”
“Yeah I’ll bet. Also, just in case you’re curious, I may have gotten past the Rocket Casino’s security.”
Leaf stops walking, mouth gaping in shock. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, but then it turned out to be a shell and I got a message asking me to submit an application if I want a job in cyber security. These guys clearly spent good money to make sure the secret stays safe.”
Leaf chuckles and starts walking again. “I’m still not sure why they’re keeping it such a secret. If it really is a new species, it’s not like people are going to be *less* interested if they know what it looks like or something. It makes me lean toward the idea that it’s actually a scam of some kind.”
“I’m more worried about what they might be doing to it while no one’s watching, if it’s not,” Natural responds, and the auto-generated voice has shifted its tone to a sadder one that lets Leaf know he added a sad face to the message.
She bites her lower lip, not having considered that. “You think they’re what, running experiments on it?”
“Why not? Either it’s something new and they want to learn all they can about it before it’s in public, or it’s some mutation they’ve created to pretend is a new pokemon, like a forced regional variant.” That was a hypothesis floated by a few researchers, though most Professors have been keeping their speculation to themselves. Her own mom and grandpa have apparently been debating it among themselves, and Red guessed that the silence from the experts was a mix of scientific humility and not wanting to be so publicly wrong about something.
Leaf doesn’t want to think that people can be so cruel as to try to force pokemon through enough selective generations that they change that drastically. For one thing, the changes wouldn’t be the result of any adaptation, which lowers the chance that they’re useful to the pokemon, and for another the breeding pool would likely be limited, leading to a lot of harmful mutations. Her stomach twists into a knot as she thinks about what would have likely happened to all the pokemon along the way, let alone how they might be treating the new discovery. “That’s horrible.”
“Yeah. I’m going to keep trying on this end. I wish I was there.”
Despite her new worries, Leaf smiles slightly. “What would you do from here, break into the casino and try to find it?”
“Of course not.” There’s a pause. “They probably aren’t holding it there anyway.”
“But if they were…”
“Yeah, I’d try at least.”
Leaf laughs, which she knows the program will translate symbolically. She can never tell how seriously to take these kinds of boasts… Natural talks a lot about the things he’d “like to do,” and they’re all so grandiose that it would be easy not to take him seriously if he was less incredibly knowledgeable about pokemon, programming, politics, and all sorts of other things.
At the same time he can be surprisingly uninformed about other things, which on the whole makes her think of him as about her age. He actually reminds her of Red sometimes, though with very different interests and values.
“Maybe I should go and scope it out, just in case,” Leaf muses. She’s mostly given up on the idea of being an investigative journalist, but unlike the previous passions she’s moved on from, she still feels the itch to find out more about what’s going on around her and write about it. Probably because she’s still helping with Laura’s investigation.
“Really?” The automated voice is excited, and Leaf imagines the open-mouthed smile that Natural must have added.
Leaf hesitates, wondering suddenly if she should. She is curious about the contest itself too, particularly the math involved. The casino announced the rules the day after the contest itself; normally people buy tokens and use them to bet in the machines and card tables for more tokens, which can then be traded in for prizes. It’s a clever way to get around gambling laws, which are way stricter here than in Unova. But for the contest, a new type of token was created to distinguish between those bought and those won. Instead of trading the tokens in for prizes, they can instead join the contest lottery, and put their tokens toward a personal “pool” of lottery tickets.
Each token in their pool would increase the chance that they get the grand prize. Or rather, it would increase the chance that they get first pick of prizes, and then second, and so on, but Leaf can’t imagine the first winner not picking the mysterious new pokemon, even with a dratini available as an alternative; unless someone gets phenomenally lucky, the amount that will make a first prize win likely will far exceed the cost of just buying a dratini outright.
Though notably, there’s no minimum needed for any of the prizes, so however unlikely it would be, someone could win a single token, submit it to the lottery, and walk away a month from now with a pokemon that might be worth millions.
And since it has to be won tokens, the vast majority of each one submitted for the contest likely cost the players many more dollars to win, unless they can beat the odds on some of the few games with an element of skill. Leaf saw some estimates of how much money is spent at the Casino compared to the value of the prizes awarded and was shocked. It makes it especially diabolical that the tokens that would be won and submitted to the lottery wouldn’t be used for any prizes other than those of the contest.
Whoever came up with the system knew exactly how to maximize the amount of money the casino would rake in. It’s already drawn a lot of criticism and calls for investigation to see if the contest breaks any laws, though the Casino insists its lawyers have ensured it does not. Maybe it would be a good use of her time, getting a ground floor look at the contest. Writing about something so controversial would further boost her readership, and besides, she has a personal angle on one of the few individual contestants who have already announced their intention to participate…
“Yep, really,” Leaf decides with a smile. “If anyone asks, I’ll just be there to lend Blue some support.”
“That’s awesome! Hey, if they have a public wifi you could even let me try some MITM attacks through your phone!”
Leaf blinks as the voice pronounces each letter of the acronym, then frowns slightly at the idea of letting Natural use her as the literal middleman for Man in the Middle hacks, even if part of her appreciates the wordplay. “Uh… wouldn’t that be traceable to me?”
“Hm, good point… oh, you could just buy a burner phone and leave it on somewhere nearby!”
He sounds so earnest that Leaf laughs as she tracks one of the pidgey, who keeps hopping around as she tries to withdraw it. “Someone’s been watching too many spy movies.”
“It would totally work. Just buy it with cash, and don’t register any personal data on it.”
Leaf finally withdraws the pidgey and tucks it in the bag, feeling conflicted between her own desire to do something and her worries about doing something like… this. She’s not sure, however, if she’s hesitating because it’s illegal, because it’s risky, or because it still feels “wrong” in some way, even in comparison to the good it might do?
She reminds herself that she doesn’t actually know Natural. It’s hard not to feel like she does, with the automated voice and how much they’ve talked and worked together and share values, but wanting to impress him isn’t the same thing as doing whatever he asks without thinking. There’s got to be a way for her to investigate the casino without putting her trust in someone she’s never met.
“Still there, Leaf?”
“Yeah, just thinking…” She trails off as she gets a call, and smiles as she checks the screen. “I’ll think about it, talk to you later, I gotta go.”
“Okay, I should go to bed anyway. Night!”
“Sleep well!” She ends the app, then answers the call. “Hey Blue, I was just talking about you. How’s it going at the gym and casino?”
“Pretty good,” her friend says. “But I actually called for something else, and don’t want to get sidetracked… I uh, wrote a thing to send to Red.”
Leaf stops walking, so surprised she can only say, “You did?”
“You don’t have to sound so shocked,” he grumbles. “I just thought you should read it over, before I send it. To see how it sounds.”
“Of course!” She thinks of telling him how proud she is, but knows that would probably sound patronizing. “I’m really… glad.”
“Yeah, well. Read it first. I started it when I got to Celadon, but it took a few days to get to where it is, so I might have gotten too… rambly. Or something. I need fresh eyes on it.”
She’s a little worried now, and suddenly remembers what a gut-punch it was for Laura to tell her she had to rewrite her whole article on the Pewter Museum after she worked on it for so long. That was way less personal to her than this is for Blue, plus she was a lot more used to writing her thoughts out, and the idea of revision. If her feedback is too harsh, he might just avoid the whole thing for another couple months. “I’ll look it over tonight,” she promises.
“Cool. Yeah. Thanks. Anyway, I’ll call later to catch up, I need to go to a class… I think you’d like it here, by the way.”
“Oh yeah? How come?”
“The gym members are as often focused on coordination as battling, and the whole place is very pokemon friendly,” he says, and she can hear him going down some stairs. “The gym’s basically a huge park for them, and even more than Vermilion the classes focus on social stuff, status and influence and group dynamics instead of things related to battling and incident response.”
“Huh.” Part of her sighs at the idea that he thinks she’d consider the gym “pokemon friendly” just because people let their pokemon out to play there, but she knows he means well. The truth is, before she worked on the ranch and met Natural she probably would have considered that a sign of pokemon friendliness. Now, though, she’d need to see them actually doing more to care for pokemon that aren’t just their own before she’s so charitable.
Still, it would probably be a fun place for them to explore. She can tell Raff in particular is getting a bit bored of the same environment; the ivysaur has begun following docilely after her during her rounds, rather than bounding from pen to pen excitedly investigating each one. Though today he’s actually much more energetic than usual, prancing around with apparently boundless energy. “The classes do sound interesting. Plus I saw the uniforms online, and they look super pretty.”
“Oh, yeah, there’s a whole system for those actually… remind me to tell you later.”
“Will do, bye! Oh, one more thing! Can I come visit you soon, and would you do an interview on the casino contest?”
“You’re still into that sort of thing?” he asks, and then his surprise shifts to suspicion. “It’s not going to be a hit piece is it?”
“Would I do that to you?”
Blue chuckles. “Not without asking first, which is more than I can say for everyone else who’s reached out so far. Yeah, of course. Come by whenever you want, though you don’t have to interview me in person, do you?”
“Nah, but I want to see what’s going on for myself too.”
“Alright, looking forward to it.” She hears a door open. “Gotta go, talk to you later.”
“Later!” She closes the call, and wipes sweat from her brow as she checks the message she receives from him. It’s a copy of his letter to Red.
Excitement burns in her chest, as well as a queasy worry lower down. She said she’d look it over tonight, but after months of silence, she’s too curious to see what Blue finally says. She sets the bags down and leans against a fence to scan the message.
Leaf stares at the two words, then sighs and rolls her eyes. Boys.
I’m guessing you’re probably still mad at me. I’m still working out how I feel about everything, but I want to make sure you know that, if you took what I said as meaning I wished you were dead, I didn’t mean that. I meant that even knowing that would happen, taking that risk is what I would have done for her and you, and I was upset that you didn’t. But in case it needs to be said I’m obviously glad you didn’t die too.
Hope Saffron is treating you alright. Maybe I’ll see you there soon.
Rambly, he said. Leaf shakes her head and reads it over again, pulse still quick with anticipation. This… isn’t terrible. It’s not great, she’d give it even-odds at barely improving things between them at best versus upsetting Red even more, but two things seem really promising; the way he said he’s working out how he feels, rather than that he’s mad too, and the tentative idea of seeing Red soon.
She wonders if she should call Blue later and talk about it, or just send back an edited version and see what he thinks. He might be embarrassed by having to explain himself or talk through the choices, but she also wants what Red ends up seeing to come as much from Blue as possible.
She decides to wait until she can talk to him again, and continues withdrawing the rest of the pokemon as she dials Red, who answers after just one ring.
“Hey Leaf, what’s—”
“What are you doing tomorrow? Also hi.”
“Uhh…” Red seems taken aback by the excitement in her voice. “I’ve got a class to teach, after that some training with another student here, and then I’m free?”
“Cool, cool cool.” She withdraws a rattata and carefully places its ball in the nearly full bag. “Want to go to the Rocket Casino for crimes?”
“For… our own crimes, or someone else’s?”
“Good question. I want to use your psychic powers for espionage because I think they may be doing unspeakable things to the new pokemon.”
There’s a pause, and after a moment Red sighs. “Leaf, is this an elaborate ruse to get me to talk to Blue?”
She scoffs. “Nothing elaborate about it if so, I’m literally asking you to go with me to the place where he’s likely to be.”
“That’s not a denial.”
“I’m just upset by how weak you think my cunning is.”
“Still not a denial.”
“Fine. Red, along with enjoying your company, I swear, I primarily want to exploit you for your powers.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Also, no.”
“Hm. I respect your boundaries,” Leaf says as she finishes withdrawing the last rattata. “But also, Reeeeed why noooot?“
“First of all, why would people at the casino know anything? Second, if they did, they probably have psychics of their own to make sure they’re not being read, like on the cruise. Third, weren’t you the one that made me promise not to use my gift like that?”
“Yeah, but this is different! It’s for a good cause!”
She can hear his smile. “And my other objections?”
“I know,” she sighs. “You’re probably right. Still, aren’t you curious about how the contest is going?”
He’s silent for a moment, then sighs. “Yeah, actually, I am. It’s the first new pokemon discovery since before I can remember, but this is such a weird way for one to be revealed…”
“So? What’s holding you back?” When he’s silent for a moment, she has a moment of wondering if she should nudge him… normally she wouldn’t, but knowing that Blue is going to be sending his letter soon, she wants Red to say yes to the visit before he gets it. It will feel more meaningful then. “Is it because you might run into Blue?”
“So what if it is,” he mutters, sounding more grumpy than upset.
“Red… you can’t avoid him forever,” she says, picking her words carefully as she taps a pattern on the fence around a tree to get the various bug pokemon in its branches to come down. “He’s going to be in Saffron soon enough, and what will you do then? Avoid going to the gym in case you bump into him?”
“Ugh. No, that would just make me seem like more of a coward.” He sighs. “I know you’re right, I just… I don’t know what I’d say if I saw him, and I don’t want to get into another fight.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she assures him. “If either of you start a fight, I’m just going to grab the offender by the ear and drag them away. The potential indignity of it should be a useful deterrent.”
He chuckles, then sighs. “Fiiine, I’ll take some time off.”
“Wow, way to make a girl feel special,” she teases.
“Oh… sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“I know, I’m just giving you a hard time. Seriously though, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“I do! Want to, I mean.”
“You’re sure? You’d tell me if I pressured you into it?”
“Of course.” He’s silent for a moment, then says contemplatively, “Or would I? Maybe I’d make up some excuse at the last minute.”
She laughs. “Shut up, you would not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. You’re a terrible liar.”
“Yeah, well, I might have a superpower for that now.”
“Red, you can’t say stuff like that! Now how will I know if the excuse is real?”
“Should have thought of that before you didn’t respect my boundaries. Everything’s up in the air now. Who knows how I feel?”
He gives a sinister laugh that he must have practiced at some point and ends the call, leaving her to laugh to herself. The lingering worry she felt fades with the relief and joy that came from him teasing her back. She takes it as moderate evidence that he actually didn’t feel pressured to come, and strong evidence that he’s okay with her teasing him, too.
For a long while she wasn’t sure how to think about the feelings she sensed from Red on the boat, or even whether to poke at it at all. What she eventually realized is that it doesn’t matter. She should act like she didn’t sense it, because it wasn’t hers to sense; he didn’t choose to let her know it, and when he does, then they can talk about it.
Not that she knows what she would say, exactly, since she doesn’t really know what he would say. But she’s thought through a few different outcomes after thinking over how she feels about Red.
She likes him. He’s a great friend, one of her favorite people in the world really, despite their differences.
But does she like him? She’s not sure. She looks forward to seeing him, and enjoys teasing him. It’s cute when he blushes and tugs on his cap and looks away.
And he was very brave, during the storm. Despite all the horrible things she saw earlier that night, what she remembers most is the shock of being hit by the nidoqueen’s tail. The worry, as she lay on the street and felt pain start burning through her, that she was dying. And with it, the sound of his voice calling her name, and the sight of his worried face as he carried the half of the stretcher that had her head on it through the rain. That last thing in particular, makes her feel warm and fuzzy inside.
…but does that mean she likes likes him? Or would she feel that way for anyone who did that, like Blue or Glen?
Glen is definitely more handsome, but he’s older than she is, and she hardly knows him, plus she thinks he’s got something for Bretta. It’s a harmless crush. Blue is cuter than Red too, but it doesn’t really register for her beyond an observation. Maybe because she can’t imagine them having any sort of deeper relationship; they’re too different. But her and Red…
She could see it. Maybe. Potentially.
Leaf continues to muse on it as she finishes with the pokemon, then returns to the house, sighing with relief to be out from under the sun, which was feeling oppressively hot today. She starts doing some of the easier medical check-ups until Mr. Sakai joins her, and she listens carefully as he teaches her more about the pokemon she hasn’t worked with yet. She knows she has a lot to learn before she’s as good at this as Aiko, but she enjoys learning about it. Even beyond the subject itself, it makes her feel closer to her friend, and she thinks Mr. Sakai enjoys teaching it, too. It’s just another way he could be using his time more efficiently, if she could find a way to convince him to… though part of her worries it’s arrogant of her to think that way, and that she should just let him live the life he chooses.
After lunch she gets to work on her “renaturalization” program, which is at the stage of preparing for its first experiment. Red helped a lot by asking for the least docile pokemon on the ranch, then melding with each and determining which ones responded quickest to sakki. While Red was fascinated by what that meant for the effectiveness of simulation training, and started working on a design for a research paper that could predict it without using psychic abilities, Leaf began working on tailoring the program for the three pokemon whose natural instincts were closest to the surface, keeping in mind Bill’s suggestion to focus on proof of concept.
She’s taken more of a backseat role on the project now that the other programmers Bill put her in contact with like Natural are helping, but she’s the one with the access to sakki, and to so many test subjects…
Leaf’s fingers slow, and she closes her eyes.
It’s the first time she’s thought of them in those terms, and a weight forms in her stomach as she dwells on the implications. How much has she changed from the girl who argued with Red and Blue on the first night of their journey? Normally changing her mind about something is a thing she’d celebrate, but it feels like a betrayal, to recognize that she’s willing to risk seriously messing up these pokemon’s minds for the sake of the project. Even knowing that it’s the goal she cares about, not fame or money, doesn’t help with the guilt.
The first is Scarf, a rattata with a white blotch that extends around his neck who keeps gnawing on rocks and chipping his teeth. Hoppy is a nidoran who jumps around manically every time she eats, no matter how much her trainer tried to get her to stop, and Stoffle is a yungoos someone brought all the way from Alola who was abandoned because he kept trying to escape any enclosures he was in.
Scarf. Hoppy. Stoffle. Not just test subjects; individual, sentient creatures who want to live, want food and companionship and freedom, just like her.
She starts typing again, but her heart isn’t in it, and she has to force herself to keep working, one line of code at a time, as her thoughts drift to Blue’s letter, and to Red’s potential reaction, and to what Natural asked her to do, and what might be happening to the newly discovered pokemon. If he wasn’t asleep right now she would message Natural, ask him how he resolves the contradiction of being angry at the Rocket Casino while working on a project like this, but she guesses what his answer would be; the same one hers is, ultimately. It’s for their own good. It’s for what’s best for everyone. “The ends justify the means.”
After an hour she feels like she barely got any work done, and opens Blue’s letter to read it over again. She sends him a message to call her when he’s free, then switches to working on the task Laura gave her, running down a few more leads that come up empty before Blue reaches out.
“Okay, ready for some feedback?” she asks upon opening the call. “Also how was your class?”
“It was good, and uh, should I be taking notes, or…? How much feedback are we talking here?”
Blue chuckles, which surprises Leaf. “Hang on, this might actually be a good time… there’s a thing I learned a couple days ago that helps with communicating.”
Leaf blinks. “Go on…”
“Not sure how it’ll work on the phone, but part of it should. One of the exercises in the class was one where you would get to be as openly honest with me as you want, and all I’m allowed to do at the end is thank you for sharing what you feel.”
“Huh. That seems… neat?” He wasn’t kidding about the unusual classes. She feels some cautious optimism. “It’s for, what, getting used to negative feedback?”
“And positive, actually, for people who have trouble taking compliments.” She can hear a bit of smugness as he says, “Go ahead, admit it. You’re impressed.”
Leaf grins. “I have been worrying about how careful I should be to try not to scare you off messaging Red, compared to giving you full, honest feedback…”
“The second. I want the real deal.”
“A hundred percent.”
Leaf lets out a breath. “Alright, so is there… something we need to do first to prepare, or…?”
“Well, normally we’d spend like half an hour easing into being comfortable with our discomfort and making neutral comments about things we feel or observe and stuff, but I want to try just getting to the useful part.”
She grins. This sounds more like the Blue she knows. “Alright.” She starts spinning around in her chair as she stares up at the ceiling. “Sooo—”
“Oh, wait, I should mention… you’re not allowed to start statements with ‘you.’ Also, no judgements. And you should start with what you see, and how it makes you feel. And also what ‘need’ is leading to that feeling. And instead of assuming what I feel, you can ask questions as a way of guessing. Also—”
“Hang on,” Leaf says as she starts typing under his letter. “This is a lot. Could you repeat all that?”
He does. “Also, last thing, but make concrete requests, if you can.”
She finishes writing up the list. “Okay, so no ‘you’ statements, no judgements, state observations and feelings and needs, ask clarifying questions about how you feel, and make concrete requests.” She smiles. “Was part of this communication class about how to communicate the content of the class?”
He chuckles. “No, I’m winging that part.”
“I figured, but good job.
“We’ll see. I’m ready. Hit me with what you got.”
Leaf reads the letter again. “Okay, so… I see three things that made me feel really good about this letter. One was the straightforward way you said you didn’t want him to die. Two was the way you admitted that you’re unsure of how you feel, which I’m guessing was showing vulnerability, on your part?”
She thinks he might say something about the way she keeps emphasizing certain words, but he just says, “Yeah.”
“Well, I think that’s good. Third was saying you might see him soon. That’s a great note to end it on. Oh, there’s a fourth thing,” she says as she rereads it again. “You didn’t include any ‘you’ statements, you just focused on how you felt. I’m guessing the classes helped with this?”
“Yep. Alright, now let me have the bad parts.”
“Okay, so… I saw you making an effort to justify your position, and I feel like that might just extend the argument. I’m guessing you still feel a need to justify your position, and think there might be time for that, later, but maybe not as part of the apology? Uh, I don’t know if one of my own needs is related here, other than just… a desire to have you guys be friends again. But it feels unfair of me to push that on you.” She reviews the guidelines. “Oh, something concrete… maybe change the part that comes off as judgemental of what he did?”
“I…” He takes a breath. “I don’t feel like I was being judgemental, there. Just explaining what I felt and meant by what I said. I thought, I don’t know, like it might not seem sincere, if I just said ‘hey nevermind what I said before, I didn’t mean it.’ Or it would make me seem…”
“Like you were being cruel, before?” she guesses, voice soft. “I get it. And maybe you’re right, some explanation may be better than none. Just… maybe don’t word it in a way that might make him feel guilty?”
Blue sighs. “Alright, yeah. I’ll try. Thanks. What else?”
“Hm… well, also, I see a lot of… hedging? Maybe that’s the wrong word, but parts like ‘if you took’ and ‘in case it needs to be said’… I feel it might be better if you just take for granted that he did feel that way, and it does need to be said? I’m guessing you said it because you may feel a need to explain why you didn’t say this earlier? Sorry, I’m not sure if I broke a rule with that last part.”
“It’s fine,” he says, voice low. “I’m looking over it again, and I should probably take off the ‘obviously,’ part too, right?”
“I think it would help,” she says, smiling as she feels optimism spreading through her. This is going much better than she expected.
“Right. Okay, I’m going to edit it again when I get back to my room. Assuming that’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Oh, wait, one more thing… I feel like the tone is a little… too casual, maybe?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… I guess it makes it seem like you guys spoke a few days ago, and that this was a small issue. I worry that might feel a bit… dismissive?”
“Well what should I do? I’m not exactly tearing my hair out over here.”
“I know, and I know you’re already showing vulnerability with the letter. I’m just worried that he might see it as if you’re not treating it seriously. It might upset him more if you don’t acknowledge it as a big deal?”
“Oh.” Blue actually chuckles. “This is where I can actually say, thank you for your feedback, Leaf, but I think you’re off.”
She blinks. “Really?”
“Totally. Guys aren’t like that.”
She raises a brow, leaning back in her chair. “Oh you’re not, huh?”
“Yeah, or maybe just me and Red aren’t. We’ve gotten into so many fights and then made up, and every time, it was just… casual. One of us would reach out to the other about something like nothing happened, and we’d put it behind us.”
Leaf frowns. She’s not sure she understands boys well enough to gainsay him, but Red isn’t like most boys she’s met, or most anyone, really. That said, he has known Red much longer than she has. “Well… this is a different situation though, so… maybe just add in that you missed him, or something?”
He’s silent for a minute, before finally saying, “Yeah, I’ll think about it. Thanks again.”
She smiles. “You’re welcome. Alright if I come by tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? Sure, yeah. I should be at the casino before it gets dark.”
“Cool, see you then!”
Red arrives in the afternoon the next day, and the first thing he says after he returns her hug is, “You knew Blue would send that letter last night.”
“I hoped he would,” she corrects, barely able to contain her excitement. “And? How was it? Can I see it?”
“You haven’t already?”
“Just an early draft. You’re not mad that he would take the time to make sure that he said the right thing and that I helped him make sure he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth, are you?”
Red frowns as he summons Pikachu, who comes over to say hi to her and Raff. “When you put it that way I guess not. As long as he meant what he said.”
“He did,” she assures him as she scratches Pikachu’s ears, then leads them inside. “And he didn’t know you were coming, either.”
“Wait, shouldn’t he?”
“Well, I don’t want him to feel ambushed or anything.”
“So let him know. You guys are talking now, you don’t need me to be the intermediary,” she says with a nonchalant confidence she doesn’t quite feel as they start up the stairs.
“Right.” He’s quiet for a moment as he follows her up. “Thanks, by the way.”
“You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same.”
“Of course. Hi, Mr. Sakai.”
“Hello Red.” Aiko’s dad is in the kitchen, setting some salad bowls on the counter between them. “It’s good to see you again. Lunch will be ready soon.”
“I’ll be out in a minute to help,” she tells him, and leads Red to the room to show him the research on Laura’s case while she picks out the pokemon she’ll be bringing with her. She enjoys Red’s wide-eyed stare as he sees the signs of her investigation: two walls covered in printouts and note cards and a map of Kanto and Johto, various colored pins covering it that are tied to cards with string. She could have recreated most of it digitally, but something about working with the large, physical representation helped her.
Also she always wanted to do something like this. Natural may have seen too many spy movies, but she watched quite a few political thrillers starring investigative journalists after Pewter.
“You did all this already?” He traces the string as it loops around pins from one city to another, arrows indicating the direction of the path and timestamps at each spot.
“Most of that was done the first few days after your mom came, actually. I’ve hit a bit of a wall since then… check out that board.” She points to where she posted a bunch of printed out article headlines.
Red scans the headlines. “They’re all from Fuchsia?”
“Yeah. I’m almost sure that whoever did all this started there, so I pulled up all the weird things that have been going on in the city up to a couple years before the first file was taken… particularly if it had to do with Silph.”
“Because you think it might be an ex-employee or something, right?”
“Or even a current employee, but… there’s nothing that seems to fit. No one jumps out as having motive, opportunity, and means, or even two out of three.”
He’s silent for a minute, staring at the wall thoughtfully as he scans each news article and the short bios of the people involved that she pinned nearby. “Do you know what the streetlight effect is?”
“Sure, that’s the thing where you keep looking for evidence where it’s easiest to find it.”
“Yeah. I get why you started looking at Silph employees, but if they’re not working out, why not expand the search?”
“To what? Even if I start just looking at something like ‘Fuchsia residents,’ that’s still hundreds of thousands of people, and I don’t have leads or information about them the way I do Silph employees.”
Red nods. “Which is what you meant by you hit a wall… yeah, that’s tough. Sorry, nothing really coming to mind. I’ll let you know if it does.”
“Thanks. I plan to meet your mom soon to give her what I’ve got.” She holds up two balls. “Your nidoran evolved, right? Did you bring him?”
She puts her own down, selecting her ariados instead. “Who else do you have? Besides the abras, I mean on your belt.”
“I’ve got Charmeleon, Pikachu, Butterfree, Drowzee, Kingler, and, uh, Nidoqueen.”
Leaf nods and clips both her ariados and her magneton to hers, where they join Crimson, Raff, Joy, and Ruby. Red always seems awkward about mentioning the nidoqueen around her, and she’s not sure if it’s for her sake or his own hangups about having a pokemon that nearly killed her. “I’m ready when you are, then.”
After they eat lunch and help clean up, they head outside and summon their bikes. Leaf is so excited to be on the road again that even the sight of a cloudy sky doesn’t bother her; there was a small chance of rain in the forecast, but the clouds are light and fluffy. She gives Red a wide smile as they summon Crimson and Butterfree and start riding south.
They talk through their headsets as they ride, catching up more on what’s been going on since they last spoke. Red tells her that Sabrina has been spending her time back getting through weeks of backlogged Challenge matches (this probably wouldn’t be news to anyone else, but he knows how little she pays attention to gym stuff) while he and the other students focus on the new discoveries related to multi-mind psychic links. He also tells her about how the oldest student was forced to leave after she tried to use the experiment to learn more about Sabrina, and how that led to Sabrina’s cryptic comment about trusting him more.
“Does that mean you’ll be let into the inner circle of psychics now?” Leaf asks. “Learn if they’re making us all like hummus?”
“What? Oh, the operant conditioning thing… wasn’t it fruit?”
“Whatever. Are you?”
“Making you like hummus or fruit?”
“I already like hummus and fruit,” she says, grinning. “Answer the question! Are you or are you not part of a secret psychic society?”
“Not,” he says, grinning back. “But I may be soon, I guess? We haven’t really talked since she got back because of how busy she’s been.” He looks up. “Is the sky getting darker, or is it just me?”
Normally she might think he was trying to change the subject, but she still thinks Red would be honest with her, that he’s too honest a person in general not to be, and the cloudy sky is looking darker. “Do you want to head back?” she asks, wondering if, like her, being in the rain now makes him think of the storm. Makes him feel the panic again, the anger, the grief, the desperation.
“It feels so good to travel again…” She shrugs, pedalling a little faster. “I think we can make it before it starts raining.”
He doesn’t disagree, and just follows her as she veers them toward the main road, keeping her gaze flicking between the tall grass to the side and the sky as it continues to darken. There’s less traffic than she remembers the last time they took this road south, and part of her can’t help but wonder if the explosion of abra ownership over the past few months is responsible. It’s comforting, knowing that they can get out of any dangerous situation within a minute, and she’s been training her abra so that it would eventually evolve and have a place on her belt, though even with Red’s help it’s been difficult. She wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in combat against any but the weakest pokemon.
In truth she’s a little worried about combat in general, after over two months without being in any battles. She’s been happier, not having to think so much of her pokemon’s combat abilities… not having to think of their value as weapons. But she’s also felt a little guilty, knowing that others still are, and that she and her pokemon have been able to live a comfortable, peaceful life because rangers and gym trainers are prepared to fight for their safety. It’s something she never really understood, before she was a trainer herself, and especially before the storm. The tension of that guilt mixing with her aversion to battling often spurs her on to finish her grand project as quickly as possible.
They do indeed reach the train station before it starts to rain, and spend the trip westward talking about movies they’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, by the time they reach Celadon, a deluge is coming down over the city.
“Glad we didn’t get caught in that,” Leaf says, peering out a window of the train station. They’re well into fall now, so she knows this isn’t a Stormbringer; from what she read, Moltres’s “firestorms” are storms in name only. Still, it’s far beyond the potential showers that were forecasted, and she feels a flutter of anxiety move through her stomach, the sound of the rain on the roof bringing her back to the apartment building where she found the dead baby and its mother.
“Let’s give it some time,” Red says, gaze on his phone. “Apparently stormclouds have been forming all around the island today, but they’ve been fading quickly elsewhere.”
“Weird. Okay, I’m alright with waiting an hour, then we’ll just take a cab.” She really wants to explore the city in daylight, but there’s only a couple hours of that left anyway. She checks the news as well, and notices a lot of others doing the same around them. “No good explanations for what’s up with the weather. Everyone just seems… confused.”
“I’m seeing something about the ocean currents acting oddly around the islands,” Red says, brow drawn. “I never really studied planetary science, so I’m not sure what that means.”
“Well, now seems like a good time to find out.” They sit side by side, Pikachu and Raff playing with some toys she brought as they read articles about how the density and temperature and salt content of different parts of the ocean affect the climate of the landmasses around them. It’s interesting, if not particularly useful in understanding what’s happening, and nostalgic of the time they used to spend researching things together. As they sit together in companionable silence, she finds her thoughts drifting occasionally to the feelings she sensed from him, and smiles as she catches him glancing at her between his own bouts of deep focus on what he’s reading.
“What?” he asks once, cheeks pink as he notices her watching him again.
“You seem more… grounded, than before,” she says, because it’s true. “Therapy going well?”
He lowers his phone to his lap. “Yeah, actually. And… some other stuff I’m still getting used to.”
“Stuff you’d be interested in talking about?”
“Um. Maybe not yet?” He looks so apologetic. “It’s a little weird.”
She might normally find this to be a terrible tease, but he’s so earnest that she just nods. “Of course.” For a moment she wonders if it has to do with how he feels about her, but no, he wasn’t blushing enough for that. “Did you figure out how the current affects rainfall?”
“No, I was looking more into how often they have any kinds of drastic changes…”
The research continues to pass the time until the rain lets up, which is over half an hour after they arrived. They emerge along with everyone else who was waiting in the station into an overcast but incredibly large city, and they do their best to take in the sights as they make their way through the wet streets toward the casino.
The Rocket Casino takes up an entire block while only being a single story tall, giving it an unusually grand flair. “Don’t most casinos double as hotels?” Leaf asks as she eyes the glowing sign, the tall red letters spelling out the name in sharp glowing font.
“Do they? Not around here.”
“Hmm. In Unova they do, but maybe because you win real money, and they want to make it easier to stay in the building.”
“Yeah, this is more like an arcade,” Red says as they walk into a lobby area, the noise of the casino proper muted by glass double doors. “Not that it’s not still a Skinner Box, but just less of one, maybe.”
“This contest changes things,” he says as he looks around. “Randomized rewards is the easiest way to make a behavior addictive. Normally at least there are discrete reward tiers for what you win… someone could, say, shoot for 15,000 tokens to buy a bike or some pokemon of middling rarity. The open-ended lottery stacks random on random. Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re making more than the casinos in Unova off this.”
They reach the end of the lobby’s hallway, ignoring the machines that would let them create their own game cards and pre-load them with money. As soon as they push through the final set of doors, they’re assaulted with bright colorful lights, jangling, overly cheerful music and sounds, and the steady din of conversation, punctuated by the occasional cheers or applause.
They wander the floor for a while, observing all the people playing slots or cards or roulette. The advertising for the contest is ubiquitous, banners and posters showing a dark silhouette with a question mark in it, the shape different in each poster. In the corner some news station is recording, with the casino floor serving as the backdrop to the reporter. Leaf wonders if Laura would be covering this if she was still in Celadon and not working on her current project, or if she would consider it uninteresting.
The thought reminds her of the other reason she’s here, and she turns to Red. “So? What does your psydar say?”
He glances at her. “What makes you think I’m using it?”
She grins. “The Red I know wouldn’t be able to help himself?”
His responding smile is subtler than she expected, and his only response a cryptic, “The fact that you said that makes it funny in and of itself.”
“Okay, Mr. Mysterious, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s just say I’ve been debating with myself about whether to do it. Obviously I’m curious, but I don’t know if I want to get distracted by the issue just yet.”
“You want to find Blue first?” she asks, and at his nod she loops her arm around his and squeezes affectionately. He stiffens in surprise, but she ignores that and leads him toward a crowd she’d spotted earlier. “That’s sweet, and also solvable. Pretty sure we can find him by looking for a spectacle.”
He’s not the center of the first crowd’s attention, or the second, but at the third she spots him from a distance, staring intently at the screen of his machine. One hand is poised over the middle of five buttons under virtual spinning wheels, the images on them a blur. The two already stilled ones show a big red R of the same style as the casino logo. As they reach the edge of the crowd to watch, his arm twitches, and the wheel stops to show another R.
There’s a stirring among the audience, some whispered murmurs, but they quickly quiet as his hand moves to the next button. The noise of the casino seems almost muted by the tension building with every passing second.
Blue is still as a statue, hand on the last button. Leaf realizes she’s holding her breath, just as still as Blue is, and then a tremor goes though the floor, strong enough that all the machines vibrate.
A collective gasp and cry of alarm rises from around the casino, and Leaf sees Blue jerk back from the machine, but the last wheel is already showing a pokeball, two spots away from the R.
“Ah, shit,” someone beside Leaf mutters as the machine starts jangling out a cheerful tune, highlighting the 4 Rs and showing a rising payout. Leaf looks up to see the rewards listed at the top; three Rs is worth 15,000 tokens, four is 40,000 but the fifth would have bumped the payout to 100,000.
Blue shakes his head, but she can’t tell if his look of frustration is for himself or the machine, whether he pressed the button or the brief quake caused it. Still, when people start clapping, he turns with a smile and bows to them, which doubles the applause. Leaf grins and starts clapping too, which draws his gaze to her… then to Red beside her, who’s also clapping politely.
He goes still a moment, then turns and withdraws his card from the machine as the payout finishes. The crowd seems to realize he’s done for now and disperses, some of them muttering worriedly about another quake after yesterday’s. As Blue approaches slowly, almost cautiously, Leaf quickly checks her phone to see where the earthquake was this time. Still near Hoenn, but again luckily not far off the coast. She feels a stab of sympathy for the extra damage it must have caused.
“Hey,” he says, voice casual. The generic greeting can apply to both of them, but he’s looking at Red, so Leaf just smiles and waves as she puts her phone away, her pulse still faster than normal as she anxiously watches them.
Red is mirroring Blue’s cautiously casual look as he nods. “Hi. Tough luck, with the machine.”
“Yeah, well. I’ll make up for it, once the tremors stop.” He briefly glances at Leaf, smile wry. “She drag you here?”
“A little,” Red says with a small smile of his own, and Leaf puts her hands on her hips, scowling with mock indignation. “But I was also interested in seeing what’s going on with the contest. And… it’s good to see you again.” The words are hard to make out over the ambient noise of the casino, but Red’s gaze stays on Blue. “Thanks, for the letter. It meant a lot.”
Blue nods, hand rubbing his neck. “Yeah. No problem. I… should have sent it sooner.”
Silence descends, both of them looking increasingly awkward, and Leaf, torn between yelling at them to hug it out and smothering her grin, decides to take pity on them. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Oh, Bretta and Lizzy are here somewhere. Most of the others are at the gym doing some qualifying matches..”
“You already have?” Red asks.
“Not exactly. You guys eat yet? We can grab some food while I explain…”
“Sounds great,” Leaf says, and Blue starts leading them toward the food court. Leaf flashes Red a smile, and his responding one is hesitant but wide. As they reach the tables set up between various miniaturized restaurants, Leaf’s attention is caught by the monitors hanging on the walls, half of them tuned to a weather station.
Instead of focusing on the earthquake, it shows Hoenn, Fiore, Johto, Kanto, Almia, Oblivia, Sinnoh, all the regions along the island chain, obscured by storm clouds.
“Be right back,” she says, and looks for a window before jogging over to it. The din of the casino blocks any noise from the storm, but she can see it, waves of rain lashing against the glass and a sky as dark as night, nearly an hour early.
She heads back to the others, who are watching the screens. “Look bad out there?” Red asks without glancing away from the monitors.
“Yeah. Glad we made it in when we did.” All three of them watch the screens for a moment, and she wonders if they’re thinking of Zapdos too. Or of Aiko.
“Hey, let’s head back early,” someone nearby says, and Leaf turns to see a young man at a table whose gaze is fixed on the screens as well.
“Nah, it’s pouring out there,” his friend says. “Besides, it’s been coming and going all day. It’ll probably clear up in an hour.”
“Or it’ll keep getting worse, right now it’s just rain. What if it turns into a hurricane?”
“That’s not how that works, man. Relax, they’d tell us if it was an emergency.”
Leaf bites her lower lip, wondering how Mr. Sakai is doing on his own. She knows it’s silly to worry about him, just because he’s in his own world sometimes doesn’t mean he can’t take care of himself. Still, she feels guilty (and a little exasperated) that the first day she’s taken off from the ranch in weeks is one where the weather is so weird.
“Come on,” Blue says, jarring her from her thoughts. “Let’s get some food.”
They go to their chosen vendors and reconvene at one of the tables. Red offers to swap some of his salad with hers, which she accepts, and Blue pours sauce over his nuggets before tearing his gaze from the monitors again. “So yeah, when I got here Erika asked me to come by for a chat…” He summarizes the conversation as they eat, then goes on to explain what he’s been doing since. “Without preliminary matches to go to, I’ve been learning more about the gym culture and practices instead. Like the kimonos… they’re color coded to communicate things.”
“More than just rank?” Red asks.
“Oh yeah, rank is the least of it. Colors can also indicate what you’re looking for that day, so people can know to approach you with requests to battle or to leave you alone or whatever, without you having to say anything. Also, like, if someone is in a relationship, and what kind of relationship.”
Leaf blinks. “Meaning… romantic relationships?”
“Yep. You can sew on patches or designs that mean different things.”
“Well… How many different things could there be?” she asks, confusion mixing with a fascinated curiosity.
“That’s what I asked, and she said she’d tell me when I’m older.” He rolls his eyes. “Anyway, the most interesting part is that the gym isn’t only full of battle trainers. That’s another thing you can know by their robes… some are coordinators, but others are medics, trackers, even roles that have nothing to do with pokemon at all. ‘Facilitators’ help organize groups and projects and resolve conflicts. ‘Strategists’ work on preparing the gym to defend the city, and coordinate with rangers or other gyms. There’s even a couple ‘accountants’ dedicated to helping trainers with their finances!”
“Wow,” Red says. “Researchers too?”
“Oh yeah, obviously. At first I thought they just wanted to be self-sufficient in a lot of ways that other gyms aren’t, but then I found out it’s more about recognizing different types of status and domain expertise, too. People aren’t just defined by one thing, they have levels in multiple.”
“Bet Elaine loved that,” Red says with a grin, and Blue laughs, nodding. Leaf watches them, smiling at the simple, positive interaction. The lingering anxiety she felt in her chest finally starts to fade.
This is working. She was skeptical of what Blue said, but it turns out he was right that they’re good enough friends to slip back into the flow of things, even after a major fight. Though the apology still needed to happen first, and if Aiko or anything related to that night comes up… well, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it, but hopefully with the stuff Blue has been learning lately, and Red’s time in therapy, they can have a more healthy conversation.
“What about Saffron?” Blue asks, mouth full. “What’s it been like?”
“Oh, not nearly as interesting,” Red says. “For non-psychics, or trainers of non-psychic pokemon, I think it’s mostly just a regular gym. Sabrina’s got a lot of other things on her plate, so…” He shrugs. “I guess she focuses stuff other than the gym culture.”
“Yeah, it’s not all great here. Erika spends so much time on her gym as a community that there’s little actual unique training insights, that I’ve seen so far at least.” He shrugs. “But I also meant, how’s the place been for you, as a psychic?”
“Oh, that’s been great! Learned a lot about my powers, made a couple new friends, had my first encounter with ghosts, which was… memorable. Merged and experimented with new pokemon. Recently we tried a thing with exeggcute—”
The casino rumbles again, and the din of conversation fades, leaving just the cheerful sound of the games. Leaf pauses, a tomato slice falling off her fork as she holds onto the table and waits for the rumbling to subside.
“Guys,” Red says as the table starts to vibrate, and cries of alarm spread through the casino.
Leaf looks at Red, who’s staring at one of the monitors. She follows his gaze and sees a live report of the earthquake they’re feeling now, once again centered off the coast of Hoenn… and far more widespread.
Real alarm shoots through Leaf just as she hears a scream. Her head whips around to watch people scrambling away from a part of the casino, and she looks up to see chandeliers swinging from the ceiling, dropping individual shards.
“Turtle up,” Blue barks, pushing away from the table and unclipping a ball. Leaf and Red move together toward him, and a moment later his snorlax is out, while Red summons his nidoqueen.
There’s a brief moment of instinctual terror, as she’s suddenly standing beside the pokemon that broke multiple of her bones a few months ago, but Leaf pushes the feeling aside as she reviews what pokemon she has. None would be particularly useful for this.
The two pokemon fill most of the empty space near the food court, towering over all of them, and she braces against Red and Blue as the ground continues to rumble under them. “Tent,” Blue commands, and Red closes his eyes. The snorlax moves first, leaning forward and extending his arms over them, and a moment later the nidoqueen does the same thing, locking arms with the snorlax so that the two of them form a protective cover over the trio.
“Over here,” Leaf yells to others who are scrambling for cover, and gestures for them to join them. If parts of the ceiling come down they’ll be safe… she’s grateful now that it is a one story building…
“Guys,” Red says, and she turns to see his eyes are still shut, and his expression confused. “There’s… the ground…”
“Spit it out!” Blue yells as a young couple joins them under their pokemon.
“There’s something weird about the ground,” he says, eyes snapping open in alarm. “I think there are lower floors!”
Leaf is still trying to process this when the air is filled with an almighty crack, and part of the casino collapses inward, the ground tilting and sliding out from under them.