Cleanliness Orientation

For Alice, a clean home means it’s been dusted, vacuumed, and window-wiped sometime in the past week, with all the dirty laundry in their hamper and all the clean clothes already folded and put away, no dishes in the sink, no visible garbage poking out the top of cans, and no visible stains anywhere.

For Bob, a “clean home” isn’t incompatible with having some clothes draped on furniture (but not the floor), some dishes in the sink and some garbage in bags by the door; he’ll take them out all together at some point soon. The bed doesn’t need to be made, the bookshelf doesn’t need to be dusted… that stuff’s just extra work.

For Carol, as long as nothing is rotting or liable to trip someone, it’s “good enough.” Sure, it may not be “clean,” but it’s livable and safe and with two kids and a dog running around that’s all she feels she’s got the energy for. She may do some extra cleaning if guests are coming over, but she doesn’t stress about it day to day.

David doesn’t have kids or a dog, he’s just not bothered by the state of his home. He works 10+ hours a day, and spends most of his time at home in bed, watching TV, or on the computer. The pile of dirty laundry by the door and the stain on the couch aren’t hurting anyone, nor is the perpetual pile of dirty dishes in the sink; he rinses them first, after all, and he can clean them as he needs them.

And still others live with the perpetual stink of pet urine that’s steeped into the carpet, boxes of junk crowding the halls and living spaces, and other stuff that makes a therapist called to the house for crisis intervention go “Oh…”

But let’s put that last category aside. Even within the range of what would generally be considered “normal,” whether you’re the kind of person who feels a need to scrub the toilet every week, the kind of person who is now wondering when the last time they scrubbed their toilet was, or somewhere between, the chances that you’ll end up sharing your living space or life with someone who has exactly the same ideas of clean as you are fairly small.

Of course “exactly the same” isn’t necessary. Most people can get along okay as long as they fall within the same general range of turnover for chores.

But deeply ingrained in all of us is a sense of what “clean,” “fine,” or “messy” looks like, feels like, smells like. And it’s not just a matter of taste or preference; something about our nature and nurture have instilled a sense of normalcy to certain environments. The affordance widths tend to be lopsided toward cleanliness, as most people are comfortable in environments cleaner than their baseline, but if it goes too far it can still be stressful (if that seems weird to you, imagine the feeling of being in a very rich stranger’s mansion and being told to make yourself at home while every move you make is under careful watch).

How does the orientation frame help?

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed or experienced the following type of interaction:

Bob: I thought you were going to clean the kitchen last night?

Alice: Uh… I did?

Bob: The top of the fridge wasn’t dusted.

Alice: Well I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.

Bob: Can you do it now?

Alice: It feels pointless. No one’s regularly going up there for anything.

Bob: It’s still bad for our health to have dust build up in the house.

Alice: Says who?

Bob: *googles it* See?

Alice: *googles it too* No, look, see?!

In reality, a google war isn’t a bad outcome; at least the question is being put to some objective measure, and evidence might even soften one or the other’s position. If Bob is Alice’s parent, the answer in most cases is “Because I said so.”

Assuming research is brought into it, however, what Bob might discover is that regardless of what the research says, he can’t actually feel comfortable unless the fridge is dusted, while Alice discovers that also regardless of the research, the risk is so small that the hassle of getting a footstool and wiping the top of the fridge still feels like an onerous and pointless chore. 

But “This is a pointles chore” is different from “This is making X happy,” and even that is different from “This is making X comfortable.” Recognizing that the issue is more important for one person than the other can short-cut the debate entirely.

Of course it might raise a more important point: whose responsibility is it to appease Bob’s orientation? Again, if Bob is the parent, the default is probably going to be “everyone’s.” If they’re roommates, Bob might feel bad asking others to accommodate him if the thing he needs feels too far outside the “expected norm.” That might also apply to a romantic relationship, though Alice might also accommodate Bob knowing he would do the same for her.

It can also be tempting to think “Well it’s not a lot of effort, really, especially compared to cleaning the whole kitchen. Why make a big deal about it?” But doing a chore that feels necessary vs one that doesn’t can have a huge impact on motivation, and when it comes to something that needs even more regular maintenance, like making the bed, or affects the way you live day to day, like eating somewhere besides the table, conforming entirely to another person’s preferences in every way can be a very onerous ask.

For some people the idea that how clean a house should be is as “important” as whether or not the relationship is monogamous or how involved extended family is silly, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong. Most people find it much less important, both on an emotional and a consequential level. Not all orientations are created equal, and cleanliness is much closer to the “preference” side of the spectrum than extended family, let alone sexuality.

But if you consider how consistently your living environment will be around you day to day, it can be a bit easier to see why this is something that can be important to use the orientation lens on, and why the expectation that others “just relax” or “just do more” can miss the mark on what they’re actually asking of each other.

Extended Family Orientation

In an ideal world, everyone comes from lovely, supportive families that accept whoever they marry and get along with their new in-laws and respect the couple’s boundaries and wishes for how their children will be raised.

Unfortunately, in the real world, many people want little or nothing to do with their families once they’re adults, in-laws regularly make snide or condescending comments whenever they visit, and statistically speaking your own parents probably don’t respect your boundaries, let alone those of your partner.

Some people have great relationships with their family, and don’t understand how anyone could not want to visit on holidays or have grandparents involved in child rearing. Others get along okay with their parents while recognizing their flaws, but feel awkward about how adamantly their spouse dislikes them, or vice-versa. Bad enough if holidays are the only times tensions rise; what if you live near one or both sets of parents? Can they drop in any time? Who’s responsible for telling them they can’t, if someone’s not comfortable with that?

Unlike sexual or romantic orientation, I believe family orientation is mostly the result of nurture rather than nature. Some cultures, particularly Western ones, are very individualistic; “I married you, not your family” is a phrase you might hear fairly often in couples counseling. But other cultures have a very strong family orientation, such that it’s taken for granted that multiple generations will live together; when you marry someone, you are in a very real sense joining their family, not just creating a new independent unit.

In addition to the effects of culture are the effects of upbringing. A loving and nurturing family will make it easy for people to want to involve family in their lives even after they grow older and start their own. A mixed upbringing or family with some good and bad members or memories may make some extended enmeshment feel acceptable, but not too much. And a traumatic upbringing will make people want to never see their family again, or (sadly often) feel guilted into doing so by those family members or their culture while continuing to suffer… though it might make someone very happy to spend time with their partner’s family, if it’s less dysfunctional.

There are some real, hard questions that need to be answered in this space. Not just how involved in potential children’s lives will they be or how often you’ll visit whose family, but also how will you care for family members if they get old/sick? Will they live with you? How much will you be expected to bend to family’s preferences vs standing firm on your own? How much should you contribute to bailing family out of poor financial decisions? How much is “appropriate” to tell your family about your relationship?

When two people have very different orientations on this it can cause endless drama, and that gets worse if one side’s family is actually abusive or manipulative in ways that they’re used to and find hard to notice.

How does the orientation frame help?

Communication and clear expectations are key to navigating these issues in general, and just speaking your preference and inviting your partner’s perspective on how much or little you prefer extended family be involved in the new family you create together can be very valuable.

Some people are very open about this (“If my family doesn’t like you we have a problem,” or “I don’t want to see my family ever again”), and if that’s the case, respecting those orientations is important. It isn’t necessarily mutual; some people are okay with their partner’s family but not their own, might even prefer them. But respecting your partner’s boundaries when it comes to family involvement, particularly their own, can head off a lot of difficulties.

This is an orientation where change is possible to some degree, because it’s predicated in large part on extrinsic factors. Most people would want supportive, loving, interesting people in their life. Most people do not want selfish, hurtful, boring people in their life, but will make an exception for family because they’ve been conditioned to think it’s okay or normal. If you notice your partner’s orientation is very closed to extended family involvement, noticing why that might be the case can be very useful; if it’s something that can be changed, changing it might help their orientation soften. 

But don’t try to change their mind without at least recognizing the cause of it, and notice that the frame of “orientation” still points to something intrinsic; even with perfectly fine and positive family members on both sides, some people are more private than others, or more introverted, or more independent. 

Romantic Orientation

Most people think of sexual orientations as pretty straightforward: hetero/homo/bi/pan/asexuality may exist on more of a scale than as fixed points,  and many people, particularly older ones, are confused about some of them, but at least conceptually it’s understood what someone means when they say “sexual orientation.”

I think “romantic orientation” would be a beneficial frame to normalize as well. While non-monogamous people don’t face the same level of hardship as those of non-heterosexual orientation, there are many similarities. Like heterosexuality, monogamy is the “default” expectation of most people, and many friends or family, particularly religious ones, will judge someone who is open about having anything but an exclusive orientation. Many polyamorous people tend to hide their true selves to fit in with a society that would not legally recognize their relationships, and, particularly in more puritanical times, pretend to be monogomous, as would be expected of them. Aromantic people, like asexuals, struggle with flip sides of the same social expectation: that romance and sex should be intrinsically linked.

And good luck finding media portrayals of things like polyamory, let alone positive ones; at best you’ll see swingers, open relationships, or harems, all of which are different romantic orientations, and all of which lead to blurred lines and misunderstandings about what people who are not monogamously oriented want. Even bringing up that you feel romantic love for more than one person could cause massive stress, anxiety, and jealousy in monogamous partners, and scare off any who don’t have the same orientation.

To clarify here for those unaware, polyamory is specifically the feeling of romantic love for multiple people. There’s a wide range of how this manifests and how polyamorous relationships can work in practice, but it’s more than just having a consensual open relationship where either person can have sex with other people.

But the point is that “open relationship” is also an orientation, as much as monogamy is, or polyamory. This is distinctly different from simply a life of perpetually dating multiple people: many couples specifically want a partner who they can live with, raise a family with, and build their life around, but also enjoy flirting, dating, and sleeping with others.

I’ve spoken to many friends and clients who realized they were some form of non-monogamous fairly late in life, and always there’s a sort of shock in the self-awakening, followed (for those who were already in monogamous relationships) by fear and sadness about their partner or spouse’s reaction if they found out. Some of these relationships endured through omission, others adapted once the truth came out, and of course some broke apart as people realized their relationship orientation did not match.

Another parallel to sexual orientation is that romantic orientation exists on a spectrum. There are some people who are “bi-romantic,” so to speak, who note different tradeoffs between a monogamous relationship and polyamorous one, but can be happy in either. These people might still not enjoy an open relationship, however… someone who would be happy in basically any romantic relationship type, though they may still prefer certain relationships based on the people involved, would be “panromantic”

How does the orientation frame help?

Knowing your orientation can be useful when you’re trying to figure out what makes you happy. People often experiment before they figure it out, and some people feel pressured into trying relationship types they don’t actually fit in… most commonly monogamous ones, of course, but sometimes open or polyamorous ones. And some people compromise as best they can; I know a couple where one person is monogamous and the other is open-but-with-primary. It’s genuinely difficult for the open person to reduce how much they have sex outside the relationship, but they make an effort to restrict it for their partner’s sake. The mono person tried dating others as well and ended up preferring exclusivity, but is okay with their partner having an occasional fling as long as they feel the commitment to their relationship is maintained.

Still, the mono person finds it hard to talk to friends or family about their relationship, since they know it would invite a lot of dislike toward their partner or even judgement toward themself for “allowing” it; to many people, particularly of older generations, the very idea of consensual-non-monogamy is a myth, and those who engage in it can be seen as immoral on one end or being taken advantage of on the other. And so having to be deceptive to people they care about is an additional strain, as is having to be careful what they say in the workplace or on social media.

Needless to say, both people are very emotionally mature, self-aware, and open to communicating honestly about how they feel and what they can do to help each other be more comfortable. If one of them took the approach of “why can’t you just stop going on dates with others” or “why don’t you just go on more dates yourself,” or even blamed themselves for not being able to change who they or their partner were, the relationship would never have survived as long as it has.

Another two people I know have struggled to maintain monogamous relationships throughout their lives. What finally clicked for them, one through self-discovery and the other through extensive conversation and self-reflection, was a harem-style relationship, where they felt comfortable being in the role of, in one’s case, the head of the household, and in the other’s, part of a romantic group without the more high-maintenance demands of being anyone’s “primary.”

A bisexual friend of mine realized they might not ever be happy in a monogamous relationship because it would mean cutting off a whole “part” of them and the sorts of experiences they  craved, but was afraid to talk to their partner about it because they know of that stereotype/worry that people have when dating someone bisexual. It wasn’t until they realized this went deeper than a simple desire to have sex with different people that they stopped trying to fit into a mold that didn’t fit them, and had a “second coming out,” but there are other bisexual people who stay happily married in monogamous relationships for life, because monogamy is their relationship orientation.

Words have power. They are the main form our thoughts take, the primary way we make sense of our intuitions and feelings and desires and fears, and share them with each other. Of all the things I think should be treated and spoken about as orientations instead of preferences, this feels like the most important one.


(Note: these articles refer largely to normative modern western culture. When I say “most people” or “most relationships,” I’m speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. There are absolutely exceptions to all of it, and if you’re in one of those, or in a subculture in which that exception is the norm, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with that)

One of the things I’ve noticed after nearly a decade of therapy is that the word “preference” seems insufficiently strong for a lot of things people want that nevertheless don’t rise to the level of being called a need. For most people, not getting their preferred ice cream flavor won’t ruin an otherwise good day, but for some, coming home to find dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor can make the world feel like it’s falling apart.

This becomes most clear in relationship counseling, where two or more people are trying to live together and accommodate each other’s desires while having their own respected. On some level we know “I prefer a clean home” is not the same as “I prefer vanilla ice cream,” but people don’t often consider how this difference in intensity-of-preferences can impact relationships when they’re unaligned.

On the other hand, there are some “preferences” we generally understand to be inflexible and important. Asking a heterosexual person to enjoy intercourse with someone of the same sex, or asking a pansexual person to only enjoy porn involving heterosexual pairings, would be considered not just rude but basically impossible. In extreme situations someone might try to enjoy something they don’t, or have a physical reaction while being mentally uncomfortable, and this would generally be understood to be tragic.

That brings us to a commonly used word that is generally understood to mean more than simple preference: “orientation.”

I’ve found that a lot of difficulties people have in relationships come from treating things more like preferences than orientations. To be clear, even this is a spectrum. There are clusters on the far ends which can easily be labeled one or the other, but any sort of comprehensive universal list is impossible.

What we can do is notice the sorts of things that are more useful to treat as orientations. Here’s the list of things I believe most people in relationships explicitly and consciously treat this way:

  1. Attraction (sexual orientation included as implicit)
  2. Children (how many, and usually a rough idea of of when they’ll be had)
  3. Career (roughly how much money each person is expected to make/how many hours worked)
  4. Religion (decreasingly, but many would still end a marriage if their partner came out as atheist or converted to a different faith)
  5. Politics (increasingly, particularly among younger folk; “swipe left if you voted for X.”)

To some degree this feels like a good summary of the sorts of “impersonal” things it makes sense to be explicit and upfront about with your partners as deal-breakers.

But when we dig deeper into the day-to-day lives of those in relationships to observe the sorts of things that cause ongoing conflict, we see more. Here’s an incomplete list of what I believe people implicitly and often unconsciously treat this way:

  1. Pets (how many and what kind)
  2. Living location (assuming you will live together)
  3. Extended family (how involved will they be)
  4. Diet (Increasingly common for vegetarians and vegans)
  5. Cleanliness (both hygiene and home)
  6. Relationship type (Monogamy vs some form of open or poly. Some make this explicit, but for most people a monogamy is the unquestioned assumption)

Some of those may seem a bit absurd to put in the same bucket as questions like “should we have kids or not,” but consider how upset someone might be if their partner of many years suddenly decided that they didn’t want to have pets anymore. If that’s too easy (it likely feels synonymous for pet owners), what if over the course of a year your partner came to the inescapable conclusion that they want to live totally off the grid? Some people might be open to such changes or try to adapt. For most, this would end the relationship.

So, when I use the word “orientations,” what I’m referring to are preferences which have a high cost to ignore, and in most cases are unlikely to quickly change. Some people legitimately cannot relax, cannot find mental peace, if their environment doesn’t meet a certain level of cleanliness… and if two people have a substantial difference in what they consider “clean enough” looks like, they can end up in a state of endless conflict, even if it’s minor or suppressed on most days.

I think we also improve our empathy and understanding of each other when we view more things as orientations rather than preferences. In the below articles, I intend to describe how these preferences better fit the “orientation” model, and what sorts of problems can arise from mismatches in relationships without a natural alignment for them.

Relationship Orientation

Extended Family Orientation

Cleanliness Orientation

Edit: Jacob Falkovich has written a good post on Entertaining vs Building orientations.

Chapter 90: Coalition

The keening of the surviving cubone has changed in pitch, grief joined by confusion and pain. After confirming that the battle is over, the Rangers tend to their wounded and begin working to clear the stairway. Storing all the bodies presents a simple, if grim, challenge, but it’s complicated by a debate over whether they could relocate the surviving cubone without capturing them; they’re mostly young and weak, and returning them to the wild would largely be a death sentence, while removing them from the local ecology would further erode whatever balance it had.

It’s just the kind of conundrum Leaf would love to try to solve, if all of her attention wasn’t already focused on one thing.

“Red, wake up… please, come on. Red? Red!”

He’s slumped on the floor, breaths shallow and eyes closed tight, where he’s been ever since the cubone (and, they learned a minute later, the ghosts) stopped attacking. Leaf was too lost in the feelings she was helping Red project to realize her plan had worked until Jean called out a warning, and she opened her eyes just in time to see Red collapse to his knees, curling in on himself.

“What’s wrong with him?” Sergeant Iko asks, and Leaf jumps. She didn’t hear him approach, and her pulse is still racing as the stress of the battle transitioned straight to anxiety over Red’s condition without any chance to relax.

“I don’t know,” Leaf says, trying to control her panic. Don’t be hurt, Red, I didn’t mean for this to happen… It’s a useless thought, of course she didn’t mean for it to happen, but she knew it might and was okay with it anyway… and even in her panic, some detached part of her is noting that it worked, the cubone aren’t attacking and dying anymore, isn’t that worth it? “Jean, are you sensing anything?”

“His mood is erratic, and I can’t get a better sense of what’s going on without feeling some of it leak over,” the psychic says, all without opening her eyes. She’s been sitting next to him and massaging her temples. “It’s like he’s experiencing memories that aren’t his… and he doesn’t know how to process them.”

Leaf stares at her, bewildered. “Memories from…? People around him? Should we get him somewhere remote?”

“No, it seems related to what he did. I don’t know why projecting to the ghost above us would cause this—I don’t even know how he even managed to project and copy your mental state at the same time—but some of it may be from the ghost’s ‘scream’ going through my shield. I recognize that part in myself, at least, but the rest…” She shakes her head, frowning as her brow creases, then relaxes again.

Leaf takes a few deep breaths. She needs to focus on what her options are, but it’s hard to concentrate with the cubone’s pain filling the air…

“Come on, kid, up you get,” Iko says, and Leaf opens her eyes to see him gently lift Red like a child before she can object, arms cradling his back and knees. “Let’s get you some space to yourself…”

It’s a good thought, even if it doesn’t help it’s at least trying something, and Leaf follows the sergeant as he carries Red past the dividing segment between two hallways and sets him down. Red doesn’t move or otherwise react like he noticed any difference, and as Charmeleon walks over to crouch protectively beside his trainer, Leaf suddenly has to fight back tears.

“I need to check on the situation upstairs,” Iko says, and something in his voice makes Leaf look up to see the tension on his face. “The stairs are clearing up now, I’ll tell my people to carry him down and to the hospital once we’re sure it’s safe.”

She almost asks if something happened upstairs, but just nods. “Thank you,” she whispers, then clears her throat and switches on her earpiece as he leaves. “Blue? Everyone up there okay?”

“Leaf, hey, uh, it’s complicated. Jason and I are fine, but some rangers are… missing. What about you guys?”

Missing? She doesn’t have the concern or curiosity to spare, and instead looks at Red, worrying her lower lip. “Alive, but also… complicated. Take your time dealing with that.” There’s nothing he can do for Red… but maybe Jason… “Though can you ask—”

“Excuse me,” the voice of an old woman says from behind her. “I believe I can be of some assistance, if you’ll step aside?”

Leaf turns, blinks, then says, “Nevermind, Blue,” and steps aside.

Once they confirmed that the others were safe, the rangers on the top floor began searching it again, this time for the bodies of the rangers and their pokemon. No one has said the word “dead” yet, but the mood is distinctly non-celebratory.

Blue gets it. Everyone’s still wound tight from the battle, and there’s no time to grieve while there’s still some chance, however minor, that they can find them, save them. He would be helping, but there are enough people looking now that they’ll have the floor thoroughly covered soon, and he’s as sure as he can be that it’s hopeless given the brief experiment he ran a minute ago.

Plus, there’s someone else who might need his help more. Once Leaf abruptly ends her call, he goes to sit beside Jason, who’s resting cross legged on the floor by the stairway, face in his hands.

Eevee curls up against his side, and Blue rubs her fur, drawing comfort from the warm aliveness of her as she eats the berries he scatters on the ground. Jason’s lampent is still out of its ball too, bobbing beside him, and Blue wonders if the medium draws comfort from it in his own way. To Blue, with his goggles off, it’s just creepy.

“Hey,” Blue eventually says, and tilts his foot to nudge Jason’s shoe. “You okay? Got a headache from all the psychic stuff?”

The medium opens his eyes and blinks at Blue, not really seeming to see him for a moment. “I’m fine.” His voice isn’t flat, just calm in a way that makes Blue more worried rather than less.

“Uh huh. You know none of this was your fault, right?”

Jason continues staring at him a moment, then dips his face back into his hands. “I was the one that asked to try communing with it.”

Shit. He hates being right all the time. “Come on, we don’t know for sure that’s what set it off. It was a totally new situation, no one could have guessed what would happen.”

“All the more reason to have waited, left it for those with more experience…”

“What kind of attitude is that? You came here to investigate a mystery. Sure you can look back on it now and second-guess, but that takes guts, and we need more people willing to do the same.”

Jason raises his face again to look at Blue, maybe trying to judge how sincere he’s being. It’s probably hard for him, not being able to use his powers to check… though maybe Blue shouldn’t make assumptions like that. “You really believe that amateurs should be the first to explore new phenomena?”

“First off, knowing Red, he wouldn’t listen to you so seriously if he thought you were an amateur. Second, if everyone just waited on people like Gramps to investigate something they don’t understand, they’d never get any rest, and no one would learn how to deal with stuff themselves.” It’s something he remembers his grandpa saying was a problem, back when he started out. “Hell, the whole point of the pokedex is that people can and should go out and try to learn stuff for themselves, even if it’s dangerous.”

Jason doesn’t respond for a minute, and when he does his gaze is distant again, voice barely a whisper. “It was more than that. I thought I could… be in charge. To lead. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, but… I wanted to try. And people died.”

Blue almost points out that they don’t know they’re dead, but it would be a stupid thing to say when even he doesn’t believe it. So he stops trying to take away the responsibility for a moment, and focuses on how he feels.

He thinks of Gale, as he first saw her outside the tower, curious and alarmed about why they were running through the graveyard, surprised when she recognized him, and then excited and a bit awed by the goggles. His memory replays that moment when she dropped to the floor again and again, like a stinging needle in his thoughts, the sight of her blood sending a roil of shock and horror through him… and yes, some sliver of guilt. Could he have done more? Saved her and the other three rangers?

He doesn’t know. They weren’t under his “command,” so he doesn’t feel nearly as guilty about their deaths as he would if he was more than just along for the ride. But Jason does think of himself as having been in charge, in addition to holding himself responsible for the ghost turning hostile. Some part of him will always feel that responsibility… which means he needs to have it acknowledged.

“There’s a ritual I do,” he finally says. “Taught to me by a friend of mine, who I lost in the stormbringer attack on Vermilion.”

Jason’s head turns, and there’s something that’s not quite skepticism in his eyes. “A ritual?”

“Not a spiritual one,” Blue quickly adds. “We take turns, after incidents like this or training, talking about what we did wrong. Owning it, letting each other own it, and verbally, publicly committing to improving. I want to make sure you know, so you understand when I say… yes, you screwed up. I did too. I started constantly moving so it couldn’t surprise me any more, but I should have done that as soon as I saw it could teleport, should have called it out right away, I just didn’t think fast enough, didn’t anticipate that it would just keep doing it…” He remembers the surge of terror as it appeared next to him, even through the detached calm that usually keeps him focused during battles. “I’ll do better next time, and maybe others like Gale will survive.” He takes a breath, lets it out. The guilt isn’t gone. The words are just words. But he knows they’re important anyway. “That’s the last part, saying that. Do you want to try?”

Jason is quiet for a long time, gaze on the floor. “I should have practiced leadership in a situation with smaller stakes, first,” he finally says. “I should have paid attention to the Sergeant’s report, realized I was dealing with something new…” He shakes his head, closing his eyes. “I knew it was something unusual, even thought about waiting… I’m sorry Blue. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But I don’t think there will be a next time, for me. I’m better off sticking to what I know.”

Blue stares at him, trying to think of what to say… he can’t just let Jason give up like that, can he? The ritual is supposed to be about owning your mistakes and moving on from the mistakes you make…

But maybe it’s not up to him to decide what “moving on” looks like for Jason.

His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of tapping. He looks around, then realizes it’s coming from the stairwell just in time to see Agatha of the Elite Four walk out of it.

She came dressed for battle, which means she’s wearing a long sleeved shirt, cargo vest, and form-fitting slacks, but to combat the weather she’s also got on a heavy coat made of ninetales fur, the absurdly rare kind that’s so deep a silver it almost looks blue. It matches her hair, and gives her an elegant air as she plants her cane between her feet and lifts her head, eyes closed, as if sniffing the air or letting some intangible breeze wash over her.

Blue thought he heard her voice when he was talking to Leaf, and feels relieved by the lucky timing. Beside her walks a second shadow, much too wide to be hers and only vaguely humanoid. With his goggles off, her gengar’s only features are two red eyes and a white slash below them, shaped like a malevolent grin. He quickly looks away from it as hair stands on end all over his body, and waits for Agatha to open her eyes before he waves to catch her attention.

The Elite turns to him, raises her brow, and walks over, cane tapping on the tiles like a metronome as she strides swiftly and energetically forward. Her shadow follows, bobbing from side to side to always stay furthest from the lights she passes by. It doesn’t really fool Blue, now that he knows it’s there, but it does make him feel unsettled, like he can’t quite be certain of it.

Jason has shifted to a kneeling position, bowing his head to his clasped hands. “Elite,” he murmurs once she stops in front of them. “My deepest apologies, for failing the charge you imparted on me through your tutelage.”

“Hey, Aunty,” Blue adds.

Jason turns his head to give Blue an incredulous look, while the Elite just snorts. “Hello, Blue. Care to explain why my old student sounds ready to fall on his sword?”

“He thinks reaching out to the ghost is what caused all this.”

“Hmph. Sit up, Jason. That’s it.” Agatha is short enough that she doesn’t have to reach to put her hand on the medium’s head once he finishes slowly rising up to rest on his heels. She closes her eyes, and he does the same. “Ah,” she says after a moment, and then her shoulders tighten, and she says it again, this time in a sigh. “Spirits, boy, how did you pull yourself out of that?”

“I didn’t,” Jason admits, voice thick, and wipes a sudden tear from his cheek. “My friend Red helped me.”

“Lucky,” she grunts, then takes a deep breath. When she blows it out, Jason breathes out with her, and some tension eases from his shoulders and neck. “There, there.” She pats his hair, and he wipes his face again as more tears flow. “You did what you could.”

“But if we’d waited for you… you could have—”

“Maybe.” She shrugs. “Would have liked to take a crack at it, that’s for sure. But that’s my ego and curiosity talking, the same things that drove you, and so only afford yourself a sliver of the responsibility. From what the Sergeant says he would have sent his people up here before I arrived anyway; at most you are only responsible for the pokemon that were killed downstairs.”

Jason’s shoulders hunch, but he nods. “I will guide their spirits myself.”

“Yes, you will. But only if you promise to eat and sleep when you need to; they’re in no rush, and you can’t let guilt taint their passing. Understood?”

Jason lets out a watery breath, but nods, and Agatha pats his hair once more. Then she turns to Blue, who feels like he maybe should have given them some privacy, but it’s too late now. “You’re unhurt?”

“Yeah.” She narrows her eyes, and he adds, “Just a bruise, nothing a potion won’t heal.” He hasn’t gotten around to it yet; something about letting the pain persist feels justified, for now, given the rangers who lost their lives.

Her eyes are still narrowed, and he sighs and unclips a bottle. She nods and looks around as he tugs his collar down and sprays the potion over his arm, shoulder, and back. “Did I beat Sam here?”

“Haven’t seen him, so I guess so.”

“Heh. That’ll irritate him.”

Her smug smile makes Blue snort. “Bet he says he was in the shower or something.”

“Oh no, far too pedestrian. In the middle of ‘a delicate scientific procedure,’ I’d guess.”

Blue grins, but only for a moment. He can tell she’s trying to cheer him up, maybe Jason too, and that thought brings him back to reality. “How bad is it downstairs?”

“Like a cubone slaughterhouse.” Her tone is dry, but he can hear the disgust in it, and winces. Leaf is probably taking it pretty hard… “It’s a damn shame, but at least they did it without losing anyone. Though your friend, Red, took a minute to put right. What have you been teaching him, Jason? He scrambled his brain something fierce trying to project to whatever was up here.”

Blue blinks, and turns to Jason, who looks just as surprised. They both scramble to their feet together, words overlapping.

“Red’s hurt—?”

“What happened—”

“Calm down, both of you. Said I put him right, didn’t I?” Agatha waits for them to still, then huffs as they continue to wait anxiously for answers. “He was projecting something the Juniper girl was feeling. Seemed to think it would help…”

She trails off as Jason whispers, “Ooooh…” He seems lost in thought a moment, then notices them both watching him. “I think it might have, actually, yeah. I wondered why… at the end, it felt like the scream ended.”

“Scream? Ah, the projection the ranger mentioned that called everything here?”

“Yes, that’s what Red called it. It was… pretty apt, actually. A constant ongoing projection, indiscriminate, full of pain…” He trails off, gaze distant. After a moment he blinks and looks at Agatha, then bows his head. “Apologies, Sensei. Thank you again.”

“It ended, during the battle?” Blue prompts. It’s always a bit annoying being around two people who can communicate, and more, in a way totally invisible to him. “The scream?”

“Oh, yes. Just before we attacked it the final time, when it held still. That’s why I called out… it seemed disoriented, for a moment.’

“So we killed it, then? It didn’t just run away?”

Jason opens his mouth, then closes it, frowning. “I wasn’t merged with it… normally I would say it was destroyed, but with the powers it showed… I can’t be sure. But it seems the most likely answer.”

Blue turns back to Agatha only to see her turn, and he realizes he hears more steps coming up the stairs. A moment later Leaf, Red, and the rest of the group arrive… along, finally, with Gramps.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Leaf asks Red as they climb the stairs.

He’s touched by her continued concern, even after Elite Agatha’s brusque reassurance that he’d be fine, and so does his best to make his smile convincing. “Yeah. Sorry for scaring you like that.”

She smiles back and returns her attention to following Professor Oak up the stairs, but from the corner of his eye he sees Jean’s skeptical, assessing stare. He knows she got a sense for how bad off he is, but she doesn’t say anything, for which he’s grateful. It’s hard enough to keep putting one step in front of the other with his partitions all in shambles.

The last thing he clearly remembers before everything got… jumbled… is one part of him doing his best to receive and mirror Leaf’s pure, fervent goodwill, while the other part did its best to project it up at the ghost on the top floor, all while its scream overlaid his emotions through the shield Jean struggled to keep up. It’s not easy shielding someone else, and he’s surprised he lasted as long as he did…

But neither of them stood a chance once he merged with the ghost. He has no way of knowing how long he kept the projection going once he started it; everything after the initial moments of intention and concentration is lost in a haze of grief so deep and stark that it felt like he wasn’t even in


his body any more, or like the ghost was just the narrow entrance to a funnel


whose open mouth scattered his awareness into



Red frowns and shakes his head. The flashbacks aren’t as strong as when his spinarak attacked him in Vermilion, probably because it wasn’t an actual attack, but he can’t amnesia it away, either. Psychically he feels utterly and completely drained, and just trying to send out a psydar pulse made his consciousness blur and his feet stumble.

If Elite Agatha hadn’t shown up to do her own, more thorough version of whatever Jason does, he’s not sure if he would ever have come back.

So that’s kind of terrifying.

But only in an abstract way; he doesn’t really have much room for terror, with all the grief.

The only thing keeping him from finding a corner to curl up in right now is not wanting Leaf to worry about him, and the question of what happened on the top floor. He’s not sure when he’ll get to see the Professor tackle such a novel mystery again.

Still, the corners look very attractive.

Professor Oak arrived up the stairs at a winded jog, and barely spent a minute examining all the dead cubone and marowak, making sure he and Leaf were unhurt, and shaking hands with a starstruck Artem, before rushing up to the top floor. A few others from the lab came with him, and one stayed behind to examine the bodies, but it’s clear what the rest of them are here for. Now, as the researchers all eagerly crest the top of the stairs, they pause as they find a reception waiting for them.

“Late again, old man. Those youngsters slow you down?”

Elite Agatha’s voice is cheerful, and the Professor smiles as he strides over to his childhood rival, still breathing hard. “Some of us age far less gracefully than others, I’m afraid.” He takes her hand in his and raises it to his lips.

She scoffs and pulls her hand back, but she’s smiling. “You look limber enough to me.”

Red’s gaze hurriedly skips over the gengar at her side as he and the others step around them to reunite with Blue and Jason.

“Are you well?” Jason asks. “The Elite said…” He trails off, and Red knows he doesn’t need to ask, really; he can sense something of what Red is feeling, and the look of dismay on his face makes Red re-evaluate how he’s doing.

Maybe he’s just gotten used to it. Maybe that’s a bad thing.

“Fine,” he says, mostly for the others’ benefit, but also because he’s not sure what good talking about it would do. “You guys?”

“We’re good, thanks to you and Leaf, apparently.” Blue doesn’t seem particularly cheerful about it, and Red vaguely wonders why through the haze of numbing grief.

It’s Maria that asks. “How bad was it, Blue?”

“Bad. The rangers lost four people… including Gale.”

The words barely touch him, though there’s a moment of dull pain at the mention of Gale. What draws his attention more is what Agatha says next.

“He does mean ‘lost,’ Sam. Apparently the bodies are missing.”

“The pokemon too?” Leaf asks.

“Yes, everything that it hit.”

“No, I meant… the pokemon on their belts. Did everything they were wearing disappear with them?”

“Yeah,” Blue says. “Everything they were wearing.”

A drop of confusion colors the grey around him, but not much. When people are teleported everything connected to them disappears, so it’s not too strange that whatever did that here followed similar rules… though it is strange that so many people were teleported at once, not to mention that they’re inside…

And they were dark. That’s why they were sent up here to begin with.

But they were dead…

How long after they died did they disappear?

The color spreads, little by little, until his confusion turns to curiosity.

The Professor is frowning, and after a moment turns to the researchers with him. “Do a full EM scan, Tori. Carl, look for bio samples anywhere it was sighted, and where the bodies were last seen.” He turns to Blue, voice low. “I’m guessing you don’t think the rangers are going to turn up somewhere?”

“No,” Blue admits. “Only dead pokemon disappeared, so… Haku said he sprayed Gale’s wound with potion, but was too distracted to check the healing rate. And, well, there’s evidence all around us that seems pretty convincing too.”

Everyone begins looking around, and it’s Artem who walks over to the nearest crypt with a plaque and carefully opens it, then frowns. He closes it, then goes to another, frowning harder after he opens that one.

“Empty?” Red asks, feeling slow. He should have thought of that… but no, there’s some confusion buried under the thought.

“All the ones I checked,” Blue confirms. “Including one I saw before.”

Leaf rubs her eyes, voice dull. “Why take the urns or caskets, but not the whole drawer?”

That’s not it. There’s something deeper… if only he could think…

“That’s for you eggheads to figure out.” Blue says. “Assuming Gramps hasn’t already?”

“I’m afraid not,” Professor Oak says, and turns to Agatha. “Have you ever heard of anything remotely like this?”

“None of the stories of corpse stealers had any of the other features of this tragic mess,” she says. “Whatever spirit caused it was more burdened than any I’ve heard of.”

“It was more than burdened, Sensei,” Jason murmurs, gaze down. “It was… twisted.”

She frowns at him. “Speak your doubt, Jason. You have nothing to fear.”

The medium bows his head in thanks, then seems to gather his words. “It felt… unnatural. I won’t go so far as to say ‘evil,’ even as a hypothesis… but there was something in it that felt fundamentally different from anything I’ve merged with before. Like it was only partially of this world, and partially…”

“Outside,” Red says, and now everyone’s looking at him, but


he’s struggling against


the memories he can’t amnesia away.

“Verres,” Agatha says, voice stern. “You’ll need rest, and soon. We can talk more about this later… perhaps you should go down, find lodging—”

“No, I’m okay,” Red says. “Really, I want to be here.” I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts, with nothing else to think about…

She frowns at him, but nods.

“Red’s right,” Jason says. “That word fits, outside.”

There’s a beat of silence at that, and Red hears the quick, heavy steps of some rangers walking past. Their faces look tense, their eyes moving restlessly over everything around them. He wonders if they were close to the missing (dead) ones, and feels a tremor of pain work through him.

“It was a spirit, though?” Agatha clarifies after a moment.

“Yes. I called it a new pokemon, when I first merged with it, and it’s not… unlike others… it still felt like one.”

“Actually,” Blue says. “There’s one thing that makes me wonder if it was a pokemon at all.” Everyone looks at him, and he holds up an ultraball. “This got a lock, I’m sure of it. But when I threw… it went through whatever it was we were fighting.”

Professor Oak holds a hand out for the ball, opens it, and starts examining the inside, while Red tries to think. “How… substantial, did it seem? Could you see through it at all? Did it seem to move with mass?”

Blue exchanges an uncertain look with Jason. “It all happened fast… but it did seem really agile. I don’t think I could see through it, but with the goggles on it was hard to tell…”

“From my lampent’s sight, it seemed as real as any of the other spirits in the room,” Jason says. “And it’s hard to imagine something less dense than a gastly core could hold that club…”

“Yeah, that part we know was solid.” Blue’s voice is bitter.

“Club?” Red asks.

“Oh, right… it looked like a marowak. A really scary, stretched out marowak, but there was no mistaking the skull helmet and bone club.”

“But not like the Alolan Marowak,” Jason clarifies. “They are still living creatures touched by the spirit world, like sensu oricorio, or decidueye. This pokemon was a spirit, through and through.”

Artem clears his throat, then speaks for the first time since coming upstairs. “If it was the first of its kind… if we assume spontaneous abiogenesis… I’m going to check and see if there were marowak remains somewhere on this floor. But either way, it may not be accurate to think of it as a variant of the marowak species. It might mimic their appearance, but be no more related than luvdisc and alomomola.”

“With the descriptions of the surreality it projected onto the whole floor, it’s hard to know how much even visual testimony can be trusted,” Jean notes. “Can you be sure your ball passed through it?”

Red watches Blue bristle for a moment, then sigh, tension running out of him. “No. Our vision was being messed with, and there were times its body seemed to move in ways unconnected to how it appeared to move… Maybe where I was seeing it, and where it was, were two different things.” He turns to Jason. “Did you happen to see…?”

The medium is already shaking his head, looking contrite. “From lampent’s perspective, the ball and the spirit touched. But it was in the path of the ball; it could have passed on the far side of it, from its angle, and only appeared to pass through.”

“Seems unlikely, but we’ll take it as at least partial evidence that the throw was solid,” Professor Oak says, still examining the inside of the ball. “Assuming we can trust the lampent’s vision to not be affected too, of course, which is difficult to know since Jason didn’t try the goggles on to see what it was like as a comparison, I’m assuming?”

“Ah, no,” Jason says, seeming even more apologetic.

Blue puts a hand on the medium’s shoulder. “There wasn’t really time to experiment.”

“Yes, of course,” the Professor says. “No blame was meant.” He turns to the third researcher beside him. “Collect every ball on this floor that might have gotten a lock, or even attempted a scan, on the pokemon.” The woman nods and hurries away, and Professor Oak minimizes the ball Blue handed him and pockets it. “As long as they didn’t attempt to scan anything else, the last thing they were focused on should be in their memory. Hopefully we can use the data in them to better understand what we’re dealing with.”

“As for the rest of you,” Agatha says, voice firm. “Down the tower, off to get your pokemon healed and get some rest, unless you can make a convincing argument that you can provide direct value staying here now and not later.

Red almost says something, but then she gives him a hard look that he understands to mean she won’t accept basically any argument he makes, and he doesn’t have the energy to come up with something clever anyway. The elusive confusion doesn’t return or clarify, and ultimately he feels like his presence here was useless, so he just listens to Artem and Jason try to make their case for staying, and once they’re shot down, heads for the stairway with them.

It’s hard to pay attention to the conversations others are having as they make their way down, but everyone goes quiet anyway once they reach the corpses on the floor below. The rangers have cleared a path, but not done much more in the way of cleaning up.

“Goddamn,” Blue mutters as they finally pass through the worst of it and reach the last few bodies that came to rest at the foot of the stairs below the battle. “Knew we should have just let it die.”

Red expects Leaf to say something, but when he glances over he sees the conflict in her face. He wonders if she’s torn between agreeing with him and not, or torn between being tactful and speaking her mind; Blue’s almost certainly thinking more about the rangers than the cubone and marowak that were killed.

Red musters his energy and focus. “If we let it die we’d never have learned anything about it. The whole point of coming here was to see if there was some new threat.”

“I know.” Blue sighs and rubs his face. “Just doesn’t feel like a win.”

“If it makes you feel better,” Jean says from behind them, “I kind of doubt it was actually suicidal.” They all turn to her, and she shrugs. “I know it felt like it was grieving and in pain, but would it have fought so hard if it really wanted to die? Think of victreebel, emitting a sweet scent to trap and eat any pokemon that comes to investigate.”

Red should have thought of that too. He grabs hold of this new aspect of the mystery, trying to focus, and he suddenly remembers what Maria said on their way to the tower. “You said it might not have scared off the ghosts, but consumed them.”

The quiet girl shrugs. “It was just a thought. But it seems as good an explanation as any…”

“Though it doesn’t explain the people who were lurking around the tower,” Blue adds. “Assuming they were related at all.”

“Would the ghost have tried to eat cubone and marowak too?” Leaf asks. “Or was attracting them just a side effect?”

Red’s thoughts drift as the conversation continues, and by the time they’re on the bottom floor all he can think about is how nice it would be to get back to the Trainer House and drop into bed. The snow is still falling outside, and they pause to put their warmer clothing back on before stepping out into the cold whiteness around the tower.

People are still talking, and it all sounds like a buzz in his ears. The crunch of steps on the snow is louder, as is his breathing. It seems to fill the world, the stark, empty, monochrome world


and then the buzz is much louder, with people shouting and no crunching footsteps and his heartbeat in his ears, and everything goes

inside out

black instead of white.

Red wakes in stages, each sense registering one at a time. First comes touch, the feeling of being wrapped in a warm cocoon, except for his face, which is slightly cool. Next is smell: clean linen, first and foremost, with something savory wafting in the background. After that comes hunger and thirst pangs from his stomach and throat, along with the bitter-mouth taste of having fallen asleep without brushing his teeth.

As he continues to swim toward consciousness he registers voices, murmuring through a wall or two, and that’s when the memories come. The tower, the marowak and cubone, the ghost… he instinctively flinches, but no painful memories surface, and a moment later—

Oh good, we’re awake.

A moment of disorientation as he wonders who he is, “which Red” he is, but the answer is obvious; what he heard was his unpartitioned self, meaning he’s the partitioned one, and that means his psychic abilities are working again.

A quick pulse of psydar confirms that, and that there’s a small group of people clustered nearby, and finally he opens gummy eyes and peers around him.

Where the hell are we?

Red has no idea (of course, otherwise his unpartitioned self would know too). It looks like a generic guestroom, so he’s not in the trainer house, or a hospital. He quickly pulses his psydar again, then focuses on the nearby minds, recognizing Leaf first, and—

He relaxes, letting a long breath out. Mom. He’s at his mother’s apartment, the one she’s been staying in for weeks now as she follows whatever lead she has in Lavender Town.

He can sense that she’s worried about him, but not actually concerned, so he guesses he wasn’t in any danger. Which makes sense, since he’s here instead of a hospital… he wonders how he got here…

Oh. She’s noticing the merger. Has she been practicing with a psychic?

He quickly withdraws from her mind, but a moment later he hears footsteps, and the door opens.

“Red!” Two steps and she’s there, sitting beside him and running her hand through his hair as she looks down at him with a worried smile. “How do you feel? Do you need anything?”

Her hand feels nice, and for a moment he just wants to curl up against her like he was a kid again. Then he hears other footsteps and sees Blue and Leaf hovering at the doorway, and clears his throat, embarrassed. “Water?”

“I’ll get it,” Leaf says, and hurries away while Blue leans against the doorway, looking relieved.

“I’m fine,” Red tells his mom, and shifts to sit up. “How long…?”

“About five hours,” Blue says. “You gave us a good scare, buddy. Aunty Ag said you’d be okay, but even she was concerned that you fainted again. She’s got some questions when you’re feeling better.”

“I’ll do my best,” Red says, which seems a tactful way to say that he has no idea what even happened because the partitions are keeping him safe from it.

“When you’re feeling better,” his mother repeats, frowning at him. “Not as soon as you wake up.”

“It might be important, if whatever it is is still going on,” Blue says, a little apologetically.

Mom’s brow furrows, but then she sighs and nods. “Go ahead and let them know, then.”

Blue nods and takes his phone out as he walks away, just as Leaf returns with a glass of water and a bowl of the savory stew he smelled. “In case you’re hungry?”

“I am, yeah. Thanks.” He takes the glass first and drinks—gods that’s nice—then sets it down on the nightstand and carefully takes the soup bowl. It’s warm without being hot, and absolutely delicious.

“Easy, Red,” his mom says. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Red slows down, cheeks hot. “How did I get here?” he asks after swallowing another spoonful.

“What do you remember?” Leaf asks.

“Um. Snow. We’d just left the tower…?”

“Yeah. When you fell, we put you on a stretcher and took you back inside, calling for help. The ranger medic said you were physically okay, and Agatha did something psychic and said you just needed rest… We weren’t sure whether we should take you to the hospital or the trainer house, and then I thought to call Laura.”

“I figured you’d be able to rest better here,” Laura explains, and Red knows she probably hadn’t left it up to debate. “One of the local doctors made a house call just to be sure, and agreed you were physically fine, so… we’ve just been waiting.”

Red has finished his soup as they talk, and his stomach rumbles. His mom takes the bowl with a smile. “I’ll get you more. Do you think you can handle some crackers too?”

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” he mumbles, cheeks hot. Rather than lingering on the thought of Leaf seeing his mom dote on him, he quickly tries to shift the focus back to other things. “What about the others? Did the Professor’s team learn anything yet?”

Leaf smiles. “Maybe, but if so they haven’t been broadcasting it or anything.”

“Right.” He chides himself for his impatience and shifts to sit a bit more comfortably against his pillow, trying to focus on something else. It’s a huge relief that his abilities seem to be back and working properly, and he keeps instinctively sending his power out, skimming the minds of those around him as if to prove to himself that he’s okay.

His mom feels much more cheerful than she did when he first merged with her upon waking. Leaf, on the other hand..

“Holding up okay?” he murmurs. He was almost too wrapped up in himself to notice how miserable she must have been after the battle at the tower, but now it’s as if she’s giving herself space to grieve.

She meets his gaze, then drops hers, hands splaying on her knees, fingers gripping and releasing. “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”

Red nods, but doesn’t say anything, giving her time to elaborate if she wants to. He almost doesn’t realize that he’s doing what Dr. Seward does to him. Shit, we have to tell her about all this… that’s going to be a conversation…

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Leaf says after another moment. “I mean, we faced something pretty extreme, so… it makes sense that it would bother me even if something like this happened while we were all still traveling together. But it was…” She trails off, and shakes her head, mouth pressed into a thin line.

“I’m glad you were there,” Red says once the silence has spun out for a while. “If you weren’t… we would have probably ended up having to kill all of them, assuming we weren’t overwhelmed.” He wonders if anyone’s checked how far the scream was traveling yet. How many more pokemon were on their way before it ended? “And more people upstairs might have been killed before they could stop it.”

Leaf hesitates, then nods, sighing. “I’m glad it worked. And I’m glad you were there, to make it work.” Her shoulders slump, and when she meets his gaze again Red is alarmed to see them shine with tears. “And I’m glad you’re okay.”

Red’s brain locks up, and he tries to think of something to say or do. Before he can there are footsteps in the hall, and his mom enters with a tray. “I brought some fruit and cheese too.”

Leaf wipes at her eyes, and Red feels the moment pass as he reflexively takes the tray from his mother. “Thanks.” Hungry as he was a moment ago he doesn’t start eating, and an awkward silence descends.

His mom finally seems to realize that she might have interrupted something, because she says, “Well, I’ve still got six hundred words to write today, and I’m a bit behind now. I’ll be in the other room if either of you need anything.”

“Thank you, Laura.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Once she leaves, the nature of the quiet changes from awkwardness to expectation, and it takes Red a moment to decide on something to say. “Leaf, I don’t want you to…”

He trails off as he hears more footsteps approaching, and then Blue walks into the small room and plops down on the bed beside him.

“Man, it’s cold outside,” Blue complains as he takes some of the cheese and crackers from Red’s tray, speaking with his mouth full. “Gramps and Ag said they’ll be back tomorrow anyway, so unless you have some amazing insight to share we might as well meet up in the morning instead.”

“Right,” Red mutters as he tries to think of some way to get Blue to leave. He wants to reassure Leaf, wants to make sure she doesn’t blame herself… but somehow it feels too personal to do while Blue is here, and the topic of risking-ourselves-to-help-others still feels like a slightly raw subject…

Hey genius, we’re psychic, remember?

Red slowly smiles, then starts eating his soup as he focuses on the feelings he wants Leaf to understand. He relies on his unpartitioned self to make sure they don’t repeat what happened on the cruise and overshare, but his cheeks still feel a bit warm as he projects the feelings of gladness and respect and appreciation for mutually making each other better people…

Leaf sucks in a breath, and when he looks up at her she’s smiling at him. He smiles back, cheeks feeling even warmer.

“What?” Blue asks, looking between them as he bites into one of the sliced pears. “I miss something?”

“No,” Leaf says, grinning even as she shakes her head. “If you’re hungry why don’t you get your own food?”

Blue blinks, then looks at his half eaten pear slice and swallows guiltily. “Ah, sorry, Red. I’ll go get you some more—”

“Nah, it’s fine.” He wonders, too late, if that was Leaf’s attempt to have Blue leave… maybe she wanted to say something herself. “I mean you can, if you want.”

Blue glances at Leaf apprehensively. “Uh…”

“Just ask next time. Like this. May I have a slice of pear, Red, or do you need every scrap of energy to recover from your harrowing ordeal?” The look she gives Red is still one of secret laughter, and he feels something like wings flapping in his chest.

“Yes you may, though if I should collapse again from exhaustion, I hope you feel very guilty.”

“That’s very kind of you, and of course I will be sure to—”

“Okay, I get it,” Blue says, and sighs as they start giggling while Leaf takes some pear for herself. “You guys finish getting all the giddy relief out? We’ve got business to discuss. Not that I’m not also really glad you’re awake, Red, particularly after… you know.”

Red nods, remembering how hard Blue took his friend Glen going into a coma. He suspects it was especially hard for Blue because it happened while he wasn’t with him, just like this would have been. “I know.” He starts sipping his soup. “What sort of business?”

“Weeeeell, Leaf and I were talking about it, and… what do you think about selling our story to a movie producer?”

Red blinks. “What story? You mean what happened at the tower?”

“More than that, our story! The Oaklings, or Pallet Three, or whatever. Volume One, for now, but the stuff at the Tower makes for a pretty good first climax, don’t you think?”

Red stares at Blue, unsure how serious to take him. Leaf starts giggling, and he chuckles, relieved that it’s a joke, until Blue frowns at her.

“Hey whose side are you on?”

“I know, Blue, I know,” she says, trying to control herself without much luck. “It’s just… his face…”

Red tries to shift his features into something less… whatever he looked like that set Leaf off. “I uh, don’t… think I get it. I mean this is a PR thing, right? I get that much, but are we really…”

“Heroes? Damn right we are! I mean stopping a few renegades here and there, lots of people do that around the world, but how many groups as young as us have, twice? Combined with the abra technique, me and Daisy and Gramps during the storm, the gym stuff I’ve been doing… okay, not really heroic but different and interesting… now this?” He shakes his head. “Don’t you see what we did? We took down a new legendary!”

Red stares. “That’s not… do you really think that?”

“I think people can’t prove otherwise,” Blue says. “Maybe it was just a baby, but we fought it within hours of it being born, or manifesting or whatever, and it was that dangerous? Can you imagine how powerful it might have become if we hadn’t stopped it?”

Red’s stomach drops at the idea of facing something even twice as strong. They still don’t know how large the range was, unless they figured it out while he was sleeping, and from what he heard, it was winning against around eight trainers at once up until Leaf’s projection hit it. “It still feels like a stretch to compare it to the Stormbringers. And arrogant.”

“That’s what I said,” Leaf adds. “But I think he’s onto something even if we don’t make that claim. We’ve got enough under our belts to do something more than just write posts about our experiences. A lot of it was terrifying and tragic…” She trails off, for a second, then sighs. “But I have to admit that, from an outside perspective, it would probably all seem pretty exciting.”

“And inspiring,” Blue adds.

“You think we can summarize over half a year into a single film?”

“Oh, we don’t have to cover all of it,” Blue assures him. “There’s a clear arc now! Leaf discovered her love shield thing with the abra, you had some trouble with your powers, but then learned to harness them, and now you both combined your efforts to beat the ghost!”

It’s bizarre having his life be described in a way that has “story arcs,” but he gets what Blue means; the movie would have a structure, related to historic events that would make it more than just a film about some semi-famous trainers on their journey. It would have justification, rather than just coming off as a PR thing.

But it would still be a PR thing.

Don’t forget money. Maybe even a lot of money.

“What about you?” Red asks, mostly just to fill the expectant silence.

“Eh, I caught the most abra even without tricks, and I was with the rangers who ended up fighting the thing. I think I’ll make out okay, and besides, my story’s the most exciting one between major events.”

Leaf snorts, but doesn’t argue the point, and Red finds himself smiling. “I still think it’s kind of a stretch, pitching ourselves as important enough for our own film.”

“But…?” Blue is grinning, and Red knows it’s obvious his resolve is crumbling.

Is he really considering this? He has been saying he would work on being more open to PR stuff, and when he examines what makes him uncomfortable about this, it’s all the same things he said before, which they had good arguments against.

Plus money.

He wonders if he should be worried that his unpartitioned self cares so much about money, suddenly, and then decides that the objections about making money feel even less convincing than the ones about not appearing arrogant or worrying about his image.

“Alright,” he sighs, and Blue clasps his fists together above his head in a victory pose while Leaf grins. “What do you need me to do?”

“Don’t worry about it right now, focus on resting.” Leaf says.

“I’m fine. I mean, I feel fine, much better than before.” Surprisingly better, really, but then that’s what amnesia is for. He remembers his first experiment, where the psychic in Pewter kept removing her memories of being hit by Night Shade over and over, and wonders how long it took her to let those partitions down and work through the feelings they caused.

“I’m glad to hear it, but either way right now there’s nothing you need to do. I’ll reach out to some people in the film industry—”

“Make sure you ask Gramps, he knows a few—”

“—and at some point you’ll probably sign some stuff and talk about things that happened, but we just wanted to make sure you’d be on board with it first.”

“Thanks,” he tells her, and turns to Blue. “Both of you. For looking out for my interests so much. This is… not something I ever really imagined, for myself.”

“Hey, what are friends for?” Blue leans forward to take another slice of pear. “Heard rumors that Brendan, May, and Wally are getting their own trilogy for everything that happened in Hoenn, so Kanto needs to step up.”

The original idea was to gather the next morning in one of the Ranger meeting rooms under Lavender Tower, but shortly after waking Leaf sees a message from Blue saying the new plan is to use a rented studio in the town’s sole office plaza. Apparently the list of attendees kept growing by the hour, and the tower doesn’t have anywhere big enough to squeeze in everyone that was there during the incident, plus the additional experts and researchers that showed up after Red fainted, the most prestigious of which are Leader Matsuba and Professor Elm from Johto.

Leaf rushes through the chores at the ranch so she can teleport back to Lavender on time. Sadly with snow on the ground there are fewer pokemon that can be let out, as many lack the instincts or terrain they would use in the wild to stay warm, but it does mean she finishes fairly quickly, and manages to arrive at the meeting early.

It’s set in a large conference room with glass walls, and the only people seated are some researchers she doesn’t recognize. Leaf nervously confirms she’s in the right place, then takes a seat and checks where Red and Blue are. Both say they’re on their way, so she reads over her messages and sees one from Natural asking her how the investigation is going, which reminds her that she hasn’t had the chance to tell him what happened.

She does so now, summarizing as best she can while still highlighting all the main points. His responses make her grin.



no seriously what are you joking what the hell

are you okay?!

She answers questions until more and more people start to trickle in, then promises him a call later and gets up to greet her friends as they arrive together. Blue and Maria take the seats to Leaf’s left while Red and Artem sit to her right, and it’s a relief to see how much better Red looks this morning, even compared to how much better he looked after waking at his mother’s. The emotions he shared with her still make her feel a warm buzz in her chest when she thinks of it, and help dispel any lingering self-blame she might have had over putting him at risk with her plan.

The room fills up quickly, and other than her group almost none of the faces are familiar from the tower, though she does recognize others from online. Elite Agatha shows up in the same coat as the day before, and once again Leaf is torn between noting that the coat looks amazing while wondering if it’s real, and if it is, how the ninetales died. Some pokemon are killed for their coats, but surely one as rare as that wouldn’t have been?

When Leader Sabrina arrives, Red goes to greet her with a respectful nod. Leaf sees the surprise on his face when she bows her head back, murmuring something to him, and after a brief back and forth the Leader reaches out to squeeze his shoulder, then goes to greet Elite Agatha.

“What’d she say?” Leaf whispers when Red returns.

“Just… that she’s really glad I’m okay, and proud of me.”

It seemed like it was more than that, but then again, Sabrina always struck her as distant, so the show of affection would probably be surprising.

More people continue to trickle in, rangers and psychics and researchers, as well as a couple more Kanto Leaders, including Misty, and…

Leaf’s pulse jumps as she sees Leader Giovanni in person again for the first time since Mount Moon. His gaze sweeps the room, pausing here and there, nodding to someone or the other, and her stomach flips as those dark eyes rest for a beat on her. She finds herself nodding back without any conscious decision, and as his gaze moves on and he eventually goes to find a seat, she feels anger at herself for returning the gesture. She knows she’s being ridiculous, it was just a neutral sign of acknowledgement he gave many others, it’s not like it was some token of mutual conspiracy… she would probably be mad at him if he just ignored her, or worse, didn’t even recognize her…

Professor Oak and his entourage are among the last to arrive, looking like they spent the whole night up doing research. Elite Agatha taps her wristwatch, which causes the Professor to grin as he takes a seat while his researchers open container boxes full of food and drinks. As they start handing out mugs of steaming coffee and tea, more boxes continue to be summoned, these containing beanbags for people to sit on.

“Sorry for the delay, everyone. We’re all here? Ready to record? Great.” Professor Oak clears his throat. “The purpose of this meeting is to share our preliminary findings on the various phenomena related to the incident at Lavender Tower yesterday, and collect further details from those present. To begin with, thanks to Dalia we’ve got a rough measure of how far the ‘psychic scream’ went, so let’s start there.”

He leans back in his seat and sips from his tea, and the woman in question steps forward from where she was leaning against the wall. “So, basically I just made a lot of cold calls and put up some posts on public forums,” she says, hand fidgeting with the string of the tea bag hanging out of her own mug. “We know from multiple reports that it at least covered all of Lavender, but no sensitives or psychics in Saffron or Cerulean City noticed anything strange. Between those two distances we got a single positive response from the nearby ranger outpost just west of town. We can speculate that it might have gone further than that, but at least we have a maximum range. As for the minimum… the outpost was nearly twenty-four kilometers from Lavender Tower.”

Blue gives a low whistle, then mutters, “That’s a lot of cubone that might have made their way to the tower.”

“Is there any psychic phenomenon that’s been recorded with an effect that large before?” one of the rangers asks.

“Not in reliable sources,” Professor Oak says, then smiles as Elite Agatha clucks her tongue. “But given the events in Hoenn, I think we’re all a little more open to taking a second look at… slightly less robust ones…?”

He turns to Agatha, who nods. “There are stories, just stories, I freely admit, of spirits capable of beguiling entire towns, of forests haunted by something powerful enough to keep anyone attempting to enter it away. In my youth I investigated a few of these, and found nothing to corroborate them that survived to the modern day. It’s possible that what was felt was not, in fact, the effects of a single spirit, but a confluence of them, limited in time such that they usually disperse before any proper investigation can be mounted. But there are some exceptions, and I’ll leave explaining one of them to Morty, who is more studied on such matters.”

Leader Matsuba bows his head. “You honor me, Elite.” The Johto Leader is dressed much more casually than most psychics she’s seen; black shirt, white pants, and a purple scarf that shifts to red at the ends, along with a purple headband. Despite his casual appearance and relatively young age, however, his gaze is nearly as intense as Elite Agatha’s, and Leaf wonders if Red’s eyes will ever look like that when he gets older or more psychically experienced. “It’s true that I’ve studied Ghost pokemon absorption, but I won’t claim to be an expert.”

“If you’re not an expert, then we have none,” Professor Oak cheerfully says. “Just tell us what you can.”

“There are only a few species that we’ve actually observed doing this, and spiritomb is the most well studied… but like my potential expertise, that’s not saying much, since only a handful have ever been captured. The oldest spiritomb we have records of is from Sinnoh, where carvings of spirits trapped in a keystone were found from over five hundred years ago. Leader Fantina has been hunting it, convinced that it was hidden away somewhere in the region. From what we’ve observed in captured spiritomb, they appear to get a larger power boost than any others when they consume other ghosts… but this is offset by how much time they spend afterward hibernating, only to re-emerge months, sometimes years, later, more erratic and harder to tame than before.” He fiddles with the edge of his scarf a moment. “It may be worth noting that each time a spiritomb is captured, it registers as a new pokemon.”

Professor Oak is nodding. “So your hypothesis is that this ghost was something like a spiritomb, which consumed all the ghosts in the area, accounting for its erratic behavior and extreme strength.”

“Yes. And like the spiritomb, what it appears to be is not what it really is.” Leader Matsuba turns to Blue. “The data from your ball confirms that you locked onto something, just like the ball found near where the first two rangers disappeared. But what you locked onto was not the distorted image of the marowak; that was a mere projection, much like a spiritomb’s swirling ‘face’ of green lights and purple gas.”

Blue does an admirable job of not looking too bitter, considering that the others who were fooled ended up dead. “The mask?”

Professor Oak shakes his head. “The club. We studied the data as best we could throughout the night, and it wasn’t just bone; there were semi-organic compounds in it, similar to those found in marowak bone. Assuming it was killed, whatever remains it left behind must have vanished, along with the rest of the corpses on the floor.”

The room is silent for a moment, and Leaf wonders if the rangers are regretting that it was killed, or bitterly glad that their lost friends were avenged. The researchers are obviously disappointed, Red included, but she suspects only Jason, Agatha, and Matsuba are mourning the spirit itself. And Blue must be beating himself up over how close he came to capturing a newly discovered pokemon (and a strong one, of course) only to miss by inches… maybe he’s worried people will blame him for messing up…

“So?” Blue abruptly asks. “What do we think? Did we stop a new legendary from being born?”

A chuckle works its way around the room, and Leaf sees Leader Misty smirk knowingly at Blue, who manages to look innocently curious.

“That would be a strong claim to make,” Professor Oak says, and though he’s also clearly amused his tone makes it clear how serious he is, probably for the sake of the recording. “And would require more evidence than we are likely to ever have, unless another one appears… which, given how powerful it was, would be a mixed blessing at best.”

Blue nods, and Leaf covers her smile with her hand. She hasn’t reached out to the Professor yet, and wonders if he already knows of their plans from Blue; either way he probably suspected why Blue was trying to get an answer to that in an official statement.

“That brings us to the next point,” Sergeant Iko says. “We’re presuming it was killed for a few decent reasons… the surreality field or whatever the hell that was ended, it hasn’t shown up anywhere else, and the remains of everything, including those interred in the top floor of the tower, all vanished, leaving us unable to verify its death the ordinary way. But we can’t take for granted that it’s gone, and everyone around Lavender will be on high alert for a while.”

One of the higher ranking rangers in the room nods. “We’re discussing a general alert for all graveyards around the islands, in case it’s drawn to such places, but unfortunately it would stretch us out pretty thin to maintain any real vigilance for more than a couple days. At the very least, a pair of rangers or gym members at each major cemetery will likely be announced by noon.”

“In any case,” Sergeant Iko says, “As of today we’ve given up the search for the missing rangers, and are presuming them dead as well. Their loss, and the loss of their pokemon, including all those on their belts, will be felt throughout the town, and beyond it.”

His voice is calm, but Leaf can see the heaviness in his eyes, and suspects he didn’t get much sleep last night either. He looks as though he’s going to add something else, until Professor Elm clears his throat, drawing everyone’s attention to him before he speaks for the first time.

“I’d like to raise a curiosity, though I know it may muddy the water a bit. Well, a curiosity, and a caution, against assuming we understand why the rangers disappeared. To be clear, I understand why we would assume that.” He turns to Sergeant Iko and dips his head. “You have my sympathy for their loss, Sergeant, and for having to make a call despite the uncertainty. I don’t mean to give false hope, or rub salt in the wound—”

“—I understand,” Sergeant Iko says, tone even. “And appreciate your concern. Get to your point, please.”

Professor Elm hesitates, then nods. “Right. Simply put, there’s no definition of ‘death’ that fits our observations.”

“Of course!”

Everyone turns to Red, who abruptly sinks into his seat, cheeks flushed. Professor Oak chuckles, Leader Sabrina covers something between a cough and a laugh behind her hand, and then a ripple of laughter moves through the room as her friend tugs his hat a bit lower.

“Sounds like Mr. Verres got there ahead of me?” Professor Elm asks with a smile.

“No, no, I… I was confused about it at the time but… I didn’t figure it out until you said that.”

The realization hit Leaf a little more subtly—what her thoughts leapt to from Elm’s words was a conversation she had with Blue and Red back in Viridian Forest, about how long Dark pokemon retain their psychic immunity after death—but she decides Red could use some rescuing. “Oooh, I get it! Their cells would still be alive!”

Professor Elm nods. “Exactly. There’s no firm definition for ‘medical death.’ It’s basically a function of our technology; at one point in history, not having a heartbeat anymore would mean death, but then we learned how to revive even from that, if we’re quick and lucky. Nowadays I would say someone could survive practically anything but a damaged heart or brain as long as they get the right treatment on time, but even that might change as our medicine gets better.”

The Johto Professor’s smile has faded by now, and the mood of the room returns to its earlier grimness. Worse than giving the rangers up as dead is the idea that they may have still been alive when they went wherever they did… assuming they went anywhere at all, of course.

“There are many different answers as to when the spirit leaves the body,” Elite Agatha says into the silence. “I had a similar thought, but nothing to suggest in its place as a rule for why those rangers disappeared. Do you?”

“No, and I don’t mean to get metaphysical, so I’ll just conclude by saying that, if we assume dead organic matter was the criterion, without circulation it would take minutes for all the cells in the body to die at room temperature. At best we can probably say that being unconscious divided those that disappeared from those that didn’t, but even that might be wrong. Maybe it was only those who were touched by the club, as we have no living counter-examples to compare to.” Professor Elm shrugs. “Like I said, just another confusion to add to the list.”

The room is silent again. No one offers any ideas, and after a moment Sergeant Iko stirs. “Thank you for raising those questions. I look forward to seeing what answers might be found on them, but right now there’s something else that seems more important.” He surprises Leaf by turning to her. “We have three people in particular to thank for there not being more casualties. While the other effects of the ghost may prove a perpetual mystery, I would like to know more about what Leaf, Red, and Jean did that paralyzed it, in case it can be repeated in other situations.”

“Paralyzed?” Leader Matsuba asks.

“Not in the traditional sense,” Jason says. “But from my observation, it did appear to go still, its scream interrupted, at around the time that they report trying to project feelings to it. That’s when we struck, all together, and, presumably, destroyed it.”

“I’ll take my share of credit, but it’s not much,” Jean says frankly. “I only provided a shield to Red as best I could, and have only a vague idea of what he did and how.”

The room’s attention shifts to Red. “I was projecting what Leaf was focusing on.” Red shrugs, adjusting his hat a little to reveal more of his face, though his cheeks are still pink. “As for what that was, and why it might have worked, she’d be the best person to ask.”

Now everyone is staring at her. She mentally rehearsed what she might say on the way here, expecting something like this—she even wrote some notes last night for an article she plans to write on it—but giving the report, on an official recording of the incident, still makes her nervous. “It was, ah, basically just a strong feeling of… love, and reassurance, and a desire that it should live.”

The room is quiet, and she wipes a sweaty palm on her pantleg. No one laughs, at least, and the researchers all look fascinated.

“I read your article on how you caught abra, and the follow-up experiments,” one of Professor Elm’s group says. “Were there others that you haven’t recorded, or was this the first attempt with a Ghost type?”

“The latter, but I don’t think this was the same thing. From what I understand of projection, it forces the emotions on the receiver?” She glances at Red, Jean, Jason, and Agatha, but no one contradicts her. “So the ghost was feeling what it was projecting to others. I think this was particularly effective because it was specifically countering what the ghost was focusing on.”

“It goes beyond even that,” Agatha says. “Spirits do not simply feel emotions. In a very meaningful sense, they are their emotions, given tangible form. They still have minds of their own, and so while they can be conditioned, they are not beholden to any psychic that decides to project onto them… but this is why spiritual attacks are so effective against them, as with psychic.”

No one quite seems to know how to respond to that, and after a moment Sergeant Iko speaks again, sounding resigned. “So the short answer for others learning it is ‘probably not,’ then? I did wonder why it hasn’t been done before, and guessed from the effect it had on Mr. Verres that it was simply too dangerous a tactic to use in common circumstances.”

“No, that’s a whole different matter, unique to Psychic Red’s abilities,” Leader Sabrina says, and gives Red what seems to Leaf an apologetic look. “He is uncommonly vulnerable to spiritual attacks for reasons that are complex and unimportant for the general topic. What matters more, I believe, is that the ability to copy an emotion and project it at once was what taxed him so, in addition to the effects of the scream that overwhelmed Psychic Jean’s defenses. If Miss Juniper were a psychic and attempted it, she likely would not have been as affected, which is why learning this frame of mind, if it’s possible to do so, would be potentially a great benefit.”

People are looking at Leaf again, and she lifts her chin. “I’d be happy to try and teach it to whoever wants to learn. I’ve posted a few articles on it since our abra captures, to try and do so through writing, but if a psychic has to learn from me directly then it seems worth my time, if it means more people are equipped to handle something like this happening again.”

She takes a breath. “That said, I do think it would be more difficult than most might expect.” She glances at Red, who nods. “There are fundamental values underlying what I focused on both with the abra and in the tower, that I don’t believe can be believed in as is convenient. I don’t think those values can’t be learned, but I want to caution people from thinking they can just… pick it up, and remain unchanged.”

“Ominous,” someone mutters, and the room chuckles again.

Leaf feels her own face grow hot, even though she knows nothing personal was meant by it. What she said was ominous, but she needs this to be taken seriously…

“I’m assuming this has something to do with the project you’re working on,” Professor Oak asks, and she sees encouragement in his bright blue gaze. “Can you elaborate, Leaf?”

“Sure.” This conversation is going to be public record, and listened to by millions of people. She needs to take advantage of that. “For those that don’t know, I have very strong beliefs about pokemon welfare. I don’t engage in trainer battles, don’t eat any pokemon, and much of my time is spent helping care for those that have been abandoned. I even suspended my journey to focus on a new project that might someday solve much of the dangers humans face from wild pokemon, permanently.”

The room is silent, and she doesn’t need to be psychic to pick up on people’s confusion, shock, and skepticism. “All of which is to say,” she presses on, “That the convictions I hold are deep ones. I didn’t pick them up for some reward or personal benefit, and I’m skeptical that using it in such a way would work.”

This time the silence has more of a thoughtful feel, going off the expressions she can see. Eventually Professor Elm leans forward, adjusting the glasses on his narrow nose. “Have you been changed by the experience, Mr. Verres? I understand that your ability to mirror the mental states of others is somewhat unique, but has already been taught in part to Leader Sabrina and some of her other pupils.” He looks between Red and Sabrina, now. “Has anyone noticed any such side effects?”

Leaf can tell, now, that Red’s nervousness is about the subject matter. This is getting dangerously close to the sensitive topics they talked about on the cruise, and the fact that two powerful psychics are in the room makes Leaf wonder if Red is debating how honest he should be.

She realizes the psychics might already be communicating with each other about this very thing, and feels a moment of jealousy, wishing she could send Red mental support and reassurance. It’s strange to think of such a private conversation being layered on top of a situation like this… but then again, any of the others fiddling with their phones or on laptops at the moment could be having one too.

“I don’t think I can give an objective answer,” Red finally says. “Leaf is one of my closest friends, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about our beliefs. I’ve found some of her arguments convincing enough to alter my diet so that it’s closer to hers, and from the inside this feels distinct from the feelings I’ve mirrored from her… but I can’t with any confidence say there’s been no effect. As for the other psychics in Saffron, as far as I know none have tried it with ideological beliefs.”

Leader Sabrina nods. “That’s my experience as well, and I’ve detected no permanent changes to ice cream preference yet.”

Another chuckle moves around the room, and though she’d been waiting for it throughout the meeting, the sound of Giovanni’s voice still takes Leaf by surprise. “As Sabrina and her pupils are already pursuing this avenue of study, I suggest we leave it to them to continue to do so. I trust they’ll let us know when it’s time for more robust studies to be done, or if collaboration with other psychics or researchers would be helpful?”

“Of course,” Sabrina says, and turns to Leaf. “I’d be happy for your participation, if you can spare the time.”

Leaf nods, and the conversation moves on to other things, but the exchange doesn’t sit right with her. Leaf glances at Giovanni, unsure of what she’s feeling other than vague suspicion and dissatisfaction. The Viridian Leader has been sitting quietly the whole meeting, alternating between listening attentively or fiddling with his phone, the same way he did while speaking with her. It doesn’t make her feel any better about that, even if the other big names in the room are also checking their phones or typing into them on occasion.

“What’s wrong?” Blue mutters at her side.

“Nothing.” Everything Giovanni said seems sensible enough. No one else objected, and it’s also probably Red’s preference, keeping things in his and Sabrina’s control. She knows he and Red would say she’s just being paranoid because of her past experience with him… okay, they probably wouldn’t say it, but they’d think it.

And they’d probably be right. She takes a moment to imagine Giovanni said the opposite, that the research should be done by new people, and she has to admit that she’d be suspicious of that too.

Okay, so I have a bias against him. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong to be wary.

Blue is frowning at her, and Red leans in from the other side, brow creased. “You don’t want to work with us?”

“It’s not that. But…” She tries to put it into words, the worry that continuing as they have been is a mistake. What she’s done has gone from a handy trick to catch rare pokemon, to something that can stop real threats. They have to make sure they’re exploring every avenue, not just trusting one group to get things right. “What if something about Sabrina’s… style… isn’t compatible with it? You’re already working with her, maybe we should, you know. Diversify.”

She expects Red to object, but he just looks thoughtful, then distracted. Eventually he leans toward her and murmurs, “It’s a good idea. You should bring it up.”

“Really? You’re not worried about…” She lowers her voice even further. “You know, people getting scared of psychics manipulating them?”

“What?” Blue says from her other side, and she holds up her index finger to tell him to wait a minute.

“The cat’s out of the ball now,” Red says with a shrug. “Maybe Sabrina will be against it, but you should still bring it up.”

Leaf nods, feeling relieved, then turns to Blue and summarizes what she said, minus the worry about society being scared of psychics, since that would be a longer conversation and she wants to start paying attention to the one the rest of the room is having again.

That turns out to be an exploration of the tactics used to defend the tower, the decisions Sergeant Iko made (which she’s glad to see no one is blaming him for, and is also glad that, when Jason tries to blame himself, a number of people speak out in his defense), an analysis of the new tactics the ghost used and how trainers could defend against it if it’s fought again, and a further examination of the issue with the cubone and marowak population around the tower, which was largely destroyed.

They break for lunch, also provided by Pallet Labs, and Blue steps away to introduce Maria to someone while Leaf tries to find an opportunity to bring up her counter-offer. She considers approaching Professor Oak, but he’s busy speaking with others, and when she looks around for someone else to talk to about it her gaze falls on a surprisingly unoccupied Giovanni, who’s eating with one hand as his other holds his phone, thumb tapping away.

A quiet voice inside worries that a private conversation would rob her of the support she might need, and it’s not like he’s in charge of what other psychics do… but she recognizes the real fear the voice represents. Fear of pitting herself against the focused, relentless will of a Leader, let alone one like Giovanni.

And she just had an idea, a risky idea but this has been bothering her for months now and when is she going to get another opportunity?

She stands before she can let herself be intimidated, and wipes a sweaty palm on her napkin as she murmurs, “Hey, Red?” He’s busy discussing something with Artem, so she taps his shoulder until he turns. “Do me a favor, if you can? Keep your senses on me, and let me know if someone else tries to skim my thoughts or merge.”

Red blinks at her, mouth full, then looks at Giovanni, then back at her, chews, swallows. “You want me to come with you?” he whispers.

Yes! “No.” She tries to smile through her nervousness, genuinely warmed by his support. “Thanks, I just want to make sure he’s not cheating this time. Assuming he was last time.” The Viridian Leader entered the room alone, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t bring someone else to the building.

“You got it.” Red turns back to Artem and tells him he needs to use the restroom—such a bad liar—then gets up, presumably to go somewhere nearby where he can concentrate.

“Oh, Red…” Her phone is already on silent, and she turns the vibration all the way up, then puts it in her pocket. “Send me three quick messages if you sense something.”

He nods, and she starts walking toward the Leader. Second thoughts immediately assail her… maybe people aren’t talking to him because he’s notorious for preferring no interruptions while he eats. Maybe he’s just going to act like she’s a silly girl who should trust the leading psychic authority in the region—

—no, from what she knows of him he doesn’t belittle others like that. She needs to expect him to be supportive even when he pushes for getting his way, perhaps praising her for her idea while still making it seem clear that it would be a mistake.

She rehearses what she’ll say right up until the moment he turns to her, gaze flicking from his phone to her face and back, then nods in greeting. “Miss Juniper.”

“Leader. I hope I’m not imposing?”

“No, though if this is concerning the last thing we discussed, I hope you’ll understand if I defer discussing it to another setting? Rest assured, I haven’t forgotten that I’m close to owing you payment for your previous work.”

Leaf hasn’t forgotten it either, though she has wondered how to best approach him about it, and how she’d feel about accepting it given what she’s told Laura. She wonders if a psychic is in her mind now (other than Red) and quickly focuses on something else. “It’s not, though I would be happy to revisit that topic another time, if you’re free. This is about the psychic testing of my mental state.”

At last his eyes move to hers and stay. They’re only mostly as intimidating as she remembers. “You’ve changed your mind?”

Her pulse speeds up, but her phone still hasn’t buzzed in her pocket. Come on, it doesn’t take a psychic to guess that. “I think it would be better to diversify who’s trying it.”

“That seems reasonable.” He’s looking at his phone again, and she feels herself relax slightly, then chides herself for doing it. His words don’t surprise her, however, one of the things she reminded herself to expect was quick capitulation, followed by— “But why approach me on it? I only made a suggestion, it would be up to other psychics to volunteer their time. I imagine most would jump at the opportunity.”

“I was wondering, since it was your suggestion, whether you had some extra reason for it that I hadn’t considered. But if you agree, I’ll bring it up.”

It sounds weak, saying it out loud, and part of her realizes with chagrin that even if he does use psychics to scan the thoughts of people he needs to convince of things that this might not rise to that level of necessity.

As she’s sweating over all this, Leader Giovanni simply purses his lips as he reads something, scrolls with his thumb, then says, “I believe it’s prudent to focus your time on the most accomplished and promising psychics, and Sabrina has already put effort into consolidating all those without other pressing needs on their time under one roof. As such it seemed the most efficient route, but it’s your time to spend as you see fit.” He looks at her again. “It’s a valuable commodity, in case you haven’t realized.”

“My time?”

“Specifically your ability to teach this technique to others. I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you decided to charge for the opportunity to learn it.”

Even having prepared herself for this kind of manipulation she feels heat rising in her cheeks. “No, I haven’t. It didn’t occur to me.” It probably would have, given more time to consider it, but after what they experienced at the tower the idea of asking for payment to keep something like it from happening again feels unthinkable.

His brow twitches. “Then I can only commend your altruism. But I know Sabrina will offer you money for your time, as you’re not a psychic who will benefit yourself from your time spent with her, and that’s also part of why I suggested her. It’s not often you’ll find a skilled psychic who isn’t at least moderately wealthy, but she would also pay for her students, who are exceptions due to their dedication to self-development and research.”

Despite herself, Leaf finds herself smiling, not at the prospect of being paid but in simple admiration. How do people get this good? Are there lessons somewhere she can sign up for? Does anyone teach defense against it? He’s just so damn reasonable that she now thinks the part of her wanting to keep resisting is just being stubborn.

And the worst part is, for a second she could swear she sees a slight crinkle at the corners of his eyes, a slight curl to his lip. It could just be general pleasantness, a natural reaction to her smile, but even with her phone’s continued stillness, even knowing he’s Dark, part of her is convinced he knows why she’s smiling, and is letting her know he knows.

This was a terrible idea.

But she doesn’t regret it. “I’ll consider it some more. Thank you for your time.”

“Thank you for yours. Outside my specialty though it is, do let me know if there’s something I can do to help in your endeavor.”

“I will.” A rush of boldness has her speaking again before she can second-guess herself. “And if there are any updates on what we talked about before that are safe to share, I hope I’ve proven myself discreet enough to hear them. I’m not as focused on journalism as I was before, but I may still be able to help.”

Now he does smile, briefly. “You have, and it seems a reasonable request. I’ll consider it in return.”

“Thank you, Leader. Enjoy your meal.” She bows her head the way she’s seen others in Kanto do, then heads back to her seat, pulse still racing. She starts eating again, barely tasting the room temperature salad, and a minute later Red sits beside her.

The look on his face makes her blush, and she covers her eyes with one hand. “You don’t have to tell me I made a fool of myself.”

“Hey, this is all admiration. I mean I’m glad he doesn’t use psychics that way, or at least I’m glad this instance didn’t provide us evidence of that… assuming he doesn’t, if he does then I wouldn’t be glad to not get evidence… anyway, my point is I wasn’t really that worried for you, but you clearly were, and you did it anyway. At some points it felt like you were being threatened, and you still didn’t back down! That took guts.” He blinks. “Uh, he wasn’t actually threatening you, right?”

Now she’s blushing for two reasons. “No. It wasn’t that exciting a conversation, really. But thanks.”

“What’d he say, then? You going to diversify?”

She sighs. “I don’t know. I guess there’s no rush to make a decision right now, and it’ll be nice to work with you and Jason more, and your other friends.”

“Eehh, I wouldn’t call them all friends…”

“Yo,” Blue says as he takes his seat beside her. “What were you talking to Giovanni about?”

She summarizes for both of them, then listens to them argue the pros and cons, and then the lunch break ends and conversations resume around more aspects of the attack, such as the technology behind the goggles. Apparently Silph Corp. was invited to attend and discuss the technology, but declined, and someone makes a snide remark about sour grapes before Professor Oak moves them quickly along to discussing other avenues of research into “room wide” attacks or effects that pokemon can create.

The talks go on for hours, and Leaf starts to notice more and more people’s focus flagging, and her own mind drifting to whether they’ll have another break soon, right up until Professor Oak says, “So, last but not least… origin.”

The room’s attention seems to sharpen, and Red visibly perks up beside her, as does Artem beside him. Elite Agatha rests her chin on folded hands, peering thoughtfully into the distance. “We can assume, I believe, that one of the buried marowak provided the material for the spirit to possess and manifest,” she says. “From the records, there was exactly one, and we may yet learn something about its history that becomes important. Morty and I will do our best to find any clues in the spirit realm, while the mayor leads the investigation into the tower’s records.”

The mayor in question is an old Kanto native with long silver hair and a black robe of some kind, perhaps a sign of mourning for the rangers who were lost. She can’t tell if he serves some religious function to the community along with being its mayor, and so far he’s spoken only sparingly in a strong but dusty voice. “Along with our search through the records, we’re also coordinating with the rangers to discover whether someone did anything on the top floor that might have acted as a trigger for the ghost’s materialization, or if it’s related to the higher frequency of ghost sightings before their sudden disappearance. Police will also look into the reports of more frequent strangers around and inside the tower over the past few weeks, and we will soon put out a general call for information related to this, however minor.”

“Be sure to emphasize that there is no blame attached,” Giovanni says. “We want to encourage people to come forward if they did something that led to this.”

The mayor’s brow creases. “Are you suggesting blanket amnesty, Leader? Even if there was ill intent?”

“I am.”

“Seconded,” Professor Oak says. “Unless anyone thinks it likely someone could create a new pokemon on purpose?” He looks around the room, waiting for any response. None comes. “So until we find evidence otherwise, we should operate under the assumption we aren’t dealing with renegade activity. Even if whatever was done wasn’t innocuous, we don’t want to frighten them out of coming forward or naming their friends or family members who committed some other crime if it means we may better understand what happened.”

The mayor hesitates, fingers of one hand rubbing the cloth of his sleeve, then nods. Leaf tries to see it from his perspective; what if the incident that led to the pokemon appearing was the theft of some venerated tomb in the tower, or even a murder at the wrong place and wrong time? It would seriously undermine the rule of law to not punish such a crime at all, even without taking into consideration the consequences of it.

But while he’s the highest authority on local civil matters, to go against the advice of two such prominent people could be bad for his career. And it is important to make sure they understand what happened, if they can… if something like a murder could cause a ghost pokemon to appear, it may be worth letting the murderer go to find that out. It’s not like anyone would trust them again, and police would be watching them closely afterward.

“Excuse me.” Artem raises his hand, and the room’s attention shifts to him. “There’s something I’ve been looking into that might be worth discussion, if that topic is covered?”

“It is, for now,” the mayor says. “You are?”

“Artem Mateush. I’m a researcher who fought at the tower, and… while we were searching the grounds for ghost pokemon, before we went in, Jean got a false positive that turned out to be unown. Did anyone else notice them?”

The room is silent for a moment, and then Red and Jason agree that they did. “You think it’s related?” Professor Oak asks.

“I think it’s worth investigating.”

Red’s hand rises to rub his temple as he turns toward Artem. “If unown can cause new pokemon to manifest, wouldn’t we have noticed by now? New pokemon would be showing up around the ruins they used to populate.”

“I know, I even checked some records and, as far as I could tell from a night’s worth of research, the few locations where they could be reliably found in the past don’t have a higher than average rate of new pokemon species being discovered. But! Many of those locations are remote, and they’re not being constantly monitored, so I don’t think it’s that strong of evidence against. Also, most pokemon appear in the wild, so maybe the few that arise rarely in towns or cities do so when some unown are flying around above them.”

Leaf can’t see Red’s expression, but she can hear his skepticism. “What about how common they’ve been elsewhere since the incident in Hoenn? We’re not seeing new species pop up everywhere.” His hand is still rubbing, two fingers pressing hard as if to alleviate a headache.

“True, but we also don’t know the rate at which new pokemon appeared before the incident.” Artem turns to Professor Oak. “I mean, I don’t think we do?”

“Just estimates, and very broad ones,” the Professor says. “Kanto in particular hasn’t had any native species discovered in my lifetime, before this. It’s rare enough, in general, that I don’t see the lack of new species showing up since the incident as indicative that unown aren’t involved… and it does seem meaningful that the first new species since the incident would be here, with unown sightings up around the islands, but not around the world.”

The conversation continues, but Leaf is distracted, watching with rising concern as Red rests his elbows on the table, both hands massaging his temples now. “Red? You okay?”

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Just…” He shakes his head, eyes closed. “Flashback. Strong.”

Shit. “We should let Agatha know.”

“No, it’s normal. Just stronger than usual… fragmented…”

“Fragmented? What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Just the best word that fits.” He takes his pocket journal out, flipping to a new page and starting to write. She wants to keep asking questions, but maybe she shouldn’t distract him if what he’s doing is helpful… and he does seem less pained, now, though it’s hard to tell when he has a look of such deep concentration.

“…Wally’s expertise from the Hoenn incident,” Artem is saying when she tunes back in. “Plus, spotters are working around the islands to track their movements, so I can reach out, see if they’ve got anything that can help us.”

Professor Oak nods and looks around the room. “That goes for the rest of the topics we’ve brought up today too.” He smiles at Blue, some of the proud grandparent that always seems to be simmering beneath the surface leaking through. “This new network of interregional collaboration has the potential to be even more powerful than the pokedex. We’ve got some exciting mysteries to tackle, and some frightening ones, but none of us are doing it alone, and that’s always been our strength. Reach out, learn from each other, share what you discover… and someone, somewhere, will figure it out, sooner or later.”

“Well said.” The room’s attention shifts to Giovanni, who stands. For a second Leaf thinks he’s going to start the exodus out of the room as people leave or take another break, but instead he says, “If I may expand on the point, before we conclude?”

When Leaf glances back at Professor Oak, he seems curious, maybe a little apprehensive, if she’s not projecting too much, but he nods.

“The Professor spoke the truth when he said our strength is our ability to work together.” The Viridian Leader clasps his hands behind his back as his gaze slowly sweeps the room. “Drop any single human, no matter how well educated, how focused, how fit, into the untamed wilds, and they will likely be dead within a day. If they somehow survive the pokemon, they still must learn to survive the elements. Not just the cold of winter or a sudden forest fire, but simply finding edible food or drinkable water might also kill them.”

Giovanni starts to walk around the room, and people’s heads turn to watch him. “Drop two humans together, and one can learn from the other’s mistakes. They can care for each other if one gets sick or injured. Drop more and they can start to specialize, play to their strengths. Drop still more after them, and they can teach what they’ve learned in a fraction of the time it took to learn it, without the risks. This is the true secret to our success. A community is formed, one that can pass its knowledge down generation to generation, until everyone has even forgotten how they learned this berry is safe and that poison, or that the poison berry is in fact edible so long as you first seed it, cook it, and wait at least three days, but no more than ten. It becomes common knowledge, just another building block of society, and unless they make an effort to immortalize them, over time they won’t even remember the lives lost in trial and error to attain that knowledge.”

He stops walking, turns to Iko, and bows his head. The sergeant seems unsure how to respond, for a moment, then simply dips his head in return.

“Only four lives were lost yesterday,” Giovanni continues. “Four human lives, that is, and dozens of pokemon. But even as we mourn them, we must remember that their deaths were not without meaning. They were in fact a precious gift, to give us the time and opportunity to learn what new things might kill us, and most important of all, to teach our children, so that we can keep them safe.”

He turns to Leaf, suddenly, and smiles ever-so-slightly, not just at her but at Blue and Red as well. “Or in this case, for our children to teach us.”

And he bows his head again, and Leaf finds herself smiling even as her face flushes, smiling in begrudging admiration as she wonders once again, as the room full of experts of all kinds bows their heads to her and her friends, how she could learn to do that.