Chapter 117: Interlude XXIV – Equilibrium
When the extra support came pouring into Cinnabar after the ditto first appeared, Ira knew it would be temporary, and started counting down the days when they’d be on their own again. It worried him, imagining the island facing the continued threat without the rest of Indigo’s help… but it also excited him.
There are plenty of good reasons for the withdrawal, of course. Most crises aren’t permanent, so once the issue is resolved or down to a manageable level, withdrawing resources to help elsewhere makes sense. Plus, they’re not some minor town. They have a gym, and not just any gym: since taking over, Blaine has integrated his people into the local rangers more than any Indigo Leader has. Ira’s orientation months at the island involved the usual tour with all of the nearby ranger outposts, but unlike other places he’s served, these were all staffed with a mix of rangers and gym trainers.
All of which is just a part of why he knew Cinnabar would lose the support of the rest of Indigo far faster than they should. The main reason, simply put, is that they’re distant from the rest of the world.
It’s not just that it’s harder than usual for people to travel to the island, and hard for them to live here, so far from amenities the island lacks. Things that happen here don’t matter as much to the mainland. There’s less risk of an emergency spilling over onto routes that travelers might take, barely any farmland at risk, less chance of cascading ecological disruption, and no other towns or cities who would be in danger.
It helps, of course, that anyone doing the gym circuit has to come sooner or later… but only if they stick with it most of the way. Blaine gets very few challengers who aren’t at least halfway to Victory Road, and locals make up virtually all of Cinnabar’s first-badge challengers. After that there are barely any until people get through the cluster around Saffron.
Which does mean that most of the trainers at the gym have at least four or five badges. And it’s not just members doing stints at the outposts; Blaine makes public service a requirement for a badge challenge, which is how he ends up eventually seeing—
“That’s him!” Wendy whispers, pointing across the meeting room. “Blue Oak!”
“I noticed.” Ira takes his seat in the meeting room and tugs her wrist down. “He all you dreamed he’d be?”
“Hmm, hard to tell from this far. Think we can meet him after?”
“Sure, he’ll probably sign a pokeball for you too.” Ira’s attention is already on the rest of the room, noting the missing faces. Ranger Malcolm is heading back to Viridian next week, but Huan is already back in the Safari Zone, Mei and Shin are gone to Cerulean, Liu is leading the surveys of the outlying islands… to his surprise, he’s now one of the most senior rangers in the room.
It fits the trend of the past few post-crisis months. He thought he handled his moment in the limelight pretty well that first day, talking about the ditto he caught on stage beside General Taira, Leader Blaine, and Professor Oak, but he expected it would be a one-off.
Instead all the senior local rangers, including he and Rashard, each got handed a set of volunteers to search the island for more ditto nests. It became something of a competition between them, one he won more weeks than not.
Facing ditto nests is dangerous, even compared to regular ranger work, and it’s given him an opportunity to show what he’s capable of. He thought, after he ended his journey to start a family, that he put his ambition behind him… but when his wife wanted to join many others in leaving the island, he told her to take the kids somewhere safe, while he’d stay behind to make sure they could eventually return. Someone had to, after all, and he and his wife had come to love Cinnabar after moving here, watching their children grow proud to be part of the island’s culture. His oldest is already excited to start his journey, though he’s still a few years away. Ira wants it to be a safe place for them again.
He started taking more dangerous assignments, support and leadership roles, anything that would challenge him and let him do more for the reclamation efforts…
…and before long he was getting pulled into all the high level meetings where the island’s broader strategy would get hashed out. Everyone praised his dedication, and he didn’t demure. He is dedicated.
But as he told Rashard one night, a few bottles in… he also wants to feel the way he did that day, when the danger was unknowable, the stakes high, and he could feel like he was doing something meaningful, something no one else had done before.
His ambition hadn’t been behind him after all. It had just been sleeping, waiting for another opportunity to come out.
And now he’s regularly in the same room as Leader Blaine and Ranger General Taira. When things started out, the gym would send its Second or Third as often as Blaine, along with a group of lower ranked members. But now they’ve been filling empty seats the rangers leave behind, and the full suite of the gym’s leadership is spread around the table, along with a wider range of lower ranked members. In fact, Blue Oak is the first trainer he’s seen here who isn’t in the Cinnabar Gym uniform, but he expects there will be more eventually.
Ira’s heard about Blue, not just from the news but from some rangers that are part of What Comes Next. If he were younger he’d probably be swept up in his journey, might even have rushed off to join his crew, getting into unlikely adventures and revolutionizing gyms… though Ira can’t imagine Blaine would let him do much of that here. Still, he would have said the same for Surge before that gym got flipped on its head.
“Weird that all three are here,” Wendy murmurs, voice barely audible over the low hum of conversation as she looks between the Leader, Second, and Third. “New priority?”
“Yeah, maybe. Or the gym’s got a new system they want to run.” It would fit with Oak being here.
“Haven’t heard anything while I’ve been there.”
He raises a brow. “Thinking of joining up?”
“Ha, no. Just like to train there once in a while. I never really wanted to do the standard journey, but gym cultures are interesting. And it’s nice to be somewhere outside the Ranger hierarchy, once in a while.” Her cadet uniform stands out almost as much as Blue’s civilian clothing, but there are another four, also in the middle of their regional exchange programs. Most came after the ditto appeared, for the same reason Wendy requested an extension on her stay: because Cinnabar is one of the places around the islands where interesting things are happening.
The quiet conversations all fade as the Ranger General stands. “Thank you for coming, everyone. Before we go around for updates, there’s a priority announcement that might affect your plans.”
Taira uses a clicker to get the screen on the wall to display the island, with each sector highlighted in slightly different colors to indicate threat range… all of them much lower than the last time Ira saw the map. “I don’t expect this to come as a major shock to anyone, but after over a month without a new risk of outbreak, the Rangers have decided to officially end the strange limbo that Cinnabar has been in, and downgrade it from the unclassified, but undoubtedly high, risk profiles it’s improvisationally slid between, to the equivalent of an ongoing Tier 2 event. It’s going to be staffed accordingly, though with six squads on standby to teleport in as needed.”
Ira hears Wendy take a breath, and feels his own pulse quicken. Six squads is more than most locations would get, but Tier-2 would take away half their forces. He glances at Blaine, whose expression is set in its usual subtle frown, emphasized by the downturned ends of his white mustache.
“Anyone who has already specifically requested to stay won’t be relocated, but for most of you this will probably result in some reshuffling of bodies to be able to cover your sectors. Still, you won’t have to make do with less overall trainers; part of this decision was influenced by an initiative by Cinnabar Gym.”
Ira looks at Leader Blaine again, but it’s Blue Oak that stands up. “I put out a call to trainers at other gyms, and through the What Comes Next network. Only been here a couple months, but I’ve spent some time in each sector, and fought ditto a handful of times. The way I see it, since we’re forced to use weaker pokemon anyway, newer trainers can get a lot of valuable experience on the island right now.” He shrugs. “The main thing keeping people away is not knowing if they’d be welcome, or if they’re prepared enough. Seems like a wasted opportunity if we don’t let them, with some oversight to make sure it’s safe enough.”
“Cinnabar Gym agrees with this assessment, and will provide oversight.” Sydney is Blaine’s second, but Ira hasn’t worked with her yet. “It’s been discussed before, but with the large ranger presence, we decided against calling for more trainers, knowing the rest of the region has been hard pressed to deal with their own incidents lately. This will also give new local trainers an opportunity to begin their journeys on the island again, with an unusual amount of oversight, but not one that should be detrimental to their learning and growth.”
“With those things in mind,” Taira says. “I’ll also be reducing my active involvement on Cinnabar, and leaving it in Captain Uhura’s capable hands.”
“Which,” Uhura adds, “Given the loss of personnel, means I’ll need to issue some promotions to fill some new officer roles.” Ira’s sure he doesn’t imagine the way her gaze lingers on him. “That means a lot of changes all at once, but I expect everyone to adapt quickly.”
Ira tilts his head to Wendy and murmurs, “This may be our chance.”
“You think so? Should I…?”
“Yeah, I’ll set you up.”
“Alright, let’s go to the room,” Blaine says. Surprisingly, he manages not to sound impatient about it. “Starting with you.”
He points to one of the researchers, who stands and gives a brief presentation on their recent discoveries of ditto behavioral habits. He also has a request: that at least one group of identified ditto be tagged instead of captured, so they could track their migration habits in case they have any.
“No,” Blaine says at the same time Uhura says, “Possibly.” They give each other a look, and Taira adds, “We’ll discuss it.”
“Of course, General. Oh, one more thing… I’m aware that a number of rangers have caught ditto by now, in the line of duty, and if any are being transferred off the island, we’d appreciate the opportunity to purchase them for further study.”
“That seems reasonable.” She looks to Uhura, who nods.
“I’ll spread the word. Next?”
Next is Ranger Dai, who discusses the progress being made at balancing the local ecology and suggests some new bounties get announced to manage a few of the predator species before they get restless and widen their hunting grounds. After him is a representative from the Cinnabar mayor’s office, who brings up relocation efforts and asks some questions of Taira about expected shifts in supplies to adjust to the expected drawdown.
Once that’s done, a few people shake their heads when offered the chance to speak until it’s Ira’s turn. He stands, and Wendy does too. The researcher’s proposal getting mostly shot down doesn’t bode well for them, but maybe they can be more convincing…
“Cadet Wendy has a proposal. I’m volunteering myself to lead it, with permission.” He glances at his captain, who looks to General Taira, who raises a brow and turns to Wendy.
“Alright, Cadet, let’s hear it.”
“Thank you, General.” Her demeanor changes in front of an audience, back stiff and arms behind her, like she’s giving a presentation at the academy. “I believe it’s time to start testing the ditto’s potential for integration in the local ecology.”
There’s a snort in the ensuing silence, though Ira can’t tell where it’s from. Blaine’s reaction is more legible: “Absolutely not. My island isn’t the Safari Zone.”
“With respect, Leader,” Wendy says, and Ira can see the way her hands grip each other white behind her back. “If we could ship a dozen live, uncaptured specimen to the Safari Zone I would agree that it’s a better environment for it… assuming it wouldn’t interfere with their current experiments. But given the complications involved in transfer, and risk of breaking containment, Cinnabar is the only realistic place to try.”
“And,” Ira adds. “We might not have an actual choice. We’re keeping a lid on things, and sightings are slowly going down… but there’s still one at least weekly. They’re arguably already entrenched, something that some natives may be learning to adapt to. If we continue to treat them as an invasive species, and don’t take at least some time to see what the balance ends up looking like, we could be playing whack-a-diglett forever.”
“That assumes there is a balance,” Captain Imbra says. “If no equilibrium exists, we risk re-escalating just as we start to move to a more sustainable shift.”
“That’s why this is the best time, Captain. If we wait until later, we may have even less resources to spare.”
The room is silent for a moment. “What would this involve, exactly?” Taira finally asks.
Ira shrugs. “I’m happy to take advisement, but our current plan is textbook, with a couple modifications for severity of threat. I’d travel with Wendy and at least two others to find and observe a wild ditto nest. We’d call in a crew if we find one, to help document the nearby ecology and effects. If found, someone would be on standby at all times to ensure the nest is captured or destroyed at any given time.”
“That sounds like work for at least two squads.”
“Yes, General. Three to be comfortable.” Part of him wants to settle on two, because it would make it more exciting, but he doesn’t want to jeopardize Wendy’s idea over unnecessary risks. “I believe it’s worth it, and most would not have to be experienced trainers.”
“If I may, General, Leader,” Blue Oak says, standing again. “This sounds like exactly the sort of thing our new arrivals could help with, particularly as a way to learn about the island. I’d be happy to help with a thing like this too.”
Wendy somehow manages to stand a bit straighter, and Ira wonders if she’s aware of her slight smile. Blaine by contrast looks like he’s bitten into a lemon, but whatever else he could say about the Leader, he always seems willing to consider things…
“I believe I’m in favor,” General Taira says. “But I’ll leave the final decision to you and the Captain, Leader.”
It takes another few tense heartbeats before Blaine abruptly says, “Fine. Provisional on discussing details after the meeting. Who’s next?”
Wendy bows and sits, practically vibrating with glee, or maybe shaking with nerves. Ira, meanwhile, is watching Blue, who catches his look and gives a nod. He nods back, though inwardly he’s still not sure what to make of the young Oak. This can’t have been part of his original plan, whatever it was… can it? Or is he just hopping on something that sounds interesting in case it ends up being a prestigious project?
His attention is drawn to the local police commissioner, who doesn’t usually come to these meetings. He’s an older man, one of Blaine’s cousins if Ira remembers right.
“I’ve already been in contact with the Director General, and had a chat with some Interpol agents. Thought it would make sense to bring it up here as well: I think we should consider Cinnabar a prime Rocket target.”
He now has everyone’s full attention. The attack on Silph two months ago, and the declaration from “Team Rocket,” was big news even in Cinnabar, distant as they are. There’s no Silph research on the island, and the only other Rocket attack since then has been against a power plant east of Cerulean, which Cinnabar also doesn’t need thanks to all its geothermal energy.
But people have speculated that they might target the local fossil lab, if they’re generally looking to steal more research or technology. Ira knows they drastically increased security within a few days of Rocket’s broadcast, which would make it a pretty risky target…
“Has the lab made some new discovery?” Blaine asks.
“Not that I’m aware. What I’m worried might attract them are the ditto.”
It takes a moment for Ira to get it. “As an equalizer?”
“Precisely. The fact that we can’t condition ditto yet wouldn’t matter as much to them, and it gives them an easy way to match whatever forces we bring to a fight. Even if they fail to create the first Masterball before others, they’ll have an answer ready if someone else catches a legendary to use against them.”
“It’s a justified concern,” Taira says, brow furrowed. “But I’m unsure what you propose we do. The ditto aren’t all stored in one place, and we wouldn’t have the manpower to guard the whole island against poachers unless we strip half the mainland.”
“I understand, General. But people should be aware, if there are renegades combing the island for a nest… and it’s not impossible that the Rockets might decide to try targeting trainers who’ve caught one already, in order to steal theirs.”
Ira feels his stomach twist as he imagines it. Some ranger, out drinking one night after shift, getting knocked over the head and pushed into a van… taken to some warehouse and tortured until they get access to his PC, just in case they get lucky…
“Thank you, Commissioner. We appreciate the warning, and will assist in spreading it among our people so that everyone refrains from advertising their captures.”
The commissioner nods and sits, and after that there’s just another couple minor points before the meeting breaks up. Ira’s thoughts are still on Rocket as he stands and starts shuffling toward the exit with most of the others… until Blue Oak sidles up next to him.
“Hey. Ranger Neasman, right?” He sticks out his hand. “Good to meet you.”
Ira takes it automatically, feeling the young man’s strong grip. “Same, and I appreciated the support.”
“Oh, I’m happy for the chance to work together, assuming they give the okay. I’ve heard good things.”
“Likewise.” Ira almost asks from whom, given that he hasn’t been in the media much… then realizes that the same rangers in What Comes Next that he’s heard talk about Blue probably talk about him, too. “Have you enjoyed the island so far?”
“Yeah, actually. I planned to get my badge as soon as I could, at first, but you guys are doing important work here, and as usual I couldn’t keep myself from getting involved.”
“I know the feeling,” Wendy says from Ira’s other side, and sticks her hand out. “I’m Wendy.”
“Blue. Do you follow my friend Leaf, by chance? I think you’d get along with her.”
“I do, actually! How’s she been?”
“Good. Busy. Haven’t had time to see her since I got here, except for my birthday last week. But she’s said she might want to come visit the island at some point.”
“That would be great! We could use all the help we can get.”
They’ve emerged into the sunlight by now, and Ira takes a moment to appreciate the view of the city below, and the ocean spread out every direction beyond it. “Assuming she’d be coming to help?”
“I think she wants to visit the lab, but yeah, I’m sure she’d be down to assist at least a little. Do you guys have a location in mind to search first?”
“I’ve been looking over the patrol maps,” Wendy says. “And there are some areas that have gotten less thorough searches than others, particularly up high on the uninhabited parts of the mountain.” She pulls up a map on her phone and circles a few locations. “I think if we do enough flyovers in these areas, we’ll find a ditto nest sooner or later… maybe even one that’s had a chance to reach some local equilibrium.”
Or some renegades, Ira thinks, but doesn’t say. The odds are pretty low, but if they’re anywhere on the island, they’d be in the less inhabited areas.
Blue Oak seems sober enough as he looks over the map that he might be having the same thought. “I’ll see if I can get another couple extra friends to join us. Might even be able to pull in a favor or two.”
“Are you, uh, talking about Red Verres?” Wendy asks. “I heard he also stopped the attack at the power plant, all by himself!”
“Nah, he had help. But Red’s even busier than Leaf these days, he probably can’t be spared to fly around the island randomly.” Blue is smiling, clearly proud of his friend, though there’s something else beneath it that Ira can’t quite place. “If we need him, I’ll give him a call, and he’ll come. But meanwhile, he’s got more important things to deal with.”
Thirty-five years on the force, and Manni can say that there’s never been a tougher time to be a cop, even in a small town like Azure.
After Team Rocket revealed itself, Manni reassured his wife that he wasn’t likely to face them. Sure, it could happen. He’s a cop; facing renegades now and then is part of the job. But he’s not a hunter, and he’s not in any of the big cities. Azure Town out of the way, devoid of anything unique or interesting.
Sure, everyone in Kanto is on edge, wondering when Rocket would strike next, looking to the police to protect them… police who are now expected to be halfway to hunters themselves, suddenly… but he’s old, already had his years of excitement and danger, spends most of his time behind a desk these days. He has eleven months until retirement, they weren’t sending him out for anything that needed less than the entire department. He’d be fine. Well, as fine as anyone could expect, in a world gone as utterly sideways as theirs has over the past year.
Then Silph finished reinforcing its headquarters security, decentralized its storage and R&D departments, and Rocket hit the power plant, leading to some bigwigs re-analyzing all the most likely targets that Rocket might hit, and somehow Azure Town ended up 9th on the list of most probable targets.
Manni did request a meeting to ask, when the updated report got sent out, what the reasoning was. He was suspicious, some stubborn voice inside insisting a mistake had been made. He wanted to be able to reassure Elise that it was just some egghead throwing numbers around to reassure the public. No one could really know a thing like that.
He wasn’t quite prepared to be put on the line with an Interpol agent, who started explaining a bunch of things he couldn’t really follow about base rates and tradeoffs of risk to civilian life compared to potential sources of value for a terrorist cell. He nodded along to it all, made the appropriate noises, thanked the agent for her time… then opened a new document and started drafting his request for permanent transfer to Lavender Town. Property prices went down ever since that new pokemon showed up at the tower, but it’s been safe and quiet since that incident, and it was listed as one of the least likely places for Rocket to hit.
The renegade alarm triggers two days before his transfer, after Elise has already gone ahead with most of their things to prepare the new house. It takes him a second to recognize what’s happening, another to realize what it likely means, and a third to fight down the urge to find a place to hide until the danger is past.
But in the end, even as his bowels felt loose enough that an emergency trip to the bathroom could be justified, he couldn’t watch his friends and coworkers scramble to mobilize around him, and just let them face whatever this was alone. And, he thought with distant hope as he buckled on his pokebelt, maybe it would just be regular renegade activity.
It is not.
“Left building, three on top!”
“Arcanine, return! Go, Jolteon!”
“We need AoE over here!”
“Raton, Bolt!” Manni yells, laser pointer guiding his raichu to shock an Alolan persian that’s already put two of their pokemon to sleep… but it doesn’t go down, and a moment later his pokemon is frantically dodging away as the ground beneath him explodes upward to reveal a krookodile.
He wants to switch a Fighting pokemon in, the enemies are all Dark, but the streets are torn up in concentric circles, each trench wide and deep enough that it would be hard to leap or climb them mid combat. “Return! Go, Beut! Sleep!”
His butterfree begins to waft powder down over the renegade pokemon, but a moment later a honchkrow hits Beut from the side. He tries to withdraw her as well, but dark, wet things start to splat on the street around him, each trailing smog that quickly spreads.
He looks up to see more renegades on the rooftops, skunktank and Alolan muk launching more and more globs of poison at them. They managed to catch the renegades as they were finishing the third, inner trench… but the enemy was more than prepared, all the same.
“Back!” he hears Captain Ida yell over the sounds of battle. “One block perimeter! Fa—”
Manni covers his eyes, ears ringing from the three Hyper Beams that blasted three of their lead pokemon. He blinks the spots from his eyes and tries to return his butterfree even as he backsteps, but he can’t see through the spreading smog.
His knuckles pop around her great ball, and then he’s turning and running with the others, heart hammering as he expects their flight to turn into a fighting retreat at any moment.
But the renegades don’t press the attack, and soon he’s panting against the wall a block over, feeling a wave of surreality as he realizes they’re just two streets away from where his kids went to school. It’s one of the few parts of town that’s mostly small apartment buildings, with some offices and houses spread between them, half surrounding a park that’s on the far side.
“We can’t stay here long,” Paula says, then coughs through her breathing mask, which has a crack along the edge. “They’re digging in for a siege.”
Captain Ida shakes his head. “They’re already entrenched enough to take us out as we approach. I’ve called for air support.”
“That’s a residential block,” Kenji says, voice dull. No one responds. No one needs to; it’s not an objection, and they all already know renegade procedures. “What are they even…?”
“It’s an unown research center,” Manni says, remembering a snippet of the report. “They just opened up last month.” A number of them did around Indigo, to much controversy, though nothing that required police presence in sleepy little Azure Town.
“They may not be taking hostages this time, if they’re just there for the pokemon or research.” Ida pokes his head around the corner. “If they let people go again, they’ll have time to get clear before reinforcements arrive.”
Good. Let them. He doesn’t say it. If Rocket is allowed to get away with what it wants anywhere, it’ll embolden more people to try things like what they’re doing everywhere. He knows that, but… he’s already lost two pokemon, and he doesn’t want to rush back into that meat grinder. They haven’t lost any officers yet, but with their enemy using Hyper Beams, that’s down to luck more than anything; no sane person actually believes Rocket’s claims that they don’t plan on killing humans.
“Hunters from Celadon should be here in a few minutes—”
The sound of flapping wings makes them all look up just as a charizard comes in for a landing. Many scramble to defend themselves until the captain barks, “Stand down!”
Manni stares as a short figure slides off the charizard’s back, pats its side, then walks toward them. He’s wearing the red-on-black combat vest of a hunter, one that must have been custom made for his size, as well as something that looks like a mix between an aviation helmet, a gas mask, and a transparent, tinted monitor that mostly obscures his features, though Manni can make out pale skin against the glow of the writing on the glass.
One hand stays on the newcomer’s pokebelt as the other reaches up to tap the side of his helmet, clearing the glass to reveal red eyes set in a young face below a mess of black hair. “Which of you is Captain Ida?”
Ida steps forward, looking only half as confused as Manni feels. “I am.”
“Red Verres. Sitrep?”
Half a dozen thoughts are running through Manni’s head, from Wait, the Red Verres? to Thank Arceus, we’re saved. But… he’s just a kid, even younger than he looked on TV. And he’s by himself…
Ida recovers quickly, having probably gotten a heads up just before Verres landed. “At least a dozen renegades, entrenched positions around the office building one block over. They seem ready to defend against attacks above and below the ground.”
“Any non-dark pokemon?”
“Not that I saw.” He looks around, and the rest of them shake their heads.
Verres nods, then takes out his phone and walks to the edge of the building, angling the screen so he can look around the corner with its camera. “They’re learning,” Verres says, voice distant. “Lots of smog, much wider perimeter. Definitely out of range…” For a moment Manni thinks he’s talking to them, or himself, but then he realizes there’s probably an earpiece under that helmet. Where did he even get that thing…? “Yeah, I think so. Depends… one sec.”
He turns back toward them. “I have a favor to ask. If you’ve lived in this area at all, if you’ve ever been to this block, in any of these buildings, then step toward me, and concentrate as hard as you can on those memories. I won’t ask you to share private or embarrassing ones if you don’t want to, but the strongest memories are likely to have some deep emotion attached, so those might be particularly useful. I give you my word that I will lock them behind an amnesia partition after today until the memory fades.”
The officers around him are silent. One shifts his weight, but doesn’t move forward. Manni’s own thoughts are on all the things he’s heard about Verres. That he’s a double agent for/against either Interpol or Indigo. That he’s an even stronger psychic than Sabrina. That he can learn all about you in a moment, then perfectly re-experience your memories and teleport anywhere you’ve been in your life. That he can turn pokemon wild or docile with just his powers. That he can make you believe whatever he wants…
But if that were true, why would he even be asking permission?
A distant explosion rattles the windows around them, and Captain Ida looks frustrated. “I haven’t… been to this side of town much…”
“It’s alright,” Verres says, though his brow is slightly furrowed as he looks around the corner with his phone again. “I’ll figure something out…”
He sounds totally calm, but once again Manni is struck by how young he is, voice clearly still a kid’s even through the muffle of the mask. Manni’s never seen someone this short wearing a Hunter uniform, and though it makes him look no less dangerous than them… after a moment something flips in Manni’s mind, and it’s like one of those visual illusions.
Gods, he’s just a kid… younger than my Miguel when he set out on his journey…
In front of him may be the most powerful Hunter in history, but at the same time, he’s a child dressed up as an adult, whose job is to single-handedly take care of something that a dozen grown men and women aren’t able to face.
Manni’s feet suddenly move him forward, and without really thinking about it he says, “I’ve got some.”
Verres’s red gaze meet his with something like gratitude, and then he nods and closes his eyes. “Ready when you are. Just focus on the memories as best you can.”
So Manni closes his eyes too, and does his best to dig through his memories of the area. He remembers idling on the street corner nearby, having a long conversation with one of the rookies about the job. He watched a meteor shower from one of the rooftops near here, though it was actually in the wrong direction… there was that domestic abuse call, inside the apartment building near the lab… and now that he thinks deeper, other memories are surfacing. That one phone call with his son about his journey… was that on this block, or the next one over? He barely remembers the details, but the sun was hot against his skin… he also took a report about a stolen bike from a house on the far side of the where the renegades are camped out…
He’s occasionally conscious of the fact that Verres is observing his memories, probably feeling whatever he is. Once in a while his thoughts stray to other things, things he’s embarrassed about or that are private, but he forces himself to refocus on what’s important, until finally he lets out a harsh breath and realizes he’s been holding it in. “I think that’s… that’s all I’ve got.”
“I…” Paula steps forward. “I’ve got some, I think. If more would be useful?”
“I might, too,” Ollie adds.
In the end four more officers step forward, and Verres moves in front of them one at a time so they know when to focus on their memories. Manni still feels strange, knowing that the boy now has some of his own memories. He hasn’t interacted with psychics much before, at least as far as he knows… he’s of course been vaguely aware that anyone he meets might be one, but they usually dress the part if they’re a professional, and from what he learned at the academy, few people strong enough to do a “deep merge” don’t end up becoming professional psychics of one kind or another.
But there’s nothing he can do about it now, and he can’t bring himself to regret it, if it gets Verres what he needs to stop all this.
The seconds tick by as the boy—no, the young man—steps in front of the last officer who offered their memories. Another explosion shakes the windows, but he doesn’t react, though his charizard raises its snout to sniff the air and growls. After nearly a minute, Verres opens his eyes, letting out a long breath. “Okay, that should do it.”
He steps away and taps his earpiece as he unclips an ultraball from his belt. “I’m ready, give me a widespread Hurricane, then Xatu can have the whole block in sight for a Miracle Eye. Yeah. At least ten, probably thirty seconds total? No, I’ll signal for that. Alright, going now.”
And then he swaps his charizard for an alakazam, puts a hand on its arm, then turns back to them to say “Thanks” before he disappears.
Silence descends. Manni has a moment of regret, for not thinking to say something back, though he’s not sure what he would have. Good luck? Be careful? None of them feel adequate, given how useless he feels just standing here and waiting to be saved. He looks around to see confusion or uncertainty on the others’ faces as well, and imagines them wondering if there’s something else they should be doing…
And then Captain Ida twitches, says, “Yes, sir,” and taps his earpiece before yelling, “Everyone, brace for high winds!”
Manni just manages to press his back against the wall before the first gust hits them, moving from northeast to southwest to press him against the wall. A garbage bin upends a street over as the second gust hits, even stronger than the first, and as his gaze traces the trash that swirls up into the air he sees the distant silhouettes of some bird pokemon, all flapping their wings as they bob in midair.
He can imagine it, the winds clearing all the smog away. And then Verres, standing… at a window, maybe, or on a roof if someone has a memory on one that works, maybe even his own? Summoning a xatu to fly above and take in the whole battlefield so he can use that Miracle Eye on all the renegades at once…
There’s a distant roar, and Manni pokes his head around the corner, and sees a charizard fighting off some honchkrow and mandibuzz as they try to reach a distant xatu. Electricity also arcs up, helping the charizard hold them off, but there’s a flash of light and a distant TSEEEEEW as more Hyper Beams are fired.
He’s crazy, he can’t fight them alone—! “Hey!” he yells over the roar of the wind as he turns back to the others. “We’ve got to help—”
Three pokemon zip by overhead toward the battle, and he looks back to see them join the charizard in fighting the renegade pokemon off.
“Orders are to stand by!” Ida yells back, though the wind is dying, now. “We’ll take our shot soon!”
Manni shifts from foot to foot as he watches the battle, knuckles white around his pokebelt… and then, as the wind finally stops blowing, he starts to hear screams and yells coming from the direction of the renegades.
It’s too far to make out details, but from what he remembers of the attack on Silph, it’s not hard to imagine what’s happening over there. He swallows, feeling suddenly less ready to rush in… would they be going to fight the renegades, at this point, or save them?
“Now!” Ida yells, making him jump. “Air support has the rooftops, we’re headed to the building! Go, go, go!”
Manni goes, adrenaline washing his thoughts clean as they cross the block in a rush, passing their vehicles and reaching the dug up trenches in seconds. Smog is just starting to turn the air hazy again… but not before they can make out the bodies strewn around, burned and shocked, stung and bitten.
Captain Ida has pulled ahead, and leaps across the first trench, catching himself on the far side before scrambling up and toward the next, summoning his machamp as he goes. Manni hears battles on the rooftops above, but not as many as he’d expected, and on the ground, the renegade’s pokemon don’t attack them as they approach. Rather than giving a battle command, Ida just takes out a ball and captures the closest one, leaving the ball on the ground as he leaps over the next trench.
Manni does the same to the nearby krookodile, struggling a bit more to make it up the rough wall of the dug up street. The renegade pokemon would have to be put down regardless, but something about the casual way they’re able to just neutralize them feels surreal. There are only a few around, and he guesses half of the renegades ran as soon as their pokemon started turning on them, or maybe as soon as the smog started clearing.
Eventually they clear the trenches to find Verres standing beside the building, hand on his alakazam’s arm, visor darkened again, with text glowing on the sides. “There are five left that I can sense,” he says as they approach. “All the hostages were blindfolded, so I can’t see what’s happening around them. The renegades will become dark again soon, though.” He shakes his head. “I can’t do much more. I’d go in with you, but Agent Looker says all this might be a trap for me.”
“It’s alright,” Captain Ida says. “We’ll wait for the hunters, and—”
“Wait!” Red suddenly says, looking up. “They’re… heading for the roof! They released some pokemon to cover their retreat, but—”
“Flyers, now!” Ida barks as he summons his fearow. “Manni, Jen, check the hostages!”
Manni summons his raichu as they mount up to chase the renegades, then follows Jen in, each checking a room and calling it clear before the other rushes past to the next doorway.
They find the first hostages on the second floor, cowering and blindfolded in a corner.
“Everyone, listen close! I’m Officer Manni, this is Officer Jenny! You’re safe now, you can take the blindfolds off. Are any of you injured? No? Everyone’s okay? Alright, head down, the renegades are gone.”
“They took the computers,” one of them says blinking against the light. “And our storage bank…”
“We’ll try and get it back.” Storage banks can’t be stored in balls, it would be hard for them to get away with it while being pursued… unless they have some really powerful fliers. “Head down, while we clear the rest of the building, paramedics should be here soon.”
It takes another three minutes to reach the roof, which was guarded by a mightyena and an Alolan persian, neither of which attacked them as they got close enough to capture both. A few more things were stolen, but no one was injured, other than a few bruises from being manhandled.
By the time he reaches the ground floor again, Verres is gone. They secure the scene for future investigation, then collect the renegade pokemon for disposal before they head back to the precinct, where some Interpol agents are already waiting for a debrief. These get interrupted by a call from Captain Ida, who reports how they and the hunters only managed to take down one of the renegades before more flew up from nowhere to run interference and allow the rest to escape, after which they broke off in every direction, forcing them to retreat rather than risk flying into more ambushes.
It’s near midnight before he makes it home, has a long and soothing call with a tearful Elise, then drags himself into the shower before bed, where he can finally feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders.
It isn’t until he starts to finally shampoo himself that he has the chance to reflect on how he started the day not wanting to have to fight the renegades, of wanting to (much to his shame, now) hide away… until he met Red Verres. After which it felt like he couldn’t just stand back…
He can make you believe whatever he wants…
Manni feels a chill spread through him beneath the hot jet of the shower. Did he get mentally influenced to help Red Verres? Maybe not his beliefs, but had his fear removed, his courage propped up? Or did he just… feel protective of a young trainer doing something brave, and hopeful that with his help they could actually win the fight?
The more he thinks it over, the more sure he is that, despite his worry, he feels proud of what he did today, little though it was. But the question keeps him tossing and turning for an hour, after which he finally gets redressed and orders a car to take him to Lavender.
He’ll have to drive all the way back tomorrow, but for tonight he wants to be with his wife.
Fuji would not describe himself as a brave man.
He can recount his brave choices, when he needs to console himself over decisions made and not made, paths taken rather than avoided, that have led him, eyes open, to where he’s ended up.
But on net, the choices he’s made were those of someone willing to take some risks, but not the ultimate ones. He’s a cautious man more than a brave one, a man of long plans with uncertain endings, nudging others to make decisions that will force his hand as much as others’.
His bravest moment, all things considered, was on the day he went into Giovanni’s office and told him he’d resign if Mazda wasn’t set free, knowing full well what “retirement” would mean.
Giovanni didn’t shout or threaten him. He just watched him with those dark eyes, asked him some questions about his decision, and made a counteroffer. There was no attempt to change his beliefs, which Fuji found perversely infuriating, at the time. He wanted to be debated, not because he thought he was wrong, but because it would show that Giovanni was at least open to being convinced.
Instead he simply laid out what would happen in various cases, and, seeing the outcome of one decision compared to another, Fuji agreed to being “sold” to Silph, to work on projects mutually beneficial to both of them, as well as Mewtwo.
It was not a cowardly decision, no. But it wasn’t a courageous one either. It was a decision made around the seed of a scheme, and a sense that as long as he was free, to some degree, he could try to make things better.
So he traded one prison for another, one set of projects for another, and began to, carefully, plant his seeds. Not many, and not right away. He knew he’d be watched, and carefully, for years.
But enough, over time, that he could feel some hope that he could introduce a new variable into Giovanni’s careful schemes, and ultimately bring Mazda safely out of their own prison.
When the day comes that there’s an unexpected knock at his door, and he opens it to see Sabrina standing there, he knows his game is over.
“Good evening, Doctor.” Whether as a mild disguise or simple effort to appear unthreatening, she’s in a sundress, her hair tied up, with a light shawl around her shoulders. It’s very becoming.
“Hello, Sabrina.” His throat is dry, thoughts skittering from simple observations to cached thoughts, just like he’s practiced for nearly a decade, preparing for a moment like this. Years, months, weeks, and days, focusing on his work and living an otherwise simple, boring, repetitive, cloistered experience… letting himself become the hermit inside and out, so that he doesn’t think of his plans, doesn’t think of his goals— “You’ve grown.”
“In many ways. May I come in?”
And if I say no? A braver man might ask. If I call the police? Instead he simply smiles and nods, shuffling back so she can pass through the doorway before he closes it behind her. “Tea?”
His occasional visits with Miss Juniper and Mrs. Verres have not much affected his habits, and his house looks exactly as it has for most of his life here; the windows all have their curtains drawn, tablets and charging ports make the space around his couch a maze, his table is covered by diagrams and notebooks, some piled up on two of the four chairs around the table so that the only free ones have their backs to the kitchen and pokemon pens. His tea pot is slightly cleaner than it used to be, and his hand only shakes a little as he pours a fresh cup, then brings it back to the living room, where Sabrina is observing the pokemon.
Pal went to sleep as soon as the sun went down, but Custard and Bubble are as interested in this stranger as they were the last two. He focuses his attention on them, on his memories of Miss Juniper so unabashedly happy to meet them, offering as much as he can for the inevitable mind-reading…
“Thank you,” Sabrina says as he places her cup and saucer on the table, then sits with his back to the kitchen. She takes the remaining seat and takes a sip, watching him. “You know why I was sent here…”
He doesn’t resist letting his thoughts go where they’re led. The story Miss Juniper’s been writing, which she could only write with knowledge someone on the team had. He wonders if they knew it was him right away, but it’s an irrelevant thought; he knew they’d check his involvement sooner or later, has prepared for it ever since.
“…but you’re wrong about why I came.”
Hope can be a dangerous thing, especially to someone who lacks bravery. “Are you saying you don’t have one of Giovanni’s balls on your belt?” It was one of the options, of course. The default one, given his ultimatum. He’s sure most at the lab believed he took it… the chance to live for decades in stasis, maybe centuries, until they found a way to bring him out safely past the point where the secrets he knew would be relevant. It’s the only retirement plan people who worked at the lab were allowed.
But he knew the work would continue without him, and someone else might have gotten things wrong.
“I do.” She’s calm, though not projecting that calm onto him; his pulse is racing, despite the way he’s mostly kept his thoughts going in a resigned circle. “But I wasn’t ordered to use it. It’s just an option. I’m not here to threaten you. You’ve always had the option to reveal everything, just like many others. I’ve never seen any intention in you to do that, in part because you were worried about Mazda. I didn’t think that would change.”
“It hasn’t,” he whispers, staring down at his teacup.
“Even though they left the lab?”
He looks up at her, meets her gaze, wonders—
It’s just a moment, that his mental attention slips. Just a moment before he redirects his thoughts, but he manages to keep them from cascading into different secrets, more details.
Still, it was enough for the region’s strongest psychic.
“Ah,” she breathes. “They did come, then.”
It’s like watching a puppet whose strings were cut. Her head leans back, eyes closing, body relaxed. She’s completely defenseless, if he were to—
No, he won’t hurt her. It would accomplish nothing, he wouldn’t do something like that, of course, never. Besides… he’s curious.
She smiles, slightly, at that thought, but only for a moment, muscles of her face twisting through various emotions. It takes him a moment to realize…
“You didn’t know,” he says, voice gentle. “Not for sure.”
“No.” Her eyes are still closed, her voice just as soft. “Not for sure.” She takes a breath, sits up. Opens her eyes, sips some tea. Continues to stare into it, even as she asks… “Tell me?”
And he thinks he understands. Although Mazda didn’t mention her—a wince, she’s hurt by that, a sign that he’s on the right track—he guessed that she continued to be their teacher long after he left. She probably still considers herself a friend, despite everything.
He remembers the conversation they had, when he first tried to fight for Mazda’s freedom. They were friends, or close enough, and before he went to Giovanni he thought her affection for them, enough to have led her to give them a nickname, would make her an ally in wanting their wishes to be respected.
But she couldn’t turn against Giovanni. Or else her concern for Mazda’s safety, her appeals to patience, were genuine… either way, she made Mewtwo out to be a child, mature and yet still just a few years old, rebelling against a confinement they didn’t understand.
But they did understand it. Fuji would not have let a human child take such a risk, but Mazda was more than a child.
“First, you tell me. What you’re really here for, and how it’s in Mazda’s interests.”
Her fingers tighten around her mug. “It’s so strange,” she murmurs. “Hearing someone else say their name again, after all these years.”
“No. And they didn’t either, as far as I know. Besides you.”
“Because it would look bad. Having a pet name, for the pet.”
Sabrina lifts her gaze to his, but he didn’t speak with any malice, and she just sighs. “Yes. Shaw was suspicious enough of me, even Dr. Light worried about attachment—”
“Ivy? Did she—”
“Became Site Director, a couple years after you were gone. She grew close with Mazda too, I think. Well, close enough to let her guard down, and let them escape.”
There’s so much he wants to ask, so much he didn’t have time to ask Mazda, when they came… “You first. Tell me what it was like, after I… ‘left.'”
Sabrina watches him, a moment, and he doesn’t bother trying to redirect his thoughts away from his sincerity. Eventually she nods, and begins to speak.
He listens hungrily to the aftermath of his ejection from the lab. How they told Mazda he’d resigned in protest over them not being released… which was fairly close to what happened, to be fair. How they introduced Mazda to as much media as they could, found ways to give them as much freedom in entertainment and education as possible, and yet still struggled to keep them happy enough. Her voice lowers as she recounts the threats they made, out of desperation… and depression, so far had their hopes fallen that being destroyed in fear seemed preferable. Their regret afterward was real, Sabrina insists, and things got better after.
Fuji doesn’t do much to hide his frustration and anger, pity welling in him at what Mazda endured in the years after he left. It wasn’t as bad as he feared, not nearly so, but still his heart aches for his friend, and again he wishes he’d been braver in his efforts to free them… though he knows that bravery would likely have resulted in failure.
If Sabrina is affected by his internal state she doesn’t show it, though she does start to describe how things got better afterward, when the first suit was finally ready.
“You should have been there,” she says, voice low. “Mazda is so large, but their first steps were so careful… and their first time outside was…” She swallows, and he sees a tear slip from one eye. “I can share it with you, if you’d like.”
He only considers it for a moment. “Yes.”
And then he’s there, not quite in her memory but awash in the feelings of it. Sunlight on her/his skin, and the grip of strong, alien fingers around her/his hand, and the taste of salt as Mazda breathed their first fresh breaths, cried their first tears.
Eventually the feelings withdraw, and he wipes his face. “It should have happened sooner.”
“From what I understand, your breakthroughs helped make it possible. Finding a potion formula dynamic enough to combat the disease—”
“It was a lie.” Anger is dangerous, it doesn’t fit the hermit life he’s chosen, it could lead to—but it’s fine, he’s not brave, he wouldn’t do anything. “Mazda told me. Their helmet, it had a message from Giovanni. The dark scientists were using our research to adapt the immune disorder, keep it carefully ahead of our every breakthrough—”
And then it isn’t his own anger he feels anymore, but a flood of hers. Sabrina’s eyes are closed tight, her lips pressed into a hard line as two spots of color appear on her cheeks, and he watches her breathe deep, watches her relax her grip on his mug as her shock fades and her anger starts to give way to resignation.
“I wondered, if you knew,” is all he says. “You clearly think him capable of it.” There was no doubt in the emotions she projected at him.
“Yes.” The word is heavy, bitter. “And more. Rocket is him as well.”
Now it’s his turn to be shocked. Not that Giovanni could pull off a second such conspiracy, nor that he was capable of running a secret renegade organization. It’s the outright betrayal of Silph that seems out of character, and self-defeating. Silph knows enough, after all, to sink Giovanni as well…
He’s missing something. Or she’s wrong, or lying…
“I can lie pretty well, now,” Sabrina admits. “Even to other psychics. I could shift my partitions, project sincerity to you. But why would I lie about a thing like that?”
He has no answer to that. “You’re sure it’s his decision that led to it? It’s not some… rogue faction?”
“No. It’s him. Miracle Eye changed everything, and now… he believes it’s time to do what he can, with what he’s amassed, before it all collapses.”
A chill creeps over him at her words, and he swallows more tea. “But you’re not breaking with him.”
“That depends on what you mean by it. All I’ll say is that I’ve hedged my bets… and that, even before what you told me about… Mazda’s ‘illness’… I’ve regretted much of what we chose, even though I thought…” She sighs. “I thought they would see that it was for the best, in the end.”
He meets her gaze, wishing he had some way to know… admitting she could project something false could be seen as an extension of trust, but the Sabrina he knew wasn’t very trusting.
Something softens in her expression, and she looks away. “People change.”
“Yes. Young people, in particular.” It’s the most he’ll be able to concede, for now. “Coercion can never be part of a caring relationship, a relationship of friends or peers. It’s only ever for enemies. For control.”
“I… believe I see that, now, yes.”
“Now. When it’s too late to do Mazda any good.”
“At least they’re alive—”
“We do not know they would have died! Even were it not a lie, they could have survived at any time!”
Anger and grief boil up in him, as they so often do, and he fights them down, drowns the bitterness in resignation before it drives him to do something he’ll regret. Sabrina simply watches, and finally he sighs.
“They came to me in the middle of the night, just as I was dozing to sleep. Just a voice in my head, from where they flew over the house… I thought I was dreaming. It took a minute to convince me I was not.” He lets himself linger on the feelings that welled up in him, fear and doubt and hope. “They told me that they escaped. Shared all they’d done since. What they learned…”
He doesn’t share the private things they spoke of, the more personal things, the rekindling, however brief and tentative, of their old friendship. He doesn’t remark on their shared tears, though she can probably read them in him. “In the end, they needed help. Giovanni had told them that I was alive as part of his final confession, perhaps as an attempt to soothe some sliver of his soul, and that Mazda could find me if they tried. So they flew over every town in Kanto, ever-wary of a trap, sensed every mind they came across, until they found mine.”
“When was this?”
“You should know. It isn’t a difficult puzzle.”
Her eyes widen. “The dreams.”
Fuji nods. “Mazda didn’t know what to do. How to best warn humanity, given how they would fear the messenger. They didn’t trust Giovanni, of course, even if they could send a message safely. And they didn’t know whom else to ask for advice.” He shrugs. “I gave the best I could. I thought that maybe, if enough psychics got the warning, something would be done.” He doesn’t bother keeping the bitterness from his voice. So far as he could tell, only a minority of people still think it was important enough to be worth discussing. Elite Agatha is chief among them, but her prestige can’t make up for the sheer numbers focused on other, more clear and current dangers.
“It was… a good plan,” Sabrina says after a moment. “Just poorly timed, for reasons you could not predict. As for your other plan…”
“You don’t understand it?”
“I believe I do.” She turns her tea mug in her hands. “Giovanni does as well. To build sympathy, shift the Overton window… for a grand reveal? Or in case it happens naturally?”
“That was not shared with me.” Fuji didn’t need to tell Mazda not to trust him entirely. Mazda understood.
Sabrina sighs, and nods. She’s silent for nearly a minute, and he doesn’t rush her, keeping his thoughts simple as he enjoys his tea.
“Were you the reason… they avoided Saffron?”
He raises a brow, caught off guard by the pettiness of the question. “You think I sought to punish you?”
“No, no. I just… wasn’t sure if it was on purpose.”
“Of course it was, though not mine.”
She swallows, and nods, and he does his best not to let pity move him. “If it matters in either case, I gave them no such advice. I did, of course, warn them about the Masterball, and whom it might have been designed for in particular.”
Sabrina’s eyes widen. “You think… it was made for them? Did Giovanni—”
“No, that wasn’t part of the message. But it seems clear, given the severity of the mental crippling it imposes.” He frowns at her. “To the general public it might seem like an obvious safety measure for such powerful and mysterious beings, but once you know of the existence of a sapient pokemon, surely its true value is more direct?”
“I didn’t consider it,” she says, voice low. “And I’m not yet sure I believe it. Why would you have helped build such a thing, if you suspected that was its use?”
“I didn’t learn of that piece of functionality until recently.” He planted the seeds he did years ago because he suspected he might need them someday, not because he had a particular whistle to blow.
“Of course. And as for why you did not reveal Giovanni and Silph’s crimes, once you knew Mazda was safe?”
“Because I knew it would inevitably drag Mazda into the public eye before anyone is ready. That is a decision I won’t take from them. It is the last decision about their ‘upbringing’ that they have control over, and if Giovanni does it first—”
“He won’t. I know this will not seem credible, given… well, everything, especially the lies… and yes, I am now aware that I should probably be less confident about this given time to update my models of him… but in any case, currently I believe his deepest hopes are that Mazda either decides to fight and defeat some Legendaries on their own, or that they otherwise just… go off, and enjoy their freedom as they see fit.”
“Mmhm. Not that Mazda returns to him?”
Sabrina gives a wry smile. “I said deepest hopes. Giovanni is not really someone who engages in wishes.”
Despite himself, he smiles wryly back. “I notice integration also isn’t mentioned.”
“Your path is admittedly not one either of us considered. Giovanni believed that… said he believed that the only realistic path toward that would be through the timelines where Mazda defeats at least one legendary first. I… believe I agree with him, though.”
“As usual.” He says it practically by reflex, without any intended malice, knowing it won’t matter much. Sabrina would either change her mind, or she wouldn’t. “What is the plan, with Rocket?”
“I have not been informed. I believe even Giovanni does not fully know, anymore; in a sense the guess that it was a rogue faction isn’t far off. Of his other plans and projects I know about, he seems to be divesting himself, one by one, handing them off to their own leaders. Making them even more silo’d, preparing them, in a sense, to operate without him. Without the organization.”
It’s a large claim, and not one he’s prepared to deeply consider at this point, let alone accept. “And this is why you claim to be… hedging your bets?”
“Only a part. In my own way, I’ve also been preparing the world for a possible confrontation with Mazda.”
It’s obvious who she means. “Red Verres. One of his?”
“What? No.” She seems to catch herself. “Not knowingly. And not for anything illegal.”
So far as she knows, which she admits isn’t much. “I suppose that would be too convoluted a game even for him, given what the boy has been doing lately.”
“What of Miss Juniper? How much does she really know?”
“Nothing. It’s just a story, to her, one that speaks to things dear to her heart. Now that the Masterball is public knowledge, she knows nothing unique to what I’ve told her.” He’s glad he can say that with full honesty. It’s something he tried quite hard to ensure.
“She’s writing more stories, these days. About ninja clans, and other organizations that operate from the shadows.” Her eyes are on his. “You know nothing about that?”
“No,” he says, again with complete honesty. “She’s a good writer. Perhaps she just became inspired.” Not all of his questions are answered, but all the important ones, maybe. “So, what happens now?”
“That’s a question I planned for you. I want to offer my help. I want to make sure they’re okay, make sure they know… that I’m on their side.”
“And what happens to me?”
“As I said, I’m not here to retaliate against you, or punish you in any way. I plan to leave here tonight, alone, without harming you. I hope to be able to come again, some day… perhaps even at your invitation.”
It’s a pretty picture she paints, and not an unappealing one. They were friends, for a time. She was nearly the same age as his daughter would have been…
The grief has dulled, over the past decade, but it’s still capable of filling him on occasion, of grabbing him from head to toe and dragging him deep beneath its dark currents. Mazda always did their best to keep him afloat, when it came, but most psychics would reflexively withdraw, rather than share that deep and endless pit of pain and regret.
It’s from that darkness that he says, “Namero.”
Sabrina doesn’t even have time to frown. Bubble’s tongue stretches out and wraps around her neck from behind, squeezing as she’s pulled violently to the floor, chair clattering against the ground.
“Yamero,” he says, knees weak as he pushes himself to his feet, one hand holding him up against the table. Sabrina’s face is a deep red by the time his lickitung’s makeshift scarf has unwound from her throat, and her whole body lies rigid on the floor, hands up in claws that never made it to her neck.
He lowers himself, shaking, to the ground, placing his ear against her lips… and hears a thin, reedy breath. His fingers gently probe the bruise that’s already forming around her neck… no broken bones, no crushed throat. He finally presses his ear to her chest, and hears a steady heartbeat. The paralysis from Bubble’s saliva will keep her muscles locked for a time, but she’ll recover eventually.
Only once he’s sure does he sag back, breathing hard as the adrenaline leaves him trembling.
He is not a courageous man.
But he is a patient one, willing to plant seeds whose leaves he may never need to sit beneath.
After a minute to recover, he pushes himself to his feet, and goes to retrieve the bag he keeps beneath his bed. A few mementos go into it, as well as most of his notebooks, though no electronics. Lots of cash, and ten fully charged storage balls that hold the rest of his things. Once that’s done, he takes his pokebelt from the wall and attaches it around his waist, then retrieves the three balls for his lickitung, pikachu, and cubone. For the first time in years, he returns each pokemon to their ball.
Finally, he takes a potion from the first aid kit on the wall, and sprays it on Sabrina’s neck. Her arms are already starting to droop back toward the floor, and her breathing is more audible. He guesses she has another ten minutes before she’s able to move again… which should be enough time, assuming his house isn’t surrounded by Giovanni’s men.
“Goodbye, Sabrina,” he whispers. “Perhaps in another life.”
Fuji goes to the door, listens for a moment, then breathes deep and opens it. When no one approaches, he steps out into the fresh night air.
He wishes he could write a note for Leaf and Laura, but it’s too risky. Instead he just sticks a pair of thank you cards in his mail box, addressed to both, then walks out into the field behind his house, still half-expecting to be surrounded at any moment.
But no one stops him from summoning his pidgeot, or from mounting him, and then he’s up and in the sky, among the stars and headed for the coast. He’ll fly around a few days, make sure no one is following him before he heads for the location he agreed to wait for Mazda to check, someday, if ever they couldn’t find him at home.
He doesn’t look back at the house he lived in for nearly a decade. It was just his latest prison, and now he’s free.